Fictional Truth

In honor of Banned Book Week I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Funny and poignant, it tells the story of Arnold Spirit Junior, a Spokane tribe boy on the reservation.  Born with a disability, he nevertheless overcomes adversity to become both a good student and excellent basketball player.  I suppose you’d classify this as young adult literature since the protagonist is a teen and many of the issues are those of kids in that age group.  Although it’s funny, and the illustrations underscore this, there’s a realism that account for various people wishing to ban it.  First of all, it reminds readers that white men put Indians on reservations and, despite our national guilt about this, we still refuse to do anything to try to lift them out of poverty.  And, like most boys his age, Junior likes to talk about sex once in a while.

Fiction can be the most nonfictional form of writing.  Junior describes the realities of reservation life.  Alcoholism, poverty, and violence are part of his everyday experience.  He attends far more funerals than his white counterparts.  This particular point gave me pause.  A New York Times article that appeared pointed out, statistically, that American Indians had much higher death rates from Covid than many other demographics.  It was like the genocidal introduction of European diseases during the “age of discovery.”  I suppose people would’ve grown curious and explored their world, regardless of the distorted Christian belief that they were to take it over.  At least we could’ve treated those we met with respect, as equals.

I think about the missionary mandate quite a lot.  Based on an undying literalism, it became an excuse for behaviors explicitly condemned by Scripture itself.  There’s a real danger when conviction comes with guns.  At least modern-day missionaries try to help those they’re attempting to convert with hospitals and medical care.  Still, that doesn’t help the American Indians.  They still struggle and our policies still ignore their problems.  Their plight stands in the way of capitalistic exploitation.  And when an Indian writes a fun book, honest about the experience of his people white critics begin to raise their voices to ban it.  How do we think the situation of the Indians will ever improve if we refuse to listen?  And what better time to get people to listen but when they’re young enough not to have been corrupted by our system of entrenched unfair treatment?


First Choice

One of the first things I do when I finish a book, unless I know about the author already, is ecosia (google) her or him.  I want to know who it is that wrote this, and the internet’s right there!  So it came as a surprise to see my first (two-star) review for Nightmares with the Bible on Amazon, where the reviewer did no follow-up.  The reviewer is quite upset that I don’t take the Bible literally, but at least s/he bothered to leave a review.  A more positive rating might bring me up to three stars, but I’ve failed classes before.  I’m a big boy, I can handle it.  In any case, if you ecosia me you’ll quickly come upon this humble website that’ll tell you what you need to know.  No, I am no longer a Fundamentalist.  And the book was about demons in movies.  (I was actually searching for reviews of the series.)

I scrolled down.  The named reviews solicited for the book I knew, so I was surprised, and delighted, that further down the page I had a Choice review.  Even a disgruntled evangelical couldn’t bring me down after that!  In case you’re not a librarian, or an academic publisher, Choice is THE periodical librarians use for deciding on which books to buy.  It is very difficult to get a review in it—I work at a prestige publisher and seldom see our books in there.  If you’re a trade author that’s not so important, but if the only sales, or majority of sales, are for libraries, to get a “recommended” status is a big deal.  That’s worth celebrating.

If you’re wondering, authors do not get notified of reviews.  Some editors will let them know (my editor at McFarland hasn’t been in touch for years).  The journals are too busy doing what journals do to send every author a copy of their review.  So I swung by Amazon’s Holy Horror page.  I’ve got four ratings there now, mostly on the lower end of the scale.  If you’ve read it and liked it (not something I assume, of course) a nice review would go a long way.  Disgruntled evangelicals (aren’t they all, these days?) may make the books look bad, but colleagues who’ve read them seem to think differently.  I hold to the publishing adage that there’s no such thing as a bad review, but good reviews feel so pleasant.  I’ve only written one negative book review in my life, and that was because I felt any other would be utterly dishonest in that particular case.  It’s a choice I make because of the Bible: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”


The Truth, for Free

The Book of Common Prayer, reaching back to my Anglican days, is and always has been in the public domain.  Although the poetic language and culturally relevant phrases could by charged for use, they’re not.  The idea seems right-headed to me.  Although the Church of England, like many other religious bodies, has its own specific theology and approach to things, which it believes is right, as opposed to all other belief systems, it shows its conviction in making its sacred text free.  Copyright exists to protect intellectual property.  If an individual or an institution, or a company, creates something, copyright assures them that nobody else can monetize it without the creator’s permission, and often such permission involves a royalty.  The C of E has foregone that.  Print away!

I tarried many years among the Episcopalians before it became clear to me that I wasn’t exactly the kind of saint they were looking for.  I’ve had to move on, but I very deeply appreciate the integrity of an institution that says, “I made this, but you can have it.  I really believe in it.”  If you’ve decided to print and sell religious books, however, beware the Bible.  Most of the common translations in circulation (apart from the good old King James) are covered by copyright.  Unlike the Church of England, the bodies that sponsor Bible translations expect to be paid for the use of said translation.  This is, in part, a business decision.  They have valuable property—for many the keys of salvation itself—and if you want it you should be willing to pay for it.

This contrast has often struck me as very odd.  How capitalist religion has become!  In what do Bible translating bodies really believe?  Believe me, I know that any large publishing effort requires a lot of work.  Resources.  Still, those who do the translating generally have church or university jobs.  They’ve already got a steady stream of income, no?  And yet they will expect to be paid their billed hours for bringing the truth to the world.  I’m not a good investment thinker.  Money doesn’t really motivate me.  This is one of the reasons I have tried several times to find acceptance as a clergy person.  My values seem out of sync with the rest of the world.  I even bothered to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written, the better to read, mark, and inwardly digest them.  Still, I wonder if those who truly believe would not feel more authentic giving away all they have in order to attain the kingdom of Heaven.


Gorilla Thinking

We don’t understand consciousness, but we want to keep it all to ourselves.  That’s the human way.  Or at least the biblically defined human way.  Animals, however, delight in defying our expectations because they too share in consciousness.  Take gorillas, for example.  Or maybe start with cats and work our way up to gorillas.  We all know that cats “meow.”  Many of us don’t realize that this sound is generally reserved for getting human attention.  Cats tend not to meow to get each others’ attention.  According to Science Alert, gorillas in captivity have come up with a unique vocalization to get zookeepers’ attention.  Not exactly a word, more like a sneeze-cough, this sound is used by gorillas at multiple zoos for getting human attention.  Even if the gorillas have never met in person.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

This is a pretty remarkable demonstration of consciousness.  What’s more, it’s an example of shared consciousness.  The same vocalization shared over hundreds of miles without a chance to tell each other about it.  We’re very protective of consciousness.  As a species we like to think that consciousness is uniquely human and that it’s limited to our brains.  Moments of shared consciousness we chalk up to coincidence or laugh off as “ESP.”  Funny things happen, however, when you start to keep track of how often such things occur.  It might make more sense to attribute this to moments of shared consciousness.  In our materialist paradigm, however, that’s not possible so we just shake our heads and claim it’s “one of those things.”

Animals share in consciousness.  We don’t always know what their experience of it is—indeed, we have no way to test it—but it’s clear they think.  I live in a town, so my experience of observing wild animals is limited to birds, squirrels, and rabbits, for the most part.  I often see deer while jogging, and the occasional fox or coyote, but not long enough to watch them interact much.  But interact they do.  Constantly.  These are not automatons going through the motions—they are thinking creatures who have sophisticated ways of communicating with each other.  Ours includes vocalization, so far uniquely so in the form of spoken language.  The great apes—chimpanzees and orangutans, according to Tessa Koumoundouros—also vocalize and do so with humans.  Now we know that gorillas do too.  And we all know that a barking dog is trying to tell us something.  If we took consciousness seriously, and were willing to share it a bit more, we might learn a thing or two.


The Roll of Churches

I really don’t have time to follow any social media religiously, generally glancing at a page and perhaps scrolling down an inch or two when I have a moment.  I tend to glance at headlines, often pre-selected for me by a non-human intelligence, I expect.  Nextdoor dot com occasionally has a story that looks important to read, because it’s local.  Recently a poster from Bethlehem noted meeting a homeless person and was asking virtual neighbors where to turn for help (for the homeless person).  The answers weren’t surprising but reminded me of something I recently heard elsewhere—this is where churches still have a chance to shine.  While I’m tired of all the doctrinal and theological nonsense that arises from those who didn’t pay close enough attention in seminary, I do lament the plight of our churches.

Society has been too Republican for too long to care for those who can’t make it in an uber-capitalist environment.  Those with mental illnesses turned out when Reagan-era “reforms” “improved” our system for handling them.  Those who, through no fault of their own, can’t hold down a job.  Those who just happened to end up on the wrong side of a wave and find that a new wave breaks over them before they can properly take a fresh breath.  As the most affluent nation in the world, each homeless person is a reminder of the terrible price we pay for living within a system that rewards greed far above anything else.  Churches do have their problems—I’ve experienced many of them firsthand—but they often feel an obligation to take care of the sick, the homeless, the elderly.  Those not of value to a capitalist system because they don’t “contribute.”

When I commuted to Manhattan my bus arrived early.  I often saw the many homeless sleeping on the street as I made my way across Midtown.  Many days I wished I had an extra peanut butter sandwich with me so that I could give them something.  Anything.  Churches that aren’t caught up bickering about whose genitals belong where, or whether females are equal to males, often turn their sights to those who need help.  These churches are supported by the donations of members (for which said members can claim a tax break).  These are members who care for those they’ve never met, simply because they are human and in need.  Churches themselves are now facing difficult times and, unless they support Republican causes, can be assured they won’t receive a government bail out.  Compassion may be a dying species.


Burdens

Listening is very important.  Sometimes there’s nothing really to say but “I hear you.”  This kept occurring to me during All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake.  Tiya Miles is a history professor, and she helpfully includes an afterword telling how she came upon the topic for this book.  Ashley’s sack is just that, a sack.  On it, the owner, a female descendent of enslaved African-Americans, stitched a short inscription about the history of the sack, how her grandmother had given it to her mother when the latter was a child under ten, sold away from her mother in South Carolina.  This isn’t an easy book to read.  I have difficulty being faced with what “religious” “white” folks did to Blacks and justified themselves that people can be bought and sold.  Listen, I told myself, just listen.

Those who would deny that any of this ever happened need to learn to listen.  In order to capitalize on the resources this country offered, our ancestors engaged in morally reprehensible acts.  And the cruelty didn’t end with the shipping and the selling.  The treatment of unfree Black people itself was a crime, and their white captors knew full well what they were doing.  Preventing their slaves from having nice things while they themselves lived in luxury.  Beating, raping, and murdering when they didn’t get their way.  Selling their own offspring born of slaves to make a profit.  All the while claiming to be good Christians.  It’s often this part that I have trouble understanding.  Even a literalistic reading gives no license for treating other human beings this way.  Only money does that.

The style of history in this book isn’t that to which many of us are accustomed.  At the point of raising mental critiques I repeated, “You must learn to listen.”  Those who have made the rules showed themselves to be corrupt, and they must be willing to consider alternative ways of telling a story.  Miles makes the point that the history of unfree Blacks was largely erased, leaving the possibilities for histories and heritages slim; if the regular rules are themselves oppressive then it may be time to listen to those of others.  It seems impossible in the age of the world-wide web and all that it implies that we live on a planet where people repeatedly deny their sins while clutching their Bibles in their fists.  We need to learn to listen.


Beyond Natural

I’ve read quite a few books about the supernatural.  Often these books, which are mostly written by scientists, tend to show the problems with supernatural thinking.  Clay Routledge, it seems to me, has a healthier approach.  Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World isn’t an apology for the supernatural.  In fact, Routledge is a psychological scientist.  An open-minded one.  The book isn’t an apology, but it does show how natural supernatural thinking is.  This engagingly written study isn’t always easy to read—you have to be prepared to think about death a lot.  But also meaning.  Routledge makes a good case that the human search for meaning is related to our awareness of our own mortality.  We know we’ll die, and we don’t want to believe our existence has been for naught.  That doesn’t make all of us religious, but it does, perhaps, open us to the supernatural.

One of the main takeaways for me is that people misunderstand the power of religious motivation.  Especially in the context of our current political climate.  Many people can’t believe that supreme court justices would decide against laws that slow global warming.  Survey after survey, however, indicates that strong belief in religion means having little or no concern about the world ending.  In fact, for many it is a culmination devoutly to be attained.  You don’t need surveys to learn this.  You just need to talk to Fundamentalists.  I grew up believing this world was a sinful, corrupt place soon to be destroyed.  Further reflection on religion convinced me that this view was wrong, but I certainly understand it.  Too often those trying to find solutions to such problems simply dismiss religion as a motivating factor.  That’s a fatal error.

This is an insightful book.  Although based on science it is neutral toward religion.  Or I should say, the supernatural.  Routledge demonstrates that even scientists, when tested in controlled circumstances, subscribe to some supernatural beliefs.  They may be more abstract, such as the idea that things happen for a reason, or that we’ve been put here for a purpose (the teleological argument), but they are nevertheless present.  To be human is to be a meaning-seeking creature.  We may not be the only ones.  Whether or not that’s the case, our drive for making sense of all this tends to move us toward the supernatural.  Routledge ends with a plea for us to listen to one another.  Pay attention, and care for, those who believe differently.  We have a lot more in common than we have views that separate us.


Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel isn’t exactly a household name.  I never heard of him until a visit to Ephrata Cloister during a Lancaster staycation.  My wife knew about the Ephrata Cloister due to a music course she took at the University of Michigan; he was influential in developing a distinctive musical style.  Since we were in the area we stopped in for the tour.  Beissel was banished from what would become Germany in the early eighteenth century.  He made his way to America where he established a kind of monastery in south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.  Not Catholic, he was inspired by German Pietists, the Anabaptists, and Christian Mysticism.  Not ordained, he established what became a Seventh-Day Baptist association because whenever he tried to settle as a hermit others came to him.

Celibacy has always been a hard sell for religions.  Once his Camp for the Solitary was established, it grew to about 300 members, with only some 80 celibates, or solitaries.  This 80 was half men and half women.  They built around 40 buildings in what was then the frontier and they couldn’t have survived without the 120 or so married people who joined the church but continued to live at home with their families.  Like many separatist groups, the Seventh-Day Baptists were expecting Jesus’ return at any day and lived their lives accordingly.  Not strict about others joining him in this, Beissel was an early vegetarian, eventually becoming primarily a vegan (although that name wouldn’t develop for a couple centuries).  They had midnight worship services since they believed Jesus would return in the middle of the night.  They were, with the supportive families, self-sufficient.  The group established a printing press, and at one time it was possibly the largest printing operation in the colonies.

After Beissel died, the community continued.  They realized that, like all celibate communities, it would be difficult to survive and the celibacy rule was dropped.  The last celibate member died in 1813.  The community by then had taken on the form of an independent church and it survived until the 1930s.  The remaining land—some of it had been sold off over the years as the community shrank—was bought in the early forties to be preserved by the state.  Theirs was never a very large group, but it was significant enough that their memory was felt to be important enough to preserve.  Beissel wasn’t alone in establishing such sects here in Pennsylvania.  The tradition is, interestingly, part of the American heritage and demonstrates how the religious, ordained or not, live in their own worlds.


Having X

The final girl is such a classic horror trope that even horror novels can be titled after it.  You know the drill—teens hanging out, doing things that teens do, end up being killed off one-by-one by a monster or a disturbed person(s).  The one to survive is the virginal girl who doesn’t drink, use drugs, or whatever.  As a long-term horror watcher, I think the trope has been exaggerated, but it does occur enough times that there was clearly something to be noticed.  Enter X.  Released earlier this year, a slasher that rather obviously juxtaposes religion and horror, X features a “final girl” who is anything but virginal and sober.  The religion aspect is blatant from the beginning when the opening sequence involves a televangelist preaching to a viewership of the dead.

The title derives from the premise (which is a throw-back to the classic slasher era) that a would-be independent movie producer wants to shoot a pornographic movie.  Since this is strictly low-budget, he contacts an elderly gentleman on a remote Texas ranch who has a guest house.  With his one male and two female stars, a cameraman/director, and an assistant he drives to the isolated location.  They are all divided into couples, with each of the women having sex with the male star.  What makes this creepy from the beginning is that the old man, and his elderly wife, create a sinister presence.  She sneaks up on the young people, watching them through the window.  She misses her younger days when she was young and attractive.  As night falls the young people are killed off by the older couple one at a time.  What’s more, they’ve done this before.

X is a reflection on aging.  More than that, it’s a reflection on how religion leads to horror.  To say precisely how would involve giving away a spoiler, so I’ll leave the reader to watch the film to find out.  Suffice it to say, the televangelist is preaching about how sex leads to evil and the older couple kills because they’ve been listening to him preach.  X is not for the faint of heart.  I generally don’t like jump-startles and there were a couple of those that caught me off-guard.  (I try to anticipate them when watching slashers, or any horror, for that matter.)  But what of the final girl?  There is one, but it’s one who flies in the face of horror convention, if there is such a thing.  


Carter’s Creations

Angela Carter was a novelist whose best known work is her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber.  Often acclaimed as both gothic and feminist, these repurposed folktales and fairytales leave the reader in a thoughtful state.  I have to admit to having not known of Carter or her work until quite recently.  I’d seen a biography about her, but there are so many writers and my time seems always so limited.  Then I saw The Bloody Chamber mentioned on a list of best gothic fiction.  I had to find out what this was all about.  The stories are indeed unlike much of the feminist literature of the seventies.  The stories are focused on women, often young, and how they deal with being treated as the property of men.

The first, and lengthiest story, “The Bloody Chamber,” is a retelling of Bluebeard from the point of view of his last wife.  It’s an extended reflection on feeling owned and boxed in—literally trapped—by men’s economic rules of property.  Carter keeps readers on edge, even if they know the base story.  This isn’t a simple retelling.  Nor is it a lament about the natural, biological unfairness of sexuality.  There’s an ambivalence here, an enjoyment tinged with melancholy that gives the story a gothic sensibility.  The women in the different stories here prefigure more recent Disney heroines that take charge of their circumstances.  And there’s also ambivalence about the setting of the stories.  There are contemporary appurtenances but still castles and baronial mansions.  You’re lost in time.

The collection has some stories, such as beauty and the beast, retold twice and ends with three versions of werewolf stories that play, to an extent, on little red riding hood.  Some were tales with which I had no familiarity.  The effect of the whole is thoughtful contemplation of the human condition.  Much of the world, it seems, has been unduly influenced by a kind of literalism—a story, whether biblical or traditional, is supposed to go like this—that has not only robbed great texts of their depth, but has entrapped human beings in a stone-chiseled certainty.  A self-righteousness, if you will.  Even writing a text in stone doesn’t prevent others from interpreting it, however.  Since none of us have all the answers, we are each interpreters.  There was no historical Bluebeard.  There have, unfortunately, been many men who embody his attitude towards women.  Carter’s genius is to remind us that every story has at least two sides.  And the woman’s side may well be the truer of the two.


July Forth

Independence Day.  What does it mean in a nation on the verge of a fascist takeover?  Supreme Court justices, themselves appointed by crooked but technically legal politics, have just struck down the independence of half the people in this country.  Independence Day for whom?  Originally a celebration of freedom from monarchy, one of our political parties has opted for authoritarianism—the objection to which was the very reason the Revolutionary War was fought.  The colonists wanted religious freedom, but now we find religiously motivated politics driving the bus off the cliff.  If you’re not a white evangelical these rulings are not for you.  Your religious freedom has been compromised by politics.  So we gather in grassy places to watch fireworks.    We celebrate the independence of the wealthy.  Those who can break the law and buy the results they want with lawyers without scruples.

I think of Independence Day from the perspective of our Black siblings.  Freedom to be shot for a traffic stop or to be publicly strangled to death for petty crime.  To be redlined and kept in poverty.  Independence from literal chains only to be shackled in bureaucratic ones.  Being sentenced to prison for things a white can easily afford to pay off.  Independence Day in a nation with over 40 million people in poverty and where just three white men own more than the bottom fifty percent of Americans.  Give them fireworks and firearms and let the bottom half work it out for themselves.  When is the last time a Supreme Court justice had to worry about having enough for both rent and food?  Freedom, those on the top tell us, is not free.  Watch the pretty lights.  Hear the loud booms.

What of American Indians, still awaiting freedom?  What is Independence Day to them?  Kept out of sight and in poverty, we don’t want to be reminded.  No, we only want freedom to get more for the white man.  As a child in the sixties I had some hope that we might be making progress.  Freedom and protest were in the air.  There was at least hope for some justice.  The privileged white leaders now give us a day off work.  The wealth can still flow upward, even if we take a brief hiatus from labor.  Women, Blacks, the poor, American Indians, and many others who make America what it is are nevertheless denied basic freedoms.  This loss of independence at least comes with a light show.  Just watch it and be grateful.


Stand with Women

We like to think we’re the most advanced civilization in the world, but we allow the appointment of “justices” who still believe women are inferior to men.  Millions of women who’d been born into the modern world yesterday found themselves thrust back into medievalist thinking that now seems to reign in the Supreme Court.  Even Donald Trump, who is responsible, has expressed his doubts.  When will we acknowledge that women should have the same rights as men?  How long do we have to continue this inane struggle against religious amateurs who believe their reading of Scripture is the only correct one?  I was raised by a woman on her own.  Uneducated, with no practical job skills, she remained religious and very capably reared three sons.  She was far more capable than my father.

Democracy can be gamed, of course.  And the “angry white man” has become America’s new face to the world.  The petulant, selfish male who thinks everyone else is getting the benefits.  Even as Catholic-majority nations are declaring women’s rights, America is stepping backward in the Human Rights Index because certain senators refused to allow voting on legitimate candidates for the supreme court.  How they can go home and face their wives I do not know.  Of course, our laws do not apply to our lawmakers.  As revelations continually show, theirs is a world of “do as I say, not as I do.”  Is it so difficult to say it out loud?  Women are fully human and have an inherent claim to the same rights as men.  But then again, when have those blinded by religion ever seen clearly?

America, do you enjoy seeing your rights stripped away?  Do you enjoy justices who one day decide it’s our right to carry weapons in public and then next to say that women must remain home barefoot and pregnant?  Is this the mentality that now rules the gamed “supreme” court?  I’d like to exegete that word supreme and ask our “justices” just how deeply they’ve studied religion.  And that doesn’t mean just praying over your Bible.  The most difficult courses in the religion-philosophy curriculum are those dealing with ethics.  Days spent wrestling with the subtleties of how reason, law, and religion interact and teasing them apart to look at each with real understanding.  Or do we just vote along party lines like any beast in the herd?  It’s a shock to have been born in the sixties only to now find yourself living in the fifties with all their inherent hypocrisy.  I stand with women, not amateur theology masquerading as justice.


Following Instinct

An article from the Christian Science Monitor a few years back made me think how common knowledge runs ahead of science, but without the rigorous evidence.  The article is “Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists.”  Of course they do.  The ravens, that is.  So do many other animals.  It’s pretty obvious when watching them interact on a daily basis.  We’ve over-flogged the idea of “instinct,” using it as a way of preserving the biblically-inspired idea that people are separate from animals.  We can be an arrogant species.  We say we get to determine when other species are intelligent or not.  When they do something smart we say, “That’s just instinct.”  Is it?  How do we know that?  And isn’t “instinct” one of the greatest fudge factors ever invented?

We do not know what consciousness is.  We claim it for ourselves and a few of our favorite animals only.  The ravens in the article show by their behavior that they know, or assume they know, what others are thinking.  I’m always struck how experiments set up to measure this assume a human frame of reference.  Paint a spot on an animal and place it in front of a mirror.  If it shows curiosity about the spot it has a self-awareness, a theory of mind.  Maybe other species aren’t as concerned about zits as we are.  Maybe they consider it vain to fawn over themselves.  Maybe they use sight in coordination with scent and hearing to identify themselves.  No matter what, at the end of the day we must say how our intelligence is superior.  (Then we go and elect Trump.)

Need I say more?

Scientists have to be skeptical—that is their job.  Looking for evidence and coming up with hypotheses and theories and whatnot.  That’s how the scientific method works.  The scientific method, however, isn’t the only way of knowing things.  We learn and animals learn.  We like to think our “theory of mind” makes us unique, but watching how animals interact with each other, even when they don’t know someone else is watching them, shows more sophistication than we normally allow.  Nobody has to be convinced that the corvids are intelligent birds.  Their lives are different from the nervous little finches and wrens, however.  Does that mean wrens and finches have less developed minds?  I think not.  Until we learn how to think like animals we have no business claiming that they have no theory of mind.  Maybe if we could define consciousness we might have a claim.  Right now, though, all we have are instincts to go on.


Heat Wave

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future wasn’t my favorite book read the first half of this year, but reading the headlines about India’s heatwave took me back to it.  That’s precisely the way the book starts out—with an intense, deadly heat wave in India.  As a nation lacking infrastructure in relation to the size of its population, and lying near the equator, India is particularly vulnerable to global warming.  We all are.  As the planet heats up and weather becomes more erratic and extreme, food shortages will appear.  At the moment we’re concerned because Covid and Putin-War have driven inflation to incredible highs.  A trip to the grocery store or gas station is like a horror film.  Meanwhile the planet’s heating up and Republicans are pushing for four more years of Trump environmental degradation.  Can we please open a window here?

Global warming has been challenged by many because of their religious conviction that the world ought to end.  Apocalypse is probably the Bible’s most dangerous teaching.  Speaking only for myself, I didn’t know there was an Indian heatwave until headlines took a break from Putin-War and America’s mass shooting crisis.  And oh, India’s sweltering under temperatures over 110 degrees.  People are dying.  Birds are falling from the sky in mid-flight.  We had a couple days in the 90s around here before the end of May.  Those were some uncomfortable times.  Meanwhile in India it was twenty degrees hotter.

The human ability to ignore life-threatening problems we create for ourselves in service of our theology is remarkable.  Even as experts declare religion is no longer important, it’s slowing killing us.  We focus our resources on making money, as if money will do us any good when we’re the lobsters in the pot.  As a species we’re amazingly capable.  Billionaires can afford their own private spaceships—something most nations in the world can’t spare cash to buy—and we have proven ourselves endlessly inventive.  When it comes to the basics—the need to believe, for instance—we turn a blind eye and pretend it’ll just go away.  Religion scorned is a very dangerous thing.  I once heard a talk by a scientist presenting a rosy technological future.  I raised my hand and asked about religious objections and he mused, “I hadn’t even thought about religion.”  His future was progressive and optimistic.  Robinson’s is quite a bit less so, although it ends by suggesting we might manage to pull through, with only millions of deaths.  As Donovan says, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”


Capital Idea?

One of the most difficult parables in the New Testament is the one where Jesus praises the fraudster (in Luke 16).  In case you’re a little rusty it goes like this: a steward of the king learned he was losing his job.  Knowing his employment prospects were like those of a mid-career religion professor, he called in his masters’ debtors and slashed the amounts they owed so that they’d think kindly of him.  When the king finds out, instead of growing more angry, he praises the steward for his shrewdness.  The parable seems to not condemn deceit and his left both scholars and laity scratching their heads ever since.  I’ve never, in my long church going career, heard a sermon extolling fraud.  The good book can be tricky some times.

The parable came to mind because I’ve been the victim of the fraudulent use of one of my few credit cards.  I only have two.  One of the reasons for this is that it’s difficult to keep track of everything as it is.  Life is busy.  I have most of my bills set to autopay so that I don’t forget to do it when an email reminder comes.  I don’t remember the last time I used actual money.  Writing a check is a rarity.  How my credit card was hacked I don’t know.  I didn’t notice right away because the charges were always small and spaced out.  I caught on when I hadn’t been using the card in that lull after Christmas and the exact same amount was charged two months in a row.  I called the company and they confirmed that similar small charges had been going on since December.

Now I picture in my head a scene where the criminal is caught and in court they use the Bible in their defense.  I’m sure it wouldn’t happen that way, but it’s an interesting idea.  Who’s going to argue against the Bible?  Heck, most courts can’t get those who know Trump’s many crimes to get their cases ever heard!  What do we do when the Bible distorts the moral narrative?  The fraudster, after all, is breaking at least one of the ten commandments.  Of course, those are negotiable these days.  The right wing’s endorsement of violence to maintain power shows that.  So it seems a prudent time to consider the parable of the fraudster.  We might still have something to learn from the Good Book after all.