Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

Medusa on the Rocks

WreckOfTheMedusaShipwrecks possess a compelling resonance that is difficult to explain. I have seldom been on boats, but from my youngest days I’ve been drawn to the coast. While a student in Boston I made weekend trips to Gloucester to be near the place where ships go out to sea, sitting by the quote from Psalm 107 at the base of the famous fisherman statue. Moby Dick has passed under my eyes many times. While at Nashotah House I was frequently tormented with nightmares of sinking ships. Titanic was a huge movie late in those years, and even before watching it, I dreamed of going unceasingly down. In a used bookstore, Alexander McKee’s Wreck of the Medusa recently caught my attention. Although I’d never heard of the Medusa, the name suggested classic themes, and the shipwreck, I knew, would entail suffering and loss and human drama. I knew I had to take it home with me.

The true story of the wreck is tragic in just about every conceivable context. The year was 1816 and aristocracy was still openly practiced. The Medusa, bound for Africa from France, ran aground and, in echoes of what would happen (at least in some instances) a century in the future, the insufficient number of lifeboats were claimed by the wealthy and powerful. The most tragic aspect, however, was the matter of the raft. The masts were felled and a poorly designed raft was hastily constructed (the Medusa was grounded, not sinking). The greatest number of people were herded onto this raft where the water came up to nearly their waists, as the six boats towed the makeshift craft toward shore. At the instigation of the about-to-be-installed governor of Senegal, those towing the raft dropped the line and rowed themselves to safety. The raft, with no means of propulsion, was left adrift where 135 people of the 150 on board slowly died over the next two weeks. The governor and his party made it safely to their destination.

To me, this election week, it seems that I’ve just read a potent parable. We have public officials in place who, like those safely in the boats, cry out “we abandon them” before the masses of those who expect and deserve their protection. Power, it is said, corrupts, and as we witness the constant increase of political power over the sea of humanity taught that their religion favors the party able to quote the Bible the loudest, we sometimes forget that sinking ships may leave very long memories. In another week we will reach the commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Essex, the Medusa, and countless other tragically doomed ships may easily slip our minds now being propelled at full speed toward the spending frenzy of Christmas. Meanwhile, I urge us all to take a few November moments to consider where this ship is heading, and if there is yet time to change her course.

Fly Like an Eagle

Hummingbirds, according to my bird book, have hearts that beat 1260 times a minute. That translates, if my math is to be trusted, to 21 beats per second. As the only birds capable of flying backwards, their aerial acrobatics are fascinating to watch as they hover, accelerate, and change directions like a biological UFO. During the summer they guzzle the empty calories of sugar-water that we leave for them in our feeders, so that we can lure them close enough to observe (that is, after all, how humans interact with their environment). The other day I watched a snapshot of developmental behavior. This July has been a good one for hummingbirds, with several a day visiting the local watering hole. I sometimes wonder about the flowers that are overburdened with nectar as these tiny birds hover by their communal font. At first it seemed that only one bird frequented the feeder. Then two came along, and although four feeding spouts were available, one would always chase the other away in a dogfight worthy of Baron von Richthofen. A third showed up, and when the first was busy chasing the second away, would fly over to the feeder to attempt a nip. Then a fourth. Eventually a fifth. And although there are four evenly spaced openings, only one took a drink at a time.


“Bird brain” is a speciesist insult. Many birds are very intelligent and the comparison with human behavior is often apt. Protecting one’s private stash that is more than adequate for the community is worthy of comparison. Not to complicate speciesisms, but when a person prevents another from enjoying what one cannot, we call it being a dog in a manger (dogs, of course, do not eat the provender of the barnyard herbivores). A bird flying so fast that it’s a blur chases another away and cannot enjoy the high-calorie, human intoxicant we offer so that we can appreciate its incredible display. If we could fly like that, would we be so short-sighted?

God-like, we attempt to make nature in our own image. And mix metaphors like a professional editor. Not far from the shelter of the human breadline we offer, hover the larger, predatory birds. Those who fly fastest, super-charged with sugar and spite, stand a better chance of surviving. And when a luxury liner encounters an iceberg in the frigid north Atlantic, those who’ve lingered longer at the feeder are better equipped to gain quick access to the lifeboats that are sorely inadequate for the overbooked cruise. And if I were on board, would I not be like a hummingbird in the manger? My heart beats 21 times a second just to think about it.

Flood Warning

If you’re like any number of others in North America, you may be wondering when spring will arrive. Not meteorological spring—that has flown past already—but the warm, salubrious air that bears no wind chill factor. You might, like many, turn to the Weather Channel website. While you’re there you might see a story about extreme weather and Noah’s Flood. (You might need to scroll down the page to find it; the link seems to have been cursed.) The flood myth is a pervasive story. It appears in countless novels, movies (even Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, for those who are willing to believe), and many baby’s nurseries. The weather this year has many wondering about global warming, although, honestly, we’ve known about it for years. Some are speculating that floods will become more common, and that’s almost certain. The Weather Channel, however, uses the myth to point out that people have experienced extreme weather from “the beginning.”

The trouble with this reasoning is that the story of Noah’s flood is not original to the Bible. It seems virtually certain that the writers of the biblical stories (there are two) knew the Babylonian version embedded in the tale of Gilgamesh. The writer of the Gilgamesh Epic knew the Sumerian version of the story, already centuries old by that point. And the story never really happened. At least not in historical time. Floods, yes. World-wide flood, no. The stories were told to make points, as most stories are. The point here seems to be that gods can be pretty petty if you neglect to offer them their due. Even minor sins can set you treading water for weeks at a time. Still, the Weather Channel considers the possibility that this could reveal ancient meteorology. Ancient morality is closer to the truth.

Every year around Easter the media peppers its workaday headlines with biblical tropes. It is the time to catch the quasi-religious thinking pious thoughts and click-throughs are more likely. Never mind that biblical scholars have known for many decades that this fetching tale is based more on a primitive Schadenfreude than modern science. Not that the Bible is devoid of ancient weather. I once wrote an ill-fated book about the topic. The people of ancient times knew that God has a special place in his sacred heart for the weather. It is one of the most awesome demonstrations of divine power. So it is in the story of Noah. For those of us in the twenty-first century it may still be a morality tale. This time, however, the flood is caused by human greed and lack of control. And this, when all is measured in the scales, may be among the worst sins humanity has ever committed.


Gitche Gumee

Up on the rugged western shore of Lake Superior the lamp atop Split Rock Lighthouse will be illuminated for the only time this year tonight. Immensities and superlatives fail at some sites, and as the cold waves lap eternally at the shore, this is one of them. Split Rock illumines its beacon in commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on the far end of that great lake on this date many years ago. While not as large as the Titanic, the Edmund Fitzgerald outstretched two football fields and carried more than fifty million pounds of cargo, immeasurables we are forced to recalibrate into yardage and tonnage. When the Fitzgerald sank during an unnamed November storm in 1975 only twenty-nine people died, but the tragedy soon became part of American legend. The image of immensities battling for the souls of twenty-nine human lives possesses an eerie, epic quality. When faced with the raw rage of nature, we are helpless indeed.

Shipwrecks may be the ultimate metaphor, for like ships we are consciousness in a protective vessel. Of course some deny that a soul exists, but in November it is difficult to doubt. A century ago the Titanic sank, and we still wonder in fascination. Human life is fragile when confronting the north Atlantic, or Lake Superior, or even the great waves that wash ashore and sweep some away. Great bodies of water, some psychologists say, represent forces larger than ourselves in the human psyche. Some suggest the ocean in dreams represents sex, but others would say it’s God. In the realm of metaphor anything is possible. It is no accident that many Christian sects begin the rite of membership with total immersion in water. When the Fitzgerald was baptized, twenty-nine men died.

Standing on the vast shoreline of a gray Lake Superior has a way of making you feel insignificant. Enormity was easily related to divinity in the primitive mind, but standing next to something truly vast still sends me into a protective crouch as I ponder just how little I really am. In this year of destructive storms, as we’ve taken to naming the winter squalls that whip across the continent with noble names such as Athena and Brutus, we are still at the mercy of something unspeakably large. The weather is the ocean above us, and it bears children named Andrew, Irene, Katrina, and Sandy. Each reminds us that we are constantly at the mercy of something far larger than human comprehension. Every year as the tenth of November rolls around I think of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the overwhelming forces that surround us. There is indeed a metaphor hidden here, for those willing to plunge into the frigid depths to find it.

Rule Britannia

Being back in Britain serves as a constant reminder of how conspicuous consumption has come to be a hallmark of American culture. When my wife and I moved to Britain back in the 1980s we soon became acclimated to the shift in scales to a size that seemed much more within our grasp. Yes, civilized people could live without undue excess and still be quite happy. Living in the States swiftly eroded the confidence that less is enough. Those who do not climb die. Back in Britain, there is evidence that the unabashed capitalism is spreading like a poison through this nation as well. Too readily the draw of gain and personal comfort outstrip our concern for other people. On a whole, however, the ideals of a society where all have health care and the elderly are not simply forgotten still remains intact.

Perhaps it is the benefit of having once been an empire that spanned the globe, or perhaps it is a hangover from having borne the burden of monarchy and a stratified society where noblesse oblige ensures that those below are not left behind. Not that such a system is without its faults. A century ago Titanic was setting forth from these ports and sank with the humble classes going first. Such tragedies show that even where noble ideas hold sway, the inexorable draw of evolutionary development will favor those who assert themselves. The monkey on top when the ship sinks gets to draw the last breath.

Back in my Nashotah House days I used to have recurring nightmares of sinking ships. In our attempts to extend mastery over the largest environment on our planet, the one in which we cannot survive, we face an uncomfortable reality. Even if those whose names still register a nod of recognition are those who had amassed the most wealth, they are equally as deceased when the hull strikes the Atlantic floor. Is it such a difficult matter to make sure that everyone has enough before allowing those enamored of wealth to accumulate superfluous amounts of it? When the ship sinks, those with the wealth to buy themselves extra minutes may have time to think. And if those thoughts are honest, they will realize that the cost has been too great all long.

Rising to The Abyss

The name James Cameron has become almost synonymous with epic, large-scale adventures that suggest improbable world with stilted dialogue. The first Cameron film I watched with the awareness of his direction was Titanic. Last night I watched The Abyss for the first time. Of course, I’d heard quite a bit about the film since its release over two decades ago, and I had to satisfy my curiosity. The Abyss turns out to be a prognostication for Titanic as well as Avatar, what with the fascination Cameron has for sinking ships, friendly aliens, and impossible love reconciled. In fact, many of the characters presented in The Abyss appear to reincarnate in Cameron’s latter films under different names, but in similar circumstances. The reason the film is worth mention on a blog about religion is its heavy reliance on traditional Christian imagery of the afterlife, projected into the abyss (turning Dante on his head).

When the crew of Deep Core investigate the sunken submarine USS Montana, crew member Jammer sees what he thinks is an angel and goes into shock that lands him in a coma (just to awake at the right time to save the day). The theme of personal sacrifice and resurrection (the Christ syndrome, we might call it) is acted out by both Lindsey Brigman and her husband Bud. Lindsey drowns herself so that she can be resuscitated, with the intention of saving both herself and her estranged husband. In his turn Virgil (aka Bud-everyone get the subtle reference to Dante here?) disarms a nuclear warhead (by snipping a single wire!) by diving beneath the capacity of his oxygen supply, texting his now adoring wife that he knew it would be a one-way ticket down. Then the aliens arrive. The whole light at the end of the tunnel trope becomes factual as the aliens-angel hybrids flutter over and take Virgil to safety. In case you missed the biblical references, they part the water and you get the strange suspicion that Moses is lurking behind the scenes somewhere.

Of course, some of these ideas will be fresher in viewer’s minds from Titantic and Avatar, but the theme of resurrection following self-sacrifice is a staple of Hollywood. It is the right combination for a feel-good movie, even if it ends up being sad. Perhaps it is the mark of living in a secular nation that has its origins in a Christian worldview. The battle of our religious status as a nation rages on, but the fact is, no matter how free we are with our religion, we will flock to movies where the protagonist willingly sacrifices him(less frequently her)-self with the reward of new life. This is not a Cameron trope, it is a United States self-image on the large screen. The technical gaffs of the underwater world of The Abyss may be many, but the film captured the imagination of many Americans, paving the way for the enormous success of Titanic and Avatar. Despite our tough exterior and willingness to start wars, we like to think of ourselves as the ultimate Christians.

Timing God

Two weeks in a row now God has made it into the pages of Time magazine. You’d think he was Rick Perry or something (no insult to God intended). This week’s Commentary, written by Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, argues for the importance of believing what science forces us to conclude. The world is warming up, ice caps are melting, and those in low-lying regions are in hot water. I am fully in agreement with her sentiments, but it’s the practicality that bothers me. Not the practicality of listening to science—that’s just common sense—but the practicality of doing so in a world where religion reigns. Despite cries of oppression and suppression and repression—just about any pression you choose—religions dominate the world. What particular brand you prefer does not matter; the fact is most people are religious. Randall believes that religion and science must learn to live together. Her problem is that she is looking at it rationally.

Science has given us excellent leads on tracing the origins of religion itself. Between psychology, anthropology, sociology, and biology we’ve got a fair idea how religion came about. The same brain that shows us the way, however, has evolved with religion still intact. In short, it has learned to accept the unlearned. With our brains acting like dogs chasing their own tails, is it any wonder that as a species we are confused? We see only what we choose to. In the great, artificial landscape of Manhattan many very wealthy people traverse the streets. Every day I see suits that would cost my entire paycheck casually strolling up Madison Avenue. I also see the beggars in the same doorways day after day, blending in with their surroundings. The solution of choice is to pretend they aren’t there, to not accept the evidence of our eyes. The wealthy have a knack for it, it seems. And when they work their way into politics their vision doesn’t improve much.

The problem that Randall points out is very real and deadly serious. Trouble is, those who pretend not to see are among the best actors on the planet. Faced with incontrovertible evidence the rational mind has no choice but to acquiesce. Religion, however, offers the perfect escape clause. If global warming discomforts you too much try fanning yourself with a Bible. Soon the excess degrees will simply melt away. And when the religious enemies of science find themselves sitting on the ocean floor like the victims of the Titanic, they too will have the satisfaction of knowing that they were privileged above all people for the time they had on earth. Everyone wins. The insatiably greedy and the abjectly poor both share a spot on an overheated planet. And if the pattern holds true we’ll evolve eyes to read under water, along with our gills, so that we can continue to read our waterlogged Bibles to find out what’s coming next.

Iceberg? What iceberg?

Tea Party Science

I sometimes jog in the morning before the sun begins his course across the sky. Funny thing is, sometimes I beat him. I know the sun is a guy because the Bible says so. When I startle a bunny from its hiding place along my path, I am amazed that those little creatures chew the cud just like bovines. It is the word of God. Occasionally a suicidal insect tries to fly into my mouth, and unless they go about on all fours, with legs above their feet, I spit them back out. If they do meet Leviticus 11’s strict standards and I accidentally swallow, I try not to think of Deuteronomy 14.19. I am surprised that the Tea Partiers haven’t tried to correct science on this point: the Bible is clear that insects (technically “flying creeping things”) have four legs, not six. Open your eyes people! Six legs? All those sixes seem to be from the antichrist. That’s why I feel comfortable with the potential of handing our nation over to the Tea Party. Certainty is better than scientific orthodoxy, hands down.

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’” The words are those of Michele Bachmann. Those of us who were taught that hurricanes result from the heating of Atlantic waters, swirled by the rotation of the earth (it does not move, according to the only proven source of science, the Bible) have egg on our faces. Do I ever feel silly! Empirical evidence suggests that the earth’s crust consists of tectonic plates that sometimes bump and rub and pull apart. Earthquakes result. Last week’s earthquake creates a problem for me, however, since North America is not mentioned in the Bible. I now live in a country that can’t possibly exist. We had better elect leaders who know how all this really works.

According to a Religion News Service poll this year, 40 percent (that’s more than half, in Tea Party mathematics) of Americans believe natural disasters are signs from God. I am relieved that this clearly shows science to be wrong—surely that many individuals must be correct. That’s the way math works. I sometimes imagine the United States as the Titanic (movies are another good source of science). Ismay, the Tea Party, declares, “But this ship can’t sink!” Thomas Andrews, the engineer (representing science) replies, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” Ismay, believing the rich are too wealthy to die tragically, refutes the findings of science. When the colossal ship slips into the icy Atlantic, however, he’s nowhere on board. Like the rest of his party, he’s already secured himself one of the rare seats on the lifeboats inadequate to save those of us in steerage. Since the ship can’t sink anyway, why are we even worried about this?

Full speed ahead and damn the icebergs...

Sinking Ships

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, last night I revisited Titanic. Since I tend to view art from the perspective of metaphor, I was once again struck by how our society resembles that great ship. In particular, with the current turmoil between plutocratic governors and the average citizens who’ve elected them, the brazen upper-class passengers on the Titanic embody the interests of the self-interested. When Captain Smith leads the privileged first class travelers in “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” in their own private chapel unsullied by the second and third class detritus, the line “for those in peril on the sea” resonates with the Prosperity Gospel. The well-to-do are that way through no fault of their own; God loves them more and made them better off than the rest. And when icebergs float, those unloved by their creator sink.

Over the past few weeks, in the shadow of events unfolding in Egypt and even Libya, we have seen the assertions of the aristocratic governor class assailing the workers. Attempting to make unions illegal, reducing the services offered to the poor, attempting to shorten the lives of the elderly by withdrawing medical programs (let us not ask how much profit pharmaceutical companies make for they are dearly loved by their father who art in Fort Knox), they know the rush of divine power. Indeed, populations are so complacent that as long as we have our MTV (substitute here your favorite media narcotic), that we shrug our collective shoulders and say “whatever.”

Perhaps it is not the metaphor James Cameron intended, but it is the working class Jack who sinks to an icy grave while the privileged but bankrupt Rose remains afloat. Our sympathies are with the young lady abused by privileged society, but the lifeboats should best remain half empty to preserve the upper crust rather than risk all going down together. After all, the Bible informs us that bread cast upon the waters comes back. And those who take up more than their fair share of the lifeboats wager that when that bread comes back it will be docile and subdued after its ordeals in the North Atlantic, and the Carpathia will come and restore society to its proper order. And so perhaps it is only a metaphor that more than a decade later the shoo-in for the Academy Awards is a film about the royal family. I think I see an iceberg ahead.

This is only a metaphor