Evil Origins

I remember well the eerie, uncanny feeling I had as a child reading Genesis 6.1-4.  This wasn’t a story we heard in Sunday School, and it wasn’t in any children’s Bible or Arch Books.  It was mysterious and strange, and not understanding what sex was made it even weirder.  The sons of God, or perhaps angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women.  Although not stated directly, their offspring seem to have been giants.  Abruptly the story ends.  Archie T. Wright was clearly fascinated by this story as well.  His book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature, isn’t so much about demons as it is about the influence of this very brief, extremely odd story.

As a young person I knew about the book 1 Enoch.  Living in a rural town with no bookstore and no library (there was one in the town three miles away, but I didn’t drive and out-of-towners had to pay for a card), I had no way to read it.  Wright writes quite a bit about it here.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, in subsequent years I did read it.)  His history of transmission is a little suspect, but he explores the impact of these four brief verses on what can perhaps best be described as a diegesis.  This universe includes Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch is called The Book of the Watchers), archangels, angels, evil spirits, giants, and demons.  Later Judaism moved away from this world, while early Christianity grew fascinated with it.  The mythology that emerged from it is sprawling and quite bizarre.  All encapsulated in a few verses before the flood.

Wright’s book is academic; it’s a revised dissertation.  Still, it’s a source more credible than a lot of what you find on the internet.  This particular biblical episode is an example of what happens when you don’t explain enough.  Granted, the writer likely had no idea that this brief account—shorter than a blog post—would eventually make it into a book that some people would consider from the anthropomorphic mouth of God himself, but because of this brevity questions, like angels, hung in the air.  As Wright shows, these verses were incorporated into ways of explaining the existence of evil in the world.  It was known by many names, and even took on personification in the form of Satan and his ilk.  This is a world of the unexpected, and it readily took me back to a childhood of wonder concerning the inexplicable passages in the Good Book.

Not from Nazareth

The world just doesn’t feel safe any more.  I’d better give a little context as to why.  You see, I just learned that what I thought was the work of carpenter ants is actually that of carpenter bees.  I never knew such things existed!  This still might not give you the thrills you were hoping for, so here goes a true story: when I was maybe six or seven my mother took my older and younger brother and me to a place in the woods where we could run around and holler and not bother anybody.  We had our dog there too, as well as our grandmother.  After a while my brothers started a game—throwing a stick to see who could get to it first, me or our dog.  I was running along, stepped on a stump, closely followed by the dog, when a swarm of angry yellowjackets flew out.  I was wearing shorts at the time and received multiple stings on my bare legs.  We didn’t think our dog would survive; he was completely covered.  So I have a thing about bees.

My phobia isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I’ve been stung many times since, and it always feels like an insult as well as a bad memory.  (I still don’t wear shorts, except on very rare occasions, when the bee quotient is zero.)  Believing in turning the other cheek, I’ve even captured and released bees from the house rather than killing them.  Still, to this day, when I get a haircut if the woman pulls out a set of clippers you have to pry my fingers from the naugahyde when she’s done.  Anything that sounds like buzzing near my ears sends me into spasms of terror.  Please pardon the graphic fear.  It’s heartfelt.

I used to have nightmares about killer bees.  I still worry about them a lot, and wonder that if, instead of a wall, we might put up a massive, small-weave net this side of Texas.  I don’t know how high they fly, but we should try to do something, don’t you agree?  Now I’ve learned that bees can eat you out of house and home, literally.  The carpenter bee, to the untrained eye, looks like a bumblebee.  They’re big, heavy-bodied insects that can crawl through three-eighth-inch holes, perfectly round the insect guy tells me.  They’ll eat and mate, and release their larva, ready to grow stingers, into the world of my back porch.  They appear to enjoy the global warming, judging by their numbers.  Maybe it’s a good thing we settled not far from Nazareth because a friendly carpenter might soon come in handy.

Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.

Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

Night of the Living

The New Yorker view of the world, so the joke goes, sees the five boroughs in great details, then a very thin New Jersey across the Hudson with a vague California somewhere out west.  Having worked in New York City for nearly a decade now, I know that such a view is exaggerated, but has a small glimmer of the truth.  We can only pay attention to so much and things are constantly coming at you in Gotham.  I sometimes forget, now that I’m in Pennsylvania again, just how diverse my home state is.  I’m not from old Pennsylvania stock—neither of my parents were born here and neither of my mother’s parents were born in the same state she was.  Still, when you’re born in a place it’s natural to feel that’s where you belong.  You inherit the outlook.  I inherited Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a bit unusual in being a commonwealth divided in two by a mountain range.  Laid out with an horizontal orientation, it’s about 280 miles across, and once you’re over the Appalachians, you’re into a different subculture.  On our way into Pittsburgh, signs for Evans City reminded me that among its many contributions to American culture, the Steel City also gave us zombies.  Now from a history of religions point of view, zombies came from Caribbean religions that fused indigenous African beliefs with Catholicism.  A religion that arose among people commodified as slaves.  A zombie was a body with no will.  It took George Romero, living in Pittsburgh, to give us the movie zombie with The Night of the Living Dead.  Pittsburgh, among some, is glad to claim the title of zombie capital of the world.  Its zombie walk is a thing of legend.

Ironically, the western end of the state, beyond the mountains, tends to be more conservative than the side closer to the seaboard.  (Pennsylvania is the only of the original thirteen colonies not to have direct Atlantic Ocean water frontage.)  Yet it has adopted the most egalitarian of monsters—the living dead.  Romero tapped into the universal fear of unsettled death to make what were later to appear as “zombies” the unnamed monsters of his most famous film.  Everyone has to die, and no matter our religious outlook (or lack thereof) the question of what comes after is asked on both sides of the Appalachians.  And even by those across the Hudson in New York City.  There may be even something between the two.

Iron Ages

I find myself in Pittsburgh again.  We set out from the former steel city of Bethlehem and ended up in the former steel city on the other side of the state.  I’m not here for the metal, of course, but to visit family.  Making our way over the great eroded spine of the ancient Appalachians, I was thinking of how cities often take on the identity of their industries.  Pittsburgh and Bethlehem vied with each other for their facility with unyielding iron—one of the technologies so important to human history that we still use the Iron Age as a marker of advancing technology.  Pittsburgh’s now a tech city, much reduced in size from its heyday when only fifteen cities in the country were larger.  Bethlehem, it seems, is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Back in college, I used to work in a church in the south hills.  I haven’t been to Windover Hills United Methodist Church since those days.  I was weighing my future then, deciding to attend Boston University School of Theology—the seminary the pastor had attended—and exposing myself to liberal thinking rather than more of the conservative milquetoast that was mistaken for milk and honey at Grove City College.  The memories that attended the drive were powerful and poignant.  I only lived in Pittsburgh two summers—the second working as a bagger at a grocery store (I should’ve known then where a college degree in religious studies might lead, even if summa cum laude).  As iron sharpens iron, so the Good Book says.

Recently I tried to recall all the addresses at which I’ve lived.  This seems particularly important because many of the buildings no longer stand and I greatly fear being erased.  Those of us who write often do.  I can recall the cities and even a few of the streets.  Numbers often escape me, for they seem to be mere place holders.  My days in Pittsburgh were decades ago, when life was really only just beginning.  Now I drive these hills with memories my only maps, wondering if I can find the place I’m seeking.  This place is part of me, even as Bethlehem is now becoming such a piece.  Cities change depending on the laws of supply and demand that can, as we know, even break iron.  And those of us who live in such places know that any industry is subject to memory, whether of God or of steel.