Steel Pennies

409px-CasablancaPoster-Gold

I remember seeing my first steel penny. At first I didn’t think it was real. Like many poor kids, I was a collector. I collected anything cheap: cancelled stamps, bottle tops from glass pop bottles, fossils, just to name a few free trinkets. And I’d started coin collecting, with pennies. I’d noticed the difference between wheat backs and Lincoln Memorial pennies, and I knew that the former might be worth something some day. There was a hobby store in town and by thumbing through the collectors’ books, before being shooed out, I’d learned that keeping an eye out for wheaties was a kind of investment. Just hold onto it long enough, and it’ll grow in value. I never saw a 1943 penny, though, until a fellow collector traded me one. During the war, he explained, copper was too valuable to use for pennies. Wartime, it turns out, changes lots of things. About the same time as these steel pennies were being minted, Casablanca was still showing in theaters.

As I sat down to watch Casablanca again last night, some new thoughts occurred to me. A wary eye can spot the cost-cutting measures of a wartime movie. Somethings never change. Nazis were bad guys, obviously, but we still didn’t know who’d win the war by then. And refugees flooded to Casablanca to try to escape Europe for America. The movie makes quite a lot of this endless waiting. It’s hot in the desert. People are waiting to go somewhere better. And there are elements of torture there as corrupt officials cooperate with Nazis, even though this is Free France. It occurred to me that this is an allegory of Purgatory. I’m pretty sure it’s not intentional, but here are lost souls waiting for deliverance. The plane to Lisbon is the soul’s escape to Heaven. Meanwhile the relentless waiting.

For a movie approaching 75 years old, Casablanca holds up remarkably well. The extras on our DVD tell us the plane in the final scenes is a cheap cutout just a few feet away on a sound stage. The mechanics attending it are little people to bring it into perspective. Tucked away in some box somewhere I’ve got a few steel pennies. These days coins change so frequently that I wonder just how stable this world really is. While the “Middle East” still has us as worried as ever, our money is, for all practical purposes, only virtual. Paychecks are mere electrons and I’m just a temporary repository between my employer and those who claim increasingly more of my pretend money. We seem to be caught between two worlds. In one nothing is really real at all. Rick’s Café Americain feels somehow very familiar, as we spend our time waiting for passage on a plane to Lisbon.

Theatrical Desert

LawrenceOfArabia

While the appellation T. E. Lawrence may leave many scratching their heads, “Lawrence of Arabia” will still garner nods of recognition. Of course, having a major movie made after you is a pretty good way to retain currency. Being a student of the history of religions, focusing on those of ancient West Asia, I read about Lawrence as I was doing background reading on what would eventually become known as the Middle East—another contrived name. Lawrence, who apparently disliked being called, “of Arabia,” along with Gertrude Bell, played a formative role in what would become a theater of European entanglements that continue to cause trouble to this day. The First World War gave opportunity for colonial interests to play out in the tribal polities that had worked in that part of the world for centuries. The fact that many of these countries are oil rich didn’t hurt.

Yesterday, starting very early, my wife and I settled in to watch the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Since it was released the year that I was born I might be forgiven for missing the first run in theaters, but I really hadn’t had the opportunity to see it before. Sure, you can pick up the DVD in many bargain bins at video stores—now also becoming rare—but a day with four free hours to watch a movie is also an endangered species. What struck me the most about the movie, after the commitment it takes to spend so long watching it, is that the few women who appear in it have no lines. Or lives. No woman speaks for this entire film. Although the portrayal of the Arabs is positive, the utter invisibility of half of all people on the planet is somewhat bewildering. Although not shown in the movie, Lawrence was known to be able to pass himself off as a woman, it is said. Yet the real women are missing, as if their stake in the world following the war just didn’t matter.

It may have been intended as a man-cave of a film—fighting scenes (although mild by present-day standards), things blowing up, and an awful lot of masculine bravado make up much of it. Still, men are not known for sitting patiently while minutes and minutes of visually lush desert scenery and blur shots of the sun take up so much of their weekend time. Yes, women did not fight in the field during the war, but they were an important part of the story. Gertrude Bell, as I mentioned, was a key figure in the drawing up of the boundaries of the Arab world. The movie isn’t about her, nevertheless the women show up in numbers only twice, once to wave goodbye the to army off to take Aqaba and then as nurses to help the overflowing hospital in Damascus. In neither scene do they talk. Perhaps it is intentional, but such a tactic made the desert seem very barren indeed. War has victims of all genders.

Are You Being Served?

Weary from a long day at work, I stepped off the bus last night to find the street to my house barricaded. That’s seldom a good sign. From the looks of the sludgy stains along the street, it was pretty clear that we were dealing with a water-main break. Sure enough, at home, no water. As I pondered making supper, washing dishes, and brushing my teeth—all that I usually have time for before going to bed—I wondered how I’d do any of them without water. As humans do, I managed. This morning I awoke to find the faucets still empty and considered the prospect of going to work with no shower, when a natural kind of grumpiness settled over me. We expect water. We take it for granted. For much of the world, however, lack of clean water is one of the largest problems faced. Showing up for work in a modern city with dirty hair hardly seems like a major issue when children are dying of diseases due to lack of potable water. Water is a justice issue.

Some experts have been positing that the next great war (as if there’s anything such as a great war) will not be over oil, but water. Politics aside, we know that western involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts comes down to petroleum. They have what we want. Better make some friends. But water is even more basic than oil. Scientists have discovered many odd creatures in extreme environments on this planet, and all share this quality: life can’t go on without water. Even the amazing tardigrade, able to survive a decade without water, will eventually die without it. People can barely make it a day or two. We have the technology to make clean water possible for many. Instead we wonder what’s taking them so long with the repairs this time, and my gosh, it’s time to go to work and I can’t even brush my teeth. It’s a sliding scale of fairness. The ethics of economy.

I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to need to head for the bus stop and await my fate. I live less than fifty miles from the ocean. All oceans are interconnected, covering a full three-fourths of our planet. With water we can’t drink. We emit our gases and melt our ice caps—some of the largest natural reservoirs of fresh water on the planet—thinking only of the joyous prospect of an overflowing bank account. What will we do, however, when we awake in the morning to find the water still off? Will we think of our fellow humans dying at this very moment for lack of life’s most basic necessity? Will we rush out to petition our leaders to ensure that safe water is provided to those without? Will we even remember this tomorrow? I know that like your average other guy I’ll find myself grumbling over the fact that I don’t have coffee, and it will seem that my petty world is suffering its own little apocalypse. And justice hasn’t been served.

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wiki Commons

Dearly Beloved

Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).

The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.

Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.

So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”

Rounding up the usual suspects?

Layers

I’m all for not offending anyone. I became P.C. in principal just as soon as my consciousness was raised that the very basics of English grammar caused distress to others (often women), based on its androcentric orientation. It does seem, however, that God is even more easily offended than humans. This raises some tricky questions when it involves the highest perceived authority within or outside of the universe, the font of all morality. Some of the things that offend God, if the sources are to be believed, are most unusual. Last night I attended one of those you-should-send-your-child-to-Europe-while-in-high-school seminars that remind you that being a good parent always involves a touch of poverty. The trip is a very expensive bargain, giving your daughter or son a lasting set of life-changing memories. So far I’m on board. And, what is a trip to Europe without visiting some of the great cathedrals that exhausted local, medieval economies but left modern companions to Stonehenge all around the continent? Okay. Having seen my fair share of European cathedrals, that’s perfectly understandable. Then the kicker: since these are religious places, there is a dress code.

Anyone familiar with mainstream culture even in America is aware of this idea. To attend a place where God is supposed to be present, you must dress for the occasion. The Simpsons can throw around the phrase “Sunday clothes” and everyone knows what they mean. Attend a religious service dressed down and you’ll immediately discover it. Some traditions raise this to a high sartorial art—some Episcopalians I know are so fastidious that the very statues of Jesus seem decidedly underdressed. Since your child will be in Europe and be in cathedrals, you mustn’t offend God in a foreign land. No jeans. As the parent of a teen that means buying a whole new wardrobe to add to the pricetag. Apparently the Levi-Strauss tribe is not the same one in the Pentateuch. I spent some time in Israel a number of years back. The dress code is very strict around sacred spots. No shorts or visible shoulders. In the hot climate of the Middle East wearing excessive layers, well, it’s no wonder some folks get a little irritable. God’s standards are high. Celestial even.

Nowhere is God’s discriminating taste more evident in the required “modesty” of women. Nobody told me, but apparently women are quite a turn-on to gods. Read Genesis 6 and see if you don’t agree. The burden of public hiding beneath cloth falls on them. A man’s calf doesn’t excite God nearly so much as a lady’s. In Jerusalem they used to hand our hooded cloaks to wear over your street clothes for visiting holy places, just in case. Lord knows we wouldn’t want any unrest in the Middle East!

Having lived in Europe for three years, I know about and despise ugly Americans. At home I find our culture and manner of dress fascinating. Most of us don’t think what it says about our religion. If you ever catch a priest in church wearing jeans you’ll have your own local, mini culture-shock. I’d like to figure out why God is so easily offended by human fashion, but there is no time. I’m off to the street corner with my tin cup to try to raise money to buy clothes so my child won’t offend God in Europe.

No shoes, no shirt, no salvation.

Round Tables and Belligerent Gods

One of those bits of mail in my part-time lecturer mailbox at Rutgers informs me that the Oxford Round Table is hosting a discussion entitled “Civilization at Risk: Nationalism, Religion and Nuclear Weapons.” Given that the cost for attending is about what I make for teaching one of my adjunct classes, and the fact that they spelled “civilisation” the American way, my guess is that the target audience resides on this side of the Atlantic. Still, the topic is indeed vital. Nationalism is a relatively new plague to arise in the human menome. Cultural differences matter little in the face of nationalism; the real issue in this ideology is dominance. Nuclear weapons add a unique poignancy to the issue, but the heart of the matter is clearly behind door number two: religion.

Religion usually makes the list of the hallmarks of early civilization. Along with complex governance and the arts, it is considered one of the aspects that marked the break from merely subsistence living. Religion, however, in its monotheistic form has more divisive power than nearly any other aspect of civilization. Polytheistic religions hardly worried if people worshipped the “wrong god.” Monotheism bears a larger burden, and that burden is not dissimilar from that of nationalism: dominance. Let’s face it – what kind of respect can you expect for a god who can’t throw the brimstone behind all those threats? And if your god doesn’t readily ante up (no visible actions, depending on who you read, since the first or the seventh centuries) then the devout must take up the spear, cudgel, or atomic weapon to prove the honor of their all-powerful god.

Uranium in the hands of an angry God

Is there a solution to the “Middle East” crisis? I’m no politician, but I would make the following humble observations. The crisis as it exists today is as much about nationalism as it is about religion. Religion serves as a convenient excuse when one’s way of life feels threatened. (Push any Neo-Con into a corner and when all the cards are on the table it will amount to precisely this.) We all want things our way. If we can’t get it, we can take it by dropping the G-bomb. It may be apt that the region of the world that instituted civilization is destined to destroy it. A cosmic symmetry pervades the idea. It might be a lot less messy if we’d all admit what the arguing is really all about.

Archaeology in the Service of Politics

People are political creatures. Unfortunately. Politics, as most honest observers of society admit, serve the interest of the ruling party over the good of the whole. This is a nearly universal human flaw; a glance at any newspaper will demonstrate its prevalence. Those who practice politics can hardly be blamed for using the system they’ve inherited, but the system leads to many instances of unfortunate posturing and suffering. Clearly seen in Middle Eastern current events, it is nonetheless no less so in the “western world.” Often in both political arenas the Bible is invoked.

An article in this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger bears the headline “Archaeologist links ancient wall to Bible and King Solomon.” The story goes on to describe how excavations in Jerusalem outside the Temple Mount have unearthed a stone wall that might have been part of the legendary temple of Solomon. Of course, putting biblical names to mute structures amounts to voicing ownership claims. Solomon is not a historically attested individual yet – the only source referencing him is the Bible – and claims to have found his temple are premature. As the story states, “Palestinian archaeologists have criticized their Israeli counterparts’ rush to link finds to the Bible.” Amen. So they have; the structure itself is used as a form of dominance. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist named in the article, is quoted as having said that this wall, “testifies to a ruling presence.”

The Haram es-Sharif, or Temple Mount, is one of the most hotly contested pieces of real estate on the planet. Embedded within these claims are acclamations of ownership. This brief post does not offer the space to unfold the complex issues in any substantial way, but it is an opportunity to note how archaeology is often used to establish tenuous holds on a past that is too foggy to penetrate. Like the classic dystopias of the twentieth century, politically oriented individuals use the evidence to write their own versions of the past. Pasting the name of an uncertain Solomon on a building that the Bible states was built by Phoenicians is an ironic historical twist indeed.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons