Scary Monstrances

I can’t help myself. I’ve always found monsters fascinating. Now that I’m mostly grown up and am expected to have a modicum of respectability, I try to read academic books on monsters so that I can legitimate what would otherwise be puerile juvenility. David D. Gilmore’s Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors was my latest foray into the forest. As I have come to expect, just pages into the book the first reference to religion emerged. This connection between monsters and religion is not Gilmore’s central theme, but it does recur at several points in the book. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Spain’s Pentecostal dragon. The Tarasque, named after its host town, is a medieval dragon that is still feted to this day in some locations. Considered to be symbolic of the sins of humankind, it accompanies either the holy day of Pentecost or of Corpus Christi. This connection between the church and monsters took me back to my first experience of Corpus Christi.

Raised as solid a protester as a Protestant can be, I had a difficult transition to some aspects of Anglicanism. The ceremonial was great, but some of the popish blandishments I could never quite accept. When a member of Boston’s famed Church of the Advent, the rector asked me to be a torch bearer on Corpus Christi. This involved processing outdoors onto Beacon Hill in full drag (or cassock and surplice, as I’m sure the parsimonious will correct me) to accompany the holy sacrament, carried as it turns out, in a monstrance. The idea that looking at a piece of wafer-thin bread on public display could somehow mediate a divine blessing, I never understood. It felt as much a fairy tale as the dragons of Spain. Monster or monstrance?

Gilmore concludes that monsters are people’s projections of their deepest unresolved issues. He may be right. One of his observations, however, struck me. He suggests monsters predate even gods in the human imagination. I tend to think they entered that gray space at the same time. Our minds have always told us that there were creatures out there to fear. Some of them, we hope, are good. Others are clearly evil. Monsters are difficult to explain in a world created by a benevolent deity. It is perhaps no mistake that Zoroastrians conceived of Angra Mainyu as monstrous. Divinity and diabolism could be fused into one being. There is a profound lesson here, for those able to read. Monsters are among the earliest projections of human imagination. And they remain forever with us.

Angra Mainyu; god or monster?

Children Shall Lead Them

One of the perks of moving to New Jersey was landing in a town with strong support for the arts. Every time I attend a middle or high school concert, I consider how the old image of painful evenings of parents patiently pretending to enjoy the music has ended. The kids in this town could be professionals. If I close my eyes, I forget they’re all under nineteen. Last night at a school concert one of the pieces was “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” Eric Idle’s chestnut from the Life of Brian (now featured, I hear tell, in Spamalot). I first saw the Life of Brian with some trepidation while in seminary—I had been sounded warned that it was a profane movie, making fun of Jesus. Considering that all the actual references to Jesus in the movie are quite positive, I eventually realized what all the fuss was about. The movie doesn’t make fun of Jesus, it does, however, show the laughable nature of those who follow a religion blindly. This, I gather, was the real root of the problem.

Next to this fun piece, the concert also included several pieces taken from originally sacred contexts such as Mozart’s Dies Irae and settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus and Ave Maria. Spirituals, likewise, are a perennial favorite. Performed along next to these pieces of religious origin were also decidely secular pieces such as “Scarborough Fair” and the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye.” In concert the sacred and profane blend beautifully. Perhaps there is a paradigm hidden in plain sight here. Religions need not be defensive and unbelievers need not attack them. The world is surely big enough for differences of opinion.

Music has a power that sometimes frightens me. I don’t often address it in my blog because of how much it affects me. Theorists often note that music is part of nearly every religion ever invented—we know that something special is going on when we hear it. And music has the ability to move large groups of people simultaneously. I’ve not attended many professional concerts (the last one was Alice Cooper in Atlantic City back in 2008), but no matter how secular the artist the experience is profoundly spiritual. I’m not sure I can adequately define what that means, but when it is felt there is no mistaking it. So maybe that’s why school concerts have such power. It seems that schools that support the arts also tend to have excellent academic records as well. The truth is hidden in plain sight.

After Before the Dawn

Apropos of reading Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, as a sometime scholar of religion a number of points struck me. According to both material artifacts and DNA, several changes took place among human beings some 50,000 years ago. Having just read P. W. Singer’s Wired for War as well, the early coalescence of war and religion in human history was unavoidable. Wade ties the emergence of both with the development of language. It is only when we can speak that we can begin to express our theological speculations and, as history continues to teach us, despise those who disagree with us. It becomes clear quite early in the tome that Wade has an interest in explaining religion. Like many science writers he struggles with the issue of why religion persists, despite the explanatory value of science. We know how multiple aspects of our world work, yet we still defer to a divine that no one has ever seen or registered in any empirically verifiable way.

Not only does this tendency stretch back to our distant, distant relatives. The Natufians, about whom I generally lectured my students (itself ancient history), are marked as well by the dual achievements of religion and war. Wade is one of the few scholars I’ve discovered who concurs with my assessment that religion was among the earliest of human behaviors. In my mind, it is tied to consciousness and its evolution. Once we begin to realize that we are not in control of our destiny, we start to seek explanations from above, and hope that God loves us. Otherwise the picture isn’t so pretty. Indeed, Wade suggests that religion evolved as a socially cohesive force. Tying the concept to ethics and trust, he suggests early people had to learn to get along with strangers and religion cemented that bond.

I’m not a scientist, so I cannot assess whether this explains religion or not. It does seem clear, however, that if Wade is right religion itself has evolved into a more aggressive beast. Sure, religions still serve to bind people together—but only so far. As populations separated, their various religions evolved and led them to distrust one another. Instead of bonding humans together, religion began to put them into competition for the truth. Here, Wade’s analysis is sadly true—religion and war evolve together. Our small planet is yet too big for everyone to get along, to know and trust the stranger. Religion had helped us at the critical stage when we needed social bonding, and now it has naturally evolved into the opposite—a socially divisive force of orthodoxy and heresy. If Wade is correct, we all need religion to take on its most ancient role and bring people together instead of giving us excuses for war.

Waiting for the dawn

Avengers and Gods

The Marvel Comics Universe is a complex blend of juvenile and adult themes. At the suggestion of one of my readers (thanks, Erika!) and the urging of my family, we went to see The Avengers this weekend. Having grown up in my own complex circumstances (first of all, fundamentalist—therefore not prone to too much secular material, and secondly, of humble means—therefore not prone to too much material material), I was aware of only some of the group. I’d read Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor comics, and I knew who Captain America was, but I never realized they’d teamed up, along with Black Widow and Hawkeye, to form the Avengers. I guess I just missed that part. The amazing integration of gods, performance-enhanced humans, and technocrats, makes for a fascinating consideration of the boundaries of good and evil.

This became clear when Captain America first encounters Thor in the film and is told he is a god. His response, straight from Tea Party rhetoric, is “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.” Clearly a man from the early twentieth century would have expectations of Yahweh’s dress code. It would be a white robe, no doubt, but as the gods Thor and Loki duke it out, Yahweh is nowhere to be seen. The movie also toys with the concept of immortality. Dr. Banner, under the guise of the Hulk, is unkillable. In a poignant moment he admits having attempted suicide, but his alter-ego proved indestructible. The cheer of the audience was palpable when Loki tells the green guy, “I’m a god and I won’t be bullied by—” only to be divinely thrashed by the Hulk who responds with the word, “Demigod.”

Over the past several years I’ve noticed that hero movies have begun to declare Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. No longer are supernatural beings the ones who rule humanity. Heroes are now in charge of their own destinies. And yet, that old time religion is still present. As Tony Stark is about to attack one of the wickedly cool flying leviathans he asks Jarvis “Are you familiar with the story of Jonah?” I wondered just how many in the theater got the reference—how many, like Captain America at the comment of flying monkeys, got the joke? When the movie was over, and I was convinced I wouldn’t have to go to work on Monday (I was sure my building was one of those destroyed in the mayhem), I pondered the resolution. The gods took their dispute to Asgard, out of the realm of humans. This was, after all, a dispute between deities. And humans, as so often happens in such scenarios, were simply caught in the middle.

Enoch’s Dilemma

“And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” These two verses from Genesis 5 convey just about all we know of Enoch. That, and he was the father of the oldest man ever, Methuselah. With this intriguing introduction, however, the religious mind insists on a backstory. Over the centuries of antiquity, books grew about this mysterious character as he became the prototype of the person who never died. The Bible doesn’t state that Enoch didn’t die. Nor does it state that he did. Plenty of wiggle room for the mythic imagination. In what appears to be an unrelated story, the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week reported on technology that builds on the strange but natural idea of phantom limbs.

When a person loses a limb, sometimes they report still feeling it. Their brains grew in a body that possessed the limb, and once it is gone the brain still has memory of it. The term used for this is a phantom limb. Knowing that mind does control matter to some extent, robotics experts have figured out ways to wire a robotic limb to the brain of a paralyzed person that responds to brain signals sent to the phantom limb. As much like science fiction as it sounds, this is already happening. The robotic limb responds just like a biological limb. This technology is just developing, of course, and is very expensive. It also implies that cyborgs, once the fodder of futuristic fiction, are becoming reality. Some theorists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, suggest that the brain itself can be converted to electronic signal and transferred into mechanical storage. Once that is achieved, we will have Enoch without any God to take him.

The world that we’ve been engineering bears a strange resemblance to the world of the Bible. For the people of ancient Israel death was the final word, and with rare exception (the only unquestioned case of the undying man was Elijah) people simply accepted the inevitable with no concept of an afterlife. Contact with the Zoroastrians convinced some Jews of the possibility of life beyond death and the quest for immortality was on. It has been a desideratum of human aspirations ever since. We invented machines to help us do what nature has not equipped us to attain. Finer and finer lines have been drawn between the biological and the mechanical. While it make look like immortality to some, to others it seems that we have been kidnapped—taken, if you will—by technology. What really happened to Enoch? The Bible doesn’t say, but it seems that we are getting very close to finding out on our own.

Convergent Evolution

Back when my opinion mattered—in higher education, you must realize, a scholar’s outlook only matters when s/he has a teaching post, no matter how abysmal the school. Once that post is gone you just become another guy with an opinion—I was invited to a conference. This is quite an honor for someone consigned to the bargain basement of academia, and for my paper I read from a burgeoning book that died a sudden death along with my academic career. In that stillborn tome I argued that many aspects of ancient mythology—including some in the Bible—made better sense in the light of science. I suggested that some of the infelicities in ancient texts might be the signs of continuing evolution of the human brain. Ancient people were able to believe what we find troubling. By the end of the conference many respectable scholars were looking askance at me when I stepped into the room. Honestly. I heard the word “Wiggins” uttered as if it were an archaic curse. Shortly after that I found myself working out of some guy’s basement for a salary fit for a knave.

Imagine my delight, then, at finding a reputable scholar who argued that the human brain indeed continues to evolve. In fact, it has speeded up the pace as new challenges have emerged. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade was recommended to me by my brother-in-law. As I was updating myself this week on how we became human, I was surprised to see Wade suggesting what I had suggested in my paper—the patterns of human behavior (we both have an interest in religion, it seems) are tied to the evolutionary state of our brains. Sitting on a bus next to many other drones commuting like ants to New York City, I felt strangely vindicated. I had an idea scorned by my colleagues that is being suggested by science. Not that everyone will accept Wade’s conclusions. Many scholars of ancient religions will never even read them. When I explained my thesis to a colleague after losing my academic status, he said, “I don’t give much credibility to science.”

Convergence is the phenomenon of two species evolving an adaptation independently. Often it is difficult for people to believe that a trait shared by two populations is simply nature’s way of trial and error that happened to work twice, in different situations. Nicholas Wade and I experienced convergence on this point. He, of course, is a famous writer and I am nobody. Nevertheless, my unpublished idea was presented at a conference the year his book must have been in production. We had both been reading about evolution and wondering what its effect on religion might have been. I will comment more on Wade’s specific ideas about religion in the book in another post. He, of course, went on to write The Faith Instinct, which was widely acclaimed. At that time I was struggling to find work and it seemed that natural selection hadn’t selected me at all. I am glad, however, that my idea made it into print, even if it was evolved by someone else who is far more fit for survival.

Free Tea

I first became aware of The Town Hall, I have to admit, through the Christopher Guest mockumentary A Mighty Wind. In the movie, three aging folk groups are brought together for a concert in Town Hall to honor the memory of one of their early promoters. When I began to walk past Town Hall on my way to work, I grew curious about its history. This curiosity was piqued by the scriptural quotation engraved on the façade: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” New York City is an architect’s smorgasbord and I am often intrigued by the little gems I spy here and there. I discovered that The Town Hall was originally a political venue built by The League for Political Education, an organization sorely needed now. Built because of the need for a public space to discuss the Nineteenth Amendment (which the League supported), Town Hall was originally a venue to keep the public informed.

The Nineteenth Amendment—which the Tea Party seems to have overlooked, along with much of what we recognize as democracy—was drafted by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It took congress only four decades to ratify it. Women were finally given the right to vote. Stanton was noted for her suffrage activities, including the production of The Woman’s Bible. The idea that an entire half of the human race should share the rights of the other half seems to have required a building erected to educate the public. Of course, there were moments when even The Town Hall couldn’t bear the words spoken on stage, as when Margaret Sanger was arrested for speaking about contraception there in 1921. I suspect there were Tea Partiers in the audience.

The same stage also provided a venue for Edna St. Vincent Millay to have her poetry reading breakthrough. Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninoff performed there, as did any number of other greats. Truth may take many forms. Certainly human equality is as basic a truth as can be found. Art and poetry are equally as parsimonious, in the formal sense of the word. These things that we value are the very aspects of culture that the Tea Party would like to curtail. Thankfully there have been believers in the truth in the past who have been willing to construct monuments to sanity. And I can’t help but think that there would be even more of them if we still had a League for Political Education to help promote the truth. Without it, as it says in stone, we can never be truly free.