Being Boarded

It might seem superfluous to be reading about pirates when such serious issues face us these days, but my answer to most of life’s problems is to look at the history. Besides, like many people in the early new millennium I was swept into the swashbuckling romance of the purified pirate. I suspect, given the time period, that I hadn’t really thought of pirates for a couple of decades. I knew that in reality a pirate was simply a thief on the seas, a bloke on the water who had looking out for number one down to a capitalist science. I thought maybe Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates, by Neil Rennie, might say a bit about the most famous fictional pirates of the modern era, but alas (or “avast”?). For a book that says in its cover copy “the long dissolve from Captain Kidd to Johnny Depp,” it has only a single paragraph about the modern Hollywood pirate from the Caribbean. That’s not to say that the historical and fictional information aren’t interesting—I especially enjoyed the chapters on Long John Silver and Captain Hook, and women pirates—but the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Rennie does a good job of exploding myths that mostly trace their origins to a bottleneck of historical sources on the subject. It’s good for academics to revisit the origins of ideas, I find. Beginning with the days of Henry Every, the early material is quite interesting. I had no idea that Madagascar was such a pirate haven, being mostly aware of the Caribbean variety. But there are also contemporary swashbucklers about.

Consider, for example, that our country seems to be run by pirates. Thieves are those who claim for themselves what they have no right to take. We have a president and cabinet who are pretty much all of that description. We also have majorities in both houses of congress who seem, on many issues, willing to climb aboard a stolen vessel. In Iceland they have the probity to call themselves “the Pirate Party.” At least you know what you’re getting when you cast your vote for those who say what their intentions are so obviously. Not that Trump didn’t make clear in his words and deeds of a lifetime that he would only look out for himself. People can’t be troubled to check the facts, though. It’s better just to let your anger drive you when you’re behind the curtain. Who looks at Wanted posters anymore? Of course, I would say that. I’m the kind of person who looks at history to solve problems.

Soul Library

LibrarySoulsThere’s a kind of trinitarian logic to the trilogy format. Long before Hegel’s model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, people have grouped things into threes. And there is a hook that film-makers have used to ensure that viewers will come back for the third installment: the cliffhanger. The second episode leaves everything unresolved and you’ll be sure to see the third. Think of the original Star Wars trilogy, or Back to the Future, or even Pirates of the Caribbean. In each case the first film could stand alone, but the second insisted on a third. This is a little trickier with books since, as we all know, publishing is a slow business and writing takes time. I saw Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, in 2011. I knew I would read it since the cover alone was so intriguing. Young adult literature, it turns out, has come a long way since I was able to classify myself that way. Then Hollow City came out. It ended as a cliff hanger (remember the formula), back in 2014. Just over a year and a half later, The Library of Souls was released.

Having just finished the trilogy, reading each as it came out, I would say that, like most trilogies, the first installment was the best. Freshest, a new idea, where characters exist with whom the reader participates by in filling in the blanks, a series grows more complex as it expands. Some elements that weren’t there at the beginning have to be read back into the previous installments. In my case, I’ve read so many books in the interim that some of the details have grown hazy due to the simple passage of time. Still, Riggs is to be highly commended for bringing souls back into discourse among the young. Too long we’ve been sold the story that we have no souls.

I’m not going to go into any great detail here since those who want to learn how Riggs handles the tale will read his books, but I will say that a stubborn materialism has settled over intellectual culture. Some neuroscientists have naively said, “we’ve looked for it and can’t find it, therefore it must not exist.” And since most of us don’t have access to their kinds of equipment or training, we’re told to acquiesce. Give up your souls—buy into materialism. Buy stuff. That’s what we’re all about. It is a relief, in the midst of all of this, to have a popular writer suggesting, through fiction, that it is souls that make us who we are. The books aren’t preachy. Indeed, it would be difficult to say they are religious in any conventional sense. They are, however, soulful. And for that I am very glad to have read them, even as a middle-aged adult.

Land’s End

Although not due for release for another two years, the internet is already buzzing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Thing is, once a studio finds a successful formula, they’re reluctant to let it go. Nevertheless, with a couple days off for New Year’s, and all the family here, we decided on a marathon of the four movies available for home viewing. I used to use a clip from the second movie (Dead Man’s Chest) in my classes to demonstrate how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture. In the scene where Pintel and Ragetti are rowing toward the beached Black Pearl, Ragetti is leafing through a Bible, although he can’t read. He says, in his defense, “It’s the Bible. You get credit for trying.” Indeed, the Bible appears disguised as the huge codex of the pirate code (a kind of over-compensatory pentateuch), and, as I noted before, the book that saves the mermaid’s life in On Stranger Tides. In fact, for those willing to look behind the scenes, the Bible shows up repeatedly in the series.

Even as a landlocked child maritime themes and concepts were compelling to me. I yearned for the ocean without ever seeing it. Long I stared at the cover of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us in wonder. When I finally had the opportunity to strike out on my own, it was to Boston I headed, with its rich New England tradition of the sea. I have tried, ever since, to return there. Theologians, although I don’t count myself among their number, have often found a religious resonance with the sea. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, based as they have been on a Disney ride, nevertheless manage to tap into the romance of the ocean. Not compellingly written, apart from the fun antics of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t present an entirely coherent story line, but they do put the viewer, vicariously, at least, on the ocean. And they have been among the most successful film series ever released. Many, I suspect, are drawn by the lure of the open ocean.

Rewatching the films also reminded me of Cthulhu’s influence on the character of Davy Jones. The origins of the euphemism “Davy Jones’ locker” are uncertain, although some trace it back to Jonah. Nevertheless, it stands for the place of death on the sea floor—the very place where Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming according to his creator H. P. Lovecraft. No doubt, Lovecraft’s description of Cthulhu played into the depiction of the character of Davy Jones as presented by Disney. At the end of At World’s End, Jones falls dead, once again, into the maelstrom that will take him back, dreaming, to the ocean floor. In so doing he participates in the endless give and take of the sea. I suspect a couple years hence will find me in a theater to watch what seems a somewhat tired trope, but it will be more the sea than the sparrow that will draw me in.

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Dagon Cthulhu

Cthulhu has taken over the world, thanks to the internet. I wonder what H. P. Lovecraft thinks as he lies dead, but dreaming under the loam of Providence. A lifetime of struggle to gain recognition as a writer left him without much of a following, relegated to pulp magazines for low brow and Innsmouth-dwelling mentalities. Now everywhere from Davy Jones’ face in Pirates of the Caribbean to car bumpers in any parking lot, Cthulhu has awakened. My wife sent me a photo of a couple of such bumper-stickers recently: “Arkham’s Razor,” reads one, “The Simplest Explanation Tends to Be Cthulhu.” “Nyarlathotep is my co-pilot” reads another. I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through bumper-stickers.


Back in my post-graduate days in Edinburgh, I had decided to write my dissertation on Dagon. This seemed a reasonable topic as no serious, book-length treatments of this elusive, Mesopotamian deity existed. My advisors talked me out of it, however, noting that material on Dagon was so scarce that it would be extremely difficult to scrape enough together to call it a dissertation. A few years later, it turns out, an academic book on Dagon finally appeared, but the fact remains that he was, and is, a major deity who somehow mostly disappeared from the ancient records—the victim of chance finds and perhaps more aggressive gods. For my birthday one year my wife bought me a bumper-sticker with a “Jesus fish” that had the word “Dagon” inside. I posted it on my office door in Oshkosh and the department chair asked me what the tentacles were meant to represent. An web search indicated that the Dagon was not the biblical “fish god” but the Lovecraft reincarnation. I had experienced an epiphany.

Lovecraft, although an atheist, knew his Bible. I once wrote a scholarly article on the Dagon story in 1 Samuel 5 where the Philistine statue of Dagon falls down, decapitated, before the captured ark of Yahweh. This is the sole narrative involving Dagon in the Bible, and it concludes by saying only Dagon’s “fishy part” was left intact. Lovecraft took this obscure Bible story and built an entire mythos from one of its characters. Cthulhu, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and their companions have risen from the deep, and encircled the world in an electronic web. The fact that kids who’ve never read Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu at a glance, attests to his power. Even Batman fans who cite Arkham without knowing that it was originally Lovecraft’s creation keep the master alive beyond the grave. Isn’t that what resurrection is really all about? Even if a writer has to be discovered through bumper-stickers.

At World’s End

“I am not a number, I am a free man” Number 6 plaintively cried on The Prisoner. Capitalism, however, has a way of making each of us quantifiable. A statistic. Not a guy with a kid in college. Not a human being with a sense of self worth and pride of achievement. From far above, in houses and penthouses owned by those who climb ladders made of other human beings’ hopes and dreams, those below are just means to an end. I’m sorry Number 6, you are wrong. Freedom is not free and the capital in capitalism is humanity, commodified.

It used to be that on the way to work I’d walk past the homeless in Midtown and wonder what could have brought them here. What could happen to a person to make them invisible—just a statistic waiting to die? What system could reduce a person to a number? Learning to count is, at times, a betrayal of our very humanity. It used to be that hard work was rewarded. It used to be when someone looked our way s/he saw a human being, and not a number. I’m terribly sorry, Number 6, I truly am. We don’t know your name. You are a number. So are we all.

In the aptly named Pirates of the Caribbean series, the second installment complicated the story by introducing the unmoved Englishman Lord Cutler Beckett. Satisfied with nothing less than the control of the world’s oceans—some two-thirds of the planet, he secures the means to reduce all enemies to fish-food with no show of emotion beyond a shallow smile. In At World’s End, as the Flying Dutchman and the Black Pearl bombard the Endeavour, blowing the ship of unbridled capitalism to bits, Lord Beckett, bewildered, significantly climbs down the steps muttering, “It’s just good business.” Aye, but not Aye, aye. (There is a serious difference.) As the Endeavour sinks I think I hear Number 6 from the depths, and I desperately hope he’s right.


A Weird Resurrection

Driving through an unfamiliar city doesn’t allow for much time to appreciate what you’re seeing. Back in February when I was visiting Austin, Texas for the first time, it was 65 degrees outside. Given the irascible temperatures in New Jersey this year, that felt like summer. Of course, the locals were bundled up since it was, for Texans, unseasonably cool. The weather has been off this year. Of course, we know who to blame. Cthulhu. As I was trying to find the University of Texas with an impatient GPS as my co-pilot, I spied someone walking down the street wearing a Cthulhu ski mask. I can’t express how badly I wanted to pull aside and snap a photo, but pulling aside in a strange city can lead to unwanted adventures. Especially when your co-pilot is an opinionated GPS. I’ve been to north Philly and the south side of Chicago. I didn’t want to take any chances that Austin might hide such districts.

Cthulhu mask

H. P. Lovecraft, like most original thinkers before the computer age, was ignored in his lifetime. I wonder what he would have felt if he had divined that the internet would one day bring him world-wide fame. His writings, of course, had been appreciated before the computer was invented, but the web has nearly as much Cthulhu as it does LOL Cats. Even those who’ve never spent a dark night curled up with the Necronomicon recognize Cthulhu’s octopoid visage when they see it. Davy Jones of the Pirates of the Caribbean fame borrowed his unforgettable face from the Old Gods discovered by Lovecraft. Cthulhu has become a cultural icon of the chaotic, the cosmic, and the somewhat comic.

In a strange way Cthulhu stands for resurrection. In Lovecraft’s mythological world Cthulhu lies under the sea, dead but dreaming. A dying and rising god of utter terror. Lovecraft, an atheist, built his fiction nevertheless around a series of gods. Today his stories are noted for their moody portrayal of improbable worlds, and his storytelling has had an incredible influence on many of those who attempt to generate worlds that are fantastic but somehow still believable. Cthulhu’s resurrection, however, is not to be desired. Even if these he represents life anew, it is a life humans could not bear. In a deeper sense yet it is Lovecraft himself who has experienced a kind of resurrection. A writer forgotten in his lifetime, but rediscovered when it was too late for him to realize just what he’d created, the true master of Cthulhu, I like to believe, lies dead but dreaming, and he has already revealed that he will rise and the masses will tremble.

Mermaid Missionary

Last summer I was invited to address a church in Princeton about Christian themes in the movies. Back in my seminary days I often presented biblical material at adult forums, but my interest in religious themes in movies has grown over the years. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have watched secular movies with an eye toward religiosity since I was in high school. The day of the presentation followed a recent viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Although I’ve posted on it before, that particular movie is among the most heavily freighted with Christian themes of any I’ve seen. Now that I’ve had a chance to watch it again on the small screen without the distractions of getting home through traffic afterward, I would redouble my assertions. The very premise of the movie—the hope for eternal life—is a decidedly Christian refrain and the pirates, who wear their sins on their sleeves, are eager to attain it. The missionary, mentioned in my previous post on the film, serves as a kind of foil for that theme, insisting that all souls can be redeemed. Except, he decides, Blackbeard’s.

The reason that Blackbeard falls out of the missionary’s personal book of life is his mistreatment of a mermaid. Now the swarming, man-eating mermaids are among the most memorable images from the story. One has to be captured to unlock the magic of the Fountain of Youth, and the victim happens to be the missionary’s mermaid. In a Florence Nightingale moment, the two different species fall in love—celibate preacher and heathen, mythological creature. An odd couple indeed. Carried in a glass coffin filled with water, the mermaid also needs air to survive and the heartless pirates don’t really much care. To save the little mermaid from asphyxiation, Philip shoves his Bible into the gap he breeched between coffin and lid, saving the fishwife’s life. Talk about conversion!

When the glass coffin breaks, spilling all the water, the mermaid is reborn as a human. Echoes of Splash come to mind here, as well as Disney’s earlier effort, The Little Mermaid. The transformation in this case, seems spiritual as well as physical. Syrena, whose very name invokes the classical sirens, is the one who delivers the magical chalices (communion, anyone?) to Jack Sparrow to save the life of Angelica, or, more likely, to bring Blackbeard to an end. Our busy mermaid, now transformed again to her fishly form, saves the injured missionary by converting him to her way of life under the waves. There are shades of Lovecraft here as well as a reversal of Ariel’s fate in Little Mermaid. Although critics were harsh on this movie where a comic character now takes on a serious role, I still find it compelling. Nearly all the main characters undergo transformations as the story unfolds and whether heathenish or not, almost everyone ends up a better Christian of one sort or another.

Preachers and Pirates

One of the more colorful characters, albeit briefly mentioned, in Jon Butler’s New World Faiths, is Rev. Henry Loveall. While not a major historical figure in any sense of the word, and as a man who is known without the benefit of his own account of himself, the little we know of him intrigues. According to Butler, Loveall was dismissed as pastor from the Baptist church in Piscataway, New Jersey (a town in which I once worked) on charges of bigamy, prompting the Philadelphia Baptist Association to note he’d chosen an appropriate name for himself. Genealogical records online indicate that his given name was Desolate Baker and that he was born in Cambridge, England. As a youth he found himself in trouble for immorality with a woman at his church and he moved to America. Records are sketchy, but he apparently moved from Rhode Island to New Jersey to Maryland to Virginia. He had married but had gone to Virginia with another man’s wife. Even the usually forgiving genealogical records indicate some suspicion of his character.

Loveall lived in the eighteenth century when the world was still large enough to hide in. While I’m not the one to be impressed with Disney’s attempts at profundity in the Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, there is one parsimonious line from At World’s End where Barbossa and Sparrow are discussing the incursion of business interests (in a delightful irony for a Disney film) into the free-spirited world of piracy. Barbossa avers that the world is smaller, but Jack Sparrow retorts that it’s not a smaller world after all, but “there’s just less in it.” Our world has been rapidly reduced to the pixels we can see on the screen in front of us. Bloggers are acclaimed as experts while those who’ve gazed across the war-torn promised land from atop the Mount of Olives with its frenetic network of churches start to doubt what their own eyes have revealed to them. We are content to let the Lovealls and Sparrows live it for us.

Our names are seldom a matter of choice. Like being born, they are factors in the midst of which we find ourselves—someone else supposed that we might turn out like this. The names we would select for ourselves show the size of our inner worlds. To love all is a noble sentiment. A sparrow is nervous, flighty, and has but a small brain. Our inner worlds are partially constructed by our religions. Declaring on divine authority what we must and mustn’t do, we find ourselves born into religions like we’re born into names. Few question the faith tradition fed to them by parents with such certainty, and that religion, just as surely as our name, becomes an integral part of our identity. History tell us little of Henry Loveall, a man who changed his name, and a clergyman who lived religion on his own terms.


Serpents, Rainbows, and Black Pearls

Riding on a bus with a bunch of coughing commuters may not be the best setting for reading about poisons and zombies. I am also aware that Wade Davis has come into criticism by some of his professional colleagues and that the movie based on his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, may have led to an aneurism or two among scholars of Haiti. Nevertheless, Borders was closing down and a copy of the book remained on the shelf for an insanely low price, and October would soon be upon us. This past week I read Davis’ intriguing account of his experience with real-life zombies and the fascinating religion of vodoun. A number of issues were raised by his account, not least of which is that the feared religion of “voodoo” is a direct result of the evils of African slavery that brought indigenous gods into the realm of Christianity, and mixed them vigorously. My first “exposure” to vodoun was in the old James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. It terrified me as a child, and even with rational eyes, I’m not sure I fare much better as an adult.

No matter what one thinks of Wade Davis and his work, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a fascinating work. One of the most interesting aspects Davis raises is the continuing issue of defining death. Premature burial may sounds like the hysteria of a Poe-induced nightmare, but, as Davis shows, most methods of measuring death are susceptible to being fooled. Those who are termed “zombies,” in the vodoun sense of the word, are people declared dead by medical professionals, yet who are later found, after their burials, very much alive. Many readers will find this difficult to accept, but it is a phenomenon that goes back to Seabrook’s swashbuckling adventures of early last century and even before. If Davis is to be believed, it is thoroughly documented.

Paradigm shifts are seldom welcomed. We prefer to live within the comfort of the universe in which we grew up. Science and religion agree on this point—things are not what they seem. Zombies in the Walking Dead sense do not exist despite the fact that they are the kind most popularly known. We like them because they can’t hurt us; they lurch through the streets of our nightmares and our zombie walks, but they are not real. It could be, however, that our understanding of our world is woefully incomplete. Confronted with that which challenges our tidy universe, whether it be quantum physics or Haitian religion, we must consider the benefits of a mind kept open to the possibilities. Do vodoun priests in the hidden shadows of the Caribbean enslave the living dead? Disney answered with a resounding yes in Pirates of the Caribbean, but then, in Hollywood it is sometimes preferable to have the zombies in front of the screen.

Biblical Muppets

Back in the days when I was teaching intensive summer courses, I frequently used movie clips to help break up the three-to-four hour class sessions. I would find movies in which the Bible featured in what I’d call a minor supporting role—almost as a character—and would try to get the class to discuss it. One of the immediate observations is that such an exercise is starved for choice: the Bible appears frequently in films, both secular and religious. Sometimes its role is pivotal, at times incidental. Last night as my family prepared to return to work and school, we watched a movie to say goodbye to summer. The movie was Muppet Treasure Island.

Like most children of the 60’s I learned about Muppets from Sesame Street. By the time I was a teenager The Muppet Show had emerged on prime-time. Before long Muppets made their way onto the silver screen. Muppet Treasure Island was a movie I had missed until my daughter saw it in primary school. I have used it as an example in my summer classes for years. The story follows, as faithfully as Muppets can, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Tim Curry—selected for Long John Silver because of his fame in the Rocky Horror Picture Show—makes a believable singing pirate. In this version of the story, when the pirates reach Captain Flint’s treasure it has been absconded by Benjamina Gunn (Miss Piggy). The pirates, now guilty of mutiny, give Long John the black spot. (For a generation raised and weaned on Pirates of the Caribbean, the black spot requires no explanation.) Long John, playing on the superstitious nature of the other pirates, sermonizes them because they used a page of the Bible to draw the black spot. Terrified of this sin, the pirates beg Long John for forgiveness.

This is a textbook example of the Bible acting as a magical book. Often in the movies it functions in that role; the Bible has the invisible authority to bring mortals to their knees. Pirates in need of paper might dismember any other book (I might suggest Going Rouge: An American Life), but the Bible is itself sacred. This particular role for the Bible reflects American sensibilities about the nature of religion particularly well. Without ever reading the Bible many people venerate it as if ink on paper is a little piece of God. There is a grain of truth in that, for literacy is a little piece of God and books do guide us. The problem is limiting that role to one single exemplar. Perhaps after all the Muppets shall guide us to a deeper truth.

Stranger Tides

Yo, ho, ho and a plate of spaghetti

The closest I’ve come to appreciating pirates is the command of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that its devotees must wear pirate costumes. Nevertheless, being only human, I was curious about the fourth installment of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series although the old storyline had mercifully died out. This weekend my family joined a handful of others still showing interest and went to watch Captain Jack Sparrow’s antics on the silver screen. Perhaps it was because this movie actually followed, loosely, an actual book instead of a theme-park phantasmagoric pastiche, but I found the movie surpassed my expectations. I’m discussing it here because of the heavy dose of religious concepts brought into the story by the inclusion of a missionary.

In typical Pirates fashion, the character introductions are unconventional, and so it is with Philip, the missionary. Tied to a mast on Blackbeard’s ship as a kind of human talisman, the poor man is cut down by Sparrow and a crewman during a mutiny. The crewman declares to Philip, “You are either for us or against us!” to which the missionary replies, “I am neither with you, nor am I against you!” The crewman asks Sparrow if that is possible, to which Captain Jack replies, “He’s religious, I believe it’s required.” This was possibly the funniest line in the movie, but it was so because of the underlying truth. The sarcasm here is directed at a representative of a church that will ultimately lead to the destruction of eternal life. Granted, the agents of that destruction are Catholic, presumably.

Once the fountain of youth is discovered and Blackbeard and Barbossa engage in their swordplay, Spanish troops arrive and promptly destroy the pagan fountain declaring that the church (presumably Catholic) is the only means to eternal life. The Protestant missionary, meanwhile, in an act of self-sacrifice returns to free a misunderstood mermaid. (This is Disney, after all.) The dialogue is difficult to remember from a single viewing, but the addition of religious elements beyond the supernatural lent a gravitas to this final Pirate film that the others lacked. Even placed among the fantastic, the religious elements grounded it in a reality where faith, sacrifice, and fortitude became intrinsic to the story. I doubt I’ll head off to the Spanish Main any time soon, but I appreciate movies that offer a bit of substance along with their entertainment on that transatlantic crossing.