Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

Come Salem Away

It’s the season.  Here in the fast waning days of September we can already taste October and thoughts turn toward ghosties and ghoulies and their kin.  Susan Fair’s American Witches: A Broomstick Tour through Four Centuries is, as any book in the nation of Salem, a mere skeleton crew of a long and feared tradition.  As is true of most things in the last two years, this book takes on a poignancy that was perhaps unintentional since it was written for fun.  It is a somewhat uncanny combination as it is—witch accusations often led to (and perhaps lead to, far from official eyes) someone dying.  We fear witches.  Fair reaches back pretty far, going even to the point of discussing those (generally women) hanged on ships on their way to America because their shipmates thought them witches.

Salem so dominates our witch consciousness that we sometimes forget these other episodes.  Fair explores, along with snarky asides, many early cases outside Salem.  In fact, the sad chapter in our history where hearsay became fact—one can’t help but think of “fake news”—the mass, “legal” murders carried out in Salem, is part of a larger pattern.  Not surprisingly women feature as the victims in this unholy web of fear and piety.  The combination is a dangerous one and otherwise rational people sanction evil rather than confront what is a mere perception of evil.  Fair moves on, however, to discuss other witchcraft scenarios—the witches (fortune tellers) of New York, the murder of a “witch” in Booger Hole, West Virginia (did I mention there was snark?), and the hex murder of York, Pennsylvania.  All of these represent an underlying fear that won’t go away.

This breezy tour ends near the author’s hometown outside Burkittsville, Maryland.  Although it is widely known that The Blair Witch Project was fiction from start to finish, this tiny town has been beset by those who refuse to accept that reality.  Such credulousness should stand as a warning to a country even capable of electing someone like Trump.  We are a suggestible nation with many people incapable of independent thought.  We are natural believers.  At the same time we’re a people that sees no value in studying religion even as it destroys us.  It’s like that embarrassing relative we never talk about.  But people still come to Burkittsville nevertheless.  Fair’s book was written before the election that showed who we really are.  Although the writing is charming, it’s hard to laugh about the subject these days.  We have forgotten Salem and all it taught us.

Express

Full sentences.  They’re underrated.  If, like me, you receive many tersely-worded emails—an inevitable result of the txt generation—you make know that disoriented feeling of not knowing what’s being said.  Sure, in caveman grunt style, you get the gist, but what of the tone, the context, or the art of polite human conversation?  Some colleagues think me quaint for beginning each email with a greeting, followed by a body, and a closing.  I try to articulate the purpose of my communication using full sentences, often explaining why I’m asking.  Sometimes I ask questions.  Sometimes multiple questions.  When I get an answer answer stating just “Yes” am I to assume that’s to all of the questions?  What if one of them didn’t accept a “yes or no” answer?

Scientists often suggest that it’s our ability to communicate vocally that set us on a different evolutionary track from other animals.  Our large brains, we’re told, were to accommodate the complexities of speech and the abstract thought that followed it.  Seems a pity that now that we communicate constantly we seem to have lost the ability.  Well, not so much lost it as have allowed ourselves to be completely distracted.  I get busyness.  There are times when new emails arrive every few seconds and everyone wants an answer.  At those times I try to envision the half glasses and green eyeshades of a telegraph operator.  Dots and dashes and a good deal of waiting and still business got done.  And I wonder what this cryptic email before me, not even a full sentence, was meant to convey.

Cave-dwellers, I imagine, had some pretty vital information to communicate.  Things like, “I just saw a cave-bear go in there, I’d avoid that place if I were you,” or “Do you think that saber-tooth cat looks hungry?”  The more precision they could put on their grunts the better advantage they would have.  Syntax wasn’t invented for the fun of it.  And yet, here we are.  No time.  Full sentences might serve to avoid confusion and mistakes.  None of us would have these jobs had we not the ability to communicate.  Would you apply for a job using anything less than full sentences?  In our rush to be more efficient we create situations where more information will be required further down the line.  A pity.  If we’d only take the time.  You know.

Riveting

The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.  One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.  Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.  Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.  These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.  Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.

One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.  A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.  (These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)  Something about this painting always bothered me.  I could never put my finger on it.  It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.  Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.  No, it was her posture.  There was something uncanny about it.  Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.  Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.  I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.  Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.  She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.  Why?  The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.

Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.

Forgotten Bible Verses

Bible believers are basking in the headlines these days.  What with Mr. “Meet My Genitals” gunning for the Supreme Court and displacing them for a few days, they must be getting anxious for more sonburn in the limelight.  If only they didn’t have the Good Book standing in the way.  As I was reading my Bible the other day, I was reminded of this little gem, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Now, liberals like myself know that Paul of Tarsus didn’t write 1 Timothy, but Bible-believers know he did.  So much the worse for them.  They elected a president who stands for nothing so much as the love of money, and the swamp has become quite a root of evil.  Senate Republicans, after hearing a second credible sexual assault allegation against their boy for the black bench responded by trying to rush through a vote before the news got out.  And this reminded me of the forgotten prophets.

“What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  Well, you see, Mr. Micah, we know we’re heading to defeat in the midterms, so we’ve got to railroad through as many of our personal agendas as we can.  Don’t you know, o Lord, that this is a lifetime appointment?  And really, what does justice have to do with it?  Sure, he gropes and demeans women, but you’re a dude, right?  I bet you did the same when you were in high school and college.  And the money thing?  We’re only trying to help the economy because, well, wealth trickles down.  Who said anything like it’s the root of all evil?  “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate.”  Now, don’t go quoting Mr. Amos to me.  Next thing I know you’ll be telling me to let justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Forgotten Bible verses, in the new Evangelicalism, seem to be cropping up on the black market.  You might think we should turn back to the start of the Good Book and read from the beginning.  There the GOP will find its solace until they come to the 27th verse, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  That semicolon says a lot; they will claim.  Man is the image of God, and he had a son.  Just don’t listen too closely to what that son says, particularly when he makes remarks like “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”  Young men like to drink and grope.  When they grow old they then like to be Supreme Court justices.  What’s that?  One more short verse?  “Jesus wept.”

Banned Wagon

In celebration of Banned Book Week (go ahead, let your hair down!), I thought I might muse about some good news.  Since I already posted on my banned book (Slaughterhouse Five) I need another angle of approach.  One of the less envious aspects of being an editor at an academic press is being yoked to facts.  Many authors have a basic misconception about numbers in their heads.  They think their book will sell on the scale that Barnes and Noble, such as it is, will stock them on the shelves.  I have to admit that I dream of walking into a bookstore and finding one of my titles on the shelf—and I know it’s not likely to happen.  Those of us who work in publishing see the hard figures, how many copies have actually sold.  And the results can be quite sobering.

The news isn’t all bad, though.  I ran across an article by Andrew Perrin titled “Who doesn’t read books in America?” and the way the question was phrased made me think.  I’m used to thinking of it the other way around: how many people read, or buy, books?  I once read that about 5% of the US population constitutes the book-buying market.  Now, that is a large number of people, even if it’s on the smaller end of the overall spectrum, but Perrin’s article from the Pew Research Center states that only 24% of Americans state they haven’t read a book, whole or in-part, over the past year.  This, I think, is cause for celebration.  It means more of us are reading than are not, even if we don’t always finish the books we’ve started.

Think of it like this: whether print or electronic, people know to turn to books for information.  Oh, there are all kinds of details I’m leaving out here—the safeguards of a reputable publisher over the self-published manifesto, as well as the self-published brilliant book over what managed to squeak through the review process at a university press because an editor felt the pressure of a quota—but the numbers are encouraging nevertheless.  Looked at this way, more people are reading than are not.  And the best way to promote books is to suggest they should be banned.  That’s why I don’t despair of the shallow books praising Trump—if they’re banned they become prophetic.  Academic books, my colleagues, don’t sell as many copies as you might think, even if they’re not banned.  The good news is, however, that we haven’t forgotten whence to turn for knowledge.

Whelmed Over

I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task.  You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none.  Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count.  One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair.  Now I live in a region with many bookstores.  I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability.  It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish.  I’m not complaining, you understand.  I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed.  That, and Banned Books Week.

I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem.  Twice already.  But there are many more within an easy drive from here.  “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge.  Home owning is expensive.  There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all.  And time for reading is scarce.  Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows.  You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult.  They are few and far between.  It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.

My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey.  They were looking for new owners.  We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing.  Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard.  The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing.  (You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books.  Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.)  To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance.  As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying.  After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.

All Things Being Equinox

The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox.  Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May.  Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night.  My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch.  We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror.  I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script.  This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner.  After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible.  He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.

When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself.  Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them?  Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)?  I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis.  Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project.  There was the Bible.  The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky.  The Birds has the Bible.  Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating.  But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror.  That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.

Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth.  Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack).  My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light.  In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.”  We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening.  Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies.  I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew.  The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness.  Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection.  It just has to be dark for you to see it.

Just the Fax

Like most people I have a cell phone.  If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap.  It works that way with scanned documents as well.  Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it.  Except fax.  That I cannot do.  The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax.  Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation.  The company had no email; it had to come by fax.

Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home.  We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work.  The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent.  I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax.  You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring.  They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said.  Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax.  I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps.  They suspiciously wanted my credit card info.  Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal.  I had to send a three-page document.  I checked to see if my laptop could do it.  The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear.  Who insists on faxes any more?

This is the dilemma of mixed technologies.  It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian.  My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax).  Ours is a telephone relationship.  Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap.  I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets.  This was in the days before the internet.  To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly.  Yet somehow we survived.  I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign.  The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives.  Unless, of course, you need to send a fax.  Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.

Capital Idea

Capitalism encourages a kind of racketeering among businesses, in my experience.  Take the case of utility companies after a move.  To date I have received well over a thousand dollars in bills for services not rendered.  These bills were from utility companies claiming that I owed them final amounts for bills that had been paid in full, on time, for over twelve years.  I should, it seems, be able to bill them for my time on the telephone setting their records straight.  The “final bill” is a racket.  And it is deployed just after a customer, formerly a “valued customer,” has entered into new financial obligations—moving is not cheap!  Most of these bills are for multiple hundreds of dollars for services, that when I used them, were generally billed at a mere fraction of that amount.

Corporations, according to the law, are people.  And like people, they are exceptionally greedy.  Just yesterday I received a bill from a heating oil company—which shall remain nameless for the moment—stating that I owed a multi-hundred dollar final balance.  I had notified them in April that we would be moving and that I had paid their final bill and no more deliveries should be made.  None were.  Fully five months later I receive a “final bill” politely reminding of an outstanding balance.  For what?  Heating oil delivered in July?  Have I suddenly switched hemispheres or is this some kind of racket?

Come to think of it, while unpacking I came across a budget book.  My accounting is pretty much in the range of horseshoes and hand-grenades—I know the regular bills and can guess how much they are likely to be.  I’ve got other things on my mind besides money.  The budget book had never been used.  Budgets, to my understanding, project a stable world.  That’s not like the capitalist world.  When we bought the budget book, some 30 years ago, could we have projected monthly expenses for the privileges of using an internet that at that time didn’t even exist?  Capitalism is creative in finding new things to make you pay for, even if they are only virtually real.  Like heating oil that was never pumped off the truck.  It’s always your word against theirs, and corporations are bullies, being bigger than regular people.  So I sit here with a blank budget book and a stack of “final bills” for things never delivered.  And I think to myself, what a crooked world.

Free Reading

I think I was driving through Montclair, New Jersey when I first noticed one.  A “little free library” in someone’s front yard.  Then I began to notice them around elsewhere.  Neat little outdoor kiosks filled with books.  Despite my love of literacy I’m not inclined to take books from such places.  For one thing my reading tastes are odd, and for another I want other people to catch the interest in reading.  And “free” is a great motivator.  The idea is simple: set up a little free library on your property, seed it with books, and watch it work.  People are encouraged to take what’s there for free.  And leave books they want to donate, if so inclined.  Now that we’re in Pennsylvania we discovered one in a nearby park.  A community feels more homey with books.

Searching for the concept online, I came to LittleFreeLibrary.org.  I’m not sure if they started the trend, but it provides the basic idea.  They even have plans for how to build your own and get your neighborhood reading.  If anyone wants a clue for making America great, here’s a free hint: it will involve books.  They’re a commodity unlike any other.  Mass-produced (often too enthusiastically so) they are generally inexpensive and can be used over and over again.  One of the biggest headaches for publishers is the used book market—since a book is a handful of ideas, once they’re released they’re difficult to control.  They can be sold again for less than market value, and yes, even given away.  Those who read see the value in giveaways, even if there’s no personal profit in it.

Early in our tenure here we decided to take a book to donate each time we go to the park.  Sometimes we forget, of course.  Our first donation was there for two weeks, but then found a new home.  A strange kind of joy accompanied finding the book gone.  Perhaps we’d done some good simply by opening a door and leaving something we were no longer using.  Then something unexpected happened—I saw a book from my reading list in the local.  Should I take it?  I have a list of books to seek in used bookstores, for, to the chagrin of my own industry, I participate in the used book market.  I had been looking for this tome for a few years, reluctant to pay full market value since it has been around since the sixties.  In the end I couldn’t resist.  Next week, I told myself, I’ll take two books to give back.  Literacy’s that way—it’s something even introverts can share.

Taking Turns

“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang.  “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon.  Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.”  The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained.  The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge.  It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning.  Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay.  At least until academia takes another turn.  Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say.  And academics are capital imitators.

Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies.  This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs.  Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way.  At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.”  The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in.  The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet.  There’s no need for any divine character or intervention.  There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.

I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn.  To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value.  I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we.  The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited.  We can’t touch naked reality even if we try.  Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling.  It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit.  Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn.  Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

Binaries

Inside, outside, upside-down.  The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries.  Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes.  Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all.  Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world.  Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between.  And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.

Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life.  While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me.  Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing.  The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism.  Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside.  I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here.  “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them.  Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them.  Methodists and Presbyterians too.  They tend to conform a bit to expectations and  tend not to be extremist about things.  Being mainstream will do that to you.

It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions.  Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers.  Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside.  Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it.  I grew up Fundamentalist.  After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside.  When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point.  Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had.  Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion.  Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside.  You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.