Hurricane Warming

Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?

One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.

Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.

Planet A

Two of the classics of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, and The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, were published by Oxford University Press. In its present-day iteration the press has a Green Committee, on which I’ve sat from very nearly the beginning of my time there. As a committee, we’re reading these classics to see what we might learn some half-century-plus after they were published. I’d never read A Sand County Almanac before. It’s a pity, since I lived in southeast Wisconsin, from which the book takes its genesis, for about a dozen years. The writing is poetical prose, but the ideas are solid science—the land on which we’ve evolved knows how to take care of itself. When one species becomes too greedy, all suffer. Leopold ends his book by suggesting a land ethic should be put in place. Now, a human lifespan later, has it?

Hardly. Watching the Trump Administration doing everything it can to commodify any aspect of the environment that might make a buck—or at least a buck for the wealthy—is alarming in the extreme. There is no soul in the land, to this way of thinking. They believe that because they themselves lack a functional soul. A soul cannot exist without ethics. What we do to this planet is one of the largest ethical issues imaginable. No species, rational or not, destroys its own habitat. Except our own. Arrogant to the point of supposing ourselves divine, we think we can take what we want and give nothing back. And everything will be just fine. I wonder that we’ve had this inexpensive, readable guidebook this last seven decades and have continued to ignore its sage advice. Maybe we’re too busy making money to read something that sounds suspiciously like poetry.

One of the observations I had about the Almanac was how attuned to the philosophy of nature it is. Philosophy has many enemies these days, from prominent scientists to Republicans. Nobody seems to value the capacity for deep and thorough thinking through of a problem that is unbeholden to any orthodoxy. The philosopher can ask “what if?” without regret. When it comes to the environment, humans aren’t the only philosophers. We’ve convinced ourselves so completely that we’re more advanced than other species that we suppose they can’t teach us anything. One thing they do, however, without our interference, is create balance in nature. It’s an ethic to which even our species might aspire. If only we would listen to the wisdom of those who pay attention to the world that has given them life.

Birth of a Notion

Childhood is an impressionable time. Our phobias begin then. Children are vulnerable. (Of course our current government is intent on making us all afraid of bullies again.) This theme of childhood keeps coming up in interviews with directors of horror movies. A friend recently sent me a New York Times article by Erik Piepenburg about Annabelle: Creation. The piece includes some horror auteurs discussing what frightened them as children. We all experienced fear at a young age. For some of us it hung around awhile longer. Horror movies have, despite their low brow reputation, been reliable revenue streams from the beginning. People will pay to be scared, for a little while.

I have to confess to having fallen behind on The Conjuring diegesis. Since I’m the only one in the family who really likes to watch horror, I don’t see these movies in theaters and, well, there’s a lot to do besides watching movies these days. And finding DVDs is getting harder as well. Streaming scares me. Anyway, I missed The Conjuring 2 and the original Annabelle. I’ve read accounts of what supposedly happened in real life—Annabelle is one of the cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren—and it has been written about a number of times. The Warren’s take on it was that a doll can’t actually be possessed. (Sorry Chuckie.) They suggested that it could act as a conduit that would’ve eventually allowed a demon to possess the two young women who kept the original Annabelle in their apartment. The doll showed up in The Conjuring, although it wasn’t part of the main story. The haunted doll trope is scary enough that the second knock-off in this universe focused on it.

Interviews with older horror directors reveal that they often grew up without fathers. Despite the gender profiling, for kids fathers are generally thought to represent protection. A child without a father often feels insecure. Even today when people talk of their fathers I have to remind myself that they can be a good thing. I often wonder if those of us who like horror films had childhood parental issues as a regular part of our pasts. I’m generalizing, of course. Growing up into Trump’s America has given us all plenty of things to fear in the present. Since January a number of high profile horror films have gotten notice in the press. Sometimes a real bully can cause as much fear as a possessed doll. That’s especially the case when our government wants us to submit like a bunch of frightened children. Childhood fears may, in some cases, serve us well.

Noah’s Parable

I write a lot about Noah. For those who didn’t know me before this blog, I was once invited to write a book on Noah for a series ironically published by Oxford University Press. I had been researching Noah for years, and I intended to write the book. Then, as the kids are saying these days, life happened. My interest in Noah has never waned, however. And part of the reason is that it is perhaps the most influential story in the entire Bible. I realize I’ll need to explain that, but stop and think about it—Evangelicals seldom talk about Jesus any more. Their concerns are with unborn babies, people making babies outside wedlock, and destroying our environment in the name of capitalism. It is the last of these that brings us back to Noah.

A friend recently sent me a story on Splinter by Brendan O’Connor titled “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” O’Connor is looking at the history of how a pro-environmentalism-inclined evangelical movement decided to shift its base to align with climate-change deniers. Behind the scenes are fundamentalist clergy. Oh, we like to laugh at them and their ways, but they are the power behind the throne and we should really not let them out of our sight. You see, as O’Connor points out, they believe that the God of Noah can protect the world from the worst that we can throw at it. It’s perfectly okay to try to destroy the planet because the magic man upstairs can fix everything right back up if he needs to before sending his son back to town on the final business meeting. Laugh if you will. These people are dead serious and many who hold power in Washington believe every lie they utter.

As a nation—perhaps as an entire western culture—we’ve laughed off religion. Secure that there’s no God up there to rain down, well, rain, we laugh and jeer at Noah. It’s a children’s story, after all, isn’t it? Okay, forget about the part where everyone in the entire world drowns, except eight people. And when he gets drunk and lays naked in his tent after it’s all over. Other than that, it’s a kid’s story, right? The story of the flood is one of the oldest myths in the world. It has been part of human story-telling for millennia. We now have very powerful people with smart phones in their pockets and access to vast hordes of money who believe it literally happened. And since God took care of his own once, he can do it again. The educated smirk. The smart start building arks.

Fighting Nightmares

Some things are so personal, and inexplicable, that they’re difficult to put into words. Not only that, but they often involve other people and I try not to comment on those who actually know me in person. Still, having just watched Apocalypse Now for the first time, I feel I must. One of the people I admire most was a high school teacher. Although I never really said as much to him directly, he is one of the most formative people in my life. He served, and was shot up in Vietnam as a youth. His outlook on life, one that I’ve tried to emulate especially when my petty foibles overwhelm me, is an inspiration. I’m sure that he doesn’t know it, but every time I think of Vietnam he’s always in my mind.

Never a fan of war movies—I’m baffled that anyone can think of war as anything other than pure barbarism—I generally can’t watch them. Apocalypse Now, however, was widely discussed when I was in high school. It was released in 1979, just four years after the war had ended. It illustrates well the fog of war, and the Doors have been seeping in my head ever since the movie faded to black. When my wife and I began renting movies—VHS, of course—we made a list of must-see titles. First, partially for alphabetic reasons, was Apocalypse Now. That it took us almost two decades to get to it says something about the nature of life. And also my fear of war movies. Still, I knew I needed to see it. I figure that unless someone is even more behind the times than me, nearly forty years is safe from spoiler alerts.

The idea, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is that Colonel Kurtz has gone insane and Captain Willard has been called in to assassinate him. As he makes his way upriver Willard finds out that Kurtz is treated like a god. He has a cult following and does appear to have lost touch with reality. In the climatic scene, Willard hacks Kurtz to death as a cow is being hacked to death outside as a sacrifice. Ending with Conrad’s original words, “the horror, the horror,” an ambiguity lingers over what a people will do once their god has been killed. In fact, language of people being gods occurs early in the film as well, bookending this concept. The truth, of course, is that there are no gods here at all. I can’t guess what Conrad would’ve thought of this adaptation of his story. I know that when I saw it my thoughts returned to one man whose impact on my life continues in ways unexpected and deeply hidden.

American Caligula

In the days before the American Caligula, the Trump family disgusted average Americans. I mean specifically one of those whose songs are considered essential Americana. Woody Guthrie is perhaps best known for his song, “This Land is Your Land.” Many of us were taught to sing it in school, back when public education was still a thing. Some of us were taught that Guthrie was the Dust Bowl crooner who railed against social injustice. The lyrics to “This Land” are not celebratory, according to those who knew Guthrie. They’re a condemnation. But then, it’s just like later interpreters to prettify the words of a prophet. “A young lady will conceive,” for Isaiah meant the horrid crisis of Assyria’s attack on Jerusalem would soon be over. A couple centuries later it was made into an angelic birth announcement. But I digress. Guthrie often wrote and sang about social injustice. He was known to perform with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” appearing on his guitar.

Photo credit: Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun, from Wikimedia Commons

Those of us who write are never far from our notebooks. You don’t always have time to write out in full form ideas that come to you like a gray matter receiver, often at the most inconvenient times. Recently it was discovered that Woody Guthrie wrote a song called “Old Man Trump.” The song castigates the racism for the Donald’s father whose Beach Haven was once Guthrie’s home. Beach Haven was built to house returning veterans of World War II. It was off limits to African Americans. Guthrie responded in the way he did best, with poetry. The story of and words to “Old Man Trump” can be found in a Washington Post story written by Justin Wm. Moyer during Trump’s campaign. Although Guthrie never wrote the music, the song has been subsequently recorded, and in the light of the last few days, needs to be widely played.

Republican leaders, still hoping to profit from Trump, refuse to outright condemn his open and obvious racism. “This Land is Your Land” was written to protest just this kind of privileging of one “type” over another. It took some time before Romans realized their third emperor was insane. They may have know earlier, but there’s a social embarrassment to admit that the most powerful man in the world is off his rocker. Insanity and racism may not be the same thing, but neither is acceptable in a world leader. Ryan Harvey has put “Old Man Trump” to music and has made it available to the world. Give it a listen and think about where we are.

Zounds Like

Liberation from the confines of academia allows for the occasional indulgence in taboo subjects. I can’t remember when I first heard of stigmata. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and, like many Protestants, distrusted much of what came from Rome. Still, I was interested in the supernatural. When I learned that people in this modern day and age sometimes developed unexplained wounds corresponding to crucifixion, I was intrigued. Ted Harrison’s book, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, is the first I’ve actually read on the subject. It has some fascinating observations to share. It was some time after seminary that I learned that Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis) was the first stigmatic. I had admired Francis for turning down wealth to assist the poor and commune with nature—what’s not to like?—but I didn’t realize that he had initiated this rare, but real phenomenon.

Harrison considers the question of why it was only in the 13th century that the stigmata began to occur. They have occurred ever since, in very small numbers, primarily in Italy and primarily among women. But why then? He points out that the church, shortly before this time, began to emphasize the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. We’re probably all familiar with some of the gruesome images that emerged from the church and its artists at that time. As such images proliferated, people were given a visual focus that directed their devotions. Every great once in a while, this led to stigmata. Why women? As Harrison points out, men with intense spiritual needs could become priests. Women could not. The church would not forbid personal devotion, and if such devotion led to stigmata, well, a person arguably had a direct line to the divine. That was something normally preserved for priests through the Eucharist.

Stigmata have to be understood in the context of mysticism. The more recent cases studied by Harrison include some non-Catholics and some other unexpected candidates for what is, after all, a very intense spiritual experience. What emerges is a thoughtful, one might dare say contemplative, approach to the issue. Some stigmata have been self-inflicted. Some have not. Medical personnel have witnessed and examined these improbable wounds and have not explained them away. Once, during a faculty meeting at the New College of Edinburgh University (I was post-graduate student representative) one faculty member groused after one of my advisors had presented a challenging idea: “you’ve dropped us in a mythological world. I want to get us out.” There it is in a nutshell. Some people can live in a world where stigmata occur. Others have to explain it away. The difference is all in the matter of perspective.

Power in the Blood

Converts, they say, are often the worst. It matters less what the conversion is to or from, since the zeal of the newly enlightened is impossible to match. The textbook example with religion, especially in America, is Evangelicalism. Those who’ve “found Jesus” are eager and too willing to tell others about it. You don’t often hear, however, of those who grew up Evangelical, but then had second thoughts. Often they disappear quietly. Evangelicalism is a potent force in American life. Intellectuals, embarrassed by it, tend to pretend it doesn’t exist. Or it’s on its way out. No need to approach, with nervous laughter, those who actually believe this stuff. Evangelicals, however, can get presidents elected and their zeal can take away any number of freedoms deemed “godless” by those who may have no more education than the local bartender. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism is masterful. Although not comprehensive (the movement is too large for that) this book does not shy from the unifying fact behind radical evangelicalism—the belief that the end is nigh.

Oh, I know. Those of us who are educated have no need to take such nonsense seriously, right? Sutton may change your mind on that. When you realize just how close to disaster after disaster this thinking has led (and continues to lead, under the current administration) us, you might want to take the Fundamentalists a bit more seriously. They constitute the largest religious bloc in the nation. One of the baffling things about them is their protean nature. What’s the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist? And what’s with the obvious differences between a Timothy LaHaye and a Billy Graham? And where do these people get all their money? (Fundamentalists have always been close to nearly endless, well, funding.) Republican presidents from far before Nixon realized that big business and conservative theology, although strange bedfellows, are remarkably compatible. (Each thinks the other side doesn’t realize it’s being used.)

American Apocalypse is an important book. Written before perhaps the strangest turn in US history last November, it might have helped to show that Trump was a serious threat from the beginning. If only the educated took it seriously. Evangelical antipathy to women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, and socialized medicine run very deep. It’s the Old Boys’ Club with a vengeance. Recent events have shown yet again how important it is to understand these ways of thinking. And those of us with insider knowledge have never been welcome in the academy. That’s okay, though. If I go back to my roots I’ll realize the world’s about to end any day now. Those who’re smart might think about taking equestrian training because I’m sure there will be white horses involved. If only I could get myself converted back.

Surface Tension

Montclair, New Jersey, is distinguished by having two bookstores. On Saturdays when my wife has to work there, I sometimes come along. Apart from the pleasant company, it isn’t every day that one can visit two bookstores. By supporting such shops, I am protesting the ignorance rampant in this nation. One, the Montclair Book Center, specializes in used books. Not always competitively priced, I nevertheless seldom leave empty-handed. It’s a healthy walk from there to Watchung Booksellers, a compact indie up by the train station. For a small store they always have an intriguing selection and I’ve never seen it empty on a Saturday. As I was walking the distance between the two, I noticed that Montclair’s downtown (and I’m not picking on Montclair, which I love) focuses on appearances. This is true of almost all shopping malls as well. Salons, clothing stores, eating places, tattoo parlors, health clubs. Places you go to help hone your image. Where are the stores catering to the mind?

Don’t get me wrong, I also have a body. I like to keep healthy too. I jog when I can, and I’m a vegetarian of nearly twenty years. Yes, there are the necessary places like drug stores and specialty shops where you can get your vacuum cleaner repaired, but few places to go explicitly to encourage mental growth. Hot, I stopped into a coffee shop for a bottle of juice. Patrons were busy at their phones and laptops. I recalled how there was a time when intellectuals hung out and conversed in coffee shops, exchanging ideas over mugs long grown cold. Even those sitting outside on the sociable, colorful chairs were busy texting, Instagramming, or tweeting away their weekends. I closed my book and walked on. I felt a vague but pressing need for intellectual engagement. I headed to the second bookstore.

On the way home one of those industrial-sized lawn-care vendors cut us off on the highway. Lawn-care is big business around here. It’s all about appearances. What has happened to the life of the mind? Allow me my curmudgeonly years—I recall walking downtown as a child and seeing the office supply store with actual paper, smoke-shops with their abundant magazines and wire spinner racks full of questionable paperbacks, and even the Christian bookstore with its tracts and Bibles. I didn’t have the benefit of living in a university town, but people I saw were talking to one another. Exchanging ideas with someone actually present. Self-consciously I look down. I’ve had these cargo pants for many years. This shirt I’m wearing I purchased in Wisconsin in another decade. Even these shoes haven’t been replaced after all these miles. This hat on my head is almost older than my college-graduate child. I can’t be bothered with my appearance right now, though, because there’s another bookstore just ahead.

Eclipse 2017

It’s the day after the eclipse. Perhaps it’s because of the internet, but the excitement about this somewhat common event reached a fever pitch. Maybe it was because we all wanted something other than Donald Trump to talk about. Maybe it was because we hoped that the eclipse might have brought about some profound change. In the days before science was a thing, eclipses were divine events. The sky doesn’t darken at noon. It is an uncanny, an eerie thing. The last eclipse—alas, only partial—that I experienced was at Nashotah House. My wife was still a student in Illinois at the time, and without her to remind me, I went about my classes as usual. When I stepped outside the eclipse was already in progress. Nashotah’s quite rural, but the birds and insects were silent. The light was weird. The shadows of the leaves were scooped crescents on the ground. I could understand why pre-scientific people trembled.

These days we know there’s nothing more to life than scientific formulas and a bit of sloppy chemistry. So why do we bother getting bothered about eclipses? The fact is they remain religious in our minds. This is nature acting in a way not normal. Apocalypses generally include the sky growing dark. One of the plagues of Egypt was darkness. In the ancient mind the sun did not so much cause light (the moon could give light too) but it lived in the realm of light. If something blocked the sun that was one thing. If something invaded the realm of light, that was another. An eclipse was such an invasion. Even as monotheism began to take hold, people thought of the sun as a deity. It, after all, directs our lives.

In New York City I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went to street level with a couple of colleagues about 10 minutes before maximum coverage (about 71%) began. Knots of people stood on the corners on the eastern side of Madison Avenue—those who build skyscrapers don’t think of eclipse viewing on the streets below. What struck me most, however, was a kind of peace and awe. Strangers sharing various viewing devices with each other and looking up expectantly. Clouds had begun to move in, and I found myself talking to complete strangers, sharing out the eclipse-viewing glasses my wife had given me. We were participating in a moment of transcendence. Such moments are rare today. No, an eclipse is more than simply the moon moving in front of the sun. It is a human event as well. And one which, in the absence of the sun, brings out the best in us.

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.