Monthly Archives: June 2016

Dinosaurs, Old and New

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Tyrannosaurus rex, aside from being a photogenic movie star, was one of the top predators of its day. Ironically, in the Jurassic Park original trilogy (which would have been, more appropriately Triassic Park) tyrannosaurus rex becomes the ultimate protagonist, while unfeelingly killing to meet its own instincts. Since saying “tyrannosaurus rex” wears you out, we’ve become accustomed to calling the great carnivore t-rex. Everyone knows t-rex when they see it. Its a sign of danger, aggression, and unthinking acquisition. In one of nature’s great ironies, however, t-rex had tiny arms, nearly vestigial. What it wanted it had to get with its mouth. To live like that you have to grow pretty big, so big that nobody else can really challenge you. Punching is out of the question.

I’m often struck as how appropriate dinosaur evolution is to the human situation. Dinos (because “dinosaurs” is also too long) grew to be the top life-forms of their day. (We like to think of being the top. The perspective from down here in mammal land, in those days, was pretty different.) If you’re big enough, who’s going to stop you from taking what you want? Endless rows of teeth and a constant hunger can do wonders for evolutionary development. But then, extinction. Recent analyses have shown that it wasn’t as simple as an asteroid strike. It seems that many features of nature conspired against the dinosaurs, including the tyrant lizard king. T-rex had evolved into the monster featured in many pre-teen nightmares, only to be replaced by birds and mammals. Maybe it grew too big to be supported by the planet that allowed it to crawl out of the slime eons before.

In a recent photo of a Trump rally, one of the signs of a supporter had flopped over leaving just the word “rump” visible. I had to ponder this. T-rump. “Dinosaur” is a word used today to mean something that has outlived its time. Ideas, as well as such practices as, say, claiming that one race is superior to others, have rightfully gone extinct. There are those who say that t-rex was less a fierce carnivore than a scavenger. A vulture rather than an eagle. They claim that such a large snout and such small arms better suit one who picks at that which is already dead instead of working hard to bring down the more challenging beasts, often with horns. I’ve always thought dinosaurs were very appropriate metaphors for the human situation. Even Jurassic Park was superseded by Jurassic World, after all.

True Fiction

PassionMusesIn this world of rational materialism, people still turn to fiction. Some prefer it in the form of movies, television, or internet, but those of us “old school” like our fiction in print. No matter how we take it, fiction appeals to that part of us that makes us human—our range of emotions. This became clear to me in The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. As a typical human, I spend a good part of my mental energy trying to make sense of things. Our social existence can be quite confusing and isn’t always rational. If you doubt this, read the headlines. Keith Oatley offers insight into psychology, or mental life in general, with this little book. We read stories because we like to find ourselves caught up in emotions. Successful writers can draw us into the fictional world not with reason, but with feeling. We seek emotional satisfaction and what we can’t do in fact, we can in fiction.

This aspect of human existence also plays into religious texts. Those of us raised to read sacred texts literally lose a lot of what they have to offer. Fact may tell us what to believe, but fiction helps us learn to feel. Thinking, as many cognitive scientists now believe, incorporates both rational and emotional information. Reality, in other words, isn’t purely reasonable. We interpret things. We interpret with our guts as much as with our heads. This combination of different ways of understanding the world—and the society—around us blends into a distinctly human milieu. We can’t reason our way out of emotions. They are who we are.

While teaching full-time I found myself turning to novels to recover from all the research I was doing. Reading only non-fiction (which, I suppose, is what The Passionate Muse might be) can lead to a lopsided view of life. I’ve had colleagues tell me that fiction is for others—non-academics, those who don’t have the weight of the intellectual world upon their shoulders all the time. Interestingly, since I’ve allowed myself to read more fiction I’ve discovered that the wisdom embedded in stories often surpasses that of erudite monographs. Scholarly literature, of course, has its place. Still, it leaves room on the plate for desert as well. Oatley builds his academic study around a fictional story he wrote to show what he wanted to tell. The rational meets the imaginative. I feel more human already.

Half-Way Holy

I’ve been reading about Ruth lately. Ruth doesn’t have a last name. She’s a character in the Bible. The book named after her is one of the shortest in the longest, Hebrew section of the Good Book. It’s a fairly gentle story, although it has a body count. Ruth, a Moabite, marries the son of an expatriate Israelite. This was in the days before the West Bank, but there was still some distrust there. Widowed Ruth moved to Israel with her equally widowed mother-in-law, and supported this non-traditional family by gleaning. Unlike modern civilization, shop-lifting (or field-lifting) by the poor was not a misdemeanor. In fact, the Bible insisted that it be allowed. It turns out that the field she’s been gleaning from belongs to a relative who eventually marries her via a tradition known as levirate law. Again, this is something current family values oppose, although it is commanded by the Almighty. Levirate law stated that if a man died childless, his younger brother had to take his wife until they had a child in the name of the dead brother. Creepy, but practical. A widow, in those days, had to have a child to support her.

Dore Ruth

I can’t recall when I learned this was called levirate law. I started reading the Bible before I was a teen, so I knew the story, although I didn’t understand the finer details. It was probably in the heading of some Bible translation that used the word “levirate” that I first encountered the term. I assumed it had something to do with the Levites. I mean, the words share the same first four letters, and Levites were all over the place in the Bible, even if they cross to the other side of the road. So it was that I went for decades with the idea that marrying your brother’s wife, at least temporarily, was because of the Levites. Nothing in the Bible said that Levites did this, and other than the jeans, I didn’t know any other Levi words.

Recently I learned that this is a false etymology. Levirate comes from a Latin root for “brother-in-law” and not from a Semitic root meaning “half-priest.” It may sound strange, but this was a genuine shock to me. I’d never told students that the word came from Levi, but I assumed that anyone could figure it out. After all, things that sound so very similar must belong together, right? Well, I admit to having been wrong here. The story of Ruth, however, is one of the true gems of the canon. Men play a minor role, and it is a woman who shows the way. It is a tale for our time. Family values, according to the Bible, aren’t always what they seem.

Biological Imperative

DiamondNothing used to make you feel smarter than being in a British bookstore. With that curious blend of proper, insane, and bawdy, books are displayed that you might find surprising. Alarming, even. Last year as I strolled around Blackwells in Oxford, I spied Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. I mean, it was sitting right there, face-up, on a table with perfectly respectable, straight-laced books. Curious, but not curious enough to pick it up in a public place, I remembered the title so that I might find it on Amazon, where it could arrive in a nice, safe, opaque box. I finally stored up enough points on Amazon to get it, but then the problem was how to read it. I do a great deal of my reading on public transit—a place where you inordinately care what others might think of you. Finally, planning a seating strategy that would hide the cover by sitting on the left-hand side, next to the window, I took the book along, hoping it would keep me interested to and from work.

Subtitled The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the book isn’t salacious at all. It is scientific, but not clinical. I’ve mentioned before that all religions have something—quite a lot, usually—to say about sex. While religion doesn’t play into Diamond’s book, morality does. What I found interesting is his use of the phrase “God or Darwin,” which comes up a few places in the book. Diamond is a witty writer, and he explains that not all his phraseology is to be taken literally, but I appreciated his hedging his bets, nevertheless.

This book isn’t really titillating. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing. Perhaps it’s just phrasing again, but the production of offspring is described in economic terms. Resources, investment, efficiency, and the like. I think back to being a child. My family life wasn’t ideal, but I never thought of myself as anyone’s resource or investment. I was just me. That delusion stayed with me until I started working in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that others considered me a resource. “Human resources,” we call it. An investment. My efficiency was valued. Was it God or was it Darwin? Although I learned a lot from this little book, I wonder if it was worth the effort of having to hide the cover on the commute. After all, we’re all stuck together on this bus, units of investment, born to yield a profit. Why not have a little fun on the way?

Insane Deities

GodsMustBeCrazyIt was 1987. I was in Israel for a good part of the summer excavating at Tel Dor. Between degrees and trying what to do with my life, like many people, I sought out a holy place. One evening while I was there, the locals (I can’t recall if it was the dig coordinators or the local community) sponsored a public showing of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The movie was fairly recent then, and it was the first and only time I’ve seen a movie captioned in Hebrew. I had a seminary friend who often showed me movies at his place, but this was one I had somehow missed, even though it came out when I was in high school. I’ve seen the movie several times since then, but not in the past seven years or so (this blog is a pretty good record of my movie viewing as well as book reading). This weekend we dusted it off and popped it into the DVD player and I noticed a few things for the first time.

Spoiler alert: not for the movie, but for reality. The portrayal of the bushmen in the movie is pure verisimilitude. While living much more in harmony with nature than modern, industrial late capitalists, they are not a completely peaceful people with no violence. We can overlook the “noble savage” viewpoint for the sake of entertainment, but anyone who researches human cultures closely finds that the perfect society doesn’t actually exist. Still, what I noticed in the movie diegesis was the bushmen had no need of theodicy. Theirs was a world where the gods gave them only good. The Coke bottle becomes their “tree of knowledge,” to put a Judeo-Christian spin on it, and they even use it for curing snake skins. The movie doesn’t work, of course, without this fictional view, but in reality all believing people require a theodicy.

Our particular disc of this movie has a less-than-dynamic special feature of someone who never identifies himself following up on the movie. This rambling, twenty-minute featurette shows “current” (for it must be a decade old by now itself) developments among the bushmen. Two hundred miles from the nearest electrical grid, schools are being equipped with solar panels so that the children can learn about computers. A laptop in the middle of the Kalahari. As I reflected on the loss of innocence theme, this struck me as surely as an angry serpent. The world in which we live allows for only one way of existing. It is a world of money where even the self-sufficient must be wired into the matrix. If ever there was a need for theodicy, this was surely it.

Cryptology 46

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

Four centuries ago this year William Shakespeare died. In the literary world there have been lots of commemorations going on, and all the fuss reminded me of a post I’d written some years back concerning Psalm 46. While teaching at Nashotah House, one of my students told me that William Shakespeare had covertly been involved in the translation of the King James Bible. The King James Version appeared in 1611, and Shakespeare was the prominent writer of England in that era. If you look at Psalm 46 in that version and count the 46th word from the beginning, you find “shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear.” I mentioned in my post that I’d not found any academic treatment of the issue and I’m happy to announce that I finally have. Of course it would be in an Oxford University Press book.

I’ve not read Hannibal Hamlin’s The Bible in Shakespeare, but I am able to glance through it at work. It turns out that I didn’t have the full details of this biblical urban legend. Apparently if you find the sixth and seventh words of verse 10 of that Psalm you find “I am.” The sixth and seventh words from the end are “will I.” Will.i.am would be proud (pardon the capital W). As much fun as all this evangelical exegesis might be, Hamlin calls shenanigans on it all. He demonstrates the literary history of the tale, pointing out that—not to spoil our fun—the cryptographic mentions of the Bard in the Bible are creative efforts of those of later generations. The interesting thing is, however, that the Bible is so closely scrutinized for codes that all kinds of hidden messages may be found. Look, for example, at what I discovered:

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” I don’t know about you, but to me this is clearly Paul warning the first Thessalonians of the present day’s troubles. When Trump is elected the dead will walk. Could anything be more prophetic than that? I haven’t done the math yet, but I’m just sure if you count the millions of letters in the Bible, you’ll find the name “Donald” spelled out somewhere. Scripture, after all, is the repository of all truth. One thing you won’t find, however, no matter how deeply you look. The billionaire’s tax returns are something God himself will never be able to see.

Philosophies of Reading

I like my Starter. For those of you unaccustomed to New Jersey Transit buses and their ways, a Starter is a person who makes sure the buses scheduled to arrive at her or his gate do so on time. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. If a bus is late, or AWOL, the Starter takes the heat from angry would-be passengers. Since they’re present “on the ground,” angry people lash out with their frustration. My regular Starter recognizes me. I’m usually early in my line, so I appear about the same place most days. My routine is, well, routine. I get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, pull out my book, and read. Starters can’t really get involved in anything like a book because their job requires constant interruptions. Even when no buses are coming in because of an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, they still have to answer questions and hold up the occasional crucifix. My Starter came to me the other day, as I was reading, and asked me what I thought of an incident four days earlier. To put this in context, the incident happened on Friday. I was there for it, in my usual spot, and this was Tuesday. Clearly it still bothered the Starter that someone had come out and yelled at him for not getting us a bus on time.

I sympathized. Starters can’t materialize objects. If they could, they wouldn’t be Starters. Yet, I realized as I turned back to my book, that I had lost some reading time. I don’t mind helping out my Starter, but it occurred to me that there are a couple of different philosophies behind reading while waiting for, and on, the bus. Many people, I suspect, read to pass the time. I don’t know what they’re reading, since much of it is on a flat device, but knowing that research reading is nearly impossible on the bus, I suspect they are just reading to make the weary time go quicker. Others, I know, read for content. For me, reading is very seldom passing time. I read because reading is what I want to do.

Commuting behavior isn’t conducive to my life choices. No longer do people sit quietly on the bus, respecting that inherent violence of awaking before 4 a.m. to try to get to the city before traffic inevitably makes you late. Devices make their unmuted bodily noises and glare in your face. The guy next to you pulls out his wide-screen laptop, while tapping away on his phone. Or pulls our her iPad to watch a movie with fast-paced images splashing in your face. The book is demanding company. Your time, your attention, your concentration are required to get the most out of it. I don’t mind supporting my Starter. I feel for the ennui of my fellow commuters. I also crave time alone with my books.

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