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A Brief History of the Zombie

Zombie HistoryPrevious Zombie posts:

A New Kind of Monster

 

Before it became the monster against which the modern secular self was constituted, it was  a monster against which African and Carribean selves were clarrified.

It has undergone a few small but significant changes in its short history. The zombie has two basic characteristics: it is a reanimated corpse of one person (this disqualifies Frankenstein’s monster) and it lacks free will (Pulliam [in Icons of Horror] 724). It differs from the other monsters found in western fictional narratives because it is a relative newcomer, arriving onto the scene only in the last hundred years or so. Furthermore, the zombie is a new world monster. Unlike ghosts, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, and other monsters transmitted to American culture through the medium of European fiction, the zombie went directly from folklore to the movie screen and skipped the literary phase of most European monsters.

The zombie proper was brought to America from Africa with the slaves, and later emerged from “Haitian folklore and the mythologies of voodoo religion” (Bishop 13). The zombie changed as it moved from its native African context to Haiti. In its African manifestation, the zombie was an external spirit that was feared because it was capable of indwelling the human form, supplanting the human subject. In the Caribbean context of “long-standing conflicts that have arisen from imperialism, oppression and slavery” (32), the slave culture formed the idea of the zombie as being an unwillingly servant of a malevolent sorcerer. In this manifestation, the zombie represents “the way in which slavery stripped someone of personhood” (Warner 357). The zombie underwent more changes when it migrated to America.

In the early twentieth century, the zombie entered American culture from the travel literature of William B. Seabrook. After living in Haiti for two years, Seabrook wrote his a first-person account of voodoo rituals in his book called The Magic Island (1929). This book seems to have been the inspiration for the film White Zombie (1932). Set in Haiti, this film links zombies to colonial anxieties. A white sorcerer controls the minds of peasants and his former enemies to create a labor force to work in his sugar mill and amass a fortune. White Zombie is representative of early zombie films that deal with a blend of voodoo, hypnotism, and scientific experimentation. The zombies of these films “act as cultural metaphors for enslavement” for the “monsters” in these movies “are not even the zombies but rather the sinister priest or master pulling their strings” (Bishop 19). The voodoo sorcerer robs the individuals of their autonomy and turns them into mindless servants. In these early zombie films, as in Haitian folklore, the zombie is terrifying because it depicts “the human subject as nothing more than an object” (131), an instrument to be used and abused by a diabolical master.

It was this objectification of the self that resonated with American movie audiences. The source of this fear of objectification was produced by the application of the principles of instrumental reason to more and more segments of society. Charles Taylor, in The Malaise of Modernity, describes “the primacy of instrumental reason” as a “massively important phenomenon of the modern age.” By instrumental reason he means “the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio, is its measure of success (4-5). Instrumental reason has made the world of objects nothing more than “potential raw material or instruments for our projects” (3). The zombies in these early films show the principles of instrumental reason as applied to humanity itself.  Zombies are humans turned into objects; they are “being treated as raw materials or instruments” (5) for the projects of their masters. This representation of the zombie as “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357) shambled across the screens of America until 1968, when, at the hands of George Romero, it changed to embody a new set of cultural anxieties.

These changes through time and context bear out Kearney’s assertion that as “ideas of self-identity change so do our ideas of what menaces this identity” (Strangers 4). Our monsters change because we change.

Next zombie post: Zombies Ain’t Got No Soul

 

Also cited:
Klapp, Orrin E. “Heroes, Villains and Fools, as Agents fo Social Control.” American Sociological Review 19.1 (1954): 56-62. JSTOR. Web. 24 June, 2012.

Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

Zombie 1“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.”  In popular culture we often equate the word apocalypse with zombies.  “The zombie apocalypse” actually means “that which zombies reveal.”  Zombies reveal some very interesting things about us, our society, and how we understand ourselves and our society.

This has always been the case with  monsters.  They always tell us about the people in whose stories they appear.

Richard Kearney says that “monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are (Strangers 117). What he means is, the monsters that haunt, creep and conjure in our stories have something to do with our identity–that is, the identity of the people who tell and hear (and view) the stories.  Monsters help us to clarify who we are.

When Kearney says that, “[m]ost ideas of identity . . . have been constructed in relation to some notion of alterity” (66), he means that we understand who we are, through facing what we are not.  Monsters are an embodiment of what we are not–alterity.  Our monsters function as “negative mirror image of ourselves which we project onto a fantasy world. Flawed beings, scapegoats, the enemy, the unknown, and the damned must all be willed into being as foils to our own inherent beauty, virtue, integrity and truth” (118).

This is why monsters, even as they threaten identity, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society.

Monsters are often an important component of our stories, whether told around a campfire, in a novel or on the movie screen.  As such, they play an important role in the creation of our collective identity.  Literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt, understands culture to be a system of constraints where cultural beliefs and practices are “enforced by particular literary acts of praising and blaming” (226). In narratives where the central conflict is between hero and monster, these figures are the recipients of praise and blame respectively. As the embodiment of that which is praiseworthy, the hero serves to establish and sustain a culture’s ideals of self-identity.

So back to the zombies….

The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time. In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio who tells him of traitors like himself who are dead before their bodies die. Dante is horrified; he has seen one of these men the friar describes, one that “eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and puts on clothes” (33.141) but is, nevertheless, dead. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors walks Dr. Pinch, who is described as “a living dead man” (5.1.241). Both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster, “at least not the pervasive and successful one that we have seen in the modern era” (Zani [in Better Off Dead] 100).

For contemporary culture, it is the zombie that threatens our collective identity and thus leads modern secular man toward self-knowledge. The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math). The popularity of the zombie monster suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity.

George Romero’s in Night of the Living Dead (1968) presents us with the “modern” zombie. He changed earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation embodies exactly what scares the crap out of the modern identity. What is this modern identity?

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the modern identity as a “buffered self” living in a “closed immanent frame.”  He means, in essence, that the modern identity does not understand itself in terms of the transcendent—the supernatural.  The modern zombie threatens this modern identity in the same way that monsters have always done, as a monstrous other. But zombies are more than just a monstrous other. They also pose a threat to collective identity in their monstrous sameness, for the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is a monster for our time.

Next zombie post: A Brief History of the Zombie

 

Enlightenment Dualism

Publicprivate“No religion should ever be involved with anything other than its own place of worship, where worshippers can believe and practise anything they deem fit, far away from enlightened, logical, reasonable people.”**

Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth.  Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality.  Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition,  to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed.  Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief.   Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion.  God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law.  Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood.  This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment.  The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason.  The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles.  All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles.   He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason.  For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief, (or history, tradition, body, etc.).  Because religion is particular, rather than universal, and because it is greatly influenced by belief (history, tradition, etc.) it wasn’t very long before Religion was thought to be the opposite of Reason.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism.  It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere.  The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason.  If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (about this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

**(Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/letters/why-we-must-keep-religion-out-of-politics-16206389.html#ixzz2Go32sFDT)

Little Miss Sunshine

Little missThey are the Hoovers because they all pretty much suck.

At the dinner table–the symbol of familial unity–they eat chicken out of a bucket, off of paper plates and drink pop served in McDonald’s collectible glasses. The nutritive value of the meal is equal to the emotional and spiritual value of this communion. A message on the answering machine interrupts the dissonance of conflicting wills. The seven year old Olive has, by default, qualified tor the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. Reluctantly, the family must make the long trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California so that Olive can attempt to achieve her dream and become a beauty queen.

There are many reasons that Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favourite movies. The acting is brilliant and the screenplay works on all levels. It’s also funny, poignant, philosophical and redemptive.

This last term has produced shock in some. (SPOILER ALERT) If they’ve seen it, they point out that it includes a character that is homosexual and another that uses of heroine. It has strong language and a t-shirt that declares, “Jesus Was Wrong.” If that’s not enough, a seven year old girl dances, albeit naively, like a stripper. They often ask: “Even if there is something redemptive in this movie, is it worth seeing all the ‘garbage’ just to find that particle of truth?”

I find far more than a particle of truth in this film. Perhaps, part of the problem is that we have different approaches to understanding narrative. If the truth is a piece of a story that can be extracted from the whole and held up to be a true bit, then an argument could be made that there aren’t a lot or true bits in this movie and quite a few untrue bits. (This approach is rather like looking for the moral in a story.)

Implication is a more appropriate approach to narratives of any kind for it maintains the integrity of all elements of the story of which the “idea” is but one. The first definition for term implication in the Oxford English Dictionary is the one I have in mind: “The action of involving, entwining, or entangling; the condition of being involved, entangled, twisted together, intimately connected or combined.”
The truth of a narrative is communicated through the experience it expresses–the experience in which we are entangled. Viewers of Little Miss Sunshine will find themselves entangled in the story.
Every character has a dream, hope or driving motivation. Significantly, these motivations are completely individual and they tend to divide family members. Olive dreams of being beautiful; Richard wants to have success in his career; Duane want nothing more than be free from home and his means of escape is to become a test pilot; Grandpa seeks pleasure in his waning years; Cheryl dreams of a happy family; and Frank seeks recognition and love.

Which of these dreams do you not also, in part, share? If the Bible is right, most (all) people will have a longing for something. These dreams are consistent with the Biblical idea that we were created for more than what we experience in life (Link). This is the place where I become entangled in the story, for I am every character in this movie.

Each character is far from achieving his or her dream. Olive lacks poise and grace, and the sort of beauty that would win a beauty pageant. Richard will never sell his self-help plan because it is mostly empty cliché. The picture or a previous husband sitting on the entry table shows that Cheryl is divorced and her current family is far from harmonious. Duane hates everyone, especially his family–he has stopped speaking and will not until he is in flight school. Grandpa’s hedonism is self-destructive; his heroin use has gotten him thrown out of the nursing home. Frank has attempted suicide because he’s lost everything that he valued. Each character struggles with his or her own limitations as well as external circumstances.

It is very clear that, as individuals, they need something; as a family they need something; they need redemption. This too is consistent with the Biblical view of humanity. People were made to be in communion with each other. They began their journey seeking their own desires and their lives were dissonant and broken. They came together around a quest; they thought the quest was getting her into a stupid beauty contest, but it turned out the quest was the unification of their family around the protection of its most vulnerable.

If you are looking for the nugget of truth in this movie, there are many.

Here is a partial list:

  1. We all dream of being something more than we can possibly be, because we aren’t nearly the creatures we are supposed to be.
  2. We are limited by our sin and the effects of sin in the world.
  3. We do things out of love, but sometimes these things are not all that appropriate (Grandpa taught her the only dance he was familiar with); it’s a good thing that the love in our intentions is powerful enough to eclipse the inadequacy of the results.
  4. To be naïve is not the same as to be innocent.
  5. Even in our brokenness we can be a blessing to others.
  6. Actions are more powerful than words (the scene where Olive brings Duane back into the bus), and that’s why the Incarnation is so incredible.
  7. Human beings were made for community and within community we can transcend our individual weaknesses.
  8. Grace, forgiveness and LOVE are incredibly powerful.
  9. Self-sacrifice is fundamental to the expression of love.
  10. Suffering is important for growth.
  11. The world’s standard for winners and losers is completely wrong.
  12. There is a loving presence at the centre of the universe that orchestrates all things for out good.
  13. Life is tragic and beautiful and also pretty funny.
  14. Beauty pageants are stupid.

Your Money or Grace: You can’t have Both

Untitled pictureOver two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.

Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.

I felt a rant coming on.

“Taxed to the ‘breaking point’? Come on!” I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. If our taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m on vacation when some actual hardship comes to North America.

I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to work’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.

It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to this post.

Still, it’s been bugging me for months and then I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here she not only describes the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook post, but she identifies its cause—one that would be completely eliminated with a basic understanding of the gospel, more specifically, the part about Grace.

Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends, “Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.” She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries, they are gifts. And so is the help—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.” Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted to report things honestly. For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality. Mr. Greenleaf actually ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf. But she doesn’t see any of it. She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives.

Mrs. May’s rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols. Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.” The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property. In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.” Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” on to the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

Mrs. May resented the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she both takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.”

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

O’Connor’ whole point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”

If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where the infrastructure fosters wealth and where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the greatest empires in history.

And you have all this either as an act of divine will or, if you’re not religious, as an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.

The appropriate response for grace in any form is gratitude and not resentment. When we understand everything we have as a gift, we are far more willing to give it away—and support our government giving it away on our behalf.

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

If Mrs. May had Facebook, she certainly would have “liked” the photo. But she had no understanding of grace.

Application or Implication

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”  I love Larry Norman’s critique of the tendency to find a moral in all of the Bible stories.  His song, “Moses in the Wilderness” after tracing the exploits of Moses, ends with the ridiculous injunction, “Never borrow money needlessly.”

I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application”: the part at the end of the sermon where the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.   The way some preachers talk about the application, one might get the impression that this is the most important part of the message, but as a congregant, we usually feel that to live out the application will be hard.  The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between our desire to respond to the text, and the word “application,” for the word suggests a  very modern approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my models of racecars.  To apply means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story, let alone scripture, for it makes it an object to be dissected and a resource to use.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that I can extract and use.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  We use the derogatory word didactic to describe stories that are.

Good stories don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.  The story of the Bible, and the stories in the Bible are good.  They are more than good.

Stories don't stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.
Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him but walked past.  A Samaritan, hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story.

I can enter this story at a lot of points.  I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.  But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction (Where does your coffee come from?).  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.  I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.  In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

A further problem with the term application is that it favours a self-centered understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.  But this story is not primarily about what I am supposed to do; it’s more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

Jesus is like the Samaritan.  He was willing to get into the ditch with the beaten man, and pay his bills and promised to return.  If the story is about me, it ends with my guilt as a crappy Good Samaritan, or as a priest or Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.  The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.  When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of stories.

 

Those moments of bliss…

This feeling of bliss fell upon me.  I was in the medieval part of Renne, France.  It was in the afternoon and I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on an ancient street drinking something called Piçon biere.  It’s hard to describe, but I’d call it a moment of bliss.  It didn’t last long, but I thanked God for it immediately because I knew him to be the source.  But what do these moments mean?

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes something similar.  Of these moments Lewis says, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”   Lewis’ recounts three such episodes in his childhood.  The first occurred while the young Lewis, looking at a blooming currant bush, remembered a toy garden he had built in a biscuit tin.  A powerful sensation came over him which he describes as an intense desire.  Lewis senses this to be a supernatural encounter in that, following this brief glimpse, “the world turned commonplace again.”  The second event was through Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter when Lewis experienced a “trouble” which pointed toward “the Idea of Autumn”; he became “enamored of a season.”  The experience was again, one of intense desire.  The last glimpse occurred through the poetry of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.  Common to each of these experiences is the feeling of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.”  He called this sensation Joy.

His description of these encounters implies that this was a meeting with the transcendent for they came “without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries” (20).

Later, Joy reprises its invitation.  Lewis uses the imagery of a sudden spring to describe the second summons of Joy.  The encounter came with a quote from and an illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which produces the feeling of “pure Northernness,” a deliberately ambiguous term describing the feeling derived from “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness and severity . . . .”  This feeling awakens and fuses with the memory of Joy to create an “unendurable sense of desire and loss.”  He characterizes the feeling as “incomparably more important than anything else in [his] experience.”  From this point in his life, Lewis pursues Joy; he is on a quest to find its source.

A clearer idea of what these experiences may mean was suggested to me at a recent teacher’s convention.  Syd Hielema was talking about looking at our lives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfillment paradigm.  I’ve looked at a lot of things with this template, from coffee to zombies, why not myself?

Here are Hielema’s questions:

Creation: How am I wired? What are my gifts? What gives me joy? In what situations in my past have I felt most fully “myself”? (Read Psalm 139:13-14)

Fall: In what ways do sin and fear affect me?  In what ways do I pretend to be someone I’m not?  What interferes with me loving God and loving others?  How do the wounds I’ve received from the brokenness of life affect me? (Read Jeremiah 17:9)

Redemption: Where have I seen God in my life? What helps me and what hinders me in terms of walking with him?  What am I quite clear about and what am I quite confused about?  Are there particular events or people that stand out on my road to Redemption? (Read Isaiah 43:1-2)

Fulfillment:  What might I be like when God has finished his refining work in me?  What might his universe be like?  How might I live anticipating that completion as a new creation?

It’s not very difficult to find creational goodness in ourselves, nor is it very difficult to see how we are distorted by sin.  The movements of redemption are also apparent when we look for them.  But the Fulfillment piece was something I figured was out of my experience–we get that when Christ returns.  But Hielema suggests that we might have the occasional glimpse by which we can extrapolate who we will be when God has finished his work.  And what it will feel like.

I instantly thought of my moment of bliss in medieval Renne. Are those moments that Lewis called encounters with Joy, a small sip of what it will be like when I am made new?

I’m looking forward to the next one.

 

 

Enlightenment Dualism

Dualism is the Enemy

Have you ever been told that any issue of “faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself.” Where did this idea come from?

Both Bacon and Descartes trusted in reason to be the arbiter of truth (Read “Fact versus Truth“) albeit from different starting points. Bacon used reason to take him from observation of particular phenomenon to universal principles, and Descartes saw the human mind as the final authority in understanding reality. Although they approached it from different angles, both trusted reason, rather than faith and tradition, to lead to the truth.

Because of their influence, by the middle of the 17th century, science was becoming the lens by which reality was viewed. Importantly, this does not mean that there was a corresponding loss of belief. Still, as the mysteries of nature that had previously been attributed to the direct intervention of God came to be explained as natural phenomenon, a division developed between science and religion. God was understood to be the creator, but was no longer thought to be necessary for day to day management of the material world because it was obedient to Natural Law. Correlative to the division between God and His Creation, was a widening gap between God and human reason; reason was understood to be autonomous.

Enter Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant saw the movement from reliance on God toward a reliance on reason as analogous to the movement from childhood to adulthood. This idea was foundational to the period we call the Enlightenment. The light of the Enlightenment was the realization that it was neither God nor the church which would lead to a better world, but human Reason. This view of is the essence of the modern worldview, and is still with us today.

Kant believed that human beings were also developing morally as we continue to articulate universally recognized moral principles. All cultures and religions are expressions, to one degree or another, of these principles. He believed that these Moral Laws could be uncovered by reason. For Kant, religion was simply a particular expression of universal principles.

The light, in Enlightenment, is Reason.  It was supposed that we could arrive at universal truth using only reason.  Importantly, it was believed that reason was neutral, unaffected by belief,  (or history, tradition, body, etc.).   It wasn’t very long before religion was thought to be its opposite.

This is where the divide between faith and reason was formalized–this is dualism. It’s the belief that we can hold to whatever particular beliefs we want, but these are to be kept in the private sphere. The public sphere is to be ruled by universal reason. If we keep things in their proper spheres, we can all happily get along (This false dichotomy, and others, is the point of this site).

Although, this idea is considered passé by many intellectuals–not just the religious ones either–it still dominates public thought.

Fact versus Truth

The idea that Science and Religion are at odds is a very common misunderstanding.  For instance, I stumbled across a website that argued that Science and Religion are are both concerned with finding out about the truth about the world and our place in it, but they come up with different answers.

So which one are you going to believe?

It offered the following comparison to assist you in making choosing science as your reliable source for truth:

 

 

 

Science Religion
Gather Empirical Facts (the “evidence”) Study an Ancient and Revered Book(believed to be God’s word)
Use Critical Reasoning (based on the evidence) Accept it by Faith (based on instinct, a feeling, intuition?)
Form A Tentative Theory (Either the reasoning or the facts may be wrong, so best if submitted to a jury of one’s peers for their agreement.) Revealed Truth (must not be doubted?)

 

The roots of the perceived conflict between religion and science came out of, not a battle between science and religion, but a battle between science and language (Klassen). The root of this view is in two ideas called empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism comes from the method articulated by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and rationalism from the fertile mind of René Descartes (1596-1650).

Both empiricism and rationalism were seeking to ground reality in certainty. In the previous centuries, reason and emotions were not antithetical, but part of an integral whole which found expression in language. Language reflected a delight in elaborate patterns and complicated ornamentation. Like the elaborate patterns in gardens, gowns and poetic forms, language was a marriage of wisdom and eloquence, of content and style.

By the time the 17th century arrived there was there began to be more interest the particulars of the physical world that in universal ideas and the world to come. The interest in the things of this world prompted thinkers like Bacon and Descartes to escape the ambiguities of language and emotion (not Christianity) and get at certain knowledge.

Empiricism

Bacon sought to achieve a more direct path to knowledge than one mediated through language. His approach is called empiricism, or the inductive method: through experimentation and observation one might use reason to draw universal conclusions–the truth.  He believed that knowledge could be accumulated through impartial observation of the natural world; this information would be shared publically so that it could be critiqued and verified by others and, through this process, human knowledge would grow.

Rationalism

Like Bacon, René Descartes desired a more certain foundation for knowledge, but rather than using inductive reasoning from experience, Descartes used deductive reasoning that began with the mind. He purposes to seek certainty by setting aside anything “which admits of the slightest doubt” even if the only certainty discovered is that there is no certainty. Since it is possible to doubt the existence of the body, all operations of the body, (and consequently the attributes of the soul which require a body,) are also in doubt. So Descartes looked to the mind and concludes that he does in fact exist because he can conceive in his mind. Even if he is deceived, and everything we perceive is an illusion created by a deceptive God, his existence is still a certainty because one must exist to be deceived.  His conclusion is that truth is deduced using reason.

The influence of these two thinkers on western thought cannot be exaggerated. Reason became the means by which we can understand all reality and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs are sent packing.

The Limits of empiricism and rationalism

Do the principles of empiricism and rationalism provide us with a clearer picture of the truth than truth that is mediated through language (and intuition, emotion, subjective opinion, and religious beliefs)?

Here is a list of empirically collected facts about the bald eagle.

  • Color – Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck, and tail; and yellow feet and bill.
  • Size – The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches, slightly larger than the male.
  • Wingspan ranges from 72 to 90 inches.
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 mph.
  • Bald eagles weigh from ten to fourteen pounds.
  • Eagle bones are light, because they are hollow.
  • The beak, talons, and feathers are made of keratin.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
  • Longevity – Wild bald eagles may live as long as thirty years.
  • Lifting power is about 4 pounds.
  • Diet – Mainly fish, but they will take advantage of carrion (dead and decaying flesh).
  • Hunting area varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
  • All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
  • Nests are built in large trees near rivers or coasts.
  • An eagle reaches sexual maturity at around four or five years of age.
  • Fidelity – Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies.
  • Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs.
  • The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.

It’s a pretty long list, and more could be added, but even if we added a million such facts and the entire genetic code, would we still have the whole truth about the eagle?

Of course not.

. . . crossing the line between fact and truth

Some of what is missing is captured in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem.

THE EAGLE
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The alliteration in the first two lines reinforces the idea that the environment in which we find the eagle is both harsh and vast. Referring to the claws as “crooked hands” equates the eagle with an aged person, not so much weak, as wise. The eagle is “Ringed with the azure world” and figuratively close to the sun; both of these emphasize the loftiness of the king of birds. The comparison of eagle to king dominates the second stanza which begins with the sea prostrating itself before the eagle-king, who watches from the cliff as from the walls of his castle. The thunderbolt is a weapon of power associated with the Thor, and Zeus—kings of Norse and Greek pantheons, respectively.

This poem captures aspects of truth that anyone who has seen an eagle close up understands. It captures something of its … regality? This is a quality that cannot be accurately named, let alone measured, but it is true.

Tennyson’s description of the eagle is not quantitative, like the list of facts, but qualitative. Yes, this sort truth is the very thing Bacon and Descartes were trying to get away from, but were they right to do so?  You will never have the complete truth about an eagle, but if you complement empirical evidence with some very good poems, you will be closer than if you had a list of facts that reached to the sun.

Coffee and Conscience – Part 3

“Where quality is the thing sought after, the thing of supreme quality is cheap, whatever the price one has to pay for it.” – William James

For many, coffee can only be enjoyed when they know that the production of it hasn’t had significant environmental and human costs.  To help such concerned consumers find ethical coffee, various organizations have begun to certify producers and label coffee according to standards of stewardship.  For those who want to drink coffee that doesn’t hurt the environment or the people who produce it, these labels help direct them to this coffee.

The Fair Trade label indicates that the producers and workers in developing countries have received a fair price for their coffee and a fair wage for their labour.  The rap against Fair Trade coffee is that it is restricted to small, family run farms, and, even though there are larger, non-family run farms that produce coffee ethically.  Furthermore, there is nothing stopping greedy merchants from taking advantage of well-intentioned consumers by charging exorbitant prices for coffee bearing the label.  These concerns may be valid, but a third is not.  The objection that Fair Trade coffee isn’t quality coffee is misapplied; average ratings given to Fair Trade coffees by professional tasters are the same as those of other specialty coffees, and they are on the rise.

The Certified Organic label means that the coffee wasn’t grown using pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds. Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance-Certified Shade Grown coffee labels mean that it was grown using traditional methods so that trees on coffee plantations are preserved, rather than clear-cut.  The Rainforest Alliance has begun to certify coffee producers who raise coffee in areas that have been deforested if these producers are pursuing a program to return trees into these clear cuts and cultivating coffee in the shade.

There is another way you can be reasonably assured that your coffee is produced ethically—simply drink great coffee.  The idea here is to pay a higher price for a higher quality and by doing so, rewarding the most committed growers.  Great coffee is not grown in the full sun of a clear cut and doused with chemicals.  Great coffee requires great care at every step of the process.  There’s a wonderful principle at work here.  The best coffee is produced using methods and means that respect the people who grow it and the environment in which it is grown.  It’s as if justice and natural law have been fused.

*

Suzanne, a friend of mine, has visited Honduras twice in the last three years.  She did so as a member of her church’s Missions Team.  She was struck by the poverty she saw there.  In order to eat, entire families worked on the coffee plantations and were paid almost nothing.  Suzanne believes that if the adults received an adequate wage, the young children would be able to go to school and the cycle of poverty would be broken.

The Missions Team, believing that serving ethical coffee was essential to supporting the coffee producing communities, like those in Honduras, convinced the church leadership to switch to Fair-Trade coffee.  They agreed, but Suzanne now wonders if perhaps they agreed because they believed, as do the corporate advertisers, that ethical coffee was chic and would be an attractant of sorts.  When Suzanne’s church began a large building project, there was an over-all increase in donations, but less was directed to church ministries.  Cuts were necessary.  They switched to a less expensive coffee.

*

Residents of Abbotsford, BC, where I live, are the most generous people in Canada.  Their contribution to charities is more than double the national average.  One explanation is that the community is very religious.  My experience with the religious community in Abbotsford is that they will, in a flash, write a cheque to help a school in Nicaragua or a water project in Guatemala.  But, all the while, they go home and make a pot of coffee from a can, not realizing how much they could help those very communities by switching to good coffee.

They buy the cheaper product because they are good people with a commitment to stewardship, unaware of the global effect of their purchase habits.

*

What about Starbucks?  Starbucks has good coffee.

If you are concerned with the social and environmental effects of coffee production, your choice between buying Starbucks and corporate canned coffee is clear—buy Starbucks.  Starbucks does deserve some thanks.   Although it was unintentional, they have helped the plight of the coffee grower.  In their quest for profits, they have given us a taste for good quality coffee. When I had my first sip of Starbucks, I thought it was too strong and too bitter.  By the time I finished that cup, I realized there was much more to coffee than caffeine and a bit of warmth; I realized I loved coffee.  It was Starbucks that helped me to see coffee as more than a caffeinated brown liquid.  And by introducing me to good coffee, they put me on a quest for a great one.

But, to whom should Starbucks be compared?  If you are comparing Starbucks to a small roaster—again, the choice is clear—don’t buy Starbucks.  Because there are so many good coffees to experience, it seems a shame to limit oneself to Starbucks’ Pike’s Place blend.  Further, the variation found in the coffee be reflected in the environment we drink it in.  Since when did conformism become a core American value so that the coffee shop needs to look exactly the same in Seattle as it does in Soho—or worse yet, the same in Vegas as in Venice.

*

On Saturday mornings, I often accompany my wife to the local farmer’s market, an excursion made much more attractive since Grab-A-Java set up a booth.  Grab-A-Java, “a small-batch, wholesale micro-roaster,” is owned and operated by Dave Perrit.  I visited his roaster one cold November afternoon.  The small black roaster squats in the middle of a room in his house.  It is warm and the hum of the fans swirl the woody aroma of the roasting coffee beans.  Dishevelled piles of labels run along the counter which is shared by large bins filled with freshly roasted coffee.  His coffee comes from one supplier, Organic Products Trading Co. (OPTCO), which sources green coffee from all over the world.  All the beans are both Free Trade and Certified Organic, but they are special in another way.  They are Café Femenino beans.

Café Femenino is a cooperative formed in 2004 by women in Northern Peru who were searching to improve the lives of their families as well as to gain some control of the coffee they worked so hard to produce.  To sell coffee from Café Femenino, a roaster must commit to contributing to local women’s shelters and/or the Café Femenino Foundation.  Grab-A-Java supports both.  This concept is spreading to existing co-ops in Columbia, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Brazil and Guatemala, and soon to be introduced in Rwanda.

*

In 1999, I watched a bandana-masked protester heave a USA Today newspaper box through the window of a Starbucks during the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle.  This attack wasn’t just random window breaking—it had targeted the coffee shop.  At the time I was disgusted by the lack of respect for property and authority.  But one question lingered: What are they so mad about?  Since then, I have heard things, dark whisperings about coffee and third-world exploitation.  I worry that maybe righteous anger is the appropriate response, and I should indignantly slam my coffee cup (empty) into the bin.  But I love coffee.  Coffee is why I get up in the morning; it’s why I can teach writing to 16 year olds in the last class of the day; it’s why I am willing to run errands after work.   But I also desire to do what’s right and good, so I have endeavored here to find out if there is such a thing as an ethical cup of coffee?

It turns out there is—a great one, best served with a home-made chocolate-chip cookie.

Other resources:

Bacon, Chris.  “Confronting the Coffee Crisis.” World Development33:3 (2004) : 497-511.

Ball, Barbara. Coffee Talk: Sharing Christ Through Friendly Gatherings. San Bernardino: Churches Alive!, 1979.

“The Coffee Addiction.” Scott Wapner. CNBC, Shaw Cable, West.  29 Sept. 2011. Television.

Capon, Robert Farrar.  The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. New York: HJB, 1969.

Davids Kenneth. “Starting with Cans: Mainstream Supermarket Coffees.”  Coffee Review.  Jan. 2007. Web. 5 Nov. 2011

Ditto, Jason. 2basnob.com. “Coffee Tasting” n.p. 2008. Web.  12 Oct. 2011.

Ellison, Katherine . “Can Great Coffee Save the Jungle?” Smithsonian 35. 3 (2004) : 100-107.

Gaudio, Rudolf P. “Coffee Talk: StarbucksTM and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation.” Language in Society.  32:5 (2003) : 659-691.

Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way Through Luke’s Gospel.  Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff.   Free Range Studios, 2007

Moguel, Patricia and Victor Toledo.  “Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems in Mexico.” Conservation Biology.  13.1 (1999) : 11-21.

Murray, Douglas L. “The future of Fair Trade Coffee: dilemma’s facing Latin America’s small scale producers.” Development in Practice. 16.2 (2006) : 171-192.

“Pencils, Metal Recycling, Coffee.” How Its’ Made. Discovery.  Shaw Cable, West. 12 Oct. 2011.

Rottenberg, James A. “Ecological Role of a Tree [Gamelina Arborea] Plantation in Guatemala.” The Auk. 124.1 (2007): 316-330.

Steer, Simon M.  Eating Bread in the Kingdom of God.  Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary, 2002. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2002.

 

 

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