Mediated Reality

According to the Good Book, Methuselah lived nearly a millennium. For all that, the information on him in Genesis occurs in a mere five verses, in a span of seven. We learn when he married, whom he sired, and how long he lived. Not much information of the last antediluvian, especially considering how much time he had. When I searched for him on the web the other day, the information box that showed up on Google had, at the very top, a picture of Anthony Hopkins. I immediately recognized his makeup from Noah, a movie that I just can’t make myself love. The fault for having no other image may be the failure of human imagination—where do we find an image of a thousand-year old?

The internet mediates our reality. One of the points of both my books now in the works is that modern understanding of the Bible is largely media based. Few people have the time or inclination to read such a big book. (Given the continued evangelical support of Trump, it’s pretty clear that most of them haven’t read it either.) We want other people to do the heavy lifting and give us a summary in neat little boxes at the top of the screen. There’s far too many things to do in this tangled web to be spending months reading a ponderous, outdated tome, even if it does have plenty of sex and violence. Even if it influences the lives of each and every person living in America every single day. We’d rather have someone else—preferably not some egghead with a Ph.D.—give us the executive summary.

Once I did the math. If you add up the dates in what I used to call “Genesis years,” the year Methuselah died was the year of the flood. The Bible doesn’t say that old Methuselah drowned when the windows of heaven were opened, but it’s a reasonable conjecture. Nature abhors, it seems, a human being living so long. Our bodies just aren’t built for it. Some trees, on the other hand, have been alive for thousands of years. Botanists call them “Methuselah trees” (I told you the Good Book influences everything!). The pity is we know so very little about this ancient human being from days of yore. Was he a good man? He seems to have been washed out in the sluice gates of what became one great universal sewer at the time. Although we know little, his life would make quite an epic movie, I think. We already have an actor lined up, for Google tells me so.


So, I’m getting ready to update this website. I’ll give you a warning before things change. Another update, however, is in order. I’ve been promising that I’d let you know when my forthcoming book with McFarland received its final title. Well, drum roll please! The final title is actually the first title I proposed—Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. And it has an ISBN: 978-1-4766-7466-7. And a cover design too, but I can’t share that just yet. It is appropriately lurid, matching the subject. But in all seriousness, the book makes a case for the fact that many people understand their religion via popular media. Being a bad boy, I look at it through horror movies.

The title Holy Horror was a play on Douglas Cowan’s excellent book, Sacred Terror. I recall reading that book, starting the night I bought it as SBL, curled up in the swank conference hotel bed, turning pages until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. It had honestly never occurred to me that religion scholars could get away with writing about horror movies. Cowan had the natural advantage of being a Canadian, something I’ve always longed to be. He also has a secure university post. I was, at the time, just a guy trying to feel secure in what seemed like (and turned out in reality to be) a threatening seminary position that was shortly to end.

It may be difficult to understand how horror can be consoling. It can. I’m a squeamish guy. I don’t like blood and gore. I hate being startled. Nevertheless, I took comfort in this genre as my career was falling apart. Holy Horror was a cathartic book for me to write. There’s more than a little metaphor in it. One thing that will become clear to readers is that the Bible is no stranger to horror movies. Ironically, many of them are strangely conservative—Carol J. Clover’s classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws (which I’ve reviewed on this blog) made that point clearly. Horror often has the same message as your typical Disney film, although it’s presently slightly differently. How so? Well, I can’t say very much here or you’ll have no reason to read my book. McFarland does a great job with publishing this kind of title. You won’t find it in Barnes and Noble, and not likely in your local indie either, but it’ll be available on Amazon and these days that’s enough. And before long these pages will change to reflect its coming.

Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

Re-reading the Rite

I’ve written on The Rite before. My current book project, however, led me to reread this account after watching the movie based on it a couple of times. The film dramatizes, of course, the somewhat understated demonic activity in the book. The protagonist loses about 30 years in age and isn’t yet a priest. As is usual, the book is better than the movie. Matt Baglio’s story follows Fr. Gary Thomas from parish ministry in California to his discovery of possession and appointment as an exorcist. As part of the Vatican initiative to have an exorcist appointed in every diocese, Fr. Thomas was sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. His experience was all academic until he began to attend actual exorcisms with an unconventional Capuchin monk. Very little described in the book is difficult to believe.

This time around the curses nabbed my attention. Among exorcists of the Roman Catholic stripe, there is a strong belief in the reality of curses. Not only the reality of curses, but the belief that curses can lead to demonic possession. Knowing that Catholicism has struggled with accusations of being unsophisticated and behind the times, the fact that this isn’t more widely known is pretty self-explanatory. Growing up Protestant, I was always taught that curses are make-believe. They don’t really have any influence on a person’s life. The world of demons, however, is a supernatural one and the concept of curses still holds sway in this universe, as the book shows.

Another arcane aspect that resurfaced when I reread this book is just how elaborate the Catholic backstory is. Many Catholics, it’s clear, distance themselves from such topics as the Devil and demons, but there’s no escaping the Virgin Mary and the drama of Jesus versus the powers of evil, as well as the intercession of saints. The problem is that many of the players are personified in the Bible. It’s pretty hard to say the Good Book got it wrong. That worldview lends itself to belief in supernatural impingement on this sphere. Not that that’s a bad thing. Many people, however, would rather believe in a materialist world with physical cause and effect being the main operating paradigm. Demons complicate all that. But then, so does the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin, and even the patrilineal heritage of Jesus himself. The Rite brings to the light something many would perhaps prefer to be kept under a bushel. Strange things do happen in this world, and they do tend to respond to the backstory that’s been told. That makes such books difficult to classify, even with the backstory.

Canadian Care

Amazon, probably not purely out of kindness, gives some customers access to the most read stories in the Washington Post. Apart from talking to my wife, this is about the only way I learn about what’s happening in the world (mine is a small world after all). I have no idea what Amazon’s metrics are for determining which stories to share, but I was amazed at one focusing on doctors in Canada. The story also appeared in Newsweek and other media sources. Unlike many medical professionals, these Canadian physicians are petitioning the government for lower salaries. They say they already have enough money and other healthcare workers aren’t being paid adequately. Why not share when you have extra? I’ve always thought Canada was far ahead of its southern neighbor in the ethics department, and this about clinches it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for doctors. (You should see how much money I give them!) Nobody wants to go through life with this or that hurting or aching all the time. Most of the doctors I’ve met have been kind and descent people. Seldom as strapped for cash as I am, but then my doctorate is in a more intellectual field; serves me right. What really becomes a star in my personal firmament is that somewhere in this world enamored of capitalism, a privileged class has said, “this isn’t right.” Economists have been warning us for years that unbridled capitalism isn’t sustainable, but that falls on deaf ears in this country. Maybe our political leaders should see an otolaryngologist? Maybe they’ve got some wax build-up in there.

Doctors work hard. They have long hours and have to put up with smelly and messy situations. There’s a reason we have to pay so much to compel them to look where the rest of us are told to avert our eyes. At the same time, every other major developed nation in the world has some form of socialized medicine—it is a basic human right. Everywhere but here. If you drive through New Jersey you can’t help but be taken by the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies that call this state home. There’s gold in them thar hills. As I gaze at them from the highway, my thoughts are driving across the border to a land that’s both affluent and caring. When’s the last time we heard an American entrepreneur say, “I’ve got enough—give the rest to someone else”? When too much is never enough, that’s something it’s going to take a Canadian doctor to treat, I fear.

Woodland Creatures

Maybe I watch too many zombie movies, but the story of zombie raccoons was just too good to pass up. A story by Marwa Eltagouri in the Washington Post described a spate of recent “zombie raccoon” incidents in eastern Ohio, not far from where I grew up. While the likely explanation is distemper, one of the behaviors of these raccoons stands out—they walk on two feet. Since I also enjoy the occasional non-fiction book by Linda Godfrey—who’s made a name writing about anomalous animals in North America, particularly bipedal dogs, or wolves—I found this aspect of the raccoons particularly interesting. That’s the thing, you see. Bipedalism suggests other human-like traits. Think great apes. Or penguins. (Although birds are generally bipedal, they tend to be squat and more horizontally inclined than vertical. The penguin not only dresses for our most formal occasions, but waddles around like many of us do after having been a bit too generous at the dinner table.) But bipedal raccoons—now that’s scary.

As a species Homo sapiens seem to have a need to believe themselves unique. Over the centuries any number of traits have been claimed as unique to us. Bipedalism, the ability to speak, being relatively naked so that we have to wear clothing, being able text with our opposable thumbs—we’re not like other animals. We’re special. So when animals that normally go on all fours walk on two legs we instantly think they’re trying to be like us. They want to have all the rights and privileges of our species so they can elect alt-right leaders and destroy everything they’ve built. Uppity critters! We have trouble reconciling ourselves with our animal origins.

Other animals, it seems, are beginning to note the advantages of walking on their hind legs. I’ve watched enough zombie movies to know that it’s the intention that’s the real problem. They want to be like us. Notice the accounts of bipedal animals—witnesses say there’s something in their eyes. Global domination. Yes, they’ve been watching us and now they want the same things we want. They want to take over the world. I know enough about World War Z to know that you can’t save everyone. Hard choices will have to be made. And maybe I’ve watched too many movies, but I’ve noticed the bipeds are from red states: the dog-men of Michigan and Wisconsin, the raccoon-men of Ohio. If we can’t save everyone, we need to make wise choices. Why not let them have Washington, DC? They certainly can’t be any worse than what we’ve got there right now.

Knowing It All

Reading about the Trump administration underscores once again the traditional American contradiction of, love of, but mostly hatred toward, experts. When you’re lying on that operating table, you stake your life that an expert is going to perform the surgery. When you buy that airline ticket, you’re banking that the pilot will be an expert. If you’re electing the most powerful individual in the world, you’ll excoriate experts and defer to the guy with the weird hair that says whatever he pleases and has never been a public servant a day in his life. This observation isn’t original with me, of course. I’m only an editor. Nevertheless, the same dilemma comes down to my little world of academic publishing as well. Most academics don’t understand this business—I was an academic at one time and I certainly didn’t—and yet don’t like to bow to the expertise of those who do.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m making no grand claims to understanding this industry into which I unwittingly stumbled. I have been involved in it for over a decade now and I’m still learning. One of the things I’m learning is that many academics don’t trust experts. In part it’s academic culture. A doctoral program, if it’s a good one, will make you question everything. Sometimes even experts forget when to engage the brakes. When dealing with the experts at a publishing company, many academics doubt the expertise of those who do this day in and day out for a living. Books, however, have measurable sales records. There’s hard data for analysis. Not that it’s foolproof (but what is?), such metrics are time-tested and based on reasonable data sets. Often that’s not enough to convince an expert that other experts know more than they’re revealing. A personal philosophy, but one which I pursue with appropriate skepticism, is that other people should be left to do their jobs. As I frequently note, those who talk to the bus driver, freely giving advice, often make the situation worse for everyone.

The case of religion, however, is a special can of worms. There are no experts in this field, even among those of us who are experts. Had I realized this when I was younger, I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference in what I ended up doing with my life. You see, religion is all about ultimates. The big questions. The sine qua non of every single thing. When I read about things like politics, or entrepreneurship, I think to myself, “That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, is it what really matters?” If life is a search for meaning, why not grab it by both hands and try to become an expert at it? Some would say that’s the job of the philosopher, but let’s face it, religionists and philosophers deal in the same currency. One is more abstract than the other, to be sure. Still, don’t take my word for it. Please consult an expert.