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Raising Hell at Harvard

This blog is normally reserved for samples and snippets of my fiction, but today I have something else to share. My life is often stranger than any fiction I could possibly concoct, and that became abundantly clear the other day when I learned that a good friend I loaned several of my demonology books to back in college happens to be one of the people involved in a highly controversial rite being held by a student group at Harvard this coming Monday.

They're doing a Black Mass.

Here's the skinny:

A student group at Harvard will be performing a Black Mass on Monday. After the performance, there will be discussion about the spectacle and what it means in a country founded on -- among other liberties -- freedom of religion.

For those unaware of the ritual, a Black Mass is an intentional perversion of the traditional Catholic ritual of the Eucharist, taking the whole sacrament and turning it on its head. It is offensive to Christians and specifically to Catholics -- and to be frank, it was designed to be that way.

Although, during the European witch trials, there were plenty of allegations that the wild worshipers of Satan were engaged in Black Masses (along with other awful perfidies performed at secret orgies in the woods), the real performance of a ritual like a Black Mass often came down not to Devil worshipers but to Atheists and Rationalists who were seeking to mock the religious fervor of their Christian peers in a time when they felt the devout masses should know better.

Yes, I'm suggesting the Black Mass is an outgrowth of the Age of Reason -- a loud, flamboyant and somewhat mean-spirited reaction to religious fundamentalism. Given the atmosphere in the US today, it should not be surprising to see intellectuals going to such an extreme. In a country where we pride ourselves on our liberties -- freedom of religion being a major one -- we recently had a member of the Hindu clergy more or less shouted down by Christian extremists when he attempted to lead our Senate in prayer. Notably, he was invited to do this. That wasn't good enough for the folks whose notion of our country has skewed from the Land of the Free to One Nation Under God -- a God who, apparently, must always be theirs.

The Black Mass then -- and in a similar vein, the Satan statue that's going up in Oklahoma -- is an equal and opposite reaction to this frothing extremism. It is a conscious spectacle of satire in the spirit of mock religions like the Church of Bob or the Internet religion surrounding the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is also -- though the utility of this remains to be seen -- an intellectual exercise intended to make people think about what it means to allow anyone to worship however they please.

Civil liberties are at the heart of many of our hot button issues right now -- with freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the thickest and nastiest parts of the arguments. The Black Mass at Harvard contains, by its radical satire of an accepted Christian rite, a powerful question in subtext: if freedom of religion means any religion (including no religion), where do we draw the line between one group's right to worship and the offended sensibilities of another, equally valid, group?

In a world that seems divided down the ranks of Christian, Muslim, and Jew -- while any people who fit into the "none of the above" category get caught in the crossfire, in a world where the science show Cosmos is threatened to be cut off the air in states that feel it should express, not science, but Creationist views, in a world where law-makers speak with horror about the possibility that Sharia law may creep into our legal system -- only to turn around and pass legislation blatantly based upon Biblical Christian values -- Harvard's Black Mass raises some damned good questions.

Where do we draw the line?

And perhaps it's an older question than we realize. It may surprise most of you, but Monday night's performance scheduled at Harvard hearkens back to the activities of at least one of our founding fathers. In his dealings with Dashwood's Hellfire Club, it is almost certain that Benjamin Franklin himself participated in mock masses inspired at least in part by that Age of Reason disdain for organized religion.

Something to think about -- and that's the whole point.




Laying Blame

Author's Note: The "Long-Suffering Queen" was a heavy piece. Can't say I didn't warn you. But since I'm sharing these works freely in part because of the holidays, I suspect everyone could use something a bit more light-hearted. I've reposted the following on my livejournal before (wrote it at least a decade ago), so it may be familiar to a few of you. Still, I think it's fun and pithy.

The Plague of Blamekins


Once, long ago, there was a great land that had been completely over-run by vermin. Now, these were not rats or locusts, but a greater plague still.  They were a particular species of fairy, very small, that had a habit of buzzing about peoples’ heads.  They were called Blamekins, and they had fat, round bodies with tiny little wings.  As their wings were hardly of a size to keep their corpulent bodies afloat, the Blamekins chattered all the time.  It was through the constant, pneumatic action of their lungs that they remained airborne at all.

These verminous fairies are not only naturally fat, they are also naturally lazy.  They do very little but flutter around, chattering and carrying on.  Of course, the fairies don’t like to think of themselves as lazy, and so they make a great show of being very concerned about things.  They observe people’s actions to the minutest detail, and offer lengthy commentary on what they feel is going wrong.  In doing this, they serve several needs at once.  By carrying on about other peoples’ business, the fairies feel that they are accomplishing something, and by voicing their opinions often and quite loudly, they perpetuate the hydraulic action that helps keep them afloat.

In this terribly afflicted land, the number of the fairies grew to a monstrous proportion. Night and day, the air was filled with the insect buzzing of their wings and the incessant whine of their voices. In every home, in every business, in every public park, you could hear them tut-tutting about how people needed to be more careful with things and how someone should be held responsible for all the ills of the world.

If a woman walked by with a child in her stroller, the fairies would swarm her, telling her how she was pushing the stroller wrong, and how the child was not strapped in tightly enough. When she adjusted the straps, just out of the vain hope that the fairies would shut up, then they would mutter and murmur among themselves, subsequently deciding that the straps were now too tight and she was such a bad mother to let her infant suffer so. If she dared to shoo the hordes of obese little busybodies away, they would fly straight to a social worker and carry on and on about the woman was abusing her child, how it was crying all the time, how the quality of its life was just soooo poor, and wasn’t someone going to do something about it?

It’s not that the things the blamekins were saying were right or even entirely fair. It’s simply that they were so loud about it, and they carried on so incessantly that people wanted nothing more than to make them shut up.  Nothing would quiet the blamekins save for giving in to their demands, and so the beleaguered populace began to enact laws. Mothers were sued for tying their children into strollers too tightly. The stroller companies recalled all their models with straps and replaced them with bars, but when the poor infants wailed in their mobile cages, the blamekins cried about that, too. Parents were brought before judges and blamekin-style justice was dispensed, with everyone paying hefty fines. Quite often, whole new crimes were made up on the spot just to appease the blamekins and garner the rest of the world a little peace from their constant whining.

Of course, the peace never lasted very long, for the fairies would find yet another victim, yelling and carrying on over increasingly more ridiculous things. Because they were loud and only got louder when ignored, people gave in to them, until a dangerous precedent had been set and the legal system of the once-great land was clogged with cases that would have been considered ridiculous trifles before the plague of fairies came along.  Yet such was the nature of the people that many of the lawyers eventually grew proud of the work they did to distort the law in order to appease the vile fairies, and the people themselves began to see everyone around them with the same jaundiced eyes. Nothing ever happened just because it happened – every crack in the pavement, every branch that fell from a tree was found to be somebody’s fault, and the guilty parties were charged and fined accordingly.

Eventually the entire society crumbled under the debts created by its own litigious system, and those that didn’t die a miserable death fled to parts unknown.  All that remained were the wrecks of cars and houses, and the swarms of pesky fairies, buzzing about and carrying on among themselves about what a shame it was the civilization had come to such a mean end … but by that point, there was no one else left for them to blame.

--M. Belanger