Natural Disasters

Like many, my heart goes out to those in Turkey and Syria suffering through the destruction and aftermath of a major earthquake.  Such natural disasters often bring out the best in people—empathy, love, and offers of support.  They lead to both tragedy and human warmth.  They also give us pause to reflect, if we will, on our worst behaviors.  Rescue efforts have been hampered, in Syria especially, by a weakened infrastructure, caused, at least in part, by foreign bombing.  And yes, the United States was part of that.  People who now feel our sympathy only months before faced death from us.  What is it about our species that makes us want to destroy one another through our own technology but then turns and wants to help when a “random” act of nature occurs?  We must prefer death on our own terms.

Image credit: Luca Comerio (1878-1940), Corpses of victims of the earthquake in Messina, via Wikimedia Commons

For me, part of this is reflected in how the so-called “culture of life” treats liberal social causes as the “culture of death.”  Those groups that support “the culture of life” are against abortion but desire no controls on gun ownership.  This is the same basic principle—we want to cause death on our own terms.  We want to play God and decide who is worth saving and who should be destroyed.  I have no doubt that if, say, a tornado destroyed an entire city block outside a convention center where the NRA was meeting that those at the conference would rush out to try to help find survivors.  When they reconvened, they would try to figure out how to protect their “right” to own and collect assault rifles.  Is this “culture of life” really worth preserving?

Meanwhile the people of Syria and Turkey are suffering.  Thousands are dead, winter is setting in, and Covid is still out there.  They need our help.  The amount we spend on aid will, however, pale next to the amount we spend on bombs, drones, and missiles.  I have to wonder if we never really stop to think about what we’re doing when we engage in behaviors that destroy others.  That weeping mother outside an earthquake-collapsed building could be the same mother outside a missile-collapsed structure.  With natural disasters we know that we all stand a chance of being victims.  We feel for those caught in the way.  Once politics enters the picture, however, and we have the ability to control who lives or dies, everything changes.


Keys

Do you know the difference between “Voodoo” and “hoodoo”?  Well, The Skeleton Key does.  This is a movie I watched at the recommendation of a friend.  I get a sense—perhaps based on stats, or maybe lack of engagement—that you folks that kindly read this blog generally don’t watch the same movies that I do.  Nevertheless, I hesitate to give away spoilers for films I think more people should see.  So we’ll explore hoodoo instead.  But first, I can give you the basic idea of the film, in case you’re one of the few who takes recommendations from this blog.  Caroline is a young hospice nurse who feels guilty about not being present when her father died.  She gets a job with a couple in a decrepit southern Louisiana mansion where he’s dying and she’s doing fine.  

Caroline isn’t from the south, however, and she senses that something’s not right.  A modern girl, she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but she slowly becomes convinced that something strange is happening in the house.  That something turns out to be hoodoo.  Critics weren’t particularly kind to the film when it came out in 2005, but I found it moody and engaging.  There were some exciting scenes and I enjoy haunted house movies generally.  And this one uses a lot of religious imagery, even though hoodoo is better thought of a form of spirituality than a formal religion, like Vodou is.  The movie defines the difference as one between religion (Vodou) and magic (hoodoo).  There’s some truth in that, but scholars are inclined to class magic and religion together.

Hoodoo consists mainly of folk spirituality that involves some magical beliefs.  Like Vodou it’s of African origin, mixed with the cultures experienced by slaves in the new world.  Unlike Vodou, it doesn’t have any kind of formal structure.  The reason it’s treated with suspicion, in general, is because it’s of African origin and doesn’t fit well with northern European ideas of the way the world works.  Skeleton Key makes pretty heavy use of hoodoo as a plot point and it isn’t alone in using African traditions to inculcate horror.  The Believers, many years back, did a similar thing with brujería.  Although these folk traditions are generally kept separate from “religion,” they tread similar ground with similar aims.  And since they’re “foreign”—at least to button-down white Christianity—they’re treated with utmost suspicion.  I think Skeleton Key handles this well, and if you’re one of the few who takes recommendations on movies, I’d suggest it’s worth seeing.


Othering Offering

I get to feeling a bit anxious when nobody else publishes me for a while.  It’s a strange kind of validation, I suppose.  No matter my motivation, I knew as soon as I saw The Offering that I would have to write something about it for Horror Homeroom.  The article is now available here.  Horror, as one of the more intelligent genres, often has much to say about things such as religion and esoteric beliefs.  In the article I compare it to other recent Jewish horror such as The Possession, The Golem, and The Vigil.  All of them are worth watching.  Religion often addresses those things that scare us, whether secular or sacred.  Movies like these often make me ponder the sense of belonging that religious communities offer.  At least in the best of times.

These three movies each have their own posts on this blog, but the point of the Horror Homeroom article is to try to look at them together.  Judaism can be a particularly delicate topic.  Not only the Holocaust, but also subsequent political developments have led to dangerous situations for Jews in the real world.  Theirs is an old and rich culture, persecuted largely by Christians who ironically blame Jews for their own salvation.  And hate them for it.  Nevertheless Jewish culture and belief persist.  It’s telling that even when they invent a protector, such as the golem, they come to realize that it too will turn on them in the end.  Most horror movies, if they participate in religious worldviews, do so from a Christian point of view.

Some colleagues recently asked me to name some Protestant horror movies.  That’s a tricky question to answer because the American context is still largely Protestant as a whole.  And when you want to take on monsters and demons you generally call a priest.  Even movies like The Last Exorcism have Protestant clergy using Catholic crucifixes.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, Asian horror movies have also come into their own, often reflecting Buddhist or Hindu outlooks.  So we find religion and horror intermingling worldwide.  Movies are more than just entertainment.  They can be, and are, teaching tools.  We should pay attention to what goes on in their classrooms.  Not only can we learn about ourselves, we can also learn about those that we, or society, tend to “other.”  Like high school, there are a variety of classes you might take.  The day always starts, however, with homeroom.


Melvillian Thoughts

I’ve posted about Moby-Dick a number of times on this blog.  I make no bones about the fact that it’s my favorite novel.  Still, I don’t know much about Herman Melville as I’d like.  Only what you can learn from reading his novel and a few other books.  The thing is, I’m really growing an interest in the literature of the American Renaissance.  While Washington Irving isn’t my favorite writer, he was perhaps the earliest of the Renaissance crowd.  Consider this, these writers all lived during Irving’s lifetime: James Fennimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, William Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott.  Many others as well, but what heady times!  Can you imagine walking into a bookstore and seeing all the wonders on offer for the first time?

But back to Melville.  I was recently doing some further reading about him—I need a good biography, actually—and learned some things I didn’t know.  I knew he’d gone to sea, but I wasn’t aware that his mother raised him with a strict Calvinism (which explains much in Moby-Dick), but that he eventually returned to his father’s Unitarianism.  Indeed, Melville’s work displays many of the values of the Unitarian tradition.  Moby-Dick is largely his struggle with religion, laid out in terms of Ahab and the great white whale.  Melville spent a period of his life, before Moby-Dick, as a successful writer.  In a way that seems unimaginable to us today, that novel was a flop and he eventually had to take on a pedestrian job, although he kept on writing.  I have to admit that I’ve read none of his other novels.  I’m just blown away with his most famous work that I’m a little afraid of being disappointed in his other efforts.

I know a few novelists.  Of only one of them have I managed to read all their works, and that’s because this particular author only wrote one novel (which made a big enough splash to get reviewed in Time).  My dilettantism has been a characteristic of my life.  I’m too curious, perhaps, and there’s not enough time to read every work of every author I admire, even those I personally know.  I haven’t given up joining their ranks someday.  One of my novels is currently out for consideration, but I have no real expectation of success.  The best I can do in these circumstances is to read the work of those who managed to succeed, even if they didn’t live to see it.  And to wonder what it must’ve been like when so much talent appeared at the same time in a very young country.


Columbo

I liked Columbo.  Peter Falk was an award-winning actor, and his working-class detective character was always entertaining to watch.  Unlike other TV cops, he didn’t carry a gun.  Hearing the tragic news from California where yet another shooter killed multiple people before himself, I think about the proliferation of guns.  The New York Times runs story after story showing that nowhere else in the developed world are gun deaths remotely anywhere near what they are in the United States.  Not only do we have a super-abundance of firearms, we have politicians on the dole from the NRA who simply won’t take action because they personally stand to lose money if they do.  And apparently they can sleep at night.  As a nation, our guns outnumber people.

Estimates for the number of guns in America stand at around 466 million.  98% of them are in civilian hands, as opposed to the military.  And we have multiple mass shootings per year.  Is there any chance that these facts might be related?  Ironically, many firearms are owned by those who loudly proclaim they hate the “culture of death”promoted by those who try to make gun ownership more difficult.  I’ve written on this topic so many times before that I really don’t know what else there is to say.  Perhaps it’s time to just give up and weep.  Last year, excluding suicides, there were over 20,000 gun deaths in this country.  There have been 15,000 or more per year since 2016.  Approximately 120,000 gun deaths in just six years.  And yet nothing is done.

The public strongly favors stricter gun laws.  Government officials do not.  In fact, some Republicans are now attempting drive-by shootings of suspected Democrats.  I’m not anti-gun.  I am anti-insanity.  You see, that was the thing about Columbo.  He never pulled a gun, but he doggedly pursued those who did.  The culture of hate that has swept this country since 2016 needs to be reminded of Columbo’s message.  Guns aren’t the answer.  Pursuit of the truth is.  How a purportedly Christian movement does nothing but support the gun lobby is a mystery requiring investigation.  It has to be asked where in the Bible does this idea of arming yourself come from.  It has to be asked which commandment declares obtaining deadly force and making guns easily obtained by the mentally unstable is God’s will.  I guess that about wraps it up.  Just one more thing—what would Jesus do, really?


Black Sabbath

I used to be afraid of them.  The band Black Sabbath, I mean.  I heard the songs from Paranoid wafting from my older brother’s room (separated from mine by only a curtain) and was secretly intrigued.  But the name of the band—wasn’t that satanic?  To a young Fundamentalist there was much to fear in the world.  More than once I bought Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare only to replace the copy I’d thrown away in evangelical terror.  I recently learned, however, the the band name Black Sabbath was taken from a 1963 horror movie.  And I also learned that the film was, in part, based on a Russian vampire story by Leo Tolstoy’s second cousin Alexei, titled The Family of the Vourdalak.  And that this story was published decades after Tolstoy’s flop, The Vampire.  That novel was inspired, in turn, by John Polidori’s The Vampyre.

Polidori’s work was inspired by a fragment by Lord Byron, which he contributed to the ghost stories putatively told among friends a stormy night in Geneva that also led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Connections such as this are immensely satisfying to me.  Although I taught mainly biblical studies, my training was in the history of religions—it just happened to focus on ancient semitic examples.  Finding the history of an idea is one of the great pleasures of life.  But we’ve left Black Sabbath hanging, haven’t we?  The band realized something that Cooper would run with, namely, horror themed songs and metal go naturally together.  Such dark things led evangelicals to condemn the whole enterprise, claiming the band name was satanically inspired.  (Michael Jackson, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, was famously fond of horror, although Thriller is perhaps the least scary horror-inspired album ever.)

I’d never seen Black Sabbath before, so now I had to watch it.  Of course, there’s nothing satanic about it.  An Italian, French, American collaboration, it’s a set of three stories bound together by Boris Karloff’s narration, and it’s all in Italian.  One story is about a woman double-crossed but saved by an estranged friend.  The second, the one featuring Karloff, is the one based on Alexei Tolstoy’s Russian vampire tale.  The third is about a poor woman who steals from a dead patron and is haunted until the inevitable happens.  Not particularly scary, the film title was the inspiration for the band, not the content.  They were therefore labelled satanic because of a movie that has nothing to do with satanism.  The song “Black Sabbath” was actually inspired by Dennis Wheatley novels, which do, of course, deal with satanism.  The song itself isn’t satanic.  They decided to make songs like horror films in music.  And it all goes back to Lord Byron and the night near Geneva that inspired both Frankenstein and Dracula.


Truth and Belief

I met Claire Donner the way I meet most people these days.  Online.  I’m not sure how she found me in this dusty little corner of the internet, but she has one of the coolest jobs of all time: the New York City Director of Miskatonic.  If you don’t know Miskatonic, and if the title doesn’t at least give you a hint, you need to go back to your Lovecraft.  Its full title is Miskatonic Institute for Horror Studies.  They also have offices in London and Los Angeles.  Miskatonic offers a variety of one-session courses on horror and Claire had emailed me about the vexed idea of the nature of belief as it relates to horror movies.  Her course on the Amityville Horror—“‘Based on a True Story’: The Importance of Audience Faith in The Amityville Horror”—was excellent.  It left me in a thoughtful mood.

The way that I write books is that I have several projects going simultaneously.  Eventually one reaches critical mass and starts a chain reaction until it gets finished.  One of those projects that hasn’t yet attained critical mass is on Ed and Lorraine Warren.  It’s such an avocation that on a visit to Jim Thorpe on a family trip, I stopped into a shop where the owner proudly displayed articles about the Warrens in his window.  I asked him about the Warrens—whom he knew—but I wasn’t prepared for an interview (and I’m sure, neither was he).  Meanwhile, relatives waited patiently outside.  One thing I’m pretty certain about is that the Warrens sincerely believed in most of what they were doing.  There are nagging loose threads, however, that suggest they kept the financial angle firmly in mind.

To bring this back to Amityville, the course raises the question of the Warrens’ involvement.  They were among the earliest of “investigators” to take what was largely a hoax seriously.  They, however, didn’t get a cut in the profits.  I suspect this is what launched them into their promotional activities.  That book and movie combo brought in, and still brings in, the cash.  Who wouldn’t feel cheated?  But still, there’s belief.  For many of us belief requires some evidence, some tangible trace of truth.  These are the kinds of things explored in this fascinating course.  Horror and religion have been bedfellows for a very long time.  They often converge on this concept of belief.  There’s so much more to the Amityville Horror than meets the eye, even if we all know it was largely a hoax.


On Offer

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by various January blues, I took me to my homegrown therapy of watching horror.  The newly released The Offering raises many questions regarding religion and horror, focusing again on Hasidic Judaism.  I say “again” because several movies from the past decade have begun to reflect Jewish monsters, often in Orthodox settings.  This is fascinating because Judaism tends not to emphasize spiritual entities, and perhaps that’s why they’re so surprising in such a framework.  I’m not a specialist in Judaism, and I worry about cultural appropriation, but horror is open to all people.  Religion often plays a central role.  A former author of mine, with Routledge, wrote a fascinating chapter in his book that dealt with Buddhist horror films.  So, The Offering. (I have an article on the movie coming out soon on Horror Homeroom, so be sure to check there for more.)

Like most Jewish-themed horror, The Offering is intelligent.  A Hasidic Jewish scholar, wishing to see his recently deceased wife again, accidentally raises a demon.  While demons aren’t especially plentiful in Judaism, this one happens to be Abyzou, a character familiar to anyone who’s seen The Possession, or, perchance, read Nightmares with the Bible or Holy Horror.  Abyzou targets children and so when Art, a non-practicing Jew, takes his pregnant wife to visit his religious father in Brooklyn, the tension is lined up.  Also, did I mention that Art’s father runs a funeral home out of his house?  The scholar’s encounter with Abyzou lands him in the morgue in the basement where, as demons are wont to do, it escapes.  And it wants that unborn baby.  There are also other family tensions which add to the complexity of the story.

I’m not in a position, without committing a lot of research time that I don’t currently have, to gauge the authenticity of Jewish lore associated with the demonic attack in this particular movie.  It is a film, however, that uses many familiar tropes in the service of horror that’s fueled by religion.  Demons are, after all, religious monsters.  Unlike The Exorcist, the goal here isn’t to exorcise but rather to trap the demon.  Exorcism always raises the troubling question of where a demon might go once it’s expelled.  The famous gospel story of Legion entering a herd of swine makes that abundantly clear.  The Offering also makes the threat to a pregnant woman a key element in the tale, and since we know that Abyzou wants the young, we’ve got built-in suspense.  There may not be a ton new here, but the movie addresses some important issues.  The dialogue about religion deserves some in-depth consideration—perhaps after I finish the book I’m currently writing.


The Point of It

It’s not difficult to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.  Race was a construct developed to oppress.  The intention was to keep those of non-European, especially non-northern European, ancestry in servitude.  The rationale for doing so was part capitalistic, but also largely religious.  Convinced that Jesus was white, and that the “New Israel” had passed to Christianized Europe, it didn’t take much theological maneuvering to get to the point that others can be—in that mindset, should be—brought into line.  And since this religion comes with a built-in body-soul dualism, it’s not difficult to claim you’re trying to save a soul by destroying a body.  That way you can still sleep at night while doing something everyone knows is wrong.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up to such ideas.  His understanding of Christianity was more in alignment with what Jesus said and that threatened those in the establishment who found any challenge to profit heresy.  There can be no denying that racism is one more attempt to keep wealth centralized.  It’s something not to share, which, strangely enough, is presented as gospel.  There are many people still trying to correct this wrong.  It is wrong when a religion distorts its central message in order to exploit marginalized people.  The key word here is “people.”  Black people are people.  Their lives matter and every time this is said others try to counter with “all lives matter, ” a platitude that misses the point.  We need Martin Luther King Day.  We need to be reminded that we’re still not where we should be.  We’re still held in thrall to a capitalism that rewards those who use oppression to enrich themselves.

I was born in the civil rights era.  I suppose I mistakenly reasoned that others had learned the message as well.  All people deserve fair treatment.  Today we remember a Black leader, but we still have the blood of many oppressed peoples on our hands.  Those who first came to live in this country, whose land was stolen in the name of religion.  Those whose gender and sex put them at threat by those who believe control of resources is more important that care of fellow human beings.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but in King’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   If we believe that, and if we can act on it, there remains the possibility that we might actually achieve the reason we set this day aside to reflect.

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

Disappearing

It might be easy to suppose that horror uses religion gratuitously.  Or it may be that the connection runs much deeper.  Yes, many people are still religious as growing numbers are becoming less so, but both kinds watch horror.  As is usual for a guy who doesn’t get out much, I learn about movies often by reading about them in various analyses.  That’s how I came across the box-office flop, Vanishing on 7th Street.  While various critics point out its flaws, to me it watches like an extended Twilight Zone episode, exploring interpersonal dynamics when a bad situation overcomes a community.  For reasons unexplained, people without a light source disappear.  This is somewhere not too far from Chicago, but we don’t know exactly where.  Five people have managed to survive and four of them end up in a bar that has power because of a back-up generator.

Jim, an African-American boy, is waiting for his mother to return to the tavern.  She was the bar tender but had run to the local church to find other people because the lights were on.  She didn’t return and three other people make their way to the bar.  Disagreeing on a course of action, or what has happened, they try to work together to stay in the light.  Jim eventually makes a break for the church.  He alone manages to survive there until daylight reveals a young girl named Briana, spotted throughout the movie, with a solar-powered flashlight.  The others have all vanished, so Jim and Briana decide to try to make it to Chicago together as night falls.

Wikipedia calls the film “post-apocalyptic,” but I would say it’s more metaphorical.  The only two characters to survive do so by finding refuge in a church.  No prayers are said, but candles keep the darkness and its dangers at bay.  There’s plenty to reflect on here, even though we don’t know what has led to this situation or why the shadows snatch people, leaving rapture piles of clothes all over the place.  Not a fast-paced movie, it’s a film with only one jump-startle and plenty of time to think.  That was my take on it.  Not all horror has to be slasher-oriented.  I was really puzzled why this one ended up with an R rating.  Sometimes horror just makes you think.  Often that thinking involves reflections on the meaning of life.  Some would call that philosophy, but those who consider the light and its relationship to darkness tend to call it religion.


Ideal Christmas

This blog is even open on Christmas.  I’m enough of a pragmatist to realize that few read it today, but even Carl Sagan knew that launching the Pioneer plaques into the void was the smallest spark of hope.  A quark in a universe so vast that we suppose it infinite.  And even so, it makes room for us.  So, if nobody reads this on Christmas I’ll certainly understand.  If you do, and if you celebrate Christmas, a merry one to you.  Thanks for stopping by.  For some folks, I know, Christmas is a time for gathering together.  A British colleague recently remarked to me, “But Thanksgiving is the big American holiday.”  I think he meant both for family gathering and for time off work—it’s the only regular four-day weekend capitalism deigns to give to those who live between the anvil and hammer of nine and five.  But today’s Christmas, we don’t have to think about that.

For me the ideal Christmas is one hunkered down with my family and when we don’t ever have to get out of our pajamas.  A bohemian holiday when you don’t have to go outside to check the mail.  As cold as it is this year, that’s really a relief.  And it’s also a time for stories.  Most of the Christmas gifts I give require explanation.  Even if they don’t, I like to tell stories about them.  That’s the way writers roll, even us obscure ones.  Holidays are based on stories and are made up of stories.  Those we tell only to our families are the most intimate kind.  You see, the brain doesn’t stop working just because it’s a holiday.  So all the books bear witness.

Although it’s too early to tell (the sun isn’t up yet), we might just eke out a white Christmas around here.  In eastern Pennsylvania we managed to avoid the worst of the massive storm that ruined holiday plans for many.  At the tail end of the rain, and at the knife’s edge of the frigid air, come a dusting of snow.  The temperatures have kept low, so if the sun hasn’t managed to warm the still green grass enough, we may see some white today.  It seems we have Bing Crosby to blame for this particular dream.  Christmas isn’t predictably white around here, and global warming only makes it less so.  But this is a holiday, and we don’t need to think about that.  I know not many will read this post, but if you are one of the few, and if this day is special to you, celebrate it for all it’s worth.


The Eve before Christmas

Even as we sit here on Christmas Eve, the work week finally over, my thoughts go to those who celebrate different holidays.  Or none at all.  Cultural Christians may find it difficult to believe that some sects—thinking themselves strictly biblical—observe no holidays.  Not even birthdays, some of them.  You may be doubting the accuracy of that statement, but my second college roommate was one of them.  He believed any holiday was idolatrous, and celebrating birthdays self aggrandizing.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that he can’t be found online.  Many of us, some without reflecting much on it, have been preparing for tomorrow for many weeks.  The older I get, for me it’s really the time off work I treasure.  It’s so rare, and more precious than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Like many people, I associate Christmas with music.  One of the songs—not really a Christmas carol—that has become seasonal by its inclusion on Pentatonix’s album That’s Christmas to Me, is “White Winter Hymnal.”  The song is a cover of a haunting song by Fleet Foxes, a folk band, who included it on their debut album, the eponymous Fleet Foxes.  If you’re not familiar with it you can find it here, along with the official video.  The claymation short portrays a group of old men outdoors watching time pass.  One of them begins to crank a drive that makes them younger as time reverses.  When he reaches that point (please forgive the sexist language) “when a man becomes a boy once again” (from another winter song), he releases the handle and the men rapidly reach the age they were when the song began.  Time is the greatest gift.

As the decades press on, their weight increases.  Dreams of what, as a young man, I hoped to accomplish slip away facing the grinding reality of capitalism.  The need to have money to spend for Christmas presents.  And food and shelter.  But mostly books.  Writing takes time.  Writing well takes a tremendous amount of time.  Time for reading, reflecting, and even listening to music.  Christmas Eve is all about waiting.  We hope for a quiet, if cold, tomorrow when maybe the phone and email will cease to solicit money and time, if only for a day.  I have to remind myself that not everyone recognizes Christmas.  For some it’s simply the season to make money.  I, weak as I am, cannot imagine life without it.  And so I watch the skies, eagerly straining my eyes for the light.


Yule Tidings

Happy Yule!  One of the things my British colleagues find hard to believe is how Dickensian American employers are about days off around the holidays.  Corporations tend to give one day for Christmas, and you can hear them grumbling, “I suppose you must have the whole day?” even as they give it.  Christmas is, however, a season.  The twelve days begin on the 25th, but Yule starts today.  Yule marks the solstice—the fewest hours (minutes) of daylight occur today.  Tomorrow daylight will start to grow longer, although it will take many days before we begin to notice any difference.  I know this reflects a northern hemisphere bias, but having read about how less time is necessary for work, given technology, I wonder if there might not be a more equitable solution to this hemispheric focus.

What if we regularly gave generous time off around the holidays to recharge our batteries—renew our spirits—for both hemispheres?  What if we gave our southern neighbors the benefit of, say, a week off in June, after the summer solstice?  And what if we joined them as well?  Only the most uninformed believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born on December 25.  The best that those facile with calendars and history  can do is that he was likely born in the spring, so why not split the difference and offer rest and respite in both December and June?  Bean counters who equate every second in front of the screen as adding to the bottom line (a fable as sure as anything the brothers Grimm recorded) might need to be the ones leading the way.  Rest is important.  Time to think about something else.

Yule is an ancient celebration.  We don’t know how far back in history it goes because there are no records of its earliest celebration.  Before computers, before the industrial revolution, it was recognized that little truly productive outdoor work could be done during the winter months.  Obviously we can’t sit around and do nothing all the way til March, but these very short days bridging the end and beginning of what we now recognize as the new year, are custom-made for reflection and renewal.  Why not encourage it?  Perhaps the bean counters could use it to read A Christmas Carol.  Maybe they could set aside their abacuses and reflect on the wonder of the seasons that suggest to us that now is the time to rest and wait for the light to return.  Let’s truly celebrate Yule.


Seasonal Sights and Sounds

It’s listed as one of the top ten Christmas activities in Pennsylvania.  Koziar’s Christmas Village, located north of Reading and really out in the country, has been in business for 75 years.  Family owned and operated, it’s a walkthrough Christmas lights display.  I’ve been to many drive-through displays over the years, but on Saturday we went to this walk-through.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  In the end, it was like many such attractions—lots of lights and painted plywood cutouts, flocked animals and dioramas with mechanically moving dolls.  What was truly impressive, however, was the number of people there.  Opening daily at 5 p.m., just as it’s getting dark, the sizable parking lot was already filling up at 4:30.  Walking through the display was essentially letting yourself by moved along by the crowds.  There were thousands of people there on Saturday night.

Getting into our car to head home, there were yet miles of cars backed up wanting to get in, and this was at 8:30.  Such sights of Christmas put us in holiday mode.  Seeing so many other people getting into the spirit of things was, in its own way, inspirational.  The next night—this being the weekend before the holiday itself—we attended the Christmas with the Celts concert at the Zollner Arts Center in Bethlehem.  Bethlehem prides itself on being “Christmas City,” founded, as it was, on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Christmas with the Celts is an annual show with different line-ups having in common live music, Celtic tunes, and Christmas.  The auditorium was pretty full, so I was glad for our masks.  They didn’t get in the way of the sounds of Christmas and a few stories from Ireland.

The sights and sounds of Christmas are part of what make this time of year so memorable, and something to which we look forward each year, despite the shortness of the days and the coldness of the air.  There’s a hopefulness about the holiday season, an underlying awareness that things need not always be as they are now.  Just two days away, the winter solstice—the holiday of Yule in its own right—marks the slow turning point to longer days.  It means winter is just getting started, but the cold brings with it more and more light in compensation.  Holiday sights and sounds help us through this transition.  And maybe, if things go right, they won’t be just the same as before afterwards, they may be even better.


Dark Academia

Over the weekend I “dropped” a new YouTube video on my channel (you can see it here, or by visiting my “YouTube” page in this website’s menu).  It ended up getting a little flurry of interest (1,800 views in the first three days), prompting a friend to tell me that if you pay attention to what’s hot on the internet, you can actually get attention.  That makes sense.  What’s so hot?  Dark academia.  Of course, my video really moves to dark academia adjacent, to what happens to real people when they try to teach religion and run afoul of “doctrine.”  There’s a real disconnect here because if you earn a good Ph.D. you’ll be taught to question everything.  If you’re a doctrinal believer, you’ll question nothing.

I stopped posting on YouTube a few years back because my cheap camera no longer worked.  It lost about three episodes I shot and, discouraged and too busy with writing projects, I gave it up.  I started again because I realized my phone was capable of recording and I had a holder that would stop it from slipping.  So why not?  Topics aren’t really a problem, but shooting and editing a video take a lot more than the eight minutes that result from it all.  Finding the time to edit, and learning how to edit in iMovie, are tasks in themselves.  And I’m an old dog.  Still, I miss that classroom audience.  I’ve been told that blogging is passé, and podcasts take even longer to record.

Some people make a living vlogging.  In fact, “YouTuber” can be a profession.  Those who succeed are often young.  And let’s be honest, a middle-aged white guy in a book-lined study is a tired trope.  Well, it is, in reality who I am.  A teacher at heart, I now try to imagine a virtual audience.  When I first started doing YouTube videos I had a very difficult time imagining an audience.  I fumbled a lot—I don’t script my videos.  If you’re interested in scripted I’ve got this blog right here.  The bump in interest in my dark academia post doesn’t translate to my other videos about my books or related topics.  Still, those are the things I know best and so it’s easiest to talk about them.  And possibly reinventing yourself.  I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do here.  Sloppily, stumblingly, but nevertheless, I’ve been changing my identity.  My YouTube channel’s not that active, but if there’s interest I can explore further reflections on dark academia.