7 Questions for Sacred Matters

I was interviewed last year for Sacred Matters, a really interesting web magazine focussed on “public scholarship that undercuts conventional understandings of religion and reimagines the boundaries between religion and culture”. You can read the full thing here.

Most scholarship on conspiracy theories starts by attacking the rationality of their ideas. But to state that Jesus rose from the grave is obviously to challenge scientific knowledge too. Where are the scholars attacking the rationality of an idea that the majority of US citizens hold dear? In fact, much – if not most – of what we do as supposedly “secular” humans is not driven by the scientific method at all – including nationalism, political views, sport, even falling in love. As social scientists, our job is to describe, not prescribe, human social activity.

Conspiracy theories are a site of contestation as to how we understand the world. A conspiracy theory is not “a theory about a conspiracy” – I give lots of examples in the book – but rather something we are not permitted to think. That so many conspiracy theories relate to people in positions of power should make this even plainer. The important issue in conspiracy theories is not what is said, but whether we are allowed to say it. That scholars so often reinforce this good thinking/bad thinking dichotomy makes it clear that a properly critical and disinterested study of conspiracy theories is sorely needed.

 

 

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8 Thoughts about Alan Moore’s Jerusalem – Part 1

Alan Moore’s second novel, Jerusalem, was published in September 2016. It was ten years in the writing and weighs in at 1100 pages (allegedly making it the 10th longest English-language novel). Like his debut, The Voice of the Fire (highly recommended, by the way), Jerusalem again focuses on Moore’s hometown of Northampton, although this time the focus is tightened even further to the area in which he grew up, known as The Boroughs. The historical detail is all factual, and it would seem that many of the characters are drawn from Moore’s own family.

There is so much in this to talk about that I am going to follow the book’s tripartite structure, and write a post for each of Jerusalem’s three sections (it is actually available as a three-volume slipcase edition). This post is on Book 1, titled The Boroughs, and so probably won’t spoil much, as I haven’t read further yet myself.

1. Short Story Structure

As with Voice of the Fire, the first section of Jerusalem is essentially a collection of short stories. These are apparently self-contained – at least at first. The historical sweep is not so grand; Voice of the Fire starts in 10,000 BCE whereas Jerusalem only goes back to the early Medieval period, with a pilgrim arriving at the centre of England carrying a cross from Jerusalem. Here, the characters are more recent: we meet an 18th-century painter restoring the roof of St. Paul’s; a drug-addicted teenage prostitute; a black American immigrant with a bicycle with rope for tyres; and hinting at things to come, a ghost. As it progresses, it becomes clear that many of the characters are members of two families, the Warrens and the Vernalls.

2. Stylistic Experimentation

This first section is relatively free of the kind of stylistic experimentation which was a part of Voice of the FireThe Black Dossier and the latter parts of Promethea. There are clearly different voices, but on the whole, the prose is very accessible. If anything, the progression is from a very plain, contemporary mode towards more stylised chapters like Snowy Vernall’s rooftop soliloquy, but nowhere do we have the dense ‘adventures in style’ that punctuated The Black Dossier.

3. Alan is Alma

It seems that much of the historical material in Jerusalem are drawn from Moore’s family, and indeed the central events of the overall narrative – four-year-old Michael Warren’s several minutes of lifelessness after choking on a cough sweet – happened to Moore’s brother Michael. But in Jerusalem, Michael’s elder sibling is a girl named Alma. Nevertheless, Alma is clearly Alan (and the caption on the photograph on the dust jacket tells you so), and he paints quite a coruscating portrait of himself, downplaying his success, and frequently mocking his physical appearance.

Ironically, gender-swapping characters has become a feature of the mainstream comics and superhero movies of which Moore is famously ‘less than keen’.

4. Leitmotif

There are the usual vocal tics (think of Rorschach’s “hurm” or William Gull’s “I just made a little sound”), the most obvious being the drunk’s “Ah ha ha ha ha!” There is also a sort of meta-language mentioned several places, described as “unfolding” in the brain once heard (ironically, something which Grant Morrison also played with in The Invisibles). But here the most obvious use of leitmotif is visual. The image of the arms being raised, the various uses of “corner”, the repeating circular pattern of the Bedlam Jennies, and so on. This reminds us that Moore was an artist first – and drew the book’s cover – and despite the lack of illustration here, Jerusalem is still a very visual piece.

5. Leave it to the Prose

Moore’s comics of the 1980s were famed for their long captions of purple prose, and while this feature disappeared from his comics in the 1990s, his descriptive skill is very much in evidence here. As with the previous point, these are often visual, but there is also a playful and sometimes course sense of humour at play. A couple of random examples… “She’d loitered, liminal, in libraries, skulked spectrally in sitting rooms and crept, crepuscular, through classes”; “the grat majority of men found Alma to be ‘generally alarming’ in the words of one aquaintance, or ‘a fucking menopausal nightmare’ in the blunter phrasing of another, although even this was said in what seemed almost an admiring tone”; “all the world with its shining marble hours, its lichen centuries and fanny-sucking moments all at once, his every waking second constantly exploded to a thousand years of incident and fanfare, an eternal conflagration of the senses where stood Snowy Vernall, wide-eyed and unflinching at the bright carnival heart of his own endless fire”.

6. Time is a Dimension

As suggested by that last quote, Moore is again playing with the idea of time as a dimension. Characters like Snowy Vernall and the Deathmonger seem aware of past and future, and the chronological sprawl of the chapters seems to link all times together with hints of some grander narrative. As with Watchmen‘s wonderful Dr Manhattan sequence, Moore suggests that all of time is as set as space, completely demolishing the idea of Free Will. This will become even more apparent in the second book, however.

7. When Narratives Collide

Despite the numerous narrators across several centuries, there are nevertheless hints that those set in the present day will come together in some event. Indeed, it seems that they all take place on the evening of Alma’s exhibition, anticipated in the prologue, and which is also mentioned by other characters. For example, Marla, a teenage prostitute and addict is mentioned at least three times in later chapters, being seen by other characters and being mentioned in a conversation between four angels. It seems likely that these characters will come back into play in the third and final book.

8. A Plot!

Only in the final chapter of this part does the de facto plot begin, although it was discussed in the prologue – Michael Warren’s choking on a cough sweet, aged four, his subsequent several minutes of apparent death, and the memories of where he went during those minutes, newly recovered following a bump on the head in his 50s. And so we move into Book 2…

Two Books About Memory

I finished a couple of books this week that while very different on the surface, ultimately both concern memory.

The first was The Sussex Devils by Mark Heal, former musician and frontman of Cubanate. Although it reads like a novel, it is half a historic investigation into a manifestation of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. Mark discovers a newspaper clipping while digging through some old tapes about a man called Derry Mainwaring Knight who managed to convince a group of well-to-do evangelicals (led by the Reverend John Baker) that he was a high-ranking “Satanist” in the Ordo Templi Orientis. The Reverend not only tries to save Derry’s soul through exorcism and prayer, but raises staggering amounts of money for Derry to buy OTO paraphernalia to be destroyed, thus defeating the Satanists. Derry was eventually jailed for fraud. But around this narrative is Heath’s own story, memories shaken loose by Derry’s story –  starting with his parents’ involvement with evangelicism, his severe panic attacks and eventually alcoholism. Heath’s descent into panicked neurosis and eventual recovery mirrors the descent of the UK (and US, South Africa, Australia…) into conspiratorial and supernatural witch hunts – not only Satanism but Ritual Abuse and Alien Abduction. Although the conclusion was rather platitudinous, with its “we all need something to believe in” message, I enjoyed the book overall a good deal. Heal’s writing is evocative, heartfelt and readable.

Moreover, the book was published by Unbound, who use a form of crowd funding to produce their books – a model that might suggest a way forward for small press publishers.

The Aztec UFO Incident by Scott Ramsey, Suzanne Ramsey and Frank Thayer was far less engaging. Subtitled “The Case, Evidence, and Elaborate Cover-Up of One of the Most Perplexing Crashes in History”, it is an investigation into the second-best-known crashed saucer story, in Aztec, New Mexico, in 1948. Alarm bells started ringing quickly – the back cover declares that “Roswell is no longer the only proven flying saucer recovery we know about”. Proven? Really? Even allowing this to pass, that’s terrible writing – how can a crash be proven if you don’t know about?

If you’ve read my book, you’ll recognise several familiar tropes: husband-and-wife team; a story re-discovered decades later; government cover-ups obscuring the evidence; and importantly, a heavy reliance upon eyewitness testimony. There is almost no physical evidence presented – rather, the authors build their case from eyewitness testimony, usually after decades, or worse, recounted by children of the witnesses after decades. There is no acknowledgment of the problems with such testimony, quite the opposite. Testimony is described as reliable as it “draw[s] from 50 years of memories” (22). The initial story is exciting, but it’s clear we are dealing with a sort of fairy-story. The book soon descends into an impenetrable series of critiques of minor characters in the story, like early promoters and challengers of the tale. Ironically, but not surprisingly, they often dismiss these accounts for the same reasons I dismiss theirs – but only when the sources disagree with their central thesis, of course.

After World Religions:

Routledge have just put up the official page for my other book of 2016, After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies, co-edited with my good friend and Religious Studies Project collaborator, Christopher Cotter. To be published in January, the book is a manifesto and guide to teaching “religion” without simply trotting through the usual cliches about the “big six” – the real religions, right? – in terminology drawn from Victorian theologians. Here’s the blurb:

The World Religions Paradigm has been the subject of critique and controversy in Religious Studies for many years. After World Religions provides a rationale for overhauling the World Religions curriculum, as well as a roadmap for doing so. The volume offers concise and practical introductions to cutting-edge Religious Studies method and theory, introducing a wide range of pedagogical situations and innovative solutions. An international team of scholars addresses the challenges presented in their different departmental, institutional, and geographical contexts. Instructors developing syllabi will find supplementary reading lists and specific suggestions to help guide their teaching. Students at all levels will find the book an invaluable entry point into an area of ongoing scholarly debate.

Tim Fitzgerald says:

“This book will give a fresh impetus to debate in religious studies and religious education journals, and further volumes exploring the issues will appear as a result.”

I am very proud of how the book has turned out. It features a great line-up of international scholars, including James Cox, Russell McCutcheon, Steven Ramey, Teemu Taira, Suzanne Owen, Carole Cusack, Brad Stoddart and many others. And the cover! Wait – that’s another post…

 

Unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed

Just returned from an enjoyable but exhausting couple of days in London, presenting at the INFORM session at the London School of Economics. I say ‘enjoyable’, but it was a bit stressful. On the way there, I left my passport, so had to go back for it, and I eventually arrived at the front gate of the airport at 8:03, for a plane whose gate closed as 8:15. So I was too stressed to sleep on the plane, etc. But it was great to see pals like Kim Knott, Matt Francis, Titus Hjelm, Beth Singler and Eileen, Amanda and Suzanne from INFORM, and to make new friends and colleagues.
It had already been a busy week, because two long-term publishing projects came together. One I will announce when the contract is inked, but I can hereby announce that I will be publishing my first monograph, UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New Age: Millennial Conspiracism, with Bloomsbury in January 2016, in their Advances in Religious Studies series. As well as having a strong editorial team, Bloomsbury guarantee that the book will be available as an affordable paperback (although not straight away, regretably). I felt strongly that I wanted this to be available outside of academia, but I lack the clout (or academic capital, to be more post-structuralist) to have demanded this of some other publishers. And while I didn’t actually approach them, I can’t imagine one of the more mainstream bookshop-friendly academic presses like OUP even considering going near a book with that title by an unknown author. Expect to hear lots more about this in the coming months.
READING:
The Unwritten (Mike Carey and Peter Gross) reached its end and its 70th issue. I loved the set-up (stories are magic and reality is a story and where does story end and so who creates and dammit #everythingisfiction) and generally the execution, despite the series sometimes feeling like it was spinning its wheels unnecessarily (although by no means as much as other work by Carey and Gross have). A good read though, especially if you’re Ethan Quillen.
Clementine is a novella (or maybe novelette) in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, which I have enjoyed quite a bit. This one concerns the notorious confederate spy Belle Boyd, recently turned private detective, and her quarry, the gigantic airship pirate and free slave, Croggan Hainey. It wasn’t my favourite in the series, but Priest’s prose is as sharp as ever and her characters vividly drawn, particularly the female ones. It’s a believable and consistent world, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a film or TV series before long.