Response to Charlottesville

Having lived in David Duke’s home state of Louisiana for two years, I can tell you what he did today. He woke up and got to work, as he has done every day since he decided to spread his message. The man neither paused nor did he let defeat deflate his drive or let success give him pause through all these years. He may be cheering and celebrating today yet he was on the phone, posting online, and planning his programs, intent on his goal just as he has done every other day.

He is a racist, a bigot, and an anti-Semite but the First Amendment protects his right to spew his hatred.

What about you? What about me? Do you and I have the same depth of passion, but for justice and right? After all, fighting for climate change legislation is tough in a fossil fuel world. Explaining racial injustice and raising awareness of the economic injustices of energy policies to communities that do not want to hear facts and reason is a stubborn climb. Holding proudly to one’s faith in a cynical world can be a daily hurt. Are you still fighting?

This missive is not about the Neo-Nazis and the White Supremacists though. This message is about those who have the passion to fight for what is right, good, and godly, about those who stand up to the evil and hate. These people are our family, our friends, acquaintances, workmates and our members-in-faith.

One died and nineteen more lay wounded in the Charlottesville confrontation. Many, many more though, people of all colors, creeds and faiths, marched; they held the lines, and shouted down the hatred. Their passion brought them forth and their courage kept them going. The citizens of Charlottesville refused to accede to hatred, to acquiesce to murderous rage. Instead they welcomed those who hold beliefs of equality, justice, and freedom for all of God’s children. Together, they gave the voices of hatred no quarter and no measure of comfort to broadcast their message of intimidation and confrontation.

Evil only expands when it is allowed, when people of goodwill do not stand as a bulwark against the malicious tide. Silence, apathy and vacuum are tacit permissions to continue to fill the streets with hate-filled rhetoric. The streets of Charlottesville were not silent though and intimidation was met with spirited determination.

What about you? What about me? Are we going to sink into the sofa cushions or lean back into our computer chairs, and watch passively as a few good souls contest a contagious fear and paranoia? Whether the summons is the Hindu call of Gandhi, the Christian call of Martin Luther King Jr., or the beckoning of the ancient Israelite prophets, the universal demand of justice is broadcasting loud and clear across the land.

Will you and I answer the call? Shall we answer with unequivocal passion?

“Then I heard the voice of my God saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? Then I replied, ‘Here I am; send me.’”  Isaiah 6:8

Here I am; send me.

Nostalgia versus the Roasted Chicken

“O dear God, not chicken again!” was a common refrain  in my household and across many other houses as well. Chicken was tasteless, a poor excuse for a good meal because it was overcooked and dry. The skin was a spongy limp mouthful of yuck. Hiding it under tomato sauce or burying it in flavored rice did not dispel the fowl’s worst qualities.

(Fried chicken was apparently in a food class by itself and had little functional relationship to the roasted, broiled, baked, or boiled fowl of gastronomic dismay. My memory is a bit fuzzy but I am fairly certain that fried chicken was an entirely separate category in the food pyramid, right up there with candy, cookies, brownies and cakes, which is why my mother would not make it very often. Fried chicken is still the top American entry for the title “Food of the Gods” in my book.)

The domesticated chicken in the West emerged from India from a small red jungle fowl. A similar chicken emerged in the East, probably from Thailand. Cocks crowing are mentioned in the Bible but when the Bible discusses sacrificing birds and eating them, the text is referring to turtle doves. Ancient Greece mentions chickens by 600 BCE but again, as cocks crowing. They were considered exotic birds. Ancient Persia deified them and a pope elevated them. The earliest chicken recipes come from Rome, where the bird was preferred boiled and served with sauces made with the offal.

No fried chicken for the Romans.

According to the New York Times, roasted chicken is supposed to be a nostalgic comfort food that evokes the ancient ritual of families sitting around the table together to eat dinner. What I remember as nostalgia was picking up a white oven-bag of a whole roasted bird from the heated tray at the Winn Dixie after band practice and before homework. The birds in those bags were always available, no matter the day. Adding to the cozy warmth of store-cooked birds was the expectation of the leftovers of this salty, greasy mess turning into an unrecognizable science experiment by the next morning. Perhaps nostalgia for roasted chicken is a bit more fiction than food writers are willing to admit.

Returning to the dish: The holy grail of the roasted chicken dish is moist meat, crispy skin, and sweet juices collecting underneath for a simple gravy. I assume that a generation ago the educated cook could turn out a great dish with just a little bit of effort on the small, non-hybrid birds. Today’s version of oversized breasts and un-exercised muscles makes the cooking overly cumbersome and usually not worth the effort: the finished fowl today is typically not a religious epiphany.

However, even with the hurdles of the modern chicken farming (which is scary), a home kitchen can turn out a decent roasted chicken. The essential tool one needs for roasted chicken is a cast iron pan. Without cast iron, this simple recipe will not work.

1 whole chicken

Butter, oil or (best) chicken fat

Kosher salt and ground pepper

 

Preheat oven to 350o F

Wash the chicken. Pop out one thigh bone from the spine. Using a knife or chicken shears, cut the chicken in half up that side of the spine. Turn the chicken over and, using the palms of your hands, press down and break the breast bone, leaving the chicken flat.

Cover the bottom of the cast iron pan with kosher salt. Place chicken in the pan, folding the thighs so that the legs are facing in. Rub the chicken with the preferred fat. Season the skin with more kosher salt and pepper.

Shove the pan in the oven and roast for 90 minutes. Ten minutes before the end, check the skin. If the skin is not crisp, turn on the broiler to crisp the skin, being careful not to burn it.

Remove and plate the chicken if serving immediately. If not plating, let the bird rest on a chopping board, covered. The juices in the bottom are usually three or four tablespoons of fat and the rest is juice. You can use these juices either to make a gravy or to pour into a mason jar for another dish. I use the chilled fat from the mason jar to coat my roasted chicken the next week and the solidified juices for the gravy.

 

My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

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TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

God for the Rest of Us #1

Many of us are seeking a God we can believe in without discarding all of the amazing knowledge that we use in this unprecedented age of human advancement. Evolution is a fact and the Big Bang Theory is a fact. Computers, quantum physics and genocide are all facts of life. With all of this information and the rush of new ideas and concepts that we rely upon daily, what is a God for the rest of us?

#1 God of the Bible

Torah presents God as the Parent God, intervening in history, granting favor to the obedient, and lending a miracle or two to His children, the Israelites. This God has to present principles by which people can live without resorting to violence and mayhem first. This God sets down laws that are derived from the principles. He rewards good behavior and he punishes bad behavior. Like any parent, God of the Torah loses his patience with His children quite a number of times.

In the middle part of the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Hosea presents the image of God as the husband and Israel as His unfaithful, whoring wife. The prophet preaches that the relationship between God and Israel is not father and child but instead, husband and wife. This is not an equal relationship though because women were still property in significant ways and the husband was the final authority. Song of Songs softens the “authority and property” model with the erotic love poetry of two lovers. Rabbi Akiba, in his argument on why Song of Songs should be in the Bible, suggests we read Song of Songs as God the groom and Israel the bride.

The Book of Esther, in which God makes no appearance, presents the greatest challenge to those who want to believe in God. God is not in the story and He is not even in the wings. Through their own courage and tenacity, Esther and Mordechai save themselves. The Silent God, the God who does not answer, will haunt every person who finds themselves in harm’s way throughout the millennia. They will pray for rescue and salvation, and there will be no divine intervention.

The God who answers this dilemma of silence in the Book of Job offers no comfort. “You know not what I do. Even if you did know, you could never understand,” explains God in the whirlwind in a long piece of poetic prose in the last chapters.

The Bible gives us four major images: God the parent, God the husband, God the Silent and God who cannot be known. Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims embrace God the Parent and at times, God the husband. Atheists point to God the Silent and God who cannot be known and respond, “What’s the point then?”

If you are not Orthodox or Atheist, the search for a God for the rest of us must continue to look elsewhere.

12 Books About Spiritual Sustenance

Many webzines put out lists of must-read or you-should-have-read books that will enlighten you, expand you, or help you attain spiritual greatness. These sorts of throwaway articles, which editors often toss off to freelancers, read as if written by excellent MFA graduates who have learned an appreciation for good literature. Good literature is a wonderful, continuing wellspring that illumines our culture except that a good many readers stop tackling the more difficult reads after they leave school. In general we are not reading them.

Moreover, there are excellent books of spiritual sustenance that are non-fiction, even hard science. These texts are not on MFA syllabi because there is only so much one can cover in fifteen weeks a semester for tens of thousands of dollars plus the cost of books. Other voices have added their lists to the conversation as well to fill the gaps. While each discipline offers unique books, the lists are typically skewed to the boundaries of their studies. An enervating list of books that provides spiritual sustenance requires more than a lit. major or a spiritual leader or a doctor of psychology.

What follows is a different sort of list of books. Spiritual sustenance can take all sorts of forms depending on age, education, career, gender, and family life. Beware, lists engender an authoritarian urge to give the reader “the truth” of the matter – these are the ones that matter. Hopefully this collected list does not fall into the trap of giving answers when there are only directions to suggest.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. One of the rules for writing fiction is “don’t tell me, show me.” Hesse’s novel is an excellent example that walks a reader through the search for a life of the spirit. You do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate the novel.
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Disney productions of the book need to be dismissed although the great blooper classic title from Disney press, Cooking with Pooh, is worth a mention. Milne’s classic of the imagination of a young boy and his stuffed animals is sublime. There is a reason why parents continue to read the stories to their children over and over.
Ecclesiastes by Kohelet. Yes, a book of the Bible (Old Testament), actually from the back of the Bible. The Bible is three libraries of books and all of the texts are over 2000 years old. Kohelet was included in the canon but a pious editor was so disturbed by the doubt and skepticism woven into the text that he wrote an additional chapter, Chapter 12, to mitigate the potential impiety of the first eleven chapters. Kohelet identifies the absurdities between belief in God and reality as we experience it. Nonetheless, he believes and that is the challenge of the book. Use the JPS or NRSV translations.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, a National Book Award winner. The last chapter is worth the cost of the entire book. The surgeon examines the science of how the human body expires with appreciation and fascination for the complexity of the process. The last chapter though. . .
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He is a survivor of the Holocaust but refuses to be a victim. He dedicated his academic life to teaching students how he reclaimed his sanity and his sanctity for life after he emerged from the death camps.
The Blessing of the Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. How did we stray from the elements of common sense when it comes to raising children? This book is as much about the art of life as its application with parenting.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Cursed be those philosophy majors who have to think everything through. The novel is a journey that forces the protagonist to even question what questions he should be answering. The enduring strength of the text is that it teaches how to think about the vexing problems that confound us.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The children’s book that really is not a children’s book. What is selflessness and selfishness? Is there ever such a thing as giving too much?
Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This book is meant to be read slowly as the landscapes are painted in lush, exacting detail. If you find yourself wanting to rush through the text, put it down and come back when the urge has passed.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Margaret learns the lessons and humanity of growing up. The text addresses coming to terms with our bodies and our fears.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. What is truly important in life and why do the answers often bring as much pain as pleasure? Another beautiful novel that shows rather than tells us the insights and lessons.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. A collection of short stories from the one-time librarian of the Argentinian National Library. This is a book for readers by a reader. Boundaries disappear, profundities multiply and slip away. When you look up from the text, you will never look at the world the same way again. The imagery is overwhelming.

Mythos

One of the most prominent tasks that the redactor of the Bible undertook was teaching the lessons of monotheism, at least the monotheism of the Israelite Cult. His pedagogic skills are phenomenal. The redactor did not teach by pasting sermons and lectures into the text because he knew lecturing is a poor methodology for explaining to the illiterate masses who would hear the verses but not read them. (Most of the world, perhaps  98% or 99%, were illiterate.) The redactor taught using the method of storytelling, embedding the lessons within the tale. Theology, history, life lessons, and even genealogies could be recalled if the Israelite could remember the story.

Certain motifs or storylines were repeated to reinforce or to emphasize lessons. When the redactor repeated these motifs, they became mythos, recurring narratives that take on significant meanings above and beyond individual lessons.

Not only can mythos be found across the entire Hebrew text, but the narrative will appear from the most simplistic plot to some of the most complicated depictions of Israelite belief. The easiest example of a simple plot motif is the famine story forcing our patriarchal family to go to a foreign kingdom for food only to have the matriarch taken to the royal harem. Abraham and Sarah go down to Egypt in Gen. 12:10-20 and to the kingdom of Gerar in Gen. 20:1-18. Isaac and Rebecca go down to Gerar in Gen. 26:1-11.

All three are essentially the same story. If they are the same, then why did the redactor keep all three when one telling without contradiction would have been just as clear? First, he had three stories and he chose to keep all three. Second, the mythos of the three stories – the merit of worshipping Yahweh, the power of Yahweh God, and the reward of obeying Yahweh – are three fundamental lessons taught in the Book of Genesis about the belief system of the Israelite cult. Hearing these stories repeated, the Yahweh believers learned that these lessons have an emphasis over other teachings.

The use of mythos is one of the fundamental building blocks of the redactors of the corpus. Consider how almost every religious system begins teaching children the tenets of the religion – by telling stories. Therein lies the power of mythos in human culture across time, generations, and geography.

First Verse of Genesis

The inability of science and religion to reconcile their points of view occurs in the first verse on the first page of Genesis. “When God began creating the heavens and the earth” is interpreted by literalists as the scientific beginning of the world as if these ancient monotheists were modern scientists publishing their findings. Science as we understand it today was not invented when Genesis was committed to parchment. Debunking their argument, the Bible is not a scientific text and should never be construed as one. Tanakh (Hebrew for “Bible”) is first and foremost, a proudly theological collection of books. The books are about Adonai God and the people of Adonai God, the children of Israel.

Theology and science are disparate disciplines, fundamentally different and incongruous. To read a compromise between theology and scientific inquiry on the first page of Genesis is an act of futility – there is no compromise because theology and science are two divergent disciplines. The battles we witness between the “the Bible is wrong” crowd and the “science is evil” crowd is the continuing failure to find compromise when none is available, plausible, or more to the point, necessary. The battle is the result of a categorical error.

Too many assume that the both approaches are attempting to answer the same question: how was the universe made? Science asks that question and has reams of exciting facts, theories, and emerging hypotheses. Science asks what is the process and how does it work. Science leaves the “why” or more precisely, “why was the universe created?” to philosophy and religion.

The author(s) of Genesis ask a different question: “Does the universe have meaning?” The typical-of-its-time mythology of the Greeks has Zeus chopping off the head of the monster and hoisting it up in the heavens as a bloody trophy called earth. There is no meaning for humans in crawling across the face of rotting skull like maggots. In contrast, the Genesis story argues that if God made the world, then the world has meaning. By being created by God, humans have a meaning for existence as well. To argue that our lives have meaning is a worthwhile theology to hold dear.

Science has nothing to say about the maker of the universe and Genesis has nothing to say about the science of creating universes. They are asking different questions. The fault of our thinking is assuming that science and religion are opposite of each other when they are actually working in two different, though parallel realms, answering different, though both worthy questions.