The Maelstrom

Some monsters can’t be destroyed. Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Poe had his demons, for sure, but the twentieth century took personal fear and made it universal. Atomic bombs and mutually assured destruction were concepts any of us born since World War II have lived under our whole lives. Kids in the 1950s were drilled in schools about what to do in case of nuclear attack. We didn’t have such drills in the ’60s, but the Fallout Shelter sign was still quite familiar and frightening in its frankness. There are people out there that want you dead, and we tend to elect them to positions of power. Duck and cover. It’s all in vain.

Then came peace. Ever so briefly. When I started seeing newspaper articles about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack—not in my childhood, but just this week—I shuddered. We’ve apparently made no progress at all. When we’re all decaying corpses glowing eerily in the night there’ll be no point in figuring out who’s to blame. A species as endlessly inventive as our own spends its time and resources on distrusting, hating the other. “They” might get what’s ours. The acquisitive mind trembles. You see, there’s no end to the things you can own. As long as anyone else owns anything you can always hope to get it for yourself. Say you read the Bible and evangelicals will forgive you daily for breaking the tenth commandment. Just don’t let those foreigners have it.

Poe imagined nightmare worlds. Most of his stories, however, were on the individual level. Our monsters, on the other hand, are international in scale. Radioactive fallout with its slow decay and devastating effects on frail flesh may be the stuff of good horror, but they make for decidedly poor governance. Perhaps it’s no wonder that this comes up under a president who ran on a platform of hatred. Last weekend the people of Hawaii lived through fearful moments that were all too believable with the incompetent pretender of Pennsylvania Avenue. A man who can’t keep his tweet shut and who gets away with offenses that would easily impeach a democrat. I grew up watching Godzilla, the famed radioactive dinosaur, rising from the oceans to remind us of the consequences of atomic sins. For the too brief era of Clinton we felt that the world might be safe at last from such monsters. Problem is, some monsters just can’t be destroyed.

United States of Ego

We all know the type. The guy who brags that he can do something complex without all the study and “hard work” (scare quotes theirs) necessary beforehand. When he starts strutting his stuff, and realizes that it is much harder than he thought, he has to find a way of backing down without losing face. We all know somebody like that. Now we all know somebody like that by dint of his being in the White House. Politics, like most complex things, isn’t as easy as it looks. When you’re president of the United States, backing down quietly’s not an easy thing to do. Why not start a nuclear war instead? Better dead than read, as the saying goes.

Thing is, braggarts may convince others that they don’t know what they’re talking about, but they’ll never convince themselves. The truly sad thing is we’ve never lived in a country where it was possible to buy your way to the White House before, based purely on ego. Don’t get me wrong—I know that every president has to be an egoist to some degree. What the previous 44 have had, however, is considerable knowledge of politics. Even the dumbest of them read. They knew this wouldn’t be some simple task that you could simply wing, like a business deal. You have to do homework. A lot of it. And it’s not easy. Even the relatively simple life of a professor of religious studies requires years of training. Hours and hours and hours of reading and thinking. Believe it or not, it’s hard work.

Now we have a chief executive tweeting that it’s hard to be president. Everyone, it seems, except 45, knew that. That’s why most people would never bother to run for the office. Our civilization utterly depends on experts. That surgeon that works on your heart, you swear, had better be an expert. Those guys who build the missiles we lob onto whomever we feel like, had better be experts. And even if your steak comes out of the restaurant kitchen poorly prepared, you send it back for expert treatment. And yet, we’ve elected the least qualified candidate who’s ever run for the office in over two centuries of history. His expertise: pleasing himself. Greed is a poor substitute for leadership. Even now that it’s crystal clear we live in a headless state, his supporters cheer him on. Let’s hear it for the poor uber-wealthy. Those guys need all the help they can get.

Under Who?

Who is God anyway? The question occurred to me as I read about the current Superior Court decision in New Jersey that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remains constitutional. The American Humanist Association had sued to have the offending prepositional phrase removed, based on first amendment rights to religious freedom. I’ve always found the whole indoctrination of swearing to a flag somewhat provincial and perhaps even damaging to the unity of humankind. Nations, after all, are about keeping things for ourselves, something that the God of the Bible seems to find naughty. During the Cold War, waged against the “godless Communists,” the questionable phrase was added in 1954, only after we’d secured nuclear weapons. Does any nation that has the bomb have the right to declare divine sanction? I guess so, on second thought.

IMG_0962In his decision Judge David Bauman said that God, in this context, is not about religion, but about the state’s history. Granted, one of the New Jersey delegates to sign the constitution was a clergyman, and president of Princeton College. The same Princeton that became the home of the man who would open physics enough to let us begin a nuclear reaction. But I’m getting ahead of my story. This concept of God being an arcane aspect of history as opposed to a present and active force motivating people’s lives is a curious one. In order to keep the deity, he (and the historical God is male) must be demoted to an historical relic. If that is true of divinity, what does it say about the concept of nationhood itself? Have we come to admit that it is all a fiction to keep status quo ante?

Humanist and atheist groups have argued for years that public school (which no government takes that seriously) should not be a forum for religious indoctrination. Some religious groups (such as Creationists) clearly see such schools as a mission field ripe for proselytizing young minds. Such was clearly the case in 1954. Today we see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming a supporter of the government in Russia, where godlessness might be more a factor on the ground than on paper. In the United States we have a culture that provides lip-service to the almighty while the true god is secreted away in the shrines of bank vaults and expense accounts. It is really about a way of life, after all. Should we keep or remove “under God” from a pledge to personal gain? It is all a matter of how you define “God.”

Dr._Strangelove_poster

In honor of the fifty-year anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove this past week, my wife and I sat down to rewatch the movie this weekend. Psychologically, as Kubrick found out, dark humor was the only way to deal with the sense of doom that pervaded the world into which those of my generation were born. Nuclear weapons had been developed and the Cold War was in full swing. Somehow, even in small-town America, I didn’t find Communism to seem so awful. After all, I grew up reading the Bible and it sounded quite a bit—at least in theory—like the arrangement the apostles had made in the book of Acts. The idea of private property, the very spine and muscular system of capitalism, was considered a sure way to lead to God’s kingdom not being established on earth. Nevertheless, that is the way, as the phrase goes, that the money went. And Communism threatened the right of one percent to horde all the money, so we were ready to annihilate all human life for it. Talk about taking your marbles and going home! No child should grow up knowing the meaning of the phrase “mutually assured destruction.”

Dr. Strangelove has held up well for the half-century since its release. Despite the thawing of the Cold War, the big chill isn’t over yet. And humor still seems the only way to keep sanity and deal with the state of the world. There are still many General Turgidsons out there (some of whom have held very high government offices, and this is no joke). There are at least, as far as we know, fewer General Rippers. So we hope. As the bomber crew nears its target, Major Kong goes over the contents of the government issued survival kit, among which is a comically small Russian Phrase Book and Bible combined. Kubrick, a master of satire, has the godlessness of Communism thrown time and again across the lips of the hawks. It is better to kill everyone than to allow the godless to rule. Even the Bible, however, shares space with the Russian phrasebook, making us wonder whether it is a tool of conversion or an admission of inevitability. Still the bomber, piloted by a Texan, flies on.

Perhaps the biggest moral dilemma we face is our ability to destroy hope. Capitalism promises opportunity to all. Like many who grew up poor, however, I have found lies hidden in plain sight. It is not easy to move ahead if you choose to mire yourself in debt to get an education. In fact, if you lose a job in higher education you can easily find yourself adrift for a decade or more, not earning any retirement money and being frequenly sought out by your local universities as an adjunct instructor. In fact, at many points your career might look like the end of the world. So it is that I take great comfort in settling down to watch Dr. Strangelove again. At least it is an honest movie, and that hasn’t changed in the past half-century. And I think I may have been wrong about how few General Rippers there really are.

Theology of the Apes

“Alter what you believe to be the course of the future by slaughtering two innocents, or rather three now that one of them is pregnant? Herod tried that and Christ survived.”

“Sir President, Herod lacked our facilities.”

So the conversation between Dr. Otto Hasslein and the President goes in the 1971 continuation of the saga, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Few probably pondered the weighty theological significance of this dialogue; it is not represented on IMDB’s quotes page from the movie. In fact, many critics aver that the Planet of the Apes movies devolved as they went on becoming less and less original. Nevertheless, the number of serious issues thoughtfully addressed in Escape made it one of the most well received pieces in the series. The world was a scary place in the early 1970’s, as I experienced it. It was easy to believe that we were on the brink of our own destruction—there were enough nuclear warheads to assure mutual destruction, and even a little boy in Rouseville, Pennsylvania could believe that his small town was significant enough to be a target. That message I’d heard as early as the final scene of the original movie.

The Planet of the Apes series is profoundly theological. I rewatched Escape from the Planet of the Apes recently, and was struck by just how many social issues were addressed. Consumerism, abortion, racism, espionage, the arms race, and even eugenics. In each instance the humans are inferior to the apes who had not even developed the combustion engine before learning to fly a spacecraft back through time. The conservative fear of Dr. Otto Hasslein drives the plot; he is ambivalent about the apes and what they portend. It is the destruction of his own comfortable way of life. He suggests quietly killing the apes, succeeding where Herod failed. (Think through the implications!)

“Before I have them shot against the wall I want convincing that the writing on the wall is calculably true,” the President biblically insists.

“How many futures are there? Which future has God, if there is a god, chosen for man’s destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God’s will or obeying it? Am I his enemy or his instrument?” Otto Hasslein does not know. His science which tells him there is no God also worries him that he is the very enemy of the non-existent deity. No, the Planet of the Apes movies are not the most profound films ever to escape the camera, but there is, as in any good theology, the raising of questions. And like any theology worthy of latter-day Herods, there will always be far more questions than answers.

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.