Natural Disasters

Like many, my heart goes out to those in Turkey and Syria suffering through the destruction and aftermath of a major earthquake.  Such natural disasters often bring out the best in people—empathy, love, and offers of support.  They lead to both tragedy and human warmth.  They also give us pause to reflect, if we will, on our worst behaviors.  Rescue efforts have been hampered, in Syria especially, by a weakened infrastructure, caused, at least in part, by foreign bombing.  And yes, the United States was part of that.  People who now feel our sympathy only months before faced death from us.  What is it about our species that makes us want to destroy one another through our own technology but then turns and wants to help when a “random” act of nature occurs?  We must prefer death on our own terms.

Image credit: Luca Comerio (1878-1940), Corpses of victims of the earthquake in Messina, via Wikimedia Commons

For me, part of this is reflected in how the so-called “culture of life” treats liberal social causes as the “culture of death.”  Those groups that support “the culture of life” are against abortion but desire no controls on gun ownership.  This is the same basic principle—we want to cause death on our own terms.  We want to play God and decide who is worth saving and who should be destroyed.  I have no doubt that if, say, a tornado destroyed an entire city block outside a convention center where the NRA was meeting that those at the conference would rush out to try to help find survivors.  When they reconvened, they would try to figure out how to protect their “right” to own and collect assault rifles.  Is this “culture of life” really worth preserving?

Meanwhile the people of Syria and Turkey are suffering.  Thousands are dead, winter is setting in, and Covid is still out there.  They need our help.  The amount we spend on aid will, however, pale next to the amount we spend on bombs, drones, and missiles.  I have to wonder if we never really stop to think about what we’re doing when we engage in behaviors that destroy others.  That weeping mother outside an earthquake-collapsed building could be the same mother outside a missile-collapsed structure.  With natural disasters we know that we all stand a chance of being victims.  We feel for those caught in the way.  Once politics enters the picture, however, and we have the ability to control who lives or dies, everything changes.


Columbo

I liked Columbo.  Peter Falk was an award-winning actor, and his working-class detective character was always entertaining to watch.  Unlike other TV cops, he didn’t carry a gun.  Hearing the tragic news from California where yet another shooter killed multiple people before himself, I think about the proliferation of guns.  The New York Times runs story after story showing that nowhere else in the developed world are gun deaths remotely anywhere near what they are in the United States.  Not only do we have a super-abundance of firearms, we have politicians on the dole from the NRA who simply won’t take action because they personally stand to lose money if they do.  And apparently they can sleep at night.  As a nation, our guns outnumber people.

Estimates for the number of guns in America stand at around 466 million.  98% of them are in civilian hands, as opposed to the military.  And we have multiple mass shootings per year.  Is there any chance that these facts might be related?  Ironically, many firearms are owned by those who loudly proclaim they hate the “culture of death”promoted by those who try to make gun ownership more difficult.  I’ve written on this topic so many times before that I really don’t know what else there is to say.  Perhaps it’s time to just give up and weep.  Last year, excluding suicides, there were over 20,000 gun deaths in this country.  There have been 15,000 or more per year since 2016.  Approximately 120,000 gun deaths in just six years.  And yet nothing is done.

The public strongly favors stricter gun laws.  Government officials do not.  In fact, some Republicans are now attempting drive-by shootings of suspected Democrats.  I’m not anti-gun.  I am anti-insanity.  You see, that was the thing about Columbo.  He never pulled a gun, but he doggedly pursued those who did.  The culture of hate that has swept this country since 2016 needs to be reminded of Columbo’s message.  Guns aren’t the answer.  Pursuit of the truth is.  How a purportedly Christian movement does nothing but support the gun lobby is a mystery requiring investigation.  It has to be asked where in the Bible does this idea of arming yourself come from.  It has to be asked which commandment declares obtaining deadly force and making guns easily obtained by the mentally unstable is God’s will.  I guess that about wraps it up.  Just one more thing—what would Jesus do, really?


The Point of It

It’s not difficult to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.  Race was a construct developed to oppress.  The intention was to keep those of non-European, especially non-northern European, ancestry in servitude.  The rationale for doing so was part capitalistic, but also largely religious.  Convinced that Jesus was white, and that the “New Israel” had passed to Christianized Europe, it didn’t take much theological maneuvering to get to the point that others can be—in that mindset, should be—brought into line.  And since this religion comes with a built-in body-soul dualism, it’s not difficult to claim you’re trying to save a soul by destroying a body.  That way you can still sleep at night while doing something everyone knows is wrong.

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up to such ideas.  His understanding of Christianity was more in alignment with what Jesus said and that threatened those in the establishment who found any challenge to profit heresy.  There can be no denying that racism is one more attempt to keep wealth centralized.  It’s something not to share, which, strangely enough, is presented as gospel.  There are many people still trying to correct this wrong.  It is wrong when a religion distorts its central message in order to exploit marginalized people.  The key word here is “people.”  Black people are people.  Their lives matter and every time this is said others try to counter with “all lives matter, ” a platitude that misses the point.  We need Martin Luther King Day.  We need to be reminded that we’re still not where we should be.  We’re still held in thrall to a capitalism that rewards those who use oppression to enrich themselves.

I was born in the civil rights era.  I suppose I mistakenly reasoned that others had learned the message as well.  All people deserve fair treatment.  Today we remember a Black leader, but we still have the blood of many oppressed peoples on our hands.  Those who first came to live in this country, whose land was stolen in the name of religion.  Those whose gender and sex put them at threat by those who believe control of resources is more important that care of fellow human beings.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but in King’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”   If we believe that, and if we can act on it, there remains the possibility that we might actually achieve the reason we set this day aside to reflect.

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

Dark Academia

Over the weekend I “dropped” a new YouTube video on my channel (you can see it here, or by visiting my “YouTube” page in this website’s menu).  It ended up getting a little flurry of interest (1,800 views in the first three days), prompting a friend to tell me that if you pay attention to what’s hot on the internet, you can actually get attention.  That makes sense.  What’s so hot?  Dark academia.  Of course, my video really moves to dark academia adjacent, to what happens to real people when they try to teach religion and run afoul of “doctrine.”  There’s a real disconnect here because if you earn a good Ph.D. you’ll be taught to question everything.  If you’re a doctrinal believer, you’ll question nothing.

I stopped posting on YouTube a few years back because my cheap camera no longer worked.  It lost about three episodes I shot and, discouraged and too busy with writing projects, I gave it up.  I started again because I realized my phone was capable of recording and I had a holder that would stop it from slipping.  So why not?  Topics aren’t really a problem, but shooting and editing a video take a lot more than the eight minutes that result from it all.  Finding the time to edit, and learning how to edit in iMovie, are tasks in themselves.  And I’m an old dog.  Still, I miss that classroom audience.  I’ve been told that blogging is passé, and podcasts take even longer to record.

Some people make a living vlogging.  In fact, “YouTuber” can be a profession.  Those who succeed are often young.  And let’s be honest, a middle-aged white guy in a book-lined study is a tired trope.  Well, it is, in reality who I am.  A teacher at heart, I now try to imagine a virtual audience.  When I first started doing YouTube videos I had a very difficult time imagining an audience.  I fumbled a lot—I don’t script my videos.  If you’re interested in scripted I’ve got this blog right here.  The bump in interest in my dark academia post doesn’t translate to my other videos about my books or related topics.  Still, those are the things I know best and so it’s easiest to talk about them.  And possibly reinventing yourself.  I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do here.  Sloppily, stumblingly, but nevertheless, I’ve been changing my identity.  My YouTube channel’s not that active, but if there’s interest I can explore further reflections on dark academia.


Religion in Its Place

The other day at work I virtually “met” someone else from western Pennsylvania.  It came about in an odd way.  We were both in an online author talk and my colleague put something in the chat about a particular social issue being purely religious for some parts of the country, like his native western Pennsylvania.  I immediately knew what he meant.  For those who think religion is irrelevant, look at the make-up of our government.  Those preachers in rural places wield incredible power.  Their word is law and because of the shortsightedness of our founders, the rural few have amazing sway over the vast majority of the urbanites.  We need each other, of course, but not all have educated themselves on the issues.  When they want to vote they turn to their preachers for the answers.

Interestingly enough, churches lose their tax-exempt status (and thus many can’t afford to survive) if they openly back a political party.  They are required by the law they game to remain party neutral.  Of course, depending on who appointed a federal judge, they are often willing to overlook that particular law.  You get the sense that God favors some commandments over the others anyway.  But back to the homeland—western Pennsylvania is a preacher-dominated part of the country.  That may well have been what set me off on this strange track I follow instead of a career.  We were a church-going family in a church-dominated part of the state.  If you took what you heard on Sunday seriously, we should all be studying religion, down on our knees.

My colleague brought something into focus for me.  The religiously convinced will accept no other evidence.  They’ll refuse vaccines that could save their lives.  They’ll say women and blacks are lesser humans.  They’ll even—since I pay taxes this is okay—vote Republican.  Clergy have been sidelined by much of what’s going on in society.  They are hardly irrelevant, however.  I recently had a minister tell me that if I were to make a formal “questing” status with a denomination I could pick up some preaching cash on weekends.  Without that status, this clergy asked me, “why should anyone listen to you?”  Ah, there’s the rub, you see.  Although I’ve studied religion more than many clergy, and taught those who are now clergy,  I’m not qualified to make it official.  Perhaps it would be different if I were from somewhere else.  


Jason’s Javelin

This past weekend was my third this year spent recovering from vaccinations.  The shingles jabs were worse, but this time it was a double-duty flu shot and bivalent Covid vaccine.  That’s as good an excuse as any for admitting to watching Friday the 13th, Part II.  In general I’m not a fan of sequels, but I’d read quite a bit about this one and I was curious because I hadn’t realized before watching the first installment years ago that Jason wasn’t the original killer.  I’m also not a fan of slashers, and I know that many people who dislike horror think all horror consists of such movies.  (It doesn’t.)  But still, Jason is a household name as a movie monster and I was having trouble concentrating with all those vaccines swirling around inside.

Utterly predictable, there are still a few jump startles that’ll catch a first viewing off-guard.  All I really knew about the film was Jason and Camp Crystal Lake and that generally teens get killed for having sex.  As many critics report, this kind of horror tends to have a “conservative” outlook—“sin” is brutally punished and the girl who refrains tends to be the last survivor.  That much you know just from doing your homework.  So as Jason hunts down the teens and dispatches them, along with a police officer and a crazy guy, you almost get bored.  There was one scene, however, that had unrecognized biblical roots.  Interestingly, I haven’t found anyone pointing that out.  When Jeff and Sandra go upstairs for sex, Jason takes a spear and thrusts them through, right in the act.

Analysts trace this scene to the movie Bay of Blood (which I’ve not seen), but in fact the inspiration comes from the Good Book.  In a genocidal mood in Numbers 25, Yahweh tells the Israelites to kill the Midianites among them.  Zimri is seen taking Cozbi into his tent, and Phinehas the priest grabs a javelin, rushes into Zimri’s tent and skewers the two of them in the act.  That scene stuck with my young mind as I read through the Bible, which is probably why it immediately came to mind while watching Part II.  Others may well have noticed this connection, but with the vaccine-induced lethargy I didn’t have the energy to go thumbing through my library to find it.  Besides, when I read things about movies I haven’t seen, they don’t often stay with me (which is one reason I give thorough descriptions of movies when I analyze them in my books).  This particular horror over, I know I don’t have to worry about the flu this year.


Seasonal Viewing

Any movie that begins with an excommunication ought to be good.  Especially with its list of stars you’d think To the Devil a Daughter might’ve turned out better.  Still, it is a good example of religion and horror mingling together.  I’ve never read any Dennis Wheatley novels, but reputedly he didn’t like this film adaptation of his book.  It certainly has a convoluted plot.  So an excommunicated priest has started a new religion that worships Ashtaroth.  He has to baptize a child, now 18 (three-times-six, don’t you see), with the blood of the demon so that she can become his (Ashtaroth’s) avatar.  This is apparently the eponymous daughter to the Devil.  She was baptized initially by her mother’s blood at her birth.

The girl’s father, who survived her birth—unlike his wife—has decided at the last moment to save his daughter.  He appears to be independently wealthy yet he talks an author of occult books into doing the saving for him.  The girl, it turns out, is a nun in this satanic religious order and is only too willing to do what she can to serve “our Lord.”  The way that all of this plays out is confusing and Byzantine, but it does raise a serious question: what if a child is reared in a bad religion?  (And there are some.)  Who has the right to decide if a religion is good or bad?  Children are easily indoctrinated and not too many question the faith in which they were raised.  Yes, we all think the religion we believe is the right one.  The problem is everyone else thinks the same thing.

One of the things this movie got right is that the “heretics” are portrayed as sincerely believing that their religion is for the improvement of the world.  Calling themselves Children of the Lord, they believe Ashtaroth is good.  And a good lord wants what is best for the world, right?  This is the dilemma of exclusive religions that teach only their own outlook can possibly be the correct one.  Otherwise you have to give adherents a choice and another religion may be more appealing.  Or worse, they may reason out that if you’re given a choice that means your own religion is also merely one of many.  Historically religions have gotten around this by valorizing true believers who never question anything.  To the Devil a Daughter isn’t a great movie.  It’s not even a very good one.  Nevertheless, it raises some questions that lie, of course, in the details.


The Panel

More than one person pointed it out to me, so I guess I must be getting a (small) reputation.  During one of my campus editorial visits I stopped into the center for Religion and American Culture at that venerable institution known as IUPUI—Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.  I was immediately impressed and, of course, since I’m no longer in academia I’ve realized that the impact of religion on culture is my real interest in it.  What was pointed out to me, however, was an episode of their “Religion and” series.  This one was held via Zoom and has been posted here, so if you, like me, work, or are just finding out about it, can still see it.  I encourage that behavior.  This particular panel was “Religion and Horror.”

As the word “panel” indicates, it was a moderated group discussion.  The panelists were Douglas E. Cowan of the University of Waterloo, Erika Engstrom of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media, and W. Scott Poole of the College of Charleston.  The moderator was Melissa Borja of the University of Michigan.  What a great way to spend an October afternoon!  It is also good to know that I’m not the only one who’s noticed that religion and horror are similar and even address similar needs.  I’ve read books by Cowan and Poole and have even met the former a couple of times.  No longer a university employee, I largely work in insolation, so it’s great to hear conversation about the kinds of things in my head once in a while.  A number of refrains became obvious during this all-too-brief discussion.

We’ve been conditioned to think of religion as inherently good.  In general, we’ve also been conditioned to think of horror as inherently bad.  As with most black-and-white categories, both of these things get some key points wrong.  Religions, like everything else, have histories.  Those who study those histories learn that much of what’s passed along to believers is intended to make them into repeat, paying customers.  Try teaching in a seminary for a few years and then attempt to dispute that.  And, the panelists pointed out, horror is also a product, intended to sell.  This explains the endless parade of, for example, Halloween movies.  Just when you think you’ve purchased the last one you’ll ever need to buy there’s another.  There was so much squeezed into that one hour that I was glad I was taking notes.  But then, it was a recording—you can see it too, and I urge you to do so.


Monster Gods

“I would go to Catholic Church and the saints made no sense.  But Frankenstein made sense, The Wolfman made sense, The Creature from the Black Lagoon made sense.  So I chose that as my religion.”  Famed writer/director Guillermo del Toro said these words.  They’re not exactly gospel but they do demonstrate the connection between religion and horror that is only now beginning to be explored.  Del Toro and I are of the same generation, and some of us in that time frame found meaning in the monsters we saw as kids.  They were coping techniques for living in an uncertain and difficult world.  A world with hellfire on Sundays and often hell for the rest of the week.  Fears of bullies and alcoholic fathers and lack of money.  Fears of an unknown infraction sending you to eternal torment, even if you didn’t know or mean it.

Image credit: Manuel Bartual, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t choose horror as my religion.  I didn’t grow up Catholic like del Toro either.  I haven’t seen all of his movies, but he does evince a kind of religious devotion to his monsters.  Pan’s Labyrinth was distinctly disturbing.  Pacific Rim was intense.  Crimson Peak is one it’s about time I watched again.  The Shape of Water offered a lovable monster.  Many of these films don’t follow standard horror tropes.  They’re thoughtful, emotive, and often wrenching.  These are, of course, traits shared in common with religion.  I suspect my own attempts to articulate this would benefit from conversation with someone like del Toro.  There’s no doubt that monsters give me the sense of Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Religion and horror share a common ancestor.  Fear is an emotion that we apparently share with all sentient beings.  How we deal with it differs.  While a bunny will run away a rattlesnake will strike.  Horror is a way of dealing with fear.  So is religion.  We can’t avoid fear because, honestly, there’s much to be afraid of.  Many choose to believe their clergy, taught by people like me, and assume religion has all the answers.  Others, like del Toro, seek wisdom elsewhere.  When the credits roll at the end, you know it was all just a show.  When you walk out of the church, synagogue, or mosque, you know daily life awaits with its peaks and valleys.  Some may substitute one for the other, while others require the support of both.  And both, as odd as it may seem, can be addressed with conviction.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Guillermo del Toro.


Former Education

Like most people I don’t have time to sit around thinking much about college.  Once in a while you’re forced into it, however.  This time it was by an NPR article.  I attended Grove City College for a few reasons: it was a Christian school close to home, it wasn’t expensive, and, perhaps most of all, I knew campus because the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church held its annual conference there.  I’d been several times during high school.  It didn’t hurt that I was a Fundamentalist at the time.  Grove City was a college of the Presbyterian Church and I loved having debates about predestination with professors who actually believed in it.  At the same time, I was encouraged to think things through, which liberal arts colleges are known for promoting. Is it now “conservative arts?”

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

The NPR story my wife sent me was about how Critical Race Theory is disputed at my alma mater (sic).  I noticed in the article that Grove City is no longer affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.  It’s become much more right wing than that.  At the same time they ask me for money on a regular basis.  What made them think they had to go hard right?  Are they still educating students or are they indoctrinating them?  It reminded me of a sermon I heard at yet another conservative school I was associated with: Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary (or at least it was then).  The priest made an entire sermon about how it was right to be conservative, as if no matter what the issues there was some creed to get behind in staying behind.  As if virtue exists in never admitting you were wrong.

I suspect that my failure to attain a full-time academic position at a reputable school was because of what looks like a conservative outlook, despite the evidence of this blog.  Yes, I grew up Fundamentalist—you grow up the way you were raised.  Hopefully, however, you start thinking after that.  And experiencing.  And yes, using critical thought.  There comes a time when “because I told you so” just doesn’t cut it anymore.  For many of us that’s when we go to college.  If it’s a good one you’ll be encouraged to debate with your professors.  Not one of them has all the answers, I can assure you.  Education is, by its very nature, progressive.  We learn and we continue to learn.  We don’t stand still and say the 1950s was when God reigned on earth.  It wasn’t.  And it wasn’t any time before that either.  Now we know that Critical Race Theory should be taught.  We know Black Lives Matter.  What I personally don’t know is what became of a college that was once conservative, but at the same time, believed in education.


Past Knowing

It’s like watching a fall in a movie in slow motion.  You know you can’t really stop it, as much as you’d like to.  We see the collective world pieces moving into place for a third world war and thinking people worldwide are wondering why countries such as Italy and Sweden are electing hard right candidates.  Especially when Russia is invading countries at will.  I’m no politician and I resent having to be drawn into political topics, but at times you just have to say something.  Even if it won’t change anything.  Parts of the Bible are like that—witnesses simply wanting it to be noted.  Something seen, something said.

My family wasn’t political as I was growing up.  They pretty much just voted Republican, being in a rather Pennsyltuckyish county.  When I was nearing voting age I asked my mother about the political parties.  We’d learned about hawks and doves in school, and having been taught that Republicans tended to be those who started wars I wondered why Christians voted for them.  She really didn’t have an answer for me and I later came to realize that as a certain segment of Protestantism is actively attempting to bring about the second coming, this fits the plan.  One way to do so is by initiating wars—environmental degradation is another—because they believe it’s all going to end soon anyway.  Although Jesus advocated for peace, they choose war, ironically, to bring Jesus back.  That was the start of my journey to the Democratic party.  War serves no purpose.

In democracies worldwide right-wing parties are propagandizing heavily to urge nationalism.  Separatism.  Fear of the stranger.  Many in Russia believe Putin’s rhetoric that Ukraine is a dangerous threat to the largest country in the world.  China, the largest country in terms of population, feels threatened by the small island nation of Taiwan.  Borders around much of India are disputed.  The control of resources, in thrall to capitalism, makes people want to close borders and watch out for their own.  At least their own that are members of their party.  From my perspective it’s difficult to see a peaceful way out of this.  Even the world’s oldest democracy falls prey to the propaganda of a known swindler.  Human society is complex.  We have enough resources to meet the needs of all except the greedy, but it’s the greedy who run for office.  We have, it seems, forgotten the last century entirely.

Photo credit: Remember, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fictional Truth

In honor of Banned Book Week I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Funny and poignant, it tells the story of Arnold Spirit Junior, a Spokane tribe boy on the reservation.  Born with a disability, he nevertheless overcomes adversity to become both a good student and excellent basketball player.  I suppose you’d classify this as young adult literature since the protagonist is a teen and many of the issues are those of kids in that age group.  Although it’s funny, and the illustrations underscore this, there’s a realism that account for various people wishing to ban it.  First of all, it reminds readers that white men put Indians on reservations and, despite our national guilt about this, we still refuse to do anything to try to lift them out of poverty.  And, like most boys his age, Junior likes to talk about sex once in a while.

Fiction can be the most nonfictional form of writing.  Junior describes the realities of reservation life.  Alcoholism, poverty, and violence are part of his everyday experience.  He attends far more funerals than his white counterparts.  This particular point gave me pause.  A New York Times article that appeared pointed out, statistically, that American Indians had much higher death rates from Covid than many other demographics.  It was like the genocidal introduction of European diseases during the “age of discovery.”  I suppose people would’ve grown curious and explored their world, regardless of the distorted Christian belief that they were to take it over.  At least we could’ve treated those we met with respect, as equals.

I think about the missionary mandate quite a lot.  Based on an undying literalism, it became an excuse for behaviors explicitly condemned by Scripture itself.  There’s a real danger when conviction comes with guns.  At least modern-day missionaries try to help those they’re attempting to convert with hospitals and medical care.  Still, that doesn’t help the American Indians.  They still struggle and our policies still ignore their problems.  Their plight stands in the way of capitalistic exploitation.  And when an Indian writes a fun book, honest about the experience of his people white critics begin to raise their voices to ban it.  How do we think the situation of the Indians will ever improve if we refuse to listen?  And what better time to get people to listen but when they’re young enough not to have been corrupted by our system of entrenched unfair treatment?


Things that Appear

As a movie, Apparition fails on many levels.  One way that it passes is being free on Amazon Prime, which is how I found it.  The trick with Prime, of course, is that really good movies tend to be available for a limited time, keeping you on the website.  Time is money, after all.  I was drawn into Apparition from the “based on real events” tagline, even though I should know better.  It was a hot, sleepy weekend afternoon, and I’m not a good napper.  I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers here, so if you’re into penance, you might want to wait until after you’ve seen it.  Set at the real life Preston School of Industry—a boy’s correctional institution in California—the boys are tortured and sometimes murdered by the warden and guards.  This is one of the few real-life parts: a housekeeper at the facility was murdered in an unsolved crime at the site.

Fast-forward two decades.  The former warden (the place has been closed), is hosting the lavish rehearsal dinner for his son’s wedding.  The son is unloved (his father is a sociopath, after all), and doesn’t treat his fiancée very well.  Meanwhile a younger son is a nerd who’s developed an app called Apparition.  Through some unexplained technological wizardry, it allows the user to connect to the dead.  Another couple, son and daughter of two of the former prison guards, decide to try it and discover that it works.  When the bride gives it a try it leads the five young people to the Preston School.  There various ghost-hunter startles are used as the ghosts of the murdered boys take their revenge on the offspring of the warden and guards.  The bride discovers her father was a “good cop” and that’s why she wasn’t killed.  The younger son is actually the son of the murdered housekeeper, another of his father’s dark secrets.  The parents come and get what’s due to them.

What makes this unremarkable film (and very little comment has been given on it) worth discussing here is that during the opening credits a Bible is shown open to Exodus.  The verse called out is 20.5: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”  This isn’t referenced per se in the film, but the warden does suggest the school is a righteous place.  That’s a fairly brief reward for watching, but I hate to waste even a lazy weekend afternoon when it’s too hot to work outdoors.


Headlines

I see many headlines in a day.  One from Book Riot caught my attention with its linked story on BoingBoing.  This particular story is poignant and points to the ridiculous polarization politicians are stoking to play for our votes.  (I swear, politicians should be made into their own country so they can ruin their own lives without affecting the rest of us.)  This headline deals with the remarkable person George Dawson.  The son of a farmer, and descendant of slaves, Dawson made a living as a laborer in Texas.  His life was probably no more noteworthy than those of many other working-class individuals, but Dawson had a story to tell.  Illiterate, he learned to read at the age of 98—let that sink in.  At two years shy of a century he decided to improve his life.  He subsequently wrote a memoir, Life Is So Good.  So far, so good.

For reading, not banning!

His story was so inspirational that the Carroll Independent School District named a middle school for him.  He became a adult “poster child” for literacy.  Now, here’s where the headline comes in.  The very school that is named after him is trying to ban his book.  As part of the reactionary Republican response to race relations, politicians—local and national—are trying to rewrite American history so the white guy is always right.  Always good.  Always Christian.  Always moral.  It doesn’t matter how many times he cheats on his wife and his taxes, he is the paragon of virtue and respectability.  To suggest that he promoted slavery and treated Black people as property and beat and lynched and left them in poverty, well, that’s just too powerful of a pill to swallow.

Banned Book Week begins this month, on the 18th.  Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book in honor of the occasion.  Censorship has been on the playlist of fascists from the beginning.  Propaganda works.  All you need to do is use emotional appeal to short-circuit the rational faculties and then laugh all the way to the bank.  Slavery?  What’s slavery?  Do you mean to suggest that white men used slaves?  Poppycock.  We have always been as upright with the same moral rectitude as the Donald.  And the Ronald.  And all white men who stand under the big R.  Pay no attention to the Black man who learned to read at an age when most of us are dead.  Is that such a big deal?  What need do you have to read when Fox News can provide all the (mis)information you need?


Like Sheep

Since horror grew up in the late 1960s, religion has become a favorite theme in the genre.  Although religion had been in horror from the beginning, Rosemary’s Baby marked a definite sea change.  More and more religion has been moving from a subsidiary theme to the main vehicle of horror.  Małgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb is a case in point.  “Shepherd” is the leader of a separatist religion that consists only of women.  The premise itself is creepy enough, but it becomes clear that Shepherd—the group literally has a flock of sheep—physically abuses the women.  They are divided into two groups: sisters and wives.  When unexplained things happen, Shepherd gives prophetic pronouncements.  His followers are expected to accept everything he says on blind faith.  Many religions do this by proclaiming faith against evidence a virtue.

One thing that I’ve emphasized in various presentations I’ve done is that Christianity, and perhaps all religions, work because believers are great followers.  While Shepherd uses biblical-sounding language, there are no Bibles in the film.  There are recognizably Christian themes, but the doctrine isn’t familiar.  Part of the reason, obviously, is that Christianity has a negative view of sex and Shepherd treats his flock as his harem.  The women follow because he “rescued” them from worse situations and their communal life is better.  Only it’s not.  When a woman director stands behind such a film, there’s clearly a message being sent about male privilege.  Any system set up with male superiority will lead to abuse.  When Shepherd’s enclave in the woods is discovered, they must move.  He instructs the women that they are going to find Eden.

Throughout, the movie is more creepy than scary in the traditional sense.  There are no jump-startles, but the situation makes you sense that something’s not right.  The women, acclimated to this lifestyle, many of them for years, know no other way of being or even where to go.  They have no vehicles.  Forced to move, they walk—Shepherd carries nothing while the women backpack out supplies.  Once Eden, on the shore of a lake, is reached, Shepherd baptizes the sisters and drowns the wives so the younger women can take their place.  You get the sense throughout that this movie is a parable.  Men like to take the privilege of determining women’s fates without understanding women’s needs.  This new kind of horror is insightful and symbolic.  There is no final girl when women band together.  The Other Lamb deserves wider exposure than it’s had.  It’s a good example of what religion can do to those who simply follow.