Psychology of Religion

It’s so human.  Mistaking form for substance, I mean.  A recent piece in Wired that my wife pointed out to me is titled “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years,” by David DeSteno.  As the title intimates, religion benefits individuals in many ways.  Church attendance, however, has been declining for a long time.  While not the point of the article, I do wonder how much of it is because mainstream churches are stuck in a form that no longer works and people aren’t finding the substance there.  The basic church service is premised on a specific religious outlook that no longer seems to fit how the world works.  Potential ministers go to seminary where age-old ideas are tiredly replicated, based on an incipient literalism that simply doesn’t match what people see in the world.


I’ve experienced this myself.  Depending on who the minister is, a church can go from dynamic to dull several times in the course of a member’s life.  People still crave the substance, even if the form stops working.  The form, however, is seminary approved and seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.  The folks are academics and academics are well aware of the developments that suggest the form doesn’t work.  Speaking as a former seminary professor, sermons just don’t do the trick when you’ve done your own homework.  As DeSteno points out, once you remove the theology science and religion tend to find themselves in agreement with one another.  For years I’ve been suggesting that secular seminaries are needed.  Churches that aren’t bound by form or doctrine.  Instead we swim in a sea of retrenched evangelicalism.

Religion is an effective survival technique.  It evolved, even while denying it did so.  Some time after the Reformation a resurgent literalism led Catholicism to modernize, removing the mystery that was perhaps the last tenuous grasp that form had to provide substance.  Religion, beleaguered as it is, still has substance to offer.  DeSteno’s article is adapted from his new book How God Works.  I haven’t read it yet, but from the summary I can see that I should.  There are religious groups that attempt what this article suggests.  From my experience, however, I see they easily get sucked into mistaking the form they settle on for the substance of what they do.  I had recently been toying with the idea of attending seminary again.  I found, however, form after form.  What I need is substance.

More than Sand

My sci-fi roots may be showing, but when John W. Morehouse posted a story on TheoFantastique’s Facebook page about Dune, I had to follow up.  The story was from Wired magazine, and the title asks “Should There Be a Religion Based on ‘Dune’?  Although I grew up on Poe, science fiction was my favorite genre as a kid.  Frank Herbert’s classic was published when I was only three, but it was experiencing a resurgence before the movie came out.  Dune was  complex world building.  It was immersive, and compelling.  The movie, I felt, didn’t do it justice.  I’m not surprised that people are now wondering if it shouldn’t become a religion.  Other sci-fi-based religions do exist.  Star Wars and Avatar have both developed fan bases that consider the films their religion.

Movies have a way of becoming part of our reality.  The other day I was reflecting on how much my frame of reference for life is based on movies.  I quote from them frequently.  I draw wisdom, and sometimes just plain inanity from them.  But I remember them.  I spend a lot more time reading than I do watching movies.  If a book is engaging I’ll remember it well, but it isn’t unusual to forget—although I hope it’s still there somewhere in deep storage—a book that failed to make much of an impact.  I suppose that’s true of movies too, but I recall my first viewing of The Jungle Book in theaters.  How those hypnotic snake eyes scared me!  And there was a film whose title I can’t recall, but I remember it was vignettes of Hans Christian Andersen stories, I believe.  One was called “The Tinderbox.”  I still remember it well although I was probably about five when I saw it and I never watched it again.

This staying power of movies suggests their religious potential.  People today, I suspect, are less concerned with the antiquity or bona fides of a religion than they are with the practical issue of whether or not it works for them.  Does it bring them near some sense of transcendence?  While the Wired article doesn’t seriously suggest a religion based on Dune, I sometimes ponder how the wisdom of ancient religions is often entombed in forms and structures that “true believers” mistake for the actual essence of the religion itself.  Sci-fi based religions reach for the newly created realms of transcendence.  They are filled with wonder.  But it will only be a matter of time before that awe fades into arguments about which canonical version is literally true.  It’s happened before.

Traveling Unplugged

Those who pay close attention, or who have nothing better to do in July, may have noticed that I missed a day posting on this blog on Saturday.  That hasn’t happened for a few years now.  I think maybe I ‘m growing up.  Or learning to resist.  Saturday was a travel day—the first I had to make from Pennsylvania, back to Newark in order to fly to Washington state and drive a few hours to the lake.  All in all, it turned out to be a long day in which I didn’t even notice that I was unplugged.  I had a book that I read along the way.  Although it’s against my religion—(call it Moby)—(but I jest)—I even fell into a cat nap or two on the plane.  I didn’t have a window seat and strangers don’t like you staring in their direction for five hours at a time.

Upon awaking, eyes refusing at first to work in tandem, in the chill mountain air, I realized I’d spent the entire day off the internet.  We had to pull out at 2:30 a.m. to meet TSA requirements, and you have to pay for the privilege of connecting to the web in airports and on board jets.  I’ve become so accustomed to being wired that I feel I have to explain why I wasn’t able to post a few thoughts when circumstances were so adverse to getting tangled in the world-wide web.  Yes, it still has a few gaps where one might buzz through without being caught.

It was remarkably freeing to be unplugged.  I believe Morpheus may be correct that they want us to believe reality is otherwise.  I feel guilty for not checking email manically.  What if someone requires something right away?  Some sage response to a communique that just can’t wait until I’m back from vacation?  Some reason that I must ask to be inserted back into the matrix if just for a few moments, to hit the reply button?  We’ve perhaps been exposed to what The Incredibles 2 calls the Screenslaver, the force that draws our gaze from even the beauty of a mountain lake to the device in our hand, whining for attention.  We have wifi here, of course, for the fantasy of living raw is sustainable for only a few hours at a time.  Reality, as you know if you’re reading this, is electronic.  But until I have to reinsert myself at the cost of my soul, I think I’m going to take a dip in the lake.

But Loses (His) Soul

Although a couple steps from the real thing, a book review can be an art form of its own.  A short piece in a recent Wired magazine focused on an ironic bestseller that I keep seeing on the standard lists: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.  Apart from something we’ve probably all heard from our moms, I wonder why so many people buy a book telling them to get rid of things.  Clive Thompson notes in his review (“Clutter Clash: How Tidying up Can Hamper Creativity”) that one of Kondo’s pieces of advice is that books should be on the list of things to discard.  Disagreeing in principle with this assessment, it is an even larger argument that I would like to challenge: “studies” apparently show (I’m not sure which studies) that clutter can be “soul crushing.”  Given that we have no empirical way to assess souls, I’m uncertain how to measure the number of angels crushed under my stacks of books.  Who has the right to assign clutter to the ranks of venial sins—or mortal, for that matter?
The book’s subtitle, The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, may provide some vague spirituality to the topic, and I agree that entropy can get the upper hand from time to time, but soul-crushing?  Some of us keep books and papers precisely because of their value in lifting the non-verifiable soul.  In fact, I was just reading (ahem) about how religions (the traditional home of wisdom about souls) revolve around their books.  Perhaps we should leave at least a showy Bible for the coffee table to display along with our copy of Feng Shui for Dummies.  My soul feels lighter already!

When did advice for improving our souls shift from those who spend their ruminative lives asking the weighty questions to those who suggest picking up after yourself might just work as well as a life of self-denial and putting others first?  And why would you buy a book that recommends you don’t keep books?  My existential crisis deepens, and I haven’t even read it.  I can’t shake the feeling that  I spent thousands of dollars over multiple years getting an education in what turned out to be merely housekeeping.  I marvel at the clutter-free environment as much as the next person.  That’s one of the reasons I love art museums so much.  Yes, my soul does get a boost there.  If I go to the gift shop on the way out, however, I’ll likely want a book to help recapture those sublime moments.  Then I will go home, where my clutter awaits, and will truly feel peace in a place where books abide in profusion.

Social Security

Security. If there’s one thing we can never get enough of, this is it. We look at the future with a mix of perspectives: it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. We want to be prepared for any eventuality. The most recent issue of Wired landed at my door and the cover, apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, features the survival guide. Tongue-in-cheek, along with actual statistics, this feature article gives tips on surviving all kinds of potential disasters. From domestic terrorism to zombies. The zombie advice caught my eye. You can make a pretty effective club, it seems, from rolling up newspaper the right way, with a judicious application of duct tape. It may not help much in instance of domestic terrorism, but who can expect to survive everything?

DecWiredSecurity is fine and good, until it becomes an obsession. Here in the United States, we’ve lived with the belief that two oceans separate us from our most hostile enemies. For sure, we have our fair share of natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, even a volcano or two, but these are “acts of God” and we like to think that we can handle those. Our greatest fear, it seems, is our fellow human beings. Isolationism is convenient when we want to direct our own destiny, but when other nations get in the way, we like to extend the borders of democracy a bit. And globalization has opened the doors to all kinds of scenarios where security is at risk. Just try flying as a man with a beard traveling alone. I’m not so sure that facial hair is the greatest threat to the future that it seems to be. (Unless, of course, it is trendy stubble, as the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio shows.)

Security isn’t attainable. The future is always uncertain. There’s a rabbinic saying that a person can’t be satisfied today without knowing that tomorrow’s been taken care of. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Or even later today. We fear those who take their faith seriously, and yet the world grows more densely interconnected all the time. Some turn to their holy books to ensure that they are ready for tomorrow. Some even claim that those books tell them in detail what will be coming down the road. Others, I suspect, are gathering newspapers and rolls of duct tape. The future is, after all, what we make it.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.


Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

Programming God

Robots have been part of my world far longer than I ever recognized. Still, growing up in a small town in the 1960s, their impact was fairly minimal—they may have had a part in the manufacture of the car we drove, and perhaps helped prepare some of the products we bought—but those robots were far away. Far more present were those on television who, for the most part, were funny and helpful. This month’s Wired magazine runs a story entitled “Trusting Our Robots,” by Emily Anthes. The point of her short article is that people feel more comfortable with robots that are programmed to appear uncertain. We don’t trust robots to drive our cars, as she points out, but we give them more, old-fashioned primate sympathy when we make them look like they’re having a hard time. Just a couple weeks back Time magazine had a blurb on how we’re now at the point of programming drones to kill without human input. Add a dose of uncertainty and we get a glimpse of what it must be like to be gods.

Underneath our exteriors, we all know that robots do what they are programmed to do. In many respects—physically, especially—they are superior to us. Nevertheless, human knowledge is not perfect. We, too, are prone to uncertainty. Our robots aren’t better than we are, only more efficient. Doubt is a human quality. Perhaps our most endearing. As Ms. Anthes notes, “even when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority, we resist a robot’s help.” We have evolved over millions of years to interact with other creatures. Those non-biological entities we’ve created and endowed with artificial intelligence (sound familiar?) somehow can’t equal the right we’ve earned from struggling against, and along with, nature for these many eons. Would God really trust us with the keys to the universe?

An early plan for a robot.

An early plan for a robot.

Robots, we are told, are our inevitable future. Some visionaries look forward to uploading human consciousness (even though we have no idea what it is) into a machine and, with replaceable parts, living forever. Before the dead and resurrected Jesus, according to the gospel of John, stood Thomas—the man some traditions said was Jesus’ very twin—and yet he doubted. As much as we claim otherwise, we adore Thomas for it. Evolving even in a world full of religion—itself a product of our evolution—we are so unsure. Our robots, however, programmed by us, have no doubts. Even when they act confused, it’s only because we tell them too. Our minds, as Wired tells us, resist letting robots drive the car for us. We let them pull the trigger, however, and pray our programmers got it right.

Hotel Nowhere

HotelCalifornia1977. I was in junior high school and I wore my hair long. I hadn’t yet donned the cross that I carried through my high school years with a constant fear of Hell on my back, but I did listen to the radio. The haunting song “Hotel California,” by the Eagles, scared me. There was something lurking there—something undefined and yet compelling. Cults were in the news, and after the People’s Temple suicide a year later, we were all pretty well convinced that the song was based on fact of some sort. Religious analysts concluded that the song referred to everything from the Antichrist (“they just can’t kill the beast”) to a New Religious Movement that had taken over a western mission (“we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”). Members of the Eagles, when asked, said their intentions were to expose the darkness of the music industry as idealistic hippies came of age and realized, yes, it’s just business. Still, I shivered.

Nashotah House used to be on the frontier. Although it is only 30 miles from Milwaukee, it could still feel terribly isolated less than two decades after the Eagles had flown. Indeed, there were sotto voce suggestions that “Hotel California” should be the official seminary hymn. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The nights could be very dark in the Wisconsin woods, and for those attuned to some of the more honest aspects of a religion based on exclusion this didn’t seem too far to stretch. “Hotel California” came forcefully back to mind reading about Oneiric Hotel in Wired. (Mentioning Wired makes me look smart.) The Oneiric Hotel is a lucid-dreaming device by artist Julijonas Urbonas, the kind of thing Wired finds newsworthy. The story mentions that Urbonas’s previous project—called Euthanasia Coaster—was designed to kill its passengers.

Now my mind checks into Bates Motel. I know Psycho is set in Arizona, but the desert southwest is terra incognita to an easterner, and besides, it’s just a metaphor. It looks like California to me. I saw Psycho as a college student, and was rather afraid to watch it while at Nashotah House. Indeed, the night I moved to campus I found a dog-eared script from a play about a murderous maid at the seminary left on my coffee table. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell.” Psycho, it is asserted, was based on the macabre case of sociopathic killer Ed Gein who had roamed these self-same woods of Wisconsin, and who had died less than a decade earlier just down the road in Madison. There was, I knew, a psychiatric hospital just across the small lake that the campus bordered. We don’t call them cults anymore, but we all know what we’re talking about. There are indeed places that you can never check out, even if you leave.

Past Imperfect

WiredPastReligion is inextricably tied to the past. So when I noticed an article in Wired entitled “The End of Then: Past? Present? Online, It All Runs Together,” by Paul Ford, I determined to read it once I could figure out whence that musky aroma arose. Maybe it is just my imagination, but the order of the major advertisements in Wired seems like a pre-packaged sexual scenario. Near the beginning of the magazine is an aromatic ad for Chanel for men. A few pages on is a more than full-page ad for Viagra. A few pages on is a short piece on Trojan lubricants, followed coyly by that rare cigarette ad. (I’m probably reading too much into this, but I’m a creature of the past.) Where was I? Oh yes, the End of Then. Ford’s point in the article is that the internet has made access to the past incredibly facile. Anyone with a portal into the web can find scads of information about the past, making past and present indistinguishable in a sense. My thoughts turn to the future.

The future seems to be the true unknown country. Not long ago I saw a story on the internet about how scientists conclude time travel to be impossible because we have not found messages from the future on the web. But we have found the past. Or have we? Ford mentions our fascination with Babylonian tablets, and suggests future historians will be equally intrigued by our continuous electronic chatter. But I turn back to that clay tablet. Those tablets, many of which were already in the deep past well before the Bible was scrawled, preserved what was important for a pre-industrial society: receipts, court records, and myths—the stories of the gods. And their command to build a round ark, at least according to Irving Finkel, whose book seems not to be available in the United States. Those myths, adapted to biblical proportions, have long been in the public domain, and yet, are they really in any sense present? Try giving students a quiz and find out.

We have a past that will always remain inaccessible. The present, for better or worse, is all we’ll ever have. Religion, however, is tied to the past. True claims are based on historical events, some less believable than others, that are permanently out of reach. We can watch how religions play out in the present and decide later. In the future. But the past haunts us forever. I, for one, had thought that cigarettes were on their way to extinction. But I need to put this edition of Wired down because that cologne ad is making me dizzy. And it leaves me wondering about future prospects and what religion has to do with any of it.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…


While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

Human Resources

I’m thinking about how we blithely accept cruelty and christen it “just business.” It’s legal, and even encouraged. Was a time when you wouldn’t dare trade with a stranger because he might cheat you. To make a deal implied a relationship. To get away with something unseemly you had to be able to look someone in the eye and take advantage of her or him anyway. Oh, we’ve sanitized it alright. Most workers never meet the CEO. His hand doesn’t even deign to sign the paycheck. The workers are forced to trust nevertheless. Don’t worry, it’s just business. Or is it?

Wired GeniusThe system, of course, favors those with the loudest voices, and those voices speak the language of Mammon. We don’t dare upset the order, believing we will get ours some day. Delusion is so sweet. On the cover of Wired magazine is a little girl. The caption reads, “Genius is everywhere—but we’re wasting it… Seventh grader Paloma Noyola Bueno lives next to a garbage dump in Mexico. Last year she had the top math score in the country.” Careful, Wired, you’re beginning to sound socialist. Bueno was on the cover of a major magazine because she was discovered. Those who remain hidden far outnumber those who claim far more than their share of capital. You don’t make it to the top unless you crawl over the other caterpillars. When you reach the top, as Trina Paulus sagely warned, you find there’s nothing there. Just human detritus beneath your feet.

Business has come to mean “cold and impersonal.” Keep the human element out of it. In fact, the term “just business” is a very effective shield against all kinds of unethical behavior. And it is the model on which we shape our society. Is it any wonder that the economy takes such precipitous tumbles? Funnily enough, those who support “business ethics” such as these most vehemently also claim the title “conservative Christian.” Unless Christianity has thrown its moral compass into the sea, there’s no legitimate way to claim the latter half of that moniker. We praise and wonder at our Einsteins. How many of them died in the gas chambers and ovens of the Nazi regime? How many of them have starved in Africa? How many never rose above the crippling poverty of Mexico? Perhaps it is time we as a society demanded a stop to the wastage. “Waste not, want not,” should be our mantra. And if those at the top can’t show what they’ve done to help their fellow human resources, perhaps they should live next to the garbage dump. Don’t take it personally, one percenters, it’s just good business.

Robotics FIRST


I knew it! It was right there on the cover of Wired magazine. “The Robots Take Over.” And it is also the very day of the FIRST Robotics kickoff, the day when Dean Kamen and his team announce to thousands of high school kids, teachers, engineers, and interested parents, what the 2013 FIRST robotics competition will be, spurring us into six frenzied weeks of designing, planning, and building a robot to take to competitions. First Atlanta, then the world! It must’ve been their plan all along.

The article in Wired, by Kevin Kelly, does have hints of cheekiness throughout, but for the most part is on target. How many of us already use computers or some kind of robotic devices to complete our jobs? Kelly points to the inevitable: robots can do it better. The upside is that when robots take away jobs they create new ones, like Charlie Bucket’s dad getting a job repairing the robot arm that took his job away at the toothpaste factory. If you don’t want a tech job, too bad. That’s what the new definition of work is becoming, since labor is already being taken over by robots. Those who can look far enough ahead can see robots doing, as Kelly puts it, any job. What makes this sound apocalyptic to me is the fact that we, as a society, undervalue education. What will the undereducated do? Their jobs are the first to go. I feel the tremors of a revolution that hasn’t even started yet. People need something to do.

It is apparently without irony that Kelly suggests that any job people do, including in the service industry, can be done by robots. I am an editor. A robot may be able to find grammatical errors (Word and Pages already do this), but they can’t capture the soul of a writer. We write for the enjoyment of other people who experience being people in the same way that we do. There is an inherent arrogance in the Artificial Intelligence movement that believes (yes, it is a belief) that intelligence and mind are the same thing. There is no room for a soul in this machine. Many biologists would agree: we’ve looked, no soul. But even biologists know that they’ve got an identity, aspirations, contradictions, and emotions. It is the unique blend of these things that make, what we can for convenience call, the soul. There are entire industries built around the care for that soul.

Many scientists are still betting on the end of religion, the ultimate repository of those who believe they have souls. Religion, however, is not going away. When we see robot psychiatrists, robot social workers, robot clergy, robot writers and artists, and robot Popes, we’ll know the apocalypse has truly transpired.

Kings and Codes

I readily acquiesce to the suggestion that others are smarter than myself. In a world of overly competitive commerce that has wormed its way into higher education, I have found myself ill-equipped to compete against those who are more clever at working the system. At times I can be decidedly pre-medieval in my perception of fairness. Thus it was a combination of self-denigration and legitimate surprise to find a brief piece in the May edition of Wired magazine on the Code of Hammurabi. In this arena I would have supposed myself to be on firmer ground. The piece by Joel Meares appeared in the Blast from the Past section of the “Humor Issue” of the erudite magazine. The writers at Wired are by default well beyond my ability in the tech scene, but this piece was a consideration of how Hammurabi’s justice still plays its way out in popular culture. Beginning with the 1970’s movie series Death Wish, Hammurabi is given credit for inspiring Hamlet, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Red Dead Redemption, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Batman. Holy pedigree, Hammurabi!

Each semester I try to explain to my students why study of the ancient world is still relevant. It may be overly simplified to suggest that Hammurabi directly inspired all these works (the Akkadian language wasn’t really deciphered until the middle of the nineteenth century, CE, long after Shakespeare), but clearly the trajectory had been set long ago. Even before Hammurabi. The earliest known law-codes predate Hammurabi by many centuries and demonstrate that our sense of justice and fair play were being bandied about by the gods long before Hammurabi was a twinkle in Shamash’s eye. If we want others to play nice, the best way to convince them to do so is to lay the dicta in the realm of the gods.

Maybe I can’t figure out where Death Wish and Moby Dick share anything beyond a cursory resemblance to Hammurabi, but it is clear that the Mesopotamians were the first to articulate the idea that the gods set the rules and it is our duty not to upset them. Of course, in our society fair play is frequently sublimated to corruption at various levels. Someone is always willing to bend the rules if the covert payment is enticing enough. After all, doesn’t it look like Hammurabi is placing his fingers to his lips while receiving a kickback from Shamash on the pinnacle of the famous stele bearing the code that now bears his name?

Hammurabi winks at Shamash

Illusions of Permanence

Blogging about the ancient world presents idiosyncratic problems. Quite apart from the fact that few readers show much interest in the shadowy ages of antiquity when new tunes and flicks are available to download just mouse-clicks away, the worldview of ancient people is difficult to comprehend. Most people before the common era probably focused their energies on their crops and beasts, hoping to survive for as long as possible in a subsistence world. I’m sure they would have appreciated an i-pod as they were out plowing or were at home weaving and cooking, but theirs was a solid, practical world where reality could be brutally felt.

Fast-forward to our day. I can’t teach a class of undergraduates without noticing their constant attention to their electronic arsenals forever at hand. Cell-phones, i-pods, laptops, and god-knows what-else making as much buzzing and chirping noise as a meadow in springtime. This constant interruption is what Linda Stone has coined “continuous partial attention.” Kids are raised to juggle many sources of input or stimulation at one time, an activity that befuddles those of us raised when television was black-and-white and telephones were heavy devices solidly settled in one place. The disconnect is palpable.

I read in Wired magazine some years back a whimsical analysis of data storage. A chart indicated the most reliable means of keeping data over long periods. Electronic media suffers from rapidly increasing technology (does anyone have a 5-and-a-quarter inch floppy drive I can borrow?) as well as the transience of the media itself (electrons marching in order). On the top of Wired’s chart for durability was the humble clay tablet with a period of about 5000 years. I chuckled at the chart, but deep in my psyche I know that a major power-outage, or a catastrophically failing server could plunge my electronic compositions and data into oblivion. We have so much information out there, but what happens if it flies away in the tale of an errant comet? My suggestion to the younger generation is to learn cuneiform. It may take a few years, but as a storage solution it is rock-solid.

The original hard copy

Sky God Redux

This week’s Time magazine includes the periodic feature of the 50 best inventions of the year. Flipping through the pages looking at techno-gadgets that leave me vacantly spinning in my office chair, I was surprised to see that invention number 49 is the work of our hypothetical sky gods. The undulates asperatus cloud has been receiving high profile attention of late, and now it is seeded on Time’s greatest inventions list! When I last posted on undulates asperatus, it had been written up in Wired. Prior to that I had seen a feature on the cloud in the New Jersey Star-Ledger some months back. Having written a(n unpublished) book on weather terminology in the Bible, I have had my head in the clouds for several years now. To find the humble collections of condensed humidity making the news is a strange but welcome validation of my work.


Undulatus asperatus from Wikipedia, by Agathaman

Time resists bringing the divine into the description of the cloud, preferring the more neutral term “ominous” to describe undulates asperatus. After having spent several days under the blanket of a nor’easter here in New Jersey with its impenetrable gray clouds, I can appreciate how ominous thick clouds can be. The more I study ancient religions the more I am convinced that major gods primarily reflect the content of the sky. After all, gods were seldom seen in the fields and cities of antiquity, but the sky holds endless possibilities.

Perhaps some editor somewhere will stumble across my conviction that weather matters in the biblical world and will want to take a look at my book. If not, no worries. I’ll just be looking at the sky.