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.