Monthly Archives: December 2017

Wise Women

At a neighborhood holiday gathering the topic of a local living nativity came up. This year they need some wise men (don’t we all!) and some of the women mentioned that wise men should have beards. As the wearer of an old growth facial forest, I became the subject of a couple of queries—could you be a wise man? I replied that I wasn’t smart enough, but in the back of my mind I was attending the last church nativity play I’d been in. It was at the Church of the Advent, Boston’s high Episcopal establishment. I was cast as a centurion and was directed to deliver my lines woodenly. Being who I am, I did as I was told. I was invited to the cast party on Beacon Hill anyway. It was one of my few brushes with society folk in Boston.

Like many boys raised in church, I’d been cast in such plays before. One of three boys each born just one year apart, I was assigned the role of wise man along with my brothers. Far too young to grow a beard, I wore a costume made by my mother and carried a jar from a science experiment as a gift for baby Jesus. Being poor, we had no gold—or even frankincense or myrrh—lying around. In school we’d done this science project where a solution grew crystals up the inside of an ordinary coffee jar and out over the top. Stain it with food coloring and you have a gift fit for a king. So the illusion went.

The Christmas we celebrate today isn’t based too much on fact, but it is a prime occasion for plays. It’s a dramatic story, although the New Testament has to be bent and twisted to make it all fit into the comprehensive narrative of proselytizing playwrights. The king nobody recognizes being born in a barn. The creator of the universe being rejected by the very world for which he (the baby was always a boy) was responsible. The story is as timeless as Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and it’s enacted thousands of times each year in churches large and small across the country. Is there any reason that, as long as we’re straying into realms of imagination, the wise visitors shouldn’t be female? The ability to grow facial hair has little to do with any kind of intelligence. In fact, we’d be much better off right now with a woman in charge.

Inventing Christmas

While not always classified among the most intellectual of writers, Charles Dickens was a complicated man. Able to conjure words that reflect emotions, often making readers laugh and cry, he was the undisputed bestselling author of his day. This holiday season the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas explores one of the probable reasons for Dickens’ celebrity—the resuscitory success of his first holiday novel, A Christmas Carol. The film was based on a non-fiction work by the same title, written by Les Standiford, subtitled How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. As an author who found early fame, it might seem counterintuitive to those of us who’ve never found any that Dickens’ career would need rescuing. In the publishing world, fame has to be sustained since few books keep on selling and selling. And Dickens didn’t always help himself.

Dickens’ choice of Christmas as a theme was, obviously, driven by his own warmth regarding the season. As Standiford makes clear, however, it was also driven by money. Like many in today’s world, Dickens had established his comfort at pecuniary liability—he lived on credit. He also supported other family members and although he cared for the poor he often resented those who cost him money through irresponsibility. Christmas was a time when, he hoped, people might be encouraged to give. Some of that money, naturally, would go toward the purchase of his book. Although the story was secular, it gained the approbation of many in the church—it encourages thinking of others and being generous. Complicated.

As we get closer to Christmas this year, it seems that Dickens’ message bears loud and constant repeating. Here in the States, our government has taken on a decidedly Scrooge-like cast when it comes to the poor and unfortunate. Indeed, “bah, humbug” might well be the new motto of the Grand Old Party. Shown evidence of the guilt of the miser in chief they only claim that those who discover such truth are lovers of false truth, such as claiming that the poor really suffer with want. They close ranks to ensure that the downtrodden can never vote them out of power and claim that Bob Cratchit’s problem is that he’s lazy and Tiny Tim is a burden on the misunderstood wealthy who only ever wanted to help others. A huge difference is that Dickens knew his novel was fiction. This holiday season the ghosts visiting us will be the emaciated spirits of democracy past, present, and future, and that of human decency.

In Control

Those who know me know that I treat my workdays like clockwork. I leave the apartment every day, catch the same bus, and leave work at the end of the day, all according to schedule. Traffic is a variable, of course. Yesterday as I came out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7:15, blunted with my reading on the bus, I noted we were a bit late for my liking. I got to work before 7:30, though, and was interrupted by a message from my brother, asking if I had made it out of the Port Authority okay. I was a bit confused—weather delays do happen, but what could have made today any different than any other Monday? It was then I learned about the bombing. It happened five minutes after I left.

Now, I’m not trying to over-dramatize this. I was above ground and the bomber was below. I didn’t even hear it go off, although there were a lot of sirens on my way to work. The only serious injury was to the bomber himself. What really got to me, when the idea had time to settle in, was how close I’d been. So were thousands of others at the time. Over the summer I went to Penn Station just after what had been assumed to be a terrorist attack. Jackets and personal effects lay scattered on the floor. People had dropped things and ran. In that case it had been an innocent tazing of an unruly passenger that had set off the panic. I’m not a fan of fear on the commute. I don’t think, however, that we should give in to the rhetoric that our government will surely use to describe all this.

Millions of people live and work in New York City. Such things as these disrupt the flow of our daily lives, but we can’t let the agenda of fear control this narrative. I felt a tinge of it when I headed back to the Port Authority at the end of the day. Police barricades were still up on 8th Avenue. Reporters with cameras were at the scene. A potential killer had been here just hours before. This is New York. Without the overlay of fear, this was simply business as normal. Any city of millions will harbor potential killers. If terror controls the narrative, it has won. If politicians use this fear to win elections, the terrorists win them too. I’m doing what we must do to defeat the fear. I’m just getting back on the bus.

Old Salt

Time has been at a premium lately, but when I have a few spare moments I like to read the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Those of us who make a living with words often find them utterly fascinating. Simon Thomas’ post, “Worth their salt: words and phrases with roots in ‘salt’” brings a number of interesting facts to light. Salt, now on the list of public enemies, is essential to our well-being in small doses. His clever post includes “salt of the earth,” a phrase biblical through-and-through. It reminded me of the fact that the Bible’s become so porous that few people can say what’s actually in it. It’s kind of a big book, and who has the kind of time needed to read it all, let alone remember what it did or didn’t say? Many phrases are attributed to Holy Writ that don’t appear within its covers, while others that do come thence are thought to originate elsewhere. Strange but true.

We may never come to an agreement on what Jesus actually said, but “salt of the earth” is a phrase attributed to him. Indeed, he may have coined the term “saltness,” but I haven’t researched that thoroughly. The idea of essences, I’m told, is outmoded. But the idea is fascinating—what is salt that has no taste? Would it work to clear our roadways in winter time? There’s a layer of salt on my car already, and it only just snowed for the first time this year. We all know what salt is, what it tastes like—but what is its essence? (If such things exist?)

Thomas notes that Roman soldiers were paid it salt. I wonder if this was behind a phrase my step-father used to use about work. Although he and I did not get along, now that he’s gone I come back to the hidden bits of wisdom he sometimes shared. He worked very long hours, and seemed happiest when he was doing so. Early in the morning he’d limp through the house and say, “Time to get back to the salt mine.” He wasn’t a literal miner, although we lived in coal country. Salt could mean food, and the salt mine was where you worked to provide food for your family. I may not have gotten along with my step-father, but he worked hard to support a family with three kids not his own. He may have been bitter about that, but today anyone who stays with a family in hard times is considered salt of the earth. And that’s biblical.

The Art of Commuting

You can tell when the holiday season settles on the city. The commute home takes longer because developers simply can’t ignore a highway and the potential it has for shipping in the lucre. Highway 22 is built up in several spots—it’s kind of like a 20-mile long roadside mall between where the bus enters it and my exit. Holiday shoppers right after work clog this artery faster than fried eggs for breakfast every day. We crawl, penitent, wanting only to reach home. You get to know the regulars on the bus. You may not know their names, but their faces and personalities become clear enough. The man sitting across the row from me was someone I couldn’t recall having seen before. Lots of people, of course, go into New York occasionally. A stranger on the bus isn’t exactly rare.

Near my stop I slip into the empty seat next to the aisle to get ready to disembark. He looks over at me and asks if he can give me a bookmark he’s made. Worse than talking to strangers is taking candy from one. He encourages me by telling me he does it to promote his work, since he writes haikus and does paintings. I accept one and learn of the website unfoldingmind.com. He then asks what I’ve been reading. If you read my posts in order, you can see my last book was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. There’s a reason I don’t tell my fellow passengers about my literary choices. I say it is a book about an exorcism and he takes it in stride, asking if it was an actual case.

I had my own unfolding moment then. Not only was it the case that I could mention exorcism in casual conversation, but a man considerably younger than me knew what it was. Stop and think about that: prior to the movie and novel, The Exorcist, very few modern people even knew about the rite. Strangers on a bus, both artists in their own way, I like to think, knew what this was. I look at my bookmark, some original art with a haiku on it, and think of the many interesting people that make this bus their temporary domicile. Occasionally, amid the snoring phone-movie watchers, is another passenger using the long ride home to open his or her mind. The bookmark is now amid the artifacts of my personal museum. And my words, hardly poetry, are a tribute to those who practice the arts that make us human.

Ravages and Kings

I was recently thinking about King Saul. If it’s been a while for you, Saul was the “first king” of Israel, according to the books of Samuel. Saul had a problem. That problem’s name was David. David was younger, more popular, a gifted musician and lady’s man. In sudden fits of rage Saul tried to kill David, more than once. An unstable man was in charge, but claiming God’s sanction he was safe from any kind of impeachment. In the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be king.” So Israel limped along under weak leadership until Saul got himself killed in battle. I couldn’t help think that this story shows just how relevant the Bible remains today. Mad kings are difficult to displace. They have their fans and, to quote Alfred, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

David’s reign was no picnic either. He had his Bathsheba affair, and was constantly making war as well as love. He pretended to be insane to save himself from Saul, but he was loved by Yahweh and thrived. Oh, and he wrote the book of Psalms. It’s a bit of a shock when this much feted king gives Solomon, his son, his last words. Instead of some pious sentiments or perhaps a last-minute poem, his final instructions are a hit list. “I promised not to kill Shimei, but you made no such promise.” Wink, nod. And Solomon reigned, bragging of groping a thousand women. One of the one percent, he was fabulously wealthy and ultimately couldn’t hold his kingdom together. And none of this is even prophecy!

Why do we put up with mad kings? The world is full of good, and able people. They have a very difficult time getting elected in a democracy. They had trouble even when it was a monarchy. Yes, power corrupts. We know that. Those who are truly mad, however, learn to live by gaming the system. Lies are alternative facts and truth is fake news. Other elected officials, apparently incapable of reading the newspapers, follow the leader. Like lemmings, they ignore the cliff just ahead. Ironically the Bible has a role to play in all this madness. In fact, many people seem to think Israel had a cozy little history. They’re the ones who’ve never read the Good Book. Even during the golden reign of David there were schisms and political murders. All you need to do, however, is say God told you to, and even a madman can become a saint.

Anneliese or Emily?

If it weren’t for the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the name of Anneliese Michel would undoubtedly be less recognized than it is. Probably the first exorcism movie since The Exorcist to move the genre in a new direction, Emily Rose was based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel. There were significant differences between film and reality, however. Michel was from Bavaria, and she died at the age of 23 rather than being an American teenager like Emily. The story caught media attention because it was discovered that Michel had died after an extensive, months-long exorcism. Charges were made and the priests and Anneliese’s parents were found guilty of negligent homicide. The movie plays the whole thing out in the courtroom with flashbacks of the possession.

The book which led to the film was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D. Goodman. Goodman, who died in 2005, was a rare academic who wasn’t afraid to address the supernatural. Trained as a linguist, she had years of anthropological fieldwork experience and a medical background. She was also not dismissive of religious experiences. Naturally, this makes her suspect among academics, but her treatment of Michel’s case is both sympathetic and masterful. After narrating events pieced together from court records, diaries, tapes of the exorcism, and information supplied by some of those involved, she offers her own hypothesis of what actually happened. Anneliese Michel was a religious girl caught up in a religious altered state of consciousness that was treated scientifically by drugs. The result was fatal.

Throughout history, and even today, shamanistic persons exist. Whereas in tribal cultures they tend to become prominent, in the “developed world” they are often quite hidden. They experience what Goodman calls religious states of altered consciousness, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as requiring chemical healing. There have been many thoroughly documented cases where such individuals do “impossible” things. The rationalistic world has no place for them, however, for like capitalism, materialism takes no prisoners. Religion is part of who we are. Human beings do have spiritual needs. Such needs can be placated by other means at times, and we can continue to believe that everything in this universe is made of atoms, or super-strings, or quarks. Or we can perhaps admit that theres’s much we do not know. Goodman admits that her solution is an educated guess, but it does put all the pieces together rather nicely. And she doesn’t declare unilaterally whether demons are physical or not. In the case of Anneliese Michel, however, they were undeniably real.