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 Pazuzu, but once again the origins of demons does not fit modern media’s expectations.

Pazuzu 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.

The Self-Importance of Nothingness

Not that I’m aspiring to Sartre, but being in the presence of so many academics brings out the natural existentialist in me. Religion is a funny field to engage in higher education. We are studying an intangible. Many would say an illusion. If we are too bold about what we find, no shaking hand will deign to sign the paycheck, and so we carry on, innocuous, unperturbed, self-assured. At conferences like this I sometimes sit back and watch others walk by. Having entered the academic world from humble, uneducated beginnings, I have no pretensions about what I do. Or where I might go. Yet I hear idolatrous whispers following those who’ve made a name for themselves. God-struck grad students with that theophanic gaze leveled at the man (sometimes woman) whose name graces the cover of so many books. God’s very representative here on earth. Incarnate in this very room.

I entered religious studies because I arrived at college knowing nothing. An exasperated freshman advisor finally insisted I chose a major. I said I didn’t know. “But what are you interested in?” To me religion wasn’t as much an interest as an imperative. Some churches raise their young to believe that all else is vanity. Every moment should be spent seeking that elusive deity, the one whose very words the clergy speak. I fell into religious studies. I fell far. Reading the Bible multiple times as a teen, classes weren’t that challenging. Ideas were. There comes a time, undefined so as not to be pinpointed, when an invisible line is crossed. Then, when you look back, everything has changed. A dark secret has been planted deep in your psyche and you realize that you are a religion scholar. There is no turning back.

No Einsteins exist in the world of the academic study of religion, but gods abound. Watching colleagues who’ve achieved the dream, who’ve been tenured and pampered and paid well to deign to share their lofty thoughts with the rest of us, I feel like I’m watching shadow puppets against a blank wall. When will they get God into the laboratory and switch on their fancy, humming machines, and the one that goes “ping,” to uncover the truth of the universe? How much lower can we mere mortals stoop? It often feels like I missed that crucial first day of school. Having peered long over the ledge, however, I realize that we are all in this together. Has anyone ever bothered to count the homeless in San Francisco? Has anyone ever bothered to look into their eyes? And that guy with high name recognition? I’ll ask him to write a book. And I will fawn and coo. Why? Because I know the hand that signs the check, and I know the price of idolatry.

I Left my Bible in San Francisco

Gideon prays for a Bible

I’m staying at the Hilton, Union Square in San Francisco. Surrounding me are over 10,000 (is that a proper myriad?) religion and Bible scholars gathered for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I travel light. Having left my Bible behind I went to look up something in the Gideon general issue. It is not here. The world’s largest academic conference focusing on the Bible, four hundred years after the King James Version hit the shelves, and I am Bible-less in my hotel room. Of course, once I get to work I will be surrounded by Bibles, some of them walking, talking resources who have the whole book memorized. Yes, the Society is that kind of place. The Gideon hotel Bible is an American institution. It feels like a constitutional right. When my daughter was very young and we stayed in a hotel, she found the Gideon Bible and asked what it was. We explained that the Gideons leave a Bible in hotel rooms all across the country. “That’s just weird,” she said with all the conviction of a pre-teen.

There are current movements to remove Gideon Bibles from hotels. They do, after all, represent a privileged position to Christianity in a nation founded on religious freedom. No one is forcing you to read that Bible, but it is there, like a tell-tale heart, in your bedside table drawer. Thumping incessantly. To read or not to read? What’s on the TV?

My favorite discussions at conferences like this are with scholars who find the privileging of one religion distressing. Our culture is so grown up in so many ways; we are more enlightened about sexuality and gender and race, and yet, and yet… We still like to have that Gideon Bible nearby. We like our political candidates Christian. Preferably Protestant, although a Catholic will do if he (inevitably he) is on the right side of the right issues. We are vaguely and implicitly afraid of those who don’t share our convictions.

In a moment of levity near closing time yesterday, a customer stopped by to say Routledge should have more gimmicks. Many publishers have giveaways, and some have little games that bearded, bespectacled professors sometimes even play. The customer suggest darts, or even a little shooting range. I said, “Guns and theology are sure to lead to trouble.” Although he laughed, I was serious. Few things in this world can be justified as easily as religiously motivated slayings, at least in the minds of the perpetrators. And to borrow a phrase from a budding genius, “That’s just weird.”

Old Myth

The Greek gods are in the ascendant again. They seldom disappear completely, but the big movie studios have rediscovered the special effects boon that only gods can deliver. When I first began to teach my Mythology course at Montclair State University, the Clash of the Titans remake and Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief were both released just as the class was getting underway. It seemed like interest had been lost since the original Clash of the Titans back in 1981 when I was still a student. Special effects then meant Ray Harryhausen. Now they are measured in terabytes and whatever is larger than that. So Immortals was released recently, but I haven’t seen it yet. Picking up on the sometimes forgotten hero Theseus, the Athenian answer to Hercules, the movie promises to bring the divine into the theater.

In the spate of movies showing gods, America is not yet ready for a movie featuring Yahweh. Oh, certainly there have been films where the god of Israel has loomed very large behind the scenes, but with a prohibition of making images—no paparazzi need apply—it seems unlikely that we’ll see a special effects extravaganza featuring the Almighty. Besides, few Americans have reconciled themselves with the mythic nature of many Bible stories. As politicians and televangelists insist, these stories are fact, not entertainment. GCI Yahweh always stops at the somewhat comic George Burns or Morgan Freeman figures. Charleton Heston, where have you gone? Yahweh of the Bible is a gun-toting, hard-talking, pestilence-slinging, American-style deity. And action is where it counts.

Critics say Immortals suffers on the side of story-line at the expense of gore and action. A factor that is often overlooked, however, is mythology’s inherent mutability. “The Classics,” as we grandly call them, do not derive from a super-Scripture of literalist myths. Each writer told his (less often, her) story in his (her) own way. Although there were those who took such stories literally, as Socrates will silently confess, I suspect not a few knew these were stories told to make a point. There is no right way to tell a myth. From Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts to Disney’s Hercules to Singh’s Immortals, mythology transcends the mere mortals telling it. This is the greatest shame of the modern world—we have traded the beauty of myth for a paltry handful of literalism approaches to religion. And the literary (and cinematic) world is much the poorer for it.

Theseus looking for immortality

Saints and Angels

From Wikipedia Commons

San Francisco. As I take a look down the coast I see Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego. So many saints and angels. And, of course, San Luis Obispo. I’m here in the city of Saint Francis (an odd choice for a rustic saint) for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. Before I began this blog, I attended this conference every year, and then the societies decided that they didn’t like each other any more and had a trial separation. Unwittingly, they were following religion, American style. If we don’t like you, even if you’re in the same tradition, we’ll take our marbles (presuming we have any) and go form our own denomination. This easy divorce of dogma is very American.

For such a religious nation, the United States is remarkably prone to hatred. Even scholars of religion can’t get along. We call each other names like “liberal,” “conservative,” “evangelical,” “secular,” “atheist.” Each a swear word. Long ago it was recognized that these two academies have more in common than not. I mean, come on! Dowdy professors studying utterly impractical, arcane beliefs bridging magic and modernity? Who do we think we’re kidding? I used to give papers here based on one single word of the Bible! So in the city of Saint Francis we are together again. American Academy of Religion, meet Society of Biblical Literature. In the same hotel, but maybe not yet ready to share the same bed.

We reflect the society we inhabit. Christianity in America has a venerable tradition of splitting and reuniting. Evangelical United Brethren, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, anybody but the Unification Church. We come together and soon learn that some molecule of doctrine is out of place—time for an atomic reaction. We are the scholars of religion, and we can’t stand each other. So we’re leading the way, America—we’re reconciling! We’re trying to get together for awhile. Next time let’s make it in a Protestant city.

Inauguration

Religion is an all-consuming beast. I suppose that goes with the territory of making universal claims. In the light of the already ponderous influence religion has had on the selection of presidential candidates this year, I recently re-read Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered not long before his assassination. The Civil War was not yet quite over, and Lincoln knew the horror of the situation. He famously said:

Both [sides in the conflict] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”

Lincoln, never a regular church member, knew his Bible but also knew the soul of his country. A century later Bob Dylan would compose “With God on Our Side,” in protest to another war where divine backing was assumed. When a major undertaking is launched, the Lord is always on the guest list. The problem is, God can’t sit on both sides of the table.

The religicizing of politics is a dirty business. Religion plays so heavily on the emotions that it is, as history has shown, a truly unstoppable force. Even so great a conservative as Barry Goldwater felt this mixing of religion and politics an unholy cocktail. “I am frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?” (The Congressional Record, 16 September 1981). So here we go again.

Religion and politics are a dangerous mixture. In a culture as religious as that of the United States, the potential for (and realization of) disaster is great. Think of the lives lost based on the religious outlook of our last president! Over the past few decades we’ve witnessed a parade of preachers, Fundamentalists, believers in New Religious Movements, and quasi-certifiable candidates march across our political stage, and yet our doors are closed to those who refuse to make public statements about their intimate relationship with an ancient savior. For the Bible tells us so. If we believe the preachers. Those of us who don’t will be putting on our Bob Dylan records and reading the wise words of Abraham Lincoln.

Layers

I’m all for not offending anyone. I became P.C. in principal just as soon as my consciousness was raised that the very basics of English grammar caused distress to others (often women), based on its androcentric orientation. It does seem, however, that God is even more easily offended than humans. This raises some tricky questions when it involves the highest perceived authority within or outside of the universe, the font of all morality. Some of the things that offend God, if the sources are to be believed, are most unusual. Last night I attended one of those you-should-send-your-child-to-Europe-while-in-high-school seminars that remind you that being a good parent always involves a touch of poverty. The trip is a very expensive bargain, giving your daughter or son a lasting set of life-changing memories. So far I’m on board. And, what is a trip to Europe without visiting some of the great cathedrals that exhausted local, medieval economies but left modern companions to Stonehenge all around the continent? Okay. Having seen my fair share of European cathedrals, that’s perfectly understandable. Then the kicker: since these are religious places, there is a dress code.

Anyone familiar with mainstream culture even in America is aware of this idea. To attend a place where God is supposed to be present, you must dress for the occasion. The Simpsons can throw around the phrase “Sunday clothes” and everyone knows what they mean. Attend a religious service dressed down and you’ll immediately discover it. Some traditions raise this to a high sartorial art—some Episcopalians I know are so fastidious that the very statues of Jesus seem decidedly underdressed. Since your child will be in Europe and be in cathedrals, you mustn’t offend God in a foreign land. No jeans. As the parent of a teen that means buying a whole new wardrobe to add to the pricetag. Apparently the Levi-Strauss tribe is not the same one in the Pentateuch. I spent some time in Israel a number of years back. The dress code is very strict around sacred spots. No shorts or visible shoulders. In the hot climate of the Middle East wearing excessive layers, well, it’s no wonder some folks get a little irritable. God’s standards are high. Celestial even.

Nowhere is God’s discriminating taste more evident in the required “modesty” of women. Nobody told me, but apparently women are quite a turn-on to gods. Read Genesis 6 and see if you don’t agree. The burden of public hiding beneath cloth falls on them. A man’s calf doesn’t excite God nearly so much as a lady’s. In Jerusalem they used to hand our hooded cloaks to wear over your street clothes for visiting holy places, just in case. Lord knows we wouldn’t want any unrest in the Middle East!

Having lived in Europe for three years, I know about and despise ugly Americans. At home I find our culture and manner of dress fascinating. Most of us don’t think what it says about our religion. If you ever catch a priest in church wearing jeans you’ll have your own local, mini culture-shock. I’d like to figure out why God is so easily offended by human fashion, but there is no time. I’m off to the street corner with my tin cup to try to raise money to buy clothes so my child won’t offend God in Europe.

No shoes, no shirt, no salvation.

Cthulhu’s Revenge

H. P. Lovecraft. Monsters. Aliens. UFOs. Ancient Egyptians. Sumerians. Is there nothing this book doesn’t have? Having read many of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories over the years, I have always been taken by how, as a writer, Lovecraft disappeared from public attention only to spring back in the 1990s. I discovered Lovecraft while doing research on Dagon, the putative “fish god” of the “Philistines.” Every time I typed the name of the deity into Google, I came up with pages and pages of Lovecraft. In my lonely room on a gray Wisconsin campus, I began to read his stories and shiver with fear as I walked across a dark parking lot to my car. Jason Colavito obviously has a great appreciation for Lovecraft as well, and his book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture is a fun read for a November night. Colavito suggests that the “ancient astronaut” craze that has informed many a young mind stems back to Lovecraft’s fiction. Cthulhu and his ilk.

I’m not sure that Colavito convinced me that the ideas of ancient aliens began with Lovecraft, but he does an excellent job of exposing the foibles of many theorists who build houses of cards on shifting sand. One of the most interesting connections Colavito makes is that Creationism and Ancient Astronaut-ism are not dissimilar. “Both are, in essence, a concession that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and both seek to (mis)use science to give absolute authority to their beliefs” (331-2). This is an aspect of Creationism I hadn’t considered before. In the uncompromising desire for scientific respectability, the only option open is to bend science to the will of religion. This distortion must be carefully executed, convincing the followers that true science has validated a religious ideal. Rhetoric and occluding argumentation must be utilized carefully here. It seems Cthulhu has world domination in his squishy mind again.

Lovecraft famously gave us fantasy worlds where ancient space creatures left their impressions as gods upon a vulnerable humanity. Mysteries of the past—and Colavito doesn’t deny there are mysteries—are so easily explained by dei ex machina, and working with fantasy is so much easier than working with physics. To approach the mysteries with an answer already in hand, however, is to deny science its glory. As a civilization we owe much to a scientific understanding of the universe we inhabit.

Raising Cain

The Bible doesn’t contain many good horserace stories. The early stages of a presidential candidate race, however, are rather like a horserace (I don’t pay much attention to either). Unless one (or more) of the horses get religious. It seems that a candidate can’t cinch a Grand Old Party nomination without laying bets on religion. I’ve no idea how religious Mitt Romney is, but his religion itself forces the issue. Rick Perry wears it on his sleeve and in his pious grin. The keep in the heat, Herman Cain has now pulled out his religious credentials. God told him to run for president. So he says. Since the Bible doesn’t mention any candidates by name, we have to take his word for it. (Although I doubt Cain actually wants to be associated with his biblical namesake.)

God’s been down a bit on the divine luck lately. With all the causes the Big Guy has supported being lost to others (one thinks of the “Gott und Ich” mentality that stretches far back beyond World War One) you’d think that those chosen by God might keep the matter quiet. At least until the results are assured. Once that card has been laid, to shift metaphors, it can’t be trumped by any other. A card laid is a card played. How can a candidate climb higher than God for the next debate? And when one or another of God’s chosen loses—and this is inevitable—it is clear that God is dragged into the mud with the almost chosen candidate.

There has been much talk and debate about the role of religion in government. In a nation as religious as the United States it is purely impractical to keep the two impolite subjects apart. We only want a religious man in the White House. Preferably Protestant, but beyond that any flavor will do. In the 80’s at least one was Tutti Frutti, in a manner of speaking. The actual religious beliefs expressed by our national leaders would certainly lead to raised eyebrows among the truly conservative, if such matters truly mattered.

Back in college, it was considered wise advice never to try to stuff any variety of underwear in order to create an illusion of size—such tactics are bound to end in disappointment. It is lesson that politicians never learn. There will always be some disillusioned followers the morning after, unless, of course, the racehorse analogy is the proper one. And the Bible will back me up on that.

It's all in the reading