Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pollen Nation

Here in Finland we have been enjoying a glorious, warm spring, already hitting daytime high in the 20s (70s Fahrenheit), with the gray and brown landscape left behind by melting snow rapidly morphing into brilliant shades of green.

Only, not everyone is completely enjoying this stunning and sunny transformation. As you would expect in a northern country where summers are short, Nature here is on a tight schedule once the long winter is over. All the plants and animals are in a hurry to make hay while the summer sun shines, especially the plants. With the coming of longer and warmer days, trees such the ubiquitous birch seem to leaf out overnight and release their pollen to the wind with a vengeance.

Anatomy of a spring-time nuisance,
Silver Birch (Betula pendula).
“Vengeance” is exactly how the early-spring spike in pollen must feel to the hundreds of thousands of Finns who suffer from allergies. The main culprits at the moment are birch and alder pollen, to be replaced later by grass as the biggest tormentor of noses, eyes and throats.

This year has been worse than normal for pollen. A thin, green layer of the stuff seems to coat all surfaces – like my car – left untouched by water or wet rags. We’ve had very little rain to wash the tiny floating particles from the air. Even people like me, who are luckily not normally affected by any kind pollen, are experiencing some reactions this spring. Others are suffering miserably.

The University of Turku, which monitors the pollen situation in Finland, has reported the highest levels here in almost twenty years. What’s more, as of last week, every part of the country is experiencing the highest levels of birch pollen, all at the same time. So, for now at least, the entire nation is suffering the effects of spring in runny-eyed solidarity. It might not cause anyone to wish for the return of winter, but maybe a few well-time spring showers would be, um, just what the doctor ordered.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Biblical Arizona

A few weeks ago, the governor of Arizona Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that seems to attempt an end-run around the separation of church and state. Though Arizona prohibits the teaching of any religion in public schools, this new law, crafted by Tea Party champion Terri Proud, now makes an exception in the case of the Christian Bible. The law allows high schools to offer an elective course on “The Bible and its Influence on Western Culture”.

"Defender" of the Faith, Jan Brewer.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
The law was prompted by a fear among some conservatives that Christianity is losing its grip in American life, and is apparently similar to laws already on the books in five other states, including my native Georgia. To explain the rationale behind the law, Terri Proud was cited as saying that Arizona students will be missing out if they aren’t aware of the Biblical roots of such expressions as “an eye for an eye” or “on the road to Damascus.”

To counter this unhappy prospect, the Arizona law would require classes on the Bible to cover the “characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy”, as well as the “influence of the Old and New Testament on laws, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture.”  Whew.

Sounds kind of redundant to me, and unnecessary.

First of all, the idea that Christianity is rapidly fading away in America, perhaps the most religion-obsessed advanced country in the world, seems completely ridiculous. There are hundreds of thousands of places where children can learn about the Bible. They are called churches. And they don’t seem to lack for business.

Georgia, the first state to implement Arizona-style Bible courses in public schools five years ago, is already scaling back the classes due to low levels of interest. In the beginning, the classes were offered in 48 of Georgia’s 180 school districts, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This year, that number has fallen to only 16 school districts. Obviously, there’s no huge pent-up demand out there for scripture studies that’s not already being met in, say, Sunday School.

Second of all, I would love to sit in on a course like the one Rep. Proud is promoting. I’ve got nothing against exploring the influence of the Bible, objectively that is. I wouldn’t say such studies would be very useful for "understanding society", but there’s no harm in knowing that da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was inspired by, wait for it, the Last Supper. Or, as a less obvious example, knowing that when Bob Dylan sings “in a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes” he’s talking about Calvary. It won’t help you get a job, but it might come in handy in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

What bothers me, however, is the notion that the Bible is, or needs to be, at the center of American life. It’s a fevered dream that certain conservatives like to force on the public.

Biblical themes, of course, are found throughout the arts (the Pope, after all, didn’t pay Michelangelo to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with scenes from Aesop’s Fables). And you can’t argue that the Bible, or at least Christianity, didn’t forever deflect the course of human history.

St. Paul on road to Damascus in a
15th-century French illumination. 
But when it comes to American government and law, I suspect the Holy Book doesn’t have nearly as much real impact as Rep. Proud would like to think.

Where in the Bible do you find anything about representative democracy? Freedom of speech? Trial by jury? If the Old Testament has been such an influence on our laws and government, why aren’t the Ten Commandments woven into the US legal system? Why isn’t coveting your neighbor’s wife and/or house a punishable offense in any US state? Where are the federal laws against taking God’s name in vain?

Let’s take Rep. Proud’s examples of phrases kids should know in order to better participate in American society. I’ve never seen “on the road to Damascus” used outside the context of St. Paul’s conversion, so it’s not as if it’s going to pop up in some office e-mail, leaving you wondering what the hell your boss is talking about. It’s more useful to know the meaning of such antique phrases as “the die is cast”, though you would typically run across this only in e-mails from your most melodramatic colleagues.

Also, it’s fine knowing the origin of “an eye for an eye”, but what does that have to do with modern American life? It may be a principle of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia, but definitely doesn’t belong in the US.

Perhaps bringing to light such a point would make a high school Bible class worthwhile after all. An Arizona sophomore might learn that Jesus’ view of “an eye for an eye” was:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

An excellent start, if there ever was one, for a classroom discussion on whether there really should be a greater role for the Bible in American public life. Just think, what if George Bush had followed Biblical principles in response to what happen on Sept. 11, 2001, and actually had turned the other cheek to al-Qaeda? Some of those righteous folks in Arizona would surely have wanted to crucify him. Literally.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bible Stories

Last year, while visiting the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, my daughter and I came upon a painting that depicts Abraham on the verge of slitting the throat of his son, Isaac. When you find yourself gazing at such a scene with your own child, you feel compelled to explain it. 

“Ah, this is Abraham sacrificing his son,” I said. Or something to that effect. The look I received from my daughter in response to this bit of fine art commentary told me she had no idea what I was talking about.

The Sacrifice of Issac, by Caravaggio.
It was an epiphany of sorts. I realized that my teenage daughter didn’t know very much about Bible stories, those well-worn tales I grew up hearing about over and over.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Because my wife and I don’t belong to any official church, or any church for that matter, our children aren’t required to take religion classes in Finnish public schools. (They have studied ethics, instead.) Hence, they haven’t been routinely exposed to the 3500-year-old folktales of a pastoral civilization inhabiting the far end of the Mediterranean  much in the same way they haven’t exactly been steeped in the verses of the Bhagavad Gita.   

Since the incident between Abraham and Isaac didn’t ring a bell with my daughter, I was curious to know what other Biblical references were unfamiliar to her.

By the way, I’ve always found this particular Bible story to be particularly horrific. What young child isn’t comforted by the fact that if God commands a father to murder his child – or the father thinks that little voice he hears in his head is God speaking – then the only righteous thing to do is step up to the plate and commit filicide? Or, should we find comfort in the fact that God actually stopped Abraham at the last moment? No harm, no foul. And all this time you thought it was only the Greek gods who toyed around with puny mortals.

Anyway, that evening back at the hotel, I cycled through various other classic Bible stories to see whether my daughter knew them:  Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the Parting of the Red Sea, Jonah and the Whale. Some were familiar to her, others not at all.

This seemed kind of a shame to me. At first. Even if you don’t believe the stories in the Bible, they are so interwoven into western civilization and culture that I couldn’t help feeling my daughter was lacking some basic knowledge.

Just think of all the music and art inspired by this or that tale from the Bible. There are countless references in books or songs (or even the Simpsons) based on something some ancient Israelite did in some hamlet that only Indiana Jones would have ever heard of. Yikes, without the Bible, there would have been no premise to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the first place.

An angel staying Abraham's hand in a
14th-century Icelandic illuminated manuscript.
As I thought about it more, though, I began to wonder if it really was such a loss not to be well versed in Bible verses. How crucial is it for someone in Finland in the year 2012 not to know that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they envied the favorite-son status that had earned him a very colorful coat?

I know, I know. For Jewish people, such stories are an important part of their heritage. It’s less clear to me why Christians should care, even if they have adopted, more or less, the sacred texts of Judaism as a kind of elaborate back-story to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (And I realize that the parts of the Old Testament that have been adopted and those that are ignored raise all kinds of doctrinal questions that are way above my pay grade, and besides I could care less about.)

It’s hard see why these old traditions should be relevant to modern everyday life, even for believers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m one of those nerdy types who think it’s good to know about all kinds of legends and myths, the stories of Hercules, King Arthur, Romulus and Remus, the Valkyries, so on and so forth. At least on a superficial level.

I’m not saying it’s all useful information, but I still think in many ways it’s more important to know that Venus was born on a half-shell, or that Jesus was born in a manger, than to know that Kim Kardashian is currently doing, well, whatever it is that Kim Kardashian does.   

At the same time, I think the Cassandras who might lament the decline of western society because no one reads Plato anymore are overreacting. That goes double for all the Jeremiahs who gnash their teeth over the fear that your average American has not been sufficiently indoctrination by  stories from the Bible. Which brings us to Arizona – and the topic for the next post.