Fueling Fires

Paying attention to world affairs can take all your time.  In fact, for those who study foreign affairs, it practically does.  I’ve been struggling with the fact that you can’t be lazy in a democracy.  I know that’s true—we must constantly be vigilant of governments turning evil (with a wink)—and yet we each have our own lives to look after.  Trying to balance this teeter-totter, I noticed a Washington Post story lately about library officials in China burning books.  Said books challenge government ideology and are being destroyed.  We’ve seen this before.  Nazis burned books, and Republicans would certainly like to.  Even further back in history Medieval thinking led to the destruction of what would now likely be invaluable tomes.  There is biblical precedent, of course.  Read Acts 19 if you need a refresher.

Book burners now do their deed for its symbolic value.  We live in an age of Kindles and Nooks and books online.  Not as many are printed as there used to be, but the smell of burning plastic doesn’t convey the same pathos.  Besides, you can just whip out your synced phone and continue  reading.  Those of us who’ve committed our lives to reading find this symbolic gesture heinous.  Yes, there are books that offend us.  I’ve read more than one that I wish I hadn’t.  I have, however, no inkling to burn them.  Books represent our attempts to increase knowledge.  Fiction or non matters not.  Those who write have something to say, and surveys reveal that many adults really would like to write a book.  As a symbol, there’s nothing like it.  I suspect that’s why burning them makes such an impact.

The western world is struggling to understand China.  One of the largest investors in both Africa and South America, China is building foreign relations just as the Trump administration is jettisoning them.  Many well-informed Americans don’t realize just how long and how well China has been making connections through financial investment.  Sounds like a very capitalist thing to do.  That librarians should burn books seems an odd form of theater in such a scenario.  Governments that can’t take criticism are autocracies.  I know few donkeys that would state any one of their party is really a saint.  That’s GOP territory.  At least we haven’t started book burnings on the White House lawn.  As we turn our gaze to the east, or, depending on your perspective, to the west, we do have to wonder just how long it will be before we do.

Rich Rule

The perils of plutocracy should be obvious, but clearly they’re not.  This is somewhat ironic among its biblical fan base, which seems to be where the GOP draws its energy.  As the truth about Brett Kavanaugh becomes public knowledge, his religious supporters dig in their heels and blame the victims.  As one of the many who grew up far from privilege I found Shamus Khan’s analysis in the Washington Post eye-opening.  Khan makes the case that those who grow up in rich families and attend the “best schools” are endowed with the constantly reinforced message that the rules do not apply to them.  They can get away with things that others cannot and, in general, they are let off the hook for things that lead to imprisonment for other citizens.  What’s surprising is the Bible-thumpers applaud this.

It also explains more than Kavanaugh.  Trump is also a child of privilege and his entire term in office so far has been one of personal exceptionalism.  Many actual presidents were impeached or censured for acts far less offensive than those 45 commits.  The wealthy, however, are not held accountable.  Where is the Bible when we need it?  The Good Book is no friend to those who enjoy great riches.  In fact, one of the most constant refrains of Scripture is that against the privileged.  With great wealth comes great responsibility—the obligation to help those less fortunate.  The idea of getting away with what you can is hardly evangelical.

If the literalists can overlook the misuse of wealth, it is still more surprising that they can pardon lying.  Since the rules do not apply to the privileged, their own narrative bears the conviction of righteousness.  They can’t have made a mistake since their money proves them right.  Morality can be counted in dollars and cents.  It is for those of the underclasses to come up with high-minded ideals and hold themselves to them.  Wealth is its own justification.  Back in the days when America was young, the French lost patience with governance by the elites.  But then, the Fundamentalist class didn’t have much of a voice then.  It was the Age of Reason.  An Age out of which we’ve apparently grown.  Fake news, alternative facts, heavy-drinking frat boy justices, and women-groping presidents.  Can we not see the parallels with the other great plutocracy of the Roman Empire?  Ironically, it survives today only in the form of the church it sanctioned.

Truth under Fire

As Evangelicals continue their unflinching support for Trump, Rudy Giuliani has at last said something that rings true with these “Christians.”  According to a Washington Post story 45’s lawyer declared, “Truth isn’t truth.”  This was regarding the Russia probe, something that would’ve led to the ouster of any real president by now.  We’re all used to Trump’s constant state of obfuscation after all these long months, and the former mayor of New York has just come clean—truth is what we want it to be, no more, no less.  It is a meaningless word, a chimera.  If the son of god in the White House has broken the law (and he has) then the truth is there’s no law to be broken.  Democracy is just a made-up word in the hands of the Republican Party.

Now, I don’t have much truck with politicians.  Leopards, according to a certain book, can’t change their spots.  Nevertheless, Evangelicals should object to Giuliani’s direct assault on their sacred text.  The Good Book, you see, is all about “the truth.”  But the truth isn’t the truth.  When it claims that Jesus died to atone for your sins, that can’t be the truth because the truth isn’t.  The only truth is what Trump personally wants.  And the GOP won’t lift a finger to stop him.  Long ago it was clear that the party of Lincoln had abandoned the will of the people they’re elected to lead, but if there were truth we’d see the deep, stinking muck of corruption everywhere within its doors.  At least you’d expect the neat and clean Christians to object.

A certain man about two millennia ago said, according to the Book, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  But Rudy says “Truth isn’t truth.”  The Beatles said they were more popular than Jesus and the public revolted.  Rudy says Trump has more authority than Jesus and the Evangelicals cheer.  The capacity for untruth has always been part of politics.  Most politicians know to lie discreetly, when fact-checking will reveal some ambiguity.  Now the gospel-truth is whatever comes from the unholy mouth of Trump.  There is no truth.  There are alternative facts.  There’s fake news.  Surely the Prince of Peace wouldn’t have cancelled a military parade.  Meanwhile someone once said “the truth will set you free.”  The great Giuliani has informed us, however, that there is no truth.  And if truth isn’t truth, there’s no hope of freedom.  At least according to a guy named Jesus, whoever he may be.  

Horse Senses

If a horse can be made a senator, surely an ass can be made a president.  History can be unkind to those who think too highly of themselves.  It’s a horse of a different color than Incitatus that’s on my mind today.  This past week I read a news story in the Washington Post about Justice (there may be some double-meanings here, so hold onto your horses).  Justice used to be called Shadow, and Shadow was an abused horse.  Justice is now suing his former owner.  The story explores the question of whether animals can sue.  As a vegan for moral reasons I can see the point, but I also have to wonder how you defend those who have no voice to be heard, kinda like the electorate in the sham of a democracy.  How do we know what a horse really wants?

If horses could draw or sculpt, Xenophanes quipped, their gods would look like horses.  Asses, it stands to reason, worship one of their own.  Animals should have rights, but the difficult question falls onto our species—how do we know what they want?  Anyone whose spent time with animals knows that they think.  I can see a cat in a neighbor’s yard from my window.  Separated by a flimsy-looking hurricane fence is the next yard over where two large dogs often prowl.  If the cat and dogs happen to be out at the same time, there will be barking and braying but the cat will not appear to show concern.  The way my heart hammers at those barks, however, I have to suppose my feline friend also feels a bit of fear at the threat.  The cat must decide how to act, but it also must know that a barely visible fence keeps the canines at bay.

What does Justice want?  It’s a loaded question, for sure.  As much as we wish there might be, there is no Lorax to speak for the trees.  Or horses.  Nevertheless it’s obvious that horses think.  Perhaps like Job, Justice wondered why he was being punished after being a good horse.  The church magnanimously grants that animals cannot sin, after all.  One must wonder, however, about breeds developed by human engineering to be destructive, but that’s another parable.  While Justice might be given a day in court, and might win a cozy stall and protection from the elements, those of use bound by language will never know if justice has been served.  The limitation is our own.  Just ask Balaam.

Shepherding Lies

They’re going to look pretty ridiculous when this is all over.  Like sheep without a shepherd.  Evangelicals, I mean.  The fact is they’ve jettisoned everything they stood for to support a pseudo-president constitutionally incapable of telling the truth and now they must be wondering about what they’ve lost along the way.  Stories in “liberal” sources such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic have raised the question repeatedly—why don’t Evangelicals hold Trump to the same standard they hold all other people?  His backing and filling have been obvious to anyone capable of thought, and yet the bestselling books in America for the past two weeks have been tomes about how the liberals are lying.  What’s an Evangelical to do when truth has lost its meaning?

While I was still an Evangelical, in college, we debated endlessly how to get at Truth with a capital “T.”  No matter how you sliced it, diced it, or even julienned it, Truth had to come from the Bible somehow.  Two things the Good Book was against unequivocally were lying and adultery.  Who’d have thought Southern Baptists would be standing in line to change divine law, by their own definition?  And for what purpose?  To support a man who clearly doesn’t share their values, and shows it daily.  These former Communist-haters now cozy up to Russia with a familiarity that suggests Trump isn’t the only one sleeping around.  As a former Evangelical, I have to wonder whatever happened to the concept of the double standard.  This was never considered right or fair or biblical.  Now it’s all three.

Just this past week the Washington Post ran a story about an Evangelical pastor preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments.  Somehow they’ve made their way from courthouse lawns into churches, it seems.  The week he reached adultery, he didn’t know what to say to his Trump-supporting flock.  He himself supports a leader whose told an average of hundreds of lies per day since January of last year.  Among them allegations that he didn’t commit adultery.  Or pay to have it covered up.  Or know that his lawyer had paid to cover it up.  But when said lawyer realizes that the shepherd doesn’t care about sheep—can’t even find one in a paddock—he suddenly remembers that there is Truth with a capital “T.”  But Evangelicals don’t have to listen to anyone named Cohen.  After all, they have wool in their ears.  Just don’t read what the Good Book says about hearing what you want to hear.  What’ve they lost?  Not just their shepherd, but their very souls.

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

Evangelical Angst

Unless you know what it’s like to face life with no real prospects beyond making it to Heaven when you die, you can’t understand evangelical angst. That last phrase might seem odd to you. Aren’t evangelicals uber-smiley, happy people angry over the way society’s going? Yes and no. Many of them were raised (or converted into) a faith that holds out no hope for this world and that constantly reinforces the idea that what we like is bad. Having grown up in that world, I knew what it was like to be hoodwinked by an evangelist. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was famous. He came to my small town and packed a local Methodist Church. During his rambling, long sermon, he had us afraid for Hell burning under our feet. Grateful that we’d just managed to avoid it, he announced there would be three collections that night: the first was your normal tithe. The second time the plates came around you were to empty your pockets and purses of all change. The third time, you were to contribute to his private jet. If you gave over a thousand dollars your name would be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Almost as if nothing has changed in the decades since then, a Washington Post story expresses amazement that evangelist Jesse Duplantis is asking his followers for a fourth private jet. Uncomprehending, the world doesn’t show much curiosity as to why otherwise intelligent people would give to what is so obviously a scam. Or why such people would vote for Trump. The academic world doesn’t understand evangelical angst. As I sat in that audience that night, a poor kid from a poverty-level family, I fervently wished I had more money to give. Until he asked for his plane. My young doubts crept in, for I had more angst than most other evangelicals I knew. Was this really the Gospel?

Later I saw him on television. His personal mansion had literal streets of gold. Jesus, he said, wanted us to get ready for Heaven right here on earth. Did this turn his followers against him? Decidedly not. In fact, he may have believed it himself. You see, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have the evolved capacity to hold and dismiss reason simultaneously, for strong emotional stimuli. Sex, for example, or music. Or religion. These can motivate people beyond the realm of logic, and they often do. Evangelical angst says you’re not buying a scam artist a jet to spread the Gospel, it says your trying to avoid Hell. Rational or not. And that, it seems to me, is more than adequate ground for evangelical angst.

Doubting Normal

The problem with being mainstream is that you have a hard time impressing anybody. “Mainstream church does something normal” is hardly an eye-catching headline. So when mainstream Christianity’s in the media it must be abnormal. According to a recent Washington Post story, mainstream leaders are protesting Christianity leaving Jesus behind. To be fair, that’s an Evangelical speciality, but still. Without naming the elephant named Trump in the room, these mainstream leaders are doing what every Christian in the nation should be doing, which is objecting to the abuse of their brand. The Religious Right has been driving this car and from all indications RR is drunk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once the darling of Evangelicals, once wrote that it is a Christian’s duty to wrench the wheel from the hands of fascists. Now they call shotgun and select the tunes.

I could be getting this wrong. As the child of an alcoholic, I don’t know what’s normal. My wife must tire of hearing the question from me, “Is this normal?” I just don’t know. One thing I do know is that being unable to know what to expect has prepared me well for Trump’s destruction of America. I can’t tell if it’s normal or not, so good thing we have the two-faced Evangelicals to tell us it is. Those who watch religion might say it’s odd to have mainstream Christians on the moral high ground over their more self-righteous kin, but these seem to be strange times. Religion, like anything that can be used, can also be abused.

Even our Orthodox siblings know the score. The Orthodox Church basically went underground in Russia, which is, after all, a Christian nation. Stalin, at least, was honest. He couldn’t stand that mamby-pamby opiate of the masses. He had the fortitude to call himself an atheist. 45, on the other hand, calls himself whatever it takes to make himself look good. What? Christians are fashionable this season? Okay, I’m one of those. Even people who should know better (just because your daddy was an Evangelist doesn’t make you holy—too many Evangelists were caught with prostitutes to make that claim) have delighted to invite a lion into the sheepfold. I don’t know about you, but I’d be edging toward the fence just about now. Something doesn’t smell right in here. But then again, don’t take my word for it. The situation looks normal to me.

Ask an Evangelical

News stories this year have plowed up a frequently repeated question: what’s an Evangelical? This was the subtext to a Washington Post story that declared “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy,” as if it’s news. The media’s a little shy, I get it. Those of us who grew up Evangelical could have told them that at least 40 years ago. As a child I knew that Israel had to be fully restored for Jesus to return. Politics, we thought, were holding God hostage. You see, if the Bible says something, and it’s infallible, then even the Almighty has to obey it. And some parts seem to indicate that Israel has to be restored—interpreted a certain way—before Jesus gets his invitation back.

This Evangelical support isn’t because they love the Jews. No, no. Let’s not get personal about this. It’s because the second coming isn’t coming until the pieces are laid out in order. The Bible’s like a crystal ball, only it’s holy. It can predict the future with great precision. You can be sure someone like Trump is in there someplace, maybe in the passage where an ass speaks. In the 1970s it was Nixon. The wonderful thing about prophecy is that it’s made with interchangeable parts. As Millenniarians know, if you get your year wrong never apologize. Simply recalculate and keep preaching as if nothing happened. The Almighty is a forgiving God. At least to those He likes.

Intellectuals seem to think Evangelicalism is contagious. Well, to be fair, historically it has been. That was the whole point of camp meetings. Most Evangelicals aren’t too shy to tell you what they believe. In fact, their reading of the Bible sort of insists that they do. If you’re too bashful, many of those in the academy (or even formerly so) started out in their ranks. Rare is the biblical scholar who decided on that field of study purely based on intellectual curiosity. There was likely a method to their madness. Yes, of course Evangelicals support any politician who moves the embassy to Jerusalem. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. The divine heels have been dragging for a couple of millennia now, so it’s time to get this show on the road. All you have to do is ask an Evangelical. They’re not hard to find; in fact, they seem to be everywhere these days.

Latter-Day Scouts

Physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. And prepared. That’s what Boy Scouts are supposed to be. My attempts to become an Eagle Scout were about like my attempts to become a priest—fraught with peril from the beginning. As a child I wasn’t physically strong, for one thing. The runt of the litter, I was scrawny and often sick. Mentally awake remains a reasonable goal, as does morally straight. Such are the realities of life. Then why are the Mormons parting ways with the Scouts? In a recent Washington Post story by Samantha Schmidt, the Latter-Day Saints are formally separating from the organization now known as Scouts. Whether it’s because they now allow girls to join, or if it’s because they’ve openly permitted gays, the Scouts are no doubt becoming accommodationistic in the eyes of some. In a pluralistic world it’s the only way to survive.

Girl Scouts, on the other hand, have historically not raised the question of sexual orientation. When the social dynamics of a society disadvantage girls, it’s natural that an organization to help build confidence and positive self-attitudes should exclude boys. They have no official affiliation with any religious group. I didn’t realize until reading this article that Mormon boys were automatically part of the group formerly known as Boy Scouts. It fits the image, though. If you’ve ever been on a Boy Scout retreat, however, you know that image and reality aren’t the same thing. I dropped out of Troop 3 after frequent leadership changes frustrated me from getting beyond Tenderfoot. Besides, church was taking over more and more of my life at the time. I guess I was headed for morally straight. Our troop, after all, met in a church basement.

This is about symbolism, of course. To be a Boy Scout meant you were making an effort to be good. In fact, it was kind of hard to grow up thinking you could be good without that guidance. Boy Scouts, they used to say, helped the elderly across the street. Apparently what they do behind closed bedroom doors raises the specter of morality. When I was a kid the issue seemed to be more the mentally awake aspect. The Scouts I knew were like everybody else. There was no special purity there. I never knew anyone who made it all the way to Eagle. The Boy Scout law was like a twelve-step program: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. I wasn’t a Mormon, but the church had proved itself a rival. Especially for the reverent part.

Lazing Around

I was a science nerd as a kid. Well, at least I had a real soft spot for charismatic megafauna, but who doesn’t? We had those cheap, plastic figurines of dinosaurs that we incongruously mixed with our mammoths and cavemen—wait, no. We weren’t allowed cavemen because people didn’t evolve. Nevertheless, we didn’t see any problem putting glyptotherium in combat with t-rex. Pleistocene or Triassic didn’t matter—they weren’t here now. Extinction is the great equalizer. One of the figurines that always intrigued me was the giant ground sloth. I mean, here was a creature bigger than it needed to be. Not hurting anybody, it just wanted to eat leaves and laze around. A lifestyle that sounds attractive to this day.

Photo credit: Postdlf, from Wikimedia Commons

Human beings, in a process that is still continuing, wiped out animals bigger than themselves. The story is poignantly told in footprints discovered in White Sands National Monument. A Washington Post piece by Ben Guarino tells how paleontologists discovered a human footprint embedded in that of a giant sloth. Reading the story I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the very last one in existence. What if we’d uncovered the story of extinction in real time? Sloths, apart from being named after a mortal sin, never harmed anybody unprovoked. Simple vegetarians—principally vegans, apart from the occasional accidental bug, actually—they were the ultimate victims of human greed. It is virtually certain that we drove them extinct just like we did the dodo and the fiscally conservative Republican. Not exactly fast food, sloths couldn’t really outrun us, and like good Trumpists, we took advantage of their weakness to our own gain.

Or loss. There are no giant sloths left. We’ll never thrill to the sight of a living eucladoceros, or wonder at chalicotheres roaming the savanna. We’ll never run for our lives from an African bear otter (the mind reels). Our world becomes poorer for our presence, it seems. We moved from huddling in fear in our caves out to take on the beasts with our technology. Once we cottoned onto the concept, we refined it until we could drop an elephant with the single pull of a trigger. Our destruction of megafauna continues at an alarming and accelerating rate. Evolution does have quite an imagination, after all. Like human beings, it can take sins and make them larger than life. And “thou shalt not kill,” we say, applies only to our species.

Kakistocracy

While in seminary I had the interesting job of teaching a visually impaired student Greek. This wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of my professors since, as an undergraduate I had exhausted the Greek curriculum at Grove City College and my fourth year the professor suggested I teach the course to the second years. This was, however, strictly koiné—I’ve always been from the lower class echelons. Trying to figure out how to explain a dead language to a student who couldn’t see required some creativity. At that point in my life ministry loomed as a career and it was still fairly easy to learn new languages. I was studying Hebrew at the time with the inimitable William Holladay at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, both of which are now gone.

I recently ran across a story in the Washington Post that utilized an unfamiliar word based on Greek: kakistocracy. It seems that the present administration has officials scrambling for new words to describe the depths to which our government is willing to sink. There’s an old saying: “the Greeks have a word for it”—I suspect the ancients would be shocked to see this particular word emerging again after centuries of progress. The translation of kakistocracy is quite logical for those with some Hellenistic training; it means “rule by the worst.” The sad thing is that democracy has come to this. Anyone with a fragment of a brain stem could see that 45 didn’t win the election in any sense but an electoral college one—giving us a new direction to sling the related word “kaka” around. It was the fact that those privileged to vote simply didn’t get around to it. As it was, the “incumbent” lost by three million votes. Nobody, however, is willing to do anything about it. It’s kaka.

If the swamp has been drained, it’s been to become a cesspool. With complete disregard for decency, decorum, and democracy, the directives issuing from the potty mouth on Pennsylvania Avenue demonstrate just how diabolical government can become. The sad thing is, the Greeks already had a word for it. One thing we know about our species is that we like to repeat our worst moments over and over again. Even worse, we seem to be proud of it. So as the kakistocracy grows to include porn stars, genital grabbing, and treasonous relations with foreign nations, the world looks in wonder and concludes people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had gotten it wrong after all. At least the student I was tutoring, although she couldn’t see, wanted to learn to read. And that made all the difference.

Heavenly Questions

A lot can happen when you’re in a coma. Or nothing at all. I haven’t read Kevin and Alex Malarkey’s account of the latter’s trip to Heaven during a coma, and it looks like I never shall. A story by Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post explains how Alex Malarkey, now that he is no longer a minor, is suing Tyndale House over the publication of his Near Death Experience (NDE), penned by his father. The story, according to the Post, was a fabrication. Alex awoke from his coma recalling nothing, but Kevin knew a good thing when he saw it and wrote an account of the young boy going to Heaven. Alex says it never happened. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is now being pulled and pulped as a hoax.

NDEs are real (even if one didn’t happen in this case), but what they actually are is a matter of debate. The mainstream interpretation is that they are the last gasps of consciousness before a brain dies, temporarily. These often comforting thoughts can be quite similar in very different contexts and sometimes include the formerly deceased knowing details that they couldn’t possibly have witnessed in real life. Scientists willing to buck convention explore these episodes less with the intention of proving Heaven is true than with probing the idea that souls are real. That consciousness somehow continues. That life may, after all, be eternal. Since there are no scientific apparatus in the afterlife, there’s no way to measure or quantify such events. This leads most scientists to conclude that these are merely dying thoughts, or, as in the Malarkey case, hoaxes.

Ever since Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, confessional publishers—particularly of the evangelical brand—have promoted such stories. Religion and science, while not necessarily the cats and dogs they’re presented as being, don’t often coalesce around a common nucleus. Part of the problem is that spiritual events are beyond the reach of the scientific method since no laboratory conditions exist to test them. A number of scientists and medical doctors attest the reality of NDEs, but these occur in human consciousness—a realm of which we know little. Religious publishers know a good story when they see one since the doubts cast by science have to be regularly dispelled. The problem is the money such stories attracts also allures those seeking the fiduciary comforts of this material world. In this case, it seems, if you didn’t have the experience yourself you could capitalize on someone who did. Or didn’t. Those eager for proof are always willing to buy and sell the story.

Woodland Creatures

Maybe I watch too many zombie movies, but the story of zombie raccoons was just too good to pass up. A story by Marwa Eltagouri in the Washington Post described a spate of recent “zombie raccoon” incidents in eastern Ohio, not far from where I grew up. While the likely explanation is distemper, one of the behaviors of these raccoons stands out—they walk on two feet. Since I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book by Linda Godfrey—who’s made a name writing about anomalous animals in North America, particularly bipedal dogs, or wolves—I found this aspect of the raccoons particularly interesting. That’s the thing, you see. Bipedalism suggests other human-like traits. Think great apes. Or penguins. (Although birds are generally bipedal, they tend to be squat and more horizontally inclined than vertical. The penguin not only dresses for our most formal occasions, but waddles around like many of us do after having been a bit too generous at the dinner table.) But bipedal raccoons—now that’s scary.

As a species Homo sapiens seem to have a need to believe themselves unique. Over the centuries any number of traits have been claimed as unique to us. Bipedalism, the ability to speak, being relatively naked so that we have to wear clothing, being able text with our opposable thumbs—we’re not like other animals. We’re special. So when animals that normally go on all fours walk on two legs we instantly think they’re trying to be like us. They want to have all the rights and privileges of our species so they can elect alt-right leaders and destroy everything they’ve built. Uppity critters! We have trouble reconciling ourselves with our animal origins.

Other animals, it seems, are beginning to note the advantages of walking on their hind legs. I’ve watched enough zombie movies to know that it’s the intention that’s the real problem. They want to be like us. Notice the accounts of bipedal animals—witnesses say there’s something in their eyes. Global domination. Yes, they’ve been watching us and now they want the same things we want. They want to take over the world. I know enough about World War Z to know that you can’t save everyone. Hard choices will have to be made. And maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but I’ve noticed the bipeds are from red states: the dog-men of Michigan and Wisconsin, the raccoon-men of Ohio. If we can’t save everyone, we need to make wise choices. Why not let them have Washington, DC? They certainly can’t be any worse than what we’ve got there right now.