You can always tell Jehovah’s Witnesses by their tracts.When I heard a tap, tap, tap on my front door the other day I was handed a flier and a cheery invitation to an important celebration (Easter).The circumlocution used for the holiday made we wonder so I flipped over the tract and saw the familiar JW on the bottom.I always treat religion at my door with respect because, well, you never know.It’s this latter bit—the uncertainty—that has always given me pause when it comes to missionaries, domestic or imported.Missionaries by definition believe their particular spin on religion is the only correct one, otherwise there’s no reason to convert others.This is often the highest hurdle over which globalism must leap—the willingness to admit one might be wrong.
I could be wrong about this, but I have always considered the willingness to admit you might be incorrect as a sign of spiritual maturity.I also know from my youth that that kind of uncertainty can drive you crazy.We want to know we’re right!But then, who doesn’t?Those of us who think globalization is a good thing have failed to take into account just how difficult it is for many people to admit possible error.For the vast, vast majority of human history we were separated from one another by natural boundaries.Travel for leisure did not exist.Within a local group beliefs would likely be fairly uniform.Then you encounter others who might say, well, you’re wrong.That’s seldom a welcome prospect.
More than air travel, the internet has shown us, as we connect, just how diverse a species we really are.What about that missionary at my door?For religions indoctrinated into one doctrine this can’t be easy.I’ve had conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses before.There’s no convincing them they might be wrong.Missionaries come with the assurance they’re saving you.Rare is the proselytizer who’s there possibly to learn the truth.As I think about it, after decades of attending church how many times has anyone wanted to have an in-depth conversation about belief?Outside confirmation class, that is.And even there, when most are either teenagers or older specialists in some secular business, discussing deep issues seems to make others uncomfortable.When the missionaries come, I want the conversation to go both ways.I’ve spent half a century thinking about these things, after all.When there’s a tap, tap, tapping at my door, I wonder what tracks will be left behind.
It lied to me.My computer.Don’t get me wrong; I know all about trying to save face.I also know my laptop pretty well by now.It was running slow, taking lots of time to think over fairly simple requests.A lull in my frantic mental activity led to the opportunity for me to initiate a reboot.When it winked open its electronic eye my screen told me it had restarted to install an update.Untrue.I had told it to restart.I gave the shutdown order to help with the obvious sluggishness that suggested to this Luddite brain of mine that my silicon friend was working on an update.There’s no arguing with it, however.In its mechanical mind, it decide to do the restart itself.I was merely a bystander.
Technology and I argue often.Like JC says, though, authority always wins.I should know my place by now.I’ve read enough about neuroscience (with thanks to those who write for a general audience) to know that this is incredibly human behavior.We are creatures of story, and if our brains can’t figure out why we’ve done something they will make up an answer.We have trouble believing that we just don’t know.I suppose that will always be a difference between artificial intelligence and the real thing.Our way of thinking is often pseudo-rational.We evolved to get by but machines have been designed intelligently.That often makes me wonder about the “intelligent design” crowd—they admit evolution, but with God driving it.Why’d our brains, in such circumstances, evolve the capacity for story instead of for fact?
As my regular readers know, I enjoy fiction.Fiction is the epitome of the story-crafting art.Some analysts suggest our entire mental process involves construing the story of ourselves.Those who articulate it well are rewarded with the sobriquet of “author.”The rest of us, however, aren’t exactly amateurs either.Our brains are making up reasons for what we do, even when we do irrational things (perhaps like reading this blog sometimes).Stories give our lives a sense of continuity, of history.What originally developed as a way of remembering important facts—good food sources, places to avoid because predators lurk there—became histories.Stories.And when the facts don’t align, we interpolate.It seems that my laptop was doing the same thing.Perhaps it’s time to reboot.
You can’t believe everything you read.That’s one of the first tenets of critical thinking.This whole process is about how to get to the truth, and in a materialistic world that truth can’t involve anything supernatural.These were my thoughts upon finishing Gerald Brittle’s The Devil in Connecticut.Controversy accompanied Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigations and some of the people involved in these cases have later claimed the extraordinary events didn’t happen.Others claim that the Warrens offered them to make lots of money by selling their stories.The effect of reading a book like this is a blend of skepticism and wonder.Among their fans the Warrens are held in the highest regard.Anyone who begins to look into their work critically ends up frustrated.
So when I put this potboiler down—it is a compelling read—I went to the internet to find out more.Then I realized what I was doing.Using the internet?To find the truth?It’s a vast storehouse of opinion, to be sure, but what with fake news and alternative facts who knows what to believe anymore?I found websites debunking the whole case as a hoax.Others, naturally, claim the events really happened.Both kinds of web pages have the backing of someone in the family involved.It’s a pattern that follows the Warrens’ work.In one of the many books I’ve read about them they claim to have ten books.If my math is right this was number ten.Even that remains open to doubt.
The word “hoax” seems a bit overblown.Dysfunctional, maybe, but hoax?Reading Brittle’s account it’s clear there were some issues in this family.Having grown up in a working class setting, I’m aware such scenarios are extremely common.Accusations were made that this was an attempt to spin gold from straw.The nearly constant stress of blue collar families makes that seem less far-fetched than a stereotypical devil showing up in a modern house because a satanic rock band placed a curse on the family.Lawsuits—the most avaricious of means for determining facts—apparently prevented a movie deal and have even made this book a collector’s item.Somebody, it seems, is making money off the story.As after reading the other nine books, the truly curious are left wondering.My skepticism kicked in early on, but then again, I’ve always liked a good story.
As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.Life is full of them.We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.Why did people believe this?Why did they do this?What started this whole process?(Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)
We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.And human beings are natural actors.
Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.Actors.We’re all actors.Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.Anarchy would erupt in the streets.We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
One thing you can say for the Bible—it’s been interpreted six ways to Sunday.This point was brought home to me in reading Michael Willett Newheart’s “My Name Is Legion”: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac.Part of the Interfaces series, now apparently defunct, it takes an unusual biblical character and explores it.Them, in this case.The story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac is one of the more famous episodes in the Synoptic Gospels.Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee and the possessed man runs out at them.He has superhuman strength, and he lives among the tombs.Jesus asks the man, or the demon, its name only to receive the reply “Legion.”He then casts the demons into a herd of swine that drown themselves in the lake.
Newheart approaches the story creatively, first by considering the Gospel of Mark as a book, and then treating his version of the story via narrative criticism.This was pretty good, and I learned quite a bit from his analysis.The book then moves on to psychological criticism.I have to admit that this approach is one I haven’t ever used and, like many reader-response methods, it can seem somewhat arbitrary.That’s not to suggest it shouldn’t be utilized, but rather to note that results could be uneven.Your psyche’s not my psyche, savvy?Subjective approaches may be all that we really have when considering an ancient text, but I always tend to look at things historically.
This book caught my attention because I’m researching demons.You can’t really ignore a book with this title if you’re trying to figure out how the New Testament looks at them.In any case, the historical method seems to me the only way we can really engage the question of what the ancients thought demons were.I don’t want to say too much or you won’t have any reason to buy my next book.(That’s a joke, by the way, before anyone suggests I’m exploiting my readers.)Newheart doesn’t really raise the question of what demons are.He does briefly mention The Exorcist, but it isn’t his main interest.The character of Legion, however, is difficult to place if we can’t really say what demons are.I did find the allusion to the Roman occupancy to be worthy of consideration.The demoniac, however, may have begged to differ.It couldn’t have been easy being an unnamed character in the Good Book.And demons are often not what they seem.
All of us fall prey to the green-eyed monster once in a while.For an editor like me, it starts lurking when I see others make content production look so easy by taking copyrighted material from elsewhere.I’ve read books—often self published—that take great swaths of material under copyright and reuse it with no permissions acknowledged.You can build big books that way.Quickly.And there are websites that usecrisp, clean images that look more immaculate that any kitchen counter.Often those images, however, come from sources “protected” by copyright.With a web this large, who’s going to find them?They’re not making money off them (usually) so what’s the harm?My jealousy, I suppose, comes from working in publishing where copyright is a daily concern.It’s the currency in which we peddle.
Copyright isn’t intended to make websites like this one look lackluster.No, it’s intended to protect the intellectual property, or visual or auditory inspiration, or the creator.It’s a remarkable idea, really.If I have an idea, it’s mine.Once I express it in written, aural, or visual form, it is covered by copyright. (We haven’t figured out a way to regulate original smells and tastes yet, beyond protecting their recipes.)Putatively copyright is to protect the creator’s rights.In fact, it tends to impact the publisher more.This week at work I had to spend some time, once again, reviewing copyright law.One thing most authors don’t comprehend is that a book contract is a negotiation for trading rights for royalties—turning ideas into money.Even intangibles can be purchased.Intellectual property can have a fence around it.And a dog or two in the yard.
I try not to violate copyright.When I want to borrow my old published ideas in new venues, I rewrite them.When I want to use somebody else’s pictures on this blog I take them from public domain or fair use sources (thank you Wikimedia Commons!).A great number of them are my own thatI cast upon the web, hoping they will come back to me in time of need.With the exception of one guest post many years back, all the words on this blog (approaching a million-and-a-half, at this point) have made their way from my addled brain through my trembling fingers and onto the internet.Maybe I just want to protect my babies.Maybe some would call it jealousy.I like to think of it as a mother bear and her cubs. Or perhaps the spawn of a green-eyed monster.
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.