Punch Bug

There’s no other reason for buying a Volkswagen Beetle than making a statement.  We bought ours in 2003, before they got squashed.  Mechanically it has been a good little car, but, despite the fine engineering, the hood latch is made of plastic.  And we all know what plastic does.  Yesterday was sunny and a Saturday so I spent at least four hours trying to get the hood open.  (Unsuccessfully.)  Now, I’m no gear-head, so I watched a video on YouTube that 23,000 views (some 22,000 of which were me) on how to work around this major design flaw.  After three hours in the sun I had my face pressed to the bumper, trying hard not to think of all the bugs that have met eternity there, so I could see up to where the inaccessible latch smugly sits.  No tool in the history of humankind can reach it. After another hour I gave up, although just one weekend before this trick worked.

YouTube is an alternate universe.  There, latches can be made to work.  Men who appear larger than me can wedge their entire hands in that unforgivingly tight space while my knuckles are going to take days to heal.  They use simple tools that trip well-oiled springs and their engine blocks are revealed to them like the commandments on Mount Horeb.  Clearly I am not counted among the blessed in this mechanical paradise.  I do pretty well at this kind of thing if someone shows me how, but with a broken hood-latch you’re working by faith with car parts unseen.  Kind of like wrestling with an angel at night.

I did notice among the YouTube videos an unexpected sense of tradition.  The new Beetle (although ours is well over a decade old) has the engine in the front.  The original Beetle (one of which I drove until the cost of parking in Boston compelled me to sell it) famously had it in the rear, making the front the trunk of the car.  That nomenclature has persisted despite the passage of time and changing the facts.  In my mind the front of the car, where the engine is located (or so I hear) is called “the hood.”  The rear is “the trunk” (more spacious in the new Beetle, as I know from experience).  Although the design and layout have changed, the old language remains.  It seems to me that all of this conforms to a belief in special revelation.  Once uttered it cannot be changed.  Or opened, apparently.  Please excuse me, but after all this typing I’ve got to get some ice for my knuckles.

Kings and Fiends

Martin Luther King Jr. was, and is, a symbol of hope. This day, as we’re encouraged to think of progress, we’re mired under leadership that less than a week ago used derogatory language to describe people that aren’t white enough for his liking. Those who, like King, have a dream, are under attack by a government that has pledged its allegiance to the dollar. The dollar in the hand of the white man. From the days of the prophets on the dream of a just and fair society has been the ideal. Instead we find ourselves under the ultimate party of privilege that likes to quote the Bible but which admires Pharaoh far more than Moses. They claim to see the promised land, and that land belongs only to them.

I was too young, as a seminary student, to appreciate I was walking the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King. Sitting in the same classrooms. It had all been before my time. Because of the Bible I first took an interest in history—eager to learn how we’d come to this place. Ronald Reagan—who now amazingly seems rather benign—was making it difficult for the poor by promoting “trickle down economics.” We all saw how that worked. The modern-day Pharaohs may not wear the impressive headdress of antiquity, but they’re no less fond of owning slaves. King understood that non-violence comes with a cost. It takes time. Unlike the present administration, he understood the difference between right and wrong.

The Pharaoh in the White House makes it difficult to appreciate any progress at all. We have come to see what it means to be a nation that solely, utterly worships Mammon. The voice of the Bible is weak and shouted down by those who see no gain in it for themselves. There were surely those in Egypt who were poor but who appreciated the Pharaoh. At least he was enslaving those from somewhere else, according to Exodus. According to the Good Book it was God himself who opposed this system, but now, according to the evangelicals, God has blessed it. It is the will of God to rob the poor of their health care so that the rich can add even more to their too much. On this Martin Luther King day we struggle to find hope in such a world. The hope is there, but we have to be willing to dare to dream.

Mind Your Manna

Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.

Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.

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Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.

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Human Race

PlanetOfTheApesMythFor reasons no one fully understands, Planet of the Apes touched a deep level of responsiveness in American society. I have to admit to having fallen behind a bit; I need to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be back up to speed, but nevertheless, I remember the television releases and airings of the originals, and even have gone through the entire series in the form of home theater offerings. One Saturday long ago on a visit home, I sat through a marathon of the entire five-movies sequence all in a day. It should be no surprise, then, that as soon as I saw Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth it went on my reading list. Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series, the subtitle read. I admit that I grew up in a conservative, but sheltered environment. Having friends who were African-American, although, admittedly, they were a small fraction of the demographic in my small town, I never realized that there was a problem. Not until I took history and social science classes in school. You have to learn things such as racial distrust.

Struck by Planet of the Apes when I first saw it, I had no idea that it was a racial tale. It makes sense now, in the light of Greene’s analysis. To a child fearing evolution as much as Hell itself, the movie was a kind of forbidden fruit, and by making it science fiction, there was no reason to suppose there was a message here. It was a powerful kind of captivity. I have watched the movie, and current adaptations, many times over. Greene does an excellent job of demonstrating that the movies came at a time of great racial distress. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the fear of the Communist—xenophobia was perhaps at an all-time high when the apes invaded our planet. As the series goes on, the identifications become clearer and clearer.

But more than that, Greene pointed out some very obvious—in retrospect—religious symbolism in the movies. Some of it was so intentional that it was written into the script. Among the scenes from the life of Jesus, the movies borrow most heavily from Exodus. Moses figures abound. Even Charlton Heston, in his role as Taylor, was following up on the Ten Commandments. Holy families and sacrificial victims mark just about every stage of this dystopia, a world where trust is always far from any relationship with someone physically different. It’s about time that I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And after that, I need to go back to the beginning, and watch them all with renewed eyes. In the light of current events, also with the hope of a more just future.

Texodus

I’m not sure what Patheos is, but it has been on my web-radar (or is it “ping”?) for some time now. They host bloggers with a more substantial platform than mine, and often have a number of comments that must require a full-time coterie of first responders. As a working class blogger, however, I siphon off their success to spin my own ideas a little further. All of this is preface to the fact that a recent article by Michael Stone on Patheos comments on Texas’s approval of textbooks where Moses inspired “the American system of democracy.” We are all used to Texas shenanigans by now, but making laws with the ultimate lawmaker just as a movie is being released that portrays Moses as a warrior is apt in a way that Rick Perry’s stomping grounds may not truly appreciate. The need to validate outdated laws with a largely mythical biblical figure is telling. Revisionist history depends on the version of history that is more compelling at the moment, and I find Moses charging the Egyptian army on horseback eerily appropriate.

Textbooks are insidious. They are society’s first crack at young, and naturally open, minds. As we socialize the rising generations to support that with which we’ve always felt comfortable—not wanting to jeopardize our ease in our advancing age—it becomes important to provide the appropriate propaganda. As I speak with fellow scholars (if I may be so bold) I frequently hear them decrying textbooks. By their nature they are a leveling off of what naturally comes in mounds—heaps, even. They are a tool used to keep everything even in a world of rough knowledge. They are insidious in that they are hard to override. Those of us who’ve taught in college know how difficult credibility is when “the book says” is the standard line of recourse. If it was published by Pearson corporation, it must be true.

Revisionist history.

Revisionist history.

Of course, we venerate the published word. Today the Bible, I suspect, were it newly composed, would have difficulty finding a publisher. Since it was written a couple thousand years ago, however, it retains all the trappings of hoary wisdom that is required to make the elders comfortable. Even scholars of the Bible have, as a matter of course, questioned Moses’ role in the story for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages some sages were asking how Moses knew to write his own death scene. Even so, the vast majority took the word literally, and now that we’ve defined ourselves as a “Christian nation,” or at least the southern half of a Christian nation, we can use the Bible as a textbook. What could be more natural? On the big screen I anticipate Christian Bale charging the Egyptians on horseback. In the Pentateuch I read of Moses hiding behind Aaron’s eloquence. One is biblical, but is it believable? If it comes to a contest of force between the two, I’ll go with Ridley Scott every time.

No, Uh

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“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” The words belong to Cecil B. DeMille, according to Stephen Whitty’s weekend write-up about Bible movies in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The story was inspired by a trio of big-budget Bible films—Son of God, Noah, and Exodus—set to be released this year. While Mel Gibson put me off of Jesus movies, perhaps forever, I’ve been planning to see Noah ever since my wife first pointed the poster out to me in a local theater lobby last month. The flood story has always spoken to me, lasting well beyond the nursery years with all the fluffy animals aboard the ark. One of the points that Whitty is making, however, is that Hollywood knows something the New Atheists do not—there’s big money in religion. People will pay to see it on the big screen. The Bible still speaks to a secular nation.

Noah’s story has been dramatized many times over in the entertainment media. It is often a theme in popular fiction, although well hidden, and reemerges in the occasional search for the lost ark documentaries or Veggie Tales shorts. There’s something timeless about the world-wide flood. For me it seems to go back to the thrill of the impossible. Those first eleven chapters of Genesis teem with the surreal world of lifespans centuries long, primordial gardens full of good food, gods intermarrying with humans, and waters that cover any number of sins. There’s a robust, adventurous air to such stories—they push on the boundaries of human experience and burst beyond them. It doesn’t matter whether Noah’s ark is round, boxy, or extraterrestrial—the flood’s the thing. It appeals to imagination like less mundane disasters simply can’t.

I don’t go to the movies to learn about the Bible. I can do that right at home with a single outlay for a relatively cheap book that can be read over and over again. No, it is these early days of the Bible that give rise to the prepositional phrase “of biblical proportions,” that the movies show so well. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make the transition from Batman to Moses when Exodus comes out later this year, but next month I do plan to let the waters of the largest event in earth’s fictive history wash over me with all its CGI glory. Seeing is not always believing, but the flood is one of the most powerful stories ever told. Who can resist the calling of deep unto deep? Be warned, the entire theater will be in the splash zone.

Bible According to Batman

DarkKnightRises Biblical tropes are alive and well in popular culture. Many would choose the flight option rather than admit they enjoy a good Bible story. They may anyway, however, without realizing it. Although The Dark Knight Rises came out over a year ago, I only just had the chance to watch it. For a kid who grew up on the campy 1960’s television series, Christopher Nolan offers adult fare. Put the kiddie menu away and sit up straight at the table. I don’t read reviews, in general, before seeing movies because I don’t enjoy spoilers. I had no idea whether Batman would come out of this alive or not. I wasn’t really even sure who Bane was (even before The Dark Knight everyone knew who the Joker was, or thought they did). The Dark Knight Rises places the whole of Heilsgeschichte (sacred history) before the viewer with verbal cues. Unless you’re reading while watching, you’ll miss it though.

Bruce Wayne is clearly cast as the wounded healer in this final installment of the trilogy. Physically and psychologically crippled, he hobbles around in a combination of Jesus and Yoda figures, somehow supernatural yet fully human. Death and resurrection transpire twice for him in this film. When Bane breaks Batman’s back (an often fatal injury) even Catwoman thinks he might be dead. He is very much alive, however, in the prison only “Bane” escaped (resurrection one). Not only does he rise from the grave, he also ascends into heaven by escaping the well—anyone who’s read Jeremiah, or even Genesis, knows the origin of that motif. Risen, ascended, and glorified, Batman returns to beat the crap out of Bane. But the bomb is still on the loose and before Batman faces his nemesis he tells Commissioner Gordon to arrange “an exodus”—Joseph’s descendants must get out of Egypt. At the Red Sea (the Hudson River) the Pharaoh’s army blocks the exodus of the children of St. Swithun’s who, in response, bow their heads in prayer (am I the only one seeing this?)

Commissioner Gordon, found guilty of betraying the common man, receives the sentence of Exile (“death, by exile” to be precise). Again, those sensitive to Jeremiah know that exile is a kind of death, but death with a noble purpose. The Heilsgeschichte of Israel involves exodus and exile. The Christians added on death, resurrection, and ascension. Christopher Nolan put them together in one Dark Knight. But I mentioned two resurrections, no? Flying the bomb out of Gotham, Batman is definitively blown to smithereens—the blast radius was, after all, six miles. And yet, Alfred has a post-resurrection visitation, where no touching occurs (Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father) sees his savior. Was the Bat the Holy Spirit on autopilot? Is that Catwoman with him? Might I be so bold as to type Mary Magdalene? Well, I may be over a year late with my observations of The Dark Knight Rises, but as I think Christopher Nolan understands, the Bible has been lying around even longer. If the success of this movie is anything to go by, it will be around for a long time yet to come.

Dystopian Dreams

Hunger_gamesOne of the most terrible stories in the Bible is the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. Of course, depending on your point of view, this was either a necessary evil or an act of wanton cruelty by a deity with anger issues. Still, it ends with a bunch of dead children. Then, as if that weren’t enough, a horrible reprisal comes at the birth of the child of the main character, with Herod slaughtering the innocents in Israel. And let’s not forget the very source of Kierkegaardian angst, the knife poised above a bound Isaac by his completely believing father. More recent, less literary examples could add poignancy and reduce the distance: Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech—the murder of children is beyond the farthest reaches of perversion into a realm that no longer classifies as human. I think the Bible might agree with me there. So it was with some trepidation that I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, at the urging of my daughter.

Although written for a young adult readership, The Hunger Games is a classic dystopia with a dark future and repressive government mandating the killing of twenty-three children every year, just to make a point. Deftly combining teenage angst with the bleakness that just about any future-based novel seems to hold, Collins spins a sad but engrossing tail. Dystopias have grown in popularity since some of the earlier, Cold War exemplars such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The number of dystopian novels grows every year. I suppose if I were an elected official I might cast a worried eye towards the increasing number of exposés of a society where consumers read so many books of the future gone awry. I know many intelligent, sober people who seriously wonder if we’ve already shifted onto that track. Tomorrow is only an extension of today.

Dystopias are among the most biblical of literary genres. The Bible itself is a bit of a dystopia. Consider the framing of a perfect world ending up with the original apocalyptic tale, the Apocalypse, or Revelation. It only ends well for 144,000. In-between there are pages and pages, chapters and chapters of oppression, violence, and suffering. Paradise gone bad. That’s the essence of the dystopia. Although Collins doesn’t make any overt biblical or religious references in The Hunger Games, the very genre she chose can’t escape the biblical bounds laid out for it. And besides, long before the year both Collins and I were born, the Bible had already set its vision for our society. And that vision, to our everlasting trembling, includes the massacre of innocents.

Wars and Holy Wars

An article by James P. Byrd, promoting his new book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution recently appeared in the Washington Post. Byrd asks a very relevant question in our era: “Was the American Revolution actually a holy war?” He suggests that perhaps it should be interpreted so. The reason is straightforward enough—our nation, our culture in the United States, is so deeply steeped in scripture that even our Deist founders knew their Bibles better than many preachers today do. Byrd suggests, in his article, that people who believed in the separation of church and state could still have a deep sense of divine mission, and a belief that their war for freedom was a divine cause. Early state leaders were not anti-religious, nor über-religious. It is a balance that we would benefit from regaining.

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I guess I’ve seen enough political shenanigans to realize that such posturing as the Tea Party and the Religious Right or Moral Majority present are deeply cynical. The use religion as a platform to achieve political ends while conveniently slashing and burning huge swaths of biblical reasoning leaves many questions in its wake. Were such motives sincere, I would expect a lot more turning of the other cheek, and walking the second mile uncoerced. I suspect there would be fewer hungry people and even fewer living in positions of extreme wealth and power. In short, without the agenda of political religion, I suspect we would be a more Christian nation.

War is difficult to justify from a strong ethical stance, as most ethicists know. Our founders decided to go to war against what they believed was unfair oppression by a more powerful nation. This takes on the cast of a holy war because people were being oppressed. The pre-emptive strikes were throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor, and yet the more advanced nation refused to lessen the pressure. In the Bible, Pharaoh declared the Israelites should make bricks without straw, and we all know where that got him. Or we would know, were we as literate as our forebears were. Freedom was considered a sacred trust. We live in a time when trust is at a premium. You can’t fly or surf the internet without being watched in intimate detail. There is no talk of holy wars, it seems, since the sacred has no place in a society that does not promote the concept of liberty with all the risks and benefits it entails.

Close Commandments

Okay, so I’ll admit that Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible put me in the mood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this movie always calls for an investment of time and some emotional energy since it does drag a bit and there are some ponderously majestic scenes that simply make me want to scream. As I powered up the old DVD player this weekend, however, I received an epiphany while watching the movie for the first time in years. Early on during Richard Dreyfuss’s breakdown, the kids (incongruously) gather around the television with excitement to watch the Ten Commandments. The reason, clearly, is that they want to stay up late, and even having to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s warhorse is an adequate excuse. I’ll admit that it was one of my motivations for watching the lush, but equally dull, Ten Commandments as a child. Yes, I took it to be a pious attempt to render God’s literally true memoirs into celluloid, but its 4-hour running time did promise to keep me out of bed until after ten.

Young Moses experiences a theophany.

As my wife and I watched Close Encounters over the weekend, I realized for the first time that much of the cinematography is based on the Ten Commandments. Dreyfuss is a visionary, a prophet, if you will. He is drawn to a sacred mountain (Devil’s Tower) where, like Moses, he makes his way up and down, unable to decide whether to enter the divine presence or not. One of the pacing problems in the book of Exodus is the mental image of an 80 year-old Moses laboriously making his way up and down Sinai as God sends him on various errands. I imagine the children of Israel having time to cast a whole herd of golden cattle. As the UFOs make their grand appearance somewhat near the end of Close Encounters Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler climb the mountain, see the theophanic display, and start back down. Only to go up again. On their way to Devil’s Tower they drive by several dead animals, like those struck down in the fifth plague of Exodus. The army forcing the people out of the area is itself an exodus. The return of those kidnapped by the aliens is a kind of letting go of those held captive. Apparently the Egyptians and aliens have a long history anyway.

I have no idea if Steven Spielberg was intentionally modeling Close Encounters on the Ten Commandments, but corollaries are clearly there. 1977 had not yet witnessed the decline of Erich von Däniken’s star, catapulted into orbit by Chariots of the Gods? where once again we find God driving spaceships and giving the Egyptians a hand with those pesky pyramids. Even the surnames of the characters seem to be a play on their biblical roles. Roy Neary, the one who draws near to God, the only one selected to literally ascend to heaven at the end, and Jillian Guiler, whose suspicion keeps her earthbound with her son Barry, who bears an eerie resemblance to the childlike aliens whom he befriends. Berry is the movie’s Joshua, the one who will keep the faith alive for the next generation. The story came to Spielberg, according to the media, when he saw a meteor shower in New Jersey as a youth. I missed last week’s meteor shower in New Jersey, and my baby ark on the Nile never sailed.

Springing up Moses

“Springsteen’s work and person invite analysis in terms of the biblical themes of exodus and promised land,” so wrote Kate McCarthy in “Deliver Me from Nowhere: Bruce Springsteen and the Myth of the American Promised Land” (conveniently in a Routledge title, God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, second edition, 2011). Having just finished Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet (not Routledge), I am attuned to the exodus theme at the moment. Feeling an unaccountable, personal connection to the other Bruce (Springsteen), I have felt the sense of exile in his songs since I was a teenager. I had no idea who Springsteen was when “Born to Run” made it to the charts. Living in a nowhere town at the time (population less than 1000), I felt the burning need for a personal exodus that eventually landed me in the largest city in the country. But still the sense of exile remains.

Lest readers be too confused, it might be politic to point out that the biblical concept of exodus likely had its origins in the Exile. Without rehearsing too much history, the Babylonian Empire, under Nebuchadrezzar, conquered Jerusalem in either 587 or 586 BCE, leading to the deportation of a significant number of Judahites who would become, over a generation, the “Jews.” These people were exiles, forced to live under the watchful eye of a political overlord with whom they shared only the most basic of heritages. Their religions had grown apart over the centuries, and as the Jews began to think back on their homeland, the exodus came to mind. Archaeological evidence for an exodus of biblical proportions (literally) does not exist. Why, then, the story of the exodus? Did not the desire to return home involve crossing the desert, with a divinely appointed leader? One who carried the law (Torah) with him? When Ezra led returnees home in the fifth/fourth century, he had the Torah in hand. Like Moses, he led the people out of bondage under the Persian plan. Exile and exodus are twin children of oppressive regimes.

So, how do ancient desert wanderers come into the orbit of a very damp New Jersey, and in particular, it’s arguably most famous resident? Alienation is home. Very few teenagers don’t understand this. As we attempt to integrate them into adult life, something vital, essential, is left behind. Consider all the long-haired artists of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who still perform, now shorn to conservative acceptability and sometimes churning out very conventional songs. The fire has gone out. It is difficult to escape exile when you carry it with you. That’s something I think Bruce understands. His look may have changed, but his message has not. America has always been a haven for exiles. Simply because an exile moves into a new setting, however, does not mean that the promised land has been reached. As McCarthy seems to be saying, and as I have often felt, the promised land disappoints. The seeking is what must persist. America may have its Moeses, but it will find, from atop Nebo, that the path is where your feet already are.

Look carefully at your prophets!

Declining Prophets

Prophets aren’t what they used to be. Was a time when you had to be real to make an impression on the world. The historical evidence for Moses is slim. So slim, in fact, that it can’t be seen. As a child learning that the Bible contained no mistakes (it does) and no contradictions (too many to count), there was never any doubt of Moses’ historicity. Charlton Heston’s iconic portrayal of the man who wouldn’t be king left little room for doubt in pliable young minds. Not bad for a man who probably never lived.

I finally got around to reading Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. Initially I found the book difficult because I started it the day after finishing Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight. There seemed a disingenuousness to America’s development that had been built on oppression. The retelling of sacred histories can be quite diverse. Nevertheless, Feiler’s book is well researched and compellingly written. Beginning with Columbus and coming up through the first years of the twenty-first century, Feiler shows again and again how Moses is lurking in the shadows of some of America’s grandest monuments to self.

Moses is the liberator who lays down the law. As such, nearly all the great political leaders in America’s Bible-saturated history have been compared to him. The funny thing about the actual Moses is that history’s chroniclers somehow failed to mention him. He does not appear in the annals of Egypt, where, according to Exodus, he was the near equal of Ramesses II. He is not mentioned by the political watchers among the other great powers of ancient western Asia. The Bible is all he’s got. Political commentators in early America, however, were not worried about whether he existed or not. The Bible says he did and that’s good enough.

Feiler builds a compelling case for Moses standing behind American figures and institutions. He also seems to be aware that Moses may never have walked the earth. An avenue he doesn’t explore is how entire national identities can be built on myths. Mythology gives us the meaning by which we live. Some times that mythology will include historical personages. Other times the myth must stand on its own. Moses may be one of the latter. Does it matter that Moses does not appear in history? No. He has already left his imprint, as Feiler ably demonstrates, on Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Washington, the Liberty Bell, Abraham Lincoln, the Underground Railroad, the Statue of Liberty, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even—God help us!—George W. Bush. Anyone capable of pounding a Bible loudly enough will eventually make the ranks, it seems. Ahistorical Moses has accomplished in his sleep more than historical people can ever attain. Amazing what you can achieve, real or not, with mythology on your side.

Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"

Agenda in Pink

One advantage of the technological revolution is that it is a lot easier to look things up in the Bible now. As a biblical scholar who cut his teeth the hard way by reading and rereading Holy Writ until great swaths were committed to memory, now I find it much easier to visit BibleGateway.com rather than haul out the old print concordance and crack my knuckles before straining a muscle to lift the thing. The other day while looking up a passage for class on BibleGateway, I saw an advertisement that made me cringe. Zondervan, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is now offering a “Precious Princess Bible.” I did a literalist double-take at the banner. My imagination began to spin: does this edition offer all the misogynistic passages in pink letters? Should not the owner of all FOX News do all that is possible to keep women in their place?

Even a short list will serve to make the point:
Exodus 21.7: And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
Leviticus 27.3-4: And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it be a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.
1 Corinthians 11.3: But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 14.35: And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
1 Timothy 2.12-13: But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.

The Bible is hardly a tome to affirm the “precious princess” concept that many modern parents believe they are fortunate enough to claim. No matter how much we candy-coat it, this is salvation with a double standard. One of the truly remarkable aspects of Christianity is the number of women who adhere to it despite the secondary status the foundation document lends to them. Despite a few harsh words, Jesus is depicted as treating women well. But the Bible tantalizingly refuses to tip even his hand in favor of feminism. The Bible is a man’s world. I am personally awaiting the He-Man Combat edition. It would fit many parts of the Scriptures remarkably well.

The Very Blustery Day

What is it with car service and religion? After a long drive to and from Montclair yesterday to teach my mythology classes, I realized the poor car was due for an oil change. I try to be religious about auto service since the gods of mechanics seem to have bypassed me when handing out their gifts. I am pretty good at taking things apart, but when it comes to reconstructing them, well, they seem to work in new and interesting ways when I’m done. I don’t trust too much auto repair to myself. At the same time, Jiffy Lube is not my favorite hangout. I always take a book along, but the waiting area always has a television going and stale coffee perking, and other people chatting. It is sometimes hard to concentrate. A Friday afternoon seemed like a good time to go since weekend warriors would not be spending their first free hours at the Lube.

I had a choice of seats. I sat behind a Plexiglass divider from the television, figuring it might muffle the sound a bit, and began trying to focus on my work. The TV was on ABC, an early news show was running. I hadn’t been reading ten minutes when I heard the Bible mentioned on the news. I scrunched forward to peer around the windshield wipers suspended from the rack on the other side of the Plexiglass. An official looking authority named Carl Druze of the National Center for Atmospheric Research was explaining to an unseen journalist how he’d discovered the miracle of the Exodus! The government scientist explained, with a fancy graphic illustration, how if the wind blew all night the Red Sea would part into a marshy bit of mostly dry land for up to four hours, giving the Israelites an opportunity to walk right out of Egypt. The woman tending the register was so curious about my bent-over posture that she came around to see what the story was about. When she saw, she gave me a doubtful smile. The story concluded by mentioning that Carl Druze is a devout Christian, but that had nothing to do with his research.

Scientists have long tried to explain mythological episodes. Over the years I have read many implausible conjectures of “perfect storm” conditions that could lead to a dried sea bed, a series of horrific plagues, a world-wide flood, or even the earth itself holding still on its axis for 24 hours. While clever, these scientific fictions miss the point. The Bible is presenting miracles as unaccountable acts of God. No formulas or figures can explain them. I was bemused since four hours would hardly be time enough for the (at least) three million Israelites cited by Exodus to have made it across marshy swampland with their considerable material goods. The fact remains that no archaeological evidence for the exodus exists, claims of chariot-wheel shaped coral in the Red Sea notwithstanding. If the Bible had been intending to be literal here, it would have been the end of Egypt since the army was completely wiped out. And this was on the eve of the invasion of the Sea Peoples. There is a reason I let automotive experts work on my car. It is always interesting when scientists tinker with the Bible, but I’m glad that such tinkering doesn’t involve a half-ton of metal that is capable of racing down the highway at speeds the fleeing Israelites would have been overjoyed to have achieved on the road out of Egypt.

Dive low, sweet chariot