Forbidden Things

I owe Douglas Cowan a debt of gratitude.  Spending evenings at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting curled up with his then new book, Sacred Terror, I was amazed.  Vaguely in the back of my mind I knew that film scholars were writing about horror, but I didn’t know that religion scholars even could.  Of course, later I discovered that Cowan had predecessors, as do we all, but that still didn’t change the fact that he opened my eyes to possibilities.  Being a slow reader with an unrelenting 925, I can’t keep up with any one author’s total output but I knew I’d need to read The Forbidden Body as soon as it was announced.  Subtitled Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination, it covers many aspects of what’s being called embodiment studies.  And there are, of course, monsters.

Where he finds the time to read so much and watch so much I can only guess.  This book covers a lot of territory that I can’t even begin to summarize here, but it goes without saying that Cowan’s many observations are worth paying attention to.  If I were to try to find a main theme I think it would be bodies out of place.  At least that what it seems to me.  Bodies out of place can mean many, many things.  Horror isn’t shy, of course, about showing you many of these.  As always, the unexpected part is religion.  Better, religious imagination.  I’ve been trying for years to articulate how religion and horror are related, and this is obviously something I haven’t been the only one pondering.  Cowan offers trenchant thoughts on this and even gives you some glimpses of unexpected monsters along the way.

Horror is often considered puerile, I know.  You get an image of a bunch of guys in business suits or military uniforms shaking your shoulders and saying “grow up!”  But what is it we’re growing up for?  To feed the monster.  So that those who are the monster can pamper their bodies with the luxuries everyone else works to provide.  Religion often serves to motivate those who are on the production end of this scale, but there is a truly Ottoian fear that compels us, lying not so very far beneath the surface.  Religion reaches out to those who encounter the monster.  And those people have bodies.  Cowan touches on many aspects of horror here from Corman to Lovecraft to Sade.  My response, perhaps appropriately, is that my head feels like it’s exploding.  I have so much yet to learn.

Bodies and the Fall

Less common than it once was, the term “Dark Ages” was formerly used to denote what in Europe was known as the Medieval Period.  We now know that the pervasive darkness ascribed to the time was only partial: science, legal thinking, and rationalism were well underway.  Nevertheless, the sway of the church was enormous, and even until and beyond the days of Isaac Newton, the supernatural was assumed to exist.  Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages is a fascinating journey through this contradictory time.  Elliott explores how the mysteries of sex (nocturnal emissions and menstruation loom large among them) played important roles in the development of Catholic theology that ultimately led to the close association of demons and witches.  Concerns with priestly purity, largely due to concerns about transubstantiation, led to enforced celibacy and the (further) denigration of women.

It would be difficult to summarize this insightful book.  Although relatively brief, it packs a wallop.  Concerns about purity go back to the Bible and before.  Ancient cultures had recognized aspects of contagion and knew that some diseases spread by contact.  Their perception of biology was “scientific” according to their current understanding, but it lacked microscopes and knew no shortage of supernatural entities.  Demons had great explanatory value in such a world.  As Elliott shows, they often appear in disquisitions about sex.  How can spiritual beings engage in physical relations with human bodies?  What were they made of?  Were they all bad?  Although demons had explanatory value they also raised many questions.

Fallen Bodies draws correlations between the dismissal of priests’ wives and the evolution of witches.  As the Eucharist became more and more holy, stricter controls had to be placed on consecrating hands.  Sex was the great source of pollution, and the Virgin Mary became rather less human through her own miraculously sterile conception.  The implied misogyny may not have been so much intentional as a reflection of the struggle to understand what modern medical science generally explains materially.  We still grapple with the mystery of life.  Conception can be viewed clinically, and biological responses can be “explained” scientifically (anyone who’s been in love will admit to the mystery of it, though).  Denizens of the Middle Ages worked with the tools they had to make sense of a world often bewildering.  Even physics still has to deal with quantum realities.  History teaches by its unfortunate missteps.  Someday those who “govern” the world may learn to read it and exorcise demons now otherwise readily explained.

How Did We Get Here?

Where do we come from? Leaving aside the puerile snickers of our younger selves, we eventually learn “the facts of life” and get on with it. The funny thing is, conception wasn’t really understood until the late nineteenth century. Obviously people had been reproducing from the very beginning. Chances are they were curious about the matter even then. Scientific investigation was a long way off, however. Edward Dolnick tells the story of the discovery in a wide-ranging, entertaining, and informative way in The Seeds of Life. The subtitle gives an idea of the range and quirkiness of the account: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Sharks’ Teeth to Frogs’ Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From. I used to tell my students that using the Bible for sexual ethics was difficult because biblical writers really didn’t understand what was going on “down there.” I think Dolnick would back me up on that.

Ancient people generally made the connection between sex and babies, of course. What was actually happening, however, wasn’t understood because sex cells require a microscope even to be seen, and that doesn’t make it obvious what they’re doing. Dolnick’s tale looks at advances in various sciences and, perhaps more importantly, the religious constraints under which they operated. The idea of the atheistic scientist is a fairly new one. Up through most of the nineteenth century scientists tended to share the worldview of others that God was assumed and that religious rules applied to such mysteries as life. That’s amply demonstrated in this book. True insight was slowed down considerably by religious presuppositions.

That’s not to say Dolnick blames religion—this book is much too congenial to do any blaming. A number of ideas had to coalesce, however, before it was understood that both women and men contributed to the developing embryo. Medicine was often looked down upon by science, and religion often crossed its arms and stood in the way. Despite all that, careful observation, and putting unexpected things beneath a microscope, finally led to the answer. It was sea urchins who finally yielded up the mystery’s clue. This book will take you some strange places. The individuals described are a curious lot. For the most part they’re also a religious lot. Persistent theorizing and persistent peering through a microscope and a willingness to question convention all had to combine to answer a question as basic and profound as where it is we come from.

White Carrots

Acronyms are useful in a complex world, although they are frequently opaque to outsiders. Taking a new job you’re found constantly swimming in an alphabet soup of abbreviations that can drown you as easily as ABC. Each the church has them. As an undergrad religion major at a Presbyterian school I had to memorize TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), all of which but the last I had to reject on the grounds of sanity. As aids to memory they can serve as mnemonic devices, or they may simply be frustrating caricatures of reason. In any case, we all know them. In universities departments or divisions are known by acronyms, local businesses and landmarks may be as well. The internet has only speeded the process up, with countless abbreviations, some of which are definitely NSFW.

IMG_1889So it was that I learned an acronym that is current in the publishing industry. I always thought of the parsnip as a rather curious root vegetable, somewhat like a white carrot. As a child I severely disliked them, but I’ve come to appreciate them, roasted and glazed, as an adult. The word itself is somewhat fun to say: PARSNIP. It is also an acronym of things publishers, particularly those who publish textbooks in English as a second language, have to avoid. PARSNIP stands for, according to the popular explanation, Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork. Interestingly to me, at least four of these things have their traditional taboo status because of religions. Clearly Religion is one of those, but restrictions on Alcohol, Sex, and Pork are also based on religious rules. One could argue that Narcotics also fits into that category as well. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, religion, substances, and sex are all deeply intertwined.

One of the curious things about this is that our post-Christian society has declared that religion is not worth discussing, or even learning about. We slash religion departments from universities and then wonder why we can’t discuss things like sex and alcohol, without which our society would apparently collapse, freely in other cultures. When I was a child, reading MAD magazine, I quickly learned two things that adults didn’t discuss were religion and politics. The list has grown since that time, but apart from the fact I have no idea which Isms are to be avoided, I see PARSNIP as the white carrot of religious taboos. And politics. In this secular world, we’ve become very politically correct, although we really shouldn’t mention politics in that phrase. Now I’m wondering if maybe I should reevaluate TULIP after all. At least the first part.


BeringWhyIsThePenisSex. Religion. Death. One of these things is not like the others, if Sesame Street taught me anything. But in this case, the three actually are of a piece. In my teaching days I pointed out that every religion, without exception, tries to deal with sex and death—the two great, towering markers of human experience. Nevertheless, I cowered close to the window on the bus, choosing the left-hand side so the cover wouldn’t be visible, to read Jesse Bering’s Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? From the first sentence you’ve got to like this guy. Although irreverent, Bering is never obnoxious as he asks questions about the basics of human existence that few would be willing to take on in the name of science. It’s a fascinating book, and, as I knew it would, it addressed religion and death as well as, well, you know.

Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and he tends to lean toward a materialistic universe. His book raises a very important point, however; the belief in determinism statistically correlates with anti-social behavior. That is to say, those who believe they have no free will tend, to some extent, not to care about society. As Bering also points out, perspective is very important. I wonder if truth is subject to perspective. Actually, I’m rather certain that it is. I have fought determinism from my youngest days, although I generally feel out of control of my own life. I first encountered determinism in that insidious theological position known as predestination. The deity of a universe that predestines most people to Hell is a monster, no matter how saintly his/her portrait. One professor conceded after a vigorous debate in class: “on philosophical grounds free will wins, but on scriptural grounds, predestination does.” I disagreed. Still, he could go home happy—my challenge had, after all, been predestined.

Worse yet were the “double predestinarians.” They were those who believed that every little detail of life was predestined. I actually had a professor say, “if you fail an examine, it was predestined.” Already the illogic of it all struck the same timbre of distaste that materialistic determinism does. By its fruits you shall know it. As much as I enjoyed Bering’s book, I wondered how anyone obviously so intelligent could believe that this magnificent mental world we inhabit is nothing more than sparks tickling chemicals in our brains. Or even the biological wonders he explores. As I huddled up in a ball on the bus, my book close to my face, I knew that this behavior wasn’t natural at all. Not even science could have predicted it.

The Hunter

Orion seems to have tripped in his journey across the sky last night. I can remember being told of generals falling in battle, and now I hear how they fall in bed. Nobody really expects Sunday School behavior from an aging warrior, but the brass is used to issuing orders and expects unquestioning obedience. Now we delve into their personal lives and are surprised to find, what? Sex? Sex scandals have become a major source of “news” over the past several years and General Petraeus is only the most recent in a long line of politicians and power-mongers who’ve been caught in compromising positions. How very primate of us. I often think how in the categories of sin we include getting caught in affairs among the most horrible. But also among the most common.

Given the other activities of generals—waging wars and ensuring that enough of the enemy die to gain compliance—you might think that keeping them safely between the sheets might be the best thing for the greatest number. I don’t know the ins and outs of the story, but with the scandal running across the headlines it is pretty obvious that we’re all past the shock of Sandy and election night. Time to find other peccadilloes to amuse us.

If we cast a wide enough net, however, it won’t haul in generals only. No, we find politicians of all orders, televangelists, football coaches and all kinds of other leaders entangled in it. The thing that they seem to have in common is lack of commitment. Or restraint. That worries me a bit when it comes to leaders. None of us is perfect, I realize, but certain activities are taboo and those who ride the trajectory to fame violate those taboos at their own peril. It is the story of David and Bathsheba. I am, however, reminded of the mighty hunter Orion. The various myths tell it differently, but in one popular version it was the jealousy of Artemis that felled him. Perhaps that is why he seemed off-balance as I watch him fleeing the rising sun outside my window.

Till Credner’s Orion from Wikipedia Commons


Back in the summer of 2009, I chose the name of this blog on a whim. Relatives had been encouraging me to provide a platform for podcasts and the occasional post and asked me what I would call such a blog. The pun of sects and violence initially drew some good humored interest, but there was a serious subtext beneath the choice. Nature has now published an article declaring that violence and sex are related. (Sects and violence is a no-brainer; just look at the newspaper.) The connection has been established satisfactorily only in the brains of mice so far, but what is the real difference between mice and men?

Yes, men. The studies focus on the male brain, that organ that continues to confound those of us who daily try to use one. Certain circuits in the mouse hypothalamus trigger either a violent or loving response when stimulated certain ways. Aggression is almost an automatic response. My mind tied this in with the Singularity article in last week’s Time. As we race forward with technological mergers between artificial intelligence and the human machine, do we really understand what that brain is that we are attempting to emulate electronically? Biology, according to many theorists, does not bow to the rules of reductionism. What happens when the violence of natural circuits (fight or flight) kick in with titanium feet?

I commented on a friend’s post when he cited the Singularity article in Time. Others responded to my remarks suggesting I did not take the reality of this seriously enough. Those who are familiar with Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will have no such questions. The minds that have given us both gods and guns are machines that can not be replicated precisely. Their function is to keep a degenerating biological mass alive. Electronic brains with replaceable parts (think Wall-e) have no such concerns. The missing limb syndrome is a very human response that is well recognized by those who understand the human psyche. And that psyche, it seems, is ready to fight as long as it is properly stimulated.

A boy's eye-view of the world