Monthly Archives: December 2012

Alien Religion

Alien3

Despite my interest in aliens, my viewing of the Alien movies has been tenuous at best. The image of what looked like an egg hatching a green sun over a particularly badly formed waffle always brought the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” to my juvenile mind. When the original movie came out in 1979, it seemed too scary for a kid in high school. I first saw Aliens (part 2) when living with a friend after seminary. He explained to me the missing gaps left from never having seen the original, and I was impressed by how Sigourney Weaver pretty much took on the alien queen single-handedly. I was still too young, however, to realize that there’s always room for an alien or its egg to attach itself inside any spaceship or escape pod. You can never really get rid of the things. I finally saw the first installment some ten years later, and it was clear that, as in nearly all series, the first was the best. Ridley Scott’s films take considerable energy to watch. No one seems capable of matching his dark moods and sense of a hopeless future. I left it at this state for another decade, until recently reading that Alien 3 marked the culmination of the “theology” of the series. Over the holiday break I decided to find out if this was true.

Ripley, who can never get a break, finds herself the sole survivor (again) on a prison-colony at what used to be a lead ore refinery deep in space. While the company had abandoned the facility, a group of inmates who had formed a religious order decided to remain. Having grown up in a refinery town, so far I’m on board with the story. Separated from society, from women, and from temptation, the prisoners are a fundamentalist sect that would seem to fit well into the woods of Wisconsin. Ripley threatens their delicate balance of celibacy, and although not a virgin she ends up conceiving an alien in a Madonna-esque way, not even knowing how she became pregnant. When she decides to incinerate herself rather than allow the alien to be born, she falls into the fire in a cruciform dive just to drive the point home. Before her dive into hell, however, Ripley tries to motivate this band of incarcerated monks to fight the alien. When they say the company will save them, she responds, “What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?” Again, echoes of Wisconsin.

Doubtless, my experience of the movies has been skewed by my own experience. Still, Alien 3 holds to a pattern that emerges fairly often in movies with a strong horror theme—religion is the progenitor of terror. The prisoners’ religion is described as “apocalyptic,” and it frequently appears that in movies where a civilization is on the brink of collapse, religion awaits to greet the survivors with open arms on the other side. In the horror genre, this is often a cold, clammy comfort. Although religious elements were largely lacking in the Ridley Scott and James Cameron episodes, I do hear distant echoes of Moby Dick here from the very beginning. The dark alien, like the white whale, is elusive and destructive and does not relinquish its hunt until Captain Ahab, or Lieutenant Ripley, is dead in its grip. And since Alien Resurrection awaits in yet another sequel, like the white whale, the alien never truly goes away.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 210,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 4 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

On Dasher, On Dancer

CaputoOnReligion It’s a little embarrassing to admit that after having pondered religion for all of my life, I still have no clear idea what it is. In my case pondering includes three degrees in the study of religion and almost two decades in teaching it. I still read books that introduce religion, hoping to catch some distilled essence that I might label the core of the phenomena that go by the name. Some least common denominator. But that’s not how life works. Even the most basic of things can be complex, so I recently turned to John D. Caputo’s On Religion to find out what a philosopher thinks it might be. From the start this little book is jarring. Caputo, while staunchly refusing to tip his hand, defines the religious as those who love God. Or god. Or not really god, but something that might be as impersonal as the Force. Of course, love is as slippery a term as “God,” so Caputo suggests that it is caring for more than one’s own self. If many of our religious politicians and televangelists could get even that far perhaps we’d be closer to the religious idea of heaven itself. Then when Caputo turned philosophical, he started to lose me a little.

The big problem, and one of which Caputo is well aware, is that loving God is a western religious ideal. There are those who claim that some “Eastern religions,” such as Buddhism, Taoism, and that of Confucius’ followers, are actually philosophies and not religions. But if we’re trying to define religion, excluding a very large portion of the world’s belief structures seems to tilt the balance a bit dangerously westward. Come to think about it, the idea that all people have to have some kind of religion is a western conceit as well. Who are we to define the terms of another’s existence? That, it seems to me, is one of the problems of reductionism. Assuming that all people accept the premise that an empirical system can explain everything will not rid the world of religious martyrs. So what is to be done?

Caputo has thought about this as well. He concludes his short manifesto with a chapter entitled “On Religion—Without Religion.” Here the true root of the problem is exposed—religions that claim they alone can be true. For Caputo’s purposes western religions work best here because the three major monotheistic faiths share so much in common. Put crassly, the real question is where does the line of final revelation end. Is it Moses? Jesus? Mohammad? We could go on—Joseph Smith? Raël? Philosophically, at least, Caputo suggests that all religions could co-exist if they were willing to admit that they are all right. It boggles the reductionist mind. How can they all be right? How can they not be? After all, despite the millennia spent on the topic, we still don’t know what religion is.

Biblical New Brunswick

One of the true sadnesses of my life is that New Brunswick’s biggest institution, Rutgers University, couldn’t find a full-time place for a dreamer like me. Ever hopeful, I taught there for four years, counting on a miracle. Although I’ve got many good memories of my time at Rutgers, one of the side-benefits was getting to know New Brunswick a little bit. Probably not topping too many vacation must-see lists, New Brunswick, New Jersey nestles in the shadow of New York City and its train station is a place I’ve spent a bit of time. Last night I had occasion to stop in to get my bus pass so that I can start off the new year by going to work. As I climbed the stairs to the ticket window, I heard a street preacher holding forth. There he was, a young man, open Bible in hand, explaining to a mostly disinterested commuter crowd why they needed salvation. (If their experience on New Jersey Transit has been anything like mine, believe me, they already know.) Many of those in the waiting room are the homeless trying to get out of the cold for a while. New Brunswick has never struck me as a particularly religious town, although many of my students in my Rutgers days brought their religion to university with them. I didn’t have time for another conversion last night, however, as my family had another purpose for being in town.

A friend had kindly given my family tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the State Theater. Although put on by Plays-in-the-Park of Middlesex County, being in the shadow of New York City sets a very high bar for public performances. The show was excellent and energetic and I couldn’t help connecting the dots on how the Bible had played into the evening. Andrew Lloyd Webber long ago realized that even a very secular Britain had a hunger for biblical stories. Although I am biased, given my failed choice of profession, the story of Joseph is one of the great tales of all time. Although likely half the audience couldn’t say that the story occurs in Genesis, the rags-to-riches plot of betrayal and forgiveness is so deeply embedded in human dreams that even assigning it to the wrong testament would make no difference. As Lloyd Webber knows, we all want our dreams to come true. Joseph, certainly a flawed hero, does finally see himself as the second most powerful man in the fictional world of Moses’ Egypt. It’s difficult not to root for the guy.

Outside the temperature hasn’t managed to reach 40 degrees today. A few blocks away at the train station, some of those being force-fed the Gospel were almost certainly refugees from the cold. I’ve seen this every time I have to catch a train in Newark as well. The homeless know that at least they won’t freeze in the depot, even if they are chased off the seats by security. Moving from Joseph to James a moment, we hear “And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” In other words, if you are offering the homeless words only, you’re not getting the point of the gospel at all. The homeless would benefit more from having a dream come true, I’m certain, than from having a message of salvation before being turned out to the cold for the night. The real salvation in New Brunswick is being offered at the State Theater tonight, but you do need a ticket to get inside.

Any dream will do

Any dream will do

The Best Gift

Standing outside the footprint of a circular chapel next to the ancient ruins of a drinking hall in Ophir, the Orkney Islands, with friends. We’re quoting from the memorable scene in the Orkneyinga Saga where Svein Asleifarson leapt out and killed Svein “Breast-Rope” as drunken vikings staggered back and forth from the Earl’s Bu to the chapel one Christmas season some nine centuries ago. The Orkneys used to belong to Norway and had a close connection with Iceland, which, all things considered, is not that far off. While working on my doctorate in ancient Syrian mythology, I experienced a fascination with Icelandic viking sagas and read several of them (in translation, of course). Traveling to the Orkney Islands was about as close to Iceland as we’d hope to get on a student’s budget, and the atmosphere of these historic islands does not disappoint. We were standing on the actual site of this historical incident one violent Christmas long ago.

VikingsImagining, however, is not the same as condoning. Nearing a millennium later, Iceland celebrates Christmas with “Jolabokaflod,” the Christmas book flood. Armed with books rather than broadswords, the folks of Iceland have built a considerable literary reputation. According to an NPR story my wife and traveling partner sent me, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, and giving books at Christmas is a national tradition. Reykjavík is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature. Unlike the United States, a large proportion of the population of Iceland buys books, according to the story, and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t related to two other Icelandic phenomena as well. Iceland has very little gun violence and it is one of the most ecofriendly countries on the planet. While it is only a feeling, I believe that widespread reading makes a better society.

I remember the experience of growing up and hearing other kids complaining bitterly about assigned reading. Here in this wild west corner of the world, we’re too full of dreams of action to spend quiet hours improving our minds. Guns are easy to acquire and too easy to use against the innocent. We could sure use a Jolabokaflod, it sounds like to me. Towards the end of each year I like to tally up an approximation of how many books I read in the previous twelve months. Although some are definitely better than others, each one is its own gift, a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. And such glimpsing aids in understanding. I may not agree with you, but I know where you’re coming from. And as we enter that long, cold stretch of January and February I feel ill-prepared if I don’t have a stockpile of books to get me through the darkness of this time of year. And one of my fantasies will be a world that can see from the blood-stained ground of Ophir all the way to Reykjavik.

No Song for Old Men

Succoth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A pillar of the local synagogue had invited me to come to his booth with some of my seminary students to let them celebrate an ancient tradition and talk to a Jewish believer about it. We were all having a good time, and someone mentioned Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” One of the seminarians, brash as always, spoke up and admired “Rufus Wainwright’s cover in the movie Shrek.” Although I’d corrected many students before, I let this faux pas ride. Music is very personal to me, and the cover played in the movie Shrek was John Cale’s version, although the soundtrack substituted Rufus Wainwright’s cover of John Cale’s cover. And this student was far too young to have appreciated the Velvet Underground. I was a little surprised, then, when my wife pointed me to a CNN story this week about the thriving popularity of the song. Instead of putting my paltry words out there on CNN for all the world to see, I decided to address them here, to my private audience.

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

Leonard Cohen has been described as a man who writes songs with a prayerbook in one hand and a picture of a naked lady in the other. He has spent time in monasteries and his lyrics have a very serious edge to them. What the many self-proclaimed experts commenting on CNN seem to have missed is that Cohen’s song is a song for old men looking backward. Yes, it is rife with biblical imagery, but no, it is not a religious song. Not in the sense that it is often used today. John Cale got that. When I hear his early work with Lou Reed or even his first cover of “Hallelujah” that managed to capture something even Cohen hadn’t (no mean feat, that), I can hear the aging Cale casting a glance back to the same place that Cohen saw. We are all aging and we all remember the vitality of those years when possibilities seemed endless. No, it takes decades for a hallelujah to become broken. All the versions by popular artists trying to breathe soul into a tragedy have missed the point. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I only listen to this song when I’m alone, preferably with John Cale. When Leonard Cohen sent him the lyrics there were 15 pages of them. The CNN report cites the 75 or 80 verses that Cohen wrote. That’s because the song is a life. The biblical images of the song first captured my attention, but I also realized that it was a song about something that’s gone and that’s never coming back. Not for guys my age. Not for guys who can still remember being eighteen and feeling like life hadn’t even begun yet. Now I look back over five decades. I hear “Heroin” seeping from my brother’s room, somehow knowing the dissonant chords would stay with me for the rest of my life, although I have never personally used drugs. There is a longing there, a longing for something that life offers maybe once, for a few short years. Age and inevitability catch up with everyone, and breathy young artists think they’re chic when they cover a song that is meant for old men who remember what glory used to feel like. Only those with experienced ears can really hear Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah.

The Santa Myth

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, devotes its resources on Christmas Eve to track the path of Santa Claus across not only across the northern skies, but also around the world. The idea of what must be a devoted group of very serious defense professionals programming the flight track of a fictional character is strangely bemusing. I have an app on my iPhone called Star Walk—it is an astronomy program that I wish i had as a kid standing under the winter skies trying to identify constellations. On Christmas Eve my clumsy fingers slipped, accidentally turning on the program. Although I was indoors, and it was cloudy outside, I glanced around the virtual universe to see what was happening, when what to my wondering eyes should appear? Indeed, the self-same Santa Claus was flying through the night sky on my phone. Do doubt such lighthearted antics put smiles on faces of children and adults alike. They also show how deeply embedded the myth of Santa has become.

Santa Claus is a relatively new deity in the pantheon of cultural gods. Many children earnestly believe in him and some parents use him as a source of moral guidance: you’d better be good for goodness sake. Santa’s watching. Even in a pluralistic world, Santa visits Mecca and Jerusalem and Djibouti, no matter the religion of the people—and my source on this is no less than NORAD, guys who scan the skies for nuclear missiles. If they can’t be believed, who can?

Now as we wade through the discarded wrapping paper and face the inevitability of returning to work, it seems as though something really did come on Christmas. It may not have been a man in a fuzzy red suit, tracked through the atmosphere by fictional computer programs, but we can hope that it was at least a fleeting moment of peace. After all, NORAD’s Santa crossed international borders with impunity, neglecting trade sanctions and sometimes open hostility. Unlike other major figures of the Christian pantheon, Santa does not spawn wars and hatred. He encompasses no strict, dogmatic belief. Maybe it’s because we admit he’s a work of fiction, and nobody really ever lives up to the standard of always being nice. Yet, at least according to NORAD, Santa visited every person on the globe with a sense of peace, a gift that fits no matter what your size.

SantaClaus