I Saw God on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

Sometime in the first half of the first millennium B.C.E. a group of Canaanites distinguished themselves from their neighbors by advocating the worship of Yahweh alone, to the exclusion of other Canaanite gods like Baal and Asherah. In the Hebrew Bible, the passion of this early movement may be attested in the stories about Elijah and Elisha in I and II Kings, in the prophetic outcry of Hosea, and elsewhere. It presumably reached its apotheosis in the community established in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah. According to their eponymous books, Ezra and Nehemiah returned to Judea from Babylonian exile with the help of the Persian emperor in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. Their community, defined by its singular covenant with Yahweh, is linked in a chain of tradition to Jewish communities spanning the Common Era up to the present day.

I can only imagine the delight, the genuine thrill, that an early Yahweh-alone advocate would have felt had he been transported through time into the backseat of my Honda Accord and seen, as I did, the Hebrew letters “YHWH” emblazoned in white on a black background on an enormous billboard above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Sure, the billboard is sponsored by American Atheists and is meant to challenge the practice of worshipping Yahweh. But after roughly two and half thousand years, the fact that there are still organized opponents who find it necessary publicly to oppose Yahweh worship represents a huge success for Yahwism. You’re not going to find any giant billboards hovering over American highways opposing the worship of Chemosh! 

Since the chain of tradition that spans from the Jerusalem of Ezra and Nehemiah links up with me at some point, all the way to me dressing up my two-year-old as a pirate on Purim last week, the billboard also had the opposite of its intended affect on me. The ancient Hebrew letters in this powerful combination utterly overwhelmed the effort of the billboard’s sponsors to profane them.

It conjured in my mind the horrifying image of a man with newfangled fire-resistant gloves grabbing and raising aloft a flaming piece of wood, screaming out: “don’t you see! We no longer need to be afraid!” – only slowly to be engulfed by the flames, defiance morphing into shrieks of pain, and finally consumed. 

I had in mind something like the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis open up the Ark of the Covenant and gaze with wonder and satisfaction at the swooping apparitions that they have brought forth, only soon after to have their faces melted off.

The billboard also undermines itself with the first clause of its catchphrase “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice.” Consider, for instance, how Wendy Doniger describes myths in her book The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth. 

“a myth is a story that is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it; it is a story believed to have been composed in the past about an event in the past, or, more rarely, in the future, an event that continues to have meaning in the present because it is remembered” Page 2. 

(Doniger’s view of myth is incredibly rich and complex and goes well beyond what is represented in this passage; do read the whole book and the rest of her work if you’re interested in the best scholarship on this subject.) 

The revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses on the mountain in Exodus 3:13-15 is indeed a myth in Doniger’s sense. It is sacred to Jewish people who preserve its memory and find inexhaustible meaning in it. 

Perhaps the billboard should have read: “You know it’s a fiction.” But is it merely a fiction? Doesn’t the fact that it is a shared basis of group identification for some set of people who sanctify it distinguish the story of Yahweh from most stories that we would describe as fictions?

Yes, it is a myth. But this is a distinction that indicates its power and presence in people’s lives, not its emptiness. 

The second clause of the billboard’s catchphrase is much stronger: “and you have a choice.” This is both a courageous and morally commendable message.

It is courageous because of the still dominant taboo against challenging the inevitability, authority, and worthiness of one’s own and other people’s myths. Since I care deeply about free inquiry, freedom of expression, and individual liberty – or perhaps because these are attached to a myth about American democracy that trumps all of the other myths that I sanctify  – I lament and oppose the dominance of this taboo. 

The second clause is morally commendable insofar as it frees people who feel stifled by their myths or myth-centered communities to imagine unburdening themselves.  

Unfortunately, it is questionable whether or not people can extricate themselves from the power of myths that they have once sanctified. If they can’t, even when they want to, then the billboard might as well hover over a poor, jobless, stigmatized, crime-ridden, environmentally polluted neighborhood and read: “Be Happy!” 

The billboard that I saw is apparently one of several. There are others targeting other myths. They ought to be welcomed onto roads that also offer “Jesus Is The Answer.” Nevertheless, on American roads these billboards may ultimately prove self-defeating: they lack the gravity necessary to ground the myths that they evoke.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less
  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
  • When it opens next year, it will be the largest plant of its kind on Earth.
  • Concentrated solar power solves the problem of how to store electricity in ways that solar pannels cannot.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.