Come Sail Oy Vey

Nothing says unorthodox like a headline that reads “Smart Jews? Thank the Extraterrestrials.” Breaking Israel News ran the story recently and, being constitutionally unable to pass up anything so strange, I had to take a look. The article, by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, is really just a half-century retrospective of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. I remember fifty years ago—not well, mind you, I was only three—but even when I was a teenager and the book had its second (of many ordinal) gasp(s), and a movie came out. People, even those not traditionally labeled as “crazy,” flocked to theaters to see it. The book went through multiple printings. The era of “ancient astronauts” was born. Von Däniken, it seems, is alive and if not exactly kicking, still making people uncomfortable.

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In this news story von Däniken suggests that Jews are more intelligent because of their alien DNA. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure that was the plot line of the X-Files season 10. Isn’t Fox Mulder Jewish? Maybe I’m getting myself mixed up in some kind of plot here. I have to admit, however, to having a touch of nostalgia for Chariots of the Gods?. There was a kind of innocence to it. Nobody seemed to be inseminating anyone else, or stealing babies. It was good, clean fun.

Something bothers me, however, about the assertion that aliens are, indirectly perhaps, responsible for holy writ. I remember thinking through the implications of this idea (already floated four decades ago) that God might be more Captain Kirk than Jesus Christ. It is inherently disturbing. Especially when von Däniken says in the interview that the Jews are the chosen people, but they just got the chooser wrong. ET instead of I AM. The really interesting part is that ancient astronauts have become a somewhat accepted cultural trope. I don’t know whether they were there or not (I wasn’t around at the time), but they sure do make Saturday afternoons much more interesting. One wish I hold is that people writing about this old idea might find a new opening bit. Ezekiel seeing the wheel has been done to death. Surely a bit of creative thought might suggest a new, undiscovered ancient truth.

Same Old Story

Once upon a time fairy tales were considered appropriate only for children. Unlike myths, fairy tales are frequently oral (yes, there are oral myths but this is not the place to discuss technicalities) and have origins that are obscure. A friend recently sent me a story entitled “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” by Bob Yirka on phys.org. Using phylogenetic analysis, researchers have traced some fairy tales back thousands of years, into the Bronze Age of the ancient Near East. This will no doubt surprise some analysts who supposed fairy tales were a more recent, European invention. The tales change with time and distance, no doubt, but the basic story is very deeply rooted in who people are. Fairy tales are adult fare, after all.

I tried to make this point in an academic article that was rudely rejected by the journal Folklore some years back. I mean “rudely” literally. I’ve had academic articles rejected before—many of us have—but the letter that came with this one was insulting. My “error”? Suggesting that the story of the musician who travels to the underworld came from ancient Sumer. The article had its origins in my wife’s reading of the Mabinogion. The story of Bran’s head being washed down the river still singing reminded me of an Edinburgh ghost story the tour guides used to tell right outside our window. You’ve probably heard similar: a tunnel is discovered, a musician (a bagpiper, since this was Scotland) is sent down while playing so that those above can follow the sound, but the musician never emerges. I traced the story through the Celtic tradition of Uamh ‘n Òir, the cave of gold, through Bran, Orpheus, and finally back to Ishtar’s descent into the underworld. It was a fun piece, but serious. It ended up published in a Festschrift to a scholar with a noted sense of humor.

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, traditional stories often go back very far in history. We haven’t the tools to trace many, nor can the results be taken for Gospel, but the implications can. People are storytellers by nature. We find meaning in what would today be called “fiction.” Too often I’ve had to hang my head in embarrassment when admitting to a fellow academic that I read (and sometimes write) fiction. It is something, however, that ancient mythographers and folklore singers would have understood. We can be academic some of the time, but we are human full-time. And telling stories is something that predates even the Bronze Age. Of that we can be completely certain. And they lived happily ever after.

Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

What’s the Message?

I said I’d come back to Bono. A story in the New Boston Post heralds a new documentary on Bono and Eugene Peterson. Both are famous in their own way, but no doubt Bono has the bigger name. Peterson, a pastor, is noted for his book The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible. The documentary, “Bono and Eugene Peterson: The Psalms,” focuses on the book that brought rock star and scholar together, according to the story. The Psalms have a way of surprising people. In a day when the Bible is treated with considerable suspicion (how Bible scholars must feel, learning now that they are really rouges!) it’s sometimes easy to forget just how readable many of the Psalms are. The collection is, of course, uneven. Some are wonderful. Others are frightening and express immoral, if very human, sentiments. It is difficult to treat the Psalms as a whole.

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Having researched the Psalms in some depth, I found them to be one of the most challenging books to teach. We tend to have preconceived notions about the Psalter. That they are poems written by either David or God (neither of whom signed them). That they are comforting. That they are appropriate for any occasion. The reality is that Psalms is a most difficult book. Some of the poetry is sublime. Even up to the lifetime of yours truly, it could be assumed that many in secular society could recite Psalm 23 from memory. Not all of them are, however, quite so nice. Those that advocate murdering the babies of your enemies as less easy to consider holy writ.

The Psalms are generally a collection of human poetry. As I used to tell my students, whereas laws, and even narratives, are often top-down, the Psalms are one of the few places in the Bible where people are allowed to speak. There is joy in the Psalter, but there is also bitter frustration. Not all of the poems have happy endings. We seem to think that once a document becomes sacred it can no longer retain human fingerprints. The lie is given to this position in the Psalms. They are a most human book. Maybe the documentary will say why Bono finds this particular collection of poetry so inspirational. His is, after all, a human voice. There may be a message here since the Psalms are so fallibly human. And if nothing else, humans are experts at seeing the same thing in different ways.

Fast One Flood

I’m not sure what to believe anymore. This crisis of faith revolves not around religion, but around media. Pundits have been saying for some time that the internet has meant the slow death of journalism, and there are so many websites that redistribute news that its like the whole world is involved in a constant, perpetual game of “telephone.” All of this is preface to a story a friend sent me that appeared on the website God. I’m not sure I trust God. The story is too good to be true. At least in a schadenfreude sort of way. God is hosted on thegoodlordabove.com, and, well, we all know about dot coms. The article concerns the destruction of Answers in Genesis’ Noah’s Ark theme park by a flood. That is believable. Floods do occur, as Noah knew. What becomes unbelievable is that the National Weather Service forecaster stated that there were no storm clouds in the area at the time. That qualifies as a miracle.

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Did this really happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Plenty of times when I was there (wherever there happened to be at the time) I wasn’t even sure what happened. Can I find the truth? One of the police sites for internet rumors is Snopes (also a dot com). I remember when Snopes began as a place to quell fears of urban legends. Back when the worldwide web was young, there was a verisimilitude to stories gleaned from the net. Living in the sparsely populated Midwest, it was easy to believe that some of these things could happen to you. At times I held onto Snopes like a crucifix, especially if I had to go out alone at night. Snopes tells me that thegoodlordabove is not to be trusted. The story is false, like others that have originated on the site. Answers in Genesis, unfortunately, is still going strong with its theme park.

Authoritative texts aren’t what they used to be. There was a day when all you had to do was pull a black leather book off the shelf to find the definitive answers. In Genesis or any other of the books. Now we rely on the worldwide consensus of the web. You can’t trust God on a website. Snopes, however, is pretty reliable. It’s the Scully to our natural Mulder. That’s why the web will never have the same impact as print media. Even the website for your bank or government can be cleverly faked. I might’ve looked no further had the purported flood not fallen from a cloudless sky. I guess I’d better be a wary believer. For the internet tells me so.

Gods and Rods

DramaGiftedChildThe human mind is an unsolved mystery. Oh, we know a lot about the brain, and advances in neuroscience have been startlingly swift. The mind, which is not the same as the brain, still eludes us. I took enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve declared it a minor, but being a minor I didn’t know enough to do so. Like many people from what used to be called broken homes, I wondered what made me think and act the way I did. I still do. Psychology shed some light on that, and although antipathy towards one’s parents has become a bad joke among those who belittle the science of the mind, there can be little doubt that there are patterns. Our youngest days, although we can’t remember them, make us who we become. I know my youngest days were difficult. I know they are with me still. I can’t remember them, but there are witnesses.

One of my readers suggested The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, to me. I was hesitant at first since I’m not gifted. My career has taught me that, if nothing else. Gifts are valuable, right? But the subtitle won me over: The Search for the True Self. Life has been that indeed. Miller, who is deceased, argued in this little book that unless the damage done early in life is recognized and mourned, it will lead to depression. This isn’t easy reading. It’s so easy to damage a child. Although most of us pretend differently, there are an awful lot of our species walking around with very deep, but invisible, scars. Just when I’m ready to dismiss the thesis, Miller provides examples. Examples in which I recognize something I wish wasn’t there. Consciousness can be a curse as much as a blessing. We don’t know where it comes from, or even what it is. It can drive you crazy, though.

Religion often prescribes child-rearing techniques. Many of us have the Bible to blame for being spanked as children. Larger, powerful adults violating the weak and controllable. Just because they can. Psychologically this is wickedness. I’ve read memoirs of children spanked excessively because the religion of the parents recommended it. Those who read Miller carefully will see that her case is well made. Perhaps one will dispute the conclusions, but the facts are there. Our childhood is necessary for our adulthood. And things that are impossible to see cause us to do things we don’t understand. Any religion that suggests beating a child is the path of righteousness has its directions utterly confused.

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

God’s Rain

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Music has been in the news this week with the death of the artist formerly and forever known as Prince. Also, in a lesser covered story, Bono’s friendship with Bible translator Eugene Peterson. This post will focus on the former former artist. I’ll have to circle back later to pick up Bono and Peterson. I have to admit that I haven’t listened to Prince much lately. I saw “Purple Rain” when it came out, and some of his songs have resonated with me throughout the years. What makes him such an intriguing figure is his view of sexuality. My source here is the Washington Post, specifically, an article by Michelle Boorstein stating that Prince was, beneath the sexy exterior, a conservative Christian. Specifically a Jehovah’s Witness. He would not be alone in this role since Alice Cooper is famously also a conservative Christian. Life upon the stage is that of the actor. With Prince, as Boorstein points out, the question goes deeper: he wrote about religion, but he also wrote about sex.

Those of us who indulge in creative writing know that poetry is perhaps the only place where dishonesty is impossible. Song lyrics are true. Prince often cites Christian tropes (see Boorstein’s article for samples), but his material is deeply sexual as well. This leads to the suggestion that he saw sex as a means of worshipping God. Once again, Prince doesn’t find himself alone in this place. Scholars brave enough to examine both religion and sexuality often find a connection there, and not just a tangential one. Both are about communing with something greater than the individual. Thinking back to my first viewing of “Purple Rain” I can say it wasn’t the religion part that stood out to me.

Histories of Rock-n-Roll are rife with stories of performers’ untamed sexuality, so that’s hardly news. What really strikes me is that with recent deaths—David Bowie, and now Prince—the media seems intensely interested in their views of religion. We don’t often look to artists for advice on how to live our lives, but as the polar opposites of scientists and rationalists, they are in touch with and willing to share their feelings. And we the people want to know what they thought of God. Often because it is so surprising. It’s easier to put someone in a box. Religion, however, is way more complex than most non-specialists think. It has room for creativity, for sexuality, and for exploring the meaning of life. I many not listen to Prince much, and when I do it’s not for religious advice. I am, however, inclined now to think in new ways about colorful rain.

Mother Earth

Son, behold thy mother.

Behold thy mother.

As a planet-locked earthling, I’m thinking about Earth today. Such a quotidian planet. While I’ve been to others in my mind, this is the only one on which I’ve ever been or am likely to be. And yet there are no laws protecting it from my own species. Corporations are treated as individuals, legally. Only they’re much, much bigger and have lots more money. They can drill and dig and spew and slew all they wish. I can mutter a feeble, “Hey!” but they legally have to pay no attention. It’s like that guy with a loud device on a quiet bus. Or someone smoking too close to the door. They invade the little space you occupy and there’s nothing you can do about it. We look to our politicians to learn how to be better bullies. Our corporations look past us to the bottom line. When the planet dies, that will indeed be the bottom line.

We tend to make fun of those who believe there’s other life out there. Whether sci-fi nerds or gullible believers in conspiracy theories, we tell them all intelligent life is located right here. In your bank account. Your net worth. The contribution you make to the GNP. It all comes down to numbers. As if there weren’t something magical about walking in the woods. As if all of this is just dress rehearsal for the play of getting rich. The beasts we had to fear used to lurk in the jungle. Now they brazenly drive through our cities in expensive cars with tinted windows. They build towers to defy the spacemen to come down. “Don’t worry,” they seem to say, “our money is great enough that we can come to you.” And yet, we are still left with only one planet. And it seems to be getting quite stuffy down here.

I worry about our throwaway culture, because there’s nowhere else to go. You can’t prevent me from fracking the very ground beneath your feet. Or like Martin Luther, prevent me from flying over your head. You don’t like my loud music? You don’t like my noxious fumes? I can blow my vape into the shared, public airspace if I want. Ownership is a funny concept. Our species has been on this planet for a geologic sneeze and yet we plant our flags and bray our allegiances. It takes treaties and accords for us to act like civilized people. We won’t call it “global warming” because that offends those big people called corporations. If it feels a little warm in here to you, turn on the air conditioner. If we use up this planet, we can always buy another one.

Meaningful Fear

BeVeryAfraidReading about the things that wrong, like terrorist attacks, may not be the best way to occupy your time on a bus heading to New York City. Robert Wuthnow’s Be Very Afraid is appropriately titled, in any case. I had been warned. Discussing sociological reactions to nuclear war, terrorism, pandemics, and global warming, Wuthnow suggests, sensibly, that action is the best response. He also points out that, statistically, people tend not to panic. What I’d like to focus on is his repeated assertion that humans need to find meaning. Disasters only bring this into clearer view.

We live in an age when religion and philosophy have been relegated to the children’s table of academic pursuits. They are, however, the traditional intellectual ways of finding meaning . Economists may be paid much more, and scientists receive more respect, but when the bombs fall or avian flu really strikes, even they sometimes turn to their beleaguered colleagues for answers. Money is notoriously poverty-ridden when it comes to purchasing meaning. Reductionistic materialism may allow a final shrug as the curtain falls, but plenty of scientists hope for a little something more. Not everyone, of course, finds meaning in religion or deep reflection, but we are all human and we want to know what it’s all about. We need to have somewhere to look.

Even as a child I was preoccupied with meaning. I wanted to be the usual things when I grew up—scientist, firefighter, G.I. Joe—but when it came time to make actual choices I moved in the direction of careers that would allow me to find meaning. I swiftly learned they didn’t pay well. Money is not meaning, however. I was teaching in a seminary when 9/11—a major topic of Wuthnow’s study—occurred. I saw people desperately seeking meaning, but not knowing where to look. This was just my fear, growing up; what does it profit someone to gain the whole world if s/he is groping about in the dark for meaning? We’ve created a world where even greater causes of fear are likely to arise. In our emergency kits, it seems, we should leave a little room for meaning.

Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!

Biblical Stories

The Bible had quite a week last week. It went from being vetoed as the “state book” of Tennessee to making it onto the list of the ten most challenged and banned books of the year for the first time. Did you ever get that feeling that you should’ve thought a bit more closely about career options? I mean, the Bible’s not half bad. Yes, it has some naughty bits, a few instances of cursing, and adult situations. There are homicides, suicides, and genocides. It endorses slavery and advocates religious intolerance. It’s not all bad news, however.

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We find it easy to make summary judgments based on our own tendency to elevate human products to divine status. That which is most holy, after all, becomes the most profane when it’s defiled. The Bible itself can be like any other book. Printed on paper, bound between two covers, it contains ideas that must be interpreted. There’s no such thing as “just reading.” Even that road sign that says “slow children” is open to hermeneutics. What is objectionable is the use to which the Bible is put. And that use is objectionable due to the claims made about it. Saying that God rolled up his immaterial sleeve and took a transcendent pen into his incorporeal hand and began to scrawl is a bit naive. We know that people wrote the Bible—and much of it is sublime—and other people compiled it into a book that eventually acquired sacred status. It wasn’t born holy, it had to grow into it.

Once the Bible became objectified it turned into what people eventually use all objects for: a weapon. We can take sticks and stones and break your bones (no, that’s not in the Bible), and we can take paper and ink and hang you as a witch. Or pillory you as a liberal. Or say that it forbids the love you feel in your God-given heart. Something strange has happened here. The Bible’s not a bad book. It’s a bit on the long and repetitious side, but it has many, many memorable sayings and noble sentiments. Entire civilizations have been based on it. Or readings of it. They’ll ask you to put your hand on it and swear in court, and then they’ll ban it so your kids can’t read it. It’s been a tough week for the Good Book. Somehow, however, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it because people love a conflicted story.

Gods and Giants

Day of the GiantsComing back to a book you first read as a tween, in the days before tweens even existed, can be a revelation. Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants introduced me to Norse mythology as a kid, and, along with Thor comic books, was my Nordic Bible. The last time I read it was probably in the Ford administration. As part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking this year, I had to select a book I’d read before and, amazingly enough, I still had my copy. Reading the book as an adult, however, proved a very different experience from reading it as a child. For one thing, I noticed quite a bit more of the implicit theology of the story. Del Rey was no theologian, of course. This little book, however, makes a statement that is difficult to miss regarding the gods: they are victims of tradition.

It is probably not worth worrying about spoilers over half a century after a book was published, but I’ll try to be sensitive nevertheless. Leif Svensen, our protagonist, finds himself in Asgard on the eve of Ragnarok. All the familiar Norse gods are there: Thor, Loki, Odin, and kith and kin. As they prepare for the battle with the frost giants, who, in the mythology win the contest, the deities are decidedly subdued. They believe their fate is sealed by a prophecy of defeat. Leif, being a true American, gives them a rousing speech about overcoming the old ways. Gods, by nature, are conservative. They don’t have to bow to tradition—they are gods, after all. The deities are not swayed by the logic of a mere mortal, even after his apotheosis. Fate, it seems, trumps even gods.

I’m pretty sure that Lester del Rey wasn’t attempting to make any profound theological observation here. One can be an accidental theologian. Ideas of gods and what they must do can be a detriment to their own future. Even with the evidence of the failure of their own prophecy, the gods can see no way forward other than that they’ve recognized as fate. They are, without saying too much, out-maneuvered by human resourcefulness. A man tames his god, and it can become a man’s best friend. I wasn’t expecting such theological insight from a sci-fi book from my youth. Then again, you never know what may happen when you come back to a book after leaving it on the shelf for four decades.

Le sacrifice humain

The thought of lying tied to an altar while you know someone is about to murder you is a terrifying one. For several reasons. Clearly, you don’t want to die. A more potent fear, however, may be that a darkly savage deity lies behind the dead. An angry, demanding god who desires nothing less than your annihilation. A story in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan suggests new findings by anthropologists now suggest a much more frightening rationale behind the world-wide phenomenon of human sacrifice. Kaplan reports that the article in Nature suggests human sacrifice was a means of social stratification. Maintaining control. Surely it must be obvious that those sacrificed are never the powerful and elite, unless, in a reversal of power structures, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the might that makes right. Think of England’s King Charles I, for example. The societies scrutinized in this study, however, are less “civilized” and human sacrifice is a means to remind people who’s in charge.

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What I find interesting about this is how easily the discussion slips into religion being part of the mix. Those of us who’ve spent our professional youths earning advanced degrees in the field have long realized that there is a political element to religion. Temples, yes, were built to the glory of their gods. They were also built to help finance the monarchies in power. Even the temple in Jerusalem was only erected after the monarchy was finally entrenched. Priests supported kings and kings supported priests. They were the elites of society. As Nathan so aptly pointed out, you don’t sacrifice your own lamb when you’re rich. You take someone else’s. Thus it has always been with the exercise of power.

The Nature study examines stratified and egalitarian societies. Human sacrifice is most pronounced in the most stratified. Those where—let’s not be too blunt here—the top one percent want to demonstrate their obvious control over the rest, human sacrifice is most common. Is it really religious? I think the answer is obvious. The gods people worship are those that are most like themselves. The difference is largely one of power. Might, despite all protestations to the contrary, does make right. Or at least right-wing. Human sacrifice still occurs. If the new study is right (and who can argue with science?) there is only one way to avoid being at the wrong end of the sacrificial knife. Or stone. Or torch. And it is to sacrifice the potential to become rich in order to ensure true equality.

What Vampires Abhor

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It began as an innocent trip to the grocery store. I was in the produce section seeking the various vegetarian foodstuffs I need to make it through the week when I came across a monster. Well, more precisely, the mention of a monster. Brad’s Crunchy Kale. Vampire Killer variety. Now, I’m not the world’s expert on vampires; I’m a dilettante at best. Still, I’ve never heard of kale as a vampire bane. (The store didn’t have wolfbane on offer, that I could see.) But this advertising ploy made me wonder about the use of vampires, and other monsters, as means of selling food. The Count Chocula family of breakfast cereals is perhaps the most famous example. Kids love their monsters. Especially with milk. Perhaps Brad is trying to get kids hooked on kale? Start them early on the right path and they’ll not soon depart from it.

Walking through the aisles I didn’t see much else that related to monsters. More the daily bread than the undead. After all, this was just post-Easter and people won’t be thinking about ghosts and ghouls until the other equinox rolls around. The brighter half of the year is a time for sunnier prospects. Monsters go into hibernation. Long, light-filled days are ahead. Why are we putting Vampire Killer on the shelves now? I looked at the ingredients. Garlic didn’t seem to feature prominently among them. I had to admit to confusion. And a desire for garlic bread.

Food, so scarce in many parts of the world, is something we need to decorate to get the attention of the modern consumer. Who’d buy a bunch of generic green, leafy stuff that requires some preparation—you at least have to wash it. And even then it might not protect you from vampires. Try a little packaging. All you have to do is open and eat. Rather like a vampire, actually.

We used to shop in one of those stores where they eschew fancy packaging and you pay for grains and dry goods by the wholesome, unwrapped pound. There seemed to be little ambiguity about what you were getting then. But we wish to be entertained by our food. This could be part of Buffy’s buffet, could it not? I find myself having to hold up a crucifix to stop from dropping it into the cart. There are vampires out there, I’m just sure of it.