Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

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I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

One Flew Over Cthulhu’s Nest

Pluto is a metaphor for the ultimate of outer limits. Just one of many largish objects in the Kuiper Belt, Pluto for a while held the status of the final planet in the solar system. With the photos from New Horizons coming in, we’re discovering a world more complex than most have imagined. It’s not just a snowball after all. With discovery, of course, comes naming. The planets are all named after Roman gods, just as our weekdays are named after Germanic deities. The features on our celestial neighbors often bear more prosaic names, such as those of astronomers or decidedly non-mythological human beings. As the rules of nomenclature go, the first to find claims the privilege to christen. What shall the new features of Pluto be called?

I was gratified when the New York Times photos displayed the informal names by the New Horizons’ team. There is a large area called “the Heart,” but lurking to the lower left there’s a feature being called “the Whale,” or, more appropriately, “Cthulhu.” The internet breathed new life into H. P. Lovecraft’s literary fame. Like most writers, he remained obscure for his entire life, finding really only one publisher who favored his work. Genre fiction has always been considered the bargain basement of literary artists, and Lovecraft wrote in the lowest part of that basement, horror. (Okay, well, romance might be further down, on purely literary grounds.) Only within the last few years has horror literature begun to be recognized by academics as worthy of serious exploration. Nevertheless, it was as the Monster Boomers grew up—or failed to—that Lovecraft reemerged. The world-wide web has become the lair of Cthulhu and of his minions.

Far out in the most remote reaches of our solar system, Cthulhu awaits. Lovecraft fans know Cthulhu is one of the Old Gods, but that he is also a being from the stars. His murky, dark presence has thrived on the underworld of the internet, and now has fired imagination on the darkest planet of an obscure solar system. What more could a writer dream? A fictional creation being suggested as the name of a planetary feature. H. P. Lovecraft lies decomposing under the loam of Providence, Rhode Island. His imagination, however, has reached as far as, at least to date, humanity can possibly go and find some kind of land beneath our feet. And that land, appropriately enough, is peopled with monsters. The Old Gods lie dead but dreaming, and they will rise again.

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God’s Wormhole

Can God and science mix? I suppose that the third season of Through the Wormhole would be the place to look. The entire season has a distinctly metaphysical feel to it, so it is no surprise that the final episode is entitled “Did We Invent God?” It’s also no surprise that, like the other metaphysical issues explored, no resolution is really offered. Interviewing psychologists and neurologists, the show attempts to parse how scientists might address the question of God’s reality. God, of course, being immaterial, is normally understood not to be a subject discerned by science. So instead of putting God under the microscope, human perceptions of God will have to do. Everything from theory of mind to magical beliefs are probed to find hints of whence this strange idea of God might have come. The answer: we don’t know.

The more I pondered this, the more the same result reflected on science itself. When I was growing up I thought science was the truth. If science “proved” something, there was no arguing the point. I have come to realize, however, that science must be falsifiable to be science. That means it is potentially wrong. Not that it goes as far as Creationists take it to say that something is “only a theory,” but rather that science is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Future discoveries could falsify what we now know and the science textbooks would have to be rewritten. The difference here with religion is that most belief systems do not admit of this possibility. The truth has already been revealed, and there is no adding to or taking from it. God is not falsifiable. As stated above, God is not subject to science.

I don’t expect these observations of mind to change anybody’s ideas of the world. I do hope, however, that they make clear that science and metaphysics find themselves in similar situations. Both strive to know the truth. Neither can know if they’ve arrived. Both can believe it. The final episode of the season raises this point starkly. People are hardwired to believe. What they believe in is open to many possibilities, but believe they will. From my earliest days I have taken belief very seriously. What I have believed has changed over the decades, but at each step along the way I believed it was the truth at that time. I don’t know the truth. Nobody does. We all, whether scientist or religious, believe that we have found it. At the moment.

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Night Terrors

TerrorInTheNightNightmares are the stuff dreams are made of. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around. Having grown up subject to frequent nightmares, I still occasionally have them. I suppose it is easy enough to assume someone who reads about monsters and watches horror films should not find this unexpected, however, I’m not sure they’re related. My nightmares visit issues that horror films avoid, and most of my monster reading is, well, academic. Surely the scientific study of nightmares has advanced since David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, but it remains a very important book. As someone familiar with the phenomenon, I found Hufford’s study somewhat therapeutic, and it certainly does raise some interesting questions.

Apart from the unfortunately, inherently sexist, folk-title “the old hag,” Hufford is addressing a universal experience of people of all ages. Using his original setting in remote Newfoundland where his work began, Hufford collected tales of what might technically be called sleep paralysis with a specific hypnogogic hallucination of being attacked. A designation, he acknowledges, that is quite awkward for repeated use. Back in the early 1980’s, when the book was published, these accounts of nighttime attacks—a person waking up, or not having yet fallen asleep, sensing a presence in the room, finding her- or himself unable to move, and sometimes seeing or hearing an entity and feeling it on his or her chest—were rarely discussed. Especially in scientific literature. They seem a kind of embarrassing medievalism related to the ancient concepts of incubi and succubi, and even vampires. Having “the old hag” (a moniker relating to witches) is what the experience is known as in Newfoundland. Hufford, taking these accounts seriously, investigated what the sufferers had experienced. Unwilling to judge whether the event “actually happened,” Hufford’s scientific objectivity is truly admirable. Since the time of his book, the concept has become widely known and the argument is often made that having heard of sleep paralysis episodes feeds those with hypnogogic hallucinations the idea of a supernatural oppressor. In other words, now that we know about it, we don’t have to take it seriously.

Hufford is one of a small number of academics that is willing to engage with the supernatural on its own terms. Religion scholars do, of course, but we are generally dismissed from the starting block anyway. Most scientists disregard the possibility of anything beyond deluded brains and say nightmares are normal. Just deal with it. Those who’ve experienced the nighttime attack know that it feels very different than a garden variety nightmare. You can tell when you’re awake. Of course, we’re of the generation who’ve seen The Matrix and Inception, and we know that, at least in popular thought, reality has become negotiable. Nobody is much surprised any more by the idea of such an attack in the night. Waking nightmares have become as common as the headlines. If only more scholars would take human experience as more than just “old wives tales” we might all be surprised at how just rolling over can change everything for the better.

Contacting Faith

Contact_0001Sometime after the movie Contact came out, I saw it while on a flight to somewhere here or there. As with most movies on airplanes, it didn’t receive my full attention and I seem to recall not hearing a lot of the sound. Having always been intrigued by the possibility of aliens, however, I told myself I’d watch it again. Several months ago I did just that, but as Carl Sagan hoped, much of the story had become somewhat dated. I finally finished reading the novel, and this was a case of the book being better than the movie (as is frequently the case). A number of things surprised me about the story, the primary one being just how prominent religion is in the plot. In the movie some crazy preacher sabotages the first machine just as it’s nearing completion, and even though Ellie Arroway is long connected to Palmer Joss, their relationship doesn’t seem to dominate the script the way it does the book.

Almost immediately upon reading about adult Ellie, it became clear that religion was a major interest that Carl Sagan had. While the chiliasts receive many scathing comments throughout the novel, thoughtful Christian thinkers, such as Palmer, find a way of being taken seriously by Ellie, despite her own personal unbelief. Unable to understand how someone could not accept the evidence before their eyes, she wants to belittle religion but can’t when serious thinkers like Palmer remind her that they have a sophisticated worldview as well. The story represents a long struggle between alternative outlooks. While as a novel it doesn’t always flow, it pulls the reader along, partly based on the intriguing character of Sagan himself.

Carl Sagan believed in life on other planets. He was less sanguine about the possibility of either ancient astronauts or current-day visitors from space, but he kept an open mind. While he was the respected author of numerous scientific papers, other astronomers didn’t always know what to make of such a popularizer. Of course I never knew him, but I have to wonder if his true beliefs didn’t appear in his fiction rather than in his factual writing. At times I found the novel slow and plodding, and as the machine gives ambiguous results, I wondered where the rest of the story could go. Sagan profoundly brings the end back to belief. Without evidence, Ellie finds herself in the place of the religious who believe on the basis of experience and faith alone. And she finds her best friend is a clergyman. Contact, with its God-like aliens, is really a story of finding oneself a place in an infinite universe. To do that well, Sagan seems to have believed, requires both science and religion.

Magic Faith

MakingWe all like to believe we don’t believe in magic. In this day of sophisticated materialism, the idea that unseen forces might work upon the world seems terribly naive and not a little embarrassing. Randall Styers’s Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World has been on my reading list for a few years now. Not so much a history of magical thought, Styers offers a history of thought about thought on magic. There are several takeaways from a study like this. One is that magic and science share common ancestors. In fact, some theorists trace the origins of science to magical thought. The height of alchemy was also the period when experimental analysis of the natural world was blossoming. There was a mysterious sense to what we now think of as impassive particles whirling around for no particular reason. Making Magic makes clear that we can’t divorce developed thinking from magical outlooks. In many ways it is difficult to distinguish religion from magic.

Not that Styers advocates magical thought. He does, however, invite us to think about it. Another takeaway from this study is that magic, when described by religious writers, is a foil. Magic is used to show how the unenlightened think about things. Those of us here in the true light would never think such backward thoughts. Indeed, magic, as Styers makes clear, often served as a kind of social control. Lower classes think magic works wonders. The upper classes know that power lies in exploitation. Magic, in other words, can’t be divorced from politics. Those in the know would only encourage magical belief to continue. Invisible forces indeed.

Magic as a regulatory force is indeed the thesis with which Styers is working. The difference between prayer and magic is somewhat effaced when closely examined. Religious belief is seen as benefiting society while magic is for selfish benefits. I do wonder, however, where the modern magical religions, such as some branches of Wicca, would fit into this scheme. They also seek the good of society. Magic need not be selfish. Making Magic is concerned with the analysis of magic by scholars who’ve shown a surprising interest in the topic. It doesn’t really address those of today who, after finding the atomic world strangely vacuous, have turned to magic to re-enchant a world grown dull and dry. Whatever one may say about magic, it still exists, and its believers are among us. Our world with its solemn, feelingless answers could, at times, use a little such conjuring.

Only Takes a Spark

Fireworks have been the main event for Independence Day celebrations ever since I was a child. The fourth of July is a day for playing with fire. As a child I remember spending the meager allowance I had on sparklers and snakes. I haven’t seen one of those ash snakes for decades now, but the impression they made remains strong. A plug of some kind of carbonish material—you’d light the top with a match and it would flame and hiss and start to grow into a long, twisting exoskeleton of ash. They left a blackened circle on the sidewalk, and when they were cool enough you could try to lift the fragile snake in your hand, but it almost always broke apart before blowing away in the breeze. We also wasted our money on smoke bombs with their multi-colored smoke, but we never had actual firecrackers. Given the trouble we could make with an ordinary roll of caps, that was probably a wise decision on our mother’s part. All of this, however, was just a prelude to the fireworks.

As I sat under a cloudy sky last night wondering why every July fourth seems to rain, it occurred to me that fireworks are a violent form of celebration. Indeed, they are designed to imitate the sounds of battle—before the nuclear age—and we all know the thrill of when the loud, bright burst of pure light sends a shock wave through you. It is like a canon rocking your soul. Like many stirring experiences, fireworks had religious overtones from the beginning. Invented in China, fireworks were used for religious festivals. They were believed to be effective at driving away evil spirits and bring good fortune. Pyrotechnics, however, clearly have military applications as well. It is this strange nexus between religion and violence that makes, I suspect, fireworks displays so compelling.

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The local display here in Somerset County, New Jersey, was impressive for a region without large cities. I couldn’t help pondering the strange aesthetics of contained violence as the colorful explosions took place over my head. Illusions, I know. We always talk afterward about whether some of them are meant to represent anything. Did you see a smiley face, the United States, or even New Jersey? It depends on your angle of view. Is this a religious display or a celebration of violence? Looking around at the amazing diversity of peoples gathered here in this park with me, I feel strangely satisfied. I hear languages I don’t understand, and see people from all over the world here for a good show. Although thousands of us try to get to our cars at the same time, spirits are positive, for the most part, and all go home in a celebratory mood. Maybe the ancient Chinese were right and these pyrotechnics do drive away evil spirits after all.