At various points of my career I’ve applied for museum curator positions. Since those who actually land those jobs have degrees in museum studies, I’ve never gotten as far as an interview. Still, I like to think I’d be good at it. I spend time in museums and I’ve been told I have an okay eye for design. And I recently read that museums are educational institutions. That makes sense since people tend to be visual learners. (This is something I took into account in my classes as well, illustrating lectures to make a point. The traditional academic feels that pictures are somehow “soft” learning as opposed to the harsh realities of text and word-based instruction, but I beg to differ.) We see things and they stick with us.
On a visit to the New York Historical Society museum I once looked at their somewhat abbreviated sculpture collection. This isn’t the Met, after all. One of the tricks I’ve learned about museum displays is that some curators place subtle humor in their framing of objects. For example, my gaze was drawn to a figure of a pilgrim. A stern-looking fellow, he’s captured in full stride, massive Bible tucked under his arm, determined frown on his face. This is a man trying to create Heaven on earth, dour though it may be. Taking a step back, my camera found a smile in this image. On either side of this angry Christian were two naked women: one was apparently Artemis with her bow, the other perhaps a Muse. The lines of the display draw attention to this juxtaposition. There’s some humor here, intentional or not.
This also takes me back to yesterday’s post about Heaven. Perceptions of what it is differ. There’s a mindset like the pilgrim that sees a life of suffering being rewarded in the hereafter with endless bliss. I do have to wonder whether too much hardship down here might not make one forget how to enjoy oneself. It’s difficult to picture a Puritan in rapture. It’s as if the journey—the hard road—is the real source of enjoyment here. Each of us, I suppose, has her or his own view of Heaven. Mine’s kind of like a library with all the time in the world without end to read. Others, I suspect, would find paradise as a garden. Yet others would see Heaven as a kind of museum, but it would be one where laughing out loud was okay, for the Curator definitely has a sense of humor.
Posted in American Religion, Art, Higher Education, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Artemis, Heaven, Muses, museums, New York City, New York Historical Society Museum, Pilgrims
Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.” It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals. The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores. Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however. The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate. Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees. At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one. The smell almost knocked me off my feet. I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.” Whose version of heaven is this?
Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven. Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade. It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect. Heaven is, after all, a construct. The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death. In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place. Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance. The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems. As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.
A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do. We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment. In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees. We’re often taken in by the innocence of names. The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it. It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant. Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems. It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds. According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year. Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Environment, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged Ailanthus, botany, Heaven, invasive species, Revelation, tree of heaven
I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.
For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.
Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.
Posted in Art, Consciousness, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged altered states of consciousness, alternate states of consciousness, bliss, Broadway, Consciousness, Heaven, opioids, reality
What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.
The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.
Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.
Posted in American Religion, Astronomy, Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Apocalypse, Heaven, Hell, Marcelo Gleiser, science and religion, The Prophet and the Astronomer, Zoroastrianism
The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.
Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.
From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.
Posted in Bible, Books, Consciousness, Monsters, Movies, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged and Early Modern Judaism, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, dybbuk, Exorcists, Gehenna, Gehinnom, Heaven, Hell, J. H. Chajes, Purgatory, reincarnation, Sheol, The Possession