Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.

Time To Meet

I feel compelled to state up front that this wasn’t the mind-blowing book I was writing about in yesterday’s post.  One of the perks of working in publishing is the occasional offer of a free book.  (It’s not as generous as you might think, so when one is offered I always say “thank you.”)  The Surprising Science of Meetings, by Steven G. Regelberg, isn’t exactly “mind-blowing.”  The realization that some people make a living studying meetings was certainly, well, surprising, but the corporate world is all about returns on investments and boring stuff like that.  We all hear of companies that value innovative and exciting ideas, but most of us know the feeling of being desk drones parked behind a soulless monitor all day.  At least I’m no longer confined to a cubicle.

The academic world I once knew was the stimulating environment of learning for its own sake.  The academy has followed the business world to its own form of perdition and as Rogelberg points out, there are millions of meetings any given day.  Many of them are poorly run.  This book is for those who want meetings to flow more effectively, to better the bottom line.  Still, I found the chapter on servant leadership particularly hopeful.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Rogelberg was aware that servant leadership was something that developed in the church, out of the effort to imitate the way Jesus was said to have led his flock of disciples.  The point was not to aggrandize himself (this is a chapter 45 and his ilk should read) but to help others to be their best.  This is the kind of leadership—rare, to be sure—that the church has always, at least vocally, promoted.

It didn’t take long for ecclesiastical organizations to start running like businesses, however.  The bishop became a boss rather than someone who reluctantly had the crozier forced into his (or her) hand.  I’ve always believed you should have to take a pay cut to become a bishop.  That would immediately weed out most of the climbers.  In fact, if servant leadership is really the ideal, and the good of the company is really the goal, pay cuts should be expected as you climb the corporate ladder.  Can you imagine a business world where workers were well compensated, and those who really had vision sought promotion because their motivation wasn’t their own bottom line?  It’s an intriguing idea, to be sure.  I’d like ponder it more, but I’ve got a meeting to get to.

Scrolls Not Living

Of the many ancient finds in Western Asia, none captured the imagination like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The timing and romance of the find itself, the scandals that almost immediately broke out, and the subsequent “secrecy” over the contents made the secular news.  I’m convinced that a large part of the mystique has to do with the somewhat spooky name—Qumran scrolls never caught on, even though it is more accurate for many of the documents.  Their discovery came after the Second World War when people were wanting good news, and, perhaps, an indication that all of this stuff was somehow predicted.  Enter the scrolls.  No doubt, these documents gave us quite a lot of information on the Second Temple Period—the time from the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the sixth century BCE until its destruction under the Romans in the first century CE.  Now the scrolls are back in the news.

A story by Nicola Davis in The Guardian announces that the origin of the scrolls is once again open to interpretation.  The reason is somewhat technical—scrolls that were written on vellum (animal skins) had to be prepared for writing.  One of the steps involved chemically treating the writing surface with a fine powder (the details are beyond me) so that it could be written upon.  We’ve reached the point where the salts left behind can be tested for place of origin.  The Guardian story notes that the Temple Scroll—one of the important non-biblical texts—was not prepared at Qumran (the site where most of the scrolls were found).  That means that the scroll itself came from elsewhere, depending upon with whom you speak.  The scrolls gather controversy like the Ugaritic tablets gather dust.  

Part of the charm here is that there are many unanswered questions about these ancient texts.  Who exactly wrote them is debated.  Their find-spot suggests they were hidden away by the quasi-monastics who lived in nearby Qumran, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily wrote them.  It’s still debated whether the Qumran community was made up of Essenes or not.  One thing we do know about them is that they were able librarians.  The scrolls themselves are symbolic of the strife in the region, having been discovered just as Israel was declared a nation.  The scrolls were quickly politicized.  They were kept under the auspices of a small group of academics and priests for many decades.  And they still have a way of catching headlines.  Even when its a matter of who powdered their faces.

 

 

 

 

 

Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Pointing to the Moon

The failure of India’s  Chandrayaan 2 to maintain contact, intended to make India the fourth nation to successfully conduct a lunar landing, sent me reading about the moon.  I remember the first manned landing, which happened when I was six, so the idea that we could make it that far seemed less impressive than it really is, I suppose.  I was fascinated by early space travel, and part of this may have been because of the moment of silence announced in school the day Apollo 13 safely returned to earth after the oxygen tank explosion that made its landing impossible.  As I was reading about the many moon missions that took place before I was born, I was surprised to learn how many nations are still attempting to reach our nearest neighbor.  This year alone China, Israel, and India have all attempted to land up there.

Israel’s mission called its lunar lander Beresheet.  It was the first attempt to land the Bible on the moon.  Beresheet is the Hebrew title of Genesis.  The US missions were named Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, and Apollo.  Ironically for the persistently religious nation, our only supernatural title was the name of a Greek deity.  Israel was true to its roots with its naming convention, but there is kind of a paradox involved.  In the world of the Bible the earth is the center of the universe and the moon is a quasi-living being circling about our stationary fix in this fictional view of the cosmos.  That’s not to say our own views may not some day be regarded as fictional as well, but simply that we now know the view in Genesis is incorrect.

Of course, the word “genesis” can mean a purely secular beginning as well.  It is a compound word that is often translated as “in the beginning.”  As such, it is appropriate for the first attempt at a moon landing, or any other great venture.  Still, it is instantly recognizable as the first word in the Bible, indicating a kind of strange juxtaposition where the biblical moon—which is not the same as the astronomical moon—are brought together.  Unlike the book of Genesis, the moon has been reached many times by others before.  The old and the new meet in this attempt to reach into space.  Meanwhile our problems continue down here.  Maybe that’s why we continue to attempt to reach the heavens.  And in that sense, no better title applies than that of the book that somehow defies rational explanation.

Masked Reality

Before I make my confession you need to consider that I spent much of my professional life as a seminary professor.   Never ordained, I nevertheless donned the cassock and taught future priests what they’d be assumed to know (the Bible) while trying to earn an academic reputation through my publications.  It was a double life in which one half involved the church.  Shortly after that job ended I saw trailers for Nacho Libre, a movie in which Jack Black plays a monk who moonlights as a luchador, a Mexican professional wrestler.  I never saw the film, but I had been raised on a white trash diet of World Wrestling Federation fandom, back in the day when that involved gathering around the television to watch grown men posturing and preening while knowing that none of it was really real.  I secretly wanted to see Nacho Libre.

Recently I visited friends who had the movie.  They warned me that it was corny, but I had already supposed that.  What I didn’t realize until after it was over (for movie viewing is now followed by internet viewing) is that it is based on a true story.  “Based on a true story” doesn’t mean, of course, that a movie accurately portrays events, but I had no idea that a Mexican priest had actually supported an orphanage for over two decades as a masked wrestler under the name of Fray Tormenta.  I followed up the movie with a little web research because the film was remarkably respectful of the church.  The character of Ignacio never criticizes Catholicism, and he clearly cares for the orphans for whom he serves as the cook.  His wrestling winnings go toward purchasing better food for them.

Earlier in the day we watched the movie I’d talked to one of my friends about how religious life, no matter how seriously it’s taken, involves acting.  People generally put on masks before going to church (or any other function in which they interact with others).  Religion requires a level of piety impossible to sustain in the real world.  Early in the history of Christianities it became clear that the church would hire some religious specialists to try to take on the lifestyle toward which all faithful should aspire.  I’ve trained many priests.  I’ve seen them when they’re in mufti.  I know that in the vestibule, at the altar, or in the pulpit they’re wearing masks.  Many of them have the heart of Nacho Libre, but outside the church doors they still have bills to pay and family and friends who know them as they really are.  As we slipped the DVD in I didn’t know what the movie might be like, but it was based on a true story in more ways than one.

The Holy

It’s perfectly natural.  Trying to make sense of things, I mean.  It’s been a little difficult in America for the past three years or so, given that nothing seems to add up beyond greed and narcissism supported by a senate majority.  Still, as I retreat into my horror films I realize that there’s a logic to it.  Over the past several months I’ve been attempting to articulate it.  You see, I have a couple of presentations to give on Holy Horror in October and one of the questions likely to arise is why.  Why bring together the sacred and the scary?  Those who’ve studied religion formally—and many who’ve not—are aware of Rudolf Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy.  It’s outdated and I’ve been waiting for someone to write its replacement, but we’re past the era when one scholar corners the market.  Has nothing new emerged this past century?  Nevertheless, Otto’s main ideas still make sense, before he lapses into a Christocentric view.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans isn’t an incantation, but with a little imagination the Latin makes sense.  The holy, according to Otto is a mystery that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating.  To the laity in the pews this may be strange, but chances are pretty good that your minister has read this book.  In the monotheistic west, the divine is terrifying.  It’s not splitting hairs to suggest terror and horror differ, nor is it unreasonable to suggest they have much in common.  Horror seems more embodied—a working-class variety of terror.  Still, both have that element of fascinans.  We fear but we can’t look away.  I don’t have the time to sit and ponder that a Gilded Age academic had.  Otto didn’t have to keep up with Facebook and Twitter.

Although academia required far more than eight hour days, the time during those days wasn’t spent “on the clock.”  As one intellectual I admire once quipped, staring out the window is work.  Not as far as HR is concerned, however.  Productivity in an industry under stress is its own kind of mysterium tremendum, I guess.  It doesn’t really allow for unstructured hours to read, take notes, close your eyes, and read some more.  Work measures inspiration in terms of currency, which is one of the problems that stretches past beyond these last three years.  Struggling hard with an idea is like wrestling an angel until dawn.  You can’t win, and you can’t lose.  But when the sun clears the horizon it will be time to be at your desk and ideas will have to wait another day.