Not Quite Thursday

I discovered Jasper Fforde, as these things so often happen, at the recommendation of a friend.  A writer of rare talent, he’s conjured a few meta-worlds where fiction is the subject of fiction.  Probably best known for his Thursday Next novels, the premise is that fiction can be distorted by malevolent sorts within the Book World, which is like the Outside (our world) only much more interesting.  The sole problem with series is that in order to follow the storylines, you need to be able to recall where things were left the last time.  That’s complicated when you don’t read the books in order.  I haven’t followed Thursday Next in sequence—I find Fforde’s books sporadically and pick them up when I do (I prefer not to buy fiction on Amazon, for some reason).

The latest installment I found is One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.  It’s a bit more convoluted than the last plot I recall, but the writing is still good.  In this story, which mostly takes place in Book World, the written Thursday Next has to find the real Thursday Next (who is, of course, also written, thus the “meta” I mentioned earlier).  This is probably not the best place to start the series for neophytes.  There was an interesting aspect, however, that I feel compelled to share.  The majority of this novel takes place on an island dedicated to fiction, divided into different “countries” by genre.   Just north of Horror and east of Racy Novel is Dogma.  It’s just southeast of the Dismal Woods.  This plays into the plot, of course, but the placement is interesting.  As Thursday tells it, the full name of the region is Outdated Religious Dogma.  Then I realized something.

Simply placing Dogma on this island plays into the idea that religious thought is fiction.  There are other islands in Fforde’s world, including non-fiction.  Dogma, of course, is not the same as religion.  The definition of dogma is something that is incontrovertibly true, by the authority that states it.  Problem is, nothing is inconvertibly true any more (if it ever was).  When Christianity ruled Europe, such ideas became highly politicized.  Indeed, parts of the world could well have fit into the Book World map.  Fforde’s novel is really just for fun, and Dogma doesn’t play a major role in the story.  That doesn’t prevent it, however, from being a legitimate point over which to pause and wonder.  Fiction can be factual, but not in a dogmatic way.

Enoch Enough

For a person referenced so little in the Bible, Enoch captured popular imagination in a way difficult to comprehend.  Even in ancient times speculation about him was rampant.  The seventh generation from Adam, and great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch lived a remarkably short 365 years before “he was not, for God took him.”  Now, there are lots of obscure people in the Bible.  Many of them have very little afterlife in later tradition.  Enoch, however, became the putative author of a collection of booklets that goes by the name of 1 Enoch.  This book fed speculation in antiquity and became a vehicle for many esoteric traditions that continue even into the present day.  It might seem that there’s little information to go on for an entire book, but James C. VanderKam’s Enoch: A Man for All Generations finds plenty of material with which to work.

A careful scholar like VanderKam doesn’t delve much into speculation, and he rather cautiously examines many of the ancient texts that discuss Enoch and draws some basic conclusions.  There’s a lot of information in this book.  With my own fascination concerning the Bible and popular culture, what stood out to me was how Enoch went from the “mere” man who didn’t die to become, in some traditions, the Metatron, or “the lesser Yahweh.”  Having been a fan of Dogma since teaching at the perhaps too sanctimonious Nashotah House, I’d never researched the late, great Alan Rickman’s character.  I supposed the Metatron was a character like the Muse—some extra-biblical quasi-divine functionary thrown in for fun.  I didn’t doubt such a figure was known in early Jewish or Christian writings, but I had no idea that Enoch had been promoted to that level.

Since I’ve been researching demons lately, the book of 1 Enoch has been a major source of interest.  One of its sections, The Book of the Watchers, expands on that odd story from Genesis 6 where the sons of God lust after the “daughters of men.”  Ever coy, the biblical passage doesn’t directly say that their offspring were giants, but this idea was developed by sources like 1 Enoch.  And these fallen angels—the nephilim—in some traditions, become demons.  Studying Enoch is a fine introduction to a mythological world every bit as rich as Dogma.  These characters—Enoch, nephilim, watchers, and demons—populated the imagination of early readers of the Good Book as much as they do modern speculators’ worlds.  Not bad for a character barely mentioned at all in the Bible.

Colorful States

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Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Fresh Thinking

Lateral Thinking_0001Creativity receives an immense amount of lip service. Too bad that doesn’t correlate to actual appreciation. I’ve been working since I was 14. In all the jobs I’ve had, the first was the one that used my creativity most fully. I was a teenage assistant-janitor, doing manual labor. Laborers have great incentive to be creative since it can reduce the amount of work you have to do. Of course, at other times it can create more work. While I was teaching (the second-most creative job I’ve held), I picked up Edward de Bono’s classic, Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. Shortly after purchasing it I lost my teaching job with a change of administration and I’ve been involved in the least creative phase of my career ever since—publishing. I hope that I’m still a lateral thinker, and I read de Bono wishing to verify that I might be.

Lateral thinking, simply put, is the ability to see things differently. Logical thinking, with which we’re all familiar, is linear, or what de Bono calls “vertical.” Each step is based on the previous step and each step has to be right all the time. My mind, however, finds avenues out to wander among the daisies during the whole process. My interior dialogue is often a long stream of “what ifs” and questioning why things are done the way they are. I guess it’s no wonder that the church was leery of me. Lateral thinking, de Bono notes, does not sit well with dogmatism, nor with the arrogance of presuming you’re already right. If you’ve already got the answers, you need not ask any more questions. You go to seminary to learn to shore up the party line. Individual thinking is unwanted, and what’s more, it’s even dangerous.

So I have moved into the realm of business which, it would seem, stands to gain the most from creativity. Instead, standard business practices hamper, if not actively discourage, creativity. Having people sit in cubicles and maintaining rigid, often long, hours, and performing tasks that a lemur could be trained to handle. This is hardly the breeding ground of new ideas. I’ve attended “brainstorming” sessions in the industry where the leader shoots down immediately any idea that doesn’t lock-step with where s/he believes the company should be going. That’s not brainstorming, it’s brainwashing. Creativity may indeed lead to a temporary loss of profits. The truly creative business mogul will know, however, that it will lead to great leaps ahead further down the road. If you want to find the truly creative among the company, I suggest one place to go. Ask the janitors. Their ideas are likely the most creative of all.

Sporting Chance

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I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?

Personal Dogma

Dogma is a movie that many seminarians discover at some point in their theological education. Smart, funny, and irreverently reverent, the film follows the exploits of a couple of misled angels trying to get back into Heaven and thereby negating all of existence. It is no surprise, given Kevin Smith’s origin myth, that the film opens and closes in New Jersey, but I often ponder the strange coincidence of places in the movie to places I’ve lived since my own seminary career began (and ended, rather like the massacre scene in Red Bank before God cleaned it all up). Nashotah House, where I discovered Dogma, is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the state to which Bartleby and Loki, the two angels, have been banished. The means of their escape from this upper-Midwest purgatory is a church in New Jersey. Along their way the angels pass through Illinois and Pittsburgh, before crossing into the very state where God is located throughout the movie (the Garden State, of course!). After having been summarily dismissed from my seminary post in Wisconsin (not for watching Dogma, I’m assured), I too headed for New Jersey. Before that I had lived for a while in Illinois (home of Bethany) and Pittsburgh (home of Moobie). Watching Dogma is in many ways a reflection of a journey that I’ve accidentally undertaken.

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Another kind of dogma seems to be at work in the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The Associated Press announced that 21 cases of childhood measles had broken out in the church, particularly among the homeschooled and unvaccinated. Fears of inoculating against a pre-medieval faith have led many of those who trust their own knowledge above that of the collective specializations of educators, to put their children at risk for the sake of belief. The belief, perhaps unsurprisingly, is poorly informed. One of the pastors of EMIC (!) has been encouraging vaccination as biblically sanctioned. If not for the sake of your children, for the sake of the scriptures…

Vaccination, in various forms, was developed in both Christian and pagan contexts. The earliest examples come from Asia where the plagues sent by the devil were resisted with human ingenuity. It takes a paranoid twenty-first century, first-world faith to suppose saving our children is some kind of conspiracy. “Let the one without germs,” we can almost hear them say, “throw their tissues away first.” In my Pittsburgh days, I was very much a literalist. How surprised I was to see Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood playing an angst-ridden nun, derailed by an exegesis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Dogma. Although the Neighborhood is “anytown” those of us locals knew that Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh. Lady Betty Aberlin was the niece of King Friday XIII, and only those with no conspiratorial imagination would suggest it is merely coincidence that her cousin is named Kevin. With or without dogma.

Chronicle Illness

In a completely innocent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum wrote about the use of singular “they.” I won’t try to summarize his work here—it is quite fine the way he writes it. What I would like to note, however, is what was likely an unintentional grammatical association that is quite profound. In two consecutive paragraphs, Pullum requires a synonym for someone who is unwilling to listen because they’ve already made up their mind. His choices are those who believe in “unquestioned dogma” and those who hold a “resolutely and hermetically theological view.” Both phrases indicate those who unswervingly accept religious belief. The article is lightheartedly written, and quite witty, but there is something serious here. Religion has built itself into the great bastion of intolerance.

The more I contemplated this correlation, the more it became clear—when we need to express someone’s complete devotion to unquestioned propositions, even when reason dictates conclusively that they are wrong, we are in the realm of religion. Religions may accept one another, but as long as truth is at stake, and as long as truth is one, there will always abide that smug satisfaction of knowing that my religion is at least a smidgeon closer to that truth than yours. Such thoughts, when matured and fully-grown, are bound to cast the seeds of intolerance abroad. Religions don’t take prisoners. Having spent a lifetime studying religions I’m not so crass as to put them all in the same cage together (that would be cruel), but history has demonstrated that when properly provoked any religion will turn intolerant. The provocation is mostly just daily life.

Literary folks have thousands of tomes full of words and ideas from which to draw. One of the joys of reading is finding so many ways of expressing that which we experience in fresh and insightful ways. With all these words and concepts from which to choose, the most immediately recognized to express unwillingness to listen belong to religion. Listening to Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI, it is not hard to see why. Religions give the world much more than reasons to fear, distrust, and hate others. But they do include these components as well. The only way to change this image is replacing the arrogance of dogma with the willingness to listen with humility. If religions would do this, there would be room for everyone in this conversation; they’d like that, wouldn’t they?