Tag Archives: New York Times

Meaning What?

An occasional reader will contact me to say that something I’ve been writing about for years has appeared in a major media source. Not the story I wrote, mind you, but in an episode of convergent explication somebody better connected has drawn the same conclusions I’ve been muddling over since the 1980s. So it goes. One such story appeared recently in the New York Times. Despite the title “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s,” the piece is really about finding meaning. According to the Times, and I’ve been saying this for years, meaning is something that the facts don’t always give. Religion gives purpose to life. Most academics, naturally, ignore it.

The use of UFOs in this story is clearly an attempt at demonstrating the irrational. Those who see such things are the laughingstocks of the “sophisticated” crowd. Anyone who’s attended an editorial board meeting where a book mentioning UFOs is raised will know immediately what I mean. Laughter all around, no matter how serious the treatment may be. After all, only crazy people see them, right? That having been said, the Times article is quite correct that UFO religions are on the rise. Increasing numbers of earthlings are looking offsite for meaning. And who can blame them? Traditional religions often suggest that the beyond, however defined, is much more interesting than the mundane we find laying around all over here. Ironically, this can be a one way street.

What is that?

“Believers” in UFOs often resist the association with religion. After all, isn’t it the religious who are really crazy? As long as people see things in the sky they can’t explain (and this has happened for millennia) there have been Unidentified Flying Objects. Despite Project Blue Book they’ve never been studied in a serious way by science. The few bona fide scientists who’ve dared admit an interest have put their academic or industry jobs at risk. If you wonder why all you have to do is attend an editorial board meeting. We like to laugh at those more gullible than ourselves. As someone once said, indignation feels good. Nothing raises indignation like feeling superior to others. And we feel superior when their intellects are obviously so feeble as to believe in things like religion. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you expecting me to write “UFOs”? Well, go ahead and make the substitution. I won’t be offended. After all, I’ve been saying this stuff for years.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.

Publish or Perish

Working in publishing, I’m well aware of the stresses of the information industry. Jobs frequently evaporate as new, less formal ways of spreading ideas develop. To the typical academic what a university press offers is the secret knowledge of where to send their monograph to get it printed and bound. As if a printer and spiral binder weren’t available at the local Kinko’s. Oh, wait. Kinko’s doesn’t exist any more. You can do most of this at your own university anyway. With 3-D printers you might even be able to print a reader. No, what academic presses have to offer is credibility. If we’re honest we’ll admit that some presses are known for publishing just about anything sent to them while others are selective. The selective presses are often considered the more reliable since they set up the highest hurdles and accept only materials that come as close to being true facts as information can. Self publishing, as might be expected, has muddied the waters.

The same is true in book publishing’s cousin, the newspaper industry. As analysts point out, you can get whatever “news” you want from social media. With varying levels of truth. Stop and think about the people you knew in high school. Those who tend to friend you on Facebook. Would you trust them for accurate news? This has become all the more important because our government is now in the business of fabricating facts. Fact checking is too much work and besides, who has time? It’s easier just to believe lies than it is to buy a copy of the New York Times. Newspapers, you see, used to offer the same thing as the academic press—credibility. The New York Times and the National Enquirer are two different things—you could tell at a glance. Now it’s hard to tell where the news originates.

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This point was made by Deborah Lev in a recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The real problem is our nation’s founders presumed that democracy would work for informed voters. Yes, there were difficulties with the way the system was set up. It was based on privilege and convention. We’ve finally, in theory, gotten to the point that any citizen of a certain age can vote, but we have no requirements for ability to discern the issues. That would be elitist. And we have eroded the traditional sources of attaining quality information—publishers of all sorts are struggling. For some topics self-published books outstrip traditionally published tomes by a fair margin. You can’t believe everything you read. Don’t take my word for it. I’m open to fact-checking. Just be careful where you reap your facts, because not all facts are created equal.

Dead Sea, Live See

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Nothing fascinates quite like the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is, unless you’re a disgruntled Ugaritologist. Mention the Dead Sea Scrolls and the journalists will form a queue. Never mind the relative importance of Ugarit. But I digress. There is something quite dramatic about the discovery and recovery of the scrolls. It involves science and sculduggery and that utterly captivating name “Dead Sea.” This past week the scrolls were in the news again as a new technology was used to read an illegible roll. The New York Times story by Nicholas Wade describes how something like a CT scan can be used to find the ink on an unrolled scroll and software can be devised that associates the ink to its nearest surface. A little virtual unrolling and you have a legible document that has no visible letters that the naked eye can see. Turns out this one happens to come from Leviticus. Figures.

You might think this would lead to joyful leaping on the part of someone who used to make a living reading ancient documents, but such are the times in which we live that even silver linings turn to lead. Years ago I learned about Van Eck phreaking from Neal Stephenson. I thought it was sci-fi, but in fact it is a legitimate—or illegitimate—method of reading a person’s electronic device without being able to see the screen. Since so few people are eager to read my blog, I can’t think anyone would be wanting to spy on my laptop. Nevertheless, with the advent of new technology that can—think about it—read a closed book, I have to wonder about the implications. Reading some dead scribe’s Dead Sea Scroll is one thing. Your sister’s locked diary can be quite another.

Being more of a clay-and-stick man, I was pleased when it was discovered that rapid flashes of light around the circumference of a clay tablet could lead to a virtual computer model that could be rotated 360 degrees with illumination from any angle. The technology had other applications as well, of course. (It certainly wasn’t developed to read forgettable texts.) With a clay tablet we can be reasonably certain that nothing too private was being impressed. But then that’s what you’d expect an Ugaritologist to say. It seems that my days of reading ancient documents are a closed book anyway. But that’s just the problem. Not even a closed book is safe any more. If I were in any danger, I’m sure it would show in my stats before anyone bothered to park a nondescript van outside my door and scan through all the countless tomes with which I surround myself daily. But I do wonder.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

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.

Northern Ghosts

It is the time of year when respectable publications can, in a half-serious way, address the unconventional. The New York Times, for example, recently ran a story on ghost hunting in Norway. Andrew Higgins points out that Norway, among the most secular nations in the world, has come under the spell of ghosts. In a country where church attendance and religious belief seem to be endangered, there is a growing belief that people might somehow survive this mortal coil. Since such a story has to come off as bemused, we don’t get any indication that people have good reason for believing in ghosts—as one of the officials in the story says, they represent something that isn’t “generally accepted as existing at all.” But I wonder if that’s true. Scientifically, in our heads, there just doesn’t seem to be any room in this godless world for ghosts. Skeptics ask questions like “why do they wear clothes?” or “how can a soul remain behind if we have no souls?” Who told you that you have no souls?

Even with the constant materialist discourse of only physical reality, some ghosts cases have been very well documented. So have some hoaxes. People have the spirit of being tricksters, and that doesn’t always help when it comes to understanding the unseen. The point that the article is making, however, is that ghosts seem to be filling a need that the church hasn’t. Church has long been understood as being trapped in the past—concerned with issues deemed irrelevant by people who are just trying to get by in the world. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons in my life and remember less than ten. What is it that we’re trying to do?

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I don’t know if ghosts exist. Many days I’m not sure what reality is, because if it is simply crawling out of a warm bed into a cold apartment before 4 a.m. so that I can go to work, I’m not sure this isn’t some kind of afterlife already. And maybe not the best kind. I know that as soon as people began to record their thoughts in writing, ghosts have been assumed to exist. Despite Ghost Hunters and other popularizers, vague traces are caught by enough people that we can legitimately wonder about the narrative we’ve been fed that says if it can’t be measured it can’t exist. There isn’t a nation in the world where people don’t see ghosts of some kind. Why should Norway be any different? And we wouldn’t even be asking this question if Halloween didn’t provide us with a buffer that makes forbidden topics chic.