Monthly Archives: March 2016

Cthulhu’s Tea Party

It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.

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What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.

Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.

Unlearning Prejudice

With the terrorist attacks in Belgium on our minds, people are asking once again, “What’s up with Fundamentalists?” My jeremiad that the only solution to religious violence is to study religion reaches few eyes, I realize, but the internet has the capability of spreading memes far and fast. It is merely the hope of a closet optimist. One thing that Fundamentalists believe—I know from personal experience—is that the stakes are based in eternity. In Christian fundamentalism, for example, Hell or Heaven will be forever and any parent would be depraved indeed not to teach their children this belief from their earliest days. That parent-child bond is strong to the point of being unbreakable. That’s why what children learn about religion tends to stay with them all of their life.

IMG_0922A story on the Freedom from Religion Foundation website describes how it is fighting the distribution of Gideon Bibles in public schools in Delta County, Colorado. I was under the impression that Gideons contented themselves with hotel rooms and county fairs. I had no idea that they were active in public schools. In response, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has provided counterbalances to be available to students, including materials calling the Bible into question, and, somewhat more surprising, atheist and Satanist literature. It is clearly a political move to prevent the district from allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles, but it feels an awful lot like a battleground to me. We want the best for our children, but is it best to put our adult biases out where they can be so plainly seen? In a pluralistic society, religion will always raise extreme responses where children are concerned.

The question here is not whether children should receive religious teaching or not, but where such teaching should occur. We are a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom, and although the concepts have changed since the founding days, the ideal is still valid. No matter how one wants to argue the point, people will be religious beings. They may express it in enormously different ways, but express it they will. Children trust us to act like adults. We want what’s best for them but the risk is very high. What should be done? Educate adults. But then, that’s a screed you’ve heard from me before.

Strange Chemistry

AlchemicalBeliefOne of the many antiquated beliefs that have been left behind over the centuries is alchemy. Today we tend to think that anyone who supposed natural substances could have been transmuted into others must have been naïve at best, or credulous at least. Bruce Janacek’s Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England sheds light on the wider worldview of the alchemists. Some of them, anyway. Firstly, it is quite clear that many adepts of alchemy were very intelligent people. We easily forget that in addition to rewriting the laws of physics, Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy throughout his adult life. There’s something incredibly beguiling about the idea of an underlying unity of materials. Today atomic theory has answered that unity, perhaps a little too well. And that bring up the second important insight in Jancek’s book: alchemists often had an ulterior motive.

Early modern alchemists (think of those emerging from the wake of the Reformation, and you won’t be far wrong) often had a religious motivation for their work. Alchemy isn’t just turning base metals into gold—that’s just its most spectacular claim. Janacek points out that several alchemists were also attempting to prove the legitimacy of Christian theology through their explorations. Concepts as strange as the Trinity, or even the divisions of Christianity itself that were happening in the shadow of Luther, indicated to ordered minds that theological truth must be a unity. That unity, once found in alchemy, would naturally apply to the world of the church. The church, after all, can’t defy the very laws of the universe, can it? These early scientists accepted that there might also be a mystical element involved. Some rejected that aspect, but felt that the basic ideas of alchemy itself were sound.

Like dinosaurs, alchemy pretty much went extinct with the onset of the empirical method. Also like dinosaurs, it survived into the new age, transmuted in form. Alchemy was one of the ancestors of that bane of college students everywhere: chemistry. We tend to forget that astrology laid the groundwork for astronomy and creation (not quite an “ism” in those days) led to the study of biology. Religious ideas underlie much of what led to modern science. Religion, after all, indulges the curiosity of humankind. We are allowed (in the best instances) to let our minds range where they will. Later on theology, or some such device, will rein them in, but until such a time the psyche is free to explore. And build systems. And offer explanations. The alchemy comes when all of this is taken from the hands of natural philosophers and put into the laboratory only. And the rest of us await pronouncements from above of what might be real, or not.

Monster Epistemologies

A friend ensures that I see internet stories of hidden monsters. Not hidden in that you can’t find them, but hidden in that my freedom to explore the web entails only weekends and even some of those are very busy. In any case, a bestiary from Mental Floss landed on my virtual desk recently and I couldn’t wait until the weekend to check it out. A bestiary is a list of strange creatures, what we might today call monsters, some of which reflect a world not well explored and others which reflect religious, or—admit it—superstitious ideas. In the days when travel was limited and news was slow and unreliable, garbled accounts of strange beasts were compiled in bestiaries. The tradition continues today, as is evidenced by this article by Paul Anthony Jones.

Whenever I see monster stories like this I ask the question: did they really believe such things “back then”? Some of these monsters clearly have analogues in the natural world, but part of my brain reminds me that we are destroying species faster than we can count them in the rainforest, and who knows what we have yet to uncover? Is it really a matter of belief or is it actually a matter of knowing how we know? The fancy word for the latter is “epistemology.” As I used to ask students: how do you know that you know? Has that changed since the days of the bestiary? Knowing about medieval monsters seems to have been the acceptance of the reports of those who, if they hadn’t actually seen the beast, had at least talked to someone who knew someone who had. It is the authority of the senses. Or of reliable reporting. Seeing is believing.

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Fast forward to a day of popular cryptozoology. We have monster hunters of many sorts on television. Some claim evidence for what they have seen. Lighthearted laughter is the common response. Monsters just don’t fit into our worldview anymore. Our epistemology has become more circumspect. If it doesn’t come from a lab, like a genetically modified organism, we have no reason to believe it exists. We’d like to create our own monsters, thank you. It’s at times like these that I like to reflect that a bestiary doesn’t sound so different from a breviary. Both are medieval sources of knowledge. Our modern epistemology seems to have grown a little too narrow to see a world that is full of wonder. Unless, of course, it’s on the television. Seeing is believing.

Underground Easter

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Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.

The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?

Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.

Not Camelot

In the English imagination the Arthurian legend is deeply connected with the Christian myth of Britain’s founding. This may not be on the surface, of course, but the places associated with King Arthur (as well as the tales themselves, such as the Holy Grail) overlap with sacred locations. I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about Tintagel Castle. Back in the day when my wife and I visited Tintagel with friends, I was still shooting film. Slides, no less. Some wonderful images came out, the way that only Ektachrome delivers, but I haven’t been able to convert them to digital. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. Tintagel is in the news because English Heritage, the owner of the property, is developing it to make it a larger tourist draw. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Not in the castle—now in ruins—that was built centuries later, but on the island that is accessed by footbridge over a dramatic cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s enough to make you drop your pastie.

Our own little Merlin

Our own little Merlin

Locals, according to The Guardian, protest the dressing up of the historic site. A bas relief of Merlin has been carved into the living rock, and this is hoped to draw the Glastonbury crowd to the southeast. Glastonbury, upon our visit, was already the home of New Age vendors. It too has connections with Arthur. The staff of Joseph of Arimathea can be seen, still growing after all these centuries. The Holy Grail—likely from Celtic mythology of the cauldron—is also associated with Glastonbury. Oh yes, and also King Arthur’s grave. Even apart from Monty Python, the legendary king has captured the imagination of thousands across the centuries. There’s something about Arthur.

The historicity of the king, however, is vigorously debated. The same is true of many religious founders. Those around whom legends grow become more and more inaccessible with the passing of the years. England was Christianized in the seventh century as part of a political expansion. If Arthur ever lived, it was after that period, perhaps in the days before Beowulf. We just don’t know. It is clear, however, that his legend is intertwined with that of those early Christian days. There never was a Holy Grail—of that we can be fairly certain. In the service of myth-making, it is nevertheless indispensable. Staring out over the Ektachrome sea at the ruins of the island castle of Tintagel, it is only too easy to believe. If only I had the pictures to prove it.

GF or TGIF?

For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.

No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.

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