States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

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From Darkness

All things being equal, most religions side with light. Let there be light. Enlightenment. Dewali, the festival of lights. The light of heaven is as much the appeal just as the darkness of hell is its antipode. Today, as the autumnal equinox turns us toward the darker half of the year, many religions mark the occasion with some kind of notice of the fading of the light. In the Celtic calendar, so indicative of the old religions of Europe, the recognition of the triumph of the dark comes at Samhain, or Halloween. It is the realization that darkness always follows light, and even the relative carelessness of summer has its limits. We are, half the year, no matter our location on the globe, in darkness.

Despite the habits of some college-age folk, people are not, by nature, nocturnal. Biology has evolved our sense of daylight, color-rich sight as a main means of our survival. Our religions have taken our fear of the dark and valorized our experience of light. Even as the winter solstice rolls around, festivals of many religions add more and more lights to ward off the encroaching night. The equinox is a moment of stability. It is a tenuous moment, occurring only twice a year, when darkness and light hold an uneasy truce. We are poised to move into shorter days, cooler weather, and the apparent loss of life. There is a melancholy to it, beautiful and compelling, if somewhat sad.

As I reflect on the fading of the light, I realize that the southern hemisphere, whence light seems to be rising, is facing the vernal equinox. Their summer is about to begin. Days will lengthen and light will be abundant. Our religious calendars tend to be keyed to the experience of those in the northern hemisphere. Those in the south, following the dictates of Rome, celebrate Christmas in summer and Easter in the fall. After my rainy visit to Indiana, where, on a rainy Thursday evening I saw a rainbow in the east, I awoke to a rainy Friday and saw a rainbow to the west. Fractured light. The light of a fading day broken into its myriad shades and hues. Light is that way. It is always daylight somewhere in the world, but religions focus on the light where we find ourselves at the moment.

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A Certain Man Went Down

Among the progeny claimed by Wabash College is Dan Simmons. I’ve read a couple of Simmons’ ghost novels, although in reverse order. I read A Winter Haunting, which I quite liked, and followed it up with Summer of Night. Having lived in the Midwest many years, it was easy to visualize the scenes. Then came the time for my trip to Crawfordsville, Indiana. I started the day in South Bend, finishing up my meetings at Notre Dame. I’d noted on the map that, as is often the case, the places I need to get to just aren’t connected by anything resembling a direct route. Although the forecast said “30 percent chance of rain,” I’d awoken at 4 a.m. to a thunderstorm and it had been pouring all morning long. I could swear they were making plans to convert the great Notre Dame stadium into an ark. Perhaps I’d forgotten just how persistent Midwestern storms can be. Soaked, I crawled into my rental car to tool down to Crawfordsville. At least the rain had finally stopped.

On one of those highways in the middle of corn fields as far as the driver’s eye dares look, the low tire pressure light came on. I dutifully pulled over and called Hertz. The suggestion was to find a gas station and put some air in the offending tire. Someone could be there in three hours. Looking about me at the amber waves, I thought of the spirits of Dan Simmons’ stories. A car breaking down in the heartland. No one around to offer assistance. The illusion allusion was shattered when a stranger pulled over and asked me if I needed help. I recall a priest friend once tearfully confessing to me that he had, on a rainy night, refused to stop to help someone with a flat because of fear for his safety. I understood completely—it can be a scary world out there. “And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”

With multiple stops to put air into my slowly leaking tire, I limped my way from town to town, reaching my destination after dark. Along the way a fierce rainbow appeared to the east as the sun began to set. Once you’ve abandoned the interstate in Indiana, there’s no going back. I began to notice just how many churches dotted each little village through which I drove. Samaritans, I thought. As I write this in Crawfordsville, I think of the corn, sorghum, and soybean fields that inspired Dan Simmon’s ghosts. I think of a stranger, a woman of minority demographics, stopping to see if I needed help along a lonely highway. She was among those our society would deem vulnerable, and yet she was the only one who stopped. And I think of parables. “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”

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Our Lady of Culture

So I’m in the land where sport and religion become one.  Notre Dame is an intimidating university for a small Protestant like myself.  Like on a first date, I’m never sure what to do with my hands.  Standing below the famous “touchdown Jesus,” more properly, the “Word of Life,” I feel small indeed.  For a long while in US history, Catholicism was treated like some kind of cult.  Those of us reared Protestant were taught to fear “them” and their ritualistic ways.  I’m more afraid that someone might ask me about football stats.  Sports is a religion I’ve never studied.

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Culture is like a colossal Cuisinart.  Lots of stuff goes in, all of it more or less equal, and the blades begin to whirl.  Sports, religion, fast food, alcohol, a dash of education, and we’ve got an American classic.  The only time that sports come to my mind is when they start to take on the flavor of religion.  The level of the devotion of fans is the envy of many a church.  In fact, the word “fan” was borrowed from the lexicon of religious behaviors.  It is not difficult to sense the pride in football here, but then, sports are often a civilized way to assert one’s self-worth in a culture where self-worth feels under threat.  It is hard to recall a time when the Fighting Irish were not mainstream.

“High culture” has put itself on the endangered species list by becoming inaccessible in a culture that doesn’t value education (not to reflect on the academics I’ve seen at Notre Dame, which are pretty impressive).  I cringe, however, when I see polished politicians basking in their lack of introspection on issues that impact the entire human race.  They seem proud to declare themselves untainted by education.  They will support sports, however, and particularly football where violence is padded, but still encouraged.  It is culture for those who enjoy the lowest common denominator.  In the airport I noticed another “touchdown” character who, in some quarters in more recognized than the deity soaring over Notre Dame’s venerable stadium.  I was in the true presence of culture even before I boarded the plane.

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A Cougar’s Mother

While on a stroll between appointments at Indiana University in Bloomington, I came across a tree with flowers laid underneath and a memorial plaque at its base. I glimpsed the name Mellencamp, and for a fan of rock, it didn’t take much imagination to tie it to John Cougar. Indeed, the memorial is dedicated to his mother, an artist, who died earlier this year. I first came to know of Indiana University because of music. I married a musician who, like myself, had to sacrifice a career doing what she loved in order to “get by.” Although she hadn’t studied at Indiana, my wife knew the reputation of the campus well. At a sunny moment between appointments I sat outside one of the music buildings listening to students practice through the open windows and read about Marilyn Mellencamp. An article in a local paper explains that this week an exhibition of her art is on display in Bloomington. When I read the quote from Waldron Arts Center Gallery Director Julie Roberts that the arts “are viable ways to make a living and they are vital part of being a happy and alive person,” I felt a renewed sense of hope. There are others, it is clear, who see that the arts are called the humanities for a reason. In a culture where only money matters, there is no culture. Think about it.

Since the industrial revolution we’ve been told that the measure of a human is how much money they are able to make. Something profound has been lost since then as great universities cut programs for the arts and humanities while business departments build new facilities. Talk about gaining the world but losing your soul—business cattily replies, “I have no soul.” While John Mellencamp never rivaled the biggest bands for income, his work, particularly Scarecrow, is full of human empathy. I listened to that album over and over in 1985, recounting the farm crisis and the demise of those not driven by corporate greed. And looking at this maple tree I wonder when the last time was that someone honestly mourned the death of a corporate mogul.

It is the mark of a deeply schizophrenic society that we all aspire to what fails to inspire. Our economy is driven by the material—money—and not that which speaks profoundly to what it means to be a human being. We keep the arts alive because the wealthy require something worthwhile upon which to spend their lucre. Is not buying art buying part of another person’s soul? We can’t define souls materially, science must conclude they don’t exist, but every time you say, “I feel happy/fulfilled/satisfied” you belie the facts. Souls may not be material, and they may never be found in laboratories. They are nevertheless part of the human constitution, and I for one, would lay a flower under a tree and know that it is more than just fertilizer for the next growing commodity.


Edeniana

“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye”—so begins a hymn I learned as a child and which has followed me to Bloomington, Indiana. Campus visits are an expectation of some academic editors, and as I stand and look at Jordan River on the Indiana University campus, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I have no idea if this little stream was named after the Jordan River of Israel fame, or if it just happens that someone named Jordan was a benefactor of the university. Given that there is a Jordan Hall, and a Jordan Street, the latter seems likely. Nevertheless, whether liquid or liquidity, any Jordan in contemporary society probably traces its origins back to the river that now separates Israel from Jordan (named after the river). Many hymns celebrate the mighty Jordan without the benefit of geographical experience. The mythic river is not mighty or majestic, but a slow-moving artery that sluggishly empties into the Dead Sea. With all the history of Christian imagination, however, we like to think of it on a par with the Euphrates, or at least the Mississippi.

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Biblical images have a way of catching the imagination. Although many younger people have no training in the Bible or Christianity, our culture is steeped very thoroughly in it. For some who are just rising to voting age, it must appear incredible the amount of effort politicians still put into keeping the old faith alive. It is clearly so here in Indiana. Driving down from Indianapolis I passed many signs that the Biblio-Christic pulse still throbs in the heartland. As I stopped to check my directions, I realized I’d just parked across from Pray Street. In a land where an imperative verb for a religious function stands a chance of becoming a street name, anything is possible.

After I returned from my trip to Israel many years ago, I realized that I’d neglected to take any pictures of the Jordan River. It runs like a leitmotif through our national imagination that it almost seems worth going back just to snap a shot or two. The Jordan is redolent of Eden, a land that is, according to Genesis, defined by four rivers. Water is a precious commodity in the arid Middle East. Its fluid nature seems not to have achieved the level of metaphor for those who insist on warring over religion. For gardens to bloom, there must be water and its short supply raises tensions. Water connects, however, just as readily as it separates. One of the first steps towards the great civilizations was the technology of travel by water. Why can we no longer use it for connecting rather than gerrymandering? I don’t know why this little stream is called Jordan River, but I do stand by its banks and cast a wishful eye.


Indiana Wants Me

The conservative evangelical Christian camp sometimes makes blogging on religion just too easy. The paper this morning reveals yet another evangelical, abstinence-only soap-boxer being caught with his boxers down. Indiana Representative Mark Souder is stepping down because of an extra-marital affair. To fill in the gaps on other such evangelical infidelities, I recommend Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah.

No, I do not rejoice in such revelations. The suffering of families brought on by such blatant hypocrisy cuts me deeply. The lesson we should all be learning from this is that self-righteousness is a sham. For all their faults, the more liberal factions of society are ready to admit that people are people and not cookie-cutter angels. They are inclined to admit that temptations exist, yet statistics demonstrate their marriages tend to be more secure and less plagued with infidelity. I tend to think it is because evangelical teaching has lost sight of what is truly important: people have always been, and still are, people. The belief that God has made one class of people better than others, and that saying sex doesn’t exist gives you the right to live in a pre-Edenic fantasy world, the Neo-Con is in very deep denial. No wonder many evangelicals distrust psychology!

I often ponder why this disconnect should exist at all. It seems that evangelicalism has been singularly poor at providing the tools to cope with reality. If temptation doesn’t exist for the blessed, then why bother developing strategies to deal with it? When the newspapers come out, it is easier to cast the first stone at the liberal media for airing dirty laundry than it is to examine your own hamper. Yet even the Bible itself has one important character criticizing the religious establishment as whitewashed tombs. No, I do not respond with glee to the sad outing of Mark Souder. I simply wish evangelicalism would truly advocate the honesty upon which it claims to be based.