Like an Egyptian

“And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  The words are from the Good Book.  Specifically Exodus 10.7.  They’ve been on my mind as the coronavirus is beginning to yield in all developed nations but our own.  Let me set the scene: the Israelites have become slaves in Egypt.  Moses was sent to set them free, but a Trumpian Pharaoh stood in the way.  Plague after plague was sent, but the president, er, I mean Pharaoh, refused to acknowledge what the evidence indicated.  Moses would appear before the senate and declare the coming disaster.  In the mythical world of the Bible, though, the senate actually saw reason.

“Knows thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  Instead of addressing the Covid-19 crisis the White House has decided to turn a blind eye.  Nearly one-fourth of the worldwide cases of the disease are recorded in the United States.  In the past week several record-setting days of new case numbers were set even as the administration was insisting that schools be opened without any plans, or even ideas about how to help.  “Have them make bricks without straw,” you could almost hear echoing around the Oval Office.  Ah, indeed, this is the most biblical of administrations.  Our economy has been tanked for years to come.  The environment has been degraded to the point of disaster.  And yet Moses is ignored.  The real plague was the Pharaoh.

“This is the finger of science!”

Exodus is a story of liberation.  What’s more, according to the Good Book, God himself wanted Israel to be set free.  The Pharaoh, it seems, was not personally afflicted with the plagues until the darkness fell.  Prior to that, if it didn’t affect him personally he simply didn’t care.  Too many self-aggrandizing monuments to be built to his own name.  Ancient Egypt was like that.  Meanwhile plagues brought the mightiest nation of the time to its knees.  Beyond that.  It brought them prone.  Most of us, I expect, are ready to get on with life.  We’ve been self-isolating for over three months and yet the number of cases continues to increase.  We could use a word or two of guidance from a sympathetic leader.  Instead we’re entering hurricane season.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve got my Bible all ready.  And right now it’s open to Exodus.  

Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.

X-Files Redux

So, after writing a post about The X-Files, I finished season three, forgetting up until then that the last episode was “Talitha Cumi.”  Apart from being part of the alien mythology arc, the biblically literate recognize the title as the words Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter as he raised her from the dead.  Appropriately enough, the episode features an alien-human hybrid that is able to raise the dead and to shape-shift.  This particular episode also has an intriguing dialogue between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (the hybrid) where they discuss whether the alien agenda for people, or that of the shadowy cabal, is better.  With a theology drawn from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (according to Wikipedia, and which I have no reason to doubt), they argue from different perspectives.  The Smoking Man explains that they have given people science instead of God and miracles will only confuse the issue.

While not exactly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this scene raises some very real questions.  Are people happier not believing?  Not only that, but the cynicism of the Smoking Man matches rather precisely the modus operandi of our government some two decades later.  There’s a reason we keep coming back to the classics.  The X-Files mythology is, like the Cthulhu Mythos, woven throughout a larger tapestry whose warp and weft both seem to be religion.  It ran far longer than Sleepy Hollow ever did, and it would take considerable effort to tease all of the Bible, let alone religion, out of it.  They make the story far more believable.

This particular episode also displays the staying power of the classics.  Long, ponderous books like The Brothers Karamazov require concerted effort to read in these soundbite days of internet hegemony.  That Grand Inquisitor chapter, however, has been enormously influential.  (I recall during my most recent rereading of the novel that I hit that wonderful chapter and then realized I still had hundreds of pages to go.)  We often have trouble telling God from the Devil.  Just look at today’s political scene and try to disagree.  In the X-Files diegesis there is a shadowy, high-powered group that got to the extraterrestrials first.  They keep the secrets to themselves while the masses play out their insignificant lives that enrich those in charge.  Democracy, it seems, used to be about elected representatives seeing to the will of the people.  It perhaps assumes a greater educational base than we’ve been able to retain.  But still, with chapters like “Talitha Cumi” we see that there may be some glimmer of hope after all.

The Bible Files

As intimated several posts ago now, my wife and I are rewatching The X-Files.  Neither of us has much free time, so this proceeds slowly over many weekends, and we’re now nearing the end of season three.  This exercise brings me back to an article I wrote on Sleepy Hollow, the Fox series that ran from 2013-2017.  That article, published in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, I later adapted into a chapter in Holy Horror.  At the advice of my editor I dropped that particular chapter and wrote a different one.  In the lost chapter, if I recall, I made the case that Sleepy Hollow was biblically based in a way that other monster-of-the-week series, like the X-Files, were not.  While I still have to hold to this, I must admit the X-Files are far more biblical than I recollected.

Somewhere about halfway through season one I started to jot notes when the Bible was mentioned or quoted.  Soon it became obvious that religion was a major theme in The X-Files pretty much from the beginning.  I’ve mentioned here before that some scholars of religion have begun to address the paranormal seriously.  One of the reasons for this seems to be that the two fields are related.  Some of the x-files derive from folk traditions, and these traditions often hold religious elements.  When those themes derive from American folklore the Bible creeps in.  There are quotes, visual displays, and even biblical themes.  How had I not noticed this the first time around?

I didn’t watch The X-Files during the actual airing of the series.  As a kid I was endlessly teased for having an interest in the strange and unexplained, and it bothered me that it had become mainstream after I’d already paid the price.  When the series became available on DVD, though, I had second thoughts.  My wife and I watched it all the way through some years ago, and, having finished rewatching another series several months back, we began slowly to make our way through again.  When I wrote my article on Sleepy Hollow I had vague recollections of X-Files episodes with some biblical content, but I’d forgotten how extensive it was.  Religion is that way.  It tends to permeate society, and even though we’re proudly secular, the base of it all is religion.  This should be obvious to anyone who takes the time to tally just how often it appears in the most secular of spaces.  Instead, there’s little interest in it.  Like the paranormal, lack of concern about religion is something we just can’t adequately explain.

Bible Horror

The combination may seem odd, but it is definitely a valid one.  The Bible and horror, I mean.  My colleague in this venture, Brandon R. Grafius, has published the first book in the Horror and Scripture series, Reading the Bible with Horror.  This is a fascinating little volume that explores the productive use of horror films when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  The Bible isn’t all horror, of course, but a good deal of it is.  That’s one of the keys of biblical interpretation—no one method covers it all.  At least when I was teaching I used eclectic methods both because some methods work better than others in some places and because no one method is the correct one.  Using horror to interpret the Good Book is one of the newest methods out there.

The methodology involves looking at horror films (mostly) and finding biblical parallels.  Both the Bible and the movies interpret one another.  This can be a kind of reception history—the idea that to understand Scripture we must look at how it has been “received.”  The way that people read Holy Writ after it was written is as important as the way biblical specialists read it.  We all know what literalism is, and biblical scholars are well aware of its shortcomings as a method.  There are tons of other methods that seek to show the relevance of the Good Book, and one of them is to see how horror makes it so.  To get to this point the reader must get beyond our social bias about horror as a degraded, evil genre.  Some of it is quite bad, of course, but much of it has redeeming value.  Redeeming value so obvious that it can be used to interpret the Bible.

Grafius studies only limited examples here, for instance, the book of Job with its human suffering and superhuman Leviathan.  He also looks at hauntings and biblical ghosts, as well as haunted locations.  His chapter on haunted houses made me stop and think quite a bit.  He concludes with what will be the most challenging concept for many—the idea that God can be monstrous in the Bible.  He clearly can.  Apart from theodicy, one of the major reasons critics attack Christianity is the character of God as portrayed in the Bible.  Grafius isn’t attacking Christianity but rather he’s trying to show how a most unlikely source can shed genuine light onto it.  Reading the Bible with Horror is an insightful step in that direction, even if it’s a step into a rather haunted house.

Temple Mysteries

Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  If you read the Bible, rather than just pose with it, you’ll wonder what went on in the temple when you’re done.  Yes, it’s obvious there would be the bleeting of sheep followed by an eerie silence, and that “that Burger King smell” would be pervasive, but what of the interior of the temple itself?  The Good Book says next to nothing about what happened inside.  We do know that going to temple wasn’t the same as going to synagogue or church.  The laity, for one thing, weren’t allowed inside.  Although the temple in Jerusalem can’t be excavated, many ancient temples have been found and archaeologists have the ability to analyze residues found on altars and that tells us something at least.  A story on Artnet News publicizes an archaeological report that rests behind a paywall, so I’ll use Artnet’s headline: “Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did.”

The story explains that chemical analysis of the famous Arad temple from ancient Judah shows that one of the altars was used to burn cannabis.  I guess that could help explain all the animal sacrifices.  Like most religions, that of ancient Israel kept much in the dark (literally).  Read the biblical account again.  The temple had no windows.  The holy place was illuminated by the menorah, so there was light.  The holy of holies was completely dark.  Other than the rituals of the Day of Atonement, we’re not given much information on what the priests and levites did for the rest of the year.  They may or may not have burnt cannabis.  It might be that what happened in Arad stayed in Arad.  What hath Arad to do with Jerusalem?  We simply don’t know.

Another altar in Arad, according to the story by Sarah Cascone, burned frankincense.  That sounds much more biblical.  I’ve never been a smoker and I’ve never smoked anything in my life.  I did, however, attend many services at Nashotah House where the small space of St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with so much incense that I wondered about its health affects.  I’m not sure if others felt they were getting lightheaded from all the fumes or not.  Incense, to be used effectively should be handled sparingly.  Its purpose was, theologically, to cloud the air in case God decided to show up.  You weren’t allowed to see him.  If he did show up, though, maybe it was party time.  And there’s bread and wine just out in the vestibule.  Some mysteries will never be fully explained.

George Floyd

Perhaps for the first time in four years, 45 is beginning to see people are unhappy.  Very unhappy.  The pontiff—excuse me—president wanted a photo-op with the Good Book at a nearby Episcopal Church and had crowds of protesters tear-gassed so the he could make himself look righteous.  My wife pointed out that this was an example of the Bible as a Ding, and she was right.  (If you don’t get the reference, it’s explained in Holy Horror.)  Moreover, it is a clear abuse of power.  Not only have thousands of Americans been needlessly dying from COVID-19, the violence against African Americans is caught time and again on police body-cams.  People are rightfully protesting and the racist-in-chief doesn’t like it.

It doesn’t work unless you open it.

With echoes of Tiananmen Square he’s now threatening to send the military against protestors.  It’s far easier to strike out at people while holding a Bible in your hand than it is to learn empathy.  We’ve been isolating and masking ourselves for over two months now and not one word of sympathy has come from the White House incumbent.  Instead of trying to calm racial unrest, he tweets to conquer, not realizing that divide and conquer is meant to be used against enemies of your nation, not your own people.  Never had we had a president who has so openly played favorites and made not even a pretense of being a leader for the entire country.  He is a figurehead of his base only, which is, it seems to me, a violation of the oath he swore on that selfsame Bible not even four years ago.

Pandering to such a Ding is an abuse of Holy Writ.  After unrest over George Floyd’s murder had entered its third night the response from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was silence.  How far is it from here to Tiananmen Square?  Is it not possible to admit error and realize that the economy is going like the Titanic’s maiden voyage and just about everyone knows someone who’s died because of the virus or who’s been racially profiled by one of the “good people on both sides”?  No, grab the Bible and clear the rabble who won’t shout “Hosannah” when he rides his ass outside a church whose door he’s seldom darkened to show his base he really is a Bible-reading man.  Was this some bizarre parody of Jesus clearing the temple or just a mockery of the man who said “By their fruits you will know them”?  There’s only one answer to that.  How different the world would be if Bible-believers actually read the book they love to thump.  

Qohelet’s Washcloset

Cast your bread upon the water, as Ecclesiastes says, and it will come back to you when you need it.  Since bread is a common slang word for money, and since the toilet paper has arrived that I ordered two months ago, I see the truth in this.  Paper spent for paper to use.  While I’m pretty sure that’s not what old Qohelet exactly had in mind, it is the reality in which we live.  There are experts that tell us the toilet paper shortage isn’t due to panic buying, but over eight weeks into this crisis and the shelves in Target and grocery stores still look like Mrs. Hubbard’s cupboards.  All those people working from home must need more fibre in their diets.  Or is it less?  I can never remember.  What other than bread satisfies?  Clearly toilet paper does.  And the fact that the nearest yeast, according to Siri, is in Tennessee, clearly has nothing to do with panic buying.  Nothing at all.

People will go to any lengths to prove that we’re rational beings.  We don’t like the image of being the panicky herd beasts we are.  When I first realized the crisis was hard on us, it was March 16.  That was my first grocery store trip where beans were as rare as moral Republicans and we still can’t find pasta or flour around here, even with stores stocking daily.  The announcements on the loudspeaker beg buyers to get only what they really need, and leave some for others.  The thing about panic, though, is that it’s anything but rational.  It’s based on emotion washed in the myth of scarcity.  It also shows what an unregulated economy soon devolves into.  I’m sure many people rationalize panic buying as “just until things get back to normal.”  Vanity, vanity, says Ecclesiastes.

Instead of the myth of scarcity we should believe in the myth of normalcy.  That should’ve ended, for any reasoning being, in November of 2016.  It isn’t normal for a prosperous nation to offer up someone who clearly has no governing ability for the most powerful office in the land.  Two months into the largest crisis we’ve seen since the days of FDR and the White House response has been the null set.  Meanwhile, I ordered toilet paper from abroad on March 16.  The ship slowly made its way across the Pacific from China where, I understand, toilet paper is abundant.  I’m just glad that there’s a rational explanation for all of this.

White Whales

Every once in a while I return to Moby Dick.  I’m not sure why exactly Melville’s classic has such a hold on me.  Perhaps because I first read it while living in Boston.  For a land lubber like myself being so near the ocean was a kind of epiphany.  I read the novel as part of a course on wisdom literature in the Bible.  Harrell Beck, who was an influential person in my life, insisted that if wisdom themes were truly wisdom they would be found outside the Good Book.  We were assigned a list of modern novels from which to choose and I selected Moby Dick.  The thing that immediately struck me about the novel was just how biblical it is.  Ahab and Ishmael aside, the many references to Jonah and Job and incidental asides referencing scripture made this an intense reading experience.

I started reading it for the fifth or sixth time just before the pandemic became a crisis.  It is a large book and I didn’t want to rush through it.  I tried to pause and appreciate it this time around and I noticed just how remarkable it was that a man who made much of his life as a laborer, without any higher education, was so incredibly literate.  Classical references that I had to look up, and citation of sources blend together in a story that is compelling as it is unsettling.  Long explanations and descriptions are part of the tale, and the soliloquies are so philosophical that you have to sit back in a reverie after reading them.  I’ve read many novels in my life, but no others like Moby Dick.

As metaphorical stories go, the book is remarkably natural.  The descriptions of whales are as scientific in their own way as they are literary.  For an author with no scientific training this too is remarkable.  Indeed, a good part of the draw of Moby Dick is Herman Melville himself.  Although I have gathered a few degrees over the years, in my mind I am, like Melville, unlettered.  I’m sure he would’ve understood.  The fiction I write, although in a very different style, is a tip of the hat to him.  Friends used to tell me that nobody writes like that any more and that no publishers would show an interest.  The latter has proven to be true, and so much more’s the pity.  We could use more novels like Moby Dick.  And were my days not even fuller during the pandemic, I might even have a few moment to pursue my own white whales.

Tent Pegs

Among the many things that have happened during the pandemic to fill my time, I was invited to join a virtual book discussion group.  While the idea of reading groups has always appealed to me, there’s always the matter of who gets to choose the book.  I’m well aware from both what I post here on this blog and from my Goodreads account, that my reading tastes are eccentric.  I’m also very aware of how little time life really encompasses and I try to make it count.  Work takes up much of it, and beyond that biological necessities such as sleep, and household chores also weigh in.  All of which is to say I didn’t choose The Tent of Abraham to read.  It chose me.

The subtitle—Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims—pretty much describes what the book is.  Authored and edited by Joan Chittister, Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti, and Arthur Waskow, the book focuses on the story of Abraham that ties the three monotheistic traditions together.  It is an exercise in creative exegesis, and sometimes eisegesis.  Given the point of the book, eisegesis is okay here, perhaps even necessary.  The reason for much war and hatred is the credulous, literal belief in our founding myths.  Abraham isn’t an historically attested character.  The stories told about him in ancient religious texts differ.  And although he doesn’t always come across sympathetically, he is always seen as a friend of God.  We’re not ever given a satisfying reason for that friendship, it just is.  Abraham is kind of a scary guy, as some of these stories make clear.  He’s not above abandoning his lover and child in the wilderness.  Nor attempting to murder his only remaining son.  Or passing his wife off as his sister to save his own skin.

Interspersed with these tales of imagination and horror, are scriptural versions (and by scriptural I mean biblical and those from the Quran and Hadiths), as well as real life stories of death in the Middle East conflict.  These are difficult stories to read.  Much of the violence between faiths comes down to conflicting claims of ownership.  As the book makes clear, if people resolve to celebrate difference rather than to distrust the other we can all live together in peace.  The only thing lacking to make this happen is the will.  Unfortunately, the conflict draws its energy from religious beliefs, or, more precisely, politics using religion to get its ends.  And for that one doesn’t have to travel all the way to the Middle East.

Honey and Wine

Academic writing tends to be limiting.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy reading a well-crafted academic work, but when facing a new one I always experience that sinking feeling that this will be difficult work.  That doesn’t stop me from getting a little thrill when something academic I’ve written appears.  Pickwick, an imprint of Wipf & Stock, recently released the cover of Some Wine and Honey for Simon, the Festschrift for Simon Parker to which I’ve contributed.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an orphaned article that required some polishing up to be able to submit.  Thinking back on it, I reflect on how much has changed since then.  How I’ve left the land of Festschriften.  How my own research has changed.

Research, traditionally wrought, requires an academic library and lots of time.  You need to be able to spend your hours requesting books and articles that you can’t afford—really publishers?  $40 to purchase twenty pages that I won’t even enjoy reading?  Access to JSTOR will cost you if you don’t have a university post.  Now I trawl Academia.edu hoping to catch what I need in my net.  Sometimes it works.  Other times you bring up a coelacanth.  That’s the way of research outside the academy.  Also, I find myself reading books that appeal to me rather than strictly books on topic.  Many of them aren’t academic, but they are informative.  Part of research, it seems to me, is learning to access sources you wouldn’t normally find.  There’s the element of discovery.

Monsters appealed to me as a research area since there hadn’t been much written on them academically and I’d read most of what had.  The field is starting to take off now, which means  high-priced monographs and inaccessible research.  Working in publishing I think I understand the mindset—employees are expensive, especially in the United States.  They require salaries so they can live, and medical coverage so they can continue to live.  And most books sell so few copies that they really aren’t profitable.  But I like to think people would read about monsters, if they were priced down around the level of the demographic that appreciates them.  So one of my academic articles is about to be released to the world along with some wine and honey.  I’m still trying to sort out how to contribute from the margins.  And I hope Simon, who was always kind to me, appreciates the effort to honor a scholar and a gentleman.

Buzzy Headed

If you’re like me, and I sincerely hope you’re not, you spent your childhood worrying about killer bees.  You see, I was stung a lot as a child, having stepped on a yellow-jacket nest hidden in an old tree stump.  That event was one of the most formative of my life.  Oh, I act brave, shooing wasps and carpenter bees away, but that’s all a front.  I was repairing a piece of furniture out in the garage over the weekend and a big old bee got in and started buzzing around.  It drove me to distraction.  I once had a bee land on my back and sting me for no apparent reason.  Alone in the garage I had no one to watch my back.  I decided to do some repairs back in the house instead.  Let it have the garage.

During this pandemic, then, the last thing I needed to hear was that “murder hornets” have made it to the United States.  And Republicans are bad enough!  The murder hornet is responsible for double-digit deaths in its native land, and now my childhood nightmares of killer bees have reemerged.  We had a warming trend over the weekend.  There were so many wasps and bees around outside that I could even hear their buzzing with the windows safely closed.  Insects are the future, of course.  They adapt better and more quickly than we do, and there are many, many more of them.  The Bible often uses insects as vehicles of divine wrath.  No wonder horror movies often make use of them!

Image credit: SecretDisc, via Wikimedia Commons

More rational minds soothe us, saying that murder hornets seldom attack people or pets.  If provoked, however, they can do so fatally.  Perhaps it’s the anger of stinging insects that bothers me the most.  The yellow-jackets that attacked me certainly seemed angry.  My stepping on their home was an innocent accident.  It was also a learning experience.  I don’t step on old stumps any more.  I haven’t since the incident.  Such early traumas can stay with you all your life, and the buzzing co-inhabitants of the earth, I have to remind myself, have as much right to be here as we do.  In cases like killer bees, we invented them.  When we play Doctor Frankenstein nature responds in kind.  The monster was angry.  Bees, wasps, and hornets may be intelligent but they can’t reason out the motives of bumbling humans who accidentally disturb them.  And now a bigger variety has moved in.  It’s probably best to keep calm and not get anybody angry.

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

Bunny or No?

Since we’re in the midst of a smaller holiday season (capitalistic societies can only get away with one major holiday season because the workers must work) many people are wondering whether they should go to church for Easter tomorrow.  I’ll confess I woke up from a nightmare this morning where I accidentally forgot about COVID-19 and went to church.  I stepped inside and the building was full.  I tried to find an empty pew to socially distance myself from all but the Divine, and there was no room.  I felt infected as others started to cough around me.  In real life I’d just read from the World Health Organization’s situation report (number 80, located here, in case you want to see) that we’ve just reached day 100 since WHO received its first notification of this new disease.  The report has guidance for those who feel compelled to gather for religious services.  It makes for very interesting reading.

WHO, like certain political parties, knows that people will listen to their religious leaders rather than reason.  (And still our universities cut positions in their religion departments since, apparently, it is best not to know about such things.)  Recognizing that a secular, science-based organization simply can’t compete, WHO urges religious leaders to spread the word about evidence-based responses to the outbreak.  Don’t gather large Easter-day crowds (they also mention Passover and Ramadan), but, interestingly, do keep the services going.  WHO recognizes the psychological (you can’t say “spiritual”) value of religious belief.  It gives people hope and comfort.  It keeps them going in difficult times.  Call it mental health, but the World Health Organization has wellbeing right there in its title.

Photo credit: ItsLassieTime, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the same day I saw an email from the other acronym in my life, SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature).  They were releasing their annual report showing the dismal job market figures for the discipline over the last year.  These jobs are fading and although WHO recognizes billions of people are motivated by religion our smartest institutions are shifting their money away from understanding it.  The COVID-19 outbreak puts us in this strange place where disjunctures become focal points.  If you look at a field of uniform gray long enough you’ll stop seeing anything at all.  You need contrast for vision to work.  WHO recognizes that religious observance constitutes a major challenge for the effort to keep people isolated.  Universities now in isolation, continue to see no reason to study this.  I’m waiting to awake from this nightmare.

Denying Reality

The science-deniers in the White House have had to accommodate themselves to evidence-based facts and they look none too happy about it.  Science denial has a long and venerable history in a certain type of evangelicalism.  Science teaches us that most things are more complex than they seem and this is also true of religions.  There are evangelicals all over the board, but those claiming the name most loudly have been outspoken Trump supporters.  The administration has had a three-year spree of decrying science and now that a very real virus is killing us they have no choice but to listen, albeit reluctantly.  So why do certain strains of evangelicalism deny science?  Is it all for profit?  Is there some kind of biblical mandate?

As someone who spent many years making a living as a biblical scholar (and it still plays into my work), I often think about this.  There is the underlying reliance on miracle as opposed to naturalism, for sure.  If God can do anything then science is ever only contingent.  Any moment a miracle (a word that doesn’t occur in the Bible, by the way) could happen and there’d be no way to measure it.  The main reason, however, goes back to Genesis and its creation stories.  When you read a book first impressions are important.  The Good Book begins with a theological account that eventually came to be taken literally.  It’s as if someone decided to live by a poem, taken as fact.  Some things can’t be expressed except with metaphorical language.  But since this creation takes place up front, any challenge to it is an affront to the Almighty.

The antagonism set up by Darwin’s discovery of evolution set the whole confrontation in motion.  Evangelicals in the late 1800s were feeling pushed into the corner by the overwhelming evidence that the creation accounts in Genesis were not factual.  This insult to miracle has simmered for well over a century—the Scopes trial, well into this period, took place 95 years ago.  Fear that the Bible’s loss of science authority might somehow lessen its spiritual message became a ditch in which to die.  Big business learned, back in the seventies, that evangelicals made great followers and could constitute a voting bloc if only a cause could be raised around which they’d rally.  We all know what that was.  That issue has led to the denial of science and the acceptance of anyone ill-informed enough to accept such denial.  Only after learning that you must fight pandemics with science has the White House had to start changing its story.  When it’s all over, however, it will go right back to denying everything.