Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.


Mapping the Apocalypse

“Is this the end of the world?”  The question came up often early in the pandemic.  The end.  It’s so logical that just about every religion addresses it.  It bookends “the beginning” with the symmetry that we so covet that it’s almost impossible to think the world won’t end.  Even astronomers tell us the sun will betray us, eventually becoming a red giant and consuming our home planet.  Apart from being the greatest equalizer, however, religious speculation places the end way, way before then.  A friend sent me an article in National Geographic by Greg Miller titled “These 15th-Century Maps Show How the Apocalypse Will Go Down.”  It describes literal maps of the eschaton, and guess what?  It was right around the corner back then too.

Maps to the end of the world have been around for a long time.  With a bizarre Schadenfreude, many Christian groups eagerly anticipate the end of all this.  I grew up with charts and maps telling just how it was going to happen.  Like all of you, I’ve lived through many ends of the world.  These folks must be the strangestly optimistic bunch on the planet—when it fails to come on schedule they pencil in another date, preferably in their own lifetime.  They want to see it.  It will, after all, prove that they were right and the rest of the world was wrong.  Who wouldn’t want that kind of validation?  The apocalypse has been around since long before the fifteenth century.  It started in the New Testament, if not before.

This eagerness to end the world would be considered pathological were it not religious.  We’ve been about the closest we’ve been to a human-made apocalypse under Trump.  Make no mistake, some Christians were banking on it when they cast their ballots.  We tend to overlook this destructive way of thinking because some biblical literalists (and they don’t all agree, just put a premillennialist together in a room with a postmillennialist and watch what happens) claim that it’s what the Good Book says.  The rest of society, disinclined to look it up for themselves, accept that roadmaps to the end of the world exist in the Bible.  They don’t, but that doesn’t prevent everyone from fifteenth-century monks to present-day televangelists declaring when it will be.  That there is an end is taken for granted.  The astronomers look at their watches and sigh that we’ve got a couple billion years left, at least.  No, the pandemic wasn’t the end of the world although many Christians were hoping it just might be.


Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.


Shifting the Narrative

Wide ranging.  That’s a phrase that comes to mind to describe Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.  Another phrase is very important.  I know this book has been available for several years and it’s been on my reading list for many of those.  What is it about?  Some books are just difficult to summarize, but the basic answer is that it’s an American Indian view of how Christianity has distorted the world.  An accomplished academic, student of law, and activist, Deloria knew of what he wrote.  His book explains articulately the view of Christianity from the outside and what a religion that reverences the earth really looks like.  What makes the book so fascinating is that Deloria had theological training and could engage with the Christian worldview over a considerable range of topics.

Controlling the narrative is of primary importance and the fact is white men have controlled the narrative and normalized one view of history, science, and our place in the universe.  First nations peoples had, and some still have, a radically different outlook.  Deloria makes the crucial point that even our science developed out of our religion.  That science, in turn, supports the worldview that created it.  It is possible to look at things differently.  In fact, for much of human history those alternate views were predominant.  The triumphalist view of Christianity claims it’s successful because it’s right.  A native view takes a longer view, saying “we’ll see.”

Very concerned about the state of the planet brought on by the Christian/capitalist partnership, Deloria advocated for not only Indian rights, but environmental protection s well.  Not only is the environment central to Indian spirituality, the concept of sacred spaces is very real.  Many of us not raised with indigenous points of view have experienced this as well.  Some places are special to us.  We hesitate, because of that very science created by the Christian worldview and its view of God, to call such spaces objectively sacred.  Even the “objectively” part is determined by a Christian perspective.  Deloria ends up by asking whether this form of religion has improved the state of the world.  There’s no doubt that some of Christianity’s achievements have lessened human suffering.  It is also true that science has achieved great things.  If I understand correctly, Deloria isn’t disputing this.  His point of view is much more essential.  Is this the only way to live on this planet?  From the indigenous point of view, which is far more important that we want to admit, the question is—is this the only way to see it?


Scary Folk

Genre is a useful category.  It can be misused, however.  Straightjacketing a piece of literature, music, or film can lead not only to confusion, but to constraining creativity itself.  Nevertheless, the category of Folk Horror is certainly expansive enough for a book-length treatment, such as Adam Scovell has given it.  Unless you’ve read quite a bit about the subject you might wonder what folk horror is.  A good part of Scovell’s work is definitional—providing the reader to an answer to that very question.   Although it has earlier roots, folk horror was initially a British genre that became particularly noticeable in the late sixties and early seventies.  It comprised movies and television programs that dwell on specific aspects of the landscape—particularly the rural—and isolation within it.

What I find particularly compelling about folk horror is that it is often based on religion.  In the countryside you encounter people who think differently about things.  Believe differently.  Their convictions are enforced upon the stranger who may be there by design or by accident.  Ironically the genre largely emerged in a nation that prides itself for its role in civilized behavior.  It speaks volumes about belief.  Civilization has produced more refined strains of religion, but on its own religion will tend to grow wild, even as the weeds in your yard are distantly related to the cereal grains we cultivate.  Examples of this are everywhere.  Fans of horror can name them off, but even those who don’t care for the genre know the kinds of belief this indicates.

Not all folk horror is about religion, of course.  It can be rural ways in general.  No matter how you classify it, most people can identify Deliverance and the danger it implies about being far from civilization where those who live in the woods can do as they please.  Scovell delves into the urban settings of folk horror as well—most of his examples are British—because it is possible to hide in the city also.  Although the genre reached a high point in the 1970s, it didn’t die out.  The book ends with consideration of some more modern examples, such as Robert Eggers’ The Witch.  The problem, as those of us who write about film know, is that just because you’ve written a book it doesn’t mean future examples won’t change the picture.  The Lighthouse and Midsommar were both released in 2019, after the book was published.  And they demonstrate that the scary folk haven’t gone away.


Heavens below!

Sometimes I miss Ancient West Asian/Near Eastern studies.  I spent a good number of years in that academic field and now that I’m out of it my work is starting to get noticed.  Horror, it seems, helps make sense of things.  In any case, I recently saw a piece on the Agade listserv about the ancient Greek afterlife.  In it Patricia Claus ponders how although the Greeks had Hades in charge of “Hell” (which wasn’t really Hell), there is no god in charge of Elysium, or paradise.  I hadn’t really thought of that before.  Heaven in the sky is originally a Zoroastrian idea, and even then it was really on a very high mountain.  Christianity made it the home of its one God and the place where the faithful end up.

Elysium was where blessed Greeks spent eternity.  Nobody seems to have been in charge.  Would gods have interfered with paradise?  This was a new idea.  Gods, in the ancient imagination, made the rules because they were more powerful than us.  Human social and ethical norms projected on high.  Would humans in paradise act any differently if there were no gods to police them?  Perhaps the most disturbing thing about some strict Christians is that they say if God hadn’t prohibited things we’d all be doing nasty stuff to each other all the time.  I often wonder if that says something about their psychological makeup.  Whether there’s a God or not I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone else.  I think those with a high moral standard might keep those with a low one (e.g. Republicans) in check.

The afterlife has perhaps disproportionately affected how we think.  Life is decidedly not fair.  There are plenty of selfish people who prosper, especially with a capitalistic system.  Many good people suffer and, I suspect, Heaven is a consolation to them for making through a world set against them.  They’re already good, do they need a God to keep them that way?  Some strains of Christianity decided people were innately wicked.  Again, I have to wonder what this says about the Augustines and Calvins and others who could see no good in what they believed God created and declared “very good.”  Their punishing God offers the consolation prize of a Heaven for those who put up with all the strictures imposed by that very deity.  The Greeks, it seems, had a very different idea of the blessed fields.  The heavenly hall-pass was not required.

Carlos Schwabe, Elysian Fields, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Baptist?

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It’s the core of a powerful voting bloc that gave electoral (but not popular) victory to Donald Trump.  It’s also the location of an attempted takeover by a fascist faction that wants to make Christianity the most oppressive religion in the history of the world (moreso than it has already been).  This past week the Convention narrowly avoided this by electing a moderate president for the year.  The struggle was real and the consequences very deep.  The true cost of Trump’s presidency will continue to emerge for years to come.  Permission was given for extremists to be vocal and validated and bad behavior was relabeled as “Christian.”

Roger Williams’ first Baptist church (in the country)

We, as a society, have a bad habit of ignoring things we don’t believe in.  Just because many educated people have come to see the lie behind much of what “Christians” say, they assume they don’t need to pay attention to them.  Years of ignoring the insidious actions of many conservative Christian groups has led us to a political precipice where many months after the fact some people who can’t count still believe 232 is greater than 306.  While some may wonder how we’ve come to this point the answer is obvious—there are groups of “Christians,” organized and well funded, who’ve been active in politics for many decades.  The Southern Baptist Convention wanted, in some sectors, to make that official.  They wished to be Trump’s own party.  They wanted white supremacy to be the norm, women to be chattels of men, and those whose sexuality differs to be criminals.  And they nearly won.

We ignore religion at our peril.  A recent study by the British Academy has shown that in the United Kingdom the study of religion is in decline.  I know of no similar study this side of the Atlantic, but anecdotal evidence suggests the same, if not worse here.  Those who study religion from within other disciplines such as sociology, history, or psychology, don’t really address the question of what religion truly is.  People experience religion as extremely urgent.  Misguided leaders instruct them that their version of God has endorsed the very tactics the Bible itself excoriates.  When the largest Protestant denomination is nearly taken over by political extremists, we should be paying attention.  A troubling template was, despite the majority vote, forced upon us in 2016.  So much so that it feels like it was a decade ago and we suffered from it for longer than we have.  And the kettle is still boiling, only this time those dancing about it claim to be Christian.


Celebrate Freedom

Perspective.  The most valuable thing I learned growing up was to try to see things from the perspective of others.  It’s the basis of sharing and empathy and kindness.  It’s what makes us human.  Juneteenth celebrates a Black holiday, but it applies to us all.  Today (actually tomorrow) commemorates the day when slavery was ended in Texas.  As much as southern states sometimes like to posture, all but the most frightfully unenlightened know that slavery is wrong.  The exploitation of others because we have the power to do so is the very embodiment of evil.  There’s no need for a devil if human beings can do this all by themselves.  Black lives do matter.  We need to stop countering this with “all lives matter” because until we acknowledge systemic racism such responses only serve to perpetuate the problem.

The history of the Christian (and yes, religion fueled and still fuels it) European domination of the world is a long, sad, and unethical one.  Blacks, because they’re often so easily visually identified, have borne the brunt of this domination.  In many ways this continues to be the case even today.  Red lining still exists.  Discrimination still exists.  Blacks are more likely to be imprisoned than others.  Poorly trained police are more likely to shoot and kill them.  This must change if society is to improve at all.  Congress has just passed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday.  This gives the lie to the posturing of many of our elected officials.  This shows how deep Trump’s lies went.

More socially conscious employers made today a paid holiday in support of Juneteenth, even before the senate passed the bill.  We need to admit that we’ve been wrong.  We need to admit that special interests have kept us from seeing what should’ve been as obvious as the color of our own skin.  We’ve tried to keep slavery going.  We’ve made life hard for those easily identified as not “white.”  I have to wonder if this situation would’ve ever developed had we grown the more accurate habit of calling some people pink and others brown.  “White” was chosen for its theological implications.  Make no mistake, this was a carefully constructed divide.  Those who initiated the terminology—pink men, all of them—used their Christianity to demean, debase, and degrade other human beings.  Juneteenth celebrates one small step in what is necessarily a long journey.  We need to undo systemic racism.  We need to learn to say Black Lives Matter and we need to live it.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Conflicting Kingdoms

There is reason to be afraid.  Yes, I watch horror but the reason I suggest being afraid is because of a documentary titled ’Til Kingdom Come.  Directed by Maya Zinshtein, the film examines Christian evangelical support for Israel.  Primarily set in Binghamton, Kentucky, the interviews indicate a number of frightening implications.  One, that support for Jews is based on a “convert or die” model.  These evangelicals have the end times mapped out and believe the Bible is a fortune-telling book par excellence.  This doesn’t surprise me since I grew up with some of those very same charts and timelines.  It doesn’t surprise, but it scares.  These true believers never reflect or question their beliefs and this leads them to an emotional coldness that is antithetical to the sympathy Jesus preached.

A second fear factor here is just how organized and just how good at raising money the various Israeli lobbies are.  When evangelicals are elected to congress, these groups have open doors in Washington.  Those shown in the documentary are unfailing in their flattery of Trump.  The Jewish groups are clearly using the Christians to push and anti-Palestinian agenda while the evangelicals, for their part, are using the Jews to force God’s hand in sending Jesus back to end the world.  Under the Trump administration we were nearly pushed to the brink by elected officials who fervently pray for the end of the world.  This should keep any sane person up at night.

The beliefs of these evangelical groups have evolved to the point of not being recognizable as anything Jesus taught.  The conservative social agenda has been mistaken for the Gospel and these groups despise anyone who approaches the Bible to learn what it actually says.  Again, having grown up with this viewpoint none of it comes as a surprise.  I know it’s possible for people to grow out of it.  Watching overweight televangelists stirring up massive crowds to donate to a gospel of hate is nevertheless troubling.  Early on one of the pastors admits that they indoctrinate their children.  He sees no problem with that, although he seems embarrassed to have been caught saying it on film.  One lone mainline pastor, a Palestinian resident of Bethlehem, speaks out against this distortion of the Christian message.  One of the evangelicals walks away from a conversation with him and his heartfelt sympathy for his fellow Palestinians only to say the pastor’s theology is anti-Semitic.  ’Til Kingdom Come is a disturbing documentary.  I think I’ll watch a horror film to calm down.


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.


Pagan Perspective

“I would live in a world of Christ-like humans, but not one full of Christians.”  So Kate Horsley’s protagonist Gwynneve writes in Confessions of a Pagan Nun.  This novel is an attempt to envision what life would’ve been like for a woman in medieval Ireland when Christianity came to the land.  Gwynneve is a spiritual seeker who comes to be a nun when it’s clear that this new religion has taken over the old ways.  Learning to write, she transcribes her story after hours in her clochan, or cell.  She recognizes that Christianity has brought good things to Ireland, but at a high cost.  The disparity between rich and poor increases, women are denigrated so that men can run things, and the land is ravaged for the benefit of their new way of living.

The novelty of the idea caught my attention when a friend pointed the book out to me.  I was a bit surprised to see that Shambhala, generally a nonfiction Buddhist press, had published the novel.  Since this is a story designed to make the reader think—it is contemplative, as a story from the point of view of a nun would likely be—the choice of publisher makes sense.  While it’s not likely that a book published there would make the New York Times bestseller list, as an erstwhile writer myself I can attest that novels outside the usual pale have great difficulty in getting mainstream publishers interested.  This too is a matter for contemplation.

One of the main themes of the story seems to be how a worshipper of the goddess Brigit has to become a devotee of St. Brigit when the church made the gods into saints.  This is something that happened historically as well as in novels.  Aware that it was easier to persuade individuals to convert to a new religion if they didn’t have to give up their gods, this seemed a small accommodation to make.  Horsley is not wrong, however, in pointing out that Christianity was not a free ride.  More than a religion, it was (and is) a powerful means for social control.  The vision it offers tends to benefit men over women, the wealthy over the poor, the powerful over the weak.  Despite what the Bible emphasizes, religion has its own conversion experience when it tastes power.  Confessions of a Pagan Nun is a story intended to shift perspectives.  The open reader will learn from contemplating its message.


Watching The Witch

Good things often come in small packages.  I’ve read a couple of Brandon Grafius’ books before, and I’ve had The Witch on my reading list since I found out about it.  This is one of those books that benefits from knowing the raison d’être of the series of which it’s a part.  Devil’s Advocates is published by Auteur Publishing as a set of brief books on specific horror films.  If I didn’t have other financial obligations I could see myself purchasing the entire series.  Fortunately this volume was on a film I’ve seen (horror films have become so prolific that I can’t afford to see all of those I’d like either).  The Witch is a provocative movie, having gained critical acclaim as well as box office success.  It’s also a complex film.

Grafius ably takes us through the Puritan background that’s necessary to understand the social, and familial tensions that make this movie work.  Robert Eggers is a director known for his meticulous attention to period detail.  Even while weaving the fantastic into his stories, the plots are entirely believable.  Grafius has a solid grasp on how religion and horror interact.  That’s on full display here.  Looking at The Witch as an exploration of folk horror, he illustrates the importance of the landscape to the tale as well as how isolation sets a family off against one another.  The Puritan religion creates a monster, as it were.  Grafius doesn’t shy away from the misogyny behind the developing idea of the witch, either.  His explanations of—not excuses for—it are insightful.

Granted, horror films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Or coffee.  As I sensed when writing Holy Horror, fans of the genre enjoy reading about it.  I often wonder why those of us who watch it do so.  In my case, in any way, it feels like a compulsion.  It’s a coping technique and perhaps an antidote to the headlines.  Horror can be an intensely creative and socially aware genre.  The best of it critiques the flaws of society.  As Grafius points out, Thomasin only wants to be a good girl.  The Puritan society into which she was born projects the image of the witch upon her.  Eggers gives us a real witch in the woods, of course.  Grafius explains how this becomes the aspiration of a young woman who’s only trying to do what’s right.  I have a feeling I’ll be going back to the Devil’s Advocates series again.


The Unholy Trio

Culture has a powerful prophylactic component.  People don’t want to be seen questioning authority and accepted “truths.”  This is especially the case as they grow out of their teenage years and learn to fit in as part of the herd.  Some subjects make this particularly clear because cultural biases deride them, never giving them a fair chance at consideration.  I’ve run into a number of these over the years, but an example will bring these abstractions to clarity.  Recently a commentor sent me to the video “Kaneh Bosm: The Hidden Story of Cannabis in the Old Testament.”  The idea is one I’ve addressed before—that cannabis was used in incense combinations in the biblical world.  Now, I haven’t done research on this, but what becomes clear is that many scholars over the years have dismissed the idea out of hand because, well, it invokes pot.

The reason marijuana—something I’ve never used and have no desire to try personally—has been demonized is one of considerable interest.  This is especially the case since it appears to have been widely used in antiquity.  No respectable biblical scholar, however, would be caught suggesting that it might have been incorporated in the rites of ancient Israel.  The modern stigma of cannabis, in other words, discounts the possibilities that in ancient times it was used in sacred contexts.  The “war on drugs” in the United States was largely led by religious conviction.  The heirs of Christian prohibition.  Sure, some drugs can lead to real problems.  The deeper issue, however, is that society’s structure leads people to the place where drugs seem to be the only answer.  The civilized response?  Make them illegal.

That mark against controlled substances colors our view of history.  If such things are illegal now then they must never have been used.  Chemical analysis of various utensils (what might be called “paraphernalia” today, indicates that ancients knew of and used cannabis.  Our ordered view of ancient Israel as receiving the one true and utterly sacred faith preclude the possibility that our demonized substance could’ve been used in ancient times.  I’ve noticed this with the other topic of the documentary—Asherah.  Conservative scholarship still denies that ancients might’ve thought Yahweh had a spouse.  (My own work does not deny this, but simply questions the nature of the evidence; I think it is likely people believed Yahweh had a consort.)  So we once again collide with a “no go” topic.  So, after we admit the possibility of drugs and sex, so the thinking goes, what we we find next—ancient rock-n-roll? 


Shunned

Belonging is important for our species.  As much as some of us may be introverts, we still need other people.  Given the wide divisions of human interests and activities, one way people have traditionally come to know one another is through religious organizations.  Let’s face it, getting to know your neighbors can be dicey.  People from work may not be those you want to spend off-hours with.  Joining an organization is a great way to get to know people and, if you’re seeking like-minded friends a religion has been a time-honored way to find them.  Of course, many religions are now becoming as polarized as our society, but even despite that one religious practice seems especially insidious—shunning.

Shunning has been used in Christianity from the beginning.  One of the real issues, verging on torture, is when someone is raised in a tradition and has made all their friends in it.  Many sects encourage this, some overtly, other less so.  Those within the fold will not, it is emphasized, lead you astray.  If you are shunned, then, you lose not only your welcome at social gatherings or worship, you also lose your friends.  For separatist sects—consider the Amish, for one example—integrating into another society is extremely difficult.  You were raised to live one way and how would the shunned even begin to know how to live like other people?  This applies not only to small sects; being part of the group is a major draw for everyone from Catholics to members of an evangelical mega-church.  It’s a means of having a community.

Moving accounts exist of Mormons or other believers being excommunicated or disfellowshiped.  The world they knew is gone.  Religions create community and the lost of that community is a cruel punishment to invoke.  Particularly since the offenses that lead to such exclusion are often doctrinal—matters of personal belief.  People are naturally curious, and the desire to learn more frequently leads into uncharted territory.  Some traditions will then invoke sacred texts—more specifically a certain interpretation of sacred texts—to justify the exclusion of the curious.  Those texts, however, are interpreted by other fallible human beings.  Still, the fact that religions continue to use shunning (call it excommunication or any other name) is an indication of the inherent cruelty that religions can express.  What could be more hurtful, especially among those who separate themselves from the world, than to throw them out of the only enclave that they know?