Martyrdom… or Blasphemy?

This is my farewell to Eusebius. I’ve now finished the Loeb edition of his Ecclesiastical History that was in my possession… and my sanity, which has taken so many hits in recent years, might not have remained intact if I’d had another twenty pages to go.

I had intended to type out a few paragraphs of my author’s pious bellyaching over the Montanist (or “Thracian”) bid to steal the A Team’s thunder by churning out its own prophets and chatterers-in-tongues. I find that I lack the spiritual stamina, however, to complete that scholarly exercise: I already feel a fit of psychic vomiting dangerously near.

The early church, you see, appears to have been riddled with such controversies as these even as a roomful of pre-schoolers bristles with fights over who gets first dibs on the Silly Putty. “My speakers-in-tongues did it before yours, and they’re not possessed by putrid diabolical vapors carrying noxious lies and blasphemous filth!” One would have hoped for more, especially at a time when those who professed the faith might truly be arrested, tortured, and brutally executed. Usually such treatment separates the wheat from the chaff. In this era, it seems to have brought the slag to the top.

For rival cells of Christians were competing even over who had the most martyrs and whose martyrs suffered the most hideously: if the printing press had been around, I’m sure we would have seen Martyr Bubblegum Cards with stats for number of hours on the rack and number of lions in the arena. Most of Eusebius’s evidence for this wrangling appears in Book 5; earlier books (some of which I mentioned in previous posts) portray the “faithful” vying to see who can starve himself the most, survive with the least sleep, and abstain from all forms of sex with the greatest fervor. (Some of these cultists went so far as to castrate themselves, though I do not recall any reference to them in Eusebius.)

One of the difficulties of getting old is the volume of disillusionment which you must absorb as you acquire a modicum of wisdom. I had always pictured the early church as illumined by genuinely devoted souls still close to the source of their spiritual ignition. Now I find it a miracle that the later church was able a) to survive the miasma of cultic fanaticism that immediately descended upon the faith, and b) to crystallize eventually into an uplifting belief system. Eusebius’s translator Kirsopp Lake appends a note to one of the final pages about how a glancing mention of Aristotle and the Platonists points the way to certain influences upon that crystallization. Of course, the mention in the Greek text was a sneer, charging the classically instructed with rank heresy.

Constant, inviolable honesty; fearlessness in advocating the truth paired with humility about one’s shortcomings as an advocate; imperviousness to worldly threats and applause alike; inexhaustible generosity to the weak sheathed in ringing denunciations of those who encourage weakness for selfish profit… such are the qualities (among others) of the ideal Christian. That this paradigm, within a few generations, should have decayed into verbal warfare about whose followers had thrown themselves before more freight trains is depressing on a colossal scale.

And my “freight train” metaphor is less tropological than you might think; by the merest of coincidences, I also happened to hear—for the first time in my life—of the “circumcellions” this past week. This Heaven’s Gate of yesteryear would send its followers out with blunt clubs to attack Roman soldiers, the objective being to irritate armed men of war sufficiently to get oneself impaled on spears or swords and “exit this life in martyrdom”.

It’s worse than lunacy: it’s blasphemy, of the real variety. To transform a holy message into the pretext for a suicidal ego trip… how loathsome. Again I say, Don’t show me how many pieces your martyrs were torn into before they expired: show me how you yourself handle the dreariness of earning your bread every day, the challenge of resisting advancement offered on condition of duplicity, and the fearful task of providing a model to young children. Show me how you live, not how you die.

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The Point of No Return Lands Us Right Back Where We Started

The History Channel began airing a special titled Two Degrees: The Point of No Return on Friday night, September 15. I survived about five minutes before my own temperature started to rise alarmingly. Here are some reactions based upon that minimal exposure.

The documentary appears to be somewhat more credible than Mermaids.

The two fatal degrees actually refer to the Celsius system, meaning that they equate to nearly four degrees in the Fahrenheit system more familiar to us laymen. No attempt to dramatize there, I’m sure.

The footage of Arctic icebergs releasing sheets of ice into the ocean has been so widely circulated among the documentary community that I quite literally saw it fifteen minutes later on another station where the Ice Age was being discussed.

Juxtaposing footage of melting icebergs, ambulances on a tear, hurricane-flooded streets, and high-rises in conflagration is a very sorry substitute for rational argument.

Similarly, footage of smokestacks belching out pillars of fumes is evidence of nothing whatever. Most of the billowing effluvient may be water vapor (i.e., steam); and the videos themselves may have been taken in 1968 or 1975, or at any point over the past fifty years when pollution controls were lax to non-existent. The documentary’s argument, of course, would not be served by acknowledging that we’ve gotten much, much better—not in China, but in the West—about filtering out toxic particles.

Is it entirely arch, by the way, to observe in passing how much this kind of fear-mongering serves the imperialist ends of Communist China, its objective being to curb our own industrial production rather than to point the finger at immensely more zealous offenders? Might full disclosure reveal some modest involvement of the PRC in this production, I wonder… wonder… wonder?

The opening assertion that, in the century and a half since weather records have been kept, eight of the hottest ten years have occurred in the last decade is a prima facie absurdity. You cannot take the planet’s temperature the way you take a sick child’s. In 1880, a great many reaches of the planet were not even fully explored. Today as then, furthermore, many areas where temperature readings may be harvested in abundance are, naturally, urbanized—and we can indeed say confidently that urbanization has both increased over the past century and that urban construction heats things up. But…

But the manmade activity in the crosshairs isn’t hyper-reflective, headache-inducing steel and concrete, all of which god-awful mess I detest as much as anyone on earth; the culprit is supposed to be CO2, which alone (for some reason) must take the rap for nudging up the mercury. But…

But plants love CO2. They eat the stuff up. I’ve never seen the desert Southwest so green as it was this past summer. Is that bad? Does that spell the end for us all?

Well, yes… because mosquitoes will descend upon New York and Boston just as they currently do upon, say, Brazil. Bet you didn’t know that there actually aren’t any human beings still alive in Brazil. The mosquitoes got ’em all.

I could go on. I could question, for instance, why the same people who want to shut down our industries (but not the PRC’s) also want our southern border flung wide open so that millions of blue-collar workers driving uninspected, high-emission smoke-bombs can take their place in our twice-a-day rush-hour traffic. But…

But my temperature is starting to rise again. Yeah, I hate car culture and the contemporary American city. Hate it more than the ambassadors of Green who fly innumerable jets to endless conferences in Seattle. But kindly stop insulting my intelligence with the Halloween panoply of skeletons and ghouls held together by paperclips and Elmer’s glue. Come back after you’ve done your homework, and try to talk like an adult.

Like Don Quixote, I Am Who I Am

A few months ago, when word of an impending high school reunion reached me, I marveled that so many people would want to reassemble after so many years. What was to be gained from it all? I for one (I wrote in this very space) am not remotely the same person now as I was in the Mesozoic Era. Why would you get a bunch of strangers together in a room for the purpose of pretending that they know each other, or of wondering how they happen not to know each other any longer, or of imitating what they once were to play out some long-forgotten game, or of otherwise spending hours and hours in a really unwholesome caricature of nostalgia?

Well, the emails continue to come as the event draws nearer… and I’ve stumbled upon a new realization. For me, the problem isn’t that I’m no longer that boy of all those years ago; it’s that I am precisely that boy. I’ve never changed, and I never will. I rather doubt that any of us ever really, substantially changes. We learn to insulate ourselves better from the risks entailed by our temperament; we learn to impersonate better the manners of whatever group we decide upon joining; but as for deep change… in myself, at least, I just don’t see it.

I can remember feelings that I had far back in childhood—and it hits me that I feel things the same way today. I recall, as a boy of about seven or eight, looking out from a treehouse early on a sunlit Saturday morning… looking across the neighbor’s back yard, across an old highway and a railroad track, far into a field of waving wild grass and a distant forest’s line that quickly dissolved into blue sky; and I recall, more than anything, the pain of that moment. It was as if I understood just then that I longed for something unspeakably beautiful and uplifting, and that I either wasn’t going to find it in this world or wasn’t going to have the strength to reach it.

At seven years old, I got a glimpse of how difficult life would prove for someone of my chemistry—and I knew, somehow, that I wasn’t just looking at a field.

I didn’t understand my classmates that lifetime ago, and they didn’t understand me. I wouldn’t understand them now, either, and they wouldn’t understand me. I intend no reproach here, and certainly no condescension. I could say that it’s as much my fault as theirs, or more my fault… but there’s no fault at all involved, really. It’s how things are. I’m put in a daze by things that people seem to enjoy en masse: cheering sideline participation at a football game, tipsy merriment over a round of drinks, the camaraderie of risqué jokes and endless reminiscences. I’m visiting another planet at those times—and I’m not at all comfortable there.

I have no other explanation. Where most people find enjoyment, I’m just not at home.

My initial error about the reunion was to suppose that people would look at me now and see what I was then, almost half a century ago. The truth is that they would see exactly what they saw then, which was no more what I really was then than what I really am now—but that my appearance would be a fully accurate distortion, now as it was then, given the filter through which I would be viewed. And maybe I just don’t want to be reminded of how much I stick out. It isn’t particularly pleasant, though I make no apologies and will undertake no correction. I’m okay with how God made me. I’m just not going out of my way to gather evidence, for the umpteenth time, that the mold was a very odd one. I’ll pass.

Moral Chernobyl: A Place Where Kids Die Young

As the father of an only child who just graduated from a college in—of all places—Colorado, I was deeply saddened to hear that disgraced FOX News personality Eric Bolling’s only child Chase was found dead at his campus in Boulder. Apparently the boy had overdosed on some drug or other. Naturally, speculation about suicide runs rampant, given the notoriety that Eric had lately collected about the family name. At the very least, Chase must have been driven to the drug in a retreat from a situation that, by several accounts, was tremendously upsetting to him.

And understandably so. When your dad is accused of photographing his membrum virile for the benefit of certain women he wished to impress and sending them the portrait—and when his defense is a heated, “I don’t remember doing that!”—your filial universe has to be turned inside-out. Really, Dad? You don’t remember? So that’s something you just practically never do with the photos you take of Mr. Johnson?

At the same time, it occurs to me that a good many other segments in our society might share a little of the blame for this boy’s fate. What about the U of Colorado, and our colleges in general? What have they done to curb the culture of easy hook-ups, boozy parties, easily available drugs, and aloof professors? Professors, yes… for most of this boy’s teachers are bound to have known who he was. Because his dad was a hated Trumpista employed by the hated FOX network, did they decline to reflect for a moment that he was probably going through a very hard time? Did they, perhaps—God forbid—even add to his burden with a snarky comment or two? I almost don’t want to know.

Of the state of Colorado and pharmacophilia, I will say nothing, for I think little more needs to be said than this: when you acknowledge before young people the acceptability of altering unpleasant moods artificially, you purchase a small share of tragedies like Chase’s.

I’m not going to let neo-feminism off the hook, either. I think Bolling Senior probably has some utterly disreputable behavior to answer for, as I wrote weeks ago; and his “manly” bluster on behalf of Mr. Trump did not reassure me last year that his and my notions of male maturity had much in common. Yet as a young man in the Eighties whom women frequently refused to date a second time after the first adventure failed to land us in bed (thanks to my religious scruples and my distaste for exploiting giddy fools), I sincerely wonder just how many guys living in Eric’s New York fast lane get good results from obscene selfies and all the rest. I’m guessing that certain women must respond to such things in an encouraging manner; and I’m willing to suppose, even, that some of the women who accused Bolling months after the fact weren’t overly insulted until the hunt for his head was on.

How much of this crap—the lewd photos, the leers, the pawing, the dashes to a hotel at midday, the frolics on the office couch… the later fallings-out, the belated charges, the counter-charges, the broken marriages, the public disgrace, the professional meltdowns… the drinking, the drugs, the deep depression, the longing to be out of this world—how much of it would envelop us if feminists long ago had decided that imitating the very worst male behavior wasn’t necessarily the best way to prove they “had balls”?

How many young people have died because the older generation has created a moral Chernobyl amid whose toxic fumes they were somehow supposed to find adulthood without guidance?

High Tech Suffers Another Brain Cramp

Question: why in a state as lean as Florida, and as exposed to hurricanes, has there evolved no more efficient means of evacuation than exhorting millions of residents to swarm along a very few northbound highways? After all these years, why has no more sensible provision been made?

For instance, why could not residents drive to certain designated (preferably elevated) sites in their neighborhoods—shopping malls, schools, churches—and be collected there by local buses at designated intervals? The buses could then take their passengers to the depot of a train whose rails would have been laid expressly for the purpose of shuttling refugees from A to B as fast as possible. Two or three such trains could follow essentially the same route to high, safe ground in northern Florida or southern Georgia.

The trains would probably provide little service except in times of disaster (though I don’t see why they couldn’t be somewhat commercialized; Florida is pretty good at Disney-fying things). They would surely operate at a loss overall, to be sure… but compare that loss to the massive consumption of gas (forbidden to be sold at price-gouging rates), the spiraling civil disorder that approaches chaos in some places, and the real loss of life due to being stranded for days on exposed roadways or persuaded to stay home by highway death-traps. The express-trains-in-waiting begin to look like a much better investment.

For that matter, why is there not such a service ready to go in all major cities? How would New York evacuate in the event of a serious nuclear bomb threat? What would Frisco do if Kim Jong Scum managed to heave one of his Chinese toys past our defenses and the populace had about an hour’s warning?

Why are we relying on cars occupied, most often, by two persons (or even one), to save enormous urban populations from catastrophe within hours on roads that carry two or three lanes of traffic? Why do we prepare for major, foreseeable threats with such cavalier indifference, bordering on insanity?

A Skeptic Looks at Martyrdom

Around the beginning of his fifth book in Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius claims to insert a chronicle of Christian martyrdom in third-century Gaul (today’s France) drawn from the very words of the beleaguered congregants. These passages are deeply disturbing. They are so first of all, naturally, because of the savage cruelty they detail that was unleashed on a peaceful religion simply for its novelty. Slanderous stories had circulated that attributed the most lurid debauches to the Christian order of worship; sons, for instance, were said to copulate with their mothers as intoxicated gatherings deliriously applauded. Since the Christians themselves denied performing such horrendous acts, they and their relatives and servants were all put to torture. Yet the faith of the true believers saw them through the nightmare, according to these accounts. One report has an old man, burned and torn limb from limb before he was briefly released, re-imprisoned for further “questioning” in a better physical state than he had been upon his first arrest. Another has a woman bringing some of her fellow sufferers back to life miraculously in their common dungeon. Several accounts mention victims being surrendered to ravening beasts in the arena as crowds cheered… then being extracted from teeth and claws and held for execution until another day.

Such narrative overplaying of one’s hand is, in a way, just as disturbing as the tortures themselves; for by infusing the tales of martyrdom with obvious embellishments, the scribes leave one wondering how severe the actual martyrdom could have been. How much of the anguish do we owe to the recorder’s Muse? When a story that takes you from A to M lies about D, G, and L, how do you know that C, F, and H were not also fabricated?

The ecstatic state of mind is prone to such misrepresentation, unfortunately. That’s one reason that accounts of mystical experiences often attract the derision of savvy detractors, and are sometimes silently endured by fellow believers who, however, dread seeing a mature belief compromised by childish fictions. It happens in “secular religions”, too. How many people will patiently hear out the UFO report of a pilot or an astronaut after so many New Age visionaries wearing talismans around their necks have been fouling the air with their communiqués from alien ambassadors?

There’s a final point, too, about the Gallic martyrs that bugs me. Some of them appear to want to be tortured a little too much. Being torn to pieces by infidels is perhaps the easiest escape route if you have failed to figure out how to live the good life in a quotidian context. Are telling the truth, avoiding brutal pleasures, working hard for your day’s bread, and setting time aside to meditate on the ultimate purpose of being just not enough for you? Too tedious—not enough fireworks? Could it be, in some cases, that making one’s exit on a pile of smoking timber is not so very different from touching together the two wires of one’s suicide vest?

Don’t show me nothing but people who died in a blaze of glory for their faith; for death comes in a few hours, or maybe a couple of days, even in the most protracted of tortures. Show me, as well, a few people who lived long and righteously in the shade of worldly obscurity. Of the two, the latter is the tougher act to replicate.

One Last Plunge into the Ivory Sewer

For the umpteenth—but final—time, I begin September by asking myself why I ever became a teacher. I know the answer well enough. “We’ve been over this a thousand times,” I say to my pining soul. “You’ve always loved to read, write, and speculate, and you got academic awards in your youth for doing those things well. When you were in college, you kept retreating to areas where you’d found success. Then, when it came time at last to find a job, you were fit for nothing else but pedagogy and pettifoggery. A journalist? We tried that major: they sneer at good writing—takes up too much space. A lawyer? Never! Arguing for pay that the kettle is blacker than the pot hardly qualifies as seeking truth. A government position—living high and wide on taxpayer dollars for shuffling papers? And besides, by the time you came along, white males weren’t exactly receiving serious consideration for hire.”
And so I became a teacher. To be honest, I’ve always enjoyed my interactions with students (well, almost always, to be really honest)… but nobody ever told me how very secondary that was to the job. First and foremost, flatter and fawn upon your bosses. Do their bidding with a smile. Laugh at their jokes, fight for their ideas in committee, and clap vigorously from the first row when they deliver public speeches.

On a related matter, be the boss’s “pet”. Make yourself highly visible. Stay on campus from dawn till dusk, even though serious grading, lesson-planning, reading, and reflection can only be done at home. Don’t even attempt thoughtful work at the office: it will impede your being seen. Make frequent trips up and down the corridors of power as if you were on urgent missions—but always detain a passing dean or VP to remark how brilliant you think the new curriculum revision is.

Go to conferences in Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco, Boston… and maybe London or Madrid. Soak up coffee and doughnuts like a Hoover for junk food, and get yourself on the program with some five-page paper about Aphra Benn’s lost diaries that you cooked up from a note in a previous paper about Aphra Benn’s perhaps having kept a diary. There’s nothing you can say or hear at these gatherings that couldn’t have been (and isn’t being) disseminated over the Internet without the cost of airfare and hotel—but you need to be seen.

So how did I get myself into something so antithetical to my nature that the fanfare of the new school year quite literally makes me faintly nauseous? I know, I know… but that thousand-times-recycled answer is really no answer at all. The truth is a failure of character: I was too cowardly to fling myself into something for which I had no apparent aptitude or no previous training—architecture, agriculture, marketing—in order to escape from Hell. And so I have spent almost forty years—pretty much my entire adult life—drifting through Limbo, neither saved nor damned: a psychic zero.

No more. This is the last year. Whatever I have left of life will not be passed in this egotistical, futile maelstrom.