Monthly Archives: April 2018

Defining Evangelicals

Like most Americans I have trouble getting over the button-down image of Evangelicals that has now become so distinctive. In reality Evangelicalism has nothing to do with Jesus, but it comes down to basically two things: a conservative haircut and belief in the superiority of males. The latter point is made by Rodney Hessinger and Kristen Toby in an opinion piece on Cleveland.com. Asking the question that’s on all logical minds—how can Evangelicals stand by a president who credibly cheated on his wife just after their child was born?—they come to the conclusion that patriarchy trumps all forms of righteousness. I know this from sad personal experience. The Bible, Evangelicals claim, gives men the headship of the household. They may sin, yes, but even with that their lordship must remain intact. That is the non-negotiable fact of Evangelicalism.

I was a teenage Evangelical. I grew up in a household where my mother refused to divorce her alcoholic husband because it was against Evangelical teaching. Sexual sins were well nigh unforgivable. In fact, adultery, of which 45 has credibly been accused, was a death-penalty offense according to the Good Book. About the only thing worse than sexual sins way lying. I can’t believe I’m getting old school on Evangelicalism, but I have to say Fundamentalism isn’t what it used to be. In college I knew people who believed we should reinstitute stoning for adultery. Instead we now use it as an excuse to elect unqualified presidents. And yes, we’d like to keep the brand, thank you. Commandments have now become negotiable.

Our society is very sick. Unlike the narrative Evangelicals weave, the illness is within them. Divorce rates are higher among Evangelicals than among atheists. Evangelicals are more likely to own guns than Unitarians. Evangelicals will lie more readily than any agnostic. Some of the more extreme want to reintroduce slavery. Through it all they claim to follow the Bible. Their support of Trump has given the lie to what they claim as a religious faith. Even Jesus, meek and mild, had harsh words to say about adultery. This is something you just don’t do. Promise your faith to one woman until a porn star comes to play at your resort—I don’t recall that being in Scripture anywhere. Evangelicalism hasn’t lost its soul, it’s lost its mind. Given what they’re doing in his name, Jesus must be rolling over in his grave.

Zombie Wars

I suppose, rationally considered, most monsters can’t possibly exist. Maybe that’s the psychological relief required to enjoy the movies made about them. We can imagine the thrill, but we know we’re safe once we leave the theater. Culturally, monsters fight for supremacy. The early 2000s belonged to the vampire. They were everywhere. I once heard a literary agent advise wannabe authors to write on vampires since the publishing industry was showing no signs of slowing down on them. Then came the zombies. They’re still with us. World War Z came to my attention as a movie, but as one I never saw. I’ve watched many zombie films and none has lived up to the status of the spectacle that launched the genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It remains a classic to this day. Still, I was curious and so I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Let alone the chapter after chapter of tough-talking, cool-sounding reminiscers, I have trouble buying zombies. Yes, I get the scare factor, but maybe I’ve read too much science even to visualize myself into a fantasy world where a creature with no digestive system would be driven to eat. It just makes no sense. Human bodies can function with missing parts, of course, but without the integration of muscles, ligaments, digestion, and brain, it seems difficult to accept that they’d keep coming after you when they’ve been decaying for years. It’s all I can do to get out of bed most mornings, even as a healthy, living body. Analysts, I know, talk about zombies as metaphors, but with over 300 pages of stories in no way believable, I had to wonder about the limits of credulity. Maybe Carl Sagan was right after all.

I hope I’m not unsophisticated enough not to realize that the real point in Brooks’ novel is how the surviving humans treat each other. There is a moral to the story. We develop new and “better” weapons to kill one another. We’re smart enough to have world peace and prosperity, but wars are constantly erupting. We have a nation with many brilliant people and yet we elect a Trump. Self-destruction, it seems, is written into our genes. We consume one another. Even when the enemy is completely imaginary we find ways of believing. So I read World War Z, appreciating the irony. I still can’t get over, however, the trope that all you need is a human brain to want to destroy others.

Indie Bookstore Day

Although a year can seem like a long sentence, holidays are the punctuation marks that help us make sense of and organize it. Ordinary time, such as time at work, or commuting, can be endlessly tedious. Holidays, some personal, some local, others national or international, help us break up the time. Give us something to look forward to. My pity goes out to those religions that recognize no holidays and face time with a grim, Presbyterian determination to get to judgment day. The rest of us like to celebrate once in a while. So what’s today? It’s Independent Bookstore Day! Anyone who reads more than a post or two on this blog knows that I’m a lover of books. I first started taking solace in reading when things were difficult in my younger years, and reading has never let me down. In fact, I’ve often told myself that I could put up with just about any job as long as I could write.

It’s because of being in publishing that I learned about Independent Bookstore Day. Yes, it’s a promotional holiday, but it’s also a genuine celebration. As the outside world daily reminds us, those of us who read are a minority. The realistic author knows that the reading public is a small fraction of the whole. The number of people, percentage-wise, who spend their money on books is minuscule compared to those who fling their lucre elsewhere. But those of us who read appreciate the depth and reflection of each other. We may read different things, but we read. And that’s why I don’t mind going to an indie bookstore today and buying something.

One of the simple pleasures in life—call it a punctuation mark, a comma maybe—is being surrounded by unfamiliar books. Oh, I often worry what happens when we decide to move; we have lots of books at home. The last time the movers actually complained in our hearing that we had too many boxes of books. Talk about me at the bar afterwards, but don’t castigate my simple pleasures to my face, please. Books are the rare opportunity to commune with others on a deep level. How often have you put down a book and felt that you knew the author? Their soul was revealed in their writing and you had touched it. Just being in a bookstore is cause for celebration. If you have no plans for today, why not make your way to your local indie? Stand up and be counted as the literate resistance. It’s our silent Bastille Day, after all.

Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.

Watching Research

Now that Holy Horror’s been announced, I’m at work on my next book based on horror movies. Although some people might question the aesthetic of the horror genre, these films are sometimes remarkably intelligent and can indeed be good cinema. Having spent the better part of last weekend watching multiple flicks, however, I’ve come to realize that watching films for research is quite different than viewing them for fun. We all know the feeling of going to the theater to be exposed to the mythology of the present day; movies are the new mythology and are a common source of meaning and hope for individuals in a post-religion era. We go for the spectacle and the story. We leave, if the movie is good, with a renewed sense of purpose, or in a thoughtful state. That’s what mythology does.

In writing up my analyses of many films, I’ve noticed how little the detail is generally acknowledged in many synopses. They can make a flick seem banal. I’ve even had very intelligent people ask me why I think watching movies should be considered intellectual exercises. One reason for this, at least in my experience, is how often people rely on what they see in movies to inform them of important things. Historical events, for example. For the average person, an historical recreation on celluloid can provide recall better than a detail from some 400-page tome on the topic. Human beings are visually oriented by nature and evolution. It takes us years to learn how to read, and if we don’t keep up with the practice our ability to comprehend advanced writing atrophies. It’s easier to watch a film.

No doubt movie scripts are available for purchase. To get the message of a film, however, you need to watch. Immerse yourself in a kind of flickering light baptism. Research watching, however, involves multiple viewings. Taking notes. Watching again to make sure you got that detail correct. Some may doubt that this is an intellectual exercise at all. Still, one of the concerns that some scholars feel is that we’ve lost touch with what hoi polloi believe. People have turned to mythology from the beginning of time in the quest for meaning. Science tells us how the world works, but not why. For such questions we need our mythologies, ancient and modern. Since Nightmares with the Bible focuses on demons, I’ve had to construct a cinematic demonology that’s quite different from those of the Middle Ages. It requires, after all, a modern research method for a modern mythology. And movie watching. Lots of movie watching.

Kakistocracy

While in seminary I had the interesting job of teaching a visually impaired student Greek. This wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of my professors since, as an undergraduate I had exhausted the Greek curriculum at Grove City College and my fourth year the professor suggested I teach the course to the second years. This was, however, strictly koiné—I’ve always been from the lower class echelons. Trying to figure out how to explain a dead language to a student who couldn’t see required some creativity. At that point in my life ministry loomed as a career and it was still fairly easy to learn new languages. I was studying Hebrew at the time with the inimitable William Holladay at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, both of which are now gone.

I recently ran across a story in the Washington Post that utilized an unfamiliar word based on Greek: kakistocracy. It seems that the present administration has officials scrambling for new words to describe the depths to which our government is willing to sink. There’s an old saying: “the Greeks have a word for it”—I suspect the ancients would be shocked to see this particular word emerging again after centuries of progress. The translation of kakistocracy is quite logical for those with some Hellenistic training; it means “rule by the worst.” The sad thing is that democracy has come to this. Anyone with a fragment of a brain stem could see that 45 didn’t win the election in any sense but an electoral college one—giving us a new direction to sling the related word “kaka” around. It was the fact that those privileged to vote simply didn’t get around to it. As it was, the “incumbent” lost by three million votes. Nobody, however, is willing to do anything about it. It’s kaka.

If the swamp has been drained, it’s been to become a cesspool. With complete disregard for decency, decorum, and democracy, the directives issuing from the potty mouth on Pennsylvania Avenue demonstrate just how diabolical government can become. The sad thing is, the Greeks already had a word for it. One thing we know about our species is that we like to repeat our worst moments over and over again. Even worse, we seem to be proud of it. So as the kakistocracy grows to include porn stars, genital grabbing, and treasonous relations with foreign nations, the world looks in wonder and concludes people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had gotten it wrong after all. At least the student I was tutoring, although she couldn’t see, wanted to learn to read. And that made all the difference.

Candles vs Demons

Among scientists who write Carl Sagan has always struck me as one of the more open minded. Dedicated to the scientific method, he nonetheless admits that there are some things scientists don’t know. The last time I was in Ithaca, therefore, I picked up a copy of his tour de force, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I’ve been researching demons and I supposed they would be addressed in his book, since they feature in the title. Although that is indeed the case, the book is a collection of essays vindicating in various ways the practice and teaching of science. It is quite a scary book. It was also Sagan’s final book published in his lifetime.

Reading this just after Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Explains Demons, noteworthy for its credulousness, The Demon-Haunted World was like whiplash into reality. Back into the realm of observable facts and testable hypotheses, it was indeed like a candle in the dark. Sagan admits that science can’t speak definitively on the supernatural—something that sets him apart from other science writers—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scientific thinking anywhere it’s appropriate. And that includes the universe of politics. Published some two decades before the rise of Trump, the book is surprisingly prophetic when it points to the possibility of the rise of fascism in a nation that distrusts science. Indeed, the book shows Sagan clearly worried that an authoritarian, totalitarian government was on the rise. It’s almost preternatural in its accuracy.

The tome is large enough to dissuade a full summary within the word-limits I set for myself on these daily posts, but I can say that this book is necessary now more than ever. Sagan was a celebrity in his lifetime, a “rock star” scientist. Even so he worried about the deplorable state of science understanding among political leaders he met. For many years America has been mired in conservative causes that distrust science implicitly. Another strain that runs throughout this book is the need for education. Not only has America catered to anti-science groups, it has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in science education. Those who claim to make America great again can’t see that their very tactics have made our nation fall behind the rest of the world when it comes to education, across the board. Surely Sagan was right that a good grounding in scientific thinking is the equivalent of lighting a candle. As for the rest of the country it has been getting darker and darker, and our “leaders” have no idea even how to strike a match.