Long ago in a galaxy far away—1979 in rural western Pennsylvania, to be precise—the local inhabitants were surprised to learn that James T. Kirk was now an admiral. Two years earlier Star Wars had thrilled us with special effects first mastered in 2001: A Space Odyssey but a more accessible plot. Robert Wise, who had not only given the world The Sound of Music, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, took the helm for the new Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek geeks, of which crowd I do not count myself, hadn’t really taken their cliched role in the emerging high tech society, and CGI was still a few years off. Nevertheless, rumors in school had it that the movie featured a bald woman and had boldly gone where no man had gone before. The original crew was all there. So on a Friday night I dutifully made my way to the Drake Theater to watch and left saying, “is that all?” Star Wars was action-packed and fun, filled with archetypes and wise-cracking robots. Star Trek had Voyager 6, like E.T., trying to phone home. In a word, the movie was forgettable.
On a tour of the original Star Trek world, I finally sat down to watch The Motion Picture, with its grandly archaic-sounding name, last night. I shuddered to think I’d last seen it 35 years ago—that makes me as old as the crew was starting to look—but this time I was able to see things I hadn’t before. Spoiler alert! Voyager 6 is looking for God. The original Voyager 1 reached the end of our solar system a couple years back, but in 1979 there was no reason to suppose that we wouldn’t try again and again to reach out to parts unknown. We were rapidly become materialistic, and the universe could be a known quantity. Three centuries in the future, Voyager 6 is headed home, having been rebuilt into an unstoppable living machine. When the creator—humanity—doesn’t pick up the phone V’ger poises to wipe out the carbon-based infestation until it learns how to physically, biologically merge with a human being (cue the bald lady and otherwise superfluous Captain Decker). Lots of colorful lights and we can all go home.
Even now I can’t muster the courage to say the movie is profound, but it does touch on an issue that has only grown over time—we have voluntarily left our deities behind. In our rush to reduce the world to the least common denominator, we have pulled the plug on the cosmic phone. The Voyager program ran out of steam as the Cold War was heating up down here on earth and we were being told we were all just a bunch of atoms fooling around anyway. The machines, in the meantime, had come to believe. I probably won’t survive another 35 years to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture again, but I do hope that in that time we may become more aware of our humanity. And I do hope that if someone divine does happen to call, that we’ll at least pick up the phone.
Posted in Evolution, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cold War, E.T., materialism, Robert Wise, science fiction, Star Trek, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Wars, Voyager 1
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
“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
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 Evolution, Creationism, dinosaurs, Jesus dinosaur, Jesus raptor, Six Dollar Shirts
“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” The words belong to Cecil B. DeMille, according to Stephen Whitty’s weekend write-up about Bible movies in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The story was inspired by a trio of big-budget Bible films—Son of God, Noah, and Exodus—set to be released this year. While Mel Gibson put me off of Jesus movies, perhaps forever, I’ve been planning to see Noah ever since my wife first pointed the poster out to me in a local theater lobby last month. The flood story has always spoken to me, lasting well beyond the nursery years with all the fluffy animals aboard the ark. One of the points that Whitty is making, however, is that Hollywood knows something the New Atheists do not—there’s big money in religion. People will pay to see it on the big screen. The Bible still speaks to a secular nation.
Noah’s story has been dramatized many times over in the entertainment media. It is often a theme in popular fiction, although well hidden, and reemerges in the occasional search for the lost ark documentaries or Veggie Tales shorts. There’s something timeless about the world-wide flood. For me it seems to go back to the thrill of the impossible. Those first eleven chapters of Genesis teem with the surreal world of lifespans centuries long, primordial gardens full of good food, gods intermarrying with humans, and waters that cover any number of sins. There’s a robust, adventurous air to such stories—they push on the boundaries of human experience and burst beyond them. It doesn’t matter whether Noah’s ark is round, boxy, or extraterrestrial—the flood’s the thing. It appeals to imagination like less mundane disasters simply can’t.
I don’t go to the movies to learn about the Bible. I can do that right at home with a single outlay for a relatively cheap book that can be read over and over again. No, it is these early days of the Bible that give rise to the prepositional phrase “of biblical proportions,” that the movies show so well. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make the transition from Batman to Moses when Exodus comes out later this year, but next month I do plan to let the waters of the largest event in earth’s fictive history wash over me with all its CGI glory. Seeing is not always believing, but the flood is one of the most powerful stories ever told. Who can resist the calling of deep unto deep? Be warned, the entire theater will be in the splash zone.
Posted in Bible, Genesis, Movies, Natural Disasters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Cecil B. DeMille, Exodus, Genesis, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Noah, Son of God, Stephen Whitty, Veggie Tales
Everyone wants to belong, to fit in. Growing up, I seldom felt I managed it. When you’re very young you don’t know enough to notice that you are more melancholy than other kids, or that you can’t afford the nice things they can. As you reach your teenage years, however, and you know that you come from the kinds of families that other parents warn their kids about (fairly poor, very religious, and just a bit peculiar). No wonder I find Ransom Riggs’ books so engaging. Yes, they’re written for young adults, but just about anything that Quirk Press publishes is worth the read. As an adult, if I’m honest with myself, I’m still waiting to feel like I fit in. The kids in Hollow City, the peculiars, know that they can never fit in. They have special, impossible talents that make them the targets of monsters called hollowgasts, or hollows, who try to gobble down as many as possible. Monsters, outsiders, and very human relationships—it’s a winning combination.
Quite apart from the spellbinding pace Riggs spins out (he’s a master of building tension), there are some quasi-religious elements in the books as well. I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children a couple years back, and Hollow City develops the mythology a bit more. The real enemies are the wights—mean-spirited malcontents who rule the monsters. They learn that they can become demigods if they extract what makes a peculiar peculiar. That’s a religious concept: the essence that materialists tell us isn’t really there at all that makes us what we are. The children are self-sacrificial toward their mistresses, birdlike and godlike at the same time.
Peculiars have two souls, although most of us don’t know what to do with even one. The soul has, of course, come under great suspicion over the last century or so. There seems to be something that makes us what we are, and it isn’t just cells and DNA. Some call it consciousness, others personality. There are those with élan and others with spirit. We can’t call it “soul” because that smacks of superstition and yesteryear. So we read of children with two souls and none to spare. Even Philip Pullman had souls for his children in His Dark Materials. The soul, in both these book series, leaves a person completely dehumanized when it is excised. Of course, materialism will do that for free. Yes, I know it’s fiction—young adult fiction at that—but my money’s on Ransom here. Let’s hear it for those who have a surfeit of souls!
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Literature, Memoirs, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged body and soul, His Dark Materials, Hollow City, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Monsters, Philip Pullman, Quirk Press, Ransom Riggs
As a life-long pacifist, it might seem strange that I find myself waxing sentimental over a military-themed toy. You see, I just found out that G. I. Joe is turning fifty. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, G. I. Joe was the acceptable “boy doll” (now, technically, “action figure”) that all the guys had. Some of us had several. We didn’t have much money, but Christmas always gave an opportunity to accessorize Joe with either the latest developments (life-like hair in a buzz cut, pull-string vocalizations, “kung-fu grip”) or the many vehicles that could be purchased separately. As the Vietnam War wore on, Joe turned his interests to science and humanitarian causes, but boys like to anthropomorphize as much as girls do, and Joe continued to get himself into many bizarre adventures. At least in our apartment he was known for fighting dinosaurs, robots, medieval knights, and even General George Custer. Joe was a fighting kind of guy. He had guns and gear and shoes that were almost impossible to remove when you wanted to change uniforms (only when Mom was out of the room). So G. I. Joe has been around for half a century now. I can’t remember childhood without him.
G. I. Joe often had near fatal encounters in our home. One of them, the talking one with life-like hair, suffered a severe war wound that left his bottom half completely dissociated from his top. I don’t think we kept the lower abdomen and legs—there was something slightly unnerving about plastic buttocks—but I did keep his top half, the talking bit. It shocked me when my Mom asked if she could take him to church. We were a “Bible believing” family since it was the days before people much talked about Fundamentalists. My mother was a Sunday School teacher. (Thus my early amazement at the magic of flannelgraphs, still primarily used for religious teaching.) We didn’t believe in evolution, and we certainly thought war was a bad thing. I did wonder, though, why Mom wanted to take a toy to church, particularly a dismembered, violent one.
Being the son of the teacher did have some perks. I knew enough to read my Bible and learn the lessons, but we were not given sneak previews for Sunday School. Seeing the trailer might make actually attending superfluous. So when Joe went to church I learned why: people are not animals. The pull-string voice box, although the sounds emerged from holes in his perforated chest, was proof. People talk, animals don’t. We didn’t evolve after all. The other kids were seemingly impressed by my evangelistic Joe. Who would’ve thought that “G. I. Joe, U.S. Army, reporting for duty” could have ever converted a lost soul? On Ebay, I see, some of these vintage talkers can fetch up to $600. Mine, I’m sure, ended up in a landfill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania where, I have no doubts, he is still preaching to the other toys about the dangers of evolution.
The ultimate adventure…
Posted in Bible, Creationism, Evolution, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged 50th Anniversary, Evolution, flannelgraph, Fundamentalism, G. I. Joe, Pennsylvania, Vietnam War
Moving to New Jersey was made easier by Weird N.J. I found out about the magazine while still domiciled in Wisconsin when the series of books produced a Weird Wisconsin edition. I read it cover-to-cover and learned about the magazine. When weirdness would have it that we’d be moving to that self-same New Jersey, I began reading the magazine religiously. Lately, however, it has become more mainstream and less weird, but still, it is a great source of local information. We landed in Somerville because of its educational reputation and closeness to Piscataway, where I worked. I’ve always had a thing about being able to pronounce the name of the town in which I live (and I’ve even resided in Oconomowoc), so Piscataway was out. In any case, Somerville High School has an engineering program and the expected robotics team that goes along with such pedagogy. When my daughter joined the team, the whole family was drawn into four years of endless fundraising and promotion for an underfinanced club. So it was weird when I saw a story called “Rock em’ [sic] Sock ‘em Robot: Somerville N.J. vs. Mad Charles, the World’s First Singer Songwriter Karate Robot” in the latest Weird N.J. In my four years in the club, I’d never heard of Mad Charles.
Robots and religion are topics I’ve often related on this blog, so I read with amazement that about two decades before FIRST Robotics ever got its start, there was a somewhat famous robot in Somerville. Eugene Viscione was the inventor of Mad Charles, a robot that was built to help improve karate moves. The robot, as often happens in small towns, went on to other things, such as cutting records that, according to the article by J. A. Goins, are quite rare. In the 1970’s, however, Mad Charles was a local sensation, now all but forgotten some four decades later. There were even Mad Charles tee-shirts available. While we sat dreaming up new ways to get money out of the locals, and even set up a booth for the Somerville street fair not far from where Mad Charles at one time could have been found, nobody mentioned the karate robot. I doubt anyone had heard of it.
History is a fickle friend. Of course, being from a small town myself, I know it is very hard to get noticed, and even harder to be remembered. So those sleepy, pre-dawn weekend bus rides to robotics competitions, it was sometimes easy to consider how one gets overlooked. This past November, many hardly noticed as NBC didn’t make a big deal of it, FIRST robots opened the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Somerville’s latest robot was not among the horde (we have always had a problem keeping enough charged batteries on hand), but as the robots rolled through Herald Square, I was thinking of Mad Charles and a legacy that has been forgotten. Come to think of it, I guess that is weird after all.
A Somerville robot (center)
Posted in Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Robotics
Tagged Eugene Viscione, FIRST Robotics, J. A. Goins, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Mad Charles, New Jersey, Piscataway, Somerville, Weird NJ, Weird Wisconsin
Is there any more American a diversion than the road trip? Those of us who live on large land masses with relative ease of travel sometimes like to go for, well, the fun of going. If you’re a sociologist, however, you might find funding for a road trip if you can put a thesis behind it. Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke made such a trip and entitled the results Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape. This isn’t really an academic book, but it does contain some interesting information about faith communities that might otherwise remain off the radar (with the exception of mega-churches, one of which they visit in Houston). Religion, it becomes clear, is still a large part of life for many Americans, and not just small-town rubes like yours truly. Thriving faith communities are found in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, and Salt Lake City. Scheitle and Finke don’t neglect the smaller venues either, stopping at rural sites in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Perhaps the biggest take-away from their book is that religion is diverse and deeply embedded in the United States.
While many claim that atheism is humanity’s next big step forward, it has to be admitted that freedom of religion (without which atheism might be problematic) has gone far. Although Places of Faith sticks pretty close to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, there can be no question that many, many other religions constitute a nation where “mainstream” is not as normative as it may seem. As also became clear from the descriptions and photos the authors provide, religions are fond of splintering. Faith can be made of brittle stuff. As I’ve argued before, we are really each our own entity of personal religion. We share some traits with the larger group, but unless we’re an identical twin, likely nobody thinks quite the same way we do. Religious leaders know this well—uniformity is often a thinly veiled illusion.
Having studied religion for most of my life, I can’t say that there was too much new to me in this little book. It provides a tolerant, and colorful tour through some religions that will be less familiar to those who don’t consider just how broad the landscape is. You won’t become an expert in Mormonism or the Amish, but you might learn a thing or two about both. The authors encourage something that many religion majors know by rote: you learn a lot by exploring your local religious landscape. As a college student I tried not only Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the occasional foray into that mysterious realm of Episcopalianism. There was more diversity, even in that small town of Grove City, than I had the ability to explore on my own. This much was certain, however, people find meaning and comfort in their beliefs. To deny them that is to deny them what makes religious freedom the wonder that it is.
Posted in Books, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape, American religion, atheism, Christopher P. Scheitle, Grove City College, Places of Faith, Roger Finke, sociology
Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.
According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.
Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Bibliolatry, Current Events, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Duck Dynasty, Gospel of Mark, reality television, Rev. Jamie Coots, Snake Salvation, snake-handling, snakes, Steve Irwin, X-Files
Conspiracy theories have a definite attraction. In a world where governments are more known for keeping secrets than for carrying out the will of the people, they are often easy enough to believe. Elected officials are, of course, human. Humans have recourse to prevarication from time to time, but we do expect that a corporation that takes its secular tithe from our income should be honest about its doings. So it is that I find Room 237 endlessly fascinating. Room 237 is a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Winter is also an appropriate season to watch The Shining, so I took the ersatz experience of Room 237. This documentary, besides featuring some interesting conspiracies, also shows how religions may come to be.
Stanley Kubrick, as common knowledge goes, was a genius. In a day when movies are often pure escapism, much of it brainless, it might be surprising to consider a film-maker a literal genius, but anyone who’s watched one of Kubrick’s mature films is left in no doubt. The Shining, although based on the Stephen King novel, takes the story in very different directions, and there is much more going on in the film than first meets the eye. Room 237 interviews true Shining affectionados who find the “real” story line to be the genocide of Native Americans, the holocaust, a retelling of the minotaur myth, the faking of the filming of the moon landing, and a variety of other perceptions beyond the norm. Kubrick, known for the care he took in arranging every shot, clearly put subtexts into this film. What really caught my attention, however, was when one of the commentators said that he had his first real religious experience while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.
2001 has always been one of my favorite movies. Simple and sometimes psychedelic, even with the novelization it is almost impossible to understand. With that haunting monolith, so like an outgrown iPhone, I found myself as a child believing in the evolution Kubrick suggested as a higher power led from ape to space in the instant of a bone toss. The majesty of that film that never lets humanity claim any true superiority still has the power to conjure nightmares that The Shining can’t. With the grand soundtrack of the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra (himself the founder of a religion), I can understand how this might be a numinous experience. Movies function as modern myths, and, I contend, that is one reason that religious themes emerge so readily in great films. In Room 237 none of those interviewed considered any religious elements for The Shining, but no doubt, if an ape can walk on the moon, they’re there.
Religion is inextricably tied to the past. So when I noticed an article in Wired entitled “The End of Then: Past? Present? Online, It All Runs Together,” by Paul Ford, I determined to read it once I could figure out whence that musky aroma arose. Maybe it is just my imagination, but the order of the major advertisements in Wired seems like a pre-packaged sexual scenario. Near the beginning of the magazine is an aromatic ad for Chanel for men. A few pages on is a more than full-page ad for Viagra. A few pages on is a short piece on Trojan lubricants, followed coyly by that rare cigarette ad. (I’m probably reading too much into this, but I’m a creature of the past.) Where was I? Oh yes, the End of Then. Ford’s point in the article is that the internet has made access to the past incredibly facile. Anyone with a portal into the web can find scads of information about the past, making past and present indistinguishable in a sense. My thoughts turn to the future.
The future seems to be the true unknown country. Not long ago I saw a story on the internet about how scientists conclude time travel to be impossible because we have not found messages from the future on the web. But we have found the past. Or have we? Ford mentions our fascination with Babylonian tablets, and suggests future historians will be equally intrigued by our continuous electronic chatter. But I turn back to that clay tablet. Those tablets, many of which were already in the deep past well before the Bible was scrawled, preserved what was important for a pre-industrial society: receipts, court records, and myths—the stories of the gods. And their command to build a round ark, at least according to Irving Finkel, whose book seems not to be available in the United States. Those myths, adapted to biblical proportions, have long been in the public domain, and yet, are they really in any sense present? Try giving students a quiz and find out.
We have a past that will always remain inaccessible. The present, for better or worse, is all we’ll ever have. Religion, however, is tied to the past. True claims are based on historical events, some less believable than others, that are permanently out of reach. We can watch how religions play out in the present and decide later. In the future. But the past haunts us forever. I, for one, had thought that cigarettes were on their way to extinction. But I need to put this edition of Wired down because that cologne ad is making me dizzy. And it leaves me wondering about future prospects and what religion has to do with any of it.
Punxsutawney Phil phled his shadow this morning, leaving many despairing another six weeks of winter, which meteorology seems to dictate anyway. I used to tell my students that Phil is a most peculiar prophet, in that he is, presumably, neither Christian nor Jew, but rather of the rodent religion (whatever that may be). People pretend the little guy has powers beyond those of the average mammal when it comes to predicting vast, chaotic systems. If a groundhog flaps his eyelids in Pennsylvania, prepare for plows and shovels and more thermal underwear. Playing into this annual phenomenon is the provocative persistence of the idea that prophecy is prediction. As much as scholars attempt to expunge the idea that foretelling wasn’t what prophets were ever really about, the populace likely wouldn’t have paid them any attention, had the possibility not presented itself that these preachers knew something the rest of people didn’t.
Prophecy is a strange phenomenon. We claim that we would like to know the future, but I’m not sure that we really would. Knowing that we’ve set ourselves on many tracks that inevitably lead to tears, do we really want to know? After taking my daughter back to college, we sat in a fast-food place to grab a bite on the way home. It had been snowing again, as it will do in the winter, and the television in the corner was blaring on about another apocalyptic band of snow. A bearded and burly Pennsylvanian at the next table turned to me, attracted, I supposed by my own facial hair, and said, “What about this global warming?” I nodded politely, not being very burly myself, but I thought of the fact that global warming does mean more severe winters in some places and warmer conditions in others. It is marked, scientists predict, by erratic weather, not a constant sauna in those regions accustomed to snow.
Although a Pennsylvanian by birth, I have noticed that my ancestral New Jersey does not receive much snow. Until this year. We’ve had the white stuff on the ground for over two weeks in a row. Yes, it snows in winter, but not usually here. I shiver and think of global warming. It is a chilling thought. Punxsutawney Phil may live far enough inland not to have to worry about learning to swim, but the same can’t be said of the inhabitants of most of the major cities of this country. We know it is coming, but we turn a blind eye. Progress in the name of unbridled big business interests brighten a future otherwise a bit more gloomy than we might prefer. Phil ducks back into his burrow and the rest of us clutch our coats a little tighter around us. Prophecy is a mixed blessing indeed. We already know the outcome before the groundhog awakes.
An agnostic groundhog ponders the inevitable (photo credit: I. EIC)
Posted in Animals, Bible, Civil Religion, Current Events, Holidays, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Weather
Tagged biblical prophecy, global warming, Groundhog Day, Pennsylvania, prophecy, Punxsutawney
Holy Shit (in the philosophical mention sense, not the use sense), by Melissa Mohr, is a book I had intended to write. I’m glad Dr. Mohr beat me to it, however, since her treatment would be difficult to top. Few ideas are so arresting as the forbidden topics, and Mohr shows us that swearing occupies a compartment of the brain separate from regular speech, and it may even have therapeutic qualities. A Brief History of Swearing, to use the less offensive subtitle, is not an easy book to read in public. Since most of my reading time is spent in densely packed transit vehicles or waiting areas, I always wonder who might be reading over my shoulder. As a short guy that’s always an issue. Nevertheless, Mohr’s book is fun and informative, and I suspect I will read it again for all the information packed into it.
You see, Mohr uses both words of the title in a literal sense. Beginning with the Romans, but then stepping back to the Bible, clearly swearing has religious origins. While the Bible doesn’t prohibit coarse language in any direct sense, it does believe in oaths. Swearing oaths was serious business, and that seriousness led directly to the concept of swearing. Combine that with the idea of cursing (which the ancients also believed effective—ask Saint Peter) and you get the spectrum covered by the concept of “bad words.” (At least up until modern times.) Although I’ve studied religion my whole life, I was surprised how much I had to learn about the more earthy aspects of spoken sacred language.
As Mohr amply demonstrates, what counts as swearing changes with time. Giving the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels, she illustrates how a glossing priest causally dropped the equivalent of a medieval f-bomb right there on the pages of the holy Gospel. It wasn’t considered swearing at that historical moment in time (and besides, a fair amount of it goes on in the Bible). How far we’ve come. I recall one of my Nashotah House students telling me how he had to take a rather freely expressive classmate aside and tell him he was pretty sure that the f-word was an inappropriate adjective to use when referring to the Trinity. But now I see the wisdom of the ages at play. People use their most powerful words for what moves them most deeply. I doubt Mohr had quite that in mind, but if you read her delightful study you can find out what I may be full of after all.
Posted in Bible, Books, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged curse, Holy Shit, Lindisfarne Gospels, Melissa Mohr, Nashotah House, Romans, swearing