Giving a Hand

A friend sent me a news story that really spoke to me.  A bookstore in England, forced to move because of rent, asked for volunteers to help move their stock to a new storefront.  The response?  They had to start turning people away after 250.  A human chain was formed to pass books down by hand to their new home.  Book people, it seems to me, are like that.  I spent a recent weekend looking at downtown Easton—one of the triplet cities that make up “the Valley” (Allentown and Bethlehem being the other two).  Surprisingly, I found two used book stores within blocks of each other.  The proprietors (especially of the first) were friendly and helpful.  They were book people.

I mentioned to said first proprietor that two of the books I was buying were to replace copies ruined during our move.  The look of alarm and sympathy on her face was genuine.  Book people know that look.  They can feel each other’s pain.  They will freely give of their time to hold knowledge in their hands, if only briefly, to pass it along to others.  Now, like most bookish people, I’m aware that I’m considered odd by the average guy who enjoys sports, mechanical stuff, and money.  I’m content with a book, either reading or writing, and the occasional foray out among the more active and boisterous.  I like to think that if I lived in Southampton I’d have given up a vacation day to help out.  Saving books is saving civilization.

Book people know there’s more to life than themselves.  Ironically, such readers are often quiet and sometimes thought to be stuck up.  If you go to help move books by hand, I suspect that gives the lie to feeling above other people.  Reading is thought of as a passive activity, but it makes the mind more active.  There’s a reason our species have large brains.  It’s not that all books are for everyone—I’ve had plenty of disappointments in my reading life—but the unread book is full of potential energy.  And often that already read rewards us when we turn back to it.  Books, you see, are the ultimate givers.  Those who sell them may make a profit, but the return on investment tends to be quite high for the buyer.  If you have to move and you hire a moving company chances are they’ll complain about your books.  You’re better off asking book people for an unstinting hand.

Not Camelot

In the English imagination the Arthurian legend is deeply connected with the Christian myth of Britain’s founding. This may not be on the surface, of course, but the places associated with King Arthur (as well as the tales themselves, such as the Holy Grail) overlap with sacred locations. I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about Tintagel Castle. Back in the day when my wife and I visited Tintagel with friends, I was still shooting film. Slides, no less. Some wonderful images came out, the way that only Ektachrome delivers, but I haven’t been able to convert them to digital. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. Tintagel is in the news because English Heritage, the owner of the property, is developing it to make it a larger tourist draw. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Not in the castle—now in ruins—that was built centuries later, but on the island that is accessed by footbridge over a dramatic cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s enough to make you drop your pastie.

Our own little Merlin

Our own little Merlin

Locals, according to The Guardian, protest the dressing up of the historic site. A bas relief of Merlin has been carved into the living rock, and this is hoped to draw the Glastonbury crowd to the southeast. Glastonbury, upon our visit, was already the home of New Age vendors. It too has connections with Arthur. The staff of Joseph of Arimathea can be seen, still growing after all these centuries. The Holy Grail—likely from Celtic mythology of the cauldron—is also associated with Glastonbury. Oh yes, and also King Arthur’s grave. Even apart from Monty Python, the legendary king has captured the imagination of thousands across the centuries. There’s something about Arthur.

The historicity of the king, however, is vigorously debated. The same is true of many religious founders. Those around whom legends grow become more and more inaccessible with the passing of the years. England was Christianized in the seventh century as part of a political expansion. If Arthur ever lived, it was after that period, perhaps in the days before Beowulf. We just don’t know. It is clear, however, that his legend is intertwined with that of those early Christian days. There never was a Holy Grail—of that we can be fairly certain. In the service of myth-making, it is nevertheless indispensable. Staring out over the Ektachrome sea at the ruins of the island castle of Tintagel, it is only too easy to believe. If only I had the pictures to prove it.

Henging Our Bets

With the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the history of civilization has received an unexpected prologue. In the view of the archaeologists involved in the excavation, the site can only be religious in nature, indicating that the earliest communal efforts of humans were not for mutual protection or for the benefits of growing crops, but for worship. In an era of angry atheists and nones, this isn’t really welcome news. Many people are ready to flush religion once and for all, claiming that it inspires only terrorists and fanatics to more and more extreme deeds. Well, I suppose Göbekli Tepe can be considered a form of extremism. Massive amounts of energy were required for the building of the site. And it was buried, intentionally, when the builders were finished with it. The news of a new component to the much later Stonehenge complex, the Durrington Walls, has recently been presented. Stonehenge, in England rather than in Turkey, and much closer in time to us than Göbekli Tepe, is a site that has touched the human imagination in a profound way. Still primitive at the time of its construction, Britain was a land already brimming with religious monuments. The new discoveries make it even more intriguing.

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Stonehenge is only a small part of what is now being called the Durrington Walls super-henge. Those who visit Salisbury Plain know that Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow are both impressive in their own right, and not far from the more famous sarsen stones that appear on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts and in movies and television shows of all genres. This part of prehistoric England seems to have been a sacred site many hectares in extent, with various “temples” and monuments dedicated to a religion we simply don’t understand. What is clear is that massive human energies were put into the building, expanding, upkeep, and functioning of this site. People have a deep, and very passionate urge to answer the religious longing that even sophisticated engineering can’t placate.

It could be argued, of course, that we’ve outgrown our childhood need for parents in the sky. Science and rational thought have shown us the way forward and although ancient monuments might be a fun diversion, they really mean nothing. I would disagree. Places like the Durrington Walls super-henge indicate what it is to be human. Clearly, given that even Stonehenge fell into disrepair and lay neglected for centuries, it was not a continuity that stretches, uninterrupted to today. Nevertheless, the effort expended to fill a void we feel should tell us something about what being conscious creatures is all about. Life doesn’t always make sense. The rational cannot explain everything. It would be naive to try to make Stonehenge reveal its secrets, but even standing at a distance (which is the only way you can gain admission any more) you have the sense that you are among those who knew what the human spirit required. Even if pagan and illiterate, they have spoken to us through the ages and we can only continue to wonder at what we’ve lost.

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

Strange Days

The flight from London to New York is eight hours. Although I always travel with books, sometimes the selection made before the actual reality of time on a plane turns out to be too academic. I read academic books on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York and back, but these trips are not so drawn out as the long flight across the Atlantic. Since my flight was departing Terminal 2 at Heathrow, I had trouble finding a bookstore. There are stores that sell books, but having been to Blackwell’s the day before, the selection was not inspiring. I wandered to the magazine section. Magazines can be good travel fodder since they don’t demand the rigors of a monograph, and glossy pictures always add to the appeal. But what to buy?

ForteanTimesLooking over the covers, I found one featuring vampires. It turned out to be the Fortean Times, but since I had a row to myself on the plane, I couldn’t see the harm in having a magazine about strange phenomena. I’d never actually read an issue of the Fortean Times before, although I had a general idea of what to expect. While it may seem odd, there is a pretty solid connection between the paranormal and religion. I’ve noticed this for years. Reading through the Fortean Times, it was clear that others have made the connection as well. Many of the articles, including the ones on vampires, touched on obvious religious themes and motifs. This was so much the case that I began to wonder if any kind of solid wall can be erected between the two.

Religion, broadly conceived, tends to be concerned with the non-material world. Its claims tend to defy empirical verification, and its subject matter is often at odds with science (at least in the mainstream). The paranormal is open to scientific investigation in that it tends to be based on secular claims. Like religion, however, it tends to dwell in the non-material realm. After all, vampires coming back from the dead is hardly a phenomenon that is readily recorded with any instrument beyond a Hollywood movie camera. Still, most religions are hostile to the paranormal, and investigators of the paranormal may be unconnected to religion. Both, however, are an engaging recipe for a long flight. Especially if nobody is sitting in the row next to you.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

Paper Oxford

PaperTownsIt looks like a brilliant blue morning here in Oxford, yet my body is telling me that it’s the middle of the night. And that’s saying something, since I normally get up around 3:30 anyway. Routine is kind of a religious thing. In fact, it seems to be the root of ritualistic behavior. The passing of time is a matter that affects us all in some way. Jet lag is one of those ways. I’ve got an important meeting to attend in an hour—that’s why I’ve come all this way—and yet my mind will be telling me I should be elsewhere. Perhaps back over the north Atlantic, looking down at icebergs from the air, wondering if climate change is really that far advanced. Are there any polar caps left at all? Didn’t the Titanic hit an iceberg at this time of year, and wasn’t it a great surprise? At least on a ship you don’t get jet lag. There’s nothing like travel to shake you out of the ordinary.

I suppose that’s part of the draw to John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read on the flight over. Although it’s young adult literature, Green has a way of capturing what it was like to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood, and the need to become who we are meant to be. It is a story of leaving home, and of living on the edge. Once a friend said to me that he couldn’t understand someone wanting to leave the place they grew up. I, on the other hand, was only too eager to leave a verbally abusive situation in an industrial town that was slowly dying with no prospects for the young. Needless to say, Paper Towns resonated with me. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in a single sitting. Although I’ve been an adult for decades, I can still remember the feeling of being young, of falling in love, and wondering what this was all about. High above the north Atlantic, I was sure I still hadn’t figured it out.

There’s nothing religious about Paper Towns. The characters in it assume God to exist, as most Americans do. We make a lot of assumptions. My body is assuming it’s only two in the morning. My clock is telling me that it’s seven. Time is relative, but only one of those placeholders will determine if I am late to work in this place I find myself waking up. I remember being young, and although Oxford has its usual charm, I also know what it feels like to have to leave. The clock tells me that I have to go. The novel in my head tells me the same thing. I’m not sure what time it is. For the moment my paper town is Oxford, and it seems very real indeed.