Monday, October 31, 2011

This Is Halloween

Prior to the rise of what Science 2.0's Hank Campbell calls today's "torture porn," what we now know as "horror films" were largely disassociated with Halloween (1931's Dracula was released on Valentine's Day). While Orson Welles' October broadcast of War of the Worlds provided the first inklings of the marriage between Halloween and Hollywood horror, it was not until John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) that the two were officially wed. The Celtic festivities of Samhain (mentioned in the Halloween sequels) had more to do with agriculture and the changing of seasons than the art of scaring. Nonetheless, the sense of the supernatural was heightened due to the belief in spirits brought on by the oncoming winter (the season being related to death and decay). These spirits were possibly kept at bay with the practice of animal or even human sacrifice (Julius Caesar wrote of the Druids' use of a wicker man), though this is difficult to prove. Despite these pagan roots, the most recognizable practices derive from the medieval Christian holy days of All Souls' and All Saints' Day. For example, the rituals of "souling" involved the baking or cakes to be distributed to relatives and the poor in return for prayers for the souls in purgatory. Many would go from door to door requesting food in exchange for prayers for the dead. This house-to-house activity included the carrying of a hollowed-out turnip, which represented a soul trapped in purgatory. The Protestant Reformation helped rid Halloween of the its more Catholic elements, focusing instead on the marriage prospects of adolescents rather than those trapped in purgatory. Courting and divination practices linked to future marriages became the custom of the day. Between its changing contexts, Halloween was often a night filled with pranks and the undermining of social norms. As these disturbances became less tolerated in the early 20th century, Halloween evolved into a more familial holiday. After surviving the overblown "razor-in-the-apple" scares, the real threat of the Great Society, and the Hollywood gore-fest, the holiday continues to be a night of overturning social norms in a variety of ways (including dressing like a total slut).[1]

Still, Halloween continues its relationship with the spooky and the supernatural, invoking numerous Halloween specials on various TV stations. As far as I'm concerned, if your Halloween night does not consist of murderous preachers, showers with schizophrenics, old-fashioned haunted houses, real-life carnies, the devil's baby shower, possessed hotel caretakers, or all of the above, then you are not doing it right.[2]

1. For a detailed treatment of Halloween's evolution and prominence in North American culture, see Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Another interesting study on Halloween consumerism can be found here.

2. I admit to not doing it right. Since I will be unable to celebrate Halloween in any recognizable way due to work, I decided to read the above academic material instead.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Paul and the Merkabah

Paul's vision on the road to Damascus has often been puzzling to me. The standard telling of the story consists of a devout Pharisee persecuting the Christians who is converted through a vision of the resurrected Jesus Christ. The question that always accompanied my reading of Acts 9 was in regards to the catalyst of Paul's vision. My previous assessment drew comparisons to the experience of Alma the Younger: an angelic appearance or theophany brought about by the prayers and suffering of others. While this may very well be the case when it comes to Paul, I am convinced that the vision rests comfortably within the context of merkabah mysticism; a reference to Ezekiel's vision of the anthropomorphic God upon His chariot-throne.[1] As Rice University's April DeConick explains,

The centerpiece of this [priestly] cosmology is the belief that God has a "body," called the "Glory" or Kavod of YHWH. This idea grew out of the study of certain Jewish scriptures, particularly sections of Ezekiel that describe his visions of an enthroned "likeness as the appearance of a Man ('adam)," a Man who looked like "fire" with "brightness around him." This is "the appearance of the likeness of the Glory (kavod) of YHWH" (Ezek 1:28). This figure is the very manifestation of the hidden YHWH, depicted in the scriptures as an anthropomorphic figure of fire or light (see Ezek 1:27-28; 8:2; Isa 6:1-4). He presides over the created order, oftentimes seated up his merkabah, a special throne consisting of two cherubim with wings spread over the kapporet, the lid of the ark of the covenant in the temple.[2]

In some forms of the interpretation of Ezek 1 the meaning of the text may have come about as the result of "seeing again" what Ezekiel saw. The visionary's own experience of what had appeared to Ezekiel becomes itself the context for a creative interpretation of the text...In some circles this led to renewed visionary experience as expounders saw again what had appeared to the prophet, but in their own way and appropriate for their own time.[3]

This not only demonstrates the power and importance of prayer in receiving revelation, but also the power and importance of the scriptures.[4]

1. See William Hamblin's lecture on the merkabah tradition in Ezekiel and its connection to the temple at David Larsen's blog.

2. April D. DeConick, "What Is Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism?" in Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, ed. April D. DeConick (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2006), 11-12.

3. Christopher Rowland, with Patricia Gibbons and Vicente Dobroruka, "Visionary Experience in Ancient Judaism and Christianity," in Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, ed. April D. DeConick (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2006), 56.

4. For more on Paul and his conversion, see Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990).

Welfare Principles and the Welfare State

There are many good people and organizations in the world that are trying to meet the pressing needs of the poor and needy everywhere. We are grateful for this, but the Lord's way of caring for the needy is different from the world's way...He is not interested only in our immediate needs. He is concerned about our eternal progression. For this reason, the Lord's way has always included self-reliance and service to our neighbor in addition to care for the poor.

- President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, General Conference October 2011

These powerful words from President Uchtdorf's important and timely talk echo the thoughts of President Marion G. Romney from years ago:

Many programs have been set up by well-meaning individuals to aid those who are in need. However, many of these programs are designed with the shortsighted objective of “helping people,” as opposed to “helping people help themselves.” Our efforts must always be directed toward making able-bodied people self-reliant...The practice of coveting and receiving unearned benefits has now become so fixed in our society that even men of wealth, possessing the means to produce more wealth, are expecting the government to guarantee them a profit. Elections often turn on what the candidates promise to do for voters from government funds. This practice, if universally accepted and implemented in any society, will make slaves of its citizens. We cannot afford to become wards of the government, even if we have a legal right to do so. It requires too great a sacrifice of self-respect and political, temporal, and spiritual independence.

Commenting on the above riots, former prison doctor and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple writes,

The riots are the apotheosis of the welfare state and popular culture in their British form. A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice. It believes itself deprived (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class), even though each member of it has received an education costing $80,000, toward which neither he nor—quite likely—any member of his family has made much of a contribution; indeed, he may well have lived his entire life at others’ expense, such that every mouthful of food he has ever eaten, every shirt he has ever worn, every television he has ever watched, has been provided by others. Even if he were to recognize this, he would not be grateful, for dependency does not promote gratitude. On the contrary, he would simply feel that the subventions were not sufficient to allow him to live as he would have liked.

This is quite different from the continued coddling of many who see the riot a desperate act of the poor and downtrodden. Despite the maddening psychobabble of many, actual psychologists have recognized the narcissistic tendencies of the Entitlement Generation for some time. "Many young people also display entitlement," notes psychologist Jean Twenge, "a facet of narcissism that involves believing that you deserve and are entitled to more than others...Several studies have found that narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected."[1] This coincides with the findings of another researcher, which concludes that the perception of low status elicits misery, leading to animosity and aggression. Some are under no illusions as to where this perception of a deserved higher status came from. "The entitlement mindset didn’t come from nowhere," writes one columnist. "It came from us. It came from a generation of adults who believed that kids should never be allowed to fail, or told the truth about their abilities, or learn that getting what you want is sometimes hard." As The Australian reports, "It may seem compassionate to give people money, but passive welfare over the long term is a disaster for the recipient's self-respect, motivation, general morale and ultimately their sanity." Thus, by all accounts, "the European model right now is a wretched failure." Drawing comparisons to the dystopian novel and film A Clockwork Orange, one writer views the riots as "[w]hat happens when you teach people that profits are theft, that inequality of outcome is injustice, and that it is a basic human right for every citizen to have "access" to all the consumer goods their eyes behold[.]"

The disgraceful attempt of many to justify or overlook the inexcusable actions of these rioters is rich with as much cognitive dissonance as sheer hypocrisy. It is the same nonsense trumpeted by the media, politicians, and public intellectuals during the riots of the 1960s. Chanting "Burn, Baby, Burn," rioters looted and set stores ablaze. These riots were characterized as "'uprisings' against poverty and white racism."[2] Instead of stealing necessary goods (the deprivation of such being the very definition of "poverty"), things such as liquor, cigarettes, and drugs were targeted instead. Dry-cleaned clothes and pawn shop items were also looted, despite the fact that these were property of black community residents. Though the militant interpretation claimed this to be a response to racism, African American residents took a largely negative view of the situation. Most arrested looters admitted nothing more than a personal desire for material gain. Small businesses, which employed a large number of blacks, were the main recipients of looting and arson. Black-owned businesses faired no better, even with signs reading "Soul Brother" or "Very, Very, Very, Very Black." The 1992 Los Angeles riot following the Rodney King incident left multiple Korean-owned, African American-owned, and Hispanic-owned businesses in ruin. This supposed protest against "racial injustice" created a kind of riot ideology.[3] In our modern context, the injustice has moved from racial to economic and social. "[M]uch of the furor is because poverty is now seen as a relative, not an absolute, condition," writes historian Victor Davis Hanson. "Per capita GDP is $47,000 in the U.S. and $35,000 in Britain. In contrast, those rioting in impoverished Syria (where per capita GDP is about $5,000) or Egypt (about $6,000) worry about going to bed hungry or being shot for expressing their views — not about wanting a new BlackBerry or a pair of Nikes. Inequality, not Tiny Tim–like poverty, is the new Western looter’s complaint." The problems not only stem from government policy, but a cultural paradigm shift in regards to morality.[4]

This is what happens when individuals leave behind the welfare principles of the gospel with the support and encouragement of their government leaders.

1. Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled - and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Free Press, 2006), 70-71 (italics mine).

2. Jonathan J. Bean, "'Burn, Baby, Burn!': Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s," The Independent Review 5:2 (Fall 2000): 165.

3. See Bean, 2000 in its entirety.

4. The following selection addresses this morality shift as well as the need for traditional values and economic freedom: Charles Murray, "Europe Syndrome," The Wall Street Journal (March 25, 2009); Jonathan Sacks, "Reversing the Decay of London Undone," The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 20, 2011); Sacks, "Markets and Morals," First Things (Aug/Sept 2000); Edward Feser, "Hayek on Tradition," Journal of Libertarian Studies 17:1 (Winter 2003).