Pop culture


its-the-great-pumpkin-charlie-brown-youre-not-elected-charlie-brown--20061101033906296-000A riff on an old holiday favorite:

Scene: Moments after being fooled into his annual place-kick attempt by Lucy, a depressed Charlie Brown shuffles over to Lucy’s psychiatric help booth. After paying his co-pay, the dialog ensues.

Lucy: Well, now, what seems to be the trouble?

Charlie Brown: I feel depressed. Every year it’s the same. It’s Halloween again, and I always get a bag full of rocks, I get made fun of and made a model for a pumpkin carving, I never get to share the fun with my best friend Linus because he’s always freezing out in the pumpkin patch, and I always worry about my baby sister, who misses all the fun.

Lucy: Well, the very fact that you realize you are feeling this way indicates you are not too far gone. We need to pinpoint your fears. Maybe you have wiccaphobia. This is fear of witches.

Charlie Brown: I don’t think that’s quite it.

Lucy: Or maybe you have phasmophobia, which is fear of ghosts.

Charlie Brown: Well, sort of, but I’m not sure.

Lucy: Or perhaps you have coimetrophobia. This is the fear of cemeteries.

Charlie Brown: No, that’s not it.

Lucy: Or maybe you have Samhainophobia. Do you think you have Samhainophobia?

Charlie Brown: What’s Samhainophobia?

Lucy: The fear of Halloween!

Charlie Brown: THAT’S IT!!!!!

End Scene

Ol’ Chuck isn’t alone. In fact, I would suggest even that the fear of Halloween itself is a strong part of contemporary Halloween lore.  Which is why we get reports like this and studies like this. It used to be mostly evangelical Christians who demonstrated such open disdain for Halloween, which I wrote about as part of my blog entry from exactly two years ago. In that post, I wrote

Instead of remembering the sacred aspect of Halloween, many Christians prefer to avoid it all together as a glorification of evil, a notion to which I’m kinda sympathetic, but when I start working with this as religious phenomena, I’m accused of trivializing evil rather than recognize the vestiges of anything sacred in it. So I’m trivializing evil here, but the same routine vis-a-vis Christmas leads to trivializing the sacred, and usually by the same crowd of critics.

The most frequent response among evangelicals has, historically, been to “domesticate” Halloween by keeping observance of it in the home on the one hand and to limit the activity to more of a celebration of autumn, change of season, and the beginning of harvest. Jack o Lantern’s are welcome, as long as they aren’t too scary looking (or gross, or completely inappropriate…). Churches, and now schools, sponsor costumed Harvest Festivals, complete with bonfires and cookouts, games, and, of course, candy.

I love this, because it’s so ironic, because this taming and domestication of Halloween (especially by Christians and churches concerned with the “playing with evil” and the emphasis on death, the grotesque, the monstrous, and the demonic) is a return to the origins of Halloween in the Celtic festival of Samhain. We don’t know much about Samhain; in fact, we know a lot less than many Halloween fanatics think we know. Certainly it is very old, and likely pre-dates Christianity; at the very least it pre-dates Christian missionary activity to Celtic peoples in Europe (who were not only located in Ireland). What we know comes from much later Irish sagas and legends that were not written until the 9th -12th centuries, many hundreds of years after the arrival of missionaries such as St. Patrick (5th century). By the time they were written, the Church was well-aware of the festival and did everything it could to figure out a way to incorporate it into its own calendar of liturgical feast days, starting with the Feast of All Saints on November 1, then All Souls’ Day on November 2. In Middle English, “All Saints” translated into “All Hallows”, which still means “sanctified” or “holy,” and the evening before became “All Hallow’s Even, or “Hallowe’en,” corresponding exactly with the celebration of ancient Samhain.

So much for the church’s efforts there; but what did Samhain entail, and what carryovers are there now in today’s “domestication” of Halloween? Samhain was the first day of the new year in the Celtic calendar and was the first day of winter, marking the end of the farmer’s year. Everything had to be harvested, stored, and eaten, and it was a time for partying and big bonfires. It was also the beginning of the darkest season of the year, and when vegetation dies. In the Irish sagas, everything revolved around Samhain; wars fought, journeys started, and heroes are born. We find in the sagas tales of heros going door-to-door, begging for treats and food on Samhain, an ancestor of our own trick-or-treating tradition. It is also on Samhain that the doors of the underworld are open, just as it they are now for horror flicks at the theatres. In another saga, a race of supernatural creatures demand tribute from the new harvest from humans on Samhain, who leave out food at the entrance to their homes by hanging the harvest on the doors, thresholds, and crossings for their supernatural overlords.

What about dear old Jack? Jack was a blacksmith who, the story goes, was too evil to get into heaven but too smart to remain in hell; he tricks the devil into kicking him out of hell, and on his way out the door, grabs a handful of burning coal (or straw, according to various traditions) and puts it into the pumpkin he’s been eating, using this as his lantern as he wanders the world between the world above and the underworld, and on Samhain’s Eve, when all the doors are open, he comes and goes at will.

Anyhow. I could go all Bakhtin here and go into the importance of masquerading, transitional spaces, and carnivale and so forth, which is so important as well. I’m happy to do so in the comments, if there are any. But I just wanted to point out that the Samhainophobia that is now part of the Halloween experience has ironically led to a return to Halloween’s pagan origins more than it has “tamed” or even “Christianized” the holiday. So go out and enjoy it tonight!

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Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Thy Word is like a seductress at my feet?

Ran across this piece today on Walletpop.com: Flashy ‘Bible’ seeks to inspire the ADHD generation.” Fascinating stuff, and tons of food for thought. The publisher’s basic idea is to produce a New Testament that the visual learner (and, evidently, visual reader) can connect with and relate to. No doubt a second motivation is to capitalize on the popularity of Thomas Nelson’s Revolve Bible with a rival book. The reviewer, Bruce Watson, has this to say about it:

Ab Forlaget’s Bible Illuminated seems designed for people with a total lack of imagination and only a tangential interest in scripture. The text is presented in a three-column style, with highlights around important passages, and key sections reprinted in large-type insets. All in all, the style should be familiar to any reader of Playboy, Harper’s Bazaar, or Us. Essentially, it looks like a fashion mag that has been annotated by a not-particularly-bright high school student.

Bible Illuminated is, as Watson points out, yet another example of how Bibles are produced for niche markets. But usually, these other bibles at least usually “look” like Bibles. Take the very popular Women’s Devotional Bible, for example, or the Mom’s Study Bible, or The Green Bible. These appeal to specific audiences with particular concerns and ideologies that these Bibles highlight and provide commentary on. But they “look” like Bibles in that they are about the same size as most others, actually say “Bible” on the cover, have nice, thin, crisp paper, and are formatted in easily recognized “Bible-style” layout and typeface. The media and the published form of the media tell the reader before even opening the book up that “this is a Bible, and you should read it as a Bible.” There is a material “iconicity” that these books depend on for their use and authority. (Shamless plug alert! Go to the Iconic Books Project Blog at http://iconicbooks.blogspot.com/ , another blog I contribute to, for tons of stuff on the iconicity of books in general, including this new Bible, and world scriptures in particular.)

Like these other “niche Bibles,” Bible Illuminated is oriented to a specific audience: those for whom the only reading they do is the high-gloss eye candy mass produced in pop culture. It’s iconic aspect screams out “Read me like you were reading Cosmo or Maxim!” It is a “hybrid” text that co-opts the material and iconic element of one type of reading in order to seduce the reader into reading something from a totally different iconic plane. In effect, Bible Illuminated is telling us to read the Bible the same way a sixteen-year-old “reads” Playboy or Seventeen.

What is fascinating, though, is that so much of the content in the Bible is tailor-made for a presentation like this. Good preachers interpret the text through verbal and semantic description of the content that makes the text come alive. An image accompanying the Book of Revelation, for example, depicts a young man in flames, apparently trying to hurl himself into a flooded street. One can only imagine what image from pop culture accompanies the story of David and Bathsheba; Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, maybe? Who do they tab to play Hosea’s wife Gomer? Jenna Jameson? The possibilities are endless.

The image of “the Bible” and what it is supposed to look like, feel like, read like, and so on is, I think generally disconnected with much of its content. A hybrid book like the Bible Illuminated may, in some ways, make parts of the Bible that are usually skipped over actually come to life not just for the ADHD generation, but for us old fogeys as well.

Touchdown Jesus?!… professional sports qualifies as religion, the Super Bowl is the religion’s annual holiday, and now offers its own monastic retreat houses.

Awesome. Too bad the Saints aren’t playing.

Grinch in the Aedificium!I’m home from church, listening to a random selection of some of my Christmas music and thinking about various aspects of Christmas and Advent, Church, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, and so on. Coffee with cinnamon with a nip of butterscotch schnapps.

Random thought #1. Second week of Advent lights a candle representing Hope. Like last week, the question has to be “What are we hoping for?” Can it be the same thing as waiting? Is it the same thing as expecting? I’m hoping that the Church may experience the Gospel anew. But do I expect it? Not especially. I expect more of the same, but I certainly am not hoping for it. Hope is the audacity to dream of and perhaps even prophesy the unexpected, the utterly new, the totally absurd. Hope is holding a newborn in your hands today and just dreaming the dream that the child lives and that you can leave him or her a world that is a little more like the Kingdom of God than it was when you found it.

Random thought #2. One can’t be faulted for thinking from time to time that graduate education is a Faustian bargain that may very well cost you your religious soul.

Random thought #3. Christmas is easily the most icon-saturated period of time in the entire year. There are more festivals and rituals that go with this season in America than any other American holiday. Most of these do not occur in the churches, but on civic spaces like malls, buildings, family dining rooms, state houses, and public squares and parks.

Random thought #4. What does transpire in the specific sphere of religion is always the happy, feel-good story of the Christ-child’s Nativity. The story itself, should we actually care to look at it carefully, is anything but. Indeed, the birth of the Savior is something worth celebrating and should be celebrated with joy and revelry, as the Romans celebrated the birthday of their own savior Caesar. But the story cannot lose any more context for its meaning than it already has. The Christ was born under empire, and the Gospels describe the Nativity in counter-imperial terms. His birth challenged the Empire of the World; considering America’s position as a 21st century Rome, we need to hear this story challenge us and unsettle us, lest a new Caesar or Herod order another massacre of innocents. Again. And again.

Random thought #5. Many of us know that the songs, images, icons, and general “folkloric” celebrations of Christmas have little or nothing to do with Christianity and the churches over the last 1800 years or so. We also know that much of our Christmas symbolism are “baptized” forms of ancient European and Mediterranean popular culture, and for this reason many Christians of more fundamentalist stripes, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and independent fundamentalist baptists, refuse to observe the holiday because it’s a pagan and Catholic thing, not a Biblical one. There’s a long history of this in the US, particularly from the Colonial Era and into the nineteenth century. But there have always been those who, even while recognizing the ancient pagan provenance of so much Christmas practice and symbolism, have baptized and re-christened the symbols into all Christian icons. Example: the candy cane, simply a confectionary convenience in shape, became a shepherd’s crook. Holly and Ivy became Christ’s crown of thorns and his drops of blood. Four calling birds and the other twelve days of Christmas became the four Gospels. And so on.

All well and good. But there comes a point where it’s too easy to re-christen anything and everything, and what bugs me about this is that the same principles are used to justify the all-pervasive practices of consumption that the Christmas season celebrates and perpetuates. It just galls me that many Christians, individual and collective, try to harmonize a system like this of gross capitalist injustice and advocacy of empire with a faith whose scriptures, which we supposedly consider to be fundamental to our identity, condemns this very thing. Ugh.

Random thought #6. It’s not healthy to watch the Grinch, Charlie Brown, any version of Dickens’ ChristmasI killed it…Oh, everything I touched gets ruined! Carol, and the New Line Nativity Film all in the same week. It’s even worse if you read them in connection with the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. Result: blogs like this.

A Long Time Ago, in an Empire Far, Far Away….

It is a time of relative peace. With the legions of armies maintaing the new Order from Britain to Babylon, the Sith Lords have secured the mantle of civilization under the cloak of absolute power.

Augustus Palpatine

But a small group of freedom fighters, led by John of Patmos, have joined in the resistance to the Dark Lord and his evil enforcer, Darth Caesar.

Darth DomitianObi John Kenobi

Committed to overturning the Order of the Sith and ushering in the Empire of God, the Jedi and their followers throughout the Province of Asia band around a newly discovered secret book, while their leader has mysteriously disappeared…

Obi John Kenobi in Exile ms-1214-f090v-colour.jpg

Ummm…whatever, man. You’ll need your speakers on.  Content not exactly endorsed by Aedificium, or Benedict either.

Seraph“Cypher, the Matrix isn’t real!”

“Oh, I disagree, Trinity; I think the Matrix can be more real than this world.”

Lately, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading in memory and social theory, and I’ve been working my way through Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The thoughts here are inspired by Berger and Luckmann’s work from 40 years ago, but I’ve taken the liberty of combining them with some of my recent work on the book of Revelation and with the Wachowski Brothers’ trilogy of Matrix films.

Berger and Luckmann argued that practically from birth, what we understand to be “real” is a social construction that is imposed on us through a variety of instruments of the dominant culture of the world that we find ourselves in. When that dominant culture ultimately has the power to impose its cultural perspective (or worldview) on other ones, and proceeds to do so, the result is a programmatic presentation of “the real” that says “our” reality, whatever it is, is the ultimate one, and this by necessity must replace any alternative ones. In other words, once a culture establishes a hegemony over others that would not normally be inclined to share, appreciate, or employ the instruments that the culture uses to construct reality at home, it is in a position to say to everyone else that the way we are is the way everyone should be. This kind of imperialism doesn’t have to be through military force or violence against earth, air, and flesh (although it can be, and often is); more pervasive and dangerous is the seductive nature of the instruments of cultural imperialism. Violence and seduction are, and have always been, two of the most potent agents of social control and the imposition of “reality.”

To viewers of the Matrix, this should sound familiar, and one wonders whether the Wachowski Brothers had a copy of Social Construction of Reality around when they produced the films. The entire trilogy turns on the questions of What is Real, and What is the Matrix? In the trilogy, we learn that the Matrix is the reality constructed by the dominant Machine World that, through violence and seduction, is imposed on the world of human beings in order for the Machine World to maintain its hegemony and its control of human life. Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, recognizes that there are at least these two realities, and he challenges Neo (Keanu Reeves) to recognize that he has to choose which reality he is going to accept, since both are Real. In Berger and Luckmann’s terms, the Machine World is able to force its worldview, its reality, onto the Human through the instrumentality of the Matrix. For those living in the Machine World, the majority of humans do not realize that their reality is artificial and constructed and have no need for or interest in knowing otherwise. The dominant culture of technocracy, as it were, has defined what is real and literally constructed the instruments to make sure that things stay the way they are. Theirs is the “ultimate reality,” as Tillich might express it.

In any event, the story of the Matrix is that the reality imposed by the dominant Machine World is not the only reality, and in fact needs to be challenged because the human race is not destined to be batteries and puppets that empower the force of empire and its artificial instruments of violence and seduction to keep control over those who resist.

And if this sounds like a familiar story, you’re right. This is exactly the story of the book of Revelation. Revelation is a call to see the Matrix for what it is and an invitation to look behind the screen to see the ugliness of the reality of its version of the Machine World, that is to say, the Empire, the violence of the Beast and the seductions of the Whore that are the instruments of imperial worldviews of reality. For the author of Revelation, the Roman Empire is the latest version of the Matrix, an artificially constructed reality that had plagued Israel in a number of x.0 versions since the days of Egyptian bondage. But as with the theatrical Matrix, Revelation recognizes the reality of the Empire/Machine world every bit as much as it recognizes the world of the Saints/Zion. Both realities exist and coexist and join together through complex processes of mimicry and symbiosis and are locked in a struggle that simultaneously defends and destroys the other. The Matrix and the Empire are paragons of the power and order of the Machine World and the dominant force of Imperialism in all its forms. The heroes of Zion and the persevering Saints of first century Asia, on the other hand, recognize the reality of the Matrix of Empire, but refuse to accommodate themselves to imperial control; for Morpheus, Neo, Trinity, John of Patmos, Christ, and the embattled saints of Asia, imperial reality is a Beast operating the machine mainframe, a reality that ultimately will lead to nothing but the utter destruction and annihilation of this world as well as the other. Revelation and The Matrix thus show that these competing worlds exist in symbiotic opposition to each other, but are not condemned to eternal conflict. As the Oracle tells Neo, “One way or another, Neo, the war is going to end.”

The story, of course, continues now. The Matrix of Empire is a constructed instrument of persuasion designed to convince others that the pax romana and pax americana is the ordained and one legitimate ultimate reality. But Revelation and the Matrix show us that, confronted with the reality of imperial pax, we who were called out of Egypt now need to be called out of Babylon, out of the power fields of the Machine world. And here in the Matrix, there are too many who know that something is seriously wrong with the seductive doings of empire, who know that we ourselves are complicit in the violence done to the earth and to each other in the name of maintaining things “as it was was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever more.” We feel the splinter in the mind and its driving us mad. And if we are truly to come out of Babylon, as the Seer of Revelation cries out to us that we must, we have to take the plunge, and find the courage to take the Red Pill, and hack into the Matrix.