The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

The Plague

Plagues&Peoples Sitting on the bus next to some guy with a consumptive cough may not be the best place to read Plagues and Peoples. But William H. McNeill’s book is considered a kind of modern classic, and since the Middle Ages have been on my mind, I persisted anyway. I did wrap my scarf around my face, though. Plagues and Peoples isn’t just the story of the Black Death, however. It is a sweeping account of pandemic and endemic outbreaks and how they form recognizable patterns with human populations. Perhaps the most striking aspect of McNeill’s study is how determinative plagues have been for many decisive aspects of human history, including religious ones. Indeed, religion keeps cropping up in the book. One reason is because of the roles religions play in human suffering—to be more precise, I should say in trying to alleviate human suffering. (Yes, some religions definitely cause it as well, but that’s a story for another time.) McNeill even suggests that fear of disease might have led to the parting of the ways between Swiss and German Reformers, playing a role in the divergence of what would become the Presbyterian and Lutheran flavors of Protestantism. The spread of some religions was facilitated by the ravages of disease.

During the period of the spread of the Plague, however, McNeill notes that those cultures attended by Christian and Buddhist institutions managed to fare better than irreligious, or, perhaps more accurately, folk-religion ones. Once people figured out Plague was contagious, they sensibly kept away from the sick, but the moral teachings of Christianity and Buddhism compelled the religious to tend to the ill, with the result that more people in those religious traditions survived. That’s not a universal declaration on McNeill’s part, but it is a fact worth bearing in mind. The risk to self paid off when more individuals cared for each other rather than just heading for the hills when the Black Death came along. On the other hand, religions frequently insist on behavior that spreads disease as well. The great pilgrimages to Mecca or the Ganges often brought great crowds together where disease could quickly spread. The passing of the peace in some churches is more like the passing of the plague.

In ancient, pagan times, disease had its own deities. In ancient Ugarit, Resheph, the archer, was also the god of pestilence. Pestilence frequently accompanied the horrors of warfare, and even Apollo opens the Trojan War by firing his arrows at the Greek troops. Gods are the source of disease. One of the ancient truisms, which may not be taken as true today, is that the force that wounds is also the force that heals. Instead of ignoring Resheph, you pray to him, make offerings to him. He can slay, but he can also heal. In the monotheistic and even non-theistic traditions McNeill mentions, the focus shifted to the care of those suffering rather than the offering of sacrifice to unhearing gods. Even the Romans were impressed by Christian care for one another. Of course, that was well before Obamacare offered the hope of medical treatment for those cut off from lucrative employment. The Christian response now, it seems, is to complain about others taking advantage of my surplus cash made over to a program to prevent illness in one’s fellow citizens. Take the bus to work, you’ll see what I mean.

Oxford’s Hire

In 1478 the first book printed in Oxford heralded the eventual founding of Oxford University Press. Just two years earlier Vlad III, the Impaler, had been assassinated. In 1478 the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Spain. Just over a century earlier, the Black Death decimated the population of Europe. Things looked a bit dark at that time. Nicolaus Copernicus, however, was five years old in 1478 and the Enlightenment was just around the corner. The printing press had been, well, hot off the press for just a couple of decades at the time. The University of Oxford had been around for nearly four centuries already, making it one of the oldest and most prestigious centers of learning in the world. Oxford University Press early on began the business of printing Bibles and shedding light on a world where things were somewhat dim. Progress often brings misery with it, but the idea that a literate public stood a better chance of improvement bore an optimism that has occasionally been realized, even in free market times. I’m very glad for Oxford University Press.

These are among my thoughts as I prepare for my first day as Associate Editor for Bibles and Biblical Studies at Oxford University Press. It is a heady sensation. Bibles were among OUP’s first printing projects. As part of an increasingly secular society in an increasingly religious world, I’m aware of the power the Bible has had and still has. Love it or hate it, it has shaped this thing we call modern culture in ways both profound and facile. The opportunity to work in this division is sobering. A little unnerving, even.


Ironically, my career has largely been Anglo-oriented. Perhaps it is because those based in England appreciate the solidity of a degree from Edinburgh University, although this is only speculation. Nashotah House was a profoundly anglophile institution, at least once upon a time it was. The founder of Gorgias Press had studied in both Oxford and Cambridge. Routledge is a British-based publishing house. Ironically, British culture is not as prone to Bible-reading as that of the United States. My jobs, which have largely focused on the Bible, have been British-oriented. I try to add it all up but get lost in the midst of the numbers. Call it first day jitters. Twenty-five years ago at this time I was preparing to get married and to move to Scotland. Little did I suspect that a quarter-century later I would be coming back to an ancient university of the United Kingdom again.

Artifacts or Theodicy?

Last week the Huffington Post ran a story that ties archaeology, religion, and monsters together in a package too neat for some researchers. Digging in a sixteenth-century grave for plague victims (something that strikes me as being so foolhardy as to be religious) archaeologists found a corpse with a brick in its mouth. The preliminary conclusion? Sixteenth-century Italian plague-weary society was attempting to stop a vampire. The find has, of course, been disputed. Other archaeologists, the story notes, claim that a loose brick could have fallen into the cadaver’s agape mouth just making it resemble the little-known technique of stopping a vampire by bricking its mouth open. This story, written with Huffington Post’s usual pluck, raised an issue I quite often encountered as a doctoral student in ancient Near Eastern religions: anomalies are generally categorized as religious.

When my wife first pointed this story out to me I thought I might learn something of vampire lore—itself inherently religious—from the sixteenth century. The fact is, however, that artifacts (including people) under the ground accumulate a lot more than dirt. Mystery attends the lives of yesteryear, and the further back we go in time the less we understand. It was a standing joke among those of us in the textually-based field of religious studies that any artifact for which no function could be discerned would most certainly be labeled “religious” by archaeologists. When no logic attends an action, call it religious. This might be a motto for academics and their approach to the study of religion. There are some who claim religious studies is not a proper field of inquiry at all. Excuse me, but where are you intending to fly that plane?

Vampire scares (whether or not that’s what was found in Italy) do, however, follow their own logic. Although early scientists may have made connections implicating rodents (and their fleas) as carriers of plague, the average citizen would have only seen the supernatural dimension. Morbidity on the scale of the Black Death is almost inconceivable and as Europe suffered through periodic outbreaks of plague it seemed that a good God couldn’t be behind it all. Evil creatures, such as vampires, get God off the hook. They are a device of theodicy. “Theodicy” is the jargon for the theological justification of God in a world full of suffering. When God’s goodness effaces to such a point that people grow frightened, well, isn’t it just easier to say a vampire is behind it all? The conclusion that logic draws is quite different. Nevertheless, I think I’ll be replacing the garlic on my nightstand with a brick. What will the archaeologists of the future say?

Whose Call?

I think about religion quite a bit. Well, it’s actually a big part of my job. I also spend quite a bit of time sorting out where religion is represented in the spectrum of human learning, specifically in higher education. One can’t help but notice a profound disconnect between reasoned thought on religion and the often brainless way that it is played out in public forums. Often this ineptitude comes through the mental fumbling of politicians, but just as often the culprits are well-heeled preachers who learned their trade at the hand of like-minded individuals who castigate the usual methods of examining evidence. Even as recently as this week I saw disparaging remarks made in a Chronicle of Higher Education article about seminary education—something I understand a little too well. For all their faults, most seminaries try to teach students to interpret their faith intelligently.

Perhaps it is too fine a line to be etched in the sand, but the study of religion and the promotion of religion are entirely different entities. Our society desperately needs more of the former. I quite often lament the short-sighted lack of education about religion in higher education. Given the frequently destructive nature of religious teaching, it would behoove us to understand it a bit better. In my research on the state of education about religion in the United States, it has become clear that many—perhaps most—high-powered institutions of higher education do not offer the opportunity to study religion. Many secular schools, seeming to fear religious cooties, simply avoid the subject like Yersinia pestis. There is nothing particularly alarming about that. Until one starts to count the number of accredited institutions that teach indoctrination as education.

A simple survey of institutions of higher education in the United States will reveal hundreds of doctrinally based colleges that generally teach uncritical attitudes towards religion. Students graduate from such schools with bona fide parchments that claim them to be proficient in the subject. Meanwhile, at the local state university, no one can study religion because it is considered a subject unworthy of academic research. Maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble reconciling this lack of interest with what I see in a society where Tea Parties are steeping and sabers are rattling in the name of religion. Same sex unions are being shouted down. Women are paid lower wages for the same work as men. The ground is being fracked beneath our feet. The impetus for these destructive behaviors takes is fueled by religion, and they only scratch the surface. I would humbly suggest that if we want to see the state of the union clearly it is best done with eyes open rather than hiding behind an amendment and pretending religion is not there.

Malleus Practice

Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.

This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.

To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.

Pilgrims’ Regress

In March alone I had to build expanders for three of our bookshelves. I claim the problem began when, as a faculty member at Nashotah House, I had use of a house with a built-in, floor-to-ceiling library. My wife claims the problem began long before that. We own a lot of books. The only silver lining to Borders’ recent bankruptcy was that we hovered like buzzards at one of the closing stores and walked out with books we might not have otherwise bought, but whose prices demanded their owners find a new home. Orphaned books are a sad sight. So I purchased my first Christian satire book in many a year. I just finished reading Becky Garrison’s Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians, Garrison’s point of view set me at ease: had this been an evangelical attempt at humor I would have orphaned the book myself. Nevertheless, as I read through this travelogue/memoir, I rarely found myself laughing.

Nothing robs one’s sense of humor quite like being in higher education for a couple of decades. I still find plenty to laugh about, but I realize the reprieve is only temporary before more serious issues once again cloud the skies. Garrison’s attempt to find genuine “Christ-like” behavior among Christians was, predictably, peppered with the failures to find it. As she repeatedly notes, the odd marriage of religion and politics in the United States has tainted both institutions (and both had already tainted themselves without the other’s help many times previously). It doesn’t take a satirist to see that many religious figures have made a joke of their belief systems by touting them as the only way to heaven.

What became increasingly clear to me as I read this personal and revealing book was that Christianity has splintered into countless subcultures that attempt to reclaim the original Christian experience. The problem is that time doesn’t stand still. Religions are, by definition, conservative. Progress, by definition, is not. Ever since the first hominid hefted a wedge-shaped rock and used it as the first Paleolithic weapon, our course was set. We would continue to try to improve our lot. Institutionalized religions began appearing a mere six-to-seven thousand years ago, very late in the game, and they’ve been driving with feet firmly on the brakes ever since. Once we figure out what the gods want we need to – wait, don’t change that! We’ve just figured it out! So we find ourselves in a highly technological twenty-first century with pre-medieval religions trying to tell us how to survive the Black Death. Each time religions change, some get left behind. When we finally implode, some future archaeologist may find an apartment crammed full of books and she’ll declare that my wife was right: the problem began long ago.