Everything Old Is New Again

I wanted you
And I was looking for you
But I couldn’t find you
I wanted you
And I was looking for you all day
But I couldn’t find you
I couldn’t find you.

– Laurie Anderson, “Walking and Falling” from the album Big Science (1982)

I first heard Laurie Anderson during my freshman year of college. I was at Northwestern University, suddenly out of Iowa and into the Big School in the Big City. I grew up in Des Moines, and compared to the rest of Iowa, we were the big city. I never thought my myself as a small-towner. Quite the contrary! I found Iowa outside of Des Moines to be painfully hick. Those farmers talked and looked hick. I was not like them; I was from the big capitol city of Des Moines!

Then I got to college. Northwestern is in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Suddenly I was competing with folks from Chicago and New York and Philadelphia and Boston. I was now officially the hick. And I had never heard of Laurie Anderson.

I fell in love with her on first hearing. Her Big Science album was artsy and weird and quirky, and even though I thought I had fairly wide-ranging tastes, I had never heard anything quite like it. Since then, I have seen her on film, in concert, and hosting art shows. I’ve bought her books and her albums, then her cassettes, then her CDs.

But it was only a few days ago that I made a connection: Her lyrics remind me of Biblical poetry with its stairstepping lines and repetition.

Compare the above lyric to this, from the Old Testament:

Upon my bed, night after night,
I looked for the one whom I love with all y heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I will rise now and go all around the city,
Through the streets and the squares.
I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.

– Song of Songs 3:1-2

It was while reading this latter passage that the theme of looking and not finding jumped out at me, and only because I had just recorded a video in which I quoted the Laurie Anderson lines at the top of this post. But then I realized that it wasn’t just the theme that was similar; it was the writing style. Anderson uses this sort of building repetition frequently, as does the Bible. Consider these rather graphic verses:

She struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his skull.
At her feet he sank, he fell, and lay flat;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell—dead.

– Judges 5:26-27

I love making connections between two things that you wouldn’t think shared something in common. The passage from Judges is part of “Deborah’s Song,” and is one of the very oldest pieces of writing in the Bible. I don’t know if Laurie Anderson deliberately borrowed her lyric style from ancient Hebrew poetry, but I’m happy to have spotted a similarity. Everything old is new again.
Continue reading Everything Old Is New Again

The Annals of America

annals of america

In this era of Wikipedia, it’s hard to imagine a time when we relied on bulky multi-volume printed encyclopedias to get our information. When I was a kid, my grandparents gave me a set of World Book encyclopedias, and that set got me all the way through high school. Then when I was out of school, I fell prey to a shifty hardselling salesman who conned me into buying an overpriced set of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Except it didn’t happen that way at all. There simply came a time when I missed my World Book, and wanted to update my library, so I called the salesman, not the other way around. He came to my apartment and sold me a handsome set of the 1985 15th edition Encyclopædia Britannica. The covers were padded and beautiful. It felt nice just to hold them, and reading them was even better. Yes, they were expensive, but I didn’t consider them overpriced. Over the years, I more than got my money’s worth out of those books.

Additionally, the encyclopedias came with a perk: a 20-volume set of collected period documents called The Annals of America. This awesome set of hardcover history books covered American history from Christopher Columbus through Gerald Ford. It was prepared in time for the 1976 American Bicentennial. I never made it through the entire set, but I read several of the volumes cover to cover, and bounced around plenty in the remainder. It was a valuable resource and again I more than got my money’s worth.

My last attempt to get through all 20 volumes in chronological order (I’m anal that way) came just after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was feeling patriotic, and thought there was never a better time to read about American history in depth. I started over at the very beginning. I wasn’t working at the time except for a part-time position, so I had lots of time to read, doing much of it while laying out by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The historic location only added to my feeling of intense patriotism. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a halt to all air travel. There were armed guards at government buildings. There was an odd feeling in the air. And there I was, getting my suntan and reading these hefty books.

Sadly and stupidly, I somehow got sidetracked and abandoned my project of reading The Annals of America straight through. Even more stupidly, my wife and I moved away from Cambridge, a town we loved, a couple years later. Then money grew tight and I had to sell several possessions which I now wish I had back. Included in that number was my beloved set of Encyclopædia Britannica and also The Annals of America. I hope whoever has them now is getting a lot out of them. I hope they are being read and loved, not gathering dust on a forgotten shelf.

 

The Persistence of Peanuts

I am a big fan of the comic strip Peanuts. I had dozens of the little paperback collections when I was a kid. There was a rather dense book of theology that I found in my grandpa’s store called The Parables of Peanuts (by Robert L. Short), and it featured many reprints of the cartoons. I could have just looked at the cartoons and skipped the text, but I have never been able to cheat my way through a book. I am a cover-to-cover reader, including the acknowledgements and all the other dull beginning and end bits. (Okay, I do sometimes make exceptions when it comes to academic works with massive numbers of citations.) When my grandparents gifted me a copy of The Parables of Peanuts, I insisted on reading the text that went along with the cartoons, even though I was far too young to understand it. There I was in grade school, reading about Kierkegaard, Barth, and others, not really absorbing what I was reading, but enjoying it nevertheless.

Maybe that was the start of my love of theology. Linus was my favorite Peanuts character by a wide margin, and he was unquestionably the theologian of the gang. Who can forget Linus reciting the Christmas story from Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas? I always thought of myself as a bit of a Linus. The philosopher. The good student. The nerd. The eccentric who carried a security blanket and believed in the Great Pumpkin.

In recent years, I checked out and read every volume of The Complete Peanuts (by Fantagraphics Books) from the library. (I’d love to own the whole set except [a] It would cost a lot of money and [b] I have no place to put all 26 volumes.) From Snoopy I learned about the Red Baron. From Linus I first heard the words “sincere” and “hypocritical.” Because of Schroeder I know December 16th is Beethoven’s birthday. I know the meaning of “pantophobia” and what a “fussbudget” is because of Lucy. I feel Charlie Brown’s pain, and agree with him that the laughter of children can be the cruelest sound on earth.

A year or two ago, I reread my old copy of The Parables of Peanuts. Kierkegaard still confuses me. Maybe I’ll never know as much about theology or philosophy as Linus.  But Linus, like all the Peanuts characters, had his own problems. He never saw the Great Pumpkin, and could never give up his security blanket. Miss Othmar was always beyond his reach. Lucy never won Schroeder’s love.  Snoopy never caught the Red Baron. And Charlie brown never kicked the football before Lucy yanked it away from him. But they all kept trying. I like to think they are still trying.

Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

Science and Theology

bible and sci-fi

Here are two books I’m currently reading: The Common English Bible Study Bible (With Apocrypha) and The Big Book of Science Fiction. I realize this pairing of books lends itself to jokes, and I didn’t put them together this morning by accident. They highlight a problem that has baffled humankind for centuries, if not millennia. What we are taught to believe does not always mesh with what our minds tell us.

I was raised in a Christian environment, and like many other people, there came a point in my childhood when I noticed a divergence between what I heard in church and what I heard at school. I remember feeling a great sense of relief when our church pastor’s sermon one Sunday promised to resolve the disparity. He told a story about a student not unlike myself who had approached his own pastor with a science textbook and a Bible, demanding to know how to resolve the two. The pastor in the story said, “The Bible is God’s word; the textbook is man’s word. We use the Bible in church to learn about God’s world, and we use the textbook in school to learn about man’s world.”

I was not happy with this answer. It was cleverly said, but resolved nothing. The pastor’s response skirted around the question in an effort to please both sides, but did not do justice to either. I have no satisfactory solution, but I know that asking the questions and searching diligently with open minds for the answers is a worthwhile pursuit. So I will continue to study theology AND science.

Here are two websites that are good places to start:

 

Easter 2020

Revelations of Divine Love - cover

Today is Easter. When I was a kid, Easter meant a fun search for candy eggs to start the day, extra special music at church, and usually a big lunch with extended family. Even if I didn’t get much out of the theology of the resurrection as a youngster, it was still a day of celebration.

But Easter 2020 finds the world in rough shape. There are no church services on account of coronavirus, except for some irresponsible and foolish congregations that think they are somehow immune to the disease. Family gatherings must be kept to a minimum. Restaurants are closed. Not to mention the many other crises currently affecting the planet. And to boot, it’s a dark, cold, rainy, ugly day weather-wise.

Oddly enough, I’ve been taking comfort in an unusual book: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. It’s an account of the visions that came to a Middle Age anchoress in 1373. When she wrote about her experiences, she wrote in Middle English, but I’m reading in a Modern English translation (Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-964118-5). I’ve never wholly bought into the phenomenon of holy visions, and I can’t say whether the things Julian saw were the product of a fever, an overactive imagination, or actual visits from a holy being. But her writing is lovely and affecting. Maybe reading her words is the best way I can celebrate Easter this year.

Holocaust

I have plugged John and Hank Green’s excellent online education series of videos, Crash Course, previously. Most recently, I suggested it as one of several options for how to spend time productively during the current COVID-19 crisis. (https://barefootvoosk.com/2020/03/19/10/)

The newest Crash Course video was just released this morning, and it is an especially poignant and disturbing one: The Holocaust,Genocides, and Mass Murder of WWII: Crash Course European History #40

 

This might not seem like the best viewing material for a world in the midst of a global pandemic, but let’s not forget that the problems that existed just before we all went into quarantine still exist. Climate change still exists. The United States still faces challenges to democracy under the current administration. And hatred still exists in all its many forms: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry, etc.

The Holocaust happened, and not all that long ago. There are still many people alive today who remember it. George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm, which I also mentioned recently, shows just how quickly authoritarianism can take root, and just how easily hatred can erase equality. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It’s happened before. If we’re not careful, it can happen again.