Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.


I just finished reading Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. It is a disturbing novel on many levels; even the back-cover comments warn against reading it. The reason for mentioning it on this blog, however, is that it is so full of religious ideas that it would be a shame not to address them here. I won’t put in any spoilers for those who might, even with adequate warning, want to read the book.

The wasp factory of the title is a divination device. The narrator, Frank, does not believe in God because of the unfairness and cruelty in the world, although he is also a frequent perpetrator of cruelty. As he seeks revenge on animals other children, Frank views their suffering as a form of punishment from the God he disbelieves. At one point, after his brother Paul dies, Frank compares him to his old dog Saul, also unfortunately deceased. At this point he reveals, “Paul, of course, was Saul.” Death is the Damascus Road experience in this world devoid of a deity, but one where death is considered far more certain than life. At one point Frank declares the sea to be a mythological enemy, a point of view shared by the Bible and many ancient societies.

Frank is a neurotically ritual-bound individual. No matter how gruesome, his tasks are part of an elaborate system that must be repeated in order to maintain its efficacy. At one stage Frank declares, “this is like intellectuals in a country sneering at religion while not being able to deny the effect it has on the mass of people.” This statement is more insightful than it first appears – it is the dilemma of many who attempt to understand religion who are considered a luxury not to be afforded by society. Frank is a paradigm: people are religious, even in heterodox belief systems. The Religious Right has understood this for decades: talk religious talk and they’ll vote for you. Most people have no way of checking out what form this religion might take. It makes me almost as nervous as The Wasp Factory itself.

Prosperity Update

I didn’t have the opportunity to write a post yesterday because my PowerPoint file for my class had been deleted. I still don’t know how. I’ve been using varieties of the same computer I have now for about 20 years and I’ve never lost a file before. I discovered this, of course, just before I began packing the car with the sherpa-load of equipment that I need to haul the 50 miles to Montclair with me to teach my class twice a week. The loss of the day’s lecture notes weighed heavily on my mind as I climbed into my car and discovered a problem with the electrical system – the blinker lights on the right wouldn’t shut off. (They finally started to behave normally half-way to the university.) And a blizzard was on the way. At times like this my thoughts turn to my prosperity cross.

I wrote about the cross in a previous post where I indicated that I was going to try a good-faith experiment to see if God really wants me to prosper. The last 17 years haven’t been good financially, so I tried my best to believe, and I have been carrying the cross around with me for a few weeks now. In that time I have had a publication rejected, did not get a full-time job after a very good interview, didn’t win the lottery (I bought a ticket as an experiment although I never play normally), my wife had more hours added to her job with no increase in compensation, my health insurance company politely declined to pay for an expensive dental procedure, and I have yet to be paid for my four weeks of teaching at Montclair. Oh, and two cars very nearly collided with me yesterday (not because of my blinker! One tried to pass me on the left as I was making a left turn into a parking spot in a parking lot, the other passed me on a single-lane entry ramp onto the Garden State Parkway while I was merging at the posted speed limit). I’m beginning to think they sent me a defective artifact.

In my prophecy class we’ve been discussing divination. From ancient times people have attempted to discern the will of the gods through a wide variety of techniques. Watching birds in the sky, smoke from altars, oil on water (haven’t discovered smoke on the water yet), casting lots, reading animal livers, and having significant dreams – any of these might reveal the hidden will of the gods. And ancients carried talismans at times to hedge the odds in their favor. We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than that, relying on more updated and civilized ways of influencing the almighty. My pocket cross is one of those modern means to induce divine favor my way. Perhaps I am reporting too soon, since I’ve got a backlog of nearly two decades of financial woes to overcome. In the short term, however, it looks like a real blizzard is on the way.

Secrets of my sucess