WHO Cares?

During this time of crisis my employer has suggested keeping an eye on the World Health Organization website.  I’ve been doing that with a nearly religious fervor.  I’ve been looking over the daily situation reports.  These not only contain advice not poisoned by government agendas, but also list the new outbreaks and provide pages of statistics.  The numbers differ from many news sources, but WHO tracks new cases, the number of deaths, and the vectors of transmission.  I’m trying to make a learning exercise out of this, instead of just further cause for panic.  More secretive world states, WHO warns, are preventing containment by under-reporting.  You’d think that in a time of global crisis that even autocracies would want to cooperate.  You’d think wrong.  

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

WHO has indicated that some nations (the usual suspects) are keeping numbers down not through effective measures, but through not reporting them.  Since honest reporting helps to trace, track, and understand transmission, such nations are essentially holding out hope that they’ll somehow bend this crisis to their advantage and appear stronger than they actually are.  I’m guessing these nations are male. 

Interestingly, the names of the countries on the overall list don’t always match those I’ve learned in my own study of geography.  The Vatican, for example, is listed as “Holy See.”  I know that’s its name, but it seems kind of odd against Lichtenstein, Peru, and Mozambique.  The Holy See, last time I noticed, had 6 cases.  The number gave me pause.  With a population of just over 600, Vatican City does seem to be a male nation.  It’s a country of clerics. 

Those in ministry toe a difficult line during a pandemic.  Governments are telling people to isolate themselves to halt the spread of disease, and yet clergy, like medical professionals, often have to put themselves in harm’s way.  I think of how Pope Francis had laid hands on the sick, even when it must’ve been difficult to do so.  Local churches have, for the most part, shut down.  Clergy are self-isolating, social distancing.  It is the socially responsible thing to do.  How it fits within an ecclesiastical view of life, however, must be quite a balancing act.  I often think of how I’d be acting if I were a minister.  Would I go to the home of someone suffering in isolation, or would I be afraid of infecting my own family?  Would I be a nation reaching out to the rest of the world with largess, or would I be a holy see cut off from the people?  I don’t have an answer.  I wonder if anyone does.

More Than Books

Careers.  A pandemic is no time to think about changing jobs unless you’re forced to, but I often wonder if I got it wrong.  No matter what my job was, I wanted it to be about books.  When I was considering ministry it was largely because of the Good Book, and I did a lot of reading of books about it.  Over time my mindset morphed to that of a professor and the book-lined study was my icon.  I admit I’m fixated at that stage.  Now I’m an editor.  Life would’ve been different if I’d become a librarian.  Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is a volume that opens up the cloistered lives of librarians and shows just how vital libraries remain.  I have to confess that before reading this I don’t recall ever having heard of the central Los Angeles library fire of 1986.  Now I can’t forget it.

More than just an account of the fire—although a suspect was arrested it still isn’t clear that he was guilty—this is a book about libraries.  An account of the fire alone would not have been so interesting.  Orlean tells us about this history of the Los Angeles Public Library and the importance of libraries around the world.  She introduces us to several librarians and gives us insight into why they became such and what it is they do.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot more than re-shelving books.  And there’s the sad tale of an unsolved fire that destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of books.  Having had hundreds of books destroyed by water myself, some parts of this book were difficult to read.  Books are vulnerable, like butterflies they must be treated with care.  The idea of them burning, then being soaked, is distressing.

Like many people, I suspect, I began this book thinking libraries were on the way out.  The internet has changed things.  What I didn’t fully appreciate is that libraries have been evolving to keep up with the times.  And that they provide social services, such as a place out of the weather for the homeless.  I experienced this myself in Montclair, New Jersey.  When accompanying my wife there on Saturdays when she had to work, if I finished with the bookstores early I’d head to the library.  You could sit there for free.  I always have books with me, so I could read.  I could use their wifi for free.  Libraries, you see, are all about giving.  They give so much to the community.  Now that we’re living hermetically sealed lives, it might seem strange to think of libraries as places of social gathering.  And of course they’ll have books.  Orlean’s account makes me think perhaps my career has been off-track.  Perhaps I should’ve been a librarian.

Haunted States

I’ve been going through a spate of watching “The Haunting” movies.  Just to be clear, I don’t mean The Haunting, by Robert Wise (1963), which is excellent.  Instead I mean movies spun off of the Discovery Channel’s series A Haunting.  Several years ago, between jobs and too near an FYE store, I picked up a cheap two-fer.  This set contained the television movies A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia.  I watched them once and then traded them in to get something else.  The first one really bothered me.  The Connecticut story deals with a childhood cancer victim, and that alone is scary enough.  It had the limitations of a television movie and left me thinking it wasn’t too satisfying.  The Georgia haunting was more of a documentary, but it was also open-ended.

Then someone got the idea to make a movie out of the two.  The Haunting in Connecticut blows the plot over the top.  I kept thinking as I watched it, isn’t it in bad taste to make a horror movie based on the true life horror of tragic disease?  The protagonist of the story, Philip Snedecker, died about three years after the movie came out.  Although the plot generally followed the first movie an entire subplot was added to pad it out.  A nineteenth-century funeral director has enslaved a young man to be his medium.  The undertaker steals and marks dead bodies to enhance the boy’s powers.  These completely fictional characters intermingle with the real life tragic Snedeckers.  As you might expect, chaos ensues.

The oddly named The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia also had to add an entire fabricated story to the troubles of the Wyrick family.  In real life the Wyricks moved into a house where their daughter started seeing things, including a kindly ghost named Mr. Gordy.  She also saw some sinister spirits.  So much so that her family invited a parapsychologist to investigate.  The theatrical version adds in a stationmaster on the underground railroad who was also a taxidermist.  Instead of helping all the slaves to freedom, he saved some for stuffing later.  No real motivation is given, beyond his enjoyment of sawdust and thread and death.  

While these two movies really didn’t help much, I generally find watching horror during a pandemic therapeutic.  Horror films sometimes help viewers envision worst-case scenarios and figure out how they might deal with them, learning from the victims’ mistakes.  I suspect that’s why, a few years back, the CDC posted instructions on what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse.  It was all about disaster preparedness.  Of course, in those days we had no idea what was really coming to Connecticut, and Georgia, and to every state of the union.

Disease Divine?

I suspect many religious people are wondering where God is amid the current pandemic.   Theodicy (explaining the suffering of the innocent while defending the goodness of the Divine) has always been the bête noire of monotheistic belief systems.  (Polytheism has the advantage of always being able to blame another god.)   People have been pointing articles out to me that show the religious implications of a crisis.  I’m not at all surprised by the irrationality of the subjects.  The first article was an opinion piece in the New York Times.  It makes a good case that the religious right paved the way for the COVID-19 contagion in the United States.  The religious right is anti-science because they (wrongly) believe the Bible is a science book.  Even a small dose of seminary could cure that ill.  Katherine Stewart nevertheless makes a strong argument that the survivors of all of this will know whom to blame.  Science denial is not the same as authentic religion.

From NASA’s photo library

The other news stories that arise are of evangelical leaders defying government bans or guidance, even when delivered by messiah Trump, to large gatherings.  One of the main reasons for this is that said messiah kept saying the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.  Only when re-election seemed unlikely with all the uneducated dead did he finally start issuing warnings to avoid such idiotic congregating.  In the midst of it all, Jerry Falwell Junior (why did all these evangelists have to propagate?) decided to reopen Liberty University.  No doubt confident that God will keep them from any harm, the university officials decided it would be good to gather students from all over the country and put them together in dorms again.  If you’ve ever lived in a dorm I’m sure you can see why the decision is anything but wise.

It’s sad that evangelicalism has decided to pander to the uneducated.  You can believe in Jesus (many mainstream Christians do) without parking your rationality in the farthest parking spot from the door.  Many of us, huddled in our houses, not having seen other living people for days, are trying to isolate this thing and drive it to extinction.  Meanwhile, those who trust their own version of the supernatural are doing whatever they can to ensure the virus continues to spread.  Why?  They have long been taught that science isn’t real.  Never mind that their cell phones work and they get the news of open dorms through the internet, the science behind it all is bunk.  An entire executive branch administration that doesn’t believe in science is as sure a road to apocalypse as any.

Not Sterling

Only indirectly has the coronavirus pandemic influenced my decision to read books of short stories.  Indirectly because bookstores are closed and I have several such volumes gathered here at home.  This particular collection includes a book “especially written for young people” called Chilling Stories from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  This is a book I had as a young person, discarded, and then regretted discarding.  I have to say that most books I discard I eventually regret.  When you’re young and moving from apartment to apartment, though, you can’t keep all your books.  Anyway, I re-acquired it several years back.  The book doesn’t list an author.  Instead, the title page says “Adapted by Walter B. Gibson.”  Gibson was best known for writing The Shadow series.  The end result is that I don’t know who wrote the stories in this book.  They have the ideas of Rod Serling, but the writing isn’t in his style.

When I buy a book (I got this one used on the internet, back when it was young) I like to know the author.  WorldCat lists Serling as the author, but the book was published pre-ISBN days, back when publishers could be a bit less than transparent about such things.  Other websites put Gibson first under authors, followed by Serling.  The publisher, Tempo Books, was an imprint of Grosset & Dunlap, which eventually came under the Random House/Penguin umbrella.  Originally publishing primarily children’s books, Tempo lists this book for young readers, although as an adult reader I wonder if it could appeal to young people today.  There’s no sex and any violence is really implied rather than explicit, but there’s some adult-level subtlety going on.  Books for young readers are much different these days.

Just recently my daughter introduced me to the increasing sophistication of levels of book genres.  Like most readers and writers I’m encouraged at how young adult books have taken off.  A future generation of readers is cause for hope.  There are now “new adult books.”  These are targeted at those college aged or just over.  Unlike young adult titles they’ll have sex and adult language.  My Twilight Zone book lacks these, and it also lacks the sparkle of Serling’s teleplays.  Serling was a playwright and screenwriter.  These stories clearly contain his ideas but not his ability.  I didn’t know that as a child.  I do know that I never finished the book before now.  One of the reasons, I expect, is that it didn’t really seem like I was reading Serling, even to my young self.  Still, ghost stories during a pandemic have their own appropriate place, and who doesn’t want to be young at heart?

Prophets and Exiles

One of the scariest passages in the Bible is Ezekiel 33.7-9.  I first read this before I was a teenager and it scared me deeply.  In case you don’t feel like clicking over to BibleGateway and searching, the pericope is a section where Yahweh is warning Ezekiel about the dangers of giving up hope (in the larger context).  Ezekiel, you see, had lived through the fall of Jerusalem.  Many people of Judah felt that the destruction of the temple was the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the chosen people.  Ezekiel here is being warned to deliver good news.  If Ezekiel doesn’t call out the lie (the sins of Israel weigh it down) he will be punished as if he were the sinner himself.  I knew evangelical friends in college who lifted that verse out of context and said God would punish them if they didn’t warn the people.  They weren’t so worried about the fall of Jerusalem—that was old news by the 1980s—but about some other issue they deemed important at the moment.

Taking verses out of context has a name.  It’s called “prooftexting.”  It can be done to just about any piece of writing, including this blog post.  All it requires is finding a passage that says what you want it to and claim that it means what you say it does.  The Bible’s a big, big book.  Trying to understand its contents in context takes years of dedicated work.  Even then biblical scholars don’t have all the answers because if they did we could all stay home and surf the net for the rest of our lives.  No, engaging with sacred texts is a never-ending task, by definition.  That warning to Ezekiel was for Ezekiel.  What was that message?  Stop saying the exile is the end!  There’s more to the story.  Read the book to the end and see.

The problem with prooftexting, if I might engage in a bit of it myself, is that it takes away from the totality of the Good Book itself.  Not adding too or taking away from the Bible is a biblical command (taken out of context), which means that with the Bible it’s all or nothing at all.  And if it’s the former, it means Ezekiel’s condemnation is contingent upon what follows.  Back in biblical times there wasn’t as much reading material as there is today.  It turns out, however, that there’s a lot more written down than we used to assume.  If we’re going to read it we should do so within its context.  But just in case, please be assured that the exile isn’t the end of the story.

Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.