Bad Theology

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Perhaps the most overused simile for a real mess is that it’s “like a train wreck.” No doubt this is because train wrecks are messy, and deadly. Few things speak to human vulnerability more than airborne hunks of heavy metal flying in indeterminate directions. Trains don’t stop fast. If they do people get hurt. No, I wasn’t on the train that crashed into the Hoboken station yesterday during the morning commute. I’m just one of many thousands of people who make their way into the city every day, but I go by bus, which is more affordable. Still, there’s something in every commuter that mourns a tragedy like this. We’re not in competition for getting into New York. It’s only after we’re off our conveyances that we compete. The stories after the crash, however, emphasized something I’ve always known—people are basically good.

A strain of Christian theology makes the extremely dubious claim that people are “totally depraved.” Assaulted again and again with this misanthropic theology in college, I was bound to fight back. Some guys with minimal psychological training decided, in the early modern period, that God had created the vast majority of people for Hell. Because we share the primates’ evolved taste for fruit, we participated in “original sin.” It wasn’t exactly sex (since God had declared that good) but it was a consequence of it. We were born fallen and had to be redeemed. These theologians declared, however, that very few ever would be. Most of us were Hell-fodder and deserved to be since we’re so naturally evil. A few centuries earlier Jesus had said you’d know the righteous by their fruits. There’s no getting away from the fruit.

Life in the big city is impersonal. Commuters share their conveyances each day with many strangers. After the wreck, however, as my wife pointed out, those in the cars far enough back that the injuries weren’t grievous first turned to everyone else and asked if they were all right. If they need help. If they could walk. Strangers helping one another. Good Samaritans. It doesn’t sound like total depravity to me.

Our economic system thrives on hyped-up competition. When we’re taken out of that context and placed into a human one, we cooperate. We want to help one another. Perhaps it’s not the people who are totally depraved, but the system they’re forced into. No, I wasn’t on that train. My bus had pulled into New York an hour and a half earlier. But even from a distance I could see what I’ve known all along. People are basically good.

What Did You Say?

inpraiseofprofanityThis driver and this passenger had interacted before. Unpleasantly. You could feel the tension mount when the passenger watched carefully to see who the driver was as the bus pulled up to Door 1. Although bus routes change drivers somewhat frequently, there is a regular driver to my route and this passenger, like a cat sensing the visit of a nasty relative, wanted to see if it was safe to come out. It was the driver he didn’t like. He got on anyway. An argument started, since he always sits in the front seat, just across from the driver. A profanity worked its way into the conversation. “No blasphemy on my bus!” the driver warned loudly. I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve sent author contracts from respectable academic presses where the author has to sign that nothing libelous, blasphemous, or obscene will be included in her/his book. Blasphemy still sets some people off.

Michael Adams’ In Praise of Profanity isn’t an easy book to read on the bus. The dust jacket can be removed, and that’s a plus, but the guy who sat next to me on last night’s commute took a good, long leisurely look at the page I was on. Bad bus etiquette, but then so is falling asleep leaning on the stranger next to you (which he also did). Speaking of bad things, In Praise of Profanity makes the reasonable case that there are no “bad words.” Bad intentions, to be sure. Bad choice of when to utilize certain vocabulary, certainly. Bad words inherently, no. And the book will take you into some strange places to demonstrate this. The section on bathroom graffiti makes the point nicely.

Adams does discuss, briefly, the religious objections to classical profanity—taking God’s name in vain. Having grown up with all kinds of circumlocutions (more technically, I learned, euphemisms) for interjections one must not say, it was interesting to note that nearly all our pseudo-swears go back to violating this prohibition. Even “Jiminy Cricket” was a not so subtle riff on the name of the carpenter from Nazareth. Gosh, golly gee. All three disguised blasphemies. Being a linguist Adams takes this particular analysis with a healthy dose of fun, but there are many people I know who would be quite offended by this study of the vulgar way vulgar people speak. At the same time, looking at what words like “profanity,” “obscene,” and “vulgar” mean, we might need to head back to the lexicon to learn just what species of blasphemy it is to which my driver objects.

Godnapped

“Has anybody seen my god?” So we might imagine an ancient victim of godnapping wailing after a hostile takeover raid. We might smirk to ourselves, knowing that gods only really come in paper or plastic. The only godnapping that goes on these days is when someone hacks our credit card number. These were my thoughts when a friend sent me a link from ASOR’s website, “‘Godnapping’ in the Ancient Near East” by Shana Zaia. Stories of godnapping are known from the Bible, like where the Philistines defeat the Israelites and take the ark of the covenant to the temple of Dagon. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves in this post-theistic age that we’ve developed more spiritualized versions of deities to disbelieve. At least we didn’t believe some hunk of wood was an actual god. We at least had a person nailed to it.

I used to ask my students what the difference between an “idol” (not the American variety) and a “god” was. The usual understanding is that an idol was made out of something like wood or metal. The ancients weren’t so naive, however, as we suppose them to have been. Before any carven or graven image could be considered a “god” it would have to undergo a ritual to make it one. Elaborate ceremonies attended the process in which even ancient sophisticates realized that this piece of rock or wood wasn’t actually the fullness of the deity it represented. It was a symbol. A symbol invested with power, to be sure, but a symbol nevertheless. What was an “idol” then? Merely a modern way of degrading another religion. “Idol” can never be a neutral term.

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Imagine the ark of the covenant in the temple of Dagon. It was a box overlaid with gold, on top of which sat cherubim. Two of them. Images, but not “idols.” Inside, depending on what passage you read, you might find the original ten commandments, a jar or manna, or Aaron’s rod. Or all three. You might find nothing inside. The point was in the power of the symbol. Godnapping was a real fear in ancient times. A deity captured left its people vulnerable to the whims of others. Today we may rely on the high priests of encryption to keep our divine numbers safe from those who hack at the new idols. Gideon, after all, was the original hacker, and we all know how he ended up. Those who destroy others gods often fall into worshipping them once the hewing is done. The only question left is if one prefers paper or plastic.

Colorful States

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Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Banned Books

I feel short-changed. Cheated, if you will. This is Banned Book Week, and a story in Publishers Weekly over the summer touted the benefits of the local independent bookstore. Owners of indies know that these stores are centers of community. Gathering places for those who love literature. I feel cheated because my local town has no independent bookstore. Neither did any of the towns where I grew up. For a year when money was almost as scarce as it is now, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were bookstores there. For a couple happy years before that I dwelt in Boston—a city in which books are never difficult to locate. Edinburgh is known as one of the literary capitals of Europe and my days in that magical city were inundated with books. Even Nashotah House, with its somewhat backward facing eyes, had a little bookstore. And there was another indie over in nearby Oconomowoc. I now live in the desert.

Oh, there are bookstores nearby. Independent ones, I mean. When’s the last time you saw a chummy conversation among locals at Barnes and Noble? Princeton has the Labyrinth. Bernardsville has the Bookworm. New Hope (while across the river in Pennsylvania) has Farley’s. There’s an indie in New Brunswick and I discovered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair just a couple of weekends ago. Clinton has a tiny little shop where my daughter once met a children’s author doing a book signing and I picked up some Ray Bradbury. These are my happy places. All of them require a drive of at least half-an-hour. I’m not a local. I don’t see anyone I know, except some of the clerks.

Analysts have been saying for decades now that we live in unhealthy isolation from our neighbors. I get up and jump on a bus before most houses show any lights in the morning. I stumble off and fall into bed after eating supper following the return trip. I’m not alone in my attempt to survive in this late capitalist purgatory. One thing that would help, I believe, is a local bookshop. There used to be a used bookstore in my town, called Chapter Two. I used to walk there of a Saturday morning, just to browse. Rent grew too high and it moved to the next town over and its name changed to chapter eleven. My local town is affluent. There are signs for Trump everywhere. What’s obviously missing is a local independent bookstore. I, for one, would be a regular patron.

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A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

Finding Your Way

lost-artOnce while visiting the house of a friend, we took a walk in the woods. It was an area I didn’t know and after a few minutes it became clear that we were lost. There can be nearly no other feeling more frightening for a child. We wandered in the trees shouting for help for what seemed far longer than the maybe twenty minutes or so that my friend was disoriented. The message was clear: never go somewhere unless you know how to get where you’re going. I’ve been lost a few times since then and the gut-twisting fear is the same. Where am I? The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley, is an amazing book for anyone who’s had that experience. We are residents of earth and we should know how to find our way around the place. Instead, most of us live in urban environments and never spend a lot of time outdoors learning that nature provides many, many clues to finding your way. You just have to know what to look for. I found myself wishing I could memorize large sections of this tome, assuring myself I’d never be lost again.

There is an irony about reading such a book during the commute to Manhattan. Apart from his small chapter on navigating in cities, Gooley spends most of his time offering advice on spotting hints in nature. I can’t believe the behavior of the mice, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches I’ve seen in the city is any less neurotic than that of the people. In nature trees, plants, land forms, weather, fungi, and the stars can all be used to guide a person home. There is a touch of quaint Britishness to the book, but the tips included quite often branch out to specifics in the United States, or even elsewhere. What all of this means is that in its own language the earth makes sense. We need to learn this language. Although Gooley doesn’t say it here, when we destroy our environment we’re increasing our ability to get lost.

One of the more interesting sections of the book used churches as a means of orienting oneself in unfamiliar country or a town. Church architecture, at least initially, followed a regular logic with an eastern orientation and opinions about the sacredness of the ground on the north-south axis as well. Knowing this holy geography, along with the ability to read lichens growing on the outside and finding the clues on tombstones, you can often find your way. There’s some poignancy here. There was a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques were natural means of showing people their cardinal points. We’ve come to rely on our devices to show us the way, and it’s a little early to know if that’s been a mistake. And if it weren’t for work today, I’d be outdoors, taking a walk and trying to learn to find my way through nature.

On Practicalities

In a world where a metaphorical ton of money may be made by corralling electrons into specific shapes on an LCD screen, it may be easy to think of learning dead languages as a kind of autoerotic mental enterprise. Who has the time for clay-writing anymore? We have “money” (that we never see) to “make” at the click of a mouse. Although honestly, who uses a mouse anymore? So it was strangely gratifying to see Aviya Kushner’s article “Why Dead Languages Like Akkadian Still Matter” on Forward. Unlike Kushner, I didn’t grow up with exotic dead languages. Not even Hebrew. We took our Holy Bible neat. King James, of course. In English, just like God meant it to be. When I’d read every English translation available in my small town, I began to wonder about the original languages. I taught myself the Greek alphabet before going to college, but even at Grove City I couldn’t find any faculty willing to teach Hebrew. There was obviously something mysterious here.

Hebrew, generally printed in a calligraphic font, is difficult to teach oneself. Once I began, however, I had to learn what came before. That alien, runic Phoenician script fascinated me. Cuneiform even more so. I spent my graduate years pondering over Ugaritic, learning as much Akkadian as I could along the way. Then I realized Sumerian might take me even further back in history, but it was time to get a job. Earn a living. Make some money. Or at least some electrons.

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As Kushner shows, however, these ancient languages tell us how we got here. Those who earned their own day’s equivalents of millions of electrons used to spend their excess wealth on ancient clay tablets. I’ve seen them in private collections in various parts of the world—they seem to validate those who can’t even read them. Artifacts can be status symbols. Having spent years learning the finer nuances of Ugaritic, I eventually had to put my interest into my own personal museum. Universities—the only places that can afford to offer doctoral programs in impracticalities for the unwary—are the sole bastions of employment where cuneiform might come in handy. The irony is that many scholars have to travel to private collections to examine a tablet that some entrepreneur has purchased, but can’t read. Its meaning is lost to the world, but it is valued for it’s power to confer status on its owner. Those who might be able to read the thing, unless they are very lucky, will be out chasing electrons in the hopes of paying the rent. What could be more practical than that?

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?

Scary Pictures

monstershowThroughout its history, until quite recently, one of the most serious natural enemies to the horror movie was the religious establishment. At times this antagonism seems well placed as horror films often take theological concepts and stand them on their heads. Within the last few years, however, thinkers of religious thoughts have come to an uneasy accord with some horror movies as vehicles for the kind of thinking promoted by traditional religions. The first half of this dynamic appears clearly in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Written before any kind of detente had been reached, his book chronicles skirmishes between the Production Code, religious groups, and even women’s collectives, against what was considered indecent and degrading. We have come to realize, however, that we are the monsters. We are the degraded. And seeing these films can lead to a strange sort of solidarity.

Most classic monsters, after all, have their origins in religions. Even the most recent of the lasting undead—Frankenstein’s monster and zombies—have origins in religious thought. Mary Shelley’s novel was subtitled The New Prometheus, a reference that anyone in the early nineteenth century would have understood. Zombies, on the other hand, are a product of vodou. Religion can’t get along very well without its monsters, and despite their less-than-stellar looks, their screen appeal is undeniable. Maybe it’s just we don’t like our dirty liturgical laundry being hung out where anyone might see it.

Skal’s treatment doesn’t stop at the cinema. He has a chapter on modern vampires, and Stephen King has earned his own chapter (or at least most of one) as the poet laureate of the novelistic form of the genre. More often than religion, Skal traces what’s happening in the monster world to the larger social issues of the day. Quite rightly so, as scary movies go nowhere without a receptive viewership. Looking around these days it’s easy to be scared. Even what was once a grand occasion of debate over higher principles as we ponder our next leader has become a farce in one of the parties that could make its own horror movie. Hitler, it is said, was a huge fan of King Kong. Large apes manhandling women never seem to go out of style. Some call it horror. Others try to get away with saying it’s politics. While the daily commute grows more and more dangerous, and the rhetoric grows even worse, is it any wonder we like to dim down the lights and watch monsters that we know really can’t get us at all?

Enter the Labyrinth

Trying not to think too much about Children of the Corn, I visited a corn maze over the weekend. This particular autumnal activity highlights just how much detail a human mind can pick out in a mass of sameness. You can tell if you’ve been to this particular juncture before—that oddly shaped leaf, or that peculiar stone, or that specific ear with the missing teeth will give you the clues. This particular maze, however, also uses printed clues. Before you enter the labyrinth, you may choose your species of guidance. There were 4-H clues, Girl Scout clues, history clues, and more. One of my companions handed me the scriptural clues. Although it may have been an obvious connection, I thought about it in terms of salvation. A corn maze is not unlike life in the real world; confusion, false leads, and aimless wandering. Having a guide—in my case, knowing the Bible—will lead you out.

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Of course, the point of a corn maze is the fun of getting lost. This particular farm had eight acres dedicated to fall fun, and our party did get hopelessly mired in one location and had to ask for help from the corn cop who wanders like a friendly minotaur, or maybe a personal Daedalus or helpful Ariadne, directing those who’ve lost their way. The idea is that once you enter the maze, you look for numbered clues at various junctures—only a few crossroads have them—and answer the question for instructions about which way to go next. Even with the Bible in hand, or in head, we managed to lose our way. Baptized by a sudden cloudburst, we sought shelter in an open field. The only way ahead was to press on.

Those who’ve been with this blog for any length of time know that it is intentionally kind of a labyrinth, often using metaphor. In the case of the literal corn maze and its clues, minimal biblical knowledge was required to figure out the correct way to turn. The trick was even after getting all the hints, there was still some distance to go. Wet, confused, and having only our wits to go on, by trial and error we made it through. Our instructions—for we each had a different set of questions—only got us so far. My biblical guide was damp and see-through with the soaking we received. Metaphors were falling as fast as the rain. After all, the point of a corn maze is that you don’t get your money’s worth unless you get well and truly lost.

Read Long and Prosper

“Live long and prosper,” Mr. Spock was (or will be, depending) known for saying. Many of us know the regimen for healthy living: don’t overindulge on the food and drink. Get some exercise. Try to eat the right foods. Sleep once in a while. When we go to the doctor’s office, it’s generally a physical cause that we want explained or treated. It seems, however, we might have been overlooking a way to live longer. Reading. An article from last month’s Tech Times explains that book reading—sorry folks, reading this doesn’t count—correlates to longer life, according to a Yale study. The article by Alyssa Navarro explains that concentrated reading for three-and-a-half-hours a week can be connected to living longer. Those of us who read may not have that fringe benefit in mind, but it does stand to reason.

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Since people love correlates that sound alike, the way that we describe aspects of our lives is often quantity verses quality. In terms of quantity, consciousness seems to drive us to claim as much life as possible. It’s hard to let go. Connoisseurs, however, often prefer quality to quantity. While there may well be other options than these two q’s, it seems to me that those of us who read tend to do it for the quality issue. Quantity may be a fringe benefit. My job requires a long commute most days, and I bury myself in books. If I pick one that really captures my interest, I’m amazed at how quickly even an intractable commute can go. On those days I work at home, I have to admit, I miss the reading time. I try to read with the same level of concentration when I power the laptop down, but there is something about being in a situation where you’re forced to read that somehow enhances the level of concentration. It’s training, I suppose. We often think that once we’ve figured out how to read then it’s just a matter of doing it. To really get into a book, however, requires effort.

If I’m at home and I sit down for a marathon reading session, I inevitably get sleepy. Since I awake quite early this isn’t something I think I need to see my doctor about. Of course I get sleepy on the bus, but I’ve seen how ridiculous most people look when they sleep in public, and I don’t want to be one of those. If the book I have is a good fit, I barely notice how tired I am, surrounded by my aluminum walls and the wheels that go round and round. Maybe that’s because my mind is elsewhere. I don’t commute for my health. On the days when I don’t take the bus I try to get out and jog. My healthcare regimen, I think, could use a little more book reading. At least that’s as good an excuse as I can come up with for what many people, ironically, consider a kind of illness. May we “bookworms” read long and prosper.

My Fellow Americans

It’s important to keep the old gods happy. By now everyone probably knows that Stephen King composed a tweet suggesting that Donald Trump was Cthulhu. In response an angry tweet came from Cthulhu himself, since, as we know, he declared his intention to take over the world long before Trump. Cthulhu is no stranger to this blog, being the brainchild of H. P. Lovecraft. As I’ve suggested before, however, it is really the internet that gave life to the ancient one. His name is instantly recognizable to thousands, perhaps millions, who’ve never read Lovecraft or his disciples. In parody or in seriousness, the worship of Cthulhu is here to stay.

I’ve often wondered if the internet might participate in the birth of New Religious Movements. In an era when a completely unqualified plutocrat can run for president just because he has other people’s cash to burn, anything must be possible. Cthulhu, as we all know, lies dead but dreaming beneath the sea. His coming means doom for humankind, or, at the very least insanity. It seems that Stephen King might be right on this one. I’m getting old enough to recognize the signs; after all John F. Kennedy was president when I was born. I’ve seen the most powerful office in the world devolve into a dog-and-pony show where lack of any guiding principle besides accrual of personal wealth can lead a guy to the White House. At Cthulhu’s tweet indicates, reported on the Huffington Post, at least he’s honest. Unlike some political candidates, many people believe in Cthulhu.

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Perhaps the interest in Cthulhu is just a sophisticated joke. Long ago I suggested to a friend of mine in Edinburgh that perhaps the Ugaritians were writing funny stories (i.e., jokes) on their clay tablets, imagining what future generations would say when the myths were uncovered. Like Cthulhu, they were the old gods too. Like Cthulhu, there are people today who’ve reinstituted the cult of Baal and the other deities that would’ve led to a good, old-fashioned stoning back in biblical days. New Religious Movements are a sign that we’re still grasping for something. Our less tame, or perhaps too tame, deity who watches passively while charlatans and mountebanks dole out lucre for power must be dreaming as well. Of course, Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, was famously an atheist. Belief is, after all, what one makes it out to be. At least Stephen King’s father reinvented his surname with some transparency. And those who make up gods may have the last laugh when the votes are all in.

Reflecting Ourselves

There once was an old man from New Hampshire. No, this isn’t a limerick. He was famous enough to get his face on the state quarter, back when they were doing that state quarter thing. Then he fell. The Old Man of the Mountain was no more. We like to see ourselves in stone. On a trip with my wife and a couple of friends in my post-grad days in Edinburgh, we were driving around the Isle of Skye. The largest of the Inner Hebrides, the island has a mysterious natural beauty. One of the most famous monuments on Skye is the Old Man of Storr. Postcards always show it to be a rock pillar jutting up by itself at the base of a mountain. As we approached the old man from the north, I got the joke. My friends still dispute it, but if you look at the mountain crest above the pillar, it forms a perfect profile of an old man’s face. Then what is the rock pillar? It’s just the right distance from the old man’s face to be, well, you get the picture. I’m convinced that those from Skye laugh at all the tourists taking a picture of the old man’s naughty parts.

The technical term, as I’ve discussed before, for seeing that which isn’t really there is pareidolia. Some people call it matrixing. Our brains, wired to see other people, often see them where they don’t exist. The Old Man of the Mountain formed a passable human face before the rock face collapsed in 2003. This past week I read an article in the Washington Post of the collapse of Duckbill, a rock formation in Oregon’s Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. Like many cases of pareidolia, this rock pillar was only seen as a duck by those whose brains make the connection. People like to go see that sort of thing. It makes us feel less alone.

Do you see it?

Do you see it?

The article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., however, points out that Duckbill didn’t jump. He was pushed. A group of eight guys, caught on video, rocked the pillar until it toppled. This is why we can’t have nice things. The deliberate destruction of monuments is a crime, and the culprits are being sought. Make Way for Ducklings, the Robert McCloskey children’s classic, was cast in bronze in Boston’s Public Garden. In 2009 vandals stole one of the ducklings, which was quickly replaced. It’s difficult to understand the mentality of those who wish to destroy our duckbilled friends. Yes, Duckbill was only rock. No, I never had the chance to see it. As long as the Old Man of Storr lies recumbent in the Scottish highlands, however, we will have grounds to wonder.