Personally, I do not much care for the prospect of changing the way I refer to things or people when word comes down from the home office of Political Correctness that it’s time for a vocabulary change. I once tried to fall in line, rejecting the generic use of “men,” “man,” and mankind.” I tried my best to find gender-neutral equivalents.
The easiest trick was using “one” instead of “he” when I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind. (“One will find that one nearly always agrees with Price.”) And it’s not too hard to use plurals instead of singulars that are going to entail a singular pronoun later on. (“Readers will find that they love this column.” Instead of “The reader will find that he loves this column.”) I didn’t mind alternating “she” with “he” when I did use a generalizing singular. (“The reader will find that she loves this column.”)
But after a while I decided I’d had enough. The lords of PC made such a big deal out of it, especially in the academic and publishing circles in which I move, that I figured I’d buck the party line and go back to the more classical sounding “the reader… he” and “man-made” usages. When PC fascists try to enforce Newspeak, I have to react. It becomes my duty to defy them. I won’t say their passwords. It reminds me of a favorite Jesus saying from Sufi sources. Satan appears to Jesus and proposes, “Say, ‘God is one.’” Jesus answers, “It is a true saying, but I will not say it at your behest.” Exactly. Thanks, Jesus. Don’t let the bastards get you (or me) down!
I find other officially approved jargon to be merely mystifying, self-contradictory, and hypocritical. Get this: you can’t call anyone “colored people” (not that I want to; I never have), but you should call them “people of color.” What’s the hell’s the difference? And if you don’t play that game, you are accused of racism. More Newspeak.
But I find it creepy to use pigmentation as a category description at all. I admit, that does smack of racism to me, because it still implies that the color of the skin matters. We know better than to refer to anyone as “darkies” (God forbid!), but I admit, calling folks “blacks” appears equally racist to me. (I’m not saying you’re a racist if you say that; it just hasn’t hit you yet.)
So I welcome the neologism “African Americans.” It revives the short-lived 60s designation “Afro-Americans,” which is just as good. It is properly descriptive. We are used to denominating various other ethnic groups according to their pre-American heritage, and when we do, we speak of “Irish Americans,” “Italian Americans,” etc. That’s fair and not at all contrived. So “African Americans” does not strike me as in the least forced or ideological. A few more syllables, but who cares?
Has it ever occurred to you that racism is implicit whenever you call President Obama “the first black president”? Of course he is actually biracial. If you flip the coin and decide to label him “black,” this seems to me to hark back to the bad old days of classifying mixed-race individuals (as “octoroons,” etc.) according to how much “black blood” they are “polluted” with. If any African blood makes one “black,” it implies African heritage is a taint. But it ain’t. I am not trying to tell anyone what to say or not to say. But this example seems to me to show what a futile exercise it is to try to “purify” language. After a while, you’ve got to make the best of it and use the tools you have, even if they’re nicked or dull.
Call me a curmudgeon, but I resist and resent the meaning of words getting ideologically redefined. I guess I’d have to call myself an “anti-sexist.” I’m not entitled to the tag “feminist” because apparently you don’t qualify if you’re not pro-abortion or a member of the Democratic Party. Some would even say politically conservative women do not qualify as true women because they do not hold the party-line on “women’s issues.” The same people will say Bill Clinton was “the first black president” because he was liberal, while Dr. Ben Carson is not really “black” because he is a Republican. (Again, “black” is not my preferred usage, but I am commenting here on current, familiar usage.) I have trouble identifying as an atheist because I am not a liberal, and it is generally accepted that “critical thinkers” can only be liberals. Condescending, propagandist nonsense, I say. Boy, stereotypes just ain’t what they used to be!
How about new terms aimed at eliminating sexism? I’ve always hated neologisms like “chairperson” and “spokesperson,” at least when you’re speaking of a particular individual whose gender you know. Why not call her the “chairwoman”? Why not refer to him as your “spokesman”? You wouldn’t have called Frank Sinatra the Chairperson of the Board. He’d have slugged you. But I do kind of like the egalitarian term “Spokeshole,” don’t you?
But calling the police “police officers” instead of “policemen” makes good sense to me. For one thing, it is already an established usage, just an older one. So you don’t have to feel like you just graduated, properly chastened, from a Communist self-criticism camp. And for another, “police officer” has a nice ring of appropriate dignity. The fact that it is gender-inclusive is icing on the cake.
I also like “fire fighters” better than “firemen.” (I think “fire fighter” is British.) Anyway, I remember how, as a little kid, I heard someone refer to “firemen” and thought they meant arsonists! So I appreciate the extra clarity.
I’m not as used to this one yet, but I wouldn’t mind letting go of the familiar “mail man” in favor of the British “letter carrier.” Again, it sounds classier!
By contrast, I remember once hearing a Politically Correct speaker referring to the college janitor as the “gardener.” I cringed. The speaker felt he was showing respect to the guy who does the clean-up and repairs by using a euphemism to cover the “shame” of what he really did. As if the guy were a member of the lowly Hindu Shudra caste, rendered ritually unclean by his menial labor. Hey! What’s wrong with being a janitor? Nothing I can think of. It’s hard, honest, needful work. The speaker was committing the not uncommon Liberal sin of showing contempt for the very people they pretend to favor.
Another one that riles me is “Native Americans.” I was born in America. That makes me a native American. The American Indians were born here, too, and they are equally native with me. Like mine, their ancestors traveled here from another continent. Mine came from Europe, theirs from Asia, across the Bering Strait. If you want to get more authentic than that, you’re talking about buffaloes.
Yes, but these folks are not from India, so why call them “Indians”? Good question. Columbus mistakenly thought he had reached India when he had gotten only as far as the Western Hemisphere. But they are Asian in origin. I say, that’s close enough, especially since anything you called the whole bunch of them would be incorrect anyway. They exist in many and varied tribal identities.
It would be best if eventually we called non-Europeans by labels as specific as “Italian Americans” and “German Americans,” namely “Ute Americans,” “Ashanti Americans,” “Japanese Americans,” “Apache Americans,” etc. That’s what I’m waiting for.
I have always detested TV commercials—with the too-rare exception of clever, funny ones. Alka Seltzer used to have some pretty funny commercials, like the cartoon with the guy and his stomach sitting in two chairs opposite some kind of counselor, trying to talk out a conflict: “I happen to like pepperoni pizza!” “Do you like indigestion? Cause you’re going to get it every time you eat pepperoni pizza!” You know the solution. I guess my favorite was one inspired by the 1960s Monster Boom. Count Sore Throat Pain was begging viewers not to avail themselves of Isodettes throat lozenges. “Vat do you vant from me, a song and dance? It’s like sticking my heart vit a golden stake!” But most were just boring, tedious, trying the patience till the show you were watching came back on. Not much has changed.
There are still comical commercials, even more of them. These days I get a chuckle out of Geico ads with Peter Pan showing up at his 1965 high school reunion still an annoying adolescent jerk, with the Kraken grabbing golfers out of a water hazard, etc. I like seeing the Coneheads shilling for State Farm and Norm MacDonald impersonating the late Colonel Sanders (who can be expected to start haunting him pretty soon now). But it would never cross my mind to reward these advertisers by switching to Geico insurance, signing on to State Farm if I weren’t already with them, or buying KFC. (It ain’t bad, mind you, but why bother when there are joints around here that serve real Fried Chicken? KFC is to fried chicken as Arthur Treacher’s was to real fried fish.)
In all these cases what you have is really corporate sponsorship of half-minute comedy skits, essentially no different from them sponsoring half-hour sitcoms. The cleverness of their comedy writers is no reason to buy their product. The one has nothing to do with the other. In fact, it reminds me of what Voltaire (I think) said about the epistemological irrelevance of miracles: if I tell you to watch me prove that 2 plus 2 equals 3 by making a ball disappear from my palm, and I do in fact make it vanish, 2 plus 2 still make 4. The one, no matter how impressive, has absolutely nothing to do with the other.
But my enjoyment of these “comedy-mercials” is more than offset by my indignation at other recent advertising trends. It really galls me, for instance, when we are shown numerous individuals, supposedly satisfied customers, all using some contrived, punning slogan (“This is my body of proof!” “This is how I own it.”) as if it were common conversational usage. Are they trying to create a Newspeak of advertising jargon so to ingrain their ads and their products in our subconscious? Well, you know where they can stuff it.
A related, larger gimmick is on display in a zillion commercials in which we are asked to accept the ostensible testimonials of satisfied customers in what are obviously scripted fictions. Take the Aleve commercials, where the voice-over informs us that coach So-&-so has chronic knee pain but soldiers through his day aided by a mere two Aleve pain pills, and “we” asked him to trade them for the day for a bottle of Brand X, as if the whole thing were a medical experiment. And every time (there are loads of versions of this one), the Aleve addict grouses that he/she has to interrupt his/her day constantly to take handfuls of Brand X to do the same job as a mere pair of Aleve. Or we see a series of dizzy models being asked to apply some non-sticky deodorant, eliciting excited praises. Or some computer dating site shows satisfied customers offering grateful testimonies—and then you remember their faces from other commercials they appear in. My point is that those who produce these commercials do not even try to cover their tracks. The ads have the spontaneous genuineness of a scene from a soap opera or a sitcom. They are not even trying to deceive you. They know you know it’s phony. So why do it? It’s as if they’re saying, “Here’s what we wish customers were saying about our product/service.”
It comes to the point that the audience not only knows what they are hearing is not true, but that they even realize it couldn’t be true, just like the cheery government propaganda in Iron Curtain Europe about successful five-year plans that will revive the economy, etc. Of course, government propaganda in our day has sunk to the same depth. It is all spin. What is said is not meant to inform but to manipulate. In the case of TV ads, my guess is that the goal is to model behavior among viewers. Hearing these bogus testimonials again and again, obedient consumers will begin to “think” they ought to behave the same way, whether the products deserve their accolades or not. It is like the laugh track on a sitcom: it tells you what’s supposed to be funny because you couldn’t guess it from the content. You hear the machine guffawing and so you think, “Okay, that must be funny—time to laugh.”
And I rankle at the manipulative slippage of pronouns, like on the Liberty Mutual insurance ads. “You loved your car. You named it Brad. You screwed countless guys in Brad’s back seat. But then you wrecked Brad. You cried. ‘Nothing can replace Brad!’ But then Liberty Mutual calls and you break into your happy dance.” Really? It’s odd that I have no memory of these things! Or Ty Young congratulates me because I saved money and successfully invested it. I did? Obviously, these actors are telling me what they did, but they want me to identify with them, to picture myself doing these things, buying these things, and so to allow myself to adopt these behaviors.
How about the ones where, beneath the talking head giving the testimonial, it says, “Not an actor, but a real customer,” but their testimonial is obviously composed of ad slogans that real customers, even actual satisfied customers, would never naturally use. The captions ought to read, “Actual customer reading a script.”
I remember how, when you, er, I mean when I first read Orwell’s novel 1984 and got to Eric Fromm’s afterward, I bristled when he opined that Orwell’s fictionalized dystopia was not just a satire of the Soviet Union but applied equally to the Capitalist West. I didn’t understand then, but subsequently I have come to realize he was quite right: Television commercials betoken a socio-economic system which seeks to catechize and manipulate us via a constant fusillade of lying propaganda. Maybe being a curmudgeon is the only way to fight back. It is a battle in which I am constantly engaged. And of course my two weapons are the mute button and scathing mockery yelled at the screen. Won’t you join me in the fight?
I am not concerned about whether the doctrine of reincarnation is true. I am not even sure if it is a coherent notion. Let me put it this way: if it were true, would it make any difference to you? I think it would not, for it is not the “you” you are thinking of that gets reincarnated. It’s not “your” next life. Even if reincarnationism is true, “you” will only be going around once. Why? It’s a question of exactly what is supposed to be reincarnated. It may not be what you think—or who you think.
In ancient Vedic Hinduism, reincarnation began as a belief that some souls were not entitled to spend a blessed eternity on the moon, the destination of the saved. They had some unfinished business down on earth, perhaps some guilt (bad karma) to work off. But then somebody thought of the possibility that while you were back here you might do something else you’d have to atone for. And if there was enough of a new karmic debt, guess what would happen? But if you did more good deeds than you needed to pay off the debt, once you were out of the red you would start accruing good karma, and that would entitle you to rewards. The rewards might come to you in the same life in which you earned them. But if not, you’d have to come back again in order to receive the goodies that were coming to you. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is how reincarnation became a virtually endless cycle of returning.
Look, how many times do you want to endure homework, teen romantic angst, a terrible boss, getting socks for Christmas, getting dentures, losing control of your bladder? Not such an attractive prospect, is it? This is why the goal of Hindus and Buddhists is to stop being reincarnated. It’s not their version of salvation. More like damnation. The point of Yoga and meditation is to reach a state of “mere witness” in which you cut the nerve of worldly motivation and you transcend worldly concerns. Voila! No more karma, good or bad, and thus no more incarnations! Yippee! Final enlightenment ensues, liberation from the ego, from individuality! The water drop rejoins the ocean.
As the doctrine developed, finer distinctions were drawn. Vedanta Hindus distinguish between the atman and the jiva. The first is the divine spark, unconditioned, unaffected by experiences, aloof like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. It is, as Felix Unger once said so well, “the real you that’s underneath the other real you.” The other real you, however, is not really so real. The jiva is the psychological self, the ego-self, the self that shows up in the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the one you see in the mirror. This one is conditioned by experiences. It is always changing. It is the one that suffers and rejoices.
What is the relation between the two? The sages say it is like a monkey swinging from tree to tree, a banana clutched in his fist: the monkey is the jiva, and the banana is the atman. It is carried to and fro, blissfully oblivious of the vicissitudes of life, any life, all lives. You see what this means, right? The “you” that enjoys life, that suffers sometimes, that grows and learns, that believes in reincarnation or doesn’t—that’s not the one that survives into a new life. I liken it to a series of runners succeeding one another, each taking the Olympic Torch a bit further along the path to the altar. “You” are merely carrying that bit of fire for a while until it passes into the hands of someone else.
I’m guessing the doctrine of the atman developed as an explanation of the fact that nobody seems to remember a previous life. It’s obvious to me that so-called “past life regressions” are simply what Jung called “active imagination.” Daydreaming. Suggestible people have, under the manipulative questioning of therapists, dreamed up “repressed memories” (fabricated memories) of anal probing aboard a flying saucer, of their parents and neighbors sacrificing infants in the basement. “Past life regressions” are just more of the same.
Americans who abstract what they think is reincarnationism from the Eastern religions which formed its original context, in which it made a certain kind of sense, have made a different kind of sense of it, having embedded it in their own Western set of assumptions. Mistaking reincarnation as a process of self-realization, they have fostered the very confusion of the jiva with the atman that, ironically, causes the suffering from which Hindus and Buddhists desperately seek to escape by escaping reincarnation! As Harvey Cox observed in his 1977 book Turning East, Westerners (e.g., New Agers) have taken a doctrine dedicated to the extinction of the personal self and mistaken it for a technique of therapeutic self-realization.
If “I,” my atman, does get reincarnated, “I,” (the me I know and love) won’t even be there to know it. Because it won’t be the me I identify with. Well, I say, to hell with the atman. It’s somebody, it’s something, else. Yielding it up to “my” next incarnation is no different, in my opinion, from donating a kidney to some sick child after I’m dead.
But I think there is a truth hidden somewhere in all this. Let me back up a bit. Buddhism posits the anatta doctrine, the teaching of “no-self” or no atman. This, of course, raises the question: what the hell is it that reincarnates (or is reborn)? They teach that the psychological self, the ego self, is a composite of skhandas, or component parts: perceptions, desires, thoughts, etc. These are constantly mutating throughout one’s life. Your appearance, your opinions, maybe even your legal name, all change. You don’t even have the same physical body you used to have, since all the cells periodically get replaced! So why wouldn’t the same thing happen from one life to the next? The skhandas are what get reincarnated, changing all the time. (Otherwise it would be resurrection: the very same guy coming back.) But the “self” they constitute is not what finally gets liberated. What does? The Buddha Nature underlying all sentient beings. Me, I identify with the skhandas. But how do they survive death?
By our having children, that’s how. When I look at Victoria and Veronica, see them grow up, constantly talk with them, it becomes obvious that they have received my (and Carol’s) genes, my DNA. Not exactly in the same combinations, of course; they’re not clones. After all, the skhandas, the ingredients are constantly changing like a kaleidoscope.
That takes some of the bite out of knowing I am going to die. The girls are my reincarnation, and in a literal sense. They are my “me-incarnation.” Sounds good to me. I can live (and die) with that.
The following is not my typical column but rather a recent article I want to share with you. – RMP
I am a grateful student of Gordon Fee, having studied with him from 1974 through 1978.
 He is a fine biblical scholar and a keen and powerful preacher. Theologically, he calls himself a “Presbycostal,” because, though committed to his home denomination of the Assemblies of God, he long ago embraced basic aspects of Calvinist, Reformed theology. Most Pentecostals tend to be theologically Arminian, so he is unusual, but there is no inconsistency in his position, and his hybrid views attest his independent thinking. Despite, or rather because of, his Pentecostal orientation, Fee takes a very dim view of certain prominent aspects of today’s Charismatic Movement (which overlaps the Pentecostal denominations while not being simply synonymous with them).
Specifically, Fee detests and disdains the Prosperity Gospel. I want to summarize his objections as put forward in his succinct booklet, The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospels. It will become evident that, while I have very serious disagreements with my old mentor’s reasoning, I think his main contention is right on target.
[T]he bottom line… always comes back to one continual reaffirmation: God wills the (financial) prosperity of every one of his children, and therefore for a Christian to be in poverty is to be outside God’s intended will; it is to be living a Satan-defeated life… Because we are God’s children, the King’s kids, as some like to put it, we should always go first-class—we should have the biggest and best, a Cadillac instead of a Volkswagen, because this alone brings glory to God (a curious theology indeed given the nature of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion). But these affirmations are not biblical, no matter how much one might clothe them in biblical garb. (p. 3)
Fee aims his guns at Evangelical Charismatics, not at New Thought Christians. There are significant points of difference, e.g., in terms of God-concept, Christology, and biblical interpretation, as we will see. But much or most of his argument is applicable to both camps. Remember, the Prosperity Gospel espoused by prominent Evangelical TV preachers is the result of an earlier generation of Pentecostals, influenced by Charismatic Baptist E.W. Kenyon, having embraced New Thought doctrines.
The Bible as Ventriloquist Dummy
Fee is first and foremost a New Testament specialist, dedicated to the determination of authorial intent in every Bible passage. If one esteems the Bible a source of inspired and authoritative teaching, one must try to determine what the author was trying to convey. And in this Prosperity preachers appear to have little interest. “The most distressing thing about their use of scripture… is the purely subjective and arbitrary way they interpret the biblical text.” (p. 3)
There is a small set of scripture passages to which Prosperity Gospel teachers regularly appeal, and Fee cannot shut his ears to the screaming of the texts at the abuse they are forced to undergo. The most important is 3 John, verse 2, usually (and conveniently) cited in the archaic and easily misunderstood King James Version: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Aha! See that? The Bible says you ought to be prosperous! Uh, not so fast!
This combination of wishing for “things to go well” and for the recipient’s “good health” was the standard form of greeting in a personal letter in antiquity. To extend John’s wish for Gaius [the addressee of 3 John] to refer to financial and material prosperity for all Christians of all times is totally foreign to the text… We may as well argue that all subsequent Christians are out of God’s will who do not go to Carpus’s house in Troy in order to take Paul’s cloak to him (2 Tim. 4:13). (p. 4)
Appeal to 3 John 2 in this manner is tantamount to superstitious incantation. Fee is right. Nor is this the only such text pressed into service for the Gospel of Wealth. Another is John 10:10, “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Did somebody say “abundance”? As in wealth? “What’s in your wallet?”
It should be noted further that “abundant life” in John 10:10, the second important text of this movement, also has nothing to do with material abundance… The Greek word perrison, translated “more abundantly” in the KJV, means simply that believers are to enjoy this gift of life “to the full” (NIV). [Fee explains the Johannine connotation of “life” as “eternal life,” “divine life,” i.e., saving grace.] Material abundance is not implied either in the word “life” or “to the full.” Furthermore, such an idea is totally foreign to the context of John 10. (p. 5)
Once Prosperity preachers opportunistically rip these verses out of context, they employ them as a lens through which to view (i.e., to distort) all others. Fee takes Kenneth Copeland to task: for Copeland to take the Rich Young Ruler story (Mark 10:17-22) to mean that “Jesus is affirming his wealth as the result of his lifelong obedience, and was only testing him to give it away, so that he might regain all the more… is… plainly contrary to the intent of the text” (p. 5). Indeed, one cannot keep from cringing. Such an interpretation “is almost totally subjective, and comes not from study but from ‘meditation,’ which in Copeland’s case means a kind of free association based on a prior commitment to his—totally wrong—understanding of the ‘basic’ texts” (pp. 5-6). Here the Bible has become little more than a Rorschach ink blot test.
New Thought Christians may not handle biblical interpretation in precisely the same way as Copeland and his colleagues, but I think Fee’s rebuke applies to them as well. Insofar as the allegorical method is used in service of the New Thought version of the Prosperity Gospel it, too, discards the criterion of authorial intent. This may not seem to be the same sin committed by Copeland, Kenneth Hagin and the rest, since New Thought disavows the biblicism, the biblical literalism, these men claim to embrace. But the result is the same: biblical ventriloquism. The purpose of allegory, whether applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey or the Bible, is to make bad texts look good, to render useless texts useful, by pretending they say something other than what they do say. And this means making the texts seem to parrot our doctrines, which we proceed to read into them, not out of them.
Does God Play Favorites?
Does the Bible really leave one with the impression that the life of piety is the secret of prosperity and worldly success? I think it is fair to say that Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic History (Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings) based on it do point in that direction. The Moses character presents Israel with a list of blessings promised by Jehovah if the nation upholds the statutes of the Covenant, along with a table of curses (misfortunes) if they don’t. But this impression is mitigated somewhat once we realize that the whole thing is actually a centuries-after-the-fact theodicy. That is, this “Deuteronomic philosophy of history” is a contrived and artificial fabrication designed to get the Almighty off the hook for apparently abandoning Israel and Judah to the depredations of their Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors. “Gee, I guess it must have been our fault, huh? Otherwise, we’d have to blame God, and that’s even worse.”
Some point to Job as an example of an upright man amply rewarded by God for his perfect piety. If God could reward him with extravagant fringe benefits, why not us? And the whole membership of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship? Uh, keep reading! The whole point of the Book of Job seems to be that the righteous need not expect God’s blessing and protection, and that they may never know why. Ouch. Just the opposite of any Prosperity Gospel, one would think.
Fee points out that Luke 13:1-5 assures us that the rain and the sunshine fall upon just and unjust alike, while Hebrews 11:32-39 cites Old Testament figures who were faithful and yet did not receive any reward, even any vindication, in this life. Hebrews 10:34 speaks of believers acquiescing in the seizure of their property in times of persecution, i.e., because they were righteous (p. 7). From all this, my old mentor derives what I call his “austerity gospel,” the “good news” that Christians should drop prosperity from their agendas and expectations.
Here, however, one must suspect that Fee is making the exception into the rule: must Christians be so paranoid as to expect, even provoke, constant persecution, martyrdom as a “life”-style? In the same way, might the New Testament admonitions to renounce one’s possessions have this very circumstance (an atypical one) in view: persecution? Walter Schmithals thought so. Thus Luke 14:33 and similar passages might be analogous to Luke 14:26-27 and Matthew 16:24 which urge Christians to “hate” their families, i.e., to turn a deaf ear to their pleas to save oneself from martyrdom by renouncing one’s faith (as in The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas). The everyday Christian life would hardly be in view here. Schmithals says, “Thus what was recommended to [e.g.,] the disenfranchised Matthean churches as realistic behavior in the concrete historical situation of persecution… would be grossly misunderstood as a timeless principle of ethical behavior.” But that is precisely how Fee understands these passages. It is tantamount to telling all Christians it is their permanent duty to retrieve Paul’s cloak from Carpus’ house.
Fee outlines his alternative view of biblical teaching, one diametrically opposed to that of proponents of the Success Gospel.
In the full biblical view wealth and possessions are a zero value for the people of God…. Poverty, however, is not seen to be better. If God has revealed Himself as the One who pleads the cause of the poor… He is not thereby blessing poverty. Rather, He is revealing His mercy and justice in behalf of those whom the wealthy regularly oppress in order to get, or maintain, their wealth. (p. 7)
This carefree attitude toward wealth and possessions, for which neither prosperity nor poverty is a value, is thoroughgoing in the New Testament. According to Jesus, the good news of the inbreaking of the Kingdom frees us from all those pagan concerns (Matt. 6:32). With His own coming the Kingdom has been inaugurated—even though it has yet to be fully consummated; the time of God’s rule is now; the future with its new values is already at work in the present… In the new order, brought about by Jesus, the standard is sufficiency; and surplus is called into question. The one with two tunics should share with him who has none (Luke 3:11); “possessions” are to be sold and given to the poor (Luke 12:33)… Therefore, if one has possessions, prexcisely because they have no inherent value, he can freely share them with the needy. But if one does not have possessions, he is not to seek them. God cares for one’s needs; the extras are unnecessary; the rich man who seeks more and more is a fool; life does not consist in having a surplus of possessions (Luke 12:15). (pp. 7-8)
It is no surprise to see Fee conclude: “The cult of prosperity thus flies full in the face of the whole New Testament. It is not biblical in any sense” (p. 9).
It’s a Fee, Nothing, Fee, Nothing, Fee, Nothing More
I regret to say that I have several objections to Fee’s alternative view of the “true” gospel message. First, I believe that he unwittingly espouses the very notion he repudiates, namely that God does not prefer poverty to prosperity. The “mercy and justice” he is so sure God will exercise on behalf of the righteous poor is not likely to be in evidence on this side of the grave. Great. Fee promises no one seventy-two virgins waiting in Paradise, true, but ultimately, what’s the difference? Eschatological goodies: “I want a mansion just over the hilltop in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.” But until then, we’re stuck chewing the stale crusts of pious austerity, mere sufficiency. In my book, that’s just another name for poverty.
The further one reads, the clearer it becomes that Fee, along with many of his more “sophisticated” contemporary Evangelicals, has embraced an inexcusably naïve Christian Socialism (if not actual Anarcho-Syndicalism). He disdains the Prosperity message as
an Americanized perversion of the Gospel [which] tends to reinforce a way of life and an economic system that repeatedly oppresses the poor… Seeking more prosperity means to support all the political and economic programs that have made such prosperity available—but almost always at the expense of economically deprived individuals and nations. (pp. 10-11)
Socialism has impoverished every society where it has been adopted. In economic matters, Fee is happy to walk by faith, not by sight. Socialism looks good to him or to anyone else only because of the failure to understand that one need not cut ever-thinner slices of the pie for everyone to get some, because Capitalism makes it possible to increase the size of the pie.
I think I see Fee’s Pentecostalism showing itself here. Just as Pentecostals reject Bultmann’s demythologizing, insisting that we still inhabit the ancient world of spirits, demons, and miracles, Fee stubbornly retains the ancient belief in the “limited good,” the notion that there is only so much supply to go around, so that if anyone is wealthy, it must be because he has deprived the poor of their fair share. That was true in the ancient and medieval world, before Capitalism, before industrial and modern agricultural production. Now there is something new under the sun: an affluent middle class. But for liberals, it is not good enough that many or most can be affluent. No, if there are any poor, the whole thing is unjust. Better that everyone live with less than that some have more than others. If universal poverty is the price of universal equality, so be it.
We have seen that Fee rejects the belief that God rewards his darlings with prosperity. I think that, unfortunately, Fee is consistent in applying the same attitude to modern economics. Like all Socialists, Fee seems to deny that industrious, and thus successful, people should be rewarded. We can see the disastrous results of this absurdity in the policies of the present administration. So, for Fee, the Kingdom teaching of Jesus does mandate poverty as a virtue.
Deconstructing Fee’s Austerity Gospel
Gordon Fee’s wide and deep scholarship seems to me to be hampered and hamstrung by his conservative Evangelical doctrine of an inspired and infallible Bible. It gives him an irresistible tendency to harmonize all opinions found in the Bible into a single normative “biblical theology,” which he uses to browbeat the Prosperity Gospel. But I think it is not so simple. I think Fee unwittingly synthesizes three distinct socio-ethical perspectives found in different strata of the canonical New Testament. Combining them, Fee produces a Chimera, a hybrid beast that, like a mule (which combines the genes of a horse and a donkey), is sterile.
First, there is the apocalyptic business about the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.” Fee has embraced the understanding of gospel eschatology developed by scholars of the post-World War II generation, including Joachim Jeremias, Oscar Cullmann, Rudolf Bultmann, Gȕnter Bornkamm, and Norman Perrin. The idea was that Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God (entailing the Final Judgment, the banishment of all worldly regimes, and the resurrection of the dead) was so soon to dawn that the first rays of it could already be seen and felt, beginning to illumine the spiritual and moral darkness of the fallen, Satan-ruled world. These first signs of the Kingdom’s arrival were the miraculous healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Reminiscent of Gandhi’s dictum, “Be the change you wish to see,” Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, etc., urged his hearers to live by the standards appropriate to the Millennial era already in the (short-lived) present. This constituted an ethos of indifference toward material possessions, the willingness to love and forgive, the sharing of resources with the poor, etc. Those living such a life among one’s brothers and sisters would be getting a head start on the eschatological Kingdom.
In case you haven’t glanced at the calendar lately, the eschatological hope failed to materialize. Mark 9:1 and 13:30 set a time-frame for the end of the present age. It must take place within the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries. But even without such an explicit deadline, the time-frame was implicit in the urgent appeal to repent given the near approach of the Eschaton. Unlike today’s desperate fundamentalists, who twist the texts in order to deny that Jesus set a deadline, Fee’s mentors freely admitted there had been a surprising (i.e., embarrassing) delay of some two thousand years. Cullmann sought to make sense of this by using the analogy of D Day and V-E Day, still fresh in the minds of his readers. Once the D Day invasion occurred, the outcome of the European war was no longer in doubt. The Nazi regime was doomed. But that didn’t mean the war was over there and then. No, there was still a long and difficult “mopping-up operation” ahead. That continued until V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day. That’s when the parades started. Cullmann said that the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the decisive turning-point of D Day, and that the Second Coming would be V-E Day, the final triumph of Christ. Jeremias called this schema “inaugurated eschatology” or “eschatology in the process of realizing itself.” In the meantime, the Church, the Christian community, functions as the embattled beach head of the Kingdom in the midst of its doomed foes. Fee locates the radical ethics of discipleship in that isolated Christian colony amid the blasted heath of Satan’s kingdom.
This is all quite ingenious, but I do not think it can survive the two-millennia-long delay of the Kingdom. Albert Schweitzer understood why. The extreme character of “Kingdom ethics” made sense only on the (now-failed) assumption of an early Second Advent. To take but one example, one is both free to and obliged to give one’s possessions to the poor precisely because there is not going to be any earthly future to keep them in reserve for. Very soon there will be no need for financial resources, savings, provisions. The redeemed and resurrected will dine on the roasted Leviathan and the bread of angels at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Money will be worthless, like Confederate dollars after the Civil War. In the last days before the soon-coming end, it is good for one thing only: to feed the desperate poor who are still hungry during the short interval remaining. Which you’d damn well better do if you hope to prove yourself worthy to survive the Final Judgment. In ordinary circumstances no one blames you for not giving all your savings to feed the poor since you’re going to need the money to feed your family and send your kids to college. But if the end is at hand, your priorities suddenly change. Schweitzer called this the “interim ethic” of Jesus.
But suppose no Kingdom comes. You’re left holding the bag. Just like all the poor fools who spent their savings on billboards announcing the end of the world on October 21, 2011, as Harold Camping predicted. Yikes! I guess you and your fellow disappointed zealots can huddle together and pool the little cash you’ve got left and hope you can make ends meet till the Kingdom does arrive some day (fingers crossed!). Then, congratulations, you have become a sectarian conventicle, reassuring yourself that the Kingdom did come in, er, a spiritual sense—or something. Sometimes the members of such a community will consistently embrace the ethics appropriate to life in the (imagined) Millennium, notably celibacy (Luke 20:34-36; 1 Cor. 7:1-2), and then it is doomed to perish by attrition, staving off the inevitable by the expedient of trying to recruit new members, a pretty neat trick with such a gospel! The Shaker sect is extinct for just this reason.
But if they don’t, they’ll have children and gradually return to the norms of “worldly” (i.e., conventionally religious) society. In Weber’s and Troeltsch’s terms, a sect will have become a church. The best you can do to preserve the once-radical values is to accommodate them to real-world (i.e., this-worldly) conditions, what Paul Tillich called the conditions of ambiguity, or of finitude. You have to try to approximate the original ethics as best you can. You have to grapple with “the relevance of an impossible ethical ideal” (Reinhold Niebuhr). And if the Kingdom of God will not come to you, you’ll have to be satisfied with coming to it, when you die and wing your way skyward. So the way I see it, Gordon Fee is trying to hold on to the Interim Ethic of an apocalyptic Jesus, though it does not fit the real world—any more than Pentecostal insistence on supernatural miracles does.
Lone Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
The second aspect of gospel ethics that Fee mixes into his recipe for radical discipleship is the ascetical regimen of the wandering “brethren” (3 John 5-7; Matt. 25:31-46), variously described by scholars as “itinerant charismatics” and “itinerant radicals.” On into the second century there was a class of wandering missionaries who circulated among the Christian communities teaching, prophesying, etc. They were nearly indistinguishable from the wandering Cynic philosophers and were often confused with them. These were the Christians who preserved (and, we may suspect, produced) the Missionary Charge texts of the gospels (Mark 6:7-11; Matt. 10:5-23; Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-16). They pointed with pride to their radical itinerant lifestyle: they had actually left home, family, lands, and money to spread the word of Christ (Mark 10:28). Any who dared laugh off their thundered preachments would surely face the wrath of the Son of Man when he should come to wipe the snide smiles off their faces (Mark 8:38). Who but these strange, homeless scarecrows would ever have preserved sayings like Luke 14:26? Who else would have had an interest in admonishing Christians not to have dinner parties for their friends and family but instead to invite the poor and homeless (i.e., the holy itinerants themselves!), as in Luke 14:12-14? (Of course, the Rich Young Ruler story must have been a “discipleship paradigm,” a recruiting story for the itinerants, who were “looking for a few good men.”)
As Stevan L. Davies recounts, these “apostles” eventually lost the support of the communities who gave them a meal and a night’s shelter because they had less and less to say that was relevant to the increasingly bourgeoisie households and congregations to whom they sought to minister. Think of the Kafkaesque protagonist of the anonymous The Way of a Pilgrim, who wandered through Russia chanting the Jesus Prayer. I think, too, of the sackcloth-clad Children of God who used to crash suburban church services, beating their wooden staves on the floors and rebuking the complacent pew-potatoes.
Christian communities quickly found such “radical discipleship” eccentric, fanatical, and impracticable, as modern Christians do. We would cut these distressing verses from the gospels if we dared, but we can’t, so most of us politely ignore them. But not Gordon Fee, who uses them as ingredients in his recipe for world-negating, poverty-inducing Christian Socialism. But it doesn’t fit reality any better than it ever did.
At Ease in Zion
The gospels show an awareness of a third, separate ethic, this one for the settled Christian communities on whose support the itinerants depended. We are told to “give to him who asks of you” (Matt. 5:42), which inculcates a habit of generosity and philanthropy, but such advice makes no sense addressed to people who have repudiated all possessions in one fell swoop, as Jesus summons the Rich Young Ruler to do. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (John 12:1-2) are not counted as sinners and villains for retaining enough money and property to provide charity and hospitality to an itinerant like Jesus! Had Mary Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna and the rest (Luke 8:1-3) simply dumped all they owned, they would not have been in the position to subsidize Jesus and his men in their travels, would they? And the talk about receiving a prophet’s reward if one gives the prophet a glass of water (Matt. 10:41-42): surely the point of this is to buy good karma by subsidizing those who actually have embraced the rigorous discipline of the itinerant (just as Buddhist laity donate food to the monks who go begging house to house).
Fee’s synthesized “gospel of the Kingdom” fails by ignoring the serious difference between this more domesticated Christian ethic (on full display, for example, in the Pastoral Epistles) on the one hand and the apocalyptic Interim Ethic and the Dharma Bum regimen of the itinerant radicals on the other. Fee does not see the difference between the three varieties because of his conservative antipathy to form criticism which teaches us to bracket the editorial placement of originally isolated sayings into secondary narrative contexts. Form-critical scrutiny reveals the three very different ethical models, and the different types of Christians for which they were originally intended. The harmonized hybrid Fee creates winds up holding settled, workaday Christian families responsible to keep heroic standards never intended for them. The result is just a new version of traditional, judgmental Christian browbeating, reinforcing hopeless guilt by imposing burdens the laity can never hope to bear (Luke 11:46; Acts 15:10).
I have leveled an array of serious criticisms against Gordon Fee’s “austerity gospel” and the biblical basis he offers for it. But I cannot help thinking he is quite right in his most damning judgment on the Prosperity Gospel.
Despite all protests to the contrary, at its base, the cult of prosperity offers a man-centered, rather than a God-centered theology. Even though one is regularly told that it is to God’s own glory that we should prosper, the appeal is always made to our own selfishness and sense of well-being. (p. 10)
This seems to me hard to deny. The Evangelical version of the Prosperity Gospel espoused by preachers like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen remains theistic. They still believe in a personal deity, and the result is that they reduce God to a servile genie eager to grant wishes. New Thought, on the other hand, has moved over to Monism and Pantheism, diffusing the deity into a mist of divine potentiality or distilling God into an impersonal set of supposed cosmic laws to be wielded unto the fulfilling of one’s desires. This marks the retrogression of religion to magic as distinguished long ago by James Frazer. As he understood the matter, magic is “occult science,” the attempted effecting of boons by means of the supposed hidden laws implicit in the universe, no different in principle from the long-unsuspected forces and laws of physics. By contrast, religion is the adoration of invisible Persons of whom one humbly makes requests in prayer and sacrifice. The logic of religion is “Thy will be done,” while that of magic is “My will be done.” New Thought, as I understand it, falls into the latter category. There is no real God to worship. There is only the Force to manipulate. New Thought qualifies, in sociologist Bryan Wilson’s terms, as a “gnostic-manipulationist sect.” James C. Livingston (who lists Scientology and Transcendental Meditation under this rubric) defines such a sect this way:
What is distinctive about this kind of group, sometimes called a cult, is the fact that it fully accepts and pursues what others would see as worldly goals. What it seeks is not withdrawal from or an indifference toward the world but, rather, appropriation of the right spiritual means or techniques by which to cope with [the world] or to achieve worldly goals. Salvation essentially means health, happiness, success, status, wealth, or long life.
Don’t get me wrong; I am all in favor of “visualization” and “manifesting” as means of achieving one’s financial and material goals. I just think that to place these things in a religious or theological context confuses matters and risks cheapening religion. Remember, the Buddha remarked that, though praying to the traditional gods for rain and a good harvest might actually get you the desired results, none of that had a thing to do with liberation, the proper business of religion. I’m with Fee on that one.
 Not that it makes any difference, but for the record, I first sat under Fee’s teaching at a college youth retreat in 1974, which led me to seek him out at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he became my academic advisor. I took courses with him between 1976 and 1978.
 Gordon D. Fee, The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospels (Costa Mesa: The Word for Today, 1979).
 D.R. McConnell, A Different Gospel (Peabody: Hendrickson Publications, 1995).
 There are, of course, other roles that scripture plays in different types of theology. See David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975).
 Fee would never see the Deuteronomic History as tendentious fiction; he is too much of a conservative Evangelical for that. But I think this more critical approach underlines his broader point.
 Though I can see Prosperity Gospel fans pointing to James 5:16b-18 as implying that God’s favorites can control the weather as they prefer by means of prayer!
 Walter Schmithals, The Theology of the First Christians. Trans. O.C. Dean, Jr. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 346: “Luke’s paraenesis [hortatory instruction] regarding poverty and possessions is directed toward Christians who are oppressed by the experience of persecution.”
 Schmithals, p. 345.
 Though, technically, that’s John the Baptist talking, not Jesus.
 Tim Rice, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money.” In Jesus Christ Superstar (Universal City: MCA, 1970).
 I call this sort of “faith” politics “political snake-handling.” Obey what (you think) the Bible says and let the chips fall where they may! For Christian Science believers and “Doctor Jesus” Pentecostals, it can mean trashing your child’s insulin; for Fee, Ron Sider, and their fellows, it means collapsing the American consumer economy. Jim Wallis once admitted to me he thought the collapse of our economy would be a good thing.
 Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology.” Trans. Reginald H. Fuller. In Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate (NY: Harper & Row, 1961), pp. 1-44.
 Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), Chapter 4, “The Perception of Limited Good,” pp. 71-93.
 Fee insists that his readers run right out and get a copy of Ron Sider’s leftist screed Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I would suggest that, when they finish Sider, they take a look at David Chilton’s counter-blast Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. (Okay, Chilton is a Christian Reconstructionist nut, but he’s right about Sider.)
 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word. Trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero (NY: Scribners, 1958).
 Gȕnter Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth. Trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson (NY: Harper & Row, 1960).
 Norman Perrin, The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus. New Testament Library (London: SCM Press, 1963).
 Reginald H. Fuller, Interpreting the Miracles (London: SCM Press, 1963), pp. 39-42.
 Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History. Trans. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), p. 84. In the classroom, Fee would regularly use Cullmann’s analogy.
 Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology. Trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1971), Chapter III, section 11, “The Dawn of the Reign of God,” pp. 96-108.
 Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion. Trans. Walter Lowrie (NY: Schocken Books, 1964), Chapter III, “The Preaching of the Kingdom,” pp. 94-105.
 William H. Swatos, Jr., “Church-Sect Theory.” In Swatos, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary (Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 1998) (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/cstheory.htm).
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology II: Existence and the Christ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 4, 80, 131-133, 144, 162.
 Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (NY: Meridian Books, 1956), Chapter 4, “The Relevance of an Impossible Ethical Ideal,” pp. 97-123.
 Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity. Trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 8-30; Theissen, Social Reality and the Early Christians: Theology, Ethics, and the World of the New Testament. Trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), Chapter 1, “The Wandering Radicals: Light Shed by the Sociology of Literature on the Early Transmission of Jesus Sayings,” pp. 33-59.
 F. Gerald Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2000).
 Stevan L. Davies, The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), p. 36.
 Ronald M. Enroth, Edward E. Ericson, and C. Breckenridge Peters, The Jesus People: Old-Time Religion in the Age of Aquarius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 24, 34; Michael McFadden, The Jesus Revolution (NY: Harrow Books/Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 89-90; Daniel Cohen, The New Believers: Young Religion in America (NY: Ballantine Books, 1975), p. 6.
 J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Financial Aspects of the Resurrection.” In Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005), p. 397: “In that world the idea reigned that if one pays another to be righteous one becomes righteous oneself.”
 Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition. Trans. John Marsh (NY: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 11, 39-40.
 See the discussion of Frazer’s dichotomy in Mischa Titiev, “A Fresh Approach to the Problem of Magic and Religion.” In William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach (NY: Harper & Row, 3rd ed., 1972), pp 430-433.
 James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion (NY: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 147-148.
What better way to spend the month of October than to watch a whole bunch of monster movies? That’s what my daughter Victoria and I do every year. We love these films. We can’t get enough of them. I share our daily quota of monster flicks on Facebook every year. Many seem to think it a good idea, and some say they wish they could join us. So do I! Here’s the next best thing. I offer a list of some of the movies that we make sure we see each October, together with some annotations.
Frankenstein(1931) explores at least two important themes. One is the seriousness of the task of child-rearing. Henry Frankenstein manages to “give birth” to a new creature, made of bits and pieces of the dead. (Of course, that’s kind of true of everybody, isn’t it? We are ragtag collections of chromosomes derived from an infinitely expanding genealogical tree.) Dr. Frankenstein turns out not to be too skilled in child-rearing, though. He hasn’t a clue as to what to do with his creation once he’s got him. Abdicating his fatherly duties, he leaves the newborn creature vulnerable to the sadistic depredations of the torch-wielding Fritz (his moronic lab assistant). The result? No surprise: the man becomes a monster, expecting the world to persecute him, and he is right. He retains a gentle, childlike nature behind his dangerous defensiveness, but no one has told him how to behave, and even his love for children (so much like himself) only gets him into deeper trouble, and this theme continues through the next three movies in the series. He thirsts for friendship, but those who fear him ruin any chance of that, with the result that he can make only bad friends: the mad Dr. Pretorius, then the vicious Ygor. There are fantastic elements to these movies, but this, sadly, is not one of them.
Second, there is an intra-film dialogue between the Nietzschean-Faustian quest for forbidden knowledge on the one hand and, on the other, the shunning of dangerous knowledge by the pious whose fears of unintended consequences turn out to be all too well-founded. The two stances go back and forth like a tennis ball. Contrast the later Hammer films, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), which seem to me to tip the balance to one side: one feels the frustrated rage of Dr. Victor Frankenstein (not Henry as in the Universals) at the superstitious bigots who persecute him, but one soon understands that they’re right: he is in fact a sociopath who feels ordinary ethics do not apply to him. He has become a Nazi concentration camp scientist.
The BlackSleep (1956), a terrific pastiche of the old Universals, features a mad scientist much like the Hammer version of Dr. Frankenstein. Again, we see a cultured gentleman-scientist anesthetizing his conscience. His scientific zeal arises from ultimately selfish motives, though he thinks of himself as purely altruistic. Willing to cut corners, Mengele-style, he does super-risky brain surgery on unsuspecting victims, trying to learn secrets that would enable him to bring his beloved wife out of a coma. Of course, disaster ensues.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is somehow even better than its predecessor, and is surely the greatest monster film of all. Amazingly, The Son of Frankenstein (1939) ranks with the first two. If Bride gave us the unforgettable Pretorius and the hideously beautiful Bride, Son gives us Ygor and Inspector Krogh. The direct sequel to that installment, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), drops a notch, the film’s direction conveying too mundane a feel, almost like watching a 1960s TV show, but it has its own wonderful ingenuity. The fiendish scheme of Ygor to replace the criminal brain of the Monster with his own even more fiendish gray matter is just brilliant. And it provides a great segue to the next chapter, 1943‘s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, since in that film Bela Lugosi (who played Ygor) plays the role of the Frankenstein Monster, as if the brain of Ygor eventually reshaped the new face it bore. (Ironically, Lugosi had been offered the role as far back as the first Frankenstein but turned it down because, as an actor, he feared the heavy make-up would hide his face, and he naturally wanted the recognition.)
There is just no way to harmonize the details (including some pretty big ones) of these films, even in the direct sequels. For instance, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf ManElsa, the Baroness Frankenstein, seems to waver back and forth between being Henry Frankenstein’s daughter and being his granddaughter, the daughter of Henry’s son Ludwig. And Ludwig is described with references that only make sense for Henry. Henry’s castle is confused with Ludwig’s sanitarium and thus transferred from the village of Frankenstein to Ludwig’s second home town of Vasaria. Ludwig, it is implied, created the Monster, but originally it was Henry who did it. The experiments are said to have been performed in the sanitarium (of the castle?), whereas in the original Frankenstein the lab was set up in an old mountain watchtower. But so what, right?
In the next movies, the Faustian theme is accentuated and pressed further. The House of Frankenstein (1944) features a would-be successor to Henry Frankenstein (or maybe to Dr. Pretorius), the mad and amoral Dr. Niemann, but Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man andThe House of Dracula (1945)depict benign, humane scientists with no thought at all of playing God, who nonetheless wind up unable to resist the temptation to try to revive and re-energize the Monster, the last thing they ever thought they would do. Such is the danger of the inquiring mind!
Hammer’s The Evil of Frankenstein is an excellent pastiche of the Universal Frankenstein films (except that the Monster looks like he’s just wearing a paper bag over his head). The sparkles of humor, the eccentric villains, the general mood and depiction of Central European culture: all make me feel the movie really should be in black and white like its Universal forbears. The Curse of Frankenstein has a very different feel to it. And in it Victor Frankenstein is the real monster.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) miraculously juxtaposes (hybridizes?) the horror and humor genres. The previous Universal monster films usually contained bits of comic relief, but this film (originally titled The Brain of Frankenstein) manages to be hilarious while by no means making a joke of the beloved classic monsters. It is the only film in which you see the “real” Dracula (Lugosi) alongside the “real” Wolf Man (Chaney), and for my money it’s Lugosi’s finest performance as the Sanguinary Count.
The Wolf Man (1941) showcases the much-underrated acting talents of Lon Chaney, Jr. (a stage name for Creighton Chaney). His transformation from easy-going Larry Talbot to tormented werewolf is masterful. (Chaney would eventually play all four of the classic monsters: the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Kharis the Mummy.) Thematically, The Wolf Man is very close to (any version of) Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. In both, the animal savagery underlying the cultured veneer of civilization bursts forth. One difference is that Jeckyll’s Neanderthal nature is conjured up, by a psychotropic agent, from within, while Talbot’s ferocity is ignited from without by an external factor: the bite of someone already infected. But maybe the difference is illusory after all. It’s in there to come out in either case.
The Picture of Dorian Gray(1941) is much like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (Victoria and I watch both the 1931 Frederick March version and the 1941 Spencer Tracy version) in that both picture the good and bad sides of human nature by separating them in stark opposition. In the former, the childlike innocent, Dorian Gray, succumbs to a seemingly purely intellectual curiosity about living a libertine life to the fullest, while transferring by some magical means the effects of his degenerate behavior to a two-dimensional whipping boy, a life-size portrait of himself locked away from view in an attic. Dorian appears as angelic as ever while conducting himself as a devil, a better-looking Hyde. Henry Jeckyll recognizes his own (usually) well-controlled lusts and invents a formula to isolate and exorcise his fallen nature. It does the trick, but not quite the trick he intended, for his primitive, animal side, once smelted out of his waking psyche, doubles back and possesses him, no longer held in check by any conscience. The noble Dr. Jeckyll is in there, somewhere, lying dormant while Hyde raises sociopathic hell. Eventually it becomes evident that Jeckyll is actually worse than Hyde. Hyde’s horrid behavior streams consistently from his unfiltered libido, but Jeckyll views Hyde’s antics as a kind of vacation from his (Jeckyll’s) workaday morality, thinking to evade the rebuke of his conscience by blaming it on Hyde as if he were someone else. Reverting to Hyde is a considered decision by the despicable and self-deceiving Jeckyll.
There is much of Jeckyll and Hyde in the remarkable film I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). What a surprise! Like its fraternal twin I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (also 1957), Teenage Werewolfpresents itself as one more teen drive-in monster flick. But, in trying to ground the action in the juvenile delinquent mess of the time (Rebel without a Cause, etc.), the movie strikes subtextual gold. Michael Landon plays a smart, well-meaning high school student who, however, possesses (or is possessed by) a very nasty temper that flares into violence at the slightest (even imagined) provocation. Forced to seek psychiatric help, the lad happens to fall under the care of a shrink whose theories are wildly absurd enough to seem downright plausible amid today’s therapeutic menagerie. Through hypnosis he awakens Landon’s barely-suppressed animal savagery, which comes out (via hysterical conversion, I guess) as fanged and furry Lycanthropy. It is a powerful allegory on its theme of troubled young males, still a lively issue a half-century later.
The Hammer Curse of the Werewolf (1961) has yet another interesting take on Lycanthropy. It posits a strange (parabolic) combination of heredity and environment as the cause of werewolfery. The title character is the product of a woman getting raped by a beggar long imprisoned at the cruel whim of a degenerate viscount. Degradation made the prisoner a monster, but his son, our werewolf, was raised by a compassionate landowner. The boy becomes a werewolf even though his father wasn’t, nor was the lad bitten by a werewolf like Larry Talbot was. Maybe the point is that poverty gets inherited from one’s family with terrible results that follow just as surely as if it were genetic.
Dracula (1931) is a literal transcription of the stage play and looks like it. The play had already distanced itself from the Bram Stoker novel. (Not a criticism.) The curse of vampirism is not the midwifing of what is deep inside us. Unlike Lycanthropy or Jeckyll’s anti-Prozac, the vampire infection is invasive, like demon-possession, with which it is equated in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire SlayerTV series. The first film version of Stoker’s Dracula was the nightmarish silent film Nosferatu (1922), still horrifying! We nearly missed it, since F.W. Murnau made the film without permission, and Stoker’s widow won a lawsuit in which the judge ruled that all prints of the film be destroyed! Luckily, they missed some! Max Schreck’s Graf von Orlok (the Dracula analogue) left an indelible impression: his bald-domed, pointed-eared, sunken-orbed image has been reproduced many times, as in the 1979 TV version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, the Reman vice regent in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), the Master in Buffy, and the vampires in The Strain. By contrast, Horror of Dracula (1958), Brides of Dracula (1960), and the masterful John Carradine portrayals (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) all follow Lugosi’s urbane nobleman prototype, closer to Stoker’s original.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is an interesting half-attempt at a sequel to Dracula(much as Son of Kong was an attempt to capitalize on King Kong, released earlier the very same year, 1933). It explores the idea that vampirism might have been a neurotic addiction, treatable psychiatrically. A similar theme appears in The House of Dracula, where the Count himself seeks a cure but finally backslides.
Return of the Vampire (1943) was originally written as a direct sequel to the Universal Dracula, but for some reason Universal didn’t go for it, so the author took it to Columbia, and Return of the Vampire, starring Lugosi, was the result. Count Dracula became Dr. Armand Tesla, a Van Helsing-like scholar of vampirism who got so obsessed with his subject that he became one! (I guess I may be in the same danger!). Now that’s a clever turn! Van Helsing as the vampire! Dr. Seward from the original script draft has become Lady Jane Ainsley, while Seward’s daughter Mina has become Nicki, Lady Jane‘s ward. The madman Renfield now becomes Tesla’s werewolf henchman Andreas. Van Helsing turns up under the guise of Dr. Walter Saunders.
Carroll Borland, who plays the eerie, bat-winged Luna, daughter of Count Mora (another version of Dracula, also played by Lugosi) in 1935‘s Mark of the Vampire, was a great devotee of the Lugosi Dracula and wrote her own screenplay for a sequel, but it was never used. Nonetheless, Mark of the Vampire functions as a kind of sequel, almost a remake of the Universal Dracula, directed, like that film, by Tod Browning. It turns out to be a Weird Menace tale with no real supernatural element. But who cares? It’s the atmosphere that matters. And it’s got Lugosi in a cape!
Son of Dracula (1943) is a second Universal Dracula sequel. Lon Chaney, Jr., is great as the Count! You’ll be pleasantly surprised. The plot does not reduce, as so often, to the realization, “Oh my God—vampires are real!” No, there s a fascinating mystery element, and eventually we learn that Dracula (“Count Alucard”) gets cleverly out-villained! One mystery that remains unsolved, however, is whether Chaney’s urbane vampire is supposed to be the famous Count Dracula or a descendant who of course would also be a “Count Dracula.”
There are several films starring the, or at least an, Invisible Man. Four of the six are inter-related. The Invisible Man (1933), the film debut of the amazingly versatile Claude Rains, centers on Jack Griffin, an eccentric chemist who cracks the secret of invisibility. Trouble is it also rapidly induces megalomaniacal paranoia. Too bad Griffin didn’t listen till the end of the commercial where they run down the list of possible side effects! If he goes mad through his new power, he also introduces an element of madness in those whom he tricks and torments, as they struggle to make sense of impossible events. They are mirrors reflecting that which cannot be seen.
The Invisible Man (but not the same one) Returns (1940) spins off the original as Vincent Price’s character, a friend of the late Jack Griffin’s brother who is also a scientist, risks using the invisibility drug in order to escape execution for a murder he did not commit. Guess what happens? Another hard-to-see Hitler in the making! Price is every bit as good as the malevolent mirage man as Rains was. He even reprises the role in a cameo at the end of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. But this is not the only Invisible Man that duo would encounter, as witness Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). The unseen character this time is a prize fighter, also unjustly accused of murder, and again escaping behind the Invisible Curtain using Jack Griffin’s serum. The movie ain’t much, by way of either humor or horror (if you ask me), but I guess it counts, and Victoria and I watch it. You don’t have to.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) is not related to the other films in the series. In this one, mad scientist John Carradine invents an invisibility potion of his own and recruits a criminal as his guinea gig. It’s good! I can’t say the same for the (also stand-alone) The Invisible Woman (apologies to Sue Storm!) from 1940. Seeing this’n once was more than enough, thank you. But The Invisible Agent (1942) is as good as that one was bad. A World War II espionage adventure, this film features Jack Griffin’s grandson as a spy given the invisibility serum to outwit the Nazis behind enemy lines. It’s great!
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) contributes the sixth canonical Classic Universal Monster: the Gill Man, who sports the most astonishingly realistic and beautifully designed monster get-up ever seen. The Creature looks just like Lovecraft’s Deep Ones (as I infer from his description of them, anyway). Though born out of time, so to speak, the Gill Man deserves the honor of induction into the Monster Valhalla. The story is one of Cryptozoology, of the survival of an evolutionary off-branch in an isolated environment (the Amazon jungle). We see only the one specimen (though there are also skeletal remains), but there would have to be considerably more of them. Same problem with the Loch Ness Monster: why does every witness see (or think he sees) only one? Is it the sole survivor of an ancient species? If so, how old is it? In that case, forget about Nessie; let’s start analyzing what’s in that water! (I have tried to fill out the picture of the Gill Man’s relatives in my forthcoming story “Invaders from the Black Lagoon.”)
As the title would suggest, Revenge of the Creature (1955) stars the same monster from the original, as does (I think) The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), but the latter takes off in a new direction, elaborating the evolutionary aspect in a fascinating manner. Since the Creature is sort of a distant cousin to mammalian humans, it turns out that he has a rudimentary, dormant physiology more like ours. To save the wounded Creature’s life, scientists bring this system on line, also removing his scaly exterior, bringing him pretty much into surface-world mode. As so often in these flicks, it turns out he is more genuinely human than the lowlifes who have captured him.
The Mummy(1932) is basically a remake of Dracula, with Karloff replacing Lugosi. The plot is the same, with Imhotep, the revived Mummy, obsessed with the half-Egyptian Helen Grosvenor just as Dracula was with Mina. Edward van Sloan, who played Van Helsing, now plays his twin, Dr. Müller, an occultist and Egyptologist. David Manners (whose original name, believe it or not, was Rauff de Ryther Duan Acklom) played Mina’s fiancé Jonathan Harker, and now he appears as Helen’s love interest Frank Whemple. Why was Count Dracula so fixated on Mina? Simple proximity to his lair at Carfax Abbey. Imhotep, by contrast, was stalking Helen because he recognized in her the reincarnation of his ancient lover, for whose sake he was long ago entombed alive. But the Dracula/Mummy parallel was made complete in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which Dracula seeks out Mina because she is his ancient bride reincarnated.
The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and its tiresome sequels, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse(also 1944), were not sequels to the Karloff film, nor was it supposed to be the same Mummy. The new guy was Kharis, who had the same back story: mummification while alive as punishment for illicit love. But whereas Imhotep’s resurrection was the unintended result of an archaeologist reading aloud from the Scroll of Thoth, Kharis is revived periodically through the centuries by the hereditary priests of Amun-Ra and sent on missions to protect the tomb of the Princess Ananka. I have always wondered if these names are supposed to be puns on two Greek words, charis (“grace” implying “chance”?) and anangke (“necessity”). The one chasing the other?
These movies are a pathetic spectacle of the ridiculous, for Kharis, unlike Imhotep, did not return to a close semblance of walking, talking life but instead shambles about in full Mummy drag, dragging a lame foot and with one arm in a sling. Played in the last three films by Lon Chaney, Jr., who while not obese was by no means gaunt, the Mummy appears to have been stuffed into a zip-up suit! And how much of a threat could this guy have been? Anyone not crippled worse than him could have easily escaped him even at a power-walking pace. The worst part may be that you can’t even tell it’s Chaney! (This, of course, was Lugosi’s fear when they offered him Frankenstein.) He looked more like himself when he played the Wolf Man! In fact, if we did not have recollections by cast members, I wouldn’t even swear it was Chaney. It was like he was his own body double. But these flicks (and that’s what you have to call ‘em; they don’t qualify as “films”) are fun precisely because they are so hokey, something the great Karloff original definitely was not.
His Satanic Majesty (no, not Mick Jagger) stars in our next group of movies. About time, you say? Night of the Demon(1957) is a terrific, albeit quite free, adaptation of M.R. James’s classic story, “Casting the Runes” (of which H. Russell Wakefield did an equally fine rewrite, “He Cometh and He Passeth By”). The villain, Karswell, is obviously based on Aleister Crowley, founder of the O.T.O., to which a nihilistic sect in the film corresponds. The eponymous demon is not Satan himself but rather Asmodeus the Fire Demon. Controversy attaches to the on-stage depiction of the entity. The script called for Asmodeus never to be seen on-camera, leaving its shocking nature to be inferred from the horrified reactions of his victims. But the studio insisted that the audience not be cheated. So the special effects guys went to work. While I think, e.g., the decaying visage of the ghostly Eva Galli in 1981’s Ghost Story should have been left to the viewer’s imagination, I’m glad they showed the demon here. It was risky, sure. It could have looked ludicrous. But it doesn’t. It is most impressive! See for yourself—if you dare!
The Devil Rides Out (1968), based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel of the same title (though the film was also released under the title The Devil’s Bride), also features a sinister fictive analog to Crowley, a Mr. Mocata, leader of a devil cult. Christopher Lee portrays the Van Helsing-like Duke de Richleau (shouldn’t that be “Richelieu”?), playing pompous to perfection. Occult adventure at its best! (I bet O.T.O. members chafe at the bad reputation this film reinforces for them.)
Eye of the Devil (1966) is a wonderfully spooky Gothic mystery based on the novel The
Day of the Arrow (1964) by Philip Loraine. It is a precursor to The Wicker Man (1973) and is just as good. Starring David Niven, Debra Kerr, Donald Pleasance, and Sharon Tate, this movie was Tate’s film debut, which is ironic as she plays an executioner for a secret cult, foreshadowing her own terrible death at the hands of the Manson Family. The cult seems to be some form of Mithraism surviving in the French wine country, where good grape harvests depend upon occasional ritual sacrifice of the Lord of the Manor. There are also hints of Gnosticism when an old tombstone is seen to bear an inscription from the Acts of John. What a treat!
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) was first released with the stupidly bland title All That Money Can Buy. It is a new version of Stephen Vincent Benet’s great story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” itself based on Washington Irving’s tale “The Devil and Tom Walker.” Benet himself co-wrote the screenplay. This is a movie every American should see. I am pretty cynical, but you’d have to be a lot more cynical than me not to find Daniel Webster’s patriotic defense speech for Jabez Stone inspiring. Besides that, the invocation of folktale supernaturalism is somehow both homey and horrifying. Walter Huston is superb as Old Scratch, a devil whose ruthless menace is dangerously concealed behind a façade of smiling conviviality.
A discussion of Psycho (1960) perhaps belongs with the treatment of dual personae in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the werewolf movies, but this one is uniquely modern in its approach. Robert Bloch, author of the original novel (closely followed by James Stefano’s screenplay) was much interested in psychoanalysis. His attitude was well expressed by Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street(1947): “I have great respect for psychiatry and great contempt for amateurs who go around practicing it.” See Bloch’s absolutely scathing treatment of the latter in his 1982 novel Psycho II (which has nothing to do with the 1983 film Psycho 2, an unauthorized but brilliant sequel to Hitchcock’s Psycho. The 1983 movie is more of an adaptation of Straitjacket, 1964, for which Bloch wrote the screenplay).
But Bloch’s Psycho is based on Freudian theory. In Freud’s Totem and Taboo (1913) we read his theory on the origin of religion. He was convinced James Robertson Smith was right about totem clans being the basic and original unit of both society and religion. Freud sought to explain both totemism and exogamy (the incest taboo) in this way: the first humans must have roamed in primeval hordes with a Type “A” male in charge. All the females were his, and as his sons neared puberty he would drive them off, the same scenario we see today in polygamous communes, where young men are expelled because the older men are marrying all the younger women! In various hordes, again and again it would happen that the sons would meet secretly, sick and tired of the arrangement. They contrived to kill and eat their father and to have sex with the females. They did, but in the morning they looked upon their deeds with horror and swore never to touch these women, their sisters, again, but instead to repair to other clans for women, and to offer their females to them. They went into denial about their father being gone and started believing he was invisibly present after all. This was the origin of the belief in an invisible heavenly father. To remind themselves of what they had done (yet to repress and disguise it at the same time!), they rehearsed the murder periodically with an animal substitute. This was the origin of the totem sacrifice.
All this, of course, is more than we need in order to explain Psycho, but not much more. Norman Bates obviously had an Oedipal fixation on his mother, which led him to murder her when, as he viewed it, she betrayed him by taking a lover. Here’s the Freudian incest business. And, unable to live with his guilt, Norman repressed the murder by making himself believe his mother was still alive (as the ancient hominids did with their dad) and assuming her identity in a strange ritual re-enactment of the murder using surrogate victims, human ones. Freud would not have been too surprised at Norman Bates.
You may think I am working much too hard trying to justify what is really only a guilty pleasure. But I am not. Actually I just watch and re-watch these wonderful movies because it is great fun to do so. It wouldn’t matter to me if they had no message or deeper meaning. (After all, I make no secret of the fact that I love loads of flicks that have no conceivable “message,” likeInvasion of the Saucer Men, King Kong versus Godzilla(though both the movies King Kongand Godzilla, King of the Monsters sure do), The Deadly Mantis, and It Came from Outer Space. Guilty pleasures? I enter a plea of “Not guilty.”
I have read two books that turned out to be truly prophetic. Not clairvoyant, mind you, just prescient. The authors were like Isaac Asimov’s futurologist Hari Seldon in his Foundation epic: they had a far-reaching grasp of how present trends would turn out. One of these books was Andrei Amalric’s Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? It was published in English in 1970 and already foresaw that the USSR must unravel because of irreconcilable ethnic tensions between the disparate Soviet “republics.” Okay, he was just a few years early.
The other book was Jean Raspail’s novel, The Camp of the Saints (English publication in 1975), whose title comes from Revelation 20:7-9: “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be loosed from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations which are at the four corners of the earth, that is, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.And they marched up over the broad earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city.” It suddenly occurred to the author one day as he relaxed at the beach: what if the inexhaustible hordes of the scarecrow poor from all over the Third World were to show up on the shores of affluent Europe? Would the survivor guilt of the liberal West sap any and all resistance to the invading army whose only weapon was their terrible neediness? Would Europe throw open its doors, welcoming the destruction of their culture with the famous last words, “Give me your tired, your poor, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores”? You know they would. And now, in 2015, they have.
No one can question the motives of refugees from embattled Syria and other blasted zones of famine and pestilence. They would be fools not to seek a better life elsewhere, namely elsehere (for they come a-knocking at our chamber door, too). But one must not ignore the foreseeable consequences (Raspail, after all, foresaw them). In effect, if not intent, what we are witnessing is a colonization of the Jewish-Christian-secular West by the Islamic juggernaut. You may think me paranoid and racist, but I am neither. Such knee-jerk reactions are only expressions (and tools) of the self-righteous self-hatred that leaves the beleaguered West welcoming its own demise.
We can already see the advance of Finlandization (“Russia gets a cold and Finland sneezes.”), a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, whereby we are so fearful of accusations of “Islamophobia” that we whitewash militant Islam and make accommodations to Muslims that we would never make for Christians. Canada is at this very moment considering the adoption of blasphemy laws that would declare any criticism of Islam to be hate speech and deserving of prosecution. Maybe that’s what it will take for my Politically Correct atheist buddies to see what’s at stake. There will only be more of this pernicious nonsense the greater the proportion of inassimilable Muslims are brought in. Of course, many Muslim immigrants do assimilate, but many do not, as witness the troublesome Muslim enclaves in Dearborn and Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
But what is a tender-hearted European/American to do in the face of Muslim legions demanding entry? It is a “tough choice” such as politicians always jabber about but never seem willing to make. But Garrett Hardin was willing to make it. In his famous essay (titled more aptly than he could know!), “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case against Helping the Poor” (Psychology Today, September 1974), he dared to face the terrible question whether the affluent West ought to keep coming to the rescue of famine-stricken Third World nations. Leave aside the vital fact that no such famines have ever occurred in democratic nations, only under dictatorial regimes like Albania, Ethiopia, and North Korea, implying the famines were preventable and caused by rapacious misappropriation of resources (and of international famine relief!). Suppose the famines are due to the populations exceeding the carrying capacity of their land. If the West rushes in to provide the food, are we not only sowing the seeds of another, even worse, famine in the next generation? If the population is already disastrously huge, you know what is going to happen if we pump it up further via foreign aid. What is more heartless: to sit by and mourn at tragedy now, or to contribute to a worse disaster down the line? The dilemma is not doing the right thing versus refusing to do the right thing, but rather of salving our consciences in the short run at the price of causing even greater tragedy in the long (and not too long) run. Alas sentiment masquerades as morality.
Of course, as witness the vacuous platitudes of Pope Francis, Christian compassion is a case, perhaps the case, of sentiment masked as morality. Heedless of the foreseeable results, Christians urge unqualified mercy to all. What this amounts to is a mirror image of Islamo-fascist zealotry: the overruling of real-world considerations in favor of inflexible dogma. What I am saying is that such sweet Christian “political snake-handling” plays right into the violent hands of those who will sooner or later take advantage of it. But Joachim Kahl (The Misery of Christianity, 1971) was right: what do you expect from a religion whose moral epitome is a man surrendering himself to death? “What, after all, is the cross of Jesus Christ? It is nothing but the sum total of of a sado-masochistic glorification of pain” (p. 30). Does not Harvard theologian Gordon D. Kaufman say much the same thing? “In the cross were found meekness and submission, nonresistance to evil, self-sacrifice: and the resurrection meant that just this cross was the very revelation of God’s inmost nature” (Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective, p. 432).
But it is even worse than that, I’m afraid. Hardin bids us picture a lifeboat in a pitching sea, filled to capacity while many others are swimming and sinking in the surrounding waters. You see swimmers approaching and demanding to be taken aboard, but there is no room! What do you do? Your fellow soaked and sodden passengers start beating them away with their oars. But your conscience urges you to jump overboard to make room for one more. Never mind that your replacement is likely to lack your tender-heartedness. You will simply have extinguished the last ember of conscience in the boat, and from there on in, it’s Lord of the Flies. Congratulations.
The same issue arises when we consider the naïve absurdity of pacifism. You’re too pure to bloody your hands fighting Nazis? You’re only aiding their efforts, you fool! What a moral accomplishment.
But the rising tide of Muslim refugees from a region already ablaze with sectarian violence and insanity is not quite like that. The vast majority of refugees harbor no murderous aims. Of course not. But if you don’t think they embody a serious threat to Western civilization, take a long look at Western Europe and the cultural compromises they have already made. Europe is already morphing into Eurabia. Sweden is the prime case of cultural suicide and self-hatred. France welcomed an influx of North African Muslims years ago just to have worker bees to do their dirty work. The shrinking French population will bequeath their once-great civilization to those indifferent to it or contemptuous of it. Wait and see the bonfire of the vanities when the heirs of France turn the Louvre into a mosque. I hope I don’t live to see it.
To bring the issue to a point: we must decide whether quantity matters more than quality, whether the maintenance of Western Enlightenment values is worth sacrificing human lives, whether ours or others’. Most of us have no difficulty deciding when it is a question of standing up against armed invaders. But I suggest the issue is no different when the invaders are desperate seekers of a too-costly mercy. It is analogous to a mass of plague-bearers at the door: they’re already doomed; will it help them if we join their number? I for one do not fancy playing the role of the bleeding heart Father Panelou in Camus’s The Plague (another prophetic novel), who so sympathized with the plague sufferers to whom he ministered that he felt guilty not being one of them and then psychosomatically induced the symptoms and succumbed to them.
Probably the best (and worst) example of the Secularist utter tin ear for religion, expressed everywhere in lawsuits, billboards, and ridicule, is the attempt by some to do away with circumcision on the grounds that it constitutes mutilation of infants who have no say in the matter. (I will not pursue the irony of such protests being made by people who regard a human fetus as no different from a tumor. I cannot figure how an abortion activist thinks he/she deserves the epithet “humanist” any more than an “Earth First” eco-terrorist.)
If circumcision were comparable to the horror of female circumcision (clitorodectomy—and worse), then maybe there would be a legitimate issue here, but it isn’t.
“Oh, but the clipped baby boys cry!” So what? You are being a bigger sissy than they are if you think this is important.
If there are detrimental health effects, they are so marginal as to be negligible. At a recent secularist conference, an atheist, secularist MD gave this opinion only to receive protests from the peanut gallery, from laymen who figured they knew her specialty better than she did. You know, just like anti-vaccination zealots. Besides, given the artistic, intellectual, and other achievements of Jews, the greatest circumcisers of all, I can’t think being circumcised has hurt them all that much.
Here’s what I think it finally comes down to: Those who want to prohibit infant circumcision (in Germany and here, too) are following in the infamous footsteps of the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanies who forbade Jews circumcising their children. It was a subtler version of Pharaoh’s strategy in the Exodus legend. Yul Brynner tried the clumsy way of eradicating Jewry: butchering Hebrew babies fresh from the womb. Antiochus realized you didn’t need to get blood on your hands. Just prevent circumcision, because that way kids would not grow up being Jews. Circumcision was (and is) the initiation into the covenant of Abraham. If you prevent a Jewish boy being circumcised, you are assimilating him to Gentile ways from square one. If this strategy succeeds, no more Judaism. Jews yes, but in name only, and then even Jewish ethnicity is doomed to extinction as assimilation results in intermarriage, and secularism follows on its heels.
My impression is that today’s secularists do not even realize what’s at stake. It seems not to occur to them that their so-superior opposition to circumcision is a direct assault on the Jewish religion, that Jewish identity is at stake here. To them, religion is so far from mattering that they do not realize it matters to anyone else. They certainly would not mind if Judaism (and all religions) were to vanish from the earth, and if you remind them, as I am trying to do here, that an attack on circumcision is an attack on Judaism per se, they will react with irritation as if you are making a mountain out of a molehill, trying to stop the Secularist freight train because a mouse is on the track. Secularists seem to think getting rid of circumcision is just another job of gender rectification, like eliminating non-inclusive language.
This is a terrible time for Jews. Vocal and virulent anti-Semitism is on the rise in once-civilized Europe. But of course it was cultured, enlightened Europeans who sent Jews to the gas chambers, wasn’t it? And it was effete, ever-optimistic, naïve Europeans who allowed the annihilation of Jews because they could not believe “Mister Hitler” could actually be such a medieval barbarian as he proved to be. Today things are no different. Bubble-headed Presidents and Secretaries of State assure us that Iran is just kidding when they repeatedly announce their intent to wipe out Israel in a repeat of the Holocaust they disingenuously claim never happened. What happened to “Never again!”? More like “Ever again!” As long as liberals with no spine to stand up to evil feel free to use Israel as a guinea pig in their experiment in diplomacy, the train continues chugging toward Iranian Auschwitz. Even certain Republican FOX TV hosts wave a scolding finger at Mike Huckabee when his voice on Israel’s behalf uses the word “Holocaust.” They didn’t like Mike speaking the blunt truth about Israel’s peril at the hands of Iran and America. Such PC prissiness only oils the rails for the hellbound train. How can they not see that? It is a fantastic irony when our ludicrous hyper-sensitivity produces a kind of pre-Holocaust denial.
And while the “enlightened” opposition to circumcision is not directly related to the looming Iranian Holocaust, it must be seen in light of this larger picture of resurgent anti-Semitism. I beg you to keep this in mind.
Just leave the Jews alone, okay?
So says Zarathustra.
SEINFELD The Bris – Season 5 – Episode 5
Featuring Shakey the Mohel
I want to report some thoughts sparked by a recent rereading of a passage from Aleister Crowley’s novel Moonchild and hearing a lecture by Dr. Jerry Coyne on the topic of “The Illusion of Free Will.”
“But she is a sublime genius, the greatest artist the world has ever seen.”
“She has a genius,” distinguished Simon Iff. “Her dancing is a species of angelic possession, if I may coin a phrase. She comes off the stage from an interpretation of the subtlest and most spiritual music of Chopin or Tschaikowsky; and forthwith proceeds to scold, to wheedle, or to blackmail. Can you explain that reasonably by talking of ‘two sides to her character’? It is nonsense to do so. The only analogy is that of a noble thinker and his stupid, dishonest, and immoral secretary. The dictation is taken down correctly, and given to the world. The last person to be enlightened by it is the secretary himself! So, I take it, is the case with all genius; only in many cases the man is in more or less conscious harmony with his genius, and strives eternally to make himself a worthier instrument for his master’s touch. The clever man, so-called, the man of talent, shuts out his genius by setting up his conscious will as a positive entity. The true man of genius deliberately subordinates himself, reduces himself to a negative, and allows his genius to play through him as It will. We all know how stupid we are when we try to do things…. All this lies at the base of the Taoistic doctrine of non-action; the plan of doing everything by seeming to do nothing …
Nothing any man can do will improve that genius; but the genius needs his mind, and he can broaden that mind, fertilize it with knowledge of all kinds, improve its powers of expression; supply the genius, in short, with an orchestra instead of a tin whistle. All our little great men, our one-poem poets, our one-picture painters, have merely failed to perfect themselves as instruments. The Genius who wrote The Ancient Mariner is no less sublime than he who wrote The Tempest; but Coleridge had some incapacity to catch and express the thoughts of his genius – was ever such wooden stuff as his conscious work? – while Shakespeare had the knack of acquiring the knowledge necessary to the expression of every conceivable harmony, and his technique was sufficiently fluent to transcribe with ease.
The moment I first read that passage, some thirty years ago, sitting in a gas station in Mount Olive, North Carolina, waiting for my car to be fixed, I knew Crowley had hit the nail on the head. At least I knew he had described the creative process as I experience it. I had already noticed that elusive points became clear to me when I chanced to wake in the middle of the night. I had already noticed that new story ideas or project ideas would jump into my conscious mind as I took my morning shower, my head fresh from sleep. I remembered how on some days I would feel distracted, fog-brained, or out of sorts when sitting down to the keyboard—and wrote more fluently than when alert and clear-eyed! In all these cases, my conscious mind, my “trying” mind, was sort of off-line, or sitting on the sidelines, enabling my subconscious mind (Crowley’s “genius”) to work unobstructed. In his fascinating book Lost Christianity, Jacob Needleman says something similar: that spiritual awakening comes most readily when physical or emotional discomfort momentarily throws us off balance, knocking our defenses away and putting us in a state of vulnerability.
Crowley’s character Simon Iff goes on to say, “How often do we see a writer gasp at his own work? ‘I never knew that,’ he cries, amazed, although only a minute previously he has written it down in plain English.’” I know that feeling. I feel often that I am simply receiving what I write. From whence? From “me,” i.e., my subconscious mind.
What I am describing is what I think is going on with so-called “channelers,” at least with those who are not simply frauds. They think they are loaning their mouths to this or that discarnate entity (Ramtha, Abraham, etc.) who then speaks through them to their audiences. I am guessing that the sincere ones are in fact putting their conscious minds in park and letting the genie of the subconscious out of its bottle. I believe the creative writer (or other artist), when he or she is “in the zone,” is doing essentially the same thing.
David Hume argued that there is no unifying ego at the center of our thoughts. They merely pass across the empty stage of our minds like actors in a play. Thoughts are pretty much tantamount to (passive) perceptions, though they do not, like the latter, seem to arise directly from the senses. I have to take this possibility very seriously. Likewise the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, “no self.” So often I seem to hear the arguments “I” spew out during a discussion, without planning them out, as if listening to another.
This is also why it makes perfect sense to me to say, with Deconstructive theorists, that the writer is but one more reader of the text “he” has authored. His conscious intention by no means controls the meaning of the text. The text is autonomous: it speaks for itself, the author’s opinions about it notwithstanding. I remember once hearing Stephen King remark that his book Carrie was about women’s rising awareness of their power. Plainly, he was wrong. He himself had expounded the subtext of William Peter Blatty’s novel/movie The Exorcist as the parent-frightening onset of puberty in their daughters. How could King not see the more-than-obvious: that his own Carrie was a retelling of the same lesson? His creative genius, of course, knew better.
Where does Jerry Coyne’s lecture come in? Among other points, Dr. Coyne appealed to tests that showed by an analysis of brain activities that the decision-making area of the brain signals a decision being made seconds before we become conscious of making a decision, implying that we are confusing what is really our experience of having (already, unconsciously) made a decision with the notion of making that decision in the moment of consciousness. Hidden factors deep below the level of consciousness have produced the decision, not a conscious process of deliberation. We are in fact receiving the decision from our subconscious minds. Sounds right! I’ve just been saying the same thing about ideas. But does that mean it’s not me? I posit that the immediate continuity between the unexperienced decision-making nexus and the awareness of the result is a matter of explaining our choices, not of explaining them away.
Compare it to sight: it seems to us to be instantaneous: an object is in front of us, and we see it, bang! But of course, there is much more to it: light strikes the optic nerve, the brain edits the image a bit, and we see a photoshopped version of what’s (presumably!) out there. Does this mean we aren’t seeing it? Hell, no. Even so, I think our decisions are genuinely our own, and not, say, those of another being programmed into us. The subconscious mind and the conscious mind are both equally “me.” (Once Felix Unger said to Oscar Madison, “This is the real you, that’s underneath the other real you!”) The distinction is important in many ways, as Crowley, Freud, Jung, and a legion if others say. But so is the unity of continuity.
Dr. Coyne also suggested that determinism is perfectly compatible with deterrence policies, since the threat of execution may so impact the hearer that “he” will “decide” to drop his nefarious plans. Nor, Coyne says, is determinism incompatible with logical argumentation since a “compelling” argument “causes” the hearer to change his opinions in light of it. This seems fishy to me. Precisely how do effective arguments or threats “compel” assent? Hypnosis? Brain-washing? Mind-control? Or are not the changes of mind these arguments produce the product of the hearer weighing the implications and repercussions of planned crimes, evaluating the validity of arguments and the weight of evidence? Granted, these calculations may be taking place on a deeper level than we know, as when we instinctively toss an object into a trashcan across the room, and we hit the mark, whereas, as Crowley notes, if we had consciously calculated the necessary force, trajectory, etc., we would be less likely to make it. The “effortless” toss (the way clumsy ol’ me once astounded some neighborhood kids by sinking five baskets in a row) depends not on luck, but on a lightning-fast subconscious calculation on our part. The calculations are real, and they occur inside our skull, even though they are made on automatic pilot. But they are made. It is not the hand of fate.
Personally, Leibniz’s understanding of determinism and free will makes sense to me. Here is my version: Genetic and environmental factors create us and constitute us to an overwhelming extent. We cannot create ourselves. As Colonel Phillips says to Arnim Zola in Captain America: The First Avenger, “It’s just the hand you’ve been dealt.” Now see if you can win the game with it.
My likes and dislikes do not come out of nowhere. They were among the cards dealt me, whether earlier or later in life. But the fact remains that I do like what I like and dislike what I dislike. Various values are important to me, more so than others, perhaps than yours, and this, too, no doubt is a function of my genetic endowment and early life experiences. I did not choose them, nor did some deity. I do not feel betrayed, undermined, or disillusioned by this knowledge. I did not have the freedom to create myself because I wasn’t there to do the job. But I do have freedom now: the freedom to embrace the law of my own being, to be myself. And sometimes the way to do that is to get out of the way and receive whatever emerges.
Naturally, the educated man does not believe in propaganda; he shrugs and is convinced that propaganda has no effect on him. This is, in fact, one of his greatest weaknesses, and propagandists are well aware that in order to reach someone, one must first convince him that propaganda is ineffectual and not very clever. Because he is convinced of his own superiority, the intellectual is much more vulnerable than anybody else to this maneuver, even though basically a high intelligence, a broad culture, a constant exercise of the critical faculties, and full and objective information are still the best weapon against propaganda.
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, p. 111.
Once upon a time, as I sat in my place around the big square table at the Jesus Seminar, my suspicions were confirmed. Was the goal of this think tank really to arrive at the facts about the ostensibly historical Jesus? If you looked at the trees, the answer would be yes. The discussions of individual sayings and stories were certainly attempts to whittle away anachronistic and tendentious embellishments of the Jesus tradition. But if you stepped back to look at the forest as a whole, it did sort of look like somebody had yet to learn the lesson of Albert Schweitzer’s magisterial book The Quest of the Historical Jesus: that Jesus researchers, despite their efforts to cast off the blinders of ancient dogma, had raised from the tomb of the past a Jesus that fit their theological and political preferences strikingly well.
The nature of the cheat in politically correct Jesus scholarship is this: the “dangerous supplement.” Derrida explained how someone proposes to add some insight that will fill a gap in some traditional understanding or institution, as when astronomers corrected the earlier belief that the orbits of the planets were perfect circles, showing instead that the planets journeyed around the sun in elliptical paths. Okay, just a helpful correction. But the “dangerous supplement” turns out to be much more. The suggested “modification” in fact overturns the whole apple cart, supplanting the old way, replacing it. One of the chief forms of this dangerous supplementation/supplantation is the attempt to critique culture in the name of nature: “from the beginning it was not so.”
You saw this, e.g., when anthropologist Margaret Meade criticized the “Puritanical” sexual norms of the West in light of her field studies of primitive peoples in New Guinea, whom she depicted as noble savages practicing Free Love. But it eventually developed that she had reported on these people as she imagined them, not as they were. What had happened (in this as in many other cases) was that culture was not so much being criticized in the name of nature as it was on behalf of counter-culture. Marx’s primal classless society: was it a historical account of the natural state of humanity before private property ruined everything? Or wasn’t it merely a function of his theory? “On my projection (or retrojection), it would have, must have, looked like that.” On and on it goes: was there really a primordial Matriarchy ruined by men, and to which we ought to return? Or isn’t it just mythicizing propaganda?
Historical study of the life of Jesus began in the eighteenth century as a rejection of the hidebound orthodoxy of the Christian churches. No more would biblical critics rein in their research according to what Christians were supposed/required to believe about Jesus (e.g., he was sinless, believed he was the Second Person of the Trinity, performed supernatural feats). They were rejecting “culture,” in this case an edifice of theological speculation, in favor of “nature,” the simple “facts of history.” But instead, they were champions of a counter-culture, seeking to replace the traditional Christology with a new one. You just cherry-pick a different set of gospel verses on which to base your new, improved “historical” Jesus.
I suspected this was what I was seeing in the Jesus Seminar, and finally I heard Bob Funk and others admit that their goal was to come up with a new Jesus figure(head) appropriate to the twenty-first century. I recall Karen King admitting there might be some space between demonstrable fact about Jesus and a Jesus-picture necessary to inspire Christians to engage with the progressive agenda the Seminar espoused. I had to say something. I asked her why that was any better than the fraudulent mythology of Afrocentrism? Face it: the ancient Egyptians were not black Africans, so the attempt to build up black kids’ self-esteem by teaching them such fantasies was building a house on sand. (I’ve always wondered why schools don’t teach about the glorious African civilizations of Songhay, Mali, Ghana, Benin, etc.? I learned about them in Bloomfield High School.
We live in Orwellian times today. The value of a statement is thought to consist in the usefulness of that statement in order to secure some socio-political goal. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is such a false but useful slogan. Michael Brown’s death was not a martyrdom. He did not surrender to police who shot him anyway. But the agitators don’t care about that. It is a useful lie if one’s goal is to undermine the effectiveness and even the legitimacy of the police, a major goal of anarchists. The notorious but phony campus rape cases constitute another major example.
But what these liars forget is that their lies are counter-productive. You remember the fable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” He had a good laugh every time he got all the villagers roused up, but when one day a wolf actually appeared, nobody heeded his call, this time an earnest one. Eventually, people are going to hear accurate reports of police brutality and campus rape and shrug their shoulders. The liars will have demonstrated only that they lie.
Remember the urgent claims that heterosexuals were just as liable to contract AIDS as were homosexuals? It was a lie designed to prod heterosexuals to find a cure for AIDS, which it was assumed they would not bother to do if AIDS were a threat only to (pesky, expendable) Gays. Remember the lies in the 1980s about homelessness? That Middle Class folks were in imminent danger of becoming street people? They weren’t. Street people are mainly the insane dumped out of mental health facilities, and that should have been the problem to attack, not Reaganite economic policies. In any case, AIDS activist and reporter Randy Shilts finally admitted he was inflating his statistics, as did homeless advocate Mitch Snyder.
Frankly, I am utterly baffled that fans of certain political candidates and office-holders who are known to be pathological deceivers are not daunted by their favorites’ penchant for prevarication. Don’t they see the obvious? The liars are not going to change their habits when they gain power. It has already come to the point that one simply cannot believe anything any government spokesperson says. It is just like the Iron Curtain countries before 1990: the people constantly heard glowing progress reports from the Ministry of Truth about economic progress, quotas met, battles won, etc., and not only did the weary populace not believe the propaganda; it no longer even occurred to them that it might be true. Language had lost its informative function and instead become simply a tool to manipulate the hearer. And thus words lose their power even to manipulate. When we hear the next cry of “Wolf!” we aren’t going to look up from our TV screens.
Until recently, when I used the term “Isis cult” I had in mind the once-popular religion of Isis and Osiris, a faith originating in archaic Egypt, then spreading throughout the Roman Empire. It was a major religion when Christianity was just getting started with small groups meeting in local Moose Lodges. But now, of course, the term refers to the religio-political nightmare known as The Islamic State in Syria (and the Levant). They are insane savages, to put it mildly. One can scarcely imagine a more depraved bunch. They seek to exterminate Jews, Christians, Yezidis, Shi’ites, and any Sunnis who commit the mortal sin of disagreeing with them. They crucify and behead unbelievers. They rape women and girls, seeing these atrocities as by no means inconsistent with the moral ideals of their religion. They do their best to murder the pre-ISIS past, warring against the cultural heritage of the Middle East and the West, demolishing ancient Assyrian relics and promising to level the Pyramids of Egypt. It is hard to understand such religious and moral perversion, as if these maniacs had prayed the prayer of Gilles de Rais (the historical Bluebeard): “Evil, be thou my good!”
But it is even harder to understand what motivates young Muslims in America and Western Europe to drop what they’re doing and buy a plane ticket to Pandaemonium. In biblical terms, it’s as if it was Satan who appeared on the Galilean shore, bidding Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee to leave their nets and follow him, and they did.
In some ways, there are parallels to the great “cult” hysteria of the 1970s. Then, too, we heard about seemingly normal young people, none of them particularly deprived, unstable, or uneducated, who walked off good jobs and abandoned degree programs to march to the tune of Reverend Moon, the Hare Krishna sect, the Tony & Susan Alamo Foundation, the Children of God, etc., etc. Of course, the big difference is that none of these groups was violent. I know what you’re thinking: what about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple? Keep in mind that Jones did not send his people to engage in acts of violence. Politically, the People’s Temple was a pretty sophisticated Liberal activist group. Their violence was a spasm of self-annihilation. Ditto David Koresh’s Branch Davidian commune. The Manson Family, on the other hand, was a genuine exception.
What is a “cult”? There are two criteria. Neither is necessary, but either is sufficient. Often both are present. First, a cult is a (new) religious movement transplanted from a different culture, e.g., the Unification Church (“Moonies”) and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (a missionary effort of a Hindu devotional (bhakti) sect dating back to 14th century India). Second, there is complete control, voluntarily embraced, over the lives of the adherents, exerted by the leader himself or by a pyramid of deputies if the cult is large enough. Reverend Moon matched and married couples he had never met and who likely did not know each other. (I attended two of their mass weddings in Madison Square Garden.) Jim Jones dissolved married couples and matched them with new mates.
As far as I can tell, none of the notorious cults of the 70s actually coerced, brainwashed, or forcibly isolated members from their families. These accusations were born of a lack of understanding by outsiders as to what attracted individuals to join these groups and to render such absolute dedication. (Or maybe not so absolute: the typical turnover rate for cults was over 90 per cent!) Concerned parents, pundits, etc., were in effect saying, “I can’t imagine joining a cult unless I got hypnotized or brainwashed!” They just didn’t get it, any more than most today can fathom the motivation of young people who up and join ISIS.
But I think it is a mystery with a solution. I believe the late fundamentalist Presbyterian Francis A. Schaeffer hit the bull’s eye in his 1972 booklet The New Super-Spirituality. He was discussing the earlier hyper-fundamentalist Christian groups like the Alamos and the Children of God. These groups made no secret of their contempt for mainstream evangelical churches and ministries. The COG, for example, would send into Sunday morning church services their own members clad in sackcloth and ashes, stamping wooden staves on the sanctuary floor, chanting verses of judgment and doom. It was a classic case of a repeating historical pattern described by sociologist Max Weber: sects begin by rejecting “worldly” religious institutions which have betrayed their founders’ radical, counter-cultural vision. But in a generation or so, as these Young Turks have children and assimilate to the societal norms they once repudiated, the sect becomes a church, and after a while the whole thing begins again.
Schaeffer was sectarian in one sense: at some of his lectures (I heard one of them at Princeton University chapel), he would stamp his feet and shout “We are the true Bolsheviks!” But in The New Super-Spirituality, he theorized that a new generation of Christian youth, raised on Sunday bombast about taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, were disillusioned by the complacent piety of their pew-potato parents and decided to chuck the affluent American lifestyle and put their money where their mouths were. They sought out Christian communes (I visited some of them: Reba Place Fellowship, Sojourners, Jesus People USA, Christian World Liberation Front), pooled possessions, took Bible names, and spent hours each day witnessing, praying, and reading scripture. All in the advancing shadow of the Second Coming.
I think we are witnessing pretty much the same thing with young Muslims leaving the West and heading for the Islamic State. You have to understand that the whole Jihad movement is a reaction against centuries of theologically devastating Islamic humiliation. In the early centuries Islam ruled an empire larger than the Roman Empire was at its height. This success could not but be experienced by Muslims as living confirmation of their belief that they were pioneers and inheritors of the Kingdom of Allah on earth. Thus when their empire began to fade, to fragment, and ultimately to face defeat, even domination, by Christian and secular powers, it was Allah’s own reputation that was impeached. It was no mere frustration; it was an existential threat to the religion: “then your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The eventual (and predictable) result was a Revitalization Movement (Anthony Wallace). When a traditional culture (and thus religion) is threatened by conquest or colonization, many will acquiesce, but some will resist, absorbing elements from the outsiders which had given them a tactical advantage (sometimes including elements of the conquerors’ religion, but not necessarily). In short, the partisans of the old ways will try to turn their enemies’ weapons against them. This accounts for the happy willingness of Islamists to embrace Western technology like Social Media (not to mention weaponry) to promote a return to the norms of the seventh century. Sort of like that Star Trek episode where, on a parallel world, the Roman Empire never fell and the Roman legionaries used machine guns and televised gladiator matches.
I believe Islamic young people in the West (some of them) find themselves in the same position as the disappointed evangelical youth Schaeffer described. What they heard in their mosques about Muhammad and the past glories of Islam sounded antithetical to the pluralism and secularism of the society around them. Pluralism inevitably dissolves any master narrative that may once have given a more monolithic society its identity and sense of direction. For Muslims, their very existence as one more plant in a larger garden seems to contradict the ostensible raison d’être of Islam. The blandishments of radical Islam offer what a secular, pluralistic society cannot give: a jihad to conquer anomie.
Let’s turn to the question of the mad violence of Islamist militants. What accounts for this? Peter L. Berger and Thomas V. Luckmann offer the clue to this one. The Islamists, as they know full well, are totally at odds with the modern, secular, religiously diverse world. They face criticism from all sides for their advocacy of ancient Shariah law. Even the very existence of alternative opinions is a threat, since the mere fact that other worldviews are possible (and actual) must raise questions: “They seem pretty convinced, too! How can I be sure we’re right?” Traditionally, dogmatic religions try to set their members’ minds at ease using “legitimation” strategies, seeking to defend, e.g., the accuracy of the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus. They may caricature or slander competing faiths. It might be bad manners, but nobody ends up bleeding.
Evangelism serves as another legitimation strategy. The more people one can persuade to join one’s religion, the more votes one can count toward the truth of one’s belief. One’s faith is buttressed by one’s membership in a “plausibility structure,” a matrix of people who share one’s beliefs, values, and assumptions. The peer support makes the shared beliefs seem self-evidently true. After all, “everyone” thinks so, right? A believer may seek to keep unbelievers (or other-believers) at arm’s length, since at close quarters their lack of faith in your creed might tend to undermine your faith in it. For instance, interfaith marriage is sure to erode either spouse’s faith.
The Isis legitimation strategy is in principle the same as evangelism and high-walled parochialism, only it is much fiercer. Here one seeks to remove from the very earth any and all who do not share the true faith. The goal is to make radical Islam self-evidently true and impossible to doubt. The very existence of dissenters and doubters constitutes aggression against which the ansaru Allah (helpers of Allah) must “defend”—by annihilating them. The women, like their men, do not even count as humans anymore, so pious Muslims may rape them (one may add, like goats).
Even the “pagan” past must go, as Islamist fanatics seek to erase any evidence that the world was ever anything but Muslim. It is like the fundamentalist hatred for dinosaur fossils, the very existence of which allows and demands a version of history and paleontology inconsistent with the Bible.
Some politicians urge us to pause a moment and try to understand our enemies. I think I do understand them, and that understanding does nothing to soften my total and complete antipathy to the Isis savages. In fact, it only makes it worse.
One point at which ISIS does not parallel the cults of the 1970s is that business about the turnover rate. The idealistic kids who heed the call of Islamism are not likely to be able to return home once they start having second thoughts.