Monthly Archives: December 2017

Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.

Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.

Unidentified Angelic Phenomena

Few topics have to be approached as gently as space aliens. Those who’ve seen UFOs are subject to an immediate ridicule response partly generated by the belief that galactic neighbors, if any, are simply too far away to get here. So when the Washington Post runs not one, but two stories in the same week about the subject of UFOs, without a hint of snark, it’s newsworthy. I’m in no position to analyze the journalistic findings, but I do consider the idea that other species might be more advanced than we are not at all unlikely. Look at what’s going on in Washington DC and dare to differ about that. Human beings, now that we’ve rid ourselves of deities, have the tendency to think we’re the hottest stuff in the universe.

I’ve admitted to being a childhood fan of science fiction. Space stories were always among my favorites in that genre. When I learned in physics class that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible, I was sorely disappointed. I also learned about the posited particles known as tachyons that do travel at such speeds. This to me seemed a contradiction. Or at least short-sighted. If our primitive physics suggests that some things can travel faster than light, why limit our ET visitors to our technological limitations? This wasn’t naivety, it seemed to me, but an honest admission that we Homo sapiens don’t know as much as we think we do. The universe, I’m told, is very, very old. Our species has been on this planet for less than half-a-million years. And we only discovered the windshield wiper in 1903.

Around about the holiday season people’s thoughts turn to heavenly visitors. What would the Christmas story be without angels? (For the record, some evangelical groups have historically claimed UFOs were indeed angels, while others have called them demons.) The idea was championed by Erich von Däniken, if I recall correctly from my childhood reading. Where angels might come from in a post-Copernican universe is a bit of a mystery. As is how they’d fly. Those wings aren’t enough to bear a hominid frame aloft, otherwise we’d see flying folks everywhere, without a two-hour wait at the airport. Then again, belief in angels almost certainly will lead to ridicule among the cognoscente of physicalism. The presents have been unwrapped, and angels have been forgotten for another year. And who could know better what’s possible in this infinite yet expanding universe than “man the wise,” Homo sapiens?

Honest Doubt

Kurt Vonnegut was never required reading in my high school English classes. I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was in seminary, and picked up a few of his other titles in the dearly departed Boston Book Annex. A couple of these used books have been waiting patiently over the decades, and so I selected Cat’s Cradle to be perhaps the last book I finish this year. As far as I can recollect, the Vonnegut books I purchased while in seminary had no particular order or reason. A friend had recommended The Sirens of Titan, but Cat’s Cradle was what would now be called an “impulse buy.” Reading it, I rediscovered why I like Vonnegut so much. I also found out the book revolves around religion.

Regular readers know that I tend to find religious themes in secular books. It’s partially human radar and partially an unfortunate occupational hazard. Occasionally I’m pretty certain the author had no intention of including or developing the themes I discover. Cat’s Cradle, however, places religion front and center. The story involves a journalist on the trail of one of the developers of the atomic bomb. He unintentionally coverts to Bokononism, a religion made up by a castaway on the island of San Lorenzo. The religion, based on the teachings of a still-living sage, revolves around the idea that all its sacred writings are lies. Think about that a moment.

Lies, in which we’ve all had a crash course since January, are among the most insidious of human accomplishments. We value and crave the truth. We all believe that we believe it, but there are differing opinions as to what it is. Some opinions are backed with evidence, and others with flimsy fabrications. To declare a religion based on lies is, of course, to undermine the whole enterprise. Vonnegut was a noted iconoclast, but there’s a brilliance in declaring a religion to be knowingly based on falsehood. In fact, we’re seeing it happen before our very eyes. The religion formerly known as Christianity, once upon a time, took into account the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the gospels. Modern Christianity—Evangelicalism—has completely thrown Jesus out of the equation in all but name. Branding, after all, is everything. This modern faux religion suggests hating your fellow creature, taking advantage of the poor, and believing falsehoods to be the most sincere of truths. It’s alive and released on the earth even now. And it is far more scary than even ice-nine.

Investment Advice

One of the more obvious transitions to adulthood involves Christmas becoming less of a holiday for receiving gifts. As we get older we learn that very few things in life are actually free, and that gifts often have some kinds of obligations involved. My favorite gifts have always been books and movies. Each comes with a required investment of time. That doesn’t mean I’m not grateful, or that I don’t want these things—quite the opposite! It simply means that time is required to enjoy them. Or benefit from them. In the workaday world, time is the rarest gift of all. The gifts I received fell mostly into these genres, so I’ll be sharing a number of these books and movies with you over the next few months.

A knowing relative gave me a refrigerator magnet. Our fridge is covered in these, mostly from places we’ve visited. We do have one of the more colorful iceboxes around. This magnet is red and reads “Make America Read Again.” If anything can combat the evil spewing from our nation’s capital, reading can. Those who’ve decided that rhetoric from documented lying lips is more Christian than compassion for the poor need to learn to read again. The election of Trump has ushered in an era of attempted murder of the truth. The tactic of calling any news you don’t like “fake news” so that your own distorted version of reality rules is among the most dangerous in the toolbox of autocracy. Sacrificing truth on the altar of expediency seems like a very strange means of promoting the evangelical message, at least in my opinion. If people would read, they’d know when they were being lied to.

Reading forces you to confront the mind of another. This exercise is unique among human beings, as far as we know. It’s a kind of telepathy, involving the considered contents of another person’s thoughts coming directly to you. Lying is a possibility, of course. Even liars write books. The more widely you read, however, the greater likelihood of discovering the truth. Reading requires investment. It takes time and mental energy. Other activities must be laid aside. The potential benefits, however, are beyond measure. If we could make America read again, the results would be the greatest gift anyone could hope to find under any tree. It’s time to begin reading through the books that made their way to me this holiday season. This is a gift whose costs I gladly accept. It’s an investment in the future. Even Christmas trees require daily watering.

All Is Bright

As a Christmas present to myself I finished my third book yesterday. I’ll be posting details once the title is finalized. And “third” is only an approximation. I wrote another non-fiction book before this one which I decided not to send to publishers. That “fourth” book joins the six completed but unpublished novels resting on my hard-drive. Writing, for some of us, is a way of life. Not a way to make a living, mind you, but a way of life nevertheless. Literacy is a gift too often taken for granted. It’s easy to forget that the rapid scientific and technological progress that we’ve made has only come about since the invention of the now nearly defunct printing press with moveable type.

Among the first books printed was the Gutenberg Bible. This was a book of progress, as difficult to believe as that may be. You see, the Bible wasn’t always a means to enslave. It was once a tool of liberation. As I try to steer my thoughts from politicization this holy day, I can nevertheless not neglect to reflect on how Holy Writ has been weaponized. We’re warned to keep Christ in Christmas although we know the story isn’t history. Scripture becomes a blunt object of superiority and supersessionism. We sometimes forget that sacred time is a gift, no matter what anyone believes. Literature has built this world for us—some sacred, some secular. Our proper response ought to be celebration.

I now awake on Christmas morning—from long habit—at a time I would’ve thought a boon as a child. In the pre-dawn stillness of 4:00 a.m., sleeping in for me, I think about the great gift of quiet time. This is my writing time. Book three is done, and books four and five are already in the works. For those of us who write as readily as we respirate, this morning stillness is a gift. Time to compose, arrange thoughts that will only be scattered in the coming busyness of the day. The means are quite different than those employed by Johannes Gutenberg, and the results will be read by far fewer people. None of that really matters, however. Today is a holy day because it involves writing. Angels, shepherds, and wise men may come later with the stories we tell of how this day began, but remember they are stories. And no gift should be taken for granted. Not even the unbroken silence of 4:00 a.m.