Having married into a family descended from the surviving relatives of women executed as witches at Salem, I have long been saddened and fascinated by the story. Not just the story, but also by the cultural milieu. We all know about the witch trials and the tragic massacre of innocents (mostly women) that took place in late Medieval and early modern Europe; the Salem miscarriage of justice came at the very end of that, after the start of the Enlightenment. Owen Davies is also fascinated by witchcraft, and his America Bewitched: The story of witchcraft after Salem is an exploration—mostly via newspapers and court trial records—of witchcraft accusations in America that continued up until about the 1950s. The coincidence of the 1950s with the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism will not escape some readers, and indeed, from the time of Arthur Miller’s nemesis on, those who vociferate against witches have kept rather quiet. Unless, of course, you count those who subsequently feared “terrorists” or any other group that might be profiled. We could learn from history, if we’d let ourselves.
Davies’s book brings together largely overlooked, nearly forgotten instances of how many cultures, including that cultural mix of Europeans who were to become “whites,” feared and sometimes killed witches. The difference from Salem was that almost all of these cases took place at the hands of self-appointed accusers (vigilantes) who hounded, punished, or killed someone suspected of being a witch. Surveys still show that a large percentage of people in the United States, although not a majority, believe in witches. It is an idea that has a primal hold on human psyches, and, as Davies points out, it is often used to explain misfortune. As I read this book I reflected how Americans come across as pretty gullible and not exactly sensible in this matter. The germanic strains of immigrants, it seems, were particularly susceptible to such beliefs. We also find witches, however, among Native Americans and African Americans as well. Misfortunate plays no favorites.
There are those who claim technology will save our culture. The other day a friend reminded me of the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Even the most scientific of us knows, whether or not s/he will admit it, that “spooky action at a distance” does occur. It is perhaps only a matter of time before we find the hidden laws that operate the mechanism, but I can’t help but feel a little bit uncanny when I see more and more lifelike robots operating with what seem like human intentions. Of course, those intentions are programmed by humans. And it is often otherwise rational adults who with gun in hand, up until fairly recent times, accused flesh-and-blood neighbors as witches. America Bewitched can be a scary book, especially since unlike vampires, witches do cast their reflections in a mirror.
Posted in Books, Feminism, Monsters, Posts, Religious Violence, Robotics, Science
Tagged America Bewitched, Arthur C. Clarke, McCarthyism, Owen Davies, Salem, Salem Witch Trials, witches
“There ain’t no use in complaining,” Bryan Adams once wrote, “when you got a job to do.” If I may be pardoned from removing rock and roll from its love song context. As a guy who’s suffered unemployment several times, I have to agree that having a job is good. Of course, such goodness has its natural limitations. Switching jobs too often means starting out over and over again. In today’s world, that means that at half-a-century-old you might well find yourself having to earn vacation days from nothing all over again. So when family vacation plans were made this year, one of us—the one with a new job—could not be included. My family is out near the west coast while I remain here on the east. Once upon a time we were somewhere in the middle. I’m glad they have the opportunity. This post isn’t about sour grapes, or vacation; rather, it’s about vocation.
I often think about how life has become only earning for the sake of earning. People say you should get a job you like, which is fine if such jobs exist. The jobs I like are now considered beneath me. Not by me, but by those doing the hiring. Where has the sense of vocation gone? Back in the Middle Ages (and I’m not one to suggest that things were necessarily better then) the learned had opportunities. Those who had a skill could be inducted into a guild that would help to ensure job security. We’ve moved to a free agent model where someone can be removed from their natural vocation with nary a thought what they might do next. Detritus of a throw-away culture. For those with highly specialized skills—Ugaritic, anyone?—such severance is like setting one on an ice floe, only crueler. Ironically, the guild offers no help.
Reading about the Transcendentalists reminds me of how restorative the woods are. Emerson and Thoreau, heading off to the forest to commune with the divine. Since this road is blocked for me, I take the one better traveled, into Manhattan where, I’m sure, there is life. Elevators, ubiquitous pavement, quotas and tallies. Prove your worth. Among the students I knew I was accomplishing something. Since then it’s all just numbers. In the woods I don’t count the trees. I don’t demand to know what they’re producing for the good of the company. I don’t question their motives. Outside my window, if I had a window, I would see only stone, concrete, and steel. And inside all I feel are numbers. Can a soul be quantified? I think I would have to side with the Transcendentalists on this one. But that’s not what I’m paid to do.
The 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.
Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.
“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.
The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.
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.
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.
On a family walk in the woods, along came a spider. Actually, the spider had already been there quite a while, given the amount of work that its web represented. Few sing the virtues of spider brains, but there is a captivating symmetry here, an aesthetic that nature endows on the work of one of its most feared yet skillful creatures. As I ponder this web, I can’t help but to consider the word sacred. Oh, I don’t suppose the spider is worshipping an eight-legged, arachnid deity, but there is something more than simply utilitarian about its creation. And I wonder why the sacred is so often shuffled off to the realm only of the religious. Increasingly scientists and philosophers are using the word sacred for a trope when superlatives fail. They don’t mean a guy with a beard on a throne in the sky, but rather those things that give us pause in a busy life to stop and think that something more is going on than just the electro-chemical storm in our heads.
At the risk of offending some, the sacred need not be tied to the gods at all. It is, rather, a sense of reverence toward the amazing world in which we find ourselves. Yes, this web can be measured with precision. Its arachnid host captured and studied. We can count the number of insects it catches as a measure of its efficiency. All this and we still won’t have encapsulated the web in its entirety. The sacred is like that. I don’t know why it is that I find some places special. Why it is I linger outside where my childhood homes once stood, or on the hill where stood the hospital in which I entered the world. Although I’m not divine, these places are sacred. So I pull the car to the side of the road and stare at that lot where our house once stood. It was a web. Fragile and necessary. And it was on the edge of the woods.
A walk in the woods is a form of rebirth. Some of my earliest memories are wandering among the trees. I was, like many children, terrified of spiders. No doubt there were thousands of them here. And yet I cannot keep away. Perhaps it is because nearly every day of the week I trundle to Manhattan and there is nothing around me that doesn’t bear the scars of artificiality. I don’t recall the last time I saw a spider in New York City, apart from a man in a blue-and-red costume pretending to be one. I’m sure they’re here. I’m sure they spin their webs and there are those who marvel at how complex and beautiful they are. The unexpected spider will always frighten me, I suppose. That doesn’t mean, however, when I come upon a web, that I haven’t met the secular sacred once more. Especially if it’s on a stroll in the woods.
Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons
I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. In truth, I’m not even sure what its significance might be. Beyond giving a spectacular view of the Delaware River valley, it is my understanding that it is a memorial built to George Washington and his many activities in this region. It’s not even that old. I have come, however, because of a memory not my own. Many decades ago, my mother visited the tower with her parents. She has pictures but couldn’t remember the name of the tower, or even where it was. As fate and happenstance have it, I live a mere hour away and I’ve undertaken this journey to a tower I’ve never seen to bring a sacred sense of place back to life for someone else. Too bad the park is closed today. It is a sunny Saturday in July, and it seems that everyone is outside. We drove across that impossibly narrow, rickety bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania at Washington’s Crossing (so named on both sides in both states) to find our way to this quiet park to find a lost past. “Closed” the sign laconically says.
The urge to travel, speaking strictly for me, is the pursuit of sacred space. Over Independence Day weekend we traveled to Boston not only to see fireworks, but to revisit a site of some personal significance. In my three years in that city life took me places I never imagined I might have gone. The memories, mine this time, although hazy, still permeate the air. Boston is a sacred city. Since childhood I have had dreams of Maine. From Boston I pushed further north to the rocky coasts and gray oceans of the stormy north Atlantic. Although neither God nor angel appeared, I knew that I had once again discovered the sacredness of space. Every time I leave, I count the days until I might return.
Many locations are sacred to a person. Some of mine are in the west, and some in the east. And when I’m there I require some time alone, for the sacredness of space is a deeply personal matter. When, many years ago, I was jostled into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher amid ecclesiastical robes too numerous to identify, I knew this was a holy spot for many. The very dust of Jerusalem seems sacred with age. But what had happened to me here? Beyond the endless readings and rereadings of the biblical tales, Jerusalem was someone else’s sacred location. Aside from the dark crusaders’ crypts, there was no place to be alone. I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. Despite driving to Pennsylvania for that sole purpose, it is a place I have yet to see. And when I finally do climb that tower, it should, I hope become clear to me whether anything of the numinous remains in this dusty corner of somebody else’s memory. Sacred space is like that, and it keeps some of us forever on the move.
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.
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.
Posted in Civil Religion, Current Events, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Argentina, Brazil, Christ the Redeemer, Germany, sports, sports and religion, World Cup
The idea is a simple one. When someone undermines, the very foundation of an idea is left with no foundation. We are taught not to undermine ourselves; for enemies it’s okay. Encouraged even. The Bible contains the seeds to its own undermining. The claim that it is a sacred book encourages—even demands—serious attention be paid to it. When it is examined closely, however, it becomes plain that the status accorded it as a book undermines its own claims. Believers can respond in several ways. One is to declare the Bible inerrant and to claim that contradictions are not contradictions and that what history has proven false is actually true. The keenest breed of such inerrantists hardly exists any more, since it does require a stable, geocentric view of the universe, if a universe there be at all. On the other extreme there are believers who make sacred writ so highly symbolic that we need not worry about the obvious factual errors—they were never meant literally anyway. And, of course, every position in between.
The Bible is not a unified composition. This was evident to the person, whoever it was, who first joined the Prophets to the Torah. Or even Genesis to Exodus. We have no way of knowing if s/he (mostly likely the latter) really believed that Moses wrote all the stories from the creation of the world through his own death, but the books of the Pentateuch roughly hang together in an extended narrative with plenty of instruction along the way. The “Bible” that Jesus knew had considerably fewer books than our “Old Testament.” And one gets the sense that Paul’s letters were tacked on in a catch-as-catch-can fashion, with everyone knowing (as the letters themselves say) that material is missing. And what Paul authoritatively wrote to the people of Galatia may not have been the same advice he sent to the Corinthians. Tides and times. Bibles and believers.
When scholars began, out of deep devotion, to look closely at the Bible the cracks in this historical facade began to fracture. Once the breach is in the dike, one dare ignore it only at great peril. The first shaft had been dug. By the time of Julius Wellhausen, the undermining was already engineered and well underway. And it couldn’t be stopped. Biblical scholars had choices to make: ignore the evidence and continue to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, or climb out of that tunnel before it caves in. And the church, unsuspecting of what it means, insisted on an educated clergy. Serious study of the Bible shows what many believers wish it didn’t. And yet we continue to make claims based on evidence that is faulty. Just as long as these supporting pillars hold up we have nothing to worry about. And the undermining continues daily, lest we all find ourselves in the breadline.