Thursday, January 16, 2003

“Genesis and Dinosaurs”

My neighbor Lester was over in Burlington, Kentucky, this weekend, volunteering at Answers in Genesis’s creation museum and education center. I was eager to hear what progress they’re making. They believe that God created the universe in six days only 6,000 years ago, that pairs of dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark, and that dinosaurs were probably around at the time of Jesus. According to a 1997 Gallup Poll, 47% of Americans believe in a literal reading of Genesis, so there’s a choir out there waiting to hear them preach.

“How’s the project coming along, Lester?” I asked.

“Just super!” he reported. “The 54-foot-long model of a sea bass that visitors will be able to walk through is all set up. And so is the 14-by-26-foot model of a human cell. And the seventy or so dinosaur models are all in place.”

“Help me out here, Lester,” I said. “What exactly do dinosaurs have to do with the Bible?”

“Everything,” he said. If God created all animals on the sixth day, then dinosaurs existed at the same time as every other creature. They were walking the earth the same time as all the Old Testament figures, probably up through the time of Jesus himself.”

“Gee,” I mused. “You’d think that if a 10,000 pound Tyrannosaurus rex were rambling around at the same time as King David, say, or Abraham, or Isaac, or Jeremiah, or any of those guys, somebody would have mentioned it.”

“The Bible isn’t exhaustive in the way it treats anything,” he said with exasperation. “There are obviously thousands of species—animals, trees, birds, insects—that didn’t happen to be included in the Biblical narratives.”

“Well, I can see how you could leave out a wood duck or a pintail, say, or maybe a chipmunk or a spittlebug, but some things are just hard to ignore. Don’t you think that a giant flesh-eating reptile twenty feet tall, with a four-foot skull, armed with daggerlike teeth half a foot long, would catch your attention? And maybe complicate your life a little? Or even a vegetarian like Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus? I mean, Diplodocus grew to be almost ninety feet long. Of course, it only weighed about twenty-five tons, which is light compared with Brachiosaurus’s fifty tons, but still, if one crossed your path, you’d think you might get excited enough to mention it.”

“They may have been so common that they weren’t worth mentioning,” he suggested.

“I can see how that could happen,” I agreed. “But sheep and goats and lambs and lions get mentioned frequently, and they were probably more common than dinosaurs. Although I wouldn’t think sheep and goats would stay all that common if there were many carnivorous dinosaurs around.”

“It may have been a matter of geography,” he suggested. “Dinosaurs may not have been in that particular region at that time.”

“I can see that,” I reflected. “It would be like polar bears. Or kangaroos. They weren’t in the Middle East, so they’re not mentioned in the Bible. So how did Noah gather all those species? Did he go to Australia for the dingoes and kangaroos and kiwis, to the Arctic for polar bears and seals and Arctic wolves, to North America for bison, to South America for anacondas, and to Asia for snow leopards? How long would you say it would take to gather a pair of every species that ever lived, haul them back home, and load them on a boat? Suppose my three sons and I set out to do that—and our job would be easier because a lot of species are extinct now. How long would that take? I mean, realistically, how many species could you travel with and feed at one time?”

Lester flushed. “ It probably went faster in those days,” he mumbled.

“That’s what I can’t figure. They did everything on foot. No trucks, no trains, no planes to speed up the gathering. Can you imagine being the son who gets the job of bringing in a pair of Allosaurus or Triceratops?”

“It was no doubt a difficult task,” he admitted.

“And how big was that ark?” I went on. “When you consider that some of these individuals weighed 100,000 pounds apiece, and then figure the food you’d have to lay in for them, it’d take a heck of a vessel to accommodate the lot. Plus they all ate different kinds of food, so you’d have to gather that from everywhere too.”

“The dimensions are given in cubits,” he said. “I’m not sure how long a cubit is.”

“Well, it varied,” I said, “depending on how long it was from somebody’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger, but eighteen inches is a good ballpark figure.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “However big it was, it was big enough.”

“Say, did you read in the Parkersburg paper about that Marietta College professor who found those dinosaur droppings at a dig in Utah?” I asked. “The first specimen was about ten feet long! The main mass was five feet long, and then there was another five feet of ‘dribble.’”

“What’s your point?” he asked.

“Nothing, really. I was just thinking how much work it was to take care of a few dairy cattle when we had a farm over in Gilmer County. Not just the feeding and milking, but mucking out the barn. Can you imagine cleaning up after a hundred thousand or so species on a boat?”

“You seem inclined to linger over details.”

“Somebody once said, ‘God is in the details,’ Lester,” I remarked. “By the way, Dr. Stone figured that the coprolite he found was shat about 150 million years ago.”

“Evidently he’s not a biblical scientist,” said Lester. “He appears to be unaware of the reliable, absolutely authoritative history that Genesis presents.”

“There does seem to be a bit of a gap between your version of dinosaurs and his, doesn’t there? You believe the oldest dinosaurs lived no more than 6,000 years ago, and he says his specimen came from a dinosaur 150 million years ago.”

“Ace,” he said, “if you can’t trust the Bible on biology and paleontology, how can you trust it on morality and salvation?”

Lester is not only a neighbor, but a friend and a thoroughly decent human being. His question came from the foundation of his faith, and I wanted to treat it carefully. For him, every word in the Bible is literal, historical, God-given truth, and thus cannot be wrong.

“Lester,” I began, “you read the Bible a lot more than I do, and you know that it contains passages that are self-contradictory and genealogies that vary from one place to another. If the Bible were literally, word-for-word true, those kinds of things couldn’t happen.”

He just looked at me, evidently concerned that my eternal soul was sliding down a greased pole to perdition.

“Think of all the ways people try to convey truths so profound that they are ultimately inexpressible,” I continued. “Through myth, through symbols, through visions. The imagination isn’t a lesser creature than the cold historical eye. You’re taking a work that combines a variety of literary forms—myth, song, chronicle, prayer, and vision literature—and assuming that it’s all historical narrative. That’s absurd! You can have your moral and religious truth while being open to whatever science learns about the universe!”

He turned a cold historical eye on me. “Ace,” he said, “I’ll pray for you. You read a myth for me.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Saturday, January 11, 2003

“What Would Jesus Do?”

The great religious revivals of the Anglo-American past have focused on the downtrodden and despised. Out of each revival came a new emphasis on prison reform, as a reaction against the brutality and inhumanity of the penal system of the time. If you were a Quaker, for example, believing that “there is that of God in everyone” and that everyone has access to the Inner Light, then you actually believed that this thief, this drunkard, this drug addict, was—no less than you—a child of God, worthy of respect and love. If you were a follower of John and Charles Wesley, a “Methodist,” you believed that we were all sinners, and that no human being was beyond redemption.

All of which leads me to marvel at the “religious revival” of the last twenty years, which has been a willing partner of the most hateful and vindictive political ideologues in America’s conservative boom. Fundamentalist churches are the core supporters of the right wing agenda, including its emphasis on expanding the death penalty to cover more and more offenses, imprisoning as many people as possible, imprisoning them for longer and longer terms, and eliminating programs designed to educate them or help them in any way to improve their lot. It doesn’t seem to bother these Christians at all that prisoners, in massive numbers and on a routine basis, are being treated worse than dogs.

“What would Jesus do?” they frequently intone. I have to assume it’s strictly a rhetorical question rather than a felt demand on their lives. Do they honestly believe Christ is a cheerleader for the gas chamber and lethal injections? For life sentences for drug possession? For stun guns? For the Bush administration’s treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?

At Guantanamo the administration has thrown prisoners into a jail built from international shipping containers. Three sides of each cell are steel mesh. The cells are less than 7 foot by 8 foot, and more than half of each cell is taken up by a metal bed welded to the wall. Prisoners are kept in that space, in metal containers, in broiling tropical heat, for one hundred sixty seven and a half hours per week. Each week, a prisoner gets to leave that metal oven for two fifteen-minute periods. That’s his time to shower and exercise. Do you suppose that’s the kind of prison Jesus would have designed, given the chance?

January 15 will mark the first anniversary of their imprisonment, with no end in sight. They have never been charged with anything. They have never been allowed to see a lawyer. They have never been allowed contact with their families. Their imprisonment violates, among other things, the Geneva Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the U.S. Constitution. That’s not the America I grew up in. It’s not the America of Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth or …. But I forget myself; we’re talking religion here, not our American heritage. Jesus didn’t sign the Geneva Convention or the Constitution, so let’s dismiss them as irrelevant here, and get back to the key question: What would Jesus do? Apparently their Jesus says, “Fry the sons-of-bitches,” or “Cage ‘em and throw away the key.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

“Wet My Dipstick”

“Are you coming to the rally on Sunday?” asked my co-worker, Mort Walker.

“I didn’t know anything about a rally, Mort,” I said. “What’s it about?”

“It’s a pro-war rally,” he said. “We’re tired of the administration’s pussyfooting around. Let’s get in there, grab ‘em by the gonads, and squeeze ‘til the oil runs out.”

“I don’t know, Mort,” I said. “The inspectors keep looking, and they can’t find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. It seems kind of hard to justify invading another country just because we want their oil.”

“What kind of wimp are you?” he scoffed. “Have you looked at the price on the pump in the last few weeks? It’s $1.55 per gallon and still climbing.”

“Mort,” I said hesitantly, “there are other things to consider. International law, for example. The immorality of an invasion. The deaths of thousands of people.”

“Oh sure,” he said. “Talk abstractions. You don’t have to pump gas into my SUV every evening. Then you’d know what real pain is.”

“Mort,” I said, “I share your pain. But it just seems cynical and wrong to pretend we’re trying to make the world a safer place when we’re willing to bribe, buy, bomb, or betray anything that keeps big oil companies from writing their own ticket.”

He looked at me angrily. “Ace,” he said, “I’m beginning to wonder about your loyalty.”

“What do you mean?” I said, taken aback.

“You know what I mean,” he said accusingly. “United we stand. The colors in this flag don’t run.”

He was starting to tick me off. “Will you stop talking like a bumper sticker,” I said. “According to the most recent polls, only 29% of the American people support a unilateral American invasion, while 63% favor a diplomatic solution. So if there’s anybody standing united, it’s the majority of the American people, and they’re united against the administration’s determination to start a war.”

“Bury your head in the sand,” he said. “Those people are a real threat to the U.S., and they need to be taken care of before it’s too late.”

“Mort,” I said, “answer me this. Why is it that North Korea gets the kid-gloves treatment, when they make no bones about their intentions to develop weapons of mass destruction, but 160,000 troops are on the way to bomb, invade, and militarily occupy Iraq, when there’s no evidence at all that they have such weapons?”

“Ace,” he said, “there’s not enough oil in Korea to wet my dipstick.”

© Tony Russell, 2003

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

“A Chinese Christmas”

A quick inventory of the presents under the tree is probably as good as any statistical analysis for telling us who’s the current leader in the global economy’s race to the bottom. This year it’s not even close. The clear winner: China! Come on down!

Our big-ticket item was the new Sylvania™ DVD player, a present for the whole family from Santa. It had “Made in China” stamped in bold letters on the carton. But the DVD player was just the start. My granddaughter’s teddy bear was also made in China. So too was her cute little Dirt Devil™ Junior Upright vacuum cleaner. And her “Alphabet Art Puzzle”™ with its scripted message from Melissa and Doug: “We care about your comments, please call us!” (To be scrupulously fair, the puzzle is marked “Made in Taiwan.”) And our new Rival™ toaster. And that pretty new dress for my daughter. And my new toothbrush. And the bag clips we used to close the snack mix.

So China was this year’s winner, hands down. According to a report just released, China’s exports were up a whopping 22 per cent for the first eleven months of 2002! The big loser seems to be Mexico. Two years ago, we were all humming “Feliz Navidad!” Many of the items under the tree then were made in Tijuana, Juarez, Mexicali, and Nogales. Literally thousands of U.S. manufacturers, over the past two decades, had closed down their U.S. plants and moved just across the border, where they could not only pay much lower wages and lower taxes, but they didn’t have to worry about unions, health and safety regulations, or environmental damage. Now, however, those same corporations are pulling up stakes in Mexico and moving to China. A starting machine operator in China makes less than $2 a day, while that Mexican operator made almost $8 a day. As a consequence, more than a quarter of a million Mexican factory workers have lost their jobs in the past two years. (Jobs originally lost, of course, by workers in the U.S. and Canada; it’s a slow-motion case of musical chairs.)

All of this has come about through the push for “free trade.” The worthless lot we call political leaders are owned by multinational corporations and investors. And the “New Democrats” are as bad as the Republicans. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were first-team cheerleaders for the globalization of trade.

“Free markets” is a pretty-sounding way of saying “capitalism with no holds barred.” The motives of the “free traders” are greed and power; their real agenda is tax cuts, union-busting, deregulation, and “tort reform” (since law suits are one of the few remaining means for holding them accountable). As long as they can keep us bamboozled with phony issues like gun control and military escapades like the invasions of Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, they can continue to play cowboy and ride tall in the saddle.

That “giant sucking sound” you hear? It’s not just my granddaughter’s vacuum cleaner.

© Tony Russell, 2003