In a strange kind of oneupmanship, the horrendous murders in Sutherland Springs overshadowed the story of Scott Ostrem’s multiple shooting at a Walmart in Colorado. Ostrem apparently shot at random and killed three people. No motive is known, but when his apartment was searched a stack of Bibles was found. Plenty of people have Bible stacks in their houses—I know I do—but the odd element here is guns. The “reasoning” behind the NRA’s convoluted logic is that guns are for self defense. Everyone ought to have them, along with their Bible stacks. When those voices in your head begin to speak, which you grab—gun or Bible—may make all the difference. Fact is, you don’t have to be mentally stable to buy guns. And no matter how much the NRA says you should shoot back, guns in the hands of madmen obey no rules.
Trump promised to make America great again. One of the statistics at which we excel—indeed we’re a world leader—is gun deaths. We also do pretty well at opioid overdosing. Politicians can’t seem to figure out that the underlying causes here are related to the society they’ve built where you can’t ever get ahead and no matter what you do the 1 percenters will get richer while you spend your days struggling to get to the point when you can climb back into bed and sleep it off until it all starts over again. Watch them in congress. See them trying to thrust more money upon the wealthy. See them pocket the funds the NRA so generously offers. And then read the statistics. Some inexplicable disconnect exists that no amount of drugs will bridge. We are a hurting nation. And stacks of Bibles aren’t the answer.
A Bible stack in its natural habitat
In antiquity there was an ideal. Not that it ever existed in practice, but at least they had the idea. The ideal was that there was nothing wrong with wealth as long as the wealthy first ensured that everyone had enough. Then they could go on an accumulate as much as they wanted. The problem of course is that nobody knows what enough is. When do you know that you have enough? Today there’s no ceiling cap. Take your pick: money, guns, drugs, Bibles. You can have as much or as many as you wish. In just about any combination. Any combination that doesn’t involve money. Only the 1 percenters should be entitled to that. And the rest of us here below and fight it out over the remaining three.
With the terrorist attacks in Belgium on our minds, people are asking once again, “What’s up with Fundamentalists?” My jeremiad that the only solution to religious violence is to study religion reaches few eyes, I realize, but the internet has the capability of spreading memes far and fast. It is merely the hope of a closet optimist. One thing that Fundamentalists believe—I know from personal experience—is that the stakes are based in eternity. In Christian fundamentalism, for example, Hell or Heaven will be forever and any parent would be depraved indeed not to teach their children this belief from their earliest days. That parent-child bond is strong to the point of being unbreakable. That’s why what children learn about religion tends to stay with them all of their life.
A story on the Freedom from Religion Foundation website describes how it is fighting the distribution of Gideon Bibles in public schools in Delta County, Colorado. I was under the impression that Gideons contented themselves with hotel rooms and county fairs. I had no idea that they were active in public schools. In response, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has provided counterbalances to be available to students, including materials calling the Bible into question, and, somewhat more surprising, atheist and Satanist literature. It is clearly a political move to prevent the district from allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles, but it feels an awful lot like a battleground to me. We want the best for our children, but is it best to put our adult biases out where they can be so plainly seen? In a pluralistic society, religion will always raise extreme responses where children are concerned.
The question here is not whether children should receive religious teaching or not, but where such teaching should occur. We are a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom, and although the concepts have changed since the founding days, the ideal is still valid. No matter how one wants to argue the point, people will be religious beings. They may express it in enormously different ways, but express it they will. Children trust us to act like adults. We want what’s best for them but the risk is very high. What should be done? Educate adults. But then, that’s a screed you’ve heard from me before.
While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.
Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.
That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”
Batman was dreamed up in the late 1930s as an ambiguous character that fought crime and protected innocent civilians. The backstory emerged that he had witnessed his parents being shot down as a child, and eventually adopted the identity of a bat to frighten the perps. Batman never, in principle, used guns. Of course, the DC Comics character eventually scored a wonderfully campy television series that entertained many of us as children. It even spawned a movie. Then, fifty years after the original, Tim Burton gave us a darker, more serious Batman. The series of promising movies degenerated into the unforgivable Batman and Robin, and many assumed the flash in the pan was over. We didn’t need any super heroes. Christopher Nolan resurrected this bat in Batman Begins, and when I first saw The Dark Knight I was stunned. Good and evil danced a waltz so delicate that you were never sure who was leading. The frisson was palpable.
Thursday night the Nolan series’ final episode was released. I’ve not seen it yet, but from the moment I step out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Times Square until I arrive at work, I will have seen several multi-story Batmen looking down on the real life Gotham, explosions erupting and everyone wondering if Batman will survive this film. Yesterday morning the news opened with a horrifying story from real life in Aurora, Colorado. A gunman opened fire on a crowd of opening night movie viewers, killing at least twelve. Several children were shot. The gunman, like a real-life character from Arkham, was apprehended and claimed to have explosives in his house. I stared at the story and wondered what has become of humanity.
Facebook has turned into a venue for flying political banners. I’m always surprised to see how conservative people I knew in school have become—in those days no one had me beat for non-progressive thought. I’m truly amazed, at times, by the glorification of America’s gun culture that accompanies conservative causes. People want to shoot and want to glorify their right to shoot. I have, on rare occasions, shot rifles for sport—only at targets and only when others have asked me to. There is no denying the rush of power one feels, knowing that, like God, you can destroy the thing far distant from you with just a squeeze of the finger. I’m not sure I’m happy in a universe populated by such gods. I grew up a conservative, but also a pacifist. I grew up watching Batman defeat evil so clearly defined that no room remained for ambiguity. Yes, I grew up a conservative, but then I just grew up. I will watch The Dark Knight Rises and will not know what to expect.
“It was like Armageddon,” a woman in Colorado Springs told a reporter, according to CNN, after seeing the wildfires raging down the mountains onto the city. The article opens with a reference to Godzilla. The story is a wrenching reminder of how helpless humans are in the face of disaster. When facing danger far bigger than ourselves, language of God is never far behind. The things we control—the future we engineer—is bright in prospect. We’ve impacted our own chances for the better in a steady surge since the Middle Ages. Of course, there have been notable blips along the way where we’ve fallen victim to our own paranoias, but generally, things are better. Controlling fire was among the first of human innovations that eventually led to civilization. Humans took a natural force and put it to work for us. It is easy to forget that fire serves no master. Until nature reminds us.
Earth, wind, fire, and water. The ancient Greek philosophers had narrowed the basic environment down to four features. Each of them holds profound dangers for a small species like our own. No wonder the ancients ascribed each of these elements a guardian deity or two. On driving trips to the west, I have gone past fires whose intense heat could be felt hundreds of yards away in the air-conditioned comfort of our car. Still, I shuddered. In this day of advanced transportation, most people can drive themselves away from the danger of wildfires. The problem is that material goods take up space, and in a world that values material goods above all things, well, you still can’t take it with you. My heart goes out to those who tell their stories of impossible decisions of what to take. What in our lives can’t be replaced? What do we truly value?
Funny thing is, we’ve known since I was in high school at least, that our own actions were changing the climate. The wildfires may not be directly related—I don’t know—but I do know that we’ve been in deep denial. We’ve been caught in a sin so black that the only way out is to lie until we’re even deeper in it. We’ve been destroying our own environment for money. Money with which to buy material possessions. Earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, and flood. None of the four elements are safe. We can put our material goods in a secure house in a mountain stronghold and still lose everything. It is the fate of a culture that puts too much faith in material goods. Colorado is beautiful and peaceful, much of the time. But nature respects no human. Yet we put our faith in material things. Maybe she was right after all, it is like Armageddon.