Fantasy Land

As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate.  I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far.  Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations.  As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer.  Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field.  I didn’t know that, of course.  Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.

I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies.  There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire.  I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things.  Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive.  Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself.  My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.

Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared.  Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions.  I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so.  As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city.  I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch.  And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all.  If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.

Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

What Rapture

rapturecultureEvangelical culture must be an endlessly fascinating area of study for sociologists. So pervasive that many people who aren’t religious buy into aspects of it, this social movement has shaped American thought in often unexpected ways. Take the rapture, for example. Here is a non-biblical concept, invented in the late nineteenth century and so thoroughly disseminated that most people simply accept it as standard Christian belief. It’s not. Amy Johnson Frykholm pieces part of this puzzle together by focusing on the Left Behind series. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America is one of those books where you find plenty of food for thought as you go along. Not that the novel series itself is profound, but the impact that it has is.

The origins of the rapture go back to a way of thinking called dispensationalist premillennialism. That alone could be why so few people know about it! All this phrase means is that some Christians believe history is divided into distinct periods (dispensations), one of which is the end of the world. Among dispensationalists, there is disagreement on when the rapture will come, and those in the majority believe it will happen before the millennium (not the Y2K millennium, but the millennium of God’s reign on earth before the world ends—the next dispensation). These are the premillennialists. It’s easy to think that since this system is pure mythology it must be simple. It’s not. This is a complex mapping of the future based on an intimate knowledge of obscure verses from the Bible. The Left Behind series, written by Jerry Jenkins under the guidance of the finally departed Timothy LaHaye, brought this idea into mainstream culture. There was even a movie.

Many educated citizens don’t realize that Left Behind has a Harry Potter-like following. Sales of the series are into the millions of units and many of those who read them take them somewhat seriously. Frykholm interviewed such readers to find out what they actually thought about the series and whether it was something they believed in. As might be expected, answers differ considerably on these points. For me one of the real takeaways is that we ignore evangelical culture at our own peril. I learned about the rapture form Chick tracts—I’ve posted about them before—that I read in my childhood. By the time of Left Behind I’d been through enough courses that I knew it was all based on a fictional event. But many don’t realize that. And many of them showed up in the last presidential election.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

True Possession

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Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.

Persistence of Memory

I’ve posted before on sacred geography—the idea that a place is holy for some reason or other. That holiness is very personal, and although some locations seem to draw national, or even international, veneration, special places are intensely individualized. Edinburgh is one of those places for me. I haven’t been here for 21 years, after a stint as a post-graduate that lasted for three years and three months. Walking into Edinburgh from Waverley Station yesterday was overwhelming. Of course, it helped that the sun was shining (somewhat a rarity in these latitudes) and that my daughter was seeing it for the first time. Edinburgh is one of the truly beautiful cities of the world, but in my case, it is also invested with my personal history here. Once I called this city home.

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Wandering about, noticing the changes—Edinburgh has always drawn tourists during the summer—it was clear from the many languages and accents that people from all over the world were exploring the main touristed areas: the Royal Mile, Greyfriars Bobby, Princes Street Gardens-for me the experience seemed to run deeper. They will leave, I hope, with only positive memories of this mystical town, for a fair bit of medieval magic still hovers about it. For those of us who experience Edinburgh as sacred, however, there is good and bad mixed. I not only laughed here, but I cried, I worried, I was frustrated, sad, elated, depressed. I poured myself into a life here that I knew was ephemeral, temporary, destined to pass in the short hours that define one’s young adulthood. How could I have ever left? How can I ever leave again?

Away from the tourists, we wandered back to the places we used to live. How is it even possible, I wondered, staring up at the windows of our old flat, that I was ever bored there? Even the sacred, with constant exposure, becomes profane, I guess. And it requires an absence—perhaps two decades is far too long—to bring it back into focus. I am bursting open here. Some tourists are, I’m sure, busy falling in love with Edinburgh for the first time. For me, it is returning to an old friend. Twenty years of being heartlessly bounced about from job to job make the place I was born seem far less inviting than the streets and alleys that inspired Harry Potter and Waverley. This is the Nunc dimittis of my soul at this very moment. It comes to mind, Faust-like, whenever one enters paradise, knowing it will last for a few moments only.

Parry Hotter

With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, it is clear that the brainchild of J. K. Rowling will live forever. When the books first started to gain popularity numerous Christian groups protested that children would be tempted into witchcraft by the appeal of the young protagonists. Ironically, standard Christian teaching denounces the power of witchcraft, although some groups do still acknowledge a very active devil. Now that the series has run its course–all the movie spin-offs of the novels are complete–many are coming to the realization that the message is profoundly ethical if not downright religious. As usual with knee-jerk protests, the message is missed for the medium, and those with fragile faith clamor for a spell of their own to put an end to opposition.

Joining the bandwagon late, I first started reading the Harry Potter books when the third or fourth volume had been published and public interest was riding high. I haven’t kept up with the movies, however, last watching Goblet of Fire at a theatre in Wisconsin while contemplating my own position at a school like Hogwarts, minus the magic. The books, however, convey the message more clearly–the power of evil is real, good is not always what it seems, and institutions can’t save you. The importance of love (the main thrust, many would contend, of the preaching of Jesus) is the driving force behind the story from the moment Lord Voldemort (the Darth Vader of the twenty-first century) failed to kill young Harry Potter. Perhaps the true concern that many religions have with Rowling’s work is that it has trumped the traditional mythology with a bit more style and panache.

As a regular Protestant Christian, Rowling expresses traditional beliefs in her writing. The fantasy of witchcraft, however, has always maintained a lure for those cut out of society’s pathway to wealth, recognition and ease. In the days before Christianity, the early Israelites believed the power to be real to the point of making witchcraft a capital offence. Of course, omnipotence had not yet been invented. Once a deity becomes all-powerful, why should fear remain concerning magic? More likely protests against Harry Potter had less to do with the witchcraft than with the insecurity that many believers feel about God. The plan doesn’t seem to be unfolding as the Pat Robertsons and Timothy LaHayes are saying it should. Doubt is a much more powerful force, it appears, than magic.

Witch World

Little did I realize when I posted an entry on witches two days ago that the news this week would itself become bewitched. Tuesday’s New Jersey Star Ledger contained a piece entitled “Catholics publish guide to witches and wizards.” Then the next day a former student posted a link to CBC News article headlined “Witches to face prison for false predictions.” Last week the Jehovah’s Witnesses left an issue of Awake! at my door that reveals “The Truth About the Occult.” Coincidence or black magic? Are we really in the twenty-first century? If only employment had the same staying power as superstition there would be no jobless rate to complain about!

The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales is concerned about all the interest Harry Potter is generating. Afraid that tweens and teens might tiptoe into the dark side, the Catholic Truth Society has produced a booklet called “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers.” The booklet, written by a former Wiccan, is a strange answer to J. K. Rowling given that Potter and friends are not members of the Wiccan faith. They are simply fictional witches that haven’t been grounded by the constraints of the Enlightenment. Fantasy grants them their magical powers, not the Devil. In Romania, meanwhile, witches beset by income tax laws are now facing hard time if their predictions don’t pan out. New laws in the economically depressed nation would require witching permits to be obtained and receipts to be given to customers. This is not to sweep out paganism, but to gain some lucre from it. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are just concerned that occult practices, often seen as mere entertainment, might lead the younger generation down the road to sex and violence.

I was disabused of belief in witches before I failed out of kindergarten the first time. Teaching religion and mythology classes at two major universities, I see students from many different backgrounds trying to improve their minds. But once the sun goes down a backlash against the empirical method is nightly unleashed. I’m not sure whether to pick up my Kant and Descartes or my mugwort and rosemary. Religion breeds these darker manipulators of magic, a force against which many fear God has no recourse. So in our world of high tech gadgets and space stations and cyclotrons, we still have to worry about witches. Theirs is a metaphor yet to be fully appreciated.

Weird sisters or strange attractors?

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Last night I watched Les Choristes, the 2004 film that received two Academy Award nominations. The story, set in a school for troubled boys in France, felt eerily familiar. Not only did it resurrect the ghosts of Dead Poets Society, it felt like a page – or a substantial chapter – from my own life. The movie was recommended to my wife by one of my colleagues at Nashotah House, an institution that the film strangely resembles. The more I pondered the implications of a small school run by an authoritarian headmaster full of students with malevolent tendencies, the more I realized how much my Nashotah House experience has set the tone for much of my life. While I was at Nashotah, P. D. James’ murder-mystery novel, Death in Holy Orders came out. Immediately students and faculty began to speculate that James must have known of or have visited the seminary. Similarly, the Harry Potter novels led many to compare Nashotah to a decidedly less magical Hogwarts. Some of the students even honored me as the putative master of Ravenclaw.

My personal experience with religious institutions has led me to conclude that they indulge themselves in doling out the abuse that only religious sanction permits. I had attended the Presbyterian-affiliated Grove City College where chapel attendance was mandatory. My experience at Boston University School of Theology convinced me that seminaries were not a good fit for most people, particularly those like myself. I left declaring I would teach anywhere but a seminary. There is no balm in Gilead.

Forever after, any small, religious school with dark secrets would be my Nashotah House. But the problem is much wider than that. Religions seek to control. Some manage to do so benevolently, but too often the human element eclipses the divine. It is a temptation, when in positions of religious leadership, to insist that one’s personal outlook is correct. We all believe that our views are right. Those who receive the holy unction of an institution have the means to make it so. It is not Nashotah House, but human nature. When religious leaders confuse divinity and authority, that is when trouble inevitably begins.

The Original Mud-bloods

“Let Nintu mix clay with his flesh and blood.
Let that same god and man be thoroughly mixed in the clay.”

This quote is from the myth of Atrahasis (Benjamin Foster’s translation; my Akkadian’s a bit shaky these days), an early version of the flood story. Although I have a burning itch to write about the flood, I would rather focus on the creation of humanity in this post. Maybe it is because in my unemployed mode it is easy to think of myself as only dirt and blood, but maybe it is because in my evening class we’ve just been talking about creation stories.

One of the benefits of polytheism is the lack of a pressing need to ascribe uniformity to your myths. Ancient peoples who believed in a multiplicity of gods had a wide variety of versions about how the world was created, where people came from, who sent the flood, and so forth. They were not writing about what actually, factually happened — these were myths, for the gods’ sake! Nobody was there to see the creation of humanity, so who’s to say what really happened? One element that is repeated in ancient accounts, however, is the creation of people from dirt.

Perhaps it is because people often treat each other like dirt, frequently with religious motivation, but a more likely explanation is that in ancient times the dead were known to return to soil after they were buried. Logic dictates that if the dead turn to dirt, their living version must have been created from dirt. So far, so good. But dirt isn’t exactly alive. The ancients differed on what animated this soil with a soul.

The Bible presents a lofty account of God breathing air into the soil-man. It is clear that the Hebrew Bible equates breathing to being alive. A person is alive when they first breathe; when they stop breathing, they die. At the same time, blood is an essential component too. This is so much the case that the Bible dictates that “the blood is the life” (Deuteronomy 12.23). For this idea the Israelites were indebted to the Mesopotamians. As seen in the Atrahasis Epic, humans are a mix of clay and the blood of the gods, the original mud-bloods. For all their differing opinions, the ancients realized that in this messy world of dirt and dread, human beings, for all their problems, had a bit of the gods within their very veins.

Harry Potter and the Evangelical Emperor

There’s a chill in the air this morning that warns of impending winter and the visceral melancholy of autumn’s graceful death. As I try to warm up like a lizard awaiting the ascending sun, I think that maybe I’d better write this post before everyone forgets Harry Potter completely. It is the beginning of the witching season as sometime late tonight fall officially begins and people in temperate climes are permitted to show their fears as the barrier between seasons becomes effaced and the darkness slinks in. A few Harry Potter novels ago, a local town in Wisconsin sponsored a downtown release party for the book with a street-fair sporting a feel of general bonhomme. While sauntering down the incongruously sun-lit streets, enjoying the sense of people just having fun, I spotted this man with a placard across the street.

No caption necessary!

No caption necessary!

The truly scary part of this scenario is that I knew exactly where this fellow was coming from: the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and evil. Strangely enough, there was no such dividing line for fact and fiction. Yes, I knew that the Bible condemns witchcraft, but I also knew that J. K. Rowling was a fiction writer. I had read the Bible enough times to know that it contains no commandments about what genre of fiction is permissible and to know that some biblical heroes were deeply flawed characters. Jonah and his big fish. David and the giant monkey on his back. Hezekiah and his doubts. I can’t pretend not to know the searing sting of needing a clear answer, and yet I had already discovered the infinite shades of gray that reside between pure white and absolute black. Bible covers should all be gray.

That very year a conservative evangelical administration had axed a highly praised job of over a decade’s duration, believing it to be in the name of righteousness. A conservative evangelical president was unleashing hellish terror on a country that had the misfortune of being the victim of a bloodthirsty dictator. And this man with a placard felt he had to underscore that even a flight of fantasy on a broomstick over a quidditch field of imagination was evil incarnate. Once again my mind turned to Molech, the perhaps fictional Canaanite deity who is never satisfied. In the Bible it was enough simply to believe that people were sacrificing their children to the fiery Molech. “White and black,” I could almost hear the tremulous author whispering as he penned his horrid fiction. History tends to paint a different picture, but then, historians make liberal use of the myriad shades of gray.

Man and Womandrakes

With the recent release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in theaters, young minds (or at least juvenile ones!) turn once again toward things magical. Anthropologists find difficulty in distinguishing between magic and religion, and many kids have been introduced to religious themes through this series of books and movies. I admit to having read the books and even having seen some of the films, and one of the memorable mythical sub-supporting characters that captured my attention was the mandrake. My first exposure to this herbological wonder was, naturally, the Bible. (Well, after Mandrake the Magician, of course.)

The tale of Reuben’s mandrakes in Genesis 30 shows a hint of that old white magic. Rachel bargains sex for mandrakes and the next time she is mentioned she becomes pregnant. Mandrake roots are often claimed to have anthropomorphic qualities – just how anthropomorphic depends on the imagination and how many the viewer has ingested. In the Middle Ages, the roots were classified as mandrake and womandrake!

Womandrake and Mandrake from a 12th-century manuscript

Womandrake and Mandrake from a 12th-century manuscript

Even in ancient times they were revered as aphrodisiacs. The Bible has plenty of these quasi-magical moments, often explained away as “folk beliefs” by literalists with a nervous laugh. To me they are part of the charm of a Bible unashamed of its roots.

The mandrake (mandragora officinarum) is a Mediterranean plant that had medicinal, and likely “religious” usages in the ancient world. A natural narcotic, the plant is poisonous in sufficient dosages, and it was used as an ancient kind of anesthetic, having been available long before whiskey. When a mandrake was uprooted, its humanesque tuber was thought to emit such a horrendous cry so as to drop the uprooter dead. Dogs were therefore tied to mandrake roots and prodded or urged to run, extracting the plant and dying in the process. Before calling the good folks at PETA, please note that no dogs were harmed in the writing of this post! Although this legend has a distinctly medieval bouquet, it is a method of mandrake hunting actually cited as long ago as Josephus. The mandrake has long arrested the human imagination. From Rachel to Pomona Sprout, the mandrake has not lost its potency for mystical mischief.
"Man"drake, 'nuff said (from Sibthorpe's Flora Graeca, 1808)