Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Narrative Ark

Complete with an artificial giraffe perched on its prow—or aft, I can never tell the difference—a modern-day Noah’s ark is about to set sail. Or set float. The Bible doesn’t describe any kind of steering or propulsion for the ark since its main job was not to sink. According to a story on Huffington Post by Nina Golgowski, the life-size “replica” of Noah’s ark from the Netherlands (that I’ve posted about before) is about to go to sea. Spreading the good news as it goes, it is headed for South America, according to the story. Then the itinerary heads north, where the most rapid true believers can be found. Perhaps intentionally the ark is headed toward the godless left coast rather than hitting the Bible Belt. The fact that an imaginative reconstruction of a mythical ship can float may save many from Hell. A few questions, however, remain.

I’m a visual guy. I study pictures rather than just look at them. As a kid I was amazed at the sheer variety of arks that claimed to follow Noah’s blueprint. Reading the account in Genesis, it is clear that all that’s given are measurements—in cubits, no less—and instructions to make three decks and a window. The Dutch ark follows the design made popular by the 1977 Sun Pictures’ In Search of Noah’s Ark movie. The design, I recall thinking as a teen, looked slick and scientific. Engineered to withstand a fake storm in a bathtub, this has to prove something. When rock outcroppings on Mount Ararat were photographed from satellites and military jets, they suggested this was, in fact, correct, some of the time. Close-up photos were inevitably lost as sherpa after sherpa fell into hidden crevasses with the camera still in hand. Now they won’t let you climb the mountain, just in case.

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

Apart from the ark design is the more important question—the question about leg room. With all our technology, and a world that has been pretty thoroughly, if disappointingly, explored, we still haven’t catalogued all the species on the planet. The ark had to hold all the species since evolution is a diabolical lie. Pugs had to be there as well as their non-ancestral wolves. Both African and Indian elephants. Black and white rhinos. Hippopotami, pygmy and economy-sized. It had to have been pretty crowded, and Answers in Genesis claims there had to be room for dinosaurs too. For me the question has always been those left off the ark—the fish. If the oceans are salt water and the whole world was flooded, whence the fresh-water fish? They couldn’t have evolved, since nobody does. That’s a head-scratcher. Good thing too, because there had to have been more than just two fleas on that ark.

Fast One Flood

I’m not sure what to believe anymore. This crisis of faith revolves not around religion, but around media. Pundits have been saying for some time that the internet has meant the slow death of journalism, and there are so many websites that redistribute news that its like the whole world is involved in a constant, perpetual game of “telephone.” All of this is preface to a story a friend sent me that appeared on the website God. I’m not sure I trust God. The story is too good to be true. At least in a schadenfreude sort of way. God is hosted on thegoodlordabove.com, and, well, we all know about dot coms. The article concerns the destruction of Answers in Genesis’ Noah’s Ark theme park by a flood. That is believable. Floods do occur, as Noah knew. What becomes unbelievable is that the National Weather Service forecaster stated that there were no storm clouds in the area at the time. That qualifies as a miracle.

Martin,_John_-_The_Deluge_-_1834

Did this really happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Plenty of times when I was there (wherever there happened to be at the time) I wasn’t even sure what happened. Can I find the truth? One of the police sites for internet rumors is Snopes (also a dot com). I remember when Snopes began as a place to quell fears of urban legends. Back when the worldwide web was young, there was a verisimilitude to stories gleaned from the net. Living in the sparsely populated Midwest, it was easy to believe that some of these things could happen to you. At times I held onto Snopes like a crucifix, especially if I had to go out alone at night. Snopes tells me that thegoodlordabove is not to be trusted. The story is false, like others that have originated on the site. Answers in Genesis, unfortunately, is still going strong with its theme park.

Authoritative texts aren’t what they used to be. There was a day when all you had to do was pull a black leather book off the shelf to find the definitive answers. In Genesis or any other of the books. Now we rely on the worldwide consensus of the web. You can’t trust God on a website. Snopes, however, is pretty reliable. It’s the Scully to our natural Mulder. That’s why the web will never have the same impact as print media. Even the website for your bank or government can be cleverly faked. I might’ve looked no further had the purported flood not fallen from a cloudless sky. I guess I’d better be a wary believer. For the internet tells me so.

Ham on Nye

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, comprised a good part of my thirties. My daughter was young and we were living in a religious environment sometimes openly hostile to science. Nye is funny and fastidious, and completely devoted to the empirical worldview. His videos (yes, it was that long ago) were fairly inexpensive in VHS format, and even as parents we learned a thing or two. When Bill Nye came to the New Jersey Green initiative conference (I don’t recall what it was called) we were in the audience to see him live. It was rather like an epiphany. Despite his wit and charm, many of his colleagues are now advising him that he’s made a wrong turn. According to NBC, he is set to debate Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis in a no-win debate, that of creation versus evolution. Some of the top lights of science have been bloodied by lower profile conflicts because—and this is the crucial point—religion and science do not agree on basic ground rules. It’s a schoolyard scrap, and those who try to adhere to laws of reason are often ill equipped.

800px-The_Creation_of_Adam

The debate isn’t really over the question of how we got here. The real prize is power. Creationists cannot win on purely scientific grounds; anyone who’s tried to read Henry Morris’s books knows that you can’t get very far without a curious hand raking your head. The science is flawed but the conviction is solid. Truth, the creationists know, is not open for debate. His scientific colleagues fear for the intrepid science guy, noting that this is just another instance to give creationism faux credibility in what is really a public relations scam. Ham’s creationist museum has dinosaurs on the ark, which, in an unrelated story on NBC, is drawing righteous ire from the self-same Ham. (I’ve posted on the round ark before, and likely will again.)

If I understand the first article correctly, the debate will be taking place tonight. If I understand science at all, the world will continue to evolve tomorrow. Creationism has a curious relationship to the world, viewing it through a Bible-shaped lens. A close look at the Bible reveals that it does not support the creationist viewpoint in any literal way. Too many dragons and contradictions make implausible any but a heavily harmonized version of Genesis 1. Biblical scholars, however, are among the worst of sinners, according to the creationist camp. We might be the very ones exposing their children to Bill Nye and other questionable truths such as television and electricity that don’t even exist in the Bible. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Bill Nye, but then, superstition has nothing to do with it.

Sh*t Apes Say

Knowing from experience that when I stay alone in a hotel, despite my best intentions, I will get bored and end up watching Mudcats or Dual Survival until my brain feels like a boiled egg, I anticipated my trip to California. I packed Planet of the Apes, the original and best of the lot, hoping for some intellectual stimulation. Having grown up in an anti-evolution household, we were curiously allowed to watch Planet of the Apes, a kind of forbidden zone of the mind. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It is also a manifesto of science besieged by religion. Note what Dr. Zaius says, “There is no contradiction between faith and science… true science!” And he is the Minister of Science, and Chief Defender of the Faith. The trial of George Taylor, a thinly disguised parody of the Scopes Trial, has Honorious (read William Jennings Bryan) stating, “It is based on our first article of faith: that the almighty created the ape in his image, that he gave him a soul and a mind, the he set him apart from the beasts of the jungle and made him lord of the planet,” and turning on his fellow apes Zira and Cornelius, he accuses them of being “perverted scientists who advance an insidious theory called evolution!”

Dr. Zira, as one of these “perverted scientists,” asks Cornelius (incidentally, the name of the first non-Jewish Christian, according to Acts), “How can scientific truth be heresy?” This is echoed by Dr. Zaius in the trial where he states, “It is scientific heresy that is being tried here.” Indeed, the entire simian culture is based on the blurring and blending of science and religion. Throughout the film various characters make barbed statements about the human propensity to ignore the obvious. Landon, challenging Taylor about the time change they experienced in space, says—in a line that could come straight from Answers in Genesis—“Prove it! It’s still just a theory.” The exact rhetoric currently used by creationists in school board meetings around the country. To which the most apt reply seems to come from Dr. Zaius, speaking of humanity: “his wisdom must walk hand-in-hand with his idiocy.”

Occasionally even the gun-toting humans get the picture clear. In his opening monologue George Taylor wonders about the world seven hundred years from now, “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?” This seems to be the true measure of heresy—a religion that puts fellow humans on the same level as animals (and even animals deserve far more credit than we are willing to give). Among my favorite lines is Cornelius’ response to Taylor shaving his beard; “Somehow it makes you look less intelligent,” he opines. Endlessly remade, Planet of the Apes is a movie that still answers some of the issues that plague our society nearly half a century later. Perhaps the last line should go to the apes, adjusted of course, for gender sensitivity, “[hu]man[ity] has no understanding.” Well said, Dr. Zaius, well said.

A piece of childhood

Legislating Reality

The follies that plague humankind come in an almost cyclical form. As old Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I just finished D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteen-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Other than the fact that the subtitle accounts for a good portion of the book, this account shows just how little we’ve progressed. At the heart of the book is Maurice v. Judd, a New York case of 1818 in which a whale merchant contested an assessor’s fee on “fish oil” by claiming a whale was not a fish. In “trial of the century” style, star witnesses were called in, bringing science to the docket. It was known, even in these pre-Origin of Species days, that a whale was a mammal, but what soon became clear as Burnett laid out the facts of the case was that the Bible held sway. Genesis divides the classes of nature into beasts, birds, and fish. This simplistic taxonomy was held by many in the nineteenth century to be a sacred statement of fact. If whales lived in the water, they were fish. The fact that they nurse their young, who are born live, and that they share the skeletal template of land creatures and have warm blood, and breathe through lungs, simply did not matter. If Genesis says fish, fish it is.

My mind immediately jumped ahead just over a century to the Scopes Trial. Once again, science was bent over the knee of Genesis and poised for a paddlin’. And the challenges still have not stopped. Call it Intelligent Design, or Answers in Genesis—anything but mythology—and it will keep coming back for more. Already, in 1818, lawyers were arguing that science could be decided in the courtroom. Facts only muddy the issue. If Genesis weren’t enough, Jonah’s “great fish” was called a “whale” in the Gospels, so, QED. There is no debating Bible science. Just to prove the case, we’ll bring it to trial so that twelve people with no science training can decide the issue based on rhetoric. Disciples of dogma. No surprise that the jury found the whale to be a fish. There’s no stopping a true believer.

My wife gave me this book because of my enormous fondness for Moby Dick. In both books the discussion of killing and butchering whales bothers me immensely, but I know that Melville is running after a beast of a metaphor and that whale-boat skimming across the surface of the ocean has lanced a far greater prey than a white whale. The creationists, however, fail to see the beauty of mythic images. Anyone who’s even watched a court drama on television knows that the truth is not what courts seek. Courts seek to convince a jury, whether a person is guilty or not. No matter if it’s a while whale or a white bronco involved. Truth is much more subtle and fragile. Truth can be discerned by facts. But the Bible is a heavy book, and when dropped from a great enough height, can fracture even the laws of nature. Like Ahab, the creationists are never truly gone forever.

Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"