Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Still There?

We_Are_Still_Here_film_festival_poster_2015

Keeping up with much of anything is hard to do, given work and commuting schedules. Often a horror movie will pass without even a notice until it’s on the sale shelf or free on Amazon Prime. On an October afternoon nothing feels more appropriate than a moody, ghost driven film. All these caveats are to introduce We Are Still Here, a movie that has received commendable ratings from the critics but which seemed pretty conventional to me. I’m not a fan of gore, and the finale has plenty to go around, still, the pacing is about right and the landscape is vacuously beautiful. I have to confess that I’m not sure of what was happening, although the newspaper shots during the credits were supposed to explain things. Haunted house, check. Townspeople acting badly, check. Spooky presence in the domicile, check. The menace is referred to in several different ways, but what is clear is that it wants a sacrifice.

To me this is what is at the heart of the connection between religion and horror. Sacrifice is wasteful by definition. Gods, who are demanding creatures, ask for people to give up something they could use to propitiate divine displeasure. We’re never really sure why gods have such anger issues, but it does seem like a universal trait. In We Are Still Here the “god” lives in the basement described as “hotter than Hell” and its choice of not slaying the intended victims is never really clearly explained. Perhaps that’s the point. Sacrifice is something that gods want. Reason has nothing to do with it. People in films like this seem to be minding their own business, doing what people do. Then the gods demand death. It is a religious trope older than the Bronze Age.

The film reminded me about the somewhat earlier and scarier Burnt Offerings. Ironically in the latter, there aren’t any burnings as there are in We Are Still Here, but there is a house that thrives on human sacrifice. Both houses demand a family and destroy it. Indeed, apart from sacrifice, such movies tend to be a critique of ownership. The house owns the people, not the other way around. And the house, in some sense, is a deity. We Are Still Here doesn’t give a full explanation. It puts the viewer through the usual paces for a horror movie with appropriate startles and grotesque deaths. Like most members of its genre, it reaches for religious backing to make it all hang together. It has the good grace not to be obvious about it as well.

Akedah

AbrahamsCurseViolence, in its most basic form, is to be blamed on evolution. Not the theory of evolution, but the fact of it. More precisely, violence is a reflex of the struggle for existence. To live animals have to eat and to eat, many have evolved to kill. While violence is endemic in the world, it isn’t so rampant that species overkill their own kind. That’s rather rare, actually. Human beings have engaged in violence against one another for our entire history, and it is only within the last century or so that we’ve made any concerted efforts to stop violence against those who are different than ourselves. Among the impulses both advocating and quelling violence is religion. Bruce Chilton’s important study, Abraham’s Curse, scours the monotheistic family tree for information on why all three major Abrahamic faiths advocate martyrdom. Or more disturbingly, why they insist on sacrifice, even of our own species.

Chilton begins with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Akedah—the binding—or near-sacrifice of the beloved son. Since Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share this story, and since it sets the tone of a God who seemingly demands human sacrifice, Chilton explores its implications and possible origins in sacred violence. Sacrifice predates any written records, although, as Abraham’s Curse points out, it became an established fixture in urban culture when temples began to play an important role in ancient society. No one knows why we sacrifice. By the time writing came along, it was already an established part of the picture. When the book of Genesis was penned, the story of the binding of Isaac became sacred scripture. Even in the earliest days of biblical interpretation scholars puzzled over what was going on here and its chilling implications. God, after all, comes up with the idea that Abraham should be tested with the cruelest of tests. Although the Bible isn’t explicit on the point, Abraham and Isaac never appear together again after the incident until Abraham is safely dead.

Building on this common story, Chilton takes the reader through the stories of the Maccabees where Judaism develops the concept of martyrdom, through Christianity where some actually begged for it early on, and into Islam, which still practices animal sacrifice. The idea that it is noble to lay down your life, and worse, the lives of others, points to a guilty Abraham who is a paradigm of faith. An Anglican priest, Chilton is no angry atheist. He does not, however, pull any punches. If monotheistic traditions gave us a violent heritage, they can also work to dismantle it. Ironically, it is when religions are in the ascendent that they exercise their power to perpetrate violence. All three major monotheistic religions officially advocate peace and justice. But somewhere in our deepest human experience, we know what it is to feel hunger and what an opportunistic animal does about it. Abraham’s Curse does offer solutions, however, if only we could get human beings to put down their spears and read.

Holy Cows

Back in the days when a book was a luxury item, great care was taken in its production and protection. Having your investment lying around with flimsy paper covers that would begin to grow blunt and roll back even before you finished reading would have seemed irresponsible. To shield the vital contents from the weather and other dangers, leather was used as a kind of skin—come to think of it, it really is skin—and safely the words were housed. Many of these volumes were, naturally, Bibles. Leather and the good book became synonymous for some—even with onionskin paper a book’s not a Bible with just a printed case hardcover. Paperback? How can you take that seriously? To make a Bible authoritative, it seems, cattle must be harvested. After all, sacrifice is at the center of it all.

Being a long-time vegetarian, this often gives me pause. My belt and watch-band are made of canvas, and I try my best to avoid leather shoes (although this is often difficult). I’m pretty sure that my leather Bibles are faux skin. Even though my family respected the Bible to the point of bibliolatry at times, we really couldn’t afford genuine cowhide. Now I take a more circumspect look at the cost of appearances. We’ve outlived the need for animal-bound Bibles. It has become more of an expectation than a necessity. An affectation. There is, however, still a big business in leather Bibles, and Italian leather seems the best fit for a Semitic savior.

What troubles me the most is the idea that animals—deemed not conscious by the very religion that allows their slaughter—are made to pay the cost for human foibles. The whole sacrificial system is built around a radical inequality. Humans domesticated cattle for their own exploitation, and their skins, when no longer needed by their hosts, came to clothe holy books of their masters. In any shade or hue of the rainbow. We can make it less grim by dying it a cheerful color and declaring its progenitor had no thoughts in its vacuous head. It lived a life of servitude and when it paid the ultimate price, it received the martyr’s gift of becoming part of the Bible. The end result? We should feel less qualms about our peccadillos and atrocities. We’ve wired their brains to trust us—we are not the predators to fear. Try not to take it personally. It’s just what our religion demands of us, for we too are a domesticated herd.

From the herd of purple cows...

From the herd of purple cows…

Holy Gobblers

I wonder if this is how religions get started. Yesterday President Obama continued the lighthearted tradition of pardoning two turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. There has been a gifting of turkeys to the United States president at least as far back as the Harry S. Truman years, but the pardoning began, as did many myths, in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan took considerable heat for pardoning Oliver North after his crimes in the Iran-Contra Affair. Handling criticism with a joke (again, of which there was no shortage in those days), he offhandedly mentioned pardoning the turkey. Reagan had already decided not to eat the bird and had it sent to a petting zoo. The first recorded official pardoning came in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. This seems so close to the origins of the concept of salvation that I have to pause and baste in the implications. Pardon is only effective when there is guilt involved, so presumably turkeys sin. The only sin that suggests itself is gluttony, but I’ve seen more than my share of wild turkeys and they seem to have any natural weight problems under control.

Ironically, the guilt in this case seems to rest with those who do the pardoning. Turkeys grow fat because they are raised to do so. They are, like most eating animals, sacrificial victims—sinless and slaughtered. Again, there is another beautiful religious trope here, but we seldom sing the praises of the noble turkey that takes away the hunger of the (first) world. So, as crimes are committed in real time, we can shift the focus to the turkey. The analogy with sheep in the first century is apt. Like the turkey, the sheep was known as a creature of rather simple mental capacity. The lamb was sacrificed for sins it did not commit. Yet we don’t sing hymns to the noble turkey. In fact, Thanksgiving, being a non-commercial holiday, has largely been eclipsed by Black Friday.

I see a future religion in which the turkey plays a supporting role. All we, like turkeys, have gone a-peckin’. Turkeys have no shepherds, but they are kept in tiny cages, and the pardoned pair are the great Moses and Aaron of the turkey world. They are released to live out the rest of their short, obese lives in relative comfort, having been messianically chosen from before hatching to be spared the fate of being consumed by the ultimate consumer. This is the very stuff (stuffing?) around which Bibles are written. The theology here is as thick as gravy. As a vegetarian, however, my sympathies are with the birds. Heaven help us all when the pardoned pair come back and declare, “Let my turkeys go!”

Cabin Fervor

It’s a sure sign that work is growing overwhelming when I’m too tired to watch my weekend horror movies. Well, I decided to fight back the yawns and pull out Cabin Fever this past Saturday night. I’d seen the movie before, and I’m not really a fan of excessive gore. The acting isn’t great and the characters aren’t sympathetic, yet something about the story keeps me coming back. In short, a group of five teenagers (it always seems to be five) are renting a cabin for a week when they get exposed to a flesh-eating virus. They end up infecting just about everyone in the unnamed southern town before they all end up dead. It doesn’t leave much room for a sequel, but that hasn’t stopped one from being made. One of the unfortunate victims of the virus is torn apart by a mad dog. The locals, fearing their safety, decide to hunt down the surviving youths.

On the way to the now gore-smattered cabin, one of the locals mutters that they’ve been sacrificing someone—a natural enough conclusion when body-parts are scattered around, I suppose. He says, “it ain’t Christian.” Well, yes and no. Sacrifice is at the putative heart of Christianity, although human sacrifice (beyond infidels and women) was never part of the picture. As is often the case with horror film tropes, the victim who has been dismembered is a woman. The guys whose deaths are shown are all shot. Now, I have no wish to attribute profundity where it clearly is not intended, but there does seem to be a metaphor here. Our society and its staid religion tolerate the victimization of some over others.

One of the hidden treasures of the best of horror movies is the social commentary. George Romero made an art form of it in Night of the Living Dead and its follow up Dawn of the Dead. Many other writer/directors have managed to do it quite effectively. We can critique our world when hidden behind the mask of the improbable. While the commentary for Cabin Fever may be entirely accidental, I still find a little redemptive value in it. That, I suppose, is the ultimate benefit of social commentary—it is true whether intentional or not. Is there a larger message here? I wonder if the fact that when women are victimized no one survives is pushing the metaphor a little too far. It’s hard to say; I’ve been working a little too much lately.

Reverend Sanders?

According to the Associated Press yesterday, Yenitza Colichon was sentenced to 18 months’ probation for child neglect and cruelty. The charges stemmed from a 2007 religious ceremony in which her seven-year-old daughter was made to watch a chicken sacrifice in New Jersey, and the girl was fed the animal’s heart. The practice is part of the Palo Mayombe religion of central Africa. This whole incident highlights the vital question of when religion crosses the line into child neglect. Many of us bear scars—some psychological, some physical—from our religious upbringings. It has been concluded by psychologists that children do not possess the level of abstraction necessary to deal with religious concepts until they are about the age of twelve. Parents, often fearful of eternal consequences should their children depart the one, true faith (whatever that is), begin religious instruction early, often passing their children off to others who are in no real sense an expert in the religion itself.

The United States embraces, on paper, the concept of freedom of religion. Rightly, it seems, the strong arm of the state will step in when a child is endangered or neglected. The unanswered question is at what point does this neglect or endangerment occur? Authorities turn a blind eye if the faith is time-honored, and, especially, if it is of European/American extraction. Typically of the monotheistic variety. What is standard practice for other religions, as this case demonstrates, may be called into question. Sacrifice is also at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sublimated into different forms for both political and theological reasons, those of us in that tradition have abstracted sacrifice to bloodless words on a page. When we see red, child neglect and cruelty are cited.

Religions frequently make extreme claims over the lives of their adherents. Most religions relax such claims for children, but others continue ancient practice that is tacitly condoned. Sometimes those permissible rites cause real physical pain and scars. If under the hand of a moyel, okay; if scarification in African tradition, not okay. Religions denigrating personal achievements of the young, setting them onto a path of failure, okay; religions ritually killing animals, as even the Bible demands, not okay. Without making any judgment on specific religious outlooks, the reality of lingering effects remains. Are the terrors of Christian nightmares inspired by tales of Hell any less cruel than watching a domesticated animal die? Is eating a chicken heart any less unusual that fish on Fridays? Is being unfamiliar with a religion grounds for dismissing its authenticity or claim for equality? Some of us find animal sacrifice distasteful, but if we proclaim a tidy sacrifice each Sunday, and share it with our children, that particular rite/right is protected by law.

What would (wiki-commons) chickens do?