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?