Battle For God (Book Review)

(Written October 7, 2005) Battle for God - A History of Fundamentalism (Amazon Link) is the title of a book by Karen Armstrong that I just read. I found it deeply disturbing, if only for the implications for the future. It is not an easy read, mainly because it is densely packed with history. Especially in the earlier years (the time line starts in the 1400’s) there are many unfamiliar (to me) characters and events - I had the sense at times that what was covered in one paragraph could have been the topic for a book by itself. But even without being able to keep all of the players and events straight the book still successfully conveyed the ever-changing theological interpretations, splits and power struggles within and between religions.

While acknowledging that all religious faiths have fundamentalist movements, Armstrong selects only four for her in-depth history: Jews (Israel), Sunni (Egypt) and Shii (Iran) Muslims, and Protestant (American) Christians. One point she makes is that the “fundamentalist” movements are themselves products of the modern age, with uniquely modern approaches to religion. And although the ways in which each religion manifests fundamentalist behavior are quite different, there is a common thread through all of them:

“They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices from the past. To avoid contamination, they often withdraw from mainstream culture to create a counterculture; yet fundamentalists are not impractical dreamers. They have absorbed the pragmatic rationalism of modernity, and under the guidance of their charismatic leaders, they refine these ‘fundamentals’ so as to create an ideology that provides the faithful with a plan of action. Eventually they fight back and attempt to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world. (p xiii)”

Throughout the book she refers to the concepts of mythos and logos, which are both essential. She makes the point that in the past people saw things in terms of both, which were effective in different realms in our lives.

“Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning… Mythos provided … context; it directed attention to the eternal and universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind. The various mythological stories, which were not intended to be taken literally, were an ancient form of psychology.” (p xv)

“Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world…. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities … to be effective…. We use this logical, discursive reasoning to make things happen…. Logos is practical, unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new.” (p xvii)

In the modern world we have mostly left mythos behind and operate almost entirely in logos. But,
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On The Other Side

(Written August 7, 2005) During the past school year we had some students living next door. Several months ago they were having a party for a friend who was home on leave from Afghanistan (serving with the Army). I told them I would like to meet the guy.

One of the guys and ‘Tony’ came over for a short visit. We popped open a few beers and talked for about a half hour. I don’t really recall many of the details of what we talked about - M-this’s and L- that’s and Things That Go Bang (day or night). Long hours on duty, bad food, raunchy living conditions - standard military topics. Instead I found myself stepping back from the conversation and observing in fascination.

He was sitting there with his foot tapping, full of nervous energy, talking nearly non-stop. And yet he wasn’t really talking to us - it was all stuff he had said many times before and would likely say many times again - a steady string of words with no real meaning. I’m sure it had become a pretty well practiced, automatic response - push the Defense Button and the words come out and the wall goes up and nobody can get within a million miles of you.

But what really caught my attention, in a lightning bright flash of realization, was that I was seeing myself nearly 40 years ago. Just like someone had held up a great shiny mirror. In all these years I had never seen myself then so clearly.

I guess a good part of the reason I had never seen this before was that I had only ever been around other Nam vets (and earlier) before. And with almost any Nam vet, once they learn that you are a fellow Nam vet, many of the walls go down and you are “brother”. So I guess I sort of expected that to happen with Tony, and it was a surprise to find myself on the other side of the wall with everyone else. And I think it was finding myself on the “outside” that made it suddenly clear to me.

There’s a line by King - one of my favorite characters in “Platoon” - where he is telling Taylor “all you have to do is make it out of here alive. Every day the rest of your life will be gravy compared to this”. And that is how it seems over there, but the sad truth for many is it does not turn out that way. Even those who did not face combat have still been in a very life changing experience. The “World” you were dreaming of the whole time over there no longer exists when you return. It does, but you are looking at it through an impenetrable invisible wall.

For example, you run into an old friend and the conversation goes something like this:

“Hey, haven’t seen you around in awhile - what you been up to?”

“I just got back from [fill in name of war]”.

“Oh…. uh, sounds rough. So, you hear about what [fill in name] did? [fill in some trivial bs about some meaningless event or long lengthy complaints about nothing-at-all]”

Or even worse: “Wow - so did you kill anybody?”

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Way Back Phone Call

(Written February 12, 2005) Over a year ago I got a Christmas card from a guy I’ve known for an awful long time, with a simple “give me a call sometime” message scribbled in it. I kept intending to do so all year, and this year I got another card from him with a similar message. I had never gotten around to sending him a card either year, so it was definitely on me.

“Tom” is one of only two people alive today who I can claim to have known for over 50 years (the other is my mother). I grew up in rural Maryland in an old house surrounded by fields, a stream, woods on all sides, and many animals. My father disappeared before I was born, and my early years were spent with my mother and her parents. I was a wild little nature kid, digging in the stream, building “forts” in the woods and harassing the ducks/chickens/dogs/cats/etc. I think there were only a very few times I even met another kid my own age until First Grade - up till then I played by myself and knew mostly only my immediate family.

First Grade was both a scary and exciting adventure, and “Tom” lived close enough that we were at the same school bus stop. Somehow, from his infinitely lofty and cool Third Grade pinnacle he deigned to show my beneath-contempt First Grade self the ropes of riding the bus, finding my Home Room, and so on - and become my first “friend”.

Being one of the few kids who was within walking distance, we hung out a lot together. My mother married again when I was 12 and we moved to the City (Arlington), but I still spent many weekends with my grandmother at the old Home Place, and with Tom. Although that was not the name I usually called him by.
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Honey Bee Queens

(written Jan 7, 2005) With the warm start to the new year I finally got around to removing the mite strips from the hives on January 1st (should have been done a month or two ago). I had been reading in the bee magazines about how heavy mite losses (that is, bees lost to mites) were expected this winter. A beekeeping friend in PA - after bragging how much honey he had gotten this summer, and how he hadn’t treated his hives for mites in 5 years - wrote in his Christmas card that his hive was dead by November. So I was happy to find that all the hives under my care (4 of my own, and 3 for a neighbor lady) were all doing well. What was really surprising to me was that in 4 of the 7 hives the queens had already started laying eggs again. According to Conventional Wisdom, that does not start until late January, although I’m sure there is a wide range of regional differences.

Fall is the preferred re-queening time, with a healthy young queen to over winter. Supposedly it also helps reduce swarming in the spring, although the bees generally seem to have their own minds on that one. I have been experimenting with different breeds of bees with two considerations in mind: mites, and gentleness (considering the hives are being kept in a residential area). The normal yellow/orange/banded honey bee most often seen is the “Italian” breed. Reasonably docile, although the individual genetics and other factors can range from extremely gentle to Don’t Mess With That Hive. Other bees are better known for gentleness, although most of them are not as good at honey production. I’ve tried “Caucasian” bees before, and this year I decided to try “New World Carniolans” - brown bees described as mite resistant and very gentle, although they supposedly like to swarm.

Generally, the feistier a hive is, the less likely it is to accept a new queen, especially one of a different breed. So I started out by introducing my new queens into small “nucleus” colonies, which were less likely to have an attitude about new things. After being accepted there, I moved those nucs, intact, into sections of the full hives, separated by newspaper. That way the queen is with established friendly bees, and it takes awhile for the bees to eat through the newspaper, by which time they should all be friends. The tricky part of all that is finding and removing the old queen first. Of course, the feistier the hive, the harder she can be to find. Sometimes you just have to work in the middle of an angry bee cloud, and hope you didn’t leave any openings in your suit…
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