At a neighborhood holiday gathering the topic of a local living nativity came up. This year they need some wise men (don’t we all!) and some of the women mentioned that wise men should have beards. As the wearer of an old growth facial forest, I became the subject of a couple of queries—could you be a wise man? I replied that I wasn’t smart enough, but in the back of my mind I was attending the last church nativity play I’d been in. It was at the Church of the Advent, Boston’s high Episcopal establishment. I was cast as a centurion and was directed to deliver my lines woodenly. Being who I am, I did as I was told. I was invited to the cast party on Beacon Hill anyway. It was one of my few brushes with society folk in Boston.
Like many boys raised in church, I’d been cast in such plays before. One of three boys each born just one year apart, I was assigned the role of wise man along with my brothers. Far too young to grow a beard, I wore a costume made by my mother and carried a jar from a science experiment as a gift for baby Jesus. Being poor, we had no gold—or even frankincense or myrrh—lying around. In school we’d done this science project where a solution grew crystals up the inside of an ordinary coffee jar and out over the top. Stain it with food coloring and you have a gift fit for a king. So the illusion went.
The Christmas we celebrate today isn’t based too much on fact, but it is a prime occasion for plays. It’s a dramatic story, although the New Testament has to be bent and twisted to make it all fit into the comprehensive narrative of proselytizing playwrights. The king nobody recognizes being born in a barn. The creator of the universe being rejected by the very world for which he (the baby was always a boy) was responsible. The story is as timeless as Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and it’s enacted thousands of times each year in churches large and small across the country. Is there any reason that, as long as we’re straying into realms of imagination, the wise visitors shouldn’t be female? The ability to grow facial hair has little to do with any kind of intelligence. In fact, we’d be much better off right now with a woman in charge.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Bibliolatry, Current Events, Feminism, Holidays, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged A Christmas Carol, beard, Boston, Church of the Advent, living nativity, Magi, New Testament, science and religion
You can tell when the holiday season settles on the city. The commute home takes longer because developers simply can’t ignore a highway and the potential it has for shipping in the lucre. Highway 22 is built up in several spots—it’s kind of like a 20-mile long roadside mall between where the bus enters it and my exit. Holiday shoppers right after work clog this artery faster than fried eggs for breakfast every day. We crawl, penitent, wanting only to reach home. You get to know the regulars on the bus. You may not know their names, but their faces and personalities become clear enough. The man sitting across the row from me was someone I couldn’t recall having seen before. Lots of people, of course, go into New York occasionally. A stranger on the bus isn’t exactly rare.
Near my stop I slip into the empty seat next to the aisle to get ready to disembark. He looks over at me and asks if he can give me a bookmark he’s made. Worse than talking to strangers is taking candy from one. He encourages me by telling me he does it to promote his work, since he writes haikus and does paintings. I accept one and learn of the website unfoldingmind.com. He then asks what I’ve been reading. If you read my posts in order, you can see my last book was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel. There’s a reason I don’t tell my fellow passengers about my literary choices. I say it is a book about an exorcism and he takes it in stride, asking if it was an actual case.
I had my own unfolding moment then. Not only was it the case that I could mention exorcism in casual conversation, but a man considerably younger than me knew what it was. Stop and think about that: prior to the movie and novel, The Exorcist, very few modern people even knew about the rite. Strangers on a bus, both artists in their own way, I like to think, knew what this was. I look at my bookmark, some original art with a haiku on it, and think of the many interesting people that make this bus their temporary domicile. Occasionally, amid the snoring phone-movie watchers, is another passenger using the long ride home to open his or her mind. The bookmark is now amid the artifacts of my personal museum. And my words, hardly poetry, are a tribute to those who practice the arts that make us human.
I was recently thinking about King Saul. If it’s been a while for you, Saul was the “first king” of Israel, according to the books of Samuel. Saul had a problem. That problem’s name was David. David was younger, more popular, a gifted musician and lady’s man. In sudden fits of rage Saul tried to kill David, more than once. An unstable man was in charge, but claiming God’s sanction he was safe from any kind of impeachment. In the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be king.” So Israel limped along under weak leadership until Saul got himself killed in battle. I couldn’t help think that this story shows just how relevant the Bible remains today. Mad kings are difficult to displace. They have their fans and, to quote Alfred, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
David’s reign was no picnic either. He had his Bathsheba affair, and was constantly making war as well as love. He pretended to be insane to save himself from Saul, but he was loved by Yahweh and thrived. Oh, and he wrote the book of Psalms. It’s a bit of a shock when this much feted king gives Solomon, his son, his last words. Instead of some pious sentiments or perhaps a last-minute poem, his final instructions are a hit list. “I promised not to kill Shimei, but you made no such promise.” Wink, nod. And Solomon reigned, bragging of groping a thousand women. One of the one percent, he was fabulously wealthy and ultimately couldn’t hold his kingdom together. And none of this is even prophecy!
Why do we put up with mad kings? The world is full of good, and able people. They have a very difficult time getting elected in a democracy. They had trouble even when it was a monarchy. Yes, power corrupts. We know that. Those who are truly mad, however, learn to live by gaming the system. Lies are alternative facts and truth is fake news. Other elected officials, apparently incapable of reading the newspapers, follow the leader. Like lemmings, they ignore the cliff just ahead. Ironically the Bible has a role to play in all this madness. In fact, many people seem to think Israel had a cozy little history. They’re the ones who’ve never read the Good Book. Even during the golden reign of David there were schisms and political murders. All you need to do, however, is say God told you to, and even a madman can become a saint.
If it weren’t for the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the name of Anneliese Michel would undoubtedly be less recognized than it is. Probably the first exorcism movie since The Exorcist to move the genre in a new direction, Emily Rose was based on the real life case of Anneliese Michel. There were significant differences between film and reality, however. Michel was from Bavaria, and she died at the age of 23 rather than being an American teenager like Emily. The story caught media attention because it was discovered that Michel had died after an extensive, months-long exorcism. Charges were made and the priests and Anneliese’s parents were found guilty of negligent homicide. The movie plays the whole thing out in the courtroom with flashbacks of the possession.
The book which led to the film was The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, by Felicitas D. Goodman. Goodman, who died in 2005, was a rare academic who wasn’t afraid to address the supernatural. Trained as a linguist, she had years of anthropological fieldwork experience and a medical background. She was also not dismissive of religious experiences. Naturally, this makes her suspect among academics, but her treatment of Michel’s case is both sympathetic and masterful. After narrating events pieced together from court records, diaries, tapes of the exorcism, and information supplied by some of those involved, she offers her own hypothesis of what actually happened. Anneliese Michel was a religious girl caught up in a religious altered state of consciousness that was treated scientifically by drugs. The result was fatal.
Throughout history, and even today, shamanistic persons exist. Whereas in tribal cultures they tend to become prominent, in the “developed world” they are often quite hidden. They experience what Goodman calls religious states of altered consciousness, and are sometimes misdiagnosed as requiring chemical healing. There have been many thoroughly documented cases where such individuals do “impossible” things. The rationalistic world has no place for them, however, for like capitalism, materialism takes no prisoners. Religion is part of who we are. Human beings do have spiritual needs. Such needs can be placated by other means at times, and we can continue to believe that everything in this universe is made of atoms, or super-strings, or quarks. Or we can perhaps admit that theres’s much we do not know. Goodman admits that her solution is an educated guess, but it does put all the pieces together rather nicely. And she doesn’t declare unilaterally whether demons are physical or not. In the case of Anneliese Michel, however, they were undeniably real.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged alternate states of consciousness, Anneliese Michel, demons, Felicitas D. Goodman, possession, science and religion, The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Exorcist