Charlie Grinch

There were probably about half-a-dozen animated Christmas specials I recall watching as a child. The two that became fixtures, and remain part of my present holiday ritual, are It’s Christmas Charlie Brown and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I remember watching them from early days—of course you had to wait until their respective channels announced their advent in TV Guide (just writing that makes me feel older than the Grinch). Commuting wasn’t an issue then, so watching television was as common as candy canes and hopeful stockings. As an adult, though, you see things you overlooked, or simply accepted, as a child. I guess that’s what “believing in Christmas” is all about. The willful suspension of disbelief.

I’ve commented on these Christmas specials before. Charlie Brown has so many inconsistencies that an old biblical scholar can’t help but think of J, E, D, and P. What does the signage on Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth really say? How many branches are on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? How does Sally get to the school before her big brother? The animation is clearly a little off—Lucy appears to emerge from the center of her booth’s wooden top as she gives advice to the woeful Charlie Brown with his Trump’s-been-elected-type depression. Still, Linus’ rendition of Luke’s Christmas story brings it home every time. Compare that with the Grinch.

Those who see a war on Christmas (there’s not) seldom cite the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is entirely secular. No mention of a special birth. No angels or shepherds. Just a mean old man and his dog. The Grinch shares with Charlie Brown its message of looking beyond the commercialization of Christmas. In the case of the much better animated Grinch (although I still can’t figure out why that one Who’s hat repeatedly flashes from white to blue and back) it would seem that religion matters less than spirit. The Who’s Christmas song with its strange, non-English words, is a celebration of difference. Diversity. Even that angry old man who would steal Christmas itself is welcome in the end. The only war on Christmas is one that has been spawned in the imagination of those who fit the Grinch’s description in Thurl Ravenscroft’s rendering of Dr. Seuss’s lyric. Those my age will understand, and unless you were born yesterday, I suspect that you’ll get my meaning.

Lap of Luxury

How terribly rude. I was right in the middle of a sentence when my word processor shut down. Then my computer. A system update. It’s 4:00 a.m., the time I usually upload my blog post. You have to understand that I get up at 3:30 so that I have time to write. My laptop assumes nobody is working “in the middle of the night.” I would’ve thought my fingers on its keys would’ve given it a clue. Now it tells me I’ll have access, new upgraded system installed, in 25 minutes. Doesn’t my laptop have all my personal details when it comes to shopping? You’d think it would know all my personal habits by now. I mean, this is the way I do it every day. Right now my concerns are secondary. This system update can’t wait. I wasn’t even given a choice. Power nap for Apple.

What disturbs me most is that my computer reads every word I type, yet it still thinks I’m just like everybody else. Who’s awake and writing at 4:00 a.m.? And I thought we had a rapport, my laptop and me. I was the Skipper to his Little Buddy. The Agent 86 to her 99. The Will Robinson to its Robot. I guess I had it backwards all the time. The brain on my lap doesn’t agree with the brain in my head. If I can’t get my writing done now, it won’t get done at all because at ten minutes to six I’ve got to be on that bus. New Jersey Transit doesn’t offer working overhead lights much of the time, let alone wifi. It’s now or never. My coffee’s already gone and the next thing on my daily agenda is the shower. I always come up with ideas in the shower—I need my Little Buddy waiting for me when I rush out to write them down.

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Who’s sitting on whose lap? How could I have gotten something so very basic so terribly wrong? In ancient times the one sitting was superior to the one standing. When the computer’s sitting on the one sitting we know who’s really in charge. Let the one with eyes to read understand. I’m a busy man, but my Little Buddy—my Skipper—is busier. When’s the last time I read a paper map? Opened a phone book? Wrote an actual letter? I can hear those bus wheels rumbling. Excuse me, but my master is calling.

Bible Riots

One of the more embarrassing questions I get asked is “What do you do?” This has been true throughout my career (if what I do can be called that). I should clarify—I don’t mind saying “I’m a professor,” or “I’m an editor”—it’s the follow-up question that’s difficult. “What do you teach/edit?” Mentioning the Bible is a conversation-stopper. In the silence that inevitably follows you can almost hear the electronic buzzing in the interlocutor’s brain as s/he tries to come up with something nice to say while backing away. In actual fact my degrees have been more in the history of religions rather than Bible per se, but those who’ve done the hiring haven’t tended to see it that way. This is not a nostalgic post, asking to go back to yesteryear (that’s happening politically without my help), but it is a reflection of what James Wallace Harris says on BookRiot—the Bible is a good book to read.

It’s easy to get swept away in the criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity. Those who profess it, historically, have a lot to answer for. What we’ve allowed religion to do to others is inexcusable. What we sometimes miss is that the motivation is one in which all people participate—learning the truth. This is more difficult than it might seem. If someone had discovered “the truth” we’d all know by now. The fact is we’re deeply divided about what that truth is and that alone proves no one has found it. We’ll recognize it when we see it. We just haven’t seen it yet. What sometimes gets forgotten along the way is that the Bible was, and is, a great milestone of humanity’s search. As I keep having to remind myself, there’s some really good stuff in there.

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Harris isn’t alone in suggesting that atheists should study the Bible. Some very prominent non-believers have declared the same thing from time to time. The Good Book is densely interwoven with western culture—even secular western culture. I’m currently at work on a book that explores one thread of that complex fabric, and it’s amazing to me how much we miss when we ignore holy writ. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. That’s not biblical, but it does hint at the truth, I think. Or maybe it’s just that I want to be able to answer that most basic of questions without having to make excuses for what otherwise looks like a series of poor life choices.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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Evil That Men Do

the-demonicTheologians, for the most part, gave up studying demons a long while ago. With the advent of modern medical science, the descriptions of demonic possession in the New Testament seemed pretty clearly to be cases of epilepsy. Since people in antiquity had no means to study brains electro-chemically, there was no recourse for them to understand the sudden changes in behavior that often accompany seizures. They drew on what their culture knew—malevolent spirits—to explain this disturbing behavior. Ewan Fernie takes a different approach in The Demonic: Literature and Experience. As an English professor, he looks at both demons and the demonic in mostly English literature, often focusing on the adjective more than the noun. There is a great deal of insight in this study and characters the reader may or may not recognize seem to fit fairly easily into the category as described by the author. Indeed, God and the Devil appear much closer than many religious readers would feel comfortable seeing them.

Although I enjoy reading about literature, my favorite chapter in this book was the treatment of Martin Luther. Not having grown up Lutheran, I feel that I don’t know the great reformer well enough. The anniversary of his 95 Theses is coming up next year and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the former monk right now. Even despite this, he was a fascinating figure who firmly believed in diabolical activity in the world. Indeed, much of what science would eventually strip away he saw as evidence of the demonic. Other theologians who’ve followed him built on these same ideas. The Dark Ages were the high point of official demonology, after all.

Writers since Luther, many of them touting fiction, also latched onto the concept of the demonic as a great explanation for “the evil that men do.” Quite often Fernie traces them to Shakespeare, the anniversary of whose death is quickly drawing to a close. The Reformation would’ve been much closer to the Bard than it seems to us. Demons were still around and available for all varieties of nastiness against human beings. Fernie makes the point that the association of the demonic and sexuality became more pronounced over time. We see this even today in possession movies. The origins of the ideas, however, are more complex than they might seem. The Demonic will give the reader plenty to think about in this season of long nights and short days and the basic confusion running rampant over what is good and what is evil.

The Naked Truth

As my regular readers know, I’m struggling. The shock is palpable. Even over a month and a half later, I still keep going over in my head the many, many reasons why Trump can’t be elected and wake up in a cold sweat with anything but visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. I recently saw a video on YouTube that made the point: with the millions of smart, qualified Americans our system decided that only someone like Donald Trump was able to lead us? (That is, if Mr. Putin didn’t cast a few votes himself. It might be understandable if he was Putin’s choice.) I have trouble coping with the lack of transparency. It’s like opaque cellophane. Except when it comes to women. Then the motives are perfectly obvious.

It bothers me that we’ve lost our dignity. I never thought it’d be possible to find the first lady naked on the internet. Some might argue that this is progress, but government is, and always has been, about decorum. It’s pretty hard to maintain that your king is a god when you see him sitting on the toilet. We like to believe our rulers are somehow better than us. We’re in trouble when they start believing that. There are those that say “quit your whining, pull up your socks, and accept it.” The naked truth is that I bought into the illusion that America couldn’t sink so low. There are lots of qualified Republicans out there. To have a man that makes Ronald Reagan look smart in charge is too frightening to accept, however. Let me have my neuroses. They’re all I’ve got left.

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The whiplash is the thing. Just three presidents ago the nation was up in arms about Bill Clinton’s peccadilloes. It was such an outrage that the same people who voted for a naked first lady wanted to impeach him. My neck hurts from my head swiveling so much. Ladybird Johnson this is not. Let alone Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m not whining, I just want a solid spot to place my feet. Never before has the fact that we’re spinning at 1,040.4 miles per hour felt more real. What do we want as a nation? It isn’t going back to the fifties—that much is clear. You couldn’t even show a toilet in the movies back then. No, we’ve gone beyond Psycho’s flushing scene and right into the shower with its curtain ripped back. And yes, like Janet Leigh, we’re struggling for our life.

My Stranger’s Keeper

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He was a bearded young man, maybe in his twenties. He kind of reminded me of my own youth, only cooler. I was at a stop sign on a snow-covered hill with tires honestly a little more worn than they should’ve been. Three times I tried to get some traction only to have to reverse and give it just a touch more gas. He walked by and called out “On the count of three, okay?” I shouted my thanks. It took him a couple of minutes to get me moving and as much as I wanted to stop and give him something for his efforts I knew that if I did I’d be right back where we’d started. Once I got moving, I had to keep going. I’ve driven in snow since I earned my Pennsylvania license in the snow belt of Lake Erie and I’ve helped drivers stuck in snow a time or two, but I was touched by this young man helping an older guy in a neighborhood he didn’t know get out of a jamb. That’s what I think of Americans as being like.

Seeing the utter selfishness of those “elected” officials posturing over the last few days I say to myself they didn’t grow up in the snow and cold. Nothing compels a young man with better things to do to help a frazzled older guy except for common human decency. Those who grow up with hardship know the value of their fellow human beings. We help each other because that’s what people do. Those born to wealth and power help themselves and only themselves. They need to learn the message of snow. Nature is our most natural teacher.

I don’t know his name. He didn’t have any idea that I had four hours to drive through snow, sleet, and freezing rain, but he helped me despite that. He didn’t ask for any money and I’m sure he expected nothing so coarse. I’m old enough to miss such kindheartedness and to cherish it deeply when I encounter it. Snow and hills and bald tires aren’t a winning combination, but the human capacity for goodness mixes well with any conditions. On a cold winter’s day I encountered the warmth of human concern for a guy in trouble. I need to listen to what the weather is saying more closely. More than that, I need to step out of my car more often and throw my shoulder against a stranger’s hatchback. It’s what makes us human.