I’ve been reading about Paul. You know, that Paul. What has struck me from this reading is that if he weren’t in the Bible rational people would likely think Paul was writing nonsense. Getting into the Good Book is a big score, for sure, but a close look at what this particular apostle wrote does raise eyebrows, as well as questions. Over my editing years I’ve discovered quite a few methods of dealing with the saint from Tarsus, but what they really point to is the elephant in the room—we don’t really know what Paul was on about. A few basic facts stand out: the Paul of Acts doesn’t match the Paul of the authentic letters, and although Paul never met Jesus he became the architect of much of Christianity.
There’s a reason that I focused my doctoral work on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament. Still, it remains fascinating to look closely at Paul’s claims. At some points he sounds downright modern. Like a Republican he declares that he can be tried by no human power. Specially selected by God himself, he can’t be judged by the standards of normal people. This is dangerous territory even for those who eventually end up in the Good Book, especially since it wasn’t written as an abstraction, but to a specific readership in a specific place dealing with specific issues. Galatia wasn’t the same as Corinth. The issues at Philippi weren’t the same as those in Rome. Yet, being in Scripture makes all his musings equally inspired.
The more we learn about Scripture the more difficult it becomes. Perceptions evolve over time, and we know nothing about how various books were selected. There are no committee minutes. We don’t even know the committee’s name or if it was ad hoc or standing. With repeated and long-term use these books became Bible. Take Paul’s letters—it’s virtually certain that we don’t have them all. He makes reference to letters that we don’t have. What might he have written therein? Is part of divine revelation missing? The discovery of other gospels and many contemporary religious texts to those that made the Bible cut raises questions that can only be resolved with the category “inspiration.” Christianity isn’t unified enough to add any more books, although some sects do nevertheless. Paul is very much like that—an example of not being subject to human trial. For a founder of a major religion we know surprisingly little about him.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Current Events, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Christianity, inspiration, New Testament, Paul of Tarsus, Revelation, Scripture, Trump
It seems that Holy Horror is now available, although I haven’t seen it yet. According to the McFarland website it’s in stock just in time for the holidays. Those of you who know me (few, admittedly) know that I dabble in other social media. One of my connections on Goodreads (friend requests are welcome) recently noted that he does not like or watch horror. Indeed, many people fall into that category. His follow-up comments, however, led me to a reverie. He mentioned that reading the lives of the saints and martyrs was horrific enough. One of the claims I make in Holy Horror is that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a horror film. My friend’s comment about martyrs got me to thinking more about this and my own revisionist history.
Traditionally horror is traced to the gothic novel of the Romantic Period. Late in the eighteenth century authors began to experiment with tales of weirdly horrific events often set in lonely castles and monasteries. From there grew the more conventional horror of vampire and revenant tales up into the modern slasher and splatter genres. I contest, however, that horror goes back much further and that it has its origins in religious writing. Modern historians doubt that the mass martyrdoms of early Christianity were as widespread as reported. Yes, horrible things did happen, but it wasn’t as prevalent as many of us were taught. The stories, nevertheless, were written. Often with gruesome details. The purpose of these stories was roughly the same as the modern horror film—to advocate for what might be called conservative social values. The connection is there, if you can sit through the screening.
Holy Horror focuses on movies from 1960 onward. It isn’t comprehensive, but rather it is exploratory. I’ve read a great number of histories of the horror genre—a new one is on my reading stack even as I type—and few have traced this phenomenon back to its religious roots. Funnily, like horror religion will quickly get you tagged as a weirdo. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both goths and priests wear black. As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stephen King’s horror novels often involve religious elements. This isn’t something King made up; the connection has been there from the beginning. We may have moved into lives largely insulated from the horrors of the world. Protestants may have taken the corpus from the crucifix for theological reasons, but for those who’ve taken a moment to ponder the implications, what I’m saying should make sense. Holy and horror go severed hand in bloody glove.
Posted in Books, Literature, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Goodreads, Gothic fiction, Holy Horror, horror films, McFarland Books, Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ
Ed and Lorraine Warren aren’t easy to figure out. I realize that for someone who holds an actual doctorate from a bona fide, internationally recognized research university this might be something strange to say. That’s because the standard academic response is simple dismissal. Ed, at least, was known to have stretched the truth from time to time, but that’s not the same as never having reported weird things that actually happened. This is why I’ve long advocated academics at least looking at the evidence—rare though it may be—before the simple hand-waving dismissal. Part of the problem is that the Warrens’ books were written by credulous followers who don’t question things nearly enough. Ghost Tracks, by Cheryl A. Wicks, may be the last of this strange genre of hortatory, biographical accounts “by” the Warrens written while Ed was still alive.
Skepticism is very important. But so is listening to people. What I find compelling is that similar weirdness—frequently dismissed out of hand—has been recorded throughout the length and breadth of history and across the entire globe. The problem is that many of these things fall outside current scientific means of testing. While perhaps not widely known, very reputable universities quietly explore these possibilities with actual science. Part of the problem of the Warrens, as well as various other “ghost hunters” is that they use scientific equipment and think that makes them scientists. It doesn’t. Science requires deep engagement and many years of strenuous study. And yes, skepticism has to be part of it. The thing the Warrens have to offer is that they realize(d) that when science does engage the supernatural interesting things emerge.
Sensationalism, however, is the slave of capitalism. Books sell better when they make extraordinary claims and declare they’re based on true events. Trying to make a living investigating the paranormal led the Warrens, it seems, to tip the balance a little too far in the way of credulity. Some of the stories in Ghost Tracks are more believable than others. Some are just plain frustrating. Ed’s interview with George Lutz (of Amityville fame), for example, is full of dropped balls. A good question receives an intriguing answer only to have the subject immediately switched by the interviewer. Even just a little skepticism and a follow-up question would have done scads to improve the believability of the story. This is something a scientist would have known. Someone as smart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although his Sherlock Holmes generally found ratiocination led to physical explanations, believed in the supernatural. If only his Holmes might’ve been brought to this discussion we might possibly have learned something.
Posted in Posts, Monsters, Books, Science, Mysticism
Tagged Amityville, Cheryl A. Wicks, Ed and Lorraine Warren, Ghost Tracks, science and religion, Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, skepticism
Connections have always fascinated me. Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement. Me at Nashotah House? Really? Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them. So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice. For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania. Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area. Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.
Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time. In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist. Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition. That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection. It was also there that I met my wife. And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church. Why? John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest. I was only following instructions.
Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job. Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not. We nevertheless had a connection. Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there. When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well. None of this was in the plan. Who plans to move to New Jersey? And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one. Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda. An outside agent led to that. So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away. Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.
Posted in American Religion, Higher Education, Holidays, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Bethlehem, Boston University School of Theology, Count Zinzendorf, John Wesley, Moravians, Nashotah House, United Methodist Church
It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited. (And no, I was not googling myself. At least not this time.) I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books. Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before. Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited. All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University. To how much the world has changed.
One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read. Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised. That which is published by a university press is authoritative. So we’re led to believe. But even university presses can be fooled. This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe. Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly. Where you read something matters. Even publishers, however, are fallible. So what am I to make of being cited by the web? And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?
Even credibility can be bought and sold. Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections. It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other. Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life. As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is. (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.) I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention. No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.
Posted in Books, Britannia, Higher Education, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing
Tagged academic publishing, Edinburgh University, Google, Google books, Holy Horror, university presses