Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

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.


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.


Laugh Out

Is it safe to discuss this now, or are people going to laugh at me?  That’s the feeling that has attended any talk of UFOs until recent days.  Ironically, if the Ancient Astronaut people are right, we may’ve been visited from elsewhere ever since we’ve called this planet home.  In any case, now that UAPs are out of the bag, some are beginning to discuss how they might impact religion.  (Yes, “impact” can be a verb.)  Thus I came across a story titled “If UFOs are real, how would they impact our faith?” on Times NewsKingsport Times News, based in Tennessee, ran this as an opinion piece.  While not deeply probing, it did raise the question of how all the recent UFO news affects people’s religious outlooks.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

As a country we’re both deeply religious and in denial about the fact that we’re deeply religious.  I’m convinced that this is behind the political woes we face: the educated have become more secular and religious literalism is considered laughable.  Yet it’s clearly there.  Ironically, UFOs were considered laughable until the US Navy admitted that they were real and had no idea what was going on.  Laughing at something we don’t understand is hardly ever a step towards enlightenment.  So the article concludes that even if aliens are here, things will be fine if we continue to go to church as normal.  Any extra-terrestrial visitors change nothing.  Strangely, one of my earliest memories is of attending a rural church service one evening where the program was on flying saucers and Christianity.  This was entirely in earnest, and nobody in the congregation was laughing.

Others interested in the topic have discussed religion and UFOs over the years, but perhaps the answer is yet another of those unknowns.  Religion is a remarkably adaptive phenomenon.  Scientists suggest it’s hardwired into our brains, even as those same brains give us evidence that some of those beliefs are misplaced.  What we can’t do is stop thinking about it.  As I watch politics continue to tear this country apart, I realize it’s not really politics we’re talking about after all.  It’s religion.  Meanwhile people are learning that the government has been keeping secrets about what’s up there in the heavens.  There are elected and appointed officials who’ve gone on the record saying they believe UFOs are demonic.  While that hardly seems like a scientific approach to something truly unknown, it is a religious one.  Only those who laugh rather than listen will find this news at all. 


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

No, uh, It Won’t

Irony comes in all shapes and sizes.  Over the past several decades various fundamentalist groups have built replicas of what they believe to be life-size versions of Noah’s ark.  All of these are approximations because the cubit was never an exact measure.  Nobody knows what gopher wood was.  Most of them ignore the fact that the story of Noah clearly borrows from the more ancient Mesopotamian flood story where the measurements of the ark differ.  In any case, these arks—some containing dinosaurs and others not—are made for convincing people that Genesis is to be taken as history.  While there is some irony in that itself, the larger irony comes in the various proofs that are given that such things really would work to preserve all species since evolution could not have happened.  To work such models have to be seaworthy.

One such ark, according to the BBC, has been detained in Ipswich because it is unseaworthy.  An ark may be useful on dry land for drawing tourists, but would such a large boat work on the open ocean?  All of this brought to mind a Sun Pictures documentary from my younger days.  Giving the ark a makeover, various literalists re conceived the classic design from children’s Bibles to a more boxy, sturdy shape.  This was based on alleged encounters with the ark on Mt. Ararat.  To test this new design, the producers made a scale model and tested it in a pool of water and declared it eminently seaworthy.  Of course, there’s no way to make water molecules shrink to scale to test whether a full-sized ark could actually handle the stresses and strains of a world-wide flood.

Ship building is an ancient art.  Peoples such as the Phoenicians, the neighbors of ancient Israel, achieved some remarkable feats in ocean travel without the benefits of modern technology.  They didn’t have boats large enough to hold every species of animal that exists today, but they sure knew how to get around.  The real issue with literalism is the failure to recognize ancient stories for what they were—stories.  Such tales were told to make a point and the point was often obvious.  The obsession with history is a modern one—indeed, the ancients had no concept of history that matches what our current view is.  Borrowing and adapting a story was standard practice in those days.  Unaware that centuries later some religions would take their words as divine, they told stories that, in the round, just wouldn’t float.


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.


Buried Truths

I owe a lot to fossils.  Growing up just a block from a fossil-laden river in western Pennsylvania, as a kid I’d go fossil hunting with my brothers.  They weren’t difficult to find.  Maybe not museum-quality, but not bad considering that they were free for the taking.  I’d pour over some rock with many shells perfectly impressed in it and wonder.  Of course, my childhood religion taught that the earth was quite a young place because that’s what the Bible seemed to indicate.  Other than Chick tracts and related comic books we didn’t have many books around the house to explain this discrepancy.  One thing was pretty clear—the fossils were quite real.  We had no doubt that there had been dinosaurs.  How they fit into the Bible’s chronology (since the Good Book was written long before dinosaurs had been discovered) was unclear.

Mine was not an educated family.  We simply believed what the preacher told us.  Since Fundamentalist preachers don’t attend seminary, their response was probably something along the lines of, “the Bible says…”  Thinking about how to apply the Bible in a complex world was not their strong suit.  So we’d be taught that evolution was evil, but just literally a stone’s throw from the church hundreds of fossils could be found.  I suppose the evidence of those fossils kept me grounded.  I never could buy the “theory” that God created the world with apparent evidence of great age to test our faith.  A deity like that isn’t worthy of the name.

I still pick up fossils when I find them.  Apart from a brain coral and some crinoids, mostly I just find shells.  Knowing that this particular rock is evidence of the sea floor millions of years ago is thrilling.  It puts me in touch with the great antiquity of our planet, the times when people had not yet evolved to complicate everything.  Just a few days ago I found a rock with a vignette of life under the sea.  Looking at it closely there are crinoids among the shells, and what appear to be a drag mark where some unknown creature disturbed the silty Paleozoic sea bottom on its way someplace long before humans showed up.  Fossils always remind me of the responsibility of reading the Bible with an eye toward rationality and a recognition that a guide isn’t the same thing as a taskmaster asking you to believe the ridiculous.  That, I suppose, is why I can’t pass up a fossil on the ground. 


Nihil Obstat

Intolerance within religions has been on my mind lately.  Every religion has a history and the study of that history demonstrates that religious leadership reflects the rise of dominant personalities to the top.  Once that dominant personality reaches the zenith of leadership, he (and it usually is a he) decides what it is proper, or orthodox, for others to believe.  I was thinking about this while seeing a book with an imprimatur.  There is a wide range of belief within Catholicism.  Books which teach official doctrine, or which are used for educational purposes, require an imprimatur for widespread use.  An imprimatur requires a review process and includes a designated bishop to declare the work “without error.”  In the context of scholarship, this practice makes certain assumptions—that humans of a certain rank can declare a statement an error or fact.  A theological fact.

Theological facts don’t really exist.  If a fact is something that has empirical measures to determine its truth or falsity, theology falls outside the pale.  Ultimately it will come down to the word of one person outweighing that of another.  And as doctrine changes over time it would seem that old imprimaturs might expire.  The idea is that when something is declared without error, it is without error at that time.  As centuries progress, new empirical facts are discovered that impinge on theological “facts.”  The idea that any one word is final seems hopelessly time-bound.  I’m not picking on Catholicism here, because many religions have official teachings that rank as non-Catholic nihil obstats. It’s merely a convenient example.

The fact hidden in plain sight in cases of religions not permitting diverse views is that censorship stands behind it.  It’s no wonder that in a world increasingly supportive of diversity that “one size fits all” theology has come to be questioned.  Religions, however, lose their authority if they can’t declare the truth or falsity behind a proposition.  Bishops come from priests.  And priests come from seminarians.  I used to teach seminarians—I don’t know if any of my former students have become Episcopalian bishops or not—opportunities are about as rare as teaching posts.  The point is, those who make such doctrinal decisions had to learn them partially from the academic community that grants degrees.  As the academy opens up to new ways of looking at things, future imprimaturs will reflect the realities of their times.  Religions—all religions—evolve and change.  What may be an error today might look quite different in a future light.  Perhaps tolerance now will anticipate where we’ll eventually be, in the truth of the time.

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash