Category Archives: Books

Posts that feature a book

Horror Divine

There’s a validation about finding something you figured out written in a book. For me that happened just about this season, some years back. At the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I found Sacred Terror by Douglas Cowan—the first book I’d discovered that discussed religion and horror films. Not only discussed them, but made the case that they have considerable common ground. Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical, edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, addresses the same theme but in more detail. Some of the essays in this volume get to the heart of the relationship between the sacred and the scary. As I mentioned, there’s a validation here for those of us who find horror movies fascinating. Others have noticed.

Genre fiction, as many fans know, comes with a subtle sense of shame. Low brow. Unsophisticated. Garish. Those with more refined tastes prefer subtlety and muted colors. Horror appeals to more basic instincts—but it’s also a form of expression that allows for the safe exploration of fear. There’s good horror and there’s bad horror. The eighteen essays in this book explore a bit of both. One conclusion that is unavoidable, however, is that religion—particularly Judeo-Christian religion—thrives in the context of horror cinema. The surprising part is that they often affirm the same message, but you need to look for it. Those who seek the origins of religion itself peer into the realms of awe and fear.

My own forthcoming book looks at similar territory. I don’t mind being classified as low brow. Raised in a blue collar world, that’s a fair assessment. What’s more, life confirms the reality of the connection between fear and religion. Consider the political moment in which we find ourselves. Much of the horror coming out of DC originates in religious “think tanks” trying to make evangelical Christianity the default faith stance of all our legislation. It means death and suffering to many, but the view of heaven for some becomes the tax haven for all. I know low brow when I see it. Horror comes in many forms—some lurid and some insidiously sneaky. Miller and Van Riper have pulled together a collection for our times here. The movies their authors discuss are part of a culture that is prominently religious and very afraid. If we want to understand what’s happening around us, we have to be willing to be scared.

Imagine Devils

One of the more encouraging events of recent times took place on Tuesday. In elections across the country many public offices were won by women. After a year of official misogyny from the Comrade in Chief—it started long before the election, of course—I felt hope for the first time. You see, I’d been reading Carol F. Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. I’ve been interested in witches as part of my general exploration of religious views of monstrosity, and in the Early Modern Period, witches were still lurking in the imagination of many. Karlsen’s book isn’t focused solely on Salem. There were other outbreaks of witchcraft accusations, and a general air of suspicion had hung over New England from its founding.

Why women? Karlsen’s question haunts much of human history. Why one gender, or gender construct, why one race, or racial construct, feels itself superior to others is an issue not easily resolved. It doesn’t come, necessarily, from being a “white” male, but it is a disease that primarily effects that demographic. It’s a myth of superiority. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman is not an easy book for a man to read. Centuries of bad behavior don’t exonerate those who, although their belief was sincere, found an outlet for their faith in the destruction of others. Karlsen demonstrates that quite often the background issues were those of inheritance—in a patriarchal society, land passed to male heirs. Women who owned property complicated a social picture that was already under stress. Consider: any family with two sons would halve (although the proportions were not equal) its land each generation. The only way to keep the wealthy wealthy was to snatch land wherever they could.

It wasn’t so simple as that, but the basic economics—which haven’t changed much—set colonial New England up for disaster. Birth control was considered evil. Men still had to be gratified, however, and population increased as land size remained the same. The system is untenable. Just a year ago the electoral college made love to an angry white man. A man who “owns” lots of “valuable” property. A man who demeans women and those of other “races.” When his own shady dealing come into the light he cries “witch hunt!” History is full of ironies. One of the greatest of them in the fact that women have been held back long after circumstances had advanced enough to allow equality in a stable society. There may still be witch hunts, but they flow in the direction they always have—toward those denied autonomy and civil rights. Maybe Tuesday was finally a sign of hope.

Keystones

It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.

A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.

These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.

Stranger Things

Albert Camus preferred the label “absurdist” to “existentialist” to describe himself. The problem with labels is that we don’t always get to pick our own. As a young man fascinated with existentialism, I was introduced to Camus as one of their number that I should read. Categories, of course, are only abstractions to complex realities. So, for learning about existentialism Camus was recommended reading in those days. I selected The Stranger. So many years have passed since then that I only recollected a single part of the plot. Coming back to it as an adult is like walking down that beach a second time, unaware that you’ve just been down this way and something bad happened last time. Existentialism is like that.

Meursault is little effected by life. He has no strong opinions since, at the end of the day, everything seems pointless to him. He sheds no tears at the death of his mother because death is to be expected. When a heat stroke confuses him sufficiently he unintentionally kills a man. At his deposition the examining magistrate finds Meursault’s atheism inexplicable. In the face of the possible consequences of his actions, such indifference leads him to refer to the prisoner as “Mr. Antichrist.” Awaiting his execution, Meursault has a final confrontation with the priest that has come to his cell unbidden. The prisoner is convinced that even on death row he believes more sincerely than the man of the cloth. Camus’ story is surreal but realistic. A parable for his day and ours.

I’ve lamented before about the decline in philosophical literature. Taking philosophy straight requires the kind of concentration that I lack on the bus or before going to bed. Novels like The Stranger express such ideas in digestible form. The reader identifies with and despises Meursault. Why doesn’t he do something to help himself? Boredom and indifference will literally kill him. He is, however, steadfast, and that is something to admire. Along the way existential ideas are woven into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Everyone is like an actor in a play—they did not write it, they simply perform the roles assigned to them. When it’s all over they end up in the same place. Absurdism and existentialism aren’t very far apart. They’re both categories devised to help us comprehend the enigma that we confront in books such as The Stranger. Meursault can’t give the chaplain any false belief since, as he notes, those who believe have more need of convincing than those who don’t.

Turn the Other What?

The man next to me on the bus is reading his Bible. At one point in my life that would’ve made me feel safe. I would’ve known that the person next to me was committed to the same value system as mine—love for all, peace, equality, and acceptance. Now, however, I see that Bible and I’m afraid. You see, I’m reading Chris Hedges’ American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so scared. Hedges’ book was published a decade ago. What he wrote about then is coming true now and it’s because the elites of society—university folk and all—don’t take the radical religious seriously. In their delusional ways, they assume all will be well. If you think like that, read this book.

Dominionism is fascism dressed in Christian garb. It has no room for tolerance. It teaches that those outside its circle are to be ignored at best, and murdered without compunction at worst. This is not exaggeration. It is their teaching. It’s like that computer game that used to come with Macs where a time-traveling dinosaur collected the eggs of other species to save them from the coming asteroid. You could kill other dinosaurs without guilt because you knew they were going to die in 20 minutes anyway. That is very much the way Dominionists feel about you and me. We aren’t saved—their word is “Christian”—God has rejected us, and therefore we deserve to die. Many of them stockpile weapons just for this reason. Their goal, not at all hidden, is to take over the United States and make it a Christian nation. Already many in the houses of Congress are their candidates. They have a president who shares their values. We should be very afraid.

Hedges does a very good job providing the statistics that back his assertions. There is no question that this is real. Those who blithely vote Republican out of fiscal conservatism have risen to the bait. Trump has proved that once and for all. These “Bible believers” do not value or treasure love. They treasure treasure (many of them are very wealthy) and what they desire is power. Tolerance, in their view, is evil and compromising with the literal Satan in which they believe. Their Jesus does not love. He fights. And he fights for white, straight, privileged men. If you’re willing to forsake sleep, read this book. And if you think it’s exaggerating read the headlines.

Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

Contracting Something

Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.

The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.

Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.