The Sins of Sodom: Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church

Fifteen years ago I was an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. The newly adopted denominational ad campaign proclaimed the UMC to be a denomination distinguished by “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” When the North Alabama Conference of the UMC – of which I was a member – met on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College, the floor of the basketball arena that served as our meeting space was adorned with free-standing door frames. The doors were all open wide.

It was a powerful symbol; it is a powerful symbol: the open door.

Before the legislative body that day was a resolution to affirm the stance of the denomination towards the ordination of homosexual persons to the ministry. The denomination’s stance was already pretty clear: “homosexuality,” the Book of Discipline stated, was “incompatible with Christian teaching” – gays and lesbians were not welcome into the ranks of clergy. There were stirrings in the church, however –indications that things might, some day, change – so some in the North Alabama Conference wanted to affirm that they were opposed to that change. Some hearts, some minds, some doors just weren’t ready to be opened.

The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority. I, and a few others, spoke against it. I can’t remember my words exactly, but I do remember that I pointed out the staggering hypocrisy of the open doors.

I probably ruined my career in the church by speaking that day. When I arrived at my new appointment the next week, many members of my new congregation had already heard about what I had said. From day one, I was a dead man walking. Soon, I came to understand what Dylan meant when he said, “I’ve been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.”

I stayed there for two hard fought years – fighting constant battles about this issue and countless others. Parishoners called to ask my opinion on abortion. (I, like the UMC, am pro-choice.) Lessons that I had delivered at other congregations without comment were the subject of scrutiny. My supervisor received regular calls about my “liberal” heresies. As a well-known conservative, he gave me no cover; he did his part in tightening the screws.

I remember talking with other, more senior, pastors about the situation, pastors that said they were sympathetic to making the church more inclusive. One said that he wasn’t going to say anything until he was farther along in his ministry; once he made it to a flagship church, or was elected bishop, then he would be a champion of the cause. Another – with whom I was interviewing for a job as an associate pastor at a large Birmingham-area church – said he was afraid to say anything because the church wasn’t ready; he was afraid that, if we made too much of it, it would kill the church.

I reminded him of something Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it.” I didn’t get the job.

When I was able to get my finances in order, and buy a home, I asked to be moved from full-time to part-time status. After three years, when my finances were a little more in order, I turned in my papers.

Resigned.

Fled.

Except for weddings and funerals, I haven’t been in a church since.

Now, all these years later, I see that the United Methodist Church is arguing in earnest about how wide they should open their doors. The discussion today has expanded from issues related to clergy ordination to include the issue of same-sex marriage. There are a lot more people in the church now with open hearts and open minds who are working hard to open doors. Indeed, there are people who have worked their whole lives to get the church to move – to inch – closer to true openness. Things are changing. I admire those who are leading the charge.

But, despite all of that effort on the part of so many, the denomination still asserts that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Some things, some hearts and minds, haven’t changed at all.

Cultural change happened without them, of course; hearts, minds, and doors were opened despite the church. Now the church is torn between those who want to hold on to the past and those who are trying to play catch-up with a culture that, as it turned out, didn’t need the church, or its teachings, to discover the truth.

To me it all seems so ridiculous – here in 2016 – that the church still stands on the side of wrong. Ridiculous. Shameful. Sinful. I honestly wish that I could say that I thought that things would be farther along by now for the church. But, if I had thought that, I might never have left.

Throughout the South, legislatures rush to enshrine bigotry and discrimination in the guise of “religious freedom.” Mississippi Governor, Phil Bryant, claims that he signed that state’s version of the bill into law in order “to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

Sadly, Methodist beliefs are the sorts of religious beliefs and moral convictions that bills like this one are meant to uphold. Beliefs about homosexuality being incompatible with Christian teaching. Beliefs that those who live different sorts of lives from our own are, because of that, sinful.

I want to make it clear that I’m no hero in any of this. I haven’t marched the streets for justice. I haven’t fought the fight alongside my gay and lesbian friends. I haven’t written letters to elected officials. I just turned in my papers. I just resigned. Fled.

And, like Lot when he fled from Sodom, I don’t even deserve credit for doing that. The messengers from Yahweh told Lot to go, but he lingered. He debated and weighed the merits of their arguments. He did a cost/benefit analysis. Finally, the angels had had enough so they seized him and forced him to safety.

That’s the way it was with me. It wasn’t so much a noble gesture on my part as a necessity of life. Things got so bad that there was no way that I could stay. As Dylan says, “I didn’t know whether to duck or to run. So I ran.”

There’s no heroism in that.

But, for me, it was worlds better than staying behind.

***

Much is made of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But, in the Genesis narrative, it is pretty clear that Yahweh didn’t destroy those cities because the residents were gay. Yahweh destroyed those cities because of the way they treated the strangers who came to their door.

In Genesis 18, Yahweh and his two partners came from out of the desert and greeted Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre. Without hesitation, the couple invited them into their home. They killed the fatted calf and prepared a feast. They gave them water to wash their feet.

Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.

But, in Genesis 19, when Yahweh sent his messengers to Sodom, the greeting they received in the city could not have been more different than the greeting they received in the desert. The angels were forced to run for their lives. Lot opened the door to his home, but the crowds gathered to demand that the foreigners be turned out to face the violence of the mob. Yes, it is true that the men of Sodom threatened the angels with sexual assault. But sexual assault is a far cry from the love of two men or two women for one another. Surely it would not have mattered, in the eyes of God, if it had been women who were threatened by the angry mob, would not have made any difference if Yahweh’s angels had been female instead of male.

We’ve always had it wrong. The sin of Sodom had nothing to do with homosexuality. The sin of Sodom was the sin of closed hearts. The sin of closed minds. The sin of closed doors.

I’m happy that more and more United Methodists are arguing and debating the church’s mistaken stand on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching. I’m happy to see congregations breaking with the church to open their doors to any and all who will come. I’m happy to see bishops and clergy and laity standing firm against the evils of the crowd. I’m happy to see that the church is slowly – sinfully slowly –beginning to think, talk, consider, change. Finally, the church is beginning to debate and weigh the merits of the arguments, analyzing the costs and the benefits.

I admire those who have stayed, in my absence, to speak as prophets and to lead the way.

But – for the life of me – I can’t make myself understand why anyone would want to stay in a land of closed hearts, closed minds, closed doors. I can’t understand why anyone would give time and money to an organization with bigotry enshrined in its very code of laws.

At one time, I was a part of the UMC; now I’m just an outsider looking in. Take my words as just that, as the words of someone who jumped ship, fled into the night, abandoned his post.

But it is past time to draw the line in the sand. Past time to negotiate. Past time to count the cost and analyze the benefits.

If the doors won’t open, it is past time to remember the words of Jesus to shake the dust off your feet and be on your way.

I know it’s scary, but life’s not so bad out here in the desert.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

 

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“Who Will Roll Away the Stone?”

Sisyphus

As Easter approaches I am reminded, once again and forever, of Sisyphyus.

Sisyphus, king of trickery and deceit. Sisphyus, King of Ephyra, condemned eternally to roll an enormous stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back again.

I am reminded of Sisyphus with each approach of Easter. I am reminded precisely because of that damned stone: nearly immovable on the way up, completely unstoppable on the way back down.

In the Gospel stories moving the Easter stone is easy. It takes no effort at all and even less faith. The Marys, or the disciples — according to which version you pick — simply show up at Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning. They worry about who will move the stone for them, only to find that the work has already been done. (Either by young men or angels. Again, take your pick.) We know the scene: a beautiful garden tomb, the heavy stone rolled away from the door, everything bathed in a soft light, the young man or the angel grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. The stone is no problem at all.

Except that it is. It always is. For me.

I grew up, like many religious people do, living in two worlds. At church, I heard sermons about creation and miracles. On PBS, I watched Carl Sagan explain the Big Bang and Darwin’s theory. I read the Bible and I excelled in high school biology. The two worldviews seemed, somehow, unrelated.

Then, in college at Alabama’s Samford University, a Baptist college where I was a religion major preparing for a career in the ministry, I read Rudolf Bultmann’s New Testament & Mythology and my life was changed forever. The great German theologian wrote more clearly and honestly than anyone I had ever read before. He described the mythical world picture of the New Testament, a world picture where heaven was above and hell was underneath, where angels and devils intervened in human life, where god-men not only die, but also live again. Then, without hesitation, he said what I must have already been thinking because it was thereafter something that I could never overcome. He said: the citizen of the modern world, if intellectually honest and true, cannot believe in such things.

He was right.

For Bultmann, of course, this did not mean the end of the Christian Gospel; it meant, rather, that theology must demythologize Christianity, peel away the ancient mythological world view in order to expose an eternal, existential truth. The challenge for a Christian, Bultmann believed, was to find a way to be both faithful and honest. He made no bones about it. While there was no intellectual problem in believing in Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish rabbi who taught the coming of the Kingdom of God and who was killed by the Roman Empire, the resurrection was another matter entirely.

Bultmann argued that the Easter story had meaning and importance for Christians, even though it was clearly not an historical event. There may have been an historical Jesus. He may have died on a cross. He did not rise from the dead.

But, what is important, Bultmann argued, is not the historicity of the event, but its existential meaning. It is the role of the preacher, the task of the theologian, to make this meaning clear, without succumbing to treating the myth as historically true, without getting caught in the mythological world view.

This made sense to me, for a while.

As a pastor in the local church, as a theologian, it was now my duty to roll away the stone. And, because the Earth orbits the sun and is tilted on its axis, this was something that had to be done eternally. Every spring there was work to do, mental gymnastics to perform, intellecutal sacrifices to be made. With all my effort, putting my back into it, the stone would move. Jesus would stumble out of the tomb, blinking sleepily in the morning light.

Then, without exception, it would all happen again. God would be born into the world on Christmas morn, he would die on Good Friday, and the stone would be right back in its place. Every time I turned around, that damned stone would be back in place and God would be back among the dead.

This is the curse of Sisyphus and it is the curse of the honest Christian thinker, of the man or woman not willing to sacrifice their intellect for the sake of comfort or calm.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, perhaps of Kierkegaard, “The honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it is possible to walk on it.”

I don’t know if this is true or not. I know that is not true for me. I can’t walk on water and I can’t walk on air.

So, not surprisingly, I left my first career, the ministry I had been preparing for since I was 15. There were other issues, to be sure, conflicts with parishioners and, most importantly, vast political differences with church leadership, but at its heart it was a matter of honesty. I left because it was what I had to do. It was the only way that I could be saved.

So this Easter, I’ll decorate eggs with my wife and children, I’ll anticipate a visit by Peter Cottontail, I’ll rejoice in the coming of spring which arrives through no effort of my own, but I don’t want anything to do with that damned stone.

Let Sisyphus push it away. I’ll not do it. I’m no longer cursed. I’m free.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece  writes about comic books at PopMatters.com and is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

 

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The Shaver Mystery: Everything You Need to Know about the Underground Forces that Control our Lives!

Amazing Stories All Shaver

There was a time (before black-and-white television images were streamed into every living room in America via invisible rays that transformed the masses into mindless zombies) when pulp magazines were an important source of entertainment for millions of Americans. Cheap pulp paper was the vehicle for delivering exciting and quickly produced tales to the public: tales of the old west, tales of true romance, tales of crime and mystery and, most exciting of all, tales of science fiction set on far off planets, in the distant future and in the ancient past. (George Lucas was not the first sci-fi creator to set his stories “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”)

The garish and wonderful covers of these magazines, none more colorful and exciting than the ones which adorned Amazing Stories, were filled with space adventurers, scantily clad women, streamlined spaceships, and bug-eyed monsters. They also contained, at least between 1945 and 1948, illustrations for stories by a now mostly forgotten writer: Richard Shaver.

Amazing Earth Slaves

Shaver, along with Amazing Stories’ editor Ray Palmer, produced a series of popular stories about space travelers and subterranean civilizations. They also, to the shock and dismay of many in sci-fi fandom, claimed that the stories were based in reality. Shaver, a sometime resident of mental hospitals, insisted that he regularly received transmissions from caverns under the earth where the evil dero and the kindly tero fought for the soul of humanity. He also insisted that he had visited the cavern world and observed the operation of the powerful technology (“mech” in Shaver’s terms) that was responsible for much of the good and bad that happens on the surface of our planet. The Shaver Mystery, as it came to be called, sold magazines. It also caused a scandal in the sci-fi world that ended the Palmer/Shaver era at Amazing. In June of 1947, an entire issue of Amazing Stories was dedicated to the Shaver Mystery and to Shaver’s “true-to-life” fiction; by 1948, both Shaver and Palmer were gone from the magazine. Palmer went on to play a central role in the development of the flying saucer craze. Shaver carried on, out of the spot-light, with less overt fiction and more direct descriptions of life within the caverns, both now and in the distant past, and of the hidden danger posed to those on the surface.

Shaver - Gods of Venus

I confess that I find everything about Richard Shaver and the Shaver Mystery utterly fascinating. Shaver’s fiction, like much pulp fiction of the era, is now sometimes difficult to read and enjoy; it is obvious that it was written quickly and according to a strict formula. Some of his more obscure non-fiction, especially when he describes the operations of underground technology, is also painfully obtuse and, to be honest, irrational. There is something about his writing, however, that makes it worth the effort. I think it is because Shaver was an utterly original voice. There is, within both his fiction and his subterranean theorizing, a hint of genius. Perhaps that genius was hampered by his mental illness; perhaps it was accentuated by it. It is there, nevertheless. Shaver makes me shudder at the fear he finds at the heart of existence; he makes me wonder at the crazed creativity of human thought.

Self Shaver

Richard Shaver – Self Portrait

Richard Toronto’s recent book, War over Lemuria: Richard Shaver, Ray Palmer and the Strangest Chapter of 1940’s Science Fiction is a masterful accounting of the lives and careers of Palmer and Shaver. Toronto, a lifelong fan of the Shaver Mystery and friend to Richard Shaver, is the perfect person to tell the story of the Shaver Mystery. Indeed, his Shavertron fanzine (and later website) probably did more than anything else to keep the Shaver Mystery from disappearing completely from popular consciousness.  Toronto’s book is not be missed by anyone interested in the history of science fiction, in the flying saucer craze, or in the development of mid-twentieth century science fiction-influenced religious movements. (My review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

War Over Lemuria Cover

I was not surprised to find that Toronto was not able to include everything he wanted in War over Lemuria. This is a problem faced by anyone with space limitations and editorial concerns to consider; it is especially true when dealing with material as voluminous and odd as that associated with the Shaver Mystery. I was surprised, and delighted, however, to learn that Toronto has published a second volume under his own Shavertron Press imprint. Behold Shaverology: The Shaver Mystery Home Companion! Containing personal accounts of visits with Shaver and Palmer written by long-time Shaver Mystery follower, Richard Horton; hard-to-find editorials by Ray Palmer himself; details (and seemingly whole chapters) cut from War over Lemuria; correspondence and poetry written by Richard Shaver; excerpts from Shaver fanzines; a moving account of the journey by Shaver’s daughter to discover her unknown father; countless illustrations; and detailed analyses of Shaver technology, this book is an answer to the prayers of Shaver Mystery fans or anyone intrigued by the subterranean streams that feed popular culture and popular religion. When read along with Toronto’s War over Lemuria, this book is an indispensable introduction to Richard Shaver and to the remarkable confluence of fiction, hype, madness and religion that was the Shaver Mystery.

Shaverology Cover

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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Captain America v. SCOTUS: Madbomb and McCutcheon

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier premiered this weekend. This third appearance of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (fourth if you count Loki’s transformation into the character in Thor: The Dark World) is the most satisfying yet. It is also, arguably, Marvel’s most serious film to date, taking on the Bush/Obama surveillance state and transforming Captain America, Black Widow, The Falcon, and Nick Fury into comic book versions of Edward Snowden.

For those who have followed Captain America in the pages of Marvel Comics through the years, this political slant will come as no big surprise. Cap has often confronted highly charged political issues. Indeed, creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby showed Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw in the hero’s very first appearance in Captain America Comics no. 1, a full year before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war and at a time when political attitudes toward America’s role in the war were still in flux.

Captain America 1

Likewise, in the early 1970’s, Captain America briefly surrendered his costume and name because of his disillusionment over the Marvel Universe version of the Watergate scandal. Creators Steve Engelhart and Sal Buscema had Cap take the name “Nomad,” signifying his status as a man without a country.

Nomad

The transformation was short-lived however. In just a few issues, Captain America was back with a new understanding that he could represent the best ideals of his country without having to support the worst actions of its government. In 2006-2007, in the cross-over series Civil War, Captain America led the resistance movement against the Superhuman Registration Act, something many readers have seen as representing real-world America’s Patriot Act.

My favorite run of Captain America stories also comes with a strong political theme, and even though it was published in the mid-1970’s, I believe that it is particularly pertinent in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel following his brilliant run at DC Comics, it was just in time for the American bicentennial. His assignment to Captain America, a character that he helped to create 35 years before, was a perfect fit. Kirby was at the top of his game, even if this fact wasn’t universally recognized at the time, and Captain America was THE American superhero. (My apologies to Superman.) Kirby’s art leaps off the page. His figures are never static, always moving, a seeming impossibility considering the weight, mass, and solidity Kirby endows them with. The art forces the story along, making the convoluted plots and stiff dialogue work, making them a central part of Kirby’s overall mesmerizing effect.

Right off the bat Kirby tackled political issues, particularly in the first multi-part story of his run. Beginning with issue 193 and running through the magazine’s own landmark 200th issue, Kirby told the tale of “Madbomb,” perhaps not the best story in this series, but a riveting one, nevertheless, characterized by all that makes Kirby’s 70’s work bizarre, challenging, and ultimately transcendent. (I give the honor of best story in the run to the “Night People” saga, beginning in issue no. 201, or, perhaps, “The Swine”, beginning with no. 206, which introduced the bizarre Arnim Zola, a character who makes a memorable appearance in Captain America: The Winter Solider.)

Zola

In issue 193, titled, in true Kirby fashion, “The Madbomb: Screamer in the Brain,” Captain America and the Falcon find that a friendly arm-wrestling match at the kitchen table is suddenly turned into an all-out brawl.

Cap

Falcon

Once they calm themselves down, the heroes realize that their entire neighborhood has erupted into violence, the result of a bomb, a Madbomb, that causes all within range to break into violent rage. The bomb is only stopped when Cap smashes it with his shield. After teaming up with S.H.I.E.L.D. and, get this, Henry Kissinger (who tells them “You can call me Henny, if you like”), Captain America and the Falcon learn that the Madbomb that had disrupted their friendly sport was only a miniature version of something much more dangerous: a Madbomb nicknamed “Big Daddy”.

Big Daddy

In the next issue, readers learn that Big Daddy is the creation of a secret organization known as the “Elite” who plan to remake America into an oligarchy. The detonation of the Madbomb will transform the masses into mindless, if potentially violent, servants of the Elite. With Kirby’s typical lack of subtlety, the wealthly leader of this organization is named William Taurey. Taurey’s second-in-command, General Heshin (I know, I know), declares that “The declaration of independence did away with the elite! But, we shall change all that once again.” Heshin confesses that he is motivated by the desire to accumulate even more wealth. Taurey, on the other hand, declares, “We Taurey’s have no need for money! We were born rich! We were born to power!” An army of soldiers work for the Elite, hoping to share in the wealth and power. One proclaims his hopes for a post-Madbomb future: “200 million flunkies, to fetch and carry for us and the elite!! We’ll live like kings, pal!”

In Kirby’s hands, the story unfolds in utterly bizarre but typically Kirby fashion. Infiltrating the headquarters of the Royalist Forces of America in an attempt to find and destroy Big Daddy, Cap and Falcon are forced to battle for Cap’s shield in a Kill Derby, a violent roller derby fought to the death and intended to provide entertainment for the Elite’s already enslaved masses.

Kill derby

Former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are transformed into weak-minded brutes who will slave on behalf of the rich and powerful. The enslaved masses adulate before an Orwellian “Big Brother” who proclaims “WE MUST BEWARE OF THE FREEDOM FREAKS!” And, in my favorite chapter of the story, “Captain America’s Love Story,” Kirby revisits his past as creator of romance comics during the superhero drought of the 1950’s in a touching tale of Cap’s encounter with the beautiful, but ailing, daughter of the scientist who designed the dangerous Madbomb (Issue no. 198).

Throughout the story, Falcon serves as Kirby’s, and Cap’s, moral center. His experience as an African- American man living in 1970’s America is a counterpoint to the diabolical plans of the Elite. He understands, in ways that Cap cannot, their true evil. The Falcon knows first-hand the power of the Elite to keep the masses in check, and to centralize power in the hands of the few. Fittingly, in the story’s final installment, issue no. 200, it is the Falcon (despite the cover blurb) who risks life and limb (and wing) to destroy the Madbomb.

Cap 200
If it isn’t clear from the title of this piece (which I think sounds a bit like a 1970’s buddy cop drama starring Lee Majors as “Madbomb” and Dennis Weaver as “McCutcheon”), I think that Kirby’s Madbomb story tells us a little something about where Captain America, or at least Jack Kirby, would stand in regards to the recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. For those who don’t follow such things too closely, this decision removes limits on financial contributions to political campaigns that had been put in place by congress and signed into law by the president, all in the name of free speech. What this means in reality is that mythical “self-made” billionaires as well as aristocratic heirs to family fortunes are now free to buy the votes of politicians with even greater impunity. Instead of making speech freer, this decision in essence makes it even more costly and out of reach for most Americans.

I think that Kirby’s Madbomb tale is, in addition to being a great escapist read, a warning against this sort of frivolous selling of political power to the highest bidder, against allowing the elite to take control of democracy. By ruling as they did in McCutcheon v. FEC, the US Supreme Court has, in a sense, allowed the Madbomb to detonate. Not wanting to read Kirby’s text as some prophetic allegory for our times, I will resist the temptation to interpret the Madbomb’s control of the masses as some parable about Fox News’ spreading of irrationality and madness to an increasingly uninformed public. I will also refrain from using Kirby’s story as a way to insist that his politics were identical to my own. I respect him too much for that. However, I do think Kirby’s tale reveals a crucial truth about democracy that was perhaps a bit more appreciated in the post-Watergate era, when many of the campaign finance laws were developed, than in today’s political environment. I also think that the democratic values Captain America and the Falcon fought for way back when are still pretty important today. Perhaps it  does a disservice to Kirby’s work to  identify the Elite against which Captain America fought with the Koch brothers. It does a greater disservice to it if we fail to heed the warning of the Sentinel of Liberty, and his creator, about the necessity of vigilantly defending democracy against those who would rule from above.

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

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Fragments: The Grammar of Charles Fort

charlesfort

In the Spring of 1919 Einstein’s general theory of relativity was put to the test. Arthur Eddington, in concert with scientists stationed around the world, observed the total solar eclipse of May 29 and confirmed predictions based on Einstein’s physics. In November of 1919 the results were published, and Einstein became an international celebrity. Einstein, and modern physics, had toppled Newton and the enlightenment. Science was ascendant. Einstein’s theory was hardly understood by the masses, but it most certainly contributed to the sense that the world was knowable, that humanity was making progress, that the whole picture was coming into focus for those with eyes to see it. Though the early impressions of Einstein would give way over the course of the twentieth century to an understanding of relativity that was decidedly more post-modern, in those early days of the century, the western world barely recovered from the war to end all wars, there must have been something reassuring about the lauded scientist’s ability to understand what was going on, in the largest sense imaginable.

In the same year Charles Fort published the first of four books seeking to bring science to task. Fort’s The Book of the Damned hit US booksellers in January of 1920 and was unlike anything that had been published before. Championed by his friend Theodore Dreiser, Fort published a book that argued (if you can call its rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness style “argumentative”) that science is a sham because it has failed to take account of the odd and eccentric aspects of the world, failed to take account of the kinds of stories usually buried in the back pages of local newspapers, stories about, for example, strange objects that sometimes fall from the sky: frogs, fish, flesh, to name just a few. Scientific theory might account for Eddington’s observations of the total solar eclipse, but does it account for the thousands of oddities reported by individuals and groups, oddities that, according to Fort, are simply disregarded by science, treated as misunderstandings or jokes or hoaxes, treated as anything but reliable data? Fort’s name for these data was “the damned.” His book was meant to put them on parade, to show and tell the things that science had chosen to ignore.

Fort himself is one of these damned, one of the excluded. His work has been incredibly influential in the world of paranormal research and esoterica, but, with the exception of a limited flurry of literary interest upon its initial publication, it has been mostly ignored by those in the mainstream of science and the arts. Granted, the importance of Fort upon the development of early science fiction has been noted.  For example, in 1952, the heyday of science fiction as a literary genre, August Derleth argued that Fort’s influence upon the still young field was profound. Derleth wrote that “In a sense, perhaps, Charles Fort did more to stimulate the imaginations of writers and readers alike than any other writer. His persistent amassing of curious facts inexplicable to science . . . undoubtedly had a catalytic influence on many writers.” (189) Fort’s connection to science fiction was cemented by a well-informed biography written by sci-fi luminary Damon Knight in 1970, Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained.
Knight
Likewise, Fort has been used as an example of the cultural milieu of the 1920’s. Leo Knuth, for example, argues that Fort represents the 1920s as the decade of Doubt. Knuth finds Fort’s work to be, in that sense, “reminiscent of what Joyce was doing in Finnegan’s Wake,” particularly “its insistence on the merging of all things into all other things, on the impossibility of differentiating anything from anything else.” (317) Fort’s connection to Joyce has been expanded upon by paranormal author Colin Bennett with mixed results. His claim, that Fort’s writing rises to the level of Joyce’s work, or for that matter Dante’s, probably hurts those who want to champion Fort more than it helps. Bennett writes, apparently in all seriousness:

(H)is four books comprise a twentieth-century Inferno that will surely be put alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses or Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy. His work has the same circumlocutory psychological interiors, the same feel for the infinities within a moment, and convey a questioning narrator voyaging through a cosmos of ever-unfolding dimensions of questions, rather like a chaos fractal. His style is quite unique. Following the chain of his thought is rather like following a jazz chorus. He moves sideways, takes backwards steps, allows himself (like many a good mind) to get completely lost, and then rights himself quickly, only to chase immediately some wild goose that has appeared from a totally unexpected direction. But like following the often discontinuous ramblings of Coleridge, Rabelais, Cervantes, or even Charlie Parker, it is all very much worthwhile. . . . The style is close also to the stream of consciousness technique of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (19)

Jim Steinmeyer offers a more balanced assessment of Fort in his Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural. He notes that Fort “wrote with all the fidgety syntax of a tenured college professor, all the literary swagger of an established crank.” (13) Steinmeyer, however, is more interested in Fort’s influence upon the world of the paranormal than upon his standing as a literary figure. He does point out Fort’s use of one particular grammatical feature as a recurring rhetorical device, however. “The author wrote in sentence fragments, as if trying to jam in as many notes, dates, and phenomena as possible.” (8) Though Steinmeyer’s interest is not in grammatical or rhetorical analysis, he is right to single out this aspect of Fort’s writing as important. Indeed, the use of sentence fragments offers a particularly effective means of approaching Fort as a theorist and as a writer. Without succumbing to the hagiography of Bennett’s analysis, it is possible to read Fort as a gifted prose stylist, one who employed particular grammatical stylistic choices to illustrate the theoretical points he was seeking to convey.

Sentences, as we are told by grammarians Kolln and Gray, are produced by combining Noun Phrases (NP) with Verb Phrases (VP). “This formula, NP + VP = S, is another way of saying ‘Subject plus Predicate equals Sentence.” (10) Fort, however, often disregards this basic feature of English grammar. His sentences, as seen in the opening passages of The Book of the Damned, are often without a verb phrase. Forts writes noun phrases but punctuates them as sentences, and he does it right from the start, without giving the reader any time to adjust to his rhetorical style. “A Procession of the damned. By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.” (3)

Kolln and Gray note that the sentence fragment may be used for stylistic effect. “(E)xperienced writers know how to use fragments deliberately and effectively – noun phrases or verb phrases that add a detail without a full sentence and invariably call attention to themselves.” (207) This is certainly true of Fort. Time and again he truncates his thoughts into fragments, usually noun phrases, that make the reader pause and reflect upon the relationships between the elements in the passage. Fort’s fragments shatter the continuity of his descriptions and force the reader to consider the individual phrases as set apart, part of and yet distinct from what has gone before and what will come after. “A stab and a laugh and the patiently folded hands of hopeless propriety. The ultra-respectable, but the condemned, anyway.” (3) Like the odd fragments of metal that have reportedly fallen from the sky, Fort’s sentence fragments break the flow of any systematic argument and challenge the reader’s claim to understanding.

It is a fitting technique for a man with Fort’s mission, a mission to disrupt the hegemony of science and replace it with the startling oddities of existence. A systematic thinker seeks to ensure that sentences are complete, that thoughts, once begun, are properly finished, that one thing leads clearly to the next. Fort rejects any such system. He sees himself as the champion of the things that have fallen outside the system, of the facts that the system cannot successfully incorporate and so ignores. He writes: “The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science. But they’ll march. The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention, and the clowns will break the rhythm of the whole with their buffooneries – but the solidity of the procession as a whole: the impressiveness of things that pass and pass and pass, and keep on and keep on and keep on coming.” (3-4)   In these sentences Fort is at his very best. Here, his rhetoric matches his mission. The third sentence in this quotation is particularly revealing. The sentence begins perfectly well, with capering harlots, and distracting freaks, and clowns without rhythm. These are the excluded data that Fort wishes to showcase. These characters, these buffoons, break the rhythm of the whole, of the system of science and philosophy. But the procession will keep on coming, no longer orderly, no longer in rhythm, no longer with the dignity of a system. The system falls apart, but the procession of reality remains. Fort’s sentence is structured accordingly. Once the system is broken apart, Fort’s sentence flies apart as well. What starts out like a compound sentence deteriorates into a fragment.  The phrase “but the solidity of the procession as a whole” leads us to expect that another independent clause is coming our way. Instead, the whole thing deteriorates into a fragment. The sentence loses its rhythm, its structure, its sense of the whole. The colon stands there, inexplicably interrupting the expected clause, introducing the appositive that closes the sentence.

Fort’s fragmenting of knowledge is evident within the sentences, fragmented and whole, in other ways as well. For example, his recurring use of polysyndeton serves to fracture coordinate series into their individual components. Kolln and Gray note that this stylistic variation, the addition of unnecessary conjunctions in a series, “puts emphasis on each element of the series with a fairly equal beat.” (199) Fort uses this technique to great effect. Consider the following sentences: “Some of them living and some of them fiery and some of the rotten.” “There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices; whims and amiabilities.” “The naïve and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque and the sincere and the insincere, the profound and the puerile.” “A stab and a laugh and the patiently folded hands of hopeless propriety.” Fort connects the discrete elements in his list with the conjunction “and” instead of the more common comma. This puts emphasis upon each element in the series. They are held together, but not blended into a systematic whole. They exist as discrete parts of the whole rather than as the components of a system. Fort’s use of polysyndeton serves the same purpose as his use of sentence fragments, it directs the reader’s attention to the individual realities, to the pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and  lively malices, and away from the series as a whole. For Fort, science is an attempt to unify all of reality under one explanatory and descriptive system. Along the way, anything that does not fit into the system is disregarded and damned. Fort’s grammar functions alongside his larger argument to push back against the system of science. The fragments that have been excluded must be allowed to show themselves.

Fort’s eccentric prose, as well as his eccentric argument, is easily dismissed as the product of a crazed mind. A cursory reading of The Book of the Damned can easily lead a reader to reject his rhetoric, along with his thesis, as unhinged and bizarre, both perhaps the result of some undiagnosed psychosis. A case can be made, however, that Fort’s writing style is far more sophisticated and nuanced than it at first appears, that what passes for madness might instead be a careful and studied attempt to show through his rhetoric the very thing that he is trying to tell.  Knowledge is fragmentary. Any attempt at a systematic whole is bound to leave out the most interesting bits, bound to suppress the oddities of existence, bound to damn the data that does not fit. Fort’s rhetorical style, for example his use of the sentence fragment and of polysyndeton, is an attempt to make his case and to further his argument without resorting to the systematic logic and structure that he is battling against. Fort’s attack on the System is furthered by his rhetorical style. The fragmentary nature of knowledge is shown through fractured sentences and staccato series. It is a style that has, perhaps, helped to exclude Fort from the mainstream just as it has endeared him to parts of the counter-culture.  The damned among the damned: with pallid data marching. A drum-major for the harlots and the clowns and the freaks.

 

Dr. Gregory L. Reece is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.

Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.

Works Cited

Bennett, Colin. Politics of the Imagination: The Life, Work and Ideas of Charles Fort. Manchester: Headpress, 2002.

Derleth, August. “Contemporary Science Fiction.” College English. 13.4 (January, 1952) 187-194.

Fort, Charles. The Complete Books of Charles Fort. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1974.

Knight, Damon. Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970.

Knuth, Leo. “‘Finnegans Wake’: A Product of the Twenties.” James Joyce Quarterly. 2.4 (Summer 1974) : 310-322. Print.

Kolln, Martha and Lorette Gray. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 7th ed. U.S.: Pearson, 2013.

Steinmeyer, Jim. Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008.

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