Leggo My Lego

Given my proclivity to seek the profound in what is often considered the banal, I have been mulling over The Lego Movie.  Before you cast the first brick, yes, I know this movie is five years old and I know that it has sophisticated intertextuality with other movies and sly humor.  I use banal in the sense that Legos are, quite literally, plastic and they don’t work well in conveying the human form.  Our overactive psyches help here, and we give the characters their necessary humanity, but this is a movie for kids, even with its Trump-like President Business forecast some two years before the last election.  With all of that being said, and the word “forecast” already being used, my “Bible radar” zeroed in on the prophet in the movie, Vitruvius.

Vitruvius is based on a combination of Tiresias, the blind prophet, and any number of biblical characters who forecast the future.  Dressed like Moses, but named after a Roman author and architect, Vitruvius utters the prophecy at the beginning of the film and returns as a character that combines Obi-Wan Kenobi and the prophet Samuel.  (I said there was sophisticated intertextuality.)  Whether any of this is intentional is difficult to say—well the Obi-Wan part is pretty obvious—but it plays into the common view of prophets.  One of the points I make in Holy Horror (which deals with a different genre of movie) is that people understand biblical ideas through the lens of pop culture.  Prophets, through that lens, tell the future.  In the Bible itself they don’t do that very much, but since the New Testament reads itself into the Hebrew Bible (more intertextuality) the idea became pretty fixed that prophets told the future all day long.

Ironically, Vitruvius—a name that sounds like “virtue”—was famous for describing perfect proportions.  Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” sketch is based on this idea.  As ideas go, this is a false one against which many of us struggle our entire lives.  There is no perfect, Platonic human body.  Yes, certain people are attractive, but genetics and circumstances make us who we are.  And some of us grew up without Legos, but despite that deficiency we came to know the product.  The Lego characters aren’t in any sense of Vitruvian proportions.  Witty and intertextual, they’re made of plastic and they encourage us to buy for our children.  And one wonders whether Vitruvius is a prophet or a hidden symbol of that word’s homonym.  Let the building begin.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

Evil Origins

I remember well the eerie, uncanny feeling I had as a child reading Genesis 6.1-4.  This wasn’t a story we heard in Sunday School, and it wasn’t in any children’s Bible or Arch Books.  It was mysterious and strange, and not understanding what sex was made it even weirder.  The sons of God, or perhaps angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women.  Although not stated directly, their offspring seem to have been giants.  Abruptly the story ends.  Archie T. Wright was clearly fascinated by this story as well.  His book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature, isn’t so much about demons as it is about the influence of this very brief, extremely odd story.

As a young person I knew about the book 1 Enoch.  Living in a rural town with no bookstore and no library (there was one in the town three miles away, but I didn’t drive and out-of-towners had to pay for a card), I had no way to read it.  Wright writes quite a bit about it here.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, in subsequent years I did read it.)  His history of transmission is a little suspect, but he explores the impact of these four brief verses on what can perhaps best be described as a diegesis.  This universe includes Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch is called The Book of the Watchers), archangels, angels, evil spirits, giants, and demons.  Later Judaism moved away from this world, while early Christianity grew fascinated with it.  The mythology that emerged from it is sprawling and quite bizarre.  All encapsulated in a few verses before the flood.

Wright’s book is academic; it’s a revised dissertation.  Still, it’s a source more credible than a lot of what you find on the internet.  This particular biblical episode is an example of what happens when you don’t explain enough.  Granted, the writer likely had no idea that this brief account—shorter than a blog post—would eventually make it into a book that some people would consider from the anthropomorphic mouth of God himself, but because of this brevity questions, like angels, hung in the air.  As Wright shows, these verses were incorporated into ways of explaining the existence of evil in the world.  It was known by many names, and even took on personification in the form of Satan and his ilk.  This is a world of the unexpected, and it readily took me back to a childhood of wonder concerning the inexplicable passages in the Good Book.

Revisiting Mesopotamia

As a refresher on my own ancient history, I picked up Tammi J. Schneider’s An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.  This was one of those books that spawned several internal conversations simultaneously as I realized just how much modern lenses color our perceptions of past societies.  Before commenting on that, however, a few necessary points must be made.  Our knowledge of Mesopotamia is in its infancy.  There are only a handful of universities around the world that have the resources to prepare young Assyriologists adequately.  Once prepared, those young folk will be introduced to the job market of those with far lesser education because there are practically no jobs in the field.  Seems a poor way to treat the civilization that invented wheels, arches, and beer.  Or so I’ve read.  In any case, many tablets in ancient languages have never been translated because there simply aren’t enough people to do it.  Any conclusions, therefore, must remain tentative.

Ancient religion in western Asia was extremely political.  From our perspective, this seems odd—although it’s happening again in real time.  Ancient societies relied on the cooperation of religious and political leaders and each institution helped the other.  They didn’t have the added complication of monotheism to deal with.  In trying to keep all the gods happy, they simply reasoned that if things fell apart, another god had grown to a superior position.  Certainly they believed the gods were there—we do too.  We call them cash, the stock exchange, and commodities, but we still worship and adore.  And they keep the government going.  (I kind of liked it better when they were old-fashioned gods; at least they had sympathy for the human condition.)

After getting to know the gods, Mesopotamians recognized that humans were to do the work for them.  Gods, after all, owned the land and priests and kings were powerful individuals.  You didn’t want to cross them.  Rituals were developed to ensure the smooth continuation of seasons and agriculture.  As Schneider points out, we don’t have enough information to understand all of this.  Our information comes from across millennia and from locations sometimes hundreds of miles apart.  If this is a puzzle well over half the pieces are missing.  We glimpse people like us, trying to survive.  Gods are unpredictable, but you can try to read a liver or two to find out what’s on their minds.  And some of the kings thought they were gods.  The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same.

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Horizontal Thinking

“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts.  I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic.  (And a better paying job.)  In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline.  In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system.  I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible.  The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared.  Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic.  Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation.  Especially in theology.

Horizon

I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror.  Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs.  People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others.  I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly.  Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase.  Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.

Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however.  Both address primal human fears.  Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is.  If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion?  We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it.  Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear.  Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace.  Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too.  I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.

Look Out Below

Demons are seldom what you think they are.  Bernard J. Bamberger’s Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm isn’t so much about demons as it is about, well, fallen angels.  A classic in the field, it was published in 1952 and has been periodically reissued when interest revives.  There are many aspects of this book that deserve development in a place like this blog, but I need to suffice with a few.  I won’t take much of your time, I promise.

First and foremost, Bamberger, who was a prominent rabbi, presents the seldom heard Jewish perspective on the topic.  The Devil really had more explanatory value for Christians than for Jews, and it is no surprise that he appears rather abruptly in the New Testament.  There are, of course, plenty of antecedents for him both in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, but the idea, and character, grabbed his main hoof-hold in Christianity.  This dualism has periodically been a source of embarrassment, but in general it has served the Christian narrative well.  We seldom see the Jewish outlook on it.

A second noteworthy feature of this book is its wide survey of these ideas in both what is now termed Second Temple Judaism and that of Late Antiquity.  The fallen angels seem to be there in the Good Book, but close reading of the texts suggests other meanings.  Judaism has never felt the compulsion that many Christians feel toward having the one, correct outlook.  Spend a little time with the Talmud and see how dialogical the search for the truth can be.  With no Pope or supreme human authority to declare the rightness of one outlook, the search must remain a process of discussion rather than an ex cathedra pronouncement.

A third, and for now final, observation is the sheer number of characters that pick up the baton of evil in both early Judaism and Christianity.  Even Islam.  A bewildering number of names for lead fallen angels and other demonically sourced characters populate these pages.  Since Judaism tended not to buy the fallen angel narrative, other sources for demons were considered.  Few doubted that they existed in the early days, but whence exactly they came was an open question.  Bamberger explores the options here and, beyond his book many others also exist.  That evil exists in the world seems patently obvious.  Religions of all stripes ask what’s to be done about it.  Some delve into its origin myths.  In the end, however, it is how we choose to respond that matters most.