Joban Vampires

Interview VampireThe first vampire novel I ever read, I remember correctly, was one of the Dark Shadows series written by Marilyn Ross. I don’t recall which one, since I had to buy my books from Goodwill or some such vender utilized by the poor. Now, I’m really a squeamish guy and the sight of blood bothers me. Barnabas Collins, however, was a compelling character—deeply conflicted and a reluctant vampire. The combination of his sadness and the setting in coastal Maine kept me looking for Dark Shadows books every time we went shopping. It surprised me, given all that, that I had such difficulty getting into Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. I started reading it years ago (it was also a second-hand copy, and, interestingly, the color scheme of the cover nearly matched Dark Shadows novels) and some eighty pages in put it down only to forget about it. Starting from the beginning a few weeks ago, I gave it another try. Although Louis is a conflicted vampire, the pace is languid and it was almost as if the self-pity was overdone. I was determined this time, however, to see it through.

One of the recurring themes of the book, and I presume the Vampire Chronicles series, is that vampires are not evil because of the Devil. In fact, there is nothing Satanic about them. Blame tends to fall on God for their state. The more I thought about it, the more the theodicy of the vampire began to resemble that of Job. Like Job, death for a vampire takes a long time. There is much suffering along the way. Louis can love, in a measure, and can loath himself. He never really understands what it is to be a vampire. The other undead he meets help to define him, but he can’t get too close. His life is a kind of Hell without Satan.

Rice’s vampires don’t fear crucifixes or shun churches. In fact, Louis takes a priest as one of his victims, sacramentally near an altar in a church. Religious imagery and discussion abound in the book. It truly is a vampire theodicy. Perhaps, for its day, it was the next step in vampire evolution. Bram Stoker, while the most famous contributor to the modern vampire myth, didn’t corner the market on defining the undead. When Louis meets vampires of the old world, they are mindless, plodding killing machines that even other vampires avoid. Rice’s vampires feel, think, and yes, theologize. I feel strangely satisfied now that I’ve finally finished the Interview. It was a vampire at my bedside for so long that it feels like an accomplishment to have finally laid it to rest.

Dark Sight

TimeDarkBarbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.

The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.

Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.

No Noah

Noah2014Poster

I haven’t seen Noah yet; the timing didn’t work out this past weekend. Besides, you don’t always get to see what you want. Nevertheless, the critics are already having a go at it, and the movie is gathering such attention because it is of biblical proportions. Or more properly, of biblical origins. One commentary in The Guardian suggests that, since knowledge hasn’t moved since Aristotle, that gods really have no place in movies. I have to wonder about that. Sure, the wealthy and powerful seldom have a need for gods, being the captains of their own destinies. Until it comes time to face the flood that all mortals face, and even the rich have to acknowledge that no ark is big enough to take it with them. Who wouldn’t want to have a little divine intervention then? Indeed, God strikes me as the almost perfect antagonist. Before you begin to hurl your stones this direction, think of the book of Job, underrepresented at the box office, but about as honest as they come. We, like Noah, are not in control of this vessel.

To quote Tom Shone, in his review, “[God] has no desire, no needs, no social life, no private life, no self-exploratory intellectual life to speak of.” Of course, the biblical view is quite different. God in the Hebrew Bible is not omnipotent. In fact, he (and he is generally male) comes across as quite lonely. He has anger issues, to be sure, but he is a troubled character rather like a Disney Hercules who doesn’t know how to control his power. Add him to the mix with willful, self-satisfied human beings and it sounds like an afternoon at the movies to me. Perhaps film makers don’t present God with weaknesses—that would be the worst of heresies—but it is also perhaps the most biblical of heresies.

Going back to Aristotle, perhaps it is not that gods should be left out of drama, but that human ideas of God are what writers call a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a perfect character with no flaws, the kind of person we first learn to write, since we believe people—and gods—are only good or evil. Then we begin to discover shades of gray. More than just fifty. Characters are complex and experience conflicting wants and wishes. Thus, as Shone notes, God wants people to procreate, but then wants to destroy them. Afterwards he is upset at what he has done. What could be more human than that? The perfect god who knows no struggles, and who never has to fight for what he wants, would be a boring deity indeed. That’s not the divinity skulking around Genesis, however. I’ll have to reserve judgment on Noah’s god until I get to the theater. It seems to me, at this point, that a wee touch of evil makes for deities that are closer to those we experience in our own workaday lives.

Sweet Something

SweetHeavenWhenIDieAs an observer of religion who always struggles to get published, I found a companion soul in Jeff Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between. Although the book is a collection of very disparate essays, it shows the subtle faces that religion frequently takes. We’re used to hearing religion described in bombastic terms, but Sharlet is more attuned to its soft rhythms than that. Yes, an essay or two may have a strident believer, but most of the faith found here is so deeply woven into the lives he examines that you might not even notice it was there had Sharlet not already warned you. Here is a man of no particular religious conviction showing us how it is—not judging, not ridiculing, not pandering. Religion, despite the gleeful proclamations of its detractors, is not likely to die out. It is more likely just to go unnoticed.

A number of the essays here gave me pause. In the first Sharlet notes of a friend, “She was fascinated by the thought that God was entitled to kill you at any time.” This friend is, of course, of Christian persuasion. I had never thought of the biblical paradox in that way before—divine entitlement. It is so like Job; the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Christianity, historically, comes with a whole cartload of guilt: not only is God entitled, but we deserve to be killed. The Christianity in which I grew up was explicit about this—we live on borrowed time. As a child I heard more than one evangelist thunder this good news. We really deserve to die. Once we are good and vulnerable, the preacher offers us a way out. Pass around the collection plate. God is entitled; I shall not soon forget that.

Toward the end of the book another of Sharlet’s interviewees declares that doubt is a calling. Again, the professional religionist is stunned. Many religions eschew doubt as somehow evil—wickedly questioning the divine. Doubters, however, seldom cause religious trouble. Those whose convictions lie deep and untested will burst open like a spring-loaded trap at various provocations. Those who survive are left to weep and wonder. The doubter, the friend of Thomas, does not seek to harm, but can’t live without discovering the truth. This is true religion.

There are any number of stories here of persons of various levels of faith conviction. You’ll find few clergy or specialists among them, but you’ll find a book whose honesty cannot be doubted. At points I struggled to find an implicit religious, or faith-based theme. It is there. You just have to listen. And trust that Jeff Sharlet will not lead you astray.

Appreciate Your Job

At a gathering of friends recently, a game of trivia broke out. Well, it was actually planned because we were not using the cards and pie wedges that we grew up with, but were making up our own questions. The submitter of the question was the final arbiter on whether an answer was correct or not. As usual, I probably overthought the process, trying not to make my questions too hard or too easy. Maybe my ideal contestant was a student in one of my intro classes since much of what I submitted was what I covered in my courses. Other questions were drawn from choice bits of this blog (something to which I never subjected my students). In any case, one of my submissions asked for the name of Job’s fourth friend. I was honestly surprised when nobody in the grew knew, or could even name one of poor Job’s friends. My slip of paper went into the unanswered pile in the middle, a stack alarmingly dominated by my own questions. Afterward, the friend who knew me the longest, and who grew up in a church-going family, asked “Did you really think anyone had read the book of Job?” Coming so shortly, as it did, after another friend in a different context had indicated that my interests are arcane, I began to feel my age.

Biblical literacy is a topic for which some scholars actively lobby the reading public. I’m not sure if the entire Bible need be known fully, although my job increasingly relies upon its popularity. Students used to ask if I still found the Bible meaningful, even though I spent my career parsing it apart. The answer is always the same: yes, the Bible is worthy of the attention lavished upon it. It has sections of unsurpassed beauty and even some lessons the world could still stand to learn. It is uneven, however. There are bits that probably should’ve never been canonized. There are moral lows as well as highs. And the book of Job is among the greatest pieces included in it.

On that point I would receive some argumentation, I’m sure. Many people detest the book of Job. The eponymous hero of the book seems almost blasphemous to some, and a complaining ingrate to others. In the course of his suffering four friends stop by. The last one, surely a later addition to the text, toes the party line of orthodoxy that the book severely shreds. Job also contains some of the finest poetry from the ancient world and has given modern English several catchphrases still currently in use. I’ve always felt a kinship with Job. While my lot has not been as pathetic as his, I have had enough set-backs to lend the book a kind of nostalgic patina. Even in their wrongheadedness Job’s friends can spill out poetry. And there is wisdom to be had in that dusty book. In the end I was probably the one who was wrong. There is nothing trivial about the book of Job.

Blake'sJob

Poe

PoeSilvermanOn his birthday I began reading a biography of Edgar Allan Poe. The last biography of Poe I read, I’m embarrassed to admit, was in high school. To me Poe is like music: deeply appreciated and therefore taken in rare doses. The biography this time was Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe, A Biography: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. I picked this book up last time I was on the University of Virginia campus, just after I stopped by to gaze wonderingly into Poe’s room. Like most biographies these days, Silverman’s account is hardly a hagiography. Poe was a perfect man only in his embodiment as a man of sorrows. In the days when “writer” was not really a profession, Poe nevertheless recognized what his strengths were and persisted to try to make a living following those assets. A poverty-stricken living much of the time, but an honest one. It is not pleasant to have a hero’s foibles exposed, but Poe was all the more admirable for having been fully human. We have all experienced arrogance and humility in turns. Poe was a man who knew sorrow from his youngest years, and that cloud stayed with him until his death just forty years later. A personal tempest.

Poe, not a conventionally religious man, nevertheless recognized and drew upon religious imagery. In his poem “Ulalume—A Ballad” Astarte’s ghost appears. Astarte remains a goddess poorly understood, but Poe was likely drawing on her association with Venus. She fails, however, to lead to Heaven. Silverman points out how “Ulalume” was followed closely by Eureka, Poe’s only sustained attempt at metaphysics. Poe came to the conclusion that upon death we become part of the all-encompassing God. This daring deduction cost him friends and supporters, but it also led to a rebuttal by a seminary student. Poe’s reply to his criticisms remains apt, as Silverman quotes him, “‘God knows what’—he cared very little what he was called ‘so it be not a “Student of Theology.”’” Amen, Mr. Poe.

Some lives, like those of Job, seem fated to loss and suffering. Yes, there have been those who lost more than Poe, or even Job, but this is no contest to see who might bear the most weight before being driven to his or her knees. Poe felt it deeply and expressed it eloquently. He recognized, as most writers do today, that business models resent an honest voice. Those who sell are often those who pretend. I’m sure that Poe would nevertheless give a wry smile of irony if he knew how multiple editions of his works, long in the public domain, flow from the presses of publishers hoping to make a dollar or two on his now stellar reputation as a writer and, in full recognition of the paradox, a prophet. Like his raven, Poe could see beyond the confines of this world and paid the price for his vision. Obviously he was no student of theology.

On a Wager and a Prayer

I’ve been thinking about Job a lot lately. Not my job, but the biblical book. Way back when I was preparing my initial classnotes on Job, I remember a commentator—I forget who—stating, as commentators are wont to do, that people have strong reactions to Job. Either they love it or they hate it. I have enough imagination to consider some people being somewhat ambivalent about it, but I have observed many people over the years revealing powerful reactions to this Wisdom book. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that God doesn’t come off looking particularly good in this story. This was recently reintroduced to my awareness in Steven Cahn’s God, Reason and Religion. The reader, unlike Job, knows the real reason for Job’s suffering. It was a divine wager, instigated by God, that Job would not curse him even if allowed GBH by the Satan. We know, however, and we are culpable for that knowledge. It puts a burden on the reader.

BlakesJob

When God does explain to Job why he shouldn’t question God’s acts, as Cahn points out, the answer rings hollow in the knowledge of the truth. God can’t admit to Job that he was playing fast and easy with his health and the death of his ten righteous children. A roll of the dice and Job is vulture-bait. The book of Job should make us squirm. We base our morality, we are often told, on the ideals of the Bible. If we were Job, who ends the book never knowing about the bet, we might be content. But the author, with a sly wink to those who face life squarely, points out that this is all a charade to justify God’s confidence in one of his many carroms. I suppose that might be small comfort to the pawns.

For Job there is no answer given to why he suffers. He doesn’t even really ask why—God’s right on that count, Job is very good. Yet the reader is not so lucky. How can we gain any comfort knowing that God sometimes lays us on that altar, not for any just cause, but as a wager against the divine prosecutor? No, the Satan in Job is not the Devil. He too is a divine character, an attorney borrowed from Zoroastrian mythology. He’s just doing his job. His Job. He is present to make us feel our guilt. And if Job, who the Bible itself says is perfect, can barely restrain his soul from cursing, how much of a chance do the rest of us have? There are many who hate the book of Job. I am not one of them. A more honest book I have a difficult time imagining. If it comes to justice in this world, however, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Leviathan’s Sibling

TheGiantBehemoth Formulaic to the point of plagiarism at times, 1950s science fiction movies often follow the deeply worn ruts left by countless forgettable monsters. One such film that I managed not to see until recently was the biblically entitled The Giant Behemoth. In a more biblically literate society the poster’s catchphrase “The Biggest Thing Since Creation!” may not have been necessary, even though leviathan’s lesser known companion stole the title this time. Of course the movie begins with stock footage of nuclear explosions, and although I’ve seen such renditions hundreds of times, they remain troubling to the core. Those 1950s that many consider so carefree were days of insidious freewheeling with the environment, days before human infatuation with the power over nature revealed its horrifying consequences. The behemoth, a sign of Yahweh’s great creativity in Job, here becomes the human-wrought agent of destruction.

Poor Tom Trevethan is blasted by the beast’s radioactive breath in a scene more fitting to Revelation than to Job. In the funeral scene, the priest somewhat insensitively reads a description of behemoth before Tom’s sole surviving family, his daughter Jean. So like the 1950s the minister then declares that the Bible gives comfort to those left behind, when the Lord said to Job, “Gird up thy loins like a man.” Indeed. Loin girding was a masculine activity in the days before Fruit of the Loom had been grown. Comfort for the woman comes in acting like a man. Yes, the 1950s considered the man the default model of human being. It says so in sacred writ. Genesis 3, to be exact.

When the scientists can’t figure out what killed the old man, along with thousands of fish, they ask Jean if her father said anything before he died. She tells them about behemoth. Being scientists, they have no idea what a mythical, biblical creature might be. Jean informs them, “It’s some prophecy from the Bible; it means some sort of great, monstrous beast.” Well, Job is technically not prophecy. Actually it’s not even untechnically prophecy either. In the 1950s, however, if it was biblical, it could be interpreted as prophecy. The real foretelling, though, is clearly atomic. Such films can easily be forgiven their biblical infelicity for the sake of their good intentions of reigning in human self-destructive behavior. In the end science destroys the biblical beast, but I’m left wondering if it isn’t more of a parable than a prophecy. I guess it’s time to gird up my loins and go find out.

Hic Sunt Dracones

Even a visionary like Thomas Edison can’t know the directions in which an invention might be taken. The idea of the moving picture has immersed human beings in an alternate reality that is sometimes difficult to separate from the physical world we daily inhabit. As soon as movies were invented, producers and directors began to explore the depths of fear with the monster movie. What they were really exploring was the mystery of religion. I frequently write of the nexus of religion and the monstrous, and Timothy K. Beal wrote a book on that subject a decade ago in which I found another affirmation of my suspicion. Forthrightly titled Religion and its Monsters (Routledge, 2002), Beal’s playful yet serious exploration of the scary traces the origins of monsters to Genesis, and even earlier. Taking on Leviathan, the biblical sea serpent, Beal demonstrates the pre-biblical pedigree of this fierce monster and shows that, like most truly frightening entities, it began as a god. Indeed, what we call religion today grew up around fear of those forces beyond our control, a nature so harsh it could be none other than divine. The writers of the Bible clearly knew this story as Beal traces it from Genesis to Job, from Psalms to Jonah, from Leviathan to Devil.

In a shot/reverse shot formation, Beal takes us to modern-day monsters and shows their religious origins. Those things that frighten us on the big screen crawl there from their origins in the temples, shrines, and chapels of religions that don’t manage to subdue evil completely. The claims are made that the gods are stronger than the chaos that surrounds us, but they are still fighting nevertheless. From Dracula to Godzilla, the monsters have the gods on the run. And when the human protagonists finally get their monster pinned down, they discover that it is often God wearing a mask. Our monsters are gods gone bad. How else could they revive from the dead at the end of the reel? They never truly disappear. And if they do, there’s always more where they came from. The reason, Beal concludes, is that we are, in fact, the monsters.

According to the analysis of W. Scott Poole, Timothy Beal, like myself, falls into the “monster kid” generation. As I grew up, I quickly learned that to confess my interest in monsters was to risk the labels of juvenile, naïve, and immature. Grown ups are interested in money and sex and power. Only kids have any interest in dinosaurs, mythology, and monsters. An epiphany of sorts, however, seems to be unfolding. Scholars of religion in my generation are peeling back the rubber masks of our movie monsters and are discovering the face of the divine. Perhaps we are all adolescents at heart, fixated on the weird and bizarre because the paths to money, power, and temptations of the flesh are blocked to us. Or perhaps we are the Magellans charting a course for regions off the map. It is those regions, as Beal reminds us, that are illustrated with sea serpents and inscribed hic sunt dracones, “here be dragons.” Doubt it? Read your Bible and find out for yourself.

The Body Apocalyptic

We are all products of our upbringing. Our early assumptions, although sometimes challenged and overcome, are generally with us for life. So it was that my progression of education led me to a small, conservative college to major in religion. Compared to what I learned at Grove City, the historical criticism firmly in place at Boston University sounded downright sinful. Nevertheless, it made sense, so I followed reason. At Edinburgh we were way beyond historical criticism in that wonderful, European way. Somehow in the midst of all the excitement, I missed Post-Modernism. “Po-Mo” has, like most recent movements, been quickly added to the pile of the passé, but I find it refreshing. I just finished reading Tina Pippin’s Apocalyptic Bodies (Routledge, 1999). This may have been one of the first truly Post-Modern biblical critiques I have read, and it was fascinating. Pippin is taking on especially the book of Revelation. If more people had read her book there would have been less panic back around May 21.

I find feminine readings of the Bible enlightening. As a member of the gender largely responsible for a book filled with sex and violence, it is often difficult to see how the other half of the human race might read that same text. Having grown up with a literal understanding of Revelation, I never questioned whether it was a good or a bad thing. The end of the world must be God’s will, therefore, by definition, good. One of the beauties of a Post-Modern interpretation is that everything is thrown open to question. Pippin does just that. Noting the ennui associated with eternity, she asks a question that always lurked in my mind—isn’t too much of anything eventually a problem? Eternity itself becomes problematic. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps the most striking comment Pippin makes is in the context of her chapter on the monsters of the apocalypse, “Apocalyptic Horror.” She compares Revelation to horror movies and demonstrates how all the elements are there in the Bible. She notes, “There are many monsters in the Apocalypse, but the real bad ass monster sits on the heavenly throne.” Pippin explains that God, in Revelation, joys in killing off humankind. As many of us have come to learn, people are generally good; at least most people have done nothing to deserve the heinous punishments gleefully doled out in Revelation. That, of course, raises the sticky question of ethics as applied to the divine. Here the book of Job comes to mind where our hapless hero declares that even though he is innocent, God still can count him guilty. It is the human situation. And Job was a good guy. Pippin’s little book challenged many of the assumptions with which I’d grown. Anyone who can read such a book and not worry about being a good parent is more Po-Mo than me.

Calm Before the Storm

All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.

Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.

I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.

Good morning, Irene -- if that is your real name.

Tuesday Mourning

A mourning dove sat on my front steps today. I weep for Shaunakaye Williams, although I never met her. The death of the young is tragedy defined. I did not know Shaunakaye, but I know that she was a young woman of great potential. She had discovered FIRST Robotics in Newark and died while in California at a FIRST competition. If it weren’t for the FIRST connection, her death might of remained unknown to me, but it would have been a grave loss nevertheless. Becoming a parent has been the most wonderful and terrifying event in my insignificant life. Since it has happened, I have mourned every death of a child of which I’ve heard. The words of comfort fail. FIRST is the most optimistic group with which I’ve ever been affiliated, recognizing and rewarding the potential of bright young minds. Shaunakaye was part of that family, and her loss is deeply felt.

In the field of religious studies, those who would justify the actions of God in a world full of suffering are faced with a daunting task. Theodicy is the most unenviable and unsatisfying aspect of the theological endeavor. Even the stalwart author of the book of Job dared not ask the great unanswerable “why?” – there is no justification for the death of the young. Often the answer is there is no answer. Job’s friends cannot accept this truth and fabricate excuses to show that God is just. God himself affirms, however, that life is just not fair.

As a race, as a species, our children are our greatest assets. Bully governors and pedophiles notwithstanding, any society that does not promote or encourage its children has already cut off its entire future. I mourn for Shaunakaye Williams, and for all those who have not been given the chance to reach their full potential. I mourn for all parents who have had to face this most terrible of afflictions. And I will never be counted among the friends of Job.

Portrait of Poe as a Young Man

An obscure portrait of Edgar Allan Poe has come to light and is scheduled to be auctioned off. Reports indicate that the watercolor painting reveals a young man without the world-weariness of the more familiar images of Poe. He may even be smiling.

Poe has long been one of my personal muses. His writing captivated my imagination as a young man, and his sense of tragedy encased a golden nobility. Although many consider his works to be juvenile, like the slightly later stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Poe grew to a mature sensibility concerning life that rivals that of Job. Intrigued, years ago I wrote a high school term paper about the writer and discovered a spiritual compatriot who couldn’t outstrip the “unmerciful Disaster [that] Followed fast and followed faster.” Now on the side of years beyond the lifespan of my muse, I begin to understand how a happy young man becomes a Qohelet in his time. In his personal difficulties, Poe was able to speak for many of us.

To me this young portrait is cast in the tint of Dorian Gray. The real image of Poe is that of a man given few breaks in life. A man of keen sight and keener insight. There have been thinkers like Poe from ancient times, but they are generally resigned to the depths rather than to be found basking in sublime sunlight. When Ludlul bel Nemeqi or Khun-Anup pour out their souls to an unhearing sky, they create a fellowship for latter day Poes and Melvilles and Lovecrafts. I hope the portrait of a young Poe finds a good home and the message of its subject rings as loudly as the bells.

Poe-ever Young

Theodicy Versus Idiocy

Among the leading reasons generally given for atheism in developed countries is the problem of theodicy. Theodicy is the act of justifying God, as implied by the roots of the word itself. In a world where many innocent suffer, as well as many guilty, the question of how a loving God and divine fairness fit into such a warped and corrupted system presents questions often left unanswerable. My class tonight will be reviewing Job, a book steeped in the issue of misfortune. The best that the narrator can offer is that Yahweh made a bet with the Satan and Job came out on the losing end. Not much hope for justice there.

This week’s horrific earthquake in Haiti has elicited high levels of sympathy and support as this poorest of western hemisphere nations struggles to find some kind of balance in a reeling world. The question of where God is amid all this tragedy, perhaps 100,000 dead, pensively teeters in minds sensitive to the human condition. Other minds, however, blare idiotic platitudes that only drive mourning theists closer to the other side. Pat Robertson, a major political player who has been a card-holding member of the Religious Right from its unholy inception, has declared that Haitians are paying the price for an ancient deal they made with the devil. In a theology that makes a mockery of even the Charlie Daniels band, Robertson stated, according to MCT News, that Haiti had made “a pact with the devil.” He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it… They were under the heel of the French… and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story.”

This drivel, based on hearsay history and implicit racism, does not justify a loving, or even neutral, God. Instead, the Conservative deity is shown in his true colors: racist, supersessionist, arrogant, and uncaring. This is the deity behind the Religious Right. Some people castigate Pat Robertson for being outspoken and perhaps senile. I applaud him. He shows clearly what intellectual rubbish the Religious Right promotes. He simply has fewer inhibitions to admitting it.

In Job, there was a deal made with the Satan. The perpetrator of that deal was Yahweh. No answer is given as to why the innocent suffer. Job is a most profound book, wrapped in a childlike story of two supernatural beings trying to show each other up. If we look hard enough we can find the Religious Right in the book as well. Their voices are those of the “friends” that Yahweh ultimately condemns when he finally speaks from the whirlwind.