Propaganda

“[F]or the most part, thinking is inherently and irrepressibly liberal.”  As much as those who’ve drunk the Trump Kool-Aid (watered down, for sure) might want to deny it, these words by Jeff Kripal are true.  Thinking itself is nearly always a liberal activity.  This election has become one of propaganda versus thinking.  Propaganda is, according to Oxford Languages, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  People who, I know for a fact, were taught about propaganda in high school (lots of little heads were nodding yes that they understood what propaganda was and then nodding no that they were never fall for it) have now jumped onto Trump’s propaganda bandwagon, claiming that facts are “liberal hoaxes.”  Thinking is liberal.  Thinking hoaxes, I guess.

Liberals, as I’ve stated repeatedly, don’t take anyone’s word for it.  We fact-check.  Herein lies the difference.  If Joe Biden were to state that Democrats couldn’t win without cheating in the election, liberals would be all over this, fact-checking.  Where did he get this idea?  Did he cite his sources?  Does science concur?  And then if he were to lie about having said it, liberals would point out the contradiction.  Trump’s followers, who have nearly four years of massive lies, well documented, taped, and public, to draw upon, simply deny he said them.  The “liberal hoax” they cite is propaganda, by definition.  It is not to be fact-checked because they might not like what fact-checking reveals.  In high school we were taught about Nazi propaganda.  We all understood.  Now we conveniently forget.

This election is about trying to bring a deeply divided nation back together again.  Trump’s lies from day one (biggest inauguration ever, although those of us actually there could see the lie clearly) have been about dividing and conquering.  Most Trump supporters have no idea what liberals are.  The very definition of liberal concerns broadening knowledge.  Higher education teaches us not to take anyone’s word for it.  Not only do Trump supporters accept his lies about liberal hoaxes, they simply dismiss the fact that liberals’ greatest critics are other liberals.  We don’t sit around coming up with hoaxes—we hardly agree with one another!  The most insidious thing about all of this propaganda is that Trump supporters distrust those who’ve seen behind the screen.  They won’t, however, look for themselves.  All the news from all the world lies, they say, if it doesn’t support Trump.  Thinking back to high school, I can imagine no better way to illustrate propaganda.  At least to those who were willing to pay attention to their teachers.  For those who refuse to learn, education itself is all a hoax.

Looks more like today, America under Trump…

Defining Evil

Recently someone said, in a conversation in which I was involved, that understanding evil as entirely a human construct wasn’t working for her.  This particular person is rational, with a scientific outlook, and very politically aware.  There was a pause among the others in the conversation, almost as if embarrassed.  Can anyone admit the existence of evil these days without at least a chaser of irony?  I have to admit that I too was caught off-guard, but for different reasons.  I guess I have always supposed the struggle of good and evil was obvious.  If I hadn’t thought in these terms the last four years in the United States would’ve convinced me.  The degenerate depths to which corruption in this country have sunk leave me hard-pressed for any other answer.  

With an enabling Republican senate, a president who won a contested election with the help of a foreign nation with clear wishes to destabilize the United States (they succeeded), is now trying to destroy the Post Office so that voting by mail can’t be effective.  He does this in the wake of a pandemic for which he personally largely bears the blame.  Instead of admitting that he’s unaware of how to fix the mess he’s made, his focus is solely on keeping himself in power.  Exposé after exposé has been published, but the desire to hold power has blinded an entire political party to the natural correctives built into the system.  What is the use of stacking the judiciary, Mr. McConnell, if the nation you wish to judge falls apart under your watch?  What good are federal judges in a nation gone amuck?

A government, any government, that devalues any classes of human beings—be they of different ethnic backgrounds, differently gendered, or in some way disabled—is participating in what simply can’t be chalked up to bad behavior.  Well over 150,000 US citizens have died from a pandemic that is still receiving a blind eye by the Grand Old Party.  Confused, the sheep of those diabolical feedlot owners think the whole thing is a hoax and refuse to wear masks, making them into a political statement.  They will be sacrificed on the altar of retaining power.  In the Bible the figure that acted like this was called Molech.  Now those who support it are called Evangelicals.  My friend in this conversation, I believe, was struggling to come up with a way to understand what she sees happening around her.  Although taught that there is no such thing as objective evil, she wonders how to make sense of what’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Setting the Mood

I can’t recall how I learned about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but it was one of those books I knew I wanted to read.  One thing I do recall is that I didn’t know it had anything to do with religion until I started it.  It became quite clear that the story—which is difficult to classify—revolves around religion and a kind of gentle horror of things not being what they seem.  Set on a lonely stretch of English coastland where strange things happen, a family takes their mute son to a shrine to have him healed.  The younger brother, not mute, narrates the events.  There are many creepy suggestions of what may be happening, but a full explanation is never given.  That’s kind of like religion itself.

While I don’t normally read the discussion points or classroom/book group discussion material after most modern novels, I found Hurley’s included essay on “Nature, Faith, and Horror” to be of interest.  Several of us, it seems, find the combination of religion, or faith, ties in well with fear.  That was a large part of what I was trying to get at in Holy Horror.  Hurley goes in a different direction with it.  A family under the overbearing religion of the matriarch does her bidding in the hopes of either keeping peace or participating in the healing her son.  We learn from the opening pages that her son Hanny develops into a minister, and therefore has some degree of normalcy.  Hurley is a master of revealing important factors only gradually.  It keeps the tension rising as the story goes along.  There’s no bloodbath, but there is unsettling mystery.

The story is probably best characterized as gothic.  That’s rare these days, and it is the sub-genre of horror that most attracts me.  The mood it casts is kind of a spell and it’s difficult to break.  The Smith family insists on the sacredness of place and on strict religion of the Catholic species.  Evangelicalism could easily lead to horror, and not infrequently it does.  The Catholic variety, however, feels older.  More arcane.  There are things only a priest knows.  And that knowledge can be a challenge to both the knower and the seeker.  The Loney will leave the reader with questions ticking away about what really happened.  These are things we’ll never know.  Those of us who’ve ever entertained religious vocations understand this feeling well.  It stands behind certain kinds of horror and in front of religion, tying them together.

Laboring

I can remember when Labor Day was about honoring workers.  I suppose it still is, in some circles.  At the top, however, the strategy is to give all the breaks to the wealthy and convince those they exploit that it’s for their own good.  In as far as Trump has a playbook, this is on page 1.  All around the community I see poor, exploited people with Trump signs on their houses.  And they’re big.  Great.  Never been bigger signs.  The policies he’s enacted, however, have taken money from their pockets and lined those of the wealthy.  Why do you think he refuses to share his tax records?  Tax fraud is a crime.  If you’re a laborer, anyway.

I grew up working class and I still think that way.  I’m skeptical, though.  I don’t take anyone’s word for it.  That’s what happens when you become a professional researcher.  Looking at actions instead of words is most instructive.  As my step-father used to tell us, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Just let him pick your pocket and tell you he’s been on your side all along.  Can Labor Day be anything other than a lie under such circumstances?  The American aristocracy has both a firm grip and tax incentives not to improve the lot of those who are barely getting by.  And yet we take a day off and pretend that everything’s fine.

Polls repeatedly show that those in power have no idea of the realities of the lives of the working class.  They can’t name the price of a loaf of bread and, especially in the present day, don’t care to.  Many people in the United States fear socialism.  Ironically, many of them are “Christians” who completely ignore the socialism of the book of Acts.  Early believers, the Good Book says, pooled their resources and shared everything out equally.  It’s a pity it didn’t last.  Nations with socialized medicine—the only humane way to live—have handled the pandemic better than those that rely on health insurance at the same time its own government is trying to dismantle the only plan that would cover everyone.  Why do we find it so hard to care for the workers?  Maybe this Labor Day we can stop and think for a little while where we’d be without those who actually keep things going.  And maybe in November we’ll vote to help them out.

What Labor Day used to be; courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Nightmares’ Progress

Ironically for someone who works in academic publishing, I have my own issues of how books are priced.  I understand why, however, because I can see sales trends.  When it comes to authoring my own books I’ve learned how to write for general readers.  Not all publishers know how to price for that.  Already I’ve had one friend blanch at the price of Nightmares with the Bible and the hope is that it does well enough in the library market to earn a paperback.  I also know paperback sales seldom reach the level of hardcover sales from academic presses.  Much of it is driven by demand.  If people know about the book and ask their libraries to buy it, and this is key—check it out—that has a way of sometimes snowballing enough to convince a publisher that there’s an individual market.

Since I’m plotting the progress on Nightmares here on this blog, I’ll point out that the book has its own page on my website (located here).  Actually, all my books have their own page, but since my website is in the low-rent district of the internet not many readers venture here.  Yesterday I added the back-cover blurbs to the page.  I did so with fear and trembling.  Life has taught me not to take well to compliments.  They make me uncomfortable, like strangers entering my house without masks on.  Since I have no institution backing me, however, I need the praise of colleagues to convince others to buy this book.  In my long-term thinking on the topic, I’m hoping Nightmares gets reviewed and people will get interested in Holy Horror, which didn’t get reviews but which is half the price.

In the biz we call this “platform building.”  Those with healthier egos than mine hire their own publicists who boost their number of Twitter followers and get their names out there on the internet.  My own platform building has been of the budget kind.  I’m active on Goodreads to get followers.  I’ll engage with any comments I get on social media.  But I’m also a working stiff hoping desperately not to lose my job during this pandemic.  The blurbs on Nightmares are very nice, and they note that I write for non-specialists.  This blog is open to all comers, after all.  Likes, shares, and comments all help.  My thanks to my endorsers—you know who you are!—you made my day with your kind words.

Permanently Changing

Classifying the world of thought into “eastern” and “western” is a gross oversimplification.  Nevertheless we require some handles by which to grip this unwieldy beast of mental life.  One of the first distinctions that we’re taught is that western thinking tends towards the default of permanency while eastern thought emphasizes change.  Change, of course, is the lack of permanence.  The older I get the more I see the wisdom in accepting change as the only thing that’s really permanent.  It’s a lesson you learn as a homeowner.  In my typical western way of thinking, I assume things will pretty much stay the same, but the myriad of small, external forces work constantly toward change.  The only way to keep a house well is with constant upkeep.

The other day I found a rotted windowsill that our inspector somehow missed.  That it hadn’t happened on our watch was clear by the fact that the previous owners had slapped a thick layer of paint over what was clearly a broken and decaying sill, in essence ignoring the problem.  Change, you see, is constant.  Things really get interesting when you start to apply this to religion.  Although the Bible only hints at it (for the view isn’t entirely consistent) God is considered unchanging.  The same yesterday, today, and forever.  Meanwhile everything down here is constantly in flux—changing, evolving, decaying, reproducing.  Religions of eastern Asia tend to embrace this change as a given.  Our frustration in life, as Buddhism recognizes, has its roots in attachment to permanence.  Things inevitably change.

On the one hand this is so obvious that it might appear simplistic.  But then think how we live our lives here in the western hemisphere.  Our employers hire “change management” teams.  We suppose things will return “back to normal” after this pandemic is over.  We’ve been living the cloistered life for nearly six months now and things have been changing.  Especially in the early days people could be heard lamenting how quickly information and circumstances shifted.  Change is permanent.  For the homeowner anxious about the ability to keep up with upkeep, the constant growth of the lawn and the aggression of weeds can be their own kind of trial.  At times it feels like you need to be paid just to take care of your home since it’s a full-time job.  It is overly simplistic to draw an arbitrary line from pole to pole, but it does seem that some cultures, tending toward the east of the birthplace of monotheism, have some basic insights from which we might learn.

Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

The Birth of Horror

In both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I concern myself with horror films that have appeared since 1960.  I’m not enough of a cinema studies type to argue eloquently about the various stages of the horror genre on celluloid, but the many histories I’ve read settle on 1931, the year Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein both appeared.  Dealing with more contemporary fare, I often use that as a mental benchmark.  Gary D. Rhodes has changed  that perspective, however.  The Birth of the American Horror Film is a somewhat sprawling treatment of a subject that’s more involved than I had supposed.  Early films didn’t suddenly appear, of course, and Rhodes spends some time surveying what came before the film that eventually produced what we recognize as cinema.  One of the things he notices is that which we call “horror” was pretty much there from the beginning.

Call it morbid curiosity.  While not everyone admits it, it is a pretty widespread human condition.  After surveying literature, theater, and visual culture, Rhodes moves on to consider many different genres of pre-1915 horror.  Some of them don’t strike every reader as horror today, but that’s a point I tried to make in Holy Horror.  The definition depends on the viewer.  Rhodes suggests throughout that American viewers tended to prefer non-supernatural horror.  While statistically this may be true, he devotes several chapters to genres that fall into the supernatural category.  These were, in the opinion of this reader, the best in the book.  One of the reasons is that horror and the supernatural naturally go together.  Many of us working in this field have noticed, some with embarrassment, that the two are closely related.

What might strike other readers as starkly as it did me, is just how terribly prevalent “horror” films were before there was a proper genre.  Rhodes makes the point that even if we like to think otherwise of ourselves, if there hadn’t been a substantial market for such movies they wouldn’t have thrived.  Some of them, like murder mysteries and other dramas, we might cast more as “thrillers” today.  I included a few of them in Holy Horror.  The real terror, however, often arises from subjects that were somewhat taboo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Religion was handled with all seriousness.  I wonder if this might be one of the reasons that the supernatural didn’t appear, in the early days, as much as it would later.  This is one of those books that raises many questions such as this, and that makes me glad that the author is working on a sequel.

Creation of Horror

I recently read the article “The Christian Worldview of Annabelle: Creation” by Neil Gravino on Horror Homeroom.  I’m pleased to see that the complex world of religion and horror is being addressed by other scholars.  (I know that many actually work in this area, but if you don’t have access to an academic library finding their articles can be impossible.  Also, did I ever think I would miss Religion Index One and Two so much?)  Since I have a piece that is scheduled to appear on Horror Homeroom concerning the 1976 movie Burnt Offerings, I’m glad for the company.  As in my article, Gravino makes the case that the relationship between horror and religion (the Christianity of Annabelle: Creation and its need to be a horror film) is fraught.  This is something I describe in some detail in Nightmares with the Bible.

Back when I was writing Holy Horror I realized that putting individual horror films into a series creates continuity issues.  Annabelle: Creation is part of the wildly successful Conjuring franchise, the latest installment of which has been delayed by the pandemic.  Depending on how you count it, there are already seven films in that particular universe and the shifting of the story is the focus of an entire chapter in Nightmares.  The reason it requires such sustained attention is that, apart from being the most successful horror franchise after Godzilla, these movies are squarely based on Christianity.  Lacking the unrelenting gravitas of The Exorcist, they feature (in the main branch of the diegesis) the Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren.  In an almost Dantesque view of Heaven and Hell, the characters struggle with monsters that hover between ghosts and demons.  They’re closer to the latter.

Many horror films—but by no means all—are based on fears associated with religion.  That religion isn’t always Christianity, as both The Wicker Man and Midsommar show, but the warnings against extremism apply equally to belief systems across the board.  Another thing I miss, being outside the academy, is the funding to do some in-depth research on this.  It’s good to know that others are seeing what I’m seeing as well, as is appropriate when you encounter something unexpected.  Our religion haunts us.  The reasons we believe are often tied to the self-same fear that the religions themselves generate.  And like religions, horror movies hold the possibility of earning quite a lot of money.  The parallels should not, I believe, be overlooked.

Enough

Stories of the wealthy never interest me unless they have a mysterious, ageless cousin who’s really a vampire.  Unfortunately fantasy can’t save us from the reality of a once great nation that’s now crumbling.  As I wrote earlier on this particular book, we already know, at some level, what it says.  Mary L. Trump, who alone has courage among her family, exposes quite a lot in Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  There’s no point in ascribing blame for deeds done.  I also fear there’s no hope that justice will ever be served in this case.  Dysfunctional families are all too real and all too common.  Some of the traits (but none of the money) from Fred Trump’s cruelty were as familiar to me as my own childhood.  A powerful, overbearing stepfather riddled with a sense of his own inadequacy, taking it out in his own empire within the walls of his house.  The damaged children it leaves behind, each struggling to cope in their own way.

The family Fred Trump raised was bound to become damaged goods.  It is to the everlasting shame of the Republican Party that it could come up with no other viable candidate for the highest office in the land.  Not so long ago I would’ve written “world,” by that day’s gone past us.  Not only did “the party” accept his nomination, it has enabled him, as Mary Trump shows, every step of the way.  Knowing that something is deeply wrong—that more people will have to die in this country of Covid-19 than anywhere else, just to stoke one man’s ego—and refusing to act should be a sin in anybody’s book.  Who still emerges as his defender?  The Evangelical.  This mess is so convoluted that it will take historians (presuming anyone survives it) decades to try to unravel it.  That’s because nobody in the GOP has any empathy for those already born.  Strange form of “Christianity,” that.

This book is a depressing read.  Still, I’m glad I did it.  Not that it will change much.  Those who are psychologically like Trump, incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction, will say it’s all lies.  You can always play that card.  There are facts, however, and they are recorded.  Those who are able to weigh evidence know (and already knew) that a dangerous man had been coddled by a dangerous party that puts self-interest over nation.  You know, I think there may be a vampire in this story after all, but I just don’t have the heart to look any further.

No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.

Virtual Bible Study

Like just about everybody else, I spend my days online during the pandemic.  Well, actually, I spent my days online before that since I’m a remote worker.  Even before that, when spending a considerable part of each day commuting to and from New York City, once I got there I’d sit in a cubicle and work online all day anyway.  To borrow a tagline, the truth is out there.  Somewhere on the internet, I think.  Probably on the deep web, but I understand that’s a scary place.  I’m not sure why it is that I started receiving email ads for something called Virtual Bible Study.  I suppose I spend enough time, and my computer eats enough cookies on Bible Gateway that the Virtual Bible Study people think I’m the typical customer.  

Having led many Bible studies in my life, and having taught biblical studies professionally, I’m aware that you can never learn it all.  Indeed, biblical study is the original never-ending story.  Stay with it long enough and you’ll earn plenty of enemies.  Recently my mother was telling me that she’s doing a Bible Study where you follow a schedule and read the “liner notes” that come with a particular curriculum.  She mentioned to me that she was having trouble with Deuteronomy 28.  It’s a chapter with which I’m quite familiar.  I remember reading it as a young person and being terror-struck by it (those who wonder what horror might have to do with the Good Book ought to read it.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You can find it on Bible Gateway.).  This is one of those places where God spells out the blessings (somewhat limited) for obedience and the curses (very many) for failure.  The list is long and terrible.  I’m not a chapter-and-verse citer, but from my very first read-through of the Bible I could tell you what was in Deuteronomy 28.  It was burned into my memory.

I do have to wonder about the efficacy of online Bible Study.  I sure do appreciate not having to look everything up in a print concordance any more.  That was quite a time-consuming activity and you needed to be very familiar with the particular version you were using to make it work.  I know I grouse a bit about technology on this blog, but given my vocation, and avocation, I sure like having Google on my side when I need to look up a verse that I can only partially recall.  I do have to wonder, however, since the truth is out there, whether anybody’s found a good way to comfort their elders who get stuck on the curses that essentially wrap up the covenant in good old Deuteronomy.

Virtually the Bible

Too Close?

Some time back I did a Google search on something like “best novels about possession,” like one does.  I was in the midst of writing Nightmares with the Bible at the time.  One of the titles that came up was Sara Gran’s Come Closer.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I started to look out for it.  I finally found and read a copy.  It is a page-turner.  A first-person narrative, it is a story about how a woman became possessed and how her life changed because of it.  Creepy and moody, it isn’t your typical Exorcist-type story.  What it highlighted for me (I don’t want to give too many spoilers) is the dilemma of those who a) live in an era when such things are routinely dismissed, and b) who have no religious background on which to fall.

While there are some quasi-religious characters in the story, there are no priests.  There’s no Catholic Church with its reassuring, if disturbing ritual.  Nobody seems to know how to handle a powerful demon.  One of the features that fuels exorcism movies (and presumably many novels on the subject) is the uncertainty of success.  Will there be deliverance or not?  I’m not going to tell you the answer here for Gran’s novel, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, but the dilemma of where to turn is believably laid out.  Amanda, a well-employed professional, lives without religion.  She acknowledges that strange things happen, but when she gets an inkling that a demon is after her, she doesn’t know where to turn.  As the story builds the loss of personal control is convincingly portrayed.  What do you do without the church?

I often ponder the particular power of The Exorcist narrative.  The threat to a young woman (as I discuss in Nightmares) is part of the key.  Another is the knowledge that the Catholic Church has packed away a powerful ritual that is only brought out in what are clearly extreme circumstances.  Like Amanda, the MacNeils aren’t church-going individuals.  The difference is that they live near Georgetown University where help may be found.  Unveiling this ancient rite was perhaps the greatest brilliance behind the story.  We live in a different age, however.  Simultaneously both more religious and more secular.  With the old certainties now under question, people wonder what they are to do when the impossible happens.  That is the driving pathos behind Come Closer.  It is a scary story on many levels.

Everybody Knows

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is “Everybody Knows.”  On a related note, the best-selling book in America last week was Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  With the publisher citing 900,000 copies sold upon release, it produced numbers that most publishing houses only dream of.  I’d preordered it on Amazon but for the first time ever I did not have a copy on the day of release.  There were a lot of people ahead of me in this line.  That’s even more remarkable than it sounds because we all pretty much know what the book says.  We also know that its subtitle is true: we have a very dangerous man (daily rising Covid deaths show this to be true) given free rein by Republican senators.  Even adults without high school educations that I talk to know there is something seriously wrong.  Indeed, anyone who knows how to fact-check can see it.

A very popular way to deal with inconvenient truths is to posit a conspiracy theory.  Evangelicals (now defined as Trump supporters) have long used conspiracies as ways of explaining how facts simply don’t support their views.  From the moment “alternative facts” left the lips of the administration in January 2017 I knew we were in deep, deep trouble.  Funny thing is, many Evangelicals had to read Orwell in school, like the rest of us.  How they could support anyone that had such a long, long track record of criminal cases against him before placing his hand on the Bible and swearing to uphold a constitution he’s been daily dismantling since is anybody’s guess.  Daily life, it seems, is now a conspiracy.  

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is “Everybody Knows.”  The lyrics suggest that whatever it is we want to keep secret everybody, well, knows.  That’s what’s so distressing about America’s current decline.  Everybody knows that being president is a very difficult position and that it’s only handled adequately by well-trained and smart people who, despite their faults, put country above self.  With the election of 2016 it was clear from even before day one that ego was the driving factor behind 45.  Americans love their outrageous television personalities and somehow think that appeal on the small screen somehow translates to leadership ability.  We’ve learned before that this isn’t true.  I haven’t read Mary Trump’s book yet—it just arrived in the mail—but when I do I’m sure I’ll find out what everybody knows.