My Beloved Monsters

OurOldMonsters copyOnce upon a time I felt radical in claiming that monsters and religion shared a pedigree. Having grown up fascinated by Universal, as well as much cheaper and more tawdry, monster movies, I always experienced a twinge of guilt. My family was very religious, and these monsters were, well, evil, weren’t they? Yet I couldn’t let them go. Although college, seminary, and graduate school each took their toll on this early fascination as I was restructured as a more rational man, the monsters always lurked. In college a friend and I named an invented monster “the lurking.” In seminary and graduate school, demons and ghosts still captured my imagination. Brenda S. Gardenour Walter has, quite unintentionally, vindicated my outlook. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema just about says it all. Not limiting herself to witches, werewolves, and vampires, Gardenour Walter has given us a novel thesis: monsters come from theology.

Well, not exactly. Medieval theology, as many of us learned in seminary, continued the ancient Greek practice of dividing the universe into four substances: air, fire, water, and earth. Each was associated with a humor in the human body: blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile. Keeping these humors in balance led to healthy bodies. Gardenour Walter, who teaches history in a Pharmacology school, shows how monsters were often viewed against this paradigm. As she notes, this Weltanschauung was not friendly to women. Seeing man as the perfect, rational being, women were considered less rational and more controled by their base urges, leading to the concept of witches. Witches were also associated with demons at a later time, and there is a considerable discussion of that transition.

Vampires were often associated with black bile. Although there are vampiric beliefs going back to very ancient times, Gardenour Walter shows how the modern vampire indeed derives from medieval theology as eastern ideas met western. Unfortunately, in unenlightened times, the concepts were anti-semitically applied, with unwonted liberality. Werewolves were generally dismissed as illusions wrought by demons, although, there always remained an ambiguity. I have to admit not having known that even Augustine discussed werewolves in The City of God, which, it comes to mind, would make an excellent horror movie. The book brings each of these medieval monsters up to the silver screen and considers how their theological pedigree plays out in modern times. This is a book I would have enjoyed as a college student, but maybe, secretly, enjoy even more now as an adult.

Exposed or Expelled

I live in a relatively small town. Having grown up in communities of 10,000 or less, I am used to the ways of those who live close to their neighbors. Even in small towns people live secret lives. Returning to my small town from Iowa, the headlines for New Jersey’s largest newspaper feature a coaching assistant at Immaculata High School, the Catholic school in my town. Patrick Lott, Assistant Principal at another local school, is an assistant football coach at the aptly named Immaculata. He is accused of videotaping boys in the shower. As if not disturbing enough, this is the third Immaculata individual to be arrested for sex crimes in the last twenty years. While each individual instance is bad enough, it is the long-term pattern that is even more disturbing.

The setting of a Catholic school has long been a trope for abuse of power. In this respect it mirrors ecclesiastical history. Such is the way of human institutions. When they are placed on a pedestal and proclaimed divine, trouble starts. The problem arguably began as long ago as Augustine, and before him with Paul, the architect of Christianity. Both men spewed many negative words about sexuality, with or without abuse need not matter. Their views—which one might be tempted to call perverted were they not from religious men—perceived sex as a bizarre form of divine punishment. Funnily, neither one has much to say about why a good God designed such a sinful system for animals to propagate as well.

Sexual predators, of course, are not limited to Catholic schools and parishes. It does seem, however, that those religious institutions that most vocally castigate sexuality are the ones most often caught with their metaphorical pants down. Why such things happen is better answered by psychologists and sociologists than it is by theologians. What is always interesting is observing the response by religious leaders. The shock and distress may be real enough, even when one school claims a hat-trick of the sexual kind. I have no answers to proffer, merely some lay observations. If religions dropped their pretensions instead of their pantaloons, the world might quickly become at least a more honest place. If individuals with problems sought medical help rather than theological forgiveness, we might actually begin to make some progress.

Is this the right message?

Go and Dust No More

Finally getting around to reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (I hate to admit that it took the movie ads to prod me into reading the book), I have been surprised by the depth of the story. Spoiler warning! From the very first chapter I have been pondering what dust might be, and I have just discovered that it is Pullman’s metaphor for original sin. In the chapter where this is finally revealed to the protagonist, Lyra, her father reads an explanatory passage from Genesis 3 (somewhat altered). Indeed, dust drives the plot of the story.

With apologies to the magisterium

With apologies to the magisterium

Pullman’s treatment of the topic once again throws into relief a popular, but mistaken, concept. “Original sin” is simply not a biblical idea. Nowhere in either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Scriptures does the text suggest that people are born with the taint of a physical liability passed on from the first human coupling, as Augustine hypothesized. In fact, the Bible hosts several potential explanations for the origins of human troubles. One solution that it never reaches is a genetic passing on of an original sin.

Tradition often makes Scripture into its own image. Ideas are inevitably read back into the story and a chimera of hazy concepts emerges. Pullman’s treatment of the human condition is to be applauded, and to his credit he does not attribute the concept of original sin directly to the Bible. Although he alters the text a bit he doesn’t add this most damaging concept to it. The belief that people are inherently defective has allowed for some of the worst crimes imaginable against our species. As a concept original sin is dust in the wind.