Falling Usher

Roger Corman is a name well known to film buffs.  The producer of many low-budget, obviously cheaply filmed movies shot over a matter of days, his early career was prolific.  Often working in genre films, he directed horror (among other projects), occasionally drawing on Edgar Allan Poe.  The problem of adapting a short story to a length required for cinema release could be solved in a number of ways, but padding out the story was common.  I had only a few minutes to watch a horror movie over the weekend, so I pulled out a Vincent Price collection I’d bought some time ago.  A number of them are Corman films and I may have seen them when I was younger, but if so the path recall is completely eroded.  I decided to watch The Fall of the House of Usher.

This story by Poe remains my favorite for its sheer moodiness and imagery.  The premise is brief and the action little.  I knew Corman would have had to have changed quite a bit.  It turns out that he’d brought Richard Matheson in as the writer.  Many films can be made or broken by the writer.  While it doesn’t improve on Poe it is certainly a watchable effort that develops a mood in its own right.  The low budget is evident, but despite that the story is a slow build using many of Poe’s famous concerns such as premature burial and isolation in dangerous locations.  While not scary in the same way as modern horror, and stretched out by a dream sequence and overture, it nevertheless works.

Given my particular angle on horror, I noticed the introduced religious aspects.  While identification is difficult due to the lack of focus, there seem to have been two large, iconic Bibles in the story.  Indeed, the Ushers have a private chapel in which Roderick prays over his dead (?) sister.  The curse of the Ushers has to do with family evil that is being punished, causing Philip Winthrop to quote the Bible in his denial of the passing down of divine wrath.  The paintings of the Usher ancestor as Roderick explains this are the scariest part of the movie.  Not all Corman adaptions of Poe work well, but with the ministrations of Matheson and the rich ground for development from the original story, this is an atmospheric contribution to early horror.  And it works if you only have a few minutes on a busy weekend for your favorite avocation.


Free Research

I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened, but it has been relatively few.  Someone I don’t know will approach me and ask me to post about something on my blog.  Sometimes they’ll even send me a book to highlight.  Perhaps not the most effective way to build a library, I’ll admit.  And some of the books haven’t been great.  I admire them nonetheless.  It takes great effort to write a book.  And not a small amount of faith, too.  Many books—perhaps most—never get published.  A great many are self-published.  (Those who work in publishing can be a stuck-up lot sometimes.)  Even those professionally published can use a push from time to time.  On this blog I’ve actively resisted the urge to make it about one thing.  Why?  Is life just one thing?

In a recent conversation I laid out for someone new what had been my research agenda as a young professor.  It had a direction still reflected in some of the categories you’ll find on the right column of this blog.  After writing on Asherah, I was going to give similar treatment to the other ancient goddesses attested at Ugarit.  This was perhaps ambitious for an academic waif at Nashotah House, but it was well underway.  My book on Shapshu was making good progress when the market (that dragon to every St. George) led friends to suggest turning biblical, which led to Weathering the Psalms.  A new research agenda—explore the weather terminology (the meteorotheology) of other biblical books—arose.  There were storms, after all, becalmed over lakes.  Horror entered in the jobless period and beyond.

And social justice.  I’m not a thrice-failed minister for nothing!  In fact, a recent freebie was a book on social justice.  I have a colleague as interested in monsters as me.  This particular scholar had decided to focus on the cause of the poor.  Even economists are starting to say the unequal distribution of wealth is hurting us.  While the rich fly to space on personally owned rockets, the rest of us have trouble filling up at the service station, even if we have jobs.  So it is that this blog is eclectic.  A friend told me early on that it would be more popular if I just stuck to one topic.  That’s probably true, but my mind can’t settle down like that.  And when people send me things to talk about, I’m happy to do so, if it fits somewhere in my mind.


For Sale for Free

It’s one of the signs of spring.  Although it may be more appropriate for winter when we’re holed up inside for much of the time, the library book sale often takes place when it’s a bit more conducive to being outdoors.  When we travel, which isn’t frequently these days, we often spontaneously stop into an advertised library book sale.  Most of the fare is fairly pedestrian, but sometimes you find something you simply didn’t expect.  On one such recent outing, that’s just exactly what happened.  Back when we lived in New Jersey the Friends of the Hunterdon County Library book sale was a much-anticipated event.  It remains, in my experience, one of the largest of such sales.  (Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to pointing inveterate readers to book sales and that’s how I found this one.)  That’s not the surprising part, however.

One year when I went, one of the library friends was working the pre-entry crowd, proclaiming some of the treasures inside.  One of them, he announced, was a Bible from the nineteenth century.  They were asking more than the usual one or two dollars for that one.  If I recall, it was $100.  No, I didn’t buy it.  I have dozens of Bibles right behind me at this moment and if I had a Franklin to spend I’d load up on books I don’t already own.  Many of the books mentioned on this blog came from just such sales as these.  That big Bible’s not the surprising thing either.  Here it is: on a recent library book sale day, I saw a shelf with Bibles.  They were free.  Library book sales are intended to raise money, but Bibles for free?  Unexpected, no?

America is the land of free Bibles.  They are printed in vast quantities and sold cheaply, without a thought to what this says in a capitalist world.  Some Christian rock groups were famous for throwing free Bibles from the stage—you’ve got to think those in attendance already had one—and any county fair will usually have at least free New Testaments for the taking.  Ironically, most of those who distribute free Good Books are also the staunchest supporters of capitalism, one of the most exploitative economies ever invented.  Attending library book sales entails more than just finding books that you perhaps didn’t know about.  It’s more than being tempted by something for which you’d rather not pay full-price.  It is, perhaps surprisingly, a learning experience in and of itself.


Tax Season

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from the Internal Revenue Service that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Penn was governor of Pennsylvania.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Steve also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Northampton, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the county and district of Northampton:) To be taxed with Kay his beloved wife, being great with patience.  Well, not exactly biblical (with apologies to Luke), but this came to me upon having to go to Bethlehem to collect our tax documents from our accountant.  There’s something biblical about living in the Lehigh Valley.

Photo by Olga DeLawrence on Unsplash

I don’t complain about having to pay taxes.  I only wish far less of the money went to pay congressional salaries.  And far less to the military.  Otherwise, I realize that in order for infrastructure to be up-kept, for the many services that make life possible for so many people, those of us who earn enough—even if not exactly flush—owe something to the system.  I’m saddened that the very wealthiest feel they’ve earned the privilege of not paying taxes. Modern-day Herods, I think, ready to kill babies in order to maintain personal power.  Still, those of us who pay participate in the most basic kind of charity.  So we make our annual trip to Bethlehem.

These days many people feel that if they don’t like other people they shouldn’t cooperate with them at all.  Even finding out that a certain Trump has been defrauding the very government which he purported to lead, and has been doing so for many years, doesn’t dissuade some of them.  I think our accountant, who looks gaunt and who doesn’t overcharge, could fairly claim a bit of back taxes that might be due.  Community is an endangered concept.  It’s a place where people support one another, and perhaps even care about others.  When I logon to Nextdoor.com I’m distressed to see the trolling and inappropriate emojis that show up.  The internet makes us all think we’re clever, ready with the snappy comeback.  Even to a recent story about a dead homeless man found in a park.  We need each other.  Society can’t move ahead if everyone keeps everything to themselves.  So it was we drove our rusty, four-cylinder donkey even unto Bethlehem.


1 April

Image credit: Trocche100, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The funny thing is nobody knows how it got started.  In living memory, and indeed back a century or two—even more—people have considered April 1 a day for jokes and fooling.  Perhaps it was a kind of relief after winter was finally beginning to show its tail, or perhaps it was some distortion of Hilaria, the Roman festival of the goddess Cybele.  Some have speculated that it had to do with switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar when many were confused as to what the actual date was.  No matter what its origins are, April Fools has stuck.  It has such resonance that even legislation passed on this date is sometimes questioned as to whether it is serious.  Some locations have grand pranks planned and budgeted.

Nobody, as noted, knows how this got started.  One of my personal favorites posits a biblical origin.  Things tend to go back to the Bible in western culture, don’t they?  This idea takes it all the way back to the tenth generation of the human race: Noah’s flood.  Back in the eighteenth century it was suggested that Noah sent out his first dove before the waters abated on April 1 (this, of course, is based on knowing the exact days of creation—something that was of considerable interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).  Since the dove was sent on a “fool’s errand”—there was no dry land visible—well, April fools!

With rare exceptions this isn’t a day off work.  It’s not a holiday with any religious implications, despite speculations about Noah and his dove.  It’s really a day highlighting uncertainty.  Practical jokes can, of course, be harmful.  There can be those, such as yours truly, who might be slow to catch on.  Indeed, almost always the victim of a “practical joke” doesn’t find him or herself in an appreciative mood.  I’ve always personally thought the reference was to the weather.  Snow isn’t unusual into mid-April in parts of the northern tier.  In fact received wisdom suggests not planting annuals until May arrives.  April’s weather, in other words, fools.  Around here we’ve whiplashed through March with days in the seventies and others the coldest of the winter (or so it seemed).  Now we’re into the first full month of spring.  The early flowers are out (some of which succumbed to the cold of this week’s weather) making fools of us all.  My hope is that none of us take this day’s unknown-origin holiday too seriously.


Leathers

It’s an occupational hazard for the vegan Bible editor.  Leather.  Leather Bibles, although expensive, are popular.  If you want free fetishistic deliveries of colored leather to arrive at your door, well, it’s part of a Bible editor’s life.  Morally I’m opposed to leather and I eagerly await the day when cactus leather is considered a suitable alternative.  Leather began being used in bookbinding early on, when books were treasured possessions.  It was readily available because animal slaughter was a part of everyday life.  It’s also extremely durable.  These days it’s just a status symbol.  When Bibles are produced there’s generally a market for whatever translation in leather.  In my time I’ve seen some well enough used to perhaps justify such extravagance, but not very often.  Usually it’s merely for show.

There’s an entire vocabulary associated with leather bookbinding.  Tooling, or engraving the smooth leather to look like something else, embossing, or pressing a design in the leather, gilding, or the use of gold paint on leather, and dentelle, or having a border run around the outside edge.  All of these were (and still are) signs of the artistry of the binder.  The practice dates back to before the nineteenth century when books were bound by booksellers, not publishers.  Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  In any case, apart from tradition there’s no need to kill animals to bind books any more.  Law books and Bibles are the major purveyors of leather binding.  It continues simply because it continues.

One term used for traditions unwilling to change is “hidebound.”  While this seems originally to have referred to emaciated cattle, it has come to be associated with codified, as in leather books.  Pigskin, or other cheaper hides, are often used.  Or “bonded leather,” which is as much plastic (if not more) than actual leather.  The Bible isn’t a terribly animal-friendly book.  Dogs are unclean and cats aren’t mentioned at all (except the large, wild kinds).  Yes, there are shepherds—both good and bad—but sheep were kept to be exploited.  And perhaps turned into leather.  There’s something strangely symbolic about this.  And not in a propitious way.  Where does obeying the rules get you?  Sheep are praised for their docility, their willingness to be thoughtlessly exploited, slaughtered, skinned, and eaten.  To do the job, a Bible editor must learn about leather.  Perhaps its a profession best left to carnivores.


D Evil

The Devil, they say, is in the details.  T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley look into those details in The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots.  It’s often a surprise to Christian readers that the Devil clearly evolves in the Bible.  From being virtually absent in the Hebrew section, he appears, almost full blown, in the New Testament.  This, of course, flies in the face of the idea that the truth was pretty much revealed from the beginning and that it’s consistent throughout.  The Devil in the details proves that it’s not.  The Bible has multiple suggestions of whence evil arises, God among them.  The Devil came to be one explanation of the origin of evil, but he’s not the only biblical one.

One of the things I found fascinating here, however, was that the authors often refer to popular culture to illustrate their point.  They particularly favor movies.  The authors are biblical scholars and it’s not at all unusual to find movie fans among them.  I suspect that since biblical scholars (apart from the linguists) specialize in stories it’s only natural that movies appeal.  They aren’t given extended discussion here, and indeed, a book about the Devil in the movies would be very thick if it attempted to be comprehensive.  Satan is a movie star.  Since he evolves into the embodiment of evil this is probably not surprising.  A good plot needs some evil in it, and one character in the western canon is the granddaddy of all evil.

Those looking for a fuller biography of the Prince of Evil may be disappointed that this book keeps to its remit—the biblical Satan.  There are, however, many more books about the Devil.  Maybe even more than movies in which he appears.  Scholars and laity both seem interested in this character.  He appears late on the scene, only within the last century or so of the biblical writing period.  His fullest portrait there is the highly symbolic book of Revelation.  And no matter what else you say about it, we can all admit Revelation is tricky to understand.  Since we take the Bible so seriously, one aspect of Satan that isn’t addressed here is his role as trickster.  Folkloric characters who cause chaos (which the Devil does) are often tricksters doing it for no particular reason.  We don’t know why the Devil is bad.  The Bible has no clear origin story for him, since he’s built up from several other cultures’ ideas of bad deities.  To sort it all out requires, well, the details.


When Bible Met Horror

My colleague (if I may be so bold) Brandon Grafius has recently published a piece titled “What Can Horror Teach Us about the Bible?” in Sojourners.  Brandon and I have never met in person, but we’ve worked together a number of times.  We share an interest in horror and we both teach/taught Hebrew Bible.  We’re not the only ones who’ve got this fascination.  When I was able to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings in person, I would often meet up with others who, apart from their respectable jobs, have a real interest in horror.  There are quite a few of us.  Some journals, like Sojourners, are starting to ask the obvious question: what do these things have in common?

I can’t claim to have watched all the horror movies ever made.  It’s actually pretty difficult to access some of those I’d like to see and, believe it or not, I’m actually a selective viewer.  Often my choices are dictated by research.  Back when I was young, in college and seminary, I’d go to see horror movies with friends.  Since I was living alone in seminary that sometimes led to sleepless nights.  I recall vividly being unable to sleep after watching David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.  (To this day I still haven’t seen the original with Vincent Price.  I see that it’s available to stream on Amazon Prime, and since we’ve got the internet back perhaps it’s time I do that.)  What I can claim is that I’ve always watched movies for religious elements and that I often find horror isn’t lacking in that department.

The point of Brandon’s article is that there are horror stories in the Bible.  Indeed, the more I ponder the Good Book the more I see that makes it a frightening text indeed.  Once you get past the sugar coating, there’s fear of substance inside.  Funnily enough, it seems Jesus didn’t often play the fear card, although even he did so from time to time, according to the Gospels.  Religion, which gives us such hope, also makes us so very afraid.  I’m really glad to know that I’m not the only one who’s started to come to that conclusion.  So maybe it’s natural for those raised religious to be fond of monsters.  Getting others to admit it can be tricky, and I’m sure some genuinely don’t like them.  Still, when you’re in a scary place, it’s best not to be alone.


First Books

It was back in the day when I believed a book was the final word.  Remember those times?  (I have a suspicion that many Republicans really are longing for the days of simple answers: “Smith wrote it in History of Everything so it must be true,” and such.)  You’d read a book assigned in college and assume that since the author wrote a book s/he (but generally he, in my day) must be right.  If college really caught on, however, you’d start comparing sources.  Still, there was that one book that got you started thinking in a new way.  Back in the day when I believed a book was the final word I read J. Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament.  I remember the context well: Harrell Beck’s intro course at Boston University School of Theology.  We were given a list of texts and allowed to pick.  I chose Soggin.

Reading that book I realized for the first time that ancient Israel had borrowed from its even more ancient neighbors.  The fact that I’d attended Grove City College and majored in religion without ever having been introduced to the idea says volumes.  (Some parties, it seems, have always preferred to suppress information.)  I followed it up with Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion.  I was hooked.  If we knew that there were ancient sources, and if we knew their languages and their cultures, why hadn’t it been obvious to the general public?  I started on a doctorate to uncover the truth since I couldn’t find courses on it at seminary.

We didn’t take many books with us to Edinburgh, but Ringgren was one.  By then I’d begun to realize that introductions weren’t really research books.  I spent my years digging deeper and deeper into ancient West Asian culture.  If it’d been possible I’d be there still.  Soggin and Ringgren, I realized by this point, were clearly biblical scholars, and not students of the specialized field that’s still called Ancient Near Eastern studies.  But still, their books had started something.  My copy of Soggin has followed the socks in the dryer, and I now realize the politics of introductory texts (if you believe it’s innocent you may be happier remaining in your bliss).  Still, I owe a debt of gratitude to those scholars who wrote in accessible words aimed at the novice.  Time has passed and nature has begun its own tonsure process, but this fallen monk has learned that many books are the only way of getting to the truth.


Thinking about Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking quite a bit.  My lifelong fascination with religion is part of this, of course.  So when someone pointed out Bridget Alex’s article “The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods” in Discover, I had to ponder it.  The idea, here supported by science, is that people evolved survival traits that lent themselves to religious belief.  That religious thinking was a byproduct that eventually took on a life of its own.  Evolution works by giving a reproductive advantage to one trait over another—which is how we get so many types of dogs (and maybe gods)—and those that disposed people to be religious did just that.  Elaborate religions evolved from these basic traits.  Alex suggest there are three: seeing patterns, inferring intention, and learning by imitation.

While there’s a lot of sense here, the reductionism doesn’t ring true.  The need to explain away religion also seems uniquely human.  Ironically, the idea that we are somehow special compared to other animals derives from a biblical worldview from which science has difficulty divorcing itself.  One of the greatest ironies of the science versus religion debate is that scientific thinking (in the west) developed within a worldview formed by Christianity.  Many of the implications of that development linger, such as the supposition that animals can’t have consciousness, or “souls.”  We watch a chimpanzee in an experiment and deduct points when they don’t do things the way a human would.  We thus confirm the biblical view in the name of science and go home happy.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that people evolved to be religious.  There are certainly survival benefits to it, not least group building and shared purpose.  I do wonder that science doesn’t address the elephant in the room—that we have limited receptors for perceiving specific stimuli, such as light and sound, but that there are other phenomena we don’t perceive.  We build instruments to measure things like x-rays and neutrinos and magnetism, but we don’t sense them directly.  How can we possibly know what we might be missing?  I suspect the real problem is we don’t want to admit willfulness into any other part of the universe.  Humans alone possess it.  Some scientists even argue that our own sense of will is an illusion.  It’s not difficult to believe that we evolved to be religious.  It’s also not difficult to believe that we pick up hints of forces that have yet to be named.  An open mind, it seems, might lead to great rewards.


Just Curious

I’m constantly reminded of the dangers of it.  Interdisciplinarity, I mean.  We all know the cliched image of the myopic professor unable to function in the world because he (and it’s normally a he) has spent all his time on one subject.  Such people do exist, and they are generally institutionalized.  (What else can society do with them?)  More recently, however, the emphasis in higher education has been on interdisciplinary pursuits.  Many modern doctorates span two areas and many modern professors show themselves as adept at activities beyond their “day jobs.”  It is difficult, however, to be an expert in more than one thing.  In my own case, I had interdisciplinarity thrust upon me.  I’m therefore constantly being reminded of how tricky it can be.

While hot on the trail of a new angle recently, I found what I thought was the only book on a subject.  (All these years and am I still so naive?)  I started reading only to discover that the topic had been explored many times before by scholars, beginning in the decade I was born.  Clearly, if I wish to speak intelligently on this topic I should go back and start at the beginning.  So it is with interdisciplinary work.  Ironically, the book I was reading was itself interdisciplinary, demonstrating that old Ecclesiastes was right all along.  

My own research journey has been one of restlessness.  Others have seen this more clearly than I have.  Once at the Nashotah House bookstore I had a discussion the the manager about rocks.  This particular woman was certainly smart enough to have been on the faculty, and she saw things those of us that were didn’t.  I concluded by saying I didn’t know why I’d been so taken by geology to which she replied, “If it wasn’t geology it would be something else.  You’re curious.”  She knew me better than I did.  My curiosity about geology was deep and intense.  (It still is.)  I realized suddenly, it seems, that I knew too little about the very ground upon which I walked all day.  What could be more basic than rock?

On my desk

If anyone bothers to look at my full list of publications it quickly becomes clear that geology is absent.  I never became an expert, but I still read about it and pick up interesting rocks.  A small piece of rose quartz with a fresh fracture face stopped me in my tracks one very cold morning recently.  I’m sure plenty has been written on the subject.  The safest thing, however, is to become an expert on one thing.  Safest, but dullest.


Ignoring or Ignorance?

As someone whose career has always been about the Bible, I’ve noticed that many intelligent people are naive.  They seem to believe that since they’ve outgrown the need for religion that it doesn’t exist among the majority.  I guess that’s another way of saying their thinking tends toward elitist.  The vast majority of people in the world are religious.  Among the elites, since about the sixties, there’s been the fervent belief that religion will die out in the face of science.  That hasn’t happened, of course, and it’s not likely to.  In the meanwhile, the idea persists and replicates itself and religion is ignored until people fly jets into towers or elect Trump or commit some other extremely catastrophic act.  There’s then usually a flare up of interest that dies down when the danger is past.

I wasn’t very socially aware in the sixties.  I was quite religious, though.  The religious, although always in the majority, constantly talked about being under threat of extinction.  There was, even then, a paranoia about being discounted.  Some of the elites realized that by pretending to be religious themselves they could make use of those numbers.  In other words there are forces, not from any divine source, keeping the interest in religion high.  Only the naive ignore it.  That’s one of the reasons it distresses me to see institutions of higher education cutting religion programs.  It plays into the worst sort of elitism to ignore the vast majority of the human population.  Meanwhile, subjects that bring in cash thrive.

Should we look away?

Growing up in an uneducated environment may have been a hidden blessing.  It can sometimes instill a lifelong desire to learn, even if your outlook is discounted.  I’ve always believed in education, and when it wasn’t, or isn’t, available I tend to self medicate by reading.  Reading about religion is always a learning experience.  There’s something profoundly human about it.  Acknowledging that something greater than ourselves is out there, whether you want to face it as divine or natural, seems wise to me.  I think we all know it’s there.  How we choose to respond to it, however, differs widely.  We’ve had glimpses of what the universe would be like if humans were the most puissant beings out there.  The results, based on the headlines, aren’t terribly encouraging.  I see these things and say something, but it’s ever so easy to ignore someone whose career has always been about the Bible.


Others’ Weeping

I was first introduced, consciously at least, to la llorona via the movie, The Curse of la Llorona.  The film is part of The Conjuring universe, but just barely.  It was clear from the movie that the weeping woman (la llorona) wasn’t invented for the film.  I’ve never lived in, or even spent much time in, the southwest.  Even less in Latin American countries.  In my rather strange career path, the best source of such things to penetrate my own experience tended to be my students.  (Those who think professors do all the teaching have the equation backward.)  Since becoming more isolated as an editor, my interactions are often someone approaching me with an idea mostly formed, often fully formed, and few of them have to do with ghosts or folklore.  That’s why I found Domino Renee Perez’s book There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture such a treasure.

As an Anglo reader endowed of white privilege, it’s important to read books where I’m clearly the outsider.  Being a kind of historian, I was curious about the origins of the tale.  As a person living in the modern world I was also interested by its reception history.  This book contains many, many examples of the latter.  It will demand that the outsider reader accept unfamiliar names and cultural conventions.  It will, in some ways, force you to stand “south of the border” and face the suffering our nation has caused and continues to cause in the name of white supremacy and its adjunct, capitalism.  There are other ways to be in this world, but when money gets involved all bets are off.

There’s much to discuss in a packed book like this, but one aspect, near the end, caught my attention.  Briefly, if you don’t know the story, la llorona is a woman betrayed by her husband.  She drowns their two children and is condemned to wander the riverbanks for eternity crying as she searches for them.  Interestingly Perez makes the connection with Rachel in the Bible.  I’ve read the Good Book many times and yet I seem to have missed Matthew’s use of Jeremiah’s interpretation of Rachel’s story.  Joseph was kidnapped and sold to slavery by his brothers but Genesis focuses on the grief of Jacob.  Rachel doesn’t live to be reunited with her lost son like Jacob does.  Perez makes the point that the stories are quite different, but it showed me once again how much I have yet to learn.  We need to pay attention to those who experience life differently.


Higher Learning?

I was reading, as one does, about a mental institution.  In the last century they were often called, rather insensitively, “lunatic asylums.”  The neurodiverse were often shunted away so that the rest of society could get on with business as usual (as if that’s sane).  There were any number of reasons sought for such individuals thinking differently.  The source I was reading had a short list and I was surprised to see on it, “over study of religion.”  It really said nothing more about it but it left me wondering.   First of all, it brought Acts 26.24 to mind: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad!”  Religion, from the very start, it seems, had the reputation of driving people insane.

Image credit: Published by W. H. Parrish Publishing Company (Chicago), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who’s spent well over half a century thinking about religion, reading about religion, and analyzing religion, I can see Festus might’ve had a point.  This way much madness lies.  I don’t think religion evolved to be thought about.  It was largely a fear reaction to being, in reality, rather helpless in a world full of predators and other natural dangers.  Although we’ve managed to wipe out most of our large predators, we’re still under the weather, as it were.  We can’t control it, and what messing around we’ve done through global warming has made it less hospitable to our species and several others.  And also the small predators, those that evolve quickly, such as Covid-19, are now the real challenge.  Facing fear was the real evolutionary advantage of religion.

Being story-telling creatures, we made narratives about our belief systems.  Then we started taking those stories literally.  Believing too seriously, we used those stories as a basis for hating and killing those with different stories.  We still do.  Can anyone deny Festus’ accusation?  I’m sure religious mania has, historically, led to some institutionalizations.  It was kind of a trope in the seventies, for example, that too much Bible-reading could lead to criminal behavior.  It’s not difficult to see why those trying to classify what might make an individual off balance might look to religion as an explanation.  Nationally, and very publicly, we can see strident examples of this promotion of irrational ideas on a daily basis.  Many of the large mental institutions have been closed down and many of the neurodiverse have been turned out to the streets.  Ironically, it is often the religious who try to care for them.  Understanding religion, it seems to me, might be a great public good.


Salvation by the Book

I’ve never been to Iceland.  Part of me says that if I ever get to go I’d want it to be on Christmas Eve.  Ah, the light would be in short supply, no doubt, and it would be cold.  But the draw of Jolabokaflod is strong.  Jolabokaflod isn’t a difficult word to figure out, if you’re familiar with Indo-European languages. “Jol” (maybe the “a” is included) looks a lot like Yule.  “Bok” is English book missing an “o” (again, maybe the “a” is part of it).  And “flod,” likewise with another “o” becomes “flood.”  The Yule Book Flood.  The tradition is to give books on Christmas Eve and spend the long hours of darkness reading.  Iceland has the reputation for being a very literate culture.  I’ve read a number of books (in translation) by Icelandic authors.  If there’s ever to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, it will be through books.

If you observe Christmas, today is that great time of anticipation, Christmas Eve.  Churches, whether virtual or in person, will be humming places this day.  Last-minute shoppers will be out and frantic.  Some will be insisting we keep Christ in Christmas while others will be dreaming of sugarplums and fairies.  Some will be tracking Santa on NORAD.  In Iceland they’ll be exchanging books.  Politicians will continue their calculated plotting but I dearly wish they’d spend the day reading instead.  Perhaps there would be fewer tanks at the Ukraine border if those in Moscow would curl up with a good book.  Check the progress of their Goodreads challenge.  Open up the flood-gates and let the books pour in.

There are those who believe this world should be consumed by God’s awful fire, and that right soon.  But God, as I understand it, is a writer of books.  Perhaps the divine plan is different than so many suppose.  Even the angels sang about peace on earth in one of those books.  You never know what’s going to be under the tree, but in our house books are always a certainty.  The words that describe this season—joy, peace, goodwill—can come in a few ounces of paper, ink, and glue.  And if God’s own book tells us to love one another, who are we to argue on Christmas Eve?  And if it’s true today won’t it be true also tomorrow and every other day beyond that?  Iceland has grown out of its warlike past.  And today they’re exchanging books.  Perhaps there’s a lesson there for all of us.