Thought of the Week: Um…They Actually Prayed?

I’m going to apologize upfront, in case this twangs anybody’s strings. I should also point out that I don’t subscribe to any religious faith; it’s not something I give a whole lot of thought to, and I really don’t much care what people believe – to each their own. I also had to do a lot of rush research for this, so I may have a whole bunch of things wrong. Sorry about that, too.

So…that’s out of the way.

President_Official_Portrait_HiRes

President Barack Obama

Today was the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama. I kind of like him; he’s got presence and charisma, and I personally reckon he’s done some pretty good stuff, especially for the underprivileged. I also think George Bush Jr. did some okay things too; I don’t agree with a lot of the actions he chose to pursue, but he did a brilliant job of reassuring and uniting the general public of the United States after the frankly terrifying attacks on September 11, 2001.

The honest truth is that I just don’t care for politics much. I’m pretty okay with whatever those guys decide; in the end, someone’s always going to benefit and someone’s going to get screwed. Unless something radical like forced conscription is proposed, I’m happy to leave pretty much well alone.

But then today, I saw something that kind of took me aback.

Today was the first time I’ve ever had the chance to see a presidential inauguration. Having left the States at the age of 8 and only returned two years ago, it was never even a consideration for me. To be honest, I didn’t even really watch that much of it (my wife had it on TV, or I wouldn’t have thought to); I thought Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé were entertaining, Barack was inspiring as always; that poet guy had a wonderful poem and read it appallingly. I was really just catching bits of it here and there.

Reverend Luis Leon

Reverend Luis Leon

And then, I noticed that there was a reverend up on stage. I thought, “what?”. Apparently he was giving a benediction, and something twigged in the back of my mind about the separation of church and state; this just didn’t seem appropriate to me.

So I did a bit of digging, and surprised myself with some of the history of religion and politics in the United States. Given the long-standing supposition that, in the United States, the church is not influential in the governing of the country, the inclusion of religion – specifically Christian-faith religion – in the inaugural ceremony struck me as out of place. It turns out that inaugural prayers have only been included in presidential inaugurations since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1937. Prior to that, any religious ceremony – as far back as George Washington – was kept strictly private (I believe Obama attended a similar service this morning, which as far as I mind is fine – he has every right to attend church if he wishes to).

In fact, there was very little reference to god or religion at all in the early days of the United States. The presidential oath itself makes no reference to such:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

US Quarter

US Quarter

It is suggested that George Washington added the words “so help me god” to his inaugural speech, but this seems to be unsubstantiated; nonetheless, it has somehow worked its way into the ceremony to such an extent that it is now thought of as part of the oath itself.

Even more interesting is the near-ubiquitous mention of god on all US currency. The words “In God We Trust” are inscribed or printed on nearly all US coins and bills. The history of this little phrase itself is pretty interesting; apparently the first use of it is in The Star-Spangled Banner, whose own history is fascinating. The song started life merely as a poem called The Defense of Fort McHenry; it was later set to a popular British tune, which led to its widespread popularity. The song, however, contains only one couplet referring to god at all:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: In God is our trust.

United States Seal

United States Seal

This, of course, is in an entirely non-state-related poem written from a personal perspective about a military victory. Its use in government comes in much, much later; it was President Herbert Hoover who signed it in as the United States’ official national anthem in 1931. From this poem cum song cum anthem came a petition from a protestant reverend during the US Civil War to acknowledge god on US currency. The Civil War had raised religious sentiments among both parties, and Congress passed the bill allowing this change to the currency. This became such an ingrained part of the culture that, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower chose it to replace the United States motto that had prevailed for 180 years: E pluribus unum (Out of many, one).

It could almost be argued, then, that it was this specific action that defined the United States as specifically a religion-based country. It’s interesting, tracing this history, to see how religion has slowly crept its way into US culture from a beginning that was explicitly secular, to the point now where religion is ingrained into state-run functions, actions and events.

Now, going back to the separation of church and state. This seems to stem specifically from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it’s interesting to note that it explicitly states that religion cannot be the basis for any law or government decision:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

The implication of this seems pretty clear: the US government won’t interfere with your choice of religion, nor how you choose to practice it. And this actually seems pretty good, and pretty fair. However, what isn’t said is equally interesting. Nowhere does it suggest that the United States as a country is not religious; merely that, even if it is, it won’t impose that religion on anyone else.

So…what is it, then, when religious ceremonies are practiced at the inauguration of a United States president? Is it a demonstration of religious faith by the leader of the entire country? If so, is that then an imposition on the people to have such worship displayed – publicly — during quite possibly the most significant government ceremony of the United States? Should I, as a non-religious person, take exception to the fact that, if I wish to watch the official recognition of the leader of my country, I will subjected to such religious displays?

I don’t think there is necessarily a black and white decision about this; I would very much like to see such ceremonies toned back or removed from these public events, for no other reason than I can’t see their relevance to what is happening. Does swearing an oath with your hand on a bible make it any more binding? Would not having a benediction have damaging consequences on the next four years of US progress?

But…this is my opinion. After all – to each their own.

Hmm. What do you think?

Note: I’m aware that the vast majority of my references link to Wikipedia; I apologize, but I really didn’t have time to dig into the original source material.

Tales of Despair: Garden of Hell

Some time ago, I wrote about discovering Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death; a vast, melancholic landscape of horror, with the dead come back to drag the living down to hell. He portrays a hopelessness in death – there is no escape: peasant and king, saints and sinners, all succumb.

As I learned about Bruegel‘s fascination with hell, it brought my attention to the one who significantly influenced his style and subject matter: Hieronymus Bosch. From an earlier generation (Hieronymus died around 1516; Pieter wasn’t born until 1525), he was born and raised in the Netherlands to a family of artists: his father and four uncles were all painters, as their father had been also. In this early stage of the European Renaissance, the Netherlands appeared to be more tolerant of the representation of death, demons and hell – with their frankly grotesque, disturbing and often mind-bending caricatures of men and devils, it is easy to imagine his work denounced as heresy, or worse, the influence of the devil himself.

Though there is no reason to believe his childhood was less than ideal, a great fire in his home town when he was but a boy laid waste to thousands of homes. One can only imagine the terror and devastation of a fifteenth-century village, flames spreading from roof to roof, as men valiantly throw water from buckets onto the ever-blackening homes. Caught in the living hell, thousands must have perished, screaming and burned alive. And when all was over, the horror of stepping through the smoldering ruins, blackened and charred bones lying side by side with the beams of houses. From this, it is suddenly easier to imagine the influence for his work.

One of his best-known works today is the seminal Garden of Earthly Delights (doom metal band Cathedral pay wonderful homage on their album, The Garden of Unearthly Delights). It is a monumental piece, a staggering seven feet high and thirteen feet across, oil painted on wood, with hinges that allow it to be folded closed. Thus separated into three parts, Hieronymus dedicated each third to depicting a stage of mankind’s journey from conception to corruption to death. The left-most panel – the simplest, in terms of content – is dedicated to the garden of Eden, replete with newly-made animals, luscious lakes and fields, and azure mountains in the far distance. Orchards and palm trees sway (did they have palm trees in the Netherlands?), and in the foreground, Adam sits, watching as God presents Eve to him, new and pure and virgin.

Adam, Eve and God in Eden.

Even here, the surreal nature of his work can be seen; while some animals are recognizable, others appear as odd or deformed creatures, including three-headed lizards, deformed snakes, and some creatures that are beyond recognition.

Bizarre and distorted creatures, even here in Eden.

The central panel, twice the width of the side panels, is given over to – perhaps – paradise. It is a busy scene, with nude folk cavorting endlessly far into the distance. Here already, the scene is already becoming unsettling; though at first it appears that the beauty of Eden has grown to accommodate the growth of man, there are signs that not all is well.

The central pane – the defiling of paradise.

Not a man or woman can be seen toiling or working, and in their play, there show the signs of corruption, sin and vice. On the left of this panel there are depictions of good; in the far distance, groups of people can be seen entering upon paradise, among the unadulterated animals we know so well. A couple sit side-by-side on a giant pink sculpture, and a man even flies high above the world on the back of a griffin, holding aloft a branch of peace.

The sinless entering paradise – soon to be corrupted.

Yet as we move along, things begin to run afoul; men have begun to abuse their power over the beasts, riding them for their own pleasures. At the same time, their very pleasures become more bestial, as the eat from the beaks of birds, and appear even to seek congress with fish.

Um…is that what it looks like?

And of course, in the far right the ultimate symbol of sin: man taking the forbidden fruit.

The final, ultimate sin.

And so we enter the depths of hell, and it is here where Hieronymus’ true talent – and most bizarre and terrifying imaginations – is revealed. From severed feet to living consumption to grotesque violations, every detail is intended to shock and horrify.

Horror in the bowels of hell – all are equal in torment.

In one corner, a man makes love to a pig, while behind him misers defecate money into a cesspit in which further sinners can be seen drowning. Beside them, a hideous demon gropes an unconscious woman, while a donkey looks on.

Lust and avarice – tortured by their sins.

Elsewhere, musicians are impaled upon their own instruments, and tormented by the demonic music now passing through their ears.

Even the musicians are not spared.

In the center of the panel, a bisected giant forms the setting for the damnation of gluttons and soldiers alike; men are led into a fiery cavern to feast upon embers and ash, below whom tortured souls drown below the frozen waters. To their right, demons impale, imprison and feast upon soldiers – those who would kill for glory.

The fates of gluttons and killers.

But it is at the top of this panel, in the darkest and most frightening place imaginable, that the true despair of hell is shown. Lost in dark fog and shadows, the fires of hell burn high, and men are whipped, burned and massacred. Torn limb from limb, they are thrown into rivers or cast into flames, and always new sinners fall from the world above.

The distant and terrifying depths of hell.

Most heartbreaking and tormented, though, of all this, is a tiny detail at the absolute height of hell: behind the terrible black cliffs, the light of salvation glows – forever unattainable. Despite this, a single, solitary man braves the flames and the heights, desperately seeking redemption. And above him, an angel plummets from heaven.

Unattainable salvation.

Tales of Despair: Cup of My Blood

In a dark, cold apartment, two young men stare at the small box in front of them. One, at least, is clearly very afraid. The box must never be opened, one says. We must, the other replies. And so they do.

Moments later, a man and a woman burst in. One man is found in a closet – burned to ash. The other, cowering in the bath. The woman takes the box, and in cold blood kills him.

Jack Fender used to be a renowned photographer, famous for his stark black and white style, and the subtle eroticism of his work. Used to. Three years ago, his wife – his soulmate and his muse – committed suicide. Now he shoots soft porn. Locked off and dead to the world, Jack wanders around in a haze, filled with the dark visions of his wife’s final moments. Then one day, nearly run down in the street, he witnesses the fatal car crash of the woman who took the box. With her dying breath, she bids him to take it, and never to look upon it. And he does.

Jack locks the box away; turns back to his empty life. Continues to pile the cash from his porn shoots on a shelf, never spending a dime. His previous life made sure he doesn’t need to. He puts the box out of his mind – until dark and disturbing visions begin to appear before him. Those around him – the few he interacts with, that pretend to care about him – are certain he’s going insane.

And then – emptying his mind late one night at the pool – he meets Iona. And she listens to him. She speaks to him. And finally, she breaks through to him. They become close, and they begin to love…and after so long, his muse returns. Slowly, his creativity returns, and he begins to feel that he might finally be able to leave the demons behind him.

Janina Gavankar as Iona.

Little does he know that the demons are, in fact, yet to come, lying in wait. As the darkness closes in around him, he begins to realize that Iona may not be all she seems – and the powers of evil are intent on the contents of the box. As everything he knows comes crashing down, he discovers the box holds an ancient and unimaginably powerful relic: the holy grail. And the terrible visions that continue to fill his mind hold an even darker secret from his past.

Cup of My Blood is not a great movie. Mediocrely acted, poorly color-graded and uncomfortably scripted, it is a low-budget B-movie in every possible sense of the word. Yet the editing is strong, and it manages nonetheless to be both visually striking and stylistically unsettling. It is graphic, violent and disturbing, mysterious and frightening, and ultimately charts an artist’s descent into madness in the face of unspeakable horror. Had it had a bigger budget and better actors, it could have been a significant film. As it stands, it’s a visceral depiction of sex and death, haunted by despair.

Some of you may find this film disturbing or upsetting; some of you may simply laugh at it. Either way, approach it with caution: it isn’t as simple as it appears.