1. I think it was PZ who said that belief in the paranormal is almost a precondition of Christianity. It’s easy to think that science – which is properly concerned with empirically testing and proving/disproving those things which are subject to empirical testing – has vanquished the paranormal. Back in the old days, supernatural forces pressed on human existence from all sides. Beyond the village perimeter, the brooding night contained many things, and they were all threatening. Across Europe, peasants reported sightings of the Wild Hunt, a ghostly cavalcade of riders spreading terror and heralding catastrophe. In a world where even natural events such as drought or fever were utterly beyond humanity’s ability to mitigate, such spiritual threats could emerge at any time. People hunkered down, and they did their best: in rural villages, for example, where the Sacrament would come once a year, the priests would process, holding the Body high, around the perimeter to consecrate the land against the evils without.

Today, in America, we’ve mostly got mastery over the evil without. Electricity has annexed the night; antibiotics and industrialized farming have enervated two of nature’s oldest threats. So complete is our control that we constantly pretend our own, internal human predicament is an external, and thus conquerable, foe: see HBO’s Silicon Valley.

That same need for mastery informs the scope-creep of empiricism: if it is not something I can study, verify, and predict, I will ignore it. Halloween’s a great time to remember that there’s terrifying stuff outside of our control everywhere, internal and external.

The validity of the paranormal has at least some support different areas: hauntings, apparitions, or visions of the future. (Do UFOs count? Maybe an honorable mention.) The fact that some Christians are so hostile to these attestations reflects at least as much on a Christianity which has become a means of mastery as it does to any biblical doubt cast on them.

Jesus said, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 18.3). Since kids are small people in a big world, they can do Halloween right, and they scare easily at ghost stories. Perhaps humility, openness to grace, and belief in the paranormal all go hand-in-hand. Since some people have wanted us to provide more in the way of “application,” in the Christian sense, here’s a freebie: Go watch a horror movie; join the resurgence. Any one, so long as it’s scary, and sometime in the next week. For Michael Myers fans, Blake Collier’s just written the authoritative piece on Myers as liturgy over at Reel World Theology. And for horror neophytes like me, I’ll start pestering CJ for a primer.

My own favorite ghost story from the past week is an old one from Vanity Fair, told by Jeffrey Liberman, currently Chair of Psychiatry at Columbia:

LIEBERMAN: I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff, but I’ve had a couple of cases, one in particular that really just gave me pause. This was a young girl, in her 20s, from a Catholic family in Brooklyn, and she was referred to me with schizophrenia, and she definitely had bizarre and psychotic-like behavior, disorganized thinking, disturbed attention, hallucinations, but it wasn’t classic schizophrenic phenomenology. And she responded to nothing,” he added with emphasis. “Usually you get some response. But there was no response. We started to do family therapy. All of a sudden, some strange things started happening, accidents, hearing things. I wasn’t thinking anything of it, but this unfolded over months. One night, I went to see her and then conferred with a colleague, and afterwards I went home, and there was a kind of a blue light in the house, and all of a sudden I had this piercing pain in my head, and I called my colleague, and she had the same thing, and this was really weird. The girl’s family was prone to superstition, and they may have mentioned demon possession or something like that, but I obviously didn’t believe it, but when this happened I just got completely freaked out. It wasn’t a psychiatric disorder—you want to call it a spiritual possession, but somehow, like in The Exorcist, we were the enemy. This was basically a battle between the doctors and whatever it was that afflicted the individual.

ME: Do you completely disregard the idea of possession?

LIEBERMAN: No. There was no way I could explain what happened. Intellectually, I might have said it’s possible, but this was an example that added credence.

That story appears in a longer piece by William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist. He spends time following Father Amorth, the late chief exorcist at the Vatican, as he tries to help an Italian woman in her thirties. The woman had “had a college degree but couldn’t work because of the fits and behavioral changes that came over her, most severely on the Christian holidays, such as Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Easter, and Pentecost.” The story includes a gripping account of her ninth exorcism, along with Friedkin’s (unsuccessful) attempt to get medical professionals to account for it. The whole tale reminds me of an admonishment I received from a deeply Pentecostal Park-Ride driver at the Richmond airport: a broader spirit-world than we know is out there, but some of us (including me) are blind to it.

For those of us who are just too disenchanted to buy into all that, politics is currently the most effective substitute: you can enter a higher plane teeming with dark, malign forces which must be stamped out, a great battle with ultimate stakes and lots of people, in the opposition, for whom the Evil Out There seems the only explanation. You know, Twitter. On the other hand, if you can recapture that sense through an a good videogame, a reread of Lord of the Rings, or an avid NFL rooting interest, those may have better mental-health outcomes. And they’re often more forgiving.

2. One more social piece: over at The Cut, Susie Nielson reports we are in a “‘Dream Deprivation’ Epidemic“:

My mom, I have since realized, is perhaps the only person in my life who is not “wake-centric” — who views her sleeping state, particularly her dreams, as essential. It’s a term I didn’t even know until I read a paper on dream loss published this August, titled Dreamless: The Silent Epidemic of REM Sleep Loss. The author, University of Arizona psychologist Rubin Naiman, makes two primary arguments. One, modern humans are deprived of dreams. Two, this is not only sad from a existential perspective, it’s also a public health crisis, one brought on by a combination of lifestyle factors, substance use, sleep disorders, and, “indirectly, a dismissive attitude about the value and meaning of dreams.” . . .

What Naiman doesn’t say, but feels relevant, is that it is especially hard to safeguard our dream sleep because there’s so little social or financial incentive to do so. For most of us, sleeping falls lower on the priority list than both work and play. And getting the recommended amount of sleep — seven to nine hours a night — isn’t as trendy as so many other wellness-focused habits. This could be because sleep isn’t inherently commodifiable; it doesn’t make businesses money the way that a spin class or a kale smoothie can. Spurred on by the constant reminders of other things we should be doing to better ourselves and increase our productivity, we habitually push sleep aside, delay it, demean it.

Sleep seems a state of inert powerlessness, and dreams too often are unwelcome visitations from an emotion-laden subconscious. Since they don’t give us tangible accomplishments and aren’t subject to the kind of control which other things in our lives are, we devalue them. In Stevens’s Sunday Morning, the speaker asks, “What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” Our subjective selves, less easily repressed in sleep than in waking, are another uncharted and unconquered territory.

3. We’re in a resurgence of the otherworldly. As alarming as a ‘post-factual’ world is in many ways, distrust of hard facts may be opening the gates to a more religious (in the broad sense) world. Horror film’s been huge this year, and I think the popularity of domestic crystals (to create a field of ‘positive energy’), astrology, and other not-quite-empirical preoccupations may be encouraging to religious folk. Over at Marie Claire (yes, Marie Claire), there’s a nice note about millennial morticians:

Over the past decade, Doughty has risen—first as an internet personality, then through her bestselling 2015 memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and most recently with her progressive funeral parlor, Undertaking LA—to become the young, hip face of the “alternative death movement.” Death-positive advocates like Doughty favor a more empowered, community-oriented, “artisanal”approach. Undertaking LA offers a variety of alternative funeral options, like home funerals. . . .

“We have this incredibly sanitized relationship with death, and the fact that we rarely see the dead body, or interact with it in any way, and believe that to be wrong, is a broken system,” Doughty says. “Most people living in America now grew up in this narrow, narrow framework, and I wanted people to understand that there are alternatives.”


4. For Halloween, there’s not much scarier than the human being’s existential plight in a merciless world before a righteous God. Enter Martin Luther, who, despite doing everything he could to control his spiritual well-being, found Stevens’s God of silent shadows couldn’t be put off. This week, in the lead-up to the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses, saw several Luther retrospectives. The New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella provides the best:

[F]or a long time, he also suffered what seems to have been a severe psychospiritual crisis. He called his problem his Anfechtungen—trials, tribulations—but this feels too slight a word to cover the afflictions he describes: cold sweats, nausea, constipation, crushing headaches, ringing in his ears, together with depression, anxiety, and a general feeling that, as he put it, the angel of Satan was beating him with his fists. Most painful, it seems, for this passionately religious young man was to discover his anger against God. Years later, commenting on his reading of Scripture as a young friar, Luther spoke of his rage at the description of God’s righteousness, and of his grief that, as he was certain, he would not be judged worthy: “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” . . .

In Luther’s mind, the indulgence trade seems to have crystallized the spiritual crisis he was experiencing. It brought him up against the absurdity of bargaining with God, jockeying for his favor—indeed, paying for his favor. Why had God given his only begotten son? And why had the son died on the cross? Because that’s how much God loved the world. And that alone, Luther now reasoned, was sufficient for a person to be found “justified,” or worthy.

I love how Acocella links the sale of indulgences to Luther’s own crisis. The Church’s annexation of the realm of divine favor benefits those who can pay up, but it created a tremendous toll on those who, like Luther, just couldn’t cut it. At the risk of anachronism, the existential nature of Luther’s predicament was too acute to bear the notion that God had been tamed by any transactional system, whether in the Church or the soul. Luther liberates our notion of God from the systems we use to control him.

But my favorite part of the article is Luther’s peculiar brand of fatherhood. One can envision these scenes so clearly:

. . . Luther loved these children. He even allowed them to play in his study while he was working. Of five-year-old Hans, his firstborn, he wrote, “When I’m writing or doing something else, my Hans sings a little tune for me. If he becomes too noisy and I rebuke him for it, he continues to sing but does it more privately and with a certain awe and uneasiness.” . . .

One thing that Luther seems especially to have loved about his children was their corporeality—their fat, noisy little bodies. When Hans finally learned to bend his knees and relieve himself on the floor, Luther rejoiced, reporting to a friend that the child had “crapped in every corner of the room.”

Luther’s bursts of vulgarity add a certain savor to the Reformer’s legacy:

My favorite (reported in Erikson’s book) is a comment that Luther made at the dinner table while in the grip of a depression. “I am like a ripe shit,” he said, “and the world is a gigantic asshole. We will both probably let go of each other soon.” It takes you a minute to realize that Luther is saying that he feels he is dying. And then you want to congratulate him on the sheer zest, the proto-surrealist nuttiness, of his metaphor. He may feel as though he’s dying, but he’s having a good time feeling it. . . .

Acocella also notes his at-times rabid anti-Semitism, which I note here so as not to edit it out in hitting the theologically high points of the article. As far as that relates to Luther’s theology, I’ll leave the discussion to recent scholars who’ve worked on the problem – E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright (the ‘New Perspective’ guys), among others.

Although his resting place evokes his most momentous act, it also highlights the intensely local nature of the life he led. The transformations he set in motion were incidental to his struggles, which remained irreducibly personal. His goal was not to usher in modernity but simply to make religion religious again. Heinz Schilling writes, “Just when the lustre of religion threatened to be outdone by the atheistic and political brilliance of the secularized Renaissance papacy, the Wittenberg monk defined humankind’s relationship to God anew and gave back to religion its existential plausibility.” Lyndal Roper thinks much the same. She quotes Luther saying that the Church’s sacraments “are not fulfilled when they are taking place but when they are being believed.” All he asked for was sincerity, but this made a great difference.

5. On the lighter side, Mere Orthodoxy this week retitled Christian books for the Internet age. Some highlights below:

BoethiusA Cup of Comfort for the Christian Neoplatonist [ed. note: better comfort than radical doubt]

St. AthanasiusConSubstantial: What God Was Up To and How That Applies To You

Julian of NorwichEndless Bliss: Sixteen Revelations to Revitalize Your Spirituality

AnselmGod-Man: Heavyweight Christianity for a Lightweight Church

Pope Paul VIReal Sex: Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Assumed Was Forbidden

Also in pop culture, McSweeney’s brilliantly teases out the frequent contradictions in a common (often male) romantic preference – “I’m Looking for a Woman Who Will Challenge Me“:

I’m looking for a woman who will challenge me. A woman who isn’t afraid to argue, as long as it’s not about sports, politics, or pop culture . . .

Nothing intrigues me more than a woman capable of holding a long conversation on literature or great artists that she’s not quite as familiar with as I am. Of course, I’m no elitist. I wouldn’t reject a woman just because she’s less interested in Infinite Jest than the Kardashians, as long as she bears a strong resemblance to Gal Gadot and compliments me constantly. . .

To me, true love means loving someone for his or her faults, not despite them. When I find a woman who doesn’t mind if I prefer ratty old sneakers to dress shoes or gets bent out of shape if I lose her dog in a bet, then I’ll know it’s real. Bonus points if she doesn’t judge me when I tell her the bet was over whether I could throw a three-pointer one-handed and blindfolded. And if she finds out that I lied about the bet and actually traded her dog for a tattoo of a Clydesdale smoking marijuana in a hot tub, and doesn’t freak out? I’ll ask her to marry me on the spot. . . .

[M]aybe the reason I’m so particular about what I expect from others might be to stop myself from ever having to get too close to someone, because I’m afraid if I do they’ll discover that I’m no prize.

I knew right then that I needed to break up with her. I want a woman who will challenge me, not shake the very foundation of my being. And anyway, she wasn’t even blonde.

Hard not to post the whole thing.

6. Finally, comedian Russell Brand’s got a new book coming out about his struggles with addiction. The New York Times posted an interview about the book, Recovery, which looks to be chock-full of wisdom:

Mr. Brand’s thinking about addiction goes something like this: At the root of all addiction is narcissism, a constant thrumming attention to self. If you are self-absorbed you are suffering, and if you suffer you seek ways to stop it — through drugs, alcohol, sex, maybe Facebook “likes.”

“We are trying to solve inner problems externally — whatever it is in our lives that is missing,” he said.” Eckhart Tolle said it perfectly: ‘Addiction starts with pain and ends with pain.’ Here’s the point. Drugs, booze, sex … It’s not the particular addiction that matters as much as the fact that your life is out of control because of it. . . .

Healing, he says, requires a belief in giving yourself to a higher power, however you understand it — because your own volition hasn’t served you very well, has it? Mr. Brand is someone who hasn’t done well with authority, so he invites us not to think of a higher power, or even just someone else’s power, as domineering and negative, but instead “as a place for nurture.” Mr. Brand doesn’t entirely turn his back on the religious foundation of 12-step programs, but he has found a universal “workaround.” . . .

[H]is purpose in explaining the details of his recovery are to show that anyone, no matter how lost they are, can do it. As he explained in his rationale for writing this book: “My qualification is not that I am better than you, but that I am worse.”

That’s it for this week. For people in the DC area, there’s still time to get to our Fall Conference tonight–details here. I’m blogging in cville, but the event looks fantastic. And Happy Halloween!

And a little rough in production, but fellow hymn-nerds may enjoy:

And this looks promising, from Daniel Day-Lewis and P.T. Anderson: