What I Meant to Say

So I try to illustrate each of my posts. I do this because in the days when the internet was young I often found blogs during image searches. I’ve grown more cautious over the years, regarding copyright. I try to stick to the “fair use doctrine”—and that’s what it’s called, a doctrine—or images I “own.” In the latter case it often means searching WordPress for a picture I’ve posted before. Since nobody has time to name all their photos, I use the assigned DSCN or IMG nomenclatures. There aren’t so many that a search won’t turn up an image in my library. Thing is, WordPress likes to anticipate what I’m looking for. What’s more, it “autocorrects” after I’ve begun scrolling through everything. DSCN becomes “disc” in its addled electronic brain, and IMG becomes “OMG.” Naturally, the image you’re seeking can’t be found until you manually correct autocorrect.

OMG has become very common shorthand these days. Growing up evangelical, there was a debate whether “o my God” was swearing or not. Those who like to hedge their eternal bets argued that this was taking the Lord’s name in vain, thereby breaking one of the big ten. This was to be avoided at all costs. Those with a little less fear (or perhaps a bit more courage) argued that “God” wasn’t “the Lord’s name.” God is a generic word and can refer to any deity, except, of course, for the fact that there is only one God. This led straight back to the conundrum. Exegetes tell us that technically this commandment isn’t about saying the deity’s name, but rather it’s a prohibition against using said name when you don’t intend to do what you say you’ll do. In other words, lying.

It’s truly one of the signs that evangelicalism has evolved that the world’s best known liar is unstintingly supported by this camp. When I was a kid, saying, well, OMG, could get your mouth washed out with soap. Lying could lead to other forms of corporal punishment, such as being, in the biblical parlance, smitten. Now it gets you elected to the highest office in the land and supported by all those very people who won’t spell out OMG, even when they’re busy cutting you off in traffic with their Jesus fishes flashing in the sun. When I was a kid presidents would step down rather than go through the humiliation of being shown a liar in the face of the world. Times have changed. And I have no idea how to illustrate such a post as this. What comes up when I search OMG?

Geography Lesson

As someone who eschews easy labels, I’m always conflicted when someone asks what my doctorate is “in.”  Universities have departments, of course, and different academic fields have differing standards of what qualifies you as an expert.  My Ph.D. was mainly in the field of history of religions, but focused (all such project must be narrow) on what is best called ancient West Asian cultures.  Recently someone showed me a website with free geography quizzes on it.  (I post the link here with the caveat that this can be very addictive.)  This friend asked me how good my Asian geography was.  I knew that once I got east of Iran I was going to be in trouble.  Some countries, such as Russia, India, China, and Japan are hard to miss, but the others I was properly humbled over.

I tried the quiz again and again until I could point to any of the official Asian nations with a fair degree of accuracy.  Eurasia is a very large landmass, and when you consider that it is, apart from human-made canals, attached to Africa this is a lot of space to label.  Considering that many isolationist politicians can’t correctly find smaller countries on a map without an app, I started to realize just how lopsided the world is.  Many more people live in Asia than populate the “New World.”  They actually have more space than we do here, but much of it is too cold or too dry for comfortable living.  Still, I considered that if I’d had this quiz as a kid I might’ve known my geography much better than I do.

As I’m preparing to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in a few days, I recall priding myself at knowing all fifty states of my native country.  I’ve been to all but five of the lower 48—Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nevada have eluded me (the conference never meets in them and I don’t have friends who’ll put me up for free in them).  But at least I know where I haven’t been.  

After trying my hand at Asia on the app, I attempted Africa.  Let’s just say I still have a lot left to learn.  And unlike when I was a kid, I look forward to taking quizzes.  Work interferes with web time, though, and learning modern countries isn’t the same as knowing where Hatti or Elam used to be.  Religion, after all, forms borders just as impermeable as mountains, oceans, or deserts.

Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.  

Yeti Again Again

I wish I had more time for reading short stories.  I grew up on them since, like many young boys I lacked the attention span for entire novels.  Many collections of short stories sit on my shelves, but I’ve been drawn into the world of extended stories, perhaps because so much of reality bears escaping from these days.  In any case, I find myself neglecting short story collections.  I have a friend (and I tend not to name friends on this blog without their express permission—you might not want to be associated with Sects and Violence!) named Marvin who writes short stories.  This past week his tale called “Meh Teh” appeared in The Colored Lens.  Marvin often uses paranormal subjects for his speculative fiction.

“Meh-Teh” is a Himalayan term for “yeti.”  Since we jealously guard our positions as the biggest apes on this planet, science doesn’t admit yetis to the realm of zoology without the “crypto” qualifier in front.  Still, people from around the world are familiar with the concept of the abominable snowman.  Maybe because I grew up watching animated Christmas specials, I knew from early days that a mythical, white ape lived in the mountains, and that he needed a visit to the dentist.  The yeti has even become a pop culture export from Nepal, since those who know little else about that mountainous region know that strange footprints are found in the snow there.  Apes, however, like to dominate so we tend to drive other apes to extinction.  Still, they had to be there on the ark, along with all other cryptids.

I recall an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of that dealt with yetis.  Or was it a Sun Pictures presentation about Noah’s Ark?  I just remember the dramatic earthquake scene where either the skullcap of a yeti or a piece of the true ark was buried, lost forever under the rubble.  Yeti is also a brand name for an outdoor goods company based, ironically, in Austin.  This fantastical ape has become a spokesperson, or spokesape, for the great outdoors.  All of this is a long way from the story Marvin spins about the great ape.  As is typical of his fiction, religion plays a part.  I really should make more time for reading short stories.  In a world daily more demanding of time, that sounds like a solid investment.  And free time is more rare than most cryptid sightings these days.

Author Revise Thyself

Monster fans may have noticed that, despite the season I haven’t been writing much on the topic.  One of the reasons for this is that I’m in that dread stage known as “revision.”  As an editor I often see book proposals—or even entire books—that have never been revised.  You can tell.  I learned this while writing Holy Horror.  If you’re one of the people who took out a second mortgage to buy a copy, the book you purchased was based on a manuscript rewritten thoroughly at least five times.  The idea is that like rocks in a river, all that pouring over a text smooths the words like stones over the millennia.  Few rocks emerge from volcanic or sedimentary situations as smooth and round.  That takes revision.

My peer review report for Nightmares with the Bible came in a few weeks ago.  Nightmares had been revised a couple of times, at least, before I submitted it.  I understand the review process very well, as I deal with it daily.  Sometimes single blind (the writer doesn’t know the reviewer’s identity), other times double blind (neither reader nor writer know the other’s identity), the process is meant to provide feedback on a manuscript.  Having written many more manuscripts than have seen publication, I know just how useful peer review can be.  Like anything, however, it can also be treated legalistically, as if the reviewer knows more about a subject an author has just spent years researching.  No matter your impressions about this, once the reports come in, revision is in the cards.

Self editing is difficult.  And occasionally embarrassing.  You read again what seemed to make sense to you at the time, but even after you hit the “send” button you’ve continued reading.  New information comes to light.  Monographs are a very expensive form of dialogue.  Well, not so expensive as all that.  Many people are happy to pay out the cost of a monograph for a dinner out, which lasts an evening.  A book, mutatis mutandis, lasts much longer.  Like that meal, it’s taken internally and digested.  You can read the same book twice, however, without having to pay the second time around.  It’s a good idea, then, to revise before sending it to a patron’s table.  Ironically, revising a book on monsters takes time away from writing about monsters.  I also have essays awaiting revision, circling overhead like planes at Newark’s Liberty Airport.  And then there’s work, which has nothing to do with my own writing at all.  There’s a reason Nightmares occurs in the title.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Who Cares?

America’s all about money.  I read quite a bit about care-related exhaustion, and being in a situation where several family members are requiring care I’ve begun to notice that our government just doesn’t care.  Talking with a family member recently, his exhaustion was clearly evident.  Not affluent, he has to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s and continue to work ten hour days because nobody pays you simply to help another human being in need.  Care can be monetized, of course.  Then Republicans sit up and take notice.  Until then, however, I try not to be overwhelmed by what is clearly a growing crisis.  Some call us the “sandwich generation”—we support our children longer as more and more jobs become obsolete, and we care for our parents longer as lifespans extend and extend.  For the working poor, the benefits do not keep pace with life expectancy.  And what child wants to see his or her parent suffer?  Why doesn’t our government care?

Instead of devising new ways to deal with a massive crisis (I know many people who are constantly running on empty from having both to caregive and to work), Washington tweets about how the wealthy are the objects of “witch hunts.”  Those with too much are so oppressed, but they just can’t see their way to share what they have.  Meanwhile even those of us with educations find ourselves not knowing what to do.  Politicians play their games forgetting that the pieces they move about the board are alive and sentient.  After all, there’s only one king on each side.  And who feels too bad if a pawn or two gets bumped off, as long as the monarch is kept safe?

There are solutions.  Not perfect, of course, but societies with a dash of socialism realize that if those on the bottom can’t do their jobs, those on the top will tumble too, when the foundation fails.  Any builder knows the importance of secure footings.  One guy, often cited by the GOP but never really listened to by them, said houses built on sand fall.  Giving care takes time, money, and energy.  Employers want those exact same things and should you fail to provide them, you will find yourself also requiring care.  Even if your reason was that you were caring for another.  Meanwhile policies will be made to favor those who line the pockets of the political.  Who cares?  Certainly not the officials we “elected” to “lead” us.