APB

It’s disconcerting. Being mistaken for somebody else. I suspect I’m not alone in having shown up somewhere I’ve never been before only to have people mistake me for a local. It’s happened to me a couple of times, and what with the recent Steve Wiggins incident in Tennessee, it’s enough to make me question my uniqueness. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of undergoing identity theft some years back, and floating myself out here on the internet is something the wisdom of which I sometimes question. If I’ve got enough doppelgängers running around out there, perhaps I should be careful of revealing too much online. Such problems my grandparents never had.

A long time ago I turned off the warning alerts on my phone. It’s not that I don’t care, but rather it’s that I keep odd hours. Without revealing too much, I think I can say that I’m awoken somewhat often by those who don’t go to bed so early, or who don’t think about timezone changes before hitting “send.” We here in the American orient awake earlier than others. So I switched off my alerts. Then I started reading that other people were getting “Steve Wiggins alerts.” Was fame passing me by in the night? While this wasn’t the kind of fame I’d hoped to attain, a few stray visitors to this blog couldn’t hurt. When I searched Google for information on “Steve Wiggins” I found myself listed in the Google box on the right as “other.”

Some people who’ve written only two books are listed as “author” on Google. In my case it seems Google can’t figure out why anybody would be searching for me. “Other.” They say Google knows everything. It certainly knows how to flatter the self-seeker, at least most of the time. What does it mean to be an “other?” The unclassifiable? My work, indeed, falls into the “other” column, like that of many people who’ve made plans only to run into the cold reality that fate has laid out for them. Not being a professor any longer is a source of constant confusion to me. Books I read state that x or y knows about a subject because university z or w has hired them. There are those kinds of experts, then there are the “others.” And because of recent events, there are those instantly famous for killing another man and running away. Who am I? I’m not legend; I am other. What exactly that means I still haven’t sorted out.

Biblical Stories

The Bible had quite a week last week. It went from being vetoed as the “state book” of Tennessee to making it onto the list of the ten most challenged and banned books of the year for the first time. Did you ever get that feeling that you should’ve thought a bit more closely about career options? I mean, the Bible’s not half bad. Yes, it has some naughty bits, a few instances of cursing, and adult situations. There are homicides, suicides, and genocides. It endorses slavery and advocates religious intolerance. It’s not all bad news, however.

IMG_2634

We find it easy to make summary judgments based on our own tendency to elevate human products to divine status. That which is most holy, after all, becomes the most profane when it’s defiled. The Bible itself can be like any other book. Printed on paper, bound between two covers, it contains ideas that must be interpreted. There’s no such thing as “just reading.” Even that road sign that says “slow children” is open to hermeneutics. What is objectionable is the use to which the Bible is put. And that use is objectionable due to the claims made about it. Saying that God rolled up his immaterial sleeve and took a transcendent pen into his incorporeal hand and began to scrawl is a bit naive. We know that people wrote the Bible—and much of it is sublime—and other people compiled it into a book that eventually acquired sacred status. It wasn’t born holy, it had to grow into it.

Once the Bible became objectified it turned into what people eventually use all objects for: a weapon. We can take sticks and stones and break your bones (no, that’s not in the Bible), and we can take paper and ink and hang you as a witch. Or pillory you as a liberal. Or say that it forbids the love you feel in your God-given heart. Something strange has happened here. The Bible’s not a bad book. It’s a bit on the long and repetitious side, but it has many, many memorable sayings and noble sentiments. Entire civilizations have been based on it. Or readings of it. They’ll ask you to put your hand on it and swear in court, and then they’ll ban it so your kids can’t read it. It’s been a tough week for the Good Book. Somehow, however, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it because people love a conflicted story.

States Slights

States, at least the united kind, can have personalities. Some of us move after the diminishing herd of jobs and so end up in places we hadn’t really planned to live. In each state where I’ve made by domicile (six, as of the present), I’ve met people born and bred, down home and with no intention of ever leaving their native land. To such people, I imagine, state symbols may be important. I always felt unjustly proud of Pennsylvania’s Keystone status. I was born there, but neither of my parents and none of my grandparents were. I don’t live there any more myself. I was pleased and just a little surprised to learn that New Jersey has a state dinosaur (the hadrosaurus), discovered right here in the Garden State. This past week, according to an NPR story my wife sent me, Tennessee is trying to garner its own state dinosaur, in the form of the Bible as the State Book. I think it would be a great idea for each state to have an official book, but I would think that it might be a book written by someone from that state.

IMG_1363

Senator Steve Southerland, according to the story, put forward the legislation due to the Bible’s importance in the Volunteer State. The problem is, of course, the Bible is a religious book and that by choosing a religious book you’re getting dangerously close to choosing a state religion. “There used to be a wall here,” you can almost hear the constitutionally minded saying. The Bible is important. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, no well-informed individual can deny that the United States has had a long and complicated love affair with the Good Book. As I try to show in many of my posts, the Bible still permeates our society in unexpected ways. Nobody’s trying to erase that history, but really, which state is going to select the Rigveda for its own book? Or the Qur’an? The Analects?

States are justly proud of their contributions to the whole. We have state flowers, mammals, trees, and birds. Tennessee’s is the Mockingbird. We have state slogans and mottos. But can any single state claim the Bible more than any other? I have to be just a little suspicious about claims that there’s no religious jingoism at play in suggesting it should be any state’s book. Yes, many Bibles are printed in Tennessee. Many writers have called the state home as well. Wouldn’t the more distinctive contribution come from a book that Tennessee actually had a hand in producing? Bibles, like it or not, can be claimed by all. I can see a tug-o-war coming with Texas, should this state symbol be canonized.

States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

800px-Crystal_palace_iguanodon

Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.

600px-Hugieia-pentagram

The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Darwin Down the Road

Chapman TrialsThe accidents of birth are the stuff of evolution. When I first heard of Matthew Chapman, direct descendent of Charles Darwin, over a decade ago, I was determined to read his book (then new). Like the accidents of birth, the finding of books at used bookstores is also a kind of evolution, so I picked up Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir recently and finally read it. Mission accomplished. It had been long enough that I couldn’t recall what the reviews said that made me so eager to read it—I had been developing a course on science and religion at Nashotah House and had been reading about evolution—but I’m glad I got around to it. The book was neither what Chapman nor I had expected. Maybe I’d better explain.

The year 2000, apart from its millennial aspirations, was also the 75th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Chapman, a screenwriter from England, decided to go to Dayton, Tennessee to report on the reenactment of the Scopes Trial that was caused, accidentally, by his great-great-grandfather. With acerbic and self-deprecating wit, he narrates how he missed the performance by arriving for the wrong weekend and yet how he’d already begun the book based on it. Instead of reviewing the reenactment, he wove his own life story into those of the people he met on his two trips to Dayton, and left us with an engrossing memoir. Most Europeans, we know, consider American reaction against evolution with some puzzlement. As an Englishman, Chapman shares that curiosity and also, he admits, kind of wanted to make fun of southerners. His encounters, however, forced him to realize just how human all people are.

There’s a healthy dose of exposure to some of the weird ideas of fundamentalism here, but Chapman pulls no punches. The people he met treated him kindly. Some fundamentalists were even likable, even though they could not agree on much. At turns very funny and very sad, this autobiography represents, in its own way, the tensions of any life. The sensual confessions would have made famously squeamish Darwin blush, no doubt, but demonstrate to the reader that a man who can make a lot of money writing movie scripts can be very human as well. And so can the religious. The denizens of Dayton didn’t convince Chapman that their exclusive faith was true. They did, however, open him to the realization that such faith is not as simple as it may seem. A fortnight may have passed since the millennium, but creationism has continued to gain ground. Until more people take Chapman’s cue and actually try to understand those who believe, the trial of the century will continue to go on and on, ever evolving.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?

Back to School

“We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don’t view our faith through the eyes of culture.” The words are those of Stephen Livesay, president of Bryan College, according to a recent New York Times article. Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, already famous as the school that evolved out of the Scopes Monkey Trial, has been toying with adding a more specifically fundamentalist statement to its panoply of faith. Instead of stating simply that humans (more precisely, “man”) were (was) created by God, Livesay wants to clarify that this means by special creation, no evolution involved. Hey, we’re all thinking it. Why not just say it?

800px-Ape_skeletons

With the characteristic, journalistic eye-rolling that inevitably accompanies stories about creationism, I frequently wonder why there aren’t more calls to try to understand this viewpoint. It’s easier to condemn and say that narrow minds can’t widen out, but some of us who had believed in Bryan’s hypothesis at one time have managed by dint of reading and reason to climb our way out of the slime. If we understood what made literalism so appealing, we might be able to figure out why only America lags behind the developed world in accepting what is otherwise universally regarded as a fact. Instead, faculty members nationwide willing to call this into question are summarily fired and nobody bothers to do a thing to support them. Collateral damage of the culture wars. Perhaps we should add a statement about not letting the door hit you on your way out.

Evolution through natural selection stabs very deeply into the heart of human self-worth. We still refer to other animals as “lower” than us, and we exploit them in any way we see fit. Then we don’t wonder why being told you’re just like them isn’t disturbing. This is trench warfare. Lines in the sand dug deeper and deeper. Those who believe in creationism aren’t simple. Even with all our space telescopes and Mars rovers, we’re told the most complex thing known to humanity is still its own brain. And that brain makes people with Ph.D.s think that they’re special—either a separate creation by an invisible god, or because they can recognize how irrational our own brains make us. No intelligent being would want to understand why this is so by studying it rationally. That would make far too much sense.

Atomic Girls

GirlsofAtomicCityRay Bradbury. Ray Harryhausen. Radioactive dinosaur loose in Manhattan. What’s not to like? I was inspired to watch The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms again for a single line, where Dr. Nesbitt informs the marksman his grenade has “the only isotope of its kind this side of Oak Ridge.” You see, I had just finished reading Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Atomic City, in this context, is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city built almost overnight with one objective: to produce uranium for the atomic bomb, then under development. The employees, many of them women, were not told the nature of their work and were not allowed to speak about the little they knew, putting many strains on marriages and human relationships. It is a captivating story, especially since Kiernan doesn’t pull any punches—the facility was in a segregated south, women scientists were belittled to their faces, and the end result was thousands of people incinerated in Japan. It is like the end of Eden, the loss of humanity’s innocence.

Growing up in the 1960s, I had heard of Oak Ridge. I knew it had something to do with nuclear stuff, but my understanding only went as far as the planetary model of the nucleus of an atom. I feared nuclear war. The height of that fear in the 1950s may have passed, but I was born just a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis began and all through the Reagan era that veiled threat of total, mutual annihilation hung heavily in the air. The religious had claimed God had created all this, but human hubris threatened to erase it all. On the eve of a friend’s wedding I sat across the Susquehanna River, eyeing Three Mile Island for the first time. Just six years earlier even those of us hundreds of miles to the northwest wondered if we would succumb to its radioactive glow. The power of the atom, as Kiernan demonstrates, was considered to be the basic power of the universe. And it was not divine.

When the war was over, a symbol of peace was erected at Oak Ridge. The International Friendship Bell was challenged as recently as 1998 by a local claiming that ringing the bell endorsed Buddhism, and it was therefore a religious symbol that had no business in a public place. For those who believe, ringing the bell is a form of Buddhist prayer. For others, it is a sign of goodwill between nations that have put their differences to rest. It is easy, sixty years after the release of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, to laugh smugly at Harryhausen’s famed stop-motion animation and the incessant worry about atomic fallout. But near the beginning of the movie, George Ritchie says of the atomic blast they’ve been monitoring, “You know, every time one of those things goes off, I feel as if I was helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.” Indeed, at least as far as chapter three. With the dawn of the atomic age, we had outgrown our need for the final chapters of Revelation as well.

Slippery Logic

Last week NBC reported on a baby in Tennessee. Babies in Tennessee, one might suppose, are pretty common. This one, however, was given a name stricken down by the courts. Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew declared that the baby could not be named “Messiah.” Apart from the statement that this is a title and not a name (don’t tell Judge Reinhold, please), the judge (not Reinhold) demonstrated her biblical illiteracy by stating that the title messiah has, “only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” Oh well, this is the Bible Belt, after all. Nevertheless, I would expect someone so deep in the Bible Belt to know the actual Bible a little better.

“Messiah” derives from a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one.” Its meaning is somewhat more literally along the lines of “smeared with oil,” for that is what anointing is. The title is used for several people in the Bible, not just one. Aaron, for one, was anointed. David was anointed as king, as were several other characters, including ill-fated Saul. And let’s not forget where Isaiah says clearly of Cyrus II, king of Persia, that he is “his anointed,” i.e., Yahweh’s anointed, in Hebrew, “his messiah.” Not Jewish, not Christian, Cyrus was a good old Zoroastrian. And he was just one in a long line of messiahs.

Where's your Messiah now? Oh, there he is.  (Photo by Persian Light.)

Where’s your Messiah now? Oh, there he is. (Photo by Persian Light.)

I’m not doubting Judge Ballew’s reasoning that it might be in the best interest of the child not to have such a controversial name. I do doubt, however, that it would be in the best interest of that child that he be raised being taught that evolution is a myth and special creation six thousand years ago is science. I do doubt that it is in his best interest to be taught that homosexuality is a sin and that it is something that only people have ever done because of their “fallen nature.” I do doubt that it is in the child’s best interest to be raised believing that if a woman is pregnant that a male-dominated government has the right to decide whether she carries the baby to term, no matter what. And once that baby is born, I do not believe it is the government’s right to decide on what his or her name shall be. And I expect that all the people named “Jesus” out there would agree. And Judge Reinhold.

Heavy Metal

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” Only the hardcore may be able to place this quote from Daniel Amos’s impressive 1984 album Vox Humana. Even when I moved away from Christian rock after college, I kept Daniel Amos in my head—this is truly inspired artistry. Pop culture and religion courses have become a standard offering in religion departments over the past few years. We are, even as secular as we may be, a very religious society. When my daughter’s high school music program went off on its biannual concert tour, this year they headed south. On the itinerary: Dollywood. I came near to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on the trip I made to South Carolina to see my father for the final time, but I did not stop. I am told, however, that Dollywood is something to see. In one of the gift shops, my daughter snapped a couple of photos for my blog that draw all these disparate thoughts together.

IMG_1213

What we put on our cars is what we want the world to know about us without ever seeing us. This makes cars a perfect evangelistic tool for both the shy and the aggressive. The car becomes a tract. A statement that this vehicle is driven by an evangelical. I’m not sure it makes me feel any safer on the road. How many times have I been rudely cut off in traffic only to find a Jesus fish winking at me from the bumper of the offending car? Sometimes swallowing a Darwin amphibian. Religion speaks more loudly behind the wheel than it does from the pew. In the stress of traffic, what do we really believe?

IMG_1215

Cars are also the ultimate tools of self-assertion. Human beings, with little natural armor or predatory equipment, surround themselves with metal and accelerate themselves at velocities that nature never intended. We feel godlike behind the wheel. That metal box in front of us, driving too slowly, or having just pulled some stupid maneuver, is not a person. It is a thing. And those who choose to declare their faith on that object are under constant judgment. Well I know the evangelistic pressure to witness—fundamentalists are expert at manipulating guilt. Put these plates on your car and the world will know what you really are. But be careful. It’s not how you say, but how you play that will express what you truly believe.

Planet of the Monkeys

“If salvation is available only to Christians, then the Gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.” That may not be Rachel Held Evans’s choice for the final word on the subject, but it is the privilege of all writers to be misinterpreted. I read Evolving in Monkey Town because of an odd confluence. Evolution always tastes like forbidden fruit to me, although there can be no real doubt concerning its factuality. Also, the spiritual journeys of women continue to fascinate me. Even if the women are young enough to be my daughter. I first learned about the Scopes Monkey Trial in Mr. Pierce’s tenth grade history class. In eleventh grade I argued the Fundamentalist side of an epic, three-day debate on evolution in current issues class. I set a reputation that I’m still attempting to live down. (Studying religion for the next ten years probably did me no favors here.) The end result is that I feel a personal connection to what happened in Dayton, Tennessee, although I’ve never been there.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a memoir of a struggling, skeptical fundamentalist. Reading it at times made me squirm a bit, seeing childhood worries and frustrations coming back to me through someone else’s experience. Some of Evans’s remarks could have come from me, had I the courage to write up my past so that others might view it. At the end of the book it was obvious that I could not agree with many of the author’s personal convictions, but she earned my respect. Under the constant pressures of pleasing a deity that can’t be seen, or empirically verified, Evans sees clearly the disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and Fundamentalist Christianity. She has a wonderful knack for clear sight and forthright comment. Like me, she has become aware that a Fundamentalist upbringing is something no one ever truly escapes.

The crisis that seems to have sparked Evans’s angst was the recognition that no matter how you arrange it, an exclusive religion cannot coexist with a just deity. The world is just too big for that. Any scenario in which God sets the rules and makes it impossible for the vast majority of humanity to attain those rules does reflect rather poorly on this pater familias. We are all reduced to a diabolical game of charades as we march merrily toward perdition. Theodicy is an insurmountable problem in this live-a-day world we inhabit. Reading about the altruistic traits of the primates most closely related to us reveals something about being a monkey’s uncle. When we look at the shenanigans religions enforce on people to make them more worthy of heaven, I think we would all have to admit to living in Monkey Town.

The Truth of Ghosts

Strange noises in the night. Objects moving of their own accord. Disembodied voices laughing fiendishly. It must be nearing autumn. After having a brief discussion on novel writing with Brent Monahan earlier this summer, I decided to read his book, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. Setting the story in the “found manuscript” genre, Monahan tells this famous account through the eyes of Richard Powell, one-time elected official in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The can be no doubt that the story has some basis in actual events, but the serious study of “ghosts” is a taboo that serious scholars break at their own peril. On my long bus rides this week I read Monahan’s version of the story as the rain continued to fall. As I read I was continually reminded how dependent we’ve become on genre labels. The book purports to be an eyewitness account and there is no genre declaration on the back cover. The Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication (CIP) data declares it fiction. Where is truth to be found?

Human beings are capable of great and terrible acts. Working in a city the size of New York after having been raised in small towns, the amount of distrust is very blatant. Security is evident in many places with cleverly locked doors and guards surveying those who enter buildings. We simply can’t trust everyone. Or anyone. When it comes to literature, stories often blend fact and fiction. Guidelines on books or classifications in bookstores help us to decide if our reading material is conveying actual events or not. The Bell Witch is one of those reminders that sometimes the truth will never be known. Historical records can be searched, but even these are often subject to human error. If someone tells us a ghost story, we base the veracity on the teller’s reputation. At the end of the day, sometimes we just can’t know.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Monahan’s version of these events is his reconstruction of the history. Although the supernatural remains intact at the end, Powell is able to uncover the “fact” that Betsy Bell was abused as a child and that the poltergeist-style events that pervade the story are an extension of her trauma. Actually, the treatment is very closely tied to the religiosity of the Bell family, good church-going folk who ran afoul of a fine point of church teaching. In the end, it is this rejection by the church that pressures John Bell to the point of incest. Is the story true? Yes. Did it every really happen? Probably not. The two are very different questions. In a society that increasing seeks easy answers, stories like this remind us that we are all a blend of fiction and fact. Easy answers are inevitably wrong. The movie An American Haunting once again revived “the Bell witch” but also raised the specter of the ambiguity of truth. Is it out there? If it is, how will we know when we’ve found it?

What really happened here?

O Tenn Won’t You See?

Truth goes to the highest bidder. In the United States the highest bidder is the party with the numbers to get elected. Truth by democracy. Once again Tennessee is flirting with Creationism, if not having already climbed into bed with her. High school biology teachers nationwide are afraid to take on the issue directly; many of them are told by their clergy that the concept itself is anti-Christian. This is what happens when mythological needs go unanswered. No one has yet deciphered why human brains evolved the capacity to believe in outside agency beyond the realm of nature. Many Fundamentalists use the phenomenon as proof of their pre-decided answers, despite their willingness to utilize this evolved Internet to spread their ideas. If evolution is false the Internet does not exist.

The larger issue here is the fact that educators have, by-and-large, dismissed the impact of religion. Particularly in higher education. Everyone has their own religion, we don’t discuss it because someone will become offended, and we pretend that, gosh-darn-it, people are just too smart to believe all that. Meanwhile millions of tax-payer dollars are wasted on cases continually going to court where one subset of one religion insists that its mythology has a right to be taught as science. Even the Fundamentalist’s strange bed-fellows in other conservative issues, the Roman Catholic Church, has stood up and put on its slippers. This one is not a matter of opinion, ecclesiastical or otherwise.

But religious folk understand that if they elect the right candidates, the issue can be forced again and again. The Creationist tactics are evolving to fit the situation. Meanwhile, not only religion, but also the study of history is largely dismissed as irrelevant. It is history that demonstrates the birth, growth, and current goals of the movement. The Scopes Monkey Trial was nearly ninety years ago, but it may as well have not taken place yet. If William Jennings Bryan had been smart, he’d have waited until his cohort had had time to carefully sow their seeds, water, weed, and fertilize them (using the oldest known material to ensure growth – plenty of manure) and then take it to legislators. The results are as predictable as the sunrise over our flat earth.

Seems just like tomorrow...