Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Insecticide

Although Halloween is more about spiders than insects, a real fear seems to be swirling around the latter.  For the second time in a year, a study has been published indicating a precipitous drop in the numbers of six-legged creatures worldwide.  This is alarming because everything’s connected.  Loss of insects means loss of vertebrates that feed on them and that leads to loss of species upon which we depend.  The problem with “humans first,” simply “America first” writ large, is that all species are interconnected.  The loss of one will lead to the loss of others—that’s the way connections work—until the entire picture changes.  And it won’t be prettier.  Even for lack of bugs.

Scientists aren’t sure of why this is happening, but the likely culprit seems to be global warming.  Temperatures are changing so rapidly that evolution can’t keep up.  And since those in political power don’t believe in evolution—America first!—they have difficulty seeing how global warming—a myth!—could possibly pose any threat.  Just ask the wooly mammoth.  The fact is that the very small frequently offer the answers long before it’s too late.  The problem is you have to pay attention.  And that attention must be not on America, or Trump, or Kavanaugh.  The Supreme Court is jobless if there are no people left.  We are part of an ecosystem, and the silence of that ecosystem is very loud indeed.   Decades ago Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring to warn of the dangers of pesticides.  In our short-sighted way, we responded by banning the most dangerous of them and turning up the heat.

We like to focus on the negative aspects of religion these days, but one of the overlooked benefits of it has been religions’ ability to shift focus.  Christianity, for example, has been an advocate of thinking of others before thinking of oneself.  Now certain elected officials seem constitutionally unable to think of anyone but themselves, but the fact is none of us would be here if it weren’t for the insects.  They work to keep our planet neat and tidy, even if we regard them as a sign of uncleanness in our houses.  Maybe not the lowest, they are one of the essential building blocks of the world we know and recognize.  And they are disappearing.  As Carson recognized decades ago, the loss of insects leads to a silent spring because the birds that feed on them will disappear.  And what about pollination—whose job will that become?  I suppose we could assign it to migrant workers, but we’re sending them away too.  America first will be America the silent and hungry.  Unless we listen to what the insects tell us.

Come Salem Away

It’s the season.  Here in the fast waning days of September we can already taste October and thoughts turn toward ghosties and ghoulies and their kin.  Susan Fair’s American Witches: A Broomstick Tour through Four Centuries is, as any book in the nation of Salem, a mere skeleton crew of a long and feared tradition.  As is true of most things in the last two years, this book takes on a poignancy that was perhaps unintentional since it was written for fun.  It is a somewhat uncanny combination as it is—witch accusations often led to (and perhaps lead to, far from official eyes) someone dying.  We fear witches.  Fair reaches back pretty far, going even to the point of discussing those (generally women) hanged on ships on their way to America because their shipmates thought them witches.

Salem so dominates our witch consciousness that we sometimes forget these other episodes.  Fair explores, along with snarky asides, many early cases outside Salem.  In fact, the sad chapter in our history where hearsay became fact—one can’t help but think of “fake news”—the mass, “legal” murders carried out in Salem, is part of a larger pattern.  Not surprisingly women feature as the victims in this unholy web of fear and piety.  The combination is a dangerous one and otherwise rational people sanction evil rather than confront what is a mere perception of evil.  Fair moves on, however, to discuss other witchcraft scenarios—the witches (fortune tellers) of New York, the murder of a “witch” in Booger Hole, West Virginia (did I mention there was snark?), and the hex murder of York, Pennsylvania.  All of these represent an underlying fear that won’t go away.

This breezy tour ends near the author’s hometown outside Burkittsville, Maryland.  Although it is widely known that The Blair Witch Project was fiction from start to finish, this tiny town has been beset by those who refuse to accept that reality.  Such credulousness should stand as a warning to a country even capable of electing someone like Trump.  We are a suggestible nation with many people incapable of independent thought.  We are natural believers.  At the same time we’re a people that sees no value in studying religion even as it destroys us.  It’s like that embarrassing relative we never talk about.  But people still come to Burkittsville nevertheless.  Fair’s book was written before the election that showed who we really are.  Although the writing is charming, it’s hard to laugh about the subject these days.  We have forgotten Salem and all it taught us.

Riveting

The days of angry white men backlash are hopefully numbered.  One thing this strange phenomenon of privileged males feeling under threat has brought to the surface is the long struggle of women for the basic acknowledgment of human equality.  Ironically, it took a horrible war to move the cause forward.  Rosie the Riveter became a fixture during World War Two, blazing the message that women could do the tough jobs men had always done, now that males were off trying to kill one another overseas.  These images of Rosie have found new life in the era of Trumpism that has objectified women in the crudest possible ways, because it’s, well, monkey-see monkey-do in the world of politics.  Just consider Brett Kavanaugh and try to challenge the point.

One of the more famous portraits of Rosie, back when Fascism was an evil thing, is that painted by Norman Rockwell.  A pugnacious Rosie eats her lunch with her feet on Main Kampf and her riveting gun in her lap.  (These days she would need to have her feet on an elephant rampant.)  Something about this painting always bothered me.  I could never put my finger on it.  It certainly wasn’t the confident look on Rosie’s face—she’d earned that and deserved it long before it became a reality.  Even the patriotism at that time was tasteful.  No, it was her posture.  There was something uncanny about it.  Then I learned that Rockwell had consciously copied Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Isaiah, according to that famous rendition (Isaiah has never been a popular subject for paintings, for some reason), has his head turned at that peculiar angle because an angel is whispering in his ear.  Instead of a riveting gun, he’s packing a nascent Good Book, but he is receiving a direct message from on high.  I like to think it might be “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord,” but then I’ve always been a dreamer.  Rosie, in Rockwell’s rendition, is prophetic.  She is proclaiming an equality which, inexplicably, coming up on a century later, is still unrealized.  Why?  The angry white man only recognizes God made in his own image.

Patriarchal Faith

One of the dynamics we see in present-day America is the worship of belief itself.  This is nothing new since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  It’s hard to trust in what you can’t see.  Trusting in trust may be tautological, but it’s also a natural development for something that evades proof.  If it goes too far, however, such religion becomes an idol.  Its teachings become secondary to its very existence.  Its rules, no matter how contradictory, must all be followed.  And those who believe are encouraged not to think too deeply about it since, if they did, this inherent inconsistency would be obvious.  The knee-jerk reaction of “the Bible says” is one such defensive measure.  I saw this all the time while teaching in seminary.

The other day I heard the melody of “Faith of Our Fathers” playing on the local church bells.  Interestingly, this is a Catholic hymn adopted by Protestants.  It’s kind of an anthem to this idea of worshipping the faith rather than the deity to which it points.  Consider the chorus: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith!/We will be true to thee til death.”  Originally a celebration of martyrs—those who found the courage to die in their steadfast belief—the hymn survives into an era when the perils besetting what used to be Christianity are less political and more scientific.  We live in a universe compellingly explained by science while politics has appropriated religion and counts on it to keep worshipping faith as an entity, regardless of distorted beliefs.  The hymn plays on.

Many public intellectuals are wondering about how evangelical Christianity could so easily divest itself of Jesus’ teachings and accept Trumpism.  Some have already begun to suggest that Trumpism is a “cult.”  (Religionists would say the proper term is “New Religious Movement,” since we no longer judge religions, no matter what forms of mind control they might prefer.)  The problem with experts on religion is that anyone can claim that sobriquet, bona fides or no.  Some of us have documented decades of official study of the phenomenon—those who paid attention in seminary and continued to pay for many years for a doctorate in this elusive field—but we’re are easily outshouted by those who take the words of this hymn literally, as they were meant to be taken.  Martyrdom comes in many varieties.  As I listen to the bells, I consider the implications.