So here's the problem.
It's the afternoon of Christmas Day--or any other annual observance in which the giving of gifts is a piece of the action--and your floor is littered with the shredded wrappings of a dozen different holiday offerings. All have one thing in common: you instantly know that don't want them. Or maybe you do want them. What the hell. But even if you do--even if you actually plan to display them all over your house--there's no escaping the fact that this stuff is gonna be collecting a whole lot of dust. And that's just not healthy.
Dust, after all, is one of the major causes of allergies in this country, and if you keep all that stuff at your feet, you're facing a runny nose from here to next September. Now consider all of the potential dust-collectors you were planning to distribute to the many Loved Ones on your Christmas list this year. Do you really want to be the cause of aggravated sniffles and irritated sinuses? Of course not.
Fortunately for you, and your friends and relations, there are numerous gifts on the market that are completely--or almost completely--dustless and non-cluttering, because these gifts do not technically exist. They exist, but not in the same way that your brand-new wooden beaver sculpture exists. The energetic shopper will find a vast array of such clutterless gifts, from stars that can be named after your Uncle Pete to an authentic ordination for your sister, through the famous we'll-ordain-anyone Universal Life Church. We like those ideas. Here are a few others we like even better.
Your Loved Ones don't have to be practicing scripophilers to appreciate a gift of well-chosen company stock. Once engaged in a bit of holiday scripophily, however (scripophily, by the way, is the act of collecting stock certificates), they may just end up becoming hardened collectors of the highly abstract stuff.
The cool thing about stock is that, with even a single share, a person will suddenly feel linked to an entire industry or organized activity. There is a company in San Francisco that has cleverly co-opted the idea of giving single shares of stock as gifts. OneShare.com will sell just that, a solitary item of stock from one of dozens of your Loved Ones favorite companies, including Walt Disney, Toys R Us, Anheiser Busch, Pixar Studios, Harley Davidson, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, the World Wrestling Federation--and just for yuks, Martha Stewart, Inc.
Using the convenient website, it'll cost you about $30-40 dollars, depending on the stock you choose; if your L.O. would appreciate tactile proof of your generosity, you can gift wrap the actual stock certificate, which in many cases are pretty cool looking, and come framed in a variety of styles and prices (though we really don't encourage that sort of thing because, hey, even a framed stock certificate is one more thing to dust).
For folks who'd like to own a piece of the past, you can even give a share of authentic--if slightly late--stock in the RMS Titanic Corporation. The website is the best way to order but you can also order by phone at (888) 777-6919.
Your Very Own Dolphin
Who doesn't love dolphins, and who hasn't always secretly wanted to have one? Well, over in Scotland--on the rocky coast of Moray Firth, to be exact--there is a whole clan of dolphins--Lighting, Whisky, Jigsaw and Sundance, to name a few--who are just waiting to be adopted in the name of someone on your shopping list.
Adopt a Dolphin--www.adoptadolphin.com--is a program sponsored by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, which applies all adoption fees to help protect and study the dolphins of Moray Firth and abroad. The website is set up for gift-giving adoptions, and recipients will receive information about their new dolphin, and are even invited to visit whenever they are in the UK. That's the best part of giving someone a dolphin; the thing stays in Scotland for someone else to worry about.
Okay. So you want to give a gift that will really sweep 'em off their feet and impress the heck out of them, while giving them the thrill of their lifetime? Well, for a mere $49 dollars, you can hand your Loved One a nice, unexpected Be A Pilot Introductory Flight Lesson.
During the lesson, your L.O. will actually get to fly the airplane . . . in the sky, among the birds and the clouds and the little lost birthday balloons. Be a Pilot (www.beapilot.com) is a nonprofit educational effort sponsored by the General Aviation Industry as a way of introducing the public to the thrills and joys and satisfaction of what they like to call "personal flying." The service provides inexpensive introductory flight lessons at more than 1,800 certified flight schools around the Northern Hemisphere, from Peoria to Petaluma, from Saskatchewan to San Jose. Each lesson is conducted by an FAA-licensed flight instructor. You can register for a certificate on the website (and print the thing out right there on your computer) or by calling 888-BE-A-PILOT.
Face it. Gift certificates are often tacky; a thinly disguised way of saying, "I couldn't be bothered to figure out what you want or who you are as a person. I barely know who I am, so I'm giving you this gift certificate so you can go out and do the footwork your own self."
Gift cards, while sometimes appearing as little more than a plastic version of a gift certificate, have a certain flexibility that makes them allows them to be more personalized than a hunk of paper from Sears or the Wherehouse. Does your Loved One like coffee? Most coffee companies from Starbucks to Wolf to You-Name-It, will sell you card in any dollar amount you name. Your L.O. can use it like a credit card, with the amount of each latté being deducted from the remaining value of the card.
Gradually, more and more products--from doughnuts to miniature golf to Lazertag games--are being offered using these kinds of gift cards; in some cases, a card will be accepted at more than one company. With a DinnerGuest card, for example (www.dinnerguest.com) your Loved One can enjoy a lavish meal at any restaurant that accepts Visa cards, depending on how much cash you choose to place on their Dinner Guest card, which they can carry with them until the opportunity arises to use it. Chances are good they'll do so long before the thing has a chance to gather any dust.
I rose early last Easter Sunday, shortly after daybreak. With a thermos full of coffee and a few well-chosen medical supplies, I left the house and headed for the cemetery.
I had a date with Jesus.
Our rendezvous had been planned since the previous fall, ever since the day I bumped into Mary's favorite son while strolling through the graveyard's maze-like mausoleum. He was a statue, almost life-size, carved in wood, propped up at the end of the corridor. The arms were outstretched, hands upturned to display the famous gaping nail wounds, painted Day-Glo red for maximum shock value.
Though the artist obviously meant for this Jesus to appear transcendent, God-like, reaching out to beckon us all lovingly to his side, to me he looked like some poor guy saying, "Hey, man, can I borrow a Band-Aid?"
I'm serious. My first impulse when I saw the thing was to jog home for some gauze and surgical tape. I meant -- and mean -- no disrespect.
Honest to Jesus I don't.
Now 41 years old, I have, at various times, been an Episcopalian, a Methodist, a Baptist, and even a "nondenominational Born-Again." In short, I've seen my fill of bleeding Jesuses. The only thing they have ever inspired in me -- beyond a certain revulsion -- is sympathy.
So as I first set my gaze upon this new wooden Jesus, all I wanted to do -- and I really wanted to do this -- was to bandage those hands.
But I resisted the urge. I went home. I tried to forget about it. Still, I couldn't get that powerful little notion out of my mind. I kept thinking of those mangled wooden hands, imagining them all wrapped and bandaged, safe and sound. Yet the very idea of a bandaged Jesus, a healed Jesus, runs counter to our expectations. It's abnormal. It's spooky. "A triaged Jesus! What the hell is this? Hey, where're the damn nail holes?" It's obvious that, with or without the whole sacrifice-and-salvation view of the crucifixion, a lot of people just plain like to see Jesus bleeding.
The history of Christian religious art is, in many ways, one long odd tribute to our fascination with the bloodstained corpse of the poor carpenter from Galilee. The crucifixion, clearly, ranks among the most powerful and oft-repeated images in Western art. From Hieronymus Bosch and Michelangelo to El Greco and Rembrandt, from Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso to Andres Serrano and Salvador Dali, few major artists seem able to resist doing Jesus on that cross.
Whenever artists dare to tinker with the sanctified symbol of the gleefully murdered Christ, a hailstorm of controversy inevitably rains down on them. But these are often the most daring and, one could argue, spiritually transforming images of Jesus that we have. In Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS, painter W. Maxwell Lawton transposes Jesus' suffering into modern terms by taking him off the cross and showing him shirtless and silent, his nail wounds replaced by telltale body sores. Arthur Boyd's Crucifixion, Shoalhaven gives us a cross erected in the midst of a flowing river, and its naked, crucified Savior breaks tradition by daring to be a woman, thus insisting that Jesus truly represented all humans, regardless of gender.
These works are controversial, to say the least. Serrano's Piss Christ is perhaps the best, and least understood, example of what happens when an artist throws the cross into a different light. So incensed were Christians by the infamous photograph of a crucifix floating in urine that they never bothered to ponder the deeper meaning of the work -- or recognize its visual beauty -- calling vehemently for an end to the National Endowment of the Arts funds that helped pay for the exhibition.
Perhaps a crucifix floating in a vat of blood would be more to their tastes.
Even back in the days that I believed Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, I was uncomfortable about our obsession with the gory exhibitionism of so many Christ images. I preferred the laughing Jesuses, the meditating Jesuses, the living Jesuses, to the battered, blood-drenched ones. Even resurrected, Jesus always seemed to be leading with his wounds. Whenever I found a crucified Jesus that did not repel me, it was usually one that minimized the wounds and maximized the humanity. My favorites include Gauguin's Yellow Christ -- a jaundiced Jesus draped on the cross, breath-stopping despite its lack of oozing wounds -- and Dali's Corpus Hypercubus, showing Jesus floating before the cross in a crucified pose, not a sign of nail prints -- or even nails -- to cast the ghastly shadow of sadism onto the otherwise heightened beauty of Jesus.
Yes, I understand that the idea of salvation, as symbolized by those ever- clotless, public execution-made lacerations, is itself a meaningful and powerful and beautiful thing to many. So what? If we love Jesus, why would we want to keep the guy crucified?
As I thought of the statue in the mausoleum, I couldn't avoid thinking that the crucified Jesus, as art, is a symbol of more than salvation and sacrifice. It's a symbol of psychological damage on the human species.
A friend of mine who's done a lot of traveling once remarked that while passing through some of the world's most impoverished, disease-ridden, politically oppressed countries, she began to notice that the local religious artworks, in and around the churches and chapels, tend to be stunningly gory. The images of Jesus -- whether they show him in mid-crucifixion, being laid to rest in the tomb, or right after the Resurrection -- are positively dripping in blood. As she continued through the tiny villages of central Mexico, it became clearer and clearer: The worse off the people have it, the worse off their Jesus is.
The reason is fairly obvious. According to Christian tradition, Jesus came to offer comfort. Even the thought of Jesus' death -- an event the early church spinmeisters turned into a metaphysical blood-for-sin exchange, bringing salvation to the world -- offers comfort to those worried about what happens after death. If certain cultures are subconsciously moved to put their paint-and-plaster saviors through the artistic Cuisinart, it's clearly because doing so makes them feel better. So they erect crucifixes bearing corpses so pummeled that they barely look human. In the face of a Jesus so unimaginably brutalized, their own suffering diminishes in comparison.
But what's our excuse?
Sure, our country is currently at war. We've suffered a devastating national tragedy. The economy is struggling, the dot.com boom went bust, and a lot of people are looking for work. But are things so tough in America that we need to make our statues bleed just to feel more whole? Is the stock market so bad, are the crime rates so high and the high school test scores so low that we need to find comfort by running into a sculpture with its hands and feet punched full of holes? Is this a tradition we really need? I don't.
So this year, I initiated a new tradition.
While others were sleeping, or scattering Easter eggs on their lawn, or gathering on mountaintops for sunrise services, I found Jesus, standing in the freezing cold mausoleum. I touched those twin faux nail-prints painted on those hand-carved hands. Then I wrapped the hands carefully in clean white bandages.
Standing back to look upon my handiwork, I experienced what can only be called a religious experience. A mix of emotions moved through me as I looked at Jesus, his arms outstretched, his scars invisible beneath the soft, soothing gauze. I took both of his hands -- now warm from the bandages so recently carried in my pocket -- and I spoke a short, sweet prayer.
"Be free," I said.
And that's how I left him.
While I have only the wispiest illusions that my little act of philosophical performance art could ever become a national movement on a par with tying yellow ribbons on trees during times of international strife, I like to imagine that my act may be repeated in years to come by those who, like myself, were moved by the unexpected sight of a bandaged Messiah, and are inspired, on future Easters, to make their own offer of comfort to a champion comforter. The way I see it, Jesus has been bleeding for 2,000 years.
It's time to let the man heal.
The truth isn't always pretty. Consider the act of kissing. Smooching. Locking lips. Grabbing some sugar. Whatever you call it, kissing is a worldwide pastime so popular, so pleasurable, so commonplace that the average human being will spend two full weeks of their lives doing it. That's 336 hours -- or 20,160 minutes, or 120,960 seconds -- spent engaged in the act of ardent osculation.
There are, of course, all kinds of kisses. Diane Ackerman lists a few in her book A Natural History of the Senses: "wild hungry kisses," "rollicking kisses," and "kisses as fluttery and soft as the feathers of cockatoos."
In short, kissing is a wonderful thing. We do a lot of it. Most of us enjoy it. And almost all of us remember our very first kiss with some degree of wistful nostalgia.
So leave it to anthropologists to spoil everything, to yank the pulse-pounding romance from one of our favorite human activities. In particular, blame goes to those unsentimental science sleuths who've gone and figured out why we started kissing in the first place.
To repeat: It isn't pretty.
Just as children are frequently freaked after learning the truth about where they really came from -- "Wait! Wait! Daddy did what?" -- it's quite certain that many modern lovers will be appalled and revolted to learn that the act of kissing began with prehistoric mothers chewing up food -- then pushing it into their children's mouths with their tongues. "Hungry, honey? Then come give Mama a kiss!"
There are other theories, of course. According to one, kissing evolved from the smelling of a companion's face as an act of greeting, as if to determine the mood, disposition, and recent adventures of the newcomer (much like your cat or dog does on welcoming another pet into the house after a frolic in the yard). While performing this animalistic smelling ritual, the theory goes, certain groups began touching foreheads or noses or lips, a comforting custom that remained long after its original motivation had faded into the mists of time.
Another possibility is that our primitive lip-locking ancestors, imagining that human breath carried the power of one's soul, were attempting to inhale the hot breath of their loved ones and, by exchanging breaths, fusing their souls together. At least that suggestion is kind of sexy.
If these conjectures are true -- and they certainly are bizarre enough to be true -- then the evolution of the kiss, from its rough, regurgitative beginnings to the elevated state of romantic respect it now enjoys, is surely one of human culture's most remarkable, and unpredictable, transformations.
Just take the jump from those first caveman kisses to 16th-century England, where the game of passing a clove-studded apple proved a popular staple at Elizabethan country fairs. Players first prepared an apple by piercing it with as many cloves as the fruit could hold. A maid then carried the apple through the fair till she spied a lad she thought worth kissing. She would offer him the apple, and once he'd selected and chewed one of the cloves, they would share a kiss. After that, the apple passed into the man's possession, and he would venture off in search of another lass to continue the game with.
By the time the apple had lost its cloves, at least a hundred people had been kissed twice. The cloves, by the way, were for freshening the breath -- proving that those Elizabethans were as clever as they were horny.
Jump again to the sort of kiss described by 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns with these gentle words:
"Honeyed Seal of soft affections, Tenderest pledge of future bliss, Dearest tie of young connections, love's first snowdrop, virgin kiss."
Yes. Yes. These lines might inspire some modern people to barf, thus proving that the kiss hasn't changed all that much in the last several thousand years. Or that may also just reveal how much our taste in poetry has changed since the days of Bobby Burns.
"Kissing must now be seen as an art form," explains sex therapist Dr. Victoria Lee, author of the newly published book Ecstatic Lovemaking (Conari Press; $16.95). "To me, kissing truly is an art form. It's the most intimate of physical acts, more intimate than sex -- think of the prostitutes who will do anything but kiss. Like other kinds of sexual and sensual acts, it's an opportunity to express the deepest essence of our being, and when we see it that way, everything changes, from the way we kiss to the way we make love."
On the other hand, history shows that kissing, art form or no, hasn't always been approved of. While the Elizabethans were passing the apple, the government of Naples, Italy, was banning the practice of kissing entirely, making it an offense punishable by death. Certain ancient Finnish tribes might bathe together in the buff in coed groups with everyone's naked genitalia on conspicuous display, yet oddly they believed kissing to be indecent and distasteful.
Even today, right here in America, kissing can get you into trouble. In Indiana, there is a law on the books making it illegal for a mustached man to "habitually kiss human beings," and in Hartford, Conn., a husband is prohibited from kissing his wife on Sunday.
While anthropologists continue to nail down the specific origins of kissing, other scientists are working to discover its medical and social effects on us. Did you know that the average kisser burns 26 calories a minute while smooching? There have even been studies suggesting that people who kiss their spouses goodbye before leaving for work average higher incomes than do those heartless people who don't.
So when all is said and done, it seems that the reason we kiss is that, on a hundred different levels, it's good for us.
"Humans need enjoyable physical contact," Dr. Lee says. "However it was that kissing evolved, however it continues to evolve, we cannot overestimate the spiritual and physical importance of one human being kissing the lips of another."
David Templeton is a freelance writer living in Sonoma County, California.
Many Americans will find this unlikely -- it will surely come as a shock to George W. Bush -- but there are a number of religious thinkers in this world who maintain that That Old Time Religion is seriously showing its age. From the pews to the pulpit, the faith is weakening. There is evidence, in fact, to support the notion that Christianity, as we all know and love-or-hate it, is (to state it in the proper historical parlance) pretty much doomed.
Church attendance within most denominations is at an all-time low. Among Catholics, so few novitiates are stepping up to take the vows that the church is suffering a severe shortage of priests and nuns. The calm logic of Science has cast clear doubt on the fairy-tale myths of 7-day creation and virgin births. Many active practitioners openly admit they no longer believe half the stuff they read in their scriptures or recited in their liturgies. There are even a growing number of Christian priests and ministers who preach that Jesus, while still ranking as an undeniably good soul and a damn fine speaker, may not technically have been God after all.
Oops. Sorry about that.
Now sure, sure. The trumpet could sound an hour from now and Jesus could descend in a puff of clouds to snatch up his followers and dump tribulation on the rest of us mortals, an event that would render this discussion embarrassingly moot. Certainly, that's what John Ashcroft and his fellow Fundamentalists are praying for. But if we assume (as the vast majority of practicing Christians these days do), that the Bible's scary apocalyptic proclamations are mainly metaphorical, then we must face the fact that this world of ours may go on for some time. Unless of course, we destroy it ourselves out of sheer human incompetence.
The question then, assuming the world does continue, is this: Can Christianity possibly continue along with it? Will anyone still be practicing Christianity a thousand years from now, or even a hundred? And if anyone does, will it look anything like the Christianity being practiced today?
These, brothers and sisters, are the questions that Dr. Robert W. Funk has been asking himself for decades. Now he is preparing to go out and find the answers.
Starting this year, a group of nearly 200 religious scholars from around the world will be joining Funk in an epic, soul-rattling research project that is as potentially soul-shattering as it is bold and brazen. In February, they gathered in Northern California for the first of several conferences; titled "The Once and Future Faith," the gathering included such world-class thinkers as English author/theologian Karen Armstrong (The Battle for God), Cambridge professor Don Cupitt (Taking Leave of God, The Sea of Faith), New Zealand's Lloyd Geering (Tomorrow's God), and former Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism). The entire group convened for five days of open-minded hard work. Their goal: to determine through debate and discussion whether or not Jesus can be saved, and to develop an agenda for a full-scale, back-to-the-blueprints reinvention of Christianity.
Though the event produced no Earth-shaking manifestations of that "re-invention," no galvanizing manifestos to lead the faith into a brave new future -- the deliberations were, in fact, surprisingly abstract and metaphysical, often tengentializing into arguments about the "meaning of meaning" and "reality vs. non-reality" -- the full Jesus Seminar is determined to meet twice a year for as long as it takes.
"I expect progress will be glacial," says Funk. "Things will move slowly at first, as we find our footing. It certainly isn't an easy task we've set ourselves. It will be very difficult, if it can be done at all. But that's what makes it so exciting." Funk, the author of Honest to Jesus and other books, is the founder of the Westar Institute, the international non-profit research foundation best known as the sponsor of the controversial Jesus Seminar. A long-term project involving religious historians from around the planet, the Seminar has recently concluded its 16-year-long, historical examination of the Gospels, those four books of the New Testament that describe the life and teachings of Jesus. According to the scholars, less than ten percent of the words and actions attributed to Jesus can be certified as fully authentic. This means that the rest of it -- the manger, the miracles, the resurrection, the stuff about his being the literal Son of God -- is entirely fictional.
Clearly, these findings challenge modern Christians to consider the relevance of a faith that was born of an ancient mindset, spun from the sociological cloth of now-faded traditions and mythologies. The concept of a spritual saviour -- a human sacrifice to wash away the crimes of humanity -- doesn't fly so far in a society that doubts the existence of original sin.
Thus the crisis. Won't a widening public awareness of the real Jesus cause a shift in the way Christianity is observed? Will the authentic voice of Jesus have a chance against 2000 years of Salvation-Machine propaganda?
So far, Funk and company have avoided those questions. Until now, the scholars have stayed focused on the very neat and tidy historical task of identifying the authentic Jesus, deliberately staying away from any theological interpretations of their findings; especially interpretations that had to do with the historical Jesus' relevance to the modern world.
But that time is over.
"Having completed our work on the Gospels, at least tentatively," explains Funk, elbows resting on the book cluttered table of his Santa Rosa home, "we have to go forward now and ask what all of our findings mean. We can't let it go with just the historical work. Historical knowledge of any religion has consequences. Now we're asking ourselves what those consequences are."
What those consequences are won't be decided right away, Funk insists. The scholars will take their time. The first meetings will serve mainly to take the temperature of the scholars, to find out how many of them think the mainline churches can be reformed, and how many feel the churches are simply beyond hope.
"There's still a lot of power in the mainline churches," cautions Funk, "and if we can reform them, if we can change their direction ... " He shrugs, lets out a sigh. "But I'm very skeptical that we can do that. It's possible that the world would be better off without Christianity. We may find that it makes the most sense to just let this tradition die."
After generations of Church corruption, after countless barbaric acts done in the name of Jesus, after millions of psyches wounded by Christianity's well-honed knack for spreading guilt and making us all feel like hell, there are plenty of people who'd welcome the demise of Christianity -- on purely humanitarian grounds.
But don't dress for the funeral just yet.
"Christianity is a very durable religion," points out Robert Miller, Ph.D. A scholar-in-residence at Westar Institute, he's the editor of The Complete Gospels and the author of The Jesus Seminar and its Critics. "Christianity has not only survived," he says, "but flourished under many hostile environments. It's adapted itself over and over again. Christianity may well have a long life ahead of itself."
But this ain't your father's Christianity he's talking about.
"1000 years from now, Christianity will look very different from what we see today," he says, "as different as today's Christianity would look to the Christians of 1000 years ago. Many things we believe today would have been considered heretical and demonic 1000 years ago, and in the future, if Christianity does survive, it will be very different faith."
Whether it's a better faith or a worse one is impossible to say.
Raised as a Catholic -- he's still a regular attendee of Mass -- Miller explains that his own faith was challenged after he discovered the depth and richness of other religions, particularly Hinduism.
"In the Hindu scriptures," he says, "I found a depth of insight and spiritual profundity that was more amazing than anything I'd known in my own faith."
Which points to one of the reasons that Christianity is changing: With the rise of the Infoprmation Age and unprecedented access to all corners of the globe, we've gained a new appreciation of other cultures, customs and faiths, and the more we learn of other people, the less "other" they look. After all, it's easier to dismiss another's faith when the only religion you understand is your own.
Miller also points out that Christianity has always absorbed the practices of other belief systems. This could be a good thing.
"Look at the way it co-opted pagan Nature rituals and converted them into Christmas and Easter," he says. In the same way, Miller believes that the Christianity of the future could be influenced by modern notions including those of science and psychology.
He also hopes that the benevolent philosophies of the historic Jesus -- which he and the Jesus Seminar have worked hard to pull out from the Salvation-obsessed trappings of the Church -- will be a major influence on the Christianity of the future.
This will be the tricky part.
"We've traditionally claimed too much for Jesus," says Bruce Miller (no relation to Robert), Senior Minister of Robertson-Wesley United Church in Edmonton, Canada. "We've made Jesus into a god, but his voice is much more valuable to us when we hear it as the voice of a man."
A long-time fellow of the Jesus Seminar, Miller insists that his life has been richer since letting go of the fabricated "Divine Jesus" and embracing the authentic "philosopher Jesus," the one who preached about the Kingdom of Heaven that exists on earth right now; the one who charged his fellow humans to love and take care of one another; the man who called for the end of organized religions.
With that in mind, Miller can't wait to join Funk and company in developing that radical reformation of the faith.
"We have an opportunity to go back and retrieve a new beginning," he says. "And if we do, it will change the way we do worship, the way we do prayer, the way we think about God.
"It will shake Christianity to its very core."
Among the changes that may come is one that currently seems unthinkable.
The name of the faith may have to be changed. 1000 years from now, Christianity may have abandoned the word Christ.
"I find it not helpful to use a lot of words that ascribe to a theology we don't want to support anymore," says Miller. "The word Christ has come to mean a certain thing to certain people, a redeemer, a Messiah, a saviour. I think we should stop using the word Christ, and the word Lord, and instead focus of the man's humanity and the beauty of his message.
"By listening to the authentic voice of Jesus, people will make something new. As people find less attachment to the institutions of the religion, they'll have more interest in finding their own kinds of faith. And Jesus will be a part of that."
"Eventually," says Miller, "I think people from other faiths will be claiming Jesus, too."
Hold on, humans. A revolution is coming. When it strikes, you'll know it, because this revolution will dramatically change the direction of our country, the world, and probably the human race. Unfortunately, we may have to wait for it. See, most of its leaders don't even know it's happening yet.
That's right, the revolutionaries themselves are not aware of their part in the revolution. And according to anthropologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson, it is that very lack of knowledge that is delaying the inevitable explosion. If the bold revolutionaries only knew that there were other revolutionaries out there -- 50 million of them -- all separately dreaming of a brave new world, well ... there would be no stopping them.
But alas! They remain unaware: unaware of each other; unaware that they are, already, a significant part of the movement that could end up being the most important sociological evolution of the New Millennium; unaware, even, that they already have a nifty nickname.
They are the Cultural Creatives.
Named and identified by Ray in a 1996 report titled "A Study of the Emergence of Transformational Values in America," the Cultural Creatives are apparently an emerging force of disparate but ethically similar people -- passionately altruistic, devoted to social justice, and deeply concerned about the environment -- that is growing exponentially across the planet and is already having an irreversible impact on global society.
These conclusions are based on 13 years of survey research studies by Ray, executive vice president of American LIVES Inc., an opinion-polling firm researching the values and lifestyles of Americans. The findings are meticulously and entertainingly revealed in The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (Harmony; $25), co-authored with Anderson, co-author of the best-selling The Feminine Face of God.
The married duo are just now wrapping up a months-long speaking tour to promote the book -- and to sound the wake-up call to latent CCs everywhere.
These people, say Ray and Anderson, will be the shapers of a whole new agenda for the 21st century.
"This is not about official policies," says Ray. "This is not about businesses making small, incremental changes. This is about a fundamental change in the whole way of life of the culture. We've got to deal with big structural changes in the next 25 years, or we're going to be in big trouble."
Anderson and Ray, holding forth in the living room of their comfortably book-crammed, art-filled home near Dominican College, are articulate and authoritative on their subject. Asked to define the average Cultural Creative, they refer to the 18-point checklist at the front of their book.
According to the list, the anything-but-average CCs -- of which the authors are themselves more-or-less typical -- are lovers of nature "deeply concerned about its destruction," are unhappy with both the left and the right in politics, are working to ensure equal status for women, tend to be distrustful of media cynicism, and are rather optimistic about the future.
Hmmm. Environmentalism, social justice, equality for women; on first pass, it kind of sounds like "Cultural Creative" is just another way of saying "Liberal."
Not so, says Ray.
"Cultural creatives are no more likely to be liberal or conservative than anyone else in the population," he insists, citing the studies. "The highest percent, like 45 to 48 percent, something like that -- are none of the above, neither left nor right."
"There are two pieces to the story of the Cultural Creatives," expounds Anderson. "One piece is, 'Who are they, how come there are so many of them, and what do they care about?' The other piece is, 'OK. So what? So we have one more group of people. We already have the baby boomers and Generation X. Why do the Cultural Creatives matter?'"
The reason, says Anderson, is immensely simple.
"The reason it matters is because these are people who care," she says. "They want to make a difference."
If Anderson and Ray's predictions are correct -- that the CCs will step in to act as midwives for the next level of human sociopolitical achievement -- they will have to get organized pretty soon. Does that mean there will one day be a Cultural Creative political party?
In short, yes.
But first they'll have to come out of the closet.
And that might not be a simple maneuver. Because of course, they still don't know they're a movement yet.
"Right now, if you ask any one of them, the Cultural Creatives will tell you, 'Oh, maybe 1 percent of the population agrees with my values,'" says Ray. "They'll say, 'Five percent at the most.' I've had focus groups where people have said, 'I don't know how you got so many of us in a room together. I thought it was just me and my friends who had these ideas.' "
"Since the '60s, we've had 20 kinds of new social movements, consciousness movements, and trends," says Anderson, "and those have, basically, been the seedbed from which the Cultural Creatives have come. But in the '80s, people in these movements started to say, 'Hey. Where did everybody go?'
"They didn't go anywhere. They became the Cultural Creatives."
Such is the worldwide Zeitgeist, say Anderson and Ray, that these proto-CCs have since been joined by others. Many others. And the American members have now been officially outnumbered.
"There are 50 million Cultural Creatives in America," Ray says, again citing the studies described in the book, "but there are 80 or 90 million in Western Europe. They've been growing steadily since the '60s, a very slow growth process, about a half a percent a year. When I started this work 13 years ago, the Cultural Creatives were around 18 to 20 percent. Now they're at 26, and I expect it will be half the population in another 10 years."
At which point, the movement will break on through to the surface.
"Then," says Ray, "there will be major changes."
By that time of course, the Cultural Creatives -- and everyone else on the planet Earth -- will know exactly who and what they are.
Think about America. Turn the word over in your mind. America, the land of liberty, the richest nation in the world. America, home of the brave and the brave investor. America, to the shores of which come the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to be free-market capitalists. America, where greed is good, failure is bad, and everyone wants to be a millionaire.
Now consider Buddhism.
That's right. Buddhism. The dharma path. The road to enlightenment.
Turn the word Buddhism around in your mind awhile. Whether you are familiar with Buddhist philosophy or not, you probably can conjure a notion of what Buddhism seems to be about, of what kind of person a Buddhist might be. You may imagine scarlet robes and shaved heads. You might see the Buddha himself: peaceful and smiling, large and shirtless.
Got it? Good.
Hold those two ideas in your thoughts a second. Allow them to dangle there in your mind. America and Buddhism. Buddhism and America. Now squeeze the two together.
Sounds like some unlikely distant cousin of jumbo shrimp and nonalcoholic beer, as paradoxically mind-boggling as "flexible ethics," "religious tolerance," or, ahem, "compassionate conservatism."
Yet before we trip too far on some sweet oxymoronic high, we'd do well to return to our meditation on the meanings of "America" and "Buddhism." Because, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, American Buddhism -- with all its tasty paradoxes fully on view -- is clearly an oxymoron to be reckoned with.
Recent estimates put the number of American Buddhists at somewhere around 3 million, a group comprised of both Asian Buddhist immigrants and Western converts. Often connected to one of the increasing hundreds of Zen centers and other Buddhist training centers in the country, these practitioners range from traditional monastic adherents (full-time monks and nuns) to garden-variety working-class Buddhists (or "weekend meditators"), people with houses and cars and families and careers -- and a spiritual practice that, while relatively new to America, does have a few thousand years of impressive momentum behind it.
Yet this is America, a culture obsessed with a hunger for wealth and property, a populace powered by a mainstream encouragement of greed and envy and avaricious desire. Let's face it: in America, if you can't make money, you can't be taken seriously; if you don't dream of becoming rich and famous (or at least rich), you aren't properly American.
But didn't the Buddha teach (roughly paraphrasing here) that such earthly desires lead to sorrow and pain, that only by transcending greed and envy and the pursuit of material goods will we find true, enduring happiness? So how, then, does American Buddhism integrate these two apparently opposite ideals? How can you live in a culture where money is necessary, yet follow a spiritual path in which the desire for money is poison?
Let's put it another way: Can anyone be truly American and truly Buddhist?
Well, it seems the Dalai Lama has been asking the same question.
At a Northern California gathering of Buddhist teachers held in late June -- a kind of Buddhist-American summit meeting held at the famous Spirit Rock Meditation Center -- 220 influential Buddhist leaders met for five days behind closed doors to discuss the many tricky issues facing American Buddhism at the turn of the century. Though attended by such Buddhist superstars as bestselling author Jack Kornfield (also a co-founder of Spirit Rock) and Barbara Gates, co-editor of the popular, AmericanBuddhist journal Inquiring Mind, it was the Dalai Lama of Tibet -- easily the most famous, most successful promoter of popular Buddhism in the world -- whose presence created the biggest stir.
After all, in some ways the Dalai Lama is the perfect symbol of American Buddhism. As the primary ambassador for the cause of Tibet (the country from which he was exiled after the Communist Chinese invaded in 1951), the Dalai Lama must walk a tight doctrinal line between serving as a defender of Buddhism's basic principles and working as the Tibetan cause's most proficient and successful fundraiser.
It was, according to Kornfield, the difficult issues of American Buddhist economics that most interested the Dalai Lama during the gathering's five days of meetings. Of special concern was the growing trend in American Buddhism -- especially on the two coasts -- of being attractive mainly to affluent practitioners, those who can afford the often pricey meditation retreats and classes (not to mention all those books and tapes and videos, the zafus and incense and handcrafted meditation benches). As for how to sustain a sense of Buddha Mind while living and working in money-mad America, the Dalai Lama reportedly emphasized the importance of sticking to the Buddhist basics: mainly, each person's cultivation of compassion and freedom from anger and greed. So how does one do that?
And how does one do that here?
Buy the Book
"It's a problem that a lot of Buddhists in America are dealing with," says Peter Bermudes. As director of promotions for Wisdom Publications, a thriving Boston-based publishing company that specializes in books about Buddhism, Bermudes agrees that these are major issues for the growing population of American Buddhists.
Now 25 years old, Wisdom is a nonprofit company, producing about 15 books each year. The company's catalog features more than 100 titles, from exhaustively researched scholarly works such as this year's Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (by Petaluma resident Andy Fergusen) to more mainstream reads such as Sandy Boucher's highly anticipated upcoming memoir, Hidden Spring -- A Buddhist Woman Confronts Cancer. As evidence of the growing interest in Buddhism, a good number of Wisdom's titles have been adopted by college professors for use in comparative religion courses, an increasingly popular field of study among college students.
Which points to another wrinkle in the paradox. In America, Buddhist books are big business. Books about various aspects of Buddhism frequently end up on the bestseller lists and turn their writers -- Sylvia Boorstein, Jack Kornfield, Wes Nisker, and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh -- into the Buddhist-community equivalent of superstars. The Dalai Lama himself, with more than two dozen books to his name, holds the unique distinction of being one of the only three spiritual leaders (along with the Rev. Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II) to ever have two books on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. Even the Dalai Lama's mother has a bestseller.
With so many books to select from, each emphasizing a different viewpoint, the average American Buddhist is able to pick and choose among them, essentially building a do-it-yourself spiritual practice, all but sidestepping the traditional Eastern Buddhist's dependence on a firsthand spiritual teacher.
American Buddhists are often independent Buddhists.
"American Buddhists seem to be very attracted to the Buddha's suggestion that we test Buddhism through our own experience," Bermudes suggests, "that we take what we perceive to be true and work with that."
Books give the independent Buddhist a way to do that.
On the other hand, books do cost money, and, as Americans, we tend to have money or are willing to go to great lengths to make it appear so. This is another way in which American Buddhism defines itself: just as Americans are addicted to consumerism -- in part as a public display of our all-important ability to make and spend money -- it stands to reason that American Buddhists might naturally feel inclined to accumulate "Buddhist goods," partly as a public display of their devotion to their practice.
"In a social psychology sense," says Bermudes, "we in the West tend to value the things we pay for and to value most highly the things we pay the most for."
Laura Kwong sits lightly on the sofa inside the sparely furnished, comfortably bustling community house at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center overlooking Petaluma, California. From an attached office come the ring of phones and the hard-plastic tap-tap of computers. Across the room is the kitchen, behind a pair of ornamental doors through which drift the sounds and scents of lunch being prepared. Kwong -- the center's co-founder and director of practice -- is silent, calmly considering the question of money and its complicated relationship with American Buddhism.
While all Buddhists must find their own ways to think and act in regard to money, Kwong has observed that many practitioners come to Buddhism precisely to step away from the spiritually assaulting pursuit of monetary gain. Though some drop out of the mainstream completely, devoting themselves full time to their practice, most merely experience a shift in priorities.
"With all the high-tech developments of the last 10 years," she explains, "with people working 14 hours a day at their computers, trying to make a lot of money very fast, people are feeling more and more alienated from their human-ness. In Buddhism, people discover the value of moving slower, and they learn that happiness comes from inside them, not from without."
The San Francisco-born Kwong began practicing Buddhism in 1958. She was part of the original group that founded Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach, California and Big Sur, California's remote Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (both centers operated as part of the San Francisco Zen Center). With her husband, Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a dharma successor to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in the Soto Zen lineage, Kwong helped found the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in the mid-1970s.
At the moment, the center is home to 10 residential practitioners and hosts nearly 50 weekly attendees at the Saturday morning meditation sittings. Financed primarily through donations and memberships, the center also generates income through its Zen Dust bookstore and website, and also -- following the lead of Green Gulch and Tassajara, pioneers in the art of creative moneymaking -- by renting rooms to practicing and nonpracticing visitors, much like a Buddhist bed-and-breakfast.
"People come from all over the world to practice here," says Kwong, smiling like a proud parent. There are usually two or three guests staying at the center at any given time, taking advantage of the beautiful, slightly whimsical facilities; the zendo is a converted barn, complete with a redesigned chicken coop that now functions as a facility for individual meetings.
Then there is the center's world-class aura of deep peace and quiet.
Though the idea of renting rooms at a Zen center might have once seemed odd, it has become a common practice among such centers around the country. Large-scale moneymaking, in fact, is just another fact of life for America's many meditation centers, almost all of which have developed various cottage industries to support themselves.
Green Gulch, the very model of the modern major Zen center, operates a successful organic farm and a four-star vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco -- Greens -- maintains a popular conference center (Former California governor Jerry Brown, back in the '60s, was fond of holding meetings there), and also runs a busy bed-and-breakfast business. This in addition to a long-running series of cultural and public-speaking events and the usual course-list of ongoing classes and meditation retreats.
The remote Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, was originally intended as a private monastery, but also adapted to the need to generate income.
"So many people, even non-Buddhists, wanted to go there to eat the good food, to feel the ambiance," explains Kwong, "we eventually reconceived Tassajara as a part-time retreat center."
Establishing an annual guest-season between May and August, the center generates a decent income each year before closing itself off from the public for eight months of monastic use.
Another notable venture was the Tassajara Bakery and Cafe in San Francisco. The now-defunct Tassajara baking operation -- run by the Zen Center until it was acquired recently by the Just Desserts chain -- provided handcrafted breads to grocery stores around the San Francisco Bay Area. It was so successful that it inspired a basketful of similar operations around the country.
The most impressive example is the Greyston Bakery in New York City. Originally conceived as a way to support the social outreach programs of the Zen community of New York, Greyston was founded in 1982 by Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. A one-time systems engineer who became a Buddhist monk, Glassman hoped to increase the Zen center's involvement in the troubled, poverty-entrenched region of south Yonkers and decided to follow Tassajara's lead. But while Tassajara focused on making bread, Glassman felt that the Greyston Bakery would enjoy larger returns by producing pricier fare and decided to specialize in high-end all-natural gourmet desserts and cakes. It was a good idea. The bakery can now count on regular clients such as Bloomingdale's, Godiva Chocolates, and the White House -- and provides mountains of fudge brownie chips for Ben & Jerry's ice creams. Greyston now earns close to $3 million a year, motivated by the goal (described in its mission statement) of "feeding poor people by feeding rich people."
Indeed, the majority of Greyston's workers are residents of southwest Yonkers, many of whom were previously viewed as "unemployable." By recruiting its multimillion-dollar workforce from the same community the Zen center has been assisting, the bakery stands as the perfect example of an enterprise that is both demonstrably Buddhist and -- insofar as it is clearly a strong moneymaker -- pretty darned American.
To be fair, it is certainly common for Western businesses to offer assistance to the needy. Even profit-hungry behemoths like Wendy's and Wal-Mart make sizable donations to charity. The difference, of course, is that Greyston's sole reason for existence is to profit the poor, while most big biz exists to profit the stockholders.
"Many Zen centers have to deal with this issue of going into business, whether it's renting rooms or selling produce or starting bakeries," observes Kwong, leading a tour of the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center's elegant new bathhouse. "I observe them all very carefully, and I haven't seen any degeneration in the practice -- yet.
"In Japan or China," she adds, "the whole community pledges and gives money and food so the temples don't have to go out and build businesses. In America, it is different."
Kwong agrees that it is often difficult to balance the practical need for income with the Buddha's call for open compassion for all people. And in the case of the more successful Buddhist enterprises, it can be terribly easy to grow a bit greedy. This is a spiritual pitfall, for while greed is good in America, greed is bad in Buddhism.
Therefore, with the exception of overt moneymakers like Greyston Bakery and Greens Restaurant -- which ask gourmet prices for their gourmet goodies -- most Buddhist businesses attempt to keep their prices low as a matter of principle. At Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, for instance, it costs a mere $30 a day, including three meals, to occupy a small, comfortable room. The popular vegetarian restaurant at Mendocino County's City of 10,000 Buddhas -- a conservative Buddhist monastery in the hills near Ukiah -- almost always has a line of patrons waiting, in part because the prices are as reasonable as the food is tasty.
While it is true that some extended retreats can cost hundreds of dollars, at Spirit Rock Meditation Center most of the popular classes -- taught by some of Buddhism's biggest names -- will run you a paltry $5 per event. They go so far as to offer a work-pay program, the Buddhist equivalent of having penniless diners work off their meal by washing dishes. It is clearly stated in the center's literature: "No one will be turned away for lack of funds."
Let's see Wal-Mart do that.
The difficulty of blending commerce and spirituality is not unique to Buddhists, of course. "Right now there's a strong spiritual revival in the Christian and Jewish communities as well as the Buddhist community," observes Mill Valley, California writer Lewis Richmond, author of Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job. "And guess what? Every religious community is concerned with the spiritual deficits of free-market capitalism, the conflict between compassion and greed. It's a very human problem."
Lewis is a successful software entrepreneur and a former vice president of Smith & Hawken Ltd., the Marin, California-based gardening specialty outlet. A practicing Buddhist and teacher, he was a founding member of Green Gulch Zen Center, assisting in the development of the center's successful moneymaking enterprises.
"In traditional Buddhist nations," he says, "the teachers offered a clear answer to the problem of money: Buddhists were simply prohibited from touching the stuff. Their original solution was just to stay away from the whole thing and have nothing to do with commerce. So monks have to get donations from wealthy people, and it usually becomes a very corrupt system.
"But in America, we've developed this ad hoc way of supporting the institution with little moneymaking schemes," he says. "And I think it's a much better system."
Asked if Green Gulch and its affiliates are flirting with the devil, so to speak, by going into business, Lewis laughs.
"What the Zen centers are running can hardly be called businesses," he says. "A business by definition is an enterprise that produces wealth, which seems to be the predominant activity on the planet. But if you look at these enterprises at Buddhist centers, they are almost all operated with voluntary or semivoluntary workers. These are nonprofit organizations that would never survive as real businesses."
The threat of unchecked greed, while potentially harmful to American Buddhists, is kept in check, says Lewis, by adherence to the spirit of Buddhism itself.
"The fundamental Buddhist precept is to treat all living beings with compassion," he says. "That's the touchstone when you start talking about money. Is there a compassionate energy to the activity? Is this enterprise or this job about more than mere greed? The real issue with money is not money. It's the role that money plays in a person's psyche and their life."
You Chant Do That
The uneasy integration of Buddhism and capitalism has been gradually evolving since the 1930s, when a number of Buddhist teachers immigrated to America with hopes of finding eager students. It was a rocky start. Though the dharma bums of the 1950s Beat generation -- especially poet Allen Ginsberg -- were helpful in raising the country's awareness of basic Buddhist ideas, it was in the late '60s that public interest in Buddhism began to seriously blossom. While a new generation of flower children was dropping out and turning on, thousands of disillusioned souls found that Buddhism offered a satisfying social and spiritual alternative to the great American money grab. "From 1965 to 1975, it seemed that everyone was practicing Buddhism," Kwong recalls.
"People were dropping out all over, running around barefooted, and turning away from the pursuit of money."
Then came the '80s and the rise of the selfish Me Generation.
"We can still feel it here, the repercussions of the '80s," says Kwong. "Suddenly the same people that had tried to drop out were looking up and saying, 'Hey, I'm married now. I have a family. I need a job.' So everybody went to work.
"All the Zen centers still feel it. There were fewer people coming to retreats and all that. From the early '80s to around 1995, people were building their careers, getting their houses and their health insurance and their IRAs. Then, all of a sudden, many of them realized that wasn't enough. And now some of them have begun returning to Buddhism.
"I think the recent popularity of Buddhism and meditation," she surmises, "has to do with the acceleration of Silicon Valley and the high-tech corporate companies. Lots of people who come up here to meditate are from the high-tech world, people looking for ways to replenish their energy, to clean out their minds and gain a fresh view of work."
Bob Sweeney is a 25-year practitioner of Nichiren Dai Shonin, a sect of Buddhism in which daily chanting plays a major role. Like its distant cousin, Nichiren Shoshu -- an aggressively goal-oriented Buddhist sect with lively meetings that some have likened to Amway conventions -- Nichiren Dai Shonin employs chanting to achieve specific aims. Sometimes the aims are purely monetary.
"We don't tell people what to chant for. It's up to them," says Sweeney, "And people do chant for things like money and relationships.
"But," he remarks, "the real goal [of Buddhism] is the development of respect for other individuals. I can chant and take action that benefits everyone concerned."
Challenging the assumption that American Buddhism appeals mainly to the affluent, Sweeney -- a Santa Rosa resident who handles risk issues for an international retail company -- insists that a survey of his fellow practitioners would cut a swath across all economic lines. He prefers not to think of his fellow Buddhists in terms of the amount of money they make. "Society might say that some of us are wealthy and some are not wealthy," he says.
"But I see us all as being rich. We're rich in the quality of our lives."
That Albert Einstein. For a physicist, he sure had a great sense of humor. Most people have seen the posters of the guy: wild-haired, bright-eyed, sticking his tongue out at the camera. And we've read Einstein's quirky quips and quotes: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe."
Really now, who'd have thought a scientist would turn out to be so funny?
Science is, after all, a dry, academic, humorless discipline, a realm of facts and figures and dangerous exploding chemicals. It's a solemn business. Scientists, the chosen acolytes of the scientific flame, tend to be sober-minded people. Like nuns and DMV workers, they have little tolerance for tomfoolery or unrestrained silliness.
"What very few people realize," declares Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, in Cambridge, Mass., and the founder of the annual Ig Nobel Awards, "is that scientists are among the funniest people on the planet."
"There are a few completely humorless scientists who take themselves and their work much too seriously," Abrahams admits, "and it is these people who give a bad reputation to everyone else. Scientists are the ones trying to solve the problems no one else can figure out. If you don't keep a sense of humor about it, you'll be miserable."
We should not doubt him. Under Abraham's guidance, the AIR has become the world's leading "science humor" magazine. That's right: science humor. Staffed by writers trained in the scientific method and possessed of a wicked sense of irony, AIR is, in part, a conscious attempt to make science more inviting to an intimidated world at large. To that end, Abrahams and company scour academic journals in search of stories that reveal the wacky, eccentric underbelly of the scientific process. By reporting on scientific achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced," the AIR allows scientists and nonscientists to laugh out loud.
That laughter grows loudest once a year, when AIR presents the illustrious Ig Nobel awards, handed out every October -- coinciding with the announcements of the Nobel prizes -- to 10 recipients whose achievements have inspired the highest degree of jaw-dropping disbelief. This year's winners -- honored in a supremely silly ceremony that took place at Harvard University on Oct. 5 -- include Richard Wassersug, who published a paper titled On the Comparative Palatability of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica. It involved a firsthand tadpole taste-test, and was, in fairness, a serious attempt to understand why certain tadpoles are avoided by amphibian-eating predators. Another winner, honored with the prize for literature, was the infamous Australian "Breatharian," Jasmuheen, whose book Living on Light shares the notion that while some humans do eat food, we don't ever really need to. This year's Peace Prize went to the British Royal Navy, for ordering its sailors to undergo target practice in which they refrain from using live cannon shells, and instead simply shout, "Bang!"
Now a 10-year-old tradition, the Ig Nobel ceremony is perhaps the strangest scientific celebration going. It certainly stands as proof positive that scientists do indeed have a sense of humor. In addition to the winner's acceptance speeches -- which, according to tradition, must conclude in less than 60 seconds to avoid interruption from Miss Sweetie Poo, an adorable 9-year-old sent out to whine, "Please stop, I'm bored. Please stop, I'm bored!" -- the celebration includes the Brain Food opera (performed by actual Nobel Prize winners), the Great Intelligence Debate (a contest of 30-second speeches shouted simultaneously), and the ritual distribution of plastic bubble-wrap "Fish Brains." As it has for the past several years, the October ceremony will be broadcast Nov. 24 (the day after Thanksgiving) at 11 a.m., on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday.
Sense of humor notwithstanding, one has to wonder how the recipients of an Ig Nobel respond to being told they've just won.
"There's usually a long pause after they hear the news," admits Abrahams. "But really, a surprising number of them are pleased about it. Most of the others are tolerant, or at least amused." He insists that the Ig Nobels are not meant to ridicule the winners, but to honor them for having the courage to go where no one's gone before. "A scientific achievement can seem pretty ridiculous, and still have something significant to contribute. That's the history of science. Every important breakthrough we know was once thought to be absolutely nuts," says Abrahams. '
"Besides, most of our winners are just happy their work was noticed at all."
Larry Friend, a Petaluma geologist who works for Harding ESE Inc., an environmental services firm in Marin County, says he'd consider it an honor to receive an Ig Nobel. "Any type of award, either realistic or ignominious, would be great," he confirms. A walking-talking example of a funny scientist, Friend keeps a large file of science-related jokes and humorous essays, documents he gleefully distributes to his colleagues far and wide. "Being a scientist gets depressingly overwhelming unless you can poke fun at what you're doing," he says. "Scientists are treated as second-class citizens. I mean, you can make a lot more money doing other things. Here I am, among the smartest 10 percent of all people in the country, and I can't make any money.
"Actually, that's pretty funny when you think of it," he adds. "Maybe I'm not that smart after all."
Nicholas Geist, a professor of paleontology at Sonoma State University, has another theory as to why people think scientists are humorless people. It begins in elementary school, Geist hypothesizes.
"Science textbooks just suck in elementary school," he says.
Beyond that, Geist, a longtime fan of the AIR, agrees with Abrahams, observing that "some of the funniest people in the world are scientists.. "On the other hand," he says, "some of the most self-absorbed, boring people I've ever met are scientists. If scientists have a bad reputation, it's scientists' own fault. A lot of scientists, particularly young scientists at the beginning of their careers, tend to be all 'Science! the Search for Truth with a capital T.'
"I'll always remember what this one old paleontologist at Oregon State once told me. 'Good science is an internally consistent set of lies.' "
Now there's a line one might expect to hear in an Ig Nobel acceptance speech.
One thing's for sure, Einstein would probably get a chuckle out of it.
This story originally appeared in the Northern California Bohemian.