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Non-podcasts

Trees, Please

One thing we know about nature is that we don’t know much about nature. We can be a pretty self-absorbed species. Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is a good corrective for that. When we’re young we’re taught the difference between plants and animals. What Wohllenben shows is that such differences are more a matter of degree than we realize. Trees move, but slowly. Their timescale can be vast, compared to our brief, get-rich-quick outlook on life. It has been demonstrated pretty clearly that trees communicate with one another. They help one another, and they can, in their dendritic way, think. They cooperate with fungi to maintain connections between their root systems. Trees might even have what we would call personalities, were they fortunate enough to have been born human.

In a little like a medieval fantasy world, Wohllenben is a German forest keeper. He knows trees and their ways intimately. The trick, of course, is that we have a difficult time seeing things in timeframes that exceed our own. There are living trees that are 9,000 years old. That’s before the Sumerians ever showed up to invent writing. In human eyes, a lot has happened since then. And although we don’t know how to define consciousness, we’re sure that it’s limited to our species alone. Grudgingly we may admit some “higher” animals to the club, but our predilection for conquest of our world would be sorely diminished had we not other creatures to dominate. Looking at the world through a sympathetic lens, however, the fact that we’ve evolved these traits from the common ancestor we have with the animals should tell us something. As Wohllenben points out, animals diverged from plants at some stage, but we do ultimately come from the same stock.

Even on a practical level, we can’t live without plants. No matter how gourmet our foodies may be, our nutrition cycle begins with plants photosynthesizing food from pure light. There is perhaps a danger in recognizing our kinship with trees too closely. We depend upon them for food, shelter, warmth, and the oxygen we breathe. We might be inclined, as Wohllenben notes, not to use them at all. The key word here, however, is exploitation. We evolved along with plants and other animals and we all rely on each other. We are all connected. We should care for those with whom we share the planet. Trees have a much longer view than we do. When the desires of one species set the terms for all the others, we soon feel the pain of the trees.

Sense or Ship

I can tell I’ve been too busy when I haven’t planned for Banned Book Week. A kind of unofficial holiday since, well, it’s about banned things, the point of this observation is that we should be free to read. A fairly large portion of the fiction I read anyway, at one point or another, ends up on the banned list. Not surprisingly, most banned books have diversity content—racial or sexual minorities portrayed in sympathetic ways. Trump has shown us clearly how dangerous such thinking can be. It’s well known that such perspectives are allied with some evangelical Christian interests, or, perhaps I should say, lack of tolerance. There are lots of ways of looking at the world out there, and many of them aren’t evil. I should’ve planned ahead.

Censorship implies a certain arrogance. One way of looking at things is right and all others are wrong. Although we all know that any logical system runs up against its limits (we call them paradoxes) we’re reluctant to let go of that which we suppose, with or without justification, to be right. Banning is an effort to control minds. It’s no coincidence that many of the titles on banned and challenged lists are intended for younger readers. Those who favor censorship want to close the eyes of the young and pretend the real world will just go away. Yes, many of the banned books are fiction, but fiction tells us truths. Those who ban books are uncomfortable with such truths. That’s not to say all literature is created equal, or that all banned books are great literature. As someone who writes fiction, though, I can attest how difficult it is to get it published. That in itself tells us something.

It’s banned book week and here I am without a banned book to read. I’ve got some ideas, of course. My wife and I both take on book reading challenges each year. One of this year’s books (at least) was a banned title, but one that I read too far in advance. Besides, although we have too many books in our apartment already, I used Banned Book Week as an allowance to go to the bookstore. What better way to fight literary fascism than to buy a book? The problem is deciding which one. The lists are long and grow longer each year. Intolerance, it seems, knows no limits. I’m about to do my civic duty for this time of year. I’m about to go to a bookstore and buy a banned book.

Shipping Good News

Some say the infrastructure of this country is crumbling. It’s something I try not to think much about when I’m on the Helix or in the Lincoln Tunnel, but the concrete of those aging piers doesn’t look too healthy to me. So when I see a truck with a religious message, I guess I’m supposed to take comfort. On a recent drive along interstate 80, the great New York to San Francisco highway, we passed a Sam Kholi truck. You can tell a Sam Kholi truck because they declare “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word” in bold letters on the side. The back has just the first part of the aphorism followed by “Almighty God the First and the Last.” A little research revealed that Sam Kholi is from Syria and now lives in San Diego. Many Americans, in these days of Trump, don’t realize that many “middle easterners” are indeed Christian. I got my start in publishing from a Syrian Christian. Prejudging is seldom a good idea.

Sam Kholi is combining his faith with his practice—something that harkens back to more ancient forms of religion. Lived religion used to be the only kind of religion. Once it was systematized, it became an academic pursuit. Knowing precisely what you believed became more important than what you did with it. Today’s religion, at least in these hallowed states, seems to be purely a matter of what you believe. Whether you live morally, treat others justly, or even pay attention to what the Bible says about caring for those in need, none of this matters as long as you believe the right thing. The result is people suffer. No matter, orthodoxy is secure.

Since our actions are more vocal than our words, I’m amazed and perplexed by what many evangelicals say. They are the ones who claim for themselves the literal truth of Jesus’ words. How they can deny the rights and needs of others based on race, gender, or sexual orientation is a mystery given the many passages in the Bible concerning forgiveness and love. When it comes to religion as how you live, apparently it is one size fits all. Driving, it seems to me, is one of the places where lived religion is put to its harshest test. Religion is how we live with others, and driving is how we show what we really believe. It takes a tremendous amount of faith to paint your belief on the side of a truck.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Domesticity

One of the truly disturbing aspects of religion is its tendency to become domesticated. What I mean is that it becomes so much a part of the everyday scenery that you forget it’s there. I recently read a story about priests in the Church of England who don’t want parishes in poor neighborhoods. The reason given? They don’t want their children educated among the poor. That took me back a step. As someone with more than a passing familiarity with the Episcopalians, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t want poor parishes. Of establishment Christianity, Anglicans are on the economical high end of the scale. I knew a few future priests like that at Nashotah House. Stylish worship and excess cash go together. But not to want your children educated with the poor? Is there fear of contagion?

I grew up poor. When I visit my hometown I’m reminded that although it featured in an X-Files episode, it will never be an affluent place. The people there, as a whole, struggle financially. I didn’t know any rich people growing up (I had to become an Episcopalian for that to happen) and I don’t think anyone rich lived in our town. Education, however, was a different thing. We went to school together and we learned. Some of us, despite not attending the finer establishments, managed to move through the educational system and on to college, seminary, and graduate school. Ironically, some of us even came to teach Episcopalians in seminary. A poor boy instructing the rich. But quite apart from that, it’s impossible to read the Gospels and not notice the concern for the poor in the founder of Christianity.

Image source: Julius Ejdestam: De fattigas Sverige, Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians weren’t Episcopalians. They were actually Jewish. Although a few of them had means, this new religion appealed primarily to the poor. As one of the earlier believers in the movement is said to have said, the rich receive their reward here. More and more Christians are coming to believe that this world is the locus of receiving rewards. Heaven isn’t so much on the radar anymore. We’ve been to outer space and it’s not there. Rather than put ourselves at risk among the poor, it’s better to blend in with the establishment. We can still rail aloud that the church is important and shouldn’t be ignored. But paying customers only, please. The poor? They’re a dime a dozen. And when we come to think of people that way, religion has become domesticated.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.