Book Ends

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It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

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Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

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Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

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Map and Territory

MapsHeavenMapsHellAt first glance the Puritan divines of early New England should seem to be as far from horror films, on the cultural divide, as phenomena can be. After all, academics long ago declared “genre fiction,” and particularly Gothic and horror fiction, to be lowbrow at best, and generally of no cultural worth. The amazing success of scary movies only underscores this point. Edward J. Ingebretsen (S.J.), however, begs to differ. His wonderfully insightful book, Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, is a surprising study of how religion and terror share much that is essentially human. On this blog I have, from time to time, claimed that religion and horror are close cousins. In fact, they may be siblings. Since studies of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are often produced by Reformed, or at least Protestant, theologians, it may be that a Catholic thinker will catch aspects often overlooked. The Puritans, with their Calvinistic underpinning, had a worldview that holds much in common with standard horror fare. Ingebretsen suggests that to map Heaven, you must also map Hell.

The map conceit works well as the reader navigates through unconventional ways of thinking. The fears of the Puritans included the fear of God, and those who read or watch horror have noticed that nothing scares like the divine. It may not be on the surface, however. Even those not accustomed to deep digging can, upon a few moments’ reflection, see that the Gothic writers of the American canon have drawn repeated from this well. Many literary experts (well, some) celebrate H. P. Lovecraft’s atheistic rationalism, but enjoy his tales of the old gods nevertheless. His modern heir, Stephen King, is quite open about the potential fear of religion. He even blurbed the back cover of the book.

As society grows continually more secular, the religious impulse will not disappear. Sublimation, the process of changing states, may hide what is happening from the casual eye. A close look shows, however, that the same fears Mather and Edwards unleashed on witch-addled, spider-fearing New Englanders, have come back to us in pulp and celluloid. Religion has its earliest roots in a kind of holy fear, it seems. The innovative human mind, however, with its drive to rationalize, devised mythologies that make fears seem plausible. Those mythologies are relatively easy to believe. Everybody likes a good story. Stories, with all their twists and turns, can leave you lost in the woods. It’s good to have a map. I would suggest Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell. You may still be scared, but you may feel more sophisticated for it.