Stranger and Stranger

Like many fans of the X-Files and the early years of Sleepy Hollow, I’ve fallen into the Stranger Things orbit.  While I don’t have a Netflix account, I have friends who do and they got me hooked.  If you’ve watched it you’ll know why, and if you haven’t I’ll try not to give too many spoilers away.  The reason I raise it now, when we’ve gone such a long time without a new season, is that Stranger Things 2 took on shades of The Exorcist, but without any of the attendant religion.  Secular exorcists do exist, and possession is a feature of cultures with all different kinds of belief systems.  Exorcism works based on the belief system of the possessed, it seems, and if there’s no religion there’s no problem—call a secularcist!

Spoiler alert: Will is possessed by the mind flayer.  As the authorities flail around and get eaten by demidogs, his mother figures out how the exorcism has to work.  The thing about possession is that nobody really knows what demons are.  Dungeons and Dragons, which I confess I’ve never played—my life is too complicated already, thank you—gives the analogy for the possessing entity.    No matter what the demon, however, the only way to get it out is through exorcism.  Quite apart from sci-fi and fantasy, this is also the case in real life.  Part of the appeal to Stranger Things, I suspect, is that it indulges in the mysterious without the burden of religion.  While religion makes for good horror, good horror may exist without it.  Or can it?

Contrast this with Sleepy Hollow, now defunct.  Possession was a trope there as well, but the story had obvious elements of religion embedded in it.  As I point out in Holy Horror, religion often drives the fear.  That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver.  People fear being taken over by something else.  Stranger Things knows that if nobody can really figure out what that something else is, it can be scarier still.  We know it comes from the upside down.  We know it can possess people.  And we learn that it can be exorcised.  Although the setting is completely secular, there are elements of religious thinking even here.  It’s simply part of the human psyche.  We can deny it exists.  We can try to describe it only by analogy.  We can try to exorcise it.  It is there nevertheless, even as we eagerly await the advent of the third season.

Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

Come Sail Oy Vey

Nothing says unorthodox like a headline that reads “Smart Jews? Thank the Extraterrestrials.” Breaking Israel News ran the story recently and, being constitutionally unable to pass up anything so strange, I had to take a look. The article, by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, is really just a half-century retrospective of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. I remember fifty years ago—not well, mind you, I was only three—but even when I was a teenager and the book had its second (of many ordinal) gasp(s), and a movie came out. People, even those not traditionally labeled as “crazy,” flocked to theaters to see it. The book went through multiple printings. The era of “ancient astronauts” was born. Von Däniken, it seems, is alive and if not exactly kicking, still making people uncomfortable.

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In this news story von Däniken suggests that Jews are more intelligent because of their alien DNA. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure that was the plot line of the X-Files season 10. Isn’t Fox Mulder Jewish? Maybe I’m getting myself mixed up in some kind of plot here. I have to admit, however, to having a touch of nostalgia for Chariots of the Gods?. There was a kind of innocence to it. Nobody seemed to be inseminating anyone else, or stealing babies. It was good, clean fun.

Something bothers me, however, about the assertion that aliens are, indirectly perhaps, responsible for holy writ. I remember thinking through the implications of this idea (already floated four decades ago) that God might be more Captain Kirk than Jesus Christ. It is inherently disturbing. Especially when von Däniken says in the interview that the Jews are the chosen people, but they just got the chooser wrong. ET instead of I AM. The really interesting part is that ancient astronauts have become a somewhat accepted cultural trope. I don’t know whether they were there or not (I wasn’t around at the time), but they sure do make Saturday afternoons much more interesting. One wish I hold is that people writing about this old idea might find a new opening bit. Ezekiel seeing the wheel has been done to death. Surely a bit of creative thought might suggest a new, undiscovered ancient truth.

Mere Monsters

While my colleagues and I wait to hear if our monster session will be approved, my thoughts naturally turn to the taxonomy of monsters. One of the perennial problems in the study of monsters is that definitions vary widely. We might all agree that a werewolf is a monster, but what of Cthulhu? Or of a horribly deformed, but completely natural animal? What about demons? Should we all agree that we know what a monster is, how do we divide them into categories for easy study? One way of doing this might be to rely on binaries. For example: natural monsters versus unnatural monsters, living monsters versus undead monsters, monsters from earth versus monsters not from earth, monsters created by humans versus naturally occurring monsters, fictional monsters versus monsters reported in nature. It soon becomes obvious that monsters are a widely divergent group of creatures.

Monsters have won an enduring place in popular culture. I think of The X-Files. Apart from the “mythology” of the series, many episodes featured a weekly scary monster. The same is true of Sleepy Hollow, now in its third season. Monster movies, although perhaps taking a back seat to super heroes of late, are regulars on the silver screen. We just can’t seem to live without our monsters. I’ve mentioned in my many posts about monsters that the connection with religion is so obvious that it hardly requires apology. But a deeper question has occurred to me. It has to do with the nature of religion (itself not well defined).

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Religions exist to deliver people from the trials they face. Offering Nirvana to break the endless cycles of reincarnation, or Heaven when we die after one go-round, religions claim to give us something of an assurance that things will work out. (Mostly.) In the light of this, why does religion give us monsters as well? Surely they are more than mere metaphors for the misfortunes of daily life. There has to be something more to it. What that more is, I’m not certain. I’m not even sure of how to approach the question. Monsters will, for me and many other Monster Boomers, remain a guilty pleasure that we are pleased to be able to address as adults. I am becoming more and more convinced that the more we learn about them, the more we learn about religion itself. And perhaps also about those who give shape to religious thought.

Out There…

Spring is a time of hope. As crocuses poke their heads through the slowly yielding soil, we’re reminded that the long months of darkness are only temporary after all. It was only appropriate, then, that my wife should point out to me the returning of the X-Files. Only a limited season of six episodes, but after hearing rumors for years that the third movie was in the works, we’ll gladly take six episodes to remind us that the truth is out there. I’ve not always been a fan or the X-Files, but there are reasons for that which have to do with living in the middle of the woods in Wisconsin in a seminary where the paranormal was, at times, just a little bit too readily at hand. And also because the very topics addressed are those of taboo. The anomalous is fodder for ridicule. Nobody could be so naive. Meanwhile the show was winning awards and creating enduring cultural memes.

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As I’ve suggested many times on this blog, the paranormal and religion are closely related categories. While not many X-Files episodes directly dealt with religion, the second movie made the connections explicit, blending Bible and spooky effects at a distance with abandon. The X-Files and religion share a fascination with wonder. It is all right not to know. Sometimes wanting to believe is enough. We can find information on nearly any topic instantaneously by pulling out our phones and tapping into the local wifi network. We access any bit of random information with ease. And we wonder at our lack of wonder. Where has it gone?

Thirteen years ago the haunting music died. We’ve been left with a reality that feels dull and devoid of possibility. We need some sign of hope. Ironically, it is Fox that offered a world of possibilities far beyond a Republican purview. This was a realm where humanity was no longer in control. Forces outside of and more powerful than us swept into our mundane setting to remind us that even government control is only an illusion. Human pride requires timely mementos that we are simply the dinosaurs of our age. The incomprehensible overshadows us as we spin away our time on a planet nowhere near the center of our galaxy, let alone our universe. And yet we tell ourselves we are capable of discovering the laws that lie behind it all without stepping foot on even the nearest of other planets. Welcome back, X-Files. Remind us where the truth may be found.

The Wars of the Worlds

Just as it is appropriate for news sources to carry religious stories without ridicule in weekend editions, October is the month when strange things might be reported with a degree of seriousness. I have often noted in the past that “paranormal” (think X-Files) phenomena are closely related to religion. Since our ruling paradigm is one of belittling the intellects of those willing to consider evidence beyond the accepted, news stories featuring the unexplained do so with a generous helping of scorn. I was amazed, then, when my wife sent me a story on the BBC News Magazine from the World Service Sport section. (Which is near enough to paranormal, as sports fail to interest me in the least bit.) A story by Richard Padula is entitled “The day UFOs stopped play.” Near this date in 1954 in Florence, Italy, a soccer game stopped as UFOs appeared above the stadium. Former World Cup players stared upward instead of at the ball. The event was documented and never explained. I kept waiting for the jowl-waggling punchline. It never came. Here was a news story from a reputable source taking something strange at face value.

Paranormal activities and religious experiences are in the same category when it comes to a materialistic universe. They can’t exist and so the superior mind must laugh them off, stating they are an illusion, hallucination, or hoax. They still happen, nonetheless. Some world governments are beginning to announce to their citizens that they recognize unexplained arial phenomena exist and—truly astounding for government rulers—they have no explanation. Something weird is going on. It was on Halloween Eve in 1938 that Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was invaded, according to an Orson Welles radio play. Since the inexplicable panic that came following that broadcast, extraterrestrial visitors have been laughed off the serious news page into the comic section. News stories have never taken it seriously since.

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A sports writer, casting about for an interesting story, might well focus on an event of such Fortean dimensions. Some highly respected people present at that game were interviewed with utter seriousness and traces of physical evidence were even gathered. A substance whimsically called “angel hair” was found all over the city, and despite the chemical signature, was declared to be the webs of a massive spider invasion (who needs aliens to be scared?) by many scientists who didn’t witness it. Laugh and the world laughs with you. The BBC doesn’t seem to be laughing in this story. Tomorrow is Halloween, when many improbable things seem possible, if only for a short time. Weather balloons, swamp gas, and Venus notwithstanding, sometimes people of normal intellect turn their eyes to the sky and wonder.

Cowboys and Demons

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Cowboys & Aliens finally came down into my price range. For movies I’d have to view alone, I generally wait until they appear for free on some online movie service or for less then ten dollars at Target. I’ve been waiting for this one since 2011, but my patience paid off. Inspired, so the rumor goes, by the Roswell incident, the film follows the adventures of some old western stereotypes as they encounter the superior power of aliens. The aliens, it seems, are just as materialistic as humans, coming to the old west in an extraterrestrial gold rush. They abduct humans to learn their weaknesses (which really seems superfluous given the technological imbalance between the species) and anger a number of ornery hombres in the process. Then we have an old-fashioned shootout with ray guns versus bows, arrows, and bullets. Human devotion, however, defeats the evolved armor and flying machines of the—well, what are they exactly?

The cowboys scratch their heads, not quite having the consarned concept to categorize these flying machines and their occupants. The local preacher, who is a pretty handy shot, tries to help the confused cowboys, who settle on the term “demons” to describe the extraterrestrials. We forget that in the early part of the last century other galaxies had not yet been discovered, and although we knew of other planets, there was assuredly no way to get there from here. Ugly things that come from the sky are demons. This doesn’t lead to a whole load of speculation—nobody suggests praying to take care of the menace, although the Native Americans resort to a religious ritual to unlock the mystery of where the demonic hoard is hiding. Through her resurrection we discover that Alice is a good alien, planted in the town to stop the invaders from doing to the earth what they did to her planet. And winning the heart of Jake Lonergan (whose very name suggests lone gunman to insiders) along the way.

Since the movie is three years old, I won’t worry about spoilers—if you’re inspired to watch for the first time, however, you might want to do so before finishing this. When Alice figures out how to stop the alien mining operation for good, Jake is left, for the second time, with his woman being killed by demons. Woodrow Dolarhyde, realizing that the outlaw Jake isn’t such a bad guy after all, seeks to console him at his loss. At the end of the movie, in a camera angle that goes from Woodrow to Jake, the focus falls on the cross atop the local mission as Woody says, “She’s in a better place.” All aliens go to heaven. Literally. With echoes of the X-Files, Cowboys & Aliens is sufficient for a dark night where demons and angels are a little too close to tell apart.

Asp and Receive

Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.

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According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.

Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.

Something to Believe

Xfilesiwanttobelieve After a rough week at work, nothing helps so much as simple escapism. Thinking back to my glory days in the classroom, I remembered the movies I used to get students thinking about how the Bible is represented in popular culture. One of those movies was The X-Files, I Want to Believe. Not that the movie was my favorite, but escapism isn’t picky—there’s one reality I want to escape, and just about any other will do. As I watched the film again last night I was struck how very much the whole movie is premised on religion. I suppose the title should’ve given that away, but since it is the slogan of Mulder’s famous poster, I’d not really given it serious thought. Scully is now a practicing doctor in a Catholic hospital, and the number of lingering scenes with stained-glass icons in the background simply can’t be ignored. She has given up chasing monsters in the dark, and come to live in a very Gnostic kind of light. Through a pedophile priest (Father Joe), the darkness finds her again. How could I have missed the centrality of a priest to the plot?

The scene I always pointed out to my students was where Father Joe goes into a seizure while quoting Proverbs 25.2, again citing Gnostic hidden ways. The Bible slips from his trembling hands and falls, closed, to the floor. Later, as Mulder is literally about to be axed to death, Scully finds him by noticing the mailbox number 25-2. A proverb was a prophecy and the Bible retains its ability to guide the believer toward salvation. Through paranormal means, of course. After all, this is the X-Files.

Faith versus science, religion versus reason; these are the underlying motifs of the entire film. Scully the skeptic is the one who believes. Mulder, the high priest of the preternatural is just waiting for her to come home. It isn’t the greatest of movies, but it is based on some classic themes. Wanting to believe, but not being able to believe—isn’t this one of the most religious tensions possible? For years now the internet has been buzzing with rumors of a third, and probably final, X-Files movie. And yes, many people are wanting to believe. And if work continues with weeks like this past one, I’ll be needing a lot more escapism as well. Yes, I want to believe.

Guiding Girls

Girl Guides are the British equivalent to the Girl Scouts. I first learned about them during the three years that I lived in the UK, although, as far as I know, they don’t sell cookies. An article in the Huffington Post last week announced that the Girl Guides have decided to drop God from their pledge, as a move toward inclusiveness. I’ve often pondered the place god holds in various social societies. At my daughter’s Girl Scout bridging ceremony a couple weeks back, I noticed God in the pledge. In New Jersey, where diversity is synonymous with breathing, I wondered how this antiquated oath felt to those who maybe grew up without the concept. Stretching my mind back a few years, when my daughter was in Middle School, she was awarded a good student prize by the Elks. As I sat in the tastefully decorated meeting room, with only a very faint tinge of beer in the air, I wondered if I might ever join a fraternal order. One of the officers stood to welcome us, inviting applications for membership. Democratically, she was a woman in a “fraternal” organization. She reeled off the requirements. As an afterthought she said, “and you have to believe in god.”

How does one measure belief in divinity? It has been my experience that many beliefs fluctuate with time. I can decide to believe, but in many ways, belief decides me. As a mantra to modern society, on the old X-Files series Fox Mulder’s famous poster read, “I Want to Believe.” To join the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, or the Elks, you have to say you believe. Nobody’s going to hook you up to a polygraph machine, but you need to make your public declaration. At least in the last case, beer come later.

Religious diversity is a reality of our lives. From the invention of the steam engine, it became inevitable. Our world was going to grow smaller as we met people who had previously been isolated from us by distance. In 1893 the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. As part of it, the Parliament of the World’s Religions introduced many Americans to the religions of the world for the first time. Hinduism, once an exotic strain quaintly captured in the archaic spelling “Hindoo,” became a sudden fascination. Buddhism was a curiosity. How had it been that the United States seemed only to know about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (in that order) when other belief systems existed? How could we have missed them? More importantly, what were we going to do now that we knew about them? We couldn’t unknow them, like you can unfriend someone on Facebook. We were going to have to learn to live together. After all, we all have just one planet to share. Social organizations are great places for introducing tolerance. You can be moral without being Judeo-Christian. And if our social organizations want to promote equality of membership, maybe the Girl Guides are truly living up to their name.

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A Tale of Two Bees

We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.

The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.

Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.

True bee or not true bee?

True bee or not true bee?

Tunguska 2.0

The explosion of a meteor above Chelyabinsk on Friday immediately took me back to Tunguska five-score and five years ago. The Siberian Explosion, as we called it as kids, had captured my early imagination. An explosion that big, so long before nuclear weapons had been developed, and so long after the dinosaurs felt the wrath of an asteroid, fired my sense of wonder. The pictures of all those felled trees. Of course, the mystery helped as well. Some decades later, The X-Files revisited Tunguska, and the mania of my youth was back. There’s nothing like something incredibly massive to ignite the chariots of fire. The Chelyabinsk meteor is the largest object to strike the earth since the Tunguska event, and although at 500 kilotons of explosive power, it was about 60 times less potent than the earlier event, it does have many pondering the fragility of life on our little planet.

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For those less familiar with astronomy, the event was confused with the much hyped passage of asteroid 2012 DA14 which buzzed close enough to have had some fingers hovering above the retaliation button. The two unrelated events stand to underscore just how small we are in our tiny ripple of the Milky Way. Watching the many videos of the Chelyabinsk meteor, I ponder what might have happened had this been during the Reagan years and the delirious high point of Cold War paranoia—would any of us have been left here to read about it at all? Although ants, we think ourselves giants. Some speculate that if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out by an asteroid or comet they may have evolved to intelligent beings. Perhaps they would have had a reptilian god. Based on body-mass ratios, that’d have been one huge deity!

So we’ve had a couple of near misses this week past. Chances are some day we’ll get hit. There will be those who call it an apocalypse, and others who will suggest it is some kind of cosmic justice. In reality, it is just what happens in a universe where we are but minuscule demigods in our own imaginations. Tunguska was a huge event, but it didn’t kill on the scale of the Haiti Earthquake or the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Such natural disasters make the insurance industry cry foul as they describe them as “Acts of God.” “Act of God” is legalese for anything outside human control. Giant rocks falling from the sky clearly fit into that category. Goliath, the biblical giant, was slain by a single smooth stone from a brook, according to the book of Samuel. We think we’re pretty big with our towers and our weapons and our internet. If God unleashes a big stone our way, as Friday’s events demonstrate, Goliath might have the last laugh.

Goats and Sheep

Having missed the movie, when I found a cheap copy of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, my curiosity was piqued. With such a title I had assumed it to be fiction, but, proverbially it turned into the truth stranger than. The book explores the weird world of the X-Files chestnut, the super-soldier. There is no doubt that despite science’s discomfort with the paranormal, government agencies have utilized psychics for some years now, hoping to gain some advantage over the other guy. Not everyone agrees on how effective such tactics are, but they exist nevertheless. The Men Who Stare at Goats (TMWSAG) provides a rare glimpse into that world where no one knows who is telling the truth (otherwise called “government”); we live in an era when truth has become negotiable.

One of the accidental recurring themes in my recent reading has been the horrendous abuse of power at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Far from placid eyes, the land of the free advocates torture to get prisoners to talk. After years of government bungling, it is no surprise that misguided efforts at torture on the part of a democracy would invariably be discovered. It would be easier to doubt that governments kept lethal secrets if they didn’t keep getting caught in flagrante delicto. Who can you trust when governments, ruled by gods of their own making—in their own image—preach the gospel of torture? TMWSAG weaves this sordid story in with 9-11, Uri Geller, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate and Deuteronomy 18—what’s not to like?

I’ve been alive long enough to know that some supremely odd stuff goes down. TMWSAG provides a service in demonstrating that the government takes some of this mysterious reality seriously. It also shows the twin surfaces of resistance: religion and science. Science has a difficult time admitting what can’t be seen; with few exceptions psychic phenomena are considered not even worth the bother of a lab test. Religion, at least in its biblical, American incarnation, lumps all spooky stuff together with the devil, something Jon Ronson declares that even high-ranking generals in the military believe. So when I put this little book down I was left scratching my head. It may just be me, but where have all the sheep gone?

A Sense of Place

Franklin, Pennsylvania. The place I was born seems to participate in what is sometimes labeled “sacred geography.” No one really knows why people imbue certain places with a sense of particular significance, but we all do. Whether it is world-famous tourist sites or our humble hometowns, there are places for us that possess an emotional resonance that other places lack. By the time I was an adult I was eager to get away from my hometown, to stretch myself and see if there was more to this world than these ancient green hills were willing to disclose. But still I return. When something brings my town into prominence, it somehow still impacts me. In the second season of the X-Files Mulder and Scully came to Franklin. Of course, the episode was not filmed here, just set here. But that was enough. My small hometown had been validated. It is part of my personal sacred geography.

I recently learned about WestPA Magazine. While it still has a way to go before becoming mainstream, it needles into that sense of belonging that refuses to let me go. Reading about the grandeur that once settled over this town feels like reading my own biography at times. Last night, for example, I learned that one of the first steps of female equality—a small step, but we all must begin to walk somewhere—took place here. One of the inheritors of the oil wealth that originally put this region on the map was Charles Joseph Sibley Miller. He hosted two presidents on his yacht, partnered with John Astor and William Vanderbilt on a business venture, and had his car personally delivered by Louis Cheverolet. Although largely overlooked by history, Miller purchased a hot air balloon in which he took his wife, Mary Prentice Miller, for a ride, making her the first known woman aeronaut in history. One small lift for a woman, one giant lift for womankind.

There seems to be no scientific basis for sacred geography. It is simply something that we sense. I left my home region, the birthplace of the oil industry, a site of some importance in the Revolutionary War, to pursue a more tenuous, if abstract career track. And still I come back and find myself amazed. I suspect our sense of sacred geography evolved along with our penchant for territorialism, our desire for private property, and our need to find sanctuary of some kind. I can stake no claims for the accomplishments of those who settled this region, but for me it will always be a touch-point for sacred geography. When I make my occasional returns, it feels as though I might still belong.

Jersey Devils

My trips to the DMV always seem to involve the paranormal. Admittedly, this is sometimes partially my own fault. Against my wife’s advice, I took The Lure of the Dark Side – a book I was reviewing – with its Satanic cover, when I went to renew my driver’s license a few weeks ago. Back when we first moved to New Jersey, and I had to sit for an excessive part of the day in that waiting room, I was reading a book on the Jersey Devil. I first heard of this exotic New World beastie when I was a ghost-story fixated teenager reading some Scholastic October special. Since I lived a state over, in the western end of Pennsylvania, I figured I didn’t have too much to worry about.

The Jersey Devil is an anomaly that involves two distinct aspects. One side of the story is pure folklore; Mrs. Leeds gave birth to a devil in south Jersey and the monstrous thing has been haunting the state ever since. The other side involves the sightings of an allegedly physical cryptid by reputable individuals, especially since the early twentieth century. An unlikely combination of horse-head, wings (often bat-like), and hooves make this one odd-looking creature, based on eyewitness accounts. I have to thank my friend Susan for pointing out the suggestion that this could be a hammerhead fruit bat, although how even a small population of the African rain-forest dwellers could survive in New Jersey without producing a single road-kill specimen would itself be beyond belief. The shape and size of the bats accounts for quite a bit, but the hooves just don’t fit. That, and the Jersey Devil seems to prefer chickens, ducks, and small dogs to the eponymous fruit of the hammerhead bat.

Whatever, if-ever, the real Jersey Devil might be, the story has all the makings of a Halloweenish blend of religion and monsters. There are several versions of the story, but the one most commonly told is that Mrs. Leeds, in labor with her thirteenth child, declared that this one had better be a devil. She got her wish. The child emerged, sprouted wings and flew up the chimney to terrorize south Jersey and Philadelphia over the next several decades. The beast gives the state’s hockey league an instant identity and even led to the breakdown of a priest in the sixth season of Seinfeld. The first season of the X-Files featured a Jersey Devil episode (although it turned out to be a very humanish kind of Bigfoot), and Bruce Springsteen recorded “A Night with the Jersey Devil” for his home-state fans back in October of 2008. Only the gullible take stories of cross-species (cross-metaphysical beings?) seriously, but the story, like the Jersey Devil itself, seems to be immortal.