Hurricane Warming

Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?

One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.

Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.

United or Untied?

Beliefs can be most problematic things. I’ve spent the better part of the last five days in one of the reddest of “Red States.” People in Texas were unfailingly friendly and kind. They seem genuinely interested in helping me although I’m pretty stereotypically a “blue stater” (the beard, the tweed, the glasses—there’s no mistaking it). They help me when I’m lost. They look out for my well-being. But I’ve been conditioned to think poorly of my neighbors. My father was a high school-educated working man from South Carolina. I grew up poor in Pennsylvania. This man taking my check ticket is amiable and solicitous. He doesn’t ask me what I believe.

Sometimes the Founding Fathers got it wrong. The Electoral College has created Red and Blue States. God created people. I want to think that those who are from elsewhere are different. Predatory. Out to get me. In reality what matters is that you and I are beside each other right now, and we’re perfectly happy to be so. We are people. I don’t know what you believe. You don’t know what I believe. It really doesn’t matter unless you believe you should harm me or I should harm you. (I don’t.) This isn’t normalizing the devastating administration constructed brick-and-mortar on hate. There are legitimate foes to face. Me? I’m on the side of the people. All the people. Female people. “Foreign” people. People who love those who are biologically similar or different or anywhere in-between. I can’t believe that our government has tried to drive such a deep wedge between us. From Camelot to Asphodel in one lifetime.

img_3087

Our deeply divided country is in need of healers, regardless of belief. From everything I’ve heard there is no health in the incoming administration. Business has long been the enemy of people—long before Adam Smith formulated its name those who have, without intervention, take advantage of those who have not. Its no coincidence that those wounded in service of their country are given purple hearts. Not red hearts. Not blue hearts. I’m here among people who wish me well, and who, although they’ve disagreed about politics in the past, have never allowed an election stereotype them so badly. We need to end the Electoral College and its unholy progeny of red and blue and swing states. Let people be people who unite against the real enemy—the one that’s trying to tear us apart. That’s something I truly believe no matter how problematic it might be.

Foundation Myths

Foundation myths are some of my favorite myths. If you’ve got to believe in something, it may as well be something fun, right? Usually before I travel to a place I do some research on it. For some reason November of this year has proven to be under a kind of shadow and I wasn’t thinking clearly in the run-up to this year’s AAR/SBL meeting in San Antonio. I’d traveled here once before, and when I raise that occasion with anyone the automatic response, like so many automatic sprinklers, is “that was the year it rained.” This may be the year of the flood, but at least the skies have been dry. I decided to make up for my lack of knowledge by taking in the markers along the River Walk. There’s quite a lot about saints and the founding of this city. I learned that it was named for Saint Anthony of Padua. The site of the first mass, in 1691 (just a year before hell broke loose in Salem) is marked with a granite slab along the green river with its endless supply of ducks.

We’re fond of naming cities after saints. San Francisco, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Diego, Saint Petersburg. Perhaps we’ll soon be adding Leningrad to that list. I suppose we like to compare our communities to our better angels. We’re all trying to be good, after all, aren’t we? With all these saints looking over us these ought to be very kind cities indeed. We have yet to name a major city after Jesus, but that doesn’t stop the saintly communities from trying to cash in on the big name.

img_3051

Conversion has become a somewhat problematic concept. In current doublespeak we would all be better off if we were the same. If what I’m hearing is correct that means Caucasian, male, pseudo-Protestant, and rich. Well, we don’t want too many to be rich—it’s hard to feel special if too many join the country club. Our saints are those that know how to shuffle the money and make it all look above board. Meanwhile we can sell our Jesus tee-shirts and have those admittedly Catholic saints stand guard over our walls and bless our rifles and condos. It’s pleasant to live in the new promised land. Too bad the good Lord made some kind of error the first time around, but to forgive is divine, after all. I think we can afford to be magnanimous when we’ve got the saints on our side. Myths are so much fun to believe.

Who’s Bigger?

Sometimes we have to work so very hard for unity. On the day before the conference proper began, I decided to take in some of the sites. In San Antonio this means the River Walk and the Alamo. I was awake early, as usual, and since the Alamo doesn’t open its doors until 9 a.m., I took the River Walk first. Seeing the gift shops selling countdown to Obama’s last day novelties, I had to shudder. It may be a sad day when you have to look to the Alamo for consolation. What looked like a rainy morning became a sunny day and the Alamo was crowded by the time I arrived. Last time I was here I stopped in the church, and I think that was it. I decided to look in the Long Barrack room, noting the sign that read “Please remember this is a place of reflection and respect.” No photos. No food. Just respectful thoughts. I stepped inside.

 

img_3055

There can be no disguising that this site was host to a bloody battle some time ago. As I looked at the period rifles and the caliber of the musket balls graded up to cannon balls, I reflected how we’ve invented ways to hurl bigger and bigger pieces of hateful stone and metal at each other, faster and faster. A few thousand died near here, perhaps some in this very room. A couple of guys walked up and one said to the other in his beautiful Texan accent, “There’s some beautiful weapons here.” I could almost hear the tears in his voice. His companion agreed. “They’re bigger than what I carry,” he prayed. People had died here in the past, and it seemed that perhaps the best we could look forward to was more deaths in the future. Reflection and respect.

There’s no point in visiting a place like the Alamo without a sense of the history that made this place what it is. It is not a shrine to glorified warfare. It is a mission, an abandoned church, that became out of necessity a place of self-defense. I just can’t shake the thought that so many people died here, but the point of visiting seems to be celebrating a nation where you can wear your weapons proudly. It is a supreme irony that this particular November the conference I attend happened to have long ago locked in this particular venue this particular year. I could very much use a place of reflection and respect. Instead, I’m thinking of how so terribly hard it is to work for unity in what seem to be the increasingly Untied States.

Remember the Alamo

I’ve never started a fight. I’m actually a very conciliatory type, willing to be wronged in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This election has made me feel a little pugilistic, however. The sheer size of Trump’s loss based on the popular vote makes me hope I’m not alone in this. I find myself in San Antonio at the moment. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, which rolls around the weekend before Thanksgiving, has been a regular aspect of my career since 1991. My hotel room overlooks the Alamo, and the implications—indeed, the irony—are not lost on me. I don’t know a great deal of Texas history, but what kid grows up without hearing about Davy Crockett, who died a few yards from where I lay down my head?

img_3034

I’ve known many Texans in my life. Many of them have been, and continue to be, perfectly reasonable people. Good and loyal friends. Lots of people like to live here. Indeed, the population of the state has swelled over the past quarter century. I’ve also encountered Texans (particularly at Nashotah House) who acted like the enemy at the Alamo wasn’t Mexico, but the other states. In the light of last week’s election I’m reminded of the words of one of the Mexican officers, after Santa Anna declare the battle a light one. Reportedly another officer quipped, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.” Voices from the other side of the wall. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from getting in so late, but I’m looking at the Alamo and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is going through my head. The lesson of the Alamo is that although you may lose the battle you can still win the war.

This is my second visit to San Antonio. Last time I was here, for the same conference, one of my doctoral advisors was over from Edinburgh, and we walked through the Alamo together. Today we are lamenting Brexit and Trump together. By slim margins the alt-right has learned to game the system. The problem seems to be apathy. It’s clear that we’re going to have to fight from now on just to get a little social justice around here. Strange words coming from the fingers of a lifelong pacifist, but you’d think that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony might have had more lasting effects. Perhaps it truly is time to remember the Alamo.

States Slights

States, at least the united kind, can have personalities. Some of us move after the diminishing herd of jobs and so end up in places we hadn’t really planned to live. In each state where I’ve made by domicile (six, as of the present), I’ve met people born and bred, down home and with no intention of ever leaving their native land. To such people, I imagine, state symbols may be important. I always felt unjustly proud of Pennsylvania’s Keystone status. I was born there, but neither of my parents and none of my grandparents were. I don’t live there any more myself. I was pleased and just a little surprised to learn that New Jersey has a state dinosaur (the hadrosaurus), discovered right here in the Garden State. This past week, according to an NPR story my wife sent me, Tennessee is trying to garner its own state dinosaur, in the form of the Bible as the State Book. I think it would be a great idea for each state to have an official book, but I would think that it might be a book written by someone from that state.

IMG_1363

Senator Steve Southerland, according to the story, put forward the legislation due to the Bible’s importance in the Volunteer State. The problem is, of course, the Bible is a religious book and that by choosing a religious book you’re getting dangerously close to choosing a state religion. “There used to be a wall here,” you can almost hear the constitutionally minded saying. The Bible is important. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, no well-informed individual can deny that the United States has had a long and complicated love affair with the Good Book. As I try to show in many of my posts, the Bible still permeates our society in unexpected ways. Nobody’s trying to erase that history, but really, which state is going to select the Rigveda for its own book? Or the Qur’an? The Analects?

States are justly proud of their contributions to the whole. We have state flowers, mammals, trees, and birds. Tennessee’s is the Mockingbird. We have state slogans and mottos. But can any single state claim the Bible more than any other? I have to be just a little suspicious about claims that there’s no religious jingoism at play in suggesting it should be any state’s book. Yes, many Bibles are printed in Tennessee. Many writers have called the state home as well. Wouldn’t the more distinctive contribution come from a book that Tennessee actually had a hand in producing? Bibles, like it or not, can be claimed by all. I can see a tug-o-war coming with Texas, should this state symbol be canonized.

Fossilized Views

Not all Fundamentalists are the same. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true, but in my family we recognized that fossils indicated the earth was older than just a few thousand years. Keep in mind that I never tested this with any preachers—we didn’t need to. We knew that evolution was wrong, but that didn’t mean there had never been dinosaurs. Kids are as sure of dinosaurs as they are of angels. Besides, we lived beside a tributary to the Allegheny River that was rich in fossils. We’d spend summer days wading in the water looking for rocks with impressions of various bivalve shells in them. They weren’t hard to find. And being collectors of just about anything inexpensive (or free, as in the case of fossils) we brought them home. We really didn’t see any great disconnect between the black book on the table and the rocks in our hands. There was room for both.

It must’ve been a slow news day at Huffington Post recently when a story titled “This Guy Is Pretty Sure He Found Fossils From Noah’s Flood” ran. The guy in question is from Texas, and, finding fossils probably not unlike those we used to, supposed that they were laid down during Noah’s flood. This was an idea that I only encountered after I’d left home. We couldn’t afford many books when I was growing up, but we did have conventional dinosaur material. Nothing strange enough to suggest that the flood created all the landforms and fossils on the planet. That would’ve sounded just a bit strange. Today, however, it is common to suppose all Fundamentalists are naive and enemies of science. Not all are. Some, I hope, are like I was, trying to find a way to fit their faith into a world that science has come to help define a bit more clearly. Positions have, however, polarized a bit since my tender years. We now fight over things we used to wonder about.

IMG_2734

The fossils I found as a kid found their way back into nature before I grew up. If I ever have the time when visiting home these days, I still try to get an hour or two to spend down by the river to look for the rocks that filled me with such awe as a child. That was a world where belief was fairly easy. I loved science. I loved my religion. I loved the fossils that told me the story was a complicated one. Only I wouldn’t have believed that decades later I’d still be trying to suggest to others that the world is big enough for both facts and faith. I haven’t been a Fundamentalist for decades, and given a few million years, who knows how even the nature of the debate might evolve.

Texodus

I’m not sure what Patheos is, but it has been on my web-radar (or is it “ping”?) for some time now. They host bloggers with a more substantial platform than mine, and often have a number of comments that must require a full-time coterie of first responders. As a working class blogger, however, I siphon off their success to spin my own ideas a little further. All of this is preface to the fact that a recent article by Michael Stone on Patheos comments on Texas’s approval of textbooks where Moses inspired “the American system of democracy.” We are all used to Texas shenanigans by now, but making laws with the ultimate lawmaker just as a movie is being released that portrays Moses as a warrior is apt in a way that Rick Perry’s stomping grounds may not truly appreciate. The need to validate outdated laws with a largely mythical biblical figure is telling. Revisionist history depends on the version of history that is more compelling at the moment, and I find Moses charging the Egyptian army on horseback eerily appropriate.

Textbooks are insidious. They are society’s first crack at young, and naturally open, minds. As we socialize the rising generations to support that with which we’ve always felt comfortable—not wanting to jeopardize our ease in our advancing age—it becomes important to provide the appropriate propaganda. As I speak with fellow scholars (if I may be so bold) I frequently hear them decrying textbooks. By their nature they are a leveling off of what naturally comes in mounds—heaps, even. They are a tool used to keep everything even in a world of rough knowledge. They are insidious in that they are hard to override. Those of us who’ve taught in college know how difficult credibility is when “the book says” is the standard line of recourse. If it was published by Pearson corporation, it must be true.

Revisionist history.

Revisionist history.

Of course, we venerate the published word. Today the Bible, I suspect, were it newly composed, would have difficulty finding a publisher. Since it was written a couple thousand years ago, however, it retains all the trappings of hoary wisdom that is required to make the elders comfortable. Even scholars of the Bible have, as a matter of course, questioned Moses’ role in the story for centuries. As early as the Middle Ages some sages were asking how Moses knew to write his own death scene. Even so, the vast majority took the word literally, and now that we’ve defined ourselves as a “Christian nation,” or at least the southern half of a Christian nation, we can use the Bible as a textbook. What could be more natural? On the big screen I anticipate Christian Bale charging the Egyptians on horseback. In the Pentateuch I read of Moses hiding behind Aaron’s eloquence. One is biblical, but is it believable? If it comes to a contest of force between the two, I’ll go with Ridley Scott every time.

Personal Dogma

Dogma is a movie that many seminarians discover at some point in their theological education. Smart, funny, and irreverently reverent, the film follows the exploits of a couple of misled angels trying to get back into Heaven and thereby negating all of existence. It is no surprise, given Kevin Smith’s origin myth, that the film opens and closes in New Jersey, but I often ponder the strange coincidence of places in the movie to places I’ve lived since my own seminary career began (and ended, rather like the massacre scene in Red Bank before God cleaned it all up). Nashotah House, where I discovered Dogma, is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the state to which Bartleby and Loki, the two angels, have been banished. The means of their escape from this upper-Midwest purgatory is a church in New Jersey. Along their way the angels pass through Illinois and Pittsburgh, before crossing into the very state where God is located throughout the movie (the Garden State, of course!). After having been summarily dismissed from my seminary post in Wisconsin (not for watching Dogma, I’m assured), I too headed for New Jersey. Before that I had lived for a while in Illinois (home of Bethany) and Pittsburgh (home of Moobie). Watching Dogma is in many ways a reflection of a journey that I’ve accidentally undertaken.

YEE.tif

Another kind of dogma seems to be at work in the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The Associated Press announced that 21 cases of childhood measles had broken out in the church, particularly among the homeschooled and unvaccinated. Fears of inoculating against a pre-medieval faith have led many of those who trust their own knowledge above that of the collective specializations of educators, to put their children at risk for the sake of belief. The belief, perhaps unsurprisingly, is poorly informed. One of the pastors of EMIC (!) has been encouraging vaccination as biblically sanctioned. If not for the sake of your children, for the sake of the scriptures…

Vaccination, in various forms, was developed in both Christian and pagan contexts. The earliest examples come from Asia where the plagues sent by the devil were resisted with human ingenuity. It takes a paranoid twenty-first century, first-world faith to suppose saving our children is some kind of conspiracy. “Let the one without germs,” we can almost hear them say, “throw their tissues away first.” In my Pittsburgh days, I was very much a literalist. How surprised I was to see Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood playing an angst-ridden nun, derailed by an exegesis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Dogma. Although the Neighborhood is “anytown” those of us locals knew that Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh. Lady Betty Aberlin was the niece of King Friday XIII, and only those with no conspiratorial imagination would suggest it is merely coincidence that her cousin is named Kevin. With or without dogma.

Monsters Incorporated

Monsters

Monsters. What’s not to like? With a title so innocuous and limited US marketing, this 2010 British indie film only just came to my attention. I hadn’t even heard anything about it as I sat down to view it. The premise of invading aliens is as old as H. G. Wells, if not earlier, but this is a film without over-the-top CGI and a very human story. Showing far more tension than bloodshed, Andrew and Samantha, their Anglo names very prominent, are caught in alien-infested northern Mexico. Somewhat predictably, Samantha has a rich daddy who happens to be Andrew’s boss, but the couple has to find their way back to the United States as giant insectoid-octopi rampage through the night, destroying just about anything they can get their tentacles on. So far it sounds like standard Saturday-afternoon fare. As Andrew and Samantha reached the Rio Grande, however, overlooking the huge wall the US government built to keep out the aliens, I realized what the film is really about.

During the Bush years, shortly after the Berlin Wall had come down, a new wall was snaking its way along the Mexican border. America had become weary of “Give me your tired, your poor.” This was the land of opportunity, instead, for the chosen few. Never mind that we know that many of the jobs most of us don’t want are gratefully accepted by those who may not be technically legal in this country. Never mind that we deny social justice, in many ways, to those who make our lifestyle possible. Andrew and Samantha face the massive wall that says, “keep out.”

Of course, they make it back to Texas. They discover, however, that the aliens have breeched the walls as well. And they really pose no threat beyond wanting to draw strength from the abundant light-sources of a power-hungry world. The film’s ending is a bit ambiguous, but then again, the plight of the alien generally is. I watched the film with no expectation beyond a bit of sci-fi action to help give me the energy to make it through another week of work. Instead I saw a brash American coming to a deeper sense of humanity while standing in a church where hundreds were mourning their dead. The death of one small girl was as much a tragedy of as the breeching of the borders. Until humanity prevails over artificial borders, there will indeed be monsters. Were that they were only giant insectoid-octopi.

A Weird Resurrection

Driving through an unfamiliar city doesn’t allow for much time to appreciate what you’re seeing. Back in February when I was visiting Austin, Texas for the first time, it was 65 degrees outside. Given the irascible temperatures in New Jersey this year, that felt like summer. Of course, the locals were bundled up since it was, for Texans, unseasonably cool. The weather has been off this year. Of course, we know who to blame. Cthulhu. As I was trying to find the University of Texas with an impatient GPS as my co-pilot, I spied someone walking down the street wearing a Cthulhu ski mask. I can’t express how badly I wanted to pull aside and snap a photo, but pulling aside in a strange city can lead to unwanted adventures. Especially when your co-pilot is an opinionated GPS. I’ve been to north Philly and the south side of Chicago. I didn’t want to take any chances that Austin might hide such districts.

Cthulhu mask

H. P. Lovecraft, like most original thinkers before the computer age, was ignored in his lifetime. I wonder what he would have felt if he had divined that the internet would one day bring him world-wide fame. His writings, of course, had been appreciated before the computer was invented, but the web has nearly as much Cthulhu as it does LOL Cats. Even those who’ve never spent a dark night curled up with the Necronomicon recognize Cthulhu’s octopoid visage when they see it. Davy Jones of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame borrowed his unforgettable face from the Old Gods discovered by Lovecraft. Cthulhu has become a cultural icon of the chaotic, the cosmic, and the somewhat comic.

In a strange way Cthulhu stands for resurrection. In Lovecraft’s mythological world Cthulhu lies under the sea, dead but dreaming. A dying and rising god of utter terror. Lovecraft, an atheist, built his fiction nevertheless around a series of gods. Today his stories are noted for their moody portrayal of improbable worlds, and his storytelling has had an incredible influence on many of those who attempt to generate worlds that are fantastic but somehow still believable. Cthulhu’s resurrection, however, is not to be desired. Even if these he represents life anew, it is a life humans could not bear. In a deeper sense yet it is Lovecraft himself who has experienced a kind of resurrection. A writer forgotten in his lifetime, but rediscovered when it was too late for him to realize just what he’d created, the true master of Cthulhu, I like to believe, lies dead but dreaming, and he has already revealed that he will rise and the masses will tremble.

Guidance

My relationship with Shiri is a love-hate relationship. Shiri is what I called my “Neverlost” GPS in my rental car in Texas. My iPhone has a female voice called Siri, so I figured my talking navigator must be her electronic kin of some sort. Finding my way around has been a lifetime vocation, but it is job most of us are never paid to do. I learned the trade using maps and the occasional compass. What a God-like feeling to look down at a map and visualize it from way up in the sky—it’s a kind of power-rush. Seeing the country, state, or city laid out below you, knowing that you want to travel particular roads based on traffic, tolls, or scenic beauty. Shiri and I had our first argument just after I disembarked in Houston. I’d never been to Houston before, and, being parked in a concrete bunker of a parking deck, Shiri was a little groggy and unclear about where she was when I spelled out that I wanted to go to Austin, avoiding major highways and tolls. Do I turn left or right out of the garage? She still hasn’t decided.

Shiri likes highways. Not a fan of urban driving, I’ll take a smaller road if possible. My first appointment wasn’t until the next day anyway. I can’t help attributing personality to Shiri. Was that a hint of disappointment in her cheerful voice as my driving made her recalculate the route yet again? Shiri has trouble determining if I’m on an interstate or a parallel access road. She sometimes sees roads that the naked human eye can’t discern. We fight, but she does eventually get me there. I have a feeling that she crawls into the back seat and weeps when I lock the doors and stagger to my hotel. It’s not that I don’t love Shiri, but she doesn’t respond quickly enough to real life conditions. A “slight left” across four lanes of rush hour traffic is purely academic to her. To me it is impressions of my fingers deeply embedded into the plastic of the steering wheel.

Shiri doesn’t understand that Houston’s many toll roads only accept EZ Tag and, being a visitor, I don’t have said tag. On the way to the airport—do I really have to see George Bush again?—she keeps trying to steer me onto roads that state “EZ Tag Only.” Texans are swearing at me as I suddenly change lanes and Shiri doesn’t help by repeating “At soonest opportunity, make a legal u-turn.” Shut up! Shut up! Where is the airport? I should be able to see it by now. Did I really leave the hotel two hours ago to travel this forty miles into… where? Is that a tumbleweed? When I see the Hertz rental return sign I break into spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving. I poke Shiri’s power button and leave without saying goodbye.

But now, a thousand miles away, secure in my own home, I miss her electronic voice.

IMG_0590

Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

IMG_0581IMG_0580

Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.

Austin City Limits

Maybe it’s just because Texas feels like the brass buckle of the Bible Belt, but I had moral qualms about landing in George Bush International Airport this afternoon. Texas has so many worthy heroes, but in the land of Rick Perry, recent Republican politics is king. Not queen. But king. It felt like a work of supererogation to drive to Austin after a three-and-a-half hour flight to Houston, but Texas reminded me of Illinois with palm trees. And cacti. Well, okay, and longhorns. One could get culture-lash flying here from New York. Before I embarked I had visions of my rental car being a huge Cadillac with real steer horns for a hood ornament. I just couldn’t picture myself in a ten-gallon hat.

I sometimes wonder how religion could’ve come to divide a nation such as the United States. Founded on the principles of religious liberty, lately one party has been claiming the right to legislate morality for all, deeply polarizing a populace that should be able to accept differing viewpoints. Still, there are issues on which human rights insist there can be no compromise: women have equal rights with men, and have the right to self-determination just like men. It truly amazes me that such common sense can even become a divisive issue. If we could agree on even that, we’d have to declare it progress over the objections of the Religious Right. My thoughts wander that way when I tarry in the south. It’s really a pity. The people are friendly here and the landscape has its own beauty. Are we really that different?

I’m not altogether convinced that this isn’t just a case of prejudice masking as religious sensibility. Religions can be all too gullible when they feel their honors might have been impugned. While I regularly express my opinion here, I do respect nearly every form of sincerely held religious belief. None of us has all the answers, and it seems the height of hypocrisy to insist that anyone is right all the time. Nevertheless, my sojourn beneath the Bible Belt has me wondering about the origins of various religious squabbles. Or maybe it was the just the long drive along the “presidential corridor” after touching down at an facility that most websites still refer to as simply, Houston International Airport. Travel broadens the mind—it is, in fact, an excellent form of education. Maybe if we got out more we would all get along better.

From here we all look the same.

From here we all look the same.

Stormy Weather

The privileging of one literature over others is problematic. Of course, the entire industry of biblical studies is built around such preferential treatment. And so is a large share of Christianity. I’ve just finished reading William H. Jennings’ Storms over Genesis: Biblical Battleground in America’s Wars of Religion. For someone who has taught Genesis before there wasn’t too much new material in here, but it strikes me as a very good primer for those who wonder about why the issues of gender inequality, global warming, and evolution remain firmly entrenched in evangelical minds, and therefore, our society. Just the first three chapters of Genesis, as Jennings points out, have led to the much of the irrational, at times inane, arguments that just won’t go away. Tea Party kinds of issues.

At the base of it all is the concept that Genesis somehow represents the way the world is supposed to be (rather than the way it actually is). As if seconding my choice of bus reading, The Economist recently published an article on Glen Rose, Texas. I’ve known about Glen Rose since I was a child. There, in a bizarre twist on the Flintstones, locals claim human and dinosaur footprints intermingle in a nearby creek bed. As the article points out, some locals see this as evidence of young earth creationism—seems Fred and Wilma missed the ark along with Dino. For decades paleontologists have tried to explain that the “human” tracks are actually dinosaur tracks as well. Given their size and stride, if they were human Adam must’ve been a giant. Despite the science, the myth persists. Even the article in The Economist doesn’t give the scientific answer.

It would be difficult to find a book more influential than Genesis. It would also be difficult to find one that is less scientific. Anyone who has studied ancient societies knows that they delighted in telling outlandish stories to explain the origin of the world. After all, there were no eyewitnesses. No channel 11 helicopters hovering overhead to bring you the story live. It all comes from mistaking a good story for a good book. In an era when evidence of evolution literally abounds, we still have nearly half the population of this technological nation trying to make room for the Valley of the Gwangi. Jennings may not hold the answers to all the problems Genesis raises, but if people would read Storms over Genesis, we might be able to afford a little more energy to solving global warming rather than running from dinosaurs in Texas.