A Concept

Pardon me for being perplexed in public. You see, things aren’t as clear cut as they used to be. In the world in which I grew up Evangelicalism was good and Satanism was bad. Very bad. It still has the ability to scare people straight. A recent NBC story my wife sent me titled “Satanic Temple challenges Missouri’s abortion law on religious grounds,” by Corky Siemaszko, shows how the GOP has turned the tables on this equation. The Christian Right has utterly aligned itself with the pro-life camp. Most people would agree, I suspect, that abortion shouldn’t be the first choice of birth control options, but life comes with many unpredictable circumstances. There are times abortion is the most humane option and the burden falls almost entirely upon women. It’s not an issue on which men are competent to decide.

The evangelical posturing on the issue—which has, by the way, changed in recent years—has placed the weight fully on women. A rutting male, like a bull elephant in musth, can hardly be responsible, so the thinking goes. Or, to put it more politely, boys will be boys. Women suffer on the tusks of this tautology; it’s no wonder Satan has horns. Only women conceive, so men can make the laws and feel empowered by a male god who, you know, understands where they’re coming from. Missouri Satanists are striking back. The problem is the state requires women to be presented with indoctrination that says life begins at conception before electing for an abortion. Does life begin at conception? The Bible says “no.”

Biblical science was primitive. Ancients understood there was a connection between sex and pregnancy, but infant mortality rates ran very high. Life, in the biblical view, started at first breath. Spirit, breath—the very word for “soul” in the Bible—was the marker of life’s origin. The Bible may not advocate abortion, but in a world where few children made it past five, there was a shortage of surviving progeny. So it turns out that in Missouri Satanists are actually advocating the biblical view while the Evangelicals are violating the constitution by misreading it. Life begins at conception isn’t a scientific premise, it’s a theological one. A theological one on which Christians disagree. And Satanists. In their efforts to keep men on top of women, the Christian Right has no support from the Good Book on the matter of conception. Of course, why read the Bible when you can get what you want by quoting only your favorite verses? After all, God, they say, is a “he.”

In the Details

To a certain mindset, nothing conveys a threat quite like Satanism. Many parts of the world witnessed this dynamic during the “Satanic scare” of the 1990’s. In reality, however, most groups identifying as Satanism do not believe in a Devil and, often enough, don’t engage in worship. These groups are a reaction against aggressive Fundamentalism. For example, a Washington Post article timed as parents (at least) are thinking of back-to-school worries, announces “An After School Satan Club could be coming to your kid’s elementary school.” News headlines are intended to make you want to read a piece, and this one worked in my case. It turns out that the Satanic Temple, the group behind this current initiative, is one of those rationalist groups that doesn’t believe in the Dark Lord. They object, however, to schools allowing Good News Clubs to meet after school hours and want to make a point by offering alternative programing. Devil-themed, but not Devil-believing.

It’s difficult to imagine this kind of situation developing in many world cultures. It raises some very basic dilemmas where two conflicting freedoms co-exist: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Most people would agree, upon reflection, that public schools should not be used for religious instruction. After school programs, in the minds of kids, still take place “at school” and are not easily separated from regular instruction. (Just ask an undergraduate what an adjunct instructor is and you’ll see that they pay little attention to administrative issues like that.) Fundamentalist groups, such as Good News Clubs, use freedom of speech as their wedge to offer after school programs. It’s not “school,” and it’s after hours. Don’t we allow freedom of speech, and isn’t there space available? Good News Clubs are, of course, evangelistic engines. The Satanic Temple makes the claim that if one religious group can meet after school, so can another.

Neither academics nor society have a good understanding of literalist beliefs. Those of us who once believed—sincerely believed—Fundamentalist teachings are a resource academia has chosen to ignore. Higher education is still an “old boys network” where jobs are offered on the basis of who you know and not on the basis of the knowledge they might offer to students. This, I suppose, is yet another clash taking place. Fundamentalism may seem laughable from the outside, but from the inside the untenable beliefs are taken with deadly seriousness. After school programs are an expression of a very deep-rooted fear that such religions promote. Satanist groups will get headlines by taking them on, but they will continue the conflict rather than offering dialogue to try to understand. They’re only doing what higher education teaches them to do—support those you like instead of trying to move knowledge ahead. Perhaps that’s the real work of the Devil after all.

Dakota Territory

A few weeks back I found myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. This is a fashionable district in which to live, but back when the Dakota was built, as pictures from that era demonstrate, this was an undeveloped area. The building stands alone against the sky, not surrounded, as it is today, by neighbors. I’ve noticed this in other parts of Manhattan as well. New buildings can grow in seemingly impossibly slim spaces between other structures. Sometimes I wonder how construction workers can get their hands back there to lay the bricks. The city is so overbuilt that it is difficult to get into the Halloween mood of October. Yes, stores, restaurants, and bars do decorate windows, but the enormity of the surroundings makes them seem miniscule. Although New York is a gothic city, it seems to swallow up holidays. Perhaps because of its greater commercial potential, Christmas is much more evident around town. Halloween, however, is a holiday best appreciated outdoors.

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While in the neighborhood, we stopped by to look at the Dakota. It was under scaffolding the prevented seeing the entirety of the building, but the famous entryway was unobstructed. I know that it was near here that John Lennon was murdered, and I know other famous people used to live here: Judy Garland, for example, and Leonard Bernstein. To me, however, the visual aspect of that entry always suggests Rosemary’s Baby. Even the doormen still wear the uniforms that they wore in the movie, only today they have to shoo away those who try to wander inside the gates to snap a selfie where the other half live. For me it was once again being in the presence of a place I’d felt I’d been before.

Rosemary’s Baby still stands out among the classic horror films as being particularly effective. The Satanism scare of the late sixties and early seventies has moderated, and we know now that witches are not people to be feared. Nevertheless, the eerie pacing of the film, and the sense of threat forever mark this location as one of caution. Seeing Terry Gionoffrio lying in a pool of blood where John Lennon would, in reality be twelve years later, is prophetic in the worse possible way. Still, the tourists stopped to have their pictures snapped at this infamous location. New York can be like a giant movie set at times. I quite often walk through staging areas for films on my way to work. It is a city where fantasy can be difficult to parse from reality from time to time. Even being in the upper west side, for someone like me, is, I know, pure fantasy.

O My Stars

I know many conservative religious believers. I also know a lot of nones and atheists. One thing they all have in common is that they want to believe the truth. They want to do what is right. Enter the media. A day of peace and prosperity for all is a slow news day. To keep the pot boiling, differences need to be emphasized and people’s fears and frustrations must be highlighted. Nowhere is this better on display than in party politics. Do people really not get along at all? Are we really so polarized? A friend recently sent me an internet story about the Republican elephant. Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to the posturing of the GOP since so much of it is obviously show. The coalition, cynical at best, between the evangelical camp and the fiscal conservatives has created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of the party which began out of an anti-slavery movement and was represented in the politics of Abraham Lincoln. I have trouble seeing him approve of Reaganomics or some of evils that have flowed from it. We are more deeply divided now than we ever were during the Civil War. And better armed too.

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So, what about the Republican elephant? The stars on the blue top half are upside-down. I’m not sure if this represents a change or not. The problem, of course, is that the upside-down star is a “pentagram” associated with Satanism (which is not what most people think it is). The insinuation is that the symbol was subtly changed to reflect the true values of the party. I don’t know if the stars on the elephant were ever right-side up. As long as I’ve been politically aware, the Republican party has been the one that supports the wealthy while trying to cut the poor and working class from the budget in any way possible in order to build an ever stronger military to protect the plutocracy for which it stands. One nation, under Mammon, with surveillance and distrust for all. Principles, in my opinion, far worse than Satanism.

Ironically, in this media fueled division of the nation, conservatives know and hate Satanism. In fact, seeing a pentagram pattern in school bus taillights can send the internet into a tizzy. We’re afraid, but of what we don’t properly know. Must be those liberals with their radical ideas of liberty and justice for all. On the street things haven’t felt like they’re getting better for a very long time. Each year since the overspending Bush decade the economy has found inventive ways to get worse and worse. One thing remains constant—the ultra-wealthy flock to the political party that once stood for freeing of slaves and uniting a deeply divided nation. The best way to keep us together is to keep us afraid. That’s easily done when economists tell us you can’t hope to retire with the medical benefits and living standards of the middle class without at least a million dollars in the bank. Something’s upside-down alright, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what.

Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.

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The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Dangers de la nuit

Sex&Paranormal Some books require extra clothing on the bus. When I saw the title of Paul Chambers’ Sex and the Paranormal, I noted the juxtaposition of two aspects I’ve frequently argued are intimately related to religion. There can be no question that religions in some way attempt to regulate sexuality. Those forbidden topics loosely collected under the sobriquet of “the paranormal” tend to be only a baby-step or two away from religious beliefs. Often those who are open to religious acceptance also allow for the possibility of the paranormal. So what did these two quasi-religious phenomena have to do with one another? How was I going to read a book with a title like this on public transit? How would I plumb the depths of its wisdom without feeling like a pervert? I found an unused book sock, a kind of colored condom for textbooks, and wrapped in around my questionable interests and read as discretely as possible.

Chambers, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, as well as a scientist, starts the reader off with what he is surely correct in identifying as a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations—the feeling of being violated by demons or ghosts in the night. While the reasons are poorly understood (beyond our latent sense of vulnerability while asleep), the fact of sleep paralysis is well documented. As Chambers points out, our over-active, often religiously fueled, imagination fills in the blanks for those who wake up unable to move, feeling a presence in their darkened rooms. This leads Chambers into a discussion of Lilith and succubi and incubi, the molesting demons of ancient lore. Witch-hunts and amorous aliens are strange bedfellows in this volume as well.

Studies like this daringly bring together subjects that have been parsed apart by conventional society. They are also deeply relevant. Many of us remember the (largely mythic) Satanic worship scares that plagued pockets of America, and then Europe, in the 1990s—latter day witch-scares, as Chambers points out—the tremors of discontent that rumble through societies struggling for an overly rational explanation for human behavior. They are present-day reminders that no amount of fiscal solvency and empirical data will ever banish the deep fears from the human mind. Our emotions have often served us very well, and have sometimes abused us, for the entirety of our evolved existence. And although we can hold them at bay in the clear light of day, at night we are surprised to discover that we really believe in monsters after all.

Hansel and Regretel

HanselGretelHansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was on offer on the trans-Atlantic flight. Since I missed it in theaters, I decided to watch it on my mini-screen inches from my face. Witches, among the classical monsters, have a strange longevity into the world of science—like van Helsing (of movie fame) the protagonists have steam-punkish gadgets to destroy the naturally invincible foes. What’s not to like? I could not help but be disturbed, however, at what seemed to be the inherent misogyny of the film. Perhaps it was the lighting on the plane, but I saw only one male witch among the monstrous hordes of females who were battered, shot, and burned with apparent sangfroid. Women were guilty, it seemed, until proven innocent. And Mina, the white witch, again underscores that women who are “clean” are still potential witches underneath. Naturally, she dies before it’s over, but in a noble way.

The witches in the movie are strangely removed from a traditional, satanic context. They derive their power, like modern wiccans, from nature and strange mixes. The source of their magic is never explored very deeply, but when they catch trespassers in their forest, their queen states that even God himself fears to go there. Bewitching bravado, to be sure, but where does this image of God originate? A god afraid of the very nature that (in a film such as this, certainly) “he” created? The sacrifice of children is a good biblical trope, but seems to do little more here than to build the tension.

Monster movies, I realize, are “guy flicks.” Something about all that testosterone seems to be energized by images of ordinary people fighting monsters, against incredible odds. The monsters here, however, are barely distinguishable from regular women. Folklore has a deep well of traditions about witches from which the savvy might draw to write an intelligent, entertaining tale of witch-hunters. After all, the real antagonist, traditionally, is the male devil. He is, in medieval tradition, the source of witching magic. By removing Satan from the picture, we are left with strong women who must be repressed, and the world is really no safer when Hansel and Gretel are done. In fact, the end of the movie implies that they will never be finished. An opportunity for a subtle shift of paradigm was missed in this film, and, as usual, it is women who end up paying the price.