Turin Turnabout

Turn about, they say, is fair play.  Turin, on the other hand, is a city in Italy.  Its claim to fame is a shroud housed there that is believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth.  Tests have been done over the years, most authoritatively a carbon-dating done by three independent laboratories, with the results suggesting a medieval origin to the cloth itself.  In case your chronology is a little hazy, the medieval period comes centuries after the time Jesus lived.  Now, some thirty years after the definitive study, some scientists are questioning the results.  They’re being skeptical of the skeptics.  Turn about.  According to a story in The Catholic Register, a Freedom of Information Act request, honored only by one of the three labs (the one at Oxford University) has revealed that the bits of the shroud subjected to analysis were the worst possible parts of the cloth to test.  Herein lies the rub: scientists like to poke holes in credulousness—what do you do when your science is itself the subject of skepticism?

The Shroud of Turin, like Donald Trump, is one of those utterly arcane artifacts that unites Catholics and Evangelicals.  When I was growing up these two groups were the cats and dogs of the theological world.  They united under the umbrella of conservative social causes during the Bush years and have been sleeping together ever since (while both convinced that the other is going straight to Hell when it’s all over).  You see, the Shroud is a Catholic possession and allegedly bears wounds that support the Catholic narrative.  (The Vatican has never declared it an authentic relic, however.)  Evangelicals see it as proof positive that Jesus was resurrected, and so they tend to go further than the Catholics in citing it as proof.  We live in odd times when believers successfully out-skeptic the skeptics.

Since the other two laboratories (the University of Arizona and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) haven’t released the raw data, the grounds for a conspiracy theory grow fertile.  When information is kept secret, that’s a natural enough response.  The conspiracy-prone mind asks why the data isn’t being made public.  They do have a point.  The claims of religion are often hoisted on the petard of “no evidence” and when evidence (such as the lab results) exists but isn’t shown, that suggests somebody’s hiding something.  I have no vested interest in the authenticity of the shroud, but we all should have such an interest in getting at the truth.  The turnabout in this case, however, was completely unexpected.

Religious Studies

Prominent public intellectuals, as opposed to us obscure private ones, often brashly castigate religious thinking.  They may be aware that the vast majority of the world’s population is religious, but there’s  a kind of arrogance that comes with public adulation, I suppose.  I was just reading about the European Middle Ages and I was reminded once again just how seriously religion was taken and how the very foundation of civilization is based on it.  During said Medieval Period everyone knew—note I don’t say “believed”—knew that human beings had eternal souls.  They also knew there were eternal consequences to our actions and therefore correct religion was absolutely essential.  The Enlightenment began to change some aspects of received wisdom, but not all.  Many intellectuals who led the charge still believed in God and Heaven and Hell.

Whenever I consider the sorry state of academic religious studies today, and look at how politics are unfolding, my thoughts turn to history.  Just because we no longer think in a certain way is no reason to forget just how formative religion is to human life.  The Republican Party has cynically accepted this as a means to power.  While leaving left-leaning intellectuals to debate their choices, they roll toward electoral victory.  They acknowledge that people are religious, and that’s what it takes to win their trust.  Where was Dawkins when Brexit was decided?  It may not have been religiously motivated, but nationalism is closely tied to religious thinking.  While religious thought may be gullible it’s not necessarily so, and without those who think religiously there’s no way to a true majority.

I’ve always had more questions than answers, and one of my largest unanswered ones is why prominent public intellectuals don’t think studying religion is important.  Religious thinking isn’t going away just because they say it is.  In fact, the data show exactly the opposite.  The Middle Ages are quite instructive for understanding the way people behave.  Although belief in the religious structures may be eroded, people still want to find a way to continue their impact beyond their earthly lives.  Modern Nimrods are just as concerned with image as religiously motivated Nimrods were.  To understand where we are it’s necessary to look back.  Looking back entails a certain comfort level with ways of thinking that many moderns find embarrassing.  Religion is part of who we are.  Looking around we can see the consequences of denying it. 

Glossophobia

For a guy so full of phobias that there’s no elbow room at Hotel Fear in my head, people are sometimes curious as to why I don’t suffer one of the most common sources of terror: speaking in front of crowds.  Glossophobia is extremely normal.  I suspect it’s one of evolutions tricks for keeping metaphorical cooks out of the allegorical kitchen.  If we’re all talking at once, who can be heard?  The internet will prove to be some kind of experiment in that regard, I expect.  Thing is, I’m not what most public speakers appear to be: confident.  I’m not.  Beneath the surface all kinds of phobias are vying for the next private room to become available.  Over the weekend I had a public speaking engagement, and that made me consider this again—why doesn’t it bother me?

Although the answer to “why” questions will always remain provisional, I have an idea.  It’s kind of creepy, but true.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught that my life was being taped.  You see, it goes like this: since the book of Hebrews says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” some Fundies like Jack Chick illustrated this as an outdoor cinema in Heaven.  Or rather, in the clouds just outside Heaven.  Here you’d be summoned, buck naked, as soon as you died.  Other nude souls would gather round the big screen and your entire life would be projected for all to see.  Since everyone’s dead there are apparently no time constraints.  As a kid I realized that I was being watched.  All the time.  Now, I’m not conscious of this constantly, but I did translate it to public appearances.  We’re all, it seems, actors.

With a lifetime of performing experience, by the time I was a teen I wasn’t afraid of public speaking.  Introspection was a big part of my psyche, and when I had a speaking engagement, I knew that I had to be conscious of what I did and said, because people would be watching me.  I learned to play the part.  I did take a college course in public speaking, and even a preaching course offered by the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, but both of these were long after I’d begun taking public speaking roles.  I make mistakes, of course, and early on I learned to laugh at them before the audience did.  We were all being taped, after all, and there’s no outtake reel before the pearly gates.  Strange, but true.  If you’re afraid to speak in public just remember—you’re being watched, all the time.

Summertime Boos

There are so many of them that it’s difficult to keep up.  Movies, I mean.  And they can be an expensive habit.  As some readers may know, I’ve followed The Conjuring franchise pretty much from the beginning.  That particular film was long anticipated (at least in certain circles), but still I waited until it was available for home viewing to see it.  I always feel kind of selfish going to the movies on my own since they are a kind of event—a form of social outing.  For me, however, horror movies are research, but that hasn’t taken away the thrill of seeing one on the big screen once in a while.  The Conjuring branched off into the Annabelle movies, and I caught the latest offering in the latter series in a theater.  I hadn’t realized that The Curse of La Llorona had been released a couple months earlier, and that it was being considered part of the diegesis.  It was back to the small screen to catch up.

La Llorona is based on a Mexican folktale and is tied to the other films in its universe by a character who recurs from Annabelle, Fr. Perez.  He’s not the protagonist, but he does introduce one way in which horror responds to the present insanity we call the US government—the character who defeats the fiend is hispanic.  In fact, most of the characters in the film are from hispanic families in Los Angeles.  They take down the ghost without the assistance of border guards or any kind of wall.  They don’t need the simpering help of the GOP.  Like most of the movies in this franchise, however, they do make use of religion.

When Fr. Perez can’t offer immediate help to the family beset by La Llorona (“the weeping woman”), he points them to a local shaman.  In this otherwise Catholic world, the truly amazing outcome is that the faith healer does possess the knowledge and ability to stop the evil.  While the backstory of the ghost is well known, the nature of the entity is a bit unclear.  Most Conjuring films feature a demonic presence, so it’s kind of a relief to have a garden variety ghost for a change.  You see, when Ed and Lorraine Warren challenge entities in these movies they do so with religious accoutrements which tend not to fail.  Ghosts, however, traditionally don’t require a religious banishment.  We’re entering new territory here, of course.  And I hadn’t even known about this film until after I’d seen its predecessor.  How can you hope to keep up with spirits?  It’s a full-time job. 

Conjuring Success

I wonder if it’s one of the consequences of success.  While writing up some thoughts on The Conjuring diegesis, I got to wondering how accurate the movies’ portrayal of the occult museum of Ed and Lorraine Warren is.  The museum set appears in multiple films, and in Annabelle Comes Home it serves up a smorgasbord of horror.  Some of these artifacts, such as Annabelle, really do hold places of infamy in the establishment and some are clearly used in the cinematic version to set up spinoffs to keep the franchise alive forever.  Curiosity drove me to the open web—website owners of spaces of reputation now distrust this “open web,” what with its money grubbing and lack of peer review—to peruse some actual photos.  That’s how I learned the museum is permanently closed.  The reason given: zoning issues.  (I presume they don’t refer to the Twilight Zone issues.)

That The Conjuring franchise has proven remarkably successful hardly requires footnoting.  With The Conjuring 3 due out next year, a total of eight films will have been produced over seven years, currently and it currently stands as the second most profitable horror franchise in history.  For anyone wondering why I wrote Holy Horror, such numbers may help explain.  Now what of these zoning issues?  I wonder if it’s not the number of visitors drawn by the films that have created a problem.  (Those with questions aren’t purchasing Holy Horror, that’s for sure!)  Since the Warrens have now both passed away, the New England Society of Psychic Research runs the museum and is seeking a new place for it.  (We have space in my garage, just sayin’.)  And hey, Gettysburg isn’t too long a drive from here!

Success, I suspect, does come with its price tag.  People are drawn to those who’ve captured the interest of the big screen, and what with everyone dying death is a growth industry.  I suspect part of horror’s appeal is just that.  We all have to face it some day and while many run from it screaming some use this opportunity to prepare.  But I’ve also got to wonder if it can maintain its level of fear.  I recently watched the current iteration of It and found little that was even frightening about it.  But then again, clowns have never bothered me that much.  The bullies are the scariest thing in the film and Washington DC’s full of them.  Talk about success and its consequences.

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.

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.