I’m very excited to announce the release of my new book, “CHAOS, CHAOS” (Collected Speeches 2014-2018, different from by other book called “CHAOS”). It’s now available on amazon ( https://www.amazon.com/Chaos-j-Snodgrass/dp/1727631447/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1541098038&sr=1-5&keywords=j.+snodgrass+chaos ). And here is a sample chapter:
Recently while moving I had plenty of opportunities to think about power – the energy it took to pack, stack and haul the stuff, fighting the strong urge to dump it all at Goodwill. I even had a chance to test my strength with The Force, successfully levitating an upright piano with my mind while watching six dudes load it into a truck (they definitely did their share, but without my intense concentration I don’t think they could ever have got it here in one piece). Of course my powers have limits, which I had plenty of time to consider while awaiting an electrician who promised to show up sometime between 8am and 4pm, and faithfully kept that appointment at 3:55. He was clearly disappointed to find that I was not a lonely housewife fresh from a scented bath. Instead I was a haggard father, generously scented with my own musk because I hadn’t taken a five minute shower because I knew that would have to be the five minutes in which he showed up, hung a card on the front door saying “we knocked,” and disappeared for another two weeks.
Power. What is “Power”? My experience with the electrician gave me a couple hints. Power is the power to hold someone else against their will, to put them under house arrest from 8 to 4 waiting for you. And power is also the power to show someone a number and tell them to pay it, giving them no frame of reference to understand your cryptic system of computation. “How did you arrive at this number? I don’t understand amps and breakers but I know what a dollar is. And I can see that in fifteen minutes you’ve installed two bucks’ worth of metal and plastic. How do I owe you five thousand dollars?”
Electricians always tell you that the previous electrician was a crook. “That’s your problem. The last guy to work on this was a crook.” But how can you know? The only safe assumption is that they’re all crooks. Power is the power of one sweaty man in dirty clothes (because he’s a specialist) to tell another man in dirty clothes (because he can’t take a shower), “Pay what I say or else.” Or else what? “Or it’s the Dark Ages for you. Hope you like candles and tapestries.” When I was young, the US and USSR spent zillions of dollars and rubles proving their power to “bomb you back into the Stone Age.” But electricians don’t need atomic bombs, they can put you back in the Stone Age with a ninety-cent screwdriver.
Ah, now the lights are on and you’re as bankrupt as the Soviet Union, finally taking that shower and trying to remember the business motto printed on the side of the electrician’s van. “Electricians: Holding America Hostage Since 1879.” “Electricians: You’ll Be Shocked By What We Charge.” “Electricians: If it’s not broke, we’ll fix it. And if you’re not broke, we’ll fix that too.” When the US treasury prints the trillion-dollar bill it’ll have Thomas Edison on it.
TERMINATORS AND PREDATORS
At the start of the college semester, there’s a game I like to play with my religious studies students. I show them the word “Power” and tell them to think of a person, then I ask them about the image that comes to mind. Descriptions of this imaginary person often involve words like “Strong” and “Tough,” and I say, “Yes, those hefty girls with their broad hips and hard stares” and students laugh. We realize that for your average nineteen year old, the stock image of “Power” is male. But not just any man, we gradually narrow it down until we’ve further classified this strong man as someone who can use force or threats of force to make you do things you don’t want to do – to make you do what he wants you to do (or to make you pay what he wants for fuse-box work).
At nineteen this was true for me too. My image of power comes from the mid 1980’s, the age of the brawny blockbuster. Yes, we all knew that power had fallen into the hands of shadowy bureaucrats and Cold War spies, and that the real Cold Warriors were Wall Street Terminators and Predators. But we wanted to see muscle, someone who would sweep the bureaucrats aside and win something – for five bucks you could watch Sylvester Stallone win the Vietnam war, you could watch Arnold Schwarzenegger win the war on drugs (they may have lost their personal wars against steroids, but at least they weren’t bureaucrats. Yet). Let’s face it – it’s been a long time since America won anything. Our last national victory was when The Patriot Act won the war on personal privacy. Then during the Bailout, Wall Street won its siege of the government. But it’s not very cinematic. Power is the power to say “pay up or else a disaster will befall you,” which is what Wall Street did, holding America hostage and it worked. But, um…I thought we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And don’t I pay the US armed forces to protect me from threats like that? As a matter of fact, where was the US army when that electrician was holding me hostage? They were off protecting his right to free enterprise.
Anyway, we think of power and we think of a strong man who can coerce you to obey his will, we think of a dominator. Then I show my college students a picture of a pregnant teenager. “Nobody thought of this person when I said ‘power’? Maybe we see the pregnant teenager and think, “there’s someone who has no power, someone who played around with the power of seduction and got busted, someone who has lost all their choices.” This is generally the agreement among college students. But can the pregnant teenager can do something the strong man can’t do? He can send you to the hospital or the morgue, but the pregnant teenager can produce and nurture life. A ripple, you can feel it, a ripple runs through the classroom: a ripple of unimpressed boredom. Young minds are not blown or changed.
The teenaged mother gets no respect. So I ask “Who does respect a teenage mother?” Silence. “A baby does! Because to a baby, mother is God, that great being who created and loves and nurtures life.” It’s impossible to teach babies about manly religion – original sin and sacraments, sacrifice, salvation, paradise, all that stuff, they yawn: “Eh, sounds fine but I’ll take the nipple instead.” Yeah, actually that’s how I feel too. Then I ask my students, “What do believers tend to like about God? Is it that God gets angry and smashes things?” Young eyebrows furrow – “Who’d you talkin’ about, Willis?” “Yes, God gets angry and smashes things, if you need proof there’s a book I recommend: the Bible. But is that what believers tend to like about God? Rage and wrath and righteous rampage? Or is it that God creates and loves and nurtures?” Ah, it’s not the ‘strong man’ God that people really love, it’s the pregnant teenager God.
That’s the first thing God’s Mother asks when He calls, “Are you still getting angry and smashing things?” “No, Mom.” “Then what’s this I hear on the news?” Actually that’s the same thing my mother wants to know first when I call, “Are you still getting angry and smashing things?” “No, Mom, how about you? Are you still pouring bowls of chicken soup over childrens’ heads?”
God is powerful. We could say “God is Power.” As a matter of fact we have to, because if we don’t say “God is Power” then we’d have to say “Power is God” and that would be a nightmare. Especially for us non-electricians. God is powerful, but what are the powers of God? God used to do everything. Until just a couple centuries ago when God received an open letter from Galileo saying “Hey – it turns out you don’t need to keep pushing the sun and moon in circles around the Earth. Just stand back, you’ll see everything will orbit perfectly around the sun on its own. Happy Father’s Day!” And then an open letter from Charles Darwin telling God He no longer had to painstakingly hand-carve every wing of every mosquito and every eyelash of every child – the incredible diversity of life would from henceforth be handled by a random algorithm that guaranteed every pine needle would be as unique as a snowflake. Now God sits despondent in a retirement home hoping someone will show up for visiting hours on Sunday to hear the old stories again (and unfortunately they’re written down, so they don’t get bigger every time we hear them). Some modern Christians have drawn a line in the sand: Gravity and biodiversity can have their pieces of the pie, but God still gets creation, destruction and judgment. The clocks of physics and biology can keep ticking, but God gets to set the alarm and then smash the clock when it rings. And in the meantime He’s entrusted our care to wise billionaires, whose capitalist adventurism will steer the ship through the maze of ice-burgs.
Sometimes I feel powerless and wonder… Do I really need to be a prisoner of this house? An indentured servant to this mortgage? A hostage of these electricians? What if I took my family, Swiss-Family-Snodinson-style into the state parks or Pennsylvania and started a new life in the wild? Then I remember…it’s illegal to stay in the state parks. And Pennsylvania is swarming with rabid packs of Pennsylvanians. And also… I’ve never hunted anything. Or made tools for a hunt. And I don’t know how to build a shelter. And my wife knows a lot, but I doubt she could find enough berries to feed five people. I’ve got powerful tools but they run on electricity. I’ve got power but I don’t have the powers of the average ten-year-old in the Stone Age. I’ve got powers, but I don’t have the power to walk away from a societal situation that doesn’t work.
I ask my college students – how many of you want to get up at 7am every weekday for the rest of your life and work till 7pm so you can go buy food? It turns out, in a classroom of 45 college students, nobody. But nobody ever taught them how to feed themselves any other way, and so they’re stuck. Elementary school taught them how to measure a triangle and name the fifty states, but not how to catch or cook a rabbit. Or a rutabaga. Elementary school taught them that all the food in the world is locked up and the only key is money, and then elementary school sent them to me (I hear that some of them attended high school on their way to college, but I’m not thoroughly convinced).
When I feel powerless I try to remember…human beings are powerful. Meat machines that run on a wide range of bio-fuels (few species on earth can derive energy from as many fuel-types as we can). We can turn oxygen, the toxic flatulence of green plants, into life force, and we can turn the poisonous farts of rotting barley into alcohol, which gives us delusions of even greater power. The skin that covers us is a solar panel, and our brains become more active by absorbing radiation from the sun. Our skin can also absorb electricity from moving water, which is why many of us can’t think straight till we’ve had a hot shower in the morning. At our center is a rechargeable battery called the heart. And being electric, we also produce magnetic fields, the effects of which we don’t fully understand. Maybe it was magnetism that helped me levitate that piano – I really can’t explain it. We also have powers we don’t talk about – producing powerful smells, for example, which can influence those around us more than our words or actions. We don’t necessarily take it as a complement when someone says we’re smelling strong today, but we must admit that it’s form of power.
Imagine a machine that ran on a combination of solid, liquid and vapor fuels, electricity, solar radiation and magnetism, and that by absorbing a combination of these energies it could move around and tell dirty jokes, predict the future based on the past, even screw in a light-bulb. But this machine is not a black hole, not an energy vacuum – it processes energy, generating more electricity and magnetism, its foul-smelling belches feed the trees and its droppings are a goldmine for beetles and worms and ferns. Alchemists once wondered – can we transform feces into gold? But it turns out our feces are more valuable than gold to our neighbors in the community of life. In the Greek creation story, Zeus’ greatest fear was that human beings would gain that other form of power, fire, which would give them a sense of control over their environment, and an inspiration of infinite strength by total destruction. We have modeled our culture on that fire, burning energies and scorching the land – alien astronauts looking down at the lights of New York and Tokyo at night might think the world was on fire, and they would be right.
We are parasites crawling in the benevolent biosphere, negotiating a balance. While the earth spins in a dizzying orbit, we build wagons, steam-trains and Jeeps to move us further and faster. Meanwhile, we ourselves are the moving benevolent biospheres for billions of bacteria, germs and parasites, who have been working tirelessly for billions of years to evolve the wagon, train and Jeep of land mammals – I’m the Jeep that nurtures these bacteria and transports them in style while a factory in my body produces the seeds of even sturdier, handsomer bacteria-transports, my children. Inside my human machine is a whole world of living cultures. That’s why the inside of my mouth smells like New Orleans until I brush my teeth in the morning. And as the microscopic germs work for balance with the biospheres of our bodies so as not to render us uninhabitable, so we as human beings must work for balance with the biosphere of the earth so as not to render her uninhabitable.
We are powerful beyond our own imaginings. As a seminarian I found systematic theology to be incredibly confusing, and discouraging. Now as a reproductive adult I find systematic biology is even more confusing, but it is also empowering. Earlier I mentioned the power of the teenaged mother. Condemned by culture, castigated by religion (although didn’t I once hear that God chose to manifest great power through the reproductive apparatus of an unwed teenager?). It turns out I’m an electrician too, and a power-plant generating warmth and energy and a safe home for billions of germs and bacteria and parasites. But I don’t use this power to make them feel like prisoners in my intestines, and I certainly don’t use this power to make them pay exorbitant fees for the right to absorb my precious electricity and half-digested hamburgers.
Many of us here are not blockbuster superstars or billionaires, and I can tell we’re not electricians because nobody in the room is charging to attack me or attacking to charge me. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have power. We do have power.
We are the power.