Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

Dancing

An artist is never really gone.  I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.  Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.  Especially when they saw it coming.  Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.  Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.  Still he sings of girls and sins and God.  There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.  The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.  The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.  Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.

Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.  Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.  Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.  Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.  For me he has no pretense.  Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.  For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.  His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.  Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.

Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.  I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.  There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.  Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.  Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.  Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.  Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.  Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.

Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.

Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

Search Yourself

I was searching for someone on the internet (surprisingly, not myself).  Since this individual didn’t have much of a platform, I looked at MyLife.com.  Such sites draw in the curious and you soon end up paying (I suspect) for any salacious information such as arrest or court records.  In any case, what stood out is that we all presumably have a meter on the site that shows whether we’re good or bad.  It’s like a Leonard Cohen song.  Call me old-fashioned, but that’s what religion used to do.  Some forms of Christianity (Calvinism comes to mind) tell you that you can never be good enough.  Others are more lax (Episcopalians come to mind), as long as you go to mass enough and feel some guilt for misdeeds, you’ll get in.  All the various groups, however, have metrics by which you’re measured, largely based on what you believe.

The odd thing—or one of the odd things—about religion is that it is now categorized as what you believe.  Historically religions began as a kind of bellwether of what you do rather than what you believe.  The two are related, of course.  The motivation behind an action might well be good while the end result is less so.  Secular justice regularly seeks to answer the question of why someone did something.  Was there malice involved?  Aforethought?  Was it an unfortunate accident?  Religion drives over this ground too.  Without getting into the many shades of gray that are morality, value judgments as to the goodness or badness of an action (or a person) were traditionally the purview of religion.

The internet itself has become a kind of god.  We turn to it for all kinds of answers.  It’s both a Bible and encyclopedia rolled into one.  When we want to know something about someone we google them.  Some of us have tried to control the narrative about ourselves by making websites.  (This, of course, presumes others will be interested in us.)  Social media also injects us into larger arteries of traffic.  People judge us by what we post or tweet.  Often without ever meeting us or getting to know who we really are behind our physical walls.  So this person I searched had left little to find.  Scraps here and there.  I didn’t believe everything I saw on MyLife.  After all, not everyone wants to subject her or himself to the constant scrutiny of the connected world.  Maybe it’s a religious thing.

Social Madness

I’m reading a book written in the mid-1980s.  (All will become clear eventually.)  The author notes the connection between social madness and personal mental illness.  He cites the alarming rise of teen suicides.  This was over three decades ago.  Suicide rates have continued to climb, and this particular author got me to thinking about something that troubled me even as an undergrad.  Although I went to college intending to be a minister, I ranged widely in the subjects I studied.  (Being a religion major in those days allowed for quite a bit of flexibility.)  I took enough courses in psychology to have minored in it, if I had declared it.  Since my mind was set on church work I saw no reason to make said declaration.  The thing that troubled me was I had also taken sociology classes.

Like most people who grew up in uneducated households, I suspect, sociology was something I’d never heard about.  Asking what it was, in college, someone answered along the lines of “psychology of groups.”  My own experience of it was that it involved math and graphs—it was a soft science, after all—and now I read sociologists who say that such numbers can be made to declare what the sociologist wishes.  In other words, psychology.  The point of all of this is that the book I’m reading suggests societies exhibiting illness cause individuals to be sick.  Sociology leads to psychology.  In times of national turmoil, individual mental illnesses rise.  I had to pause and put the book down.  The eighties weren’t a picnic, but the national madness of the Trump era bears no comparison.  We are a nation gone mad, and when society can’t project health, the many who stand on the brink of individual mental illness simply get pushed over.  That sure makes sense of what I’m seeing.

Looking back, I often think I should’ve probably declared that minor.  Raised in a strong biblical environment, however, I wanted to learn as much about the Good Book as possible.  I was teaching Greek by my last year in college and in seminary I specialized in the Hebrew Bible.  It would’ve been a natural place to continue studying psychology.  By that point I’d decided to go on to a doctorate, and psychology required medical training.  For a guy as squeamish as me that wasn’t possible.  Ancient languages, though, they were something I could handle.  It’s rather frightening that those writing at that time already saw America (in the Reagan years, I might add) teetering towards national insanity.  We’ve gone far beyond that now.  And a society that doesn’t know it’s ill will sacrifice many individuals who realize that it is.

Biblical Employment

The other day I read something where the author casually suggested some biblical personage was doing their job.  That idea seemed to stick in my throat on the way down, like improperly masticated toast.  Jobs are something we do in a surplus economy, but in biblical times could what anyone did properly be called a “job”?  Sure, there were kings (aka bullies), and priests.  They were exempted from too much physical labor.  Even the plaintive bleating of sheep followed by a thud and sudden, eerie silence, was carried out by lesser temple functionaries.  But did these people think of what they did as jobs?  Did someone write them a check at the end of two weeks so they could pay their rent and utilities, and spend their weekends wishing they were doing something else?  Jobs are a modern phenomenon.

How easy it is to forget that ancient people were by and large country folk.  Even until late in the nineteenth century (CE, for those who are counting) in the United States most people were farmers living in the country.  Their job?  Simple survival.  Trading on the surplus—of course money had been invented by this point—they grew or tended what their land allowed but what they did wasn’t so much a job as it was a way to keep alive.  In the earlier biblical times, back beyond the New Testament, money wasn’t always an assured way of trade.  Many people could go their entire lives without seeing silver or gold.  Those in cities specialized their trades somewhat, but if they grew weary of say, weaving luxury textiles, did they have to carefully consider healthcare options before “quitting their jobs”?  Rolling over their 401Ks?  Writing new killer cover letters?

We need another word for ancient occupations.  And we also need an awareness of how our modern lenses distort our vision of ancient lives.  People lived for short periods of time.  Most men died by forty and most women by their twenties.  Sure, you could survive longer than that—much longer—but healthcare perks weren’t then what they are today for those who can afford them.  Your perspective would certainly shift if your life expectancy were so short.  I can’t help think, though, that there were people like me out there in the field, perhaps watching over a flock of mangy sheep, thinking about the larger issues consciousness affords.  They couldn’t get a job as an editor, I don’t suppose, since literacy was rare.  If they’d been trained to write their future would’ve been secure.  But times change, even as does the very concept of a job.

Balthasar-Paul Ommeganck, Landscape with shepherds, via Wikimedia Commons