Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb

Identity Crisis

womaninwhiteSince at least my middle school days I have been in search of the great Gothic novel. I can’t claim to have found it just yet, but I’ve read many notable samples along the way. Somehow Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White remained completely unknown to me until earlier this year. The title was evocative enough to make me pick it up, daunting though its 600 pages might be. Like many novels of its period it was serialized, which likely accounts for its length. Honestly, it took a while to get into it fully. Once ensconced, however, it kept me reading for over a month. (I took some breaks for work and sleep.) I wouldn’t say it was my ideal of the great Gothic novel, but the character of Count Fosco is amazingly drawn and seriously compelling. As the huge man lets mice run over his massive body and treats birds with conscientious gentleness, he is plotting ruin to his fellow human beings to benefit himself. He is an accomplished egotist.

What makes the novel so profound to me is the question of identity. One of the characters in the novel, the eponymous woman in white, has a double in the love interest of the protagonist. Doubles are common in Gothic tales, but in this instance when the woman dies and others believe her double to be her the question of identity is raised. Who am I, really? In the day before DNA evidence, it was impressively difficult to prove you were who you said you were, if your appearance was altered. Emaciated, abused, and drugged, Laura doesn’t look like herself and even her own uncle doesn’t recognize her. In the end her identity is established by legal testimony alone, without benefit of any biological proof.

Identity has been on my mind lately. Especially on a national scale. Brexit and Trump were both movements fueled by distrust and distorted notions of national identity. In short, Britain and the United States, so the reasoning goes, should belong to white men. As Monty Burns famously said, “Well, for once the rich white man is in control!” I personally like a little color in my field of view. I value deeply those I’ve met whose experiences and skin tones don’t match my own pallor. I want our national identity to include more than just fifty shades of white where women are objects and men are some kind of noble studs. Back when I started to read this novel I had a grip on that view of reality. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I wonder who we really are.

Unity in Diversity

UnitariansUniversalistsIn the Simpsons episode “Bart’s Girlfriend,” Jessica Lovejoy steals all the church’s money from the collection plate, leading Mrs. Lovejoy to call out, “Everyone turn around and look at this!” Grampa Simpson whips around saying, “What is it? A Unitarian?” And so the jokes go, back even to my seminary years. The Unitarians, however, are among the most intellectually honest of religions. I recently read David Robinson’s The Unitarians and the Universalists. Although the traditions approached their 1961 union from different angles, they had a common origin: concern over the Calvinism of colonial and early post-colonial New England. The majority religion of the northeast, various forms of Calvinism taught of utter depravity, human helplessness, and, that absolute affront to human intellect now being posited by some materialists: predestination (determinism, in secular terms). The Universalists couldn’t accept that a loving God would make anyone suffer forever. The Unitarians had trouble with several aspects of the theology, not the least of which was the Trinity (as a non-biblical concept). Early Unitarians based their beliefs on the Bible, which, as it turns out, does not support several Calvinistic concepts.

Like all religions, Unitarianism evolved over time. Eventually the unity of God became only one among many possibilities of what one might believe. In fact, doctrine was less important than ethics. It was a true Enlightenment religion. It allowed for the Transcendentalist movement that we all learned about in school, with Emerson wandering in the woods, and Thoreau never wanting to move out of them. They also had room for those who studied the Bible but expressed concerned that Jesus doesn’t really say that he’s God, although obviously some people interpreted it as if he had. Regardless of belief, meeting together was necessary, and eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association came to represent a widely liberal form of religion with Christian roots but rational sensibilities.

Among the marks of distinction of these groups is that, among Protestant denominations, they were among the first, if not the first, to ordain women. When you are less beholden to wooden tradition, all kinds of possibilities emerge. This book was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d been channeled into thinking that “orthodox” necessarily equalled “the good guys,” despite the treatment that I’ve repeatedly received at their hands. It sometimes takes a Gestalt phenomenon to see orthodoxy as not necessarily good. Perhaps the effort to preserve a tradition outdated by a couple of millennia costs far more than it saves. Perhaps we need to become more human, not less. I may not walk the forest with Emerson—he preferred to be alone anyway, from what I understand—but I’ll not be so quick to assume that tunnel vision is true vision either. Not in a world where the Simpsons can teach us as much as The Institutes.

International Panic Day

Holidays have diverse origins. Some appear to have been made up in a fit of madness, bearing no particular relevance to anything. When I saw a publisher offering an “International Panic Day” sale, however, I supposed it was a joke. A quick web search indicated otherwise. June 18, for reasons nobody can really identify, is International Panic Day. I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Marge, liberated from her phobia of being mugged, runs past grandpa calling, “I’m not afraid!” to which he replies, “Then you’re not paying attention.” Fear and panic, while not the same thing, live in the same neighborhood. Many analysts point to fear as the primal emotion behind religion. We may never be able to prove that with any certainty, but I can’t think that panic has a religious origin. Many panics have emerged from religious fervor, but the panic itself seems not to have conceived religion.

Run_on_the_Seamen's_Savings'_Bank_during_the_Panic_of_1857

According to Holiday Insights (dot com, of course) no information can be found on the origins of the holiday, which makes it sound like a perfect internet invention. It is a day to feel unsettled. For some of us, that seems like most days. Again citing the wisdom of cartoons, Charlie Brown notes in the 1965 Christmas special, “I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?” Holidays can be like that sometimes. But a panic day? I have an amateur theory that International Panic Day derives from Panic Day (about which Holiday Insights also has no information), which falls on March 9.

Some online sources have noted that the choice of June 18 is a strange one for International Panic Day because the next day is already (and has been since 1979) World Sauntering Day. This holiday is believed to have begun at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Apparently W.T. Rabe, the holiday’s creator, was reacting to how popular jogging had become and wanted people to slow down for a day. International Panic Day would seem to suggest that running is the best option. Without a goal, of course, other than just to get away. Maybe there is a connection with religion after all. Having long been a fan of Douglas Adams, however, I am a devotee of his contra-mantra: don’t panic.

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Bart’s Gospel

One of the near constants of the entertainment world is the social commentary on The Simpsons. The morality issues that get frequent play had led to a book entitled The Gospel According to the Simpsons some years back. And since Americans like their morality straight from the popular media, The Simpsons is not a bad place to look. The episode “My-Pods and Boomsticks,” although a few years old now, raises issues that are still current in our culture. I watched it with my daughter recently and she commented, “It’s just like Zeitoun.” My family read Zeitoun this summer (some high school reading programs have a way of involving more than just the student) and the revelation of just how deeply suspicious the nation is of Muslims disturbed us all. This particular Simpsons episode involves a Muslim family from Jordan moving into Springfield. Although Bart befriends their son, Homer just can’t get over the assumption that Muslim equals terrorist. In the end, however, it is Homer who ends up dynamiting a bridge rather than believing Muslims can be good citizens.

Apart from being the longest running primetime animated feature in history, The Simpsons bucks the convention of veering away from religious topics. Indeed, many episodes foreground religion and feature Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism as well as Christianity and now Islam. The religions may be gently chided, but they are not mocked, and we are given a glimpse into our own religious biases. Islam, as a religion, is not evil or bent on destruction. Like Christianity, it has many varieties and believers range from the sacred to the profane. It is not the religion that is a problem, but the society that gives the lie to true equality. Believe what you will; harm no one.

At work the other day I received an office memo about lunchtime Yoga. Whenever I see such notices I consider how this religious practice, in American minds, has become completely secular. The same may be said of some of the martial arts which, in original contexts, have a deep base in eastern spiritualities. These things do not bother us because we do not bother to learn about them as religious activities. Even Kung Fu Panda has a spiritual undertone. Religions display a wide variety of expressions throughout the world. Going to church one day a week and condemning those who believe differently all seven, many people do not stop to think of the contributions that other religions have made to our society as it exists today. American culture, while predominantly evolving from a Christian base, has strong elements of most of the major religions that go unrecognized or packaged as secular self-helps. We could still stand to learn a thing or two from Springfield.

Layers

I’m all for not offending anyone. I became P.C. in principal just as soon as my consciousness was raised that the very basics of English grammar caused distress to others (often women), based on its androcentric orientation. It does seem, however, that God is even more easily offended than humans. This raises some tricky questions when it involves the highest perceived authority within or outside of the universe, the font of all morality. Some of the things that offend God, if the sources are to be believed, are most unusual. Last night I attended one of those you-should-send-your-child-to-Europe-while-in-high-school seminars that remind you that being a good parent always involves a touch of poverty. The trip is a very expensive bargain, giving your daughter or son a lasting set of life-changing memories. So far I’m on board. And, what is a trip to Europe without visiting some of the great cathedrals that exhausted local, medieval economies but left modern companions to Stonehenge all around the continent? Okay. Having seen my fair share of European cathedrals, that’s perfectly understandable. Then the kicker: since these are religious places, there is a dress code.

Anyone familiar with mainstream culture even in America is aware of this idea. To attend a place where God is supposed to be present, you must dress for the occasion. The Simpsons can throw around the phrase “Sunday clothes” and everyone knows what they mean. Attend a religious service dressed down and you’ll immediately discover it. Some traditions raise this to a high sartorial art—some Episcopalians I know are so fastidious that the very statues of Jesus seem decidedly underdressed. Since your child will be in Europe and be in cathedrals, you mustn’t offend God in a foreign land. No jeans. As the parent of a teen that means buying a whole new wardrobe to add to the pricetag. Apparently the Levi-Strauss tribe is not the same one in the Pentateuch. I spent some time in Israel a number of years back. The dress code is very strict around sacred spots. No shorts or visible shoulders. In the hot climate of the Middle East wearing excessive layers, well, it’s no wonder some folks get a little irritable. God’s standards are high. Celestial even.

Nowhere is God’s discriminating taste more evident in the required “modesty” of women. Nobody told me, but apparently women are quite a turn-on to gods. Read Genesis 6 and see if you don’t agree. The burden of public hiding beneath cloth falls on them. A man’s calf doesn’t excite God nearly so much as a lady’s. In Jerusalem they used to hand our hooded cloaks to wear over your street clothes for visiting holy places, just in case. Lord knows we wouldn’t want any unrest in the Middle East!

Having lived in Europe for three years, I know about and despise ugly Americans. At home I find our culture and manner of dress fascinating. Most of us don’t think what it says about our religion. If you ever catch a priest in church wearing jeans you’ll have your own local, mini culture-shock. I’d like to figure out why God is so easily offended by human fashion, but there is no time. I’m off to the street corner with my tin cup to try to raise money to buy clothes so my child won’t offend God in Europe.

No shoes, no shirt, no salvation.

Restoring Horror

Few television families are as true to life as the Simpsons. At least on a metaphorical or symbolic level. Last night as I watched the episode entitled “She of Little Faith,” I was reminded of just how large a role religion plays in this sit-com. While the majority of Springfield’s inhabitants don’t ever question the correctness of the local church, Lisa Simpson remains the avowed skeptic. Conflicted over her own sense of what is right and family expectations, she becomes a Buddhist yet continues to attend church with her family. This image of religious compromise strikes many as precisely what is wrong with organized religion today – it lacks the coercive power it once had.

In a free-market economy religious belief is a commodity to be selected and purchased. Most people are far too busy trying to get ahead to spend much time thinking about religion; it is far simpler to allow the clergy to do that. They come back to us, telling us what to believe, like some congressional report from heaven’s house of representatives. We pay them a salary and their service is to make sure we believe what keeps God happy. Religion, potentially the most powerful motivator in the world, is up for grabs like former Soviet nukes. Anyone is free to declare him or herself a religious leader, qualified or not.

So over the weekend thousands flocked to Washington to hear 2012 presidential hopefuls Beck and Palin tell them how to restore “honor” to our nation. Beck commented that his rally marks the point at which America starts to “turn back to God.” Most Americans at the rally (or those at home) seldom think about the amorphous God to which he refers, for themselves. Americans are consumers. We purchase what we like. If the God that is touted will make things better for me, then I’ll buy it. This is the price we pay for refusing to take religion seriously at an academic level. It is not about to go away. I side with Lisa Simpson as the honest individual who has an examined life. Facing opposite me on the Mall are tens of thousands who would rather be led. I am afraid. I am very afraid.