The Price of Writing

Academic writing strives to remove personality from your work.  It can be soul-crushing.  I remember well when my daughter—a talented writer—came home in sixth grade with a note from her teacher.  An otherwise ideal student, she was writing her science projects with *gasp* her own voice!  Mr. Hydrogen and how he joins Mr. Oxygen—that sort of thing.  Granted, it would never be published in a scientific journal, but it was a personalized expression that demonstrated an understanding of the concepts.  Having been the recipient of an old school education, I also learned that academic writing should lack personality.  Those who’ve bothered to read my academic papers, however, may have noted that I don’t always obey the rules.  Subtle bits (very small, I’ll allow) crept in amid the erudition.  And now I find myself wishing I’d persisted a bit more.

Pure objectivity, anyone living in a post-modern world knows, is a chimera.  It doesn’t really exist.  We all have points of view, whether they eschew adjectives or not.  I still write fiction, but since my publication history has been “academic” I indulge in it while trying to break through where someone’s voice isn’t a detriment.  I’ve been reading non-fiction by younger women writers and one of the things I’m finally catching onto is that your own voice shouldn’t be the enemy.  It may be so for most publishing houses, but I’m wondering at what cost.  So many ideas, just as valid as any staid publication, never see the light of day beyond some editor’s desk.  That’s not to suggest that anyone can write—I’ve read far too many student papers to believe that—but that those who can ought not be shackled by convention.  If only I could get an agent who believes that!

Holy Horror isn’t exactly flying off the press, but it does represent a kind of hybrid.  It’s transitioning to a kind of writing that allows some personality onto the page (yes, I’m old enough to still believe in pages).  A now departed family friend—he’d known my grandfather—was determined to read Weathering the Psalms.  He didn’t make it through.  It was an academic publication.  In the humanities, it seems to me, we need to allow authors to be human.  It’s in our title, after all.  Please don’t take this as professional advice; careers are still broken on the wheel of tradition.  Writing, however, shouldn’t be a caged bird.  But then again, the clock says it’s now time to get to work.

The Zone

My youth—who am I kidding?—my life has been a search for father figures.  Since I grew up with television, many of them came from the tube.  The professor from Gilligan’s Island, Mr. Rogers, Barnabas Collins, and Rod Serling.  Serling was like the father I couldn’t remember in that he was always smoking.  But unlike my father, Serling had an imagination in sync with mine.  The Twilight Zone was in reruns by the time I caught up, but it gave me an odd kind of happiness.  The sort that you had as a kid after the bath was over and you were wrapped up snuggly and warm in a bathrobe, and you got to watch one of your favorite shows before going to bed.  I discovered Serling as a writer when I was in Junior High School.  He was right up there next to Ray Bradbury, in my book.

I have to admit to feeling anxious as I read Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling.  You see, she actually was his child and I’m afraid of learning too much about those I put on my personal pedestals.  Her book, however, didn’t disappoint.  Serling lived a writer’s life, something I’ve coveted since I was a kid.  If I couldn’t have a father, at least I could write about life as I saw it.  I still write fiction inspired by, among others, Rod Serling.  Spending much of my time in Binghamton and Ithaca for my own family reasons, I was only obliquely aware of how much I was traversing the region Serling considered home.  As I read his daughter’s autobiography—or is it a biography?  Who can tell the difference?—I was inexorably drawn in.  Fathers and daughters can be the best of friends.

Sometimes I wonder if those who know writers the best are their true fans.  I don’t mean groupies or the like, but rather those whose lives have been transformed by their words.  I’m reminded of Evermore, written by a relative of Edgar Allan Poe.  Family, it is true, see a side of a person that the reader does not.  But who are we, really?  Those of us who write may be saying more in our fiction than we care to admit even to those who know us well.  Rod Serling recognized dimensions well, I suspect.  A writer’s life requires sacrifice and keeping things hidden.  Anne Serling’s book is a gift to those who write, even if it is about someone else’s father.

Live Long

Maybe you went through it too.  In your teenage years the fascination began.  Before you knew it, you had a stack of them tucked away, each well-thumbed and ogled over.  Guinness Books of World Records, I mean, of course.  We’re captivated by extremes.  While working on a fictional story the other day, I started wondering about longevity claims.  The Good Book suggests that once upon a time a century was the equivalent of becoming a teenager, and people were acting like teenagers well into their eighth or ninth centuries.  Modern scientific analysis provides an alternative narrative, putting upper limits at 120, with only one verified, and disputed, case putting someone over it.  Curious, I looked at Wikipedia.  Two pages (at least) address the issue, one on human longevity tout court and another on verified claims.  Since the lists include home nations, I began to notice a pattern.

The verified records tend to feature the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  The unverified Russia, Latin America, and Western Asia.  This disparity struck me as perhaps a bias concerning the source of reliable information.  Not only affecting longevity reports, concerns about reliable data impact all our sources of information.  I’ve written about internet resources before, but here I’m mainly worried about the bias of “first world” records as opposed to the records of less developed countries.  Not only that, but in the case of longevity claims, those born in outlying areas—beyond the reach of official government recorders—are suspect when compared to those kept by city dwellers.  We tend to trust our own kind, especially when it comes to extreme claims.

Like John Mellencamp, I was born in a small town.  Official records, comfortably handwritten, indicate when and where that happened, to the nearest day.  (Birth is a process, of course, and doesn’t always obey conventional human time-marking practices.  Organic events are often that way.)  The fact of the existence of other people indicates that they too have been through this in some form.  The event was marked in the way of local custom.  It’s locally true.  I knew a doctor trained in Sweden.  She couldn’t practice medicine in the United States for fear of what boils down to competing forms of belief.  Xenophobia in medical practice extends to other areas of human knowledge as well.  We are taught to trust the information given by our own authorities, but not those of other cultures.  I’m suppose to accept that without question, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

Ghouls and Dolls

It was my plan—as if plans ever really work out—to see Annabelle Comes Home on opening weekend.  July got away from me but I finally found my way to the theater yesterday.  My current book, Nightmares with the Bible, deals with demons in cinema.  One of the chapters covers The Conjuring universe, and since this is the sixth film in that diegesis (with one tangentially attached spin-off) watching the movie was as much research as it was fun.  While the demon utilizing the doll Annabelle is clearly the main villain, the film, as in most of the franchise, interjects any number of entities.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, in real life, kept a museum of occult objects in their house.  This room contained items that had figured in their cases—they maintained demons didn’t possess objects, but people—including the doll Annabelle.

The new film maneuvers three girls (Judy, the Warrens’ daughter, her babysitter, and a friend) into the house alone.  One of the girls releases Annabelle from her blessed case, and a nighttime of terror ensues.  The demon behind Annabelle animates several of the haunted objects, so the girls have to deal with many ghoulish threats.  The film knows it is following tropes such as a car breaking down by a cemetery at night, and the idea of a babysitter being attacked by monsters, and at times it gives a slow wink to fans of the genre.  Still, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments and a few jump startles.  It also shows the clearly demon in its “true form” at the climax of the film.  When it does so, it matches traditional renditions.

Set to become the highest grossing horror series of all time, The Conjuring universe mixes films that claim to be “based on a true story” and others, such as Annabelle Comes Home, that use real settings but without claiming to follow actual events.  What I found engaging about this particular movie was the fact that the youngest girl, Judy Warren, was the one who figured out how to re-capture the demon.  There are holes in the plot, of course, but featuring a young woman not requiring a man’s help to trap a demon is somewhat unusual in a Catholic diegesis.  True, she doesn’t perform an exorcism, but Judy does contain the evil without a priest, or even her father’s direct help.  As this diegesis wends its way into American folklore, moments like this are increasingly important.  Even though there are demons here, the women don’t require men to do the heavy lifting. 

Sighs

Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow.  The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors.  After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action.  Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again.  I have to confess I’m not a dancer.  Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes.  Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing.  It does, however, in the 2018 remake.  The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school.  She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.

Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually.  Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins.  Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands.  To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save.  While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy.  Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.

Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust.  From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless.  Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves.  Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity.  Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing.  Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances.  I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.

Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Universals

It was on television that I met them.  The Universal monsters.  The entire run of films from Dracula to The Creature Walks among Us had been shot, printed, and screened before I was born.  In other words, I’m a late monster boomer.  By the time I was old enough to handle monster movies, they were on television and my early memories of them are tinged with the nostalgia that accompanies what seemed like better times, although each era is about equally difficult.  When I saw James L. Neibaur’s The Monster Movies of Universal Studios I knew I had to read it.  Neibaur goes through all the films in the series, chronologically, encapsulating the Draculas, Frankenstein’s monsters, mummies, invisible men and women, wolf-men, and the gill-man.  As I child I never watched them systematically, being subject to television schedules, among other things.

Not understanding studios or business, and certainly not copyright, I never understood why other favorites such as Jekyll and Hyde, the phantom of the opera, and various assorted ghosts and ghouls weren’t part of the collection.  Nevertheless, this study in discrete, brief chapters, treats the official canon reasonably well.  The line between religion and monsters is sometimes crossed in these movies, which gets at an underlying theme of my own interest—how horror and religion interact—but that’s not Neibaur’s purpose.  That dynamic is, however, the driving force behind my two most recent books.  A tie-in to the paranormal may also be found there.

As I dropped off some promotional material for Holy Horror at an area bookstore recently, the events manager revealed her interest in the paranormal.  In my mental schematic, it’s wedged in there between monsters—which are fictional—and religion, the antithesis of fiction for most people.  What do we do with ghosts and others that don’t fit into the neat lines of a theology that draw a stark line between the supernatural and human?  Universal’s monsters sometimes ran into problems with the Production Code for stepping over that line.  Of course, the Universal monsters are pretty tame in comparison with today’s fare.  Still, they were the monsters who showed, in many ways, what it was to be human.  Neibaur isn’t going for an in-depth analysis here, and his treatment is readily readable by anyone interested in revisiting the monsters of yesteryear.  Some of the descriptions reminded me of movies from my childhood that I’d forgotten.  It is pleasant to relive them for a few moments while the real monsters in the real world lurk not far from my door.

Funny Business

Do animals laugh?  The question sounds innocuous enough, and when my wife played me a RadioLab episode on that very question, the conclusion, although cautious, was that at least rats and chimpanzees do.  This is an instance in which the very question strikes me as terribly speciesist.  Despite the fact that evolution suggests otherwise, Homo sapiens are constantly seeking that fabled northwest passage that will separate us from animals once and for all.  One by one, over the decades, the defining traits have fallen aside.  Animals make and use tools, they build dwellings with ornaments, they solve puzzles, they communicate, and they laugh.  Were we not so obsessed with our own greatness (and consider whom we’ve elected over the past few years!) we might easily recognize that we have evolved to be what we are.

Perhaps it’s because we wish to retain our right to exploit animals.  After all, eating animals is big business and it’s harder to eat someone who’s not so very different from you.  In our culture certain animals are taboo for fodder: dogs, cats, and horses, for example.  This isn’t universally the case, and knowing that animals laugh might just make it a little worse.  We like to think animals “react” using “instinct” rather than respond with genuine emotion.  Until we fuss and fawn over Rover, and accept his affection as genuine.  Consciousness can be quite a burden to bear.  Funny, isn’t it?

We accept evolution up to a point.  Is it any wonder then that creationists still are a force with which to contend?  Often we fail to recognize that science, as it has developed in the western hemisphere, gestated in a largely Christian context.  The reason for drawing a hard line between animals and humans is ultimately, in this setting, biblical.  We’ve moved beyond the idea of God creating each separate species one-by-one, but we haven’t gotten beyond the literal truth of Adam naming and dominating them.  If we don’t consider the biblical origins of these ideas they continue unchallenged, even into the laboratories and sterile rooms of today.  It makes us a bit uncomfortable to consider just how influenced we still are by the Good Book.  At the same time we consider its meta view on the biological world, even as the evidence continues to pile up that little, if anything, really separates us from our faunal kin.  Try explaining that to the rats.  That sound you can’t hear without special equipment, by the way, is their laughing.

Fearing Errata

Well before I became an editor, I noted mistakes in books.  I go through phases of marking up books as I read them—in pencil only, please!—and not doing so, but I used to mark mistakes when I found them.  At that point I hadn’t realized the complexity of the process of book production and I had no idea of the many ways in which errors might creep in.  I’m a bit more forgiving now.  In any case, errors are a regular part of book publishing.  Older books used to carry pages with incantational-sounding titles like “errata” and “addenda et corrigenda.”  Errors, in other words, were considered inevitable because every time you have another set of eyes look over the manuscript it adds to both the costs and time for the production schedule.  Then I started writing books.

Now, before I get too far I should explain that many book editors don’t line edit submissions.  The standard “editor” is an acquisitions editor, which means you sign up books for your press, but you don’t necessarily (if ever) actually edit them.  I still have the sensibilities of a copyeditor, however.  That’s the main reason I fear to read my own books after they’re published.  I’m afraid I’ll find mistakes.  I do take the proofreading stage seriously, but often a writer has little control over when proofs arrive with a tight turnaround time.  You have to drop everything to get them returned by the deadline.  I’m always worried that errors might’ve crept in.  For example, with Holy Horror, I corrected with website copy for the book.  The errors, however, remain online.  They’re minor, but as the author you’re always considered culpable for such oversights.

Now that I’m working on a presentation to give for Holy Horror, I find myself facing my fears.  I need to go back to a book already published and look inside.  Since writing it I’ve completed another book, Nightmares with the Bible, and my mind can’t help mixing up a little in which book I said what.  To make sure I don’t tell potential readers the wrong information, I need to go back and reread parts of my own work.  What if I find errors?  Will I have to mark up my own copies like I used to do to those of others?  Will I need to compile an errata sheet?  I tend to be a careful reader, especially with proofs.  But facing possible errors is nevertheless a terrifying prospect, even if it’s a regular hazard for those who attempt to write books.

Internet Epistemology

Where do we find reliable information?  I’m asking this question on an internet-based medium, which itself is ironic.  While spending time with some younger people, it’s become clear that the web is their source of truth.  You find purveyors of information that you trust, and you accept their YouTube channels as representing correct data.  This can be a disorienting experience for an old doubter like me.  One of the reasons for studying for a Ph.D., apart from the vain hope of finding a career in higher education, is to hone critical thinking skills.  When I went through the process, that involved reading lots and lots of print material, assessing it, and weighing it against alternative views, also in print format.  You learn who really makes sense and you judge which publishers have good information more frequently.  As you navigate, you do so critically, questioning where they get their information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who think the younger generation is wrong (in fact, there are YouTube educational videos about just that).  The situation does, however, leave me wondering about how to fact-check when you don’t know the publisher.  It may be an older person’s problem, but it’s essentially the same dilemma behind self-publishing—the reason you trust a self-published book depends on the author alone.  Is s/he persuasive?  Did s/he document the sources of her/his information?  Are those sources good ones?  The young people I know seem quite adept at filtering out obviously biased information.  Many YouTube personalities footnote their presentations with links to sources (many of them online), and after an hour of watching I’m left questioning what’s really real at all.

You see, many of these internet personalities have sponsors.  Sponsors bring money, and money biases anyone’s angle toward the truth.  In fact, many of these YouTube sources call out the lobbying groups that influence public opinion for political ends.  Only someone completely naive—no matter their generation—would not acknowledge that government runs on money provided by corporations with interests to be protected.  There have been reliable sources, even from the days of print, that prove beyond any reasonable doubt just how corrupt governments tend to be.  But who has time to fact-check the government when the rest of the information we receive is suspect?  Those of us with training in advanced critical thinking aren’t immune from biased information.  It’s just that there’s so much data on the web that my head’s spinning.  I think I need to go read a book.

Witch Way from Here?

Häxan is often considered a horror film.  Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early.  Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches.  Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts.  It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free.  It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.

Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church.  Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church.  The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly.  While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages.  Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology.  We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.  

When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it.  Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess.  Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction.  Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began.  Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.”  To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women.  It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.

Making Monsters

It’s not so much I’ve been away from monsters lately, but that life has intervened between them and me.  Life can be scarier than monsters sometimes.  In any case, the summer is when my mind turns back to haunting even as on the breaks during heat waves a whiff of autumn can be caught on the air of a July morning.  Yes, we’ve past the solstice and days are getting shorter.  Slowly, of course, but that’s what builds suspense.  And there are local signs that I need to get my haunting in gear.  It is finally time to get Holy Horror out of wraps and give the book a proper launch.  Being published around Christmas last year was poor timing for a subject so readily coded for fall.

I received the welcome news this week that the Moravian Book Shop—the oldest continually operating bookstore in the country—will be hosting a book signing for Holy Horror in October.  This is a fortuitous turn of events because when I first approached them with the idea the price of the book made the idea look unrealistic.  But we’re now thinking of autumn, and with autumn comes Halloween.  There have been a spate of horror films this summer, all of which I’ve unfortunately missed.  Time, as Morpheus notes, is always against us.  There does, however, seem to be a lively interest in the genre and the curious wonder what it has to say about what we believe.  Horror loves religion, and indeed, thrives on it.  So it’s been from the beginning.

October will also see the Easton Book Festival in this area.  I will be on the program for that as well.  While none of this is earth-shattering, these events represent the first successes in trying to build awareness of Holy Horror.  This was a book written for a general readership, but not priced for one.  Working in the academic publishing world, this is a phenomenon with which I’m all too familiar.  Many colleagues offer to read and spread news about your book.  It seldom happens, though.  Academic presses can’t afford book tours (especially if they have to price books at $45), but these self-driven presentations are opportunities to spread the interest in ideas.  That’s what those of us who write really want—to be part of the conversation.  We’re in the midst of a heat wave here.  It’s the height of summer.  Even so, those who know about monsters can feel them coming, even from here.

Identity Crisis

Living in Boston can be a heady trip for a budding academic.  Even if you’re across the river from Harvard and MIT, it’s a city known for its education scene.  Like many who studied there, I never wanted to leave.  A fringe benefit of being a student of religion was that a short trip would take you to Peabody.  Why?  Peabody was home to CBD—Christian Book Distributors.  In their showroom they had rock-bottom prices for something theology students crave—books.  That was many years ago now, and over time CBD grew to be the largest distributor of Christian paraphernalia in the country.  In my mind they’ll always be associated with happy little trips that ended in armloads of reading.  What more could you want?

A story by Emily McFarlan Miller explains why the revered CBD is changing its name.  Cannabidiol, a legal derivative of cannabis, is popularly known as cbd.  Lots of things share initials, of course, but these are the days of the web, and an internet search for cbd now pushes the distributor (at least the book distributor) off the first page.  One thing we all know in this online universe is that you’ve got to be on the first page.  CBD’s decision might seem extreme—changing the name of the business to get back on the front page.  Despite the amusing aspects to this story, it emphasizes something of an ongoing jeremiad with me: the web has redefined reality.  Think about it this way: when a digital image is over-enlarged it pixellates.  That’s because it’s composed of minuscule squares of a single color.   When brought together in a pattern, they form images we recognize.  It their basis, however, they are squares.

The earth, however, is an orb.  The natural state of falling liquids—the principle behind the shot tower—is a sphere.  Now, spheres together in a closed space leave gaps—just look at a jar of marbles and you’ll see what I mean.  That’s the order of the natural world.  Reality, if you will.  Tech, on the other hand, is pixels.  They fill the space better, and if done well can create the illusion of a curved line.  They can never, however, fit into a round hole of the same surface area.  The world has gone after the convenience of the internet in a small box.  It has changed the recording industry, the movie industry, and the publishing industry.  And just try to find your way to CBD on it.  You might have to change your search parameters.

Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.