Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.

Star Tract

Over the past few years my wife and I have been watching the episodes of Star Trek (original series; please, we are connoisseurs). As a religious child watching Star Trek I had noticed that some of the episodes had biblical titles or themes, but now that I’ve been watching them systematically, if not swiftly, I have noticed a general trend towards more biblical themes as the series goes on. I suspect most readers know that Star Trek had only three seasons. During the first season references to the Bible were a bit vague and indistinct. Episodes 23-25 (“A Taste of Armageddon,” “This Side of Paradise,” and “The Devil in the Dark”) make reference to biblical motifs in their titles, but nothing too explicit. Paradise and the Devil are, after all, in the public domain.

Season two stepped up the ante a bit. In “Who Mourns for Adonais?” the pagan god Apollo appeared, but in “The Apple” the Enterprise was transported back to Judeo-Christian themes in the paradise genre again. “Journey to Babel,” episode 10, brought a biblical place into the title, and “Bread and Circuses” (episode 25) famously put the crew into the world of the Roman Empire where the rebels were found to be sun worshippers. But no! Worshippers of the son of God, we learn. The move away from Apollo is complete, we have come back to a comfortable, Christian world.

The third and final season delved even further into the biblical repertoire. Once again, “The Paradise Syndrome” (episode 3) brings Heaven to the heavens, but episode 4 also has a biblical title “And the Children Shall Lead.” Episode 16, “The Mark of Gideon,” takes considerable thought to unpack the biblical parallel, and episode 19 is entitled “Requiem for Methuselah.” Paradise, obviously a favorite theme, returns in “The Way to Eden,” or episode 20. Each season goes boldly further than the one before.

Quite apart from the titles of episodes, Star Trek, despite the technology and unflinching logic of Mr. Spock, is an extremely biblically literate show. Even as the 1960s were fading into the 70s it was a safe assumption that watchers would pick up on the many biblical motifs and themes. Now when younger people mention Star Trek, they inevitably mean one of the various spin-off series that have grown from this original root. Biblical references are surely there, but like the times themselves, I suspect they aren’t nearly as overt as they were when I was a kid. For many even paradise has lost its shine.