Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

X-mas Time

As predictable as crocuses in early spring are the controversies that crop up around holiday billboards. Even living in the quite blue state of New Jersey, I see plenty of advocating for the keeping of Christ in Christmas that the “keep Christ in Christie” campaign seems to lack. This year, however, the American Atheists billboard kerfuffle has shifted to Memphis and Nashville. There protests have been lodged that using children on “holidays for all” billboards is a kind of exploitation. And as we all prepare for the visit of baby Jesus, or Santa Claus, or any variety of mythical nighttime visitors, American Atheists are only asking that we all share the presents. It is an odd kind of culture war. Christmas, as we’ve long known, predates Christ. The holiday was usurped from pagan tradition and baptized into a holy day that was barely observed until the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the holiday gave it the current shape we recognize, and some Christian groups feel compelled to reclaim it in a kind of cultural crusade that will only end with complete acquiescence.

This is a holy war in which neither side is right. In the work-a-day world that I inhabit Christmas is above all a long weekend with a respite from the drudgery of a long commute to ensure that the system continues. Thousands stream into New York City, which, amazingly, does seem to transform for the holidays. The city that is, for most of the year, cold and heartless, suddenly displays a more human face. Giant wreaths and tall trees appear, bright decorations hang in windows. Menorahs and dreidels become manifest. Signs of Kwanzaa or other solstice-related holidays are evident for those who know how to spot them. People in general seem more generous than usual. Even many businesses relax their time-grabbing strictures a bit. Christmas did not begin as a Christian holiday, nor, it seems, will it ever be fully supersessionist.

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Celebration, I would suggest, is worth celebrating. Should atheists use a poster-child for the secular celebration of the holiday season? Should Christians have displays of mangers on church property where all passers by can see? Should Mensch on a Bench be displayed in stores? Should Santa be advocating for corporate giants who only want us to spend? Perhaps the answers are obvious. In my mind they are. We gather our families in, and in the northern style that has always resonated deeply with me, we look out the window and await the coming of the purifying snow.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Not Your Grandma’s Moses

Exodus Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings is, in many ways, a startling movie. It didn’t leave me with a strong impression of profundity, but it did make me a bit reflective. The media hype about God as an eleven-year-old boy proved to be merely hype. In fact, the boy deity was one of the most intriguing characters in the film. The role was played respectfully, and God, like a good Englishman, favored his tea. There was nothing comedic about it, however. More troubling was the agnostic Moses, à la Clash of the Titans with its unbelieving Perseus. Moses, even after meeting God, comes across as having little interior life. He hides in a cave and builds an army of terrorists making him seem like Moses bin Laden. He conceals himself while innocent Hebrews are hanged for his crimes (and did they even hang people in ancient Egypt?). When a great storm brews over Memphis, however, it is with a sense of wonder that we ponder at an eleven-year-old doing all this.

The movie plays lightly with the scholarly “explanations” that used to be doled out in seminaries about how one plague led to another. In fact, the character called “the Expert” in the credits is shown lecturing the Pharaoh on the causation scheme of clay churning up in the Nile turning it red, and killing the fish which in turn drove the frogs from the toxic water, but when they died flies came along and the flies spread disease. Then the Expert is hanged. Not so subtle a warning to biblical scholars. In fact, there seems to be a science behind much of the movie that makes miracles less acts of God than acts of nature. Even the drying of the Red Sea is understated. Its return is reminiscent of the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. God is sometimes not there when you’d expect a deity to care.

On the matter of caring, for an age of nones who have concerns for equality, the film was thin on women’s roles, making even the Bible appear to foreground them more. Sigourney Weaver—great in any context—seems only to be there to wish Moses dead. Even Miriam is given scant lines in the movie and no role in the Exodus itself. In Prince of Egypt she at least led her famous song. Zipporah is lovely but shows no sign of being as handy with a flint knife as Exodus makes her out to be. A woman of action. Miriam’s quick thinking saved the infant Moses. Overall, however, the Bible is a guy’s book, and Exodus is a guy’s flick. Opening with the battle of Qadesh on the Orontes is a way to draw men to a Bible movie. Lots of slashing, gashing, and charging horses. And the splendor of Egypt, filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands. Some miracles, it seems, are even impossible for CGI.

Behind the Exodus

Over this past week two of my friends/colleagues were quoted in major media outlets about Exodus: Gods and Kings. Being merely a blogger with nearly two decades of teaching Hebrew Bible means, naturally, that I have nothing valuable to say. Nevertheless, I would meekly venture to make my own observations and cast them out there into the world-wide web and see what happens. I haven’t seen the movie since it only opens tomorrow. I already know it is only loosely based on the Bible. Still, I wonder at the talking heads who constantly declare the Bible to be irrelevant to a throughly modern world. Okay, so I realize that this is about money, but Manhattan is often seen to be one of the more sophisticated cultural landmarks in the country. This summer I couldn’t walk more than a book or two without being inundated with Noah posters. Now I am finding the same with Exodus paraphernalia. If we try to put the Bible away, it seems, it will come to find us.

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The Bible, relevant or not, is full of great baseline stories. Even in a secular society we can see the appeal of Noah and his menagerie to young children who are so fascinated with animals. We decorate youngsters’ sleepwear and toys with elephants and lions and giraffes (interestingly not mentioning that these are primarily African animals) aboard an ark with an unfailingly cheerful Noah. Now we have another classic—the great liberation story (also set in Africa) of a people held in bondage being released by divine command. We are a post-Christian society, according to the pundits, so who this divine one is remains an open question. The idea that one people is kept oppressed by another people, however, is presented as unequivocally wrong. Moses rides out on a horse, weapons in hand. Are we not focusing on the larger point yet?

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This latest love affair with the Bible as a source of great cinematography will not last forever. It will surely ebb away until only a few old blog posts might remain to remind us there was a time when Holy Writ inspired screen writers and directors. Nevertheless, the Bible bides its time. Back in the days when I used to teach Hebrew Bible Hollywood didn’t do too much to help out. Students had to slog through pages of picture-less Bibles to get the gist of the what God had in mind. The results may not be the same from those comfy seats in movie theaters, but a future generation will come to see Charlton Heston as a white man who loved guns being overcome by a newer generation of producers and directors who know there is a larger story here. Of course, I’m only a blogger with no credentials. Still I know what I see on the streets of the city.

Get Out of Town

If the Bible were to be written today, it would be more graphic. Those who’ve read it know that it is a graphic book already, but with no literal illustrations. Somewhat surprisingly for a post-Christian society where the Bible generally gets bad press, this year has seen the release of at least two major movies based, loosely, on scripture. Noah came with a flood of hype this summer, and even then we were told to keep an eye out for a movie on the exodus later in the year. The New York Times heralds the imminent arrival of Exodus: Gods and Kings with a movie preview. Like Noah the new movie will take liberties with the biblical accounts of the exodus. (The Bible itself is not consistent on the story in any case. The “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 differs considerably from the prior prose account.) Ridley Scott, who gave us Alien, has cast the iconic Batman, Christian Bale, as Moses. When I first read about this during the summer, I wondered how Bale would take the meek role of the humblest man on earth. With considerable chutzpah seems to be the answer.

The review by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, however, make the most not of Moses but of his mentor, Yahweh. Using an eleven-year old, Isaac Andrews, as the deity, the movie “preserves the awful severity of the Old Testament God.” In this it touches on one of the sore-spots among biblical scholars and theologians both—the characterization of a bifurcated deity. God in the New Testament is frequently said to be loving and kind (except for the iron-clad rule that makes him (as he is male) sacrifice his own child), while the deity of the Hebrew Bible is said to be angry, mean, and vindictive. Others say he’s simply just just. We like to see a divinity who is swayed by mercy and is deeply aware of the human condition. The Bible presents, it seems, a conflicted God who is sometimes just as confused as we are.

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Casting a deity who is forever young, however, may be a stroke of genius. In the Bible, in as far as there is a coherent storyline, God does seem to evolve. Sure, there are those who claim God always remains the same, but any deity whose first recorded words to Adam and Eve, after laying down the rules, take the form of an interrogative certainly must be able to learn and grow. Of course, it is very much like a human to suppose that the world could not have existed before we got here to see it. We who are so fascinated by the idea that the world could have carried on without us for the generations before we were born. What was God doing in those eons, besides playing with dinosaurs, like a child? I don’t suppose Exodus will delve into those questions, busy as it will be with battle scenes and other adult situations. At least if it’s true to the Bible, which, despite popular opinion is so graphic that would have a hard time retaining an R rating, if taken literally.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.

Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.