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Beast & Bible: Monster Map

Seth Pierce: [00:00:00] Hey, Monster Hunters. If you're enjoying Beast and Bible, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts wherever you listen. And don't forget to share it with somebody who might like it. Now onto the show.

I grew up watching the 1977 cartoon version of The Hobbit (TV Movie, 1977), and listening to my father's 1974 audio version on cassette tape.

Archival Audio: "In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit..."

Seth Pierce: Don't judge me, it's all we had. And neither are as awkward as the 1968 Leonard Nimoy song, "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins." That's right, in what feels like a pop culture fever dream, or the cringiest corner of the multiverse. Spock sings about Hobbits.

Archival Audio: In the Middle of the Earth, in the land of Shire, Lives a brave little Hobbit whom we all admire..."

Seth Pierce: The video is worse than the song. I feel secondhand embarrassment just mentioning to you. As the story goes, Bilbo Baggins - the Hobbit - is pressed ganged into helping the dwarves find the dragon Smaug and reclaim their gold. At one point, Gandolph the wizard hands Bilbo a map of Lonely Mountain where the dragon slumbers.

After all, if you're gonna [00:01:00] rob a dragon, you need to know how to find it and how to enter its layer undetected, lest you become a Hobbit barbecue. Bilbo deduces there is a secret door in the mountain, but has no idea how to access it. Until Elron, the Elf Lord, holds up the map to the moonlight. Hidden letters, or "moon letters," appear.

In the old cartoon, Elron translates them like this:

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the last light of the setting sun will shine upon the key-hole.”

I mean, it's more than they had before, but stand by the gray stone on a mountain? How many gray stones are there on a mountain? Not to mention there's a lot of surface the setting sun can cover when it goes down. How are you gonna find a single keyhole on the side of a mountain?

Nevertheless, as they venture forth, it all works out despite the vagueness of the map in certain places. In communication theory, we use three metaphors or "images" for theory. One of them is a "map."

Quoting theorist Em [00:02:00] Griffin, theory is a kind of "map" that helps you navigate some part of the topography of your subject matter.

However, an important word of warning: the map is not the territory. The map of the Lonely Mountain, as helpful as it was to Bilbo's quest, couldn't spell out all the dangers of orcs, giant spiders and wargs, or what it feels like to be chased through caves, forests, and fields by monsters. It also couldn't describe the exhilarating feeling of being carried through the air by enormous eagles and traveling down a river inside a barrel.

Bringing it closer to home, Google Maps can give you a route, but it might not include all the potholes that will wreck your car, or the fact that the restaurant you were going to decided to close earlier than their posted hours of operation. I mean, how dare people take a vacation while we're hungry?

To study monsters, we need a map. So today we explore Monster Theory and how it helps us read the monstrous in order to understand how it connects to religion, faith, and belief. It's an episode I'm calling Monster Map. I'm Dr. Seth Pierce and welcome to Beast and Bible.[00:03:00]

One of the fundamental maps for studying monsters was created in 1996 by Dr. Jeffrey Cohen from Arizona State University. While no theory can cover all the terrain, especially for a subject that specializes in breaking our categories, the Seven Theses of Cohen's Monster Theory gives us a helpful starting point.

So let's begin by looking at Thesis One: The Monster is a Cultural Body.

Simply put, a monster is composed of a culture's [00:04:00] fears and anxieties. If it wasn't, it would just be weird or funny, not scary. Philosopher, Paul Tillich suggested that we can understand a culture by examining its art, literature and philosophy.

By looking at novels, films and plays a culture consumes, it gives us a window into its soul. Putting Tillich in conversation with Cohen, we can learn what a culture feels anxious or scared about if we examine the type of monsters it produces and consumes. For example, Dracula has been a figure that literary critics have explored in countless ways to see what he represents.

In 2004, Dr. Monika Tomaszweska wrote a journal article entitled "Vampirism and the Degeneration of the Imperial Race - Stoker's Dracula as the Invasive Degenerate Other. " She begins her piece by stating, "The late 19th century, which witnessed the birth of Bram Stoker's vampire, was marked by an unsettling feeling that the ordered world of Victorian values was irrevocably disintegrating." End quote.

She continues on quote, "The late 19th century witnessed [00:05:00] conspicuous intensification of antisemitism, as the escalation of fears concerning the impending imperial decline coincided with the great influx of Jewish immigrants, primarily from Eastern Europe." End Quote.

She concludes, "Significantly, Stoker depicts Dracula as a foreigner who attempts to assimilate the customs and to master the language of the country he plans to invade, which would allow him to merge with the natives and secretly feed upon them like a parasite." End quote.

Religious iconography appears throughout Dracula media. In the original novel, the crucifix is a sacred symbol that a flicks Dracula, and it may be that the Protestant Stoker fueled by anti-Semitism used sacred Christian imagery as a weapon to ward off what he saw as an invasion from non-Christians coming from the East.

In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola directed Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). It keeps the key line from the novels when Dracula sees the crucifix around the English Jonathan Harkers neck and recoils before offering this commentary:

Archival Audio: "Do not put your faith in such [00:06:00] trinkets of deceit. We are in Transylvania. Transylvania is not in England. Our ways are not your ways. And to you shall be many strange things."

Seth Pierce: But as culture has changed, so has Dracula. Most notably, the blood-sucking villain appears in a Netflix series. This series features an atheist nun related to the legendary vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, hunting down the monster and asking questions of faith. In one striking scene, the discussion of the crucifix and its efficacy comes up.

Listen to the explanation offered by Dracula:

Archival Audio: "I love science. Science is the future Agatha."

"And yet you still fear the cross?"

"Of course I do. Everyone does. That's the problem. It's not a symbol of virtue and kindness. It's a mark of horror and oppression. Your idiot church has [00:07:00] terrorized the person population for centuries, and I have been imbibing the blood of those same persons for so long. I have absorbed their fear of the cross. My God, I can't wait to eat some atheist."

Seth Pierce: Suddenly, it's not God that scares evil, but the church's fearmongering throughout the ages that has embedded itself in the blood of its members. How might that relate to today's dialogues on fundamentalism in Christian nationalism?

Moving to the Bible, there is a creature that surfaces now and again called Leviathan, a roiling coiling sea monster that usually represents chaos with the power to undo creation, something terrifying for those who worship the orderly creator God of Israel. Speaking of God redeeming his people, Isaiah 27 uses the image of a sea serpent to make its point.

"In that day, the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea." End quote.

Think about the [00:08:00] monsters that scared you growing up or that might scare you now. What cultural fears do they represent?

Okay. Thesis Two: the Monster Always Escapes. In July of 2022, the movie Prey was released. Prey (2022) is the fifth installment of the Predator Series, a science fiction franchise that revolves around monstrous alien bounty hunters called "predators." The first film dropped in 1987 and starred Arnold Schwartzenegger as a soldier tracking down the murderous alien in the rainforest of Central America.

Archival Audio: "Run! Go! Get to the chopper!"

Seth Pierce: While Arnold defeated it, nearly dying in the process due to the self-destruct mechanism the Predator wore in its arm, these things came back in subsequent films and spinoffs like the Alien Versus Predator franchise. It's almost comical when we consider how many films show up in Monster [00:09:00] franchises after the monster has been very dead at the end of the.

I mean, how many times can a massive blood thirsty shark come back from being impaled on a ship mast or having its head blown up in the Jaws movies? The answer is three times, apparently.

Some monsters come back more than 10 times. Friday the 13th almost has 13 films. Could someone please put these monsters out of their misery and let humanity get on with our lives?

Within the pages of scripture, we have a promise that one day monstrous evil will end. Revelation 21:4 says, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning nor crying, nor pain anymore for the former things have passed away." End quote.

However, until that day, the same monsters and monstrous behavior show up again and again.

In Revelation 13, a beast rises out of the earth with seven heads. As if it needed help, the beast has a buddy, the dragon that was thrown down in Revelation 12, which lends the sea beast its power. Incidentally, it seems like there could be a market for weird educational stuffed [00:10:00] toys based on prophetic creatures, Beast Buddies, but I digress.

Continuing in Revelation 13, one moment this sea beast has a deadly wound on top of its head. Hooray! Just kidding. In 13:3, it's healed and gets to come back and menace the world some more. The books of 1 and 2 Kings are instructive here. How many times does Israel fail because the king showed up who does "evil in the eyes of the Lord" and follows the evil behavior of the kings of the past?

Just as Israel is healing and becoming functional, a new monstrous ruler pops up again and again. Or a series of monstrous rulers pop up like a game of whack-a-mole, and they do the same stupid garbage that ruined life as before. This pattern is broken by the occasional appearance of a good king who tries to put an end to the monstrous behavior, but it doesn't last, and then it's right back to evil.

How many modern rulers and politicians engage in the same old evils and monstrous behaviors, as did people thousands of years ago? The monster always escapes and returns to terrorize another day.

So when analyzing media, especially in the realm [00:11:00] of reboots or when exploring religious trends, we might ask, where have I seen this monster before? Where have I seen this toxic theology before? Where have I seen this harmful belief before?

Thesis number Three: the Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis. A helpful term for this thesis is "category jammers." As we grow up and play, we learn to classify certain objects and people into categories and roles.

What frightens us is when we encounter something that doesn't conform to our neat categories, and it's scary. A great example from popular culture is the Xenomorph creature from the Alien franchise. This horrific entity is patched together from parts that look like they belong to insects, a tail that should go with a lizard and a mouth that has human teeth. Or two mouths, actually.

This amalgamation of parts jams our ability to classify it so it becomes "other" or "alien". The Bible contains beasts that are mashups of other creatures. For example, in Daniel 7, there is a winged lion that eventually walks like a man, a four-headed leopard with [00:12:00] four wings and a mysterious beast with iron teeth, bronze claws, and 10 horns, one of which has eyes and a mouth that speaks.

Even the angels and Ezekiel are category jammers with their multiple faces and eye wheels. Monsters jam our categories and cause what's known as an epistemological or a knowledge crisis, and that they defy our ways of understanding how things work. So this element of Monster Theory leads us to ask, in what way does this monster challenge my categories of the world?

Thesis number Four: the Monster Dwells at the Gate of Difference. What we label "monstrous" tells us who's out and who's in. What's normal and abnormal. We use Monster as a category to mark boundaries. An example from the Hebrew scriptures might be Numbers 13:33 when the spies are sent to Canaan and come back reporting that quote, "There are giants in the land, descendants of the Nephilim." End quote. Who the Nephilim are is a subject of debate for another episode. But in essence, the Israelites comeback saying "there are monsters over there," drawing a clear [00:13:00] distinction of boundaries between who they are and who their potential enemies are.

Ancient maps of the world often labeled distant lands with monsters. The Hereford Mappa Mundi, created in the 1300s, has at its center Jerusalem. But if you venture out from there to the far west, you come across the Cynocephaly, "men with the heads of dogs." You can find this map online and look for yourself. I'll drop a link for you in the show notes.

We are scared of differences and the unknown, so we label them as "monstrous" to mark what is acceptable, and as a byproduct, reinforce the acceptability of our own groups. Sadly, people of faith have been quick to label those different from them as "monstrous," often with tragic. So a question we might ask of a monster is, "what difference from our sense of normal does it embody?" More simply, what difference does this monster represent? Or conversely, what norm does this monster violate?[00:14:00]

Now the last three theses of Cohen's monster theory become sort of an intensification of one another, moving us from fascination to identification with the monster.

Thesis Five: the Monster Polices the Border of the Possible. I remember seeing Jurassic Park (1993) in the theater when it first came out. The scene where the T-Rex begins approaching the vehicles with the kids causing the glass of water in the cup holder to tremble still gets me.

Archival Audio: "Maybe it's the power trying to come back on."

"Where's the goat?"

Seth Pierce: Before the chaos and terror ensue from the decision to bring dinosaurs back to life, Jeff Goldblum's character has a line that has become the stuff of memes. Quote, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." End quote.

The lure of bringing back the T-Rex or [00:15:00] the smaller lethal velociraptor, or that horrible poison spitting frilled thing that killed Newman from Seinfeld, exemplifies "the monster policing the border of the possible."

What if the monster holds out the promise for something incredible? In Genesis, humanity was tempted by a talking, and according to some commentaries, winged serpent in the Garden of Eden. The strange speaking creature held out the possibility of eternal life and God-like status via forbidden. And we fell for it.

Marvel's critically-panned Morbius asked, "what lengths will someone go to find a cure for a disease? What if creepy creatures like vampire bats hold the cure?" The horrifying results led characters to ask, quote, "what if the cure is worse than the disease?" End quote. This thesis leads us to ask what possibility, good or bad, does the monster hold out for?

Thesis Six: the Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire. As we contemplate the possible, it can lead [00:16:00] us to the sixth thesis. The fear of the monster is really a kind of desire. In my opinion, vampire mythology best illustrates this. They are undead, but immortal. Cold, but powerful. Wealthy, but they drink human blood.

They're murderers, save a few like Blade, the Cullins and the Count from Sesame Street, but they also have things we want. Wealth in the face of inflation, sexual allure instead of loneliness, power instead of being pushed around and eternal life instead of one threatened by the latest pandemic are all desirable things, even if they find their place in a creature of the night.

Within the pages of the New Testament, we run across several demoniacs. Some are tortured into self-harm. And another, the slave girl who followed Paul and Silas, was exploited for her master's gain. I've often wondered what conditions led to these people becoming drawn in by the fearful power of the demonic.

Perhaps, as fearful as it was, being in a religious system or socioeconomic system that [00:17:00] stripped you of your agency, drove people to seek power from the occult because those who represented God were indistinguishable from evil. Thesis Six leads us to ask a couple questions when we encounter the monstrous: Is there a type of desire located within my fear? What desire does this monster represent?

Once we identify what the desire is, we can bring our faith traditions and sacred texts and wisdom from our peers to bear on them.

Finally, Thesis Seven: the Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming. "Monsters are our children," writes Jeffrey Cohen. Quote, "These monsters ask us how we perceive the world and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we created them."

Before they read the novel, many people think Frankenstein refers to the tall, green, awkward creature patched together by a mad scientist. After they read it, they realize [00:18:00] that the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, might be a better candidate for the monster of the story. Not only in his desire to play God, but in his cruel act of abandoning his creation in horror.

At one point, the creature corners Victor Frankenstein and says, quote, "A cursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me and disgust? God in pity made man beautiful and alluring after his own image, but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred."

And one of the most heartbreaking moments for the religious community in the gospel of Mark was when the religious leaders called Jesus a demon. Jesus's teachings and ministry threatened the power of the religious elite in their tradition. Jesus is always a monster to those who love power more than people.

The leaders plot and plan and turn people against the one who loves them and came to serve them, and crucify what they believe as a monster on a cross. Of course, the good news is that [00:19:00] Jesus escapes a permanent death with the Resurrection and the hope of Christians is his return to make the world new, free from the horrors of sin.

This final thesis really is about our monstrous questioning. Why do we create the monsters we create? Why do we turn other people and sometimes God into a monster? What does this monster tell us about us?

Thank you for listening to Beast and Bible. I hope you enjoyed this brief survey of Monster Theory. Between now and our next episode, give it a try. See how the monsters in your life fit or don't fit the seven thesis of Cohen's theory.

Now in the next episode, I have something special planned. Initially, I was going to do one more monologue episode, but the interviews we have this season are just too good to wait.

So next time we will have a very special guest connected to Monster Theory. However, this is the last episode before Beast and Bible goes on break for [00:20:00] the holiday. We will be back on January 23rd. I know that's a long time to wait, but that gives us time to make sure all the new content is ready to go. New content that includes an interview with Dr.

Emily Zarka from PBS's Monstrum, where we talk about Jesuits and werewolves, and a discussion with the host of Adventist Pilgrimage Podcast on Adventism and 19th century Spiritualism, plus so much more.

In the meantime, if you want something strange to look at, check out the creature known as Krampus. That's K R A M P U S, or who I call the Anti-Claus. It makes for a nice seasonal exploration of folklore and a good subject for Monster Theory analysis.

Us See you on January 23rd and have a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year

hosted, written and produced by Dr. Seth Pierce, edited by Heather Moor, logo Design and social media by Chelsya Ernina, tech and Equipment Support by Steve [00:21:00] Huset and James Gigante. Project support by Heather Moor.

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