The Bible as Western

Actually, a lot of people have had enough with the History Channel and its miniseries “The Bible”.  Pick a topic, any topic, and it seems that the miniseries represents it badly.  Doctrine, race, politics, gender – there are a dime-a-dozen bloggers upset about the show’s portrayal of these issues.  But what I want to know is this: How did the creation of this miniseries, broadcast on a major TV channel, get off the ground? And why do people love it so much?  Because love it plenty of them do.  Judging from Facebook posts, even some of my peers are (to all appearances, unironically) held in The Bible’s thrall.   Oddly enough, I stumbled upon part of the answer in a History class.

“Did you know,” my Consciousness of History professor asked us, “that Bill Clinton claims to have seen High Noon twelve times?  That religious zeal marks a true Western fan.  And remember: Westerns are an American phenomenon.  I want you to think about this as we watch the film.”  I idly jotted down the statistic in the margin of my notebook and willed myself to stay awake through what was surely going to be a boring hour and a half.  I don’t like Westerns.  But despite the individualist-cowboy-macho aesthetics, I was interested.  The film was good, objectively speaking (the editing was even better).  It also reminded me of something.  As we were all hurrying out of the door at the end of class, our professor shouted at us, “The Western film has no room for ambiguity.  Think about what that means for our next class.”  I stopped, one arm through my jacket.  Of course, I thought.  The Bible is a Western.

But what did I mean by that?

The History Channel’s “The Bible”

In a desperate bid for points, I present to you all the thing you dread the most: a series of blogs about religion and American culture.

You have Ray to blame for this. (Also, please remember I wrote this while sort of … altered … after wisdom teeth extraction.  So you’re not allowed to get too offended, okay?  Promise?  Okay, away we go!)

I tuned in late, so the first scene I see when I settle in for the first part of the History Channel’s miniseries is Abraham’s first encounter with God.  There’s a whispered, “Abram” against operatic vocals and then it cut to a Walmart ad which read, no lie, “The Bible is brought to you in part by Walmart”.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Bible with commercial breaks, for a modern attention-span.

 

The first question I ask, as we start the Sodom and Gomorrah story arch: is there a spin on this?  Better yet, is there a modern spin on this?  There is possibly one against city life – it is quite definitely emphasized that Abraham is going to live in the country.  But maybe that’s more of the story, than the adaptation.  Be in the world but not of it.  My train of thought is suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the devil.  Who knew that the History Channel would be so literal in their interpretation of evil? It doesn’t work for me, though.  As any good student of history knows, the unseen is the scariest.  Besides, this devil has white  juggalo-esque ashes smeared across his face.

When I have time to think again (the narrative is nothing if not fast-paced), it strikes me that there are no metaphysics here.  Abraham, when he pleads for intercession for Lot, is speaking to a physical Jesus that is reminiscent of a surfer dude.  Jesus, not God.  There is already a pattern here: Jesus as the present (if blurred around the edges) merciful man, God as the invisible commander who more often than not speaks through gales of wind.

This approach is very Bible-Belt American – the History Channel knows its audience.  For example, the focus is already skewed toward the New Testament.  The focus is on the person, for example, and not the god.  There are little things, too. Everyone is caucasianoid, except the angels.  Even then, the Asian angel kills with the sword, complete with kung-fu leaps.  (No intentions of molestation are mentioned, of course.)  I come to the realization that I cannot keep watching this.  And why the hell is this on the History Channel, anyway?

Just as I reach for the remote, there’s another ad break.  Get a new minivan at CarMax!  Arthritis ad, buy, buy, buy, consume, make your life better.  Then, astonishingly, a promo for the History Channel uses Amazing Grace as the track.  It concludes, History: Made Every Day.  But consider the show excerpts they are showing: Swamp People, American Pickers, etc.  I’m hooked by the absurdity.

When the show starts up again, I can’t help but catch myself think that Abraham has a mental disorder.  I think it’s probably to do with the narrative laid out so visually.  Especially when Abraham exclaims, “A sacrifice?  No.  No! Have I not shown you enough faith?” to the wind through improbably tall grass.

During the next ad break, though, I’m caught off guard.  The song over the Christian Mingle ad brings back memories of my childhood, eating snacks after school in the kitchen.  It’s Jars of Clay “I Want to Fall in Love with You”.  I actually had Jars of Clay on my first iPod, as a middle-schooler.  I actually liked them, went running with their music in my ears, actually sang them in the shower.  Now it sounds canned, and I can tell that this, too, is marketed to the faithful.  Jars of clay, after all, is a Christian band.  Their duty is to proclaim the faith first, and make music second.  There’s a reason for all those horrible hymns that don’t rhyme quite and have all those unnecessary dissonant notes.  And don’t overpay for motorcycle insurance!  Pro wrestling live at the Alamo dome!  Bacon worthy of the Mount Rushmore presidents!  It goes on. Hashtags, Vikings.  And back to the Bible.

It’s a nice touch, making Sara run up that mountain, screaming “Isaac!  My boy!”.  But it would not be her place, as a woman back then.  Not even one so embittered as Sara.  The deneumont: “Abraham has passed the test,” our anodyne narrator says.  And cut to the pharaoh and Moses.  It’s a good choice – dealing with Isaac’s anger (or lack thereof) would highlight too explicitly the cult-like overtones of some of these stories.  All the Egyptians are bald, possibly a nod to Yul Brynner?

More cultural simplifications, grey-screen and cut to Egyptians tossing babies like footballs.  The killing of the overseer is portrayed as a single blow to the back of the head: an accident, instead of the repeated beating, instead of the anger descending in a haze.  As if to distract from that small instance of violence, we cut to clouds rushing across the screen.  How did Ramses find the body, though?  I’ve forgotten.

All these cuts … we’re 40 years later on Sinai, now.   Here comes the money-shot, as far as the first episode is concerned.  The burning bush, the plagues.  But I have a problem with all this.  People keep on getting called, in this mini-series.  They do not just happen across things, as they would and did according to the Bible.  The burning bush is far too large, more like a burning wall,  a burning abyss.

And the pacing is too tight.  Speaking of which: “Nothing has changed, so much suffering,” murmurs Moses to nobody in particular.

And then we have more ads.  CatholicsComeHome.org implies that Catholicism started two thousand years ago, with His truly, the Messiah.  Does that mean that Jesus was supposed to have been a Catholic?  That Jesus can be simplified down to an institution?  That God is a Christian?  Or only a Christian?

No time to consider – the Pharaoh is screaming, “I am God!  I am God!” and Moses is dragged out.  Aaron lets loose the first plague.  Of course, I know that it is not blood, but an algal bloom.  If it isn’t all apochryphal, anyway.  The pharaoh, covered in blood, screams again: “Moses!”  and a smiling Joshua doubts no more, saying “I will never be a slave again.”  This pharaoh needs to scream things in duplicate, even triplicate.  And there are the locusts and the thunder, and the group of Israelites in a low chatter.  Talk of pharaoh breaking, and the final plague, the angel of death.  The group of Israelites in raised voices.  And cut to Christian Mingle: Find God’s match for you!

Oh, my.  This CGI is quite terrible, and that’s even when the Angel of Death is a dust cloud.  Next morning, the sky is sunny and Moses is brought before a distraught pharaoh.  The pharaoh screaming in triplicate again, so that Moses and the Israelites would go.  Moses on his teammates’ shoulders, a soccer-pitch victory scene.  More culturally-updated antics.  Descendants as numerous as the stars, Moses updates us, for those who need that reminder.  Does anybody who’s watching this on a Sunday night?

A nice touch, in this next cut: see the heathens sprinkle things on their dead, see their tattoos.  See the slender arm, still dead.  A sworn oath to his son, that the Israelites should build the tomb, with Moses’ body as the foundation.  But.  “This is the exodus.  After 400 years of slavery, the Israelites are free,” the bland narrator reminds us.  Then it’s steady-cams and horses’ legs, cue raised voices while the clouds race.  Thunder booms out, and suddenly Moses knows what to do.  There is a slow-motion pan from Egyptian chariots to Moses screaming at the sky, “Lord!”.  And the staff comes down.  Pan to storm-like conditions, and think of the children!  Back on land it is misty, but sunny.  More CGI.  And this time, pharaoh only screams once.  Moses bringing up the rear with a child.  Does he pray to stop the Egyptians, or does he – ah, no.  Of course he wouldn’t get his hands dirty.  And the pharaoh screaming in duplicate again.  And – “Freedom!”  And think of the little children.

The narrator then leads us to Mount Sinai, amidst more thunder.  Moses on the mountain, gasping.  Moses tripping along with the Ten Commandments, like the nerd weighed down with too many textbooks.  And Joshua must spy.  And with nine minutes left, cut to 40 years later with the appearance of the Ark of the Covenant (no Nazis, though).  Joshua the soldier, coming up!  Christian Mingle, again.  My sister comes out of her room, blinking.  Oh, fuck that song, she mutters.

 

“The Lord brought us out of Egypt.”  “Aye,” the Israelites improbably respond.  They talk of taking Jericho.  The spies climb the walls, and the Israelites are in.  What of the prostitute, then?  How will the good American History Channel handle this?  By being obvious.  “How’s my little whore?”  And end on a sweet note: the Israelites killing Jerichoans.  The Bible: to be continued.  Not for me, though.  I’ve had enough.

Museum Story

If you go in the back of a back room in the research wing, you may be surprised at what you find.

In the corner of one room, there’s a huddled, mangy mass of fur.  If you squint at it from across the room, you can make out the gleam of two glass eyes.  You see, you don’t want to get too close to it.  It oozes a disreputable air – the skin is stretched over the frame too tightly, and the fur looks as if it’s been steadily munched on by animals too small to see, ever since it was acquired by the museum in the ’20s.

That’s impossible, of course.  Everything (and everyone) that touches the fur will die, if they’re not careful.  This is another reason for not getting too close!  No, it’s not a bizarre museum curse – no King Tut stories here.  It’s only a water buffalo we’re talking about.  The point is that it oozes something other than the opposite of charm.  It’s stuffed (literally) with arsenic.

Of course, the museum can’t get rid of it.  It’s a valuable specimen, along with its valuelessness (even dangerousness).  It’s a historical piece.  The stuffing of taxidermied animals with arsenic is a practice that has gone by the wayside, thankfully.  Display animals now are merely sprinkled with the stuff.  And now, research specimens are simply skinned, their furless bodies and viscera pickled in alcohol.  (We have an entire elephant, in pieces, preserved this way.)  The skin is then dried, stuffed with cotton balls, and sewn up.  The posing is uniform, with no frills.  The researcher shows us rows and rows of voles, mice, and moles.  Their legs point down, their tiny arms raised above their heads in the international signal for drowning.

There’s also the fact that it’s a water buffalo.  What with international import-export agreements, and Rooseveltian pastimes giving way to modern notions of conservation, a museum accepting a shot-in-the-back-of-the-neck water buffalo would almost certainly be illegal.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the balance sheet is in the favor of valuelessness for this poor buffalo.  It’s too deteriorated for tissue samples or even pelt studies, its insides have long been discarded.  So it is relegated to the equivalent of the museum dust-heap: the back of the back rooms.  The buffalo is surrounded by sympathetic roommates, at least.  Hanging on the white cinderblock walls are trophy heads of deer, elk, and moose.  They don’t even have proper mounts.  Their astonished glassy eyes contribute to the feeling that they’ve just stupidly pushed on through the wall in search of greener pastures.

They haven’t found them.  One researcher, passing by, scoffs.  “You’re showing them those things again?  We’d get rid of all of them if we could.”  But that’s the way museums work – once donated, always kept.

Bad Museums, Indeed

Thought I’d share the love with you guys to brighten your day.  There is a Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts and their collection is online.  This is my favorite:

 

Unknown
Acrylic on canvas
Acquired by Scott Wilson from trash
This disturbing work “makes an offer you can’t refuse”. The chilling, matter-of-fact manner in which the subject presents the severed head to us is a poignant reminder of just how numb we have become. The understated violence implicit in the scene speaks volumes on our own desensitization, our society’s reflexive use of force, and the artist’s inability to deal with the hindquarters of the animal.

Crazy things are going on in mainstream museums, too.

Y’all Get to Skim Half of These Readings!

Skim this one first.  Then read this one (just the part about The Getty), and then the prologue of this one, and then skip ahead to pages 25-30 (starting with “Is the Department Store a Museum?”).  If all goes well there should be little post-it icons near the pertinent sections.

Sorry there are no snappy videos, but I tried to make it relatively painless for you.  Most of the stuff I’m  running across keeps nattering on about aesthetics as a moral instructor and the role of material culture in the political past.  Parts I find interesting, but mostly it’s as dry as a box of Shredded Wheat.

A couple things to note, though: these readings are all object-centered, and that last reading is from 1917 but the parts you’re reading are pretty well spot-on in summing up the museum field today.

That’s why I’m finding my reading stage of the project so vexing.  Nobody seems to want to write about the museum visitor except when instructing professionals what to write on labels, and critical essays on museum practice from the nineteen-teens seem just as applicable today.  The idealist side of me has her nose put out of joint.

 

(I tried to put a fun picture of someone excited to read, but a google image search of “so excited to read” returned a lot of selfies of teenage girls.  Am I missing something culturally relevant here?)

Belated Recommendations?

Looks like I’m still catching up from my brain insurrection!  I, too, need recommendations – well maybe more of a favor?  I am working on a guide to museums and their role in creating culture and power structures – you know that vision of the museum as the equivalent of your patronizing uncle teaching you how to appreciate fine wine and invest in the right stocks.

So.  What is about museums that bother you/make you not visit?  Or what is it about museums that you like (she asked disingenuously)?

The Gaze of the Other (or something)

Here are the three ideas I had for my project.

1. An essay (with supplemental photos?) about the ethics of museums’ cultural collections and institutional representations of these collections to the museum visitor (think exhibits like “Early Americas”, or “The Philippines”).  A follow-up case study to identify problematic practices and a proposal for an educational intervention for museum staff and visitors.

2. An essay on niche culture and to what degree devices such as the television and internet plays a part in the growth and demise of secret or otherwise intentionally under-represented groups.  I’m envisioning a historical perspective when considering these groups (the Masons to our very own Michigauma).

3. And for lack of a better third idea, a short/long story about an intentionally botched spy mission, Sandinistas, and what happened twenty years later.  Assault rifles, dead bodies, and love in the time of marriage.

 

So we’ll scrap the third idea, yeah?  The other two ideas (and actually possibly the third) seem to fit together in that they’re concerned with this idea of the “other” and how these fringe/minority/underrepresented groups are seen by those in control of the main narrative.  I’m not sure what spin to give to this sentiment for each idea – when I put it in terms of “fringe groups” and “main narrative”, it sounds a bit dry and well, “been-there-done-that”.

Girl, 21, is Handwriting Illiterate: or, The Cursive Double-Cross

Turns out you really do need cursive later on in life.  Sorry for ever doubting you, Mrs. B.

Well.  That is, if you’re in class with gumshoe historians and pick a collection in the Bentley Library from back when typewriters weren’t invented.  My historical guy liked to write 400-page scientifically racist books on the Origin of Adam and the Progression of History.  And apparently he really liked to get the ideas flowing.  He’s got things crossed out, written on top of, then crossed out again.  Then sometimes, there’s a paper stapled on top of the whole mess and that’s mostly crossed out, too.*

It’s not actually all that bad, deciphering my historical guy’s cursive (when it’s not triply crossed out, that is).  It’s a bit like re-learning to read.  I noticed I’ve been relying on a lot of the same strategies that this second grader I work with uses.  Context is a big thing – most of the time, a squiggle of a word on the first run-through of a sentence becomes clearer by the second.  Failing that, I concentrate on the first and ending sounds of the word.  And after that, my recourse is to humbly whisper across the desk for help from a certain generous classmate.  But by God, I wish there were pictures to refer to!

       Seriously, though, this whole experience has made me realize how utterly discouraging learning to read in a classroom of readers must be.  I feel a bit like an albatross.  Most of my classmates are in fact historians-in-training –  and there they are, skimming through typewritten material!  Oh, the luxury, oh the envy!  Is this what my second grader (who is proudly learning to read!) feels like when I poke my head around the door of his classroom and he’s sitting there with a glazed look on his face?  Today, he whispered to me that it took him as long to read one Jack Prelutsky poem as it took the kid across from him to read three.**  And I gotta say, it also takes me about three times longer than my classmates to get through a file folder in History.  Javi, I feel your pain.

So.  This all has something to do with writing, I swear.  Well, a couple things.   First, a nod to glass houses: I can’t deny that my own handwriting and drafting processes are absolute messes, too.  But hey, that’s what computers are for!  And that brings me to my next point (no, not that historian dinner-conversation-starter about the problems of archiving the internet, although there is this):

I am, to my mild discomfort, developing a certain fondness for my historical guy and his horrible cliff-leaps of logic.  So, living in the era of computers and standardized typeface, I asked the internet to explain my feelings.  Apparently readers perceive a difference between handwriting something and typing that same something.  Most of this online musing reads as somewhat of an old-man diatribe on why we should write more letters, g-dd—it.  But there does appear to be a sort of connection handwriting gives to the reader that is absent in text.  This part, too, is up for debate.  I have a pet theory about my irrational fondness and it’s this: my brain is so excited that I can actually understand this guy’s handwriting that I sort of feel obligated to like him.  Parts of this study could be interpreted to support my theory, but at the end of the day I’m just glad the research portion of my History class is over!  Now to write that twenty-page paper …


* Sorry, no pictures to prove it – I signed something agreeing “not to quote, publish, reproduce, or display the blahdeblahdeblah” and I don’t want to deal with AW’s estate or whatever.

**To which I responded, “Yeah, but he didn’t even laugh!”

Taking Notes

It is the beginning of October and I haven’t turned in a paper yet – quite an achievement for a History major!  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing.  Between all my classes, so far I think I have written around seventy notebook pages of notes already.  In proportion to all the books and readings I’ve done so far (once again, History major) that’s really nothing.

And anyway, note-taking is usually not really regarded as writing, per se.  But it is regarded as a skill – and when you look at it that way, my note-writing has really improved over my college career.  When I was a freshman the notion that one should listen first and then take notes in summary form escaped me.  I was writing not so much notes as paragraphs, and while this was great because I did not have to remember what it was professors said, when it came time to study I was overwhelmed with information.  This meant that I had no indication of what was important and what was less important.  And that was informative writing, but bad writing.

Writing is only good if it serves its intended purpose.  That is what college taught me, and while I don’t know if I agree with this all of the time, it’s important to realize that’s why there are different, and to varying degrees, specialized forms of writing.

And that is what makes writing hard for me, but isn’t that everyone’s story?