Mephistopheles

Jeffrey Burton Russell is one of the clearest thinkers I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him in my background reading for Holy Horror, and have subsequently tracked down his books on the history of evil.  In what is a dangerous move for a scholar, Russell admits in The Devil that he believes in some kind of personified evil.  Except for religion scholars employed in seminaries, such thoughts are generally kept carefully guarded as academia has followed the materialist paradigm since it boldly declared that there’s no other way to know the world.  Russell’s intellect penetrates through that posturing and logically lays out what can or can’t be known based on empirical evidence.  And in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World, he concludes his historical sweep of an idea as old as civilization itself.

This is a wide-ranging book.  The previous three covered long periods as well: antiquity through the Hebrew Bible, New Testament through late antiquity, and the Medieval Period.  Mephistopheles has to cover from the Reformation through the present of the latter 20th century (when it was written).  Finding evil in the modern world is arguably way too easy.  Since 2016 it has become more fashionable to the point that an entire political party can laud it.  Russell writes with the strong conviction that love and the will to goodness can overcome the tendencies of humans to allow hatred, fear, and prejudice to rule.  What seems to be lacking, some three decades on, is the will.  We have given in to our cynicism and elected the worst of our inclinations.

In William Friedkin’s documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, Russell, looking depressed, is interviewed about the reality of demons.  His advice is to look for the good instead.  Nevertheless, having spent years of his life researching how evil appears and reappears, his own fascination demonstrates why we return to the subject time and again.  The world hasn’t righted itself.  His books indicate that there is a way, but we continue to ignore that way, preferring instead to follow the loudest of mouths rather than the warmest of hearts.  Some would personify this into Mephistopheles, the modern, entertaining aspect of the Devil.  Others would claim it’s merely a metaphor.  No matter which may be the case there’s no denying that evil exists.  And if it exists it behooves us to know about it.  And once we learn its identity we must name it.

Shut up or Shut down?

So the government’s shut down over a presidential temper tantrum.  Like most people, I suspect, I haven’t really noticed.  Except for two things.  When I drove up to Ithaca over the holidays, some of the highway rest stops were closed.  It seems our government wants to share the misery of not being able to relieve itself.  Secondly, the NOAA weather forecasts are no longer updated as frequently as they should be.  I’m no expert on the weather—I did write a book on meteorotheology, which took quite a bit of research on weather in ancient times, but I know that doesn’t qualify.  Still, I rely on weather forecasts to get daily business done.  In particular, we were expecting a winter storm around here that had been predicted, by NOAA, to arrive around 11 p.m.

Okay, I thought, people will be off the roads by then, and crews will be out to treat the icy conditions by morning.  Seven hours early, around 4 p.m., I noticed a rain, sleet, snow mix falling.  The ice particles looked quite a lot like salt crystals, but I was pretty sure that the government doesn’t have that kind of pull.  In any case, when weather catches me unawares, I turn to NOAA since our government is apparently God’s own chosen one, figuring that the Almighty might know a thing or two about what goes on upstairs.  The current conditions, NOAA said, were “unknown precipitation.”  Apparently the government isn’t even allowed to look out the window during a shut-down.  Maybe it was salt after all.

So, among those of the “God of the gaps” crowd, the weather is perhaps the last refuge of a dying theology.  Their cheery refrain of “science can’t explain” has grown somewhat foreshortened these last few decades, but when unknown precipitation is falling outside all bets are off.  Come to think of it, Weathering the Psalms could’ve been titled Unknown Precipitation, but it’s a little late for that now.  A creature long of habit, I awoke just after 3 a.m.  Hastily dressing against the chill of the nighttime thermostat setting, I wandered to the window, wondering whether there would be a snow day.  It’s dark this time of night, as I well know, but in the streetlights’ glow it seemed as if no weather event had happened at all.  It’s just like our shut-down government to get such basic things wrong.  As long as I’m up, I might as well get to work on my current book on horror.  It’s only fitting.

Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.

Evangelical Angels

Angels are everywhere at this time of year.  The Christmas stories of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have made them an indelible part of the tradition.  It’s not unusual for entirely secular individuals to be decorating with them and they are generally without controversy in public displays of holiday spirit.   A colleague once asked me why Americans were so credulous when it comes to a belief in angels—the numbers of believers are quite high, statistically.  I wonder if it’s because we need them.  Considering that the Republican Party is the Evangelical’s party, it’s no small wonder that even atheists embrace angels.  We all could use a little help from on high.  This time of year, such hope can be disguised behind tinsel and bows.

America must seem a strange country to those who immigrate (or had immigrated, when that was possible).  We wear our religiosity—and this is not the same thing as true religion—not only on our Christmas trees, but even on billboards by decidedly secular highways.  It’s as if even all the things America stands for, such as love of money, guns, and automobiles, only hold together with the saccharine glue of a sickly sweet religion.  A Bible-believing nation that has no idea what the Bible actually says and lauds a president who breaks at least a commandment a day and gains no reprimands.  We have shown our red neck to the rest of the world and yee-haw we are proud of it.  And we got the Good Book to prove it.

After all this shakes out we’ll be needing some angels, I suspect.  My colleague felt that sophisticates, big city skeptics, ought to be more willing to dismiss unenlightened beliefs such as those in spiritual beings.  The thing is, spiritual beings serve a very useful purpose.  They keep us honest—and I don’t mean in an Evangelical way; I’ve seen Evangelical honesty and it’s as corrupt as the Devil.  No, I mean that angels are important to show that we have hope.  Maybe they are secular angels—even the Bible doesn’t give any description of them at all, so how can you tell a secular from a religious angel?  That lack of pedigree doesn’t mean we don’t want them watching over us.  Belief is an important part of being human, secular or not.  The billboard space tends to go to those who want your money, and that applies to the ones that appear to be religious as well.  If this is the way the religious behave, we’d better hope there are angels everywhere.

You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.

 

Creatio Nihilo

Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens.  These precise words, in this order, have been written before.  In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order.  Technology can be friend or foe, it seems.  The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library.  This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can.  This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.

The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed.  After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while.  You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written?  Then it occurred to me.  Context.  The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write.  The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before.   Those of us who write know the difference.  We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words.  We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.

There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive.  The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer.  Their wisdom counts too.  It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books.  There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated.  When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel.  But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context.  And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?

Christmas Time

As children we can’t wait for Christmas because we’ll be getting things.  Now that I’m older I try to avoid the frenzy building up to the holiday, although I look forward to the vacation days that I’ll cash in to take time to be with family rather than business.  It’s not that I don’t like holidays—it’s just I’m no fan of hype.  Still, now that December is nearing, and Thanksgiving has reminded us that work isn’t everything, I can feel the anticipation.  Yesterday I attended the Christkindlmarkt  in Bethlehem.  Amid the backdrop of the truly colossal, rusting stacks of the former Bethlehem Steel plant, this is a seasonal event with nothing but good spirit.  People of all descriptions were crowded into the massive event, but rudeness and complaining were strangely absent.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time.

When I worked at Nashotah House, the atmosphere for Advent was austere.  We weren’t really encouraged to look forward to Christmas, bringing a tree home before the 24th was frowned upon.  It was a time to reflect on our sins, not to anticipate our rewards.  Still, I had a kind of epiphany among the secular crowds seeking to get into the spirit of things yesterday.  Bethlehem is a city that has known hard times.  Its industrial base eroded away, residents were left unemployed and wondering about a very (and increasingly) uncertain future.  Recasting itself as the Christmas City is a way of throwing new light on a holiday famous for its commercialism.

Christmas can be about resurrection.  It’s a season to think of birth.  It matters not if the mother is a virgin or if the child is for an exclusive sect.  People throng here for hope.  Beauty in the midst of ruin.  Some businesses clearly spend all year building up to Christmas, selling ornaments so delicate that I feared even to look too hard at them lest they shatter.  Handcrafted goods that represent the livelihood of others who compel strangers that art is worth more than money itself.  Wandering through the four tents of booths, the feeling of resurrection was palpable.  We were all here seeking something.  Loosening the grip on the wallet just a bit.  Wanting to make others happy for a while.  Birth is the symbol of hope.  Advent, it seems, need not be a dreary season of wallowing in unworthiness, awaiting a mythology taken too literally.  The proof of the goodness before us is just down the road in Bethlehem.