Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Mediated Reality

According to the Good Book, Methuselah lived nearly a millennium. For all that, the information on him in Genesis occurs in a mere five verses, in a span of seven. We learn when he married, whom he sired, and how long he lived. Not much information of the last antediluvian, especially considering how much time he had. When I searched for him on the web the other day, the information box that showed up on Google had, at the very top, a picture of Anthony Hopkins. I immediately recognized his makeup from Noah, a movie that I just can’t make myself love. The fault for having no other image may be the failure of human imagination—where do we find an image of a thousand-year old?

The internet mediates our reality. One of the points of both my books now in the works is that modern understanding of the Bible is largely media based. Few people have the time or inclination to read such a big book. (Given the continued evangelical support of Trump, it’s pretty clear that most of them haven’t read it either.) We want other people to do the heavy lifting and give us a summary in neat little boxes at the top of the screen. There’s far too many things to do in this tangled web to be spending months reading a ponderous, outdated tome, even if it does have plenty of sex and violence. Even if it influences the lives of each and every person living in America every single day. We’d rather have someone else—preferably not some egghead with a Ph.D.—give us the executive summary.

Once I did the math. If you add up the dates in what I used to call “Genesis years,” the year Methuselah died was the year of the flood. The Bible doesn’t say that old Methuselah drowned when the windows of heaven were opened, but it’s a reasonable conjecture. Nature abhors, it seems, a human being living so long. Our bodies just aren’t built for it. Some trees, on the other hand, have been alive for thousands of years. Botanists call them “Methuselah trees” (I told you the Good Book influences everything!). The pity is we know so very little about this ancient human being from days of yore. Was he a good man? He seems to have been washed out in the sluice gates of what became one great universal sewer at the time. Although we know little, his life would make quite an epic movie, I think. We already have an actor lined up, for Google tells me so.

Updates

So, I’m getting ready to update this website. I’ll give you a warning before things change. Another update, however, is in order. I’ve been promising that I’d let you know when my forthcoming book with McFarland received its final title. Well, drum roll please! The final title is actually the first title I proposed—Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. And it has an ISBN: 978-1-4766-7466-7. And a cover design too, but I can’t share that just yet. It is appropriately lurid, matching the subject. But in all seriousness, the book makes a case for the fact that many people understand their religion via popular media. Being a bad boy, I look at it through horror movies.

The title Holy Horror was a play on Douglas Cowan’s excellent book, Sacred Terror. I recall reading that book, starting the night I bought it as SBL, curled up in the swank conference hotel bed, turning pages until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. It had honestly never occurred to me that religion scholars could get away with writing about horror movies. Cowan had the natural advantage of being a Canadian, something I’ve always longed to be. He also has a secure university post. I was, at the time, just a guy trying to feel secure in what seemed like (and turned out in reality to be) a threatening seminary position that was shortly to end.

It may be difficult to understand how horror can be consoling. It can. I’m a squeamish guy. I don’t like blood and gore. I hate being startled. Nevertheless, I took comfort in this genre as my career was falling apart. Holy Horror was a cathartic book for me to write. There’s more than a little metaphor in it. One thing that will become clear to readers is that the Bible is no stranger to horror movies. Ironically, many of them are strangely conservative—Carol J. Clover’s classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws (which I’ve reviewed on this blog) made that point clearly. Horror often has the same message as your typical Disney film, although it’s presently slightly differently. How so? Well, I can’t say very much here or you’ll have no reason to read my book. McFarland does a great job with publishing this kind of title. You won’t find it in Barnes and Noble, and not likely in your local indie either, but it’ll be available on Amazon and these days that’s enough. And before long these pages will change to reflect its coming.

Re-reading the Rite

I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.

This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.

Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.

Body Count

While I’m privileged and proud to have been part of one of millions protesting over the weekend with our nation’s youth, I can’t help but be a little reflective. Why does our world continue to shortchange women? You see, I had the honor to be a man invited to march in Washington, DC on January 21, 2017. I was there the day before, when the devil in the red hat assumed control. Helicopters were buzzing all over the place, flying low and dramatically over the scene. There were some small riots, to be sure, and I saw police action up close. The day of the march itself, however, all was peaceful. Including the skies. The helicopters were home, their blades drooping listlessly. The women marched. Few paid attention.

It’s hard to tell how many people there are when you’re in a crowd on the streets. There’s no stadium seat numbers to guide you. The National Park Service, which has metrics for counting visitors, probably knows best. As we thronged toward the capitol building we asked an NPS officer if they had any estimates. She nodded. “We’re estimating it’s 1.3 million.” When the headlines squeaked the next day all they said was “hundreds of thousands.” The White House was saying maybe 500,000. Of course, this was now the era of fake news. Nobody worth their testicles could say that the Women’s March drew more than a million to the capital, but it did. Because it was led by women, we have to scale the numbers down. It’s a trick employers use all the time.

This past weekend’s rallies and marches are being noticed by a reluctant press. Official estimates in DC are at a million. The Washington Post noticed that Metro ridership was “far behind” the Women’s March. Women are finding their voices. They were cheated out of the first female presidency by an electoral college that forever will bear the badge of shame for electing a candidate who lost by three million popular votes. People don’t like to be cheated. Women, who throughout history have been the victims of unfair policies upholding male privilege, are half of the human race. They number in the billions. Those who steadfastly hold to Trump—who’ve abandoned their tribe—have the right to be heard as well. They, however, must listen to their sisters. This is not about fiscal conservancy. This is not about unborn babies. This is about the most basic human right of all. We march because this is about the numbers. Women are equal to men. And we will march until the numbers are counted as they actually stand.

The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

Testamental Annihilation

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.

Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.

While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

Belief Matters

What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.

An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.

We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.