Never Too Late

In these weary days of bleak news, I’m always glad to find a bit of cheer.  A friend recently shared the story of Giuseppe Paternò from The Guardian.  Paternò is a 96-year-old first time college graduate.  As the story explains Paternò had wanted to attend college his entire life but being raised in poverty he never had the opportunity.  We all know how life is a rushing river that snatches you in its current, and thus Paternò found himself unable to attain his dream.  Until his nineties.  Just this year he graduated from the University of Palermo.  What really spoke to me about this story is that Paternò is now considering working on his master’s degree.  While some might wonder if this is practical, to me it demonstrates that knowledge is never wasted.

We live in an era where education is seen as either a useless luxury or as just another business.  Both views are fatal to our civilization.  We have reached where we are by progressively educating our young (and old) so that our collective knowledge-base grows.  When education is seen as a business (and I saw this in my ill-fated university teaching career) it becomes something different.  This isn’t on the part of the faculty, for the most part, but on administrations.  Paying corporate-level salaries to administrators—schools top-heavy with deans—they can’t afford to hire faculty and cut departments that aren’t profitable.  Knowledge, in turn, suffers.  Paternò, I sincerely hope, avoided the politics of academia.  A man hungry for knowledge, he studied philosophy at an age when most of us think people should just sit around and stare at the walls all day.  Knowledge should never be wasted.

Those of us who’ve been excluded from the academy sometimes try to continue our contribution.  Some of us still write books and articles.  It does nothing for our promotion or tenure.  It certainly doesn’t bear much in royalties.  “Why do it?” a friend once asked me.  When we cease seeking knowledge we stagnate and die.  We see this playing out in the politics of our day.  Washington houses many who see education as a threat to the unrestrained acquisition of mere money.  This is why universities suffer—they are not businesses.  One size does not fit all.  At their best they’re places where those of us raised in poverty can go to have our eyes opened.  And they are places where even nonagenarians can go to contribute to the growth of knowledge.

Scrolls Not Living

Of the many ancient finds in Western Asia, none captured the imagination like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The timing and romance of the find itself, the scandals that almost immediately broke out, and the subsequent “secrecy” over the contents made the secular news.  I’m convinced that a large part of the mystique has to do with the somewhat spooky name—Qumran scrolls never caught on, even though it is more accurate for many of the documents.  Their discovery came after the Second World War when people were wanting good news, and, perhaps, an indication that all of this stuff was somehow predicted.  Enter the scrolls.  No doubt, these documents gave us quite a lot of information on the Second Temple Period—the time from the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the sixth century BCE until its destruction under the Romans in the first century CE.  Now the scrolls are back in the news.

A story by Nicola Davis in The Guardian announces that the origin of the scrolls is once again open to interpretation.  The reason is somewhat technical—scrolls that were written on vellum (animal skins) had to be prepared for writing.  One of the steps involved chemically treating the writing surface with a fine powder (the details are beyond me) so that it could be written upon.  We’ve reached the point where the salts left behind can be tested for place of origin.  The Guardian story notes that the Temple Scroll—one of the important non-biblical texts—was not prepared at Qumran (the site where most of the scrolls were found).  That means that the scroll itself came from elsewhere, depending upon with whom you speak.  The scrolls gather controversy like the Ugaritic tablets gather dust.  

Part of the charm here is that there are many unanswered questions about these ancient texts.  Who exactly wrote them is debated.  Their find-spot suggests they were hidden away by the quasi-monastics who lived in nearby Qumran, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily wrote them.  It’s still debated whether the Qumran community was made up of Essenes or not.  One thing we do know about them is that they were able librarians.  The scrolls themselves are symbolic of the strife in the region, having been discovered just as Israel was declared a nation.  The scrolls were quickly politicized.  They were kept under the auspices of a small group of academics and priests for many decades.  And they still have a way of catching headlines.  Even when its a matter of who powdered their faces.

 

 

 

 

 

The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Kindling

Paula Cocozza, writing for The Guardian, describes “How E-books Lost Their Shine.” Like most inveterate readers, she says she has stacks of books growing like mushrooms after a summer rain, in her bedroom. I was working in the publishing industry (I still am, so please take no alarm at my rhetoric) when e-book sales plateaued. Then declined. “Industry analysts” were baffled. I wasn’t. The reasoning goes like this: e-books are light and cheap and amazingly convenient—why would anyone want something different? Those of us who love books know. If you know what I mean when I write “library smell” I’m preaching to the converted. More beguiling than new car scent, that first deep breath when you step into a library takes you places your physical body may never go. All those bodies of books gathered together let off a bouquet that insists you follow your nose to an earthly paradise. I just tried sniffing my iPhone. Nothing. No synapses fired. I’ve read books on it, but have I really?

Studies tend to show we have trouble remembering books read electronically. It’s just too fast. Wham-bam-thank you whoever you are. Let’s get on to the next thing. But books, as Cocozza writes, are slow. Publishing’s a slow industry. You submit your proposal, and the editor reads it. The editorial board discusses it. The book is written and sent to a copyeditor. Then a compositor or typesetter. Then a proofreader. Then it’s off to the presses. Printed, bound, and shipped. It can take a year or more. And when you curl up in bed with a book, furtively sniffing it, gently rubbing your fingers along its pages, drawn into a world not your own, plastic’s the last thing on your mind.

A few Saturdays ago I attended the Hunterdon County Library book sale. I go every year. It’s a big deal. People line up in advance. You step into the barn-like sales floor and it hits you—the smell of all those books. The aroma of knowledge. You can’t repurpose an e-book. You can’t sell it back because nothing was ever really produced. You purchased electrons, you’re stuck with electrons. Hit “delete” when the storage is full. All these books in this room are valuable. All for pocket-change. Many of them were wildly overprinted in the exuberance that naturally comes from being over-stimulated. Like kids about to enter Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Industry analysts are puzzled. If they’d get their fingers dirty by thumbing through a used book once in a while they wouldn’t be. Yes, its dusty, grungy, and probably laced with germs, but I wouldn’t trade it in right now for a Kindle, even if it costs me nothing.

Dreaming Reality

The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)

In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.

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When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.

Tell It Straight

Apparently there is a burgeoning interest in swearing. Not necessarily in doing it, but in studying it. Over the past couple of years I’ve easily found a book every twelve months that devotes itself to the topic. After I finished reading the most recent one, my wife pointed me to a story on The Guardian that deals with the same topic. The story by Benjamin Bergen, “Well, I’ll be… There’s a real science to cussing and blaspheming but beware,” springs from his book on the subject, which I’ve not yet read. Interestingly, Bergen points out that there are four main classes of “bad words:” those that misuse religious concepts and names, those dealing with sex, words that denote various bodily effluvia, and finally, slurs. Today the final category, particularly when it comes to prejudicial slurs, is often considered the most offensive. Religious swears aren’t what they used to be.

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Why concern ourselves with such things? For me, I suspect, it is because of laws. Yes, laws. The religion in which I was raised was all about what you could or couldn’t do. One of those species of forbidden activities was swearing. Problem was, I didn’t know what all the words were. How could I not say them if I didn’t know them? And how could I know them if somebody didn’t say them? This vexed my young mind. I thought perhaps I should keep a written list, but this would be hard to explain if anyone ever found it. To make matters worse, some of the words were not swears sometimes and other times they were. “Hell,” referring to the fiery place, was not swearing unless you instructed someone to go there. Other uses beyond the literal were swearing. An ass was fine if it was an animal, but not if it was on an animal. And if you added one consonant that you couldn’t even hear onto a structure built to hold back water you were in hot water. Who made up these rules? The Bible didn’t say much about it.

In high school I heard there were seven words that you couldn’t say on television. Since we didn’t watch George Carlin I didn’t know what they were, but by this point I had collected more than seven. When I finally did hear his shtick (quite recently, at that) it contained some words I didn’t expect which, while rude, were never considered “swearing” on my canonical list. So it is we find ourselves with no definitive rules about what not to say. Professors are writing books about such things and even after having read some I’m no closer to my definitive list than when I started. It’s all a matter of laws, I suppose. Only the rules keep shifting. Best just to keep my mouth shut.

Fictional Fact

Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.

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No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?

Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.

Buying Faith

Can belief be quantified? Apparently yes. I’ve spent my life trying to avoid the dismal science, yet it seems that everyone else is pretty much agreed that money is the measure of all things. Higher education has certainly been chasing that rabbit for years. My choice of “careers” has always been aimed at those which downplay finance while paying enough to cover the bills. One has to be practical. My wife recently sent me an article in The Guardian by Harriet Sherwood entitled, “Religion in US ‘worth more than Google and Apple combined’.” At first, I have to admit, a kind of triumphalism overcame me. A vindication that I had chosen a valuable aspect of human existence with which to while away my years here on earth. Then came the troubling implications.

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We tend to hear only the bad news about religion. Religion, we’re told, is only super-sized superstition. It supports prejudice. It capitalizes on fear. And nobody really believes anymore. And so the trite truisms march past like tin soldiers on their way to a real war. You see, if we can’t put a dollar value on religion—or any belief system—then we have no way to assess whether it’s worth wasting our time on or not. Maybe people will begin to pay attention now. There’s gold in them thar hills. Yes, the religious are more likely to open their wallets and keep the economy moving than are the wealthy. Yes, those are antithetical groups, for the most part. When we can start toting up dollars and pence it is time for those with more dismal scientific interest to take notice.

Religions, like all human institutions, have faults. They are prone to takeover by self-interested individuals who look for the angle that will lead to personal power or fame. They do often insist that they alone have the correct interpretation of what life means and how we should go about pleasing a deity that only they truly understand. And they bicker amongst each other. It’s easy to forget that religions are based, without exception, on the belief that human life can be improved. We can do better, people. Takeovers, sometimes hostile, can occur. One sect may take out a contract on another. Love may be recast as hatred. Overall, however, religions are, to borrow a phrase from a sage, “our better angels.” And of course, the fact that you can put a dollar value on that only sweetens the deal. The dismal science has studied the matter and its conclusions are indisputable.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

Mature Monsters

When I first began this blog, generally focused on religion, I felt the need to justify posts about monsters. Now, some seven years and several books later, I have come to assume monsters and religion are close kin. Many scholars who explore monsters are those in that amorphous field of “religious studies” who’ve come to realize that terror and the sacred are not far apart. In fact, the Bible contains many stories that could be understood as horror, if taken literally. When my wife sent me a story in The Guardian, “Guillermo del Toro: ‘I love monsters the way people worship holy images’” I once again found the connection reinforced. In the article by Jordan Riefe, del Toro comes more than once to religious themes as he describes his fascination with the macabre. Here’s a guy about my age who’s not afraid to admit that he likes the scary stuff and has, indeed, become famous for it.

Feejee_mermaidI have to admit that Guillermo del Toro has a way of pressing my buttons. I’ve watched a number of his films and they can be scary even with subtitles to read. Perhaps the reason is that del Toro understands implicitly the tie between religious thinking and the monstrous. An invisible man of infinite power whose revealed will comes in contradictions is certainly a source of fear. So is a child who wears a burlap sack painted like a mask over his head. Known for his fear-inducing creatures, del Toro was raised a Mexican Catholic. He ties this upbringing with monsters in this story. Riefe records him as saying, “I felt there was a deep cleansing allowing for imperfection through the figure of a monster. Monsters are the patron saints of imperfection.” In a mythical world where perfection rests only with divinity and people are told to be perfect, monsters are certain to emerge.

Until quite recently horror was considered a lowbrow genre by academics. As such it wasn’t really worthy of exploration. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that scholars of religion—the new lowbrow—were among the first to take their disfigured friends seriously. Science tells us there are no monsters. We live in a rational world with evolution taking logical steps—if unguided—to more efficient means of survival. That doesn’t stop us from lowering the shades as night draws on. The monsters may be in our heads, but we might also find them in our souls. When we’re informed that such souls are nothing more than imagination we have a very good reason to be afraid indeed.

Camping Season

Summer is the time for camp. I’m not into extreme sports, like sleeping outdoors in the snow, so in my mind, summer is the time for camp. While in college I spent two summers as a counselor for the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Conference camps: Wesley Woods, Camp Allegheny, and Jumonville. These were formative experiences for me since I’d never camped as a kid (beyond sleeping on the front porch and an ill-fated attempt at Boy Scout camp one winter), and certainly not in a Christian context. My wife recently sent me a story in The Guardian about Jesus Camp. The documentary is a decade old now, and people are wondering if the religious indoctrination of children is child abuse or what. As always in such situations I tell myself the real issue is that you can’t understand Fundamentalism unless you’ve believed it. Really believed it.

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Some psychologists claim children can’t conceptualize God. Many adults can’t either, but for those who try, what they believe is true. The Fundamentalist parent doesn’t attempt to deceive his or her child. The thought of having your own children suffer eternally in Hell is a wrenching, and very real one. A convinced adult is morally, viscerally, and utterly compelled to teach her or his child the truth. Anything less would be monstrous, hideous, and inhumane. Critics from the outside say that such nonsense damages children psychologically. I have to admit that watching Jesus Camp made left me feeling enraged and, in some measure, victimized. The untold reality, however, is that apart from some cases of deep insincerity, most Fundamentalists truly believe what they teach their children. They’re not trying to abuse any more than a parent who teaches their progeny that the stove is hot. They want the best for their kids and life is full of uncomfortable truths.

Richard Dawkins, notably, has argued that teaching children religion is a form of child abuse. The fact is nobody knows the truth about religion. All we can do, scientists included, is believe. Believe for or against or somewhere in the middle. God, by definition, stands outside the reach of empirical evidence. Perhaps it’s just a trick of consciousness, but we have to leave the possibility open. We don’t even understand consciousness yet. Rare aberrations apart, people love and care for their children. They try to give them the best that they can, and that includes their religion or lack thereof. I saw some strange stuff at church camp. It wasn’t in any sense “Jesus Camp,” but it’s safe to say it changed my life. On the brink of fully legal adulthood I was coming to learn that certainty was impossible, and the only honest way to be in the world was to admit that we all, in some form, believe.

Latin Lessons

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The Romans are coming! The Romans are coming! No, wait. They were already here. Here, that is, if you’re European. And more specifically, a Londoner. The Guardian recently posted a story about the oldest writing in the United Kingdom being unearthed as Roman missives—originally written on wax that overlaid boards, Roman style—are being unearthed at the site of the new London headquarters of Bloomberg. Having spent many years of my life learning to specialize in ancient writings on original media, it always does me good to see hoi polloi getting excited about old texts. These Roman notes are so old that the marks on the wax have only survived by etching faintly onto the underlying wood, the wax having long ago deteriorated. The mundane writing wouldn’t have lasted had it relied on the original medium.

Even with their penchant for irony, the British don’t seem to have made much of the fact that the oldest writing in the UK has been located beneath what will become the headquarters of the media giant, Bloomberg. We will pay handsomely for good media. Anybody can coat a piece of wood with wax and scratch away. Almost nobody will read it. If it survives long enough after you die, it becomes a media treasure-trove. All the sudden we can’t wait to find out what Londinio Mogontio ate for dinner last night. Such mundane things we write about. Just to clarify, I’m talking about the Romans, not Bloomberg. Trenchant media information is, after all, what we live for. We must know what others think this commodity is worth. They’ll pay good money for that.

Tibullus will repay Gratus—it’s right there on wood. These guys were also worried about the exchange of commodities, it seems. And while nobody gives a Roman denarius anymore, we can get people’s attention by saying yes, the Romans were here. Sitting in this very spot before the cross has grown cold, making sure that accounts have been settled. The last thing you want is a Roman at your door demanding restitution. One does have to wonder what Junius the cooper thought about all this. Junius is the one with an office across from the house of Catullus. His barrels may have been broken down to make more planks for writing. The fourth estate gone wild. All that hard work would’ve gone unnoticed too, had not a major media giant decided, literally, to rake the muck under old London where before even the original tower was built friends, Romans, and countrymen were lending each other denarii. And one suspects, their beers, if Domitius Tertius Bracearius is who we think he is.

Not Camelot

In the English imagination the Arthurian legend is deeply connected with the Christian myth of Britain’s founding. This may not be on the surface, of course, but the places associated with King Arthur (as well as the tales themselves, such as the Holy Grail) overlap with sacred locations. I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about Tintagel Castle. Back in the day when my wife and I visited Tintagel with friends, I was still shooting film. Slides, no less. Some wonderful images came out, the way that only Ektachrome delivers, but I haven’t been able to convert them to digital. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. Tintagel is in the news because English Heritage, the owner of the property, is developing it to make it a larger tourist draw. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Not in the castle—now in ruins—that was built centuries later, but on the island that is accessed by footbridge over a dramatic cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s enough to make you drop your pastie.

Our own little Merlin

Our own little Merlin

Locals, according to The Guardian, protest the dressing up of the historic site. A bas relief of Merlin has been carved into the living rock, and this is hoped to draw the Glastonbury crowd to the southeast. Glastonbury, upon our visit, was already the home of New Age vendors. It too has connections with Arthur. The staff of Joseph of Arimathea can be seen, still growing after all these centuries. The Holy Grail—likely from Celtic mythology of the cauldron—is also associated with Glastonbury. Oh yes, and also King Arthur’s grave. Even apart from Monty Python, the legendary king has captured the imagination of thousands across the centuries. There’s something about Arthur.

The historicity of the king, however, is vigorously debated. The same is true of many religious founders. Those around whom legends grow become more and more inaccessible with the passing of the years. England was Christianized in the seventh century as part of a political expansion. If Arthur ever lived, it was after that period, perhaps in the days before Beowulf. We just don’t know. It is clear, however, that his legend is intertwined with that of those early Christian days. There never was a Holy Grail—of that we can be fairly certain. In the service of myth-making, it is nevertheless indispensable. Staring out over the Ektachrome sea at the ruins of the island castle of Tintagel, it is only too easy to believe. If only I had the pictures to prove it.

Religious Laughter

Reader’s Digest famously runs a feature, “Laughter: the Best Medicine.” I’m not a Reader’s Digest reader, and I’ve generally only seen it on coffee tables and bathroom cabinets of friends. Still, that’s the feature to which I always find myself turning. The jokes, this being Reader’s Digest, are always inoffensive. Safe subjects that are nevertheless funny. Usually. As adults we come to know that the taboo subjects of childhood are often the funniest. Off-color jokes about sex or religion, sometimes both together, elicit the most boisterous laughs. We don’t use them, however, because someone will surely be offended.

A recent article in The Guardian by Gary Sinyor raises the question of religious humor. Sinyor, who is Jewish, wrote a comedy play called “NotMoses.” As he farmed the idea and advertising around to advisors and friends, he was warned how he might be putting his life on the line for his humor. Reflecting on this, he comes to the conclusion—spot on, in my opinion—that the religions that don’t laugh at themselves are somehow insecure. His parade example is Scientology, as humorless a religion as exists. As he points out, although widely banned, many Christians found Monty Python’s Life of Brian very funny indeed. Of course, some branches of Christianity weren’t, and still aren’t, laughing.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

The world can be a humorless place. There is so much to worry about: the ill treatment of women, starvation, horrific diseases, Donald Trump. What right have we to laugh? I once had a close friend with cancer. Most would agree that this is no laughing matter. During treatment this friend lost all her hair and at one point another friend encouraged her to laugh about it if she could. “If there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well laugh,” was the advice. In poor taste? Perhaps. Nevertheless, there was some truth to it. My friend recovered. The disease is not something she cares to talk about. Nevertheless, humor helped her get through it. The most serious things, in other words, sometimes cause us to laugh. Religious comedy, after all, is not laughing at religion, but at how seriously we take religion. There is a difference. And laughter can, even if I got it from Reader’s Digest, be very good medicine indeed.