Tag Archives: American Religous History

Collateral Story Lines — Method & Comics

28 Oct

Today I want to share an observation about comics and ask whether it has any relevance for the way we study of religion.

Background: I joined a Coursera course on Comic Books and Graphic Novels from UC Boulder Professor William Kuskin. This isn’t the time for my thoughts on MOOCs, although I’m sure that time will come eventually. (For what it’s worth I’ve found the Coursera platform to be pretty user-friendly.)

Green Arrow

Foreground: I’ve been making my way through the first season of CW’s The Arrow. It’s a superhero drama based on the DC Comics figure called the Green Arrow. I can’t say I was intimately familiar with the Green Arrow before this show, but I have been enjoying the TV adaptation. To help you wrap your head around the show, just imagine Bruce Wayne (Batman) as Robin Hood. Sometimes it really is that simple.

One of the big reasons why I like the show is its thorough development of the many figures that surround Oliver Queen, aka the Arrow. His intimates include his family–a mother, father-in-law, and sister–and his former love interest and friends. His rich family has also given him a body-guard, who is soon to become his sidekick. The former love interest’s father is on the police force and begins to uncover the Arrow’s identity. And so on.

Here’s the takeaway: the collateral story lines make this character work. We care about the supporting characters because the hero cares about them. We care about the hero because the supporting characters care about him. The dynamics of those relationships build a satisfying world for viewers. Weaker characters–Oliver’s shallow friend who dated his ex in his absence–are easy to spot and will likely be pushed aside as the story develops.

If we think more broadly about superheroes as a genre of storytelling, it is often the case that the most endearing characters are those whose narratives are hopelessly entwined with supporting figures. Batman’s relationship with Alfred or Commissioner Gordon, for instance. Superman’s love affair with Lois Lane. Spider-Man’s love triangle with Mary Jane and Harry Osborn.

While the heroes take center-stage, readers are often encouraged to care through the development of human-sized consequences. The moral struggle at the core of the origin stories for Batman and Spider-Man are excellent examples that play both sides of the human/super-human divide. We feel Peter Parker’s pain–not Spider-Man’s. We know the boy Bruce Wayne’s agony. It’s easier to distance ourselves from the grim and determined adult Batman who willingly risks his live. That makes him noble, not necessarily excessively human.

The turn: In religious studies we often focus on the central figures. Consensus history was built on what could be agreed upon by the majority of historians. (Yes, consensus is a misnomer.) When the cultural turn came for religious studies we increasingly saw studies of religion “on the ground” as it was lived by ordinary folks. The best of these studies–say David Hall’s Days of Judgment–work because they weave the central figures into the stories of the supporting characters. Consensus history is Spider-Man’s story; lived religion is Mary Jane’s story. Both are excellent in their own way, but naturally we want the best of both worlds whenever we can get it.

The fateful spider bite that gave Peter Parker...

The fateful spider bite that gave Peter Parker his powers. Amazing Fantasy #15, art by Steve Ditko. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not a new insight that comics work by weaving effective webs of significance around their starring superheroes. Instead, I want to re-affirm that the way we study religion has a lot to do with the kind of stories we want to tell. Just as the superheroes primary tropes wore thin and gave way to new versions of old stories (compare Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with Burton’s Batman), I think in religious studies we have been disinclined to attempt to tell the old stories in new ways.

Perhaps our field’s moderate disinterest in re-narrating our central stories is a consequences of the structure of the academy. We value new methods and new data. Re-interpreting old data is welcome when it is iconoclastic (Butler’s The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction), but if the story seems the same we’re just as likely to wonder what the big deal is. The “so what” is a brutal query against these efforts.

In lectures to our students we may tell the same stories over and over again, but those retellings are to new audiences. This has its own kind of merit for academics as storytellers. We get to re-imagine the stories and their relevance for new generations. We should all be so lucky to think of our lectures as “rebooting” the significance of certain supporting characters and weaving our own webs of significance for the starring figures. It certainly is the opportunity we can take to explore the ways narration matters in our lectures.

In printed scholarship, however, we’re less likely to tolerate these innovations. We can see them generationally if we look to the significant textbooks on, say, religion in America. Pick up Schaff’s 1855 America and compare it with any textbook published in the last 10 years and you’ll find a host of differences. There are far fewer differences between Corrigan and Winthrop’s Religion in America (8th ed., 2010) and Albanese’s America: Religions and Religion (5th ed., 2012). Both of these recent editions, however, feel very far from Alhstrom’s 1972 tome. And so on.

In American history, as I imagine it is in most disciplines, the obvious examples are polemical–Howard Zinn’s People’s History vs. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen Patriot’s History. Would that more of us were willing to find retellings so shockingly divergent on such well-worn material. We need more scholars willing to take the leap to reinvent the core of our discipline. We don’t lose very much by trying, so long as enough of us can agree that it is the effort of re-imagining these stories that will produce long-term gains for our understanding of religion.

We have to be willing to take the risk because the rewards many:  clarity of what matters, visibility to new audiences, openness to new inquiries, and methodological flexibility. We get very little holding on to the forms of the past. In the end, our subjects are not oaths to be recited. We have to be willing to take the leap to imagine them differently even when we want to keep so many of the elements the same. This is a lesson that comics has learned over and over again. Seems a shame not to follow their excellent lead.

So which of your darlings would you kill first? And how would you bring it back to life?


Angels and Belief

22 Oct

Some surveys estimate that nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in Angels. For comparison, that’s four times the number that believe that humans evolved without divine guidance. It’s really a staggering figure. It’s equal to the entirety of Americans whose congregations are evangelical Protestant, historically black, Mormon, mainline Protestant, and Catholic. It’s one of the few religious beliefs that truly appears to qualify as American. Of course, that number could be grossly exaggerated. Polling on this issue ranges from 55% to 77%. Even at 5 in 10, however, this is not a marginal belief.

The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the central verses is Daniel 12:1. Here it is in the New Living Translation:

Archangel Michael casts out the arrogant angel...

Archangel Michael casts out the arrogant angels. Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At that time Michael, the archangel who stands guard over your nation, will arise. Then there will be a time of anguish greater than any since nations first came into existence. But at that time every one of your people whose name is written in the book will be rescued.

The use of archangel here is unusual. Most translations keep the more exacting term “great prince.” What the NLT expresses, however, is the canonical understanding that Michael is the supernatural guardian of or advocate for the Jewish nation. Michael and Gabriel (also from the Book of Daniel) are among the only angels accepted by nearly all branches of Christianity and Judaism. (They do this in part because of Jude 1:9, which more directly calls Michael the mightiest of the angels.)

The problem with the legitimacy of a broader range of named angels is not only one of different canons, but also of interpretation of verses. The New Testament is particularly important for establishing hierarchy and structure for angels in a celestial court. The most important contributor to this evolution of popular (non-theological) understanding of angels is undoubtedly 17th century poet John Milton. Paradise Lost, Milton’s masterpiece, narrates the Fall of Man. It chronicles this through two intertwined stories: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Satan’s leadership of a celestial rebellion against God.

Paradise Lost contains much that is biblical, but it is also, and fundamentally, a work of fiction. Milton’s expansion and elaboration on the nature of sin, redemption, and cosmic warfare were seminal for popular culture’s representation of Satan, the Fall, and angelic hosts.

Wikipedia has a useful reference list of adaptations of and allusions to Paradise Lost. Some of these are well-known–the poems of William Blake, for instance–which others are far more oblique. One of my favorites is probably Neil Gaiman’s SandmanI have a soft spot for graphic novels and Gaiman. We’re getting away from angels here, but Sandman is about the lord of Dreams (i.e, Morpheus), his escape from imprisonment, and his rise to power. It’s dark horror filled with mythological references. It’s smartly written and beautifully illustrated. In short, it’s amazing and totally worth your time.

Back to angels. Let’s start with a basic overview of the films/tv we could use to talk about angels. This list is adapted from this post on beliefnet.  I probably get to choose ONE. That’s rough, since the impression you give about angels will vary so widely.

1. Angels in the Outfield (1994)

A light-hearted family film where angels inspire baseball players. It’s a shameless plug for the Angels baseball franchise. It took advantage of the 1990s revival of interest in angels to sell baseball tickets.

2. Touched by an Angel (1994-2003)

A soap opera approach to angels as personal guides to restoring individuals’ connection to God. Angels are delicate, helpful, and spiritual. They are the family you want fighting on your side.

3. Michael (1996)

A somewhat irreverent but ultimately redemptive look at angels. As the tag said, “He’s an angel… not a saint.” The angel is provocative–he makes things happen because he is so understanding of the world is so un-human.

4. City of Angels (1998)

This is an adaptation of a 1987 German film. An angel falls in love with a human and must decide whether to give up his wings. Angels here are more like psychopomps than protectors.

5. Dogma (1999)

Two fallen angels “help” a pregnant woman so they can return to heaven. It’s one of Kevin Smith’s best films. It’s gritty and ugly, but it weaves a fascinating mythological narrative with just enough biblical elements to not come untethered from Christianity. Angels here must play by the rules, but they are also willing to push the rules to the breaking point to achieve their own personal goals.

6. Angels in America (2003)

Tony Kushner’s play got a big screen adaptation. An angel tells an AIDS patient that he is a prophet with an important mission to save humanity. It’s a powerful piece that deals with some very serious issues. Angels are awesome and bliss-inducing. They are messengers above and beyond humanity.

7. Constantine (2005)

This adaptation of a comic book describes John Constantine‘s battle with the angel Gabriel, who has joined forces with Satan to try to get back to heaven. Confession: I love this movie. It has exorcisms, demons, angels, occult ritual elements, and a host of other juicy elements for analysis. It plays on the Paradise Lost themes as well as engages–very deliberately–with the issues of suicide, redemption, and the afterlife. 

So where does that leave me?

I can show the extreme commercialism of angels (#1), which does go along way to explaining the cultural crossover of Christian beliefs into New Age lifestyles. Angels became a part of the broader “spiritual” environment. Extracted from their Judeo-Christian roots, this meant that really the only thing that was left over was the imagery and the basic outline of their supernatural role.

I could show the mainstream use of angels as propoganda for getting folks to return to the pews (#2). Perhaps (#3) best exemplifies how humanity is idealized. Why would you not want to be an angel? Only humans can be truly redeemed. Michael (#4) shows both the good and bad sides of angels. It’s funny and, by the end, has a strong message about why the relationship between angels and humans matter.

The most biblical depiction of angels of all these items is, perhaps, Angels in America (#6). However, in this work, angels are primarily provocative. They get things moving, and then humans carry on afterward.

Constantine (film)

Constantine (2005) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And yet I’m most drawn to Dogma and Constantine. Perhaps this reveals a bit about the orientation of my popular culture preferences. That’s fine. And yet I think there’s every reason to think that the themes in these films would play best in a course on the supernatural.

First, both films directly involve fallen angels and their attempt to return to the celestial court. Regaining God’s favor is exceedingly difficult for angels. They do not have the bargain God struck with humans through Jesus. How can they get around this redemptive problem?

Second, angels are significant characters in these films. They are not incidental, nor are they simply plot devices. Dogma does this more than Constantine, but for a course on supernaturalism, Constantine has many additional elements that would be worthwhile. It also does not have a monster made out of excrement. Dogma might be perfect otherwise, but I hesitate to show the, pardon my language here, shit-monster in my classroom.

So, I think in the end I’d vote for Constantine. (And I will write a separate post about its many excellent religious themes.) If you have a comment on this, let me know! I’m getting pretty close to the full scope of the course here, so probably only one or two more items. Demons will be next, and then, maybe, superhumanity and magic, presented together as elements that provide an object for criticism by conservative religious movements.

Ghosts & American Religion

16 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s thematic concern for a course proposal on the supernatural. Unlike mystical pregnancies, ghosts have a less discrete origin in religious materials. Whether you call them phantoms, spooks, hauntings, or specters, this genre of apparitions are the spirits of the dead. Let’s take a look at where we could start:

Deuteronomy 18:9-12’s prohibition on spiritism and sorcery:

(9) When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (11) or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, (12) for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.

English: Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father'...

English: Henry Fuseli – Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard, 38 × 49,5 cm) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It stands to reason that Spirits should have been taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And yet by the Renaissance, the infusion of hermetic and other metaphysical practices revived the interest in necromancy and spiritism. Sure, I’m skipping a vast swathe of history here, but I’m not a medievalist and this course is designed to highlight contemporary American popular cultural expressions of the supernatural. Anyway, after the Renaissance, the willingness to re-consider spirits may have indirectly helped produce what is perhaps the most famous ghost in all of fiction: Hamlet’s Father.

Here’s what Hamlet says when he encounters the Ghost in Act 1, Scene 4:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee “Hamlet,”
“King,” “Father,” “royal Dane.” O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher,
Wherein we saw thee quietly interred,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

It’s great stuff. Hamlet’s speech raises more than a few issues, too. Are apparitions from heaven or hell? How do ghosts circumvent death? Are all things that run contrary to nature hideous? Is our unfinished business in life our duty to resolve in death? [Ghost (1990) famously takes this final question as its raison d’être.] Of course, Hamlet is not centrally about the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It does create an interesting trope–the living as surrogates for the dead. This trope is replayed almost yearly through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Why does Marley’s ghost haunt Scrooge? Because Scrooge can avoid the regrets Marley’s miserliness created. Scrooge is both literally and figuratively haunted by Marley’s Ghost.

A Christmas Carol remains a profoundly British work, even if contemporary re-tellings like A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey were produced for American audiences. Dickens’ original 1843 capitalized on the growing interest in Spiritualism before the famous Fox sisters appeared in 1848. Before that moment, mesmerism was the rage. This is the era not only of Joseph Smith and the birth of Mormonism, but also Andrew Jackson Davis who relied on the work of Anton Mesmer and Emmanuel Swedenborg to popularize his ideas on animal magnetism and a host of other metaphysical principles. [Catherine Albanese is currently working on editing AJD’s journals–get excited!]

So here’s the rub. If I’ve got a course on supernatural themes in modern America, so far I’ve got an ancient Jewish prohibition on spiritism and two very famous English fictional ghost stories. I haven’t even mentioned high literature’s favorite ghost story, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw! It’s not even clear James gets to count as American since he spent over half his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death in 1915. Better choices? Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar puts his finger right on the button of the perceived dangers of spiritism and mesmerism (possession). Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of best known American supernatural fictions. (And the current remake on FOX isn’t awful). Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables was inspired and infused with the literal ghosts of the Salem Witchcraft trials.

So these are the type of primary source materials we can begin with. They are fiction, sure, but they are also projections of American attitudes about Ghosts in the 19th century. That all of these authors worked during the rise of Spiritualism is no coincidence.

The real question, the one I’d hope to get students to explore in this course unit, is what is the context for contemporary ghost stories? Think of it like this: Poe wouldn’t have written about mesmerism if it hadn’t been consuming American culture in the 1840s. If we pick a selection of modern ghost films, say Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghost (1990), and The Sixth Sense (1999), what do they say about America today? Do we think of ghosts in the same way? Why not? How do we explain the difference? [With a slightly different selection of films it would be easy to go the “ghost in the machine” route to ask how technology has become a conduit for supernatural entities.]

One thing I want to solve is the problem letting the genre of demonic spirits spill over too much into the discussion of ghosts. The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose also deal with spirits. Yet these films rely on expressly Christian theological frameworks to explain the operation of demonic spirits. It is the lack of clear religious boundaries that makes so many Ghost films feel simultaneously spiritual but not religious. Ghosts operating independently appear culturally and religiously diffuse. They are empty signifiers waiting for interpretation. This is a clue on the context for many modern Ghost stories–the broad influence of New Age and Metaphysical beliefs–but it also suggests something about Ghosts as a trope. They function as lenses for particular kinds of questions about the relationship between life and death. This is not the same as the struggle between God and Satan (in which demons are employed to show the fragility and power of humanity). It’s a fine line, but one that I hope to find better ways to articulate in the future.

Come back soon for more thematic elements. Angels and Demons should be next!

Every Page is Spiritual Warfare (part 2)

10 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s discussion, which started with an annotated selection from Francis Frangipane’s The Three Battlegrounds.

In my work, I tend to focus on the construction of cosmic-level strongholds as the basis for confrontation between public/secular imaginaries and private/religious ones. They are fundamentally world founding because they structure perceptions of truth and reality. They are orientating, and this jives with a diverse selection of classic definitions of religions including those provided by Durkheim, Feuerbach, Frazer, Otto, Marx, and Geertz. How far do the rabbit hole of definitions do we want to go? Depends on how fractured you’re willing to be in applying definitions to a part of what spiritual warriors are up to.

Religion Stencil

Religion Stencil (Photo credit: murdelta)

One of the reasons I continue to study spiritual warfare texts is that I believe they suggest an inadequacy of most definitions. While I have a lot to say on this issue (I hope I’ll have room for it in my first book), let me give a quick run-through here. My religious subjects appear to be defining not just one but two worlds–the secular and the religious. For them, only one world has a legitimate Truth claim. The secular world’s claim to be reality (or a more objective version of a reality that we all share) is not merely fraudulent. Nor is it some kind of objective container for competing religious perspectives. For my subjects, the religious world is the only world and the secular world’s view of things is utter heresy or apostasy.

Analytically, the crutch of the issue lays with J. Z. Smith, however. While I see my subjects claiming that the religious world has not just primacy but exclusivity, do I affirm their beliefs? I can confirm they feel that way most of the time. But like Smith’s ritual agents reenacting the bear-killing ritual in “Bare Facts of Ritual,” we can’t be sure spiritual warriors aren’t simply performing the world the way they wish it would be.

As they say to young scholars, fake it till you make it! If that is the case, then how are my subjects behaving differently than their “secular” counterparts? If, as a scholar, I deny their ontological claims, then I will likely struggle to convey not only the conviction of their beliefs, but also the consequences of those beliefs. In religious studies, we’re pretty cautious about these. At the very least we want to give our subjects the benefit of the doubt. More often, we give them full range of expression without direct judgment.

In anthropology, which more religionists should study, this is the perennial problem of emic/etic or insider/outsider perspectives. Anthropologists carefully delineate the boundary between the local perspective of subjects and the global perspective of scholars. (I should note that some excellent work on this has been done by Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.) In ethnographic studies, this makes a lot of sense (and is all the more fascinating when it breaks down, as in Mama Lola).

Though I may include more ethnographic elements in future iterations of my project, my present work is historical and rooted in published texts. There’s much less room to separate emic and etic when you rely on 20 year old spiritual warfare manuals. The format of my sources discourages this division. I can only take my sources seriously if I see them as documents that attempt to be coherent, serious participants in the worlds they describe. They could be winking, but if they are, I don’t have the resources to say so.

Could I just take a side and say what I think? Sure. I’m not categorically unwilling to do this. I’m just unconvinced it is appropriate or helpful. If I have to step outside of my subjects’ perspective and in so doing dispute the very core of their beliefs, then what have I gained? Shouldn’t my theory tolerate equally my potential dissent and my subjects’ affirmations? In short, shouldn’t religious theories explain how religion actively produces and shapes its secular counterpart?

I suppose this means I’m saying that religion is not just about religion. That’s probably a good thing. Our discipline routinely gets criticized for its failure to define its object of study sufficiently without self-reference. (Woe unto you if you begin by saying that religious studies is the study of religion!)

Part of the challenge of existing definitions is that they often self-exclude religion’s products as pieces of the equation. That’s surely our field’s history of Protestant belief-bias. Only recently have we been able to fully marshal our energies to acknowledge and study material products. Even Durkheim dissed the totems and churingas in the end. But today we still haven’t fully wrestled with the production of non-belief, non-material things. The secular world is one of these types of products. And as unlikely as it may seem to some, it’s a dynamic, shifting product that spiritual warriors are working actively to change in their favor. (I suppose saying that the secular world exists beyond belief is fairly positivist of me, but remember that I’m describing the religious world created by my religious subjects’ projection of secular worlds from their religious one.)

You can think of it as a world-view if you like, but I tend to avoid that world because of its strongly negative connotations in my source material. Instead I call it an imaginary, a way of imagining the world that shapes our ability to act. (And yes, I borrow this from Charles Taylor, the scourge of contemporary high theory.) It is the basis for believing an action is appropriate and likely to succeed, and it includes the whole body of elements that exist to support those actions. For spiritual warriors, it means not simply the theological arguments for the validity of warfare, but also the spiritual gifts used in battle, the paradigm to interpret secular foes, and, paradoxically, the secular society that legally supports their rights to fight for their supremacy of their version of reality.

If you think that fits an existing definition of religion, then be sure to post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you! Agree or disagree, just let me know you made it this far with me.

Plotting Religion in Juvenile Animated Series

8 Oct

Batman Beyond

My Netflix queue often suggests interesting animated series for me. I never know quite what I’m getting into. Sometimes I am rewarded, as I was when I discovered Rosario + Vampire (an overtly raunchy monster high school drama that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone unless they understood the context of the sexualization of female characters in anime).

Other times I’m not convinced of the recommendation. Batman Beyond is a good example. While I’m unlikely to turn my back on Batman, I find the series frustratingly incomplete in its portrait of a futuristic Gotham. I’ve always found Batman an intensively spiritual character. While religion is never operating at the surface, Batman’s moral core–especially his principle of not killing enemies–is likely the reason for his enduring appeal. (This is the show’s premise, too: Bruce Wayne’s age makes him unable to uphold this principle.)

While I don’t know that I want to set the boundaries on categories of ethics and religion, it is often the case that shows like Batman Beyond rely almost exclusively on secularly-derived moral principles and not on obvious religiously ones. I should be clear here. I don’t we can easily parse the morals presented in the show and derive them from two categories, secular morals and religious morals. It may even be impossible.

What I mean is that the writers of Batman Beyond have consciously removed the structures of religious belief and practice that might suggest religious origins for the moral cores of the characters. Why does Batman fight crime? He has a personal stake in preventing the kind of crime that took the life of his parents. Why does the youthful Batman fight crime? Because he too has a personal stake in stopping crime. They are both compelled by some hidden moral imperative and orientation to do good. So I say secular-derived moral principles because the show gives me no contextual information that these laudable values have arisen out of religious training or devotion.

Avatar Korra from Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra

Let’s look at a counter-example. The Legend of Korra is a spin-off of Nickelodeon’s seminal series Avatar the Last Airbender. The second season, which started just a few weeks ago and can be watched on Nick.com, is profoundly and explicitly religious. There is a demonstrable religious world, complete with an active and engaging cosmology, ritual practices, and shades of religious belief.

Frankly, I was a bit stunned when I saw the start of this season’s plot arc. The spirit world is out of balance and Avatar Korra, as the bridge between the human and spirit world, must figure out how to repair the damage. Korra’s journey this season, like Aang’s before her in the original series, is one of wrestling with destiny, fulfilling her role as spiritual leader, and defeating those who would upset the balance of the world. (Aang, for instance, had to resolve his principle of not killing anyone with the inevitable to-the-death battle he would have with the warmongering Fire Lord.) Korra will surely face a similar test of her principles this season.

There’s more here than just the overt or covert presence of religion and morality. I believe–and it is just my opinion–that Korra is just a better show than Batman Beyond. The animation, plot, character development, world creation, and so on, they are all superior. This doesn’t mean that I picked Batman Beyond as a straw man. I enjoy the show, despite its defects. And I’m still watching its several seasons, so I haven’t ruled out the possibility that it may pick up its game.

What I think is crucial is that nearly all animated shows (perhaps because they are made for children) fall in a grid plot made by the intersection poles of overt/covert, religious/moral. Batman Beyond is overtly moral but neither overtly or covertly religious. The Legend of Korra is both overtly religious and overtly moral. And so on. Sure, this is simplistic, but it is a start for thinking about the ways that animated television deals with the problem of introducing ethical questions. Moreover, it differentiates between those questions asked in religious terms, “What is the right thing to do as the Avatar,” and those asked in moral ones, “What is the right thing to do?” These aren’t the same.

If I were to draw my schema, as basic as it may be, it would look something like this: 

Overt/Covert & Ethical/ReligiousI suppose that’s a beginning. It also reminds me of the excellent lawful evil/good charts that often appear as memes for popular cultural works. In the world of The Dark Knight, for instance, the Joker is the epitome of chaotic evil. As the saying goes, some folks just want to watch the world burn.  Superman is the perennial contender for lawful good–he’s the pinnacle of justice. (And that’s part of the reason that the story arc of Superman: Red Son, where baby Superman lands in Communist Russia, is so amazing.)

I often have to defend my interest in children’s and young adult anime to friends and colleagues. Graphic novels have attained an air of respectability that comes with multi-million dollar movie franchises. So if you look at those, you’re going to escape some of the criticism. When I was young, in that post-Vietnam era, G. I. Joe and its portrait of American militarism suggested exactly the kind of narrative that emerged in Desert Storm. Similarly, Ducktales highlighted the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that would become essential in the dot com boom.

If today’s youths retreat to Korra and Batman, I sure want to think about what the effects of these shows are going to be. For instance, Batman Beyond and Korra are both terribly suspicious of experimental technology in the hands of aggressive corporate interests. How quickly the lessons of the recession have inflected the moral elements of children’s television! Animated series are cultural mana for young persons and we ignore them at our own peril.

Urban Bells — The Sound of Religion in the City

1 Oct

In my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, an argument over church bells saw tourism pitted against religious practice and religious history. As the Boston Globe reported this past February, guests of the Hotel Providence complained that Grace Episcopal Church‘s quarterly bell ringing from 8am-9pm made their visits unbearable. The church agreed to reduce its bell ringing to twice an hour, but bells continue to ring out the start of the day bright and early every day at 8am.


A little background: Grace Episcopal Church is the church I grew up in. I attended roughly from the time I was 7 until I left for college at 18. As a member of the boy’s choir, I spent more time in the church than nearly any of its parishioners. We practiced twice a week and arrived early on Sundays to rehearse before the service. The choirmaster from the article, Mark Johnson, was my choirmaster then, too. It’s funny how some things don’t change much. There is also no mistaking his personality in this quote:

“In my mind it’s a huge sacrifice,” said Mark Johnson, ­organist and choirmaster at the church for more than 20 years. “It’s an extremely generous gesture, one which I have objected to very strenuously.”

More background: When I was in high school, I was one of a select group of choristers to be allowed to ring the bells. As you can see in the video, ringing the bells consists of pushing handles down–hard. You really needed to put all of your weight into it. And woe unto you if you made a mistake. Your mistakes would be ringing for miles across the city, echoing in the alleys and parks of scenic downtown Providence.

English: Grace Church, Westminster Street, Pro...

Grace Church, Westminster Street, Providence, Rhode Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the intersection of urban living and historical religious practice are holdovers like bell chimes. In the era before affordable time-keeping, church bells measured the day for workers. The sound of bells ringing will, for me, forever be the sound of urbanity. Today it blends together with honks and the mechanic hum of buses and cars, but these sounds carry shallowly. By design a bell is made to be heard.

Beyond the historical reality–“the bells were here first”– and the legal precedent that preserves the ringing of church bells, there are larger questions the Globe insufficiently explores. What expectations do tourists have that are unmet by the reality of the city? How is it that they come to the city and expect it to be a quiet interlude? Would you expect subway cars to cease running in New York City? The trains to quit blowing their whistles in Chicago or Boston? How does one come so unprepared for the sound of cities? If you lived in an apartment complex and this was a leaf blower outside of your window, would you have been similarly incensed?

I suspect, but I could easily be wrong, that one of the major hurdles here is that today the bell ringing is seen as little more than “religious noise.” This is not an instance of past and present. This is a battle between the secular and religious. The bells are offensive because, lacking any secular purpose today, they are left with little but religious meaning.

In counties that have battled with the Islamic call to prayer, noise pollution, and other zoning excuses have been put forward as reasons to prevent the adhān from reaching its audience. Much like the church bells, the sunrise call must be especially galling to those who would like to sleep in.

Sound can be orientation just as easily as geography. If we have lost the chronological orientation of church bells, then they may still serve to orient urbanites to the intermingling of religious and secular in the city.

After all, Grace Church, like many other urban religious churches, lies in a developed residential zone. The skyscrapers, apartment complexes, hotels, lofts, malls, warehouses, and other buildings that surround it are built on the ruins of old homes. The combination of development and the investment in the religious structure left the church as a last oasis of a formerly integrated city. Now that the city is attempting to return to a mixed development zone (with businesses and residences across the downtown), they’re rediscovering what was left there. It’s probably inevitable that such clashes are occurring. In fact, I’m surprised there haven’t been more (despite the links below).

I suppose that in cities where residents never fled the urban center, these problems were addressed decades ago. That leaves the terms of negotiation up to folks like my choirmaster and the Pastor. The parishioners live in the suburbs–or at least they did when I attended. Thankfully, it seems like a reasonable compromise was made that preserved the historical elements of the practice as well as good relations between  the church and its new neighbors.

Why Hellboy (2004)?

23 Aug

I’ve been writing quite a bit about religion and film this summer, but I think it is time for a practical post. As folks begin teaching their fall courses with media items, the inevitable challenge is turning the viewing experience into a powerful learning moment. What are the tools necessary for that when we’re dealing with media?

We’d all like to assume that students are gifted consumers capable of dissecting and deconstructing critical scenes we examine with them. This is a dangerous assumption because it too easily lulls everyone into avoiding the detail-oriented work of scene analysis. It can be a slog to go through the many elements of a scene. Lighting, camera perspectives, color palette, dialogue, and a half-dozen other cinematic items are all fair game.

Cover by Mignola

Cover by Mignola (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a basic walkthrough, you might look at the e-how wiki, which is surprisingly helpful as a starting point. Before you begin, there are a few pedagogical concerns.

  1. Where does this film fit into your course’s learning goals?
  2. Where does this scene fit into your lesson’s learning goals?
  3. How experienced are your students with scene analysis?

Early in the term you may spend an entire class discussing a single scene point by point. Later on, however, you could have small-groups each searching the scene for a different element. If the learning goal is learning scene analysis, then it may be helpful to pick a scene entirely removed from the course material. Careful scene selection will not only speed up discussion of key themes, but it will also give unprepared students a chance to participate. (I know from experience that this can be a real problem in courses when media items are required viewing outside of class.)

I’m outlining a religion and film course on the Supernatural, and I’m looking for ways to use the opening scene of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004). I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t show the whole film to a class. I worry that there’s too much action and too little explanation of the supernatural elements of the plot to foster significant discussion. This is a common problem in supernatural action films (even in the cinema classic Raiders of the Lost Ark). By treating the opening sequence as an opportunity to lay significant themes on the table, we can see that Hellboy still has a lot to offer.

Des Vermis Mysteriis

  • Terminology Explosion
    • One of the most significant issues when dealing with the supernatural is the abundance of terms that have competing, overlapping, and contradictory definitions. Des Vermis Mysteriis is a fictional grimorie or spellbook. Invented by Robert Bloch and popularized by H.P. Lovecraft, Des Vermis Mysteriis contains spells that summon horrific, ancient gods from other dimensions. This text, and others like it such as the Necronomicon, are fictional devices designed to give authority to esoteric or occult beliefs.
    • Discuss with students the gradations and differences among occult, esoteric, supernatural, paranormal, and arcane. Brainstorm phenomena and then attempt to categorize and place these items taxonomically. Are ghosts both supernatural and paranormal? Was the ritual that summoned Hellboy paranormal? Occult? Esoteric? Arcane? All of the above?
    • To what are these terms contrasted? What are their antonyms? What does this say about the way we construct natural or human? Why are we debating about these definitions? What about perception, experience, and the consequence of belief?
    • Additional reading:
      • Paul Stoller, “Rationality” in Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 239-255.
Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (2004)

  • Hellboy is chocked full of interesting items for discussion. A scene analysis could go on a long while, so I recommend reserving quite a bit of time for this.
    • Go through the Shots on your own ahead of time. What is shown in each successive moment in this scene? 1) Quotation of Der Vermis Mysteriis; 2) Voice-over while flying through storm clouds to zoom on island; 3) American soldiers getting onto island; 3) “Are you a Catholic? Yes. Among other things.” at foot of Crucifix; 4) Nazis here for the sheep?; 5) “I grant you immortality”; 6)”What I do here tonight can never be undone.” 7) What’s on the other side of the portal? 8) Americans blow things up; 9) The discovery of Hellboy. How do we know when one scene ends and the next begins? Are there clues for continuity?
    • At 13 minutes or so, I’d be the first to admit this is really several consecutive scenes. There’s a consistency, however, to these pre-credit moments. The color palette–cold blues and muted greens–lies in definite contrast to the post-credit colors. The preferred camera shot for major characters is fairly close-up, giving a persistent sense of intimacy for spoken dialogue. Material religion is rampant with crucifixes, rosaries, hellish bas-relief, sacred tomes, and so on. If you want a full list to work through, I recommend this one.
    • Rather than spend significant time plotting the shots, I’d prepare a detailed list ahead of time. I’d stop after each one to allow students to write down their thoughts. Use the list of scene elements to begin picking apart the scenes. Which characters are being developed? What plot is being advanced? How is the mise-en-scene setting the tone and mood for the action? What is the audience expected to know by the end of this sequence? The key question is always two-fold: what do we know and how do we know it.

There are plenty of reasons I think Hellboy works as a starting point for this kind of analysis. It’s long enough to be substantive but short enough to be shown in class. It mixes conventional religious ideas and objects with unconventional fantastical items (rosaries and steampunk gauntlets that open portals to other works). It blends real esoteric religious knowledge (ley lines) with fictional concepts (Des Vermis Mysterii). It acknowledges history (there was Nazi interest in the occult) but mythologizes that history (it was working but the Americans stopped them)!

Above all, this is a strong cinematic opening. It requires no pre-knowledge or preparation. Most of the audience wouldn’t know the first thing about the Cthulhu mythos. Nor would they have read Mike Mignola‘s excellent comic series (upon which the film was based). While they may have heard of Nazi occultism, Rasputin, the paranormal, demons, ley lines, and hell, each of these concepts is framed internally to the sequences here. Part of getting comfortable talking about the supernatural is finding where the seams of knowledge are most frayed.

Look here in the future for more items as I continue to sketch the components of this course. I expect that Constantine (2005), Cabin in the Woods (2012), Drag Me to Hell (2009), and The Exorcist (1973) are all excellent candidates for inclusion. I’ll eventually turn to the softer side of things, too. That may be the moment to include Ghost (1990) or Spirited Away (2001). If you’ve got suggestions, I’m all ears.