Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Physics of Religion

As an observer on life’s sidelines, I rarely participate in the action. The subject matter is more important than the critic, so I tend to respond in this blog rather than create. Once in a great while, however, someone I know shows up in the media. A number of years back Neal Stephenson introduced me to George Dyson. I instantly felt an affinity for him, and found his book Darwin Among the Machines a great triumph of intelligible science writing. It was no great surprise, then, when George was mentioned in an article in December’s Atlantic magazine, comparing his outlook to that of his father, physicist Freeman Dyson. I was intrigued by physics in high school, but my overwhelming supposition that religion explained life overruled this predilection and so I’ve ended up an unemployed religion professor than a scientist. In the article, however, author Kenneth Brower brings these things together.

Brower asks a pointed question: how can a physicist as brilliant as Freeman Dyson hold factually inaccurate and apparently misguided ideas about global warming? The story contrasts Freeman with his son George as exemplars of two different religions. George represents the environmentalist religion while Freeman represents the belief in humanity’s ability to solve any problem. The use of religion as a means of distinguishing these views again raises a question of definition. I don’t dispute the use of the word – it is entirely apt in this context – but the functional definition here is that religion equates to something deeply believed. I am a little troubled by this. Not because no gods or deities or supernatural forces enter into it, but because for years many evangelicals have boldly declared that science itself is a religion. That idea has been used as leverage to get Creationist ideas equal time with those of science because it comes down to purely a matter of one religion against another.

Belief is a phenomenon that is not well understood. Most people have no difficulty accepting the truthfulness of factual data. Seldom do even religious zealots doubt two plus two equals four. At a more theoretical level, however, facts become formulas incomprehensible to most of us and critics are quick to call this “religion.” Faith in human ability to solve the riddles of the universe. Where is the line with religion crossed? In the year 2000 Freeman Dyson received the Templeton Prize, an honor reserved for those who make significant contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, often with a scientific component. It is the dream of every religionist to be considered for this great honor. Once again, however, the further out we peer into our universe, the more the lines become blurred. That does not worry me. What concerns me is how such ambiguity will no doubt be used by Creationists and their Neo-Con supporters who are only too glad to have a scientist of Freeman Dyson on their side. When religion trumps science not even 2 + 2 = 4 is secure.

Hubble's ultra deep field has yet to detect any deities