Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

The Good, Bad, and Human

VixensVampsVipwesMike Madrid may know more about women in comics than anyone else alive. I’ve commented about his Supergirls and Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and he’s now followed up his previous successes with Vixens, Vamps and Vipers: Lost Villainesses of Golden Age Comics, due out in October. Despite the lament of many a parent that comic books are a waste of time, Madrid demonstrates through a close reading, that some of the most basic issues of society are featured in graphic format. Psychologists have long known that people are visually oriented. We have to learn to read, but we’re born with the knowledge of how to look. Comics, therefore, appeal to the young reader, illustrating the action with exaggerated pictures to underscore the tale. Although the early heroes were generally male, Madrid showed in his previous two books that girls and women were also superheroes, but, as in real life, competing in a world constructed by men for men.

Vixens, Vamps and Vipers flips the coin to see the role played by villains less known than Catwoman (whom he discusses), and torn between the human impulses to succeed and to be good. In fact, the first few pages of the book offer a profound consideration of the terms “good” and “evil” as they apply to the comic book (i.e., the real) world. As Madrid points out: if there were no villains, we would have no need of such colorful heroes. At the same time, evolution has embedded a desire to protect females in the minds of most males—Poe knew that the death of a beautiful woman was the among the most moving of literary images. Still, as Vixens, Vamps and Vipers points out, some of the villains here considered are beautiful and the allure demonstrates that something much more complex is going on beneath the surface. Despite the image of the hero, all people, male and female, constantly struggle with the impulses to do good and evil.

One of the complexities that religions attempt to codify is human nature: are we born good or evil? Are we totally depraved or inclined to strive for divinity? Any honest assessment of humanity, it seems to me, must take into account that we constantly struggle. Total depravity is totally disproved by the many good impulses shown by those of religions outside Calvinism and Christianity, let alone the tendency of humanists and atheists to help others. In fact, in many circumstances good and evil are intricately intertwined. Madrid explores this conundrum with women put in difficult, if fictional, scenarios who must decide which impulse to follow. He’s honest about this. Some will become superheroes despite the hurdles the male champions put in their way, while others will follow the trail that leads to his latest exploration of humanity through illustrated story. Look for Vixens, Vamps and Vipers and enjoy, if secretly, learning something profound about human nature.

New Gods

The new gods are the old gods, apparently. Increasingly I feel myself to be in the old category, but I do glance at Wired once in a while in a vain attempt to recapture my decidedly low-tech youth. I was halfway through July’s edition when I saw “Worship More Gods!” near the top of the page. Of course, gods aren’t what they used to be. The short column, Angry Nerd, was on about all the movies out there featuring Greek gods. Classic gods. Although they’ve been around for a couple of millennia or more, they had apparently fallen into the obsolescence pile for a number of centuries, staring around 1700 years ago. When I was in fifth grade I first heard about these gods (okay, I had watched that ridiculous cartoon Hercules—pre-Disney—as a child, but does that really count?). Mrs. McAlevy (and I sure hope I spelled that right!) felt that kids in my redneck little town needed to know about the gods and heroes. It was some of the most fun I ever had in school. I took a reprise class in college, just for good measure. After all, Clash of the Titans had just shown that gold can rain down like that in Danaë’s secret chamber, if you hit that sweet spot. Myth movies have flourished ever since.

Gods

Can we ever have enough of the old gods? There are lessons to be learned there still. It is safe to say that one of those lessons is that we should not act as the gods do. Almost always they do not stand as moral exemplars. Lest we feel too superior on that point, it is worth pointing out that the God of the Bible sometimes pulls some tricks that we would consider a little less than moral, right, Abraham? The role of the gods is to tell us what to do, not to show us. Impossibly high moral standards, after all, are difficult even for the mighty ones to keep. With great power and little accountability, well, we don’t need to have gods to show us what happens.

I’m not intending to put words in the mouth of the Angry Nerd. The point of the article seems to be that we should share the wealth. There are plenty of other cultures out there with very colorful gods (sometimes literally colorful). In the cultures I’ve studied those gods pretty much fall into the same category as my step-father’s mantra “do as I say and not as I do.” Rank hath its privileges. There’s no doubt that the gods provide some good moral guidance—even the deities of the Canaanites seem to have had pretty clean expectations for humankind. But when it comes to behavior, well, let’s just say they don’t behave like a bunch of nerds. These are the frat boys of the universe. We obey because we know it’s dangerous to do otherwise. So in this day of religious sensibility, perhaps having a few more gods wouldn’t hurt. As long as we keep in mind that every deity has his or her limitations.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?

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.

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.

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.

Forbidden Zones

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.

World Cup Runneth Over

I’m not a sports fan of any description. I guess the message, “it’s just a game” sank in rather well as a child. Nevertheless, I was curious when some friends invited us over to watch the World Cup finals. New York City has been abuzz over the last few weeks, and if my walk home takes me past a bar in the city, I almost always have to cross the street to get around the crowds standing outside. So, I’ve been a little intrigued. It perhaps helps that some considerable primordial Teutonic blood makes its home in my ancestry. Hey, but it’s only a game. As a sometime jogger, it was interesting watching these guys running themselves ragged for 120 minutes, but what makes the World Cup worthy of a blog on religion is the sheer amount of religious imagery that pervaded the Brazilian broadcast of the event. Several lingering shots on Christ the Redeemer backlit by a halo-like sun preempted footage of the game. When night fell, the shots show Jesus looking down to watch the game.

800px-Obama_family_in_mist_in_Rio_de_Janeiro

The Argentineans, it would seem, should have had the spiritual advantage. With a pope in the Vatican, and a fan or two even dressed up like the Holy Father, the match taking place in some of the most Catholic territory outside of Rome, you might think some blessing would have been ambient. As the game ended Christ the Redeemer was lit up in rainbow colors and the Germans held the trophy high. Perhaps this is just grousing coming from a guy who’s lost as many times as I have, but it seemed that there could have been a bit more bonhomie on the part of those who managed to make their way to the final for what was, throughout, a very tight game. Perhaps they were just exhausted, but a smile for the camera might have gone a long way. They only lost by one.

During the match, as the director chose scenes of Christ the Redeemer, the announcers could be heard saying, “shouldn’t we be watching the game?” A profound, yet utterly human reversal of the usual evangelical trope of keeping one’s eyes on Jesus. But the millions around the world tuned in were not interested in Rio’s most famous landmark; rather, they wanted to see what was happening down on the ground, in real time. Heaven has its place, no doubt, but it should not interfere with matters of worldly importance. For many, some sociologists tell us, sports serves the function of religion. While extremely fit men run themselves to exhaustion, a kind of worship is taking place down on the field. Looking up to the icon on the hill, it is crucial to remember that it is just a game.

Working Dead

AmericanZombieGothicPerhaps being born into and reared in a working class environment naturally predisposes me to the populist variety of entertainments. Although this may be true, serious scholars have begun to pay attention to the subjects traditionally classified as “lowbrow,” and particularly zombies. I mention zombies not infrequently because they are monsters with religious origins (although not the only ones). Reading Kyle William Bishop’s American Zombie Gothic (and who could resist such a title?) resurrected all of these interests for a few happy days on the bus. Subtitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Bishop’s study goes back to the beginning with zombies and their religious origins. Since the concept of zombie required the blending of Catholicism with its root African indigenous religions, it seems natural that the concept would emerge in Voudon (voodoo) religions of the Caribbean. What Bishop makes clear, however, is that the zombie is a way of coping with slavery, since, as originally conceived, zombies represent the horrors of enslavement. In other words, they represent a social justice issue.

Dismissed as puerile and unsophisticated, zombies had a difficult time catching on in American culture. Once they caught on, however, they didn’t let go. (They are zombies, after all.) As Bishop shows, this appeal has many bases. George Romero’s zombies were always social critique. Exploiting their shock value made a point, but other filmmakers soon followed, enamored of the potential violence, gore, and exploitation the zombies offered. Then, following 9/11, zombie movies proliferated, demonstrating that even the undead might perform some kind of catharsis. As Bishop notes, zombies were primarily a movie phenomenon, slow to catch on in literature.

Having read a few zombie novels in the last few months, I have pondered this last point deeply. What is believable, momentarily, on the big screen is rendered laughable with the ponderation of reading. When your brain has time to process what slick visual editing denies, it is clear that decaying corpses would have a pretty tough time getting around—even living bodies have trouble with it from time to time. Zombies, after all, are not really ever literal. They are signs, or even prophets. They point to a reality beyond themselves. Zombies, in reality, represent enslavement—whether literal or figurative—that holds us back from our true potential. No wonder they’ve become such fixtures in a world where opportunity has become effaced and terror can breach even secure borders. They may be lowbrow, but having lived the working class life, I have always had profound respect for the walking dead.

Call it Civilization

HinduismWhile brushing up on Hinduism by reading the book of that title by Cybelle Shattuck, it once again occurred to me how the concept of religion distorts itself. Prior to the Roman Period, the concept of religion really had no name. In fact, religions were sets of folk beliefs held in common by people of a single culture. These beliefs had many functions: keeping social order, establishing common practice, undergirding a kind of optimism in the face of inevitable death. Since long-distance communication was rare and unreliable, communities separated by more than a few miles soon developed details that fit their own situation and would hardly apply universally. Until they were written down, anyway. In Hinduism—which is in no sense a unified religion—even the “sacred writings” were not held to be authoritative for all people across all places and times. That concept would emerge with Christianity, a religion that would define the term and try to make it stable.

Hinduism is the oldest continually practiced “religion” in the world, as far as we can tell. The religions of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians eventually died out (although they have been revived by some in recent times) but the folk belief—or better, folk practice, of ancient India has continued relatively uninterrupted while new religions from Israel and Arabia changed the rules of the game. Monotheisms quickly demand heresies. A single God would not tell people different truths. Something upon which Shiite and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant, Pharisee and Sadducee all agree. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. By fire.

Meanwhile, even with Muslim and Christian missionaries afoot, Hinduism continued its accustomed continuity. To be a Hindu doesn’t mean worshipping the same god with the same ritual as everybody else. It is a way of living intended to keep dharma and avoid bad karma. And even as trendy westerners stretch themselves into impossible yoga postures, they are participating, at some level, in ancient practices that we call the religion of Hinduism. Shattuck’s brief introduction is a nice little primer that explains this time-honored folk tradition in a way even a believer in religion can understand. There are, it turns out, more things in this philosophy than our universe has ever dreamt of. Or perhaps the one dreaming is really Vishnu after all.

War in Heaven

Van_Helsing_poster

Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

Elmer Gantry

ElmerGantryIn recent years a renewed interest has arisen concerning how powerful entities are perceived by others. Academics are asking how the United States is seen by other nations. Corporations are trying to improve their public images because, well, let’s face it, it effects the bottom line. The same thing applies, but with a difficult kind of finessing, to churches. Part of the difficulty is that churches declare that they have the truth. Backing down from this in the face of public opinion more or less scuttles any claims being made. Thus I’d been curious about Elmer Gantry for some time. Sinclair Lewis’s novel of the self-absorbed, arrogant clergyman who believes in no god other than his own desires, is considered a modern classic. Written during the height of the follies of the Scopes Monkey Trial and Prohibition, as the Fundamentalist movement was just getting started, Lewis used dark satire to try to put the self-righteous in their place. I’d known the name Elmer Gantry from many other media references, so I figured it was time to see who he was.

Going into the novel I had few preconceived notions. Gantry, I knew, would be a hypocrite from the start, but beyond that, cultural references don’t give many hints. Although Lewis’s well-known wit shines through from time to time, on a whole the novel is a distressing read. I suppose it’s the mark of a great writer that you can despise a character so, but really, Elmer is led on his path, indeed, encouraged, by those who know him and whose only zeal is conversion for conversion’s sake. A womanizing, athletic, hard-drinking student, Gantry is where many young men want to be. The campus ministries, however, keep after him until he realizes what all clergy know at some level—there is power in being able to manipulate people by religion. As portrayed by Lewis, Gantry does try, once or twice, really to believe. His cynical and selfish nature, however, are too difficult for him to overcome and he therefore employs them in all his relationships as he climbs the corporate, ecclesiastical ladder.

There is really no triumphalism here, with the society discovering and ousting the charlatan. Indeed, as the book ends, the Reverend Doctor Elmer Gantry dodges a serious threat to his career only to be appointed to one of the most influential churches in New York, poised to go on to even greater things. Trying to find the blame in the novel, however, is not a simple task. Gantry is all too easily led. He follows his base desires deftly and confidently. He knows a mark when he sees one. Throughout his ministerial life, however, he is encouraged and prodded onward to success. Most ministers, in my experience, are burdened with conscience. I’m sure a few slip through with their own agendas, but the working clergy are nothing like the protagonist to this tale. Lewis focuses on the worst offenders. Those who are in it for the power, should they read Elmer Gantry, would find a model who is, like many in the era of early psychology and sociology, too easily excused because of circumstance. More than that, however, they might learn how they look to a larger society for which the church has become a mere historical curiosity. Elmer Gantry is by no means the worst type of figure we can imagine in a secular society.

Psalm 151b

sinead-oconnor-take-me-to-churchI can’t claim to know much about Sinéad O’Connor. When she did her Saturday Night Live act a few years back, I remember the outrage among several Nashotah House students muttering unholy threats. Not that they were Catholic, having *ahem* celibacy issues, but they objected to a picture of Pope John Paul II, known colloquially as “J2P2,” being torn up. This symbolic gesture lost her, on campus anyway, about a dozen fans. I had nearly forgotten the Irish bardess when my wife sent me an NPR story on her recent song, “Take Me to Church.” I was immediately struck by the lyrics that, to this old Psalter reader, sounded very much like a Psalm. The lyrics, while some will certainly disagree, resonant very strongly with the self-confession that permeates the hymnal of ancient Israel. Not that O’Connor has suddenly become a proper Catholic, but she has entered the band of David.

Many popular artists over the years, I would contend, have struck that familiar chord. Anyone who reads the Psalms at face value will find it hard to miss the angst of the writer who tries to do right only to find that s/he needs someone to “take them to church.” Music is the confessional of the soul. Psalms can be a most secular book. The way some biblical scholars like to explain it is that the Torah and the prophets are God speaking to (read “commanding”) people, and Psalms are the opportunity of people to speak their mind to the divine. This might explain the otherwise inexcusable anger that pours out in invective which, if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit to having felt from time to time.

The line we draw sharply between sacred and secular is attenuated in the Psalms. In fact, it is in any honest religion. When religions present themselves as strictly lived as if people could be truly righteous while others should be excluded, trouble is on the horizon. Pictures get torn up, and the “faithful” grow angry. I know few who would argue that humans are perfect just the way we are, yet, for the most part, we try to do what is right. The standards any religion proffers are too high, and we are bound to fail. Perhaps the saving grace, if I may borrow a bit of religious language, is that even the secular can write effective psalms along the way.

The Call of Madness

mountainsofmadnessPicture this: the wind is howling outside your tent, violently snapping the fabric. The temperature outside is well below freezing, and you are camping at the base of a mountain nobody has ever explored. You are hundreds of miles from any possible help, in the midst of Antarctica. What do you do? Read H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” At least that was the decision John Long made on his journey to collect fossil fish in the most inhospitable continent on the planet. Mountains of Madness: A Scientist’s Odyssey in Antarctica is one of those rare books where a rational, educated man of empirical approaches allows the creative, emotional aspect of life speak. I picked the book up at a library sale, based solely on the title. I recognized the Lovecraft in it, and wondered whether it was accidental or not. Besides, reading about polar regions has always fascinated me. Indeed, according to the records of those who’ve trespassed into those regions, madness is not a rare consequence.

Long’s book is not religious, but it is filled with wonder. The mechanistic science that’s often fed to the public is frequently technical and lacks those mysteries we’ve evolved to love. Nowhere in this book is the compelling aspect more relevant than in Long’s accounts of Christmas. The population of Antarctica—a select group by anyone’s standards—is mostly scientists and technicians. Deep field expeditions, it stands to reason, take place in December, which is the summer of Antarctica. In the case of those in the field, they are far removed from their home base, and even the earliest explorers noted in their diaries that Christmas was celebrated, in however minuscule a manner rations and perilous conditions allow. Nobody bulking here that it’s all just a myth.

Lovecraft’s story places explorers far from help in the mountains of Antarctica where they discover they’re not alone. The story inspired such movies as The Thing from Another World, and therefore John Carpenter’s The Thing. Lovecraft, like Long, was a disciple of science and yet, even in his atheistic world deities break in. It’s like Lewis’s Narnia where endless winter with no Christmas is unbearable. Long makes it clear in his account that Antarctica changes a person. Transcendence, those of us who linger over religions know, can express itself in many different ways. For some it is the grandeur of barrenness and inhospitable weather of an unfeeling environment where both macro and micro-predators have trouble surviving and penguins gather to struggle through weather humans can barely tolerate. For others it is camping below the very mountains of madness. Without some wonder, we just don’t survive.

Missing Apocalypses

Sharknados aside, we seem to be in a lull of apocalypses at the moment. In the run-up to the change of the millennium and 2012, we perhaps had our fill of dire predictions of the end of all things. Funny how the fears seem to run so high when the Grand Old Party is telling us what to believe. When we settle down and try to wrestle with real-world issues with real-world ideals, the need for watching it all burn seems to settle down in the back seat and let the adults drive for a while.

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I recently came across The End Times Bible (now out of print). Published in 1999, this Bible had a not-so-subtle message that the end of all things was nigh. As it had been before, and, knowing human nature, will be many more times again. I imagine myself, in a Left Behind fantasy, watching a neophyte trying to make it in the post-apocalyptic world with a Bible. References to the end times are rare in Holy Writ, and dreadfully obscure. Reading Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsey you might think the Bible has step-by-step directions for negotiating the wrath that is to come. As if the Bible were a recipe book and you wanted chocolate-chip cookies. Ironically the world is full—over-full in point of fact—of people with advanced degrees in Bible who’ve spent years and years of their lives learning to uncover the minutest hints that the Bible gives. Most of these folks are unemployed and wouldn’t mind sharing a bit of that simplistic apocalyptic pie baked up by the premillennialists. And yet, the world goes on.

Even as I was researching The End Times Bible, however, I began seeing references to the next apocalypse. Some are hopefully suggesting 2019, since, apparently, God likes round numbers. The reprieve we’ve been feeling, I have no doubts, is only temporary. In the course of human events we will have alarmists elected to high offices and once again panic will begin to build. The Maya let us down, and Howard Camping up and died. No worries—there are other arcane civilizations and the world knows no shortage of prophets in button-down shirts. Still, I’ve kind of enjoyed this little vacation without having to hush the irrational fears that God’s non-biological clock is inexorably ticking.

The biblical world is a simple one, in its own way. Created in six days just a few thousand years ago, it topples off its pillars and ends in a fiery demise in some millennial scenario, if only it can keep its own story straight. And like any good story, children will come back to it time and again.