New Book by Richard Smoley

Longtime scholar of religion Richard Smoley has written a fascinating book about the origins of Western religion titled, How God Became God:

The book follows the historical, historical and ecclesiastical path of religion in the West, and therefore concentrates on Judaism and Christianity. Much attention is given to ancient Israel and the origins of its deity. Or perhaps we should say, “deities”.

As Smoley shows (and here his work dovetails with that of Margaret Barker and the late Alan Segal), in pre-Deuteronomic times, Israel had a binitarian theology. That is, the ultimate God was held to be El Elyon (the Most High), but this topmost father-god had a multitude of “sons”, who were conceptualized as other, lesser gods – or as angelic beings – who constituted El Elyon’s high council. At one point, the Most High appointed each of the world’s nations to an angel, a process by which the Council’s god/angels  became a protector, benefactor, and judge of a particular earthly nation. Surprisingly, this scenario is embedded in the Jewish Bible itself,  in Deuteronomy 32:7-9:

7 “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you. “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel.  9 “For the LORD’S portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.… (Bible Hub)

From the inception of this belief, an ancient tradition looked to the “second God” or “Great Angel” of Israel as that nation’s guiding, tutelary, and judging deity, a literal Son of the Most High. He went by several names such as Yahoel, Son of Man, Heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon), and Metatron, but for religious and historical purposes, his greatest name is Yahweh.

Far from the traditional, commonly received picture of Yahweh being the high God, in the earlier picture, Yahweh was God’s (El Elyon’s) Son, representative, servant, and Israel’s particular “deity”. Of course this means that Judaism, at least in part, contained a conception of “Two Powers in Heaven” – El Elyon and his Son, Yahweh. The situation is even more complex, per Barker, when it is realized that Yahweh the Son had a female consort – possibly a mother figure or simply a spouse. Thus a royal-divine dyad on earth was worshipped in Israel, along with a most high Father. Some of the prophets raged against the divine consort and urged that her symbols be permanently removed from the Temple. And, in any case, the ancient El Elyon-Yahweh dynamic plays a huge role in New Testament christology.

The New Testament Jesus identified himself with a Jewish figure called the Son of Man. In certain texts, he uses it as a circumlocution for “this guy”, i.e., “me, myself”. But in others, he seems to be speaking of the heavenly Son of Man who is enthroned next to the Most High, in which case he would have equally have been speaking of the Angel, Adam Kadmon, or of Yahweh (again, not as topmost deity, but as son of El Elyon). This makes sense of Jesus’ answer to the high priest Caiaphas’ question about his identity, where Jesus says that people will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with “Power” (another circumlocution designating God). And it would mean that Jesus’ frequent New Testament references to his own sonship in relation to God could in reality represent the ancient view of Yahweh’s son-like relationship to El Elyon.

This christology would mean that the New Testament Jesus is actually saying that he is not the high God, the Most High, but rather that he is the son of the Most High,  Israel’s Great Angel. This in turn might explain why the earliest Jewish-Christian sects held that Jesus – unlike his later Trinitarian counterpart – is a divine Son, but of course cannot not be the Father-Creator-Most High. And this notion is supported in Patristic reports of several early Jewish “Christ cults” which claimed that Jesus had been a righteous man in whom the heavenly Messiah-Christ, the heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon) “incarnated”.

The El Elyon/heavenly Father-to-Jesus/Yahweh/the Son relationship is only one of many refreshing and informative points of interest in Smoley’s book, which I strongly recommend for anyone interested in religion, religious history, and christology.




Buddhism and the New Testament

This is my response to a discussion over at Dharma Wheel, **

regarding the question of whether Buddhism can “absorb” other religions. Of course, there are many paths to “the One”, but I think it strains the capacity, as well as the purposes, of any religion to absorb all the others:

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I don’t see how all religions could be absorbed into Buddhism, although I do think that most religions and expressions of spirituality share certain core ideas and values with Buddhism. For example, and not to stretch a point too far, some would associate, if not identify, particular aspects of the New Testament teaching with Buddhistic ideas.

Like Buddha, Jesus taught a way of self-denial (“take up your cross daily and follow me”; “whoever loses oneself for the Kingdom will find oneself”), which – when sincerely practiced – would ideally lead to self-transcendence (“resurrection”). Thus, Jesus taught, at least in some of his parables and sayings, a kind of “ego-death” brought on by centering the self in Spirit rather than in world and culture. Some would even say that his life and death represent the victory of Spirit over culture.

His saying, “seek first the Kingdom of God” / which “is within you and among you” could be interpreted as brushing aside all peripheral values by way of a kind of “not this”/”not that” stripping away of egoic, cultural, “super-egoic” categories, and blossoming into one’s true spiritual nature which at base is not separate from unadulterated Spirit. For instance, 2 Peter 1:4 says

“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

In this passage, perhaps similarly to Buddhism, “evil desire” is an obstruction to merging with the Divine Nature – and if we would care to associate this with a participation in Bodhi, discovering of our real Buddha Nature, and our link to the Dharmakaya, then we might see some Buddhistic parallels. This interpretation, of course, even if accurate, does not mean that NT categories can or should be absorbed into Buddhism. It merely indicates that the two systems may be spiritual cousins in some very central matters.

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Too much me vs. you

Following the recent US election, I am shocked and disappointed in the reactions of the Left. I “tend toward” the Left in many things myself, but the violent, clownish and infantile Leftist response to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has thoroughly disgusted me. Talk about sore losers. Talk about demonizing one’s fellow citizens, starting with Hillary Clinton’s calling potential Trump supporters  “the Deplorables”, right down to the point, immediately after the election, when arrogant Leftists took it upon themselves to condemn voters who elected Trump, holding signs that said, “Your vote was a hate crime!”  This kind of reaction just staggers me, and is contrary to the spirit inherent in the voting process of a democratic nation.

What has this country come to? I have witnessed people I have known, and known affectionately, for years, unfriending people on Facebook, to the extent of announcing that anyone who they may have missed on their lists might as well unfriend them as well. Ending friendships, sometimes lifetimes long in the case of younger posters, speaks volumes about the attitudes and values of the “noble, tolerant, liberal Left”.

Morally speaking, its “there” seems to have absconded, only to be replaced by the very fascism that the Left falsely claims to eschew. Haughty hypocrisy has become the rule, not the exception. I myself do confess to a kind of uncharitable satisfaction watching the Left play out all the cliches projected onto it by the Right, such as its sore loser-ism, its fascistic thinking, its whining and its (quite literal) weeping, its impotent rage, its sissified indulgence in hurt feelings, etc.

Donald Trump is no dream come true. I didn’t vote for him, any more than I voted for Clinton – on the principle that voting for “the lesser evil” is still voting for evil. We are now stuck with the evil – as well as any potential good – that the voters put into place in the White House as of November, 2016. The Leftists need to grow up and accept this simple fact, or risk becoming the living stereotypes which the Right perceives them to be.

“Exorcist”: Iraq Prologue: Its Purpose

The prologue in Iraq – featured in both Blatty’s (R.I.P.) novel and Friedkin’s film – connects with the rest of the story because it introduces the viewer, from the first frame, to the theme of “the Demonic”, and to “the exorcist”, Fr. Lankester Merrin.

Merrin’s ongoing fearful reaction to the stone Pazuzu amulet, and the large Pazuzu statue on the hill, describe his inner state. Since they convey and produce fear, we immediately know that there is “something special” that accrues to them – something which is evil. The museum curator acknowledges this when he says of the amulet, “evil against evil”. As a Muslim, he probably believes that Paganism and its charms and idols are evil. But Merrin – as the story will tell us – is familiar with an even more universal evil, namely a demon he expelled some twelve years earlier.

The sense of evil and omen is not limited to the statuary at the dig. It is present in the over-loud street noises as Merrin takes tea; in staring Arabs; in the nitro that we see him taking. He is old and has a bad heart. When the clock stops in the curator’s office, it means more than a classic paranormal event presaging death: in a real sense, it hints at the stopping of Merrin’s own “ticker”, which happens at the story’s climax.

Merrin also runs across evil in the form of human weakness and illness: he sees an Iraqi leading a blind or lame partner by the hand; then he encounters a blacksmith afflicted with blindness in one eye.

The omens and premonitions continue: along his way he is nearly run over by a droshky whose passenger is an old, sick-looking woman. Just before this, we see that he is being watched by a silent man in a tower. Omens and premonitions.

What had started as a standard archeological dig has now become a projection-carrier for Merrin’s fears, specifically as the novel says, in the certainty that “soon he would face an ancient enemy”. The very air of Iraq itself now reminds Merrin of the kinds of feelings he had in the African exorcism twelve years before.  The atmosphere has become, in Jungian terms, a projection carrier for the elderly cleric.

Finally, the old priest confronts the Pazuzu statue, but not without first encountering rifle-toting guards. As he ascends the hill, the camera shows a single Arab staring at Merrin, while the soundtrack presents the sound of tumbling rocks (will Merrin “loose his footing”?).

Then, as he faces the Pazuzu statue by the light of the setting sun, a demonic wind whips up to the tune of the frenzied growling of fighting dogs, while the soundtrack mixes a guttural “MERRIN!” into their cacophony.

That’s how Merrin and the Iraq prologue tie into the rest of the story. Once we see the old priest from the prologue walking in the American woods, and then arrive at the MacNeil house, we realize that the story is coming full circle and that now Merrin will indeed face “the ancient enemy”.

One misconception accrues to the prologue, namely, the notion that the archaeological dig somehow disturbed and released a sleeping or dormant demon. This explanation doesn’t really work, because  the demon is not confined to any time and place – it is a non-material spirit entity not dependent on territorial or geographical roots. It is free to travel, to scrutinize potential victims, to go about the world in its own dark odyssey. Merrin first met it twelve years earlier in Africa – but who knows where it had been in earlier centuries and in different locales? Since its exorcism, it has been keeping tabs on Merrin, and Merrin, as the prologue shows, is psychically linked to the demon. He intuits its re-emergence into the world and into his life while he’s excavating.

But the excavation itself is not a causal element in Regan’s possession. The novel explains that the demon strongly desired a grudge match with Merrin because it did not like losing that time before, in Africa. It had  finally located another target in the person of Regan MacNeil. Merrin sensed that something was brewing again, and went back to the States where he began working on another book, passing the time before the ultimate encounter. Events then conspire to convey the bishop’s message to Merrin, based on Damien Karras’s exorcism request. And we know how the story goes from there.

Merry Christmas…

…to all who celebrate or observe the holiday, even if only to have a day off to be with yourself, your friends, your families.

Recalling  the atheist slogan that appeared on billboards a few years ago (you know the one) showing a traditional Nativity-creche scene with the caption, “You know it’s a myth!”. I would only comment, as I have before, that the Gospels’ (Luke, Matthew) Infancy Narratives are not myths in the sense connoted by the modern non-believing critics – first because they are not primordial traditions, or survivals of such, as the critics imply; and second, because their proper literary category is not myth to begin with.

As certain scholars have pointed out, the Infancy Narratives are a type of literature that forms a prologue to the main body of the Gospel to follow; and as a parable that delineates the main theological and christological themes of the following Gospel. These stories are, therefore, not “myth” in the “ancient pagan religions” connotation – they are not legends handed down from times in the primordial past – but rather preambles, overtures, and parables. They are ways of explaining that what Jesus was at his Ascension, Resurrection, Crucifixion, during his career/mission, his Spirit-receiving baptism by John in the Jordan … he was also all those things at his birth. Each Infancy Narrative echoes all these spiritual themes in its own way.

Luke emphasises the Pax Romana, a time of order and peace, into which Jesus is peacefully born; Matthew, on the other hand, depicts the Savior’s birth against a backdrop of political antagonism, with the holy family needing to escape the “pogrom” of Herod the Great against Jewish infants of Bethlehemic birth. And the two Evangelists (Gospel authors) weave into their Infancy stories themes that will fully blossom later in the main text of their respective Gospels. The birth stories are in one sense condensed or miniaturized “mini-Gospels” in themselves, by way of their revelation of Jesus as God’s pre-selected Christ and Son of God, a selection, as Luke tells it, that was made even before his earthly birth.

So the ancient myth connotation that the modern “Mythicist” critics falsely project on the Infancy Narratives is a simple misconstrual of the type of literature in which the birth stories actually consist.  The late scholar Raymond E. Brown identifies the Narratives’ profound, complex connection with Jewish – not Pagan – theology, traditions, allegory, and mysticism. The Infancy Narratives are rooted in remembered stories about Jesus’ Jewish ministry to Jewish people in Jewish Galilee and Judea, as well as in “midrash” and interpretation/re-interpretation of Jesus associated with extant Jewish themes.

Finally, I would remark that Matthew’s and Luke’s Overtures/Preambles and Parabolic disclosures are “mythic” only in the sense that they didn’t occur in mundane, historical, material space-time. They may not be historical/scientific, quantifiable facts, but what they express is nonetheless truth – truth allegorically expressed, because allegory  – as scholars such as C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell have shown us – is the only way in which certain sacred and ineffable realities can be expressed on the human level.  And, because it taps into and expresses deep archetypal material from “the eternal verities” of the soul, it is not dependent upon modern notions about science and history as defined in our post-Enlightenment culture.

Our God-experience, our God-conceptualization – must be refracted through the prism of human language for it to be understandable. And the Infancy Narratives – the Gospels’ Christmas story – continue to succeed on that level. Their language fits the truths they convey. They refer the reader outward – not into pagan myth – but into Jewish, biblical history, and to the memory of the humbly-born Nazarene whom they claim as Messiah and Lord.

Merry Christmas.

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Two excellent books on this subject immediately come to mind, and to which I refer the interested reader:

… and …

A Few Exorcist III Misconceptions Addressed

As most fans realize, the Exorcist III movie went through several iterations, some at writer-director William P. Blatty’s, and some at Morgan Creek Studios’, hand. Therefore there has been considerable controversy about the finished film – as well as a  “director’s cut” recently released by Scream Factory.  A fair amount of confusion abounds, and it may be helpful to examine some of the issues.

Damien Karras died at the end of the original story and film – so why is he back in Exorcist III?

In Exorcist III’s initiating novel, Legion, Karras himself is not back. Instead, the vengeful demon from the original story has planted the soul of executed serial killer James Vennamun (“the Gemini Killer”) into Karras’ dying body. Actor Brad Dourif played Karras’ resuscitated corpse as animated by the Gemini.

However, Morgan Creek demanded that Blatty rewrite/reshoot the film to include an exorcist and exorcism. Nicol Williamson played the exorcist, Fr. Paul Morning. In the meantime, Jason Miller, who had played Karras in the original film, became available for playing the Karras part in Exorcist III.

Blatty decided on the solution: he would make the real Karras occupy the reanimated corpse along with the Gemini’s soul. This made Karras, the former rescuer of Regan MacNeil, himself the object of rescue, in which Detective William Kinderman and Fr. Paul Morning join forces. This change also had the effect of “upping the ante”, because now Karras is actually present, and needs to be freed from the grip of the demon and the Gemini.

That is why Karras is back in the story, and why Jason Miller is back as the real Karras, whose ascending soul was captured by the demon at the end of the original story and replaced into his dying body.

Who attacked Nurse Amy Keating in the hospital corridor?

In this classic scene of horror cinema, Keating is ambushed by a surgical-shears-wielding figure draped in white cloths. Contrary to one opinion, this figure is not the Gemini, and much less is it the decapitated Christ statue, come to incomprehensible life, that is shown earlier in the film.  Rather, it is merely one of the hospital patients whom the Gemini possesses and uses to kill and mutilate during his Georgetown crime spree.

Is Karras possessed, and if so, by whom?

Karras is not possessed. He is imprisoned in his old body and forced to intimately witness what the Gemini, with whom he is paired inside that body, does “with this body – with this body in particular”. As the Gemini explains, the demon, who Karras “expelled from the body of a child”, has arranged “a scandal for all men who seek faith”, the scandal being that the saintly priest has been forced to return as an unwilling agent of the demon-and-Gemini. Moreover, the demon directs Vennamun to kill Karras’ old friends and associates who were somehow involved in the Regan MacNeil case; and the demon also permits Vennamun to continue his crime spree from fifteen years earlier, in which he killed victims whose names started with the letter “K” (in revenge against his hateful father, Karl Vennamun). To all this horror, Karras is present, and impotent.

Although Karras is not possessed – (again, he is only a kind of prisoner under duress) – nonetheless, he is trapped in his body and needs to be liberated and sent heavenward as he was at the end of the original story. In addition, the demon, who is pulling the strings behind the scenes, needs to be overcome, and the Gemini/Vennamun needs to be expelled. Hence, Fr. Morning begins an exorcism to vanquish the demon, expel the Gemini, and liberate Karras. Shortly after, Kinderman arrives on the scene and contributes his own efforts toward this goal.

Other issues remain, but they will wait for later.


Exorcist III film, Legion novel

In my view, Wiilaim Peter Blatty’s novel Legion is at least as confused as his Exorcist III film, which is based on Legion-(cum-rewrite).

For example, the Legion novel contains page after page filled with extended internal  dialogue of police detective William Kinderman about theology, evolution, crime, evil, and various problems of life – and they slow the narrative flow to a crawl. Kinderman’s theological speculations are show-stoppers. Too much time is devoted to them, they slow down the action, and worse, the author uses them as best he can to coerce the reader into embracing an uncritical Creationist/ID position. Kinderman is revealed to be – despite his nice words about science – a closet Creationist-mystic, as well as a type of heretical quasi-Gnostic.

The Gnostic material actually does work rather well, as it dovetails somewhat with Fr. Lankester Merrin’s earlier speculations in the Exorcist novel, and it serves as a resilient springboard for Blatty’s cosmic speculations about “the Angel”; the Gemini Twins (reified in the novel as James and Thomas Vennamun); and even the “Gnostic” theme of the divine twins (the God who permits a co-eternal divine “companion” to take on a new, personal destiny in the form of the cosmos/ matter/Satan/the Angel; the intense, depressed, dying Dr. Vincent Amfortas and his wisecracking Doppelganger, and even Fr. Joe Dyer with his semi-legendary “brother Eddy”.

But the Creationist/ID material is just bombastic and embarrassing, at least to anyone who is normatively or even nominally familiar with biology, physics, and evolutionary theory. In Christian philosophy, “Evolution” as well as “Creation” must be seen to derive from the same Divine source – but from what we now know about the world, it seems obvious that evolution would in this Christian view, be seen as the material means by which “the Creator” chose to develop – to “create” – life on Earth. Thus, Kinderman’s theology is, sadly – because it opts for the pre-scientific view – stuck at a level of childish, pre-critical Creationist/ID naivete – except for the few occasions when he waxes blissful about evolutionary mystic priest Teilhard de Chardin (who formed an important basis for Blatty’s Merrin character).

Moreover, Legion seems to me to be a book written in a hurry, containing frustrating loose ends and plot quirks, for example: now, in an inexplicably updated history, Kinderman and Karras had been “best friends”; the language lab technician from the original story who discovered Regan’s “backward English” has now become a black female, etc.).

And there is a puzzlingly disturbing bit where Dr. Amfortas’ Doppelganger tells the dying doctor that the (lost by death)  love of Amfortas’ life, “Annie”, had carried on an affair with the book’s worst human villain, the malicious Dr. Temple…thus dealing the mostly sympathetic Amfortas a huge psychic wound within hours of his death – an authorial cruelty crafted for no understandable reason at all.

Another inconsistency:  Kinderman accuses Dr. Temple of deliberately hypnotising and otherwise psychologically interfering with James Vennamun – it turns out that Temple was the chief medical officer investigating Vennamun’s decades-old original crime spree, with Blatty weirdly casting Temple, years later, as a possible information-feeder to the mysterious “Patient X” (who really is James Vennamun/the Gemini Killer), which creates the bizarre effect of casting Temple as a culprit who implanted the idea of being the Gemini Killer in the patient’s mind. This is an unnecessary distraction, and it corrodes Blatty’s main point that Vennamun/the Gemini is the real serial killer, placed by the vengeful demon into Karras’ resuscitated body to create a “scandal” by which the body of the saintly priest will continue the Gemini’s murder sprees.  But of course, it is a given that the vengeful demon and the Gemini Killer do not need any oustside, suggestive help from Dr. Temple or anyone else – so to suggest such a thing may indeed have transpired – particularly so close to the story’s climax – casts doubt on Blatty’s main thesis that the vengeful demon has been the sole source of using Vennamun’s soul-in-Karras’-body to exact revenge on Karras’ old friends. Why on earth would Blatty cast this – or any – doubt in the reader’s mind (a doubt, which if true, risks invalidating the novel’s narrative flow and its very meaning) – and this so close to the story’s end?

Finally, at the graveside where Karras’ body is being re-interred, Kinderman says “goodbye to the man who might have been Damien Karras“. What a blatantly inept thing to write! Why? Because Blatty has already established via the Gemini’s dialogue that Damien Karras – consistent with the first novel’s and film’s ending – has gone on to his reward. Only his resuscitated body is present, as a vehicle for the Gemini (with the vengeful demon of course lurking close by behind the scenes).  DAMIEN KARRAS – AS KARRAS, AS THE SOUL OF KARRAS – is long gone away to Heaven. Only the reaminated shell remains, as a vehicle of incarnaton for the Gemini.

Hence, there is no room whatsoever for the notion that the re-interred corpse “might” have been Karras. It was never Karras –  the body did not hold Karras’ soul – not after Karras’ original, real death in The Exorcist and later in the Legion’s takeover by the Gemini.  The demon-manipulated Vennamun/the Gemini is the only occupant of Karras’ reanimated body (the studio rewrite would destroy and radically alter this original dynamic).

From Vennamun’s own explanations, Kinderman, by the time he is standing by Karras’ grave, should have known that the recently dead body (dead for the second time) was only a reanimated shell that contained only Vennamun, not Karras; and Blatty, by insinuating some doubt about the matter both for Kinderman and for the reader – again, within just a few pages of story’s end, after the climax – seems to have committed a really irresponsible, goofy – and even disrespectful – gaffe. There can be no doubt that the re-buried corpse, although it was Karras’ body in the story, ever held Karras’ soul, which had already passed on to its heavenly reward. The body was not animated by Damien Karras during the Georgetown crime spree and Kinderman’s involvement therein: the body was animated only by Vennamun/the Gemini Killer, with the vengeful demon from the original story pulling the strings.

And so… this long-winded post has attempted to justify why I think Legion’s pages and pages of Creationist speculation are scientifically embarrassing, as well as too lengthy and preachy; and why I think that the other listed  flaws may perhaps derive  from Blatty apparently writing the book in far too much of a hurry.