Playing Civil

In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Margulies warns of the potential dangers of civil religion. I first learned about civil religion in college in the early 1980s, when the concept was still relatively young. The idea is as deceptively simple as it is accurate: when nationalism reaches its natural limits, the divine is invoked. Civic ceremonies become religious ceremonies—presidents lay hands on Bibles, whether or not they believe. Civil religion dictates that all presidents be portrayed as believers, but that is something we have to take on faith. Civil religion leads to sculptures of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and the flying of United States flags in churches. The danger with this innocent-looking triumphalism is that some people take it too seriously. It is not limited to Christianity, either. Civil religion is a disguised, albeit thinly, form of nationalism.

The vast majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs without deep reflection. That is not to suggest that they don’t believe deeply, but simply that they don’t lift the edges to peer under the surface much. We are taught what to believe by religious specialists. To question them is to question the deity they represent. Since fear is easily ingrained in the human psyche, the angry god is among the most effective of weapons ever devised. We fear for our eternal peril, and it is easier to believe the clergy have the answers than to divine the truth for ourselves. Those who think profoundly about religion, outside the confines of the professional clergy, are always a suspect lot. What business do we have, poking around the beliefs of others?

Civil religion shocked me when I first learned of it. Like the majority of my peers, I had assumed that public displays of piety were to be taken literally. As I began to hang out with clergy and to see how they often transformed outside the church with a fellow “insider” beside them, I started to understand. The cynical asides whispered outside the hearing of the faithful, the double lifestyles, the on-stage personae. This may not have been civil religion, but it was not always what it seemed. Teaching in an Anglo-Catholic seminary, I saw high mass as carefully choreographed as an off-Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Civil religion relies on its partnership with the unquestioned belief of the Saturday-night and Sunday-morning crowd. It all fits easily together and runs as smoothly as a pink Cadillac. Just don’t look under the hood.


Ivory Doghouse

inthebasementoftheivorytowerSome months ago I wrote a post about a book I had not yet read. In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The Truth about College, by Professor X both entertains and informs. And depresses. Written by an anonymous adjunct English instructor, the book presents much of adjunct life in gritty realism. No one sane can possibly dispute that there are problems with higher education, however, X’s experience and mine of the same phenomenon, while eerily similar, are strikingly different. X became a Professor because of the need for extra income to help pay a mortgage. Good for him—I am glad for him. Having been an adjunct myself, however, in much more trying circumstances (fear of being turned out of a rented apartment for insolvency) makes me wonder if X delved deeply enough. X was not a Ph.D. turned away from full-time teaching after having proven himself to have “the right stuff” in the collegiate classroom. He could afford, albeit barely, house payments. He had a full-time day job.

It could be the differences in our specializations that paints the contrast so starkly. I studied religion from my undergraduate days and demonstrated competence at each step of the way. Even now colleagues encourage me that a full-time teaching job might come up. Some even lament the loss of my contribution to scholarship (not many, mind you! Far more have forgotten they ever knew me). Unlike Professor X I was fired for religiously motivated reasons. Once thrown off that lifeboat, there’s no getting back on. The religious are persnickety in that way. Being fired from a seminary is a sure sign of faulty merchandise. I spent six years, in some fashion, as an adjunct instructor with the constant specter of very real loss of everything a daily threat. Everything, of course, in my case meant mostly books. That made the threatened loss even worse.

Although my experience differed considerably, Professor X is absolutely right in his portrayal of how tenured, regular faculty often treat adjuncts dismissively. At times with disdain. As if we somehow didn’t graduate from world class universities. As if we didn’t have nearly two decades of stellar teaching evaluations. As if we’d stepped in something on the way to class. If I ran the world (and heave a sigh of relief that I never will) full-time faculty would be required to recite a prayer of thanksgiving every day that they were favored with a genuine taste of the promise that crumbles into sawdust in the mouths of the adjuncts. I was a full-time associate professor with a future. Since then I’ve become, no matter how full-time my workaday job, an adjunct with an uncertain future. And if you are lucky enough to have a full-time professorship, close your eyes, bow your head, and thank whatever it is you believe in. Ivory towers, it seems, come in many colors.

Personal Dogma

Dogma is a movie that many seminarians discover at some point in their theological education. Smart, funny, and irreverently reverent, the film follows the exploits of a couple of misled angels trying to get back into Heaven and thereby negating all of existence. It is no surprise, given Kevin Smith’s origin myth, that the film opens and closes in New Jersey, but I often ponder the strange coincidence of places in the movie to places I’ve lived since my own seminary career began (and ended, rather like the massacre scene in Red Bank before God cleaned it all up). Nashotah House, where I discovered Dogma, is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the state to which Bartleby and Loki, the two angels, have been banished. The means of their escape from this upper-Midwest purgatory is a church in New Jersey. Along their way the angels pass through Illinois and Pittsburgh, before crossing into the very state where God is located throughout the movie (the Garden State, of course!). After having been summarily dismissed from my seminary post in Wisconsin (not for watching Dogma, I’m assured), I too headed for New Jersey. Before that I had lived for a while in Illinois (home of Bethany) and Pittsburgh (home of Moobie). Watching Dogma is in many ways a reflection of a journey that I’ve accidentally undertaken.


Another kind of dogma seems to be at work in the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The Associated Press announced that 21 cases of childhood measles had broken out in the church, particularly among the homeschooled and unvaccinated. Fears of inoculating against a pre-medieval faith have led many of those who trust their own knowledge above that of the collective specializations of educators, to put their children at risk for the sake of belief. The belief, perhaps unsurprisingly, is poorly informed. One of the pastors of EMIC (!) has been encouraging vaccination as biblically sanctioned. If not for the sake of your children, for the sake of the scriptures…

Vaccination, in various forms, was developed in both Christian and pagan contexts. The earliest examples come from Asia where the plagues sent by the devil were resisted with human ingenuity. It takes a paranoid twenty-first century, first-world faith to suppose saving our children is some kind of conspiracy. “Let the one without germs,” we can almost hear them say, “throw their tissues away first.” In my Pittsburgh days, I was very much a literalist. How surprised I was to see Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood playing an angst-ridden nun, derailed by an exegesis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Dogma. Although the Neighborhood is “anytown” those of us locals knew that Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh. Lady Betty Aberlin was the niece of King Friday XIII, and only those with no conspiratorial imagination would suggest it is merely coincidence that her cousin is named Kevin. With or without dogma.

Dangers de la nuit

Sex&Paranormal Some books require extra clothing on the bus. When I saw the title of Paul Chambers’ Sex and the Paranormal, I noted the juxtaposition of two aspects I’ve frequently argued are intimately related to religion. There can be no question that religions in some way attempt to regulate sexuality. Those forbidden topics loosely collected under the sobriquet of “the paranormal” tend to be only a baby-step or two away from religious beliefs. Often those who are open to religious acceptance also allow for the possibility of the paranormal. So what did these two quasi-religious phenomena have to do with one another? How was I going to read a book with a title like this on public transit? How would I plumb the depths of its wisdom without feeling like a pervert? I found an unused book sock, a kind of colored condom for textbooks, and wrapped in around my questionable interests and read as discretely as possible.

Chambers, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, as well as a scientist, starts the reader off with what he is surely correct in identifying as a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations—the feeling of being violated by demons or ghosts in the night. While the reasons are poorly understood (beyond our latent sense of vulnerability while asleep), the fact of sleep paralysis is well documented. As Chambers points out, our over-active, often religiously fueled, imagination fills in the blanks for those who wake up unable to move, feeling a presence in their darkened rooms. This leads Chambers into a discussion of Lilith and succubi and incubi, the molesting demons of ancient lore. Witch-hunts and amorous aliens are strange bedfellows in this volume as well.

Studies like this daringly bring together subjects that have been parsed apart by conventional society. They are also deeply relevant. Many of us remember the (largely mythic) Satanic worship scares that plagued pockets of America, and then Europe, in the 1990s—latter day witch-scares, as Chambers points out—the tremors of discontent that rumble through societies struggling for an overly rational explanation for human behavior. They are present-day reminders that no amount of fiscal solvency and empirical data will ever banish the deep fears from the human mind. Our emotions have often served us very well, and have sometimes abused us, for the entirety of our evolved existence. And although we can hold them at bay in the clear light of day, at night we are surprised to discover that we really believe in monsters after all.

Back to the Future

When I leave work, I’m in a rush. It would seem that Third Avenue and Eighth Avenue shouldn’t be that far apart, but you can’t see from one to the other. I’m a pretty fast walker, and I’ve negotiated city crowds since my graduate student days. If you get caught at a light on one of Midtown’s avenues, you get into a cascading series of minute-long delays and you could miss your bus. Since I do this nearly every day, I know the lights are on timers, and getting through one light may make all the difference in having to wait another half-hour in the Port Authority Terminal for a missed bus. So when the woman held out her hand in front of me, I was ready to pull a dodge, but then I saw the tarot card printed on the slip of paper she held toward me. I took it at nearly a run with an acknowledging nod of thanks. New York has any number of psychic readers, and I’ve noticed that different ones advertise in different street corners in town. Unlike the competition, this psychic doesn’t announce who s/he is (I always assume “she” but the chit doesn’t say). “Clairvoyant Consultant” is the only identity, along with a street address. “Gifted European Spiritual Psychic” also occurs. I will get a five dollar discount if I go in. Tempting.


On the bus I noticed something about the colorful print of the tarot card. I’ve never in my life touched a real tarot card. I’m not really superstitious, but why take chances? The Bible can be pretty harsh about such things. This card says, “Wheel of Fortune.” The wheel, with its runic (and Hebraic) symbols, is surrounded by clouds. On each of the clouds in the four corners is—and this caught me off guard—an iconic symbol of each of the evangelists. Matthew’s winged man is in the upper left, and Luke’s winged ox in the lower left. Mark’s winged lion is in the lower right and John’s eagle claims the upper right. On the wheel itself rest a sphinx, a la Oedipus, a serpent (a la Eden?), and what appears to be a recumbent devil. Clearly clairvoyants see some value in traditional religious symbols.

New York is quite a religious city, for all its secular trappings. Not all of the religions are traditional—many, in fact, would start a literalist’s blood on its way to a low simmer. It is a city of seekers. The wheel of fortune may be a more apt symbol than I realized. The earlier bus gets caught in traffic today, and at one of the common stops I see the later bus whizzing by, and I know that it will arrive at my home stop long before I will. Of course, I had no way of foreseeing that. Each day as a commuter is another spin of that wheel of fortune. It is not a surprise New York is such a religious city. Your fate is never really in your own hands. But this flyer is, and it entitles me to five dollars off a peek into the great unknown. I think maybe I got this card about two decades too late.

Gold Digging

To relieve the mangled up snarl of sadness, fear, and loneliness where my internal organs used to be after dropping my daughter off at college, I’ve been watching television. When I can see the screen. Despite this feeling that the world is ending, I just don’t have the tolerance for much of the drivel that passes for entertainment these days. After a night of Amish Mafia on Discovery, I tuned in again for an escapist viewing of Gold Rush: South America. Those who don’t know me personally (and some of those who do) may be surprised to learn that I have panned for gold myself—not religiously or regularly, but with occasional serious hopes of solving my financial woes. Watching Todd and his group of guys setting up sluice boxes in the remote Andes and equatorial jungles has almost a pornographic attraction. The earth gives us what we need. Of course, gold’s main function in antiquity was being used in religious settings—whether making gods or decorating their priests—and that gives capitalism its drive for precious metal even today.

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Mining is not so simple as it seems. You do have to research claims and find out who has the “rights” to property before you begin prospecting. There is a kind of wild-west feel to it, and claim jumping is still a crime. While watching the Gold Rush guys run into disappointment after disappointment, it still bothered me a bit how quickly the solution seemed to involve destroying the ecosystem to find the shiny rocks. Excavators had to be driven through the jungle, trees knocked over, and when the camera longingly lingers over a huge gash in the ground for an industrial gold operation, all the crew can say is what an impressive sight such a deep hole is. When they mention gaping holes, however, I feel there is something missing deep inside my own soul, and I wish they’d just stick to panning.

After many trials and tribulations, they find gold worth $50 a yard. They locate the claim holder and negotiate a deal. Todd’ll move his operation from the frozen Klondike to the sunnier climes of Guyana. As the camera pulls back, the guys gather into a little knot for a word of prayer. Yes, this crew of tough outdoorsmen bow their heads and ask the Almighty to help them find gold. If only it were so simple. The prosperity gospelers would have us believe that the divine wants us to be wealthy. If it was that easy, though, reality television shows would never last more than one season. And besides, some of us would trade every material thing we have to turn the clock back just a few hours or days to live them all over again just to fill in the great void that follows the inevitability of growing up.

Amish Paradise

Once upon a time, intelligence could be found on cable networks such as Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Like higher education, however, these ventures soon learned that people do not want to be educated, but entertained. So it was that I found myself watching, with increasing bewilderment, Amish Mafia. The very discord of the title is intentional as the show “dramatizes” disagreements among the Anabaptist communities of central Pennsylvania. The result is coarse and seedy, and not a little salacious. And addictive.

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

I grew up not too far from several Amish communities, and I’ve visited Lancaster a time or two. Living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans would classify as boring, the Amish keep to themselves, constructing an existence based on strict religious principles and a rejection of modernity. Recently, however, the Amish have become a sexy topic for romances and fictional clashes between their traditional way of life and the high-tech world that surrounds them. For those of us who felt a kind of authenticity to The Witness, watching Mennonites lock and load their assault rifles to intimidate their rival construction workers, and, in the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “get[ting] medieval on your heinie,” Amish Mafia presents the viewer with a world of kidnapping, extortion, and shunning, all within one episode. Trashing-talking pietists climb into luxury cars and put drunken buggy drivers in straight-jackets where they’re hauled off to extreme Bible-reading therapy. This seemed nothing like the Amish I had learned about in classes on primitivist societies.

We like to watch the self-righteous crumble. Who doesn’t want to believe that they are about as good as their neighbor? Those of us in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (from my experience) see the Amish occasionally, quietly living their lives without the amenities that define us. We resent that, yes, you can get along without cars, telephones, televisions, internet, and weapons. Who really needs well-made furniture and quilts to keep warm at night when you’ve got Ikea and a furnace like a locomotive in your basement? And they know their Bible. Goodie-two-shoes showing us something that many of us have suspected all along—authenticity comes from inside, not an electronic world we can’t touch. I don’t idealize the Amish. Their lifestyle takes discipline and a level of belief in a worldview that doesn’t match what I’ve been taught. But then, Amish Mafia also requires a gratuitous suspension of disbelief.

Hemlock and Crucifixion

Rhetoric is dying a slow, painful death. In this world where literalism reigns, the use of words to elicit an illicit truth deeper than the factual is no longer recognized. We see it both in the humorless antics of the New Atheists and in the ravings of the Fundamentalists. Writers have always known—serious writers at least—that truth is so much more than an objective ticking off of what really happened. The post-modernists may seem insufferable at times, but they have taught us that true objectivity is false, a mythic holdover from imperialistic thought processes that believed here, in this single mind, bias does not exist. We all have biases. Except me, of course. Rhetoric again.

I do not get many comments on this blog. Usually it takes someone to disagree with my ramblings to gussy up the energy to dispute what I write. I try not to distort facts, but facts are rare commodities these days. George Orwell is not really dead, I mused as I stood by his gravestone in Sutton Courtenay. Should someone deny that I was there how should I prove it in this day of Photoshop and pixelated truth? And that wasn’t even his real name.

When I regularly taught, students would ask me what I believed. What I believe, I would respond, is not important. I am teaching a subject, a field of study. When is the last time you asked your chemistry professor what she believed? Would it matter? Of course, thoughts, I’m told, are only chemical reactions that lead to electrical charges. Miniature storms inside our skulls. Literally. Rhetoric folds its hands across its metaphorical chest and lays quietly, awaiting the pall.

Socrates had his method. He ended up an enemy of the state. Jesus told parables. He also ended up an enemy of the state. Rhetoric, make no mistake, is a dangerous game to play. The hearer, or the reader, hears or reads what s/he wants to hear or read. And in a literal world, people would rather not have to read too deeply, for truth, it is believed, lies plainly upon the surface. There used to be a word for such a surface reading, but should I write it here I would be guilty of using rhetoric. And rhetoric awaits the delivery of the flowers but few are the black-garbed mourners. It is best not to disturb the dead.

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Hire Education

Physicians are trained to notice symptoms before a condition becomes fatal. That’s their job and our society pays them well for it. Who wants to die? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” a very wise person once said. If we had a physician to look over the health of the nation, I would tremble at the diagnosis. A colleague just reminded me of this by pointing out Un-Hired Ed, an infographic that reveals the chart the doctors don’t want the patient to see. My daughter is starting college. Long ago, however, we gave her that talk that parents give their kids—you know the one—the beware of the lure of higher education talk. As Un-Hired Ed points out, our society has been putting on weight: universities consume far more doctoral candidates than there will ever be jobs. I speak from first-hand experience with an earned doctorate from a world-class research university and a list of solid publications, in saying that the prognosis is distressing, likely fatal. I spent nearly a decade of my “best earning years” functionally unemployed because I was “overqualified” for job after job after job. How many people don’t even rate an interview to become a meter reader for the electric company? Well, with the unending awarding of doctorates, that, like the national cholesterol level, is sure to rise.

Universities have turned greedy eyes towards the profit margins of businesses since about the 1980s—those years of “me first” that have plunged us into an economic dark age. Salaries and privileges skyrocketed and so did college enrollments. I worked at a university that was seriously considering a “Marina Management” major. To cover all the additional courses that universities must offer to “educate” the vast numbers of students, they face a financial brick wall. College presidents expect to earn a certain (unrealistic) salary, and football coaches deserve even more. Stadiums don’t come cheap, you know! So they hire adjuncts; Ph.D.s who are functionally unemployable, and pay them less than the janitors. Woo-hoo! We’ve beat the system of fair compensation and it has only cost us the livelihood of those whose professors encouraged off to grad school because they were the best and brightest in the class!

“Like lambs led to the slaughter,” as the saying goes.

Can higher education be redeemed? I have to believe so. You see, back in the Dark Ages some of the theologically literate began to congeal into clumps of readers and writers that eventually became universities. They valued learning and passing that learning on so that, like the physician, society might heal itself. And it did. Bologna, Oxford, Paris, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh—lights began to shine in the darkness. Then business models assured our great institutions that more is better, and doctorates spread like an unstoppable disease. Society’s interests had moved on. Who needs higher education when there’s something really entertaining on YouTube? Prognosis: chronic obesity. Don’t you agree, doctor?

Un-Hired Ed: The Growing Adjunct Crisis

Super Women

DivasDamesDaredevilsDivas, Dames and Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Gold Age Comics, by Mike Madrid, is a stroll down a memory lane that many of us never previously walked. My imagination is such that I no longer read comic books, but as a child they provided a cheap escape from a reality that didn’t feel so different from the crime-infested world that superheroes inhabited. For young boys reading these stories the absence of women was normal—there were some things of which Mom didn’t approve, and that was because she just didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. Still, Mike Madrid has ably demonstrated a secret knowledge that the 1950s would deem arcane—female characters once held a position nearly equal to that of men in the world of comics. Prior to Comics Code Authority in 1954, the women who helped win the Second World War were portrayed as tough, independent, and in charge (to an extent) of their own destinies. In the conservative backlash of the ‘50s, however, women were diminished, relegated to the home and domestic life. Comic books presented them as secondary to men. That myth has proven pernicious, even now, six decades later.

One of the perks of blogging is having someone you’ve written about contact you. Mike Madrid has been the subject of a previous post for his book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heriones. Madrid’s agent kindly sent me an advance proof of Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and I was once again struck by the historical scope of knowledge that these books present. Academics are—let me correct that—some academics are becoming aware of the fact that popular culture defines reality for many people. We find our troth in those who live on the big screen or on the pulp paper, those who rise above the constant threats of an uncaring world. We’ve seen that business can be its own evil empire, and superheroes, and everyday people, do have it within their power to act. Madrid shows that we were well on our way to equality of the sexes when the haircut and horn-rim crowd of the clean-cut 1950s insisted a return to Stone Age ethics in the treatment of women was appropriate.

In keeping with the general theme of this blog, the book has a chapter on the goddesses who became heroes. We all know Thor, but what of the forgotten Fantomah, Amazona, Marga the Panther Woman, Wildfire, Diana the Huntress, or Maureen Marine? Madrid’s book presents a story from several of the animated heroines of the days before censorship tamed the feminine mystique. More than that, he clearly shows how women—even ordinary women—were once deemed incredible and awe-inspiring. Then the titanium gate of male inferiority complexes and the vaunted “old ways” crashed down, trapping us all in a world fit to be ruled by men alone. I congratulate Madrid for resurrecting so many forgotten figures who never had a chance to become cultural icons. All women are heroes, and I know there is a hero that I miss very much, although even Mike Madrid didn’t mention her in his wonderful book.

Slippery Logic

Last week NBC reported on a baby in Tennessee. Babies in Tennessee, one might suppose, are pretty common. This one, however, was given a name stricken down by the courts. Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew declared that the baby could not be named “Messiah.” Apart from the statement that this is a title and not a name (don’t tell Judge Reinhold, please), the judge (not Reinhold) demonstrated her biblical illiteracy by stating that the title messiah has, “only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” Oh well, this is the Bible Belt, after all. Nevertheless, I would expect someone so deep in the Bible Belt to know the actual Bible a little better.

“Messiah” derives from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one.” Its meaning is somewhat more literally along the lines of “smeared with oil,” for that is what anointing is. The title is used for several people in the Bible, not just one. Aaron, for one, was anointed. David was anointed as king, as were several other characters, including ill-fated Saul. And let’s not forget where Isaiah says clearly of Cyrus II, king of Persia, that he is “his anointed,” i.e., Yahweh’s anointed, in Hebrew, “his messiah.” Not Jewish, not Christian, Cyrus was a good old Zoroastrian. And he was just one in a long line of messiahs.

Where's your Messiah now? Oh, there he is.  (Photo by Persian Light.)

Where’s your Messiah now? Oh, there he is. (Photo by Persian Light.)

I’m not doubting Judge Ballew’s reasoning that it might be in the best interest of the child not to have such a controversial name. I do doubt, however, that it would be in the best interest of that child that he be raised being taught that evolution is a myth and special creation six thousand years ago is science. I do doubt that it is in his best interest to be taught that homosexuality is a sin and that it is something that only people have ever done because of their “fallen nature.” I do doubt that it is in the child’s best interest to be raised believing that if a woman is pregnant that a male-dominated government has the right to decide whether she carries the baby to term, no matter what. And once that baby is born, I do not believe it is the government’s right to decide on what his or her name shall be. And I expect that all the people named “Jesus” out there would agree. And Judge Reinhold.

Corn is King

For those who no longer believe in Hell, the DMV can serve a very useful function. Actually, the Department of Motor Vehicles is truly the great leveler of society—just about everyone has to cross its threshold, it is just that they all try to do it at the same time. Waiting in lines has always been a problem for me. It’s not that I think my time is more important than anybody else’s, it’s just that I have so much to do without standing in endless lines. Especially since work keeps me away from useful pursuits for over eleven hours out of every twenty-four, weekends seem somehow too sacred to be spent at the DMV. But the Devil must be paid his due. When paying the Devil, I take along Stephen King to pass the time. So it was over the weekend that I found myself reading “Children of the Corn.”

Of course, like most horror movie fans, I have seen the movie a time or two. I’d never read the story before. This is one of the King tales based most directly on religion gone wrong; the children, as any reader/watcher knows, have distorted Christianity into a midwestern corn-god religion. It may seem unlikely to urban folk, but I have stood next to corn stalks that have towered high above my head, ominously silent like triffids on a sunny Wisconsin afternoon. It can be unnerving. Almost a religious experience. But turning back to King, the story differs from the movie, of course, and what the written version makes clear is that the children distort the New Testament, but leave the Old Testament intact. King, like many horror writers, is biblically literate. Yet, this picture of Old Testament god versus New Testament god is stereotypical and a little misguided. The god of Christianity is a deity of many moods. The wrath in Revelation, or even some of Jesus’ sermons, however, stems directly from Yahweh’s darker moments.


How do we know what is demanded by this mercurial deity? The theological ethicists argue over this daily, but nowhere in the Bible does God have a problem with people treating each other as they would want to be treated. Some of the punishments for minor infractions seem a bit severe—or very severe—but the basic principle, given the Weltanschuung in which it operates, need not cause undue fear. Women, homosexuals, gentiles, Jews, anybody reading parts of the Bible will no doubt be offended by the details. As the saying goes, the Devil is in the details. And that’s why I’m spending my entire Saturday morning at the DMV.

Garden of Earthy Delights

AdmenEve I’ve self-identified as a feminist for as long as I’ve understood the word. I know that such a statement from a man must sound somewhat disingenuous, but I have never believed men are in any way superior to women. I suppose part of it may have been having men make such a poor showing in my early life, or maybe it was I simply realized people are all different from each other. Gender is just another one of those differing factors. It is always a surprise to me when I read, therefore, that feminism is no more. Some writers suggest that we are in second or third wave of feminism. I think we’re all just people, and that we should learn to treat each other that way.

I recently read Katie B. Edwards’ Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. Edwards identifies herself with the contemporary feminism that is associated with biblical study. Reading the Bible from a woman’s perspective can’t possibly come at a cheap price. Nevertheless, Edwards focuses on the character of Eve, and specifically how she is used in post-feminist advertising. Admen who are targeting the younger demographic of women about up to thirty present Eve as a strong female, sometimes next to an insipid Adam (good-looking, but essentially brainless). Even though Eve may appear undressed, she is self-objectified, according to Edwards, and therefore is not objectified by the viewer. Along the way, Edwards also does some hermeneutical work on Genesis 2-3, and showing how the story is recast in terms of a buyer’s market.

As interesting as I found Edwards’ analysis, what stood out most strongly was the fact that advertisers have no difficulty in using a biblical character for a biblically illiterate public. Many people in the western world recognize Jesus (whether Buddy or the regular one), but of Hebrew Bible characters perhaps the only ones that readily come to mind are Eve and Adam, Noah, Moses, and David and Goliath. Some still recognize Samson. These characters, however, are almost always lifted from their contexts—they are caricatures rather than the object lessons they were originally intended to be. What Edwards demonstrates, the admen have known all along: sects sells. If you want them to buy, make the marks feel like it is a religious act. And we can almost hear the advertisers say, “Let us prey.”

Esoteric Goddesses

250px-Statuette_Goddess_Louvre_AO20127One of the nice things about the internet is that you can indulge your unorthodox interests and nobody will much care (except, of course, the US government). The other day, while reading about monsters, I found a fellow WordPress site, EsoterX. More specifically, I found a blog post on Ashtaroth. Those who have more than a passing interest in my background know that I spent a few years of my life writing about the goddess Asherah. Asherah and Ashtaroth are sometimes easily confused by anyone not reading about them in the original languages, but I settled on Asherah because we simply don’t have much textual information on Ashtaroth. Ashtaroth has gone by a number of names over time: Athtart, Astarte, and, as I just learned from EsoterX, Lord Treasurer of Hell. I won’t try to repeat the clever observations of EsoterX, but I can’t help myself add my own two shekels’ worth.

Ashtaroth is clearly one of the bad girls of the Hebrew Bible. She tempts the upright astray, and she seems to have been a perennial favorite among the less-than-orthodox Israelites. The Bible doesn’t take much care to flesh her out fully, and she appears only in minor roles in the Ugaritic texts. Some in the ancient world easily associated her with Ishtar, and their names do seem to bear some kind of relationship. Ashtaroth is connected to the planet Venus, as was the latter goddess Aphrodite—named, appropriately enough by the Romans, as Venus. Ashtaroth was also a militaristic goddess associated with horses. That girl got around.

Unfortunately, in the literature that survives from the earliest period, we are left with only the sketchiest of outlines of this once important goddess. Many of the Semitic deities have been revived in popular mythology of the modern age, and Ashtaroth, with her sexy, yet belligerent nature, is always appealing to the puerile imagination of pubescent boys. She was taken with great seriousness long ago, however, although her origins are lost to history and her attributes have become general enough to fit just about any old generic goddess. I’m glad to see that EsoterX has given her a shout-out and has traced a brief history of the goddess through the ages. Maybe someday we’ll find some accurate information on her early days. If we do, will somebody please give me a poke? I will probably be busy reading EsoterX.

Thar She Blows

Any survey of “armpits of America” will laughingly include New Jersey. Having lived here for nearly seven years now, I know the apocrine insults are undeserved—I actually knew that before moving here. New Jersey has the highest per capita Ph.D. concentration in the nation. It also has the highest number of college graduates, and, for what it’s worth, the highest per capita income. These first two points come especially to the fore regarding New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s recent speech, made in Boston—a city with some small higher education affiliations itself. Propping up his creds for a presidential run, Christie said, “I think that we have some folks that believe that our job is to be college professors. Now college professors are fine, I guess. You know, college professors basically spout out ideas that nobody ever does anything about. [Rim shot!] For our ideas to matter, we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern.” (This according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

The United States, for many years now, has been falling behind in education because we won’t fund it adequately. I’m no jingoist, but I do believe that the principles upon which this country were founded were inspired. To thrive, we must be smart. Education has been the key to our improvement over the decades, and as the focus has shifted from education to capital, the hull has begun to leak. I know that I have felt it. With dismay I’ve watched as colleges and universities have hoisted the November Charlie and no vessel has come to their aid. Departments are jettisoned and we are still taking on water. And the governor of “the education state” guesses that “college professors are fine” but completely irrelevant. This man for president in 2016?

Meanwhile, yesterday, the unexpectedly happy news was announced that President Obama will be visiting my daughter’s university next week. Binghamton University is frequently overlooked by the monied special interests paid to the Harvards and Princetons of the green-lined ivies. It is, however, frequently cited as a “public ivy” for its quality education at state-school prices. Obama’s visit is for precisely that reason: good education can be affordable. Chris Christie went on to say, “For our ideas to matter we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” And if we don’t win we gather up our marbles and go home. Yes, I was a child once, too. And I grew up. Higher education does matter—far more than some politicians’ bluster would indicate. Do you agree, Dr. Einstein? I’m sorry, governor, I can’t hear you over the wind flapping the sails.