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.


Sodom

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  It’s an asteroid coming to wipe out a city!  One of the cottage industries outside biblical studies is the interest in finding historical events to explain Bible stories.  A few years ago it was proposed, with some degree of probability, that the flooding of the Black Sea by the Mediterranean, validated by archaeology, led to the story of Noah’s flood.  I recently saw a story suggesting that the destruction of Tall el-Hammam by an asteroid about 3,600 years ago might’ve been the basis of the story of the destruction of the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah  most prominent among them.  The piece by Christopher R. Moore in The Conversation describes the moments of horror—mercifully brief—as the space rock exploded above ground and wiped the city from the face of the earth.

Since this happened near the location of Jericho, the destructive shock waves knocked its walls down, leading to another biblical tale.  I often wonder about these “theories.”  They show just how deeply biblical our society is.  The frame of reference is already there.  People know about Sodom and Gomorrah.  They know about the flood.  They know of naked Adam and Eve and a snake wrapped around a tree.  When a disaster happens in the right region, and before the biblical story was written, it is suggested as the etiology of the tale.  Many have tried to explain the plagues of Egypt using similar methods.  Our culture seems to long for some skyhook on which to hang our biblical hat.  Some indication of why people put such strange stories in the Good Book.

Biblical scholars look too, but with a different perspective.  Etiologies are stories of origins.  Traditionally the Genesis account of the cities of the plain is understood as an etiology of the Dead Sea.  A unique geological feature of this planet, it is, in a word, weird.  The story of Abraham’s nephew Lot seems to explain it.  The article makes a compelling case for a heavenly fireball at about the right time that wiped out a settlement of about 8,000 people.  Genesis wasn’t written yet at 1600 BCE, the time of the event.  Since the impact site wasn’t far from the Dead Sea it seems to fit  the bill for a valid etiology.  None of these events proves biblical stories true, but they do show possible avenues of transmission.  This one definitely has me wondering.

Image credit: Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts on Job

The book of Job has been on my mind lately.  Leave aside the remarks of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, it is one of the most honest books ever written.  Many people think Job is trying to answer the question of why the good suffer.  If so, it does a poor job.  No, Job is an exploration of suffering, and Job really isn’t looking for an answer why.  Instead, he simply wants his pain to be heard.  No fixers, no advice.  Simply to be heard and to know he’s been heard.  You see, in the world of the Bible words were significant.  Many prophetic utterances were simply that—utterances because it needed to be said.  Job ups the ante quite a bit, however, when he begins to wish that God would answer him.  God, after all, is responsible for his pain.

William Blake’s Job

The world is full of sadness.  Some people feel the sadness of others deeply.  We all strive for some kind of equilibrium, some balance.  There are, however, a lot of people out there that truly do suffer and for no particular reason.  Job is a polarizing book.  Many people dislike it intensely.  I suspect that some of them don’t like to think of the world in this way.  Those who do good should be rewarded.  (The book makes plain that Job is perfect.)  Those who do evil should be punished.  Job makes clear that that’s not the way the world actually works.  For reasons we can’t know (who’s privy to the divine council and its deliberations about our fates?) we may end up losing our hopes, dreams, health, and wealth.  Job is kind of a horror story.

There are those who read Job and argue from the point of view of his friends.  In the book itself God condemns the outlook of the friends, noting that Job—no matter how challenging his words were—spoke honestly.  Life is seldom fair.  We as human beings must strive for fairness as best we’re able since we sense that it’s morally good.  Indeed, much of the Bible upholds fairness.  The book of Job questions it.  Not it’s goodness or morality, but rather why the world doesn’t reflect it.  When someone is suffering one of the most helpful and difficult things we can do is listen to them.  We need not open our mouths to fix, suggest, or advise, like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu.  We simply must let the words be said.


Defining God

What, exactly, is a god?  Our viewpoint, which is largely based on the culture that grew out of the Bible, may not encompass all the possibilities.  I remember reading, as a child, that God—the only true god, of course—was omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  These three omnis sure impressed me as a kid.  Since I read this in the back matter of a Bible I knew it had to be true.  And since there was only one, all false gods weren’t gods at all.  Divinity had to be defined in the same way as the biblical God.  More advanced study over the years led to the realization that gods weren’t necessarily immortal, and that the Good Book itself didn’t present God as omniscient (he has to ask people things), omnipotent (he can’t make Israel be faithful), or omnipresent (just ask any Psalmist).  So the question of definition arises.

There are cultures, it turns out, where people are gods.  At least some form of divinity.  Clearly we don’t create physical universes, but like the biblical God we’re larger and more powerful than some other creatures, and we often impose our will upon them.  Some people believe themselves to be deities.  Others suggest we have a spark of divinity in ourselves and that each person participates in the divine.  The fact is we have no way to measure this is a laboratory.  Defining deity is a matter that must be left to “theologians,” but that won’t prevent the average lay person from deciding for her or himself.  Nobody really reserves the right to decide definitively when it comes to gods.

Many cultures have included people, often in leadership roles, who were declared gods either during or after their earthly lives.  Who’s to say they’re wrong?  Science is no help here as the supernatural is outside its current remit.  It can only measure empirically.  The intangible is a whole other universe.  Deciding what a deity actually is may be an impossibility.  Those of us reared in monotheistic traditions suppose that a single, personal, divinity stands behind all of this.  Notwithstanding Xenophanes’ horses, our gods tend to be human at least in form.  In collegiate discussions, one conservative roommate would clap his hands over his ears if we began talking about God in non-anthropomorphic terms.  One of my friends likened God to a “cosmic aerosol” (this really sent my roommate over the edge).  What do we really know about gods?  Without a scientific method to help, it remains an open question.


Just Like Us

Jordan Peele has been noted for his intellectual, black horror films.  His work is good at making clear that African-American experience is different than white experience in America.  That was especially on view in Get Out, a haunting treatment of being “the other.”  His more recent Us, two years old already, takes a somewhat different angle but still comes to a similar point.  Since the movie has a notorious twist ending that I’d rather not spoil for anyone slower than I am, I’ll try to focus on the film’s use of Jeremiah 11:11—“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”  This message of the prophet was a warning that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians, but clearly it has wider applications.

It’s safe to say, I suppose, that the movie is about substitute people.  Each person has a doppelgänger that shares her or his soul, but is a puppet—it’s not too far to stretch to say “slave”—that must do whatever it is we have it do.  When those doubles, or shadows, arise and organize, things start to get real scary real fast.  Although the metaphors run deep, the biblical citation comes near the start of the movie, setting the tone of what follows.  This is divine judgment for the mistreatment of others.  While it isn’t ostensibly about race, at least not obviously so, the story follows the black Wilson family as the uprising begins.

Jeremiah’s message, although delivered to a specific situation at a particular time in history, could well apply whenever one people threatens another.  Like most prophecy, it’s less about prediction than it is about changing behavior.  Jeremiah presents a good warning tone because he was a prophet who loved his people but also saw that they had to fall in order to be redeemed.  His is a strong message for a country at a crossroads.  Peele has a lot going on in this movie and I suspect more than one viewing will be necessary to pick up on some of the points.  Not all parables have a single message.  Not all prophets are heeded in their time.  Jeremiah 11:11 provides context, and it rewards the biblically literate who know the context it which it originally applied.  Fitting it into the world of black horror is an example of how prophecy continues to be relevant.


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.


Review Copy

You reach an age, or maybe a stage, where it’s difficult to recall details.  Too many emails about too many things and you just have trouble recalling where you read this or that.  Someone a few months ago, perhaps on this blog, lamented not being able to afford Holy Horror.  I wanted to let that person (or any other interested party) know it is now available free—for review—on Reading Religion.  Feel free to drop me a comment if you don’t know how to get this thing started.  When I was a grad student I learned about reviewing.  It was the way to get ahold of expensive books for free.  I’m no longer able to do them (conflict of interest), but I still think they’re one of the greatest perks for the literate.

Reading Religion does not require a Ph.D. to permit an interested party to volunteer.  Since it’s a religion site, many clergy do reviews.  If you’ve been talking to anyone about Holy Horror (and I’m just sure you have!) and they want to read it, let them know.  There’s nothing more embarrassing to have nobody wanting to read your book when it’s available for free.  Besides, reviews are how people find out about books.  Over half-a-million new websites are created each and every day, my friends.  We’ve got to help each other out!  I’ve been providing free content here daily for twelve years now—I need someone to review my book.  I know people are busy.  There are an estimated 1.7 billion websites, many with multiple pages.  Who has time?

I try to post about lots of books here on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I know it’s not a frequently visited website (I’m a realist) but I know at least two publishers have taken blurbs from my words here to promote their books.  Those of us who read have to stick together.  Writing, to me, is how you pay back for all the reading you get to do in life.  It helps, of course, if people know about your books.  By the way, if you have an interest in religion at all you should check out Reading Religion.  It’s a great site to figure out what’s going on in books.  And you might even find something there you’d like to read.  I’d do reviews myself, but that’s no longer permitted.  I’ll put my thoughts here on this blog, though.  It’s only doing to others what I would appreciate being done back.


Strange Reading

What more can you say about the Bible?  A lot’s been said already.  So much, in fact, that nobody can read all of it in a lifetime.  That realization started to come to me as I was trying to find everything that had been written about Asherah—who’s mentioned in the Bible—to write my dissertation.  I didn’t find everything, but I found a good deal of it.  Enough, in any case, to write my cautionary words about the subject.  Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book brings the insights of a fellow traveler to the fore.  In a serious yet lighthearted way, she points out, as the subtitle says, The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible.  In other words, it’s not what most people—especially those who speak the loudest about it—think that it might be.

There are many angles from which to approach the Good Book.  One size most definitely doesn’t fit all.  A book like this would benefit from being read by those who take the Bible literally, but one of the problems is that literalists have no motivation to read such a book.  Indeed, their trusted leaders actively warn against it.  Such treatments are dangerous at best, and are possibly demonic.  One of my professors once put it well: fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem.  In any other area of life those exact same literalists will apply reason and logic.  When it comes to their beliefs, however, refusal to engage with the tools that make their lives otherwise successful becomes an eleventh commandment.

Swenson points out things that will likely be old news to biblical scholars.  Having been through all this in a way ourselves, we remember what it was like to become “woke.”   To those raised as literalists, this is no small ask.  It stabs at the heart of everything you’re raised to believe.  The fear is that there’ll be nothing on the other side, at best, Hell at worst.  These are very real fears.  They may never completely leave, no matter how long you’ve been awake or how much rational coffee you’ve drained.  Such fears deserve a sympathetic hearing.  Without it I’m not sure any progress can be made.  Strip below posturing and bravado and you’ll find fear.  I do hope A Most Peculiar Book will find its way to such folks.  Swenson shows there is life after biblical studies and her book has some fun facts for those unfamiliar with the book about which there’s somehow never enough to say.


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.


No, uh, It Won’t

Irony comes in all shapes and sizes.  Over the past several decades various fundamentalist groups have built replicas of what they believe to be life-size versions of Noah’s ark.  All of these are approximations because the cubit was never an exact measure.  Nobody knows what gopher wood was.  Most of them ignore the fact that the story of Noah clearly borrows from the more ancient Mesopotamian flood story where the measurements of the ark differ.  In any case, these arks—some containing dinosaurs and others not—are made for convincing people that Genesis is to be taken as history.  While there is some irony in that itself, the larger irony comes in the various proofs that are given that such things really would work to preserve all species since evolution could not have happened.  To work such models have to be seaworthy.

One such ark, according to the BBC, has been detained in Ipswich because it is unseaworthy.  An ark may be useful on dry land for drawing tourists, but would such a large boat work on the open ocean?  All of this brought to mind a Sun Pictures documentary from my younger days.  Giving the ark a makeover, various literalists re conceived the classic design from children’s Bibles to a more boxy, sturdy shape.  This was based on alleged encounters with the ark on Mt. Ararat.  To test this new design, the producers made a scale model and tested it in a pool of water and declared it eminently seaworthy.  Of course, there’s no way to make water molecules shrink to scale to test whether a full-sized ark could actually handle the stresses and strains of a world-wide flood.

Ship building is an ancient art.  Peoples such as the Phoenicians, the neighbors of ancient Israel, achieved some remarkable feats in ocean travel without the benefits of modern technology.  They didn’t have boats large enough to hold every species of animal that exists today, but they sure knew how to get around.  The real issue with literalism is the failure to recognize ancient stories for what they were—stories.  Such tales were told to make a point and the point was often obvious.  The obsession with history is a modern one—indeed, the ancients had no concept of history that matches what our current view is.  Borrowing and adapting a story was standard practice in those days.  Unaware that centuries later some religions would take their words as divine, they told stories that, in the round, just wouldn’t float.


Unconventional Demon

In my book Holy Horror I limited my discussion to fairly widely available and well-known films.  Part of the reason for this is that nobody can watch all horror movies and for those of us who work, there’s just limited time.  All of the films are at least American co-produced, most of them American productions.  The one exception to that is The Wicker Man.  I couldn’t bear to leave that particular movie out.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was classified as the newly coined “folk horror.”  Another film, released two years earlier was the strangely titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  It’s a strange but competent British horror film that has an eighteenth-century village falling prey to a demon that is accidentally plowed up in a field.

It is a film that could’ve been included in Holy Horror.  Indeed, the Bible appears in it and one of the adult characters is the local curate.  As the children are succumbing to a Satanism that’s raising a demon, he tries to teach them their Bible lessons.  Like Village of the Damned, the horror here centers on the children.  Flaunting the reverend’s rules, they play in the woods, raising the Devil.  Almost literally.  The demon they summon is called Behemoth.  Perhaps surprisingly, the judge actually saves the day in this one.  At first he’s convinced that the age of superstition is over and insists that it not be brought back.  He learns, however, that the demon is real and deals with it by rather physical means.  Who is Behemoth?

The word translates rather literally to “beasts.”  In the book of Job Behemoth is the land-bound companion to Leviathan, the two monsters that God cites to demonstrate his superiority over mere mortals.  As time wore on into the middle ages Behemoth and Leviathan were recast as demons, although it’s pretty clear that the book of Job doesn’t present them that way.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that demons aren’t fully formed beings in the ancient imagination.  Since the Bible says so little about them, ideas were drawn from folklore and other sources to flesh out these somewhat amorphous entities.  Descriptions of The Blood on Satan’s Claw quite often state that the children of the village are possessed.  If so, it is quite a different form of possession than will become standard two years later with the release of The Exorcist.  It is fitting, I suppose, for folk horror to have a folk demon for its antagonist.


Museum Time

It was a very strange feeling.  Wearing masks, yes, and socially distancing, we went to a museum.  Casting my mind back, I can’t recall the last time I was in a museum.  On a family visit to Ithaca we decided to go to The Museum of the Earth.  Ithaca is a small town, and this is a small museum, nevertheless the first place Google (or Ecosia) brought up for fossil identification was The Museum of the Earth.  On Saturdays a paleontologist is on hand to help identify the traces of life from millions of years ago that lie scattered around for anyone to pick up.  Collecting fossils has a treasure-hunting vibe to it, and it’s great to find anything beyond the usual, ubiquitous sea shell imprints.  Don’t get me wrong—I love sea shells with their symmetry and flowing lines.  Some of them even look like angel wings.  But there’s a draw to the unusual.

Some time back I’d found a fossil in the Ithaca area that I couldn’t identify.  It was Saturday, and we’d all received at least our first vaccination.  And I had to wait in line to get an identification.  It was cheering to see so many people—with limited, timed entry—coming to a museum.  The specialist confirmed this to be an interesting fossil.  She identified it as a bryozoan, ancient animals related to coral.  This one, she suggested, based on the age of rocks in this area, was likely Devonian.  The age of fishes.  I was glad I hadn’t wasted her time, and I was glad to have an expert eye on something that, let’s be honest, often functions like pareidolia to the laity.

Years ago I took my daughter to an open house day at the geology department at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  If it weren’t for the calculus requirements (and I even tried to teach myself calculus because of it), I was seriously considering going back to school to study geology.  There is an organic connection between biblical scholars interested in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and paleontology.  I get too busy, it seems, to go down to the local creek to look for fossils.  Perhaps it’s for the best because our house would be full of rocks (even more than it already is).  The earth is a great museum.  Even so, it felt like an alien activity, late in this pandemic, to remember what it’s like to explore these treasures indoors, with strangers.  It felt as if time was actually progressing.


Bible, or Not?

Chosenness comes with a price.  Everyone, it seems, wants to feel special.  One way to ensure that feeling is to believe that you were specially chosen by God to fill a pre-ordained mission on earth.  Since such views are always human views there will be inevitable conflict when another group thinks itself the truly chosen one.  The process goes on and on with history laying waste one claim after another, but belief continues on just the same.  America is a young country, at least compared to much of the world.  Those who “govern” it (originally invaders) felt they were on a mission from God.  Believing themselves the “new Israel” they felt a Calvinistic faith was the only true one.  The people who put the government together were largely deists who’d left that thinking behind.

A recent story in the Washington Post cites such concerns with the God Bless the USA Bible, on sale in September.  This particular Bible is bound together with the US Constitution.  The reason people are concerned is a valid one—whenever something is bound with the Bible a significant number of people can’t tell the Bible from the other content.  Believing the Bible to be magically revealed by God, the entire content between the covers becomes sacred revelation.  Putting a secular document like the Constitution in there suggests to some (perhaps many) that said Constitution belongs to the canon of Scripture.  It’s a real enough concern, as easily attested by any who teach the Bible.  Even college-level students don’t know what’s Bible and what’s commentary.

Photo credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

Both the Good Book and the Constitution are documents in the public domain.  You can do with them what you please.  You could bind the King James Bible together with Moby-Dick if you wanted to, and if you wanted to make a long book even longer.  The price is confusion among those who can’t really tell the difference.  Many of the more evangelical stripe say “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it.”   Putting aside that reading is interpretation, the problem becomes clear.  That which is bound together in one book is one book.  After all, The Book of Mormon mentions Jesus in America.  The hazy view that many readers have of what’s actually in the Bible makes it dangerous to put other documents together with it.  The problem becomes clear when a nation believes itself chosen.  Chosen for dominion, it look to a specific book in support of that idea.  Even if it doesn’t know much about what that book actually says.


Buried Truths

I owe a lot to fossils.  Growing up just a block from a fossil-laden river in western Pennsylvania, as a kid I’d go fossil hunting with my brothers.  They weren’t difficult to find.  Maybe not museum-quality, but not bad considering that they were free for the taking.  I’d pour over some rock with many shells perfectly impressed in it and wonder.  Of course, my childhood religion taught that the earth was quite a young place because that’s what the Bible seemed to indicate.  Other than Chick tracts and related comic books we didn’t have many books around the house to explain this discrepancy.  One thing was pretty clear—the fossils were quite real.  We had no doubt that there had been dinosaurs.  How they fit into the Bible’s chronology (since the Good Book was written long before dinosaurs had been discovered) was unclear.

Mine was not an educated family.  We simply believed what the preacher told us.  Since Fundamentalist preachers don’t attend seminary, their response was probably something along the lines of, “the Bible says…”  Thinking about how to apply the Bible in a complex world was not their strong suit.  So we’d be taught that evolution was evil, but just literally a stone’s throw from the church hundreds of fossils could be found.  I suppose the evidence of those fossils kept me grounded.  I never could buy the “theory” that God created the world with apparent evidence of great age to test our faith.  A deity like that isn’t worthy of the name.

I still pick up fossils when I find them.  Apart from a brain coral and some crinoids, mostly I just find shells.  Knowing that this particular rock is evidence of the sea floor millions of years ago is thrilling.  It puts me in touch with the great antiquity of our planet, the times when people had not yet evolved to complicate everything.  Just a few days ago I found a rock with a vignette of life under the sea.  Looking at it closely there are crinoids among the shells, and what appear to be a drag mark where some unknown creature disturbed the silty Paleozoic sea bottom on its way someplace long before humans showed up.  Fossils always remind me of the responsibility of reading the Bible with an eye toward rationality and a recognition that a guide isn’t the same thing as a taskmaster asking you to believe the ridiculous.  That, I suppose, is why I can’t pass up a fossil on the ground. 


Outside Subjects

As an erstwhile biblical scholar—the lines of time separating things are sometimes not easily discerned—I have to keep reminding myself to pay attention to those outside the academy.  That was, after all, the point of Holy Horror.  Academics assume that because they study a subject more deeply that only other scholars have insight into it.  Pop culture, however, begs to differ, particularly when it comes to the Good Book.  Far more people watch movies, surf the net, and read novels than ever pick up a copy of the Journal of Biblical Literature.  To learn what the Bible means to people you need to listen to people.  I had to remind myself of this repeatedly when finally watching Chris Bennett’s documentary, “Kaneh Bosm: The Hidden Story of Cannabis in the Old Testament” on YouTube.  I’ve never used marijuana, although I know many people who have, and I have no interest in starting now.  But still, this film led to a kind of revelation.

Biblical scholars, on their own, are unlikely to explore such “outsiders’” claims, like those who find references to cannabis in the Bible, do.  Clearly cannabis was known in the ancient world and people then didn’t have our modern filters of “the war on drugs,” or, as Bennett makes clear, prohibition, to tell them drugs were bad.  In fact, traditional cultures around the world believed natural hallucinogens were sacred, or at least gateways to sacred experiences.  Bennett presents an overarching revisionist view of the Hebrew Bible (including the Apocrypha).  There are many parts where my scholarly spidey-sense was tingling—one of the first things you learn in the academy is that connections have to be tested and retested and run by other scholars for their approval before they can be deemed valid—but overall it’s clear a lot of research went into this.

The academic heart that still beats in this weary chest says, “but wait, too many connections are made and it all fits into too tidy a package.”  The reason, I suspect, that I was contacted about this video is that I had written about cannabis before, and because I wrote a widely available book on Asherah.  And yes, Asherah is part of this tidy package too.  There are some very interesting ideas here.  While scholars argue about J, E, D, and P and their possible non-existence, others have already moved on to some interesting conclusions based on a fiery cup and its contents.  I was ousted from the academy for being too liberal in a conservative environment.  I have watched how the academy behaves for at least thirty years now.  It seems to me that we should pay attention to what those outside, who have larger followings than those in ivory towers do, are saying.