Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

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I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

Forbidden Words

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In keeping with the spirit of freedom, just before July 4 the BBC broke the story of Iceland’s blasphemy laws having been struck down. Although the state Church of Iceland (Lutheran by denomination) supported the move, other churches have been grumbling. It’s an odd notion, that blasphemy should be illegal. Part of the oddity revolves around disagreement of what blasphemy is. Even if taking the name of God in vain is used to define it, several questions remain. Which name of God? Certainly “God” is not a name, but a title. Is taking the title of God in vain blasphemy? What does it mean to take a name in vain? If you don’t mean it? I’ve surely heard many invoking the divine in curses that were most certainly sincere. Were they blaspheming? Does blasphemy really mean failing to believe in God? And, pertinent to Iceland, which god is protected under such laws?

Religious pluralism is the clearest threat to those supporting blasphemy laws. Underlying to very proposition is the idea that there is only one true God and that is the God of Christianity. Judaism might be tacked on there, as might a reluctant Islam, but the notion of blasphemy does not seem to bother the deities of other cultures as much. Honoring and respecting belief in deities is fine and good. In fact, it is the decorous way to behave. Still, privileging one deity as the “true god” protected by state statutes is to bring politics into theology. Since when have elected officials really ever understood what hoi polloi believe? In Iceland the old Norse gods have recently come back into favor. Should they be respected to? Why not as much as the Christian God?

It is perhaps ironic that the Pirate Party put forward the successful bid to strike down the law on blasphemy. According to the BBC, the Pirate Party began in Sweden and has now established itself in 60 countries. Since it’s fight for accountability and transparency in government, it’s sure to have a hard time in the United States where bullies can run for President unashamed. What is clear is that although governments make and enforce laws, the will of the people seldom makes itself heard. We may have won some victories in recent days, but there are many entrenched ideas that benefit those in power and not their underlings. Sounds like the Pirate Party may become the Democratic Party of tomorrow. If it does, however, when it loses sight of the ideals that launched it, we may need a new party to board the ship and ask for the people to be heard. Politely, and without swearing, of course.

The Last Word

The end of the world, it seems, never goes out of fashion. My wife shared a story on the BBC about CNN (such self-referential media hype may be a sign that society is collapsing already) having a video ready to release for the apocalypse. In a bit of end-of-time sangfroid, it is rumored, CNN’s Ted Turner ordered a last-second video to be made so that loyal CNN viewers would be ushered out with his version of the last word. The media, of course, is a powerful segment of society. Occasionally schools and businesses are shut down due to their meteorological predictions. The media tells us who the experts are, and why we should listen to them. The media provides us with some of the only fact-checked material from far-flung ends of the globe—or even outer space—to which we, the people, would not normally have access. The media, in other words, determines reality.

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Meanwhile I wonder, as I often do, what gives those who own media corporations the right to determine reality for the rest of us. For example, if the rumor of Turner’s video is true, what would give the rich and powerful the right to determine what flashes before our eyes as the world winks out of existence? The apocalypse, after all, is a religious concept. Although largely developed from biblical scripts, other religions do occasionally have their end-of-the-world myths, just like most religions have beginning-of-the-world myths. If you have billions of dollars, does that mean you have the right to determine end-times viewing? When money determines the truth, the world has already ended.

Nevertheless, the idea lives on. We are constantly reminded that one or another religious sect has declared that the end is nigh. We’ve heard it so often that we’ve ceased to pay attention. In a world where the media has largely dismissed the rest of the Bible (except when blockbuster movies come out featuring a biblical story) why does Revelation still hold such currency? After all, the apocalypse takes its very name from the final book of the Christian Bible, and without Revelation we might be none-the-wiser about the looming end of all things. Revelation was very much a product of its time. Despite the progress of science and technology that gave us the media corporations we blandly recognize today, we still harbor doubts deep down about the longevity of it all. Even those who write the news look to other media giants to get some hints of the truth. Ironically, they don’t seem to want to ask scholars about it. After all, sensationalism is news. At the end of the world, we really don’t care what scholars have to say, as long as we’re entertained.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

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Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Ironic Icons

The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.

Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.

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But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.

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