Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for August 9, 2011

Scarlet Letters

I may not be proud of what I did, but I am proud of who I am.

My forearm still bears the mark–you can see it if you look closely enough–the little half-moon, a result of the one time I couldn’t stop. Things were so much simpler then:  dig in, hold on, and focus on the pain. Focus on the pain not because you are a masochist, but because this pain–this pain–is at least definable; this pain is tangible, real, and quantifiable. I refused to pick up anything sharper, lest I turn into one of those tragic emo kids splayed out in the tub with one arm crooked over the edge of the tub–or maybe the truth was that I was just too much of a coward–so this pain was, for now, all I had.

I ran my finger over my arm in lazy figure eights, writing my name so many times over in those angry scarlet letters.

Now I write my names many times over so I will not forget:  I put ink to skin so that I will not forget who I am, what I am, and, most importantly, what I am worth. I write so that I will never hear someone say, “I knew you when.”

Part of the reason that this matters so much  is that I, for whatever reason, have managed to get out of that space–that I have miraculously survived. My whole drive in life is to teach youth to brave the depths of themselves and to learn to love the dark as well as the light. Because if you can love the parts of yourself that you most hate–and know that love isn’t the same as acceptance–well, that’s just magic. It’s part of the reason why I study Horror. It’s a hard lesson to learn, I think, that things aren’t just always going to magically get better and that you often have a lot of work in front of you, but that you have to be able to see (or, better, believe in) something better. It’s always this journey from stasis, to anger and discontentment, to wonder, beauty and love.

But ultimately, you fight for kids you’ve failed, for those you’ve yet to reach, and for those worth saving (hint:  it’s all of them). There are times when I feel overwhelmed because fighting is all you can do and yet it’s never enough–there’s always more to do and ways that you could have been better. But I’ve learned to take a break and get some perspective; I’ve realized that the world is hopefully a little bit better because I gave a damn and although you might not inspire every kid, that doesn’t detract from the ones that you do manage to move. Success can’t be measured in gains versus losses–I have to think about it in terms of the difference between me doing something and nothing at all.

Man of Science, Man of Faith

In today’s world, it seems that “secularization” is all too often matched with a sense of loss:  whether it be the decline in institutional religion or the dissipation of enchantment, we seem to employ the term in order to forward the idea that we are moving away from something that was once valued. And, to be fair, this is true. The modern age has, since the Enlightenment, been, in fits and starts, shifting away from a life infused with religion. But, I also think that “secularization” can also speak to something larger, and more significant, than that.

Unfortunately, it appears as though “secularization” has become synonymous with Science and been placed in opposition to Religion–atheists rigidly adhere to a rather static ideology that denounces aspects of religion, preferring the explanations proffered by experiments and equations. Yet, are we simply trading one set of dogma for another as we move between extremes? For me, Science works best when it challenges Religion (and vice versa) to keep pace with the developing world. The sense of awe, mystery, and wonder inherent in religion keeps scientists humble and science reminds us that some holy laws must be reconciled with modern culture.

One of the most welcome and quoted new books on the subject is Taylor’s A Secular Age, an 896-page opus that argues that secularization has been largely positive — as long as it leaves open a “window on the transcendent.”

The spiritual and religious impulse in humans will never die, says Taylor. Even if religion doesn’t dominate a society, as it once unfortunately did in Europe and elsewhere, people will always seek the transcendent; something ultimate, larger than themselves.

The great sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, says what is needed most now is new forms of religion that work in a secular age, where they are subject to analysis and don’t rely on political endorsement.

We are seeing this today. Many open-minded forms of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and of smaller spiritual movements, including meditation, yoga and healing, are maintaining a sense of the transcendent in some secular, pluralistic societies.

We can partly thank the Enlightenment for the rise of secularism, with the era’s emphasis on freethinking, rationality and science. But many thinkers, including 19th-century sociologist Max Weber, also credit the advance of secularism to Protestantism.

The Protestant Reformation rejected the absolute authority claimed by the Roman Catholic church of the time.

It brought a new wave of reform, choice and intellectual questioning to Christianity. By the 19th century, Protestants were critically analyzing the Bible and trying to discern the difference between the “historical Jesus” and the Christ of unquestioned mythology.

This so-called “critical method” wasn’t an attack on the faith, as some traditionalistic Christians continue to argue today. But it was what many consider a valid attempt to challenge the taboos that surrounded Christian orthodoxy.

Seeing the synthesis of these two areas is what makes studying modern religion so fascinating. Despite a formal training in Natural Sciences, I have gradually come to appreciate the power inherent in religion and am quite excited to be in some other great minds at the USC Knight Chair in Media and Religion blog.