Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

All Things Being Equinox

The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox.  Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May.  Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night.  My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch.  We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror.  I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script.  This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner.  After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible.  He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.

When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself.  Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them?  Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)?  I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis.  Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project.  There was the Bible.  The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky.  The Birds has the Bible.  Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating.  But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror.  That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.

Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth.  Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack).  My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light.  In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.”  We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening.  Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies.  I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew.  The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness.  Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection.  It just has to be dark for you to see it.

Capital Idea

Capitalism encourages a kind of racketeering among businesses, in my experience.  Take the case of utility companies after a move.  To date I have received well over a thousand dollars in bills for services not rendered.  These bills were from utility companies claiming that I owed them final amounts for bills that had been paid in full, on time, for over twelve years.  I should, it seems, be able to bill them for my time on the telephone setting their records straight.  The “final bill” is a racket.  And it is deployed just after a customer, formerly a “valued customer,” has entered into new financial obligations—moving is not cheap!  Most of these bills are for multiple hundreds of dollars for services, that when I used them, were generally billed at a mere fraction of that amount.

Corporations, according to the law, are people.  And like people, they are exceptionally greedy.  Just yesterday I received a bill from a heating oil company—which shall remain nameless for the moment—stating that I owed a multi-hundred dollar final balance.  I had notified them in April that we would be moving and that I had paid their final bill and no more deliveries should be made.  None were.  Fully five months later I receive a “final bill” politely reminding of an outstanding balance.  For what?  Heating oil delivered in July?  Have I suddenly switched hemispheres or is this some kind of racket?

Come to think of it, while unpacking I came across a budget book.  My accounting is pretty much in the range of horseshoes and hand-grenades—I know the regular bills and can guess how much they are likely to be.  I’ve got other things on my mind besides money.  The budget book had never been used.  Budgets, to my understanding, project a stable world.  That’s not like the capitalist world.  When we bought the budget book, some 30 years ago, could we have projected monthly expenses for the privileges of using an internet that at that time didn’t even exist?  Capitalism is creative in finding new things to make you pay for, even if they are only virtually real.  Like heating oil that was never pumped off the truck.  It’s always your word against theirs, and corporations are bullies, being bigger than regular people.  So I sit here with a blank budget book and a stack of “final bills” for things never delivered.  And I think to myself, what a crooked world.

Jericho’s Folly

The sound was compellingly familiar although it had been years since I’d heard it.  We were visiting the Quakertown farmer’s market for the first time—this weekend event is widely advertised and we were curious.  Part fresh produce, but mostly flea market, it was a tribute to my generation.  You could find stuff from my childhood years here, making it a species of time travel.  We stepped out of the car on a gray morning when I heard it.  I was drawn to it.  I’m at the age where I recognize things before I can name them.  “Where are you going?” my wife asked.  “Toward Pink Floyd,” I replied.  Music has a way of doing that to you.  It took another minute for me to place the song.  It was from the album The Wall.

After we returned home I had to hear it again, uninterrupted by the distractions of a flea market to new home owners.  It was a frightening experience in the age of Trump.  Although they’d never been my favorite band, I had a long history with Pink Floyd.  My older brother used to listen to them, and when I was working as a church intern (yes, there is such a thing) while in college, the kids in a family I was staying with took me to see The Wall on laser disc—an affluent family in the neighborhood had just bought a player, and I was curious both about the technology and the film.  The Wall is one of those concept albums that requires attention—you kind of need to listen to the whole thing.  The accusations against those who are different being sent “up against the wall” chilled me with thoughts of Trump and American fascism.  I can only listen to the album within prescribed headspace.

Even those who’ve never been sent to boarding school can imagine how it lends itself to abuses and horror.  At Nashotah House the album was almost as frequently cited as Hotel California.  When the religious isolate themselves odd things begin to happen.  On one of the occasions when I was left home alone in our New Jersey apartment, I pulled out my DVD of The Wall and began to watch it.  As the years melted away, I suddenly felt young and intensely vulnerable.  The visuals, like a little pin-prick, were jabbing at nerves a little too close to the surface.  I had to turn it off and watch a horror film instead.  It’s even scarier to listen to the album when democracy has failed its constituents.  The wall, after all, is a most protean of metaphors.

Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.

Appily Ever After

While in the theater to see The Nun (which ended up being the biggest take) this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that the pre-movie adds were all about apps.  I couldn’t help it because, much to my own chagrin, I’d left the house too quickly and I hadn’t brought a book to read while waiting.  This may not be news to some people, but different cinema chains have different “channels” of what passes for entertainment and ads to try to draw viewers in early.  The movie house we used to frequent in New Jersey had a variety of goods on show, most of the time.  The one we visited here in Pennsylvania presumed that everyone had their phones in hand, waiting for the show to begin.  On screen was the idolization of the app.

My phone is old enough that most modern apps don’t work on it.  Most of the time that doesn’t matter to me since I’m not addicted to the device.  Of course, when you’re trying to park your car in a town that offers only online options for such a convenience, I sometimes wish I could download the relevant necessary software.  Otherwise, I often wonder what we’ve lost in our lust for connectivity.  Coming out of New York on the longer distance bus recently, the driver called out, as leaving the Port Authority, “Lights on or off?”  The unanimous chorus, for I didn’t speak, answered “Off!”  I glanced around.  I was surrounded by devices.  I carry a book-light with me on the bus, for this has happened before.

“Drink the Kool-Aid” has become post-Jonestown slang for simply following the suggestion of someone without considering the consequences.  I sometimes wonder if our smartphones come in more than one flavor.  I’m not talking about features or physical colors.  As apps chip away at our money, a little bit at a time, they also take larger pieces of our time.  I’ve experienced it too, but mostly on my laptop (I don’t text—my thumbs aren’t that limber, and besides, the apocopated messages often lead to misunderstanding, emojis or not), the wonder of one link leading to another then realizing an hour has disappeared and I still feel hungry.  Perhaps that’s the draw to the modern commuter.  Or movie goer.  I’m sitting in the theater, taking a break from unpacking.  In my version of multitasking, I’m also doing research by watching a horror movie.  Around me eyes glow eerily in the dark.  I’m lost in the forest of unsleeping apps.

Somebody Else’s Heaven

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.

Growing Shadows

As summer wends its way slowly toward autumn my reading becomes more gothic.  It feels as natural as the progression of the seasons, I suppose.  While waiting for the turn I’d been holding onto Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  Not having read any Zafón before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My copy had been blurbed by Stephen King, and I figured that was pretty high praise.  I found the book through one of my web searches for the most gothic novels and this one takes a while, but I can see why it makes some of those lists.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was intended to be comic or serious, but that combination is an imitation of life itself.  We laugh, we cry, we shudder.

The story slowly builds, and I’ll address this further on Goodreads.  What I want to consider here is the nature of place.  Human beings—and I would argue animals as well—have a sense of place.  Space becomes sacred through events both dramatic and quotidian.  That’s why we make pilgrimages to places where our heroes lived.  Just to be there.  To think about it.  To feel it.  The Shadow of the Wind is a story of Barcelona during a time of war.  There’s no escaping the moody sense of old Europe in this tale.  In that sense religion is quite often casually mentioned.  It’s part of place in a way many Americans overlook.  The church bells I can hear everyday beg to differ, no matter how empty the pews may be.  Zafón wants to share his gothic Barcelona with a story that leads to real shivers.

It would be a stretch to call this a horror novel, but it is in the sense that V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic is.  It reminded me at several points of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (my copy of which was destroyed in a flooded garage).  Many lives, I suspect, have quiet gothic elements to them.  I know that mine does.  While there may be a little supernatural at work in The Shadow of the Wind, most of the action is believable.  This is the way people behave.  The way they treat, and mistreat one another.  While the days are still hot around here, the angle of the sun in the sky doesn’t lie.  We’re fast approaching the equinox from which we’ll slide into the long nights of winter.  And reading, the more gothic the better, will help us make it through no matter where we are.