Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

Away and a Stranger

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.”  Strangely enough, the great physician (although we know nothing of his medical practice) Luke was writing about a place an ocean and a sea away from here.  The place names of eastern Pennsylvania demonstrate the religious awareness of the early colonial Europeans who brought their Bibles and diseases to this nation.  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was known more for being a house of steel than being a house of bread.  It’s just down the road from the little town of Nazareth, made famous by The Band’s classic hit, “The Weight.”  The road to Emmaus is nearby.  And the major medical facility is, you guessed it, St. Luke’s.

The Band had an influence somewhat surprising for those who may have trouble recalling their nondescript name.  “The Weight” is a story of a traveler coming to, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  So taken by the song was a Scottish band that they adopted the name Nazareth before informing us that “Love Hurts.”  This is something the evangelist and purported doctor Luke presumably knew.  If you go down from Nazareth even unto Bethlehem, you’ll find the steel city recast as the Christmas city.  For those of us who grew up in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh was the real steel city anyway.  When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was the 16th largest city in the country.  It now sits at 65th, because, like Bethlehem it had trouble drawing people without the natural hardness that is Pennsylvania.  There’s a parable in a city transforming from a heavy metal to a holiday.  There’s no Pittsburgh in the Bible.

When Luke begins his Christmas narrative (think of this as one of those “Christmas in July,” or August things), quoted above, he ironically leaves Mary until the next verse.  Joseph, whom later tradition will say had nothing to do with the conception anyway, still gets first billing.  One wonders what might’ve been different had Mary led the way.  It was much later, after the gruesome crucifixion account, that Emmaus came into the picture.  Two unnamed disciples were walking along that road and didn’t recognize who Jesus was.  Had they kept walking, I wonder if they might’ve ended up in Pittsburgh, for the biblical names soon give way to places like Kutztown and Fleetwood, the latter of which, I have to admit, I never got into.  Had Mary taken a load off in Nazareth, this story would’ve been completely different.  Thus saith The Band.

Enoch Enough

For a person referenced so little in the Bible, Enoch captured popular imagination in a way difficult to comprehend.  Even in ancient times speculation about him was rampant.  The seventh generation from Adam, and great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch lived a remarkably short 365 years before “he was not, for God took him.”  Now, there are lots of obscure people in the Bible.  Many of them have very little afterlife in later tradition.  Enoch, however, became the putative author of a collection of booklets that goes by the name of 1 Enoch.  This book fed speculation in antiquity and became a vehicle for many esoteric traditions that continue even into the present day.  It might seem that there’s little information to go on for an entire book, but James C. VanderKam’s Enoch: A Man for All Generations finds plenty of material with which to work.

A careful scholar like VanderKam doesn’t delve much into speculation, and he rather cautiously examines many of the ancient texts that discuss Enoch and draws some basic conclusions.  There’s a lot of information in this book.  With my own fascination concerning the Bible and popular culture, what stood out to me was how Enoch went from the “mere” man who didn’t die to become, in some traditions, the Metatron, or “the lesser Yahweh.”  Having been a fan of Dogma since teaching at the perhaps too sanctimonious Nashotah House, I’d never researched the late, great Alan Rickman’s character.  I supposed the Metatron was a character like the Muse—some extra-biblical quasi-divine functionary thrown in for fun.  I didn’t doubt such a figure was known in early Jewish or Christian writings, but I had no idea that Enoch had been promoted to that level.

Since I’ve been researching demons lately, the book of 1 Enoch has been a major source of interest.  One of its sections, The Book of the Watchers, expands on that odd story from Genesis 6 where the sons of God lust after the “daughters of men.”  Ever coy, the biblical passage doesn’t directly say that their offspring were giants, but this idea was developed by sources like 1 Enoch.  And these fallen angels—the nephilim—in some traditions, become demons.  Studying Enoch is a fine introduction to a mythological world every bit as rich as Dogma.  These characters—Enoch, nephilim, watchers, and demons—populated the imagination of early readers of the Good Book as much as they do modern speculators’ worlds.  Not bad for a character barely mentioned at all in the Bible.

Animal Rains

We may have been to the moon—if not personally, collectively—but we still don’t control the weather down here.  It’s probably not news that the eastern part of the country has been getting a lot of rain lately.  One of the factors that led me to write Weathering the Psalms was the overwhelming tendency for humans to attribute weather to the divine.  It used to be that we couldn’t reach the sky, so placing deities there seemed a safe bet.  Now that we’ve shot through the thin membrane of atmosphere that swaddles our planet, we’ve discovered beyond a cold, dark space liberally sprinkled with stars and planets but mostly full of dark matter.  The deity we thought lived beyond the sky somehow wasn’t anywhere our probes flew and recorded.

Still, down here on the surface, we live with the realities of weather and still think of it in terms of punishment and pleasure.  When we don’t get enough rain, God is destroying us with drought.  Too much rain, and the Almighty is washing us away with flood.  The true variable in all of this is, obviously, human perception.  Sure, animals experience the weather too, and they sometimes look to be as disgusted as humans when it snows too early or too late, or when the rain just won’t stop.  I have to wonder if somewhere in their animals brains there’s the seed of an idea that the bird, or squirrel, or woodchuck in the sky is angry at them for some unspecified faunal sin.

While heading to the store yesterday, after weather reports assured us the rain was finally over for the day, the skies told a different story.  The vistas around here are never what they were in the midwest—or what they are in Big Sky country—but the approaching storm was pretty obvious.  An opaque drapery of precipitation was coming our way and although a rainbow would cheekily show up afterward, knowing that we’d been caught away from home with our windows open felt like punishment for something.  Perhaps the hubris of buying a house when all I really require is a corner in which to write.  Somewhere in my reptilian brain I translated a natural event into a supernatural one.  When we got home to discover the storm had gone north of us, it felt like redemption.  I spied the birds sheltering in shadows from the sun’s heat.  Were they thinking it was some kind of divine avian displeasure, and hoping for some rain to cool things off for a bit?  If so, was our religion correct, or was theirs?

Hidden Origins

This blog was born at the very lake I’m about to leave.  Although it’s relaxing, there’s an element of chaos to a family vacation that stirs up creativity.  Tomorrow’s long day of travel back east, however, will mean another day without a post.  Flights leave so early that you barely have time to slither out of bed to the shuttle, and the airport hotspots want your money to connect.  I’d rather maintain radio silence for a day.  That doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for religion hidden in the interstices of American life.  Since religion and mythology share sleeping quarters, I’m reminded of something I saw up here in the northwest the other day.  While in a local grocery and souvenir shop (for all groceries in this area carry souvenirs) I saw sasquatch dolls.

Such cryptids are unknown to science, of course.  Even if they really exist, their liminal status now places them firmly in the realms of mythology.  Being in the wilderness can be an uncanny experience.  Long accustomed to dwelling in cities and towns, we feel vulnerable out in the open.  Taking walks in the woods might just put you in the path of black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions.  Who knows what else might be hiding in these woods?  It’s easy to believe in our myths here.  Vacation, in addition to being the ultimate reality, counts as time borrowed against work and its punishing rationality.  Religion thrives in the quiet moments when you’re not sure what might be hiding just out of view.

Did ancient people devise belief in such circumstances as this?  (Well, without the wifi and indoor plumbing, of course.)  It’s not hard to feel the spirit of the lake.  Standing chest-deep in the water, being rolled by the waves, there’s a kind of secular baptism taking place.  In the quiet unearthly voices can be heard.  No television or newspaper tells you that it can’t be happening.  Listening is much easier with no distractions.  These woods are vast.  Human access to them is limited to marked and maintained trails.  Beyond these borders, who knows?  Science comforts us with the assurance that there are no monsters out there.  Standing isolated from any other human beings, surrounded by ancient trees, you might begin to wonder if such assurance is as certain as it sounds.  The sasquatches are children’s toys, and the sense of the numinous you feel can, like all extraordinary things, be explained away.

Fair Weather

“I just saw God up on your ridge.”  (Kudos to anyone who can name the source of that quote!)  Many years ago I read Stewart Guthrie’s remarkable Faces in the Clouds.  The idea that he presents is that pareidolia—seeing faces or people where they don’t actually exist—may account for the belief in God.  Early people, not knowing any way to interpret such obvious examples of humans writ everywhere thought they were gods or spirits.  Since reading this book, I’ve taken to trying to capture incidents of pareidolia where I can.  The other day as I was working away in my home office, I noticed a literal face in the clouds.  I thought “I just saw God outside my window.”

Now I know this isn’t really what I saw.  I know matrixing (mistaking noise for signal) when I experience it.  I hope.  Nevertheless, the resemblance was detailed—brow ridge, nose, distinct lips, chin.  The lighting in the fair weather cumulus will likely make this difficult for you to make out, and you might see a face other than the one I saw.  Not everyone thinks of the Almighty in the same way.  Looking at the picture I snapped I can see at least two faces stacked on top of one another—the council of the gods?  Who am I to tell deities what they can or can’t do?   Or to prevent imagination from going where it will?  Religion seems to be an evolved characteristic of our biological makeup—our eyes show us what to believe about the world around us.  The rest is hermeneutics.

Gods and the skies naturally go together.  We can’t reach the heavens nor can we control them.  We can increase greenhouse gases in them, though, threatening the very illusion we see in the clouds.  The glimpse of the divine we once saw there can easily dissolve into acid rain.  Heaven and Hell, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus, aren’t very far apart.  Even as we gaze into the cerulean sky seeking serenity, others are bending laws to allow them to destroy it for profit.  There’s a reason Dives is simply called “the rich man.”  Does Scripture defend the practice of environmental destruction?  Dives’ friends claim the planet was given to us to use and use up and Jesus will swoop out of those clouds we’re manipulating at the last minute and rescue us from the mess we’ve made.  Looking into God’s face in the clouds, I interpret this all as a mere excuse.  To destroy the environment is to side with Dives as he makes his flaming bed of nails in Hell. This is why windows in an office are divine.