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.

Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

Sci-Fi Culture

I’ve recently taken up rereading Ray Bradbury stories from my childhood.  Bradbury’s difficult to classify, but he’s often genrefied as science fiction, but many of his stories are horror and fantasy related, or just plain stories.  One aspect upon which future readers, I believe, may pick up—and this isn’t just a Bradbury thing—is how people were projected into the future with the culture of the past remaining intact.  Things like characters smoking in the most unlikely of places.  I picked up on that the first time I watched Alien.  In space, where no-one can hear you scream, air has got to be a precious commodity.  And yet there they are, smoking in space.  Same thing with Bradbury.  The culture of the 1940s and ‘50s when he was writing such stories simply couldn’t see beyond the time when culture was what everyone did.  It seems weird in 2019.  How much weirder it will look in 2050 (presuming we make it that far).

There’s almost a “gee-whiz” quality to such stories of the past.  People in the future, and in space, drink coffee and wear blue jeans.  They may have more technological homes, but their home lives reflect the forties and fifties as well.  The women are housewives and the husbands go to the office, or outer space, to work.  I suppose cultural verisimilitude was a different thing back then.  Did nobody really consider that patriarchy might be a problem?  Did everyone think clothing would never really change?  And not a hint that vegetarianism might catch on.  What makes the future the future in these stories is tech.

These days we’re loaded with tech.  In some ways we have more of it on our person at any given moment than all of Bradbury’s space-workers ever had.  In one of his stories a character was born in the impossibly far year of 1993.  I used to watch a show called Space 1999.  We haven’t colonized the moon yet (we may be working on it, but considering how long things like an obvious impeachment take, I wouldn’t hold my breath).  Speaking of holding breath, I’m pretty sure some of the characters were smoking on Moonbase Alpha.  Or my memory is cloudy.  (The earlier, and more lasting series Star Trek pretty much avoided several earth-bound habits, although Captain Kirk was pretty fearless when it came to the possibilities of space-spread STDs.)  I read Bradbury as a throwback to my childhood.  His stories have both an prescience and naivity that make them compelling period pieces.  From our current standpoint, one wonders if there will be any culture left at all in the future.  Perhaps we should enjoy what we have, while we still can.

Gods and Fans

The blog Theofantastique started a couple of years before this one.  I remember that sense of childhood wonder that flooded me when I first saw its posts about books and movies with monsters—the kinds of things l always liked to read and watch.  But it was more than that.  This particular blog presents the very tangible connection between religion and horror.  Not only horror, though.  As the title indicates, this is a place for genre fiction of three closely related kinds: science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  The three are separated by mere degrees of semantics, and all three play very near to the third rail we call religion.  In my way of thinking, horror is probably the closest of the three, but I shift among this secular trinity and often wonder in which genre I am at the moment.

For someone who grew up being taught that religion was all about history—including a history of the future, mapped, plotted, and planned just as carefully as a summer vacation—seeing the connection with genres that are all acknowledged to be fiction was, at first, a little shocking.  I’d been taught in literature classes that genre fiction wasn’t really literature at all.  “Pulps” were printed on cheap paper because, as you might again guess from the name, they weren’t worth much.  Many of those books are now collectors’ items and cost a pulp mill to purchase.  My list of books from my childhood that I’d like to recover has me looking with some worry toward my bank book.  The thing is, these are often insightful statements about religion.

Monsters were always a guilty pleasure for me.  Being small, shy, and insecure, it was easy to understand things from the monster’s point of view.  And very often religion was implicated.  Sitting in my apartment in New Jersey, at times unemployed, I began to explore the connection between religion and horror.  I thought I was the only one.  Eventually I discovered kindred souls, and soon came to understand that monsters are perhaps the purest representations of what religion can do.  Even after writing two books about this subject, Theofantastique is a place unlike any other I know.  It has far more readers than I ever will, but this isn’t Godzilla v. Mothra.  No, we’re all in this together.  And we’re gathered together for one purpose.  In any other circumstances you’d say it was religious.

Faithful to Monsters

“Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters. I’ve been saved and absolved by them because monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfections.” Guillermo del Toro’s quote came to me via my colleague John W. Morehead’s wonderful Theofantastique (actually its Facebook page).  I get the sense that those of us in the field of teratology parallel play a lot.  At least I console myself that way because so few monster sites link to my blog.  Nevertheless, I have great respect for del Toro and his drive to bring monsters into the mainstream.  His quote, however, hits upon a central theme of what I try to do here and elsewhere—reflect on what monsters have to do with religion.

Notice the religious language (obviously intentional): faithful, saved, absolved, patron saints.  Monsters are indeed self-reflections, and they play on the same field as religion does.  Often at the same time.  Religion, even in the best of circumstances, entails fear.  If everything were fine all the time, what need would we have of it?  Instead, aspects of life we don’t cherish or anticipate come at us.  Winter comes far sooner than we expected.  Monsters lurk in that brief season between summer and winter, that autumn of the soul.  They know us quite well.  Our weaknesses are evident to them.  But as del Toro notes, they absolve.  And more readily than any Episcopalian.  The religion of monsters is fierce and forgiving.  When we watch them on the screen, we’re watching the drama of, in del Toro’s nomenclature, salvation.  If we didn’t require saving, again, why would we need religion (or monsters)?

Being faithful to monsters again bears comparison with the divine.  Should you become one of the lost while the 99 don’t require any assistance, your monsters will come find you.  In fact, that’s what they most specialize in.  What are dark nights of the soul without a little company?  It’s not sacrilegious to map the divine world with that of monsters, for any language regarding such high stakes beings must be metaphorical.  Our standard version of God is often a large human.  Generally he’s male, and he doesn’t always display compassion, although capable of doing so.  Monsters may be creatures of our own imaginations.  They are cast large on the screen since they too stand in for those to whom we owe some tribute for this is not a safe world in which to raise your kids.  Guillermo del Toro understands; we should listen.

Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.

Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.