The Grind

I’m headed back to New York City after a staycation of almost two weeks. Even shifting standard arising time back only an hour from 4:00 a.m. seems cruel and unusual punishment this morning. New York is a very different place to go for work than it is for play. Serious New Yorkers, of which I am not one, tend to avoid the fun places visitors go. Times Square is simply a venue from which the hike to work begins. Most of the buildings are gray and dedicated to the making of money. My thoughts go back to my one transgressive trip in over the holidays to see a show. How different New York was then! Ethereal lights, sublime music, and the magic of story. Today it will be unsmiling crowds surly to make cash flow again. The concrete underfoot today will be much harder.

When I come in with family I feel less cold. New York can be very lonely for such a crowded place. Indeed, it isn’t unusual for me to go for days with no one at the office saying a single word to me. That’s the kind of place Manhattan is. Too many humans to be humane. Unless you’re here to play. Such play is, however, costly. Magic never comes for free. The holiday lights will still be up here and there. Warm memories of the past few days will linger for a little while. Soon the steel and cement will be the only realities once again. Soft skills meet the cold razor of cash with predictable results.

It seems to me that I’m yearning for boyhood once again. Those first tentative years of learning about life are all misleading. Suddenly it dawns on you that good will is reserved for the holidays and the remainder of the year is dedicated to money and things others deem as important. The bus is approaching, but the last time I was in the city was for fun. Today I won’t even glance at the theater district as I dodge cars to get out of Times Square as quickly as possible. There will be the all-too-familiar lines at the Port Authority during rush hour this afternoon. I’ll leave work wondering how a city can possibly be so schizophrenic. Yes, I’ve been profoundly happy in New York City. I’ve also been ground down to the very nub by the exact same place. Such is the nature of a world where money reigns.

In Control

Those who know me know that I treat my workdays like clockwork. I leave the apartment every day, catch the same bus, and leave work at the end of the day, all according to schedule. Traffic is a variable, of course. Yesterday as I came out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7:15, blunted with my reading on the bus, I noted we were a bit late for my liking. I got to work before 7:30, though, and was interrupted by a message from my brother, asking if I had made it out of the Port Authority okay. I was a bit confused—weather delays do happen, but what could have made today any different than any other Monday? It was then I learned about the bombing. It happened five minutes after I left.

Now, I’m not trying to over-dramatize this. I was above ground and the bomber was below. I didn’t even hear it go off, although there were a lot of sirens on my way to work. The only serious injury was to the bomber himself. What really got to me, when the idea had time to settle in, was how close I’d been. So were thousands of others at the time. Over the summer I went to Penn Station just after what had been assumed to be a terrorist attack. Jackets and personal effects lay scattered on the floor. People had dropped things and ran. In that case it had been an innocent tazing of an unruly passenger that had set off the panic. I’m not a fan of fear on the commute. I don’t think, however, that we should give in to the rhetoric that our government will surely use to describe all this.

Millions of people live and work in New York City. Such things as these disrupt the flow of our daily lives, but we can’t let the agenda of fear control this narrative. I felt a tinge of it when I headed back to the Port Authority at the end of the day. Police barricades were still up on 8th Avenue. Reporters with cameras were at the scene. A potential killer had been here just hours before. This is New York. Without the overlay of fear, this was simply business as normal. Any city of millions will harbor potential killers. If terror controls the narrative, it has won. If politicians use this fear to win elections, the terrorists win them too. I’m doing what we must do to defeat the fear. I’m just getting back on the bus.

Molly Picture

Lovely-molly-posterMaybe I’m getting out of practice with my horror movies—I don’t have time to watch them like I used to—but Lovely Molly left me a little confused. I suppose I’m more susceptible to big advertising than I’d like to admit, but I knew about Lovely Molly from the massive Times Square ads back when I was still with Routledge. I’m ambivalent about demonic possession movies, but I put it in my mental bucket list until I had a weekend evening alone to fire it up on Amazon Prime. As I’ve noted, it left me more confused than scared. Yes, watching it kept me tense, not knowing what was going to happen next (I knew nothing of the story beyond that it was a possession story) but as gruesome as a couple scenes were, the question of what’s going on never really got resolved. It’s pretty clear that Molly was abused as a child, turned to drugs to cope, and is having a breakdown after moving into her creepy childhood home. If her newlywed husband didn’t hear some of the sounds, it would seem to be a conventional breakdown story. Eduardo Sánchez doesn’t show us the monster until the very end, and even then, not clearly. I had to turn to online discussion groups to understand what I’d just watched.

While in this post-modern age no one is qualified to say what anything really means, if fans are to be believed, the DVD extra implicate the demon Orobas. I’m no expert on demons, and I couldn’t recall having heard the name before. In the “found footage” scenes where Molly eerily hums to herself while visiting the sites of childhood memory in the house, she does uncover what seems to be the symbol of Orobas. This is a horse-headed, horse-footed demon with the body of a man. Indeed, when she is being stalked by what she believes to be the ghost of her father, Molly hears horse hooves on the floor. In the final scene, she leaves a photo album for her sister to find with her father’s head covered with pictures of horse heads that she’d cut from his wall of framed pictures, apparently of prized beasts.

The real horror here, however, is in what seems to be a misogynistic implication, no matter how justified, that Molly (and her sister) are the murderers. Molly reveals that her sister killed their father, and Molly herself dispatches, it seems, the preacher, her husband, and the girl of the neighbor next door. She, however, is the one who had been victimized. If this is a case of possession, at least by implication, then the male demon is to blame, but it looks like Molly pays the price. The evidence is circumstantial and Molly disappears at the end, leaving open the room for a sequel. While I felt no need to sleep with the lights on after watching it, the movie has enough provocative material to make me think about it, trying to figure out what was supposed to have transpired. I suppose that many horror movies are more straightforward, but the more easily forgotten for being so.

New Century

Time is the ultimate commodity. New Year’s Day is one of the ten standard holidays to the business world, a grudging nod in the direction that those who are tasked with making money for others might take a little break. Yesterday as I arrived in Times Square at 7 a.m., with a handful of others on the bus, vendors were already setting up their card tables on street corners with cheap, glitzy baubles to celebrate the drop of a ball as 2013 slowly wound out. Like many others, I marched to a job where little was happening. Emails elicited no response. Entire buildings in parts of Manhattan didn’t bother with anything but emergency lights since who really works on New Year’s Eve? Some of us must. As the long hours slowly passed at my cubicle, my mind wandered back over the past few weeks, months, year, decade, quarter and half centuries. New Year’s Day is one of the oldest religious holidays, if not the original one. But how far have we come?

800px-Royal_Irish_Rifles_ration_party_Somme_July_1916

Only a century ago the world was poised for the Great War as 1914 dawned. Trenches were dug in minds before they ever appeared in the mud of the Somme. 1918 brought a tenuous peace that would lead toward inevitable renewal of hostilities after a decade was allowed for Gatsby and the jazz age. World War Two ended with the first threats of mutual annihilation, and just five years later the Korean War began. The police action ended in time to offer another opportunity at war in Vietnam around three years later. I grew up aware of the Vietnam War, but in a religion that taught me it was just preparation for the Really Great War yet to come. We gave ourselves fifteen years before starting a war in the volatile Persian Gulf, a conflict with a sibling Second Gulf War with its premature mission accomplished. Technically it’s over, but for how long? Drones fly over our heads even now. Books on World War One line bookshop shelves (in as far as there are any bookstores anymore). Sometimes I hope there are no prophets.

New year was a ritual marking that sacred resetting of time, and eventually it took on a significance all its own. A spiritual reboot, as it were. A time to move on from past troubles. As I walked through Times Square yesterday evening, my only thoughts were for the bus that would take me home, away from the massive celebration. I had a book to read against the long journey and already by five o’clock the crowds had begun to coalesce. So many people. So many hopes and dreams. The ball stood poised over Midtown, ready to fall, and a new kind of symbolism became apparent. We begin the new year with a downward trend. The tangled webs we’ve been weaving for decades have not been reset. Politics and power-brokers will continue to build on what they started long ago. Some of us just want to get home.

A Big Joke

On the evening table my wife left a token of hope for me to read in this hopeful season. New Jersey “Transit” claimed that the very next day riders of the extensive bus system would be able to track buses precisely on their smart phones. No more wondering “has the bus already come, or is it late (again)?” I laughed when I read this because that very evening in the Port Authority my bus never came. The frazzled and apologetic dispatcher said nobody knew where the driver was. Did anyone think to drag the East River? I wondered. As other buses pulled to the gate, drivers refusing to switch routes, the line grew and grew. The bus scheduled for the next half hour did not show. My daughter was waiting for me to fix dinner. On a good day I’m home by 6:30. This was not a good day. I laughed ironically at the article and went to bed. My morning bus leaves, in theory, before 6:00 a.m. A day later, in the Port Authority. My bus, which can now be tracked with precision, precisely failed to show up. I’m sure you know the dispatcher’s chorus—please join in—”nobody knows where the driver is.”

So what is a diatribe like this doing on a blog about religion? I’m as mad as Hell about this, that’s why! Every month I pay hundreds of dollars for a bus pass. I think the least New Jersey Transit could do is the courtesy of sending a bus. In case anyone from NJ Transit is reading this, a bus is a large vehicle that seats about 50 adults and generally runs the same way every day. It’s called a “route.” People use it to get to and from work. Of course nobody expects the executives of a company that services over 19,000 bus stops to take a bus to work. They probably have to be on time. I take the earliest possible bus from my town to New York City. Most days it is late and consequently so am I. For this I spend over three grand a year.

This is not about Hurricane Sandy. Buses have been back on schedule since Thanksgiving. What it comes down to is the fate of most capitalistic ventures—the working person butters the bread of the Executive Director who earns more than $260,000 a year. Last night I toyed with the idea of getting other disgruntled commuters to link arms and stand across the exit ramp, or to lay down in front of the buses until a bus for my route was sent. I suspect, though, that they realize as well as I do that Tiananmen Square doesn’t take much to morph into Times Square when an individual stands in the way of corporate gain. Tonight I plan to wear my good walking shoes. After all, I paid good money for them too. Unless, of course, anybody out there would like to drive this bus?

Ghost bus

Ghost bus

One of Us

I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.

My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?

It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.

Attack of the 50-Foot Women

A society will be remembered by its lowest common denominator. At the mention of the Roman Empire many people immediately think of the decadence of that once mighty power in decline. Rome ruled the world at one time—or so it seemed—but Nero had his fiddle and Caligula favored his horse Incitatus as a senator (today we’re more accustomed to seeing asses in government than horses). The madness of Napoleon. The insanity of Hitler. Mighty powers crumbling under their own weight. Walking through Times Square is an education. Recently a fifty-foot woman appeared, looming over the heads of commuters, tourists, and the homeless. Unlike the classic 1958 sci-fi flick, this woman is apparently happy, smiling broadly, and nearly naked. She is an advertisement for Sports Illustrated’s soft porn swimsuit edition. Stories above us all, she pulls back her hair and, if she weren’t a fantasy, I’m sure she’d be chilly dressed like that in a New York winter.

We’re talking lowest common denominator here. As I man I can’t help but to understand the appeal. Advertisers know it too. At the corner of 42nd and 7th, there is another fifty-foot woman, apparently nude, sitting in an office chair for Go Daddy with a QR card across her torso offering to those who would scan her, “See More Now!” It is difficult to be judgmental when advertisers are using basic psychology to sell their products, and studies have shown that men are very easily aroused by visual images—our juvenile imaginations never do grow up. But women this large? In 1958 Nancy Fowler Archer was salaciously considered a monster, but the producers knew teenage boys would watch in fascination. Such simple creatures.

There is a disturbing subtext here. Men are weaker than they pretend to be, but that doesn’t bother me much. Vulnerability is where humanity is most authentic. The problem with the fifty-foot women in Times Square is the message to American society that women are a commodity. They, like everything else in Times Square, can be purchased and owned. They exist solely for the pleasure of men. I am not a prude, but I do believe that such blatant shows of the female body for sale bear as a subtext “mene mene tekel upharsin.” A society that cheapens its women in such a forum is creating the standards by which a hopefully more advanced future will remember it. Standing beneath the open thighs of the fifty-foot woman on my way to work, I am profoundly sad. This is Rush Limbaugh’s American Dream writ large.

Unorthodox Accreditation

While going about my editorial duties, I found myself directed to the webpage of the Antioch School of Church Planting in Ames, Iowa. Okay, I’ll admit that the fact that I spent the holidays in Ames may have been what actually motivated me to look. Over the past twenty-some years I’ve spent many holidays in Ames, but I never knew of this particular institution. I had been checking up on somebody’s status when I found the Distance Education and Training Council. The DETC is an accrediting body. In a world where we can’t take anyone’s word for it—especially not a bunch of academics’ many words for anything—we have invented accrediting bodies. These watchdog groups maintain the high academic standards that we like to mix well with our beer and football to make the American college experience. The DETC, however, scopes out remote education programs. Often these schools have no campus. The ASCP is accredited by the DETC.

So I poked around Antioch for a while. The name is taken from the ancient Syrian city where the early Christians first earned their title. It became clear in a fraction of a second that this accredited program is an ultra-conservative answer to seminary education. How to get what looks like a regular degree to improve your indoctrination. Instead of being bemused (one seemingly appropriate response), I was actually a little bit disturbed. Education occurs every day in non-structured ways. I can get a whole life lesson just walking across Times Square. When we want standards of comparison, however, we rely on tried and tested schools to offer us degrees. When a program that supports opinions that run counter to the educational system’s standards gets accreditation, we all need to watch out. Somebody call the Bureau of Weights and Measures!

The distrust of academia often does not apply to such self-promoting schools. Americans tend to love self-made doyens who bring education down-home. As far as I could tell from the website, the Antioch School is an extension of a local Bible Church that is intended to provide future clergy with home-baked degrees. That in itself isn’t a problem, of course, but when the wider public doesn’t know the inner workings of higher education, and generally distrusts it, who’s to say whether any degree is valid or not? Aren’t all bachelors created equal? Not really. Accrediting doesn’t prevent abuses from slipping through the system—I’ve seen it happen firsthand, right under accrediting teams’ noses. It is a game we play. You can earn a master’s degree or a doctorate in planting churches. And if you ask me, that’s the same thing as getting a degree in planting corn, only much less scientific.

No way through this maze.

Dead Sea Souls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are coming to Times Square. Times Square is the kind of place where you know your being sworn at, but you’re never really sure in what language. It is a place of the people. So the sacred meets the profane. Mircea Eliade would be scratching his great head with his pipe firmly in hand. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the sexiest of ancient documents. Their story has it all: mystery, intrigue, conspiracy, romance—well, maybe not romance. A chance discovery by dirt-poor Bedouin in a desert, ads being taken out in the Wall Street Journal, clandestine meetings with ancient texts being viewed through a hurricane fence in a forbidden zone. And do those scrolls ever get around! I first saw them (those that are accessible to the public) in Jerusalem. The next time was in the Field Museum in Chicago. Now I’m feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing.

Those of use who’ve spent much time (too much time) with ancient documents relating to the Bible know that the Dead Sea Scrolls require no introduction. The far more interesting (and sexy–yes, literally sexy) Ugaritic tablets still receive slack-jawed stares of unrecognition, despite their importance. Those who read the stories of Baal, Anat, El and Asherah wonder why the “Classics” only begin with Homer. People have been creative with the gods since writing began. The theme of the human race might be summed up as, “if the gods are so powerful, what am I doing in a dump like this?” Fill in the blanks—that’s religion. From the beginning, once we’d come up with gods, we began to wonder why they treat us so. People are on the receiving end and so many things can put gods into a bad mood. It’s your basic dysfunctional family.

No doubt the Dead Sea Scrolls are important. We have learned much about the context of early Christianities from them. They provide the earliest manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Bible. And they’ve got that Dead Sea mystique. When I read the story of their discovery, I understand why crowds will flock into a tight room to stare through the glass at a bit of shriveled parchment that most of them cannot read. It’s like standing next to someone famous and powerful; maybe Moses or King David. Or more famous and powerful, like George W. Bush. I know, that was the last administration. But the Scrolls come from an even earlier one. I just hope somebody will give me a call when they find one that tells what happens when Baal meets Astarte. That will be worth the price of admission! And, who knows? It might even fit in with the spirit of Times Square (pre-Disney, of course.)

Step in Time

Magical blingdom

Mary Poppins is one of my wife’s favorite childhood movies. I first saw it in college and, being a parent, have seen it many times since then. Now when I walk through Times Square I see it is playing at the New Amsterdam Theater, and if I time it right I can hear bits of the musical on my way to the Port Authority after work. As is normal in the universe according to Disney, nothing is really ever seriously wrong in the London of 1910. Troublesome children are doing nothing more than chasing a kite and attempting to connect with an emotionally distant father. Even when he loses his job, Banks merely suffers an inverted umbrella and a punched hat. Joblessness lasts for only a day. Everybody sings. When we watched the movie again recently I considered how such an escape is healthy for those of us accustomed to a somewhat harsher adult existence. Joblessness is often long-term and desperation reeks as we find ourselves distanced from that which defines our existence.

Mary Poppins represents a divine figure in the Disney universe. She comes down from the heavens during a troubled period of history, judiciously utilizes a bit of magic, and heals the broken-hearted. When things go bad, Mary Poppins is there to make them right again, even on her day off. She shows the cold-hearted world of business that there is a better way. Who would you rather be—George Banks or the Bird Lady? Who is happier?

“All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles,” saintly Mary sings, “look down as she sells her wares. And although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling each time someone shows that he cares.” Where are the saints and apostles of Wall Street? Instead the optimistic view of humanity plays itself out on Broadway where the intensity of humankind spans from homeless beggar to movie star. Fantasy is underrated. Our minds have evolved the capacity to allow us to escape the realities of suffering, disappointment, and angst. When a week of trouble and turmoil has held us in its grip, we may still escape to the magical kingdom of our choice to find bread and circuses. Mary Poppins does not condemn the greed of Mr. Dawes and the rich die laughing. It is difficult not to like Mary Poppins, the angelic symbol of care that doesn’t disrupt the system. And Disney will see no end to its place among the wealthiest families on earth. It is a small world, after all.

Kings and Lions

Most parents come to know the Disney Empire intimately. Apart from cheap knock-offs, it is the main entertainment industry for children in a world of leisure. When weighed in the scales of intellectual achievement, Disney productions often end up in the lighter pan. Even some of the more serious stories, such as The Lion King, strive for a gravitas that eludes them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch, however. Yesterday, in a celebration of two closely spaced birthdays, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. Being in Times Square reminded me that New York City is where many adults go to play, the Disneyland for grown-ups. Even with the rain for which this April has been an overachiever, hundreds of tourists were about, flocking to the famous chapels of the temple to American consumerism.

Having sat through many decent productions of high school, college, and touring company musicals and plays, I never really appreciated how a long-term professional show could raise the standards to a nearly unattainable level. The Lion King story-line has many mythological – Christian, even – themes, but the immediate sense of awe in being in a Broadway theater was underscored mostly by the professionalism of the actors and singers. The play does try to raise the level of awareness of African culture, a heritage nearly wiped out in many locations by overzealous missionaries, albeit in Disney-approved fashion. It is very easy to comprehend why those who frequent Broadway find other productions lacking. In short, the show was spectacular.

As today is the official start of Holy Week, and as Easter is about self-sacrifice and rebirth, The Lion King was an appropriate choice to experience (it was selected by my daughter). The death of Mufasa in the salvation of Simba is played out in a resurrection of sorts when Simba realizes that his father still lives in him. The character of Rafiki also makes for an excellent example of a shaman. Glancing through the playbill, it was evident that many Broadway shows are keyed to religious culture: Jerusalem, Sister Act, Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, and even Mary Poppins has a magical being descending from the skies to set a minor injustice to right. Now as millions lift their palms on this Sunday the drama will carry on and art will continue to draw its inspiration from religion.

Broadway 1986