National Fear

Back in my full-time teaching days, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting was an excuse to buy books. Not that we were flush with money, but the prices were so good (we’re talking academic books here) that they simply couldn’t be passed up. Those days are long gone. This year I limited myself to a single book: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. I was not disappointed. Poole gives us a smart study with considerable insight into American culture. Not only that, but it also proved an excellent source of self-understanding. I had never come across the phrase “monster kids” for those of us born in the blue light of the television when the Universal monster movies were released for television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. Poole classifies himself in that camp, and it is clear that we share this “guilty pleasure.”

Categorizing our monsters into types that fit various aspects of the American self-image, we find our national phobias reflected in our fictional fears. Throughout the book the uneasy sense of uncertainty towards sexuality, science, and death, like the revenants described, keep arising from the ground. Although Poole is a historian, it very soon becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind both identifying and challenging these monsters is religion. It is a view Poole shares with Douglas Cowan and Stephen Asma and other analysts who take seriously the origins of our fears. Monsters creep out of the same mental space as gods. That which is not real is no less scary for its non-existence.

Particularly insightful was Poole’s analysis of the subversive nature of monsters. They challenge convention, forcing a cultural catharsis. The notable exception, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, also has a religious rationale. Meyer, a conservative Mormon, effectively extracts the fangs of the vampire to make it a safe, if not Christian, monster. Monsters make establishment believers uncomfortable, for they remind us of the darkness that always follows the light. Humanity responds with efforts, religious and scientific, to banish the dark. But at the end of even the longest day, night will come. When it does, I would recommend curling up with Poole for an evening of cultural self-understanding. Followed by a bowl of popcorn and a movie from his filmography.

Cryptid Be Thy Name

While poking around the internet last night to take my mind off the heat and humidity surrounding me, I stumbled across an article entitled “The Religious Struggle over Cryptozoology” on a site called Science and Religion Today. The piece was written by Joe Laycock, a doctoral candidate at one of my alma maters, Boston University. Having just finished Bruce Hood’s Supersense, there was a pleasing euphony in the coincidence. Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals, and is not necessarily based on the supernatural (although it may fall within Hood’s definition of it). Laycock notes that two religious elements in society have latched onto this study: New Agers and Creationists. Creationists, it seems, see in certain cryptids, such as the Loch Ness Monster, hold-overs from the Mesolithic Era that prove the Mesolithic Era never existed. God can still make dinosaurs today, therefore the Bible (which doesn’t mention dinosaurs at all) must be true.

The draw of the unknown

One of the most welcome parts of Hood’s thesis was its consonance with Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book I’ve posted on before. Both authors explore how the human psyche reacts against what it perceives to be “strange mixes,” beings that cross-over between readily defined categories. Hood addresses this by tackling the concept of “essence” while Asma notes a dread accompanied by a sense of wonder. Hood demonstrates that from a scientific point of view, there is no such thing as the “essence” of a person, object, or living thing. Such ideas are the cling-ons from the era of souls and radically distinct species and genders. Closer observation has taught us that many such things are more of a continuum than a series of sharply defined types. Religions prefer to have fixed categories. Religious ethics often depend on them.

Laycock suggests that both New Ageism and Creationism “can be read as a religious response to the cultural authority of science.” Religions fear that which can be empirically demonstrated since it throws the god-of-the-gaps into the dryer and he comes out smaller each time. This is so, despite the fact that Creationists crave scientific respectability. While teaching my course on Myth and Mystery at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I dwelt on cryptids for a few sessions. They are indeed often surrounded with a religious mystique. I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the possibility of undiscovered species, many new ones are described by science every year. Nor would I say that they are supernatural. Nature has ways of surprising us still, and as Asma clearly demonstrates, we still have a need for monsters.

Soulless Robots?

Robots have taken over my life. At least in the short term. As my friend Burke commented on Easter: “Alleluia! The robots have risen… up against us?!” Actually, the robots I encounter are benign and all follow Asimov’s rules. I have mentioned before the phenomenal First Robotics program, a venue to encourage high school students to consider careers in engineering. Team 102, Somerville High School’s robotics team, recently won a regional competition in Hartford, Connecticut. My role has mostly been to watch other people design and construct the robot while occasionally correcting the grammar on written documents. The joke my friend made, however, has at its roots a deep-seated human concern: how do people deal with soulless machines?

Stephen Asma, in his book On Monsters, has a chapter concerning the human fear of a robotic future. Electronic gadgets with uncompromising metal bodies and no consciousness that we recognize present a frightening combination. The question that concerns me more, however, is the concept of the soul itself. The Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul as it would later be adopted by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Bible a body is a soul; when the soul dies the body dies – people are a monistic unit, not a dualistic entity with a part that hangs around the spirosphere after the biological part rots away. Of course, in Christianity the soul has become an essential aspect of church doctrine and we fear other creatures that lack them. Souls have never been observed in a laboratory and we have yet to prove their existence.

Reading the news and seeing how biological, soul-fueled humans treat each other is a sobering task. Each day I lay the newspaper down with a new kind of dread. Perhaps souls are only mythical beings concocted to shore up a theology that can’t survive without them. Or maybe all living beings have souls. Perhaps even mechanical ones. As Team 102 heads to the national competition in Atlanta in the days ahead, I know that I’ll be rooting for a soulless machine that may be a bold step towards humanity’s continuing evolution.

Sorry for the blur, the robot just wouldn't stop shaking me!

Transformations

Last week my colleague James of Idle Musings sent me a review of Stephen Asma’s On Monsters that I’ve been meaning to incorporate into a post for several days now. Since New Jersey has been buried under more snow than it’s seen since the last Ice Age, I’ve been busy shoveling and navigating icy roads to class and only now am finding the time to respond. (Still, I have to say that the snow we have here now is no comparison to good old lake-effect snow where I grew up. Of course, the population back home was much smaller so the media never made a circus of it. After all, it is just winter!) In today’s paper, however, there was a review of The Wolfman that graciously affords me another opportunity to address one of my favorite, if under-represented, areas of religious studies: the monster.

Local film critics haven’t exactly panned the remake of the 1941 classic, although it is noted that the new version tries to avoid the essential subtexts of “alpha-male dominance, sexual repression, compulsive behavior and father-son feuds” (from Stephen Whitty’s Star Ledger review; Whitty also notes, on the cheerful side, that Universal is trying to revive its monster franchise). The werewolf has always been my favorite monster character. Aside from the negative aspects noted by Whitty, the werewolf also represents transformation from the helpless, lost, and confused Lawrence Talbot to a purposeful, confident, and unambiguous wolfman. The werewolf is everyman/everywoman pressed to the limits by a demeaning, heartless society until individualism breaks out in all its savagery and power.

Apart from the religious elements in all monsters (is the werewolf not a paragon of spiritual transformation?), a political subtext also emerges. While the front page declares the financial woes of the state and the continued trouble trying to pass any healthcare reform, page 3 declares “Top 5 health insurers post soaring profits.” One person’s cancer is another insurer’s boondoggle. Meanwhile the Larry Talbots of the world are being told, “give a little more – everyone’s got to share this burden.” Eventually, however, there will be a full moon and transformations will take place. As a student of religions, I can recognize the werewolf as more than a monster and as containing far more symbolism than a Robert Langdon could ever untangle.

Who's not afraid to look in the mirror?

On Monsters

Long-term readers of this blog (both of you – you know who you are!) are aware of my interest in monsters. Constant companions of my childhood, I spent lazy days and sleepless nights both curious and fearful of these imaginary creatures. Like the concept of the holy, they both repel and attract simultaneously. Back in October, when I first heard of Stephen Asma’s book, On Monsters, I knew I would have to read it. I have commented occasionally during the progress of my time spent on the book, but having finished it I stand in a better position to consider the whole.

Not a monsterologist, I have nevertheless been fascinated by the juncture of monsters and religion, a point that Asma repeatedly emphasizes. His book is a masterful treatment of the subject from many angles, working through a roughly chronological treatment of the changing faces of the monstrous. Although monsters first appear with the earliest civilizations, they have persisted even in the strong light of scientific thinking and rationalism. As we comprehend our world, the monsters appear in deeper and darker corners, in the very folds of our throbbing gray matter, in the microbial world that floats invisibly around us, and in the smiling beneficence of technology. At many points in his historical presentation Asma is difficult to read; human brutality and emotional distancing have made for the most horrific of real-life monsters he cites.

Particularly useful in Asma’s treatment of the subject is his contention that monsters still have a place in our society. The word itself retains its usefulness in describing human, all-too-inhuman treatment of others. Unfortunately, the motivation for such treatment can often be traced to bad religious education. We may not be so fearful of the werewolf or the (supernatural) vampire, but we still fear those who treat others without empathy or human concern. Anyone with the parallel interests in religion and its aberrations owe it to her/himself to take a careful look at On Monsters and consider its implications.

A classic monster

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

The world is a topsy-turvy place. In times of turmoil people turn to the old, the familiar, the classic, for assurance of continuity and stability. Ah, those halcyon days! Perhaps the newspaper is not a place to seek solace, but as I was flipping through the Friday edition, usually a little lighter after the dread of another week, I noticed a story about Leonardo da Vinci (before the code made him famous).

Self portrait or mirror?

For many centuries people have pondered the understated smile on the Mona Lisa’s placid yet knowing face. Recent forensic-type investigations are now strengthening the old suggestion that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of the artist as a woman. Some will, no doubt, find such news distressing – a masculine artist portraying himself as feminine? (Surely such a thing has never been done before!) Most concerned of all would be the Religious Right, a group that seeks a god excelling in sharp distinctions. Either male or female, no intersexuals need apply!

Over the past several months I have been reading Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book that can’t really be called “enjoyable,” although it has been eye-opening and informative. One of the recurrent themes throughout the book has been the fear of the liminal being conjoined with our growing understanding that sharp distinctions are rare. Ever since Freud it has been known (at least subconsciously) that people participate in aspects of both genders with social constructs determining which role is to be filled, feminine or masculine. Those who look honestly at the aggregate of the human race realize that we are all points on a continuum rather than simply members of one or the other gender. As Asma points out, however, we prefer distinctions.

In painting himself as a woman perhaps Leonardo once again proved himself ahead of his time. Perhaps the Mona Lisa is a mirror we should long gaze into before judging others on the basis of artificial distinctions.

Dog-Headed Saints

Eastern Saint Christopher

In Stephen Asma’s recent book, On Monsters, he discusses the role of early Christianity in perpetuating or perhaps even inventing various monstrous creatures. As is clear from sources going all the way back to Sumerian times, ancient religions are the spawning beds for monsters. One of the monsters Asma mentioned that caught my attention was the familiar St. Christopher. According to sources as orthodox as St. Augustine, there lived races of dog-headed people in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. These Anubis-like cynocephali were barbarians in the extreme, eating human beings like the more familiar werewolf.

In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, St. Christopher was said to be among the cynocephali. Converted to Christianity, the dog-headed saint was martyred and entered the great kennel in the sky. The message proclaimed by this strange story is the tolerance of the early Christian movement. While battles raged over Orthodox vs. heterodox vs. Gnostic vs. pagan, there was still room to allow dog-headed humans into the fold. (They could be quite useful in rounding up straying sheep as well, one supposes.)

One of the hallmarks of modern Christianity is its exclusiveness. Naturally, not all Christians fit this profile, but many of the current movements define themselves by those not permitted to enter. In the sordid history of the Religious Right there are many chapters demonstrating a stark mistrust of non-Anglo believers. Roman Catholicism maintains that it is the only historically correct version of the faith. Other religions also erect barriers to keep others out. If religions truly promoted tolerance we might see a few more dog-headed saints in the news today instead of those who earn headlines for their exclusive claims on the truth.