By the Time I Get to Phoenix

I remember when flying involved going to a travel agent, explaining where and when you wanted to go, and how much you could afford. The agent would contact airlines, get you your best price, and you left knowing that you’d just have to show up at the airport maybe half an hour before your flight so you got there before they closed the door. For our vacation trip, my wife used priceline.com. I’ve used it for business travel myself, but when I am going for work, certain strictures apply. For this trip, expense was a major factor. We flew, outbound, to Spokane, Washington via Seattle, on Alaska Airlines. Since our final destination was Spokane (at least for the air portion of the trip), that involved a bit of back-tracking, but, being Alaska Airlines, who could really complain?

In order to make the trip affordable, we flew back on a different airline (I’m still not sure if it was American or U. S. Air; both reference the same entity, apparently) via an alternate route. Whichever airline it was had a hub in Phoenix, so we flew from Spokane to Phoenix before heading back to Newark. I’d visited Phoenix on Routledge business, but I didn’t spend much time in the airport. It became clear from this trip, however, that the Day of the Dead is a big deal for tourists. Given the popularity of Halloween, I suppose that’s not so surprising. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of Day of the Dead merchandise was stunning, considering that these were, for the most part, impulse, carry-on items. Figurines of various sorts comprised the most popular arrays. Skeletons, fully dressed, engaged in many quotidian activities, although deceased.

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Amid the many daily scenes, I spied a last supper tchotchke. Skeleton Jesus and twelve skeleton disciples gathered around a table for a final meal. Maybe just a little too late. While not a theologian, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this. I know little about the Day of the Dead beyond its association with All Souls Day. The last supper is set up in the Gospels as the grounding, in some way, for a divine plan or redemption. In other words, it doesn’t work if the principals are dead. Already jet-lagged and fuzzy-headed, I couldn’t think to take out my wallet. I really can’t afford baubles in any case, yet there was something profound to think about here. For some reason the market will bear much more in an airport than it will in no-fly zones. Still, as I struggled to stay awake all the long way to Newark, I couldn’t help but think that this was an appropriate image to signal the end of a much needed vacation.

Making Saints

Some places are inaccessible in the academic world. Or perhaps invisible. I couldn’t help but have Santa Muerte on my mind as I visited the Phoenix/Tempe area of Arizona. I knew from reading Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death that the skeleton saint has a large following in that area. Having been raised in a working class religion in a blue-collar household, I also knew that such trappings might not be entirely visible around a university setting. Arizona State is a huge school and my minimal free time on the trip only permitted a wander-radius of a couple blocks from around the campus. Many universities are, because of their property-value-lowering non-profit status, on the edge of sketchy neighborhoods where work-a-day people live. It didn’t seem that way in Tempe. The areas I reached all seemed to have that adobe-solid middle-class feel to them. Not that I go looking for seedy neighborhoods when I’m traveling by myself, but I do like to see stores that aren’t part of a chain, and to get a sense of local culture. For most academics, the pedestrian devotion to Santa Muerte is below the radar.

The concept has haunted me ever since reading Chestnut’s study—why would people find appealing to death attractive? Santa Muerte has the trappings of a Catholic saint, but she is, plainly put, death personified. She is a favorite among drug lords and criminals, and that is somewhat understandable. Her Hispanic devotees, I realize, often live lives of desperate poverty. The well-heeled saints of conventional religion might not be able to see things from their perspective. Although the Catholic Church continues to make saints, many of the traditional saints predate capitalism. Capitalism creates its own insidious disenfranchisement. I realized this already as a child growing up in a setting where just about everybody I knew had it better than my family did. For some to prosper, others must suffer in such a system. I knew which end I belonged on.

As in my visits to Santa Barbara (a much more conventional saint, by the way), Austin and Houston, in Tempe the Hispanic population was evident mostly in the menial labor sector. The person who makes your hotel bed or brings the hot plate of food to you in the restaurant. The person who mops up your spills or picks up your trash. And they are the ones who’ve made it into the earning bracket of the minimum wage. Why not worship personified death? Does not Santa Muerte remind them that we all face the same rictus grin at the end of our days? Isn’t it best to be on good terms before we reach that inevitable place? It was clear that on my visit I wasn’t going to be able to get far enough from prosperity to see the skeleton saint myself. At Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, waiting for my 11:30 p.m. flight back to cloudy skies, all the shops were closed. I passed by a boutique with local art, and there I possibly glimpsed her. A small statuette, possibly just the grim reaper, among other Day of the Dead motifs. Was it inspired by Santa Muerte? I would never know, I pondered, as the Hispanic airport attendants, still at work around me, were busy emptying the garbage.

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Sun Devils

Unbelievable. The unrelenting sun of Arizona is unbelievable. Even a “cloudless day” back east is only an approximation. Here it is literal. And like all things literal, it attracts the Fundamentalists. I spent the day on the campus of Arizona State University, the country’s largest university by enrollment. Outside the student union, a couple of bands were banging away in the heat, but when I passed by in mid-afternoon they’d been replaced by a street preacher. He was nattily dressed and provocative. When I first walked by he was talking about students being either “a wicked homosexual, a wicked pot-smoker, or a wicked feminist” and went on to throw in some choice words such as “Obama-loving sinner.” Nobody seemed to be paying him much mind. I went on to a couple of appointments and when I passed that way again, at least ninety minutes later, he was still at it. Now he had a small crowd. Students virtuously challenged him as he claimed that he was without sin, “yes, I am Christ-like” he said to one question, and proceeded to tell anyone that challenged him that they were not children of God and that they should run to Hell because they would enjoy it so much.

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The more I watched this charade, the more trouble I had believing that the preacher was sincere. He quoted, out of context, of course, chapter and verse. He literally thumped his Bible. His hatred for anyone who disagreed with him was plainly evident. I felt embarrassed on so many levels. This is a state university, and the man had a clear agenda of hatred and intolerance. I was here to meet the religion faculty. Everything students were being taught in their classes was being shot down by an ancient book that had relevance only by being quoted out of context. And all of this on a campus whose mascot is the Sun Devil. Devils abound on campus, but the worst, it seemed to me, preached loudest.

Somewhere along the way to enlightenment, this kind of Christianity slipped the rails to become its own self-righteous force. What right had this man to tell students they were wicked? To me they seemed hospitable, peace-loving, and kind to the stranger in their midst. The preacher, self-fascinated, claimed to be without sin. I guess that gave him the scripture-sanctioned right to cast the first stone. Good thing he wasn’t in the crowd when Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery. When a few students pointed out his flaws in reasoning, which were many, others applauded before he flew back to his out-of-context biblical backbone. More quoting, more thumping. The sun was out in full force in Arizona, but somehow it failed to fall on one man who proclaimed himself better than all others.

Phoenix Rising

As a bird with the incredible gift of resurrection, the Phoenix is one of the most enduring symbols of Greek mythology. We, as people, are pretty accustomed to messing things up and the hope of renewal is something we earnestly crave. The Phoenix, when its long life is over, goes up in a burst of flames only to be reborn from its own ashes. Christians early latched onto this poignant symbol, as have many other religions. In origin the Phoenix is likely related to the sun mythos. Isn’t there always a small shadow of fear that somehow it might fail to rise tomorrow morning, plunging us all into interminable darkness? The Phoenix is a harbinger of hope. These are my thoughts as I soar, birdlike, toward Phoenix, Arizona. A city named after the resurrecting bird. I’m not certain what awaits me here—I’ve never been to Arizona before, but I do know it is desert, and that life in the desert is always precarious. I’m glad to have brought my mythology with me.

Phoenix was, appropriately enough for October, first named Pumpkinville. It is difficult to imagine this sixth most populous city in the United States coming to prominence under that moniker. Since it is October, however, there is an aptness to such history. My trip, as most of my travel, relates to business rather than pleasure—there is a kind of hope in resurrection here as well. As a city in the desert, resurrection would seem to be central to those millions who call Phoenix home. Indeed, the concept of the gods as we know them seems to have been conceived and born in the harsh environment of desiccated lands. Some suggest the Phoenix was originally taken from Egyptian lore. Egypt was, outside the Nile delta, a nation only a few miles wide, snaking alongside a life-giving river in the wilderness.

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What is it about deserts that brings the spiritual to mind? It always seemed to me that it was an issue of utter dependence. People living in a harsh environment need all the help they can get. It is difficult to suppose that harsh deities might arise in perfect circumstances. Today Phoenix depends more on engineering and control of the environment than on providence. The gods of the desert nevertheless find a home here. Even if they have adapted to an affluent lifestyle. As go the experiences of people, so go the fortune of the gods. And resurrecting birds.

From Palin to Phelps

People get shot every day, but that does not take the sting from the January 8 shootings in Tucson, Arizona. We live in a nation filled with angry, violent people. Most of them hold their rage in check, but others act out their frustrations aided by the obscene ease of firearm ownership. Into this volatile brew, mix in the warped rhetoric of a politics of fear and who knows what might happen. Sarah Palin and other outspoken conservative ideologues hold up their pristine hands to demonstrate they have nothing to do with the hate-mongering that haunts our streets. She calls the jabs at conservatives “blood libel.” I say if you propagate the politics of fear you’re liable to get blood on those hands. Often in the bookstore I see titles like How to Talk to Liberals: If You Have to. The liberals I hear talking are only asking for dialogue and coexistence. One side wants a chance for everyone to be heard, the other wants to throw stones at those who are different.

Students do presentations in my classes. The assignment is to choose a social issue where the Bible is brought to bear on the topic and present to the class what you learn about the subject. Two groups last night presented on the Westboro Baptist Church and its outspoken pastor and founder, Fred Phelps. Both presentation groups showed videos of members of the Westboro Baptist Church speaking out about various and sundry liberal groups/causes/nations they hate. Plucking verses from the Bible like a chicken pecking at the ground, they cite only those passages that justify hating those who are different. They seem to have overlooked the part that says, “by their fruits you shall know them.”

On today’s schedule? According to the Westboro website: “WBC to picket the funeral of Christina Greene, the 9-year-old girl cut off in her youth for the rebellion of the parents, preachers, and leaders of this nation.” They’ll have a hard time finding any place in the Bible that condemns children, shy of sly old Elisha calling out she-bears to kill 42 of them. Having read the Bible for practically my whole life, I have a very difficult time reconciling those who use the Bible for conservative causes with their own sourcebook. What will it take for them to realize that “what I want” is only part of the picture? Whether presidential hopefuls or crazed curmudgeons, we would all sleep better if we took to heart that inequality is very easily transformed into iniquity.

E.T. Go Home!

Now that my family is back from vacation, daily life is starting to regain a focus. One of the goodies my wife brought me from out west was an article from the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington, newspaper. The article is actually a letter to the editor, so it should not be taken as representative of the views of the paper, or of reality, for that matter. Obviously written in response to an article I missed, the letter is concerned that “Conservative Christian” viewpoints towards illegal aliens are being ignored. With a bravado that might be termed Christian jihad, the letter writer claims that “our nation’s laws are based on the laws God has laid down.” The authorities she cites? “Beck and Palin.”

Beck and Palin would make a great comedy team were it not for their crazed intolerance. Although devoted to this dynamic duo, our writer goes one better and cites the highest possible authority, “the Lord God.” Specifically, Numbers 15:15-16: “As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” Problem is, this passage doesn’t refer to the state assembly of Arizona, but of an ancient Israel that is largely the creation of the writers. The Torah, explicitly, applies to Israel, not to other nations.

Quite often in my classes I have students claiming that our laws are based on the Bible. To extent there may be a modicum of truth in the claim, but in fact, American law is based on English Common Law, influenced by, yet not taken from, the Bible. I’m no legal expert (I wouldn’t be jobless if I were), but I do take the Bible at its face value. The laws apply to Israel alone. It is a mark of how little our religious leaders have been able to educate the public that we see this ingrained prejudice masquerading as divine truth. Fair treatment is a secular as well as a religious value. In addition to doling out abuse, the Bible itself continues to be a constant victim of abuse at the hands of Neo-Con nonsense.

Isn't God an alien?