Super-Powered Squirts

Ever noticed how today’s cartoons and movies offer their viewers the spectacle of young kids as epic heroes? Personally, I find this trend highly annoying. I simply cannot take seriously the notion of a child or adolescent possessing the moxie and the skills or judgment to deal with and defeat veteran criminals and supernatural entities. I do realize these entertainments cater to the natural childhood fantasies of reenacting the exploits of superheroes, war heroes, cowboys, etc. That makes sense, or almost. I remember when we starry-eyed kids pretended to be the Lone Ranger or wore a bath towel as a cape (as even young Clark Kent does in a flashback scene in Man of Steel, a great moment!). But we were trying to emulate adult heroes from TV and comic books. We wanted to be Batman, not Robin. Even Robin wanted to be Batman, and in some stories he does grow up to replace his mentor.

As the great folklorist Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale) and mythographer Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) explained, hero myths seem to function as life maps for maturation, i.e., achieving maturation. The hero becomes a hero by virtue of overcoming challenges and, perhaps more importantly, setbacks in the course of his chosen mission. That mission may be to obtain the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, the sword Excalibur, or the hand of the kidnapped princess. Taking it down a notch to something less overtly mythic, the quest may be to discover something, like the great Cassini photographs telling us more about the glorious planet Saturn, or finding the cure for some disease, or the recent decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript (which, darn it, did not turn out to be the Necronomicon!). Or inventing something to better the lot of mankind (like Clap-on lights or light-up sneakers).

Propp thought heroic quest myths had a more restricted scope, being all about the challenge facing a young suitor (the hero) overcoming the resistance of his beloved’s disapproving father (the villain) in order to “rescue” his bride from her dad’s household! Campbell would consider that simply one version of the Hero Myth, one of its many applications. Another would be the development of one’s talents and the public’s recognition and acclaim. Still another would be someone’s Buddha-like quest for spiritual enlightenment.

It is this archetypal dimension that gets lost in, for instance, The Never-Ending Story and the Harry Potter movies. (Life is too short for me ever to read the Harry Potter mega-novels, so I restrict my comments to the movies.) The moment Harry enters the picture, the first day of school, he is acclaimed by everyone to be a virtual Messiah of Magic, the Avatar of Sorcery. He doesn’t earn it. Why is he even wasting his time in school? (Besides, what happens with all these “wizards” when they graduate? Are they using their powers to change the TV channel without a remote? They sure aren’t magically stopping disease and war, that’s for sure. I guess their big benefit is making the big bucks for J.K. Rowling.) Take a look at Dr. Strange if you want to see a guy earn his cloak as the Sorcerer Supreme. He’s an adult, by the way.

And bespectacled Harry turns out to be pretty much nothing. Hermione and that frog-faced kid save his butt and do the fast thinking. The Disney Hercules cartoon, despite its awful trivializations, at least had the “from zero to hero” element, but Harry Potter remains an over-rated zero. And this is no accident. He reflects the “slave/herd morality” of our pathetic age. He is the epitome of all those kids who receive awards for just showing up. Excellence is downplayed, even discouraged, because it would make the many also-rans feel (justifiably!) bad. May I recommend the movie Harrison Bergeron (the one with Sean Aston and Christopher Plummer) for the perfect satire of this glorification of mediocrity.

These kid hero cartoons and movies short-circuit the process and the lesson of maturation. They would instill the false notion that any snot-nosed kid can already do the impossible. But they can do that only in the realm of childish daydreaming. And the result is that real achievement is removed from real life and restricted to the fantasy world of daydreaming. Why bother trying to translate the quest myth into real life by, say, becoming an Eagle Scout or joining the Marines? Or struggling to start your own business? Maybe it all boils down to economics and stultifying government policies.

Basic to the demands to raise the minimum wage even for burger-flipping fast food jobs is the assumption that working at Burper King or Roy Regurg or Substandardway will be a career. That is a pessimism born of a resignation to a stagnant economy, where real career jobs will never become available. Better look forward to getting that gold Hello Kitty watch when you retire from Walmart (wasn’t he the bad guy in the Harry Potter flicks?). And why should we resign ourselves to such a gloomy prospect? Because Socialist-leaning politicians expect and even seemingly desire a stagnant, shrinking economy because they figure an equality of penury is more to be desired than a system where it is possible to achieve wealth by merit, effort, and talent. It is the slave morality again. If you succeed because of superior drive and ability, that makes me feel inferior—because I am! And we can’t have that!

Similarly, these politicians and activists make it a goal to dial back American prosperity so we can stop feeling guilty for our affluence in a world of poverty. I believe that the chief motive force of Liberalism/Socialism is survivor guilt. Against this I will quote George Harrison: “I’m sorry that you’re underfed, but like you heard [I] said, ‘I’m not guilty.’”

So kid hero entertainments inculcate the lesson that dreams of glory must remain in dreamland.

But Capitalism has its share of the blame, too, for I am convinced that the glorification of super-powered squirts is one facet of the cynical scheme to redefine “youth” as an end in itself instead of a stage of growth toward the fruition of adulthood. Adulthood was traditionally viewed as the acme, the time of fulfillment, while youth was the period of apprenticeship and learning both skills and wisdom. But nowadays, advertisers and manufacturers have changed that. One reaches the prime of life as a young person, and after that it is all downhill. Don’t you see how awfully pathetic it is to look back on your high school years as the high point of your life?

“Adulthood was traditionally viewed as the acme, the time of fulfillment, while youth was the period of apprenticeship and learning both skills and wisdom.”

Treasure your memories, sure, but surely you must see the right thing to do is to get out there and make some new ones! Achieve! Dream and do! The flashy youth culture is the result of marketing. Advertising, as Alan Watts (in a rare moment of sobriety) said, is the Western version of maya, the pumped-out fog of illusory assumptions and transitory values. And nothing fades as fast as youth. “Grow [up] along with me. The best is yet to be.” It is if you make it so.

Heroes are made, not born.

So says Zarathustra.

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On Not Putting Away Childish Things

antique toy collection shadow boxI want to share some thoughts about the real importance of childhood as an ongoing source of integration and inspiration.

My title means to contradict the advice offered by 1 Corinthians 13:11 to let the past fall away like an obsolete cocoon. It’s as if your past is something you have to repent of. The closest I can get to that is what Jung says about the need to consolidate one’s Ego, then to move on to transcend it, as a kind of launch pad, to embark on the development into the Self. But what is it to “put away childish things”?

C.S. Lewis took it pretty literally. At a certain point, having graduated from school and getting ready for employment, “Jack” and his brother decided to gather up their once-prized childhood toys, stuff them into a metal box and bury them on the hillside in the countryside. Well, you will never catch me committing such a crime against myself. My childhood Teddy Bear sits atop the bedpost. My action figure collection has, over the years, expanded like the Blob. In fact everything I have ever loved has remained a part of me. Comic books, monster movies: it’s all there, like a sequence of tree rings. Put them away? Why? Why would I do that? They’ve made me what I am.

Okay, I’d have no reason to worry if I had never acquired wider interests, but I did. Early on, I developed a great interest in history, ancient and modern. I had always been fascinated with Greek and Norse mythology, and when I embraced fundamentalist Christianity at age 10, it was a natural progression along the same trajectory. It did not take long for me to realize this, when one afternoon, while taking a walk in the neighborhood, it occurred to me to ask how I knew that the biblical Jehovah was any more real than Zeus. It took me many years before I could accept that he wasn’t.

And after that, after I exited fundamentalism, I eventually figured I needed to reconcile myself to my rejected religious past. I couldn’t just cut off that part of myself. I needed to find a way to reincorporate it. I reached the point where I could recall with fondness the friendships and the good clean fun of those years. And of course I never dropped the Bible. Its fascination continued, more fervently than ever. My curiosity to understand the text had eventually led to my loss of religious faith. Only now I stopped calling my questions “doubts” and set about finding answers. I found them in biblical criticism.

And the more thoroughly I understood the Bible and Christianity as monuments of ancient mythology and religion, the more I found myself appreciating religious symbolism and rituals. I found that I loved these things all the more for not having to “believe” in them. Seems like a paradox, but it really isn’t.

Rene Guenon once said that “I” includes all my world of experience. Sounds right. I think of a scene in Star Trek IV when the touchy-feely Vulcan guru Sybok (Spock’s half-brother) offered to leech Kirk’s emotional pain from him. Kirk refused: “Dammit! I need my pain!”Your experiences are component parts of you, and it is dangerous to suppress or to amputate them.

What does “integrity” mean? In Seventies-speak, it’s “having it all together.” Like a Rubik’s Cube with all the pieces in correct alignment. If you want to have integrity, it’s not going to work if you pry out some of the pieces and toss them away.

heart vs. brain cartoonWhat particular function do your “childish things” have in the bigger picture? I recall quite clearly how, in my Junior High years, as I was reading the flood of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks featuring Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter, Bilbo, etc., I was keenly aware as it was happening that this reading was stretching and expanding my imagination. I could almost feel it! And in the decades that followed, I found that all this “sense of wonder” (an old and apt SF slogan) served me well. It installed a horizon of transcendence in my head that, I believe, forever prevented my ossifying into a mundane adult zombie, the danger Wordsworth described so well:

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.


Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day. 

In a much-interpreted gospel passage we read that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child shall not enter it.” Who knows what the author meant? But what I see in it is that it takes the open eye of the child who is ready to see anything and who hopes reality is wider than what tired adults tell him it is. We need a more expansive world than the daily grind offers us, even if it is “only” the expanding cosmos inside our heads. This is a childish thing we need to retain. This is a childish thing that will keep us young in heart and mind and spirit. That way, the calendar notwithstanding, the real glory of youth will never expire.

So says Zarathustra.bob's childish things

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Planet Houston

seeking rescueHurricane Harvey has dominated news coverage the last few days (as I write), subsuming and flooding it just as it did Houston, reminding me of the scene in the second Christopher Reeve Superman movie when Kryptonian villain General Zod escapes the Phantom Zone and finds himself standing upon the surface of a lake. For a moment he seems to think he has emerged onto a planet covered entirely by water. He thinks it is “Planet Houston” (he says it “Who-stun”) because of a radio transmission he has overheard (or something). Now “Planet Houston” is indeed submerged beneath a watery surface, tragically, and its citizens are fleeing the flood like Kal-el from Krypton’s destruction. The amazing spectacle of volunteer rescue efforts lends the heavy doom cloud something of a silver lining: we needed a reminder that there is great good in the American people because the news is filled with the self-hatred of many whose patriotism has drowned in a deluge of survivor guilt.

General Zod walking on water

The other day I saw a Facebook post by an atheist pal of mine, observing that God appeared to be conspicuously absent from the rescue efforts. Can Christians possibly maintain their pretense that a loving God is in control of events? The Houston survivors owed their deliverance to their own and others’ heroic efforts, not to divine intervention. Of course, you can always say that God did intervene—through the actions of human beings. But that is weaseling. It is to demote God to a superfluous and redundant fifth-wheel pseudo-cause.

My friend concluded his comment with something like, “Does God care?” I could not resist adding my own quip: “God does care. It’s just that the results are the same as if he didn’t.” I hope readers caught on. My point is by no means a new one. Are you familiar with Antony Flew’s Parable of the Gardener? Here’s how it goes.

Once upon a time, two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, “Some gardener must tend this plot.” The other disagrees, “There is no gardener.” So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. “But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.” So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol it with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. “But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.” At last, the Sceptic despairs, “But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” (“Theology and Falsification,” 1950)

In the same way, how does a God whose “caring,” whose compassionate supervision of his creatures, is compatible with letting them drown like rats, differ from a God who is utterly indifferent to their plight? The point is not so much that the assertion of God’s caring is false. No, it’s worse than that: it’s meaningless. You’re not even making an assertion anymore.

Look at it this way: suppose you and a friend are in Houston and Harvey is wreaking havoc outside. You’re both looking out the front window. You say, “Wow! Look at that storm!”

hurricane harvey

Your friend replies, “Storm? What storm? I don’t see any storm out there!”

You stare at your friend in stunned disbelief. “Of course there’s a storm out there! What the hell is the matter with you? The rain! The wind! The uprooted trees flying through the air! The mobile homes ricocheting like ping pong balls!”

“Oh sure, I see all that stuff. But that doesn’t mean there’s a storm going on.”

“Please tell me, my friend, how is that not a storm?”

“It just isn’t, that’s all. Just because there are high winds, flooding, property damage, and people floating face down, that doesn’t mean it’s a storm.”

“Look pal, I don’t think you even know what the word ‘storm’ means!”

It occurs to you to open your dictionary to prove your point, but you notice that it’s floating away.

Or put the shoe on the other foot. The sky is clear, the sun shining. Children are romping outside without a care in the world. Neighbors are barbecuing. Your pal says, “Wow! That’s some damn storm out there, huh?”

You do a double take. “Huh? What storm? What are you talking about?”

Back and forth it goes, until your friend says, “I guess it’s just one of those storms that doesn’t get anybody wet and doesn’t damage any property! You know the kind I mean.”

Uh, no, I don’t. If you can’t specify something, anything, that would show your claim to be false, you’re saying your assertion is compatible with any and every state of affairs. And if it means everything, then it means nothing!

And that’s exactly what you’re doing when you say Hurricane Harvey doesn’t debunk the existence of Divine Providence. You’re not making any sense. You’re not even wrong! You’re just speaking in tongues. It might make you feel better, but that’s only because you don’t know what you’re saying!

If you did, you’d wake up and realize there’s no one to blame, that no one caused this, and that the only assistance you can hope for is that of your fellow human beings. If there’s any compassion in this world, on Planet Houston, that’s where you’ll find it.

So says Zarathustra.


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Hallucinating the Archetypes

Carol and I have frequently discussed the experiences of people (including one old friend) who have experimented with DMT and Ayahuasca. We also watch the Hulu series “The Path,” which depicts the vicissitudes of a sect whose founder received his revelations from “Mother Ayahuasca.” The central question, as I see it, is whether, as advocates maintain, the substance induces visions of an otherwise invisible realm that far transcends our mundane waking world. Or are they simply Technicolor fever dreams? I have long been inclined to think these visions are purely subjective.

But suppose they are not. Suppose they are veridical? This raises the same question familiar from the belief in divine prophecy: even if there are genuine prophecies from God, does that mean all claimed prophecies are the real thing? Of course not. The Bible tells us more than once to scrutinize prophecies, to see whether God sent them, or maybe evil spirits are responsible—or maybe just somebody’s overactive imagination. Scripture offers two basic criteria, neither of them very helpful.

First, if some ostensible revelation goes beyond, or against, established doctrine, then to hell with it (or, I guess, from hell with it). You see the problem with this: if a revelation must check out with what we already believe, it ain’t much of a revelation, is it? “If it’s new, it’s not true. If it’s true, it’s not new.” So it isn’t revelation, only reiteration. If a would-be prophet’s offered revelation is rebuffed, he will likely storm out and start a rival sect. It’s happened many, many times.

Second, if Carnak the Great ventures a prediction of future events, but nothing happens, then in retrospect we can dismiss the false prophet. In other words, too late for the prediction, even if true, to be taken seriously. I can just see Noah’s neighbors nervously looking at the massing storm clouds above, saying, “Gee, I guess maybe we shoulda listened to that guy!” Obviously, no one ever actually used this criterion. It is a fictitious device long after the fact in order to discredit the figureheads of rival factions.

Amanita muscaria painting from Scott Scheidly:So we must ask: how do you distinguish between a true glimpse of an alternative dimension from a mere drug hallucination? If there is a difference, that is. I think there is a way to reframe the dilemma. It arises from the claim/observation that these DMT trips are journeys of self-revelation, of deepening self-understanding. I have never used drugs and do not intend to, thank you, so I cannot attest to that. But I can’t help thinking of two old friends who claimed that taking LSD greatly improved their personalities. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t known these jerks before LSD. So I have to admit I’m skeptical and that, having no personal experience, I am approaching the question as an outsider trying to make sense of the phenomenon as positively as I can. Here goes.

Suppose that the DMT/Ayahuasca visions are subjective with no reference outside your head. Are they merely cheap thrills? No, there seems to be more to them than that. I repair, as I often do, to Carl Jung and his theory of the Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. (Not only does it appeal to me intellectually, but I have experienced dreams that make sense on Jungian terms and were both meaningful to me, interpreting what was happening to me at the time, and also apparently precognitive.)

Jung asked why certain basic images, mythemes, and symbols appear, independently, again and again the world over in myths, fairy tales, dreams, art, etc.  I mean, where there is no possible connection, no reasonable chance of borrowing or influence. For instance, there are pyramids on both sides of the Atlantic. Do we have to posit a lost continent of Atlantis, escapees from which carried blueprints for pyramids to Egypt and Mexico? Probably not. Surely the idea occurred to people in both hemispheres independently. The Archetype was latent in the Collective Unconscious, available to all. Nothing spooky, mind you: just the hardwiring of the human brain, analogous, say, to the language function.

Well, if Archetypes can manifest themselves in dreams and in math and in myths, they can obviously pop up in hallucinations, whether those hallucinations are the result of DMT, Schizophrenia, or the Muse. Why not? Let’s not commit the dreaded Genetic Fallacy! The medium is not the message. If the Archetypes are disclosed to you, it wouldn’t seem to matter much what you baited the hook with.

Why does it matter whether the Archetypes are unveiled from the intra-psychic depths? Jung posited that the Archetypes are the keys to activating the necessary process of Individuation.

It is the process of maturation whereby one first consolidates the Ego, full of self-will and self-confidence. At this point a person is rightly self-centered. Once it is formed, it can serve as the launching pad for the next stage of growth, to become the Self. Then the individual comes to transcend the Ego. One’s interests and sympathies broaden. The Ego was a central point; the Self is an ever-expanding circumference. In the end there comes to be no difference between one’s own concerns and those of humanity. Some people never manage to attain to an Ego, but most seem to. Far fewer ever climb the heights to Selfhood. Albert Schweitzer did. Some others. Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothea Dix. I guess the important thing is getting as far as you can. But how?

To use an analogy unavailable to Jung, I would compare the Archetypes to the icons on your computer screen. Each is anchored to a program. You want to open and use those programs, and to do that you have to click on the icon, right?  And to do that, you have to see the darn icon, right? Well, the Archetypes are the icons you need in order to access the “programs” hardwired into you, the stages of maturity you have the potential to achieve. Hence the important function of Archetypal symbols in art, myth, literature, etc. Deep calleth unto deep, for the artists dredged these symbols up from the gold mine of the Unconscious (the pre-imprinted brain structure) and scattered them along your path like breadcrumbs, or like Ariadne’s Thread. They are clues (a “GPS”) to your destination of Individuation.

But how do we click on those icons? One way is to cultivate consciousness of the Archetypes in religio-mythic symbols, in scripture, ecclesial architecture, and liturgy. But great art and music can have the same effect. Ritual participation and artistic creation are ways of “stepping into” the symbols.

I’m thinking that this is what is happening to those who cultivate “altered states” through the use of hallucinogens. And this way of looking at it makes our original question moot. In my opinion, DMT is not like the Zeta Beam transporting Adam Strange to the planet Rann. But you are going someplace. Remember the 60s song, “Journey to the Center of the Mind”? That was a drug song. “Come along if you dare!” I don’t dare. I don’t want to tinker with my brain. It seems to be working well enough as is. But I’m willing to grant that DMT psychonauts are penetrating the depths of their minds, encountering the Archetypes, rather as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

I compare it to what Jung said about God, that he didn’t need to believe in God. As a modern Gnostic, Jung said he knew God existed. But where? Inside. In the Collective Unconscious, flanked by the Archangels, er, Archetypes. That’s the only relevant place God could be. Where else would you like “him” to be? Orbiting the earth like a satellite, causing rain storms and orchestrating plane crashes? That’s superstition.

One more comparison: I think that hallucinogenic revelations are kind of like Pentecostal speaking in tongues. Traditionally, Pentecostals have believed that the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to speak God’s praises in foreign languages they had never learned (whatever the point of that might be). But linguistic studies have made it plain that they are simply spouting gibberish (see William Samarin, They Speak with other Tongues). Pentecostals are threatened by such results (like Mormons disturbed at the DNA tests proving that American Indians have no Semitic genes and thus do not qualify as expatriate Israelites).

But they needn’t worry, because shortcuts to foreign language proficiency are hardly the point. Speaking in tongues is and always has been ecstatic speech and has been practiced throughout the centuries by various cultures. It is “speaking with the tongues of angels.” When glossolalic utterances are “interpreted,” it denotes not translation of foreign speech but rather divining the significance of an oracle or a dream.

It’s not an objective miracle, and it’s not supposed to be. Instead, it is an intra-psychic spiritual experience. Would the spontaneous ability to speak in an unfamiliar language even be a spiritual experience? Not just a weird parapsychological anomaly? The same applies, I think, to meaningful hallucinations. They’re “just” in your head. Which is the only relevant place for them to be.

So says Zarathustra.



RMP on Patreon

As several of you have advised me to do, Qarol and I have set up a Patreon account. This is a wonderful way of bringing into the 21st century the venerable tradition of patronage: donors supporting artists, philosophers, and scholars, leaving them free to devote more time to their valuable work. In the past, it was only wealthy aristocrats who patronized creators, but Patreon democratizes patronage, inviting interested supporters to contribute whatever they can each month. As Father Guido Sarducci said about those “thirty-five cent sins,” “they mount up!” As you know, I am busy at (too) many things: this blog, my many book projects, the Bible Geek podcast, debating and speaking, and editing fiction anthologies (plus writing my own stories). I have no teaching position because my well-known writings have made me notorious, but I still must share what I know, share it with you.

It would be a very great help to me and my family if we could receive enough support on a regular basis to pay our bills and to allow Carol to leave her (low-paying) job to become my partner and administrative assistant. I would also love to pay my volunteer Bible Geek producers for their heroic efforts on my behalf and yours. Also, Qarol and I would like to share our Heretics Anonymous discussion groups with you, on-line and in person. Your generosity will help us cover our current projects and enable us to expand our efforts. I  hope you will consider it! Many Thanks!

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More Than a Man

Source: must have been nearly two decades ago. I was a featured guest at a Horror/Fantasy conference in Georgia. It was barely organized, any scheduling left to spontaneous generation. Largely a waste of time. So I spent much of the weekend in my motel room reading Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And as I read, a peculiar realization dawned on me. I suddenly realized that it had fallen to me to be this generation’s Zarathustra (hence, of course, the title of this column). It would be my task to carry forward the work of Nietzsche and his fictional alter ego, bringing their insights to bear on today’s world, today’s issues. To proclaim the Death of God and what it means to us. To lay bare the nonsense that chokes our discourse, the stupidity and fustian that render futile contemporary discussion. To expose the chicanery of religion—and of atheism.

Megalomania? I’m not ashamed of it.

Batman BuddhaBut I do want to reflect on it. When discussing the coming of the Superman it is not surprising that one’s mind turns to superheroes, and to their movies. In Batman Begins we see Ras al Ghul training Bruce Wayne high in the Himalayas. He explains to his apprentice that, in order to accomplish his mission as a superhero he must “become more than a man,” hence the costumed persona with cape and cowl. The bat-suit is no mere exotic set of clothes. It is a kind of second skin denoting Bruce Wayne’s transformation, his transcendence of mere humanity, “more than a man.”

We see the same metamorphosis in another movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, in the scene when Steve Rogers has rescued hundreds of American POWs from the dungeons of the Red Skull. As he leads them, limping but victorious, into the American camp, his friend Bucky Barnes raises a cheer for the new hero: “Let’s hear it for Captain America!” Before this, the man had been Steve Rogers. But in this moment he has taken upon his broad shoulders the mantle of the mythic hero archetype. His costume and title denote he is henceforth something more than a man: a living incarnation of collective America.

It’s nothing new. Is Queen Elizabeth entitled to live in such opulence? As an individual, not necessarily. But she’s a living symbol of the majesty of the United Kingdom. The opulence, the majesty is not hers; it’s that of Great Britain. Maybe you don’t buy that. Maybe you’d prefer they did away with all that pomp(osity).  Make it like East Germany. I guess things just can’t be mundane enough for you. The People’s Republic of the Rainy Day. Well, as Bluto Blutarsky once said, “You can kiss my ass.” Or, I guess, the Queen’s ass. I don’t know which would be worse, actually.

To go from one great thinker to another, Carl Jung has helpful stuff to say on our subject. What I am talking about is what he calls “inflation of the archetype.” Our Unconscious is hardwired with a galaxy of images: numbers, geometric figures, mythic types, etc. These last include the Crone, the Axis Mundi, the Hero, the Wise Man, etc. Sometimes an individual comes to identify with one of these archetypes to the point where it defines him. The danger is that such an individual may become completely consumed, or subsumed, in the archetype, and then you have a nut who thinks he’s Napoleon.

Stephan A. Hoeller puts it well: “The worship of the archetypes implies their overevaluation, which frequently leads to the personality being possessed by an archetype. The ghastly apparition of spiritual pride soon rears its swollen head, and, instead of utilizing the power of the archetypes, individuals come to imagine that they have become a divine archetype themselves. [This] reduces the power of the gods to the level of the psychic caperings of fools and madmen.”  (The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, pp. 126-127).

C.G. Jung by Jerry Bacikiz

But you don’t have to go off the deep end. Jung once found himself assuming the persona of the second-century Gnostic teacher Basilides. In this exalted state he penned his Seven Sermons to the Dead. (I wonder if any students of Gnosticism actually count this writing among the works of Basilides? If so, it would be the only one extant, since all the others were destroyed by the Catholic Church’s Bomb Squad!)

Paul Tillich’s Christology would seem to fit Jung’s understanding. Tillich considered that Jesus “proves and confirms his character as the Christ in the sacrifice of himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ.” Jesus yielded himself up to the “Christ” archetype which already existed. (This, by the way, is the element of truth in C.S. Lewis’s essay, “Myth Became Fact,” where he admits there were pre-Christian myths of dying and rising savior gods but tries to co-opt them as hopeful yearnings of the human race for the Savior, Jesus, who should one day arrive to fulfill those “coming attractions.”

Jesus comes down from cross in a dreamWhat would it mean for Jesus to sacrifice that in him which was Jesus to that in him which was the Christ? Think of the sequence in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (or the Paul Schraeder/Martin Scorsese film version) in which Jesus (dreams that he) is taken down alive from the cross and lives out a full life as a conventional family man—until he snaps out of it and finds himself back on the cross. He has realized that opting for the life of an ordinary man would be to betray his unique destiny. So he traded his prerogative for his dharma. He traded his Jesus identity for his Christ identity. Thus did he become more than a man.

And, if I may pursue this one step more, allow me to suggest that Tillich is here presupposing his crucial distinction between a symbol and that to which it points (symbolizes). The symbol participates in what it points to, or it could not really symbolize it. It could only refer to it, like a crummy footnote. But if we equate the symbol with that which it points to, as Christians do with the Bible when they deem it the infallible Word of God, we thereby commit idolatry. Jesus could have made himself an idol in his own mind. He would have become like the self-deified Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim who executed all who refused to worship him. Or he’d have been like one of the poor souls in insane asylums who think they’re Jesus, like the guys in Milton Rokeach’s study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. Theologically, this would have been Monophysitism, the heresy that the divine nature had completely swallowed up the human nature of Christ.

In his essay “The Writer on Holiday” Semiologist Roland Barthes discusses a magazine story about a famous author taking a vacation and points out the implicit significance of the magazine doting on the fact that this famous person does many of the same mundane things the rest of us poor mortals do. Why make a big deal if these things are mundane? Because the one doing them in this case is a celebrity, i.e., divine. It’s like Jesus being born in a manger. Wow! We marvel at the divine condescension to share the humble lot of mortals! You see, the mundane details only serve to magnify the greatness of the divine!

“Far from the details of his daily life bringing nearer to me the nature of his inspiration and making it clearer, it is the whole mythical singularity of his condition which the writer emphasizes by such confidences. For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pajamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience.” (Barthes, Mythologies, p. 31)

X-Men bathroom signBut it should work the other way, too. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) is growing exasperated with his ditzy date’s gushing over the guru she has dragged him to see: “He’s God! I mean, this man is God!” To this Alvy replies, “There’s God coming outta the men’s room.” Well, stuff like that should constantly remind the one who feels himself bearing the mantle of the archetype that he is still a man, even if more, after all.

Stuttering John, one of Howard Stern’s flunkies, managed to get into a press conference given by the Dalai Lama. His shouted question: “How does it feel to be God?” You see, the Buddhist doctrine holds that he who occupies the position of the Dalai Lama is the earthly manifestation of the great Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who contains all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in himself. I’d say that’s pretty much God all right. So Stuttering John’s question was not an idle one. But His Holiness was ready for him: “I’m just a Buddhist monk.”  Huh? Was he rejecting the very doctrine of the religion for which he serves as a figurehead? No, you just have to remember what someone in the crowd in Monty Pythons Life of Brian (of Nazareth) yells out: “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!” Exactly.

Are you tempted to imagine you have a destiny, a mission or responsibility to do something which the run of mankind are not expected or expecting to do? I suggest you remember that destiny is not delusion. To keep straight the difference, you might try to keep in mind that you have this treasure in an earthen vessel. But you can become “more than a man,” whether it is a cape or a cross you are to bear.

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Black Lies Matter

Just the other day, speaking at a conference, I had the nasty experience of having my opinions waved away as “the voice of white privilege.” First time for me. I found this experience pretty hilarious for a couple of reasons. First, the topic for the meeting was a book by an African American author whom I knew at Drew University years ago. I was passed over for a permanent position there, while this man, who had a Sunday Schooler’s grasp of biblical criticism, was essentially an Affirmative Action hire. (I’d had the same thing happen at Montclair State College when they hired an African fellow to teach Islam, which he knew nothing about.) White privilege, you say? What white privilege? I’d say somebody else had the privilege.

Every one of the conference attendees was African American, matching the composition of the host church, the Universal Truth Center. You should have heard the wholesale gasping when I referred to “the disastrous Black Lives Matter movement, based on lies.” And here’s the second bit of irony. The group holding the meeting was a New Thought organization. The central tenet of New Thought (which I discuss quite sympathetically in my book Top Secret) is a kind of “mind over matter” doctrine, that the universe is malleable, subject to change and reshaping in accordance with the directions, the “affirmations,” of human beings. New Thought is predicated on Pantheism: every individual is inherently and essentially divine. So is the universe. And one part can influence the others. New Thought is cousin to Christian Science and shares its faith that one can think away illness. God can’t be ill, so we can’t be either unless we buy into the illusion that we are not God and can be sick. I suspect the illusion is on the wrong foot here. It presupposes the Division Fallacy: if something is true of the larger whole it must be equally true of every individual part of it. If America is a wealthy nation, it follows that I personally must be rich, right? Wrong.

…the Left has successfully used the “Law of Attraction” to manifest an ugly race-hate climate that didn’t exist until they conjured it into being by insisting it was real. And it became real.

At any rate, New Thought believers hold that one may “creatively visualize” a desired outcome and thereby “manifest” it in reality. There is a psychological wisdom in this attitude, but even New Thought folks tacitly admit it is not automatically or always successful. They have a “booby prize” back-up excuse when it doesn’t work, precisely parallel to the cold-comfort rationalization employed by Pentecostals: “You will definitely be healed if you claim healing from God!” Then, “Oh, uh, you’re still not healed? Er, you must not have had enough faith! Yeah, that’s the ticket!” New Thought gurus and channelers will tell you that your affirmations did not actually fail. Perish the thought. No, it must be that Source, God, the Universe, Oprah or whoever had something better in mind for you. Maybe so, but if you’d had that in mind at the start, it would have sapped the absolute confidence you were told you needed.

Okay, here’s the irony “manifested” at the conference the other day. The Black Lives Matter movement is a case where it does work. It is all based on a traditional Leftist tactic employed by Mussolini and others, the useful, potent myth that will motivate the crowds better than some equivocal, ambiguous facts. You know Al Gore’s schlockumentary title, “An Inconvenient Truth”? Well, this is the “convenient untruth.” If it were true, boy, would it get people stirred up to act! So let’s say it is true! Black Lives Matter is founded squarely upon debunked lies about the death of a worthless thug, as if he had been gunned down by a white cop while raising his hands in surrender. He wasn’t. In addition, the endlessly repeated narrative about police being on a hunt for young black men is sheer nonsense, refuted again and again by stubborn statistics. (See Heather Mac Donald, The War on Cops and Are Cops Racist? That is, if facts matter to you more than unsubstantiated propaganda.)

I call it the Trayvon Martyr Syndrome. It is a wider phenomenon, and a particularly nefarious one. There had been substantial progress in putting racism behind us in America, thanks to the courage of great reformers and real martyrs like Dr. King. But the Obama administration (advised by Al Charlatan) cynically fomented race hate for cheap political advantage and set us back years in race relations. Who knows why? Well, the Left has successfully used the “Law of Attraction” to manifest an ugly race-hate climate that didn’t exist until they conjured it into being by insisting it was real. And it became real. Their cop-hatred and obnoxious demonstrations, invading restaurants and rebuking diners for imagined racism and “white privilege,” had the predictable result: they had goaded the objects of their wrath into the very antagonism they had accused them of.

Or consider the tendency to defend black hooligans and criminals simply because they are fellow blacks, as if to call one a criminal amounts to indicting all African Americans. The most idiotic example of this must surely be a black Leftist official in Baltimore claiming that to call anyone a “thug” is racist. Uh, you mean because there is an inherent link between “black” and “thug”? Who except you is saying that? It is you who are inviting the rest of us to think so!

The sheer absurdity of all this blather about systemic racism was obvious from the fact that white America had elected the first black President!

But there is such a thing as “institutional” or “systemic racism.” But Leftists are looking in the wrong place for it. They ought to look in the mirror. For one thing, there’s the long-time reverse racism of Affirmative Action. The Leftist New Thought strategy was evident here, too. Let’s not aim for equality of opportunity. Let’s legislate equality of outcomes. Take the short cut. Only it was a short-cut to getting lost. Instead of the hard work of preparing African Americans academically, let’s just pretend their job candidates are well-prepared whether they are or not. It’s like giving kids participation trophies. It inflates and thus devalues genuine black American achievement. This “black privilege” fosters white suspicions that African Americans cannot cut it. Of course they can (and do) if given the opportunity for adequate preparation.

And you're gonna become voters and vote like your friends do!

And whose fault is it that so many aren’t? I say it is the condescending policies of Democratic administrations starting with LBJ who frankly admitted his War on Poverty was a scheme to make African Americans (not the word he used, by the way) permanently dependent on the Democratic Party. Welfare has resulted in generation after generation of addiction to poison goodies. It has made the African American husband superfluous as a bread winner and has resulted in an incredibly high rate of out-of-wedlock babies and fatherless families. (It is unfashionable to say this, partly because of feminist-extremist ideology that celebrates such broken family structures.) Check out African-American scholar Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.

Male children of such families have no male role models in the home and wind up getting (anti)socialized by street gangs, channeling their burgeoning male energies into predation and savagery, the state of pre-civilization. No wonder they don’t take school seriously. Lacking discipline at home, they don’t miraculously start behaving when the school bell rings. Worse yet, they repudiate academic success and ridicule black classmates who do strive for it. They think that to succeed is to “act white.” Where did they get this idea? From the local Ku Klux Klan chapter? No, from self-appointed African American demagogues like the Reverend Sharpton, who promote the notion that the white society is stacked against them. If you do manage to succeed, you must have bought into the white System, which makes you a race traitor. This is bizarre and perverse thinking, not to mention self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a system of racism all right, but one created by the Left. Again, it’s a ruinous application of the vaunted Law of Attraction, and it worked. (Take a look at Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America by John McWhorter, another black scholar.)

But sometimes Leftist New Thought does not work. The Obama administration’s economic and foreign policies were based on an inflexible ideological model of the world, of “social justice,” climate change apocalypticism, and “the arc of history,” forged in Ivy League faculty lounges. The administration steadfastly refused to be confused with the facts. The story is told of Hegel that, after he pontificated on the dialectical unfolding of history, a brave student raised his hand and ventured, “But, Herr Hegel, the facts are otherwise!” The philosopher’s response: “Then so much worse for the facts!” Well, Herr Obama, Herr Sharpton, Herr Holder, the facts are otherwise. And of course sometimes the facts don’t like being ignored. Sometimes they bite back.

I mentioned the similarity between New Thought and Pentecostalism. In fact they often overlap. What happens when one stubbornly insists that things are not what they seem? That what displeases you is a metaphysical phantom or the devil’s lies (choose your idiom)? You sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. You will never be able to see how wrong you are. Your heedless adherence to your precious ideology makes you explain away the destructive results of your socio-political policies or your refusal to treat your illnesses with “worldly” medicine. Ad hoc hypotheses pop up to fill the vacuum. The ludicrous becomes plausible if it’s the last plank you can hang onto to save face for your erroneous notions. Again, “God must have healed you, so, er, you are healed! It just isn’t apparent to you because Satan’s counterfeiting the symptoms!” There’s no end to it. So whether it’s economic policies or faith healing, the result is dangerous fanaticism. Leftist inflexibility, immune to disconfirmation, results in what I call political snake-handling, and the victims don’t even know they’ve been bitten.

Maybe the funniest moment of the conference was when I pointed out that one of President Trump’s favorite books, which greatly influenced the course of his life and career, is Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, a work famously permeated by New Thought principles. I observed that Donald Trump is probably the closest thing to a Christian New Thought president that we’ll ever get. The uniformly Leftist New Thoughters present at the conference somehow did not rejoice at this remarkable fact. You should have seen the squirming!

So says Zarathustra.

[If you’d like to read the paper I presented that day, see Republicans and Sinners: What Were Jesus’ Political Opinions. It was not this paper, however, that prompted the reactions I have described here, but rather a subsequent series of questions concerning my own political opinions.]

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

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Repent and Believe the Fake News

infinite regressOn my way home from Hardees this morning, it occurred to me that the Islamic account of the revelation of the Koran was a prime example of what Jacques Derrida called “the simulacrum.” “But it is a difference without reference, or rather a reference without a referent, without any first or last unit, a ghost that is the phantom of no flesh, wandering about without a past, without any death, birth, or presence. Mallarmé thus preserves the differential structure of mimicry or mimesis, but without its Platonic or metaphysical interpretation, which implies that somewhere the being of something that is is being imitated.”  (Jacques Derrida, Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 206). Here’s what I have in mind.

Islam believes that, when the Prophet Muhammad uttered the oracles subsequently written down as the Surahs of the Koran, he was repeating what the angel Gabriel was reading to him from the Mother of the Book, an eternal volume resident in heaven. But of course there is and was no such book resting on a pulpit in the sky. Not only did cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin not see it, but the whole notion is laughable if only because the Surahs, many of them, address specific historical circumstances, not eternal verities. It presupposes an ironclad historical determinism, predestinarianism, a script written in advance. This reduces even the supposed history of Islam to a charade: were the “crimes” of unbelief against which Allah blusters and fulminates in the Koran all scheduled by him in advance? Actually, the Koran says that they were. “Oh yeah? You refuse to knuckle under to Allah? Well, my friend, the joke’s on you, ‘cause Allah made you not believe in him so he could send your ass to Gehenna! So there!” Can such childishness really be a revelation from God? Well, I guess it starts sounding pretty plausible if the alternative is to get your head chopped off.

Also, the Koran speaks again and again of supposed events of the past vis-à-vis Muhammad, how things happened long ago to Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus. Obviously, these things are referred to in the past, but if the Koran was eternal in the heavens, it has the tenses all wrong! It must have originated in a historical period when these (supposed) events were long past.

But, a la (not Allah) Derrida and Mallarmé, the infinite regress continues apace. The idea that the Surahs of the Koran are transcriptions (from memory!) of things witnesses heard a man named Muhammad say is equally fictitious. They are “copies” of something that had hitherto failed to exist in the first place! It has even become questionable whether there was ever a historical Muhammad upon whom these “revelations” might be fictively fathered.

All this falderal is perhaps meant to conceal a genuine original from which the Surahs were derived, namely Arabic Christian hymns. Gunter Lüling showed how much sense it makes of the Koranic text once one strips away an obscuring layer of redaction and rewriting by Muslim scribes and theologians. Even rules of grammar had been reverse-engineered to make the original Christian texts look Islamic. Lüling estimated that as much as a third of the extant Koran stems from Christian hymnody. Ibn Warraq, a scholarly historian of Islamic origins and Koranic criticism, notes that, as it stands, much of the text is simply incoherent. English translations of the Koran differ so widely because the translations are perforce largely conjectural.

ferengirules of aquisitionThe title of the present essay is of course based on the opening salvo of Jesus’ preaching assummarized by Mark the evangelist: “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). This is not actually presented as the quoted words of Jesus, despite the usual punctuation in our Bible translations. Instead, it is indirect discourse: Mark’s words, not those of Jesus. Did Jesus say this? Did he even say the sayings the gospels do offer us in the form of direct quotations? I doubt it very much. In fact, the case is much like that of the Surahs of the Koran. It is just plain fanciful to imagine that people immediately took pains to memorize Jesus’ brief aphorisms, much less his longer, more detailed parables, what characters in them said back and forth, etc. Get real! Isn’t it obvious that the whole “oral tradition” approach is a far-fetched attempt to build a bridge to nowhere? To retroject later literary creations back onto a possibly fictional figure of the past? It’s a mirror image of the Star Trek writers cooking up the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition and ascribing them to an alien race in the distant future. Of course, they are presupposing the viewer’s “temporary, willing suspension of disbelief.” So are the gospel writers, minus the “temporary” qualifier.

Look at the Markan summation of Jesus’ apocalyptic message. The urgency of repentance is predicated upon the prospect of nearly immediate Armageddon. And, like the whole series of doom-saying predictions in the subsequent centuries, this prediction failed. There was no prior truth to which it corresponded, no heavenly deposit of information that Jesus’ preaching reflected.

Of “what” is one to repent in order to believe in the good (fake) news? I suggest it implies that one must repent of sober, rational thinking. Mustn’t you do that if you are going to decide to believe in something for which there is and can be no evidence? Repent of reason? That’s faith, what faith requires, because otherwise you will never arrive at the desired conclusion.

pearl of great priceWho could want you to do that? It must be someone who desperately wants you to hop aboard their bandwagon, to accept their prescribed dogma, and who knows that no careful weighing of available, verifiable evidence would get you there. You cannot buy the product with the crummy pocket change of rational thought and data, so you’d have to beg, borrow, or steal the needed funds. It’s the unintended admission of the parable of the pearl merchant (Matthew 13:45-46) who sells his entire inventory in order to purchase one giant, shining bauble. Not a good idea. Caveat emptor!

I guess it all boils down to what my old pal Tony Glidden, fellow Gordon-Conwell alumnus, once said: “When people say, ‘God said it! I believe it! That settles it!’ what they really mean is, “I said it! God believes it! That settles it!’” Tony is a smart guy.

Imagine for a moment how vastly different theological (and political) discussions would be if we resolved never to appeal to unverifiable “authorities” like Jesus, Muhammad, the Bible, or the Koran. Suppose we were to eschew anything but reason and evidence, and our own evaluation of them, not just what our favorite “experts” say. We should very quickly come to realize just how little basis there is for any conviction on many questions, how little justification for dogmatism, and how surprisingly adequate it is to deal with life without settled beliefs on unknowable questions. It might work.

So says Zarathustra.

Religion the original fake news

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The Law of the Father

Lawmen Lucas McCain and Andy Taylor mentoring their motherless sons.
Lawmen Lucas McCain and Andy Taylor mentoring their motherless sons.


My Two Dads

Carol and I were watching The Rifleman this morning. It’s still on as I write. I watch an hour of it every day. Ditto The Andy Griffith Show. There are significant parallels between the two shows’ premises. Both center on the adventures of a widowed father who is a lawman (Rifleman’s Lucas McCain is often deputized or serves as fill-in marshal). Both run through a series of girlfriends but never remarry. Each is a great dad, raising his young son without a mother. There is a surrogate mother character in each show: shopkeeper Hattie in The Rifleman, Aunt Bea in Andy Griffith. (The same actress who portrayed Hattie went on to play Clara Edwards, Aunt Bea’s best friend!) The Rifleman premiered in 1958, Andy Griffith in 1960. I guess it’s possible for the one series to have borrowed from the other, but I doubt it.

Lucas McCain is much like Star Trek Captains Kirk and Picard. The Rifleman exemplifies unimpeachable character and integrity, together with a sense of duty to his own code of honor as well as to his community. He has courage and can back it up with power. He is a forgiving Christian, eager to believe the best about people and to give them a second chance. Each episode is a morality play with a lesson to teach, yet without sanctimonious priggishness. The story is always told for its own sake, but given the kind of person Lucas is, any stories told of him must contain moral lessons. I wish parents and schools would have kids watch The Rifleman, both as a set of history lessons and as character education.

But that’ll never happen.

Why? Because most episodes end with Lucas shooting down the bad guys, albeit in self-defense. Even in its initial run, some condemned the show as the most violent on TV. How much more objectionable the gun violence must seem to Politically Correct pantywaists today when little kids get suspended from school for pointing fingers as imaginary guns! And that’s too bad since such prissiness fosters the nonsensically naïve notion that guns are not necessary to ensure a safe society. But they still are, just as in the 1880s. There are two episodes that face this problem directly, showing how attempts to control crime by confiscating firearms wind up inviting the very chaos they aimed at avoiding. The show makes the point loud and clear: the righteous as righteous must be prepared to kill the wicked—lest they become the wicked by neglecting to prevent their wicked deeds. It takes courage. And courage is a virtue.

Sheriff Andy Taylor is quite different on this point. Like an English bobby: he does not usually carry a gun. Like that of his transatlantic counterparts, Andy’s policy presupposes a civilized society whose crimes are not usually violent and thus do not require a violent response. Andy does take a rifle off the rack on those rare occasions when an escaped criminal from the outside world infiltrates the mini-Shangri-La of Mayberry. But, as I remember, he has never had to fire it.

Andy takes turns teaching, usually Socratically, character lessons to his son Opie and learning from the boy who doesn’t hesitate to point it out when the Emperor of Mayberry has no clothes. As the years passed, the character of Andy became even more morally upright, no longer the truth-stretching rascal he was in earlier seasons. Unfortunately, he became a bit of a bore. When he finally left the show for a new series, Headmaster, where he was in charge of a private school, the transition seemed too completely smooth.

Some Iron in Your Diet

Iron John befriends the prince.

But it is not just character lessons in general that such TV shows teach, as important as they are. Without trying to, these shows illustrate what it is we increasingly lack in early twenty-first century America: normative nuclear family structures and the dynamic relations between relatives that we evolved to depend upon. A terrific book setting forth these relations is poet Robert Bly’s Iron John, very popular in the 1990s. The title refers to one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in which the King drains a swamp in which a furry anthropoid (think Bigfoot) lurks. The locals fear this creature, called Iron John. The soldiers manage to take him captive and to place him in a cage, where he poses no danger and serves as a spectacle for the curious. One day the child Prince is playing with a ball which rolls into Iron John’s cell. The giant offers to return it to him if the Prince will fetch the key to the cage, which is kept under the Queen’s pillow. This is a dicey proposition because the King has decreed that anyone who releases the Wild Man will be executed. The boy goes ahead with the scheme and manages to filch the key. He frees Iron John and, afraid his crime will be discovered, leaves with Iron John. They live in the forest, where it turns out Iron John guards a vast hoard of riches and relics stored down a well. The man-monster must go away on various errands, leaving the prodigal Prince minding the store. He charges him never to enter the well, but eventually the boy accidentally falls partly over the edge. This turns his hair to gold.

Iron John sees what has happened in his absence and sends the lad away, deciding it is time for him to leave Toyland and enroll in the School of Hard Knocks. So the Prince hits the road. Eventually, he enters the service of a foreign king. He proves his mettle in battle, then wins the hand of the king’s daughter. Finally, he is reunited with his parents at the royal wedding. Iron John shows up, too, but he no longer looks like a Yeti. He is a glorious, golden king, freed from a curse which had transformed him into his apish form until he should find someone worthy of freeing him.

Bly saw in this tale, quite plausibly, a lesson of male maturation. The central character is not really the boy who matures but rather his initiator, without whose guidance and challenges the youth cannot mature. A male mentor (father, uncle, coach, whatever) separates a lad from his mother’s doting care. He helps the boy to discover his male energy, what Bly calls his “Zeus energy.” It is power, ferocity, animal instinct. The young man must by no means suppress his urges but instead learn to find their proper place, the right times and occasions in which to manifest them. The ideal would be a man who is quick to show compassion but from a position of superiority. One for whom a compromise is condescension rather than surrender, who is “big enough” to forgive; i.e., he forgives freely, not because he is obliged to do so.

In our bizarre era, male mentoring has become more and more rare, and this is the result of the breakdown of the family unit. On the one hand “Great Society” programs have gutted ghetto families by invalidating the husband-father’s labor by making government assistance easier and more lucrative than working at a job. No longer needed and feeling useless, these men are robbed of their natural dignity and abandon their families. Their male children have no adult male to assist their transition to maturity. Their Zeus energy has to go somewhere, so these kids join violent street gangs, seeking legitimation, affirmation, i.e., respect, through crime, proving their valor by daring but destructive exploits.

On the other hand, in the hands of feminist ideologues, young men are urged toward “androgyny,” i.e., emasculation, feminization, sissification. Their Zeus energy is extinguished along with any idea of heroic achievement, of individual greatness that earns its stature above the faceless collectivity.

Woodman, Spare That Tree!

gender symbols
gender symbols

Neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan speaks of socialization as the imposition by society of “the law of the father.” Individual identity depends, ironically, upon definition in terms of the culture one is born into. And Robert Bly is, I think, affirming the importance of that patterning. But I believe his approach is predicated on the rejection of one of today’s regnant dogmas, that gender identity is a purely arbitrary social construction with no necessary relation to biology. By contrast, Bly presupposes the existence and importance of biologically assigned and essential maleness and femaleness. If these are neglected or allowed to go out of control or are denied by fiat, there will be destructive consequences to the individual and to society. Biology is destiny, as Freud said, at least insofar as it provides what Aristotle called an entelechy, an inborn tendency which may or may not be fulfilled, depending on external circumstances. The entelechy of an acorn is to become an oak, which it will actually do if not thrown off track by some tree disease or by a guy with an ax. Likewise, males are born with maleness, females with femaleness, gays with gayness, and to reroute that train somewhere along the line will most likely cause a trainwreck.

A rival vision is that of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (in their Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia), who issue a call to freedom, a deconstruction of the indoctrinated law of the father, giving birth to a kind of Dionysiac schizophrenia. This is what the Politically Correct Radical Left is promoting when they seek to dissolve traditional family structure, marriage, and gender identity. You can, they say, decide what gender you are, and some offer over fifty boxes to check. One may even, they say, choose which race to belong to, and this from the same ideologues who complain about “cultural appropriation”! They force (on college campuses) the adoption of artificial gender-neutral pronouns.

Ultimately these trends must create a condition of anomie, normlessness, moral and political anarchy in both individuals and society. I contend that such freedom, which is but a euphemism for “nothing left to lose,” is Nihilism. It creates a mind that is so open that it needs to be closed for repairs. Integrity means you’ve “got it all together,” that your thoughts and actions are in harmony and that your values are consistent with one another, and with certain underlying principles. I submit that it is not possible to have moral character, hence personal maturity, if one lacks such a foundation. Thus I think it should be no surprise that today’s Leftists embrace the utterly cynical tactics of the devilish Saul Alinsky. “By any means necessary.” Uh, necessary for what? For the “freedom” that is really just an epileptic spasm? We are already feeling the sea-sickness from the ship pitching on the agitated ocean.

So warns Zarathustra.

 A Chilling Lesson from Patriarchless Pachyderms

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Hall of Mirrors

Magic Mirror

The Magic Mirror

One of my all-time favorite films is Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982). The Ekdahl clan operates a local theatre and drama troupe in the early days of the twentieth century, so it is natural for them to see things from a theatrical perspective. Once the curtain falls on the annual Christmas play, theatre owner Oscar Ekdahl offers some year-end reflections, and he speaks of the function of their theatre and of all theatres. “I love the little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse… Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds for a moment in reflecting the big world, so that we understand it better.” Oscar might have called the theatre a mirror of the big world. He pretty much did. How does the theatre mirror the world in such a way as to make it understandable?

Theater as the "little world" as described in Bergman's Fanny and AlexanderThe assumption is that our ordinary perception of the big world is (to borrow Kant’s term) an “undifferentiated manifold of perception.” Oscar describes his thick-walled playhouse as “a small room of orderliness, routine, conscientiousness, and love.” That is not like the big, blooming, buzzing world outside, an onrushing ocean of random experience and nigh-unintelligible signals. But once that big world is represented inside the little world, it will begin to take on the orderliness of the little world. It must or it cannot be squeezed inside. This means that the plays performed inside have selected certain elements of the larger, “real” world and imparted structure that the outer world lacks. In thus choosing key features of that big world to represent it, we make that world understandable, isolating the clues to what the playwright thinks is “really” going on. The outer world is a dumb block of marble from which the playwright extracts an intelligible object. He might have chosen a different resultant shape, and of course other playwrights (interpreters) do all the time.

Fun House Mirror

Plays, movies, television, novels can all function as mirrors as we see ourselves in them. We may identify with characters portrayed there, but it can be just as revealing when we find ourselves despising characters. Is it possible we react so strongly to characters whose negative traits mirror our own? It is a way of “projecting” a la Jung (or engaging in “reaction formation” as Freud called it). We despise these depicted traits, scape-goating them onto fictional characters (also onto other real-life people).

If your reflection in the mirror of media seems to you an offensive distortion, you would be well advised to take a closer look at that image. Is it possible that the disconnect is between the truth about you and your carefully crafted image of yourself? It would be like most people’s reaction to first hearing their recorded voice. “Uh, I sound like that? Ugh…” And it may not be only your self-image that is reflected stripped of illusion; maybe your accustomed worldview is endangered. I think of H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider.” The title character is a mysterious amnesiac who has just emerged from a buried castle and blunders into a party full of genteel gaiety. Upon his entry, the partiers scatter in panic. The Outsider sees the revolting, horrific image of that which so frightened everyone else. Initially paralyzed by the same fear, he cannot flee. But the horror does not move either. As the man reaches out toward the intruder, he sees the monster, a hideously decayed figure, reaching out toward him. His questing finger meets that of the other, but in that moment his finger meets an unyielding glass surface, not of a window, but of a mirror.

Through the Looking Glass

Mirror, mirror - episode of StarTrekThere are a couple of Star Trek episodes that require discussion here. The first is “Mirror, Mirror” in which Kirk and some of his crew get switched with their counterparts from an alternative universe where things are, to put it mildly, topsy-turvy. Instead of the benevolent Federation, we find the malevolent Empire. The whole crew has turned into their Hyde versions. Kirk has to play a creative, desperate game to maintain the required façade while finding ways to avoid the brutal atrocities expected of him. Back in the familiar Star Trek universe, the alien Kirk quickly reveals himself as a raging Caligula. Interestingly, Spock is a constant in both worlds! One might have expected he would be letting his human half rip with unbridled emotions! And this is a clue.

Why would the Mirror world versions of the characters be negatives? The answer is to be found in the other episode, “The Enemy Within,” in which a transporter beam malfunction splits Kirk into two, one possessing the original’s intelligence and conscience, the other possessing Kirk’s courage, decisiveness — and basest instincts. So it turns out that in the Mirror universe the characters’ baser nature is dominant, while in “our” world” their noble character is manifest.

Parenthetically, “The Enemy Within” is a great parable of the Jewish doctrine of the Good vs. Evil Yetzers, or instincts. Every person has both, like the angel and the devil perched on either shoulder, each trying to convince a morally conflicted mortal to follow his advice. When we sin, we are yielding to the Evil Yetzer, but the pious person mustn’t seek to eradicate the evil tendency as religious Perfectionists (like Christian Holiness Sects) do, because you need that evil instinct! Why? Without cruelty we should be too soft on criminals. We would not fight Nazis and terrorists. We would be suicidal bleeding hearts, and the world would descend into chaos. Perfect righteousness in a wicked world aids and abets evil. So you need both.

It can be quite the rude shock that we would rather deny and discard. James 1:23-24 describes us well when he alludes ironically to “a man who looks in the mirror at the face he was born with, then goes away and at once forgets what he looks like.” James’s metaphorical mirror is scripture, but it can be any kind of feedback. If we don’t like what we see, it is up to us to accept the mirror’s rebuke and make adjustments or to continue repressing the awareness of our spiritual or ethical ugliness. We would rather keep seeing the world through rose-colored glasses—or rather through mirror lenses on the inside.

Back to Fanny and Alexander. After Oscar succumbs to a stroke, his widow marries Bishop Edvard Vergerus, a universally respected moral leader of the community. It does not go well. The challenges of his wife, talented actress and strong-willed individual, and his devilishly smart new stepson Alexander, who refuses to take any crap from him, rapidly force Edvard’s cruelty and sanctimonious hypocrisy into the stark light of day. He is horrified by what is revealed: “I always thought people liked me. I saw myself as wise, broad-minded, and fair. I had no idea that anyone was capable of hating me.” But does he change? Hell, no. He still sees himself as wise, broad-minded and fair—despite all the evidence!


The Mirror Master

Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room - Second season of Twilight ZoneRemember the Twilight Zone episode in which a nervous, sweating little man named Jackie, a small-time crook, awaits his boss’s orders for the night’s job? He catches his image in the mirror of his dingy fleabag hotel room. Of course he has done this, and seen this, thousands of times over his disappointing life, but never like this, because his scowling reflection begins talking back to him, upbraiding him for his life-long cowardice and begging him to let his long-suppressed better side out of the mirror so he can take the reins before it is too late. At first terrified at the prospect of change, Jackie finally realizes the contemplated switcheroo is the only thing that can save him from his soon-to-crash life of crime and cowardice. Jackie becomes John and strides out to make a new life. It’s possible.

The image of (and in) the mirror reminds us of the motto of Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself.” That is what we are talking about here. And there is more in that mirror than you may think. I go back to Fanny and Alexander one more time. My absolute favorite character in the film is Uncle Isak, Isak Jacobi, a family friend who pretends to be an antique dealer but is really a dweller in his own private museum. He lives with his nephews Aron and Ishmael. Aron creates fantastically elaborate marionettes and puppets, and these are the real source of their income. We are back to the “little world” in which we gain a glimpse of the “big world.” Isak’s dwelling, crammed with antiquities and curiosities and mystic relics (like a still-breathing mummy), is a microcosm of the divine macrocosm of the Kabbalah, of which Uncle Isak is a student and an adept, a magician in fact. At the center of his labyrinth, locked in his private cell, dwells Ishmael. Appearing to be an androgynous angel, the Angel of the Lord, and in essence God himself, mild and gentle, he is nonetheless dangerous because of the terrible knowledge he possesses and power he wields.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12 the poet writes, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” Ever ask yourself whose face is seen in a mirror? Your own, right? But the image here refers to knowledge of God. I think Uncle Isak would know what this means.

Seven Years Bad Luck

The mirror doesn’t necessarily reveal the truth since what we see in it may vary with our perceptions, our perspective. Yet this is nonetheless an apt reflection because things are not a certain way. It is a pluriverse, not a universe. It is up to us to observe and select phenomena and to act on what we see. It’s up to us to make the image into the reality, to make the little world into the big world. An example, though perhaps a strange-sounding one, might be theologian Gordon Kaufman’s argument that, since God must be incomprehensible, God cannot be simply described, and thus humans will necessarily create models, images, to stand for God. The danger, as Paul Tillich warned, is to confuse our God-concepts with the God-reality and so commit idolatry. But there is no other option, and we just have to be mindful of what we’re doing. Religious leaders and teachers, Kaufman says, must take responsibility for fashioning a God-model that can serve as a moral paradigm for religious people, one incompatible with, say, burning witches, suppressing science, beheading infidels.

But this is not just an example. Rather, it is a key to what is going on every time we construe what we see going on in the world and make an assessment of it. We are responsible for selecting what seem to us the relevant and important facts and factors we will use as the touchstone for interpreting and evaluating everything else. This process is inevitable and proper, but, of course, different individuals and different identity-groups see (and mirror) things very, very differently. This makes for a smashed mirror, a pile of sharp-edged shards, and that’s where we’re at as a culture.  If you step back and try to make sense of the whole thing, you can only compare it to the Tower of Babel, the Land of Confusion.

It’s not the sheer diversity of beliefs and opinions that shatter the mirror, but the increasing intolerance of one faction toward another, the refusal to engage one another in dialogue, the attempts to shout one another down, even to riot and destroy. A shattered mirror and a patchwork quilt are very different things. Our society is fast becoming a David Cronenberg movie in which the parts of the body are at war with each other and the organism rips itself apart. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again, the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21). But that’s what we’re doing in America today. Maybe if we look seriously in the national mirror and realize what’s going on, we can snap out of it and start gluing Humpty back together again.

So Says Zarathustra

citizen kane infinite regress

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The Art of the Boast

I get a huge kick out of Donald Trump, and this is not just because I like what he’s doing. I’m talking about his unfiltered remarks like asking the clergy at the National Prayer Breakfast to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on Celebrity Apprentice. I loved every crack, every dig, every barb he let fly during the debates. I just may be in the minority here, I realize. I even like the way he brags on himself and his achievements. But Trump is not my point here. He’s simply a prominent example of what I want to discuss this time. Is it bad to brag? Not necessarily.

Many of the President’s critics seem to pounce on anything he says, just because he is the one saying it. They like to suggest that Trump’s boasts are dead giveaways that he is deranged and should be removed from office. Others, with less of an axe to grind, are content to accuse Trump of overcompensating for an inferiority complex. That may be, but it is a little disturbing to me when bold self-confidence is taken as a symptom of insanity.

It is of course pathetic when people boast who have nothing to boast about. But I think the contempt we automatically feel should morph into compassion, even if it’s only to think, “Poor schmuck!” But what if the boasting is justified? Sometimes it is. Some people are great and have done great things. When they brag, they are simply being realistic. I won’t say that, in that case, it is humility or modesty, but it almost is.

I find it more offensive when people clothe themselves in false humility, either because they are fishing for compliments or because they superstitiously fear being struck down by Karma if they do openly rejoice over their talents or their accomplishments. Such humility may mean that a gifted individual is shirking his destiny. I just watched the old movie Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which depicted unassuming Abe as just wanting to be left alone. His shrewish wife, Mary Todd, made life miserable for him, but she was right to recognize his destiny and to nag him into fulfilling it. Was Abe’s humility an admirable trait? One level, yes. But on another, this seeming virtue was a stumbling block. Conversely, the braggadocio of someone like Trump may just mean he is full, not so much of himself, but of his destiny. I’m no mind reader, so I don’t pretend, as others rush to do, to psychoanalyze a man at long distance, through the TV. I’m exploring something in the abstract.

Proverbs says “Don’t praise yourself; let others do it.” I like that. But I feel like proper humility is, again, essentially just realistic self-assessment. If you’re talented, admit it and show you are thankful or lucky. There is no pretension there, and it’s pretension that I hate. I guess the dividing line is what you are trying to achieve by acknowledging your greatness. Are you fishing for compliments? That is pathetic. But when the great remark on their greatness as a simple observation, what’s so bad about that?

Many years ago, the pastor of my church plainly viewed himself as a new Kierkegaard. But that was okay with me, since he was a new Kierkegaard. He wasn’t trying to get you to think he was the new Dour Dane. You could just pick up on his self-understanding. If he had been self-deluded, it would have been ludicrous. Quite a difference.

“The difference is that they’re not in love with themselves. Instead, they’re in love with their mission.”

Sometimes great people chafe those around them with their self-absorption and their tendency to take their followers’ efforts for granted. You may not like their “dictatorial” style, their headlong pace, their insistence on their own way. But don’t you see? That’s part of the package! It’s not necessarily narcissism; it’s momentum. The difference is that they’re not in love with themselves. Instead, they’re in love with their mission. I have been lucky to know and to work with such individuals.

Paul Kurtz was one such. It was sometimes hard to work with him. He tended to alienate donors who, e.g., wanted their contributions directed to some particular project, often of their own invention. Paul always responded, “Thanks, but why don’t you just donate the money and let us decide what to do with it?” He’d hire people to do some job but then wouldn’t let them do it. These were flaws, but they were side-effects of his strengths, without which there would have been no Council for Secular Humanism, no Center for Inquiry, no Prometheus Books, no Free Inquiry.

Bob Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, was another powerhouse, another human locomotive. You could climb aboard, but he was the conductor, and people occasionally got run over. But no Funk, no Jesus Seminar. No Westar Institute. No Fourth R. No Five Gospels, and so on and so on. You just had to get used to it. Was his endeavor something you wanted to lend your energies to? If so, you had to get used to not being pampered. Maybe not even appreciated. Ask any soldier.

I never met him, but Arkham House publisher, naturalist, poet, and author August Derleth was yet another one. He was a dynamo. He made plenty of omelets and did not hesitate to break some eggs. He cut corners. He lived a sloppy life in some respects and invited numerous criticisms, but these volcanic doers and achievers are hurtling onward and cannot always contain themselves or pause to ponder every decision. Such is the price they, and we, pay for the creativity and dynamism that create the things we remember them for.

Should they pause and submit their ideas to an oversight committee? There might be less controversy, but less would be achieved. Here I believe Ayn Rand was right: the collectivity dilutes and smothers the unique greatness of the gifted individual. Nietzsche was right, too: the Superman must not allow himself be bound and gagged by the Lilliputians who hate him for being a living rebuke to their cowardice and mediocrity.

The danger, of course, is that an impatient achiever may exceed the prescribed limits of his power. Such an executive may become a dictator. You remember how the Roman Republic made provision for a legally empowered dictator in times of emergency when there’s no time to weigh all opinions. (Here, for some reason, I can’t help thinking of the time I was invited to address an Ethical Culture Society meeting about the historical Jesus question. They went around the circle having everyone present pose their questions for me to address all at once. But when they were finished, the meeting was over! No time left! They felt, as they admitted, that it was more important to hear all the members out than to hear the invited speaker! Ayn, are you listening?) I suspect what the Romans did would be impossible today, to our peril. Even when decisiveness is needful, I think we will be paralyzed with dithering and debating.

I do have one suggestion for curbing megalomania, for of course even the genuinely great (Greek megalé) can suffer from megalomania. I think the key to perspective on oneself is having a sense of humor about oneself. Be able to see the comical dimension of yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Catch yourself being pompous and think how silly others look doing the same thing. Go ahead and brag if you’ve got something to brag about, but be just as quick to laugh at yourself. That ought to do it. That’ll puncture your hot air balloon. As a windbag, I know whereof I speak.

So says Zarathustra.


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