For the People

The complex of holidays that make up the transition from light to darkness represents a different mix, depending where you are. Life on the equator, for example, experiences no real variation in daylight hours and I would expect that equinoxes and solstices are relatively meaningless. Or at least less so than where darkness encroaches. For those of us in temperate zones the difference in day length can be quite dramatic and our holiday calendar guides us through it. Getting through the darkness. So this weekend, on Bonfire Night—also known as Guy Fawkes Night, or November 5—I watched V for Vendetta again. This isn’t actually an annual practice, but some years the need to remember the fifth of November is quite strong. This is one of those years. I can’t remember having ever been this anxious about a presidential election. Tomorrow we are voting on whether we want democracy to continue or if we want a dictator who can stir hate like no candidate I’ve ever seen. He even makes Ronald Reagan look tolerable.

I’ve posted on V for Vendetta before, so I need not go over the story. The theme, however, that governments are to serve the people is a message that bears repeating. Governments are to serve the people. We’ve come to a crises point in self-government. A vote for Trump instead of Hillary is saying “I give up, I want Big Brother to take over.” Perhaps the movie I should reference is 1984. Orwell may have got the year wrong, but the story right. Make people afraid, stir the pot of negativity and they will act in desperation. Reactionary governments quickly become dictatorships and that message, mean-spirited and full of ugliness, has been placed squarely in our faces.

The point of V for Vendetta, and the point on which the movie ends, is that V is each of us. We have the ability to make smart choices just as we have the ability to act out on irrational hatred. Who would’ve thought that election years would become days of such terror? I’ve always felt strongly about social justice, and I always vote with a conscience. I have never voted for a hate-monger or someone who believes the way to help the poor is to give the rich even more. There is a deep perversity here, a cultural psychosis. And the problem is we’re locked into four years of the result. For the sake of human decency and sanity, we all need to get out and vote. And I sincerely believe that pulling that lever is a choice for self destruction (Trump) or a future of new potential (Hillary). I just hope we’re smart enough to make the right choice.

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From Darkness

All things being equal, most religions side with light. Let there be light. Enlightenment. Dewali, the festival of lights. The light of heaven is as much the appeal just as the darkness of hell is its antipode. Today, as the autumnal equinox turns us toward the darker half of the year, many religions mark the occasion with some kind of notice of the fading of the light. In the Celtic calendar, so indicative of the old religions of Europe, the recognition of the triumph of the dark comes at Samhain, or Halloween. It is the realization that darkness always follows light, and even the relative carelessness of summer has its limits. We are, half the year, no matter our location on the globe, in darkness.

Despite the habits of some college-age folk, people are not, by nature, nocturnal. Biology has evolved our sense of daylight, color-rich sight as a main means of our survival. Our religions have taken our fear of the dark and valorized our experience of light. Even as the winter solstice rolls around, festivals of many religions add more and more lights to ward off the encroaching night. The equinox is a moment of stability. It is a tenuous moment, occurring only twice a year, when darkness and light hold an uneasy truce. We are poised to move into shorter days, cooler weather, and the apparent loss of life. There is a melancholy to it, beautiful and compelling, if somewhat sad.

As I reflect on the fading of the light, I realize that the southern hemisphere, whence light seems to be rising, is facing the vernal equinox. Their summer is about to begin. Days will lengthen and light will be abundant. Our religious calendars tend to be keyed to the experience of those in the northern hemisphere. Those in the south, following the dictates of Rome, celebrate Christmas in summer and Easter in the fall. After my rainy visit to Indiana, where, on a rainy Thursday evening I saw a rainbow in the east, I awoke to a rainy Friday and saw a rainbow to the west. Fractured light. The light of a fading day broken into its myriad shades and hues. Light is that way. It is always daylight somewhere in the world, but religions focus on the light where we find ourselves at the moment.

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Ezekiel’s Equinox Paradox

Like the great celestial wheels of antique imagination, the seasons continue their wearisome roll across the earth. On a day long marked as a holiday among those more closely attuned to nature than most modern people in developed nations, we face the beginning of autumn. Change is in the air and already the gray skies that have predominated the eastern seaboard over weeks since Irene seem to have winter on their minds. Changes always call to mind how the human mind tends to divide what it sees into categories. The Bible is one place that this tendency is crucial. The whole scheme behind clean and unclean comes down to the need to make discrete that which nature shamelessly blends. When it comes to deity, the party line has always been (at least in the monotheistic religions) that God is like one of us. We can’t imagine human very well without gender, and so God becomes a guy. Notwithstanding protests to the contrary, early religions did take that distinction literally; divinity and masculinity were of a piece.

This fact makes it all the more intriguing when the Bible itself offers a few passages that call this orthodoxy into question. A few verses explore the trope of God as female, but they quickly back away and revert to the male God when taking on more literal terms. Hebraic culture was monistic, not dualistic. God as “spirit” was not really a possibility in the Hebrew Bible. God as a big man fits the picture better. One of the voices that claims dissent is that of Ezekiel. No surprise there—Ezekiel has been analyzed as everything from a dreamer to a dropper. Ezekiel’s understanding of God, however, is deeply imbued with temple imagery. Ezekiel was a priest without a sanctuary, and so his view of God suffered from temple vision. Nevertheless, the strange account of Ezekiel’s vision of Yahweh coming to Babylonia that opens his book demonstrates a startling lack of clarity when it comes to divine gender.

When two people meet, as psychologists have long noted, the first bit of information they attempt to discern is gender. Perhaps it’s the old fight or flight reflex from our reptilian brains, or maybe it is the opportunistic mating behavior that so obviously characterizes our species, but we are very uncomfortable when we can’t make a gender assignment. It is the whole premise behind Saturday Night Live‘s old sketch of “It’s Pat.” When Ezekiel first espies God he describes the deity in terms of glowing metal. But notice that he begins, “And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about” (1.27). Beginning at the loins the prophet looks the deity up and down and concludes God is like fire. This image does not long survive the vision, for Ezekiel quickly reverts to masculine imagery for God. Even in the face of evidence that God is not gendered, the faithful must make him so, for the age-old appurtenance of male superiority suffers immeasurably without the camaraderie of God.

A Midsummer’s Daydream

Solstices and equinoxes are among the earliest religious festivals in the world. While there is no means of proving this, the signs are fairly indicative; ancient peoples were close watchers of the sky. Like many other species of animals, they used subtle clues to help them determine which direction to go at what time of year. Once agriculture developed, the sky contained the key of when to plant and when to harvest and when to thank the gods. It is no surprise that when the classical religions developed many of their festivals centered around, especially, the equinoxes and the winter solstice. Did they even bother with the summer?

The summer solstice tends to get lost in most modern festive calendars: it is summer, a time when we are busy relaxing—the crops are in the ground, firewood need not be gathered just yet, and life is perhaps just a tiny bit easier (except for those poor kids who still have to finish out the school year!). No cause for wonder that this particular holiday (traditionally Midsummer) is most evident in northern Europe where in just six months days will be dreadfully short and very cold. Midsummer celebrates light, fertility, and healing. Some traditions claim that witches meet on Midsummer as the sun begins, once again, its inexorable journey south (from the northern hemisphere perspective) nearly to disappear in the dark December.

The modern day Midsummer celebration held by reconstructionist Neo-Pagans is Litha. The name is borrowed from the Venerable Bede but the observance of the solstice is certainly authentic. It is often celebrated with fires to shorten the already apocopated night. It is the time when darkness is at bay. It is perhaps telling that the major religions have little to add to days of relatively carefree existence. People need their religion when things go bad, but when the struggle is minimized we might leave angry gods behind for a while and just bask in the ease of it all. But, as the Neo-Pagans and witches know, the longest day of the year also foreshadows the darkness that, until this day next year, will never again allow us as much light.

Northern European Midsummer's bonfire

Dark Side of Religion

Back in August I received a book to review for Relegere, the new online journal for Studies in Religion and Reception. The volume I received was The Lure of the Dark Side: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture, edited by Christopher Partridge and Eric Christianson. I found this assignment to be a felicitous one for many reasons: the book was very interesting, the topic is intriguing, the authors are scholars who take popular culture to be worth serious study, and it exposes the roots of many perceptions of Satan and the demonic in western society today. While I cannot present the whole review here – I would encourage interested readers to explore the appropriate issue of Relegere when it is published – I would feel remiss if I didn’t at least mention a few of the highlights here.

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First of all, the book is a collection of essays that cover the media of music, film, and literature. Many of my students like to point out the propensity of death metal bands for choosing ancient Near Eastern gods and themes for their band names and songs. The first two essays in this book explore black metal and its self-proclaimed Satanic intent. What is interesting here is that what many black metal bands declare as their “religion” does not, in fact, fit with mainline Satanism at all. This aspect of the book is worth reading just to see how religious ideas, both unholy and holy, easily become distorted when transformed into an artistic medium. By far my favorite essays, however, were those that analyzed horror films according to religious themes and concepts. It was refreshing to see serious scholars discussing vampires without flinching, noting how they are part of the same fabric from which religion is cut.

One of the recurrent criticisms of academic writing is that it generally reaches only academic audiences. Certainly at the prices common at academic presses the average layperson would need to be exceptionally motivated to pay out the cost to read what are admittedly generally dry and technical books. Equinox has fortunately released an affordable paperback version of this volume, making the price less of an issue. The content is, for the most part, readily accessible to the general reader. The cover is a tad lurid; when I took it along to the DMV to renew my driver’s license I felt a bit self-conscious in the waiting room. Beyond that, this was a rare academic book that should find a wide readership. For me, the bibliographies and filmographies demonstrated my own deficiencies in keeping up with popular culture. I would recommend it for those with a sturdy constitution who want to know the correct way to dispatch a vampire in the twenty-first century.

The Passover-Easter Complex

Some years back I completed an unpublished book for young readers on the holidays. This project was undertaken because most holidays have a religious origin and because I could find no comparable source for kids to learn this information from a reliable source. Unfortunately publishers have showed little interest. Rather than waste the effort it took to write the book, I have been installing segments here, on the Full Essays page of my blog. Since it is Easter for many Christians today, I have added the next installment: the Passover-Easter Complex. It begins like this:

No doubt the most complicated set of holidays are those that surround the changing of the seasons – the solstices and equinoxes. Among even those holidays, the Passover (Jewish) and Easter (Christian) complexes are especially complex. Like most major holidays these celebrations have very interesting roots. Problem is, it is hard to know where to begin! We’ve already started with Mardi Gras, but that is kind of a festival on its own. To really get started, we have to turn back to the calendar (again?).

Easter, like Passover, is a “moveable feast.” That doesn’t mean playing musical chairs while you eat! It means that the dates change depending on the moon, so to figure out the date you have to (you guessed it) look at the sky. (Actually, these days you can look on the web or in many books used by churches to figure it out. But work with me here, let’s pretend it is, gasp, before these things were invented!) Two days of the year have an equal amount of day and night all around the world, when the earth stands up straight on its axis. Marking the beginning of spring and fall they are called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. (“Equinox” means “equal-night,” “vernal” means “green” or spring, and “autumnal,” duh, “in autumn.”) Back when people had no TV, this was a big thing! Not only was it cool to have equal day and night, in the spring it meant days were finally getting longer and warmer. For ancient people it meant that light was winning the struggle with darkness.

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