Old Seas Man

Although my fiction writing has been said to resemble his by one of those websites that tell you who you write like, I’ve never read any Ernest Hemingway before.  In the wake of Melville I had a hankering to read his The Old Man and the Sea.  I honestly had no idea what it was about or how the story went.  I’d read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” so Hemingway’s classic was the last of the holy trinity of sea-faring literary classics to remain unread.  Not knowing what to expect, I was blown out to sea by it.  Published about a century after Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea visits some of the same themes but also pulls into new ports as well.

Santiago has hooked a massive fish after nearly three months with no luck.  To do so, however, he has gone out too far from land.  This watery hubris leads him to make fast to a reasonable stand-in for God.  I don’t know Hemingway’s religious outlook, but sea-faring novels already have such a large dose of Jung that it’s difficult to imagine there’s nothing divine in the massive marlin Santiago snags.  With many classics the end is known before beginning to read.  I wasn’t sure if Santiago was going to make it back to land, or indeed, if he would kill the fish.  The old man’s conversations with himself are the heart of the novel.  And one in particular turns to the religious idea of sin.

Not a religious man, Santiago bargains Hail Marys and Our Fathers for the successful catching of the fish.  Then he begins to reflect on sin.  In words similar to lyrics discussed in a recent post, Santiago declares everything a sin, even though he doesn’t believe in sin at all.  His view of life is stunning at this point, and commentary on which theologians would do well to chew.  Sin is a concept meant to impute guilt to mistakes, often made unintentionally.  What might’ve begun as a form of social control has grown into a mass neurosis for those who believe humans are capable of no good.  This is especially worth pondering if the reader considers the marlin to be God.  Try it and see what you come up with.  I know little about Hemingway, but having read his Nobel Prize-winning novel, I do feel that I have learned something worthwhile.  And I also feel the trilogy is complete.

Sinful Thoughts

Nothing is quite so scary as that which is undefined.  I learned that as an Evangelical child.  There’s a verse in the gospel of Mark—I’ll use Mark because it’s the earliest, by consensus—that reads, “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:  But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.”  Now, that was heavy stuff for a kid.  There was an unforgivable sin.  Naturally, the mind goes to what exactly blasphemy against the Holy Ghost might be.  I hadn’t learned much about context by the point, but Mark places this statement right after the good people of Capernaum accuse Jesus of casting out a demon by the power of Satan.  In context the unforgivable sin in stating that what comes from God is of the Devil.  By extension, vice versa.  Keep that in mind.

A few chapters later Jesus is describing sin again.  This time he lists: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.”  If you read the news these characteristics sound very much like the repeated and continued behavior of 45.  Jesus himself cites this as evil—and here’s where it’s important to remember the unforgivable sin—to claim that such things come from God is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.  Yet Evangelicals are doing precisely that.  Every time they exonerate Trump and his ground in behavior that for any other human being would be condemned as “sinful,” they are committing the unforgivable sin.  And they’re not even scared.

When I was a child, Evangelicals took the Bible seriously.  It was more important than anything—even railroading anti-abortion judges through to the Supreme Court.  Little known fact: Evangelicals of the 1950s supported abortion.  Since that time they’ve lost their faith.  And their mind.  Sucked into a political activism controlled by forces they don’t understand—if any man have ears to hear, let him hear—they committed the unforgivable sin that kept me awake countless nights with the fires of Hell roaring in my head.  I set aside the gospel of Mark and scratched my head.  How’d we come to this?  A nation, one might say a house, divided against itself.  The kind that Jesus, again speaking of Satan, declared could not stand.  No wonder Evangelicals avoid the Bible these days.  It is a very scary book.

Spiritual Education

The water was hot. Notoriously hot. Our Junior High School had been built in the days of the prison esthetic, with heavy, cinderblock walls painted in penitent colors. And the water was famously hot. One of our gym teachers, nameless here forevermore, challenged us to be men. It takes a kind of courage mostly illegal these days to lecture a room full of naked boys, but he once came in during mandatory shower time to tell us that anyone who could hold their hand under the hot tap for a full minute would get an A in gym. Since he was an ex-Marine nobody was foolish enough to take him up on this challenge. At least not in my class. It’s difficult to be courageous when you’re unclothed.

The incident I recall, however, occurred at the opposite end of the spectrum, in art class. You may remember those days when you wove reed baskets to take home to your mom. The thing about reeds is that they’re brittle unless soaked in hot water. That was the key to working with them. Make them supple with hot water and then when they dried, they’d be remarkably sturdy, if somewhat lopsided. We had been weaving reed baskets when someone, unbeknownst to the teacher, had filled the sink with water as hot as our old school could deliver. Thinking it funny, since even in those days educational budgets were under threat, somebody dropped one of the very limited number of heavy reed-cutters into the sink, now at the very bottom of a basin of very hot water. I was not the guilty party; I don’t know who was. The drain was plugged from the bottom. Very funny, no?

At the end of class. the teacher was not amused. “No one leaves this room until that cutter is out of the water,” she flatly said. The first bell rang. She stood in front of the door. We would be late for the next period. Perhaps it is the weakness of character my religion instilled in me, but I’ve always had a great fear of not doing what I was told. It lingers to this day, that Fundamental unworthiness. This body of mere flesh is weak and prone to sinfulness. The clock was ticking. Teacher wanted the guilty party to suffer the price of their prank. I pulled up my sleeve, plunged my hand into the scalding water, pulled out the reed-cutter, slapped it on the counter, and walked out the door. We were released to class and the searing pain didn’t last long physically, but spiritually it has never gone away.

Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

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I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

Unconventional Resurrection

GospelLivingDeadWith talk of resurrection in the air, it seems natural to turn to zombies. In this internet age the monster of choice seems to change from day to day, but since the turn of the millennium zombies have been a contender for popular favorites. In a world where many of us feel zombified by our work, this is no surprise. Late capitalist power structures drain the life, leaving only the shell. In a situation where zombies appear so frequently, it is difficult to keep current. I bought Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead shortly after it was published. Subtitled George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, it saves itself from too my obsolescence by taking the narrative from Romero’s movies, and one remake, thus leaving room for the many other zombie movies to come and go. While it does make reference to 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, most of the discussion stays pretty close to Romero, taking the reader through his quaternity of movies in the genre.

Roughly paralleling Romero’s oeuvre with Dante’s Inferno, Paffenroth treats the movies theologically. Not surprisingly, sin and ethics play a large part in his analysis. The undead, after all, are not un-spiritual. As I read along, however, I often thought how a western Pennsylvania connection gives some insight into what Romero is trying to do. Perhaps we are in danger of over-reading without the context (what biblical scholars call isogesis, but which post-modernists call simply reading). For example, some of the place names are given a theological significance in Gospel of the Living Dead that some of us who grew up in the area recognize as just another town. This always comes home to me when watching Night of the Living Dead. The posse out to hunt zombies always reminds me of people I knew in high school. After all, the first day of buck season was a local holiday.

Still, I have trouble seeing Romero agreeing with the dialogue revolving around sin. Yes, his first two movies were as much social criticism as they were horror. The Vietnam War and consumerism were true evils to be cast in parables and shown to the public. Zombies were prophets. Paffenroth suggests that zombies will never become mainstream commodities, but time has shown that even zombies can be bought out. World War Z was a Hollywood extravaganza. The Walking Dead is hardly the domain of outcasts and pariahs. Romero’s monsters were, alas, not more powerful than capitalism. Even zombies can be purchased. Zombies and vampires can indeed earn money, and resurrection itself comes with a price.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.

God in the Shops

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been out and about, I’ve been noticing the way that the divine has been utilized by shop-keepers. In a culture where incipient religion is so pervasive, it seems that God is treated much like the NSA in some quarters—always watching, always vigilant. I popped into a shop selling locally made items (I try to support the local economy when I’ve got a greenback or two to spare, although that is rare), where I saw a sign reading “Shoplifting & Theft Will Be Judged By God.” The sentiment gave me pause. Deeply embedded in our society is the idea that without a divine mall cop, we would all run amok with crime. Although religion is pervasive in the world, much of it is non-deistic, and yet highly moral (particularly in east Asian nations). Their cultures have advanced, even beyond western culture in many aspects of technology, and yet gods (and specifically our God) do not figure into the ethical equation. Pillage and plunder do not seem to erupt when God is not in the shop.

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Whimsical signs have been popular decorative items for decades now. The problem with whimsy is that it loses its effectiveness once the initial chuckle is over. Signs reading “no pain, no gain” in fitness clubs may inspire day after day (although I have my doubts), but the cute warning that “the dog is crazy” on your doormat fails to impress after the first reading. (It must be pretty obvious that I don’t entertain much.) Nevertheless, shops stock those impulse-buy signs that are clever and witty, if soon outdated. I found one the other day reading, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” Even with the strains of self-righteousness, there is valid thought here. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus, he said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” This disputed passage is one of the most pertinent in all of Scripture. No stones flew.

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Finally, a friend came in bearing a shopping bag with Jesus on it. “Lookin’ good for Jesus, the King of Kings, King-size Tote” it read. The bag was clearly designed with a heavy dose of irony. I couldn’t help but notice that the bag was full of bottled gas. This portable version of the only begotten is a reminder of how commercial our religion has truly become. Although clearly presented with tongue distending cheek, we know that, as I tried to convince many at Gorgias Press, Sects Sells. People will buy cute knock-offs of their deities. In Wisconsin we used to visit Holy Hill, a Carmelite shrine where all manner of sacred kitsch lined the walls, from glow-in-the-dark rosaries to cheap, plastic saviors. The shop was never empty. Perhaps it is possible to worship both God and mammon after all.

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Saving Sin

ScienceoSin Although it makes little sense, I have always tended toward a monastic outlook. When I see something I want my first impulse is not to get it. I will sometimes deliberately not order my favorite dish when eating out. I never even went on a date until my Junior year in college. With considerable help I’ve overcome some of these tendencies, although I still wear clothes I bought in in my undergraduate days. So it was with considerable interest that I read Simon M. Laham’s The Science of Sin: the Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (And Why They Are So Good for You). Despite my monastic proclivities, I have never accepted the seven deadly sins as Gospel. They aren’t biblical and don’t always seem that serious. I mean, murder doesn’t even make the list. (And something need not be organic to be murdered.) In that sense Laham ‘s book exhales refreshingly unpolluted air.

More importantly, The Science of Sin demonstrates what sin becomes when God is removed from the equation. Sin is sin because God says so. As Laham clearly illustrates, the underlying bases of the seven deadly sins may be good for you. At any rate, they’re natural. Laham isn’t calling for a free-for-all, a no holds barred orgy, or the downfall of civilization—he just wants science to inform our natural urges rather than the ideals of some seriously outdated monks. That seems perfectly reasonable. I especially liked his demonstration of how asceticism tends to lead to more negative behavior than “gluttony.” What the church wanted to avoid it inadvertently assured.

Looking back over half a century of thinking pleasure might somehow be evil, it seems that maybe I’ve missed some, if not much, of what life offers. My years at a particular seminary were as close to monastic as a happily married man can get. I have yet to find a higher concentration of disreputable behavior than observed in such a religious setting, and I work in New York and live in New Jersey. Perhaps it is inevitably human that what we set out as ideals often becomes the very source of their dissolution. It is true that the seven deadly sins are beginning to show their advanced age, but perhaps the concept of sin retains some of its utility. When the behaviors condemned by the religious become frequent practices of that selfsame body, what other term fits as well?

New York Sinning

Men’s Health, a magazine I’ve never read, is making a foray into spirituality. Or at least religiosity. According to an article in the Friday New Jersey Star-Ledger, the magazine noted for its washboard abs and iron biceps is poised to claim New York City among the least devout cities in the country. Even lower on the scale are New Jersey’s own Newark and Jersey City. Quite apart from wondering what a magazine whose cover frequently involves suggestions on how to improve your sex life has to do with religious devotion, the criteria for this assessment also give pause. According to the article, a city’s saintliness is measured by the per capita number of worship venues, the diversity of religious groups in the city, and the amount collected in donations. Interesting criteria.

I’ve spent enough time in New York to know it is hardly Heaven – still it is one of my favorite venues – but that it is hardly Gomorrah’s brute step-brother either. Per capita places of worship as a measure of spirituality overlooks size of venue and number of services. A Midwestern town with a dozen churches, each with a dozen members and with one service a week scores ahead on such a scale against a city with more than 2000 churches, 1000 synagogues and 100 mosques, many with multiple congregations. Diversity of religious groups? Surely New York and New Jersey must come out in front on that! I’ve been to Europe, and even Israel, and there are days when I’d swear New Jersey has a higher percentage of ethnic groups than any similar-sized region I’ve experienced.

My main concern, however, is with the amount of donations criteria. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” a famous guy once said. Was the treasure monetary? Precisely the opposite seems to have been the point. True, money today is often a measure of value, but it is not the only such measure. In fact, the same guy who made that statement once said a poor woman’s two cents were worth more than the lucrative eternal investment of the wealthy. I don’t doubt that New York, Newark, and Jersey City have their share of innovative sins. Their citizens, however, are just about as religious as people are anywhere. In my opinion the trouble is not in the souls of the masses, but in the design of the assessment. But with pecs like that, what does it really matter?

A God's eye view of Sin City

Eve’s Orchard

One of the innocent pleasures of autumn is apple picking. Not living in the country, many of us rely on the local orchards that open their trees and furrows to the public during the fall so we can feel once again in touch with nature. It may be only temporary, but this farm life is authentic and revitalizing – especially under a cerulean blue October sky. So it was that we joined our anonymous friends to pluck fruit and feel a part of the organic world away from laptops, palms, and cells. Picking apples always brings Eden to mind. In fact, no matter how secular the class I teach, if I ask students what picking fruit from a tree – usually I have to throw in the snake as well – represents, invariably most guess Adam and Eve. Of course, in the patriarchal world of the Bible, Eve gets the rap for taking the first bite, but a more sensitive reading reveals maybe this was what God intended all along.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Within a generation of the origins of Christianity, a negative spin had been placed on that fateful fruit. This was the willful disobedience of sin rearing its ugly head in Eden. Of course, Genesis does not refer to the act as a “sin” – the word first occurs in the story of Cain and Abel. The human striving for knowledge, for the prerogative of the divine, the sadder but more informed life, was now a matter of blame. In the Greco-Roman cultural milieu where men set the standards, woman became the harbinger of sin and decay. Adam stood chastely by, happily clueless until Eve insisted he try this brand of iniquity. Pure fiction. And yet it is this version that has retained cultural currency in the western world. Blame it on Eve.

The patriarchal version


So much of our reading of the Bible is based on prior expectations. Even Bible translators know that they can’t go too far a field from the standard that the KJV set. When western Bible readers first cut their teeth on English prose, it was the dulcet tones of Elizabethan English that captured their attention. And the mores of Shakespearean England combined with the harsh repressions of a simmering Calvinism led to a Bible choked with sin to the point that a little fruit enraged the creator as much as fratricide just a chapter later. The fruit had rotted on the tree, and women were to blame. Perhaps it is time that we recognize the filters before our eyes when we approach the Bible. If we can understand that the patriarchalism is not the point, but merely the cultural shading of the time, we can release the message that the fruit is good. The temptation was not to become evil, but simply to become human.

Sinful Moonsters

Wednesday night a student asked me about the moon god Sin. The name “Sin” has nothing etymologically in common with the usual English word for wrongdoing; they are simply homonyms. Nevertheless, when students first encounter this odd juxtaposition they often think that there must be something to it. This particular student pointed out that many activities classified as sinful take place at night, under the moon. Could they be connected? Linguistically, no; but it did get me thinking about the idea of the moon’s baleful influence on various creatures of the night.

Serious academic works seldom take vampires, werewolves and witches, some of the moon’s most infamously unholy acolytes, to be worthy of valuable research time. Meanwhile Stephanie Meyer and company are laughing all the way to the blood bank. Popular culture gives credence to the children of the night that the academic world ignores. I tried to do a little research on the moon and its mythology only to find that most moon books deal either with serious attempts at astronomy or serious attempts at astrology, neither of which I was seeking. I wanted to know when the moon had slipped from being the gentle god/goddess of the night into its role as the overseer of evil.

Evidence was scant, but it seems that in the Middle Ages, maybe influenced by late Roman ideas, scholars began to recognize the moon’s potential as a dismal influence. The moon has long been popular in folklore as a source of lunacy and luck. Lovers crave the moonlight, but so do teenage vampires and raging werewolves. This is, apparently, a concept of no great ancient pedigree. In any case, the moon here has nothing to do with sin.

What’s Wrong with Eve?

Reading a newspaper film analysis by critic Stephen Witty on film noir, I was intrigued by how he represents the role of the femme fatale. Most produced and directed by men, the classic noir features a dangerous woman. Noting that there are “nice girls” in such movies, Witty states, “they’re not the ones who matter, the ones as essential to the plot as that serpent is to Genesis.” Naturally, this statement evokes the image of Eve, the seductress.

Eve has been much maligned by patriarchal religions. She is a convenient scapegoat for men’s uncontrollable urges, and by making her the gateway to sin itself the male spiritual psyche is unburdened; it is all her fault. It often comes as a surprise that Genesis does not use the word “sin” in the episode in Eden. Interpretations of the tree of knowledge are not universally negative, nor is Eve alone to blame. Scapegoats, however, are much more comfortable than admitting culpability. Religions have stropped this to a high art; the masculine religious establishment can repress the feminine threat with scriptural justification.

Eve is a misunderstood heroine. She is the mother of knowledge. Genesis does not forbid the tree of life; ignorant humanity was free to live forever. Without knowledge. Eve, while perhaps under the duress of temptation, nevertheless took the initiative to find wisdom. And she has been paying the price ever since. Film noir is a reflection of life, as is most art. In a world where men like to think they have the right to rule, the woman who sees a little farther is considered dangerous. All feeble theological attempts to forbid religious leadership to women have Eve to thank for their revisionist hermeneutics.