Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Reptile Fantasy

LizardPrincessThe generous folks at Exterminating Angel Press graciously sent me a copy of Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess to review. A fantasy novel that includes a conflict between a world that admits of the supernatural and skeptics who deny anything beyond the material, it is a tale for our time. Indeed, the antagonism is real enough. We live in a world where fantasy can bring in untold wealth while we are taught that not an atom of it is true. Clearly material explanations fit the physical world we inhabit. It’s the world inside our heads that often rejects such materialism being taken to its “logical” conclusion. Davies clearly feels the angst of this discord. The Lizard Princess is a fantasy in the face of harsh reality. And we still need fantasy—perhaps we need it more than ever.

Throughout The Lizard Princess, whether intentional or not, biblical imagery pervades. The Bible offers classical stories that, no matter how we might receive them, continue to influence our ideas and ideals. Here, in a world created especially for the reader, the battle between good and evil is an everyday reality. The turns taken along this path are unconventional, and at times even uncomfortable. The awareness that there is a larger story in the background, however, offers some consolation. Angels, the Devil, and even a subtly veiled God are all players in this fantasy world of Arcadia. Mythical creatures abound, and transformations lead to new perspectives along the way.

In my conversations with other scholars I’m reminded that academics don’t often turn to novels for escape. Some do, of course, but the academy recommends a steady diet of technical non-fiction for those who wish to make an impact upon the world of knowledge. I have always been grateful for literature, however. During my years in graduate school and early in my teaching career I neglected the kinds of books that were my constant companions growing up. In a rural setting far removed from any institutions of higher learning, novels were often the only reading readily available. I never considered the time between their covers wasted. I found in The Lizard Princess a vivid world strangely like our own, but different enough to be more a parable than a simple piece of fiction.

Seeing Red

Not being commercially minded, it took many years for me to understand why it is called Black Friday. To many people “black” indicates negativity, sort of the opposite of Good Friday which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem so good. After I was forced into jobs in the money-making business, I came to realize that budgets were written in black and deficits were written in red. Since my lifetime, with a few exceptions, has been a series of economic disasters following one another (the implications should be obvious) and businesses operate in the red while projecting budgets ever higher the next year. This model is, in a world of limited resources, the very definition of unsustainable, and yet we keep raising our sights and getting disappointed. Nobody knows for sure where the term Black Friday originated, but it is a modern term. A holiday for those who measure celebration in terms of dollars and cents. (Mostly dollars.)

As I was pondering this phenomenon, my thoughts turned to red letter days. Red here is a positive thing—special days on the calendar that let us step outside the usual routine of pushing ourselves to make this year’s budget and allow us to relax with family and friends. The black and the red have switched places here. In fact, red letters, apart from the dismal science, have historically been considered good. Think of the red letter editions of the Bible. These Bibles had the putative words of Jesus printed in red so that they would stand out. The concept dates back to the change of the twentieth century. Red letter Bibles caught on among Evangelical readers. Red letters, however, go back even further in history.

Who said what now?

The book that Catholic priests used to set on the altar was a missal. Missals contained the instructions for saying mass, and during certain parts of the ceremony priests were supposed to make specific gestures. The places at which these actions were to be made were printed in red to draw the priests’ attention. They were called “rubrics” since they were written in red. Missals date back to the Medieval Period and they give us perhaps the first positive use of red writing that we know. Even further back in history when inks were organic, red writing was found. Epigraphers of antiquity know of red inscriptions but the meaning at that time remains speculative. We call this Black Friday because the one percent hope to get a bit richer. Those of us further down are supposed to enjoy the trickle. For me, in principle I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I see it as a red letter day.

Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.


Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

Birth of a Legend

I was sitting in the restaurant attached to W, a boutique hotel cum chain, with my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson. He was on a book tour and kindly treated me to breakfast. Above his head I noticed a slightly salacious painting portraying a nude lady in bed saying “Of course I think you’re adequate. I love you!” In the doorway stood a headless man in a red coat, clearly intended to be the headless horseman. I pointed it out and Neal, being an author, made some inquiries about it. Nobody in the hotel seemed to know anything about the image’s relevance, so I did some internet sleuthing. I knew Washington Irving was born in New York City. I don’t know where precisely, and I’m not really sure how to find out. New York, in those days, didn’t reach so far up Manhattan Island, and we were near downtown, at Union Square. Probably this was the outskirts back in Irving’s day. I had already started my research for my paper on Sleepy Hollow, so I was attuned to the clues. W is now a chain, but I think the first W was the very one where we met. The restaurant where we had breakfast was the Irvington. The website said nothing about the origin of the name. Had we been eating where Irving had spent his youth?

This was a slight synchronicity. I had been researching Irving and had ended up meeting someone at a hotel which, it may turn out, had been named after him. Which Washington was the Squire really named after anyway? Washington Irving had been named after George Washington, so perhaps the point was moot. Months passed, and I wrote and honed my paper for public delivery. I’d almost forgotten the existential pleasures of following a lead and drawing some conclusions, whether or not history might bear them out. My brain was fully active.


My flight to Atlanta yesterday for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting took off from Newark Airport on time. I thought I had a row to myself, but a couple of guys came in, talking, just before the cabin door was closed. They obviously knew one another, but not terribly well. One asked if the other was from Valatie, “where Ichabod Crane is buried.” These were not professorial types, which you often see at the airport this time of year. Just regular guys. “Yeah, there’s an Ichabod Crane High School,” the other replied. Their conversation moved on to other topics, but I sat there thinking about the synchronicities my paper seemed to be generating in my life. Of course, many people do watch Sleepy Hollow, not many, I suspect, are academics looking for connections to American religious thought. It seems that research never really ends.

Atlanta Bound


Every year as the latter half of November rolls around, the mind of religion scholars goes toward the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. This morning I’m off to Atlanta to join a myriad of others who still think the academic study of religion is a good and noble thing. For those who read this blog regularly, it will be no surprise that I’m giving a paper this year. Honestly, I’m a little nervous. I haven’t delivered a paper in years—it is nearly impossible to do research when you are cut off from academic libraries and, more importantly, the time it takes to do the work. Having only weekends to pull ideas together is not conducive to pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward. Sleepy Hollow came to my rescue this time around. That, and reception history.

Reception history is the hermeneutic that looks at the Bible from the point of view of later interpreters. For the Hebrew Bible that reception might be that of the New Testament, or even later books within the Tanak itself. Of course, the Bible has been studied and interpreted for nearly two millennia now, and not all those reading the Good Book have official training. Increasingly, with religious extremists making headlines from decrying the color of Starbucks cups to an all-out attack on Paris, understanding the reception of religious texts is important. The Fox network hit Sleepy Hollow is an excellent example. The show begins with the Bible and although the end has yet to be determined, Scriptures have played a role throughout. And a viewership of pitiful biblical literacy drinks it all in. It is important to understand how the Bible has been, and is being, perceived.

It may be, over the next few days, that my posts will be disrupted from their usual schedule. It is always a little hard to predict how things might play out when you’re away from home. I’m not sure what wonders Atlanta might bring. My own book should be on display in the book stalls for the first, and likely only, time. I will be meeting with people from dawn to dusk, discussing their book ideas. And I will, of course, be listening. Listening for the gallop of horse hooves in the background. Yes, the meeting is always a stimulating event, and with apocalypses in the news, I think I have selected a very timely topic this year indeed. If the frogs croak my name, I will know it is only my imagination.

Ports of Call

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,” so began far too many evenings of my childhood. Well, although as an adult it may seem that the time was ill-spent, Gilligan’s Island was the induction to popular culture that I had to undergo some time. The series has aged well; we bought the DVDs (speaking of aging) as soon as they came out and watched them all, multiple times. But what must it really be like to be on a boat, and for more than a three-hour tour? Here’s where I’m lucky in my extended family. A cousin, who is much younger, has been working as a musician on a cruise ship for a couple of years, and has recently started a blog. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a singer on a vacation vessel, check out David Tarr’s take. He has a more realistic outlook than Ginger did, although seeing Tina Louise in person was still quite a thrill, back when she stopped into the local Borders. Back when there still was Borders.


It seems to me that we don’t often enough take the time to wonder what other people’s lives are like. We are a myopic species. Apart from the occasional educational tour in school, we don’t have much opportunity to consider what it feels like to be someone else. I grew up in a working class family that lived at the poverty level. I didn’t get along with my step-father, but I have, in the years since he died, thought back on his perspective. He worked long hours, had little education, and was very patriarchal. When he was too old to do his duties as a laborer, he took a job running an elevator in one of the five-story buildings in a nearby town. I once went to visit him on duty. He was sitting in the tiny cube of a metal box, waiting for the very rare customer. I asked if I could bring him something to read, something to do, to pass the hours of tedium. No, he replied, he didn’t want to miss any calls from potential passengers. What must it be like in the head of such a man?

The internet has given us a chance to learn the lives of others. David is living a young man’s dream, with the good and bad. We have lost all hope when such things are no longer possible. Too soon we find ourselves chained to a desk, 9-to-5, working to make money for others. Dreams are strictly forbidden, at least on work time, which is the only time there is. Somewhere on an ocean, there is a ship. It may take a three hour tour, a three week cruise, or a three month voyage. It is more than a ship, regardless. It is the people on board, and their lives, and hopes. I’m not sure of the course charted for me. I suspect it has no cruises to exotic climes. It has, however, writing written all over it, and that is one thing I share with a talent cruise singer in my extended family.

Monsters, in Theory

MonsterTheoryI want to understand monsters. I suppose that’s pretty common among Monster Boomers, but the thing is academics have been slow to give credence to our creatures. Yes, monsters are a throw back to the Medieval Period or worse, and reflect superstition, the supernatural, and things that go bump in the night. Our scientific worldview has no place for them, but they continually come back to peek in our windows and stomp on our cities. Horror movies, for example, consistently rate high in box-office grosses. And even adults, if caught in unguarded moments, might confess to enjoying the uncanny. So it was that I read Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Yes, it’s dated, but by humanities’ standards, it’s not too bad. Jurassic Park, one gets the feeling, was the rage when the book was being written.

As with most collections of essays, this is a Forest Gump of papers. Some of them were quite good and others were that kind filled with po-mo nougat. The one thing that was missing, sadly, is, well, monster theory. I’ve read just about every academic book available on monsters. I have yet to find a serviceable theory to help make sense of them. Yes, there are plenty of theories of origins—where monsters come from—but how to we handle them? Everyone knows that a stake is useful for vampires and a headshot is necessary for a zombie, but what are these revenants telling us really? Why do we still, when we can carry the internet in our pockets and call for help in the middle of nowhere, fear monsters? How do we construct, rather than deconstruct them?

Psychologists, of course, have a couch day with monsters. They represent parents, or phobias, or penises, or any number of things that make us uncomfortable. But how do we know a monster when we see it? Monster Theory, for example, has two chapters on conjoined twins. Now, at the time “monster” was a term used occasionally, but it is highly insensitive, let alone politically incorrect, to refer to humans that way. Then there were chapters on vampires and ghosts. Well, I suppose the dead can’t help their state either, but if they come back they could at least behave. Monstrosity is a concept, like religion, that we just can’t live without. We need our monsters in the dark just as we need dreams and desires. The question is what to do about them, and even after reading this weighty tome, I still don’t know.