Waiting for a Miracle

A friend recently sent me a New York Times story about Marianne Williamson’s spiritual background.  Before I say anything more about this I have a confession to make.  I didn’t know who Marianne Williamson was and, consequently, I’ve never read any of her books.  I also didn’t know about her presidential bid, although she seems much more grounded than whatever it is that sits in the Oval Office these days.  In any case, it’s the spiritual background part on which I’d like to focus.  Williamson is apparently a devotee of A Course in Miracles, a book written by Helen Schucman in the 1970s.  According to the NYT article, Schucman penned the book by the dictation of a divine voice.  This aspect seems worthy of further exploration, regardless of politics.

You see, sacred books have a long history of divine dictation.  The Bible makes such claims only obliquely, but clearly there were some who believed that Moses was the recipient of narration from on high.  Mohammed heard a voice saying “Write.”  Centuries later the Book of Mormon was written out at the dictation of Joseph Smith.  The point is that such texts are often believed to have had sacred origins.  I find Schucman’s reluctance to put herself down as the author of A Course in Miracles instructive.  She didn’t believe she wrote it.  Not to devalue any of these sacred texts mentioned, I would nevertheless note that authors often feel that their words come to them.  Maybe academic books don’t count, but when I’m writing fiction, it’s like somebody’s hands are on the wheel, but I’m not sure I’m the one driving (with apologies to Jeff Daniels).

A Course in Miracles has been translated into double-digits languages, something quite rare even among many bestsellers.  What this says to me is that people still crave answers from an authoritative text.  The written word has a power that electronic publication lacks.  Who wants to point to a screen and say, “this is divinely revealed truth”?  Hefting a heavy book, printed on actual paper, has a symbolic power that outweighs that of ebooks.  Probably it’s because the Bible paved the way.  We’re already primed for a sacred text, in physical form.  The longer I study holy books the clearer it becomes that they will unlikely ever cease to be written.  Helen Schucman didn’t have the last word.  As long as people write it’s doubtful anyone ever will.

Suddenly Spring

Maybe it’s just a sign of passing years, but spring seems much more sudden to me now.  One day I’m wearing multiple layers and shivering in the mornings and the next day I need to take a machete to the lawn for its first mowing.  Those weeds along the fence, which weren’t there a day ago—I swear!—are now two feet tall and aching for an appointment with the weed whacker.  I mean, the snow shovel’s still on the porch.  When did this happen?  How did we go from brown grass to sprouting trees of heaven just overnight?  I haven’t had time to build up my calluses yet for pushing the lawn mower (we have the environmentally friendly kind, powered by naught but human effort).  Morpheus was right, I guess.

This past week was so unexpectedly busy that I haven’t had time to stop and muse over some important happenings.  My current project, Nightmares with the Bible, involves trying to sort out The Conjuring universe, and I wanted to reflect on the passing of Lorraine Warren.  Her obituary in the New York Times  by Neil Genzlinger was surprisingly respectful.  Whether or not she was really onto something, people in general seem to believe she and Ed were sincere in their convictions.  There are those who claim they were charlatans, but those who perpetrate hoaxes tend to leave telltale signs.  Those who claim they couldn’t have experienced the paranormal because there’s no supernatural to experience are entitled to their opinions, of course.  Being tolerant of those who see differently, however, has never been more important.

The natural cycles of the earth never fail to surprise me.  Supernatural or not, the explosion of life following one warm, wet week is nothing shy of astounding.  I walked around to the seldom visited north side of the house to find a veritable jungle that wasn’t there just the week before.  Staring at the flowers and weeds, I can’t help but think of the hackneyed phrase “pushing up daisies.”  Much happened this past week.  The mower was oiled up and played the grim reaper to the grasses and other plants of my neglected yard.  Life, as Jurassic Park (which my lawn resembles) teaches, is persistent.  I never met or in any way corresponded with the Warrens, but I feel that in some sense I have gotten to know them.  And just yesterday it still felt like winter.

Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

Giving a Hand

A friend sent me a news story that really spoke to me.  A bookstore in England, forced to move because of rent, asked for volunteers to help move their stock to a new storefront.  The response?  They had to start turning people away after 250.  A human chain was formed to pass books down by hand to their new home.  Book people, it seems to me, are like that.  I spent a recent weekend looking at downtown Easton—one of the triplet cities that make up “the Valley” (Allentown and Bethlehem being the other two).  Surprisingly, I found two used book stores within blocks of each other.  The proprietors (especially of the first) were friendly and helpful.  They were book people.

I mentioned to said first proprietor that two of the books I was buying were to replace copies ruined during our move.  The look of alarm and sympathy on her face was genuine.  Book people know that look.  They can feel each other’s pain.  They will freely give of their time to hold knowledge in their hands, if only briefly, to pass it along to others.  Now, like most bookish people, I’m aware that I’m considered odd by the average guy who enjoys sports, mechanical stuff, and money.  I’m content with a book, either reading or writing, and the occasional foray out among the more active and boisterous.  I like to think that if I lived in Southampton I’d have given up a vacation day to help out.  Saving books is saving civilization.

Book people know there’s more to life than themselves.  Ironically, such readers are often quiet and sometimes thought to be stuck up.  If you go to help move books by hand, I suspect that gives the lie to feeling above other people.  Reading is thought of as a passive activity, but it makes the mind more active.  There’s a reason our species have large brains.  It’s not that all books are for everyone—I’ve had plenty of disappointments in my reading life—but the unread book is full of potential energy.  And often that already read rewards us when we turn back to it.  Books, you see, are the ultimate givers.  Those who sell them may make a profit, but the return on investment tends to be quite high for the buyer.  If you have to move and you hire a moving company chances are they’ll complain about your books.  You’re better off asking book people for an unstinting hand.

Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.

Birth of a Notion

Childhood is an impressionable time. Our phobias begin then. Children are vulnerable. (Of course our current government is intent on making us all afraid of bullies again.) This theme of childhood keeps coming up in interviews with directors of horror movies. A friend recently sent me a New York Times article by Erik Piepenburg about Annabelle: Creation. The piece includes some horror auteurs discussing what frightened them as children. We all experienced fear at a young age. For some of us it hung around awhile longer. Horror movies have, despite their low brow reputation, been reliable revenue streams from the beginning. People will pay to be scared, for a little while.

I have to confess to having fallen behind on The Conjuring diegesis. Since I’m the only one in the family who really likes to watch horror, I don’t see these movies in theaters and, well, there’s a lot to do besides watching movies these days. And finding DVDs is getting harder as well. Streaming scares me. Anyway, I missed The Conjuring 2 and the original Annabelle. I’ve read accounts of what supposedly happened in real life—Annabelle is one of the cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren—and it has been written about a number of times. The Warren’s take on it was that a doll can’t actually be possessed. (Sorry Chuckie.) They suggested that it could act as a conduit that would’ve eventually allowed a demon to possess the two young women who kept the original Annabelle in their apartment. The doll showed up in The Conjuring, although it wasn’t part of the main story. The haunted doll trope is scary enough that the second knock-off in this universe focused on it.

Interviews with older horror directors reveal that they often grew up without fathers. Despite the gender profiling, for kids fathers are generally thought to represent protection. A child without a father often feels insecure. Even today when people talk of their fathers I have to remind myself that they can be a good thing. I often wonder if those of us who like horror films had childhood parental issues as a regular part of our pasts. I’m generalizing, of course. Growing up into Trump’s America has given us all plenty of things to fear in the present. Since January a number of high profile horror films have gotten notice in the press. Sometimes a real bully can cause as much fear as a possessed doll. That’s especially the case when our government wants us to submit like a bunch of frightened children. Childhood fears may, in some cases, serve us well.