We Are Animals, Environment and Election 2016

We are animals. I don’t mean that figuratively (though given the mud-fest incivility of this election, a case could be made). I mean it literally and to consider in the context of this election. We are blood, bone, brain, and balls, composed of material stuff and animated by love, fear, and the pursuit of happiness. We Americans are just as much a part of our planet’s natural systems and the ecologies of our site-specific homes as is any barn swallow or humpback whale or spotted salamander. We forget this. We have forgotten this in arguments about walls and email and the economy and ISIS. We forget at our peril because there’s no future for our country with its Silicon Valley and Supreme Court and health care and Rust Belt manufacturing without attending with wise intention to environmental sustainability.

A Babylonian New Year

And so we’re off! — 2014, a new year, ready or not. Resolutions or not, there’s something about recognizing the end of a year and the beginning of a new one that’s downright refreshing.

The earliest public celebrations that we know about are Babylonian, dating back thousands of years. I’ve been spending a lot of time in ancient Babylon (in my head) these past few years, and it occurs to me that for all our distance from an Iraq of the B.C. years, we share some things in common. Take New Year’s. Sure, there are loads of differences. For one thing, the Akitu New Year festival happened around the time of the spring equinox and went on for days. But at its heart was this sense of putting aside the old and beginning anew with hope and possibility.Marduk

Jazz Riff on Genesis 1

It was a great honor to be invited to give the Dillard series of lectures at Trinity United Methodist Church this year. Wow, what a turn-out! and what wonderfully warm, hospitable, and thoughtful folks I met there, people deeply invested in the pursuit of understanding, committed as much to the humbling business of query and investigation as to a rich faith.

My part was a small one — to deliver four lectures on the general topic “The Power of Story and the Greatest Ever Told.” By way of beginning and end, I offered this wee meditation:

Creation’s Cacophonous Chorus

Biblical imagery draws richly from the world of the ancient Middle East, including its hills, waters, arid stretches, and wildly diverse animals — domestic and not. Trees “clap their hands” and the beloved is likened to a swift, graceful gazelle. These days, as I wander out to examine my new garden, trying to diagnose yellowing leaves and how best to eco-kindly loosen Virginia’s hard clay, I am serenaded by the buzzing of different kinds of bees, too many to count. If my squash blossoms drop or the cheery yellow cucumber flowers come to nothing, it’s not a loss. The humming of that pollen-gathering band is delight. 

bee and cucumber flower

Michelangelo’s Bible

One of the most iconic images of western art is Michelangelo’s “creation of man” in the Sistine chapel. You know the one — a stirring painting depicting an impressive old man God reaching from the clouds to touch the outstretched hand of a young Adam. But just what, exactly, is that image based on? Genesis tells the creation of human beings in two places — the first chapter, in which an invisible God creates humankind, male and female, in God’s image; and the second chapter, in which an anthropomorphic God fashions a human out of humus and breathes life into this creature. It is endlesslessly fascinating to me how biblical texts are interpreted and reinterpreted, sometimes uncovering hints or suggestions embedded in the rich layers of biblical texts and sometimes adding layers to the layers that are already there. This is the Bible as living text. And interpretation at the hand of creative masters in their medium of choice is intriguing delight. The Vatican Museum in collaboration with the Italian Il Sole 24Ore is publishing a series of four volumes called “The Painted Word” that discusses the ways that artists interpreted the Bible in the visual feast that is the Sistine Chapel. Mom, Dad: great gift idea, but in English, please.