Tag Archives: supernatural

Big Shoes

Belief in the supernatural seems to be alive here in the northwest. At least if the culture at Sea-Tac Airport is anything to go by. I’d noticed, last year, that a sasquatch graces a restaurant in the N terminal, where jets from Newark tend to land. This year we had a bit of a layover, so we strolled through the C concourse. There I found sasquatch approved salmon in the somewhat anomalous Hudson News. Then, as I sat in one of the stylish, Seattle seats, a young woman came up next to us and sat down wearing a Sasquatch Volleyball shirt. I’m past the age when I can get away with innocently asking young ladies if I can take a photo of their shirts, so you’ll just have to use your imagination for the latter. The point is, bigfoot has been mainstreamed.

When I was growing up you got pretty mercilessly teased if you expressed any interest in such things. Now that I’ve got a respectable career others can get away with what captured my imagination as a young man. I’ve never thought of myself as being ahead of the curve. Or really ahead of anything, for that matter. Still, I trust my instincts. Maybe religion will come back into vogue some day. Or maybe it will simply be called something else. A tainted name is difficult to live down. The supernatural—or paranormal—often shares conceptual territory with religion, and although the pews aren’t getting any fuller, the number of those looking for some kind of meaning in the unusual seems to be holding steady. Physics can take us only so far in understanding what it is to be human.

Times change. Yesterday’s jokes are today’s orthodoxies. Those who spend a great deal of time peering back into history won’t be surprised by this. What is true today is true for today. New facts will be discovered and if we lived long enough we’d find that the future world will believe quite differently than we do. Not that the truth is relative. It is, however, temporary. Massive religious wars have been fought over trying to keep truths timeless. The sad irony is that the truths had already changed by the time such wars had been waged. The more rational we become, it seems, the more we open the door for the supernatural. I won’t presume to be one declaring such truth. That would take more weight than I have to offer. And anyone making such a claim would have some awfully big shoes to fill.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.

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Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

American Possession

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Exorcism seems an especially appropriate trope these days. Embedded evil has to be faced squarely and forced out before it kills its host. I recently rewatched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a most unusual horror film in that the story is born by a courtroom drama over whether the priest overseeing the ritual was responsible for the death of Emily Rose. Famously based on a true story, the movie raises a more basic question than whether it “really happened”—what is the viewpoint through which we view the world? We see from the very beginning that the case is actually a contest between two powerful law firms. Each wants a lawyer that can shred the case of the other. The prosecutors engage Ethan Thomas, a very religious Methodist, against the defense’s Erin Bruner, an agnostic. Believing Emily’s case to be purely medical, Thomas asserts that had she stayed on her medication Emily would’ve remained alive with the prospects of a healthy life. Fearing a complete loss, Bruner takes a risky counter-approach: what is Emily really was possessed?

The obligatory scary scenes are shown, of course. They are flashbacks inserted into the course of the trial, but nevertheless disturbing for all their calm, rational framing. The real question, as the story plays out, is can a supernatural worldview be allowed in a court of law. Ironically, such a worldview is already present when a witness swears on the Bible. This particular movie doesn’t show those scenes, but it would’ve been a fair point for Ms. Bruner to make. Clearly the court can’t decide if demons are real, but it can allow that possibility. It’s a classic case of science versus religion. Nevertheless, both sides make use of science. The anthropologist on the stand is dismissed by the religious Mr. Thomas. He has no time for Catholic, or any other religions’, superstition.

Many strange choices were made for this particular cinematic piece, but the story works nevertheless. Those who believe in spiritual realities are allowed to live them out only to a point. The legal system decides if a religion has gone too far. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in a post-truth world, any clear standard of rationality can possibly hold. But questioning universally accepted truths and subverting them to personal preferences its almost if we’ve actually reached the stage of “all those in favor of general relativity say ‘aye.’” As I say, the film was more timely than anticipated. Demons, after all, often appear in the guise of an angel of light. Especially for those motivated by fear.

Cinematic Reality

monstersmadEven without the results of the recent presidential election, I would be reading about horror movies. One of the reasons is that I wonder what the appeal might be—why do I put myself in a dark room with an uncertain future? Until recently academics had thought this was something only unreflective, uneducated people did. As is often the case, such as with the electoral college, the numbers tell a different story. Andrew Tudor’s Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie is an example of what happens when a sociologically oriented film critic explores the genre. Although not overwhelming, there are plenty of tables and charts, showing the various trends of horror films from the 1930s up through the mid 1980s. Tudor analyzes what makes us afraid and the main sources of that fear: science, supernatural, and psyche. Since these are all day-to-day things it seems that movies express the basic human condition.

Reading a book published in the ‘80s, however, makes you wonder what might have been missed. We’ve had more than three decades of further horror movies and although categories may be useful, and perhaps even stable, recent events unlock further fears. I suspect there will be a comeback of Nazis in scary movies over the next few years. Horror is, after all, a reflection of those who are willing to be honest about what scares them. There’s plenty of subject matter lying about the headlines of the past weeks.

What I found especially interesting is, at least in the 1980s, statistically the great majority of films featured a supernatural threat. Of these, Tudor notes, the vampire is by far the most popular. We’ve had a dalliance with zombies since then. And I’ve seen plenty of examples where extraterrestrials form the threat. Even ghosts have staged a somewhat unexpected comeback. And movies of demons have proliferated. The supernatural does indeed scare us. I’m not sure that we can quantify it as easily as we used to. Unlike earlier generations of scholars, I’m beginning to see the horror inherent in much of society. We’ve created a scary world with even more scary possibilities. The thing about monsters is they have no sympathy. They are cold, calculating, and all about meeting their own unnatural needs. All the rest of us are just, not to put too fine a point on it, their food. I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing much more of this in days to come.

Holy Haunted Book

Religion is one of those words that defies easy definition. As I’ve suggested before, you know it when you see it, but trying to pin the idea down is a different matter. Consequently, religion is closely related to a number of other areas of interest: philosophy, ethics, monsters, and the paranormal, to name a few. I was interested, therefore to see a blog post recently concerning a “haunted Bible.” Call me naive, but the thought had never occurred to me before: could a holy book be haunted? Churches are notorious for housing ghosts, of course. As someone who’s spent overnight retreats in churches I can vouch for the fact that a sanctuary after dark is a naturally eerie place. I’ve never seen a ghost in a church, however, and I’m not entirely convinced they exist, and if they do, what they might be. In any case, a haunted Bible is a different story.

David Weatherly is a fairly well-known paranormal writer. My web search brought up his blog where he explains that the haunted Bible was for sale on eBay with an asking price of $180,000. The owner, who remains anonymous, claimed to take no responsibility for any damage the supernatural scripture might cause. Instead of thinking that we have here a genuine haunted leather scripture, I know it can be nothing other than a genuine hoax (not on Weatherly’s part). Realtors know well that a haunting can, in today’s climate, counterintuitively drive the price of a house up. With people hungry for some element of the supernatural in their lives, and ghost hunters of all sorts on their televisions, they are willing to shell out a few more dollars to have a spirit around. And since ghosts can’t sign contracts, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there once you move in. The supernatural can, it turns out, be the perfect scam.

If items can be haunted, I suppose a Bible might as well. When an owner, however, turns down an offer of 50,000 pounds that odor you’re smelling is that of a rat. I love old books. I have a few around that have more than a century’s weight on them. Looking at used bookstores longingly, I see first editions of Poe or Shakespeare that sell for far less than the asking price of the most printed book in the western world. Bibles, if you know where to look, can be had for free. I’ve got at least a dozen of them myself. Nothing makes fakery quite so clear as greed. No wonder the haunted Bible was such a disconnect. There’s nothing paranormal about love of money. That’s all too normal for anyone who tries to sell a Bible for implied spirituality.

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To Nature, and Beyond

VaticanProphIt might seem odd to differentiate the supernatural from an established world religion like Roman Catholicism. After all, be premise of traditional Christianity is based on a miracle or two. Church officials, however, are not naive. It has been known from the early centuries of the church that although miracles are still from time-to-time proclaimed, they are a relative rarity. Few are claimed, like Jesus of Nazareth, to have the ability to summon the supernatural at will. When my wife gave me a copy of John Thavis’s The Vatican Prophecies, I wondered if this might be a sensationalist exploration of “the hidden Vatican” and its penchant for keeping things hushed. After all, the subtitle is Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. Thavis, however, is one of the most even-handed writers on the topic I might imagine. Clearly respectful of the Catholic faith, he doesn’t go after any pet theories or conspiracies. He lets those in the church answer with their own words. And those words paint a fascinating picture.

Beginning with the concept of holiness, Thavis shows that the point of the spiritual life is not to seek signs. Nevertheless, signs are reported. Apparitions of Mary have a long history, as does the shroud of Turin. Those who write about such things often have a clear bias, but Thavis gives the facts, interviews those who know, and offers a narrative full of possibilities. The supernatural can take a darker turn, however, as his chapter on demons and angels demonstrates. Although demons have been cast into the outer darkness by science, it doesn’t prevent people from apparently being possessed. And of course miracles come under scrutiny, particularly in the context of making saints. Prophecy, in the sense of knowing the future, is the last major topic up for discussion.

The Vatican Prophecies is a curious book that seems neither credulous or overly skeptical. It’s more like reporting than it is declaring what is or isn’t possible. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church does still profess miracles, but a vast number of them that come up for testing fail. Scientists serve as expert witnesses and personal claims are not sufficient to win the day. Although there are a few characters in this account, the majority of those mentioned in the book are understated, thoughtful individuals who happen to know they can’t decide what really happens or not. Instead, they simply deal with it. For those of use who live in a world of uncertainty, this book is a most apt introduction to topics taken seriously by some very intelligent people.

Books of 2015

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It’s the end of 2015 and looking at my records on Goodreads it looks like I read 100 books this year. That tends to be my goal mark, but after twelve months of reading I like to think back over which were the books that have made the biggest impact on me over the year. Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus remains on the most important list. It is joined by Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain, Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Levy’s Dispelling Wetiko. Bageant, Dreger, and Levy especially address some of the root causes of social ills and even make suggestions about how to address them. Newberg offers advice on how to improve brain functioning and Wells taps into the ever-important issue of care for our planet. I read some good academic titles as well: Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait, Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastifari and the Arts, and Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

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Being a religionist, books with supernatural themes are always of interest. Among these I found intriguing Michael Murphy’s The Future of the Body, David J. Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People, and Jeannie Banks Thomas’s Putting the Supernatural in Its Place. It seems important to have reasonable people address unconventional issues. These are related to books on monsters, noteworthy among which were: M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing, Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter’s Our Old Monsters, and Lisa Morton’s Ghosts. Long ago I realized that I no longer needed to justify including monsters or the supernatural categorically with religion. They share too many roots to be separated out artificially.

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Finally, it was also a year of novels. Pride of place here goes to Robert Repino’s debut, Mort(e). I am compelled to mention Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, John Green’s Paper Towns, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. Although I’m not much of a fantasy reader, Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess has stayed with me since reading it. For any of these books you’ll find an individual blog post from this year. That’s not to say that other books I read weren’t good. Nearly every book I post on Goodreads has a write-up here. I tend to like most books I read, although I’m occasionally disappointed when a book does’t reach its full potential. 2015 was a rich year of reading and I’m looking forward to a very literate 2016.

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