The Bald Truth

The book of Judges is one of the most fascinating in the Bible. The “judges” are colorful characters, often rule-breakers, who ultimately seem to deliver the early Israelites from their enemies. Many of their names are familiar: Samson, Gideon, and Jephthah. Well, Jephthah may be a stretch for those who haven’t read the book lately. Anyway, among the most interesting facets of the book is the fact that there are female judges. The most prominent is Deborah. Although she doesn’t seem actually to fight in battle, she leads Barak and he is able to defeat the Canaanites, through the agency of God, of course. The story is told in great detail of how the Canaanite general Sisera gets his chariot bogged down in the mud, flees the field, and finds the tent of Jael, who invites him in. After she lulls him to sleep she drives a tent peg through his skull, killing him. Jael is celebrated for her part in the deliverance.

Gory images aside, I’ve been thinking of Sisera. I wonder what he looked like. I realize that he may not have been an historical person, but still. The Bible is generally shy about describing the outward appearance of people. We get a few people with details revealed, but Sisera is not one of them. The reason I’m wondering is that I’ve got an image lodged in my head. A childhood story that we were read about Deborah showed Sisera as a bald man with a beard. Totally bald. I know that complete baldness can and does occur, but the little iconography of Canaanites we have doesn’t show them as being particularly bald as a fashion statement. As I was reading about Sisera the other day I tried to picture him as a man with a headful of hair, and I just couldn’t do it. The image was too mentally jarring. Sisera was bald.

The images that we’re shown as children, especially for powerful stories, have a way of becoming canonical. It’s like learning to tie your shoes. The first way that leads to success is the right way. We never need to learn another. How many images of Sisera does one person need to have in his or her head anyway? So my Sisera is bald. Religions often provide us with images that impact us for the remainder of our lives. The impressions laid on young gray matter are not easily erased. Now that I know many of the stories in the Bible have no historical veracity, I still can’t help but think of the early images I learned. These are the canonical images and anything else is too difficult to contemplate. My Sisera will always be bald.

Palma got it wrong.

Palma got it wrong.

Brain Dead

I’ve been thinking about brains (is there any more existential thing to do?). Reading a book this week about the mind (see Thursday’s post) probably has something to do with it. And also having finished a book on zombies maybe contributes as well. You see, I find it strange when scientists assume that we can figure out all the answers with our limited brains. Although we are endlessly fascinated by them, neuroscientists have long noted that they do have weaknesses—they (brains) are easily fooled, and, for those who find no room for the mysterious in the universe, we’ve made up gods to keep us company. We know that relative brain size—relative to body mass, that is—is a large factor in intelligence, but we seem not to imagine the possibility of larger brains than those we carry around. I suppose it’s not without reason that alien brains are disproportionately larger than our own, according to the standard image of the “grays.” We don’t like to think there’s something smarter than us hanging around. It’s a frightening thought.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.35.48 AMOn the more earthy side, brains have been the usual fare for zombies in one sub-division of the zombie movie neighborhood. George Romero gave us flesh eating as a paradigm, but eventually zombies settled on brains. This was on my mind as I finished the epic Strangers in the Land that Stant Litore kindly sent me in Kindle form. I’d read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed on my own, and the author wanted me to read more. Litore’s zombies are more in the canonical Romero sector—they eat flesh and their bite conveys zombiehood. Strangers in the Land takes its base story from the book of Judges. Only Deborah becomes a zombie slayer. Brains aren’t eaten here, but they must be destroyed for a zombie to—what? Redie? Full of colorfully drawn characters, the story rambles through the countryside of ancient Israel, plagued with zombies. It is the brain that keeps a zombie going.

While I have to stand by my recurring assessment that the zombie is a hard sell in novelistic form (here goes my mind again! Reading a book gives your brain too much time to focus on the utter impossibility of bodies missing organs or vital tissue to move, or “live,” even with a brain) Litore is onto an interesting idea here. Looking at it metaphorically (as surely he intends it) helps. Perhaps I just miss the lumbering revenants of Return of the Living Dead calling out “Brains! Brains!” The Bible, however, is endlessly open to reinterpretation. What Our Eyes Have Witnessed was post-biblical. This current installment moves us into the realm of reception history. I’ve been researching reception history and the undead for a few months now. I have some conclusions to share in an academic paper a few months down the road, but for the time being, I’m still trying to figure out brains. Or maybe I’m just out of my mind.

Rocket Cats

Franz_Helm_rocket_cat_full_page_1

A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

Hair Cut

“This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” So we hear in the first number of the musical Hair. Since my daughter is learning about the 1960’s counter-culture in US History, she asked her middle-aged parents what life was like then. Well, my wife and I were both born in the early sixties and were a little young to get the full scope of things through juvenile eyes. Besides, I was raised in a biblically literalist family—probably not the best place to gain a great deal of insight into popular culture. We decided to watch Hair instead. One of the few aspects of that era I recall is the Vietnam War (something George W. Bush apparently didn’t remember). The optimism of the hippie movement never really came to fruition leaving an entire era of disillusionment to hang over the remaining years of the millennium. Nevertheless, there is a sense of freedom in Hair that conveys the exuberance of young idealism—something I can honestly claim to have never outgrown. Without idealism we, as a species, are lost.

As I watched the movie for the first time in years its biblical subtext occurred to me this time around. The identity of the youthful protestors is in their counter-cultural hair. Indeed, the show takes its very name from that aspect. Apart from the ubiquity of the hirsute righteousness on the screen, it is essential to the plot. As Claude Bukowski stops in New York City on his way to join the army, he falls in with the Philistine element of society—the long-haired (read uncircumcised) misfits who defy the principles of decency. The dinner party at the Franklin residence makes that perfectly clear. When thrown in jail Woof protests over-strenuously to having his hair cut, leading to the title number. When the friends decide to visit Claude on the army base on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, George Berger has his hair shorn (by a woman) and subsequently loses his strength. His vital force of arguing his way out of any predicament is sapped as he marches to the troop transport plane that flies him to his death. Singing about believing in God as he goes.

I have never used drugs—life has a way of being weird enough already without them—but the sixties seem to have had a moral righteousness that the Tea Party just can’t claim. It was a righteousness borne of speaking the uncomfortable truth to a society that honored the status quo above all else. The very status quo ante the Tea Party craves—a society of bigotry and inequality. A society of privilege and strict conformity. A balding society that has lost its voice. Drugs are not necessary to see unbelievable things. One of the Bible’s original Avengers, Samson tears his Hulk-like way through any crowd, felled only by the cutting of his hair. Hair also led to the death of Absalom, the son whose life David valued more than his own. At the end of the show it is quite clear where the righteousness really lies.

Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"

Impossible Kingdom

Over Thanksgiving we visited friends in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Newtown was the home of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks, famous for his many renditions of The Peaceable Kingdom. On a chilly Black Friday we walked to his former home, visited his Meeting House, and stopped by his grave. The Quakers, whose presence is much more palpable in the eastern part of the state, were the original Pennsylvanians. Their pacifism defined them, and the peaceable kingdom was their ideal world. A world without strife, without greed, without televangelists and politicians. It is a compelling vision.

A peaceable kingdom

The Society of Friends recognized no human leader to their movement that sought direct experience of the divine. In the Bible such a vision pervades early Israel where the rule of God was expected to be enough; no king was needed for this kingdom. The ideal world, however, was plagued by human ambition and selfishness. Before the first judge hung up his hat they knew that they’d need a king. A monarchy, as they were warned, that would bring about its own set of intractable problems. Leadership inherently creates inequalities. Just ask any accountant who keeps track of a governor’s expenses. Kinglets are just as bad as godlets.

We read about the excesses and abuses our leaders stockpile in the name of public servanthood. Yet, for all that, the world is not at peace. An increasing number of nations are joining the nuclear club, poising their missiles over populations of innumerable people in need. The peaceable kingdom has no king, and the visions of the prophets are cloudy and uncertain. Visiting the quaint, affluent hamlet of Newtown, it is possible to believe in the vision of one of their defining personalities. Just don’t open the newspaper or turn on the television. Because, like the Israelites, we have many eager kings lined up outside the door.

Is the peaceable kingdom dead?