A-changin’

The other day, while engaged in a mindless task, I had Bob Dylan playing in the background.  When I say Bob Dylan I mean the Bob Dylan of the 1960s.  I was an infant when he was singing songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  As much as I cast the 1960s in a rosy glow, I was in fact a naive child through my portion of them.  I knew about the Vietnam War, but I couldn’t point to the country on a map.  Likewise, I knew about the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I also knew that we had walked on the moon.  My family at this stage didn’t listen to popular music.  I grew up with hymns in my ears and the culture in which I was swimming slowing becoming absorbed through my pores.  Dylan was part of the latter.

One of the reasons I don’t often listen to music is that I really listen to it.  It is so significant to me that I don’t like to relegate it to the background.  While I work from home, for example, I don’t put music on.  I find it difficult to concentrate because, truth be told, I’d rather listen to the music.  As I had Bob Dylan on, I was doing a task where I could listen as the rest of my body went into autopilot.  The angry white men who are running things now, it struck me, were alive in the sixties as well.  As much as they seem like aliens who were beamed down after the expansion of human consciousness, they were lurking in the shadows all along.  If they sing along to Bob Dylan they’re hypocrites.  We need another Dylan.

Photo credit: Rowland Scherman, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s putting quite a burden on an artist, I know.  But Dylan captured the spirit of the times.  Even as scientism was growing the reality of the Zeitgeist was obvious.  I grew up in the chaotic seventies.  The eighties were bland with the Reaganism reaction—angry white men wanted to get rich at others’ expense, and we let them.  Not enough time has passed for history to decide on the spirit of the fin de siècle, I don’t think.  You see, we seem stuck in a feedback loop.  Dylan’s lyrics are as necessary now as they were more than half a century ago.  I’m growing weary of angry white men and their petty concerns.  Maybe I need to listen to music more often. 

Who Can You Call?

They’re scratching their heads. The media, I mean. In this distorted world of Trumpism, newspapers have rediscovered religion. Some say Trump is the altar boy of the evangelical right with people like Franklin Graham wetting himself over the president. Others say evangelicals want to change their name to distance themselves from Trump. Everybody seems to want to know who evangelicals are, but they’re afraid to ask. The weird, or perhaps expected, thing is universities decline to help. For years now they’ve been cutting positions in religion, a topic no longer relevant or of any interest. Academics aren’t always good at seeing what’s right in front of them, of course. So it is that the media’s scratching its collective head. Is he or isn’t he? What can you say about a man who’s so clearly heathen and yet a sparkling example of Christ-like compassion and values?

It’s doubtful whether any university administrator or televangelist could finger Jesus of Nazareth in a police line-up. They have no idea of who he was or what he taught. All that matters is he was God and he protects unborn babies so that he can arm them with automatic rifles when they’re of age. Oh, and he’s definitely not a woman. Or gay. Is that about it? Just in the past week major media outlets have run stories about the evangelical relationship to the commander-in-thief who’s told more lies in his first year than all other presidents combined. Who said Jesus of Nazareth was honest? He just stood for the right causes.

Having grown up evangelical, studied religion with evangelicals, and having been fired by evangelicals, I know them well. They have a mental capacity for biblicism that’s nearly incomprehensible. The Bible is so sacred that no other book should be placed atop it. It should never be set on the floor. Memorizing chapter and verse is more important than knowing what they might mean or how to live by them. This is old-school blind faith. And proudly so. Trump doesn’t know the Bible but he says he does. His actions resemble the carpenter from Nazareth’s about as much as Joseph Stalin’s. He was a good Christian, too, wasn’t he? After all, the Bible says Russia is our ally. Reagan—another evangelical—may’ve said they were our worst enemy, but one thing we know for sure about the Good Book: it never lies. For that it takes evangelicals and politicians.

Contrary Living

“Where, o where, are you tonight?” If your mind has supplied the tune and pitchfork, you know just what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you too remember this old chestnut: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me…” Those who know me often think I’m just another middle-class professor-wannabe like all the others. The truth of the matter is that I grew up culturally backward, living in a place that looked up to hillbillies as our sophisticated superiors. I’m no classist. When I say blue collar I may be exaggerating the shade of gray working-class outerwear actually represents. The myth when I was young was that getting an education meant you’d improve your lot in life. Yet here I am with a car in the garage that won’t start and a president who courts my kind for reelection when he should be thinking about trying to govern.

Now that we’ve got a Beverley Hillbilly White House, I think we ought to bring Hee Haw back. For those who might secretly doubt my redneck pedigree, I was raised on a steady diet of the country-western music and comedy variety show and WWF Wrestling. And there was, at least in the former, some wisdom to be had. Reading the headlines I see that what the Democrats need is somebody that people like. Celebrities are the political future. We’ve seen enough Ronald Reagans, Sonny Bonos, Jesse Venturas, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers to tell us that. Ironically, many entertainers are Democrats. The problem is our party likes intellectuals to run the country. It’s not a bad idea, really it isn’t. The electoral college has become the Nielsen ratings board.

No matter how many times I watched the “Where, o where, are you tonight” sketch, I always turned my attention to the TV when it came on. You never knew who the second singer would be, or how the verse might change for the week. And the down and outs on the dilapidated front porch with their moonshine always sang of “deep dark depression, excessive misery.” What I didn’t know then is that Hee Haw was ahead of its time. Of course, back then the rural south tended to vote Democrat. Why, even the opening title card had a donkey on it. Perhaps I’m stretching for a little too much sophistication here. I wouldn’t know, because I grew up with back-woods sensibilities. I just wish that since Jed is in the White House we might have a little comedy once in a while to lighten things up on the way to World War III.

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.

Media May I?

“Television today plays too great a part in our national life for us to allow it to fall into misuse by unprincipled hucksters. We must demonstrate at the polls tomorrow that we will not be treated like suckers at a nation-wide Republican carnival.” The words aren’t mine. Nor are they of this decade. Orson Welles (not the actual source) was reputedly speaking for Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 campaign against Dwight D. Eisenhower. There is a larger context, of course. That context, with a changed cast of characters, reaches right up to this minute and is explored in David Haven Blake’s Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics. In the 1950s Eisenhower disliked and distrusted television as a serious political tool. As Blake traces the story, however, his televised likability led to key components in the elections of John F. Kennedy and the once Democratic Ronald Reagan. Americans, swept off their feet by media advertising, ceased to elect the better candidate, starting over half a century ago.

Don’t get me wrong—Blake is no conspiracy theorist. His book was published before the otherwise inexplicable election of Donald Trump. It is a disturbing thesis to contemplate. The progression is impossible to miss. Eisenhower permitted Madison Avenue ad men to commodify him, reluctantly. John F. Kennedy embraced the media. He was, however, a career politician. Richard M. Nixon tried to play the game, and did so sufficiently to win. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, a Democrat inebriated by the money and power of big business, was a B-movie actor cum politician. He won elections like any high school popularity contest. The course was laid. Elections would be won or lost on superficial appeal. No longer would education, intelligence, and the good of the nation be primary in the minds of the electorate. We would vote the way the media decided we would vote.

Blake’s book, as stated, was written before Trump. Many noted last year, although the media was against him, it handed him the election. Front and center in headline after headline, in retrospect how could the election have gone otherwise? His narrow victory (and downright landslide loss in the popular vote) required every bit of energy on the side of reason to combat. Reason, however, is hardly a worthy opponent to media. We want an entertainer, not a leader. After all, that’s what television’s for. Even now the Tweeting’s on the wall. We mainline our news and wonder why things are the way they are.

Remember Ronnie?

Listening to Comrade Trump, I wonder what it is the GOP really wants. My doublethink may be fuddled a bit, but I’m old enough to remember a guy called Ronald Reagan—champion and darling of the Republicans, some of whom say he was the greatest president ever—who stood firmly against Russia and its designs on this country. Now there is clear evidence that, no matter what the Comrade-in-Chief personally did, his inner circle has been dancing with Putin and they’re more than just a little tipsy. And the GOP stands up and cheers. I don’t know about you, but those who voted for Trump have to be wondering where they laid their Russian dictionaries about now. The Red Scare has come to town and Ronnie’s rolling in his presidential tomb.

The utter stupidity of not seeing when you’re being played astounds me. Look, I’m not the most worldly guy—I taught Bible for goodness sake!—but even I can see when a senator’s smirk says “sucker!” Where were the Trump supporters in the 1980s when we were against everything the Russians were doing, and that’s when they had Gorbachov leading them out of communism? It’s enough to make an old believer in common sense like yours truly crawl into a bottle of vodka and never come back out. Of course, in my days at Nashotah House some in the Episcopal Church were having their own fling with Russian Orthodoxy. Even to the point that the refectory was ordered to serve borscht. I personally didn’t see the charm in it.

I’m not the greatest nationalist alive. Borders, which are artificial, cause far more problems than they solve. You might call me a communist, since that’s in vogue these days. Nevertheless, if we wanted another country to decide our fate for us, I wouldn’t have chosen Russia. My personal choice? Vatican. As the smallest nation in the world they seem to have the best leader on offer. Pope Francis at least has a serious concern for the poor and needy at heart. There are those, after all, who argue that JFK, our only Catholic president, was even better than Reagan, as hard to believe as that might be. There seemed to be a little kerfuffle about missiles in Cuba, I seem to recall, but let’s let bygones be bygones. We live in a world of Newspeak and tweets. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say this borscht tastes a bit off to me.

Making Believe

Sanity is always temporary. I can say that because we all know that no one acts rationally all the time. Our brains evolved (or were created, if you roll that way) for the simple purpose of survival, not reason. Reasoning, no doubt, helps with survival, but so does feeling. Emotions may be harder to control, and they often take charge despite what we know to be true. When we do something in passion that we can’t justify, our logical brains have developed rationalization to explain it. I’ve been hearing a lot about rationalization lately. Many people who disagreed with just about everything that Trump said still voted for him. Their reasons are various shades of rationalization, but they generally come down to emotion. That’s not to say Hillary supporters didn’t also vote with their feelings. Her historical win of the popular vote demonstrates that very clearly. We didn’t want a demagogue, but we can rationalize our stupidity after the fact.

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I wonder if we haven’t entered an era of international madness. Brexit was an example of what happens when emotion trumps reason. As much as I like the idea of a Pirate Party, when it wins actual Icelandic elections one has to wonder what’s in those volcanic fumes. Talks are underway elsewhere about departing the European Union. Instead of working together it’s each man (literally) for himself. We used to think about politics and leave emotions for our personal lives. Mr. Spock, I’m sure, is somewhere shaking his head. “Illogical,” I can hear him saying.

As a creative person I value the emotional response. Who can say that falling in love is ever rational? There may have been a time when procreating enough to keep the species going may have applied, but we’ve far surpassed that goal and yet we keep on going. In fact, in much of life emotion is far more important that reason. The question, however, as to whether it makes for good government is one with a clear and salient answer. We must elect with our heads, not our hearts. Some will accuse me of playing favorites—after all I’m a bleeding heart liberal. But I’m writing this with reason on my side. Did I think that Ronald Reagan with his trickle-down oppression was a better, more rational leader than Walter Mondale? Have you ever listened to any of Reagan’s speeches? There’s a time—perhaps much time—for emotions to take control. Elections, however, are not one of those times. Anything beyond that is pure rationalization.

Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

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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Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Call it the Blues

BluesBrothers

Coming back to The Blues Brothers after a couple of decades proved to be a kind of personal enlightenment. Of course I remembered “We’re on a mission from God,” as a catch-phrase, but in the intervening years I’d forgotten what that mission was. The movie is, as it were, backstory for the Saturday Night Live sketch in that show’s halcyon days. Watching the movie as an adult I was astonished at how positively religion is portrayed. Jake and Elwood’s mission is to save their childhood Catholic orphanage. Although there are a few laughs at the expense of religion, the movie as a whole is a redemption story with a surprising lack of irony. Released from prison where he was doing time for trying to do the right thing, Jake has an authentic religious experience and from that point on, the mission is unquestioned. In a self-sacrificial move that lands the whole band in prison, the Blues Brothers pay the taxes owed and save the orphanage. They are doing time for saving poor children.

I reflected on how, since 1980, it has become difficult to find mainstream movies that are so positive toward religious values. Not coincidentally, the 1980s saw the tragic Reagan years when religion and politics blended to the permanent detriment of religion being taken seriously. Since that time the cynicism has grown considerably. We are constantly reminded of it as conservative pundits force “Christianity” into a more and more reactionary mode, condemning all that reason has finally released from the dark ages. This is religion which thrives in the darkness of ignorance and fear. And it has coopted the very definition of religion itself. It is hard to imagine a “mission from God” being taken half as seriously today as it was when Jake and Elwood, although personally irreverent, nevertheless take the ethical call so seriously.

Today the “mission from God” is to protect one’s personal investments. Shut out those who require special consideration or those whose lifestyle differs from that which is putatively biblical. Anyone who dares step out of line is, in this enlightened era, condemned to the outer darkness. The Blues Brothers always wore dark glasses. While initially a branding gimmick, even this has symbolic value in the public view of religion. After all, Roman Catholic Sister Mary Stigmata gives them a sound thrashing for their profane language. But they find the truth in a black, evangelical service. There is a tolerance here—the neo-Nazis end up buried in their own grave—that has since vanished. The dark glasses hide something vital. The only time they are removed in the movie is to deceive. I wonder, I just wonder if with the glasses removed Jake saw a future for which the only prudent response was to hide once again.

Holy Gobblers

I wonder if this is how religions get started. Yesterday President Obama continued the lighthearted tradition of pardoning two turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. There has been a gifting of turkeys to the United States president at least as far back as the Harry S. Truman years, but the pardoning began, as did many myths, in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan took considerable heat for pardoning Oliver North after his crimes in the Iran-Contra Affair. Handling criticism with a joke (again, of which there was no shortage in those days), he offhandedly mentioned pardoning the turkey. Reagan had already decided not to eat the bird and had it sent to a petting zoo. The first recorded official pardoning came in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. This seems so close to the origins of the concept of salvation that I have to pause and baste in the implications. Pardon is only effective when there is guilt involved, so presumably turkeys sin. The only sin that suggests itself is gluttony, but I’ve seen more than my share of wild turkeys and they seem to have any natural weight problems under control.

Ironically, the guilt in this case seems to rest with those who do the pardoning. Turkeys grow fat because they are raised to do so. They are, like most eating animals, sacrificial victims—sinless and slaughtered. Again, there is another beautiful religious trope here, but we seldom sing the praises of the noble turkey that takes away the hunger of the (first) world. So, as crimes are committed in real time, we can shift the focus to the turkey. The analogy with sheep in the first century is apt. Like the turkey, the sheep was known as a creature of rather simple mental capacity. The lamb was sacrificed for sins it did not commit. Yet we don’t sing hymns to the noble turkey. In fact, Thanksgiving, being a non-commercial holiday, has largely been eclipsed by Black Friday.

I see a future religion in which the turkey plays a supporting role. All we, like turkeys, have gone a-peckin’. Turkeys have no shepherds, but they are kept in tiny cages, and the pardoned pair are the great Moses and Aaron of the turkey world. They are released to live out the rest of their short, obese lives in relative comfort, having been messianically chosen from before hatching to be spared the fate of being consumed by the ultimate consumer. This is the very stuff (stuffing?) around which Bibles are written. The theology here is as thick as gravy. As a vegetarian, however, my sympathies are with the birds. Heaven help us all when the pardoned pair come back and declare, “Let my turkeys go!”

Watch, and Pray

Religion is a lucrative business. There is likely a deep, evolutionary urge for fair play nestled somewhere in primate DNA. Monkeys and apes seem concerned about it, and certainly nothing gets people more upset than a cheater who does prosper (unless he, less often she, is the protagonist of some gangster movie). Most of us work pretty hard to make a living, often doing tasks that push us beyond our comfort range in order to ensure some kind of success. The same is true of clergy. Yes, stories of lazy or lackadaisical ministers abound, but many work long hours under often stressful conditions. Most are not paid very well. Their eyes, according to unwritten writ, are turned toward a larger prize. In an economy that has become a nearly universal capitalism, everything has a price. People want to feel that they are pleasing God but there are oh so many rules and regulations! The Hebrew Bible alone has 613, and then add the Christian Scriptures and two millennia of ecclesiological dogmatism and you’ve got one hefty bill. We don’t mind paying a bit of that for a religious specialist to take care of the details while we get on with the real business of life.

Now add a little math. How many people does it take to add up to a small fortune? Already by the Middle Ages the Catholic Church, really the only show in town across Europe, had amassed a real treasury. Although individually the clergy could claim to own nothing, collectively they were flush. Even today the wealth (and therefore power) of the Vatican is nearly beyond comprehension. A colleague recently pointed me to a story I had missed back in April. This involved the computer age and lucre in an unexpected place. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I was photographed sitting at a high-gloss table, wearing a Breguet watch valued at $30,000. There was an outcry. The Russian Church, long under the pressure of a communist state, could hardly be described as opulent. Well, liturgical vestments and accouterments are expected to be costly, but personal items such as watches, are expected to be modest. Thirty-thousand dollars is a lot of money to be reminded of when to show up for mass.

In response, some church leaders turned to technology for a solution. The watch was Photoshopped out of the picture and, as if a miracle, the scandal disappeared! Except they forgot the glossy tabletop—the reflection of the watch, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, remained as evidence. (The story may be found here, along with the damning photos, if you can stand the snarky writing.) Owning such a watch may be considered bad form among the humble clergy, hiding it, however, is even worse. I don’t mean to single out Patriarch Kirill—the Russians have had a pretty rough go of it, what with Stalin and Reagan and all—but religions seldom like to have their coffers examined. The laity will pay handsomely to avoid the extra work salvation demands. Herein lies the rub: salvation has become less tangible as material wealth has expanded. Many people have mistaken one for the other. It’s just that they don’t want to get caught enjoying a little too much of the one at the expense of the other.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

Occluded Religion

In my youngest days the word “occult” conjured the most perilous kind of fear in my inexperienced, Christian heart. It sounded malevolent and sinister, suggesting Hell, Satan, and the coercion of the divine. Therefore it took considerable time to pump up the courage to read Occult America by Mitch Horowitz. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic—I learned in the course of my many years studying religion that “occult” is very difficult to tease out from “religion.” What I really feared is what others would think of me as I sat on the bus reading Occult America while heading to the Lincoln Tunnel. The word “occult” refers to the “hidden” or “secret” nature of certain religious practices. In ancient times it might refer to the Gnostics or Mandaeans, while in more recent days it might be used to describe Rosicrucians or Theosophists. Unconventional, yes. Evil, hardly.

Horowitz takes his readers through a whirlwind tour of some very colorful characters and, perhaps more importantly, shows just how deeply rooted occult practices are in the most Christian nation on earth. Few people realize just how influenced high office holders in this country have occasionally been by the occult. It seems a hard-and-fast rule that to be elected president you must be a professing Christian, strongly preferable if of the evangelical, Protestant flavor. Ronald Reagan made a great show of that while being personally convicted of the efficacy of astrology and some popular mediums. And Reagan has not been the only one. Still, politicians have to keep their more unconventional religious beliefs secret. The populace likes a straight shooter, devotionally speaking. The fact is that even what many people think of as regular Christianity has been seasoned somewhat with occult.

I can recommend this little book for getting a sense of just how deeply the occult has tunneled into the American psyche. The chapter on the ouija board took me straight back to a very straight-laced Grove City College, bastion of conservative evangelicalism. When I matriculated (which sounds vaguely occultish in its own right) the yearbook was called The Ouija. It was explained away as the combination of the French and German words for “yes,” but everyone knew, given what yearbooks are, that it had that spooky, occult vibe. By my senior year a more fluffy, evangelical-safe title of The Bridge replaced it. And many heaved a great sigh of relief. Christians thanked their lucky stars that they’d been delivered from the evils of the occult just as they were lining up to elect Ronald Reagan to a second term in office.

The Fires of Bureaucratic Porn

My hopeless naivety must show through on this blog from time to time. I mean, I once walked into a Fossil store expecting to find impressions of dead animals instead of trendy accessories. Maybe it is because I grew up in a small town, without cable, with a regular regimen of church attendance and associated activities. Being working class often means taking things at face value. You learn pretty quickly that you don’t have much control over the things around you—someone else signs the checks, and if you don’t do what they say, the checks don’t get signed. I grew up in a refinery town doing lots of dirty jobs. “Excuse me sir, but do you have any trilobites?” There’s one born every minute. Well, more frequently than that, actually.

Thus it was with a certain wonder that I first learned about another small, Pennsylvania town with an unearthly problem. David DeKok’s Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire is an unsensationalized ride through the reality of bureaucratic lack of heart and the weighing of peoples’ lives in the scales of cost effectiveness. The Centralia mine fire began the year I was born (1962). It still burns today and has enough fuel, some reports suggest, to last for a thousand years. This is a hellish millennium. Accounts of elderly citizens awaking in the middle of the night with carbon monoxide clouds in their basements, ground temperatures hot enough to melt blacktop, bore-hole readings of over 800 degrees. Under what’s left of the town of Centralia, the heart of the fire is hotter than the surface of the planet Mercury. What DeKok provides is a step-by-step analysis of political side-stepping. Realizing how expensive it had become to fight this fire underground, state officials were repeatedly caught with their skirts over their heads, claiming that they were wearing full-body armor underneath. During the height of the crisis, in the Reagan and Thornburg years, cutbacks in vital services left the working people of this town in an impossible predicament. Those in positions of power would not even change their vacation plans to try to save a thousand lives. When the smoke clears, after a millennium, if there’s anyone left to write histories, we will see where unchecked greed and ambition lead. It is the only hope we have. The book reads like porn for bureaucrats.

In my hometown we worried about refinery fires when I was growing up. As a child I saw such a fire from a distance; it looked like an entire hillside (a mountain in my naive eyes) was aflame. My brothers and I went outside to gather ashes as large as dinner plates that were floating through the sky, falling like demonic snow. (We doubtless would have kept them, alongside our fossils, had my mother not sensibly put down her foot.) Later, when we drove out that way, we saw the great steel vats that held 260,000 gallons of petroleum products bent and folded over like the hem of God’s great robe in the temple. Over forty years later the image is still vivid in my mind. Those who’ve lived with fire know the danger better than plutocratic oligarchs who view human lives in terms of the bottom line. One truth of physics may come to our aid, eventually; heat does rise. Whether it will ever reach the level of those in power, however, will only be answered when I find that trilobite I’m seeking amid the expensive watches and wallets of the Fossil crowd. I’ll find one too, before the Centralia mine fire burns itself out.