Strange Ending

Perhaps it’s from growing up as a biblical literalist, but I’ll probably always have problems with post-modernism.  You see, when you’re taught as a kid that there is one absolute right and you already know it (it’s Genesis to Revelation, no Apocrypha, please), you kind of get the idea that things are just what they seem.  Po-mo teaches, among other things, that there’s no true objectivity—reality is subjective and there is no neutral ground upon which to stand.  I’m down with that, but the old ways of looking at things remain.  This is a long-winded way of saying I finished Kohta Hirano’s ten-volume manga, Hellsing.  Over the past year I’ve been reading for a friend of mine, but manga has never really been my thing.  I read The Watchmen as a graphic novel, but looking at pictures somehow feels like cheating.  It’s that literalist thing again.

I might be dropping some spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me be warned.  There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting here and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who.  In a kind of homage to my childhood monsters there’s vampires, werewolves, and even a Frankenstein’s monster in the series.  All of them are engaged in a constant state of combat against which the Protestant Hellsing organization stands for a stable civilization.  The Catholics are associated with Nazis along the way.  It’s a fascinating look at how an eastern culture might view the religious wars of those in the west who all go by the name “Christian.”  I think this is the genius of the series.  The friend who lent me the volumes has no declared faith, but he finds the dynamic fascinating.  Real religious fighting has made it easy for him.

The story, however, falls clearly into the generation of those without absolutes.  For someone my age a plot clearly laid out is a thing of beauty.  In college we used to argue about how absolutes might exist.  Where did they come from, and which is the strongest?  Did God make them or does God have to conform to them?  Even without the answers, the fact that absolutes existed was assumed.  Argument-driven science tells us that a theory is never proven.  Science is the best explanation we have at the moment, based on the evidence amassed.  In its own way, it has become post-modern.  Hellsing is a kind of mind-blowing work.  It will likely be a long time before I attempt another manga series.  Although I accept the po-mo premise, I still find old-fashioned fiction my favorite.

Nothing But the Truth

Blurbs are the way of the future. It is so much easier to read something brief than to have to wade through an entire article. Is that the way the future’s going? I read the blurbs for Christian Century’s round-up page when it lands on my desk at work, and I find plenty of interesting things there. For example, a recent issue suggested that truth may be getting harder to find. It began: “George Johnson [New York Times was the source] says modern culture is reaching the point at which there are no longer any incontrovertible truths, just competing ideologies and narratives.” It goes on to describe how issues like creationism are less concerned with “truth” than with fitting the world into their view. Likewise, those who object to putting telescopes on Mauna Kea see science as cultural hegemony. In a post-modern world there is no objective truth. Even as a college student I remember learning that if I found the Truth, with a capital T, there was no way to know it was actually the truth. “All truth is God’s true” some professors used to say tritely.

That doesn’t stop those of us who’ve been motivated our entire lives by the search for the truth. But how will we know when we get there? I first learned about post-modernism in my teaching days. Some of its ideas are perfectly logical: we can’t completely share an author’s meaning; words have no meanings, only usages; when we read we bring our own meaning to the text; an author’s intention is not definitive for what a text means. These ideas are deeply disturbing when we look at them closely. Then I began to read that scientists recognize that our brains did not evolve to discern the truth. Our brains evolved to survive, and even a dim approximation of the truth will help us get to reproductive age. In fact, dim approximations of the truth might explain much of our dating behavior. So, we’re led to conclude, there’s no Truth after all. Just “competing ideologies and narratives.”

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I studied a fair amount of philosophy in my time, and I do believe in Truth. That’s not the same as saying I’ve found it, since no one can honestly make that claim. All that we can admit is that we believe we’ve found it. Those who object to evolution say they know the Truth and it is special creation. All the evidence points against it, but all the evidence doesn’t fit the worldview. We lose something that can’t be replaced when we jettison the truth. As soon as I learned about existentialism I realized that it had long been my philosophy—making our own meaning in a world where certainty is unknown. Even those who claim that science will give us the answers have to admit that if faced with ultimate Truth we might not like what we find. We can only believe that it will be good. And hope that we are right.

Gothic American

AmericanGothAmerican Gothic, the painting by Grant Wood, caused me trouble at Routledge. An author wanted to use the image on the cover of his book (we eventually managed it) but the choice was contested at every step. Along the way editors, editorial assistants, and marketers all told me what the painting represented and how it was inappropriate. I’ve learned, however, a few things from the post-modernist movement: nobody can say what an artwork means definitively. So when I read American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, I was ready for a combination of po-mo and the macabre. Like post-modernism, Gothic is a difficult term to define. Indeed, the first set of essays in this collection struggle with definitions. Being literary criticism, the book points out that the novel and Gothic more or less developed together. When people read to be entertained, as early as the eighteenth century, they wanted to read Gothic tales.

Being a life-long fan of Poe, I was pleased to see that he made a good showing in the pieces contained in the book. What makes it appropriate to this blog—other than it being October, a comment that requires no explanation in the northern hemisphere—is a notion I found early in the book. People read horror literature for healing. Anthropologically, the wounded healer is a well-recognized figure. In a world where we expect opposites to go together health comes from disease and healing from being wounded. The gothic is a wounding of the mind to lend it healing. To be sure, many of us who read gothic literature do not relish scenes of violence or hurt. We do, however, find a kind of therapy within such darkness. In the darkness light is best appreciated. Who uses a flashlight outdoors on a sunny day?

As with most books from multiple authors, there’s some unevenness to the contributions here, yet more often than not, I found deep insight throughout its pages. Religion makes occasional appearances. Indeed, the figures of the monk and the debased church are stock images for early gothic literature. The sacred, if we’re honest, is a bit creepy. Having spent many nights in churches on retreats or for hospitality when youth groups couldn’t afford a hotel, I know that fewer places are scarier at night than an unlit, empty sanctuary. The gothic, following culture, has tended to move away from monasteries and churches into the more scientific spaces of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, ravens and haunted houses still evoke the age-old fears of a coming period of darkness, the Halloween of the soul. And for those who want to know how a post-modern crowd scans the darkness, this book will not disappoint.

Knockin’ Where?

KnockinOnHeavensDoorFor a while, when I was with Routledge, I tried to kick-start the old series Biblical Limits. I didn’t initiate the series, but it had been cutting edge at the time, and one thing biblical scholars seldom get to claim is that particular adjectival phrase. Alas, my enthusiasm wasn’t contagious and the series never moved ahead. Recently I decided to read Roland Boer’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: The Bible and Popular Culture. Little did I realize that it would be a book that would make such a literal fit for the symbolic nature of my blog title. This is a book that my internet savvy would declare NSFW: not safe for work. Boer explores the sex and violence that are really rather pronounced in the biblical text, but which are often sublimated into object lessons for the faithful. We hear that such books as Song of Songs are allegories since they can’t possibly be about real people really attracted to each other. Would God sanction such things, well, after Genesis 1, I mean?

Post-modern readings of the Bible like to place the obvious before the reader. There is, no doubt, some over-reading going on here, but there is plentiful insight as well. A number of places I stopped and thought, I could use that, were I still teaching. Popular culture isn’t just movies and video games. There is a very human element to culture. Indeed, culture would not exist without such a thing as human interest. Boer explores everything from David’s carnal interests to Alfred Hitchcock’s morbid ones. McDonalds to Ezekiel in Guns-n-Roses. This is not the usual finding Christology in E.T. This is more like the bad boy’s Bible.

If the Bible cannot be made applicable to a constantly changing culture, then it becomes irrelevant. Many object to Boer’s bold treatment, but I believe that unless we can move beyond our concerns with J, E, D, P, R, Q, and double, or triple-redactions, we’re going to lose readers from page one. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is a page-turner. You can sit on the bus and have people think you’re reading about the Bible when in reality, a chapter on pornography may have you blushing madly. It brings to mind Odysseus in Polyphemus’s cave. But then, blind giants may be the most dangerous of all.

The Body Apocalyptic

We are all products of our upbringing. Our early assumptions, although sometimes challenged and overcome, are generally with us for life. So it was that my progression of education led me to a small, conservative college to major in religion. Compared to what I learned at Grove City, the historical criticism firmly in place at Boston University sounded downright sinful. Nevertheless, it made sense, so I followed reason. At Edinburgh we were way beyond historical criticism in that wonderful, European way. Somehow in the midst of all the excitement, I missed Post-Modernism. “Po-Mo” has, like most recent movements, been quickly added to the pile of the passé, but I find it refreshing. I just finished reading Tina Pippin’s Apocalyptic Bodies (Routledge, 1999). This may have been one of the first truly Post-Modern biblical critiques I have read, and it was fascinating. Pippin is taking on especially the book of Revelation. If more people had read her book there would have been less panic back around May 21.

I find feminine readings of the Bible enlightening. As a member of the gender largely responsible for a book filled with sex and violence, it is often difficult to see how the other half of the human race might read that same text. Having grown up with a literal understanding of Revelation, I never questioned whether it was a good or a bad thing. The end of the world must be God’s will, therefore, by definition, good. One of the beauties of a Post-Modern interpretation is that everything is thrown open to question. Pippin does just that. Noting the ennui associated with eternity, she asks a question that always lurked in my mind—isn’t too much of anything eventually a problem? Eternity itself becomes problematic. Where do we go from here?

Perhaps the most striking comment Pippin makes is in the context of her chapter on the monsters of the apocalypse, “Apocalyptic Horror.” She compares Revelation to horror movies and demonstrates how all the elements are there in the Bible. She notes, “There are many monsters in the Apocalypse, but the real bad ass monster sits on the heavenly throne.” Pippin explains that God, in Revelation, joys in killing off humankind. As many of us have come to learn, people are generally good; at least most people have done nothing to deserve the heinous punishments gleefully doled out in Revelation. That, of course, raises the sticky question of ethics as applied to the divine. Here the book of Job comes to mind where our hapless hero declares that even though he is innocent, God still can count him guilty. It is the human situation. And Job was a good guy. Pippin’s little book challenged many of the assumptions with which I’d grown. Anyone who can read such a book and not worry about being a good parent is more Po-Mo than me.