Ground, Candle, and February

The world’s hairiest prophet?

Relying on the prophetic ability of a rodent may seem like a fool’s errand, but to understand Groundhog Day you have to go back to Candlemas.  Apart from when I lived at Nashotah House, I’ve never been anywhere that people knew what Candlemas was.  It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation, and it in itself is built on an archaic ritual based on a creative understanding of biology.  In ancient Israel, a woman was considered impure for seven days.  The eighth day, if the child was a boy, he was circumcised.  Thirty-three days later the woman, finally considered pure enough to approach the temple precincts, was to take a sacrifice for her purification.  And oh, if she bore a girl the impurity lasted sixty-six days.  It’s all there in Leviticus.

What does any of this have to do with Groundhog Day?  Well, according to the much later tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin on December 25, if you do the math you’ll find Mary’s purification falls on February 2.  And if Jesus had been a girl Candlemas would be a moveable feat since February sometimes has 29 days.  Since it’s still dark out for most of the time in February a couple of traditions developed: one was a way of finding out when winter would be over and the other was the blessing of candles since you’d still be needing them for awhile.  That gave the feast its common name.  The tradition grew that clear weather on Candlemas meant that winter was to last for a good long time yet.  Since Germanic peoples love their Christmas traditions, a badger was used for the long-range forecast part of the celebration.

In Pennsylvania Dutch territory, badgers are rare.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs, are just about everywhere and they live in burrows like badgers do.  In a carryover from Candlemas’s clear weather foretelling the future,  the belief was that a badger or groundhog seeing its shadow—because it’s clear, get it?—meant six more weeks of winter.  Of course nobody knew about global warming in those days.  Candlemas, it turns out, was one of the earliest Christian celebrations and it was part of the Christmas complex of holidays.  It’s still winter out there.  It’s also Saturday which means I already have a list of chores as long as a badger’s shadow.  Now I’ve got to remember to get my candles blessed as well.   Winter, it seems, never ends.

Theoretical Monsters

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. One rainy night over this past weekend I talked my wife into watching Dracula with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this classic myself. Difficult to believe that it was ever scary. This is the film that launched the horror genre that has become such a major part of the entertainment industry. It has the right mood for a rainy night. Movies were paced much more slowly in the 1930s, and viewers are given ample time to drink in what’s happening. In some current day films the cross-cutting in action scenes is so rapid that I really have no idea what took place. Dracula is slow, stately even. Thinking back, I believe this was the first monster movie I ever saw, so it has a resonance with me. When Renfield balks at the huge spider web in Dracula’s castle, the vampire quotes from Leviticus—“the life is in the blood.” Monsters are religious creatures.

A year ago in January, with the help of two colleagues, I proposed a new unit for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting—Monsters and Monster Theory. After working on this proposal a couple of months (strictly off work time for me), the new unit was declined by the academy. We decided to try again. This year our exploratory session was approved. The idea had come to me when I noticed that papers on monsters and religion had been on the rise, but there was no central forum to discuss them. They were like zombies without a shepherd. Not being an academic, I couldn’t start the session by myself. Now the society agrees that we’re worth at least one meeting room and a couple of hours to see whether the topic might become a recurring one.

Some people, I’m well aware, find this combination odd. Religion, after all, is about sweetness and ethereal light. Being nice to one another. Things like that. Monsters, on the other hand, inhabit the dark. They’re creepy and unsettling. They’re also wonderful metaphors for so much of life. What some of my colleagues have come to realize, and the academy seems to be backing us up on this, is that if anyone can understand monsters, religion can. Psychology will continue to try. Literature will continue to create them. Scholars of religion, however, are those who would like to bring some order to a chaotic world. We study monsters to learn about what it means to be human. It has been raining quite a lot lately.

Worn Out Religion

Truth claims are integral to religions. No one would join a religion not declaring itself to be true. Some months ago, I posted about the store True Religion that had recently opened at our local mall. I’ve always found such branding odd—surely the store wasn’t proselytizing those who had religious commitments to buy its jeans. Or perhaps it was trying to lure in the increasing generation of nones. I have seldom felt any kinds of truth claims applied to my apparel. I buy clothes at reasonable prices and wear them until they are no longer fit to be seen in public. Even then I continue to wear them at home until they simply grow too holey to be of utility. I seldom have clothes left in good enough shape to donate, and I’m only fashion-conscious in terms of a decade or two between stints of buying what’s on the bargain rack. Religions, of course, sometimes do dictate what it is appropriate to wear. Leviticus famously declares that fabrics of mixed fibers are an infraction. Perhaps True Religion carries only single fiber-fabrics? I guess I’ll never know.

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Since our local mall has mostly clothing stores (few whimsical shops appear any more), I seldom go. There is an Apple store, and since our family has used exclusively Apple products since the 1980s, we do have to stop in from time to time. On my most recent trip, I noticed that True Religion, right across the corridor from Apple, had gone. “There’s no more true religion,” my daughter quipped. I couldn’t help but think about the implications of all this. Surely this was not the first religion to die. Disused churches have been converted into businesses for years, and some religions die out entirely rather than just fade away like an old pair of jeans. What is the message, however, when a claim of truth is made, only to be closed down by the exigencies of finance alone? Something disingenuous is going on here.

Religions not only make truth claims. They also convey a sense of promise. If you believe, you receive something in return. But what does it mean to believe? Driving home we passed the Elks Lodge. Once, when my daughter received a certificate of merit from the Elks, we were invited to an award ceremony there. The president of the lodge, doing a bit of proselytizing, mentioned that very little was required to join the Elks. “You do have to believe in God,” she said. How do you measure such a belief? Did she mean to say “you have to say that you believe in God”? The Elks are, after all, not a religion, but a community organization. Although True Religion is gone, the Elks, with their minimal commitment to faith, are still around. My clothes are perhaps a bit too worn to join the Elks, but what else is there to do when there is no more true religion?

Agenda in Pink

One advantage of the technological revolution is that it is a lot easier to look things up in the Bible now. As a biblical scholar who cut his teeth the hard way by reading and rereading Holy Writ until great swaths were committed to memory, now I find it much easier to visit BibleGateway.com rather than haul out the old print concordance and crack my knuckles before straining a muscle to lift the thing. The other day while looking up a passage for class on BibleGateway, I saw an advertisement that made me cringe. Zondervan, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is now offering a “Precious Princess Bible.” I did a literalist double-take at the banner. My imagination began to spin: does this edition offer all the misogynistic passages in pink letters? Should not the owner of all FOX News do all that is possible to keep women in their place?

Even a short list will serve to make the point:
Exodus 21.7: And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
Leviticus 27.3-4: And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it be a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.
1 Corinthians 11.3: But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 14.35: And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
1 Timothy 2.12-13: But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.

The Bible is hardly a tome to affirm the “precious princess” concept that many modern parents believe they are fortunate enough to claim. No matter how much we candy-coat it, this is salvation with a double standard. One of the truly remarkable aspects of Christianity is the number of women who adhere to it despite the secondary status the foundation document lends to them. Despite a few harsh words, Jesus is depicted as treating women well. But the Bible tantalizingly refuses to tip even his hand in favor of feminism. The Bible is a man’s world. I am personally awaiting the He-Man Combat edition. It would fit many parts of the Scriptures remarkably well.