Tag Archive | Climate Change

Extinguishing the Alphabet … of Bens and Bugs

Epiphany: Extinguishing the Alphabet … of Bens and Bugs
David R. Weiss – February 15, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #11 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

I encountered the Jewish legend decades ago in a book by Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name. The tale goes that a Jewish peasant is hurrying to finish his fieldwork to make it to the Passover service. But the sun sets, he cannot travel, and so he must spend the holy night in the field. Unable even to remember the words to the prayers, he decides in serene desperation to simply recite the alphabet and trust God to arrange the letters into their proper places.[1]

The image is one of faith and grace. Faith, that even our most meager efforts might somehow be sufficient—and grace, that God will not fail to work with what we sincerely offer. I affirm this as truth. And yet I want to push the story one bit further. What if the alphabet itself could not be found? What then? And before we rush forward to claim grace even in that extreme, I want to dwell for a moment in the terror … of an extinguished alphabet.

Because that’s what we’re facing ecologically. This past week, in the first global scientific review of the health of insects worldwide, we learned their precipitous decline is nothing short of damning.[2] Based on 73 different studies assessing insect populations, the review found that one third of all insects are now endangered. They’re presently going extinct eight times faster than mammals, birds, and reptiles (none of whom are exactly thriving!). We’ve lost 2.5% of the total biomass of insects each year for the past 25-30 years. With no recovery. Sit down and sit with that for a long quiet moment: compared to 1990, the year my now 31 year-old son turned three—over the course of his still young life—we’ve lost 80% of the total biomass of insects across the globe.

In words particularly strident in a peer-reviewed scientific paper (meaning that the phrasing had to pass by the watchful eyes of scientific peers not connected to the review itself) the study declares the very real possibility that “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades. The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosysyems are catastrophic to say the least.” To say the least.

As Professor Dave Goulson at the University of Sussex in the UK explains, “Insects are at the heart of every food web, they pollinate the large majority of plant species, keep the soil healthy, recycle nutrients, control pests, and much more.” When the Psalmist says, “Let all creation praise the Lord,” (Psalm 148 and elsewhere)—well, in earth’s praise, insects are the alphabet. And we’re extinguishing the alphabet.

The cause is not a mystery. Broadly speaking it is the direct result of agricultural intensification coupled with the use of pesticides. “Intensification” describes the practice of eliminating all “wild areas” around farm fields: every bit of land is either left entirely bare or is treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Together these forces have turned insects into a largely unseen population of refugees in their own lands—and have unleashed a planetary-scale genocide of these least of God’s creatures … with cascading consequences that threaten not only our survival, but the well-being of the rest of creation. In Germany, for instance, insect losses of 75% were recorded even in protected nature reserves. The web of being does not follow the boundaries we set for field and nation. And the holes we rip in that web run far afield.

Light pollution and urbanization add to the assault on insects, encroaching on the land and darkness that are essential for insect habitat. For its part, climate change is an “entangled” factor. In some places where industrial agriculture has not yet remade landscapes and farming practices climate change is still clearly taking a toll on insect populations. But even apart from this, the rise of fossil-fuel intensive agriculture (which is what industrial agriculture is) has been a primary contributor to climate change. The warming climate and the approaching end of insects are both linked to the oil that drips through the way we eat, from farmland to grocery store to kitchen table.

Is there no way forward? Which is really to ask, is there any way backward? Because backward is the direction we need to move. There are less oily ways to eat. But they presume skills, tastes, patience, and priorities that have been crowded out of our customs and character by the twin idols of “cheap” and “convenient. The stark imperative is to change the ways we grow, deliver, process, and consume food. These are daunting systemic changes. But they are probably the only changes that can save the bugs … and the world into which they are wholly (and graciously!) interwoven. There are, as well, small scale ways to harness empowerment through the pursuit of personal accountability and integrity.

For instance, organic farms continue to “host” far more insects, even as their farmers battle the worst plant pests in ways that protect produce without devastating entire insect populations. So now we know that buying organic is perhaps an essential spiritual practice, one that aims to honor the place of bugs in God’s creation choir. Similarly, ending our love affair with the grassy lawn may prove to be a revolutionary act. On The Rachel Carson Center’s blog one post invites us to “Make Meadows not Lawns.”[3] In so doing, we not only reclaim the ground around our homes as a sacred sanctuary space, we might also come to love our tiniest and most necessary fellow earthlings. (The word “love” is not gross overstatement; it actually hearkens to E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia, the demonstrable psychic and emotional benefits that accrue in a deep relationship with the natural world.) We might even remember that in our own mythic origins we were christened “humus beings”—fashioned from dirt and beckoned to tend the ground beneath our feet.

Re-thinking—re-making—our food choices and our yard choices also provides opportunities to build community (share ideas, trade/teach skills) within churches and neighborhoods. In fact, the alchemy of honest grief, passionate conviction, imaginative sharing, and communal bonding may be the only combination that carries us backward in a way that can also carry us forward. If God is to arrange the remaining letters of the alphabet into a prayer that might still heal the earth, we will need to embrace insects before they are lost.

The hard data in the scientific review is hard even for me (and I have a pretty close kinship with melancholy most days). Unless we make dramatic changes, of the 20% (of the 1990) insect biomass remaining from my son Benjamin’s childhood, only 10% will be left by the time he reaches eighty. By the time my grandson, who turns three this year and is also named Benjamin, reaches his eightieth birthday … insects may well be a memory. If they are, the odds of my grandson making it to eighty aren’t much better.

Climate change is not finally about reason or profit. It is about grief and love. And, right now, dammit, it’s also about the bugs.

[1] Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name, Seabury Press, 1984, p. i.

[2] All the background data in this essay comes from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

[3] www.seeingthewoods.org/2018/12/20/make-meadows-not-lawns

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

 

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey.In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] Gail Ramshaw, Letters for God’s Name, Seabury Press, 1984, p. i.

[2] All the background data in this essay comes from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature

[3] www.seeingthewoods.org/2018/12/20/make-meadows-not-lawns

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Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas

Epiphany: Ice Out on the Himalayas
David R. Weiss – February 6, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #10 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

As I noted last week, Epiphany, the feast that marks the arrival of the Magi, is about “Aha!” moments of insight. For the Magi, their epiphany was evident both in the faith that led them to follow the star and in finding the Christ child; their tale symbolic of the universal reach of God. The season of Epiphany lifts up other “Aha!” moments for Jesus leading up to his transfiguration, a classic mountaintop epiphany. This week’s news offered another mountaintop epiphany, which is my focus today.

Sometimes referred to as Earth’s “third pole” because more ice is found here than anywhere else on the planet except for the Arctic and Antarctic, the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) mountain region spans eight countries. Moving roughly west to east these glacier-capped peaks are found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The fresh water in these mountains—rainfall, but especially the water stored in ice and snowpack—feeds ten major rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. And this region is headed for “ice out.”[1]

According to a report just released (February 4, 2019) by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), even under a best case scenario (one researcher refers to it as the “miracle” scenario) in which we actually stop global warming at the “ideal” 1.50C, more than a third of the region’s ice and snow will be gone by 2100. Fully half of it will be lost if we only manage the more realistic (but still increasingly difficult) target of 20C in warming. And if we go on pumping carbon into the system at present rates, over two-thirds of the HKH region’s ice will be gone in less than a century.

Writing from Minnesota’s mid-winter deep freeze, with streets and sidewalks coated with ice—ice now covered with several inches of fresh snow (and more on the way), maybe ice-out isn’t such a bad idea. But it is. The glaciers in these mountains store water and release it seasonally. Besides being essential to the immediate ecosystem—home to 240 million people and a range of wildlife—the water that flows down from these mountains is critical for the agriculture, energy, sanitation, and water needs of close to two billion people.

The ICIMOD report hardly represents an extreme view. It was five years in the making, with more than 200 scientists representing 22 countries contributing research, and another 125 peer reviewers cross-checking it. It offers very much a “middle-of-the-road” consensus epiphany. And it is alarming—and unforgiving: climate change is driving temperature rise faster at higher elevation—and the impacts in the report are already “loaded” into the system.

If this is a facet of the climate crisis you haven’t heard of yet, that’s partly economic. 80 million of the region’s inhabitants live on less than $750 per year. Nearly all of the impacted areas would be considered parts of “developing” regions, thus rarely worth screen time or print space in our news cycle. Especially because right now it’s merely a dawning disaster. But wait until the dawn hits.

As the glaciers melt—which is a matter of when, not if—the melt will first dramatically increase river flows and threaten mountain lakes to overflow their banks in never-before-seen floods. But eventually—and that’s not a geological “eventually” spread over eons, that’s a generational “eventually” that will play out within single lifetimes—the decreased water levels will leave lakes and springs and streams starved for water. And along the way the only thing truly predictable about the lurch between flooding and barren rivers will be the ensuing chaos. Drinking water, hydro-electric power, agricultural production, human sanitation, and all the natural flora and fauna in the region will be upended. Of course, the people living in this area are among those least driving climate change, yet also among those most vulnerable to its effects. It’s an unfortunate and unjust double-membership that will be common in the coming decades.

Ultimately, when ice-out hits—whether one-third, one-half, or more—the ripple effects will reach well beyond the HKH region producing inevitable waves of migration and rounds of conflict. By then the waning of the world’s “third pole” will be rippling toward all of us.

How does this hard icy-cold, then rushing-wet, then parched-dry epiphany shape us? I suggest its primary meaning for us as individuals—as persons with limited political-corporate power—and as communities of faith is as a summons to grief. The most significant aspect of the consequences related by this study is their inevitability. We don’t know just how bad it will get, but the adjectives will range from terrible to devastating, from catastrophic to unimaginable. There is no near-miss happy ending available.

I do believe “hope” has a role to play in our response to climate change, but it is hope in a stark form that we are rarely comfortable with. Hope in the form that Václav Havel describes as “the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” It is hope in the form that remembers that the Jesus who says to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) is the same Jesus who ends up crucified and is pointedly clear that following him involves a cross of our own. That form of hope.

Whatever we do to lessen the impact of climate change at this point—and there is much, both personally and politically that must be done—it should be done “hope-free,” so to speak.[2] Not because we imagine ourselves heroes at the last minute (after decades of denial), but because we are determined to move toward tomorrow, whatever it brings, with more integrity than we had yesterday.

And this is the least popular and most important word of wisdom I carry: we need to tap into grief to find that form of hope. The Transition Movement is paradoxical in extreme—like Luther’s theology of the cross, which asserts that the clearest vision is that which peers through suffering not around it. In a world determined to look ever on the bright side of things (even when it’s the false side) or, at worst, to distract itself from that which we’d rather not see—in that world, the capacity to see suffering, to grieve loss (and not simply our own, but that of others—and of Earth itself), to give voice to lament—these capacities will be existentially essential. We will not survive without grief.

It need not have the last word, but like a sustained note, it will need to color all the other notes we sing for a long, long time. And so long as we avoid the soul-deep lament that the world asks of us, we are not yet singing the song that must be sung. And that’s today’s epiphany.

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

[1] All the background data in this essay comes from these three news reports:
www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/04/a-third-of-himalayan-ice-cap-doomed-finds-shocking-report
www.commondreams.org/news/2019/02/04/climate-crisis-you-havent-heard-even-if-carbon-emissions-fall-third-himalayan-ice
www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/02/himalaya-mountain-climate-change-report
This YouTube video offers a very brief overview as well: https://youtu.be/8bPFAEdRp8o

[2] The phrase is Dahr Jamail’s (who also references the Václav Havel quote) in an excerpt from his book, The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction. https://truthout.org/articles/in-facing-mass-extinction-we-dont-need-hope-we-need-to-grieve

Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire

Epiphany: Bitter Cold while the House is on Fire
David R. Weiss – January 29, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #9 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

First, a minor mea culpa: I’m distracted these days by intense bargaining as steward for the Hamline University Adjunct Faculty Union. My intent is to begin shaping these weekly posts into a larger inter-connected arc, but the pace and passion of our bargaining is making that difficult these days. If you’re curious about what I mean, check out my first and second blog posts on that. Otherwise, let’s talk Epiphany and climate change.

The Feast of Epiphany commemorates the arrival of the Magi to see the baby Jesus. It marks the end (the Twelfth Day) of Christmas and ushers in the beginning of the season of Epiphany, which runs until the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Because the visit of the Magi is usually seen as representing the revelation (i.e., the “epiphany,” the “showing”) of the Christ child to the nations, during the rest of the season in the church year we consider other ways Jesus is revealed from baptism to transfiguration.

But right now I’m thinking and writing about climate change and how it’s being “revealed” in this season as well. Right after Christmas I wrote about “shouting ‘Fire’ in church.”[1] Then just last week 16 year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, in a powerful speech delivered to some of the world’s wealthiest at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, declared, “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”[2] I couldn’t agree more.

And yet, as the memes on my Facebook page and the headlines in multiple news stories announce, it will be colder in many places here in the Midwest these next few days than in Antarctica. Not surprisingly, President Trump weighed in on this via Twitter: “In the beautiful Midwest, windchill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming [sic]? Please come back fast, we need you!”

Well, what gives? On one level this is simply a matter of confusing weather (immediate, short-term atmospheric conditions) with climate (weather considered as a pattern over a long period of time). A short spell of intense cold weather does not cancel global warming any more than one cloudburst undoes a months long drought. Weather will always show much more variability than climate. And certainly, our perceptions register weather far more easily than climate, but to confuse the two as our president likes to do, becomes increasingly inexcusable as the stakes of climate change escalate. The man tweets the way Nero fiddled while Rome burned. (Irony: while the tale of Nero fiddling as his capital city went up in flames is almost certainly fictional, the image aptly describes exactly what our president is—in fact—doing.)

But there’s more than mere misunderstanding at work here. This bitter cold spell is quite likely related to global warming.[3] It provides all the more evidence that, as Greta puts it, “our house is on fire.” The polar vortex is the more or less disc-shaped swirl of cold air that typically sits atop the arctic. The polar vortex always demonstrates variability in both its strength and position; the stronger it is, the more it remains centered above the pole. When it weakens, it allows the cold air gathered at the top of the planet to roll southward in a much colder than usual blast of winter air. And the accelerating loss of arctic sea ice—and the general warming of arctic land and water—weakens the polar vortex. The result is that cold arctic air is held much less “secure” at the pole … and is much more likely to be drawn down into the Midwest—exactly as we’re experiencing this week.

So, while we shiver under dangerously cold temperatures this week (although just for several days) the planet overall continues to warm—dangerously and unabated. Indeed much of the rest of the world is rather wilting as we alternately boast-bemoan our January temperature plunge. Some parts of the arctic have warmed so much overall that there are places on Baffin Island in northern Canada where the ground is now exposed—free of ice—for the first time in at least 40,000 years (over 100,000 years by some estimates).[4] And since the arctic is warming at a rate two to three times the rest of the planet, it’s quite possible that as we lurch toward a much hotter future, we’ll also be visited more frequently by the frigid air of a polar vortex knocked off balance on a warming planet.

As a recent piece in the Atlantic reported, “2018 was hotter than any year in the 19th century. It was hotter than any year in the 20th century. It was hotter than any year in the first decade of this century. In fact, with only three exceptions, it was the hottest year on Earth since 1850. Those three exceptions: 2018 was slightly cooler than 2015, 2016, and 2017. The past four years, in other words, have been the four hottest years ever reliably measured.”[5] Let that sink in. Of the past 168 years, the four hottest have just happened. Right in a row. And—because our current polar vortex spill across the Midwest is little more than a blip on a big planet across an entire year—odds are good (read: bad) that 2019 will make it five in a row. How’s that for an epiphany?

We like to see an epiphany as the revelation of something good, as a cause for hope. But sometimes epiphany signals a truth that must be grasped—even when it shatters the world you prefer. Greta Thunberg, prophet of a climate epiphany and kindred spirit to my restless soul, concluded her comments at the World Economic Forum like this: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

For those committed to denial—whether because of economic interests, the lure of first world comforts (read: developing world theft), or the sheer enormity of cataclysm aimed our way—fear and panic are going to hit at some point. But the Transition Movement is about reckoning with the reality of climate change without waiting for politicians or the wealthy to reach the point of fear and panic. It’s about choosing a different path, as individuals and (more importantly) as local communities right now. Not because that different path will “save” us. No. Rather, because that different path may allow us to build a bridge forward into a future altogether different than any of us dreamed of.

I’m convinced there is joy to be had both in making this transition and in the life that awaits us beyond it. But it’s epiphany right now. And both the bitter cold and the burning house are trying to show us something. I suggest we stop and see.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]www.davidrweiss.com/2019/01/03/christmas-and-the-holy-innocents-on-shouting-fire-in-church

[2]www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate

[3]www.blog.ucsusa.org/brenda-ekwurzel/winter-storm-jayden-the-polar-vortex-and-climate-change-3-factors-that-matter

[4]www.grist.org/article/the-melting-arctic-is-revealing-caveman-era-landscapes

[5]www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/01/nasa-noaa-shutdown-2018-warmest-climate-record/581221

After Epiphany: Home by Another Route

After Epiphany: Home by Another Route
David R. Weiss – January 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #6 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

We celebrated Epiphany this past Sunday. You know, the journey of the magi, the star in the sky, the three gifts. And, of course, the palace encounter with King Herod who feigns reverence for this rumored child-king in hopes of tricking the magi to come back and reveal the infant’s whereabouts. The tale is perhaps apocryphal: the resulting slaughter of the holy innocents is attested nowhere outside Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, it may be an evangelical fiction crafted by Matthew to evoke the memory of Moses’ birth story in his Jewish readers. Either way, the account meshes with Herod’s well-known paranoia. He routinely killed anyone he saw as a political rival—he ordered the political execution of hundreds of persons, including a brother-in-law, a mother-in-law, his second wife, and three of his own children. Whether his well-attested ruthless paranoia was, in fact, turned on Jesus, the tale is of a piece with Herod’s character.[1]

For a moment, then, Jesus’ young life hangs in the balance. Thankfully the magi, having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, journeyed home by another route. There are a thousand points on which history turns. In Matthew’s Gospel the magi’s decision to go home by another route is one of those points. For us, too. Which is why I’m spending the year thinking, writing, talking about climate change and Christian faith. Following any of the familiar routes forward will end catastrophically … if not for us, then for generations to come and for countless companion creatures on the planet. History will turn on the route we choose. I think the Transition Movement[2] offers a promising way to go “home by another route”—and one in deep alignment with core Christian values.

The Transition Movement begins by acknowledging three daunting problems we face. (1) Our lives—our desires-expectations-cultural worldview—presume an unsustainable rate of consumption of a finite resource, fossil fuel. Whether because we’ll eventually exhaust the resource itself, or exhaust the easily accessible sources, leading to steep increases in cost, our fossil fuel-fed lives are about to become fossils themselves. (2) Even if oil weren’t finite, the atmosphere’s capacity to preserve a livable planet for us is. Climate change is the result of industrial, transportation-heavy, convenience-and-consumption-driven lives that ignore the impact of our choices on the planet. (3) Our lives are also entangled in a global financial system that banks on unending growth (excluding the environmental costs of doing business on a finite planet from its market calculus). It trades on an increasingly “magical” notion of money—even as it heightens the gap between rich and poor. All three of these out-of-balance relationships are evidence of human indifference to finitude—and they are about to have a catastrophic collision with reality.

These crises are interwoven and together they “make sense” as manifestations of human sin: our readiness to break relationship with God, others, world, and self in pursuit of a false notion of reality in which we are “godlike”: disconnected from each other and the world, able to pursue “abundance” for ourselves (or our in-groups) without need of others.[3] Moreover each crisis now runs on a decidedly structural inertia that requires little more than passive human complicity to keep churning away. In this sense each crisis is now upheld by what Paul referred to as “powers and principalities” (Eph. 6:12)—not supernatural demonic forces, but rather the mundane, social-systemic, supra-human forces that get embedded in social arrangements, cultures, industrialized systems and so forth.[4]

The Transition Movement’s response is also in line with Christian convictions—albeit ones that have often atrophied for lack of exercise in our Christian lives, both personally and communally. Recognizing that the three-fold crisis noted above demands our transition to a life that uses far less energy, depends far less on an extractive economy, and is resilient enough to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions on a climate-changed planet, Transition invites us, as it were, to be of good cheer. It asserts:

(1) Since these transitions are really non-negotiable on a finite planet, let’s embrace them thoughtfully rather than ignore them until they’re thrust upon us by crashing systems. Transition holds that a different world is possible—and that there are tangible, practical steps that can begin the journey there.

(2) Let’s fashion more resilient communities—specifically working to establish systems/services that can withstand the inevitable shock of planetary systems that will be rocked by rapid change in the decades ahead. Such changes will include weather patterns, growing seasons, land use, and population movements. Globalized/centralized systems will be less able to respond than localized systems that are cooperatively networked together. Thus, resilience includes re-localizing our economy whenever possible, building deeper relationships with those who produce the goods we need, and sharing skills that can empower us to live simpler and more sustainable lives. (Re-localizing also involves re-localizing our sources of fun/entertainment.)

(3) Most fundamentally, Transition says, pursuing these goals will lead to lives that are richer in both meaning and joy. Lives that reflect what Jesus promises as “life abundant.” (John 10:10) Some of this happens “naturally”: the by-product of community-building activities. Some of it involves an “Inner Transition”: intentionally re-fashioning a worldview in which we are AT HOME on a finite planet, joyfully knit into community across diversity, and happy to pursue meaning and purpose through art, knowledge, and relationship rather than material consumption. Given that our inner worldview is the terrain in question, this re-fashioning is minimally psychological-philosophical in nature, though I think it is most effectively accomplished on a spiritual level. Not that it must be Christian or even explicitly religious, but such a transformation in worldview—as needed for sustained and abundant life on a finite planet—requires roots in awe and wonder. And those roots grow deep in psychic soil that is fluent in a sense of the sacred.

“Tomorrow” is the country to which we (and our children’s children) are heading home. We have long needed (for numerous generations!) a path forward far different than the one we’ve been on. Transition can take us home by another route. It’s time we begin that journey.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]Matthew 2:1-18.For one view of how this tale fits into Herod’s larger story (and a view sympathetic to its plausible historicity) see here: www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/12/08/The-Slaughter-of-the-Innocents-Historical-Fact-or-Legendary-Fiction.aspx.

[2]My discussion of Transition here is drawn primarily from the Transition U.S. website. See the links to peak oil, climate change, and the economic crisis here: www.transitionus.org/why-transitionand the description of its Guiding Principles here: www.transitionus.org/initiatives/7-principles. Also, Timothy Gorridge & Rosie Beckham, The Transition Movement for Churches: A Prophetic Imperative for Today, London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2013, pp. 1-13; and Ruah Swennerfelt, Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith, Quaker Institute for the Future, 2016, pp. 45-49.

[3]I mean “godlike” in an entirely wrong-headed and wrong-hearted way, imaging “god” on our terms, rather than God’s. Similarly, any pursuit of “abundance” in isolation from the web of being—from genuine relationships with fellow humans-creatures-ecosystems—is “abundance” only in an illusory and ultimately self-contradicting manner.

[4]Paul declares that in our struggle to be faithful, we contend not merely with flesh and blood—the frailties and temptations of our own humanity and the obstructions of others—but against “principalities and powers.” Though his words were originally read to reflect a worldview that saw human activity beset by demonic influences, a number of twentieth century scholars (Jaques Ellul, William Stringfellow, John Howard Yoder, and Walter Wink) argued Paul was making a much more sophisticated and insightful observation: calling out our capacity to set up empires, societies, cultures, that establish whole systems with an inertia that is greater than any individual person—an inertia that seemingly takes on a life of its own. Not a consciousness, per se, but an institutionalized energy that can will forward a set of assumptions that carry destructive consequences.

Christmas and the Holy Innocents: On Shouting “Fire” in Church

Christmas & the Holy Innocents: On Shouting “Fire” in Church
David R. Weiss – January 2, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #5 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Maybe your church, like mine, seized on the Sunday following Christmas to sing an extra dose of Christmas carols, sort of a communal self-reward for having delayed our gratification throughout the season of Advent. I appreciated the chance to air out my holiday lungs on some favorite (and a couple new-to-me) songs as much as the next person. But I did have to hold back on the impulse to stand up and holler, “Fire!” in the sanctuary. I succeeded. But I’m not sure that was the right choice.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents, which recalls the infant boys slaughtered by King Herod in his paranoid—and failed—attempt to remove the threat he believed Jesus posed to imperial power,[1] falls on December 28, meaning it’s almost always elided by our preference for Christmas cheer. I consider this an instance of systemic liturgical injustice: an important feast gets squeezed out of our awareness because we’ve been so impatient (all Advent) to celebrate Christmas, and now we have only twelve days to do our celebrating (in song, sermon, liturgy) before the liturgical calendar rushes us on into Epiphany. This year, in fact, we only get ONE Christmas Sunday—how dare we spend it contemplating the Holy Innocents.

Perhaps there was a time past when church was so much part of our daily life that we could sufficiently celebrate Christmas on the other eleven days and set aside the fourth day to pause and contemplate the lives taken in effort to suppress Christmas itself. But today, between Christmas, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and then “getting back to work,” we have no time to pause for lives lost. Which is why I was so tempted to holler, “Fire!” Because pause we must.

In Matthew’s Gospel the Holy Innocents are those targeted by empire in an attempt to protect imperial power and to prevent the rise of any person who might propose a different way of being in the world. The story makes Herod the villain (and I’m hardly defending him!), but the truth in Matthew’s tale is that the slaughter of innocents is, in fact, business as usual for empire. We see it today—most poignantly on our southern border, but no less in the way that mass incarceration targets black communities or the way that low-intensity warfare targets civilians around the globe. And on and on. Empire today (think multinational corporations as well as political leaders) hesitates no more than Herod at protecting its power and quashing even potential threats. There are a multitude of holy innocents in our world.

But in a season of climate change, no one is more innocent than the creatures whose fate it has been to share the planet … with us. The animal kingdom has always taken its chances on continents drifting, climate shifting, and such. Even apart from human impact, no animal species is guaranteed a free ride. But between the speed to which we’ve accelerated climate change and the extent to which we’ve remade the planet to better consume it, animals are under threat today as never before. So much so that we Christians ought to be rising in our pews and hollering, “Fire!” in one holy chorus of anguish and alarm.

Consider the reports coming in from across the globe. In just the last 44 years (1970-2014) the worldwide population of animals plummeted by nearly 60%; in tropical regions the population loss reached almost 90%. During the same time period, freshwater fish populations fell by 83%.[2] Another study found flying insects down by 76% in German nature preserves over 27 years.[3] Another one charted a recent 10-year period in New Mexico during which bird populations fell by 73%. And another reported a 98%(!) loss of bugs in the Puerto Rican rainforest over 40 years.[4] Some suggest we are perched precipitously at the beginning of “the Sixth Extinction”[5]—although this one would be the first to have human agency as the driving factor. But regardless of whether whole species go extinct or merely find themselves genetically maimed by sheer loss of numbers and diversity, it is minimally honest to speak of a wave of ‘biological annihilation”[6] sweeping the planet. Almost all of it due to human impacts (consumption, land use, climate change, pollution, etc.).

Still, on December 26, nearly every news source cheerfully reported U.S. holiday spending up by 5.1% in 2018[7] If that doesn’t shout, “Joy to the World,” I don’t know what does. Except, on a finite planet, already stretched past the breaking point that isn’t good news. It’s the bleak affirmation that the slaughter of holy innocents—driven by a commitment to preserve one way of life at the expense of countless others—continues undeterred and on a scale even Herod could not hope to achieve. We are empire.

Those who see this, need to start crying “Fire!” in the sanctuary. We need to do more, of course. But we cannot do less. And the longer we insist on keeping our good decorum during worship the longer we render ourselves incapable of the deeper changes that are necessary if we wish even to blunt the brute force of climate change and planetary collapse now just decades away.

Lest we presume this is “on us” as individual consumers, the truth is that the changes most urgently needed to stop this slaughter of holy innocents are at the level of industrial agriculture, corporate boardrooms, and national and international politics. But change in those arenas can—and must—come rushing upward from below. And that upward rush will only come if and when we take charge of our own lives—personally and communally as Transition Movement thinking suggests.[8] AND—as we lay claim to the emotional-psychic-spiritual energy that owns the depth of loss burgeoning around us … even during the Christmas season—perhaps especially during the Christmas season.

I’m not taking cheap shots at Christmas. Before long the apocalyptic character of climate change will capture so much of our attention that any worship at all that does not acknowledge it will be simply irrelevant. It’s time that we look at every liturgical season, every lectionary text, every familiar worship theme and image, and ask ourselves how it might nurture the imagination to weep for creation, or to defend it, or to alter our lives so as live more nearly in balance, or to face down the powers and principalities that sell slaughter these days. And I simply think the Feast of the Holy Innocents is too powerful a moment to pass over in silence because we’d rather sing carols.

Earth’s creatures are dying. At an unfathomable rate. Because of human sin. And their deaths foreshadow the world we are preparing for our grandchildren. That world is rushing at us, starting yesterday. The very least we can do is holler, “Fire!” And we may be surprised at what more we’re capable of, once that word crosses our lips.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]Matthew 2:1-18. Many question the historicity of the slaughter; there is no independent record of it outside this single biblical passage. It’s possible Matthew fashioned the tale as one strategy among others to show Jesus as a “new Moses” (compare Exodus 1:15-2:10). However, the symbolic importance of the Holy Innocents does not hinge on their historicity but on their place in Matthew’s gospel narrative.

[2]www.worldwildlife.org/pages/living-planet-report-2018.

[3]www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/18/warning-of-ecological-armageddon-after-dramatic-plunge-in-insect-numbers.

[4]https://truthout.org/articles/from-insects-to-starfish-were-edging-toward-biological-annihilation.

[5]The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. www.pulitzer.org/winners/elizabeth-kolbert.

[6]The phrase appears to have been coined by Paul Ehrlich. www.pnas.org/content/pnas/114/30/E6089.full.pdf.

[7]https://newsroom.mastercard.com/press-releases/mastercard-spendingpulse-u-s-retail-sales-grew-5-1-percent-this-holiday-season.

[8]https://transitionnetwork.org/about-the-movement/what-is-transition.

Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger

Christmas: The Most Important Four Ounces in the Manger
David R. Weiss – December 26, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #4 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

The most important four ounces in the manger are the ones we never talk about. I might argue that they’ve always been most important, but in the face of climate change—and the deep transformation required in how we view the world if we hope to bequeath any semblance of functioning society to our children—these four ounces are ones we absolutely need to grapple with today.

Before I get there, though, let me make clear where I’m coming from. I regard theology as more concerned with evocative claims than metaphysical claims. I recognize many Christians think otherwise. They see the doctrine of Incarnation as a metaphysical truth claim: in Jesus, God became human. I don’t. I see it as an evocative truth claim: in Jesus we see one instance (and with striking clarity) of what God’s presence in our midst looks like. That will, no doubt, trouble some of my readers, while heartening others. I’m not interested in arguing which claim is more “right”—something I don’t think is provable in any case. Besides, the connection I want to make with these four ounces remains powerful whether you treat it evocatively or metaphysically. But it seems important—as my blog byline suggests—that I, at least, “err on the edge of honest.”

So, these four ounces. They’re microbes. Itsy bitsy creepy crawlies, if you like. Point is, without them there is no incarnation, metaphysical, evocative, or otherwise. And I’m betting they vastly outnumber the host of angels that serenaded the shepherds on that hillside on Christmas Eve. Science tells us the average adult human is home to about 100 trillion microbes that are essential to our being alive. It’s a package deal: there is no such thing as a human being whose “aliveness” is not fully interwoven with these trillion-fold tiny creatures. They aid in our digestion, play key roles in our immune system, and carry out other duties essential to keeping a person alive. Jesus could not have been fully human, fully alive, without these 100 trillion microbes. As an adult, these microbes constituted about six pounds of his body weight. As a newborn, they would’ve already numbered in the trillions and comprised about four ounces of his six pounds of holy babyness.[1]

Whether you prefer your incarnation metaphysical or evocative, this is a pretty astounding insight: whatever we mean when we say God became incarnate, microbes are part of that. Of course, the gospel writer John didn’t know that science, but he captures it well when he writes: “And the Word became flesh …” (John 1:14) The Greek word here (sarx/flesh) means just that: the soft fleshly substance of a living body—whether human or animal. True, John is thinking specifically about Jesus, but his choice of sarx/flesh beckons us to hear God choosing an intimacy and solidarity that is much more radical than “merely” becoming human … more theologically evocative as well as more scientifically accurate.

Ironically, then, John’s prologue (John 1:1-18) not only provides some of the key theological infrastructure for the highest reaches of the doctrine of Incarnation, identifying Jesus with the pre-existent Word and that pre-existent Word with God,[2]it also opens up to the most expansive—the lowest and earthiest notion of incarnation. Later John writes, in perhaps the most well known verse in the New Testament, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). The Greek word is kosmos, from which we get our word, cosmos. It means just that: the cosmos, the universe, or, more casually, the earth and its inhabitants. In explaining the motive behind Incarnation, John says, God loved it all. And, if we allow our theology to converse with our science, Incarnation becomes the truth claim that God embraces all creation so thoroughly as to enlist even microbes in revealing God’s love.

I think this offers several salutary insights as we try to imagine how to reposition ourselves within the world in a more harmonious and sustainable way. First, it reminds us that the scope of God’s incarnating love includes critters we don’t even think about … and surely the many that we do. We won’t work hard to save what we don’t love, and recognizing the reach of God’s love may help lengthen the reach of our own.

Second, if incarnation itself blurs the lines between the human and the non-human world, it challenges one of the fundamental binaries that has allowed us to recklessly and dangerously exploit the rest of creation. If divinity takes on not just human life but microbial life—in the service of love—then truly the entire “world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins) in ways we had never quite imagined. Indeed, our transition away from a way of life that presumes to use the world up as a matter of convenience hinges on breaking down the falsehood that we’re somehow set off from the non-human creation. Recognizing that Jesus—whether evocatively or metaphysically—embodies both is one place to start.

Third, what’s true of Jesus in his incarnate mystery is equally true of us in our more mundane humanity. (But don’t get me started, because I think the lines between incarnate mystery and mundane humanity blur—not just in Jesus, but in us, too!) In any case, this is good news. There are a multitude of ecosystems that we desperately need to find—feel, enact—our deep connection with, but we can begin right here: by acknowledging that each of us is our own ecosystem.

Those four ounces in the manger say something profound about God, Jesus, creation, and our place in all of it: interwoven. It’s high time we see that as both sacred and mundane truth.

 

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]I’m guessing, of course.Here’s the basic calculation per evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis: 10% of the drybody weight of humans is comprised of microbes. Adjusting for differences in water weight by sex (adult males are 60% water; adult females are 55% water), 4% male body weight is microbial; 4.5% female body weight is microbial. I’m presuming an adult Jesus weighed about 150 pounds and a newborn about six, but the exactness of those figures is irrelevant to the point I’m making. Rob Dunn, Every Living Thing(New York: Collins Books, 2009), pp. 138-143, cited in Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key(New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 20-21.

[2]“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3)

Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News

Advent as Ending: Apocalypse as Good News
David R. Weiss – December 16, 2018
The Gospel in Transition #3 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com

Advent typically begins with an image of ending. Each year of its three-year cycle churches following the Revised Common Lectionary find an apocalyptic Gospel text appointed for the first Sunday of Advent. These texts add an unabashed edge of apocalyptic energy to the too often domesticated pageantry of Christmas.

Climate change has its own apocalyptic energy—as looming world-crashing threat. Yet one of the paradoxes of the Transition Movement is its determination to lean into this impending crisis as opportunity to re-center ourselves on what really matters: living lightly on the earth, locally in community, and deeply in our humanity. It’s a challenging paradox to sustain.

Perhaps it’s helpful to recall that in the Bible apocalyptic literature is actually rooted in radical hope. Such a perspective offers some discomforting but provocative connections.

Although there are a variety of biblical passages (like the Advent gospels readings) where an apocalyptic tone surfaces, there are two great instances of apocalyptic literature in the Bible: Daniel and Revelation. Both feature near-psychedelic imagery in which harrowing portraits of a collapsing world are presented. Reading them from our vantage point—and projecting their message into the future as a prediction of world-ending events—it’s easy to find them unsettling. But, in fact, both books were written for people living in such a harrowing present that they were actually offered (and received!) as good news—gospel—breaking into this world in its most extreme moments.

In both cases the authors were writing for people living under harsh societal oppression and brutal persecution by imperial powers.[1] In this context, apocalyptic cataclysm—overwhelming as the imagery is—was a message of radical hope. The present insufferable world was about to be swept away. As it needed to be if there was to be a path forward.

The less all-out visionary but unmistakably apocalyptic tone of the Advent readings in the lectionary is a stark reminder to us that all three of the synoptic gospels (many scholars question whether these words go all the way back to Jesus himself) place an apocalyptic exclamation point on Jesus’ ministry.[2] One way to read this is that the manner of life presented by Jesus—grounded I would argue in a radical praxis of inclusive compassion—unleashes its own world-transforming energy.

It’s an energy we tend to keep boxed up in all manner of ways ranging from “right doctrine” to “personal piety” to “cute Christmas pageantry.” Almost as though we want to ensure it can’t effect world transformation. Mary’s Magnificat (also appointed for the Advent lectionary) is more open in its longing. Trading apocalyptic imagery for straight forward social and political reversal, Mary’s song suggests that somehow in the promised life of Jesus the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the rich left empty, the lowly exalted, and the hungry fed. Taken seriously, her words intimate a gospel nothing less than apocalyptic in impact.[3]

If it’s hard for us to feel radical hope in the face of cataclysmic change, that may have something to do with where we stand in the world today. Years ago, when teaching the story of the Exodus to college students I suggested “we would be wise to feel a bit of fear as we read these passages, in the uncomfortable honesty that we today stand closer to the Egyptians than the Hebrews. In a world where many live like slaves so that a relative few can live like kings, we are among those who wear purple.”[4] The plagues—themselves a mini apocalyptic narrative—upend the worlds of both the Egyptians and the Hebrews, but that upending is good news for those who had been enslaved (although there is no lacking of murmuring among the Hebrews as they wander the wilderness in the coming years).

So where do we stand in the story of climate change? Well, most of us stand in places where the upending of the world as it is, is not good news. But the truth is that for most of the world’s inhabitants—more viscerally acquainted than we are with the costs of our addiction to petroleum, our exploitation of animals and ecosystems, our racist objectification of our fellow humanity, and our unrelenting consumption of the planet—for most of the world’s inhabitants the continuation of the world as it is, is precisely the threat. And the apocalyptic disruption of the status quo might well count as good news.

Unfortunately, because of how interconnected our world is, the level of disruption coming with climate change will take a steep toll on the entire web of creation. And, in many cases, the greatest toll will be exacted on those least responsible and least able to respond.

Nevertheless—and I’m being intentionally provocative here—the Transition Movement[5] dares to suggest that it’s possible to move into the impending upending of the world that is … as a step toward good news. To choose to radically simplify our lives, to break our addictions to both fossil fuel and needless material stuff, to reclaim skills needed to live lightly on Earth, to dramatically localize our lives, and to deepen bonds of genuine community—all such choices, which we can begin to make now, are ways to embrace apocalypse—even as our lives are upended—as bearing good news.

This is not to make light of the damning losses that we have bartered for these past few decades (primarily by way of corporate agendas and political inaction, but also by personal indifference and unexamined habits of greed). The losses, already underway but to be fully revealed in the decades ahead, will be apocalyptic: world-rending. But it is to say that, if this present world—insufferable for so much of creation—is about to be swept away, as it needs to be if there is to be a path forward for the whole of humanity and for the health of creation, then there is in that apocalypse a very severe sort of good news.

And our capacity to make the changes needed in our lives may well hinge on our ability to imagine, within the tumult of apocalypse, a whisper of goods news. Not to domesticate its terror, but to taste the very real joy that can yet be had if we choose—in this Advent moment—to turn away (repent) from lives that trade almost entirely in death to prop up a façade of success that is coming quickly to its end.

I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. Click here to learn more about how you can support me.

*          *          *

The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing climate change, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly blog posts will consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional”; my aim is to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!). Thanks for reading and see you next week!

 

[1]The Book of Daniel, while fictionally set in sixth century BCE (“Before the Common Era”), was authored in the second century BCE under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Hellenistic Greek ruler who viciously attacked both Jewish faith and culture. The Book of Revelation was written near the end of the first century CE (“in the Common Era”) under the reign of Emperor Domitian who demanded imperial idolatry from Christians under pain of death. In both contexts the community of the faithful found their faith pushed to the extreme, as though nothing less than the rending of one world and the appearance of another would open a way forward.

[2]The texts (for Years A, B, C) are: Matthew 24: 36-44; Mark 13:24-37; Luke 21:25-36. While Jesus himself was active in a context of significant multifaceted social-political-religious oppression, by the time the synoptic gospels themselves were authored (usually dated 40-60 years later), the stakes seemed even higher. The Jewish Revolt, the Fall of Jerusalem and the early years of Roman persecution of Christians all made the idea of Jesus’ return a powerful source of radical hope.

[3]Luke 1:46-55. It’s noteworthy that Mary’s song of praise is sparkedby the words her cousin Elizabeth uses to greet her by, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These are fighting words. Really. For Elizabeth and Mary, who surely knew their Jewish heroines, these words were dangerouslyevocative. In oral cultures, phrases matter. Only twice in the Hebrew Scripture were women told, “Blessed are you among women.” You couldn’t hear the words and not have the memory of Jael and Judith come rushing at you. Jael earned them (Judges 5:24) for driving a tent peg through the head of a general who was oppressing the early Israelites. Later Judith received them (Judith 13:18) after beheading a general whose troops had besieged an Israelite town. This phrase heralded women whose cunning and courage proved crucial in toppling oppressive power. As a song in response to that greeting, the Magnificat is no mere wistful verse. It is poetry promising to upend the world.

[4]The imagery in these words came to me in 1996 the first time I taught this story to first-year students at Notre Dame; I’ve used the phrase “the ones who wear purple” to frame our entry into to the Exodus tale ever since.

[5]http://transitionus.org/home