Ravages and Kings

I was recently thinking about King Saul. If it’s been a while for you, Saul was the “first king” of Israel, according to the books of Samuel. Saul had a problem. That problem’s name was David. David was younger, more popular, a gifted musician and lady’s man. In sudden fits of rage Saul tried to kill David, more than once. An unstable man was in charge, but claiming God’s sanction he was safe from any kind of impeachment. In the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be king.” So Israel limped along under weak leadership until Saul got himself killed in battle. I couldn’t help think that this story shows just how relevant the Bible remains today. Mad kings are difficult to displace. They have their fans and, to quote Alfred, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

David’s reign was no picnic either. He had his Bathsheba affair, and was constantly making war as well as love. He pretended to be insane to save himself from Saul, but he was loved by Yahweh and thrived. Oh, and he wrote the book of Psalms. It’s a bit of a shock when this much feted king gives Solomon, his son, his last words. Instead of some pious sentiments or perhaps a last-minute poem, his final instructions are a hit list. “I promised not to kill Shimei, but you made no such promise.” Wink, nod. And Solomon reigned, bragging of groping a thousand women. One of the one percent, he was fabulously wealthy and ultimately couldn’t hold his kingdom together. And none of this is even prophecy!

Why do we put up with mad kings? The world is full of good, and able people. They have a very difficult time getting elected in a democracy. They had trouble even when it was a monarchy. Yes, power corrupts. We know that. Those who are truly mad, however, learn to live by gaming the system. Lies are alternative facts and truth is fake news. Other elected officials, apparently incapable of reading the newspapers, follow the leader. Like lemmings, they ignore the cliff just ahead. Ironically the Bible has a role to play in all this madness. In fact, many people seem to think Israel had a cozy little history. They’re the ones who’ve never read the Good Book. Even during the golden reign of David there were schisms and political murders. All you need to do, however, is say God told you to, and even a madman can become a saint.


Philistines in Midtown

It’s an old story. In fact, it’s in the Bible. The enemies of Yahweh perish. Since Israel’s god could not be represented iconically, the story goes, an iconic ark stood in for the divine presence. After a certain unpleasantness with the Philistines, the ark was captured and taken to the temple of Dagon. There, the statue of Dagon fell down in worship before the ark. Philistine priests, embarrassed for their deity, set the statue upright again only to come back the next morning to find their god not only toppled, but decapitated. I’ve always found this story intriguing. I wrote an academic article about it some years ago, which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored by subsequent scholars of Dagon. Of course, the Philistine god eventually went on to fame at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft. Today most scholars are far too parsimonious to care about that, so I’m left to follow my imagination when it comes to the old gods.

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This past week, on my way to work, I spied a mannequin fallen in the Garment District. There used to be hundreds of fabric stores around here. I’m always interested in those that remain. Cloth is so basic to human needs. The mannequin was behind glass, behind a chain fence. She’d clearly fallen in the night. She was decapitated. Of course, Dagon came to mind. I’m sure that others walking by the store had the same thought. Fallen before the invisible almighty, an idol meets its end.

Once upon a time, I’m told, biblical literacy was common. I don’t mourn its passing because I believe society has become sinful, but I do mourn it because the stories are timeless and important. There is something very poignant about the idea of a foreign deity falling, headless, before an even more powerful, invisible foe. That foe these days is the equally omnipresent and omnipotent dollar. After all, I am standing in Midtown Manhattan where the only language that everyone can speak is that of Mammon. Writers of fiction and erudite scholars beyond the reach of mere mortals ponder the great mysteries of ancient gods. The rest of us walk the streets to our assigned places so that we may participate in its endless worship.


Magnificat

IMG_1857One of the advantages of a huge endowment is the luxury to experience culture. Although we don’t live in Princeton, we don’t live far from it, and most years we venture down to hear the free Advent Concert given by the Princeton Chapel Choir. For those of you who’ve never been to the Princeton campus, or perchance have not visited the chapel there, the setting is part of the experience. On the order of a small Medieval cathedral, the campus chapel at Princeton is by far the largest I’ve encountered, and the acoustics from the soaring stone are impressive, even to an untrained ear such as mine. Since my wife is the musical one in this marriage, she reads the program with an avidity I lack, but I do recognize striking music when I hear it. This year’s concert included a piece I recollected from a few years ago, Christine Donkin’s “Magnificat.”

I’m at the age where it is no longer surprising to find very talented people much younger than myself. Christine Donkin is in this class. A Canadian composer, she has had her music performed in major venues such as Carnegie Hall. Her “Magnificat” is the only piece with which I am familiar, but it is a powerful work that can be compared to a mystical experience in the listening. Written for women’s voices, the piece evokes a spirituality that seems to come easily to those who are submissive. The Magnificat is, by tradition, Mary’s psalm of submission to the divine will, based on 1 Samuel’s account of Hannah conceiving the prophet Samuel. In a world dominated by male humans as well as a male deity, the song of Mary is one of the subtle poems celebrating the upsetting of the entrenched power structures that have held women down. If you listen closely enough, its subversive elements become clear.

Donkin’s “Magnificat,” in a darkening cathedral on a December evening, is a moving experience. It is a piece that leaves me feeling as if I’ve temporarily been somewhere else. And that elsewhere is far from the turmoil and troubles of daily life. And there are no men involved.

Over the years we’ve heard many impressive performances in that stone edifice. None, however, it seems to me, so powerful as that of a young woman confronted with a reality beyond that of everyday life. A reality that men cannot touch, but which, when the circumstances are right, they might hear if they’re willing to listen, and in doing so might find their own burdens lightened for a few minutes on a winter’s evening.


Dagon Cthulhu

Cthulhu has taken over the world, thanks to the internet. I wonder what H. P. Lovecraft thinks as he lies dead, but dreaming under the loam of Providence. A lifetime of struggle to gain recognition as a writer left him without much of a following, relegated to pulp magazines for low brow and Innsmouth-dwelling mentalities. Now everywhere from Davy Jones’ face in Pirates of the Caribbean to car bumpers in any parking lot, Cthulhu has awakened. My wife sent me a photo of a couple of such bumper-stickers recently: “Arkham’s Razor,” reads one, “The Simplest Explanation Tends to Be Cthulhu.” “Nyarlathotep is my co-pilot” reads another. I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through bumper-stickers.

Lovecraft

Back in my post-graduate days in Edinburgh, I had decided to write my dissertation on Dagon. This seemed a reasonable topic as no serious, book-length treatments of this elusive, Mesopotamian deity existed. My advisors talked me out of it, however, noting that material on Dagon was so scarce that it would be extremely difficult to scrape enough together to call it a dissertation. A few years later, it turns out, an academic book on Dagon finally appeared, but the fact remains that he was, and is, a major deity who somehow mostly disappeared from the ancient records—the victim of chance finds and perhaps more aggressive gods. For my birthday one year my wife bought me a bumper-sticker with a “Jesus fish” that had the word “Dagon” inside. I posted it on my office door in Oshkosh and the department chair asked me what the tentacles were meant to represent. An web search indicated that the Dagon was not the biblical “fish god” but the Lovecraft reincarnation. I had experienced an epiphany.

Lovecraft, although an atheist, knew his Bible. I once wrote a scholarly article on the Dagon story in 1 Samuel 5 where the Philistine statue of Dagon falls down, decapitated, before the captured ark of Yahweh. This is the sole narrative involving Dagon in the Bible, and it concludes by saying only Dagon’s “fishy part” was left intact. Lovecraft took this obscure Bible story and built an entire mythos from one of its characters. Cthulhu, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and their companions have risen from the deep, and encircled the world in an electronic web. The fact that kids who’ve never read Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu at a glance, attests to his power. Even Batman fans who cite Arkham without knowing that it was originally Lovecraft’s creation keep the master alive beyond the grave. Isn’t that what resurrection is really all about? Even if a writer has to be discovered through bumper-stickers.