Thousand Words

I could easily spill a thousand words, but I have no picture. You see, as a tuition-paying parent I seldom carry cash—pin money is a luxury I just can’t afford. I saw the perfect photo-op, but had to walk on by. On my way to work I saw a homeless man in Manhattan. That’s not so rare. In fact, it’s distressingly common. This man had written a sign: “Give me $1 or I’ll vote for Trump.” It was followed by a tasteful laughing face emoticon. Old school. On paper. I would gladly have paid him a dollar to take a picture, but I had no money on me and I was left to remember and ponder the implications of a statement that struck me as rather profound.

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It isn’t at all strange that the homeless have a sense of humor. There’s a deep, deep irony that pervades a nation where even those who follow all the rules end up finding themselves unemployable. Exploitation is the new capitalism. What surprises us is when these dehumanized economic units show they have feelings. I try to read the many signs the homeless write. They’re not so different from me. I’ve sat on the other side of the desk and been told that I’m just not quite what the employer wants. These affable commodities sit on their shelves, expiration dates passed, trying to raise a smile. Perhaps open a wallet. Their stories could be written down, but who would buy such a book? Nobody likes a downer.

The nature of the sign’s threat is worth considering. The dismal science tells us that it’s all about goods and products that change hands. One fervent disciple of this crooked system wants to be our president. He doesn’t pay any taxes, but he’s never had to live in a cardboard box like so much breakfast cereal. And this poor man in front of me is casting the most noteworthy threat that the disenfranchised can—he’ll vote for this travesty if we don’t pay him. The fine interplay of threat, extortion, fear, hopelessness, and humor tell me that I’m in the presence of a man who has a valuable contribution to make. More valuable than that which is being offered to us by the guy who’s been benefitting from our dimes for nearly two decades while giving nothing back. And if I had a single, or even a five, I’d be glad to exchange it for a photo to remind me of what a true American looks like.

Banned Truth

bluesteyeBanned Book Week is one of my favorite holidays. Don’t worry—you haven’t missed it—it occurs the final week of this month. I’m not very good, however, at guessing how long it will take me to finish a fiction book, so I start early, just in case. My banned book of choice this year was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s not easy to read a novel which is so close to the truth. As any writer of fiction knows, just because something didn’t happen precisely as described doesn’t mean that it’s false. Indeed, fiction is often factual. It’s not easy to read because the “race”—a dubious distinction at best—to which I belong has often throughout history victimized others. While I’ve never knowingly participated in this criminal action—and despite what politicians might say, it is criminal—it’s never comforting to hear from the victim’s perspective. The Bluest Eye is about African American experience in the land of the free. At least in name.

What becomes clear from the beginning is that the families around which this story revolves are pushed to their limits. In an affluent society they are forced to live with less than their “white” neighbors have. Slavery may have ended, but the superiority mindset that permitted it in the first place hasn’t. I grew up in poverty but I didn’t have the added burden of being treated badly because of my “race.” Stories that remind us of that reality are never comfortable places to be. We’d rather think that since slavery ended prejudice went away with it. In reality, however, it is still here. Interestingly, the culture portrayed so vividly by Morrison is deeply biblical. Indeed, surveys of Bible reading in North America show that African Americans tend to actually read the foundational book more than their oppressors. The biblical worldview spills easily across the page.

Although the Bible made it onto the list of top ten banned books last year, The Bluest Eye was challenged because of its sexuality. That’s another defining aspect of the novel. It’s a frank exploration of the human condition. The protagonists are not only African American, they are also all female. Their perception of sexuality is, in many ways, inherently that of victims. Not that love doesn’t enter it, but rather that poverty often leads to a state where sexual gratification is held up as one of the few positives in a life that includes regular mistreatment, poor pay, and jail time. It isn’t an easy story to read. Morrison’s deft hand, however, prevents the story from becoming gloomy. It is like spending a sunny day knowing there’s something you shouldn’t see in the basement. Banned Book Week may be some time away yet, but it is always the right season to read about the truth.

Prophetic Shaman

Lewis EcstaticDon’t complain. So I’m told. Work with the system (i.e., the privileged), do your part, and most of all, don’t complain. What would Jeremiah do? Or any of the prophets? It seems to me that prophets had the job of calling out where society had gone wrong and doing so with a healthy dose of complaint. If you don’t call out evil, it only grows. Prophets come to mind because I’ve just finished reading I. M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. Spirit possession is chic, at least in the horror movie industry, but if you get beyond the stereotypes, you soon learn that inspired, or ecstatic, religion is largely based on good possession. The gods can temporarily inhabit the shaman, and, as Lewis points out, there is often an element of the underprivileged being those who are visited by the gods. Interestingly enough, indigenous cultures that feature shamans—or shaman-like practitioners—accept the rebuke of the gods, even when it may be a thinly veiled attempt to right an obvious wrong.

Shamanism is a bit of a misnomer. Not really a religion, but a set of spiritual practices originating among the Tungus of Siberia, shamanism is now conveniently applied to native peoples around the world. In our love of easy classification, we like to say this belief is similar to that belief, so they must be a type of religion. In fact, however, “religion” is much more integrated into the daily lives of indigenous peoples and specific beliefs vary widely. Nevertheless, we understand possession and shamanism, and we apply them as categories to try to make sense of it all. Lewis does so with an anthropologist’s eye, finally in the last chapter addressing the psychological questions. It is often claimed, for instance, that shamanism is a form of mental illness. What seems clear to me is that shamans are responsible for preventing injustice from getting too far established.

And that brings me back to prophets. Prophets, particularly among those who study the Bible, are often seen as religious authorities. It seems to me that prophets, as opposed to priests, grew out of the untamed concern for justice typically exhibited by shamans. Priests are establishment religionists. They support the government and the government supports them. Temples are built. Religion is regularized. Prophets, however, can come from anywhere. They are liminal figures, complaining, in God’s name, when injustice appears. They don’t support the status quo just because it makes people comfortable. In other words, complaint is often the only way to make the divine will known. They are the heirs of the shamans. One thing that’s pretty obvious—whether you live in Siberia, Israel, or America—shamans are still sorely needed.

Being Humanity

KindnessOfStrangersWhat do you want to be when you grow up? The question kept recurring as I read The Kindness of Strangers. The name Kate Adie may be more familiar to readers from the UK than to those from the US. While spending three years and a bit in Scotland, my wife and I grew accustomed to hearing her name as a reporter with the BBC. I’ve just finished reading her memoir and it brought to mind several points that hit quite close to home. Apart from being engagingly written, her biographical essays highlight the difficulties women still face in much of the world. As a journalist, Adie traveled to many vexed locations where some expressed surprise that a woman would have such freedom as to run around with men, investigating, reporting, and being seen by many, many viewers. Meanwhile, those she sojourned among had to deal with oppressive regimes, low standards of social justice, and, not infrequently, the fear of rape. It is a poignant and at times maddening account. Men the world over seem to share a horrid, deeply ingrained and reinforced concept that women are somehow there to serve them. Here we are in the twenty-first century and we’re still struggling with basic biology.

If I might tear myself away from that particular observation for a moment, I also found Adie’s firsthand accounts of the atrocities she witnessed deeply troubling. In this day of Holocaust awareness and the belief in human dignity, it is distressing to see how cheap life is under many governments in the world. How humans can be so inhumane boggles the mind of those with any sense that we’ve somehow evolved. Often the hatred is based in differing religious outlooks, but often religion is only an excuse. The offending religions that are touted almost all teach the descent treatment of your fellow human beings. Sadly, nothing appears to have been learned from the all-too-intentional violence of the past century. The real issue, reading between the lines, is power, not faith. It is easy to have a scapegoat, and some analysts (not Adie, I would emphasize) like to suggest a simple solution by placing their hands on the head of religion and confessing the deadly sin of being human over it.

The book, I should add, is not all gloom. Adie is witty, sophisticated, and a charming writer. One of the positive takeaways I had from her life story is that the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is all wrong. Adie never wanted to be a journalist, but through a series of circumstances eventually found herself one. A much decorated and honored one, no less. This is a lesson for our time. The old stabilities of choosing a career and staying with it seem to have eroded from beneath us. It is increasingly difficult to plan ahead for an uncertain future. Adie is a fine example of how to adapt along the way. More than that—and men pay attention here—she’s an exceptional example of what it means to be human. This is what we should all strive to be when we grow up.

Rainbow Nation

By now I suppose it’s old news that North Carolina has joined the wall of ignominy as the latest state to try to discriminate against gays. It seems our aging leadership just doesn’t get it that a large majority of people in the younger generation just don’t have a problem with accepting homosexuals for who they are. Laws are generally still made by old white men, though. One might be tempted to say “good ole boys.” They may make the claim that this is political, but as one astute editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out, this is about religion. The editorial, which ran on Saturday, notes that studies have shown that when people learn a law sequestered under “religious freedom” is actually discriminatory, the law loses support. The government by the people thing seems to be working backwards. What will it take for elected officials to realize that we are a rainbow nation? And rainbows, according to the Bible, are good.

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I’m always amazed at these attempts to turn the clock back. It is the season of “spring forward” is it not? Religions that have a problem with homosexuality also have an unscientific understanding of human sexuality as well. Not one person in the Bible had a clear idea of how conception worked. If they didn’t understand the facts of life, how can we expect to learn the life of facts from them? What amazes me most is that such views don’t take the whole picture into account. Intersex individuals—of whom there are many—demonstrate that easy definitions of gender are sure to be wrong. Even tying the concept of gender to sex seems to be misguided. And yet we pass laws the favor a first-century understanding of what it means to be human.

In the end what will change the minds of the corporations will not be their heads or their hearts. The decision will be made by their backsides where their wallets will be growing a bit lighter as corporations decide to take their facilities elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary on our society when justice isn’t enough to strike down a prejudicial law. It takes money to do that. It is a strange world indeed where it take lucre to lead to light.

Chilling Thoughts

GlaciersI don’t think much about glaciers. At least I didn’t. Now they keep me awake at night. Literally. I just finished Jorge Daniel Taillant’s Glaciers: The Politics of Ice. Never have these ice sheets ever seemed to have so much personality before. I don’t live near glaciers, but I have seen a couple. A number of years ago I visited Glacier National Park in Montana. It was summer and the one glacier that was right by the road (Highway to the Sun) was melting. It was the first glacier that I knowingly saw, and I went my usual way, not thinking any more about them. Taillant’s book, however, indicates why everyone should be concerned about ice sheets. Not only is global warming a reality, our ice caps are melting on what appears to be a runaway timetable and we are not likely able to reverse the process until the damage is done. Not only our ice caps endangered, but our glaciers as well.

Why should anyone care about glaciers? For purely selfish reasons, I might point out that they are crucial to supplying drinking water for much of the world. Looking at the globe, it seems there is plenty of water to go around. Only about 3 percent of all water on the planet is fresh water, however. And of that 3 percent about three quarters of it is locked up in glaciers. Glaciers are the only source of fresh water in dry climates during years of drought or excessive heat. Whatever water isn’t used as these ice giants melt flows into the ocean, becoming part of the salt water majority. When the glaciers are gone, they’re gone. They are part of the fine balance that makes life on earth possible. The politics enter the picture when Taillant reveals that large mining interests, particularly in South America, have been destroying glaciers to get at the gold underneath. They block legislation and provide disinformation, all in the name of wealth. When they destroy glaciers, they destroy future prospects for life in the regions they mine. It’s an issue of social justice.

On our little planet that seems so big, we don’t often stop to consider that we didn’t really show up here by accident. We evolved with the features that our planet gave us—notably water—and we have continued to thrive only in the presence of water. It has often been said that future wars will not be fought over petroleum, but water. We can live without oil. We can’t survive without water. And our industrial action is blithely wasting away the largest reserves of drinkable water on the planet. I don’t live near any glaciers. I’ve only seen one or two in my lifetime, but I now worry for their health. Their future is, in many respects, our future. And that makes me want to pour a glass of water and reflect.

Girl, Rising

It is perhaps unusual to stop and think about who you are. From the moment consciousness kicks in, our lives are a non-stop progression of stimuli and response and taking the time to stop and think what someone else must be feeling is, I sometimes fear, a dying art. Although I can’t accept the goddess hypothesis, purely on historical grounds, I am utterly at sympathy with it. I sensed that when Merlin Stone took the time to introduce herself to me at an American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting some years back. She was one of the few who knew and appreciated my book on Asherah, and I in turn knew of her work both as a feminist and creative theological thinker. It was an honor to shake her hand. The heart of work such as that of Stone and Marija Gimbutas was that women deserve, and have always deserved, to be treated equally with men.

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Watching Girl Rising, I was forcefully reminded of this once again. A 2013 documentary film telling the story of nine girls from “third world” countries, the movie is quite sobering. In many parts of the world women are still treated as property, although slavery has been considered a violation of human rights for well over a century. Hearing what young girls have to face in much of the world is heartrending. Hearing what certain unnamed presidential candidates have to say in this country is downright terrifying. Why is it that so many men never stop to consider what it would have been like for them, had they been born female? Would they have accepted that their lives would consist of lower pay and their healthcare would teeter in the balance every four years when a new crop of neo-cons puts the White House in its sights? And this is called the “first world.”

Having been raised by a woman who had, for many years, no support of a husband, I have been sensitive to the plight of women my entire life. I could see no reason that my mother shouldn’t be given the opportunity that other people had. Courageous, strong, and self-abnegating, she did what it took to raise her sons in a safe and loving environment. In my own experience of adulthood, full of struggles and turmoil as it has been, I wonder what life would have been like had I been a girl in similar circumstances. What if I had been born a girl in another country where my active mind would be grounds for beatings, or being shot? It is unconscionable. There may not have been an egalitarian society that centered on the worship of a goddess, but there is no reason we shouldn’t try to make such a peaceful, fair, and just society nevertheless. If only men would stop to think about how distorted a one-sided view of life inevitably becomes, perhaps the entire world would be able to claim to be “first.” It is only when women and men share rights that the world can start to be considered a just place.

Books of 2015

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It’s the end of 2015 and looking at my records on Goodreads it looks like I read 100 books this year. That tends to be my goal mark, but after twelve months of reading I like to think back over which were the books that have made the biggest impact on me over the year. Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus remains on the most important list. It is joined by Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain, Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Levy’s Dispelling Wetiko. Bageant, Dreger, and Levy especially address some of the root causes of social ills and even make suggestions about how to address them. Newberg offers advice on how to improve brain functioning and Wells taps into the ever-important issue of care for our planet. I read some good academic titles as well: Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait, Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastifari and the Arts, and Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

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Being a religionist, books with supernatural themes are always of interest. Among these I found intriguing Michael Murphy’s The Future of the Body, David J. Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People, and Jeannie Banks Thomas’s Putting the Supernatural in Its Place. It seems important to have reasonable people address unconventional issues. These are related to books on monsters, noteworthy among which were: M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing, Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter’s Our Old Monsters, and Lisa Morton’s Ghosts. Long ago I realized that I no longer needed to justify including monsters or the supernatural categorically with religion. They share too many roots to be separated out artificially.

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Finally, it was also a year of novels. Pride of place here goes to Robert Repino’s debut, Mort(e). I am compelled to mention Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, John Green’s Paper Towns, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. Although I’m not much of a fantasy reader, Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess has stayed with me since reading it. For any of these books you’ll find an individual blog post from this year. That’s not to say that other books I read weren’t good. Nearly every book I post on Goodreads has a write-up here. I tend to like most books I read, although I’m occasionally disappointed when a book does’t reach its full potential. 2015 was a rich year of reading and I’m looking forward to a very literate 2016.

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Matins

At a certain time of year, around November after the time change, early morning immigrants to Manhattan see the light. As they stumble out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and head to the east, it is as if the sun is rising like a monster from the sea. In Midtown the streets run east-west and the avenues north-south. I trip out onto Eighth Avenue and have to make my way to Madison, and the entire walk is facing into the unrelenting sun. You might think at 7 a.m. this should be no great challenge, but then you would betray the fact that you don’t commute in early. Hundreds of people pour in a human stream out of the Port Authority and head in all directions, many of them east. The streets are crowded and you literally can’t see what’s in front of you. You are, in the words of a young Bruce Springsteen, “blinded by the light.” I’ve watched in fascination as this happens for the past four years now. It isn’t the much touted “Manhattanhenge,” but simply the angle of the sun at this latitude at this time of day. It may be fun for a few minutes, but then you realize how dangerous it might be.

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One of the most basic elements of religion is care for others. Indeed, some religions suggest that you should treat others as more important than yourself. When I was growing up I was taught to think of things from somebody else’s perspective: if you were in that position, would you want someone to do that to you? It’s a message I took to heart and to this day I can’t pass a homeless person without a backstab of guilt for not pulling out my wallet and dropping a dollar or two into their outstretched hands. Having been on the receiving end of a pink slip more than once, I can easily imagine being there. Seeing from another person’s perspective can be dangerous. Not considering that perspective can be even worse.

Those out and about at 7 a.m. are go-getters. Climbers. They get to work early. Some, no doubt, stay late as well. The person walking west has the sun at his or her back. The street in front of them is brilliantly illuminated but not blinding. How many times I’ve nearly collided with them because they don’t realize that those of us going east just can’t see. You have to step into the shadow of a banner or awning or streetlight post just to get a nanosecond of relief and make sure you’re not about to step into a hazard like an open freight door. The photo doesn’t do it justice because if it were truly to show what I see, you’d see nothing at all. Raised as I was I can’t help but think of the beast rising from the sea, and the woman clothed with the sun. And the homeless being awoken by beams far too bright after a night on the streets.

Forbidden Love

LadyChatterleyBanned Book Week is upon us. In that time of year when we begin to think of spooky, scary things, the prohibition of literature naturally comes to mind. Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book for the occasion. This year I went to perhaps the jugular vein of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Now, I’m not a romance reader, but I was curious about this sexually explicit novel that had been banned to the point of being outlawed and was now considered a classic. Lawrence’s last novel, it tells the tale of a woman escaping a loveless marriage with the help of lover below her social class. The steamy bits are tame by today’s standards, but Lawrence does use several words that are still rarely heard in the media due to their offensiveness. From my perspective the story was a bit too drawn out, and the fawning wasfs a bit over the top. What struck me even more, however, was the fact that this novel was largely about social justice. Not that Lawrence was an activist, but his concern for the poor and discarded of the industrial revolution is quite clear throughout the novel. The privileged having affairs within their class is acceptable. The scandal is that a titled lady falls for a common gamekeeper.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, a franchise that has made even romance writers jealous. From the criticisms I hear, however, the concern is less the sex than it is the lack of literary value. I’m sure Fifty Shades of Grey is a banned book in some location. Still, the deeper concern for humanity that runs through Lady Chatterley’s Lover is part of its appeal. Several times I put the book down thinking, “this isn’t just surface stuff.” It is, baldly put, the search for redemption. Sir Clifford is an invalid who wants to control others. In an era when men laid claim to control of women’s sexuality this was no small demand. He also sees his coal miners as pieces in a larger game that is, it turns out, only to his own benefit.

Although the book ends with the lovers parted, and hoping for reunion, Lawrence’s final words turn toward economic oppression. Mellors (the gamekeeper) writes, “If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing!… If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend…” He defines Mammon as “wanting money and hating life.” No doubt, the book was a vehicle for Lawrence’s desire to see writing about sex to be part of literature and not pornography. Still, there is something deeper here. The story is more than carnality, although carnality is what brought it to fame. It is a banned book that proclaims liberty that, despite the license of contemporary society, is not really as free as it might seem. As banned book week unfolds, it is a moral obligation, I believe, to read those books that have threatened settled mindsets and raised the ire of censors. In so doing, we learn what it is to be human.

Galileo’s Tool

GalileoMiddleEarly in my academic career I got into trouble not because a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data, but because I had pointed out that a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data. You see, I was a naive realist. I believed academics were objective, factual sorts who looked for the truth no matter how uncomfortable it was. My honesty didn’t earn me many friends, and I still can’t mention this professor by name because I have seen grown men melt into tears at his name, due to their overwhelming loyalty. By contrast, a fellow Edinburgh student once told me that he disagreed with our mutual dissertation adviser, “on principle.” As the old saying goes, nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Reading Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science drove home a number of important points, one of the most memorable being that academics take real risks when they won’t fudge the facts to fit the establishment’s expectations.

Although this autobiographically revealing book is about as honest as a writer can be, it deals largely with issues of social justice in the context of those who “don’t fit.” Intersex individuals, especially, are treated before they can give consent and live their lives based on other people’s expectations of what their gender “should be.” Like most people I was raised thinking there were only two genders. Science has consistently demonstrated that “gender” is a construct that occurs along a continuum. Some species change gender in their lives. Some have such complicated reproductive techniques that far more than two genders are postulated to make sense of it all. And yet, when it comes to humans, we suppose that we’re either female or male. And religions consistently claim that any sex outside those parameters is evil. We are so naive.

Dreger focuses her attention much more widely in this important book. She shows how universities, constantly becoming more corporate, often don’t support research that challenges their investments, or “branding.” She demonstrates first-hand the character-assassination that academic snipers use so well on those who follow the evidence. She is living proof that education and activism should go together. Intricate and with bizarre loops and twists thrown in, her account of what some people will do to silence others, and get it peer reviewed, saddens me. I’ve always believed that education is the surest way to solve social ills. Education, however, is increasingly being purchased by special-interest groups that protect the establishment. The establishment may no longer be the church, but we need another Galileo, and soon.

Ethics for Rent

Ironically, the Bible is the basis for the western preoccupation with land ownership. What with commandments against stealing and coveting, the Israelites had a sense of being promised a land by God. It was their land and no human motivation—including imperial conquest—could trump the divine will. In the western world, so heavily influenced by the Bible, the concept of private property is itself considered sacred. If enough land to sustain yourself is good, even more land than you need must be better. That’s logic. Land-grabs by the powerful are nothing new. In America (land stolen from the original owners) no better symbol of affluence exists than property ownership. Like many things biblical, this is often a myth. Although I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, Protestant, I grew up among renters. My family couldn’t afford a house. When my mother remarried, my step-father owned his house and it was in such bad shape that as soon as he moved out to a rental property, it was immediately razed. On my own, I’ve always been a renter because I couldn’t ever afford to be anything else.

After Nashotah House, my wife and I considered buying. Wisconsin, apart from having no jobs, seemed like a nice place to settle. We researched. Your mortgage payments should be no more than 30 percent of your income, we learned. Living in suspended animation since those days, we’ve rented in a variety of places and the 30 percent figure has also turned out to be a myth. Affordable housing, in the United States, is set at that benchmark. A recent news byte in the Christian Century notes that in not one of the fifty united States is it possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment on 30 percent of minimum wage. 49 hours of work a week would be necessary to meet that benchmark in South Dakota, the state with most affordable housing. I know professors of Bible who own summer houses. That’s in addition to their regular houses. Meanwhile, many who would like to own something much more modest can’t afford even that.

The biblical worldview is an idealistic one. Recognizing that greed is inseparable from human will (even among a chosen people) the hope was that the poor would be taken care of by those who had more than their share. As the statistically inclined like to say, the numbers don’t lie. Housing, one of the most basic of all human needs, is exploitatively expensive. Many renters can never break out of the cycle of paying too much in rent so as not to be able to save up enough to make a down-payment on a place of their own. Yet prices go up while raises don’t keep pace with inflation. It’s all about ownership. Laws are in place to protect those who take (“legally”) for themselves. The rest pay into the system at three times a tithe. And even this, the numbers say, isn’t nearly enough.

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Permian Record

GorgonIt looked like an arm bone to me.  Then again, I have no formal training in either anatomy or geology.  The strata of Pennsylvania shale was littered with shell fossils from before the dinosaur era.  Had I found a rare early animal?  You see, I love fossils.  In fact, I was so disappointed the first time I walked into a Fossil store that I’ve never had the heart to go back.  Something about finding the remains of creatures millions of years old is inherently fascinating, and I was fortunate enough to grow up by a river that had plenty of fossils for the taking (a great pass-time for children of humble means).  When I saw Peter D. Ward’s Gorgon at a local book sale, I had to get it.  In addition to my love of fossils, I also have a special interest in Medusa, and the title grabbed two aspects of my attention at once.
 
The gorgon of the title is explained by the subtitle: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History.  As Ward explains, many in the media express surprise that there was anything before the dinosaurs.  Perhaps I grew up with too much Genesis on the mind, but I knew about the Permian Extinction—the most deadly episode in Earth’s biological history.  Over 90 percent of life forms died out, including some of  the cooler species of mammal-like reptiles like the dimetrodon.  I have to confess, however, that I don’t recall ever hearing about gorgons before.  They are a South African species.  Well, they were, long before apartheid and other ridiculous human foibles.  Indeed, one of the charms of Ward’s account is that he doesn’t separate the human element from the paleontological.  His visits to South Africa often demonstrated how the current dominant species of the planet participates in its own extinction.  Valuing personal gain over social justice cannot have long-term payoffs.
 
This is a compelling story of people committed to finding answers in a barren land.  To an inveterate fossil-hunter like me, it was a dreamy sort of read.  I had my fossil “arm bone” assessed by a geologist.  It was actually a trilobite trail.  A trace fossil.  Sometimes things aren’t what they seem.  The answer of why of the Permian Extinction transpired turned out to be the most distressing aspect of the tale.  Climate change, Ward demonstrates, can easily lead to mass extinction through the very act of breathing.  Our evolution has favored the current atmospheric makeup of our planet.  Dinosaurs, who appeared after the Permian Extinction, had evolved lungs for processing air with less oxygen than we’re used to.  Greenhouse gases can shift subtle, invisible balances that are necessary for taking a breath.  And I could extrapolate to a future where technology will again come to the rescue, but only of those who can afford it.  And I wonder what far distant evolved intelligent species will make of a civilization where financial gain was considered the greater good than survival of an entire species?  Humanity itself will have become a fossil by then. But a well-dressed one.

More Rainbows

There’s been a lot of rain this June. In between there have been some glimpses of sunshine. When the rain and sun combine, I always look for rainbows. Yesterday there were rainbows. You see, I didn’t realize until physics class that the sun has to be behind you to see a rainbow. It stands to reason, of course, because the light has to be refracted before it can break into its beautiful constituent colors. If any of the colors were missing, true light wouldn’t exist. Even with many of the religious grumbling, the United States took a fumbling step toward justice yesterday. Justice is something that always comes as a bit of a surprise these days. I’m not sure that we can always trust those that money puts into power. Nevertheless, gay marriage is so in the spirit of America that I wonder it has taken so long to become legal.

I’m heterosexual and I’ve been married for over a quarter century. I know the benefits of married life, so why should they be denied any couple that love each other? Raised on conservative Christian literature that taught me homosexuality was evil, it took some intensive education to unlearn what I’d been told. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality, and in each instance where it does there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered. The Bible, which hasn’t become authoritative for stoning adulterers (heterosexuals all) had somehow been the final word to oppress those whom nature has oriented to the same gender. I had been told “no animals are homosexual.” That is wrong. Documented cases time and again show that homosexuality is as natural as rain. Just ask the bonobos. For literalists that’s a problem because we’re not even, from their point of view, evolutionarily related.

So although it is a cloudy, rainy Saturday morning, I’m strangely optimistic. There may be rainbows today. Now if only we could spread the message wider, raise our voices louder, and maybe join in singing “Amazing Grace.” Maybe we could dare to dream that races and genders should be treated equally. Will our Supreme Court ever make true equality the law of the land? Yesterday brought us over a major hurdle. I don’t want to rain on this parade. Still, justice demands that more work be done. I rejoice with all loving humans that marriage is open to all. Charleston is still on my mind. And if some rain does fall today I can always keep what sun there is to my back and hope that there will be more rainbows.

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Pope of Deliverance

As I was out jogging just now, a large gasoline truck pulled across the road, stalling my attempt at healthy living. As I waited for the driver to move, I thought of Laudato Si’. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, the future seems, for the first time in a long time, an optimistic place. I’m not Roman Catholic, but knowing that the head of the largest Christian body in the world has made an ecclesiastical pronouncement about our responsibilities as citizens of the planet is nevertheless authoritative. A world run by blind greed cannot see the signs in plain sight. We have taken what does not belong to us and have left a wasteland behind. I look back over a lifetime of advocating, in the small way my small voice can reach, for responsible tenancy on the Earth, and feel comforted by such a powerful ally. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a property “owner,” buying into the myth that the planet may be purchased, but it has never made sense to me that one species has the right to claim it all for itself, leaving it in a state our mothers would’ve never allowed our bedrooms to have been left, and supposing it is somebody else’s problem. If not ours, whose? We’re the ones paying the rent.

Those responsible for industrial level pollution baulk at the idea of economic fairness. Capitalism rewards the greedy and the only thing to trickle down is tears. Those with money can always count on lackeys to follow, thus when the man in white says this is important, those in red, and purple, and black have no choice but to follow. There’s no escaping the planet. We shouldn’t have to feel we need to escape. We need to take—dare I say it—corporate action. Those of us on an individual level sometimes think we can’t make a difference. Habits can be powerful things. A visit to a landfill can be a mystical experience. The visions you have there won’t be beatific, however. You might begin to understand the Inferno, in any case. We consume, and pollute, as if it is our right to do so. As if our brains have misfired into suicidal sociopaths.

Son, behold thy mother.

Son, behold thy mother.

Where, I have often wondered, is the voice of the church in all this? By far the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are religious. Religious leaders, embroiled in politics that lead to solvency and power, have frequently neglected to turn out the lights when they’ve left the board room. While it may seem to be an abuse that the Catholic Church is extremely wealthy and highly influential, it may be that the humble leader of such an organization is the only person truly capable of getting attention. The Pope’s voice carries farther than that of any other single individual in the Christian tradition. And the media are already buzzing about the long anticipated Laudato Si’. The Pope begins on a positive note, and if those who make any claim to be faithful pay attention to the truly important message—far more important than fighting condoms or ensuring that half the human race is kept out of the club house—there may be a slight glimmer of hope yet. Maybe religion really can deal with ultimate concerns after all.