Category Archives: Art

Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

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.

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.

Spiritual Education

The water was hot. Notoriously hot. Our Junior High School had been built in the days of the prison esthetic, with heavy, cinderblock walls painted in penitent colors. And the water was famously hot. One of our gym teachers, nameless here forevermore, challenged us to be men. It takes a kind of courage mostly illegal these days to lecture a room full of naked boys, but he once came in during mandatory shower time to tell us that anyone who could hold their hand under the hot tap for a full minute would get an A in gym. Since he was an ex-Marine nobody was foolish enough to take him up on this challenge. At least not in my class. It’s difficult to be courageous when you’re unclothed.

The incident I recall, however, occurred at the opposite end of the spectrum, in art class. You may remember those days when you wove reed baskets to take home to your mom. The thing about reeds is that they’re brittle unless soaked in hot water. That was the key to working with them. Make them supple with hot water and then when they dried, they’d be remarkably sturdy, if somewhat lopsided. We had been weaving reed baskets when someone, unbeknownst to the teacher, had filled the sink with water as hot as our old school could deliver. Thinking it funny, since even in those days educational budgets were under threat, somebody dropped one of the very limited number of heavy reed-cutters into the sink, now at the very bottom of a basin of very hot water. I was not the guilty party; I don’t know who was. The drain was plugged from the bottom. Very funny, no?

At the end of class. the teacher was not amused. “No one leaves this room until that cutter is out of the water,” she flatly said. The first bell rang. She stood in front of the door. We would be late for the next period. Perhaps it is the weakness of character my religion instilled in me, but I’ve always had a great fear of not doing what I was told. It lingers to this day, that Fundamental unworthiness. This body of mere flesh is weak and prone to sinfulness. The clock was ticking. Teacher wanted the guilty party to suffer the price of their prank. I pulled up my sleeve, plunged my hand into the scalding water, pulled out the reed-cutter, slapped it on the counter, and walked out the door. We were released to class and the searing pain didn’t last long physically, but spiritually it has never gone away.

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.

Sweet Tooth

I don’t have a sweet tooth. I count that as a personal flaw, but the fact is I don’t seek out sugary snacks. Still, who doesn’t enjoy a nice chocolate once in a while? My wife and I attended a local chocolate tasting event recently. This was a new experience for me. Being of working class vintage, I tend to look at comestibles in a purely pragmatic way—food is for eating. It shouldn’t taste too bad, and ideally it should be healthy. Between meals I seldom think about eating unless the time stretches too long and hunger kicks in. I’ve read a couple books about chocolate, however, and I was curious what I might learn.

Apart from learning the disturbing fact that much American chocolate isn’t really technically chocolate, it was an enjoyable evening. The proprietors of Carol’s Creative Chocolatez know their stuff. The event began with a history of cacao beans. Native to the Americas in the equatorial regions, it was only after Columbus’s fourth voyage that Europeans discovered chocolate. Indigenous peoples used cacao beans as currency, and chocolate was the food of the gods. Its technical name, Theobroma, means just that. When Columbus appeared, a white man with European garb, and horses (as well as exotic diseases), he was ironically thought to be the returning god of chocolate. Instead, he took the previously unknown delicacy to Europe where various means of preparing it began. Eventually we ended up with the sweet, sugary variety that is considered standard today.

Theobroma plants contain a compound that creates feelings of euphoria. Chocolate, in other words, rewards you for eating it. It’s easy to see why indigenous peoples assigned chocolate its own deity. It’s also perhaps not surprising that what was mistaken for a god became a deadly plague. While Europeans were mostly interested in gold during the early period of exploration, they eventually realized that exotic foods and spices could be almost as good as gold. Chocolate, the food of the gods, could be mass produced and degraded and sold as an addictive treat to children. Such we do with our divinities. If only obesity were the same as obeisance! Instead, we are presented with a treat that tastes good and makes us feel happy. Like most gifts of the gods, it’s best enjoyed in small quantities. Even a little gold will go a long way. And after this evening, I think theology may help to explain the fascination with Theobroma.