It’s Banned Book Week again. Each year the American Library Association promotes free thought by raising awareness of books that have been, or currently are, banned. Having just exited ABE books’ Weird Book Room (among the currently featured: Paint it Black: A Guide to Gothic Homemaking, The Bible Cure for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Is Your Dog Gay?), it is easy to see how the morally squeamish might wish that some books had never been written, but being a firm believer in personal expression, I give them a rousing cheer. Odd ideas are also among the Lego blocks that build our world.
I also ponder the texts with which I have spent so much time, and wonder what the ancient censors would have done with the great classics of antiquity. History’s first great novel, the Epic of Gilgamesh, would certainly have been on their crushed clay list. On only the second tablet we read, “Enkidu sits before the harlot. The two of them make love together… For six days and seven nights Enkidu came forth, mating with the lass. Then the harlot opened her mouth, saying to Enkidu: ‘As I look at thee, Enkidu, thou are become like a god” (Speiser’s rather tame translation). A sex scene with the first woman Enkidu ever met? We can’t have our kids reading that! Where do you put the V-chip in this tablet?
Perhaps the people of ancient Ugarit would have fared better? Their epic tale, the story of the trials and ultimate triumph of Baal, includes his unfortunate defeat at the hands of death. Baal is ordered to the underworld. “Mighty Baal obeyed. He loved a heifer in the pasture, a cow in the steppes of death’s shores, seventy-seven times he laid with her, she let him mount eighty-eight times.” Whoops! Hope the kids weren’t reading that. Surely this is some kind of sacred marriage ritual with Anat and not a cow? Good thing we never figured out where KTU 1.10 fits into the cycle! There’s another one for the rock crusher.
It’s a good thing the Egyptians were more civilized. Their culture would never allow for such liberal, naughty writing, would it? Well, maybe if we ignore the Memphite Theology. Not for the shy, here we are told how Ptah brought the Ennead into being using just his fingers.
I started reading the Bible as a child. To my surprise, it would not have gotten away with a G rating either. It seems to me that books deal with the greatest complexities human beings face. Sacred books as well as secular delve into the darker grottoes of the mind, and here the Bible is clearly among them. If we had systematically destroyed all written work that had offended others throughout history, we wouldn’t even have the Good Book left to argue about.
A few years back I had the privilege of working at the same university as Dr. Michael Zimmerman, currently a biology professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. In my temporary stint as a Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered that Dr. Zimmerman, then the Dean of the College of Letters and Science, was the very man responsible for the Clergy Letter Project. I had read about the project before; in an attempt to demonstrate that Creationism is not mainstream Christianity (nor science, for that matter), the Clergy Letter Project was attempting to acquire a few thousand signatures from the ordained of various denominations who were willing to admit that evolution posed no threat to their religion.
As an occupational hazard of someone with my background, I know many, many clergy. I offered to solicit some help in reaching the goal on the list and spent the rest of the semester contacting various sacerdotal practitioners who rightfully saw the Creationist ploy for what it was and continues to be. Creationism is nothing short of an attempt to break through the church and state separation clause and attain federal support for a particular religious viewpoint. That particular viewpoint is not shared by the majority of informed Christians, but the population is easily swayed by Creationist rhetoric. Creationists do not deserve sympathy, for they are much more aggressive than they pretend to be. Subterfuge in the cause of truth is a contradiction in ethics.
Religion may be hardwired into human brains, but it need not seek to pick fights with factual truth as it is learned. At each stage along the progression of human achievement, various religious believers have felt that the new knowledge discovered confronted their faith with unsurpassable barriers. Faith, however, is a belief system, not a factual construct. If faith requires proof, as even the Bible itself says, it is not really faith at all. If you know any clergy who are willing to sign on for common sense and belief in the rational world in which we find ourselves, please send them this link and ask them to weigh in on the question. Nearly 12,000 clergy have signed to date. There are even separate lists for Rabbinical and Unitarian-Universalist clergy. Don’t worry about the Creationists. They will always be back for more.
An early Creationist attempt at intelligent design
With autumn in the air and the harvest season looming near, my family recently watched Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Quite apart from the inspired improbability of Aardman Studios productions, the central role of the village vicar in this film aroused my interest. Confirming an oft-cited proposition of this blog that mythical creatures burst from the same mental regions as religion, at Lord Quartermaine’s inquiry as to what might kill a were-rabbit, the vicar promptly pulls down a monster book from his shelves to reveal the secret. It is the church that knows about monsters.
In my continuing research into religious reactions to death and the afterlife, I constantly run into the name of Montague Summers. Summers was the author of the definitive books, in his period, on vampires, werewolves, and witches. He is best known for his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, “the hammer of witches,” the main witch-hunting tome of the Middle Ages. A deacon of the Church of England before converting to Catholicism, Summers was a believer in the phenomena that he researched. Styling himself a witch-hunter (he lived from 1880 to 1948), he tried to live the fantasy world he helped to create.
The more that neurologists study the brain, the more we discover how deeply embedded religion can be. Any number of researchers have suggested various “God-shaped nodules” in the gray matter that provide for continuing religious belief in the face of advancing scientific knowledge. I would suggest, as a “religionist,” that perhaps nestled next to our mental menorahs, crucifixes, and statues of the virgin, there are also ghosts, witches, werewolves, and vampires lurking in the dark corners of the God node.
I seldom gush, nor am I given to great displays of emotion. Although I appreciate great accomplishments in others, I have never considered a living person a hero. Only Bruce Springsteen. An article in the newspaper yesterday described the first academic conference on the Boss’s music, held right where it all began — New Jersey. Unfortunately unable to attend, I relish the fact that others see in Springsteen what must be something like I see.
Last year at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Boston, I picked up a copy of a new book, The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen, by Jeffrey Symynkywicz (Westminster John Knox, 2008). I am not a fan of “Gospel according to —” books, but there is a trenchant depth of struggle with religion embedded in Bruce’s songs that transfixes me almost as much as Melville’s Moby Dick. Now, this is deeply personal with me. I don’t discuss my amazement that borders on worship of Springsteen with anyone. Coming from a decidedly blue-collar background, and having wrestled against circumstance for everything I’ve earned, including my degrees, I hear resonances of empathy throbbing through what Bruce sings. He is not an icon; he is an authentic human being. And his music is a gospel.
I haven’t read Symynkywicz’s book yet. Whenever I’ve tried to read the popular bios of the Boss I soon become frustrated at how trite they all make it sound. Having survived (barely) the Reagan-Bush era with its utter lack of sympathy for the condition of most Americans, sometimes I just need to crawl into the corner alone, slip on the headphones, and listen to Nebraska over and over again.
Researching traditions about death can lead to some occluded avenues shunned by many Ancient Near East scholars (generally anything after about the rise of the Roman Empire is irrelevant). It has long been my contention that death and religion are intricately intertwined, well nigh incapable of being teased apart. I’m also very interested in the research of writers on popular culture. Findings, no matter how erudite, if they don’t reach the public will only fail to impress. Mary Roach, ever masterful, wrote a morbidly fascinating account of the afterlife, so to speak, of corpses. This work (Stiff) was followed shortly by Spook — her foray into the science of ghosts. Anyone who can have you mortified one minute and laughing out loud the next deserves to be read.
Can't have one without the other
I recently finished Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth (Reaktion, 2008). I was pleasantly surprised that Beresford ambled back to the Neolithic Period in his quest for vampire origins. A number of unexpected facts jumped out at me from his pages — vampires historically have very few traits that last through the folklore about them over the ages. Primarily all they share is being improperly dead. This horrific concept is among the most deeply rooted of human terrors. We prefer the properly dead who stay dead, thank you. Whether revenant or still alive, the vampire somehow threatens the lives of the living and must be dispatched by making him (or her) properly dead.
More rat than bat
Having been a youngster and woefully unaware of international news at the time, I had never heard of England’s Highgate Vampire of the 1970s. A disjointed and confusing account involving an actual vampire-hunting Catholic priest, a rival vampire-hunting occultist, and ending with the actual staking of a corpse (in 1970! CE!), the tale in Beresford’s book is almost incredible. A little web research demonstrated that the story still has a much wider following than this blog will ever have. Overall, however, it convinced me that my inklings of the danse macabre between religion and death were as accurate as a vampire hunter’s stake.
The Associated Press today released a story about an Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard discovered in England this summer. The trove, which likely contains at least 1500 items, many of silver and gold, is calculated to cause substantial reassessment of Dark Age England. Leslie Webster, a former curator at the British Museum, suggested that given the nature of the artifacts, new light could be cast on the relationship between warfare and Christianity.
Apart from the obvious deliria of daydreams of wealth that such finds always drag in their cloaks, this treasure once again underscores the connections between religion and violence. The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic invaders of England following the decline of the Roman Empire, had been early converts to Christianity. Even Alaric the Goth was a good Christian, although he had little patience with the oversight of Rome. The recently uncovered hoard contains mostly military trophies, but among the finds was a gold strip reading “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face” (Numbers 10.35). Already bloggers are drawing comparison with Jules’ quote from the fabricated Ezekiel 25.17 in Pulp Fiction, but the connection of Christianity and conquest is much more intimate than that. Once Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, the imperial imperative took over. It became a religion of conquest. A similar phenomenon occurred after the advent of Islam. The zeal of the converted should never be underestimated.
I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd
So, what are we to make of this scriptural quote among sword knobs and doom sticks? Is it simply more evidence that religions, like the Roman Empire (according to Octavius) “must grow or die”? Those who believe carry a deep-seated fear that their religion might be proven false. On it ride serious (and often eternal) consequences. One way to ensure the quelling of that fear is to silence the heretics who decry the one true faith: take up your swords and nukes and threaten the infidel. The road less traveled, however, is to rise above our insecurities and simply enjoy the ride.
Podcast 11 deals with the phenomenon of Fundamentalism, particularly biblical Fundamentalism, and its history. The podcast begins by setting the historical parameters, in the early part of the twentieth century, and considers some of the reasons that the movement may have begun. German biblical criticism, Darwin’s theory, and the First World War among them. A brief sketch of the movement is then offered, starting with the Niagara Bible Conference and the publication of The Fundamentals. The basic tenets of the belief system are summarized, again with suggestions as to why this may have been the case. A cautionary conclusion ends the presentation.