Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Once Bitten

TheologyOfDraculaOnce vampires sink their fangs into you, it’s hard to shake them. I’m referring to an intellectual connection here, instead of a physical one. M. Jess Peacock’s book on theological vampires spurred me to read Noël Montague-Étienne Rarignac’s The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as Sacred Text. It has been on my “to read” list for some time, and since I finished re-reading Dracula recently, I felt the canonical text was still fresh enough in my mind to take on an analysis. I have to confess that even though I grew up as a religious kid, and I loved monsters, I had no idea that the two were connected. Strangely, religion tended to elicit a fearful response while monsters gave me a kind of comfort. Of course, I always supposed that was normal. Then I learned that mature adults didn’t talk about, or even think about, monsters. I had to try to find solace in religion instead. Rarignac clearly figured out, however, that Dracula was a sacred text long before I came along.

What exactly does it mean to treat a book as a sacred text? Before anyone gets any funny notions, I need to say that Rarignac is not suggesting vampirism is, or should be a religion. That hasn’t prevented other people from seeing it that way, but that’s not what this book is about. It is about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Devoting the kind of attention to detail that is often reserved for biblical texts, The Theology of Dracula examines the many religious traditions (not all of them Christian) that lie behind the novel. Stoker drew on many “pagan” traditions, including those of ancient Egypt and of Nordic mythology. Clearly Dracula responds to Christian symbols pretty violently, but he isn’t a classic Catholic. In fact, he seems to shy from Catholicism while admitting that its symbols work.

Rarignac, however, suggests more than this. He suggests that Dracula was written intended to be a sacred text. Not a Bible—we already have one of those, thank you—but a text that has its own mythology and symbols. Dracula‘s characters are not always what they seem. Careful scrutiny reveals that they often have celestial connections that tie them to ancient mythologies long forgotten by most modern people. We read the book expecting it to be about a vampire. Well, clearly it is. But not only a vampire. There is a much larger story at work in Dracula, and Rarignac has done an admirable job tracing its Vorlage (if I may step into jargon for a moment) and its wider context in the world of literary creations that specialize in our nightmares. There is much at which to marvel in this little book. I’m not convinced that Stoker intended his book to be read this way, but it is nonetheless a richer experience for it. Rarignac gives a simple monster tale real teeth.

Theological Fiends

SuchADarkThingVampires are among the most theological of monsters. Not that I’m a theologian, but I sometimes read those who are. Although zombies and vampires rival one another for the ascendent monster of the moment, I’ve always had a soft spot for the vampire, conceptually. The actual idea of drinking blood has always distressed my vegetarian sensibilities, but there is a deep intrigue about the character who constantly takes and never gives. And sees in the dark. And is practically immortal, unless violently killed. All of these aspects, and more, have theological undertones. M. Jess Peacock’s Such A Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture deals with such ideas and more. A self-admitted fan of all things vampiric, Peacock finds unexpected angles to the undead metaphor that make for connections between Christianity and the cultural vampire. He explores Otto’s understanding of the holy and how vampires fit aspects of it, the importance of blood, theodicy, and sin, as well as religious iconography and why crosses work against vampires (when they do). Most fascinating, however, is how vampires effect social change.

Since I often write about monsters, and specifically vampires, on this blog, it should be no surprise that I should read such a book. The question of why vampires have such staying power in our society is one that many have pondered. Peacock, by tying the vampire into deep theological needs (and we’ve been taught for many decades that theological needs are unrealistic fantasies themselves) has perhaps found a reason why. Just because we deny a need doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Think of all those Medieval monks denying sexuality. Biology, no matter how transcendent our focus, has a way of reminding us that we have needs. Vampires are, if anything, very forthright about their requirements. You have blood, they need blood. They will take it any way they can. And this leads to its own kind of ethic where, in some movies and stories, we, the victims, end up rooting for the vampire.

The social justice aspect of Peacock’s study is the one I found most compelling. We live in an era in which financial vampires openly and selfishly drain the blood of any victims they may find. What they do is done in daylight and no crucifix is large enough, no stake is strong enough, to stop them. We sit in our theater seats and watch as the economy rises and falls with the wealthy and their willingness to invest (or not) in the very economy that made them rich. Elections are won now by money supplied by corporations. Yes, the presidency can be, and is, purchased. Most politicians don’t know the price of a loaf of bread. Christianity, in any case, understands bread and blood to be analogues. The two are complementary, and represent the totality of human need. The vampire, as Peacock notes, can symbolize the difficulties of social justice. They may have their fangs deeply embedded in our necks, but at some level we have come to love our vampires. Even when they give us nothing in return.

Live Long and Prosper

He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.

I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.

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As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.

Lazarus, Come Forth

The red-cast face staring down from the giant LCD billboard this side of the Lincoln Tunnel has my attention. Having become an unwitting fan of horror movies, the genre was clear from the creepy, black-eyed gaze that found me even in mass transit. The Lazarus Effect, it said. I stored the information away knowing that it would be a movie I’d have to rent and watch alone—I don’t know many other true fans, and I don’t like going to a theater by myself. Then I started thinking about Lazarus. The man raised from the dead, according to the Gospels. When I was a child I always confused this Lazarus with the one from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’d never known anybody with that name, and to find it twice in the same book must imply, at some level, that they were the same guy, right? I mean, they’re both dead. So my juvenile thinking went. In the parable Lazarus, whose wounds are licked by dogs, is taken into the comfort of heaven when he dies. The rich man, it turns out, isn’t so lucky.

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This was a bitter cold day. Dressed like I was headed to McMurdo Station rather than central Midtown, I tried to keep my head down as the wind howled through the channels constructed by excess wealth. I am always distressed to see the homeless out and about on such days. I’ve got on more layers than an onion on steroids, and I’m still chilled through. What must it be like to face such weather threadbare? There, on Madison Avenue I saw a dog being taken for a walk. He had on a warm sweater and fancy purple slippers to keep his canine feet from touching the cold ground. That dog was better dressed against the cold than some of the people I’d passed. I thought of the dog licking the sores of Lazarus. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” the rich man cried.

“Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The words are almost as harsh as this wind. We’ve become a society that will spend more readily on our pets than on our compatriots. Dogs, at least the breed I saw on the street, have evolved to grow thick coats. I’ve seen pictures of huskies running across the snow like their wolfen ancestors. Indeed, the wolves, where we’ve not hunted them to extinction, still manage in the winter. But then, there’s the Lazarus Effect. I’m feeling guilty thinking about putting out the money to rent it, several months down the road. There’s a real life Lazarus who could use any spare change right now. And the well-heeled dogs, I’m sure, would be made to turn up their noses from even getting near enough to lick his wounds.

Biblical Script

The popular perception of the Bible generally does not match the actual contents very well. Like most books, the Bible has its highlights: Creation, Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jesus, the Apocalypse. Between all the fascinating narrative, however, come the instructions. More instructions, in point of fact, than most people would care for. Nevertheless, over the centuries the Bible has acquired an aura in western civilization. It has become what some colleagues call an “iconic book.” It is this aspect of the Bible that stands out most clearly in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. I wrote a post about Sleepy Hollow as I began to watch the first season on DVD. The headless horseman is an agent of the Apocalypse, and clergy and witches play a prominent role in the story. I wondered if the role of the Bible would diminish once the audience was drawn into the conceit of the four horsemen thundering out of Revelation into Sleepy Hollow. Just the opposite, in fact, occurred.

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As the series unfolds, the Bible is drawn more and more into the story. Demons and detectives both want to get their hands on it. Not to read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but because the Bible contains esoteric information. Those “in the know” can unlock its secrets and thereby save society. Ironically, this is a subtextual version of the biblical metanarrative. It is all about (from the Christian perspective) salvation. The means, however, are quite different. Jesus is not really part of the Sleepy Hollow story. The Bible belongs to George Washington, cryptically bringing politics into the story. The text is not secure; there are extra verses in Washington’s Bible, just as there are many excised bits in Thomas Jefferson’s. Washington leaves instructions for saving his fledgling nation from the evils that roamed its shores during the Revolution. Or is that Revelation?

Right up to the cliff-hanger ending of season one, the Bible comes back time and again, focusing the viewer on its magical qualities. It is a book of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile in the real world, biblical studies positions are being slashed from universities as if the horseman’s axe were anything but fictional. We don’t want to know about the real Bible. Politicians, real ones, use it as their own sword to force their personal faith agendas onto the electorate, but we generally do not even understand what the Bible really is. We’ll fund economics, that dismal science, and business, and maybe even actual science. The humanities, however, the stuff that makes us human, we will gladly call luxuries and deny them fiscal security. So the Bible grows in stature even as it diminishes in stature. Those who don’t know the factual Bible can easily be swayed by the fictional one. Are those hoofbeats I hear in the distance?

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

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So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.