Macomber turnip

One of the things I miss about living in southeastern Massachusetts is the Macomber turnip. Macomber turnips produce large roots that look like light-colored rutabagas on the outside; when you cut the roots open, the flesh is crisp, relatively easy to cut, a creamy white with a light grain to it. You can cook them like any turnip or rutabaga; I like them boiled or steamed and mashed, though they can be a little watery. But I think the best way to eat them is to slice them into sticks and eat them raw. I’m eating one as I write this: it’s mild and sweet with a slight tang of turnip or radish, crisp and moist, like no other vegetable I’ve eaten.

I haven’t seen Macomber turnips anywhere outside of southeastern Massachusetts. But in that area, it’s such a famous vegetable that the town of Westport gave it its own historic marker, on Main Road, near Swartz’s Way. According to the inscription, the origin of the Macomber turnip was rutabaga seed which Aiden and Elihu Macomber brought back from the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. When we lived in the area, we were told that the rutabagas (Brassica napus), or perhaps they were turnips (Brassica rapa), then crosspollinated with radishes (Raphanus sativus) to form this new variety. Based on the taste, I find it more plausible to believe that Macomber turnips are a cross between B. napus and B. rapa. I’d be interested to know what a qualified taxonomist had to say about the matter.

In any case, it is such a pleasure to taste the Macomber turnip again. Sometimes, I wish they would become a fad food, so I could buy them here in California. More often, I’m glad they remain a local specialty, because it is possible to grow them so they become sharp and bitter; better that American Agribusiness leaves them alone.

Macomber turnip

Constructing God

Theology may not be what you think it is.

Theology used to be a Western intellectual discipline that tried to describe God, humans, and the world in an objective fashion, that is, as if these are objects that can be described. This kind of theology began with the making of myths, and persisted for centuries in the West as rational descriptions of the objective reality of God, humans, and the world. Call this kind of theology “first-order theology.” First-order theology went unchallenged until the Enlightenment, when Kant and others showed that we cannot treat the idea of “God” as an object of experience in the way that “tree” or “human” can be treated as an object of experience.

After Kant, theology entered a phase when it increasingly compared religions, and compared different theologies. This phase recognized that different human groups have different theologies, something that missionaries and colonial expansionists previously had known. However, theologians went beyond the missionaries and colonialists: they recognized that of the different possible theologies, none has an exclusive claim to truth. The chaotic proliferation of theologies in the West since the mid-twentieth century — theology of hope, theology of revolution, death-of-God theology, atheist theology, feminist theology, black theology, queer theology, etc. — has emonstrated clearly that no single theology has an exclusive claim to truth. Call this phase “second-order theology.”

Gordon Kaufman, in his An Essay on Theological Method (1975), has proposed what he calls third-order theology: theology that acknowledges that it is a construct of the human imagination, and moves on from the chaos of second-order theology to something new:

“The increasing encounter of world cultures, on the one hand, and the development of such sciences as cultural anthropology on the other, have produced a level of sophistication which makes first-order theology no longer a viable alternative…. Second-order theology, however, taken by itself is not adequate to meet the human needs for orientation in life: it leaves us with a chaos of conflicting claims and criteria rather than guidance in the order and orienting of our lives. It is necessary for theology now to move to the third-order of deliberate construction if it is to serve contemporary humanity….”

Kaufman is telling us that it is no longer adequate for a theology to describe what it believes to be true. This is the fatal flaw of both fundamentalist Christianity and unbending atheism: now you have to do more than just shout out what you believe to be true. Kaufman is also telling us that it is not adequate to compare and contrast competing theologies, “aware that all positions, including one’s own, are in large part imaginative constructions”; we have to move beyond comparison to the task of constructing something that provides meaning and direction to human life.

And in undertaking this construction of something new, Kaufman brings up two key points. First, the “proper business” of theology should be “analysis, interpretation, and reconstruction of the concept and images of God, as found in the common language and tradition of the West.” I think Kaufman is wise here to limit the business of theology to the West, and to religions that originated in the West: I strongly suspect that the business of theology does not apply the religions of Asia, Africa, and other regions; these religions have their own ways of doing things.

Second, Kaufman reiterates that theology must now become a “constructive activity.” In the past, it was enough for theology to describe, then later to compare, but that’s no longer enough. Theology should be “a construct of the imagination which helps to tie together, unify, and interpret the totality of experience.” This new way of doing theology might be confusing for the fundamentalists and the atheists, and for many others who look at theology with the same delightful naivete — they may have to deal with the fact that theology is not what they think it is.

Elsewhere, Kaufman quotes Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “Theology [is] grammar.” [The full quote reads as follows: “373. Welche Art von Gegenstand etwas ist, sagt die Grammatik. (Theologie als Grammatik.) — Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)”] And I think helps explain what theology can do. We need a way to make sense out of existence. We use ordinary language, ordinary words like “God” and “sacred” and “transcendent” to make sense out of existence. And we should understand that there is a grammar that governs how we use ordinary language to make sense of existence. Grammar does not restrict constructive theology, any more than grammar restricts poetry. Grammar provides structure for doing theology, just as it provides a structure for doing poetry.

I brought up poetry on purpose, because again and again I have found myself turning to poets for theology. For example, Margaret Atwood’s cycle of poems on the death of her father (in her book Morning in the Burned House) can be read as constructive theology that analyzes, interprets, and reconstructs “God” as it is found in common English language. Atwood, as it happens, does not find the traditional God of conservative Christians. But she doesn’t waste time in Christian-bashing, nor does she waste time comparing her theology against some other theology. She constructs a theology that helps me to understand the sacred and the transcendent and God (whatever those words mean), as she reflects on death and grief:

…Where have they gone to, brother and sister,
mother and father? Off along the shore,
perhaps. Their clothes are still on the hangers,

their dishes piled beside the sink,
which is beside the woodstove
with its grate and sooty kettle,

every detail clear,
tin cup and rippled mirror.
The day is bright and songless,

the lake is blue, the forest watchful.
In the east a bank of cloud
rises up silently like dark bread. …

This is how we construct a theology that provides a kind of grammar for our lives, a theology that tells us what kind of thing something is: If it is sad, how is it sad? If it is meaningless, how do we then create meaning? If it is sacred, what is it about a day that is bright and songless that imbues life with meaning and maybe even hope? Good sermons and good poems both use the words and grammar of common language to help us construct meaning in our existences. This is why I say: theology may not be what you think it is.


Carol’s friend Eva, who is a farmer, stayed with us last night. When farmers check luggage on the plane, what do they bring in that luggage? Turnips, onions, garlic, frozen venison — and wheat berries. The wheat berries are a hard winter variety called “Warthog,” from friends of Eva’s who farm in Essex, Massachusetts. Eva soaked the berries in water overnight, and we cooked them in the rice cooker this morning. We added a bit of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt: the perfect breakfast.

Hard winter wheat, var. Warthog


Bull Kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, Half Moon Bay State Beach

This is apparently an air bladder of Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), but with a much shorter stipe (or stalk) than that usually associated with this species of macroalgae. Carol found this beautiful organism when we were on a walk at Half Moon Bay State Beach late this afternoon (I walked right by it because I was too busy looking at Sanderlings and Mew Gulls).

Peter Alden and Fred Heath, National Audubon Society Field Guide to California, p. 87.
A. L. Baker, An Image-Based Key: Algae (PS Protista), Cyanobacteria, and Other Aquatic Objects, Nereocystis.
Washington State University, Intertidal organisms EZ-ID Guide, Nereocystis luetkeana (Bull Kelp).

More old time religion

More parody verses for “Old Time Religion”:

I will follow my Zen master,
Answer koans ever faster,
Sit in zazen ever after;
And that’s good enough for me!

It is plain that I should be Jain,
From ahimsa I shall refrain*
And allow no bugs to be slain;
And that’s good enough for me!

*Alternately: From meat-eating I shall refrain…

Supercharging Altoids (R)

Back in 2006, when Wrigley bought out Altoids (R) brand mints, they replaced the peppermint oil with artificial flavor. Although they soon resumed using real peppermint oil, the mints have never been as strongly flavored as they once were. So here’s how to supercharge Altoids (R) so they taste as peppermint-y as they did prior to 2006:

Go to your local health food store, and get the peppermint spirits which are sold as a dietary supplement. I got “Herb Pharm” brand “Peppermint Spirits Essential Oil and Whole Leaf Extract”. Note that they have changed the label since I bought mine (a one ounce bottle lasts a long time), and the new label is different than the one you see in the photograph below. Now get a small dinner plate, and spread out the mints on it.

Supercharging Altoids (R)

1. A mint ready for supercharging.
2. Adding peppermint spirits; the typical mint will absorb about three drops.
3. After adding peppermint spirits to one side, let the mint dry out (this could take 15 minutes).
4. A mint flipped over waiting for peppermint spirits to be added to the other side.
5. A supercharged mint drying out and waiting to be eaten.

Once you add peppermint spirits to both sides, the mints are somewhat damp and fragile, and it’s best to let them dry overnight before putting them back in the tin.

(If you want to know more about artificial flavor in Altoids, I wrote about it back in 2006 here, here, and here.)

Old Time Religion

Recently, I heard some new verses for the parody version of “Old Time Religion.” Here they are:

Yoruba religion, a.k.a. Orisha devotion:

Let us pray to the Orishas,
Not the ones who are too vicious,
Just the ones who grant our wishes;
And that’s good enough for me!

Ancient Egyptian religion:

O we sing the praise of Horus
Like the Dynasties before us —
A three thousand year old chorus;
And that’s good enough for me!

Worshiping at the altar of Wall Street:

The mighty Dollar is my Savior,
She controls my ev’ry behavior
Whether I spend her or I save her;
And that’s good enough for me!

BlogDec0915I was particularly interested in these verses because they happened to be about three religions I am currently studying. And lest you think I’m kidding about Wall Street being a religion, you might want to check out Scott Gustafson’s new book At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy (Eerdmans Publishing, Sept., 2015), in which the author “argues that economics functions in our current global culture as religions have functioned in other cultures.”


Isis is a well-known Egyptian goddess who needs little introduction. This beautiful little sculpture of Isis dates from a period when the Romans ruled Egypt; so Isis is wearing an Egyptian headdress, but she’s also wearing Roman clothing.

Isis, c. 100-200 BCE

Above: Isis with sistrum, from Roman Imperial period, c. 100 BCE to 200 CE; bronze. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 04.1713.

She is shaking a sistrum, an small percussion instrument that was used almost exclusively by women. Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture, interprets the sistrum in terms of sexuality: “The sistrum was a kind of rattle — a wooden handle supporting bars of metal, each piercing small rings that clanged together when the instrument was vibrated. The sistrum itself represented human sexuality — round objects penetrated by a phallic rod holding them in place” (1). This interpretation could be accurate, but it could be overly influenced by Freud and Co., and therefore anachronistic.

The archaeologist Joyce Tyldesley offers another interpretation; she says the sistrum, which “was played only by women,” was “a rather large loop-shaped rattle with a long handle, often featuring the head of Hathor [another Egyptian goddess], which had initially represented the papyrus reeds of the Nile Delta where, mythology decreed, Hathor had been forced to hide with her young son. Eventually the sistrum lost all trace of its original meaning and instead started to serve as a religious symbol for life itself. It consequently become absorbed by other deities, and was particularly identified with the cult of Isis at the end of the Dynastic period.” (2) And this sculpture in fact does date from the end of the Dynastic period, the time when Isis had taken over the sistrum form Hathor.

Thus in this sculpture, we see the goddess Isis at the end of some three millennia of change and development. She is wearing the flowing robes of Rome rather than the simple sheath dress of Dynastic Egypt. She wears a headdress that identifies her as Isis, though it is not the older stepped headdress of Isis seen in sculptures from 500 years earlier (see, e.g., the sculpture of Isis below, from c. 685-525 BCE). And she has taken over the sistrum from Hathor and other goddesses.

Although their adherents may say otherwise, art and material culture does not show gods and goddesses as unchanging and fixed; instead, they grow and evolve over time.

Isis, Dynasty 26

Above: Isis mourning Osiris, from Dynasty 26, c. 685-525 BCE; wood. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, accession no. 72.4172.


(1) Kara Cooney, The Woman Who Would Be King (New York: Broadway Books, 2014), p. 39.
(2) Joyce Tyldesley, Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 139.