House of Myth

Mythology is everywhere. Although I am prevented by personal experience from declaring with the professionals that it is highly valued by our culture, I nevertheless find it lurking all around. Just yesterday my daughter asked me if anyone still believed in the Greek gods any more. I am sure that with the revival of ancient cults that is all the rage today one wouldn’t have to travel too far to find an ardent devotee of Zeus or Hera. Even on a more pragmatic level, however, mythology maintains its allure. While reading a bit of Apollonius or Euripides recently I was struck at how biblical it sounded. Mythology pervaded ancient life and became woven into the fabric from which our own culture is cut. There is no escaping it.

I just finished reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While I’m not a real fan of ergodic literature, the story has a way of luring the reader into the labyrinth of the Minotaur, an association that the book itself disavows. As a student of mythology, however, I approached the book as a decidedly non-demigodic Theseus, wondering where the twists and turns might lead. My conclusion at the end was that no one truly escapes mythology. Classed in the horror genre, the book has few frights and more than a few rest stops to ponder. If we would admit it we would see that mythology still has a tremendous gravity.

The use of mythology as the basis for literary work is nothing new. Clever authors for centuries have recast the classics into newer forms, sometimes transforming them beyond recognition. As the world grows more pluralistic, keeping in touch with our mythology will only grow in importance. It is our shared heritage, and even if far distant cultures have their own cadre of myths, it doesn’t take too long to realize that their stories, like ours, spring from a very deep pool indeed.

Probation in Hades

Yesterday I received an email in my Rutgers account with the title above. It was difficult to determine if the message was directed at me or was a piece of spam that had gracefully navigated around the powerful university filters. In either case, the sender had mapped out to an impressive degree the goings on in the afterlife. I am not qualified to comment on the correctness of the assertions, having never been to the Underworld myself, but I was hooked by the preference for the name Hades over Hell. This particularity took me back to revivalist sermons I heard as a youth when preachers, apparently fearing the swear-like quality to the word “Hell” – which the church gave us – deferred to the use of “Hades.”

As I have described in one of my podcasts, Hell is a Christian construct derived from Judaism’s confrontation with Zoroastrianism. The idea is distinctly Christian in its formulation: Hell is the afterlife for those who side with Satan and his angels and therefore are blocked from Heaven (also based on Zoroastrianism). Nobody wishes to go there, but those who choose the powers of darkness will be sentenced to an eternity of burning and torment for their choice. The idea is so odious that eventually its very name came to stand for a curse-word in many Christian contexts. In the pietism of the Evangelical tradition, the word itself is to be avoided. Thus I heard sermons warning of the somehow softer sounding Hades.

Hades is not Hell. I tell my mythology students that the classical Greek conception of the afterlife is not necessarily a punishment. It may be for some notorious sinners, but generally it is the fate of all the dead, like Sheol in the Bible. The choice of Hades as a stand-in for Hell is not in keeping with standard Christian teaching. Hell is Hell. Hades is somewhere else. Both lie underground, but they inhabit completely divergent conceptual worlds. I wish to thank my sender for this carefully crafted Underworldly roadmap, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must insist that a Hell be called a Hell. Hades is best left to Pluto and his retainers, so Satan needs a realm of his own.

Hades, slightly influenced by ideas of Hell

Under God

As one of the more flamboyant of national holidays in the United States nears, there is a whiff of discontent in the air. The North Carolina Secular Association has been sponsoring billboards that provocatively read, “One Nation Indivisible.” Those who, since 1954, have grown accustomed to reciting the “pledge of allegiance” with the words “under God” inserted after the “one nation” bit, grumble that one more icon of civil religion has come under fire. I first became aware of civil religion as a student in a self-identified Evangelical Christian college. I was astonished that the religion faculty, all believers, suggested that civil religion was not true religion at all. True religion was an inner commitment, not social bravado – often in the service of political aims. I was pointed to the writings of Richard Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and told to think for myself.

Since that time, I have kept a wary eye on civil religion. It is a dangerous force in society since few people think deeply or seriously about their religion. It fosters knee-jerk mob mentality. Civil religion is a slurry of a variety of religious outlooks, mostly Christian, predominantly Protestant, but now gaining a dose of conservative Catholicism. No one denomination would accept all its tenets as true faith, but weighed against the “godless alternatives” most conservative believers would much prefer the shallow public display of religiosity to “one nation indivisible.”

The Pledge of Allegiance was first composed in 1892. It read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” (That flag didn’t have 50 stars.) The North Carolina Secular Association has, arguably, simply reverted to the original formulation. In 1954, with Cold War concerns heating up and decent Americans associating themselves with Evangelical Protestant values, the phrase “under God” was added – take that you godless Communists! That other great icon of civil religion, the United States motto, “In God we trust,” was placed on currency during the battle-torn era of the Civil War. Once again, the Cold War brought it into prominence. In 1956 the Congressional Record noted that “In God we trust” should be designated as the United States motto. With the collapse of many of the Cold War threats, the fully charged civil religion front had to find a new outlet for its excessive energy. One needs only a casual glance at the American political scene to see where this insipid, lukewarm version of civil religion has resurfaced. One nation indivisible?

Does it really stand for freedom of religion?

Blogging the Blob

It has no shape. It has no brain. It oozes in where it is not wanted and wreaks havoc on the innocent people of the local community. It is in the hands of an apocalyptic clergyman. No, it isn’t the Republican Party, it is The Blob (1988). Having just watched the remake of the 1958 sci-fi film of the same name, a number of elements relevant to this blog (blob?) stood out in sharp relief. The most notable change from the original movie comes in the form of the role played by Reverend Meeker, the (apparently) Catholic priest turned tent-preaching revivalist. Of course, the whole government conspiracy plot is also new to the film, but that is best left to other blogs.

As noted in previous posts, religion and horror genres share much common ground. While it is hard to take a blob seriously – the role of Bob the blob in Monsters vs. Aliens is precisely comic relief – the idea of a crazed minister unleashing chaos is perhaps a little too believable. The real source of terror in the 1988 version of The Blob is not the monster but those who control it: the government and the church. When the government demonstrates that it cannot control the monster it has generated, it moves into the hands of Reverend Meeker. Here it rests until, after a sermon about the end of times, the reverend pulls out his jar of blob and indicates that as soon as he receives a sign from God, it will be released.

In a strange way this strange film proved prescient. The move of religion into politics was underway already in the Reagan years, but it was a threat few took seriously. It was not until W’s reign that the implications began to become clear. A religiously motivated electorate resembles a blob in significant ways. Once released it is difficult to contain, even by its creators. In aspect it is laughable, but in consequence it is deadly. It stops at nothing short of total domination. This film, which never made the impact that many horror films achieve, may turn out to be the scariest movie of its era after all.

Not your parents' blob

Misappropriated Prophets

There seems to be a can of worms lying open on my desk, released by the comments yesterday’s post engendered. I thank all my readers and commentators. The issue most pointedly thrust among the worms appears to be that of prophecy. Teaching about prophecy constitutes a large part of my meager income. And since prophecy plays a large role in many Evangelical associations not only with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but also Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and just about any other major catastrophe, it is worth exposing. In the Bible prophecy is not about predicting the future.

Prophecy was a widespread phenomenon long before Israel appeared on the scene. One of the roles prophets shared in ancient times was the declaration of outcomes to momentous events. Unfortunately that aspect of their duty easily became equated with predicting the future. Its actual milieu, however, was that ancient people believed prophets to be “effective speakers.” When a prediction came true it was not because a prophet could “see the future,” but because the spoken word of the prophet participated in the reality of the world. The belief was that the effective word came from God/a god, and therefore would be true by definition.

Apocalyptic, the familiar literary form of Daniel and Revelation, is not prophecy. Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, had influenced many ancient religions, including Judaism. Apocalyptic, like prophecy, has a predictive element. Like prophecy, however, apocalyptic has a different purpose. The books most heavily farmed for future predictions by Evangelicals, Daniel and Revelation, are both thinly veiled accounts of contemporary events of the authors’ own days. Daniel consoles Jews persecuted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Revelation consoles Christians persecuted by one of the early Roman emperors (the jury is still out on precisely which one). Neither book predicts the end of the world. Both, however, declare the comeuppance of the arrogant oppressor. It is here, perhaps, that the true relevance of the Bible speaks to the scars human beings inflict on their own planet and on each other.

sic semper tyrannis

Oil’s Well that Ends

Greed has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I like to think it isn’t petty personal greed, but the insatiable corporate variety of greed. Friends send me links to sad commentaries on the Gulf Oil Spill, an event that severely amplifies the cruelty already inherent in nature, but an event that would have been preventable were it not for greed. My friend James from Idle Musings sent me a compelling story from the UK Guardian that poignantly demonstrates how a shift of worldviews has bestowed divine approval on the rape of our planet. The very religion that began as animism, the belief in the ubiquitous divine in nature, has evolved into a Neo-con Christianity that supports free markets as surely as it believes in resurrection. If a few million animals have to die, well, their invisible, loving God sees far more than our limited sight.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the video link my wife pointed out to me last night. Here an advocate for biblical “prophecy” points out that it can not be coincidence that the day after the United States withdrew unilateral support for Israel in the United Nations Security Council was the very day that Deepwater Horizon exploded. No, the pundit declares, do not be fooled. God is punishing the United States for withdrawing support from Israel. This idea, unfortunately, draws on a morass of sloppy theology that can be historically traced to an evangelical death-wish for the planet. Barbara Tuchman, one of the most respected historians of the last century, objectively traces the story in her classic Bible and Sword. Political support for Israel was perceived as a means of forcing God’s hand into releasing the second coming. So much for human sympathy.

Coincidences continually occur. April 19 is the day that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope just five years ago. It is the day Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco. It is the Feast of Saint Aelfheah of Canterbury. It is Patriot’s Day in New England. It is the day The Simpsons premiered. Whether to see God’s hand in any or all of this is a matter of perspective. As is the motivation behind supporting Israel, big oil, or the second coming. If there is any name other than greed for offering political support for a nation of sacrificial lambs and spilling oil in order to hasten the apocalypse, I simply do not know what it might be.

And this was only April

The New Tetragrammaton

It all started with Genesis. I’ve been reading Genesis since before I was even a teenager. When I began teaching it in a seminary setting, the age-old question of how science and religion fit together had become an insistent preoccupation. I began reading books by scientists who hypothesized that belief itself has a biological basis. Of course, there will never be any convincing those who believe since it is a chicken-and-egg style argument whether the body has “faith structures” because God put them there, or if we believe in God because our bodies grew them. One thing seems fairly certain, humans are “programmed to receive” what has been labeled “divine input” through the very bodies we’ve evolved.

Last night I finished reading Dean Hamer’s The God Gene, the latest in a long series of such books I’ve picked up over the years. While much of the technical and statistical information was beyond the comprehension of a simple humanities scholar such as myself, it became clear that a genetic basis likely does exist for a sense of spirituality among people. Quantifying spirituality, obviously, is a task open to long and serious debate, but the general traits of spirituality are nevertheless instantly recognizable. If those recognized as spiritual share characteristics uncommon among the non-spiritual, that itch should be telling us something. Hamer tracks the culprit to the gene VMAT2, responsible in some way for the monoamines that trigger spiritual experiences. He displays the evidence for how he drew this conclusion in a scientific way, being careful to note that genetic predisposition to spirituality neither proves nor disproves God.

Since the traditional Judeo-Christian name for God consists of four letters known as the “tetragrammaton” and since the “God gene” also has four letters, VMAT, I wonder if we’re onto something here. God can’t be measured in the lab (yet), but the “receptors” for God can. Others scientists have analyzed “God nodules” in human brains that seem to react to spiritual influences. As long as religion does not object to the laboratory probing of its sacred cows, we may eventually find God in a test-tube or petri dish. Chances are he won’t be a bearded white man sitting on a golden throne, and the smart money says most people won’t worship him once he is found.