Conscientious Ghosts

It’s finally Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, NPR recently ran a story on ghosts. I’ve posted on the topic of ghosts several times since they are inherently a religious phenomenon, whether they actually exist or not. Empirical method only takes us as far as that terminal border, but not beyond. Since we all face death, the question of ghosts is intriguing to many people. In some parts of the world, according to the NPR story, up to about 90 percent of the population believes in ghosts. They have been part of the religious thought of humanity since writing began. Ghosts have haunted us from earliest memory.

What makes the NPR story so interesting is that there is a kind of moral consciousness that runs through the story. An interview with Tok Thompson, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, makes up part of the story. Thompson notes that ghost stories often concern unresolved justice issues. He cites the overused “Indian burial ground” motif as an example—where there is a collective guilt, ghosts tend to gather. Slavery is another such social injustice, and again, ghosts and slaves are no strangers. Christianity tended to push justice off into the afterlife. The fact is many people do not receive fair treatment in their lives. Some of them are very good folk who just never get a fair chance. That troubled early Christian thinkers into making Heaven into a place where the reward came. It also, unsuccessfully, tried to suppress the idea of ghosts. Ghosts problematize such easy theology. What are they still doing here when Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory should suffice?

Hammersmith_Ghost

The NPR story even addresses the idea of possessed dolls. Tok Thompson notes that the word “doll” derives from the word “idol.” This sheds a whole new light on Barbie, I suppose. An idol is an image representing a deity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition religious statuary was problematic at first. Again, Christianity bucked the trend by allowing images because people naturally want to see what it is they believe. Stories of haunted dolls and statues and other inanimate devices are difficult to accept. They are, however, deeply religious. That’s because ghosts represent what we really believe. Death is the most parsimonious of thresholds. We can’t look over at the other side, but, if ghosts exist, they may give us a glimpse beyond human sight. And that seems like an awful decent thing to do.

World War 1.2

75 years ago today Orson Welles presented a radio drama version of The War of the Worlds. Perhaps it was the looming fear of the Second World War in a society that hadn’t yet overcome the trauma of the First, or perhaps too few people had read H. G. Wells’ novel, but the result was surprisingly catastrophic. Panic arose as listeners supposed that the invasion was real—the broadcast, although announced as a radio drama, followed a news bulletin format that overrode the rational faculties of many. This episode would influence government decisions about what to reveal to the public for years. And, naturally, it all began in New Jersey. Unlike the novel, the radio broadcast set the invasion, initially, in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This tiny town is difficult to locate even today, falling as it does between the busy north-south roadways that run through the central part of the state.

DSCN4241

The Hindenburg disaster had taken place the previous year in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Welles, impressed by the radio coverage of that celestial fear, used those broadcasts as models for his play. A few weeks ago I ventured to Grover’s Mill to let my imagination roam free for a while. A great deal of history may have been determined by that broadcast and the public reaction. We are ready to believe that danger lurks above. The First World War began to make early use of the airplane as a weapon. The sky, previously, had been obtainable only with the slowly moving balloon. Only eleven years earlier Charles Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic by plane for the first time. The Second World War would see air combat as a major component of victory, also for the first time. My mother grew up in New Jersey, watching planes searching for German U-boats off the shore. The skies were not so friendly then.

DSCN4239

As I stood in Grover’s Mill, I recollected an unpublished book I once wrote about the weather in the book of Psalms. The thesis, somewhat loosely, suggested that for the average person the sky reflects the mood of the divine. Dramatic clouds still look angry, even when God is removed from the equation. The Reagan era gave us all new things to fear raining down on us from the skies. September 11, 2001, brought the skies crashing to the earth again. Invasion from above is an apt way to add a chill to Halloween, for it takes the prerogative of the deity and makes it either human or alien. At least most people who believe in God think he’s on their side. When the Wright brothers took their heavier-than-air craft briefly to the skies in 1903, The War of the Worlds had only been on the market for five years. The coming decades would drive God from the skies and we would come to learn that what falls from above would no longer have our best interests at heart.

Hungry Again

The_Hunger_film_poster
Vampires are on my mind. The funny thing is this often is the case when I’m unemployed. Feeling lost and alone, I settled down to watch the most depressing vampire movie I know, The Hunger. Miriam Blaylock, an unaging vampire, has made her way through history by taking lovers with the promise of eternal life. As she makes her lovers vampires, they survive centuries as young people, but then suddenly age and die within days. Terribly artistic (how could it not be with David Bowie as the male lead?), the film has a very heavy atmosphere and a calculating coldness as Miriam promises her lovers that they will live forever, knowing that once the aging begins, their decaying corpses will continue to live, weak, hungry, and wanting to die. I did say that it was depressing, right? The vampire, besides feeding off the essence of others, is concerned with eternal life. Religious symbols do not affect Blaylock and her ilk—in fact, they wear knives hidden within ankhs to stab their victims. The ankh, the Egyptian sign of eternal life, is the means of death. The only way to live forever is to feed off others.

Like many of those who pay attention to society, I have been fascinated by the enduring power of the vampire. When I was a child watching Dark Shadows on TV after school, I supposed vampires were things kids were interested in—the adults I knew had other things on their minds. As my generation grew, however, the vampire grew along with us. We had Interview with a Vampire, Lost Boys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blade, Underworld, the Twilight series, I am Legend, Van Helsing, Priest, the Vampire Diaries, and on and on and on. Why are we so fascinated with a mythological creature? The vampire is profoundly religious and deeply symbolic. Evolution endows us all with a will to survive, the desire, if you will, of eternal life. The vampire is the symbol of that hope with no constraints. We are taught, and some of us even believe, that other people have the same rights as we do. The vampire’s urges, however, overwhelm even personal conviction and we are all potential victims.

Vampirism may be the ultimate symbol of our society. When future historians look back on the late twentieth and then the twenty-first century, won’t they see a world of profoundly deep inequality? Won’t they see multiple millions being sucked dry by the reassuring words that they are “middle class”? In The Hunger, daylight, crosses and mirrors do not dissuade the undead. Miriam needs her lovers, even though it will mean an agonizing unending end for them. Promises are made, and, when broken, the lovers are too weak to fight back. And her wealth increases with every generation. I lost my job at a very profitable company. Those who remain, on top, do not suffer fear of want. I look at Miriam Blaylock and wonder what it must be like to think that way.

Presumption Be Thy Name

I once dashed an email off to a colleague in a hurry. The email concerned, in some way, the Judeo-Christian deity, known in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton YHWH. Quite unintentionally, my harried fingers tapped out YWHW—an honest, if impious, mistake. My colleague, who happens to be Jewish, immediately pointed out my unintentional blasphemy—one more casualty of the computer age. Naturally, I apologized and life went on. (I try not to spin out the larger implications.) The point is, based on the third (some would say “second”) commandment, Judaism has strongly preserved the taboo on using the divine name at all. God’s name is spelled without vowels to prevent anyone from trying to say it, and when written with the vowels of the word “lord” (adonai) gives us the false form Jehovah. Casual use of the divine name is considered offensive, and some would say it’s swearing.

HebraicRootsBibleWhile on Amazon.com the other day—it is the site to which I go for solace; so many books! So many books!—I came across the Hebraic Roots Bible. Subtitled “A Literal Translation,” it was clear that this was yet another well-intentioned, but ill-fated attempt to make the definitive English translation of the Hebrew Bible. True, literal translation is a chimera. Languages are thought-systems and can only be approximated in other languages. Those who wish to read the Bible literally must become proficient in Hebrew and Greek, with a smattering of Aramaic. In any case, none of that caught my attention. Without a hint of irony, the author of this book was listed as Yahweh. In case you’ve been wondering why some prayers are going unanswered, you may have your answer here—the Almighty has been busy writing a book!

My first reaction was a coy smile. That is kind of a cute selling point. But then I realized there was likely no humor to it. This was probably understood to be read literally: Yahweh wrote this book. I wonder who he got to write the Foreword. My error to my Jewish colleague was, literally, unintentional. This was literally scary. Who would be bold enough to claim that their own interpretation was the word of I Am himself? Why did he wait until 2012 to publish it? Blasphemy comes in a variety of forms. While still at Routledge, one of my Jewish authors insisted that I strike the blasphemy clause (standard for many publishing contracts) from his agreement. “Who can write anything that isn’t considered blasphemy by somebody?” he reasonably asked. The thought comes back to me, looking at the Hebraic Roots Bible. The author’s name, after all, didn’t even make it onto the cover of the book.

Omega Alpha

The-Omega-Man-Poster Perhaps out of a warped—perverse even—sense of self-punishment, I watched The Omega Man. Being unemployed will make you react that way. I have a pretty high tolerance for theatrical assault, as my regular readers will know. For those of you with less self-destructive penchants, The Omega Man was the second cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. The first movie version, The Last Man on Earth, was released in 1964, starring Vincent Price. The most recent version, borrowing the novel’s name and starring Will Smith, is the third and best attempt so far. In any case, The Omega Man opens with Charlton Heston thinking he’s the last man alive, and even that doesn’t stop him from taking his shirt off at every opportunity. That I could tolerate, however, had the movie not strayed from what I thought was its central premise—that Robert Neville was alone with a city full of vampires. Although Vincent Price did not, uncharacteristically, make a convincing last man alive, the earliest version at least retained the vampires. The Omega Man, perhaps in the spirit of 1971, substituted them for religious fanatics.

The substitution didn’t bother me so much, but the religious fanatics were pathetically acted. Leibowitzian, anti-progress monks, hating the science that led to the nuclear holocaust that made them photophobic night dwellers, they snack on sardines and graham crackers, but only come out at night to kill scientists. Well, only one, since Neville seems to be, uh, the last man on earth. They accuse him of making the wheel and using technology as they run around in off-the-rack children’s Halloween costumes acting otherwise infantile while Heston strikes dramatic poses, grimacing with a variety of machine guns in hand, as he simply shoots them. That’s not the way the world’s supposed to end. The vampires have become a religious society doing everything short of handing out tracts on the corner. Well, maybe it is the end of the world after all.

It is difficult to portray loneliness effectively. Those of us who’ve been there know it intimately, and somehow Charlton Heston has too much fun with it. Even Vincent Price had trouble making it look convincing (I mean, who still uses a saucer when having their coffee and wears a tie after the apocalypse?). Will Smith at least showed a man occasionally breaking down in tears. Charlton Heston doesn’t cry. And he doesn’t shy away from god-like delusions. When he finds the other survivors (or they find him), we learn that Neville has been attempting to cure the religion virus. Dutch says, “Christ, you could save the world.” Neville doesn’t deny the obvious messianization of his mission. In fact, pseudo-crucified on a piece of modern art, Neville receives a spear-thrust to the chest, and dies in cruciform posture in a pool of his own blood. His blood that has the antibodies to save the world. Sound familiar? For all the blood, the vampires are gone. And when I feel that the world is against me, I want to see vampires.

Human Resources

I’m thinking about how we blithely accept cruelty and christen it “just business.” It’s legal, and even encouraged. Was a time when you wouldn’t dare trade with a stranger because he might cheat you. To make a deal implied a relationship. To get away with something unseemly you had to be able to look someone in the eye and take advantage of her or him anyway. Oh, we’ve sanitized it alright. Most workers never meet the CEO. His hand doesn’t even deign to sign the paycheck. The workers are forced to trust nevertheless. Don’t worry, it’s just business. Or is it?

Wired GeniusThe system, of course, favors those with the loudest voices, and those voices speak the language of Mammon. We don’t dare upset the order, believing we will get ours some day. Delusion is so sweet. On the cover of Wired magazine is a little girl. The caption reads, “Genius is everywhere—but we’re wasting it… Seventh grader Paloma Noyola Bueno lives next to a garbage dump in Mexico. Last year she had the top math score in the country.” Careful, Wired, you’re beginning to sound socialist. Bueno was on the cover of a major magazine because she was discovered. Those who remain hidden far outnumber those who claim far more than their share of capital. You don’t make it to the top unless you crawl over the other caterpillars. When you reach the top, as Trina Paulus sagely warned, you find there’s nothing there. Just human detritus beneath your feet.

Business has come to mean “cold and impersonal.” Keep the human element out of it. In fact, the term “just business” is a very effective shield against all kinds of unethical behavior. And it is the model on which we shape our society. Is it any wonder that the economy takes such precipitous tumbles? Funnily enough, those who support “business ethics” such as these most vehemently also claim the title “conservative Christian.” Unless Christianity has thrown its moral compass into the sea, there’s no legitimate way to claim the latter half of that moniker. We praise and wonder at our Einsteins. How many of them died in the gas chambers and ovens of the Nazi regime? How many of them have starved in Africa? How many never rose above the crippling poverty of Mexico? Perhaps it is time we as a society demanded a stop to the wastage. “Waste not, want not,” should be our mantra. And if those at the top can’t show what they’ve done to help their fellow human resources, perhaps they should live next to the garbage dump. Don’t take it personally, one percenters, it’s just good business.

Thanksgivukkah

A moveable feast is hard to hit. Or something like that. Religious festivals are frequently tied to celestial events—the ancient Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar which, we all know, is out of synch with the solar one. This is the reason that for Christians Easter migrates around the spring calendar, even if different branches of Christianity peg the resurrection on various dates. Curiously, no one has suggested going back to c. 33 C.E., fixing the date of Passover that year, and giving a calendrical date for Easter. It sure would make planning a lot easier. In any case, a week or so ago there was a flurry of lighthearted commentary on “Thanksgivukkah,” the fact that Hanukkah and Thanksgiving occur at the same time this year. Both are moving feasts, and they just happened to bump into each other this year.

Thanksgiving is a modern holiday, emerging with the Protestant penchant for giving thanks for surviving in a harsh, new world. The United States government (which was not shut down at the time) finally regularized the date of the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November, giving the commercial world it’s only regular 4-day weekend. Christmas, not a moveable feast, cycles around the days of the week, giving employers a great sense of glee when it falls on a weekend so that employees may be given only a token Friday or Monday off. The day after Thanksgiving, however, is thankspending, as American a holiday as one can conceive. Hanukkah is also a roving feast. Celebrating the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem after being defiled by the Seleucids, it has taken on many of the trappings of Christmas over the years, but it can come as early as late November, as Thanksgivukkah demonstrates.

800px-Thanksgiving-Brownscombe

Holidays, in this secular world, have come to represent something for which the Sabbath originally stood. The idea was that people needed a break from work. Despite all the studies that show more breaks make people more productive, our culture glorifies the over-worker. The reason, clearly, is not productivity, but control. I recall a lawyer once drawing a large circle on a newsprint pad and telling me, “this represents what your employer can do to you.” He drew a tiny circle in the middle of the large one and said, “and this is what your employer can do to you that is considered illegal.” Yes, we are a society that has never really gotten over the idea of indentured servitude. Little things like holidays overlapping keep us amused, while still at our desks. Hanukkah lasts for eight days. Christmas for twelve. But don’t try to take all that off—you might like coming back to work refreshed a little too much. Instead, why don’t you try making those bricks by finding your own straw? Everyone will benefit from this pyramid scheme.

Carrie the Cross

Carrie1976With all the buzz about the new Carrie movie just released, I decided to go back and watch the Brian De Palma version again. I’ve written here before about the religious symbolism of the movie, but I have to confess to never having read the novel. This time a particular symbol stood out, and I’m not sure whether it derives from De Palma or King. Crosses abound in the 1976 Carrie. This is a bit odd because of the indeterminate religion of Carrie’s mother. Clearly she has a belief in Jesus, but an odd Jesus it is. In Carrie’s prayer closet the statue—presumably of Jesus, since it is never clearly identified otherwise—is of a man whose abdomen in pierced with arrows. Those familiar with saints immediately recognize Saint Sebastian, but the arms are outstretched, as if this poor victim were both crucified and superfluously shot with arrows. The traditional cross, however, seems to be missing in that dark room. It reappears on prom night.

While Carrie is getting ready for the prom, her crazed mother peers out the window at passing cars, telling Carrie that Tommy isn’t coming. In one shot, as two cars pass in the street, there appears an inverted white cross on the road. I supposed at first that this was a painted parking space marker, but then, this is a residential street, and no such markers appear in other shots. Carrie’s mother had accused her of being a witch, and the upside-down cross is an oft-claimed symbol of Satanism (not the same, however, as Wicca). At the prom, Tommy insists that Carrie vote for them as the prom queen and king. When Carrie makes her x, the camera angle rotates slightly to reveal the sign as a Latin, as opposed to Saint Andrew’s cross. After Carrie kills everyone and goes home, her mother stabs her and, chasing her through the kitchen, makes the sign of the cross with her knife. Finally, Sue—in a dream?—wanders to Carrie’s burnt down house to lay flowers at the foot of a “for sale” sign that is a white cross, with the clashing words “Carrie White Burns in Hell” scrawled on it.

I may have missed more since the use of the symbol only dawned when the passing cars pointed me toward it. There is a strange kind of misuse of the cross here—not visible on the Sebastian-Jesus, and ultimately also Carrie’s mother figures, but inverted on the street, a sign of pride at the voting, made with a knife by the mother, and scrawled with an arrow pointing to Hell in the final scene. Carrie’s fiery end appears to confirm her mother’s interpretation of telekinesis as witchcraft. There is no forgiveness in this film. Well, I suppose I’ll have to go see the remake now. And maybe even read the book. I need to know if I’m just seeing things or if I’m still sleep-deprived from worrying about jobs and a surfeit of imagination as October’s chill settles in.

Lost Supper

Culture, for better or worse, involves a deep connection to religion. No matter how secular we suppose the world to be, profound connections to belief surface in the most unlikely places. Time magazine’s culture section this past week has a brief blurb on “Burger Blunders.” Having been a vegetarian for a decade-and-a-half, this short story might not have caught my interest had my wife not pointed out “the Ghost,” a burger offered by Kuma’s Corner, a heavy-metal band-themed bar in Chicago. “The Ghost” comes with an unconsecrated communion wafer on top, and this has raised some spirits, according to Time’s culture team. Even Protestants recognize the power of the symbol of the wafer, even if they can’t accept transubstantiation. In Catholic belief, however, prior to consecration the sliver of bread is just that—a bit of pressed wheat product. The wafer came to be preferred because it was more easily contained than the crumbs of a regular piece of consecrated bread.

Communion, or the Eucharist, is a ritual meal based on the Jewish Passover. According to the Gospels, it was during the “last supper,” a Passover seder, that Jesus instituted the ritual. Early Christians ate together, and, recalling the symbolism, gave special prominence to the bread and wine. Bread, however, produces crumbs. When theology got ahold of bread it became a sacred object, after it was properly consecrated. It was believed (is still believed by some) to be very powerful in that state since it had become the actual body of Christ during the ritual. Wafers, technically unleavened bread, had many advantages to the emerging theological sensitivities. Portion control, symmetry, and virtually no crumbs. I’ve attended many masses, and the extreme care for particle control is everywhere from ciborium to patten to sacred linens that cover the altar like a liturgical table cloth. They are all accessories to the containment of broken bread.

Última_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5

Communion wafers, however, when unconsecrated are just bread (if even that). They are not made palatable as snacks, but are more easily available online than basic gears or recordings of your favorite musical. Heavy metal has always enjoyed its blasphemous image as one of the most in-your-face counter-cultures possible. It is also profoundly religious. (Note, I am not saying that heavy metal is Christian or even Judeo-Christian, but it does participate deeply in religious symbolism.) If robbed of its shock-value, it is just loud noise. By association, however, many people mistake the wafer itself for what it represents. Without the added ingredient of consecrations, however, the liturgical churches tend to say it’s just bread. If you’ve ever eaten it, you’ll know that that assertion requires faith sufficient to move a Big Mac.

At World’s End

“I am not a number, I am a free man” Number 6 plaintively cried on The Prisoner. Capitalism, however, has a way of making each of us quantifiable. A statistic. Not a guy with a kid in college. Not a human being with a sense of self worth and pride of achievement. From far above, in houses and penthouses owned by those who climb ladders made of other human beings’ hopes and dreams, those below are just means to an end. I’m sorry Number 6, you are wrong. Freedom is not free and the capital in capitalism is humanity, commodified.

It used to be that on the way to work I’d walk past the homeless in Midtown and wonder what could have brought them here. What could happen to a person to make them invisible—just a statistic waiting to die? What system could reduce a person to a number? Learning to count is, at times, a betrayal of our very humanity. It used to be that hard work was rewarded. It used to be when someone looked our way s/he saw a human being, and not a number. I’m terribly sorry, Number 6, I truly am. We don’t know your name. You are a number. So are we all.

In the aptly named Pirates of the Caribbean series, the second installment complicated the story by introducing the unmoved Englishman Lord Cutler Beckett. Satisfied with nothing less than the control of the world’s oceans—some two-thirds of the planet, he secures the means to reduce all enemies to fish-food with no show of emotion beyond a shallow smile. In At World’s End, as the Flying Dutchman and the Black Pearl bombard the Endeavour, blowing the ship of unbridled capitalism to bits, Lord Beckett, bewildered, significantly climbs down the steps muttering, “It’s just good business.” Aye, but not Aye, aye. (There is a serious difference.) As the Endeavour sinks I think I hear Number 6 from the depths, and I desperately hope he’s right.

Pirates_3_AWE_Poster_International

Sleepy Hallow

Sleepy_hollow_ver2Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.

In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.

The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.

The Devil’s Dues

Belief, no matter how inscrutable, must be taken seriously. Although we frequently prefer to privilege that which we “know,” belief is one of our main motivators. Strangely, many who reach a certain level of education begin to denigrate belief as if it were an embarrassing indication of improper brain functioning. Belief is, however, all we really have. A case of this was recently shown in an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. A piece in CNN Opinion by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses an interview of Justice Scalia by Jennifer Senior where the topic of the devil arose. Buckwalter-Poza, as she makes clear, is no fan of Scalia, but when Senior began to treat the Justice’s belief in the devil with a condescending kind of incredulity Buckwalter-Poza called time-out. We need to take his belief seriously. Could such a powerful man really believe in a mythological figure? Yes. Belief will do that to you. Just the same, Senior’s non-acceptance of the devil is equally a matter of belief.

The devil is a problematic figure. Despite the certainty with which a recent demonology lecture treated the subject, the devil is scarcely present in the Bible. Indeed, he is somewhat a late addition, cobbled together from Zoroastrian beliefs and fragments of ancient mythology. The Hebrew Bible mentions the devil not once. By the time of the Gospels he has become a fixture representing an anti-God figure, clearly derived from the influence of the Magi (not necessarily the three riding on camel-back that first Christmas Eve). The devil was a convenient excuse for evil in a world where an omnipotent deity was believed to be entirely good. The devil is an escape-clause. Evil can exist in such a world and not be God’s fault. The idea stuck.

Today, sophisticated materialists (which is what some forms of science urge us all to be) have dismissed belief in anything not composed of atoms, electrons, quarks, or strings. Or, more recently, dark matter. The rest is all illusion. Sometimes the sophisticated don’t realize that other intelligent, sophisticated individuals don’t share their worldview. Materialism can’t be proven, and every true scientist knows that any theory is the best explanation given what we know at the moment. It is contingent. Science has a fantastic track record for explaining the physical world. Little in my experience has given me cause to doubt its efficacy. Still, I suspect that there is more to this universe than material. I have trouble supposing that some of that non-material universe is a horned, goat-footed, evil man with a tail and my worst interests at heart, but I can see how someone might believe that. Belief works that way. As much as we might want to eject it from the game, it will always be on the first string throughout the season.

IMG_1070

Making Saints

Some places are inaccessible in the academic world. Or perhaps invisible. I couldn’t help but have Santa Muerte on my mind as I visited the Phoenix/Tempe area of Arizona. I knew from reading Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death that the skeleton saint has a large following in that area. Having been raised in a working class religion in a blue-collar household, I also knew that such trappings might not be entirely visible around a university setting. Arizona State is a huge school and my minimal free time on the trip only permitted a wander-radius of a couple blocks from around the campus. Many universities are, because of their property-value-lowering non-profit status, on the edge of sketchy neighborhoods where work-a-day people live. It didn’t seem that way in Tempe. The areas I reached all seemed to have that adobe-solid middle-class feel to them. Not that I go looking for seedy neighborhoods when I’m traveling by myself, but I do like to see stores that aren’t part of a chain, and to get a sense of local culture. For most academics, the pedestrian devotion to Santa Muerte is below the radar.

The concept has haunted me ever since reading Chestnut’s study—why would people find appealing to death attractive? Santa Muerte has the trappings of a Catholic saint, but she is, plainly put, death personified. She is a favorite among drug lords and criminals, and that is somewhat understandable. Her Hispanic devotees, I realize, often live lives of desperate poverty. The well-heeled saints of conventional religion might not be able to see things from their perspective. Although the Catholic Church continues to make saints, many of the traditional saints predate capitalism. Capitalism creates its own insidious disenfranchisement. I realized this already as a child growing up in a setting where just about everybody I knew had it better than my family did. For some to prosper, others must suffer in such a system. I knew which end I belonged on.

As in my visits to Santa Barbara (a much more conventional saint, by the way), Austin and Houston, in Tempe the Hispanic population was evident mostly in the menial labor sector. The person who makes your hotel bed or brings the hot plate of food to you in the restaurant. The person who mops up your spills or picks up your trash. And they are the ones who’ve made it into the earning bracket of the minimum wage. Why not worship personified death? Does not Santa Muerte remind them that we all face the same rictus grin at the end of our days? Isn’t it best to be on good terms before we reach that inevitable place? It was clear that on my visit I wasn’t going to be able to get far enough from prosperity to see the skeleton saint myself. At Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, waiting for my 11:30 p.m. flight back to cloudy skies, all the shops were closed. I passed by a boutique with local art, and there I possibly glimpsed her. A small statuette, possibly just the grim reaper, among other Day of the Dead motifs. Was it inspired by Santa Muerte? I would never know, I pondered, as the Hispanic airport attendants, still at work around me, were busy emptying the garbage.

IMG_1080

Literate Monsters

Skin-ShowsLiterary criticism is not for the faint of heart. Biblical scholars long ago adopted the methodologies of literary criticism since it had become clear that an absolute meaning for any biblical text will always end up being a chimera. Many of us are versed in the techniques of structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, reader-response, post-colonialism, and any number of other means of parsing hidden truths from texts. Since it is October and monsters have a way of creeping into the psyche about now, I read Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Halberstam is using the word “technology” technically here, so this isn’t the easiest of texts to digest. Still, for those of us haunted by monsters this text does tap into one of the main connective tissue between monsters and religion: meaning. As Halberstam notes, the Gothic suffers from a surfeit of meaning. There is just too much meaning bursting out that we have no choice other than to analyze.

Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein, and up through Bram Stoker’s Dracula into the modern horror film, Halberstam probes deeply into the layered meanings offered by the Gothic discourse. The monster is a transgressive creature, one with indistinct boundaries. I couldn’t help but to think how odd it is to suppose that we end at the limits of our bodies. The things that we do influence our environment, and we are capable (often through science) of a kind of spooky action at a distance (think of drones, HAARP, or fracking—I’m talking literally spooky here). As Halberstam points out more than once we don’t make monsters, monsters make us human.

Skin Shows is all about boundaries. Biological, psychological, sexual—we define ourselves by our boundaries. The monster is no respecter of such boundaries, forcing us to face our own definitions with a certain ambivalence. What do our monsters say about us? Do we really want to know? Monsters can be brutally honest. More honest, at times, than religions are willing to be. As views change over time, so do conceptions of the monster. Religions frequently attempt to hold out against inevitable change. Perhaps such stalwart bravado is admirable, at least until we experience a dark and stormy night of the soul. Here be monsters.

Sun Devils

Unbelievable. The unrelenting sun of Arizona is unbelievable. Even a “cloudless day” back east is only an approximation. Here it is literal. And like all things literal, it attracts the Fundamentalists. I spent the day on the campus of Arizona State University, the country’s largest university by enrollment. Outside the student union, a couple of bands were banging away in the heat, but when I passed by in mid-afternoon they’d been replaced by a street preacher. He was nattily dressed and provocative. When I first walked by he was talking about students being either “a wicked homosexual, a wicked pot-smoker, or a wicked feminist” and went on to throw in some choice words such as “Obama-loving sinner.” Nobody seemed to be paying him much mind. I went on to a couple of appointments and when I passed that way again, at least ninety minutes later, he was still at it. Now he had a small crowd. Students virtuously challenged him as he claimed that he was without sin, “yes, I am Christ-like” he said to one question, and proceeded to tell anyone that challenged him that they were not children of God and that they should run to Hell because they would enjoy it so much.

Preachit

The more I watched this charade, the more trouble I had believing that the preacher was sincere. He quoted, out of context, of course, chapter and verse. He literally thumped his Bible. His hatred for anyone who disagreed with him was plainly evident. I felt embarrassed on so many levels. This is a state university, and the man had a clear agenda of hatred and intolerance. I was here to meet the religion faculty. Everything students were being taught in their classes was being shot down by an ancient book that had relevance only by being quoted out of context. And all of this on a campus whose mascot is the Sun Devil. Devils abound on campus, but the worst, it seemed to me, preached loudest.

Somewhere along the way to enlightenment, this kind of Christianity slipped the rails to become its own self-righteous force. What right had this man to tell students they were wicked? To me they seemed hospitable, peace-loving, and kind to the stranger in their midst. The preacher, self-fascinated, claimed to be without sin. I guess that gave him the scripture-sanctioned right to cast the first stone. Good thing he wasn’t in the crowd when Jesus rescued the woman caught in adultery. When a few students pointed out his flaws in reasoning, which were many, others applauded before he flew back to his out-of-context biblical backbone. More quoting, more thumping. The sun was out in full force in Arizona, but somehow it failed to fall on one man who proclaimed himself better than all others.