Psychology of Religion

It’s so human.  Mistaking form for substance, I mean.  A recent piece in Wired that my wife pointed out to me is titled “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years,” by David DeSteno.  As the title intimates, religion benefits individuals in many ways.  Church attendance, however, has been declining for a long time.  While not the point of the article, I do wonder how much of it is because mainstream churches are stuck in a form that no longer works and people aren’t finding the substance there.  The basic church service is premised on a specific religious outlook that no longer seems to fit how the world works.  Potential ministers go to seminary where age-old ideas are tiredly replicated, based on an incipient literalism that simply doesn’t match what people see in the world.

Wired?

I’ve experienced this myself.  Depending on who the minister is, a church can go from dynamic to dull several times in the course of a member’s life.  People still crave the substance, even if the form stops working.  The form, however, is seminary approved and seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.  The folks are academics and academics are well aware of the developments that suggest the form doesn’t work.  Speaking as a former seminary professor, sermons just don’t do the trick when you’ve done your own homework.  As DeSteno points out, once you remove the theology science and religion tend to find themselves in agreement with one another.  For years I’ve been suggesting that secular seminaries are needed.  Churches that aren’t bound by form or doctrine.  Instead we swim in a sea of retrenched evangelicalism.

Religion is an effective survival technique.  It evolved, even while denying it did so.  Some time after the Reformation a resurgent literalism led Catholicism to modernize, removing the mystery that was perhaps the last tenuous grasp that form had to provide substance.  Religion, beleaguered as it is, still has substance to offer.  DeSteno’s article is adapted from his new book How God Works.  I haven’t read it yet, but from the summary I can see that I should.  There are religious groups that attempt what this article suggests.  From my experience, however, I see they easily get sucked into mistaking the form they settle on for the substance of what they do.  I had recently been toying with the idea of attending seminary again.  I found, however, form after form.  What I need is substance.


Social Madness

I’m reading a book written in the mid-1980s.  (All will become clear eventually.)  The author notes the connection between social madness and personal mental illness.  He cites the alarming rise of teen suicides.  This was over three decades ago.  Suicide rates have continued to climb, and this particular author got me to thinking about something that troubled me even as an undergrad.  Although I went to college intending to be a minister, I ranged widely in the subjects I studied.  (Being a religion major in those days allowed for quite a bit of flexibility.)  I took enough courses in psychology to have minored in it, if I had declared it.  Since my mind was set on church work I saw no reason to make said declaration.  The thing that troubled me was I had also taken sociology classes.

Like most people who grew up in uneducated households, I suspect, sociology was something I’d never heard about.  Asking what it was, in college, someone answered along the lines of “psychology of groups.”  My own experience of it was that it involved math and graphs—it was a soft science, after all—and now I read sociologists who say that such numbers can be made to declare what the sociologist wishes.  In other words, psychology.  The point of all of this is that the book I’m reading suggests societies exhibiting illness cause individuals to be sick.  Sociology leads to psychology.  In times of national turmoil, individual mental illnesses rise.  I had to pause and put the book down.  The eighties weren’t a picnic, but the national madness of the Trump era bears no comparison.  We are a nation gone mad, and when society can’t project health, the many who stand on the brink of individual mental illness simply get pushed over.  That sure makes sense of what I’m seeing.

Looking back, I often think I should’ve probably declared that minor.  Raised in a strong biblical environment, however, I wanted to learn as much about the Good Book as possible.  I was teaching Greek by my last year in college and in seminary I specialized in the Hebrew Bible.  It would’ve been a natural place to continue studying psychology.  By that point I’d decided to go on to a doctorate, and psychology required medical training.  For a guy as squeamish as me that wasn’t possible.  Ancient languages, though, they were something I could handle.  It’s rather frightening that those writing at that time already saw America (in the Reagan years, I might add) teetering towards national insanity.  We’ve gone far beyond that now.  And a society that doesn’t know it’s ill will sacrifice many individuals who realize that it is.


Paradoxical Psychology

In college I took enough psychology courses that I could have minored in it, had I simply declared it.  Focused on ministry at the time, this declaration never happened.  My own psychological issues (who doesn’t have them?) show up, I suspect, to those skilled at spotting such things, and friends sometimes suggest books I might enjoy reading.  As a result I recently finished Paradox and Counter-Paradox by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Luigi Boscolo, Gianfrancro Cecchin, and Guiliana Prata.  Attempting to summarize the study would necessarily over-simplify what is clearly a very complex topic—what used to be called schizophrenia—but the basic idea can be explained.  These psychoanalysts worked as a team to help patients with (since it was the 1970s) schizophrenia.  Realizing that the basic mental processes are developed within a family, their practice used group therapy to treat families rather than singling out the “sick individual.”  This book is an account of the methods they used.

Seeing schizophrenia as a family issue rather than an individual one, the therapists saw the identified patient as often a child trying to keep family expectations in order.  The psychoanalyst team called this a “game” played by families seeking homeostasis—the perceived state of balance between members to assure that things stay the same.  The psychotic member enables this to happen and families, as recounted in some of the cases, clearly try to manipulate the situation to keep this strange and awkward balance.  The doctors used paradoxical (thus the title) scenarios to treat such families and reported a good rate of success.  The focal point of their work was often not on the “sick” member, but on the group dynamics which led to the sickness.

The idea is a fascinating one.  We are all members of families (with some exceptions), and the way our group functions is, for the most part, acceptable.  Dysfunction, however, sometimes leads to psychosis, which, according to these authors, is a state of affairs best treated on a family scale.  While it may be easy for me (having grown up in a clearly dysfunctional family) to see this, I sometimes wonder at how widespread mental issues really are.  Our species lives a highly unnatural existence for evolved beings.  Our work together in family units often leads to conflicts, overt and subtle.  Children—often the identified patients here—can see such things much more clearly than we frequently suppose.  Afraid of the consequences, they learn to play the game to keep the situation stable, if untenable.  There’s great insight here, even if the book is a touch outdated; our learning about the human mind is never-ending and it makes perfect sense to pay attention to the context when wondering about the results. 


If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.


Now Hiring?

In keeping with my recent theme of jobs you never knew you could have, I recently read a story a friend sent me from The Vintage News.  The story concerns a spiritual counselor who is planning to marry a ghost.  I didn’t know that spiritual counselor was an available job.  You see, I had taken enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve had it as a minor, but I didn’t declare it.  At the time I was destined, or so I thought, for a career in ministry and psychology seemed a good subject to assist with that.  Also, I naturally tend to try to figure out what motivates people.  Like most career options, not having a science background prevented me from pursuing psychology as a fall-back career.  But spiritual counselor?

The woman in the story lives in the United Kingdom.  Here in the United States, where unhappy people seek any opportunity they can find to sue someone, having a job as a spiritual counselor probably involves ordination.  Even if you’re ordained, as I learned from long years both attending and teaching in seminaries, you always refer those who come to you to a licensed psychologist.  Clergy can easily be sued for providing bad advice.  That’s why the counselor part of this job seems so odd to me.  That, and the woman the story features is only 27.  I suppose that’s time enough to finish a doctorate, for the truly ambitious, but apparently she doesn’t have a terminal degree.  Just a post-terminal lover.

Also, I learned that spectrophilia is a condition with a name.  The idea of intimacy with spirits is nothing new, of course.  The ancient idea of incubi and succubi reflect this concept, and a number of the stories in the Ed and Lorraine Warren oeuvre include sexual attacks by demons or ghosts.  What’s different here is that the young woman wants to marry a spirit she can’t see.  Unlike most such reputed cases of spectrophilia, she claims spirits are superior to physical lovers.  Despite the oddities that make such a story newsworthy (in a sense) a potentially important point could emerge from all of this.  Love is not a physical phenomenon.  We all know it when we feel it.  I suspect that other such feelings, like finding the perfect job that matches your skills and interests, are likewise intangible.  The problem is finding out that such jobs even exist.


Mediating Reality

The brain is one troubling organ. The gateway to both our thinking and our physical experience—as well as our survival—it tends to explain things in terms of narrative. Human consciousness likes a good story. Experiment after experiment has shown that if the brain doesn’t know why you do something it will make up an answer. Consciousness is far from foolproof. Those who rely too heavily on rationalism don’t like to think about such things. Logically, if your brain can fool you then you can’t believe everything evidence seems to verify. Think about that. If you dare.

Psychology has sometimes received a bad rap among the sciences for not having empirical evidence to back up some of its assertions. “Freudian” is now used as much as a slur as it is a sign of the sudden insight that strange things constantly go on inside our heads. BBC Future recently ran a story by Melissa Hogenboom titled, “The woman whose tumour made her religion deadly.” The account regards a woman who came to the hospital with serious self-inflicted wounds. Although hackneyed, the voices in her head told her to do this to herself. Brain scans indicated a tumor at the point in her brain where auditory information and religious belief come together. Paging Dr. Jaynes! Now, I know this is over-simplified. I’ve read enough neurology to know that brain functions can switch from one part of the brain to another and that mapping this kilo-and-a-half universe is one of the the most vexing of scientific enterprises. Still, in this case, the implications were clear: the woman’s self-destructive behavior was connected, in her brain, to religious commands.

Many educated people in this post-Christian world rely staunchly on reason. I don’t disagree that reason is essential. I do wonder, however, what happens when such thinking is forced to confront the fact of the irrational brain. Ever since setting our clocks forward I’ve been awaking in the midst of dreams. My usual sleep cycle hasn’t yet adjusted. I know some pretty strange stuff is going on in my brain when rationality’s taking a snooze. The other day I awoke convinced I was in my boyhood home. Rationality tells me it was razed years ago. Yet this brain with doctoral-level education was convinced it was in another state at another time. And this isn’t the result of a tumor, but normal sleeping brain functioning. It does make one wonder if putting too much faith into rationality isn’t a form of minor neurosis. To find out you have to ask a troubling organ and hope for a rational answer.


What Democrats Don’t Understand

Human evolution (while it still legally exists) tells us a considerable amount about belief. Brain science (while we still have it) has long indicated that our noggins evolved to help us survive, not “to figure out” the world. Along its long and torturous path to modernity, the human brain has developed the ability to believe what it knows not to be true. This doesn’t just apply to the study of religions, but, in reality, primarily to psychology. Patients with split brains have shown a mastery of rationalization that should make any Republican jealous. So far the Dems are with me. What Democrats don’t understand is that you can’t change beliefs with reason. I grew up a Fundamentalist. That past still continually haunts me. What brought me out of it wasn’t thinking. It was experiencing. Specifically, experiencing in the course of education.

Recent polls show that well over 50 percent of Republicans believe Trump won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote. You could show this 50 percent as many statistics as you like and you won’t be able to convince them. Belief doesn’t work that way. In my experience, higher education (typically characterized as liberal) doesn’t really care about understanding belief. They hire professors recommended by establishment friends, very much like cabinet posts are now being filled. They still believe if you talk at someone long enough with reason, they will change their minds. I can’t change that belief of theirs—I have an idea how belief functions. We’ve all seen how the system works. Not every 1930s German was a Nazi.

In other words, it is very easy to believe a lie is the truth. In the words of Jim Steinman, “everything’s a lie and that’s a fact.” Education may help you spot the contradiction there, but it won’t help you unbelieve it. The truth is power can’t be taken, it must be given. If people do not believe what the media tells them, it isn’t true. As someone who’s spend a half-century trying to figure this out, I’m always amazed that my own party can’t see what’s so obvious to a reformed Fundamentalist. Until the day comes when avowed rationalists admit that emotions matter just as much as orthodox reason we will all be at a loss to explain how otherwise intelligent people will insist that what they know to be lies are indeed the truth.

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Lbeaumont based on image by Mila / Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons


Rule Book

gamespeopleplayMirrors can be such deceptive things. In my head I’m a much younger man than the one I see staring at me. And I have to remind myself that other people see what the mirror sees, and not what I really am. Things age. A friend who aged so much that she’s no longer alive recommended to me years ago Games People Play, by Eric Berne. Of course I’d heard of it before—I wasn’t born yesterday. I do enjoy reading psychological books. Psychology like having a window in someone’s forehead. If you could really master it you’d understand so much of what seems a mystery to people like me. But it is an old book. When Berne casually cites the year he was writing it as the year I was born, I began to suspect that some of the data might be outdated. The guy in the mirror certainly seems to be.

We still play games, though. The hope Berne expresses in the last chapter is that we might get beyond this endless game playing to true awareness, spontaneity, and intimacy—the things psychological games are meant to mask. I also have to confess to recognizing myself at several points and then reading that games are played by disturbed people. “So that’s why I x, y, or z,” I found myself thinking. Disturbing thought. And these ideas are as old as I am. Probably older.

Reading this book from ‘60s, I noticed a strong sense of certainty that is now lacking. I can’t imagine too many psychiatrists or psychologists making quite so many declarative statements these days. I know it’s a classic in the field, and I know there are some valuable insights here, but we don’t call people “squares” any more, and a good deal of the analyses point to assumed gender roles that we now know are as much fabrications as the games themselves. I was looking for a game that my departed friend had pointed out to me. We both knew a man who was apparently picking fights because he wanted to leave his job but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Stamp collecting,” she called it. She may have been right, and I have to wonder if many of us really know why we do the things we do. Maybe I could use a window into my own forehead. Of course, I would need the mirror to see it. It’s a little game I play.


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.


Gods and Rods

DramaGiftedChildThe human mind is an unsolved mystery. Oh, we know a lot about the brain, and advances in neuroscience have been startlingly swift. The mind, which is not the same as the brain, still eludes us. I took enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve declared it a minor, but being a minor I didn’t know enough to do so. Like many people from what used to be called broken homes, I wondered what made me think and act the way I did. I still do. Psychology shed some light on that, and although antipathy towards one’s parents has become a bad joke among those who belittle the science of the mind, there can be little doubt that there are patterns. Our youngest days, although we can’t remember them, make us who we become. I know my youngest days were difficult. I know they are with me still. I can’t remember them, but there are witnesses.

One of my readers suggested The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, to me. I was hesitant at first since I’m not gifted. My career has taught me that, if nothing else. Gifts are valuable, right? But the subtitle won me over: The Search for the True Self. Life has been that indeed. Miller, who is deceased, argued in this little book that unless the damage done early in life is recognized and mourned, it will lead to depression. This isn’t easy reading. It’s so easy to damage a child. Although most of us pretend differently, there are an awful lot of our species walking around with very deep, but invisible, scars. Just when I’m ready to dismiss the thesis, Miller provides examples. Examples in which I recognize something I wish wasn’t there. Consciousness can be a curse as much as a blessing. We don’t know where it comes from, or even what it is. It can drive you crazy, though.

Religion often prescribes child-rearing techniques. Many of us have the Bible to blame for being spanked as children. Larger, powerful adults violating the weak and controllable. Just because they can. Psychologically this is wickedness. I’ve read memoirs of children spanked excessively because the religion of the parents recommended it. Those who read Miller carefully will see that her case is well made. Perhaps one will dispute the conclusions, but the facts are there. Our childhood is necessary for our adulthood. And things that are impossible to see cause us to do things we don’t understand. Any religion that suggests beating a child is the path of righteousness has its directions utterly confused.


Monsters, in Theory

MonsterTheoryI want to understand monsters. I suppose that’s pretty common among Monster Boomers, but the thing is academics have been slow to give credence to our creatures. Yes, monsters are a throw back to the Medieval Period or worse, and reflect superstition, the supernatural, and things that go bump in the night. Our scientific worldview has no place for them, but they continually come back to peek in our windows and stomp on our cities. Horror movies, for example, consistently rate high in box-office grosses. And even adults, if caught in unguarded moments, might confess to enjoying the uncanny. So it was that I read Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Yes, it’s dated, but by humanities’ standards, it’s not too bad. Jurassic Park, one gets the feeling, was the rage when the book was being written.

As with most collections of essays, this is a Forest Gump of papers. Some of them were quite good and others were that kind filled with po-mo nougat. The one thing that was missing, sadly, is, well, monster theory. I’ve read just about every academic book available on monsters. I have yet to find a serviceable theory to help make sense of them. Yes, there are plenty of theories of origins—where monsters come from—but how to we handle them? Everyone knows that a stake is useful for vampires and a headshot is necessary for a zombie, but what are these revenants telling us really? Why do we still, when we can carry the internet in our pockets and call for help in the middle of nowhere, fear monsters? How do we construct, rather than deconstruct them?

Psychologists, of course, have a couch day with monsters. They represent parents, or phobias, or penises, or any number of things that make us uncomfortable. But how do we know a monster when we see it? Monster Theory, for example, has two chapters on conjoined twins. Now, at the time “monster” was a term used occasionally, but it is highly insensitive, let alone politically incorrect, to refer to humans that way. Then there were chapters on vampires and ghosts. Well, I suppose the dead can’t help their state either, but if they come back they could at least behave. Monstrosity is a concept, like religion, that we just can’t live without. We need our monsters in the dark just as we need dreams and desires. The question is what to do about them, and even after reading this weighty tome, I still don’t know.


Loving It

Given my remarks on occasion, some readers may conclude I dislike science. Nothing could be further from fact. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by science and secretly—or not so secretly—wanted to be a scientist. Complex mathematics, however, has always been beyond me. My brain simply doesn’t think that way. My gray matter is more inclined towards literature and abstracts, ideas. I am, it is true, distressed by a type of science that starts making philosophical claims as dogma: materialism. Those who make this claim have no scientific basis for doing so—it is a belief. They are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but to belittle those who suggest that maybe we don’t know everything there is to know about the unseen world seems poor sportsmanship to me. Case in point: IFL Science is a fun website. I enjoy the articles I read and it is refreshing to have those who stand up to creationists and other posers get such limelight. Interestingly, a recent article strayed into the uncanny valley.

Clown

Leading with the questions “Why Are So Many People Afraid of Clowns?” the article is categorized The Brain. Or psychology. This is one of those fields where we’re really out of our depth. We don’t understand the way that we think, and even raising the question of clown phobias seems a little odd. History can help to answer some of the questions, but IFL Science does a nice job of suggesting a scientific approach. Historically clowns were outcasts. They are liminal figures who create unease by their very existence. Those who didn’t feel accepted came to do what those who don’t feel accepted often do: try to get others to laugh at you. Sad comedians are more than a stereotype. Those who’ve clowned already know that.

Since I was a clown in college, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the craft. Clowns were a way of laughing at misery, but also of gaining some sympathy. By exaggerating human features, they become caricatures. We aren’t allowed to discriminate against those who are different, but clowns exist to be excoriated. And deep inside, I think we all know, that those who are ill treated will eventually demand payback. It is a lesson that the world could stand to learn even today. Of course, we don’t want to be told that those who are different share something as personal and important as human feelings. Clowns make natural targets for our fears because they represent something that we know shouldn’t exist—inequality. If you can’t get accolades through hard work, making others laugh provides its own reward. The phobia may arise, I suggest, because we know that every laugh comes with a price.


God’s Wormhole

Can God and science mix? I suppose that the third season of Through the Wormhole would be the place to look. The entire season has a distinctly metaphysical feel to it, so it is no surprise that the final episode is entitled “Did We Invent God?” It’s also no surprise that, like the other metaphysical issues explored, no resolution is really offered. Interviewing psychologists and neurologists, the show attempts to parse how scientists might address the question of God’s reality. God, of course, being immaterial, is normally understood not to be a subject discerned by science. So instead of putting God under the microscope, human perceptions of God will have to do. Everything from theory of mind to magical beliefs are probed to find hints of whence this strange idea of God might have come. The answer: we don’t know.

The more I pondered this, the more the same result reflected on science itself. When I was growing up I thought science was the truth. If science “proved” something, there was no arguing the point. I have come to realize, however, that science must be falsifiable to be science. That means it is potentially wrong. Not that it goes as far as Creationists take it to say that something is “only a theory,” but rather that science is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Future discoveries could falsify what we now know and the science textbooks would have to be rewritten. The difference here with religion is that most belief systems do not admit of this possibility. The truth has already been revealed, and there is no adding to or taking from it. God is not falsifiable. As stated above, God is not subject to science.

I don’t expect these observations of mind to change anybody’s ideas of the world. I do hope, however, that they make clear that science and metaphysics find themselves in similar situations. Both strive to know the truth. Neither can know if they’ve arrived. Both can believe it. The final episode of the season raises this point starkly. People are hardwired to believe. What they believe in is open to many possibilities, but believe they will. From my earliest days I have taken belief very seriously. What I have believed has changed over the decades, but at each step along the way I believed it was the truth at that time. I don’t know the truth. Nobody does. We all, whether scientist or religious, believe that we have found it. At the moment.

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons


Tales of Wonder

OnceUponATimeI knew of fairy tales as a child, but I recall them mostly being mediated through the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, just before bath time.  I don’t recall experiencing them in written form, and although I may have experienced them as narrated versions from time to time, my memory is mostly of the animated variety.  I’ve been reading about fairy tales lately since folklore clearly relates to many sacred narratives.  My most recent book on the subject is Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale.  Like most of Warner’s books, this is a unique telling, one which takes into account modern and some post-modern concerns.  Addressing what fairy tales tell us about the supernatural, gender, psychology, and growing up, this is a little book with big thoughts.
 
Unlike the polished literature of the elites, fairy tales come from the folk, the common person.  In this sense they are often truer than the establishment version of things.  Life can be violent and magical, and nobody raises an eyebrow when something supernatural occurs.  These tales often contain uncomfortable truths.  Fairy tales may help children to cope with eventualities, but they also unsettle along the way.  Rare is the tale where someone doesn’t die before it’s all over.  Like many disenchanted adults who’ve discovered the promises society makes to be false and hollow, I find returning to fairy tales as an adult somewhat therapeutic.  Long ago in a land far away often sounds much better than here and now.  Nor is it pure escapism.
 
As Warner points out in the very final thoughts of the book, fairy tales have come to be treated as scriptures.  Like scriptures, they turn into myths.  Myths may be retold, deconstructed, reassembled, and applied to many situations to inform us of the human thing to do.  We sell ourselves short by not recognizing the other scriptures that wisdom has provided down the ages.  While most of the folk wisdom we have preserved in the canon of fairy tales don’t go back to the Bible, they do retread some of the same territory.  By calling some of it scripture and other secular, we might miss that very many of the truths are similar indeed.  The assumption that growing up means leaving truths of childhood behind may, on occasion, bear reexamination.  If we look closely at our fairy tales we may discover that we should keep them close at hand, no matter what our age.


Two Outlooks

SexInTheBibleThe word polymath used to be applied more easily. In these days of highly specialized training, it is difficult to have expert knowledge in more than a couple of areas. The two areas, sexuality and scripture, dealt with in J. Harold Ellens’s Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, are such zones of specialization. Students of the Bible have recently begun an intensive exploration of how sex fit into the ancient worldview. Ellens’s book surveys all of the biblical legislation about sexual matters and a fair number of the stories involving the same, with the sensitivity of a professional counselor. Indeed, his practical knowledge of human sexual development and psychological needs based on it should inform society’s understanding of scripture. The Bible is no pristine book. Neither is it a romance novel. Still, ancient people were not as shy about sex as post-Victorians tend to be. The Bible is often frank on the subject.

The main danger of a project like this is trying to decide where to take the Bible literally and where not. Ellens, while he has some training as a biblical scholar, falls into a familiar trap. He assumes, as parts of the Bible do, that Israel’s neighbors were sexually depraved. Not only did they condone things like bestiality, according to Ellens, but they incorporated sexual deviancy into their worship. Ancient records, readily available for decades, give the lie to that outlook. Ellens makes the case that biblical writers had no way of knowing, however, that homosexuality, for example, is a biological predisposition that can’t be changed at will. Other sexual practices that are now considered normal and healthy were perversions in the biblical period. Medical science should inform our understanding of Holy Writ.

This is an argument Ellens can’t win. Passionate though he may be about how all of this just makes sense from a scientifically informed point of view, the fact can’t be changed that the Bible does condemn some sex acts outright. Even more damaging, in my opinion, is that the Bible clearly views women as the sexual property of men, and men regulate the sexuality of their females. Anyone arguing that the Bible is a moral guidebook in regard to sexual mores must face this issue head on. There’s no tip-toeing around it, even with verified psychological pedigree. The Bible is the product of a patriarchal structure that did not tolerate sexual practice outside prescribed limits. We now understand the same behaviors from a scientific point of view, but the written text doesn’t change. It is just that dilemma that makes it very difficult to be an expert on two fields so diverse as sexuality and biblical studies.