Saturday, January 23, 2016

The intermixing of religion

Massive snowstorm on the East Coast this weekend.  Everything closed, no reason to go out.    Listening to Yes, the Fragile album while typing.

Interesting articles the last two months in the Smithsonian.  One called "The Power of Mary", the other "The Search for Jesus". 

What I found particularly interesting is the intermixing of the faiths, especially Christianity and Islam, in perspectives about Jesus and his Mother.  According to the article on Mary, she is mentioned far more in the Quran than in the Bible.  When naming the best woman to ever live, it is documented that Mohammed named Mary (Maryam as she is referred to in that religious book).  In fact, the 19th chapter of the Quran is called Maryam, and it tells her story, including the virginal conception that resulted in the birth of Jesus.  She is considered just as strong a mother figure in Islam as in Christianity. 

Jesus is also mentioned in the Quran numerous times.  He is considered a Messenger of God,
al-Masih, which means the Messiah, in Islam.  His miracles, teachings, and life are recounted just as in the Bible.  It is only in the ending that the two religions differ.  Jesus is not crucified (for our sins) but is instead raised up to God, alive.  This is important to the Muslims in that their end of days scenario features Jesus returning to Earth to die a natural death before being raised to life again on the day of judgment.  

However, this is not the main points of the "The Search for Jesus" article.  The article instead focused on the search for historical Jesus from the standpoint of how the people lived at that time.  The search for Magdala, the town where Mary of Magdalene lived, its proximity to Jerusalem and Galilee.  What was the life of a young Jewish man at a time when Rome ruled the area.  The places they worshipped, foods they ate, their jobs, their relationship with the other peoples of the area.  As the article states, "the deepest insights have come from millions of small finds gathered over decades of painstaking excavation; pottery shards, coins, glassware, animal bones, fishing hooks, cobbles streets, courtyard houses and other simple structures".

Two great religions, with so much in common in their regard for two of the most important people to ever live.  Yet all we here today, is how these religions clash, how they differ, how one is better or inferior to the other.  Would it be so horrible, or so bold, for Fox to air a series on Jesus and Mary in the Quran?  Is it so preposterous to think that the true believers of both faiths share a respect for all life through the teachings of their prophets?  And, is it not true that the ideologues of both religions belie those beliefs with messages of hatred and intolerance?

One last point, as made in the Smithsonian article concerned Jesus as a Jew.  He was born, bred and raised in that tradition, notwithstanding our attempts to pretend otherwise.  But, whether called prophet, Messiah or the Son of God, whether depicted as beardless or bearded, dark skinned or light,  a healer or good shepherd, his message transcended religion and religious dogma.  Wouldn't it be nice if those who claim to worship and admire Him, put aside their steadfast hold on institutional structure, and focus instead on the spirit of the man, his message of Love?       



Monday, January 18, 2016

A Trilogy of Hope for the Future

Today we celebrate the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.  At a time when those born with darker skin pigments were routinely treated as inferior, even in America, the land of the free and the bastion of democracy, King worked tirelessly to promote peaceful resistance to the idea that those who had seemingly lost the birth lottery of skin color, should be destined for a life time of substandard education, judicial bias towards incarceration, and limited opportunity for economic success. 

He envisioned a time when men "will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character".   Despite the horrors of the Jim Crowe years, whites only public rest rooms and water fountains, and the random killings of black men, women and children, in church basements, private homes and public streets, King emphasized that equality could only be attained through peaceful means.  An eye for an eye philosophy of the Old Testament had to be replaced by the turn the other cheek message of Jesus and the New Testament.

Partly in honor of this great man, partly as a response to those who only see danger and evil in the world today, and partly because I truly believe that violence begets violence, and that only the power of Love can make the world as King wished it to be, I published a trilogy on Amazon for Kindle in the past week.  A Trilogy of Hope for the Future is three short stories written to describe a time when men not only judge others by their character, but when society rewards those who live to help others, while discouraging selfishness and greed.  It is a future which is created, building block by building block, by each succeeding generation, a future which began when men first formed communities, and created laws to protect the weak from the strong, and will culminate in the acknowledgement that we are one race, the human race.

King died in 1968, murdered for his dream of a truly integrated America.  I imagine that he would be proud of the progress made in just 40 years with the election of Barack Obama, but also disappointed that there is still much to be done to improve education and economic opportunities in minority communities, while decreasing incarceration rates for black males. 

But that is the point, the cup half empty or half full philosophical line that we all must recognize, and then decide which side we choose to be on.  A half empty perspective points to the continued discrimination by which police use deadly force, and uses these misdeeds to justify rioting and looting.  A half full perspective recognizes that these acts are now condemned by general society, in stark contrast to the routine nature that killings of this kind were considered in the past. 

It is by imagining the progress we could make in the next 40 more years, if we maintain a half full viewpoint, that inspires A Trilogy of Hope for the Future. 

To quote another dreamer, John Lennon

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Friday, January 15, 2016

Climate Change

I didn't watch the GOP debate last night but I did read the Factcheck review of some of the statements presented by the candidates.  The most appalling seemed to be Trump's depiction of the Syrian refugees as predominantly young men, the bias being that, as young males full of testosterone, they would tend to be extremist and/or terrorist.  Not sure how much of that perception is jealousy, in that The Donald will be 70 years old this year, or whether all males of that age group should feel insulted.  Of course, he may be just worried that these young men will take all the landscaping and construction jobs which means he might have to hire some in the future!  In any case, the facts are that approximately 50% of the refugees, are women, and about 25% more are children, which puts the percentage of males over 18 at 25%.  Certainly, all politicians like to create bad guys to justify their rhetoric, it is just a shame, especially in this age of instant data retrieval, that when a candidate makes a statement like that, he/she is not called on it, immediately, because, unfortunately, there are many listeners suffering from xenophobia who will nod in agreement at his lie, and use it to further justify their discriminatory beliefs.

I received a survey by email from my federal representative last week, asking me to choose 3 topics which I hoped the president would touch on in his final State of the Union.  Glaring in its omission was climate change, although there was an "environment" category listed, last on his list.  I don't think it farfetched to say that my rep has been instructed by the GOP establishment to never use the phrase climate change in any mailings or correspondences.  I hope I am wrong, but I doubt if the subject was debated at either the main debate or the 2nd tier debate which occurred earlier.  It is obvious the most far reaching, potentially most catastrophic issue that faces America, and the planet, is a non-starter for the Republican Party.  I imagine that the recent Paris talks which produced some optimistic promises of greenhouse gas emissions reductions, will not be part of the GOP platform other than a vow to not participate.  Electing a Democratic president becomes even more critical knowing that Congress will remain a snake pit of short term thinking dinosaurs.

Interestingly, in the January edition of National Geographic there are articles on our national park system and the continued polar ice meltdown.

Oddly, our park system, which was began in the late 1800's, was championed by President Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican.  Of course, the parties' philosophy has changed dramatically since then, and it is the Democrats who spend more effort to protect the national park system from the logging, mining and energy industries.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but it seems clear to me that when clean water and air, come up against the prospects of business and profit, the GOP is consistent in their stance to sell out to the highest bidder.  The fact that those same people donate large sums of money to the GOP election war chest completes the cycle.  From oil in the arctic circle to natural gas in Pennsylvania to mineral rights all over the country, corporate greed to take the most out of the land in the name of cheaper energy rules the day, despite the devastation those activities cause to the natural landscape.  Of course, it is easy to get behind such strategies when you don't live in the effected communities, and don't have to deal with the polluted air and water, and the health consequences which result from those poisons.  Perhaps a few well placed oil and natural gas wells in the backyards of certain GOP elected officials and presidential candidates might change their perspective.

The polar ice meltdown, another favorite topic of the GOP to not discuss, was dramatically described, in pictures, words and statistics.  Less "old" ice floes (ice packs which last multiple years), thinner winter ice, earlier seasonal ice melts, longer ice free seasons, all are documented in the article.  Predictions that there may not be any polar ice in the summers within 30 years seem likely.  Not withstanding the fact that the polar bear may not survive this change, and that the ecosystem which relies on the cooling and freezing cycle may be disrupted, what effects the reduced planetary cooling effect that polar air provides will cause, and the rising sea levels from continued melting will create, range from significant to devastating.  It is obvious to all but those scientists hired by the energy industry, that climate change is causing the polar ice melt, and that the larger tracts of sea water will absorb even more sun light and heat, increasing the pace of the warming trend. We will reap what we sow in the next 50 years, and all that garbage spewing from the GOP presidential candidates about concern for the coming generations, is just that, garbage.

I sometime wonder if the GOP establishment also has a ban on magazines such as National Geographic, the better to keep its members in a bubble of plausible deniability.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fashion and Perception

As promised, I am catching up on my reading.  Yesterday I finished the last 2015 edition of Laphams Quarterly, entitled Fashion.  Going into it, I thought Fashion to be an odd topic.  As a closet nudist, and a firm believer in the premise that money spent on clothes is largely a wasteful pursuit, I half expected to struggle through this edition.  Of course, as always, the essays, articles and viewpoints expressed within the magazine, opened my eyes.

First, it reminded me that not dressing up is in itself a fashion statement.  The magazine was replete with articles about anti-fashion trends, and fashion trends that emphasized casual, even slovenly look through out history.  Also, they reminded me that the jeans and affinity T-shirts that I generally wear identify me, categorize me, just as much as wearing a top coat and hat.  Our clothes say much about us whether we like to admit it or not.

And, if I were to be honest with myself, I would realize that the viewpoint that I am more than what I wear, hence I will wear what I want and expect everyone else to judge me for myself, not what I wear, is extremely hypocritical in light of the frequent judgments I render when I encounter a person with accoutrements that lead me to perceive them harshly.  We want others to judge us based on the purity of our hearts and the integrity of our spirit, yet all too often judge others as they look, whether that look includes a skin color, gender identity, or economic level that makes us uncomfortable, or even simply due to their hair length, tattooed ness, piercing or other such expression of individuality.

Oddly, I was reminded of this very observation during a partial viewing of Titanic yesterday.  You may recall the scene where Jack is put in a tuxedo by Molly Brown so he can attend dinner to which he was invited after saving Rose from jumping off the back of the ship.  As he waits for Rose near the entrance to the dining hall, he receives a number of nods and hellos in greeting by the other well dressed diners, and is accepted into the hall by the porters at the door as he escorts Rose and Molly in the exact way that all the other "gentlemen" escort their dates.  He is one of them, simply because he wears the same clothes. 

But the next day, when Jack attempts to enter that same room, guarded by those same porters, he is not allowed to pass because he is dressed in the clothes befitting of his station.  And, is reminded all too clearly that he is not to attempt future contact with Rose, but must stay in the area of the boat designated for those of his station. 

Later, in the most revealing scene of the attitude endemic in the minds of the first class passengers, when Rose points out to her mother that half the people on the Titanic will die as there are not enough life boats for all, her soon to be ex-fiancé says, to paraphrase, "not the better half".

Fashion, the concept and the magazine, help us identify those with whom we should idolize and emulate.  Fashion is the most obvious way to display ones accomplishments.  It identifies through fabric, color and style those who are successful in business, industry, entertainment, culture, religion, government, military.  As more than one writer expresses, how else could we identify who is who if not for what they wear?

Yet there are two seemingly opposite desires at work driving the multi billion dollar industries which comprise fashion.  The desire to stand out, and the desire to blend in.  We all wish to be both at once, part of the whole, accepted as a member of whatever thread of society we identify with, yet individual as well, more than just the clothes on our back.  It is this delicate balancing act that sends us online, or to the malls, and in front of the mirror before we go out. 

Still, I am drawn to a quote which is found towards the end of Fashion.  It is attributed to John Ruskin from 1862:

"As long as there are cold and nakedness in the land around you, so long there can be no question at all but that splendor of dress is a crime".

To me it suggests that dressing flamboyantly, spending large sums of money and resources, is a crime against nature, perhaps even God, when one considers how many plain clothes could have been created for that same amount of money and given to those with no clothes at all.

Imagine if we were to then expound that thought to include other indicators of excess wealth, owning dozens of cars or homes for instance, or even excess wealth itself when hundreds of millions of people on Earth today live in poverty.

They say that everything comes back in fashion eventually.  I am sure that there are many clothes hanging in closets just waiting for the day they can be worn again.  Perhaps we can all start by donating those clothes now to those who have nothing and take our chances with the next fashion trend.  And if there is an upside to climate change, maybe a little less clothing, a little more emphasis on the person might result. 


Monday, January 4, 2016

Happy New Year

Happy New Year, 2016!!

As always, it was a busy holiday season, hence the time gap since my last post.  As I did last year, I hope to take advantage of the vacation days I have built up so as to catch up on my reading and e-publish something new.  I did not receive a book this year for Christmas, but I do have to finish the last 2015 edition of Lapham's Quarterly, in addition to the January editions of Smithsonian and National Geographic, as well as the first 2016 Lapham's magazine.  My next literary effort (if I may use that term) will be a trilogy of short stories that present a hopeful opinion of the future.  Only one of the stories is actually new, but the other two have been revised a bit, and have not been presented in the context that I am targeting with this publication.  I will follow up with details when complete.

In the meantime, and along a similar line of thought, today I shall only touch upon positive points.

First, as is true of previous years, Smithsonian once again presented an edition noting a few of the innovators of our time.  Their work, whether it be in medicine, social science, the arts or technology, reminds is that there are many people among us today with visions of a better world, and who are actively striving to achieve that better world.  They are an inspiration to us all, especially in light of the focus that much of today's media places on reporting the negative and the bad. 

Of course, there have always been people of vision working to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, but what of the everyday people who occasionally resort to crime to enhance their income.  Strangely, and I say strangely based on the fact that everyday I hear someone say that the world is spinning out of control, the crime rate is trending down.

If you spend a few moments at the site listed above, you will see that in 2014, violent crime was down over 2013 numbers and has been dropping since 2010.  Also, property crime is decreasing as well.  Unfortunately, good news does not improve TV ratings, sell advertising time, or inspire the base to vote, so it is bad news that predominates.  Too bad since the facts support the belief that we, the human race, continues to evolve socially (more accepting of others), and spiritually (more aware of the importance to respect all human life).  Certainly there are exceptions to this trend, and those exceptions are discussed ad nauseam on talk radio and opinion news shows, but they are not presented as the exceptions that they are but as the norm, which is just not true.

How about the infant mortality rates of the world?  Certainly, a telling gauge for the overall health of the human population might be found in this number.

A quick glance at the tables at the above site will reveal that the number of deaths per 1000 live births has dropped significantly in virtually all of the world since the 1950's.  Even today, in countries with 90-100 deaths per 1000 births (that is 9-10% folks), the rate has dropped from numbers in the
180-230 range (18-23%!!).  Obviously, even in the countries where there is lawlessness, natal health care progress has been made through organizations like Doctors without Borders and other NGO associations.

How about deaths in war?  With the atrocities by ISIS and events like the Paris terrorist murders happening in what seems like at a weekly clip, virtually every google entry entitled deaths by war detailed a significant decline since the 1950's, especially when the increase in global population is factored in the calculations.  Additionally, most studies of how safe a person in 2015 was compared to a person living in the 15th century, or 9th century or 1st century AD, or 5th century BC, indicates that we are vastly safer today than the majority of humans who lived in any other time frame.  Yet, facts aside, I would guess that if 100 people were asked tomorrow if they felt more safe or less, a majority would say less, even those who may have been children during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or adults during World War 2 or the Cold War.  Unfortunately, again, more money can be made and more votes acquired when we paint a gloomy picture of death and danger at every turn.

So, again Happy New Year!  And smile! 

We are fortunate enough to have been born in the safest time in human history.  And, if trends like those noted above continue, we can trust that our grand children and great grand children and so on will be born in even safer times.