Sporting Chance

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I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?


Deep Things

Religion concerns itself with the big issues. The biggest. As a child, I remember wondering how anyone could be concerned with less than the ultimate. No, I wasn’t a nascent Tillichian, I was just someone who saw things in what I supposed was a practical light. If you’ve got the temporary, the fleeting, the insubstantial over here, and the permanent, immortal, supreme over there—who wouldn’t go for the gusto? I suppose by my reasoning that all people would end up clergy of some sort, we would all be fixated on why we’re here and what our purpose was. You’ll still find pockets of theologians here and there who debate these kinds of issues, but our existence has grown comfortable enough that, for some people at least, if this ends up being all there is then, gosh, it’s been a fun ride thank you very much. But I don’t want to get out of the train just yet. I wonder if there’s more than the ultimate. It is a religious question.

For a while I grew enamored of the trappings of religion. Ceremony, ritual, strong rhetoric in sermons—these things can move you, and become beguiling. Somehow, knowing there’s an infinite universe just outside the church doors gives me pause for consideration. The ultimate must be very big. Walking through a large city helps to provide some perspective. I find myself next to buildings that cause me to tremble when I consider the implications. Next to those tons and tons of stone, steel, and glass, I am the smallest spark. But those buildings are dwarfed by the city that contains them, and that city a mere pinpoint on a map of the country. Even the planet is less than an atom in the universe of infinite size. Who can help but to be concerned about the scope of it all? Ever since I was a child I’ve worried about this.

In the media today, religion is all about hypocrisy and whose pants are at what latitude vis-a-vis whom. While matters of love are ultimate in their own way, we, as people, have a much larger space with which to concern ourselves. Science has stepped up to the dock when it comes to sworn testimony about the universe we inhabit, but even scientists shrug once we get back before the big bang. Time is even more inexorable than space—there’s always got to be a time before time. Like any child we can always ask, and what happened before that? Perhaps time is the true ultimate. Thank you for spending a bit of your ultimate reading this. It’s time for me to catch the bus, but work will never inspire me the way the rest of the universe does.

Hubble's eye view

Hubble’s eye view


Deadly Morass

Swamplandia! is a novel ensconced in the reality of death. It is one of those books that I knew I would need to read as soon as I heard about it.  Alligator wrestlers, ghosts, and even a biblical-sounding Leviathan theme park based on hellish imagery create an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the narrative.  At the same time, it is a very human story of loss, assimilation, growing up, and more loss that might be gain.  I’ve read many novels where the characters and events faded relatively rapidly after I closed the back cover.  The cast of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has stayed with me, wraith-like, for several days.  As I’ve tried to work out why the story sticks so close at hand, and I think it may be because so many of the characters—the entire protagonistic family—are outsiders.  The loss of the mother spirals a carefree, largely off-the-grid family in a Floridian swamp into a forced confrontation with the mainland.  In these times of economic hardship, the loss of a dream is something too many people can understand.  I certainly can.
 
Death, in whatever form it may appear, is a religious issue because it deals with ultimates.  Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century, famously declared that God was that on which a person staked their ultimate concern.  For many people today, by this rough definition, death has become a kind of god.  In the ancient world s/he was literally so. Of course, death is entirely natural.  Consciousness is the factor that makes it seem foreboding and dreary.  Swamplandia! deftly ties death and love, hope, and a kind of diminished redemption together in a tale where a young girl travels through an unlikely underworld to rescue a sister who saved her own life by her doubt.  It may not be the most profound novel, but it is certainly a moody one.
 
On my campus visits I’m increasingly hearing that novels are favored by some instructors to get at deep truths that textbooks miss.  Indeed, the analytical urge is strong, but not omnipotent.  Sometimes the truth can best be experienced by letting yourself go and just feeling what is happening rather than thinking it through.  Swamplandia! does a bit of that. Thinking back over my own long, academic tenure, I realize that the teachers I enjoyed most were those who had me read what were, at the time, unexpected things. In a world where education has become nothing but job training to produce satisfied cogs in the corporate machine, death as a character in our own stories can’t be far from the truth. Sometimes even alligators and ghosts aren’t the scariest features of our non-fictional landscape.


Ultimate God

In a recent op-ed piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ben Krull published a satirical piece entitled “Strategizing God’s election campaign.” While some, no doubt, took offense at the piece, it is less an indictment of God (Krull is a lawyer) than it is a broadside against those who use God to get elected. As portrayed in the Bible, God is not always a likeable character. As Krull points out in so many words, God is a guy with “issues.” Would he ever be elected on a family values platform? What is happening here is that God is being recast as those who most vociferously claim him an ally want him (always him) to be. Using Yahweh as a springboard, they vault over the compassionate Jesus and land firmly at the disapproving God of Jonathan Edwards, who, along with the God of John Rockefeller, wants them to be rich. It’s not as much an election as it is a catalogue where you can order just the deity you want. The God they claim America follows is a god of their own making.

Paul Tillich, a theologian, once famously declared that God is a person’s ultimate concern. While other theologians instantly and continuously disputed this, the idea still has some currency. The distorted versions of Christianity that we constantly see in the political and sports scenes today is a god that adores the free market and loves football, especially when the Broncos are playing. Somehow, incredibly, he couldn’t get tickets for the Super Bowl. If you listen closely you’ll see this god resembles nobody so much as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—wait a minute… has god packed up and gone home? Since undisputed God sightings are as rare as undisputed UFO sightings (maybe even rarer) we are free to fill in the enormous lacunae with our ultimate concerns. Ourselves.

At least in the world of polytheism you had a choice of gods and a ready source on which to blame unpleasantness. If Baal’s not answering your prayer, maybe Anat is standing in the way. Ancient folk were not conscious of the fact that they were making gods in their own image, after their own ultimate concerns. But modern Christians, trapped with the God of the Bible, feel that they can at least give the big guy a makeover. This is God on-demand. The beauty of this deity is that he is a poseable action figure who is a picture-perfect image of one’s personal ultimate concerns. A God so malleable, so fluid, and so idiosyncratic should have no trouble getting elected. To find the God of popular politics, just look in the mirror.

Who does your God look like?


Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.