Monthly Archives: March 2014

Steampunk Messiah

HomunculusSteampunk emerged as a genre of science fiction just as I was finishing seminary. It went largely unnoticed as I continued my “serious” academic work, with my first introduction being Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Since then, I’ve picked up the occasional Victorian tale and enjoyed an escape into an alternative history. Most recently that escape took the form of one of the originals of the genre, James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus. Considered to be one of the first exemplars of the emergent literary type, it has rollicking, free-wheeling tone—full of strange characters who are attempting to find various hidden treasures. One of those characters is a latter-day prophet by the name of Shiloh, who believes himself the new messiah. Since, as an emerging genre, no rules had been established, steampunk was free to cast whatever characters it found intriguing. A religious fanatic who often drives the action through his own need for self assurance is a tried and true actor in any literature that considers what motivates the masses. Firmly in the cast of “bad guys” in the story, Shiloh patronizes the mad doctor who’s experimenting with reanimating the dead. And Blaylock manages to squeeze a bit of profundity into the role as well.

Nevertheless, the character with the best quote is the ambiguous Bill Kraken, on the side of right, generally, but deeply flawed. In a conversation about immortality, he says “I’m a man of science and the spirit both, and I don’t trust to neither one entirely.” In this he sums up the dilemma of the honest individual who takes science seriously, but who knows that science can’t completely encapsulate the human experience. He trusts science, but Kraken has seen the living dead. There’s an alchemy at work here, and that box he carries on his lap houses the very homunculus that gives the book its title. An alien, actually, the homunculus is sought after by Shiloh, who supposes him to be his father. It is the homunculus who animates the dead and flummoxes the scientists.

Fiction often leads us where fact simply cannot. I strongly suspect that Blaylock had no moralizing message here, other than perhaps to beware of fanatics, and yet a message remains to ponder. That which we seek the most is that which most wishes to escape us. In the end neither scientist nor religious aficionado ends up with the homunculus under control. This is an alternate reality, after all, and the limits of human experience remain untested. Perhaps such bright thinkers as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein had it right. Perhaps the universe in which we find ourselves is not either-or, but both-and. It was our religion that brought us to science, and it is sometimes our fiction that points to the facts.

The Search for Khan

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_Khan

Continuing with the series, I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan last night. Since weekends are the only time I have for the media, I also threw in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Now, I haven’t seen either of these movies since their theatrical release longer ago than I care to admit, but many of the details, particularly from II, had stayed with me. Clearly The Wrath of Khan is superior in every way, but I hadn’t realized how literate it was until I saw it again. From Tale of Two Cities to Moby Dick to the Bible, the viewer in 1982 was given a sci-fi movie with classics sprinkled through it. I hadn’t read Ahab’s famous words on the dying lips of Khan when I first saw it, but I still realized that they were powerful words nevertheless. The premise of both movies, however, is biblical—the Genesis project, which even gets Spock quoting the Bible, is creatio ex nihilo, well, not exactly ex nihilo, as we do have a Big Bang to start the thing. Throughout the language of creating in six days is juxtaposed to morality, for in order to create, you must destroy.

We all know that Spock dies, citing a utilitarianism that would’ve made John Stuart Mill proud, but in what is really a biblical trope: self-sacrifice. And this leads to speculations of resurrection, always lurking in the background of the biblically minded. But theology (and the acting) turn bad in III. We’re all glad to see Spock alive again, but it turns out that Genesis destroys itself after just a short time, and that “Genesis is a failure.” Where do we turn back from the first page of the Bible? There is no preface here. There is, nevertheless, a temporary garden of Eden on the Genesis planet, and it is a federation-level secret. You just can’t keep anything from the Klingons, however. So the Bible implodes and Kirk’s son sacrifices himself so that Spock might live. Can I get a concordance here?

I’m not a trekkie, but I had noticed from the original series through the original cast movies, the assumption was for a biblically literate audience. That assumption can no longer be presumed, although, if pressed, many people could guess that Genesis is in the Bible. Meanwhile, the flood of Noah is also upon us. Exodus comes next. Movies featuring Leviticus are rare. Even as the cast ages visibly from the young, brash Kirk of the 1960’s to the bespectacled, patrician father with regrets in The Search for Spock, society itself has also aged. Some would say, matured. But we need directors telling us now that the flood story is found in Genesis. The Bible has been on self-defense mode for some time as religion has become equated with fanaticism. And yet, even as resurrection looms, we can’t help but to wonder if better things lie ahead.

Why Crusade?

CrusadeAn invitation to join a crusade is a dicey proposition these days.  Perhaps Pastor Ock Soo Park is not aware of the burdensome theological freight the word carries these days.  The Bible Crusade is, nevertheless, coming up on April Fool’s Day, and, I’m glad to see, admission is free.  The tract I clutch in my gloved hand is more like a pamphlet and it is number 3 in a series, “Woman Caught in Adultery,” causing me to wonder what numbers 1 and 2 might have been.  Still, it’s Good News Publishing, so I suppose it can’t be bad, whatever the topic.  The young lady on Seventh Avenue seem surprised when I accepted the booklet she held out with a simple “Bible Crusade?” invocation.  I often accept what the shills hand out; a more thankless job is difficult to imagine.
 
The concept of biblical crusades has a strong resonance with my youth.  Although I attended the occasional revival at our local church, I never actually went to a crusade.  I did watch Billy Graham, however, on television.  I would sit glued to the screen, hanging on every word of the sermon, feeling once again the flush of my sin and the urgent necessity of repentance, then and there.  I was terrified of never giving enough of my life to the Gospel, of backsliding, of hypocrisy, of Hell itself.  As a youth I had no idea of Graham’s political agenda or of the close friendship he had with Richard Nixon.  For me, it was purely a matter of what I had witnessed on the screen as Beverly Shea lead the repetitive chorus of “Just As I Am” that reduced me to tears every time.  When we were asked to list an important person for history class in high school, I felt compelled to write Billy Graham on my slip of paper, and I wondered why people laughed when no one in the room could manage to guess who it was after 20 hints.  As guileless as a dove, but not as wise as a serpent. 

Crusades are all about conquering territory.  Sometimes, historically, that territory is physical and the violence is palpable.  It is charging fully ahead with the conviction that there is no way you could possibly be wrong, even in the face of others from foreign faith traditions willing to fight to the death over the issue.  It is invasion.  Conquest.  In the name of the prince of peace.  Evangelistic crusades are not much different.  The battlefield may be metaphorical, but it is not less real for all that.  The human psyche is not infrequently victimized in the worldview of utter conviction.  Often the driving force is the same as the Templar on his steed—control of the infidel.  With control, as the Templars soon learned, there is great wealth to be had.  As a poor boy in a run-down house, I never questioned that Billy Graham or any other evangelist deserved the money that accompanied such solemn longing of heartsick souls.  It was self-evident.  Now, standing among the crowds on Seventh Avenue, beneath a huge sculpture of a needle sewing on a gigantic button, I have to wonder about the economics of scale.  Reality is seldom what it seems.

The Trouble with Trajectories

The Bible has a way of defining lives.  I realized this at a young age, and although my experience was limited to what life reveals in a small town. Still it was evident that people even there traced trajectories defined by Holy Writ.  I used to ask my students that if something effected you every day, in ways both massive and subtle, and was potentially dangerous, wouldn’t you want to know about it?  Religion in general, and the Bible in particular, fit this description.  As the road began to fork at the usual junctures of my life (high school, college, whatever comes after college), the Bible played a role.  For some reason the Hebrew Bible captured my attention more than the Christian scriptures—perhaps it was because there was more narrative in the “older testament,” and more puzzles to be solved.  While the New Testament seemed to be definitive for matters of doctrinal importance, the Hebrew Bible retained a sense of mystery and intrigue.  Many of its characters, although ending up as “good guys” have decidedly questionable episodes in their pasts.  What’s not to like?

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Ironically, however, I discovered a job market where someone from a Christian background was immediately suspected of a supersessionist outlook on the Hebrew Bible.  Why would a Christian have any interest in that, if not for fabricating prophecies?  Many Jewish scholars were focusing on biblical studies from “both” testaments, and my puerile interests were suddenly naive and not worthy of attention.  This dynamic has always interested me: what right does an outsider have to speak with any kind of authority about another peoples’ culture or belief?  You’d think in higher education we might be beyond such parochialism, but instead, this may be the very definition of its hotbed.  What does it take to gain scholarly credibility?  Being a “white” male in a pluralizing society certainly doesn’t help.

Books are like companions on life’s journey. My reading life started with the Bible and soon gained hundreds of other companions on that long, difficult path to a doctorate in biblical studies that defined an ill-fated career. I cannot reckon the number of books I’ve read along the way, hundreds of thousands of weary pages. And now I find myself back among the biblical crowd, from the outside looking in. They speak authoritatively, I merely whimper. Whether you see it or not, the Bible is here on the streets of Manhattan. Proclaimed or ignored, invisible or plainly manifest. And those of us who’ve spent a lifetime with it have nothing considered worthwhile to say. Once the Bible take a hold, the trajectory for life is set.

The Edge

GirlattheEndoftheWorldElizabeth Esther’s Girl at the End of the World is finally out. I can’t remember the last time I read a book within two weeks of its release date. Of course, I have a soft spot for the religious memoirs of women, particularly when they manage to make their escape (I guess otherwise they wouldn’t be writing their experiences) from an unforgiving faith. Reading of the trials they have to go through to get there is far from enjoyable. But necessary. Often Bible-wielding males make the rules with a macho God behind them, and girls are abused in various ways so that the wrathful guy upstairs will be, well, a little less wrathful. I’ve read many of these accounts, and I worry deeply about the state of religion’s soul. Elizabeth Esther was raised in what she calls a cult, begun by her grandfather. This brand of fundamentalist Christianity taught the virtues of daily spankings of children, often beginning at about six months of age. The descriptions of how they used candy to tempt their children so that they could spank them to break their wills made me cringe. Evil wears many disguises, but none so effective as piety.

Religions are able to get away with quite a lot in a land of religious liberty. Elizabeth Esther proves that she’s made of some pretty stern stuff to have come through all of this, although she admits to still having panic attacks all these years later. She calls it Religious PTSD. She is right to do so. Although I grew up in a fundamentalism that scarred me for life, it wasn’t with the physical beatings that members of her grandfather’s religion doled out. When Elizabeth Esther describes the tendencies she has, the hyper-awareness of threat, I know that I am nevertheless still reacting the same way in my own life. After my fundie upbringing, I had the misfortune to be employed by a different kind of literalist religious institution. Faculty whispered about the new malady coming out of the Gulf when we started to develop nervous ticks and odd quirks after being kept under constant threat. When I contact many of my former colleagues I can still tell we were badly damaged there. Some religions, as Nietzsche long ago recognized, are life-denying to the point where a soul death would be more merciful. And yet we carry on.

Elizabeth Esther ends her book with a reluctant escape to Catholicism. She notes that even it doesn’t exist without its problems. We are, however, religiously evolved beings. It is in our constitution to seek the solace of communal worship, or at least a kind of spiritual solidarity. And there are those who will take advantage of people who simply seek their sense of self-worth from authority figures who claim to have it all worked out. Disproportionately those who are made to suffer are women. The Bible, although it cannot be blamed on the abuses heaped upon it in the name of the Judeo-Christian tradition, conveniently emerged from a patriarchal society. In the hands of some men it becomes an implement of torture. And many are left far poorer in life for having encountered this particular form of demon disguised as an angel.

Brave Old World

WorldFromBeginningsAs we continue to evolve, it is helpful to learn where we’ve been. Besides, the title, The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE is difficult for an old Genesis reader to pass up. I knew Ian Tattersall’s book was about human evolution—a subject that has made me feel naughty ever since being raised to believe, quite opposite of reality, that evolution was a myth and Genesis fact. I remember the strange disconnect from my earliest years. Standing under the 13th Street Bridge, just before French Creek joins the Allegheny River, the main tributary of the Ohio, and, in turn, the Mississippi, my brothers and I would look for fossils. And find them we did. If you found the right kind of rock, preferably with a recent fracture, you could find the impressions of dozens of sea shells jumbled together in a glorious, fluted profusion. These were the exoskeletons of animals dead for millions of years, and thinking myself a budding scientist, I stared at them in awe, not quite sure what to make of it all. At church I learned the earth was young—not even a teenager in geologic terms—and yet, in my hand, encased in rock, contrary evidence.

Indeed, Tattersall begins his book, as many college-level texts do, apologizing to the culture that still somehow believes that the earth is just 6000 years old, despite the Tyrannosaurus towering over your head at the Carnegie Museum. Humans are latecomers on this scene, however. Tattersall gives a solid introduction to the current human family tree. Instead of being ashamed of our heritage, I’m more inclined to feel a little pride. Our ancestors, prey to large carnivores, took a distinctive evolutionary track that enlarged our brains to help us outwit our natural enemies and learn how to destroy the very planet we inhabit. Well, maybe pride is a little too strong a word. Good and evil, it seems, always stroll hand-in-hand. So we evolved, but not yet to perfection.

Evolution always makes me think of the future. A strange sense of accomplishment makes prominent thinkers, particularly those who declare themselves bright, marvel at our greatness. I can’t help but to think that something better must lie ahead. We’re told that evolution has no direction in mind—traits that help to survive until reproduction are all that really count—and yet, having the minds we do, it seems that something more might be going on. Have we built all this merely to have sex and die? Glorified May-flies? Isn’t the future a wonder of what we might become? Evolution takes so long, even with punctuated equilibrium, that we’ll never live to see it. I have a suspicion, however, that if we give it enough time, we might offer our as yet unimagined offspring a world as full of wonder as it always has been. And they’ll still be standing by the river, staring in amazement at animals made of stone.

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square