Category Archives: Religious Violence

Posts that remonstrate against religiously motivated violence

Horror Divine

There’s a validation about finding something you figured out written in a book. For me that happened just about this season, some years back. At the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I found Sacred Terror by Douglas Cowan—the first book I’d discovered that discussed religion and horror films. Not only discussed them, but made the case that they have considerable common ground. Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical, edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, addresses the same theme but in more detail. Some of the essays in this volume get to the heart of the relationship between the sacred and the scary. As I mentioned, there’s a validation here for those of us who find horror movies fascinating. Others have noticed.

Genre fiction, as many fans know, comes with a subtle sense of shame. Low brow. Unsophisticated. Garish. Those with more refined tastes prefer subtlety and muted colors. Horror appeals to more basic instincts—but it’s also a form of expression that allows for the safe exploration of fear. There’s good horror and there’s bad horror. The eighteen essays in this book explore a bit of both. One conclusion that is unavoidable, however, is that religion—particularly Judeo-Christian religion—thrives in the context of horror cinema. The surprising part is that they often affirm the same message, but you need to look for it. Those who seek the origins of religion itself peer into the realms of awe and fear.

My own forthcoming book looks at similar territory. I don’t mind being classified as low brow. Raised in a blue collar world, that’s a fair assessment. What’s more, life confirms the reality of the connection between fear and religion. Consider the political moment in which we find ourselves. Much of the horror coming out of DC originates in religious “think tanks” trying to make evangelical Christianity the default faith stance of all our legislation. It means death and suffering to many, but the view of heaven for some becomes the tax haven for all. I know low brow when I see it. Horror comes in many forms—some lurid and some insidiously sneaky. Miller and Van Riper have pulled together a collection for our times here. The movies their authors discuss are part of a culture that is prominently religious and very afraid. If we want to understand what’s happening around us, we have to be willing to be scared.

Persecution Myth

The myth of persecution is a great cover. Christians, we are accustomed to think, are timid and loving individuals eager to turn the other cheek. In this sophisticated world of science and technology, they might appear a little naive, but they’re not really out to hurt anyone. Or at least some of them aren’t. I grew up among what would now be called Fundamentalists. Harsh to their own sins, they’d not imagine harming others. The story went that in the Roman Empire days it was open season on Christians and the oppressors liked nothing better than killing off a dozen before breakfast. That myth has largely been debunked by historians. Yes, there were some brief periods of intensive persecution, but for the most part the early Christians were left alone.

Many of the more zealous among the literalist sects today feel the loss of that mythology keenly. What can you do when you learn that your primitive ancestry wasn’t as heroic as you thought it was? For some, that myth must be kept alive today. When it is acknowledged that our world has become a smaller place because of technology, we get exposed to those who give the lie to our prejudices. Moral Muslims (despite the media portrayals), Hindus, Buddhists, and even secular humanists, abound. News, however, thrives on negativity. After all, it too is a capitalistic enterprise. We see the violence, the hatred, the bigotry. The myth lives on. Christian Dominionists have simply given up on the rest of the race. The Bible, after all, says few will be saved. And they have thrived for decades based on the simple fact that nobody takes them seriously.

I have seen the lack of compassion in evangelical eyes firsthand. A coldness that declares education to be evil since the only truth was revealed long ago in unchanging form. The word of God stands forever. It says so itself. And among the most despised of all human beings are those who study that word instead of “just reading” it. Those outside this camp know there is no such thing as “just reading.” They also know that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all and that translations are merely approximations. It’s difficult to build absolute laws on approximations. Among themselves these groups claim that legislation to treat others equally is a direct affront and insult to them. In fact, they claim they are persecuted because of the fair treatment of others. The thing about democracy is that any system can be gamed. Even Putin can be your friend, for this is the world of myth.

Bible Practice

In a strange kind of oneupmanship, the horrendous murders in Sutherland Springs overshadowed the story of Scott Ostrem’s multiple shooting at a Walmart in Colorado. Ostrem apparently shot at random and killed three people. No motive is known, but when his apartment was searched a stack of Bibles was found. Plenty of people have Bible stacks in their houses—I know I do—but the odd element here is guns. The “reasoning” behind the NRA’s convoluted logic is that guns are for self defense. Everyone ought to have them, along with their Bible stacks. When those voices in your head begin to speak, which you grab—gun or Bible—may make all the difference. Fact is, you don’t have to be mentally stable to buy guns. And no matter how much the NRA says you should shoot back, guns in the hands of madmen obey no rules.

Trump promised to make America great again. One of the statistics at which we excel—indeed we’re a world leader—is gun deaths. We also do pretty well at opioid overdosing. Politicians can’t seem to figure out that the underlying causes here are related to the society they’ve built where you can’t ever get ahead and no matter what you do the 1 percenters will get richer while you spend your days struggling to get to the point when you can climb back into bed and sleep it off until it all starts over again. Watch them in congress. See them trying to thrust more money upon the wealthy. See them pocket the funds the NRA so generously offers. And then read the statistics. Some inexplicable disconnect exists that no amount of drugs will bridge. We are a hurting nation. And stacks of Bibles aren’t the answer.

A Bible stack in its natural habitat

In antiquity there was an ideal. Not that it ever existed in practice, but at least they had the idea. The ideal was that there was nothing wrong with wealth as long as the wealthy first ensured that everyone had enough. Then they could go on an accumulate as much as they wanted. The problem of course is that nobody knows what enough is. When do you know that you have enough? Today there’s no ceiling cap. Take your pick: money, guns, drugs, Bibles. You can have as much or as many as you wish. In just about any combination. Any combination that doesn’t involve money. Only the 1 percenters should be entitled to that. And the rest of us here below and fight it out over the remaining three.

Christian Story

The problem with the Bible is anybody can “interpret” it. As a book of unrivaled status in the American imagination, it can be tapped for anything from advertising to justifying pedophilia. So when stories of Roy Moore’s sexual dalliances with minors emerged, Alabama’s state auditor, Jim Zeigler drew the comparison with Mary and Joseph from his half-hearted knowledge of the Bible. There is no auditor for Bible interpretations. It’s the ultimate free market. Many, including evangelical clergy, were quick to jump on the inappropriateness of the analogy. What they didn’t see is that the Bible can justify just about anything. Despite what it says. That’s the problem with worshipping a holy book.

What the Good Book says about Mary and Joseph is very, very little. We do not know their ages—they are never mentioned in the Bible. The tradition about Joseph being older seems to go back to having to explain his continence to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity—also not in the Bible. The church, in the early days, had issues with ideas such as “original sin.” When Augustine suggested it passed, along with bodily fluids, during sex, it became clear that Mary could have none of that. Even if she was a virgin by misquoting Isaiah, then she still had original sin from her parents. So Mary had to have been immaculately conceived. The Bible, of course, knows of none of this. Anybody can interpret it. And what senator-to-be wants to be bothered with consulting a Bible scholar? They’re hard to find. And besides, they might not interpret it the way you want it.

GOPolitics have sunk so low as to pressgang the Bible into justifying pedophilia. What’s more, the faithful don’t seem to mind. The Bible’s big enough that you can find just about anything in there. Except morality, apparently. You’d think that anyone running for public office would examine his—and it’s usually a guy problem—life pretty closely for possible scandals. We’ve lived to see the radical right, diligently groomed and oh-so-righteous, go after anyone who can spout insanity and be counted on to vote against women’s rights. You can be sure Roy Moore will be forgiven—already has been by many—because the Bible swings that way. We’ve already seen what happens when people like Moore take public office. They make America grope again. For the Bible tells them so.

Guns and Ghosts

The irony of a nation that has gun laws made by those with body guards is especially cruel in the shadow of Sutherland Springs. Just a month after the worst mass shooting in United States history, another cohort of corpses receives only empty answers from DC. The solution to all the shooting deaths, 45 asserts, is more guns. This from the same White House that can find no credible alternative explanations for global warming, yet continues to break down any emissions barriers it can. The real noxious emissions are coming from the greedy mouths of the chicks in the feathered GOP nest. What is the word for what lies beyond insanity? We need it now.

Like many thinking people I’m very pleased with the results of the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. It seems, temporarily, as if reason has found its voice. The mistake at this point would be to relax and feel as if the job were done. We have raving lunacy at the national level, gun violence out of control, and politicians who just can’t live without NRA blood money. The story of Sarah Winchester’s ghosts may not be true, but it doesn’t have to be. We have a nation full of ghosts. Barely elected candidates claim a mandate to destroy the infrastructure that has allowed them to become rich. The wealthy, you’ll notice, are those who want to take all the marbles and go home. And they live in houses with guards to protect them from all the firearms they’re handing out like candy on Halloween.

Stop and think about this. The White House admits that climate change is human caused. The conclusions are quite dire for those who own property in New York City, let alone entire nations that will be underwater in a few years’ time. The response? Ignore the facts. Boast a bit more about how great we are. Give tax cuts to the wealthy and guns to the poor. Why doesn’t this equation add up? Pardon my jeremiad on what is the first hopeful morning a reasonable person has had in a long time. We have to start taking back local politics and let the national government know that it no longer speaks for the people that somewhat giddily gave it power just a year ago. Otherwise there are bound to be many more ghosts about. And one thing we know for certain, Washington doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Joshua Fit

“Horrible things are going to happen!” shouts Grandpa Simpson. He ends his epiphany in church with the strange words “Epa, epa!” The Simpson’s Movie, among many other popular outlets, has had some fun at the expense of the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years many people have concluded that it is ineffectual and that the heart of the government isn’t really behind it. One of the Dominionist creeds is that the government as we know it must be disbanded. Trump has been working hard at that, on his breaks from the back nine, since January. Appointing heads of agencies tasked with dismantling them, the underlying plan (not Trump’s, for he has no plan) is to take the current government apart while self-important Republicans simply can’t understand that they’re being used as pawns to be sacrificed as soon as a knight or rook comes along. Bishops don’t seem to be of much use anymore.

So when the head of the EPA cites the book of Joshua as science, some were surprised. Scott Pruitt, according to a story on BuzzFeed my wife sent me, has decided that the Old Testament is the new frontier. You have to choose who you’re going to follow. As for Pruitt and his house, it will be the Lord. And by “Lord” I mean money. Those who stand to gain by deconstructing the EPA are big businesses. Those who stand to loose? Only Homo sapiens and every other species on the planet. Although, in all fairness, rats and cockroaches have a way of thriving in our wastelands. In fact they seem to be thriving in Washington DC. I almost tripped over a rat on my way to work just the other day. They’re not just for the subway tracks anymore.

The Bible is the most abused book in history. This is what idolatry looks like. You take an object and make it a god. Nobody would be more surprised to find their words worshipped than those who wrote the Bible. Not one of them realized that their words would be taken the way that they are today. It’s pretty obvious that Paul of Tarsus would’ve taken a little more time in his letter writing had he known they’d be one day mistaken for God’s words instead of his own. And Joshua—well, we don’t even know who wrote that material. Whoever it was believed the earth was flat and that to stop a day from progressing all God had to do was hold the sun still for a day. No hot mitts needed either. This is, after all, the most powerful government in the world.

Amityville Revisited

Remakes, standard wisdom holds, are seldom as good as the originals. When the original wasn’t great to begin with, the bar should be lower. Should be. I’ve been curious about the Lutz haunting in Amityville, having just read the book that started the phenomenon back in the late 1970s. I saw the movie first. That was several years ago now, but I do recall that even as horror movies go it had its failings. Some of that goes back to the book (presuming that anything happened)—nobody had a solid grip on whether this was a ghostly haunting or a demonic infestation. What the movie did do well is show how fragile family relationships can be, especially when under the pressures of supernatural supervision, not of the positive kind. Although, as is to be expected, the book was scarier.

Overcome by curiosity I finally watched the remake from 2005. Clearly I’m not the only one still curious about this alleged haunting, alleged hoax. I also have the alleged burden of looking for religion in horror. Only on this final count was it not disappointing. Well, that and in featuring burgeoning scream queen Chloë Grace Moretz. Although Father Callaway’s role is late in the film and brief, early on religious ideas are implicated. If the movie hadn’t tried so hard to be The Shining these themes might’ve been developed to good advantage. Instead it introduces Rev. Jeremiah Ketcham (also late in the film) as the first owner of the house in 1692 (did the real-estate agent’s mention of that date make you shiver?). Ketcham was a sadist to the Indians under his care, torturing them to death in the house. No time is left to explore the sinister minister’s motivation as the family implodes in its attempt to escape the house by boat.

As is frequently the case with the supernatural, we’ll likely never know what happened at the Amityville house. The story Jay Anson told is now generally classified as a novel. The preternatural can be judged neither in the courtroom nor the laboratory. The best that we can do is make celluloid adaptations to make some money on the deal. The DeFeo murders happened in living memory. The Lutzes left the house in a hurry shortly after purchasing it. Anson’s Indian “asylum” was never really there—and there were no such Native American practices in any case. What the remake left out was demons. Although the movie attempted other religious scares, the house just isn’t the same without them.