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.


What Do Sheep Know?

We trust those we see in the media. You see, those who have the longest reach can bring in the most advertising dollars and therefore must have a wisdom the rest of us lack. The cult of celebrity is perhaps the truest cult of all. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading books by bestselling authors once in a while, and I like movies by talented directors and writers. The problem with the cult of celebrity that it often confuses fame with knowledge. If someone knows how to get you to pull your wallet out, they must know about all kinds of things, right? It stands to reason. A recent article in The Guardian features an interview with Ridley Scott. Forever in my mind typecast as the director of Blade Runner and Alien, I think of Scott as one who understands science fiction. He, of course, gave us a version of Exodus that many didn’t buy, and now that The Martian has been gaining attention, people are once again wondering what they might learn from the director.

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Ironically, like the recently late David Bowie, Scott considers himself an agnostic. As the Guardian article says, that doesn’t stop him from having a lot to say about God. Catherine Shoard notes that religious questioning runs throughout Scott’s movies. The big issues, it seems, still matter. People will crowd to his movies and perhaps not even know that they were facing the questions that motivate people like Scott. Taking up such questions in the hopes of making a career out of it all is still not a wise choice, but if you can put it in fiction without people knowing it, you might become famous.

I’ve always been of the opinion that everyone is an expert when it comes to religion. Believer or not, everyone knows what to believe and is pretty certain about it. The people I find most fascinating in this mix are those who dare to question. While many doctrinaire religions call questioners “doubters” and suggest curiosity is some kind of sin, there are both religious and non who face the world with questions rather than answers. To me, this seems a more honest approach to things. The funny thing about this appreciation is that it is seldom reciprocal. Of course, people might be interested if I’d directed a block-buster movie or if I were a star. Until that happens, I’m an expert just like everybody else.


Long Revision

Cecil_Rhodes_wwThose of us who write know all about revising. You go back to a piece you wrote, maybe even just days ago, and you see all the things you want to change. Corrections, improvements, deletions, retractions. Histories are particularly prone to being viewed in new ways with the passing of time. I once thought histories were factually true, but in this postmodern age we’ve learned that while histories contain some facts, they are largely interpretations of those facts. Even the Gospels are interpretations. Recently I’ve been reading about student movements wanting to efface some facts of history because they make current-day people feel bad. A piece in The Guardian, for example, explains how some students want to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford, because Rhodes was an imperialist and a racist. A similar movement is afoot at Princeton University to give Woodrow Wilson the old Akhenaton treatment for similar reasons. Student interest groups, as The Guardian points out, don’t want to be reminded of their once marginal status. Removing Rhodes (or Wilson) from his pedestal, however, won’t change history.

I wonder if those in these special interest groups have enough experience to realize the implications of their complaints. What if, for the sake of argument, one of these student leaders became a national leader? What if her (or his) nation became oppressive during her or his lifetime but s/he didn’t see it because it was the operating milieu of the age? And what if their nation later repented and brought those from their former oppressed colonies to their homeland and those who came turned against that past leader? The point of this scenario is to suggest that none of us—or at least very few of us—have the ability to think beyond our age. Can we be blamed for being children of our time? Will removing our mementos change the facts of history that will have transpired? Will it make us feel better to bury the truth of what happened?

What's behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

What’s behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

An issue that often weighs upon my mind when I hear of these groups of the marginalized is that there is a very large, and very diverse marginalized class that has no voice, even today. The poor. Sure, some of us raised in poverty can claw our way to a descent living, but succeeding in a world where you need connections and favors owed and special knowledge of how a system works will be forever beyond our grasp. I knew a refugee, once upon a time, who was a student of mine. He used to complain to me of the costs of having his shirts sent out to be laundered. His clothes were tailor made. He refused to use a washing machine. He was also quick to point out that I was the oppressive race. This he did without a nanogram of irony. Cecil Rhodes may have been as evil as some say he was. His money, however, made it possible for some of the heirs to his oppression to study in his shadow. And I write that with a heavy dose of irony. Do they not realize that Akhenaton is now considered by many to be the most interesting Pharaoh of them all because he was erased from history?


Star Lords

Things are done differently in the UK. I suppose that’s obvious, but I have always noticed on my trips between our respective countries that some things that go without saying here or there receive the opposite treatment overseas. We are, however, united by a common religious heritage that sometimes goes unrecognized. A recent opinion piece by Giles Fraser in the Guardian discusses the banning of a commercial featuring the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas. The first difference that came to mind is that advertisements for something like the Lord’s Prayer seem unlikely in the United States. We are a biblically-based, biblically illiterate society, and if someone is willing to put up the money, advertisements are a no-brainer. A second difference is, as Fraser points out, there is fear that the Lord’s Prayer might offend people. Surely there are those who will take offense, but Fraser points out that there is nothing offensive in this prayer. It isn’t an attempt to convert. It is reflective, irenic, peaceful.

The point of this opinion piece, apt when Christmas wars are in the air, is that freedom of religion requires a dose of common sense. Yes, many atheists are offended by religious practices, but the question is whether we can ever completely avoid offending one another over belief. Beliefs differ. Not even everyone agrees with “live and let live.” The problem is that some offensive ideas lead to violence. We’ve forgotten how to talk with one another. In this world of uber-security, we find difference terrifying. Religious difference especially. So the angry atheists suggest religion should be driven indoors and rendered mute. Which violates what some religions are all about.

The British ad was to take place before the airing of the new Star Wars movie. One need not be a detective to discern the deep and inherent religious message in the original series of the franchise. Indeed, people were disappointed with the prequels because they had lost that sense of mythic grandeur that Joseph Campbell had been so helpful in instilling in the original trilogy. The films were made with religion in mind. Hidden behind a mask, perhaps, but clearly there. If Yoda had uttered something like the Lord’s Prayer, it would have been accepted as merely part of a movie. And as the reboot trilogy shows without doubt, movies have the power to offend.

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Uisce Beatha

The idea of a state church, I have to admit, sometimes seems not so bad. Before you click off this page in disgust, please let me explain. Once in a great while, I think about what state churches really are. From the most ancient of times, religious institutions supported governments and governments gave money to state religions. It isn’t a perfect system, but the reason it sometimes appeals is that it might prevent the kind of religious quarreling that we see in the run-up to every election: whose religious vision will govern us? I get theological whiplash. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a state church and be done with it? After all, those who live under state churches really aren’t obligated to believe in the teachings, but just to pay for them.

I’m only being facetious here, of course. We all know that in reality where religions and governments get too intertwined human misery results. The Reformation should have taught us that, if nothing else. The crimes of ISIS continue to show that religious belief makes a poor basis for government. Another case that my wife recently pointed out to me is in the quiet and civil nation of Ireland. Ireland has the stereotype of being Catholic, but according to an article in The Guardian, more than 90 percent of state-run schools there are under the control of the church. For some residents, like the family featured in the article, this becomes a conflict when schools won’t admit the unbaptized. Admissions committees with holy water may be a concept that many people find strange, but the fact is churches can set rules just as strict as secular bodies. No baptism, no confirmation, no matriculation.

I would, I think, be concerned as such a parent. Once my child was admitted and enrolled, would not the teaching go against what was being taught at home? Do governments have the right to decide a child’s religious outlook? Here is the dark underbelly of the apparently benevolent state church. Belief, of all things, is an intensely private matter. Many church goers do not understand the deep beliefs of their religious body, and since we seldom stop to think about religion we just do as we’re told. Education, it seems to me, should be very much aware of religion. Instead we see the opposite happening, at least in this country. If we pretend religion doesn’t exist, it will just go away, right? There is a reason that the church teaches that baptism is symbolic drowning. Only for those, however, who pay attention.

Angel's view of Ireland?

Angel’s view of Ireland?


Doubting Dawkins

A recent Guardian introspective on Richard Dawkins reminded me of the dangers of idolatry. Dawkins, an internationally known intellectual pugilist, the article by Carole Cadwalladr intimates, is as human as the next guy when you can catch him off the stage. Ironically, it is evolved primate behavior to adore the alpha male, but, at the same time, to prevent abuse of power and to get away with what you can behind said alpha male’s back. We are worshipping creatures, at least when it suits our best interests. Anyone who’s been intellectually slapped down (something yours truly has experienced multiple times) knows that it is an unpleasant experience that one doesn’t willfully seek out. We try to keep out of the way of those who assert themselves, preferring the safer route of just doing what we’re told and apologizing for something we know isn’t really our fault. It’s only human.

Evolution

The media have provided us with ever more expansive ways to build our “experts” into gods. Dawkins, a biologist, has become one of the go-to experts on religion. The media don’t seem to realize that hundreds of us have the same level of qualifications as Dr. Dawkins, but in the subject of religion. Many of us are not biased. And yet, when a “rational” response to religion is required, a biologist is our man of the hour. Granted, few academics enter the field in search of fame. Most of us are simply curious and have the necessary patience and drive to conduct careful research to try to get to the bottom of things. We may not like what we discover along the way, but that is the price one pays for becoming an expert. Those who are lucky end up in teaching positions where they can bend the minds of future generations. Those who are outspoken get to become academic idols.

I have no animosity toward Richard Dawkins or his work. I’ve read a few of his books and I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Still, a trained academic should know better than to “follow the leader” all the time. (Some schools, note, are better at teaching independent thought than are others!) The academic life is one of doubt and constant testing. Once you’ve learned to think in this critical way, you can’t turn back the clock. One of the things that those of us who’ve studied religion know well is that all deities must be examined with suspicion. Especially those who are undoubtedly human and who only came to where they are by the accidents of evolution. I’m no biologist, but I inherently challenge any academic idol. I’m only human, after all.


The Eerie

Those who have trundled alongside of this blog for any length of time no doubt know of my interest in weird fiction. Somewhere in the mists of my youth this led me to one of the few venues in which a person can get a hook on the eerie, namely, horror films. I am, however, no fan of violence, and quite sensitive to the human condition. What I have always sought is hauntingly summarized in Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian article sent to me by a friend, entitled “The eeriness of the English countryside.” Horror has become, in keeping with the dullness imbued by a society of constant diversion, aggressive and shocking. New levels of nauseating cruelty are required for generations raised with graphic computer games and an internet that is like the subconscious completely unleashed into the waking world. You need more items jammed under the fingernails to elicit any reaction. That’s not what I’m here for. Whatever happened to the uncanny?

As Macfarlane notes, there is a natural eeriness to the landscape left by human activity. Not just in England, but wherever we set foot. The innocent-looking countryside is seething with undisclosed atrocities. It is no coincidence that in America the “Indian burial ground” motif took off for explaining the haunting of the landscape. The eerie is often our retrospective on what we know we really shouldn’t have done. Macfarlane is writing for those who’ve experienced the English countryside and its secrets, but no matter where we look we can find the uncanny cast into the scenery by our selfish actions. There is horror here, but it is subtle. You have to sit quietly and listen to hear it, but it can, like a good eerie novel, induce shivers without a drop of blood being shed. (Well, maybe a drop, but seldom more.)

Many doubt the soul exists. Others of us take a broader view of the question. Our view of the world is colored by what has brought us to where we are. As someone who has been repeatedly passed over for jobs because of the excesses of the white male society in which my ancestors happened to have tacitly participated, I rest on the horns of this dilemma. All of my conscious life I’ve supported equal rights for all races and genders. The landscape I inhabit, however, is haunted. There have been dark deeds undertaken on this soil, and the soul is that which remembers. Macfarlane is no doubt correct that even the eerie can be politicized. Those of us who daily experience it, however, know that England hosts only one of many, many tainted shores.

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Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?


To See the Sky

Stonehenge. The very name evokes mystery and myth. Although archaeology has revealed more about the monument than any mere visual survey, we are still very much in the dark about its origin and purpose. With one exception: we know it was something religious. When we discover artifacts that required a tremendous outlay of human effort in pre-industrial periods, the motivation, according to our current understanding, is almost always religious. Modernity has come to us with a cost. In any case, a recent story in The Guardian highlights the view of Julian Spalding, erstwhile museum director, that Stonehenge might have housed a platform on top of which the real action took place. As might be expected, experts disagree. With its precise solar alignment, one wonders if a roof might have been superfluous, but then again, there is the sky.

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When I begin to feel depressed working in the belly of a concrete bunker with no windows, indeed, no view of the sky at all, I find my way to a room with a view of the outside. I’ve always had a celestial orientation, and looking at the sky—especially on a day with some blue showing—can cure my sadness in a way almost supernatural. I suppose that was part of the reason I wrote Weathering the Psalms; there is just something about the sky. In that book I couldn’t really verify what it was. I still can’t. I know it when I feel it, however, and this perhaps the feeling the Julian Spalding is asking us to explore at Stonehenge. Ancient people directed their worship upward, not toward the ground.

Like all universal statements, however, there are exceptions. Some ancient religions recognized our place as children of the earth. The celestial sphere, however, is part of the package. Our atmosphere makes our world habitable. While the moon is beautiful and Mars inspires wonder, their lack of air spells their hostility toward those who need to breathe deeply and look up into the blue once in a while. Almost Frazerian in its archetypal view, Spalding’s idea has a beauty of its own, whether or not the evidence bears it out. People of ancient times had a talent we lose in our cubicle-infested, results-obsessed world. We all exist because of the atmosphere above us. And when modern views become too much for me, I head outdoors where, sun or not, I find my solace in the sky.


A Kind of Lunacy

I can never keep track of the vernal equinox. Actually, I have the same problem with the autumnal equinox and both solstices. I think it’s because when I was growing up I thought they always came on the 21st of the month. That’s a nice, regular interval. Our months, however, are not natural. Were they to follow the moon (whence we get the word “month”) they would be about February length. The moon’s phases, however, do not keep to human time. In actuality, a month is approximately 29.53 days. Various emperors throughout history added days to their months, making our jumble of 365.25 days a mix of mostly 31-day periods, with some being 30, and February alone holding out at 28. Or 29, depending. All of which is to say, I didn’t realize spring was here until the day was mostly over. Here in the northeast it was snowing, and the celestial dome was occluded. That was a shame since it was also the day of a solar eclipse. I consoled myself by realizing that even if it had been sunny I was in the wrong location to see the eclipse, so I wasn’t missing much.

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So spring subtly appeared this year. Not only was the day an eclipse day, for some, it was also a “supermoon” day. That is to say, the moon was at its closest point to earth at the time, making the eclipse a truly spectacular one, if you could see it. All of these astronomical machinations on the event that sets the date for Easter has developed a new kind of mythology. According to The Guardian, some minority of clergy have seen this event as initiating the apocalypse. Of course, eclipses are by their nature local events. The vernal equinox occurs every year, and the first Sunday following the first full moon of the equinox will be Easter. We get a supermoon (or perigee-syzygy of the Earth-Moon-Sun system) about every 14 months, so this is hardly rare. But then, the moon has always been the locus of mythology.

Ancient peoples knew the phases of the moon intimately. As the main source of non-artificial light at night, it was a boon to those without electricity, or even gaslight. Without physics to provide a mechanism, stories developed to explain the ever-changing status of our nearest neighbor. Some of those tales took on religious elements, and many religious calendars remain lunar. The vernal equinox, however, is a solar event. From now on the days will get longer until the summer solstice, a day of celebration and mourning, as we move back into the days of declining light. Each of these celestial events comes with its own religious freight, and it seems, dissenting clergy notwithstanding, that so it shall carry on for many moons to come.


British Libraries

Quintessentially intellectual, the mental image of the British goes, they are often the sophisticated, educated, literate, worldly individuals. I know I’m stereotyping, but play along a minute. Perhaps Americans and other colonials feel a sublimated respect for the nations that gave us our start, and even today the major academic publishers are British companies. Think about it. So when we ponder the United Kingdom, we conjure images of the pinnacle of urbane, cultured, society. Perhaps this is one reason that I decided to study in Edinburgh. One of my memories of being in that fantastic city is going to a library book sale. I’d never seen inoffensive old ladies throwing such hard elbows before. The hunger for books was palpable. So it is with dismay that I read John Harris’s Guardian piece, “In a country like Britain, obsessed with the now, libraries are a political battleground.” (Did I mention that Brits are also loquacious?) The article, however, has a disturbingly American feel to it. We live in the now, not in the past. Libraries (and museums) are the repositories of thousands of years of human wisdom and achievement. Who needs them?

Harris is concerned with the trend of libraries discarding books. After all, publishing is an industry, and if industry is anything it is about producing more. More books are now being published than have ever been since our human ancestors crawled from the primordial soup. Some are purely electronic, but as survey after survey shows, the majority of readers still appreciate a book in the hand. One might say that a book in the hand is worth two in the Kindle. But libraries, desperate for both funding and space, are resorting to throwing out books. They will be replaced with books, and who will miss them? I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury. Do authors’ souls perish when their books are destroyed? Where will we go to find out, if our libraries have weeded their gardens too thoroughly? My biggest obstacle to continuing research as an independent scholar is the lack of a good university library. I agree with Harris, without our past, our now is but a passing fancy. When tomorrow becomes today, will we wake up and realize what we have discarded? Will we have to start from the beginning again?

Over the weekend I went to a local Barnes and Noble. I’ve never been a fan, but now that Borders is gone, B&N is the only show in town. (I visit the independent shops far more frequently, but this is winter and I don’t want to venture far.) I read about a newly released novel, still in hardback, and wanted to see if they had it. Amid the toys, videos, and puzzles, I stumbled upon a rack of books. New releases. The shelf of hardcovers wasn’t very large, so I stepped around back thinking there might be more. How naive I am. The store was nevertheless crowded. Those checking out weren’t buying books. The book bags, almost apologetically, bore quotes about how books change the world. I look down. I’ve got a puzzle in one hand and a game in the other. The world has only so much space. With what we choose to fill it says volumes about who we are. Our only hope is that our now contains those who, at least in the future, will live to read.

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Thor’s Return

Once as I sat in the office of an Ivy League professor of Greek religion, I asked about the myths of the Classical gods. The professor (who knew that I had taught religion as well, but at more like a Noxious Weed League school) appeared genuinely insulted and told me in no uncertain terms that scholars of religion didn’t take that nonsense seriously. The study of “myths” was left to Classicists, not actual scholars of religion. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t really have a grasp on what the average person believes? Being a blue-collar scholar, I always took seriously what students told me about their beliefs. It wasn’t really a great surprise, then, when my wife pointed me to a story in The Guardian about a temple to the Nordic gods being built in Iceland. According to the story, the modern adherents of Ásatrúarfélagið (thank you unicode) don’t really believe in a literal Odin or Thor or Frigg, but see them as metaphors to help them face the way life is. A millennium after becoming Christian, some Icelanders are apparently getting back to their roots.

There has always been, to me, a fascination with the Nordic gods. These rough-and-tumble deities inhabited the harsh and snowy regions where daily life was often a struggle to survive against the elements. Frost giants were enemies and nobody really emerges as the winner after Ragnarok. In the Bible Yahweh does sometimes come out swinging, but for the most part he seems a deity content to sit on his throne and issue commands. The Scandinavian gods were characters of action. In some sense they seemed to struggle just like the rest of us do. They are, of course, more powerful and as the movie makes clear, Thor has a charisma that more self-righteous deities appear to lack. Lest anyone be ready to run to their priest at this point, please be aware that this too is a metaphor.

On the other side of the equation there are sure to be critics who argue that building a temple to fake gods in this day and age is obviously a waste of human talent and resources. Such are people with no imagination. Religious belief, metaphor or not, has been part of the human psyche from the very beginning. Elsewhere I have suggested that animals show the same behaviors as what we Homo sapiens would declare rudimentary religion. Rationalism has not provided a reasonable alternative to religious expression. Even a Stoic knows to appreciate art, although beauty provides no essential element to simple survival. Simply put, humans enjoy the finer things of life. Perhaps unappreciated since long sublimated, among those finer things are the old Nordic gods. And their return is a kind of resurrection.

The Battle of the Doomed Gods

The Battle of the Doomed Gods


Pope for the Planet

According to The Guardian, Pope Francis is about to weigh in on the faux question of global warming. Faux because there really is no question—we know it is happening. Some high ranking Catholic politicians, no doubt, will not be amused. Apart from the fact that Francis has proven himself a true saint from the moment he got out of the gate—distancing himself from European pontiffs far more interested in church politics than what really matters—he has brought a sensibility borne of knowing how people really live and what is really important. Global warming is real, and the science behind the assertions is unquestioned. Interested parties (such as big oil) have hired their spin doctors to confuse the voting public, casting doubt on one of the few certainties we have. Politicians, whose funding comes from business interests, of course choose what to believe. How anyone can be so shortsighted, or selfish, as to saw off the very branch on which they stand I can’t comprehend. Past popes were too busy trying to keep ladies out of the exclusive gentlemen’s club to worry about those who feel the brunt of global warming.

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Nav, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, it will catch up with all of us eventually. I’m not much of a swimmer, and I’m worried. Hurricane Sandy (a superstorm only in the sense that it hit the affluent) showed us just how near sea level Manhattan is. One gets the sense that the fastest growing cities being in Texas is no coincidence. As long as it doesn’t impact me personally, what’s the worry? Some entire island nations stand at threat, but perhaps they should’ve considered that before they moved to an island. Here’s the news flash—all land is island. We need each other, and the lowlands are as important as the highlands.

Organized religions of all kinds have been under fire for years. As science began to explain more and more, religions had to explain their own existence. Many turned internal—not in the spiritual sense, but in the aspect of clarifying the precise points of what makes them right (i.e., different from everyone else). In the United States the small town without five or six different steeples was the exception rather than the rule. Meanwhile, the emissions continued. And continue. At least we know we’re right. At last there is a pontiff who is a realist. A priest who understands that church is all about caring for people—those in the lowlands as well as those in the highlands. Of course, politicians know how to turn off the religion when it gets inconvenient. As long as I get mine, all is right with the world.