The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

Cult of Paris

The cult of celebrity is dangerous. The results of both biological and psychological sciences inform us that mammals, especially primates, hold “alpha” individuals in awe. We don’t know what quality makes them irresistible to some, but in the case of humans before you know it everyone is talking about this Kardashian or that Trump. Valorizing the power of media as we do, those who appear ubiquitously on screen gain in magnitude merely by the attention paid to them. Others have vetted the details, and those who are deemed important enough for constant, widespread television exposure are worthy of our worship. Most of the time it seems banal, harmless. But when those without scruples are willing to exploit it, it is dangerous.

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For example, the other day my wife and I rewatched An American in Paris. I know my wife likes the movie, but when it was over I couldn’t help noting that Jerry Mulligan chauvinistically claims his right to a woman he’s just met, and who is, moreover, engaged to a friend of his who had just lent him money. The fact that he doesn’t know about the engagement is no excuse. Lise tells him “No,” and when she gives him a false telephone number he doesn’t take the hint that she doesn’t want him to call her. He stalks her in a selfish and predatory way. Only because she laughs at his antics with some perfume bottles does she agree to meet with him later. He takes advantage of another woman who clearly has feelings for him and who sponsors him, using her money but not reciprocating her feelings. He’s aggressive and eavesdrops to get Lise’s name. He lies to her and about her (saying he knows her so her friends don’t object) and refuses to take no for an answer. Laying out my grievances, my wife politely listened and then said, “But it’s Gene Kelly.”

Like many people, I was jilted a time or two when I was younger. Losing out to a rival lover leaves a lasting scar. How can we hope that on New Year’s Eve Lise will leave Henri for the interloper Jerry? But it’s Gene Kelly. The cult of celebrity allows those on various pedestals to get away with many things. Trump was likely correct in saying he could stand in the middle of a crowded street and shoot someone and his base would not object. The cult of celebrity ’sn’twonderful, ‘sdangerous.

Mediated Reality

According to the Good Book, Methuselah lived nearly a millennium. For all that, the information on him in Genesis occurs in a mere five verses, in a span of seven. We learn when he married, whom he sired, and how long he lived. Not much information of the last antediluvian, especially considering how much time he had. When I searched for him on the web the other day, the information box that showed up on Google had, at the very top, a picture of Anthony Hopkins. I immediately recognized his makeup from Noah, a movie that I just can’t make myself love. The fault for having no other image may be the failure of human imagination—where do we find an image of a thousand-year old?

The internet mediates our reality. One of the points of both my books now in the works is that modern understanding of the Bible is largely media based. Few people have the time or inclination to read such a big book. (Given the continued evangelical support of Trump, it’s pretty clear that most of them haven’t read it either.) We want other people to do the heavy lifting and give us a summary in neat little boxes at the top of the screen. There’s far too many things to do in this tangled web to be spending months reading a ponderous, outdated tome, even if it does have plenty of sex and violence. Even if it influences the lives of each and every person living in America every single day. We’d rather have someone else—preferably not some egghead with a Ph.D.—give us the executive summary.

Once I did the math. If you add up the dates in what I used to call “Genesis years,” the year Methuselah died was the year of the flood. The Bible doesn’t say that old Methuselah drowned when the windows of heaven were opened, but it’s a reasonable conjecture. Nature abhors, it seems, a human being living so long. Our bodies just aren’t built for it. Some trees, on the other hand, have been alive for thousands of years. Botanists call them “Methuselah trees” (I told you the Good Book influences everything!). The pity is we know so very little about this ancient human being from days of yore. Was he a good man? He seems to have been washed out in the sluice gates of what became one great universal sewer at the time. Although we know little, his life would make quite an epic movie, I think. We already have an actor lined up, for Google tells me so.

Right to Remain Silent

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My daughter has a set of nesting Russian dolls. “Matryoshka dolls,” as they are known, fit one inside the other so when you open one you find another inside. Just when you think you’ve reached the last one, you see that yet another can fit inside. I never thought of these dolls as anything more than a toy. Then I started reading the headlines. Or lack of headlines. We now know that Russia tampered with our election process. The major newspapers, however, have turned their attention elsewhere. If we’re lucky it may make the front page, but for the most part this is “old news” and old news doesn’t sell papers. After all, hadn’t Putin and Trump bragged about this months ago? Now, on the eve of the Electoral College’s voting, we hear virtually nothing about it. I wonder if media moguls shouldn’t have to take a kind of Hippocratic Oath. Or at least read us the Miranda Rights.

Although only one major newspaper endorsed Trump before the election, they’ve all silently endorsed him since. The choice of what to tell the public is indeed assent. I’ve signed at least three petitions a day asking the President, congress, my next door neighbor—anybody who will listen—to inform the Electoral College of this. Electors, you see, are like automatons. And we want to preserve the democratic process even when we know it isn’t handled democratically. Especially when it isn’t handled democratically. 2.8 million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Donald Trump. It now looks like even some of those Trump votes came from Siberia. My, it’s been chilly outside the last few days! I’d better brush up on my Dostoyevsky.

Even as a child I wasn’t the kind to take the Apocalypse lying down. We have rights. Our rights include electing our own President without the interference of some other country. In just about any sport interference leads to a penalty. Unless that sport is electing an incompetent to the White House. Already the GOP has been discussing how to restrict voting rights for Americans while opening the voting booth curtain to Moscow. Don’t get me wrong—I hold nothing against the garden-variety Russian. Unlike the unlikely Republicans accepting former Soviet help, I’m not a xenophobe. It’s just that I believe in keeping things in their place. Like matryoshka dolls—you can’t fit a bigger one inside its smaller sister. You wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers, though.

Latin Lessons

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The Romans are coming! The Romans are coming! No, wait. They were already here. Here, that is, if you’re European. And more specifically, a Londoner. The Guardian recently posted a story about the oldest writing in the United Kingdom being unearthed as Roman missives—originally written on wax that overlaid boards, Roman style—are being unearthed at the site of the new London headquarters of Bloomberg. Having spent many years of my life learning to specialize in ancient writings on original media, it always does me good to see hoi polloi getting excited about old texts. These Roman notes are so old that the marks on the wax have only survived by etching faintly onto the underlying wood, the wax having long ago deteriorated. The mundane writing wouldn’t have lasted had it relied on the original medium.

Even with their penchant for irony, the British don’t seem to have made much of the fact that the oldest writing in the UK has been located beneath what will become the headquarters of the media giant, Bloomberg. We will pay handsomely for good media. Anybody can coat a piece of wood with wax and scratch away. Almost nobody will read it. If it survives long enough after you die, it becomes a media treasure-trove. All the sudden we can’t wait to find out what Londinio Mogontio ate for dinner last night. Such mundane things we write about. Just to clarify, I’m talking about the Romans, not Bloomberg. Trenchant media information is, after all, what we live for. We must know what others think this commodity is worth. They’ll pay good money for that.

Tibullus will repay Gratus—it’s right there on wood. These guys were also worried about the exchange of commodities, it seems. And while nobody gives a Roman denarius anymore, we can get people’s attention by saying yes, the Romans were here. Sitting in this very spot before the cross has grown cold, making sure that accounts have been settled. The last thing you want is a Roman at your door demanding restitution. One does have to wonder what Junius the cooper thought about all this. Junius is the one with an office across from the house of Catullus. His barrels may have been broken down to make more planks for writing. The fourth estate gone wild. All that hard work would’ve gone unnoticed too, had not a major media giant decided, literally, to rake the muck under old London where before even the original tower was built friends, Romans, and countrymen were lending each other denarii. And one suspects, their beers, if Domitius Tertius Bracearius is who we think he is.

Prophets Paid

Photo credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons

Prognostication used to be the remit of oversized rodents and individuals we’d now classify as mad. And news used to be stories about things that had already happened. Past tense things. I don’t read any daily newspapers—a personality flaw, I know—but I do read stories that are sent my way, even if it takes some time. One of the things I’ve noticed, particularly in this election year, is the amount of prediction that passes as news. Future tense reporting. And the future is very tense.

Always one to assume that others know more than I do, I consider the opinions of experts as more valid than my own. After all, they are paid for what they think. Nobody spends good money on amateur opinion, which is one of the cheapest resources available in the civilized world. So when I read the headlines about what to expect this fall I see that the prophets and anti-prophets are lined up along party lines and, if democracy holds up, we’ll find out which group is which, come November. This makes me wonder what life would’ve been like under biblical prophets. No, their job was not primarily foretelling—future prediction was a small percentage of their job description—but they occasionally made political predictions when the boss told them to. Some people think they were primarily concerned with a future political figure, even if Messiah isn’t exactly an elected position. Hoi polloi must have been in a state of high anxiety. Who’s right? We know that for every prophet, according to the laws of rhetoric, there must be an anti-prophet. If a message is coming from on high we don’t know from whom.

Long ago media moguls learned that anxiety sells papers. Or news broadcasts. Sales boom after disasters. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! I’ve seen it in movies and televisions shows, so I know it must be true. As if real life events don’t generate enough trauma, we speculate about a future that tends towards the bleak. What’s a polis to do? The dilemma hasn’t changed in the millennia since we’ve outgrown prophecy—there’s no way to know who’s right. It’s all speculation. As for me, I wonder what the local groundhog thinks. And while we’re at it, could we get a bit nicer weather for a while? I thought the prophecy was April showers bring May flowers, not the other way around. But then again, my opinion is a decidedly amateur one.

Fast One Flood

I’m not sure what to believe anymore. This crisis of faith revolves not around religion, but around media. Pundits have been saying for some time that the internet has meant the slow death of journalism, and there are so many websites that redistribute news that its like the whole world is involved in a constant, perpetual game of “telephone.” All of this is preface to a story a friend sent me that appeared on the website God. I’m not sure I trust God. The story is too good to be true. At least in a schadenfreude sort of way. God is hosted on thegoodlordabove.com, and, well, we all know about dot coms. The article concerns the destruction of Answers in Genesis’ Noah’s Ark theme park by a flood. That is believable. Floods do occur, as Noah knew. What becomes unbelievable is that the National Weather Service forecaster stated that there were no storm clouds in the area at the time. That qualifies as a miracle.

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Did this really happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Plenty of times when I was there (wherever there happened to be at the time) I wasn’t even sure what happened. Can I find the truth? One of the police sites for internet rumors is Snopes (also a dot com). I remember when Snopes began as a place to quell fears of urban legends. Back when the worldwide web was young, there was a verisimilitude to stories gleaned from the net. Living in the sparsely populated Midwest, it was easy to believe that some of these things could happen to you. At times I held onto Snopes like a crucifix, especially if I had to go out alone at night. Snopes tells me that thegoodlordabove is not to be trusted. The story is false, like others that have originated on the site. Answers in Genesis, unfortunately, is still going strong with its theme park.

Authoritative texts aren’t what they used to be. There was a day when all you had to do was pull a black leather book off the shelf to find the definitive answers. In Genesis or any other of the books. Now we rely on the worldwide consensus of the web. You can’t trust God on a website. Snopes, however, is pretty reliable. It’s the Scully to our natural Mulder. That’s why the web will never have the same impact as print media. Even the website for your bank or government can be cleverly faked. I might’ve looked no further had the purported flood not fallen from a cloudless sky. I guess I’d better be a wary believer. For the internet tells me so.

Excuse Me, Mammon

An article in the New York Times back in December explored the use of God in adverting. The piece, by Michael McCarthy, suggests that religious viewers are not very forgiving of commercials using God, unless they are respectfully done. The occasional spot will score points for being funny, but overall the issue is whether the deity is treated well or not. I always find it interesting when the media seems surprised that people don’t like to have their religious beliefs belittled. When I was growing up it was common sense that you didn’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. Now, of course, both topics are open for constant debate in the media, and few ever treat religion as one that deserves respect. That’s odd since most people in the world claim to be be committed to their religious traditions. It’s almost as if someone personally isn’t religious they can’t understand why anyone else would be.

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Quite apart from that, I wonder about the larger question of the purposes of advertisements. Ads are intended, as we well know, to make money. They are a marketing ploy. We appreciate the extra effort for a funny commercial on nearly any topic. Religion may be an exception. And one might wonder, is there a natural objection to using a religion to earn money for a non-religious cause? Maybe mammon and religion simply don’t mix. It may be difficult to convince marketers, however, that there are issues that lie outside the purview of the purse.

This past week I found myself in the waiting room of a local clinic for a while. Such places always make me uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. I was waiting in a room where the commercials for all the things that could possibly go wrong with me edged my blood-pressure up a bit, I’m sure. It occurred to me, however, that medical ads have the same intention as religious ones, namely, getting more business. If you can’t be made aware that something is “wrong,” how can you know to ask your doctor for their product? Is there anything mammon can’t buy? Our physical health is up for bids, it seems. Why not throw in the spiritual as well? But that will have to wait; I’ve got to talk to a doctor about a new condition I’m just sure I’ve developed here. I’m sure money can fix it.

O My Stars

I know many conservative religious believers. I also know a lot of nones and atheists. One thing they all have in common is that they want to believe the truth. They want to do what is right. Enter the media. A day of peace and prosperity for all is a slow news day. To keep the pot boiling, differences need to be emphasized and people’s fears and frustrations must be highlighted. Nowhere is this better on display than in party politics. Do people really not get along at all? Are we really so polarized? A friend recently sent me an internet story about the Republican elephant. Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to the posturing of the GOP since so much of it is obviously show. The coalition, cynical at best, between the evangelical camp and the fiscal conservatives has created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of the party which began out of an anti-slavery movement and was represented in the politics of Abraham Lincoln. I have trouble seeing him approve of Reaganomics or some of evils that have flowed from it. We are more deeply divided now than we ever were during the Civil War. And better armed too.

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So, what about the Republican elephant? The stars on the blue top half are upside-down. I’m not sure if this represents a change or not. The problem, of course, is that the upside-down star is a “pentagram” associated with Satanism (which is not what most people think it is). The insinuation is that the symbol was subtly changed to reflect the true values of the party. I don’t know if the stars on the elephant were ever right-side up. As long as I’ve been politically aware, the Republican party has been the one that supports the wealthy while trying to cut the poor and working class from the budget in any way possible in order to build an ever stronger military to protect the plutocracy for which it stands. One nation, under Mammon, with surveillance and distrust for all. Principles, in my opinion, far worse than Satanism.

Ironically, in this media fueled division of the nation, conservatives know and hate Satanism. In fact, seeing a pentagram pattern in school bus taillights can send the internet into a tizzy. We’re afraid, but of what we don’t properly know. Must be those liberals with their radical ideas of liberty and justice for all. On the street things haven’t felt like they’re getting better for a very long time. Each year since the overspending Bush decade the economy has found inventive ways to get worse and worse. One thing remains constant—the ultra-wealthy flock to the political party that once stood for freeing of slaves and uniting a deeply divided nation. The best way to keep us together is to keep us afraid. That’s easily done when economists tell us you can’t hope to retire with the medical benefits and living standards of the middle class without at least a million dollars in the bank. Something’s upside-down alright, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what.

The Land of Who?

“Parochial” is a name we small-town types dread. Growing up with television, which gave us a magical view into New York and California, as well as other cosmopolitan locales, we could easily feel the accusations of being small-minded and unsophisticated. Although I never wanted to move to the New York City area, I did decide to get away to Boston, then Europe, to be educated. I didn’t want anyone accusing me of being an intellectually challenged rustic, just because of where I happen to have been born. People around my home town, however, aren’t as closed minded as portrayed. Well, not always. You see, apart from conferences where some institution or corporation foots the bills for hotels, I tend to stay in more reasonably priced places when I travel. Even on the road I can’t sleep in, so I find myself chomping at the bit for the breakfast area to open in the morning. Sometimes I’m the first one there.

On a visit to my hometown in the not too distant past, I happened into a breakfast conversation in media res. A local back in town for a holiday weekend was vociferating his views in stentorian tones that could be heard down the hall. The television in the breakfast room, as always, was on. Apparently a story had been shown that teed this old-timer off. His daddy had been a local policeman and he just couldn’t understand why blacks were rioting about unfair treatment at the hands of the police. I cringed as I filled my coffee cup. “They ought to be gassing them and reading their rights later,” he lamented. An older couple, also returning to the area from their home in Baltimore, seemed to agree. I tried to find a corner out of earshot. Unsuccessfully. I could barely hold in my indignation. We were all Caucasian here—what did any of us know of racial profiling, deep-seated prejudice, or being prisoner in our own country? “Why don’t they just stay home?” he said. Home, ironically, of the free.

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I could see that he was elderly and afraid. The media—likely Fox news—had instilled a kind of terror in him that could only be assuaged by reliance on force. The world his daddy knew. I was also reared here. It was pretty much a white town, but some of my best friends growing up were the few African-American kids in my school. My small-town mother taught me not to judge anyone by the color of their skin. The hotel I’m staying in is run by an Indian family. The local stores now reveal a healthier mix than that in which I grew up. I wanted to tell this fellow parochial patron that we need not be afraid if we only seek justice. The region in which I grew up has become more homogenized, and I believe we’re all healthier for it. Until, however, civil rights are truly rights for all, we need to stand with those who’ve been clearly wronged, even if at personal cost. That’s something I learned growing up in this small town.

The Last Word

The end of the world, it seems, never goes out of fashion. My wife shared a story on the BBC about CNN (such self-referential media hype may be a sign that society is collapsing already) having a video ready to release for the apocalypse. In a bit of end-of-time sangfroid, it is rumored, CNN’s Ted Turner ordered a last-second video to be made so that loyal CNN viewers would be ushered out with his version of the last word. The media, of course, is a powerful segment of society. Occasionally schools and businesses are shut down due to their meteorological predictions. The media tells us who the experts are, and why we should listen to them. The media provides us with some of the only fact-checked material from far-flung ends of the globe—or even outer space—to which we, the people, would not normally have access. The media, in other words, determines reality.

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Meanwhile I wonder, as I often do, what gives those who own media corporations the right to determine reality for the rest of us. For example, if the rumor of Turner’s video is true, what would give the rich and powerful the right to determine what flashes before our eyes as the world winks out of existence? The apocalypse, after all, is a religious concept. Although largely developed from biblical scripts, other religions do occasionally have their end-of-the-world myths, just like most religions have beginning-of-the-world myths. If you have billions of dollars, does that mean you have the right to determine end-times viewing? When money determines the truth, the world has already ended.

Nevertheless, the idea lives on. We are constantly reminded that one or another religious sect has declared that the end is nigh. We’ve heard it so often that we’ve ceased to pay attention. In a world where the media has largely dismissed the rest of the Bible (except when blockbuster movies come out featuring a biblical story) why does Revelation still hold such currency? After all, the apocalypse takes its very name from the final book of the Christian Bible, and without Revelation we might be none-the-wiser about the looming end of all things. Revelation was very much a product of its time. Despite the progress of science and technology that gave us the media corporations we blandly recognize today, we still harbor doubts deep down about the longevity of it all. Even those who write the news look to other media giants to get some hints of the truth. Ironically, they don’t seem to want to ask scholars about it. After all, sensationalism is news. At the end of the world, we really don’t care what scholars have to say, as long as we’re entertained.

De Profundis

IMG_1591In a grocery store last week a friend pointed out how many magazines had pictures of Robin Williams on the cover. Although his suicide two months ago was tragic, I wonder about the message we send to young people (and maybe some older ones as well) about this fixation. As we probe, attempting to understand the sad clown (and they generally all are), are we inadvertently telling our kids that suicide will make you an icon? We often hear accusations that extremist Muslims “brainwash” their youth into thinking that a righteous suicide will lead to glory. Perhaps the glory we perceive is somewhat different here in the post-Christian west than it is in the post-Christian east, yet I wonder what the essential difference really is. Why can’t we see that the cult of celebrity seldom ends well? The worship of the successful does not really grant them eternal life, as much as we may think otherwise.

Call me a curmudgeon—I probably deserve that—but when I overhear office mates in their cubicles or young people on campuses talking about stars I feel not a little like Rip van Winkle. Most of the names I do not recognize, and even showing me a picture doesn’t really help. Of course, I enjoy movies as much as the next dinosaur, but apart from the bargain bin and the occasional indulgence in Amazon Prime I really can’t much afford them anymore. I walk into a bookstore (where they can still be found) and the authors I want to read are not on the shelves. They are gone and all but forgotten. Many of them having left profound ideas in their wake. I guess I could pick up a magazine. Robin Williams looks happy on the cover.

I used to watch some late-night television before my job required waking between three and four a.m. One of the things I quickly noticed is that those stars our society worships had little of substance to say. That’s not to say all actors and media darlings are shallow, but I often wondered why their interviews always seemed to come down to the lowest common denominators. Have we lost our interest in probing beneath the surface? Isn’t there some profundity left to explore? Don’t get me wrong—I find Robin Williams’s death a tragedy. He may have been a deep and philosophical man. Who really knew him? Nevertheless, I wonder if perhaps, if we challenged ourselves a bit more, we might just consider the messages that our media broadcast. After all, they have to turn a profit. Do we really mean what our magazine covers seem to imply?

Small Town Heroes

When World War Three starts I hope someone will let me know. You see, I barely have time to satisfy the needs of employers and tax collectors to get everything done in a day, let alone read newspapers. Or Facebook. I check my page, very briefly, twice a day and get on with the business that I’m assigned in life. But yesterday I had a notice from a high school friend that one of my teachers had died. Since I don’t name people I know here without their permission, suffice it to say I took a current events course with this teacher in either my junior or senior year. Then, as now, I didn’t read newspapers. Given the small town rags available in rustic regions, there was often not much mentioned beyond deer season and local tragedy anyway. Originally enrolled in the regular curriculum, several friends told me, “You’ve got to take Current Events! The teacher is great!” Those who’ve influenced my life for the good were great teachers, and despite my reservations, I took the class. When it came time to sign up for projects, I was a bit flummoxed. What did I know of current events?

Our teacher kindly allowed me to offer evolution as a topic. It was occasionally in the news then. Six of us decided to debate the issue, three for, three against. My religion having held me in a headlock, I was the lead debater against evolution. The day for the debate came and we ran over the bell. Our teacher, with his usual calm wisdom, suggested we continue the next day. And the next. Three days of sometimes acrimonious debate and it looked, from my point of view, as if creationism had demolished evolution. How terribly naive I was. Ironically, I had just posted a piece on evolution yesterday when I saw the notice about my teacher’s demise. The position in my post was a sharp 180 from high school. It was a tribute to the love of education.

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

I was an outsider in high school. I literally lived outside of town and after school activities were not really feasible. We were poor and couldn’t afford extra-curriculars anyway. I wore a large cross on my chest and although I was shy, I felt that it said all I had to say. My teachers, to their eternal credit, let me explore. In college I learned about Fundamentalism. I had never heard the term although I grew up in it. Gently my teachers nudged me to think more deeply about things. Through three degrees delving more profoundly into the origins of religion, as well as humankind, I came to see the errors of my ways. Had I been forced in high school I would’ve fought back. Instead, a persistent, patient wisdom guided many of my teachers. I don’t know how they recognized that I might be worth salvaging, but they apparently did. They let me speak, they let me trip. Just as I was about to fall they caught me. And I hope, in my own small way, to repay this favor in kind.

Heavenly Beings

FromAngelsToAliens Religious tolerance suggests that it’s less important what you believe than it is that you believe. After all, where you are born—socioeconomically as well as geographically—determines which options are open to you. And now that the world is virtually inter-connected, the media must play into the idea of what we believe as concepts mix and brew and distill. Lynn Schofield Clark’s From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, is a study that takes all of this seriously. We know teens as the ultimate disenfranchised demographic. For those of us who were once there, no doubt concerning that status exists. But what of teens in an age where God seems to be effacing and angels and aliens invading? At least according to the media. Clark interviews several teens and their families about their belief in the supernatural, and, in keeping with what the statistics of national surveys continually show, belief in some world beyond ours is indeed deeply rooted. Many youth, however, have trouble distinguishing angels from aliens.

Not literally, of course. Rather, supernatural entities are so much a part of our media experience, and church attendance so little, that clear ideas of how these things all fit together, if they do, are lacking. Scientists are looking for life in space while denying that if it exists it ever could have intentionally travelled here. We are, after all, the most intelligent species in an infinite universe. (Did I say that belief in God was effacing?) Socially, however, angels are much more acceptable than aliens. Belief in aliens is easily equated with mental instability, while belief in angels is normal, if not a little naive. To the average person, it seems that we’re not alone. As many popular media portray, however, God remains silent and we have to wonder if there’s anyone really driving a universe with no real up or down and with an exploding singularity at its center. It’s all a little disorienting—rather like being a teenager.

Clark remains wonderfully open-minded as she asks her questions to the younger generation. I felt a bit of recognition when she mentioned her church experiences in theologically conservative western Pennsylvania, the area in which I grew up, and where neither aliens nor angels were particularly uncommon. And we were in a media black hole in those days. Stations from Pittsburgh or Erie didn’t boost their signal to reach those of us in the boondocks with much reception beyond the big three. Of course, there was nothing beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. Well, there was PBS in the background, but this was a universe still awaiting its big bang. Angels were good, aliens were evil, and God never remained silent for very long. And nobody really cared what teenagers thought. We have evolved since then, but we still look to the sky and wonder who, if anyone, is out there.

Buying the Truth

Every now and again the Chronicle of Higher Education dips its trowel into the biblical archaeology debate. Those of us who’ve made extensive arguments based on ancient texts and artifacts know the territory a little too well. Archaeology, which largely grew out of biblical scholars attempting to “prove the Bible,” eventually started on its own track of scientific respectability with the predictable result of distancing itself from the Bible occurred. So far, so good. Then biblical criticism took a turn towards post-modern sensibilities. The truth cannot be known, and therefore the safest approach is to stop seeking any truth at all. Archaeologists in the know joined this venture (biblical scholars and archaeologists often cross borders in this exotic land), and began to deny historical Israel, as well as the rightly dismissed historical Abraham and Moses. Once you’ve walked a few leagues down that path, however, it is difficult to turn back. This is, of course, an over-simplified account of a complex dynamic, but the issues raised, as seen in the Chronicle, are real. Our perspective flavors our interpretation. If you don’t believe in a historical Israel you’ll never find one, no matter how hard you look. (A similar dynamic is at work in studies of religions and “paranormal” phenomena.) The word “evidence” is finessed as readily as fine hair treatments and the kinds of evidence that convince vary depending on the scholar. It is safest to admit we don’t know, sometimes.

The more troubling aspect, as far as I’m concerned, comes when the Chronicle introduces the concept of corporate sponsorship to archaeological digs. As an erstwhile volunteer on a dig (somewhere back in the Iron Age, it feels like now), I know that archaeology is frightfully expensive. There’s nothing like being on a dig to witness firsthand the amount of labor that goes into removing all that dirt–carefully! Carefully! Universities can’t afford it (stadiums don’t come cheap, you know!), so many digs rely on corporate donors–often television and film companies. And if you’re paying for footage, you want something to bring in watchers. An unnamed archaeologist quipped honestly in the Chronicle, “I don’t agree with everything they say in the films, but they pay me an awful lot more than I could ever earn from writing or teaching.” There it is, staring us straight in the face. The truth goes to the highest bidder.

That may sound benign enough, but in Israel especially, archaeology has high political stakes. You see, politicians are easily swayed by the “we were here first” argument. To get an idea of its specious nature, just ask a Native American! Proving the veracity of a David or Solomon no longer just gets God off the hook, it also builds the basis for claims against people who’ve been here an incredibly long time. The sad reality is that in archaeology, as in higher education, money speaks with an inordinately loud voice. As an agreed means of exchange, money is certainly important, but is it “true”? For those who’ve stopped short of the post-modern abandonment of that great philosophical ideal of Truth, we should be wary of allowing lucre to decide the issue. Those with money already help to decide what courses will be taught and what tels will be excavated. We run a real risk when we let those same people decide what will be considered the truth. In a society enamored of media and its ease of use, the truth is sometimes what comes across the television. There is another way, but it involves heavy digging and lots of reading. Maybe next time—but for now just pass the remote.