Ivory Towers


I sometimes confuse “ivory tower” and “ivy tower.” It’s only a matter of or. In my mind the halls of academe are frequently covered with ivy, but the usual term for a rarified higher education is actually “ivory tower.” A pristine, white edifice unstained by the concerns of day-to-day life. It never occurred to me that the phrase might be biblical. According to tradition, King Solomon quoth, “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory” to his beloved (Song of Songs 7.4a). How the term moved from an obscure reference in a love poem to higher education involves the nature of the latter. Higher education was an enterprise of the church. These days we tend to think of religion as opposed to learning, but in fact, universities were natural outgrowths of cathedral schools where future clergy were trained. There was also a guild-consciousness about the Middle Ages that also played into this, but primarily what we think of as universities today were developed to educate clergy. Many of the Ivy League (again with the ivy!) had their origins as seminaries.

Ivory towers, however, are still remote from this. Eventually, probably due to the difficulty of interpreting the Song of Songs, ivory tower came to be an epithet of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, some interpreted Song as the love between Mary and the church. Rather than the erotic intent of Song, which quickly became an embarrassment to the chaste church, the ivory tower came to symbolize the purity of the Virgin. Untouchable, sparkling white. From the pre-Reformation church, universities sprang. Devotion to Mary ran high.

Although the origin of ivory towers as a metonym for universities is uncertain, it appears in literature by the nineteenth century. Possibly it reflects nothing more than the dignified life of the mind as opposed to the sullying of hands. Or perhaps it reflects a deeply buried knowledge that the university, as secular as it has grown, is a scion of the church with its devotion to a virgin who somehow commandeered the language of a love poem from antiquity. Today ivy is less common on campuses than it used to be. Our higher education is much too modern and chaste for that. The towers of ivory, however, remain. Now they refer almost exclusively to dreamers who’ve lost touch with the everyday world. And, as often as not, with the Bible that gave them their start.

The Witch


The Witch, by Robert Eggers, is a parable. The movie accepts, and to appreciate it the viewer must too, that there is actually witchcraft in New England. Unless the witch too is a parable. Set in the days before the Salem Witch Trials, the movie is worthy of Lars von Trier on history. William and his family are exiled from their unnamed community due to differences of religious opinion. William and Katherine are a devout couple, steeped in the Puritan belief that all people deserve Hell and those who are good have no choice in the matter. They have a family of four children, and after they set up homesteading in exile, a fifth comes along. When the baby disappears, the eldest daughter, on the cusp of sexual maturity, is blamed. Portraying well the boredom of children raised in a world with no diversion, the girl, Thomasin, tells her little sister that she is a witch. In reality, she is a fearful, sin-sick girl, frightened for her future salvation. There is a witch, but it is not she.

Tragedy follows tragedy for the isolated family. Their religion permits them to believe it can only be punishment from God. They pray, recite Bible, and work hard. Their oldest son, abducted by the witch, returns home to die. The two youngest children begin to have fits, claiming that Thomasin has confessed to being a witch. Her mother, Katherine, believes them. Her father too, convinces himself that she is a witch and urges her to confess. The paranoia grows and Thomasin accuses her two younger siblings of witchcraft, speaking to the family’s black goat as their familiar. Confused, angry, and out of hope, the father locks the children in with the goats for the night, determined to find the truth in the morning.

I won’t add any spoilers for the ending here. Suffice it to say, this is a parable. Thomasin’s very name suggests “sin,” and her doomed brother is Caleb, the Hebrew word for “dog.” His recitation of the Song of Songs is distinctly creepy. God is absent from the movie, despite the family’s constant prayers. The only voice heard is that of the Devil. This is a parable of what happens when a religion goes wrong. The family left England to exercise their religion freely and the free exercise of it turns them against each other. The only ones who seem to find peace are those who leave their faith behind. It is a movie that I’ll ponder for many days, I suspect. Less a condemnation of religion than an open probing of what it’s logical outcome might be, The Witch is one of those movies that demonstrates the ongoing power of parables.

Knockin’ Where?

KnockinOnHeavensDoorFor a while, when I was with Routledge, I tried to kick-start the old series Biblical Limits. I didn’t initiate the series, but it had been cutting edge at the time, and one thing biblical scholars seldom get to claim is that particular adjectival phrase. Alas, my enthusiasm wasn’t contagious and the series never moved ahead. Recently I decided to read Roland Boer’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: The Bible and Popular Culture. Little did I realize that it would be a book that would make such a literal fit for the symbolic nature of my blog title. This is a book that my internet savvy would declare NSFW: not safe for work. Boer explores the sex and violence that are really rather pronounced in the biblical text, but which are often sublimated into object lessons for the faithful. We hear that such books as Song of Songs are allegories since they can’t possibly be about real people really attracted to each other. Would God sanction such things, well, after Genesis 1, I mean?

Post-modern readings of the Bible like to place the obvious before the reader. There is, no doubt, some over-reading going on here, but there is plentiful insight as well. A number of places I stopped and thought, I could use that, were I still teaching. Popular culture isn’t just movies and video games. There is a very human element to culture. Indeed, culture would not exist without such a thing as human interest. Boer explores everything from David’s carnal interests to Alfred Hitchcock’s morbid ones. McDonalds to Ezekiel in Guns-n-Roses. This is not the usual finding Christology in E.T. This is more like the bad boy’s Bible.

If the Bible cannot be made applicable to a constantly changing culture, then it becomes irrelevant. Many object to Boer’s bold treatment, but I believe that unless we can move beyond our concerns with J, E, D, P, R, Q, and double, or triple-redactions, we’re going to lose readers from page one. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is a page-turner. You can sit on the bus and have people think you’re reading about the Bible when in reality, a chapter on pornography may have you blushing madly. It brings to mind Odysseus in Polyphemus’s cave. But then, blind giants may be the most dangerous of all.

Sects Sells

Once again the headlines tell the story of a child molested by a “celibate” priest now suing the church as an adult. That money dropped in the collection plate goes to cover the cost of sin. The disclosures continue to find the light of day not only in the Catholic Church, but across the religious organizational spectrum. It is an extremely unfortunate situation, but I can’t help wonder if religions are naturally susceptible to sexual expression.

Sexuality and religion go back a very long way. I have suggested elsewhere on this blog that some of the earliest evidence for religion, all the way back to the Paleolithic era, is sexual in nature. One of the blatant aspects of our own cultural conditioning is that we can no longer see the connection. We inhabit a post-Victorian world, a world that strenuously repressed sexuality and removed it from the sphere of human discourse. One of my favorite examples of this is when the standard classical Hebrew-English dictionary (Brown-Driver-Briggs, for those of you who need to know!) makes reference to sexual activity in the Bible (and it is abundant), the editors delicately slip from English to Latin, so as not to offend the sensibilities of clerics and other gentleman-scholars reading the entry. This antipathy to the human condition can be traced even further back to the Greeks who felt that the physical body was much more base than the spiritual, or intellectual aspect. Sexuality was a source of embarrassment and perhaps even shame.

I’m not a psychologist, but it is pretty clear what occurs when strong feelings and drives are repressed for a long time. The early Christians who believed Jesus’ second coming to be imminent did not wish to be caught in flagrante delicto. Sexuality was to be avoided since time was short. When this became formalized and priests, probably very decent people overall, were forced to relinquish their sexuality, it was assumed that it would simply evaporate into the ether and harm no one. We have known for decades that this is naively wishful thinking. As the margarine commercial used to say, “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

What's Mother Nature hiding?

Ancient sects were not sexually depraved. Stephanie Budin (The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, Cambridge, 2008) has done a good job showing that the case for sacred prostitution in the ancient world has been grossly overblown. Nevertheless, sexuality had a natural place in ancient religions. Any number of nervously giggling teenagers who’ve just discovered the Song of Songs in the Bible know that! The problem arises when our religious culture refuses to acknowledge the obvious. We bottle it up and try to keep it hidden, but when it finally appears the price tag is very steep indeed.