Category Archives: Religious Violence

Posts that remonstrate against religiously motivated violence

Jericho’s Folly

The sound was compellingly familiar although it had been years since I’d heard it.  We were visiting the Quakertown farmer’s market for the first time—this weekend event is widely advertised and we were curious.  Part fresh produce, but mostly flea market, it was a tribute to my generation.  You could find stuff from my childhood years here, making it a species of time travel.  We stepped out of the car on a gray morning when I heard it.  I was drawn to it.  I’m at the age where I recognize things before I can name them.  “Where are you going?” my wife asked.  “Toward Pink Floyd,” I replied.  Music has a way of doing that to you.  It took another minute for me to place the song.  It was from the album The Wall.

After we returned home I had to hear it again, uninterrupted by the distractions of a flea market to new home owners.  It was a frightening experience in the age of Trump.  Although they’d never been my favorite band, I had a long history with Pink Floyd.  My older brother used to listen to them, and when I was working as a church intern (yes, there is such a thing) while in college, the kids in a family I was staying with took me to see The Wall on laser disc—an affluent family in the neighborhood had just bought a player, and I was curious both about the technology and the film.  The Wall is one of those concept albums that requires attention—you kind of need to listen to the whole thing.  The accusations against those who are different being sent “up against the wall” chilled me with thoughts of Trump and American fascism.  I can only listen to the album within prescribed headspace.

Even those who’ve never been sent to boarding school can imagine how it lends itself to abuses and horror.  At Nashotah House the album was almost as frequently cited as Hotel California.  When the religious isolate themselves odd things begin to happen.  On one of the occasions when I was left home alone in our New Jersey apartment, I pulled out my DVD of The Wall and began to watch it.  As the years melted away, I suddenly felt young and intensely vulnerable.  The visuals, like a little pin-prick, were jabbing at nerves a little too close to the surface.  I had to turn it off and watch a horror film instead.  It’s even scarier to listen to the album when democracy has failed its constituents.  The wall, after all, is a most protean of metaphors.

Scriptural Slashers

Let me relish this a moment.

Thanks.  You still there?  It’s not too often, you see, that I get to feel like I’m near the front of the crowd.  I began writing Holy Horror when there were a small handful of books on the market concerning horror and the Bible.  I wasn’t aware of Brandon R. Grafius’ work at the time, but it sure is gratifying to see that others have noticed the connection.  Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25 is pretty much what its title says.  I’ll be having more to say on it in a different venue—don’t worry, I’ll let you know—so I’ll keep to the basics here.  My spellcheck, and I’m sure not a few others, might have trouble identifying Phinehas.

In one of those weird, short, violent episodes for which the Good Book is justly famous, the story of Phinehas is clearly part of a larger, untold narrative.  Like the sons of the gods marrying the daughters of men in Genesis 6.  The grandson of Aaron, Phinehas was one of the hereditary priests of early Israel.  The Israelites wandering for their 40 years in the wilderness were nearly as xenophobic as the Trump Administration.  When one of the chosen people chose a foreign wife, Phinehas, full of zeal, grabbed a spear and skewered the couple.  Tradition says in flagrante delicto.  This act of violence stops a raging plague sent by the Almighty, so Phinehas looks like a hero in context.  If you want to read the story the subtitle tells you where to find it.  Or you could read Grafius’ excellent book.

Horror, which should be already obvious, enters the picture in the form of theory.  Yes, there is such a thing as horror theory.  Grafius uses it to analyze this story, along with other methods.  This is what I’m relishing.  I certainly wasn’t the first to notice the connection.  Many years ago Phyllis Trible wrote Texts of Terror, noting how the Bible seems less holy (my expression, not hers) when read from the perspective of a woman.  Indeed, many accounts that seem like standard issue narratives of God laying down the rules and humans disobeying tend to fall pretty heavily on females.  And the punishments used are fit for horror films.  Grafius focuses specifically on slashers, but one gets the sense that this book is just the start of something larger.  This reader, at least, hopes that is the case.

Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.

Nun Among Them

Life is sweet when watching a horror movie counts as research.  It’d be sweeter, of course, if a university paid for it, nevertheless, I went to see The Nun on its opening weekend.  My wife gamely went with me (no sponsor was paying for this) on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Now, if you haven’t been following The Conjuring universe, you might not know about The Nun.  The full story will be revealed in Nightmares with the Bible, which is coming along nicely.  Suffice it to say it’s a movie about a haunted convent in Romania.  Those who know the Dracula tradition will perk up at the mention of the location.  The scenery is quite lovely in a horror genre kind of way.  And it also has ties to The Conjuring diegesis that bring the story full circle.

Ghostly nuns, it turns out, can be scary.  Religion, after all, involves coercion and threat as well as love and salvation.  Sister Irene, the protagonist, is a novice nun sent on a mission to investigate said convent.  The film reveals both an awareness of religious motivation and a seeming lack of research regarding monastic life.  Sister Irene, for example, tells the students at her school that the Bible isn’t to be taken literally.  It’s “God love letter to humanity.”  Well, parts of it are.  Still, the struggle with biblical literalism is a present-day issue that the movie addresses head on.  It was difficult to believe, on the other hand, that even a novice would walk into a chapel where someone is praying and call out “Hello?”.  Many years at Nashotah House taught me something.

Cloistered environments, although not part of most people’s experience, are great locations for horror.  For example, the first night she spends in the monastery Irene is told that the great silence is observed until dawn.  Did I mention that in chapel no one can hear you scream?  There’s an element about that in actual cloistered life.  The discipline of secrecy is heavy and full of threat.  We spent a great many silent days at Nashotah House and the sense of violation as sin was heavy indeed.  The part that truly stood out, however, was where the nuns used their only recourse against evil; they had to pray.  In the world of action movies, striking out with whatever is at hand is the expected response.  Spiritual entities, although the film does relent, can’t be touched except with spiritual threats.  The praying nuns looked so helpless in the presence of a demon.

There were less than a dozen people in the theater.  The Nun may not be a runaway hit.  The devoted will see it, however, and some of us will include it in our working life as a kind of spiritual exercise.

Patriarchal Faith

One of the dynamics we see in present-day America is the worship of belief itself.  This is nothing new since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  It’s hard to trust in what you can’t see.  Trusting in trust may be tautological, but it’s also a natural development for something that evades proof.  If it goes too far, however, such religion becomes an idol.  Its teachings become secondary to its very existence.  Its rules, no matter how contradictory, must all be followed.  And those who believe are encouraged not to think too deeply about it since, if they did, this inherent inconsistency would be obvious.  The knee-jerk reaction of “the Bible says” is one such defensive measure.  I saw this all the time while teaching in seminary.

The other day I heard the melody of “Faith of Our Fathers” playing on the local church bells.  Interestingly, this is a Catholic hymn adopted by Protestants.  It’s kind of an anthem to this idea of worshipping the faith rather than the deity to which it points.  Consider the chorus: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith!/We will be true to thee til death.”  Originally a celebration of martyrs—those who found the courage to die in their steadfast belief—the hymn survives into an era when the perils besetting what used to be Christianity are less political and more scientific.  We live in a universe compellingly explained by science while politics has appropriated religion and counts on it to keep worshipping faith as an entity, regardless of distorted beliefs.  The hymn plays on.

Many public intellectuals are wondering about how evangelical Christianity could so easily divest itself of Jesus’ teachings and accept Trumpism.  Some have already begun to suggest that Trumpism is a “cult.”  (Religionists would say the proper term is “New Religious Movement,” since we no longer judge religions, no matter what forms of mind control they might prefer.)  The problem with experts on religion is that anyone can claim that sobriquet, bona fides or no.  Some of us have documented decades of official study of the phenomenon—those who paid attention in seminary and continued to pay for many years for a doctorate in this elusive field—but we’re are easily outshouted by those who take the words of this hymn literally, as they were meant to be taken.  Martyrdom comes in many varieties.  As I listen to the bells, I consider the implications.

Holy NRA

A religious nation in love with guns leads to some strange juxtapositions.  In a home goods store that I won’t name—hey, you can have fun trying to find it!—we came across just such an oddity.  Appropriately for a franchise near Bethlehem, there was a framed painting of the holy family: Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, halos and all.  Completely surrounding the Prince of Peace and company were framed replicas of guns.  I’m sorry to state that the holy family, notwithstanding divinity, was sadly outgunned.  There’s only one such family, but of the making of firearms there is no end, and much shooting wearies the body.  Of all the weirdness that has plagued Christianity, this love of guns among the evangelical followers of the Prince of Peace has to rank near the top.

Believe me, I know what it is to be afraid.  I grew up with more than my share of phobias, and since buying a house different ones from my childhood set have come to light.  People want to feel safe, and the gun industry has successfully spread the message that a firearm or two will do the trick.  Often it backfires.  Those meant to be protected are killed in an accidental discharge or a domestic dispute turns deadly.  The real drawing power of guns, I think, is the sense of power.  The message in our society is that God wants you to protect your property.  That doesn’t mean that the government can’t take it away, but hey, at least you’ve got a gun, right?

I’ve always felt that ownership was a strange concept.  I look out the window and see the birds perching on “my” roof.  I see the squirrels digging in “my” yard.  I see the rain soaking “my” investment.  In what sense do I own this house?  Am I not just borrowing it long enough to live here while I’m alive?  We met one of the former owners.  Who lived here before him I don’t know.  I have no idea who built the house.  Besides, the money to purchase it came from a bank, and if I don’t pay my mortgage, the real “owners” will step forward and sell it to the highest bidder.  I own no guns.  They’re dangerous and costly and would I ever find peace after shooting anyone?  I look at the holy family.  Joseph and young Jesus have firearms aimed at their heads.  If the holy family isn’t safe, what hope do the rest of us have?

Truth under Fire

As Evangelicals continue their unflinching support for Trump, Rudy Giuliani has at last said something that rings true with these “Christians.”  According to a Washington Post story 45’s lawyer declared, “Truth isn’t truth.”  This was regarding the Russia probe, something that would’ve led to the ouster of any real president by now.  We’re all used to Trump’s constant state of obfuscation after all these long months, and the former mayor of New York has just come clean—truth is what we want it to be, no more, no less.  It is a meaningless word, a chimera.  If the son of god in the White House has broken the law (and he has) then the truth is there’s no law to be broken.  Democracy is just a made-up word in the hands of the Republican Party.

Now, I don’t have much truck with politicians.  Leopards, according to a certain book, can’t change their spots.  Nevertheless, Evangelicals should object to Giuliani’s direct assault on their sacred text.  The Good Book, you see, is all about “the truth.”  But the truth isn’t the truth.  When it claims that Jesus died to atone for your sins, that can’t be the truth because the truth isn’t.  The only truth is what Trump personally wants.  And the GOP won’t lift a finger to stop him.  Long ago it was clear that the party of Lincoln had abandoned the will of the people they’re elected to lead, but if there were truth we’d see the deep, stinking muck of corruption everywhere within its doors.  At least you’d expect the neat and clean Christians to object.

A certain man about two millennia ago said, according to the Book, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  But Rudy says “Truth isn’t truth.”  The Beatles said they were more popular than Jesus and the public revolted.  Rudy says Trump has more authority than Jesus and the Evangelicals cheer.  The capacity for untruth has always been part of politics.  Most politicians know to lie discreetly, when fact-checking will reveal some ambiguity.  Now the gospel-truth is whatever comes from the unholy mouth of Trump.  There is no truth.  There are alternative facts.  There’s fake news.  Surely the Prince of Peace wouldn’t have cancelled a military parade.  Meanwhile someone once said “the truth will set you free.”  The great Giuliani has informed us, however, that there is no truth.  And if truth isn’t truth, there’s no hope of freedom.  At least according to a guy named Jesus, whoever he may be.