Monthly Archives: February 2018

Medical Missionary

So it was this routine medical screening. The scary-looking machine had an open window that said “Laser aperture: do not stare at beam.” Someone had taped a Yankees emblem on the superstructure as well, and I wondered if that caused anybody additional anxiety. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but medical tests bother me a lot. I was glad to get outside, even if it was cold and icy. There’s quite a few medical facilities in our town, so I had walked to this one. On the way home, watching out for ice on the sidewalk, I passed a bus stop. A woman said “Excuse me, but could you spare a dollar or two?” I’d just come from a medical office, I was wearing sweatpants (which I never do unless I’m jogging) and I had no pockets. “Sorry,” I said, “I just came from the doctor, I don’t have anything on me.”

“I’m a missionary,” she said. Without giving me a chance to get away in the chilly air she began to preach a sermon just for me. It was after morning rush hour and nobody else was around. I wondered when her bus would come. I nodded politely and agreed, and took two steps away. Still she continued. After a few minutes I wondered how long this would go on. I’d already told her I agreed with her. She was insistent that Jesus would give me anything I wanted if I confessed my sins every day. “Money, cars, houses…” I had to wonder why she was taking the bus, then. Besides, all I wanted was to get home, and she was preventing that from happening.

Finally I had to turn and leave her mid-homily. I try never to be rude to religious folks. They’re only doing what they’ve been told to do by others. I did wonder what it was about my appearance that didn’t make her believe me. It had been a while since I’d had a haircut. Was it the beard? The sweatpants? The fact I was wearing a black jacket? Ice was everywhere on the sidewalk. This neighborhood is middle aged—sagging a little, with drainage issues. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but sometimes being accosted by religion when you just want to get indoors on a winter’s day, you think even a begging missionary might understand that. I thought back to the scary machine with its little warning sign. Some people are tempted to stare too long into the light. It can affect the way you see. Indeed, if you let your gaze linger, you might just possibly even go blind.

Image credit: Torsten Henning, Wikimedia Commons

Down the Road

First of all, thank you to my regular readers. I’ve been making daily posts on this blog since July 2009—nearly nine years of illustrated commentary. It seems, however, that I’ve reached my limit. My storage limit, that is, on Word Press. As a result I’m going to be upgrading my account. Now, I’m enough of a Luddite to be uncertain of how this might impact any auto-updates (I flatter myself to think there are some) or links to this blog. I’m planning on continuing Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, but it will be but one page on a website that will offer the opportunity for me to go into more detail about my books. I don’t know how it will look yet, but it shouldn’t be disappearing from cyberspace.

Timing, as they say, is everything. It’s never been my strong suit, however. My current book still has no final title, so it’s a little difficult to promote it properly. Oh, it’s finished, and in the hands of the publishers, and although I can give it its own page, I can’t really title it yet. Perhaps in the height of hubris, the new layout will have pages for my previous two books, A Reassessment of Asherah and Weathering the Psalms. These were both academic titles with very limited sales, but they represent a significant portion of my life and I’d rather not have them completely forgotten. My latest book is for a more popular readership, but I don’t have the platform to interest agents (not for lack of trying), so I’m incorporating it into a website that will allow for its self-serving promotion. So embarrassing. You can imagine how red my face must be.

By the way, there’s another book about half-written. (Actually, there are several, but this one looks like it might actually appear.) A new series has been announced—I’ll write about it once I learn if my proposal has been accepted—that follows my own aesthetic closely. In conversation with the series editors, I’ve put together a proposed book based on my current work. If it happens, a new page will pop up on this future website I’m envisioning. Since I’m no Luddite, I can see possibilities for these pages. The blog will continue with its daily babbling. I’ve been doing this so long I wouldn’t know any other way to start my day. Combined with the hubris of those who spend too much time in supernatural headspace, this could be interesting. If you’re search brings you to what looks like the wrong page, please persist. Sects and Violence will be only a click away.

Panthers and Prophets

Prophetic is a word I seldom use for movies. Prophetic, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy was about establishing rightness on the earth. Dress it up with God or dress it down to a girl being shot for wanting an education, prophecy is a necessary ingredient in being human. Black Panther is a prophetic movie. I don’t keep up with comic books, and many regions of the Marvel Universe are unexplored by me. I have no idea if the comics bear the strong message of social justice that this film does, but I left the theater blown away. If those who have the power could only be interested in good rather than personal gain, what a world we could have.

The message of not making race, but humanity, central is one that we have yet to learn. It is so basic, so simple that a child understands it. Somehow world leaders don’t. Any secret advantage is kept in order to make things better for ourselves. To make us feel more secure. To put us in the place of making decisions for others. In Black Panther even the enemy isn’t evil. Humanity is it’s own enemy. We sometimes forget that we have it within our ability to make life fair and equitable. We can share what we have and end jealousy. The Gospel of Adam Smith, however, has supplanted that of Jesus Christ. Just ask the one-percent. The one percent who haven’t most assuredly seen this movie.

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into that theater, but it was nothing short of an epiphany. As it has been from ancient times, one can always tell when they’ve been in the company of a prophet. We’ve come to dislike prophets because they make us uncomfortable. They possess something we can’t have. Integrity. The dignity of the conviction of what anyone can see is rightness. Such things can’t simply be taken, crammed onto a boat, and sold. Prophets bear the burden of speaking the truth. Black Panther may be unlike most prophets in that it is reaching a huge audience. And rightfully so. It is the antidote to the poison that’s surging through the veins of this country for far too long. Even those who will dismiss it simply as another fantasy—it’s a superhero movie—need to see this vision of what a world can be. It’s not very often that a prophetic movie appears, but the days of prophecy, it seems, aren’t over yet.

Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

Who’s Hungry?

I flatter myself to think that some people enjoy my daily musings, although they’re sometimes grim. Religion often is. One curious example of this is the “Hell-Mouth.” Some time back a friend sent me a link to a British Library blog post “Highway to Hell.” The story is about illustrated medieval manuscripts depicting the Hell-Mouth—a monster with wide, gaping jaws and a gob crammed full of human souls bound for eternal torment. Not a pretty picture. The BL post reasonably suggests that the image originates in early Anglo-Saxon literature. We know the Teutonic penchant for the gothic, so all is fine and good. In fact, however, the image is far older than that.

In sorely neglected and almost forgotten Ugarit there is a fascinating mythological text. Known to ancient northwest semitic nerds as KTU 1.23, the text is strange even by Canaanite standards. El, the chief god whose name translates as, well, “god,” seduces two young goddesses (presumably). The young ladies give birth to monsters—devourers with one lip reaching to the heavens and the other to the underworld. Every living thing is swept in. What is this if not a Hell-Mouth? Indeed, if I might indulge in my past passion for Ras Shamra just a touch more, the deity Mot (whose name translates to “Death”) is portrayed with an equally voracious appetite. Everything gets gobbled up, even Baal.

These lurid images of all-consuming mouths, however, aren’t direct ancestors to the Hell-Mouth. Although some of the ideas from Ugarit survived in the culture that would eventually emerge as the Israelites, the city itself was destroyed for the last time before Moses picked up his chisel. The people of Ugarit were long gone before he licked his thumb and applied his quill-pen to Genesis. Ideas, however, may be the closest to eternity that humans can come. The Bible doesn’t describe any Hell-Mouths as such, but Revelation can come close. Ras Shamra was only rediscovered in the 1920s, so no Anglo-Saxon had access to its vivid images of the Hell-Mouth that existed even before Hell itself became a thing. Humans are endlessly inventive. Ideas go underground for centuries at a time only to reemerge when the moment’s propitious. The Middle Ages with their Black Deaths and highly stratified society and burgeoning witch hunts and inquisitions were such a time. Looking over the current landscape I have to wonder if the recent revival of the Hell-Mouth might not have something to do with the time in which it has gained renewed interest as well. Some appetites will never be satisfied.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

Just As I Was

It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.

It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.