Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

In Poor Taste

I remember seeing a television commercial once (not during the Super Bowl) where an older guy, a lawyer, complained at the camera, “It used to be that lawyers didn’t advertise.” He went on to say that he felt uncomfortable promoting himself since it was in poor taste, but since the legal profession had swung that way he was entering the game. I know how that guy felt. I grew up with the firm notion that self-promotion was in bad taste. If my career has taught me anything, it’s that unless you’re born well connected, if you don’t promote yourself nobody else will. Still, it rankles. With that hearty introduction, I would, in poor taste, point out that my latest article has been published. Those of you who keep an eye on this blog will know that I gave a paper about the Bible in Sleepy Hollow to a learned society a couple years back. That paper is now available in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.

ichabods_chase_crop

Doing research is difficult when you don’t have institutional support to carry it out, but doing such things as an independent scholar can be kind of liberating. I used to research, write, and get published an article a year, back in my teaching days. Nashotah House didn’t have the greatest library, but they did have interlibrary loan and, towards the end of my time there, internet access. More than that, life wasn’t measured in increments of nine-to-five. Living on campus, commuting could be measured in seconds rather than hours. Although publication didn’t bear the weight there that often pressures academics elsewhere, like that lawyer whose name I can’t remember, I wanted to be in the game. I guess I still do.

In these days of uneducated government, if you don’t do it yourself nobody’s going to do it for you. It’s what I once called “the educational imperative.” We are duty-bound, as conscious beings, to move knowledge forward. How many apocalyptic scenarios are there where, when the powers that be devolve into inanity, the monks in their cloisters have to keep knowledge alive? (The question’s rhetorical.) I’m reminded of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel since there women do a good bit of keeping the culture alive when society collapses. Or, to put it another way, like Sleepy Hollow. When the forces of evil break into the world, it’s an African American woman who saves it. If your school has access to JSTOR, you’ll be able to find out more in my paper.

By Any Other Name

nakedundeadGood and evil. Well, mostly evil, actually. No, I’m not talking about Washington, DC, but about horror movies. Cynthia A. Freeland’s The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror is a study that brings a cognitivist approach to the dual themes of feminism and how horror presents evil. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Like many philosophers Freeland is aware that topics are seldom as straightforward as they appear. Feminists have approached horror films before, and other analysts have addressed the aspects of evil that the genre presents, but bringing them together into one place casts light on the subject from different angles. Freeland begins this process by dividing her material into three main sections: mad scientists and monstrous mothers (which allows for the Frankenstein angle), from vampires to slashers, and sublime spectacles of disaster. Already the reader can tell she’s a real fan.

One of the simplistic views of horror is that these kinds of movies—particularly slashers—are misogynistic by their very nature. Feminists, including Freeland, question that assumption. Horror is a genre with a decidedly checkered history. Some films do feature mostly female victims to male monsters. Not all do, however, and even those that do may be saying something other than the obvious. Looking for the locus of evil in these movies provides a lens that focuses the meaning somewhere other than the surface. This is one of the benefits of philosophy—probing questions may be asked and unexpected answers may result. Along the way you can have a lot of fun, too. Especially if you watch horror movies.

A large part of the criticism probably arises from the fact that film making was, for much of its earliest history, run by males. That’s not to say women couldn’t do the same thing men were doing, but the opportunities simply weren’t there. Most film makers, I expect, have trouble getting out of their heads to think about how someone of a different gender might perceive this kind of movie. Fear, we are told, is “coded” feminine. It seemed natural to such film makers to put the female in peril since both women and men would respond to it. Since then it has become clear that fear isn’t coded for gender. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modern horror is that we all have cause to be afraid. Fear is no respecter of gender. Freeland’s analysis, now getting on in years, correctly looked ahead in many respects. Especially concerning the ongoing presence of evil.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

What Rapture

rapturecultureEvangelical culture must be an endlessly fascinating area of study for sociologists. So pervasive that many people who aren’t religious buy into aspects of it, this social movement has shaped American thought in often unexpected ways. Take the rapture, for example. Here is a non-biblical concept, invented in the late nineteenth century and so thoroughly disseminated that most people simply accept it as standard Christian belief. It’s not. Amy Johnson Frykholm pieces part of this puzzle together by focusing on the Left Behind series. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America is one of those books where you find plenty of food for thought as you go along. Not that the novel series itself is profound, but the impact that it has is.

The origins of the rapture go back to a way of thinking called dispensationalist premillennialism. That alone could be why so few people know about it! All this phrase means is that some Christians believe history is divided into distinct periods (dispensations), one of which is the end of the world. Among dispensationalists, there is disagreement on when the rapture will come, and those in the majority believe it will happen before the millennium (not the Y2K millennium, but the millennium of God’s reign on earth before the world ends—the next dispensation). These are the premillennialists. It’s easy to think that since this system is pure mythology it must be simple. It’s not. This is a complex mapping of the future based on an intimate knowledge of obscure verses from the Bible. The Left Behind series, written by Jerry Jenkins under the guidance of the finally departed Timothy LaHaye, brought this idea into mainstream culture. There was even a movie.

Many educated citizens don’t realize that Left Behind has a Harry Potter-like following. Sales of the series are into the millions of units and many of those who read them take them somewhat seriously. Frykholm interviewed such readers to find out what they actually thought about the series and whether it was something they believed in. As might be expected, answers differ considerably on these points. For me one of the real takeaways is that we ignore evangelical culture at our own peril. I learned about the rapture form Chick tracts—I’ve posted about them before—that I read in my childhood. By the time of Left Behind I’d been through enough courses that I knew it was all based on a fictional event. But many don’t realize that. And many of them showed up in the last presidential election.

Hopeful Horror

joneshorrorI don’t make New Year’s resolutions. To my way of thinking, if I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I try to change it at that point, rather than waiting. Needless to say, then, I’m up to my old habits of reading about horror movies. Actually, Darryl Jones’ Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film goes a bit broader than just the cinema. As the subtitle indicates, this charming book also addresses narrative fiction as well and the result is quite engaging. Divided thematically, Jones considers the various types of horror without delving into pretentious theorists to give him academic credibility. Here is a true fan who’s capable to sharing the excitement of the genre. Along the way, accompanying the usual observation that horror and religion share considerable conceptual space, he makes the point that in movies horror is one genre that makes use of academics as characters of authority. Sure, there are others, but in this realm to be educated is a benefit, whether the plan is to take over the world or to stop some evil force from doing the same.

I’ve been watching movies that can be broadly classified as horror since I was young. And I had admired—emulated to some extent—the professors and scientists I saw in those presentations. When a monster was on the loose, you went to find an expert to learn what to do. At the risk of contradicting myself, theorists have been suggesting that one of the problems with post-truth is the death of expertise. Anyone can be an expert these days. The question, “Why should I listen to you?” is on every self-appointed smarty’s lips. Earning a doctorate, the horror world tells us, gives you access to some kinds of knowledge that others don’t have. Problem is, zombies don’t respect such learning. They only want brains to consume.

It never seemed to me that watching horror was a means of learning. As a kid escapism is part of everyday life—taking things seriously is for adults. Growing up, however, I kept my love of scary movies in reserve. Little did I realize that it was a form of training. Now university-affiliated academics are finally able to begin admitting that they find monsters compelling. More than that, they actually learn something from them. Although not a resolution, I see myself reading further books about horror movies this year. It may be a naive hope, but it would be wonderful if they were all as insightful as this one has been.

Reel Salvation

salvationcinemaSalvation is a fraught concept. It’s one of those topics that’s been commandeered by the evangelical camp so that mainstreamers are afraid to touch it, as if it’s catching. The thing is, Christianity is built around the idea that people require saving. The question is how you go about getting “saved.” Some insist it’s being “born again,” while others take a more gradual, one might dare say “evolutionary,” approach. Either way the end result in the same—being rescued from that which threatens you. Like many people, I watch movies. Sometimes I do so with manic intensity, not really knowing why I do it. My personal rationalization is escapism. Living in a world of harsh realities such as Trump (and even before there were sources of great anxiety) one needs an escape hatch. You might say I’m seeking salvation through film.

Crystal Downing suggests I may not be alone in this. Salvation from Cinema: The Medium is the Message is a book that explores the salvific function of movies. These are not just Christian or Bible movies she’s talking about. Indeed, she spends some time wrestling with that preposition “from” in the title. Is cinema something from which one might be saved, or by which one might find salvation? The latter is her focus and she sharpens it by looking at theories which might make it happen. The stories, the stars, and even nudity are put forward as ways the silver screen has been thought to bring salvation to viewers. She also includes a very interesting discussion of breaking the fourth wall. This technique brings the contents directly to the viewer. The second half of her book is more theoretically dense, engaging with modern theorists about what salvation from cinema might mean. Her selection of films to discuss is wide and intriguing.

There can be little question that cinema has a deeper significance than it’s usually supposed. Part of the reason is, as Downing discusses, the easy marriage of capitalism and celluloid in the United States. Movies make money. To counter this she also discusses foreign and art house films as well. There can be little question that those who stand in the queue are seeking something. While cheaper than many diversions, going to the movies does involve a small investment and as capitalists we expect a return on that. So it is that we sit in the dark and allow others to guide us toward the light. That’s as fine a metaphor for salvation as any that the preacher might proffer.