Chilly Fluids

I’m not sure why I did it.  Read In Cold Blood.  I’d known of Truman Capote’s main claim to fame for years, but an accidental recent mention, a cheap copy in a used bookstore, and a week of grabbing time to read did it.  I’m not a fan of true crime, and despite my fixation on horror movies, I try to steer away from anything that doesn’t have a hint of the speculative about it.  There’s a difference between horror and terror.  I’d happily lived a half-century without ever hearing about the Clutter murders and kind of wish that were still the case.  Yes, there are doubts about the veracity of Capote’s account at points and novelists are often convincing liars, but still, at the heart of the matter more than just four people are senselessly murdered in the course of the tale.

A few elements stood out in the reading of the book.  One was that given the naiveté of the 1950s I wonder how anyone could ever really want to go back to that decade.  We’re run by a government full of doddering old men who seem to idealize the falsity and utter conformity of an age that was really a pressure cooker in which cases such as this would explode.  I was born in the much idealized 1960s but I don’t think we should go back to them.  We learn, we change, we grow.  Knowing what we now do, it was kind of painful reading how blissfully ignorant so many people were.  We may be more afraid these days, but at least we’re more realistic.

Another factor, very much at home in this world older but no wiser, is how the Bible is cited at the trial in support of capital punishment.  Although it may not have been intentional on Capote’s part, he demonstrates a deep truth about Scripture.  It can be read in more than one way.  In conservative Kansas in 1960 it could sway jurors to seek the death of other human beings.  The murders were indeed savage and pointless.  Capote’s account of them is difficult to read.  Perhaps more difficult is the way the Bible is used to unleash the basest instincts of people against other human beings.  Yes, parts of the Good Book require the bad thing, but if we’re over fifty years beyond Holcomb we’re over fifty score beyond a time when just one interpretation stands for all.  If it ever did.  There’s a difference between horror and terror, but the Bible can participate in both.  I prefer to stick to the former.

The Evil Living

Returning home from my campus visits, I needed some brainless relaxation. Since we don’t have any television service at home, this means watching movies. I’d heard quite a bit about The Evil Dead over the years—a movie that was scary back in the 80’s when it appeared. Improvements in special effects and the intensity of engineered sound are capable of drawing a person into an alternate reality for a couple of hours these days, and the endless reiteration of earlier movie effects somehow robs the early thrillers of their impact. The Evil Dead, however, capitalizes on confusion about the menace and teeters on the brink of morality for the entire 85 minutes. Naturally, when looking for a source of fear, it seeks a religious agent. The source of the evil in the woods is narrated in a voice-over of the presumably dead scientist who has discovered Sumerian texts that release demons in the forest (mostly in the form of falling trees).

Sumerian is always a safe bet if you want a language that your viewers will not be able to identify. The earliest known recorded language, Sumerian is still difficult even for experts, and it conveys all the strangeness of long ago. We do know that the Sumerians recorded myths that involve what we might call “demons” today, but the possession of humans was a much later development—probably a pre-scientific way of explaining epilepsy. As our five students seek a weekend getaway in the woods, they become possessed and face the moral question of just when a person ceases to be human. At what stage does someone have the right to kill someone else? Perhaps unintentionally, the movie gives us the answer, “Never.” This kind of morality has a place in America, one of the very few “first world” nations in which the death penalty is still legal. Often promoted by those dead-set against abortion. Where do we draw the line saying a person has crossed over into the unforgivable other?

The Evil Dead has become a cult classic over the years. Its relatively low budget of less than half-a-million dollars brought an astonishing box office return on the investment. The gore, tame by more modern standards, does not mask that what is really at issue here: the question of right versus wrong. What is truly evil? Sumerians aside, what possesses people and drives them to destroy one another? The Evil Dead, like many horror films, reaches for a religious answer. As the supernatural fog begins to clear, however, we might not like what we see in the clear light of day. Religion may be an excuse, but the assaults upon one another are what Nietzsche famously called “human, all too human.” The sooner we clear our vision and pay attention to what is actually happening, the sooner we can combat the horror.

The Power of Christ Beheads Thee

Yesterday’s news carried the story of Gary Brooks Faulkner, self-appointed Osama bin Laden hunter. Faulkner, on his third trip to Afghanistan, is described as “extremely religious” and “highly intelligent” by his sister. Equipped with night-vision goggles, a pistol, sword, and “Christian texts,” according to the New York Daily News, he plans to behead bin Laden by the power of his (Faulkner’s) faith. Faulkner is fighting kidney failure, a disability he apparently shares with bin Laden, and although he appears to be dying Faulkner said, “God is with me, and I am confident I will be successful in killing him.”

It is hard not to admire a person so driven by conviction. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Jesus instructing his followers to lop off somebody’s head. The incongruity between the insistence of forgiving and loving one’s enemies and the more direct approach of beheading is a wide gulf indeed. At what point does religion become revenge? Is doing unto others as they have done unto you the corollary of its better known anastrophic sibling? Beheading is one of the most degrading forms of execution – although all forms of capital punishment raise serious questions in classical Christianity. What happened to turning the other cheek (neck)?

The image of a lone-ranger mercenary wearing night-vision goggles while toting a 40-inch sword is painfully ironic if not downright reminiscent of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Flying planes into buildings out of hatred for theological differences is even more ridiculous. If people could keep their religious hands to themselves the world might become a much more humane place and the daily news might become just a tad less colorful.


On the way to work yesterday, my wife spotted an old billboard ad that read, “My birthday wish: Protect life from conception until natural death. Jesus.” Now, I realize that this is a belated birthday response (or perhaps premature – scholars of the Christian Scriptures tell me Jesus was likely born in April), but I felt compelled to exegete this wish. In the biblical world, which, by definition, includes Jesus, there was no such thing as conception as we know it. Ancient folk did not know about sperm and ova, and so “conception” was simply the act of carrying a child. When it began they did not know. The Bible is pretty clear that breath indicates life, so life begins at the moment of the first breath. Everyone in the first century knew that.

As a good Jewish believer, Jesus also knew that the Bible dictates scores of reasons that life would not end naturally. Many acts considered normal and healthy today were singled out in the Torah as offenses against the almighty, and many were worthy of the death penalty. If natural death is the divine will, well, father and son ought to have a heart-to-heart talk. I will go on the record as opposed to capital punishment. Heck, I’ll go on the record as a pacifist and a vegetarian too. I do so, however, fully aware that the Bible has a different view.

My concern with billboards like this is that they co-opt a figure who cannot correct the human errors of misreading emotion for righteousness. Anyone with money can make up a birthday wish for Jesus and, with a willing vendor, splay it out for all passing motorists to see. I respect the sanctity of life, but I don’t force my wishes into Jesus’ mouth. We have the Bible, we have brains. For those who want to know what Jesus really wished for, it is a simple a matter as reading a book.