Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Price of Worship

The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.

This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.

The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.

Sweet Tooth

I don’t have a sweet tooth. I count that as a personal flaw, but the fact is I don’t seek out sugary snacks. Still, who doesn’t enjoy a nice chocolate once in a while? My wife and I attended a local chocolate tasting event recently. This was a new experience for me. Being of working class vintage, I tend to look at comestibles in a purely pragmatic way—food is for eating. It shouldn’t taste too bad, and ideally it should be healthy. Between meals I seldom think about eating unless the time stretches too long and hunger kicks in. I’ve read a couple books about chocolate, however, and I was curious what I might learn.

Apart from learning the disturbing fact that much American chocolate isn’t really technically chocolate, it was an enjoyable evening. The proprietors of Carol’s Creative Chocolatez know their stuff. The event began with a history of cacao beans. Native to the Americas in the equatorial regions, it was only after Columbus’s fourth voyage that Europeans discovered chocolate. Indigenous peoples used cacao beans as currency, and chocolate was the food of the gods. Its technical name, Theobroma, means just that. When Columbus appeared, a white man with European garb, and horses (as well as exotic diseases), he was ironically thought to be the returning god of chocolate. Instead, he took the previously unknown delicacy to Europe where various means of preparing it began. Eventually we ended up with the sweet, sugary variety that is considered standard today.

Theobroma plants contain a compound that creates feelings of euphoria. Chocolate, in other words, rewards you for eating it. It’s easy to see why indigenous peoples assigned chocolate its own deity. It’s also perhaps not surprising that what was mistaken for a god became a deadly plague. While Europeans were mostly interested in gold during the early period of exploration, they eventually realized that exotic foods and spices could be almost as good as gold. Chocolate, the food of the gods, could be mass produced and degraded and sold as an addictive treat to children. Such we do with our divinities. If only obesity were the same as obeisance! Instead, we are presented with a treat that tastes good and makes us feel happy. Like most gifts of the gods, it’s best enjoyed in small quantities. Even a little gold will go a long way. And after this evening, I think theology may help to explain the fascination with Theobroma.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

Night and Day

Jim was aghast. The joke had been entirely inappropriate. I had asked him about the Pentecostal service we’d just left. Jim was my college roommate and had invited me to see what his tradition was all about. I’d witnessed speaking in tongues before, but never on such a scale. That wasn’t what was bothering Jim, though. The minister had told a joke about a demon. It had something to do with a man possessed by a coffee demon. The exorcist declared to the demon “You have no grounds to be in him!” Inappropriate. It might make people think there weren’t real demons. We used to disagree on many points, but remained friends. I lost track of Jim. He dropped out of college to go follow a spirit-filled man in Waco who’d learned Hebrew and Greek without ever having studied them. His concern about that joke, however, raises an interesting question.

I’ve just finished reading Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool’s book, Deliver Us from Evil: A New York Cop Investigates the Supernatural. It’s hard not to like Sarchie. A rough and tumble associate of Ed and Lorraine Warren, he is most sincere law enforcement officer (now, at my age, retired). Openly believing in the supernatural, claiming his traditionalist Catholic faith, he hates demons for the misery they cause both humans and God. I admire such unquestioning faith. At the same time he’s clearly aware of his own foibles and weaknesses—something we might like to see more often in the police force. He doesn’t doubt, however, that demons are real. The concern, however, is that he might sometimes be a bit harsh on non-Christian religions. He admits that he’s not the most studious of demonologists.

No doubt, belief is important. Belief with knowledge is even better, it stands to reason. Problem is, academic or scientific studies on demons are sorely lacking. Sarchie was an associate of the controversial Malachi Martin (whose book Hostage to the Devil I blogged about some time ago). I feel for someone who wants to know more but runs into the limits imposed by academia. Where do you find information if the recognized specialists in a discipline don’t write about it so regular people can read it? It is a real dilemma. A scientific approach would declare the events in Deliver Us from Evil (also published as Beware the Night, before being released as a movie) are anecdotal. This is technically correct. No laboratory procedure exists to confirm something science denies exists in the first place. The only weapon against such a foe is faith. Thinking back to college, I don’t know what happened to Jim, but on this point I’m sure he would have agreed.

Might As Well Read

During my recent travels I had a layover at Sea-Tac Airport. Since I don’t get out much, I always find a walk through the airport a way of measuring what other people find important. At least in a circumscribed way. When you’re traveling you’re limited in your options. Most airlines have addressed passenger ennui by offering devices with electronic entertainment. Instead of an in-flight movie, you’ll have choices of what you want to do, courtesy of the endless magic of in-flight wifi. So the thinking goes. Airports, it would stand to reason, will offer plenty of travel-size diversions. The kinds of things you’re allowed to take onto a plane but which won’t or can’t be used to harm others. A sign at Sea-Tac reads “Books. Food. And yes, beer. Just ahead.” An interesting choice of offerings.

I was strangely heartened by the pride of place given to books. Yes, people still find the book on a plane satisfying. Stories have a way of drawing us in. Making us forget that we’re in a cramped space filled with strangers and recirculated, pressurized air. Books have the ability to take us far away. It’s a magic that movies can’t always achieve. Books leave more to the imagination. I recently rediscovered this on a solo trip across the Atlantic. I used the opportunity to read a novel cover-to-cover. The impact was incredible. For those six hours I was on the ground, following the adventures of young people caught up in the liminal zone of adventure and love. It was a powerful experience.

On my daily commute I tend to read non-fiction. Perhaps it’s the result of earning a doctorate, or perhaps it’s the stigma of enjoyable reading being “fluff.” The great majority of books I read this way teach me a lot. I read about many different subjects, and have recently learned to make commuting time a type of research exercise. But then, a cross-country plane ride is different. While an evening commute from New York City can stretch to three hours or more, that’s fairly rare. Instead, air time is unbroken time. I look forward to it with the prospect of a good novel. Airports are one place where hoi polloi don’t mind hanging out in a bookstore. Yes, the fare will be mostly bestsellers, but anything that gets people to read is a good thing. And, of course, if that doesn’t work for you there’s always beer. Just ahead.

Making Excuses

Those of us who watch horror are often asked “why?” Many of us have a difficult time answering that question. To be sure, there are those who like thrills, blood, and violence, but some of us do not. We can’t seem to help ourselves—watching those in difficult, dark places hardly seems edifying, and yet we do it anyway. After reading Jason Zinoman’s book with the supernaturally long subtitle, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, I may have gained a little insight in my own case. Zinoman is a film critic, so he has an automatic excuse. What I found interesting among the narratives of the directors and writers of modern horror is that these were largely men who grew up with absent fathers. Not all of them, of course—demographics are never so neat—but enough of them to start to discern a pattern. The world can be a scary place without a father.

It’s no accident that some religions use the father image to refer to God. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of life that has evolved to benefit the aggressive, the more contemplative often experience fear. Having grown up without a father, I think I might have a better idea now about why I watch what I do. As I’ve often told family and friends, I do not like being scared. Startle moments in movies bother me. I don’t like blood and gore—I’m squeamish both in real life and in the diegesis of the film I’m watching. Yet something compels me to keep coming back. Is it related to the fact that many of those who gave us the classics in the field (and yes, there are bona fide, canonical members even in this genre) know this same sense of childhood alienation that I did? The missing father is, in our culture, a source of horror.

I don’t mean to overly psychologize what Zinoman is doing here. He’s telling the untold story of the auteurs of the field. Some of them are familiar and others less so. They tended to grow up reading H. P. Lovecraft—I’m more of a Poe fan, myself, although Lovecraft still manages to deliver an existential angst that will do in a pinch—and they found ways of expressing the anxiety of being alive. Most of them are highly intelligent people. Some have even been professors. They learned to tap a deep source of fundamental fear that speaks to some of us on a level that other emotions don’t. I still can’t say why I enjoy a good horror film, but maybe now I’ll be able to do so without feeling like I need to make excuses.

Making Lovecraft

Perhaps it’s all just coincidence, but once in a while a number of unexpected things come together. Since I do a lot of reading this often happens in the context of books. The current case begins with my first noticing Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I saw a review online, and since I enjoy contemporary novels that build on the worlds created by H. P., I added it to my reading list. The first coincidental aspect of it was that I found in Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. Like most independent bookstores, it’s not huge, so the selection of books that cater to my odd tastes is always adventitious. I found it on the staff recommendation shelf and recalled that it was on my reading list. A second coincidence came in finding Neal Stephenson’s name under a cover blurb. My brother-in-law’s name is enough to get a book onto the bestseller’s lists, but I had no idea this kind of book would be to his tastes as well.

I began reading it right away. The third happenstance is that Ruff crafted a biblically literate story here. In a day when those of us associated with the Bible are definitively passé, it is nice to see popular fiction fighting back a little bit. Not that Ruff is advocating or proselytizing, but his finely tuned story is definitely enhanced with a bit of biblical knowledge. He’s unapologetic about it. In our religion-critical outlook these days we sometimes forget that the Bible has several stories that maintain, and even reward, contemporary interest. The most obvious example in Lovecraft Country is the story of Cain. There are plenty of others that can be dug out as well, and Ruff even leaves some on the surface so that they aren’t hard to find. Not that this is a religious book. It’s just not afraid of religion.

Some may find that odd in a homage to the noted atheist Lovecraft. What they may not see is that the master himself used religion from time to time in his tales of horror. Also, for those who are willing to be honest, we know that an unsavory racism resided in Lovecraft’s outlook. Ruff, like other writers who see the positive side of this author’s work, tells a story of African-American struggles in the “idyllic” 1950s. The protagonists, dropped into a world of real Lovecraftian magic—and in a very self-aware way—are all a close-knit black family and their friends. Which led to another coincidence. Quite unconnectedly, I’d been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This plays an important part in the story as well. Sometimes reading itself can lead to a cascading set of coincidences. Lovecraft Country is one instance where it happened, but that may just be my unusual taste in books.