Noah’s Phone

The world-wide flood is a great story. We find it in many cultures, so the idea obviously captured the attention of ancients as well as moderns. What’s strange is that, with the development of human knowledge so many people continue to accept it literally. The only science that can be bent enough to make it work is one where God breaks all the laws of physics and biology to kill everyone, just to make a point. Why bother to make it rain 40 or 150 days? Why not just create the requisite water instantaneously? It would be just as believable. Nevertheless, literalists look for explanations for how this might’ve happened. It’s not to convince God, of course. The goal is to convert unbelievers by showing that the myths of Genesis are literally true.

When I came across a story on Mysterious Universe by Paul Seaburn titled “Academic Claims Noah had Cell Phones, Drones and Nuclear Power,” I was hooked. The academic is a Turkish professor of marine sciences. Using modern technology—rather like the detritus seen scattered in the background of Darren Aronofsky’s recent movie version—he postulates that this could’ve happened. The real issue is why. Not why the flood; the Bible answers that. Why would a scientist feel the need to prove a myth scientifically? Biblical scholars call the flood story an etiology. An etiology is a story to explain the origins of things. That’s its purpose.

Noah’s flood explains why it rains. It also explains why this dome that covers our flat earth doesn’t fill all the way up anymore. It explains why animals are sacrificed and why rainbows occasionally appear to grace the sky after it rains. We also know that the story borrows from an even earlier Mesopotamian myth where the god who causes the flood isn’t even Yahweh. The people of Israel were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and they told flood stories about their gods. The Bible counters with two stories (yes, just like the creation accounts) mixed together in this snow-globe universe of Genesis. Is it easier to believe this or to claim that Noah had access to Verizon, steel manufacturing, Einsteinian physics, remote-control flying machines, and artificial insemination (to help the animals recover)? It’s like when someone suggests natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Such special pleading doesn’t prove miracles, but rather it demonstrates that all this could happen without any gods involved. And you’re still going to have to mop up all that water when it’s over. I’m sure it will make for a great story some day.

Plain Floods

Erschrecklichewasserfluth

Floods are the stuff of legends. In fact, one of the most pervasive myths of all times is the world-wide flood. While some would see this as “evidence” that such an impossible flood actually occurred (some believing so fervently as to build replicas of imaginary arks), others recognize the flood as a basic human dilemma. We require water, and therefore we build our cities near a source of it. Rivers worldwide are prone to floods. While recently stuck in a holding pattern waiting for space for our flight to land at Newark, floodplains were more than evident from high above. My hometown regularly experienced floods when ice jammed the Allegheny River during the spring thaws. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were, literally, epic-making. A piece in the Washington Post rather surprisingly reports “Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.” The story by Sarah Kaplan demonstrates the universality of unruly water.

I know little of Chinese history and mythology. There’s no reason, however, to doubt that stories of ancient floods were as common there as elsewhere. The flood is, pardon the Christianization, the baptism of civilization. Things have to be washed clean before “civilization” can begin. In this case, according to the story, Yu, the founder of China’s first dynasty, tamed the flood. Now scientists are finding flood deposits from the Yellow River that match the 1900 BCE time-frame of this mythical founding. We can be certain that some will latch onto this date noting how Abraham was said to have emerged shortly after the flood (Genesis chronology says Noah was still alive when Abraham was born) and therefore this is proof of the Biblical flood. Even Sir Leonard Woolley advertised that he’d found the biblical flood in the river deposits of Mesopotamia. When it comes to literalism, any old flood will do.

No doubt many ancient flood stories go back to some historical event. The world was never completely covered with water in human times (before that nobody was here to see), but it’s easy to understand how people might have believed it could have happened. Our view tends to be local, often at the expense of universal costs. Consider global warming, for example. It’s difficult for us to see something that impacts us as such a distance. Taking care of the planet is so hard when we realize just how big it is. Our neglect, however, will definitely cause floods to come. Our denial makes myths for future generations. Headlines millennia down the road, if anyone’s left to read them, will, I’m sure announce with surprise that the devastating floods we’re creating now were indeed real.

Overboard

NotWantedOnTheVoyageThe story of Noah has long fascinated me. The world of early Genesis is so mysterious and compelling—a mythical time when all the action seemed to be taking place in just one bit of the world, and events were always momentous. Noah, the new Adam ten generations on, stood out as the prototypical good guy. The sort of fellow you’d like living next door. An everyday hero. The movie Noah, however, introduced a dark and brooding ark captain whose unyielding devotion to his own concept of righteousness led to a tormented journey over the flood. I wonder if Darren Aronofsky read Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage. Recommended to me by one of my students, this novel was difficult for me to categorize. At first I thought it might be a funny story—despite the tragic overtones, there is much in the flood story that suggests humor—but no, it was more serious than that. Noah was cast in a primeval, post-Christian world where elements of the twentieth century were freely available, while others were not. And more troubling, Noah was not at all a nice guy. Indeed, he is one of the best written antagonists I’ve encountered. You shudder when he enters the room.

Apart from Noah, however, the novel explores the premise that Yaweh [sic] sent the flood as a final, dying act. Old, feeble, yet the creator of everything, the deity is ready to give it all up as the absentee landlord who has no idea what’s happening on earth. The reader feels little sympathy for the divine. Like humanity, he set something in motion he has no hope of controlling, yet which he can destroy. As he is about to die, unbeknownst to all humans, he sends the flood. Noah, six-hundred years old and senile, oversees his ark with an iron hand. His religion has made him cruel, and I was frequently left wondering whether those who survived were more fortunate than those who did not. As a fantasy the story works, with well drawn characters and a devious plot. The problem comes in trying to reconcile it with a Bible story all too well known. In the end we’re left wondering if the flood does really ever end, and, if so, does anything turn out okay.

Known for his dark, conflicted characters, Findley adds a macabre dash of the improbable to an already unbelievable story. Mrs. Noyes, aka Mrs. Noah, is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the novel. Her son Ham, cursed in the biblical version, is clearly the best son, but one his father dislikes by reason of his love for science. Part morality play, part farce, Not Wanted on the Voyage can be a disturbing novel, rather like the movie Noah. That’s not to suggest there’s no message here. I see it as a cautionary tale of a misplaced faith taken too far. Instead of pleading to save humanity, Noah seems only to glad to let all but his own be wiped out. His sons disappoint him, and the one daughter-in-law he appreciates disappoints him in the end. Perhaps this is what destructions are all about. Does any flood really have a happy ending?

2012 + 1

2012I just watched 2012. The conceit that the world will end last year must be getting tired by now, but I’d been curious about the movie since it came out three years back. As I suspected, there was plenty of religious banter as the putative version of us prepared for the end of the world. I noted that the little boy of the average family that managed to make it all the way to China to seek rescue bore the name of Noah. When the animals were being airlifted to the rescue station with its titanic boats meant to float out the world wide flood, it was clear that the myth of the ark was alive and well. (As I hope all of you reading this in the future are.) So this disaster movie turned out to be a bit of harmless fun, but I nevertheless shuddered at the implications. Those chosen to survive were, naturally, those who could afford to find a place onboard the secretly constructed arks. As even some of the film’s characters recognized, those who had money could buy a place on the ark, and of course they did. I do wonder what their brave new world would have been like. The whole idea of wealth has to do with the perceived value of specific commodities, and apart from our last minute stowaways, you can bet that everyone on board wanted their assets valued highest. Once the waters receded, if I recall the story at all, sacrifices would be made. Even the opening of the decks and the buzzing of helicopters like doves and ravens did Genesis proud.

The end of the world is a funny concept. Those of us who experience the world as mortals can’t really image the place without us, so I suppose it is natural enough. Nevertheless, the tone of the last four apocalypses I remember has been distinctly religious. There was a serious scare (perhaps local, because no internet existed) when I was in tenth grade. The next one I recall was Y2K, a silly episode where even priests I knew were seriously worried. With the Camping and Mayan “predictions” coming so close together, some no doubt supposed the Big Guy had it in for us all. When Christians tell the story it’s always the version with God glaring at us, belt in hand. Remember what Homer Simpson says of the song he wrote: “I’ve come to hate my own creation. Now I know how God feels.” Our cultural sense of disapprobation could be better addressed by helping those in need rather than building arks (or tax write-offs) for those who require no more to live like petty emperors. Emphasis on petty.

The world didn’t end and I wasn’t really worried that it would. The fact is we don’t need God to design an apocalypse for us because we’re very good about engineering our own. Unequal distribution of goods and services throughout a world where means exist for alleviating the suffering of countless numbers of the poor and disadvantaged has already created a purgatory on earth. We don’t need a Mayan calendar, or a New Testament whose message of compassion is overlooked in favor of its putative apocalypse, to show us the end of time. But since we made it to 2013, perhaps we should consider this a stay of execution. Let’s use our post-apocalyptic future wisely and hope humanity will live up to its name. And maybe it’s time for a new calendar.

Ghost in the Ark

Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love demonstrates what might happen if all the rules were broken. Slipstream writing is new to me, being a conventional nineteenth-century American writer fan. Nevertheless, I regularly try to stretch my imagination wider than it has previously gone to see how others view the world. The Ghost in Love was quite an adventure into multiple realities. As with all fiction I mention on this blog, however, there is a profound religious dimension to the work. Besides the eponymous ghost of the title, the Angel of Death also makes an appearance in the narrative. Among his early lines is the statement that black-and-white movies are like prayer because it is necessary to work harder to overcome disbelief. This is just before the Angel of Death is stabbed to death.

In an ongoing theme of my own, however, the truly striking element was the use of Noah’s flood yet again. In the fiction I’ve been somewhat randomly reading, the flood story continues to appear at unexpected junctures, underscoring its depth in the human psyche. In this case, a talking dog has to solicit support from other animals to assist the protagonist in fighting off death. Invoking what Carroll terms UPTOC, “universal peace to overcome chaos,” Pilot the dog engages the hidden communication skills of animals that had been first instituted at the flood to get everyone aboard the same ark. In this sly rhetorical use of the theme, Carroll throws light on an aspect of the flood story that might otherwise remain unilluminated: it is a metaphor for universal peace.

Reading the news headlines can be a trying exercise. I fully realize that bad news sells better than good and that what we read in the papers is, like most human activity, a business enterprise. Nevertheless, the truth remains that humanity’s greatest enemy is itself. Peace has never been universal, not at least since Sargon of Akkad began toying with the idea of empire. Great catastrophes cost countless lives, but in those dark moments are glimpses of light: humanity at its most human, caring for others regardless of outlook or creed. Maybe that’s why the flood story recurs so frequently in literature. We’re not all in the same boat, but we are all trapped outside the one vessel that might save us. As we fight against the overwhelming waves, gasping our last breaths, we realize that we all have a lot more in common than we might have ever supposed.

Gort to Flood

There seems to be a society-wide fascination with the end of the world as we know it. Or maybe it is the just the perspective I bring to it. The past two decades with their breathless run up to Y2K and grappling to forge some sense out of 9/11 before 2012 rolls over us, have been awash in popular representations of how it might all come to an end. A society begging somebody to apply the brakes. We’ve got many senior citizens still around who’ve never used a computer attempting to coexist with a generation that has never been without one. From Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 66 years. I remember watching the latter on (black-and-white) television. Now I watch students walk into class with devices about whose function I can only ask Mr. Spock to speculate.

So it was that I finally got around to watching The Day the Earth Stood Still last night. The 2008 remake. Having long been a fan of the original, I can understand the insistent draw to bring it up-to-date. Even by the time Star Trek (original series) aired, it was hard to see what had terrified 1950s audiences about Gort or the idea of aliens. Thus I had great expectations when I first saw the trailers for the remake, but the reviews took the edge off my shine and I’ve only now experienced it. Naturally, I was looking for the religious angle.

Like Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the religious metaphor came in the guise of an ark. Klaatu is here to save all species except us, prompting Regina Jackson to state that after the ark is filled, the flood will come. The apocalyptic end of the world – being eaten by bugs (perhaps prescient of New York’s bed-bug infestation) – brings nanotech and the Bible together in an unhappy marriage. As soon as the authorities learn that Klaatu’s sphere is an ark they try to blow it to kingdom come. And yet Helen Benson is here to tell the tale.

We are vulnerable. For all our achievements, we fear the kids down the block that are bigger than us. Whether they be cold, emotionally flat aliens or ragingly wrathful gods, we are constantly watching the skies waiting for the next great flood.

Dark Night of the Ark

Vampires continue to be the rage of the age. My own interest began back in the days of Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, and Barnabas Collins. Stoker’s Dracula is one of the earliest novels I remember reading. Dark Shadows was a regular, gloomy fixture of 1960s daytime programming, and black-and-white vampire movies were often available on Saturday afternoons on commercial television. I have not kept pace with the current fetishism surrounding our toothy friends, but I did read Justin Cronin’s new novel, The Passage. I didn’t know the book featured New Age viral vampires, but they do make for a compelling story.

What particularly captured my attention in Cronin’s work, however, was the crossover between religious and monstrous themes. I have mentioned this connection previously, so I was glad to see confirmation that religion still features in monster stories. The religious element comes in the form of a virus developed by the military to create super-soldiers (a theme X-File affectionados might find familiar) that ultimately goes awry. The result is a girl who is part of a project named Noah; she lives the tremendous lifespan of the biblical hero without the debilitating effects of old age. She is also the ark by means of which humanity might survive the ordeal. The novel is apocalyptic and yet vaguely hopeful. It is also very difficult to lay aside for too many minutes at a time.

The tie-in of Noah and vampires is a novel one. The point of comparison is longevity – those who imbibe the blood of others do not age and wither as mere mortals do. Noah’s survival is a matter of grace (or science in the case of the novel). The last mortal to breech the two-and-a-quarter century mark (thank you, Terah), Noah is symbolic of those who stand out as examples of righteousness in a wicked world. It was refreshing to see the theme so creatively rendered by Cronin. The biblical flood is a kind of prepocalypse, a foreshadowing of what might recur if evil prevails. The Passage has left me strangely sentimental for both vampires and ark-builders alike.

Converting Triffids

“Stupendous as this disaster is, there is, however, still a margin of survival. It may be worth remembering just now that we are not unique in looking upon vast calamity. Whatever the myths that have grown up about it, there can be no doubt that somewhere far back in our history there was a Great Flood. Those who survived that must have looked upon a disaster comparable in scale with this and, in some ways, more formidable. But they cannot have despaired; they must have begun again – as we can begin again.” This quote from John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids brings into focus a number of themes from this blog. Initially, it is another example of the intersection of science fiction and religion, specifically the Bible. In his apocalyptic 1951 novel, Wyndham can find no better example of disaster than the Flood Myth. The Bible and science fiction have kissed each other once again.

Another recurring theme reflects on disaster and how religions deal with it. As the Gulf of Mexico oil spill begins taking on apocalyptic dimensions religion is brought into the discussion in a variety of ways: God will take care of it; it is a sign of the end times; God is punishing us for something; corporate greed must stop. Take your choice. When people feel threatened, religion is quickly brought off the shelf, dusted off, and thrust out as the harbinger of deep solutions. Those of us who deal with religion every day must be forgiven for being a bit more circumspect.

The Flood Myth is a regular theme as well. It crops up in unlikely as well as predictable locations. As mentioned yesterday, it was evident in the Mystic Aquarium (unexpected), and it constantly resurfaces in Fundamentalist rhetoric (predictable). On a previous travelogue entry I mentioned Noah’s Ark being rebuilt in Maryland (unexpected). Seeing the Flood as the benchmark of worldwide disasters in a science fiction novel may be predictable, but the troubling ethical concomitants drawn out by Wyndham are profoundly disturbing. The Flood is not longer the worst disaster imaginable, but the Bible will continue as the measure of catastrophe long after the triffids have vanished.

Dinosaur Ark

Over the weekend I had a detailed comment left on my post about the discovery of Aardonyx celestae, found here. Since the comment is a lengthy rebuttal, my answer begged to become a post of its own, so I present it here. The first remark I have to make is that my commenter wrongly suggested two problematic assumptions: I “don’t care” about correctly representing Creationist viewpoints and that I “ridicule Christians.” For those many students who have taken my classes over the past 17 years, it is always clear that I respect all religious viewpoints; in fact, empathy is generally cited as one of my main characteristics. I vehemently defend the rights of individuals to believe the religion they believe to be right – e.g., I do care. As for the ridiculing Christians concern, I ridicule no person. I will, however, point out viewpoints that are ridiculous, “Creation Science” being one of the most obvious. As is clear to anyone who takes the time to survey Christianity, the large majority of Christians in the world have no problems with evolution. A small but vocal sub-sect of the religion, mainly based in America, is the main Christian group that supports Creationism.

My theological assailant tells me that the Hebrew word for “kind” in the Noachian account is “min” (the root, marked as “dubious” in the standard lexicon, is myn) and that it is “much broader” than the word translated “species.” The problem here is that the ancient Semitic viewpoint has been left unaddressed. For the ancient Israelite dog was dog and wolf was wolf, and ne’er would the twain meet. Arguing that a limited evolution has taken place in order to make room on the ark is a fatal flaw to the position. Once it has been admitted that the Noah story is not literally each and every species known, it is the equivalent to the ark springing a leak mid-deluge. The commenter’s examples of animals breeding only “within their kinds” is also problematic. Such “kinds” are not recognized by “nature” and numerous examples of viable offspring crossing species have been recorded. Nature simply doesn’t abide by the neat and tidy categories that the ancient Israelites recognized. Suggesting that two sauropods were all that was needed on the ark to produce everything from Titanosaurus to Anchisaurus is a stretch for even “day-age” theorists since the genetic differences between them are as immense as their body size differentials. This slippery use of the word “kind” has all the imprecision of a god-of-the-gaps.

Did God say to take seven pair of each clean animal? My Bible reads “two of each kind” in Genesis 6.19. But wait, the story changes in Genesis 7.3. Could it be that we have two separate sources (or “kinds”) here? My commenter does not inform me where the fresh-water fish came from; after God blew the water out of the cosmic dome (Genesis 8.1) they must have had time to evolve while the salt leeched out of the low-lying basins left behind by the flood and its marvelous geography-forming power. Good thing Noah had plenty of fresh water on the ark!

“Take time to consider what scientists have already said on the issue,” my debate partner adjures me. That’s just the problem, however. I do read what the scientists say. And all of them who write without a Genesis bias tell me that the ark story is not scientifically feasible. More than that, being a life-long Bible reader, I came to that conclusion as well, based on the genre of the story (myth). I never claim to be the first to find contradictions that prove problematic for the Bible – I simply try to make my readers consider the implications of the fact that such contradictions indeed exist.

What I find so interesting about such criticism is that the author of the comment has not tested his/her hypothesis about what I actually believe. On principle I do not share my personal religious beliefs on my blog, just as I do not share them in the classroom. What I believe is immaterial to the issue of Creationism; in this issue the facts speak for themselves. The fact is “Creation Science” is science fiction.

Noah in the Underworld

I recently was subjected to the 1940 sci-fi/western film Radio Ranch (a compilation of the series Phantom Empire). This happy-go-lucky story with Gene Autry in his first starring role is a romp through the unbelievable in just about any sense of the word. Based on the premise that there is an underground world called Murania, the film pits Autry against evil scientists who want to get a “bushel load” of radium from Murania, the “Thunder Riders,” or national guard of Murania, and indeed, against his corporate sponsors who will cancel his contract if he ever fails to get to Radio Ranch by 2 p.m. for his singing broadcast! This creative approach to early science fiction will be reincarnated more successfully in The Mole People, a movie that I wrote about a few weeks back.

The connections between the two films do not stop at an underground world with humanoids wearing Egyptian costumes (there is an unmistakable uraeus on the helmet of Argo in Radio Ranch), but go as far as the associations with the Flood Myth. I pointed out the flood connections in my post on The Mole People, and it was startling to note that Radio Ranch begins (and ends) with Gene Autry singing “Uncle Noah’s Ark.” That coincidence is, in itself, barely worth noticing. When the evil scientists invade Radio Ranch, however, they are shown an artifact from the Thunder Riders (whose thunder-producing horses are, admittedly, pretty cool) and they immediately identify it as an “antediluvian” idol. At this point it became clear how deeply embedded the biblical flood story has been in our culture, and how freely it was used in early science fiction films.

At a guest lecture in the Middle East Studies Program at Rutgers on Friday, I mentioned that the flood story goes all the way back to Sumer, making it among the earliest religious stories in the world. Several students had difficulty with this and began asking, “but when was Noah actually alive?” These college students, well educated in science, engineering, or political science, can’t get beyond the biblical literalism they were raised with. It is no wonder that America is falling behind much of the world in science education: we haven’t moved beyond Gene Autry’s overly cheerful belief in a deluge that never occurred.

The Original Mud-bloods

“Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.”

This quote is from the myth of Atrahasis (Benjamin Foster’s translation; my Akkadian’s a bit shaky these days), an early version of the flood story. Although I have a burning itch to write about the flood, I would rather focus on the creation of humanity in this post. Maybe it is because in my unemployed mode it is easy to think of myself as only dirt and blood, but maybe it is because in my evening class we’ve just been talking about creation stories.

One of the benefits of polytheism is the lack of a pressing need to ascribe uniformity to your myths. Ancient peoples who believed in a multiplicity of gods had a wide variety of versions about how the world was created, where people came from, who sent the flood, and so forth. They were not writing about what actually, factually happened — these were myths, for the gods’ sake! Nobody was there to see the creation of humanity, so who’s to say what really happened? One element that is repeated in ancient accounts, however, is the creation of people from dirt.

Perhaps it is because people often treat each other like dirt, frequently with religious motivation, but a more likely explanation is that in ancient times the dead were known to return to soil after they were buried. Logic dictates that if the dead turn to dirt, their living version must have been created from dirt. So far, so good. But dirt isn’t exactly alive. The ancients differed on what animated this soil with a soul.

The Bible presents a lofty account of God breathing air into the soil-man. It is clear that the Hebrew Bible equates breathing to being alive. A person is alive when they first breathe; when they stop breathing, they die. At the same time, blood is an essential component too. This is so much the case that the Bible dictates that “the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12.23). For this idea the Israelites were indebted to the Mesopotamians. As seen in the Atrahasis Epic, humans are a mix of clay and the blood of the gods, the original mud-bloods. For all their differing opinions, the ancients realized that in this messy world of dirt and dread, human beings, for all their problems, had a bit of the gods within their very veins.