Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Thunderers

“Storms are the embodiment of Mother Nature’s flair for the dramatic, and the words that we use to write about them are infused with that drama,”—the words aren’t mine, but they express something I often acknowledge.  The quote comes from a Verbomania post about the word “brontide”—a noun for things that sound like distant thunder.  Weather-related words are indeed part of the religious vocabulary as well.  I wasn’t quite daring enough to suggest it in Weathering the Psalms, but it seems that thunder may be behind most basic religious beliefs.  Well, that and bad luck.  Think about it—most cultures have a very powerful storm-deity.  That power is expressed in thunder.  Even in the twenty-first century a sudden clap can made the sophisticated duck and cover.  

We don’t know as much about ancient Mesopotamian culture as we’d like to, but it’s pretty clear that storm deities commanded major of respect.  Eventually in the city-state of Ugarit, in what is now northern Syria, a god named Hadad (aka “thunderer”) became the patron of the city and was known mainly by his title “lord” (Baal).  There may have been more than one lord, but the one in charge of day-to-day affairs was the one who controlled storms.  We’ve entered another rainy season around here (something you tend to notice when the roof leaks), and my thoughts often turn to how very much the weather controls us.  Interestingly, thunder hasn’t been much in the picture.  We’ve lived in our house coming up on a year and I have been awoken by thunder (something that still scares me as much as when I was a kid) only once.  Thunder is the approach of gods.

There’s drama about the weather.  In fact, fiction writers have long known that one of the most effective ways to suggest the mood of a story is the meteorological method.  Weather sets the scene.  The sound of distant thunder has a naturally ominous, almost predatory quality.  The growling, low and loud bursts from the sky sound so like human expressions of rage that it is only natural that they should be interpreted this way.  Since the sky is (or used to be) out of the reach of humans, the sounds from above were from the realm of the divine.  When gods approach the mood is threatening.  We dare not meet them.  That mythology has long informed our perceptions of meteorological phenomenon, acknowledged or not.  Brontide is an underused word that brings the drama of both nature and the divine together.  It could be a psalm word.

Symbolic Delays

Weather affects more than the Psalms, of course.  With all the hype of the latest winter storm things were closed or delayed before any accumulation even started.  Now I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of snow days; we dutifully trudge to our desk jobs as if we’re doing something vital when many of us are really just trying to make money for the man.  A snow day’s a little unplanned levity in our lives when staying off the roads seems like a good idea.  It’s one of life’s guilty pleasures.  Of course, the dreaded delayed opening brings its own set of issues.  You can’t sleep in unless it’s announced the night before, and once you’re up your mind heads to work anyway.  Working remotely, alas, means you have no excuse, no matter what the weather.

Snow is a great symbol.  I don’t mean its whiteness and purity—there are plenty of white things that aren’t pure.  No, I mean it’s a great symbol in its ability to control people.  We don’t like rain, although we understand its necessity.  Snow, however, fills us with a childlike wonder.  Anticipation.  Unlike a winter rain, it can be fun to play in.  It covers everything.  The suggestion of a blanket ironically makes us feel warm, even as the temperature dips below freezing.  But for me the most potent symbol is light.  I awake early, even on snow days.  As I make my way downstairs in the dark, it’s immediately evident when snow covers everything because the sky is lighter than it should be this time of day.  Whatever light’s trapped below the clouds reflects off the snow creating a luminosity that’s almost otherworldly in its calm.  It doesn’t last too long for the sun is rising earlier, at least it is until our pointless time change, but for a few hours we’re in the midst of an unnatural light.

Darkness is far too prevalent.  We know that someday even our mighty sun will use up all its fuel.  We crave the light for it’s limited.  Days are noticeably longer now than they were at the start of December.  Those few moments of serenity before the sun comes up, when the snow produces what seems like its own light, are among the most tranquil of life.  Before the plows begin scraping metal against asphalt, hoping for a snow day while wrapped in a fleece throw, face clouding the chilly window before it.  Yes, it’s a powerful symbol.  Even if the internet means work awaits just as usual.  

Tempestuous Wind

There was quite a windstorm that blew through here yesterday.  It reminded me rather forcefully of Weathering the Psalms.  Firstly, it blew loudly enough to wake me up a few times in the night.  When I finally climbed out of bed, listening to the blustery concussions beating the house, I remembered that the first chapter of Weathering was about the willful wind.  That’s not just a poetic phrase—according to the Psalter, the wind does the will of God.  Like much of the weather, it’s weaponized by the Bible.  Seeing what the wind can do, the reasons for this should be obvious.  Hurricanes are tremendous windstorms (although unknown in the land of the Bible), but they are also known for their tremendous rain.  Tornadoes, however, are pure wind and are among the most destructive forces on the planet.  (Before people came along, anyway.)  Wind commands respect.  We’re a very long way from taming it.

When thinking of meteorology, it’s easy to forget wind.  Rain and snow are pretty obvious.  Even desert heat is impossible to ignore.  The wind, invisible and powerful, is perhaps the most godlike of weather’s many features.  To the ancient way of thought, it was also inexplicable.  We understand the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials between water and land and the uneven heating between the surface of the ground and air aloft.  The ancients understood it more to be a pure act of God.  The wind certainly can seem spiteful.  It’s not difficult to attribute agency to it.  Such things go through my mind when the howling is loud enough to wake me.

Invisibility suggests power.  It wasn’t so much the “monotheism” of Israel that made it distinctive as it was the inability to see its deity.  That lack of visual confirmation not only necessitates a kind of faith, but it also veils a threat.  We humans tend to be visually focused.  We fear the dark.  Foggy, misty settings can give a story an atmosphere of foreboding.  Placing the divine out of site only enhances supernatural powers.  So it is with the wind.  As is to be expected, the windstorm has mostly blown itself out by now—moving on to another location until the temperature differentials even out and its howl becomes more of a whimper.  It will have done its work, however, for even as it passed through it brought to mind the proper respect for that which cannot be seen.  

The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

Mastering the Elements

First time home ownership is best left to younger people.  And perhaps younger houses.  The constant onslaught of things falling apart, or falling off (it has been an extreme weather year) has soured me on the idea.  You get set in your ways, you see.  The move from apartment to house didn’t come with a raise that would cover all the repairs invisible to a home inspector’s eye.  Although our house has stood for over 120 years, the last owners let lots of things go with a lick and a promise and we, the naive middle-aged first-time buyers in a seller’s market, bit.  I thought there would be repairs to make, but not all at once.  The royalties from books like Holy Horror don’t make even a small dent in the contractor’s fees.  We should maybe have bought a house in Jericho instead.  One right on the city wall.

The shake-down voyage of a ship reveals the problems, so the theory goes.  It stands to reason that people have to go through a shake-down year as well.  I’ve got the roofer on speed-dial, and I keep a wary eye on a garage that has more love than actual care poured into it.  All I want to do is read and write (which I could do just fine as a renter, thank you) in a place dry and not too cold.  The weather, however, has been unforgiving.  Rain and more rain.  There’s something primal about all this—an element of having to struggle against nature in order to survive.  In the modern world we’ve taken for granted our ability to keep the beasts and weather at bay.  Storm systems like the one that has just blown through serve to remind our species that there are things that will forever remain beyond our control.

The lament is the most numerous genre of psalm

Something like this was going through my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  (We didn’t own our house at Nashotah House, though.  Whose house?  Nashotah’s house.)  Living in the Midwest gave me a new appreciation for the weather.  Some of the storms we witnessed were nothing short of theophanic.  Global warming has a way of bringing the weather front and center.  Elements of this element, however, are within our control.  We understand at least the human-driven elements of global warming.  We deny they exist to scrape together a few more pennies at the end of the day.  Meanwhile those who buy houses need to do their homework.  If need a roofer too, I’ve got one on speed-dial.

Shut up or Shut down?

So the government’s shut down over a presidential temper tantrum.  Like most people, I suspect, I haven’t really noticed.  Except for two things.  When I drove up to Ithaca over the holidays, some of the highway rest stops were closed.  It seems our government wants to share the misery of not being able to relieve itself.  Secondly, the NOAA weather forecasts are no longer updated as frequently as they should be.  I’m no expert on the weather—I did write a book on meteorotheology, which took quite a bit of research on weather in ancient times, but I know that doesn’t qualify.  Still, I rely on weather forecasts to get daily business done.  In particular, we were expecting a winter storm around here that had been predicted, by NOAA, to arrive around 11 p.m.

Okay, I thought, people will be off the roads by then, and crews will be out to treat the icy conditions by morning.  Seven hours early, around 4 p.m., I noticed a rain, sleet, snow mix falling.  The ice particles looked quite a lot like salt crystals, but I was pretty sure that the government doesn’t have that kind of pull.  In any case, when weather catches me unawares, I turn to NOAA since our government is apparently God’s own chosen one, figuring that the Almighty might know a thing or two about what goes on upstairs.  The current conditions, NOAA said, were “unknown precipitation.”  Apparently the government isn’t even allowed to look out the window during a shut-down.  Maybe it was salt after all.

So, among those of the “God of the gaps” crowd, the weather is perhaps the last refuge of a dying theology.  Their cheery refrain of “science can’t explain” has grown somewhat foreshortened these last few decades, but when unknown precipitation is falling outside all bets are off.  Come to think of it, Weathering the Psalms could’ve been titled Unknown Precipitation, but it’s a little late for that now.  A creature long of habit, I awoke just after 3 a.m.  Hastily dressing against the chill of the nighttime thermostat setting, I wandered to the window, wondering whether there would be a snow day.  It’s dark this time of night, as I well know, but in the streetlights’ glow it seemed as if no weather event had happened at all.  It’s just like our shut-down government to get such basic things wrong.  As long as I’m up, I might as well get to work on my current book on horror.  It’s only fitting.