Peaceful Lessons

We are all, I think, looking for hope.  Probably due to the way I was raised, I often seek signs.  There’s no way to know if said signs are mere coincidences or the more intense variety known as synchronicities, yet we have a hopeful sign here at home.  On our front porch we have some plant hangers.  Spring crept up on us this year and we haven’t got around to putting any pansies in them yet.  The other day when I was stepping out to get the mail, I noticed feathers in one of them and feared there’d been a bird-related accident there.  As I took a step toward the planter, the head of a mourning dove popped up.  She blinked at me curiously, but didn’t fly away.  I knew then that she had built a nest in the as-yet unused planter and she was sitting on her eggs.

Monday was fiercely windy around here.  And rainy.  I wondered how any birds could fly in such weather.  A mourning dove flew up—perhaps one of the pair on our porch—and landed on the electric wire leading to our house.  The wire was swaying and bucking so furiously that the dove constantly had to shift and fluff and flutter just to stay in place.  The poor bird was in constant motion.  Then it showed a sign of animal intelligence.  There’s a much larger wire that runs down our street, from which other houses are supplied.  It’s more stable in the wind due to its girth.  The dove flew up to that wire instead.  There it was able to perch without having to constantly adjust itself to the gusts.  Peaceful and intelligent.  That’s what the world needs.  I have hope.

The dove has long been a sign of peace.  It’s understood that way in the Bible.  It was the dove that brought an olive twig to Noah, indicating that although all he could see was water there was, somewhere, dry land.  These days we need to be reminded that although it seems that the storm will last forever, even hurricanes eventually exhaust themselves.  The dove, clearly not happy about the horrendous wind buffeting it on that wire, nevertheless persisted in a kind of stoic optimism that things are as they should be.  There is great wisdom in the natural world.  If we can get to a window we can see it playing out before our very eyes.  Now when I step out the door, I glance at the dove, and she looks back at me.  We wink at each other.  She doesn’t fly away, for she understands.  She has a wisdom to which we all should aspire.

Built To Last

Those pyramids sure are sturdy.  The other day I was reading something from a biblical literalist that was discussing the pyramids.  The great pyramid of Khufu and its companions in Giza were built between about 2590 and 2505 BCE.  They’ve been around a long time.  Somewhat later this author casually mentioned Noah’s flood.  It had never occurred to me before, but since Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world at 4004 (and so it appears in the Scofield Reference Bible), the flood took place in 2348 BCE.  Now this flood was so catastrophic that it carved out the Grand Canyon and buried all those dinosaur bones that would eventually become fossils.  It was more than a little inconvenient, and terribly disruptive.  Except the pyramids had been around for well over a hundred years by that point.  It’s a wonder they weren’t harmed.

Such inconsistencies populate much of literalist literature.  When the Bible is the full measure of science and history and all human knowledge, there’s bound to be some issues, given that it was written at a specific time and place.  You see, the pyramids aren’t even held together with mortar.  These are loose stones we’re talking about, under great pressure.  The “Bent Pyramid,” at Dahshur, changed its angle at half-way up.  A physicist calculated that if they’d continued at the original angle, the weight of all that stone would’ve caused it to act like liquid, flowing like water.  Best repent and rethink your plan.  But these monuments were built to withstand world-wide floods!  And the mummies weren’t even mildewed.  If only Jericho’s walls had been so well built.

From WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why so many modern myths about the pyramids developed.  This sacred shape somewhere between a square and a triangle is said to have unusual properties.  I’ve read that if you put a dull razor (whatever that is) underneath a pyramid shape when you go to bed at night you’ll awaken to find it sharpened.  Made of wire, that shape on your head will not only prevent aliens from reading your thoughts, but will boost the power of your psyche as well.  The funny thing about the Bible is that it never mentions the pyramids at all.  Joseph spent a bit of time there and his descendants stayed for centuries.  Nobody bothered to note those wonders of the ancient world.  Since we’re literalists, though, that gives us a way out.  If the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids they might not exist at all.  Problem solved.

Soggy Symbols

House-buying is perhaps best left for the young.  Flexibility is, unfortunately, something that effaces with age, and house-buying is a rough transition at best.  For anyone following this blog over the past month, the theme of moving is familiar.  How we hired a moving company that didn’t get us in our new place until after 2:30 in the morning.  How torrential rains came later and flooded our worldly goods temporarily stored in the garage.  How mowing the lawn caused me to question my faith—wait—I haven’t told that one yet!  Well, you get the picture.  Suffice it to say that although I didn’t think moving would be easy, it’s been a lot more difficult than I could’ve possibly imagined.  In the midst of it came a dove.

At times, I must confess, I’m tempted toward superstition.  A strange significance between events that are, in actual fact, random.  We’ve all read of people who buy a house and discover some secret treasure left stashed away in the attic.  The former owners of our house only left undisclosed defects that become clear in periods of prolonged rain.  Even so, as I was feeling as miserable as one of Ray Bradbury’s astronauts on Venus—yes, the precipitation does begin to drive you insane after a while!—I decided to try an impose some order on the chaos that is our garage (we haven’t had a dry weekend since moving in to transfer the soggy stuff to our house) I looked down.  There, amid the screws and other little detritus left behind in the way of treasure, I found a dove charm.  A dove sent after a flood.

The symbolism of the dove with hope is ancient indeed.  It predates the Bible when it comes to a symbol that the flood is nearly over.  The Mesopotamians also had a dove sent out from the ark, and I’m given to believe this is something ancient mariners, whether they rhymed or not, regularly did to assess if land was near.  Unlike our heavy, wingless species, birds can soar over chaos.  At least for a while.  They are a symbol of hope.  Was that dove sent to me on purpose at a time when I needed it, or was it just a random find, one of those too much stuff in a small world moments?  There’s no way to assess that, I suppose.  For me, on yet another rainy day, it’s a symbol of hope.  The only other choice, it seems, would be to build an ark.

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.

Plain Floods

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Floods are the stuff of legends. In fact, one of the most pervasive myths of all times is the world-wide flood. While some would see this as “evidence” that such an impossible flood actually occurred (some believing so fervently as to build replicas of imaginary arks), others recognize the flood as a basic human dilemma. We require water, and therefore we build our cities near a source of it. Rivers worldwide are prone to floods. While recently stuck in a holding pattern waiting for space for our flight to land at Newark, floodplains were more than evident from high above. My hometown regularly experienced floods when ice jammed the Allegheny River during the spring thaws. The floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were, literally, epic-making. A piece in the Washington Post rather surprisingly reports “Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.” The story by Sarah Kaplan demonstrates the universality of unruly water.

I know little of Chinese history and mythology. There’s no reason, however, to doubt that stories of ancient floods were as common there as elsewhere. The flood is, pardon the Christianization, the baptism of civilization. Things have to be washed clean before “civilization” can begin. In this case, according to the story, Yu, the founder of China’s first dynasty, tamed the flood. Now scientists are finding flood deposits from the Yellow River that match the 1900 BCE time-frame of this mythical founding. We can be certain that some will latch onto this date noting how Abraham was said to have emerged shortly after the flood (Genesis chronology says Noah was still alive when Abraham was born) and therefore this is proof of the Biblical flood. Even Sir Leonard Woolley advertised that he’d found the biblical flood in the river deposits of Mesopotamia. When it comes to literalism, any old flood will do.

No doubt many ancient flood stories go back to some historical event. The world was never completely covered with water in human times (before that nobody was here to see), but it’s easy to understand how people might have believed it could have happened. Our view tends to be local, often at the expense of universal costs. Consider global warming, for example. It’s difficult for us to see something that impacts us as such a distance. Taking care of the planet is so hard when we realize just how big it is. Our neglect, however, will definitely cause floods to come. Our denial makes myths for future generations. Headlines millennia down the road, if anyone’s left to read them, will, I’m sure announce with surprise that the devastating floods we’re creating now were indeed real.

Noah Way

As a fleet of Noah’s Arks near completion, some critics would like to stop these Titanics from their mythical crossing. The Ark Encounter, despite announcements of its demise, is set to open soon in Kentucky. This Noah’s Ark replica, unlike its seaworthy compatriots, is land-locked in bluegrass country. According to a story originating in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Tri-State Freethinkers tried to take out billboard ads suggesting the ark advocates genocide and incest. Well, marrying first cousins has been done before (think about it). And if you go back ten generations things get even a bit dicier with Cain’s wife and that of Seth. All in the Family wouldn’t even air for 6000 years. As for genocide, well, this was more like genomicide. Not a race, but an entire species, apart from kissing cousins, was about to learn the hard lesson of being born not of chosen stock.

According to the article billboard companies have rejected the Freethinkers’ proposal. It might cause accidents, they suggest, which, although not technically genocide, do take the lives of the innocent, even in dry weather. The flood divides people. Thus it always has.

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The culture wars, curiously, pick strange targets. I’m not in favor of teaching children to read myths literally, but then, I’m not in favor of bringing them up as materialists either. There used to be a concept called the “via media”—the middle of the road. Now such a stance appears decidedly wishy-washy. Milquetoast anyone? It is much better to be combative. “Oh George, you’re always so forceful,” sighs Winifred. So we teach our children. Boys, push your way to the front.

Implications can be tricky things. Allowing opponents, no matter how naive, their say has always been a mucking out of the Augean stables. Nobody likes to accommodate other points of view. Watching the parade of politicians we must be assured that we alone are right. Still, the stillborn billboard has a point. Building arks is the sign of the ultimate intolerance. Not only do you condemn those who differ to the outside, you are giving them a self-righteous death sentence. Maybe the billboard should stand. Or maybe it should not. What would Charlie Brown do?

Fossilized Views

Not all Fundamentalists are the same. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true, but in my family we recognized that fossils indicated the earth was older than just a few thousand years. Keep in mind that I never tested this with any preachers—we didn’t need to. We knew that evolution was wrong, but that didn’t mean there had never been dinosaurs. Kids are as sure of dinosaurs as they are of angels. Besides, we lived beside a tributary to the Allegheny River that was rich in fossils. We’d spend summer days wading in the water looking for rocks with impressions of various bivalve shells in them. They weren’t hard to find. And being collectors of just about anything inexpensive (or free, as in the case of fossils) we brought them home. We really didn’t see any great disconnect between the black book on the table and the rocks in our hands. There was room for both.

It must’ve been a slow news day at Huffington Post recently when a story titled “This Guy Is Pretty Sure He Found Fossils From Noah’s Flood” ran. The guy in question is from Texas, and, finding fossils probably not unlike those we used to, supposed that they were laid down during Noah’s flood. This was an idea that I only encountered after I’d left home. We couldn’t afford many books when I was growing up, but we did have conventional dinosaur material. Nothing strange enough to suggest that the flood created all the landforms and fossils on the planet. That would’ve sounded just a bit strange. Today, however, it is common to suppose all Fundamentalists are naive and enemies of science. Not all are. Some, I hope, are like I was, trying to find a way to fit their faith into a world that science has come to help define a bit more clearly. Positions have, however, polarized a bit since my tender years. We now fight over things we used to wonder about.

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The fossils I found as a kid found their way back into nature before I grew up. If I ever have the time when visiting home these days, I still try to get an hour or two to spend down by the river to look for the rocks that filled me with such awe as a child. That was a world where belief was fairly easy. I loved science. I loved my religion. I loved the fossils that told me the story was a complicated one. Only I wouldn’t have believed that decades later I’d still be trying to suggest to others that the world is big enough for both facts and faith. I haven’t been a Fundamentalist for decades, and given a few million years, who knows how even the nature of the debate might evolve.

High Tide

While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.

Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.

That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”

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Flood Warning

If you’re like any number of others in North America, you may be wondering when spring will arrive. Not meteorological spring—that has flown past already—but the warm, salubrious air that bears no wind chill factor. You might, like many, turn to the Weather Channel website. While you’re there you might see a story about extreme weather and Noah’s Flood. (You might need to scroll down the page to find it; the link seems to have been cursed.) The flood myth is a pervasive story. It appears in countless novels, movies (even Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, for those who are willing to believe), and many baby’s nurseries. The weather this year has many wondering about global warming, although, honestly, we’ve known about it for years. Some are speculating that floods will become more common, and that’s almost certain. The Weather Channel, however, uses the myth to point out that people have experienced extreme weather from “the beginning.”

The trouble with this reasoning is that the story of Noah’s flood is not original to the Bible. It seems virtually certain that the writers of the biblical stories (there are two) knew the Babylonian version embedded in the tale of Gilgamesh. The writer of the Gilgamesh Epic knew the Sumerian version of the story, already centuries old by that point. And the story never really happened. At least not in historical time. Floods, yes. World-wide flood, no. The stories were told to make points, as most stories are. The point here seems to be that gods can be pretty petty if you neglect to offer them their due. Even minor sins can set you treading water for weeks at a time. Still, the Weather Channel considers the possibility that this could reveal ancient meteorology. Ancient morality is closer to the truth.

Every year around Easter the media peppers its workaday headlines with biblical tropes. It is the time to catch the quasi-religious thinking pious thoughts and click-throughs are more likely. Never mind that biblical scholars have known for many decades that this fetching tale is based more on a primitive Schadenfreude than modern science. Not that the Bible is devoid of ancient weather. I once wrote an ill-fated book about the topic. The people of ancient times knew that God has a special place in his sacred heart for the weather. It is one of the most awesome demonstrations of divine power. So it is in the story of Noah. For those of us in the twenty-first century it may still be a morality tale. This time, however, the flood is caused by human greed and lack of control. And this, when all is measured in the scales, may be among the worst sins humanity has ever committed.

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Bedrock

Sadly it is a rare occasion to read a truly stupendous book. There are lots of wonderful books in the libraries of the world, great and small. When I read a tome that brings two of my favorite subjects together in a genteel cotillion, subjects which are generally portrayed as aiming heavy weapons at each other from deeply sunk trenches, it deserves the epithet of stupendous. David R. Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood is one of those books. By page 8 I was thinking that Montgomery was someone with whom I’d feel comfortable raising a glass and sharing a story. He is a rare, serious scientist who considers that maybe religious stories have something to tell us about being human. The book, as the subtitle indicates, is about the Noah myth. Geology is the science that has taken the brunt of (the relatively new religion of) Creationism’s umbrage. Still, like a rational scientist, Montgomery doesn’t get mad or fly off into hyperbolic denunciations. He takes his rock hammer and taps until the flood myth crumbles.

Unlike many sober writers on the subject, Montgomery considers the possibility that folklore may in fact give clues to science. Those cultures that have flood stories, he patiently explains, probably has reasons to tell such myths. In this one book we are taken on guided tours of the Grand Canyon, bits of the Himalayas, “ancient” Mesopotamia, the scablands of eastern Washington, and even the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. At each station, we learn a bit about floods and rocks and fantasies. Although not a biblical scholar, Montgomery obviously did his homework and gives a fresh view of how Christians went from non-literalists in the first centuries of the church, through the scientific revolution, only to become literalists in the geologically very recent twentieth century. Creationism has nothing to do with real floods and quite a lot to do with personal insecurities.

It must be easy for scientists to trumpet bravado throughout the infinite universe. The scientific method is our best testable explanation for the physical world. Montgomery resists that temptation, realizing that religion does count for something after all. Religion evolved for a reason. Maybe it isn’t scientific, but it helps people to make sense of their world. Instead of characterizing religion and science as combatants in a war, Montgomery likens the opposition to a dance where the partners sometimes step on each other’s toes. I read his book dreaming my geological dreams, lost in deep time, and thinking that the world is maybe even more wondrous than miracles could ever convey. And we have occasional floods, and floods sometimes give us reasons for going on. There’s perhaps something religious about that.

Seedtime and Harvest

With the drought deepening over about half the United States, it is with not inconsiderable irony that I am reading the story of Noah’s flood. I have been tweeting the Bible for some months now and am just reaching the end of the fascinating account of the deluge. The difference in the case of the drought is obvious, but similar. Having spent some time in the Midwest, I came to know how intimately and intensely many of the citizens trust God’s providential care (this is true elsewhere, of course, but I noticed it more in that region). When disasters come, however, just like an animist would suggest, answers will be sought in the divine world. “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” Genesis 8.22 rounds out God’s plan for the perpetuity of nature’s cycles, stating in just the previous verse that he knows people to be wicked and will never punish them for it again, as he did in the flood. Such biblical assurances, however, do little to allay fears when crops are dying in the field.

The problem in looking for answers in nature is their ambiguity. Just consider the record number of church picnics that haven’t been rained out this year—the number of prayers I’ve heard for the staying of rain for human convenience is surely a reflection of how intimate divine interaction with the workings of nature is supposed to be. One of the benefits of science has been its ability to straighten out all the cards in the deck, tapping them on the table-top and squeezing them into line. How would God weigh prayers for no rain so that an outdoor wedding of a devout couple could take place versus the prayers of a backslidden farmer for much needed precipitation (without hail)? Are decisions made by majority request? Wouldn’t that be excessively dangerous, given humanity’s track record of deciding what is good for itself?

The drought is a serious concern, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise or make light of the situation. What concerns me is the human tendency to look for a divine bailout. Many politicians of certain persuasion (usually the greenback kind) tell us that the climate is just fine. Our greenhouse gasses are not unduly affecting it. Now that a drought is upon us—and even a child can understand that all weather is related—the focus shifts to God. This dancing around the elephant in the room is tiring and dizzying. We can spend billions of dollars making bombers that are almost invisible to radar and so oddly shaped that they get reported as UFOs and yet we can’t get politicians to consider our impact on the very skies they fly in on their bombing missions. The atmosphere is larger than us all and it is warming up. And when we bake ourselves out of existence isn’t it a comforting thought that seedtime and harvest will continue, at least until our sun burns out?

Heat Wave

Stewing in the heat of the wave washing over much of the east, my thoughts sometimes turn to the cool, refreshing flood of Genesis. I’ve been Tweeting the Bible for some months now, and I am in the midst of the stories of the flood. Noting the many contradictions and discrepancies, it is a wonder to me how many of the religious are able to overlook or harmonize infelicities for the sake of a consistent faith. Most famously the story states that Noah took one pair of the clean animals, but also seven pairs of clean animals. The rain came down forty days. Or was it 150? One of the reasons that people continue to believe this story may be its specificity. No approximations or guesses, the numbers are precise, as if written down by an eyewitness at the scene. In actual fact, the story is among the oldest of recorded civilization and has its origins at least as far back as ancient Sumer. For as long as people told stories about the gods, they told stories about world-wide floods.

As a species that is able to think ahead, we have long been concerned with the fate that might befall us. Consider the amount of hype about the end of the world that has accompanied the random calendrical dates we’ve assigned to the cosmos: the world has been expected to end nearly every year since 2000, and that is only the most recent incarnation of this foreboding. If there are gods out there, they must have it in for us. The very fact of our being human seems to anger the deities. Even after God promises the world will never again be destroyed, he adds a caveat—not by flood, anyway. By the time we reach the letters near the end of the Christian Scriptures the future torment has turned to fire. There’s always something out there looming on the horizon.

“Prometheus teacher in every art brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends,” so reads the quote from Aeschylus behind Paul Manship’s statue of Prometheus. Prometheus was the Greek god (Titan, actually) favorably disposed toward humanity. His name means “forethought.” When humanity cowered and shivered in the dark, Prometheus brought the light and warmth of fire. It is easy to suppose the Greeks to have been more enlightened than earlier or contemporary civilizations, but Prometheus had offended Zeus and was subject to eternal torment for his thoughtful gift. Perhaps it is just the divine way—gods are jealous of us although they hold all the power. As I continue to tweet the good news of an angry god, I am starting to understand the power deities will always have over their vulnerable creatures.

A Tiger’s Tale

When my wife finished Yann Martel’s Life of Pi she said, “You’ve got to read this book!” Philosophical novels don’t often capture the interest of publishers or agents, but when they manage to slip through the fine-mesh mail-armor of the guild, they sometimes become best-sellers. Publishers often underestimate the intelligence and the hunger of the average reader. I was glad to have something so provocative to read on my long daily commute. Since the book was published in 2001 I won’t worry too much about spoiler alerts. It should come as no surprise that the biblical flood theme comes through a book where a zookeeper’s son is stranded on a lifeboat with various forms of wildlife. The most unexpected and endearing member of this menagerie, the tiger Richard Parker, is also the most deadly. How easy it would be to spin off in a Melvillesque direction of the beast as a representation of an uncomfortable God! Indeed, when Richard Parker scampers away when the boat runs aground, Pi laments how it was like losing God.

Setting the stage for this development is the tale of three religions. As a boy raised in India Piscine (Pi) is surrounded by traditional Hindu culture. On a family vacation he notices that atop the three hills are three houses of worship: Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. Curiosity draws the young boy in, and by the end of part one he is happily and concurrently Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, to the deep chagrin of the various religious leaders. They, coincidentally, all meet Pi with his parents one day in the park and each insists that although they encourage the boy’s continued membership in their tradition, he must drop the other two. Like any sensible person, Pi has chosen the safe road when it comes to conflicting religions: accept them all. It is only religion itself that deconstructs his triune belief system.

After his eventual rescue, Pi is questioned by insurance agents concerning the fate of the ship. They cannot believe his incredible tale, because they can only believe what they have seen for themselves. Pi asks, “What do you do when you’re in the dark?” An appropriate question for us all. This story is a parable about perceiving more than what can be seen. Tigers are hidden all around. Sometimes we call them Hobbes. Sometimes Richard Parker. They are protectors and they are dangerous. Some people call them God. In the end our protagonist is left without the divine presence that had kept him alive all the way across the Pacific Ocean. When the book is over, I think we would all admit, it is the tiger that we miss most of all.

Failing Geology

Rocks of ages

Watkins Glen, New York, sports a natural wonder that has occasionally drawn me to the Finger Lakes region to refresh my memory of the view. The eponymous glen has been carved out of the relatively soft shale by a tireless stream that falls to the level of nearby Seneca Lake. The relentless persistence of this water has left a canyon of striated layers over a period of 12,000 years. Even today tourists from around the world flock to the site, captivated by its natural beauty. To assist walking the gorge, 832 steps have been added alongside a mile and a half of the stream, taking the visitor past, and occasionally behind numerous small waterfalls. When we visited yesterday, what struck me—beyond the sheer number of out-of-shape Americans complaining of the number of stairs (this was well before the hundredth riser), a number that continually thinned the further we climbed—was the special compensation that biblical literalists claim to accommodate their view. The typical response is that all geologic wonders are a result of Noah’s flood, despite the different erosional rates and dates of the sites. Watkins Glen is a fairly new piece of earth architecture.

Some years back while driving out to the western United States, my family camped in Makoshika State Park in Montana. This particular park, apart from its wild, arid, and rocky scenery, also boasts many dinosaurs. You can sidle right up to the exposed, fossilized backbone of a hadrosaurus, and triceratops skulls can be found in situ. Preparing to hike one of the trails, we stopped at the ranger station for a map. As usual, interpretive displays explained what we were about to see. As we entered, an older couple spoke with the ranger. One of them said, “How can that be, since the earth is only 6,000 years old?” Special compensation is required to refuse the evidence that lies all around us. The Fundamentalist movement seldom takes into account that this distorted and bizarre worldview is almost uniquely American. Religion drives their scientific outlook, even as they are relying on the factuality of actual science to prolong their lives with medical advances or to allow them to read this blog (although the latter is not likely).

The same flood had to carve out the buttes of Makoshika and expose its Cretaceous fossils of 65 million years ago at the same time as eroding the first 6,000 years of Watkins Glen, leaving the remaining 6,000 to be worn away during our world’s lifespan so that we might declare the great works of God. It is a worldview that demands a constant center stage for a feeble explanation based on the worship of a misunderstood book. And yet they come to see the beauty. No matter how many persuasive words might be penned, the possibility of changing this outlook will elude us. Reinforced by television personalities and politicians, this utter breakdown of reason is one of our national characteristics. As a nation we suffered through eight years of “leadership” by a president who did not believe in science, and we are still paying off his tab. In another 6,000 years or so we may succeed. By then, however, I expect, if I’ve learned anything from the movies, we will have reversed roles with the great apes.