Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Horizontal Thinking

“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts.  I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic.  (And a better paying job.)  In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline.  In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system.  I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible.  The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared.  Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic.  Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation.  Especially in theology.

Horizon

I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror.  Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs.  People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others.  I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly.  Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase.  Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.

Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however.  Both address primal human fears.  Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is.  If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion?  We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it.  Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear.  Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace.  Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too.  I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Movie Meaning

Theology has never been my thing. Now, those who don’t parse things too finely may find that an odd statement. “This blog almost always addresses religion,” they may say, “how can you say theology’s not your thing?” Perhaps for the layperson “theology” means anything having to do with religion. In the biz it has a more specific meaning. Theology is tied to a faith system. It tries to explain, rationally, what that belief system entails. Religious studies is more about studying what religion is and how it works. It was this fine distinction that put me off from reading Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. Christopher Deacy treats the subject theologically and, depending on the theologian, that can mean a lot of effort for little result. I was, however, pleased about a number of things in Deacy’s book. He doesn’t shy away from horror, for one. And he takes cinema seriously.

The idea behind the book is straightforward—theology and movies should be in dialogue about the afterlife. At a number of points Deacy makes it clear that films reach a wider audience than theology books. Again, those of us in the biz know that to be very true. If people watch movies they begin to accept what those movies tell them as true. For those of one of the established faith systems, if things haven’t altered all the much since I was young, discussing the religious meaning of a secular film is always interesting. (Some of my friends drew the line, however, when I found Elijah parallels in a film where a bread machine went out of control, but that’s a story for another time.) People take movies seriously. During economically depressed times, movies thrive. We need to pay attention to them.

The problem with theology is, no matter how open it may be, there’s always some element of rightness involved—this perspective is right and that one wrong. It can hardly be any other way. To open the door too widely is to invite yourself to exit. Deacy selects films he finds theologically meaningful when addressing (mostly) Christian views of the afterlife. I’m guessing—and it’s only a guess—that many people get their information from popular media and theologians are completely off the screen. That doesn’t mean theology has no place, but it does mean that its place is in the hands of other scholars rather than those who just want to sit around and talk about the film they saw last night. Both may be profound, but one is more clearly enjoyable than the other.

Strange Chemistry

AlchemicalBeliefOne of the many antiquated beliefs that have been left behind over the centuries is alchemy. Today we tend to think that anyone who supposed natural substances could have been transmuted into others must have been naïve at best, or credulous at least. Bruce Janacek’s Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England sheds light on the wider worldview of the alchemists. Some of them, anyway. Firstly, it is quite clear that many adepts of alchemy were very intelligent people. We easily forget that in addition to rewriting the laws of physics, Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy throughout his adult life. There’s something incredibly beguiling about the idea of an underlying unity of materials. Today atomic theory has answered that unity, perhaps a little too well. And that bring up the second important insight in Jancek’s book: alchemists often had an ulterior motive.

Early modern alchemists (think of those emerging from the wake of the Reformation, and you won’t be far wrong) often had a religious motivation for their work. Alchemy isn’t just turning base metals into gold—that’s just its most spectacular claim. Janacek points out that several alchemists were also attempting to prove the legitimacy of Christian theology through their explorations. Concepts as strange as the Trinity, or even the divisions of Christianity itself that were happening in the shadow of Luther, indicated to ordered minds that theological truth must be a unity. That unity, once found in alchemy, would naturally apply to the world of the church. The church, after all, can’t defy the very laws of the universe, can it? These early scientists accepted that there might also be a mystical element involved. Some rejected that aspect, but felt that the basic ideas of alchemy itself were sound.

Like dinosaurs, alchemy pretty much went extinct with the onset of the empirical method. Also like dinosaurs, it survived into the new age, transmuted in form. Alchemy was one of the ancestors of that bane of college students everywhere: chemistry. We tend to forget that astrology laid the groundwork for astronomy and creation (not quite an “ism” in those days) led to the study of biology. Religious ideas underlie much of what led to modern science. Religion, after all, indulges the curiosity of humankind. We are allowed (in the best instances) to let our minds range where they will. Later on theology, or some such device, will rein them in, but until such a time the psyche is free to explore. And build systems. And offer explanations. The alchemy comes when all of this is taken from the hands of natural philosophers and put into the laboratory only. And the rest of us await pronouncements from above of what might be real, or not.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.

Battlestar_Galactica_1978_-_intro

I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Theological Fiends

SuchADarkThingVampires are among the most theological of monsters. Not that I’m a theologian, but I sometimes read those who are. Although zombies and vampires rival one another for the ascendent monster of the moment, I’ve always had a soft spot for the vampire, conceptually. The actual idea of drinking blood has always distressed my vegetarian sensibilities, but there is a deep intrigue about the character who constantly takes and never gives. And sees in the dark. And is practically immortal, unless violently killed. All of these aspects, and more, have theological undertones. M. Jess Peacock’s Such A Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture deals with such ideas and more. A self-admitted fan of all things vampiric, Peacock finds unexpected angles to the undead metaphor that make for connections between Christianity and the cultural vampire. He explores Otto’s understanding of the holy and how vampires fit aspects of it, the importance of blood, theodicy, and sin, as well as religious iconography and why crosses work against vampires (when they do). Most fascinating, however, is how vampires effect social change.

Since I often write about monsters, and specifically vampires, on this blog, it should be no surprise that I should read such a book. The question of why vampires have such staying power in our society is one that many have pondered. Peacock, by tying the vampire into deep theological needs (and we’ve been taught for many decades that theological needs are unrealistic fantasies themselves) has perhaps found a reason why. Just because we deny a need doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Think of all those Medieval monks denying sexuality. Biology, no matter how transcendent our focus, has a way of reminding us that we have needs. Vampires are, if anything, very forthright about their requirements. You have blood, they need blood. They will take it any way they can. And this leads to its own kind of ethic where, in some movies and stories, we, the victims, end up rooting for the vampire.

The social justice aspect of Peacock’s study is the one I found most compelling. We live in an era in which financial vampires openly and selfishly drain the blood of any victims they may find. What they do is done in daylight and no crucifix is large enough, no stake is strong enough, to stop them. We sit in our theater seats and watch as the economy rises and falls with the wealthy and their willingness to invest (or not) in the very economy that made them rich. Elections are won now by money supplied by corporations. Yes, the presidency can be, and is, purchased. Most politicians don’t know the price of a loaf of bread. Christianity, in any case, understands bread and blood to be analogues. The two are complementary, and represent the totality of human need. The vampire, as Peacock notes, can symbolize the difficulties of social justice. They may have their fangs deeply embedded in our necks, but at some level we have come to love our vampires. Even when they give us nothing in return.