Monthly Archives: November 2011

Seedless

“And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother” (Genesis 38.9). During the conference last week the Routledge booth stood across from that of an evangelical publisher. One of the realities of conference life from the point-of-view of an exhibitor is over-exposure to what is fresh, clever, or cute upon first blush. Harper One’s continuous loop video, however, demonstrated that N. T. Wright, Desmond Tutu, and Bart Ehrman can sound repetitive, and even Colbert loses his punch when you hear the jokes for the twelfth time. The evangelical publisher across the way, however, had a large cartoon drawing that mapped out the believer’s life, book-by-book through the Bible. As probably anticipated, I can’t get that silly cartoon out of my head. After four days of exposure, I finally succumbed to asking for a flier. It was the usual evangelical fare, and the warning against adultery on back used the traditional term “seed” for “semen.” I found myself pondering the implications.

Since the King James Version shares the pre-scientific worldview of the ancients, the term “seed” has been preserved in the literalist mind. Even Alice Cooper uses it in his lyrics (his father was, after all, a preacher). Well, since the Bible is Holy Writ, it seems that semen has been transubstantiated into seed. The seed, as biologists tell us, contains all the genetic material to grow a new plant. Just add water, warmth, and a little light. Presto! Life sprouts. Since evangelicals tend to be fluent in biblicalese, even today men—the default, fully equipped model of humanity—come complete with abundant seeds. Agway should be so lucky. It feels, however, as if half of the equation is missing. If the Bible-writers had raised chickens, perhaps men would be full of eggs.

Thinking life cannot exist without metaphors. Metaphors are very dangerous in the hands of religion where they get taken literally. Too easily imagery slips into facticity. The male seed demonstrates a diabolical gospel truth: men alone provide the next generation. Women, as usual, are largely superfluous. The biblical male dominates the biblical female. The man owns the wife and must be enticed to share his precious seed. If conception fails, it is inevitably her fault. The metaphor has become a thumb-sized rod. Let us speak plainly here. The Bible has betrayed womankind. Judas Immaculate. In ancient times this was accepted fact. The microscope and biology should have buried this seedy metaphor centuries ago. But once again, the unthinking promulgation of a biblical trope survives at the expense of women. I have no seeds. No man since Adam has.

An obscene photograph?

Retrograde Hollow-days

Surrounded by the intoxicatingly ebullient aroma of balsam, it is difficult to believe that it is not yet Christmas. As 4-Hers decorate their wreathes, in November, I recall that the first signs of Christmas appeared in the stores before its unexpected cousin Halloween this year. In fact, stores hawking Christmas remain open year round. This retrograde motion of the holidays in time belies the very concept of the “holy day.” Ancients, and not-so-ancients, believed that there actually was something different about particular days. The trimmings and the trappings were secondary to the point of the day; something momentous had transpired on this very day, making it unlike any other. With the advent of industrialization and its unrelenting work ethic, holidays came to represent a kind of mini-exodus, a release from labor that falls outside the insufficient weekend. Leisure time encourages shopping. A modern holiday is born.

A child's Christmas in Bucharest

The increase in labor-saving devices has placed us in a twilight of leisure. Holidays can be anticipated many months in advance—gifts purchased earlier and earlier, until the holiday itself seems to pale by comparison. Moving retrograde into other seasons. The joys of the consumer holiday are hollow. It is too easily forgotten that money is a symbol, a mere medium of exchange. It has become an end in itself. Just two centuries ago nobody would have dreamed of collecting the symbolic patina of a capitalist system for a profession. Now accounting may lead to great wealth. The wealth, however, is transparent. Millionaires, like emperors, are disinclined to have the fact that their clothes are immaterial pointed out. They are, after all, where we want to be. Let the one with no dreams pop the first seam.

Holidays have the capacity to give symbolic meaning to life. They emphasize the cycles of nature and of life itself: birth, procreation, death. Removed from context, however, they lose their meaning and become just another excuse to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much. We call it celebrating. Those on the receiving end of the cash flow have the most to gain by promoting such hollow-days. Nothing is so easily exploited as child-like anticipation. The scent of balsam takes me back to a far-distant childhood this November night. The memories, no matter how dysfunctional the setting, are serene and full of anticipation. The symbolism suggests this may not be vanity after all. Until the bank statement comes, and the hollow-days begin all over again.

Lost Knowledge

While an actual apocalypse for many turkeys ensued on Thursday, Fox News announced that a second reference to the Mayan apocalypse has been “admitted” by Mexican authorities. So I guess the world will end next year after all. And it figures, I just finally got a full-time job. For some reason, for all of our modern technology and scientific knowledge, many people still fear ancient “prophecies.” This remains true after countless failed apocalypses, two of them just this year proposed by Harold Camping in the name of the Almighty. People who trust the science of their cell phones—which, from any trip to the airport or bus station proves, humans are incapable of surviving without—nevertheless fear the “lost knowledge” of the ancients who believed myths were the most parsimonious means of comprehending a cold and uncaring universe. Yes, I’ll trust my entire life, finances, travel plans, social calendar, to a plastic box barely the size of a credit card. But if the Mayans said the world was going to end… these are the Mayans, after all! The Mayans!

Never mind that we know little about this antique people; we have had predicted ends to the universe from disaffected visionaries and disgruntled prophets ever since the Zoroastrians suggested this might not go on forever. And now that two predictions appear to coincide, it looks like its time to sell some stocks, cash in some IRAs and party like it’s 1999. When 2000 came in with its baleful symmetry, as some saw it, with events two millennia earlier, not many were dissuaded from the concept that never emerges. Doesn’t the book of 2 Peter state that the universe is reserved for a fiery destruction? Perhaps the Mayans had access to Holy Writ?

The fact is that most cultures concoct origin myths, stories of beginnings. The way the mind works, it is almost a necessary corollary to construct myths of the end as well. And somehow we trust that arcane knowledge on such matters is more accurate than the scientific scenario that, given the limited longevity of any single species, no humans are likely to be present when old Sol balloons out to be a red giant. Far more spectacular to suggest some ancient sage or savage saw it coming and grow anxious with the waiting. Strangely, many people seem ready to discard all the progress, the monuments, the essence of our humanity for the sake of ancient predictions. 2013 does not seem so far away. Many of us are planning to be here, even if they find an entire library of Mayan predictions. Perhaps the truest prophecy of all is that we, as humans, make our own future no matter what other humans have said in the past.

Nightmare Behind Holidays

Among the first mythical creatures to go extinct when the early rays of the Enlightenment began to filter through the blinds of superstitious antiquity, were demons. It was recognized that the activities attributed to demonic possession closely resembled epilepsy and psychological illness and that Occam’s Razor would remove any unseen entities with its no-nonsense straight-edge in one deft pass. And yet they remain. Among the ghost hunting crowd, demons have been recategorized from fallen angels to entities that have never been human. Their reality is assumed, and results of investigations, not surprisingly, support that assumption. It was, however, a Dirt Devil advertisement that created a desire to watch The Exorcist now when darkness comes early and the leaves have fallen from the naked branches and a chill has permeated the air.

As I watched the still disturbing film, I realized that I had also watched the Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Last Exorcism within the past few months as well. I am no fan of demon movies; even with no demonic forces out there, inevitably young women are tormented by what ultimately turns out to be a male establishment. My threshold for watching the suffering of others, even if only acted, is minimal. Movie makers—and often horror writers—know and exploit this, bringing us to face the real demons, the shadowy regions of our own minds. The Exorcist is particularly effective in this since it is Fr. Karras’s demon that ultimately wins out. Having never read the novel, I’m not sure whose idea it was to make the demon Pazazu, but once again the origins of demons does not fit modern media’s expectations.

Pazazu was a Mesopotamian “demon.” Akkadian doesn’t have a proper word for what the Judeo-Christian tradition would introduce as a fallen angel. Demons were simply a way of explaining profound misfortunes such as droughts, pestilence, or the Bush administration. Eventually such misfortunes became personified and took on the ability to possess a human being. Here is where psychology and neurology have come to banish demons. Part of the terror of The Exorcist is that such scientific explanations are laid flat in the face of real supernatural power. The lessons of over-consumerism, as evidenced in Black Friday eclipsing Thanksgiving for many (the lines were formed in many locations well before midnight, cutting into family time in order to get first crack at the bargains) show the demon more clearly. Holidays are measured in importance by the amount of money spent. Perhaps it is no wonder that Halloween’s demons have lingered through November and even to the end of the year.

Imagine Thanksgiving

Although mildly jetlagged and slightly incoherent, a promise is a promise, so I took my family to Manhattan to see (the upper half of) the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Commercial and flashy, it is difficult to conceive of a more American expression of holiday wonder. It kicks off the secular Christmas season and the parade forms the background noise to many a feast preparation in the United States. Not living in the city proper, there are limits to how early public transportation can get one into town, so by the time we reached the Upper West Side, the crowds were pretty intense. We met our friends at West 72nd Street and tried to see the floats and balloons over the heads of a sea of humanity; if you could glimpse the flashing tip of a tuba, we counted that as seeing a marching band. The weather was cool but nice and in the dense crowd I kept my hands shoved in pockets, not always sure they were my own pockets, and waited for the next tall or hovering parade feature. In-between times I stared at the building to our left until a friend informed me that it was the Dakota. The site of John Lennon’s slaying and the exterior used in Rosemary’s Baby, where, presciently, a murder victim was laid out on the sidewalk not far from where Lennon fell. Suddenly the parade took on a profundity that betrayed the levity of the gas-filled characters floating by.

Mark David Chapman, a delusional, born again Christian, had spent many hours waiting about where we were suspended in the crowd. Thinking himself Holden Caulfield of the Catcher in the Rye, he murdered Lennon creating a saint and a demon simultaneously. Perhaps John Lennon’s ashes are still floating about Central Park, and as we walked through, the exterior of the Teutonic Dakota took on a haunting quality. Lennon was a lover and a protestor and an experimenter, and scenes from Rosemary’s Baby of Satanists smoking cigars also hung in the air. The shop window displays on Fifth Avenue drew great crowds, but as we drifted toward 51st Street, we decided to stop into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, along with the surging mass of the faithful.

Cathedrals are best enjoyed in quiet solitude. Nevertheless, we followed the pilgrims through the long nave, stopping to glance at the numerous chapels with statues along the way, each with a collection box, securely locked, asking for donations. And people say Christmas is commercial! Want to pray through your favorite saint? Please deposit a quarter. Preferably two. Or more. Their budget in candles alone would support many a smaller church throughout the nation. Advent begins this weekend, so the crèche was set up at the front with life-sized figures of the usual players: holy family, shepherds, wise men. And collection box. There was no baby Jesus and when my daughter asked why I said, pointing to the collection box, apparently they were saving up to purchase one. Keeping Christ in Christmas? Indeed. All those bronze, life-size Pope head statues can’t be cheap. John Lennon was cremated and his ashes scattered, leaving no trace. Popes are cast in bronze. Yes, John Lennon was wealthy, and once quipped that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. What is the truth of the matter? Looking at the façade of the Dakota, I know where I would rather light a candle.

Hair Today

In what may be the most bizarre recent example of religiously motivated violence, the Associated Press reports that a breakaway Amish group is accused of the crime of haircutting. Amish beliefs about personal appearance are well known, and taking various biblical injunctions seriously, they believe cutting a man’s beard or a woman’s hair to be a sin. (Any Amish reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.) The aptly named Sam Mullet, the leader of a breakaway Amish group (the article doesn’t specify the contention) has been charged with forceful barbering with intent to shave. Not himself, but other Amish men in Ohio. The Amish trace their roots back to the Anabaptist movement that only accepted adult baptism and would rebaptize those who were sprinkled as infants. They acquired other beliefs along the way such as hard work and industriousness, distinctive dress styles, and the shunning of electricity. They are devoted to pacifism.

The story, which Rod Serling would have been proud to air, has Mullet forcefully cutting the beards of men and the hair of women in another Amish community. The article doesn’t explain how Mullet took on his Delilah-esque treason, but after giving his enemies the Seville treatment, he took photos of his victims. The Amish don’t like pictures either. Apparently the Amish community is terrified of this mad shearing heretic. The mind reels attempting to conjure an image of the struggle or even what might have led to it. Where did the camera come from?

Religion, no matter the denomination, prescribes unusual behavior. What one society supposes to be normative is simply a matter of socialization. When you are brought up with, say, a man wearing a colorful brocade dress while breaking a translucent wafer over a goblet of wine and claiming it to be God, that seems perfectly normal. Anyone who tries to challenge or desecrate this rite would be designated an infidel, heathen, pagan, or worse. Many think the Anabaptists, whether Mennonite, Hutterite, or Amish, to be quaint and curious like forgotten lore. In fact, their religious beliefs go back to a venerable past. Images of The Witness flood to mind when reading how the FBI has become entangled in the barbarous act. Perhaps it is time for Mulder and Scully to make a reappearance. But just in case, perhaps they should sport some sturdy helmets and Kevlar, since reports are out that some Amish are sitting on the porches with shotguns, while one lurks in the shadow with his snipping scissors.

The Shawshank Reversal

You go away for a few days and look what happens to the neighborhood. With the Bible scholars safely out of town, a South Carolina woman used two hollowed out Bibles to smuggle weapons and drugs to a friend in prison. According to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the eviscerated Bibles contained knives, a cell phone, ecstasy and cocaine. Bibles often act as metaphors, and in this case the image of trouble coming in the form of a sacred book is poignant. No one thinks to suspect a Bible (well, Stephen King did), so conservative and clean-cut. What lies inside, however, is seldom closely examined. What is found there often defies biblical scholars and prison guards.

The Bible, as an icon, is spotless in the public eye. You can place a hand atop its venerable cover and, magically, you won’t be able to lie. You can heft it aloft and demons will flee in fright. You can even use it to measure chastity. (Back in my college there was a four-feet-six-inches rule. Men in women’s dorm rooms during brief, allotted visiting hours could sit next to their sweeties, but they had to keep all four feet on the ground and remain six inches apart—a distance, we were told—that could be filled by placing a Bible between the lovers. And the door had to be kept open, just in case.) The book has become the deity. Placing God between the desires of lovers is a metaphor ripe for the picking.

Few can forget the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Warden Norton opens Andy Dufresne’s Bible to find the rock-hammer-shaped hole cut out of the pages. The Bible had set Dufresne free. And it did so unwittingly. The Bible’s message, in the film, was intended to keep prisoners in a state of submission, but human interest brought the Bible much closer to its noble purpose of setting the prisoner free. The Bible has been a privileged book throughout American history, and even before. In England it used to be chained to the lecterns of churches to prevent it from being privately studied. Its great power, however, lays not within the manipulation it excuses, but in the human spirit that finds liberation through, and sometimes despite, the famous black book.