Bad Seeds

Strange things happen.  I doubt anyone would deny that, even the most skeptical.  Sometimes the strange has an edge to it, though.  A recent story on WTVR reports that residents of Virginia are receiving packets of unidentified seeds from China.  Perhaps a nation naive enough to elect 45 believes in magic beans?  If I recall correctly the beanstalk incident didn’t really end well, although Jack may have survived when it was all over.  WTVR is compelled to say what should be obvious: if you receive unexpected seeds in the mail, don’t plant them.  Not so many years ago I would’ve supposed most Americans were smart enough to know that.  Four years later I’m left wondering.  America’s critical thinking levels appear to be at an all-time low.

Upon first seeing this story my immediate reaction was to question it.  Was it a hoax or a scam?  The kind of thing Trump Enterprises might do to drive business?  If it did happen haven’t scientists (if there are any anymore) been able to figure out what kinds of seeds these are?  Isn’t there an app for that?  Increasingly, it seems, people rely on Facebook rumors for their fact checking.  Of course, that’s the beauty of this kind of plot, if it indeed is one.  A simple thing such as sending a packet of seeds can start a panic.  And with a Gross Domestic Product like China’s I’m sure the postage isn’t even all that expensive.

I also wonder if this isn’t in return for something that the US has done.  We currently have no foreign policy to speak of, but I wonder if people in China have been receiving tariff-free shipments from us.  But do we even have a functioning Post Office anymore?  What if the seeds are from the US and were made to look as though they came from China?  My suspicion goes deep, I guess.  Several years ago I got dressed down at an academic conference for being too skeptical.  My notebook has nullius in verba written inside the front cover.  I tend to think that I just like to ask questions.  Nobody sends you anything for free—being raised in capitalist heaven taught me that.  WTVR says these seeds may be invasive species.  Waging a continuing war against trees of heaven (also an invasive species) I know how much time can be wasted on the task.  Just when you think you’ve got them all, another one pops up.  Strange things indeed.

Wonder what’s growing?

Sticks and Stones

So much has been happening that I have trouble keeping up.  This past month a border skirmish erupted between the planet’s two most populous nations, China and India.  The skirmish took place in the Himalayas, around a disputed border line.  About twenty died in a scuffle that the New York Times reported as involving clubs and stones.  This image stuck with me.  As kids we used to chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.”  Quite apart from the incorrect message in this saying, it struck me how childish border skirmishes are.  Like race, national boundaries are mere human constructs.  We’re obsessed with ownership.  Territoriality.  This land belongs to me, not you.  If you disagree we can club and stone each other to death to prove it.  

I mailed a package to someone in Canada recently.  Not only did I have to fill out a customs form, I also had to fork over quite a hefty sum, amounting to half the price of the item sent.  The reason for the high cost was that this was international mail.  Now, I can understand Canada wanting to distance itself from its southern neighbor, but why do we feel that we need to have strict borders?  We’ve been peaceful for centuries.  Being who I am, my thoughts tend toward the breaking down of religious ideals of unity.  Believe me, I know these are only ideals that we never realized in practice, but the concept haa been there from the beginning.  Religion tends to divide rather than to bring people together, no matter what the founders of various traditions taught.  Now even that is breaking down.

As the New York Times points out, both India and China are nuclear powers.  During this time of social distancing I had secretly hoped national aggressions might fade.  With some eight million people infected worldwide, you might think we could all work together, put down our sticks and stones, and see the human face before us.  We wear masks, I guess, for more than one reason.  The primitive nature of that skirmish bothers me.  People beating one another to death with rocks and clubs over a location difficult to reach just so both sides can lay claim to it.  In my mind’s eye I envision a gray-black monolith appearing in their midst.  A message of progress being beamed into their heads.  We’re two decades beyond that benchmark, and we still don’t get the message.

A better use for sticks and stones

All the Tea

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately.  Political scientists have been interested in its economic growth for some time and it has rivaled the GDP of the United States in such a way that it’s an open question as to which is the larger.  With so many things to keep track of in daily life, I’m loathe to add poli sci to the list, but I’ve always found history fascinating.  China has long been the target of Christian missionaries.  Finding a culture that had developed quite differently, in some sense socially distant, they were anxious to make them in their own image.  China had its own religious heritage of folk traditions, Confucian beliefs, and Taoism (as well as Buddhism and Islam), and Christianity’s claim of being the only true religion caused considerable social turmoil.  One such event was the Taiping Rebellion in the nineteenth century.

Image credit: Wu Youru, via Wikimedia Commons

A complaint of evangelical pastors, even in the United States, after Billy Graham had come through town was that local people, all riled up on revivalism, had unrealistic expectations for what their local churches could do.  Viewing this from a different angle, the issue was that one outlook on Scripture could lead to consequences that others didn’t understand.  The same thing applies to Taiping.  Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, had read his Bible (the activity encouraged by missionaries) and became convinced he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  He set about trying to establish what is called the Heavenly Kingdom.  This clashed with the government of China during the Qing Dynasty.  Eventually foreign powers even got involved.  The end result was between ten and thirty million deaths.  That’s right, ten to thirty million.

Religious ideas are powerful.  This is one reason that repressive governments often try to outlaw religions.  Other governments (including some not too far from here) use religions for political ends.  True believers are great followers.  I first learned about the Taiping Rebellion only relatively recently.  I’ve been reading snippets about China for several years now.  Its economic power may well be greater than that of the country in which I grew up.  Perspectives are shifting.  Vast numbers of people die because of religious conflicts.  If you’re one of them the real tragedy is that, in Stalinistic terms, you become simply a statistic.  There’s a reason authoritarian governments try to keep the opium from the hands of the people.  I’m no political scientist, but history reveals much about religion and its discontents.

The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.

Fueling Fires

Paying attention to world affairs can take all your time.  In fact, for those who study foreign affairs, it practically does.  I’ve been struggling with the fact that you can’t be lazy in a democracy.  I know that’s true—we must constantly be vigilant of governments turning evil (with a wink)—and yet we each have our own lives to look after.  Trying to balance this teeter-totter, I noticed a Washington Post story lately about library officials in China burning books.  Said books challenge government ideology and are being destroyed.  We’ve seen this before.  Nazis burned books, and Republicans would certainly like to.  Even further back in history Medieval thinking led to the destruction of what would now likely be invaluable tomes.  There is biblical precedent, of course.  Read Acts 19 if you need a refresher.

Book burners now do their deed for its symbolic value.  We live in an age of Kindles and Nooks and books online.  Not as many are printed as there used to be, but the smell of burning plastic doesn’t convey the same pathos.  Besides, you can just whip out your synced phone and continue  reading.  Those of us who’ve committed our lives to reading find this symbolic gesture heinous.  Yes, there are books that offend us.  I’ve read more than one that I wish I hadn’t.  I have, however, no inkling to burn them.  Books represent our attempts to increase knowledge.  Fiction or non matters not.  Those who write have something to say, and surveys reveal that many adults really would like to write a book.  As a symbol, there’s nothing like it.  I suspect that’s why burning them makes such an impact.

The western world is struggling to understand China.  One of the largest investors in both Africa and South America, China is building foreign relations just as the Trump administration is jettisoning them.  Many well-informed Americans don’t realize just how long and how well China has been making connections through financial investment.  Sounds like a very capitalist thing to do.  That librarians should burn books seems an odd form of theater in such a scenario.  Governments that can’t take criticism are autocracies.  I know few donkeys that would state any one of their party is really a saint.  That’s GOP territory.  At least we haven’t started book burnings on the White House lawn.  As we turn our gaze to the east, or, depending on your perspective, to the west, we do have to wonder just how long it will be before we do.

Autocracy and Its Victims

Human rights ought to be fairly simple.  The recognition that all people are human is complicated by that infamous human construct of money, even when autocracy’s involved.  I recently became aware of the plight of the Uyghurs.  If it were not for the efforts of some local faith communities, I would never have heard of them.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic population in what is now northwest China—a disputed area that has fallen under one of the superpowers of the Asian world.  Muslim by heritage, the Uyghurs fall into the category of peoples adhering to an organized religion, which the government of China has consistently resisted—indeed, feared.  The current plight of the Uyghurs is that they are facing “ethnic cleansing” by the Chinese government, which uses claims of terrorism to lock at least hundreds of thousands (perhaps significantly more) Uyghurs into “reeducation camps.”

Like most governments with secrets to hide, China does not permit foreign journalists or academics into these camps.  Children are being separated from parents—those of us in the United States would be well served to pay attention to this—so that the young may be culturally assimilated into the China that Beijing envisions.  The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are seeking international political protections and recognition.  Minority groups like this easily fall under threat.  In many communities men are taken to the reeducation camps (from which they never come out) and their families are supplied with a male Chinese boarder who watches to make sure they no longer adhere to their Islamic faith.  Reports from those who visit the region demonstrate how much at threat all of us are from autocratic governments, especially when other governments are easily bought.

We in the western world are prone to accept the propaganda that Islam is a terrorist religion.  It is not.  Most people are surprised to learn that the nation with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia.  Iran is not even in the top five.  Iraq is not in the top ten.  Our western bias blinds us to the religious realities, and diversities, of east and south Asia.  China, however, has long repressed organized religions, making it irresistible to many Christian missionaries.  It has, despite being the home of Daoism and Confucianism, become hostile to movements that allow people to organize.  Religions, of course, have long been such organizing movements.  If we do not support the rights of other religions, especially under the whims of autocracies—which are growing even in “the free world”—then we are gazing at our own future. 

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Trumping the Bible

The media is chattering about one of the very many contradictions of evangelicals who support Trump.  Since I have a foot in the world of the Bible business, I read with interest how Trump’s tariffs on China will put Bible publishers in a bind.  You see, the Good Book is generally sent offshore since printing costs (and technologies) are too expensive to replicate in God’s new chosen nation itself.  This lack of divine foresight should be a bit disturbing.  The entire evangelical enterprise is based on their reading of Scripture, and the belief that the divine choice of America is behind such momentous events as 45’s election.  Maybe we should check our pipes for lead.  In any case, Bibles, which are printed cheaply in high volume overseas, are set to become too expensive to give away because of the great pretender’s tariffs.

A few media outlets have picked up this story, including one that noted Trump’s favorite Bible verse is “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  The famous lex talionis statement was famously, well, trumped by Jesus who said that the ideal was to turn the other cheek.  In a rather Philistine way, evangelicals have sided with a man who says Jesus was wrong.  If you want to check up on me in your Bible you’d better get your wallet out.  Ironically from a Republican point of view, tariffs are themselves the breaking of the commandment of free trade.  Still the party that claims to believe that does nothing to prevent the sale of their souls, cash on the barrelhead.

Many evangelicals may find the idea of Bibles as a business distasteful.  It is, however, extremely profitable for those on the supply end of the deal.  Bibles are printed at a volume that would make most authors green, and due to its size the Good Book requires specialized paper most of the time.  This is so much the case that Bibles not printed on “Bible paper” just don’t feel like sacred writ.  Since costs of living in the United States are quite high, and since this kind of specialized printing would be too expensive in this situation, publishers outsource God’s word.  Some publishers have been pleading with the government to exclude books from Trump’s tariff so the Good News can continue to spread.  The fact is that only one deity, called Mammon in the Bible, runs this enterprise.  And to continue to buy Bibles at the evangelical rate will soon be requiring an act of sacrifice.  I guess the lex talionis still applies.

Christian Nationalism

Apparently we’ve forgotten the Second World War. In our touch-screen, never-have-to-get-off-the-couch culture of convenience, we’ve completely disregarded the millions that, yes, died in vain. You see, Christian Nationalism is on the rise, according to a story my wife sent me from the Huffington Post. About as much an aberration from literal “Christianity” as you can get, this movement believes America’s success is tied to its role as a Christian nation. Such believers, if they can even see that such rhetoric leads to war, don’t care. For the fact is that the economy of China is poised to pass, if it hasn’t already done so, the economy of what used to be United States. Call it Confucian Nationalism, but I have the feeling that when two giants try to get into the same compartment things tend to get unpleasant.

Serious thinking is a natural resource of which America has clearly run out. Easy answers, empty of content—junk food of the mind—are easily tweeted out from a personality that declares his own opinions truth. Everything else is fake news. Evangelicals, it’s sorely obvious, need to read The Analects. Don’t claim that its obscure; I’ve read the Bible. If you think you can figure Paul out, well, that’s what I’d call “fake news.” Oh, and by the way, Paul was anything but a nationalist. For all his faults, he knew that Christianity is nothing if it’s tied to nationhood.

Instead we puff out our chests and, ignoring the Bible on this very proverb, become the blind following the blind. If God has a plan he’d better reveal it to his 45th prophet soon because there are some enormous gulfs in the road and he insists on walking without a cane. American exceptionalism is built on the backs of the poor and helpless. They are also the ones most easily swayed by its perverse rhetoric. Nations must separate themselves from their religious beliefs. We’ve seen what happens when incompatible religions become the identifying factors of countries. As long ago as the 1970s I’d learned that nationalism was a powerful force for evil. I hadn’t been alive during the Second World War, but the world into which I’d been born was entangled in Vietnam. We were halfway around the world playing the bully, but it was because of capitalism, not Christianity. The end result, however, was the same. Unimaginable human suffering. Death, pain, and sorrow. And we’ve decided that the Prince of Peace wants us to head down that road again. “Vanity,” I hear Qohelet whisper.

Plain Floods

Erschrecklichewasserfluth

Floods are the stuff of legends. In fact, one of the most pervasive myths of all times is the world-wide flood. While some would see this as “evidence” that such an impossible flood actually occurred (some believing so fervently as to build replicas of imaginary arks), others recognize the flood as a basic human dilemma. We require water, and therefore we build our cities near a source of it. Rivers worldwide are prone to floods. While recently stuck in a holding pattern waiting for space for our flight to land at Newark, floodplains were more than evident from high above. My hometown regularly experienced floods when ice jammed the Allegheny River during the spring thaws. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were, literally, epic-making. A piece in the Washington Post rather surprisingly reports “Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.” The story by Sarah Kaplan demonstrates the universality of unruly water.

I know little of Chinese history and mythology. There’s no reason, however, to doubt that stories of ancient floods were as common there as elsewhere. The flood is, pardon the Christianization, the baptism of civilization. Things have to be washed clean before “civilization” can begin. In this case, according to the story, Yu, the founder of China’s first dynasty, tamed the flood. Now scientists are finding flood deposits from the Yellow River that match the 1900 BCE time-frame of this mythical founding. We can be certain that some will latch onto this date noting how Abraham was said to have emerged shortly after the flood (Genesis chronology says Noah was still alive when Abraham was born) and therefore this is proof of the Biblical flood. Even Sir Leonard Woolley advertised that he’d found the biblical flood in the river deposits of Mesopotamia. When it comes to literalism, any old flood will do.

No doubt many ancient flood stories go back to some historical event. The world was never completely covered with water in human times (before that nobody was here to see), but it’s easy to understand how people might have believed it could have happened. Our view tends to be local, often at the expense of universal costs. Consider global warming, for example. It’s difficult for us to see something that impacts us as such a distance. Taking care of the planet is so hard when we realize just how big it is. Our neglect, however, will definitely cause floods to come. Our denial makes myths for future generations. Headlines millennia down the road, if anyone’s left to read them, will, I’m sure announce with surprise that the devastating floods we’re creating now were indeed real.

Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

IMG_2287

The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.

Rorschach Test

Rutgers University, College Avenue Campus. I recall coming out on a sweltering night once in a while during a summer term, only to find a street evangelist inveighing against undergraduate evils. He, and it was invariably a he, may have delved into the darker sins of graduate students, but I didn’t stay around to find out. Colleges attempt to educate while street preachers try to halt the process. Shall we go forward or retreat? I occasionally run into off-campus preachers on my university visits. I still look like a professor, I suppose, so I am treated to their version of salvation along with the people less than half my age, facing all the temptations of adulthood. The last evangelists I saw were handing out tracts about the evils of tattoos. I know tattoos are very popular, although I’ve personally never seen the draw. With one eye cast warily ahead, I think of what happens when that firm bit of skin starts to sag and the bold decoration begins to shrivel to make us look less like rebels and more like crepe paper left too long in the rain. Besides, I could never think of a picture that I’d want attached to me for the rest of my life. Too many changes come along, best leaving tattoos for those who appreciate a strong dose of irony.

Tattoo

Our evangelist friends, of course, object because tattoos are expressly forbidden in the Hebrew Bible. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you. I am the Lord,” so the Lord declares in Leviticus 19. I resisted the urge to ask my ersatz savior if his clothing contained any blends of materials, forbidden earlier in the same chapter. Or if he trimmed the hair on the sides of his head. Or rotated his crops. The problem, according to the tract, is that tattooing was considered a heathen or pagan activity as Christianity spread to new lands. Presumably the very popular cross or crucifix tattoo design had not yet evolved. The tattoo is a tribal mark, indicating loyalty to a (presumably unChristian) group. My tract sets itself out on a history of tattooing, and suggests that it became popular as a form of entertainment, suggestively knocking on the door of that devil, idleness. They even cite Rick Warren as making church too entertaining. This isn’t supposed to be fun, people!

The real problem is that tattooing is getting society prepared to receive the mark of the beast. With echoes of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth (now severely dated), the tract tells us that the mark is a tattoo and that among the most popular designs is the dragon. China, which venerates the dragon, is hostile to Christians—coincidence?! And, it should be noted, “Studies have shown that WOMEN who get DRAGON tattoos become more SELF CONFIDENT and ASSERTIVE” (emphasis in the original). And that, they want us to believe, is a bad thing. At least with Fundamentalists, agendas are rarely hidden. Too many assertive women and scheming foreigners are trying to lead us to the very tattoo parlor of the beast. Who knew that so much could be unpacked from half a verse in Leviticus? The name Levi, by the way, some suggest, comes from the same root as leviathan, the dragon.

Zongfu’s Ark

While riding the elevator up to work last week, I glanced at the little LCD screen that plays single-page news stories for those who only have the seconds in an elevator to catch up in what is happening outside the world of commerce. That’s where the really creative stuff occurs. The picture on the screen appeared to be a large, orange, smashed ping-pong ball. I caught the words “Noah’s Ark” in the caption before the busy screen flashed onto a new and more pertinent story, such as who is winning what in the Olympics. I remembered the odd image when I got home and tried an Internet search and discovered only a small bit of information. This ark is in China, which may account for the lack of full coverage. Here in God’s own America, stories that potentially validate biblical myths are sure to attract readers and/or watchers, so there must be more to the story than I can find.

The details I’ve been able to locate note that Yang Zongfu, a Chinese inventor, designed an improvement on Noah’s ark. His ark is a sphere and really doesn’t have much room for animals beyond the occasional tapeworm or wayward spider. “Noah’s Ark of China” is a six-ton ball that costs nearly a quarter of a million dollars to build. Five people can live for ten months inside, sheltered from heat, impact, and, of course, water. Like a latter day bomb shelter, this is the place you would go to survive a disaster. The odd number of survivors, however, made me wonder about the repopulating of the earth part. Even in the Bible God made sure that instead of any individuals the ark was populated with couples. The more I thought about attempting to survive in a world with only four other people, the more frightened I became.

This is old school ark building.

Our lives are intricately inter-connected. Most of you reading these words will never have met me, yet here we are, sharing the same cyber-head-space. Movies like I Am Legend make it seem that a single man, whether Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, or Will Smith, could survive for a great length of time alone. This is pure science fiction. With the exception of Vincent Price, I doubt that any of our omega men could have successfully planted and raised a garden, let alone survived more than a few weeks. We need each other. The picture of Yang Zongfu popping triumphantly from his ark fills my head with a strange vision. A post-apocalyptic world in which the toxic runoff of our irradiated rivers will have a jumble of orange balls at their deltas and a bunch of confused, somewhat nauseous millionaires inside. As I stare out over this valley of dry balls, I think to myself, Who’s winning ping-pong at the Olympics?

King Hong

When the same religio-historic event is described in three consecutive books I’ve read on diverse topics, I start to consider what strange form of coincidence is operating here. Coincidences are some of the potent spices that give life flavor—the tragic death of Suzanne Hart on Wednesday when an elevator crushed her to death occurred the very day my bus was late and I took the route directly past her building to avoid the crowds on 42nd Street. What was the series of uncanny events that led me to where someone was about to die? It hardly seems within the divine character. So coincidences have been on my mind of late.

The last three books I read have all discussed the Taiping Rebellion that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite having studied religion all of my life, I had never come across this religiously motivated violence until reading Daniele Bolelli’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion. Unrest in imperial China had existed before, but Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the rebellion, was motivated by religion. Xiuquan was a Christian (no doubt the fruit of missionary activity) who came to believe that he was Jesus’ younger brother. His motivation for the rebellion was based on his aberrant version of Christianity that quickly grew into a full-fledged movement calling itself the Heavenly Kingdom. Basing itself in Taiping, the movement adopted the early Christian practice of communal property and came to rule over about 30 million people. The numbers are what is truly stunning about this tragedy. When the conflict with the Qing Dynasty ended, about 20 million people were dead. The number is so high as to shut down comprehension. So many dead because of religion. It has a corporate feel to it.

Religion evolves. When it is spread into new cultures, syncretism takes over. Many religious believers, through faith, insist that their religion is the same as the founder propounded. Such simplistic understanding is not true. Culture, just like biology, lives and grows through evolution. The American Christian dressed in expensive clothes in a phenomenonally costly mega-church with a shining preacher bearing a million-dollar smile is about as far from a property-less, vagabond carpenter from Nazareth as you can get. Yet we still pretend. If that pastor says he is Jesus’ younger brother, chances are good that many will believe him. Stranger things have passed the lips of televangelists. Emotional involvement in religion easily leads the zealous to extreme action. History has demonstrated this time and again. The Taiping Rebellion of the Heavenly Kingdom proves the point, even if we’ve never heard of it. Maybe it is no coincidence after all.