Powerful Wink

Those of us who became academically aware (in the biblical field) in the 1980s knew the name of Walter Wink.  Now, if you’ve ever become academically aware, you know that we all know some names vaguely, as if seen in a glass darkly, and some more intimately.  Wink fell into the former category for me.  He specialized in “the other testament,” and although I read Greek quite well, my academic track led me through Hebrew to Ugaritic and beyond, in the opposite direction.  I taught New Testament in my academic career, but never found the time to go back to Wink.  I knew he’d written about “the powers,” and the idea was interesting, but I had other research I was doing and I never got around to him.  Now I’ve finally finished the first volume of his famed trilogy on the powers (Naming the Powers).

“Powers” was a circumlocution for many things in antiquity.  It is a high abstraction.  Why do you do what you’re told?  The powers.  They can be human, such as bullies or governments (which are increasingly difficult to distinguish), or they can be supernatural.  Much of Wink’s book is technical—this isn’t easy going, even if it’s theology.  He looks closely at the terminology of power and exegetes it minutely.   The book comes alive, however, in part 3.  There were quite a few worthy insights here, but the one that struck me the hardest is how institutions generate a power that no one individual can control or contain, let alone comprehend.  As Wink points out, a school isn’t a building.  What goes on inside such a building takes on a power that reaches beyond any of the individuals involved in teaching or learning.  Think of Harvard.  What is it?  Who is it?  It bears power simply by the citation of its name.  No scientist can quantify it, but none will dispute it either.

Thinking about “the powers that be” in this way is transformative.  Wink draws this into the ancient perception that what is happening “down here” is merely a reflection of what is taking place on high.  Not unique to Christianity, or even monotheism, the idea that our lives reflect the reality of some higher power is pervasive in human thought.  And institutions.  Harvard, as most prestigious universities, essentially began as a place to train clergy.  Even at this stage it began to exert a power.  Today Harvard (and many other schools) still hosts a seminary and training ground for clergy.  They face a largely unbelieving society when they’re done.  And if they’re at all like me, it might take them decades to realize something may be missing.

Faithful to Monsters

“Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters. I’ve been saved and absolved by them because monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfections.” Guillermo del Toro’s quote came to me via my colleague John W. Morehead’s wonderful Theofantastique (actually its Facebook page).  I get the sense that those of us in the field of teratology parallel play a lot.  At least I console myself that way because so few monster sites link to my blog.  Nevertheless, I have great respect for del Toro and his drive to bring monsters into the mainstream.  His quote, however, hits upon a central theme of what I try to do here and elsewhere—reflect on what monsters have to do with religion.

Notice the religious language (obviously intentional): faithful, saved, absolved, patron saints.  Monsters are indeed self-reflections, and they play on the same field as religion does.  Often at the same time.  Religion, even in the best of circumstances, entails fear.  If everything were fine all the time, what need would we have of it?  Instead, aspects of life we don’t cherish or anticipate come at us.  Winter comes far sooner than we expected.  Monsters lurk in that brief season between summer and winter, that autumn of the soul.  They know us quite well.  Our weaknesses are evident to them.  But as del Toro notes, they absolve.  And more readily than any Episcopalian.  The religion of monsters is fierce and forgiving.  When we watch them on the screen, we’re watching the drama of, in del Toro’s nomenclature, salvation.  If we didn’t require saving, again, why would we need religion (or monsters)?

Being faithful to monsters again bears comparison with the divine.  Should you become one of the lost while the 99 don’t require any assistance, your monsters will come find you.  In fact, that’s what they most specialize in.  What are dark nights of the soul without a little company?  It’s not sacrilegious to map the divine world with that of monsters, for any language regarding such high stakes beings must be metaphorical.  Our standard version of God is often a large human.  Generally he’s male, and he doesn’t always display compassion, although capable of doing so.  Monsters may be creatures of our own imaginations.  They are cast large on the screen since they too stand in for those to whom we owe some tribute for this is not a safe world in which to raise your kids.  Guillermo del Toro understands; we should listen.

Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.

Thanks for the Giving

The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food.  I object, on more than one level, to calling it “Turkey Day.”  No, the wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food, but rather the universal aspect of the holiday.  From Fundamentalist to atheist, everyone can be thankful and we all have things for which to be thankful.  The holiday may have begun in a Christian milieu, but you need not believe in a God in the sky to give thanks.  We can thank one another, we can thank the universe, we can thank whatever powers that be, or we can simply be thankful, no matter to whom.  As I write this in the early morning hours, I’m thankful for being home after spending several days on the west coast.  Hearing the November wind howling outside, I’m thankful for this warm cup of coffee.  I’m thankful for the ingathering of family.  There’s so much goodwill today.

Thankfulness leads to a kind of optimism.  Thankful people can perhaps see that we need not hate others to feel good about ourselves.  I think of Thanksgiving as a feeling of love and acceptance.  Perhaps more than any other holiday.  I’ve heard people of many religions and backgrounds wishing others a happy Thanksgiving.  Would that all holidays could be so accepting!  Of course, holidays themselves have their origins in religions.  Were it not for beliefs, one day would be the same as any other.  There are religions that refuse to celebrate holidays, but when critics become too harsh on religious beliefs I’m thankful to remind them that they have religion to thank for both holidays and weekends.  We could all use a break.

Thanksgiving comes at different times in different countries.  In some places no equivalent holiday exists.  There are secular holidays, of course.  The very concept, though, of a “holy day” comes from that great generator of calendars—religion.  As chronologically challenged as I am (I can’t figure out time changes or time zones or even what time it is anywhere non-local) I often think of the marking of time and how a religious impulse started our species doing so.  Sure, it may have been the urge to start planting, or the awareness that the herds of prey were moving on, but in those early days such things were infused with religious significance.  And when calendars became canonical, there were religious impulses present to drive it.  So, in a way, it is good to be thankful even for religions—as problematic as they can be—on this Thanksgiving.  

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.