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.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged incubus, Lilith, paranormal, Paul Chambers, Satanism, Sex and the Paranormal, sexuality, sleep paralysis, Society of Psychical Research, succubus, witches
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.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged clairvoyant, four evangelists, Midtown, New York City, psychics, sphinx, tarot cards, wheel of fortune
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
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.
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)
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.
Posted in Bible, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Amish, Amish Mafia, Anabaptist, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Lancaster, Mennonites, Pennsylvania, The Witness, Weird Al Yankovic