De-programming

I’m no foodie. That’s not a trendy thing to admit, I know. I’ve never been a good consumer. I think it’s because I don’t like being programmed. One area of life where we are most open to programming is in what we eat. Raised to masticate animal flesh, we’re told that it’s healthy for us, and besides, where on earth are you going to get protein if you don’t eat animals? Without thinking too much about it, we step in line. I remember asking my mother, as a child, what part of the animal “the meat” is. I was kind of hoping, I guess, that it was some part that might be kind of painless to lop off, because I didn’t like to think of the implications otherwise. Even when the answer wasn’t satisfactory, I didn’t change my diet.

Once, when eating with a friend, my host commented that you shouldn’t be allowed to eat meat unless you were willing to kill the animal yourself. He wasn’t advocating vegetarianism—he was serving meat—but he was thinking through the process logically. I became a vegetarian, because of that logical thought process, about 18 years ago. I continued to be programmed, however. Yesterday I attended a vegan lunch. I always thought of vegans as spare, acsetical types, emaciated and gaunt. I learned that they are often people who think through the consequences of our love affair with meat. And other animal “products.” The problem is industrial farming. In a word, the commodification of animal suffering. Those who don’t work in the agri-business—to which most looming environmental disasters can be directly traced—are prevented from seeing the conditions in which their “food” is being kept. Animal cruelty on a scale that is, well, industrial. Decisions are made based on one metric—profits.

I don’t think about food a lot. It has become clear to me that my friend’s logic works. One of the things our vegan presenter pointed out is that pigs are considered the fourth most intelligent animal species. Our love of bacon has them kept in conditions where they literally lose their minds. We don’t see it, so we continue to be programmed. Go to the grocery store. The healthy foods are more expensive—“consumers” are punished for refusing to play the “no thinking” game. I don’t know much, but I do know that it’s often the things I do without thinking that ultimately lead to trouble. Capitalism rewards the greedy only. The rest of us, including our animals, pay the price. Think it through and consider the conclusions. I don’t like being programmed.

The Cow Jumped

While digging through the attic for some reference material for a colleague this weekend, I came upon a box of Bibles. I actually have many Bibles around the place—often within an arm’s reach—despite the ease of internet biblical access. One thing of which I own few are leather-bound Bibles. Trying to be as vegetarian as I can, I have avoided leather in my apparel as much as possible (sometimes the alternatives are even more expensive), and apart from a rare, old book, I prefer cloth to leather, and, generally, paperback to cloth. Still, working in the Bible industry, I know that among the best selling Bibles are the leather variety—those that involve the ultimate sacrifice, although not of the human kind. Leather as a book-binding material is an early development. Leather is durable, and strong, even if a little kinky. Before synthetics, it was used to protect tomes that had been written by hand, representing hundreds, or thousands, of human-hours of work. You wanted it to last. So kill the fatted calf.

I was amazed, therefore, to discover that most leather Bibles are bound with pigskin. That’s right, the material tossed around the grid-iron Sunday afternoons from September through February is kin to the very binding on your standard Bible. Pig leather (never called that) is cheap and durable and is the routine binding for leather Bibles. You want a kosher holy book, you’ll need to buy calf-skin (one thinks of a savior dying at only 33), and it will cost you. Pigs, generally eaten by Christians, are unclean to Jews and Muslims, and books bound in pig cannot be touched by the most religious of the monotheistic sibling faiths. To me, I just see dead animals all around in any case, and wish we might find some way to protect our pages with something else.

Photo credit: Ben Salter, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ben Salter, Wikimedia Commons

A larger issue (isn’t there always a larger issue?) is a porcine one. Pigs, we are told, are very similar to humans. We use their organs to transplant for our own, and some scientists think they may have played a role in human evolution (although this is not the conventional view). Although I can’t claim Babe led me to vegetarianism, it certainly didn’t hurt. For that matter, neither did Charlotte’s Web. Still, the idea of swearing atop a deceased pig to tell the truth, or watching a televangelist beat a dead pig, definitely has some theological implications. So as I sit here staring into a Hammermill box full of Bibles, I wonder about the hidden costs. Not just to calves and pigs, but to the species who claim that this box of books contains a truth deeper than the many other tomes all around me. And I wonder just how naive I may have been on the finer points of the religion based on these books as well.

Varieties of Non-Religious Experience

The New York Public Library is an icon of rationality. Daily tourists throng by—some inspired by Ghostbusters, others by Between the Lions. Nestled in among some of the tallest buildings in New York City, it is a symbol of culture amid its antithesis, business. Nearing its last days is a small display in the library entitled “Shelley’s Ghost.” Containing handwritten manuscripts and a few artifacts from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s cradle to his grave (literally, his baby-rattle and fragments of his skull), the display celebrates one of England’s most famous and short-lived poets. Shelley, although his life was scandalous at points, was no doubt an idealist. A vegetarian, advocate of “free love,” and protestor, he would have fit well into life a century-and-a-half after he died. He was also an early atheist.

“If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature is made for their destruction,” he wrote in The Necessity of Atheism. Not quite the angry atheism often found today, but then, despite his obvious spirituality, Shelley was a rationalist. Born during the English Enlightenment, be was a strange mix of the alchemical and the reasonable. To his young mind the truth was self-evident: the belief in gods grew from nature and therefore the study of nature would reveal those origins. Today the origin of gods is still up for debate, as is the nature of the human animal. It is routine for scientists to claim that our brains are simply processing electro-chemical signals that have no reality beyond this physical world in which they occur. To be a human, however, sure feels like more than that. Shelley was a writer at this nexus. No one writes poetry like that who believes their brain to be full of only electrons.

Reductionism often gets us into trouble. The problem has always been that humans are myopic; we can only see so far and yet assume we have all the data. This myth persists despite the fact that we know some animals pick up on environmental factors that we as humans miss. It need not be supernatural to claim that there is more to the world than we can perceive. This is a double-edged sword. Many of the absolute pronouncements of religions simply don’t match our experience of the world. We find ourselves bombarded by authoritative statements by experts who know as little as we do. I have yet to hear a televangelist who can claim on any intellectual basis any reason that anyone else should pay attention to his raving. Perhaps what the world needs is a few more like Shelley’s ghost—rationalists who still recognize the necessity of poetry.

Hidden in Plain Sight

I have been tweeting the Bible for nearly a month now, and tomorrow—the thirtieth tweet—will see the end of Genesis 1 and the first words of Genesis 2. One of the occupational hazards of having been a biblical scholar for many years is the constant rereading of the same text over and over. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve read Genesis 1, in numerous languages, trying to find a key to unlock what is going on there. It is definitely not science—for that it would have had to have been written after science had been invented. Religion and science share that feature: they are human endeavors to understand the matrix in which we find ourselves. Anyone who is truly honest will admit to not being able to trust her- or himself all the time. We have all been betrayed by our convictions now and again. In this day of arrogant religious leaders and arrogant scientists we have little hope of coming to an armistice. Those who claim a special position for the Bible really couldn’t handle the truth in any case.

My twitter verse for today reads, “I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the even”. Sense units in any text are where we, the readers, draw the limits. Taking this bit as a cue (indeed, the whole of Genesis 1 supports this), God intends humans to be vegetarians. The predatory gleam in the eyes of our religious politicians and televangelists belie their convictions given in public forums. The first rule God instates, after informing our primordial couple to have lots and lots of sex, is not to harm other creatures. At least the sex part seems to have gotten through, although many branches of Christianity repudiate it. The harm part we have received with ambivalence.

In a related development, an op-ed piece in yesterday’s newspaper gives instructions for properly disposing a worn-out Quran. While Christianity has no uniform opinion about where an old Bible goes to die, I find in this question a snapshot of the contradictions inherent in holy writ. We treat certain texts as sacred, and yet, is not the human expression in written form itself some kind of sacred act? Book-burning, no matter the book, strikes deeply at a visceral level those who’ve ever tried to reduce their ideas to what might be replicated on a page. It is our highest human achievement. All texts are sacred. Some may be misguided, and others are blatantly wrong—perhaps even evil—but they are the essence of a human endeavor. Perhaps this is the key I have been seeking all along.

Let there be light

Eat, Love, Eat

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma has been on my “to read” pile for some time. I finally finished with it this week. As a vegetarian, I really didn’t need convincing that raising other beings with feelings and some intelligence for the purpose of eating them involves dilemmas. Pollan is not a vegetarian and makes the best case I’ve ever read for justifying his position. Still, I personally can’t face being the reason animals must die for my own gain. I know this is a stance fraught with difficulties. I’ve often mused that if I could get by without even eating plants, I would. I just hate to inconvenience anyone, or anything, else. But that’s not what I want to discuss. Pollan spends the first part of his book discussing corn, or maize. I hadn’t realized what a versatile crop it is, nor how prolific. The difficulty is that it is so good at what it does that it is bankrupting the farming industry. Government subsidies make corn growing the only way that big farmers can get ahead while nearly driving them broke at the same time. (It takes Pollan chapters to explain this, so I’ll need to refer you to the source on this one.) His conclusion: the free market simply does not work for food production.

I’ve long believed that the problems with our economy come from a decidedly “one size fits all” mentality. The free market rewards those who climb over others without that gnawing sense of guilt that prevents me from eating meat. Once you have lots, you only want more. No one ends up satisfied. Okay, so we’ll let Wall Street play its game. Higher education is in crisis because, like farming, the free market model simply does not apply. Guys like me (and plenty of gals too) do not spend years of our lives earning doctorates under the delusion that we’ll get rich. Many of us are idealists who just won’t grow up. All we want is to contribute to the collective knowledge of the human race and make a reasonable living doing it. Then the free market comes and whispers into university presidents’ ears that they should be making six or seven figure salaries. They should have limitless expense accounts. Universities should be all about “branding” with corporate style logos and money-sieves called sports teams. Somewhere along the way they forgot that they need teachers too. Some very prominent universities in the United States now have 70 percent of their classes taught by adjuncts. The system is simply not working.

One of the strangest anomalies out of all of this is that Christianity, the religion started by a guy who said the rich could not enter heaven unless they gave everything away, has crawled into bed with the free market. Enthusiastically. For many people to vote with conscience is to vote for an inherently unfair system that must, by its very design, consume all others. Survival of the fattest. I’m no economist, but I am certain that many other industries have gone the way of the T-rex because they simply didn’t fit the model of unbridled gain. Education is one, and the asteroid is already about to hit. What bothers me the most is that agriculture is another. Pollan ended up scaring me more than any horror flick. Our farming industry, right here in the best fed country on earth, is very, very frail. As long as we’re converting everything to the greed-based system, we should make money edible. After the asteroid strikes, during that long, dim winter, it will be the only thing left on the planet in abundance.

Internet Asherah

Things represented on the Internet are not always what they seem. Removed to the back-bench of academia, I don’t have the opportunity for research that I once had. Every now and again, however, I still like to see what people are saying about Asherah. When I check the popular goddess books available off the shelf, my book on the subject is not often mentioned. At least on the Internet some researchers seem to have noticed it. A recent search for Asherah on Google, however, brought some surprising results. The first item of interest was a quinoa-based, organic veggie burger from Asherah’s Gourmet. The Asherah in question here, however, is simply a woman’s name. As a vegetarian I thought I would put a word in for the product, in any case. I found this brand at a health food store last week, but miles from home and with an air temperature of over 100 degrees, I was afraid the frozen products wouldn’t make it home without half baking in the car.

My next stop on the web was Sacred Suds. This New Age-themed site offers hand-made soaps, many of them associated with goddesses. The product entitled Asherah is named for “the Canaanite mother goddess” and is made with milk and honey. The website doesn’t actually state anything about washing away sins, but it seems difficult to go wrong by washing with a goddess. Another selling point—also not on the website—might be to point out that Asherah is known as the one who “walks upon the sea.” There is even a scene in the Baal Cycle from Ugarit where she is presented as doing her laundry in the sea. Asherah and soap, it seems, are a natural match.

One final product seems to be biding its time, although I suspect there is a market for it. The Asherah action-figure, privately made, does not appear to be commercially available yet. Garbed in an Egyptianizing cobra headdress, armed with a cobra staff, this heroine looks to be a suitable partner for Captain America, bringing the United States and Middle East together in an attempt to bring peace to a troubled region. Maybe heroes can accomplish what gods apparently can’t.

Not exactly big business yet, nevertheless Asherah appears to be on the move. Maybe once she breaks into the big time, those of us who’ve tried to make a living on her cape-tails might be dragged out of obscurity as well. In the meantime, it is about time for a veggie burger and a luxuriant bath.

Meating God

A very interesting story ran in Tuesday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. A Hindu family that was unintentionally served a dish with meat, hidden in samosas, has won a suit requiring the restaurant to pay for a trip to India in order to seek purification in the Ganges. As a vegetarian my sympathies are with the family, but as a student of religion I frequently wonder at the fragility implied by rigid religious demands. When your religious leaders declare a mundane act either sacred or profane, investing it with supernatural significance, what recourse is left to the believer? A religion that cannot adapt to everyday realities will necessarily become watered down to the point of a social club.

On the other hand, a society so focused on food as ours—particularly red meat products—can become overbearing. Over the past decade many restaurant visits have left me with ethical conundrums as all menu items include some species of meat. Not wanting to offend, I am willing to pick around the offensive bits to get to the non-sentient foodstuffs, but when food becomes equated with meat both sacred and secular vegetarians must lean to cope. Even in the monotheistic camp, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make demands on the diet—sometimes overt, sometimes subtle. Deities, it seems, are as concerned about what goes in the mouth as with what comes out.

In the modern understanding of religions, they are means of diverting attention from the physical present to a spiritual “reality” behind reality. Along the way even the most faithful frequently find themselves in compromising positions. The gods, having never been human, don’t understand. Even those incarnate deities had the ability to work miracles—a feature the majority of us lack—and so cannot truly participate in the angst of attempting to lead a perfect life in their footsteps. As one who has had his religion forcefully compromised repeatedly in a jagged career in religious studies, I wonder if any dip in any river will really do the trick in purifying a faith that makes superhuman demands on herbivores for conscience’s sake.

Immorality on a plate? Only time will tell.