Flaming Chariots

Religion is a demanding taskmaster, often completely at odds with the lifestyles of even its most staunch practitioners. Having spent my entire lifetime trying to understand it, I marvel at its imperiousness. In a story reminiscent of the unlikely hit film of 1981, Chariots of Fire, a recent Verizon human interest story highlights how religion sometimes impedes people, particularly children, from achieving what they may believe God put them here for. The story focuses on aspiring gymnast Amalya Knapp, yet to see 10, who has been prevented from full competition potential because of observing the Sabbath. As the article points out, this is not an issue limited to Orthodox Judaism, since “She isn’t the only young athlete faced with reconciling her passion for sports with religious obligation. Experts say the issue arises in all faiths, in nearly every sport, and at all levels of competition.” In one of the great ironies of human psychological development, we have engineered religions to prevent us from reaching our full potential.

In a way that few can appreciate today, the Sabbath rest was originally an unexpected gift. Ancient people had no concept of a weekend, a harrowing thought for most frantic people today who live their lives for the brief respite from insanity that the weekend offers. The recognition that a mandatory day off might actually improve the human condition was as prescient as it was radical. Time off to improve productivity? Today we know it to be true. But the more a religion gives its adherents, the more it seeks to take away. The God who gives you that free time wants to take it back. It is not really your time after all. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” So says Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. He will also refuse to feel his pleasure on the Sabbath.

Religions disagree on the fine details of why the divine put us here. They are united in the belief that such a reason exists, but the terms of the contract differ widely. For reasons that the divine alone can comprehend, many human activities are subject to heavenly hegemony. The classical Greeks called it hubris when a mere mortal excelled to a point that embarrassed the gods. In response a human who wanted the most out of life knew not to show the gods what you are truly made of. For even the kindest of gods are jealous of divinity. And as all religions repeatedly demonstrate, despite divine demands for us mortals to share, gods are in no way obligated by their own rules.

Sanity Plea

How far up the chain of command does an insanity plea go? Back in 2005 Boyce Singleton Jr. admitted stabbing his girlfriend to death because “God told him to do it.” An appellate panel has just decided that the guilty verdict must be thrown out because the jury had not been instructed in insanity plea etiquette. “But, the appellate panel said [Judge] LeBon should have told jurors that they could acquit Singleton by reason of insanity – even if they found Singleton knew killing Michelle Cazan was wrong – if they believed he felt God compelled him to act,” according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. A former colleague at an institution plagued with insanity once told me, “humor the mental.” That may be the best advice a weary nation might hope for. While political rulers from the privileged caste whittle, hack, and bludgeon away at the meager benefits of their underlings (previously known as constituents), those who refuse to pull back hands and feet endanger a digit or two. In the name of God, why doesn’t somebody do something?

There was a time when saying God made you do something evil was considered blasphemy. In today’s America it is an open justification for just about any war crime or personal vendetta you may want to implement. You see, God is freely available for those who know that a mere human committing their heinous acts would be clapped in irons. Long generations of televangelists have given the public the divine American Express card number. Do you hate this particular group? So does God! Do you want to declare war on that country? So does God! Do you want to stab your spouse? So does God! The rhetoric is so normative that a president can declare a personal quarrel a national crusade because God told him to. No one even bothers to look up from Facebook.

It is time to remove God from the equation. When I was a child Flip Wilson ratcheted up the laugh meter with his catch phrase, “the Devil made me do it!” Classic transference was funny because everyone knew it was a bogus excuse. Not long after Flip’s demise the catch-phrase spread to the White House with only a simple title change. Are not the Devil and God interchangeable? Once a president claims divine precedent, doesn’t it trickle down to those lower in the social order? That’s the way of democracy, and God has been very democratized. Who needs an insanity plea when you’ve got the creator of the universe in your back pocket?

Where did you say this boat stops?

Not the Oscars

I could blame this week’s Time magazine for declaring that one thing we don’t need to worry about is an end to the zombie craze, but in truth I really have no one to blame but myself. Having watched White Zombie a few weeks back, I decided to see Revolt of the Zombies, its sequel, this weekend. With holes in the plot large enough for a small planet to pass through, it leaves a great deal of creativity – and imagined continuity – up to the viewer. It’s a movie bad enough to make you want to slap the television in frustration, but it did bring a number of my standard (read “tired”) themes on this blog together.

In this confused romp through sci-fi horror, excused only leniently for having been filmed in 1936, the terms robot, zombie, and automaton are used interchangeably. This is one of the technically redeeming features of the film. The term “robot” was coined to indicate a mindless servant, and in their religious origins zombies shared exactly that function of the automaton. Today’s robots are machines, and the future of the Singularity (posted on a couple weeks back) revolves around this very point: machines will complete the degenerating biological frame. Somehow the zombies will save us.

The zombies of 1936 were surrounded by swaggering, stereotyped caricatures of the helpless female who has very little mind of her own (perhaps less than the zombies who actually do something to better their state). Racist images including a wizened Scot called MacDonald and subservient Asians make the film uncomfortable for present day viewers. One glimmer of intelligence in the film, however, comes from an awareness of the classics. After a rat’s nest of a plot that is essentially one man wanting another man’s girl, old MacDonald gives a commentary on the assassinated master of the zombies. He takes his line from Euripides’ play Medea – an original strong female that the Greeks so feared. “He whom the gods destroy, first they make mad.” Second, I would add, they make watch Revolt of the Zombies.