Monthly Archives: August 2017

Celestial Happenings

Science fiction used to be the mainstay of my reading. Unlike a true fan, I was never exclusively devoted to it—my tastes are far too eclectic to be contained by any genre. Nevertheless, at a used book sale, on a whim, I picked up Frederik Pohl’s The Day the Martians Came. It had a cool looking spaceship on the cover, and I recognized his name from my childhood reading. I prepared myself for an adventure. Instead I found a disillusioned tale of humans and their foibles, many of them religious. Many tales, in fact. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised to find out that this was originally a set of discrete short stories later laced together into a novel. The point, it seems, would be appropriate to Qohelet. Human beings run around doing their pointless things and failing to communicate with one another. That much was true to life.

The Martians, who are more evolved and intelligent than humans, but who appear to be mere docile animals, are discovered near Christmas. Much is made of the fact that humans still celebrate Christmas on Mars. And, if you can cut through all of the snark, there’s also a message that we like to live out our prejudices whenever possible. So the humans, excited about Martians being transported back to earth, try to take advantage of each other any way they can. Some of the most complex of the stories involve religious leaders who dismiss science and assert mystical knowledge of these extraterrestrials. These leaders, of course, are only after the money of the gullible. They’re playing the popularity circuit, or running cults, and the clueless are drawn to them. And so the book isn’t really about Martians at all, but about human folly. Mainly religion.

Science fiction means different things to different people. In a used bookstore I noticed Neil Gaiman under science fiction. As much as I enjoy his work, I’d classify it as general literature instead. Genres are there to help us find related material. The name Frederik Pohl and the word “Martians” in the title suggest science fiction, but the book itself doesn’t really meet the criteria. At least for me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve landed rovers on Mars and are now talking about a human expedition. Mars has become somewhat less exotic. Religion, meanwhile, continues to churn and muddy the waters. Not always as cynical as the leaders seem to be in this book, nevertheless they are part of the discussion since once we get off this planet we’re going to have foreign deities with which to deal. Whether we respond with snark or science fiction is entirely up to us.

Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Creative Religion

If you ignore common sense and read this blog, you know that I try to be creative in my approach to the world. It’s bold, in my way of thinking, to claim the mantle of creativity since there are so many people out there that the world has already decided are creative enough, thank you. Who has time to visit all the world’s museums, read all the world’s novels, or watch all the world’s films? Why contribute to the clutter? The answer—in as far as there is an answer—is that creativity is a way of being. My wife sent me a piece by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings. It is about the creative life. I’m reluctant to claim the title for myself, but the essay does match the description of what I’d like life to be.

Writing about religion daily requires a certain amount of creativity. If you think about it, it does make sense. Religion deals with intangibles. “Things not seen.” It also delves into that deep place called meaning and wrestles with issues we all have to face in our lives. It’s really a shame when religion becomes ossified into a system with no creativity or humor. One might make the case that it ceases to be religion then. The other day I was recalling just how powerful a high mass can be. Even now, if the mood is right, the memory of my first experience of it can bring tears to my eyes. It is a pageant of mystery and power. And creativity. The colors, the sounds, the scent of incense, the pressure of the kneeler on your knees, the sharp bite of flame tokay. It may not be the worship the way the disciples did it, but it sure has a creative genius.

When, however, worship became a daily requirement—when the majesty became mandatory—something was lost. Creativity means being willing to try something different. As much as we creative types cherish our friends, we need time alone with our Muses. And when we come back together with those friends, it is all the more pleasant for having been away. Creative people do not control their creativity. It clearly works the other way around. We can’t stop being creative, even if—and I can’t imagine why—we’d ever want not to be. Religion, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in some awkward places. If only it could be brought together with an open creativity without becoming trite it might find a place in a world too busy to take time simply to be.

Fall of the Titanosaurs

If I had it all to do over again, I might well have gone into paleontology. Like most kids, I grew up fascinated with dinosaurs. Then “real life” got in the way and you need to get a job since you can’t spend your time playing with your cheap plastic toys and dreaming Triassic dreams. There’s no future in the past. So I decided to study dead languages instead. Still, the recent discovery of Patagotitan mayorum is exciting. Titanosaurs—the really big dinosaurs—were not even known when I was a child. What we used to call “brontosaurus” was about as big as they got, but we did know that diplodocus was out there somewhere, even a bit longer. We didn’t have to worry about ark space in those days because we knew that extinction happens.

The current evangelical flavor of the day takes a hard line on evolution. Since it absolutely can’t happen and since there’s no denying dinosaurs, they must’ve crowded onto old Noah’s floating hotel along with everybody else. The problem is we keep discovering more and more large dinosaurs. Patagotitan was 122 feet long, without skin. It weighed more than ten elephants, making me wonder about water displacement ratios. Depending on your definition of that fuzzy measure of the cubit, the ark was only 450 feet long. And Patagotitan is only one of the titanosaurs that dwarf the already huge apatosaurus (the correct form of brontosaurus) and brachiosaurus. Even if they hibernated the sheer mass of reptilian tonnage wouldn’t leave much room for the latter ascendant mammals. That is, if mammals had come later and ascended.

Noah, despite being a traveler, never made it to Patagonia. In fact, the ark pretty much stayed still during the flood, coming to rest in Turkey after having been constructed somewhere just east of Eden. And since the Bible doesn’t mention continental drift we can’t even rely on Pangea to have gotten all the beasties to ark central on time. I’m guessing that Patagotitan was probably a slow walker. Since the continents were just like they are today, it must’ve been a fair swimmer as well. And it didn’t mind quarters just a touch claustrophobic for such a massive monster. What with all the home improvement shows these days, Noah might have considered an addition to the ark. But the Bible says God gave him the plan and one thing we know about the Almighty is that what he says he means literally. Dinosaurs or no.

The Way

Part of the problem is that I’ve never been fortunate enough to learn Chinese. You see, scholars of religion are often insistent on reading scriptures in their original languages. It has been a long time since I’ve picked up the Daodejing, one of the formative scriptures of Daoism, and I was struck by a number of things. First (and I have the confirmation of Sinologists on this), the Daodejing is difficult to understand. This isn’t just a translation issue. Nor is it an issue of Chinese thinking. All world scriptures are difficult to understand. One of the major problems with the Bible is that it has been translated into English for so long that many assume the language concerns are negligible. They’re not. The Bible has many obscure parts. Also it’s worth noting that the Daodejing has been translated nearly as much as, if not more than, the Bible. It is a very influential text, in part, I’m sure, because it’s not easy to understand.

Paradox isn’t within the comfort zone of many western religions. We like our belief structure to be (mostly) rational and believable. In fact, to start an argument just point out the fact that the Bible has contradictions. (It does, for the record.) The point being that a westerner will want to believe it is consistent and coherent throughout. If they can’t have that in English then they’ll say it’s inerrant in the original languages (it’s not). Religions shouldn’t make your brain hurt. Paradoxes, however, require deep thought. They can’t be read quickly to be stored away as factual information. They do, however, constitute a large part of life. Look at Washington and meditate. Daoism, the religion that generally follows the teachings of Lao Tzu (the putative author of the Daodejing), finds truth in contemplating opposites which are both simultaneously true. And not true. Interestingly, many of the sayings in the Daodejing are similar to ideas attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.

Dao is often translated “way.” One of the striking things about Edmund Ryden’s translation is his choice to use the feminine pronoun for “the way.” This is motivated, as I read it, out of concern to do justice to the presentation of the dao in the Daodejing itself. While the dao is not god, nor personal, it is powerful. The recognition of feminine power is clear in many aspects of the Daodejing. That’s not to say that the culture wasn’t patriarchal, but merely that it recognized balance—the famous yin and yang—as being inherent in the way the universe works. If such an idea could truly take hold the world might be a better place even today.

Thy Fandom Come

It’s not hard to feel that you’re from another planet. If you were born in the sixties and had kind of a rough transition to this whole internet thing, you know what I mean. Still, I want to be part of it—it’s kind of like New York City, only bigger. And faster. The commute doesn’t take nearly as long, now that dial-up’s a thing of the past. So I bought someone who was into fandom Sam Muggs’ The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Geek Girls. This particular fandom, well, fan, gave me the book to read. I’m a feminist, so I don’t have any issues with reading a book intended for girls. What became clear to me, however, is that I don’t understand the internet nearly as well as I thought I did, and that girls find they’re oppressed there too. What is it with men and control?

It is an ethical issue. I don’t blame people in the past for not thinking like we do, but today there’s no excuse whatsoever for considering somebody a lesser person because of their gender. Women and girls have just as much right to “guy things” like geekdom as do males of the species. Fandom is all about fun. Enjoying the fantasy of living, for a little while, in other worlds. From the way many men treat women it’s no wonder that they feel that need just as much as my own self-identified gender. Religion, unfortunately, bears much of the blame for this. In the largest religious bodies in the world women are still excluded from leadership roles. Religion is kind of like fandom in that way, I suppose. It can be all about exclusion. We exclude others to make ourselves feel special. Why not celebrate difference and find a place for everyone?

It’s difficult to read The Fangirl’s Guide as a man simply because you’re constantly reminded (and not intentionally, because it’s written for girls) at how inhospitable men have made much of the world for their female earthling compatriots. I was reminded at several points in this book of how films like Wonder Woman and the recent Ghostbusters stand out in their sympathetic portrayal of women heroes. And equally how men find reasons to criticize them. Then I consider the White House and shudder. When a nation elects an open and avowed patriarchalist as president we all could use a fantasy world in which to hide. This little book didn’t make me into a fangirl, but I do hope it makes me a better man.

Implied of Course

The American terrorist attack in Charlottesville over the weekend should have us all frightened. Despite declarations of “it couldn’t happen here,” fascism is an adaptive disease that finds its way to new hosts quite readily. The atmosphere coming out of Washington only promotes contagion. Trump’s response—bad behavior all around, no one party to blame—left the supreme white commander open to criticism. The appropriately named “White” House spokespersons responded with an implied “Of course that includes white supremacists,” according to the Washington Post report. That’s an awful lot of weight for an adverb to bear. The past six months have given many of us reason to doubt it’s true at all. “Of course” 45 loves all Americans. Or at least their cash.

Of course, I could be making a lot out of an implied deflection. A national leader should not hesitate to point the blame squarely at any supremacist group. Listen closely: no group is superior to another. Anyone’s background, examined closely enough, is likely to turn up a character or two who would be suspect. Trump’s election gave a new boldness to fascist groups—this is the way America’s going, isn’t it? Republican leaders, full of squees and shivers, refuse to say anything negative about a man whose thumbs can’t even reach the humility emoji. Hate crimes are wrong. They used to be illegal. What has happened to leadership? It’s more than just the CFO, wait, I mean Commander in Chief, who’s implicated here. It’s an entire political party that won’t stand up against injustice. What ever happened to “truth, justice, and the American way,” Clark? There’s never a phone booth nearby when you need one.

Back when I worked at Nashotah House, we had a conflicted environment. One of my colleagues told me something that has stayed with me ever since: “silence implies consent.” If you don’t condemn evil, you are complicit with it. We all need to stand up and say racism isn’t just an opinion—it is evil. Human rights are more than just civil rights. All people have the right to be treated fairly. Someone who hates others enough to climb into a car, start the ignition, and accelerate toward a group of pedestrians is guilty of premeditation. A president who won’t say as much is tacitly saying it might just be okay. Of course, it might just be that he’s too self-absorbed to get the thumbs going on the words we’ll never read: “I’m sorry.” Of course I’d be glad to be proven wrong.