Category Archives: Just for Fun

Posts that are not intended to be taken too seriously

Seeing the Trees

Into_the_Woods_film_posterI first learned of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods while liking in the woods of Wisconsin. I was teaching a summer term course of mature students, one of whom used one of the songs to illustrate the point he was making during a presentation. Of course I don’t remember what the point was, but I did remember the movie. Then along came Shrek and fractured fairy tales were back in business. Enchanted brought Disney into the act, and a number of self-aware takeoffs from the brothers Grimm have followed. I’d seen the film of the stage show of Into the Woods before, but it had been a while. Over the weekend we decided to watch the new Disney offering of the story and as we did a couple of familiar, if obscure, ancient mythological motifs came to mind.

Cinderella, as we all know, was sorely abused by her evil step-mother and step-sisters. She seeks solace at her mother’s grave, in the woods, of course, in the movie version. While there, singing somewhere between a lament and a prayer, her mother appears to her in the tree that grew from a branch she’d planted there many years before. It’s a musical number, of course, but my mind couldn’t help going back to Asherah. Asherah is considered by many (without good reason, and I should know) to be the goddess of the trees. Yes, this was a mortal, a dead mortal at that, who spoke from the tree but the way she was presented in the movie was distinctly divine. Indeed, there is similar iconography from ancient Egypt. It was almost enough to make me go back on my own evidence that Asherah wasn’t a tree goddess.

The giant’s wife poses a real threat in this film. Jack’s beanstalk and the effects resembled those of Jack the Giant Slayer, a movie that I only vaguely remember as being one of many I watched with bleary eyes on a transatlantic flight a few years back. Nevertheless, Mrs. Giant is here stomping about the village when Jack and the baker decide to take her out at the tar pit, with the help of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. The preferred weapon is a sling. As the giantess is pelted with stones, she grows annoyed until Jack, in the perfect image of David, strikes the giant between the eyes, slaying her. We all know the fairy tale version ends with the beanstalk chopped down. We’ve entered a new world, however. A world where Bible and fairy tale are harder to distinguish. And not only that, but even fairy tales no longer have the canonical status they once held.

Drumheller Drama

Those who’ve participated in the great drive out west—if you’ve done it you know what I mean—have passed through the range of dinosaurs. Actually, dinosaurs can be found here in the east; New Jersey once had a reputation of the home of the hadrosaurus, before an even larger beast took over the state. In my native Pennsylvania the occasional dinosaur footprint would be found. But to really see the dinosaurs, the west is best. In Makoshika State Park you can find triceratops skulls right out on the ground. You can find plenty of Christians as well. Ironically, we’ve advertised to the world that Christians and dinosaurs don’t mix, but, in fact, they can get along just fine. In a BBC story my wife sent me, one of Canada’s great western dinosaur reserves, Drumheller, Alberta, has a potential clash between sauropods and savior. Seen from one angle, at least. The story by Tom Holland points out conflicting wills for an entrepreneur who wants to build a dinosaur display and a long-established passion play that occupies the space he wants.

Dinos

News doesn’t get read without some measure of drama, so Holland pits the dinosaurs against the Christians. What seems to me, however, as the real issue is entrepreneurial expansion versus what seems like an arcane melodrama, the reenactment of Jesus’ death. Ironically, the greater part of North America was colonized by Christians of various descriptions. Many of them established their culture in various ways across the landscape. As a culture, it wasn’t always belligerent, and sometimes even beneficial. Passion plays, once upon a time, were considered the mark of culture. Jesus, I’m sure, knew nothing of dinosaurs but would have had no problem with them, I contend, if he had.

The issue here is less about science versus religion as it is about cash versus culture. Even Ahab turned his face to the wall when he couldn’t have the land that he wanted. If someone else got there first and made a recurring shrine, does capitalism have the right to slough it out of the way? I love dinosaurs. I’ve driven many miles out the way to see dinosaur trackways far beyond the trodden path. These are but shadows of footprints cast millions of years ago. Both dinosaurs and Jesus have their place in our hallowed past. While pictures of Jesus riding dinosaurs may well be over the top, the message perhaps rings true: there’s no inherent conflict here. When someone wants to make quick cash, however, there will always be sacrificial victims involved.

Don’t Answer Me

Non-directed reading sometimes follows its own track and a reader might become kind of an accidental expert. I wouldn’t claim that for myself, but I have noticed that scholars, until very recently, tended to give the cold shoulder to anything with a whiff of magic about it. Ancient magic is fair game, of course, but anything like post-Enlightenment magic is anathema, a veritable shibboleth of philistine sensibilities. No scholar worth their diploma would study such a lowbrow topic, let alone give it any credence. Popular culture, and increasingly political culture, tend to ignore academics, however. I have, in my exile from academia, become interested in those who consider themselves witches. I have, I realized recently, read quite a bit about the phenomenon and have been casting about for academic treatments that might fill in some of the gaps. It is a fascinating subject.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_Circle

Ironically, many religion scholars who swear by a mythological worldview of the first century, devalue magic, or Wicca. Many who study it handle it like a peculiar bug, something that might profitably be placed under the microscope as a living curiosity. The thing is, and I realize that academic institutions often shelter their inmates from the real world, many people still do believe in a kind of magic. It may not involve Harry Potter spells and wands, but everyday life outside the academy sometimes defies explanation. Scientists say it’s impossible, and scholars of religion are quick to lock step. Yet the number of those either openly or clandestinely joining occult groups appears to be increasing. Maybe they know something that the experts don’t?

While working on my academic paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, I have run into the amazing void of interest in contemporary magic. The television series Sleepy Hollow has revived some popular fascination with the topic. The curious, however, have few scholarly resources to consult. Here is perhaps the paradigm that shows most clearly why higher education runs into trouble. Could it be that in the academy the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God? Have they forgotten how the common folk live? Those of us who grew up common are often not welcome in the academy. Our downmarket ways and simian brows mark us as the sort so gullible as to believe in some kind of magic. But the numbers are on our side. And the only option sometimes is to become your own expert.

Vox Humana

You know how it is when you get a song stuck in your head? This is one of the few scenarios that will actually lead me to buy music. I have very specific (some would say “odd”) tastes in music. I love the originals. Long ago I ceased listening to “Christian Rock.” It was a thing when I was attending a Christian college, of course. Many who feared the terrors of the drugs and sex part felt they could be slightly rebellious with the rock-n-roll side of things by listening to various groups that pounded out evangelistic messages with electric guitars and overheated amps. There were, however, amid those groups pretending they were a saved Metallica, some real artists. Somehow some of the songs of Daniel Amos came to my mind. I had all four albums of the ¡Alarma! Chronicles—still do up in the attic somewhere—but we left most of our sound system in Wisconsin. I hadn’t bothered to buy a new needle for my turntable, and I’m not sure I still have the patch cables to connect it if I did. It’s been at least a decade since I heard Vox Humana. The internet made it too easy.

VoxHumana

To understand my quest, you have to imagine the context. It was 1984. I was a rising senior in college and I hadn’t seen much of the world. Having grown up in humble circumstances, I didn’t have money for travel or many material things. When my roommate took me to visit his house and he introduced me to a friend who had a room dedicated to sound equipment and albums, I felt as though I was on another planet. Daniel Amos’s Vox Humana had just been released. Our host slipped it from its yellow cover and played it with all the blinking green and red equalizer lights flashing and I was completely blown away. It was Christian music unlike I’d ever heard. In fact, it was ahead of much of the pop music of the time. As soon as I got back to campus I ordered it from the Christian bookstore. The songs still come back to me when I least expect them to.

Call it a guilty pleasure. My theological outlook is lightyears away from what it was when I was an undergraduate. I still haven’t seen much of the world, but what I have seen of it has changed me in ways that there’s no means of reversing. Although I really can’t afford to be buying music—we’re only paying for electrons any more—I just couldn’t help myself this one time. It’s no longer the ‘80s, and the 1950s sci fi movies DA references in the lyrics are closer in time to the album’s initial release than that release is to me now, but still large swaths of the lyrics are imprinted in my mind, taking me back over the decades. It’s the music of my youth. And it was edgy then. It sounds more conventional, perhaps even old fashioned now. Still, when you get a song stuck in your head, pagan or Christian, there’s really only one thing you can do about it.

UCB

The Flying Spaghetti Monster came onto my radar while teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. I was teaching a course entitled The Bible and Current Events and the controversy over teaching Intelligent Design had been gaining steam. As I addressed the evolution section of the course, I became aware of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and his noodly appendages. The Jesus fish had recently evolved to a Darwin fish, and the Darwin fish was being eaten by a Jesus shark, then I finally saw the Flying Spaghetti Monster on somebody’s bumper. I looked it up online and discovered a whole mythology had been developed to go with this parody of a religion. It was lighthearted and funny and had an obvious purpose—to challenge the equally bogus claims that creationism is science. Now, I don’t try to change anyone’s religion. If someone finds creationism comforting, well, the United States is based on freedom of religion and who am I to dictate what someone else believes? The problem is creationists often don’t share that courtesy and try to get their religion taught in public schools as science, which it isn’t. The Flying Spaghetti Monster was their nemesis.

Over the weekend, when I actually have time to do a little surfing, I came across the United Church of Bacon. Noticing the similar food-based theme as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I decided to check it out. It seems to have become a cottage (cheese?) industry to start your own anti-religion. A look at the United Church of Bacon’s website reveals it to be the brainchild of Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, and friends. As usual, the voice of Teller is not heard. This is a legal church which performs many of the services of traditional religions, but without the belief. Bacon, it seems, is the ultimate reality here—to quote the church on a billboard: “Because bacon is real.” They have nine bacon commandments and an impressive list of charitable works.

Looking over all of this material, I wonder what the mainstream churches might take away from all of it. For one thing, the obsession that Christian denominations have had for centuries with correct belief has become a kind of albatross. Petty differences in theology tend to lead to hatred in the name of the prince of peace. Another is the repeated emphasis on giving has taken its toll. The United Church of Bacon openly advertises that they give money, they don’t take it. While few clergy become fantastically wealthy, it is no surprise that most bishops or those of equal rank never seem to go hungry or drive cheap cars. If entertainers are rich, it is because they offer something worth paying for. And for those of us who are vegetarians, the UCB offers the alternative of praising vegetarian bacon. You are, after all, what you believe.

Heretic?

Heretic?

Christian Cookie

During my childhood and adolescence, we didn’t eat out. Of course, food didn’t cost nearly as much then, and it was cheaper to cook raw ingredients at home than it was to buy something exotic that someone else had made. I clearly remember our first trip to McDonalds—it seemed so strange to buy food already prepared. It was so unusual that we went with our neighbors in a kind of exploratory posse, discovering this strange world of pre-cooked food. College, eventually, introduced me to the idea that, if done reasonably, eating out could be a reasonable choice. Particularly if you were wanting to impress a girl. Still, most of my meals were in the dining hall, and trips to restaurants were generally reserved for special occasions. Although Chinese food was known to me, it wasn’t readily available in rural western Pennsylvania. I did encounter my first fortune cookie in college.

thumb_IMG_2185_1024There was something vaguely unsettling about a cookie that could tell your future. Prophetic comestibles were relatively unknown to me. Of course, the whimsical aphorisms seldom indicated any misfortune. They were more like horoscopes, harmless and often amusing. Recently we had carry-out Chinese. I’d noticed that over time fortune cookies had become more and more banal and less and less predictive. They claimed to know something about the world and I was supposed to believe because, well, would a cookie ever try to steer you wrong? My wife cracked open her cookie to find the “fortune” a single word: “Hallelujah!” An evangelical dessert? Was she destined to win the lottery? Perhaps we should play the lucky numbers on the next Powerball?

This really shouldn’t be bothering me, but what exactly was that cookie trying to tell us? It can’t be easy, I realize, to come up with millions of bits of advice so that those who often eat out don’t get the same prediction twice, but what if a Buddhist had ended up with this sweet? Or a Confucian? “Hallelujah” is, by its nature, a Judeo-Christian expression. Even so, it only occurs in two books of the Bible: Psalms and Revelation. My sneaking suspicion is that my culture is being pandered to. A bit of internet research revealed that Chinese fortune cookies are actually a Japanese recipe and were likely invented in the United States. They date back to the 1890s, at the earliest. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then, at my wife being evangelized by her dessert. She does work for the Girl Scouts, after all, and they know a thing or two about the amazing abilities of the humble cookie.

Chain Gang

When I first joined LinkedIn, the notes about adding connections you didn’t actually know were pretty dire.  People could trash you behind your back, ruining career opportunities.  It turns out that I don’t really need any help ruining career opportunities, so after a couple of years on the social network I started adding people if they had a legitimate reason for wanting to know me: they were academics, they were religion specialists, they were in the book business.  I still wonder why investment bankers and others who must have better things to do with their time bother to ask me to connect.  It’s not like I have anything to offer beyond adding a number to their 500+ connections.  It stokes my perpetually low self-esteem to think that maybe 500 people would like to be connected to me, at least electronically. Low risk friendship—I’m not going to bad-mouth anyone.
 
LinkedIn, like most social networks in this highly visual age, offers the opportunity to post a picture.  I don’t have many pictures of myself, and even fewer that I like.  Still, I picked a selfie I snapped in Herald Square after an overnight flight from Phoenix to New York.  I was meeting someone in town and I look a little worse for wear, I suppose, since I can’t sleep on planes.  Nevertheless, there’s enough of my character there to give people the idea of who they’re linking up with.  The other day I was scrolling through suggested people with whom I might want to link.  A surprising number of people blur their pictures, so they look like just about everything did after that flight from Phoenix.  Then there are those who select an image that is meant to be funny, or whimsical.  I was surprised when I saw Jesus’ face above the name of a priest.

430px-Durer_selfporitrait
 
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got enough theological sophistication to know that many clergy wish people to “see Jesus” when they look at them.  To set Jesus as your personal image, however, seems a bit presumptuous.  Of course, I may be missing something.  Perhaps Jesus sent a connection request to this priest, with the offer to use his likeness.  Still, I find it ironic to suppose that anyone would consider themselves worthy to use the image of their deity as their own.  Growing up, I was taught that people shouldn’t name their kids “Jesus” (we knew no Hispanics in our small town), but then I learned that “Jesus” is just the Greek form of “Joshua” and I realized there were an awful lot of Angelos in trouble too.  Don’t mind my rambling.  It’s probably just sour grapes.  I haven’t received any invites from any deities on LinkedIn, so I’m feeling rather like any guy who has only 500+ connections.