I can’t help wondering how British poet John Milton would have written about the fires in California. In the opening lines of his greatest epic, Paradise Lost,he describes the Hell into which a rebellious Satan fell:
“The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv'd only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum'd…”
Milton’s description from 1667 seems prophetic.
Paradise has been lost again – this time the town of some 26,000 residents in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California. As I write these words, 63 people have been confirmed dead; 600 are missing; over 11,000 structures reduced to ashes.
The origins of the name Paradise are unclear. One version claims the town was named for a gambling saloon, the Pair O’ Dice. Another version says that sawmill owner William Pierce Leonard took a deep breath of clear mountain air, and declared, “This is paradise.”
Until then, the town was simply known as Leonard’s Mill. And before that, as Poverty Ridge.
Paradise has reverted to Poverty Ridge. One fire official described the debris as “Armageddon” – the site named in the last book of the Bible as the final battle between God and Satan.
“Over 95 per cent of the town is gone,” a Paradise councillor told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I feel like I’m living in a bad dream. It was unrecognizable. All the landmarks are gone. Anybody who had a house in Paradise probably doesn’t anymore.”
Milton based his epic on a war between supernatural beings; the loss of the town has no one to blame but humans. Climate change – hotter temperatures and prolonged droughts – has made forest fires more extreme. Subdivisions built into forests compound the risk. And the damage.
Milton also based his story on the fictional story of the Garden of Eden, in the opening chapters of the biblical book of Genesis.
Yes, I called the story of the Garden of Eden “fictional.” We now know, beyond any doubt, that the origins of life on earth did not happen in a verdant paradise.
The Genesis story has had an immense influence in shaping our culture and our thinking for thousands of years, but reading it as factual requires parking our brains in a fire-proof vault.
The ruins of the town of Paradise more accurately portray the inhospitable early earth.
To see a comparable environment today, walk on the lava flow from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii -- searing hot rocks, puddles of steaming water, and not a green thing in sight.
And yet somehow, in that wasteland, life began. Whatever explanation you like – an invasion by extra-terrestrials, the finger of God, pure chance – the undeniable fact is that life began.
If it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here to deny it.
According to paleo-genetic studies, every living thing on this planet started with one cell – probably the result of one largish bacterium swallowing a smaller one, which became the nucleus of that first prokaryotic cell. From that first cell evolved every form of life today: plants, fungi, fish, reptiles, insects, birds, mammals, and us humans.
Forget the shock expressed, by Darwin’s detractors, at the notion that humans might have hairy apes as ancestors. We are all the offspring of a single primitive cell.
To my mind, that’s far more miraculous than any supernatural deity moulding humans out of mud.
Similarly, all humans alive today are descended from a single mother. Because of the biblical story, she’s commonly called “Eve.” Not because she was the first woman. Not even the only woman. But because the mitochondria in her cells reproduced more successfully than any other woman’s.
We are all related. To each other. And to every other living thing on this planet.
And just as life began in a wasteland, life will begin again in Paradise, California. Seeds will germinate under the ash and charcoal. Green things will grow. Small animals will find shelter under their roots. Birds will nest in their branches.
People will return, and will plant petunias and geraniums. And build houses and schools.
Paradise will have another chance to become a paradise – if we can learn something from our mistakes this last time around.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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If I lamented that some previous columns hadn’t generated much mail, I take it back. The Remembrance Day column came through in spades. (Bridge, not trenches.)
Rob Brown wrote, “My mind turned to a stanza of Robert Laurence Binyon's poem For the Fallen, published in The Times newspaper on 21 September 1914.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
The second line always makes me stop and wonder about what's involved in the process of being wearied by age or condemned by the years in comparison to those who have died in war.
In a subsequent email, Rob added, “I think all soldiers may go to heaven. Given the realities of warfare, particularly the 20th century, they've already spent enough time in hell.”
Chris Blackburn also referred to a familiar poem: “I like your reminder that ‘the soldiers who died were not just individuals. They were part of a community.’ In John McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields, the stanza beginning ‘We are the dead’, the words ‘loved, and were loved’ make me reflect on lovers, friends, family, who were affected by those soldiers' deaths.”
I referred to Britain and Germany having high casualties. Christ Duxbury reminded me, “Australian casualties were high too. According to the First World War page on the Australian War Memorial website, from a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. At an Armistice Gathering today I heard it was 68,000. Humanity prides herself on how we have progressed, but when it comes to war and dealing with conflict all we have done is develop bombs and other weapons that if used would be diabolical.”
Steve Roney noted that the highest proportion of deaths probably belongs to Serbia: “16.67% of the entire population – very close to having an entire generation of men wiped out … Germany lost the least of the Central Powers, and Britain lost far fewer than France or Italy.”
Mary Collins was struck by the losses of smaller communities: “You mentioned that the soldiers who died ‘were part of a community.’ The Evensong service I attended this afternoon at St. James Anglican Cathedral read the names of members of the congregation who died in the two world wars. I counted on my fingers: 47 in WW1, and 22 in WW2.All from one congregation!”
Robert Caughell referred to his own congregation’s memorial effort: “To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the end of WWI, our local church will ring the ‘Bells of Peace’ 100 times at sun set and to honour those who died.”
Isabel Gibson appreciated the concept of communities suffering PTSD: “Thanks for this useful construct. While there's more to the present-day situation of indigenous Canadians than community PTSD, it seems to me this is clearly part of it.
“As for the collateral damage of war, my father had two female cousins in Scotland who never married. Both lost their sweethearts in WWII. Were their lives completely blighted? It didn't seem so, but those lives were changed forever.
“It's harder to see the longer-term effects of war within our own communities -- habits of thinking and acting that we take for granted -- but it's worth some thought.”
This writer preferred to remain anonymous: “Both my wife and I feel that her mother, my mother-in-law, suffered from PTSD for her whole life. As a teenager she was evacuated from London along with her two sisters. As the eldest she felt the need to look after them which, added to the separation from her parents, was quite a burden for a young person. As a result she was very anxious her whole life. My mother-in-law has died, but the memory of what she had to suffer as a child had a prolonged effect for both her and her husband's life. Fortunately she was able to tell her story to many children during children's time within my congregation. I will forever be thankful for her gift of story.”
Bob Rollwagen: “The most destructive drug on earth is POWER. Power can lead to a gain for all; however, misdirected Power usually leads some to feel they should influence others in a way that only benefit those with the Power Those who volunteered to fight in 1914 thought they were going so that Power would be for good. While the Armistice stopped the senseless killing, it did not end the desire for Power or establish any control on Power that would benefit the world. I wonder when will be the next time that the human race will go to war in an attempt to bring Power under control, and if anything has been learned from the first attempt. WW II was about stopping a couple of sources of Power being misused but no cure for the problem itself has been discovered yet.”
I’ll let Clare Neufeld (actually, his great uncle) have the last word: “It amazes me, again and again, that theories of individualism have made such inroads. Anthropologists keep reminding us that it is precisely the human capacity to cooperate, collaborate, communicate sophistically, that has given us a developmental (evolutionary?) advantage, over other larger, stronger, etc. species.
“To suggest that ‘community’ is mere fiction, I believe has been debunked both scientifically and on the ground where people live, have their being, and die. It is a rare exception where a human individual can truly thrive, while ‘alone’ in the true sense.
“My great uncle, who was with the Canadian forces when they liberated Holland: ‘War is hell. I have lost many a friend and fellow human in war -- Canadian and enemy. Never should warfare be considered as a strategy for peace! It is not. It is a strategy for ruin and destruction, more than you can ever imagine!”
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)
Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet