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.

Symmetry Synergy

Symmetry.  It’s pleasing to the eye.  And significant dates are often the basis for holidays.  Today is one of those extremely rare palindrome days.  As my wife pointed out to me 02-02-2020 is a configuration that hasn’t occurred since 01-01-1010, or over a millennium ago.  The next one will be after we’re all long gone, on 03-03-3030.  Not only that, but today is part of a holiday cluster.  It’s Groundhog Day.  Yesterday was Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day initiating spring.  Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.  Today is called Candlemas, by liturgical Christian tradition.  We are living through a truly unique day.  Every day, I suppose, is unique, but the spirits are afoot today.

I’ve written about Groundhog Day before.  With its prognosticating rodent, it tells us if spring is on the way or if it’s going to be delayed.  Imbolc falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  In Celtic cultures this was a cross-quarter day, a time of uncanniness.  Spirits cross between worlds on days such as this.  In days of yore, it was also the feast of the goddess Brigid.  Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion.  When missionaries to places like Scotland and Ireland couldn’t convince the locals to give up their deities, they made saints of them.  St. Brigid is a fabrication of a Celtic goddess, not an actual saint.  For similar reasons in the quarter-year counterpart to Imbolic, Samhain, the church moved All Saints Day to November 1 and All Souls to November 2.  The Celts continued using the trappings of their cross-quarter day and eventually gave us Halloween.  Imbolc never caught on in quite the same way.

The early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born.  Christmas was established on December 25 because of all of the solstice celebrations at that time of year.  All that pagan jubilation had to be subsumed under a more solemn occasion.  Building on that mythical date, New Year’s Day was January 1 because that’s when Jesus would have been circumcised, eight days later.  Thirty-three days after a male child’s circumcision, a woman was to make an offering for purification in the temple.  According to Luke, Mary did this, and 33 days after January 1, in keeping with our fictional date-keeping, is February 2.  A tradition grew that Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed that day (Jesus being the light of the world).  This blessing of candles was named Candlemas.  I first encountered it at Nashotah House, where it was still celebrated even as a sleepy woodchuck in Punxsutawney was rubbing his eyes.  Not exactly a palindrome, but there’s a remarkable symmetry to it, no?

Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.