Pointing to the Moon

The failure of India’s  Chandrayaan 2 to maintain contact, intended to make India the fourth nation to successfully conduct a lunar landing, sent me reading about the moon.  I remember the first manned landing, which happened when I was six, so the idea that we could make it that far seemed less impressive than it really is, I suppose.  I was fascinated by early space travel, and part of this may have been because of the moment of silence announced in school the day Apollo 13 safely returned to earth after the oxygen tank explosion that made its landing impossible.  As I was reading about the many moon missions that took place before I was born, I was surprised to learn how many nations are still attempting to reach our nearest neighbor.  This year alone China, Israel, and India have all attempted to land up there.

Israel’s mission called its lunar lander Beresheet.  It was the first attempt to land the Bible on the moon.  Beresheet is the Hebrew title of Genesis.  The US missions were named Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, and Apollo.  Ironically for the persistently religious nation, our only supernatural title was the name of a Greek deity.  Israel was true to its roots with its naming convention, but there is kind of a paradox involved.  In the world of the Bible the earth is the center of the universe and the moon is a quasi-living being circling about our stationary fix in this fictional view of the cosmos.  That’s not to say our own views may not some day be regarded as fictional as well, but simply that we now know the view in Genesis is incorrect.

Of course, the word “genesis” can mean a purely secular beginning as well.  It is a compound word that is often translated as “in the beginning.”  As such, it is appropriate for the first attempt at a moon landing, or any other great venture.  Still, it is instantly recognizable as the first word in the Bible, indicating a kind of strange juxtaposition where the biblical moon—which is not the same as the astronomical moon—are brought together.  Unlike the book of Genesis, the moon has been reached many times by others before.  The old and the new meet in this attempt to reach into space.  Meanwhile our problems continue down here.  Maybe that’s why we continue to attempt to reach the heavens.  And in that sense, no better title applies than that of the book that somehow defies rational explanation.

The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Star Tract

Over the past few years my wife and I have been watching the episodes of Star Trek (original series; please, we are connoisseurs). As a religious child watching Star Trek I had noticed that some of the episodes had biblical titles or themes, but now that I’ve been watching them systematically, if not swiftly, I have noticed a general trend towards more biblical themes as the series goes on. I suspect most readers know that Star Trek had only three seasons. During the first season references to the Bible were a bit vague and indistinct. Episodes 23-25 (“A Taste of Armageddon,” “This Side of Paradise,” and “The Devil in the Dark”) make reference to biblical motifs in their titles, but nothing too explicit. Paradise and the Devil are, after all, in the public domain.

Season two stepped up the ante a bit. In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” the pagan god Apollo appeared, but in “The Apple” the Enterprise was transported back to Judeo-Christian themes in the paradise genre again. “Journey to Babel,” episode 10, brought a biblical place into the title, and “Bread and Circuses” (episode 25) famously put the crew into the world of the Roman Empire where the rebels were found to be sun worshippers. But no! Worshippers of the son of God, we learn. The move away from Apollo is complete, we have come back to a comfortable, Christian world.

The third and final season delved even further into the biblical repertoire. Once again, “The Paradise Syndrome” (episode 3) brings Heaven to the heavens, but episode 4 also has a biblical title “And the Children Shall Lead.” Episode 16, “The Mark of Gideon,” takes considerable thought to unpack the biblical parallel, and episode 19 is entitled “Requiem for Methuselah.” Paradise, obviously a favorite theme, returns in “The Way to Eden,” or episode 20. Each season goes boldly further than the one before.

Quite apart from the titles of episodes, Star Trek, despite the technology and unflinching logic of Mr. Spock, is an extremely biblically literate show. Even as the 1960s were fading into the 70s it was a safe assumption that watchers would pick up on the many biblical motifs and themes. Now when younger people mention Star Trek, they inevitably mean one of the various spin-off series that have grown from this original root. Biblical references are surely there, but like the times themselves, I suspect they aren’t nearly as overt as they were when I was a kid. For many even paradise has lost its shine.