Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.

Type Right

Image credit: Rama, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’d like to get a typewriter.  An old one, without electric capacity.  Clacking keys flying before the dawn.  At first this might seem impractical—why buy a typewriter when almost all publishing is now electronic, at least in one stage of its life cycle?  You type something out and you’re going to have to “re-key” it for the hegemony of technology.  But wait—there is a method to this madness.  I’ve heard it said that good writing is just clear thinking.  That sounds right to me, but with a proviso: good writing is edited writing.  The editor may be someone else, or it may be the author, but the point is that something written, with rare exceptions, improves upon rewriting.  Like ordinary stones in a rock tumbler that come out glistening.  Type it, then retype it.

Back in college I wrote all my papers out by hand before typing them.  (Sometimes three lines of handwriting on each college-ruled line.)  “Keyboard composition,” as it was called then, was shorthand for quick, sloppy writing.  The uniformity of type hides a host of syntactical sins.  I used to see the same thing with student papers prepared on a computer in my teaching days—colorful images and fancy type utilized to mask a lack of engagement.  The paper written and rewritten shows itself to be of a higher standard.  I (or others) notice more errors on this blog when I run out of time for editing, often because work looms.  If I have the time, I edit.  And I actually miss writing my thoughts out longhand.  What I need is a typewriter.

Reading has always been a large part of my job.  Student papers and book proposals aren’t so very different.  Many of both come in what appears to be first draft form.  It’s understandable—good writing takes time not only to hammer out a draft but to think, mull, change angles, and hammer again—and we’re all so terribly busy.  The end result is often worth it.  At this point in Nightmares with the Bible I’m printing out my draft so that I can see what I’ve written.  The handwritten comments come after the keyboard composition, but they still come.  The important thing is that drafts require re-reading.  Better, re-writing.  The niceties of pleasing writing can be added or enhanced by an editor.  When editors write books, other editors edit them.  And as I sit here typing this silently on my computer, I’m imagining the satisfying sounds of a manic typewriter early in the morning.

Internet of Happiness

Are we really happier for instantaneous news?  Has the internet brought us paroxysms of ecstasy with the quality of information?  Wouldn’t you just rather wait?  I don’t think we should go to extremes, or go backward.  Samuel Morse, it is said, developed the telegraph in part because he was away from home and only found out about his wife’s death after her burial, for which he could not return in time.  More rapid communication was necessary and the telegraph provided the means.  No, I’m not suggesting that happiness lies in being uninformed, but perhaps I lingered long enough among the Episcopalians so as to believe in the via media, the middle way.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been spent without a screen glowing in my face.  There is, however, good stuff here.

One example is blogging.  I wish I had more time to read blogs.  Verbomania, for example, showcases writing that sparkles.  The weekly posts set me up for a good weekend.  There are many more that I could name as well—and for me blogging has become a way of life.  Marketers call it “platform building” but I think of it as fun.  And the practice I get writing this blog daily has made my books much more user-friendly.  A family friend with no college education tried to read Weathering the Psalms, with “tried” being the operative word.  There’s no comparison with Holy Horror.  (Weathering the Psalms was written to be my “tenure book,” and it may well be my last technical monograph.)  I have this avocation of blogging to thank for that.

But instantaneous news—does it make us happier?  Sometimes perhaps, but often the opposite.  It’s a phenomenon I call the internet of unhappiness.  (There’s a whole field of study emerging called “the internet of things,” which, no matter how much I ponder I just can’t comprehend.)  News, after all, tends to focus on negatives, as if there’s too much happiness in our lives.  Just yesterday there were early morning helicopters hovering not far from where I live.  Within seconds I could learn of some kind of domestic dispute about which I’d otherwise have been none the wiser.  The next few hours I spent occasionally reloading the page for updates.  They didn’t make me happy.  Add to that the three-ring sideshow that the American government has become and you’ll soon be wanting just three channels from which to select before turning off the TV and going outside for a walk.  And when the 1970s start to look like happy times, you go to your closet and start digging for the semaphore flags.

They must be in here somewhere…

Remembrance

When reading C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, a number of things stood out in high relief.  One of them was his statement that the early years of autobiographies are often the most interesting.  Now, many people may have difficulty drawing a straight line between Lewis and William Peter Blatty, but the overlaps are there.  I’ll Tell Them I Remember You is a young man’s autobiography, so mostly it deals with early years.  Even more than that, it deals with Blatty’s mother.  Those of us who write often find a kind of inspiration in the life stories of other writers.  To hear Blatty tell it, or rather, to read him tell it, it was his mother who made him the man he became.  It’s a nice tribute.

Blatty is probably best remembered as the author of The Exorcist, but his background as a comic screenwriter comes through in his account.  (He also wrote, for example, the Pink Panther screenplay A Shot in the Dark.)  But more to the point currently, with a spoiled child wanting to try to force a wall that America doesn’t want on it, Blatty’s parents were immigrants.  From Lebanon.  It may be that since I’m writing a book about demons in movies that The Exorcist seems like an important national achievement to me, but it also seems an apt parable for the situation in which we find ourselves.  It worth thinking about—the invasion of evil and how to expel it.  Metaphorical writing is often the best.

Perhaps writers are naturally obstreperous people.  If my novels ever get published you’ll see that characters don’t do what you want them to.  And yet we like what happens when they don’t.  I would have found a bit more information about Blatty’s life an asset.  His mother certainly makes an impression, even if its third-hand.  Writers, if my own experience is anything to go by, often feel they are conduits.  Receivers.  It’s like listening to the radio when driving a car through the mountains.  Suddenly a station comes in clear, but just for a moment.  Ideas for stories are like that—they often arrive when you can’t do anything about them.  Writers carry notebooks for a reason.  I used to have a waterproof one in our shower.  You never know when the signal’s going to come in loud and clear.  And you never know when the people you’re trying to block out might be adding more value than you’d ever imagined.  You might be surprised.

Goliath and Company

First UltraViolet.  Then Google +.  Well, actually neither of these was first—tech initiatives cease to exist all the time.  Giants aren’t immune to extinction, it seems.  I’ve got to be careful with my confessions toward Luddite sympathies since, as it turns out, tech is king.  Emperor, in fact.  But since tech only works as long as society holds together, I still want paper knowledge in my library.  I don’t own a Kindle and despite what visitors say, I don’t want to “save room” by getting rid of books.  I like books.  I wink at them from across the room.  Sidle up to them when in private.  Get to know them intimately.  Books are a way of life.  If the grid breaks down, I’ll have books to read and candles to do it by.  For a while there I even made my own candles, although most of those were used up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Just sayin’

You see, my hairs bristle when I hear tech experts complain that “authors should be taught to write in XML.”  Said techies have apparently never written a book.  Ideas, you see, flow.  When you’re in the zone, there’s no stopping to mark-up your text.  In fact, the best, purest kind comes in scribbles on paper with misspelled words and all.  You can hold it in your hands and remember the Muse who had you at the time.  For me the hours of inspiration are before dawn.  I mostly use a computer now, but I can still find myself typing too slow to keep up with manic inspiration, desperate to record my ideas before paid work starts.  Work is the Medea of creativity—both mother and slayer.  Once I login I check out.  I need to wait for another day to dawn.

We’ve invested heavily in technology.  The internet is largely responsible for the globalization against which the world has recently rebelled.  No matter how many times people like me say we love books somebody will say, “Have you considered a Kindle?”  Why?  I bought a house as a place to keep my books.  These little bricks are bits of my mind.  Pieces of my soul!  What we read makes us who we are.  The last person who said the remark about authors learning XML literally sighed with disgust as he said it.  How could, you could feel him thinking, anyone be so backward as to think this is a problem?  I recall Hurricane Sandy.  Sitting in an apartment lit by candles we’d made ourselves, we read old-fashioned books and were eerily content.

May Care

The thing about the Devil is that evil is no laughing matter.  Darren Oldridge had no easy task limiting the dark lord to The Devil: A Very Short Introduction.  He nevertheless does an admirable job packing lots of provocative stuff into a small package.  The historian of religion part of me found his short history of Satan in chapter 2 a compelling synthesis of the character’s background.  Longer sources get tangled in theological weeds once the New Testament’s over, what with erstwhile saints being recast as heretics over some minute point of doctrine.  Lots of ideas about the Devil were floating around in those days, even as they are today.  A particularly important point, however, is made early in this book: even during the Enlightenment most intellectuals—including scientists—assumed the reality of the spiritual world.  It was only when materialism alone came to reign that there could be no Devil because there could be no spirits.

A vast disconnect continues to exist between “public intellectuals” and hoi polloi.  The vast majority of people in the world are religious.  Even in, especially in, the United States a great number of people believe in the Devil.  Many of those same people can’t recognize political evil when it stands naked before them.  Here’s the irony of it all: Oldridge discusses how an evil system, let’s say Nazism, blinded many otherwise decent people to the evil they were asked to perform.  Rhetoric that demonized the other, when dispersed over large crowds, has historically had that effect.  Today we see “Christians” claiming that a social system of helping those in need is of the Devil.  The greatest weapon of the prince of darkness is the sincerely believed lie.

Lies have always been associated with the Devil.  When the number of untruths coming from the White House has broken the very meter for measuring lies, those who claim the name of the crucified man who advocated care for the poor shout all the more loudly.  Not at the lies, but at those who don’t accept them.  Historically, the reign of facts has kept some checks on the Devil.  Even Jesus accused Herod of watching Fox—or was it being a fox?—too bad there are no facts to check.  Oldridge doesn’t tip his hand as to whether there is an actual Devil or not.  Society has, however,  no trouble making up its mind.  All they need to do is turn on the television.

The Desert

Now, I’m fairly certain Athanasius of Alexandria didn’t have access to CreateSpace, or even an Amazon Prime account.  He did write the classic Life of Antony (or Anthony), which I took the opportunity to read recently.  I’m not going to go into this life with great detail—Athanasius does that, in as far as he can—but the reading of this book raised the perils not only of demons but of easy self-publication.  As usual, there’s a story behind it.  Antony was famous for being an early monk who fought demons so effectively that they feared him.  His story wasn’t written in English, seeing that the language had not yet evolved.  When I tried to find an affordable copy that I could access quickly, I found the edition pictured here.  It was fairly obviously a conversion, likely from a PDF (based on my own so doing, in the line of duty).  A minimal cover was applied and it was offered cheaply on said Amazon (with free shipping).

Those who work in publishing know how to spot a print-on-demand title.  That means the book is printed when it’s ordered, or, printed a few copies at a time so that the overhead of offset printing (how books were traditionally made) can be avoided.  Self-publishers can name themselves a press—this one Beloved Publishing—and anything in the public domain can be reproduced and sold to rubes like me.  When a scholar, erstwhile or while, approaches a book s/he wants to know certain facts about it.  Who was the translator?  What was the original language?  When was it written?  Who was (in this case) Athanasius?  Some of this I knew simply by dint of studying ancient texts for most of my adult life and having attended and taught in seminaries.  Still, an introduction of some sort would have been appreciated.

This edition appealed to me because the Life on Antony is a short book.  Most mainstream publishers bulk books like these up with hefty introductions and notes and charge four times as much for it.  They usually put in other works too, since this one weighs in at less than a hundred pages, even with loose typesetting.  Sometimes you just want the contents, with minimal introduction.  So let it be with Antony.  Or so I thought.  This edition, which has a few quirks, contained Athanasius in English, which is what I needed.  The translator remains unknown.  It is print-on-demand.  It is also affordable.  In case any readers of this blog wonder why I sometimes tend not to engage with the contents of the books I review, I would point out that this is what my own books are for.   A guy has to try to make a buck somehow, now and again.  (Antony forgive me!)