Propaganda

“[F]or the most part, thinking is inherently and irrepressibly liberal.”  As much as those who’ve drunk the Trump Kool-Aid (watered down, for sure) might want to deny it, these words by Jeff Kripal are true.  Thinking itself is nearly always a liberal activity.  This election has become one of propaganda versus thinking.  Propaganda is, according to Oxford Languages, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  People who, I know for a fact, were taught about propaganda in high school (lots of little heads were nodding yes that they understood what propaganda was and then nodding no that they were never fall for it) have now jumped onto Trump’s propaganda bandwagon, claiming that facts are “liberal hoaxes.”  Thinking is liberal.  Thinking hoaxes, I guess.

Liberals, as I’ve stated repeatedly, don’t take anyone’s word for it.  We fact-check.  Herein lies the difference.  If Joe Biden were to state that Democrats couldn’t win without cheating in the election, liberals would be all over this, fact-checking.  Where did he get this idea?  Did he cite his sources?  Does science concur?  And then if he were to lie about having said it, liberals would point out the contradiction.  Trump’s followers, who have nearly four years of massive lies, well documented, taped, and public, to draw upon, simply deny he said them.  The “liberal hoax” they cite is propaganda, by definition.  It is not to be fact-checked because they might not like what fact-checking reveals.  In high school we were taught about Nazi propaganda.  We all understood.  Now we conveniently forget.

This election is about trying to bring a deeply divided nation back together again.  Trump’s lies from day one (biggest inauguration ever, although those of us actually there could see the lie clearly) have been about dividing and conquering.  Most Trump supporters have no idea what liberals are.  The very definition of liberal concerns broadening knowledge.  Higher education teaches us not to take anyone’s word for it.  Not only do Trump supporters accept his lies about liberal hoaxes, they simply dismiss the fact that liberals’ greatest critics are other liberals.  We don’t sit around coming up with hoaxes—we hardly agree with one another!  The most insidious thing about all of this propaganda is that Trump supporters distrust those who’ve seen behind the screen.  They won’t, however, look for themselves.  All the news from all the world lies, they say, if it doesn’t support Trump.  Thinking back to high school, I can imagine no better way to illustrate propaganda.  At least to those who were willing to pay attention to their teachers.  For those who refuse to learn, education itself is all a hoax.

Looks more like today, America under Trump…

Defining Evil

Recently someone said, in a conversation in which I was involved, that understanding evil as entirely a human construct wasn’t working for her.  This particular person is rational, with a scientific outlook, and very politically aware.  There was a pause among the others in the conversation, almost as if embarrassed.  Can anyone admit the existence of evil these days without at least a chaser of irony?  I have to admit that I too was caught off-guard, but for different reasons.  I guess I have always supposed the struggle of good and evil was obvious.  If I hadn’t thought in these terms the last four years in the United States would’ve convinced me.  The degenerate depths to which corruption in this country have sunk leave me hard-pressed for any other answer.  

With an enabling Republican senate, a president who won a contested election with the help of a foreign nation with clear wishes to destabilize the United States (they succeeded), is now trying to destroy the Post Office so that voting by mail can’t be effective.  He does this in the wake of a pandemic for which he personally largely bears the blame.  Instead of admitting that he’s unaware of how to fix the mess he’s made, his focus is solely on keeping himself in power.  Exposé after exposé has been published, but the desire to hold power has blinded an entire political party to the natural correctives built into the system.  What is the use of stacking the judiciary, Mr. McConnell, if the nation you wish to judge falls apart under your watch?  What good are federal judges in a nation gone amuck?

A government, any government, that devalues any classes of human beings—be they of different ethnic backgrounds, differently gendered, or in some way disabled—is participating in what simply can’t be chalked up to bad behavior.  Well over 150,000 US citizens have died from a pandemic that is still receiving a blind eye by the Grand Old Party.  Confused, the sheep of those diabolical feedlot owners think the whole thing is a hoax and refuse to wear masks, making them into a political statement.  They will be sacrificed on the altar of retaining power.  In the Bible the figure that acted like this was called Molech.  Now those who support it are called Evangelicals.  My friend in this conversation, I believe, was struggling to come up with a way to understand what she sees happening around her.  Although taught that there is no such thing as objective evil, she wonders how to make sense of what’s obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

Setting the Mood

I can’t recall how I learned about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but it was one of those books I knew I wanted to read.  One thing I do recall is that I didn’t know it had anything to do with religion until I started it.  It became quite clear that the story—which is difficult to classify—revolves around religion and a kind of gentle horror of things not being what they seem.  Set on a lonely stretch of English coastland where strange things happen, a family takes their mute son to a shrine to have him healed.  The younger brother, not mute, narrates the events.  There are many creepy suggestions of what may be happening, but a full explanation is never given.  That’s kind of like religion itself.

While I don’t normally read the discussion points or classroom/book group discussion material after most modern novels, I found Hurley’s included essay on “Nature, Faith, and Horror” to be of interest.  Several of us, it seems, find the combination of religion, or faith, ties in well with fear.  That was a large part of what I was trying to get at in Holy Horror.  Hurley goes in a different direction with it.  A family under the overbearing religion of the matriarch does her bidding in the hopes of either keeping peace or participating in the healing her son.  We learn from the opening pages that her son Hanny develops into a minister, and therefore has some degree of normalcy.  Hurley is a master of revealing important factors only gradually.  It keeps the tension rising as the story goes along.  There’s no bloodbath, but there is unsettling mystery.

The story is probably best characterized as gothic.  That’s rare these days, and it is the sub-genre of horror that most attracts me.  The mood it casts is kind of a spell and it’s difficult to break.  The Smith family insists on the sacredness of place and on strict religion of the Catholic species.  Evangelicalism could easily lead to horror, and not infrequently it does.  The Catholic variety, however, feels older.  More arcane.  There are things only a priest knows.  And that knowledge can be a challenge to both the knower and the seeker.  The Loney will leave the reader with questions ticking away about what really happened.  These are things we’ll never know.  Those of us who’ve ever entertained religious vocations understand this feeling well.  It stands behind certain kinds of horror and in front of religion, tying them together.

Laboring

I can remember when Labor Day was about honoring workers.  I suppose it still is, in some circles.  At the top, however, the strategy is to give all the breaks to the wealthy and convince those they exploit that it’s for their own good.  In as far as Trump has a playbook, this is on page 1.  All around the community I see poor, exploited people with Trump signs on their houses.  And they’re big.  Great.  Never been bigger signs.  The policies he’s enacted, however, have taken money from their pockets and lined those of the wealthy.  Why do you think he refuses to share his tax records?  Tax fraud is a crime.  If you’re a laborer, anyway.

I grew up working class and I still think that way.  I’m skeptical, though.  I don’t take anyone’s word for it.  That’s what happens when you become a professional researcher.  Looking at actions instead of words is most instructive.  As my step-father used to tell us, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  Just let him pick your pocket and tell you he’s been on your side all along.  Can Labor Day be anything other than a lie under such circumstances?  The American aristocracy has both a firm grip and tax incentives not to improve the lot of those who are barely getting by.  And yet we take a day off and pretend that everything’s fine.

Polls repeatedly show that those in power have no idea of the realities of the lives of the working class.  They can’t name the price of a loaf of bread and, especially in the present day, don’t care to.  Many people in the United States fear socialism.  Ironically, many of them are “Christians” who completely ignore the socialism of the book of Acts.  Early believers, the Good Book says, pooled their resources and shared everything out equally.  It’s a pity it didn’t last.  Nations with socialized medicine—the only humane way to live—have handled the pandemic better than those that rely on health insurance at the same time its own government is trying to dismantle the only plan that would cover everyone.  Why do we find it so hard to care for the workers?  Maybe this Labor Day we can stop and think for a little while where we’d be without those who actually keep things going.  And maybe in November we’ll vote to help them out.

What Labor Day used to be; courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

Creation of Horror

I recently read the article “The Christian Worldview of Annabelle: Creation” by Neil Gravino on Horror Homeroom.  I’m pleased to see that the complex world of religion and horror is being addressed by other scholars.  (I know that many actually work in this area, but if you don’t have access to an academic library finding their articles can be impossible.  Also, did I ever think I would miss Religion Index One and Two so much?)  Since I have a piece that is scheduled to appear on Horror Homeroom concerning the 1976 movie Burnt Offerings, I’m glad for the company.  As in my article, Gravino makes the case that the relationship between horror and religion (the Christianity of Annabelle: Creation and its need to be a horror film) is fraught.  This is something I describe in some detail in Nightmares with the Bible.

Back when I was writing Holy Horror I realized that putting individual horror films into a series creates continuity issues.  Annabelle: Creation is part of the wildly successful Conjuring franchise, the latest installment of which has been delayed by the pandemic.  Depending on how you count it, there are already seven films in that particular universe and the shifting of the story is the focus of an entire chapter in Nightmares.  The reason it requires such sustained attention is that, apart from being the most successful horror franchise after Godzilla, these movies are squarely based on Christianity.  Lacking the unrelenting gravitas of The Exorcist, they feature (in the main branch of the diegesis) the Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren.  In an almost Dantesque view of Heaven and Hell, the characters struggle with monsters that hover between ghosts and demons.  They’re closer to the latter.

Many horror films—but by no means all—are based on fears associated with religion.  That religion isn’t always Christianity, as both The Wicker Man and Midsommar show, but the warnings against extremism apply equally to belief systems across the board.  Another thing I miss, being outside the academy, is the funding to do some in-depth research on this.  It’s good to know that others are seeing what I’m seeing as well, as is appropriate when you encounter something unexpected.  Our religion haunts us.  The reasons we believe are often tied to the self-same fear that the religions themselves generate.  And like religions, horror movies hold the possibility of earning quite a lot of money.  The parallels should not, I believe, be overlooked.

Mummy’s Daddy

Now that I’ve broached the subject of the Agade listserv, I’m bound to find some interesting stories therein.  The title of this blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World” is an artifact that demonstrates eleven years ago I was still keeping up with Ancient Near Eastern studies.  I was calling it “Ancient West Asian studies” then, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that shifts in terminology are frowned upon by those in an industry that moves at a glacial pace.  (Just remember that the tortoise wins in the end.)  In any case, one of the recent articles on Agade had to do with the “curse” of Tutankhamen’s tomb.  This is an idea that goes back to the 1920s and was in some respects expressed in the Universal monster film The Mummy.  In pop culture the idea lives on.

Photo credit: The New York Times (public domain)

It seems that some, but not all, of those involved in opening Tut’s tomb died in unusual ways shortly thereafter.  The deaths were not concentrated within a day, let alone a week or a month, and some of them were natural but premature.  The ideas of curses, however, fit the spiritual economy of the human psyche so well that they suggest themselves in such circumstances.  A run of bad luck may last for years, causing the sufferer to think they might be living under a curse.  It is, in many ways, the pinnacle of magical thinking.  No matter how scientific we become the idea never goes completely away.  Just when Mr. Spock seems in control of the Enterprise Harry Potter beams aboard.  Our minds are funny that way.

The particular article I saw was one that had clearly followed on an earlier piece that I had missed.  It mentions “the documentary” but doesn’t say which one.  I suppose there are many such filmed attempts to make sense of memes such as the Pharaoh’s curse.  From my teaching days I have documentaries about a number of weird things that the History or Discovery channel, and maybe A&E, spun out back in the Dark Ages.  I’m not convinced that scientific thinking is really under any threat from such journeys down the paths of speculation.  I’m also not sure that there really is any connection to the various deaths surrounding the Carter expedition in 1922.  In just two years’ time we’ll be at the centenary of the discovery of the tomb and I’m sure there will be plenty of information on offer then.  As long as the curse doesn’t get us all first.

Enough

Stories of the wealthy never interest me unless they have a mysterious, ageless cousin who’s really a vampire.  Unfortunately fantasy can’t save us from the reality of a once great nation that’s now crumbling.  As I wrote earlier on this particular book, we already know, at some level, what it says.  Mary L. Trump, who alone has courage among her family, exposes quite a lot in Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  There’s no point in ascribing blame for deeds done.  I also fear there’s no hope that justice will ever be served in this case.  Dysfunctional families are all too real and all too common.  Some of the traits (but none of the money) from Fred Trump’s cruelty were as familiar to me as my own childhood.  A powerful, overbearing stepfather riddled with a sense of his own inadequacy, taking it out in his own empire within the walls of his house.  The damaged children it leaves behind, each struggling to cope in their own way.

The family Fred Trump raised was bound to become damaged goods.  It is to the everlasting shame of the Republican Party that it could come up with no other viable candidate for the highest office in the land.  Not so long ago I would’ve written “world,” by that day’s gone past us.  Not only did “the party” accept his nomination, it has enabled him, as Mary Trump shows, every step of the way.  Knowing that something is deeply wrong—that more people will have to die in this country of Covid-19 than anywhere else, just to stoke one man’s ego—and refusing to act should be a sin in anybody’s book.  Who still emerges as his defender?  The Evangelical.  This mess is so convoluted that it will take historians (presuming anyone survives it) decades to try to unravel it.  That’s because nobody in the GOP has any empathy for those already born.  Strange form of “Christianity,” that.

This book is a depressing read.  Still, I’m glad I did it.  Not that it will change much.  Those who are psychologically like Trump, incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction, will say it’s all lies.  You can always play that card.  There are facts, however, and they are recorded.  Those who are able to weigh evidence know (and already knew) that a dangerous man had been coddled by a dangerous party that puts self-interest over nation.  You know, I think there may be a vampire in this story after all, but I just don’t have the heart to look any further.

Hurricane Isaias

People have been debating how to pronounce Hurricane “Isaias,” an hispanic name based on Isaiah.  Pennsylvania, which has few distinguishing features, is generally well enough inland not to have too much hurricane damage.  Isaias, however you pronounce it, dumped over five inches of rain in the small town in which we live.  Multiple roof leaks sprang up in our house and a small part of the ceiling in one room came down.  Not exactly wrath of God level treatment, but unwelcome nevertheless.  The real problem was the short amount of time in which the rain fell.  Averaging about an inch per hour, the water simply overwhelmed the devices put in place to keep it outside.  Being of my particular disposition I can’t help but think of the prophet Isaiah.

Not a classical prophet of doom per se, Isaiah is the most quoted prophet in the New Testament.  He is remembered for “predictions” and soaring rhetoric that promises deliverance.  He’s also a prophet known for his woe declarations, as reflected in the Hebrew Bible.  This storm, I suspect, has delivered more of the woe than of the hope.  Streets were flooded as the local creek burst its banks.  Our own street was closed as I called our roofer who, I’m sure, had more than wanted popularity in one day.  Being a homeowner, I quickly discovered, is largely a matter of trying to keep the water out.  Our sump pump was working overtime and still the rain came.

My book Weathering the Psalms was intended to be the first in a series of volumes exploring meteorotheology in several books of the Bible.  The weather, you see, is a popular topic of discussion since in ancient times their meteorology was theology.  After the Psalms my exploration was intended to move toward the prophets.  There are dramatic events where these saintly folk were able to bring down rain, or withhold it.  Israel never experienced hurricanes because they don’t form in the Mediterranean.  Meteorological terms, however, shift over time just as by the time Isaias reached us it was a tropical storm.  The wind buffeted us a bit, but it was mainly a rain event.  I thought at first that I would look at weather terminology in Isaiah and see what I could find there.  I don’t know what my conclusions would have been since I was cut off before I could get that far.  Like those who cast their bread upon the waters, after many days it came back, ironically in the form of Isaias.

Bonded

It happened this way.  When my daughter was young she was interested in dinosaurs.  Most kids are.  In fact, my wife and I went to a public lecture by a paleontologist in Edinburgh where he pointed out that the real experts on the subject in the audience were generally twelve or younger.  I took an interest in what my daughter found fascinating, and you can’t study dinosaurs without knowing a bit of geology.  Now, the professor’s lifestyle is a thing of wonder.  You may have a heavy teaching and publication load, but the freedom to spend your unstructured summer time pure learning was (still is) a huge draw.  I began studying geology.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I was even made an officer.  My, a biblical studies professor.

At one point I bought a jeweler’s loupe.  Many geologists have them.  To get down to the level of the crystalline structure of most rocks you’ll need something more powerful, but for fieldwork (and I’ve got a garage full of rocks to prove it) your average loupe will do.  When Nashotah House decided I should no longer be a professor (and the rest of academe acquiesced) I seriously considered going back to school to study geology.  Time was against me, however.  I had to find a job with a family needing support, and so here I am in publishing instead.  And not only that, but I’m a Bibles editor.  Most people have no idea what that means.  Some days even I don’t.  But one thing I have learned is that you’ve got to know your leather.

This is a bit uncomfortable to me as a vegan, but I have learned that many people want their Bibles wrapped up in animal sacrifice.  I’ve also learned there are many different kinds of leather.  The typical leather Bible is pigskin.  Yes, that’s right.  In the trade you can call a Bible with any animal hide leather.  Bonded leather means that it’s pieces glued together.  The most expensive Good Books are “genuine leather.”  Cut from whole cloth, as it were.  I keep my jeweler’s loupe in my work desk.  Sometimes I need to look at something closely, off screen.  My loupe came in a leather case.  One of the sides peeled off during our move and I could see clearly what bonded leather means.  In fact, the “nded” part of “bonded” is clearly visible like a secret Bible code on the underlayer of my case.  Nothing, it seems, is ever wasted.

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.

Virtual Bible Study

Like just about everybody else, I spend my days online during the pandemic.  Well, actually, I spent my days online before that since I’m a remote worker.  Even before that, when spending a considerable part of each day commuting to and from New York City, once I got there I’d sit in a cubicle and work online all day anyway.  To borrow a tagline, the truth is out there.  Somewhere on the internet, I think.  Probably on the deep web, but I understand that’s a scary place.  I’m not sure why it is that I started receiving email ads for something called Virtual Bible Study.  I suppose I spend enough time, and my computer eats enough cookies on Bible Gateway that the Virtual Bible Study people think I’m the typical customer.  

Having led many Bible studies in my life, and having taught biblical studies professionally, I’m aware that you can never learn it all.  Indeed, biblical study is the original never-ending story.  Stay with it long enough and you’ll earn plenty of enemies.  Recently my mother was telling me that she’s doing a Bible Study where you follow a schedule and read the “liner notes” that come with a particular curriculum.  She mentioned to me that she was having trouble with Deuteronomy 28.  It’s a chapter with which I’m quite familiar.  I remember reading it as a young person and being terror-struck by it (those who wonder what horror might have to do with the Good Book ought to read it.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You can find it on Bible Gateway.).  This is one of those places where God spells out the blessings (somewhat limited) for obedience and the curses (very many) for failure.  The list is long and terrible.  I’m not a chapter-and-verse citer, but from my very first read-through of the Bible I could tell you what was in Deuteronomy 28.  It was burned into my memory.

I do have to wonder about the efficacy of online Bible Study.  I sure do appreciate not having to look everything up in a print concordance any more.  That was quite a time-consuming activity and you needed to be very familiar with the particular version you were using to make it work.  I know I grouse a bit about technology on this blog, but given my vocation, and avocation, I sure like having Google on my side when I need to look up a verse that I can only partially recall.  I do have to wonder, however, since the truth is out there, whether anybody’s found a good way to comfort their elders who get stuck on the curses that essentially wrap up the covenant in good old Deuteronomy.

Virtually the Bible

Like an Egyptian

“And Pharaoh’s servants said unto him, How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God: knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  The words are from the Good Book.  Specifically Exodus 10.7.  They’ve been on my mind as the coronavirus is beginning to yield in all developed nations but our own.  Let me set the scene: the Israelites have become slaves in Egypt.  Moses was sent to set them free, but a Trumpian Pharaoh stood in the way.  Plague after plague was sent, but the president, er, I mean Pharaoh, refused to acknowledge what the evidence indicated.  Moses would appear before the senate and declare the coming disaster.  In the mythical world of the Bible, though, the senate actually saw reason.

“Knows thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed?”  Instead of addressing the Covid-19 crisis the White House has decided to turn a blind eye.  Nearly one-fourth of the worldwide cases of the disease are recorded in the United States.  In the past week several record-setting days of new case numbers were set even as the administration was insisting that schools be opened without any plans, or even ideas about how to help.  “Have them make bricks without straw,” you could almost hear echoing around the Oval Office.  Ah, indeed, this is the most biblical of administrations.  Our economy has been tanked for years to come.  The environment has been degraded to the point of disaster.  And yet Moses is ignored.  The real plague was the Pharaoh.

“This is the finger of science!”

Exodus is a story of liberation.  What’s more, according to the Good Book, God himself wanted Israel to be set free.  The Pharaoh, it seems, was not personally afflicted with the plagues until the darkness fell.  Prior to that, if it didn’t affect him personally he simply didn’t care.  Too many self-aggrandizing monuments to be built to his own name.  Ancient Egypt was like that.  Meanwhile plagues brought the mightiest nation of the time to its knees.  Beyond that.  It brought them prone.  Most of us, I expect, are ready to get on with life.  We’ve been self-isolating for over three months and yet the number of cases continues to increase.  We could use a word or two of guidance from a sympathetic leader.  Instead we’re entering hurricane season.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve got my Bible all ready.  And right now it’s open to Exodus.  

Something Burning?

It’s all Amazon’s fault, really.  Several years ago—I can’t recall how many—they were running a horror movie DVD sale (that’s how long ago!).  I hadn’t yet watched enough movies to write a book on the subject, and most of the movies on offer I hadn’t heard of.  One of them was called Burnt Offerings.  Well, burnt offerings, by definition, come from religious settings.  The DVD was very inexpensive, and so, well.  The movie wasn’t that scary, but it was moody, which is often what I’m really after.  I did wonder, however, at the title.  In one sense it fit the plot, but in other ways it was almost as if something were missing.  A vital clue.  For one thing, the movie was completely secular, nothing I could include in Holy Horror.  

I’ve watched the movie a few times over the years.  There’s something compelling about the story, even though missing something.  A little research revealed that the movie was based on a novel by the same title by Robert Marasco.  Now, when I learn a novel was written in the 1970s, my thoughts turn to used bookstores.  Although the days of getting books there for less than a dollar seems long gone, the fun of browsing makes up for it. I don’t know how many years I looked for it in shops throughout the tri-state area.  Now with the virus, I finally broke down and ordered it from Bookfinder.

My main reason for wanting to read the novel was to find what I’d been missing.  The movie, it turns out, follows the original story very closely, for the most part.  The ending is different, however, and that makes all the difference.  (If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, there will be spoilers here.)  The Rolfe family decides to move to an estate for the summer to get away from the noise of New York City.  There’s something odd in the house they’re renting, which they sensed even before moving in.  Marian Rolfe, the mother of the family, clearly becomes possessed by the house.  In a diabolical sense.  As her family dies off the house renews itself.  In a scene not in the movie, the regular caretaker stops in for a visit and tells Marian that she has to give her all to keep the house.  Finally, resigned to the death of her loved ones, she asks to have any remaining doubt burned out of her.  Her family will be the burnt offering.  So at last, it makes sense.  And yes, there’s a more religious theme in the book than there is in the movie.

Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.