Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.

Awakening Forces

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not disappoint. Many of us who saw the original installment recognized the archetypal image right away. Good versus evil, light and darkness, the quest for the father, and a host of other tropes backed the story in ways that made us believe we were in a galaxy far, far away. As is well known, the mythographer Joseph Campbell was closely consulted on the movie, bringing his own Jungian understanding of myth to the story. We felt that we cared about the outcome of these characters’ lives. Prequels are, of course, a hard sell. Although technically proficient, the Sith episodes I-III dulled the eyes of many original fans. It wasn’t just because the action had to be all “shoot-‘em-up” western style either. There is a logic to mythology, and yes, whether we want to admit it or not, religious imagery. The Force Awakens returns to that religious, archetypal imagery and it shows not only in box office numbers, but in the reviews.

This is one of those movies that kept interrupting my subconscious the night after I saw it, even as a matinee. There was some powerful imagery going on there. Having seen the film only once, I’m sure much of it escaped me, but even based on the trailers people were wondering about the cruciform light saber wielded by Kylo Ren. Naturally, the force does awaken, carrying the mythology further. C-3PO, however, is the one who blurts out “Thank the Maker” when the resistance finally gets a break. What would a robot know of the force? Visions and prophets, the stuff of classical conflicts of good and evil, are fully present and accounted for. Even the marking of Finn’s helmet in the opening scene has elements of the Passover to it.

What stayed with me the most is a concept traditionally associated with the Quakers—the light within. Kylo Ren is struggling to defeat that light. Others are, in effect, praying for him to realize that it is still there. The force pervades every living thing, but humanoids have the light within. Movies that understand this kind of archetypal thinking quickly draw a fan base. Part of what we are seeing on the screen moves beyond entertainment to a kind of religious thinking. The original trilogy led to the growth of an actual religion called Jediism. The tenets are almost Manichean in their duality, and despite an ending that leaves you wondering, those who know the power of mythology have no doubts who, at the end, will be victorious. It is the way of the force.

Worth Saving

Once we speed past Easter/Passover, holidays start to fall by the wayside as we try to get back to the serious business of either finishing up school for the year or, in a more pedestrian view, just plain business. Holidays interrupt the flow. Break the continuity. Stop and start. That’s why those of us on the working end of the spectrum appreciate them so much. Nevertheless, what should be the most important sacred day of them all is just another work day. Today is Earth Day. Recognized by no major religion (what religion wants to shake the status quo of business that brings in lucre?), Earth Day is a chance to pause and think about the undermining that we dole out to our long-suffering planet. We are nearing the point, many scientists warn, where climate change will become unreversible. We’ve had years, indeed, decades of lead time, during which the wealthiest nation in the world has been digging the grave the fastest. Even the popular media has been sending its subtle hints: anybody wonder why flood stories predominate in this climate? Think about it.

Reading books about environmental degradation is a depressing exercise. The size of the task is overwhelming and we’ve lost the ability even to reach our own government officials who are nevertheless impotent before big business. We can try to plant a tree, pick up trash, or recycle our plastics, but the destruction is taking place on an industrial scale. Ironically, as we go about making our own planet uninhabitable, scientists are beginning to believe that there is life on other planets. Some of us have suspected that all along. And if they come here that must mean we have something worth preserving. My guess is that it is nothing big business can provide. We can be so much more than consumers.

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Businesses are like all of the selfish motives we’ve had to suppress congealed into an anonymous venture in which none have the ultimate responsibility. Driving at night with the headlights off. I have worked for companies that have wanted to be seen as environmentally friendly. None of them, however, have taken the step of making Earth Day a recognized holiday. A moment of silence. A requiem for a dying planet. The draw of profit is just too strong. The old adage is that if a business is not growing it’s not healthy. Instead of ensuring that the only planet we can reach will be able to sustain us for a few more years, we want to go out with our pockets full. And where, I wonder, to we plan to spend all that money?

Happy Disruption

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Last night’s full moon shone brightly, announcing the grounding of the date of Easter, obviously associated with Passover. Unless one has a natural sense of the progressions of the lunar calendar, Easter can always seem a matter of guesswork. It fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It is one the many transitional season holidays. All holidays are intended to be disruptions from the normal flow of time. Of course, business is the natural enemy of holidays, except for Christmas, and, increasingly, Halloween. The usual business calendar eschews disruption, and there are no days off associated with the Passover-Easter complex. A little thing like death and resurrection shouldn’t stand in the way of turning a solid profit. Still, the point of holidays is their disruption of normal time.

My own time faces disruption this week with a business trip to England. Funny how often these seem to be demanded about this time of year. My usual blog posting patterns will surely be disrupted as time zones zip up across the Atlantic. Disruption will become endemic. Disruption without the celebration. Ritual experts tell us that Passover, the basis for Easter, was a development from an even earlier pre-biblical rite. People have always found a way of marking the more obvious transition of seasons, the planned disruption of daily life.

Routine becomes comfortable, no matter how inherently uncomfortable it may be. I awake before 4 a.m. each day with many others whose lives are dictated by bus schedules and economic necessity. No matter how many years I’ve been doing this my body objects to the early hour that draws me from the comfort of sleep. It is a disruption. Now my disruption is about to be disrupted and I’m wondering what is holy about any of this. Time, which always comes in limited quantities, seems best spent with those we wish to celebrate. Our own private holidays. But business and resurrection don’t sit comfortably together. True religion and money are, it seems, inherently at odds. As I pack my bag and turn to the east, I look at my calendar and wonder when the next true holiday will arrive.

Middle Eastern Idol

As the Passover-Easter complex of holidays approaches, our stern, scientific face turns toward the more human sensibilities of religion and its impact on our lives. PBS recently aired the Nova special The Bible’s Buried Secrets (originally aired in 2008) and when a colleague began asking me about it I figured I’d better watch it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar there wasn’t much here that was new to me, but one aspect of the program bothered me. Well, to be honest several things bothered me, but I’ll focus on one. When referring to the gods of the Canaanites, among whom the program readily admitted the Israelites should be counted, they were invariably referred to as “idols.” The problem with this terminology goes back to an issue I frequently addressed with my students—the term “idol” is a way of demeaning the gods of a different religion. Implicit in the word is the assumption of the monotheistic worldview and its attendant problems.

The Bible’s Buried Secrets seemed to adopt an overly optimistic view of the monotheistic religions sharing the same god while everyone else worshipped idols. The view is as fraught as it is simplistic. Historically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are certainly connected. Each recognizes in the others a glimmer of its own theology and outlook, but the concept of deity has shifted somewhat at each development. Judaism and Islam are rather aniconic, especially compared to many varieties of Christianity where images are allowed, or even encouraged. It is difficult to grab the attention of the magazine-reading public with an image of invisibility on the cover. It should come as no surprise that some Jews and Muslims believe Christian images to be, well, idols.

An idol moment?

An idol moment?

The word “idol” is by nature pejorative. Ancient people were sophisticated polytheists. That statue that represented a deity was not thought to be that deity in any absolute sense. Rituals assured the ancients that they were instilling some aspect of divinity into the statues they used, making them sacred in the same way a Christian consecrates a church building. What’s more, it is natural for people to seek a visual focus for its devotion. It is difficult to conceptualize the Almighty as a person without giving it (often him) a body. Islam, especially, has been adamant that this can’t be done, and looking back at Christian practice it is sure to see idols abounding. As the holy days begin for our vernal celebrations, we should perhaps use the opportunity to rethink such religious vocabulary since every orthodoxy is someone else’s paganism.

Lost Supper

Culture, for better or worse, involves a deep connection to religion. No matter how secular we suppose the world to be, profound connections to belief surface in the most unlikely places. Time magazine’s culture section this past week has a brief blurb on “Burger Blunders.” Having been a vegetarian for a decade-and-a-half, this short story might not have caught my interest had my wife not pointed out “the Ghost,” a burger offered by Kuma’s Corner, a heavy-metal band-themed bar in Chicago. “The Ghost” comes with an unconsecrated communion wafer on top, and this has raised some spirits, according to Time’s culture team. Even Protestants recognize the power of the symbol of the wafer, even if they can’t accept transubstantiation. In Catholic belief, however, prior to consecration the sliver of bread is just that—a bit of pressed wheat product. The wafer came to be preferred because it was more easily contained than the crumbs of a regular piece of consecrated bread.

Communion, or the Eucharist, is a ritual meal based on the Jewish Passover. According to the Gospels, it was during the “last supper,” a Passover seder, that Jesus instituted the ritual. Early Christians ate together, and, recalling the symbolism, gave special prominence to the bread and wine. Bread, however, produces crumbs. When theology got ahold of bread it became a sacred object, after it was properly consecrated. It was believed (is still believed by some) to be very powerful in that state since it had become the actual body of Christ during the ritual. Wafers, technically unleavened bread, had many advantages to the emerging theological sensitivities. Portion control, symmetry, and virtually no crumbs. I’ve attended many masses, and the extreme care for particle control is everywhere from ciborium to patten to sacred linens that cover the altar like a liturgical table cloth. They are all accessories to the containment of broken bread.

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Communion wafers, however, when unconsecrated are just bread (if even that). They are not made palatable as snacks, but are more easily available online than basic gears or recordings of your favorite musical. Heavy metal has always enjoyed its blasphemous image as one of the most in-your-face counter-cultures possible. It is also profoundly religious. (Note, I am not saying that heavy metal is Christian or even Judeo-Christian, but it does participate deeply in religious symbolism.) If robbed of its shock-value, it is just loud noise. By association, however, many people mistake the wafer itself for what it represents. Without the added ingredient of consecrations, however, the liturgical churches tend to say it’s just bread. If you’ve ever eaten it, you’ll know that that assertion requires faith sufficient to move a Big Mac.

Good, Friday

Riding public transit sometimes turns into a religious experience. Various bus drivers will wish passengers a “blessed day” as they pull into the Port Authority Bus Terminal—not that I can blame them, after the traffic they face daily, for taking a spiritual breather. Lately, though, I have been wished a happy Easter by the driver. Ironically, I must note, because people of many faith traditions ride the bus. Not all are Easter riders. Just yesterday a Rastafari stood before me in line. I’m regularly joined by Hindus, Jews, and maybe even a Mormon or two (who can tell?). Holy Week in New York is a surreal experience. I chatted with some co-workers where the topic changed effortlessly from their experiences of Passover to others’ experiences of Easter. Religion is alive and well in the Big Apple, but it is mostly an afterthought to the real business of making money. That’s what we’re all here for, after all.

Money, according to the good book, is inimical to the lifestyle of faith. I must have a little too much faith, I guess, since I have so precious little money. Nothing throws that into such sharp relief as looming tuition bills. You see, I tried “to fight the good fight” only to learn that there’s no way to win it without playing by the entrepreneur’s rules. Filling out the FAFSA over the smoldering ruins of my “earning years” was a distinctly sobering experience. I went into higher education because I believed in it—there’s that pesky faith again. The things you believe in, however, have a way of turning on you. I suppose that’s an appropriate reflection for Good Friday.

It’s hard to be an idealist in a world where people say, “you just need someone to give you a chance,” and then turn their backs on you. So as I’m walking across town, thinking about my blessed day, I notice that we’re all in this together. Except some of us. In the idealist world, those who want it the most sometimes win it. Those who play by the rules. I had no Harvard aspirations, just a reasonable job in a little college would suit me fine. A place to think that doesn’t have wheels and aluminum sides and seat forty-nine other lost souls. But for those who have less, even the little they have will be taken from them. That’s biblical too. Higher education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, but it easily joins hands with Judas Iscariot. It is Good Friday, according to some. Others just call it a blessed day.

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