Roman Mythology

A recent game of Redactle led to a family discussion of Roman mythology.  I had to flex some muscles unused since my last full semester at Rutgers, but I was pleased that the old learning is still there.  One of the first things people notice about Roman mythology is its lackluster nature.  Rather like current-day politicians, the Romans mostly lacked imagination when it comes to compelling stories.  Roman religion consisted largely of cult—that is the enacting of sacrifices and learning how to read omens.  They had no “Bible” and really no other collection of myths, apart from what they borrowed from the Greeks (who borrowed, in turn, much from Semitic mythology).  They mapped their various gods—some from the Etruscans—onto the Greek pantheon and made do with other peoples’ stories.

Rome’s native myths largely focused on their own history and human characters—again, the parallels with Republican sanitized American history are apt—but also deal with serious issues.  In the words of T. P. Wiseman, “How does well-meaning authority turn into murderous tyranny?”  (I resist footnoting blog posts, but this is from the preface of his book The Myths of Rome.)  Like modern politicians, they believed their origins were divine.  The gods had chosen them to be a superpower.  We might scratch our heads and ask ourselves where the Roman Empire is today, even as Italy elects hard-right leaders.  We learn nothing from history.  Nothing.

So let’s turn to mythology instead.  Or at least religion.  Roman religious writing was often kept secret—the purview of priests only.  Some of this survived into early Roman Catholic ideas about keeping Scripture to the priests.  Religious writings are dangerous if they get out there among hoi polloi (or “hot polo” as my autocorrect suggests).  Ironically, those of us sent off to specialized schools to learn this stuff are, in these days, generally ignored.  Roman officials were often anxious to know what oracles said.  Today televangelists and their ilk seem to be the ticket.  Anyone can be an expert if they talk loud enough.  And yet the Romans admired the Greek intellectual life.  The creativity with which they handled their gods.  There was much to be emulated there.  Roman Jupiter was the protector of the military (budget, one is prompted to write—forgive me if my Muse is a little unruly this morning).  And yet it was the Roman authorities who crucified Jesus.  We may indeed still learn something from Roman mythology.

Hebert James Draper, The Lament for Icarus, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Scary Holidays

One of the real wonder of books is that they can spawn ideas outside their specific topics.  While revised dissertations can be somewhat difficult to read, Derek Johnston’s Haunted Seasons: Television Ghost Stories for Christmas and Horror for Halloween contains quite a few such moments of birthing ideas.  While being largely British-focused, it nevertheless explores holiday horror, a phenomenon that I’ve been researching for some time.  Not really a television watcher (not any more—as a child things were quite different), I don’t really keep up with many programs.  Still, I learned a lot from this book.  One of the main questions it addresses is something I’ve long wondered about—why is there a connection between Christmas and ghost stories in England?

Johnston points out that Celtic areas tended to have Halloween or its precursors to supply an occasion for otherworldly thinking.  The English, not wanting to think of themselves as these outer-lying cultures (I’m simplifying and abstracting a bit here), developed their own tradition of the Christmas ghost story.  It pre-dates Dickens and probably goes far enough back in history that there’s no way to trace it.  Telling ghost stories around the shortest day of the year makes its own sense.  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was perhaps the most famous example, but M. R. James’ habit of telling ghost stories (later published) to students and fellow enthusiasts on Christmas Eve also plays into it.  In Britain this led to a series of BBC Ghost Story for Christmas shows.  Meanwhile, in America, where there was quite a lot of Celtic immigration, a taste for Halloween grew.

There are so many ideas that swirl around holidays.  I’ve been exploring the topic for nearly two decades now.  Publishers, always with their eyes on the bottom line, don’t produce much like this, figuring people will only buy it one season a year, and for books that means usually the first year only.  Some people (yours truly, for one) will buy books about holidays out of season.  So much of life is preparing for special times.  I suspect that ancient people also fell into humdrum daily existences also.  Humans require stimulation, we like variety and novelty.  Holidays are a great solution—they don’t occur every day.  If they did they wouldn’t be special.  They bring something different into our workaday world and, in modern times especially, we brand them so that each one is at least slightly different.  I don’t mind seeing the seasonal displays so early in the stores—it reminds me that haunted seasons are just around the corner.


Saints and Freedom

There’s a saying that all elections are local.  I suspect that’s true.  Location is important.  There are famous Americans not recognized in other parts of the world.  And there are, of course, local celebrities.  Having settled once again in Pennsylvania, I’ve taken an interest in local religions.  Although not part of the “Burnt-over District” of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, because of its early laws of religious liberty, has produced some noteworthy figures over the centuries.  And institutions.  When someone mentioned St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I was curious.  I’m not Catholic and even though I’d considered a monastic life, I really knew little about it.  St. Vincent is the largest Benedictine monastery in the western hemisphere, as well as the oldest in the United States.  

Image credit: Guerillero, via Wikimedia Commons (Copyleft Free Art License)

Latrobe isn’t far from Pittsburgh.  There is a strong Catholic presence in the area.  Like many Catholic institutions, it has a cluster.  St. Vincent College, also in Latrobe, must’ve sent me—in those days, print—a prospectus back when I was looking at schools.  I’ve known about it for a long time.  There’s also a seminary, also called St. Vincent.  Probably it’s largest claim to fame is that the Pittsburgh Steelers use the College (I suspect the seminary has no athletic program) for their training camp.  Monks and football players—they must have some interesting conversations.  I grew up thinking Catholicism was basically some other religion.  Fundamentalists, misunderstanding the basics of history, tend to claim that Catholics aren’t Christians.  Indeed, until the recent politicization of conservative Christianity, they wouldn’t have had much to say to each other.

Catholicism was frowned upon by the early colonists.  While seeking freedom of religion, what they really wanted was freedom of religion for themselves.  In good, charitable Christian fashion, many colonies tried to exclude those that believed differently.  Especially Papists.   Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, however, notably allowed freedom.  I’ve lived in Pennsylvania long enough to know that even legal freedom isn’t protection from those locals who’d rather not have Muslims or Hindus for neighbors.  And in all likelihood William Penn, a good Quaker, probably couldn’t imagine people of “exotic” religions wanting in.  Indeed, the majority of people in this hemisphere weren’t really even aware of “eastern religions” until the 1890s.  The religions here were forms mostly of Christianity and Judaism.  By 1846 the Benedictines could establish a college, monastery, seminary complex in western Pennsylvania.  And it would become the largest and oldest such establishment in a country that still doesn’t grasp true religious freedom.


First Choice

One of the first things I do when I finish a book, unless I know about the author already, is ecosia (google) her or him.  I want to know who it is that wrote this, and the internet’s right there!  So it came as a surprise to see my first (two-star) review for Nightmares with the Bible on Amazon, where the reviewer did no follow-up.  The reviewer is quite upset that I don’t take the Bible literally, but at least s/he bothered to leave a review.  A more positive rating might bring me up to three stars, but I’ve failed classes before.  I’m a big boy, I can handle it.  In any case, if you ecosia me you’ll quickly come upon this humble website that’ll tell you what you need to know.  No, I am no longer a Fundamentalist.  And the book was about demons in movies.  (I was actually searching for reviews of the series.)

I scrolled down.  The named reviews solicited for the book I knew, so I was surprised, and delighted, that further down the page I had a Choice review.  Even a disgruntled evangelical couldn’t bring me down after that!  In case you’re not a librarian, or an academic publisher, Choice is THE periodical librarians use for deciding on which books to buy.  It is very difficult to get a review in it—I work at a prestige publisher and seldom see our books in there.  If you’re a trade author that’s not so important, but if the only sales, or majority of sales, are for libraries, to get a “recommended” status is a big deal.  That’s worth celebrating.

If you’re wondering, authors do not get notified of reviews.  Some editors will let them know (my editor at McFarland hasn’t been in touch for years).  The journals are too busy doing what journals do to send every author a copy of their review.  So I swung by Amazon’s Holy Horror page.  I’ve got four ratings there now, mostly on the lower end of the scale.  If you’ve read it and liked it (not something I assume, of course) a nice review would go a long way.  Disgruntled evangelicals (aren’t they all, these days?) may make the books look bad, but colleagues who’ve read them seem to think differently.  I hold to the publishing adage that there’s no such thing as a bad review, but good reviews feel so pleasant.  I’ve only written one negative book review in my life, and that was because I felt any other would be utterly dishonest in that particular case.  It’s a choice I make because of the Bible: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”


Things that Appear

As a movie, Apparition fails on many levels.  One way that it passes is being free on Amazon Prime, which is how I found it.  The trick with Prime, of course, is that really good movies tend to be available for a limited time, keeping you on the website.  Time is money, after all.  I was drawn into Apparition from the “based on real events” tagline, even though I should know better.  It was a hot, sleepy weekend afternoon, and I’m not a good napper.  I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers here, so if you’re into penance, you might want to wait until after you’ve seen it.  Set at the real life Preston School of Industry—a boy’s correctional institution in California—the boys are tortured and sometimes murdered by the warden and guards.  This is one of the few real-life parts: a housekeeper at the facility was murdered in an unsolved crime at the site.

Fast-forward two decades.  The former warden (the place has been closed), is hosting the lavish rehearsal dinner for his son’s wedding.  The son is unloved (his father is a sociopath, after all), and doesn’t treat his fiancée very well.  Meanwhile a younger son is a nerd who’s developed an app called Apparition.  Through some unexplained technological wizardry, it allows the user to connect to the dead.  Another couple, son and daughter of two of the former prison guards, decide to try it and discover that it works.  When the bride gives it a try it leads the five young people to the Preston School.  There various ghost-hunter startles are used as the ghosts of the murdered boys take their revenge on the offspring of the warden and guards.  The bride discovers her father was a “good cop” and that’s why she wasn’t killed.  The younger son is actually the son of the murdered housekeeper, another of his father’s dark secrets.  The parents come and get what’s due to them.

What makes this unremarkable film (and very little comment has been given on it) worth discussing here is that during the opening credits a Bible is shown open to Exodus.  The verse called out is 20.5: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”  This isn’t referenced per se in the film, but the warden does suggest the school is a righteous place.  That’s a fairly brief reward for watching, but I hate to waste even a lazy weekend afternoon when it’s too hot to work outdoors.


The Truth, for Free

The Book of Common Prayer, reaching back to my Anglican days, is and always has been in the public domain.  Although the poetic language and culturally relevant phrases could by charged for use, they’re not.  The idea seems right-headed to me.  Although the Church of England, like many other religious bodies, has its own specific theology and approach to things, which it believes is right, as opposed to all other belief systems, it shows its conviction in making its sacred text free.  Copyright exists to protect intellectual property.  If an individual or an institution, or a company, creates something, copyright assures them that nobody else can monetize it without the creator’s permission, and often such permission involves a royalty.  The C of E has foregone that.  Print away!

I tarried many years among the Episcopalians before it became clear to me that I wasn’t exactly the kind of saint they were looking for.  I’ve had to move on, but I very deeply appreciate the integrity of an institution that says, “I made this, but you can have it.  I really believe in it.”  If you’ve decided to print and sell religious books, however, beware the Bible.  Most of the common translations in circulation (apart from the good old King James) are covered by copyright.  Unlike the Church of England, the bodies that sponsor Bible translations expect to be paid for the use of said translation.  This is, in part, a business decision.  They have valuable property—for many the keys of salvation itself—and if you want it you should be willing to pay for it.

This contrast has often struck me as very odd.  How capitalist religion has become!  In what do Bible translating bodies really believe?  Believe me, I know that any large publishing effort requires a lot of work.  Resources.  Still, those who do the translating generally have church or university jobs.  They’ve already got a steady stream of income, no?  And yet they will expect to be paid their billed hours for bringing the truth to the world.  I’m not a good investment thinker.  Money doesn’t really motivate me.  This is one of the reasons I have tried several times to find acceptance as a clergy person.  My values seem out of sync with the rest of the world.  I even bothered to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written, the better to read, mark, and inwardly digest them.  Still, I wonder if those who truly believe would not feel more authentic giving away all they have in order to attain the kingdom of Heaven.


From Russia

A New York Times headline recently caught my eye.  “Russia opened a murder investigation into a car blast near Moscow.”  I wondered how a country that’s an aggressor at war, killing civilians in Ukraine every day, would be interested in something so petty as murder.  Then I saw the rest of the headline: “that killed the daughter of an influential ally of President Vladimir Putin.”  So there it is—some lives are more valuable than others.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m saddened by this (and any) murder.  And the use of violence to get what one wants is unethical.  Justice in this world, however, is based on unequal standards.  The supporters of Putins and Trumps matter more than any other people.  Death should not effect them the same way it effects civilians being missiled and shot.

Throughout all this we might wonder where the voice of the church is.  Churches, as institutions interested in power, are political players even when there’s no state religion.  The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin implicitly.  With the power of Russia, the power of the church rises.  A few thousand dead civilians, well, let God sort them out.  Churches become corrupt when they become politically powerful.  Politics is one of the most polluting things humans can do.  Long ago Lord Acton put it this way: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Churches got into power-brokering in the fourth century and we’ve seen the results ever since.  It’s not just Christianity, however; Islam makes it political and yes, even Buddhism and Hinduism incite violence when they become politicized.  A religious body that takes its mythology too seriously becomes dangerous when it tastes political power.  The world has many mythological figures.

What really took my breath away, however, is how many state resources will be devoted to finding and prosecuting those who killed one government supporter—we must find and punish those responsible—while thousands lie dead with the Russian government as their killers.  Other nations are just as guilty of course, but there’s a karmic imbalance when that nation is an aggressor in war.  Would you have ever expected a fair trial in Nazi Germany?  Does not unprovoked war make a mockery of the very concept of justice itself?  Justice, of course, means fair treatment.  For all.  She’s pictured as wearing a blindfold, after all.  She’s perhaps one of those mythical figures as well.


The Roll of Churches

I really don’t have time to follow any social media religiously, generally glancing at a page and perhaps scrolling down an inch or two when I have a moment.  I tend to glance at headlines, often pre-selected for me by a non-human intelligence, I expect.  Nextdoor dot com occasionally has a story that looks important to read, because it’s local.  Recently a poster from Bethlehem noted meeting a homeless person and was asking virtual neighbors where to turn for help (for the homeless person).  The answers weren’t surprising but reminded me of something I recently heard elsewhere—this is where churches still have a chance to shine.  While I’m tired of all the doctrinal and theological nonsense that arises from those who didn’t pay close enough attention in seminary, I do lament the plight of our churches.

Society has been too Republican for too long to care for those who can’t make it in an uber-capitalist environment.  Those with mental illnesses turned out when Reagan-era “reforms” “improved” our system for handling them.  Those who, through no fault of their own, can’t hold down a job.  Those who just happened to end up on the wrong side of a wave and find that a new wave breaks over them before they can properly take a fresh breath.  As the most affluent nation in the world, each homeless person is a reminder of the terrible price we pay for living within a system that rewards greed far above anything else.  Churches do have their problems—I’ve experienced many of them firsthand—but they often feel an obligation to take care of the sick, the homeless, the elderly.  Those not of value to a capitalist system because they don’t “contribute.”

When I commuted to Manhattan my bus arrived early.  I often saw the many homeless sleeping on the street as I made my way across Midtown.  Many days I wished I had an extra peanut butter sandwich with me so that I could give them something.  Anything.  Churches that aren’t caught up bickering about whose genitals belong where, or whether females are equal to males, often turn their sights to those who need help.  These churches are supported by the donations of members (for which said members can claim a tax break).  These are members who care for those they’ve never met, simply because they are human and in need.  Churches themselves are now facing difficult times and, unless they support Republican causes, can be assured they won’t receive a government bail out.  Compassion may be a dying species.


Scary Cosmology

In many ways a harrowing book, A Cosmology of Monsters, by Shaun Hamill, is a real achievement.  A monster story, it’s less a story about monsters than it is about people—which, upon thinking it over, is generally the case.  This story is about the suffering people undergo, sometimes simply for being who they are.  Hamill gets his hooks in early and drags you through this wonderful, terrible story.  Even now that I’ve finished it I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  What’s it about?  Maybe I can try to give you a few signposts and pointers.  To find out more you’ll need to read it and check my work.

The Turner family, through no fault of its own, has been living under a strange kind of curse.  It involves monsters, from what is probably another dimension, kidnapping and enslaving them.  The Turners aren’t alone in this.  Others who’ve been suffering from various causes are also targeted and treated.  Perhaps this is partially a parable on suffering and depression.  The Turner family faces death, missing children, forbidden love, and regret.  They run a local haunted house around Halloween, which the father’s regular job finances.  They do it for fun and it’s free.  It keeps them going when a terrible diagnosis is given.  Stressed financially and emotionally, they barely manage to stay together.  Noah, the narrator and only son, checks out the competition, including a Christian Hell House.  There he meets the girl he’ll eventually marry.  But the monsters don’t stop coming.  He befriends one.

An intricately interwoven story, you might call this horror but you would probably be closer to the truth with literary fiction.  There are uncomfortable facts about families.  Things we tend to overlook or ignore in order to keep society running smoothly.  These kinds of issues are brought out into the open here and mixed in with monsters.  On both the human and monster sides, the emotionally wrenching ideas have to do with relationships.  Noah, who was born just as his father was dying, establishes relationships both with his family and a monster.  As the story progresses over the years, his wife is added to this complex of relationships and they all end up, in a way, competing.  Decisions have to be made and someone you love must lose.  This novel makes monsters and humans the objects of the reader’s sympathy.  What’s more, it works.  I hope I haven’t given too many spoilers here, because this is quite an accomplishment, and well worth a reader’s time.


Burdens

Listening is very important.  Sometimes there’s nothing really to say but “I hear you.”  This kept occurring to me during All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake.  Tiya Miles is a history professor, and she helpfully includes an afterword telling how she came upon the topic for this book.  Ashley’s sack is just that, a sack.  On it, the owner, a female descendent of enslaved African-Americans, stitched a short inscription about the history of the sack, how her grandmother had given it to her mother when the latter was a child under ten, sold away from her mother in South Carolina.  This isn’t an easy book to read.  I have difficulty being faced with what “religious” “white” folks did to Blacks and justified themselves that people can be bought and sold.  Listen, I told myself, just listen.

Those who would deny that any of this ever happened need to learn to listen.  In order to capitalize on the resources this country offered, our ancestors engaged in morally reprehensible acts.  And the cruelty didn’t end with the shipping and the selling.  The treatment of unfree Black people itself was a crime, and their white captors knew full well what they were doing.  Preventing their slaves from having nice things while they themselves lived in luxury.  Beating, raping, and murdering when they didn’t get their way.  Selling their own offspring born of slaves to make a profit.  All the while claiming to be good Christians.  It’s often this part that I have trouble understanding.  Even a literalistic reading gives no license for treating other human beings this way.  Only money does that.

The style of history in this book isn’t that to which many of us are accustomed.  At the point of raising mental critiques I repeated, “You must learn to listen.”  Those who have made the rules showed themselves to be corrupt, and they must be willing to consider alternative ways of telling a story.  Miles makes the point that the history of unfree Blacks was largely erased, leaving the possibilities for histories and heritages slim; if the regular rules are themselves oppressive then it may be time to listen to those of others.  It seems impossible in the age of the world-wide web and all that it implies that we live on a planet where people repeatedly deny their sins while clutching their Bibles in their fists.  We need to learn to listen.


The King

Stephen King.  I haven’t read all of his books, but I’ve done quite a few.  I’ve watched movies based on some.  I read my first story by him in Junior High School.  I’ve even read books about him.  From what I can tell, he’s actually a man with his head on straight.  While some may find that a strange thing to write about a horror writer, it’s been my experience that those who enjoy horror, either as producers or consumers, are generally good people.  Recently King was testifying against the proposed buyout of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House.  Penguin Random House is already the largest trade publisher in the world.  The buyout would probably benefit King personally, but he testified it would make things worse for other writers and for independent bookstores.

How many people these days argue against things that benefit them personally?  Certainly not elected officials, particularly of what used to be a grand old party.  It’s all about me!  That seems to be the mantra of late capitalism.  King has publicly called for his own taxes to be raised.  This is nothing short of heroic.  While the Good Book advocates over and over for this kind of behavior, “Bible believers” have somehow overlooked it.  Leave it to a horror writer to get to the heart of the message.  I have no idea if King is part of any religious group or not—he certainly uses a lot of religious imagery and many religious concepts in his writing.  Of course, you don’t have to be in such a group to embody their proclaimed principles.

Thinking of the needs of others was drilled into me as child raised in a Fundamentalist faith.  Looking around me these days, I don’t see many Fundamentalists that hold to that any more.  Enamored of power—especially the power to control other people’s lives—they flock after rich pretenders who care nothing for the Gospel.  Sacrifice (for that’s what we’re talking about here) is something horror writers know well.  It’s never easy giving up something that’s valuable to you.  Or even thinking about it.  Writing, while very enjoyable, is hard work.  Training your mind is like physical exercise—it doesn’t just happen.  I’ve got a few Stephen King novels on my “to read” pile.  They’re big books, often intimidatingly so.  Once I start reading, however, I know I’ll find the work engaging.  And if I pay attention, there will be a message there too.

Not that kind of book.

Paperback Reader

Sometimes I wonder why I do it.  Horror is a strange category for books and films, but one thing that may be a draw is that they take me back.  Life, it seems, is cyclical.  I liked monsters as a kid, and grew out of it when college and graduate school taught me to be serious.  As a working academic this genre can spell death to your career, so when my career died anyway, I was left grasping at my childhood to try to make any sense of this.  Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell took me back.  Not that I’ve read all the books listed here—I came away with a list I want to read—but the lurid covers are a reminder of the kinds of things that caught my young imagination.

Subtitled The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction, this is actually a very fun book to read.  Hendrix has a light touch and had me nearly laughing out loud (quite an accomplishment) a time or two.  And I learned a lot.  Although I write books about horror, the genre is a large and sprawling one and this book takes a clear focus at the paperback market.  Just a reminder: paperback originals were designed to be sold and consumed quickly.  No waiting around for 18 months while profits from the hardcover roll in.  Hendrix really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the history.  It also seems like he may have read more horror than is necessarily good for you.  He clearly knows how the publishing business works.

Several of these books were big enough that I knew about them.  He starts off with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.  (And The Other, which I’m now obligated to find and read.)  In fact, the first chapter focuses on religion-themed horror.  This is something that only began in earnest in the late ‘60s.  While the horror paperback market may have tanked in the ‘90s, the film side of the genre has been doing quite well and continues to do so.  The late sixties also got that kick-started.  It seems that when people stopped running from the fact that religion is scary, horror itself grew up.  I was shielded from that part as a child, but now, looking back, I can see that things weren’t quite what they seemed.  This full-color, grotesquely illustrated book has great curb appeal.  And if you’re not careful, you can learn a thing or two as well.


Remember the Doorway

I’m glad it has a name.  And I’m also, relievedly, glad it’s normal.  The Doorway Effect.  I’m sure it’s happened to you.  You walk into a room and immediately forget what you came in for.  I’ve been afraid of some early onset of something because I’ve noticed it more and more, but it turns out that this is a normal brain function.  A recent article by Jessica Estrada explains that our brains are constantly framing.  A large part of that framing has to do with our physical location.  When you step through a doorway that framing changes and some of the residue (what I came in here for) might easily get left in your previous location.  In other words, it seems to be an effect of humans making different rooms for different purposes.  Our thought lingers in the place it was first born.

Photo by Filip Kominik on Unsplash

Our brains are fascinating organs.  Every time I read about how children’s brains form, I wish I’d studied psychology instead of religion.  How we could help our children if we understood what their brains just aren’t capable of doing just yet!  How many spankings could have been avoided if parents understood brain development?  Beating someone doesn’t teach anything.  Instead, we might try to learn how minds use brains.  Young boys can be quite reckless.  One of the reasons?  Their brains haven’t developed enough yet to think through the consequences of their actions.  Yes, they can push limits for other reasons, but their thinking simply doesn’t yet involve adult caution that (hopefully) comes with a developing brain.  One of the real consequences of this, for which I’ll volunteer as a poster child, is religion.

Children’s brains are not developed enough to accept and comprehend religious thinking until they’re about 12.  We’ve known this for many decades now.  And yet, the theology of parents means they try to convince their children of religious truths before their brains are developed enough to sort it out.  Look at Congress and the Supreme Court to see the results of this.  Most people never seriously question their religion.  For many it was instilled in them as children, before their brains could properly process it.  The rest of the country pays for it with laws then enact.  We’ve known about this for decades and have decided that studying religion is a waste of time.  But I digress.  Now I forget what I started to say when I began this post.


Woman in the Wilderness

The “Burnt Over District” is religious historian shorthand for upstate New York.  That particular region, during the “Second Great Awakening,” spawned so many religions and hosted so many revivals that it was difficult to believe anything more could sprout there (thus, “burnt over”).  One of my great fascinations is the origins of religions.  Not only that, but where those religions began.  On a continent-size level, Asia is clearly the champion, with all of the “big five” beginning there.  But religions evolve, sometimes rapidly.  Christianity in Britain gave rise to such groups as Quakers and Anglicans, and, in a post-Christian phase Britain gave the world Wicca.  The Germans were also great religious innovators with Luther and the Pietist and Anabaptist traditions.  Perhaps it’s in the Anglo-Saxon blood to make religions new.

After visiting Ephrata Cloister recently, my mind naturally turned to the “Hermits of the Wissahickon.”  If you’ve not heard of them, you’re not alone.  They, despite being men to a man, preferred the title “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.”  They were followers of Johannes Kelpius.  Kelpius, like Conrad Beissel after him, was a German mystic, Pietist, and musician, and he also believed the end of the world was imminent.  This was in 1694, just a few years before Beissel laid the foundations for Ephrata Cloister.  Like Beissel, Kelpius decided Pennsylvania was the best place to set up camp.  Although founded by Quakers, Pennsylvania offered something some other colonies didn’t—real religious freedom.  Given that you could be killed for being a Quaker in some of the other colonies, this didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Convinced Jesus would return in 1694, Kelpius and his followers settled into a cave just outside Philadelphia, by the Wissahickon Creek.  They set up a quasi-monastic community to wait out the clock near the city of brotherly love.

It’s difficult to know if Conrad Beissel was consciously imitating the work of Kelpius.  Religious leaders tend to have pretty strong views of their own outlooks.  The draw to Pennsylvania, in those days, was strong.  Interestingly, both Kelpius and Beissel are remembered for their music.  The death of Johannes Kelpius isn’t as well documented as that of Beissel—you can see the latter’s burial place in Ephrata.  Like millions of others, Kelpius lived through the “great disappointment” of not having the Second Coming occur when he supposed it would.  Some suggest Kelpius believed he would be translated after death.  He died in 1708, as his younger colleague was exploring the wilderness several miles to the west.  Keplius’ final resting place is listed, perhaps fittingly, as “unknown in Pennsylvania.”

Beissel’s Grave, Ephrata Cloister


Yep, Nope

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie that starts with a quote from Nahum.  I also honestly admit that Nope left me scratching my head, but very glad to have seen it.  I trust Jordan Peele implicitly as both a screenwriter and a director, and I know I need to see Nope again to make it all fit (if that’s possible).  His movies are the most Twilight Zoneish things out there, and despite Peele’s reported reason for naming the film Nope, I’m going to keep watching the skies.  It’s clear he had done his ufological homework.  Even the idea that—SPOILER ALERT—have you seen it yet?  Are you going to?  You might want to finish this later, if you haven’t—they are biological entities has been widely discussed.  

Although classified as horror, Nope has mercifully few jump startles.  In fact I noticed (there were maybe only 10 of us in the theater) that one couple had brought their kids.  I can imagine they had some interesting discussions on the car ride home.  For me, driving home alone, I felt like I’d watched Close Encounters, Twister, Signs, and Arrival simultaneously.  Peele set out to film a spectacle and he did indeed.  Horror has become more intelligent of late, and there’s so much going on here that I’ll need some time to sort it out.  The online nattering suggests the Nahum quote (“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle”) reflects Peele’s thoughts on the Bible.  A more literal take might see the evacuation of waste creating a spectacle, which it does.  How to explain the angel form of the creature?

Alien horror works.  Alien sees them deep in apace, but many films, such as Fourth Kind, see them closer to home. Fourth Kind, also by an Africa American director (Olatunde Osunsanmi) never received critical acclaim, but I thought the first half was impossibly scary.  It’s natural enough to fear those we don’t understand.  Perhaps that’s one reason we tend to deny their existence.  If we deal with them in fiction we can call it horror and go home happy.  Nope asks us to consider whether our differences matter so much in the face of a non-discriminate predator that eats any human that enters its territory.  Even if they were there first.  I still have a lot of questions about the movie.  Some of them will likely never be answered.  One that will is “Do you plan on seeing it again?”  The answer is yep.