Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Retro Progress

LittleOrleyIn these days of high technology, remembering childhood might be seen as cowardly nostalgia. When driving my daughter back to college, however, sometimes I need a little nostalgia. So it was that we passed a pleasant couple of hours listening to Little Orley stories told by Uncle Lumpy. Having read ancient history for years, I don’t mind saying that I was a devoted fan of Captain Kangaroo as a child, and Mr. Green Jeans was one of the reasons. Before the Captain, Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) had recorded a set of radio stories about Little Orley, beginning in 1946. (Lest readers get too driven by nostalgia, I wasn’t around for the original broadcasts.) In the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, across the state from where Brannum died, our library had a record of some of the episodes from his radio show. As a child I listened to these tales so much that I still have parts of them memorized to the word. The web brought Little Orley back to me, and now anyone can purchase the tales that I had gone for decades without hearing. Driving through eastern Pennsylvania on an emotionally laden journey, Uncle Lumpy seemed the perfect fare.

A few facets of the program struck me anew. Little Orley stories, for those unfortunate enough never to have heard them, are tall tales about a farm boy that involve all manner of hypostatized natural phenomena. Animals, plants, the moon, clouds, and even pancakes talk and act like humans. Or gods. Orley encounters these all with no hint of surprise, and yet goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday night for prayer meeting. The God in these stories is anything but a jealous deity, sharing the stage with a king of the oceans, lakes and seas that can transform a person to a fish, or with mysterious voices that can make a boy a worm and a worm a boy. Leprechauns gambol through the woods, and snowmen amble about trying to help with farm chores. Stories like these in the Bible are now considered factual, right Balaam? In the 1940s they were standard fantasy for children.

Now we’ve come to an era of biblical literalism that fears and despises challenges to the single God of sacred writ. In Little Orley, however, a message of tolerance (with some notably politically incorrect caricatures) predominates. Orley is time and again in situations where those who are different should be, and inevitably are, treated as equals. Even God gets some help from talking bats who ring the bell to bring the faithful to church when the sexton breaks the bell-rope. Change, I know, is inevitable. As these miles disappear behind me, I can feel it keeping pace, eventually to eclipse me. Progress is good, but sometimes the way ahead is best found by looking back in wonder.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.

A Run-By Fruiting

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

I’ve never been enticed by the cult of celebrity. Becoming famous is frequently a matter of being in the right place at the right time to get noticed. Interviews with stars inevitably come across as lacking in substance. Some of the funniest people I’ve known have worked in camera shops, administrative offices, and IT departments. Still, the suicide of Robin Williams a week ago has impacted a wide swath of the nation. We hate to see a funny man die. It is such a truism as to be trite that those who are clowns often host inner demons. Laughter, Reader’s Digest proclaims monthly, is the best medicine. Who better to heal than those who know what it’s like to have been wounded? Yet we want the funny to keep on making us laugh until we move on to the next diversion.

For this past week I’ve been pondering how one man’s tragic death has jolted a nation into a reflective moment of silence. I can’t say I was Robin Williams’ biggest fan, but I’d seen a number of his movies, and I was devoted to Mork and Mindy growing up (aliens have a way of getting prime-time exposure that has never really been explained). I thought he was good at what he did. He was famous and had money, but it wasn’t enough to buy off the demons. Suicides hit me hard since I’ve known a few and have struggled with depression myself. There are times, truth be told, when no direction is up. It is at those times, however, that others tend to ignore you, lest you bring them down. People like to laugh.

There is something profoundly religious about the idea of a wounded healer. Anthropologists as well as theologians have noticed it. They need have only looked as far as the Bible to find examples. Yet the Christian tradition treats suicide as a great sin against God and the plan is that we all live to die either at the hands of nature or of someone else, so the guilt doesn’t cling to us. Death always leads to a remorse that entails such guilt. And yet it is inevitable. As a nation we are used to seeing comedians overdose or live reckless lives that end tragically. Deliberate action, however, feels the most horrendous of all. We’ll ask “why?” for a while, and we’ll make tributes and tearful speeches. And meanwhile some of the funniest people we can claim will be sweeping our floors or asking “would you like fries with that?”

Write the Truth

XalliopePublication is a tricky business. Just ask my friend, K. Marvin Bruce. Marvin and I have known each other for years as he’s been trying to break into fiction publishing. I don’t envy him. His novel, Passion of the Titans, was under contract with an indie publisher who eventually reneged on their agreement. What can you do? As a supporter of publishers you don’t want to sue, so the novel is floating around again, looking for a home. Meanwhile, I was flattered to receive in my mailbox a copy of Calliope magazine. Calliope is published by the Writer’s Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. Marvin’s story, “Initiating an Apocalypse,” won third place in their fiction open. Not only am I pleased for my friend, but I was glad to see his story was about gods. Zoroastrianism doesn’t get much attention these days, but Marvin’s tale is about a hapless professor who wants to start an apocalypse by using Zoroastrian deities. I won’t give any spoilers since I’m sure few people have read the story.

His tale has me thinking of gods in fiction. I suppose mainstream literary fiction avoids deities, but fantasy, science fiction, and horror all make good use of them from time to time. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods made quite a splash, and although Marvin has no hope of becoming a widely recognized name, his novel also features gods. It is a literary incarnation. We like to see gods in some ways limited to human circumstances. Omnipotence rarely makes for a good plot. In many respects the Bible attests to this. If God is omnipotent (which is not a claim the Bible actually makes) why can’t the world be a happier place? Indeed, the solution most fondly groped by theologians is either free will or a version of the Zoroastrian solution: a god who is evil. Enter the Devil.

The Devil is also undergoing a kind of literary renaissance. We find a plethora of books and movies starring the prince of darkness. Despite the panegyrics of rationalism delivered by angry atheists, nothing salves the human soul like a good supernatural entity. Fiction writers have long recognized that. Gaiman was not the first to make the gods do his bidding in literature. There is a likelihood that even Homer knew the appeal. Many people can accept that gods might exist, and they certainly don’t object to stories in which they cavort. Fiction, as literary analysts know, teaches us about reality. The characters may not be literally true, but the fact is that in our minds there is still plenty of room for gods. And, if you one of the rare ones to read Marvin’s story, you’ll see that, true to human experience, deities don’t act as we expect them to. Savvy publishers, it seems to me, would do well to recognize the appeal of the gods.

Infernal Religions

infernalDevicesThe first steampunk novel I read, although some would dispute the classification, was Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. To be sure, I’d noticed other Victorian-style science fiction, but the idea of prescient technology settled into my head to nest for a while. I read a few other exemplars of the genre, finding each interesting in its own right. Having just finished K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, however, I get a sense that I’ve neared the fount. Jeter is generally credited with coming up with the neologism “steampunk,” and this novel, while not his first, is fascinating for the heavy religious symbolism that is used throughout. In our secular, post-Christian age, we tend to forget that in the nineteenth century (actual, if not alternate reality) religion still played a tremendous role in people’s lives and outlooks. Infernal Devices uses that outlook quite effectively. The remnants of Cromwell’s puritan cause appear as the Godly Army, set against science and technology in a society still imbued with religious belief. When a flying machine appears overhead, the Scots suppose it is the beast of Revelation harbinger of the world’s end.

Like most steampunk offerings, Jeter offers us plenty of mechanical wonders. The hapless Mr. Dower, our protagonist and narrator, is the son of a mechanical genius, now deceased. The story involves Dower trying to unravel the many strands his father wove in a lifetime of invention and innovation. The one device that stood out to me, however, was the automaton priest and choir of Saint Mary Alderhythe, Bankside. Dower’s father had invented a robotic priest to go through the mechanical motions of an Anglican mass. Having sat through hundreds of such masses, I could see the point he was making. There are variables, but the overall draw of ritual is, well, its ritualism. The sameness that assures an assuaged deity and a safe congregation. The Godly Army, however, is more revisionist in intention.

Jeter, I’m sure, did not intend for the novel to be read for religious truths. It is rollicking and fun, with characters that you can’t believe but you want to. The driving force, however, behind much of the story is the religious bias of elements of London society. Dower, blamed for vices he doesn’t really have, is chased from his home by the Lady’s Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice. The Godly Army, however, steals the show. Perhaps the most profound observation comes from Scape, who quips “That’s what you get.. when you give people Bibles and guns,” about the Godly Army. “It just messes up their brains.” At this point I began to wonder whether the story were really fiction after all. In this case the truth indeed perhaps lies in steampunk’s alternate history.

Romney Wordsworth

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The Twilight Zone, one of my favorite fallbacks when I’m alone, doesn’t shy away from religion. I remember watching some of these moody tales in my childhood, already in reruns by the time I was old enough to appreciate them, and occasionally having my young mind shaken as a result. The frisson of having reality not being as it appeared kept me wanting to see more of Rod Serling’s universe, evaluating, re-evaluating, speculating. Often heavy with psychological realism, despite the obviously outlandish premises, these half-hour plays in black-and-white still have a strange power to alter a mood. I recently viewed the episode “The Obsolete Man,” which closed season two. Having been declared obsolete myself, more than once, I found this story particularly chilling. A totalitarian state declares what worthwhile occupations might be, and Romney Wordsworth, as a librarian, doesn’t hold one of them. With shades of both Orwell and Bradbury, Wordsworth is sentenced to death.

In startlingly strong language, Serling has Wordsworth declare that, despite the decision of the state, there is a God. He wants his death televised, to which the Chancellor is happy to acquiesce. Locking the Chancellor into his room where, Wordsworth reveals, a bomb is about to go off, he tests the steel of the state by accepting his fate. Wordsworth spends his last hour reading the Bible. The Chancellor sweats and chain smokes himself frantic, finally calling out, “In the name of God let me go!” Wordsworth, of course, does. Rod Serling was not known as a particularly religious man. Many of his characters are hard-bitten, tough-talking caricatures whose bravado masks a profound uncertainty about life. The writing may not be stellar, but the ideas are beyond the stars. Religion is very human.

Many of these Twilight Zone episodes I have never seen. Still, they do reveal a world of imagination that had a tremendous impact on Cold War America. Bomb shelters, revolutionaries, and invaders haunt the minds of not just those born in the fifties, but of every generation since. The state that protects us is the very one that breaks open our luggage to look at our unmentionables when we want to fly. To keep us safe from ourselves. A decade before Serling’s series, George Orwell was looking a quarter century ahead, calculating the trajectory. The good guys, it turns out, have the wherewithal to decide who is obsolete and what is subversive. And if you don’t see things their way, they’ll start talking impeachment or perhaps worse. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Cowboys and Demons

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Cowboys & Aliens finally came down into my price range. For movies I’d have to view alone, I generally wait until they appear for free on some online movie service or for less then ten dollars at Target. I’ve been waiting for this one since 2011, but my patience paid off. Inspired, so the rumor goes, by the Roswell incident, the film follows the adventures of some old western stereotypes as they encounter the superior power of aliens. The aliens, it seems, are just as materialistic as humans, coming to the old west in an extraterrestrial gold rush. They abduct humans to learn their weaknesses (which really seems superfluous given the technological imbalance between the species) and anger a number of ornery hombres in the process. Then we have an old-fashioned shootout with ray guns versus bows, arrows, and bullets. Human devotion, however, defeats the evolved armor and flying machines of the—well, what are they exactly?

The cowboys scratch their heads, not quite having the consarned concept to categorize these flying machines and their occupants. The local preacher, who is a pretty handy shot, tries to help the confused cowboys, who settle on the term “demons” to describe the extraterrestrials. We forget that in the early part of the last century other galaxies had not yet been discovered, and although we knew of other planets, there was assuredly no way to get there from here. Ugly things that come from the sky are demons. This doesn’t lead to a whole load of speculation—nobody suggests praying to take care of the menace, although the Native Americans resort to a religious ritual to unlock the mystery of where the demonic hoard is hiding. Through her resurrection we discover that Alice is a good alien, planted in the town to stop the invaders from doing to the earth what they did to her planet. And winning the heart of Jake Lonergan (whose very name suggests lone gunman to insiders) along the way.

Since the movie is three years old, I won’t worry about spoilers—if you’re inspired to watch for the first time, however, you might want to do so before finishing this. When Alice figures out how to stop the alien mining operation for good, Jake is left, for the second time, with his woman being killed by demons. Woodrow Dolarhyde, realizing that the outlaw Jake isn’t such a bad guy after all, seeks to console him at his loss. At the end of the movie, in a camera angle that goes from Woodrow to Jake, the focus falls on the cross atop the local mission as Woody says, “She’s in a better place.” All aliens go to heaven. Literally. With echoes of the X-Files, Cowboys & Aliens is sufficient for a dark night where demons and angels are a little too close to tell apart.