Be It Resolved

I’m not a believer in New Years Resolutions.  A constant and critical self-monitor, when I notice a bad behavior I try to correct it right away.  Sometimes I’m actually successful.  Now that I’ve finally removed all books from the garage—some were being held high above the water-line on plastic boxes—I’ve started to sort through systematically what is beyond redemption.  A comment of occasional visitors, however, has goaded me into a resolution; you see, people sometimes ask “Are you going to read those again?”  While aching to address the mindset betrayed by that very question, I cede a point; if I’m going to the expense of replacing a non-reference book, I should want to read it again.  My resolution—when I buy another copy, I will read it then and there.

One of the stinging parts of this resolution is that some of the books were read by me just this past year, or even earlier this year.  Jude the Obscure, although I enjoyed it, cost me a quarter year of my life of evening reading time.  On that basis alone I should replace it, but if I’m not going to reread it why should I incur the expense?  (Moving is anything but cheap.)   I will also face rereading old favorites that have been put aside for a while.  No house, for example, should be without Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights, although I read it again just months back, or so it feels.  

This is perhaps a way of making lemonade from a cloud.  Or finding the silver lining on a lemon.  Whichever it is, I sense that it will figure toward my reading goal for next year.  As I’ve spent the rainy weekend unpacking books, literacy is on my mind.  For those who see my literomania as some kind of disease, I was cheered to note just how many of the books on display I had indeed read.  The same goes true for a number of the academic books in the study, but, I must confess, while pulling them from their boxes I thought how boring most of them are.  Boring, however, doesn’t equate to useless when it comes to books.  Given their price points some of them may take years to replace.  That’s the point of a resolution, in any case.  It can cause some pain.  As I stuff the moldy, distorted tomes into their body-bags I hope that rereading their replacements will bring them back to life.  After all, resolution and resurrection are not so far apart.

Chaoskampf

It’s a poignant thing to hold a dying book in your hands.  What was once, straight, flat, and dry, now dissolves into a pulpy mess that, if it ever recovers, will be warped and distorted out of shape forever.  The loss of dozens of books hit me hard.  I think one of the many reasons for this is that books represent, for me, order.  They stand at attention all in a row, many on shelves I built lovingly for them.  I remember where I purchased them, the thoughts and feelings of that time.  In a world that’s far too bumpy and lumpy, books represented the ultimate in orderly array.  Now The Golden Bough is melting in my palm, smearing my fingers royal blue.  The forecast for the week—more rain.

The story of creation in the Bible—more properly, stories, for there are many—is not creation out of nothing.  Creation is the making of order out of chaos.  Ancient people, including the Israelites, believed that water was chaos, if not an actual dragon, that constantly worked against order.  You can’t build on water, it attacks the shoreline, it drowns those who fall in.  Never a seafaring people, Israel equated big water with evil.  God, then, fought constantly this unruly foe.  Whether it was with word or sword, the Almighty vanquished that sloshing, thrashing element that tries to tear apart everything we build.  Read Genesis 1 closely; the water is already there when the creating starts.

Life has a way of getting out of control.  It’s not without irony, however.  A person buys a house to store their books, and before the books can be moved in, they’re destroyed.  It’s rather like a parable, don’t you think?  If that person unfortunately thinks of him or herself as a summation of the books s/he’s read then the loss is like losing a limb or two in that endless battle against the forces of confusion that attempt to overcome our world.  When this happens some of us turn to books for comfort.  The books, however, are disintegrating in our hands.  My Amazon account, it seems, is mocking me at the moment with it’s mover’s discount.  Why buy something that will only hurt me when the water gets in once again?  The people of ancient times knew that the waters of chaos had to be held in check constantly.  They look for any opportunity to get in and destroy.  Ancient writers knew that in order to defeat them, only the most powerful gods will do.  

At the Crossroads

flood_album_cover

Back before there was iTunes—before Napster was even a thing—I heard a song on the radio. It was by a relatively new band, They Might Be Giants. We lived in Illinois at the time and I was being paid so poorly that we couldn’t afford luxuries like CDs. When I called the local radio station to ask them to play the song (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”) they apologized—they didn’t have the album. “We really should,” the receptionist told me. Although I was only earning a part-time salary—the fate of many a doctorate holder—and my wife was still in school, we eventually bought Flood. It quickly became one of our favorites. One of the songs that immediately struck us both was “Your Racist Friend.” It’s been going through my head lately, for some reason. “I know politics bore you, but I feel like a hypocrite talking to you and your racist friend,” the duo sings. I could quote the entire song, but let me highlight one of my favorite lines: “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

I’ve been reading online that some people are saying, “Just get over it. You lost. Deal with it.” Auf Deutsch, “Komm damit klar.” After so many rounds of Kübler-Ross that Elisabeth is getting dizzy in her grave, I’ve begun to realize something. This was no ordinary loss. I’ve been alive long enough to be disappointed with election results several times. The psychological trauma from Tuesday rates somewhere between 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. To put this is perspective, when Reagan won I was depressed for a while, about as much as when the Steelers lost Super Bowl XL, and I’m not a sports fan. I’ve never spent the hours after an election glancing at the faces of others to see if they looked as damaged as I felt. “Just get over it” people?—it’s called shock. “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

This was no ordinary election. Yes, I was born in the Kennedy administration. I was too young to understand Camelot, but I’m now old enough to read the writing on the wall. I saw our nation put a man on the moon. I felt the unending frustration of Vietnam. I watched Nixon resign after Watergate. God help us, I even survived two terms of W. I’ve never felt that we were bargaining our soul before. I was at the crossroads at midnight. I know what I saw. Can a man who has openly treated women as objects, insulted people for their race, and advocated thug violence to win lead a unified country? I don’t know. “If anything was broken I’m sure it could be mended,” the song says. Let’s hope so, but let me contemplate the ghost of democracy past. It’s my right.

High Tide

While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.

Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.

That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”

448px-Noah_mosaic

Isaiah Thwarted

Back in January, out of a sense of curiosity on a number of points, I began tweeting the Bible. I wondered how long it would take, at 140 characters a day, to type the King James Bible into Twitter. Since that time, I have not missed a day. Until this week. International travel and business travel with uncertain Internet access have been overcome as I flew with Bible in hand to keep it going. On Monday I was just wrapping up the flood story. Clearly this was going to take a long-term commitment. Then early this week a message popped up on my Twitter account stating, “You cannot send messages to users who are not following you. Learn more,” so naturally, I learned more. Unfortunately I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. Just a sentence in and words I don’t understand begin to flummox me, building confusion on confusion. What it appears to be telling me, in layman’s language, is that I can no longer post to Twitter.

Apart from the personal rejection such impersonal messages inevitably engender, this development brought to mind the famous verse from Isaiah 40.8, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Hath the Lord been stopped by Twitter? Technology changes rapidly, and those of us who’ve never had any formal training in it sometimes feel like we’re driving a car on a dark country road at night with no headlights. I’m not really sure how this all works, but I try to send daily thoughts out into cyberspace and, yes, what you say can and will be used against you. And I wonder about old Deutero-Isaiah sitting there in Babylon peering into an indefinite future.

Our abject dependence on the Internet has changed us as a species. I’ve recently read about how technological innovations have become the evolution of the human species. This collective brain we refer to as the Internet has revolutionized the way we do business, but it has also introduced a component of fragility into the equation. Electronic information is untested in the long term. Some of my earliest writing projects now exist only on three-and-a-half inch floppies, most of which are tucked away in some musty corner of the attic. And what if the earth passes through a comet’s tail or a nasty solar flare jets out our way? Doomsday scenarios have been based on such things (just remember Y2K and smile). So maybe Second Isaiah was onto something after all. Printed books have been known to survive for at least half a millennium, and in rare instances, a couple thousand years. And the pagan sources on which parts of the Bible are based, written in clay, last even longer. And one of the earliest stories recorded was that of a worldwide flood.

Twin Towers

The newly opened World Trade Center memorial in Manhattan is truly a solemn place. Staring into the seemingly endless holes into which the water forever pours, one feels the emptiness of loss like a thousand graveyards. Like watching the Titanic sink from a lifeboat. In the chilly late October morning hundreds were huddled about, looking at those reflecting pools with an undefined sadness in their eyes and a sense of frustration in their souls. So much loss. And for what? The American way of life has its towering foibles as well as its nobility. The protesters of Occupy Wall Street are mere blocks away in Zuccotti Park, reminding the nation that we have forgotten the principles of human decency even while we honor the fallen dead. It seems an appropriate epitaph for All Hallows Eve—a peaceful park where hundreds died just blocks from where hundreds camp in the cold. It is not too late to stop this ship from striking the iceberg.

Ground Zero

The symbol of peace, given to us by the Bible, is the olive branch. Actually the olive branch comes from the story of the flood; it is less a sign of peace than it is a sign that some of us have survived the wrath of God. Read into that what you will. The olive branch only comes after all but eight people pay the ultimate sacrifice. It is peace on the terms of a vengeful deity. Near the center of the memorial, one tree stands out. It is not an olive tree. After the devastating attacks of 9/11, workers found a living Calleri pear tree among the rubble. The scorched and battered plant was taken to a nursery where it recovered. It stands now in the midst of the peaceful reflecting pools, bearing not olives, but pears. The tree was saved by human effort, a symbol of peace, survival, and endurance.

A different kind of tower

I spoke with one of the protestors in Occupy Wall Street, and gave him encouragement. I suffered unemployment for long years when the weight of the flood crushed me to my own ocean floor. Loss and more loss. I was moved to tears in the World Trade Center memorial. The decision not to build again on the site where the Twin Towers stood is a symbolic statement to those who believe that evil triumphs in the end. The god of those who destroy others in the name of their faith is the god who destroys innocent and guilty alike in worldwide floods. This is a god who offers people with no knowledge tempting fruit that they are not permitted to eat. Nowhere in the Bible does it state the species of the tree of knowledge. Is there anyone left innocent enough to tell? Artists like to use an apple, an idea based on the similarity between the Latin words for evil and apple. I believe that loss of innocence was the price of maturity, and I believe the tree of knowledge might just have been a Calleri pear.

Peace

Noah Trumps Geology

Back in the days when I was still young enough to dream, but old enough not to change anything, I wanted to become a geologist. I was near the end of my teaching stint at Nashotah House at the time, and my life-long interest in fossils fired up like a liquid oxygen barbeque. My interest began in paleontology, since I’ve always loved dinosaurs, and grew to encompass all kinds of rocks and minerals. Geology promotes a literal groundedness that few other areas of study can rival – it embraces the stuff of the earth itself. Moving halfway across the continent with boxes full of rocks, however, dampens the rock-hounding ardor a bit. I still read about geology: it is the discipline that pounded the final, resounding nail into the coffin of the six-day creation myth. While still living in Wisconsin my family used to drive out to the mountainous north of Idaho across, among others, the vast state of Montana. It was geology in motion.

My in-laws soon learned of my geology bug, and I was pleasantly surprised with a book on the great flood two Christmases ago. Not the great flood of Noah, but that of J Harden Bretz. David Alt’s Glacial Lake Missoula and Its Humongous Floods provides an introduction to a series of great catastrophic floods in the western United States. Not that anyone remembers them; the last of the deluges drained into the Pacific about 13,000 years ago. What connects these floods to this blog is the reception history of this idea. When geologist J Harden Bretz discovered the unmistakable evidence for the floods in the landscape of Montana, Idaho, and Washington, geologists refused to accept it. The reason? Catastrophism was unacceptable to geologists of the turn of the twentieth century. Although Alt does not come right out and say it, clearly one reason that uniformitarianism prevailed was because of Noah’s flood.

Ironically, geologists had been forced into a conceptual stalemate because of a biblical myth. The story of Noah’s flood had been (still is, by some) used to explain everything from the Grand Canyon to the extinction of our beloved dinosaurs. In response, geologists posited a long, slow, gradual process behind the sculpting of the earth’s surface. By the day of Bretz, nothing moved fast in geology, not even floods. It required many decades for the science to recover from the stigma of biblical catastrophism. Today geologists largely acknowledge that at several points during the Ice Ages (yes, they did happen!), an ice dam flooded what would now be recognized as Missoula, Montana, under a gigantic lake. That lake burst its ice dam repeatedly and gushed down toward the Columbia River and out into the ocean long, long ago. Long before the putative Noahic flood of some 4000 years ago. The landscape it left behind is impressive to both geologists and biblical scholars. And the story of this flood’s rediscovery demonstrates once again the continuing influence of Noah on otherwise rational minds.

Eternal Dampnation

Does anybody have Noah’s telephone number? New Jersey has just experienced the wettest winter on record. Since the day records began, we’ve never had this much rain. That fact came home to me yesterday while driving the fifty miles to Montclair in a tremendous downpour. I had just purchased new windshield wipers, but the cap had fallen off the driver’s side blade. Driving on a truck-infested interstate where traffic continued to fly by at above posted speed limits, I realized with horror that at each passing swipe the rubber insert that actually swipes away the moisture was creeping out of the top of the wiper fixture. There it was, just at the top of my field of view, thrashing about like a demon-possessed snake, while my field of view grew smaller and smaller. I was in lane three of an eight-lane highway and couldn’t get over to make adjustments. In a nightmare I envisioned the slippery snake making a terminal bit for freedom and flying over my head as metal scraped glass and I drove blind into whatever lay ahead.

Well, the wiper stayed intact long enough to get me to the university. The rain did not abate, however. Even with battered umbrella and longsuffering raincoat, I was soaked below the knees by the time I squished into class. Unfortunately we studied the flood myth a few weeks ago. A few years back William Ryan and Walter Pitman, a couple of geologists, uncovered the fact that the Black Sea had been flooded by the Mediterranean some 7500 years ago. They posited that this sudden increase in sea-level around the Euxine Sea led to the dispersion of a world-wide flood myth. Their book became a best-seller and even Robert Ballard got in on the search for Noah’s homeland.

Hearing people talk about New Jersey’s incessant rain, I have no doubt that a major sea change was not necessary for flood stories to begin. As water levels rise, perhaps to the delight of whales and other blubber-laden beasts, the rest of us fear being perpetually covered by overwhelming waves. That is enough to start the story of a flood. Especially when your windshield wipers aren’t working on the Garden State Parkway.

Is it damnation or just New Jersey?

Intelligently Deceived

One of the most difficult things about the life of the academic gypsy is having tons of books. Literally tons. Having been cast from institution to institution in search of that mythical full-time teaching post, we’ve put books in storage and sometimes even forgotten that we’ve had them. So it was that when I was looking for a copy of Great Expectations for my daughter’s English class assignment, I was in the dusky attic, hoping the upstairs neighbors didn’t burst in on me, up to my armpits in boxes of books, that I rediscovered a treasure. Taking a leaf from Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop, I decided I would review a few of the Creationist books I grew up with. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to keep them although I’d long dismissed their facile, often juvenile, point of view. They have provided great entertainment and even some poignant instruction in the ways of manipulating the minds of the young. Fear of Hell is a great motivating factor to a kid who sees ghosts in every corner and finds bats on his pillow!

So, without further ado, I present the top 5 creationist books of my youth. (Those that I purchased as an adult I bought from used bookstores so as not to add any royalties to the fundamentalists’ already bursting coffers.)

Textbook

We’ll begin with the textbook. Scientific Creationism makes no pretense, such as the “Intelligent Design” school does, about being non-(necessarily-but-we-all-just-happen-to-be)Christian specific. Here Henry Morris begins with the assertion “the Bible and theistic religion have been effectively banned from [public school] curricula” and offers the present book as a corrective to the situation. A better title for the content, however, might have been Scientific Fiction.

GenFlood

The work that really opened the flood-gates, so to speak, was The Genesis Flood. This craftsterpiece was penned by Henry Morris (again) and his compatriot John Whitcomb. Both proudly proclaiming themselves “doctors” they point out “evidence” designed to confuse the unsavvy into believing that there is a physical way the world could be entirely flooded. They even make room for dinosaurs on the ark, noting that they would have been juveniles of the various species. I’ve been in academics long enough to know that a Ph.D. does not guarantee credibility (or even sanity) on the part of the holder. The fact that Whitcomb’s doctorate is from Grace Theological Seminary ought to speak quite plainly as to its objectivity.

Gish

Written by Duane “the Fish” Gish, Evolution, the Fossils Say No! is an attempt to demonstrate that since not every single phase of the fossil record has been uncovered, the whole theory of evolution is in shambles. Gish, one of the few authentically scientifically credentialed Creationists, should have been able to see that his “back-and-fill” technique was going to fall on hard times as new fossil forms were discovered. As the fossil record grows more complete each year his book becomes more and more outdated.

EvolutionHS

Evolution and the High School Student terrified me in my delicate years. This booklet intimated that when I reached high school the unending assaults of the atheistic non-believers would be unrelenting. I feared for my very soul. Instead, in high school I found nose-picking, pocket-pool playing, and chalk-print-on-the-pants-seat teachers were among the openly committed Christians. Some even kept Bibles on their desks. (This was a public school.) The book lost its teeth.

GooZoo

My personal favorite is How Did It All Begin? (or From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo) by Harold Hill (obviously when he was not out swindling River City, Iowa folk of their hard-earned cash to start a bogus boy’s band). This booklet, complete with cute, cartoon drawings, convinces grade-schoolers that evolution answers no questions at all. He had me going as a kid, until I got to the part where he claimed scientists had invented a machine that could indicate if you were “saved” or not. Even as a gullible child I couldn’t buy that.

The efforts of the Creationists are tireless. Even this brief survey of books that I happened to chance upon is nowhere near a comprehensive survey of what is out there. What it does serve to demonstrate is that all reasonable people should be wary. After all, even Jesus knew that a person in the wrong, if persistent enough, could convert even a hard-hearted judge.