To the Tower

A recent article in The Independent shows once again how deep our human need of magic can be. The Tower of London, among the oldest buildings in the city, and often considered the most haunted, was apparently protected by magic. Archaeologists have discovered ritual marks on the support timbers of the representative of the Queen’s residence that they believe were intended to keep the devil out. Given that building has been around for a few hundred years, that’s really not all that surprising. The amazing aspect, at least to me, is that the signs are a rare admission on the part of those in power that they are occasionally not in charge. In any case, now that Halloween is in the air, it seems appropriate to think about how even the most rich and powerful aren’t secure from spiritual anxieties. It’s no wonder that bishops were so powerful, back in the day.

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Since I’m writing a paper that discusses grimoires, magic has been on my mind lately. Anyone who follows the books I post on either this blog or Goodreads might easily discern that. The concern that Medieval people had with witches was their supposed ability to work magic. Ironically, historians of science are now suggesting that the study of magic may have led to what we now think of as science. In order to manipulate the physical world, you have to understand how that world works. Magic might have had some benefits for society after all. And we are still prone to magical thinking. It is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Magic, like miracles, can be fortuitous, but the prudent know better than ever to count upon them.

The Tower of London was the, or one of the, castle(s) of the city. Political prisoners were held there and often left with their heads in separate compartments. Even a regular tour of the grounds will include references to ghosts. A city as large and as sophisticated as London still can’t escape the past. The hex marks found by archaeologists may date from the early modern period—the time of the Reformation and thereabouts—but the human mind has not much changed since then. While we may not put secret marks on our buildings any more, we still instill them with a sense of magic. And people move out of haunted houses so often that some states have requirements to reveal troubling histories of properties before someone decides to buy. We are a society enamored of technology and future progress, and yet we stop and wonder when Halloween is in the air.

Anything Free

“Anything free is worth saving up for.” That’s a bit of wisdom I picked up some time ago. There’s another side to free, however. That other side is called the hook. So, I started this blog with the help of my niece, back in 2009. Word Press offered free web hosting and, at first, support. Nearly every single day for about six years I’ve been posting here. Well over half-a-million words offered, rent free, to the world. Lately Word Press is giving me trouble. Somebody’s system isn’t working well with somebody else’s (I’m having trouble loading pictures, for instance) and I have to login and post about three times per blog entry. It takes up most of my free time before the bus comes. Finally I decided to call for help. Scanning the website I learned that help is indeed available! Only for premium customer, however. If you want to pay, your free website will be available to the world. The hook.

I can’t remember exactly when things got cloudy. It was a laptop ago, in any case. Suddenly I was receiving emails about starting up my iCloud account. In fact, now your devices can’t communicate with each other unless you have an iCloud account. The benefits: it’s free. You can access your pictures, music, and documents on any device with the correct app. So I click “okay.” Anything free… Then I receive the dreaded red-colored alarm. My iCloud storage is full. Any attempted transaction will lead to the modern equivalent of Hell—data loss. There is a solution, however. If I pay for an upgrade I get lots more space an my files will be secure. Let the music play on. It will only cost you a song.

Examples could be multiplied. Since internet fame is the only kind of fame attainable to most of us—only if something goes viral—we buy our lottery tickets and stoke our social networks and write our blogs. Then the bill comes. Call me a curmudgeon, but I remember when you could lease a phone without having to take out a mortgage to afford the monthly bills. Bakelite was the old silicon. I remember when if you wanted to write someone a letter you knew up front it would cost you 13 cents. I remember when Blog was a radio station on the Twilight Zone. Don’t worry, I’m not planning to quit the blogging just yet. I do have to warn you though; it’s free.

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Ordinary Magic

ConjuringSpirits copyThe concept of grimoires, as well as being seasonal, has been on my mind as I finish up my paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting next month. Grimoires, books of magic, have eluded, for the most part, the interests of scholars. Who takes magic seriously, anyway? Slowly our gaze is working its way away from our noses and out to the magical world beyond. Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Magic is a textbook example of what happens when you bring the two together (scholars and magic, that is). Like most collected works, the pieces range from fascinating to somewhat magical in their ability to cause the eyes to close. Nevertheless I learned quite a bit from this book edited by Claire Fanger. Magic is not nearly so rare as we like to claim it is.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from these essays is that grimoires were not only written by witches. Indeed, in the Middle Ages many of them were written by clerics and monks. They were avidly used by doctors, as science likely has its roots in magic rather than in some sudden enlightenment that matter is all there is. Medicine was still beholden to Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. Humors and stars could make you unwell, and the wise physician would do well to pay attention to magic as well. Today we’re too sophisticated for that, but we still call the unexplained the placebo effect.

Although the church became the great enemy of magic, it was also one of its main sources. The Mass, with transubstantiation, seemed alchemical. Miracles of healing, known throughout the Bible, suggested that the improbable was indeed possible. A number of grimoires contained instructions to work such wonders. One of the most vehemently condemned was a book informing how to attain the beatific vision—a worthy enough goal—but it did so in a way that circumvented the power of the church. Garden variety magic was also available, of course, as were recipes calling for brain of black cat and blood of bat. Witches, after all, were mainly sought out by the church. Those with power are not easily compelled to relinquish it. It should surprise no one then that magic continues to thrive.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Ghosts

Universities find themselves in a strange position vis-à-vis the supernatural. I suspect that many institutions of higher education are slightly embarrassed at the fact that universities began primarily as training grounds for clergy. We’ve moved away from all that superstition and now believe that only science leads to knowledge. That’s why I find the University of Virginia’s magazine article on ghosts so refreshing. We all know better than to expect a straight answer from academics faced with the awkward question of belief, but the campus magazine invited six department representatives to a discourse on ghosts. The article, which can be accessed online, asked Art History, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Literature, Neurology, and Archaeology faculty about ghosts. At least they were willing to talk about the subject.

Edgar Allan Poe's room at the University of Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe’s room at the University of Virginia

Even in this world where skeptical ridicule is an accepted part of academic practice, we can’t quite let go of the idea of ghosts. They are among the most ancient of beliefs, and even despite the proliferation of apps that let you add specters for any occasion of selfie or digital shot, people still see them often enough to make academics wonder what is going on. Since science only studies that which can be measured, we suppose ghosts lie outside that realm. Those who’ve popularized “scientific” approaches to ghost hunting on television don’t bring their scientific credentials to the discussion. Anyone can be taught to use technology. (Well, not anyone—I sometimes still find my computer at complete odds with me. Technically, however, it is just an inert piece of matter.) From time to time serious scientists have turned their attention to ghosts. Results have been inconclusive.

As the leaves are beginning to fall, and the temperature follows suit, we know that many months of long nights lie ahead. Trees without leaves and air without warmth tempt our minds to believe that perhaps the microscope can’t reveal all that exists in this world. Halloween, after all, has become a major spending holiday and that assures its veracity. Driving through town, it is clear that it is quite an investment for some. Down in Charlottesville they are hunched over their desks, writing lecture notes and grading papers. As the wind blows that empty branch against your window on a overcast evening, however, it won’t matter what department you call home. There will be ghosts about tonight.

Still There?

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Keeping up with much of anything is hard to do, given work and commuting schedules. Often a horror movie will pass without even a notice until it’s on the sale shelf or free on Amazon Prime. On an October afternoon nothing feels more appropriate than a moody, ghost driven film. All these caveats are to introduce We Are Still Here, a movie that has received commendable ratings from the critics but which seemed pretty conventional to me. I’m not a fan of gore, and the finale has plenty to go around, still, the pacing is about right and the landscape is vacuously beautiful. I have to confess that I’m not sure of what was happening, although the newspaper shots during the credits were supposed to explain things. Haunted house, check. Townspeople acting badly, check. Spooky presence in the domicile, check. The menace is referred to in several different ways, but what is clear is that it wants a sacrifice.

To me this is what is at the heart of the connection between religion and horror. Sacrifice is wasteful by definition. Gods, who are demanding creatures, ask for people to give up something they could use to propitiate divine displeasure. We’re never really sure why gods have such anger issues, but it does seem like a universal trait. In We Are Still Here the “god” lives in the basement described as “hotter than Hell” and its choice of not slaying the intended victims is never really clearly explained. Perhaps that’s the point. Sacrifice is something that gods want. Reason has nothing to do with it. People in films like this seem to be minding their own business, doing what people do. Then the gods demand death. It is a religious trope older than the Bronze Age.

The film reminded me about the somewhat earlier and scarier Burnt Offerings. Ironically in the latter, there aren’t any burnings as there are in We Are Still Here, but there is a house that thrives on human sacrifice. Both houses demand a family and destroy it. Indeed, apart from sacrifice, such movies tend to be a critique of ownership. The house owns the people, not the other way around. And the house, in some sense, is a deity. We Are Still Here doesn’t give a full explanation. It puts the viewer through the usual paces for a horror movie with appropriate startles and grotesque deaths. Like most members of its genre, it reaches for religious backing to make it all hang together. It has the good grace not to be obvious about it as well.

An Apple a Day

Corporate logos are among the most instantly recognizable symbols in the world. Even in “developing” countries, kids know what the golden arches represent. Not a real fan of large corporations, I still buy things not knowing who the manufacturer is, if it is something I need. I find the frenetic need of non-profit organizations—even colleges and universities—to “brand” themselves vulgar and distasteful. Why do those who truly have something to offer feel like they have to snuggle up to Wall Street and its resident demons? Still, the corporate logo has a way of drawing attention to products. And sometimes we look for more significance in them than they actually have. Keep in mind corporations’ goals are merely to separate you from your money. Often it doesn’t take much thought.

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When I was a child I thought the golden arches were supposed to be french fries. And when I started to use computers—always Apple—I wondered if their logo might not be the most infamous bitten apple of all, the apple of Eden. Forbidden knowledge. It seemed to fit perfectly. Too bad it’s incorrect. Interviews with Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and various marketing designers have revealed that the Bible had nothing to do with it. The original Apple logo was Isaac Newton under an apple tree with the apocryphal fruit falling toward his head. It was felt that this detailed and complex logo didn’t have the instant recognition that a trademark requires, and so a marketing firm came up with the apple we all recognize. Initially it was a rainbow apple, but now the mere outline tells us what we need to know.

But what’s with the bite mark? Surely that must be a throwback to Eden? No, apparently not. We don’t know that Newton ate his apple, but a stylized apple looks a lot like a stylized cherry. The bite mark was added to the logo for scale. You don’t want to confuse the buyer. Corporate logos are markers that say, “place your money here.” Non-profit organizations used to exist to provide valuable services—services that couldn’t be rendered in matters of dollars and cents. Now there is no other way to show value. We have followed the false idol of corporate thinking and the only way we can imagine to draw attention to what we offer is to brand ourselves. So it has always been with cattle, where branding was much more obvious. Yes, those who follow corporations should remember that the brand began with red-hot iron and it left an indelible scar. Of course, I’m writing this on an Apple computer.

Playing God

College is a rare time in life. Unlike any time after you find yourself with a diversity of intelligent and talented people open to possibilities that life tends to close shortly thereafter. At Parents Weekend at Binghamton University we took advantage of this wondrous juxtaposition to enjoy student talent. One of those offerings was the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. It isn’t literally about God, but rather about two couples whose children had a playground fight. Parents try to solve the crisis, only to end up showing that they are really the ones who need to grow up. One of the vexed parents claims he believes in a God of carnage—that all people will seek their own good first and will eliminate those who get in the way. Perhaps might is right.

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The play is quite funny as the negativity grows and hidden assumptions come to the surface. There are no heroes here. In fact, any factor that might divide people does: gender, socio-economic status, race, sense of importance in the work one does. Each is turned into a weapon to make oneself appear more acceptable than others. Ironically, acceptance is just what’s missing here. Each of the four characters is alone and only finds company in teaming up with another to point out someone else’s foibles. As in most plays, the circumstances are exaggerated, and as in real life, peace is harder to attain than it should be. The god of carnage here is the individual desire to exceed at the expense of others.

The play reminded me, in a rather literal way of the verse stating that a child shall lead us. Not that children are entirely innocent, for they are people too. They can’t be held accountable in the same way adults are. We do our best, but our intentions seldom rise to our ideals. Our own needs and desires get in the way. In my experience of over half a century, most of us never really grow up. Selfish behaviors are magnified in a setting like New York City where so many agenda are crowded in together. If we believe in a god of carnage—that our own desires are more important than those of others—our differences will only emphasize that. Apart from high school and college performances, I have been to few plays in my life. Each time I attend one, however, I learn a bit more about how art reflects reality. And if we could only learn to consider others to be just as important as ourselves, the god of carnage would be the one who ends up unemployed.

I Am Legacy

The word “legacy,” I fear, is losing its meaning. Well, words really don’t having “meanings” as much as they have “usages,” but still you get my point. When I was young (before the Internet had been invented) a legacy was a time-honored contribution. Something that had, perhaps, been a family heirloom or a significant school of thought. Legacy today simply means something outdated. It’s a polite word for “old.” I’m reminded of this constantly in our computer age. I’ve never been a fan of lingo. In fact, I seldom use slang. (I think it was being raised with Holy Writ that said, “Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay.”) It’s not that I don’t hear slang frequently. I can even replicate it when necessary. It’s just my legacy.

The other day I attended a meeting about fonts. I never stop to think much about fonts. I’ve designed a few (on paper only, that most archaic of ancient mediums) and I enjoy the wonder of knowing that no matter how embellished or plain, an A is still an A, just as surely as a yea is a yea. When discussing fonts, however, “legacy fonts” kept coming up. Perhaps alone in the room I could recall the days before computers. The days when a font was a set of clearly defined green dots that you could trace with your eye as they appeared on the cathode-ray tube. The legacy fonts under discussion were much more recent than that. It was simply a way of saying fonts we no longer use. Old fonts. Outdated fonts.

Unicode, to be sure, is a thing of wonder. As a scholar who struggled to get Hebrew vowel points to line up correctly on the pages of his dissertation, I knew well the benefits of having a system to organize any sign we use in writing. Even as recently as my last book, published last year, I was still struggling to find transliteration symbols for some words in Ugaritic. I’m sure they must exist in Unicode, although I don’t know if Unicode Ugaritic is yet a reality. It’s barely a reality in biblical studies any more. So maybe I’m just feeling like the memory of ancient things has been devalued. We go after the new, the fresh, the simply coded. Meanwhile, I still prefer to write with pen on paper. I’m old-fashioned in that way. Those who are too kindly disposed might even say, although I would blush at the compliment, that I’m a legacy.

A legacy font? Photo credit: Bilsenbatten, Wikimedia Commons

A legacy font?
Photo credit: Bilsenbatten, Wikimedia Commons

Myth Making

Beautiful.  Standing outside in the pre-dawn, looking up at the current alignment of Mars, Jupiter, and Venus in the east, I am struck by their presence.  The planets, “wanderers,” were known by the ancients to be gods.  Tales were told of how they came to have their places in the sky.  For those too busy to look up, Venus alone can take your breath away.  After the sun and moon, it is the third brightest natural object in the sky that can be seen on a quotidian basis.  It has been brilliant this month, and the peoples of ancient times were fascinated by how this morning and evening star rose high only to flee before the coming of the sun.  Myths were built around it.  Venus, it is no accident, was associated with the goddess of irresistible beauty.  She still is.

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Trailing behind is Jupiter. The Roman avatar of Zeus, Jupiter is the king of the gods, but not the brightest.  Following Venus, it is the fourth brightest object in the sky, followed by various stars in their unchanging positions.  Jupiter seems to be chasing Venus these days.  Sometimes I see the two of them cavorting in the light of the moon.  The object most desired by the king is no object at all, but a goddess who outshines even the power of the primal deity.  And then there’s Mars.  Mars lags farther behind, never quite the master of war, at least according to Homer, that he hoped to be.  He is nevertheless the consort of Venus, for strong emotions tend to go together.

I glance at my watch and I know I should be headed to the bus stop by now, but I dash inside for the camera.  It is a vain hope that I can capture what even these eyes can plainly see.  It is a drama acting out in the celestial sphere.  Three planets in a neat line, clear as Orion’s belt, within the length of my thumb held at arm’s distance.  I can hear the bus rumbling toward the corner, and I know I’ll have to rush, but even as I power-walk to the stop, I keep glancing over my shoulder to catch a few last glimpses of a myth in the making.  Is it any wonder that we’ve lost the magic in our lives, when we can’t even take the last moments of darkness to pay tribute to the gods?

Pagan Religion

TriumphMoonFraming. Much of what we call “religion” has to do with framing. At one time it was standard practice to assume “pagan” was distasteful, if not downright evil. “Witch” was a pejorative term intended to humiliate and excoriate. Ronald Hutton is one of the few scholars who has taken the time to consider Wicca and related religions seriously. The Triumph of the Moon: a History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has been on my reading list for quite some time. It is a big book, but this is a complex subject that can’t be dealt with briefly. Taking the time to get to know witches, with a historian’s patience, Hutton has given the world a valuable, balanced resource. Without prejudice, he traces how paganism, Wicca, and witchcraft are religions difficult to define or even categorize. There is little to frame them.

Rumor and hearsay make poor substitutes for understanding a religion. Most of what I grew up learning about witches was, in short, completely wrong. I wonder how much more pleasant the world might be if people assumed religions all to be similar in many ways. They are varied attempts to find ways of being moral in a world that gives little clear instruction on the matter. Witches and pagans are only evil in the uninformed opinions of more powerfully established religions. Religions of empire, whether real or only imagined. Those that had political backing and brute force to anathematize those who were different. Theirs is still a stigma that persists.

The Triumph of the Moon recounts the development, since the early part of the last century, of a somewhat organized experiment of religion as it grows organically. Without a leading figure or spokesperson, radically egalitarian, these groups, while sometimes in conflict, coalesce around the practice of finding something magical in the world. Theirs is an educated, literate world that does not judge other religions. It isn’t perfect, but then what religion is? The belief structure isn’t so different than many established religions except in the matter of degree. It is private and secretive in a way that we could only wish in many religions, if they could be counted on to behave themselves. I’m not likely to do a sky-clad spiral dance any time soon, but I would say that if we took religions at their word for being what they say they are, we might have a lot more resembling that of the noble pagan.

Dakota Territory

A few weeks back I found myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. This is a fashionable district in which to live, but back when the Dakota was built, as pictures from that era demonstrate, this was an undeveloped area. The building stands alone against the sky, not surrounded, as it is today, by neighbors. I’ve noticed this in other parts of Manhattan as well. New buildings can grow in seemingly impossibly slim spaces between other structures. Sometimes I wonder how construction workers can get their hands back there to lay the bricks. The city is so overbuilt that it is difficult to get into the Halloween mood of October. Yes, stores, restaurants, and bars do decorate windows, but the enormity of the surroundings makes them seem miniscule. Although New York is a gothic city, it seems to swallow up holidays. Perhaps because of its greater commercial potential, Christmas is much more evident around town. Halloween, however, is a holiday best appreciated outdoors.

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While in the neighborhood, we stopped by to look at the Dakota. It was under scaffolding the prevented seeing the entirety of the building, but the famous entryway was unobstructed. I know that it was near here that John Lennon was murdered, and I know other famous people used to live here: Judy Garland, for example, and Leonard Bernstein. To me, however, the visual aspect of that entry always suggests Rosemary’s Baby. Even the doormen still wear the uniforms that they wore in the movie, only today they have to shoo away those who try to wander inside the gates to snap a selfie where the other half live. For me it was once again being in the presence of a place I’d felt I’d been before.

Rosemary’s Baby still stands out among the classic horror films as being particularly effective. The Satanism scare of the late sixties and early seventies has moderated, and we know now that witches are not people to be feared. Nevertheless, the eerie pacing of the film, and the sense of threat forever mark this location as one of caution. Seeing Terry Gionoffrio lying in a pool of blood where John Lennon would, in reality be twelve years later, is prophetic in the worse possible way. Still, the tourists stopped to have their pictures snapped at this infamous location. New York can be like a giant movie set at times. I quite often walk through staging areas for films on my way to work. It is a city where fantasy can be difficult to parse from reality from time to time. Even being in the upper west side, for someone like me, is, I know, pure fantasy.

Babylonian Boogle

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I confess. I’ve fallen behind on my horror movies. My work schedule doesn’t allow for much down time, and on weekends when I spend time with family, well, horror films aren’t their favorites. So on a weekend afternoon when I was alone, I finally saw Sinister. I remembered seeing ads for it a few years back, but far enough back that I didn’t know what to expect. As I’ve often asserted on this blog, horror frequently draws its spookiest material from the deep well of religion, and Sinister once again emphasizes this point. With clear connections to The Shining and Ringu, Sinister does keep you in its web. Of course, ritualized murders are by their nature scary, since those who perpetrate them have taken leave of reason. I don’t read true crime because I have to sleep, and I’d rather not know what some psychopath has eating his brain as he plans his sacrifices. So it comes out in fiction.

The protagonist, crime-writer Ellison Oswalt, consults with a Professor Jonas, whose name those acquainted with the Bible can’t separate from Jonah, to find out about ritual crimes. Jonas informs Oswalt that the occult symbols found at a couple of the murder sites are unconventional. He eventually traces them to Bughuul, a Babylonian deity that eats children. The religious element couldn’t be clearer. Bughuul, who is a god fabricated for the movie, is effectively frightening in the film. But for the ritual element to the murders, the story might have passed as just another gruesome offering to audiences who want a little fright in their October. Religion makes it scarier.

The second appearance of Professor Jonas reveals that, like Ringu, watching the films that tell the story is dangerous. He delves into iconography. Icons, according to orthodox tradition, take part in the reality they represent. Bughuul knows that, and merely by watching the films, or looking at pictures (icons) you open a portal between his world and that of the viewer. By the time Oswalt learns this it is, of course, too late. Again, the element of terror is introduced through religious thought. Bughuul (Mr. Boogle) is a morbid iconographer. The reality of the evil is represented in the “artwork” itself. Once you’ve seen an image, you can’t unsee it. So it is that Sinister draws on religion to plumb the depths of fear. It is surprisingly effective, even on a sunny afternoon when I’ve had too much time alone.

Heaven Unawares

UninvitedIn order to have this book fit my blog, I’ll begin with a spoiler alert. If you plan to read Cat Winters’ The Uninvited, I will be giving away information below. Please believe me when I say it’s not intended to be persnickety by this preface, but I know what it’s like to enter a book knowing too much.

When autumn comes around I like to find a ghost story or two to read, to settle into what seems to be a primal urge connecting harvest with death. Sometimes the books I find are advertised in places like the Library Journal, or Publishers Weekly (which I see more like biannually). More often than not, however, they are books that I spy at a store. The Uninvited stared at me from a table. I picked it up, read the blurbs, and put it back. A week later I stopped in again and picked it up. It is a moody tale set during the First World War and the influenza epidemic. That was a time, I suspect, of great fear. And many ghosts. It’s easy to see why Winters chose such a time to set a tale. Still, the narrative is gentle and despite the places where the language sounds too modern, it is artfully told. Like most ghost stories it is a love story. Seriously folks, here come some spoilers!

The protagonist, Ivy, falls in love with Daniel, a German immigrant living in Buchanan, Illinois during the war. Germans have been under suspicion and lynchings have occurred. We come to learn, as in many ghost stories, that the protagonist and her lover were both victims—he of a lynching, she of the flu. He’s aware they’re dead, she’s not. The novel is one of Ivy’s growing self-realization that she’s deceased. While avoiding those who spy on Germans, she discovers the joys of an interracial, prohibition-free (being prior to prohibition, of course, but the idea was in the air) club where jazz is played all night long. She wants to bring her lover to the club, which is just across the street from his apartment, but he is German and feels he would not be welcome. The reader at this point doesn’t realize the two are dead. Once Ivy discovers the truth, she realizes that the club is actually Heaven. The reluctant ghosts, lost, stay away. She tries to convince them to come.

Heaven has been portrayed in many ways in literature. Although I find jazz very difficult to bear (it is like being inside a beehive without a bee suit, to me) the idea that Heaven is complete and utter acceptance of who we are is a compelling one. Religions are often all about change—how we must alter who we are to merit Heaven or Nirvana or whatever might await us at the end. Winters suggests that it is a place where people can be who they are and nobody will try to make you be any different than you were created. It is a comforting idea. It is my personal hope, however, that there might be a few different clubs in town and that some of them might be playing music other than jazz.

The State Demon

It’s the time of year for seeing things. I suppose that’s why there have been two supposed sightings of the Jersey Devil flying around the internet this past week. The credulous take these kinds of things for evidence, and the posters claim complete sincerity and who doesn’t want to believe? Still, the photos and videos fail to convince. It’s the time of year when we want to see monsters.

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While the origin story of the Jersey Devil is one of the main strikes against it for sheer impossibility: Mother Leeds, who had twelve children, finding herself pregnant with a thirteenth, wished that it would be born a devil. The cursed child, meeting motherly expectations, came out a devil, flew up the chimney, and has haunted southern New Jersey ever since. The folklore elements are thick in this tale: the thirteenth child, the exasperated mother, devils in the woods. This doesn’t, however, suggest much confidence in the literal truth of the story. This traditional tale circulated in the same region where legitimately strange things were seen, especially around the turn of the last century. Every now and again the devil reappears in a present-day venue. At one time the Jersey Devil was even the official state demon of New Jersey.

The ease of use of photo-altering software has taken us further and further from the truth. It is an impoverished world that has no mystery to it, but the easily hoaxed world of Photoshopped monsters will cast doubt on all contenders, I fear, forevermore. We can no longer trust the veracity of the lens. Our world has become an electronic illusion. The creature spotted in the Pine Barrens can be more readily believed without photographic proof. The sober, shaken witness who can’t explain what s/he saw one dark night is more believable than a goat with wings or a stuffed animal on a string. Our religious sensibilities urge us to believe in the impossible. Our cameras urge caution. After all, internet fame is often the only kind available to those whose videos and photos go viral. The devil, they say, is in the details.

Inventing Concepts

A neologism is an invented word. Of course, it is impossible to be certain about the origins of many words, and even the many neologisms attributed to William Shakespeare may have been overheard by the bard at the local pub. Still, one of the things I sometimes dream of is inventing a word that will come into wide circulation. I think it must be easier to do in fiction than in non-fiction writing. When I first wrote my book, Weathering the Psalms, I chose what was, at the time, a neologism for the subtitle. “Meteorotheology” was a word I’d never read or heard before and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how to pronounce. Although the world-wide web existed when the book was written, scholarly resources were still few, and tentative. Amazingly, that has changed very rapidly. Now I’d be at a loss to find most basic information if I were isolated from a wifi hotspot. In any case, the web has revealed that others beat me to it when it comes to meteorotheology.

I suppose that some day, when I have free time, I might go back and see if I can trace the web history of the word. It is used commonly now to refer to God taking out wrath on people through the weather. For example, when the Supreme Court decision on the legality of gay marriage was handed down this summer, there were various websites—more popular than mine!—asking a “meteorotheological” question: when was God going to send a hurricane to punish the United States for its sin? These were, as far as I can tell, all tongue-in-cheek, but there can be no question that some people treat meteorotheology that way. It is a sign of divine wrath. My own use of the word had a wider connotation. When I was invited to present at talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan a few weekends ago, I was reminded of my line in the book: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.”

That’s an idea I still stand by, but it is difficult to move beyond. What exactly does the weather say about beliefs in the divine? There’s plenty of room for exploring that. I know that when I walk outside to fetch the paper on a clear fall morning when the moon and stars are still out, I know that I’m experiencing a kind of minor theophany. The brilliant blue of a cloudless October sky can transport me to places unlike any other. What exactly it is, I can’t lay a finger on. That’s why I came up with the word meteorotheology. I many not have been the first person to use it. I may even be using it incorrectly. But the weather, in my experience, has many more moods than just anger. Any autumn day is enough to convince me of that.

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