Category Archives: Religion & Philosophy
Directed, animated, scored, and edited by filmmaker Keith Ronindelli, this amazing short film evokes the dark mystery and sacred terror of Arthur Machen’s classic tale “The White People” in just six minutes. I’m personally struck by the depth and richness of both the vision and the execution, and by the sheer awesomeness of the hallucinatory imagery arising from the young protagonist’s discovery of a pagan shrine in a forest, whose general character is indicated by a line from Machen’s story that appears as an epigraph at the start of the film: “It was so strange and solemn and lonely, like a hollow temple of dead heathen gods.”
Ronindelli explained his intentions and inspirations to Cartoon Brew back in 2011 when the film was released:
The Forbidden Forest is inspired by the work of Arthur Machen, who was a Welsh writer of supernatural fiction from the late 19th and early 20th century, specifically his classic tale “The White People.” I’m also a big fan of 1960s and 1970s animation and cinema, so the impetus for the piece was an attempt to marry the feel of Arthur Machen with movies such as René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and the films of Stanley Kubrick, namely 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.
Outsider art is another longtime love of mine, and I wanted the piece to somehow fuse a 60s/70s widescreen cinematic language with the strange, obsessive imperfectness of outsider artists such as Henry Darger and Adolf Wolfli.
Here’s the high-res version of The Forbidden Forest from Vimeo. Headphones are definitely recommended for catching all the nuances of the soundtrack. If you have a problem with playback, try the lower-res version at YouTube.
RELATED POST: “Cosmic Horror vs. Sacred Terror,” a Teeming Brain podcast featuring a roundtable discussion of the comparisons and contrasts between the respective weird fictional visions and philosophies of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft.
I’m pleased to announce that my mummy encyclopedia is now available for preorder from the publisher, and also from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere. The scheduled publication date is November 30.
From the official publisher’s description:
Perfect for school and public libraries, this is the only reference book to combine pop culture with science to uncover the mystery behind mummies and the mummification phenomena.
Mortality and death have always fascinated humankind. Civilizations from all over the world have practiced mummification as a means of preserving life after death — a ritual which captures the imagination of scientists, artists, and laypeople alike. This comprehensive encyclopedia focuses on all aspects of mummies: their ancient and modern history; their scientific study; their occurrence around the world; the religious and cultural beliefs surrounding them; and their roles in literary and cinematic entertainment.
Author and horror guru Matt Cardin brings together 130 original articles written by an international roster of leading scientists and scholars to examine the art, science, and religious rituals of mummification throughout history. Through a combination of factual articles and topical essays, this book reviews cultural beliefs about death; the afterlife; and the interment, entombment, and cremation of human corpses in places like Egypt, Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. Additionally, the book covers the phenomenon of natural mummification, where environmental conditions result in the spontaneous preservation of human and animal remains.
Here’s an excerpt (slightly condensed) from my introduction to the book: Read the rest of this entry
Well, that’s a relief. After years of fanning the flames of religious doomsday fears, television preacher John Hagee, long one of the most prominent banner carriers for fundamentalist Protestant bluster and bombast, has decided to enter the apocalypse sweepstakes for real by giving a specific timetable for — well, something non-specific. But he says it will be “a world-shaking event,” and he says it will happen between now and October 2015.
Hagee is not, of course, alone in this. The blood moon phenomenon has set off an apocalyptic debate among many Christians. And suddenly I’m gripped by memories of myself, at age 17, watching the apocalyptic religious horror flick The Seventh Sign and finding it so cool as a Jewish kid sits translating a famous end-times passage from the biblical Book of Joel — specifically, Joel 2:31, which states that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful Day of the LORD” — when he looks out his window and sees the large full moon suddenly overtaken by a wave of crimson that turns it a deep bloody color. Demi Moore, what have you wrought?
But all joking aside, I think it’s important to recognize that the type of apocalyptic religious theorizing advanced by Hagee pointedly ignores certain aspects of the very sacred text that he and his ilk claim to take as absolute, infallible, and unchangeable holy writ. Consider, for example, the fact that the biblical/canonical Jesus’s right-hand man, the apostle Peter, states explicitly in Acts 2 that the Joel prophecy, including the part about the moon turning to blood, is already fulfilled in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at the Day of Pentecost. Obviously, such a claim represents a distinctly different understanding and interpretation of apocalyptic matters than the model of a literal timetable advanced by the Hagees of the world. Likewise for Jesus’s statement in Luke 17:20-21, where he directly tells the pharisees, who have asked when the kingdom will arrive, that it is not the type of thing that will come by looking for external signs, because God’s kingdom is already within or among them. Call me naive, but I doubt we’ll hear Pastor Hagee addressing the clash between his claims and this subtler view as he continues to spout and tout his literalistic apocalyptic views over the next 18 months.
“The Flood” by Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1634/35)
Via Art and the Bible, Fair Use
I recently saw the Noah movie, and I’m pleased to report that I really liked it. The angle taken by writer-director Darren Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel struck me as deeply engrossing and just right for our collective cultural moment. I was pretty well swept away by their deliberate re-visioning of the basic Bible story as an epic tale of antediluvian human civilization and planetary apocalypse, all revolving around the deep mystery of “the Creator” (the only term used throughout the film to refer to the deity) and His inscrutable nature and terrifying intentions for a world that has been thoroughly corrupted and perverted from its original purpose by humans.
One of the more fascinating changes was Aronofsky’s and Handel’s decision to incorporate an explicitly shamanic theme into the story, largely centered on the person of Methuselah. In the Bible, the Genesis genealogy does present Methuselah as Noah’s grandfather, but he is nowhere mentioned in the flood story itself. The film, by contrast, makes him an important supporting character, and it portrays him as a wise and mysterious old shaman-like figure who gives Noah a psychoactive brew to help him gain a clear vision of what the Creator has been calling him to do in a series of horrifying apocalyptic dreams. As described by Drew McWeeny of HitFix, upon drinking the brew
Noah is propelled into a vision of the Garden and the snake and Adam and Eve’s fall and Cain and Abel’s violence, and he sees the flood, and he sees the Ark, and he knows, with one complete revelation, what he is supposed to do. Methuselah isn’t remotely surprised. He knew that this particular brew would give Noah a direct pipeline to the voice of God, and Aronofsky uses a very real-world visual vocabulary to show a direct communion with the supernatural.
It’s a fascinating way to imagine what a prehistoric, pre-flood religion or spirituality in the general context of this particular tale and tradition might have looked like. It also strikes me as true in spirit to the history and probable prehistory of real-world religion. In the world of the Noah film, religion is experiential, not propositional or intellectual, and it involves a direct sense of communication with the invisible deity, along with an agonized struggle to interpret and understand the meanings of dreams and visions with the help of wise old mediator figures and psychoactive substances.
Methuselah is played by Anthony Hopkins, who does a marvelous job in the role. He also does a marvelous job in a recent interview with McWeeny for HitFix, where in addition to discussing the filmmakers’ decision to include Methuselah in the story he discusses the shamanic matters under question and the explicitly philosophical side of the screenplay as he compares its portrayal of Methuselah to the real-world philosophical figures of Socrates, Plato, and Diogenes. Then he ends with a brief comment on the way Aronofsky managed to create a film that presents “a landscape of . . . darkness and horror,” where the main character is “in tune with some inner signal” as “the ground of all being” speaks within him. It all adds up to a rare moment of true depth in a show-biz industry interview.
Religion scholar Jeffrey Kripal is one of the most lucid and brilliant voices in the current cultural conversation about the relationship between science and the paranormal, and about the rehabilitation of the latter as an important concept and category after a century of scorn, derision, and dismissal by the gatekeepers of mainstream cultural and intellectual respectability. (And yes, we’ve referenced his work many times here at The Teeming Brain.)
Recently, The Chronicle Review, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, published a superb essay by him that has become a lightning rod for both passionate attack and equally passionate defense. It has even brought a strong response — a scornful one, of course — from no less a defender of scientistic orthodoxy than Jerry Coyne. I’ll say more about these things in another post later this week, but for now here’s a representative excerpt that makes two things abundantly clear: first, why this essay serves as a wonderful condensation of and/or introduction to Jeff’s essential 2010 book Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and its semi-sequel, 2011’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal; and second, why it’s so significant that something like this would be published in a venue like The Chronicle Review. The intellectual orthodoxy of the day is clearly undergoing a radical transformation when a respected religion scholar at a respected university (Jeff currently holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University) can say things like this in a publication like that:
Because we’ve invested our energy, time, and money in particle physics, we are finding out all sorts of impossible things. But we will not invest those resources in the study of anomalous states of cognition and consciousness, and so we continue to work with the most banal models of mind — materialist and mechanistic ones. While it is true that some brain research has gone beyond assuming that “mind equals brain” and that the psyche works like, or is, a computer, we are still afraid of the likelihood that we are every bit as bizarre as the quantum world, and that we possess fantastic capacities that we have allowed ourselves to imagine only in science fiction, fantasy literature, and comic books.
. . . In the rules of this materialist game, the scholar of religion can never take seriously what makes an experience or expression religious, since that would involve some truly fantastic vision of human nature and destiny, some transhuman divinization, some mental telegraphy, dreamlike soul, clairvoyant seer, or cosmic consciousness. All of that is taken off the table, in principle, as inappropriate to the academic project. And then we are told that there is nothing “religious” about religion, which, of course, is true, since we have just discounted all of that other stuff.
Our present flatland models have rendered human nature something like the protagonist Scott Carey in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). With every passing decade, human nature gets tinier and tinier and less and less significant. In a few more years, maybe we’ll just blip out of existence (like poor Scott at the end of the film), reduced to nothing more than cognitive modules, replicating DNA, quantum-sensitive microtubules in the synapses of the brain, or whatever. We are constantly reminded of the “death of the subject” and told repeatedly that we are basically walking corpses with computers on top — in effect, technological zombies, moist robots, meat puppets. We are in the ridiculous situation of having conscious intellectuals tell us that consciousness does not really exist as such, that there is nothing to it except cognitive grids, software loops, and warm brain matter. If this were not so patently absurd and depressing, it would be funny.
. . . We now have two models of the brain and its relationship to mind, an Aristotelian one and a Platonic one, both of which fit the neuroscientific data well enough: the reigning production model (mind equals brain), and the much older but now suppressed transmission or filter model (mind is experienced through or mediated, shaped, reduced, or translated by brain but exists in its own right “outside” the skull cavity).
. . . There are . . . countless . . . clues in the history of religions that rule the radio theory in, and that suggest, though hardly prove, that the human brain may function as a super-evolved neurological radio or television and, in rare but revealing moments when the channel suddenly “switches,” as an imperfect receiver of some transhuman signal that simply does not play by the rules as we know them.
Although it relies on an imperfect technological metaphor, the beauty of the radio or transmission model is that it is symmetrical, intellectually generous, and — above all — capable of demonstrating what we actually see in the historical data, when we really look.
MORE: “Visions of the Impossible“
Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The updated/remade version of the classic Carl Sagan series Cosmos has been drawing lots of attention in the past few weeks, both positive and negative, and one of the areas that has come under the most scrutiny is the show’s inaccurate portrayal of Giordano Bruno, the sixteenth-century philosopher, occultist, mystic, and proto-scientist whose life and death (he was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600) have been exalted to legendary status in the Western cultural narrative of the war between religion and science. (This is despite the fact that the man’s name and memory have remained relatively obscure in mainstream popular awareness.)
Bruno held and taught a heliocentric view of the universe whose scope exceeded even Galileo’s attempt to build on the Copernican model, and the story that is commonly told today — including by the new Cosmos — is that he was a martyr for science in an age of benighted and militant ignorance, when religious authorities waged a merciless campaign against freedom of thought.
Many observers have weighed in on the problems with this approach to Bruno in the past few weeks. The chatter has been extensive enough that it has even drawn a response from one of the series’ co-writers.
One entry in the conversation that I find to be especially astute and important comes from the pen/word processor of Daily Beast writer and editor David Sessions, who argues that the Cosmos portrayal underscores our tendency to rewrite the past to conform to currently fashionable biases, ideologies, and cultural narratives — in this case, the very narrative of the “war between religion and science” itself, with religion framed as the villain and science as the hero:
Bruno, according to Cosmos, wandered around Europe, arguing passionately but fruitlessly for his new explanation of the universe, only to be mocked, impoverished, and eventually imprisoned and executed. Catholic authorities are depicted as cartoon ghouls, and introduced with sinister theme music. [Host Neil Degrasse] Tyson explains that the church’s modus operandi was to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs.”
What Cosmos doesn’t mention is that Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not scientific, even if it did involve his wild — and occasionally correct — guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos) supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”
Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno as a “martyr for science” is just a small example of a kind of cultural myth we tell ourselves about the development of modern society, one that’s almost completely divorced from the messy reality. It’s a story of an upward march from ignorance and darkness, where bold, rebel intellectuals like Bruno faced down the tyrannical dogma of religion and eventually gave us secularism, democracy, and prosperity. Iconoclastic individuals are our heroes, and big, bad institutions — monarchies, patriarchies, churches — are the villains. In the process, our fascinating, convoluted history gets flattened into a kind of secular Bible story to remind us why individual freedom and “separation of church and state” are the most important things for us to believe in.
The real path to our modern selves is much more complicated — so complicated that academic historians still endlessly debate how it happened.
. . . [T]hat Cosmos added an unnecessary and skewed version of Bruno — especially one skewed in this particular way — is a good miniature lesson about our tendency to turn the past into propaganda for our preferred view of the present. There are cultural, religious, and even political reasons that the story of scientific progress and political enlightenment are [sic] so attractive, and filter down even into our children’s entertainment. It allows us to see ourselves as the apex of history, the culmination of an inevitable, upward surge of improvement. It reassures us that our political values are righteous, and reminds us who the enemies are. The messy, complex, non-linear movement of actual history, by contrast, is unsettling, humbling — even terrifying.
For more on the subtle history of the relationship between religion and science, and also the whitewashed/propagandistic mainstream secular narrative about it, I recommend David Metcalfe’s Teeming Brain column De Umbris Idearum, whose title is in fact drawn from the work of Giordano Bruno. See especially “Humility and Silence: Where True Science and True Spirituality Meet” and “Science, Philosophy, Theology: If the Mirrors We Make Are Monstrous, So Too Are We.”
Sounds of Apocalypse, Part Two
“The Walls of Jericho Fall Down” by Gustave Doré
This is Part Two of contributor Dominik Irtenkauf’s four-part essay “Sounds of Apocalypse.” Before reading it you may want to read Part One, “Roar of Creation and Destruction,” in which Dominik lays the explanatory groundwork for the theme he is pursuing.
The word “apocalypse” derives from the Ancient Greek language and originally meant “the unveiling of secrets.” But since the canonical Christian document by St. John refers to this revealing as the overture to the end of the world as we know it, the idea of the apocalypse became colloquially linked to this very idea: the end of the world. Human beings are able to predict events to a certain degree, and even more, they can imagine worlds and states they haven’t experienced before. However, the mash-up network of fiction and truth, real experiences and second-hand representations (either in personal experience, films, or books), doesn’t really entail different levels of fear, because fear erodes any distinguishable borders. It’s the sheer will to survive which remains intact.
Augmenting this with a term from Georges Bataille, we see that we can almost reach the reality of imaginary events by means of “inner experience”:
I call experience a voyage to the end of the possible of man. Anyone may not embark on this voyage but if he does embark on it, this supposes the negation of the authorities, the existing values which limit the possible. By the virtue of the fact that it is negation of other values, other authorities, experience, having a positive existence, becomes itself value and authority. (Bataille, p. 7)
So can we experience the apocalypse as living beings simply by imagination? The cultural products of the apocalypse meme tell us that it is very possible. Read the rest of this entry
Stefany Anna Goldberg recently offered some interesting reflections on the reality and nature of America’s enduring obsession with the idea and sense of an impending apocalypse. She rightly points out that, culturally speaking, the roots of this tendency extend all the way down to a positively genetic level:
America is a nation rooted in Apocalypse. The very foundation of the nation is tied to the End Times. Apocalypse is in America’s DNA. When the Puritans stepped out into the bitter wilds of New England they brought with them the forecast of annihilation. These exiles came to America not to delight in religious freedom but to ring in the last of days.
. . . In the mid-19th century, William Miller’s obscure Millennialist movement became a national campaign. His prophecy that Christ would return to Earth around 1843 or 1844 came to be known as the Great Disappointment. Some of Miller’s followers went to live with the Shakers (who didn’t need to wait for the new Millennium as they believed it had already come) and the rest formed an entirely new religion and called themselves Adventists. David Berg told us the End would come in 1973 and Pat Robertson guaranteed that 1982 would bring “a judgment on the world”. Reverend Bill Maupin from Tuscon, Arizona preached of a rapture that would happen on June 28, 1981. 50 Arizonians gathered at Maupin’s house to be “spirited aloft like helium balloons.”
There is one thing that unites all of these Apocalyptic Americans. They do not see America as a place to create a new civilization. They see America as a place to settle into a wilderness of the soul.
FULL STORY: “Apocalypse Now“
In another recent reflection on the same subject, religion scholar Ira Chernus describes the psychic toll this apocalyptic obsession may be taking on us, especially in its brand new historical-cultural guise, which, hailing from the dawn of the nuclear age in the mid-twentieth century, looks not to an impending clearing away of corruption that will be followed by a new and purified way of life (as in the traditional mythic/religious view) but to the end of all possible futures via the total extinction of life on earth:
Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us. Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.
But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled “apocalyptic”: mounting federal debt, the government’s plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing’s pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.
Then there’s the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise.
. . . Why does American culture use the A-word so promiscuously? Perhaps we’ve been living so long under a cloud of doom that every danger now readily takes on the same lethal hue.
Psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted such a state years ago when he suggested that the nuclear age had put us all in the grips of what he called “psychic numbing” or “death in life” . . . . Lifton’s research showed that the link between death and life had become, as he put it, a “broken connection.”
As a result, he speculated, our minds stop trying to find the vitalizing images necessary for any healthy life. Every effort to form new mental images only conjures up more fear that the chain of life itself is coming to a dead end. Ultimately, we are left with nothing but “apathy, withdrawal, depression, despair.”
If that’s the deepest psychic lens through which we see the world, however unconsciously, it’s easy to understand why anything and everything can look like more evidence that The End is at hand. No wonder we have a generation of American youth and young adults who take a world filled with apocalyptic images for granted.
. . . [S]uch a single-minded focus on danger and doom subtly reinforces the message of our era of apocalypses everywhere: abandon all hope, ye who live here and now.
FULL STORY: “Apocalypses Everywhere“
For those of you who, like me, live right in the midst of this circumstance both psychologically and geographically, I suggest bearing the above observations in mind as you surf the waves of apocalyptic sentiment that continue to cascade across America — including the ones here at this blog.
Image courtesy of manostphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I would be interested to hear how many Teeming Brain readers find aspects of their own beliefs and experiences described by this extremely interesting article at Pacific Standard, and/or how many of you have observed the trend it identifies playing out in the lives of people you know. That trend, by the way, is “a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal,” as both science and traditional Judeo-Christian religiosity fail to fulfill deep human longings, resulting in the rise and increasing prevalence in America (and elsewhere) of a paranormal-themed religious syncretism that amounts to “a new religious worldview.”
[E]verywhere you look in the United States today, the supernatural is more culturally important, more acceptable, and just. . . more than it’s ever been before. Paranormal-themed media of all types have surged, in fiction obviously, but also in non-fiction too, where the past few years have brought us everything from The Most Terrifying Places in America to Psychic Tia to The Monster Project. Then there are the Bigfoot hunts, the ghost hunting tool reviews, the UFO spotting iPhone apps — we can’t get enough of this stuff.
This should come as no surprise. Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen. It has ebbed and flowed with us for as long as this nation has existed, in the form of the 18th-century pilgrim mystics, the domesticated poltergeists that knocked on command in the 19th, and even in the academically inclined parapsychologists of the 20th. Whether you believe in these ideas or not is almost immaterial: the paranormal is an inescapable ingredient in the American identity that has shaped and been shaped by our society for centuries.
Perhaps that makes it all the more meaningful that today’s supernatural surge is not just another cycle of the same old thing, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal. It’s democratic, laden with jargon, and endlessly customizable — in short, it’s the DIY American techno-religion of the 21st century.
. . . [According to Tok Thompson, a folklorist at the University of Southern California,] “Even though it’s done great things for the iPads, I don’t think science has done very well at answering the big questions like, What happens when I die? In fact, science has absolutely nothing to say about that right now, and people want to know.”
. . . “A certain kind of American is no long going to the Bible for his or her worldview, they’re going to science,” says Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar at Rice University who has studied the interaction between pop culture and the paranormal. But, he adds, “they’re then linking that science up with these various spiritual currents, which have been in America for at least a century and a half, and they’re basically building a new religious worldview.”
Full article: “The Church of the Paranormal“