Bearing Light

Jeffrey Burton Russell knows a devil of a lot about the Devil. I’ve just finished the third of his five books on the subject, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, and I certainly learned a thing or two. As someone who considers himself an historian of religion, being exposed to a concept over several volumes has a way of making me feel humble. The theme of this series, at least so far, is that the Devil is a conceptual way of dealing with evil in the world. In the days of polytheism a single source of evil wasn’t needed, but no matter how you slice it, monotheism implicates God in the fact of evil in the world. The Devil is one way to try to lift some of that burden from the divine shoulders.

Lucifer is an interesting installment because ideas of the diabolical really took off in the Middle Ages. Russell’s previous volume, Satan, became heavily theological and there’s a bit of that here as well. While there’s no doubt some average people in the Dark Ages tried to figure out where Devil came from, the officials sponsored by the church were those whose ideas were written down and preserved. Those ideas, unsurprisingly, were theological and complex. Scholasticism, which began in the Middle Ages, launched what was to become known as systematic theology in the modern era. Among the many topics with which it concerned itself was the Devil, and evil. Ranks of angels, both fallen and un, peopled the atmosphere. Galileo’s perspective would eventually change this cosmology by making it both simpler and more complex at the same time. Lucifer, however, still survives.

One of the stranger developments of the Devil in this time period is as a form of light relief. The idea of plays (which had been around since classical times) also took off in the Medieval Period. In these plays Lucifer and his demons often took on a comical cast. Even when the tone was serious (and what morality play isn’t?) the Devil could be used for laughs. An incredibly rich mythology had been adopted by the church at the time—think Star Wars with more religious characters—that assured the laity that Satan’s doom was sure. Besides, we like to make fun of the things we fear. Think Washington, DC. Now that I’m halfway through Russell’s oeuvre on the subject, I’m curious where his next volume will go. No matter how much you think you might understand evil, as we’re daily finding out, there’s always so much more to learn.

Group Activity

While reading about various religious phenomena—both positive and negative—one of the recurring aspects that forces itself on our attention is contagion. Going back at least to the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, the idea of crowd sourcing religious frenzy can be disturbing. It involves groups of people and loss of control. Not only is the frenzy itself frightening, but also the apparent paranormal accoutrements to such enthusiasm. In more specific terms, the revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” and the mass exorcisms described by Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism both boast supernatural elements. I’m not saying there can’t be a scientific explanation, but I am saying what happens in such circumstances has been understood to be supernatural by educated, experienced people. Both demoniacs and new religious converts display superhuman strength and atavistic behaviors that one doesn’t otherwise see in a lifetime. Once they start happening, they spread.

This is one of the draws of charismatic Christianity. Speaking in tongues can be quite contagious, I’m told. According to Cuneo’s carefully anonymized accounts, so can demonic possession with its attendant paranormal activity. Some scientists have explored the idea of consciousness as a “hive mind” phenomenon. Many “minds” brought together can produce something greater than the sum of the parts. We’re used to this in the world of insects, but since humans like to be radically individual we miss the instances where it occurs among our own species. While not always so, such events are often religious in nature. People gathered together in emotionally charged settings, personal experience draws off of that of others, and suddenly a person’s doing something they formerly believed to be “impossible.” God and demons both have explanatory value here.

Despite our tendency to want to destroy each other, humans have great potential when we work together. Our petty fears and jealousies could be contained, disassembled, and repurposed, if only we possessed the will to do so. The desire to stand out in a crowd—not to blend in but to be a unique individual—runs strong in our fractured psyches. We hate being mistaken for somebody else. Religious experiences, much maligned these days, tend to be group experiences. Yes, a mystic may have a personal and highly individualized rapture, but in the presence of others the excitement may be shared. “Mass hysteria” and group hypnosis have sometimes been posited as the culprits behind such events. Those who participate, however, use other terms to describe what has transpired. They may not call it a “hive mind,” and they won’t be alone in rejecting the phrase.

The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

Hypocrisy, Defined

Things look pretty Stormy in DC. I suspect my Republican background is showing when I say I don’t condemn sex workers. If they’re not exploited and they like what they do, hey, a job’s a job. The evidence, of course is that Trump had an affair with Stormy Daniels when his wife was recovering from the birth of their son. And hush money was paid right before the election. This is public knowledge. What I find interesting are the responses that Republic congressmen have been giving journalists. In a recent story in the Washington Post, various congressional leaders of the GOP were asked if Obama had been caught in such a situation would they have pursued impeachment. “Of course,” they answered. When asked why this didn’t apply to Trump, they simply shrugged. There’s a word for that.

Hypocrisy may seem like an old-fashioned notion these days. Indeed, when I was growing up I frequently heard it from Fundamentalist pulpits. It was considered, along with lying, to be about one of the worst sins possible. Now Fundamentalists are lined up behind Trump (who’s lined up behind Stormy apparently) and saying all of this is just fine. The Lord’s will is being done. Moderate Evangelicals are scrambling to find a new label for themselves, for their vaunted title has been taken by a party that will condone anything as long as rich white men benefit. Cheat on your wife while she recovering from giving birth? That’s the new Fundamentalist way! Congressmen, it seems, don’t want people to look too closely into such things. My, there’ve been a spate of recent retirements lately, haven’t there?

I grew up and grew away from Fundamentalism. Although it seems counterintuitive, this sharped my moral sense considerably. Poll after poll shows that actual morality, according to Fundie standards, is more often lived by liberals than conservatives. Divorce rates are lower, for example, and we tend not to own guns. So, even when the skies over the Potomac are growing stormy, the elected officials of God’s Own Party smirk and say, “Doesn’t the Bible command you ‘Love thy neighbor’?” They take it literally, of course. And it’s just fine that the leader of the free world exploits women. Many of these same people gathered to condemn Bill Clinton for loving his neighbor in the blue dress. Hypocrisy was a bad thing back then. “I did not have sex with that woman,” became a mark of national shame. Now presidents brag of grabbing women by their private parts and the Republican Party claps its hands and says, “Hypocrisy? Never heard of it.” Does it look like another storm to you?

Signs of the Times

America’s phallic affair with guns should give us pause to wonder what the true motivation is. My wife sent me an NPR story on the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania. Congregants gathered carrying AR-15s, saying that the Bible’s rod of iron was really a semi-automatic. Did I say it was a phallic affair? According to the story by Scott Neuman, some of the faithful had substituted the crown of thorns for a crown of bullets. Literally. That man dying on the cross because of government overreach, I suspect, wishes he had his hands free so he could rub his eyes. He’s hanging here dying with the title prince of peace only to have grenade grannies praising his name with high explosives. This is what passes for Christianity these days.

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Sensible evangelicals have been in full retreat since November 2016. Stripped of their label by extremists who somehow mistake the lamb of God for Rambo, they no longer have a name of their own. Like worms on the sidewalk in the rain, there’s nowhere left to go. The same is true of rank and file Republicans. They wonder what has become of the (God help us!) party of Nixon. Watergate seems like a mere indiscretion compared to this. I’m sorry, were you waiting for Armageddon? Don’t worry, those who move the hands of the doomsday clock have shifted it closer to midnight than it’s ever been before. You’ll have your end times soon enough.

Among the ironies witnessed by the crucified one from his vantage point high on the cross is that it was his zealous followers who started all this. Religious experts tell us that all world religions depart significantly from the teachings of their founders within one generation. If you’ve read Paul’s letters you know this to be true. I grew up as a Fundamentalist. Even though for my career I specialized in the Hebrew Bible, my upbringing was focused on the red letter words of the other testament. Over and over and over again I read them. Think of others before yourself. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Give away everything you own. The ones I don’t recall internalizing were: arm yourself with deadly force. Give your grannie an assault rifle. If someone slaps you on the cheek, blow him away. It is more blessed to destroy than to forgive. We sit beneath a giant clock with a commander in chief with an itchy nuclear button finger. Even a clock can be a crucifix, if you look at it in a certain way.

Testamental Annihilation

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.

Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.

While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

Odd One Out

The older I get, the more I realize I’m the one that’s weird. Go ahead and say it, “You’re just now figuring this out?!” This epiphany came to me on a stiff breeze. To understand you have to get the idea of commuting on New Jersey Transit. Although twice in one week my route was blessed with a brand new bus, the general operating procedure is to use the oldest, least reliable buses on my route. It is one of the longest routes the company runs into New York City, which means that it is one of the most expensive. You’d think they’d use their best buses, but then you’d be thinking like me. Breakdowns aren’t as frequent as they had been for a while, but other discomforts are fairly common. Just this past week, for instance the heat was stuck on high. Add about 50 bodies to an enclosed, overheated space, and well, let your imagination go.

Now interstate buses aren’t like the school species. The windows don’t open. There are, however, two escape hatches in the ceiling. When I got on board I noticed immediately that it was a sauna bus. The last time this happened (and yes, this wasn’t a unique situation in my experience) passengers opened the escape hatches to create a breeze. Problem was, it was winter this time. The day was struggling to reach 40 degrees outside. As we hit the highway the wind was blowing full against those in my row and I learned what wind chill really can be. There wasn’t much traffic, so the bus was tooling along at about 65. I could feel my left eye beginning to freeze up. My book pages were flapping wildly in my blue-tipped fingers. The personal nor’easter cut right through my winter coat. In my row we were lined up like eskimos, all bundled up. There were no free seats to which we might move. I couldn’t reach the hatch to close it. Nobody said anything.

Here’s where the weirdness comes in. As I child I was raised being taught that true believers think of others first. Other people may not see it, but I consciously try very hard in subtle ways to make sure others get what they need before me. I’m learning not everyone necessarily thinks that way. If I had a degree in fluid dynamics I might be able to describe airflow on a speeding bus. Instead, let me put it this way: the guy who opened the hatch was sitting in the row in front of it, out of harm’s way. The icy blast didn’t hit him, but it did everyone behind him. Passengers tend to think of themselves first. I’m sure I do, too. Just trying to get home after a trying day of work is, well, trying. It’s just that some folks try not to do things that cause others pneumonia, no matter how warm they feel. But then, I’m the odd one, I know.