Sunday, March 14, 2010

MAAR Day 2: Zombies, Magic, and St. Paul

I started the day on Friday at yet another session by the Religion and Arts section of MAAR. All three papers were interesting, though the first probably raised the most questions. James Siburt presented a paper on "The Zombie as Sign and Symbol", examining the zombie character in folklore, literature, and cinema and its metaphorical relationship to a social "mindlessness", the sense of being a cog in the machine. Some may fear the symbol, others will identify with it. He notes that there are really two kinds of zombies--the first is the kind in Haitian voodoo culture, the mindless slaves that do their master's bidding after receiving a potion that makes them "almost" dead, and allows the practitioner to manipulate their consciousness. The second type is that popularized in George Romero films like "Night of the Living Dead", which is really part Haitian zombie and part ghoul (voodoo zombies do not characteristically eat human brains or flesh). The TV series "the Dollhouse" revolves more around the first type of zombie, where those enslaved in the dollhouse have their consciousness "downloaded" and replaced with others to fulfill certain tasks. It is considered ethical because the person eventually gets their own consciousness back. What this really amounts to is Cartesian dualism taken to an extreme--the idea that the mind and body are separate, and function separately. Siburt also noted that the popularity of zombies is usually concurrent with some other major event--a reaction to war or the fear of war, usually.

Dan McClain gave a paper on "Magic and the Journey to God", looking at the works of British fantasy writer Susanna Clarke. He asks the question, what does magic tell us about reality? He looks at Buber's idea of "pure relationship"--you need God, God needs you. But her argues that Buber's conception is too abstract, too much in the realm of the "spiritual". He goes on to talk about the sacramental nature of relationship--God revealing Himself in the material milieu. But the emphasis here is still on the aesthetic rather than the material, and still leaves the material world as somewhat impersonal. The energy of the sacramental is still one that is alien to this world. Not satisfied with either conception of "relationship" with the divine, he looks to Pseudo Dionysus and the notion of sacred order, the Source that lies beneath everything else. He points to the ritual of the liturgy, as well as the ritual act of anointing, as examples of ways that a hierarchical transformation involving the material can occur. Material signs cannot be reduced to mere "mind-body". McClain then uses a Clarke novel as his metaphor to show how Nature will not stand to be objectified. In Clarke's novels, magic serves Nature's demand for justice. Magic re-incorporates the material into the mystery, which is needed to "humanize" our relationship with others, Nature, the Divine (and/or in all cases), and not leave it as an abstraction.

Johanna Monigan-Schaefer then presented a paper on the works of Eugenie Marlitt, a late 19th-century popular fiction writer from Germany (and its first best-selling author). Marlitt's works were later panned as "mere Cinderella stories", but Monigan-Schafer suggests that they have literary merit, and do much to demonstrate criticism of false piety and corruption in both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in the 1860s. The characters and storylines are somewhat formulaic--beautiful young girl, representative of freedom, ends up living in a house with a cruel stepmother or uncle, who represent false piety and judgmental holier-than-thou religious behavior. There is always a happy ending (usually marriage--very Shakespearean comedy-like) but the books become platforms for the author to criticize established religion, and also to make a case for the education of women.

I had hoped to attend the afternoon Plenary, but it was not in the assigned room. I did go to the AAR business meeting to discuss the blogging possibilities, and chatted with a couple of people who turned out to be colleagues that I never see or scholars from universities very near to where I work. So, my next and last session was the Christian History and Theology section. The paper that seemed to attract the most attention (though all three were fine papers) was Matthew Novenson's paper addressing the question of whether or not St. Paul considered Jesus to be the Messiah. The conclusion drawn by many scholars is "no", and that has been used to various ends throughout history, particularly as a justification for trying to convert the Jews to Christianity, or dismissing them as past history. However, the works of Gaston/Gager and Stendall point to Romans 9:11, where Paul says there will be a time when all Israel will be saved. He does not mention Jesus, and that absence suggests to them that Jesus is the savior for the Gentiles, while the Jews will be saved by God, presumably through their already-existing covenant.

The first of the other two papers focused on Edith Stein, a Catholic convert at the time of the Holocaust, and close associate of Edmund Husserl. Marian Maskulak suggests that her life and writings support the idea that she was a social reformer. Stein's 1921 publication, "What is Essential to a State?" was released at the same time as Hitler's "Mein Kampf"--both asking the same questions, and coming up with very different answers. She believed in the importance of community, and felt that family and school were instrumental in cultivating community oriented behavior in children. She noted that marriage often ends up being a business deal that breaks up when it becomes unprofitable, or a legal way to satisfy one's drives until the relationship no longer does so. Children are considered unfortunate accidents in such cases. Both cases have lost the real meaning of marriage. (How true).

The last paper of the day was by George Pickens, and he looks at how missionary work in African communities can be a disaster for existing communities if a foreign version of the religion is imposed, but can bring about great social change if an indigenous version of the religion is adopted. He uses the Johera religion in the Nyanza Region in Kenya as an example. White Anglican missionaries often set up schools and converted masses of people, but did nothing to help them when they were in trouble. At that point, the disillusionment of the converts was used to fuel a new indigenous movement that is now dying out, perhaps because it has outlived its purpose.

More detailed accounts of sessions will be available at:

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