World War Z is playing in theaters and I haven’t even had time to stock up on water and canned goods. Zombies are everywhere. And we can’t say that we didn’t see them coming. As movie critic Stephen Whitty points out, there are over 900 movies featuring zombies and the vast majority of them are recent productions. Major news corporations have been analyzing this undead interest for a few years now. No doubt the zombie is a populist monster, but why does it have such a potent effect on the modern imagination? Stepping back from the screen a minute, I think perhaps an answer is very obvious.
We live in an essentially programmed society. Philosophically we believe in free will, but economically much of our lives are predetermined. Among the happiest years—speaking strictly from the point of view of what I have been required to do for work—of my life were those of adjunct teaching. I had finally broken into the realm of the major university, and I had class after class of students who wanted to learn. Many disparage undergraduates. I never did. They come to college with what they have been taught, and that teaching comes at the behest of a society that informs them college is all about money. Who needs to really learn to not split infinitives? Or reason out that even if you know that Genesis 1-3 is a myth that evolution is not about religion at all? Who needs to learn to think when your boss will not want criticism? Do what you’re told. Be a good citizen. Be a zombie.
Our children are not stupid. I had many intelligent conversations with many bright young people at our state universities. I learned from them, and I hope they learned from me. The voice of the adjunct instructor, however, is nowhere near the decibel level of higher earnings. Is not the price of being a zombie worth having an adequate home, crippling debt, and access to wifi? The zombie, after all, is the antipode to the life of the mind. Zombies are, by definition, mindless. They carry around a carcass that does only what, in the classical sense, it is told to do. And so, if I loved that bohemian life so much, why did I hypocritically leave it? I have a family that requires healthcare. I have a child to support through college. I have a retirement fund that will not support a modest lifestyle for more than a single year. Yes, I too am a zombie. World War Z is indeed already here.
When I first got married, I was distressed to learn that my wife was an organ donor. Still fresh from seminary, I had yet to outgrown the theological willies concerning earthly remains. Then she told me that she would prefer cremation to burial. My existential angst spiked. Scripture indicates a bodily resurrection, so what about those who are cremated? Obviously I hadn’t thought through the implications seriously. Even for those who are biblical literalists, all kinds of things have happened to Judeo-Christian bodies over the millennia. People have been eaten by wild beasts, fallen off boats, and been cremated without the benefit of being dead first. If the movies I’d watched growing up were to be believed, some might have even fallen into huge vats of acid like they have sitting around laboratories all over the mad scientist world. This week’s Time magazine has demonstrated, however, that my early angst was not a singular one.
In a story about the rise in popularity of cremation Josh Sanburn (with an ironically appropriate surname) addresses the religious objections head on. The reason America has been slow to adopt cremation has been largely religious. Apparently the factor that has turned up the heat on this motivation is financial. Let’s face it: money talks. Cremation costs much less than standard burial, and as much as I like a moody, whimsical cemetery, it just makes better sense. If you can get over the religious objections.
Resurrection has a powerful draw. Movies just wouldn’t be the same without it, whether it is a horror villain whose body disappears to come back in a sequel, or ET rising from his tomb to tell us all to be good. We want to keep it going forever. Life, that is. Funnily enough, resurrection is a miracle. A God who can raise the dead can surely reconstitute the parts, no matter how scattered or charred. Anyone who’s actually looked at a decayed body knows that bringing that thing to life would take a miracle, especially if other newly resurrected bodies want to hang out in the same room with it. As my critical faculties began to grow, I lost my fear of cremation. Maybe even having your ashes mixed with those of your spouse would be a very fitting symbol. Chances are, you won’t have much to say about it in any case. When I went back to the DMV to renew my license, after my wife talked some sense into me, I came out with an orange organ donor sticker affixed to the back. Perhaps life will go on, after all.
On of the intangible tangibles of my humble job is seeing a book move from an idea to a published product. A little bit of joy rained down on my day yesterday as my first Routledge book appeared. It also helped that this is an important book and no matter what the reader feels about the conclusions, it will be crucial in getting the question out in the open. John Portmann’s The Ethics of Sex and Alzheimer’s places a face squarely on an issue that will only increase as time without a cure for Alzheimer’s grows. As a culture, we don’t like to acknowledge aging. We know it’s happening constantly, but we somehow think if we avoid it long enough, it might somehow, miraculously, disappear. Portmann, an ethicist and religious studies scholar at the University of Virginia, puts the question boldly: what happens to marriage when one of the partners no longer recognizes the other? This is a thorny issue. And that’s an understatement. We are conditioned to assume that wedding vows, with their origins in an era before people lived long enough for Alzheimer’s to become a plague, must still apply. Portmann isn’t so sure.
I won’t spoil the book for you by giving away the conclusions of his carefully argued case, but I would like to consider for a moment the importance of ethics. The religion in which I was reared knew little in the way of uncertainty about right and wrong. Gray areas were scarce, and often diabolical. I’ll never forget when I took my first ethics course as a religion major. It was if someone had thrown open a door to a sunny Arctic day while I was seated in a warm, dark den. It was blinding. And disorienting. I hadn’t thought of issues in that way before. Simple answers wilted and died by the thousands. Figuring things out, ethically, was costly and required an awful lot of mental energy. No matter which answer I chose, there was a good case for an alternative choice to be made. Morality is seldom black and white. That’s why when Dr. Portmann pitched me his book, he had my attention from page one.
Ethics is the process of trying to figure out the best way to decide on the right course of action, given any alternative. Little ethical issues crop up constantly: should I pretend I didn’t see that homeless person stealing an apple? Should I tell that person who got the job that I wanted when he’s got a mustard splotch on his beard he can’t see? Should I hold the elevator for that woman down the hall when I really want to get to work a few seconds early today? Issues-issues everywhere! Alzheimer’s forces the issues. We know it is right and good to continue to care for the sufferer. It’s no sin to forget who you are or when you are. But what of the partner who’s not ill? Immediately our moral sensibilities kick in. And with a population rapidly aging (I know I’m doing my part in that department) the question will likely continue to press on our collective consciences. Ethics reaches its fingers into those dark spaces we’d rather not put our hands. There might be spiders in there, or bugs. It might be something far worse. Not everyone will agree with Portmann’s answers, but I think we can all agree that he has raised a very necessary, if prickly question.
A chance glimpse at a textbook shelf in a university bookstore made me aware of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, although it is several years old. I was intrigued that a major, secular, state university would offer a course requiring a book about demonic possession. I’m not completely naive about college students, but this seemed just a tad extreme. Nothing is more dangerous than a book dangling in such a context, like the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred. The world of the demonic is freighted with arcane rules and a decided Catholic superiority. Even to the rational it can be insanely frightening. As I read Martin’s account, I frequently found myself puzzling over the unseen world he so meticulously describes—after all even the Bible has little to say about it. And Martin is a great lover of verbosity, detailing more than the reader needs to know about the five exorcisms he elaborates. If you want to know what a dying priest looks like, in great detail, you’ve come to the right place.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of reading such a book is how such obviously intelligent people can come to such diametrically opposed worldviews while looking at the same evidence. Here was Malachi Martin, convinced that demons lurk about the world in great numbers. There is Richard Dawkins, convinced that we are nothing but particles and proteins walking around. Manhattan—the haunt of countless demons, or the febrile accident of firing synapses that means ultimately nothing? Although much of what Martin describes could probably be mental illness, one has the distinct impression Dawkins has never attended an exorcism. Both write with great authority and even greater conviction.
Hostage to the Devil is not an easy book to read. Martin’s style is smooth, like a novelist, but the length of his book keeps demons on your mind for a protracted period. Rationality can be worn down by attrition, and even the non-believer can be made to wonder. Would priests and their chosen attendants lie? Do the possessed really levitate, and contort, and cause objects to fly around the room in defiance of the physics so highly valued by atheists? For over 450 pages Martin will keep you wondering. You’ll also find out what an exorcist ate for his boyhood breakfast back in Ireland decades before facing the Prince of Darkness. Hostage to the Devil is a deeply disturbing book where the monsters we’ve all learned to shove deeply into the closet come springing back out. And the only effective help in the known world is the Catholic priest who happens to be an exorcist. And who can argue with that?
Last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article by Cristina Richie entitled “The Scandal of the (Female) Evangelical Mind” appeared. Richie points out that despite great strides being made in employing women in religious studies positions, Evangelical institutions still fall behind. This dynamic is not unexpected, however. Those of us who grew up evangelical know that no matter how much it may talk the talk of equality, evangelicalism walks the masculine walk of deeply seated patriarchalism. For those who literally “believe the Bible” there is simply no way around a male Jesus. Even if you go that dangerously risqué step and suggest that the Holy Spirit is somehow feminine, when the divine couple gets together (and Father is always in charge), the offspring must be either male or female. In any literal reading, women cannot possibly claim equality. For their very salvation they are dependent on a male. A god with testosterone. As in heaven, so on earth.
Evangelical institutions have a difficult time with women leading men. They’re not alone. As early as the first century of the Common Era, Paul had the same issues. Literal religion in a biologically dimorphic world will always be problematic. Either there is one god, or there are three. In either scenario the males outnumber the females. Should we posit a divine couple (as some in ancient Israel appear to have done—please wave “hi” to Asherah for me) we still have a culture that is dominated by men. The divine couple will always have the goddess deferring to the will of the god. And you can be sure that he will never pull over and ask for directions. We already know which way this chariot is going.
Every once in a while, the Chronicle likes to sit back and take stock of the religious landscape. Religious studies is, despite the bad press, a thriving area of academic interest. Surely to those in more quantifiable fields, our little squabbles over whether god is a man or a woman must seem pedantic and a little pathetic. And yet, the evangelical institution has an instruction book. That book, if followed word-for-word, leads to eternal rewards for those who are willing to foot the hardships. And for at least half of those (and likely much more than half) that will mean living on an earth that mirrors that realm beyond the sky. Although you can’t see it with any telescope, if you believe hard enough, it is there. And in that ideal place, the god in charge is a man’s god.
In a move that threatens intellectual whiplash, the Kansas State Board of Education has backed the Next Generation Science Standards. For a state historically at war with evolution, adopting a curriculum that (rightly) presents evolution and global warming as facts, there is cause for hope. As an average citizen sometimes just struggling to get by, I watch in stunned horror as our elected officials try to repeal Obamacare without touching their own health plans paid for by yours truly (and mine truly). I see them vote themselves pay raises while pension plans and salaries of ordinary citizens are frozen. I know where the buck actually does stop. So it is strangely encouraging to see a state that has declared war on science beginning to realize that yes, the truth does have consequences.
Science does not necessarily have all the answers, but it is the best that we know. The empirical method works, and our healthcare, transportation, and communication have all benefited enormously by it. Our way of life has grown easier because of our application of evolution and its ways to our understanding of microbes and the ways to hold off their attacks. Science has been warning us since I was a high schooler, over three decades ago, that our industrialization has been causing grave changes to our ecosystem. Unfortunately, those with money to make from it can simply afford to move to higher ground. Kansas is among the Great Plains states. It is wise to recognize that global warming threatens those who live close to the earth most of all.
The intolerance to science is not simply a religious reaction, as some would characterize it. Religion may be used in the interest of business. And any savvy entrepreneur knows, and exploits that fact. It matters not a jot or tittle if you evolved from a common ancestor with the apes, as long as you can climb, like King Kong, to the highest towers and look down on all the rest of humanity. The water from melting ice caps may be rising below, but the Great Ape need not worry. Until it becomes clear that without the little guys down below, even the top monkey is nobody.
This weekend the most-seen UFO in the skies was the Man of Steel. I didn’t see the new Superman movie, partly because, I suppose, of my own inadequacy issues. Also partly because I’ve always had trouble warming up to Superman. He’s just got too much going for him. Don’t get me wrong—I love heroes. But heroes are vulnerable. In fact, their vulnerability is the key to their strength. Superman, truly threatened only by kryptonite, is maybe just a little too perfect. A little too… messianic? So it would seem, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. According to a post by Eric Marrapodi, Warner Brothers is pushing hard on the Christian imagery of Man of Steel, encouraging church discussion groups, and even providing a study packet of Jesusesque tropes to discuss with the faithful. All this for a hero dreamed up by a couple of Jewish kids in the 1930s.
A telling observation appears somewhere in the middle of the article, where Ted Baehr is quoted as saying “I think it’s a very good thing that Hollywood is paying attention to the Christian marketplace.” Did you catch it? Christian marketplace? No surprises here, really. Christianity has “been good” to many who advocate the prosperity gospel—god wants the good to be rich. And since I haven’t been able to walk through Times Square for two weeks without seeing the Man of Steel, larger than life, flying off of massive billboards into the crowds of tourists and locals, I have no doubt the movie did very well over the weekend. Some may have even had their faith restored. Others will have had their pockets lined.
A few years back I was asked to present a program for adult education for a church in Princeton. They wanted someone to talk about religion and movies, and this is something I’d often addressed in my classes. I selected movies to discuss that were not “religious”—no films premised on religious characters or situations—and had no difficulty filling an hour with example after example. Movie makers have long known the benefits of movies based on Christian concepts. Self-sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection permeate the movie industry. This is a Christian culture. The parallels between Superman and Jesus have long been noted by critics of religious imagery in both films and comic books. And those who make films have also realized that Christianity is more than just a belief system. Indeed, it is a marketplace. And with enough money, even a regular mortal can bend steel.