Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

After Darkness

Some historians, I suspect, despair of the volumes already written on all periods, ancient and modern. History, however, can cover a variety of segments of time. A. Roger Ekirch, for example, thought to write a fascinating history of darkness. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is a thoughtful exploration of what night has historically meant. For those of us born in the era of constant light, the realities of what it was like after dark in the past are almost unimaginable. I’m sure Ekirch didn’t intend it to be so somber, but the reality of frequent crime in unlit regions made reading much of this book a sober experience. Confident of their ability to get away with it, many up until modern times took advantage of the night to commit all kinds of crimes. Makes you kind of want to check the door locks once again before turning in.

Much, but increasingly less, of our lives is spent in sleep. The advent of artificial light has led to changes in lifestyle that, according to biology, aren’t terribly healthy. The natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness may be challenged by jobs or enticements to stay up late and surf the web or any number of other factors. Now that light has become so very portable in the form of smart phones and tablets, even less of darkness remains. Although it’s a bit repetitive and not laid out chronologically, At Day’s Close contains many provocative observations about the dark. There’s even a bit about monsters.

Night has always been symbolic. Death and fear were associated with night early on, and we still call the era of scientific progress the Enlightenment. Churchmen (for it was an age of such) tended to condemn night as evil, the Devil’s time. Not all agreed, for some considered the dark a creature of God and complained of the hubris of setting up lights at night. The religious symbolism of night is very rich and very ancient. Those of us used to artificial light have difficulty imagining what it took to navigate after dark in ages past. More than an annoyance, night could be a truly dangerous time. Dreams, once mainly the products of the night, also had religious significance before being rationally explained. The industry of banishing night also has, in some respects, the effect of banishing dreams. We should stop and think before we put night to flight. Half of our time is spent in darkness, and all of our time is highly symbolic.

Spectral Parable

1692. The Enlightenment is reaching toward full swing. In what will become blue Massachusetts, women are condemned for being witches. The proof to make such a conviction is difficult to obtain without resorting to “spectral evidence.” The Republicans of the era, who would otherwise reject such obvious speculation, greedily swallow the fake news by the mouthful. This is just the kind of smoking musket they’ve been seeking. Spectral evidence can’t be reproduced in court because it’s supernatural. Anything can be fake news if you bluster loudly enough. Even the judges, one can imagine, could put the accusations made against their own wives and selves into that category. The Devil, they say, is a shape-shifter.

Menelaus had Proteus pinned. The water god also known as “the Old Man of the Sea” could change shapes at will. Shifting from tree to snake to lion to water, Proteus couldn’t escape Menelaus’ grasp. At last the Old Man had to reveal the truth. Such is the nature of evidence. Speculative ideas are as easily built as walls to separate countries—easier, in fact. With a certain amount of braggadocio anything is believable. They say there are still mammoths roaming in the Russian steppe. Did Watergate really happen at all? Isn’t this evidence just spectral? Meanwhile we’ve got all these women here waiting to be hanged—shouldn’t we just get on with it?

The rule of law, I heard in a discussion in Jeff Bezos’ boathouse one summer, is inevitable. Once the concept takes hold it won’t be undone. At the far end of the table I disagreed. Nobody liked what I said, and I took my solace with Cassandra. Who reads Greek mythology any more anyway? The greatest minds of Massachusetts Bay Colony, even those with Harvard educations, admitted that what was seen in adolescent visions of the night was just as real as what happened in the cold light of day. What do you think we are—gullible or something? Meanwhile the Old Man of the Sea gave his name to an adjective most useful for white men in authority. The rule of law, indeed the concept of Truth itself, is a most protean entity. Like water it can be a man or it can be a god. It all depends on your perspective. A fox can be as dangerous as a lion. Proteus even changed into a pig when the need became great. What say you, judges of Oyer and Terminer? Do you accept the evidence or not?

Photographic Evidence

All photographs are lies. That moment preserved, formerly on celluloid but now with electrons, is gone for good as soon as the shutter is snapped. The camera doesn’t see as the eye sees. I was reminded of this during a mountain thunderstorm. I awoke early, coated with jet lag and the residue of my regular early morning schedule. It was still dark, but the reddish sunlight soon wrestled through a valley fed by a creek across the lake. The color was impressive, but my camera washed it out to a diluted Creamsicle orange. In reality the clouds were roiling overhead and lightning was streaking through a thunderhead like synapses firing violently in a massive brain. Thunder in the mountains can’t be photographed. Nor can it be forgot.

My work used to require quite a bit of travel. Before I would visit a campus I would spend some time on faculty pages, trying to put faces together with names. Impressed with how young these professors were, I’d knock on doors armed with foreknowledge of who might greet me. I wondered who these older people were when the door actually opened. It’s disconcerting to see someone age before your eyes. I would think back to the photographs online that had assured me this person would be much younger. The picture was a fossil. A moment frozen in time. The very next second after the photo capture that smiling face had changed. The best that we can hope for is a gross approximation.

Perceptions of reality, as all religions teach us, contain a healthy dose of illusion. While it contains ethereal beauty, this vision I’ve captured in my lens is only part of the picture. There is something deeper, more meaningful behind it. Photographs enhance memory. In the days before Photoshop they could be submitted as proof of an occurrence. They are a form of art. Whatever else they may be, they are also lies. Lies need not be of evil intent. Religions try to explain what some privileged individual realized was the truth. These who found a way of looking behind the photograph. The streaking lightning outside evades the slowness of my finger on the button. The thunder rolling and re-echoing through these valleys will remain in my head long after the sound waves cease to reverberate. Reality is more than it seems. Even my experience of this mountain thunderstorm is that of a single individual seeking enlightenment. Elsewhere others are up early, observing it too. What they experience may be something very different from me indeed. I have a photograph to prove it.

Getting Exorcise

ExorcismTo be honest, I can’t recall having heard of Johann Joseph Gassner before. Given his role in the European witch-hunting culture, however, I must have read his name a time or two. As with most names out of context, it was quickly forgotten. H. C. Erik Midelfort, therefore, is to be congratulated with bringing out not only Gassner’s name, but his remarkable career. Exorcism and Enlightenment: Johann Joseph Gassner and the Demons of Eighteenth-Century Germany, like so many other books, came to my attention in a bookstore. Books on demons have a strange kind of draw to someone interested in both religion and monsters, and since it was on an overstock shelf, I found it impossible to let it lie. This proved to be a wise decision.

Midelfort proves himself one of the rare academics who doesn’t talk down to his readership, yet makes what could be a complex topic understandable. Complex is about the only word to describe what would become Germany in the Eighteenth Century. The remnants of the Holy Roman Empire left a divided region with prince-bishops—clerics with political control outside their own dioceses—vying for all kinds of authority. Although the Enlightenment was well underway, the region was embroiled in the controversy of a priest by the name of Gassner. Gassner was a healer, but also an exorcist. Believing that many torments suffered by the populace were demon-spawned, he used highly public and, to some, incredible exorcisms before healing those in need. His success was unquestioned, but the church, struggling between Catholicism and Lutheranism, as well as struggling to find a place in the Enlightenment world, found Gassner a bit of an embarrassment. What do you do with demons in a world where science says they don’t exist?

One of the most notable takeaways from Midelfort’s book, for me, is that the Enlightenment did not suddenly change the world. Even fully aware of empirical experimentation and the use of reason, the scholarly world did not utterly acquiesce to a subdued materialism. It still hasn’t. As the case of Gassner demonstrates, our comfortable, physically predictable world holds some surprises for us yet. At least for Gassner, believing demons don’t exist doesn’t stop them from tormenting people. As he cured his thousands, skeptics gathered (including his contemporary Franz Mesmer) to explain away what was happening. Even today, as Midelfort points out, we can’t explain the placebo effect. There’s no question, however, that it works. As does, if the media is to be believed, the occasional exorcism in the twenty-first century.

Witch Way

WitchCraze2Women generally bear the brunt of religious intolerance. This is an evil that has proven tenacious and insidious, and which has played out in history far too many times. Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany brought this home to me once again. Books on witch hunts are deeply disturbing, but we need to engage with the brutality of the past if we want to prevent its reappearance. Roper points out that although many nations persecuted “witches” in the Middle Ages, even into the early modern period, Germany by far had the highest numbers. There were probably many reasons—no simplistic answer meets all the clues. One is clearly related to politics. Germany lacked the central cohesion of other European nations in this period. Feuding princedoms from a fragmented Holy Roman Empire had no strong central authority. When it is everyone for themselves, scapegoats are never far off. Roper doesn’t leave it at that. She points out that the central characteristic of the witch is the intent to harm Christians. Indeed, the witch is a monster born of religion, and which murdered thousands of women in the name of Christianity.

Compounding this unrealistic fear that Christians have always seem to have had, was the emerging Reformation. Distrust erupted in Germany. Was one’s neighbor a Lutheran or a Catholic? In either case, the other was heretical, from someone’s point of view. Distrust ran at premium prices. And women picked up the bill. Yes, there were male witches, most of them associated with women who’d been accused, as Roper points out. Even as the Enlightenment was burgeoning, renewed hunts for witches broke out, leaving innocent women dead in a land that valued fertility perhaps above all else. Women’s bodies, as Roper notes, were to focus of suspicion and fear on the part of a male power structure that dealt with its phobias by the use of violence. Even the Enlightenment couldn’t wipe this slate clean.

Today in the western world, secular thought has replaced superstition for many people. Women are not longer accused of witchcraft. Besides, witchcraft is a chic new religion in many places. But the longed-for equality is still not here. In many parts of the world religious violence is still directed at females by male power structures that should’ve died out with the fading of medieval Teutonic anxieties. Those who perpetrate such violence hide behind scriptures—even the Hebrew Bible acknowledges the reality of witches. Religion creates its own cadre of monsters, and those with stout conviction look for women to blame. The flames of the pyres did not lead to a universal enlightenment and the Tea Party tells us Christianity is still endangered in a world where it may spread largely unhindered. One truth, however, remains. The truly endangered are women, and men who don’t fight against the real monsters do not deserve to be called defenders of the faith.

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.

John_Speed's_map_of_Oxford,_1605.

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.