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.

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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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Prophetic Shaman

Lewis EcstaticDon’t complain. So I’m told. Work with the system (i.e., the privileged), do your part, and most of all, don’t complain. What would Jeremiah do? Or any of the prophets? It seems to me that prophets had the job of calling out where society had gone wrong and doing so with a healthy dose of complaint. If you don’t call out evil, it only grows. Prophets come to mind because I’ve just finished reading I. M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. Spirit possession is chic, at least in the horror movie industry, but if you get beyond the stereotypes, you soon learn that inspired, or ecstatic, religion is largely based on good possession. The gods can temporarily inhabit the shaman, and, as Lewis points out, there is often an element of the underprivileged being those who are visited by the gods. Interestingly enough, indigenous cultures that feature shamans—or shaman-like practitioners—accept the rebuke of the gods, even when it may be a thinly veiled attempt to right an obvious wrong.

Shamanism is a bit of a misnomer. Not really a religion, but a set of spiritual practices originating among the Tungus of Siberia, shamanism is now conveniently applied to native peoples around the world. In our love of easy classification, we like to say this belief is similar to that belief, so they must be a type of religion. In fact, however, “religion” is much more integrated into the daily lives of indigenous peoples and specific beliefs vary widely. Nevertheless, we understand possession and shamanism, and we apply them as categories to try to make sense of it all. Lewis does so with an anthropologist’s eye, finally in the last chapter addressing the psychological questions. It is often claimed, for instance, that shamanism is a form of mental illness. What seems clear to me is that shamans are responsible for preventing injustice from getting too far established.

And that brings me back to prophets. Prophets, particularly among those who study the Bible, are often seen as religious authorities. It seems to me that prophets, as opposed to priests, grew out of the untamed concern for justice typically exhibited by shamans. Priests are establishment religionists. They support the government and the government supports them. Temples are built. Religion is regularized. Prophets, however, can come from anywhere. They are liminal figures, complaining, in God’s name, when injustice appears. They don’t support the status quo just because it makes people comfortable. In other words, complaint is often the only way to make the divine will known. They are the heirs of the shamans. One thing that’s pretty obvious—whether you live in Siberia, Israel, or America—shamans are still sorely needed.

Paraleipomenon

EarnestI suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.

It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.

It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?

Industrial Revolution

Everything’s industry. It has haunted me for some years now that we’ve let our corporate greed run away with our imagination so that nothing but “industry” remains. We don’t wish to interfere with the gun industry. The guns we like the best are those designed especially for killing lots of people. We feel happy having them in our homes. We’ve supported industry. Time was when society had more than just industry. Education, for example, was not an industry. It was just education. No measurable outgoes but a better society. Now we quantify and try to measure, thinking there’s something magical about numbers. My, what big ammo you have! The better to shoot you with, my darling. Think of it as the people killing industry.

After all, if you spend all that money on an expensive automatic weapon and don’t kill anyone with it, haven’t you wasted your money? Well, wasting money is good for industry, so we shouldn’t be too harsh. Most people know better than to take their weapons out and blow away those they don’t like. I would feel better if more people were like Pedro Reyes. (We, however, want to build walls to keep his kind out.) Reyes is an artist who had people in Mexico City turn their guns in for useful things. He had the guns smashed with a steamroller, at an army base, no less. The metal from the guns he melted down and made shovel heads so that people could plant trees. Over 1500 guns were turned in. The biblical allusion has already been made, but we would rather, in this country, ignore the good book we love so.

What would the gun industry do if people stopped needing to defend themselves so much? What if people felt less fear? What if politicians, instead of cynically using fear to win nominations, and elections, had the best interest of citizens at heart? Guns are for wars, and wars are useless. We have far more to offer one another than pools of blood and gore and guilt everlasting. Does it not strike anyone as odd that mass shooters intend to die at the end? We could use more shovels to bury them all. Wouldn’t it be even better if, before the shooting began, their guns were melted down and cast into useful tools? One might, in an optimistic mood, call such a thing an industry.

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Human, Nature

Wild EarthSomeone recently told me that a city blocks a certain vibration that people draw from contact with the earth. I know that vibration often sets off “new age” alarms, but this person was rational, scientific, and had grown up in New York City. I grew up in a town on the edge of the woods. We didn’t live on concrete. In fact, the floor of our shack was so thin in some places that you could see the actual soil underneath. Even our driveway was gravel. Although it was a dysfunctional family, I felt more connected to my planet back then. Wild Earth, Wild Soul: A Manual for Ecstatic Culture, by Bill Pfeiffer, is just what it says. It’s a manual for how to get back in touch with nature. Basing his ideas on those of indigenous cultures world-wide, with a healthy dose of shamanism, he explores the vibrations of the earth. I had, at times, to force myself to listen. He’s right about so much that I stayed with the narrative to the end.

Civilization comes with a price tag. A very high price tag. The rates have been set by a small group of “progressives” who operate with the idea—mistaken—that all nature is a machine. Physics, they claim, and chemistry, show that all of life is mathematical. Nothing in the universe doesn’t add up. But biology, as Pfeiffer repeatedly shows, often doesn’t. The mistake is as fundamental as it is reductionistic. Life isn’t quantifiable. Biology messes up the nice, neat system we’ve invented. Indigenous peoples, while not idealized, lived in much better harmony with the land, not over-exploiting. It was a sustainable existence. What “civilized” people wanted was more. More of everything. A surplus, in fact. Without that surplus there is no business, right? Capitalize on that!

We’ve lost touch with nature. Our “leaders” want to exploit it. Mine it, refine it, and make it “useful.” When’s the last time I looked at a tree just to appreciate it as nature? Civilization can’t envision a tree without an axe. If it grew it can be improved. Even our food has to be genetically modified because obviously nature can’t make a profit on its own. No, Wild Earth, Wild Soul hasn’t made the impact on the world it might have. I’d never have found it if it weren’t for a used book sale. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t right. We need to dismantle. We are not electronic devices, as much as the internet tells you otherwise. I knew that as a child. And as my feet ache from walking over acres of concrete on my way to “work” I know it’s true. There are indeed good vibrations out there, but here they’re too deep under my feet to feel.

Business Beating

Politics is about power. Say what you will about the Bible, but at least they were clear about it in those days. Kings were alpha males, not public servants. In the light of Orlando we can see how little has changed. Random acts of violence grow more and more lethal and the politicians filibuster, inflating the room with hot air to avoid this issue because this is an election year. An election year where one of the candidate’s cheers can barely be distinguished from “Sieg Heil” and we have put ourselves into a place where such a tragicomedy was possible. Maybe even inevitable. Meanwhile fifty people are dead, joining the many innocents who just happened to be at the wrong place—is there any right place in a land of abundant assault weapons?—in a land of limited freedom. The press argues about exactly what type of gun was used. Maybe that model should be taken off the shelves.

Our alpha males have, at least in states like New Jersey, and increasingly on the national front, modeled bullying. Bullies are nothing without their threat of power used against you. In the same day when schools and social programs emphasize over and over that bullying is unacceptable, bellowing bulls insist on their way and the crowd goose-steps in ecstasy. Those who are different are dangerous. After all, straight white men were here first. They won this country fair and square through genocide, as any Native American can tell you. And you get your way by refusing to compromise. Refusing to reason. Give vent to testosterone and call your opponent out for being a female. Land of the aggressive, home of the grave.

Gun violence may not be preventable completely in a nation where guns are a commodity just like anything else. Religion is a commodity. The ninety-nine percent are a commodity. The spoils are there for the taking by a bully and his thugs. It used to be that organized crime was illegal. Now it’s politics. How much did you pay in taxes last year? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t know there was an exemption clause just for being rich. I grew up in a family with simple morals. Right and wrong. We learned that taking something that didn’t actually belong to you, or not contributing when everyone must, is wrong. Taking what’s not yours is stealing. And that especially includes lives. How naive we were! Politics is about getting your own way. Guns make that possible. Heil to the thief.

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World of Color

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Albinism occurs across species. In human beings, suspicious and superstitious lot that we are, it’s sometimes an excuse for prejudice. I’ve confessed in the past to reading Weird N.J. (Long story.) When we first moved to the Garden State a series of stories ran about rumors of albinos in a secret town, probably deep in the woods. Don’t scoff—there are deep woods in Jersey! Typical of stories in the zine, people—mostly of the teen variety, I suspect—would write of driving around late at night, discovering these albino enclaves, and being chased out by people lacking pigment and tolerance for strangers. Average juvenile behavior. I had no idea at the time that people with albinism are actually seriously mistreated. This is particularly a concern in Malawi. A story in the Washington Post by Max Bearak describes how albinos are murdered for body parts because of a rumor that, among other fabrications, they have gold in their bones.

As someone who has a love of folklore (and it’s more puerile kin—thus Weird N.J.) this is deeply disturbing. Folklore often focuses on the strange, unusual, or uncanny. Let’s face it, there’s not much of a story to tell when everything’s normal. Humans have the natural predisposition to tell tales when something is out of the ordinary. Our saving grace is that we recognize stories are just stories. When we start taking fiction for fact, we’re all in trouble. Many the night before Snopes I cowered under the covers because of some urban legend spreading by however ideas spread before the internet. There were killers on the road at night, and hiding under your car in the parking lot. At the same time, I could separate truth from the stories my step-dad told of jars of buffalo nickels buried in the woods behind our house. Nobody wants to be thought gullible.

In the sad case of those who are killed for being different, the Post article cites a United Nations specialist stating, “The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces which push people to do things for profit.” Poverty. Market forces. Profit. A new kind of clarity. Violence comes in many guises. One of the most insidious is that which some specialists call “slow violence.” Systems set up to exploit, drain, and yes, enslave others to one’s own benefit. And it’s perfectly legal. The plight of those born with albinism in a nation where their differences plainly show dolefully demonstrates a side of human nature that we would rather hide. Those who have control of resources place others in situations where they contribute to their personal bottom line. We call it business as usual while those who observe closely call it by another name. Witchcraft.

All Things Newton

Andover Newton Theological School is the oldest stand-alone graduate school of theology in the United States. Was, I should say. Declining enrollment—supply and demand dictates fewer clergy are required—and the rising costs of a job description that has no obvious retirement age have led many seminaries to merge or close. It seems that Andover Newton is about to merge with Yale Divinity School, much like Berkeley Divinity School, bringing together a mix of Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Nones to huddle together across the quad until people want to believe again. Those of us who grew up being taught that belief was normal, and widely accepted, have experienced a sense of bad investment lately. We poured resources into keeping our product current only to find the use by date predated the use of use by dates.

Think of it as evolution. From the earliest days of civilization, priests were integral to, well, civil society. Evidence more and more points to religious belief being the actual glue that held larger communities together in permanent settlements. In other words, that’s how we’ve lived for five thousand years. How were we to know that the rules were about to change? You could always count on a need for clergy. The world’s first service industry. Ah, but it’s the latter word of that noun phrase that’s the problem. When religion becomes a commodity it’s subject to supply and demand. Supply has exceeded demand for some years now and the factories are shutting down. Anyone want a used Bible, cheap?

The Episcopal Church, with its outsize influence for such a small body, used to have eleven seminaries in this country. The United Methodist Church, larger by nearly an order of magnitude, had thirteen. Once and future clergy such as yours truly were produced in classes of dozens. We didn’t diversify our portfolios enough. So now, Andover Newton—the very school where I learned Hebrew—is downsizing faculty by a rather drastic percentage. I’m not so worried about deans and administrators since they easily buy into the business model of education. I do wonder about the effect on society of having so many unemployed theologians around. One thing we don’t have to worry about is organized groups of them roving the streets; theologians are fiercely individualistic. As they transition into the corporate world—the only world that now exists—they’ll find themselves wondering how to live among the soulless multitudes. There’s only one orthodoxy here—lucre be thy name. And, oh, you might consider asking about entry-level positions.

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Stations, Everyone

Station11There has been a movement, of late, among some sci-fi authors, to envision a more optimistic future. I have always been a fan of dystopias, myself. Perhaps it’s the working-class mentality backed up by being raised in poverty speaking, but sometimes I feel that collapse is more fair than progress. What passes for progress, anyway. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This book has been on my radar for some time since it is one of the more hopeful dystopias out there. The story of a group among the very few who survive banding into a traveling troop of musicians and thespians is about the most hopeful outcome I can imagine. Not a day passes when I don’t feel the effacement of humanity that has been slowly taking place since I first became aware of the world. Sure, I do appreciate the strides made in medicine. Of this internet, which is the only place anyone ever really sees me, I’m less sanguine. It has its benefits, but even Mandel mentions the cell-phone zombies that are all too real and as omnipresent as an omnipotent deity used to be.

Station Eleven has, as many dystopias do, a religious sect that emerges after society collapses. This element of bleak futures is actually very accurate, I anticipate. We’re constantly being told by the “intellectuals” of the public variety that religion is for weak-minded dreamers with milquetoast aspirations for fantasy. The fact is the vast majority of people in the world are religious. The numbers are nowhere even near close. If a pandemic were to wipe out all but one percent (and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one percenters that survive) those who remain would, without doubt, turn to religion. People are easily led in this area of life. Mandel gives us The Prophet. His vision of the world is not helpful, but he has no trouble gathering a following. He’s also somewhat messianic: child of a single parent, raised in Israel, he comes to bring a sword to a nation already prostrate in the dust. This is powerful stuff.

Societies that try to rebuild themselves after traumas quite often rely on religion. This is hardly surprising as civilization itself began as religions coalesced into temples and their priesthoods. What is surprising is that so many intelligent people today can’t see just how important religion is to our species. As I suggested before, part of this is that religion defies simple definition. It’s easy to belittle “magical” thinking when it’s assumed religion has to do only with the supernatural. Religion, however, reaches into whatever we believe. Some ideas in modern cosmology, derived from physicists and their mathematics, can look sort of religious when viewed from a certain angle. As those who write dystopias know, religion is complex. It may lead to massive destruction. Chances are, however, that if there are any human beings left to crawl out of whatever pit we dig, they will do so with religious ideas in their heads. As usual, the writers have foreseen it.