‘The Denton Affair’

Still reeling from the loss of Lou, I had planned on jumping back into the blogging swing of things in earnest with a hard-hitting rant about the continuation of the Senate nonsense (still looking for a response from the PMO that sounds remotely authentic) or the ongoing battles at City Hall (now that I am using the TTC every single morning rather than just occasionally I have even more of a vested interest, and Mayor McCheese is already talking about his re-election campaignShudder), or actually writing something about mythology or religion or something like that but…

‘Tis the season.

First television viewing of Rocky Horror the other night.  I own the DVD (and the VHS) version(s), of course, but I just can’t not watch it when it comes on the telly- which it does frequently at this time of year (it’s not unlike Ghostbusters I and II, in that respect- I also own both of those, yet tend to watch them if I happen to run across them while channel surfing).

I love the film.  I missed the heyday of midnight participatory showings (although I did sneak in one night manymany moons ago with a friend when it was playing at the Roxy here in town- was quite an eye-opening experience, for a neophyte), but I have loveloveloved everything about it since I first experienced it at a birthday party decades ago.  The enduring songs are a big part of that (I wrote about The Time Warp a little while ago), but as I’ve matured and learned some stuff about some stuff, its value as a retelling of an archetypal myth has resonated and increased my appreciation of the genius of Richard O’Brien.  The connections to his love of classic (B-) movies and old Hollywood are obvious, but there a whole lot of mythological thinking going on there too…

(Hey wait.  This post IS going to be about mythology!  Yay, me!)

Many years ago, while I was completely caught up in the preparation for my comps, the annual RHPS-fest caught my eye and became a welcome source of procrastination well-deserved break.  Since I was in that altered state that tends to overtake me when I’m veryvery focused on something, I noticed something for the first time.

Frank is the demiurge.

The movie is riddled with gnostic mythology.  RIDDLED I tell you!  Everything about the story fused with the stuff I was working on and, like an illegitimate act of creation in the pleroma, brought one of the staples of popular culture together with my fave mythological system.  BAM.  Realization.  Richard O’Brien is even more a genius than I previously acknowledged.

I have yet to find anything that suggests he has any background in gnostic mythology (or Jungian psychology- Jung loved the dualists), just like I’ve never found proof that he was specifically influenced by that crazy B-Movie Spider Baby, but the language and the themes are so VERYVERY gnostic, I can’t get over it.  So much so, I used the film to finish the term when I got to teach a class on gnosticism a few years back.

How had I missed it before?

Gnostic mythology (very generally speaking- since there are LOTS of varietals of dualistic beliefs in the literature of antiquity- and those gnostic imaginings that came after) holds that there is a singular, unknown and unknowable deity out there somewhere- Bythos or the Abyss- which is the source of all things.  From him (yes, the originating principle was male) emanated a series of heavenly beings- the archons/aeons- who came forth in pairings of male and female and existed with the awareness of the Unknowable First Principle.  One of the archons- Sophia/Wisdom, usually- so loved and missed the FP that she sought to ‘know’ him, independently of her rightly-ordered partner.  As a result of this lapse the demiurge came into being.

This singularity (often named Ialdabaoth) sought, in his turn, to make an attempt at creation- outside of the proper order of the pleroma and the plan of the FP.  The result was the material universe/world and humanity.  The demiurge is variously seen as either stupid/incompetent or downright evil, depending on the source mythology.  Since the material is outside of the original plan, it is BAD.  Old Bythos felt sorry for those of us now trapped in materiality, so he allowed for a little piece of himself to be implanted in each of us who has the misfortune to be born into this realm of the physical.

This spark allows for the potential of knowledge/remembrance of the FP and the awareness of the negativity of our current lot in life, and through this gnosis we can eventually seek a return/reconnection/reunion with Bythos, at which time all will be good and properly ordered again.  From the gnostic perspective, we are to spend the entirety of our earthly lives seeking this reunion through learning and understanding the nature of the world and the pleroma beyond.

Some of the gnostics of the early centuries CE ran afoul of the more ‘orthodox’ (for lack of a better term- there really wasn’t much consensus of belief at the time) Christians, since the demiurge was associated with the creator god of the OT- who made humanity and was considered a pretty good fellow (mass extinctions and the like notwithstanding), so gnostic claims of idiocy and/or badness didn’t go over all that well.  Stuff like that led to them being labeled ‘heretics’ and having to bury their stories in jars in the desert (which was a very good thing for those of us who are interested in their worldview) in order to keep out of trouble.

I love my gnostics.  They were the focus of my academic life for, what seems like, eons.  They are representative of the reality of syncretism in the formation of belief systems, and the Christian gnostics were pivotal in the formation of the early Church.  Without them acting as an antithesis, the early Church Fathers wouldn’t have had to work so hard and so fast to codify just what WOULD make up the doctrine and dogma of the developing institution.  Plus they’re fun- and some of them liked to party waaaaaay more than those self-righteous martyrs and the like.

Anyhoo…

With that thumbnail sketch in mind…

Dr. Frankenfurter, a transvestite, bisexual alien, goes against the properly ordered universe and creates- in seven days– a man.  He IS Ialdabaoth.  Through his hubris, and acting outside of any kind of correct, archonic pairing, he finds the spark that allows for the creation of life.

There are harbingers from the get-go.  Brad and Janet (a male/female archonic pairing) see the light, in the distance, and seek its sanctuary and aid.  But, as Riff sings, it is a false light- of a false god- and really the dreams and darkness associated with Morpheus rather than the sun and light of the true, unknowable First Principle.

The servants are hostile and suspicious of the new creation, and plot against the demiurge while practicing small acts of insubordination- to Frank’s intense frustration.

Even Eddie/Meat Loaf talks about the suspicious influence of the false creator:

It don’t seem the same since cosmic light
Came into my life, I thought I was divine…

(How can you NOT dance to that song?!)

After Eddie’s untimely death, the rest of the group participates in a ritually-cannibalistic dinner.  During the Floorshow, Frank waxes melancholic about his longing to return home- back to the source (Transsexual Transylvania, in this case), especially since the whole creation thing hasn’t gone exactly as planned.  As other mythological creator gods have discovered, creatures with free will seldom follow the desires or mapped out plans of their creator.

Riff Raff and Magenta (properly, gnostically, paired as male/female/brother/sister) restore the order of the pleroma (as the archons ‘Christ’ and ‘Church’ are called upon to do in some gnostic Christian myths) by returning Frank- and his creature- to nothingness.

Like other artistic creations that use the language and themes of myth (Frankenstein and stuff about Prometheus comes to mind), The Rocky Horror Picture Show presents cultural constructs in a way that exposes their short-comings while playing with elements that are tangibly familiar.  Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, we somehow know the story- and know that it isn’t going to favour the one who messes with the proper way of doing things.  Not because of the alternative lifestyles/sexuality/gender roles that it demonstrates and celebrates (which were, at the time, pretty out there for the mainstream culture), but because Frank’s act of creation goes against the mandated order of things.

Riff and Magenta, for example, have a relationship that (seemingly) violates at least one major taboo, yet they come out of the situation ahead of the game- and they are allowed to return to their longed-for source- because they were instrumental in restoring the proper order.  They may have committed all kinds of other crimes to do so, but the means is seen as justifying the end.

This is something else our stories tend to do- they support the status quo (or doctrinal/dogmatic rules/laws/commandments) at whatever cost.  Even when they are tarted up (in a good way, in this example) as a musically delicious romp stomp all over cultural mores and ‘traditional’ values.

Something to keep in mind.  Especially when our government(s) seem hell-bent on continually doing (or suborning) things that are faaaaaar scarier and potentially dangerous than most Hallowe’en haunts.

We can’t escape it.  Myth is all around us.  And it isn’t always used for/by the forces of good.

Happy Hallowe’en, boys and girls.  Keep safe out there.  The veil is thinning and the creatures of myth are trying to return to our world…

Mwahahahahaha…

I Can’t Even…

Generally, I try to refrain from too much name-calling.  I don’t think it accomplishes anything productive and it can disrupt attempts at meaningful dialogue and debate.

But HOLY HELL.

I mean, c’mon.  Just. COME. ON.

I don’t know whether to laugh hysterically or to dissolve into inconsolable sobbing.

At least six people have sent me links to a particular Fox News interview (this link also mentions Doctor Aslan’s later conversation with Piers Morgan and his embarrassment at having to repeatedly trot out his academic credentials).  In The Washington Post, Erik Wemple has kindly provided us with a transcript of the Fox debacle- in case you’d rather read than watch the cringe-worthy attempt at an interview- and the opinion that the idiots at Fox owe the Professor an apology.

I can’t even.

Jebus.

I briefly discussed the whole Jesus-as-Zealot issue a while back, and although I still lean to the side of history and scholarship that rejects the claim that he was actively engaged in insurrection against Rome, I am open-minded enough to examine Dr. Aslan’s argument and weigh his evidence before saying that I unequivocally disagree with his conclusions.

But the book, its author and the author’s thesis aren’t going to be the focus of this post.  Once I actually read the book I might have more to say on the subject, as an historian of religions in Antiquity and Late Antiquity myself, but then again, I might not.  Over here in the WordPress universe, I try to write about things that are interesting, engaging or making me completely insanely-off-my-nugget-bat-shit crazy in a given moment.

This qualifies resoundingly as the latter.

Yes, I have ranted about the media a few times before (most recently here) and I understand that it is our job as responsible individuals to pick and choose which news forum(s) we are going believe and use as a platform from which to investigate further and draw our own, informed conclusions and, alternatively, which ones are ridiculous and deserving of recurring spoofs on Saturday Night Live.  Believe me, I get the double-edged sword that comes with the (putative) freedom of the press and proliferation of places that are offering us their ‘journalistic’ viewpoints on the news of the world.

But really Fox News?!?!?

Wemple insinuates that Lauren Green hadn’t read the book before attempting to ‘catch’ her subject on the whole Muslim-Christian problem (this seems to be the poorly-executed underlying purpose of the interview).  Whether or not she did (personally, I can’t believe she has cracked the spines of many books at all, TBH) and adequately prepared herself for the interview isn’t even the biggest problem (although it would definitely be evidence of shoddy and shameful ‘journalism’).

Regardless, the transcript reads like a high school student interviewing an educated elder about a subject with which the adolescent has no frame of reference (her misuse of ‘begs the question’ demonstrates an unfortunately ubiquitous habit that the uniformed often have- misusing terminology in an effort to appear informed).  Although I have known plenty of high school students who would be angry with me for making that comparison.

The problem is her repeatedly-expressed incredulity that Dr. Aslan, as a Muslim, would have any reason to be interested in Jesus.  That she doesn’t understand his academic credentials is obvious.  I’ve experienced the same thing- some people just cannot (or will not) wrap their brains around the fact that studying religion(s) doesn’t have to have ANYthing to do with belief in said religion(s)- and his frustration at this inability, by someone who (one would hope) has done some background research before the interview, is palpable, yet overcome.  Quite heroically and with enviable composure and professionalism.

The problem is that she cites a theologian and Christian Apologist as an example of the scholarship refuting Dr. Aslan’s thesis (and none of the myriad historians of Christianity who might disagree with Dr. Aslan),  further evidence of the existent bias of the ‘reporting’ that goes on at Fox News as a matter of course.  Of her inappropriate analogy about a “Democrat wanting to promote democracy by writing about a Republican”, the less said the better.

The problem is that the interview is inexcusably slanted, uninformed and shows such an incredible lack of anything approaching a desire for dialogue between those of differing faiths, academic backgrounds and cultures that it makes me more than a little sick to my stomach.

But what makes me really ill is the knowledge that Ms. Green is not remotely alone in this willful ignorance, lack of perspective and context and complete unwillingness to acknowledge any of the cultural and religious scripts that have shaped the ignorance.

This is the point that moves the interview from the amusing realm of an academic who competently and completely schools the unprepared interviewer, rendering her a ridiculous laughing stock who will be openly mocked on interworld sites and in memes and GIFS for the foreseeable future, into the terrifying reality that there are way too many people out there who will see the interview, and Ms. Green’s perspective (such as it is), as representative of their own worldview.

The dunce cap is an example of an ‘educational tool’ in a system that has long been rendered obsolete and ineffective.  Shaming people is never going to lead them to work toward better performance or increased comprehension.  That punishing someone by singling them out for ridicule was ever thought to be pedagogically sound is beyond my comprehension.

The word ‘dunce’ originated as a term describing those who stubbornly refused to surrender ideas and ways of viewing the world.  John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan philosopher-theologian and Scholastic during the High Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries CE), wrote treatises on all kinds of points of theology (the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, for e.g.), grammar, logic and metaphysics.

By the time of the Renaissance, and then the Reformation, many of Duns Scotus’ ideas had been superseded by new approaches and beliefs.  Those who continued to support his worldview, even in the face of new evidence and perspective, came to be called ‘dunces’- with the underlying meaning being ‘stupid’ or dull-witted’.

In our common parlance- and in connection with its former use in classroom settings (shudder)- a ‘dunce cap’ is used to mark someone as ‘uneducated’ or ‘incapable of learning’.  Ms. Green is certainly the former.  My hope would be that the attention and response to this interview will lead her to understand this truth and attempt to refute the latter through engaged learning.

I’m not going to hold my breath.

Little technical point that’s bugging me.  Ms. Green repeatedly referred to Jesus of Nazareth as the ‘founder’ of Christianity and Dr. Aslan doesn’t correct her- most likely because he recognized the futility in doing so.  Historical and textual evidence indicates that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, looking to reform his religion, not trying to ‘found’ a new one.  Just so’s you know.

Pots and Kettles

“Evil, they said, was brought into the world by the rebel angels.  Oh really?  God sees and foresees all, and he didn’t know the rebel angels were going to rebel?  Why did he create them if he knew they were going to rebel?  That’s like somebody making car tires that he knows will blow out after two kilometers.  He’d be a prick.  But no, he went ahead and created them, and afterward he was happy as a clam, look how clever I am, I can even make angels… Then he waited for them to rebel (no doubt drooling in anticipation of their first false step) and then hurled them down into hell.  If that’s the case he’s a monster.”

Umberto Eco- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (pg. 349)

No one writes like Umberto Eco.  His language- even as translated from Italian- is beautiful beyond belief.  He seems to see words as symbols- and as a semiotician (not a ‘symbologist’- hear that Dan Brown?  No such thing) he maintains that all cultural phenomenon can be viewed as communication.

He is one of my heroes.

I will likely wax philosophic and play the super-fan about him at some point, but the focus here is meant to be what he has to say about god and the fall of the angels in Queen Loana.

(after one more quick aside… It’s a beautiful book- about memory, and the loss of memory, and how it is tied to our definitions of self and the construction of personality.  You should read it).

So… God is a prick.  And a monster.

What else can you say about a deity who sets its creation up to fail?  And to Fall?  That particular point of theology/theodicy has always been a big sticking point for me.

‘Look at all these super-cool trees.  You can eat from any of them.  Oh.  Except that one.  The best looking one of all.”  There seems to be a whole bunch of unreasonable and unjustified ‘testing’ going on throughout the biblical mythology.  It’s like Yahweh was playing The Game with an entire Nation of unsuspecting suitors.

Of course it’s not a new thing- questioning the theodicy of the god of Israel.  Reconciling a supposedly benevolent and omniscient singular deity (the ‘mono’ in monotheism) with the evil that is an apparently dominant presence in the world was something that the Ancients also wrestled with.  Some of the greatest Wisdom literature examines this tension in great detail- and to differing degrees of success.

For polytheists, this was less of an issue.  There were all kinds of gods- and not all of them had the good of humanity as one of their major points of concern.

Evil (or chaos- going back to that foundational Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian dichotomy) was easily explained as the influence of malignant beings- gods or demons- as they messed with humanity- either for their own ascendency or just for something to do.  Apparently, being a god could get boring.  This godly need to ‘interfere’ with humans is a functional component of most world mythologies and religion.

Interference can take the positive form of divine inspiration or communication (through such interesting media as burning bushes, voices in the thunder, taking human form on earth, and etc.) or the less-than-holy ‘temptation’- persuasion and inducement to join the dark side of the force.

And sometimes they just showed up to get their rocks off.  Zeus, for example, had a thing for animal disguises and tendency toward rape.  Even the god of the New Testament wasn’t above impregnating unsuspecting Palestinian maidens.

All this is pretty ‘hands on’ involvement in the lives of us human creatures as we crawled about on the face of the earth back in the day (it doesn’t seem to happen as much lately).  Many of the oldest stories feature humans as little more than playthings of the gods- pawns in some incomprehensible game of Twister.

(And as I wrote that line this popped into my head :

The gods may throw the dice, their hearts as cold as ice

And someone way down here loses someone dear

Ah, Abba.  Benny and Bjorn can be connected to anything!)

The biblical stories- canonical and non-canonical- demonstrate this propensity and the idiosyncratic changeability of the character of the god.  This can be explained by the fact that stories were written and re-written and redacted by generations of Israelites, Judeans, Jews and Christians (not to mention the ‘heretics’ like the followers of the various gnostic groups) over hundreds of years.

But many of those who see the bible- old and new testaments- as a single continuity and narrative have a harder time reconciling the vast differences in personality and approach of the singular deity (that was then divided- yet not divided– into three parts).  Still, they manage.  Somehow they are okay with this clearly bi-polar god being seen as unchanging and unchangeable.

The lengths to which we are willing go in the continuation of self-delusion when we try really hard is pretty spectacular at times.

Still, can we really look at the actions of Yahweh as being all about the betterment and support of humanity?  The authors of books like Job and Ecclesiastes didn’t really think so.  They asked questions and received less-than-strongly-supported ‘arguments’ about the god’s omniscience and justice.

If the fallen angels can be vilified for giving humanity the gifts of civilization (temptations that lead us from the path ordained by the deity) can we go any easier on the deity who allowed the Fall(s) (Adam’s and the angels’) to happen.  Who orchestrated the actions?  Is it not all part of the ‘divine plan’ that is laid out in linear history and leading us to the ultimate End of Days at which time those pesky fallen angels will finally get their comeuppance?

Free will is a tricky proposition.  Arguably, there would be far fewer (or non-existent) issues if we all were programmed to follow a set path at all times and under all examples of adversity.  The truth is, people often suck.  We do have this propensity to want to look out for ourselves, take what isn’t ours, reach beyond that which we’re capable of.

In order to explain that- in a worldview that posits a benevolent deity- evil, and those who suborn evil, had to be created in explanation.  And if we were to be able to be influenced by this evil and its incarnations, we had to have some sort of ability built in to us that permits that choice.  So, free will.

It would be lovely if I could believe in just the benevolence and the love and wisdom that can be seen in some of the myths of the biblical deity/deities.  As I have said before, faith can provide hope when faced with nothing more than hopelessness.

I had an email conversation with a friend, and former student, today.  In discussing current job searches, I offhandedly told him to ‘keep the faith’.

His response to that?  “Faith is the active suspension of critical thinking…. no thanks.”

And my comeback?  “It doesn’t have to be about a lack of critical thinking.  I was using it figuratively- or rather, in a humanistic manner.  In that I have faith in (some of) my fellow humans and experiential evidence that some people warrant that level of faith.”  Or something along those lines.

I can continue to believe in people.  We are continually subject to change and so very very adaptable that it astonishes me when I see the things that some manage to cope with, weather and emerge the stronger for.  I honestly think that we are constantly trying to do better, to be better, to achieve the level of goodness with which we imbue the best of our gods.

Even assuming that I could somehow change the entirety of the way in which I view the world and discover some form of faith in a supernatural entity that is overseeing my life and the lives of those I love, if that deity adheres to/embodies an approach to justice that I can’t begin to comprehend in what way does it deserve love and worship?

And if said deity is not as adaptable and open to evolution (as opposed to inconsistent and scatter-brained changeability) and betterment as its creation, how can he it considered in any way superior to the best of humanity?

Blaming rebel angels for the negative stuff that happens in the world is a supreme cop-out.  Especially when the creator deity, if we follow the theology and myriad attempts to explain an incomprehensible theodicy (‘humans cannot know the mind of god’?  Another cop-out), is supposed to be all-knowing, -creating, -seeing and -loving.

Making this group of rebels the source and continuation of all that is bad and wrong in the world not only doesn’t make the least bit of logical sense, it really is a case of one kitchen implement referring to its comparable counterpart as dark and evil.

Or, just a childish, petulant deity that has no place in the 21st century.

I know you are, but what am I?