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Non-podcasts

Transformations

WerewolfsGuideToLifeHalloween, when you think about it, is an odd holiday. I know many who claim it as their favorite although you get no presents and not even a day off work. I suspect that part of the mystique comes in the form of Halloween representing autumn in miniature. The slow death of summer as the chill of winter settles in. The trees, vibrant in their dramatic death throes, are beautiful and melancholy at the same time. The long hours of darkness leave plenty of opportunities to see ghosts. Rich Duncan and Bob Powers’ book, The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten, is appropriate for the season. This lighthearted parody of self-help books nicely illustrates how monsters often come into contact with religion. As a secular handbook, the Guide nevertheless addresses itself to the religious questions of life: should a werewolf go to confession? How do you deal with guilt? Do werewolves go to heaven? Monsters often force us to face the questions we just can’t answer.

The werewolf, of course, is the manifestation of a person gone feral. While people don’t actually physically change into animals, evolution has left us with a deep kinship to our fellow creatures. At times when work, or school, or relationships become trying, we are tempted to let the beast loose. One size doesn’t fit all, despite the many attempts of society to keep the vast majority of people in the same plight. Halloween is a cathartic holiday that permits us to be someone else and, perchance, to howl at the moon. Not exactly like Carnival, Halloween thrives on false appearances. We wear costumes. The trees and sunlight that apparently die are really only cycling through an annual death and resurrection.

Halloween can’t touch Christmas for a holiday that commemorates new beginnings, but in many ways Halloween is the more visceral of the two. In Manhattan, although Halloween decorations show up early in October, the holiday is lost in the city. The werewolves pretty much keep to themselves. As Christmas, with its lucre, becomes the next obvious holiday (in stores Halloween decorations already give way to those of Christmas at the start of October now) the city transforms. Despite its multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup, Christmas trees will begin to appear, some impressively large, and the greens will remind everyone that it is time to spend. You’ll get days off work and the days will be painfully brief. Light will slowly return to the skies and the cycle will begin all over. Some will watch this all with wolf-like eyes, however, awaiting the next season of monsters and myths, knowing they are what make us truly human.

The Wars of the Worlds

Just as it is appropriate for news sources to carry religious stories without ridicule in weekend editions, October is the month when strange things might be reported with a degree of seriousness. I have often noted in the past that “paranormal” (think X-Files) phenomena are closely related to religion. Since our ruling paradigm is one of belittling the intellects of those willing to consider evidence beyond the accepted, news stories featuring the unexplained do so with a generous helping of scorn. I was amazed, then, when my wife sent me a story on the BBC News Magazine from the World Service Sport section. (Which is near enough to paranormal, as sports fail to interest me in the least bit.) A story by Richard Padula is entitled “The day UFOs stopped play.” Near this date in 1954 in Florence, Italy, a soccer game stopped as UFOs appeared above the stadium. Former World Cup players stared upward instead of at the ball. The event was documented and never explained. I kept waiting for the jowl-waggling punchline. It never came. Here was a news story from a reputable source taking something strange at face value.

Paranormal activities and religious experiences are in the same category when it comes to a materialistic universe. They can’t exist and so the superior mind must laugh them off, stating they are an illusion, hallucination, or hoax. They still happen, nonetheless. Some world governments are beginning to announce to their citizens that they recognize unexplained arial phenomena exist and—truly astounding for government rulers—they have no explanation. Something weird is going on. It was on Halloween Eve in 1938 that Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was invaded, according to an Orson Welles radio play. Since the inexplicable panic that came following that broadcast, extraterrestrial visitors have been laughed off the serious news page into the comic section. News stories have never taken it seriously since.

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A sports writer, casting about for an interesting story, might well focus on an event of such Fortean dimensions. Some highly respected people present at that game were interviewed with utter seriousness and traces of physical evidence were even gathered. A substance whimsically called “angel hair” was found all over the city, and despite the chemical signature, was declared to be the webs of a massive spider invasion (who needs aliens to be scared?) by many scientists who didn’t witness it. Laugh and the world laughs with you. The BBC doesn’t seem to be laughing in this story. Tomorrow is Halloween, when many improbable things seem possible, if only for a short time. Weather balloons, swamp gas, and Venus notwithstanding, sometimes people of normal intellect turn their eyes to the sky and wonder.

Non-Fiction Steampunk

TheVictorianInternetThe histories of Tom Standage approach familiar things from unfamiliar angles. Being interested in Steampunk, and a daily user of the internet who has trouble recalling what life was like before then, I found The Victorian Internet fascinating. Subtitled The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, the story of the wiring of the world did resonate in any almost eerie way to the early days of the world-wide web. Despite my disclaimer, I do recall those days clearly when the only way someone could get in touch with you immediately was the telephone, and you had to be at home for it to work. Prior to the telegraph, news traveled even slower and you could go months without hearing from those closest to you, if they happened to be away. Samuel F. B. Morse knew that first-hand, as Standage tells it. His wife died while he was out of town, and although he rushed back right away upon hearing, she had been buried before he reached her. Such was life when news arrived only by letter. Morse was among those who invented the telegraph, a device that made the world realize that yes, it was possible to send information to distant places almost instantly. It soon become a wired world.

Standage is also more circumspect than some writers who declare, with breathless awe, that some new device will cure the world’s ills. Showing how the telegraph generated much the same hyperbole as the internet (that peace would reign now that people could communicate instantly, that technology had brought a miraculous rapprochement, etc.) he notes that people remained people. Wars continued—intensified, in fact, into World War One where technology was devoted to destruction. People had always been able to kill each other. Now they could do it faster, and in more hideous ways. Still, there’s no denying that once the idea of instant communication caught on that we would continue to develop it rapidly. You never need be away from a network that covers much of the developed world and you can talk on your phone from deep under the Hudson River to the top of the Empire State Building. You can order a pizza from anywhere.

Ironically, Morse dedicated part of his earnings to endow a lectureship concerning how science related to the Bible. It was clear that technology had achieved the impossible (okay, well, the improbable) and yet, Victorian society still relied on the truths contained in Scripture. The telegraph, which began with the words, “What hath God wrought,” ended with the attempt to figure out how the Bible fit into all this. Just because humans had crossed the great barriers of oceans with electric cables didn’t mean the Almighty was out of a job. Even today God can be found on the internet. Along with many other choices of distraction and business. God is not so much dead as commodified. The difference between Morse’s day and ours was that then they knew that the Bible impacted daily life. It continues to do so today, but we’ve become too sophisticated to give it much of a nod. We might be well served, however, to look back once in a while as well as to look forward. We might be surprised at how little things have changed.

How God Became Male

GodsDoodleWhat is gender? Okay, we all know about the mechanics of the thing, but gender is more than just sex. Indeed, it is a psycho-social construct that is difficult to pin down. Sexual reproduction is very common in nature, but we don’t really speak of gender among our fellow animals. Perhaps the decisive factor, in the human realm, is religion. Clearly religion is not the only element, but I often wonder if gender-based commandments didn’t lead many cultures into their current arrangements. The thought occurred to me as I read Tom Hickman’s God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. As I informed students in my classes, religion has always shown an interest in sexuality, particularly on providing limitations for it. A recent issue of Christian Century has a cover story about marriage, noting that the widespread prohibitions about homosexual matrimony come from a religion that forbids it. When your stakes are eternal, many people won’t argue.

But I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Gender roles have traditionally been regulated by societies, often on the basis of their religious outlook. Meanwhile, biology, as Hickman reminds his readers, is somewhat more ambiguous. The line between the genders is somewhat of a line in the sand, easily erased. Humans come in a continuum of orientations and biological equipage. Those who don’t match the defined parameters have difficult questions to ponder with a male deity who could think of only two genders. What is a male without a female? Can a male deity exist without a goddess? What, otherwise, is the purpose of a deity’s gender? Wouldn’t a inter-sexual creator may more sense?

Male social behavior has often drawn its entitlement from a bad theology. When feminists first began to raise questions, the orthodox were quick to point out that Jesus was clearly male. As Hickman notes, however, representing him naked on the cross (as crucifixions were historically done) is still rare. Sounds like an effort at keeping the status quo tipped in the favor of one gender that doesn’t want to admit that it slowly morphs into another. We all begin life female, as biologists now understand. Some retain their original gender while males evolve into something different. And with that evolution they tend to make many unsubstantiated claims about the right to make decisions for the other half of the human race. Gender is a lot more complex than many religions would have us believe. Until we learn to treat all people as people, we will still have to ask, and will never adequately answer, how God became male.

Keeping Time

Did you remember to set your clock back? Depending on where you are (and this presumes there are any people reading this at all) it might have been a mistake. When I worked with Routledge, we had weekly trans-Atlantic meetings via conference calls. I remember the general confusion of what time it was where, and how that effected meeting times. The UK sets its clocks back at a different time then many states do this side of the ocean. As much as it is nice to have an extra hour of sleep (next weekend for most Americans, this morning for the British Isles) it really never seems worth the disruption on the other end of “standard time.” In the spring it will take several weeks to adjust to disrupted sleep patterns after long winter naps—for those who are able to sleep in, in any case. I’ve long thought it is time to do away with this practice: if daylight savings time is a good idea, why don’t we just keep it that way all year around? Greenwich Mean Time, however, could never admit to being wrong.

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I was always told daylight savings time was because of concerns for children walking to school in the dark. An article in The Guardian, however, gives the real reason. It was war. During the First World War (which impacted so many aspects of life that we’re still sorting them all out), Germany implemented daylight savings time to conserve fuel to support the war effort. Squeezing a few more minutes of daylight from a slumbering public meant more resources for the engines of destruction. Other nations soon followed and when we turn our clocks ahead in the spring and yawn wicked yawns all day at work and stumble about for lack of sleep, we wonder if that extra hour’s snooze in the fall was really worth it. Because of my commute, I rise early. If everyone awoke around 4 a.m., daylight savings time would quickly become moot. It does nothing to help. I already catch the bus in the dark and arrive home after dark, as I will until well into spring. It is a holiday with no meaning.

Religions have been, historically, the clock keepers of humanity. Our hours were regulated for prayer, our weeks divided up for a day of worship or rest, our years punctured by holy days. All of this was done for the sake of religion. In our secular world, there would be no reason beyond the recognition that people are more productive when they can rest to give them one day off in a week. Seven days corresponds to no natural division of time, unless you consider a quarter of the moon’s phases for 28-day months to be significant. Religions have been our time-keepers. Daylight savings time, however, was the child of war. This week our UK colleagues will be well rested and content. Next weekend the US will join them. But the second horseman of the apocalypse has sanctioned this unholy day, and when the spring rolls around, he will exact his toll. We’d better rest up in the meanwhile, and I, for one, say let’s banish the horseman all together.

The Fate of Goddesses

The goddesses Asherah and Astarte are sometimes confused, even by experts. Astarte, also known as Ashtart, Ashtarte, Athtart, and Astaroth, among other names, is the lesser attested of the two among the Ugaritic texts. Indeed, to read some accounts of the latter goddess, she becomes dangerously close to being labelled generic, the sort of all-purpose female deity embodying love and war, and sometimes horses. In the Bible Astarte lived on to become the bad-girl of Canaanite goddesses. Her corrupting ways were a conscious danger to the orthodox (as much as that is read back into the texts). She became, over time, literally demonized. It seems that originally she, like most goddesses, had a soft spot for humans. Since she wasn’t the one true (male) God, however, she had to be made evil. It is an unfortunate pattern as old as monotheism. One of my original interests in studying Asherah (not Astarte) was precisely that—the obviously benevolent divine female seems to have been chucked wholesale when the divine masculine walked into the room. Why? Well, many explanations and excuses have been given, but whatever the ultimate cause, Astarte lingered on.

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In a local pharmacy the other day, I was looking over the Halloween tchotchkes. Amid the usual assortment of pumpkins, skeletons, and ghosts, I found bottle labels reading “Ashtaroth Demon Essence.” Although I’ve spent a good deal of my life cloistered in academia, I was not surprised by this. I know that in popular culture the goddesses of antiquity live on as supernatural powers, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Astarte, once depicted as the friend to at least some of the humans devoted to her, is now commonly a demonic force. The image on the bottle label, however, was most unflattering. I know, this is just kid’s stuff. Still, as I stood there among last-minute costume seekers and distracted parents, I knew that I was witnessing the influence of ancient religions in an unexpected way. Did any of the goddesses survive as a force for good? How could they when the only god was male?

We know very little about ancient Astarte beyond the fact that she took away some of the luster of the omnipotent (as now conceived) deity of the Bible. A jealous God, as Holy Writ readily admits, visiting iniquity down to the third and fourth generation. (That might explain a lot.) Prior to monotheism benevolence and malevolence could arise from goddesses as well as gods. Compassion, it was believed, was largely a feminine trait. Monotheism decided for the jealous male instead. We won’t find a bottle label for the Almighty, although the accouterment of the arch-enemy are everywhere evident this time of year. And speaking of the diabolical, the Ashtaroth Demon Essence, I noted, was available at a steep discount.

Huge or Not?

The word “refugee,” I recently learned, was originally coined to refer to the Huguenots. As the Reformation began to take hold in Europe, although mostly associated with Germany and Switzerland, many French believers left Catholicism and became known as Huguenots. Early modernity was a time when religious persecution was rather openly practiced (as it still is in parts of the world) and many Huguenots were forced out of their homeland where Catholicism was the state religion. The word used to describe these unfortunates was “refugee.” For whatever reason, the plight of the Huguenots has never really captured the public imagination the way that many groups of displaced individuals has. We seldom hear of Huguenots any more, but generic refugees are daily in our news.

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While it is hardly a mark of pride or accomplishment to have Christians persecuting Christians as the origin of the term “refugee,” the fact that refugees are becoming more common rather than less so should be worrying. Borders, all of which are artificial, no matter how high we build our walls, lead to closed opportunities. Every once in a while, I ponder the phenomenon that none of us has any control over where we’re born. We might be fortunate enough to find ourselves in an affluent democracy (so I’m told) or equally beyond our control in a repressive totalitarian military state. The ability to see things from another’s point of view is essential to the concept of the refugee. Can we imagine what it is like to be persecuted for religious belief? For being born female in a chauvinistic society? For being poor when money seems to be everywhere for those who know how to extort it? Have we no sympathy for those who find themselves conceived under trying circumstances? If it were me, I’m sure I would think differently about it.

Historically, and by the numbers, the Catholic Church has been by far the most successful form of Christianity that the world has known. Claims to the title of “Christianity” are hotly contested, but the continuity, in some form or other, has hung together for a couple of millennia. In times past, those who differed, such as the Puritans in England and Huguenots in France, were encouraged to leave. The world was plenty big enough. Were the borders of today erected in early modernity, the plight of the Huguenots, like that of many untolerated religious groups, might have been far more dramatic. Largely assimilated today, the Huguenots are not much on most people’s minds and yet refugees still regularly approach the borders beyond which a more humane life awaits. Religious persecution gave the world the word; could its opposite provide the solution?