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HolySh*tHoly Shit (in the philosophical mention sense, not the use sense), by Melissa Mohr, is a book I had intended to write. I’m glad Dr. Mohr beat me to it, however, since her treatment would be difficult to top. Few ideas are so arresting as the forbidden topics, and Mohr shows us that swearing occupies a compartment of the brain separate from regular speech, and it may even have therapeutic qualities. A Brief History of Swearing, to use the less offensive subtitle, is not an easy book to read in public. Since most of my reading time is spent in densely packed transit vehicles or waiting areas, I always wonder who might be reading over my shoulder. As a short guy that’s always an issue. Nevertheless, Mohr’s book is fun and informative, and I suspect I will read it again for all the information packed into it.

You see, Mohr uses both words of the title in a literal sense. Beginning with the Romans, but then stepping back to the Bible, clearly swearing has religious origins. While the Bible doesn’t prohibit coarse language in any direct sense, it does believe in oaths. Swearing oaths was serious business, and that seriousness led directly to the concept of swearing. Combine that with the idea of cursing (which the ancients also believed effective—ask Saint Peter) and you get the spectrum covered by the concept of “bad words.” (At least up until modern times.) Although I’ve studied religion my whole life, I was surprised how much I had to learn about the more earthy aspects of spoken sacred language.

As Mohr amply demonstrates, what counts as swearing changes with time. Giving the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels, she illustrates how a glossing priest causally dropped the equivalent of a medieval f-bomb right there on the pages of the holy Gospel. It wasn’t considered swearing at that historical moment in time (and besides, a fair amount of it goes on in the Bible). How far we’ve come. I recall one of my Nashotah House students telling me how he had to take a rather freely expressive classmate aside and tell him he was pretty sure that the f-word was an inappropriate adjective to use when referring to the Trinity. But now I see the wisdom of the ages at play. People use their most powerful words for what moves them most deeply. I doubt Mohr had quite that in mind, but if you read her delightful study you can find out what I may be full of after all.

Retire Me This…

We’re all getting older.  My daily, grudging glimpse in the mirror reminds me that my beard wasn’t always gray, and there was a time *gasp* when no beard grew at all.  One of the realities of the brave new world we inhabit is that career stability has become a myth.  My father, in the brief time I knew him, worked as a house painter.  My stepfather worked in a sewage plant for a small town and drove a snowplow in winter to make ends meet.  These utilitarian jobs seemed never to end.  I made the mistake of going into higher education, not realizing that the risks were much higher and that I would make more money working in a sewage plant than I have ever made in my professional career, PhD in hand.  So it rankles me when I hear professors complaining about being too busy in retirement.  Retirement: what a concept.  When the guy who has custodianship of my minuscule retirement account from Nashotah House, after his gentle awaking from the defibrillator, looks at my records he always informs me, “you’re not well placed for retirement.”  Talking to my big brother we agree—our retirement plan is to die on the job.  So, when someone asks you to write another book, remember maybe it is some guy your own age who is trying not to starve.

As a society we’re aging.  Those who managed not to be fired by Fundamentalists have had a secure, tenure-ridden ride through the occupation that some of the rest of us were denied.  Busy in retirement?  Some of us will never have that privilege.  Funny thing is, it’s not funny.  I sometimes lean back in my editorial chair and realize, if this hadn’t happened to me, I would probably look at it the same way.  I would have published that second, third, and fourth book, and people would actually think my opinion mattered.  I would’ve become a resource to be tapped rather than a dancing monkey who hopes for anything shiny.  Is that another gray hair?

I don’t belittle the hard work of higher education—it’s not an easy profession. But writing books? That’s the fun part! Privilege induces blindness. How rare an opportunity it is to teach! While we as a nation devalue it, in many parts of the world those who shape future minds are revered. Yet elsewhere in the world there are those who are far worse off even than an editor—those for whom life is constant suffering and surviving another day is not reasonably assured. How easily I forget this as I neglect to balance my checkbook for fear of what I might find. We shouldn’t complain when someone asks us to give back, even in retirement. Those of us capable of writing books sometimes lack only the bona fide of a college or university position to do so. Otherwise I might hope to retire as well some day.

"Photo by Chalmers Butterfield"

“Photo by Chalmers Butterfield”

Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.

Weather or Not

The internet’s nothing if not self-referential. A post by Fred Clark over on Patheos, pointed out to me by my brother-in-law, has received 235 comments (at the time of this writing) for a topic I’ve addressed repeatedly, to no avail. I know my place. In any case, the topic which brought such furor was that severe weather is caused by divine displeasure, something I’ve addressed a time or two. In fact, I’ve written a book about it. Never mind, some of us revel in obscurity. Fred is writing about the remarks of former Tory David Silvester that the UK has been suffering unusually severe weather because of homosexual marriage. That’s really old news to those of us over here in the colonies; Pat Robertson told us as much after Katrina (although he didn’t limit the sins to homosexuality). Sex tends to stir up storms of its own, regardless of divine voyeurism, while we ignore the obvious culprit—global warming. (Culprit of unusually severe weather, not of sex.)

Global warming, as a recent conversation with a very smart undergraduate confirmed, is a poor name choice. Those of us on the northeastern coastal corridor have been shivering a lot this winter, and snow has remained on the sidewalks of Manhattan for more than a single day at a time. You call this global warming? Yes. The science behind climatology tells us that warming the overall temperatures of the globe will result in erratic weather, including uncharacteristically cold and freezing in some locations, dampness in others, while yet others experience, yes, warming. We know it is real, we know it is happening. We just don’t know what to call it. Some choose to call it God’s wrath. Others choose to name it more properly human shortsightedness. After we hunted the last mammoth down, we decided to start building bigger fires to warm the ice age up a bit. Those fires have been burning ever since.

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My book on the weather, by the way, suggests that divine control of the elements is an essential part of the biblical mindset. To ancient folk this was a no-brainer. God is in (his) heaven and messing with the HVAC system is one of the ways (he) passes the time. Down here we may shiver, become parched, or get washed away. It’s all a matter of the divine thermostat. As Fred Clark points out, the divine temperament sets the temperature based on human activity. Sin leads to unusual weather. Unwittingly, however, David Silvester may have gotten it right. There is a sin involved, and that sin is called global warming. No deity need be involved. We have shown that humans are quite capable of messing with the thermostat on our own. And the day I get 235 comments on anything it will be a very cold day in a place famed for its heat.

A Girl Named Cthulhu

It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.

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Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?

Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.

Tweeting Treason

Partisan politics can be very depressing. Religion seldom helps. Good ol’ boys hepped up on Jesus and lynchings creep me out a bit, especially when they’ve got political ambitions. Florida’s continual struggle with reality reawakened this fear when I read, in a Huffington Post story about Joshua Black’s recent tweet. A Republican candidate for the state house, Black is a former street evangelist who allegedly tweeted that a hanging is the way to solve, in his not-so-humble opinion, ills in the White House. To be fair, Black suggests that a trial for war crimes should precede the stout rope, but I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in due process. Anyone who’s tangled with the evangelical version of justice knows that there’s just no way to win. And yet, despite the many compromises on the political front, the religious right takes any excuse to make ever more outlandish claims.

Looking back over the history of Christianity, I wonder where hatred entered the mix. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had a temper but he never suggested the death penalty for his political enemies. Even standing before Pilate and Herod, he didn’t trump their human political ambitions with the divine trump card to win earthly power, hands down. As I recall, the early evangelists spent quite a bit of time huddled in dark corners for fear of the rule of government. They didn’t suggest hanging Tiberius, although one has to wonder what even the Romans made of Caligula. There were, no doubt, multiple Christianities as play in those early centuries, but the biblical picture, the one that evangelicals claim as their own, shows the true believers frightened and utterly subservient to the dictates of empire.

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

Constantine may be the most important figure in western history. The religions we recognize as Christianity today may have largely been crafted by Paul of Tarsus, but they would never have become the foundation of empire without Constantine’s conversion. The Christianization of the Roman Empire grew into the immense power of the Vatican in the Middle Ages, and fueled the political ambitions of colonists to this land that they claimed theirs by manifest destiny. And our presidents, no matter their personal predilections, have become more and more Christian ever since. Thomas Jefferson could not be elected in today’s political climate. Even Jefferson repented of having held slaves. There was a time when accusing a law-abiding president of war crimes would itself have been considered treason. A lot of water has passed under the Watergate since then, and partisan politics now holds hands with an uncompromising Christianity that suggests the death penalty is more to be desired than health care for all.

Material Goods

Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.

Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.

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The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.

Stealing God Blind

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

A friend who also works in the book trade recently revealed that the section in one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar book stores most liable to theft is Bibles. I’m not really surprised, I guess. Faith can do strange things to people, giving them justifications for thievery in the name of a higher authority. What it really doesn’t reflect, however, is just what a financial liability a Bible can be. My friend speculated that people believe that the Bible should be free, and, in a sense they have a point. If it is the word of God, as they likely believe, then it should be in the public domain. The problem is, the Bible’s not as simple as all that. The problem begins with the fact that “the Bible” does not exist in any definitive form. Every single one of the original manuscripts has long been lost and we have copies of copies of copies, etc., of those putative manuscripts. And they are in foreign languages—technically dead languages, at that. (Although Greek and Hebrew are still spoken, the biblical forms of those languages died out long ago.) So, are the Hebrew and Greek texts in the public domain?

Maybe, but. The texts from which translators make English (or other modern language) Bibles are based on compilations of various documents that have come to represent the accepted, textually correct ancient language versions of the Bible. These are protected by copyright since they are relatively modern editions. Some of the older ones are available in the public domain, but they are outdated. Even skipping all that, when we get to English Bibles, such as the King James Version (but not the New King James Version, where the “new” modifies “version,” presumably, and not “King James”), the text is in the public domain but the printed book still costs money to manufacture. One of the problems with Bible mythology is that some think this implies that Bibles just drop down from God. In actuality, they have to be edited, typeset, printed, shipped, and stocked, and the people who do this work have to be paid. In short, free text is not free.

I work for a major (but by no means the biggest) producer of Bibles. Even in my short time at the press, I have come to realize that Bible publishing is complex and expensive. Sure, you can print cheap editions and give them away like the Gideons do, but they have financial backing to buy and distribute cheap words of the Lord. There’s a sense of entitlement here: if God spoke, wasn’t it to all people? What about the Quran? The Book of Mormon? Science and Health? Some may castigate the Bible, but it is a genre-defining true original. And although one of the ten commandments declares stealing is wrong, some wonder how this can possibly apply to Bibles. It’s the middle-men and women. Stealing a Bible is cheating someone from a bit of their livelihood. Even if the Almighty turns a blind eye.

Sidekick

I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.

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The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.

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Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?

In Saecula Saeculorum

SecularBible“The Hebrew Bible is a misreading waiting to happen.” Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible is a book containing much wisdom. My only real concern is that by having published it with a university press Berlinerblau may have inadvertently ensured that it would be read only by biblical scholars. Although yours truly was once such a credentialed scholar, I read The Secular Bible with its intriguing subtitle, Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, looming in my mind like a great raptor. This is an important book. With so very much of our lives heavily influenced by the Bible, eloquently argued by Berlinerblau, we have secularists who don’t know the Bible fighting the impossible battle to subvert it. The rationalizing, leveling influence, for the past two centuries, has come from the much castigated and discarded biblical scholar. Can I get an “Amen”?

Berlinerblau demonstrates unequivocally that we need Bible scholars and Qur’an scholars who know how to speak to their own traditions. Instead we have secularists who belittle and then wonder why the religious strike out. The pattern has repeated itself so many times that it defies reason that intelligent people would delude themselves that religion is a passing fancy. The Secular Bible argues what I’ve said time and again: if we want to avoid the dangers religion can bring, we must spend the resources to understand it. Instead we close departments and force those who know the field credibly well into unemployment. And we wonder why there’s a reaction.

“Self-critical religious intellectuals have never been much appreciated.” Instead we put the extremists on television so we can laugh at them or gape at their ability to do the unthinkable in the name of religion. Ironically, there are thousands of trained experts in the field, many of them languishing in un- or under-employment while towers crumble and mobs burst into violence. I do wonder what future generations will think of us. We have the resources handy, indeed, many of them willing to serve for a fraction of the cost of a business professor or basketball coach, but we choose to ignore them. As Berlinerblau states emphatically, we in the western world have the Bible so deeply ingrained that we can no longer even exegete all the ways in which it plays out in our society. If such influences were at work in a human body, we’d pay a doctor well to understand. Instead, we let the most foundational text in our society be used for duplicitous purposes while the simple reading of a book like The Secular Bible could save us all an eon of grief.

The Devil Made

Some things you just don’t mess with. Just in case. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is lack of biblical support, many Christians no longer believe in Satan, or “the Devil.” As I written before, the Hebrew Bible has no such diabolical character and he seems to have been devised from an old Zoroastrian dualistic belief system when he finally does appear. In other words, Satan is not among the core beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, according to an Associated Press story the Satanic Temple is petitioning to have a statue of Satan placed on the capitol grounds in Oklahoma City. The action was prompted by the placing of a Ten Commandments monument in this public space, and, invoking the freedom of religion clause, the Satanic Temple has decided to play tit for tat. Either religion is free, or it’s not.

Backer_Judgment_(detail)Although the Satanic Temple claims to be sincere in its beliefs, the group’s website indicates that it understands religious belief in a metaphorical way, and that it wishes to parse superstition from religion. This envisions revising Satan as an “icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny,” according to the AP story. The commissioned monument includes a Baphomet-style Satan (goat head and beard, wings and pentagram—you get the picture), that features—sure to raise the ire of Oklahomo sapiens—children gathered around the dark lord. It will double as a seat where individuals may sit on Satan’s lap, although I’m not sure what they might be asking for. Various representatives of the Sooner State say they’re all for religious freedom, but Satan just has no place in the conservative breadbasket of the nation.

Provocation occurs on both sides in this trial of wills. Justice can be realized without Moses’ top ten on every courthouse lawn. The Code of Hammurabi demonstrates that. People are capable of enacting justice without God, or the Devil, telling them to do it. The triumphalism of religion is the heart of the issue. In a world daily aware of those outside the neighborhood, finding that other religions exist and thrive is an affront to the “one true faith,” whatever it may be. It may be that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have no problems with the ten commandments. Other religions might. Leading with having “no other gods before me” starts the conversation off on an awkward tone. The solution may be as simple as amending the commandments to add just one more. If we can see our way to doing that I have one that I’d like to propose: “thou shalt not let thy religion cause childish behavior.”

Eleventh Hour

Religion, as many a charlatan knows, makes a very good investment. History has demonstrated time and again that the confident huckster can easily siphon the money from the gullible in the name of God. What follows does not make any assertions about the character of the people involved. It is, however, a fascinating story.

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield did not have an exactly stellar career. He was raised Episcopalian (which may explain some of it), but upon being drafted into the Confederacy during the Civil War, deserted to become a lawyer in St. Louis. Scofield was forced to resign from his law post because of “questionable financial transactions” which may have included forgery. He was a heavy drinker and abandoned his wife and two daughters. The year of his divorce he remarried. Then he had a conversion experience. Conversion is the ultimate clean wiping of the slate. Any life of dissipation may be excused following a religious experience, eh, Augustine? And furthermore, in the sanctified state the motives of the former reprobate are never questioned.

Scofield went on to join the Congregational Church and to grow wealthy from his Scofield Reference Bible, still a perennial seller, despite his lack of formal theological training. This notoriety was largely because Scofield had adopted another unlikely scheme, dispensational premillennialism. This end-time scheme grew out of the work of John Nelson Darby and later evolved into what would be called Fundamentalism. The idea was that the Bible contained an esoteric roadmap to the future, culminating in the book of Revelation, whereby the blessed could figure out exactly how the end of the world would unfold. As a child I bought a literal roadmap to the end of the world, but having survived several such putative apocalypses, I have grown a tad skeptical about the efficacy of my chart.

Any number of religious leaders have a background of self-promotion and more than a whiff of Phineas Taylor Barnum about them. A converted soul, however, is never to be questioned. Cyrus Scofield adopted Archbishop James Ussher’s dating scheme for the creation of the world in 4004 “BC” and placed it in his reference Bible, forever putting the cast of scriptural authority to a date that would come up in court cases even through the twenty-first century in Dayton, Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dover, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, wasting tax-payers’ money on a myth of biblical proportions. Often creationists use “stealth candidates” who don’t exactly tell the truth before school board elections. I don’t doubt the depth of the convert’s belief, but I smell money here. And once upon a time literalists believed that it was the root of all evil.

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield...

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield…

Flash Freeze

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One industry has, in this era of leisure, proven itself powerfully recession-proof. Entertainment, conceived broadly enough to include the sellers of strong drink, always seems to do well when the bread-and-butter parts of the economy tank. Among the entertainment giants is Disney, making it an easy target for curmudgeons like yours truly. Every once in a while, however, the cynicism has to melt. Frozen induced one of those experiences. I left the theater feeling that this may have been the best Disney movie of all time. You see, I grew up largely without Disney. We didn’t vacation in fantasy-lands like Disney World (when we could afford to vacation at all), and watching a movie was a rare treat. We did see some of the old style animations that came to our small town, such as Bambi and Dumbo, and we did watch the television program, I want to say on Sunday night. My real experience of Disney, however, came with parenthood where VHS and then CD then online versions of the movies made them accessible any time, in nearly any place. In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed, Disney has been putting considerable money behind the crafting of story, something many movie moguls fail to attempt. Frozen, however, stunned me.

The visual beauty of the Scandinavian world is no doubt part of it. I don’t often mention C. S. Lewis on this blog—he has been so thoroughly appropriated by the evangelical crowd that it is often difficult to admit how influential his work was to my college-age self. Lewis was unashamed of his Christianity, but in his fiction it isn’t always in your face. When I read Surprised by Joy, his autobiography, a scene—just a sentence really—lodged in my head. Joy, he noted, could be brought on by visions of the grandeur of the frozen far north. Lewis noted that not everyone has that perception, but I certainly share it with him. Elsa’s icy world impales with its beauty. Although I’m sensitive to cold, a deep desire stirred in the construction of that isolated ice castle. Elsa could, as an appropriately messianic figure, walk on water and ascend to heaven.

Of course, as I’ve observed before, the central trope of cinema is resurrection. Anna takes on the self-sacrificial role for her sister, marking Disney’s move away from the magic of the heterosexual kiss as the cure to all female ills. No, here are women who thrive not only without, but in spite of strong male characters. This is a world where not one, but two female protagonists are needed to carry the plot to fulfillment. Self-sacrifice, in fantasy worlds, often leads to resurrection. With Anna’s act of love for her sister, the cinematic world has reached an important pinnacle in its lesson to children: love comes in many forms, and if it is really love it is never bad. Elsa ends up satisfied without a king to guide her, a woman who reigns as she is, not as society says she should be. If only the ice of our patriarchal world could be melted so easily.

Shipwrecked

Childhood dies in pieces. There is nothing a young boy desires more than a father to show him how to negotiate life. As Mick Jagger eloquently declared, however, many of us know “you can’t always get what you want.” I did not get to know my father growing up, and so I did what any American did in the 1960s—I looked to television for solutions. Children can be terribly naive, but I had a shortlist of ideal candidates in my head. The one who unwittingly set the direction for my life was shipwrecked on a not-so-grim deserted island. Everyone loved Gilligan because he made them laugh, but the Professor, he seemed the ideal father: rational, mostly kind, and generally unflappable. My earliest career ambition, before I decided that janitor was my true calling, was to be a scientist. This was largely because of the Professor. Religion eventually interfered in my plans, but even as I attended seminary, and then graduate school, the Professor never left me. He had been a kind of father figure to me. I’m sure going to miss Russell Johnson.

TheIsland

I still feel a stab of delight when, watching old Twilight Zone episodes, “the Professor” appears. When I see Johnson in It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth, it’s a particular island I’m thinking about. An island where, if religion came up, it was treated lightheartedly but even science, for all its clear thinking, never managed to help get the castaways rescued. This island represented my childhood. Innocent, sincere, and strangely funny. Little did I realize at the time that the science Roy Hinkley advocated would become such a fierce enemy to the religious milieu from whose baptismal waters I’d never fully emerge. It sure would’ve helped to have had a father to sort all this out.

Back before Borders (a kind of ersatz father) closed,Tina Louise came to our local to promote her new children’s book. I couldn’t believe I was standing twenty feet from a childhood icon—a movie star, nonetheless. How shocked I was to see her in The Stepford Wives where she talked about sex—that was always in the deep, deep background on the island. Pagan gods exerted real power on Gilligan’s island. As I grew up, religion held me in its powerful grip. With the Professor and the Bible in my head, I went off to become logical, intellectual, cynical. I taught Bible, students called me professor. Then my career was shipwrecked. Is it any wonder that I had that nightmare about being lost at Nashotah House again last night? Sometimes a boy just needs a father to show him the way. Thank you, Professor, for stepping in. You influenced one life in a way that I’m sure you never expected.

Holy Ghost

paranormalmediaOn a family trip to Cape May, New Jersey, some years back, a ghost tour caught my eye. My daughter was old enough not to be unduly scared, and appropriately curious. With a group of total strangers we walked the streets after dark, hearing tales of tragedy and woe. Little did I know at the time that I was being trendy. I just finished Annette Hill’s Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture. The first point that really haunted me from her study is that the media has transformed the paranormal from religious to secular. I have always considered that paranormal belief and religious belief share an enormous amount of fuel—they are driven by similar engines. Then some media folk figured out that, like religion, the paranormal could become a revenant “revenue stream.”

Hill has other ghosts to hunt in her study—she is a media scholar after all—but I kept wondering about the cheapening effect of commodification. That which creates the most wonder becomes the most tawdry when it’s put up for sale. Life is terribly ordinary. There’s an ennui to much of human experience, so people turn to religion, drugs, or increasingly, the paranormal, for escape. But as any savvy media expert (or Heisenberg fan) knows, being involved in the experience changes the outcome. This applies to money just as it does to people. One is more evil than the other, however.

Experiences of awe are a dwindling resource. The frisson of many an adolescent night when something unexplained or holy lurked outside your window has now become just another CGI gag pulled on a gullible public. I used to watch Ghost Hunters on DVD. Then someone released debunking b-roll footage on the internet, making me feel like I’d wasted more than a few irredeemable hours on a fraud. Just one prank is all it takes. Why? The show has to make money, and who is going to watch if nothing is found? Don’t be offended, it’s only entertainment after all. Nobody said there really was anything that you couldn’t plumb yourself. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems nothing frightens a ghost away like money.