What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.
An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.
We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.
Posted in Bible, Books, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Brian P. Levack, Calvinism, demons, exorcism, Jesus, Roman Catholicism, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West, The Exorcist, witch-hunts
I was reading the account of the Transfiguration the other day, the way that you do, when a thought occurred to me. How did Pete, Jim, and John know that Moses was there? Yes, Elijah came along too, but the Bible physically describes Elijah. They at least knew what he wore. But Moses lived some thousand years before and the Good Book says nothing about what he looked like or his clothes. Fashions didn’t change so quickly back then. When they did it was often because an invading army from another nation was living in your town. If you wanted to blend in you’d start dressing like a Persian. Or an Assyrian. Otherwise people tended to have a set of clothes that might help identify them at a distance. But holy Moses…
One of the commandments he handed down declared images to be prohibited. There were no pictures made of Moses, no portraits. Our view of Moses comes from sources like Michelangelo and the Charlton Heston character based on Michelangelo’s vision. The inner circle of disciples could presumably make some educated guesses—Moses would be bearded, but so would most men. Beyond that, how do you recognize someone who’s been dead for over a millennium and for whom no images or recordings were ever made? Peter was so confused he suggested camping out on the mountain in housing with private booths. Was it something Moses said that gave him away?
Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons
Or did he have a shiny face and/or horns? The Hebrew Bible’s a bit unclear on the point. Horns, far from being a symbol of the Devil in those days, were a sign of divinity. All the gods were wearing them. Call it divine fashion. Uncomfortable with the implications, later readers decided the Hebrew word meant something like “shining” or “glowing.” That fits in well with the Transfiguration theme, but horns had been signs of power and authority for millennia. Rewriting history, however, has become the fashion of this day. Picture the scene: four men on a mountain top, a bright cloud comes down and engulfs them. Now there are six, a holy half-dozen. Moses, tradition said, had been translated to Heaven. Same was true of Elijah. But also Enoch. Of the three only Enoch has no recorded words in canonical scripture. Then suddenly the mountaintop experience is over and the apostles have to face another Monday. At least they’d had a glimpse of Moses and apparently had no doubt of who he was.
A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.
You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.
Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.
Posted in Bible, Books, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged Christianities, Dead Sea Scrolls, Gnosticism, Gospels, heresy, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, Jesus, Nag Hammadi, Philip Jenkins
It’s all about Jesus. Well, that’s an overstatement, even in context. One of the amazing things to me about books addressing the Bible in film is just how often Jesus movies come up. If it’s not Jesus movies, it’s movies that have a “Christ figure” or some such Christian trope. Don’t get me wrong—I have no issues with Jesus. It’s just that the Bible and film have so much more in common than this. David Shepherd’s edited collection, Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, has some insightful pieces in it and some of what has become “standard fare” already in a field that’s so new. I found Richard A. Blake’s response fascinating. Maybe this was because he doesn’t approach the topic from a biblicists’ point of view.
I’m not really complaining about scholars who look to cinema for a rich source of reception history. I do it myself from time to time. Most of the books on this topic are collections of essays and collections are, by default, uneven. There’s an amazing amount of biblical material in movies that simply goes overlooked. Also, I would suggest, movies offer valid interpretations of the Bible. Somewhere along the development of the discipline we seem to have slipped into thinking that only certain people can legitimately interpret the Good Book. If it is a sacred text, however, it is as much in the public domain as any text can be. And texts in the public domain can legitimately be interpreted by hoi polloi. That’s the nature of being a text with universal assertions, I suspect. Directors and writers, therefore, are legitimate interpreters. We could learn a lot about the Bible from going to the theater.
Like many who’ve taught Bible to undergrads, I sometimes discussed films with them. I always believed students were legitimate interpreters of Scripture, too. This is a dialogue. One of the more interesting aspects of Shepherd’s collection is the pieces that focus on non-Hollywood movies. I don’t see a problem discussing Hollywood since we can assume a larger body of those who’ve seen the film. It is nice, however, to be reminded that “foreign” films also delve into what is sometimes treated as propriety material by Christians. Hindu representations of the life of Jesus? That’s a very interesting idea! Of course, not everyone likes to know how “outsiders” see them. That’s one of the beauties of using cinema as a means of interpreting the Bible. Those of us who study it don’t have the money to influence movies enough to make them in our image. It’s fun to watch someone else’s interpretation.
Posted in Bible, Books, Higher Education, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Bible and film, David Shepherd, Hollywood, Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, Jesus, reception history, Richard A. Blake