Category Archives: Posts

Non-podcasts

Bad Theology

train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895

Perhaps the most overused simile for a real mess is that it’s “like a train wreck.” No doubt this is because train wrecks are messy, and deadly. Few things speak to human vulnerability more than airborne hunks of heavy metal flying in indeterminate directions. Trains don’t stop fast. If they do people get hurt. No, I wasn’t on the train that crashed into the Hoboken station yesterday during the morning commute. I’m just one of many thousands of people who make their way into the city every day, but I go by bus, which is more affordable. Still, there’s something in every commuter that mourns a tragedy like this. We’re not in competition for getting into New York. It’s only after we’re off our conveyances that we compete. The stories after the crash, however, emphasized something I’ve always known—people are basically good.

A strain of Christian theology makes the extremely dubious claim that people are “totally depraved.” Assaulted again and again with this misanthropic theology in college, I was bound to fight back. Some guys with minimal psychological training decided, in the early modern period, that God had created the vast majority of people for Hell. Because we share the primates’ evolved taste for fruit, we participated in “original sin.” It wasn’t exactly sex (since God had declared that good) but it was a consequence of it. We were born fallen and had to be redeemed. These theologians declared, however, that very few ever would be. Most of us were Hell-fodder and deserved to be since we’re so naturally evil. A few centuries earlier Jesus had said you’d know the righteous by their fruits. There’s no getting away from the fruit.

Life in the big city is impersonal. Commuters share their conveyances each day with many strangers. After the wreck, however, as my wife pointed out, those in the cars far enough back that the injuries weren’t grievous first turned to everyone else and asked if they were all right. If they need help. If they could walk. Strangers helping one another. Good Samaritans. It doesn’t sound like total depravity to me.

Our economic system thrives on hyped-up competition. When we’re taken out of that context and placed into a human one, we cooperate. We want to help one another. Perhaps it’s not the people who are totally depraved, but the system they’re forced into. No, I wasn’t on that train. My bus had pulled into New York an hour and a half earlier. But even from a distance I could see what I’ve known all along. People are basically good.

What Did You Say?

inpraiseofprofanityThis driver and this passenger had interacted before. Unpleasantly. You could feel the tension mount when the passenger watched carefully to see who the driver was as the bus pulled up to Door 1. Although bus routes change drivers somewhat frequently, there is a regular driver to my route and this passenger, like a cat sensing the visit of a nasty relative, wanted to see if it was safe to come out. It was the driver he didn’t like. He got on anyway. An argument started, since he always sits in the front seat, just across from the driver. A profanity worked its way into the conversation. “No blasphemy on my bus!” the driver warned loudly. I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve sent author contracts from respectable academic presses where the author has to sign that nothing libelous, blasphemous, or obscene will be included in her/his book. Blasphemy still sets some people off.

Michael Adams’ In Praise of Profanity isn’t an easy book to read on the bus. The dust jacket can be removed, and that’s a plus, but the guy who sat next to me on last night’s commute took a good, long leisurely look at the page I was on. Bad bus etiquette, but then so is falling asleep leaning on the stranger next to you (which he also did). Speaking of bad things, In Praise of Profanity makes the reasonable case that there are no “bad words.” Bad intentions, to be sure. Bad choice of when to utilize certain vocabulary, certainly. Bad words inherently, no. And the book will take you into some strange places to demonstrate this. The section on bathroom graffiti makes the point nicely.

Adams does discuss, briefly, the religious objections to classical profanity—taking God’s name in vain. Having grown up with all kinds of circumlocutions (more technically, I learned, euphemisms) for interjections one must not say, it was interesting to note that nearly all our pseudo-swears go back to violating this prohibition. Even “Jiminy Cricket” was a not so subtle riff on the name of the carpenter from Nazareth. Gosh, golly gee. All three disguised blasphemies. Being a linguist Adams takes this particular analysis with a healthy dose of fun, but there are many people I know who would be quite offended by this study of the vulgar way vulgar people speak. At the same time, looking at what words like “profanity,” “obscene,” and “vulgar” mean, we might need to head back to the lexicon to learn just what species of blasphemy it is to which my driver objects.

Godnapped

“Has anybody seen my god?” So we might imagine an ancient victim of godnapping wailing after a hostile takeover raid. We might smirk to ourselves, knowing that gods only really come in paper or plastic. The only godnapping that goes on these days is when someone hacks our credit card number. These were my thoughts when a friend sent me a link from ASOR’s website, “‘Godnapping’ in the Ancient Near East” by Shana Zaia. Stories of godnapping are known from the Bible, like where the Philistines defeat the Israelites and take the ark of the covenant to the temple of Dagon. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves in this post-theistic age that we’ve developed more spiritualized versions of deities to disbelieve. At least we didn’t believe some hunk of wood was an actual god. We at least had a person nailed to it.

I used to ask my students what the difference between an “idol” (not the American variety) and a “god” was. The usual understanding is that an idol was made out of something like wood or metal. The ancients weren’t so naive, however, as we suppose them to have been. Before any carven or graven image could be considered a “god” it would have to undergo a ritual to make it one. Elaborate ceremonies attended the process in which even ancient sophisticates realized that this piece of rock or wood wasn’t actually the fullness of the deity it represented. It was a symbol. A symbol invested with power, to be sure, but a symbol nevertheless. What was an “idol” then? Merely a modern way of degrading another religion. “Idol” can never be a neutral term.

img_0188

Imagine the ark of the covenant in the temple of Dagon. It was a box overlaid with gold, on top of which sat cherubim. Two of them. Images, but not “idols.” Inside, depending on what passage you read, you might find the original ten commandments, a jar or manna, or Aaron’s rod. Or all three. You might find nothing inside. The point was in the power of the symbol. Godnapping was a real fear in ancient times. A deity captured left its people vulnerable to the whims of others. Today we may rely on the high priests of encryption to keep our divine numbers safe from those who hack at the new idols. Gideon, after all, was the original hacker, and we all know how he ended up. Those who destroy others gods often fall into worshipping them once the hewing is done. The only question left is if one prefers paper or plastic.

Colorful States

red_state_poster

Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Banned Books

I feel short-changed. Cheated, if you will. This is Banned Book Week, and a story in Publishers Weekly over the summer touted the benefits of the local independent bookstore. Owners of indies know that these stores are centers of community. Gathering places for those who love literature. I feel cheated because my local town has no independent bookstore. Neither did any of the towns where I grew up. For a year when money was almost as scarce as it is now, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There were bookstores there. For a couple happy years before that I dwelt in Boston—a city in which books are never difficult to locate. Edinburgh is known as one of the literary capitals of Europe and my days in that magical city were inundated with books. Even Nashotah House, with its somewhat backward facing eyes, had a little bookstore. And there was another indie over in nearby Oconomowoc. I now live in the desert.

Oh, there are bookstores nearby. Independent ones, I mean. When’s the last time you saw a chummy conversation among locals at Barnes and Noble? Princeton has the Labyrinth. Bernardsville has the Bookworm. New Hope (while across the river in Pennsylvania) has Farley’s. There’s an indie in New Brunswick and I discovered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair just a couple of weekends ago. Clinton has a tiny little shop where my daughter once met a children’s author doing a book signing and I picked up some Ray Bradbury. These are my happy places. All of them require a drive of at least half-an-hour. I’m not a local. I don’t see anyone I know, except some of the clerks.

Analysts have been saying for decades now that we live in unhealthy isolation from our neighbors. I get up and jump on a bus before most houses show any lights in the morning. I stumble off and fall into bed after eating supper following the return trip. I’m not alone in my attempt to survive in this late capitalist purgatory. One thing that would help, I believe, is a local bookshop. There used to be a used bookstore in my town, called Chapter Two. I used to walk there of a Saturday morning, just to browse. Rent grew too high and it moved to the next town over and its name changed to chapter eleven. My local town is affluent. There are signs for Trump everywhere. What’s obviously missing is a local independent bookstore. I, for one, would be a regular patron.

img_2968

A Dusty Return

dustreturnedThe fiction author who had the most influence over my formative years was Ray Bradbury. Wait—let me qualify that a bit. I read of number of series aimed at juvenile, male interest (Doc Savage, Dark Shadows, and such) but these weren’t really intended as “literature.” I also read quite a bit of Poe, and his influence may certainly have rivaled Bradbury. The thing was the latter was still alive and producing books, mostly of short stories that tickled my imagination. Despite my reluctance to let books go, there have been several periods in my life where I’ve had to sell off my collection (this is the mindset of the non-affluent) and all of these childhood collections went, except for Poe. Now that I’m a more reflective adult, so I’m told, I have found a renewed interest in some childhood classics, and Ray Bradbury books are seldom expensive. When I found From the Dust Returned in a used book shop for a steal, I said “why not?”

This particular book came from long after I’d sold my Bradbury collection. I had never seen nor heard of it before. As an adult, interestingly, Bradbury doesn’t seem scary at all. From the Dust Returned, like many other Bradbury collections, is a somewhat novelized set of stories. This one is set in a haunted house where, in his usual descriptive style the storyteller offers artful prose and painterly writing, but no real scares. As we are coming upon Banned Book Week, however, I did note one of Bradbury’s common themes—the lack of belief leads to the death of characters. I’d read some of his stories where this took place before. Still, this time he goes a bit further. Tapping into things just ahead of the rest of us, as he had a talent for doing, one of his characters laments the loss of belief in religion as well as creepy, Addams-esque characters. People are no longer believing and it causes ghosts pain.

Part of Bradbury’s appeal is clearly to the young imagination. I’ve promiscuously read hundreds of authors since my last Bradbury book. My tastes have evolved. I find the same is true when I go back to the Dark Shadows books that were so cheaply had at my neighborhood Goodwill. I still go back to these early writers, however, and there is a kind of innocence about them. These were stories I’d read before I’d learned that Poe was certainly not as macabre as real life could be. “Marilyn Ross,” “Kenneth Robeson,” Edgar Allan Poe, and Ray Bradbury may not feature of lists of banned authors. Some of them aren’t even whom they seem to be. They did instill a childlike belief in reading, in my case. Even if they’re now on the bargain shelf they will still receive my admiration for starting a lifetime of reading.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.