Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Faith for Sale

Materialism can be defined in a number of different ways. One of the more common is that people desire material things. We want stuff. Now, we all need things to survive. My sympathies are always with the poor for whom each decision can be a potential tragedy. Spend too much on something and you may not have enough left to purchase something you need. As people, though, we all long for nice things. So it is that places like dollar stores exist. The dollar store is not the same as the “five and dimes” with which I grew up. The latter stocked things that were, in large measure, practical. Things you might need: pencils, string, soap. A dollar store, however, may lead you down a different path. A lot can be had for a dollar. Some of it may seem to promise more than it can deliver.

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My wife sent me a photo of a dollar store where the window was lined with what appears to be religious statuary. I’d be lying if I weren’t to admit that my first impulse was to go and purchase some cheap salvation. I’m sure the statues aren’t made of stone. I’m not even Catholic, so I’m not sure a one-dollar Mary would help with much of anything. Still, it is something to buy. Something material. Something that seems to make promises beyond itself. Here is the danger of the dollar store. It’s only a dollar!

Every now and again I play with this thought-experiment: if I knew that I would only survive one more year, what would I buy? Many things seem superfluous in the face of eternity. Would material comforts, or larks, do anything more than depreciate the little I would leave to others? That game tends to show materialism in a rather crass light. What do I really need to buy? We all have our weaknesses, for sure, but it can’t hurt once in a while to think that the material is just that: material. And we might have a very different set of values if we didn’t measure worth in terms of material gain. Faux-stone Mary would likely back me up on that.

Grim Where?

An inordinate amount of my childhood time was spent on television. While the device of the day had been around for a decade already, I was among those who grew up learning that watching was easier than reading. Like most children, I took the path of least resistance. I watched. As a teen, however, I rediscovered reading and from that time television began to take a back seat to books. When the great switch-over to digital occurred we didn’t get a conversion box, and we could never really afford cable for as little TV as we watch. When a program gets commended, or if nostalgia takes too great a toll, we can always purchase programs—the price of watching television without the commercials. So it was that I began watching Sleepy Hollow. Very quickly in the first season the monster of the week trope was established as the plot grew more and more tangled. The Bible was so prominent in that season that I wrote an academic paper on it.

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Over the past few months my wife and I have been working through season two. The DVD version was delayed and we only watch on weekends. Recently we finished the eighteen episodes of the second installment. Clearly the budget had improved over the first season, but the Bible, it was also clear, had diminished. Throughout the first season the driving motif of the story was that biblical “prophecy” (from the book of Revelation) was unfolding in Sleepy Hollow. This is what one scholar has termed a “local apocalypse.” Throughout season two, however, the end of days is shut down. Molech, its architect, is killed. The headless horseman is less Death than a jilted lover. The second horseman, War, loses his armor and dies.

Magic, however, along with special effects, take on an increased roles. Instead of turning to the Bible to solve problems, the most helpful book to have on hand is a grimoire. Sleepy Hollow, which is anything but what its name suggests, is full of monsters. Powerful magic is required to contain them, and, it seems, the Bible is no longer needed as a tool to take down evil. Perhaps there is a parable at work here. I was drawn into the series by its biblical literacy, as well as its literacy in general. More action has been introduced, and fewer books. It’s a pattern I’ve seen before. I suspect I’ll watch season three presently. When I do I’ll be casting a wistful eye on the stack of books I have yet to read, and I’ll be wondering if reading may not have become easier than watching.

What You Pay For

VampireHunterWhen a friend pointed out the easily missed 2001 film, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, (well before Seth Grahame-Smith came up with the same role for Abraham Lincoln) I knew I was duty-bound to see it. As regular readers know, although I’m not a fan of gore or violence, I have a soft spot for vampire movies. Vampires, although often evil, are frequently presented as conflicted characters. As former humans they have some level of sympathy for their victims, while at the same time, all people are objectified for the vampire. We are food. This low-budget, independent film didn’t promise to deliver on many levels, but as the end credits show, they did shoot enough film to be able to cut out a few bloopers. The story, in as far as there is one, has Jesus fighting lesbian vampires in modern-day Ottawa (where the film was shot).

Not that the film was serious enough to invite critical dialogue, I did wonder what Jesus had to do with the whole thing apart from the shock value. There were a few cute moments, as when the “atheists” pile, clown-like, out of a car for an extended fight scene, but the lead could have been any character apart from one scene where a miracle does occur. Jesus fights with his fists, not with supernatural power. Tossing in Mary Magnum and “professional wrestler” El Santo, the movie came close to the screwball level of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s difficult to critique a film where logic isn’t held accountable for the plot—the only thing to keep the film going is the action of a particular scene. And that, as I’ve intimated, can’t be counted on.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is treated throughout the film in a positive way. Although he doesn’t use supernatural powers, he is the “good guy” and is even tolerant of alternative lifestyles as long as love is the basis of relationships. The movie is biblically literate, using the Good Samaritan in a scene that underscores the accepting nature of the new millennium Jesus. The vampires don’t add much to the lore of the monster. They can be out in daylight because it is cheaper to shoot film that way, but the plot does come up with an explanation for it. Vampirism, at the end, can be healed by prayer, and when Mary Magnum, El Santo, and Jesus go their separate ways at the end, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Death by Molasses

Ninety-seven years ago today, 21 people were killed by molasses. Even having lived in Boston, I had never heard of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Credit for my awareness has to go to my wife, who read me the story from the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. I had no idea that molasses had been weaponized. The sweet sap, apart from making cookies, can be fermented into ethanol, used for munitions manufacture. In the North End of Boston a hastily constructed tank holding about 2 million gallons of molasses burst on this date in 1919, creating a sticky, 25-foot-high wall that raced through the North End at 35 m.p.h., killing those unfortunate enough to have been in the way. According to the Companion, 150 others were injured.

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We’ve all heard about the slowness of sap in January. Apparently the temperature had risen to above freezing this particular day, after several days of seasonal chill. The tank containing the heavy fluid burst under the strain. I have to admit that visions of walls of water have always frightened me. The images of the Boxing Day Tsunami back in 2004 were horrifying. I’d read of pilgrims to Petra (if you’re not familiar with Jordan, think of the crevasse through which Indiana Jones and company ride at the end of Last Crusade—that’s Petra) being drowned by sudden meltwater from distant mountains suddenly filling the canyon without warning, and shuttered. Having walked Hezekiah’s Tunnel without a flashlight, such images can be all too real at times. Would the offending wall made of molasses have made it any better or worse?

The tragedy is that the event is so little remembered today. I’m sure long-time residents of Boston still tell the tale of death by confection, but why don’t we hear of such things in the natural course of things? I suppose there are too many disasters to follow them all. Millions had just died in the nightmare of the First World War. The strange fate of those individuals killed by molasses might easily be overlooked, despite the fact that the goo had more victims than the Boston Massacre and the Boston Strangler combined. Maybe it’s just that things seem to move a little more slowly in January, but I feel as though I’d missed a part of history about which I might have been informed if I had more of a sweet-tooth.

Local Lore

SomersetOne of the true joys of having more than a day off work at a time is the privilege to spend days reading. Although I read on the bus as a matter of course, it is a defined time, and editing isn’t as much reading as most people think it is. While doing research for my Sleepy Hollow paper, the question naturally arose: where did Washington Irving get the idea for the headless horseman? According to Irving’s biographers, the story was not an uncommon one. Headless ghosts are not unique, and he wrote the story while living in Europe as part of the serialized Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. There is no practical way to know where he first heard the story. During my research I heard of a local source: Legends and Lore of Somerset County (New Jersey), by Michael Haynes. In this little compendium of stories of my current county, there is a claim that Irving learned about the story right here in New Jersey, where a traditional headless ghost rides. Again, it is impossible to say where he got the idea, but people like to feel that their local traditions are important enough to engage a major writer’s imagination.

Haynes presents several other regional tales that may rival the Jersey Devil and give ghosts a location just down the road. I suspect most places have tales of ghosts and mysterious beasts. It is always interesting to find out about those lurking in your own neighborhood. Scholars are now beginning to turn their attention to the sanctity of space. Location is very important to mobile beings like ourselves. The place where we find ourselves becomes “our place” and with the patina of time, often a personally sacred space. Tales of what happened here often take on the cast of the supernatural.

Local history has always held a deep fascination for me. Any region that I know, in a sense, intimately, is a region that has become part of my personal history. My region of Pennsylvania, for example, defines me although neither of my parents, or their parents were born in that state. And Massachusetts, Michigan, Scotland, Illinois, Wisconsin, or New Jersey, places I’ve lived, have become somehow alive with history. Legends and Lore of Somerset County contains tales that are not always believable in the workaday world we inhabit, but that’s the beauty of sacred space. Going beyond the mundane is entirely the point. Although Washington Irving may or may not have first heard of the headless horseman here, we have that legend, and there’s only so much that history can do to remove such a claim.

Top Predator

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The reboot of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has been on my mind. Back in the early days of this century I hadn’t bothered to see either Jurassic Park II or III. The original, despite its faults, was like a childhood dream come true. I’ve always felt that dinosaurs (along with vampires and pirates) made for the best movies, although space has to be right up there in the top since 2001 (not the year, the movie). Since the summer I’ve made a point to carve out time to finish out the holy trilogy of dinosaur flicks. I liked the character Dr. Malcolm in the original, but he should’ve never been the main character of the sequel. The Lost World almost lost my resolve to see the series through. The story was unvarying: humans meet dinosaurs, dinosaurs chase humans. New and innovative means of trying to contain or exploit them try to demonstrate the evils of hubris and greed, but dinosaurs always prevail. Jurassic Park III was a bit better, going back to the original formula but adding something bigger than Tyrannosaurus Rex—the Spinosaurus. It was unbelievable, however, that a paleontology doctoral student couldn’t recognize it, thinking it a mere Suchomimus. At the turn of the century, new dinosaur finds had suggested that Spinosaurus was larger than T-Rex, and the movie reflected the new top predator of the time.

It is the little boy in me that keeps me coming back for dinosaurs. Some of my favorite toys were cheap, molded plastic dinos, and when my daughter was young we bought her all the more realistic (and pricey) Safari versions. When I get to the store, I still stop and look at the species we never acquired and make a wish. I think it’s because dinosaurs represent something we can never have. Species that grew to enormous size and had armor-like skin, and even, if some paleontologists are to be believed, considerable intelligence. Of course, that may just be the movie talking. In a world where all things are equal, we’d never stand a chance against dinosaurs. They are like reptilian deities.

When Amanda Kirby (ironically, the only adult to be addressed by first name in the movie by new acquaintances; the males are called by their titles even after they’ve been through several dinosaur attacks together) sees the incubators at the compound, she says, “So this is how you make dinosaurs.” Dr. Grant (let’s give him his title) responds, “No, this is how you play God.” Playing God is a trope as old as science itself. Planting crops to grow where you want them to grow is playing God in its own way. Creating uncontrollable forces that can destroy you seems to be a uniquely human trait. And so my imagination is drawn back to dinosaur days. Those who make the movies tug on wishes that any mere creature would have: to create its own gods and somehow manage to survive them. Hubris, it seems, is just as human as dreaming of dinosaurs.

Feasting

In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)

Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.

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A Christmas Tree primer

It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.