Monthly Archives: October 2017

Uncomfortable Truth

Ugly. That’s not a word I use lightly. The phenomenon of racism is ugly. More than that, it’s insidious. I recently attended a community course on racism sponsored by the Central Jersey Community Coalition. Since our government won’t condemn racism our communities must. This five-hour course was an eye-opener for me. I had known that race was a social construct with no basis in biology or any kind of science. What I hadn’t realized is that race was invented as a means of maintaining “white” power. And it was done so deliberately. The course leaders outlined the history of the modern concept of race and showed how it is primarily an American phenomenon (not exclusively, but it was intentionally orchestrated here). The idea was to keep property in the hands of wealthy whites.

During the discussion many topics came to mind. The primary two, for me, were capitalism and the Bible. These strange bedfellows are far too comfortable with one another. Both can be made to participate in the racism narrative. Capitalism appeals to the basest and most vulgar aspects of being human. Greed and selfishness. Wanting more for me and less for you. As one participant put it, it’s a zero-sum game. Your loss is my gain. We support this system every time we buy into the myth that life is about consuming. Buying more. Contributing to the economy. That which is lost is mere humanity. This is the narrative our government has adopted. The election of one of the uber-wealthy has demonstrated that with a nuclear missile shot heard round the world.

And what of the Bible? As the story of the flood unfolds in the book of Genesis, Noah develops a drinking problem. Naked in his tent, his shame is seen by his son Ham. Hungover the next morning, the only righteous man alive curses his son’s progeny. Then after the tower of Babel story, those cursed races, in biblical geography, end up in Africa. Christian preachers long used this myth as the justification of slavery. Races, after all, were decreed by God at that very tower. The tower shows us for who we truly are. Human hubris led to divine folly. And now we have a nation of liberty built on the basic premise of inequality. Racism is beyond ugly. It’s evil. The Bible may be complicit, but we need to take over the narrative. Race does not exist. Scientifically there is no such thing. Although race doesn’t exist, racism most assuredly does. Like all evils we must bring it to the light to make it disappear.

Colleagues

The death of a colleague is a shocking grief. Although my teaching career was cut short at Nashotah House, the faculty there was always small, and often close-knit in a way that an insular school promotes. I had been teaching there for about eight years when Daniel Westberg was hired to teach ethics and moral theology. Dan was kind, gentle, and non-political. At first he was part-time, but eventually he became a regular member of the faculty at some personal expense. We came to know him and appreciate his wisdom and patience. Dan was a priest and had earned his doctorate at Oxford University. Just over a decade my elder (the faculty from which I left was generally at his age; I was the youngster), Dan kept in good physical shape, as befits a truly spiritual person.

Nashotah House takes its name from the lake by which it was built. Colleagues sometimes joked about the fact that the seminary was wooded, lake-front property and implied that recreation time belied research time. It was, however, a place of intense study for the faculty. It did also offer the opportunity to experience nature. Dan drowned in a boating accident on Upper Nashotah Lake this past week. The image of that lake is etched forever in my mind. The night before I learned of my colleague’s death I was reflecting how I stood on the shore of that very lake late one night to photograph comet Hale-Bopp burning in the western sky. I had been reading about comets and that night by the lake stands out in my mind as a numinous moment. The lake, it seemed, had always been there.

After I left Nashotah House I let my colleagues fall into the safe mental compartments of memories. A few of my students kept in touch, but in general I heard from my colleagues only very rarely. Some may assume I spend more time on Facebook than I do. There are painful memories associated with the seminary. Now one more painful memory is added to the rest. I ate with Dan and his wife. Talked with him. Attended chapel with him. We had that distance that always separates clergy from laity, but I considered him a man that could be trusted. A priest with integrity. We went through quite a lot together in that small community on the lake. The death of a colleague comes with a guilt for not having kept in touch. A sadness for an opportunity missed. A life of kindness extinguished is a shocking grief.

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.

The Deity Electric

The title set me back. “Deus ex machina: former Google engineer is developing an AI god.” The article in The Guardian is surprising in several ways. Firstly, technocrats tend to suggest that since there is no deity, worship of said non-entity is a waste of precious time. Is this, then, an acknowledgement that those of us who’ve spent our lives on religion may have had at least an inkling of the truth after all? Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that religion is an inherent, and perhaps unavoidable, aspect of being human. Whether you call it inspiration or superstition, we think in religious terms. It’s entirely natural. Perhaps it’s evolved behavior. It’s anything but absent.

Another aspect of the article that generates wonder is the idea that we can create God. Yes, analysts have long claimed that we humans made God in our own image. Traditionally, however, the very concept of God was based on the idea that there was something non-human about the deity. Artificial Intelligence, however, makes the hubristic assertion that human intelligence knows enough to create a god. We don’t even know enough to elect a sane person as president. Looking at the wider world—let alone the universe—there is so much we don’t know. Our five senses are limited. There are realities which we have no way to measure. Is is perhaps not dangerous to make a divinity when our own way of looking at the universe is so terribly limited? What if I don’t like the god you build? At least with the old fashioned one we can shrug our shoulders and sigh, “that’s just the God there is.”

Any fulfilled future humanist will need to find an outlet for this need to worship. Can we truly respect a deity whose transistors we’ve manufactured? This Godhead will be, at the end of the day, only 0s and 1s. And what’s more, we will know that. Traditional religions have given us gods from the outside. Some of them are flawed, some are perfect, but they all have this in common—we didn’t make them. The universe imposed them upon us. Throughout history people have attempted, in various ways, to build their own gods. It generally doesn’t end well. It’d be like designing your own parents. They made you what you are and what would you be if you could somehow reverse engineer them into more perfect versions of themselves? Can we invent gods? Oh yes. We do it all the time. But when we set about making one that our disembodied, downloaded consciousness can worship we might want to consider the history of such attempts.

Scared Space

Ghosts appear whether they exist or not. People have seen them, we know, since as early as written records permit us to know. I first ran into Colin Dickey’s name in a review of the new Ghostbusters movie. The bio made mention of his book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Then it was a matter of waiting until autumn to read it. It’s a book that will long stay with me. Dickey’s not out to prove or disprove ghosts—they are simply there (and sometimes not). Ghosts, however, teach us quite a lot about the living. What we value. What we fear. What we disdain. Some of the ghost stories in this book are famous and familiar, others obscure and pedestrian. What they all have in common is a sense of place.

This book is primarily about place. Ghosts seem to be generated by the fact that people have lived here before us. Focusing on the United States, Dickey points out that land stolen from others has inhabitants already. On top of Native American sites, we now have a few hundred years of European and African and Asian building. Lives lived on top of other lives. And although we can’t say for sure what ghosts are, they do seem to be associated with buildings, or at least places. Organized in a kind of concentric structure, the book describes ghosts of haunted houses, then haunted businesses and public buildings, including haunted outdoor spaces. And finally haunted cities. These hauntings are residue of our own making. We build, we inhabit, we die. Whether ghosts are just memories or uncanny feelings, they are ghosts nevertheless.

Combining a couple of my favorite ideas—ghosts and the sense of space—Ghostland is a rare blend of history and folklore. The architecture of our constructions functions like tombs for our imagination. We are spiritual beings, whether religious or not. Even if we’re in denial of that spirituality, we sense that somehow life doesn’t simply end. We’ve left a mark, a scratch, a dent. As long as those who’ve known us live, we continue on in their minds and lives. And some, it seems, remain beyond even that to be seen by strangers centuries later, maintaining the sacredness of space once familiar while living. Ghost stories are human stories, and Dickey is a sure guide along the way. He doesn’t tell you what to believe, but he tells you something you already may know but not realize. No matter whether they’re ever proven, or whether they even really exist, as long as there are human beings there will also be ghosts.

Contrary Living

“Where, o where, are you tonight?” If your mind has supplied the tune and pitchfork, you know just what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you too remember this old chestnut: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me…” Those who know me often think I’m just another middle-class professor-wannabe like all the others. The truth of the matter is that I grew up culturally backward, living in a place that looked up to hillbillies as our sophisticated superiors. I’m no classist. When I say blue collar I may be exaggerating the shade of gray working-class outerwear actually represents. The myth when I was young was that getting an education meant you’d improve your lot in life. Yet here I am with a car in the garage that won’t start and a president who courts my kind for reelection when he should be thinking about trying to govern.

Now that we’ve got a Beverley Hillbilly White House, I think we ought to bring Hee Haw back. For those who might secretly doubt my redneck pedigree, I was raised on a steady diet of the country-western music and comedy variety show and WWF Wrestling. And there was, at least in the former, some wisdom to be had. Reading the headlines I see that what the Democrats need is somebody that people like. Celebrities are the political future. We’ve seen enough Ronald Reagans, Sonny Bonos, Jesse Venturas, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers to tell us that. Ironically, many entertainers are Democrats. The problem is our party likes intellectuals to run the country. It’s not a bad idea, really it isn’t. The electoral college has become the Nielsen ratings board.

No matter how many times I watched the “Where, o where, are you tonight” sketch, I always turned my attention to the TV when it came on. You never knew who the second singer would be, or how the verse might change for the week. And the down and outs on the dilapidated front porch with their moonshine always sang of “deep dark depression, excessive misery.” What I didn’t know then is that Hee Haw was ahead of its time. Of course, back then the rural south tended to vote Democrat. Why, even the opening title card had a donkey on it. Perhaps I’m stretching for a little too much sophistication here. I wouldn’t know, because I grew up with back-woods sensibilities. I just wish that since Jed is in the White House we might have a little comedy once in a while to lighten things up on the way to World War III.

Which Window?

October slipped in this year, and now I find myself unexpectedly in the season of ghosts, monsters, and witches. Given the number of posts on this blog about horror movies, it stands to reason that these are a few of my favorite things. The nights are longer now and since I work in a cubicle all year round, I miss the daylight from 8 to 4 on most days. Judging by the billboards along highway 22, others have noticed that Halloween’s approaching as well. One of the odd things about being on the internet myself is that I don’t spend much time web browsing. Who has time? But when a friend sent me a story on witch windows, I had to take a look.

I’ve only been to Vermont twice. Of all the New England states, it, along with Rhode Island, are kind of out of the way for the areas I tend to visit. I’ve enjoyed my time in Vermont (and Rhode Island), but there just hasn’t been much of it. The article “Witch Windows Are Still A Thing And Here’s Why They Actually Exist” by R. J. Wilson points out an architectural feature I didn’t notice during my brief Vermont visits. Confined to the Green Mountain State, for the most part, are slanted windows in line with the slope of the roof. When I saw the photos in the article my first thought was that they were for admitting more light. Vermont is a northern state and already in September days are getting a little lean on light. These windows, however, are commonly called “witch windows.” Nobody really knows why they’re called that. As the Urbo article points out, nobody really believed that witches couldn’t enter through crooked windows.

People are quick to posit supernatural explanations for mundane things. It’s one of the more charming things about the witching season. We need not believe the explanations for them to convey some kind of meaning. Ghosts, monsters, and witches survive because they provide such meaning for us. They symbolize the things against which we have to struggle. Looking for light as the nights lengthen is a very human thing to do. We often house our monsters in the dark. There is utility in taking them out in the daytime to give them a closer look. Now that October’s here, of course, there’s less daylight in which we might easily see. If I were in Vermont I think I’d want a witch window too.