Friday, November 16, 2007


So I'm watching an "X-Files" re-run, and they are showing pictures of burnt bodies and explaining that the fires were caused "without any apparent source of combustion." And I accept this statement, even as I ask myself: "But how do I know that isn't true?"

Well, because it isn't, of course. But why do I know that? How do I know a statement made on a TV show isn't true, while I know a statement made on a TV news show is true? What process, in other words, am I automatically going through to accept one, and suspend disbelief about the other?

Call it the "Galaxy Quest" question.

We go through a process of discernment, of suspension of disbelief, of ascertaining which statement is credible, which is not; but what is that process, exactly, and how do we automatically switch from fiction to non-fiction? How do we keep the two apart, without accepting everything or disbelieving anything? Keep that in mind; it's a question similar to what's going on at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion this year:

When some of the world's leading religious scholars gather in San Diego this weekend, pasta will be on the intellectual menu. They'll be talking about a satirical pseudo-deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose growing pop culture fame gets laughs but also raises serious questions about the essence of religion.
Which really isn't as absurd as it sounds. First, please note, these are religious scholars, not (necessarily) theologians. And the question of "What constitutes 'religion'" is a very live one in such circles.

The title: "Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody."

"For a lot of people they're just sort of fun responses to religion, or fun responses to organized religion. But I think it raises real questions about how people approach religion in their lives," said Samuel Snyder, one of the three Florida graduate students who will give talks at the meeting next Monday along with Alyssa Beall of Syracuse University.
You might assume from this that AAR meetings are riotous and ribald affairs. But, per their website, they are usually concerned with topics like: "Studies of World Religions in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan" or "Interdisciplinary, Theoretical, and Ideological Implications of the AAR and SBL Split"; or "Chinese Scholarship on the Dunhuang Manuscripts: New Perspectives on Buddhism" or even "Spectacles of Crucifixion" (yes, I'm picking the geekiest examples I can find). So to say this topic is slightly aberrant is probably not to go too far afield. You could also say it proves Ecclesiastes right: there is nothing new under the sun.

The presenters' titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about "Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion," while Gavin Van Horn's presentation is titled "Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master."

Using a framework developed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Van Horn promises in his abstract to explore how, "in a carnivalesque fashion, the Flying Spaghetti Monster elevates the low (the bodily, the material, the inorganic) to bring down the high (the sacred, the religiously dogmatic, the culturally authoritative)."
Today we call it scholarship; in the Middle Ages, they called it the "Feast of Fools." Much of the antics of that occassion (memorably recreated in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) were aimed precisely at elevating the low and bringing down the high. As I've said before, we could use a bit more of that in modern society.

We could also use a bit more reflection on what we know, and how we are so sure we know it. But maybe that's a dangerous question to ask....

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