Documenting Horror

Watching documentaries always seems to raise questions.  I recently found A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss on YouTube.  Produced by the BBC in 2010, the set of three episodes is a selective walk through the horror genre through the eyes of an insider in the film industry.  Divided over three segments, he covers early horror (primarily Frankenstein-related movies), British horror, and the American horror revival beginning in the late 1960s.  It occurred to me while watching this that horror is often—but not always—an intellectual genre.  Many of the plots and ideas are sophisticated and puzzling.  At one point Gatiss says it is nearly the perfect genre for movies.  I would tend to agree.  Many of the payoffs of horror are the reasons I go to see a movie.

Of course, documentaries involve interviews.  While discussing religion and horror—the two are closely related—in the third segment, he considers the impact of what I termed the “unholy trinity” in Holy Horror: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  His primary interview for this set was with David Seltzer, the screenwriter for the last of these.  At this point my memory took me back to an interview on one of the extras for my DVD edition of The Omen.  In that interview Seltzer mentions that the antichrist is at that moment (clearly this was shot shortly after the movie came out) walking the earth.  In my mind I compartmentalized this to interpret his stance as that of a religious conservative.  The idea of the Antichrist, after all, is post-biblical, at least in the sense that end-time scenarios are developed.

The Gatiss interview was filmed many years later and he asked Seltzer if he believed in the Devil.  “No,” Seltzer laughed, stating that if he did he wouldn’t work on movies like The Omen.  People’s opinions change over time, of course.  And the Devil and the Antichrist are two separate characters as they develop after the Bible was completed.  Still, I had to wonder if his earlier interview included that comment about the Antichrist being alive now wasn’t intended as a bit of spooky propaganda for the movie.  It’s difficult to know what someone really believes.  Most people mouth what their ministers say, not really considering where said clergy get their information.  For these many years I’ve been thinking that The Omen was considered as some kind of documentary by the screenwriter.  Documentaries always seem to raise questions.


Podcast Live

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you forgot what day it was?  (Come on, now, it’s a pandemic—you can admit it!)  I spent yesterday unaware that it was Tuesday.  Tuesday is important because I knew that The Incarcerated Christian was going to be posting my interview on Holy Horror on their podcast.  It’s live now—give a listen!  I’ve been toying with rebooting my own podcasts, but like most other things in life I just can’t find the time to do it.  I still enjoy talking about my ideas and I thank Robin Mitchell Stroud and Debra Levy Martinelli for allowing me to yak their ears off for an hour.  There are many interesting podcasts on their site, so it you decide to listen the interview be sure to hang around a while and explore.

My hosts understand that Holy Horror was written for general readers, if not priced for them.  Being asked questions keeps you sharp, and sometimes it feels like my blade has been dulled from sitting in the drawer too long.  At the risk of sounding too biblical, iron sharpen iron, right?  Conversation is increasingly important in a polarized world where minds are already made up and the preferred solution is to hate others based on differences of opinion.  Why not talk about things?  Interviews also keep me sharp in asking about things I wrote years ago.  It may not seem like it, but the main body of Holy Horror was finished nearly five years ago.  Books take a long time to write and then a long time to publish.  It’s good to be asked about what one has written.

The questions asked on this interview were well thought out and reflective.  I can only hope that my responses were the same.  If you decide to listen and like what you hear, please share it with others.  The interview actually spilled over into a part two that will be posted in a couple weeks.  There’s a lot to say about religion and horror.  I’ve continued to watch movies since the interview and I notice further affirmations.  The Wicker Tree, for example, is a very biblical movie.  Or at least it quotes from the Bible quite a bit.  Holy Horror was very much an experiment on my part to find out if there was any room for a book like this.  After I wrote it I found others shared some interest in these topics, and two people cared enough to schedule an interview about it.  Please give it a listen.


B Film

October brings horror films to mind.  As soon as the calendar clicks over, discussions of favorite scary movies begins.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is the one time of year when those of us who watch horror don’t feel so odd.  It is a little strange, however, to be watching movies related to The Wicker Man at this time of year.  As holiday horror that particular movie is set at the other end of the year, in May.  So I had to see The Wicker Tree, something I’ve avoided doing all these years.  Neither properly a sequel nor a remake, The Wicker Tree is Robin Hardy’s re-envisioning of the story with a larger budget.  There’s no way to prove it, but it seems likely that it was released in response to the unfortunate remake of The Wicker Man in 2006.

There are any number of things that could be said about The Wicker Tree, not least of which is that it’s clear Anthony Shaffer was a far better screenwriter than Robin Hardy.  (Shaffer had written a sequel, more properly conceived, which has not been filmed.)  Robin Hardy was, of course, the director of the original movie.  Plagued by low budget, rushed filming, and lack of production company support, The Wicker Man nevertheless soared.  The Wicker Tree is what is termed a “spiritual successor”—it doesn’t directly carry on the story of the original, but draws its inspiration from it.  It was based on a novel written by Hardy titled Cowboys for Christ.  Two evangelical missionaries are sent to Scotland to convert as many lapsed Christians as they can.  Of course, their invitation to Tressock is a trap so they can be sacrificed on May Day.

Despite the many unanswered questions the film leaves, to someone raised evangelical it seems that Robin Hardy really doesn’t understand what evangelicals are.  Beth and Steve, on their tour through the lowlands, do things evangelicals just wouldn’t do.  They drink, they dance, they swear, they play cards.  The only thing he seemed to get about evangelicals is they like to sing and talk about Jesus and hand out pamphlets.  This is something I often see is movies—those who try to portray evangelicals haven’t actually been evangelical themselves and don’t understand them.  I also find this in my interactions with British colleagues all the time—they don’t really comprehend what evangelicalism is.  That could be a topic for its own post.  In any case, The Wicker Tree has its moments, but it’s convoluted, cynical, and off-the-mark.  It may’ve been intended as a spiritual successor, but its prototype required no re-envisioning.


Banning Banning

Banned Book Week gets me all aflutter.  There have been years at I’m so busy that it slips by before I notice it, but each year I try to incorporate it somehow into my reading challenges.  This year my book was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.  Yes, it’s a young readers’ book.  Most banned and challenged books are.  Why censorious adults feel the need to keep ideas out of print is pretty obvious in these Trumpian times.  (Please note, dear Republicans, many Democrats criticize Biden on a regular basis; we do not worship him.  American Marxist my donkey!)  Book censoring only serves fascist tendencies.  Ideas will find a way to be born, regardless.

Scary Stories, of course received a shot in the arm by Guillermo del Toro and his interest in making a movie based on it.  The stories themselves are drawn from folklore—they’re populist, you might say—and reflect what passes around from perhaps less insane times.  As an adult a reader tends not to find these stories frightening.  For one thing, many of them are stories we’ve heard before.  For another, life has already thrown many scary things at us.  Not only that, but we try to ban books to make adulthood even scarier.  You see, folklore doesn’t go away just because children are kept from the books.  These stories find the gaps just as water does.  They get told in the dark.  Instead of trying to censor them we should try to talk about them.

Adults’ own discomfort with ideas such as death and decay often stand behind our efforts to “protect” our children.  Then they reach maturity not prepared for the adult world of sex, exploitation, and dying.  Our modern comfort-based lifestyle tries to shut away the unpleasant aspects of existence.  Books, however, are the food of the imagination.  To ban them is to try to suppress the truths that authors have uncovered.  Growing up in a conservative household, we weren’t subjected to censorship.  I couldn’t afford many books, but my mother never said “No, you can’t read that.”  Some of my early reading faced uncomfortable facts.  I read both Jaws and The Godfather long before I ever saw the movies.  I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a form of solidarity with young minds.  There are benefits to learning to deal with fear early on in life.  And Scary Stories, even if not so frightening, has an appropriate place in it.


Psychology of Religion

It’s so human.  Mistaking form for substance, I mean.  A recent piece in Wired that my wife pointed out to me is titled “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years,” by David DeSteno.  As the title intimates, religion benefits individuals in many ways.  Church attendance, however, has been declining for a long time.  While not the point of the article, I do wonder how much of it is because mainstream churches are stuck in a form that no longer works and people aren’t finding the substance there.  The basic church service is premised on a specific religious outlook that no longer seems to fit how the world works.  Potential ministers go to seminary where age-old ideas are tiredly replicated, based on an incipient literalism that simply doesn’t match what people see in the world.

Wired?

I’ve experienced this myself.  Depending on who the minister is, a church can go from dynamic to dull several times in the course of a member’s life.  People still crave the substance, even if the form stops working.  The form, however, is seminary approved and seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.  The folks are academics and academics are well aware of the developments that suggest the form doesn’t work.  Speaking as a former seminary professor, sermons just don’t do the trick when you’ve done your own homework.  As DeSteno points out, once you remove the theology science and religion tend to find themselves in agreement with one another.  For years I’ve been suggesting that secular seminaries are needed.  Churches that aren’t bound by form or doctrine.  Instead we swim in a sea of retrenched evangelicalism.

Religion is an effective survival technique.  It evolved, even while denying it did so.  Some time after the Reformation a resurgent literalism led Catholicism to modernize, removing the mystery that was perhaps the last tenuous grasp that form had to provide substance.  Religion, beleaguered as it is, still has substance to offer.  DeSteno’s article is adapted from his new book How God Works.  I haven’t read it yet, but from the summary I can see that I should.  There are religious groups that attempt what this article suggests.  From my experience, however, I see they easily get sucked into mistaking the form they settle on for the substance of what they do.  I had recently been toying with the idea of attending seminary again.  I found, however, form after form.  What I need is substance.


Before Current Parameters

I recently had cause, for a work project, to survey which Episcopal seminaries are still around.  You see, I began my teaching career at Nashotah House.  (There were few teaching jobs in the early nineties, although we’d been promised a glut in the late eighties when I set out on that career track.)  In any case, I remembered marveling that the Episcopal Church had eleven seminaries.  For perspective, one of the largest Protestant denominations, the Methodists, only had thirteen.  Enrollments were high in those days.  Before the rise of the Nones, seminary teaching was a viable, if perhaps staid, option for a career.  Or in the case of some of us, it would be a holding pattern until something more suitable came along.  (I’ve always thought of myself as a small college professor.)

So the list of Episcopal seminaries is now down to ten, but those ten are much diminished from what they were back in the nineties.  Seabury, the nearest competitor to the south of Nashotah, has merged with Bexley Hall to make a very small federation.  Berkeley at Yale is a Jonah in the whale.  Episcopal Divinity School had to vacate campus and merge with Union in New York, leaving the tradition Episcopal stronghold of Boston.  The others seem to be clinging on.  In the midst of all this I learned that the Anglican Church in North America, a conservative break-away denomination, has reissued the Book of Common Prayer.  The BCP, as it’s fondly known, has a long and venerable history.  The 1979 edition has both a more conservative and a more modern liturgy, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent fracturing.

Photo credit: Church of England, via Wikimedia Commons

Fracturing.  Estimates for the number of denominations in North America set the figure at about 40,000.  No wonder Nones are among the fastest growing category!  If you’re going to place your eternal salvation on a bet, and there are that many options to choose from, the odds seem awfully long.  In some cases it’s a matter of being in the right state, or city, where the “one true church” exists.  If you miss it by thirty miles you could end up in Hell.  And all this with shrinking numbers.  The landscape has changed since I entered the seminary world.  Even as the numbers go down the fragmentation increases.  From a bird’s eye view this looks pretty odd.  Even if you look to the Prayer Book for solace you have to ask which one.  I just make the sign of the cross and move on.


All About Merch

Although I’d heard of it uncomprehendingly when I was in seminary, I first joined the Society of Biblical Literature in 1991, while a doctoral student.  I religiously *ahem* attended the annual meetings until I lost my job and my ability to afford it.  When I landed in publishing I started attending again, and over all these years I’ve started to notice a lot of swag creeping in.  Publishers sell bauble headed theologians (aren’t they all?), playful knick-knacks, and even socks bearing the cover design of established commentary series.  It’s as if we want to tell the world that studying the Bible is cool.  (Why not purchase some nice warm socks?)  So I wasn’t really surprised when the society itself, fondly known as SBL, started selling its own merch.

On most SBL electronic newsletters there’s a link to the vendor that produces shirts and mugs with jokes that only other biblical scholars will get.  (I never found this a very humor-laden community, being under duress, as it is, and as deeply conflicted as the country that hosts it.)  Eventually I grew curious and clicked on the link to the novelty tee-shirts and mugs.  It took me to a company called Redbubble.  SBL Press has its own page there with a strange header photo, apparently of a G. I. Joe and G. I. Jane reading some of SBL’s books.  Weird marketing is fine, of course.  Some of us have almost a connoisseur sensitivity to the bizarre.  As for the merch itself, it includes limited designs since, I suspect, most professors aren’t novelty tee-shirt fans.  What caught my attention was the button at the bottom that said “Mature content: hidden.”

Did the Society have some top shelf items?  The Bible certainly has quite a bit of mature content itself.  Questionable stuff as well as scenes that are, well, let’s just say scenes that are left out of children’s Bibles.  Of course I clicked the link.  It took me off the SBL Press page, naturally.  Redbubble has, I’m sure, many clients.  SBL’s demographics are slowly changing but the field is one still dominated, in numbers at least, by white men.  They’re the ones who benefit the most, I suspect, from a society that bases itself on the biblical outlook of the world.  At least as far as how it’s been applied in northern Europe and its colonial enterprises.  SBL tries to attract younger scholars, of course.  And everyone like knick-knacks and inside jokes. 


Screaming Season

The signs are all around.  The orange and black Spirit Halloween signs are appearing where vacant storefronts stand.  Advertisements for autumnal activities are cropping up.  Brochures broadcasting local haunted festivities now adorn store counters, free for the taking.  I picked up a leaflet for the local Field of Screams the other day although I really don’t like to be in scary situations.  I do appreciate the spooky sense that they generate, however.  This local event runs from early September through early November—the two months enterprising farmers can draw urbanites to their land, cash in hand.  Halloween has been a major money-maker for many years now.  The less doleful minded wonder why, but I think that lots of us are really afraid.  Halloween says it’s okay to be so.

Perhaps it’s the realization that it’s all in good fun and nobody will really hurt you.  I’ve attended a few of these haunted events over the years, but it was more fun to participate in them.  Perhaps it goes back to Nashotah House.  I’m guessing that most of you’ve never been.  Nashotah is a gothic campus, at one time pretty isolated, out in the woods.  Halloween was, once upon a time, a real celebration there.  Our maintenance crew would offer a hayride through farm fields owned by the school, then through the cemetery on campus.  I used to dress in a grim reaper costume and carry a kerosene lamp through the graveyard, awaiting the tractor.  Nobody instructed me to do it, but we all knew it was in good fun.  And I wasn’t the only volunteer who’d pop out from behind headstones.  Students got into the spirit of it too.

These days remembering such shenanigans is more appealing than actually going out at night to have other people scare me.  The last time I went to a haunted maze it was really too unnerving for me to enjoy.  I volunteered instead for a local haunted house in New Jersey.  The run up to Halloween was usually an intensely creative time of designing and fabricating homemade costumes, and thinking of ways to make pumpkins look scary.  Now it’s become a season in its own right.  An important segment of the economy.  I won’t be going to our local Field of Screams, but I will understand those who do.  Changes are in the air.  It’s dark quite a bit earlier these days.  The air is chilly in the morning.  And the local fear fields open this weekend.


Witches of September

I’ve never read any John Updike before.  I understand that his novels foreground religion, which I didn’t realize.  I have watched The Witches of Eastwick, in movie form, a time or two.  In fact, I wrote a bit about the film in one of my books.  This got me curious to read the novel and I found a copy at a used book sale up in Ithaca some months back.  Now that September’s here, it seemed like an opportunity to see what the original story had to say about witches.  There is a problem, of course, in having watched the movie first.  Not only does it tell you which actors the characters should look like, but it also predisposes your orientation to what will happen.  In this case up that will mislead you.

The movie centers on Jack Nicholson’s Darryl Van Horne—like most Nicholson movies, his character takes over—whereas the novel is definitely centered on the three witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie.  They don’t fall into the background, but neither do they always work in concert.  The movie tells, in other words, a very different story.  Updike’s literary treatment focuses on female characters and the mischief they cause.  Nor is it entirely clear that Van Horne is demonic, as in the movie.  A church features prominently in both versions, amusingly Unitarian in the novel, with Van Horne not upstaging the sermon but giving an invited one himself.  No fear of sacred places here.

The wrath of the witches isn’t directed toward Van Horne either.  A character left out of the film, who marries Van Horne and whose brother is his real target of affection, is hexed and killed by the witches instead.  In many ways this could be construed as a kind of gentle horror story, although it’s never marketed that way.  I kept waiting for certain scenes in the movie to be narrated, as it were, in the flesh.  This led to the revelation that these scenes were invented for the cinematic version.  Both novels and movies are stories.  When shown on the big screen, we expect them to be adapted.  My personal preference is for the film to present the same story.  It can’t always be done, of course.  In this case the movie left some questions open that I hoped the novel would answer.  Since the stories are so different, the questions remain.  I have a feeling I’ll read more Updike down the road, but I’ll avoid watching the movie first.


Which Wednesday

I’m not superstitious but it’s still pretty dusky when I go for my constitutional on cloudy days.  I was walking along thinking about Cernunnos, the way one does, when a black cat darted out of the underbrush and across my path.  My thoughts turned to witches.  Then a large toad jumped out in front of me in the half-light.  Perhaps it was because I picked up a booklet about witches recently, but this felt very uncanny to me.  There’s a place where the woods close in on both sides of the path.  The sun wasn’t yet up, and the clouds meant it wouldn’t have much mattered anyway.  When the bird calls stopped I began thinking about turning around and going home.  Nobody else was out this morning and although I don’t mind starting my day with the weird, I was thinking “not on a Wednesday.”

A thick mist lay over part of the path and I realized just how uncomfortable we tend to be when we can’t see clearly.  Despite that, and the black cat and the toad, I’ve never really been afraid of witches.  I guess I try to please people too much to think that someone might want to harm me supernaturally (at least among those who know me).  I recently found a booklet on witches—one of those strange impulse buys after being mostly house-bound for the better part of a year-and-a-half—that perhaps prompted my thinking this morning.  Although it seems to be most interested in earth-centered religions, it has an article about Salem.  Despite the more modern embrace of witchcraft in Salem, historically it had to do with human fear and hatred, a combination that is scary indeed when applied by those who are superstitious.

Cernunnos is a Celtic god generally portrayed with deer antlers.  Although lack of literature means we know little about him, he’s been adopted as the male counterpart to the female earth-goddess in some traditions.  Modern witchcraft is based on an orientation toward nature.  It’s kind of a ground-up religion rather than a top-down one.  Christians traditionally labelled it “Devil worship,” as they tended to do with anything they objected to.  Such demonizing helps no one, of course.  And when these ideas grow into superstitions people get hurt.  So I’m out here in the half-light because in the mornings days are shortening quickly and I have less and less time before work begin after the sun rises.  And I have witchery on my mind.


Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.


Afghanistan

As much of the world watches in dismay, the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan.  Most religious rule ends up being harmful to women, it seems.  We have centuries of male-run Catholicism showing how both witch hunts and heretic murder became common in Europe.  Do we expect any better now that religious extremists have taken over a nation next door to Iran?  The mix of politics and religion has generally not been favorable and unfortunately if the Republican Party could have its way we would see a similar thing here in the United States.  An ill-executed coup d’état on January 6 of just this year led to the epiphany that the Republican jurists would protect those who tried to overthrow the US constitution in the name of religion.  And we know how they feel about women’s rights.  We should look at Afghanistan and tremble.

It seems difficult to believe that less than a century ago we went to war to defend democracy.  Senators alive to witnesses the privations of war are now recklessly trying to remake America in the image of a fascist state.  Instead of looking at Afghanistan as a mirror, the only thing they can see is this is a Muslim nation.  Christians would surely never try to take over a capital by force.  They turn a blind eye to our own insurrection, not yet nearly a year old.  Ironically the book they claim to follow contains a often quoted but more often ignored statement: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…”   It’s no accident that their intended victim was a woman.

Religious politics can be maintained by force of arms or legal maneuvering. Both are evil.  The result is the same either way: women and thinking people suffer while the self-righteous rule.  Even such basic assumptions as protecting their own people from a horrible disease by the simple expedient of a free vaccine has been politicized for purposes of keeping in power.  When the moderates in their own party speak up they are shouted down.  How different is this than the shouts of triumph heard in Kabul?  The alternative—government that allows the freedom to believe what you will as long as all people are treated fairly—has been made out to be a sin.  The god worshipped both by Republicans and the Taliban has little sympathy for humanity.  He, and most certainly he is male, is all about power.  We watch in dismay.

Photo by Joel Heard on Unsplash

Mystical Trip

It’s easy to believe we live in a “post-Christian” world.  People aren’t tied down by Scripture strictures the way they used to be.  Sunday mornings are free for lots of people.  We don’t spend our time hunting for heretics.  One thing that might not be obvious, however, is that our underlying culture is deeply Christian.  Beyond mere assumptions, this goes down to the very presuppositions of the way we think.  While society might not be overtly Christian, it remains so at a deeper level.  I’m reminded of this when I’m out and about (which is starting to happen again) and able to hear, or overhear, people talk.

Grounds for Sculpture is a whimsical, fun space to visit in New Jersey.  It consists of acres and acres of a former fair grounds with sculptures of many different kinds scattered along the shore of a small lake on one end and a busy road on the other.  Many of the statues were designed by Seward Johnson, showing people in a wide variety of activities.  Since the displays change over time multiple visits are rewarded with new insights and displays.  It seems to be a popular place since pandemic restrictions have started to lift.  So much so that the usual seclusion that is part of the charm of a visit is somewhat stifled.  In a typical art gallery, the visitor has some space to reflect and contemplate.  The sheer number of visitors leads to a “wild animal in Yellowstone” situation where, if a creature dares appear, it’s immediately swamped by city-dwelling humans who’ve never seen a bear in the wild before.  This leads to some interesting overhearing.

One of the sculptures I don’t recall having seen before is “Mystical Treasure Trip.”  It is a fantasy scene in which a couple, attired in what could be biblical garb, is sailing across the water in a boat filled with gold.  Perhaps it’s the dress of the characters.  They look like Mary and Joseph, perhaps fleeing from Herod, but with a boat full of gold.  Overhearing others commenting on what they thought it was I heard “they’re going to the ark.”  Admittedly, this is something I would never have come up with on my own.  Noah, according to Genesis, was six centuries old at the time and was commanded to collect animals, not gold.  Material for trading would’ve been pretty useless in a world devoid of other people.  Still, when our imaginations stretch for the interpretation of something we don’t understand, often they reach for the Good Book.  It’s its own kind of mystical trip, really.


Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.


Mapping the Apocalypse

“Is this the end of the world?”  The question came up often early in the pandemic.  The end.  It’s so logical that just about every religion addresses it.  It bookends “the beginning” with the symmetry that we so covet that it’s almost impossible to think the world won’t end.  Even astronomers tell us the sun will betray us, eventually becoming a red giant and consuming our home planet.  Apart from being the greatest equalizer, however, religious speculation places the end way, way before then.  A friend sent me an article in National Geographic by Greg Miller titled “These 15th-Century Maps Show How the Apocalypse Will Go Down.”  It describes literal maps of the eschaton, and guess what?  It was right around the corner back then too.

Maps to the end of the world have been around for a long time.  With a bizarre Schadenfreude, many Christian groups eagerly anticipate the end of all this.  I grew up with charts and maps telling just how it was going to happen.  Like all of you, I’ve lived through many ends of the world.  These folks must be the strangestly optimistic bunch on the planet—when it fails to come on schedule they pencil in another date, preferably in their own lifetime.  They want to see it.  It will, after all, prove that they were right and the rest of the world was wrong.  Who wouldn’t want that kind of validation?  The apocalypse has been around since long before the fifteenth century.  It started in the New Testament, if not before.

This eagerness to end the world would be considered pathological were it not religious.  We’ve been about the closest we’ve been to a human-made apocalypse under Trump.  Make no mistake, some Christians were banking on it when they cast their ballots.  We tend to overlook this destructive way of thinking because some biblical literalists (and they don’t all agree, just put a premillennialist together in a room with a postmillennialist and watch what happens) claim that it’s what the Good Book says.  The rest of society, disinclined to look it up for themselves, accept that roadmaps to the end of the world exist in the Bible.  They don’t, but that doesn’t prevent everyone from fifteenth-century monks to present-day televangelists declaring when it will be.  That there is an end is taken for granted.  The astronomers look at their watches and sigh that we’ve got a couple billion years left, at least.  No, the pandemic wasn’t the end of the world although many Christians were hoping it just might be.