Tag Archives: Texas

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 Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels.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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.