Looking Up

A few days ago—maybe weeks—I posted on discovering David J. Halperin’s website.  His book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, had been on my reading list since it came out.  Like Diana Pasulka and Jeffrey Kripal, Halperin is a religion scholar exploring UFOs.  “In its essence,” he writes, “the UFO is a religious phenomenon.”  I would tend to agree although Halperin holds a somewhat different interpretation than many ufologists do.  Noting the deep, Jungian connections with such archetypes as quaternaries, and the profound experiences of death and sex, Halperin builds a case for UFOs as a modern myth.  Myth in the sense that we religion scholars use it, that is.  Myth is not a falsehood, but its exact opposite.  Myth is truth expressed in ways that aren’t, and can’t be, literal.

Using this impressive interpretive matrix he considers some of the classic—and a few novel—cases such as the Socorro, New Mexico case and Roswell.  He traces the phenomenon to its modern beginnings in 1947, but interestingly for a biblical scholar, considers seriously what Ezekiel might have seen.  Here the quaternaries come in quite helpful.  He spends considerable time on the abduction phenomenon, exploring what needs such stories might meet.  Many of them involve individuals in unusual social circumstances and that adds credence to his interpretative model.  He also considers the adjunct Men in Black.  I had been unaware of the Shaver Mystery until reading this book.  He ends by considering John Lennon’s famous New York UFO sighting.

Halperin offers a non-dismissive paradigm that allows for a high degree of rationalism.  Since I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that the paranormal is kin to religious studies, I’m always glad to see some validation of this when someone publishes a successful book on the subject.  Outrè topics, if they’re to be considered at all, fall within the open borders of religious studies.  Ironically perhaps the most human of the humanities, it is a field rife with unusual experiences that sometimes lie beyond the reach of empirical measure.  UFOs represent the problem of occasional phenomena.  You can’t get them into the laboratory and they aren’t repeatable.  How are we to study them?  Since several military organizations, including the US Navy, are now taking the subject seriously, it would seem that academic fields should follow.  Most don’t, or won’t.  Religious studies is braver, it seems to me, than many disciplines.  It takes on the unusual and tries to find respectful ways to understand what it finds.


Prophets and Exiles

One of the scariest passages in the Bible is Ezekiel 33.7-9.  I first read this before I was a teenager and it scared me deeply.  In case you don’t feel like clicking over to BibleGateway and searching, the pericope is a section where Yahweh is warning Ezekiel about the dangers of giving up hope (in the larger context).  Ezekiel, you see, had lived through the fall of Jerusalem.  Many people of Judah felt that the destruction of the temple was the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the chosen people.  Ezekiel here is being warned to deliver good news.  If Ezekiel doesn’t call out the lie (the sins of Israel weigh it down) he will be punished as if he were the sinner himself.  I knew evangelical friends in college who lifted that verse out of context and said God would punish them if they didn’t warn the people.  They weren’t so worried about the fall of Jerusalem—that was old news by the 1980s—but about some other issue they deemed important at the moment.

Taking verses out of context has a name.  It’s called “prooftexting.”  It can be done to just about any piece of writing, including this blog post.  All it requires is finding a passage that says what you want it to and claim that it means what you say it does.  The Bible’s a big, big book.  Trying to understand its contents in context takes years of dedicated work.  Even then biblical scholars don’t have all the answers because if they did we could all stay home and surf the net for the rest of our lives.  No, engaging with sacred texts is a never-ending task, by definition.  That warning to Ezekiel was for Ezekiel.  What was that message?  Stop saying the exile is the end!  There’s more to the story.  Read the book to the end and see.

The problem with prooftexting, if I might engage in a bit of it myself, is that it takes away from the totality of the Good Book itself.  Not adding too or taking away from the Bible is a biblical command (taken out of context), which means that with the Bible it’s all or nothing at all.  And if it’s the former, it means Ezekiel’s condemnation is contingent upon what follows.  Back in biblical times there wasn’t as much reading material as there is today.  It turns out, however, that there’s a lot more written down than we used to assume.  If we’re going to read it we should do so within its context.  But just in case, please be assured that the exile isn’t the end of the story.


Prophets and Precipitation

I have no idea how they name winter storms, or even if they should.  Weather-hype is yet another instance of click-bait, or watch-bait that requires constant upgrading to draw in increasingly jaded readers/watchers.  Winter storms are a fact of life, particularly in northern states.  If you name them, then you think you own them, as the saying goes.  In any case, beyond the fact that they go through the alphabet to draw their inspiration, I have no clue what criteria are used for giving names.  The storm that many of us were out in for much of the day yesterday was “Ezekiel.”  There are plenty of “E” names available, and I wondered at this biblical choice.  Ezekiel is often treated as a name for eccentrics, and I wondered if something about this storm was proto-apocalyptic or what.  Beyond the standard “snowpocalypse,” I mean.

The storm may have been considered of “biblical” proportions since it affected/is affecting much of the nation (as it is me, even as I write).  We tend to use the Bible for things that are of large scale, and, frequently, beyond our control.  Prophets often called for events on national level, and Ezekiel’s message had to do with a kind of ultimate redemption.  I suppose it’s the kind of message our nation could use right now, snow or not.  We could use good times sent from above, following the decidedly unbiblical evangelical administration we’ve put up with for three years now.  What would Ezekiel say?

Back in my teaching days, I had to cover Ezekiel in less time than the prophet deserved.  He pantomimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and, among the exiles, proclaimed their return to a better future.  Now I can’t say if winter storm Ezekiel will lead to a better future or not.  It will lead to some sidewalk shoveling, some travel headaches (as we experience firsthand yesterday), and the usual array of winter wonders.  I do know that claiming insanity to label a prophet is a cheap shot when it comes to explanations.  Ancient people recognized madness when they saw it, and prophecy, they knew deep down, was different.  None of this suggests this storm has been in any way predictable.  Yesterday with its accumulation of sleet and freezing rain, and today with its projected snow are all part of a typical December around these parts.  As people addicted to media stimulation, I guess we have to give it a name so that we can feel properly awed.


Commander in Heaven

I pity the nation that doesn’t have divine founders. Origin myths help to orient our thoughts about where we belong in the order of things. Given enough time, any national founder will become a god. When a friend recently shared a blog post about Gogmagog, I had to dust a few cobwebs from my memory to place the mythic founding of Britain. During our years in Scotland my wife and I read about the heritage of the British Isles, according to bards before the Bard. Bede, Geoffrey, and the anonymous author(s) of the Mabinogion. Long before the Romans arrived on those islands, there had been gods, demons, and giants. The Medieval writers, of course, were drawing from the Bible. Gog and Magog are figures from Ezekiel, borrowed by Revelation. Sacred writ says enough about them only to make them mysterious. Their combined role in British myth makes one think they might be giants.

The founding of Israel, of course, is treated as history by many. I don’t mean the recent founding of the political state, but rather the biblical version of things. Moses leading the Israelites out of an oppressive Egypt, miraculously through divided waters. Foundation myths are that way. We can watch the process unfolding, even after just a few centuries. George Washington’s literal apotheosis is virtually certain. Even Alexander Hamilton experienced an unlikely resurrection when he was in danger of being removed from the ten-dollar bill. For nations to thrive this kind of transformation must take place.

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This is perhaps easier on states whose origins are lost in antiquity. There was nobody there to see the general fall off his horse or the commander in chief inhale. This was what folklorists call illud tempus, the time of events unlike those of today. Quotidian time has become profane—just look at the headlines if you don’t believe me. Those who are gods today are only those who make themselves so. We can see it happening all the time, if we pay attention. The implications should give us pause, when we consider those we think of as heroes or giants. Time makes gods. And it is just possible that we might be better off without a pantheon so terribly large.


Come Sail Oy Vey

Nothing says unorthodox like a headline that reads “Smart Jews? Thank the Extraterrestrials.” Breaking Israel News ran the story recently and, being constitutionally unable to pass up anything so strange, I had to take a look. The article, by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, is really just a half-century retrospective of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. I remember fifty years ago—not well, mind you, I was only three—but even when I was a teenager and the book had its second (of many ordinal) gasp(s), and a movie came out. People, even those not traditionally labeled as “crazy,” flocked to theaters to see it. The book went through multiple printings. The era of “ancient astronauts” was born. Von Däniken, it seems, is alive and if not exactly kicking, still making people uncomfortable.

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In this news story von Däniken suggests that Jews are more intelligent because of their alien DNA. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure that was the plot line of the X-Files season 10. Isn’t Fox Mulder Jewish? Maybe I’m getting myself mixed up in some kind of plot here. I have to admit, however, to having a touch of nostalgia for Chariots of the Gods?. There was a kind of innocence to it. Nobody seemed to be inseminating anyone else, or stealing babies. It was good, clean fun.

Something bothers me, however, about the assertion that aliens are, indirectly perhaps, responsible for holy writ. I remember thinking through the implications of this idea (already floated four decades ago) that God might be more Captain Kirk than Jesus Christ. It is inherently disturbing. Especially when von Däniken says in the interview that the Jews are the chosen people, but they just got the chooser wrong. ET instead of I AM. The really interesting part is that ancient astronauts have become a somewhat accepted cultural trope. I don’t know whether they were there or not (I wasn’t around at the time), but they sure do make Saturday afternoons much more interesting. One wish I hold is that people writing about this old idea might find a new opening bit. Ezekiel seeing the wheel has been done to death. Surely a bit of creative thought might suggest a new, undiscovered ancient truth.


Soaring Prophets

EzekielSpaceshipOkay, so I pulled the book off the shelf, and I feel now like I need to read it. Call it an occupational hazard. Josef F. Blumrich’s The Spaceships of Ezekiel, despite its von Däniken-like sales, has never been taken seriously by biblical scholars. Blumrich, no doubt a brilliant engineer, simply had no street cred among biblicists. His handling of biblical passages is awkward and he leaves out anything that really can’t be explained by his theories. Not exactly professional exegesis. He suggests, of course, that the “chariot” vision of Ezekiel was, in fact, a spaceship. The figure Ezekiel assumes is God is actually a commander of the ship and the message (which accounts for the vast majority of the book) really doesn’t matter in this context. In my earlier post, having not read the book then, I made the error of supposing that the helicopters were impractical in space. Reading it, I instantly saw my error. This was engineered as a landing craft from the mothership circling the earth above our heads. Boy, do I feel stupid now.

The overall mistake Blumrich makes is the “unforgivable sin” of eisegesis. Suspecting that he has a well-engineered spacecraft on his hands, he draws out the implications—such as the propellers—which would not be necessary, but must be there because of a “literal” interpretation of Ezekiel. Once the eisegesis is done, it can be used to explain further episodes throughout the prophetic book. The message of Jerusalem’s destruction and the hopeful prospect of a return from exile get lost in the space dust raised by these propellers. Blumrich was quite right, however, that technical people and humanities people need to be willing to learn from one another. Ezekiel may have seen something unexplained, but his function was that of a prophet, and prophets say the strangest things.

Even more odd, from my unprofessional reading, was the sense that Blumrich saw capitalism as the default economic system of the galaxy. Time and again he mentions how expensive such interplanetary travel must have been. How do we know, I wonder, that aliens like to exploit each other as capitalists do? If they are a more advanced species, surely they must have an imagination that reaches beyond one percent controlling 99 percent of the wealth to aggrandize themselves. I can imagine a society without money. A society with fair trade where everyone is cared for by medical individuals who don’t charge an arm and a leg to treat an arm and a leg. A world where doctors don’t worry about being sued by lawyers. A world where dreamers are free to dream and society values it. Ah, I’d better be careful since, it seems, I may be beginning to sound like a prophet.


Ezekiel’s Drones

Drones have become a fact of life. Our robotic future is already present as unmanned vehicles do the bidding of their remote commanders. They are our conscience-free assassins and our great UFO hoaxes. They offer a chance to view the world from an angle previously limited to those with access to airplanes and pilot’s licenses. And academics are now starting to take a serious interest in the ethics of such remote viewing and remote warfare. Human to human interaction has always involved emotion. That’s what we’ve evolved to be—emotional thinkers. Even animals react emotionally to each other and to us. The drone removes all feeling from the equation. Programmed to fulfill a function, like Hal, it simply does as it’s told.

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All this thinking about drones reminded me of a book that someone pointed out to me decades ago. I have a copy that I’ve never read, but I suppose eventually I should. This post isn’t about the book per se, but about the cover image (yes, people do judge books by these). Some time ago, I watched a young person playing with a quad. That word is so ubiquitous that I need to specify that I mean quadcopter. Quadcopters are popular drones, available for children’s amusement as well as for military and industrial utility. Their arrangement of four horizontal propellers gives them stability and maneuverability, as well as their sometimes annoying mosquito hum. The quad I saw reminded me of this book gathering dust on my shelf. Josef Blumrich wrote The Spaceships of Ezekiel to suggest that the psychedelic prophet saw space aliens coming to earth. I wonder if, in the light of developments, this thesis calls for refinement.

On the cover of the book is something that looks very much like a quadcopter. Even as a teenager, I wondered what these propellers would do in space travel. If there’s no atmosphere to give them lift, then they are rather superfluous and potentially an impediment. I would think that aliens would be a bit more advanced. Now that quads are a reality—just a block from work I can see a toy store clerk regularly flying one over the streets of Midtown—maybe Ezekiel was seeing into the future. Is that something prophets ever did? The biblical scholar in me says “no,” of course. Prophets were forth-tellers, not fore-tellers. Even so, I have a book in front of me that calls my beliefs into question. In the end, I suspect, that’s what most books are intended to do.


Detoxing God

There’s some pretty weird stuff in the Bible. Those who are only familiar with all the “thou shalt not”s are missing a great deal. Some of the material is strange enough to rival Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole (Charles Dodgson was, after all, a deacon). Anyone who’s read Ezekiel, or Daniel, or Revelation, knows the feeling of having been slipped into some kind of alternate state of consciousness. As students of the Bible have been saying for decades, “What was Ezekiel on?” I’ve always tried to put these unusual writings into context for my students. Nevertheless, some scholars still explore the possibilities that something more than revelation was going on in the desert. A friend of mine pointed out the website Time Wheel, which has a story about Moses and his experience of the burning bush. Time Wheel is an artistic collective, and the story about Moses is richly illustrated. The title, however, is the attention-grabber: “The Bible’s Moses Was On DMT Says Hebrew Professor.”

The article explores the thesis of Benny Shanon, who suggests Moses may have found DMT in the natural store of psychedelics available in nature. As the piece suggests, you have to accept a literal Moses for this to make any sense. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting question: did ancient people use hallucinogens for religious purposes? We do know that cultures throughout the world have found alternate states of consciousness to be religious in nature. Before the days of controlled substances certain plants and fungi were known to distort reality. Alcohol was one of the earliest inventions of civilization, or perhaps even predating it. When other views of the world are available, it is possible to say that one is by default the true one? It’s a question we face every morning, to some degree. The dream, another biblical favorite for alternate realities, can be just as real as waking.

Controlled substances are dangerous in large groups of people. Not only have modern scientific techniques refined the active ingredients, but we live very close to one another and erratic behavior, perhaps fine isolated in the desert with a cognizant adult, can lead to problems when other people live right next door. Anthropologists assure us that the use of natural “drugs” is/was not uncommon among many peoples who don’t fall under the rubric of powerful centralized government. But was Moses among them? To me, the burning bush hardly seems fantastic enough to require a chemical explanation. In fact, detailed study of even such books as Ezekiel and Revelation often reveal a much more mundane reality behind the writing. Still, imagination is often the key to unveiling realities left hidden to more prosaic minds. So why not see what might happen when the religious are left to their own devices in the desert? The results could change the world.

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Ships Ahoy

Huge ShipsI’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor. Some time ago a humorous list of improbable book titles was circulating the internet. One of those books was How to Avoid Huge Ships, by Captain John W. Trimmer. Privately published, it surely made its author little money, and it quickly became one of those books with hilarious, bogus reviews on Amazon. My family, knowing my predilection for seafaring (at least in imagination) and my love of irony, found an overpriced, used copy for my birthday. I was glad to have it, but wasn’t sure I’d ever read it. I don’t own a boat, and my efforts to live on the coast have always been thwarted. But then, I’m always on the lookout for a good metaphor.

How to Avoid Huge Ships, subtitled I Never Met a Ship I Liked, is one of the most parsimonious books I’ve ever read. Trimmer, a veteran of many years at sea, writes with paternal concern for those who have no apparent sense of reason. Large ships, as most of us with a modicum of physics realize, can’t stop or turn quickly. Yet, in this spellbinding little book, Trimmer reports, and even provides photographic evidence that smaller, private boats often deliberately cut across the bow of these fast-moving juggernauts. As he points out, no license is required to drive a boat, and most small boat pilots have no training. Accidents and fatalities occur. People destroy exorbitantly priced yachts by not moving out of the way of what can truly be called a monster. And like an impatient father, he’s somewhat weary of it. The style is so unpretentious that it might redeem self-publishing in an era when common sense doesn’t interest commercial book houses.

Aware of his own literary limitations, Trimmer bemoans not having an exalted final chapter of great wisdom. He’d already won me over, however, with the simplicity of his sermon. Get out of the way of massive ships. It is a gospel for those with ears to hear. He even points out that the non-seafaring Israelites had respect for ship pilots (citing Ezekiel on Tyre, with decided hints of Melville, intentional or not). I’m not likely to be on a ship soon, but I have survived a horrific hovercraft trip across the English Channel that forever taught me the true respect for the sea. And I know, if I ever find myself again upon the waves, I will consider myself fortunate for having read this wonderful little book.


Atheist Deities

HPL in Pop CultureAn atheist who created gods. That’s the basic skinny on H. P. Lovecraft. Perhaps all gods are thus created. I can’t know; I wasn’t there at the beginning. Among writers who failed to make much of an impression in their lifetimes, Lovecraft staged a remarkable comeback in his afterlife. Don G. Smith’s H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture attests to the fact that some academics are beginning to pay attention to one of Providence’s most famous children as his works continue to spin off new forms. With an almost Puritan devotion to rationalism, Lovecraft saw no need nor room for deities in the world. His most ardent fans claim the gods he created are mere aliens, voyagers from beyond.

I wonder why one has to be a theist to create gods. Part of the problem is definitional; what is a god? According to the three fifty-cent words in the explanatory section of my young-person’s Bible, the traits are being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Problem is, in the Bible God doesn’t really seem to fit any of these particularly well. The closest match seems to be omnipotent, but omnipotence leads to logical conundrums in reasoning, creating rocks so large you can’t lift them, and all that. Gods are, by just about any ancient standard, defined in relational terms—they are more powerful than us. That’s true of Lovecraft’s gods as well. They are so powerful that merely viewing them could drive you insane, eh, Ezekiel? (Perhaps Ezekiel is a good choice to compare, since his God comes down from the sky as well. Some would claim in a spaceship.)

Lovecraft survived because he understood what scares a person. Power, without feeling, is frightening. I’ve seen it in the eyes of both Christian and Pagan and it always sends me away shuddering. Smith’s book is more concerned with the survival of H. P.’s ideas in the media. It is a pleasant stroll, or an unpleasant stroll, depending on your perspective, through the descendants of Lovecraft’s monsters and gods. There’s no shame in calling them deities. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that some kinds of entities are inherently frightening.


Eating Your Prophets

Ezekiel was an odd character, even for a prophet. He’s become a kind of patron saint to ancient astronaut theorists, and his name in fiction often denotes someone slightly off balance. In his defense, he believed that God was demanding his many strange actions. A priest in a period of exile from the “one true temple,” Ezekiel lived an existence as a captive in a foreign land and came to some radical conclusions about the nature of Israel’s god. His visions and actions were considered the original weird, even by his contemporaries. Since Ezekiel believed Babylon would conquer Jerusalem, the people there would have to go on starvation rations. In chapter 4 of his book, Yahweh tells the prophet to try to make a bread out of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt. This odd mixture is to be eaten in very meager portions to symbolize the coming privation for 390 days (during which time he is to lie on his left side). His bread is to be cooked on dung.

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I eat breakfast around 4 a.m. My bus to the City comes before 6:00 and there are no restrooms on NJ Transit buses. Many New Yorkers eat breakfast in the office, but I’m just too Episcopalian in sensitivity for that to really be an option. I don’t like really sweet cereals, but granolas are often quite sugary unless you want to pay top dollar (and most of my dollars are bottom dollars) for some organic, European blend. Then I spied Ezekiel 4:9. Knowing full well the context of the reference should’ve given me pause, but it was two dollars less a box than some of its competition—downright exilic prices—and my curiosity was roused. What would Ezekiel eat?, I asked myself.

Most people don’t realize that so many of us eat breakfast cereals due to the efforts of our Seventh-Day Adventist friends. Adventists, in addition to being literalistically inclined, advocate healthy living. Will Keith Kellogg, a faithful Adventist, believed that eating cereal for breakfast was healthy and widely promoted the idea through the company he founded to produce cereals. Kelloggs does not produce Ezekiel 4:9. Food for Life, an organic bakery, are the purveyors of this organic breakfast. Their religious convictions, if any, aren’t evident from their website. Just about the time I’m climbing aboard the bus, I know that even as Ezekiel saw the wheel, I’m in for a moving experience. Isaiah-os or Jeremiah Flakes may be difficult to imagine, but with Ezekiel nothing really surprises. Today’s Bible lesson may be as close as the larder shelf. I just skip the cooking on dung part.


Illini Wisdom

Running through the Midwest like a massive, erosive serpent, the Mississippi River has an unrivalled place in the American imagination. In many locations the relentless river has carved impressive bluffs over the millennia, providing impressive views out over the valley that has been carved in nature’s time. Down near the town of Alton, Illinois, along the eastern bluffs left by the sculpting waters, is a reproduction of the Piasa Bird. Years ago, while living in the Midwest, some relatives took me to see the replica, a local tourist attraction and not a bad place to watch for bald eagles. It was then that I first heard the myth of the Piasa Bird. “Bird” is a bit of understatement, or perhaps a misnomer. The creature was really a monster, by any description. According to the lore presented by the tourist literature, the Piasa was a flying, human-eating beast that terrorized the local Illini tribe. Unsure of what to do, the tribe was at a loss until Ouatoga, their leader, had a dream that revealed an ambush as the means of defeating the monster.

The ambush involved, as is often the case in folkloristic accounts, a victim. Someone had to be bait to draw the Piasa into the ambush of poisoned arrows that had been arranged. Ouatoga, aware of the obligations of leadership, volunteered for the role of the victim and stood in the open to lure the Piasa into the trap. As the monster swooped down on him, the warriors released their arrows, killing the beast and saving their leader. The story bears much in common with myths throughout the world: a frightful beast, a sacrifice, and ultimate deliverance. This framework also appears in many religions, outlining the human condition. It also reflects, in an abstract way, the ideal of pre-modern society; we are all in this together. Banding together against an outside evil, human society might banish the monster and everyone’s chances would be improved. It is the world of mythology.

In our enlightened society the emphasis seems to have changed completely. Our leaders are often our Piasa, snatching from the populace at will and maintaining uneasy control. Ouatoga, in the myth, understood the role of leadership as being willing to sacrifice everything for the good of those who were under his watch. The idea also occurs in the Bible where Ezekiel charges the ungodly kings of Judah with being shepherds who eat the sheep. I still believe in the power of mythology. Stories are preserved because of a truth that resonates with the hearers. Monsters are in no short supply, and a society that is subject to the whims of an oligarchy perhaps has the most to learn from our mythological past. When is the last time a public leader offered to give up anything in order to serve the populace who grants him (sometimes her) his power? Old Man River, he must know somethin’. Looking up at the Piasa, I think I might be able to guess what it is.


Ezekiel’s Equinox Paradox

Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.

This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.

When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.


A Peculiar Resurrection

Although it is not my regular practice to splash melodrama across my blog, my recent experience with losing the Internet for four days prompts me to consider resurrection. After consulting with three technical agents and giving my laptop a kind of electronic enema, I am now once more able to access that mysterious nirvana called the world-wide web (and even the www2, whatever that is). This experience has taught me something about the human craving for resurrection. I began this blog in July of 2009. Since then I’ve added new entries almost daily. Even in places as remote as the northwoods of Idaho, if my laptop receives a signal, I can post my unorthodox thoughts for the world to read (at least the very small cross-section of the world that stumbles upon my pages). Being forced to go without Internet connectivity in New York City, of all places!, was itself a surreal experience. I literally wept in frustration. No one could help. This morning the Verizon tech assistant had me connect via an Ethernet cable and with his omnipotent hand remotely guiding my cursor, brought these dry bones back to life. Praise the landline!

The writers of the Hebrew Bible did not believe in resurrection. The book of Daniel, written just before the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“the manifestation” as he humbly called himself) in 164 BCE, is the earliest hint that Jewish thinkers were beginning to consider the resurrection concept. The Egyptians had, many centuries earlier, played with the idea. They eventually developed it into a national pastime—building pyramids to ensure the king got to live again—but other ancient people were more pragmatic. Death was the end, so live this life to the fullest. As far as we can tell, Jesus taught his followers about the possibility of life beyond life. Some take that to mean a literal reconstituting of life after death while others understand it metaphorically. Both ideas can be, broadly speaking, labeled “Christian.” Some Jewish thinkers accept resurrection, others do not. Other religions, as mentioned earlier this week, go for the cyclical approach of reincarnation.

Ezekiel, according to chapter 37 of his surreal book, saw a valley of dry bones. These people were, as the Munchkin coroner croons, “really most sincerely dead.” Ezekiel did not believe in resurrection. If he had the miracle would have been lost on him. Reviving the dead was considered the most extreme, impossible feat in his entire (if limited) universe. The people of Judah, defeated by Babylonia, carried into exile, their temple—God in their midst—destroyed, believed it was all over. There was nothing to bring home into such a desolate landscape. Some suggest Ezekiel was schizophrenic or perhaps addicted to psychedelic mushrooms. In reality, I believe, he owned a MacBook that could not connect to the Internet. Once that divine signal from on high penetrated the arid air of exilic lassitude, he rebooted and without the aid of any drugs, saw God in all his/her glory. (Ezekiel refuses to give God a gender, but that is a topic for another post.)