Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.

Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 

Weaponized Scripture

One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.  The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).  Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.  I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.  Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.  Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.

The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.  That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.  Its method was basically to ignore that culture.  Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.  Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.  Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.  A world in which they couldn’t survive.  Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.  Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.

At one point her friends attempt an intervention.  They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.  Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”  Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.  As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.  The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.  That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.  The iconic Bible is a protean book.  Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.  It often is.  Many of us have been harmed by it.  Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

May Care

The thing about the Devil is that evil is no laughing matter.  Darren Oldridge had no easy task limiting the dark lord to The Devil: A Very Short Introduction.  He nevertheless does an admirable job packing lots of provocative stuff into a small package.  The historian of religion part of me found his short history of Satan in chapter 2 a compelling synthesis of the character’s background.  Longer sources get tangled in theological weeds once the New Testament’s over, what with erstwhile saints being recast as heretics over some minute point of doctrine.  Lots of ideas about the Devil were floating around in those days, even as they are today.  A particularly important point, however, is made early in this book: even during the Enlightenment most intellectuals—including scientists—assumed the reality of the spiritual world.  It was only when materialism alone came to reign that there could be no Devil because there could be no spirits.

A vast disconnect continues to exist between “public intellectuals” and hoi polloi.  The vast majority of people in the world are religious.  Even in, especially in, the United States a great number of people believe in the Devil.  Many of those same people can’t recognize political evil when it stands naked before them.  Here’s the irony of it all: Oldridge discusses how an evil system, let’s say Nazism, blinded many otherwise decent people to the evil they were asked to perform.  Rhetoric that demonized the other, when dispersed over large crowds, has historically had that effect.  Today we see “Christians” claiming that a social system of helping those in need is of the Devil.  The greatest weapon of the prince of darkness is the sincerely believed lie.

Lies have always been associated with the Devil.  When the number of untruths coming from the White House has broken the very meter for measuring lies, those who claim the name of the crucified man who advocated care for the poor shout all the more loudly.  Not at the lies, but at those who don’t accept them.  Historically, the reign of facts has kept some checks on the Devil.  Even Jesus accused Herod of watching Fox—or was it being a fox?—too bad there are no facts to check.  Oldridge doesn’t tip his hand as to whether there is an actual Devil or not.  Society has, however,  no trouble making up its mind.  All they need to do is turn on the television.

Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.