Tag Archives: Christianity

!Viva Cristo Rey! Some historical background for the movie “For Greater Glory”

15 May

I haven’t seen much publicity for it, but the movie titled Cristiada in Mexico and For Greater Glory in the United States is coming to theaters June 1st.  I imagine a sizable number of moviegoers will fill the seats so they can watch Eva Longoria (or, for ladies who prefer older gentlemen, Peter O’Toole).  I don’t imagine that many U.S. viewers, however, will know much about the historical event the film revolves around: the Cristero War of the 1920s in Mexico.

I did an undergraduate research project on press surrounding the Cristero rebellion, two years ago, and with this movie coming out so soon I’m hoping that some of that research proves useful.  If you can read Spanish, I commend you to the Spanish-language Wikipedia entry (it’s much more complete than the English article, unfortunately).

The full text of my research paper with sources: Los Fieles: Faith, Anxiety, and Prejudice in the Press during Mexico’s “Religious Crisis,” February-July 1926

Another previous post — Mexico’s Holy War: Faith, Prejudice, and the Press in 1926

This is David Uribe Velasco, a native of Buenavista de Cuellar, a small town in southern Mexico.

A month ago marked the 85rd anniversary of his death, and next month, it will have been 12 years since his elevation to sainthood by Pope John Paul II.  On April 12, 1927, Father Velasco—a Catholic priest—after putting his affairs in order (he repaid the 50 pesos owed to a fellow cleric; he bequeathed his typewriter and vestments to a friend)—and after blessing his captors in the sign of cross and the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he was taken outside, forced to his knees by Federal soldiers, and shot in the back of the head.

In May 2000, he was canonized as San David, a martyr, and one of 250,000 Mexicans killed in the conflict known today as la Cristiada, or the Mexican Cristero War—a rebellion unique in modern history as a popular uprising that took the international community completely by surprise.

Lasting from summer 1926 to spring 1929, the Cristero rebellion represented a popular reaction to the contemporary Mexican administration’s increasing restrictions on religious speech and practice in the country—a country with a Catholic population upwards of 90%.

The very name of the war bears witness to the deep-set piety of the rebel soldiers, christened Cristeros by opponents ridiculing their battle cry:  “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long Live Christ the King!”

However, in the months leading up to the initial outbreak of violence the depth of Catholic devotional sentiment in the Mexican population was completely underestimated by the American press, which saw the seething controversy to the south as a strictly institutional conflict—not the rebellion of individual cristeros, but a “Church War.”

The flashpoint for mobilization was July 31, 1926—when the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy of Mexico ordered, as protest against clerical persecution, the indefinite suspension of worship services throughout the country—and the federal government obliged by attempting to take possession of church buildings.

Lay Catholics resisted.

Crowds of hundreds, most of them women, spontaneously mobilized to defend the churches—even as police brigades brought fire hoses and mounted federal soldiers to disperse the congregations.  One Mexico City newspaper summed the day up in a single headline—“Los Fieles [the faithful] Will Not Abandon Their Churches.”

Even so, the fight was initially expected to be a rout.

For perspective—At the time, the Mexican government under President Plutarco Elías Calles had a federal army of nearly 80,000 professional soldiers.  The rebel movement, on the other hand, was unorganized until 1927—and comprised mostly untrained, and practically unarmed, rural Catholic peasants of the Bajío region, Central and Southern Mexico, which remains even today the bastion of Catholic conservatism in the country.  To the contrary—by the end of the war the Cristeros numbered 50,000.  And an auxiliary brigade of  women, engaged in smuggling weapons and provisions into combat zones for the soldiers, totaled 25,000.

Popular sentiment was enraged—and the uprising reflected the crystallization and shattering of widespread anxiety that had been growing throughout 1926.

A memoirist from San Julián, a small town in Jalisco, one of the centers of the rebellion, recalled the pervading climate of fear and apprehension that entered her community with the New Year:

“The enemies of the Holy Church began to spread their poison everywhere… black stormclouds began to rise in the blue sky—Everyone was afraid.”

But this anxiety of the faithful was ignored.  Commentators abroad, particularly in the United States, viewed and reported the conflict through the lens of domestic problems and paradigms: an ideological clash of Church and State.

On one side, the child of the 1910 Mexican Revolution: he Liberal, secular administration of President Calles—determined to suppress religious speech, end religious education, restrict the influence and very number of Catholic clerics in Mexico, and nationalize Church property—in the name of secularization.

On the other the child of the Spanish Conquest: the centuries-old Mexican Catholic Episcopacy under Archbishop José Mora y del Río, equally determined to preserve the Church’s economic privileges and institutional autonomy.

Church and State—no third party in existence.  But this was the perspective of an American press embroiled in its own ideological collision:

Just the year before, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” over evolution in the education system had made headlines in the United States as a war of secularism or fundamentalism, science or faith, progress or regression, educated urbanites versus rural ignorance.  These were the antitheses occupying American minds in 1926—and reporter H.L. Mencken summed up the public attitude in two words: the rural-based, deeply religious segment of the American population comprised: “yokels and morons.”

This domestic situation provided American commentators with a template for the dissatisfied Mexican laity: rural, ignorant, superstitious, racially inferior—and thus incapable of exercising any significant political influence.

Essentially, the United States media projected its own anxieties onto Mexico, and ignored those of the Mexican Catholic.

One incident in particular encapsulates the American perspective:

When Mora y del Rio and the Episcopacy announced that worship would be suspended at the end of July, the Mexican faithful flocked in thousands to churches to receive what many believed might be the final sacraments of their lives.  The Archbishop himself was said to have baptized, confirmed, and married over 3,000 individuals in one day alone.

But while the Mexican press reported apocalyptic panic—in San Julián, the faithful prayed in the streets for God’s pity and mercy—TIME magazine treated the incident as entertainment:

“… barefoot, blanketed Indian runners; toothless Mexican gaffers, perhaps pagans all their lives, hobbled in frenzied haste to receive a precious sprinkling of holy water… in this baptismal race.”

Said correspondent was also thoughtful enough to add a footnote explaining to his readers that the people of Mexico were only nominally Catholic, their religion really a pantheon of primitive deities smeared with a veneer of saints and idols.

Even New York City’s premier Catholic periodical, the Commonweal, espoused strikingly similar racial and religious bigotry:

“the plain truth about Mexico… is that a native Indian population is not the same thing as a Caucasian civilization fostered by centuries of Christian discipline.”

The national academic journal Current History exhibited a comparable bias in its July 1926 issue—intended to be a symposium on opinion about the religious situation in Mexico.

The contributing parties—supporters the Mexican Government, American Catholics, and American Protestants (although, notably no representative of Mexican Catholicism went to print)—all, essentially, agreed on one central issue: the degeneracy of the masses in Mexico.  The only question that remained was which institution—Church or State—was responsible for developing a program for the “uplift” of the Indian and Indo-Latino population:

“Physical welfare is a fact; spiritual consolations are the resources of a theory.”

—a comment that typifies the 1920s, and even modern, elitist ‘progressive’ trivialization of Mexican Catholic piety.

The Mexican press, on the other hand, did not see the growing religious crisis as an issue of progress; rather, it was about freedom of conscience.  This is probably my favorite quote to come from a reel of microfilm.  From the Mexico City paper Excélsior:

“We imitate the United States in its defects, in its sports, in its diversions, in its food, in its clothing, in its affectionate ‘spooning’… but in its indisputable virtues, we don’t care much to imitate them.”

Still, the American press remained convinced that religion was not a primary driving force in human behavior—first came social and economic factors.  And thus, the religious crisis in Mexico could not be any sort of popular war, let alone a “holy war,” but rather had to represent a power struggle between institutions.  Thus when the Mexican Episcopacy called for an indefinite suspension of religious services beginning July 31st—a virtual interdict—American papers such as the Catholic Commonweal assumed the inert, helpless Mexican laity would bear their cross and pray.

But popular anxiety had been steadily growing since Mexico rang in the New Year 1926 and the faithful of San Julián saw “dark clouds” on the horizon.  As early as February, a columnist for the Mexico City paper El Universal predicted what the American press could not imagine: violence.

In an article titled “Spiritual peace is indispensable,” a columnist warned against the Calles administration attacking the “essence of the religion”—the sacraments.

Current History writers, such as the Methodist bishop James Cannon, undervalued this deeply-rooted devotion.  According to Cannon, Catholic ritual was superstitious ceremony alone—and only served to retard social and economic progress for the Mexican peasant:

“The mass in the morning, the rosary in the evening, confession, communion, extreme unction, the benediction of the grace within a Church cemetery, and responsories for the departed, kept the people well under the control of the church even after they were dead…”

But that is a viewpoint unique to the primarily Protestant United States.

Protestantism, unlike its Catholic rival, developed from a theology of faith and scripture alone.  The Catholic Church, contrarily, held tradition on par with these as a source of religious authority: the sacraments were thus not empty ritual to believers, but a conduit of God’s grace and the path to salvation—the essence of religion El Universal mentioned.

And when this was targeted on July 31, 1926—churches seized, worship suspended, and sacraments ended throughout the country—all the assurances of the American press that there would be no reaction meant nothing to the Mexican Catholics who felt their very identity at risk.  From El Universal, six months before the July 31st uprising:

“The truth is that the people never commit suicide.  They might change, transform, and even disappear; but they never change their essential nature—an integral part of native religion.  It is the Mexican people, instinctively, who understand the danger.  For them it is a question of to be or not to be… and it costs everything to want to be!”

Until an accord was reached in June of 1929 between the Mexican Episcopacy and the Calles administration, it did cost everything for faithful Mexican Catholics like Father Velasco.

And in the end, the Mexico City paper was right—the Mexican people knew early on what the international community, blinded by racial prejudice and a disastrous underestimation of the depth of religious devotion in Mexico, never saw coming: the tragedy and the violence of la Cristiada.

* * *

Tudor Thriller “Bring Up the Bodies” Captivates, Again

12 May

I’m far from the only person giving Hilary Mantel a glowing review for Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment in her saga of Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII and his ill-starred wives.  The critical acclaim, international readership, and heaps of awards for Wolf Hall, published in 2009, may have surprised everyone (Mantel included), but there’s been nothing but hype for book number two.

We’ve heard the story a thousand times and, it would seem, in every possible iteration: histories and historical fiction, romance novels and bodice-ripping tv shows like The Tudors.  It isn’t as if the story’s going to change.  History has spoken.  The tale is a tragedy.  And so whatever book you read or film you see, Henry VIII is always going to divorce Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn will always find her head severed from her pretty little neck.

All of which makes Mantel’s trilogy-in-progress even more astonishing.  By showing us the mind of Thomas Cromwell–the man who usually features as the villain, if he features at all–in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel somehow makes the story new.

I reviewed Wolf Hall for the University of Alabama campus newspaper earlier this year–after reading it for the nth time since I first downloaded the historical novel onto my Kindle in 2009.  By that point I was getting very, very excited for the release of book number two.

Well, 3 years of waiting and I read Bring Up the Bodies in under 3 days.  I couldn’t help it!  As much as you want to savor every word of Thomas Cromwell’s sometimes-cryptic thoughts and Hilary Mantel’s always- and remarkably beautiful prose, Bring Up the Bodies is even more of a political thriller than Wolf Hall.

The pace ramps us as Henry VIII grows increasingly unhappy with the marriage for which he turned Europe upside down, as Queen Anne grows ever more imperious without getting any more pregnant, and as our do-everything Cromwell works to undo the royal marriage–whatever the cost.  (I think the title gives us a pretty good idea of the lengths to which Henry’s chief minister is forced to go.)

Of course, as we begin to see in this second book, being “the unknowable, the inconsolable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” takes a toll.  By the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1536, Cromwell had been at the king’s right hand for about a decade–and we, the readers, can see the changes the years have worked in him.  He’s a far cry from the young lawyer of the first book, joking with Cardinal Wolsey at his apogee and doting on his young daughters (all of these people dead by the end of Wolf Hall).  Mantel continues to give us a sympathetic protagonist, but as Cromwell tells himself, a lesson he’s learned in the past 10 years:

“You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.”

This is a harder, colder, more confident Cromwell than in Wolf Hall.  Even if he is still plain Master Cromwell (no lordship yet), he definitely has the authority to carry out his plans and the king’s orders (because he is nothing if not loyal to the capricious Henry).  But at the same time, the ground is shifting.

Enemies are rallying.  As Cromwell gains more power, and more money, and more prestige, he (and we) can feel the baleful glares of the old nobility burning holes into his back.  This is a book about beheadings, don’t forget, and there are plenty of instances of foreshadowing–if you happen to know the end of Cromwell’s story.

Knowing how close we’re getting to that inevitable bloody finale makes Bring Up the Bodies a gloomier  book for me to read than Wolf Hall, but no less engrossing.  My heart was pounding by the end, but, I think understandably, it was my neck that I was clutching.

* * *

3 (Way Cooler) Alternate Explanations for Grant Cochran’s Resignation

24 Sep

Facebook and Twitter were on fire when I woke up today, after the University of Alabama’s campus paper the Crimson-White broke the shocking, shocking, oh so shocking news that UA’s SGA president, Grant Cochran, has resigned.

Wait… what?

UA students are weaned on ghost stories of “The Machine,” the shadowy Greek organization that supposedly holds the Student Government Association in the palm of its hand, rigging elections and keeping independents from winning major offices.  A nobody like me, for example, can be appointed Ambassador to the Libraries probably only because nobody else applied.  I’m so bottom-tier, I get left off email lists.

Which means I really don’t know what I’m talking about.  BUT, I do think that if something this dramatic had to happen, it should at least be for reasons less mundane than what the CW reported at 3:27 am–that “SGA President Grant Cochran has resigned amid allegations that irregularities occurred in the selections process for the SGA’s First Year Council, a freshman leadership forum within the student government.”

Come on people–booted from office because of freshmen?  How terribly banal.  In the interest of totally unfounded conspiracy theories, here are my 3 Way More Interesting Explanations for El Presidente’s Resignation:

1. The Illuminati

Everyone knows that Alabama’s practically the buckle on the Bible belt.  The shiny, happy, hymn-singing buckle.  But what you probably don’t know is that the Illuminati have a strong presence in campus affairs as well.

That’s right.  Albino, self-flagellating monks a la DaVinci Code forced UA’s SGA President to resign.  Probably, they pressured him into putting their Catholic First-Year Council applicants at the top of the list, thus furthering their hegemonic control over campus politics.  I would suggest the Homecoming Queen watch out.  She’s next.

2. British Alien Malleteers

No list of conspiracy theories could possibly hope to be complete without positing something, anything, about extraterrestrial life.  But I don’t mean just any aliens.  I mean a creature like that British sci-fi show alien Doctor Who.  There’s a reason so many Malleteers walk s0 jauntily around campus in their TARDIS shirts–and it’s not just because they’re fans of the show.  That would be lame.

It’s because they know it’s based in reality, and that the Day of Judgment has come.

I’ve been doing some close reading of the Mallet gospel, that mystical piece of 1970s literature called “The Book of Marvin.”  Let’s look at Chapter One:

3. And the Priests raised their voices in a great wail, saying, “O Mallet, why hast Thou abandoned us? Where be the Strength of Mallet, which saveth the seat of Power, which dismayeth the Greek, which shunneth the way of conformity, which maketh us to be honored above all Men?”

5. And Mallet said, “Yea, my Priests do suffer grievous pain, at the hand of the Greek and the cockroach, of the administrator and the Department of Health.”

6.”Lo, I shall send down a new Spirit, who shall have all Power over the enemies of the Priests of the Spirit Mallet; and he shall be called Marvin.”

7. “And He shall have dominion over the fowl of the air and the beast of the field, and the Greek and the jock shall He lay low; then will the Priests of the Spirit Mallet be honored above all Men.”

Obv, that speaks for itself.  The writers of the Book of Marvin propesied THIS VERY DAY.  The Greek has been laid low–at the hands of a spirit “sent down” from space.  A spirit named Marvin.

Naturally, keeping people from seeing the connection between Marvin and the popular tv series based on his spacetime adventures, is why we talk about Doctor Who instead of the true name, Doctor Marvin.

3. Vampire Takeover

It seems curious to me that this news story was released at 3:27 am… until I considered who exactly was doing the releasing.  Quite clearly, vampires–strictly nocturnal, remember–have taken over the campus media.  If you recall, earlier in the year the CW ran a large number of articles and opinion pieces on the policies (or lack thereof) regarding student organization seating.  The point of all this was doubtless an attempt to distract from the real drama going down this football season:

Vampire attacks.

If students could be kept riled up over the unfairness of block seating, letters to the editor about blood-sucking monsters attacking fans could be kept out of the papers.  Those people you see passed-out drunk tailgating might not be drunk after all.  They might be half drained of blood, struggling for life and their humanity as hundreds of mindless students and alumni carouse all around them.

Hey, why do you think we call it the Crimson Tide?

#historymajornotes Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; Anne Bradstreet needs some lovin’

20 Sep

This is not an online comic.  Once, I had dreams of fame for my Protestant Reformation doodles, but I gave that up when it quickly became apparent that:

1. I can’t draw.  And

2. Protestant Reformation comics kind of have a limited audience.  (For the record, when I told my Reformation/Counter-reformation professor that I thought he looked like Johann Froben, he thought it was hilarious.)

But I still draw things in the margin of my notes, and I’m just conceited enough to put them online for the world.

Today, in the American lit class that feels like a history class (because the literature we’re reading is pretty much a bunch of Puritans griping about how hard it is to save people’s souls), the prof informed our class that, quote: “When I was your age, I thought Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God would be a really cool name for an indie rock band.”  Probably not what Johnny Edwards had in mind.  And cool, of course, is used in a very loose sense.

I’m an atheist, and that sermon still provoked some serious existential dread.  Let me share a passage:

If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.

And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment.

So… what happened to “Jesus loves you”?  Anyone?  Anyone?  Buehler?

Meanwhile (and by meanwhile I mean mid-17th century), Goody Bradstreet the poet’s missing her husband, absent upon public employment.  The prof says it’s as close to Puritan erotica as you’re going to get:

… My Sun is gone so far in’s zodiac,
Whom whilst I ‘joyed, nor storms, nor frost I felt,
His warmth such frigid colds did cause to melt.
My chilled limbs now numbed lie forlorn;
Return; return, sweet Sol, from Capricorn;
In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?
Which sweet contentment yield me for a space,
True living pictures of their father’s face.
O strange effect! now thou art southward gone,
I weary grow the tedious day so long;
But when thou northward to me shalt return,
I wish my Sun may never set, but burn
Within the Cancer of my glowing breast,
The welcome house of him my dearest guest …

Which is all nice and sweet, but we know what she’s really saying is:

Gangster Thomas Cromwell #historymajorlife

3 Sep

So!

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the awesome tumblr of history major memes: Fuck Yeah, History Major Heraldic Beast.  Just figured I’d share one of my own creation:

T-Crom grew up on the wrong side of Putney, yo.  He ain’t never been nothin’ but a gangsta.

***

Earlier this summer I reluctantly sent out a mass email to some great indie authors, telling them that I’d be scaling back my science fiction reviews for the simple reason that HISTORY HAS TAKEN OVER MY LIFE.  And it’s true.  Grad school apps are looming oppressively, the senior thesis is infiltrating my dreams, and the sheer amount of reading for classes is almost more than my nearsighted eyes can handle.  But I miss the blog, so I’m saying to hell with niche audiences–I’m going to write about indie science fiction, and mainstream science fiction, and all sorts of history major things that nobody wants to hear about purely because I can and I want to.

The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe

17 May

I realize that I read more science fiction and fantasy than is probably healthy for an individual, but even so, I think I have yet a modicum of intelligence and reason left in my head–which is why I gaped in shock and horror to find a copy of Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet in the back seat of my father’s car when we went to breakfast this morning.

For those of you who don’t know, The 12th Planet (1977) is the first installation of Sitchin’s “Earth Chronicles,” a seven-part series in which he attempts to prove that we are not alone in the universe:

Basically, all those Old Testament stories people have passed off as myths are really, literally true.  Fear our celestial overlords!  The Nefilim built the pyramids, and they can tear them down too.  (Note that Sitchin has collected indisputable proof.)

Oy vey.

The book has received some attention recently, probably because the final volume of the Earth Chronicles, The End of Days, was released just a few years ago–and what better to do in our last year of existence (or last week, if you expect to be taken up in the Rapture this Saturday) than read the “nonfiction” ravings of a crackpot writer?

I’m sorry, that’s unfair.  Zecharia Sitchin is a reasearcher, of sorts.  He is proficient in multiple ancient languages, Sumerian cuneiform purportedly among them.  He claims that his assertions in The 12th Planet are based on textual analysis of the original texts–the Hebrew OT, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, those mysterious cuneiform tablets, etc., et al.  Of course, the more *respectable* scientists and academics reject Sitchin’s hypotheses as the work of faulty interpretation of ancient texts and flawed astronomical information.  Personally, I think he simply suffers from an overactive X-Files Mentality.  In other words, he wants to believe.

I don’t.

That back cover blurb alone should be enough to make a reader with the barest amount of sense laugh out loud.  Until she realizes that the book is being sold as nonfiction, and that there are those (including the author) who believe every word.  Then the reading experience just gets sad–and more than a little creepy.

There are a number of problems with The 12th Planet:

1. Not only does Sitchin employ (more than) questionable methodology in fashioning his claims, believing those claims requires us the readers to shunt aside all sorts of scientific explanations of phenomena for which there is actual evidence.  Oh, like human evolution.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“The unanswered question is: Why–why did civilization come about at all?  For, as most scholars now admit in frustration, by all data Man should still be without civilization.  There is no obvious reason that we should be any more civilized than the primitive tribes of the Amazon jungles…

But, we are told, these tribesmen still live as if in the Stone Age because they have been isolated.  But isolated from what?  If they have been living on the same Earth as we, why have they not acquired the same knowledge of sciences and technologies on their own as we supposedly have?”

How about we read this instead, okay?

Astonishing!  I don’t think anyone has ever tried to answer that question before.  Except Jared Diamond.  Ever heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel?  Yeah, it’s that one that won the Pulitzer some years back.  Sorry, Zeke.

I won’t even get into that second part, in which Sitchin seems to imply that scientific knowledge is just chillin’ in the aether somewhere, waiting for some “primitive bushman” to pick it out of the air.  That’s for another paragraph.  What’s truly astonishing is where Sitchin goes from here.

One of the plethora of Discovery Channel conspiracy theory programs will attempt to raise questions about the origins of civilization–did space aliens give us knowledge and sink Atlantis in their rage, or something?  Sitchin says yes, the evolution of human civilization is actually extraterrestrial in origin.  And, he adds, modern man did not really evolve from the primordial ooze.  Male and female the aliens created them, because it would take too long to make apes talk.

That seems to me a total non sequitur, but it’s not like I can read cuneiform.  I bet those evolutionary biologists can’t either–so there!

2.  The second major problem I have with the whole “ancient astronauts” thing goes beyond Sitchin’s book.  My question is: Why is it so hard to believe that humans, with their own minds and their own contemporary technology, could have built the pyramids?  Because it’s always about the pyramids.  “They’re so geometrically perfect,” a Sitchinite might exclaim, “and how could they move those big rocks?”  There are a number of construction method hypotheses, all of them more plausible than the one that requires alien overlords cracking the whip.

Perhaps more disturbingly is the underlying racial prejudices inherent in this argument.  I had a professor of archaeology my freshman year who worked on ancient Mesoamerican cultures.  He seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the Mayans.  Why does everyone think the Mayans are so mysterious? he asked, multiple times during the semester.  He was a scientist, and had all sorts of perfectly reasonable (and more than that–empirical) explanations for the mysteries of the Maya.  And yet, the dilettantes of pseudoscience and pseudohistory seemed unable to resist groping for the mystical.

Because, of course, indigenous peoples of non-European origin must be primitive bushmen, right?

If it isn’t apparent by now that I’m intensely annoyed by The 12th Planet, let me be clear:

Zecharia Sitchin’s Earth Chronicles Series ranks among the very worst of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical “nonfiction.”  It may be some people read books like his for entertainment, or because they have a case of the X-Files, but I for one think something like The 12th Planet cannot go without even this meager rebuttal.  Zecharia Sitchin’s books feed into the worst popular conceptions of ancient civilization, and commit an unforgivable crime: they rape history, underestimating and belittling the fully human people who lived before us.

That’s not okay.  And I sincerely hope my father was reading it as a joke.

The Philip K. Dick Primer*

4 May

Hi Dr. Michelson,

Going through the blog logs, I’ve found that I’ve actually never written a proper review of any Philip K. Dick novel—it seems that I just make hipster-esque references in passing, which may be more embarrassing than having an actual link to send you.  Still, here is my list of PKD books for non-initiates, in my personal (but probably less-than-preferable) reading order:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): The movie Blade Runner was adapted from this novel, and as much as everyone loved Harrison Ford, the book is better.  For one thing, it’s something by Philip K. Dick with a discernible plotline (a miracle!).  It’s short, relatively lucid, and all this being said probably the introductory text for a SF 101 course somewhere.

VALIS (1981): Almost universally accepted as his masterpiece, and very much in the style of 1980s PKD (highly mystical, barely coherent, and as one reviewer wrote “known as science fiction only for lack of a better category).  This is probably the one you’d be most interested in, and, interestingly enough, is semi-autobiographical (Horselover Fat is PKD himself, and his Roman Catholic friend David is my former high school English teacher’s brother, apparently).  Essentially, it’s a book about a quest for God, and I have no doubt you’ll be able to make more sense of PKD’s theological treatise than I ever could:

“The proponent of the novel, Horselover Fat, is thrust into a theological quest when he receives communion in a burst of pink laser light. From the cancer ward of a bay area hospital to the ranch of a fraudulent charismatic religious figure who turns out to have a direct com link with God, Dick leads us down the twisted paths of Gnostic belief, mixed with his own bizarre and compelling philosophy. Truly an eye-opening look at the nature of consciousness and divinity.”

The Man in the High Castle (1962): PKD’s most famous counterfactual/alternate history novel, wherein the Allies lost WWII and the United States is a slave-owning outpost of Nazi Germany.  This is the only book by dear Philip that won the Hugo (it was also nominated for the Nebula, but that’s an honor he never won).  Maybe he was one of those artists not fully appreciated during his time. Of course, now, Philip K. Dick has his own award—given to giants of the genre like Richard K. Morgan (Neuromancer, Altered Carbon) and China Mieville (The Scar), and less notable authors like my aforementioned high school English teacher’s brother Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).

Time Out of Joint (1959): If you’re interested in the “reality is a state of mind” aspect of Philip K. Dick’s writing, this is the book to read.  SFsite.com reviewer Martin Lewis commented, aptly: “Ragle Gumm is a perfectly realised example of the classic Dick protagonist; the paranoid man who discovers he has every reason to be paranoid because he inhabits a world where people know more about him than he does and reality itself is fluid.”  That’s pretty much the thematic underpinning of all of his books, but here the idea is central—Ragle Gumm lives in a world where the structure of the universe is, literally, held together by tiny hand-lettered strips of paper.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965):  Everyone with any sense who doesn’t think VALIS deserves the top spot puts this one there—Palmer Eldritch not only wins the award for best SF title ever, but presaged PKD’s more mystical novels like VALIS.  But fair warning—I read this while I had a cold earlier in the semester, and I’m convinced that this book made such a chaotic muddle of my mind that it prolonged my illness.  From Amazon’s book description:

“Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.  Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?”

Philip K. Dick’s other 39 published novels can be found (or at least, synopses and links on where to purchase can be found) at the official website of the PKD estate.

There’s also some “exclusive content” that I haven’t seen before—including a two-page summary of an unwritten novel in which Saul of Tarsus never converts and Christianity is overtaken by Manichaeism.

Maybe this is a book project you can encourage the Syriac portal-ers to take up?

All the best,

Isabela

* Happy Publish Your Private Emails Day everyone!  In honor of this festive occasion, always Cuatro de Mayo, I’m posting an email I sent to my fantastic Digital Humanities professor Dr. David Michelson.  Hey, he asked for a PKD reading list–I generally try very hard to keep my secret life as a second-rate science fiction blogger out of the hallowed halls of academia.  Not really.

Also, it makes me feel like kind of like Erasmus, publishing highly literary letters for the world to see!  Not really.

Rasputin Wants YOU! to read Whom God Would Destroy

12 Apr

Bless you, Alexis, and be cured of your haemophilia!

Or maybe that’s just my interpretation of this absolutely bizarre book trailer–and who better to have made it than the mysterious, mystical, highly heterodox Commander Pants?

The good Commander, you might recall, is the author of a delightfully blasphemous book, Whom God Would Destroy–which, as you might also recall, I reviewed a couple months ago.  If you don’t recall, you can read about the winner of the Spring 2011 Heretic Badge of Honor right here.

In any case, here’s the book trailer.  Watch and enjoy–unless you’re a person particularly susceptible to hypnosis, subliminal messages, and/or the piercing eyes of a really messed-up Russian mystic.  If you have any of the above weaknesses, you might want to click on another hyperlink, any other hyperlink, and get far away from here while you still can.  Just some friendly advice.

Bonus points to the first person to spot Rasputin.  And when I say bonus points, I mean it in the Whose Line way.

Cures for the Common Cult (Lenten Reading for the Non-religious)

5 Mar

As Ash Wednesday draws near, science fiction initiates may be wondering what devotional reading they can delve into this shriving season.  Accordingly, here is the Scattering’s list of the Top 10 classic irreligious SF for Easter (or Eostre, as you’ll have it) 2011:

1. VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

This one’s hard not to see coming.  Not only is it a prominent piece on Benjamin Linus’s bookshelf, VALIS is classic 1980s PKD: incoherently, barely-intelligible, highly theological, and just plain weird.  The back cover description might be a little too lucid:

This disorienting and bleakly funny work is about a schizophrenic hero named Horselover Fat; the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser.  VALIS is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

2. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by (surprise!) Philip K. Dick

I haven’t written so many posts about my beloved PKD since my stint at OCON 2009 (Objectivist Conference in Boston)–where reality was getting so objectively rational that I had to break out the crazy.  Three Stigmata is classic 1960s PKD: visionary, genius, and a masterpiece of science fiction.  Still weird (of course), but far more understandable.

Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.

Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?

Maybe I should have made this #1, after all.

3. Dune (and the rest), by Frank Herbert

I’ll always have a special fondness in my heart for sandworms and female Jesuits of the future–the first research paper I ever wrote, after all, was a pseudo-biography of Frank Herbert (I don’t think li’l Brian did him justice).  Not to mention that he was a world builder par excellence who mastered above any other single SF author the craft of really, really elaborate backstory.

“A portrayal of an alien society more complete and deeply detailed than any other author in the field has managed…a story absorbing equally for its action and philosophical vistas.” –Washington Post Book World

Considering anyone reading this has probably read Dune and all its subsequent iterations as many times as there are incarnations of Duncan Idaho, there’s not much more I can say.  But with 40 days of penitence looming, I think the Bene Gesserit would approve of a re-read.

4. Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

Somewhere on the books, there has to be a law that no science fiction reading list of any kind can go to print without including something by the superhumanly prolific Isaac Asimov.  His 1941 short “Nightfall” has a sort of legendary quality about it–and rightly so–but the novelization’s pretty damn good too.  Even if it was co-written with Robert Silverberg.

The planet Kalgash is on the brink of Chaos–but only a handful of people realize it.  Kalgash knows only the perpetual light of day; for more than two millennia, some combination of its six suns has lit up the sky.  But twilight is now gathering.  Soon the suns will set all at once–and the terrifying splender of Nightfall will call forth a madness that signals the end of civilization.

And you thought Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was terrifying.

5. The Stand, by Stephen King

Yes, it’s 1,100 pages (that’s almost Atlas Shrugged status, there).  But the read is worth it–and the pace gallops along about as rapidly as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  King called the book a “dark chest of wonders,” and I must humbly agree: this is the End of Days novel to end all End of Days novels.

In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it.

The Stand is like that. You either love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Stephen King’s most popular book, according to polls of his fans, is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

“I love to burn things up,” King says. “It’s the werewolf in me, I guess…. The Stand was particularly fulfilling, because there I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and man, it was fun! … Much of the compulsive, driven feeling I had while I worked on The Stand came from the vicarious thrill of imagining an entire entrenched social order destroyed in one stroke.”

There is much to admire in The Stand: the vivid thumbnail sketches with which King populates a whole landscape with dozens of believable characters; the deep sense of nostalgia for things left behind; the way it subverts our sense of reality by showing us a world we find familiar, then flipping it over to reveal the darkness underneath. Anyone who wants to know, or claims to know, the heart of the American experience needs to read this book. –Fiona Webster

Also, it will give you nightmares.

6. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This is, admittedly, an anomalous choice.  It’s more psychology text than science fiction (and it’s definitely not a novel), but if you’ve read anything by that most eminent Canadian Robert J. Sawyer, you’ll know that he uses his characters to mention this book in almost every single one of his own.  The WWW series, at least.  It was getting really annoying, actually, until I made my father track down Julian Jaynes for me for Christmas last year, and then I got it.  Warning: Not for the faint of heart… or the myopic.

At the heart of this seminal work is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but was a learned process that emerged from a hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago.  The implications of this scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history, our culture, our religion–indeed our future.

Makes you wonder whether Philip K. Dick ever did emerge from that hallucinatory mentality, right?

7. Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

After the star-crossed tv series FlashForward lost favor with…well, everyone, I started reading Sawyer to fill my time before V came back on air (much good that did me).  I quickly realized that, as a writer, Sawyer likes his characters to talk.  And think.  But mostly talk.  The climax of Mindscan‘s “action” is actually a really long courtroom scene, in which various individuals debate philosophy.  Which is fine with me–when the philosophy involves clones, robots, and the origin of consciousness.

Jake Sullivan watched his father, suffering from a rare condition, collapse and linger in a vegetative state, and he’s incredibly paranoid because he inherited that condition. When mindscanning technology becomes available, he has himself scanned, which involves dispatching his biological body to the moon and assuming an android body. In possession of everything the biological Jake Sullivan had on Earth, android Jake finds love with Karen, who has also been mindscanned.

Meanwhile, biological Jake discovers there is finally another, brand-new cure for his condition. Moreover, Karen’s son sues her, declaring that his mother is dead, and android Karen has no right to deprive him of his considerable inheritance. Biological Jake, unable to leave the moon because of the contract he signed, becomes steadily more unstable, until finally, in a fit of paranoia, he takes hostages. Sawyer’s treatment of identity issues–of what copying consciousness may mean and how consciousness is defined–finds expression in a good story that is a new meditation on an old sf theme, the meaning of being human. –Regina Schroeder

There was a Twilight Zone episode kind of like this, if I recall.

8. Kraken, by China Mieville

A deep and abiding love for the much-neglected Mervyn Peake (in the States, that is) led me to China Mieville’s lyrical prose and fantastic urban settings.  For the best contemporary world-building in science fiction today, I commend you to Perdido Street Station.  For the cult of the giant squid, I give you Kraken.

British fantasist Miéville mashes up cop drama, cults, popular culture, magic, and gods in a Lovecraftian New Weird caper sure to delight fans of Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. When a nine-meter-long dead squid is stolen, tank and all, from a London museum, curator Billy Harrow finds himself swept up in a world he didn’t know existed: one of worshippers of the giant squid, animated golems, talking tattoos, and animal familiars on strike.

Forced on the lam with a renegade kraken cultist and stalked by cops and crazies, Billy finds his quest to recover the squid sidelined by questions as to what force may now be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Even Miéville’s eloquent prose can’t conceal the meandering, bewildering plot, but his fans will happily swap linearity for this dizzying whirl of outrageous details and fantastic characters.

Cthulhu might just have a run for his money.  Wait… please… I didn’t say that… have mercy O Ancient Ones!

9. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

He came to my school!  Neil Gaiman actually visited the University of Alabama last fall–and I couldn’t make it.  But I’ll make it up by adding his novel American Gods to this list, so no one else misses out on the dark fantasy writer that is Neil Gaiman.

Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost–the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

For fans of the New Weird, see Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a somewhat less intense Kraken.

10. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Julian Jaynes indicates that religiosity might be a mental illness, but Daryl Gregory takes that idea and runs.  Demonic possession has never been so scientific.

In this fascinating alternative time line, thousands of demon possessions have been carefully recorded by scientists each year since the 1950s. Each case is always the same: a recognizable, named strain of the disorder possesses a person, wreaks havoc and then jumps on to its next victim. Del Pierce’s case is unique: when the Hellion possessed him at the age of five, it never left. Now an unhappy 20-something, Del undertakes a dangerous quest to exorcise the Hellion as it fights him for control.

The trim prose keeps the pace intense and the action red hot through some emotionally disturbing scenes and heavy backstory. Absorbing psychological discussions of possession abound, from Jungian archetypes to the eye of Shiva. Readers will delve deeply into Gregory’s highly original demon-infested reality and hope for a sequel.

Verdict? Whom God Would Destroy, by Commander Pants

4 Mar

I hope PKD would approve.

What can I say?  This is a novel of celestial proportions.  The tag line alone (“a novel about taking reality with a pillar of salt”) had me sold on the eccentric Commander Pants’s irreverent speculative fiction novel.

The plot–a second incarnation of Jesus Christ returning to 1980s America to “infect” humanity with faith via public access television–is impudent, incredibly imaginative (bizarre might be a better word), and immaculately written.  I expected the book to be good if not exactly godly, but Whom God Would Destroy turned is nothing if not great.  For that, I am officially awarding Commander Pants the Scattering’s prestigious Heretic Badge of Honor for Spring 2011.  Wear it well, mysterious pseudonymous author.  Wear it well.

The best comparison I can make for the advanced SF reader would have to be Philip K. Dick’s classic The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.  Not only is WGWD in a similar league of impressive titulature, the author’s writing style has a comparable what the heck? effect.  Like PKD, CP’s novel WGWD (see what I did there?) treads the border of idiosyncratic and incomprehensible–and does so admirably well.

 
Recommendation: Devout Christians probably shouldn’t read WGWD.  No, devout Christians definitely shouldn’t read this book.  Spoiler alert: Devout Christians might start crying if they read this book.  But for the rest of us, Whom God Would Destroy is the most brilliant irreligious romp I’ve been fortunate enough to read.

Reading Time: 2-3 weeks in a busy month.

Availability: At $0.99 as an ebook, WGWD is a blasphemous bargain.  This is one of the highest-quality indie books I’ve reviewed on the Scattering, and far and away the most entertaining.  You can get it (really, get it) at this link to Amazon.

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