At Sea?

Brian Fagan is a name I’ve long known.  Not exactly the consummate stylist, he is a very prolific archaeologist and anthropologist.  I’ve read a few of his books.  Recently my wife and I read his Beyond the Blue Horizon: How the Earliest Mariners Unlocked the Secrets of the Oceans (you see what I mean about style?).  Divided into different regions of the world, the book explores early boat-craft, sketching how people without our technology navigated oceans, often reaching remote locations.  What interests me is when anthropologists make statements about ancient religions, often before the advent of writing among the peoples studied.  No doubt such peoples realized the dangers of open water—open water is still dangerous with all our tech.  It is reasonable to assume their response was religious.  What exactly it was, we don’t know.

The one that really caught my attention was on the Maya.  Coastal Mayans valued the spondylus, or spiny oyster.  This particular mollusk is seasonally toxic—itself an interesting phenomenon—that becomes a hallucinogen.  Hallucinogens have frequently been associated with religion for indigenous peoples.  If archaeology is to be believed, even temples in ancient Israel burned cannabis, so who’s to judge?  Fagan writes that this practice led to shamanistic trances, and this seems likely.  He goes on to suggest that the spondylus was thus a gateway to the supernatural world.  Of course, in the biblical world shellfish were a forbidden food.

While Fagan likes to reminisce about his own past sailing, and likes to describe boats in detail, and show off his nautical language skills, I think about the religious aspect of the great waters.  We still have only a small understanding of the oceans that cover most of our planet.  We can fly over them these days, and miss the intensity of being where no land is in sight.  It can be a transcendent experience, I’m sure.  I’ve seldom been that far from land.  On a ship bound for the Orkney Islands from John O’Groats we were on the North Sea beyond the sight of shore, if I remember correctly.  Although I can’t recall how long the voyage took, I can imagine the feeling of nerves aching for a sight of coastline.  Even with minke whales off the starboard bow, I knew my feet belonged on terra firma.  It’s more comfortable to read about the gods of the ocean in books like Beyond the Blue Horizon.  And when I’m out to sea, I always pray the mariners know what they’re doing.  

Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.

The Halloween

Halloween seems especially portentous this year.  Some of us thrive in this introduction to what was a major set of Christian holidays that encompassed many pagan traditions.  The lynchpin was All Saints Day (All Hallows), which in good Christian fashion upheld its favorite sons (and a few daughters) to remind the rest of us what a sorry lot of humanity we are.  Followed by the more democratic All Souls Day where the vestments went from white to black, it was preceded by Halloween.  Through mostly Celtic additions from Samhain, the first of the three days became decidedly spooky and came to be a commercial holiday.  There’s more to it than that, of course, but we all know Halloween.

This year a number of other phenomena are converging on today.  Not only is it a full moon, but a famed blue moon—the second full moon this month.  It feel like something could happen.  And if that weren’t exciting enough the powers that be have decided to end Daylight Saving Time tonight (well, technically tomorrow morning).  And Tuesday is the most importation election day in the history of our nation, when we decide whether to retain democracy or become a monarchy.  Seems like a strange confluence of phenomena.  Meanwhile, outdoors a pandemic rages and some locations have had early snowfalls.  The last of what had been Hurricane Zeta blew through here yesterday.  Who needs Halloween to be scared?

For some years I’ve been contemplating the spirituality of Halloween.  We live in a death-denying culture while knowing full well we all die.  Halloween has become a holiday when we can think about it openly.  Pretend we’re someone/something we’re not.  Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we might learn something from it.  It has become a boon for horror films, but they’ve been successfully spread through the rest of the year as well.  There’s plenty to be frightened of in July and January too.  Still, there’s something about Halloween.  Some of my earliest memories are of this particular holiday.  Poor as we were, we always had costumes for the day.  I remember sitting on the school bus, wearing a mask, thinking that nobody knew who I was, and I could really be the hero or villain that my costume suggested that year.  Now we wear masks all the time and we’re frightened every day.  Halloween is coming along with a blue moon this year.  There must be some significance to that.

Hot Breakfast

Cooking in a pre-dawn kitchen has a certain appeal as the weather cools.  Knowing that something with warmth will set you right before the nighttime cold forces the furnace on for the next six-to-nine months.  After a recent tooth extraction I was told to keep on a soft diet until the wound healed.  A fan of crispy breakfast cereals, I faced a new dilemma—what to eat before work?  Being vegan means bacon and eggs won’t do (there is passable vegan bacon available, but so far the plant-based eggs haven’t managed not to taste like mung beans).  On a recent frenzy of nostalgia I had purchased a box of (now mostly empty) farina.  Often known by its commercial name “Cream of Wheat,” farina is more like flour and milk (many vegan options available) but with a better texture than paste.  It reminded me of childhood Saturdays.  Then the box was empty and grocery day was the better part of a week away.

Grits seemed a little more challenging.  The particle size is larger and might cause problems in the healing wound.  Still, I gave it a try.  Since my father was from South Carolina I grew up eating things like grits and black-eyed peas.  This makes for a hearty breakfast as long as you keep the grits on the other side of your mouth.  When the black-eyed peas were gone, I turned to oatmeal.  Bigger pieces yet, but still soft.  Oatmeal works best with some kind of sweet accompaniment.  Brown sugar and cinnamon is a standard. Sweets bother my teeth, however, so I need to be careful there.

The problem with all of these options is that one serving of these hot cereals was too little to keep me going.  I wake early and eat breakfast early, so I need about six hours of energy from this meal.  Two servings are too much.  Ratios are beyond me.  So I turn to my religious roots.  Whenever I think of breakfast I’m reminded that our cereal-eating culture (hot or cold) was largely influenced by Seventh-Day Adventist sensibilities.  Adventists are vegetarians, and some prominent among them by the name of Kellogg launched massive, religiously motivated campaigns to have the day begin with grains, back in the day.  It stuck.  I suspect Kellogg was good with numbers.  I wish I could figure out how third-cups and quarter-cups relate to one another.  Like most things in life, it’s falling midway between that is difficult.  It’s chilly in here and I too hungry to do math.  At least the religion part I partially understand.

Remaking King

Pet Sematary is (or was), according to Stephen King, his most bleak book.  The first movie made from it (Mary Lambert, 1989) never reached the iconic status of The Shining or Carrie, but it nevertheless conveyed the dread of resurrection.  It also followed the novel pretty closely.  The new movie version, which came out last year, uses the more slick, modern horror style that just doesn’t have the same feel as the slow pace of dread.  The whole thing feels rushed to fit too much in.  It does add some nice touches, however.  Borrowing the creepy animal masks of The Wicker Man, it adds a religious procession of children to the eponymous cemetery right at the start and uses a mask to add menace at the end.  There will be spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me at getting to movies, be warned.

The main source of fear, which is only shown a couple of times before the accident, is the speeding Orinco trucks along the road that kill people and pets.  Since horror is an “intertextual” genre there are several knowing nods toward the 1989 film, sometimes lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.  (Can you have security watching horror?)  King’s novel, and the original movie, point to the impending death of Gage, the young son of the family.  Faking out the viewer, the new film has the truck killing Ellie, Gage’s older sister, instead.  While this must’ve made Jeté Laurence’s role fun to play (for the dead child comes back—and when the monster is a fragile little boy of four or five it’s hard to believe) but it interferes with the explanation of death to her that makes up so much of the story.

Why the wendigo is brought in only to be dropped is a mystery.  The wendigo would make for a great movie monster, but trying to squeeze mention of it into an already crowded plot doesn’t really help.  The ending of the new movie is well set up, and the realization that she’s living dead on the part of Ellie is well played out.  Otherwise the film assumes the watcher already knows how it goes.  I suppose that’s a perennial problem with remakes.  The source of horror in the novel and in both films is the idea that the dead can come back.  It’s an ancient fear and one with which all of us eventually deal.  Now that the nights and early mornings are turning cooler and darker, movies like Pet Sematary come readily to mind and we know the horror season has begun.

Etymological Serpents

Snakes get a bad rap.  There are biological, evolutionary reasons people tend to fear them (some are dangerous and the way they move is literally creepy), but snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem and very successful reptilian forms.  Nevertheless they get associated with evil.  The other day I was consulting a book of Christian symbolism.  This was actually a book I’ve had since my childhood.  My eye fell upon the entry for serpent and the book gave the etymology as from Latin for “sin.”  I’d never heard this before and as I thought about it, “serpent” has the same ending as “repent,” so I wondered if the terms might indeed be related.  That most authoritative of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, soon set me straight.  The etymology of serpent is from Latin (at least partially) but not for the word “sin” but from the word “creeping.”

Given what serpents do, that name origin makes sense.  The idea of sin being attached to snakes is a biblical one.  The Garden of Eden oh so long ago, and a serpent wrapped around a fruit tree.  That story has become one of the most influential in western culture, played and endlessly replayed with some combination of apple, woman, and serpent.  Genesis, of course, doesn’t specify the tree as an apple tree.  That association seems to come again from the Latin.  The word “apple” is malum, which may also be used for evil.  In Latin they have different vowel lengths and only become homophones in the languages of non-native speakers.  The serpent, on the scene at the primordial fruit tree, becomes associated with sin because of this story, not by its etymology.

The biblical view of snakes is not a positive one.  By the time of Revelation the serpent is associated with Satan.  It’s also called a dragon, which, as modern fantasy aficionados can tell you, is quite a different thing.  The dragon becomes associated with evil because of the Good Book also.  The reptile order generally doesn’t fare too well in the biblical world.  There do seem to be Sumerian prototypes for the story of the snake and the tree.  It’s not completely original with Genesis.  Still, you’d like to think that if someone is going to write a book about symbols they might take extra care with the etymologies.  People tend to fear snakes.  It’s hardwired into our primate biology.  That’s no reason to make them the bad guys, though.  All you need is a good dictionary to clear things up.

Holy Smoke

I’m not inclined to read news about drug use, and, to be honest, I barely have time to read about the culture of ancient Israel any more.  I very occasionally hear from people who find out that my book on Asherah is free on Academia.edu (it is) that tell me how they plan to use the information.  It’s gratifying, but as with anything put out there for public consumption, you never know which direction it’s going to go.  Thus I found myself on Lucid News’ website.  With the tagline “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness,” ideas begin to form in the mind.  But a citation is a citation, and so I read the opinion piece “Drugs, the Israelites and the Emergence of Patriarchy,” by Danny Nemu.

The story follows on the announcement from some time ago that chemical analysis of an interior altar of an ancient temple at Arad (from ancient Israelite times) revealed that it had been used to burn cannabis.  The biblical story—now questioned by archaeology—is that there was only one official temple and that was the one in Jerusalem.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and then again by the Romans in the first century CE.  We have no access to the altars that stood in the temple, but we do know that incense, particularly frankincense, was valued for its pleasant smell.  According to the article in Lucid, a second altar in Arad showed residue of frankincense.  Both altars were in a small, enclosed room—the bong of the Lord, as it were—and that together the two forms of smoke would’ve created an intense religious experience for a priest in there for any length of time.  Although the article doesn’t suggest this, it could also explain why animal sacrifices were going on in the courtyard, I guess.

You might be wondering about Asherah.  While the jury’s out on her actual worship and what it entailed, the academic establishment has decided that she was Yahweh’s spouse and was worshipped together with him in the ceremonies that have been forgotten to time.  With all that heavy substance burning I guess it’s not surprising that some things might’ve been forgotten.  I don’t really advocate the use of drugs, but the science behind archaeology shows us that religions have used them for centuries and centuries to reach other levels of consciousness.  I was in chapel services at Nashotah House where the incense was so thick you could barely breathe.  Did such circumstances play a role in the religion that now identifies itself as white-shirted evangelicals?  It boggles the mind.

Who Watches You

When my wife saw Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You on the top of my pile she said “Are you sure you want to be reading that?”  Her question was justified, of course.  I was raised in a religion where the punishment of God was very much on the surface.  Heaven’s carrot was nothing next to Hell’s stick.  I still suffer from that religious outlook in innumerable ways.  Johnson’s subtitle, however, is How the Fear of God Makes Us Human.  Johnson, who holds doctorates in evolutionary biology and political science, is well placed to try to untangle what those of us with just one doctorate in religious studies deal with constantly: what is religion?  The main idea of the book is deceptively simple—we have evolved the way we have because we feared (and continue to fear) supernatural punishment.

Johnson establishes that sociological and anthropological studies have shown that humans respond much more readily to punishment than reward.  Reward is like icing—you can eat a cake without it and still enjoy it—while punishment is like the threat of all food being removed.  You see the difference?  One has a far greater motivating factor than the other.  This idea spins out into many aspects of religion, and even perhaps hints at the origins of religion itself.  I have often written on this blog that animals exhibit religious behavior.  We don’t speak their language so we can’t know for sure, but some of what various animals do seems very much like what we do in church, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara.  Accusations of anthropomorphism fall flat, to me.  We evolved, did we not?  Then why do we resist pointing out in animals where that behavior sticks out like a sore opposable thumb?

Human societies worldwide share the fear of divine punishment.  Interestingly, even a significant portion of atheists admit fearing it too.  Often those who know me ask about my preoccupation with fear.  It sometimes shows in my writing about horror, but I think Johnson may well have the key in his pocket.  Religion is about fear.  It’s not just about fear, but it clearly is about avoiding divine (however defined) wrath.  Lose a job or two broadly defined as religious and disagree with me.  Am I sure that I should be reading this book?  Now that I’ve finished it I can definitively say “yes.”  While I don’t agree with everything in it Johnson has clearly hit on something that all people who study religion should know.

Quantum Religion

Quantum mechanics shows deep connections based on empirical evidence.  This is Einstein’s famous “spooky action at a distance.”  Particles that split apart from one another seem to be in communication as they track on trajectories away from one another at incredible speeds.  It’s almost as if there’s will involved.  Maybe there is.  If intention is part of the natural world, we’re in trouble.  Well, at least stark materialism is.  You can’t measure will.  We all know what it is because we feel it.  Try to define it.  Isn’t will a matter of what you want?  What could a particle possibly want?  If it’s small it can’t hurt us, right?  But once it crosses a certain level, it no longer works.  Science trembles at quantum mechanics being applied at the non-microscopic level.

Ironically science is wedded to an idea proposed by a medieval cleric.  Early scientists were often clergy—an association most scientists would prefer to forget these days.  William of Ockham (fourteenth century) proposed an idea that became the surefooted stance of science in its toddler phase.  Simply reduced it goes like this: the single natural explanation, without relying on outside forces, is probably the best.  It’s known as Ockham’s Razor (aka Occam’s Razor).   Yet Ockham was a Franciscan Friar, a cleric.  His thinking and reasoning were necessarily informed by ecclesiastical thought.  Or, not to put too fine a point on it, theology.  His razor avoided entanglements.  Ironically, science refers to this quantum connection as entanglement.

Humans, it seems, have a tendency toward contrariness.  We’re oppositional.  When we’re told that quantum mechanics applies only to the very small, we wonder if maybe the same principles don’t work “up here” at our scale.  It’s hard to conceive that even our scale is simply a matter of perspective.  Since we’re uncomfortable with the idea we suggest that only our species is conscious.  That way we can keep the will out of animals as well as subatomic particles, let alone larger scale entities such as planets, galaxies, and universes.  Maybe entanglement suggests Ockham’s Razor is dull.  Before getting out the philosophical strop, perhaps we should ask if the simplest explanation is really the best after all.  Maybe the best answer is far more complex than we’d like to admit.  I love science.  I still, when I have time, read science books written for the laity.  It’s just that science, like religion, is part of a larger picture.  As much as we fear entanglement, it is an empirically observed part of life in our universe.

The Bible Files

As intimated several posts ago now, my wife and I are rewatching The X-Files.  Neither of us has much free time, so this proceeds slowly over many weekends, and we’re now nearing the end of season three.  This exercise brings me back to an article I wrote on Sleepy Hollow, the Fox series that ran from 2013-2017.  That article, published in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, I later adapted into a chapter in Holy Horror.  At the advice of my editor I dropped that particular chapter and wrote a different one.  In the lost chapter, if I recall, I made the case that Sleepy Hollow was biblically based in a way that other monster-of-the-week series, like the X-Files, were not.  While I still have to hold to this, I must admit the X-Files are far more biblical than I recollected.

Somewhere about halfway through season one I started to jot notes when the Bible was mentioned or quoted.  Soon it became obvious that religion was a major theme in The X-Files pretty much from the beginning.  I’ve mentioned here before that some scholars of religion have begun to address the paranormal seriously.  One of the reasons for this seems to be that the two fields are related.  Some of the x-files derive from folk traditions, and these traditions often hold religious elements.  When those themes derive from American folklore the Bible creeps in.  There are quotes, visual displays, and even biblical themes.  How had I not noticed this the first time around?

I didn’t watch The X-Files during the actual airing of the series.  As a kid I was endlessly teased for having an interest in the strange and unexplained, and it bothered me that it had become mainstream after I’d already paid the price.  When the series became available on DVD, though, I had second thoughts.  My wife and I watched it all the way through some years ago, and, having finished rewatching another series several months back, we began slowly to make our way through again.  When I wrote my article on Sleepy Hollow I had vague recollections of X-Files episodes with some biblical content, but I’d forgotten how extensive it was.  Religion is that way.  It tends to permeate society, and even though we’re proudly secular, the base of it all is religion.  This should be obvious to anyone who takes the time to tally just how often it appears in the most secular of spaces.  Instead, there’s little interest in it.  Like the paranormal, lack of concern about religion is something we just can’t adequately explain.

More than Sand

My sci-fi roots may be showing, but when John W. Morehouse posted a story on TheoFantastique’s Facebook page about Dune, I had to follow up.  The story was from Wired magazine, and the title asks “Should There Be a Religion Based on ‘Dune’?  Although I grew up on Poe, science fiction was my favorite genre as a kid.  Frank Herbert’s classic was published when I was only three, but it was experiencing a resurgence before the movie came out.  Dune was  complex world building.  It was immersive, and compelling.  The movie, I felt, didn’t do it justice.  I’m not surprised that people are now wondering if it shouldn’t become a religion.  Other sci-fi-based religions do exist.  Star Wars and Avatar have both developed fan bases that consider the films their religion.

Movies have a way of becoming part of our reality.  The other day I was reflecting on how much my frame of reference for life is based on movies.  I quote from them frequently.  I draw wisdom, and sometimes just plain inanity from them.  But I remember them.  I spend a lot more time reading than I do watching movies.  If a book is engaging I’ll remember it well, but it isn’t unusual to forget—although I hope it’s still there somewhere in deep storage—a book that failed to make much of an impact.  I suppose that’s true of movies too, but I recall my first viewing of The Jungle Book in theaters.  How those hypnotic snake eyes scared me!  And there was a film whose title I can’t recall, but I remember it was vignettes of Hans Christian Andersen stories, I believe.  One was called “The Tinderbox.”  I still remember it well although I was probably about five when I saw it and I never watched it again.

This staying power of movies suggests their religious potential.  People today, I suspect, are less concerned with the antiquity or bona fides of a religion than they are with the practical issue of whether or not it works for them.  Does it bring them near some sense of transcendence?  While the Wired article doesn’t seriously suggest a religion based on Dune, I sometimes ponder how the wisdom of ancient religions is often entombed in forms and structures that “true believers” mistake for the actual essence of the religion itself.  Sci-fi based religions reach for the newly created realms of transcendence.  They are filled with wonder.  But it will only be a matter of time before that awe fades into arguments about which canonical version is literally true.  It’s happened before.

Moralizing Gods

In my more radical moods I sing along with John Cougar about fighting authority.  Living in society means never being completely free.  This pandemic only amplifies that.  What I want may not be best for others.  Not to mention excessively corrupt authority *ahem* Washington DC [coughs into elbow].  Still, a friend sent me an article titled “Did judgmental gods help societies grow?  The piece by Lizzie Wade appeared in Science recently.  The article begins by noting that judgmental gods are rare.  It then suggests complex societies seem to have had judgmental gods at their beginnings.  Moralizing gods demand cooperation.  People want to do what they want.  If we’re going to reap the benefits of a highly specialized society we all need to play our part, however.  Authority always does win, I guess.

Wade’s article suggests that this kind of orthodoxy is now being called into question.  Moralizing gods, it’s suggested, appear after a complex society gets started.  Interestingly, these gods tend to be males.  (That point’s mine, not Wade’s.)  I have been wondering for quite some time just how the data from Göbekli Tepe will influence the re-construction of models concerning how civilization began.  It seems that long before settled populations emerged, back in hunter-gatherer days, people still came together to build temples.  Were they afraid of judgmental gods?  Certainly they thought it was important to gather occasionally at numinous places and ponder the larger questions.  Since they left no written records and they’ve all died out the best we can do is make educated guesses.  Who knows what might’ve been their motivation?

The one thing that seems certain to me, no matter how we nuance it, is that religion is integral to society.  Science is necessary for our survival (ancient people weren’t backward rubes, by the way—they had a kind of scientific outlook, but without all the advanced math).  Religion, however, seems originally to have brought us together.  Outside our comfort zones.  Hunter-gatherer societies limit their sizes to people you can know reasonably well.  They tend not to have private property and they share things most people in “civilized” settings wouldn’t.  To grow larger than a roving band that can sustain itself by moving from place to place once the food’s gone, agriculture was necessary.  But Göbekli Tepe suggests it only followed after religion began bringing people together in the first place.  Were their gods authoritarian?  There’s really no way of knowing that.  So when I’m feeling radical I have to remember than when it’s over I turn the volume down, comb my hair and go back into society.  Well, once the pandemic’s over.

All Been Ready

As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.  Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.  The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.  Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.  Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.  Norman’s song rings in my ears.  Only this isn’t a biblical plague.  We’re just acting like it.

No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.  I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.  Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.  Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.  Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.  I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.  What is essential travel anyway?  Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?  Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?  I wish we’d all been ready.

The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.  While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.  The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.  Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.  If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?  Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?  Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.  The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.  I do wish all of us had been ready.

In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.

Stickiness

As a concept, it’s what web designers call “sticky.”  Valentine’s Day, I mean.  And “sticky” has nothing to do with the expected chocolates or anything physical at all.  Stickiness, as I hear it used in these antiseptic clean-room days, refers to text, or an object, that stays in the same place as you change web pages.  Now, I’m no techie, in fact I’m probably a neo-Luddite, but this kind of stickiness is useful in thinking about St. Valentine’s Day.  We hardly need a reminder that humans are sexual beings.  Biology does quite well in that department, thank you.  Every year around this time, however, when the weather has been bleak for weeks on end, Valentine’s Day rolls in to give us hope.  I’ve noticed this as I’ve been out jogging.  The past couple of weeks the birds have been singing.  Me, I’ve mostly been shivering indoors as yet more cold rain falls.

Every year, I suspect (I haven’t stopped to look) I write about St. Valentine’s Day.  Valentine was an obscure saint associated, in the popular mind, with something saints shunned.  Such an embarrassment is this sexy saint that he was never mentioned in the liturgy of February 14th at Nashotah House in the days I was there.  (Given that most of the student body was male, there may have been a wisdom in that, but that’s a story for another time.)  Religions, as I used to tell my students in later settings, all have something to say about sex.  The two ideas, like monsters and religion, are tied closely together.  Scholars tend to blush rather than explore this.

There are so many things going on in the world that I could write about.  There are new scholarly developments every day.  Still, I keep coming back to this minor holiday.  Well, it’s not actually minor in the realm of economics.  Anything to get people to spend money in the middle of February!  Valentine’s Day is the embarrassing child of the celibate church.  Without somebody named Valentine, who may or may not have been martyred,  we wouldn’t have this uneasy reminder of winter’s impending end.  Instead of embracing him, however, many branches of Christianity second him to punch-out cards sold to school kids as teachers remind them that everyone gets a valentine.  What a sticky concept!  I’d been intending to write something about the state of the world.  I guess that can wait for another day.  Right now, as the sun begins to awake, I’ll sit hear and listen for the birds to start their sticky springtime song.