Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Teaching Vampires

VampireLecturesWhat do you get when you cross German literature, psychology, and the undead? The Vampire Lectures, of course. Laurence A. Rickels, one gets the feeling, must be one interesting guy in the classroom. When I was a student the thought that anyone would take vampires seriously enough to offer college credit to study them was, well, a foreign concept. We all know that there’s no such thing as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters, or mummies—wait, mummies are real, but just not animated. In the reigning cultural paradigm, if something’s not real, it’s a waste of time. The human psyche, however, disagrees. The fact is there’s an awful lot of mental baggage that the vampire addresses. So much so that the University of California at Santa Barbara can offer a twenty-six lecture course on the topic. The results are what we have in this unusual book.

Rickels has read widely in the literature of the undead. The vampire’s share of the material goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel that defined, in many ways, the modern concept of vampires. The lectures do cover earlier and later literary representations, but when movies began to be made, they started with Stoker. One of the most interesting aspects of the lectures is the utter breadth of movies Rickels addresses. Movies that I’d never heard anyone else mention, let alone analyze, are here, alongside the more famous examples. It becomes clear that vampires have been a favorite of film-makers as well as readers. Culturally they are omnipresent. One gets the impression that Rickels might have an inkling of why we have this fascination, although his analysis is often Freudian, he does come back to the concept of mourning. Vampires (who would’ve guessed?) mask our unresolved sense of loss.

The style of The Vampire Lectures reflects the kind of literary criticism that isn’t always easy to follow. The book has more puns per hour than any other academic title I’ve ever read. Perhaps such serious topics as loss, parental relationships, and sexuality require a good dose of humor to make them less overwhelming. Still, the puns show the shifting nature of the ground beneath your feet when you try to take a topic like this seriously. Not surprisingly, Rickels does spent some time reflecting on the religious nature of vampires. There’s no question that monsters trespass on—or maybe even arise from—sacred precincts. They also occupy similar mental spaces. Perhaps it’s no surprise that as the number of nones grows so do the fans of monsterdom. We need an outlet for our surfeit of fear and loss. Come to think of it, perhaps I need to take a class in this as well.

Charity

On occasion someone will comment, either here or on my other popular writings, that I lack the objectivity of a journalist. This should be no surprise, really, since I’m in fact not a journalist and what I’m writing here is opinion—an extended op ed—if you will—from someone that society has decided should have no official voice. Who listens to an editor? They don’t make content, they improve others’ work. News, however, often leads to good commentary. A recent blurb in The Christian Century caught my eye. A group of Muslims, led by a student in Chicago, raised almost $50,000 to help rebuild black churches that had been destroyed in the south. A journalist, I’m guessing, might not find much of a story here. To me this show of goodwill speaks volumes.

In the news were hear about Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. How often do we hear that charitable giving is one of the five pillars of Islam? Many Muslims are charitable to those outside their faith community. In this case, they donated money to rebuilt houses of worship for a rival religion. There’s little to hate or despise here, so it really isn’t news. People are disposed, in general, to help one another. Indeed, biologists have long noted that we are a cooperative species. A friend recently pointed out that we are dissuaded from helping others more out of a fear of being sued. Money, as most religions realize, is antithetical to true belief. Most religions begin as an effort to make life better for people. When they become corporate, as with all things corporate, they turn inwardly and focus on how to improve things for themselves. There are still many, however, who understand the point behind religious traditions. It’s not really all about God. The ones who need our help are our fellow humans.

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Faatima Knight, according to the story, spearheaded the effort to raise money. She is a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. A Muslim studying in a Christian school, helping oppressed Christian people. The media, it seems to me, could do with a few courses in ethics. Is it ethically responsible to caricature religions as ignorant and spiteful? For all we know Christians fall into only one of two types: those who follow Pope Francis and those who want to teach your children that we didn’t evolve from monkeys. The good deeds done by those motivated by the teachings of their founders are quietly passed by. Yet they are among the loudest deeds people do. I have to wonder if most Christians would rally around an effort to rebuild a mosque destroyed by hate. I think I know the answer, but then, I’m only a guy whose opinion doesn’t really matter.

My Beloved Monsters

OurOldMonsters copyOnce upon a time I felt radical in claiming that monsters and religion shared a pedigree. Having grown up fascinated by Universal, as well as much cheaper and more tawdry, monster movies, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. My family was very religious, and these monsters were, well, evil, weren’t they? Yet I couldn’t let them go. Although college, seminary, and graduate school each took their toll on this early fascination as I was restructured as a more rational man, the monsters always lurked. In college a friend and I named an invented monster “the lurking.” In seminary and graduate school, demons and ghosts still captured my imagination. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter has, quite unintentionally, vindicated my outlook. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema just about says it all. Not limiting herself to witches, werewolves, and vampires, Gardenour Walter has given us a novel thesis: monsters come from theology.

Well, not exactly. Medieval theology, as many of us learned in seminary, continued the ancient Greek practice of dividing the universe into four substances: air, fire, water, and earth. Each was associated with a humor in the human body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Keeping these humors in balance led to healthy bodies. Gardenour Walter, who teaches history in a Pharmacology school, shows how monsters were often viewed against this paradigm. As she notes, this Weltanschauung was not friendly to women. Seeing man as the perfect, rational being, women were considered less rational and more controled by their base urges, leading to the concept of witches. Witches were also associated with demons at a later time, and there is a considerable discussion of that transition.

Vampires were often associated with black bile. Although there are vampiric beliefs going back to very ancient times, Gardenour Walter shows how the modern vampire indeed derives from medieval theology as eastern ideas met western. Unfortunately, in unenlightened times, the concepts were anti-semitically applied, with unwonted liberality. Werewolves were generally dismissed as illusions wrought by demons, although, there always remained an ambiguity. I have to admit not having known that even Augustine discussed werewolves in The City of God, which, it comes to mind, would make an excellent horror movie. The book brings each of these medieval monsters up to the silver screen and considers how their theological pedigree plays out in modern times. This is a book I would have enjoyed as a college student, but maybe, secretly, enjoy even more now as an adult.

Time and Again

One score and ten years ago, I graduated from college. I also enrolled in seminary and worked in a United Methodist summer camp. I bought my own car and worked as a bag boy in a grocery store. I also met my future wife. Last night we watched Back to the Future, the sleeper hit and highest grossing film of 1985. There’s been a bit of buzz about it because, discounting the sequels, Doc Brown wants to travel thirty years into the future, yes, 2015, which seemed impossibly far off back then. I have to think his envisioned 2015 was more advanced than what we’ve actually managed. Technology, instead of sending us to Jupiter like Arthur C. Clarke imagined, has instead focused on the incredibly tiny. We now do finally have Dick Tracy wrist-phones with real-time images, but we’re still pretty much earth-bound and our rockets are aimed at other people rather than outer space. Instead of fighting aliens with lasers, we’re shooting fellow humans while at church, synagogue, or mosque. Instead of presidential candidates who want to see how far we can go, we’ve got a stagnant pool of people who want to turn the clock back to, well, 1955.

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Don’t get me wrong—this is a fascinating time to be alive. Just yesterday I sat down to recollect the number of computers we’ve purchased as a family and what each could and couldn’t do. Our first couldn’t connect to the internet since no such thing existed. Our first laptop—which we still have—weights as much as a current desktop and has a black-and-white screen. Now we walk around with the internet in our pockets, never really disconnected from a web in which, I’m sure, lurks a huge spider. But back in 1985 you could make quite a few, as it turns out, false assumptions. Church attendance was healthy and would always continue so. We had space shuttles and were looking to walk on other planets. Rock had matured into a provocative mix of selfishness and social protest. Despite the president of those years, things seemed to be improving.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly returns to the same Hill Valley he left. A fictional town, I noticed last night, that had a seedy downtown square with adult themed stores and movies. The 1955 square had bullies and manure trucks, but a cleanness that was only on the surface. When Marty’s DeLorean reappears in the square in 1985, he crashes it into a Church of Christ. Although this detail had escaped me before, now it strikes me as somewhat prophetic. Thirty years into the future and, like Marty, we are backing out of the church into an age of nones. Our nones not only refer to our religiously unaffiliated, however. We have nones who’ve lost faith in our government, our economy, and our worldview. Instead of going to Jupiter, we stare at our palms. And like Doc Brown, we look back thirty years with nostalgia and wonder at how wrong we are when we believe in the status quo.

Witnessing Angels

OrdinaryAngelBack in my undergraduate days, I wanted to learn more about angels. Surprisingly, there were no courses offered on the subject, even at evangelical Grove City College. When I finally took an independent study on angels, I found that few serious books had been written on the topic. I was immature as an academic, and I hadn’t learned that the subject of angels was a kind of scholarly embarrassment. Although many biblical scholars still clung to the idea of God, most had jettisoned angels along with other Medieval fabrications such as dragons and virgins. We inhabit a hardened, material world with no room for spiritual beings flitting about. As a student of ancient Near Eastern religions, I discovered angels possessed a hoary pedigree stretching back to Mesopotamia and perhaps beyond. Susan R. Garrett’s No Ordinary Angel opens the question again, and considers the many roles that angels have played and continue to play.

Subtitled Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus, the book goes beyond the issue of angels per se, and addresses the distinctly Christian concern of how Jesus differs from them. What becomes clear in the reading of the study is that uniformity isn’t to be had. The earliest Christians already had divergent ideas on many concepts. As Roman Catholicism developed, angels attained a natural role in a world that still allowed mystery and shadows to exist. Protestants, the progenitors of much of science, cleared the closets of supernatural beings, leaving God and a table instead of the hosts of Heaven and an altar. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but there’s a sense in which the more liturgical traditions have more room for angels and demons. You don’t call a Protestant for a proper exorcism. Still, Garrett knows her stuff and shows how angels insinuate themselves into several aspects of sacred experiences of both Protestants and Catholics.

Angels come at births and deaths. They heal the sick, they protect people and they worship God. They rebel and fall, becoming Satan and his minions. Angels are, by their nature, liminal figures. They help to transition people between different states and worlds. As early back as written records, people believed in them. Outside of academia, people still do. God has become wrathful and distant in his old age and, well, you can talk to an angel without having to worry about vaporizing. In antiquity they were messengers. When God didn’t condescend to the earth, angels would come down. Now we get the sense that they’re more like us than we might have originally thought. Or maybe we’re more like them. Angels, even though they may have fallen out of academic fashion, are sure to endure longer than most weighty treatises, no matter how well footnoted they may be.

A Writer’s Life

WeHaveAlwaysLivedSometimes, an experienced editor once told me, the author’s life is just as important as the book she’s written. I can’t pretend to know much about Shirley Jackson, beyond that she wrote compelling fiction and that her name is barely recognized today. Best known for her short story “The Lottery” and her novel The Haunting of Hill House, she didn’t match the output of more prolific writers and therefore, in a world driven by capitalism, didn’t receive much notice. Her work is difficult to classify. Not exactly horror, it is nevertheless unsettling by implication. There’s something wrong beneath the surface. Jackson apparently suffered neuroses for much of her adult life, and her ability to translate angst into literature has gathered her a following among fans of ghost stories. I just finished reading her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a funny, quirky, and serious story about two young women who live alone and who, one suspects, are thought to be witches by the local population.

This little novel is difficult to lay aside for long. The characters of Constance and Merricat are too compelling to leave alone for any length of time. The fact that they are pariahs makes the reader want to ensure that they are safe as they remain carefully inside the home they’ve always known. Even though you know one of them murdered her family, you want them to be happy and secure, perhaps because the whole town is against them. I wouldn’t presume to say what Jackson meant by this story, but to me it seems a clear description of xenophobia by a woman who felt she was never accepted. Women being persecuted in New England always brings witch trials to mind. Although we don’t know why one of the girls killed her family, it is easy for the mind to fill in the blanks.

Although Jackson died prematurely, her work has influenced novelists such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Uncompromising in her outlook, she allows her characters access to those strange places of the human mind where many of us wander from time to time. Merricat, for example, practices that sympathetic magic that we all, if we’re honest, admit that we attempt every now and again. Hoping in magic doesn’t make one a witch any more than prayer makes one a priest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although as old as I am, reflects a world in which reality can’t be pinned down. Assumptions are made and challenged. Protectors turn out to be exploiters, and the only ghosts are very human characters hated by the community in which they live. Still this is an uncanny tale, haunted by a reality that women still face in even the most progressive countries. Listening to their voices, even if from beyond the grave, may demonstrate just how much a writer’s life might mean.

By the Time I Get to Phoenix

I remember when flying involved going to a travel agent, explaining where and when you wanted to go, and how much you could afford. The agent would contact airlines, get you your best price, and you left knowing that you’d just have to show up at the airport maybe half an hour before your flight so you got there before they closed the door. For our vacation trip, my wife used priceline.com. I’ve used it for business travel myself, but when I am going for work, certain strictures apply. For this trip, expense was a major factor. We flew, outbound, to Spokane, Washington via Seattle, on Alaska Airlines. Since our final destination was Spokane (at least for the air portion of the trip), that involved a bit of back-tracking, but, being Alaska Airlines, who could really complain?

In order to make the trip affordable, we flew back on a different airline (I’m still not sure if it was American or U. S. Air; both reference the same entity, apparently) via an alternate route. Whichever airline it was had a hub in Phoenix, so we flew from Spokane to Phoenix before heading back to Newark. I’d visited Phoenix on Routledge business, but I didn’t spend much time in the airport. It became clear from this trip, however, that the Day of the Dead is a big deal for tourists. Given the popularity of Halloween, I suppose that’s not so surprising. Nevertheless, the sheer volume of Day of the Dead merchandise was stunning, considering that these were, for the most part, impulse, carry-on items. Figurines of various sorts comprised the most popular arrays. Skeletons, fully dressed, engaged in many quotidian activities, although deceased.

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Amid the many daily scenes, I spied a last supper tchotchke. Skeleton Jesus and twelve skeleton disciples gathered around a table for a final meal. Maybe just a little too late. While not a theologian, I couldn’t help but wonder about the implications of this. I know little about the Day of the Dead beyond its association with All Souls Day. The last supper is set up in the Gospels as the grounding, in some way, for a divine plan or redemption. In other words, it doesn’t work if the principals are dead. Already jet-lagged and fuzzy-headed, I couldn’t think to take out my wallet. I really can’t afford baubles in any case, yet there was something profound to think about here. For some reason the market will bear much more in an airport than it will in no-fly zones. Still, as I struggled to stay awake all the long way to Newark, I couldn’t help but think that this was an appropriate image to signal the end of a much needed vacation.