Monthly Archives: November 2010

Impossible Kingdom

Over Thanksgiving we visited friends in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Newtown was the home of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks, famous for his many renditions of The Peaceable Kingdom. On a chilly Black Friday we walked to his former home, visited his Meeting House, and stopped by his grave. The Quakers, whose presence is much more palpable in the eastern part of the state, were the original Pennsylvanians. Their pacifism defined them, and the peaceable kingdom was their ideal world. A world without strife, without greed, without televangelists and politicians. It is a compelling vision.

A peaceable kingdom

The Society of Friends recognized no human leader to their movement that sought direct experience of the divine. In the Bible such a vision pervades early Israel where the rule of God was expected to be enough; no king was needed for this kingdom. The ideal world, however, was plagued by human ambition and selfishness. Before the first judge hung up his hat they knew that they’d need a king. A monarchy, as they were warned, that would bring about its own set of intractable problems. Leadership inherently creates inequalities. Just ask any accountant who keeps track of a governor’s expenses. Kinglets are just as bad as godlets.

We read about the excesses and abuses our leaders stockpile in the name of public servanthood. Yet, for all that, the world is not at peace. An increasing number of nations are joining the nuclear club, poising their missiles over populations of innumerable people in need. The peaceable kingdom has no king, and the visions of the prophets are cloudy and uncertain. Visiting the quaint, affluent hamlet of Newtown, it is possible to believe in the vision of one of their defining personalities. Just don’t open the newspaper or turn on the television. Because, like the Israelites, we have many eager kings lined up outside the door.

Is the peaceable kingdom dead?

Lead Us Not

The media love the story of the fallen. Sometimes even those in religious institutions secretly delight in seeing the foibles of their infallible leaders. Part of the problem is that many clergy (but by no means all) place themselves on a moral precipice impossible to reach by mere mortal standards. So the Associated Press carries the story of a Neptune, New Jersey pastor who’s taking a sabbatical. What makes this leave noteworthy is that Pastor Miller railed against his flock using Facebook, arguing that it leads to adultery. So far, so good. This is standard pastor-babble. The problem is a decade ago the good reverend was involved in a ménage à trois, thereby predating even Facebook and still finding access to adultery. The response of Living Word Christian Fellowship Church: take some time off.

The real problem, the Republican symbol in the room, is that human nature likes to place the blame elsewhere. “The Devil made me do it,” was the 1970’s version (thanks, Flip!). Many religions, uncomfortable with the implications of humanity’s evolution, have devised means of shifting the blame. Augustine gave us “original sin,” suggesting that the true blame went back to our first biblical ancestors and forever made sex dirty. Somebody else must take the fall, as the Neptune preacher has discovered. The words of another famous New Jerseyan capture the sense exactly: “Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame, if you inherit the sins you inherit the flames. Adam raised a Cain.”

Coming to grips with being human may be the greatest challenge bestowed by consciousness. There are primate survival strategies inherent in shifting the blame. Where evolution is disallowed, supernatural agency – even Facebook – is placed in the dock. Facebook may encourage the wasting of time on trite sentiments endlessly repeated across this universe we call the Internet, but it can hardly be blamed for adultery. For that, the beast is within. And those who place themselves on pedestals have a great distance to fall.

Lead us not into Facebook...

Holy Horror

Back in October, in the spirit of the season, I attended a local lecture by a ghost hunter at a nearby public library. This sincere young man struck me as perfectly normal, but haunted by his ghostly encounters. During the question session someone asked about TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society, of “Ghost Hunters” fame). The lecturer indicated that TAPS is not above fabricating evidence for ratings, a disappointing but not unexpected factor when it comes to television. He even gave some evidence to back his assertions. Nevertheless, my wife’s whimsical six-month subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine has continued on well past its expiration date, and when the November/December issue arrived, I was interested to see a piece entitled “Sacramental Horror: What scary stories can tell us about what is real.” Well, this was too good to pass up.

The article, written by Presbyterian minister Jonathan Weyer, discusses the value of horror films. The juxtaposition of a clergyman and horror films is a little unexpected, but believable. After all, many horror films feature religious ideals clothed in monstrous form. Dividing horror films into Uncanny/Unsettling horror, gross-out horror, and torture porn, Weyer goes on to explain how uncanny or unsettling horror underscores the moral order of the universe and is therefore appropriate for Christian contemplation. He even draws the Nicene Creed into it. Gross-out horror serves the function of making the viewer contemplate death and perhaps even helps to make fun of it. This is a less noble, but still acceptable Christian enterprise. Torture porn, on the other hand, simply has no redeeming value. Sacramental horror really didn’t enter the discussion. Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror takes this issue on more directly.

I really don’t expect much insight from a fanzine that treats the reality of fairies and the prognostications of tarot cards next to the genuinely mysterious, such as ghosts. Finding morality in horror films is often a matter of eisegesis. The fear in such films often emerges from the sacred, either in pure or distorted form. Even if “the pure of heart or, often the virgin” survives while “Wrongdoers get put to the axe,” as Weyer states, seldom is that the intended point of the movie. John Carpenter denies that there was a moralizing message in his Halloween, often cited as the movie that established the “good girl survives” motif. The fact is that horror relates to the sacred in the element of fear. If people were not afraid, there would be little for religion or horror movies to accomplish.

Brave New Whirled

Today marks the triumph of capitalism. Having just finished reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for the first time since my undergraduate days, I found it strangely appropriate and prescient. Huxley foresaw a bleak future where comfort and convenience outweighed concerns for truth and meaning. As the World Controller of Western Europe reveals to Mr. Savage, it was the Nine Year’s War that made people so docile that they would accept complete government control over their private lives. Read “9-11” for the Nine Year’s War, and he pretty much nailed it. Americans today put up with severely restricted freedoms because only the rich and powerful are truly free. We even have Huxley’s “feelies” – we just call it the TSA checkpoint at the airport.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” So says Mr. Savage shortly before his tragic end. The remainder of society – those willing to play along with the game, those willing to be anesthetized with the little perks the government throws their way – are already dead. “Let them eat cake.” We have our hedonistic day of shopping frenzy, looking forward to the soma of Christmas. We will comply despite the dehumanization the unemployed, the unwary traveler, the racially profiled, face every other day. As long as we have our electronic toys and the network into which they may be plugged, guide us o thou great Patriot Act. Freedom is not free. Orwell called it doublethink. Today it is doubleclick.

Novels have the capacity to say what libraries full of dusty dissertations cannot. Perhaps the future has not turned out quite the way Orwell or Huxley or Burgess predicted, but they were not far off. November has become the month of the novel. The Office of Letters and Light hosts National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for those in the know) each year to encourage others to find their creative voice. The challenge: write a 50,000-word novel fully in the month of November. I finished mine in just over two weeks. Perhaps someone who has the good fortune to break into the publishing world will once again sound that warning shot before society takes its next Huxleyian turn. But until then, anyone who says they don’t need a gramme or two of soma, well, they’re just plain lying.

Thanksgiving Day

This post is an excerpt from my unpublished book for young readers giving the history of American holidays:

When you think of Thanksgiving you may see visions of a big turkey dinner and a four-day weekend. If you’re like me (I hope not!) you probably think that ever since the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, Americans have had a big November feast every year since. This popular cozy image may be heartwarming, but it is wrong. Thanksgiving in history is a custom that goes back to the Puritan settlers. Puritans came to America so that they could practice their religion freely. They were religious people (not a great sense of humor); things had been pretty tough for them – crossing the stormy Atlantic in small ships, not knowing what to expect when they arrived, lots of people dying on the way – not an easy thing to do! Once they got here, there were no grocery stores and they hadn’t planted crops earlier in the year, they didn’t even know what would grow here. Many didn’t survive, they weren’t America-tolerant you might say.

What we think of as the first Thanksgiving involved English colonists (Pilgrims) in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans. One of the Wampanoag, Squanto, served as an interpreter – pretty big of him, considering he’d learned English from being a slave. He taught the settlers how to grow corn, which was unknown in Europe. (What the English called “corn” is what we call “wheat.” The more correct word for what we call “corn” is “maize.”) Squanto also taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels to eat – maybe he found a way to pay them back after all! The first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 followed the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. They ate deer and some wild birds – enter the turkey! – along with their crops.

You see, both the Wampanoag and the English had traditional harvest festivals – many peoples do. “Thanksgiving,” however, has to do with, well, giving thanks. Did I mention that the Pilgrims were religious? They believed that God had successfully brought them here, so they thanked God. Not every early harvest was so great. In a bad year they had a day of mourning rather than a Thanksgiving feast. Some historians place the first “Thanksgiving” in 1923. The Pilgrims had experienced a drought. Frantically they prayed for rain, and, Flanders-like, it came. So they held a Thanksgiving. These Massachusetts Puritans held Thanksgivings in church rather than around a banquet table. For them, these irregular days of giving thanks marked the survival of difficult times, not fancy food. So they held occasional Thanksgivings, not watching football after a big meal, but praying in church. By the middle of the 1600s settlers began to have a harvest-day Thanksgiving pretty much every year, but not always on the same day. They had not set a specific date to give thanks and feast.

Puritans, you must realize, gave thanks at the proverbial drop of a buckled hat. They prayed before meals as a regular practice – something many families continue to do. To set aside a day for special prayers, like Thanksgiving, was as natural for them as women wearing bonnets. The practice of having an annual (yearly) day of giving thanks got underway in Massachusetts around 1630. Other colonies joined in, but not always at the same time. Remember, harvests come at different times in different places.

[See Full Essays for the rest of the story.]

West Texas Dead

A small item from the Star-Ledger wire services proclaims, “Former priest accused of trying to hire hit man.” Since the story was bylined Texas I started to wonder if the accused was someone I knew. Nashotah House boasted more Texans than any other statehood citizenship when I was there, so it was natural enough of a gut-level reaction. Fortunately, it was wrong. A former Catholic priest named John Fiala stands accused of trying to hire a neighbor to assassinate a teenager who’d accused him of sexual abuse. In a travesty of at least three of the ten commandments, a man of the cloth allegedly attempted to bare false witness (the error is intentional).

We hold clergy to a high standard in our society. The mystique of being “called” by God, secreted away in a provocatively named “seminary,” and emerging ontologically superior to other humans has a touch of whimsy that is difficult to dismiss. Having twice been a victim of seminary, once as a student and for even longer as a faculty member, I learned some important truths about those trained for ministry. They are merely human. In fact, my best students were those who recognized and embraced this fact. When I was informed that an ultra-pious candidate was about to “shed the shackles of the laity” and would return from his weekend ordination “ontologically transformed,” I rolled my non-ordained eyes. I had seen the test scores and intense faculty evaluations. Ontological change? We should be so lucky.

So, a man barred from any sexual outlet seeks a silent victim. We should not wonder. Attempting to get a neighbor to become an assassin is a bit over the top, even for most Texans. It does, however, illustrate my point that the laying on of Episcopal hands does nothing to change the essence of a person. Clergy are just as human as anyone they serve. It is when they think otherwise that problems arise. Secular students in the halls of Montclair State University are talking about the Vatican’s changing collective mind on condoms. Discussion and exegesis of the issue cover the front page of the New Advent website. Too bad the decision hadn’t been made a few months earlier. This situation might not have emerged at all. As the paper states, “the Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in the West Texas community of Rocksprings [is] a rural enclave known for sheep and goat herding.”

Don't let it get your goat

Towing Jehovah

Back before my blogging days began, one of my relatives was reading a book entitled Towing Jehovah by James Morrow. Given my field of study, I was intrigued by the title, made a note of it, and got on with my life. I was reminded of the story when reading a book on religion in popular culture, so it seemed the time was right to pick it up and see what it was about. First of all, it is a work of fiction, so nobody should get too upset. The premise is that God has died and his corporeal body has to be given a proper burial. Since the corpse is huge and since it has fallen into the ocean, a washed-up oil tanker captain is selected by the angels, who are dying out of empathy, to tow the body to its final resting place. Herein lies the tale.

The book won a World Fantasy Award, and is generally an engaging story. Any lifelong student of religion will naturally find bits to quibble with, but the fantasy author’s heart wants what the fantasy author’s heart wants. The question the book raised in my mind was whether it really said much about religion at all. Sure, there are several great one-liners and quirky observations about how the established religions might react to the death of God, but the book itself intimates that humanity does fine without a God, but it required a God to get it started. It is the story of humankind growing up. When I finished the book, however, I was left with the impression that religion is developed here in spite of God.

God, being dead, is a strangely silent character in the book. Western religions have taught us to suppose God is active, and very vocal. Just tune in any televangelist. In Towing Jehovah, God has become an idol, a prime mover that became the main event. It is a provocative yet somehow respectful treatment of God as an idea. James Morrow is often categorized as a secular humanist, yet his book tows God into the consciousness of a world that already largely ignores the divine. In this sense it remains a paradox. No matter what people say, God just doesn’t go away. The reader, cast adrift, like the corpus dei in the novel, keeps bumping back into God. The concept, once born, will live as long as human consciousness survives.