Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.


Apostle

Apostleposter

I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.

Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.

The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.


Tongues of Fire

“Do you want to see?” she asked me, fraught with all the emotions of a teen far from home. I’ve often questioned the wisdom of church groups sending large numbers of high school students to retreats or conferences where shear ratios of chaperones to teens guarantees intrigue. She was an attractive girl, and despite my commitments to asexuality early in life, I found her plea compelling. We weren’t supposed to meet after hours without the adults around. I was insanely curious, however. “A few of us will be gathering behind the gym,” she said. I demurred, afraid to break the rules. “Do you want to see now?” she insistently asked. We were in a room largely empty, as the adults were headed toward the food, the way adults always seem to do. I agreed. Nervously she closed her eyes in prayer. When she opened them, they were glassy and far away. A stream of nonsense words effortlessly bubbled from her mouth. This went on for what seemed like minutes, although I knew it was only seconds stolen from a scheduled curriculum. She closed her eyes, and coming back to herself, looked exhausted. “What did you say?” I asked, breathless. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

This was my first experience of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. I was at the United Methodist Youth Annual Conference, and I’d just met the girl who’d revealed so much. Methodists, as a rule, aren’t much into glossolalia, but the Pentecostal movement has Methodist roots, and teens are the great experimenters of the human race. I can’t recall how I met her, or even her name. I felt an incredible attraction to a girl who could let herself be so possessed, however; so vulnerable to an Almighty deity. I decided not to go to the after dark gathering. Instead I sought out a minister I trusted. He explained that such signs, if truly divine, are only done in the presence of an interpreter. She was misguided. Yet I couldn’t get those glassy eyes out of my mind. Where had she been in those fleeting seconds when her mouth spoke a language she didn’t know?

While reading David Kling’s The Bible in History’s chapter on Pentecostalism, this all came back to me with incredible force. A few years later I attended a Pentecostal service with one of my college roommates who belonged to that tradition. Being in a room full of true believers speaking in tongues at the same time unnerved me. I never went back. Psychologists and neurologists have explanations for how glossolalia occurs. The standard evangelical explanation is quite different. For one young lady whose name I can’t recall, it was a sign she wanted desperately to share. A personal assurance that John Wesley himself encouraged his followers to seek. Not that Wesley ever suggested speaking in tongues. That only began in 1901, after a hiatus of nearly two millennia. To a teenage spiritual seeker in the presence of a young lady, away from home, it was a mystical experience indeed. The assurance, however, would have to wait.

Image credit: Phiddipus

Image credit: Phiddipus