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.


Is This Contact?

And speaking of the X-Files—but ah, I shouldn’t jest!  In fact, I strongly advocate avoiding the ridicule response when a claim seems outlandish.  A few weeks ago I posted on a review of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence, a book just out.  The review I’d seen made reference to the aspects of religion and paranormal in the book, and given the mainstream media’s treatment of the topic of UFOs lately, I thought I should see what was being said.  As you might expect for a collection of essays, the tome is a mixed bag.  While ridicule is excluded, a healthy skepticism is necessary.  Amid the contributors with known credentials are those who make claims that are difficult to verify.  Much like the rest of life, you’re left making choices.

Amid all of this, where does religion come in?  Books like this often reveal the deep biblical literalism of our society.  Amid the authors who haven’t held government (although that’s hardly a situation where critical thinking is necessary) or university posts, there is clearly the assumption that the Bible is literally true.  Cherry-picked verses are “explained” by the presence of UFOs or aliens, with the supposition that if it’s in the Good Book it must be true.  This kind of simple credulity is quite common, but it does make you wonder if all the homework’s been done.  I know, I know, biblical scholars spoil all the fun!  If one piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit, however, perhaps the picture hasn’t been put together correctly.

That’s not the extent of the religious—or better, spiritual side of the topic.  Many of the essays are written from a somewhat “New Age” perspective with vibrations, and energy, and universal guidance of spiritual beings.  Other essays deal with government whistle-blowers who seem to tell a coherent story of secrecy and deception on the part of those in power.  No matter how you slice it, reading this book without ridicule is a perception-bending experience.  It may not be the one book everyone needs to read to get up-to-date information on where things stand in public perception, but it will make you think.  Given how much the topic has been in the media lately, and how it has at last been treated without snide asides, may be cause for hope.  “No go” topics may be vanishing, if only because our military admits to taking this one seriously.  And there seem to be, as always, religious implications.


Out There

Do you see them?

While recently re-watching an X-Files episode, I noticed something odd.  A quick online search revealed that I wasn’t the only one to notice this particular quirk, and, in fact, there had been considerable previous discussion on it.  What really struck me wasn’t the resolution of my question, but the fact that so much had already been written on a single episode of a single television program.  It’s one of the problems with trying to keep up with pop culture—there’s so much out there (besides just the truth!).  I’ve been exploring pop culture with the Bible for a number of years.  There’s plenty enough in the X-Files to warrant a larger project, but even without that, there’s just no way to keep up.  You could spend your life trying to unpack what several people wove into a single program.  Each episode took considerable thought, planning, and resources.  Once it was out there, reception history began.

So much of scholarship is analyzing what someone else has done.  Some monographs are more footnote than actual text.  What I’ve been suggesting regarding pop culture is that it is the way people understand religion.  The information people receive often comes from what modern authors and screenwriters compose.  A few X-Files later, during a religiously themed episode, something was implied to be in the Bible that’s not.  Again, I address this directly in Holy Horror, but every time I see an example, it catches me by surprise.  The average viewer doesn’t know to research what they’re being told and if it’s played straight, as it was in this episode, it becomes part of the truth that’s out there.

Those interested in how beliefs develop and change over time have recently begun to ask about the average person instead of “official religion.”  In antiquity this is difficult to gage since the average person was illiterate and poor.  Even in modern times with relatively high amounts of literacy and everyone writing on the internet, trying to understand religion is difficult.  Now it’s a matter of too much information.  Fan sites exist for popular media.  The canons of Harry Potter fandom alone would require a lifetime of study.  Limiting oneself to the X-Files might be a start.  My own publication history with pop culture and religion began with Sleepy Hollow.  It could have just as easily begun with the X-Files.  No matter where you choose to begin understanding religion, you’ve got your work cut out for you. And this post has just added to it.


The Unholy Trio

Culture has a powerful prophylactic component.  People don’t want to be seen questioning authority and accepted “truths.”  This is especially the case as they grow out of their teenage years and learn to fit in as part of the herd.  Some subjects make this particularly clear because cultural biases deride them, never giving them a fair chance at consideration.  I’ve run into a number of these over the years, but an example will bring these abstractions to clarity.  Recently a commentor sent me to the video “Kaneh Bosm: The Hidden Story of Cannabis in the Old Testament.”  The idea is one I’ve addressed before—that cannabis was used in incense combinations in the biblical world.  Now, I haven’t done research on this, but what becomes clear is that many scholars over the years have dismissed the idea out of hand because, well, it invokes pot.

The reason marijuana—something I’ve never used and have no desire to try personally—has been demonized is one of considerable interest.  This is especially the case since it appears to have been widely used in antiquity.  No respectable biblical scholar, however, would be caught suggesting that it might have been incorporated in the rites of ancient Israel.  The modern stigma of cannabis, in other words, discounts the possibilities that in ancient times it was used in sacred contexts.  The “war on drugs” in the United States was largely led by religious conviction.  The heirs of Christian prohibition.  Sure, some drugs can lead to real problems.  The deeper issue, however, is that society’s structure leads people to the place where drugs seem to be the only answer.  The civilized response?  Make them illegal.

That mark against controlled substances colors our view of history.  If such things are illegal now then they must never have been used.  Chemical analysis of various utensils (what might be called “paraphernalia” today, indicates that ancients knew of and used cannabis.  Our ordered view of ancient Israel as receiving the one true and utterly sacred faith preclude the possibility that our demonized substance could’ve been used in ancient times.  I’ve noticed this with the other topic of the documentary—Asherah.  Conservative scholarship still denies that ancients might’ve thought Yahweh had a spouse.  (My own work does not deny this, but simply questions the nature of the evidence; I think it is likely people believed Yahweh had a consort.)  So we once again collide with a “no go” topic.  So, after we admit the possibility of drugs and sex, so the thinking goes, what we we find next—ancient rock-n-roll? 


Reviewing Nightmares

If you’ve wanted a copy of Nightmares with the Bible but the cost is a little dear, I might recommend you look on the Reading Religion website where, as of my last look, a free review copy is available.  The catch is you have to write a review.  This is, of course, first come, first served service.  I tried, more than once, to get Holy Horror listed on their website for review, so I’m glad to see one of my books finally made it.  The idea of the horror hermeneutic seems to be catching on.  Technically speaking, however, what I’m doing is more history of religions than hermeneutics.  History of religions, at least part of it, examines whence ideas arise.  Nightmares asks that question specifically about demons.

The specific focus on horror in religion is a fairly new field of study.  Biblical scholars—indeed, those who specialize in very old fields of study in general—must keep looking for new angles.  Unlike any other piece of literature, the Good Book has been the target of scholarly interest from the very beginning of the western academic tradition.  It’s easy to forget, when looking at many secular powerhouse schools, that the very idea of higher education arose from what is now the discipline of the lowest paid of academic posts.  Being so old, religious studies, known at the time as theology, is hardly a venerated field.  I tend to think it’ll come back.  If you look at what’s happening in politics in this country, it’s bound too.  And yes, there will be horror.

Horror studies in the field operates by recognizing that horror and religion share common ground.  Like religion, horror is considered backward and uninformed.  Neither is really true of either horror or religion, but perception becomes reality for most people.  Finding themselves in remedial class together religion and horror have begun to speak to one another.  Horror has quite a following, even if those who like it keep mostly quiet about it.  The same is true of religion.  Many of the most effective horror films bring religion directly into the mix, often making it the actual basis of the horror.  The first books that I know of that brought the two explicitly together only began appearing at the turn of the millennium.  At first there were very few.  Now an increasing number of tomes have begun to appear.  For better or worse, two of mine are in the mix.  If you’d like to review the most recent one, you might check out Reading Religion, and maybe spare a kind word or two for what are, after all, baby steps.


Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.


More about Nightmares

I became aware of TheoFantastique many years ago.  Being new to social media myself, I was impressed at how professional and intelligent the site was.  Eventually I decided to introduce myself to John Morehead, the creator behind it.  (It is possible to be shy on the internet, so this took a few years.)  When Holy Horror came out I asked if TheoFantastique would post a review of it and got an even better response with an interview.  Now that Nightmares with the Bible is out the tradition has been kept going.  If you’d like to see an interview on the book take a look here.  One of the topics that comes up in discussion is how popular culture—TheoFantastique is cleverly named in that regard—influences the way we think about religion.

Religious studies was, not so long ago, a growing field.  Many of us have been trying to understand why interest began to sag, somewhat abruptly, and came to the point that it now feels like an endangered species.  Two of the consequences of this are important: one is that we don’t invest in studying what motivates just about everything in American politics and society, and the second is that the average person gets her or his information about religion from popular culture.  Movies, for example, are impactful, brief, and entertaining.  Humans are visual learners and although books punch above their weight in the learning division, having someone show you something is faster and requires less commitment than reading.  Academics, most of whom love reading, have been very slow to cotton onto this fact.  Society learns by looking.

That observation stands behind both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  Both of these explorations look at how people come to understand two aspects of religion: the Bible and demons.  Instead of attempting to tackle all of religious studies (nobody can) or all of cinema (ditto), these books look at the horror genre to see how fans come to understand the Good Book.  As the interview explores, other scholars—mostly younger ones—are beginning to realize this is where people live.  It’s rare to find someone who commits to reading an academic monograph unless they’re in the academy.  Even academics, however, watch movies.  When the locus of information shifts to popular culture we need to start taking seriously what popular culture says.  More people will watch The Exorcist than will ever read an academic monograph about demons.  If we want to understand how people understand religion—what religion is—we need to pay attention.  And TheoFantastique is a great place to start. 


Who’s Upstairs?

The other day the New York Times ran yet another article on UFOs.  This topic, which has been maligned since the 1940s, is now being discussed without mockery in the mainstream media.  Perhaps following the Trump presidency nothing’s impossible to believe.  There are, interestingly enough, many writers who connect UFOs with religion.  And these aren’t all writing about UFO religions, of which there are many.  Exploring the Outer Edges of Society and Mind ran a piece on biblical UFOs earlier this month.  The topic was taboo, of course, when I was teaching (I remember a colleague laughing when I told him I covered it in a course called Myth and Mystery) but it too is now becoming mainstream.  I don’t need to summarize the Outer Edges piece here since it’s easy enough to follow the link and read, but I would point out that a longstanding connection exists between UFOs and religion.

A spate of books on UFOs came out in the seventies and eighties.  Some of those more or less overlooked by the media focused on religion—often the Bible—and how UFOs play into it.  Quite often the biblicist writers identified these unknown objects in the skies as either angels or demons.  This continues to this day with some congressional leaders (many of whom are too religious for the good of the nation) averring that UFOs are “demonic.”  Frankly, if demons are incorporeal, I wonder why they need to fly around in saucers.  Perhaps they too grew up eating too much Quisp for breakfast.  In any case, the connection was made early and it remains.  When we see something in the sky we used to give it a religious explanation.  Now we chant “drones.”

In his article David Metcalfe begins by noting the forthcoming publication of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Contact with the mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Press.  The difference between yesteryear with its Quisp and its flying saucer houses, and today is that people are starting to be serious about the topic.  This, I expect, is one of the benefits of increasing technology.  People are seldom without a camera in their pocket these days and although there are plenty of drones and other strange things flying around, the classic UFO hasn’t gone away.  A generation of people endured ridicule and scorn for being gullible.  Now the gray lady herself is asking questions with nary a smile.  Perhaps we’re becoming more tolerant and perhaps we’re more willing to believe we’re not alone in the universe.  Some would claim that even the Bible got in on the act millennia ago.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

Around the Bible

Perhaps it’s happened to you.  You grow curious about something adjacent to the action in the Bible and you go online to find information.  Instead you discover that Google (or Ecosia—plant trees!) searches round you up time and again into the biblical realm.  It seems as if nobody is interested in exploring the world of the Bible not mentioned in the Bible itself.  This has been an avocation of mine all along.  After a while you get tired of hearing what yet another commentator has to say about the Bible itself and you start to want information on, say, places Jesus didn’t go.  A startling apathy meets you online. If it’s not mentioned in the Good Book it’s not worth knowing.  Now quite apart from sending me to the pre-biblical world for my doctoral work, this was also the impetus for Weathering the Psalms.  Nobody seemed particularly interested in the larger picture.

I’m guessing this has improved somewhat in the academy, but it doesn’t translate well to the web, at least not the versions available in America.  Searches for topics around the Bible always herd you back to the Bible itself, as if it is the only reason one might be asking about the weather, geography, or natural flora and fauna of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria.  Who’d possibly have such an interest for its own sake?  Our bibliocentric culture seems to feed into search-engine algorithms and brings up Scripture time and again.  Try this for maps, for example.  You’ll come up with plenty showing places the Bible names.  If it’s not named there, you won’t find much.  Curiosity for its own sake isn’t encouraged.

This is related to the phenomenon of trying to search for something you don’t know the name of, I suppose.  Those who post content on the web, if they want to be successful, anticipate what others are interested in.  What of those of us who think differently?  Some of us put unusual stuff on the web, but how do you find it if you can’t put it into words?  Secular society doesn’t have much interest in the Good Book.  I’ve suggested many times why I think this is misguided—the Bible is foundational for the American way of life, whether you’re religious or not.  You might think curiosity would abound on related topics.  The thing is you have to get through all the clutter to get there.  I guess we need to be archaeologists of the web.