Literally Smitten

FfordeWomanDiedJasper Fforde is one of those writers who blends nonsense, deep thought, constant plot twists, and polished writing into compelling novels. His labors are always fun to read and often leave me with something profound to ponder. I haven’t followed his Thursday Next stories in any kind of strict sequence, but I figure that I can sacrifice a few of his abundant references to previous events to read through the latest installment I can get my hands on. The Woman Who Died a Lot was the most recent of these books for me. Thursday Next is a literary detective and her exploits often lead, certainly intentionally, to a feeling that in Fforde’s world libraries and reading are even more than fundamental. Everyone wants to be prided on literary achievement. His universe wouldn’t exist without books and those who love them.

In The Woman Who Died a Lot (and since I haven’t read all the books in the series I have to confess that this theme might’ve been developed earlier) in Fforde’s Swindon, religions have been united into the Church of the Global Standard Deity (GSD) and this GSD drives much of the plot. As Thursday races to solve the latest literary crime, the GSD has decided to smite Swindon. A number of global smitings have already taken place and everyone knows what to expect. A plasma-like discharge, of precise dimensions, wiping out a specified sinful part of the city. The sin here is greed and such smitings have lead to new kind of tourism where the morbidly curious gather outside the boundaries to watch the show, much like Jonah outside Nineveh. As in most Fforde novels there is both a touch of ridiculousness and social critique combined here. I can’t tell you how the smiting ends or you might not read the novel yourself.

The story is populated with peculiar religious orders that always evoke a laugh, and even a Ministry of Theistic Defense charged with finding a way around the smiting of a God willed into existence by the very people the GSD will destroy. I sometimes wonder if Fforde was ever a seminarian. We fabricate our own doom in this literary universe. It’s all in good fun and is reverently irreverent. Virtue is rewarded and in many respects the religion is conventional. The deity can be bargained with, but the law, once laid down, is inviolable. Casuistry is, of course, always an option. It’s a story told with tongue solidly in cheek, but also with brain fully engaged. Fforde is an author not afraid of religion. Indeed, he knows it can lead to a remarkable plot with consequences that will leave a reader scratching one’s saintly head.

Babylonian Boogle

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I confess. I’ve fallen behind on my horror movies. My work schedule doesn’t allow for much down time, and on weekends when I spend time with family, well, horror films aren’t their favorites. So on a weekend afternoon when I was alone, I finally saw Sinister. I remembered seeing ads for it a few years back, but far enough back that I didn’t know what to expect. As I’ve often asserted on this blog, horror frequently draws its spookiest material from the deep well of religion, and Sinister once again emphasizes this point. With clear connections to The Shining and Ringu, Sinister does keep you in its web. Of course, ritualized murders are by their nature scary, since those who perpetrate them have taken leave of reason. I don’t read true crime because I have to sleep, and I’d rather not know what some psychopath has eating his brain as he plans his sacrifices. So it comes out in fiction.

The protagonist, crime-writer Ellison Oswalt, consults with a Professor Jonas, whose name those acquainted with the Bible can’t separate from Jonah, to find out about ritual crimes. Jonas informs Oswalt that the occult symbols found at a couple of the murder sites are unconventional. He eventually traces them to Bughuul, a Babylonian deity that eats children. The religious element couldn’t be clearer. Bughuul, who is a god fabricated for the movie, is effectively frightening in the film. But for the ritual element to the murders, the story might have passed as just another gruesome offering to audiences who want a little fright in their October. Religion makes it scarier.

The second appearance of Professor Jonas reveals that, like Ringu, watching the films that tell the story is dangerous. He delves into iconography. Icons, according to orthodox tradition, take part in the reality they represent. Bughuul knows that, and merely by watching the films, or looking at pictures (icons) you open a portal between his world and that of the viewer. By the time Oswalt learns this it is, of course, too late. Again, the element of terror is introduced through religious thought. Bughuul (Mr. Boogle) is a morbid iconographer. The reality of the evil is represented in the “artwork” itself. Once you’ve seen an image, you can’t unsee it. So it is that Sinister draws on religion to plumb the depths of fear. It is surprisingly effective, even on a sunny afternoon when I’ve had too much time alone.

Land’s End

Although not due for release for another two years, the internet is already buzzing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Thing is, once a studio finds a successful formula, they’re reluctant to let it go. Nevertheless, with a couple days off for New Year’s, and all the family here, we decided on a marathon of the four movies available for home viewing. I used to use a clip from the second movie (Dead Man’s Chest) in my classes to demonstrate how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture. In the scene where Pintel and Ragetti are rowing toward the beached Black Pearl, Ragetti is leafing through a Bible, although he can’t read. He says, in his defense, “It’s the Bible. You get credit for trying.” Indeed, the Bible appears disguised as the huge codex of the pirate code (a kind of over-compensatory pentateuch), and, as I noted before, the book that saves the mermaid’s life in On Stranger Tides. In fact, for those willing to look behind the scenes, the Bible shows up repeatedly in the series.

Even as a landlocked child maritime themes and concepts were compelling to me. I yearned for the ocean without ever seeing it. Long I stared at the cover of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us in wonder. When I finally had the opportunity to strike out on my own, it was to Boston I headed, with its rich New England tradition of the sea. I have tried, ever since, to return there. Theologians, although I don’t count myself among their number, have often found a religious resonance with the sea. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, based as they have been on a Disney ride, nevertheless manage to tap into the romance of the ocean. Not compellingly written, apart from the fun antics of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t present an entirely coherent story line, but they do put the viewer, vicariously, at least, on the ocean. And they have been among the most successful film series ever released. Many, I suspect, are drawn by the lure of the open ocean.

Rewatching the films also reminded me of Cthulhu’s influence on the character of Davy Jones. The origins of the euphemism “Davy Jones’ locker” are uncertain, although some trace it back to Jonah. Nevertheless, it stands for the place of death on the sea floor—the very place where Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming according to his creator H. P. Lovecraft. No doubt, Lovecraft’s description of Cthulhu played into the depiction of the character of Davy Jones as presented by Disney. At the end of At World’s End, Jones falls dead, once again, into the maelstrom that will take him back, dreaming, to the ocean floor. In so doing he participates in the endless give and take of the sea. I suspect a couple years hence will find me in a theater to watch what seems a somewhat tired trope, but it will be more the sea than the sparrow that will draw me in.

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Sign of Jonas

A century ago today, the world erupted in war. Those who engaged in World War One are pretty much all gone now, but the war to end all wars has left its scars across the globe. We showed ourselves we could do it. We could drag, through our accumulated frustrations, just about every nation into open conflict. The costs were astronomical, but we didn’t learn a thing. Just a couple decades later we were back at it. Nations taking provocative stabs at other people. Keep on poking and people, being what they are, will eventually hit back. So on this anniversary of the start of the First World War (awaiting a sequel, perhaps from the start), I’m reading about the extremists in Iraq destroying Jonah’s tomb. Poke. Poke. Well, it is more a loss to fellow Muslims than it is to those who take the Bible seriously. Jonah is a nice story of a prophet (rather blithely retold in the Washington Post) who probably never existed. If there was a Jonah he wasn’t fish food, that we know for sure. The tomb of Jonah is like that of an unknown prophet. The symbol’s the thing.

In the story in the Washington Post, Justin Moyer laments that “anything in the Bible” might be destroyed in these circumstances. I wonder how you can destroy something that never happened. Doing so, in any case, is liable to start a war. It really doesn’t take that much. The last century has taught us little. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not in favor of destroying ancient landmarks or parts of a region’s history. But if we misattribute its importance to something sacred, or biblical, it will be far too simple to start a row. You see, Jonah converted Nineveh, according to the Bible. The Assyrians became good Yahwists, despite the historical record. Those who destroyed his tomb likely had conversion on their minds as well.

As these thoughts were taking form in my head, I happened upon the page of GETS Theological Seminary, which, as far as I can tell, is in China. On the banner across its homepage was a picture of its mission field. Is that the United States? Of course, if you read the description you’ll see that the world, in toto, is the mission field they intend. Still, it is a little bit of a shock to see yourself counted among the heathen. I’m sure, had Jonah really existed, that the Assyrians would have been just as shocked. They were as moral as any other militaristic society. And today my thoughts are on militaristic societies. The First World War definitively changed everything from that fatal moment it began, a century ago today. It was the first, but not the last, loss of humanity’s innocence. We would invent newer and crueler ways to kill each other in greater numbers. Blood would become the true currency of the last hundred years. Maybe we should keep a weather-eye out for a fish-swallowed prophet after all. The world could perhaps stand a bit of conversion.

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Jonahado

SharknadoSome movies are so bad that they become classics. Some are just plain bad. The jury in my head is still out on Sharknado. The story, obviously tongue-in-cheek, is so far-fetched as to be pretentious, and anyone who knows something about either sharks or tornadoes, or both, will likely find credibility waning from the first scene. For those sensible among my readers, who’ve not seen the movie, the title gives it all away. A global-warming-induced hurricane hurries toward Santa Monica with its forever young sun-worshippers. The hurricane floods the California coast, bringing sharks to the city streets. As our protagonists drive around somewhat pointlessly, the sharks attack their car, eventually eating everyone who’s not family. At one point the family tries to buy rations at a liquor store, only to have the news announce that this is the apocalypse. The store owner scowls that it’s the government, not God, that’s bringing this upon them. Then the waterspouts appear, morphing into tornadoes carrying sharks, still hungrily chomping at everything as they fly through the air.

Ironically a biblical theme comes about with the swallowing of Nova. As she falls from a helicopter (don’t ask), a great white shark snaps her up in mid-air, and since she’s about the only character you can care about, the movie seems to have reached its nadir. As the tornadoes dissipate and the sharks coming raining down, the eponymously named Fin is swallowed whole by a huge great white, while still holding his chainsaw. We already know that this latter-day Jonah will make his way back out, and we are supposed to be surprised that this is the very same shark that holds the reborn Nova, who admits her real name is Jenny Lynn. Like Neo in The Matrix, she is the convert to a new faith, this time in the family of Fin, whose only fault, it seems, is that he cares too much for others.

While a made-for-television B movie (although C or D might be more appropriate), Sharknado demonstrates the popular conception of the apocalypse. Not that it will involve flying sharks and destructive wind-storms, but that the end of the world is somehow inevitable. We have convinced ourselves that its a matter of when, not if, the world will meet its demise. Global warming, clearly our fault, is blamed by the movie (as is the government), but the story is that the flimsy culture we’ve constructed is subject to utter ruin by a hurricane and maritime predators. Or I could be reading far too much into this. Religious tropes may be picked and chosen at will. And when things really go wrong, like accidentally switching on Sharknado, we have a ready arsenal of religious ideas at hand to blame. And the apocalypse may be the least of our worries.

The One That Got Away

While looking for reviewers for a book proposal on Jonah, I had a strange realization. Few mainstream biblical scholars are interested in the book. Or at least in publishing on it. The same goes for the Bible’s other great watery adventure, Noah’s story. Ironically, these are the stories we, as children, are weaned on. Kids love animals, right? And both Noah’s ark and Jonah’s great fish mastication involve animals, as well as lots of water. Both stories have more than a whiff of the fantastic about them—the kind of thing children can relate to. And yet, biblical scholars, collectively, wonder why few people are interested in their work as they take on the more heady work of unraveling Isaiah or Romans.

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Jonah used to be a test case for the Fundamentalist crowd. You were a “Bible believer” if you could, with steely gaze, claim that Jonah was swallowed by a fish—the Bible doesn’t say “whale”—and survived three days only to be vomited up on the Levantine shore to make his soggy way back to Assyria. Three days swimming in the gastric juices of just about any animal doesn’t do a great deal for a prophet’s credibility. Or physique. And since the story is fantastic, and populist, scholars avoid it like a giant fish. Meanwhile, John and Susie Q. Public want to know about this story—what does it mean? Did it really happen? Why is it in the Bible at all?

My generalization above is somewhat faulty. (What generalization isn’t?) Evangelical scholars still take an active interest in Jonah. Jonah is the stomach-acid test of faith. Since I never really outgrew my love of monster movies and outlandish plot lines (my brothers recently convinced me that I should see Sharknado) I’m fascinated by the tale of Jonah. It is one of the most carefully constructed stories in the Bible, and it clearly has a very counterintuitive message about who is acceptable in God’s eyes—here’s a hint: they live in Nineveh and even dress their animals in sackcloth when they realize they’ve been naughty. The book of Jonah, however, has been condemned for being a puerile tale of a guy who can hold his breath three days, amid chemicals that can dissolve most organic substances, and utter Psalm-like prayers all the while. Fish stories, after all, are something that many folks intuitively know how to interpret.

Avengers and Gods

The Marvel Comics Universe is a complex blend of juvenile and adult themes. At the suggestion of one of my readers (thanks, Erika!) and the urging of my family, we went to see The Avengers this weekend. Having grown up in my own complex circumstances (first of all, fundamentalist—therefore not prone to too much secular material, and secondly, of humble means—therefore not prone to too much material material), I was aware of only some of the group. I’d read Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor comics, and I knew who Captain America was, but I never realized they’d teamed up, along with Black Widow and Hawkeye, to form the Avengers. I guess I just missed that part. The amazing integration of gods, performance-enhanced humans, and technocrats, makes for a fascinating consideration of the boundaries of good and evil.

This became clear when Captain America first encounters Thor in the film and is told he is a god. His response, straight from Tea Party rhetoric, is “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.” Clearly a man from the early twentieth century would have expectations of Yahweh’s dress code. It would be a white robe, no doubt, but as the gods Thor and Loki duke it out, Yahweh is nowhere to be seen. The movie also toys with the concept of immortality. Dr. Banner, under the guise of the Hulk, is unkillable. In a poignant moment he admits having attempted suicide, but his alter-ego proved indestructible. The cheer of the audience was palpable when Loki tells the green guy, “I’m a god and I won’t be bullied by—” only to be divinely thrashed by the Hulk who responds with the word, “Demigod.”

Over the past several years I’ve noticed that hero movies have begun to declare Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. No longer are supernatural beings the ones who rule humanity. Heroes are now in charge of their own destinies. And yet, that old time religion is still present. As Tony Stark is about to attack one of the wickedly cool flying leviathans he asks Jarvis “Are you familiar with the story of Jonah?” I wondered just how many in the theater got the reference—how many, like Captain America at the comment of flying monkeys, got the joke? When the movie was over, and I was convinced I wouldn’t have to go to work on Monday (I was sure my building was one of those destroyed in the mayhem), I pondered the resolution. The gods took their dispute to Asgard, out of the realm of humans. This was, after all, a dispute between deities. And humans, as so often happens in such scenarios, were simply caught in the middle.