Turin Turnabout

Turn about, they say, is fair play.  Turin, on the other hand, is a city in Italy.  Its claim to fame is a shroud housed there that is believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth.  Tests have been done over the years, most authoritatively a carbon-dating done by three independent laboratories, with the results suggesting a medieval origin to the cloth itself.  In case your chronology is a little hazy, the medieval period comes centuries after the time Jesus lived.  Now, some thirty years after the definitive study, some scientists are questioning the results.  They’re being skeptical of the skeptics.  Turn about.  According to a story in The Catholic Register, a Freedom of Information Act request, honored only by one of the three labs (the one at Oxford University) has revealed that the bits of the shroud subjected to analysis were the worst possible parts of the cloth to test.  Herein lies the rub: scientists like to poke holes in credulousness—what do you do when your science is itself the subject of skepticism?

The Shroud of Turin, like Donald Trump, is one of those utterly arcane artifacts that unites Catholics and Evangelicals.  When I was growing up these two groups were the cats and dogs of the theological world.  They united under the umbrella of conservative social causes during the Bush years and have been sleeping together ever since (while both convinced that the other is going straight to Hell when it’s all over).  You see, the Shroud is a Catholic possession and allegedly bears wounds that support the Catholic narrative.  (The Vatican has never declared it an authentic relic, however.)  Evangelicals see it as proof positive that Jesus was resurrected, and so they tend to go further than the Catholics in citing it as proof.  We live in odd times when believers successfully out-skeptic the skeptics.

Since the other two laboratories (the University of Arizona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) haven’t released the raw data, the grounds for a conspiracy theory grow fertile.  When information is kept secret, that’s a natural enough response.  The conspiracy-prone mind asks why the data isn’t being made public.  They do have a point.  The claims of religion are often hoisted on the petard of “no evidence” and when evidence (such as the lab results) exists but isn’t shown, that suggests somebody’s hiding something.  I have no vested interest in the authenticity of the shroud, but we all should have such an interest in getting at the truth.  The turnabout in this case, however, was completely unexpected.

Good Monster

The little free library is a great idea.  Just after our move last year we contributed to our local many times as we discovered duplicates in the process of packing.  On one such venture, I discovered a book I wanted to read.  Not that I’d heard of it before, but any book with “golem” in the title catches my eye.  For the first (and so far only) time, I took a book.  Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s The Golem of Hollywood proved a fairly quick read for being over 600 pages.  I believe the industry term is “potboiler,” but it’s also a page-turner.  Nevertheless, it made me think.  The story follows a hard-bitten Jewish detective in Los Angeles.  Struggling with personal issues, he gets assigned to a bizarre homicide case that eventually takes him to Prague and Oxford, and then back to LA to clinch it.  And the killer is a golem.  (That’s not a spoiler, since it’s right there in the title.)

Parallel to the modern-day crime drama is the retelling of the biblical tale of the first days of humanity outside the Garden of Eden.  One of Adam and Eve’s daughters is headstrong and beautiful and when the tragedy between her brothers plays out she eventually takes her revenge on Cain.  Although not explicit about it, for violating the mark of Cain she witnesses the horrors that people will visit upon one another and her redemption is to become the soul that animates the golem of Prague.  Not your garden variety golem, she can transform into different shapes, and she stays loyal to the family of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the legendary first creator of the golem of Prague.

One of the frequent topics raised on this blog is how the Bible appears in everyday life, often unnoticed.  This novel is an example of that.  A further point, which is what stands behind my book Holy Horror, is that the Good Book is understood as mediated by popular culture.  Even those few biblical scholars who make it into the limelight can’t compete with the myriad representations of Scripture in the entertainment media.  Like The Golem of Hollywood, Holy Horror sees the Bible in the context of monsters.  Horror is an outsider genre.  Despite the many intelligent, thought-provoking exemplars extant, the default among the more refined is to see horror as something base and low.  It can also be a lot of fun.  Perhaps not great literature, The Golem of Hollywood is entertaining even as it underscores the continuing influence of the Good Book. 

Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?

Waiting for a Miracle

A friend recently sent me a New York Times story about Marianne Williamson’s spiritual background.  Before I say anything more about this I have a confession to make.  I didn’t know who Marianne Williamson was and, consequently, I’ve never read any of her books.  I also didn’t know about her presidential bid, although she seems much more grounded than whatever it is that sits in the Oval Office these days.  In any case, it’s the spiritual background part on which I’d like to focus.  Williamson is apparently a devotee of A Course in Miracles, a book written by Helen Schucman in the 1970s.  According to the NYT article, Schucman penned the book by the dictation of a divine voice.  This aspect seems worthy of further exploration, regardless of politics.

You see, sacred books have a long history of divine dictation.  The Bible makes such claims only obliquely, but clearly there were some who believed that Moses was the recipient of narration from on high.  Mohammed heard a voice saying “Write.”  Centuries later the Book of Mormon was written out at the dictation of Joseph Smith.  The point is that such texts are often believed to have had sacred origins.  I find Schucman’s reluctance to put herself down as the author of A Course in Miracles instructive.  She didn’t believe she wrote it.  Not to devalue any of these sacred texts mentioned, I would nevertheless note that authors often feel that their words come to them.  Maybe academic books don’t count, but when I’m writing fiction, it’s like somebody’s hands are on the wheel, but I’m not sure I’m the one driving (with apologies to Jeff Daniels).

A Course in Miracles has been translated into double-digits languages, something quite rare even among many bestsellers.  What this says to me is that people still crave answers from an authoritative text.  The written word has a power that electronic publication lacks.  Who wants to point to a screen and say, “this is divinely revealed truth”?  Hefting a heavy book, printed on actual paper, has a symbolic power that outweighs that of ebooks.  Probably it’s because the Bible paved the way.  We’re already primed for a sacred text, in physical form.  The longer I study holy books the clearer it becomes that they will unlikely ever cease to be written.  Helen Schucman didn’t have the last word.  As long as people write it’s doubtful anyone ever will.