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How little questions become bigger questions?

RadioLab is an exciting, quick-cut, question-asking podcast. Supposedly, it’s about science, but over the years, the questions keep growing. Little questions evolve into big questions if you are dogged in pursuing them as Jad and Robert, the two hosts, are. In “Bigger Little Questions” a kid asks why Earth is called “Earth.” Another question is whether space junk could accumulateuntil it kills, or strands, us. Big Questions indeed.


 

One of the most interesting dialogues in “Bigger Little Questions” is about fat. The discussion starts with a report about fatbergs, huge globules of fat that clog the London sewer system.A fatberg can weigh as much as 130 tons, 11 double-decker English buses, says The Guardian. Gross, for sure, but what’s the big question? How to dissolve it? How to prevent it? For Londoners maybe, but there is a persistent Dutch guy who is obsessed with fatbergs, wants to build one, but more than that, he wants to know where fat comes from. How did it enter the universe, and what good is it? To pursue the question he and colleagues build a purer fatberg than the British one. Partly it is a science experiment, and partly, an art installation. By the end of the “Bigger Little” discussion, it dawns on you that fat is the essential container for human life. Without it, we wouldn’t be.

Which news is the devil’s news?

Temptation and Fall of Eve, William Blake, 1808

On January 24, 2018, Pope Francis released a statement about fake news. It’s worth reading even if you are not a Francis fan.

As you would expect, it’s a homily (for Protestants, a sermon). His use of the story of Eden’s serpent is engaging. Francis equates the serpent with the Devil. (I would not.) Anyway, Mr. Serpent-Devil tempts Eve (never Adam) by giving her fake news, telling her a lie. The lie’s effectiveness consists in it’s sounding like a Big Truth, the one God is hiding from Eve and Adam, for their own good, of course. If you are in the know, the Big Truth is: You can live forever. And the Devil can put you in the know. Here, he says, have a bite.

Tradition says the instrument of truth was an apple. More likely it was a fig. Today it’s a tweet.

Francis pleads for honest and true dialogue coupled with honest, dig-deep journalism written by reporters who care about people:

“I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace.  By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they are the majority in our world – who have no voice. A journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes. A journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence.”

Who could argue with this? Journalism, the pope declares, is a mission. I’m sure for him “mission” is a term of elevation, like “calling,” not like the missions of missionaries, whom some journalists would regard as agents of religious imperialism.

The truth, the pope says, is not only true facts but also the life that proceeds from them. And the guarantor of truth is God. You expected that, right? Fair enough; the pope is a Christian.

But here’s the problem: Men and women of God, from the pope down through the hierarchy, are not gods. In theory, they know they are human spokespersons. In theory, they know they get things wrong. Like us, like the snake, they too lie, are misinformed, or are self-deceived. The problem is that there is no way to get the pure, simple truth straight from God, the guarantor of truth. Always there is an evangelist or pope or priest or pastor or rabbi or imam speaking for God. And their speaking for often becomes speaking as: Listen to what I am saying as if God were talking through me.

I love the talking through metaphor. Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist. His puppets are funny and controversial. Watch Dunham on YouTube and meet his friends, Walter, a crabby old white racist, or Ahmed, a skeleton who wants to blow everything up. Jeff literally talks through, or talks as, each character. We viewers don’t know how much Walter or Ahmed speaks for Jeff, the performer-animator on stage. Jeff can always sidestep by declaring to his manikin: I didn’t say that; you said that. A viewer can never know “the truth,” so the truth cannot make us free. Rather the multiple truths issuing from the mouths of puppets make us laugh. We in the audience are always spinning among perspectives–never quite getting at THE truth–and laughing at ourselves when we can’t.

The problem is not only that the Devil is a ventriloquist, presumably speaking God’s truth, it is that clergy too are ventriloquists. What they say may be truthful or not, biased or not. They may convey true news but they also may convey fake news.

Recently, the pope formally apologized to Chileans for sexual abuse in the church. A good first step. But, as Francis was leaving, he snarled back at a journalist, “There is not one shred of proof against him [a bishop accused of molesting children]. It’s all calumny. Is that clear?”

Chilean courts have found otherwise. So pick your devil: the journalist and courts versus the pope defending his own. In Chile confidence in the church has dropped from 80% in 1997 to less than 40% in 2017. The papal visit might have helped stem the tide of distrust, but the pope’s accusation of calumny undermined his credibility, leaving us in the audience spinning, trying to figure out who is the serpent and who is the spokesperson for God.

Unfortunately, the joke isn’t remotely funny.

We croak?

Want to be reminded fives times a day that you’re gonna croak?

We Croak will do that for you.

Presumably based on an old Bhutanese saying about the secret of happiness, the app sends you wise sayings or poetry or a line to remind you that you should contemplate death at least five times daily.

A spiritual protein diet.

If the app promised to kill at least five pieces of email in my inbox, I’d sign up.

If five times a day isn’t enough, there are t-shirts. That way you can forget your own death (unless you read your own t-shirts upside down or backwards in the mirror). This way your friends and colleagues can contemplate their becroakment in the mirror of your t-shirt.

In “The App That Reminds You You’re Going to Die” (Atlantic) Bianca Bosker writes:

I’m eating lunch with my husband one afternoon when WeCroak presents a line from the Zen poet Gary Snyder: “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”

I welcomed these grisly reminders into my life in the hope that WeCroak, along with half a dozen other mindfulness apps, could help transform my iPhone from a stressful distraction into a source of clarity and peace. According to a study by a research firm called Dscout, Americans check their phone an average of 76 times a day for a cumulative two and a half hours—and while many would like to cut back, simple willpower isn’t always enough. Amid growing concerns over our phone fixation, Silicon Valley has, in typical fashion, proposed technology as the solution; there are now more than 1,000 mindfulness apps designed to help us disconnect.

A thousand mindfulness apps? How mindful is that?

Probably more mindful than 76 times a day.

Why build your house on sand?

In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible).

The rock is an important biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off the name by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition.” As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change. They are rocks.

The Dutch, however, are learning to build on sand using a Sand Motor, (the NPR story).

Unlike rock and its descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. You have to ask, What would Jesus do? Well, he’d want you to treat his planet well, and he was a creative storyteller, so what else, adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations. The rain came down, the cracks widened, the streams rose, the winds blew and beat against that house. It fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”