Haunted Purgatory

Halloween season is a time for both pagans and evangelicals alike to tremble. Our usual local “haunted house” for charity being closed this year, my family went to the local haunted farm last night. In a nation where few of us grow up on farms, the agricultural world is already a foreign environment. And corn is a scary plant when it dries out, especially at night. The Creepy Hollow part of the farm tour was a long, rambling stumble through a corn field where costumed actors jump out at you or just as ominously shake the cornstalks as you walk by in the dark. Senses that we have long ignored leap to full attention, scanning for any possible fright. At nearly a mile long, this haunted trail was pretty intense, and I’ll admit to being glad to have seen the open field at the end. One of the props along the way was a haunted church. As I’ve noted before, religion and fear often stride hand-in-hand.

Earlier in the day, my wife had pointed out an article in the Huffington Post about the dilemma many evangelicals face when their kids want to celebrate Halloween. A holiday of Catholic and pagan origins (both feared equally by the truly staunch evangelical), Halloween is a season of dangerous influences. In response, some groups have started their own “Hell Houses” designed to show kids the horrors of Hell as they walk through a putatively non-fiction version of fear. The intention seems clear enough, although a little odd for a religion that claims to be based on love. The Hell Houses are part of an alternative holiday called “Jesus Ween” and people are encouraged to give out Bibles rather than candy. At least they got the scary book part right.

In an unrelated yet relevant story, Time projects that the seven billionth person will be born on October 31. I remember when there were just four billion of us, and my teachers began pointing out the stresses we place on our environment. Of course, those who co-opt the identity of being “pro-life” advocate for as many of our species as possible—less for God to pour out love, but better to populate Hell, apparently. The Roman Catholics share this petard with the evangelical camp, as Monty Python made famously clear in The Meaning of Life. We have overcome (largely) nature’s control on our expansion, and as Halloween, or Jesus Ween, races nearer, we have less to fear from chainsaw-wielding maniacs than we do from Bible-bearing clones who claim it is divine mandate to stress our own planet to death.

Life’s Soundtrack

Calvin once said to Hobbes, “I thought my life would seem more interesting with a musical score and a laugh track.” In many ways, our lives do have soundtracks. From my youngest days dramatic music has moved me and Jim Steinman always seemed to know just which buttons to push and strings to pull to bring it off. Growing up in humble circumstances, however, I missed the whole video craze that accompanied MTV, back when MTV still showed music. Friends would tell me about the great videos I was missing, and I let my imagination run wild. Recently, however, a friend pointed out the video of Bonnie Tyler singing the Steinman hit, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on YouTube. This particular video brings together so much of my adult life that it seems like Steinman spent a few years inside my head. Well, maybe not that much. The song came out just as my first love was breaking up with me, back in college. I attended Grove City College, a campus that, despite its pristine Christian image, can be very gothic at night. The first chords of that song are always like a stake through my heart. Few experiences in life are as dramatic as unrequited love. Just queue up that song and I’m a college junior again.

The video, however, is set in an old-style boy’s boarding school. The setting is not far off from the antiquated campus of Nashotah House seminary, gothic both by day and by night. The imagery of the video employs English trappings of cassocks and surplices and candles along with clandestine romps in the night. Seminaries, in my experience, leave many secrets in their shadows. My heartbreak as an undergraduate cannot compare with some of the drama I witnessed both as a student and a professor in seminary. The pious are often among the most passionate of people, but they must learn to be actors before their congregations. Such inherent conflict is fertile ground for intense drama. The video plays this out with the headmistress (Tyler) fantasizing about her young male charges in a highly ritualized, yet anarchic setting. Too close to the truth.

The sacred and the profane lie close together and may be teased apart only with difficulty. The experience of buying an LP when I was a teenager was an investment for not just the sound, but also the album art, the aroma of the vinyl and ink when the plastic wrap first came off, the feel of the heavy paper sleeve housing the disc. It could transport me to another place. Today the iPod reduces the sounds down to background noise, not a soundtrack. The drama we create for our lives is efficient and convenient, but in the end, plastic. Perhaps it is Calvin’s laugh track. No matter. Even if it is on YouTube, with its electronic sound, that video will take me back decades in time, and will be one of the repeated songs on the soundtrack of my life.

Extinctions

Gaddafi is dead. Bin Laden is dead. Saddam Hussein is dead. The people of the Middle East have risen up to reclaim their world from the privileged. In Wall Street people are arrested and sequestered lest the discontent should spread. Do those of Libya, Iraq, Egypt, aspire to Wall Street? Are not the oil barons wealthy enough? How easy it is for us to forget that what we call civilization began here. In what we now call Iraq, people first banded together with complex governments, specialization of labor, and the arts. And, naturally, slavery. As civilization grew, priesthoods became strong. Governments could not stand without the support of the gods. Temples could not stay open without government funding. Gods and kings slept together. The Bible would later parody this as the tower of Babel. How we want to live in that penthouse chapel!

We often take from history that which sustains our interest. And when that interest is reinvested and compounds, we lay the foundations for yet another tower. We live in a world of towers, glad to accept their beauty and glory without realizing that no tower stands out without the deep valleys between the artificial peaks. To build high, some must be consigned to live in the subways and cluttered alleys and sleep out on the streets. The oil money in Dubai, not far from the fabled Eden, erects towers that are the wonders of the modern world. Just looking at pictures of the Burj Khalifa can make one shudder. Oil is decayed life.

Sometimes I imagine the world of the dinosaurs. Mammals must have seemed an endangered species then, small and insignificant as they were. Our distant, distant ancestors must have gazed up on the towering brachiosauruses and bruhathkayosauruses with awe and fear. When they finally evolved opposable thumbs, they decided to emulate their fears. Now the dinosaurs are all petroleum and birds. And still they rule the earth. Civilization began in the oil fields of the world with little use for petroleum. Instead, kings and priests worked together to construct towers that would ultimately fall. Oil makes some very wealthy, but it is only possible because of the extinction of the largest living animals that ever walked the earth.

Dusty Flowers

V. C. Andrews was a name familiar to me from skulking around used bookstores where tons of over-printed, read-only-once books line the shelves. I had seen Flowers in the Attic on many shelves since the 1980s, but supposing it to be a romance title, I showed no interest. As Borders was closing, however, I noticed a copy of the novel on the horror shelf and couldn’t fight the curiosity any longer. I guess it might have been building, subtly, for three decades. My wife was surprised to see it in my stack, but I professed my lack of knowledge and began reading it.

Horror is a strange genre of writing. It is defined in various ways, but I have found that authors deal with their own fears with a variety of strategies. After thirty years I need not worry about spoilers, so I can say that the concept of a parent destroying her own children is about the scariest scenario imaginable. What makes the story of interest here, however, is the treatment of the Bible in the story. After the premature death of their father the Dollanganger children are secreted away in an unused upstairs wing and attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion. While the hidden foe is really their mother, Andrews introduces the grandmother as the Bible-quoting, intolerant, prejudiced symbol of oppression. Quick with the rod and completely unforgiving, she goes to bed each night reading her Bible and she insists the children do the same. When she finds an excuse, however, the children are lashed for being wicked.

Interestingly, it is the mother who is never shown quoting the Bible. Towards the end of the story the children recognize that while she is evil, the grandmother would not directly commit murder. The mother who has tasted the intoxicating liquor of wealth, however, knows that even her own children cannot stand in the way of her inheritance. The adults in the story are twisted—some by religion, some by greed. The questions raised by children, like all of us innocent of our own existence, merely ask where the love has gone. Religion without love is Hell, as the pictures selected for the children’s prison by the grandmother clearly show. Worse than Hell, however, is the blinding love of money.

We are all flowers in the attic of an uncaring world. Some find comfort in the power of wealth while others resort to religion. Many try to combine the two. At the end, those who are truly noble are those who survive without either.

Scared Mittless

Once again Time magazine has presented an article where the intelligent are left scratching their heads about religion. Jon Meacham’s Commentary, “An Unholy War,” details how evangelical concerns about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has an undue weight in regard to his presidential candidacy. For many years the media industry has considered religion passé and without teeth. Sure, the street-corner preacher can still give you a good gumming, but it is rarely fatal. What those who’ve never felt the utter urgency of religion can’t appreciate is, well, its utter urgency. In a day when Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns are wired up to electrodes and told to find that spiritual sweet spot, it is easy to forget that these aren’t just laboratory fictions. For many people in the world, their religious experiences are very important and of sometimes deadly—sometimes eternal—consequence. The sophisticated, the educated, laugh it off as so much hoodoo, and try to get on with human progress. For those raised religious, however, escape is neither easy nor desirable. Those in positions of actually influencing the public need to recognize that religion is not a luxury, a trapping that might be cast off. It is a life choice cast in iron.

Just as serious as the analysis of religion is the incredible influence of religious teaching itself. Take a young child, barely old enough to understand death, and tell him or her that the worst thing they can imagine just can’t compare with the torment God has cooked up for those who step out of line. Repeat. At least once a week. When said child becomes an adult, these early ideas are deeply embedded. Since the 1980s elections in the United States have been restyled as religion popularity contests. With eternal consequences riding on the ballot, political analysts ought to be required to have had taken at least Religion 101. Probably a few upper-level courses would also help. Despite the optimism of scientists and academics, religion is not going away. The reluctance to take it seriously will not diminish its power in people’s lives.

As became very clear reading Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs, it has only transpired that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints has been recognized as un-culted for less than a hundred years. As a relatively new religion, Mormonism was a “cult” until it had survived long enough to gather a band of respectable followers, such as Mitt Romney. Many Christian groups, particularly evangelical ones, have not released their perception of Mormonism as a cult. Romney, in their eyes, is effectively as pagan as Obama. Their votes, as the eight-year nightmare of the Bush administration demonstrates, can decide elections. Still, we the sophisticated laugh off the country rubes who still believe in God. And although we don’t believe in it, we already have, and may well once again, come to suffer through Hell to show just how educated we are.

Had my Phill

One of the pleasures of the editorial occupation is traveling to campuses to meet potential authors. Having no excuse not to go to Philadelphia, I jumped on a train this morning to spend the day on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. I’d been to both campuses before, but they are a study in contrasts. Penn is Ivy League, of course, and the students appear confident and self-assured. Temple is a large, public university situated in a neighborhood that doesn’t exactly inspire the same confidence. The students appear happy enough, but of a rather different ethnic blend. I pondered these differences while waiting for a taxi. I hadn’t realized that PHL Taxi stands for “Prefer Hanging Loose”—after three calls and no vehicle, I had to call another company. To try to save Routledge a few pennies, I had opted for the Days Inn in north Philadelphia. A friend told me over lunch that this part of the city is probably not the safest.

In the taxi we drove through neighborhoods that politicians like to pretend do not exist. The sheer degradation of the buildings, sidewalks, and people was sad. The most common type of building, next to houses (many semi-demolished), is churches. Many of the churches bear their names in Spanish; most have heavy metal chain doors emblazoned with crosses. It seems that maybe Van Helsing would go to church in a place like this. The kind of place where a dead body does not astonish, and the people on the street corners look remarkably cheerful, given the circumstances. The Days Inn is in a more open and commercial area, and I don’t think anyone has actually been murdered in this particular room. On Temple’s campus I saw many signs for Occupy Philly.

Those who think everything is just fine with the ultra-wealthy in their heaven while we expect human beings to live like this are worse than naïve. Those who are privileged look on Occupy Philly with a sense of academic curiosity. Those who live next to poverty, hard up against it, see Occupy Philly as a mandate. We can’t keep pretending that everything is okay. If God has a plan for America, why have so many people been left out? People with more churches per block than any affluent neighborhood desires or supports? The movement may be ill-focused and leaderless, but the need is very real. Tomorrow I go back to Temple, back to where the struggle is often life and death and the need is very human. But for this evening, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” I’m sure you know how the rest of it goes.

Yeti Again

Time magazine announced last week, in a story spelled out on Time.com, that “There may be solid evidence that the apelike yeti roams the Siberian tundra.” This is surprising news given that even in the face of good evidence, science is reluctant to admit new large animals to our biological family. The reasoning goes that since humans (mostly white, male humans of the western hemisphere) have explored most of the landmass on this planet, we could not have missed any large land creatures. There are rare exceptions, such as the mountain gorilla, added to our database only about a century ago, but it seems to have been the last of the large animals to avoid detection. Now the yeti, the bogeyman of many childhood dreams, may be coming to life.

Science is our way of describing and theorizing about what we have discovered. Many therefore assume that science is all about new discoveries. Some of us feel a tinge of sadness at having been born after the great era of discovery. Reading about how adventurers (responsible for far more fundamentally earth-shaking discoveries than scientists of their times) ventured into new worlds and declared the wonders of God revealed in the formerly unknown, is always a humbling experience. We know so little. The mark of the truly educated is not the claims of great knowledge, but the admission of how little we really understand. Does the yeti roam the inhospitable and very sparsely populated regions of Siberia and the Himalayas where it has been a staple of folklore for centuries? We may never find definitive proof, but Time holding out a candle of hope seems a step in the right direction.

Relegated to the world of the “paranormal,” elusive animals demonstrate that the ways we know about the world are multitude. Science does not, and does not claim to, know everything. Indeed, science has a limited frame of reference within which it works. Going out seeking cryptids is not, properly speaking, science. The belief that those seeking evidence display is closer to religious conviction. That does not mean it is wrong or that it is founded upon faulty suppositions. It is simply a different kind of knowledge. It is common to say science is in conflict with religion. It need not be. If we accept science at its word, as doing what it claims to do, there is no need ever to question assured results. Belief, on the other hand, seldom crosses over into the realm of objective truth, empirically demonstrated. If it did, it would not require believing. If yeti is discovered, there will be much celebration among believers, but the creature will necessarily pass into the hands of science. For this reason alone, many are glad to leave it in the realm of folklore and myth. Either way, to some people, yeti will always be real, whether scientifically verified or not.