Monthly Archives: June 2018

Let the Sunshine in

The earliest sunrise does not occur on the longest day. At least not at this latitude—I can’t speak for the entire world, but sunrise lags behind the latest sunset by a few days. In Germany the longest day was January 30, 1933. It seems that the Nazi Party did not win the majority, but Hitler was made chancellor anyway. All he wanted to do was to make Germany great again, right? No matter who it hurt. When Americans, who sacrificed thousands of souls, found the concentration camps they swore it would never happen again. That was, however, before Donald Trump was born. Indeed, those seeking the transmigration of souls might wonder where he’d been wondering for the previous thirteen months. There’s some cryptic stuff happening here.

How can it be that sunrise isn’t earliest on the longest day? Back in the days when science mattered, it was simply explained: the number of minutes the sun is in the sky maxes out on the summer solstice. Sunrise can keep getting earlier for a few more days, but so will sunset. The longest day, in the biblical world, was when Joshua was fighting at Makkedah. The slaughter was going so well that the big white guy upstairs (oh no, he’s not Jewish, you see) reached out and held the sun in place for another 24 hours so it could continue. That, you see, is the longest day. Not exactly sand chairs and sunscreen, although the latter might’ve been awfully useful.

Although in modern times the solstice is known as the first day of summer, in olden times it was considered midsummer. The solstices and equinoxes were the midpoints, not the start of something. Such a perspective can make a world of difference. June, it is said, is named for Juno, the pagan wife of Jupiter. The constantly cuckolded goddess of marriage. Only we call her long-suffering, since stormy weather should be over by June, shouldn’t it? With enough lawyers even sin can be made to sound righteous, for longest day brings everything out into the light otherwise. The longest day, you see, can be fake news. Around here the sun will rise still earlier tomorrow. Experts—those we no longer believe—tell us that the solstice was yesterday. And yet, what is that orange thing arising in the east so early in the morning? Don’t be fooled; the longest day is over.

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Ezekiel’s Nightmare

I’m still thinking about Ruby Ridge. It’s not unusual for me to be a bit late catching up on yesteryear’s news, but being alive during Trumpocalypse has made me think of the 1990s as the good old days. Jess Walter’s book on the topic, on which I posted a few days ago (just scroll down), ends with a kind of optimism that seemed possible even when George W. Bush was president—the number of white supremacist groups was shrinking radically. Americans didn’t put up with that kind of backward thinking any more. The future was ahead. Now, just about a decade-and-a-half after the book was reissued, we’ve got not only a racist commandant-in-chief, but a Republican congress who goes along with everything he says. Strangely enough, I just read a newspaper article with a Jewish Republican saying “diversity is crap” (his words). No question we’re going backwards.

It’s easy enough to dismiss extremists unless you know some. I attended a conservative Christian college in the early 1980s. There were survivalists on the faculty. These are evangelical Christians who hoard guns and supplies, generally because they believe the end of the world is coming. Ironically, their belief in the rapture doesn’t seem to assure them that they’ll be “taken up” before the trouble starts. Or maybe they just want to hang around for a piece of the action—shooting infidels must earn points with the big white guy upstairs. Most of my classmates were as appalled as I was. We agreed that if these were the kind of people who were going to be around after the smoke cleared, we didn’t want to be.

The most disturbing development since November 2016 is the move of the GOP to follow a blind leader. History will bear me out on this. It doesn’t take a prophet to see it. 45 had no plan for winning the race. Once he did, however, he knew that sheep will follow any shepherd, no matter how incompetent. All you need to do is spout racist rhetoric and the fringe will become the center. But the GOP? They are among the most sheepish of all ungulates. A “leader of the free world” who has nothing but praise for dictators and autocrats around the world? The Republican has proven to be the perfect unquestioning follower. The wool is in their heads rather than on their backs. Less than two decades ago Timothy McVeigh was executed. Today there’s no doubt he’d be under consideration for a cabinet post. I think my watch just stopped.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

The Pack

Maturity, in my experience, means knowing little and assuming even less. When I was young I grew up on a diet of books that were linear—plots were easily followed and there was clear resolution at the end. Who, as a kid, thinks that such a standard is impossible? One of this year’s reading challenges was a book nominated for an award in 2018. That assures a pretty current book, and I chose Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. Like life, it’s not linear. The narrator is unreliable. There are a lot of threads left hanging. It’s also a completely mesmerizing story. I selected it not because the content deals to a large extent with religion—I had no idea that it did when I selected the book, but, given what I do on this blog it was definitely a bonus.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here since this is a novel well worth reading. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can convey accurately what it was like to be a teenager. A time of awkward discovery when we learn that things weren’t what we thought. Linda, the narrator, has been raised in a religious commune in the northern Minnesota woods. When a Christian Scientist couple moves into a cabin not too far away, she becomes a trusted “governess” for their young, sickly son. Unable, for religious reasons, to admit their son’s illness, they entrust him to Linda’s care. She comes to know each person in a unique way and learns that even adults don’t have the answers.

An interesting conceit for a story—one minority religion learning about another—the book ranges wide and far from that. Life as a teenager is when one typically both needs and rebels against religion. The awakening of adolescence, something our psyches aren’t equipped to comprehend much before this time, throws everything into confusion. History of Wolves won’t lead to any answers, but it is a useful discussion partner to have along the way. The Christian Scientists I’ve known have to face some of the same issues raised in this tale. Ironically, the advance of science has hit this group particularly hard. Novels such as this demonstrate that we, as a species, still turn to religion to explain our world. We’re frequently told that it’s safe to ignore—it’s from the childhood of our evolution. I wonder, however, whether Homo sapiens have just begun to reach adolescence and we are just starting to learn what it means to be adults in a world we don’t understand.

Cult of Paris

The cult of celebrity is dangerous. The results of both biological and psychological sciences inform us that mammals, especially primates, hold “alpha” individuals in awe. We don’t know what quality makes them irresistible to some, but in the case of humans before you know it everyone is talking about this Kardashian or that Trump. Valorizing the power of media as we do, those who appear ubiquitously on screen gain in magnitude merely by the attention paid to them. Others have vetted the details, and those who are deemed important enough for constant, widespread television exposure are worthy of our worship. Most of the time it seems banal, harmless. But when those without scruples are willing to exploit it, it is dangerous.

Paris rejecting the cult of celebrity

For example, the other day my wife and I rewatched An American in Paris. I know my wife likes the movie, but when it was over I couldn’t help noting that Jerry Mulligan chauvinistically claims his right to a woman he’s just met, and who is, moreover, engaged to a friend of his who had just lent him money. The fact that he doesn’t know about the engagement is no excuse. Lise tells him “No,” and when she gives him a false telephone number he doesn’t take the hint that she doesn’t want him to call her. He stalks her in a selfish and predatory way. Only because she laughs at his antics with some perfume bottles does she agree to meet with him later. He takes advantage of another woman who clearly has feelings for him and who sponsors him, using her money but not reciprocating her feelings. He’s aggressive and eavesdrops to get Lise’s name. He lies to her and about her (saying he knows her so her friends don’t object) and refuses to take no for an answer. Laying out my grievances, my wife politely listened and then said, “But it’s Gene Kelly.”

Like many people, I was jilted a time or two when I was younger. Losing out to a rival lover leaves a lasting scar. How can we hope that on New Year’s Eve Lise will leave Henri for the interloper Jerry? But it’s Gene Kelly. The cult of celebrity allows those on various pedestals to get away with many things. Trump was likely correct in saying he could stand in the middle of a crowded street and shoot someone and his base would not object. The cult of celebrity ’sn’twonderful, ‘sdangerous.

For It Is Written

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” William Shakespeare wrote in his controversial Merchant of Venice. He was, in fact, using the Bible as the basis for this line. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness famously has Satan quoting the Good Book at him. It comes as no surprise, then, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, following Jeff Sessions, uses the Bible to justify cruel and unusual practices of the Trump administration, according to a story in multiple media outlets. Trump himself doesn’t know the Bible well enough to quote it, but his minions feel that it can be summarized in one principle—obey the government. Oh, hi, Mr. Orwell, please take a seat over there; I’ll be with you in a minute.

Back in the days before leopards could change their spots, evangelical Christians tended to say that Jesus came to free them from the law. It seems that what they really meant was that Jesus came to allow them to cherry-pick the parts of the law that make the best cudgels against those they don’t like. Those who actually read the Bible know that it can generally be used to support either side of most arguments. Ironically, matters such as adultery *ahem, ah, Ms. Daniels, we weren’t expecting you here; please wait next to Mr. Orwell* are non-negotiable. Even Jesus said so. But let’s not talk about that—we’re too busy trying to pry children from their mother’s arms. Doesn’t the Bible say Rachel can’t be consoled because she’s lost her children?

That which is most holy is most horrible when it’s profaned. The Bible can hardly be called “holy” when found in the mouth of habitual liars. If Jesus were a gentile I’m sure he’d agree that whites have the right to do whatever they want in his name, right? Separating families because it’s the law is robbing Peter to pay Paul, then blaming Thomas. Sanders, Sessions, and their ilk pander to the biblically illiterate who like the sound of the phrase, “the Bible says.” Prooftexting, as anyone who takes the Bible seriously learns the first day of class, is cheating. Ah, Rev. Luther—I didn’t see you come in. What’s that you say? “Sin boldly”? Now there’s a message our government can live with. Especially if you let the Devil into the room. Yes, he’s welcome at the White House these days. And yes, he knows the Bible very well.