Ghosts and Puritans

One of the victims of capitalism is the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  We tend to relegate such downers to Halloween.  Christmas is a cozy time of getting new things, right?  Who wants to think of ghosts?  I recently read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  An article in the Smithsonian  a few years back makes the point that Dickens was cashing in on a venerable tradition.  Instead of sending children to bed expecting Santa Claus, it used to be the custom to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  That makes sense in context.  Christmas was established near the date of the Roman festival Saturnalia and the germanic Yule.  These festivities celebrated the passing of the equinox and the slow, but steady increase in light.  A liminal period.  It seems a natural time to tell ghost tales, no?

Image credit: Arthur Rackham, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The article by Colin Dickey (who has a history of writing about ghosts), calls for bringing back the tradition.  Do we want our cozy capitalism interrupted by revenants?  Why not?  For me the Christmas season is largely about time off of work.  I spend the time working on fiction writing that I tend to put off when I have a book under contract.  Most of those stories I write are some species of horror, often ghosts.  The real haunting factor is I don’t have time during the rest of the year to do the amount of writing that recharges my batteries.  Work seems to take more and more time and the Scrooge-like results are, I think, pretty obvious.  It’s time to bring back the Christmas ghosts.

Dickey points out that one reason Christmas ghost stories never caught on in America was that Puritans had little taste for them.  The more I look at society the more amazed I am at how Puritan we still are, but without their religious ideals (apart from various prohibitions of human behavior).  The fact that this article appeared in the respectable Smithsonian makes me feel a little more accepted for my disposition.  I know there are many horror fans out there.  Poll after poll indicates that people like horror, but, it seems, most don’t like to admit it.  At least among those I know in the neighborhood.  There are a slew of Christmas monsters.  For those who keep track of holiday horror as a sub-genre the most common holiday represented is Christmas.  In fact, I just had a Christmas horror story published (under a pseudonym, of course).  Maybe ghosts will be able to frighten off the specter of capitalism and bring us back the holiday spirit.

Mining for History

An article by Matti Friedman in this month’s Smithsonian got me to thinking about the Bible’s iconic status again.  Titled “An Archaeological Dig Reignites the Debate Over the Old Testament’s Historical Accuracy,” the story’s about a decidedly non-biblical trope—King Solomon’s mines.  That phrase, as the article makes clear, comes from the title of H. Rider Haggard’s nineteenth-century novel, not the Bible.  As the piece demonstrates, however, many people suppose it to be biblical.  Our society isn’t as biblically literate as it is biblically motivated, so the question of proof keeps coming up.  It’s almost as if historical veracity is far more important than any spiritual truths the Good Book may be attempting to establish.  Those who need the assurance of history (those we tend to think of as literalists) often miss the message in the quest for certainty.

Reading the article makes it clear that archaeologists have discovered good evidence for copper mining in the Arabah.  This is in no way surprising.  Ancient people of biblical times smelted copper and used it to make bronze.  At issue here is the historicity of Solomon’s opulent kingdom, evidence for which we lack.  Archaeologists have been digging for well over a century now, and the magnificence of David and Solomon doesn’t really show up in the archaeological record.  Of course the issue is politicized because land claims are involved.  American literalists tend to support Israel because of its role in “end times prophecy.”  Eager to be done with this wicked old world, they require the assurance of history.  Interestingly enough, that doesn’t seem to have bothered Jesus of Nazareth very much.

Long ago biblical scholars realized that the biblical view of history isn’t the same as what we might term scientific history.  Any history, as those who specialize in it know, isn’t “what really happened.”  Objectivity is impossible.  Histories are versions of what likely might’ve happened, based on the sources consulted.  At the very least there will be the perspective of the other side.  There are facts, of course.  The Holocaust, for example, did happen.  The fascist government of Germany orchestrated and implemented it.  When trying to reconstruct that history, however, differences of opinion often arise.  That’s the nature of history.  Unfortunately we’ve seen the rise of these self-same biblicists denying the known facts of more recent history in order to make themselves appear more righteous.  They want to shield themselves from the genocide of American Indians and the evils of slavery.  Yet they are inspired by such headlines that hint that the Bible might have a tint of historical accuracy after all.  It’s all there in the passage about King Solomon’s mines.

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

Belly Fires

A friend recently sent me a story from about how Evangelicalism arose partially in reaction to protests against the Vietnam War. Not that they were protesting it, but rather other mainline Protestants protesting drove evangelicals further to the right. Having grown up evangelical, I think I understand their strange reasoning fairly well. It was illustrated, for example, in a meeting of the Nashotah House board of trustees. Now, confidentiality rules—which I support—prevent me from providing details, but as you can imagine board meetings involved differences of opinion. I was a faculty representative (voice, but no vote), and I had a point to make. Being Episcopalian I politely and calmly raised my hand. At the same table one of the student representatives (voice, but no vote) was waving his arm like he had to find the nearest restroom, and quick. The chair called on him, ignoring my learned gesture. “He has a fire in the belly,” the chair said, “let’s listen to him.”

A fire in the belly. Not exactly an empirical—or even rational—reason to select one comment above another in my opinion. It was outward and dramatic gesticulation that caught the chair’s attention. Cooler considerations could be easily ignored. Nashotah House wasn’t exactly Evangelical. It was conservative, to be sure. What this episode taught me, however, is that society responds to those with bellies strangely warmed. Mainstream Protestants, for the most part, want comfortable faith experiences. Reason, after all, suggests decorum. Over 90 percent of the many, many mainline sermons I’ve witnessed have been staid and calm. Back in John Wesley’s day enthusiasm was an actionable offense in ecclesiastical eyes. Was the fire in the heart, or in the belly?

A little to the right…
L0006082 Self Portrait of Albrecht Durer
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Self Portrait of Albrecht Durer.
Finger pointing to left side of torso.
By: Albrecht DurerPublished: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

So, what does this have to do with the Smithsonian story? Evangelicalism is driven not by the head but by the midriff. John Wesley’s conversion account was famous for his statement that his heart was “strangely warmed.” An inveterate doubter of his own salvation, Wesley needed to be certain. His thermo-cardiac episode helped to comfort him in the face of the lapping waves of the lake of fire at his feet. Having been evangelical once upon a time, I think I understand this constant Wesleyan concern. The fear of Hell is never easily overcome. The Greek word for strong emotion can be translated “to feel it in the bowels.” Examined more rationally, we know what moving bowels lead to. We see it every day as Evangelicals drive all three branches of government. The fire in the belly wins over cooler heads every time.

True to Nature

A friend recently sent me an article on Jack London from As the article by Kenneth Brandt makes clear, London is an author for our times. Someone who might truly be called a populist, London, like many of us born in the working class, had an epiphany. Perhaps his came earlier than many, but at the age of 18, while working laboring jobs, he noted that he “was scared into thinking.” He decided, before the idea of sending all kids to college had caught on, that he should acquire an education. In the words quoted by Brandt, he wanted to become a “brain merchant.” Certainly London’s works need no introduction from a guy like me. Robust and masculine, his stories are those of man pitted against a nature that is often out to crush, freeze, or starve him. Today we need to loosen up those pronouns a bit. Women, who’ve arguably had it tougher than men for all of biological history, have had to struggle for survival too. In the current political climate we all need to remind those who substitute testosterone for brains that we all share human rights.


The Religious Right, or “alt-right” as they seem to prefer these days, wasn’t always a fetus farm. It has been historically documented that it was Francis Schaeffer, erstwhile hippie and free thinker, who when he got abortion stuck in his craw, decided that men had to protect the unborn from women. He seemed to have forgotten whose gonads planted that seed in the first place. Prior to Schaeffer Christian saints tried to avoid sex all together. Among the original “abstinence only” crowd, some of the more zealous put their money where their testicles were and castrated themselves. Ah, men were real men in those days. Today masculinity means ganging up on women and grabbing them by the Call of the Wild, apparently.

Like London, I think we all need to be scared into thinking. We’ve let a wildly distorted view of humanity—one-sided and with dangling evidence of gender loyalty—to steal the White House from the woman who thoroughly won it from the vox populi. Where is Buck when we need him? London knew, as evolution repeatedly teaches, in Brandt’s words, “abusive alpha males never win out in the end.” I say that “swing states” should look carefully at that hanging chad. In the meantime, while the fat cats bicker and argue over the best way to suppress females to make themselves look bigger, I think we should all read again about what happens when Spitz meets Buck. If you haven’t read The Call of the Wild before, it’s time to do so now.