Two Ghosts

To escape the harsh realities of a fractured career, I turn to celluloid. Lest Hollywood distract me too much, I strictly limit my movie viewing to weekends when I can let down, for a few moments, my constant anxiety. Since my religious antennae are always prickling, I notice implications sometimes in unexpected places. So this weekend’s fare included two ghost stories. Both of them utilize religion to resolve the haunting, but in very different ways. An American Haunting purports to be based on real events involving the putative “Bell witch” of Tennessee. The movie takes many liberties with this scant folktale, including a church condemning a seemingly upstanding member and a Bible being dismembered as the angry spirit attacks the Bell family. In the end, the plot is confused by a revelation of family abuse and the viewer wonders who it is that tears apart Bibles.

The second part of my double-feature was The Screaming Skull, a 1958 horror film that fails to raise a single follicle in fear. Nevertheless, the moody movie does provide the Dies Irae for Stanley Kubrick’s opening theme of The Shining as well as a sense of isolation that would also inform the latter exemplar. The religious element comes in the form of a priest who is a close friend to a clandestine murderer. With the help of a ghostly screaming skull, the priest is the one who eventually solves the murder and rescues the intended victim of our erstwhile protagonist.

Nearly half a century separate these two ghost stories, and the role of religion in them has reversed. In the 1950s the clergy were society’s protectors. Even though Rev. Snow is the only main character who does not actually see the ghost, he is a safe haven for the victims of evil. Fifty years later, it is the church that sets up the haunting of the Bell family by its unyielding laws. The family quotes the Bible at the spirit and the ghost tears the Bible apart. There is no sanctuary here. Films, no doubt, reflect social attitudes. When the foundations have lost their hold, confusion results. Who is to blame for the suffering of Betsy Bell? The movie leaves that up to the viewer. There is no solid Rev. Snow to whiten the sins of this world. Only ghosts remain.

Old Deuteronomy

Last night my family attended a performance of CATS. We can seldom afford shows, or even movies for that matter, but when CATS comes to town it is non-negotiable with my daughter. It is a must-see musical. Anyone who has seen the show knows it is all just for fun with only the thinnest of plots and the most colorful of non-religious characters (they are, after all, cats). T. S. Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, were/are solidly C of E, and that orientation comes through in both some of the characters from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the arrangement of the poems into the lyric of CATS. The basic message of the show is redemption, but the angle that I particularly noticed last night was the mosaic aspect of Old Deuteronomy.

Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of jellicle cats and father of many of the cats in the junkyard, is a hobbled, old character who assumes the aspect of a law-giver to the younger generation. He has been to the Heavyside Lair and knows the path there. He leads Grizabella to her rebirth with the Everlasting Cat. Even his name suggests his association with the Torah, famously summarized in the book of Deuteronomy. When he is kidnapped (cat-knapped?) his return leads directly to the culmination of the show, the return to Mount Sinai.

No one would claim that CATS contains a profound religious impact, and yet the show conveys an unexpected emotional power. T. S. Eliot was not particularly known for his religious poetry, yet his personal beliefs permeate the children’s poems that form the basis for the show. His Moses is non-judgmental, a cat who was quite frisky in his younger years and who knows the value of a life well lived. A cat that believes in second chances. That simple message kept audiences returning to Broadway to see CATS on its incredibly long run. For those of us whose careers have run aground in mid-course, a Moses more like Old Deuteronomy would be a hopeful religious leader indeed.

Redemption through work

Baal Necessities

Baal has been on my mind lately, despite the limited time I’m able to dedicate to research. You see, Baal and I share a common interest in weather. One of those people whose moods synchronize with the atmosphere, I have always felt what the sky projects. So when a colleague asked me to lecture his class on the Baal Cycle, I felt it was a kind of catharsis after all the gray skies and snow we’ve had this year. Baal, or properly Hadad, was doyen of the skies. In modern perspective it is often difficult to realize that the seasons and climate of ancient Aram were quite distinct from our own. Whatever came from the sky came from Baal.

In the documentation we have on this god, we find him particularly associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. These were more common in the Mediterranean basin than the snows of the higher elevations. It stands to reason, however, that Baal meted out the weather to the denizens of Ugarit, no matter how wet or cold. Even his daughters’ names reflect their meteorological roles. Thunder and lightning may be the most dramatic expressions of divine power, but nothing makes you shiver like a good snow.

It is difficult not to take the weather personally when my long commute days are permeated with ice and snow. Continuing a pattern initiated last spring semester, my lengthy drive to Montclair has been accompanied by snow each class session I’ve been assigned so far this semester. Even the students have begun to notice. One co-ed asked why it always snows when I’m teaching. Meteorologists may have their naturalistic explanations, but somewhere deep down, I’m afraid that Baal has it in for me. It’s time to go and shovel the front steps again.

A Baal's eye-view

Works and Fridays

In rereading Hesiod’s classic Works and Days in preparation for my mythology class, I found the similarities with the Bible to be intriguing. One of the most noteworthy features of biblical wisdom literature is its universality. In a way that many believers find difficult to swallow even today, the wisdom authors accept – perhaps extol – the wisdom of sagacious “heathens.” We live in a world where religions are frequently engaged in building walls the envy of Jericho itself, while parts of the Hebrew Bible invite outsiders to join the party without even converting. Hesiod might have been a grumpy guest, but many of his words would have struck a familiar note with old Ecclesiastes.

Be not deceived – life is hard – so Hesiod tells us. The Greek gods made humanity to fend for itself. Men first and then Pandora to cause endless trouble, like the figure of Lady Foolishness in Proverbs. The misogynistic authors wave their flag in surrender to their passions; life is hard indeed. Instead of complaining (excessively anyway), the writers of wisdom interpret this difficulty as the crowning achievement of the human spirit. The gods made us to struggle, and when we’re up against it, we’re at our best.

Both Hesiod and the Hebrew Bible remind us that gods make the rules and we must obey. The human lot in life acquires an attenuated glory through living by divine standards. We will never shine like them, but we may sometimes outshine them. In the meantime, we must live by their apparently arbitrary rules. Reading the Torah, some of the Bible’s rules seem less-than-necessary to live a decent, honest, and moral life. We are not, however, to question the will of the divine. So it is that Hesiod warns, “don’t piss standing up while facing the sun” (Stanley Lombardo’s translation). Common sense might have added “while facing into a head-wind.” Such is the difference between gods and men.

The Triumph of Baal

“Snow weariness” is no strange phenomenon even to those of us who were reared in the legendary snow belt of Lake Erie. Although Buffalo consistently topped our records, months of deep snow burying all the familiar features of our landscape in northwestern Pennsylvania were regular expectations of winter. Snow weariness generally settled in around March when we longed for green pastures and unstill waters. As an adult in generally snow-deprived New Jersey, the weariness sets in much quicker. Attempting to drive on highways with sneophytes is a challenge; before I had my license I had driven in plenty of snow, otherwise I’d have had to hibernate from December through April of each year. Digging out from New Jersey’s third major snow-plop of January, however, the magic seems to have vanished.

Baal was a god who controlled the weather. Some years back I finished a book (still unpublished) on weather terminology in the Psalms. Many psalms are notable for containing archaic imagery and phrasing, leading some scholars to suggest they might have been new, revised “Canaanite” versions of songs originally dedicated to Baal. Perhaps so. The Psalms frequently note the wonder of weather, even occasionally of the snow. Psalm 147 contains the lines:

16 The one giving snow like the wool,
he scatters hoarfrost like the ashes,
17 throwing his rime like crumbs,
before his cold who will stand?

Originally a paean to Baal? Who knows? It’s just that we’re all shivering down here. And Israelites didn’t have to shovel a path to their cars to turn over reluctant engines to get a modicum of warm air circulating before they actually arrived at work.

Once Israel’s monotheism set in, Yahweh took control of the weather, thank you. Even a glance at the Psalms demonstrates the superiority of Israel’s divine weather-maker. From the view down here, however, it looks like maybe Baal has a few tricks still to play. Would Yahweh ever cause a Bible class to be cancelled because of inclement weather?

Dawn in the new snow Baal

Dog Gone!

Religion is a strange attractor. Maybe not in the exact same sense as in chaos theory, but in reality it brings together mental states so bizarre that science fiction and fantasy writers have a buyer’s choice. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported on a South Carolina woman who hanged and burned a one-year old pit-bull puppy. Why? The bitch had bitten the woman’s Bible. Citing the animal as a “Devil dog,” the southern woman became a vigilante for the Lord. Now she’s being tried on charges of animal cruelty. This story touched me in a number of ways.

With family roots in South Carolina, I can conjure up images of this happening. Having known many, many Fundamentalists, it seems even more plausible. Given the constant barrage of contrary messages descrying the presence of evil in the world, all the sudden any mutt can become Mephistopheles. Begging off the Baskervilles, the demonic hound has a long pedigree in mythical imagination. It is well known that the Bible cites dogs as unclean animals, but it is their charnel character that leads to the development of the full-blooded hellhound. Prior to the Hebrew Bible, in ancient Ugarit dogs had an infernal connection. It isn’t seen clearly, but the association is there. Snatches of the underworldly dog appear long before Cerberus, and last well nigh into the twenty-first century.

Hel and his hound

Unfortunately for the deceased canine, it is a myth. Hellhounds still abound in popular media, everywhere from The Omen to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dogs, however, were among humanity’s earliest partners in the survival game. From about as early as I can remember, we always had dogs in the house, and nary a demonic encounter. We never put them on trial, even when house-training was in progress and an accident occurred.

The news story reminded me of an episode of Dragnet I saw as a child. A woman was arrested for murder, and Sergeant Friday, in his unflappable voice, told his partner it was because the victim had shot one of her books. In the final fade out, after Bill Gannon asked what book it had been, Friday holds up a Bible with a bullet-hole through it. I was a little confused. Was the woman guilty or was someone shooting a Bible just cause? The episode did not answer the moral dilemma. I can’t even remember the outcome. But in 2011 things haven’t much changed. If he goes to South Carolina McGruff better watch what he takes a bite out of, or it could be lynching time again.

Beside Metallic Waters

My brother recently pointed out the story of Rev. John Van Sloten, a Canadian pastor who has written a book about how he’s come to see the gospel in the songs of Metallica. Yes, Metallica. Even the members of the 1980’s hard rock band found the association a little surprising. It all came about, it seems, through an open mind. The story is narrated in basic form on the Gibson guitar website. Young parishioners at Van Sloten’s church suggested he should listen to Metallica. Perhaps aware of the principally negative conservative Christian reaction to rock in general and hard rock in particular, the pastor says he ignored the advice. Then the minister was presented with Metallica tickets. A divine mix was in the works.

At the concert the pastor had a revelation: the issues wailed against by the band resonate well with the concerns of Christianity. In fact, some of the band’s concerns sound downright prophetic. The concept of prophecy today often revolves around a prediction of future events (à la Harry Potter). Prophecy in the Hebrew Bible far more often concerns social justice, speaking out against the oppressor. Metal bands, from their inception, were vehicles for protest. Disillusionment against a system that perpetuates unfairness either at a governmental or a cosmic level. When I sat down to listen to the lyrics of Black Sabbath for the first time, I was surprised how biblical many of them were (don’t tell Ozzy).

Many religious folks prejudge heavy metal as “satanic” and evil without even listening to it. I have always been struck by how much these groups frequently draw on bleak biblical images. Today we treat biblical characters as paragons of emulation. The Bible does many of its characters no such disservice. Prophets are to be heard, not emulated. We think of Isaiahs or Jeremiahs as pleasant supper guests who happen to have a divine word inside. In the Bible their actions often lead to recriminations, but their uncomfortable message is sound. I grew up in a tradition that discouraged heavy metal, as if something in the music were inherently evil. I applaud Rev. Van Sloten for approaching one of the formative bands of the genre with an open mind. Truth may be found in some very unlikely places.