Category Archives: Religion and popular culture

Post-apocalyptic films: From Escape from New York to Twelve Monkeys and beyond

As I have mentioned in connection with the likes of Nosferatu (1922), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), elements of apocalypticism (often, though not always, without an explicit role for “God”) are widespread within modern popular culture in the West (see the other posts in my Religion and Popular Culture category). In some cases, a filmmaker’s focus is on elaborating one specific apocalyptic idea, such as the Antichrist, whose story is told in a new way in films like the Omen series. In other cases, there is a convergence of a number of apocalyptic ideas and assumptions. Numerous films have been created with a focus on the apocalypse as the end or potential end of all human civilization, including Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998), which both viewed meteorites (rather than the previously “popular” nuclear bomb) as the final destructive weapon. A subgenre within these is the post-apocalyptic film.

Post-apocalyptic films are set after the end, or near-end. The apocalypse–the final intervention of some destructive power–has already taken place, and we, as viewers, witness the survivors in a horrible wasteland. Escape from New York (1981) is a good example. Twelve Monkeys is another.

The premise of the plot of Twelve Monkeys (1995) is an apocalyptic viral attack which wipes out the majority of humanity. Bruce Willis’s character, a convict, exists in the post-apocalyptic world (in 2035), where the precious (or not-so-precious) few survivors (1%) live a surreal existence underground. Oddball scientists are hard at work in this underworld seeking to reverse the apocalyptic clock. So Bruce Willis’s character, among others, is chosen to go back in time to find a way to stop the viral attack that decimated the population. The scientists have (mistaken) hints that a group known as the Army of Twelve Monkeys (which is led by Brad Pitt’s character) caused the massive slaughter. After showing up in several other time periods, Bruce Willis’s character finally arrives in the right time (1997) and place. But we the viewers, along with Willis and others, learn too late that it was not the Army of Twelve Monkeys but a disturbed red-headed man that released the virus and needed to be stopped. Perhaps the next time back crisis could be averted.

There is an online, academic article that deals with Twelve Monkeys alongside Waterworld: Conrad Ostwalt, “Visions of the End. Secular Apocalypse in Recent Hollywood Film,” Journal of Religion and Film 2 (1998).

What better time is there to post this than after watching Live Free or Die Hard (2007), in which Bruce Willis averts an attempt to bring on the apocalypse (“fire sale”: “everything must go”), at least in United States of America (which is the world from the perspective of this and other Hollywood films).

Spoofing the apocalypse, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (End 1.8)

One of the more interesting and entertaining films with apocalyptic themes is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (trailer here, official Kubrick site here, clips further below). The story goes that a psychotic general, Jack D. Ripper, has gone beyond his powers to initiate American planes dropping a nuclear bomb on a Russian city. Ripper’s psychosis manifests itself as a belief in a communist conspiracy to contaminate the bodily fluids of Americans through the fluoridation of water.

The meek and mild American president, who is played by Peter Sellers, then meets with the high command in the war room of the Pentagon in the hopes of recalling the plane–to no avail. Humourous phone-conversations between the American president and the Russian Premiere follow. One of the most hilarious episodes here is when the president stops an American general and a Soviet ambassador from fighting, saying something to the effect that “We can’t have fighting in the war-room”. Soon we hear that the American bomb is the least of their worries, since the Russians have developed a “doomsday machine” that will wipe out all living humans and animals in the event of an American strike. The end is near!

Slim Pickens rides the bomb

Photo: Slim Pickens excitedly rides the nuclear bomb, cowboy- (or is it phallic-)style, that sets in motion the end.

Now there is a surprising twist as one among the Pentagon high-command comes forward: the wheelchair bound Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers, and he’s hilarious). It becomes clear that this former German assistant of Hitler, now working for the Americans, had planned (“I have a plan!”) the entire scheme in the hopes of establishing a new superior race of people living, at first, far underground in the deepest mine-shafts. Strangelove’s arm has a mind of its own as it repeatedly attempts to give the “heil!” gesture; this hits its climax in one of the final lines of the film as Strangelove miraculously stands up from the wheelchair and shouts, “Mein Führer, I can walk!”. Immediately the viewer witnesses the apocalypse as innumerable nuclear bombs explode to the tune of “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…” Overall, the film is a spoof not only of Cold War politics but also of the genre of apocalyptic films which see nuclear war as the final apocalyptic battle.

There are several ways in which the film spoofs, twists, or inverts key elements in the apocalyptic worldview:

Dualism and the combat: Despite the fact that the viewer of the film, along with several characters, knows that the dualism is a false one, the good old Cold War dualism of righteous America versus evil Russia (which has more recently been replaced by a new, not-so-different opposition) is fundamental to the film. An aim of the film is to deconstruct precisely this simplified political dualism by spoofing it.

Final, cataclysmic intervention of god: Only towards the end of the film do we, as viewers, learn that Dr. Strangelove — the Hitler-loving distorted god of the film — has been instrumental in orchestrating the whole plan to set in motion the destruction of the world as we know it. It is he that has ensured the dropping of the fateful bomb that would bring civilization as we know it to a screeching halt. The mad doctor is behind it all.

Predetermined plan, elimination of the “less than desirable“, and kingdom of bliss for the chosen few: The “godly” Dr. Strangelove has a predetermined plan to create a Bizarro-heaven for the chosen — underground, that is, in the deepest mine-shafts. Seldom has the underworld been the kingdom of god. “Ten females to each male” is Dr. Strangelove’s answer to the eternal bliss of the chosen few. The judgment that will determine who will be saved is based on physical fitness and a list of other supposed superior qualities. They will be destined to repopulate the earth. Strangelove dismisses any suggestion by others that the “survivors” (including himself, of course) may not enjoy the mine-shaft plan as much as he expects. And the American general starts to worry about a “mine-shaft gap” (got to keep ahead of those “commies”).

In many ways, Dr. Strangelove is the apocalyptic film par excellence. The humour helps to lighten the burden of witnessing the end of virtually everything.

You should buy or rent the movie for yourself, but here are several short clips on You Tube:

Saviours or destroyers in space: Modern incarnations of ancient apocalyptic worldviews (End 1.7)

One thing that can be said of the apocalyptic worldview is it is flexible. The notion that we are living in an evil age and that the end is near, when evil will be wiped out by some heaven-sent powers who will destroy the hell-sent powers, has seen many variations. As has the notion that there will be a path of escape or kingdom of God for the righteous. Among the most interesting, and at times disturbing, are those variations where space, sci-fi, and religion meet.

In my post on Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate, I discussed the case of Heaven’s Gate. This group looked forward to the arrival of their saviours, a superior race of aliens who they expected to take them away to live in a blissful kingdom of god, the “Level Above Human”. There I also mentioned a breakthrough in the convergence of apocalyptic expectation and sci-fi which came to heavily influence all subsequent uses of space-races as end-time saviour and/or end-time demonic figures: the 1950s film The Day the Earth Stood Still. I commented that

One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).

Now I have just come across an online doctoral dissertation which explores other ways in which apocalyptic ideas may find a place in outer space.

Ryan Jeffrey McMillen, “Space Rapture: Extraterrestrial Millennialism and the Cultural Construction of Space Colonization.” Doctoral dissertation: University of Texas at Austin, 2004.

Here is the summary of the dissertation:

The dream of space colonization possesses deep roots in the Christian apocalyptic fantasy of the Rapture of the elect to occur prior to the return of Christ. Space colonization, like its predecessor ascension fantasy, the Rapture, has always involved a tension between the liberation of a holy vanguard and the imminent destruction of the Earth. With the rise of modern technology, rocketry and space travel became, for fundamentalist Christians and technological determinists alike, the man-made tools and signs of an imminent apocalypse. In this dissertation, the 1970s space colonization proposal of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill is offered as a case study of these millennial roots of the space-bound dream. O’Neill’s colonies, offered as a way to avoid an irrevocable time of Earthly tribulation, were touted as the means of depopulating the Earth and ending terrestrial conflict. O’Neill’s dreams for rocketry were no different than the dreams of those men who pioneered rocketry before him, although earlier rocketeers and space enthusiasts held more explicitly Christian-inspired apocalyptic beliefs concerning the fate of the Earth and the destiny of humanity.

In addition to examining O’Neill’s colonial fantasy, this dissertation analyzes the religious and philosophical beliefs of the rocketeers to show how each of them was deeply influenced by apocalypse and Rapture fantasy. While O’Neill’s plan resembled earlier space colonization and Rapture imaginings, it also incorporated the more terrestrially benevolent dreams of the burgeoning environmental movement of the era. In attempting to unite the Space Age with a newly powerful “Earth Age,” O’Neill sought to resurrect the dream of space colonization for a new generation. However, O’Neill failed in this attempt. Instead of seeing humanity’s future in the stars, off of a doomed Earth, many in Western culture began in the late 1960s to imagine human destiny within a long and peaceful future on Earth. This perspective came about, paradoxically, as a result of perhaps the most epochal achievement of the space race: the first photographs of the planet from the distance of the moon (pp. 7-8).

Who said that doctoral studies couldn’t be fun.

The times they are a changin’ endin’: Bob Dylan’s apocalypse (End 1.4)

Long before Dylan had any sort of conversion to Christianity (he was, for a time, “born again” in the late 1970s and early 80s), his songs were saturated with biblical imagery (and they still are now). Often in popular culture elements of apocalypticism are there simply as assumptions on how one is to express things in times of trouble or in situations perceived as crises. The cultural revolution of the 1960s in the United States was a time of crisis in the eyes of the youth at the centre of this revolution, and Dylan was often considered a spokesperson for this revolution (even though he himself did not accept this role).

Characteristic of the ancient apocalyptic worldview are notions that there is a sharp divide between evil and good people or beings (dualism), that current regimes or world-powers are under the control of evil powers, that some good power (God) is imminently or in the midst of intervening in a fundamental way to oust evil and restore good, and that that good power will establish a society in which good reigns forever and evil is forever caged or obliterated. These basic assumptions that undergird the apocalyptic worldview sometimes come to expression in popular music and film.

In his pure folk days (shortly before the introduction of the electric guitar which, initially, resulted in some tomato throwing and booing at Dylan concerts), Dylan wrote a song you may have heard of: The times they are a-changin’ (1964 on his third album of the same name — some low quality mp3s are available on bobdylan.com). (If you haven’t heard of it, then where have you been? It’s in bank commercials here in Canada now, after all–not what the 1960s youth had in mind.)

In this song Dylan casts the cultural revolution of 1960s America in terms of an apocalyptic prophecy. Here there is the righteous (youth) and the wicked (the older generation of senators and others); there is talk of a raging battle; there are warnings of an imminent cataclysmic change which is described in terms of a coming flood that will bring the old order to an end (very common imagery for final judgment in ancient apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch); there is a prophecy of a new arrangement in which the corrupt ways of the old regime will be left behind (“get out of the new one”); there is talk of a reversal that will accompany the new arrangement (the first will be last). This Dylan tune illustrates well the often unconscious presence of apocalypticism in the western imagination (even if God is left out of the equation and substituted by some other group or power).

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

(Bob Dylan; Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music)

(Do not emulate Dylan in using the term “prophesize”, which should be “prophesy”. You don’t know how many times I have corrected this in students’ papers!)

Satanic conspiracies of the 1970s and 1980s (Satan 12)

There was a general decline of Satan in the wake of the eighteenth century Enlightenment and modernism (a decline in him being perceived as a real and imminent danger, that is). Nonetheless, he still remained alive and well within certain types of Christianity, particularly within the more conservative forms which do account for a large percentage of modern Christianity. Certainly not all of these conservative Christians subscribed to conspiratorial theories regarding Satan’s dastardly plans to undermine God’s activity. Yet there were — from the 1970s-1990s — a number of somewhat widespread notions of Satan’s evil machinations that are best described as conspiracy theories, two of which I will touch on here.

On the one hand were the very frightening claims of “Satanic ritual abuse“. There was a variety of contextual factors that fed the development of this particular conspiracy theory including the following:

1) There were general fears within some Christian circles regarding the many New Religious Movements (NRMs) — “cults” from this perspective — which were perceived as deceiving and brainwashing their potential members into joining. One of the results was a somewhat organized anti-cult movement, including groups such as the International Cultic Studies Association (a newer organization that follows in the footsteps of earlier groups), that produced substantial amounts of literature. The Church of Satan, or the unintentional worship of Satan via other “cults” generally, could naturally be subsumed within this framework.

2) Added to this was the actual existence and public visibility of an actual Church of Satan (founded by Magus Anton Szandor LaVey in about 1966 but especially visible in the 1970s) , which claimed to be the continuation of the worldwide worship of Satan that had been going on since ancient times.

3) Within certain circles of Christian social workers or therapists who held the view that there was a Satanic conspiracy, certain methods developed (namely suggestive interrogation) which resulted in a high number of cases where children and adults reported or confessed to involvement in Satanic rituals, often as victims. In some cases, the results of such approaches regarding stories of Satanic abuse were published in popularizing books, including Lawrence Pazder’s Michelle Remembers of 1980.

In essence, this conspiracy theory entailed a worldwide, secretive network of Satan worshippers who were systematically exploiting both children and adults to engage in wild and demonic rituals. One of the handbooks for therapists, as cited by the historian David Frankfurter, explains that Satanic abuse usually involves:

“group cult ceremonies in which children engage in sexual acts with adults and other children; the sacrifice and mutilation of animals; threats related to magical or supernatural powers; ingestion of drugs, ‘magic potions,’ blood, and human excrement; and distortion of traditional belief systems” (Susan J. Kelley as cited by Frankfurter, “Ritual as Accusation and Atrocity: Satanic Ritual Abuse, Gnostic Libertinism, and Primal Murders,” History of Religions 40 [2001], p. 356).

Another such handbook for those who believed in the conspiracy states:

“Such abuse may include the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of an animal, the actual or simulated killing or mutilation of a person, forced ingestion of real or simulated human body fluids, excrement or flesh, [and] forced sexual activity” (Noblitt and Perskin as cited by Frankfurter, p. 357).

The fact that this was indeed a conspiracy theory arising out of certain peoples’ worldviews and not reality is now widely recognized. What is particularly interesting is the manner in which stereotypes of the dangerous “other” which have a very long history — including the trio of human sacrifice, cannibalism, and sexual perversion — play a key role in this incident as well. Back in Roman times, for instance, the early Christians were accused by outsiders of engaging in precisely these three activities, as were other marginalized or foreign groups in antiquity (on which see my earlier posts here and here). Similar dynamics of marginalization and demonization were also at work in the late medieval and early modern witch hunts.

A second main conspiracy theory, which is somewhat less frightening or disturbing, involves the accusations against certain rock n’ roll bands regarding their allegiances with the Prince of Darkness (Satan not Ozzy), via backmasking, or backward messaging. The idea was that if you play a record backwards (remember records?) you could potentially hear an alternate message that, it was believed, was placed there intentionally by the artists in order to serve their lord and master, Satan. Among the first to fall prey to this accusation was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, which, when played backwards, it was imagined, revealed the following message:

BACKWARDS:
Here’s to my sweet Satan,
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is fake/Satan.
He’ll give those with him 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.

FORWARDS:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
(Page / Plant, “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin IV, ©1971 SuperHype Music Inc.. Lyrics online here)

Many other bands were likewise accused of broadcasting the messages of Satan to the impressionable ears of our youth. The fact is that, if you want to find it, a word that sounds like “Satan” would appear in just about any music played backwards. But soon the idea of putting hidden, backward messages on albums was consciously taken on, particularly in the case of heavy metal bands of the 1980s, who seemed to think that Satan, with his number 666, was “cool”.

UPDATE (March 24): Now see the comments section and “Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion” blog, where there was an earlier post on the Satanic abuse scare focussing primarily on the issue of therapists or psychologists who created the scare, to some degree, particularly in connection with popularizing books on the topic (sadly, there is a Canadian connection). He also includes the cover of a book on Satan (and, yes, it is now available in a new edition with flashy cover to boot) from good ol’ Hal Lindsey of Late Great Planet Earth fame (a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, best-selling book showing the end was near in the 1970s):

Satan is Alive (old)Satan is Alive (new)

Is there another Satanic scare on the horizon?

Horace Jeffery Hodges and Milton’s Paradise Lost (Satan 10)

I had planned to wait until we got into the early modern period to refer to Horace Jeffery Hodges’ blog, the Gypsy Scholar, but several of his recent hellish posts have made it impossible to wait. At his site you will find a number of interesting articles regarding John Milton’s Paradise Lost, including one article that focusses on Satan specifically: Economy of Damnation: Satan’s Fall in Paradise Lost. Another more specialized article also considers Satan within the context of other matters: “Free-Will Theodicy, Middle-Knowledge Theology, Ramist Linguistics, and Satanic Psychology in Paradise Lost“.

He has also just now put up an entertaining post, with medieval illustration, on some “hits from hell”: Das Wetter ist hell!. In the hope of decreasing visitors to his site, previously he had posted a poem of his own entitled “Ozark Spring Storm” which features Mephisto (alias Satan). Other of his posts relating to Satan can be accessed here.

Think of the ironic, hellish punishment of sending more visitors, albeit few from here.

The horrifying Nosferatu, personified plague and death (Satan 9)

NosferatuLast night we watched the original 1922 version of Nosferatu, a movie by German film-maker F.W. Murnau (very loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula — other online information here). In the film, Nosferatu (the vampire figure) is presented as personified plague and death, as well as the seed of Belial (the seed of Satan). His arrival in Bremen in 1838 signals the onslaught of a terrible plague that leaves behind the mysterious double mark on the neck. One has to remember that, when this first dracula film was made, such things were not widely known (at least in visualized form) and the horror is sometimes lost because we are now so familiar with dracula from his many incarnations. This film’s presentation of evil came to have an important influence on horror-films and on the subsequent portrayal of evil in film generally.

Despite the difficulty in getting oneself away from 21st century special-effects expectations and into the silent-era mode, there were certain points when I experienced a feeling of fascination or terror, which points to the effectiveness of the movie-maker in portraying evil in a frightening, though intriguing, manner that spans across time. Well known is Murnau’s use of shadow. The shadow of the vampire itself possesses the evil powers which can grab hold of you and control your feelings, as when the shadow of Nosferatu’s hand firmly clutches Nina’s heart. (This is the source of the title for the recent “behind-the-scenes” movie remake, The Shadow of the Vampire [2000], with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe).

Shadow of Nosferatu

Two other scenes in the original Nosferatu are especially worth mentioning for how they affected me. I found particularly terrifying the slow and magical rising of Nosferatu from the hull of the ship as he comes to Bremen. Even more evoking of dread is the scene where the star-struck lover Nina, presumably in a dream state, longingly goes to the window to gaze out into the distance, namely to gaze out towards her other lover, Nosferatu the vampire. (This growing love of sorts was reflected earlier in the ambiguity of Nina’s cross-stitch of “Ich liebe dich”, “I love you”, which was seemingly directed to her lover Harker but really, we learn to our dismay, at the horrible Nosferatu who has a strange hold over Nina). Nina’s longing gaze is juxtaposed with Nosferatu’s longing reach for the “beautifully-necked” Nina, as he gazes out of his own window at a distance (not in Nina’s actual eye-sight). Nosferatu’s powers are very much at work from afar, but apparently more so as he comes closer. This horrifying love affair ironically ends in Nosferatu’s destruction. For the destruction of a vampire, we read earlier on in the Book of Vampires (shown on screen), requires that a woman of pure heart, namely Nina, offer herself to the vampire in a night of pleasure. Nosferatu-style pleasure, that is. “The blood!”

Photos (above) from Wikipedia, now in the public domain.

“Me and the Devil Blues”: Robert Johnson and the crossroads (Satan 5)

Satan is very much a part of popular culture in the West. His story has heavily influenced the portrayal of evil in film, as we shall see, but the devil also makes his appearance in our music, including the blues and its offspring, rock-n’-roll. The profound influence of Robert Johnson, a Delta blues (or country blues) performer of the 1930s (who made just two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937), was not fully felt until the re-release of several recordings in 1961 (which the likes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Zeppelin, and others have expressly identified as a profound influence on their work).

(For Johnson’s lyrics, cited in part below, go here. For sound clips from the songs discussed below, scroll down to see the CD information for King of the Delta Blues (in this case on Amazon). Eric Clapton has recently released a tribute album (is that word still used) with new performances of Johnson’s songs: Me and Mr. Johnson (2004).)

The powers of evil make their appearance in a variety of ways in Johnson’s songs, some with more frightening effect than others (all of Johnson’s music is “haunting” in some way). In a devil-made-me-do-it sort of way, “Me and the Devil Blues” expresses the notion that some evil power outside of Johnson is responsible for his more violent behaviour towards a woman friend:

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door
And I said, “Hello, Satan,”
I believe it’s time to go.”

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied

. . .

You may bury my body
down by the highway side
spoken: Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Less disturbing, in some ways, are songs like “Hellhound on my trail”, which nonetheless express Johnson’s angst in raw terms drawn from ideas associated with the powers of hell and the hell-hound successor of Cerberus (the guard-dog of the underworld in some Greek mythology) :

I gotta keep movin’
I gotta keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm mmmm mmm mmmmmm
Blues fallin’ down like hail
Blues fallin’ down like hail
And the days keeps on worryin’ me
there’s a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail. . .

All I needs is my sweet woman
and to keep my company hey hey hey hey
my company

The notion that the crossroads or intersection outside of town was a magical place where the-powers-that-be were especially potent has a long history. But a specific legend grew up in the context of the emergence of the blues which also attached itself to Johnson himself. In particular, there was the notion that in order to gain exceptional skill at playing the blues, a person might meet the devil at the crossroads and make a deal, with the soul being the precious item in the devil’s sight. The lyrics in Johnson’s own “Cross road blues” apparently have very little, if anything, to do with this notion:

I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above “Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please”

Still, the overall legend nonetheless attached itself to this performer, who was known for playing the guitar like noone else could. (This is partly because of the shared name with Tommy Johnson, another blues artist who supposedly claimed that he did sell his soul to the devil). It is this legend of selling one’s soul for exceptional guitar skills that is enacted in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Selling one’s soul to the devil has a much longer history going back to medieval legends that Goethe incorporated in his eighteenth century poetic story of Faust, as we will see later. The film The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) re-tells a similar tale in a new setting, with Jabez Stone making a contract with Mr. Scratch, the devil (a remake with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin ran into financial difficulties and is yet to be released):

[examining the contract]
Jabez Stone: What does it mean here, about my soul?
Mr. Scratch: Why should that worry you? A soul? A soul is nothing. Can you see it, smell it, touch it? No. This soul, your soul is nothing against seven years of good luck. You’ll have money and all that money can buy. (Full script online here).

The legend of selling one’s soul, which continues as part of Satan’s story, is also reflected in the Simpsons episode in which poor Homer sells his soul to the devil for a doughnut (Treehouse of Horror IV). In this case, though, Homer actually robs the devil of his due in the long run.

Myths-ploitation film?: Satan, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Hollywood

As Jim Davila points out, there are now plans to make a hollywood film out of John Milton’s 17th century poetic Paradise Lost (book online here). Milton (1608-1674) brings together many of the biblical and post-biblical (including medieval) stories that attached to the figure of Satan or the Devil (on which see my brief comments on a conversation between Hades and Satan here). Regardless of whether this ends up being another myths-ploitation film which does very little justice to its sources (e.g. Troy), at least this will give me more to talk about in connection with modern depictions of personified evil in my “History of Satan” course (though not in time for this Winter term–oh well. As if there wasn’t enough Satan in films already). The Telegraph has a brief article on the plans for the movie here.

There are a few websites devoted to Milton, with the more scholarly one here. Also, for an interesting conference paper which looks at the themes of Paradise Lost in relation to Star Trek, go here (bet you never expected that one).

Pink Floyd, Pompeii, and the Mysteries of Dionysos

I recently re-watched Pink Floyd’s “Live at Pompeii” (originally 1972) film which has now been released as a director’s cut DVD (also with the original version included). The live concert was recorded (with no audience, I might add) in the amphitheatre at Pompeii, with excellent results in sound. The new director’s cut version of the film adds considerable Roman archeological material as background (the original version had some). In particular, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, which is mesmerizing to begin with, is now interspersed with shots of the paintings from the Villa of the Mysteries (Villa Item), which pertain to the mysteries of the god Dionysos (Dionysus) or Bacchus (which you can read about here). If you do like Pink Floyd’s music or you are interested in Roman archeology and the mysteries, then it’s well worth a watch. It also has the track “Madame Nobs” (recorded in a studio, not Pompeii) which is a blues tune with harmonica and live howling dog accompaniment (my son enjoys that the most).

Left Behind again

Earlier I discussed the Simpsons episode “Left Below“, in which Homer becomes a “prophecy student” announcing the end and the impending rapture (official title: “Thank God It’s Doomsday”, originally aired May 8, 2005). There is a recent book, now reviewed in Review of Biblical Literature, that attempts to bridge the gap between scholarly and popular views of Revelation (dealing extensively with the notion of the Rapture). In essence, it tries to counterbalance what it sees as the dangers of the Left Behind series’ impact on some forms of modern Christianity and tries to infuse some historical background into the situation.

The Little Drummer Boy and Protevangelium of James (NT Apocrypha 2)

One exercize that can be useful in introducing students to the academic study of the New Testament is to have them study independently the birth stories about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, and to consider each of these birth narratives within the continuing story of each gospel. For those familiar with the Christmas stories, these two narratives tend to blend together inseparably, as in the claymation version of the Little Drummer Boy which has both the shepherds (from Luke–at Jesus birth) and the three “wise men” (from Matthew–placed a couple years after the birth) in a stable at Jesus’ birth. (This is not to knock the show, which I’ve enjoyed since little, along with all the other claymation ones. I have to admit that the one with the Heat-miser tops my list, however).

In historically studying early Christian gospels (or Paul’s letters for that matter or any other ancient document), it is important not to blend everything together into one big lump, thereby losing the distinctive characteristics and aims of the individual narratives (stories) or writings (and the specific audiences involved).

This process of blending the originally independent birth narratives in Matthew and Luke began quite early, as attested in the Protevangelium of James, for instance (late second century CE; available online here). This writing in the New Testament Apocrypha expands on the origins of Jesus in the canonical gospels not by telling the childhood deeds of Jesus (as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in a previous post), but by going back further to the origins of Mary herself. This story of the miraculous birth of Mary to the infertile Anna and Joachim, followed by Mary’s Samuel-like dedication in the temple, came to heavily influence the cult of Mary in the middle ages, of course. It is also worth noting that Mary took her first steps at the early age of 6 months (6:1), according to this story (beats my little Nathaniel, who is always ahead according to my biased opinion).

But for present purposes what is especially noteworthy is the way in which the Protevangelium tells and considerably expands the story of Jesus’ birth. The author (supposedly James, the brother of Jesus from an earlier marriage) weaves together detailed threads from both Matthew and Luke in a way that creates a new story different from each. The author also considerably expands the story along the way, as when the priestly authorities of the temple have Mary and Joseph take a “truth serum” (“the water of the conviction of the Lord”) to see if they are lying about Mary’s virginity (15:1-2), or when the midwife double-checks Mary’s virginal status after birth (19:2).

Although such blending of stories might be expected in religious (church) and popular (TV) settings, it is important to take a different approach within the academic study of religion.

“Left Below” / Left Behind: “Ha, ha, life goes on”

I’m a bit behind the times, but last night I saw (in repeat) the Simpsons’ episode called “Left Below,” which spoofs the very popular American fundamentalist “Left Behind” phenomenon (Tim LaHaye’s massive money-maker). Homer gets caught up in the expectation of the “rapture” while watching a movie and eventually gets a good following among other Springfieldites. He accurately predicts that “stars” will fall from the sky, which is fulfilled when a blimp carrying hollywood stars crashes and dumps its load of stars. He, like many other modern apocalyptic thinkers or “prophecy students”, calculates the time of the end based on his own unique formula. As in other cases, the calculated time of the end comes and goes — followed by the “great disappointment” of Springfield — only to be recalculated after recognizing the faulty number in the calculation, which again comes and goes. Nelson chimes in at the appropriate point with his “Ha, ha, life goes on”.

For those of you who happen not to be familiar with the origins of such modern American apocalyptic notions, things are very complicated but I’ll oversimplify them here in short form. In the 1800s, a Protestant Irish guy named John Nelson Darby developed the doctrine of the rapture in reference to the belief that just before the end-times and the terrible things listed in John’s Apocalypse, all believing Christians would be taken away from the earth by Jesus. Basically, the doctrine combines a variety of passages in the New Testament (including some from John’s Apocalypse / Revelation), but it is especially related to the reference to Jesus coming in the clouds in Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica (written c. 50 CE):

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
(1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 [NIV]).

This doctrine was taken on by a number of American pastors, particularly those associated with the rise of fundamentalism in the twentieth century (beginning about 1919, but especially with the growth of fundamentalism post World War II). But it was not to become extremely popular until Hal Lindsey wrote his best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth in the 1970s. There Lindsey, as a “prophecy student”, interprets various current political and cultural events as the fulfillment of prophecies in the Bible (especially Daniel and John’s Apocalypse / Revelation). The book had a quite explicit proselytizing function, as it concludes with a call to accept Jesus and be saved from the coming wrath of God, to be among those that are Raptured and not “left behind” for the torturous tribulations to come. Many Lindsey like prophecy books that interpreted current events followed, including those that plugged the Hussein/Iraq situation into the end-time equation in the 1980s and 90s. As you are aware, there has been somewhat of a renaissance of the rapture notion in its American fundamentalist form with the extremely popular novels by Tim LaHaye (especially leading up to and since the turn of the millenium). There you go: the history of modern American fundamentalist apocalypticism in three paragraphs (not).

If you want to read more about apocalypticism generally, go to that PBS Apocalypse! site I mentioned before in connection with Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate. For more detail on the origins of the American form of apocalypticism, read Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992).

UPDATE: A friend of mine who has cable (I have those old-fashioned rabbit ears you may have heard of in history books–very fuzzy) recorded the Simpson’s episode for me, and I watched it again. Quite humorous is Homer’s preaching, which captures the tensions in apocalyptic discourse: “God loves you . . . HE’S GOING TO KILL YOU!!!!”

The official title of the episode is “Thank God It’s Doomsday” (originally aired May 8, 2005).

Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate

A week or so ago, Jim Davila discussed a recent novel which combines stories of the fallen angels and giants (Nephilim) with UFOlogy and fundamentalist Christian apocalypticism (also discussed on the new blog Café Apocalypsis). The combination of an imminent expectation of the end with the role of alien races as either the saviours or the villains is not new, of course. In the 1990s, the Heaven’s Gate group combined Christian apocalyptic expectation of the final intervention of God (in this case aliens) with the notion of good and bad alien races (the group clearly believed in their views as they ended their lives in expectation of the end and the move to the “level above human”). The malevolent space races, the “Luciferians,” likely included the notion of fallen angels, whose activity was outlined in some detail by the Heaven’s Gate:

The term “TRUE” Kingdom of God is used repeatedly because there are many space alien races that through the centuries of this civilization (and in civilizations prior) have represented themselves to humans as “Gods.” We refer to them collectively as “space alien races in opposition to the Next Level,” what historically have been referred to as “Luciferians,” for their ancestors fell into disfavor with the Kingdom Level Above Human many thousands of years ago. They are not genderless – they still need to reproduce. They have become nothing more than technically advanced humans (clinging to human behavior) who retained some of what they learned while in the early training of Members of the Level Above Human, e.g., having limited: space-time travel, telepathic communication, advanced travel hardware (spacecrafts, etc.), increased longevity, advanced genetic engineering, and such skills as suspending holograms (as used in some so-called “religious miracles”). The Next Level – the true Kingdom of God – has the only truly advanced space-time travel vehicles, or spacecrafts, and is not interested in creating phenomena (signs) or impressive trickery.

These malevolent space races are the humans’ GREATEST ENEMY. They hold humans in unknown slavery only to fulfill their own desires. They cannot “create,” though they develop races and biological containers through genetic manipulation and hybridization. They even try to “make deals” with human governments to permit them (the space aliens) to engage in biological experimentation (through abductions) in exchange for such things as technically advanced modes of travel – though they seldom follow through, for they don’t want the humans of this civilization to become another element of competition. They war among themselves over the spoils of this planet and use religion and increased sexual behavior to keep humans “drugged” and ignorant (in darkness) while thinking they are in “God’s” keeping. They use the discarnate (spirit) world to keep humans preoccupied with their addictions. These negative space races see to it, through the human “social norm” (the largest Luciferian “cult” there is), that man continues to not avail himself of the possibility of advancing beyond human.

Heaven’s Gate, “Crew from the Evolutionary Level Above Human Offers — Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human,” 1996 (Copy at: http://www.wave.net/upg/gate/lastchnc.htm).

One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).

For the script of the movie, go here. For a brief and rough overview of the plot and its religious themes, go here. For further discussion of apocalypticism and apocalyptic groups throughout western history (including Heaven’s Gate), go to the PBS site Apocalypse!.