April 11, 2009

Biblical Zen

The Bible has got way more than its share of zingers. Jesus himself was the master of the one liner. But one of my favorites is from Luke's version of the Easter event.

When two women approach the tomb, they encounter two men in shining garments,who ask them "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

I love that line. It wouldn't make a bad Zen koan.

Now El Cabrero has no idea what happened in those first days after the crucifixion or whether you could have filmed it with a video camera. But I love the idea that the sacred is living, fluid, mobile, elusive, not defined or contained.

People want to turn it into something defined, legalistic, cut and dry. Dead in other words.

The question remains.


April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Dali's version of the crucifixion. The real thing was a lot worse. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

(Note: this item has appeared here before at this time of the religious year. New links and comments below. El Cabrero is too tired for originality today.)

I'm not sure at what point in church history the observation of the crucifixion of Jesus acquired the name "Good Friday." It pretty terrible to the people involved. It's hard in our day and age to understand how terrible or commonplace crucifixion was to people in the ancient world. The early church would have been horrified at the use of crosses as ornaments; they did not become standard features of Christian art until around the 4th century, after the practice was largely abandoned.

According to Martin Hengel, author of Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, "among the Romans it was inflicted above all on the lower classes, i.e., slaves, violent criminals, and the unruly elements in rebellious provinces, not least in Judea. The chief reason for its use was its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent; it was, of course, carried out publicly..."

The practice was in part a spectacle of power and degradation. Hengel continues, "By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place--at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime--crucifixion also represented his uttermost humiliation, which had a numinous dimension to it. " Often the crucified were denied burial and simply left on the cross, which for many in the ancient world was worse than the death itself.

Historians and believers agree that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem during Passover week shortly after he caused a disturbance at the Temple. Passover was more than a religious holiday to the Jews in Roman controlled Judea: it was a subversive celebration of freedom. The Roman occupiers would have been on high alert for the slightest disturbance at such politically charged times.

The Romans were right about one thing: the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed and enacted was and is a threat to all systems of violence, hierarchy, exploitation, oppression and degradation. To that extent--and to his honor--Jesus was guilty. In the best sense of the word.

THE CASE FOR BORING BANKING. Paul Krugman makes it here.

BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A JOB? There are more than four unemployed workers for every job opening, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

HIGH ANXIETY. Lots of people have it these days. No wonder.

THE COMPLEXITIES OF COAL and climate change policy show up here.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, a foreman at Massey Energy's Aracoma Mine pleaded guilty to not conducting evacuation drills as required by law. A fire at that mine in Logan County, WV resulted in two fatalities in 2006. While we're at it, another Massey case is headed to the WV Supreme Court. It is not clear at this point whether this will inspire another John Grisham novel. You can always find the latest on coal related stories here and elsewhere at Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo blog.

THE MUSES. A new Gazette blog, Mountainword, features poetry and WV literature.


April 09, 2009

The fog of war

There are plenty of good reasons for reading the classics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid. One of the best I've found is that it's a pretty good description of real life.

El Cabrero doesn't spend a lot of time at the legislature of my beloved state of West Virginia, but I was there enough this time to have a little mock Homeric deja vu.

In the Iliad, the tide of battle often switches back and forth, as various humans fight away and as various gods intervene here and there. No one really knows everything that is going on. As in the Aeneid, Rumor is the swiftest of the gods.

In the case of WV, the great god Randomness seems to have a lot of clout as well. Also prominent deities are Hades, god of wealth, Hermes, god of merchants and thieves, not to mention the great god Biscuit, patron of those who oppose menu labels with calorie information and the god of the gutless whose name escapes me at the moment.

At crucial times, Zeus weighs the fates of the combatants on his golden scales, which tip one way or another.

Of the many skirmishes this time, one of the most important ones had to do with the fate of WV's unemployment compensation fund, which is heading towards emptiness in the non-Buddhist sense.

A decent version passed the state senate, which included things that neither labor nor business was all that happy with. Then things hit the house side and everything was on again. In the end, a decent bill seemed to pass after some amendments.

The tide went one way and then another and even people I usually turn to find out what is really going on wasn't all that sure what was happening.

It can be quite a show but, alas, it is an epic without a bard.

AFTER THE BUST, a boom in bankruptcies.

WHAT'S NEXT? How bout doga, or yoga with dogs? While we're at it...

BETTER THAN A DOG? That may have been a factor in Charles Darwin's decision to marry. I could think of any number of things to say but will relinquish the opportunity.


April 08, 2009

No moral, just story

How good is your kung fu? Image courtesy of wikipedia.

As a rule, El Cabrero tries to keep a healthy distance between himself and our insect friends. But some of them are pretty cool.

My personal favorite is the praying mantis (even though the mating behavior of the females strikes me as totally unsportsmanlike). I even had the honor of being beat up by one of them once.

As I've mentioned many times here, I've long enjoyed practicing the martial arts. I've dabbled in several but spent the most time with Okinawan/Japanese karate, which traces itself back in legend anyway to Shaolin kung fu.

Now, if the Gentle Reader has watched the proper measure of Chinese movies, he or she will know that many Shaolin styles are based on the movements of animals. Five big ones are tiger, crane, snake, leopard and dragon.

(Don't ask me how they researched the dragon part...)

There are several other animal styles, including praying mantis. According to that legend, a monk who lost many matches gained insight by studying and emulating the movements of that insect.

One day several years ago, I was going with Rob, a karate buddy of mine to Parkersburg, WV to meet with community folks about how to respond to hate group activity. When we stopped at the sacred Milton Go Mart, there was a big beautiful mantis on the wall.

I asked my buddy if he thought this one knew his stuff. I thought they were bluffing. To find out, I picked a blade of grass and gingerly poked it at him. KAWHAM! He/she flew at me so fast that I was startled and tripped and hit the ground.

I've been stung and bitten by many insects in my day, but that was the first time I lost to one in a fair fight. I just felt like sharing that today.

OK, back to business...

INEQUALITY can be bad for your health.

READING can be good for your morals.

DARWIN, DARWIN EVERYWHERE, including in art and human creativity.

MORAL SENTIMENTS. David Brooks writes here about the evolutionary origins of morality and its basis in emotion. But the Scottish Enlightenment people like Hume and Smith got there first.


April 07, 2009

The wheel turns

If there is any upside to the current economic crisis, it is that it gives us a chance to realize something together that we're sooner or later going to realize on our own one of these days.

That lesson is that Fortune is a wheel that turns. When we're on the upswing, we often tend to think that we enjoy life's good things--health, wealth, power, prestige, looks--as a matter of merit and that the universe has to recognize our property rights to them.

It doesn't.

The temptations of arrogance and hubris are probably strongest for the powerful. As Simone Weil said,

Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.

The book of Ecclesiastes nailed it:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Time and chance.

Anyone can experience a reversal and we're all bound to at one time or another. A time like this can make those of us who may have been spared some of fate's harder blows realize that misfortune isn't just for those other people or for those who somehow deserve it.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls and all that.

One of the most powerful parts of Shakespeare's dark tragedy of King Lear comes when the arrogant king is himself dispossessed and exposed in a brutal storm that forces him to recognize things he'd ignored before:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES after a reversal is the subject of this article.

THE RISING. This op-ed from the Baltimore Sun calls the Employee Free Choice Act a stimulus from the bottom up.

A STATE MESS. The solvency of WV's unemployment fund has been the cause of a major dust up in the legislature. It's also taken up a bit of El Cabrero's time lately.

WHAT THE...? In a battle between coal companies and the preservation of one of WV's most significant historical places, the smart money is probably on the coal companies. Come to think of it, if state government had to choose between the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and the coal companies, the same would probably be the case.


April 06, 2009

Fish day!

He's in there somewhere.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to announce that Fish Day officially occurred at Goat Rope Farm on Saturday April 4.

Normally, the creek has a decent amount of minnows and crawdads, but for the last two years it has dried up completely in late summer. It takes several months after the water is flowing again for the fish to show up.

The first customer of the spring showed up this weekend and was unusually large--about five inches. It's not clear at this point whether he (or she) meant to get here or just took a wrong turn.

I'm assuming they come from downstream since we're at the head of the holler and spontaneous generation isn't part of nature's normal operating procedures.

I can already hear a grateful world saying "Thanks for sharing!" Well, yer welcome.

IT'S BAD. The latest unemployment figures, that is. We're now at 8.5 percent nationally.

PASS THE POPULISM PLEASE. Check out the latest in CEO pay here.

A MODEST PROPOSAL to make the most of the federal stimulus package to ease unemployment can be found here.

THIS IS WEIRD. A robot has apparently made a scientific discovery on its own, according to the folks at Wired Science. They don't look like people yet though--unless they've really got us fooled.