Monthly Archives: April 2012

Razzing Cain

Generations of literalists who’ve had their eyes opened by reading what the Bible actually says have stumbled over Cain. His murder of Abel is fine—predictable even. The problem is what happens after that. Since he has murdered his brother, the only other human born so far, Cain seems prematurely concerned about “every one that findeth” him killing him. Seems unlikely that Eve, or even Adam, would like to kill the only surviving child they have. Yet God puts a mark on Cain. Presumably his parents would recognize him, so why is Cain literally a marked man? Rather than Omega Man survival techniques, Cain focuses his attention on kick-starting his love life.

Cain’s wife immediately raises the issue of where the girl comes from. Those who like to call themselves literalists have to back-peddle a little and suggest that since, according to Genesis 5 Adam and Eve had other children, this must be where she derives. Of course, she would in such a scenario, be his sister. Extraordinary circumstances call for extreme measures, but even so, literally, there are no other people yet. Cain is old enough to kill his brother and the next child born, according to the narrative, is Seth. Seth is explicitly a replacement for Abel, and really he doesn’t do Cain any favors in finding a wife. The story here simply slips out of character and gives us a world already partially populated.

As I was tweeting Genesis 4, it occurred to me that immediately after marrying, Cain builds a city. Cities only sprang into existence to allow for mutual protection with the diversification of labor, following on from the agricultural revolution. One of the main characteristics of cities is population. Genesis 4 has only Adam, Eve, Cain, his wife, and Enoch. It may be the smallest city in history since the entire human race could have easily fit into one modest house.

The stories of Genesis are etiologies—tales of origins that have no ties to historical incidents. Cain represents the urbanites, the city dwellers who will always somehow find ways of irritating God. In our urban culture where most people are born in towns or cities, we have lost touch with the life of the nomadic pastoralist. We are, however, merely following the literal path that the Bible lays out for us. As we shall shortly see, the children of Cain and Seth are the same.

Cain just can't figure it out

Staking a Claim

Okay, I confess. When I learned my recent host in London lived in Highgate, my thoughts immediately went to the Highgate Vampire. I first learned about the Highgate Vampire from Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a book that spoke to me at some inexplicable level. Claims had been made that an actual vampire roamed the north of London in the 1970‘s. My first thought was utter skepticism—one of the reasons that I was never afraid of vampires is that I knew they couldn’t possibly be real. The mythical world of a fundamentalist allows deity, devil, angels, and demons. No more, no less. The vampire, as a supernatural creature largely dreamed up by John William Polidori and Bram Stoker, was a literary monster only. As a doctoral student in Ancient Near Eastern religions, I learned that the prototype of the vampire went back to Sumer, the earliest civilization known. Still, I wasn’t worried. The Sumerians also believed in night hags and dragons and had no crucifixes to keep the beasts down. Then I learned about the Highgate Vampire.

I have just finished reading Sean Manchester’s most recent iteration of his account of slaying the Highgate Vampire. Manchester, a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and a descendant of Lord Byron—Polidori’s close associate—claims to have staked the vampire in the backyard of a haunted mansion in Hornsey. This transpired in 1973. There’s one born every minute, right? But then, there are the claims of physical evidence: exsanguinated foxes, photographs of rapidly decomposing corpses, the obvious ardor of Manchester’s personal account. The mental jarring was extreme—surely a priest would never fabricate such a tale? Surely the vampire is a fictional creature with no place in a rational world? Why did Manchester’s account resemble Jonathan Harker’s diary so much?

So, we were staying in Highgate, London. The first morning as the sun rose, I dragged my family to Highgate Cemetery. I hadn’t read Manchester’s account yet, and Beresford’s book was almost three years back in my memory. Looking through our pictures, there I found it—the tomb in which Manchester claims to have originally discovered the black coffin with the actual vampire inside. Whether fictional or not, I was in the presence of the vampire. The overcast sky, ivy coated tombstones, the jet-lag—all combined to provide the atmosphere for the impossible. I have no idea what really happened in London when I was a child in school, but I have learned that many adults will gladly drain off the very lifeblood of others in order to attain their own benefit. From the days of Sumer to the present, growing in number there have been vampires among us. Our lives are much more comfortable if we simply refuse to believe.

Planet of the Monkeys

“If salvation is available only to Christians, then the Gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.” That may not be Rachel Held Evans’s choice for the final word on the subject, but it is the privilege of all writers to be misinterpreted. I read Evolving in Monkey Town because of an odd confluence. Evolution always tastes like forbidden fruit to me, although there can be no real doubt concerning its factuality. Also, the spiritual journeys of women continue to fascinate me. Even if the women are young enough to be my daughter. I first learned about the Scopes Monkey Trial in Mr. Pierce’s tenth grade history class. In eleventh grade I argued the Fundamentalist side of an epic, three-day debate on evolution in current issues class. I set a reputation that I’m still attempting to live down. (Studying religion for the next ten years probably did me no favors here.) The end result is that I feel a personal connection to what happened in Dayton, Tennessee, although I’ve never been there.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a memoir of a struggling, skeptical fundamentalist. Reading it at times made me squirm a bit, seeing childhood worries and frustrations coming back to me through someone else’s experience. Some of Evans’s remarks could have come from me, had I the courage to write up my past so that others might view it. At the end of the book it was obvious that I could not agree with many of the author’s personal convictions, but she earned my respect. Under the constant pressures of pleasing a deity that can’t be seen, or empirically verified, Evans sees clearly the disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and Fundamentalist Christianity. She has a wonderful knack for clear sight and forthright comment. Like me, she has become aware that a Fundamentalist upbringing is something no one ever truly escapes.

The crisis that seems to have sparked Evans’s angst was the recognition that no matter how you arrange it, an exclusive religion cannot coexist with a just deity. The world is just too big for that. Any scenario in which God sets the rules and makes it impossible for the vast majority of humanity to attain those rules does reflect rather poorly on this pater familias. We are all reduced to a diabolical game of charades as we march merrily toward perdition. Theodicy is an insurmountable problem in this live-a-day world we inhabit. Reading about the altruistic traits of the primates most closely related to us reveals something about being a monkey’s uncle. When we look at the shenanigans religions enforce on people to make them more worthy of heaven, I think we would all have to admit to living in Monkey Town.

Two Sparrows

Once I found a baby bird blown from its nest. Many future priests had walked by already that morning, not even noticing. At first I thought it was dead, but then it lifted its head weakly and opened its beak in a soundless cry for its mother. Afraid to touch it, I pulled on some gloves, took it home and called the local animal rescue center. With my daughter keeping the chick warm in the backseat, we drove down the country roads hoping the little thing would survive at least long enough to get professional help. When the trees leafed out and the air warmed up that summer, I received a call from Animals in Need. The bird had survived and was ready for release—would I like to let it go near where I found it? They had worked hard to prevent habituation, and I brought the bird home in a paper grocery bag that it occasionally tested to see if it could find its way out. With my daughter, I opened the bag in the woods and the bird was gone in a flash. We barely saw it as it flew to freedom.

If I were a rich man, well, I guess I would run for president. Perhaps it was being overseas for a week, but the presidential race seemed to fall from the news with Santorum’s demise (if ever I believed in divine intervention, it was on the day he dropped out of the race). Of course, those in Britain who knew me wondered about the carnival characters running for the “most powerful man” job. So we’re now left with a very wealthy man who’s just like the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible—an occupational hazard—and wondering when the ideal of Jesus’ teaching was forgotten in the haste to become the richest Christian on the block (or empire, as the case may be). The disconnect couldn’t be sharper between the man who said that if you wanted to please God you had to give all your material goods away and a man running for public servant has more money than the last eight presidents combined. And Reagan was no slouch on the financial end. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

I can’t remember the last time I felt valued by a politician. At least the Democratic candidates attempt the lessen the suffering of the poor a little bit, but I still see people sleeping in the streets. The roller coaster that is the economy demonstrates its unfeeling course as some get rich then plunge to the depths only to soar out of them again into sunny spaces. According to the Gospels, Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Apparently that little bird I was privileged to rescue was part of the divine plan. That guy sleeping on the subway grate over there trying to keep warm? Well, the politicians apparently can’t see him, and I wonder if the God who watches the sparrows has noticed either.

Not a sparrow (golden pheasant)

Rite and Wrong

Anyone who’s never had anything very weird happen to her or him, raise your hand. Hmm, I thought so. Strangeness, whether prevalent or simply a unique event, is part of life. It is when we turn to explanations that the religious side of the equation suggests itself. Now I have a confession to make. When Borders was going out of business last year, I was in mourning. Those last poignant hours in my favorite bookstore I wandered the aisles picking up the books left behind by others, many of which I would not have otherwise purchased or read. One of those books was The Rite by Matt Baglio. I had seen the hype for the movie, and although the idea of possession terrifies me I’m not sure there’s anything here that can’t be explained by the likes of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. Still, riding through the flickering lights of the Lincoln Tunnel on a bus on a gray and rainy morning, literal shadows of doubts creep in.

There is no doubt that events happen to us that seem to defy explanation. There is also no doubt that the enormous wealth of Christian mythology taken literally by Baglio defies all but the most gullible of readers. The problem is the black box. Nobody sees what goes on inside the locked chamber where the exorcist practices his art. Yes, it is a manly enterprise since the Catholic Church won’t admit of women priests. This was one books that left me tottering between what I know to be true and that shadowy place where doubts dwell. It is utterly certain that our perspective helps to determine what we see. A priest in a stuffy or chilly closed-off room believing a demon lurks therein will see the signs in the behavior of the victim. Throughout the book I kept pondering how so many possessed people lived in heavily Catholic Rome while in locales with more mixed religious traditions the phenomenon is rare.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the fact that Baglio readily admits: most of the possessed are women. In a religion where women have been marginalized as a matter of course from the early days, can this really be a surprise? And when the exorcist, a celibate priest, experiences sexual arousal how else can he interpret it but as demonic? The human mind is a fascinating system, capable of launching a body into stunning, adrenaline-induced feats of strength and endurance. It conjures gods and demons. And it can make a grown man cower on a dark and windy night with stories of possession racing through his head. I had a difficult time believing much of what I read in The Rite, but I do think perhaps it is now time to make a date with Carl Sagan. Lighting a candle in the dark is a very human thing to do.

Bleak Visions

The day was leaden and rainy. Hopes for seeing the sun over the next several days dim. I had been warned about this, but once my mind has settled on vampires, they’re hard to resist. The reviews said Priest, as a movie, was full of cliched dialogue and predictable outcomes. This is true. But still, it is perhaps the most religious vampire movie ever made. While some have doubted my analyses of Underworld and other vampire films, Priest is set in a Pullmanesque world dominated by a church that has lost its belief in vampires. In fact, the civilized world, in scenes reminiscent of Blade Runner, owes ultimate allegiance to the church. Based on the graphic novels by Hyung Min-woo, the post-apocalyptic world of Priest presents an over-industrialized society where humans live in walled cities (ironically, Jericho has no walls). Vampires, more fierce than any Count, even by fifteenth-century standards, rip humans to shreds, but have been forced into reservations by the warrior priests. Their weapons are cross-shaped, but there is otherwise no reference to Jesus in the movie—only an amorphous “God.”

Despite the endless tropes, “a vampire killed my brother,” “the Priest is her father,” and endless chatter about the nobility of sacrifice, the movie is strangely compelling. Visually it maintains the appeal of a place somewhere between Planet of the Apes and the Book of Eli. And something appeals about priests who are willing to fight evil rather than sit around arguing about whether women should be allowed to join the movement or not. Keeping with modern proportions, we see only one female priest and none among the Monseigneurs, but she is the one who actually stops the vampires. And these are vampires that have evolved into the blind, naked denizens of the night who kill, apparently, for the sheer joy of it. The only article of faith the church can muster is, “if you go against the church, you go against God.”

I wonder if anyone in the world of religions is tracking how society perceives them. Religions once stood for our noblest aspirations, and our humblest weaknesses. Like bad caricatures from the movies, religious organizations don’t shy away from the desire for ultimate power. In His Dark Materials and in Priest, the church is content with nothing less than total domination. This is not missionary zeal, but good, honest power-lust. Not all religions are like that, of course. Still, there are those who perceive them that way. Maybe it is my own insecurity, or maybe it is the fact that I’m seldom convinced I have the answers, but I can’t help but feel the thrill of justification at the rebel who maintains conviction to the ideals s/he holds deeply. It takes no backbone to enforce obedience when might is on your side. But only those who have faced the vampires personally know who the real enemy is.

Degradation

Having felt like an automaton in the realm of higher education, I was occasionally overwhelmed by the number of students and lack of resources. One of my fervent beliefs is that multiple-choice tests do not really demonstrate what a student knows, but playing the numbers, I sometimes had to resort to them. Being an adjunct, I didn’t have access to Scantron, so I devised a method of stacking the sheets precisely and grading them with a power drill. It was my one bit of notoriety at Rutgers—I was the guy who graded with a drill. All the while, however, I knew that a truer method would be to allow students to write for themselves. Even that, however, is going the way of automation. A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that student papers are sometimes being graded by robots. Real robots. The truly scary part of the story is that the robots provide grading almost indistinguishable from the professor, a species quickly becoming obsolete. I tell myself not to panic.

“Don’t panic,” of course, was the catch-phrase popularized by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In a world overwhelmed by forces we can’t hope to understand, panic is a natural enough reaction. Adams gave us Marvin the Paranoid Android. Higher education has given us the paranoid professor. Parents who pay extraordinary—mythologically high—tuition rates often ask me where all that money goes. It certainly doesn’t line the pockets of humanities professors; indeed, many of the classes are taught by adjuncts who are the penny dreadfuls of academia. I don’t know where the money goes. I do know that university presidents and football coaches are not wanting for material goods, but even their greed can’t account for the entire greenback drain.

If I were still a professor I’d be tempted to ignore the sage advice of Douglas Adams about now. Courses can be covered by an overwhelming army of competent adjuncts, and grading can be contracted out to robots. Students really don’t even need to come to class any more as distance education has taught us. College becomes little more than an excuse to drink while away from home with a hefty tab being picked up by the folks back home. Higher education may have had the seeds of its own destruction always planted within itself. We’ve confused technology with the desire for increasing comfort and ease of lifestyle. It was only a matter of time before universities caught up. Standing by the grave of Douglas Adams in Highgate Cemetery I’m thinking that his bizarre vision of the future was more sensible than what has actually evolved in our culture. That, and I’m glad I learned to use a power drill.