Monsters Are Due on Elm Street

November 1984. George Orwell’s dark vision had not fully emerged, but the veneer had worn off of the fairy-tale world promoted by the evangelical, free-market professors at Grove City College. As a blue-collar kid in a blue-blood institution, I was out of place. The campus was buzzing, however, about a new movie—A Nightmare on Elm Street—for which I finally plucked up the courage to ask a cute coed for a date. I’d never seen a slasher movie before, having sampled mostly traditional monster-flick fare as a child. I felt a sense of accomplishment since some of my college friends had to leave the theater for fear. On the big screen, with no previous knowledge of the plot, the film worked for me on many levels. Last night I decided to watch it again.

My first reaction was a sense of surprise at how much of the movie I still recalled with pristine clarity. For having been nearly thirty years ago, such clarity is a rare phenomenon for many details of life, often reserved for memories of early girlfriends. A second reaction was noticing how religion featured in the film. The girls skipping rope chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six, grab your crucifix.” Indeed, the crucifix features in several scenes as an ineffectual weapon against Freddie Krueger. The days of defying vampires are over when your own subconscious turns on you. In one of the early chase sequences, Freddie, raising his infamous glove, says, “This is God!” Religion and its overarching concerns with death and suffering come together with horror in that one moment. The traditional power structures of religion have lost their power to defend the troubled teenagers. The only one well adjusted is, ironically, Johnny Depp’s Glen. Even he falls victim to the revenge sought by Krueger.

Surprisingly, the scene I had most trouble recalling was the end. I recollected the bright, hazy sunshine, but couldn’t remember how Wes Craven released his audience from the drama. Of course, there is no end. Freddie came back in countless sequels, none of which I ever watched. Although I wouldn’t know it at the time, Robert Englund based the screen presence of Freddie on Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu in Werner Herzog’s classic remake of that silent gem. Freddie is the vampire that defies religious cures. Movie villains are among the most adept practitioners of resurrection on the silver screen. The occasional E.T., Neo, or Spock will come back from the dead, but those who repeatedly return are the denizens of our nightmares. As Orwell’s vision continues to unfold in subtle ways, 1984 looks like an age of innocence before the ineffectual god worshipped by the establishment became self-image, writ large, on Elm Street.

In God We Lust

One of the entrenched ironies of human mentality is that reason will not suffice to change religious views. Many studies have repeated demonstrated that faith is impervious to logic, and this has appeared with Ektachrome clarity in the case of Warren Jeffs. Rev. Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has painted himself into a mental corner that makes the logic of legal proceedings appear as slapping the idiot. Logic and faith do not connect. Any Christian who has read the letter to the Hebrews should know that. Nevertheless, Rev. Jeffs, having illogically dismissed his team of lawyers, has been attempting a divine defense to justify his alleged sexual abuse of minors. He remained silent during his opening statement, despite judicial advice that such a tactic might harm his case. Breaking silence yesterday with a nearly hour-long sermon, faith responded to logic and was found wanting.

Society at large fails to consider that studies of religion have been carried out from multiple angles over many decades. We have erudite studies of the philosophy of religion, the psychology of religion, the anthropology of religion, and the sociology of religion. They all point to the human origins of this phenomenon, often demonstrating that a basic disconnect remains when religious belief is brought into the harsh light of logic. Neurologists and biologists have explored the utility of religion as a survival tactic, and evolution seems to have blessed it. Yet trial lawyers, judges, law enforcement officials, and politicians—often themselves religious individuals—are charged with apprehending and convicting others who simply take their religion to extremes. Religions make untenable demands on adherents. God has a poor record of turning up in the courtroom. His divine statements are absent from the stenographer’s tape.

Not knowing the details, it is difficult to find much sympathy for Rev. Jeffs, should he be found guilty. Yet at the same time, his interpretation of religion differs only in a matter of degree from other religious sexual ordinances. Is it normal for a clergyman to live a lifetime of enforced celibacy? Although signing on the dotted line may indicate a tacit agreement with church policy, what young man can clearly anticipate the pressures of decades fighting biology and psychology? Yet the practice is perfectly legal. Until the nearly inevitable inappropriate results squirm out. Public rancor runs high, as it should, against child molesters. The children are innocent victims. The perpetrators, however, believe themselves to be following divine dictates. It would seem that much suffering would be ended if God would go on the record here, so that we might have solid evidence with which to judge the case. If it please the court.

Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP, from The Seattle Times

Defining Humanity

Positions of power replicate themselves. In a sense this is understandable as power is the most addictive substance on the planet. Once superiority is asserted, it will never allow itself to be uprooted. With the recognition of homosexual marriage in New York, many heated reactions sprouted from the position of power man-plus-woman (always in that order) camp. Such a response was predictable and anticipated. I suspect it is largely based on fear. I have many friends with differing sexual orientations than mine. Raised to castigate such individuals, that outlook became increasingly difficult to uphold once I got to know my gay friends as people. I count them among my most loyal friends. People are people.

The problem lies in labels. Humans are natural categorizers: bird, fish, or mammal? Predator or prey? Religious or secular? We want our world to stay true to categories we devise. People, however, are seldom easily classified. Still, we try: skin color, ethnic ancestry, religious heritage, sexual orientation. People are people. The world of trite classification is ending, and those in positions of power tremble. Anything that is different might upset the economic balance that keeps those on top in their positions. (My own amateur observation, however, is that the economic balance is naturally top-heavy and readily upsets itself. It seems to have been that way since before this blog began.) Would we not do better to try to understand those who are different than ourselves?

As an exercise in this direction, I recently read Alvin Orloff’s smart satire, I Married an Earthling. As my long-term readers know, I have a slight soft-spot for aliens, and this story of a gay man finding nothing but rejection on earth and eventually marrying an alien seemed quite fitting in the present climate. Not part of the gay subculture, many aspects of the story were foreign to me, but what was painfully clear throughout is that people are people. Some are accepting, others are not. When reality offers so few options that he must flee his own planet, Chester, one of the protagonists, takes to the stars. At a couple points before his exodus, he notes the role that religion played in his antagonists’ outlooks. The book is lighthearted and funny overall, but the serious issue remains. Those in power tend to horde privilege. When that happens, economies—material and spiritual—collapse.


Not having access to the news wires, I am generally scooped by CNN’s Belief Blog. Of course, blogs dealing with religion are a pretty cheap commodity these days, especially since, as I’ve mentioned before, everyone’s a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. So it appears appropriate that God’s approval rating was put to the polls. According to Public Policy Polling, God only enjoys a 52 percent approval rating. Only 9 percent of those surveyed dared give God a negative “disapprove,” but that still leaves a large middle ground where— to borrow a phrase—God is in the dock. The scenario where a democratic society expresses its opinion on leadership, both human and divine, makes me recall the movie The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has to remind Fielding at one point, “We [the church] are not a democracy.” Religion is handed down from on high and those who inherit it have no right to question.

Or do they? When I was growing up in the sixties one of the common social references in the media was the teenager (oh, what rebellion!) yelling at his parents, “I didn’t ask to be born!” In the current universe, however, that is where all religious believers find themselves. With the exception of the few who suppose themselves somehow self-generated, we all realize that we are subject to the whims of the creator. That, of course, does not prevent us from sharing our opinion on the issue. Fr. Gabriel is right: this is not a democracy. The stereotypical 1960s teenager is also right: we did not ask for this. No wonder the approval ratings for the divine have plummeted. It seems that the tenets so readily accepted in more submissive times have eroded. Is God about to retire? Step quietly from center stage?

What’s next for the Big Guy? Will he write his memoirs—wait, he’s already done that; what do you think the Bible is? Perhaps an unemployed creator would be interested in making another universe. The problem is that wherever consciousness exists, ideas will soon follow. Some ideas fit comfortably in the system: do as you’re told because I’m stronger than you, for example. When the expression of power as an inappropriate means of governance evolves, however, the voices of democracy will emerge. Maybe it is safer to schedule an apocalypse after all. Let’s just hope that God doesn’t take a page from the politicians’ handbook, otherwise nothing will ever really change.

Cross Swords

Occasionally the symbol of the Prince of Peace is used as a weapon. A current case playing out in New Jersey revolves around a Livingston man and his convictions. Originally erected for Lent, the homeowner in question placed a wooden cross within a municipal right-of-way zone where signs and potential distractions to drivers are prohibited. When informed of the violation the owner removed the original cross and placed a larger one just within the right-of-way zone. When asked to remove it he contacted the Alliance Defense Fund—a group of Christian lawyers (which sounds apocryphal to me) who advocate the spread of the Gospel. This bizarre case is now being cited as a test of a land-use law that protects religious expression. A few inches would have resolved this entire mess. Had the homeowner placed his second cross beyond the restricted zone, no fuss would have been made.

I don’t really feel safe in a world where bands of renegade Christian lawyers rove about seeking to support the violation of public safety ordinances. Instead of friendly persuasion the cross is here used as a cudgel. Perhaps wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeve ought to be accompanied with a measuring tape. Certainly there are those impressed by the masculine chest-thrusting implied in defying laws to assert one’s particular take on religion. Pushing such issues to the point of public funds being spent to enforce a law throws the action into sharp relief.

Some varieties of Christianity (and other religions too, I’m sure) thrive on the fiction of persecution. Is the quality of life of the homeowner affected deleteriously by not being allowed to place a cross in a no-sign zone? Is it not rather an attempt to set, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s phrasing, Christ against culture? What friends (besides lawyers) does it win to the cause? Having gone through a phase myself where PDR (Public Display of Religion) was considered the only way to be authentic about belief, I think I might understand the original intent of the homeowner. A clergyman, however, long ago set me straight with a frank discussion of subtlety. What I came to realize is that shoving only leads to shoving back. Perhaps moving the cross six inches would be the equivalent of turning the other cheek? But when the other cheek is turned, lawyers don’t get paid.

Who Made Whom, Now?

John Lennon has great currency, in part, because he is a martyr. Music has moved on since the ‘60s and ‘70s, but aging Boomers still like to quote him, especially his song “Imagine.” In an article written for the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the local Sunday newspaper, J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer cite “Imagine” as the statement of what a world “that makes sense” looks like. I applaud their idealism. Citing psychological and sociological work that has been done over the past decade in the attempt to unravel “homo religiosus” they entitle their article “God didn’t make man: man made gods.” Much of the evidence they cite has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but the overarching issue—whether this explains human religious behavior or not—remains open. In other words, if evolution provided us with religion, it must have some survival benefit and humans are not easily going to dismiss it.

Admittedly, the evidence for human conceptions of God arising from the need for close connections in community is pretty convincing. Nevertheless, the issue of whether there is a God or not will never be answered by empirical observation. As I tell my students, belief is not based on empirical observation. We do not yet know why people believe, and even if we find the right node, neuron cluster, or sensory stimuli, there will always be those who insist that the hardware is sparked into action by the unseen Other outside the system. It is the classic chicken or egg debate, taking place in that henhouse in the sky. The problem is that God is more like the rooster in that scenario.

The human brain is an endless source of fascination. Science has given us a sense of wonder about our own on-board computer, but it has not managed to capture the sine qua non of the totality of the experience of owning one. Scientists also read, go to shows, make love and eat fine meals for the enjoyment of it all. But as Cipher says in The Matrix, “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” Our perception of the world as a stable, unmoving center of existence is an illusion. Science has revealed an even stranger reality involving equations that used to haunt my nightmares. Should God ultimately be reduced to formulae, true believers will find another entity to name as the divine. “Imagine… no religion too”? As long as humans are humans such a world remains pure imagination.


Internet Asherah

Things represented on the Internet are not always what they seem. Removed to the back-bench of academia, I don’t have the opportunity for research that I once had. Every now and again, however, I still like to see what people are saying about Asherah. When I check the popular goddess books available off the shelf, my book on the subject is not often mentioned. At least on the Internet some researchers seem to have noticed it. A recent search for Asherah on Google, however, brought some surprising results. The first item of interest was a quinoa-based, organic veggie burger from Asherah’s Gourmet. The Asherah in question here, however, is simply a woman’s name. As a vegetarian I thought I would put a word in for the product, in any case. I found this brand at a health food store last week, but miles from home and with an air temperature of over 100 degrees, I was afraid the frozen products wouldn’t make it home without half baking in the car.

My next stop on the web was Sacred Suds. This New Age-themed site offers hand-made soaps, many of them associated with goddesses. The product entitled Asherah is named for “the Canaanite mother goddess” and is made with milk and honey. The website doesn’t actually state anything about washing away sins, but it seems difficult to go wrong by washing with a goddess. Another selling point—also not on the website—might be to point out that Asherah is known as the one who “walks upon the sea.” There is even a scene in the Baal Cycle from Ugarit where she is presented as doing her laundry in the sea. Asherah and soap, it seems, are a natural match.

One final product seems to be biding its time, although I suspect there is a market for it. The Asherah action-figure, privately made, does not appear to be commercially available yet. Garbed in an Egyptianizing cobra headdress, armed with a cobra staff, this heroine looks to be a suitable partner for Captain America, bringing the United States and Middle East together in an attempt to bring peace to a troubled region. Maybe heroes can accomplish what gods apparently can’t.

Not exactly big business yet, nevertheless Asherah appears to be on the move. Maybe once she breaks into the big time, those of us who’ve tried to make a living on her cape-tails might be dragged out of obscurity as well. In the meantime, it is about time for a veggie burger and a luxuriant bath.

Out of the Depths

You’d think that a lifetime of theological study would be excellent training for repairing a toilet. If, however, you live in an old rental unit that has been ritually neglected for decades and that has a plumbing system designed by the Marquis de Sade’s evil twin, you’d soon think otherwise. All I tried to do was replace the flapper—something I learned how to do before leaving home. When the overflow tube snapped off, corroded all the way through at the bottom, I figured I’d just replace the unit. The bolts holding the toilet tank, however, were installed before Noah even built the ark and therefore wouldn’t budge. The leverage room for a wrench, is, of course, negligible. So it was, temperature about 100 degrees, no air-conditioning, no working toilet (bad combination) on a weekend, that I came to face the human condition once again.

As biological creatures, humans have constructed themselves a grand, spiritual universe that kindly overlooks the basics of daily living. Religion, in origin, seems to have had a survival value. Psychologists have suggested that the sense of hope that religions often project might have led to a stronger desire to thrive. Others have suggested religion is part of the curse of consciousness—aware of our own mortality, we attempt to overcome it like any other obstacle. Religion gives us the leg-up over pure biological existence. Unlike other creatures, many western religions assert, we survive our own deaths to face a (hopefully) better world beyond.

In the meantime, however, we are faced with a messy biological existence. Some of our compatriots in this venture stumble along the way and cannot meet the expectations like those who know how to work the system. Religions have traditionally dictated a moral imperative for those who are in positions of power to assist those who are weak. Of late, however, that has somehow shifted—at least in popular Christianity—to the overarching objective of looking out for one’s self. As a species we are all, rich and poor alike, constrained by the same biological necessities. It would speak well of our religious constructs should they reflect the same. As the temperature climbs once again, and I must face my plumbing nemesis, I realize that the metaphor may go deeper than I originally surmised.

The theologian's best friend

After the Carapture

When my wife showed me the first news article about “Carmageddon” I shrugged my shoulders with a noncommittal “meh.” Now that the nation has somehow managed to survive the two-day closure of a highway in Los Angeles, commentators are wondering what this reveals about our cardolatry. As a nation, the United States worships cars. Last week predictions were made that traffic jams of biblical proportions would disrupt the second largest city in the country and that not even God would be able to sort out the mess. In Norway, in the meantime, a right-wing conservative Christian decided to tip the scales of justice by becoming a mass murderer. Why do we glory in our own destruction?

Human beings only developed what we recognize as religion after the advent of the city. Cities require temples and temples require religious infrastructure. Priests had much to gain in antiquity by proclaiming the wrath of God—the angrier the deity the more offerings that roll in and the wealthier priests become. Religion has evolved over the five-and-a-half-thousand years of civilization, but it has never had a true conversion. It is one among many ways of coping with the stresses of becoming an urban population. We live in cities and we have traffic jams. We live in cities and learn from those far different from us. We live in cities and bomb our enemies in the belief that God finds those far different from us evil. Apparently God approves of the killing of teenagers. Just ask old Ramesses about that one.

Norway is among the most non-violent and secular cultures in the world. Los Angeles is a liberal city among one of the most religious cultures on earth. They experience the wrath of God in different ways, according to the media. Cities gave us religion. When we had had religion long enough, cities began to withdraw from that particular approach to life. When we can’t get our cars where we want, it is the wrath of God. When we can’t get the government to follow our personal religious quibbles, we take the prerogative to introduce the wrath of God. We long for the end of what we have created. No matter how we achieve such destruction, we’ll find religion planted squarely in the middle.

What's coming to your neighborhood?

Finding Nemesis

Philip Roth was an author unknown to me (shame on me!) until this summer. Over the past several years I’ve taken it upon myself to read my daughter’s high school novel-reading assignments so that we can stay current (in an aspect where a parent is permitted to do so). Her school requires summer reading and this year Roth’s novel Nemesis was on the roster. As a recent book, it is unusual in being assigned before the test of time has rendered its verdict. Set during a fictionalized polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, Nemesis follows the fortunes of Bucky Cantor, a Jewish physical education teacher in charge of a summer playground program in Newark. As his kids begin to fall to the disease, the protagonist flees to the Poconos to be with his fiancée at a Jewish summer camp. As the situation deteriorates, Bucky questions God’s role in the world of disease and in the war that continues to rage in Europe and the Pacific.

It is the classic issue of theodicy. Having been raised in a tradition that espouses God’s goodness, the protagonist has to face the death and disabling of children by a disease for which there is no cure (at the time). The issue of God’s role in the disaster is a recurring theme throughout the book. In the final chapter when the atheist narrator—himself a victim of polio and one of Bucky’s former students—questions Cantor about his beliefs, Bucky holds onto a dogged insistence that blame must be ascribed. His student opines: “it’s a medical enigma… His [Bucky’s] conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two—a sick f**k and an evil genius.” That statement gave me pause. Traditionally theodicy assumes the goodness of God and tries to bend the facts to fit the premise. Here God is in the dock and all interpretations are permitted in cross-examination.

The angst of dealing with the concept of omnipotence is real enough. In this Tea-Party world where selfish personal aggrandizement is seen as divine prerogative while children starve in misery and die painfully on an hourly basis, very real questions should be asked. Instead, most people assume the religion they have been taught is correct: often the facts of history are distorted to make such a belief match pre-decided outcomes. God is good as long as I get my share.

Reviews of Nemesis have been mixed, but Roth does a powerful job in his final chapter of this novel. The action is almost as predictable as the heat of summer, but the real substance, as usual, lies in the interpretation of the events. When God is brought into the equation, the temperature is sure to rise even further.

Meating God

A very interesting story ran in Tuesday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger. A Hindu family that was unintentionally served a dish with meat, hidden in samosas, has won a suit requiring the restaurant to pay for a trip to India in order to seek purification in the Ganges. As a vegetarian my sympathies are with the family, but as a student of religion I frequently wonder at the fragility implied by rigid religious demands. When your religious leaders declare a mundane act either sacred or profane, investing it with supernatural significance, what recourse is left to the believer? A religion that cannot adapt to everyday realities will necessarily become watered down to the point of a social club.

On the other hand, a society so focused on food as ours—particularly red meat products—can become overbearing. Over the past decade many restaurant visits have left me with ethical conundrums as all menu items include some species of meat. Not wanting to offend, I am willing to pick around the offensive bits to get to the non-sentient foodstuffs, but when food becomes equated with meat both sacred and secular vegetarians must lean to cope. Even in the monotheistic camp, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all make demands on the diet—sometimes overt, sometimes subtle. Deities, it seems, are as concerned about what goes in the mouth as with what comes out.

In the modern understanding of religions, they are means of diverting attention from the physical present to a spiritual “reality” behind reality. Along the way even the most faithful frequently find themselves in compromising positions. The gods, having never been human, don’t understand. Even those incarnate deities had the ability to work miracles—a feature the majority of us lack—and so cannot truly participate in the angst of attempting to lead a perfect life in their footsteps. As one who has had his religion forcefully compromised repeatedly in a jagged career in religious studies, I wonder if any dip in any river will really do the trick in purifying a faith that makes superhuman demands on herbivores for conscience’s sake.

Immorality on a plate? Only time will tell.

A World Without Borders

When Borders announced it is closing its remaining stores earlier this week, part of me died. My first Borders experience was with the original Ann Arbor store after moving to Michigan to be with my (then) fiancée. Since then my wife and I have spent many happy weekend hours browsing at Borders. The sensory, indeed, nearly hedonistic pleasure of being among books in a casual, friendly environment where ideas seemed to roam as freely as the bison on the plains before the Louisiana Purchase, is, sadly, about to end. Barnes and Noble never attained that balance nor has it ever aspired to it. I once met Jeff Bazos, the founder of Amazon, and he is a very nice guy. But when I buy books from his store, I never leave my living room. One of the intellectual’s guilty pleasures has been eradicated.

I grew up in a town with no bookstore beyond the local Christian supply shop. When a mall was built nearby and a Waldenbooks came in, I thought I was in heaven. Even the town where I attended college had no bookstores beyond the campus supplier. Borders represented the intelligent side of book buying, without appealing to the lowest common denominator. I can hear the nails being driven in from the pillow in my coffin. Our society is a post-literate one. As a person who has had many an unrepentant love affair with words, it feels like civilization itself has received a mortal blow. As I tell my students: the mark of true civilization is writing. Ever since the Sumerians invented it, it has been a means of release from reinventing the wheel with each generation. Our hearts, however, have gone after technology and gadgets and left bookstores in the dust.

Please allow me my eulogy here—I realize that reading will continue, but its context has morphed almost beyond recognition. I have watched while every employment for which I am suitable has silently gone extinct: higher education, libraries, museums, publishers—the pillars of culture itself. Gone is the day when a kid receiving his summer paycheck would beg his mother to drive the forty miles to the nearest bookstore where he would come out with not a cent in his pockets but his arms full of books. We can read about such idiotic behavior online. A border has been crossed, but some of us will linger on the other side hoping that the civilization we knew might somehow survive.

I had no idea this would become a collector's item

Robot Ethics

One of the benefits of being affiliated with Rutgers University, if only part-time, is keeping a finger on the pulse of the future. No, I’m not on any admissions committees. Rather, this week, now available on YouTube, the university is advertising its robotics ethics program, geared mainly toward high school students. Perhaps reading Robopocalypse is not the best introduction to robot ethics, but it does raise a very serious issue—how do robots and ethics fit together? We haven’t even figured out human ethics yet! One of the principal concepts behind any ethical system is intention: did a person (or rarely, a higher animal) mean to do what it did? If an action has brought harm to a person, we need to know if it was intentional or not. In a world where artificial intelligence is just around the corner, we need to sort out how this will apply to mechanical minds.

Perhaps—if human minds are just soft computers—when robot minds are created they too will have a god concept. Neurologists and philosophers and theologians debate when the human concept of god originated and no consensus has emerged. It may be a by-product of “mind,” however we define that. If computers are eventually assigned true mind, will they also believe in God? According to Wilson’s fictional construction in Robopocalypse, Archon thinks “he” is “god.” Humans tend to project God out there somewhere. None of us has the power ascribed to God, and even if individuals claim otherwise, we don’t actually believe we are divine. Would a computer know?

Pressing just a little further on this, human ethics are always subject to corruption. It is clearly seen, almost advertised even, in politics. Not only do we find government leaders with their trousers down or with dirty money in their hands, we also find the same in ecclesiastical settings. Would robots become corrupt? Wilson calls the corrupting agent a virus, a real enough phenomenon. According to the Rutgers video, within two generations every home will have robots in it. The question is: what will their ethics be? I probably won’t be around to see it happen, but I do have a profound hope. My hope is that whoever fabricates robot ethics will be well aware of the failure our governments and religious institutions have made of the attempt.

Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!

Parry Hotter

With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, it is clear that the brainchild of J. K. Rowling will live forever. When the books first started to gain popularity numerous Christian groups protested that children would be tempted into witchcraft by the appeal of the young protagonists. Ironically, standard Christian teaching denounces the power of witchcraft, although some groups do still acknowledge a very active devil. Now that the series has run its course–all the movie spin-offs of the novels are complete–many are coming to the realization that the message is profoundly ethical if not downright religious. As usual with knee-jerk protests, the message is missed for the medium, and those with fragile faith clamor for a spell of their own to put an end to opposition.

Joining the bandwagon late, I first started reading the Harry Potter books when the third or fourth volume had been published and public interest was riding high. I haven’t kept up with the movies, however, last watching Goblet of Fire at a theatre in Wisconsin while contemplating my own position at a school like Hogwarts, minus the magic. The books, however, convey the message more clearly–the power of evil is real, good is not always what it seems, and institutions can’t save you. The importance of love (the main thrust, many would contend, of the preaching of Jesus) is the driving force behind the story from the moment Lord Voldemort (the Darth Vader of the twenty-first century) failed to kill young Harry Potter. Perhaps the true concern that many religions have with Rowling’s work is that it has trumped the traditional mythology with a bit more style and panache.

As a regular Protestant Christian, Rowling expresses traditional beliefs in her writing. The fantasy of witchcraft, however, has always maintained a lure for those cut out of society’s pathway to wealth, recognition and ease. In the days before Christianity, the early Israelites believed the power to be real to the point of making witchcraft a capital offence. Of course, omnipotence had not yet been invented. Once a deity becomes all-powerful, why should fear remain concerning magic? More likely protests against Harry Potter had less to do with the witchcraft than with the insecurity that many believers feel about God. The plan doesn’t seem to be unfolding as the Pat Robertsons and Timothy LaHayes are saying it should. Doubt is a much more powerful force, it appears, than magic.

Deliverance from?

At times it seems strange that I missed so many formative movies when I was growing up, but then my wife pointed out that many of the films were released when we were minors. That, combined with the fact that most of them bore R ratings, acted as an effective deterrent at the time. So it was that we only saw Deliverance yesterday. References from friends, colleagues, and even The Simpsons made us feel like we’d missed a part of American culture that everyone else had seen. Of course we knew the basic story, but seeing it played out intact is a much more satisfying experience. Since I am scheduled to do a church talk on Christianity and the movies later this morning, I was interested in the way the church is portrayed in the movie.

After the three survivors make it back to civilization, the first building that meets them at the riverfront is a plain white “Church of Christ.” At the moment of their eponymous deliverance, the church is there. As Ed and Bobby are being driven to the hospital in a taxi, however, the church appears again. The valley is being flooded to bring hydroelectric power to Georgia, the reason the men set off to see the river in the first place. Since the town is shortly to be flooded, the church is being moved. The taxi driver tells the men, “We might have to wait a minute for the church to get out the way.” In the extras director John Boorman spoke about the highly symbolic nature of the film, including the way that the symbol of stability in the community, the religious establishment, could not hold its own ground.

I also sensed another element of irony here. The church had been, symbolically, in the way of the advancement of civilization. Paralleling this inhibition is the utter, and bewildering freedom from the law experienced by the men following the murder of the mountain man. The viewer is left to decide which is the worse fate. Now that I have seen the film, I think I can understand the depth of struggle it represents. As the continuing debate on the relative merits and demerits of religion in society rages on, there is always a very human aspect that stands beyond simple formulae. Perhaps we save religion in the hope that it will save us.