The word “fan,” an apocopated form of “fanatic,” is a word borrowed from the realm of religion. Most often associated with sports, it can refer to any overly enthusiastic devotee. While I enjoy reading H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction, I think I would stop short of calling myself a fan, but were I to take that step I would have some serious competition. The circle of those truly enamored of Lovecraft have yet to break into the hallowed, or perhaps haunted, halls of the western canon. Fans there are, but not the sort who find regular play in literature classes. Still, as I read S. T. Joshi’s edited collection, Dissecting Cthulhu: Essays on the Cthulhu Mythos, I came to realize just how committed Lovecraft’s fans are.
My fascination with Lovecraft arises from his felicity with gods. Some argue that his gods are aliens, but even Erich von Däniken hasn’t stopped the true believers. Dissecting Cthulhu is a collection of articles from a variety of Lovecraft analysts debating the fine, and sometimes gross, points of the postulated “Cthulhu Mythos.” Cthulhu hardly requires any introduction these days. He has basked in his underwater fame since the internet has made a star of him. The eponymous deity of the alleged cycle, the divinity, or alien, was never really put front and center by his creator. Deities are all the more powerful for being unseen. Here is where Lovecraft the atheist becomes Lovecraft the theologian. By creating gods we tacitly admit their subtle power over our psyches. We may call them aliens or monsters, but compared to us, they’re gods.
After reading Dissecting Cthulhu, however, I’m not sure that I could say much more about him than before. This is often a problem shared by theologians—what more can you say about an entity that won’t sit still long enough to be interviewed? Gods will be gods. The rest of us are humble hermeneuts. There’s no doubt that Lovecraft touched on a deep and abiding current in human experience when he held alienation high as the standard of life on earth. Somehow we resent Cthulhu for not being there, even though his is no octopus’s garden under the sea. Other galaxies were discovered and partially understood for the first time during Lovecraft’s lifetime. Suddenly it felt pretty lonely down here with all that empty space up there. It is better to populate such a large expanse with gods. Not seeing is believing after all.
Posted in Books, Deities, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged aliens, atheism, Cthulhu, Cthulhu Mythos, Dissecting Cthulhu, H P Lovecraft, S. T. Joshi
Dante Alighieri was curious as to Heaven and Hell. Like most mortals, he wasn’t sure of his way around and so he needed a guide. Descending to the nether regions, he enlisted the services of Virgil. Virgil is best know for his epic poem The Aeneid, the early Latin account of the Trojan War. I’ve often wondered why Dante chose this particular writer as the “good pagan” who might lead him through the inferno without becoming ensconced within it. Then I found out about Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. In addition to The Aeneid, Virgil wrote The Eclogues, or idylls of rustic life. In the fourth of these he included what some early Christians considered to be a pagan prophecy of the birth of a special child, although Virgil was never a Christian and indeed overlapped with Jesus by a decade or two. He is the author of the Roman national epic, as Aeneas was believed to have escaped Troy and gone on to found Rome. Virgil tells the tale. What would he be doing, predicting Rome’s spiritual conqueror?
Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons
When Rome became Christian, under the knowing gaze of Constantine, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil was reinterpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. You see, the special child born ushers in a golden age, and what could be more golden than imperial Rome? Virgil’s foresight suggested him to Dante as a reliable guide through the infernal regions where, despite his suspect religion, he never falters. This whole episode once again highlights just how influential Christianity was to become even in the secular world. Prophecy can be read back into any significant passage, biblical or not, and new religions are founded all the time on such a basis. Such is the power of the written word. It is not just Mormons who baptize those who don’t believe.
Rationally we know that Virgil did not predict the coming of Jesus some three decades in advance. Yet, even such a brilliant scholar as Dante Alighieri was swept along by the tide of belief that had convinced the eternal city of its heavenly pedigree. All roads lead to Rome, and all prophecies point to Bethlehem. Beatrice was, however, a real woman, who, Dante believed, was tasked with revealing Heaven to him. He fell in love with her when he was but nine, and when he married it was to another woman, pre-arranged by his family. Beatrice was married to different man and yet she would succeed where Virgil had failed. Ever after it would be known as the Divine Comedy indeed.
“Her smoke rises up forever,” apart from describing the fall of Babylon the Great, can also describe our toaster. The thing has been with us for many years now and the lifespan of a toaster is often measured in months rather than decades. I suppose I could go to the store, but the internet is right here, so when I began searching for toasters I found, yes indeed, The Jesus Toaster. I’m sorely tempted. Of course, I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I wonder whether this device is diabolical or devotional. Often it is difficult to tell the difference. Pareidolia, the tendency to see human faces and forms where they don’t exist (false positives), seems to be an evolutionary device to get us to pay attention for possible dangers in our environment. Now that we live hermetically sealed lives, our minds still find faces, and often attribute religious significance to them. We’ve all read of cases of Jesus casting his divine face upon a humble piece of toast, or a tortilla. Or a bruised toe or a garden shrub—the holy visage is not just for breakfast any more. So some clever wag decided to engineer a toaster that puts Jesus right on your bread. A private sacramental, still, you might want to go lightly with the jam. But is Jesus toast used for good or evil? What is your houseguest is Hindu or Jewish? Will they awake to conversion or controversy?
The association of Jesus with bread is deep and abiding. Seminary students everywhere learn that Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born according to Matthew, means “house of bread” in Hebrew. We know that Jesus had a reputation for feeding vast crowds with a few loaves of bread. By the time we get to the Gospel of John he is lingering long over the matzah at the last supper after claiming that he is the bread. In many churches he is weekly served in pressed little wafers without much flavor, but, we are told, with infinite substance. Jesus and bread go together like, well, bread and butter.
So, should I buy the Jesus Toaster, as seen on TV, or just some regular box of hot coils to warm my mornings? I’m not sure there’s ever any going back once you’ve seen the other side. But wait, there’s more! You can buy a Poe toaster, or a Virgin Mary toaster. They may have a surfeit of meaning, but do they satisfy as toast? As I sit here the time for work draws inexorably closer, and I haven’t decided on my toast yet. Does the Jesus Toaster do bagels? Will my English muffin include Joseph of Arimathea? Does whole wheat toast suggest an African Jesus? My morning has suddenly become too full of options. Besides, the day is usually downhill from here. I think maybe I’ll just have cereal instead.
Posted in Bible, Deities, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bethlehem, Blessed Virgin Mary, bread, Jesus Toaster, pareidolia, sacramentals, toaster
I don’t watch television. This is not some moralizing, high-brow stance—it’s just the fact that it isn’t cost-effective with the little time I have for the tube. Growing up, however, television was at times my best friend. I see we’ve grown apart over the years. Who’s to blame? In this week’s Time magazine, the 10 Questions are directed to Mark Burnett, whom, prior to reading them, I couldn’t have identified with my TV Guide atop a Bible. Burnett is the mind behind the movie Son of God, originally a History Channel television show that managed to beat out even Game of Thrones. The laconic remarks left to Burnett reveal a man somewhat cagey about religion, but with a sense of mission nonetheless. What had never occurred to me is that even evangelists have corporate sponsors. According to Belinda Luscombe, Burnett said, “Do you remember what it was that launched Billy Graham? It was William Randolph Hearst. And Hearst Corporation put the first initial money into The Bible series and Son of God.” The first money into the son of God, Billy Graham, and the Bible. Who can match such a pedigree?
The public airing of faith lacks something without big money. The Crystal Cathedral, Lakewood Church, Heritage USA. Where would we be without the media moguls to lead us? There’s gold in them thar hills. All it takes is those willing to ask the gullible to mine it. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, n’est-ce pas? Seems like the Son of God raced past the Lego Movie on its opening weekend, but fell behind Non-Stop, although he’s still gaining. This is the sign of true divinity. Who will ultimately win? Does anybody have an ark?
Crystal Cathedral Ministries went bankrupt in 2010 and sold the Cathedral to the Catholics. Heritage USA lost a slug-out with Hurricane Hugo, as Jim Bakker was checking into a cell with Lyndon LaRouche. Can even the Son of God rock the critics with such a record? Mark Burnett is also credited with helping to create reality television. As we watch the rise and decline of the Duck empire, and the tearful admissions of personal failings from evangelists so rich that we have to admit a funny thing happened on the way to the Compaq Center, can there be any doubt where reality really lies? Who can really tell the difference between The Bible and The Game of Thrones?
Posted in Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 10 Questions, Belinda Luscombe, Crystal Cathedral, Game of Thrones, Heritage USA, Lakewood Church, Lego Movie, Mark Burnett, Non-Stop, Son of God, Time
Writing with the hopes of eventually being included in the Western Canon, I suspect, is often somewhere in the back of an author’s mind. We want our efforts to be noticed and our voices to be heard. The Western Canon, however, is a very exclusive club, and the members don’t get selected easily or quickly. We value our classics. More amorphous than the biblical canon, the list of books that define western culture is slightly different with every analyst, but the biggies always make the cut. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly see the great classics as a source of meaning in an increasingly secular world. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a fascinating consideration of how the writing we’ve turned to for inspiration has changed over time. Older members—including the Bible—don’t drop off the list, but newer ones are continually added. According to Dreyfus and Kelly the polytheism of Homer shone with possibilities, and monotheism led to necessary changes where the shining shifted to new characters and new stories. It is an intriguing concept.
Reading about writing generates a fire within. Some of the classics All Things Shining discusses are those you’d expect: The Divine Comedy and Moby Dick. Others are more personally meaningful, such as the work of Elizabeth Gilbert or David Foster Wallace. We all have the authors that shine for us. Moby Dick, of course, has been on my personal canon since seminary and the chapter on Melville helps to bring the thesis of this brief book together. We all know the white whale is more than an albino cetacean, and the world has benefitted from that fact ever since Melville put pen to paper.
As enjoyable as All Things Shining is to read, I was left with the impression that meaning itself has become greatly fragmented in the modern world. Without the social glue of religion, we’ve been left to chart our own course through parts of the universe yet unexplored. We select our crew by the books we read, and we decide whether Jesus or Captain Ahab is better able to guide us through such dangerous waters. They both, in their way, captain ships. Since this is an exercise in fragmentation, we don’t know upon which shore this craft will ultimately land. While Dreyfus and Kelly are philosophers, many of us have followed other paths and have come to our amateur ways of finding meaning. Some of our ships never come ashore at all. “One does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred.” Well said! If only we could learn the lesson to be literary rather than literal, religions would allow for many ships upon this vast ocean. And still we hale each other with the words, “Have ye seen the great white?”
Posted in Books, Classical Mythology, Deities, Literature, Posts
Tagged All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus, Moby Dick, Monotheism, polytheism, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Sean Dorrance Kelly, Western Canon
Britain has always had a share in the great events of the past (speaking strictly from a western hemisphere point of view). Not only did the ten “lost tribes” of Israel end up there (according to some, with apologies to Joseph Smith), but young Jesus traveled there with Joseph of Arimathea (according to others, with no apologies). While these stories are obviously non-historical, Britain does have an illustrious heritage that has left Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas giant in its wake. It is thrilling to read, then, that fossilized footprints from some 850,000 years ago were recently discovered. Coastal erosion, similar to the event that revealed Skara Brae to the world, uncovered the footprints for a short time in Happisburgh, near Norfolk. About 50 footprints were discovered, according to The Independent, with a group comprised of women, men, and children. They were walking alongside a stream, apparently looking for the Pleistocene version of carry-out fish-n-chips at least 844,000 years before Adam and Eve.
The British landscape boasts an ebullient antiquity. Our years spent in the British Isles involved exploring everything from Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall to the Ring of Brodgar on Mainland, Orkney with our friends. It is a land where the past lives on into the present. No wonder some speculated that the biblical past made its way here as well. At least now we know that some very early humans did as well. Homo antecessor, the makers of the prints, visited a Britain replete with elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceri, and hyenas. It is speculated that they may have domiciled on off-shore islands to keep safe from the predators that roamed pre-Roman England. One thing we know for certain about people is that they do get around.
Chirotherium storetonense trackway, photo credit: Ballista
Homo antecessor is an extinct species. Many of the hominids that contributed in some way to the possibility of our existence are long gone, creating endless headaches for scriptural literalists. Their lives, as The Independent
speculates, may have involved being preyed upon by large predators and the constant search for food. They also liked to walk on the beach. I wonder how far they had come on the road to religious belief. Constant fear of predation must surely have played into it. We don’t know how far back the evolutionary chain religion goes, but we do know that it is a profoundly human outlook. You can’t stand beneath the towering Neolithic menhirs of the Ring of Brodgar and not feel it. Sometimes a walk along the shore is all it takes.
Posted in Britannia, Current Events, Evolution, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Britain, Cerne Abbas Giant, Happisburgh trackway, Homo antecessor, Joseph of Arimathea, Lanyon Quoit, Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Stonehenge, The Independent
Comments on internet sites are quite revealing. Not that many comments ever make their jolly way to this blog, but, like many people I spend too much time on the internet, and you can’t help but read a few now and again. My wife sent me an ad for the Jesus-raptor tee-shirt offered by Six Dollar Shirts. The image has been floating around the web for some time now, but I haven’t been able to determine its origin. It could be from creationist groups that believe dinosaurs coexisted with people as an end-run around evolution, but more likely it represents an effort to belittle that view. Creationists are the ultimate backward-looking crowd. Fearful of Hell, they see evolution as tantamount to damnation, and must eradicate the biological evil for the sake of their immaterial souls. Reading through the comments on the Six Dollar Shirts page, I had to wonder. Why are we so concerned with getting the past right?
Don’t get me wrong—I have an undying interest in the history of religions and the origins of religious thought. Nobody wants to get the past wrong, otherwise the present is incorrect. Dinosaurs, however, are the great corrective to a major historical error. It is easy to assume that homo sapiens represents the highest point possible on the earthly scale of measures. Dinosaurs remind us that anything can happen. Up until about 65 million years ago, there would have been no reason to suppose that dinosaurs wouldn’t be here forever. Of course, Adam was over 65 million years in the future, and even if he evolved, his primate lineage was tiny and trying to avoid the gigantic footsteps of their distant Jurassic cousins at the time. Some scientists theorize that if the asteroid never hit, the dinosaurs may have evolved distinctly humanoid features. After all, we’re clearly at the top.
The past must always be approached with humility. Relativity may tell us that it is still here, but I can’t even access the moments just seconds ago as I typed these words. The delete key is a dangerous thing. Science has pretty much unequivocally demonstrated the evolution is a fact of life. It is our past. No matter what Ken Ham says, I’m pretty sure even Moses would’ve noted the spectacle if dinosaurs trudged aboard the ark. So Jesus never met any raptors in real life. Some of the commentators on the tee-shirt page appear offended at the blasphemy of the joke. Or maybe they’re just being ironic. In either case, that’s now the past and the best that any of us can do is comment on it and watch out for the big feet that are stomping this way.
Image credit: Dropzink, Wikicommons
Posted in Animals, Creationism, Evolution, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged Creationism, dinosaurs, Evolution, Jesus dinosaur, Jesus raptor, Six Dollar Shirts