Music has always meant a lot to me. I am, however, not musically talented. As I child I never saw The Sound of Music (or Mary Poppins, for that matter). College finally introduced me to Julie Andrews when friends were aghast at how deprived my childhood had been. Sound of Music was cute, but I didn’t really “get it” until someone explained that it is largely a true story. There really was a Maria von Trapp and Captain. Much of the story, of course, my colleagues (not really knowing) told me was fabricated. My daughter has recently returned from a musical tour of part of southern Europe, centering mostly on Austria. The tour group visited Salzburg and saw where part of The Sound of Music was filmed. When she returned home we decided to visit Stowe, Vermont. This mountain community, known for its skiing, is where some of the von Trapp family still live. Not sure what to expect, we signed on for a tour of the Trapp Family Lodge (a little beyond the comfort range of someone unemployed until recently).
The first surprise came when Sam von Trapp, the grandson of Maria, introduced himself as the tour guide. Many of the mysteries of fact versus fiction were cleared up—I can’t reveal it all here, otherwise you might not visit Stowe for yourself—and the person of Maria von Trapp became much more like the rest of us. During an interview taped four years before she died in 1987, Maria explained how the course of her life was changed by the mountains around Salzburg. Feeling the presence of God there, she joined the convent that sent her to tutor one of Baron von Trapp’s daughters and that eventually led to her marriage and the formation of the Trapp family singers. She was urged on in her marriage, as the movie indicates, by the sisters of the convent.
A second surprise emerged as the narrative turned to how the von Trapp family tried to help out others in times of difficulties. Not content to count themselves uniquely blessed by having escaped Austria the day before the Nazis closed the borders of the country, they sent supplies to those who were still under threat of Hitler’s regime after the Anschluss. The home made famous by the movie became Nazi headquarters in Austria. It seems that in this case religion led to a favorable result. Some critics argue that religion brings no good. I have to admit that often I feel as though attempting to justify it at all is a fool’s errand. It is good to be reminded once in a while that lives are sometimes changed for the better by what they believe to be the divine voice. Even in my horror film world, The Sound of Music still has its place.
Posted in Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged Austria, Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, Salzburg, Sam von Trapp, Stowe, The Sound of Music, Trapp Family Lodge, Vermont
While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.
I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.
This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.
Posted in Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Islam, Massachusetts, Pagan, paganism, pentacle, Quran, Sikh, Springfield, symbols, witches
With the drought deepening over about half the United States, it is with not inconsiderable irony that I am reading the story of Noah’s flood. I have been tweeting the Bible for some months now and am just reaching the end of the fascinating account of the deluge. The difference in the case of the drought is obvious, but similar. Having spent some time in the Midwest, I came to know how intimately and intensely many of the citizens trust God’s providential care (this is true elsewhere, of course, but I noticed it more in that region). When disasters come, however, just like an animist would suggest, answers will be sought in the divine world. “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” Genesis 8.22 rounds out God’s plan for the perpetuity of nature’s cycles, stating in just the previous verse that he knows people to be wicked and will never punish them for it again, as he did in the flood. Such biblical assurances, however, do little to allay fears when crops are dying in the field.
The problem in looking for answers in nature is their ambiguity. Just consider the record number of church picnics that haven’t been rained out this year—the number of prayers I’ve heard for the staying of rain for human convenience is surely a reflection of how intimate divine interaction with the workings of nature is supposed to be. One of the benefits of science has been its ability to straighten out all the cards in the deck, tapping them on the table-top and squeezing them into line. How would God weigh prayers for no rain so that an outdoor wedding of a devout couple could take place versus the prayers of a backslidden farmer for much needed precipitation (without hail)? Are decisions made by majority request? Wouldn’t that be excessively dangerous, given humanity’s track record of deciding what is good for itself?
The drought is a serious concern, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise or make light of the situation. What concerns me is the human tendency to look for a divine bailout. Many politicians of certain persuasion (usually the greenback kind) tell us that the climate is just fine. Our greenhouse gasses are not unduly affecting it. Now that a drought is upon us—and even a child can understand that all weather is related—the focus shifts to God. This dancing around the elephant in the room is tiring and dizzying. We can spend billions of dollars making bombers that are almost invisible to radar and so oddly shaped that they get reported as UFOs and yet we can’t get politicians to consider our impact on the very skies they fly in on their bombing missions. The atmosphere is larger than us all and it is warming up. And when we bake ourselves out of existence isn’t it a comforting thought that seedtime and harvest will continue, at least until our sun burns out?
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Genesis, Natural Disasters, Posts, Science, Weather
Tagged drought, Genesis, Genesis 8.22, global warming, Noah's Flood
Religion seldom makes as big an impression as when it concerns itself with the undead. Popular culture has gone after zombies to such a degree that they have engaged academic discourse well beyond the field of African-Caribbean religions. In fact, religious specialists tend to shy away from the topic in a kind of first-date embarrassment. Perhaps it’s because zombies in popular culture are so much cooler than their Vodou forebears. Within the past several months, however, zombies have shown up in Time, on the Center for Disease Control website, and now in the Chronicle of Higher Education. An article this week explores the academic implications of a paper by neuroscientists Bradley Voytek and Timothy Verstynen on the zombie brain. The two took on the project as a lark at the behest of the Zombie Research Society. Science fiction writer and head of ZRS, Matt Mogk gave an interesting take on zombies. He’s quoted in the Chronicle as saying, “Zombies are rooted in science, not superstition and myth.”
At the risk of sounding extremely uncool (one that I take rather frequently, I fear), I would point out that exactly the opposite is the case. Zombies are rooted in superstition and myth, i.e., religion. The entire idea that a person can be made to rise from the dead—originally to be made a slave—comes from that heady blend of Christianity and African religion that developed as part of slave culture. Slavers were notorious in not wanting slaves to accept Christianity because that might make slaves think that they were equal with their owners. By suppressing Christianity among slaves, the African religions in which many were raised came to blend with the Christianity that they’d garnered. One of the bi-products was the zombie. The zombie partakes of the Christian concept of resurrection, but in a twisted way. Once the new vision of the zombie presented by George Romero took off, yes, they did move into the realm of science fiction, often the forerunner of science.
A very serious issue underlies the zombie myth—the very religious concern about death. While not all religions comfort with an afterlife, they all in some way deal with ultimate issues. The end of life is about as ultimate, from our limited experience, as they come. Science loudly and repeatedly insists that death is the final frontier. We don’t cross back this way again, according to the available evidence. Scientists do not study ghosts or souls, and are very cagey about near-death experiences. The zombie, who is now threatening the careers of young scientists, is a most religious monster. Everything about the zombie points to its origin as a religious trope. Voytek and Verstynen wanted to interest people in science by taking a comic look at zombie brains. The problem is that zombie brains are brains on religion, not science.
Posted in Current Events, Higher Education, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged African-Caribbean religion, Bradley Voytek, Chronicle of Higher Education, George Romero, Matt Mogk, resurrection, slavery, Timothy Verstynen, vodoun, Zombie Research Society, zombies