Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Heavenly Questions

A lot can happen when you’re in a coma. Or nothing at all. I haven’t read Kevin and Alex Malarkey’s account of the latter’s trip to Heaven during a coma, and it looks like I never shall. A story by Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post explains how Alex Malarkey, now that he is no longer a minor, is suing Tyndale House over the publication of his Near Death Experience (NDE), penned by his father. The story, according to the Post, was a fabrication. Alex awoke from his coma recalling nothing, but Kevin knew a good thing when he saw it and wrote an account of the young boy going to Heaven. Alex says it never happened. The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven is now being pulled and pulped as a hoax.

NDEs are real (even if one didn’t happen in this case), but what they actually are is a matter of debate. The mainstream interpretation is that they are the last gasps of consciousness before a brain dies, temporarily. These often comforting thoughts can be quite similar in very different contexts and sometimes include the formerly deceased knowing details that they couldn’t possibly have witnessed in real life. Scientists willing to buck convention explore these episodes less with the intention of proving Heaven is true than with probing the idea that souls are real. That consciousness somehow continues. That life may, after all, be eternal. Since there are no scientific apparatus in the afterlife, there’s no way to measure or quantify such events. This leads most scientists to conclude that these are merely dying thoughts, or, as in the Malarkey case, hoaxes.

Ever since Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, confessional publishers—particularly of the evangelical brand—have promoted such stories. Religion and science, while not necessarily the cats and dogs they’re presented as being, don’t often coalesce around a common nucleus. Part of the problem is that spiritual events are beyond the reach of the scientific method since no laboratory conditions exist to test them. A number of scientists and medical doctors attest the reality of NDEs, but these occur in human consciousness—a realm of which we know little. Religious publishers know a good story when they see one since the doubts cast by science have to be regularly dispelled. The problem is the money such stories attracts also allures those seeking the fiduciary comforts of this material world. In this case, it seems, if you didn’t have the experience yourself you could capitalize on someone who did. Or didn’t. Those eager for proof are always willing to buy and sell the story.

Re-reading the Rite

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

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

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

Mediating Reality

The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.

Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.

Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.

Testamental Annihilation

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

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

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

Sky Mercies

While in a used bookstore recently, I was going over the science titles. I like to read accessible science since I often find it approaches religious ideas in secular terms. Once in a while even the terms of these disparate disciplines coalesce. I spied a volume on the top shelf titled The Mercy of the Sky. The spine showed a purplish cloud-bank, and the very concept set me wondering. We’d just been through a bomb cyclone the day before with wind bellowing through our apartment. Many trees were down and power was out for several people I’d overheard talking that day. I stared at the spine, thinking perhaps this would be a good follow-up to Weathering the Psalms, but as I already had books in my hands, and since I’m not the tallest guy around, it seemed beyond my reach. Of course, after I left I thought more about it.

The previous day’s nor’easter had revived that sense of a storm as divine anger. Strong winds, my wife commented, are generally disturbing. They make it difficult to sleep. It’s hard to feel secure when the heavens are anything but merciful. Although the wind is easily forgotten, it’s among the most easily anthropomorphized of natural phenomena. And it’s ubiquitous. Everything on the surface of the earth is subject to it. Indeed, the atmosphere is larger than the planet itself. Is it any wonder that God has always been conceptualized as in the sky? The quality of the mercy of the sky, we might say, is strained.

Danger comes from the earth below us, the world around us, and the realm above. Like our ancient ancestors staring wonderingly into the sky, it is the last of these that’s most to be feared. The wind can’t been seen, but it can be felt. It cuts us with icy chills, drenches us with dismal rain, even flings us violently about when its anger compresses it into a tight whirl. We can’t control it. Unlike other predators it requires neither sleep to refresh nor light to see. Its rage is blind and it takes no human goodness or evil into account. After a great windstorm, the calm indeed feels like a mercy. Elijah on Mount Sinai stood before a mighty wind, tearing the land apart. It was the still, small voice, however, that captures his imagination. There’s a calm before the storm, but it is the stillness in its wake that most feels like the mercy of the sky.

No Whine

Sneaking in a grocery run to Wegmans before church one Sunday awhile back, I was in line behind a distinguished looking gentleman. “I’m sorry,” the clerk told him, “we can’t sell alcohol before 11 a.m.” She set aside an expensive looking bottle of Glenlivet as he nodded solemnly. From behind me a woman called out, “Is that true, I can’t buy my wine?” Like Paul Masson, it seems, in New Jersey they will sell no wine before its time. Many, I suspect, have supposed that blue laws would’ve lapsed by now. What most people probably don’t realize is that this is yet another instance of how the Bible continually impacts our lives. Although the weekend has become enshrined as relief from jobs that most of us find tedious, blue laws were biblically based to keep us in line.

The Puritans did all within their power to enforce their views onto larger society. Sunday was not only “the sabbath,” it was a time for no fun—read Laura Ingalls Wilder for getting a sense of what this was like even on the frontier—and church attendance. Nothing potentially more attractive than church was to be on offer on Sunday morning. Here in over-populated, wonderfully diverse, secular New Jersey, those doing their weekly grocery shopping were learning the Bible has a very long reach indeed. Even if many people don’t realize that the Good Book’s behind it, they must abide by Puritan standards. I suspect many have no idea why blue laws remain in force. The Bible doesn’t loosen its grip easily.

As we pushed our cart past the ends of the other check-out lanes I noticed that several of them had bottles purloined at the point of egress. I suspect that most of the would-be buyers weren’t hurrying home to get ready for church. Instead, they were probably annoyed that they’d have to go out again later to continue their purchases. The Supreme Court has upheld blue laws on the basis of giving time off to those of certain professions that work by the hour. Those of us who don’t punch the clock are, according to the logic of such a decision, given exemption from the law of the land (but not to make immoral Sunday morning purchases. Indeed, in some professions attendance at church is part of the job expectation). It is perhaps bewildering for those raised in different religions. The idea of time off, although it probably wasn’t intended for humanitarian reasons, has also become one of the hidden blessings of the Bible. Without the sabbath, our weekends would also be an opportunity for others to make more money by the usufruct of our precious time. Holding off a few hours to buy alcohol seems like a small price to pay, in comparison. The Bible giveth, and the Bible taketh away.

After Darkness

Some historians, I suspect, despair of the volumes already written on all periods, ancient and modern. History, however, can cover a variety of segments of time. A. Roger Ekirch, for example, thought to write a fascinating history of darkness. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is a thoughtful exploration of what night has historically meant. For those of us born in the era of constant light, the realities of what it was like after dark in the past are almost unimaginable. I’m sure Ekirch didn’t intend it to be so somber, but the reality of frequent crime in unlit regions made reading much of this book a sober experience. Confident of their ability to get away with it, many up until modern times took advantage of the night to commit all kinds of crimes. Makes you kind of want to check the door locks once again before turning in.

Much, but increasingly less, of our lives is spent in sleep. The advent of artificial light has led to changes in lifestyle that, according to biology, aren’t terribly healthy. The natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness may be challenged by jobs or enticements to stay up late and surf the web or any number of other factors. Now that light has become so very portable in the form of smart phones and tablets, even less of darkness remains. Although it’s a bit repetitive and not laid out chronologically, At Day’s Close contains many provocative observations about the dark. There’s even a bit about monsters.

Night has always been symbolic. Death and fear were associated with night early on, and we still call the era of scientific progress the Enlightenment. Churchmen (for it was an age of such) tended to condemn night as evil, the Devil’s time. Not all agreed, for some considered the dark a creature of God and complained of the hubris of setting up lights at night. The religious symbolism of night is very rich and very ancient. Those of us used to artificial light have difficulty imagining what it took to navigate after dark in ages past. More than an annoyance, night could be a truly dangerous time. Dreams, once mainly the products of the night, also had religious significance before being rationally explained. The industry of banishing night also has, in some respects, the effect of banishing dreams. We should stop and think before we put night to flight. Half of our time is spent in darkness, and all of our time is highly symbolic.