Monthly Archives: July 2018

Written Resistance

Power isn’t what you think it is.  That’s something autocrats never really learn.  Tod Davies explores this tale of our times in Report to Megalopolis, the fourth book of the History of Arcadia series.  The world is taken over by a single-minded dictator who discovers power isn’t what it seems to be.  Assuming power will bring fulfillment, the antagonist gets what he wants, but he doesn’t know what he wants.  (Like a certain rich fool whose name we can’t help but hear daily.)  Wanting for wanting’s sake, and refusing to be denied.  In that sense it’s a simple tale, but as with all of Davies’ stories, it’s more complex than it seems.  The message of resistance comes through loud and clear.

Laying out the groundwork for the tale, she describes, among other things, the religion of Arcadia.  Writers unafraid of reality will note that people have religious beliefs, no matter whether the narrator—or author—shares them.  Worlds without religion are fantasy worlds, or those of cyborgs; they’re difficult to accept.  To be human is to believe.  Not just that, however, but to believe in something more than one’s own wants.  There’s a basic morality to it.  And Report to Megalopolis is a kind of morality play in that it has a lesson that should be learned.  For those who won’t or can’t read, having the humility to admit your own insecurity might well save the world from nuclear holocaust.  If, like Pavo Vale, the antagonist, you insist that your own desire is entitlement, then the only option for all others is to resist.

Back when the harsh reality of Trump’s lackluster “win” became clear, among the artistic community there was discussion of how, from now on, creative expressions of the truth would take on a new urgency.  Songwriters, poets, painters, and novelists have been able to see what the feeble eyes of the GOP cannot—we are in trouble.  Deep trouble.  Elected leaders, caring more about their own wants than the wishes of those who elected them, power ahead to destroy the democracy that gave them power.  As Davies suggests, they have mistaken power for right.  We reach the end of Report to Megalopolis not knowing the end of the story.  We know that things are bad and they have the potential to tip either way.  We, the readers have a choice to make—remain silent and allow all that our founders worked to achieve pass away, or, as even as the cover states directly, resist.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

Religion in the City

It’s 5 a.m., so what are all these people doing here?  On the highway.  It’s still dark and I’m on my way to the choice of public transit that will take me to New York City.  You see, telecommuting is never 100% city-free.  Somehow I’d been thinking that once we’d gotten away from New York things would be quieter.  Then I remembered that in two decades, if current trends and models continue, nearly half of the US population will live in just eight states.  New York and Pennsylvania are two of them.  Those of us who’ve moved here to get out of the rat race have made our own little mouse race, I guess.

Being in the city after an absence of almost three weeks was a shock to the system.  The first things I noticed were how loud and crowded it was.  In the summer Manhattan has, I was forcefully reminded, lots more tourists than the winter months when it feels like, as one comrade says, Leningrad.  As always when I’m in the masses on the streets, I think about how religious New York City is.  And how secular.  It is, I suspect, a cross-section of American (and international) beliefs.  People come here looking for something transcendent.  Otherwise, why leave home?  Tourism can be a sacred industry.  It brings people from different places together and, in the best of circumstances, forces them to get along with one another.

There are plenty who seek to convert those who are different.  On my way to Penn Station last night, as the light was beginning to fade in Herald Square, I woman had set up a portable mic and speakers.  She was preaching, ignored, to the evening crowds.  Among the strangers are those who believe differently.  Those who are ripe for conversion.  It’s all part of New York’s background hymn.  Then on the sidewalk I spied, scrawled in chalk, “Repent and obey Jesus — Heb 5:9;” the writing on the walk.  “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” the selected verse reads.  We can overlook that it says nothing about repenting.  This is, after all, the melting pot where religions encounter, mingle, and blend.  Even the Fundamentalists must feel it from time to time.  The traffic home at 10:30 p.m. is quieter.  The day, I will learn, is not over yet.  Such is religion in the city.

Fair Weather

“I just saw God up on your ridge.”  (Kudos to anyone who can name the source of that quote!)  Many years ago I read Stewart Guthrie’s remarkable Faces in the Clouds.  The idea that he presents is that pareidolia—seeing faces or people where they don’t actually exist—may account for the belief in God.  Early people, not knowing any way to interpret such obvious examples of humans writ everywhere thought they were gods or spirits.  Since reading this book, I’ve taken to trying to capture incidents of pareidolia where I can.  The other day as I was working away in my home office, I noticed a literal face in the clouds.  I thought “I just saw God outside my window.”

Now I know this isn’t really what I saw.  I know matrixing (mistaking noise for signal) when I experience it.  I hope.  Nevertheless, the resemblance was detailed—brow ridge, nose, distinct lips, chin.  The lighting in the fair weather cumulus will likely make this difficult for you to make out, and you might see a face other than the one I saw.  Not everyone thinks of the Almighty in the same way.  Looking at the picture I snapped I can see at least two faces stacked on top of one another—the council of the gods?  Who am I to tell deities what they can or can’t do?   Or to prevent imagination from going where it will?  Religion seems to be an evolved characteristic of our biological makeup—our eyes show us what to believe about the world around us.  The rest is hermeneutics.

Gods and the skies naturally go together.  We can’t reach the heavens nor can we control them.  We can increase greenhouse gases in them, though, threatening the very illusion we see in the clouds.  The glimpse of the divine we once saw there can easily dissolve into acid rain.  Heaven and Hell, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus, aren’t very far apart.  Even as we gaze into the cerulean sky seeking serenity, others are bending laws to allow them to destroy it for profit.  There’s a reason Dives is simply called “the rich man.”  Does Scripture defend the practice of environmental destruction?  Dives’ friends claim the planet was given to us to use and use up and Jesus will swoop out of those clouds we’re manipulating at the last minute and rescue us from the mess we’ve made.  Looking into God’s face in the clouds, I interpret this all as a mere excuse.  To destroy the environment is to side with Dives as he makes his flaming bed of nails in Hell. This is why windows in an office are divine.

Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.

Not Quite Eschatology

Realized eschatology, if you’ll pardon my French, is a term that describes the “already/not yet” aspect of the “end of the world.”  In other words, some theologians suggest that the eschaton—the end—has elements of both the present and the future in it.  The term came back to me yesterday as we returned to our old apartment to take care of things the movers left behind.  (And “left behind,” I realize, isn’t really a biblical eschatological concept at all.)  Joined by our daughter, I felt a bit resentful of her time being taken from our new home to spend in the old.  I felt an almost adulterous desire to leave the old and cleave to the new—hadn’t we already paid, and overpaid, for that apartment many times over?  The house, on the other hand, is new (to us) and still requires much attention.

As we organized the remaining items, broke down boxes we didn’t use this time around, and waited for the Got Junk guys to arrive and haul it away, I noticed our daughter gazing wistfully at the empty space that had once had our imprint all over it.  It dawned on me that she’d spent her teenage years here—after the Nashotah House debacle, this was the place she’d lived the longest.  This empty apartment was, for her, home.  I began to feel insensitive about my earlier anxiety to leave.  We all live between at least two worlds—our pasts make us who we are in the present.  The world of our teenage years is fraught with emotion and memory.  The world looked so different at that time, as I sometimes forget.

Moving is one of the most stressful situations human beings encounter.  We have a love/hate relationship with our past.  To me the apartment represented a place we occupied out of a kind of desperation.  Five states to the west, we had to move to New Jersey with little money and tons of boxes—one of them Pandora’s, with hope nestled inside.  We told ourselves the apartment was temporary—maybe a year—only until we could buy a house.  Twelve months turned into a decade, then more, with each year accreting memories in every crack and corner.  Part of us will always be in that apartment, for every place people have lived before is haunted.  On our way back to our new home at the end of the day, we were each lost in our thoughts.  Perhaps not so much realized eschatology as experienced reality, we’d spent a day in a present that will never fully arrive.