Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

Psychobabel

Evolution, we’re told, has one goal: survival. As an unthinking process of nature, evolution “programs” us all to desire survival for ourselves and our offspring. Even attributing that purpose too it is to suggest it’s more a willful agent than a blind process. People, on the other hand, are meaning-seeking creatures and so there’s bound to be some disappointment involved. I was just discussing with a friend how it seems that people just can’t agree on evolution mostly because of the strident claims on both sides. The New Atheists make claims beyond the evidence that survival to reproduce is the “only” role of evolution and we are “just” animals with too much gray matter, and that consciousness is “merely” electro-chemical activity in our brains. Creationists, for their part, say evolution couldn’t possibly account for structures as complex as we see in nature, and therefore a deity much be involved. The rancor grows until both sides end up despising the other. People who look for the middle ground are not newsworthy and fade into the scenery. I wonder if we’re evolved to ever get along.

My wife mentioned that it’s like the Tower of Babel story. Here is the tale of God making humans inevitably talk past one another. We can’t understand and so we argue and criticize and insult. A more scientific explanation might be that perhaps we’ve tipped the evolutionary balance with our species-specific success. We are by tar the most numerous species of any large animal. (At least that we know of.) Having put ourselves as lords and masters of the food chain our challenges have become mental and we turn ourselves to the question of who’s right instead of simple survival. Sacred books can’t guide the discussion, but reason alone. And reason, as we all know, has its limits.

Confusion_of_Tongues

The great irony in all of this is that, if we’re evolved to seek meaning, we’re not equipped to find the truth. As neuroscientists have pointed out, the brain’s function is survival, not truth finding. Our desire to know the truth is a human avocation abstracted from consciousness. We’ve not adequately defined consciousness, but since there aren’t many large predators hunting us down anymore, that brain-power has been diverted elsewhere. Despite all this, we don’t see world peace spontaneously breaking out. Even on a smaller scale we find prejudice and hatred and insane mass production of weaponry when our only predators are ourselves. Evolution, we’re told, has only the goal of survival. Being an unthinking principle, even ascribing it this much conscious decision-making is merely a matter of convenience. Does the Tower of Babel mean we must hate those who differ from us, or does it perhaps suggest that the real goal is better understanding?

High Places, NJ

The “high place,” in the Hebrew Bible, was a source of constant vexation to the “orthodox.” Scholars have long puzzled over what was meant by the term, the assumption early on being that they were geographically the highest points around. Although that interpretation no longer holds the sway that it once did, the concept of the high place has remained. I suspect that’s because there’s something mystical about being at the highest point around. July 3 was a rare holiday for everyone in the family, so this year we headed to High Point State Park. High Point is the geographical highest point in the state of New Jersey, up near the New York border. It’s not as high as the mountains you might see in the western part of the country, but at the top there is a panorama that gives unbroken visibility in 360 degrees. Except for the tower.

DSCN5093

Towers are just as biblical as high places. They are very human and always contain at least a small element of hubris. Nature may have said thus far and no further, but we can go higher. And those of us with the inexorable will to climb, must go up. The view from the top isn’t very good since the windows are steamy and the mildew makes you a little leery of getting too close, but the climb is intensive, even for those used to stairs. Nevertheless, a kind of light-headed giddiness attends standing at a point higher than which you cannot go. I pulled out my altimeter to discover we were 1690 feet above sea level. In New Jersey you can’t get any higher. Were there angels up here? How close to Heaven were we? Towers are irresistible as the mythical builders of mythical Babel knew. And although we couldn’t see Manhattan from here, I knew that just across the river taller towers stand.

DSCN5109

One World Trade Center stands at a symbolic 1776 feet, higher than we were at the moment. It was, after all, the requisite holiday to celebrate independence that brought us here in the first place. The vistas that we could see, however, were relatively undeveloped, a rarity for the state of New Jersey. If we had the time, we might have been able to get out into nature itself instead of these structures that humans build to mask the fact of our own limitations. Maybe that’s what high places were all about in the first place. Every day I walk past the Empire State Building on my way to work. I can see it if I find an office with windows. Over my head up here, on the very top of New Jersey, I see a bird soaring. I think of Melville, and Ahab, and Manhattan. Slowly I begin my walk down to lower places.

DSCN5099

Accept Cookies

You have probably noticed it. As expected as the warmer days of spring are also the Girl Scout cookies. A symbol of wholesome fundraising, Girl Scout cookies have some dedicated buyers, and many imitators. Like any human organization, the Girl Scouts have their troubles, but I can’t help but compare them with the Boy Scouts in which I grew up. Well, at least for a few years. We’ve watched as the media have declared on the excluding of various demographics from the Boy Scouts. To rise to the top you must not deviate from the mythic model of the perfect man. Meanwhile, as an article in Tablet notes, Girl Scouts have been tolerant of difference from the beginning. In a day when being Jewish was still suspect in the wider community, Girl Scouts were founded with early troop leaders who were Jewish, and this was in the days before the First World War and the ensuing tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second. From those early days, Girl Scouts have continued to have a policy of acceptance of those who differ in religious outlook. It erects no barrier.

The success of social progress depends on how we train our young. Prejudice has to be learned. Children are accepting of those with differences until they learn not to be. Radical groups have to recruit constantly. Fear of strangers is natural, but when it becomes a paradigm it is a pathology. One of my professors once claimed that early Christianity thrived because it was exclusive. Only true members could join, like a country club, making it desirable among hoi polloi. Further research has demonstrated the falsity of this view. There were many varieties of Christianities in antiquity. Only by declaring itself uniquely correct, and convincing Constantine of the same, did one sect become dominant. And dominance was what it was about.

Society is all about getting along. We have come together around money to build the tallest structures on the planet. The tallest buildings used to be in the United States. Then China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. A tower serves no purpose without a collective to take pride in it. Religions, unfortunately, often measure themselves by those who stand outside. Taking the view that it only feels good to be right if others are wrong, it is easy for such thinking to slip into a prejudice that promotes and rewards exclusivity. One percent, anyone? Many aspire to such menial goals as getting more money. For me, a life that has a box of Girl Scout cookies available is enough. And I’ll take a tall glass of tolerance with that, and hope that others will feel free to share.

DSCN5045

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.

Confusion_of_Tongues

Extinctions

Gaddafi is dead. Bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein is dead. The people of the Middle East have risen up to reclaim their world from the privileged. In Wall Street people are arrested and sequestered lest the discontent should spread. Do those of Libya, Iraq, Egypt, aspire to Wall Street? Are not the oil barons wealthy enough? How easy it is for us to forget that what we call civilization began here. In what we now call Iraq, people first banded together with complex governments, specialization of labor, and the arts. And, naturally, slavery. As civilization grew, priesthoods became strong. Governments could not stand without the support of the gods. Temples could not stay open without government funding. Gods and kings slept together. The Bible would later parody this as the tower of Babel. How we want to live in that penthouse chapel!

We often take from history that which sustains our interest. And when that interest is reinvested and compounds, we lay the foundations for yet another tower. We live in a world of towers, glad to accept their beauty and glory without realizing that no tower stands out without the deep valleys between the artificial peaks. To build high, some must be consigned to live in the subways and cluttered alleys and sleep out on the streets. The oil money in Dubai, not far from the fabled Eden, erects towers that are the wonders of the modern world. Just looking at pictures of the Burj Khalifa can make one shudder. Oil is decayed life.

Sometimes I imagine the world of the dinosaurs. Mammals must have seemed an endangered species then, small and insignificant as they were. Our distant, distant ancestors must have gazed up on the towering brachiosauruses and bruhathkayosauruses with awe and fear. When they finally evolved opposable thumbs, they decided to emulate their fears. Now the dinosaurs are all petroleum and birds. And still they rule the earth. Civilization began in the oil fields of the world with little use for petroleum. Instead, kings and priests worked together to construct towers that would ultimately fall. Oil makes some very wealthy, but it is only possible because of the extinction of the largest living animals that ever walked the earth.

Religion Underground

Imagine a world where the affluent live in lofty houses and the poor, working class citizens trudge to long, dreary, factory shifts in order to keep the system working from their underground world. Although it’s not exactly post-recession America, it is not too hard to imagine. On my final day of vacation from relative unemployment, I watched Metropolis for the first time. A 1927 silent film, this movie of a dystopian world run by an unsympathetic ruling class is experiencing somewhat of a revival. Panned by early critics, the film is now often categorized as a classic of the silent era. It was also the most expensive silent movie ever filmed. Shot in Germany between the two world wars, the story follows a surface dweller who has fallen in love with a troglodyte. It even has robots.

This Fritz Lang film fits in this blog because of its many biblical references and themes. Freder, the protagonist, falls in love with Maria, a working-class preacher among the underground laborers. Following Maria to the underworld, Freder sees the gargantuan machinery that runs the lives of the poor, and when workers die in an accident he calls out “Molech!” Molech, the putative god of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, is shown as a fiery factory door consuming the forlorn men who dutifully march inside. Maria, however, teaches love and patience in suffering. In an underground cathedral she is the sole cleric long before most denominations recognized women as ministers. She compares the skyscrapers of the rich to the tower of Babel and insists that a mediator will come. With its strange blend of Christian and communist themes, this film made a significant impact in its time.

In our own day of entrepreneurship with faux-Christian backing it goes unnoticed that the Christianity of the first century was what might be called communistic. According to the book of Acts, early Christians keep their goods in common to ensure that everyone had what they needed. Among the disciples, Judas kept the common purse. What marked these early Christians as exceptional in the eyes of their earthly overlords was the concern that they had for one another—selfishness had no part in their religion. When Christianity became the religion of empire the lure of worldly goods distorted it almost beyond recognition. Christian industrialists built the tower of Babel with its leering Molech beneath the surface of the ground. Judas, it seems, has become the ideal role model for such a religion.

Maria's underground cathedral