Lent Presidents

Surely it’s appropriate that President’s Day falls in Lent this year. We as a nation, if we are wise, will repent of the horror we’ve elected upon ourselves. Those ashes on our foreheads remind us that sins come on a national scale as well as an individual. Any nation touting supremacy is in need of Lent, even if it’s founder’s day. Especially if it’s founder’s day. It’s difficult to believe that either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would’ve truly thought the United States better than other nations. Having a secure and free place to live wasn’t an exercise in supremacy, but in the belief that people should be able to govern themselves. An Easter, if you will, of beliefs.

Symbolism is a major part of any religious holiday. The eggs, rabbits, and butterflies of Easter all represent something just as the burnt palms from last year’s Palm Sunday do. George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree—that was a story made up many years later. It was, however, a symbol to represent a truth. To represent a president who couldn’t bring himself to lie. The fact-checking statistics show that the current incumbent of Washington’s chair lies over five times a day. Listen closely here, for this is symbolism—yes, he did chop down the cherry tree. Where do you think those ashes on your forehead have come from?

An administration where supremacy is daily in the news is surely a sign of trouble. This President’s Day a national S.O.S. goes out, but to whom can supremacists call for help? They are already the greatest in their own minds. Supremacy was the hubris of Rome that eventually ensured its fall. The belief that the Roman male was the most supreme human template possible—far above women, slaves, and foreigners—was held until the day the Vandals and Visigoths came to the door. Preoccupied with its own greatness, it was an empire unable to see the symbolism clearly on display all around it. By that point it had become a “Christian nation”—a state with God’s own blessing on its white males and their entitlements. The insanity borne of excessive pride was no stranger to the seat of the emperor. Less than fourteen-hundred years later a new government would form. It’s leader so full of integrity and dignity that the common person believed he couldn’t cut down a cherry tree without telling the truth. And this year his birthday falls in Lent.

Fictional Fact

Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.

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No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?

Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.

Holy Oak

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It was already ancient when first discovered by the early European colonists of New Jersey. The Basking Ridge oak is a well-known and time-honored New Jersey denizen. Over six centuries old, the white oak, it seems, is dying. Like it’s cousin, the Swamp Oak that I mentioned back in January, this tree is dear to many in the state. It is also historical. An article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger begins with some religious associations: George Whitefield, one of the evangelists responsible for “the Great Awakening” from which we’re still trying to awaken, preached under this very tree. George Washington also knew it. It has been tended and cared for by the town for so long that there is a reluctance to let it go. In the words of another New Jerseyan, “well everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” Job, in a more optimistic moment, declared, “there is hope for a tree.” Like the Good Book, the good folk of Jersey wax religious about this sexcentarian, and for good reason. The human outlook is far too short.

Think, for example, of what was happening when the Basking Ridge oak was a mere acorn. In the early 1400s there were no Protestants yet. That didn’t stop Jan Hus and Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake, however. Although the Vikings, and perhaps others, had ventured here from across the ocean, North America was blissfully unaware of those waiting to claim for their own any land they could set foot on. Good thing too. The Inquisition was still underway and witch trials lingered on, flying in the face of enlightenment. Cambridge and Oxford University Presses were, in some sense, neophyte businesses. This Eurocentric view overlooks the great achievement of Machu Picchu down south. As the Dark Ages were beginning to lighten, this oak began its life’s journey. We who are a mere blink of its slow eye are still spouting hate for those who are different and are determined that nobody should outlive us.

The Holy Oak, as it is known, stands beside a Presbyterian Church. One of the trustees of the church is in charge of the tree. In the article he stated that this is about eternal life. From our perspective, trees seem to live forever. That’s because we are so dreadfully short-sighted. It’s surprisingly easy to become nostalgic for a tree so old. In terms of accomplishment, we think humans are exceptional for surviving a century of all the misfortune we dish out for one another. The tree, however, seems innocent by comparison. We’re changing the climate even now, making it more difficult for trees to thrive. We continue to shoot people for the color of their skin and although we don’t call it witch-hunting any more we still find ways of oppressing anyone who is different. At this rate we may need six more centuries to come to our senses. If only we had the perspective of a tree.

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.

America’s Book

AmericanBibleOne thing that would be difficult to overstate is the influence the Bible has had on America. In our increasingly secular society, it may seem like the Bible has lost its edge. Then comes a presidential election and the Bible is headline news again. Actually, it is present all along in more subtle forms, causing embarrassment for those who think it’s just puerile mythology. Many useful aspects of this may be glimpsed in Paul C. Gutjahr’s An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States,1777-1880. Thorough, insightful, and at times even witty, this reader-friendly analysis probes many aspects of how the Bible has impacted society in ways long forgotten. Who remembers that there were “Bible Wars” in the nineteenth century? That Bible publishing could at one time make one wealthy? That Bible illustrations caused scandal because bare-bosomed biblical ladies appeared in the pages of sacred writ?

The Bible is America’s book. Although Gutjahr only covers about a century of the story, there’s no question that the Good Book has roots that reach down into the sixteenth century and branches that continue to sprawl into the twenty-first. Some of it may be chalked up to civil religion, but the whole picture is more complex than that. From earliest days the colonial invaders drew on their understanding of the Bible to justify actions that really can’t be justified, and assuaged their guilt with the same holy book. Medieval European culture held the church and its founding document in high esteem, and when the Reformers broke from the hierarchy, the Bible became, well, sola scriptura. It was the Protestants who were annoyed enough at the situation to seek a life in somebody else’s land.

Once here, however, the Bible became foundational. Schools were established to teach students to read, and the main reading material was the Bible. A moral society, it was believed, would be founded on such curricula. Colleges were built primarily to train ministers. Revivals periodically swept the land. We currently live in the days of mega-churches. The elites sometimes overlook the appeal of the Bible to the average person. Here is a book that offers hope. And even if it’s rough, a love to those who don’t get their share of the culture’s spoils. It is more than a book. The Bible is a symbol. On his inauguration George Washington not only laid his hand on it, he also kissed the Bible before the crowds. If, like me, you didn’t know that, I suggest An American Bible as a reminder of how it has brought us to where we are. Borrowing a term from its sub-title, it too is a good book, and it serves to remind us of the power of an idea.

Peak Oil

Having no control over where we’re born, people nevertheless often feel a connection with their native region. My family had no roots in western Pennsylvania, and the consensus on why we ended up here focuses around jobs. My grandparents settled here because of a job. While working here on a job my father, from the south, met my mother. My brothers and I all consider ourselves Pennsylvanians. One of the places we liked to visit as children was Drake Well. We knew that the oil industry began in western Pennsylvania, and we knew that famous people like George Washington had traveled through the region during the various wars of the nation’s early years. The towns where I grew up are not exactly affluent, and one of them seems in danger of becoming a ghost town. Drake Well, however, the birthplace of commercial oil, still draws visitors from the region and from around the country. On a recent visit to the site, I was interested to see how religion interplayed with petroleum in Victorian Era western Pennsylvania.

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Among the displays was one showing the various means used to find oil. In the days before geological surveys, finding something hidden underground required more than just technical knowledge. More precisely, it often utilized different forms of technology—some scientific, some not. Dowsing was popular, and spirits were consulted. Access to the supernatural world was not uncommon. The oil industry really took off during the same era that spiritualism began to become popular. Religion and science co-existed in a way that is difficult to imagine today. Indeed, Drake Well was established in 1859, the same year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. The means used to reach the oil were, however, unabashedly scientific and technical. Nitroglycerin fatalities were just another fact of life.

Looking over the triumphal displays about fracking, it became clear that in the realm of petroleum production the spirit has made way for a technology with unknown consequences. The museum at Drake Well is pretty straightforward that other energy forms pose a threat to an industry that was, and currently remains, massive. We have technologies that can utilize cleaner forms of energy, but powerful oil interests have maintained the focus on more and more invasive ways to keep things going the way they are, pulling in more profits while the limited supply lasts. We know petroleum will run out. We’ve deeply integrated it into our way of life and instead of looking ahead to the next step, we’ve been reaching back to pad our fat pockets. Gone are the dowsers and spiritualists and in have charged the corporate executives. And in western Pennsylvania, the towns where the industry began struggle to stay alive as thinking that allowed for spirits has acquiesced to that which has loyalty to Mammon alone.

Biblical Script

The popular perception of the Bible generally does not match the actual contents very well. Like most books, the Bible has its highlights: Creation, Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jesus, the Apocalypse. Between all the fascinating narrative, however, come the instructions. More instructions, in point of fact, than most people would care for. Nevertheless, over the centuries the Bible has acquired an aura in western civilization. It has become what some colleagues call an “iconic book.” It is this aspect of the Bible that stands out most clearly in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. I wrote a post about Sleepy Hollow as I began to watch the first season on DVD. The headless horseman is an agent of the Apocalypse, and clergy and witches play a prominent role in the story. I wondered if the role of the Bible would diminish once the audience was drawn into the conceit of the four horsemen thundering out of Revelation into Sleepy Hollow. Just the opposite, in fact, occurred.

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As the series unfolds, the Bible is drawn more and more into the story. Demons and detectives both want to get their hands on it. Not to read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but because the Bible contains esoteric information. Those “in the know” can unlock its secrets and thereby save society. Ironically, this is a subtextual version of the biblical metanarrative. It is all about (from the Christian perspective) salvation. The means, however, are quite different. Jesus is not really part of the Sleepy Hollow story. The Bible belongs to George Washington, cryptically bringing politics into the story. The text is not secure; there are extra verses in Washington’s Bible, just as there are many excised bits in Thomas Jefferson’s. Washington leaves instructions for saving his fledgling nation from the evils that roamed its shores during the Revolution. Or is that Revelation?

Right up to the cliff-hanger ending of season one, the Bible comes back time and again, focusing the viewer on its magical qualities. It is a book of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile in the real world, biblical studies positions are being slashed from universities as if the horseman’s axe were anything but fictional. We don’t want to know about the real Bible. Politicians, real ones, use it as their own sword to force their personal faith agendas onto the electorate, but we generally do not even understand what the Bible really is. We’ll fund economics, that dismal science, and business, and maybe even actual science. The humanities, however, the stuff that makes us human, we will gladly call luxuries and deny them fiscal security. So the Bible grows in stature even as it diminishes in stature. Those who don’t know the factual Bible can easily be swayed by the fictional one. Are those hoofbeats I hear in the distance?

Historic Crossing

If Washington crossed the Delaware, I figured, so could I. Of course, I have a car and I was going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, but history doesn’t always repeat itself precisely. In New Jersey, the landing side of the crossing, a modest park marks the spot, along with plenty of space for outdoor activities. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has a tripartite park which includes sculptures, an historical village, and a tower. The tower was built from 1929 through 1931 in commemoration of the momentous crossing. My mother visited the site as a teenager, some few years after it opened. On a mission to recapture part of her childhood, I made a visit to see a bit of history, and also to experience the great views. As far as towers go, this one isn’t the tallest, but in Bucks County, it is among the highest points and you can see for many miles on a clear day. On the top of the tower I overheard a man explaining to his family that Washington built the tower in the 1700s and that it was used in the Revolutionary War. He lamented that it would be easy to be trapped on top of the tower, and urged his kids to imagine what it would have been like.

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My thoughts went to the Bible. We’ve come to know through archaeology and comparative sources that many of the events portrayed as history are about as accurate as having Bowman’s Tower built by a long-deceased George Washington. And yet we continue to teach children that stories for which no evidence exists are history. We don’t always have a good grasp on how to tell the difference. In the United States George Washington is nearly divine in reputation. His travels are attested on an almost omnipresent scale; even my childhood home of Franklin, a tiny burg near the Ohio border in Pennsylvania, saw visits from the general. I grew up knowing little of the history of the man who would become the first president. I did know, however, that he’d crossed the Delaware.

History is not so easy as it seems. What “actually happened” on the ground may not offer much meaning to those who seek it. Only when the events become story—sometimes sacred story—do we start to get a sense of why the Bible has such a grip on a large swath of the human race. It is story with no apology. Its historicity is far beyond recoverability: who saw the creation of the world? Even the events in the human timescale were written, for the most part, centuries after the occurrence, with all the liabilities that entails. Built by members of the Washington Crossing Park Commission, the park I’m visiting intends to demonstrate the importance of a singular event that led to the freedom of an entire nation. Indeed, the crossing of the water to free a nation has a distinctly biblical feel to it. And even if that first exodus never happened, we tell our children it did, and we have no less a figure than George Washington building a tower to prove it.

The Tower

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. In truth, I’m not even sure what its significance might be. Beyond giving a spectacular view of the Delaware River valley, it is my understanding that it is a memorial built to George Washington and his many activities in this region. It’s not even that old. I have come, however, because of a memory not my own. Many decades ago, my mother visited the tower with her parents. She has pictures but couldn’t remember the name of the tower, or even where it was. As fate and happenstance have it, I live a mere hour away and I’ve undertaken this journey to a tower I’ve never seen to bring a sacred sense of place back to life for someone else. Too bad the park is closed today. It is a sunny Saturday in July, and it seems that everyone is outside. We drove across that impossibly narrow, rickety bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania at Washington’s Crossing (so named on both sides in both states) to find our way to this quiet park to find a lost past. “Closed” the sign laconically says.

The urge to travel, speaking strictly for me, is the pursuit of sacred space. Over Independence Day weekend we traveled to Boston not only to see fireworks, but to revisit a site of some personal significance. In my three years in that city life took me places I never imagined I might have gone. The memories, mine this time, although hazy, still permeate the air. Boston is a sacred city. Since childhood I have had dreams of Maine. From Boston I pushed further north to the rocky coasts and gray oceans of the stormy north Atlantic. Although neither God nor angel appeared, I knew that I had once again discovered the sacredness of space. Every time I leave, I count the days until I might return.

Many locations are sacred to a person. Some of mine are in the west, and some in the east. And when I’m there I require some time alone, for the sacredness of space is a deeply personal matter. When, many years ago, I was jostled into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher amid ecclesiastical robes too numerous to identify, I knew this was a holy spot for many. The very dust of Jerusalem seems sacred with age. But what had happened to me here? Beyond the endless readings and rereadings of the biblical tales, Jerusalem was someone else’s sacred location. Aside from the dark crusaders’ crypts, there was no place to be alone. I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. Despite driving to Pennsylvania for that sole purpose, it is a place I have yet to see. And when I finally do climb that tower, it should, I hope become clear to me whether anything of the numinous remains in this dusty corner of somebody else’s memory. Sacred space is like that, and it keeps some of us forever on the move.

Buttons and Bows

I don’t remember what year it was, but I remember precisely where. On one of my countless trips out back—to or from school, to burn the paper garbage, pet the dog, or wander in the woods—I noticed something poking out of the dirt. The path between my step-father’s house and garage was well-traversed, and a little rise there was bald at the top, and what I saw emerging from its underground lair was round and dull. I’ve always had fantasies of buried treasure, so it is difficult to pass by anything suggesting a coin on the ground. This turned out to be a button. Not a regular, button, however. This was clearly military, and old. It was just appearing from a long rest under the ground and I didn’t know how long my step-father had lived in that house, but it had obviously been many years. There was no internet those days, but it soon became clear from my amateur researches that this was a Civil War era button. It still had a scraggly bit of dark blue thread attached. I never bothered to dig to see if the rest of the soldier was there.

Western Pennsylvania, while far from the striking Revolutionary history of the eastern part of the state, had seen its share of military transients. George Washington had established a fort in nearby Franklin, where I was born, and I was sure that more than a few Civli War soldiers had tromped through this area, although it was far from Gettysburg. I treasured that button and kept it with the very small coin collection I had amassed. It just so happened that our minister was also a coin collector. He took me to coin shows and we would sometimes exchange old pennies. One day he told me about his button collection. I mentioned my find, and he showed a great interest. In fact, he promised he’d complete my wheat-back collection from 1909 to 1958 in trade for my button. He ended up with my button, but never finished my penny series before some bishop shipped him off to another parish. History had slipped through my fingers.

Repeating patterns

Repeating patterns

Patterns are reinforced by repetition. One of the severe beauties of Manhattan is the rows and rows of identical windows. Patterns also persist in time. I stopped collecting coins ages ago, but I still squirrel away any wheat-back that lands in my pocket. Even in average condition a “wheatie” is worth double its face value. But face value is not always what it seems. Value lies in that in which we invest ourselves. I followed my mentor to seminary only to find myself traded off for many a finer specimen. Uncirculated, likely. This particular piece had been scuffed and banged against others so long that the patina warned that more might be hidden than meets the casual eye. And somewhere in rural western Pennsylvania there may be a dusty corpse just waiting to be discovered. Victims of war come are sometimes just beneath the surface.

Tebow or Not Tebow?

It is time to bow to the inevitable. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a sports fan. Every web page I open, however, seems to feature Tim Tebow, as if the media had never seen an evangelical before. Where have people been? What is even more amazing is that this athletic kid has invented an entirely new human gesture, “the Tebow.” Incredible what young folks can accomplish these days. And as Saturday Night Live has showed us, Jesus really isn’t that much of a football fan after all.

Ashamed at my naiveté, I decided to research the history of tebowing. What I found shocked and amazed me. Like so many modern day marvels, Tebowing seems to have been invented by those prescient Sumerians. Even before humans perfected the Tebow, semi-divine characters showed them how. This cylinder-seal depicts the monster Humbaba illustrating the correct posture to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They do not, apparently, take kindly to his correction.

In the example below we see a rare double-kneed Tebow performed by an Asian football god while a hopelessly underchurched Joe Paterno looks on, hopelessly standing.

Fast forward a few centuries to a seasonal scene and we find shepherds tebowing to some baby. It is a fair guess that they suppose the baby to be a football incarnate.

Lest we think the Tebow has been coopted by the Christian crowd, we must remember that no religion has a copyright on humility. In this scene from Norse mythology, a clearly pagan Hermod tebows before the goddess Hela. She does not look amused.

Americans, who after all claim to have invented the Tebow, can trace the gesture back to our founding father himself. In this famous painting of George Washington at Valley Forge, just after the crucial touchdown, the great man can be seen tebowing in the snow.

The snow is a great segue to the Cold War. Here, in a government photo, we see Soviet naval infantry tebowing as they contemplate the big game. They are not now, nor have they ever been, Broncos.

Now, none of this resembles the education I received during my three degrees in religious studies. No matter. ‘Tis the child becomes the man, as they say. And since a little child shall lead them, we can all learn to tebow as if there were no tomorrow. If the actual Tebow is as bright as the sports-scholarship students I taught at Oshkosh, Rutgers, and Montclair, the education of the future will include a lot lower academic expectations and, I suspect, lots and lots of Levis with holes in the knees.

Our Myth of History

“Myth” is a difficult word to define. In the ancient world, however, reality, or truth, was expressed in terms of myth. Today we assume that myth is “untrue” or false. This dichotomy often leads to an unfortunate undervaluing of ancient texts and stories. At root the problem is that we are on the far side of a paradigm shift. This podcast addresses the question of how we might try to understand myth in a way that fits with the modern outlook. Since historical veracity is the modern paradigm, it stands to reason that history has become the mythology of present-day thinkers.