Candle, Book, and Bell

AmericaBewitchedHaving married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.

Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.

There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.

On Vocation

“There ain’t no use in complaining,” Bryan Adams once wrote, “when you got a job to do.” If I may be pardoned from removing rock and roll from its love song context. As a guy who’s suffered unemployment several times, I have to agree that having a job is good. Of course, such goodness has its natural limitations. Switching jobs too often means starting out over and over again. In today’s world, that means that at half-a-century-old you might well find yourself having to earn vacation days from nothing all over again. So when family vacation plans were made this year, one of us—the one with a new job—could not be included. My family is out near the west coast while I remain here on the east. Once upon a time we were somewhere in the middle. I’m glad they have the opportunity. This post isn’t about sour grapes, or vacation; rather, it’s about vocation.

I often think about how life has become only earning for the sake of earning. People say you should get a job you like, which is fine if such jobs exist. The jobs I like are now considered beneath me. Not by me, but by those doing the hiring. Where has the sense of vocation gone? Back in the Middle Ages (and I’m not one to suggest that things were necessarily better then) the learned had opportunities. Those who had a skill could be inducted into a guild that would help to ensure job security. We’ve moved to a free agent model where someone can be removed from their natural vocation with nary a thought what they might do next. Detritus of a throw-away culture. For those with highly specialized skills—Ugaritic, anyone?—such severance is like setting one on an ice floe, only crueler. Ironically, the guild offers no help.

Reading about the Transcendentalists reminds me of how restorative the woods are. Emerson and Thoreau, heading off to the forest to commune with the divine. Since this road is blocked for me, I take the one better traveled, into Manhattan where, I’m sure, there is life. Elevators, ubiquitous pavement, quotas and tallies. Prove your worth. Among the students I knew I was accomplishing something. Since then it’s all just numbers. In the woods I don’t count the trees. I don’t demand to know what they’re producing for the good of the company. I don’t question their motives. Outside my window, if I had a window, I would see only stone, concrete, and steel. And inside all I feel are numbers. Can a soul be quantified? I think I would have to side with the Transcendentalists on this one. But that’s not what I’m paid to do.

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Dead See Scrolls

Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.

Dead_Sea_Scrolls_Before_Unraveled

“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.

The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.

Unity in Diversity

UnitariansUniversalistsIn the Simpsons episode “Bart’s Girlfriend,” Jessica Lovejoy steals all the church’s money from the collection plate, leading Mrs. Lovejoy to call out, “Everyone turn around and look at this!” Grampa Simpson whips around saying, “What is it? A Unitarian?” And so the jokes go, back even to my seminary years. The Unitarians, however, are among the most intellectually honest of religions. I recently read David Robinson’s The Unitarians and the Universalists. Although the traditions approached their 1961 union from different angles, they had a common origin: concern over the Calvinism of colonial and early post-colonial New England. The majority religion of the northeast, various forms of Calvinism taught of utter depravity, human helplessness, and, that absolute affront to human intellect now being posited by some materialists: predestination (determinism, in secular terms). The Universalists couldn’t accept that a loving God would make anyone suffer forever. The Unitarians had trouble with several aspects of the theology, not the least of which was the Trinity (as a non-biblical concept). Early Unitarians based their beliefs on the Bible, which, as it turns out, does not support several Calvinistic concepts.

Like all religions, Unitarianism evolved over time. Eventually the unity of God became only one among many possibilities of what one might believe. In fact, doctrine was less important than ethics. It was a true Enlightenment religion. It allowed for the Transcendentalist movement that we all learned about in school, with Emerson wandering in the woods, and Thoreau never wanting to move out of them. They also had room for those who studied the Bible but expressed concerned that Jesus doesn’t really say that he’s God, although obviously some people interpreted it as if he had. Regardless of belief, meeting together was necessary, and eventually the Unitarian Universalist Association came to represent a widely liberal form of religion with Christian roots but rational sensibilities.

Among the marks of distinction of these groups is that, among Protestant denominations, they were among the first, if not the first, to ordain women. When you are less beholden to wooden tradition, all kinds of possibilities emerge. This book was kind of an epiphany for me. I’d been channeled into thinking that “orthodox” necessarily equalled “the good guys,” despite the treatment that I’ve repeatedly received at their hands. It sometimes takes a Gestalt phenomenon to see orthodoxy as not necessarily good. Perhaps the effort to preserve a tradition outdated by a couple of millennia costs far more than it saves. Perhaps we need to become more human, not less. I may not walk the forest with Emerson—he preferred to be alone anyway, from what I understand—but I’ll not be so quick to assume that tunnel vision is true vision either. Not in a world where the Simpsons can teach us as much as The Institutes.

Lobby Hobby

I can recall a time when hobbies seemed less than threatening. Indeed, the idea was to relax, not to lobby. My hobbies—collecting just about anything you could get without money—didn’t involve going to a store. Stamps (because everybody used them back then), coins (ditto), fossils from the local river bank, bottle caps that we collected while Mom was doing the wash at the laundromat, all kinds of handouts from society’s detritus made for many hours’ entertainment. I also collected Bibles. That was when I was old enough to earn some money and spend it on books. And I read those Bibles until I’d run out of versions, then I’d start over again. Now my hobby has come back to haunt me.

According to the New York Times, the Hobby Lobby family is planning to build a Bible Museum in Washington, DC, prompting fears of evangelization. Right there in the nation’s capital, not far from the Mall, a museum showing the importance of the Bible would indeed send a message. But is it really a threat? We live under the judicial decisions of a Supreme Court weighted towards the literal already. It might not hurt to have a museum dedicated to finding out what’s going through our justices’ minds. Clearly it’s not women’s rights. If we wander those proposed halls, we might see that museums are indeed dedicated to outdated stuff that has some importance. Rare are the contemporary museums that show right where we are at the moment. Rarer still, those that show the future that remains undecided. In many senses, Washington is already a museum.

The secular world seems to fear the Bible. It is, however, not going to go away. Although I left literalism decades ago, I’m still pleasantly surprised how much the Bible has to offer by way of insight into human nature and contemplation. You might even find some workable ethics if you can get away from the non-issues of birth control, stem cells, or same-sex marriage. The Bible doesn’t need to be a threatening book. In the wrong hands, it may at times seem like The Book of Eli had its eyes right on the target, but those who would use the Bible to harm others are those who read without understanding the words. No, I don’t think the Green family’s plans for such a museum are innocent. Neither can I believe that hobbies are a $3 billion industry. Reading books and picking up other people’s cast-offs may be the only hobbies you need.

Engraven images?

Engraven images?

Pierogdolia

One of the memorable scenes from Men in Black is when the Arquillian takes Gentle Rosenburg to a restaurant for pierogi. One need not be an alien, or even Polish, to appreciate these dumplings, and a few weeks ago I found myself at a restaurant that offered pierogi on the menu, and I had to bring the leftovers home. When I was reheating them the next day an epiphany of sorts transpired. Now, when I prepare pierogi, I use the more healthy boiling method. The restaurant, however, fried them, leaving characteristic browning. As I flipped the reheating dumplings, a case of pareidolia occurred (prompting the title to this piece by both my wife and daughter, on separate occasions). A discussion of whose face this was ensued. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens were all suggested, but those attuned to religious thinking know that when a face appears, it must be that of Jesus. Well, a man’s face with a beard, in any case. If it’s female, it must be Mary.

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Pareidolia was always a winner with students, in my teaching days. Our brains are so attuned to finding faces that we actually design them into houses and cars and appliances. We like to see a friendly face. Now in my brain I know this is just fried dough, but my eyes are telling me this is a face on my dinner plate. The tendency is so closely tied to religious sensibilities that we can safely rule out any number of candidates. Of course, if I were to see this same phenomenon in a different culture, my referent would likely be completely different. Still, we seldom see news stories of Buddhists, say, finding Siddhartha Gautama’s image in foodstuffs. (Although, in all honesty I once found a water stain on a saucepan that looked very much like I imagine Confucius appearing.) Is there a deep-set need in our religious culture to find assurance in unlikely places? Are we that insecure?

Apart from the perennial favorites of breads (toast, tortillas, and now pierogi), images of “Jesus” show up in garden shrubs, water stains under highways, clouds, and even stingrays, prompting, a few years back, a website entitled “Stuff that Looks Like Jesus.” Now, I seriously doubt that some kind of transubstantiation has taken place on my dinner plate, but the appearance of a face on my food is always cause for reflection. Food is so essential to animal survival that it is perhaps strange that such images don’t occur more often. It is perhaps ironic that we hear most about it from a leisure-based culture with a cult of food fetishes. I don’t know who showed up on my pierogi, but the evidence is now long gone so it will have to remain a matter of faith.