Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.

Fun with Skeptics

You have to love skeptics.  Really.  Like most people who’ve spent many years attaining a doctorate, I’m naturally skeptical about many things.  One thing that I only temporarily lost (between about 1991 and ’99, if I recall) was an open mind.  That is to say, I discounted many things out of hand because people with doctorates don’t countenance such things.  I eventually realized the folly of academic arrogance and went back to considering things by actual evidence.  The results were interesting.  In order to help with my Ed and Lorraine Warren dilemma, I decided to read The Science of Ghosts by Joe Nickell.  It’s hard not to like Nickell.  He was a stage magician and eventually earned a doctorate in folklore.  He then made a career out of being a paranormal investigator.

He begins his book by claiming to have an open mind about ghosts.  Very quickly, however, a skeptical reader with an open mind notices his magician’s tricks.  He’s very good at misdirection.  While putatively not debunking (but actually debunking) ghostly encounters, he time and again comes to the states of consciousness when individual super-impose images from the  unconscious mind onto what they’re seeing: when falling asleep, in the middle of the night, when waking up, when doing routine chores, when concentrating, when working.  That about covers over 90 percent of human time.  During these periods we’re likely to mistake what’s not really there for what is.  It could explain much of the driving I’ve witnessed in New Jersey, if not ghosts.  And he also picks straw men (and women) to knock over (pardon the violent metaphor).  Accounts by the credulous are his favorites to explain away.

What we really need is a middle ground between credulousness and a skepticism that can’t be convinced even by evidence.  Yes, ghost hunters use ridiculous methods for claiming “proof.”  Yes, some credible people legitimately see incredible things.  Nickell never deviates from his definition of ghosts as a form of energy left by the departed.  Nobody knows for sure what ghosts are, of course.  If they did there’d be little mystery about them.  Although Nickell claims openmindedness, he states at several points that at death brain activity ceases therefore nothing can think, walk, or talk afterward.  As any experimentalist knows, the results reflect the way an experiment is set up.  If the assumption is that there can’t be ghosts, there won’t be ghosts.  To get to the truth of the matter something between credulousness and biased skepticism must be brought to the table to see if it really tips.  Skeptics are fun, but an actual conversation might be more fruitful.

Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

Net Worth

Net worth—a strange concept for human beings—is calculated on the basis of how much cash you’re “worth.”  While on that lonely task of sorting through the attic, I came across many boxes of books for which we didn’t have room in our apartment.  Our guests, who’ve been few, feel obligated to comment on how many books we have, as if it’s an infirmity to be delicately broached.  Or for which something might be prescribed.  I grew up believing that what we call “net worth” should be assessed in how much a person knows.  Knowledge, not money, in my fantasy moments, would drive the world forward.  Books are cheap (generally, but you don’t want to know what I’ve paid for some of these volumes when I really needed them!) and don’t retain resale value, except perhaps in the textbook market.  They’re considered a throwaway commodity.

Although I didn’t read it, a recent bestseller claimed you could find happiness by removing clutter, and high on the priority list of things to ditch was books.  Will you ever read that again?  For me the question is rather, will I ever need to look something up in there again?  Surprisingly often the answer is yes.  Considering the fact that books are knowledge, they’re a remarkably good bargain for the price.  Regardless of clutter.  Perhaps that’s a kind of wisdom itself.  Books are heavy, though, especially in any numbers.  Weight means something.  What they contain has the potential of being priceless, even though it’s available to anyone else with a copy.

I used to watch Antiques Roadshow, back in the days when you could still get television reception with just an antenna.   You always felt bad for the poor hopeful who’d brought an old book, dreaming of riches.  Apart from handwritten manuscripts, books are mass produced, almost by definition.  The printing press, after all, was designed to produce multiple copies.  Sure, if you go back far enough, or you have a tome rare enough, you might get a nice price for it.  Everyone I saw on the Roadshow left with their disappointment worn obviously on their faces.  You’re better off buying a vase.  That’s only if your bottom line is your net worth, though.  If you want to strive for what’s really important in life, I’d go for the book almost every time.  Of course, while up there moving those boxes around I began to wonder about the net worth of a good back brace as well.

Moving Day

So, it’s moving day.  Amid all the packing and sorting—outside the regular 9 to 5—I realized that this was the first move I’ve made outside the constraints of academia.  Well, maybe not strictly so, but I left Nashotah House in the summer, and I was unemployed when I moved to New Jersey to start in the publishing world, so there was no office work involved.  The move without changing a job is a tricky thing.  And exhausting.

I didn’t write about the process early on, in case it didn’t happen.  Buying a house is an exercise fraught with peril and it can collapse at several junctures over the three-or-so months it takes to finalize things.  Then there’s the move itself.  Back in January I found myself setting books aside that I thought I might not need again in the next few months.  We started hauling boxes down from the attic to pack those books in February and March.  We finally made an offer on a house in May, and now, seven months after the process began, we’re ready to move.  Or so I tell myself.

Our last move didn’t go exactly as planned.  Like Bartleby and Loki, we were moving from Wisconsin to New Jersey, perhaps seeking our destiny.  Who knows—maybe undoing the universe?  We hired Two Men and a Truck to move us.  My brother in New Jersey said he’d meet the truck since it was going to take us a little longer to get there.  On arrival day, no truck.  We called the company to find that the said Two Men had actually abandoned said Truck in a parking lot in Chicago.  Although embarrassed, the big Two Men upstairs made no offer of a discount on the move, even if it cost my brother an extra day of work.  We’re hoping for better things this time around.

International Van Lines didn’t call the night before, like they said they would.  After a somewhat restless night (should I stay or should I go?) my usual 3 a.m. internal alarm kicked in.  An email, like a thief in the middle of the night, told us when to expect the big guys and their vehicle.  Moving is kind of like prophecy in that regard.  In any case, for those accustomed to early posts, there will be a delay tomorrow since the internet people are finishing the virtual move around 11 a.m.  Church time on Sunday.  If we pull this move off, I might have to admit there are miracles after all.

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?

The Way, the Truth

It’s striking how similar world religions can be. Granted, the concept of “religion” as a separate sphere of life is a western one, but throughout the world thinkers have drawn similar conclusions. Until the World’s Congress of Religions of 1893 in Chicago, however, most Americans knew only of the monotheistic traditions. Jews and Muslims had been in this country almost as long as Christians. Nobody paid much mind to the indigenous religions of the original occupants. In any case, in 1893 other religions—those of eastern Asia—entered American consciousness. Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic, if pagan, belief systems. There wasn’t much of a conceptual foundation upon which to build, however, so early on people tended to focus on the differences between them rather than the commonalities.

For me, I first really learned about such traditions in a World Religions course in college. I’d never heard of Daoism (or Taoism) before. The Dao, or “way,” pervades ancient Chinese religious thought. There’s a sense of flow to it—one of the main ideas is not to resist the way, but to bring yourself in line with it. Doing so helps you to realize that you need not be rich to be happy. Sufficiency is, well, sufficient. Meanwhile in the west, Christianity mostly bought into greedy consumerism. Our happiness is measured by what we have. And having, we want more. I’ve been reading about Daoism recently, and it occurs to me perhaps there are some accidental Daoists here in the west. This reading made me think of my father.

I can’t speak much for who he was, since I barely knew him. I only saw him once as an adult, before he died. For a brief moment he took me into his apartment. He owned practically nothing. A television, a few things to sit on. A magazine or two. That was about it. Did he want to acquire more? I didn’t know him well enough to ask. He was raised as a Christian, and I do not know what his religious beliefs were, if any. Thinking back to that experience, however, was the result of reading about Daoism. Being content with little. Not all of us are cut out for monastic life, but my visits to such communities have always left me with the sense that having less is more than enough. I know I’m over-simplifying here. I’m not an expert on Daoism. I’m certainly not an expert on my father. I do believe, however, that things can weigh us down. And even Christianity, read in a certain light, agrees.

Science of the Immaterial

One of the truly frustrating things for the honestly curious is a lack of good resources. Specifically here I’m talking about ghosts. More generally, about the supernatural. “Don’t worry,” laugh the reductionists, “there’s no such thing.” But some of us are seriously curious. Those who are willing to admit candidly the events of life will eventually confess to things they can’t explain. People have been seeing ghosts since at least the Stone Age, and yet finding a serious, non-dismissive approach to the topic can be annoyingly difficult. Curious about the background to the film The Conjuring, I wanted some kind of objective treatment to the Perron family haunting. One of the girls involved has written a three-volume treatment, but that will take some time to get through. So I turned to the investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens were (Lorraine is still alive) some of the world’s first ghost hunters. Self-taught and deeply religious, they referred to themselves as demonologists. Lay Catholics, they couldn’t perform exorcisms, but they could assist in them. Apart from the Perrons, they investigated Amityville, the haunted doll Annabelle, and the Snedeker house, and many other famous cases. A guilty pleasure read, Ghost Hunters, written by Robert David Chase, along with the Warrens, thumbs through several of the investigations. When all is read and done, however, people who claim to know better accuse the hauntings of hoaxing and since there is no arbiter, the curious are left with that unsatisfying state of “he said, she said,” but no real answers. Ghost Hunters contains a potpourri of cases, mostly of demonic possession. Nothing about the Perron family, though.

No doubt much of the hoopla around reality television ghost hunting is clever marketing and nothing more. Even the acclaimed Ghost Hunters were caught gaming the system a little on their Halloween specials. That doesn’t stop people from seeing ghosts, however. Some academics have attempted to address the issue and soon find themselves in untenured positions (so much for freedom of speech) or mocked by their more “serious” colleagues. What ever happened to old fashioned curiosity? Materialism isn’t the only show in town, is it? We need treatments of the subject that move beyond the anecdotal. It’s difficult to get a ghost into the machine, apparently. Science hasn’t figured out a way to study the immaterial yet. Until it does, those who want to know the truth will be left relying on those who make a living by addressing questions even empiricists fear to ask.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

All There Is To Know

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude but I just had to laugh. A friend sent me an article from Science Alert titled “A Physicist Just Explained Why the Large Hadron Collider Disproves the Existence of Ghosts.” Intrigued, I read, “there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.” One of the reasons, I believe, science has trouble among hoi polloi is such arrogant statements as this. I don’t know about ghosts, and for a very good reason. There is no experimental way to test for that which doesn’t exist in the material world. The LHC may tell us all we can know about the world that we perceive (although I doubt it) but it can’t tell us about that for which there is no measure (e.g., consciousness). I don’t mean to get all complex here, but let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

What we know of the universe is what we can perceive and extrapolate from that perception by reason. We, however, don’t perceive everything. Our five senses evolved for one purpose and one purpose only—to survive in this particular environment. That’s a trait, hate to admit it as much as we might, that we share with other animals. It helps to be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things clearly. These traits give us valuable information about the world around us—is that plant poisonous? Is this heat going to kill me? Should I avoid approaching that large, angry-looking bear? Things like that. What our senses don’t tell us is the aspects we didn’t evolve to perceive. We understand everything about nothing. Put another way there is nothing that we understand completely. Entire books can be written about the concept of zero and that’s just an abstract. We only experience a small piece of this universe.

That’s the problem with being in the backwater of the galaxy. I grew up in a backwater so I know what I’m talking about. Things might be different if we lived near the galactic hub, where beings with different senses may well exist. We know, for example, that even on our planet some animals perceive magnetic fields. Who knows what kinds of abilities might have evolved on worlds that posed different challenges to survival than our own? Who are we to say that here in our basement on earth we have a machine that can uncover every possible permutation of anything in the known universe? I don’t know about ghosts, but, I suspect, they’re laughing too.

Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.

Things Unseen

The reductionistic mind doesn’t care for mystery. Unlike a lover, the unknown is a problem to be solved so that the march of nice, neat solutions may continue to march on, unabated. Fear of fuzzy thinking leads to a coldness that those of us experiencing life find not a little unsettling. Take the cougar, for example. Right now I’m in one of the few habitats of the grizzly bear in the lower 48. It is also home to mountain lions (pumas, panthers, ghosts of the Rockies). Just a week before I came here a local website posted a rare photo of a cougar caught unawares. These creatures are seldom seen, and are officially extinct for most of the country east of the Mississippi. That doesn’t stop them from existing, however. Reports from my native Pennsylvania continue to be filed. I saw tracks when I was a child, but never saw an actual cat. A friend in West Virginia had seen one shortly before we visited that state some years back. Even New Jersey still gets the occasional sighting. Officially these are misidentifications.

I recently read a couple of books that addressed the beast of Dartmoor, in the United Kingdom. Dartmoor is a wild and remote area and for many years an uncomfortable story has circulated about an unknown creature that haunts the moors. The story is older than Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had the detective face the hound of the Baskervilles in that region. Those unhappy with the unknown have sought a rational explanation and now some are claiming that escaped cougars are the basis for the tale. A zoo owner even declares that some of his escaped in the 1980s, causing the stories to arise. The fact that the beast had been part of folklore for over a century already at that point suggests that this may be a little too little a little too late. It’s better than mystery anyway.

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My minimal experience on Dartmoor didn’t lend itself to seeing folkloristic beasts. Even my somewhat extended time in this wilderness hasn’t led to a cougar or grizzly sighting. The mysterious gains its reputation by rarity. The thrill of seeing a relatively common moose is akin to theophanic. I know it’s just a big deer. It’s more than just a big deer. Wonder is an essential part of the human condition. Without it we become as soulless as the mechanistic universe some so desperately want to explain neatly, according to the rules. Cougars escape. Cougars escape detection. What else might we be missing in a universe we’ve only just begun to explore.

Grasping for Meaning

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How often we’re told—and writers on biblical topics are especially guilty of this—the meaning of a story. Despite what materialists say, we are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to know why. When we read a story we want to know what it means. I occasionally dabble in the pool of fiction. Many times I read the emerging story and wonder what it means. Sometimes the meaning changes over time. Sometimes it means many things at once. Recently I read someone explicating the meaning of the story of Noah. The meaning? No, a meaning. That little article makes all the difference. Definite or indefinite, we need constantly to remind ourselves that stories bear meanings. Plural. They mean nothing otherwise.

Those of us who spend a lot of time with sacred texts see that it suggests something specific to us. Those who manage to gain followers start their own religions. The problem comes when one meaning is fixed to a text. I often saw this growing up as a Fundamentalist. I also saw it frequently at Nashotah House. This verse means this. Nothing other. Any interpretation outside this particular one is heresy. Heresy is, of course, punishable by death. Lest you think this is just the idle musing of an underemployed biblical scholar I must remind you that wars have been fought over such things. People have died. All for someone’s mistaking an indefinite article for a definite. There are those who say certain canons of the Mass must not exclude the definite article or otherwise all you’re getting is a very cheap and meager lunch out of the deal. For this you put on your best clothes?

We read stories for entertainment, but if they mean nothing they are quickly forgotten. Dreamtime stories, as David Abram reminds us, may lack plot but they have place. They take us to a place where we aren’t physically present. Or if we are physically present, we need to be taken there in mind as well as body. They give life meaning. Ironically, as a culture, fewer and fewer people find meaning in their work. Living for the weekend, they find their sense of fulfillment by what they do when not on the clock. And some of that time has traditionally been demanded by those who offer worship experiences. After all, weekends were their idea in the first place. There may be some meaning in that. If there is it is only one meaning among many. And even while attending, it is best to keep an eye or ear open for something other than the meaning which the ordained may insist is the only true one.

Vitruvian Savior

If memory serves, I was still in seminary when “Piss Christ” was first unveiled. As photographic art, I can’t say when the shutter snapped, but I seem to recall animated discussion over it and since seminary animated discussion has been at a premium, so I think I’d remember something like that. In any case, the artwork still has the power to shock and enrage as the world teeter-totters in its love-hate relationship with religion. Some people seem surprised when other people respond somewhat pointedly to what they perceive as affronts to their beliefs. The thing about beliefs is, well, people believe them. In this day of electro-chemical signals between synapses it may be hard to attribute any substance to belief. Still, if someone makes that claim, insult their mother and see what happens. Beliefs, by their nature, are sacred.

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I was reminded of this when my wife pointed out to me a story about Dartboard Jesus. If you’re not a Rutgers University person (as I no longer am), it takes only a little imagination to visualize this artwork. Conjure a dartboard in your mind. Then picture a crucifix superimposed on it with darts instead of nails. Red darts, if that helps. You’ve got it. The official name of the piece is “Vitruvian Man,” but the public outcry was enough to have the piece removed from public display. I taught (strictly as an adjunct, no complications, please) at Rutgers for four years. People sometimes expressed surprise that multiple sections of Intro to “Old” and New Testaments filled up every semester. I wonder if the university ever takes measure of its students’ beliefs. I had Seventh-Day Adventists in my courses. I had Jains, Muslims, and Hindus. I had Atheists and, God help us, Episcopalians. One thing all these people had in common was belief. Not beliefs, but more singular: belief.

No one in the world intentionally believes falsely. Indeed, should Oxford Dictionaries be trusted, belief is “Something one accepts as true or real.” By definition, it seems, beliefs are believed. Artists serve a valuable function in expressing ideas that words struggle to articulate. There is more going on when your crucifix is juxtaposed to a glass of urine or a dartboard than you might otherwise imagine. It says something about belief. In some cultures such heresy is punishable by death. It isn’t so much a matter, I would suggest, of freedom of expression as it is a matter of advocacy. Artists are teachers and even teachers sometimes don’t consider how their lessons will be taken. Respecting belief, perhaps, is something electro-chemical signals leaping tall synapses in a single bound simply don’t understand.