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).