Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.
Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.
Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.
Okay, so I’m a bearded white man traveling alone. Perhaps I look like I have nothing to lose. So at the Raleigh-Durham Airport I’m singled out for a full-body scan. I told the very serious-looking woman that it was against my religion. She said, “You can have a pat-down then.” Oh boy! I was very stoic as the stranger with a southern accent told me just how he was going to touch me, using the back of his hands until he met “resistance.” Echoes of Pulp Fiction. By the time it was all over, I think he kinda liked me.
We, as Americans, have allowed our government to subject us to horror. My younger colleagues tell me that the terror of high school after-gym shower time has finally been eliminated. I grew up taught that no one, not least myself, had a right to look “down there.” Naked in a windowless room with a bunch of boys whose hormones are tearing them apart was never comfortable for me. One gym teacher sadistically told us if we could hold our hand under the hot water tap wide open for a full minute we’d get an A in phys ed without having to do a thing more. Pain makes the man.
Now I go to the airport where some voyeur I don’t know and will never meet makes an assessment of my endowment, analyzes my assets. Thank you, no. Who gives him the right? Of course, the Bush Administration did. We, as citizens, stand bare before our rich and powerful leaders. I don’t think that’s what the right to bare arms is all about. From a shop below wafts Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The irony seems lost on all but me. But then, a stranger’s hands are down my pants. Bush’s legacy in the Patriot Act is that all are guilty until proven innocent. After being felt up, I feel like I need a shower. I need to check my “resistance.”
Then again, maybe my government will do it for me.
Everyone is an expert on the Bible. This is one of the factors that provides professional biblical scholars with generous ulcers. Everyone is an expert because they know what they believe about the Bible. The difficulty is very few people actually know much about the Bible. Belief and knowledge are very different features of the human psyche. In my introductory course on the Hebrew Bible last night, I showed the clip from Pulp Fiction where Jules exegetes Ezekiel 25.17 (which is a fictional verse concocted for the movie). This offers a springboard to discuss how the Bible is perceived in society at large. Many people believe that Ezekiel 25.17 actually reads as Jules quotes it. The writer/director of any movie may freely manipulate the Bible since they are as expert as anyone else on the subject. (Of course, Ezekiel is a safe bet for a false citation since few people have actually read the book.)
As an officially trained “expert” on the Bible who has learned the original languages and who has read far more books on the Bible than health or common sense would dictate, I often wonder about this. When the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by, knowing that I have these credentials, they plow straight ahead and tell me what the Bible really means. They are experts as well. When my wife was pregnant and we visited the obstetrician for an initial interview, as soon as he discovered my vocation, the physician quoted Scripture for this nervous young couple before him. Would you not rather have a Bible expert deliver your first child? Where is there room for the bone fide Bible specialist?
Having read Hector Avalos’ The End of Biblical Studies some months ago, I found myself largely in agreement. In many quarters the Bible receives a privileged treatment that only creates problems. Politicians, rap artists, physicians, movie directors, and janitors are all experts on the Bible; why do we need those of us who’ve made it a life’s work? The answer, I believe, is that knowledge of the Bible is at an all-time low. Many venerate the Bible without understanding what it is. Until society gets a grasp on what it means to have so many experts on the Bible, everyone should ponder the meaning of the passage that reads, “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”
The Associated Press today released a story about an Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard discovered in England this summer. The trove, which likely contains at least 1500 items, many of silver and gold, is calculated to cause substantial reassessment of Dark Age England. Leslie Webster, a former curator at the British Museum, suggested that given the nature of the artifacts, new light could be cast on the relationship between warfare and Christianity.
Apart from the obvious deliria of daydreams of wealth that such finds always drag in their cloaks, this treasure once again underscores the connections between religion and violence. The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic invaders of England following the decline of the Roman Empire, had been early converts to Christianity. Even Alaric the Goth was a good Christian, although he had little patience with the oversight of Rome. The recently uncovered hoard contains mostly military trophies, but among the finds was a gold strip reading “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face” (Numbers 10.35). Already bloggers are drawing comparison with Jules’ quote from the fabricated Ezekiel 25.17 in Pulp Fiction, but the connection of Christianity and conquest is much more intimate than that. Once Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, the imperial imperative took over. It became a religion of conquest. A similar phenomenon occurred after the advent of Islam. The zeal of the converted should never be underestimated.
I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd
So, what are we to make of this scriptural quote among sword knobs and doom sticks? Is it simply more evidence that religions, like the Roman Empire (according to Octavius) “must grow or die”? Those who believe carry a deep-seated fear that their religion might be proven false. On it ride serious (and often eternal) consequences. One way to ensure the quelling of that fear is to silence the heretics who decry the one true faith: take up your swords and nukes and threaten the infidel. The road less traveled, however, is to rise above our insecurities and simply enjoy the ride.