Cheaper than Swords

It’s chilly in here.  What with the early onset winter and the uncertainty of being able to afford the heating bills, we keep the thermostat pretty low.  That may not be the problem with our pens, though.  You’ve probably had it happen too.  You’ve got an idea and you need to write it right down.  You snatch up the nearest pen and begin scribbling on whatever’s to hand—a bill, a receipt, the dog—only to find the pen doesn’t write.  You scratch out circles or zigzags, depending on your mood and temperament.  The pen is, however, persistent in its refusal to let any ink flow.  You grab another.  The same thing happens.  Finally—third time’s a charm, right?—the pen writes and you’ve forgotten what you desperately need to put on paper (or parchment).

Despite wanting others to think I’m cool (I don’t see many people) years ago I started carrying a pen in my pocket.  Not just any pen, but one that would write immediately, the first time, without question or complaint.  Such pens don’t come cheap.  Then, of course, I would lose said pen.  The shirt pocket is an invitation to lose things.  You bend over and, depending on the fabric, what’s in the pocket falls out.  When it happens on a bus or plane—and it does!—your writing implement may roll away before you can reach it.  Have you ever tried getting on your hands and knees on a bus to try to squeeze down to look under a seat?  I have.  I don’t recommend it.  It’s like praying to the god of grime.  Still, I need that pen that obediently writes—I reach for it.

Some have gone the way of electronic writing.  Thumbs flying like a ninja they tap out texts so fast Samuel Morse’s eyes would pop out if they hadn’t long ago turned to dust.  I’m not a texter, though.  Those who know me know I prefer email where ten digits can work in concert and spare me sore thumbs and unintentionally brief messages that could easily be misunderstood.  No, better yet, give me a pen.  Any scrap of paper will do, but the pen is crucial.  How many ideas have died prematurely due to the pen that just won’t work?  I found a reliable pen refill.  I saved the package so that I could remember the brand.  Now I have to work out a way to have the pen with me at all times.  If the option for useful bodily modifications ever becomes a reality, a pen in the hand seems like the most practical of all.  Now what was I going to say in this blog post?

Keypad of Heaven

There are those who celebrate technology, and those who mourn it.  I fall somewhere in the middle.  One of the selling points for our house was keyless entry.  The great thing about it is you never have to worry about forgetting your keys.  The bad thing is that batteries don’t like cold weather.  The former owners of our house seem to have had it even less together than we do,  They had no instructions or emergency keys for these electronic locks.  So it would happen on a cold, blustery weekend morning we would find ourselves locked out of our most expensive possession.  Now, you have to understand that this “well-maintained” house—so claimed by the not-inexpensive inspector—has turned into a money pit.  The list of derelict pieces and appliances grows weekly and we haven’t even paid off the roof yet.  Emergency locksmiths, I now know, earn their keep.

As I stood on the porch in the gusting wind, waiting in a thin jacket (we were not out for a long trip) for someone I would pay handsomely to break into my house, I considered technology.  If you can afford to keep up with it, it must be great.  If, say, electronic keypads were solar, wired to panels on the roof so that the batteries never died, that would be fantastic.  Even a key would be an advance on a day like this.  So once our teeth stopped chattering and we added yet another creditor to our growing list, I thought how that very morning my computer told me it needed a systems upgrade.  “Didn’t you just have one?” I asked, almost out loud.  I know what it is to be a servant.  My thoughts wandered, as they frequently do, to The Matrix.  When the machines take over, their problem is battery power.  Since we scorched the sky, they began using us as wet cells.  

Later in the day, for cheap entertainment, we went to a local parade.  Among the many vehicles on display were old cars and tractors.  Tractors that even I might have a chance of understanding because they were merely open engines on a frame with seats and large wheels.  This was technology that fed people rather than preventing them from entering their houses.  I couldn’t help but notice that they started with keys.  There’s a reason that the key has always been a potent symbol.  Its simple technology leads to hidden wonders.  And on a cold morning those hidden wonders might well include your own house.

“Now, put these where you won’t lose them!”

Headline News

Some headlines just can’t be resisted.  George Knapp: Christian Fundamentalists in the Pentagon Shut Down Government Paranormal and UFO Probes Due to Demon Fears” is one such headline.  It appears on the blog of Jason Colavito, a name I recognized from the book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture that I read several years back.  Skeptical of many strange claims made, Colavito criticizes journalist George Knapp for some sloppy reporting.  If you go all the way down the rabbit hole, you will end up in some very weird places indeed!  What caught my attention here, however, is the connection between demons and UFOs.  More than that, the claim that government funding was deep-sixed for fear of the Devil.  (Has anyone else noticed that it’s October?)

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about this.  Having grown up Fundamentalist, I often heard talk of the Devil’s wiles.  One of the things he had his demons do, I was told, was fly around in UFOs to deceive people into thinking demons were aliens.  If this sounds far-fetched to you, remember that God made dinosaur bones to plant in the ground to test people’s faith in Genesis 1.  That’s just the kind of universe we live in.  Better get used to it.  The real problem, and one with which Colavito concurs, is that high ranking military officers (and other government officials) believe the Fundamentalist screed.  This is a matter of documented truth—much of our government policy is dictated by the evangelical agenda.  Stranger than fiction.

In 1952 there was a UFO flap in Washington DC.  No matter how you choose to explain it, this is an incident on the public record, and the Air Force responded with its famous temperature inversion explanation.  At the same time, some Fundamentalists were thinking that demons had improved on the bat-wings they’d been using for millennia.  They now zipped around in silvery discs with the same object as they’ve always had—to dis the Almighty.  As entertaining as such a story may be, it becomes scary when it might indeed be the motivation for government action.  I don’t know about you, but when I look at just how much of my meager paycheck goes to the powers that be, I want to know that rational people are spending it wisely.  Wait.  Well, I thought some of them were rational until a couple of years ago, about this time.  In any case, we do get some entertainment value for our cash, which is some comfort I suppose.  Keep watching the swamp!

Read, Mark and

One of the persistent questions of Christianity, given that there are four Gospels, is how to account for the differences between them.  The issue isn’t unique to Jesus-followers, however, as the composition history of the “books of Moses” shows.  Discrepancies in Genesis got the whole ball rolling, after all.  In fact, once I learned about historical criticism I decided that I’d better stick to the Hebrew Bible—there are some things you just don’t want to know about your own faith.  The way doctoral programs are set up these days, you can’t specialize in both testaments anyway, although that’s becoming a lot more common among scholars in these latter days.  In any case, I was reading about the Gospel of Mark lately and the question kept coming up of whether certain phrases went back to Jesus, were coined by Mark, or had their origin in the early church.

The picture that emerges from this kind of jigsaw gospel is of Mark sitting down, pulling his sources together like a graduate student in the days before computers.  Only Mark won’t get a doctorate when he’s done.  More recent scholarship asks the question of what if Mark wasn’t really a completed book after all—we read the gospels through lenses that were ground in the eighteenth century, at the earliest.  Nobody thought to question that Moses or Mark would sit down to write a book just like anyone did then.  (People writing books on their phones in electronic form only, as they do these days, will play havoc with future historical critics and their theories.)  Maybe these weren’t meant to be finished books.  Check out Gospels before the Book by Matthew Larsen and you’ll see what I mean.

The Bible, in other words, is a very complex book.  We know little of its authors beyond Paul of Tarsus.  We don’t even know that they were setting out to write Holy Writ.  Bible is a matter of interpretation.  As I thought about Mark—whoever he was—shuffling his papers about, mulling over what it would mean to become the first evangelist, I thought how like us we’ve made not only God, but also the writers of sacred texts.  True, they weren’t worried about tenure committees, or bad reviews, or being accepted by prestige presses.  It seems, however, that they were also not thinking of what readers down the millennia would do with their words.  When it’s all done we still don’t know who said what, but at least we have persistent questions that can’t be answered.  And job security ensures that Bible reading will continue as long as there are discrepancies to debate.

Insecticide

Although Halloween is more about spiders than insects, a real fear seems to be swirling around the latter.  For the second time in a year, a study has been published indicating a precipitous drop in the numbers of six-legged creatures worldwide.  This is alarming because everything’s connected.  Loss of insects means loss of vertebrates that feed on them and that leads to loss of species upon which we depend.  The problem with “humans first,” simply “America first” writ large, is that all species are interconnected.  The loss of one will lead to the loss of others—that’s the way connections work—until the entire picture changes.  And it won’t be prettier.  Even for lack of bugs.

Scientists aren’t sure of why this is happening, but the likely culprit seems to be global warming.  Temperatures are changing so rapidly that evolution can’t keep up.  And since those in political power don’t believe in evolution—America first!—they have difficulty seeing how global warming—a myth!—could possibly pose any threat.  Just ask the wooly mammoth.  The fact is that the very small frequently offer the answers long before it’s too late.  The problem is you have to pay attention.  And that attention must be not on America, or Trump, or Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court is jobless if there are no people left.  We are part of an ecosystem, and the silence of that ecosystem is very loud indeed.   Decades ago Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn of the dangers of pesticides.  In our short-sighted way, we responded by banning the most dangerous of them and turning up the heat.

We like to focus on the negative aspects of religion these days, but one of the overlooked benefits of it has been religions’ ability to shift focus.  Christianity, for example, has been an advocate of thinking of others before thinking of oneself.  Now certain elected officials seem constitutionally unable to think of anyone but themselves, but the fact is none of us would be here if it weren’t for the insects.  They work to keep our planet neat and tidy, even if we regard them as a sign of uncleanness in our houses.  Maybe not the lowest, they are one of the essential building blocks of the world we know and recognize.  And they are disappearing.  As Carson recognized decades ago, the loss of insects leads to a silent spring because the birds that feed on them will disappear.  And what about pollination—whose job will that become?  I suppose we could assign it to migrant workers, but we’re sending them away too.  America first will be America the silent and hungry.  Unless we listen to what the insects tell us.

October’s Monsters

Blood and vampires go together like October and, well, vampires.  Although I don’t understand manga, I do know it’s extremely popular, and a friend has been lending me the volumes of Hellsing by Kouta Hirano.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve read numbers 4 and 5.  Hellsing sets up a world where the Catholic church destroys vampires, as does the English, Protestant organization Hellsing Organization.  The latter, however, has as its secret weapon the vampire Alucard who, in nearly every number, gets dismembered in some bloody way before pulling himself back together to overcome the enemy.  In the latest issues I’ve read the Catholics and Protestants have to cooperate against the threat of neo-Nazis (and this was before Trump was elected), who also employ werewolves.  (It’s October, remember.)

Having been pondering the vampires of Maine, I decided to read the next in my own generation’s vampire hero, Barnabas Collins.  I’ve been reading the Dark Shadows series by Marilyn Ross to try to find a lost piece of my childhood.  There was a scene in one of these poorly written Gothic novels that made a strong impression on me that I finally re-encountered in Barnabas, Quentin and the Nightmare Assassin.  Interestingly, in this installment Barnabas, the gentleman vampire, is cured of his curse while traveling back in time with Carolyn Stoddard.  The story doesn’t explain how some of the characters from the twentieth century appear a hundred years earlier, but it does bring an early encounter of the vampire against the werewolf—an idea monster fans know from its many iterations such as Hellsing or, famously, Underworld.

You might think vampires and werewolves would get along.  In both the Dark Shadows and Hellsing universes the personalities of both come through clearly.  Both monsters have deep origins in folklore and people have believed in them since ancient times.  Just because they’re not human, however, is no reason to suppose they’ll get along with each other.  As soon as Universal discovered that monsters translated well to film the idea began to develop that monster versus monster would be a great spectacle.  We had vampires and werewolves clashing on cheap budgets with fog machines.  A new orthodoxy was created that the undead just don’t get along.  It’s a idea that continued into the relatively bloodless Dark Shadows series, and on into the violent and gleefully bespattered Hellsing.  And since it’s October nobody should be surprised.

Absalom v. Occam

Getting a haircut is like going to confession.  You don’t go as often as you probably should, and you feel embarrassed and awkward when they ask how much you want taken off.  The penance of looking funny several days afterward ought to be punishment enough, without your head feeling cold once shorn of its natural covering.  At least in my experience.  The truth is I like long hair.  Biblical-length hair.  The truth is also that many people think it inappropriate for a guy my age.  I always eventually bow to peer pressure, but it can take a while.  Beautician forgive me, it has been six months since my last haircut.  Absalom, after all died because of his long hair. O Absalom!

This isn’t just idle musing on my part.  I grew up in the Evangelical tradition that is now ripping our nation apart.  One of the greatest markers of that faith is conformity.  In college I learned to call it the “Evangelical haircut.”  Any guy who had hair over his collar or ears was suspect of not being “Christian.”  I began to notice that this same mindset preferred well manicured lawns, cutting down trees and keeping outward appearances neat and tidy.  There’s no better way to mask what goes on internally than to present an outward look of a well-ordered world.  Getting a haircut always brings this back to me—it is a statement being made.  I’m not sure how to explain this to the poor girl standing there with scissors in her hand.  I don’t want to look Evangelical!

Of course, the beard helps.  Until recently Evangelicals didn’t permit beards.  The girls in college said they made men look unclean.  As if they were never washed.  And these days some Evangelicals have come to support the stubble beard—electric razors, those allies of Occam, can be purchased to keep the half-way bearded look fresh.  I prefer to get my money’s worth out of a haircut.  I also prefer to signal that I am not one of them.  Absalom may have been an overly ambitious young man, but despite Michelangelo’s famous statue, David the man was himself in all likelihood bearded and might’ve sported a mullet.  Samson wore dreds.  Uncomfortable with history, Evangelical illustrators in the ‘80s began portraying Jesus with a Roman haircut and neatly trimmed beard.  Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but now that I’ve got Samson’s fate in mind I find it difficult to open the door, knowing I’ll walk out after confession not feeling so much redeemed as just plain chilly.  Even Absalom, I remind myself, had his hair cut once a year.