Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness, The Key of Solomon the King, and Save Me

Jewish date:  24 ’Av 5773 (Parashath Re’eh).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of Ignatius of Loyola (Roman Catholicism), Lughnasadh Eve in Northern Hemisphere/Imbolc Eve in Southern Hemisphere (Neopaganism), Feast Day of St. Bill Gates (Church of the SubGenius).

Greetings.

I know posting on this blog has gotten irregular. Sorry about this.  Life is busy.

I would like to comment on a number of different things relevant to this blog:

1) Star Trek Into Darkness:  Preemptively, your humble blogger would like to note that he eventually wants to write a great grand review of religion in Star Trek, all series and movies, but as he saw it recently, he would like to jot down some thoughts on it now so they do not get forgotten.

Much ink (or rather the electronic equivalent thereof) has already been spilled on what is right and wrong with this film.  Considering the focus of this blog, I will note that what Harrison did with the photon torpedoes is such an obviously bad idea that he should never even considered it (duh!) and proceed to discussing religion.  This is not an especially religious film, but like Star Trek in general, it touches on it.  The movie starts out on the planet Nibiru, which is inhabited by humanoids who have not yet developed warp technology and thus, according to the Federation’s Prime Directive, must not be contacted at any cost.  Spock gets quickly trapped in an active volcano with a device meant to freeze the molten lava so the volcano does not erupt and kill the natives.  Due to the Enterprise being hidden under water—something which everyone says makes no sense—Kirk faces the dilemma of whether he uphold the Prime Directive, in which case Spock dies, or get the Enterprise out of hiding and where the transporter will work properly to save Spock, in which case the natives will probably see the ship—a clear violation of the Prime Directive.  Kirk being Kirk, the natives see the Enterprise rising out of the ocean.  The natives’ behavior soon afterwards suggests they believe they have seen a divine being or have had a prophetic vision.  To say the least, Admiral Pike is not happy.  

Religious misinterpretation of Federation activity actually has been done at least once before in the Star Trek universe.  The Star Trek:  The Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers” revolves around someone on a technologically primitive planet inhabited by Vulcanoids mistaking Captain Jean-Luc Picard for a god known as the Overseer.  That episode deals with the consequences of such a mistake and how to deal with it—not to mention religious epistemology—in far greater length and detail than Star Trek Into Darkness, which says nothing about what, if anything, Starfleet does to clean up the mess on Nibiru.

Your humble blogger is not aware of anything quite like either of these fictional incidents happening in reality, though cargo cults approximate them to some degree.

Also noted is a little peek into the Vulcan belief system.  Whether Vulcans believe in the supernatural or not has never been discussed, albeit Mr. Spock once claimed to specifically not believe in angels.  However, the Vulcan belief system includes things like monasticism and mysticism which would normally be religious on Earth.  There is some arguing in this film over whether the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the one (reflecting Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock).  Also, Spock claims that war is “by definition” immoral, which sounds like an all-too-human attempt to skirt the problem that morality is intrinsically a matter of opinion.  Certain properties, such as weight and temperature, are matters of objective fact.  But whether an action is good or bad cannot be objective in the same way; no matter how hard one looks, one will never find goodness particles or evilness waves.  Spock seems to be trying to make morality objective by defining what is and is not moral.  One can argue about whether some action objectively fits this definition.  (And your humble blogger assumes that Spock, being no mental slouch, has a definition for war and every other relevant term.)  However, since the definition is not rooted in objective reality, it remains an opinion.  Klingons just as easily can claim that war is by definition moral (and act on this presumed morality, too).  Defining what is moral or immoral does not make it objectively so.

Also:  Considering that Vulcans have been depicted at times waging war, the Vulcan belief system appears to have a priority system.  Vulcans may consider war immoral, but they may well consider other things, such as being murdered by enemy soldiers, to be worse, thus making war the lesser of two evils.  Real humans tend to agree on this issue, though there are a few true pacifists.

2) The Key of Solomon the King (Clavicula Salomonis) translated by S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers:  This is a grimoire repeatedly mentioned as source material in your humble blogger’s previous reading on Neopaganism.  It certainly looks like the source for Gerald Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid, the procedures for working magic being largely the same.  Unlike High Magic’s Aid, The Key of Solomon deals with working magic in a Jewish (or pseudo-Jewish) context.  There is none of the Neopagan business of duotheism, polarity of the sexes, or ritual nudity.  Magic instead is presented as an exercise in manipulating spirits for one’s purposes.  Much emphasis is put on the necessity of piety to work magic.  Consistent with this is the lack of any procedure for divination; after all, the Torah explicitly forbids several kinds of divination.

And, no, there is no convincing reason to believe that King Shelomoh (Solomon) actually wrote this book.  There is nothing in the Hebrew Bible to suggest he practiced any form of magic.

3) Save Me:  This gem of a show showed up recently on Hulu.  It is story of a woman with poor moral habits (such as drunkenness, petty theft, and embarrassing behavior) named Beth who accidentally chokes.  She survives, though feeling like she died in the process.  Reborn, she finds herself religiously moved and believes that God communicates with her.

One major issue that this show deals with is how would someone who experiences a sudden conversion would behave.  (This sort of thing does happen in real life at times.  See The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.)  Given the profundity of Beth’s conversion, she tends to go to extremes—absurd ones, as this is a comedy.  Having no previous religious experience, Beth frequently has no idea how a religious person is supposed to behave and makes some very strange mistakes.  For example, in one episode she prays constantly.  She also embraces love for her fellow humans and other creatures to the point of loving her husband’s ex-mistress Carlise and a spider.  At one point, she decides to read the (Christian) Bible, but finding the King James Version too hard, she turns to The Children’s Bible and proceeds to misinterpret the parable of the Good Samaritan.  (Come to think of it, she never seems to get very far in either version.)  In another, she “honors” her parents by calling them excessively.  Trying to “honor” her daughter Emily into honoring her back proves socially embarrassing for the latter.  Despite everything being played for laughs, religious behavior Beth undertakes on her own really is no stranger than what a lot of converts do.

(And to be fair to Beth, none of the other main characters displays much knowledge of Christianity or religion in general, which is sadly normal for Americans these days.  (See Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero.)  Emily even hollows out a Bible to hide marijuana in.)

The other major issue is the nature of prophecy.  For Beth, this is something in the way of a comedic version of the sorts of things one would expect in Ezekiel and Jonah (or Evan Almighty):  She is told to do all sorts of strange actions in a gender-neutral voice, and she is not allowed to shirk her duty.  Refusing to do what God demands only results in pain for Beth, and compliance is quick.  Beth is assumed to be some sort of crackpot for claiming prophecy, though with the lack of theological sophistication of the characters, none of them ever thinks about empirically testing whether she can consistently make correct predictions.  This is despite that around Beth periodically occur unusually well-timed events (lightning striking Carlise, Beth’s car hitting a squirrel, various injuries to Beth, rain falling, the power in various houses going out, etc.) which serve to progress the plot, tie up loose ends, and bring Beth together with her family and friends.  Beth’s husband Todd is unusually generous in interpreting what happens to Beth and chalks her prophecies up to intuition.  Untraditionally, Beth prophetically has access to knowledge about people which she should not have.  Semi-traditionally, she actually has two visions of God, once in the form of Betty White(!) and the other as a black man.  (For comparison, YHWH or some suitable representative has a form which looks like it is practically on fire in Ezekiel.)  Less traditional is God claiming to have taken corporeal form when Beth was a child and played friend with her; while Christians generally regard Jesus as God somehow become corporeal, your humble blogger is not aware of them promoting the idea that He has made a habit of pretending to be human.  Then again, God in this series never claims to be the god of Christianity or any other religion, so some flexibility is warranted.

All in all, an enjoyable effort in theological fiction.  I am saddened that its run seems limited to just seven episodes.  I hope NBC changes its collective mind and continues the series.

’Aharon/Aaron