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Terry Jones said a wonderful thing in his television series about ancient doings. He said that people are not appreciably more intelligent now than they were 35,000 years ago. This is true: they only think they know different things. The annoyance of some of those arguments from ignorance has led to the ensuing (I hope comical) rant.
Angels Knocking on My Door: No Disrespect to Anyone Intended, of Course
About once a month, the Jehovah's Witnesses call Elektra up. They have a more or less pointless theology discussion for about three-quarters of an hour, in which they trade opinions on apocalyptic factoids. Both sides appear to enjoy this exercise. As long as I don't have to get involved, I don't mind listening to half of the proceedings. Jehovah's Witnesses remind me of the way a kindly-intentioned Baptist in the 1960s once defined our Catholic brethren: Christians who believe too many things. I think of the JWs as nice church people with a tinfoil hat at every place in the pew, along with the hymnbooks and doctored Scripture. One of my uncles joined up, probably because he thought of himself as an intellectual. (He was a rural used-car dealer, bless his heart.)
I tend to be kindly-disposed toward the JWs, because when I was a high school sophomore, a senior girl who was nice to me once turned out to be one. This pretty, mature young person was not in my league, being engaged to a college student. She deflected potential bullying at the school bus stop by announcing that she particularly liked the Old Spice after-shave I was sporting, probably too enthusiastically applied, you may have been there. She talked to me as if I were a real person and not an idiot 15-year-old nervous about going to the big school for the first time (which I was). My estimation of her soared when she revealed matter-of-factly that her fiancé was about to go to jail. The draft board wasn't accepting his conscientious-objector status, JWs not having the same cachet as Quakers, and he was ready to put his future where his faith was. I sort of envied that guy – he had a girl worth being a hero for.
Does this have anything to do with my musings on movie discussions, religious discussions, and discussions in general? Well, a bit.
Me to Prof Animal Chaos: ' The last few nights, we've been watching all the movies from The Prophecy series. The first three were with Christopher Walken playing Gabriel. Some critic said he 'put the arch in archangel'. Funny movies, we liked them. We liked the last two, as well – filmed in Romania. But there was a lot of strange eastern theology that I'm trying to sort out.'
The Prof to me: ' stuff is hogwash to me. No disrespect to anyone, of course.'
To which I replied, more or less, that I suspected angels and devils thought people were hogwash, too. (In the films, angels refer to humans as 'monkeys'.)
Now, this is not to pick on the Prof. His reaction to the subject of angels and demons is entirely his choice. What fascinated me about Netflix discussions on the Prophecy series – which we really enjoyed – was the discovery that a great deal of the films' mythology came from Eastern Orthodox angelology. So far, I've discovered that:
- The (arch)angel Gabriel is regarded in some circles as gender-ambiguous.
- In the West, Gabriel is the patron saint of radio announcers and postal workers.
- Gabriel didn't have a horn until 1455. In Muslim theology, the horn is blown by Israfel.
- In Eastern Orthodox mythology, which relies on older, pre-Christian traditions, there is much more lore about angel functions and the politics of heaven.
Now, all this is fun stuff to me, because I'm a bit of a folklorist. In fact, my only academic publication ever was a book review in a Romanian folklore journal. I tend to think that when we dismiss such speculations as angel myths, merely because we do not happen to subscribe to a particular religion, we are robbed in two ways:
- We lose our connection to the thought of the past.
- We miss out on some tasty thought experiments.
Remember what Terry Jones said? We aren't all that much cleverer than our ancestors. We just know different things. Now, I realise it is a common misperception these days to believe that ancient people were convinced of all manner of ridiculous notions. Unlike us, of course – all our notions are the opposite of ridiculous, right? Just don't turn on the TV if you want to keep thinking like that. One of our silliest ideas is that ancient people absolutely, definitely all believed that the myths they've handed down were literally true.
Do you really believe that most ancient people in India believed that there was a divine being with the head of an elephant? Or did they tell that story believing that there was a non-literal meaning behind it? Did they search for literal evidence of a world flood, or was it an instructive tale? I personally think that this insistence on 'literal truth' – meaning 'factual accuracy' – in mythology is a more recent phenomenon, born of the illusion that we're all scientists, when we're not. Our mental models are as incoherent and fragmented as those of our ancestors. We're just as ignorant, only on different subjects. They knew a lot more about goat farming than most of us do, for example.
They might have known something about angels, as well. Such as the fact that angels and gods are mental models we have of abstract principles. A chance for our brains to refocus the search for philosophical and ethical truth somewhere other than the anthropocentric world view. Just saying. And if we indulge in a little fiction about it now and again, we just might learn something.
Of course, nobody has any problem with all this – as long as we don't talk about religion. What do I mean?
- Computer role-playing games.
- Lord of the Everlasting Rings.
- Conan the Barbarian, and all his friends.
- Superman, Supergirl, Superboy, Super Shih Tzu, no doubt, and The Mighty Thor, along with whoever else is swinging between buildings out there.
You get my drift? People are still indulging in constructed thought experiments out there, based on imaginary superbeings. Oh, that's all right, you say. That's harmless, because nobody's selling a religion. Oh, no. Of course they aren't. They're just selling you movie tickets, DVDs, books, comic books, graphic novels, CDs, games, toys, and lunch boxes. They are only generating chatroom upon chatroom of doctrinal discussion and pilpul1 that would put the Sanhedrin to shame. Of course, this is harmless, because the god in question is the Almighty Dollar. Mammon rules, and that's okay by us.
The problem with modern fictional theologies is two-fold, in my humble opinion:
- It's based on too fast a turn-around time.
- It requires the participants to learn a fresh new universe for each experiment.
1. Publishing and filmmaking these days, being competitive money-making schemes, require striking while the iron is hot. With that speed comes no time for reflection. Old mythologies, on the other hand, had time to percolate. A few centuries of being mulled over by the fire at night does wonders to get out the continuity kinks.
2. I really resent Number 2. I won't read Tolkien, because I refuse to memorise his universe. Think about it: there's the 'Buffyverse' (don't believe me? Look it up), and there's the universe of Marvel Comics, and the cosmos according to Robert E Howard, etc, etc. Bad wannabe scifi writers start their novels, not with a catchy hook, but a long prologue demanding that you familiarise yourself with the rules of engagement. No, thank you. No.
I like my wines, cheeses, and thought systems aged, thank you. Let the work have time to steep.
And now that we have the internet, even The Book of Enoch is searchable. Heck, I remember when I was the only person I knew who owned a copy.
So I say, no disrespect to the gods of Hollywood, but I'm still more interested in the Mahabharata and Methuselah's dad, and when somebody takes it on as a subject, be it for film, novel, ballet or whatnot, they get my attention.
Particularly when it's funny.
Since I droned on so much about this – for which I apologise – I really owe you some links as a reward for so much reading.
Here are some clips from The Prophecy series, as well as a few other inspirational viceos. (Well, they're inspirational to me.)
- Christopher Walken hamming it up as Gabriel. Note the horn. He keeps hapless humans alive because a) he can't drive, and b) he doesn't understand MS-DOS.
- Doug Bradley (Belial) telling John Light (Satan) why he's disappointed him, while Sean Pertwee (Dani Simionescu) looks on in horror. Listen to that dialogue: doesn't it make you think about moral ambiguity? Note: US watchers of this film on Netflix complained bitterly about the lack of subtitles on the last two films in the series, which were made in Bucharest. 'We can't understand half of what those Brits are saying,' they kvetched. We assumed the half they didn't understand was the half that was in Romanian. Nici o problema, old chap. My complaint was that Sean Pertwee had a Cockney accent in Romanian.
- 'Fight Without Desire", says Krishna to Arjuna. Yeah, that's easy for him to say.
- A devout meditation by the Lolcatz. Shame on anyone who can't join in.
No disrespect intended to anybody, of course.