Timing has never been my strong suit. As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.” To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters. Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking. Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation. Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion. Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time. We’ll take whatever validation we can get.
Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters. Even the Bible, after all, has them. They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world. A world of hurricanes and Trump. A world lacking compassion and sense. Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands. Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless. Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close. Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving? When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world. Monsters have their practical uses indeed.
If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing. Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house. Moving is chaos embodied. Like monsters, it’s best left to the young. It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town. I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty. Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful. Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone. Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums. They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever. It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily. If you happen to miss it, don’t worry. It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Just for Fun, Monsters, Posts, Travel
Tagged aliens, Medieval Monsters, Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, Occam's razor, Terrors, Wonders
Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.” It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals. The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores. Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however. The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate. Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees. At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one. The smell almost knocked me off my feet. I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.” Whose version of heaven is this?
Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven. Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade. It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect. Heaven is, after all, a construct. The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death. In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place. Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance. The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems. As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.
A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do. We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment. In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees. We’re often taken in by the innocence of names. The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it. It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant. Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems. It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds. According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year. Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Environment, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged Ailanthus, botany, Heaven, invasive species, Revelation, tree of heaven
Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!
Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.
I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.
We develop pictures in our minds of the kinds of things that belong together in different eras. Dinosaurs, for example, don’t belong with our own species, no matter how much we may occasionally wish it were so. Horseless carriages don’t populate the seventeenth century and complex machines, we tend to think, didn’t really come about until medieval Europe (and then they were often used for torture). Our view of the world is, of course, one of comfort with the certainties of history. That’s why the Antikythera Mechanism is such a fascinating artifact. A very sophisticated device with gear trains and cranks and dials, it astonishes those who first encounter it in that it was made before the Common Era somewhere in the sway of ancient Greece. It is, in essence, a kind of computer. Long before Joseph met Mary.
Alexander Jones’ A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World is a pretty thorough introduction to the device, including the mechanics of how it works as well as how astronomy works. You see, the Antikythera Mechanism was designed to demonstrate the relative motion of the planets, including the sun and moon. For a device in the geocentric world of ancient Greece, that’s pretty remarkable. It predicted eclipses and showed the phases of the moon. It also makes me ponder the fact that most ancient people considered the planets deities. Long before Newton, then, some were recognizing that even the gods could be made to work according to a crank and gears.
Science and religion coexisted peacefully in those days. Although only one such device has been discovered, it’s virtually certain that more existed. Gods and gears both had a place in such a world. Along the centuries, however, the idea grew that if gears worked, we no longer required a deity. Occam’s razor has its uses, to be sure, but it can shave a little too closely from time to time, nicking delicate flesh. The idea that one side only can be right—and since we can see with our eyes that science works—tends to favor the mechanistic universe. There’s no disputing that science makes our lives easier and that its method is self-correcting and generally effective. The hands that cranked that ancient geared device, however, likely belonged to a believer in gods. Such belief didn’t prevent progress, but then some kind of Fundamentalists killed Socrates for his own form of heresy. Perhaps the true answer lies in balance. It may also be the most difficult of principles, scientific or otherwise, to achieve.
Posted in Astronomy, Books, Classical Mythology, Deities, Posts, Science
Tagged A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Alexander Jones, Ancient Greece, Antikythera Device, science and religion, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World
Now that Holy Horror’s been announced, I’m at work on my next book based on horror movies. Although some people might question the aesthetic of the horror genre, these films are sometimes remarkably intelligent and can indeed be good cinema. Having spent the better part of last weekend watching multiple flicks, however, I’ve come to realize that watching films for research is quite different than viewing them for fun. We all know the feeling of going to the theater to be exposed to the mythology of the present day; movies are the new mythology and are a common source of meaning and hope for individuals in a post-religion era. We go for the spectacle and the story. We leave, if the movie is good, with a renewed sense of purpose, or in a thoughtful state. That’s what mythology does.
In writing up my analyses of many films, I’ve noticed how little the detail is generally acknowledged in many synopses. They can make a flick seem banal. I’ve even had very intelligent people ask me why I think watching movies should be considered intellectual exercises. One reason for this, at least in my experience, is how often people rely on what they see in movies to inform them of important things. Historical events, for example. For the average person, an historical recreation on celluloid can provide recall better than a detail from some 400-page tome on the topic. Human beings are visually oriented by nature and evolution. It takes us years to learn how to read, and if we don’t keep up with the practice our ability to comprehend advanced writing atrophies. It’s easier to watch a film.
No doubt movie scripts are available for purchase. To get the message of a film, however, you need to watch. Immerse yourself in a kind of flickering light baptism. Research watching, however, involves multiple viewings. Taking notes. Watching again to make sure you got that detail correct. Some may doubt that this is an intellectual exercise at all. Still, one of the concerns that some scholars feel is that we’ve lost touch with what hoi polloi believe. People have turned to mythology from the beginning of time in the quest for meaning. Science tells us how the world works, but not why. For such questions we need our mythologies, ancient and modern. Since Nightmares with the Bible focuses on demons, I’ve had to construct a cinematic demonology that’s quite different from those of the Middle Ages. It requires, after all, a modern research method for a modern mythology. And movie watching. Lots of movie watching.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Classical Mythology, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged demons, Holy Horror, horror films, Movies, mythology, Nightmares with the Bible