Any Means Necessary

As one of his first acts as governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie cut the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel project. This was before he closed the state-run beaches so that he and his family to have one for themselves without Independence Day crowds bothering him. Liberty means something new these days, I guess. The ARC tunnel project was meant to ease some of the burden on those hapless zombies known as commuters. As a member of this undead class myself, I often think of the relief that never was as we sit, unmoving, just meters away from the Lincoln Tunnel, looking nervously at our watches wondering just how late we’ll be to work this time. Our elected “representative” leaders have no idea about the life of the average person. Having lived sequestered away among the rich and axle-greasers for so long they have forgotten that real wheels need to roll. Their bottom line is at risk.

Trump, apparently aware that torture and public transit go together, has nominated Steven Bradbury, the Bush-era policy architect, as his general counsel of the Department of Transportation. Known for his “torture memos” Bradbury has none of the charm of the sometimes macabre other Bradbury who had the courtesy of keeping his frights restricted to fiction. The most disturbing part of all of this is just how little our elected officials care about the people who keep this country going. Populism, still poorly understood, is what happens when people get fed up with business as usual. Easily duped, the average citizen can’t tell an “entertainer” from a genuine leader. The era of “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” has grown up and become truth. Doogie Howser where are you when we need you? It might be helpful to have Rex Morgan on hand after a session in the torture chamber.

Government has become a joke. Comic strip presidents gather the assorted nuts and dolts required build up a representative democracy, it seems. I used to tell my wife, back in January when things were bleaker than Poe’s December, that we could expect no less than outrage after outrage from a man whose sole motivation is to get people to look at him. We all knew jerks motivated by that in high school. The difference is that now they’re easily voted into office. Selfish men who will close down public parks so they can take the whole thing for themselves. They have no idea what governing is because they can’t understand that other people have wants and needs as well. Other people are for torturing when you’re bored. Sounds like a visit to October Country may be in order yet.

Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

Headliners

I sometimes wish I was a journalist. Just this past week a couple of people questioned my journalistic skills for an opinion piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches. I’m fully capable of professional research, but who has the time? Still, being a journalist might be fun. Thinking up clever headlines would be challenging day after day, but nevertheless, it might be enjoyable. Editors who lay the articles next to each other on the page must have a sense of irony. This past week in the New Jersey Star Ledger the central headline read “Killer tightens its grip on N.J.” The column to the right began “Christie to mingle with the uber-rich.” Having lived in New Jersey under Christie’s entire reign, I’m no fan. I’ve despised bullies since I was a kid, and rich bullies are worse than the working class variety. New Jersey certainly seems no better off to me. Now he wants to be President.

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The real headline, however, about the killer in New Jersey is not yet another prison-break story. It deals with heroin overdose deaths. According to the article, per 100,000 people in the U.S. 2.6 deaths are from heroin overdose. In New Jersey the figure is 8.3. New Jersey, as the most densely populated state (1200 people per square mile, I once read) has its share of problems. Most of us like to pretend that drugs are somebody else’s issue, but I’ve known addicts and they are not evil. When life offers you unrelenting recession after recession and all attempts to better yourself run up against the 1 percent, frustration is inevitable. Even earning a doctorate will only lead to jobless misery. What more can you do than get an education? Heroin is dangerously addictive and it makes the user feel great, I’m told. Society doesn’t offer many other options. At least in Rome they had bread and circuses.

He who would be President, however, can’t be concerned about that. The uber-rich must be fed. And fed. And fed. Those whose ambition to high public office is naked power would be foolish to ignore their fellow plutocrats. Down here on the streets, things look a little dicier. Although I think I understand why many turn to chemical relief, I’ve never been tempted by drugs myself. One of the reasons I turned to religion was the prevalence of drug use in the town where I grew up. There seemed to be no future in substance abuse. I may not have chosen the most promising of ways to move ahead either, in retrospect. Now I find myself living with a governor who represents all that’s wrong with government. And if you’re going to die of drug-related despair, it seems like his particular state is the place it’s most likely to happen. Long live the king!

Bridge over Troubled Waters

“Let not many of you,” wrote the wise James, in a widely ignored admonition, “become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” The same could be said for politicians. Lord Acton, seconding James, noted “power corrupts,” and yet who is not drawn to its flame? The news has been awash in a flood over the George Washington Bridge scandal, something I could not appreciate until I joined the ranks of the myriads of commuters to Manhattan. The evidence is pretty clear that Chris Christie’s top staff (ahem) purposefully closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusing to dance when the pipers piped for Christie’s reelection. I didn’t vote for Christie, and now I wonder if that is why my New Jersey Transit bus often comes so late that I’ve taken to calling it the Jesus Bus, since I never know when it might come again. Ah, the rush of power that encourages the grinding of the boot heel into the face of the smaller opponent. Could anything be more human?

Perhaps, in this world of infinite possibilities, Christie knew nothing of what his top aides were doing. The culture in New Jersey, however, as those of us who live here know, has been cast in the very large shadow of bullying. We spend taxpayer’s money to teach our children not to bully while our politicians give the lie to the teaching we purchase. “How the mighty are fallen,” lamented King David. But even he had his Bathsheba scandal. And many on the right claim their politics derive through their commitment to his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, if I count correctly. Let not many of you become politicians.

Manhattan is an island with limited access. The Lincoln Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel are for the troglodyte crowd, while the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. “He could have called,” the old evangelical hymn goes, “ten-thousand angels.” That’s roughly a forty-to-one ratio for New Jersey commuters to New York to angels. Somewhere along the line, the populace became the unwitting plaything of politicians. Stop a hundred-thousand people from getting to work? It’s just an arbitrary number. Never mind that trust used to be part of the social contract. As a citizen who spends approximately three hours a day on a bus, or waiting for one, I have to wonder whose best interest is in the mind of our elected officials. Yes, James, had I listened to you this might have all turned out very differently indeed.

Photo credit: Fly Navy from Wiki Commons.

Photo credit: Fly Navy from Wiki Commons.

Voting Vicissitudes

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot. I know of no reason, why the Gunpowder Treason, should ever be forgot.” Election day fell on November fifth, and as I watched V for Vendetta again, I was reminded how true it rings. Religious leadership takes over government, the common person becomes an enemy of the state, and criticism is treason. Tea, anyone? I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, but the world of V is entirely too plausible at times. I have watched rational people transformed by fear and the certainty of religious dogma into those who will do what they are told without question. The movie always gives me a profound hope that the human spirit is larger than the powers that be. V can also stand for Vote.

I cast my ballot knowing that a vote against a governor who enjoys the bully image was indeed close to a lost cause. People are enamored of power. In my deepest Jedi dreams, however, I know that the most powerful moment in Star Wars is when Obi Wan turns off his light saber to allow himself to be struck down. There is a power, one upon which entire religions are premised, in the self-sacrificial act. It’s not that I have anything against Parliament; I saw it just this past year and enjoyed the experience in a way that Guy Fawkes could perhaps not have appreciated. As Evey says, “this country needs more than a building right now. It needs hope.” I guess we can hold on another four years. V can also stand for five.

“He’s a deeply religious man and a member of the conservative party. He has completely single-minded convictions and has no regard for the political process. Eventually, his party launches a special project in the name of ‘national security’.” So V tells Finch concerning a dictator who could be wearing any number of political masks in our world. We hand power over to those who encourage our fears rather than those who inspire our imagination. Camelot died in 1963. It is not so difficult to imagine a world so much better than the one we’ve constructed, but plutocracy does prevail when people do not take the implications of their religion seriously. When we only glance at the surface, the deeper message gets lost in the mythology of it all. November fifth is a myth that still has the potential to change the world. If we would allow it.

VoteV

Thar She Blows

Any survey of “armpits of America” will laughingly include New Jersey. Having lived here for nearly seven years now, I know the apocrine insults are undeserved—I actually knew that before moving here. New Jersey has the highest per capita Ph.D. concentration in the nation. It also has the highest number of college graduates, and, for what it’s worth, the highest per capita income. These first two points come especially to the fore regarding New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s recent speech, made in Boston—a city with some small higher education affiliations itself. Propping up his creds for a presidential run, Christie said, “I think that we have some folks that believe that our job is to be college professors. Now college professors are fine, I guess. You know, college professors basically spout out ideas that nobody ever does anything about. [Rim shot!] For our ideas to matter, we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern.” (This according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

The United States, for many years now, has been falling behind in education because we won’t fund it adequately. I’m no jingoist, but I do believe that the principles upon which this country were founded were inspired. To thrive, we must be smart. Education has been the key to our improvement over the decades, and as the focus has shifted from education to capital, the hull has begun to leak. I know that I have felt it. With dismay I’ve watched as colleges and universities have hoisted the November Charlie and no vessel has come to their aid. Departments are jettisoned and we are still taking on water. And the governor of “the education state” guesses that “college professors are fine” but completely irrelevant. This man for president in 2016?

Meanwhile, yesterday, the unexpectedly happy news was announced that President Obama will be visiting my daughter’s university next week. Binghamton University is frequently overlooked by the monied special interests paid to the Harvards and Princetons of the green-lined ivies. It is, however, frequently cited as a “public ivy” for its quality education at state-school prices. Obama’s visit is for precisely that reason: good education can be affordable. Chris Christie went on to say, “For our ideas to matter we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” And if we don’t win we gather up our marbles and go home. Yes, I was a child once, too. And I grew up. Higher education does matter—far more than some politicians’ bluster would indicate. Do you agree, Dr. Einstein? I’m sorry, governor, I can’t hear you over the wind flapping the sails.

The_Loss_of_the_Romney_Man_of_War

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Two Swords

One of the more interesting situations to emerge from Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath was the celebration of Halloween. I know that I’ve already lost some readers right there since Halloween is a disputed holiday. Often Halloween is maligned as “Satanic,” a claim that is absolutely untrue. It may have some paganism in its roots, but then, so do most religious events and ideas. Halloween is a Christianization of various folk customs, frequently Celtic in origin, on a night when the protective wall between the living and the dead was believed to be especially thin. As adults grew more sophisticated and scientifically informed, the holiday lingered as a children’s fun day with dress-up and pranking, both normal childhood ways of playing. This neutered holiday has proved to be commercially viable as well, now supporting September-October Halloween stores at a density of about a dozen per square mile. Its success is rivaled only by Christmas.

In light (or perhaps dark) of the devastation of Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled Halloween. We heard the news on our battery-operated radio, sitting in the dark. While this was one of those rare times when I think Christie was motivated by the concern of both poor and rich, I did ponder the implications of a government canceling a holiday. All Hallows’ Eve is the night before All Saints’ Day. “Hallows” is simply another—less used but more evocative—word for “Saints.” While largely secular in its present guise, Halloween is a religious holiday. My mind went back to the doctrine of Two Swords that I learned about many years ago. Originating in the papal bull Unam Sanctum, very early in the fourteenth century, the doctrine teaches that in spiritual matters the church holds the sword while in temporal matters the state holds its own sword. Who has the right to cancel a holiday?

Of course, Chris Christie has his own ways of issuing bull, but his real concern was that conditions were too dangerous for trick-or-treating. Indeed they were. On a short walk, I saw power cables dangling like electrified cobwebs on just about every block, snaking along the ground. Branches were still falling from trees. Curfews (many still in effect) were widespread. Not a good night for masked strangers to show up at your door. But as in the case of the Grinch leaning out over Whoville after he’d stolen all the trappings, Halloween came, it came just the same. What we saw on Halloween was people helping one another. No tricks (for the most part, although among the first to recover were businesses who recorded new ads to broadcast on the radio before the wind even stopped blowing), just good natured mortals helping one another, protecting others from the grim reaper. To borrow a line from Charles Schultz, “That’s what Halloween’s all about, Charlie Brown.”

Will the real Halloween raise its hand?

Blazing Forest

Back in 1996 an angel was on the big screen. In a manner of speaking. Michael, starring John Travolta as the archangel Michael, may not have been an instant classic but it did have a memorable line or two. The image of a smoking angel had been contrived by Van Halen over a decade earlier, but the idea of the prince of the army of Yahweh being a guy just like the rest of us was strangely refreshing. No Park Avenue deity this. When the reporters first meet Michael and wonder if he’s the real thing, one suggests tugging on his wings to see if they’re real. Michael responds by asking if he should pull the reporter’s privates to see if they’re really attached. His companion comments, “An angel that says ‘pecker.’” While the very idea of “bad words” is an unusual one, it is well-nigh a universal. In just about every culture there are words or phrases that just aren’t uttered in polite company. Those who can’t control their mouths, suggests the book of James, can’t control their lives. So it is with a kind of perverse wonder that I read about the bullying bravado that issues from the lips of New Jersey’s governor.

Don’t get me wrong. I never fault anyone for speaking like they were taught. I was raised in a blue collar family and at times the talk could get pretty blue as well. I would, however, point out that you’ll not find a student I taught over my two decades in the classroom that every heard me cuss in class. It is a matter of standards. Emotions, those great clawing monsters inside us, rage to escape. The building blocks of society—restraint and control, and dare we even wish? subtlety and refinement—are signs of civilization. Some of us were taught to leave name-calling on the playground. I am profoundly saddened when politicians believe they are the best America has to offer when in reality they reveal themselves coarse, vulgar bullies. Enter Chris Christie.

In a public venue on Wednesday New Jersey’s governor called the chief budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services, “idiot,” “jerk,” and “numbnuts.” Here’s where we see Tea Party values incarnate. Belittling others, especially in a public forum, reveals a nature that should make all civilized civilians hang their heads in a surfeit of collective shame. America has come to this? Admiring bullies and slashing and burning services for those who need a little communal support? And he has been posturing for a vice presidential nomination. And angels will be smoking cigarettes in the wings. A President/Vice-President who says “numbnuts?” America deserves far better than this. Where is Michael when we need him?

Take that, you #!@&$!

Disputed Territory

Revisiting a childhood home can be a bittersweet experience. As my wife reflects on the first house she remembers going up for sale, we are glad that we spent the holidays there one last time a few months back. In my case sentiment is a little harder to find. The three residences I recall from a fractured childhood all bear the same distinction: they were torn down after we left. All that remains of my youth is three parking lots. Things are a lot more level now than they were back then. Whenever I visit the area, however, I still slow down the car and remember. Memory, whether singular or collective, makes a geographic location a sacred space. We rented when I was growing up, so those spaces that I think of as mine were occupied by others before and after us. (The razing did not take place immediately after we closed the door for the last time.) Whether those others—strangers to me—consider the place special I have no way of knowing.

Holy, holy, holy?

In other cases the sacral nature of a place is hallowed by tradition. Say “the Holy Land” and most people will know that you’re referring to what is now Israel/Palestine. I only traveled there once, but was privileged to stay for about six weeks. Working on an archaeological dig is a rite of passage for young biblical scholars (for such I was at the time), and weekends were spent visiting the places I’d read about since I could first remember. One of the most jarring aspects of the holiness was the evidence of violence. Cars burning by the roadside. Bombs going off in a post office in Jerusalem. Sounds of heavy artillery lobbing explosives through a blue sky during the sunny afternoon. A place so sacred as to be continually baptized in blood. Humans, human memory, are what make a place sacred.

All of this comes to mind with the political posturing of New Jersey governor Chris Christie visiting Israel. God knows New Jersey has enough problems of its own, but it is a relief not to have him hanging around for a while. Nevertheless, what has Trenton to do with Jerusalem? One thing the Middle East doesn’t need is one more bully. Pushing, shoving, crusading, shooting, and bombing haven’t worked for that elusive peace. What value can our dauntless leader add to this unholy mess? Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I thought governors were supposed to take care of their own problems at home and leave international schmoozing until they got to the big offices. Maybe the race for a GOP nomination isn’t over yet. The most sacred space in this country is a white house that gets sold to the highest bidder every four years. At times there is more wisdom to be found in a parking lot.

Always Against Us

In one of the coolest homework assignments ever, my daughter was supposed to watch The Matrix. Her digital electronics class makes constant reference to the movie, so her teacher decided that in order to “get it,” those who hadn’t seen the movie should watch it. I know the film has many nay-sayers and some of the acting may not attain the highest standards, but it remains among my favorite movies. At Nashotah House, early in the dawning millennium, many students watched the film religiously. One student had it on his laptop and a small knot of his classmates would gather around just about every morning to watch before my class began. I was a bit put off by the claims that it was a “New Testament allegory,” but I have come to realize that without resurrection, the film industry in this country would be dead. American audiences (especially) crave the possibility of coming back. And even though I’m as much a sucker for a good love story as the next guy, that resurrection scene isn’t the highlight of the movie. Not by a long shot.

The Matrix has always been one of my favorites because of the basic premise: what if the world is not real? I’ve been plagued by that question for about as long as I can remember. When, in my first philosophy class, I learned about naïve realism, my worldview shifted. Who’s to say what’s real? And if someone decides to shoot me to shut me up, the lights might go out, but will there be anything left behind? Not that I believe I’m a source of energy for evil robot overlords (I get too easily chilled to believe that), but I often think about the tenuousness of it all. Our reality changes when we fall asleep, and each day we assume that a continuity is the same as the essence of our existence. There’s no way to check it, however, and I’m not entirely convinced. That’s why I like The Matrix so much. Someone else understands my deep fear that none of this is real.

The moment when Neo refuses to leave, but turns to fight Agent Smith, Trinity asks Morpheus what is happening. Morpheus responds, “He’s beginning to believe!” That line always gets me. The idea that something out there actually tips the balance on the side of good creates a longing so deep that it hurts. When I wake up the next morning, however, I see the headlines bring more suffering, more status quo ante-Christ. The last thing I want to see on the front page is Chris Christie’s face first thing in the morning. It can be a very cruel world. In one of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole episodes, a scientist suggests that a Matrix-like world may match our reality. God, the scientist suggests, may be a programmer and has coded us to live in a virtual world. The tapping of my fingers is just an algorithm. I’m not yet beginning to believe that. But if I ever do I’ll be forced to conclude that our programming deity has either a wicked sense of humor, or is just plain wicked.

Calm Before the Storm

All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.

Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.

I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.

Good morning, Irene -- if that is your real name.

I Can Haz Edukashun?

Myths are alive and well. One of the most pervasive myths, along with the one that says clergy only work on Sundays, is the concept that educators take the summer off. Undoubtedly some do, but the summer is traditionally the time for professors to conduct research without having to break up their concentration with several classes a day. Those were the halcyon days. This morning’s newspaper slapped me like a fistful of razors as I read the story of Rutgers University’s president’s resignation. I knew about the resignation, but being fumblingly employed part-time by his mighty university, and having to take annual ethics training for the pittance I’m allowed, I blanched as I read these two sentences: “McCormick earns $550,000 a year as president and is eligible for a $100,000 yearly bonus, though he hasn’t taken the money in recent years due to the university’s budget troubles. Ralph Izzo, chairman of the board of governors, said he thought McCormick would be worth his [continued] $334,000 professor’s salary.” A few pages later the headline tells how Chris Christie, New Jersey’s cut and bleed governor, took a state helicopter ride to get to his son’s baseball game. Also, he wants to prevent state employees from making a viable living.

In this twilight zone of an educational nightmare, a guy with professional ethics training just wants to close his eyes and make it all go away. For what are we educating our young if not for greed? What professor is worth more than 100,000 dollars to any university? In the old days, back with ethics had intestinal fortitude, the term for such folks was “sell outs.” Is there really any drive for excellence at such pay scales? It is no wonder we are raising the “entitlement generation.” Actions used to speak louder than words. State-mandated ethics training has now corrected that little oversight. Higher education used to be about ideas; today it’s “show me the money.”

The truly sad part of all this is that we keep pretending. We preach the myth to a public easily pacified and crucify those who beg to differ. Back in my Nashotah House days a trustee once hushed me so that the board might listen to a student with “fire in his belly.” My belly’s a blackened cinder by now. Is anybody listening? Mythology, particularly in the Greek world, revolves around the concept of hubris. It is a concept with which modern university folk are clearly unfamiliar. It goes something like this: like most people I think I am better than others. In order to prove it, I’ll increase my blandishments until there is no longer any doubt. Is that Olympus straight ahead? I might as well take that as well!

I’d love to stay and lecture some more, but I’m apparently entitled to more state ethics training.

Science of the Bible

It should be a local decision. Science, that is. This straight from the mouth of America’s darling Chris Christie. New Jersey’s governor does not wish to weigh in on this one. His children attend private school. Yes, even New Jersey is under the anti-evolution gun. In the light of the inevitability of Creationism trumping real science, I’ve been working on a sample syllabus for high school science teachers. The way I see it, this new focus in American education should teach science the way the Bible does – no holds barred, no punches pulled. No picking and choosing like Creationists do – Hey! Put that cell phone down, it is a device of black magic! (This will need to be followed up, supernaturally, by a course on how to handle witches in the classroom.) My proposed syllabus looks something like this:

Astronomy: study of that mysterious dome that encircles our earth. It seems to have holes poked through it, or so it looks at night. Science can change depending on the time of day. The sun and moon live in that dome as well, as our astronauts can attest. (Their views that the earth is round, without four corners as the Bible instructs, are, of course, heretical.)

Meteorology: study of the windows of the dome. When God opens these it rains. When God is angry he sends fire down from the dome. The loud sound that follows that is his angry voice. So play nice!

Geology: study of the very center of the cosmos. Our flat earth home, with its four corners and steady pillars reaching down into Sheol, is the exact center of everything. There are no such things as dinosaurs (or cats) since they are not mentioned in the Bible. The layers that you see here and there were all caused by the flood in a matter of about 150 days. The whole thing took only 6 days to make.

Biology: study of the separate kinds God created. Let’s be honest here: the chihuahua and the mastiff share a common ancestor? Preposterous! God made each kind separately and they’ve stayed that way for the past 6000 years. Oh, and yes, animals have telekinetic abilities – that’s how they knew to show up at the ark on time. And when the flood was over the marsupials all knew to swim to Australia. Koalas are surprisingly strong in the breast-stroke category.

Humanology: study of human beings (which are not animals). We were created after the animals (unless you read Genesis 2, where we were created from dust before the animals) and are therefore superior to them. Our natural lifespan is about 600 years, but if you are really wicked you might make it almost to 1000. Reproduction is by means of men planting seeds in women. Females contribute nothing to new children except a womb of their own. We teach these new generations by using the science of miracles, and since there are no schools in the Bible, what are we doing here anyway?

Born to Shun

Being of rather slight build, I have always held a natural antipathy toward bullies. I’ve always liked to believe that, were I in any position of power, I would care for those under my authority. Emulating this ideal as much as possible in the classroom seems to have made me a popular teacher. The message we send our young, however, shouts at decibels I cannot hope to achieve that throwing your weight around is the only proper way to govern. And some governors carry considerable excess weight. New Jersey used to pride itself on its educational system, a system that is currently being gouged in nearly every possible way by an insatiable governor. And now he is taking shots at Bruce.

I seldom write about my admiration for Bruce Springsteen because it is a very personal matter with me. Having grown up in a working-class family, I discovered Bruce at a fairly young age and I suspected his concern was authentic. That suspicion has grown over the years as he has campaigned for the common worker, never forgetting where he began. Now Chris Christie is attempting to besmirch the Boss. Using the newest entry in the Neo-Con lexicon of swears, Christie has leveled the “L-word” at New Jersey’s native son. Seems liberal is always a bad thing. Good thing Jesus – the original liberal – isn’t here or the Neo-Cons would nail him as well.

I'll see you after school

The Neo-Con movement delights in out-shouting the competition. Shut down National Public Radio because if reason is broadcast on the airwaves some people might end up looking ridiculous. Let us have no dissension here! If you leave the wealthy alone, they will leave you alone. Seems that “conservative” social responsibility was crucified some two millennia ago. Instead of Christ we now have Christie. The devil himself, however, would make a more compassionate governor, if we could ever get him away from the endless tea parties of perdition that occupy all his time.