Death at the movies: Zombies and Ghosts

Rudolf Otto suggested that people naturally associate dead people with the numinous realm, and that this sense of a holy aura surrounding the dead explains both ancestor worship and ghost stories.  The latter may seem like an odd claim, since holiness is good, but no one wants to encounter a ghost.  One must remember that, as Otto explains so well, a true encounter with the holy is awe-inspiring, disorienting, and terrifying.  The presence of the dead does bring a distinct discomfort, whether it be a body without a soul (a corpse) or a soul without a body (a ghost).  No doubt there are more obvious reasons for us to find corpses unpleasant, both distressing and disgusting.  They remind us of death; they are unsanitary.  Still, the more obvious points don’t capture the uncanniness of looking at a thing that a moment ago was a person.

Once, when I was in grade school, my family and I went shopping in a nearby city, and our dog died while we were gone.  The vet said that her stomach twisted, or something like that, that sometimes this happens to big dogs, and there’s nothing one can do about it.  Anyway, when we came home the dog was dead.  Now, I really loved that dog; she was sort of my dog.  My parents asked me if I wanted to see the body before it was disposed of.  I remember being frightened to look.  There would be this thing that looked just like my dog sleeping, but it wouldn’t be my dog, and that really disturbed me.  And there is the eeriness of it:  the appearance of the lost person (or even, in this case, animal), but not the soul.  As the corpse decomposes, it becomes more disgusting but less disturbing, because it is no longer masquerading as someone.

So we have an apprehension, but one whose cause doesn’t fit into any of our day-to-day categories.  We are possessed by an emotion like fear, but there’s no sense that the dead are an actual, physical threat.  When we have an emotion we can’t process, we represent it in fiction in a form that makes more sense to us.  In our time, movies are the preeminent form of fiction.  Thus, our modern, materialistic age presents us with the zombie movie.  These movies serve a sort of therapeutic function; they help us to eliminate our sense of the numinous in the dead.  Do we find corpses disturbing?  Well, let us take that unease and make it a simpler emotion–actual fear.  Let the corpse be an actual, physical threat, the crudest threat imaginable:  something that wants to eat us.  We bring to light what we take to be the underlying emotion (fear).  In directly facing it, we see that it is ridiculous, and we are cured.  That is, discomfort with corpses is rendered absurd, and we cease to feel it.  Although moviemakers are perhaps not conscious of this goal, what they have done is to cut off one of mankind’s avenues for experiencing the sacred.

If I am right, then the purpose of a zombie movie is to be absurd.  First, we imagine what everyone knows is not true–that dead bodies want to eat us.  Then, just to make the fear of corpses seem even sillier, we don’t even imagine them as a credible threat.  Zombies are just stupid staggering automata, who can only be at all menacing in large groups.  This creates a dramatic problem, though.  The genre does such a good job of making fear of the dead seem silly that it risks making itself uninteresting.  Thus, the real drama in a zombie movie has to come from the living characters.  Usually, they’re trapped in some restricted area under siege from the outside zombies, and they start to fight among themselves, which livens the movie up in a way that the moaning bodies outside can’t.  Even in spite of this, these movies almost never work.  They have too little respect for the emotion that feeds them.  The only one I kind of liked, Shawn of the Dead, was a comedy.

On the other hand, most cultures have ghost stories.  Now, its worth noting that while ghost stories are supposed to be frightening, the ghost itself isn’t really much of a physical threat.  That the ghost itself will actually directly kill one of the characters is seldom presented as a possibility.  In order for ghosts to be frightening and not mere nuisances, the story must evoke the eeriness we associate with death, so it must respect the numinous sense, at least much more than zombie movies do.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ramble about ghost stories for a while.

It is odd, and yet it seems to be true, that while one would expect that adding fantastic elements to a story would enlarge the range dramatic possibilities, actually they seem to shrink it.  There seem to be fewer distinct storylines with preternatural, science fiction, or fantasy elements than there are without them.

Most of the ghost movies I’ve seen fall into two categories.  First, there is story, told from the ghost’s point of view, of the ghost who doesn’t know he’s a ghost and only finds out at the end.  Examples are easy to give, but I will refrain, lest I spoil a movie for someone.  It’s funny that this plot has become so popular, especially given that its popularity compromises its effectiveness–audiences are getting harder to surprise.  It does follow a nice trajectory where the uncanny elements start out small, in the background as it were, and then grow to engulf the protagonist’s whole world, including his self-conception–the classic Twilight Zone formula.  Still, I think the main reason moviemakers keep coming back to this story is that it’s so well suited to their medium.  We who have been watching movies our whole lives have been trained to ignore certain things.  For example, we don’t expect movies to show characters performing mundane tasks like eating, sleeping, or buying groceries; we assume they do these things in between scenes.  This class of ghost stories has gotten very good at using audience expectations against us, so that clues can be placed in plain sight.  In my example above, it might be obvious in retrospect that a character never slept but was doing things at all hours, or that the main characters never interacted with anyone but themselves.  I could also give examples where this same trick is used in movies told from the perspective of a living but mentally ill and hallucinating character, but again I will restrain myself.

Then there’s the ghost story about the wrong that must be avenged, told from the point of view of the living characters.  For example, a man commits murder and is not caught, and the ghost of the victim haunts a third party until he solves the mystery and exposes or avenges the crime.  This story appeals not only to our interest in death, but even more to our interest in justice.  We have a sense that a crime hidden and unpunished still happened, that it leaves some kind of mark on the cosmos that cries out for recognition and redress.  It isn’t even clear to me if the ghost is really the disembodied soul of the victim, or if it’s supposed to be some spiritual marker of guilt or the crime itself.  Ghosts are very vindictive; a sincere apology never seems to be enough to make them “at peace”.  Anyway, even though ghost stories start from a more humane appreciation of death, they generally veer off into exploring other issues.

Yes, I know, you and I have all read some stories or seen some movies with ghosts that didn’t fall into either of these categories, but I still think it’s notable how many of them do.  Tinkering with the formula is difficult.  For example, the movie Ghost is a justice/vengeance story told from the point of view of the ghost, and that didn’t work at all.  Yeah, I know the movie was popular, but it succeeded as an adventure story, not as a ghost story.  It really makes you admire someone like Charles Dickens, who took the ghost idea and did something very different with it that dramatically succeeded.

Gender, sex, and childhood

I actually do believe that children are “sexual beings”, although not in the way that the sickos Laura Wood quotes mean it.  There’s a strand of progressive thought that likes to insinuate that children have sexual desires.  Freud is their big hero.  I’m always baffled that this opinion is given so much respect, given that EVERY ONE OF US remembers being a child and not having sexual urges until puberty.  Scientism is the enemy of science.  The prestige of science comes from its grounding in experiment and observation.  The mark of scientism is that one will believe a claim that directly contradicts all experience if only it’s made by someone claiming to be a scientist.

As I’ve noted, gender roles facilitate our relationships with children, even before they’re born:

The pregnancy books list the advantages of determining the child’s sex before birth; the main one is that you can buy gender-appropriate baby stuff.  They don’t qualify it by saying “things our homophobic, patriarchal culture regards as gender-appropriate” or anything like that.  In the pregnancy world, there are boyish boys and girlie girls…

It is interesting that parents are most insistant about gender distinctions at this time in life when they really do matter least.  After all, without the cues from colored clothes, we would hardly be able to tell the difference between a baby girl and a baby boy.  And perhaps this is the issue.  For us, being manifestly gendered is a part of being human.  If what you’re carrying in your stomach or your arms isn’t a “he” or a “she”, it must be an “it”, a thing.  It was a real relief for my wife and I when the ultrasound technician told us we had a girl.  At last we knew what pronoun to use, and this allowed us to relate to our baby much more vividly.  We could only really think of her as a person when we knew her as not just a person, but as a girl.  All deep relationships are “gendered”.  Only in the impersonal workforce are people just “people”, rather than being the rich realities of men and women.

When we dress a baby girl in girlish clothes, or surround her with girlish toys, we are attempting to complete the manifestation of her humanity.  “This is not an ‘it’”, we say, “This is a ‘she’”.  As children mature, sex differences become more obvious, and there is less need for color cues.  The battle switches inward.  Then we must resist the capitalist-feminist complex that is ever-eager to reduce our “he”s and “she”s into “it”s.

Sex roles are powerfully present in all our memorable children’s literature, including Disney movies:

One Disney movie treats sex in a particularly profound way.  I mean The Jungle Book.  In this movie, Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, lives happily in the jungle outside of human society.  The jungle is a place of danger, but–provided one is content with the “bear” necessities–one without work or responsibility.  Mowgli’s position resembles the “state of nature” of the philosophes’ imaginations.  What will draw him out of it and force him to join human society?  How about physical danger?  That was a popular eighteenth-century answer.  Man lives in society to pool his defenses.  At first it seems like this is what’s going to happen.  The animals determine that Mowgli must leave the jungle to protect him from Shere Khan, the tiger.  However, the tiger is later defeated, so Mowgli will not be forced to leave the jungle for this reason after all.  And, in fact, Mowgli fully intends to stay with the animals, away from the world of men…until he comes near the human village and sees a girl.  While fetching water for her family, the girl sings a song about the duties of husbands and wives.  Hypnotized, Mowgli follows her into the village, laying aside the freedom of the jungle and taking upon himself the duties of civilization.  The wise panther Bagheera explains that Mowgli is now “with his own kind”, “where he belongs.”

What is the message?  First of all, the movie affirms Aristotle and rejects Rousseau:  civilization is man’s natural state.  And what holds man in society?  Sex, of course.  That is, the duties to spouses, children, kin, and clan.  So it was, and so it must be.  Notice that Disney’s treatment of sex is the opposite of the one fashionable now.  Movies nowadays tend to treat sex as an anarchic thing.  They associate it with the breaking of social bonds in pursuit of pleasure.  “Freedom” and “sexual bliss” are as sononymous to screenwriters as they are to adolescent boys.  But this is entirely backwards.  As The Jungle Book makes clear, it is the nature of sex to bind.  First of all, it binds a man to his wife and the children this act produces.  Less directly, it locks the man into the wider civilization, forces him to work, gives him a stake in the social order.

The story Walt Disney tells here is very old.  Indeed, it is the oldest known story in the world.  When the countryside of Uruk was being ravaged by the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh sends out a temple prostitute to give herself to the savage.  By uniting himself to a woman, Enkidu is separated from the world of animals and joins the world of men.  The Sumerians, too, knew that sex binds.

Best of the Web lately

“When the facade of Its for the children! is stripped away, child support is all about removing fathers from the lives of their children.”  A shocking statement, but Dalrock provides convincing arguments.

“The only way to preserve the independent integrity of the family is to raise it above the state, where it belongs.”  See how A. M. connects this to monarchy and the American founding.

Youth ministry undermines fathers (as well as being a monumental failure at keeping teens in the Church).  The Elusive Wapiti has convinced me.

Edward Feser on one of my favorite movies:  Vertigo.

How about some journalism-bashing?  The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:  whenever we know enough about a subject to judge, we always find newspapers to be seriously inaccurate and unreliable, so why do we trust them when we read about subjects when we can’t judge their accuracy?

Best science errors at the movies

Any idiot can make a science error, but the best movie errors give something of real value.  A good science blooper has pedagogic value.  It has some superficial plausibility, and in explaining to your students why it’s wrong, they really learn something.  Here are my three favorites:

  1. Movie:  Star Trek: Generations;  Mistake:  Evil Dr. Sauron fires Li_3 missle into star, which immediately stops all fusion in the core.  Star immediately dims and starts to collapse.  Why it’s wrong:  Being an astronomer, I’m partial to star mistakes.  It’s true that thermal pressure from fusion is what holds stars up against gravitational collapse.  However, if you turn off fusion, the thermal energy in the star won’t immediately disappear.  It only loses energy as fast as it radiates it away.  The timescale on which the star would lose an appreciable fraction of its heat is the Kelvin-Helmholtz timescale:  about 10 million years for a star like the sun.  More problems with this scenario:  Even if the star started collapsing right away, it should take several minutes for light from the star to reach the planet where Sauron and Picard are fighting, so even then, they shouldn’t see it right away.  Also, Sauron’s plan of moving the Nexus by changing the star’s gravitational field is flawed.  The star being very nearly spherical, its collapsing–even to a black hole–wouldn’t change the exterior gravitational field.  Also, since the star contracts quasi-statically, it obeys the virial theorem throughout:  E = T + W = -T.  So the star actually heats while contracting, even though it’s radiating energy, because it’s sinking deeper into its gravitational potential.  This really is a science mistake that keeps on giving.
  2. Movie: Mission to Mars; Mistake:  Human body exposed to vacuum immediately freezes.  Why it’s wrong:  This was a pretty forgettable movie, but I have a soft spot for it for all of the attention-grabbing science bloopers.  (“That looks like human DNA!”)  I expect one of the writers read somewhere that “space” has a temperature of 2.7K, which is really colde, so they thought “Hey, people in space should freeze.”  First of all, the vacuum itself has no temperature.  2.7K is the temp. of the cosmic microwave background, which is irrelevant to a body inside the solar system.  Such a body will cool (or heat) until it radiates away heat at the same rate that it absorbs it from the sun.  True, in Mars orbit this would be below freezing, but once again we must ask how long it would take for a human body to reach this equilibrium state.  The answer is a long time (hours) because the only way to lose heat in space is by radiation.  Like all hot bodies, a human emits blackbody radiation (about 100W, mostly in the infrared).  The cooling won’t be what kills you, though.  One exeption:  In a vacuum, the water in your eyes and mouth would boil off quickly (boiling temp. is a function of pressure; your blood, being pressurized, won’t freeze right away), and the latent heat the water carries away would quickly cool those parts.
  3. Movie: The Day after TomorrowMistake:  Air from the stratosphere descends quickly to Earth, “doesn’t have time to heat”, and so freezes the surface of the Earth.  Why it’s wrong:  I just love this mistake.  Whoever wrote this movie should get Al Gore’s Nobel Prize.    When a gas contracts or expands faster than it can heat or cool, its not the temperature that stays constant; it’s the specific entropy.  Thus, rapidly descending gas from the stratosphere would adiabatically heat.  Although the stratosphere has a lower temperature than the troposphere, it has a higher specific entropy.  (If it didn’t, the atmosphere would be convectively unstable and would quickly adjust itself.)  So descending air from it would actually heat us rather than cool us.

Damned liberals are going to spoil suicide

Tearing her hair and flinging her arms round Pyramus’ body, / weeping over his wounds and mingling her tears with his blood, / she covered his death-cold face again and again with her kisses. / “Pyramus!  What dread chance has taken you from me?” she wailed, / “Pyramus, answer!  It’s Thisbe, your dearest beloved, calling / your dear name.  Listen, please, and raise your head from the ground!” / Pyramus’ eyes were heavy with death, but they flickered at Thisbe’s name. / He looked once more at his love, then closed them forever. / Recognizing her cloak and his ivory scabbard lying / empty, Thisbe exclaimed:  “Poor Pyramus, killed by your own hand, / aided by love!  I also can boast a hand with the courage / to brave such a deed, and my love will lend me the strength to strike. / I’ll follow you down to the shades and be known as the ill-starred maiden / who caused and shared in your fate.  Though nothing but death, alas, / could tear you away, not even death shall be able to part us. / You sad, unhappy fathers of Thisbe and Pyramus, hear us! / We both impore you to grant this prayer:  as our hearts were truly / united in love, and death has at last united our bodies / lay us to rest in a single tomb.  Begrudge us not that! / And you, O tree, whose branches already are casting their shadows / on one poor body and soon will be overshadowing two, / preserve the marks of our death; let your fruit forever be dark / as a token of mourning, a monument marking the blood of two lovers.” / She spoke, then placing the tip of the sword close under her breast, / she fell on the steely weapon, still warm with her Pyramus’ blood. / Those prayers, however, had touched the hearts of the gods…

–Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV

I’ve said before that I’m really not looking forward to the coming suicide and euthanasia debate.  We’re going to lose, of course, but not before being demonized as heartless monsters who just want old people to suffer and not before having to endure a barrage of sleazy, sentimental, self-serving, self-righteous propaganda from the Leftist media machine, which we can expect to come hard and fast when they really decide to start pushing this.  Just as socialism poisoned the word “justice” and gay-advocacy poisoned the word “love”, I expect suicide-advocates to poison the word “mercy”, and I’ll never be able to use it again without wincing.

Actually, I think the thing that will bug me most (before, that is, they come to mercy-off me personally), is how this is going to ruin suicide as a literary device.  Yes, I know, killing oneself is a mortal sin.  It’s a seriously bad thing.  But some mortal sins are more sympathetic than others, and it is right that we empathize with those who sin from weakness rather than malice.  It’s a humbling thing to realize that we too might be tempted to mortal sin, and that it is as much thanks to circumstance as virtue that we have not succumbed ourselves.  It’s no doubt sinful to apostasize under torture or threat of death, but who wouldn’t pity someone who succumbed?  We can even imagine situations so horrible that we would be tempted to suicide.

Let’s consider some of the most common suicidal situations in books and movies:

  1. distraught–rejected or grieving–lover (see Ovid above)  Grief suicide can easily lead to a grief-suicide chain reaction, which starts to become unintentionally funny only after the third corpse.
  2. extreme guilt (Even though his suicide was another sin, doesn’t it make us sympathize more with Judas?)
  3. loneliness (like the last survivor after a nuclear war thinking of shooting himself in The Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough at Last”)
  4. to avoid a more painful, degrading death (like when all the surviving humans after a nuclear war kill themselves in On the Beach to spare themselves death by radiation poisoning, or a standard zombie movie scenario:  surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, only one bullet left)

I don’t endorce suicide under these circumstances, but I don’t look for fictional characters to be moral exemplars, only that they behave in a way that is psychologically plausible.  In each case above, suicide is an expression of complete dispair.  That’s what the act objectively means, and that’s how we, up till now, have understood it.  In fact, one could say that it’s such a potent symbol of dispair that writers turn to it too quickly, rather than going for something more subtle.  However, it’s always a good thing when an act’s objective meaning and our subjective impression of it match.

This can no longer be the case.  We can’t admit to ourselves that selling suicide to the elderly means selling them despair.  Now suicide means self-determination.  In the remake, Thisbe will stab herself while crying out “My body, my choice!”  Only evil, selfish, cowardly, Christian characters will refuse to commit suicide or fail to recommend it to others.  Heroic, sexy, glamorous characters will always kill themselves–and do it in style–before becoming a burden to anyone or before suffering anything indecent.  Whenever suicide comes up in a movie, I’m going to automatically think to myself “Uh oh, here comes the lecture”.  This has already started.  I remember on some Catholic blogs, we heard that some characters kill themselves in that movie about the people in the cave, and we all thought to ourselves “Crap.  Pro-suicide social commentary.”  But we didn’t have that reaction fifty years ago when the whole population of Australia self-terminates in On the Beach.  It wasn’t a live issue then, so we could let ourselves be disturbed in an apolitical way.

I just know it.  The liberals are going to spoil suicide for me.

Cultural Jews: reflections on the centralization of culture

Let’s face it.  If it wasn’t for Jews, fags, and gypsies, there would be no theater.

                    —Mel Brooks, in To Be or Not To Be

Who is the cultural Jew?  To my surprise, I find he is…me.

Allow me to explain.  A little while ago I was rereading parts of Paul Johnson’s celebratory History of the Jews.  The basic message I got from the section on American Jewry is this:  Jews have all the creativity and brains; Christians are just dumb, passive sacks of shit.  This is certainly not true for European culture, but thinking about it, it does roughly describe the American culture that has shaped me.  My favorite music comes from largely-Jewish Broadway:  Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Gershwin, and Bernstein.  Even when I turn to Rock and Roll, my tastes often tend toward Jewish artists like Billy Joel.  Most of the movies I’ve seen are products of largely-Jewish Hollywood.  I quote Star Trek episodes and Mel Brooks movies.  My youth was shaped by Jewish superhero comics, especially Superman.  Surprisingly, I find that I would feel much more at home in America if I were to convert to Judaism.

Christian America has no culture.  Long ago, Tocqueville noted America’s lack in this regard.  We were a new nation at the time, and probably we needed a few centuries to mature enough to develop a world-class culture of our own.  Instead, we let Jewish immigrants create one for us.  Not that we have any cause to complain.  What they gave us was better than anything we would have been able to come up with ourselves.  For the most part, the Jews of this era were an exemplary minority, with a real affection and gratitude for their adopted homeland.  They meant to give something back, and they did.

It sounds like a win-win situation.  What’s the problem, then?  There’s no problem with the existence of Jewish-American culture.  It’s a gift to the world.  There is a problem with the fact that it’s our only culture.  The Jewish-American experience isn’t the total American experience.  It’s the experience of a self-conscious minority concentrated in a few large cities.  The rest of the American experience has gone unsung, or sung only at a distance, after the manner of Oklahoma!  So, for example, watching television one would never see reflected the realities of rural life or religion.  This is never so embarrassingly clear as when, on rare occassions, a TV show tries to portray these sympathetically.  They can’t capture the idiom; the fictional priests and pastors, for example, just sound “off” to anyone who’s actually participated in a Christian community.

The Jewish/gentile split has contributed to that unique feature of American culture:  the sharp division between a small number of creators of culture and the vast mass of passive consumers of culture.  Most of us are just consumers of culture.  We buy books, movies, and music; we don’t invent stories or songs.  Not every people is like this.  I remember when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois.  I had a friend there who was a postdoc from Taiwan.  One day when we were passing time chatting together, he asked me to tell him one of the ghost stories from my hometown.  He just assumed that my home town of 6000 would have a stock of stories, but of course it doesn’t.  Its stories came to it prepackaged from Hollywood.  Are Hollywood’s stories better than what we could have produced on our own?  Perhaps, but the loss is great.  I imagine what it would be like if my town had a real local culture.  What if the park or the high school or the shoe store were the setting for some story known by all the locals?  The experience of living there would be enriched by the context.  This is how culture draws a place–a park or a forest, say–into the social world, by populating it with fictional heroes and villians.  It’s the sort of culture that can’t be imported; like a nymph, its magic is limited to a particular place.

Let me say this clearly:  it’s not the Jews’ fault that the people in my hometown don’t tell each other ghost stories.  It’s our own fault.  Storytelling is a humble art—even we dumb Christians could do it.  In fact, rudimentary storytelling still does go on in Christian America.  We do it to entertain our children, nieces, and nephews.  But there’s no organization where the town gets together to retell its stories and make up new ones.  In contrast, there is an organization to disseminate the Hollywood culture–the movie theatre.  And there’s the local Wal Mart to distribute the wider culture’s movies and music.

If Christian America is going to make a culture, localism will be the key.  We shouldn’t fantasize about capturing the national movie or music industries.  Even if we succeeded, we’d just embarrass ourselves by putting out crap (like country music) to a national audience.  We’re not ready for the big time yet.  Right now, oral short stories and nursery rhymes might be the best gentile Americans can do.  We need to build from there.

The meaning of vampires

As everyone here knows, I’ve had my disagreements with First Things, but they’re still one of the best conservative websites out there, and I’d miss them if they were gone.  Where else would I be alerted to this Dappled Things essay on the sacramental significance of Count Dracula?  Here’s the key paragraph:

The satanic nature of the Count is rendered all the more terrifying because of his undeniable physicality. […] The human life of Christ made daily physical and intimate communion with God possible—beyond even the Old Testament experience of Enoch, with whom Renfield [the lunatic fanatically absorbed with Dracula] compares himself: “he walked with God.” After the ascension of Jesus, mortality and the supernatural returned to their separate spheres. The Eucharist transcends this division; as the actual sacrifice of Calvary occurring mystically in an unbloody manner, the sacrament brings the reality of a past action into the reality of a present. In a dark mirroring of the sacrament, Dracula is a super-physical being in whom a supernatural power is lodged. The Eucharist is the ultimate transformative and life-giving agent (John 6:58); vampyres consume blood to perpetuate an undead eternity. The blood on the cross was given willingly (John 15:13); vampyre victims do not submit of their own volition. They are hypnotized, entranced, or otherwise reduced to an altered state of consciousness. Dracula as Satan is thus elaborately developed: engaging in an anti-sacrifice and an Anti-Eucharist, Dracula is the Apocalyptic Anti-Christ who comes to collect souls and set up an alternative eternity to that promised in the New Testament.

Of relevance here is my discussion of the symbolism of blood in Human Sacrifice and the Eucharist:

A religious ritual is a symbolic act, and as such it makes use of preexisting symbolic meanings. Sometimes these meanings are fixed by the culture, as when I offer God what my culture recognizes as a salute, or when I place a cultural symbol of value (i.e. money) in the collection basket. The most powerful rituals, however, make use of natural symbolic meanings. For example, sexual intercourse naturally denotes union, and some peoples (such as the Babylonians) have tried to effect symbolic union with God through temple prostitution. In fact, this is an abuse of the sex act, whose meaning is too fixed to procreation and family life to be legitimately “stretched” in this way. However, we should acknowledge that a real religious impulse, and not mere lust, is at the foundation of this practice. What we need is a natural symbol that, like sex, signifies love and union and, again like sex, is asymmetric between the participants, but which, unlike sex, signifies a one-way donation of one’s life. This is the symbolism of blood.

Across the world, widely disparate peoples have chosen as their offering to God the flesh and blood of animals, and occasionally even of humans. Why has this seemed a fitting sacrifice to so many cultures at so many times? It can only be because of the natural symbolism of blood. “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement” (Lev 17:11). Blood is the life force; to offer blood is to offer life, and a union of blood is a merger of lives. The blood and flesh of the sacrificial victim become channels of divine Life. Blood purifies the Temple on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:15-19). Blood protects and purifies the house during Passover (Ex 12:7). Moses sprinkled the people with blood to establish the covenant (Ex. 24:6-8).