Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Clearly Religion

GoingClear“There is no point in questioning Scientology’s standing as a religion; in the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS;” so Lawrence Wright partially concludes Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. This is an important book, and one which once again demonstrates how seriously religions should be taken. New religious movements offer a ringside seat to how orthodoxies are born. Facts may be distorted or covered up, but there is information to be had on L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy. We can learn from the way their ideas may move from fiction to fact, and how intelligent people still feeling spiritual yearning can turn to a religion invented recently as well as those invented millennia ago. As Wright points out, all religions make improbable claims. Fact-checking, however, is much more difficult for periods long gone that left only meager records. The distance in time may lend ancient assertions the benefit of the doubt, but the real decision-maker is money.

Given universities’ interests in lucre, one might logically conclude that religions would be of great interest. It is telling that, especially in the case of Scientology, that the factor most important to the status of the church is its money. Religions may claim tax-exempt status, setting them apart from purely commercial enterprises. This gives religions an advantage when they are careful with their finances, and the whole question of whether a religion is a religion is not left to scholars but to the lawyers of the Internal Revenue Service. The truth of religion lies in its bank-books, not its holy books. No doubt in the case of Scientology this is because of the high-profile court cases in which the status of the religion was challenged by government agencies. Nevertheless, when it comes to the laying down of the law, only money really matters in defining a religion.

As Wright discusses, one of the problems we face is that religion is poorly defined. Nobody can really assert much beyond that religions involve belief of some kind. Beliefs, in this case, about L. Ron Hubbard and his ideas. Although facts about his life are disputed, there can be no doubt that Hubbard was an intriguing man. He was a prolific writer with great imagination, and he clearly had keen insight into psychology. A religion used to be measured by the good it produced. Now it is measured by the dollars. As Going Clear illustrates, trying to construct an unbiased account of Scientology is a fraught enterprise. Like many modern religions, Scientology is very secretive. Even the early Christians knew that if everybody could join, then the club loses its appeal. Apart from belief, religions also must have outsiders and well as insiders. In a world measured by consumerism, wealth is the surest sign of blessing. No one should be at all surprised, therefore, that it takes the IRS to decide that which used to be taken by faith alone.

Take a PAAS

Like so much of life, PAAS Easter Egg coloring kits were the result of an accident. To be more specific, a chemical accident in New Jersey, something which is far from rare. This particular accident, however, had a fortuitous side-effect: the brightly colored (but not radioactive) Easter Egg dye that many of us associate with childhood. Around 1880 Newark druggist William Townley spilled colored dye onto his suit, leading him to individually package holiday colors, according to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. That individual packaging allowed for a full set of egg colors to be sold together and the PAAS brand was soon launched.

The idea of coloring Easter Eggs, like so many Christian traditions, likely has pagan roots. Eggs were a sign of new life with the coming of spring in many cultures (although boiling the poor things rather defeats the purpose). Christians adopted the egg as a resurrection symbol—the chick pecking out of its shell was like the resurrected Jesus bursting from the tomb, albeit somewhat less dramatically. Watching a newborn chick hatch is an emotional experience. At the 4-H Fair, standing around the incubator in the chicken tent, you can see wobbly, uncertain, tiny birds tentatively trying to assess this strange new world that is colder and somehow more compelling than life in the shell had ever been. The mighty son of God they’re not, but they are much more like us, looking for answers and taking small steps until they’re more certain of what they face.

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The coloring of eggs has origins lost in antiquity. Nobody’s quite sure why it was done beyond the fact that they look nice. Romans ate eggs as part of their spring celebrations, and Christians came up with a story to explain colored eggs. The legend claims that Mary Magdalene, in trying to convince the emperor of the truth of the resurrection, turned eggs from white (or brown, as they likely were in those days) to red in her open hands. This proof, however, failed to convince the Caesar. What seems certain is that pagans liked coloring eggs so this provided a new source of evangelism to the Christians who assimilated the practice. Like Christmas, the Easter Egg has become a thoroughly cultural symbol—since Easter comes on a Sunday employers aren’t obligated to give the day off, so everyone can celebrate. Children hunt eggs on the White House lawn and we can still expect everyone to be in the office on Monday morning. Resurrection, after all, can only reach so far.

Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham

Better Watch Out

Among the more intriguing mythologies of Noah, the movie, is the presence of the “Transformer-like” Watchers. The more biblically literate of the film’s viewers will know that Watchers are mentioned in the Bible, but in the book of Daniel—chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible—and not in Genesis. Daniel does not tell us what Watchers are, but it uses the term in parallel with Holy Ones, implying that they are angels. In the apocryphal book of Enoch, there is quite a bit of mythology concerning Watchers, and they are tied back to the flood story by the strange first four verses of Genesis 6 that note the sons of God saw human women were beautiful and took them, populating the earth with giants as a result. The Bible, as typical, is very cryptic about all of this, leaving imagination to fill in the gaps. Watchers were later associated with fallen angels, and they are sometimes referred to as Grigori, the Slavic form of the name. Biblically we know practically nothing of them.

Watchers have long had a home in the paranormal speculation crowd. Associated with ancient astronauts, a modern mythology has grown up around who the Watchers supposedly really were. This is an outgrowth of the Judaic myth that came from the non-biblical texts that themselves grew out of such esoteric references as those to Enoch, nephilim (fallen ones), and giants, in Genesis. That antediluvian world was a fascinating period in which just about anything goes, but nothing is explained. Even the ark itself is described in terms so vague that it really can’t be reconstructed precisely. The Watchers, according to Genesis in any case, weren’t there. One gets the sense that ancient readers, anxious for a logical roadmap of the divine world, were quick to fill in the gaps that the Bible leaves.

Although Christian theology would eventually declare God omniscient, this does not characterize the deity of the Hebrew Bible. Even before the discovery of Oceania or the New World, the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia were too large for any one God to know it all. Watchers were, most likely, members of the divine council whose purview was to view. Keep an eye on what people were up to. Fallen angels, later equated with demons, were a convenient way to explain evil in a world made by a deity who is only good. And who doesn’t know that feeling of being watched, especially when being naughty? According to Genesis 6 not even the children of God are exempt from such behavior. The Bible gives us plenty to work with, if we’re only willing to use our imaginations.

Somebody's eye is watching...

Somebody’s eye is watching…

Roman Undead

ZombieBibleLike most monster movie fans, I enjoy a zombie film now and then. I’ve even heard some very sophisticated people commenting positively on Shaun of the Dead. One of the standard features of the zombie is its forthright impossibility—reanimated dead are the stuff of humanity’s earliest nightmares, but in our rational minds we know that bodies missing vital organs, limbs, and blood, don’t just get up and try to eat the living. That doesn’t prevent me from watching zombie movies, and even considering participating in a zombie walk. Nevertheless, I’d not read any zombie books. That suddenly changed when I sat down with Stant Litore’s What Our Eyes Have Witnessed: The Zombie Bible. Literally the day I started reading it, a publisher sent me a copy of Suzanne Robb’s Z-Boat. I was surrounded by zombies.

I had decided to read What Our Eyes Have Witnessed because I was curious what a Zombie Bible might be. I quickly learned that it was an apologetic exercise where zombies are used as a vehicle for evangelization. It was difficult, however, to take the idea seriously. When a zombie breaks through the door of a Roman villa at the start of the book, I found the thought strangely funny. Many zombie movies go in that direction, acknowledging that they could never really happen, so they decide to give viewers a laugh or two along the way. Litore’s parsimony, however, became clear right away. This is a retelling of the martyrdom of Polycarp, but with zombies. It is a curious mix of Roman history, Christianity under persecution, torture porn, and the assurance of salvation. The premise is that Cain’s slaying of Abel resulted in zombies and their soulless souls must be put to rest. If they bite you, you become a zombie—you know the story. Meanwhile, the Roman authorities believe the Christians are to blame and decide to kill off the historical Polycarp.

The story dwells on the emotions of the Christians, in a kind of maudlin evangelicalism, as they try to avoid both flesh-eating zombies and Roman authorities. Zombies, it is said, are driven by their constant hunger and only Christianity has the true bread. This is a creative account of how the early Christian movement dealt with persecution. The zombies, however, feel somewhat superfluous in that situation, for the terror of imperial persecution was real enough. The zombies, however, aren’t after brains, and they don’t speak. They want to eat and the only thing they can digest, even if they have no stomachs, is other people. As an allegory it almost works, but zombies are a kind of fifth column in what was a very real struggle for early religious tolerance. Ironically, the undead and resurrection are never juxtaposed, although they are the most obvious way to connect the dots.

Disconnect the Dots

In the on-going loss of touch between academia and the world outside, we forever hear of the triumphal march of secularism. Academics are often loath to see the habits of the laity as being of much significance. In the book industry, however, publishers have to pay attention to what the public reads. This is one reason, I’m discovering, that some academics find it difficult to publish. Some research topics just don’t reach the wider readership’s interest. It’s an editor’s job to try to match readers with books. Among the tools we use are magazines such as Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. Although it is impossible to say what people are actually reading, these periodicals trace buying and checking-out habits. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that books somehow tied to religion are frequently at the top of the list. One of the great industry trackers, Bowker, even has three distinct databases for book sales: children’s, academic, and Christian. Religion, in other words, is of tremendous interest.

IMG_1279In the January issue of the Library Journal, for instance, there is the list of top books checked out of libraries since the last reporting period. Topping the non-fiction lists? The top four spots are occupied by books tied in some way to religion: David and Goliath, Killing Jesus, I Am Malala, and Zealot. People want to know about religion. Academics just don’t want to hear it. As a perpetual bride’s maid, metaphorically speaking, of the higher education that jilted me almost a decade ago, I hopefully watch hiring trends as the rejection letters pile up in my inbox. It is a diminishing pool. Look at the industry reporting tools: religion is irrelevant at best, puerile or worse when it comes to measuring maturity. People are dying over it, but we’d rather just not know. No wonder they call it the ivory tower—spotless as, well, a bride.

It is often a surprise to many academics how few people buy their books. As someone who had written a couple of academic tomes, I know how I daydream that my work on some obscure topic will take off and suddenly appear in the Library Journal, or Publisher’s Weekly. In actuality, the reading public will decide on the basis of what publishers make available. A writer such as myself, an independent scholar, lacks credibility and is not asked to write books. And universities aren’t hiring scholars of religion much any more. Some seminaries have even moved more toward the secular in their hiring practices, since, universities tell them, that’s the direction things are going. Those who buy books, or check them out from libraries, however, are telling a much different story. But we are much too sophisticated to look for signs among the laity. The more we progress in knowledge, the less we really know.

Heaven Can Wait

“Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” So the jingle goes. Or went. I’ve only met my upstairs neighbors once. Twice now. Apparently last weekend I slept through the fire alarm—one of the dangers of awaking ridiculously early on a daily basis. The neighbors found the source of the smoke and turned off the furnace in the basement, but told me first thing in the morning before the coffee really kicked in. I avoided a close call, perhaps. What if they’d not been home?

I have no delusions about understanding how the Internet works. I’m still trying to figure out the telegraph. Perhaps having this inconsequential blog has put me on somebody’s radar, or maybe it’s just some bored robot that searches for strange combinations of words in the wee hours of the night. In any case, I ended up with an email with the trailer for Heaven Is For Real embedded in it. I recall when the book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and I suppose the Easter weekend release date is no coincidence, but the trailer still bothered me a bit. It’s not the resurrection part—the film industry wouldn’t get very far without that trope—but it is the implications of what heaven would be like. I haven’t read the book, but apparently Colton Burpo had a near-death experience and then for a considerable time afterward began describing things that were impossible for him to know. A miscarriage where his sister died, what his grandfather looked like as a young man, what his parents were doing when he was dead in the hospital. Talk about your spooky effects at a distance!

Despite my penchant for watching scary movies, I don’t think I’ll see Heaven Is For Real. There’s just too much emotional build-up here, and Life After Life traumatized me for weeks a couple decades back. Still, I am very interested in the possible explanations for what might have been going on. Near-death experiences have never been adequately explained. Scientists suggest that a lot can happen in a complex brain in a matter of nano-seconds, and we have no chronograph precise enough to know whether the thoughts and images happened before death, during death, or during resuscitation. Still, how people frequently know precisely where others were, who were not in the room at the time, and how they heard things that, medically speaking, they couldn’t have heard, remains eerie and hopeful at the same time. What does appear to be without question is that consciousness is far from being explained.

Botticini's vision

Botticini’s vision

Heaven is always described as pleasant. That concept differs radically for people, and you have to wonder how it can be one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer to be in crowds, while others like to be alone. Some like it hot. Some like it cold. And those who experience near-death phenomena often report having a body of some sort “up there.” Some people would prefer a different body. According to the trailer, Colton says we’re all young over yonder. For me, such things are far more about questions than answers. We don’t know what goes on after death. Nearly every religion ever invented says that clearly there’s more to the story. Some say we come back, others say we stay away. Maybe it is different for each. Maybe it is just a matter of having good neighbors after all.

Heavenly Beings

FromAngelsToAliens Religious tolerance suggests that it’s less important what you believe than it is that you believe. After all, where you are born—socioeconomically as well as geographically—determines which options are open to you. And now that the world is virtually inter-connected, the media must play into the idea of what we believe as concepts mix and brew and distill. Lynn Schofield Clark’s From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, is a study that takes all of this seriously. We know teens as the ultimate disenfranchised demographic. For those of us who were once there, no doubt concerning that status exists. But what of teens in an age where God seems to be effacing and angels and aliens invading? At least according to the media. Clark interviews several teens and their families about their belief in the supernatural, and, in keeping with what the statistics of national surveys continually show, belief in some world beyond ours is indeed deeply rooted. Many youth, however, have trouble distinguishing angels from aliens.

Not literally, of course. Rather, supernatural entities are so much a part of our media experience, and church attendance so little, that clear ideas of how these things all fit together, if they do, are lacking. Scientists are looking for life in space while denying that if it exists it ever could have intentionally travelled here. We are, after all, the most intelligent species in an infinite universe. (Did I say that belief in God was effacing?) Socially, however, angels are much more acceptable than aliens. Belief in aliens is easily equated with mental instability, while belief in angels is normal, if not a little naive. To the average person, it seems that we’re not alone. As many popular media portray, however, God remains silent and we have to wonder if there’s anyone really driving a universe with no real up or down and with an exploding singularity at its center. It’s all a little disorienting—rather like being a teenager.

Clark remains wonderfully open-minded as she asks her questions to the younger generation. I felt a bit of recognition when she mentioned her church experiences in theologically conservative western Pennsylvania, the area in which I grew up, and where neither aliens nor angels were particularly uncommon. And we were in a media black hole in those days. Stations from Pittsburgh or Erie didn’t boost their signal to reach those of us in the boondocks with much reception beyond the big three. Of course, there was nothing beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. Well, there was PBS in the background, but this was a universe still awaiting its big bang. Angels were good, aliens were evil, and God never remained silent for very long. And nobody really cared what teenagers thought. We have evolved since then, but we still look to the sky and wonder who, if anyone, is out there.

Clash of the Watchers

NoahMovie

I don’t know about you, but I think I got gypped with my Bible. I have just come out of Noah where I saw amazing sights and a seriously troubled Noah to whom God refuses to say a single word. Controversy still swirls around the web concerning the movie, but I honestly have to say that it was more like Clash of the Titans (2010) than anything else. Except a thin part of the plot—and a few character names—that were borrowed from the Bible, this could have been Herodotus rather than Moses. I don’t recall finding any exploding lava angels in Genesis 1-11, and magic rocks that seem to fit better into a Mormon worldview than a biblical one. Gopher-wood trees grow incredibly fast, and Noah sure fights very well for being a six-hundred year-old man. So why all the fuss? This is a movie folks, not scripture. For the price of the ticket you can buy yourself a new Bible and read the entire story in fifteen minutes (it’s just over two chapters long). If it’s an action movie you’re looking for, I thought The Avengers was better.

What struck me most about the movie, apart from the watchers, which were admittedly an improvement on Holy Writ, was the subtext of evangelicalism. Noah, when he decides to build the ark appears suddenly with an evangelically approved haircut. He also had grown decided misanthropic, insisting that the ark is only for the animals’ sake, and that he only allows Shem to have a wife because he thinks she is barren. When he considers finding wives for Ham and Japheth, there is a huge meat for sex kind of deal going on in Tubal-Cain’s city that disgusts Noah so much that his vegetarian righteousness declares that all people will die off once the ark runs aground. And, of course, he will have to kill his granddaughters. This is a dark and tormented Noah who drinks to forget his problems in a world where God only speaks in cryptic dreams and one gets the sense that Noah is very Republican in his lack of compassion. Take out the whole human race while you’ve got the chance.

The movie is filled with mixed messages. Noah certainly doesn’t appear to live up to his name (“comfort,” by simple translation), and although the supernatural is everywhere, a compassionate deity is utterly lacking. Species die off when Tubal-Cain gets hungry. And the very sign of blessing is the skin shed by the serpent that led to the fall. What are we supposed to learn from this? A vague, Avatar-esque “the planet is good” message does give me a little hope, but seeing Noah poising a knife above an infant’s head only because she’s female makes me a bit squeamish. Noah obeys simply for obedience’s sake and people are mere stains on an otherwise ideal world. Before the fall Adam and Eve veritably glowed. Adam stoops to pick up the serpent’s skin while Eve engineers the fall of all. The special effects are good, but the story, it seems to me, is all wet. That’s the gospel truth.

Rocket Cats

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A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

No Noah

Noah2014Poster

I haven’t seen Noah yet; the timing didn’t work out this past weekend. Besides, you don’t always get to see what you want. Nevertheless, the critics are already having a go at it, and the movie is gathering such attention because it is of biblical proportions. Or more properly, of biblical origins. One commentary in The Guardian suggests that, since knowledge hasn’t moved since Aristotle, that gods really have no place in movies. I have to wonder about that. Sure, the wealthy and powerful seldom have a need for gods, being the captains of their own destinies. Until it comes time to face the flood that all mortals face, and even the rich have to acknowledge that no ark is big enough to take it with them. Who wouldn’t want to have a little divine intervention then? Indeed, God strikes me as the almost perfect antagonist. Before you begin to hurl your stones this direction, think of the book of Job, underrepresented at the box office, but about as honest as they come. We, like Noah, are not in control of this vessel.

To quote Tom Shone, in his review, “[God] has no desire, no needs, no social life, no private life, no self-exploratory intellectual life to speak of.” Of course, the biblical view is quite different. God in the Hebrew Bible is not omnipotent. In fact, he (and he is generally male) comes across as quite lonely. He has anger issues, to be sure, but he is a troubled character rather like a Disney Hercules who doesn’t know how to control his power. Add him to the mix with willful, self-satisfied human beings and it sounds like an afternoon at the movies to me. Perhaps film makers don’t present God with weaknesses—that would be the worst of heresies—but it is also perhaps the most biblical of heresies.

Going back to Aristotle, perhaps it is not that gods should be left out of drama, but that human ideas of God are what writers call a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a perfect character with no flaws, the kind of person we first learn to write, since we believe people—and gods—are only good or evil. Then we begin to discover shades of gray. More than just fifty. Characters are complex and experience conflicting wants and wishes. Thus, as Shone notes, God wants people to procreate, but then wants to destroy them. Afterwards he is upset at what he has done. What could be more human than that? The perfect god who knows no struggles, and who never has to fight for what he wants, would be a boring deity indeed. That’s not the divinity skulking around Genesis, however. I’ll have to reserve judgment on Noah’s god until I get to the theater. It seems to me, at this point, that a wee touch of evil makes for deities that are closer to those we experience in our own workaday lives.

Steampunk Messiah

HomunculusSteampunk emerged as a genre of science fiction just as I was finishing seminary. It went largely unnoticed as I continued my “serious” academic work, with my first introduction being Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Since then, I’ve picked up the occasional Victorian tale and enjoyed an escape into an alternative history. Most recently that escape took the form of one of the originals of the genre, James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus. Considered to be one of the first exemplars of the emergent literary type, it has rollicking, free-wheeling tone—full of strange characters who are attempting to find various hidden treasures. One of those characters is a latter-day prophet by the name of Shiloh, who believes himself the new messiah. Since, as an emerging genre, no rules had been established, steampunk was free to cast whatever characters it found intriguing. A religious fanatic who often drives the action through his own need for self assurance is a tried and true actor in any literature that considers what motivates the masses. Firmly in the cast of “bad guys” in the story, Shiloh patronizes the mad doctor who’s experimenting with reanimating the dead. And Blaylock manages to squeeze a bit of profundity into the role as well.

Nevertheless, the character with the best quote is the ambiguous Bill Kraken, on the side of right, generally, but deeply flawed. In a conversation about immortality, he says “I’m a man of science and the spirit both, and I don’t trust to neither one entirely.” In this he sums up the dilemma of the honest individual who takes science seriously, but who knows that science can’t completely encapsulate the human experience. He trusts science, but Kraken has seen the living dead. There’s an alchemy at work here, and that box he carries on his lap houses the very homunculus that gives the book its title. An alien, actually, the homunculus is sought after by Shiloh, who supposes him to be his father. It is the homunculus who animates the dead and flummoxes the scientists.

Fiction often leads us where fact simply cannot. I strongly suspect that Blaylock had no moralizing message here, other than perhaps to beware of fanatics, and yet a message remains to ponder. That which we seek the most is that which most wishes to escape us. In the end neither scientist nor religious aficionado ends up with the homunculus under control. This is an alternate reality, after all, and the limits of human experience remain untested. Perhaps such bright thinkers as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein had it right. Perhaps the universe in which we find ourselves is not either-or, but both-and. It was our religion that brought us to science, and it is sometimes our fiction that points to the facts.

The Search for Khan

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_Khan

Continuing with the series, I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan last night. Since weekends are the only time I have for the media, I also threw in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Now, I haven’t seen either of these movies since their theatrical release longer ago than I care to admit, but many of the details, particularly from II, had stayed with me. Clearly The Wrath of Khan is superior in every way, but I hadn’t realized how literate it was until I saw it again. From Tale of Two Cities to Moby Dick to the Bible, the viewer in 1982 was given a sci-fi movie with classics sprinkled through it. I hadn’t read Ahab’s famous words on the dying lips of Khan when I first saw it, but I still realized that they were powerful words nevertheless. The premise of both movies, however, is biblical—the Genesis project, which even gets Spock quoting the Bible, is creatio ex nihilo, well, not exactly ex nihilo, as we do have a Big Bang to start the thing. Throughout the language of creating in six days is juxtaposed to morality, for in order to create, you must destroy.

We all know that Spock dies, citing a utilitarianism that would’ve made John Stuart Mill proud, but in what is really a biblical trope: self-sacrifice. And this leads to speculations of resurrection, always lurking in the background of the biblically minded. But theology (and the acting) turn bad in III. We’re all glad to see Spock alive again, but it turns out that Genesis destroys itself after just a short time, and that “Genesis is a failure.” Where do we turn back from the first page of the Bible? There is no preface here. There is, nevertheless, a temporary garden of Eden on the Genesis planet, and it is a federation-level secret. You just can’t keep anything from the Klingons, however. So the Bible implodes and Kirk’s son sacrifices himself so that Spock might live. Can I get a concordance here?

I’m not a trekkie, but I had noticed from the original series through the original cast movies, the assumption was for a biblically literate audience. That assumption can no longer be presumed, although, if pressed, many people could guess that Genesis is in the Bible. Meanwhile, the flood of Noah is also upon us. Exodus comes next. Movies featuring Leviticus are rare. Even as the cast ages visibly from the young, brash Kirk of the 1960’s to the bespectacled, patrician father with regrets in The Search for Spock, society itself has also aged. Some would say, matured. But we need directors telling us now that the flood story is found in Genesis. The Bible has been on self-defense mode for some time as religion has become equated with fanaticism. And yet, even as resurrection looms, we can’t help but to wonder if better things lie ahead.

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

Flood of Fancy

Years ago I was approached to write a book about Noah. There was still some hope at that time that I might find a university job and that my words would have more credibility than just any old internet hack. At the time I’d read just about every book about Noah that had been written—and there weren’t that many. Biblical scholars, beyond tying the story to its obvious Mesopotamian sources, have long relegated the tale to the nursery school of biblical drama. Sure, it’s a great story, but what serious scholar takes an interest in a great story? Well, I outlived my academic job and it looks like Noah is going to have the last laugh. We’re told that the Pope has been tweeted about the movie by Russell Crowe and that several Islamic nations have already banned it. According to Today Darren Aronofsky, the director, is more interested in getting non-believers into the theater than trying to please the faithful. Well, let’s face it. A movie based strictly on the Bible would have to be pretty preachy.

The bigger draw seems to be this: our society is simultaneously deemed secular and religious. Americans go to church. They also respond to surveys that they believe in God, the Devil, Heaven, and Hell. They also act as if none of this were true. Business practices tend to be anything but caring, and we show no concerted effort to make sure basic healthcare is offered to all our citizens, let alone the millions who are daily suffering and dying elsewhere in the world. We don’t want to reduce our emissions as a real flood—a literal flood—is on the rise on a global scale. Maybe we’re waiting for a biblical-scale miracle to save us. Noah’s face stares out at you all across Midtown. Judgment is upon us.

NoahMovie

Action films draw male viewers. Religious movies draw females. Aronofsky and Crowe have the winning combination. No gender-bias for a secular-religious nation that has enough loose change to spend a weekend at the movies. The biggest complaint is that it isn’t the Bible. I have to admit I’m kind of enjoying the hype, despite the fact that I never received the chance to write that Noah book that was next on my agenda. If I had, now it might have enjoyed the sales that Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah—scheduled for release three days before the movie—surely will. Timing has never been my strong suit. Of course, money can be its own sort of flood, and many more drown in it than in the literal waters of a secular-religious society. According to Genesis a raven was released to fly about looking for land. The Crowe might have been a better choice since movies, as we all know, improve upon the book.