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.


From Russia

A New York Times headline recently caught my eye.  “Russia opened a murder investigation into a car blast near Moscow.”  I wondered how a country that’s an aggressor at war, killing civilians in Ukraine every day, would be interested in something so petty as murder.  Then I saw the rest of the headline: “that killed the daughter of an influential ally of President Vladimir Putin.”  So there it is—some lives are more valuable than others.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m saddened by this (and any) murder.  And the use of violence to get what one wants is unethical.  Justice in this world, however, is based on unequal standards.  The supporters of Putins and Trumps matter more than any other people.  Death should not effect them the same way it effects civilians being missiled and shot.

Throughout all this we might wonder where the voice of the church is.  Churches, as institutions interested in power, are political players even when there’s no state religion.  The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church supports Putin implicitly.  With the power of Russia, the power of the church rises.  A few thousand dead civilians, well, let God sort them out.  Churches become corrupt when they become politically powerful.  Politics is one of the most polluting things humans can do.  Long ago Lord Acton put it this way: “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Churches got into power-brokering in the fourth century and we’ve seen the results ever since.  It’s not just Christianity, however; Islam makes it political and yes, even Buddhism and Hinduism incite violence when they become politicized.  A religious body that takes its mythology too seriously becomes dangerous when it tastes political power.  The world has many mythological figures.

What really took my breath away, however, is how many state resources will be devoted to finding and prosecuting those who killed one government supporter—we must find and punish those responsible—while thousands lie dead with the Russian government as their killers.  Other nations are just as guilty of course, but there’s a karmic imbalance when that nation is an aggressor in war.  Would you have ever expected a fair trial in Nazi Germany?  Does not unprovoked war make a mockery of the very concept of justice itself?  Justice, of course, means fair treatment.  For all.  She’s pictured as wearing a blindfold, after all.  She’s perhaps one of those mythical figures as well.


The Roll of Churches

I really don’t have time to follow any social media religiously, generally glancing at a page and perhaps scrolling down an inch or two when I have a moment.  I tend to glance at headlines, often pre-selected for me by a non-human intelligence, I expect.  Nextdoor dot com occasionally has a story that looks important to read, because it’s local.  Recently a poster from Bethlehem noted meeting a homeless person and was asking virtual neighbors where to turn for help (for the homeless person).  The answers weren’t surprising but reminded me of something I recently heard elsewhere—this is where churches still have a chance to shine.  While I’m tired of all the doctrinal and theological nonsense that arises from those who didn’t pay close enough attention in seminary, I do lament the plight of our churches.

Society has been too Republican for too long to care for those who can’t make it in an uber-capitalist environment.  Those with mental illnesses turned out when Reagan-era “reforms” “improved” our system for handling them.  Those who, through no fault of their own, can’t hold down a job.  Those who just happened to end up on the wrong side of a wave and find that a new wave breaks over them before they can properly take a fresh breath.  As the most affluent nation in the world, each homeless person is a reminder of the terrible price we pay for living within a system that rewards greed far above anything else.  Churches do have their problems—I’ve experienced many of them firsthand—but they often feel an obligation to take care of the sick, the homeless, the elderly.  Those not of value to a capitalist system because they don’t “contribute.”

When I commuted to Manhattan my bus arrived early.  I often saw the many homeless sleeping on the street as I made my way across Midtown.  Many days I wished I had an extra peanut butter sandwich with me so that I could give them something.  Anything.  Churches that aren’t caught up bickering about whose genitals belong where, or whether females are equal to males, often turn their sights to those who need help.  These churches are supported by the donations of members (for which said members can claim a tax break).  These are members who care for those they’ve never met, simply because they are human and in need.  Churches themselves are now facing difficult times and, unless they support Republican causes, can be assured they won’t receive a government bail out.  Compassion may be a dying species.


Scary Cosmology

In many ways a harrowing book, A Cosmology of Monsters, by Shaun Hamill, is a real achievement.  A monster story, it’s less a story about monsters than it is about people—which, upon thinking it over, is generally the case.  This story is about the suffering people undergo, sometimes simply for being who they are.  Hamill gets his hooks in early and drags you through this wonderful, terrible story.  Even now that I’ve finished it I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  What’s it about?  Maybe I can try to give you a few signposts and pointers.  To find out more you’ll need to read it and check my work.

The Turner family, through no fault of its own, has been living under a strange kind of curse.  It involves monsters, from what is probably another dimension, kidnapping and enslaving them.  The Turners aren’t alone in this.  Others who’ve been suffering from various causes are also targeted and treated.  Perhaps this is partially a parable on suffering and depression.  The Turner family faces death, missing children, forbidden love, and regret.  They run a local haunted house around Halloween, which the father’s regular job finances.  They do it for fun and it’s free.  It keeps them going when a terrible diagnosis is given.  Stressed financially and emotionally, they barely manage to stay together.  Noah, the narrator and only son, checks out the competition, including a Christian Hell House.  There he meets the girl he’ll eventually marry.  But the monsters don’t stop coming.  He befriends one.

An intricately interwoven story, you might call this horror but you would probably be closer to the truth with literary fiction.  There are uncomfortable facts about families.  Things we tend to overlook or ignore in order to keep society running smoothly.  These kinds of issues are brought out into the open here and mixed in with monsters.  On both the human and monster sides, the emotionally wrenching ideas have to do with relationships.  Noah, who was born just as his father was dying, establishes relationships both with his family and a monster.  As the story progresses over the years, his wife is added to this complex of relationships and they all end up, in a way, competing.  Decisions have to be made and someone you love must lose.  This novel makes monsters and humans the objects of the reader’s sympathy.  What’s more, it works.  I hope I haven’t given too many spoilers here, because this is quite an accomplishment, and well worth a reader’s time.


Burdens

Listening is very important.  Sometimes there’s nothing really to say but “I hear you.”  This kept occurring to me during All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake.  Tiya Miles is a history professor, and she helpfully includes an afterword telling how she came upon the topic for this book.  Ashley’s sack is just that, a sack.  On it, the owner, a female descendent of enslaved African-Americans, stitched a short inscription about the history of the sack, how her grandmother had given it to her mother when the latter was a child under ten, sold away from her mother in South Carolina.  This isn’t an easy book to read.  I have difficulty being faced with what “religious” “white” folks did to Blacks and justified themselves that people can be bought and sold.  Listen, I told myself, just listen.

Those who would deny that any of this ever happened need to learn to listen.  In order to capitalize on the resources this country offered, our ancestors engaged in morally reprehensible acts.  And the cruelty didn’t end with the shipping and the selling.  The treatment of unfree Black people itself was a crime, and their white captors knew full well what they were doing.  Preventing their slaves from having nice things while they themselves lived in luxury.  Beating, raping, and murdering when they didn’t get their way.  Selling their own offspring born of slaves to make a profit.  All the while claiming to be good Christians.  It’s often this part that I have trouble understanding.  Even a literalistic reading gives no license for treating other human beings this way.  Only money does that.

The style of history in this book isn’t that to which many of us are accustomed.  At the point of raising mental critiques I repeated, “You must learn to listen.”  Those who have made the rules showed themselves to be corrupt, and they must be willing to consider alternative ways of telling a story.  Miles makes the point that the history of unfree Blacks was largely erased, leaving the possibilities for histories and heritages slim; if the regular rules are themselves oppressive then it may be time to listen to those of others.  It seems impossible in the age of the world-wide web and all that it implies that we live on a planet where people repeatedly deny their sins while clutching their Bibles in their fists.  We need to learn to listen.


Remember the Doorway

I’m glad it has a name.  And I’m also, relievedly, glad it’s normal.  The Doorway Effect.  I’m sure it’s happened to you.  You walk into a room and immediately forget what you came in for.  I’ve been afraid of some early onset of something because I’ve noticed it more and more, but it turns out that this is a normal brain function.  A recent article by Jessica Estrada explains that our brains are constantly framing.  A large part of that framing has to do with our physical location.  When you step through a doorway that framing changes and some of the residue (what I came in here for) might easily get left in your previous location.  In other words, it seems to be an effect of humans making different rooms for different purposes.  Our thought lingers in the place it was first born.

Photo by Filip Kominik on Unsplash

Our brains are fascinating organs.  Every time I read about how children’s brains form, I wish I’d studied psychology instead of religion.  How we could help our children if we understood what their brains just aren’t capable of doing just yet!  How many spankings could have been avoided if parents understood brain development?  Beating someone doesn’t teach anything.  Instead, we might try to learn how minds use brains.  Young boys can be quite reckless.  One of the reasons?  Their brains haven’t developed enough yet to think through the consequences of their actions.  Yes, they can push limits for other reasons, but their thinking simply doesn’t yet involve adult caution that (hopefully) comes with a developing brain.  One of the real consequences of this, for which I’ll volunteer as a poster child, is religion.

Children’s brains are not developed enough to accept and comprehend religious thinking until they’re about 12.  We’ve known this for many decades now.  And yet, the theology of parents means they try to convince their children of religious truths before their brains are developed enough to sort it out.  Look at Congress and the Supreme Court to see the results of this.  Most people never seriously question their religion.  For many it was instilled in them as children, before their brains could properly process it.  The rest of the country pays for it with laws then enact.  We’ve known about this for decades and have decided that studying religion is a waste of time.  But I digress.  Now I forget what I started to say when I began this post.


Conflicting Lifestyles

Sleep patterns often don’t fit with work patterns.  The reason I wake up so early is that for years I had to do it to get to Manhattan.  For work.  Since ending the commuting lifestyle four years ago, I haven’t been able to adjust back to normal, whatever that may be.  During a recent heatwave weekend, when it wasn’t really conducive to be doing yard work, I suggested to my wife that we watch The Godfather on Sunday afternoon.  Somehow I thought it was only two hours, but it is actually much closer to three.  Now this Coppola film is considered one of the greatest movies of all time and I have literally wanted to see it since 1972.  There were no VCRs in those days and life has been, well, busy since college days.

It is a powerful movie, even today.  I knew the basic plot and I started to read (I can’t recall if I finished it) the novel in the early seventies.  All I know is that I sat engrossed as the temperatures tempted 100 degrees outside.  Because I awake so early Sunday afternoons are often sleepy times for me, but I don’t nap.  Napping leads to long nights and I awake early no matter what.  The movie doesn’t allow for a lapse of interest.  One of the scenes that had the most impact is when Michael is attending the baptism of his godson and the priest asks him if he renounces Satan intercut with scenes of his hitman killing his rival family bosses.  The religious nature of the violence in the story is perhaps one of its most shocking elements, even today.

That night it was still hot, and all the water that I drank during the day made itself rather urgently felt around 2 a.m.  The trick to the late night bathroom run is to keep your mind shut off.  Although The Godfather ended nearly twelve hours earlier, it crept back into my head, keeping me awake after that.  Of course, I had a full day of work—there are no allowances for aging in this thing of ours called capitalism—ahead.  The thing is, when else do we find three consecutive hours to catch up with a cultural landmark but a Sunday afternoon?  Are you supposed to take a vacation day to do it?  I have no regrets about having watched the movie—it was like an offer I couldn’t refuse.  It’s just the rest of life that, well, simply won’t compromise.


Having X

The final girl is such a classic horror trope that even horror novels can be titled after it.  You know the drill—teens hanging out, doing things that teens do, end up being killed off one-by-one by a monster or a disturbed person(s).  The one to survive is the virginal girl who doesn’t drink, use drugs, or whatever.  As a long-term horror watcher, I think the trope has been exaggerated, but it does occur enough times that there was clearly something to be noticed.  Enter X.  Released earlier this year, a slasher that rather obviously juxtaposes religion and horror, X features a “final girl” who is anything but virginal and sober.  The religion aspect is blatant from the beginning when the opening sequence involves a televangelist preaching to a viewership of the dead.

The title derives from the premise (which is a throw-back to the classic slasher era) that a would-be independent movie producer wants to shoot a pornographic movie.  Since this is strictly low-budget, he contacts an elderly gentleman on a remote Texas ranch who has a guest house.  With his one male and two female stars, a cameraman/director, and an assistant he drives to the isolated location.  They are all divided into couples, with each of the women having sex with the male star.  What makes this creepy from the beginning is that the old man, and his elderly wife, create a sinister presence.  She sneaks up on the young people, watching them through the window.  She misses her younger days when she was young and attractive.  As night falls the young people are killed off by the older couple one at a time.  What’s more, they’ve done this before.

X is a reflection on aging.  More than that, it’s a reflection on how religion leads to horror.  To say precisely how would involve giving away a spoiler, so I’ll leave the reader to watch the film to find out.  Suffice it to say, the televangelist is preaching about how sex leads to evil and the older couple kills because they’ve been listening to him preach.  X is not for the faint of heart.  I generally don’t like jump-startles and there were a couple of those that caught me off-guard.  (I try to anticipate them when watching slashers, or any horror, for that matter.)  But what of the final girl?  There is one, but it’s one who flies in the face of horror convention, if there is such a thing.  


Carter’s Creations

Angela Carter was a novelist whose best known work is her short story collection, The Bloody Chamber.  Often acclaimed as both gothic and feminist, these repurposed folktales and fairytales leave the reader in a thoughtful state.  I have to admit to having not known of Carter or her work until quite recently.  I’d seen a biography about her, but there are so many writers and my time seems always so limited.  Then I saw The Bloody Chamber mentioned on a list of best gothic fiction.  I had to find out what this was all about.  The stories are indeed unlike much of the feminist literature of the seventies.  The stories are focused on women, often young, and how they deal with being treated as the property of men.

The first, and lengthiest story, “The Bloody Chamber,” is a retelling of Bluebeard from the point of view of his last wife.  It’s an extended reflection on feeling owned and boxed in—literally trapped—by men’s economic rules of property.  Carter keeps readers on edge, even if they know the base story.  This isn’t a simple retelling.  Nor is it a lament about the natural, biological unfairness of sexuality.  There’s an ambivalence here, an enjoyment tinged with melancholy that gives the story a gothic sensibility.  The women in the different stories here prefigure more recent Disney heroines that take charge of their circumstances.  And there’s also ambivalence about the setting of the stories.  There are contemporary appurtenances but still castles and baronial mansions.  You’re lost in time.

The collection has some stories, such as beauty and the beast, retold twice and ends with three versions of werewolf stories that play, to an extent, on little red riding hood.  Some were tales with which I had no familiarity.  The effect of the whole is thoughtful contemplation of the human condition.  Much of the world, it seems, has been unduly influenced by a kind of literalism—a story, whether biblical or traditional, is supposed to go like this—that has not only robbed great texts of their depth, but has entrapped human beings in a stone-chiseled certainty.  A self-righteousness, if you will.  Even writing a text in stone doesn’t prevent others from interpreting it, however.  Since none of us have all the answers, we are each interpreters.  There was no historical Bluebeard.  There have, unfortunately, been many men who embody his attitude towards women.  Carter’s genius is to remind us that every story has at least two sides.  And the woman’s side may well be the truer of the two.


July Forth

Independence Day.  What does it mean in a nation on the verge of a fascist takeover?  Supreme Court justices, themselves appointed by crooked but technically legal politics, have just struck down the independence of half the people in this country.  Independence Day for whom?  Originally a celebration of freedom from monarchy, one of our political parties has opted for authoritarianism—the objection to which was the very reason the Revolutionary War was fought.  The colonists wanted religious freedom, but now we find religiously motivated politics driving the bus off the cliff.  If you’re not a white evangelical these rulings are not for you.  Your religious freedom has been compromised by politics.  So we gather in grassy places to watch fireworks.    We celebrate the independence of the wealthy.  Those who can break the law and buy the results they want with lawyers without scruples.

I think of Independence Day from the perspective of our Black siblings.  Freedom to be shot for a traffic stop or to be publicly strangled to death for petty crime.  To be redlined and kept in poverty.  Independence from literal chains only to be shackled in bureaucratic ones.  Being sentenced to prison for things a white can easily afford to pay off.  Independence Day in a nation with over 40 million people in poverty and where just three white men own more than the bottom fifty percent of Americans.  Give them fireworks and firearms and let the bottom half work it out for themselves.  When is the last time a Supreme Court justice had to worry about having enough for both rent and food?  Freedom, those on the top tell us, is not free.  Watch the pretty lights.  Hear the loud booms.

What of American Indians, still awaiting freedom?  What is Independence Day to them?  Kept out of sight and in poverty, we don’t want to be reminded.  No, we only want freedom to get more for the white man.  As a child in the sixties I had some hope that we might be making progress.  Freedom and protest were in the air.  There was at least hope for some justice.  The privileged white leaders now give us a day off work.  The wealth can still flow upward, even if we take a brief hiatus from labor.  Women, Blacks, the poor, American Indians, and many others who make America what it is are nevertheless denied basic freedoms.  This loss of independence at least comes with a light show.  Just watch it and be grateful.


Lost Civilizations

At the rate rain forests are being decimated for our lust for beef, it seems amazing that there are any unexplored regions left at all.  That’s what makes Douglas Preston’s account of visiting the fabled Ciudad Blanco, a lost Honduran city, so compelling.  Like most intelligent people, Preston is ambivalent about the discovery he chronicled.  The pristine jungle he encountered had to be cleared, at least in part, to allow for exploration of a lost civilization.  But what an adventure it was!  The danger of drug lords, a volatile government, large poisonous snakes, and ruins discovered by lidar combine in a true tale of danger and fascination.  As with Rudolf Otto’s description of the holy, this is something that fascinates and terrifies simultaneously.  And it’s controversial.

The Lost City of the Monkey God crosses several boundaries.  It discusses not only “Indiana Jones”-style archaeology, it involves one of the last unexplored places on earth.  It doesn’t sugar-coat the genocide initiated by Europeans—in fact, Preston describes some of the diseases in graphic detail—and he doesn’t excuse the guilt.  The book also addresses global warming and the possibilities of a global pandemic (the book was published in 2017).  Preston contracted Leishmaniasis while in the jungle and notes that as the globe warms up, it is making its way north.  The descriptions aren’t for the faint of heart, nor are his descriptions of the politics of treatment.  The first part of the book, describing the people and the set up of the base-camp show Preston’s chops as a thriller writer.  His encounter with a fer-de-lance had me checking the floor in the dark when I got up in the morning.

The civilization of the city, now known by the more respectable title City of the Jaguar, was unknown.  It was not Mayan.  The city was likely abandoned because of disease brought to the Americas by Europeans.  Even so, his description of the society in which the ruling classes keep their power by displaying their own sanctity that the average person doesn’t question rang true.  Societies from the beginning have used that playbook.  Convince people that the gods (or God) has revealed certain things that they (the ruling class) understand, and everyone else falls in line.  We see it even now as the messianic Trump following falls for it yet again.  This is a quick read, written much alike a thriller.  A few years ago I read Preston’s engaging Dinosaurs in the Attic.  I’m thinking now that some of his thrillers should also be on my list.


State and Church

An interesting article by Grace Davie notes how Patriarch Kirill,  the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus´, has been backing Vladimir Putin in his war of human atrocities against Ukraine.  Why? Both men fear “godless” influence from the west.  Think of it as a “Russia first” policy.  Both believe Russian Orthodoxy preserves the “one true faith,” and so an ecclesiastical leader yet again believes he (aren’t they always he’s?) understands politics even as women and children are killed in the bringing of God’s kingdom on earth.  The distorted theology of imperialistic Christianity has caused untold suffering in the world.  God backed by nukes is an apocalyptic situation, but then the Orthodox don’t really take too much stock in the book of Revelation.

Photo credit: Michael Goltz, via Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of all of this, as well as our own versions of it in America, I wonder where the teachings of a prophet who advocated care for the stranger went.  Too bad he never stated directly, “Love thine enemies.”  That sounds radically leftist, doesn’t it?  No, those who think like this ignore the constant refrain of love in the New Testament to focus on a verse or two that say a man shouldn’t lie with a man.  Where’s Socrates when we need him?  Or even Tchaikovsky?  Religion becomes doubly dangerous when it has political backing.  “Love thy neighbor” becomes “kill thy enemy.”  And you must say your country is the greatest in the world and all others are inferior.  Sounds like something a carpenter from Nazareth would’ve agreed on.

Too much gold in the eye, it seems, can lead to spiritual blindness.  Established churches grow quite comfortable when governments hold them close.  The problem is an ancient one.  Even in the biblical world temple and palace mutually supported one another.  The idea of a country where no church ruled the state was a new one a few centuries back.  If different churches ruled neighboring nations the result was, of course, war.  Davie makes the point in her article that the Ukrainian Orthodox wanted some autonomy, which is the Orthodox way generally.  But the coffers in Russia swell more when you get cuts from all the others.  Churches and other businesses worldwide seem to know that by instinct.  But to back a ruler who has civilians, women, and children murdered to keep the godless out?  If that’s godly behavior then we’d better all get down on our knees.