Factor Fiction

An article on CBS that my wife sent me tells how Costco mistakenly labelled a shipment of Bibles as fiction, setting off a tweet-storm. Some offended, some applauding, a 140-character barrage ensued as Costco apologized. What was the fuss about? As a person who has experience with both fact and fiction, it has become clear to me over the years that these categories are not nearly as sharply defined as they might appear. We make labels to help us categorize a confusing reality. Our brains, nevertheless, easily accept fiction as fact, at least for purposes of getting along in the world. The earth is spinning, right now, at over 1,000 miles per hour. We don’t perceive it, and in fact, it took not a few deaths and apologetic clerics before it was admitted that evidence we don’t feel proved the case. Each day we choose to believe the fiction that we are holding still and the sun goes overhead. Is anybody tweeting about that?

One of the angry bird calls pointed out that Costco (which apparently now has an imprimatur) doesn’t label their Qurans as fiction. How many Christians have read the Rig Veda and not wondered whether its proper label fell on that side of the pricing gun? The matter of fact or fiction is one of opinion. Even those books bearing the label of non-fiction are interpretations of evidence. When it comes down to ultimate truth, where it lies is always a matter of faith. Who buys a Bible at Costco anyway?

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When I was a child and Amazon did not exist, buying a Bible was itself a kind of sacred act. You wouldn’t think of going to Wal-Mart to do such a thing. You went to the Christian bookstore (or, I suppose, if you grew up in a city, a secular bookstore might do). You talked to clerks who knew the differences between versions. The place smelled of leather and velvet. It was a place dedicated to the truth. Costco is a big box store. Buying in bulk implies something. Ironically, those who angrily tweet about the Bible’s label don’t seem to realize that Bible selling is big business. You won’t find much in the way of small publishers’ literature in such a store. Next to your giant cartons of cereal and immense packages of diapers, why not tuck in a Bible as well? When you get home you can tweet about how much money you saved buying eternal salvation in bulk.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Isaiah Thwarted

Back in January, out of a sense of curiosity on a number of points, I began tweeting the Bible. I wondered how long it would take, at 140 characters a day, to type the King James Bible into Twitter. Since that time, I have not missed a day. Until this week. International travel and business travel with uncertain Internet access have been overcome as I flew with Bible in hand to keep it going. On Monday I was just wrapping up the flood story. Clearly this was going to take a long-term commitment. Then early this week a message popped up on my Twitter account stating, “You cannot send messages to users who are not following you. Learn more,” so naturally, I learned more. Unfortunately I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. Just a sentence in and words I don’t understand begin to flummox me, building confusion on confusion. What it appears to be telling me, in layman’s language, is that I can no longer post to Twitter.

Apart from the personal rejection such impersonal messages inevitably engender, this development brought to mind the famous verse from Isaiah 40.8, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Hath the Lord been stopped by Twitter? Technology changes rapidly, and those of us who’ve never had any formal training in it sometimes feel like we’re driving a car on a dark country road at night with no headlights. I’m not really sure how this all works, but I try to send daily thoughts out into cyberspace and, yes, what you say can and will be used against you. And I wonder about old Deutero-Isaiah sitting there in Babylon peering into an indefinite future.

Our abject dependence on the Internet has changed us as a species. I’ve recently read about how technological innovations have become the evolution of the human species. This collective brain we refer to as the Internet has revolutionized the way we do business, but it has also introduced a component of fragility into the equation. Electronic information is untested in the long term. Some of my earliest writing projects now exist only on three-and-a-half inch floppies, most of which are tucked away in some musty corner of the attic. And what if the earth passes through a comet’s tail or a nasty solar flare jets out our way? Doomsday scenarios have been based on such things (just remember Y2K and smile). So maybe Second Isaiah was onto something after all. Printed books have been known to survive for at least half a millennium, and in rare instances, a couple thousand years. And the pagan sources on which parts of the Bible are based, written in clay, last even longer. And one of the earliest stories recorded was that of a worldwide flood.

Problematizing Noah

As I continue to Tweet the Bible, I’ve been working through the story of Noah. Considering the number of children’s items imprinted with the friendly, smiling Noah and Mrs., and the cute, predatory animals they’re taking aboard their private yacht, the utter belligerence of the story is frequently lost. There is one seriously peeved God behind this. “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart,” Genesis 6.6 states. And it only gets worse from there: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth… for it repenteth me that I have made them.” Indeed, the wrath of God is emphasized more than the wickedness of the humans that have spawned it. No matter what is done, it seems, God will still be in a rage.

The truly striking aspect of this account comes, however, when Noah is instructed on whom to save. “Thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife,” verse 18 dictates. Men first. Now, we cannot judge a product of the past against standards of the present day, but it is quite clear why many women find the biblical text less-than-friendly. Even the animals are explicitly paired from the start do not receive the radical disjointing that the women receive from the men. If the purpose is to procure a new generation, arguably pregnant women could have done that with the men treading water above the remains of Eden. If survival is the point of the story, as the saying goes, ladies first.

The flood story is a complex account of a deity with anger management issues and a preference for the company of men. Although theologians may say with a wink that God has no gender, clearly the Bible begs to differ.

Humans and animals alike are victims of the divine wrath, and even though humanity survives the flood can the relationship with deity ever be the same again? How do humans face a creator turned destroyer, knowing that they will never really please him again? The weight of such divine displeasure is surely greater than all that water pressing our ancient cousins into fossils on the primeval sea bed. I think back to all the children’s toys with the happy little animals and a smiling Noah and I know they resemble the biblical version only in the most fleeting of fashions. Yet the myth lives on.

What shape is your ark?

Gods Will Be Gods

“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” Genesis 6 begins with one of the most unusual stories in the entire Bible. And that’s saying something! The sons of God mating with the daughters of men? A couple verses on we hear about giants roaming the earth in those days, presumably the children of this divine-human miscegenation. What is this stuff straight from pagan mythology doing in the pages of Holy Writ? Over the centuries, translators have tried to tidy up the boldly direct language of the King James here, making the sons of God into angels or some lesser beings. It is too hard to accept that sacred scripture admits of polytheism.

Monotheism, it is clear, came to the Israelites somewhat late in their history. The Bible is full of bold clues that other gods exist, and, worse yet, they are sometimes as powerful as Yahweh. In the light of later theological development, translators often bow to popular pressure and clean up the Bible’s language a bit. Fact is, Israelites, like most ancients, lived in a world populated with mythical creatures. Gods galore, monsters, demons, angels, witches, giants—they all haunt the pages of the western world’s sacred book. But that’s not what we expect the Good Book to say. The Hebrew text here is unequivocal, these are the “sons of God” we are talking about. Either that, or worse, “the sons of the gods.” More and more deities.

We can’t be sure why the ancient believed in monsters and giants, but it seems likely that such creatures had explanatory value for their world. Lacking science—paleontology was millennia in the future—they had to explain the huge bones found in the earth. We do know that dinosaur bones had been discovered in the Mediterranean basin in antiquity. These big bones often look human to a non-specialist. Heads are frequently missing. It has been suggested that these give rise to our biblical giants. Yet another response has been the recent trend of fundamentalists with Photoshop skills to post photos of archaeologists actually discovering giants on the Internet. Some of these doctored images are very impressive. It is an effort to save the Bible from the truth. A Bible that requires saving, however, should give even the most fervent believer pause for thought. Isn’t it just easier to suggest the sons of God were typical guys and that little has changed since the world was young?

Enoch’s Dilemma

“And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” These two verses from Genesis 5 convey just about all we know of Enoch. That, and he was the father of the oldest man ever, Methuselah. With this intriguing introduction, however, the religious mind insists on a backstory. Over the centuries of antiquity, books grew about this mysterious character as he became the prototype of the person who never died. The Bible doesn’t state that Enoch didn’t die. Nor does it state that he did. Plenty of wiggle room for the mythic imagination. In what appears to be an unrelated story, the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week reported on technology that builds on the strange but natural idea of phantom limbs.

When a person loses a limb, sometimes they report still feeling it. Their brains grew in a body that possessed the limb, and once it is gone the brain still has memory of it. The term used for this is a phantom limb. Knowing that mind does control matter to some extent, robotics experts have figured out ways to wire a robotic limb to the brain of a paralyzed person that responds to brain signals sent to the phantom limb. As much like science fiction as it sounds, this is already happening. The robotic limb responds just like a biological limb. This technology is just developing, of course, and is very expensive. It also implies that cyborgs, once the fodder of futuristic fiction, are becoming reality. Some theorists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, suggest that the brain itself can be converted to electronic signal and transferred into mechanical storage. Once that is achieved, we will have Enoch without any God to take him.

The world that we’ve been engineering bears a strange resemblance to the world of the Bible. For the people of ancient Israel death was the final word, and with rare exception (the only unquestioned case of the undying man was Elijah) people simply accepted the inevitable with no concept of an afterlife. Contact with the Zoroastrians convinced some Jews of the possibility of life beyond death and the quest for immortality was on. It has been a desideratum of human aspirations ever since. We invented machines to help us do what nature has not equipped us to attain. Finer and finer lines have been drawn between the biological and the mechanical. While it make look like immortality to some, to others it seems that we have been kidnapped—taken, if you will—by technology. What really happened to Enoch? The Bible doesn’t say, but it seems that we are getting very close to finding out on our own.

Genesis Gender-Bender

“Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam,” so reads Genesis 5.2 (5.2a, for those sticklers among the crowd). Long ago I lost track of how many times I’d read Genesis. It has a privileged place in the Bible partially because of our modern method of reading books. We assume that the beginning should be read first and that it should lay the groundwork for what follows. The Bible, however, was compiled over centuries and the story may begin at Genesis, but not all that follows is in agreement with it. “Called their name Adam” sent me scurrying back to dust off my Hebrew of the Bible. The King James Version, after all, was translated from manuscripts that are sometimes inferior to many that have been discovered since then, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe this was one of those strange Elizabethan passages, for after all, Queen Elizabeth I did have a bit of a reputation. To my surprise, however, “their name” remains plainly in the Hebrew, suggesting that the first couple were both Adam.

Since just a verse later Adam and Adam have a son called Seth (and since the genealogies seldom mention their women at all), presumably Adam here means Eve. Literalists beware! The creation story in Genesis 1, as opposed to Genesis 2.4b, pictures the genders created simultaneously. Women and men together are humanity. The second creation story offers Adam a generous dollop of primacy; he gets to be first and even gets to name the animals and the wife; he is the lord and master of his domain. And people refer to eating the fruit as a fall! Now at Genesis 5 we have humanity reunited in the person of Adam, the bi-gendered representation of humanity.

Of course Adam is a play on words. The Bible begins with humanity as a joke. Adam is just one syllable short of the word for “ground” (adamah), and so Adam is the original groundling, or earthling. Yet Adam is never given as a proper name until Eve appears. It is only with the creation of woman that man becomes man. I suspect that may be the underlying of logic (if it is even right to call it such) of the plural, “their name Adam.” It might be easier just to recognize that the Bible doesn’t give us the endpoint of the discussion of human nature, but the starting point. There are those who insist that the Bible has all the answers. In my experience it is primarily full of questions. And the questions require both female and male to answer them. Otherwise, humanity is indeed a joke.

“Adam, I’m Adam”