Despite my interest in aliens, my viewing of the Alien movies has been tenuous at best. The image of what looked like an egg hatching a green sun over a particularly badly formed waffle always brought the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” to my juvenile mind. When the original movie came out in 1979, it seemed too scary for a kid in high school. I first saw Aliens (part 2) when living with a friend after seminary. He explained to me the missing gaps left from never having seen the original, and I was impressed by how Sigourney Weaver pretty much took on the alien queen single-handedly. I was still too young, however, to realize that there’s always room for an alien or its egg to attach itself inside any spaceship or escape pod. You can never really get rid of the things. I finally saw the first installment some ten years later, and it was clear that, as in nearly all series, the first was the best. Ridley Scott’s films take considerable energy to watch. No one seems capable of matching his dark moods and sense of a hopeless future. I left it at this state for another decade, until recently reading that Alien 3 marked the culmination of the “theology” of the series. Over the holiday break I decided to find out if this was true.
Ripley, who can never get a break, finds herself the sole survivor (again) on a prison-colony at what used to be a lead ore refinery deep in space. While the company had abandoned the facility, a group of inmates who had formed a religious order decided to remain. Having grown up in a refinery town, so far I’m on board with the story. Separated from society, from women, and from temptation, the prisoners are a fundamentalist sect that would seem to fit well into the woods of Wisconsin. Ripley threatens their delicate balance of celibacy, and although not a virgin she ends up conceiving an alien in a Madonna-esque way, not even knowing how she became pregnant. When she decides to incinerate herself rather than allow the alien to be born, she falls into the fire in a cruciform dive just to drive the point home. Before her dive into hell, however, Ripley tries to motivate this band of incarcerated monks to fight the alien. When they say the company will save them, she responds, “What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?” Again, echoes of Wisconsin.
Doubtless, my experience of the movies has been skewed by my own experience. Still, Alien 3 holds to a pattern that emerges fairly often in movies with a strong horror theme—religion is the progenitor of terror. The prisoners’ religion is described as “apocalyptic,” and it frequently appears that in movies where a civilization is on the brink of collapse, religion awaits to greet the survivors with open arms on the other side. In the horror genre, this is often a cold, clammy comfort. Although religious elements were largely lacking in the Ridley Scott and James Cameron episodes, I do hear distant echoes of Moby Dick here from the very beginning. The dark alien, like the white whale, is elusive and destructive and does not relinquish its hunt until Captain Ahab, or Lieutenant Ripley, is dead in its grip. And since Alien Resurrection awaits in yet another sequel, like the white whale, the alien never truly goes away.
Posted in Feminism, Literature, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Alien, Alien 3, aliens, James Cameron, Moby Dick, Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, Wisconsin
Considering that the story of Eden fits the pattern of many an ancient myth, modern writers still occasionally argue about what the fruit on the tree of life might have been. The favorite with medieval theologians seems to have been the apple because of the similarity of its name in Latin and the presumed badness of the act. Apples, however, are nutritious and make up a large part of autumn’s outdoor appeal. While at a local orchard over the weekend, apple picking, my daughter pointed out a tree with what might be termed biblical properties. A tree full of ripe apples yet to all appearances the tree was dead or dying. Perhaps that is nature’s way with apples, but it also seemed like such a resurrection symbol that I just couldn’t let it go. Would the apples carry on the line of the dead parent tree? Was there life after death?
I’m not sure why I’ve associated apples with new life. Shortly after my father died, I planted an apple seed in a plant potter in our Wisconsin home. To my surprise, the seed germinated and began to grow. We did not own our house, but we lived on a wooded campus and two large shade trees had been blown over in the past few months, so when the young tree was large enough, I planted it outside. The lawns on campus were rather aggressively mown with students who sometimes had anger issues, so I put up a little fence around the young tree to keep it safe from accidental mulching. By the time I was asked to leave Nashotah House, the tree was taller than me (not such a feat, but the fact that it survived so well was pleasing). No apples had yet appeared, but the tree is a symbol of new life. No one on campus knew its meaning, and I doubt very much that anyone thought much about it one way or the other after I left.
I often wonder if that little tree is still alive, and, if so, whether or not anyone enjoys its apples. Every year when the trees begin their long journey into a winter’s sleep, the apple trees send forth the own message of resurrection. Some will associate the fruit with sin while others will find pleasant autumnal memories. And a very few, I should suppose, will always think of trees as a symbol of someone they wish they might have known a little better. Far from being a sign of sin, the apple can be a sign of forgiveness and self-giving. Whether it is a myth or not, the northern hemisphere has begun its inexorable turn away from the sun. I look at a tree that is dead and full of life at the same time, and to me it seems to be a very different kind of fall than some suggest the Bible intends.
The problem with occasional phenomena is that they are seldom empirically verified. Try as we might, no one has managed to be in the exact place at the exact time on Loch Ness to capture definitive evidence that Nessie exists. Of course, it is very difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. I have a creeping suspicion that not all of reality can be quantified. I’m very glad for the parts that can be, but a little mystery never hurt anyone. I’ve just finished reading Linda Godfrey’s Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America. There—I’ve already lost some of you! We all grow up to learn that there are no such things as werewolves and I’ve experienced many a peaceful night in that knowledge. Nevertheless, many people do report seeing upright wolf-like creatures, and many of the people interviewed by Godfrey appear to be entirely sincere. What makes this intriguing to me is that many of these episodes are reported in a circumscribed area (near which I used to live). While reports come from across the country, it is easier to dismiss one person who saw something odd once than it is to discount many people who see a similar thing over many years in the same general vicinity. That’s why I keep coming back to Godfrey’s books.
Being an open-minded writer, Godfrey also considers possible spiritual explanations for what people see. Shamanistic traditions, in this case particularly Native American ones, do not dismiss transformations from human to animal. It is difficult for most of us to accept that a person could bend the laws of physics and biology—for which we suffered through so many tests in our education—to mutate or mix human DNA into or with lupine stock. Indeed, it takes the faith of the world of religion to believe that. And yet, people see beasts.
We have been in the process of sealing the borders to our universe since the Enlightenment. The vaster our universe becomes the smaller the realm of possibilities grows. But we haven’t even explored all of our own little planet yet. The deep-sea trenches remain largely out of our reach, and the sheer volume of the oceans boggles the imagination. Even on land, we can’t watch every place all the time. The possibility of getting to somewhere truly remote is frequently an optimistic illusion. At times with my wife’s family I’ve ventured to places so far from civilization that freedom truly feels palpable. And as we hike down some neglected trail, talking to alert the grizzlies to our presence, nearly always we end up encountering others out here to escape from the likes of us. Yet a whole lot of the woods remain off-trail. It’s not a small world after all. And it’s October. Who’s to say there’s not the occasional werewolf out tonight?
A photograph and video of a “fire tornado” in Australia have been lighting up the web the last few days. Well, technically there is no such thing as a fire tornado, although that term serves perfectly well as a colloquial expression for the phenomenon. Having spent several years studying vortices for a project on weather language in the Bible, I came to know tornados particularly intimately. Dust devils, caused by surface heating, look and act like tornados, but a true tornado is cloud-based. The fire tornado is probably better termed a “fire whirl” or a “fire devil”—an expression that has a particularly ominous tone. Such vortices occur in wildfires in other parts of the world as well, and they are, obviously, very dangerous. When my wife pointed out the comments on this site (which also has a photograph and a link to the video), however, the implications for a blog on religion became clear.
One of the points I made in my weather work was that severe weather is almost always attributed to God. The comments on boingboing affirm that the concept retains its currency. Now, reading comments on most websites reveals just how juvenile the web readership generally is. On many sites the comments are so annoying that even Spongebob Squarepants would seem an intellectual heavyweight by comparison with the writers. Nevertheless on boingboing, by comment seven God had been brought into the conversation. In this instance, reference was aptly made to the movie The Ten Commandments, with others chiming in that nature here far outdid Cecil B. DeMille’s efforts at a realistic fire devil to represent God. The comments then move on to the guiding of the Israelites by a pillar of fire in the wilderness. Intermingled with the biblical references are meteorological comments attempting to classify the whirl a bit more precisely.
When something out of the ordinary occurs, our default seems to be God. This in no way discounts the scientific discussion for what is really going on. The religion and science comments simply talk past one another—they have the same referent, but entirely different levels of engagement with it. Although not the scientific names, “devils” and “tornados” represent different, if visually similar, phenomena. Vortices seem natural on a round planet that follows a round orbit while rotating swiftly on its axis, and yet they remain comparatively rare. The name “dust devil” probably goes back to indigenous traditions associating the whirls with ghosts or spirits. For Christians encountering these concepts, heathen gods were devils (as is evident in the name Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, named “Spirit Lake” by the Native Americans. The same applies to Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, but I haven’t been there.) It seems to me that these vortices neatly summarize religious sensibilities: an awe-inspiring event is one culture’s deity, another culture’s devil, and a third culture’s natural phenomenon empirically explained.
A real tornado
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Natural Disasters, Posts, Weather
Tagged Cecil B. DeMille, Devil's Lake, dust devil, fire devil, fire tornado, fire whirl, Ten Commandments, Wisconsin
In Sunday’s newspaper (that’s the kind of week it’s been) an op-ed piece ran with the title “Is God real? Putting the idea on trial.” Written by a priest, Geno Sylva, the article tells how a Wisconsin church set up a mock trial where the litigants argued the case. The trial did not reach a consensus on the matter, even when a great deal of “money” was at stake. Rev. Sylva is okay with that, noting that the main thing is to keep the conversation around God going.
The article brought to mind the Scopes Monkey Trial, another case where God ended up, indirectly, in the dock. It also occurred to me that the real issue is not the existence of God. Juries, and even—gasp!—lawyers don’t demonstrate the truth. The lawyer’s job is to convince people to approve of his (or her) argument—many famous cases are known where the lawyer knew his (less often her) client committed the crime. The argument gets shifted to guilt (one of the favorite tactics of the God of the Bible)—is the defendant guilty or not? Not did the defendant do it. Now let’s put God in the equation. God is not on trial here—remember, it is God’s reality that is being debated.
It appears that God, as an abstract, does not and cannot matter. The mere existence of God proves nothing. Rev. Sylva mentions Einstein as a believer. Well, in a very qualified way. Einstein’s “God” was non-interventionist; the laws of relativity ran the universe. Enter the atomic bomb. QED. The existence of God is not meaningful to believers if God does nothing. The purpose of worship is, after all, to please and interact with God. If God exists like an ancient, unmoving statue, nobody’s happy. The kind of God that worshippers want must be at least able to hear prayers, and must be able to do something about them. Their God is interventionist. This is not Einstein’s god.
Arguing whether God exists proves nothing. It would be like arguing that the universe exists. If it does, so what? What Rev. Sylva’s faithful need to know is does God do stuff. Is there promise of heaven or threat of hell? Or, less crassly, does the ethic of God compel me to do good? Is God, as the old hymn says, “mighty to save”? A god who merely exists is an academic or intellectual curiosity. No more. Will Rev. Sylva’s congregation be happy with that? It seems likely that if the verdict denied God’s existence the party on the side of the Lord would simply appeal to a higher court.
What's really at stake?
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Just for Fun, Posts, Sects
Tagged Einstein, Geno Sylva, legal system, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Scopes Trial, trial, Wisconsin
With the moon and Jupiter waltzing slowly so high in the sky, radiating such brilliance early in the morning over this past week, it is understandable how ancient people came to see the gods as material objects. The course of progression seems to have been physical gods to spiritual gods: the earliest deities ate, drank, made love, fought. They were of the same substance as humans, or at least of the same psychological makeup. The Egyptians, Zoroastrians, and Greeks all toyed with ideas of beings of “spirit”—non-corporeal entities that did not participate in our material world, but were able to influence it. In the world but not of it. The tremendous gulf between great goddess and material girl was born. Today that concept is taken for granted, especially in western religions. We are locked into physicality while God is free to come and go.
Many religions respond to this by suggesting that we should look beyond the physical to the majesty hidden from biological eyes. And yet, physical creatures that we are, we are drawn back to material means to demonstrate our spirituality. One of the perks of working for a publisher is the constant exposure to new ideas. At Routledge I have been learning about the rising interest in material religion: the manifestation of religion through physical objects and rituals. This aspect of religious life easily devolves into a cheapening of faith into mass-produced, religious knickknacks and kitsch. Some mistake this for the real thing. While living in Wisconsin, my family used to visit the spectacular Holy Hill, the site of a Carmelite monastery atop a large glacial moraine. On a clear day you can see Milwaukee from the church tower. It is a large tourist draw.
No visit to such a shrine would be complete without the obligatory stop at the gift shop. Even the non-believer feels compelled to buy some incredibly tasteless artifact to keep them grounded in reality. Many of the items—giant glow-in-the-dark rosaries, maudlin mini-portraits of the blessed virgin Mary (BVM as the insiders call her, not to be confused with BVD) and the crucified Lord on all manner of crosses, line the walls and shelves. This commercialization is not limited to the Catholic tradition. Evangelical groups realize the importance of branding as well, passing out cheap merchandise (or better, selling it) with Bible verses emblazoned on it. These signs of faith sell themselves, but they blur the sacred distinction between human and divine. Does religion point to a reality behind the physical? This is its claim, but what is the harm in making a bit of cash on the side, just in case?
Posted in Astronomy, Bible, Deities, Egypt, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged body and soul, Egyptians, Greek, Holy Hill, Roman Catholicism, Routledge, spirituality, Wisconsin, Zoroastrianism
The Internet can be a window into the collective consciousness of a nation. In a world where even the Weather Channel invites comments on its forecast page, the outlook of many Americans is laid bare. This latest shot of winter weather on the northeastern quarter of the country is an excellent example. It is still March, the tempestuous month of the war god, so a little snow in the northern latitudes should come as no surprise. An unnamed dean at a state school here in New Jersey had just sent out an email blast the week before stating, with decanal authority, that there would be no more weather delays this year. Yesterday there was still snow on the ground after the storm. Frustrated citizens cursed – actually cursed – the winter on weather.com.
For years I have maintained that the weather is key to understanding the human perception of the divine. From ancient Sumer’s An and Enlil through classical Greece’s Uranus and Zeus, the gods unquestionably in charge are the sky gods. The guys who control the weather. In Israel Yahweh took that job description from a reluctant Hadad – aka Baal – and many people considered this a serious mistake. Don’t mess with the weather god! As the snow begins to melt once more, even those of us in the enlightened twenty-first century should be reminded that our sense of what the world should be is an illusion. Nature evolved our brains, and now our brains think they have the right to take over.
Once, back in Wisconsin, I stepped outside on a chilly June morning and saw flecks of snow in the air. It wasn’t “snowing” – it doesn’t snow in June – but there was definitely a frozen sort of precipitation hanging tentatively in the air. I was teaching at the most self-righteous of seminaries at the time, and it became clear to me, once again, that we are not in control. Among the scariest books I read in Wisconsin was Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age. I was at work on my book on weather language in the Psalms (still unpublished) and the unsettling truth drifted around me like this winter’s snows: if a new ice age settles in, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Geologists still can’t state what triggers these periodic events, or even what their timetable might be. If earth’s ice caps again begin to grow, however, I am certain that we will also see a dramatic increase in religiosity. For the gods, we all know deep down, are in the skies.
Posted in Bible, Books, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Deities, Mesopotamia, Natural Disasters, Posts, Psalms, Weather
Tagged Baal, Brian Fagan, Greece, Ice Ages, Little Ice Age, New Jersey, snow, Sumer, Weather Channel, Wisconsin, Yahweh
Back in my first exposure to state university life in Wisconsin, I frequently received eager guidance from students on religion in the media. After having taught in a seminary where interest in the world beyond ecclesiastical walls was rare, this exposure to wider interpretation was welcome. One of the movies suggested to me by helpful undergraduates was the then fairly contemporary Stigmata. My interest in horror films was burgeoning again after my nightmarish experience at Nashotah House, so I watched the movie with renewed appreciation for the abuses presented on the part of the established church. I rewatched Stigmata this past weekend and a number of features stood out as apposite for this blog.
As always in movies, liberties are taken with reality. Stigmata presents the Gospel of Thomas as a serious threat to Catholicism. Of course, even the Gospel of Judas made a public splash back in my Oshkosh days, but the great Titanic of the church remained steadily afloat. The contents of the Bible are secure and non-negotiable for the vast majority of Christianity. There is no more room within its black leather binding for further revelations. The movie also presents a woman – an atheist, no less – as being the vehicle for a truth she can’t understand. In the masculine citadel of the Catholic Church she must be silenced, in an overly dramatic way, of course. The message seems to be that religion is unwilling to learn from secular women, even if they bear the truth.
The critics were not kind to the movie, but I found it a strangely religious film. The premise behind it advocates the reality of Christianity, only the Jesus of history is occluded behind a great mask of human tradition. Enamored of power, the church decides what will be revealed to the masses since control is more important than truth. A woman cannot correct the false belief of men, since a masculine god has given manly instructions to a male institution. Underneath it all, however, is a virgin Mary weeping real human blood as half of humanity is simply disregarded by the half that retains its abusive strength. Perhaps the commentary was a little too close to home, even for the (mostly male) critics.
Posted in Bible, Feminism, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Feminism, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Thomas, Nashotah House, Roman Catholicism, Stigmata, Wisconsin
Neil Gaiman is popular among my students. At least among those that still read for fun. A couple of years back one of them lent me a copy of American Gods, and the story stayed with me. Having lived for many years in Wisconsin, and having visited the House on the Rock, the novel was like a kaleidoscope of some of my more pleasant memories of the state. Neverwhere is quite different and yet equally compelling. Gaiman peoples his worlds with characters just on the edge of believability thrown in with protagonists who tend to be completely confused by what they’re experiencing. Instead of gods, in Neverwhere there is an angel with the unlikely name of Islington and we have the myth of Lucifer’s fall retold in fantasy format, rolled together with Alice in Wonderland and the myth of Theseus. For starters.
A person is a composite of what s/he reads and learns and accepts. The books we digest, each in a unique recipe fitting our individual tastes, create new compounds and concepts that explore our personal realities. Neverwhere takes the reader down a rat-hole instead of a rabbit-hole, but nevertheless follows a young girl on a journey of maturity. The hero’s quest is undertaken to actualize both protagonist and idol, and along the way the beast in the labyrinth must be encountered and slain. Theseus, the flawed hero, dominates a world where even saviors have peccadilloes.
The protagonist of Neverwhere does not believe in angels, despite his encounter with one. As Gaiman puts it: “it was much easier not to believe in something when it was not actually looking directly at you and saying your name.” Belief generally involves not seeing. Once the object of belief is empirically confirmed, belief becomes knowledge. Today the belief in angels remains unabated. No empirical proof, nothing tangible confirms this belief beyond the anecdotal accounts of those who claim to have experienced them. Even the fanciful image of their androgynous good looks and unlikely wings remain untainted for all the centuries. Neverwhere raises an intelligent question about angels, but to discover what it is you’ll need to go down the rat-hole as well.
Posted in Books, Classical Mythology, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Alice in Wonderland, angels, House on the Rock, Lucifer, Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, Theseus, Wisconsin
Confession time: I have little patience for scholars who have already made up their minds before examining the evidence. Anyone who has put themselves through the ordeal of reading my academic publications will know that I do not advocate sloppy research or slipshod thinking. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about our world, we must follow the evidence. It is for this reason that I sometimes read unconventional material. I am well aware that untrained amateurs sometimes misinterpret what they see (so do trained professionals), but when evidence exists, why deny it? I just finished reading Archie Eschborn’s The Dragon in the Lake. Chalk this up to my having lived for many years in southern Wisconsin, and maybe a touch of nostalgia. I first learned of Eschborn’s book while teaching for a year in the Anthropology and Religion Department at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. The chair of the Anthropology Department had me in his office one day and showed me this book by a “crackpot” amateur underwater explorer who really believed the claims that Rock Lake – between Madison and Milwaukee – actually housed underwater Native American structures.
I visited Rock Lake during my years in Wisconsin, along with the nearby prehistoric site of Aztalan State Park. There is no doubt that Aztalan was a major settlement of Native American mound builders. The structures there, while not quite rivaling Cahokia in southern Illinois, are quite impressive. Aztalan is three miles east of Rock Lake. Rumors of “pyramids” in Rock Lake have circulated for many, many years. The lake, however, is clouded with marine growth and sediment, and although there are undoubtedly underwater features the official line is that they are glacial artifacts rather than human constructions. Eschborn’s book is an attempt to demonstrate the artificial nature of these features. At his own expense and effort, the author built up a small research society, purchased a boat, and spent several early springs and late falls (when the water is clearest) sending divers and sonar scanners into the water to document what is there. While the book was self-published (and could have used some professional editorial attention) it nevertheless lays out solid evidence that Rock Lake does house a mystery worthy of exploration.
While I can’t accept all of Eschborn’s conclusions, I would insist that his evidence demands the attention of those who deny it is even worth investigation. This is less a struggle of evidence versus absence of evidence than it is a struggle against academic arrogance: professionals know better and need not be bothered with evidence. I have personally witnessed this in my own field many, many times. It is what Eschborn calls “ipsi dicit” [sic]; ipse dixit, “he himself said it,” is the assumption that a well-respected authority may be accepted as uttering the truth in principle, based on reputation. Many professionals in this country make their living based on this faulty premise. Eschborn died prematurely shortly after his book was published, before he could launch the next phase of his investigations. While his interpretation of the data may reach too far, the world suffers for the loss of a truly open mind, and the establishment ruling, as usual, still stands.
Posted in Archaeology, Books, Higher Education, Posts
Tagged Archie Eschborn, Aztalan, Cahokia, Dragon in the Lake, Native American religion, Rock Lake, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Wisconsin