Friends with the Devil

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey strike the first-time visitor as eerily odd, even today.  Stunted trees grow from sandy soil, crowded close together and growing hard up to the edge of the road.  You can see the sky above, but dwarf trees of uniform height block your lateral views over any distance.  It feels claustrophobic.  Add to this tales of inhospitable residents and an actual profusion of tree-climbing lizards, and you’ve got the grounds for wondering what else might lurk in the deciduous woods.  Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito aren’t so easily frightened.  Their fascinating book, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster is a bit of a chimera on its own.  The subtitle gives a pretty good idea of what you’ll find in the book.  For someone who had lived in Jersey for a dozen years, and who loves monsters, it was a must-read.

Not to provide too many spoilers, Regal and Esposito spend some time in colonial New Jersey sketching the little that can be known of the rather prominent Daniel Leeds.  Anyone from Jersey knows that its eponymous state demon is also known as the Leeds Devil.  This particular family had good connections despite being Quakers—a capital crime in some parts of the British Empire.  Daniel, however, had a falling out from the Friends and made his name by publishing an almanac.  This almanac and the proximity of Philadelphia to the Barrens brings Benjamin Franklin into the story.  Franklin competed with the Leeds almanac, and Poor Richard eventually won out in this war of the words.  Demonized by their former Friends and gently satirized by Franklin, the Leeds family was eventually all but forgotten.  Then stories began to emerge of a dragon-like monster in southern Jersey.

To get the details you’ll need to read the book.  Particularly interesting for this blog is the way religion and monsters interplay.  There’s a good bit of history of monsters in the story, including Quakers and early attempts among scientists to understand birth defects.  The very word “monster” is, in its “word cloud,” related to ideas such as revelation and portents.  Early scientists resorted to divine anger when they couldn’t explain what nature had wrought.  And of course folklore is a very potent lubricant.  There are some gaps in the story here, but this is an enchanting exploration of whence monsters might come.  The Jersey Devil has international fame now, and its birth may have begun with insults flashed back and forth among religious believers that eventually were taken literally.  The devil’s in these details.  Or at least in the spooky topography of the Barrens.

White Christmas Revisited

In the light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to tip my metaphorical hat to Brian Regal of Kean University for a piece he wrote in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Entitled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” Regal’s piece shows the striking disconnect that comes between the image of a “Christian” Christmas and the oft-ignored words of Jesus that make him such a great example to follow. We want the image and the affidavit without having to do the hard work of loving those we don’t like. This really seems to be the heart of what was once know as gospel—it’s okay to be who you are (for those of that bent, “who God made you.”) Too often “Christian” has come to mean someone who wears their hair far shorter than Jesus, who shuns those welcomed by Jesus, and who smile far more than Jesus. My Bible says “Jesus wept.” I don’t recall any verses reading, “Jesus put on his ‘I love you’ smile.” Ours is a society that wants it both ways—all for me, but isn’t that what Jesus really wanted? You know, he must’ve smiled a lot.

Regal rightly points out that the majority of Christmas traditions are admittedly pagan, and we are glad to baptize them as long as we don’t have to let the homeless into our churches or admit equal rights to those of all genders, races, and orientations. What seems to be the real desideratum is a “white” Christmas. A white, affluent Christmas. The very idea of the ownership of a holiday characterized by giving is a phenomenon worth serious study. Religion can certainly be used to justify such self-centeredness, but it is condemned by that very same faith. What are people worried about? Christmas has been a commercial holiday essentially from its origins in the modern period. It is one of the few holidays to which nearly everyone looks forward, at least for a break from work or school, if not for a windfall of new stuff.

Privilege as blessing is a perverse theology, as is shown repeatedly in the Bible. Israel’s long line of descent is chosen from the least, the youngest, the meek. Now we are constantly told that God rewards those who are blessed, and that the poor and underprivileged have only themselves to blame. At Christmas time it may be worse than many other seasons of the year. We want not only to keep good cheer, we want to keep a holiday only partially of our own making for ourselves, and then congratulate ourselves on just how good we are. It would seem that the spirit of Christmas might lie, as the pagans said, in giving. I am not a fan of commercialism, as my regular readers know. I can’t help but think that believing one deserves special rewards for righteousness in their own eyes will only have the opposite effect. Remember: he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…


Monkey’s Uncle


An opinion piece in Saturday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger highlights the 150th anniversary of T. H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature this month. Well, Huxley may be forgiven for writing in the idiom of his day—he was Darwin’s contemporary after all—when he really meant humanity’s place in nature. The article, by Brian Regal, points out the common fallacy that evolution, as propounded by Darwin, says that we descended from monkeys. Quite apart from the insult to monkeys, Huxley was the one, as Regal notes, who made explicit something about which On the Origin of Species kept decidedly mum: the evolution of humans. People did not descend from monkeys. Nobody except religious opponents ever suggested that they (we) did. Evolution is a biological fact, and monkeys are evolved just as we are evolved. We had a common ancestor somewhere back a few millions of years ago.

This neverending story of religion (of some sorts) fighting evolution should capture the fascination of anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. It shouldn’t be ignored. Darwin wasn’t trying to start any fights. Huxley, well, he may have been, but with good cause. The facts, even in the 1850s, were definitely pointing to descent with modification. In fact, breeders of dogs and pigeons and other animals had known this for centuries. All that Darwin and Huxley attempted was to be intellectually honest with the evidence. It was religious believers who, reading between the lines, picked this fight. The Bible, after all, seemed to say we’d been created on day six (or day one, if you read Genesis 2 literally), and that meant science had to be wrong. Religion is used to setting its own terms. The debate is in the cathedral, not in the academy. Although by the end of the nineteenth century nearly all major branches of the church had come to some kind of understanding of the facts, the issue flared up with again around the time of the First World War with the advent of “social Darwinism.” Then, the religious objectors claimed, we did not descend from monkeys.

Funny thing is, Darwin and Huxley would’ve agreed. Instead, insidious motivation was attributed to some of the greatest minds in science. Accusations were made that everything in the lives of both Darwin and Huxley gainsaid. Natural selection made Darwin ill with its implications, but he could not shy away from the evidence. He believed in truth. Although Huxley coined the term “agnostic” to define his position, he had good reason. The biographies of these scientists are well worth reading before making accusations. So as we stand (or more likely, sit) on the sesquicentennial of Man’s Place in Nature, it might be a good opportunity to assess whence the friction is arising. We claim, in our still limited understanding, that monkeys can’t speak. (I’ve seen the movies and I know differently, nevertheless…) If they could, I imagine the debate would go something like this: “those hairless creatures who say that we are less important than they, they have the audacity to claim a common ancestor with us? Maybe evolution is a myth after all.”