Proud- Part 2

Continuing where we left off yesterday…

In case you missed it, or don’t want to read the whole of Part 1 (although I’d love it if you did), let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up: (to steal a line from Inigo Montoya).

This week SCOTUS made landmark rulings, overturning Prop. 8 (which banned same-sex marriage in California) as unconstitutional and invalidated the provision of DOMA that prevented same-sex couples from accessing the same benefits available to heterosexual couples.

This is a GOOD thing.

As usual, and as noted by George Takei, the bible thumpers are out in force screaming about the whole thing- regardless of the fact that it affects the lives of heterosexuals in NO way, shape or form.

We talked briefly about the mythologies of Mesopotamia and Greece- two of the major cultures that influenced the development of biblical mythology- and found that neither of them took any issue with homosexuality, nor proscribed against it.

Which leads us to that much-thumped book of stories (terrible way to treat stories- all that thumping).

Starting at the beginning (or the re-beginning, anyway):

Genesis 9.1  And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”

Genesis 9.7.  “And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”

This is YHWH speaking with Noah and the fam post-flood.  Right after the deity had just completely wiped out his own creation (with the exception of one family and those animals that made it onto the boat.  Poor dinosaurs and unicorns.  Sniff).  No over-reaction there.

He is setting the scene with this initial covenant (ironically- given its use by the LBGTQ community- represented by the appearance of a rainbow in the sky) for the big-C-Covenant-to-come by setting out some initial commandments and telling Noah and his progeny to go forth and re-populate the earth that he had just finished destroying.

Obviously, this would be difficult if there was much of a homosexual component to Noah’s family (being, as it was, the days before artificial insemination).  These early passages set the stage for the oft-cited idea that marriage is all about procreation, a key facet of upholding the covenant with the deity.

The laws found in Leviticus echo this idea with a more definite attempt at controlling behaviour.  Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 both suggest that ‘lying with mankind as with womankind’ is an ‘abomination’.  The Levitical laws are social controls– meant to establish order in the new nation under the covenant established with YHWH.

Some of them are practical concerns (the food laws are generally accepted to have had a whole lot to do with lack of refrigeration capabilities in the desert and therefore efforts to avoid having the population die out from food poisoning), while others were meant to set the Israelites apart from their neighbours, and those they conquered in the name of their god.

The gods, mores and practices of the Canaanites (the original residents of the ‘Promised Land’) had a great deal in common with those of the Mesopotamian City States, which were not institutionally against homosexuality.  To distinguish themselves- and assert the holiness of their covenant- the Israelites had to adhere to an identity that was very much against the ‘other’- which meant distancing themselves from the social realities of the surrounding cultures.

Biblical literature is full of examples of the Israelites falling off the YHWH-wagon and taking up the pastimes and habits of those around them- which often included the worship of their gods.  Major covenant violation there- breaking of Big Rules #1 and #2, in fact.  Not going to please the old man at all.  Best to enforce the complete separation from the other by reinforcing mores that are supported by earlier Hebrew myths.

Going back to Genesis, the story of Sodom and Gommorah is usually dragged out as the main justification for the ‘abomination’ associated with homosexual acts, because the mob at the door wanted to access Lot’s angelic visitors and to ‘know’ them- in the biblical sense.  Even Lot offering his own virgin daughters to placate the crowd in their stead did not turn the citizens away from their violation of the laws of hospitality and lack of charity to visitors (I should think that the impulse to rape guests in the city would definitely qualify as being inhospitable).

If you read the Prophets (Ezekiel for example) and early Talmudic tradition, the ‘sin’ of Sodom and Gommorah was identified as this social injustice and lack of hospitality.  Since violating the proper social order leads to chaos, such actions were deemed dangerous and punishment was required (with YHWH again following his pattern of the overkill model of punitive judgement).

Later interpretations and compositional strands in the mythology itself- and stronger shout-outs against homosexuality drawn from the influence of Zoroastrianism from the period of the Babylonian exile- tended toward a more completely negative view of same-sex pairings, based in cultural bias rather than social prescriptions.  Even with this syncretism of prejudices, it wasn’t until the 1st century CE that Jewish writers- such as Philo of Alexandria and the Roman historian Josephus- unequivocally asserted that homosexuality was, in fact, the great sin that caused the destruction of the twin cities.

When it comes to support of anti-homosexual proclamations from the OT, basically we are talking about examples of institutionalized aversion to the other, as the political and religious powers sought to maintain control and social order in a developing nation, while avoiding the assumption of outside ideas into Jewish beliefs and practices.

Moving on to the NT…

Jesus says nothing, nada, zilch about homosexuality in the words that are attributed to him.   In fact, in Matthew 10.14-15, he compares the fate of anyone who is unwelcoming of his followers to the lack of hospitality displayed at Sodom and Gommorah- noting that any towns that turned them away would suffer even more than the Sodom and Gommorah-ites.

Jesus was a 1st century CE Jew who was looking to reform the religious tradition in which he was raised.  He welcomed those from the margins of society and his mission was one of inclusion- values that he felt were being ignored by the authorities of the Temple.  If Christians want to maintain that his message was all about the love, they really need to stop involving him- completely undeservedly- in their hate-mongering.  Poor guy must be rolling over in his grave.

On the other hand, the early Christian writers- Paul of Tarsus for example- were seeking to develop a minority new religious movement within a larger social, political and religious background.  Like the Israelites, they had to differentiate themselves- first from the Jews and then from other cultural groups that were in any way displeasing to the Roman officials.

There are mentions made in some of the canonical epistles (Romans 1.26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 come to mind) that speak against all kinds of perceived sexual improprieties, but this is hardly surprising.  Paul wasn’t a big fan of sex in any form.  Have a look at 1 Corinthians 7, if you have any doubts about that reality.

The upshot of all this discussion (and I could go on, believe me), is that ideological objections to homosexuality drawn from biblical mythology are few and far between (especially given the volume of canonical literature alone).  Those that do exist are clearly culturally and temporally driven- by political expedience for the purpose of the maintenance of social order, flying under the radar of the ruling majority and/or in order to support increasing the number of followers of the deity of the covenant.  Yet people want to use 2000-3000 year old political and cultural ideas as the basis for life-affecting legislation in the 21st century?


My wonderful friend Tracey had a conversation with her son about the events of the week.  Hopefully more people will finally embrace the reality that this amazing child knows intuitively.  It is beyond ridiculous to hold to the proscriptions dictated by Bronze Age people, looking to assert their national dominance (and that of their god) over the indigenous peoples of the land they sought to conquer and claim as their own.  And citing the epistolary writings of the PR people for a struggling new religious movement trying to find its footing in the face of majority persecution- against the model and words of the ‘founder’ of said movement?  You call that justification?


The SCOTUS decision is a welcome step toward the arrival at a point that should have become moot long ago.  I honestly can’t believe we are still talking about this.   Yet seeing the vitriolic responses in the ‘news’, the comments sections of opinion pieces and in various incarnations of social media, I realize that dialogue apparently remains necessary.  Still.  So let this be my two cents- and my happy (and relieved) reaction to an historic ruling that upholds equality, intellectual rationale and just plain common sense.

Happy Pride everyone.  May the fact that human decency, fairness and reason finally saw some light this week set the tone for a joyful weekend.

Proud- Part 1

I have mentioned before that I have a tendency to be more-than-a-little complacent in my Canadian-ness.  I love this country (most of the time, anyway).  We have it great here- certainly in comparison with other places in this wide world- but that reality can, and does, lead to apathy.  It’s not apathy with any sort of animosity, but it is still apathy.

Watching various news feeds and tweets from the Twitterverse over the past couple of days, I admit to some bemusement, stemming from a latent, well-meaning, sense of moral superiority.  Same-sex marriage has been legal here for 10 years- a happy milestone we celebrated recently.  Toronto is basking in the afterglow of association since the wonderful, brave, incomparable Ms. Edie and her life partner were married here, as it was not permitted in their home state at the time.  Can’t blame us- it is nice to be associated- however remotely- with something positive for a change.

It is easy to forget, when one surrounds oneself with like-minded individuals as one has a tendency to do, that important-if-taken-for-granted things like equality and respect are not an ideological ‘given’ for large portions of the population- even here in Canada (don’t get me started on the putative mayor of this town again.  Just don’t).  The noise of the preparations being made for this year’s Pride celebrations is a joyful backdrop as I walk the neighbourhood this week.  It’s enough to drown out the prejudices of some of those around me- people I have to spend time with by circumstance of environment rather than choice.

The positive voices in response to the SCOTUS decision by FAR outweigh the naysayers- at least in my chosen circles- but the ‘nays’ are there and, as ever, ready to thump a bible in support of their willful blindness to that which is morally and politically the right answer.

That EVERYONE is entitled to the same rights and freedoms under our SECULAR laws. 


In a lovely piece for the Washington Post, that maven of the interworld, Mr. Sulu, cited the biblically-based ‘reasoning’ for attacks on same-sex relationships.  Discussing those who attempt to ‘justify’ their homophobic stance through use of the ancient text, he writes:

“(they) turn to the Bible, perhaps because science doesn’t lead to the conclusion that homosexuality is unnatural… But references to the Bible or other religious texts are not a solid footing on which to base notions of traditional marriage.  Concerns about the separation of Church and State aside, traditional marriage has never been what its homophobic proponents believe.”

All true, largely because they never actually take into account the context in which such texts were written and meant to be followed.  Assuming they’ve even read them in their entirety, that is.  And THAT’s a mighty big assumption.

So.  Did the Ancients condemn homosexuality as categorically as prejudiced pundits would have us believe?  Gather ’round children and we’ll take a glimpse into their myths- and the contextual reasoning behind them…

Let’s begin with Gilgamesh.  (I know, not him AGAIN– but the Mesopotamia Exhibit at the ROM began last week and I can’t seem to get that there King of Uruk out of my head.)  Since I’ve already briefly recounted his story I won’t do so again, except to say that his relationship with Enkidu has been interpreted in many circles as being more than one of simple comrades-in-arms.

Enkidu is adopted as another son by Gilgamesh’s mother and the gods show him great favour and celebrate his relationship with the King.  Gilgamesh’s grief at his death is overwhelming and is the catalyst that sets him off on his quest to circumvent the laws of nature so that he can bring his partner back from the dead.  The intensity of the relationship is palpable throughout their travels together, and Gilgamesh’s failed quest.  His last conversation with Enkidu’s shade is heart-wrenching.

The Ancient Mesopotamians referenced androgynous humans in their stories- among them, the priests in of the goddess Innana.  They were purposely-created by the god Enki to fulfill this specifically-ordered purpose.  As can be seen in myths like the creation story Enuma Elish and the Descent of Innana into the Underworld, men ‘acting as women’ were not only not shunned, they were elevated to positions of power within the society.

Those examples not overt enough for you?  Let’s move to Greece.

All garish clichés aside, Greek mythology and philosophical literature is filled with examples of same-sex relationships.  It is so much the norm in their stories and the structure of their culture that one of their creation myths suggests that while engaged in the ongoing act of creation, Prometheus, while drunk, created some humans with the ‘wrong genitalia’.  Etiologies- stories that explain the origin of things like natural phenomena- about same-sex inclinations or androgyny would not have been required if these things were not commonplace occurrences.

Other myths that include the celebration of same-sex relationships include the stories of Zeus and Ganymede, Apollo and Hyacinth (who was beloved of both the sun-god and the West Wind, Zephyr), Heracles and Hylas and Hermes and Krokus, to name but a very few.  These stories demonstrate that the gods AND the greatest human heroes were subject to both homosexual and heterosexual attractions.

Sappho was a 7th century BCE poet who wrote of passion and love for both sexes, although she has become more associated with writings about same-sex pairings.  Her name, and that of her island homeland, have become directly equated with same-sex love among women.

I could continue to cite examples from Australia, Oceania, India, China, Japan and on and on and on…

But the environments and cultures that influenced biblical mythology were those of the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean areas, so in the next post we will move onward to discuss the ammo that the homophobic lobby tends to misfire most frequently…

Ex Libris

Still in recovery mode after a wonderful cottage weekend.  Read BOTH books and started a third- which, thankfully, one of my friends had brought and finished.  Responses to the stories will come but I’m having a bit of trouble shifting my brain out of glorious neutral right now.

I was thinking about the conversation that I had with the young woman at the bookstore checkout last week- how the Kobos et al are great tools but that things like a long weekend on a dock somehow demand the tangibility of an actual book- and the following piece came to mind.

It was submitted as an entry to the latest Canada Writes creative non-fiction competition.  I remembered that it hit on the very discussion I had with the cashier and echoed my recent post about Cat Stevens.  That type of synchronicity should not be ignored.  

Our stories connect us and help us through difficult times.  Whether they reflect musings about the unknowable/incomprehensible aspects of life or recount slices of our personal and collective experiences, they are worth recording and retelling.  We are all storytellers- after our own, particular,  fashions.  We tell our stories to each other, and on behalf of others who can no longer do so.  This is one such storytelling slice- about the power of memory and the joy and comfort of books.   

One wall of my basement apartment living room is lined with bookshelves.  To the casual observer there is no rhyme or reason to how the thousand-plus volumes are displayed.  There are a dozen shelves that are reserved for the texts that represent my former life as an academic- including the 250-page dissertation to which I devoted so much of my adult life.  But while the rest appear to be haphazardly placed, I can find any given book immediately should I go searching, something I do frequently.  Friends who visit often ask about the collection (as do the family members who had the misfortune of helping me move), and the questions have only increased with the advent of e-books and tablets that are rapidly replacing the more traditional forms of the published word.

I have no problem with the new formats- anything that makes reading convenient and accessible is an invention of great worth, but I believe there is an inherent, and almost sensual, aesthetic value to a book.  The feel of a book, the substance and weight of a treasured hardcover by an author I love, the slightly musty scent of an older volume, and the joy of physically turning the pages evoke an almost-atavistic response that a touch screen will never replicate.  But more than that, for me, books can be old friends, and not just for the stories they tell but for the memories they evoke.  They are markers of time, reminders of when they were first read.  I am a consummate ‘grab whatever is at hand to use as a bookmark’ artist and so I often come across surprises when picking up an old friend to revisit.

I remember the first reading of a story rife with the language and images of a tropical climate, but with a subtext of mothers and daughters, and history.  Delighting in the beautifully crafted pages, detailing a love affair with a city, and offering insights about mental illness, dementia and getting by in the context of things outside our human control.

The book returns a sense of time and place; specifically the ratty armchair in the basement apartment, occupied for the first reading of the book on the night the little tortoiseshell kitten came home.  Drinking bourbon, because that’s what the book suggested.  Even if I was in Ottawa and it was autumn, and chilly outside.

Then, years later, on a day off from a loathed job when I should be accomplishing things of substance- cleaning, buying Christmas presents, applications to jobs more suitable and challenging- there it was again.  Glimpsed out of the corner of my eye while dusting, and despite all good intentions I was pulling the novel from the shelf to enjoy a day just for me- to revisit old, fictional friends and luxuriate in beautiful language as an antidote to the day to day mundane and ridiculous crises that have become my working existence.

A chapter or two into the novel I found the bookmark.  It was an email dating from a time before emails were a daily reality, things to be read, answered and forgotten.  Or used as communication with friends in far off places.  This one came from my Dad, addressed to the three of us, me and my sisters.  A short note detailing the first diagnostic definition of what we had all been sensing for some time. A name for the awareness that something was seriously wrong with Mum, the woman who had been the foundation and heart of our family.  12 years ago; the very beginning of the complete loss of her, finally giving that loss a name.

Subject: Mother

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 17:26:10 -0400

“Dear girls,” he wrote.  “Last week I sent a letter to Dr. Matthews concerning mother.  Today, at her previously arranged appointment with him, I invited myself to go along, having given mother the letter yesterday.

The upshot of this is that the doctor’s diagnosis is that mother is suffering from dementia.  ‘Dementia is a condition characterized by a progressive decline of mental abilities accompanied by changes in personality and behaviour.  There is commonly a loss of memory and skills that are needed to carry out every day activities.’  He tells me that he believes the form that she has will cease further loss at some point as contrasted to Alzheimer’s, in which the brain progressively loses its ability to function.  He is attempting to have other expert doctors at Sunnybrook examine her to try to determine what form of dementia she has.  But this could take up to two years.

 He advises that at this time the dementia is not treatable.


Taking a break from my reading, I mentioned, also via email, that I had found the letter in the book to one of the true, flesh and blood, friends of my life.  She asked how it made me feel, cutting to the heart of the matter as she is so good at doing.  Almost 40 years of friendship makes that kind of directness possible, and necessary at times.  The distance between us melted away with the question, and recalled how the distance between me and my parents and sisters seemed at once negligible and insurmountable when I first received the email in 2000.  I was at a remove in all senses of the word, and at a loss as to what I could do to make it all go away.

Of course, nothing could make it go away.  What followed was seven years of confusion- of watching a loving, beloved, active, amazing woman slowly and painfully lose all connection to those who loved her, and to those whose lives were touched immensely by her presence and grace in the world.  But they were also years of learning about immeasurable depths of love and compassion in my father as he gently cared for her until the very end.

Coincidently my Dad, who is more computer savvy than some people half his age, forwarded one of those infernal ‘feel good’ email chain things that afternoon.  It was about being in the winter of his years, and about appreciating life, good health, working for what you feel is important and getting past regrets and moving on.  Since I had just had a disappointing series of interviews that didn’t end in the job I was hoping for that week, I couldn’t help but feel that the message was directed at me specifically, despite the fact that my sisters and others from among his many friends were copied on the email.  Somehow the guy manages to keep us all going while embracing life with an enthusiasm that leaves the rest of us feeling as though we are irrationally bogged down by pettiness and irrelevancies.

That night I re-read the novel, by an author I have loved since I first encountered her work at the Leaside Library as a teenager.  I spent the afternoon, and then the evening, sitting on my couch while Cat Stevens played in the background, and as I drank a Kilkenny- no bourbon this go-round- with the first light snow falling outside my window as Toronto became blanketed for the first time this year, I thought about Mum, and family and the holiday season fast approaching and counted blessings for the first time in a long time.

I petted the two cats I have now, the grey and the black (the little tortoiseshell and the tabby I had when I first read the book are long gone, yet remembered with love), and I took comfort from them and from my family and friends, my memories and the awareness that I was inside on a cold winter night, the first harbinger of even colder winter nights to come.  There is music and beauty around me.  And always, and forever, there are the books that take me back in time and memory as I continue on my “road to find out.”

As the music on the iPod shifted to a Skydiggers song, one that I would certainly hear at the annual Christmas show at the Horseshoe, I was overwhelmingly thankful.

I love my books.  They are markers of my history, my present and my future.  A residence without books can never be a home to me.  The knowledge that there are new stories, and friends, out there waiting to be discovered is a miracle I take for granted, but I will always return to my old friends and the comfort, perspective and memories that they bring.

Cottage Reading

Off to the cottage this weekend.  CanNOT wait.

I always take a special read with me when I have the opportunity to spend a few days beside one of the beautiful lakes up near Haliburton.  It’s a place of calm and quiet- and comfortable familiarity- totally deserving of a great book.

Last year I decided to reread Foucault’s Pendulum, for the nth time- but the first in ages.  The previous read through was for a course I taught many moons ago.  I had assigned it as one of the possibilities for review in an introductory class on religious studies methodologies.

Since it was a first-year course I wasn’t terribly confident that anyone would choose to tackle the weighty tome- the beauty of Umberto Eco’s writing notwithstanding.  I was wrong.  One intrepid and engaged student (out of 130) accepted the challenge- and wrote an excellent reflection on the way we construct beliefs and belief systems.

One of the other choices for that particular assignment was American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  I was first exposed to Neil’s work in the form of Good Omens– an entertaining look at angels, demons and the apocalypse, co-authored by Terry Pratchett (he of the Discworld novels).  It was a lighthearted introduction to the wonderful imagination of Neil Gaiman (an entrée that I followed up by fairly rapidly devouring everything else he had written).

American Gods effectively plays with mythological themes and characters- explaining what happens to the supernatural beings that are brought to the U.S. by its immigrant population.

Once the gods lose the constant worship, adoration, sacrifices and other trappings that deities tend to consider their lot, as newer gods- of things like technology and television- take their place, they are forced resort to other means of getting by and existing in the world.

The underlying premise is that we create our gods, and are therefore responsible for their inevitable fade into dereliction, insanity, day-jobs or complete non-existence when they are no longer sustained by our belief.

It is an eye-opening book, with a unique premise and engaging characters- most of whom are immediately familiar- just trying to keep their existence together.  Love the Egyptian deities running a funeral home in the South.  And the cab-driving djinn.

Pure awesomesauce.

The novel puts the gods in their appropriate place in the cultural scheme of things, and demonstrates not only that they need us more than we need them, but that their continued interference long past the point of relevance causes sometimes-irreparable damage to those of us in the line of their fire.

American Gods is a great example of Gaiman’s imaginative invention of often-overlapping worlds.

So how excited was I to find out that


was released yesterday? (Answer: VERY)

PERFECT cottage reading.

Since I have avoided reading reviews or synopses in case they might contain terrible spoilers, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that it is a pretty short book.  Like, a read-in-one-sitting book.

Not a problem in itself- shorter novels are not necessarily sub-par or anything- but the thought of running out of reading material while there is still warmth, sunlight and a dock with softly lapping lake water providing the backdrop des jours is worrisome in the extreme.

So I began to browse the bookstore.  Always a slippery slope for me.  I love good stories (in case you haven’t been keeping up) and discovering new writers- or rediscovering old favourites- is one of the joys of life.

A couple of hours later, and after a cool chat with the cashier about Kobo/Kindle/Tablet/iPad vs. actual, tangible books and the cottage aesthetic, I finally hit the exit with my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and


I have heard positive murmurings on various literary grapevines about it, and the subject matter is pretty damn irresistible.
A golem and a djinn(i) in 19th century New York?
More awesomesauce.
Now the only hurdle will be managing to avoid cracking one or the other before I hit that dock.
Temptation is hard.
Bring on the weekend!
(Did I mention I canNOT wait?)

Devil’s Advocate

The other night, while out for dinner with friends, our discussion turned to television and the viewing patterns of people we know.  It got me thinking about cultural mores and how changeable they are- and how relatively quickly those changes can come about.

Not to sound like some ancient geezer who waxes philosophic about the good ol’ days, but the truth is that there is programming being broadcast over the airwaves (public, cable, pay-per-view and the interworld) that would not have been allowed to see the light of day even a very few years ago.

Between the voyeuristic idiocy that is most reality programming and the sex and extreme violence that is found on HBO and the like on a weekly basis (did you SEE that Red Wedding?!?  WTF was that?!?!), many of the shows that were once strongly criticized now seem incredibly innocent in comparison.

When The Simpsons first premiered on Fox way back in 1989 (!) it came under loudly-expressed fire for it’s presentation of ‘degraded’ ‘American family values’.  Then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke against the show, suggesting that what America needed was a family ‘more like the Waltons than the Simpsons.’  Bart was widely criticized as being terrible role model for children.

Those who took the time to actually watch the show soon discovered that, along with solid, witty writing, the Simpsons and their neighbours offered up some of the best-natured, morally stable programming out there.  This is a family who, even with all the admitted dysfunction, stick it out and make it work while doing the best for their community.

There are certainly voices of institutionalized morality (Flanders, of course, and Reverend Lovejoy are the obvious examples) but generally religion is dealt with as being something that is present- and integral to the lives of the residents of Springfield- without it being preachy or judgemental in any way.

Apu frequently exhibits frustration as his neighbours refer to his religion as ‘other’, but Marge and Homer throw him a traditional Hindu wedding and adopt the personas of the avatars of his gods when he and his wife are dealing with marital stressors.  Krusty deals with the abandonment and rediscovery of his Jewish faith in an effort to reconnect with his Rabbi father.  Lisa struggles with concepts of belief, dabbles in Wicca and ultimately embraces Buddhism.

The microcosm of Springfield, USA exemplifies a community working the way one should work.  A town where those of different faiths, races and ethnicities get along and do their best at every turn.  Even with its myriad issues; the corruption of its mayor (although I’d take Quimby over our incumbent any day), the evil Republican power mongers (headed up by Mr. Burns), giant sinkholes, the eternal tire fire… Springfield really is a pretty  ideal town to call home.

Another show that got a very undeserved bum rap at its get-go was the sadly short-lived God, the Devil and Bob.  The animated sitcom showed up on NBC on March 9, 2000.  It was pulled March 28, 2000.  Only 4 episodes- out of the 13 that were produced- aired before it was removed from the line-up, largely as a result of pressure from religious activists.

Watching the show again recently I was struck by the complete innocence- and ‘niceness’, for lack of a better word- of the star-studded half-hour program.  God (James Garner) is charmingly laid back and reminiscent of Jerry Garcia.  He enjoys having a beer, playing a round of golf and generally being around and involved with his creatures.

That the state of his creation has driven him to consider getting rid of it all and starting over again is a function of humanity’s poor use of their collective free will, rather than any sort of unreasonable wrathfulness or vengeful tendencies (as he explains in the intro, he’s ‘not that kind of god’).

The Devil (voiced by Alan Cummings) encourages God to destroy this world and begin again- providing he still gets to play a role in the new creation (in which marsupials would be the dominant life-form this time ’round).  They have something of a dysfunctional and co-dependent- yet still respectful and reciprocal- relationship.

Lucifer’s feelings are hurt when God forgets his birthday, or a scheduled golf date, and reacts rather badly.  Like a sulky adolescent, actually.  One who just happens to have the resources of Hell at his disposal.  Yet there is no animosity between them- there is definite affection (and understanding) there- as God repeatedly mollifies the Devil, apologizing for hurting him and letting him know that he is, in fact, appreciated.

I imagine the criticisms about the show- likely led by those who never took the time to watch it but who were ‘offended’ by the title itself- were sourced in the ‘humanness’ of the portrayal of the deity and his ‘evil’ counterpart.

The trouble with that is the plot- and the interactions between God and the Devil, and God and Bob (who is a blue-collar, porno-watching, beer drinking, father of two who works on the assembly line of an auto plant in Detroit- played by French Stewart), and the Devil and Bob- are very much in keeping with the original mythology.

Think Job.

Or any of the Prophets.

The show is decidedly Old Testament (Jesus is nowhere to be found- except in very brief passing) and it is likely therein that the problem lies.

Those who have read the whole OT shebang (and not just in order to be able to cite random passages out of context to condemn various things that personally offend them) would certainly see that the story of the relationship between God and the Devil/Satan/Lucifer (certainly among the most unfairly maligned characters in mythology/literature/history) did not originate with wars in Heaven, or with falls from that same locale and eventual punishment in the abyss.

The satan began as an emissary- lackey/gofer/PA- of Yahweh, and one that fulfilled a vital role in the bureaucracy of Heaven.  The assumption of later cultural traditions saw the satans meshed with demons and/or vanquished gods to become beings that were set in opposition to the presiding deity.

The strict black and white dichotomy of good vs. evil is a later development in the mythology- one that very much leads to a lack of assumption of responsibility for one’s own actions- that is not at all in keeping with the foundational premise behind the earliest biblical myths.  What WE do- as individuals and collectively- matters.  Our actions and ideas affect us personally, our families, the larger community and the nation.  Every once in awhile, when we seem to be straying too far off the desired path, the deity sends a mouthpiece to guide us back to the straight and narrow.

IF we are willing to listen to said prophet.  Historically (according to the stories), we haven’t been much good at that.  As a result, the deity sends the appropriate punishment our way.  There was, initially, no emphasis on any sort of external being showing up to tempt us down the garden path.  Our deeds- and the results of those deeds- were completely our own look-out.

God, the Devil and Bob very much demonstrates the wisdom of this earliest message in the mythology as is can be applied to 21st century life.  The characters are funny, endearing and very human in their actions and reactions.  While the Devil does try to interfere with Bob’s attempts to make the world a better place (on behalf, and in defence, of ALL humanity), the characters on the show do the right thing- not out of fear of divine punishment (since no one- other than Bob’s six-year-old son, Andy- believes in his prophet-hood) but because they truly know right from wrong.

Compared to the sophomoric humour that is the norm in the crop of myriad animated shows out there now (looking at YOU Family Guy et al), and certainly when placed against some of the ridiculous ‘unscripted’ programming that crowds the tv listings, God, the Devil and Bob reflects basic values and morality in an entertaining and light-hearted manner, while acknowledging the realities of life in our particular cultural context.

Along with being ‘smarter’ than a great deal of the shows on offer these days, it is a very positive and responsible use of the mythology- with familiar characters made more sympathetic and less-vengeful- that reminds us that we humans need to be charting our own paths without constantly relying on any form of divine guidance or intervention.

It deserves a closer viewing.  One that isn’t dictated by the hysterical posturing of those with a literalist agenda- and no sense of humour.

If you’re interested, you can find the episodes on YouTube- or you might be able to find the whole 13-episode season on DVD.  I have it- it’s fun.

The Road

It seems, lately, like I’ve strayed from the originally plotted course for this forum.

I love the stories, don’t get me wrong.  They are my life, so to speak, and they can do so much to help us heal this world.  There is undeniable wisdom to be found within their characters and plots and ultimate messages and they deserve examination and re-contextualizing for our time and circumstances.

Looking at our myths with new lenses can truly aid us in moving forward.  Perhaps not repairing the injustices of history- that is beyond even the significant power of myth- but certainly helping to advise us when we are searching for the right way to proceed from here.

But something happens when the seasons turn in Toronto.  Especially after a longer than usual winter (although the meteorologists would say that this one just past was more in keeping with historical temperatures and snowfall) and a strange spring- which turned on a dime from October-like weather to that of mid-August and back again- the fact that true summer finally seems to be in the offing diverts my thoughts toward our music more than our tales.  However well-written and relevant those stories may be.

Add to that the desire to bury my head somewhat- for a time at least- and avoid the insanity that seems to be happening globally, nationally and locally at the moment, and all I really feel like doing is letting the songs take me away from the increasingly disturbing nightly news reports.

It’s the weekend- and the sunny day turned into a pleasant night.  While out for my evening walk, I could hear the sounds of NXNE concerts off in the distance, and feel that extraordinary buzz that arrives in Toronto once the patios are open for good.

The songs in my head are warring for ascendency- I hardly know what to listen to first.  Like much beloved siblings sparring for a parent’s immediate attention they have been creating something of a crazy-making cacophony.

As I rounded the corner towards home, passing the church’s marquee sign which this week is asking “What would God have you learn?”, this one won:

While I love Yusuf Islam’s recent music, and greatly admire his philanthropy and the great work he has done to educate the world about Islam since his conversion, to me he will always be Cat Stevens- and his songs remain inseparable from my vision of ‘summer.’

All of his early albums evoke campfires and s’mores, quiet companionship by a lake under a sky full of stars and- later in the summer- the aurora borealis.  Whether he knows it or not, he is truly the Bard of Ontario’s Cottage Country.

The first strummed chords of Wild World and the pain- and resignation-filled overlapping of the two voices in the last verse of Father and Son have become part of my core.  I can hardly remember a time when I couldn’t run through their lyrics (always a means of centering myself, collecting my thoughts and shutting out the crazy) and feel better about things in general.

But THAT song, the one that won the night tonight, spoke to me directly the first time I heard it.  As if we were walking that road together, Cat and I.

“I hit the rowdy road and many kinds I met there, many stories told me of the way to get there.”

The driving force of my life has been, since I can remember, the need to know (often to my personal detriment), coupled with the awareness that there will always be more things to learn, from all those we meet on our roads and from the “good books‘ we pick up along the way.

I love that he acknowledges the need to “kick out the devil’s sin– to disconnect from the idea of some kind of inherent evil within us- and that, ultimately, “the answer lies within.”

We do have the answers- through our collective knowledge and connections to each other and the Earth itself.  We just have to turn down the idiocy white noise mundanity stressors of daily life and pay attention to those voices that are telling us what we instinctively know.

Under the ongoing tutelage of Cat Stevens, I guess my thoughts have returned to our myths, mediated by the music, after all.

On this last spring weekend before the solstice takes us into the summer-proper I encourage you all to “listen to the robin’s song saying not to worry.”  We have each other, the innate curiosity to keep trying to explain our world and the stories and songs that draw us together to keep on walking this road to find out.  Enjoy.  

Songs that can change a life #2

I’m thinking that I just must have too much on the go of late (contrary to what some detractors I could name might have to say.  Self-employed does NOT mean UNemployed).

While perusing the drafts of posts that I have started and forgotten about lost my train of thought not yet completed I saw that title up there ^ ^^ and honestly couldn’t for the life of me remember just what that life-changing song (#2) might be.  Didn’t even remember starting the thing to be completely honest.  And certainly didn’t remember searching the YouTube and linking in this:

Methinks the Shuffle Daemon is now controlling me, as well as my iPod.  Haven’t heard that song in AGES.

So, hello Waterboys, how’ve you been?  C’mon in and grab a beer.  It’s been far too long since we spent some quality time together.

This song, their best-known and most commercially successful, was my first exposure to the Waterboys, but it definitely was not to be my last.  I was going through a folk-rock- type music phase at the time and their sound significantly resonated with that period in my life.

The Whole of the Moon is from the 1985 album This is the Sea and I distinctly remember rushing to Sam’s on Yonge Street to pick up the tape almost immediately after hearing the single on CFNY for the first time.  The album got tonnes of playtime on the ol’ Walkman, but The Whole of the Moon got more than the rest.  If I had instead bought the vinyl LP, the grooves would most certainly have been worn more deeply on that particular song.

Musically it is quite spectacular and theatrical- with its antiphonal trumpets, falsetto vocals and a sax solo near the end.  But, as always, it was the lyrics that really drew me in and wouldn’t let me go.  The referencing of legendary creatures and places- ‘every precious dream and vision underneath the stars’– made me want to become a person like the one in the song.

A person who sees not the smaller part of things, but the entirety, and who looks upon that whole with childlike wonder, even when in danger of climbing ‘too high too far too soon‘.  I still aspire to that goal.

The magic referenced in The Whole of the Moon was echoed on the Waterboys’ 1988 album, Fisherman’s Blues,  especially in the musical version of William Butler Yeats’ beautiful poem The Stolen Child.  The track is a combination of their usual dreamy music and Mike Scott’s vocals with the addition of the incredible recitation of the poem by the Irish sean-nós actor, singer, songwriter and poet Tomás Mac Eoin.

The traditionally Irish feel of the music behind the lyrics brings the poem to life in an incredible way.  Yeats is among my favourite poets.  His love and use of the myths of the Irish Twilight, as well as his recounting of the historical events that marked his time, are musical in their very language.

Hearing a native Irish speaker (and singer) recount the story of the human child, stolen from his familiar surroundings in order to dance with the faeries ‘far off by furthest Rosses’ because the ‘world’s more full of weeping than he can understand’ sparked something atavistic in me.

In part because of the cadence of the music in the Waterboys version, I have no trouble at all remembering every line of the beautiful poem.  Even single lines can still cause an incredible shiver to run the length of my spine.

I had read Yeats before hearing the Waterboys’ version, but I admit that I had never read Yeats.  The song- and this poem, followed by the rest of his collected works upon deeper examination- made me feel Yeats and the power of his poetry.  And that depth of feeling led to the discovery of a body of myths that had previously been somewhat outside of my wheelhouse.

I learned Irish so that I could read the traditional- and contemporary- words of the poets of that storied isle in the original language while hearing their music in my head.

The myths and songs of  the Celts speak to the world in so many iterations.  The Whole of the Moon was a catalyst that exposed me to the study and love of its cultural milieu and took me further down my road to discover and appreciate the mythologies of the world.  Life-changing indeed.  Thanks Lads.

Songs that can change a life #1

The other day I was having lunch with a friend and, in something of a non sequitur, she commented on the fact that I tend to hang out in environments where I am exposed to either books or music.  I admitted that this was true, and explained that escape into stories and songs were the best things I could imagine, and that I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I can spend my life around people who appreciate these things as much as I do.

She remarked that she had always found my relationship with Nigel- my oldest friend and the former owner of a much-missed store that sold vinyl and catered to musical tastes somewhat outside of most of what passes for music these days- a little puzzling at times. I suppose to someone unaware of our history the relationship does seem a little odd.  He is the consummate ‘cool dude’ and I am more, um, bookish, for lack of a better term.  She went on to say that she thinks she is starting to get it though.

“You love the songs that tell stories.  It’s no different from your examination of mythological texts or legendary traditions.  The songs you love are the ones that tell the stories- that present a slice of time and place.  You’re not into the stuff that just claims a good beat- or even intricate musicianship- it’s all about the lyrics, and the stories they tell.”

Since this was also completely true, I agreed with her assessment.  While I can appreciate a great dance tune, and the technical beauty of Bach is not lost on me, for a song to really grab hold of my soul it has to tell some kind of a story.  Popular music is yet another expression of our need to communicate those intangibles that our ancestors wove into the stories that they told, the images and themes that helped explain the unexplainable.

“I totally get that,” she continued.  “I’m all about the lyrics too.  There aren’t very many contemporary bands that can hold my attention if the words aren’t engaging in some way.”

I commented that songs can have the same effect, and often work to the same purpose, as myths do.  They help us cope with the rougher stuff life can throw at us and make us feel as if we aren’t alone in feeling what we’re feeling at any given point in time.

Elton John’s ode to sad songs is a perfect, self-aware, example of the effect of a clever and nuanced lyric- with a snappy tune backing it up.  Always makes me want to dance- and I am definitely not a dancer.

CBC Writes recently ran a challenge- a competition asking entrants to write about life-changing songs.  I asked her if she had such a song- or perhaps many, since I knew that her music collection was extensive and diverse.

“There are likely more than a few, if I really think about it.  So many songs evoke a particular time and place in my life, and many of those times and places caused change or growth or revelation of some kind.  But straight off the cuff?  There is one that springs to mind right away.  It still causes an atavistic response when I hear it.  The feelings are inescapable.”

She paused, and looked around as if afraid of being overheard.  Songs, and the things they can do to us, are very personal experiences.

“Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits.  Do you know it?”

I do, and told her so.  It’s a beautiful song, and one that I’ve always appreciated- as much for its poignancy as for the way it plays with the themes borrowed from Mr. Shakespeare and more contemporary popular culture and mores.

“It’s one of those songs that I have probably heard in passing many times over the years- it IS Dire Straits after all- but I honestly hadn’t paid it much mind until a couple of years ago.  A friend and I were sitting out on my patio one night- it had to have been around about three in the morning- we’d had a few beers and had been talking all night, and, as often happened in our conversations, the subject came around to music and the whole concept of ‘desert island discs.’  Which songs would you have with you if they were the only songs that you’d hear for the rest of time.  I had given him a book for his birthday in which you could record various desert island play lists, and I asked if he had started filling them in.”

“He started talking about Dire Straits- and hanging out as a teenager listening to Brothers in Arms- and how affecting this one song was.  He quoted some of the lyrics, and I told him that I’d have to give it a listen- I had the album after all.  Apparently The Killers had recently covered the song and hearing their version had taken him back to those teen years.”

“A couple of days later there was an email with a link to The Killers’ version, complete with some commentary about why they covered that song- including their hope that they would introduce a new generation to the wonder of Dire Straits.  I watched it over and over while hanging out in my office waiting for students to show up with questions.  It punched me right in the heart.”

“When I got home, I pulled out the Dire Straits version and I was almost dumbfounded by how much it made me want to roll up into a ball and cry with the heartbreak of it all.  Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, but here was a version that ended up unrequited for very different reasons- ones that were about bad timing and missed opportunities.  It struck very close to the bone.”

“But more importantly, once the initial overwhelming angst had passed, it provided some perspective on a number of things I had been wrestling with for months.  It’s strange how one song can do that, but this one did.  Changed the course of a number of things in my life, actually.”

Music, like myth, speaks to places within us that often don’t get to see the light of day in the ordinary scheme of things.  Those issues- love, loss, pain, death- that we tend to suppress as we attempt to make it through the days and nights of responsibility, paying the bills and remaining engaged with our family and friends and in the larger community.

Occasionally a song can bring those questions or concerns out of the darkness and let us know that others have felt exactly the same way.  I’ve said it repeatedly – our stories connect us in ways we don’t even acknowledge on a conscious level.  Such stories- and stories-in-song- emphasize this commonality of humanity.

Stories and songs advise and enrich us in profound, sometimes life-changing, ways.  Add some cathartic release- through tears or through just getting down and dancing it out- and you can begin to understand why I choose to spend my life surrounded by their wisdom.

… and I feel (de)fine

The Eschaton.  The End of Days.  It seems to be everywhere lately.  There are television shows, movies, books and seemingly constant news articles about various ways in which society as we know it might be brought, abruptly, to a problematic conclusion.

There are viruses, plagues, earthquakes, aliens, and, pretty much everywhere you look, zombies!  Zombies!  ZOMBIES!  From the Walking Dead to World War Z(ed)- they are among us and just waiting to rise and make life even more miserable.

I wrote here about societal anomie and how it leads to expressions of anxiety that include apocalyptic stories.  The apocalyptic tradition has provided some of the best, and most enduring myths.  They endure, in part, because periods of great collective social anxiety tend to be cyclical.  As the stresses return again and again, the idea that there is something better (or at least different) that will redeem us while punishing those responsible for the stress- albeit after a period of complete lousiness- is quite attractive.

Some definition of terms:

Apocalypticism is one of the major literary trends in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, often representative of the uncertainty of the of the sociopolitical environment of the time.  As is the case with other hermeneutical categories found in the historical and literary studies of Judaism and Christianity (gnosticism is another such category- we’ll explore that one later), the designation ‘apocalyptic’ is often too-freely or non-specifically applied.

The myths of all cultures reflect the issues and beliefs of the times specific to each composition.  The apocalyptic tradition developed as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and the reality of the societal situation faced by the Jews of antiquity.

Apocalypticism can be defined as “a type of religious thinking characterized by the notion that through an act of divine intervention, the present evil world is about to be destroyed and replaced with a new and better world in which (a) god’s justice prevails.  Apocalyptic schemes usually involve a moment of judgement, in which persons are called upon to answer for the evil of the world and are either acquitted to salvation in the new world or convicted to suffer divine punishment or destruction” (J.S. Kloppenborg, Q-Thomas Reader, 1990).

Dealing with the such realities as exile and diaspora, apocalypticism as a literary expression and theological speculation developed according to societal and religions necessity.  It was used variably as legitimation for political and religious propaganda, and to fulfill a socially perceived need for justice, transforming from a vision of messianic prosperity to one focusing on expectations not being met.

As a nascent religious movement, Christianity arose during a time of upheaval caused by foreign (Roman) domination of Palestine.  The issue of this dominance was relevant to the people involved in the Jesus movement and the authors of the writings that would eventually form the New Testament (along with the many contemporaneous non-canonical myths and writings).  Problems associated with justice and right order plagued the early Christian inheritors of the apocalyptic tradition as it had inspired their authorial predecessors.

Obviously, the current definition of apocalyptic has expanded to include all manner of potential cataclysms- either originating in this world (in evil laboratories or through nature rebelling against the repeated abuses to which it has been exposed at the hands of humanity) or from somewhere beyond (the myriad alien invasions from outer space or the reappearance of Lovecraftian creatures from the centre of the earth).

Regardless, these stories reflect the continuum of a mythological tradition that arises in response to significant disconnects between social expectations and the reality of the day.  Even when presented with tongue-in-cheek humour- think This is the End– now in theatres, or the upcoming, much anticipated (I really would like Simon Pegg to be my best friend) The World’s End.

In a social reality which, in one week (sigh), sees ever-increasing evidence of political corruption and the mishandling and violation of public trust at ALL levels of government and regardless of particular ideological affiliation, it really is no wonder that we are revisiting the mythological themes behind the apocalyptic vision.  When those we have elected to look out for the best interests of all citizens are not delivering the expected level of justice, frustration levels are made manifest in many ways.

Apocalyptic angst- as it appears in popular culture and literature- is a prevalent contemporary use of mythology that clearly demonstrates the truism ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’  We express our anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo through our various creative outlets.

The ideological forecast for the summer seems to be rife with apocalyptic thinking.  It will be interesting to see if such murmurs of discontent garner results in the larger societal context.  They will certainly provide entertainment and something to think- and blog- about.

History vs. Myth

While cruising around the interworld a few days ago I saw this blog post by Bart Ehrman.  It is largely an advertisement for his latest book, but the underlying subject piqued my interest.

Granted I’ve been out of the formal world of academia for some time now, so I might be a little behind in my reading and in keeping up with newer (or at least more vocal) groups that posit a variety of alternatives to the common wisdom/learning, but I was completely unaware of this movement of mythicists.

Sure, I’ve heard of Harpur- even read his silly book The Pagan Christ.  Didn’t really give it much thought beyond the brief sensation it caused after publication (and the questions about it I had to field from students- second only to the freakin’ Da Vinci Code in raising my frustration level… but I digress).  I really was blissfully unaware that the idea that Jesus was a composite character of pagan source material, and someone who never actually existed, had become an actual movement.

There are always those who will force correspondences and positive comparisons upon diverse traditions.  Making something fit into a paradigm to match a preconceived idea or conceit that is just too familiar and therefore must have originated directly out of an earlier tradition… Not necessarily novel.   But a movement of “writers, bloggers and internet junkies” presenting the non-historical Jesus?  This was news to me.

N.B.– This is not what Joseph Campbell was about.  He examined the archetypal themes and characters and demonstrated how similar impulses and explanations could be seen throughout the cultures of the world.  He did not attempt to directly equate specific characters with those that came before- or from dramatically different cultural contexts- or suggests that any particular mythic figure was a composite of features of earlier deities.

Nor did he claim that the figures from mythology were not historical figures.  As mentioned here, we have evidence that a significant character from Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh, is found in the historical records, described as a king of Uruk sometime between 2700 and 2500 BCE.  While his story and characteristics (2/3s divine?) were embellished and enhanced to communicate a specific message, it is pretty much completely accepted that there WAS a Sumerian king named Gilgamesh.

I am (among other things) an historian, specifically an historian of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds of antiquity, and it has honestly never occurred to me to question the historical existence of Jesus.  All of the scholarship- primary, secondary, tertiary and on and on- I have examined sees his historical existence as fact.

Do I believe that he was divine/part of some godhead?  Yeah, not so much.  Or at all.  But I have never doubted the fact that he lived in the early 1st century of the Common Era in Palestine, sought to reform the religious tradition in which he was raised, created a stir among others who were like-minded, and profoundly influenced myriad later writers who created a new religious movement based, in part, on his teachings.

Elements of outside influences certainly found their way into the various myths that developed around the historical figure and his (assumed) teachings.  One need not look too deeply to see the influence of Zoroastrian dualism in the apocalyptic strands that contributed to the eschatological message that became attributed to Jesus, for example (more on that to come- I am feeling a definite need to be writing about some apocalyptic stuff lately).

I am not as convinced as Ehrman seems to be that there were not archetypal elements woven into the descriptions of the mythological figure, elements that do bear resemblances to other mythological characters and themes.  As humans we have ways in which we describe and define the sacred that transcend differences of culture and point to our shared humanity.  THAT is why stories and characters and themes recur in different times and places.

Leaving his obvious academic snobbery aside (ONLY “two who actually have Ph.D. credentials in relevant fields of study” and “there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning n the Western world”, indeed.  Could he BE more condescending?  I DO have Ph.D. “credentials in relevant fields of study” and still found his comments offensive- the credentials ain’t always the whole shebang, Dr. Bart…), Ehrman is correct in assessing the dubious scholarship upon which the theories of the mythicists seems to be based.

I agree that there is a growing movement of ‘denouncers of religion’ and that these denouncers/deniers are often extremely hostile to the religions that they deride as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘dangerous’.  I mentioned this, somewhat in passing, here.  Although I am ideologically mostly on the same page as groups like the ‘New Atheists’ (I can never say/think/write that term without the New Bohemians’ song What I Am latching on as an earworm.  Shudder), I cannot condone the disdainful and antagonistic manner in which many of the more vocal pundits of ‘science and reason’ over religion express themselves and their position.

We have to work together to overcome the perpetuated illusions that come from clinging to myths (and the doctrines and dogmas derived from them) as ‘Truth’.  But bashing each other- and belittling the beliefs that differ from our own- is not the way to do so.  I will have more to say about the ‘New Atheists’ in the next little while.  For now, suffice it to say that hostile criticism is not the humanistic way to proceed with the necessary dialogue.