The Devil, You Know

I’m the first to admit that I’m behind the times. Too much of my free time is spent reading weird news or going to used book sales to keep abreast of what’s happening in the adult world. If it weren’t for my wife sending me news stories via the internet, I would still be wondering why Gorbachev isn’t helping to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Since I’m captive to a religious worldview, I was interrupted in my calculations by the news that Ted Cruz is, allegedly, Lucifer. My research had me on the trail of Santa, since the simple transposition of two letters would give us the title of the Zoroastrian prosecuting attorney. And, I figured, it was fairly safe to out St. Nick when Christmas is still eight months away. Hopefully I’ll still find something in my stocking come December. I kind of figured that when we found the real devil he would be a Republican in any case. Even as I write this, Cruz is out of the race. I thought the Devil never gave up.

I wonder where else in the civilized world would politics be such a joke. Can you trust the opinion of a man named Boehner? It’s easy to change your name—just ask anyone who came through Ellis Island. They’re laughing at us, folks. Seriously, they are. I don’t get much email, but I’ve had two international missives asking me what’s going on over here. It’s a good thing I don’t know, otherwise I’d have to try to explain. You see, the Bible doesn’t say much about Satan at all. In the Hebrew Bible there is no devil. By scraping together the few references to “the Satan” and morning star, some have said the alleged Ted Cruz of ancient times was clearly in the Bible. Somewhere between the Testaments he showed up. By the time Jesus was old enough to climb temple towers, he was there. In the meantime the Zoroastrians had come down from the North Pole…

Then there’s the fact that when he’s not wearing a conservative suit and announcing a female running mate, the Devil is described as looking like Pan. Goat horns, goat feet, but always the torso of a man. And he’s red, just like the Coca-Cola red of Santa’s suit, and states like Texas. It’s a good thing I don’t read any more conspiracy theories than I already do. You’d probably find me tootling away on my pan-pipes waiting for a bus in the Port Authority. No, there’s a reason I stay away from the real news. It might interrupt my fantasy world. And, I’m afraid, it might actually be more entertaining. And don’t worry about my Christmas—I plan to have an eleventh-hour conversion, just in time to have a chimney installed in my apartment. If I can only be sure I get it done before February.

There's something political going on here...

There’s something political going on here…

Game of Thrones

IMG_2763I risk my already flagging street cred by admitting this, but I don’t watch Game of Thrones. In fact, I started to read the first book a couple years back and I just couldn’t get into it. Well, only 80 pages into it. The fault is, I’m entirely sure, my own. I lack some gene or enzyme that makes life without Game of Thrones impossible. Still, I have to admit curiosity. A story on the Washington Post, by Ishaan Tharoor, suggests “The ancient Persian god that may be at the heart of ‘Game of Thrones’” is Angra Mainyu, aka Ahriman. This managed to catch my attention. Zoroastrianism is a religion that seems to lie behind quite a bit of modern religious thought. Although dating Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, is notoriously difficult, concepts from his religious system show up in Hinduism—one of the earliest forms of religious expression about which we know a fair deal—as well as in Judaism and therefore Christianity and Islam. In fact, many of the ideas you may associate with the central tenets of Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition may go back to Zarathustra.

One of the certainties about Zoroastrianism is that it was a dualistic religion. Good and evil are engaged in a constant struggle for control. The good god, Ahura Mazda (which sounds like a blend between Star Trek and a Japanese auto maker) struggles constantly against Angra Mainyu. Mazda’s website states that the car line is named after the deity (according to Wikipedia, I note, losing the last vestige of cred), pushing his reach even further east. With this incredible pedigree, it is no wonder that George R. R. Martin may have tapped into it. This kind of dualism is ripe for the picking.

My friend K. Marvin Bruce wrote a satire about the Persian gods, in fictional form, that was published a couple years back in Calliope, a small circulation literary journal. He told me he even won third place in a contest for it. The idea was that a disgruntled professor wanted to start the apocalypse (a Zoroastrian idea) by summoning Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu to earth to try to start a fight between the two. It was a fun story, but the point, if I may speak for my friend, is serious. Warring religions stand the best chance of beginning the end of times. We don’t even need the gods to do it, really. Although I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I can’t help wonder if Martin had the same idea in mind. If you want the answer to that, don’t ask me. I’m not even a hundred pages into it, and I don’t have triple play.

Devil’s Food

One figure among the standard repertoire of Halloween characters has never appeared on my list of favorite monsters. I suppose it may be because as a child I fervently believed there was a devil that he never made my A-list. Satan was real, according to my church, in some almost biological, corporeal form. Even as a youngster I knew vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, and the rest, really didn’t exist (even after I hid under my covers all night once, after putting my head down on a bat that had flown into my bedroom). The devil was, however, biblical. And I never felt tempted to dress up with red horns and pointy tail, carrying a plastic pitchfork. Halloween was always among my favorite holidays, but it was for pretend monsters and ghosts (which might perhaps be real, but which were not diabolical, according to my childhood economy of the spiritual world). The consequences of devil imitation seemed eternal, and even today, in the rational light of the twenty-first century, I can still be given pause even though I know the concept is a Zoroastrian one that morphed into early Christianity’s need for a kind of anti-Christ.

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There are many who still believe in a real devil. Some branches of Christianity (and Islam) teach that a literal devil lurks about in our world. In western culture he is a figure instantly recognizable, although there are differences of opinion in his anti-iconography. Last weekend I visited a fine little restaurant in a New Jersey town that has a reputation for being haunted (the town, not the restaurant). It was a seat-yourself day and the table my wife and I ended up selecting had shellacked cards on top as part of the decoration. There in front of me was the devil. I pondered this. The cards, all captioned in Spanish, had mundane subjects: an umbrella, a musician, plants, a spider (okay, so that last one’s a little scary too), but only one supernatural figure. Perhaps the entire deck, had I seen it, might have had more. No doubt, for a world that postulates a good God, a devil covers, well, a host of evils.

The word “devil” is somewhat loosely applied these days. New Jersey has its own cryptid called the Jersey Devil, which has led to iconic names for sports teams and perhaps a public official or two. But even in the aftermath of 9/11 there were those who seriously postulated seeing the face of the devil in the tumbling debris of the twin towers. For a character of the religious imagination, the devil has managed to impress deeply on the human psyche. I know in my rational mind that I should simply dismiss all of this and get on with the business of enjoying the monsters that will show up at my door later this week. Nevertheless, when the waiter comes out with our food, I look down at the table and decide to pass on the hot sauce for today, just in case.

The Devil Made

Some things you just don’t mess with. Just in case. For a variety of reasons, not least of which is lack of biblical support, many Christians no longer believe in Satan, or “the Devil.” As I written before, the Hebrew Bible has no such diabolical character and he seems to have been devised from an old Zoroastrian dualistic belief system when he finally does appear. In other words, Satan is not among the core beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, according to an Associated Press story the Satanic Temple is petitioning to have a statue of Satan placed on the capitol grounds in Oklahoma City. The action was prompted by the placing of a Ten Commandments monument in this public space, and, invoking the freedom of religion clause, the Satanic Temple has decided to play tit for tat. Either religion is free, or it’s not.

Backer_Judgment_(detail)Although the Satanic Temple claims to be sincere in its beliefs, the group’s website indicates that it understands religious belief in a metaphorical way, and that it wishes to parse superstition from religion. This envisions revising Satan as an “icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny,” according to the AP story. The commissioned monument includes a Baphomet-style Satan (goat head and beard, wings and pentagram—you get the picture), that features—sure to raise the ire of Oklahomo sapiens—children gathered around the dark lord. It will double as a seat where individuals may sit on Satan’s lap, although I’m not sure what they might be asking for. Various representatives of the Sooner State say they’re all for religious freedom, but Satan just has no place in the conservative breadbasket of the nation.

Provocation occurs on both sides in this trial of wills. Justice can be realized without Moses’ top ten on every courthouse lawn. The Code of Hammurabi demonstrates that. People are capable of enacting justice without God, or the Devil, telling them to do it. The triumphalism of religion is the heart of the issue. In a world daily aware of those outside the neighborhood, finding that other religions exist and thrive is an affront to the “one true faith,” whatever it may be. It may be that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have no problems with the ten commandments. Other religions might. Leading with having “no other gods before me” starts the conversation off on an awkward tone. The solution may be as simple as amending the commandments to add just one more. If we can see our way to doing that I have one that I’d like to propose: “thou shalt not let thy religion cause childish behavior.”

The Devil’s Dues

Belief, no matter how inscrutable, must be taken seriously. Although we frequently prefer to privilege that which we “know,” belief is one of our main motivators. Strangely, many who reach a certain level of education begin to denigrate belief as if it were an embarrassing indication of improper brain functioning. Belief is, however, all we really have. A case of this was recently shown in an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. A piece in CNN Opinion by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses an interview of Justice Scalia by Jennifer Senior where the topic of the devil arose. Buckwalter-Poza, as she makes clear, is no fan of Scalia, but when Senior began to treat the Justice’s belief in the devil with a condescending kind of incredulity Buckwalter-Poza called time-out. We need to take his belief seriously. Could such a powerful man really believe in a mythological figure? Yes. Belief will do that to you. Just the same, Senior’s non-acceptance of the devil is equally a matter of belief.

The devil is a problematic figure. Despite the certainty with which a recent demonology lecture treated the subject, the devil is scarcely present in the Bible. Indeed, he is somewhat a late addition, cobbled together from Zoroastrian beliefs and fragments of ancient mythology. The Hebrew Bible mentions the devil not once. By the time of the Gospels he has become a fixture representing an anti-God figure, clearly derived from the influence of the Magi (not necessarily the three riding on camel-back that first Christmas Eve). The devil was a convenient excuse for evil in a world where an omnipotent deity was believed to be entirely good. The devil is an escape-clause. Evil can exist in such a world and not be God’s fault. The idea stuck.

Today, sophisticated materialists (which is what some forms of science urge us all to be) have dismissed belief in anything not composed of atoms, electrons, quarks, or strings. Or, more recently, dark matter. The rest is all illusion. Sometimes the sophisticated don’t realize that other intelligent, sophisticated individuals don’t share their worldview. Materialism can’t be proven, and every true scientist knows that any theory is the best explanation given what we know at the moment. It is contingent. Science has a fantastic track record for explaining the physical world. Little in my experience has given me cause to doubt its efficacy. Still, I suspect that there is more to this universe than material. I have trouble supposing that some of that non-material universe is a horned, goat-footed, evil man with a tail and my worst interests at heart, but I can see how someone might believe that. Belief works that way. As much as we might want to eject it from the game, it will always be on the first string throughout the season.

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On a Wager and a Prayer

I’ve been thinking about Job a lot lately. Not my job, but the biblical book. Way back when I was preparing my initial classnotes on Job, I remember a commentator—I forget who—stating, as commentators are wont to do, that people have strong reactions to Job. Either they love it or they hate it. I have enough imagination to consider some people being somewhat ambivalent about it, but I have observed many people over the years revealing powerful reactions to this Wisdom book. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that God doesn’t come off looking particularly good in this story. This was recently reintroduced to my awareness in Steven Cahn’s God, Reason and Religion. The reader, unlike Job, knows the real reason for Job’s suffering. It was a divine wager, instigated by God, that Job would not curse him even if allowed GBH by the Satan. We know, however, and we are culpable for that knowledge. It puts a burden on the reader.

BlakesJob

When God does explain to Job why he shouldn’t question God’s acts, as Cahn points out, the answer rings hollow in the knowledge of the truth. God can’t admit to Job that he was playing fast and easy with his health and the death of his ten righteous children. A roll of the dice and Job is vulture-bait. The book of Job should make us squirm. We base our morality, we are often told, on the ideals of the Bible. If we were Job, who ends the book never knowing about the bet, we might be content. But the author, with a sly wink to those who face life squarely, points out that this is all a charade to justify God’s confidence in one of his many carroms. I suppose that might be small comfort to the pawns.

For Job there is no answer given to why he suffers. He doesn’t even really ask why—God’s right on that count, Job is very good. Yet the reader is not so lucky. How can we gain any comfort knowing that God sometimes lays us on that altar, not for any just cause, but as a wager against the divine prosecutor? No, the Satan in Job is not the Devil. He too is a divine character, an attorney borrowed from Zoroastrian mythology. He’s just doing his job. His Job. He is present to make us feel our guilt. And if Job, who the Bible itself says is perfect, can barely restrain his soul from cursing, how much of a chance do the rest of us have? There are many who hate the book of Job. I am not one of them. A more honest book I have a difficult time imagining. If it comes to justice in this world, however, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Scary Monstrances

I can’t help myself. I’ve always found monsters fascinating. Now that I’m mostly grown up and am expected to have a modicum of respectability, I try to read academic books on monsters so that I can legitimate what would otherwise be puerile juvenility. David D. Gilmore’s Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors was my latest foray into the forest. As I have come to expect, just pages into the book the first reference to religion emerged. This connection between monsters and religion is not Gilmore’s central theme, but it does recur at several points in the book. I especially enjoyed his discussion of Spain’s Pentecostal dragon. The Tarasque, named after its host town, is a medieval dragon that is still feted to this day in some locations. Considered to be symbolic of the sins of humankind, it accompanies either the holy day of Pentecost or of Corpus Christi. This connection between the church and monsters took me back to my first experience of Corpus Christi.

Raised as solid a protester as a Protestant can be, I had a difficult transition to some aspects of Anglicanism. The ceremonial was great, but some of the popish blandishments I could never quite accept. When a member of Boston’s famed Church of the Advent, the rector asked me to be a torch bearer on Corpus Christi. This involved processing outdoors onto Beacon Hill in full drag (or cassock and surplice, as I’m sure the parsimonious will correct me) to accompany the holy sacrament, carried as it turns out, in a monstrance. The idea that looking at a piece of wafer-thin bread on public display could somehow mediate a divine blessing, I never understood. It felt as much a fairy tale as the dragons of Spain. Monster or monstrance?

Gilmore concludes that monsters are people’s projections of their deepest unresolved issues. He may be right. One of his observations, however, struck me. He suggests monsters predate even gods in the human imagination. I tend to think they entered that gray space at the same time. Our minds have always told us that there were creatures out there to fear. Some of them, we hope, are good. Others are clearly evil. Monsters are difficult to explain in a world created by a benevolent deity. It is perhaps no mistake that Zoroastrians conceived of Angra Mainyu as monstrous. Divinity and diabolism could be fused into one being. There is a profound lesson here, for those able to read. Monsters are among the earliest projections of human imagination. And they remain forever with us.

Angra Mainyu; god or monster?

Enoch’s Dilemma

“And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” These two verses from Genesis 5 convey just about all we know of Enoch. That, and he was the father of the oldest man ever, Methuselah. With this intriguing introduction, however, the religious mind insists on a backstory. Over the centuries of antiquity, books grew about this mysterious character as he became the prototype of the person who never died. The Bible doesn’t state that Enoch didn’t die. Nor does it state that he did. Plenty of wiggle room for the mythic imagination. In what appears to be an unrelated story, the Chronicle of Higher Education this past week reported on technology that builds on the strange but natural idea of phantom limbs.

When a person loses a limb, sometimes they report still feeling it. Their brains grew in a body that possessed the limb, and once it is gone the brain still has memory of it. The term used for this is a phantom limb. Knowing that mind does control matter to some extent, robotics experts have figured out ways to wire a robotic limb to the brain of a paralyzed person that responds to brain signals sent to the phantom limb. As much like science fiction as it sounds, this is already happening. The robotic limb responds just like a biological limb. This technology is just developing, of course, and is very expensive. It also implies that cyborgs, once the fodder of futuristic fiction, are becoming reality. Some theorists, such as Raymond Kurzweil, suggest that the brain itself can be converted to electronic signal and transferred into mechanical storage. Once that is achieved, we will have Enoch without any God to take him.

The world that we’ve been engineering bears a strange resemblance to the world of the Bible. For the people of ancient Israel death was the final word, and with rare exception (the only unquestioned case of the undying man was Elijah) people simply accepted the inevitable with no concept of an afterlife. Contact with the Zoroastrians convinced some Jews of the possibility of life beyond death and the quest for immortality was on. It has been a desideratum of human aspirations ever since. We invented machines to help us do what nature has not equipped us to attain. Finer and finer lines have been drawn between the biological and the mechanical. While it make look like immortality to some, to others it seems that we have been kidnapped—taken, if you will—by technology. What really happened to Enoch? The Bible doesn’t say, but it seems that we are getting very close to finding out on our own.

Loaded Symbolism

Perhaps it’s all the politics in the news, or perhaps it’s the very long nights of January, but death comes to mind during the winter. One of the enduring preoccupations of religion is the issue of death. Christianities teach of wonderful rewards or horrendous punishments after the sloughing off of this mortal coil. Many eastern religions suggest the even scarier idea of reincarnation—we are doomed to repeat this sideshow over and over until we get it right. Since the universe has billions of years to go, that’s plenty of time for errors. When we finally depart, however, we leave our loved ones with the dilemma of how to handle our remains. Burial goes back to the Paleolithic Era—simple, effective, little fuss. Nature reclaims what we have borrowed for a century or less. This is the preferred Christian end, for, believing in the resurrection of the body, a body must remain. In some form. Other religions, noting the cleansing power of fire, prefer cremation. Those original Zoroastrians still prefer exposure of the dead to carnivores. It is, however, generally our religion that dictates our final disposal.

Enter the entrepreneur. The corpse becomes a commodity. You’ve got a problem and you’ll pay well for a satisfying solution. Some years back I saw ads for a company with the scientific, yet romantic concept that, as carbon, our corpses could be pressurized into diamonds. It is a costly procedure, but you could wear your beloved around your neck or on your finger as a chunk of the hardest substance on earth. A few weeks ago I found a more affordable solution on the website of Holy Smoke. Once you have made the decision to go with cremation, what do you want to do with that urn of ashes? Holy Smoke offers a solution: you can have your loved one’s remains loaded into ammunition shells. Taking care to handle the ash with profound respect, Holy Smoke will place the remains into either rifle or shotgun shells (one pound of human ash fills about 250 shotgun shells). You can then be shot toward eternity by loving relatives at their convenience. Gunpowder-propelled toward Heaven itself. Holy Smoke is located in Alabama.

Welcome to eternity

The problem of human remains is perhaps the most religious one of all. Our faiths give us the hermeneutic we need to face that great portal. As we consider the number of useless deaths brought on by Bush’s personal war in the Middle East, a kind of macabre closure can be seen through the smoke. After all, the NRA endorses the Republican Party. So does the Religious Right (unless, of course, they nominate a Mormon). Perhaps if we loaded our guns with our dead instead of live ammunition, the symbolism might finally hit its target. Holy Smoke could be offering a valuable service here to be shared between religious enemies. Instead of the kiss of peace, well, use your imagination. Perhaps it’s the very long nights of January, or perhaps it’s all the politics in the news.

Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.

Dating Daniel

Last semester one of my students had an encounter with a literalist. This is not uncommon, but the issue raised ran counter to what we were covering in class, namely, the book of Daniel. Apocalyptically minded literalists use Daniel and Revelation as a two-tiered roadmap to the future, supposing that these books are predictions of the end of time. Scholars who’ve studied apocalyptic literature, however, know that such interpretations misrepresent a fascinating genre of ancient writing that says more about its own time than some unforeseen future (our time). Nevertheless, the myth of Daniel’s foresight persists.

Long ago biblical scholars noted that although set in the period of the Babylonian Empire, the book of Daniel makes several basic errors about that time period. On the other hand, Daniel knows the period of the Seleucid Empire (when it was actually written) in relatively precise detail. We think nothing of it when an author today sets a story in the past, but somehow this is dirty pool in the composition of an evangelical Bible. Apocalyptic was intended to provide encouragement to those under persecution, not to give them a Google-mapped future. It is in the nature of apocalyptic to present the author as a seer, but the future age is a Zoroastrian contribution that gives books like Daniel and Revelation their edge.

Misunderstanding genre is a large concern among literary scholars. A document like the Bible, which contains several distinct genres, must be handled carefully if it isn’t to be misrepresented. I used to point out that if the passages intended to be read ironically were understood literally many Bible-quoters would be in trouble. After all, doesn’t Amos declare, “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more” (4.4)? Learning to place biblical genres within their proper context makes a world of difference. Instead of Daniel telling us to hold tight because the end is near, he is found to be encouraging those who were suffering in his own day. We have no biblical roadmaps for the end times because the end of the story has not yet been written.

Daniel tells the lions a story about the future

Astronomical Chances

I am sure that I am not alone in the sense of relief that the solstice has finally arrived. Light will gradually begin to increase as the northern hemisphere slowly wobbles back toward the sun. And if I didn’t have another final exam to administer a little later this morning I would’ve stayed up to see the total lunar eclipse last night. Conditions were perfect, if cold, for viewing the event in New Jersey. NASA states that the last time a full lunar eclipse occurred on the winter solstice was in 1638. Those of us who survived to see last night’s events, whether with our eyes on the skies or on the Internet, have witnessed a rare astronomical coincidence. So rare, I’m sure, that some people have taken it as a sign.

This is the season for signs in the sky. The Gospel of Matthew narrates how Zoroastrian astrologers followed a star to Bethlehem. Over the years many astronomers have puzzled over what this anomaly might have been. (They might benefit from reading a little mythology now and again.) While still in Wisconsin my family went to see a University of Wisconsin planetarium show on the subject, and these family-fun science-and-religion public-relations events are anything but rare. It is in the spirit of the season.

Ancient civilizations bestowed upon us the gift of looking for signs in the sky. In antiquity’s three-tiered universe, the gods literally lived “up there,” so portentous occurrences above our heads were a bellwether of divine intention. Religious specialists had to be able to interpret the omens in the air. That fascination has remained with humanity ever since, no matter how rational we’ve become. While driving home in the relatively developed region of New Brunswick a few weeks ago, I saw a meteor. This was remarkable because the light pollution of multiple streetlights along with the volume of raging traffic headlights was intense. My eyes were glued to the taillights before me when it fell. It felt like an epiphany – it was the brightest meteor I’d ever seen, and over the years I suppose I’ve seen my fair share. It left me with the feeling that something momentous had occurred, an emotion that persisted for a few days. No wonder ancient astronomers found the night sky so impressive. The only negative aspect of the lengthening of the days is the corresponding shortening of the nights.

Ends and Beginnings

The Ninth Gate, a Roman Polanski film from a bygone decade, portrays a world the director doesn’t believe in. Typical of “devil movies,” the story involves a personified evil that not only seeks world domination, but who also writes books. I’ve been working on a book review for Relegere, the new online journal of Studies in Religion and Reception. In part the book addresses how the devil is portrayed in movies, although this particular film is not cited. Perhaps it is difficult to take seriously a film where the screenwriter is not a believer.

As a young teen I listened with horror as friends described The Omen, a movie that I never saw until just last year. The premise of the movie, that the Antichrist has already been born and is now walking the earth, ready to usher in Hal Lindsey-esque last days, is frightening to those who find a biblical basis for the idea. When finally watching the film the scariest part was viewing the extras. David Seltzer, author of both the book and screenplay, eerily tells the interviewer that he believes the Antichrist to be here now. His acceptance of mythology is admirable, but it is the problematic acquiescence to a modern reconstruction of disparate ancient views that is troubling. Like many late-twentieth century westerners, Seltzer has been influenced by attempts to construct a coherent account of the apocalypse from tattered bits of ancient traditions that never belonged together.

If education included a serious, critical look at how religious ideas developed, the world might be spared this sad predilection for seeking its own end. Apocalyptic ideas thrive in cultures of persecution, such as those very real torments of Jews under Antiochus and Christians under Nero. Their hopes for a brave new world of righteous rule, borrowing freely from Zoroastrian traditions of a new age, offered scraps of expectation of a better tomorrow to those dying today. When nineteenth-century evangelists saw the advances of industrialization and Darwin’s rational explanations of human origins, they felt the need to reconstruct the biblical demise of the world. Modern day apocalypticism, so evident in the Y2K, 9/11, and 2012 scares, is often ready to accept uncritically a supposed future already scripted by a sadly misunderstood Bible. If the world ends it will be our own doing, and maybe Roman Polanski will have to rethink whether or not a devil can actually write a book.

Misappropriated Prophets

There seems to be a can of worms lying open on my desk, released by the comments yesterday’s post engendered. I thank all my readers and commentators. The issue most pointedly thrust among the worms appears to be that of prophecy. Teaching about prophecy constitutes a large part of my meager income. And since prophecy plays a large role in many Evangelical associations not only with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but also Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and just about any other major catastrophe, it is worth exposing. In the Bible prophecy is not about predicting the future.

Prophecy was a widespread phenomenon long before Israel appeared on the scene. One of the roles prophets shared in ancient times was the declaration of outcomes to momentous events. Unfortunately that aspect of their duty easily became equated with predicting the future. Its actual milieu, however, was that ancient people believed prophets to be “effective speakers.” When a prediction came true it was not because a prophet could “see the future,” but because the spoken word of the prophet participated in the reality of the world. The belief was that the effective word came from God/a god, and therefore would be true by definition.

Apocalyptic, the familiar literary form of Daniel and Revelation, is not prophecy. Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, had influenced many ancient religions, including Judaism. Apocalyptic, like prophecy, has a predictive element. Like prophecy, however, apocalyptic has a different purpose. The books most heavily farmed for future predictions by Evangelicals, Daniel and Revelation, are both thinly veiled accounts of contemporary events of the authors’ own days. Daniel consoles Jews persecuted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Revelation consoles Christians persecuted by one of the early Roman emperors (the jury is still out on precisely which one). Neither book predicts the end of the world. Both, however, declare the comeuppance of the arrogant oppressor. It is here, perhaps, that the true relevance of the Bible speaks to the scars human beings inflict on their own planet and on each other.

sic semper tyrannis

Death’s Door

Podcast 18 considers the perceptions of the world of the dead, according to Ancient Near Eastern sources. Specifically the question addressed is can the dead return from the underworld, based initially on the story of Samuel’s return from the dead in the Bible — this leads to a description of the underworld based on ancient sources. The Zoroastrian connection is encountered in the development of the realms of heaven and hell.