BBW

It’s a measure of how busy I am when Banned Book Week has started before I realize it.  Most years I make it a point to read a banned book at this time, but my reading schedule is so crowded that I seem to have missed the opportunity this year—I didn’t see it coming.   I’ve read a great number of the top 100 banned books over the years, and I’m sure I’ll read more.  I’ve recently been reading about America’s troubled history with free expression.  Probably due to a strong dose of Calvinism combined with Catholicism, many of the books challenged and banned, as well as prevented from ever seeing the light of day, have to do with bodily functions.  Sex, especially.  In American society, as freely as this is discussed, we still have a real problem when someone writes about it.

Why might that be so?  Many religions recognize the privacy aspect of sexuality without condemning the phenomenon itself.  The Bible (which is on the list of Banned Books) talks of the subject pretty openly and fairly often.  Our hangups about it must be post-biblical, then.  Much of it, I suspect, goes to Augustine of Hippo.  Although he had a wild youth, Augustine decided that nobody else should be able to do so guilt free, and gave us the doctrine of original sin.  Add to that the legalistic interpretation of Paul and his school, and soon the topic itself becomes difficult to address.  Victorian values, obviously, played into this as well.  Literature, which explores every aspect of being human, is naturally drawn to what is a universal human drive.

Banned Books also treat race—another topic that haunts America—or use coarse language.  Some challenge religious holy grails, such as special creation or Christian superiority.  It seems we fear our children being exposed to ideas.  The wisdom of such banning is suspect.  The publishing industry has many safeguards in place to create age-appropriate literature.  Banning tends only to increase interest by casting the “forbidden” pall over something that is, in all likelihood, not news to our children.  American self-righteousness tends to show itself in many ways, making much of the rest of the world wonder at us.  We seem so advanced, but we fear a great number of rather innocuous books.  The reasons are similar to those behind why we can support tax-cheating, womanizing, narcissists as leaders: our faith blinds us.  I may be late in getting to my banned book this year, so I guess I’ll just have to read two next time.

Horror Homework

Although I haven’t been writing much on horror here lately, I’ve been doing my homework.  At least for homeroom.  Horror Homeroom, that is.  I’ve published on Horror Homeroom before, and, surprisingly, they’ve let me do it again.  This piece is on the films of Robert Eggers.  It’s pretty unusual for me to get in on the ground floor with a director’s oeuvre, but my wife has a tolerance for what is being called “smart horror” or “intelligent horror,” or even “transcendent horror,” and so we can get to the theater to see movies like The Witch and The Lighthouse before they go to DVDs or Amazon Prime.  In order to write up my thoughts about these two films I had to rewatch them a few times.  There’s so much going on here that both stories are difficult to summarize.

Holy Horror treated The Witch in the context of its biblical worldview.  The Calvinistic religion of William, and by extension, his family, is pretty scary stuff.  In The Lighthouse we find two men each grasping for their own ideas of the divine, as found atop the eponymous structure they inhabit.  Both films explore the psychology of isolated individuals, and, perhaps not surprisingly, finds frightening things.  We are social creatures, even those introverts among us.  When deprived of the interaction of those who think differently (hear this, o Republicans!) we soon begin to wilt.  We need not agree with all we hear, but conversation cannot be had without being open to at least the possibility that one might be wrong.  Nobody wants to think they are incorrect, but unless they can admit that possibility, there will be no discussion, by definition.

Horror quite frequently thrives on separating people from their fellows.  One of the fascinating aspects of the genre is the way in which it does this.  Groups, even, that separate themselves from the rest of humanity soon begin to behave in odd ways.  Checks and balances are necessary for any health in a society.  Those who claim absolute positions often can’t admit this.  Do I hear the violins of Psycho coming to life?  I suppose community is why I try to publish once in a while in wider venues like Horror Homeroom.  Even people who like to watch horror prefer not to do so alone.  Maybe having seen The Witch and The Lighthouse in theaters was a crucial part of their impact upon me.  And what is a good shudder without someone with whom to share it?

Stickiness

As a concept, it’s what web designers call “sticky.”  Valentine’s Day, I mean.  And “sticky” has nothing to do with the expected chocolates or anything physical at all.  Stickiness, as I hear it used in these antiseptic clean-room days, refers to text, or an object, that stays in the same place as you change web pages.  Now, I’m no techie, in fact I’m probably a neo-Luddite, but this kind of stickiness is useful in thinking about St. Valentine’s Day.  We hardly need a reminder that humans are sexual beings.  Biology does quite well in that department, thank you.  Every year around this time, however, when the weather has been bleak for weeks on end, Valentine’s Day rolls in to give us hope.  I’ve noticed this as I’ve been out jogging.  The past couple of weeks the birds have been singing.  Me, I’ve mostly been shivering indoors as yet more cold rain falls.

Every year, I suspect (I haven’t stopped to look) I write about St. Valentine’s Day.  Valentine was an obscure saint associated, in the popular mind, with something saints shunned.  Such an embarrassment is this sexy saint that he was never mentioned in the liturgy of February 14th at Nashotah House in the days I was there.  (Given that most of the student body was male, there may have been a wisdom in that, but that’s a story for another time.)  Religions, as I used to tell my students in later settings, all have something to say about sex.  The two ideas, like monsters and religion, are tied closely together.  Scholars tend to blush rather than explore this.

There are so many things going on in the world that I could write about.  There are new scholarly developments every day.  Still, I keep coming back to this minor holiday.  Well, it’s not actually minor in the realm of economics.  Anything to get people to spend money in the middle of February!  Valentine’s Day is the embarrassing child of the celibate church.  Without somebody named Valentine, who may or may not have been martyred,  we wouldn’t have this uneasy reminder of winter’s impending end.  Instead of embracing him, however, many branches of Christianity second him to punch-out cards sold to school kids as teachers remind them that everyone gets a valentine.  What a sticky concept!  I’d been intending to write something about the state of the world.  I guess that can wait for another day.  Right now, as the sun begins to awake, I’ll sit hear and listen for the birds to start their sticky springtime song.

Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 

The Problem with Shaving

Evil may be an abstract concept, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  Sorry for the double negative—finding the right angle of approach is difficult sometimes.  I say that because I believe that the misattribution of evil is tearing civilization apart.  Science has rightfully taught us the tricks for understanding the material universe.  Problem is there’s more to the universe than material.  If all our minds consist of are electro-chemical signals, well, this batch swirling in my head isn’t alone in doubting itself.  (Think about that.)  So, here’s the problem—those on the opposite side of the political spectrum rending the United States into shreds aren’t evil.  They’re doing what they believe is right, just like the lefties are.  The evil comes from forces trying to tear good people on both sides apart.  The simplest solution, Mr. Occam, isn’t always the best.

Putting it out on the table, right and left have some basic disagreements.  By far the majority of them are sexual.  Both sides believe what they’ve been taught or what they’ve learned.  Sex, of course, is one of the great dividers of humankind.  It brings us together and it tears us apart.  Religions have always been very interested in sexuality—who does what to whom and what to make of the consequences.  None of it is easy to sort out.  Since the Bible voices first-century (and earlier) opinions on a matter they understood even less than we, the situation is very complex indeed.  Especially since many people wrote all the self-contradictory words within its stolid black, pigskin leather covers.

Complexity reigns in the world of explanation for both politics and sex.  Put them together and see what happens (if a Clinton, impeachment, if a Trump, nothing).  The issue with Occam’s razor is that the simplest solution doesn’t always explain things best.  It’s not evil to suggest woman plus man equals marriage.  Unenlightened, maybe, but not evil.  The truth is that things are more complicated than they seem.  A society taught, in many ways, that only one solution works could easily boil it all down to one size fits all.  Evil is the desire for political power that draws its energy from making each group think the other is evil.  I realize this courtesy often goes in only one direction.  That too is part of the evil machinations of a system that divides instead of seeks common ground.

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.

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

No Place to Hyde

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?

Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?

Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.

Banned Truth

bluesteyeBanned Book Week is one of my favorite holidays. Don’t worry—you haven’t missed it—it occurs the final week of this month. I’m not very good, however, at guessing how long it will take me to finish a fiction book, so I start early, just in case. My banned book of choice this year was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s not easy to read a novel which is so close to the truth. As any writer of fiction knows, just because something didn’t happen precisely as described doesn’t mean that it’s false. Indeed, fiction is often factual. It’s not easy to read because the “race”—a dubious distinction at best—to which I belong has often throughout history victimized others. While I’ve never knowingly participated in this criminal action—and despite what politicians might say, it is criminal—it’s never comforting to hear from the victim’s perspective. The Bluest Eye is about African American experience in the land of the free. At least in name.

What becomes clear from the beginning is that the families around which this story revolves are pushed to their limits. In an affluent society they are forced to live with less than their “white” neighbors have. Slavery may have ended, but the superiority mindset that permitted it in the first place hasn’t. I grew up in poverty but I didn’t have the added burden of being treated badly because of my “race.” Stories that remind us of that reality are never comfortable places to be. We’d rather think that since slavery ended prejudice went away with it. In reality, however, it is still here. Interestingly, the culture portrayed so vividly by Morrison is deeply biblical. Indeed, surveys of Bible reading in North America show that African Americans tend to actually read the foundational book more than their oppressors. The biblical worldview spills easily across the page.

Although the Bible made it onto the list of top ten banned books last year, The Bluest Eye was challenged because of its sexuality. That’s another defining aspect of the novel. It’s a frank exploration of the human condition. The protagonists are not only African American, they are also all female. Their perception of sexuality is, in many ways, inherently that of victims. Not that love doesn’t enter it, but rather that poverty often leads to a state where sexual gratification is held up as one of the few positives in a life that includes regular mistreatment, poor pay, and jail time. It isn’t an easy story to read. Morrison’s deft hand, however, prevents the story from becoming gloomy. It is like spending a sunny day knowing there’s something you shouldn’t see in the basement. Banned Book Week may be some time away yet, but it is always the right season to read about the truth.

God’s Rain

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Music has been in the news this week with the death of the artist formerly and forever known as Prince. Also, in a lesser covered story, Bono’s friendship with Bible translator Eugene Peterson. This post will focus on the former former artist. I’ll have to circle back later to pick up Bono and Peterson. I have to admit that I haven’t listened to Prince much lately. I saw “Purple Rain” when it came out, and some of his songs have resonated with me throughout the years. What makes him such an intriguing figure is his view of sexuality. My source here is the Washington Post, specifically, an article by Michelle Boorstein stating that Prince was, beneath the sexy exterior, a conservative Christian. Specifically a Jehovah’s Witness. He would not be alone in this role since Alice Cooper is famously also a conservative Christian. Life upon the stage is that of the actor. With Prince, as Boorstein points out, the question goes deeper: he wrote about religion, but he also wrote about sex.

Those of us who indulge in creative writing know that poetry is perhaps the only place where dishonesty is impossible. Song lyrics are true. Prince often cites Christian tropes (see Boorstein’s article for samples), but his material is deeply sexual as well. This leads to the suggestion that he saw sex as a means of worshipping God. Once again, Prince doesn’t find himself alone in this place. Scholars brave enough to examine both religion and sexuality often find a connection there, and not just a tangential one. Both are about communing with something greater than the individual. Thinking back to my first viewing of “Purple Rain” I can say it wasn’t the religion part that stood out to me.

Histories of Rock-n-Roll are rife with stories of performers’ untamed sexuality, so that’s hardly news. What really strikes me is that with recent deaths—David Bowie, and now Prince—the media seems intensely interested in their views of religion. We don’t often look to artists for advice on how to live our lives, but as the polar opposites of scientists and rationalists, they are in touch with and willing to share their feelings. And we the people want to know what they thought of God. Often because it is so surprising. It’s easier to put someone in a box. Religion, however, is way more complex than most non-specialists think. It has room for creativity, for sexuality, and for exploring the meaning of life. I many not listen to Prince much, and when I do it’s not for religious advice. I am, however, inclined now to think in new ways about colorful rain.

Taking God to Bed

SavingSexThere are varieties of evangelical experience. It is so convenient to put people into neatly labeled boxes that we tend to forget religious experience can be very different, even to conservatives. This point is made very clearly in Amy DeRogatis’ Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism. The title of the book requires some further disclosure. DeRogatis is offering an academic study of evangelical sex manuals and teachings about sexuality. If you’re anything like me, the very concept sounds strange. I grew up in an evangelical household and we would’ve been scandalized to learn that such things as godly sex manuals existed. In fact they did, but we didn’t know about them. Although evangelicals share a common idea that there are appropriate and inappropriate varieties of sexual experience, they disagree, according to the evidence, over what some of those boundaries are.

DeRogatis’ book offers some fascinating insights even within this circumscribed field of study. For example, some writers of such manuals give rather permissive instructions as to what might happen in a heterosexual, Christian boudoir, while others keep to the basics. Some suggest that the very practice of sexuality opens its participants to demonic infestation, so much so that they consider STD to be Sexually Transmitted Demons. This is an intriguing and frightening world to enter. Many of the writers of such books suggest that women should indeed be under the authority of their husbands in all things. No room for Lilith there! Others, however, are surprisingly broad minded. More so than some Episcopalians I’ve known.

This brings me, as a former evangelical, to my concern about academic studies of such groups. It seems to me that to truly understand what are undoubtedly irrational beliefs, you must have had the experience of truly believing. If I might be excused of the pun, are you experienced? As much as we wish it were, evangelicalism isn’t a neat packet of propositions that people simply accept. It is a complex, emotional, and, in its own universe, logical response to the belief that the Bible is the owners manual. Sola scriptura gone wild. How individuals deal with this impossible truth is widely divergent. We’re taught not to discuss sex in polite company, but we just can’t help ourselves. For some that’s good news indeed. For others it is the very definition of wickedness. As Saving Sex shows, there is more than one position to be taken.

Magic Tricks

Magia SexualisTo a scholar who has spent many years studying ancient religions, new religions hold a strange appeal.  After all, we are trained to look at obscure texts from forgotten cultures and to decipher the mute clues they have left behind.  New religions have the benefit of being (generally) documented in ways that ancient religions aren’t, and often exist in societies more literate than those of the remote past.  Finding out about them may be easier, but understanding them may be just as difficult.  In my research on magic, I was led to Hugh B. Urban’s Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism.  I’ve always found Urban’s work engaging, and since this book is one of the few academic studies to investigate magic seriously, I was eager to see what he had to say.  As usual, I wasn’t disappointed.
 
Sex magic is frequently at the heart of magical beliefs.  Urban shows that this has been the case from ancient times.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient Syrian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Aramaean religions aren’t surprised by this.  Those cultures inhabited a world pummeled by magic, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that sex might have had something to do with it.  The majority of Urban’s book, however, concerns figures starting in the nineteenth century who introduced new religious forms of sexual magic into the occult circles of their times.  Focusing on a specific practitioner in each chapter, he brings us up to the present with some familiar, or often less familiar, names.  Magic, by its very conception, is a religious idea.  Even if some of the more notorious modern magicians such as Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey took religion in a darker direction, it was still religion.  The founding of Wicca by Gerald Gardner naturally receives some attention.
 
As Urban notes from the beginning, sex magic is not a topic for titillation.  It involves some transgressive, but also original thought about something that is so basically human that we all know about it even if we won’t discuss it.  And the dark practitioners have seemingly exhausted the vaults of extremism regarding sexuality that even a straight-laced, nay even Presbyterian, culture may find itself with no further options.  Where does one go when the foulest of profanities has been executed?  Certainly not back to the beginning, for we’ve come too far for that.  The postmodern world deconstructs itself leaving us to wonder if there can be any magic left at all.  It is no wonder, I should venture, that Harry Potter was gathering steam even as Urban wrote his book.  Magic will, by its nature, always find a way.

Theological Fiends

SuchADarkThingVampires are among the most theological of monsters. Not that I’m a theologian, but I sometimes read those who are. Although zombies and vampires rival one another for the ascendent monster of the moment, I’ve always had a soft spot for the vampire, conceptually. The actual idea of drinking blood has always distressed my vegetarian sensibilities, but there is a deep intrigue about the character who constantly takes and never gives. And sees in the dark. And is practically immortal, unless violently killed. All of these aspects, and more, have theological undertones. M. Jess Peacock’s Such A Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture deals with such ideas and more. A self-admitted fan of all things vampiric, Peacock finds unexpected angles to the undead metaphor that make for connections between Christianity and the cultural vampire. He explores Otto’s understanding of the holy and how vampires fit aspects of it, the importance of blood, theodicy, and sin, as well as religious iconography and why crosses work against vampires (when they do). Most fascinating, however, is how vampires effect social change.

Since I often write about monsters, and specifically vampires, on this blog, it should be no surprise that I should read such a book. The question of why vampires have such staying power in our society is one that many have pondered. Peacock, by tying the vampire into deep theological needs (and we’ve been taught for many decades that theological needs are unrealistic fantasies themselves) has perhaps found a reason why. Just because we deny a need doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Think of all those Medieval monks denying sexuality. Biology, no matter how transcendent our focus, has a way of reminding us that we have needs. Vampires are, if anything, very forthright about their requirements. You have blood, they need blood. They will take it any way they can. And this leads to its own kind of ethic where, in some movies and stories, we, the victims, end up rooting for the vampire.

The social justice aspect of Peacock’s study is the one I found most compelling. We live in an era in which financial vampires openly and selfishly drain the blood of any victims they may find. What they do is done in daylight and no crucifix is large enough, no stake is strong enough, to stop them. We sit in our theater seats and watch as the economy rises and falls with the wealthy and their willingness to invest (or not) in the very economy that made them rich. Elections are won now by money supplied by corporations. Yes, the presidency can be, and is, purchased. Most politicians don’t know the price of a loaf of bread. Christianity, in any case, understands bread and blood to be analogues. The two are complementary, and represent the totality of human need. The vampire, as Peacock notes, can symbolize the difficulties of social justice. They may have their fangs deeply embedded in our necks, but at some level we have come to love our vampires. Even when they give us nothing in return.

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.