Rest and Be Thankful

Many years on Thanksgiving I find myself distressed.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for all the good things in my life—and they are more than I regularly stop to count—but life has a way of tossing reality bombs into the mix.  This year, though, there is much for which I’m feeling particularly grateful.  Family and friends foremost.  Fairly good health and a day or two off work.  These are all wonderful.  This year gave us a couple more great gifts: the rejection of a leader who always and only thought of himself and convinced millions that he cared for their interests and beliefs.  A “leader” who refused to acknowledge defeat but just this week began a transition that should’ve begun nearly three weeks ago.  Many are inexpressibly thankful for this.

Although on a much smaller scale, I’m thankful for Nightmares.  Nightmares with the Bible, that is.  Although it’s expensive (I’ll thankfully give a discount code to all askers), it is with a publisher that will promote it better than Holy Horror.  It was a very pleasant surprise to receive the book before Thanksgiving, even with its Halloweenish theme.  Anyone who puts years of their life into a project knows the gratitude in seeing it come to fruition.  Nightmares was a labor of love and I hope all who venture to read it will be thankful that they did.  I know I”m grateful for having lots of other book ideas.  That’s one area where there’s a substantial surplus.

Like many people I’m becoming aware of the dark under-narrative to the American Thanksgiving myth.  What we were presented in state-sanctioned school curricula was a story of grateful pilgrims wanting to share abundance with the American Indians.  History shows that their motivations in colonizing were actually subjugation and making slaves of the indigenous people, something we now recognize as a form of evil.  Such lessons are difficult to learn as an adult when the holiday has so many happy, cozy memories associated with it.  We have just been through four years of national chaos in which “othering” became a wedge intended to fracture the fragile unity of this country.  Yes, the guilt is real.  We cannot, or at least should not, deny what history reveals about our motives.  Instead we should widen our tables.  Invite others to join us.  (Virtually this year.)    And be truly thankful for the many good things—some very large, and others very small—which we have.

Raven Wisdom

Just twenty pages in and I was reflecting on how Christianities and the cultures they cultivated have caused so much suffering in the world.  Assuming there is only one way to be, and that way is pink, European, and monotheistic, has led to so many displaced people thrown aside as collateral damage.  Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven is a remarkable book.  A native Alaskan, Hayes participated in the colonialist venture of higher education to try to also participate in the “American dream.” If this book doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, I don’t know that you’re human.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a deep interest and lasting guilt to learn about indigenous peoples of the country where I was born.  About the culture that is so Bible-driven it can’t see the human beneath.  The capitalism that takes no prisoners.

The Tao of Raven is one of the most honest books I’ve ever read.  Hayes refuses to sugar-coat the alcoholism, the broken promises, the poverty offered to native Alaskans.  Even as Trump’s final rages go on, he has opened the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge for drilling, to the highest bidder.  Apart from those whose wealth will increase as a result, we will all suffer.  Those who lived in Alaska before the colonists arrived the most.  The idea of colonizing, without which capitalism just can’t work, reveals its evil here.  When a voice like that of Hayes is able to make itself heard we cannot but feel the condemnation.  When over seventy-million people vote for a hater, we all tremble.

The book ends much as it begins.  A sincere regret for those who’d been fed the contradictory messages of missionaries.  Those told to accept suffering on earth so that they could go to the white person’s Heaven, while those inflicting the suffering lead comfortable lives with modern conveniences.  The double-standards that allow people to die on the street like dogs.  The double-standards that can’t see that you need not be Christian to upend the tables of money-changers.  Indeed, the last time someone dared to such a thing was two millennia ago.  When Christianity slipped its fingers between those of capitalism a monster would surely be born.  The cost would come in human lives, even as a quarter-million lay dead in this country from a virus a rich man can’t be bothered to address.  Do yourself, do the world a favor.  Read this book.  Read it with your eyes open and learn from Raven.

Nightmares Awake!

According to Amazon, Nightmares with the Bible has now been published.  Authors are seldom the first to see copies of their own books, strangely enough.  I probably won’t have any physical copies for a couple of weeks yet.  Until then I’ll wait like an expectant mother.  I don’t actually read my own books after they’re published.  Like some other writers I know, I’m terrified of finding mistakes.  And the older I get the less certain I am about anything.  I’m not even sure if it’s officially published yet or not.  I choose to trust Amazon’s opinion on that.

Right now I’m caught up between four or five other book projects, each a good bit along.  Since writing is often a mood-based thing, what I do in the sleepy hours of pre-dawn is what I feel like writing on any given day.  Unless you have a book contract in hand, that’s not, I suppose, that unusual.  I’m trying to guess what might most get the attention of an agent.  Both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible were written for general readers.  I don’t have the name-recognition to command any kind of attention (or affordable prices), so I need to find a topic that’ll do the work for me.  I personally find religion and horror a fascinating subject.  Many other academics do as well, but general readers not so much.  It’ll feel more like reality when I have a copy I can have and hold.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with ebooks.

What usually makes me stick with a project for the dash toward the finish line is a book getting close enough to see the ribbon ahead.  I write incessantly, so I have a backlog from which to draw.  I know my tastes are odd, which means it’s a challenge to get others onboard with my likes.  I know horror fans love to read about movies.  I suspect most of them don’t care much about the religious aspect of what they’re seeing.  That’s why I write about it.  People get information about religion from popular media.  Even if they deny their interest, writers and directors will slip it in regardless.  I’m just calling them like I see them.  The nice thing about movies is you can have instant replay.  And with a fair number of us now publishing books in this niche, hopefully conversation will follow.  Until then, I’ll just be waiting here until my first copy arrives.

Constipated Democracy

Vows apparently mean nothing anymore.  I suppose that’s what happens when you begin your administration with “alternative facts” and keep it up for four years.  When you vow to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible—that means you’ll play by the rules.  Instead we find ourselves with a bad case of constitutional constipation and we all know that we need a national enema.  It has been a week now since it’s been mathematically impossible for Trump to win the electoral college.  Yet even his evangelical followers can’t seem to recall that hand on the Bible, that promise to obey.  Apparently it’s okay to lie before God, if you think like we do.  If you don’t want to have conversation but want to talk at others and say you’re right.  It saddens me that so many Americans simply don’t care what the majority clearly wants.

This is especially the case because Trump is being treated as some messianic figure.  An overweight, womanizing, pathologically lying Jesus.  And people are saying, “Yes, that’s what the Bible tells us is good, and right, and just.”  Those who are settled in good paying jobs—people of my generation—have been beneficiaries of the systems of education and government programs that the Trump administration has spent four years dismantling.  And they have the audacity to call themselves Christian while their lives are saying “I got mine, I don’t care about anybody else.”  And they’re the ones who wore WWJD paraphernalia just a couple decades ago.  WHCB?  What Has Christianity Become?

Many of us (the excluded majority, in fact—Trump won the 2016 election while losing the popular vote) knew the greatest danger would be that he would be “normalized.”  This would all come to be seen as the normal course of politics.  People from Trump’s own family have gone on record that his run for office was a publicity stunt meant to drum up business for his failing empire.  And those who acted/wrote/supposed that he had any “plan” or “strategy” at all were simply failing to see a career grifter fleecing the country while playing golf and having his “fixers” do the work.  Until he one-by-one threw them under the bus.  This was all done in the public eye and yet his followers think he really has the best interests of this country at heart.  He has torn countless families apart, and not just at the border.  And now that he’s been defeated he keeps the charade going while his followers bow down and worship.  Excuse me, but I think I need to use the restroom.

Demonic Monsters

One of the perils of writing books is that you often realize something after the book has gone to the printer.  Book production is a lengthy process.  I submitted the manuscript for Nightmares with the Bible in January.  The procedure of getting it ready has stretched eleven months.  In that time, as any writer knows, you keep thinking about what you wrote.  That’s where blogging comes in handy.  In any case, as I was pondering demons the other day I realized that they really only became the objects of horror with The Exorcist.  Now I’m not alone in noting the importance of The Exorcist in kicking off the modern interest in demons.  But what I’m now thinking is that in making them the subject of a horror film—intended to be realistic—The Exorcist made demons monstrous.  Let me explain.

Demons have generally, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, been evil.  They cause suffering and misfortune.  They also, however, have a mischievous nature.  In other words, they can be playful.  So can grizzly bear cubs, did I hear you say?  That’s precisely my point.  Grizzly bears aren’t evil.  Powerful, yes.  Dangerous, certainly.  Evil, no.  One of the threads I take up but don’t spend too much time weaving into my book is the idea of the playful demon, or sometimes, the playful Devil.  In the Middle Ages such ideas weren’t rare.  Think about imps.  Do people really fear them?  Not so much.  And the often scatological behavior of demons in that time period made them a little less than serious.

I’m not suggesting that possession and exorcism are to be taken lightly.  I know they existed before William Peter Blatty ever decided to write a novel about them.  It was that novel, however, and the subsequent film, that made demons into monsters.  They joined the unholy pantheon of creatures like vampires, ghosts, and zombies.  They had the added frisson of being accepted as real by many religious traditions.  They continued to evolve in popular culture until they proliferated around the cinematic and television worlds.  Now we pretty much instantly recognize demons as monsters when we spot them.  I suspect they would not have been seen in a similar way in the Middle Ages.  Troublesome and evil they could be, but would they have been thought of in that mental category that we call monsters?  I have my doubts.  Perhaps it is good I didn’t think of this before sending my book off.  I doubt the publisher would’ve been happy if I’d added an extra chapter at the last minute.

Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.

Please Vote

If you haven’t done so already, please vote.  This day has never felt so portentous before.  I’ve been voting since the 1980s and we’ve had some real unsavory choices in some past years.  Never had we had a monstrous incumbent set on destroying the very nation that made him what he is.  Those who don’t, or won’t read the facts haven’t learned what’s obvious even to lifelong Republicans I know—Trump cares only for himself.  His family confirms it.  His policies, such as they are, show it.  He provides lip service to anti-abortion while using stem cells from fetuses to cure his own case of Covid-19 that he caught only by ignoring the science that tells us masks and distancing are necessary.  Even as our infection rates pass what they’ve ever been before, he fiddles while America burns.

Some of us have noticed a profound quiet for the past week or so.  It’s like the country’s running a low-grade fever.  Republicans have been attempting to prevent people from voting, wanting a country more like them, mean and unforgiving, that they can call “Christian.”  To me this feels like 9-11 did, only we have known the plot all along and have been too stunned to do anything about it.  Democracies are founded on the principle of the choice of the electorate.  The only way that we can make that choice known is to vote.  It’s the only way left to be a patriot.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with a similar situation in his native Germany.  An evangelical Christian, he didn’t acquiesce to Hitler, glorying in the rush of power.  He wrote that when a madman is driving the wheel must be wrenched from his hands.  Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis he tried to displace, but his spiritual eyesight was clear.  Faith can blind believers to the truth.  We’ve seen this happen time and time and time again.  Instead of condemning we need to help them since they cannot help themselves.  This is the truest form of what Jesus stood for.  Read the gospels if you doubt.  This year the decision isn’t for Democrat or Republican, it’s for clear-eyed assessment or self-adoring narcissism.  If a mirror’s held too close, we can’t see what’s truly reflected.  We must vote today to show what we want America to be.  The eyes of both the past and the future are upon us.  How will we want them to be remembered?

Dreamland

I don’t keep a dream journal, but with my odd sleeping habits I’m thinking maybe I should.  You see, waking in the middle of a dream is a good way to remember it.  Often I bolt awake in the middle of the action.  Well, I assume it’s the middle of the action, but how would I know?  Dreams are that way.  Whether in the middle or at the end, I wake up able to remember them in some detail for a few hours.  I have noticed a pattern over the past several months.  Not surprisingly, the characters in my dream worlds know about the pandemic.  It often plays a role in the story.  I have yet to remember a dream where the people are wearing masks, however.  They sometimes talk about it, but never do it.

The subconscious is a slippery place.  Although psychologists are often fascinated by dreams, nobody can say for sure what they mean.  One class of dream that I often have on an annual basis is the AAR/SBL anxiety dream.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting has been a fixture throughout my professional life.  Usually I have a dream where I’ve forgotten something important for the conference, such as forgetting to stop in the exhibit hall to see the new books.  I recently had my annual conference anxiety dream.  This year the conference is virtual so I’m not actually going anywhere.  In the dream I did.  And nobody was wearing masks.  The dream, however, was mainly about keeping my boss happy.  That’s simple enough to understand.

Most years I get several blog posts out of the conference (which takes place in November).  The virtual conference has been postponed until after Thanksgiving, and lengthened out by over a week.  Accommodating all those papers (thousands of them) via Zoom must be a logistical nightmare.  Since editors go to these for meeting people, there’s no reason for me to sign up.  Instead, I’ll be right here in eastern Pennsylvania, huddled down waiting for the pandemic to be over.  I’ll be wearing a mask whenever I venture off my own property.  It is my hope that others might do the same.  I read of covid-weary people burning their masks, putting themselves at risk as the number of infections continue to rise.  In my subconscious mind I’m somewhere else.  Perhaps I can convince them to wear masks in my imaginary world.  After all, anything is possible in dreams.

Wild God

Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is one of those books I wanted to put down gently after reading it, for fear that it might explode.  Or maybe it was my head I feared might combust.  Describing it is difficult because it is so wide-ranging.  On the one hand it is an atheist’s view of religion.  On the other hand it is a spiritual biography.  On a third hand it is coming to terms with having had a profound mystical experience.  It is one of those books where, knowing my life has been so very different, yet I feel that Ehrenreich and I have had so much in common that we’d be friends if we ever met.  It is also the work of a woman who is scary smart and whose teenage thoughts were so intense that my own seem puerile by comparison.

But that mystical experience!  I’ve had many of them in my life, but I don’t know you well enough to share them here.  They’ve been recorded in an unfinished book that I may or may not try to publish some day.  (Ehrenreich was smart and took a job as a journalist, which means others assume you know how to write.  Even those of us in publishing have trouble convincing agents and others who hold the keys to non-academic pricing that we understand the craft.)  Mysticism quickly becomes a staid discipline, not at all like the life-directing experiences such encounters themselves actually are.  It’s difficult to explain without sitting down and talking to you.  It’s something academics tend to avoid like Covid-19.

The books that mean most to me are like conversations with an absent author.  Drawn in by an openness, or perhaps by the fact that we’ve lived in a few of the same places over the years, perhaps passed one another unknowingly on the street, you feel that they’ve invited you into their very head.  What you find there has a strange similarity to what is in your own head, while being completely different at the same time.  We should all strive for such honesty in our writing.  In the end Ehrenreich, with a doctorate in science, suggests we need to be open.  That kind of validation is important for those of us who’ve poured our lives into the study of religion.  She was drawn in from atheism, and I have been trying to escape from literalism all my adult life.  We have ended up in places not dissimilar from each other and I’m glad to have met her through this profound book.

Hot Breakfast

Cooking in a pre-dawn kitchen has a certain appeal as the weather cools.  Knowing that something with warmth will set you right before the nighttime cold forces the furnace on for the next six-to-nine months.  After a recent tooth extraction I was told to keep on a soft diet until the wound healed.  A fan of crispy breakfast cereals, I faced a new dilemma—what to eat before work?  Being vegan means bacon and eggs won’t do (there is passable vegan bacon available, but so far the plant-based eggs haven’t managed not to taste like mung beans).  On a recent frenzy of nostalgia I had purchased a box of (now mostly empty) farina.  Often known by its commercial name “Cream of Wheat,” farina is more like flour and milk (many vegan options available) but with a better texture than paste.  It reminded me of childhood Saturdays.  Then the box was empty and grocery day was the better part of a week away.

Grits seemed a little more challenging.  The particle size is larger and might cause problems in the healing wound.  Still, I gave it a try.  Since my father was from South Carolina I grew up eating things like grits and black-eyed peas.  This makes for a hearty breakfast as long as you keep the grits on the other side of your mouth.  When the black-eyed peas were gone, I turned to oatmeal.  Bigger pieces yet, but still soft.  Oatmeal works best with some kind of sweet accompaniment.  Brown sugar and cinnamon is a standard. Sweets bother my teeth, however, so I need to be careful there.

The problem with all of these options is that one serving of these hot cereals was too little to keep me going.  I wake early and eat breakfast early, so I need about six hours of energy from this meal.  Two servings are too much.  Ratios are beyond me.  So I turn to my religious roots.  Whenever I think of breakfast I’m reminded that our cereal-eating culture (hot or cold) was largely influenced by Seventh-Day Adventist sensibilities.  Adventists are vegetarians, and some prominent among them by the name of Kellogg launched massive, religiously motivated campaigns to have the day begin with grains, back in the day.  It stuck.  I suspect Kellogg was good with numbers.  I wish I could figure out how third-cups and quarter-cups relate to one another.  Like most things in life, it’s falling midway between that is difficult.  It’s chilly in here and I too hungry to do math.  At least the religion part I partially understand.

Tooth Less

The words “difficult extraction” are not what you want to hear, seated in a dentist chair.  Fortunately mine was not difficult.  I’m squeamish about most things, and like many kids raised in humble circumstances, experienced dental care at the largess of various government programs.  I remember going home nearly every time in a state of shock regarding how much it hurt and what he had done to us.  It has taken a lifetime to get over the fear of the dentist.  Now I patronize a local female dentist who is gentle and caring—something that didn’t exist, and we couldn’t have afforded anyway, when I was a child.  Even so, she’s telling me a tooth has to come out.  I’m being stoic and starting my meditation mantra.

Health care in the United States, as Trump’s recent treatment for a virus to which he carelessly exposed himself shows, is horribly uneven.  Those who are systemically kept poor—especially those who are “of color”—often have few choices and die younger.  Yet supporters of 45 see no problem with this.  Now, I wish I weren’t in this dentist chair right now.  I’m not looking forward to the novocaine shots or the tugging on my jaw.  Or the hours of gauze in my mouth afterward.  But at least I can afford this.  It pains me even more that there are others who can’t.  And that those who claim to follow a man who healed for free are voting for a man who has pledged to keep inequality as “the American way.”

I grew up taking care of my teeth the way the poor often do—that is to say, not enough.  The solutions involve education and empathy, both of which our government has chosen to eject for jingoism and bravado.  I’m not so much worried about having one tooth less.  I am worried about a government that feels it has the right to oppress the poor so that the wealthy can continue to gain more money that can, in turn, be used to control the government.  This is wrong.  There’s no way that it can be made to be “Christian,” no matter what evangelicals may say.  I’m sitting here in the dentist chair and the needle’s getting closer.  I’ll have a mouth full of gauze for the next few hours and I’ll be on a soft food diet for a while.  I may be in some pain.  But still I know I’m one of the lucky ones.

Not Sleepy Yet

Over a recent weekend I watched four versions of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  (I have two excuses.  One is that it’s October, and the second is that I have an article on Sleepy Hollow coming out on Horror Homeroom.  For the second, read on.)  The story is one that made an impact on me as a child, probably because of Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  The cartoon version, which was one of the four I watched, is silly and scary both.  It leaves it to the imagination whether the headless horseman is real or not.  Before that I watched the silent 1922 Headless Horseman staring Will Rogers.  Clearly in that film the headless horseman is what we’d now call a liberal hoax.  It was Brom Bones scaring Ichabod Crane away from Katrina Van Tassel.

The canon of characters grows with Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.  Although Burton is hit or miss for me, this strikes me as one of the best October movies I’ve seen.  The headless horseman is quite real and the spiritual world intersects with the rational, crime and punishment world in the haunted western wood.  I didn’t have time for the 1980 television movie this time around, but I decided to watch the 2007 television movie Headless Horseman.  A rather puerile splatter film set in Missouri, it posits that this is the real headless horseman behind Washington Irving’s story.  It has a lot of religious imagery, which is often what I’m looking for in horror.  The writing is poor and the characters shallow, but it isn’t a total waste of time.

What all of these films demonstrate is that Washington Irving’s story, as simple as it is, really resonated with Americans.  How can you reason or plead mercy from a headless man?  Look closely, for there is a parable here.  The headless are merciless and they have the ability to frighten.  The story is generally set in the harvest season.  The 2007 movie makes the horseman’s appearance as a crucified scarecrow.  Although the original story had no such religious elements, they’ve become a standard part of its accrued cultural heritage.  The headless horseman has gone from secular to religious, for it is an American story.  Originally set in the period after the Revolutionary War, it was part of an unsettled nation’s frustrated attempt at normalcy.  This, I believe, remains.  When we can’t make sense of our surroundings, we look back to those stories that seem to have some insight into who we are.  Headless horsemen are quite useful in that regard.

Dangers of Experience

I’m so used to being behind everyone else that when I turn out to be ahead of the curve it occasions genuine surprise.  That’s the way it appears when I think about the dominance of the far right in American politics.  As an editor I get to read proposals for other editors on the board.  Political scientists are trying to analyze how we’ve come to be a nation of religious far-righters when we seemed so progressive that we put a smart phone in everyone’s pocket and Alexa in everyone’s voice range.  I grew up as a far-righter when it certainly felt alienating.  Apart from people we met at church I didn’t know any others outside my family.  People we knew were, well, just different.  Back in those days we didn’t judge them.  We accepted them for who they were.

One of the aspects of my life to which I’ve grown accustomed is being ignored.  I’m not a big person, nor am I a loud one.  It isn’t unusual for me to be overlooked at work and even at religious gatherings (a field in which I’m a bona fide expert).  Nevertheless, I have a wealth of experience among the far-righters and I think it might help to understand our political climate.  I think I have a pretty good grip on what motivates this crowd.  Since I grew up (serious study will do that to you) and am no longer arrested at that stage, I’ve blended into the crowd as someone just as perplexed as everyone else.  I do, however, have an idea of what they’re after.  Our particular sect didn’t push this—we seemed more worried about our own souls staying out of Hell—but many fundamentalists wanted to take over the nation.  In fact, they have.

The fact that 45 isn’t one of them is immaterial.  Power is the thing.  Power to make others conform or suffer.  This particular faith is built on fear, not love.  It’s as if their New Testament lacks the gospel of John.  You see, I was ahead of the curve.  I was part of it before it took over congress, the White House and the supreme court.  Things move so far these days that thinkers just don’t have time to think about everything.  Work days are long and covid still complicates everything.  Who has the time to seek out those who grew out of the very source that now endangers our democracy?  I think I prefer running a little behind, don’t you, Cassie?

Behind the Exorcist

Some books from the 1970s are difficult to locate.  Since that was some half-century ago I suppose that’s not at all unusual.  One of those that I had been anxious to read since working on Nightmares with the Bible was Diabolical Possession and Exorcism, by John J. Nicola.  The main reason for my desire was that many people involved in the narrative about demons in the modern world are difficult to document, at least on the internet.  For academics, or even journalists, with budgets and release or research time, there’s the possibility of travel and interviews and archive searching.  I have none of those things, and I was curious about Nicola’s book since he wrote a forward to The Amityville Horror, vouching for its authenticity, and he was also technical advisor for The Exorcist.

I didn’t locate a copy of his book until after Nightmares was well into production, but research, even as I conduct it, is never-ending.  The book is kind of a memoir and kind of a “you should listen to your priest” lecture.  What’s fascinating about it is Nicola has no difficulty accepting both the paranormal and the standard Catholic teaching in matters of faith.  He does come across as somewhat credulous, and somewhat academic in this book.  His chapter on his role in The Exorcist is quite informative.  One of my main questions regarding both the man and his book was what his particular expertise is/was (even finding out if he’s still alive, via the web, is difficult; he is on the 2017 honor roll of giving for a Catholic charity).  The book provides a partial answer, but it also raises many questions.

This book is rare enough to have given rise to its own kind of mythology.  I would classify that in the same category as the various stories about The Exorcist production being plagued with curses and strange phenomena.  They’re all part of a culture of creating a belief structure that allows the supernatural back into an overly materialist worldview.  Kind of like Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” it causes pleasant shivers because it doesn’t really explain anything.  The book itself is though-provoking, but like the books of Gabriele Amorth, expends pages on the wonders of the Virgin Mary and building up a Catholic outlook on the spiritual world as the basis for combatting evil.  Nicola, correctly in my opinion, points to the (then impending) influence of The Exorcist movie.  This is a topic that I take up in Nightmares, for those interested in knowing more.

BBW

It’s a measure of how busy I am when Banned Book Week has started before I realize it.  Most years I make it a point to read a banned book at this time, but my reading schedule is so crowded that I seem to have missed the opportunity this year—I didn’t see it coming.   I’ve read a great number of the top 100 banned books over the years, and I’m sure I’ll read more.  I’ve recently been reading about America’s troubled history with free expression.  Probably due to a strong dose of Calvinism combined with Catholicism, many of the books challenged and banned, as well as prevented from ever seeing the light of day, have to do with bodily functions.  Sex, especially.  In American society, as freely as this is discussed, we still have a real problem when someone writes about it.

Why might that be so?  Many religions recognize the privacy aspect of sexuality without condemning the phenomenon itself.  The Bible (which is on the list of Banned Books) talks of the subject pretty openly and fairly often.  Our hangups about it must be post-biblical, then.  Much of it, I suspect, goes to Augustine of Hippo.  Although he had a wild youth, Augustine decided that nobody else should be able to do so guilt free, and gave us the doctrine of original sin.  Add to that the legalistic interpretation of Paul and his school, and soon the topic itself becomes difficult to address.  Victorian values, obviously, played into this as well.  Literature, which explores every aspect of being human, is naturally drawn to what is a universal human drive.

Banned Books also treat race—another topic that haunts America—or use coarse language.  Some challenge religious holy grails, such as special creation or Christian superiority.  It seems we fear our children being exposed to ideas.  The wisdom of such banning is suspect.  The publishing industry has many safeguards in place to create age-appropriate literature.  Banning tends only to increase interest by casting the “forbidden” pall over something that is, in all likelihood, not news to our children.  American self-righteousness tends to show itself in many ways, making much of the rest of the world wonder at us.  We seem so advanced, but we fear a great number of rather innocuous books.  The reasons are similar to those behind why we can support tax-cheating, womanizing, narcissists as leaders: our faith blinds us.  I may be late in getting to my banned book this year, so I guess I’ll just have to read two next time.