Museum Piece

So the Museum of the Bible is now open in Washington, DC. It actually opened while a quorum or more of biblical scholars were busy making their way to Boston for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of the guild realize that the museum’s a conservative, evangelical venture, but it brings some attention to the beleaguered field and so it’s strangely welcome. This shows itself in the rather surprising names on museum publications. Renowned scholars don’t seem to think through the implications of supporting such places with the star appeal of their names. Indeed, many in the professorate are starved for attention—I’m not judging; I implicate myself even by making such a suggestion. When such an institution opens, it validates those it implicitly condemns.

A Bible museum?

Scholars can be woefully naive. Visiting places such as the Museum of the Bible, or the Creation Museum, or the Ark Encounter, pumps money into the already very well-funded Christian right. Such believers are extremely political and seek to get candidates like Trump elected. By slaking our puerile curiosity, we’re funding those who’d have us stripped of our very freedom to believe as we do. The paper trail’s there for any who wish to follow it. Supporting such ventures in any way will lead to headaches in the future. Sure, I’d love to see dioramas of dinosaurs on the ark so that I could feel superior for a little while. There’s a price for such vanity, however, and that price is the loss of freedom itself. We see it at work in our government at this very moment.

Museums are places for artifacts that are outdated. This is an ironic statement to make concerning the Bible. Especially by those who believe it is the final word. Why put that word into a museum? The irony’s worth it if enough paying customers arrive. Scholars meanwhile try to find ways to analyze this. Articles and books are appearing, stating what we already essentially know. The Green family, motivated to repressive political action because of their Bible belief, have spent money to build an elaborate museum, money that could’ve been used to help the poor. The book that appears in that museum suggests that the poor should be our concern. And although it actually does say that idols shouldn’t be worshiped, it has the great potential to become one itself. All you have to do is pay the admission price to find out.

Elephants and Snakes

I try to be a good son. As good as you can when living a few hundred miles from home. I call my Mom every week and when the mood’s right, we reminisce. During a recent conversation I was recollecting my first trip to Washington, DC. My grandmother, who lived with us, had been born there and wanted to see it again before she died. I don’t remember much about the trip. I would have been maybe 5 or 6, possibly 7. The Washington Monument I remember because I was terrified of heights and didn’t want to go up. The sharpest memory, however, involves the motel.

We didn’t have much money and very, very rarely stayed at motels. In fact, this is the only time I remember it happening before I went to college. It was one of those cheap places where you park right outside the door to your room. In the morning, bright and sunny as only childhood mornings can be, I remember racing around the oval, gravel drive with my brothers. We had our favorite stuffed animals with us. Mine, ironically, was an elephant. I remember that elephant well. I remember running with him under my arm and laughing and having one of the most carefree moments of my entire life. Now I think of elephants in Washington, DC and the magic is gone. We never had much money when I was growing up, but my other favorite stuffed animal was a long, black snake. It was as long as I was tall and I loved the fact that snake and my name began with the same letter. I loved him so much that his eyes came off and my mother sewed large purple buttons in their place. At that time I had no concept of how apt the symbolism might be.


The snake and the elephant are two of the most feared creatures on land. (There is a bit of symbolism here, so please don’t be too literal.) In the biblical world the serpent can stand for good but more often it represents temptation, danger, and treachery. I loved that snake as much as I feared its real-life counterparts. And now I find myself headed to DC again. I’ll shortly be on the train to join the Women’s March, my first official protest. I don’t know that I’ll have internet access the next couple of days (I hear Washington’s a swamp) so I may not post again until the work week starts. This time I’m not taking either elephant or snake. They exist already in abundance in our nation’s capital.

Madness of Kings

The Roman Empire ruled the known world. Christianity owes much of its form and structure to the fact that the Romans expressed their rule in a military way and prized what they thought was order and fairness. While all of this was happening across the ocean, what are now ancient cedars had begun to grow in Roosevelt Grove, Washington. Having survived the many forest fires that sweep through this area of the northwest, these trees may be up to 2000–3000 years old with an average of about 800 years per tree. Impressed by such longevity, this year on the East Coast I’ve visited the two oldest trees in New Jersey (posts about them may be found in January and July of this year’s offerings). The Great Swamp Oak may be 700 years old, and the Basking Ridge Oak is over 600. The longest lived trees in the country, however, are out here in the west.


The cedars of Roosevelt Grove aren’t the oldest. There are Bristlecone Pines further to the south that are twice again the age of these millennial trees. One survives from the days when writing itself was first being invented and has lived through most of human civilization. Wisely, its exact location has not been disclosed. We all know how, in a moment of foolishness, a single human being can easily destroy that which can’t be replaced. The story of the Bristlecone Pines is illustrative. A naturalist studying the trees took a core sample of the tree that, at that time, was the oldest living tree known. When his bit broke off in the tree the solution was to cut it down to retrieve the bit. Fortunately an even older tree was later discovered in the same forest and those who know where it is don’t say. It’s a form of collective madness that makes humans want to conquer. Romans and trees both stand witness.

A few miles south of Roosevelt Grove stands the Shoe Tree. For reasons unknown, decades ago campers began leaving shoes on this great conifer. Shoe trees actually exist in several locations around the country. This particular exemplar was a well-known local attraction. Shoes had been nailed to the trunk, or tied together and tossed high into the branches. Whimsical and illogical, it would have drove a Roman crazy. Then a few years back someone decided to set the tree on fire. Thinking the act had ended the joie de vivre, one unthinking person sought to change history. After the act of destruction, however, shoes were once again nailed to the now dead tree, and once again tossed into its lifeless branches. The tree next to it, I noticed, has started to acquire its own sets of footwear. If it outlasts the empires of today, there will be those of generations yet unimagined wondering about the madness that those who insist on conquering leave in their wake.

Death, Technically

Those of you who punish yourselves by reading my posts regularly may wonder at how different my last couple of posts have been. “Vacation” in and of itself is sufficient explanation for the out of the ordinary—different time zones, unreliable grammar, a certain dreaminess of topic (this is why we should all take plenty of time off work). In this case, however, there’s more to it. My wife injured herself the night before our early morning flight, and although she’s recovering well, another traveling companion is moribund. My faithful laptop that has traveled the country, indeed, crossed the ocean a hextad of times, died in its sleep on the flight over. I shut it down before climbing aboard the plane, and when I tried to boot up after that, nothing. Not friendly Apple starting tone, no wink from the camera, no sign of life from the screen.
I pulled out my phone as soon as I landed and asked Siri if there was a Genius Bar nearby. I was headed into remote parts, where shotguns are far more common than laptops. I had projects to accomplish in the rainy moments. I had a couple of readers to keep updated. Could the geniuses perform a miracle? Alas, the schedule was unforgiving. I hadn’t made an appointment and even though I’d been pouring money into Apple products while the genius before me was in still in diapers, I was up a proverbial (as well as literal) creek without an Apple. He halfheartedly gave my keyboard some kind of Vulcan finger combination pinch, but the look in his eye was definitely more Klingon.
I remember coming to this remote cabin before cell phones were invented. People were just beginning to whisper about this rumor called the Internet. People still wrote each other letters. And here I am in downtown Spokane, weeping over the dead device in my lap. It had its limits, in any case. I can’t take it into the lake with me. It needs, at its age, never to wander too far from a power outlet. And yet, it holds all my darkest secrets and most enlightened ideas. And my thumbs are too fat for typing on my phone. Looking out over the mist dancing wraith-like across the Saran-Wrap early morning surface of the lake, I see two bald eagles fly by. Surely I wouldn’t have seen them had I been behind the large screen of my departed friend. These are, after all, communications from the very edges of civilization, and technology may not, all things considered, save my soul.

Twist and Shout

TwistedFaithTrue crime is not really my thing. I find regular life disturbing on a frequent basis, and reading about how someone willfully harmed another only seems to make my prognosis worse. When I saw that Gregg Olsen’s A Twisted Faith: A Minister’s Obsession and the Murder that Destroyed a Church took place in a number of places where various family members live (Poulsbo, Port Orchard, Seattle, Washington) I was drawn in. As the dark story began to unfold, at several points I almost put the book aside—this is a difficult account to read. Christ Community Church on Bremerton Island sounded a little too much like the Community Chapel in which I was reared. The power struggles, the self-righteousness, and the hidden lusts of those who live “clean lives,” all brought back painful memories. Nevertheless, I had to see how this sordid, almost salacious tale played out. Youth minister Nick Hacheney, to cut to the chase, murdered his wife and carried on affairs with at least four women in his church, including his murdered wife’s mother. Based on many personal interviews, Olsen digs deeply into the psychological trauma this one minister inflicted on the women he stalked, and revealed some of the neuroses of conservative religion.

I say “conservative religion” not to pick a fight, but because of the things both the women and men believed. After a conflict over whether to stay with the Assemblies of God denomination, Christ Community Church went independent when a new minister began seeking senior leadership over the congregation. So far that’s normal ecclesiastical politics. What made this so unbelievable is that many of the decisions were based on “prophecies” that self-proclaimed messengers of God presented and that clergy and people took at face value. Even when they blatantly failed to show any accuracy. There was never any questioning whether one received an authentic message or not. Some of these “prophecies” involved the deaths of congregation members, including the murdered Dawn Hacheney. Women with marriages in various states of decay, feeling sorry for the murderer (whom only one of them suspected) eventually gave in to his words “from God” that they were to have sex with him to help him get over his loss. The real pain was seeing the psychological manipulation he applied to his victims, causing them divine guilt if they refused.

In a community that readily accepts claims of direct messages from God, congregants are clearly sheep led to the slaughter. Most Christian denominations have mechanisms in place, no matter how faulty, to test such individual claims. Groups that trust their clergy to be honest all the time fail to calculate human weakness into the equation. It is no surprise at all when staunch, conservative clergy are caught violating their own rules (and congregants). Give them a blank check for signing God’s name to any statement and you’ve got a truly unholy writ. Many churches manage to avoid the most serious pitfalls most of the time. When one fails to discover the wolf in sheep’s wool, as happened on Bremerton Island at the end of the last century, true crime may be the mildest way to describe the results.

Bretz v. Noah

Until I met my wife I’d never been west of the Mississippi. Or even Ohio for that matter. Together we’ve traveled, in a fashion broken by years, from coast-to-coast and even overseas. Nothing in my life had prepared me for seeing the American West. No, I’ve not seen cowboys, but the landforms are so different from the weathered, ancient Appalachians among which I grew up. Eastern Washington is a fascinating landscape and with my occasional flirting with geology, I recently read John Soennichsen’s Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood. Within the last couple of years I’d read about Glacial Lake Missoula, a juggernaut of an ice age lake that had flooded parts of Idaho and Washington thousands of years ago when its ice dam gave way. J Harlen Bretz was a turn-of-the-(previous)-century geologist who defied convention and insisted that the evidence of eastern Washington proved that a massive flood washed over the area, giving distinct shape to the region that empties into the Columbia River basin. For much of his career he was ridiculed by other geologists. The reason? The Bible.

Geology was the science that gave Darwin the idea for his evolutionary theory. The factor that had been missing from science, before geology, was time. The 6000-year-old earth just wasn’t old enough to account for the slow changes required for one species to morph into another. As scientists came to realize that billions of years were available, it became clear that change occurred even more slowly than the GOP is happy with. For geologists, anything that happened quickly was anathema. As Bretz’s Flood makes clear, a sudden flood sounded far too much like old Noah to be science. Catastrophism had been cleanly rejected by geologists because even if the evidence supported it, it looked like a return to mythology and superstition. Interestingly Bretz began his academic life among the Methodists of Albion College, and continued to quote the Bible to his last days. He was, however, an atheist.

The Bible has shaped our culture more thoroughly than Noah’s putative flood has shaped geology. I’ve read many geological studies over the years and any that are written for non-specialists never mention great floods without at least a nod to Noah. In fact, as Soennichsen points out, Bretz has ironically become a hero of Creationists who see the Missoula flood as Noah’s event. A large portion of Bretz’s career, however, was dogged by geologists duty-bound to deny a sudden flood just because the Bible tells us so. Sudden events are smeared with the residue of the divine.

J Harlen Bretz is hardly a household name, but his career is a microcosm of American culture. Glacial Lake Missoula did exist, as geologists now accept, and long before Noah was a twinkle in Moses’ eye. When the dam burst, the fable did fall, and down came the ark, Noah and all.

Double Exposure

Back when I was teaching full time, one of my favorite television shows was Northern Exposure. In fact, the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska, had quite a lot in common with Nashotah House. Both were populated by quirky characters in a relatively remote location. Both were small, insignificant places with visions of grandeur. Both were effectively run by conservative forces that liked to imagine themselves as benign or downright noble. Both distrusted outsiders with ideas that might challenge the status quo. One of my favorite characters was Maggie O’Connell, the woman in a man’s world who refused to let the male establishment set the limits to what she could do. A strong woman character whom the men all respected served as an antidote to daily life at the seminary. My wife and I liked the program so much that we even stopped in the town of Roslyn, Washington, where the outdoor scenes were shot, a couple of times on our way out west.

We don’t have television now, so we have to watch Northern Exposure on DVD. While at a hotel recently, however, the name of Janine Turner on the television made me look. I had known that the actress portraying Maggie O’Connell was a political conservative in real life, but here she was advocating an “anyone but Obama” type campaign or some such nonsense. I felt as if I’d been sold a false bill of goods for all these years. Like Margaret Thatcher, Turner believes in socially conservative causes. Margaret Thatcher, that contradiction of a woman who felt that females belonged in the home, had undue influence on a once great Britain. Where was the woman who played such an ardent feminist in a male world? How could anyone pretend that kind of passion in front of a large audience for six years and spent her real life trying to deconstruct a cause that has everyday ethical implications? It’s all an act.

Women have been relegated to positions of lesser prestige for millennia for the crime of caring for their offspring. Men have been free to abandon responsibility and seek selfish ends, if so inclined. No matter what our gender, we pursue in life what is most meaningful to us, and it amazes me when strong women support a structure that has consistently shown itself interested in keeping them down. Vaunted as a show where diverse characters come into constant conflict but always “strive to accept their differences and co-exist,” Northern Exposure displayed depth without eschewing what is laughable about the human condition. Real life, I suppose, it is much more like the small town of Rosyln, Washington. For a few years it was an out-of-the-way tourist stop where actors could play characters they really didn’t believe in while living in a fictitious town where everyone at least attempted to tolerate everyone else.

Do you recognize this character?

Battle Billboards

Perhaps the oddest intangible accompanying democracy is the concept that all things are negotiable. Add to that a capitalist sensibility that everything has its price and even truth itself feels like a matter of debate. We see this all the time with Creationists so desperately wanting the Bible to the “true” that they twist science into a fairy tale noose from which to hang their literalist god. The tendency, however, does not stop with them.

Surely one of the most tense stretches of pavement in the country is NJ 495 leading into the Lincoln Tunnel. The aorta pumping countless metallic cells into the heart of Manhattan, drivers and passengers often sit motionless in it for seemingly endless periods to crawl forward like an inchworm entering the Olympics. It is there that Battle Billboards takes place.

I have followed the Atheist billboard development with some interest. In my limited experience with the Lincoln Tunnel, I have noted the digital billboard on the Jersey side bears the message of near the major Christian holidays, so as Easter approaches the newest one reads “Celebrate Living Without God” to promote a rally on the Mall in DC. Both religion and science make claims of how to know the truth. Truth with a capital T should be non-negotiable by definition. The problem is that nobody has the Truth. We’re still trying to figure it out. holds a firm conviction that life would be better without religion. Clearly not everyone agrees. Clarity, it seems, is the chimera of debates over Truth.

A few seconds after the ad flashes off the big screen, an ad for Wrath of the Titans (coming soon to theaters) flashes on. Irony can be sweeter than honey and as bitter as the Dead Sea. The most recent Clash of the Titans (2010) borrowed little from classical mythology beyond the names and large plot lines. An atheistic Perseus just doesn’t fit the classical taste. In the new film, Zeus—surely one of the prototypes for modern conceptions of God—is captured by Hades and has to be rescued by his unbelieving son. Could any movie be a more thinly disguised Easter story? Atheists? Wrath of the Titans? Which way to jump? Fortunately for me, traffic going into the Lincoln Tunnel in these lanes is one way. That’s the kind of certainty we all can live with.

Light from above or hopeless ambiguity?

E.T. Go Home!

Now that my family is back from vacation, daily life is starting to regain a focus. One of the goodies my wife brought me from out west was an article from the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington, newspaper. The article is actually a letter to the editor, so it should not be taken as representative of the views of the paper, or of reality, for that matter. Obviously written in response to an article I missed, the letter is concerned that “Conservative Christian” viewpoints towards illegal aliens are being ignored. With a bravado that might be termed Christian jihad, the letter writer claims that “our nation’s laws are based on the laws God has laid down.” The authorities she cites? “Beck and Palin.”

Beck and Palin would make a great comedy team were it not for their crazed intolerance. Although devoted to this dynamic duo, our writer goes one better and cites the highest possible authority, “the Lord God.” Specifically, Numbers 15:15-16: “As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” Problem is, this passage doesn’t refer to the state assembly of Arizona, but of an ancient Israel that is largely the creation of the writers. The Torah, explicitly, applies to Israel, not to other nations.

Quite often in my classes I have students claiming that our laws are based on the Bible. To extent there may be a modicum of truth in the claim, but in fact, American law is based on English Common Law, influenced by, yet not taken from, the Bible. I’m no legal expert (I wouldn’t be jobless if I were), but I do take the Bible at its face value. The laws apply to Israel alone. It is a mark of how little our religious leaders have been able to educate the public that we see this ingrained prejudice masquerading as divine truth. Fair treatment is a secular as well as a religious value. In addition to doling out abuse, the Bible itself continues to be a constant victim of abuse at the hands of Neo-Con nonsense.

Isn't God an alien?