Interview Two

October turns the northern hemisphere mind toward Halloween.  It must be strange to receive northern media while living in the global south—Halloween occurs just as spring is getting underway.  I guess that’s what May Day’s for.  In any case, in the United States Halloween thinking is in nearly full swing.  My last two books, while not Halloween themed, look at horror films which, in keeping with October, are on everyone’s mind this season.  And it’s been quite a week for interviews.  The second half of my podcast interview on The Incarcerated Christian was posted yesterday.  If you want to hear more fun Q & A with Robin and Debra, click here.  I’ll post more about this Friday, but tomorrow my interview with Eric Ziolkowski of Lafayette College will air as part of the Easton Book Festival.  The festival’s going on right now, so be sure to check out the offerings online.

One bit of advice that I give as an editor: if you want to make it as an author you need to promote your own work.  Some of us were reared to believe that it’s in poor taste to do this, but in the internetted world it’s pretty much a requirement.  Something I learned from political activism is that every election is local.  Getting noticed also has to start in your own backyard.  I love doing interviews.  It’s always flattering to know that someone’s read your book and wants to know more about it.  I’ve started to explore the newish area of religion and horror.  From what we see in the news, it seems like it’s an area that’s likely to take off.  But only if those who work in it get their stuff out there where it can be seen.  (Or heard.)

Neither Holy Horror nor Nightmares with the Bible have sold very well.  They’re expensive, and academics, who will spend money on books, are still trying to decide if this area’s worth exploring.  I admit that there’s a puerile kind of naughtiness to taking monsters and “low brow” entertainment as a subject of study.  Horror, however, has lots of fans.  Perhaps not in the academy, but in the real world.  I like to think such marginal areas bring people together.  Horror, like demons, isn’t going away any time soon.  Instead of running away from what you fear, why not try embracing it?  If not even that, please consider the free content available on The Incarcerated Christian and the Easton Book Festival.  After all, Halloween’s just about here…


B Film

October brings horror films to mind.  As soon as the calendar clicks over, discussions of favorite scary movies begins.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is the one time of year when those of us who watch horror don’t feel so odd.  It is a little strange, however, to be watching movies related to The Wicker Man at this time of year.  As holiday horror that particular movie is set at the other end of the year, in May.  So I had to see The Wicker Tree, something I’ve avoided doing all these years.  Neither properly a sequel nor a remake, The Wicker Tree is Robin Hardy’s re-envisioning of the story with a larger budget.  There’s no way to prove it, but it seems likely that it was released in response to the unfortunate remake of The Wicker Man in 2006.

There are any number of things that could be said about The Wicker Tree, not least of which is that it’s clear Anthony Shaffer was a far better screenwriter than Robin Hardy.  (Shaffer had written a sequel, more properly conceived, which has not been filmed.)  Robin Hardy was, of course, the director of the original movie.  Plagued by low budget, rushed filming, and lack of production company support, The Wicker Man nevertheless soared.  The Wicker Tree is what is termed a “spiritual successor”—it doesn’t directly carry on the story of the original, but draws its inspiration from it.  It was based on a novel written by Hardy titled Cowboys for Christ.  Two evangelical missionaries are sent to Scotland to convert as many lapsed Christians as they can.  Of course, their invitation to Tressock is a trap so they can be sacrificed on May Day.

Despite the many unanswered questions the film leaves, to someone raised evangelical it seems that Robin Hardy really doesn’t understand what evangelicals are.  Beth and Steve, on their tour through the lowlands, do things evangelicals just wouldn’t do.  They drink, they dance, they swear, they play cards.  The only thing he seemed to get about evangelicals is they like to sing and talk about Jesus and hand out pamphlets.  This is something I often see is movies—those who try to portray evangelicals haven’t actually been evangelical themselves and don’t understand them.  I also find this in my interactions with British colleagues all the time—they don’t really comprehend what evangelicalism is.  That could be a topic for its own post.  In any case, The Wicker Tree has its moments, but it’s convoluted, cynical, and off-the-mark.  It may’ve been intended as a spiritual successor, but its prototype required no re-envisioning.


Discount Nightmares

Now that we’re past the equinox it’s officially okay to obsess with monsters, right?  (Any excuse will do.)  Nightmares with the Bible was officially a pandemic book.  Academic publishers (especially) found out that books released in 2020 tended to flop.  People weren’t thinking about much other than the pandemic (or crying about losing an election fair and square).  Books, of course, take a long time to write and a long time to produce—it’s not as simple as it looks.  And if your production schedule falls during a pandemic, well, be prepared.  In the case of Nightmares there was the added burden of price point.  When all you’re thinking about is survival, cashing out a Franklin to read about demons seems hardly wise.

Just yesterday I received a flyer, that I’m passing along to you, for the book.  It has a discount code on it (look at part 2 below) so that the book is merely expensive rather than very expensive. Nightmares is part of a series titled Horror and Scripture.  The series, published by Fortress Academic and Lexington Books, is now coming out with its third volume.  The publisher, starting to recover from the pandemic, is promoting all the books in the series.  You see, Nightmares was not only a pandemic book, it also missed that highly sought-after pre-Halloween release.  Books that deal with horror get a boost during the holiday season.  Ironically the same thing happened with Holy Horror.  Both books came out in December when nobody but Charles Dickens is thinking about scary things.

Academic book pricing is based on a model that’s beginning to crumble.  It’s that capitalistic trope of what the market will bear.  The market is academic libraries, and it has been demonstrating lately that even they aren’t made of money.  I don’t know if libraries get to use discount codes or not—it can’t hurt to ask your librarian.  Fully employed academics, however, will sometimes pay a hefty price for a book they really want or need.  My shelves upstairs are filled with books that were overpriced but were required for the books and articles I wrote when it was an expectation of my job.  My next book, which is now in the negotiation stage with the publisher, will be more reasonably priced.  It will likely have a smaller appeal, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  I sincerely hope I’m through writing hundred-dollar books.  Please pass the flyer along to all your rich friends—it’s just in time for the haunting month of October.


Mabon

Given the immense popularity of Halloween, and the attention lavished on the solstices, it’s a little odd that Mabon is so infrequently observed.  Unlike its twin, the Vernal Equinox, the Autumnal Equinox has really only recently been added to the natural calendar observed by Wicca.  The ancient Celts, from whom many Wiccan traditions are drawn, celebrated Samhain, which became our Halloween.  Their other holidays divided the year into seasons, but perhaps the Autumnal Equinox was a little too subtle to merit much attention.  Or it simply fell between their own four-fold divisions of the year.  Starting today, however night will be longer than day, a situation that will last until the Vernal Equinox.  In other words, we’ve entered the dark half of the year.

As someone who enjoys horror, I often ponder the benefits of living in the dark.  Theologically the dark is often cast as evil compared to the light.  We have taken that metaphor and made it literal.  This makes sense, I suppose, given our natural fear of the dark.  The only real predators in the night, however, are now of our own kind.  The dark can also be peaceful, a time for contemplation.  One of the things adulthood has on offer is disrupted sleep.  Many of us find ourselves awake at some point in the night.  We need to become comfortable with it.  I’m not a Wiccan, but I appreciate the naturalness with which Mabon acknowledges the fact that half the year is darker than the other half.  It’s also a harvest-themed holiday, one of the many that stretch to Thanksgiving and on to living off the stored supplies through the winter.

No doubt there is some melancholy associated with Mabon.  The lessening of the light brings a chill with it.  Summer’s ease is at an end and we will need to start layering our clothes and adding blankets back on our beds.  Already it is dark when I begin work, which means the brightest part of the balanced day and night is spent indoors at the computer.  I will need to leave the harvest, so obvious in the fast-approaching October, to others.  Mabon and Halloween aren’t company holidays, but that fact won’t stop the encroaching dark.  There’s a wisdom associated with acceptance and even melancholy can been sweet.  The leaves, while still mostly green, have begun to turn.  The bright songbirds of summer have given away to ravens and crows.  We need to learn to walk in the dark again.  Perhaps it’s time to consider what Mabon can mean.


Screaming Season

The signs are all around.  The orange and black Spirit Halloween signs are appearing where vacant storefronts stand.  Advertisements for autumnal activities are cropping up.  Brochures broadcasting local haunted festivities now adorn store counters, free for the taking.  I picked up a leaflet for the local Field of Screams the other day although I really don’t like to be in scary situations.  I do appreciate the spooky sense that they generate, however.  This local event runs from early September through early November—the two months enterprising farmers can draw urbanites to their land, cash in hand.  Halloween has been a major money-maker for many years now.  The less doleful minded wonder why, but I think that lots of us are really afraid.  Halloween says it’s okay to be so.

Perhaps it’s the realization that it’s all in good fun and nobody will really hurt you.  I’ve attended a few of these haunted events over the years, but it was more fun to participate in them.  Perhaps it goes back to Nashotah House.  I’m guessing that most of you’ve never been.  Nashotah is a gothic campus, at one time pretty isolated, out in the woods.  Halloween was, once upon a time, a real celebration there.  Our maintenance crew would offer a hayride through farm fields owned by the school, then through the cemetery on campus.  I used to dress in a grim reaper costume and carry a kerosene lamp through the graveyard, awaiting the tractor.  Nobody instructed me to do it, but we all knew it was in good fun.  And I wasn’t the only volunteer who’d pop out from behind headstones.  Students got into the spirit of it too.

These days remembering such shenanigans is more appealing than actually going out at night to have other people scare me.  The last time I went to a haunted maze it was really too unnerving for me to enjoy.  I volunteered instead for a local haunted house in New Jersey.  The run up to Halloween was usually an intensely creative time of designing and fabricating homemade costumes, and thinking of ways to make pumpkins look scary.  Now it’s become a season in its own right.  An important segment of the economy.  I won’t be going to our local Field of Screams, but I will understand those who do.  Changes are in the air.  It’s dark quite a bit earlier these days.  The air is chilly in the morning.  And the local fear fields open this weekend.


Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

April Really Fools

What’s the best kind of April Fools’ Day prank?  What about one that occurs nowhere near April first?  Actually, I’m no fan of practical jokes.  They usually come at the expense of someone and really aren’t that funny.  And where does that apostrophe really go anyway?  Still, because of a project I’m working on, and because it was available on a streaming service I use, I watched April Fool’s Day in July.  An example of holiday horror from the 1980s.  Although moderately successful at the box office, the movie never took off to become a cultural icon like, say, Halloween did.  In fact, I only recently heard of it.  Part of the reason, I suppose, is the ensemble cast is pretty large (nine friends together for a weekend) and none of them played by big names.  In case you don’t like pranks, there will be spoilers below.

The trope of a number of young people—often college students—isolated in some inaccessible location is common enough in horror.  The optimal number seems to be five, otherwise an hour and a half isn’t really time to get to know everyone’s character well enough.  Of course, one by one they get killed off.  Since it’s set on April Fools’ Day you’re led to think some kind of serial killer is loose on the island, but in the end the entire thing turns out to have been an elaborate prank.  Nobody has really been killed and the audience is on the receiving end of an extended practical joke.

As I try to catch up on horror movies I missed I quite often have to rely on those that come with one of the few streaming services I use.  When I was myself a college student I couldn’t afford to go to the movies often.  Home video hadn’t really become affordable yet to people of my economic bracket, and besides, I spent a lot of time studying.  As the only one in my family that watches horror, finding the time to do so remains a challenge.  And there is quite a backlog.  I’ve been trying to watch horror set on specific holidays as a way of keeping myself honest.  Even that can prove a challenge, however.  I can justify the time, however, and the somewhat modest cost, as research. Hey, somebody has to do it.  And that’s as good an excuse as any for watching April Fool’s Day in July.


Independently

I’m feeling independent today, even if it’s only just temporary.  For the first time in four years it feels like I’m living in the United States again on our national holiday.  I’m actually spending this holiday weekend moving a family member.  That means drama—almost by definition.  It began two days before.  U-Haul sent us a text telling us our truck would be in the wrong city, over an hour away.  We called to correct the mistake and were told the truck would only be available five hours later than scheduled in the city where we actually were.  We had no choice but to accept.  The next day the saga continued.  We’d hired a local company to help us find a home for furniture no longer needed.  They arrived late, but there was a reason—the owner of the company had had a family tragedy that day and had to scramble to find help for the job.  They did a good job, though.  I’d use them again.

The day of the move our hired help called.  They were going to be late.  We went to U-Haul only to discover that their automated check-in software wasn’t working.  We had to stand in line for over an hour total before someone figured out they had to override the instructions so we could pick up the truck.  In the middle of this, the movers called again to tell us they still weren’t even in the state.  They were pre-paid a very pretty penny to help move the big items (we are small people, and I have a bad back; we need burly friends), but they would be several hours late.  We couldn’t put the smaller items on the truck when the big stuff was the unknown quantity, space-wise.  Hire-a-Helper, the company we’d used, sent a text saying our two hours were up and they were going to be billing a significant fee for extra hours.  The help had not yet arrived.

They turned up seven hours late.  We had arranged for help to unload on the other end, supposing that we wouldn’t have suddenly grown stronger or bigger in the intervening day.  Today, however, is our travel day—the one day we weren’t relying on others to do their job.  Our independence day, as it were.  We don’t need any fireworks.  Indeed, we hope for none.  All the careful planning collapsed under unforeseen circumstances.  But today we have the truck with the cool Colorado NASA image on the side and the open road. It’s quite cheering, actually. I’m always in the market for burley friends, but today it feels good to be independent.


All Day Long

The summer solstice is always a bittersweet day.  The longest day of the year.  From now on the days will begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to get shorter.  The wheel begins its six-month roll toward the cold, dark days of winter.  Although the year whiplashes through these extremes in the temperate zones, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  The changes are slow right now.  In fact, the celebration of Midsummer doesn’t usually come until about the 24th.  These long, languorous days can be like that.  

I’ve been studying holidays for well over a decade by now.  Some have origins that are obvious, such as the solstices and equinoxes.  Although ancient peoples were quite capable of observing and marking these days, it seems their perceptions of the seasons were somewhat different than ours.  Midsummer, to us, is the official beginning of summer.  We all know, however, that we’ve had days that’ve felt like summer already.  They start to come, often in May.  “Meteorological summer” is actually June through August while “astronomical summer” begins today.  Our calendars are a matter of convention.  Not only that, but the motivation to mark special days began as a religious impulse.  Otherwise we’d have no particular reason to tell one day from another.

But think of the ancients again.  People were generally illiterate, and although the elites could mark and know the actual solstice, Midsummer marks what the weather feels like on the ground.  Seasons, in antiquity, were understood by what was happening on the ground.  For example, in Ireland February 1, the festival of Imbolc, was considered the start of spring.  Ewes were lambing and that was a sure sign winter was beginning to end.  With such and outlook, folk wisdom reckoned that summer began on May Day, or Beltane.  In such a perspective, the longest day marks midsummer.  Yes, the heat and humidity have really yet to set in, but the climate in Ireland and the British Isles is tempered by the Gulf Stream and doesn’t reach, say, Midwestern extremes.

Those of us raised in scientific worldviews have been taught from youth that summer begins today.  People haven’t always seen it that way.  Not everyone experiences the extremes of weather that temperate regions of the United States do.    In the northern hemisphere—for the global south experiences its shortest day of the year today—the days get no longer than this.  Wheels by their very nature spin.  Our round planet now gives us shorter days until the other extreme is reached.


Celebrate Freedom

Perspective.  The most valuable thing I learned growing up was to try to see things from the perspective of others.  It’s the basis of sharing and empathy and kindness.  It’s what makes us human.  Juneteenth celebrates a Black holiday, but it applies to us all.  Today (actually tomorrow) commemorates the day when slavery was ended in Texas.  As much as southern states sometimes like to posture, all but the most frightfully unenlightened know that slavery is wrong.  The exploitation of others because we have the power to do so is the very embodiment of evil.  There’s no need for a devil if human beings can do this all by themselves.  Black lives do matter.  We need to stop countering this with “all lives matter” because until we acknowledge systemic racism such responses only serve to perpetuate the problem.

The history of the Christian (and yes, religion fueled and still fuels it) European domination of the world is a long, sad, and unethical one.  Blacks, because they’re often so easily visually identified, have borne the brunt of this domination.  In many ways this continues to be the case even today.  Red lining still exists.  Discrimination still exists.  Blacks are more likely to be imprisoned than others.  Poorly trained police are more likely to shoot and kill them.  This must change if society is to improve at all.  Congress has just passed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday.  This gives the lie to the posturing of many of our elected officials.  This shows how deep Trump’s lies went.

More socially conscious employers made today a paid holiday in support of Juneteenth, even before the senate passed the bill.  We need to admit that we’ve been wrong.  We need to admit that special interests have kept us from seeing what should’ve been as obvious as the color of our own skin.  We’ve tried to keep slavery going.  We’ve made life hard for those easily identified as not “white.”  I have to wonder if this situation would’ve ever developed had we grown the more accurate habit of calling some people pink and others brown.  “White” was chosen for its theological implications.  Make no mistake, this was a carefully constructed divide.  Those who initiated the terminology—pink men, all of them—used their Christianity to demean, debase, and degrade other human beings.  Juneteenth celebrates one small step in what is necessarily a long journey.  We need to undo systemic racism.  We need to learn to say Black Lives Matter and we need to live it.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Ocean Day

Yesterday was World Oceans Day.  It’s probably a measure of how busy I’ve been that I missed it until well into the work day.  Environmental care is one of my major concerns—something that the majority of Americans share but which Republicans block at every chance they get.  The oceans are the largest part of our planet .  Viewed from certain angles, the globe has barely any land on it at all.  And yet, since we live on the dry part, we use the wet part as our dumping ground.  There is an entire island in the Pacific made of plastic refuse.  Big petroleum doesn’t want any alternatives offered even though plastic is one of the most toxic products we produce for other life on this planet.  Shouldn’t governments share the values of their people?

Born in the landlocked western part of Pennsylvania, I first saw the ocean when I moved to Boston.  It was almost so distracting that I couldn’t study.  Here was this seemingly endless expanse of water that we so poorly understand, the symbol of eternity and life itself, right before me.  It was while living on the coast that I came to read Moby-Dick.  I could spend hours on the rocky shoreline, gazing out toward the seas in wonder.  I’m not a sea-farer myself.  I have inner-ear problems and being on a ship for any length of time would likely lead to extreme discomfort.  I can imagine, however.  Eventually I would read Coleridge and Hemingway and understand that I was not the only one who felt this way about the seemingly endless water.

Some of my earliest literary memories involve Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us.  It’s another book that opened young, landlocked eyes to what our world really is.  The image of water eternally crashing onto the shore is a comforting one.  As Carson knew, we came from the water and we yearn for it still.  Life as we know it isn’t possible without our oceans.  Yet, having petty human needs for extreme wealth and a sense of power over others, we pollute these seas with oil and plastics and chemicals and figure it’ll be somebody else’s problem.  In reality, the problem belongs to all of us.  Plastic Island, as it’s now being called, is nearly three times the size of France.  It’s composed of 100 percent pollution.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is being considered by some the eighth continent.  World Oceans Day should never slip away unnoticed.


The Heart of Memorial Day

The Memorial Day will be a somber one for the many people who’ve lost someone due to Covid-19.  Even as those who know that science can help to bring a pandemic under control have been vaccinated,  it is too late for millions who didn’t make it.  Memorial Day weekend, for many of us in northern climes, has been unseasonably cold.  Around here it’s been rainy too.  The official kick-off to summer seems to be a memorial to the long winter of 2020 and ’21.  It’s also hopeful, because things are starting to get better.  Having an organized national response helps, even as the Fascist Party is gaining strength.  “Memorial” means looking back.  Remembering the past.  I’m saddened, shocked, and distraught that one political party has refused to look at how insidious fascism is, and how it always starts under the guise of righteousness.  Remember this.

We tend to think of Memorial Day as a play day.  Indeed, the number of boats being towed as I’ve been out driving attests to the plans of many.  We’re ready for life to return to normal, but even that involves memory.  Remembering what was normal.  We have never been a fascist nation.  That’s not a memory but a sick future dream.  Those who attempt insurrection and then block any investigation into it can’t have the good of the nation at heart.  It should be a play day.  It should be frolicking in the sun.  Instead I’m wondering how we’ll ever stop this apparently inevitable evil that has taken over a country formed as a democracy.  Has it stopped raining yet?

Although I wasn’t close to him, my father was a veteran.  He fought for the cause of liberty, at least as it was understood before Trump’s America.  He was, according to his family, never the same after seeing war.  Bureaucrats, fat from the monies they pocket from special interest groups and lobbies, seem to have forgotten.  They’ve forgotten the frighteningly large national cemetery at Arlington.  They’ve forgotten that we fought to stop the very thing they are now promoting in their own country.  I’m sorry, Mr. Lincoln, these dead may have died in vain after all.  I had hopes of warm days and leisurely outdoor activities as the end of May rolled along.  Either that, or at least being able to get out and take care of all the yard work that’s been piling up over the past several weeks.  I wonder, will it stop raining today?


Women and Mothers

This is our first Mother’s Day with a female Vice President.  After four years of a female-groping administration, it feels like we’ve made a turn in the right direction.  Ironically, it’s often religions that keep women oppressed, even while women are often more faithful to them.  Religions like to claim to have the answers, and for the monotheistic traditions an origin myth with Eve—the first mother—as the first picker of forbidden fruit, has suggested one answer that has held women down for centuries.  Taking origin stories too literally can cause so much suffering in the world that we’re confronted with the question of their morality.  Religions are for people.  If they exclude half the human race we need to pause to ask if we got something wrong.  It’s Mother’s Day, always on a Sunday.  It’s a chance to think about such things.

Many churches will have sermons honoring mothers today.  Will they work for the wellbeing of women for the remaining 364 days of the year?  Our society, purely on the basis of biology, routinely puts women at risk and underplays the need to help them when that happens.  I’ve seen this firsthand.  We’re finally starting to get some female representation in Congress, yet less than a quarter of the seats are held by women.  Isn’t government supposed to represent its constituents?  Why has half of humanity had to struggle for so long to be treated as equal?  Mother’s Day cannot be a salve to ease our consciences about mistreating women for the rest of the year.  Equity should not be a goal, it should be reality.

We’ll be thinking about our mothers today.  Still under a pandemic, we’ll be Zooming them or calling them.  Those fortunate enough to live close may even get to see them in person.  These mothers sacrificed a lot to take on that role.  Our society could not continue without them.  We’re starting to come to the realization, I hope, that it is male-devised forms of government and business that are the problem.  They protect the wealth and power of a few.  They jealously guard against letting men offer the true justice of equity.  Some religions have begun to address the obvious injustice they have largely originated.  The story of the Garden of Eden was meant to teach a lesson.  That lesson has been abused for centuries as a way of making women seem somehow less than men.  It’s Mother’s Day.  Let’s see if we can’t learn to read more deeply and apply what we have learned.


As Nature Directs

The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic.  People like to gather in large crowds once in a while.  Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore).  In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins.  It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings.  Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time.  To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week.  Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers.  Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.

A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic.  Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results.  I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews.  Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy.  No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals.  One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected.  Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.

Stampedes are an evolved flight response.  Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run.  Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in.  Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people.  Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all.  Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings.  I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying.  The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person.  In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm.  You take your hat off in church.  You sit quietly, reverently, in church.  You do not use coarse language in church.  In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs.  When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature.  Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration.  We mourn those who fall victim to it.


Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?