Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Washington Irving

WashingtonIrvingLess known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.

This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.

Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim is a movie that once again brings monsters and religion together in the cinema. Since I’m generally late seeing movies, I won’t worry too much about spoilers here, but in case you’re even later than me here’s the gist of it: giant monsters from outer space (properly an interplanetary portal) are emerging from the Pacific Ocean to take over the earth. These radioactive, dinosaur-like aliens are called Kaiju. Although they can be taken down with conventional weapons, the most effective fighting tool is the Jaeger, a colossal robot piloted by two humans acting as the two hemispheres of the brain. These humans must “drift”—share their brains—in order to control these massive machines in unison. Lots of action and destruction, of course, ensue. We later find out that dinosaurs were an earlier invasion of these same aliens, but that our environmental degradation has made the atmosphere much better for them, and this time they’re back for good.

The resistance is led by a mysterious marshal named Stacker Pentecost. Pentecost, of course, is the festival celebrating either the giving of the Torah (Jewish) or the giving of the Holy Spirit (Christian). In either case, it is a holiday celebrating God’s plan for humanity. As Pentecost leads his beleaguered and shrinking army of jaegers against the Kaiju, scientists Geiszler and Gottlieb disagree about how to conquer the beasts. Gottlieb swears, “Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God,” while advocating the predictive elements based on the statistics of the attacks. Science and religion have come to an uneasy truce here. As Geiszler seeks a Kaiju brain to drift, he observes some of the masses in Tokyo praying to the fallen beasts. A blackmarket dealer in Kaiju remains explains that they believe the Kaiju have been sent by God. Pentecost unwittingly concurs when he declares it is time to end the apocalypse.

Pacific Rim, like most Guillermo del Toro films, is a complex movie. There is also more than a sprinkling of H. P. Lovecraft here. The worship of the Kaiju keyed me in to the fact that these were the old gods, come to earth, under the sea, from space. As the first category 5 Kaiju swims past the camera, I couldn’t help but think of Cthulhu. Although Kaiju is Japanese for “monster,” it even sounds like his sacred name. We fear that which is larger, stronger, and unknown to us. When that fear becomes reverence we are on the brink of worship, and our monsters have become our deities.

Paper Oxford

PaperTownsIt looks like a brilliant blue morning here in Oxford, yet my body is telling me that it’s the middle of the night. And that’s saying something, since I normally get up around 3:30 anyway. Routine is kind of a religious thing. In fact, it seems to be the root of ritualistic behavior. The passing of time is a matter that affects us all in some way. Jet lag is one of those ways. I’ve got an important meeting to attend in an hour—that’s why I’ve come all this way—and yet my mind will be telling me I should be elsewhere. Perhaps back over the north Atlantic, looking down at icebergs from the air, wondering if climate change is really that far advanced. Are there any polar caps left at all? Didn’t the Titanic hit an iceberg at this time of year, and wasn’t it a great surprise? At least on a ship you don’t get jet lag. There’s nothing like travel to shake you out of the ordinary.

I suppose that’s part of the draw to John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read on the flight over. Although it’s young adult literature, Green has a way of capturing what it was like to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood, and the need to become who we are meant to be. It is a story of leaving home, and of living on the edge. Once a friend said to me that he couldn’t understand someone wanting to leave the place they grew up. I, on the other hand, was only too eager to leave a verbally abusive situation in an industrial town that was slowly dying with no prospects for the young. Needless to say, Paper Towns resonated with me. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in a single sitting. Although I’ve been an adult for decades, I can still remember the feeling of being young, of falling in love, and wondering what this was all about. High above the north Atlantic, I was sure I still hadn’t figured it out.

There’s nothing religious about Paper Towns. The characters in it assume God to exist, as most Americans do. We make a lot of assumptions. My body is assuming it’s only two in the morning. My clock is telling me that it’s seven. Time is relative, but only one of those placeholders will determine if I am late to work in this place I find myself waking up. I remember being young, and although Oxford has its usual charm, I also know what it feels like to have to leave. The clock tells me that I have to go. The novel in my head tells me the same thing. I’m not sure what time it is. For the moment my paper town is Oxford, and it seems very real indeed.

Accept Cookies

You have probably noticed it. As expected as the warmer days of spring are also the Girl Scout cookies. A symbol of wholesome fundraising, Girl Scout cookies have some dedicated buyers, and many imitators. Like any human organization, the Girl Scouts have their troubles, but I can’t help but compare them with the Boy Scouts in which I grew up. Well, at least for a few years. We’ve watched as the media have declared on the excluding of various demographics from the Boy Scouts. To rise to the top you must not deviate from the mythic model of the perfect man. Meanwhile, as an article in Tablet notes, Girl Scouts have been tolerant of difference from the beginning. In a day when being Jewish was still suspect in the wider community, Girl Scouts were founded with early troop leaders who were Jewish, and this was in the days before the First World War and the ensuing tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second. From those early days, Girl Scouts have continued to have a policy of acceptance of those who differ in religious outlook. It erects no barrier.

The success of social progress depends on how we train our young. Prejudice has to be learned. Children are accepting of those with differences until they learn not to be. Radical groups have to recruit constantly. Fear of strangers is natural, but when it becomes a paradigm it is a pathology. One of my professors once claimed that early Christianity thrived because it was exclusive. Only true members could join, like a country club, making it desirable among hoi polloi. Further research has demonstrated the falsity of this view. There were many varieties of Christianities in antiquity. Only by declaring itself uniquely correct, and convincing Constantine of the same, did one sect become dominant. And dominance was what it was about.

Society is all about getting along. We have come together around money to build the tallest structures on the planet. The tallest buildings used to be in the United States. Then China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. A tower serves no purpose without a collective to take pride in it. Religions, unfortunately, often measure themselves by those who stand outside. Taking the view that it only feels good to be right if others are wrong, it is easy for such thinking to slip into a prejudice that promotes and rewards exclusivity. One percent, anyone? Many aspire to such menial goals as getting more money. For me, a life that has a box of Girl Scout cookies available is enough. And I’ll take a tall glass of tolerance with that, and hope that others will feel free to share.

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Pop Goes the Bible

BiblePopularCultureIn keeping with a theme, I followed up The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film with The Bible in/and Popular Culture, edited by Philip Culbertson and Elaine M. Wainwright. It is pretty clear that my professional interests have shifted towards reception history. That is to say, how the Bible has been interpreted over time. Not so long ago—perhaps even when I was a student—Bible interpretation was the purview of experts. Serious biblical scholars tended to look askance at the hermeneutical efforts of mere clergy, just like clergy tended to treat lightly the opinions of the mere laity. The respect of opinion was expected to flow from bottom to top. I have to admit a kind of heady satisfaction with learning to read languages unheard for thousands of years. Who wouldn’t be impressed to find you standing before Hammurabi’s stele, reading away? Like most aspiring biblical experts, I took languages very seriously. As I was teaching, however, it was clear that all my learning failed to sway those who came in with opinions firmly fixed.

One of the takeaways from a study like The Bible in/and Popular Culture is that the Bible changes with those who read it. Who is to say the opinion of the tweedy, bespectacled professor is any more valid than a country-and-western singer, or a novelist, or a screenwriter? Certainly all of them reach much larger audience than just about any biblical scholar. Their ideas about what the Bible says become, in a very real way, the truth. The essays in this slim volume are diverse, showing the wide range of biblical interpretation taking place in a strangely religious secular culture.

What emerges is a somewhat uncomfortable truth—especially for the biblical scholars who’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years to receive a parchment declaring them experts. The truth is, anyone can be an expert. The Bible is out there for the reading. Churches have historically gotten around this by adding tradition next to Scripture as a counterbalance. The culture, however, has decided that the Bible alone bears the weight of verisimilitude. Not all share the same tradition. The Bible, an iconic book, is instantly recognized as authoritative by Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. Even Muslims recognize its status as a holy book. Books, however, change with the reading. Popular culture reflects what the people are willing to believe. What they believe is the Bible. What they mean by that, however, is open to anyone’s interpretation.

New Faiths

Scientology is never far from controversy. In the light of the new HBO documentary on Scientology by Alex Gibney (with New Jersey roots) the Star-Ledger ran a Sunday piece about the Jersey origins of the religion. L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics while living in the state. The article, by Vicki Hyman, points out that the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, grew up in the Garden State. John Travolta and Tom Cruise are also New Jersey sons. Living in a religiously diverse state has tempered my perspective on New Religious Movements somewhat. That applies to Scientology as well.

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Many critics claim that Scientology began as a scam. There are those who claim that it still is. It seems clear, however, that there are many people who believe in it with all sincerity. No religion is free from episodes of abuse or poor judgment. Thus it is with human institutions. No universally accepted definition of religion exists, making categorizations difficult. What members of Scientology do, in as far as this is known, sounds very much like what other religions ask of their members. Oddness of belief is hardly unique to any religion. All ask for contributions from their members. Religions offer a community for those who belong, and many are strongly hierarchical. Even should a founder have had less than pure motives, that doesn’t translate to any less verisimilitude on the part of the faithful. Some viable religions have been based on known fictions.

Ironically, a common response to religions is anger on the part of unbelievers. (If we are believers of one religion we are, by default, unbelievers of others.) A friend of mine recently mentioned Heaven’s Gate on his blog. Although the outcome was tragic, can we say that those who followed Marshall Applewhite appear to have been true believers. Fear of Scientology may largely be based on the horrific outcomes of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the People’s Temple in Jonestown. Religions can lead to people doing strange things. And those of us who live in New Jersey know that is indeed saying something.

Out There…

Spring is a time of hope. As crocuses poke their heads through the slowly yielding soil, we’re reminded that the long months of darkness are only temporary after all. It was only appropriate, then, that my wife should point out to me the returning of the X-Files. Only a limited season of six episodes, but after hearing rumors for years that the third movie was in the works, we’ll gladly take six episodes to remind us that the truth is out there. I’ve not always been a fan or the X-Files, but there are reasons for that which have to do with living in the middle of the woods in Wisconsin in a seminary where the paranormal was, at times, just a little bit too readily at hand. And also because the very topics addressed are those of taboo. The anomalous is fodder for ridicule. Nobody could be so naive. Meanwhile the show was winning awards and creating enduring cultural memes.

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As I’ve suggested many times on this blog, the paranormal and religion are closely related categories. While not many X-Files episodes directly dealt with religion, the second movie made the connections explicit, blending Bible and spooky effects at a distance with abandon. The X-Files and religion share a fascination with wonder. It is all right not to know. Sometimes wanting to believe is enough. We can find information on nearly any topic instantaneously by pulling out our phones and tapping into the local wifi network. We access any bit of random information with ease. And we wonder at our lack of wonder. Where has it gone?

Thirteen years ago the haunting music died. We’ve been left with a reality that feels dull and devoid of possibility. We need some sign of hope. Ironically, it is Fox that offered a world of possibilities far beyond a Republican purview. This was a realm where humanity was no longer in control. Forces outside of and more powerful than us swept into our mundane setting to remind us that even government control is only an illusion. Human pride requires timely mementos that we are simply the dinosaurs of our age. The incomprehensible overshadows us as we spin away our time on a planet nowhere near the center of our galaxy, let alone our universe. And yet we tell ourselves we are capable of discovering the laws that lie behind it all without stepping foot on even the nearest of other planets. Welcome back, X-Files. Remind us where the truth may be found.