Dark Theology

I’ve been struggling for several years, I expect it’s no secret, with how horror and religion relate to one another.  Many think the task itself pointless, as if pop culture can simply be brushed off like an annoying bug.  But flies keep coming back.  They won’t be ignored.  Almost a decade ago I discovered Douglas E. Cowan was also walking this spooky path past the cemetery.  I also know that as an academic he must demonstrate his chops in technical projects.  America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King was extremely welcomed by me.  Like many people I’ve read some Stephen King.  Like Cowan, I’ve noticed how often and how deeply religion is entangled in his story-worlds.  Before King is simply dismissed, we must reckon with the fact that movies based on his novels and stories have a long  pedigree and almost canonical status.

This is not the place to analyze America’s Dark Theologian in depth, but it is a place that would highly recommend the book.  Cowan takes several aspects of King’s works and shows how they tie explicitly to traditional religious thinking and longing.  I haven’t read nearly all the books Cowan cites here, nevertheless, the analysis he offers is compelling.  Scholars of disciplines outside religious studies have tended to dismiss it as being moribund.  Cowan shows that those who make a living in pop culture disagree.  King makes no bones about the fact that he sees the application not only of religion, but also theology, as one of the driving forces for his fiction.  We dismiss such observations at our peril.  Think of you favorite King novel and ponder; is there religion there?

Clearly religion’s not always the cause, but Cowan gives a careful consideration to much of King’s oeuvre, and there’s no denying he’s onto something.  As he points out, King is far more interested in the questions than in the answers.  Those who know religious studies—theology, if you must—know that the same is true there.  I’ve studied religion my entire intellectual life.  One of the reasons students evaluated my teaching so positively, at least I hope, is that because I encouraged the questions and did not privilege the answers.  In this field, answers are merely speculations.  We only really fall into serious danger when we cease asking questions.  Cowan does an excellent job of parsing out some various pieces that will make some kind of basis for a systematic theology of Stephen King’s thought-worlds.  We would be wise, I believe, to pay attention.

Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

Up, Up and Away

OurSuperheroesIntellectuals often have difficulty, it seems, taking popular culture seriously.  I remember feeling slightly guilty taking a class on Science Fiction in college and actually getting credit for it.  At the time—I remember the Dark Ages—a course on comic books, or even superheroes, would’ve been laughed out of the academy.  And not in a good way.  Monsters, likewise, were considered the opiate of the small-minded.  I’m not sure what happened to turn all of this around, but I think my generation growing up may have had something to do with it.  Scholars began to pay attention to more than the cheap paper and eye-catching, if impractical, costumes.  There were, unnoticed by standard readers, messages embedded in comics.  Superheroes may have been telling us something about ourselves.  Now tenured professors can write about various caped crusaders without fear of ridicule.  Some of the books are quite good.

Robin S. Rosenberg’s Our Superheroes, Ourselves, is a rare example of a uniformly fascinating edited volume.  Contributions from a variety of psychologists and psychologists explore several of the deeper aspects of  the superhero phenomenon.  Insightful and thought-provoking, this little book gives the lie to the frequent admonition of my youth that reading such things was a waste of time.  Anything but.  Now, I didn’t have the level of commitment to comics that Big Bang Theorists do, but I recall being entranced by much of what I read.  Some comic panels are still vivid in my head, although I haven’t seen the original in more decades than I’d like to admit.  They are, as one of the essays suggests, a form of modern mythology.  Another form of modern mythology is the movie.  Superhero movies are discussed as well as the print versions.  These cheap, easily read books were more, it seems, than meets the eye.  I’ve fallen a little behind in my superhero movies, but perhaps it is time to start trying to catch up with Superman.

What is really striking, to me, is the discussion of super-villains.  As more than one contributor points out, you can’t have a superhero without the nemesis of an arch-criminal.  This quite naturally leads to the discussion of abstracts: good and evil.  Early comics tended to be Manichaean in this regard.  In our world evil may be much more subtle than it appears on the outside. The book appropriately ends with a reflection on morality. More than one ethical system may be found in superhero tales. Super-villains, apart from becoming role models for some political candidates, allow us to explore our own dark sides. In the end, however, we know that Batman must overcome the Joker, no matter how appealing he may be.

Don’t Answer Me

Non-directed reading sometimes follows its own track and a reader might become kind of an accidental expert. I wouldn’t claim that for myself, but I have noticed that scholars, until very recently, tended to give the cold shoulder to anything with a whiff of magic about it. Ancient magic is fair game, of course, but anything like post-Enlightenment magic is anathema, a veritable shibboleth of philistine sensibilities. No scholar worth their diploma would study such a lowbrow topic, let alone give it any credence. Popular culture, and increasingly political culture, tend to ignore academics, however. I have, in my exile from academia, become interested in those who consider themselves witches. I have, I realized recently, read quite a bit about the phenomenon and have been casting about for academic treatments that might fill in some of the gaps. It is a fascinating subject.

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Ironically, many religion scholars who swear by a mythological worldview of the first century, devalue magic, or Wicca. Many who study it handle it like a peculiar bug, something that might profitably be placed under the microscope as a living curiosity. The thing is, and I realize that academic institutions often shelter their inmates from the real world, many people still do believe in a kind of magic. It may not involve Harry Potter spells and wands, but everyday life outside the academy sometimes defies explanation. Scientists say it’s impossible, and scholars of religion are quick to lock step. Yet the number of those either openly or clandestinely joining occult groups appears to be increasing. Maybe they know something that the experts don’t?

While working on my academic paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, I have run into the amazing void of interest in contemporary magic. The television series Sleepy Hollow has revived some popular fascination with the topic. The curious, however, have few scholarly resources to consult. Here is perhaps the paradigm that shows most clearly why higher education runs into trouble. Could it be that in the academy the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God? Have they forgotten how the common folk live? Those of us who grew up common are often not welcome in the academy. Our downmarket ways and simian brows mark us as the sort so gullible as to believe in some kind of magic. But the numbers are on our side. And the only option sometimes is to become your own expert.

Pop Goes the Bible

BiblePopularCultureIn keeping with a theme, I followed up The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film with The Bible in/and Popular Culture, edited by Philip Culbertson and Elaine M. Wainwright. It is pretty clear that my professional interests have shifted towards reception history. That is to say, how the Bible has been interpreted over time. Not so long ago—perhaps even when I was a student—Bible interpretation was the purview of experts. Serious biblical scholars tended to look askance at the hermeneutical efforts of mere clergy, just like clergy tended to treat lightly the opinions of the mere laity. The respect of opinion was expected to flow from bottom to top. I have to admit a kind of heady satisfaction with learning to read languages unheard for thousands of years. Who wouldn’t be impressed to find you standing before Hammurabi’s stele, reading away? Like most aspiring biblical experts, I took languages very seriously. As I was teaching, however, it was clear that all my learning failed to sway those who came in with opinions firmly fixed.

One of the takeaways from a study like The Bible in/and Popular Culture is that the Bible changes with those who read it. Who is to say the opinion of the tweedy, bespectacled professor is any more valid than a country-and-western singer, or a novelist, or a screenwriter? Certainly all of them reach much larger audience than just about any biblical scholar. Their ideas about what the Bible says become, in a very real way, the truth. The essays in this slim volume are diverse, showing the wide range of biblical interpretation taking place in a strangely religious secular culture.

What emerges is a somewhat uncomfortable truth—especially for the biblical scholars who’ve spent thousands of dollars and many years to receive a parchment declaring them experts. The truth is, anyone can be an expert. The Bible is out there for the reading. Churches have historically gotten around this by adding tradition next to Scripture as a counterbalance. The culture, however, has decided that the Bible alone bears the weight of verisimilitude. Not all share the same tradition. The Bible, an iconic book, is instantly recognized as authoritative by Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. Even Muslims recognize its status as a holy book. Books, however, change with the reading. Popular culture reflects what the people are willing to believe. What they believe is the Bible. What they mean by that, however, is open to anyone’s interpretation.

The Fate of Goddesses

The goddesses Asherah and Astarte are sometimes confused, even by experts. Astarte, also known as Ashtart, Ashtarte, Athtart, and Astaroth, among other names, is the lesser attested of the two among the Ugaritic texts. Indeed, to read some accounts of the latter goddess, she becomes dangerously close to being labelled generic, the sort of all-purpose female deity embodying love and war, and sometimes horses. In the Bible Astarte lived on to become the bad-girl of Canaanite goddesses. Her corrupting ways were a conscious danger to the orthodox (as much as that is read back into the texts). She became, over time, literally demonized. It seems that originally she, like most goddesses, had a soft spot for humans. Since she wasn’t the one true (male) God, however, she had to be made evil. It is an unfortunate pattern as old as monotheism. One of my original interests in studying Asherah (not Astarte) was precisely that—the obviously benevolent divine female seems to have been chucked wholesale when the divine masculine walked into the room. Why? Well, many explanations and excuses have been given, but whatever the ultimate cause, Astarte lingered on.

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In a local pharmacy the other day, I was looking over the Halloween tchotchkes. Amid the usual assortment of pumpkins, skeletons, and ghosts, I found bottle labels reading “Ashtaroth Demon Essence.” Although I’ve spent a good deal of my life cloistered in academia, I was not surprised by this. I know that in popular culture the goddesses of antiquity live on as supernatural powers, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Astarte, once depicted as the friend to at least some of the humans devoted to her, is now commonly a demonic force. The image on the bottle label, however, was most unflattering. I know, this is just kid’s stuff. Still, as I stood there among last-minute costume seekers and distracted parents, I knew that I was witnessing the influence of ancient religions in an unexpected way. Did any of the goddesses survive as a force for good? How could they when the only god was male?

We know very little about ancient Astarte beyond the fact that she took away some of the luster of the omnipotent (as now conceived) deity of the Bible. A jealous God, as Holy Writ readily admits, visiting iniquity down to the third and fourth generation. (That might explain a lot.) Prior to monotheism benevolence and malevolence could arise from goddesses as well as gods. Compassion, it was believed, was largely a feminine trait. Monotheism decided for the jealous male instead. We won’t find a bottle label for the Almighty, although the accouterment of the arch-enemy are everywhere evident this time of year. And speaking of the diabolical, the Ashtaroth Demon Essence, I noted, was available at a steep discount.

De Profundis

IMG_1591In a grocery store last week a friend pointed out how many magazines had pictures of Robin Williams on the cover. Although his suicide two months ago was tragic, I wonder about the message we send to young people (and maybe some older ones as well) about this fixation. As we probe, attempting to understand the sad clown (and they generally all are), are we inadvertently telling our kids that suicide will make you an icon? We often hear accusations that extremist Muslims “brainwash” their youth into thinking that a righteous suicide will lead to glory. Perhaps the glory we perceive is somewhat different here in the post-Christian west than it is in the post-Christian east, yet I wonder what the essential difference really is. Why can’t we see that the cult of celebrity seldom ends well? The worship of the successful does not really grant them eternal life, as much as we may think otherwise.

Call me a curmudgeon—I probably deserve that—but when I overhear office mates in their cubicles or young people on campuses talking about stars I feel not a little like Rip van Winkle. Most of the names I do not recognize, and even showing me a picture doesn’t really help. Of course, I enjoy movies as much as the next dinosaur, but apart from the bargain bin and the occasional indulgence in Amazon Prime I really can’t much afford them anymore. I walk into a bookstore (where they can still be found) and the authors I want to read are not on the shelves. They are gone and all but forgotten. Many of them having left profound ideas in their wake. I guess I could pick up a magazine. Robin Williams looks happy on the cover.

I used to watch some late-night television before my job required waking between three and four a.m. One of the things I quickly noticed is that those stars our society worships had little of substance to say. That’s not to say all actors and media darlings are shallow, but I often wondered why their interviews always seemed to come down to the lowest common denominators. Have we lost our interest in probing beneath the surface? Isn’t there some profundity left to explore? Don’t get me wrong—I find Robin Williams’s death a tragedy. He may have been a deep and philosophical man. Who really knew him? Nevertheless, I wonder if perhaps, if we challenged ourselves a bit more, we might just consider the messages that our media broadcast. After all, they have to turn a profit. Do we really mean what our magazine covers seem to imply?

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…

Vices

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

Hair to the Throne

Absalom was the first of the big-hair rock stars. According to the book of 2 Samuel, his hair was so luxuriant that he had it cut once a year and it weighed two hundred shekels (about five pounds, not sterling). This little bit of foreshadowing in 2 Samuel 14 will appear again in the story of Absalom’s demise, as he is caught in a great oak tree by his untrimmed hair. I’ve always related to Absalom on the coiffure issue—I don’t like getting my hair cut. In my more self-analytical moods, I relate it to having stepped on a bee’s nest as a child and having received multiple stings on my bare legs. That horrible buzzing of bees in my ears stayed with me, and whenever the girl at SuperCuts grabs the clippers and the bee-like drone nears my ears I flinch in terror. Like Absalom I have rather an abundance of hair, and so when I’m shorn, it is easily noticeable. I don’t like people to comment on it, however. One of the most banal phrases, not to mention an utter tautology, is when someone smartly observes, “you got a haircut.” With what am I to follow this up? “Yes—I was feeling a bit too much like Absalom in the forest of Ephraim where Joab found him dangling in the tree after David followed the advice of Hushai instead of Ahithophel”?

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While walking through a mall recently, I commented to a friend how all the stores seemed to be clothing and shoe stores. You never find a bookstore any more, or museum shops, or anything approaching profundity. People really mostly care about what they look like on the outside. I’m more of an interior guy. Not among those generally cast among the hunky, good-looking examples of masculinity, I’m small, bookish, and still wear clothes that I’ve owned for two decades. My hair is usually out of control as well, but not in a fashionable Einsteinian way. I am, I fear, the heir of Absalom.

Religion used to be a source of profundity. It was, once upon a time, the queen of sciences, and philosophy was her handmaid. Seeing the way that religion appears in the media today, however, I’d have to guess she’s been shopping at the mall. Those who measure religion by the cut of her hem rather than by how deep her thoughts may be, have brought her into the limelight of popular culture. She used to be all about the meaning of life and offered a reason for many of us to get out of bed in the morning. Absalom’s trouble started out when he fell in lust with his half-sister Tamar. His addiction to appearances led him to bad decisions that ultimately divided David’s kingdom and cost him his very life. And I guess that’s the price you pay for not getting a haircut on a regular basis.

God in the Shops

Over the past few weeks, as I’ve been out and about, I’ve been noticing the way that the divine has been utilized by shop-keepers. In a culture where incipient religion is so pervasive, it seems that God is treated much like the NSA in some quarters—always watching, always vigilant. I popped into a shop selling locally made items (I try to support the local economy when I’ve got a greenback or two to spare, although that is rare), where I saw a sign reading “Shoplifting & Theft Will Be Judged By God.” The sentiment gave me pause. Deeply embedded in our society is the idea that without a divine mall cop, we would all run amok with crime. Although religion is pervasive in the world, much of it is non-deistic, and yet highly moral (particularly in east Asian nations). Their cultures have advanced, even beyond western culture in many aspects of technology, and yet gods (and specifically our God) do not figure into the ethical equation. Pillage and plunder do not seem to erupt when God is not in the shop.

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Whimsical signs have been popular decorative items for decades now. The problem with whimsy is that it loses its effectiveness once the initial chuckle is over. Signs reading “no pain, no gain” in fitness clubs may inspire day after day (although I have my doubts), but the cute warning that “the dog is crazy” on your doormat fails to impress after the first reading. (It must be pretty obvious that I don’t entertain much.) Nevertheless, shops stock those impulse-buy signs that are clever and witty, if soon outdated. I found one the other day reading, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” Even with the strains of self-righteousness, there is valid thought here. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before Jesus, he said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” This disputed passage is one of the most pertinent in all of Scripture. No stones flew.

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Finally, a friend came in bearing a shopping bag with Jesus on it. “Lookin’ good for Jesus, the King of Kings, King-size Tote” it read. The bag was clearly designed with a heavy dose of irony. I couldn’t help but notice that the bag was full of bottled gas. This portable version of the only begotten is a reminder of how commercial our religion has truly become. Although clearly presented with tongue distending cheek, we know that, as I tried to convince many at Gorgias Press, Sects Sells. People will buy cute knock-offs of their deities. In Wisconsin we used to visit Holy Hill, a Carmelite shrine where all manner of sacred kitsch lined the walls, from glow-in-the-dark rosaries to cheap, plastic saviors. The shop was never empty. Perhaps it is possible to worship both God and mammon after all.

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Fanpire Club

FanpireIt has become an odd world indeed when thousands of people look to vampires for family values. Although I’ve not read any of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, I have been curious at the reception they have received. A literary agent said, a few years back at an event I attended, that publishers want vampires. There is no end in sight. Perhaps it is my inherent trust of scholars that led me to read Tanya Erzen’s Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It. Why would a religious studies scholar write about Twilight? Because Erzen realizes, as many scholars are beginning to that: 1. vampires are very religious monsters, and 2. many more people care about books like Meyer’s than they ever will about scholarly minutiae. I, for one, learned that I’ve missed out on a huge part of pop culture by insisting that my fictional reading must have at least an attempt at depth. Erzen ably points out that there may be truths beneath the surface even here.

When I first became aware of the Twilight books, I was surprised that no one seemed to be making the connection with Dark Shadows. I grew up with the subtle, sensitive vampire who was deeply conflicted. The books that serialized the television series were not profound either, but they evoked an angst that bespeaks a religious need deeply buried. Erzen is able to dig some of this out of Twilight as well. By interviewing fans for whom Twilight has become an ersatz religion, Erzen can show that even squeaky clean Mormon men can’t possibly live up to the vampire standard. The fantasy that has engrossed so many is an image of selfless love. As if Edward Cullen were a less chaste, and more undead Jesus. After all, he gives Bella eternal life and his love never grows cold. The values fit rather well with Latter-Day Saint theology, and provide a model for mortal family values.

More striking is Erzen’s revelation that fandom does not equate to feminism. The women who are empowered to love in unorthodox ways are very much controlled by their men-folk in Meyer’s universe. As Erzen points out repeatedly the ideal lover here is an obsessive stalker with a penchant for abuse (although mostly unintentional). Freedom for women comes at a cost. They may be offered the best in some fields, but even today women do not find equal representations in positions of power in our society. CEOs? Evening news anchors on major networks? Senators? Presidents? Our society is one that talks the talk of equality, but stumbles when it attempts the walk. Vampires cannot exist without victims. Even in the most “advanced” societies in our world, women must struggle in a hierarchy for which the architects, contractors, and supervisors are mostly men. Perhaps women find vampires so fascinating because it matches their experience of a society that takes far more from them than it is ever willing to give back.