Weaponized Scripture

One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.  The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).  Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.  I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.  Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.  Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.

The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.  That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.  Its method was basically to ignore that culture.  Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.  Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.  Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.  A world in which they couldn’t survive.  Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.  Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.

At one point her friends attempt an intervention.  They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.  Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”  Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.  As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.  The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.  That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.  The iconic Bible is a protean book.  Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.  It often is.  Many of us have been harmed by it.  Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.

Servants and Such

At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.  This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”  Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.  I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.  Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.  My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.  This post isn’t about domestics, however.  It’s about foreign gods.  In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.  Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all.  Who was Moloch?

Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.  Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.  The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.  Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.  Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.  Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.  Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.  The ultimate servant is a dead servant.  Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”  And kings are fond of having many servants.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

So how is a stove like Moloch?  The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.  Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.  A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.  This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.  The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.  Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.  It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.  Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.  One aspect, however, rings true.  Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.  And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.

Nature’s Bible

When you’re writing a book, many strands in your mind are weaving their way into what you hope will be whole cloth.  Well, at least if you write books the way that I do.  In writing Weathering the Psalms, for instance, one of the threads was the question of science and religion.  I was teaching at Nashotah House at the time, and I read a lot of science.  As I told colleagues at the time, if science is how we know things, shouldn’t what we know of the natural world apply to the Bible?  I don’t claim to be the first to ask that question—back in the days of exploration there were many people (mostly the genus “white men” of the “clergy” species) who went to what is now and had used to be Israel, to find out what the world of the Bible was actually like.  Their books still make interesting reading.

Quite unexpectedly a colleague, Dalit Rom-Shiloni of Tel Aviv University, told me she’d just ordered my book.  She’s leading up a project called the Dictionary of Nature Imagery of the Bible (DNI).  Over a decade after my teaching career ended, someone had deemed my work relevant.  Dr. Rom-Shiloni recently sent me the link to the project website where there is a video of her interviewing three Israeli scientists about the possibility of lions, leopards, and bears living in Israel.  They’re all mentioned in the Bible and no longer exist in the area.  The video is on this link and won’t take half an hour of your time.  It’s quite interesting.

One of the surprising facts to emerge is that leopards, in small numbers, may still exist in Israel.  This assertion is based on lay observation.  I contrasted this with the United States where, no matter how often a cougar (aka mountain lion, puma) is spotted in a state where it’s “known” to be extinct, it is claimed to be mistaken observation.  A departed friend and mentor of mine once saw a mountain lion in West Virginia.  I’d grown up in neighboring Pennsylvania where they are officially extinct, so I wondered if said beasts knew to observe the Mason-Dixon line.  The fact is, despite all our best efforts to destroy our environment, animals often find a way to survive.  Growing up, one of my cousins in Pennsylvania (now also unfortunately deceased) showed me a puma print in the snow behind his rural house.  Now Pennsylvania is a long way from Israel, and this topic is a long way from the DNI, but remember what I just said about how my books are written.  Tapestries only make sense from a distance.

The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

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.

Book Life

Like a book, life can be divided into chapters.  This is perhaps an instance of art following reality, or perhaps it’s the other way around.  The episodic nature of life suggests the chapter structure of books.  As I was waking up this morning (disappointingly before 4:00 a.m.) I was reflecting on the chapters of my life.  As with a book, the most recently read decade is perhaps freshest in one’s mind, but the decades do seem to fall roughly into format.  We tend to think of that first decade—childhood—fondly, even if in reality it wasn’t all games and candy.  It’s biology’s way of encouraging us toward that weird teen chapter of puberty with its intense emotions and maturing bodies.  That chapter is recalled, at least in my experience, as a turmoil involving both good and bad.

The twenties, in my book, were spent in higher education.  It was a cerebral chapter.  Finishing college and starting grad school.  Finishing a masters and discovering employment difficult to find with a master’s degree.  In my book marriage was in the twenties chapter, along with a doctorate.  The next chapter, the thirties, was spent entirely at Nashotah House.  That involved becoming a father as well as a professor.  The other faculty were fathers of a different sort.  I always thought chapters should show some continuity but the forties chapter was that part of the book known as the crisis.  The upending of convention.  The self-reinvention.  The move.  I suppose in terms of a novel that was when it started to get really interesting, but from my perspective life had been plenty interesting enough by that point.

The fifties have been a bit more settled.  The publishing chapter.  The house-buying move added drama, of course, but otherwise the nine-to-five is like a mind-numbing drug.  Mine involved a commute that lead to its own unpublished book, as well as two somewhat academic  tomes.  All of this was going through my head the way thoughts do when you can’t force yourself back to sleep.  The paradigm suggests itself to someone who has, in one form or another, been writing for his entire life.  Or writing his life.  My first attempts at being a novelist began in chapter two.  On yellowed paper somewhere in the attic I still have that first handwritten attempt at literary expression.  The current chapter has me becoming a gruncle (with a nod to Gravity Falls fans) and wondering how a great niece might read a book written like this.  If she will even have an interest.  That’s the way of books, as any librarian knows.  Maybe some warm milk and a cookie are indicated.

Life is a book.

Mastering the Elements

First time home ownership is best left to younger people.  And perhaps younger houses.  The constant onslaught of things falling apart, or falling off (it has been an extreme weather year) has soured me on the idea.  You get set in your ways, you see.  The move from apartment to house didn’t come with a raise that would cover all the repairs invisible to a home inspector’s eye.  Although our house has stood for over 120 years, the last owners let lots of things go with a lick and a promise and we, the naive middle-aged first-time buyers in a seller’s market, bit.  I thought there would be repairs to make, but not all at once.  The royalties from books like Holy Horror don’t make even a small dent in the contractor’s fees.  We should maybe have bought a house in Jericho instead.  One right on the city wall.

The shake-down voyage of a ship reveals the problems, so the theory goes.  It stands to reason that people have to go through a shake-down year as well.  I’ve got the roofer on speed-dial, and I keep a wary eye on a garage that has more love than actual care poured into it.  All I want to do is read and write (which I could do just fine as a renter, thank you) in a place dry and not too cold.  The weather, however, has been unforgiving.  Rain and more rain.  There’s something primal about all this—an element of having to struggle against nature in order to survive.  In the modern world we’ve taken for granted our ability to keep the beasts and weather at bay.  Storm systems like the one that has just blown through serve to remind our species that there are things that will forever remain beyond our control.

The lament is the most numerous genre of psalm

Something like this was going through my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  (We didn’t own our house at Nashotah House, though.  Whose house?  Nashotah’s house.)  Living in the Midwest gave me a new appreciation for the weather.  Some of the storms we witnessed were nothing short of theophanic.  Global warming has a way of bringing the weather front and center.  Elements of this element, however, are within our control.  We understand at least the human-driven elements of global warming.  We deny they exist to scrape together a few more pennies at the end of the day.  Meanwhile those who buy houses need to do their homework.  If need a roofer too, I’ve got one on speed-dial.