Not the Band

One of my favorite weekend treats involves black-eyed peas.  With a father from South Carolina, some of my earliest memories involve soul food.  As a present-day vegan, I eat a lot of beans.  That’s why I was disappointed to learn that Goya’s CEO, Robert Unanue, continues to be a big Trump supporter.  Shame on you, Goya!  Lest you get the wrong idea, we generally buy the store brand beans.  Of all the legumes, however, it seems the humble black-eyed pea is difficult to get right.  The generic brands always end up with the bottom part of the can being a kind of beige sludge where the beans have broken down and lost, as it were, their individuality.  The dish I make (one of my own invention, also featuring grits and hot sauce) requires that the beans maintain their integrity—take note, Goya!  Said brand seems to be the one that understands this aspect of canning beans.

For many years I avoided Bush beans for fear that they might be enriching the other *ahem* Bushes.  Right now, however, I’d rather have W run for a third term than the specter of Goya-supported Trump.  When did legumes become politicized?  Why can’t I sit down to a peaceful Saturday morning breakfast without a hideous four-year nightmare coming to mind?  The perils of being vegan!  In any case, I recently tried Bush black-eyed peas.  They weren’t as good as Goya, but I think I need to make the switch.  I’ve never had my somewhat simple culinary tastes disrupted by a president before.  Generic would be fine, but why, o why can’t they get the black-eyed pea right?

Image credit: Jud McCranie, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps somewhat oddly, I really like beans.  There are about 400 varieties and each has its own personality from sassy edamame to staid kidney beans.  I’ve even reconciled myself to the childhood nightmare of the lima bean (alien, without a hint of lime).  Now, I’m no foodie.  I eat to live rather than the other way around.  Whatever I do, however, I search my conscience.  Raised evangelical I know no way around it.  My conscience is the main reason for becoming vegan—I can’t support animal cruelty, especially for an industry that is the largest environmental polluter in the world.  So when I’m standing in front of the bean shelf, thinking ahead to Saturday’s breakfast, I’m struck with qualms.  I stare at the black-eyed peas and they stare back at me.  It’s a kind of test of the wills.  I see the Goya and decide to try something better for the world.  


J-Horror

J-Horror better move over.  There’s a new kid on the block.

For many years those of us strange fans of horror have used “J-Horror” as shorthand for Japanese Horror.  With two highly successful films (eventually series) of the mid-nineties (Ju-On and Ringu) the Japanese contribution stormed back into American consciousness.  Those of us who grew up on Godzilla knew that J-Horror had been around for decades already, but these new movies were distinctly creepy.  So much so that English-language versions were remade for both original films (The Grudge and The Ring, respectively—rather like Let the Right One In and Let Me In).  So far, so good.  So why does J-Horror need to move over?

At least three separate friends have pointed me to another emerging J-Horror trend: Jewish horror movies.  These used to be rare.  With cases of early antisemitic themes in horror, and the real life horror of the Holocaust, this is certainly understandable.  “Christian” producers or directors delving into Jewish themes would seem to be in bad taste.  Still, some notable Jewish-themed horror has begun to emerge.  (I addressed one such film in my recent Horror Homeroom piece.)  The Possession (discussed in both of my most recent books) centers around the need for a Jewish exorcist in the case of a dybbuk problem.  For more information, you know where to look!  It seemed to me that the dybbuk box contents were reminiscent of the Holocaust, but that may not have been intentional.

I recently wrote a post about The Golem.  This is a recent Israeli movie that builds on the traditional Jewish monster.  Although set before the Holocaust, the fact that there’s a pogrom in the film shows that the concept is not far off.  The movie that people have recently been pointing me toward is The Vigil.  I’ve not had an opportunity to see it yet, but the press it’s received suggests it too will be another classic based on lived experience in Judaism.  I’m not sure if Jewish horror will eventually rival the numbers of Japanese horror films, but the offerings thus far have been noteworthy.  Horror often addresses the problem of human suffering.  With all the oppressions in “white” society, it’s no wonder that, along with Black horror, Jewish horror is beginning to garner attention.  Although it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste, horror is often a genre with a conscience.  It becomes a screen on which we can see our worst behaviors projected.  And if we’re wise, we’ll take steps to make such suffering become merely an unfortunate memory.


Tomorrow’s Brainchild

The voice of one person is very small.  Even a guy like Donald Trump wouldn’t be the terrible threat to this nation that he is if nobody would pass on the nonsense he says.  I often think of this because internet personalities are always have to remind their fans to share their posts.  It’s a simple thing—click “share” and more people find out about something.  What if that something were free?  Isn’t something free worth sharing?  So tomorrow I’ll be participating in Virtual Voices Author Fair: A Day of Nonfiction Books, a small Zoom conference from one to five, to talk about Holy Horror.  Various readers over the years have asked if they can get a discounted copy—like most conferences this one will have a discount associated with it.  Stop by if you have the chance!

The variety of the books being discussed is pretty wide.  Topics will cover many of the areas for which the publisher McFarland is known: television, film, music, politics, the outdoors, and more.  A schedule may be found here.  For those of us who have been (or the lucky who still are) academics, the conference is a sacred cow that has largely been sacrificed to the pandemic.  Getting together with others to discuss ideas is important—the funny thing about ideas is that they often arise from talking with others.  For three years, for instance, the American Academy of Religion offered a session on monsters and monster theory.  That would never have happened if I hadn’t had a discussion with a friend and colleague who shared that interest.  If it’d been only me, it never would’ve transpired.  Sharing is important.

One of the things about generations is that mine (no longer the younger one), is still trying to wrap its collective head around this internet thing.  Now we feel like a bunch of avatars with no onboarding.  We don’t think in terms of clicking a share button.  We still feel like browsing is an individual thing.  They young people I know tend to think of the internet as a place for community.  It’s easier to find like-minded people there.  Unlike school (and often work) where you’re thrown together with people who may or may not share your interests, the web offers places where you can find others who share your interest.  If you’re interested in the kinds of things that you’ll find in the media, and if you have a few minutes tomorrow afternoon, feel free to stop by the Virtual Voices Author Fair.  If you land on their Facebook page, it’d be great if you’d click the share button.


Looking Up

A few days ago—maybe weeks—I posted on discovering David J. Halperin’s website.  His book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, had been on my reading list since it came out.  Like Diana Pasulka and Jeffrey Kripal, Halperin is a religion scholar exploring UFOs.  “In its essence,” he writes, “the UFO is a religious phenomenon.”  I would tend to agree although Halperin holds a somewhat different interpretation than many ufologists do.  Noting the deep, Jungian connections with such archetypes as quaternaries, and the profound experiences of death and sex, Halperin builds a case for UFOs as a modern myth.  Myth in the sense that we religion scholars use it, that is.  Myth is not a falsehood, but its exact opposite.  Myth is truth expressed in ways that aren’t, and can’t be, literal.

Using this impressive interpretive matrix he considers some of the classic—and a few novel—cases such as the Socorro, New Mexico case and Roswell.  He traces the phenomenon to its modern beginnings in 1947, but interestingly for a biblical scholar, considers seriously what Ezekiel might have seen.  Here the quaternaries come in quite helpful.  He spends considerable time on the abduction phenomenon, exploring what needs such stories might meet.  Many of them involve individuals in unusual social circumstances and that adds credence to his interpretative model.  He also considers the adjunct Men in Black.  I had been unaware of the Shaver Mystery until reading this book.  He ends by considering John Lennon’s famous New York UFO sighting.

Halperin offers a non-dismissive paradigm that allows for a high degree of rationalism.  Since I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that the paranormal is kin to religious studies, I’m always glad to see some validation of this when someone publishes a successful book on the subject.  Outrè topics, if they’re to be considered at all, fall within the open borders of religious studies.  Ironically perhaps the most human of the humanities, it is a field rife with unusual experiences that sometimes lie beyond the reach of empirical measure.  UFOs represent the problem of occasional phenomena.  You can’t get them into the laboratory and they aren’t repeatable.  How are we to study them?  Since several military organizations, including the US Navy, are now taking the subject seriously, it would seem that academic fields should follow.  Most don’t, or won’t.  Religious studies is braver, it seems to me, than many disciplines.  It takes on the unusual and tries to find respectful ways to understand what it finds.


Weird Dreams

It’s almost like we’re all part of a huge experiment, perhaps orchestrated from outer space, to see how we react to being caged.  The pandemic and its associated lockdowns have held us in place for nearly a year now.  Long enough that I’ve started to dream about it.  For the longest stretch of time my dreams remained in “normal mode.”  That is to say, people talked about the pandemic very little and it was represented only by the occasional dream anxiety that I wasn’t wearing a mask.  I have yet to recall a dream wherein people are wearing masks.  Recently I dreamed that I had to start commuting again, and I climbed on the bus only to remember I’d forgotten my mask at home.  It was like one of those showing up to school without your pants on dreams,  only scarier.

Dreams are an antidote to the sameness of our days, I suppose.  I’ve watched as stable folks I know start to show signs of isolation stress.  I’m sure that I’m showing them too, but the thing is we often don’t see such things in ourselves.  We’re social animals and we’ve been kept in separate cages for a long time now.  I used to go to zoos and feel sorry for the obviously neurotic animals bored out of their skulls, isolated from their species.  Even as we were being told that animals don’t think and don’t have emotions, it was clear that their having interactions with our species was like us having nothing but Zoom meetings to keep us in company.  It’s artificial, but since the zookeepers have us in separate cages we try to act as if it’s normal.

Speaking of neurotic, at least around here since Trump’s been mostly out of the public eye people have begun wearing masks.  Nothing demonstrates that we’re herd animals better than the fact that an obvious charlatan was able to convince millions of people that he doesn’t care only about himself.  Funny how people can be used and not even know it.  We’ve been enjoying national sanity for just over a month now and things seem like the meds may be kicking in.  Vaccine production is booming and, apart from logistic issues, many people are receiving the necessary protection.  It’s always made sense to me that other beings exist in the universe.  I’m not so arrogant as to assume that we’re all that special.  Looking over the past year, it seems as if we may all be guinea pigs after all.


Women’s History

March is Women’s History Month.  My reading of actual history as of late has focused on the ancient Celts, so I confess to falling behind on modern women’s history.  Nevertheless, I came across an often forgotten piece in an unexpected way.  For quite some time I’ve wanted to read some work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is known as a gothic classic.  Since a short story isn’t enough to make up an entire book, publishers have arranged different combinations of her tales into thin books that can be sold as a unit.  I purchased the Dover Thrift Editions’ version of The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.  It was there that I learned Gilman was an early feminist who seems to have become unsung in more recent times.  Her fiction, at least as reflected in this particular edition, demonstrates the truth of the assertion.

Most of the tales in this little book require only a few minutes to read.  Although written around the turn of the nineteenth century, her stories anticipated many modern developments for women.  Her protagonists see the inequalities between the genders and work to overcome them.  They prove themselves successful at business and setting up their own houses.  There’s a gentleness to these stories that suggests quiet confidence may eventually wear down the often inflated male ego.  I found myself captivated even after finishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself.  Gilman isn’t judgmental, but she does note how unfairly the system operates.  She also offers solutions.

In this month of women’s history, it seems appropriate to rediscover one of the female writers who personally worked for women’s rights and expressed herself so fluently in fiction.  Her “If I Were a Man,” although clearly a period piece, takes a woman into her husband’s body.  She walks in his shoes, literally, and sees what “the world of men” is like.  This leads to both understanding and, above all, learning.  This would seem to be the very heart of history.  We read to learn both from what we did correctly to what we did wrong.  We have done so terribly much wrong.  The historical oppression of women is one of the greatest examples of our inability to catch up with our own ideals of justice and fairness.  There were historical reasons for this, yes, but we have moved beyond those times.  If only we’d act like it.  Although my reading doesn’t always keep in sync with the seasons, discovering Charlotte Perkins Gilman at this point in time was somehow more appropriate than anticipated.


Come People and Consider

“Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.  This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.”  So Daniel answered the megalomanic king Nebuchadnezzar, according to chapter 2.  This is some Scripture that CPAC has chosen to ignore, or at least not bothered to read to the end.  In truth I was always bothered when Daniel said “Thou art this head of gold”—which seems to be more brass-kissery, if you get my drift, than prophecy.  But dear CPAC, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar crumbles when the kingdom of God arrives, unable to stand on its feet of clay and iron.

Image in public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I’m not one to tout Daniel as prophecy, but seldom have we seen such things come true so literally.  If we turn to the other testament, in a somewhat politically incorrect aphorism a personage of the gospel of Matthew quoth, “they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  Funnily, those who claim to support a “Christian” America have failed to read even the surface of the Good Book.  Without the Bible what is fundamentalism?  That image in Daniel 2 is considered an idol.  After all, when the Trump of antiquity built a statue all were required to fall down before and worship it.  Those who didn’t were thrown into the fiery furnace.

The Conservative Political Action Conference has sent shivers down the collective spine of our nation.  Even as it was going on I was standing in the rain signing petitions for local Democratic candidates because going inside meant being potentially infected by the Republican disease known as Covid-19.  Apparently half-a-million dead is never enough for those who believe in a social darwinism although they claim to base their lives on the book that says all this took a mere seven days.  Although Daniel gained great fame and wealth by telling the king what he wanted to hear, during a party a few short chapters later he saw a hand writing on the wall.  “And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”  And although given a third of Belshazzar’s kingdom that very night it was all lost to Darius.  “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”


Signal

It’s difficult to tell signal from noise sometimes.  Specialists in such things tell us that it’s easy to mistake noise for signal.  An exception to this seems to be music.  I don’t often write about music for a couple of reasons: one, it’s very personal, and two, I have little formal understanding of it.  Unlike my wife, who can sing well and who can play more instruments than I could ever dream of, I always struggled in music class.  The teachers I had seemed impatient when I couldn’t quite understand what pitch was, or when I had difficulty keeping a beat.  (Part of the problem is that I overthink such things.  I wondered about things like whether a beat represented the beginning, middle, or end of the sound.  Or how, since your voice sounds different in your head than it does on tape, could you tell if you were replicating the pitch of a note.)  I told you it was personal.

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

None of this detracts from my enjoyment of music.  In fact, it means quite a lot to me.  Growing up I tended to consider it in the form of individual songs I liked.  Since we didn’t have much money I didn’t buy a lot of music, but the radio was free.  My choice of which albums to buy—starting in college, really—was based on whether I liked enough songs on them to justify the expenditure on an entire LP.  I already knew that the quality of 45s was inferior and that many albums were united by a theme.  Something I didn’t do was get to know a band by its “sound.”  That only started for me recently.

I still don’t have a lot of money.  I also object to paying money for MP3s that seem to disappear when you change devices and you have to buy them all over again.  Still, I’ve begun to discover some bands by their sound without being able to point to a specific song.  MCR (My Chemical Romance) was one.  The Pixies was another.  And recently Radiohead.  The voices of the lead singers speaks to me of youth and all its angst.  Although these bands all have quite different sounds, I find them mesmerizing if the mood is right.  I tend to discover bands once they’re beyond their peak popularity, but I’m personally pleased that I’m learning, in my own way, to separate signal from noise.  It reaps rich rewards.


Winter Waiting

The waiting, as Tom Petty knew, is the hardest part.  Along the slow turning of the wheel of the year it’s now light enough to go jogging before work.  That won’t last, however, because Daylight Saving Time is imminent and will set us back a month in the illumination department.  Also I haven’t been able to jog because the massive snowstorm we had a couple weeks back dumped over two feet of snow on the jogging trail and it hasn’t melted yet.  I miss it.  The jogging, I mean.  I’ve become one of those people who never the leave the house and I see how difficult it is just waiting.  Waiting for the snow to melt.  Waiting for the vaccine.  Waiting for the light.

I’m no psychologist, but I have to wonder if that isn’t one of the greatest stresses faced by the many stir-crazy people who’ve been shut-ins for pretty much a year now.  For us this snowstorm took away the little mobility we had.  Getting out daily for a constitutional put me in touch with nature, at least.  Now nature is under a thick, crusty white blanket, slumbering away.  But the birds have begun to return.  With their avian wisdom they’ve seen the end of winter.  Suddenly this past Wednesday they were here, bringing hope in their wings.  Birds have long been symbols of freedom—we’ve got a couple bald eagles in the neighborhood, reminding me of that.  A far more ancient association was that between the bird and the human soul.  The ability to soar.

We may still be mired in winter, but time is inexorable.  Relentless.  As the globe wobbles recklessly back toward the warmer seasons we need to take responsibility for our part in global warming.  Ironically these freak storms are the result of an overall warming trend.  The weakening of the jet stream that allows cold northern air to drop snow in Texas and storms to cover much of the rest of us all at the same time.  The pandemic has helped clear the air a bit.  At least we’ve rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, and we’ll try to begin undoing the damage to our planet that the last four years introduced.  It will take some time, of course.  By now we should be experts in biding our time.  The snow will melt.  The light will continue to grow.  I will get back out on that jogging path again.  But for now we wait.


Still Standing

Investment.  Time is an investment, and I recently invested in Stephen King’s The Stand.  You have to realize that I made this decision sight-unseen.  More than one person whose opinions I value told me I should read it.  I had no idea it would be 1,400 pages and would dominate my life for a solid month.  Still, I’m glad I read it.  In case you haven’t, and intend to, there may be some spoilers below.  This is one of the King books I read without knowing the plot or the ending, so if you’re in that boat, skip a paragraph or two.

I hadn’t intended The Stand to be plague reading.  It just turned out that way.  The book is about a variety of flu that kills nearly the entire population of the world.  It’s only at the very end that you learn it’s a parable.  The ending also explains some of the apparently unrelated filler that makes the book so terribly long.  In any case, after wiping out much of the world, the story narrows down to several of the survivors and how they end up dividing into two camps: those who want to cause misery (think Republicans), and those who want to reestablish civilization.  Of course there are several unpleasant instances along the way.  The camp of violent ne’er-do-wells settles in Las Vegas under the demonic leadership of Randall Flagg—his identity only becomes clear at the end—while the good guys, under Mother Abagail, choose Boulder.  A confrontation is inevitable and when the smoke clears we learn that Randall Flagg is, essentially, civilization itself.  Perhaps Christianity.

Of all of the Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one has the most overt Christian imagery.  In fact, in his introduction to the expanded edition he refers to it as a “long tale of dark Christianity.”  There’s quite a lot of theological dialogue along with gruesome deaths.  The pacing often makes the story seem quite long.  Well, it actually is.  I suspect it was this Christian imagery that had friends recommending it to me.  The idea that evil is essentially our culture that comes around and kills us is both profound and paradoxical.  As well as “Christian.”  All along the good guys want to reestablish the cooperation and comforts of civilized life.  It was “civilization” that unleashed the killer virus, however, and herein hangs the tale.  I’m glad to have read it, and I have to confess that I miss the bleak world King created, after living with it for so long.  And it turns out to have been plague reading both literally and symbolically.


Politically Incorrect

We’ve been dwelling so long in the materialist worldview that we’ve come to doubt evil.  Oh, we still use the word, but we don’t really believe it manifests itself in any real way.  I wonder, however, about it’s association with power.  Lord Acton’s adage is appropriately apt, but when the word “corrupt” enters in one has to wonder about whether evil is lurking.  I’m thinking about these things because some friends were recently telling me about “political” machinations of the Republican Party right here in Pennsylvania.  Initiatives that rank and file Republicans object to as being unfair, but are trying to be ramrodded through because they will keep one party in power forever.  Trump, a man with a staggering number of lawsuits against him before he even received the “grand old” party’s nomination, made it acceptable to bring blatant cheating into the political arena.

Credit: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), via Wikimedia Commons

A recent story in the New York Times discussed how the Republican Party has been focusing on winning despite what the people want.  Its own people.  In other words, a planned destruction of democracy.  A hostile takeover bid for the nation.  Here in Pennsylvania, those who understand the legislation say, a variety of bills and propositions are being put forward—particularly gerrymandering—to ensure that the losers of the popular vote will nevertheless win.  We’ve seen this on the national level when the electoral college has elected a couple of Republican presidents who’ve clearly lost the popular vote.  It never elects Democrats that way—they win both popular and electoral votes when they win.  The fact that Republicans are actively trying to make it harder to vote so they can maintain minority(!) rule would be ironic if it weren’t so, well, evil.

I remember my first civics course (which most Republicans, it seems, never took) in middle school.  I remember my teacher—who was a smart man—saying that voters never elect someone who will hurt their financial interests.  This was before Reagan was elected and every Republican president since has favored the rich over their own poor and working class supporters.  I’m not a political scientist.  I find politics boring and I resent having to try to have to learn an entire new discipline just to keep living in the country where I was born.  We would find, I expect, widespread agreement that taking a country by force of arms is evil.  Taking it by shady lawmaking that is the very definition of corruption, apparently, is not.  The Trump administration took corruption to new heights, right in the eye of the public.  Could a Democrat make such a showing in an election after stating outright on television that Republicans can only win by cheating?   And when he lost fairly and squarely to try to overturn that result and still be the favored candidate for a party that’s lost its moral bearings?  We put the word “evil” to bed a little too soon, I fear.


What Have Faces To Do with Books?

I don’t write much about it because I don’t understand it.  Facebook, that is.  I’ve had an account there for many years now and with the rapid changes they make it seems you might want to major in it if you want to pursue it even as an avocation.  One of the bits of wisdom I’ve picked up from various marketers and publicists in the publishing biz is that you need to be visible on social media.  (I’ve encountered agents who actually won’t consider your project unless you already have thousands of followers, preferably on Twitter.)  The aforementioned marketers and publicists insist that you shouldn’t do all social media—who possibly can?  Just stick with the big ones, especially Twitter.  Especially Facebook.  If you’re a working stiff, like yours truly, you’re not allowed on these sites during the day, which means building a following is difficult.

The publisher of my third book, Holy Horror, hasn’t done much promotion for it.  (They also priced it higher than most of their books, forever dooming it to the dreaded library market.)  One thing I found in my few pre-dawn minutes on Facebook is a group of other authors who’ve published with this particular press.  We share ideas and ask questions.  We try to promote our work in ways that most publishers wish authors would.  In any case, we are hosting and event on Saturday, March 6, where we’ll be on Zoom talking about our books.  The event will be free and lots of interesting things will be on offer.  If you’d like to attend, you’ll need to see the link in my Facebook feed.  It’s free.  There will be a limited-time sale price on Holy Horror.

Working in the academic publishing world but not being in the academy I’ve learned that you “fall between two stools.”  Nobody quite knows what to make of you.  Editors aren’t supposed to write books, are they?  The funny thing about that way of thinking is that many editors (yours truly excepted) are among the smartest people I know.  Those who don’t have doctorates read more than most of the people who do.  It would seem that if you wanted to get some really interesting books you’d ask editors to write.  Of course, they may not be permitted to use social media during the day.  Falling between stools is a place familiar to me.  Facebook, however, seems more like an impenetrable forest.  It’s a good thing I write about horror movies, I guess.  If you’re interested in hearing more take a look at Facebook and join us on March 6.


Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


Critical Snow

No two snowflakes, I’ve always been told, are the same.  Far be it from me to question the collective wisdom of our species, but I wonder how this fact is ever confirmed.  I suppose I’ve personally swallowed a good deal of the evidence over time.  Snowflakes melt and we can’t get them all under the microscope, can we?  This year has been a winter of more than usual snow around here.  During our most recent storm I stared out the window and tried to count.  Billions of snowflakes collected in my yard alone, and no microscope-bearing statistician was anywhere to be seen.  I like the idea of each flake being unique, but I know it’s a theory impossible to falsify, and I wonder if it’s accurate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about critical thinking.  At its base, critical thinking is about asking questions and learning reputable places to find answers.  Not “fake news” or “alternative facts”—these are tools in the Devil’s workbox—but evidence-based information.  Primary education, it seems, is about learning to read, and write, and handle numbers.  It is about learning who we are  and who we’ve been.  About the way that science helps us understand this old world.  Higher education, as it’s generally conceived, used to be about learning critical thinking.  That was before colleges became mere trade schools, catering mainly to careers with high earning potential so that alumni would give more money back to the college.  Where will we learn critical thinking?  No two are the same, right?

Instead, knowledge and hearsay become very similar things.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for it.  Just because I can legitimately put the word “doctor” in front of my name doesn’t mean I know everything.  Yes, I am an expert but even experts aren’t exempt from the test.  So, as more snow starts to fall, I think about all the many, many places I’ve heard that no two flakes are the same.  I think of the astronomical number of snowflakes that have fallen this year alone.  The number of years before we ever evolved on this planet.  In ice ages and even during human-initiated global warming.  And I realize nobody’s done the actual work of comparing every single snowflake to every other one.  Tradition is like that accumulating snow, building on past layers until great glaciers form.  And who, I wonder, would argue with a glacier?


Plants Will Lead

The world just keeps getting weirder.  Although I very much appreciate—“believe in,” if you will—science, sometimes the technology aspect of STEM leaves me scratching my primate cranium.  What’s got the fingers going this morning is spinach.  Not just any spinach.  According to a story on Euronews, “Scientists Have Taught Spinach to Send Emails.”  There are not a few Homo sapiens, it seems, who might learn something from our leafy greens.  The tech comes, not surprisingly, from MIT.   When spinach roots detect certain compounds left by landmines in the soil, it triggers sensors that send an email alert to a human being who’s probably eaten some of their (the spinach’s) very family members.  I’m not denying that this is very impressive, but it raises once again that troubling question of consciousness and our botanical cousins.

Some people live to eat.  I’m one of those who falls into the other category—those who eat to live.  In my life I’ve gone from being a picky omnivore to being a somewhat adventurous omnivore to vegetarian to vegan.  I’m not sure how much more restricted I can make my diet if I leave out plants.  I’ve watched those time-lapse videos of trees moving.  They move even more slowly than I do when my back’s acting up, but they really do move.  If they had legs and speeded up a bit we’d call it walking.  Studies into plant consciousness are finding new evidence that our brainless greens are remarkably intelligent.  Perhaps some could have made a better president than 45.  I wonder if spinach can tweet?

People can be endlessly inventive.  Our thirst for information is never quenched.  Universities are among those rare places where ideas can be pursued and it can be considered work.  While I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to go on to higher education, I can see the benefits it would have for a culture.  Indeed, would we have armed mobs trying to take over because of a fact-based election loss?  I wonder if the spinach would take place in “stopping the steal.”  Hopefully it would fact-check more than those who simply follow the leader.  Consciousness and education can work together for a powerful good.  I’m not sure why Popeye’s favorite was chosen for this experiment, but it does seem to show that we can all get along if we really want to.  Maybe then we could meet in the salad aisle rather than out in the field looking for explosives.