Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Premature Transportation

Few experiences encapsulate one’s lack of control like commuting by bus.  As my first year of a daily commute to Manhattan draws to a close, I have experienced many mornings of standing in cold or hot air while a bus leisurely makes its way toward my appointed stop twenty, thirty minutes late.  The commuter can’t head back home for a moment’s warmth/coolness, because the bus could come at any time.  The sense of utter helplessness as you know that you’ll be late for work, and that you got up at 3:30 a.m. for this, settles like an iron blanket over what might have begun as an optimistic day.  Then there are those who sit beside you, totally beyond your control.  I’m a small guy and I sit scrunched next to the window to get as much light for my reading as I can.  Very large people find the extra space next to me attractive, although sometimes they insist I squish even more against the window so they might fit.  Overall, however, the exchange of comfort for reading time makes the arrangement palatable.  It’s the loss of time that bothers me.
 
Without traffic, my bus can be at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in an hour. To manage this feat, it has to reach my stop before 6 a.m.  On rare occasions it comes perhaps five minutes early.  When you take a bus, subject to the vagaries of traffic, the only wise course of action is plan on being a few minutes early.  Drivers who watch the clock are dangerous.  So it always annoys me when passengers down the line complain if a bus is one minute early.  On those exceptional mornings I hear strident voices raised, “you’re two minutes early—I had to run!” or “I was sitting in my car; you came too early!”  The driver is scolded and the next day we’re all half an hour late for work.  It is the problem of premature transportation.  Time, to the best of our knowledge, is something you never get back.  I would rather be early rather than late.
 
I first conceived of wasted time as a religious problem when I was in seminary. There was always so much to do, and relinquishing time to pointless activities such as standing in line, or waiting for the subway, grew acute.  Now that I’m an adult anxious about holding down a job that requires a lengthy commute, the issue has arisen again. Clearly part of the difficulty lies in that time is frequently taken from us.  The nine-to-five feels like shackles to a former academic.  I had classes anywhere from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. without considering the drain on my time.  It was largely, I believe, because pointless waiting was not very often involved. Time, like any limited resource, must be parceled out wisely. Time to bring my morning meditation to an end and get ready for the bus. And if it’s early I will consider it as a divine gift.

The Force

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, or so it seems, I began studying religion not knowing where it would land me.  One of the great things about studying religion is the perpetual refreshing of religious thought that grows with human culture.  Anthropologists and philosophers and sociologists have difficulty defining exactly what religion is.  It is clearly a belief system of some description, but in many parts of the world religion is not so much reflective and reflexive—doing the ancient rituals and getting on with life.  Every great once in a while I learn about a new religion.  Those who don’t spend too much time thinking about it might be surprised to learn that new religions emerge quite frequently, and sometimes with the most unlikely of inspirations.  Consider Scientology.  While reading about new religions recently I discovered Jediism, or Star Wars religion.  Like Scientology, it is based on science fiction.  For those of us alive in another universe in 1977 it is difficult to convey to more recent hominins just how impressive Star Wars was.  Life-changing, in some instances.  Jediism takes the concept of the Force and makes it a central tenet of a belief system for the twenty-first century.
 
Having witnessed the impact of Avatar in even more recent lightyears, perhaps we should not be surprised that fantasy worlds spawn new religions.  After all, although death and suffering pervade even the most pristine of human-concocted galaxies, good ultimately wins over evil in these realms.  It is something worth hoping for.  Maybe even believing in.  Some people question how serious those who call themselves “Jedi” on religious surveys really are.  There are online Jedi sanctuaries, and even humor can be a part of a serious religion—consider the craze of Christian clowns that was going around in the 1980s.  For those of us from long ago, religions just don’t seem authentic without some antiquity to them; they should’ve been started centuries ago by founders who can be mythologized to sainthood or divinity.  We have more facts about the life of Yoda than we do of Jesus.


 
The thin line between fact and fiction grows more effaced every day.  Can religions be based on fictional founders?  Of course they can!  Without any means of determining objectively which religion is right (if any), we are left with only a person’s word about what s/he believes.  If I choose to believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person what harm does it do?  It may even benefit the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  As Matt Rossano points out in his book Supernatural Selection, religions are about perceived relationships.  Many people have relationships with fictional characters, sometimes falling in love with one or fantasizing about being one.  Basing a religion on a fictional character may be the greatest sign of trust.  After all, we can’t even define religion in a way on which all specialists will agree.  Religion itself may be the ultimate fiction.  May the Force be with you, just in case.

Searching for God (Rock)

The last time I visited my native western Pennsylvania I went on a quest to find the “Indian God Rock.” This is a local landmark that contains a rare set of Native American petroglyphs from around 1200 C.E., and which I have never seen. Having heard of the stone since my earliest days in the local school system, I was curious to see it. The moniker “God Rock” is complete speculation, based on early assumptions that the Algonquin wouldn’t have inscribed the stone without religious motivation. Since that time, however, the site itself has been deemed a numinous place by some by dint of having authentic petroglyphs. What makes any site sacred is the experience of the visitor. I had lived in this area for the first two decades of my life and never found it. Of course, there was no Internet in those days and its location was remote. Sacred places should be difficult to reach. It was about time.

The Indian God Rock is located on a bicycle trail. For me that now translates into bicycle trial. I used to take epic bike trips with my brother, but although they say you never forget how to ride a bike I am agnostic on the point. I have ridden a bicycle a few times in the last decade or two, and always with unusual aches when it’s over. I still like to jog, but perhaps having my feet in contact with the ground is a kind of sacred behavior in itself. In any case, when I went after the God Rock, I was on foot. Although I’m motivated in a fairly serious way when I’m on a quest, I also know what it is to be outvoted (unlike some politicians). Without a map, perhaps on the wrong trail, in the rain, after a couple hours of walking, I had to bow to the wishes of the majority and give up.

On the way back to the car, I found a newt. In my younger days in this region I used to find them in our yard following a good rain. They are delicate creatures. When you pick them up, they try to scrabble out of your hands, supposing, as nature informs them, that to encounter a larger force is to risk being consumed. I think that this must be similar to human religious motivation. In the presence of something larger than ourselves, something that boggles the mind, we assume it is a god. The reality of the matter, however, is that the life within us is the closest we get to the divine. The newt in my hands is the true wonder. Somewhere not far from here is an Indian God Rock that I have never found, but right now life is in my hands. I later discovered I had been on the wrong trail all along.

Under the Rainbow

Great irony attends the bearing down of Hurricane Isaac on Florida, disrupting the start of the Republican National Convention. Ironic not because of the damage or destruction that normally accompanies hurricanes, but because of the silence concerning divine intent. When natural disasters—does anyone remember Katrina?—have struck against “sinful” collections of people in the past, the religious right has always been swift to designate them examples of God’s wrath. Now that God’s Own Party is being inconvenienced by a hurricane this time, well, it’s just nature. I wonder what it is that so easily distinguishes divine punishment hurricanes from benign, natural ones? In a perfect world we would perhaps have a God that saw no need to create hurricanes at all. In the world we inhabit, however, we face disasters of all sorts and have the added burden of deciding which God has sent and which s/he has not.

One of the main strands of this skein of tangled thinking is the blithe unawareness that politicians often use religion insincerely. People, just like our other primate cousins, learn to respect the alpha male and acquiesce when we might get hurt. Politicians, at least for centuries, have known that few people will chase down the logic of their muddled theological declarations. We all know and experience gut-level, emotional responses to issues that matter to us. We all desire to claim the sanction of higher power—who wants to come out and admit that their opponent has some aspects of the truth and that this is purely a human matter to be decided by reason? Reason tells us that certain behaviors are not tolerated by group leaders—just ask a chimpanzee—and those in power have trouble facing up to the facts.

In one of the saddest legacies of championing nationalism is the unshakeable belief, for any nation or leader that has not embraced an atheistic approach, that God is on their side. Both Allies and Axis powers claimed divine support in both wars to end all wars. During Vietnam Bob Dylan wrote “With God on Our Side.” Politicians still hum along but they have forgotten the words. No, it does not please me that once again a hurricane threatens life and property. I’ve been told that every cloud has a silver lining, however, and I wonder if that applies even to hurricanes. If Isaac, like his biblical namesake, can change perceptions of what God requires, maybe we can see politicians without their masks and ask what it is they really want. That, I believe, would be more stunning than any divine punishment delivered via giant bags of wind.

Wizards and Saints

Hagiography has gone out of style. Since the Reformation we’ve come to see even our most promising lights as flawed and sullied, and no one retains the sheen of unadulterated goodness. It is the new realism. Yet somewhere in our psyches we still need our heroes—those who give us something to which we might feebly attain. A couple years back I visited Edison’s Orange labs in New Jersey—his last inventing paradise—and partook of the mythology that is Edison. Thoughts of that visit keep coming to me, so I read Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Like a wonder-struck schoolboy, or Homer Simpson, I was ready to find stories of incredible creations Edison conceived. Instead Stross’s account is devoid of hagiography and presents a tarnished hero that is much more in keeping with the spirit of the twenty-first century.

Edison was known, even in the nineteenth century, for his atheistic leanings. He was one of the proponents of the human spirit of achievement, a perennial hard worker who believed we could solve our own problems. In many respects, although he didn’t foresee the practical aspects of his inventions, he was ahead of his time. As Stross points out, during his days as a telegraph operator Edison got into trouble for transcribing Jesus Christ as “J.C.,” following the standard practice of rendering time as “B.C.” (Before Christ). Others saw this as sacrilege, perhaps falling into that perpetual myth that Christ was Jesus of Nazareth’s surname. Abbreviation, no matter how sacerdotal the content, is eminently practical in telegraphy.

When entertaining Henry Stanley during his days of phonograph fame, according to Stross, Stanley asked whose voice Edison would most like to hear from history. (Keep in mind, at this time, before records, magnetic tape, and MP3s, a recorded human voice seemed to be a way of communicating with the dead.) When Edison answered “Napoleon,” Stanley expressed surprise suggesting he would’ve supposed the most important voice to be that of Jesus. Edison replied, “Well, you know, I like a hustler.” Even for Edison hagiography was dead. But he did see that the world had gone after the hustlers. Watching the political game unfold again, of which I’m already deathly sick, I hear echoes of Edison’s cynicism. Political leaders would have us believe they are in it for our best interests. Anyone who has studied history (which most politicians despise and discourage us from doing) knows that Edison was right. For all his flaws, Edison will remain a symbol of light in dark times.

Anatomy of a Neurosis

I’m sitting in a building less than 10 blocks from where a shooter opened fire in New York City this morning outside the Empire State Building.  I can still hear the helicopters buzzing overhead as they’ve been doing since just after 9 a.m.  One week ago I walked with my daughter down that very block after an office outing.  This is the third public, multiple shooting since July in the United States. Twenty are dead, over sixty have physical scars, and the rest of us have psychological trauma.  Gun control?  Only a distant dream.  I have been reading quite a lot about embodiment lately.  The idea is both simple and complex at the same time: we are born with physical bodies and our minds spend our entire lives trying to make sense of them.  Guns have a way of radically interfering with the process.

Stop, children, what’s that sound?


 
Often I have heard the adage, “guns don’t kill people, people do.”  This may be true, but it is no more so than the fact that we are all embodied creatures and we have a right not to be shot by homicidal maniacs.  At least I think so. There are enough guns to wipe out the population of this nation, and I’m sitting at my desk in a subtle panic since nobody seems to know what happened yet. The beating of the helicopter rotors is loud, petulant, distracting.

As the morning wears on the reports begin to take some order. The shooter wasn’t acting indiscriminately. The nine of the ten (later revised to ten of the eleven) people shot were caught in the crossfire between police and the gunman. The helicopters leave. Perversely I find myself relieved. Natural disasters happen and the lives of countless thousands are taken. The difference is there no motive is involved. As much as some televangelists want to tell us that “God” is punishing mostly innocent people, the fact is tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tornados are completely natural events. Maybe firearmophilia is natural as well. I can hear the sirens as innocent bystanders are rushed to the hospital. My embodied psyche turns back to my computer. Work won’t wait, and no matter where we are, we are all potentially innocent bystanders in a world where trust in guns has eclipsed trust in gods.

Criticism Is Not Attack

Each administration of George W. Bush was marked by a major disaster. 9-11 was followed four years later by Hurricane Katrina. The United States had received a one-two punch. I recently read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This is a book that should be read by every American, and it wouldn’t hurt others to read it too. This account follows the lives of a New Orleans family through the aftermath of Katrina. The main character, a tradesman named Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a permanent resident of the United States from Syria. His wife Kathy, a convert to Islam, was American. When Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Kathy took their kids to safety with friends while Abdulrahman (known by many as Zeitoun) stayed in the city to look after the properties they owned. When the flooding had engulfed entire sections of the city, Zeitoun paddled about in a canoe, rescuing those he could, and even feeding abandoned dogs. Family and friends urged him to evacuate, but he felt he was doing good. Until he was arrested on his own property and imprisoned for being Syrian.

In a wrenching account based on interviews with Zeitoun and Kathy, Eggers describes how the US government quickly set up Guantanamo Bay-style prisons rather than attempting to rescue those stranded in their homes. Zeitoun was arrested and never informed of the charges, although he heard paramilitary guards armed with machine guns uttering “Taliban” and “al-Qaeda” at him. He watched as a mentally disabled man was pepper-sprayed by soldiers when he clearly couldn’t understand what they were commanding him to do. Despite having government issued ID and good standing as a business owner in New Orleans, Zeitoun was presumed guilty because of his profile: “Arabic” and Muslim. As Eggers reminds us, Homeland Security is now the administrative head of FEMA, and those that Homeland Security distrusts (all of us) are potential terrorists rather than citizens in need of help during times of disaster.

I grew up in a rather monochromatic part of the country, but as I traveled I met and befriended those of differing nationalities, including Syrians. Those considered “the others” by xenophobic bureaucrats are just as kind, loving, and good as those of us born under the sign of the cross with “white” skin. Zeitoun stands as an indictment of the jingoism that has come to be recognized as the only legitimate American citizenship. Zeitoun spent nearly a month in maximum security prison before being released after a makeshift trial, when no evidence existed that he’d done anything wrong. What has happened to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? They’ve become the enemies of the state. I know, Katrina engendered extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary circumstances, from a “Christian” view, however, demand extraordinary sympathy. Do the nation a favor. Before November, read Zeitoun.

The Skinny on Kansas

Perhaps it was just a slow news day, but Monday the Associated Press ran a story about a year-old skinny-dipping episode involving Kevin Yoder, US Representative from Kansas, and, by extension, Jesus.  Given that I’ve just posted on the skinny-dipping priest in A Room with a View, this seemed an apt place to consider what is being shown to the public. First of all, Yoder did not go au naturel in the swimming hole behind his house. The incident took place last August in the Sea of Galilee, the very body of water Jesus putatively walked upon.  Here’s the rub: with or without a boat, because of the association of Jesus of Nazareth with the Sea of Galilee, many people consider it a holy site. Even an Israeli police spokesman seemed a little put off by the mental image that, even if a year old, is a bit disturbing.  (The thought of any politician undressed is a bit jarring to the puritan imagination of the United States, and, one imagines, in many cases it is a reasonable phobia.) Yoder was reportedly in Israel for a trip funded by the American Israel Education Foundation. They were traveling to discuss international relationships, apparently.

As much fun as it is to catch a big player with his (less often her) pants down, I do wonder at the fuss. During my time in Israel—granted, many years ago and fully clothed except when in the shower—I noticed that American standards were not completely in force. A stroll down the beach in Natanya would easily prove my point. We like to hold our public officials to a higher standard that the average citizen, and given what they take from the system, rightfully so. Nevertheless, I wonder what harm is really done by a bit of juvenile fun. Obviously I wasn’t there, and I don’t have the context with which to judge such behavior accurately.  The Israeli police representative stated that public nudity is forbidden at the Sea of Galilee, so I suppose the legality of the act was an issue. American sexual mores, in addition to having been tempered by Victorian attitudes, are largely based on religious prejudices. The Bible is not shy on nudity, however, and people in the early Christian centuries participated in that world.  According to the Gospels, Saint Peter went fishing naked on that very same lake.  Progress obviously involves putting a cover on it.

Ironically, in trying to explain himself, Yoder said that the jump in the lake was spontaneous, a moment of joie de vivre, “just to have the experience.” He conceded that the Sea of Galilee is a special place.  And, he avers, drunk diving was not involved in the incident. No matter your level of tolerance, the emerging picture is an odd one. A group of government officials, one of them naked, standing around the Sea of Galilee at night.  A 30-something from Kansas jumps in for 10 seconds and it seems as if a storm arose over the feted Sea of Galilee just like New Testament times. One wonders how well our government represents the puritanical interests of their constituency.  Kansas, as we all know, is immune from evolution and provides a home for Fred Phelps and company. And it’s also a land-locked state. If you want to run around naked, and you’re a public official, it looks like you—like Dorothy—have to get out of Kansas.  Even then you might find yourself rocking the boat. Let’s just hope that if Peter’s inside he has the sense to pull on at least the girdle of righteousness before company comes.

The Naked Vicar

In a fit of nostalgia, for lack of a better excuse, I recently re-watched A Room With a View. I suspect I saw it with my wife near the time it first came out since I had trouble recalling having viewed any of it before. Until the skinny-dipping scene. Even then, it was unfamiliar until Mr. Beebe, the vicar, jumped into the pond. Now perhaps in the Victorian era same-sex cavorting was permitted for the young, far from repressed eyes, but it was the implications of seeing a priest in the nude that was particularly jarring. As Lucy Honeychurch comes primly along with her fiancé, she is scandalized to see the boy she truly loves unclothed, but the minister in similar state is a laughing matter, a novelty. In the light of the many church scandals that have become public knowledge since 1985, this particular scene has perhaps accrued additional, unintended freight.

Embodiment is a popular topic for theologies these days. I’m no theologian, but as a member of the human race I do participate in the embodiment question. Everyone from biologists to psychologists seems to be rethinking the implications of the soft machine. Some theorists are already preparing to leave behind their bodies to have their consciousness electronically preserved. Their new bodies may be robotic or simply virtual, but I suspect they will find the experience deeply disappointing. We are closer to the cockroach and the goldfish than we are to the disembodied divine. Our bodies are who we are, and embodiment analysis is the attempt to make sense of it all. At the same time, some neuroscientists are speculating that human brains work perhaps in closer concert than we generally suppose. We human beings are more like cells in a great organism that encompasses all of us. The Portuguese Man O’ War, which resembles a human brain in some respects, is a communal organism and not a single creature. The implications are worth considering.

Our rules for getting along with biological bodies include some pretty straightforward permissible behaviors. We don’t penetrate the body of another person without their express approval. They have to be competent enough to give valid approval. We don’t end the existence of another human being’s life unless they’ve been convicted of being exceptionally naughty and they live in the United States (the only “first world” country where the death penalty is still routinely carried out) or unless we are mentally unstable or emotionally overwrought and have easy access to firearms. Bodies are limited, and so are brains. Although, since I’ve upgraded my operating system I notice that my laptop has now claimed my name as its own identity—(if anything looks weird, please let me know!) In the Victorian era it was assumed that the brains of the clergy were attuned to higher things. The naked vicar accepts the good-natured laugh at his expense because he is no threat to either young ladies or young men. In the technological era we are more savvy and less carefree. And given the choice, the religious would prefer a room without a view, thank you.

Last Genesis

Roger Corman was famous for saving a buck on his movies. When it came to low-budget sci-fi and horror, he could be counted on to stretch pennies into dollars. The B quality with which this impresses most of his films makes them all the more addictive. I watched my share growing up, but I’m still discovering ever more as an adult. The Last Woman on Earth is one I recently found and the religious implications of the film were so obvious that they seemed worthy of a little exegesis. The plot is simple enough, three skin-divers, a man, his wife, and his lawyer friend, are the only survivors of an anoxic episode. When Harold Gern (the man) wonders what happened his friend Martin says, “A new and better bomb, act of God, it doesn’t really matter.” The destruction of humanity is a time-honored divine pass-time, so no one considers the statement blasphemous.

Naturally enough, within a short time Martin starts to feel that Harold’s claim on his wife Evelyn (clearly, by choice of name, an Eve figure) is a bit unreasonable under the circumstances. Biology is, in this instance, the misogynic element as the men increasingly step up their hostilities. Evelyn eventually decides to run away with Martin, but Harold is in hot pursuit. The entire episode takes place on Puerto Rico, and so there are a limited number of places to hide. Martin tells Evelyn to await him in the church, which she dutifully does. Harold catches up with Martin and blinds him. Martin finds his way to the church and when Harold comes in Martin provides a final homily (including some lines from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”) declaring that there is no more God. He then dies on the church floor.

The movie ends with Harold and Evelyn leaving the church to try to learn what life is all about. Reading up on the movie, I learned that Corman wanted to keep the costs down so that the writer of the script was cast as Martin for the film. The script wasn’t finished before they started shooting. Nevertheless Robert Towne’s story brings the overall trajectory back to an updated Garden of Eden story. Puerto Rico, a tropical paradise, where the one woman is Eve, is the scene of the first sin—the murder of Martin by Harold. Throughout the movie, Martin is clearly the Abel character while Harold is selfish, unsympathetic, and emotionally absent. Cain wins the epic struggle and God, we are told, is no more. Not the most profound of story-telling, but the themes and concepts are very much biblical. And when the final couple leave the church the remainder of world history is set to begin. I’d gladly give this one a B.

Used Against You

Many times I’ve confessed to being a reluctant Luddite. My reluctance arises from a deep ambivalence about technology—not that I don’t like it, but rather that I’m afraid of its all-encompassing nature. This week’s Time magazine ran a story on how smartphones are changing the world. My job, meeting the goals set for me, would be impossible without the instant communication offered by the Internet. Everything is so much faster. Except my processing speed. We all know the joke (which would be funny if it weren’t so true) that if you’re having trouble with technology, ask a child. In my travels I see kids barely old enough to walk toddling around with iPhones, clumsily bumping into things (i.e., human beings) as they stare at the electronic world in the palm of their tiny hands. And once the technocrats have taken over, “progress” is non-negotiable.

I made it through my Master’s degree without ever seriously using a computer. Even now I think of this very expensive lap-warmer before me as a glorified word processor. Over the weekend I succumbed to the constant lure of Mac’s new OS, Mountain Lion. Some features of this blog had stopped working, and, being a Luddite, I assumed that it was outdated software. Of course, to update software, you need an operating system that can handle it. So here I am riding on a mountain lion’s back, forgetting to duck as the beast leaps dramatically into its lair. In this dark cave, nursing my aching head, I realize that I have become a slave to technology. For a student of religion who grew up without computers, I’ve got at least half-a-dozen obsolete ones in my apartment, each with bits and fragments I’m afraid to lose, despite the fact that I’m not even sure where to take them to retrieve the data. When I sat down to write my post this morning I received a message that Microsoft Word is no longer supported by Mountain Lion. Fortunately my daughter had the foresight to purchase Pages, so life goes on.

This blog has an index. It is an archaism. Indexes are not necessary with complete searchability. It is there mostly for me. In my feeble attempts at cleverness, I sometimes forget what a post is about, based on its title. The index helps me. In a truly Stephen King moment, I found this morning that my index had infinitely replicated a link to my post on the movie Carrie, so that any link after that will lead you directly to the protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel. It will take a few days to clean that up. There’s probably an app for it. For those of us brought up before household computers were a reality, however, there is a more religious explanation. Yes, my laptop is clearly haunted. And in the spirit of Stephen King I type these words while awaiting the top to snap down with the force of an alligator byte and break off my fingers. I should be worried about it, but instead, I’m sure there’s an app to take the place of missing digits. Even if there isn’t I’m sure my iPhone will happily survive without the constant interference of a Luddite just trying to call home.

Not a lap-pet.

Supernaturally Selected

Things are seldom as simple as they seem. Religion, for example, is frequently cast as the villain or the hero of human society, when, in truth, like most human institutions, it is a little of each. I’ve read many theories on the origin of religion, and none has been completely convincing but most contain persuasive aspects while I’m reading them. After having read several books proclaiming the end of religion in the last several months, I just finished Matt J. Rossano’s Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved. Many books with a similar goal begin with the suggestion that religion may have had some biological utility for people at one time, but that we’ve outgrown our need for it and we should classify it with other obsolete, arcane concepts that have no further purpose. Rossano suggest that religion grew out of the need for social bonding and that we could not have become human without it.

Basing his ideas on genetics and anthropology, Rossano notes that even with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees there remain striking differences. Mostly they are social in nature. Many of the differences are reflected dimly in our primate cousins, but the human penchant for gathering in groups with ritual behavior to offset overwrought emotions applies only to us. That ritual behavior includes healing rites, something that Rossano suggests might be the earliest, shamanistic, religion. Back in my teaching days I’d been telling students that the earliest evidence for religious behavior dated to the paleolithic period. This is something I’d reasoned from the artifacts found in pre-historic communities. I was happy to find confirmation in a more competent scholar than myself.

While I’ll no doubt revisit some of the fascinating hypotheses of Supernatural Selection over the coming days, one point especially stood out on my initial reading. Religion is a communal phenomenon in what is a largely individualistic society. In other words, religion itself continues to evolve. Even the hermit in his or her cave is only considered religious in comparison with his or her less dedicated, secular compatriots living la vida de fe. Since religion is communal, Rossano suggests, it is impossible to argue someone out of their religion—based on perceived relationships as they are. Indeed, it seems that his hypothesis predicts a behavior we find only too evident when we prepare to line up at the polling booths, but which will immediately fall into the background again once the level is pulled.

Martian Religion

The early morning sky has been putting on a beautiful, celestial waltz this week as the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter swing close then part along the ecliptic. On such days it is easy to see how ancient people would have attributed motive and intentionality to the solar system—there’s definitely something going on up there. Then we get the images from the Mars rover Curiosity, showing us ourselves, lost in space. One of the truly iconic photographs from the last century was the earthrise taken from the moon. Until that moment it was difficult to conceive that we really were spinning through space, unattached to any biblical pillars with an affixed firmament above. Now we are looking at ourselves from a distance of some 225 million kilometers, and our troubles have never seemed less significant, our god never smaller. We are the eyes in our own sky—or, more impressive yet—the eyes from some other planet’s skies. I can’t see how this would fail to have religious implications.

Is this real life, or just fantasy?

Religion often involves introspection—looking at oneself from the outside, or from another perspective. Our religious ancestors, who had no way to assess what the planets were with their conceptual framework, generally assumed them to be alive. Some cultures called them gods, others creatures, but their movement in the sky is often lost on modern people who only occasionally glance at the sky, when their smartphone is taking a little too long to download something. How sobering it is to consider that we are one of those bright dots when seen from Martian eyes. (Unfortunately I’ve been unable to confirm the stunning image that’s been circulating on the Internet claiming to be from Curiosity.) Ancient religions, by necessity, are geocentric. The earth is all they knew. Of course, religions have grown increasingly defensive as new realities have been discovered; even the Book of Mormon was written before the planet Neptune was decisively named and claimed. Changing worldviews is never easy.

From NASA’s photo library

Religion is often a coping mechanism to keep us grounded. Many concepts of divinity are celestially based—pointing to some divine realm in the sky. That is the perspective of an earthling. Once in space, what direction is God? We find that our up and down, near and far, are only relative terms. What the means is that increased knowledge forces further reflection on religious beliefs. We can’t stand still and let the universe revolve around us like an obsolete firmament. Religion must engage reality to remain relevant. And right now reality is rolling across the surface of Mars, looking homeward with alien eyes. How small our steeples and cathedrals look from our solar system sibling’s perspective.

Illini Wisdom

Running through the Midwest like a massive, erosive serpent, the Mississippi River has an unrivalled place in the American imagination. In many locations the relentless river has carved impressive bluffs over the millennia, providing impressive views out over the valley that has been carved in nature’s time. Down near the town of Alton, Illinois, along the eastern bluffs left by the sculpting waters, is a reproduction of the Piasa Bird. Years ago, while living in the Midwest, some relatives took me to see the replica, a local tourist attraction and not a bad place to watch for bald eagles. It was then that I first heard the myth of the Piasa Bird. “Bird” is a bit of understatement, or perhaps a misnomer. The creature was really a monster, by any description. According to the lore presented by the tourist literature, the Piasa was a flying, human-eating beast that terrorized the local Illini tribe. Unsure of what to do, the tribe was at a loss until Ouatoga, their leader, had a dream that revealed an ambush as the means of defeating the monster.

The ambush involved, as is often the case in folkloristic accounts, a victim. Someone had to be bait to draw the Piasa into the ambush of poisoned arrows that had been arranged. Ouatoga, aware of the obligations of leadership, volunteered for the role of the victim and stood in the open to lure the Piasa into the trap. As the monster swooped down on him, the warriors released their arrows, killing the beast and saving their leader. The story bears much in common with myths throughout the world: a frightful beast, a sacrifice, and ultimate deliverance. This framework also appears in many religions, outlining the human condition. It also reflects, in an abstract way, the ideal of pre-modern society; we are all in this together. Banding together against an outside evil, human society might banish the monster and everyone’s chances would be improved. It is the world of mythology.

In our enlightened society the emphasis seems to have changed completely. Our leaders are often our Piasa, snatching from the populace at will and maintaining uneasy control. Ouatoga, in the myth, understood the role of leadership as being willing to sacrifice everything for the good of those who were under his watch. The idea also occurs in the Bible where Ezekiel charges the ungodly kings of Judah with being shepherds who eat the sheep. I still believe in the power of mythology. Stories are preserved because of a truth that resonates with the hearers. Monsters are in no short supply, and a society that is subject to the whims of an oligarchy perhaps has the most to learn from our mythological past. When is the last time a public leader offered to give up anything in order to serve the populace who grants him (sometimes her) his power? Old Man River, he must know somethin’. Looking up at the Piasa, I think I might be able to guess what it is.