A Decade of Augusts

Well, my July post with past quotes was so much fun I decided to do another.  Owen Chadwick once told me—or was it his brother Henry? They both came to my house—“One writes so many things.”  This was in response to a question asking the gentle knight about something he’d written in one of his many books.  Indeed, one does write so many things.  Now you can pick and choose which ones you want to read, in case you weren’t with me then.  And without further ado these are some of the things I wrote ten years ago this month:

“As I forcefully released the confused (and slightly gooey) insect back into nature, I had a moment of Kierkegaardian aangst that the job I’d recently applied for would now go to someone else.”https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/02/graven-images/ 

“Mandrake roots are often claimed to have anthropomorphic qualities – just how anthropomorphic depends on the imagination and how many the viewer has ingested.” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/04/man-and-womandrakes/ 

“Several years later I find myself having been subjected to a variety of orthodoxies and the only thing they seem to have in common is the conviction that all the others are wrong.“ https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/05/ortho-right-or-ortho-wrong/ 

“Jesus, meet Shamash. Son versus sun.” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/08/assyrian-dreams/

“The lowly slime mold of the genus Physarum has a combination of multiple sex-controling genes mixed with several different types of sex-cells, leading to a bewildering 500 different sexes. You’ve got to wonder what the Physarum bar-scene is like!” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/11/anat-kali-and-the-violent-femmes/ 

Words of wisdom

“As I later reflected, perhaps this is what my life would have been like if I’d had some ability and taken to the stage instead of rocking the glamorous adjunct professor gig.” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/12/profit-priest-and-the-king/

“Curious enough to watch the movie, I steeled myself for the macabre and terror, but although there were gory scenes it was no more disturbing than the Republican National Convention.” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/15/cenobites-and-angels/

“So standing over the carnage of an Ezekielian valley of damp exoskeletons, I recalled the bees of the Bible. (May their entomological souls rest in peace.)” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/18/thy-will-bee-done/ 

“Religion has been a fine-turned handle that humans have used to get a grip on death.” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/22/memento-mori/ 

“I’ve seen carnivorous, chrome-plated bumper Jesus fish eating the peacefully walking Darwin fish!” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/23/biblical-black-lagoon/ 

“My favorite is Larry Smith’s Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, now available in a revised and expanded edition! Exponential conciseness!” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/29/six-word-memoirs/ 

“That was like a slap from the Buddha — the proverbial sound of one hand slapping.” https://steveawiggins.com/2009/08/31/rock-of-ageism/ 

While I don’t plan on doing many of these clip shows, it’s sometimes rewarding to look back and see what was going on a decade ago.  Who knows?  We might’ve even learned something since then.

Prejudice, Technically

I must admit that I received my first “smart phone” with more than a little trepidation.  It was going on a decade ago and I didn’t know my app from a hole in the ground.  What was this thing that was a telephone and yet so much more?  I carry it around with me, nevertheless, and I use it for the very occasional text, for a camera, and when it was younger, as a geocaching device.  My sense of distrust came from being a user of personal computers for many years.  There would be constant upgrades and renewals and each would cost you something.  You don’t buy just a smart phone, you buy a liability.  This Luddite screed arises from my attempts to get my boarding pass for my flight yesterday, with a special shout out to United Airlines.

Things change.  I’m cool with that.  Still, “checking in” for a flight has always meant your ticket was secure.  When I went to check in yesterday, for the first time ever United Airlines allowed it only through your smart phone and only via its app.  The app is free but my phone is of such an age that the app won’t work with it.  I received the confirming text stating I wasn’t checked in.  Wasn’t that exactly the same as the status at which I’d started?  Why then did I spend half an hour of my Saturday trying to select a seat and telling it I am a vegetarian?  (Vegans, it seems, are from another planet.)  At least I didn’t have to specify a non-smoking row.  I realized as I hung up that I was being shamed for not updating my phone.

You see, capitalism thrives on forcing the purchase of new things.  If you wear clothes that are out of style (guilty as charged!) then you aren’t playing by the rules.  If your phone is too big or too small (yes, size does matter), or if it flips open instead of being accidentally awakened when slipped out of your pocked, you’re a Luddite.  If you can’t afford an update (which no longer fits in the pocket of a guy my size) you deserve to be shamed.  You can’t check in.  You have to stand in line and proclaim to all, “I didn’t upgrade.”  I still use an iPhone 4S.  It does what I need it to do.  United Airlines doesn’t think so, however.  Most of the apps have ceased to work.  Now it is once again simply a phone, pretty much back where I’d started.

Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

Net Worth

Net worth—a strange concept for human beings—is calculated on the basis of how much cash you’re “worth.”  While on that lonely task of sorting through the attic, I came across many boxes of books for which we didn’t have room in our apartment.  Our guests, who’ve been few, feel obligated to comment on how many books we have, as if it’s an infirmity to be delicately broached.  Or for which something might be prescribed.  I grew up believing that what we call “net worth” should be assessed in how much a person knows.  Knowledge, not money, in my fantasy moments, would drive the world forward.  Books are cheap (generally, but you don’t want to know what I’ve paid for some of these volumes when I really needed them!) and don’t retain resale value, except perhaps in the textbook market.  They’re considered a throwaway commodity.

Although I didn’t read it, a recent bestseller claimed you could find happiness by removing clutter, and high on the priority list of things to ditch was books.  Will you ever read that again?  For me the question is rather, will I ever need to look something up in there again?  Surprisingly often the answer is yes.  Considering the fact that books are knowledge, they’re a remarkably good bargain for the price.  Regardless of clutter.  Perhaps that’s a kind of wisdom itself.  Books are heavy, though, especially in any numbers.  Weight means something.  What they contain has the potential of being priceless, even though it’s available to anyone else with a copy.

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow, back in the days when you could still get television reception with just an antenna.   You always felt bad for the poor hopeful who’d brought an old book, dreaming of riches.  Apart from handwritten manuscripts, books are mass produced, almost by definition.  The printing press, after all, was designed to produce multiple copies.  Sure, if you go back far enough, or you have a tome rare enough, you might get a nice price for it.  Everyone I saw on the Roadshow left with their disappointment worn obviously on their faces.  You’re better off buying a vase.  That’s only if your bottom line is your net worth, though.  If you want to strive for what’s really important in life, I’d go for the book almost every time.  Of course, while up there moving those boxes around I began to wonder about the net worth of a good back brace as well.

Plain Floods

Erschrecklichewasserfluth

Floods are the stuff of legends. In fact, one of the most pervasive myths of all times is the world-wide flood. While some would see this as “evidence” that such an impossible flood actually occurred (some believing so fervently as to build replicas of imaginary arks), others recognize the flood as a basic human dilemma. We require water, and therefore we build our cities near a source of it. Rivers worldwide are prone to floods. While recently stuck in a holding pattern waiting for space for our flight to land at Newark, floodplains were more than evident from high above. My hometown regularly experienced floods when ice jammed the Allegheny River during the spring thaws. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were, literally, epic-making. A piece in the Washington Post rather surprisingly reports “Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.” The story by Sarah Kaplan demonstrates the universality of unruly water.

I know little of Chinese history and mythology. There’s no reason, however, to doubt that stories of ancient floods were as common there as elsewhere. The flood is, pardon the Christianization, the baptism of civilization. Things have to be washed clean before “civilization” can begin. In this case, according to the story, Yu, the founder of China’s first dynasty, tamed the flood. Now scientists are finding flood deposits from the Yellow River that match the 1900 BCE time-frame of this mythical founding. We can be certain that some will latch onto this date noting how Abraham was said to have emerged shortly after the flood (Genesis chronology says Noah was still alive when Abraham was born) and therefore this is proof of the Biblical flood. Even Sir Leonard Woolley advertised that he’d found the biblical flood in the river deposits of Mesopotamia. When it comes to literalism, any old flood will do.

No doubt many ancient flood stories go back to some historical event. The world was never completely covered with water in human times (before that nobody was here to see), but it’s easy to understand how people might have believed it could have happened. Our view tends to be local, often at the expense of universal costs. Consider global warming, for example. It’s difficult for us to see something that impacts us as such a distance. Taking care of the planet is so hard when we realize just how big it is. Our neglect, however, will definitely cause floods to come. Our denial makes myths for future generations. Headlines millennia down the road, if anyone’s left to read them, will, I’m sure announce with surprise that the devastating floods we’re creating now were indeed real.

Two Unrelated Stories

Harvard University’s been in the news. Well, Harvard makes the news, so that not news. The first story that has appeared is that Harvard, like me, is giving it away. Information on religion, that is. Like a fire sale. Or making room for next season’s fashions. According to the Anglican Journal, Harvard is offering a free world religions class online. Some of us who have degrees in various world religions offer similar services but, well, we are not Harvard, are we? This isn’t really sour grapes, but I see my colleagues’ blogs—those who teach anywhere, not necessarily at Harvard—and they get plenty of hits. They have institutional backing. That job offer is a seal of quality, don’t you know. Freelancers, well, who trusts them? I’ll professionally prattle on about religion anyway.

Then a colleague sent me a story by Charlotte Allen entitled “Jesus’ Wife: The Final Debunking,” from The Weekly Standard. For those of you not up on the scholarly gossip of the deity’s latest amorous exploits, some time ago a Harvard professor advocated for a fragment of a lost gospel purporting to mention Jesus’ wife. The media had it’s little frenzy (like father, like son, so it seemed), and scholars argued—which is what they do. Most saw this fragment as an obvious fake, but when someone from Harvard declares otherwise the media listens. Now, in a piece of investigative reporting soon to appear in The Atlantic, the origins of this fake manuscript are pretty much laid out for all to see. It seems that being at the only true university in this country isn’t really the basis for not being taken in by forgers. I’m not picking on the professor—we’ve all been taken in by clever forgers—we want to believe. Deception happens all the time and all over the place: “ancient” documents are faked, someone makes money or notoriety, and we all go home shamefaced at the end of the day. Still, there’s a point to be made.

DSCN3510

Humans are worshipful beings. If you want a job in higher education your best bet is to attend Harvard. It opens doors for you. While in seminary at Boston University School of Theology, I applied for transfer to Harvard Divinity School and was accepted. I decided not to cross that river, however. Edinburgh was my future. In Scotland, I spent my dissertation attempting to show just how thin the evidence was for Yahweh’s wife, if you take the time to look at each piece. Naturally, the dissertation and subsequent book were largely ignored. Edinburgh used to be the Athens of the North, but it’s not Harvard, though. Now scholars are beginning to question the new orthodoxy of a happily married deity. While the academic dispute goes from one bed to another, it begins to sound like Days of Our Lives. Scholarly drama may not be front page news, but it doesn’t fail to entertain.

GSP

According to New Jersey Transit, rates for services will go up by 9 percent in October. I may still be on this bus by then. It was like many evening commutes–late. My usual driver didn’t make it to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and a new driver pulled up tardy. Par for the course. After about an hour on the bus, I realized we were still on the Garden State Parkway, locally known as the Garden State “Parking Lot.” I texted my wife who told me there had been an accident, so that would explain things. We crept along. I read on the bus. I can’t stand just sitting for a two hour commute, staring out the window. My stomach started rumbling. I had to pee. These things don’t usually happen on the trip, since I take care of the latter before I leave work. But this bus is cold, and you know how it is in winter…
Glancing out the window, I realized we’d driven into the Twilight Zone. I had no idea where we were. I pulled out my phone and opened the Google Maps app. We were in Irvington, about 20 miles off course. Widening out the map, I could see no way even to reach highway 22 from where we were. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a kangaroo come hopping by. At this point I realized that in less than 12 hours I’d be back on a bus in the opposite direction. I hadn’t had supper or sleep, but maybe I should just stay the night? We are very well acquainted, this bus and I. With a shudder I remember that the driver got out to pee before he started this run. Did he have an alternate plan?

  

 

Now I’m not one to tell a driver how to do his job, and I was, I suppose, secretly cheering him on in his personal quest to find the Northwest Passage. When we finally came to the first stop I became a believer in miracles. It was 7:30, and I had another hour to home. It occurred to me that New Jersey Transit must be raising its fares to pay for the extra gas. Who wouldn’t want to see Elizabeth in the evening? Or at least smell it? There are no toilets on NJ Transit buses. Maybe that accounts for the smell. I’ve been riding New Jersey Transit for four years now, not always contiguously, and I’ve had some epic commutes. A simple accident leading to a three-and-a-half hour trip home was some kind of new record. A personal best for the driver. Get Guinness on the phone, and get one out of the fridge. I still need a bathroom. That can wait. The only thing that really matters is that life is a journey. And for those of us with unpaid past sins, it’s a journey on New Jersey Transit.