Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

The Werewolf in Summer

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It must be incredibly difficult to write a truly scary song. I don’t mean the kind of scare that most heavy metal can innately deliver, but I mean the kind of thrill that a classic horror movie gives. I’m constantly looking for the movie that can recreate the chills without getting blood all over the carpet. Music, however, soothes the savage beast. I remember when Michael Jackson’s Thriller came out. Now, nothing about Jackson’s musical style shows any hint of being scary. It’s too upbeat. In the end the ghost will be a mere reflection in the mirror, and the zombies will fade with the sunrise. I had some people tell me back then that it gave them the chills just listening to it. Amateurs. A couple weeks back I wrote a post on Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” It’s kind of scary, but it doesn’t keep me up at night. I haven’t heard Paul Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger, but when I learned from NPR that it has a track called “The Werewolf,” I knew I’d eventually add it to my growing stack of MP3s.

Like Thriller, the musical style of the song isn’t inherently scary. The organ in the final minute is pretty effective, though. What’s scary about “The Werewolf”? The lyrics. Simon is, to this child of the sixties, the foremost lyricist of his genre. Rich, complex, nuanced, his words tell a story and that story is scary. While I prefer my werewolves with different baggage, it’s pretty clear that like most shapeshifters the werewolf stands for hunger. There’s violent rage, of course, but like the wendigo, hunger drives those who can’t fulfill their desires in human shape. The Howling, for example, shows how lust can make a werewolf. There is a lust more dangerous than that of the flesh, and that is the greed that leads to societies with one-percenters who just can’t stop eating.

When we see Trump-clones who pay no taxes at all, due to the good that being uber-rich offers the economy, we should listen for howling in the night. Too many an April has rolled around where those of us called “middle class” stare in wonder at just how large a cut our government takes. The werewolves don’t wait for October to come around. No, those who are hungry eat all the time. I don’t find Simon’s music to be particularly scary. The tempo is upbeat and his voice just can’t feel threatening. Still, I’m shivering after listening to “The Werewolf” even though the shortest night of the year is fast approaching on padded paws.

Beg to Differ

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“What do you burn apart from witches?” “More witches!” Earning a doctorate is kind of like learning how to get lost. It certainly doesn’t make you either cool or employable, but it allows you a few years to accumulate enough debt to keep you out of trouble for awhile. One of the things I learned along the way is that you should always follow the crowd. I look at the schools that only hire Harvard grads and there can be no doubt. I look at all the Trump supporters and I know there can be no question. Yes, the ayes have it. So, I never learned to tell which bands were truly worth listening to until I learned to follow the critics. I never studied music. Like most people, I know what I like but I can’t say why. I only discovered Radiohead in the last few months. Some of my critics claim my complaint of lack of time is only an excuse, but I don’t listen to music unless I can really listen to music. It can’t be pure filler. Put on Beethoven’s seventh and you’ll see what I mean.

In any case, my wife alerted me to the new Radiohead song “Burn the Witch.” And you can’t listen to a new song without watching it as well. This time it’s worth it. The claymation video accompanying the song (conveniently found here on NPR) is a reprisal of “The Wicker Man,” one of the truly intellectual movies in the horror genre. Of course, that’s something I picked up from the crowd. We’re told by the most powerful and charismatic bigots of our age that life is all about acquiring stuff. Were I to argue with that, well, I guess I’d be the witch to be burnt. Before listening to/watching the Radiohead song, do yourself a favor and watch “The Wicker Man” (the original, please, accept no substitutes). Go on, everybody’s doing it.

The most dangerous thing in the world is an independent thinker. No, I didn’t learn that at Harvard. On my first walking tour through Edinburgh with one of my doctoral advisors he pointed out the part of town where they used to kill witches. He was truly an original thinker (still is) and taught me to be one too. Problem is, I should’ve been following the crowd all along. You want people to pay attention to you? Go to Harvard! Want people to vote for you? Clearly show you’ve got what it takes (money). Give a man a little cash and anything will do for brains, to paraphrase one of the smartest movies of all time. The only way forward is to do what everyone else is doing. And pick up some kindling along the way—you’re going to need it.