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The Werewolf Priesthood

Well, I’m exhausted. We’re coming up on Spring Break, and as excited as my students are for the rest, I’m coasting into it on fumes. Luckily for me, tonight my youngest fell asleep in my arms at about 6:15 so my wife and I were gifted with a quiet evening. One thing I like to do that I haven’t been able to lately is sit down with milk and cookies and watch monster movies, so this is what I did.

I went with an childhood favorite, Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. It’s a really fun (and surprisingly sweet) werewolf movie with Corey Haim, Gary Busey, and Anne of Green Gables. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s free right now, so you should check it out.

SPOILER’S AHEAD

(as if you care…come on, no one’s really going to watch this are they?)

The story is your basic whodunit, with clues about the werewolf’s identity being slowly unfolded until … tada … it’s the local minister.

Silver Bullet

This notion, the werewolf priest, intrigues me.

It apparently has a long folklore tradition, but this movie is my only experience with it. I’m sure that there are Christians out there who will take great exception to the plot twist and see it as another in a long line of instances where Hollywood, or “the mainstream media” cruelly trashes religion in general and Christians in particular. This is a tired and not-very-true-or-interesting narrative that I don’t feel like dealing with here. Let’s just say that every profession and culture thinks it gets overwhelmingly negative press. See almost any movie about an English professor. So shut up and think about what it means to be part of the Royal Priesthood. More on this below.

One thing I find so fascinating about the werewolf priest in this particular movie is that, on some level, there is a sense that God may actually be using this monster for his own terrifying ends and purposes. The priest’s affliction (we never find out how he became a werewolf) has the appearance of divine calling at the beginning of the movie. He doesn’t truly become the bad guy until he tries to keep his secret safe by attempting to kill a disabled little boy who knows his secret. Before this, his victims seem to be chosen not by random, but by the Almighty himself. I have no idea about the doctrinal ramifications of this narrative, but it does make for some thought-provoking viewing. Those more theologically-minded than me are requested to comment further about this below.

The other thing about the priest’s curse is that I could sort of relate. I remember delivering a sermon at church once about the royal priesthood and finding the whole thing to be rather impossible. We’re somehow supposed to live in this world in a way that resists its institutions while simultaneously respecting them. I quote:

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

This is a rather tall order, I think. In my sermon, I think I also threw in a bit about werewolves and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (much to my pastor’s chagrin, I’m sure), paying close attention to the damage we often do when we seek to withdraw from the constraints placed on us by various institutional manifestations of “the man.”

 

Richard Mansfield was best known for the dual ...

Richard Mansfield was best known for the dual role depicted in this double exposure: he starred in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both New York and London. The stage adaptation opened in London in 1887, a year after the publication of the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The ironic dilemma we are ultimately faced with is that to properly live outside the systems of culture, we have to live in harmony with them. The line is exceedingly thin. The werewolf priest apparently failed at some point to ethically walk it, and became not an agent of God’s mysterious will, but a true monster.

I teach English. (Wow! What a smooth transition). I teach at a tiny Christian college in a small, rural town, much like the one in the movie. I love living here and I love my job very much, but, being new to the area, I have often felt a dreadful isolation and have, at times, withdrawn. In some sense, and through no real fault of my own, I have not lived as harmoniously within the local cultural institutions as I eventually hope to as I grown into my role in the community.

In the absence of that harmony, I have thrown myself into my work to a sometimes frightening degree. I stay late when I’m not teaching, and I exhaust myself when I am. I love what I’m doing, and I think I’m doing a good job by my students. This has been a rich and rewarding experience that I would never trade, as I do feel I’m doing the work God has blessed and cursed me with.

Watching this movie for the umpteenth time has made me pause, though. My work is my responsibility, but so also are my family and my community. How can I walk the line as werewolf priest, without becoming a monster?

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Ancient Aliens: Religion is for Suckers, Try Blind Faith Instead!

Ancient Aliens

I have to confess something rather embarrassing right from the outset. I have fallen into the habit of falling asleep at night while watching what I can only call “speculative documentary” programming. Conspiracy stuff, Bigfoot and friends, and, of course, alien propaganda. This post is, I suppose a belated companion piece to my previous one about the Georgia Guidestones. Here’s the link to that if you’re interested. I find it all so very amusing and can doze off without feeling like I’ve missed anything important. Commence with your psychoanalysis. I’m sure I deserve it.

At any rate, Amazon Prime has just added three seasons of the (ahem) History Channel program Ancient Aliens. I have been sleeping very well these days.

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title screenshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The premise of the show is pretty simple, really. Ancient aliens. What about them? Whatever, it all comes back to ancient aliens. The pyramids? Yes. Zeus? Yes. Noah’s Ark? The Holy Grail? Thomas Jefferson? Yes. Yes. Yes. Even Bigfoot! It seems that anything that has or has not transpired in the human experience is a direct result of some paternalistic race of space travelers.

I have no interest in taking the time to debunk the program’s claims. Arthritis would surely kick in before I could finish. Besides, there is already a website that does that. Here. I’m more interested in basking in the delicious irony of this program’s ontological claims.

To summarize, people who call themselves “proponents of the ancient astronaut theory” find a way to stuff everything that the human mind has ever conceived of into their box of pre-conceived, dearly-held notions. Always at odds with “mainstream archaeologists  or “mainstream scientists,” these folks insist that nothing our race has ever done or thought of could have been accomplished without help from “flesh and blood extraterrestrials.”

It goes without saying that the program is ridiculous, but I should take a moment to add that it is also insulting to everyone who is a human of any sort whatsoever. One mainstay in its presenters’ rhetorical bag-of-tricks is to claim that folklore, mythology, and religion are always misunderstood as metaphors or stories. The show’s main “character,” this Giorgio person pictured in the meme above, always insists that the literary and artistic images left by ancient man were not creative inventions, but rather literal depictions of alien technology and beings. This denial of the primacy of the human imagination kind of infuriates me, in all honesty. To deny that human beings have the capacity to engage with the world and all its complexities and create an imaginative representation of that variousness is to deny that we are human at all.

Wait a minute. I guess they do deny that. At about 23 seconds in:

Each program has its own theme (the Bigfoot one is a special hoot), but I’m particularly interested in those that graciously correct our misguided religious notions. According to the ancient astronaut theory, the Bible is full of stories of extraterrestrial encounters. We, in all our silliness, have mistaken them for accounts of religious experience with the Divine. Adam and Eve, Jacob’s Ladder, and even the life of Jesus himself are all literal recorded accounts of contact with aliens. Let’s be clear about that. This group of people maintains that everything in the Bible is literal. It just isn’t divine because that would be crazy. Jesus was a flesh and blood alien. Jacob saw, not angels, but (you know) aliens descending and ascending the ladder. Adam and Eve were genetic mutations created by the aliens!

Two things strike me as ironic here. First, these people take the Bible far more literally than I do as an orthodox man of the Christian faith. I’m perfectly OK with Job being an existential three-act play passed down to help us deal with the terrifying complexities of life. But, oh yes, I forgot. We have no capability of imagination of this sort. Oops. My bad.

Second, let’s think about this systematic debunking of not only the imagination but of the supernatural as well. I have elsewhere maintained that the imagination and religious practice are intimate partners. So what happens to our faith in the ascendance of the ancient astronaut theory?

According to the ancient astronaut theory (I do so love typing that phrase), angels and gods (and God) are misinterpreted flesh and blood aliens. Our adherence to belief in the supernatural quality of these beings is clouding our vision and we are unable to see the truth; not just about this, but about human history. The death of religion as we know it is a natural consequence of this epiphany. We are now free from our slavish devotion to a God that insists that we live our lives in such a way that glorifies him in everything we do or say or think. No longer must we look back at our lives and even history and look for ways in which he has guided and protected us. No longer must we look forward to the return of a God that doesn’t even exist.

Now, with this new vision, with this freedom that comes with realizing that there is no God, but only aliens, we can imagine our place in creation differently. We can know that we were created in the image of these aliens. We can see how they’ve guided us through the ages, inspiring our art and helping us mature as a race. We can feel the elation that comes when we know their plan for our lives; when we accept that they could not have created us for no reason. We can seek their will for our growth as a species. And finally, when they at long last return to welcome us into the universal community of planets, we will be ready because we’ve been expecting them all along.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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Literature and the Christian Imagination

During the last few years of my life, I’ve felt as if I had a foot in two worlds. One foot (left or right – I’m not sure) stood on faith, and the other in academia. All in all, I kept my balance pretty well (yay me). As a student of literature and a person of faith, I instinctively felt that there was a compatibility between the two, invisible perhaps on the outside, but inseparable for me. It made perfect narrative sense, then, that I would end up teaching English at a small, Christian liberal arts college.

This confluence of events and interests has led me to inquire more deeply into the role the imagination and Culture (big C) in the lives of Christians. My thinking is that this will benefit both my students and my sanity, though the latter notion may turn out to be delusional. (I’ve been called worse, both by myself and others).

At any rate, this inquiry has implications not just for how Christians engage with or avoid literary cultural productions, but also how they engage with their faith. For example in The Gospel Coalition today, Greg Forster takes exception with a recent article in The American Conservative in which Rod Dreher claims that Evangelicals are hostile to religious expressions of wonder and awe (sacraments and such). This may seem to have little to do with Christian consumption of literature, but it does address the issue of Evangelical engagement with physical, cultural expressions of metaphysical ideas. In this way the conversation explores the depths and limitations of the Christian imagination – a subject of great interest to me as I attempt to challenge my students and myself going forward. Disruption as engaged learning.

As happy coincidence would have it, my department has decided to read the 1989 book, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, by Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin. I thought this to be a good occasion to dip my toe in the subject matter, bloggy-style.

Being written during the height of the Culture Wars, the book seems dated and reading it now is frequently to nod impatiently and say to oneself, “yes, I remember that. People used to talk about this back then.” However, the book does a fair job of establishing the history and logics of long standing debates about the role of literature in the age of High Theory (though not with the panache or precision of Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age). To its credit though, the book is a sincere attempt to inquire into the relationship between faith and literature. It is a serious-minded study of the joys and dangers of Christian consumption of literary art.

This virtue is, however, also its vice. The book is far too serious about this subject and makes the idea of danger too large an ectoplasmic boogeyman for the Christian reader. An example of this is found in a meditation about overt Christian themes in literature. The authors write, “Although we may be pleased to find works based on Christian narratives, characters, or practices, we must not hastily conclude that they endorse or advocate Christian ideas” (123). Implicit here is the idea that “good” literature must ultimately only validate Christian orthodoxy. I challenge this notion and feel that a Christian faith slavishly seeking opportunities to affirm cherished orthodoxies becomes intellectually dead. The Imagination uniquely offers a means to challenge assumptions, keeping their holders keen-witted and productively engaged with the world. Added to this limited engagement with literature’s richness is a repeated insistence that it not dare tread too close to the divine and ostentatious practice of doing anything. It must only reflect, not create realties or challenge existing ones. These themes run throughout the book, buttressed by a cautious rhetoric meant to keep literature safely in its place.

I wonder, in the end, how much the book really believes what it is saying. The section about metafiction, toward the conclusion, seems to suggest that philosophies that challenge Christian ontological claims have value both in their requirement that the reader question their conception of reality and in their engagement of the reader in the process of fiction-making. As much as the book claims a role for sanctified reading practices, it can’t seem to shake a respect for the sheer excitement of world-creation and energizing effect that literature, as an agent of chaos, can have if given the opportunity.

This contradiction is, to me, ultimately good as it complicates an otherwise overly-simple argument (though the book suffers as a pedagogical resource because of it). Let me just focus briefly then on what the book says rather than what it actually does, as the former contains the larger implications for Christian education and engagement with Culture.

Two statements epitomize my complaint with the book. The first has to do with literature’s ability to transcend circumstance. The authors write, “Though literature can provide us with relaxation and with images of the world as it might ideally be, it is neither an escape from reality nor a saving transformation of it” (xxiv). In other words, literature can do little to escape the forces of history. The book argues that its value instead lies solely in its reflection of God’s truth. For those of you in academia, think Foucault meets John Calvin. This is a kind of theological New Historicism, with the text unable to escape the material (and spiritual) conditions of its production.

In the context of a liberal arts education, this is a disastrous perspective. If the humanities cannot both provide perspective on the world and an intervention of imagination then what good is it? This absence leaves the world solely under the sway of material forces. Economics and politics are left as the only means by which God’s creation functions. Furthermore, this calls into question the authority of the Bible. Is it merely a record of events that reflect a world that God made and continually redeems while Human Beings continually ruin? Or is it an intervention in the world that shapes its reader and creates a new and richer reality?

Matthew Arnold

This is, of course, the same war Matthew Arnold, awesome side-burns and all, waged with those that marginalized Culture in favor of mechanical forces like economics and politics. Gallagher and Lundin reduce Arnold to his wish that Culture replace a diminished Religion in society (60), but they neglect to account for his definition of Culture in the early pages of Culture and Anarchy. Defending it against claims that it seeks and values mere curiosity, Arnold offers an alternative definition:

But there is of culture another view, in which not solely the scientific passion, the sheer desire to see things as they are, natural and proper in an intelligent being, appears as the ground of it. There is a view in which all the love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it, – motives eminently such as are called social, – come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part. Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.

By denying curiosity as the defining feature of Culture, Arnold simultaneously denies that its primary service is that of reflective mirror. Literature and art do not simply wish to explore a pre-fabricated world, crafted through the forces of sin, salvation, and free-will enterprise, it also seeks to create a world that is better than the one formed through strictly material forces. Christians, and particularly those in the liberal arts and humanities, should then identify a comrade in Culture, not an adversary to be only leery of.

The historicist-influenced line of thought in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith also motivates the next statement I take issue with. In a chapter depressingly called “Keeping Literature in Perspective,” the authors write, “A Christian perspective on reading lies between the extremes of hedonism and redemption. Books are neither objects of pure pleasure or instruments of unlimited power. Instead, they are one way in which humans have developed the potentials of God’s world” (59). I, of course, would not claim “unlimited power” for books, but to demote them to just “one way” of reflecting divine influence is to make sociology out of literature and to deny a special-ness that narrative has in our lives as created beings that have creative potential. Metafiction, which the authors apparently like, in spite of their own argument, foregrounds the vitality of narrative-creation in our lives. It is not mere sociology, only reflecting images of truth back at ourselves. Nor is it distinct from “the real world.” Fiction is part – perhaps the most important part – of how we create the world.

Imagination is indistinguishable from reality. Christians too often neglect it at their peril.