Prophets and Precipitation

I have no idea how they name winter storms, or even if they should.  Weather-hype is yet another instance of click-bait, or watch-bait that requires constant upgrading to draw in increasingly jaded readers/watchers.  Winter storms are a fact of life, particularly in northern states.  If you name them, then you think you own them, as the saying goes.  In any case, beyond the fact that they go through the alphabet to draw their inspiration, I have no clue what criteria are used for giving names.  The storm that many of us were out in for much of the day yesterday was “Ezekiel.”  There are plenty of “E” names available, and I wondered at this biblical choice.  Ezekiel is often treated as a name for eccentrics, and I wondered if something about this storm was proto-apocalyptic or what.  Beyond the standard “snowpocalypse,” I mean.

The storm may have been considered of “biblical” proportions since it affected/is affecting much of the nation (as it is me, even as I write).  We tend to use the Bible for things that are of large scale, and, frequently, beyond our control.  Prophets often called for events on national level, and Ezekiel’s message had to do with a kind of ultimate redemption.  I suppose it’s the kind of message our nation could use right now, snow or not.  We could use good times sent from above, following the decidedly unbiblical evangelical administration we’ve put up with for three years now.  What would Ezekiel say?

Back in my teaching days, I had to cover Ezekiel in less time than the prophet deserved.  He pantomimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and, among the exiles, proclaimed their return to a better future.  Now I can’t say if winter storm Ezekiel will lead to a better future or not.  It will lead to some sidewalk shoveling, some travel headaches (as we experience firsthand yesterday), and the usual array of winter wonders.  I do know that claiming insanity to label a prophet is a cheap shot when it comes to explanations.  Ancient people recognized madness when they saw it, and prophecy, they knew deep down, was different.  None of this suggests this storm has been in any way predictable.  Yesterday with its accumulation of sleet and freezing rain, and today with its projected snow are all part of a typical December around these parts.  As people addicted to media stimulation, I guess we have to give it a name so that we can feel properly awed.

Moving Day

So, it’s moving day.  Amid all the packing and sorting—outside the regular 9 to 5—I realized that this was the first move I’ve made outside the constraints of academia.  Well, maybe not strictly so, but I left Nashotah House in the summer, and I was unemployed when I moved to New Jersey to start in the publishing world, so there was no office work involved.  The move without changing a job is a tricky thing.  And exhausting.

I didn’t write about the process early on, in case it didn’t happen.  Buying a house is an exercise fraught with peril and it can collapse at several junctures over the three-or-so months it takes to finalize things.  Then there’s the move itself.  Back in January I found myself setting books aside that I thought I might not need again in the next few months.  We started hauling boxes down from the attic to pack those books in February and March.  We finally made an offer on a house in May, and now, seven months after the process began, we’re ready to move.  Or so I tell myself.

Our last move didn’t go exactly as planned.  Like Bartleby and Loki, we were moving from Wisconsin to New Jersey, perhaps seeking our destiny.  Who knows—maybe undoing the universe?  We hired Two Men and a Truck to move us.  My brother in New Jersey said he’d meet the truck since it was going to take us a little longer to get there.  On arrival day, no truck.  We called the company to find that the said Two Men had actually abandoned said Truck in a parking lot in Chicago.  Although embarrassed, the big Two Men upstairs made no offer of a discount on the move, even if it cost my brother an extra day of work.  We’re hoping for better things this time around.

International Van Lines didn’t call the night before, like they said they would.  After a somewhat restless night (should I stay or should I go?) my usual 3 a.m. internal alarm kicked in.  An email, like a thief in the middle of the night, told us when to expect the big guys and their vehicle.  Moving is kind of like prophecy in that regard.  In any case, for those accustomed to early posts, there will be a delay tomorrow since the internet people are finishing the virtual move around 11 a.m.  Church time on Sunday.  If we pull this move off, I might have to admit there are miracles after all.

Panthers and Prophets

Prophetic is a word I seldom use for movies. Prophetic, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy was about establishing rightness on the earth. Dress it up with God or dress it down to a girl being shot for wanting an education, prophecy is a necessary ingredient in being human. Black Panther is a prophetic movie. I don’t keep up with comic books, and many regions of the Marvel Universe are unexplored by me. I have no idea if the comics bear the strong message of social justice that this film does, but I left the theater blown away. If those who have the power could only be interested in good rather than personal gain, what a world we could have.

The message of not making race, but humanity, central is one that we have yet to learn. It is so basic, so simple that a child understands it. Somehow world leaders don’t. Any secret advantage is kept in order to make things better for ourselves. To make us feel more secure. To put us in the place of making decisions for others. In Black Panther even the enemy isn’t evil. Humanity is it’s own enemy. We sometimes forget that we have it within our ability to make life fair and equitable. We can share what we have and end jealousy. The Gospel of Adam Smith, however, has supplanted that of Jesus Christ. Just ask the one-percent. The one percent who haven’t most assuredly seen this movie.

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into that theater, but it was nothing short of an epiphany. As it has been from ancient times, one can always tell when they’ve been in the company of a prophet. We’ve come to dislike prophets because they make us uncomfortable. They possess something we can’t have. Integrity. The dignity of the conviction of what anyone can see is rightness. Such things can’t simply be taken, crammed onto a boat, and sold. Prophets bear the burden of speaking the truth. Black Panther may be unlike most prophets in that it is reaching a huge audience. And rightfully so. It is the antidote to the poison that’s surging through the veins of this country for far too long. Even those who will dismiss it simply as another fantasy—it’s a superhero movie—need to see this vision of what a world can be. It’s not very often that a prophetic movie appears, but the days of prophecy, it seems, aren’t over yet.

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.

Apocalyptic Dreams

Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”

The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.

Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.

1985

My edition of 1984 contains an afterword by Erich Fromm. I’m afraid I’ve been in publishing long enough to be somewhat cynical about “value-added content” that’s used to sell subsequent printings. Those who buy a book off the shelf want the text of George Orwell’s classic, not the comments of some academic, right? The intended market, however, is for classroom use—the sweet spot for academic publishers. A few adoptions at major university and what is otherwise any old tome from the used book market becomes a profitable venture. My edition of 1984 is a 62nd impression with a copyright of 1961. The class I took where it had to be read was two decades later than that. In any case, Erich Fromm. I first learned about him in college, and given the underlining in his essay I know I read it back when I took the class. In rereading it decades later, an un-remembered point came clearly to me—Fromm’s brief essay is on prophecy.

In the popular mindset, prophecy is predicting the future. While there’s some element of that in the Bible, by far the majority of prophetic texts serve as a warning to change how things are done before it’s too late. There’s a contingency about it. “Or else.” If there’s no possibility of change, why castigate people you’re only going to destroy anyway? Prophecy, despite its often dire outlook, is ultimately hopeful. Wrote Fromm “it was quite obviously [Orwell’s] intention to sound a warning by showing where we are headed.” But more important are the next words: “for unless we succeed in a renaissance of the spirit of humanism and dignity” all will be lost. The spirit of humanism.

Fromm was writing during the nuclear fear that I recall very well from childhood. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend what we had created, I feared we would eventually loose it upon ourselves. I was hardly a humanist at the time, but I was, even in my young days, an unwitting advocate of its spirit. I believed all people had a chance, or should have a chance. Foreign evil, as it was being presented by Ronald Reagan, seemed more fictional than Orwell. The average person didn’t want war. It was the Party that needed our fear. I graduated from college, seminary, and my doctoral program, eventually forgetting Fromm’s words. The Whitehouse had finally found its way out of the Bushes and into moderate humanism. Then Fromm came back.

Prophets Paid

Photo credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Cephas, Wikimedia Commons

Prognostication used to be the remit of oversized rodents and individuals we’d now classify as mad. And news used to be stories about things that had already happened. Past tense things. I don’t read any daily newspapers—a personality flaw, I know—but I do read stories that are sent my way, even if it takes some time. One of the things I’ve noticed, particularly in this election year, is the amount of prediction that passes as news. Future tense reporting. And the future is very tense.

Always one to assume that others know more than I do, I consider the opinions of experts as more valid than my own. After all, they are paid for what they think. Nobody spends good money on amateur opinion, which is one of the cheapest resources available in the civilized world. So when I read the headlines about what to expect this fall I see that the prophets and anti-prophets are lined up along party lines and, if democracy holds up, we’ll find out which group is which, come November. This makes me wonder what life would’ve been like under biblical prophets. No, their job was not primarily foretelling—future prediction was a small percentage of their job description—but they occasionally made political predictions when the boss told them to. Some people think they were primarily concerned with a future political figure, even if Messiah isn’t exactly an elected position. Hoi polloi must have been in a state of high anxiety. Who’s right? We know that for every prophet, according to the laws of rhetoric, there must be an anti-prophet. If a message is coming from on high we don’t know from whom.

Long ago media moguls learned that anxiety sells papers. Or news broadcasts. Sales boom after disasters. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! I’ve seen it in movies and televisions shows, so I know it must be true. As if real life events don’t generate enough trauma, we speculate about a future that tends towards the bleak. What’s a polis to do? The dilemma hasn’t changed in the millennia since we’ve outgrown prophecy—there’s no way to know who’s right. It’s all speculation. As for me, I wonder what the local groundhog thinks. And while we’re at it, could we get a bit nicer weather for a while? I thought the prophecy was April showers bring May flowers, not the other way around. But then again, my opinion is a decidedly amateur one.

Storm Watch

Nothing encourages sleeping in like a blizzard. Although it’s a talent I’ve largely lost over the years, hearing the bellows of the wind and seeing the white reflecting through the blinds, and being a Saturday morning form the perfect recipe for letting my brain relax enough to fall back asleep after I’ve awoken. It’s a guilty pleasure that I had, quite honestly, nearly forgotten. Unlike several winter storms predicted last year, this one has actually come to pass. Prediction of the future may be one of those “God-of-the-gap” things, but meteorologists are modern-day prophets. In a society driven by work uniformity, days off are unwelcome, so a weekend blizzard might just seem to come from God. The highly anticipated list of school closings simply doesn’t apply. Many businesses still recognize the sanctity of the weekend, and we can just roll over and go back to sleep.

In ancient times the weather was anything but natural. The sky—so large and so far away—was purely the realm of the divine. The only way to impact it from down here was to pray and sacrifice and hope that it would behave. Getting back to that view of the world is nearly impossible here in the twenty-first century. We are so accustomed to natural causation that it is just one of those “butterfly effect” things. In truth, though, we know that human activity also has to share some blame with the butterfly.

Winter storms in January are not uncommon in the northern hemisphere, of course. January hurricanes, however, are. And as political rhetoric heats up and we once again ponder what it would be like to have another clown in the White House, global warming is dismissed as just another bad joke. As a nation we’ve been enamored of those who can provide the most entertaining gaffs and still claim they know enough to lead the nation. I have a hard time believing those who voted for Reagan had any success at separating fiction from fact. I still can’t convince myself that W was legitimately elected. The second term of both of these actors freezes me as much as the chill draft making its way through my apartment. The meteorologists nailed this one with their predictions. I’ll stay inside and huddle under my blankets until the all clear. And that may not be until well after November.

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Ezekiel’s Drones

Drones have become a fact of life. Our robotic future is already present as unmanned vehicles do the bidding of their remote commanders. They are our conscience-free assassins and our great UFO hoaxes. They offer a chance to view the world from an angle previously limited to those with access to airplanes and pilot’s licenses. And academics are now starting to take a serious interest in the ethics of such remote viewing and remote warfare. Human to human interaction has always involved emotion. That’s what we’ve evolved to be—emotional thinkers. Even animals react emotionally to each other and to us. The drone removes all feeling from the equation. Programmed to fulfill a function, like Hal, it simply does as it’s told.

EzekielSpaceship

All this thinking about drones reminded me of a book that someone pointed out to me decades ago. I have a copy that I’ve never read, but I suppose eventually I should. This post isn’t about the book per se, but about the cover image (yes, people do judge books by these). Some time ago, I watched a young person playing with a quad. That word is so ubiquitous that I need to specify that I mean quadcopter. Quadcopters are popular drones, available for children’s amusement as well as for military and industrial utility. Their arrangement of four horizontal propellers gives them stability and maneuverability, as well as their sometimes annoying mosquito hum. The quad I saw reminded me of this book gathering dust on my shelf. Josef Blumrich wrote The Spaceships of Ezekiel to suggest that the psychedelic prophet saw space aliens coming to earth. I wonder if, in the light of developments, this thesis calls for refinement.

On the cover of the book is something that looks very much like a quadcopter. Even as a teenager, I wondered what these propellers would do in space travel. If there’s no atmosphere to give them lift, then they are rather superfluous and potentially an impediment. I would think that aliens would be a bit more advanced. Now that quads are a reality—just a block from work I can see a toy store clerk regularly flying one over the streets of Midtown—maybe Ezekiel was seeing into the future. Is that something prophets ever did? The biblical scholar in me says “no,” of course. Prophets were forth-tellers, not fore-tellers. Even so, I have a book in front of me that calls my beliefs into question. In the end, I suspect, that’s what most books are intended to do.

Christian Cookie

During my childhood and adolescence, we didn’t eat out. Of course, food didn’t cost nearly as much then, and it was cheaper to cook raw ingredients at home than it was to buy something exotic that someone else had made. I clearly remember our first trip to McDonalds—it seemed so strange to buy food already prepared. It was so unusual that we went with our neighbors in a kind of exploratory posse, discovering this strange world of pre-cooked food. College, eventually, introduced me to the idea that, if done reasonably, eating out could be a reasonable choice. Particularly if you were wanting to impress a girl. Still, most of my meals were in the dining hall, and trips to restaurants were generally reserved for special occasions. Although Chinese food was known to me, it wasn’t readily available in rural western Pennsylvania. I did encounter my first fortune cookie in college.

thumb_IMG_2185_1024There was something vaguely unsettling about a cookie that could tell your future. Prophetic comestibles were relatively unknown to me. Of course, the whimsical aphorisms seldom indicated any misfortune. They were more like horoscopes, harmless and often amusing. Recently we had carry-out Chinese. I’d noticed that over time fortune cookies had become more and more banal and less and less predictive. They claimed to know something about the world and I was supposed to believe because, well, would a cookie ever try to steer you wrong? My wife cracked open her cookie to find the “fortune” a single word: “Hallelujah!” An evangelical dessert? Was she destined to win the lottery? Perhaps we should play the lucky numbers on the next Powerball?

This really shouldn’t be bothering me, but what exactly was that cookie trying to tell us? It can’t be easy, I realize, to come up with millions of bits of advice so that those who often eat out don’t get the same prediction twice, but what if a Buddhist had ended up with this sweet? Or a Confucian? “Hallelujah” is, by its nature, a Judeo-Christian expression. Even so, it only occurs in two books of the Bible: Psalms and Revelation. My sneaking suspicion is that my culture is being pandered to. A bit of internet research revealed that Chinese fortune cookies are actually a Japanese recipe and were likely invented in the United States. They date back to the 1890s, at the earliest. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then, at my wife being evangelized by her dessert. She does work for the Girl Scouts, after all, and they know a thing or two about the amazing abilities of the humble cookie.

Good, Evil, and Normal

GoodOmensTo date I’ve read a fair number of Neil Gaiman novels. One of my students started me out on American Gods and I pursued his others on my own after that. I was a little unsure about Good Omens, however. I guess I’ve always been dubious about the quality of co-written books. Terry Pratchett, an accomplished novelist in his own right, paired up with Gaiman on this one, and it took the wisdom of another student, albeit recently graduated, to assure me that it was worth the effort. Given that it’s about the apocalypse, or perhaps an apocalypse that doesn’t quite take off, there seemed to be no reason not to give it a try. It is, at the end of the day, a charming book with colorful characters and an Antichrist who gets switched at birth and grows up in a normal household and herein lies the tale.

One of the most common religious themes in novels is the end of the world. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are one of the most striking literary tropes of the first century, if not of all time. The real question about the end of the world, it turns out, is—why can’t it be funny? For those who’ve pondered that, Good Omens is the book for you. It actually does help, however, if you’ve read the Bible. It adds to the cumulative effect. Subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Witch, the book revolves around the certainty of the written word. Prophecy, however, just as in the book, only achieves verisimilitude in retrospect. The prophets didn’t always get it right, even in the Bible. Human choice often causes a breakdown in divine plans. In Good Omens, you’re pretty sure from the beginning that the world won’t end, but you’re not quite sure how it won’t end. The unfolding of the story eventually addresses how a prophecy can fail.

Free will, those who specialize in theology and philosophy will say, is among the more difficult of phenomena to pin down. Some predestinarians would say it’s all an illusion. We are programmed to do what we do. Ironically, some reductionistic materialists would say the same thing. Each of us, however, trudging through out days of toil and play, feels like we’re making our own decisions. True enough, sometimes circumstances decide for us, but if we were given the choice of good or evil, wouldn’t we approach it the way we approach just about everything else? Along the way, the demon Crowley asks a pointed, poignant question: why would God make people inquisitive and then forbid them some obvious, desirable fruit? Isn’t the conclusion foregone? Any writer today would know the outcome before the first sentence was finished. And so, free will is off and running. I hope that the fact that the world doesn’t end won’t be a spoiler for anyone, because I also hope that others will read Good Omens and learn a great deal about how demons can be good, angels can be naughty, and people will always just be people.

Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

JWatchtower

Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.

Porcine Prognostication

Punxsutawney Phil phled his shadow this morning, leaving many despairing another six weeks of winter, which meteorology seems to dictate anyway. I used to tell my students that Phil is a most peculiar prophet, in that he is, presumably, neither Christian nor Jew, but rather of the rodent religion (whatever that may be). People pretend the little guy has powers beyond those of the average mammal when it comes to predicting vast, chaotic systems. If a groundhog flaps his eyelids in Pennsylvania, prepare for plows and shovels and more thermal underwear. Playing into this annual phenomenon is the provocative persistence of the idea that prophecy is prediction. As much as scholars attempt to expunge the idea that foretelling wasn’t what prophets were ever really about, the populace likely wouldn’t have paid them any attention, had the possibility not presented itself that these preachers knew something the rest of people didn’t.

Prophecy is a strange phenomenon. We claim that we would like to know the future, but I’m not sure that we really would. Knowing that we’ve set ourselves on many tracks that inevitably lead to tears, do we really want to know? After taking my daughter back to college, we sat in a fast-food place to grab a bite on the way home. It had been snowing again, as it will do in the winter, and the television in the corner was blaring on about another apocalyptic band of snow. A bearded and burly Pennsylvanian at the next table turned to me, attracted, I supposed by my own facial hair, and said, “What about this global warming?” I nodded politely, not being very burly myself, but I thought of the fact that global warming does mean more severe winters in some places and warmer conditions in others. It is marked, scientists predict, by erratic weather, not a constant sauna in those regions accustomed to snow.

Although a Pennsylvanian by birth, I have noticed that my ancestral New Jersey does not receive much snow. Until this year. We’ve had the white stuff on the ground for over two weeks in a row. Yes, it snows in winter, but not usually here. I shiver and think of global warming. It is a chilling thought. Punxsutawney Phil may live far enough inland not to have to worry about learning to swim, but the same can’t be said of the inhabitants of most of the major cities of this country. We know it is coming, but we turn a blind eye. Progress in the name of unbridled big business interests brighten a future otherwise a bit more gloomy than we might prefer. Phil ducks back into his burrow and the rest of us clutch our coats a little tighter around us. Prophecy is a mixed blessing indeed. We already know the outcome before the groundhog awakes.

An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)

An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)

Twist and Shout

TwistedFaithTrue crime is not really my thing. I find regular life disturbing on a frequent basis, and reading about how someone willfully harmed another only seems to make my prognosis worse. When I saw that Gregg Olsen’s A Twisted Faith: A Minister’s Obsession and the Murder that Destroyed a Church took place in a number of places where various family members live (Poulsbo, Port Orchard, Seattle, Washington) I was drawn in. As the dark story began to unfold, at several points I almost put the book aside—this is a difficult account to read. Christ Community Church on Bremerton Island sounded a little too much like the Community Chapel in which I was reared. The power struggles, the self-righteousness, and the hidden lusts of those who live “clean lives,” all brought back painful memories. Nevertheless, I had to see how this sordid, almost salacious tale played out. Youth minister Nick Hacheney, to cut to the chase, murdered his wife and carried on affairs with at least four women in his church, including his murdered wife’s mother. Based on many personal interviews, Olsen digs deeply into the psychological trauma this one minister inflicted on the women he stalked, and revealed some of the neuroses of conservative religion.

I say “conservative religion” not to pick a fight, but because of the things both the women and men believed. After a conflict over whether to stay with the Assemblies of God denomination, Christ Community Church went independent when a new minister began seeking senior leadership over the congregation. So far that’s normal ecclesiastical politics. What made this so unbelievable is that many of the decisions were based on “prophecies” that self-proclaimed messengers of God presented and that clergy and people took at face value. Even when they blatantly failed to show any accuracy. There was never any questioning whether one received an authentic message or not. Some of these “prophecies” involved the deaths of congregation members, including the murdered Dawn Hacheney. Women with marriages in various states of decay, feeling sorry for the murderer (whom only one of them suspected) eventually gave in to his words “from God” that they were to have sex with him to help him get over his loss. The real pain was seeing the psychological manipulation he applied to his victims, causing them divine guilt if they refused.

In a community that readily accepts claims of direct messages from God, congregants are clearly sheep led to the slaughter. Most Christian denominations have mechanisms in place, no matter how faulty, to test such individual claims. Groups that trust their clergy to be honest all the time fail to calculate human weakness into the equation. It is no surprise at all when staunch, conservative clergy are caught violating their own rules (and congregants). Give them a blank check for signing God’s name to any statement and you’ve got a truly unholy writ. Many churches manage to avoid the most serious pitfalls most of the time. When one fails to discover the wolf in sheep’s wool, as happened on Bremerton Island at the end of the last century, true crime may be the mildest way to describe the results.

Lost Knowledge

While an actual apocalypse for many turkeys ensued on Thursday, Fox News announced that a second reference to the Mayan apocalypse has been “admitted” by Mexican authorities. So I guess the world will end next year after all. And it figures, I just finally got a full-time job. For some reason, for all of our modern technology and scientific knowledge, many people still fear ancient “prophecies.” This remains true after countless failed apocalypses, two of them just this year proposed by Harold Camping in the name of the Almighty. People who trust the science of their cell phones—which, from any trip to the airport or bus station proves, humans are incapable of surviving without—nevertheless fear the “lost knowledge” of the ancients who believed myths were the most parsimonious means of comprehending a cold and uncaring universe. Yes, I’ll trust my entire life, finances, travel plans, social calendar, to a plastic box barely the size of a credit card. But if the Mayans said the world was going to end… these are the Mayans, after all! The Mayans!

Never mind that we know little about this antique people; we have had predicted ends to the universe from disaffected visionaries and disgruntled prophets ever since the Zoroastrians suggested this might not go on forever. And now that two predictions appear to coincide, it looks like its time to sell some stocks, cash in some IRAs and party like it’s 1999. When 2000 came in with its baleful symmetry, as some saw it, with events two millennia earlier, not many were dissuaded from the concept that never emerges. Doesn’t the book of 2 Peter state that the universe is reserved for a fiery destruction? Perhaps the Mayans had access to Holy Writ?

The fact is that most cultures concoct origin myths, stories of beginnings. The way the mind works, it is almost a necessary corollary to construct myths of the end as well. And somehow we trust that arcane knowledge on such matters is more accurate than the scientific scenario that, given the limited longevity of any single species, no humans are likely to be present when old Sol balloons out to be a red giant. Far more spectacular to suggest some ancient sage or savage saw it coming and grow anxious with the waiting. Strangely, many people seem ready to discard all the progress, the monuments, the essence of our humanity for the sake of ancient predictions. 2013 does not seem so far away. Many of us are planning to be here, even if they find an entire library of Mayan predictions. Perhaps the truest prophecy of all is that we, as humans, make our own future no matter what other humans have said in the past.