Mad Men, Religion, and Why We Need to Talk About More than Don Draper

Exodus  With Mad Men wrapping up, the media has been buzzing, not just with dissecting the series’ ending, but also about the religious overtones of the final episode: The show’s lead, Don Draper, winds up at a meditation retreat and maybe finds inner peace. (I say maybe because I watch Mad Men on Netflix and have been trying like hell to avoid spoilers for the second half of season seven!)

While this episode (or what I know of it from various pictures and headlines) certainly memorializes America’s shift into New Age/Eastern practices, it is not the first time Mad Men has incorporated religion into the show. In fact, the series has examined the intersection of religion and modernity throughout its run.

OlsenPriestBoth regular characters (Peggy Olsen, Michael Ginsberg, Paul Kinsey) and tertiary figures (Rachel Menken, Sylvia Rosen) have brought religion to the fore front of the show. Menken, in conversation with Don about “What Jewish people want,” notably described herself as Jewish—but not that Jewish. A move which highlighted the cultural, rather than religious, dimensions of faith. Rosen, citing Catholic values, criticized Megan Draper (Don’s second—or is it third?—wife) for considering an abortion while carrying on an affair with her husband behind her back, evoking a number of tut-tuts from viewers who already knew she was selective in her interpretation of religion.

Take it Break It Share ItThe early seasons of the show illustrated the tension of Olsen’s Catholic upbringing and her desire to unshackle herself from past values and chart her course as a professional woman. Not only was this overtly seen in episodes wither her family or parish—uncomfortable exchanges which had her confront the priesthood and her family head-on, but this was also expressed in her approach to advertising, which often highlighted the ritual dimension of activities. Her pitch for Popsicles featured a mother dispensing treats to her children in a Virgin Mary-esque pose, and her pitch for Burger Chef was centered on the idea of breaking bread—the central eucharistic ritual of the Catholic mass. The incorporation of faith into Olsen’s character both professionally and privately illustrated how intertwined religion was (and is) with other areas of life, both as a social practice and collective mythology.

Ginsberg, too, was a character who was compelled to redefined religion in a changing world. His biography seethes with adjustment: born in a concentration camp during the holocaust, he had a difficult relationship with his conservative father, and was acutely aware of his outsider Jewish status. Nevertheless, no matter how much Ginsberg rebelled against his upbringing, he still played the role of dutiful son, skillfully blending time-worn values of faith and family with his success in the secular world.

And, of course, there was that time when Paul Kinsey had joined the Hare Krishnas.

KrishnaMad Men portrayed religion as both a cultural touchstone as well as an institution in transition, as a new generation redefined their relationship to ideas of the past. Mad Men has always looked to religion to provide, if not its main story line, fill in some of the details on the people who inhabited the show’s world, enriching their characters with a personal depth that mirrored the complexity of the relationships on the show.

So sure, Don Draper went to Esalen (or somewhere similar, from what I hear). Like other treatments of religion in Mad Men, it was a way of reflecting the rapidly changing times. Religious themes, expressed through the character development of both key figures and walk-on characters, brought into the open the assumptions, entrenchments, beliefs, and prejudices which surrounded religion both new and old in the latter half of the twentieth century.

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More Good News! SSHRC 2015

Applying to graduate school was quite an involved process. There were transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, and resumes that had to be prepared and sent to every department. In addition to these materials, I also applied for a government scholarship to pay for my studies. This award, the Canada Master’s Scholarship, is awarded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of the government of Canada. It is given to the nation’s top scholars to facilitate their research.

I am very happy to announce that, indeed, I was awarded one of these prestigious scholarships! The University of Toronto awards 295 of these scholarships across all the fields of study. To put that in perspective, the total graduate student population at University of Toronto numbers around 16,000 students. While certainly these are not all Master’s students, we can guess that quite a few of them are!

Here’s what the scholarship is:

The objective of the Canada Graduate Scholarships-Master’s (CGS M) Program is to help develop research skills and assist in the training of highly qualified personnel by supporting students who demonstrate a high standard of achievement in undergraduate and early graduate studies.

The CGS-M Program provides financial support to high-calibre scholars who are engaged in eligible master’s or, in some cases, doctoral programs in Canada. This support allows these scholars to fully concentrate on their studies in their chosen fields.
The CGS M Program supports 2,500 students annually in all disciplines and is administered jointly by Canada’s three federal granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The selection process and post-award administration are carried out at the institutional level, under the guidance of the three agencies.

This scholarship will help to fund my research into Dionysiac associations of the Roman Empire, which intends to explore the nature of religious identity in antiquity.

It goes without saying (but it must be said) that I offer my thanks to everyone who helped make this happen, including my referees and the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. And, of course, my thanks to the powers that be that award these scholarships. Huzzah!

Posted in Academic, Awards, Personal | 6 Comments

Conference Presentation: Two Martyrdoms of John the Baptist at the CSBS

At the end of May, the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences hosts their 2015 Congress, a simultaneous gathering of Seventy Canadian academic associations in Ottawa, Ontario.

I am thrilled to announce that I will be co-presenting a paper with Apocrypha scholar Tony Burke as part of the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies (CSBS). We will be presenting new English translations of the martyrdom of John the Baptist—that’s the story where John the Baptist is beheaded.

My understanding is that my text, which I am translating from a Greek manuscript, has some bits that the other accounts lack. I do know that there is sex and murder in my version, so we already have two main ingredients for an interesting story!

Burke and I will be presenting these texts on June 1st at 1:30 (that’s a Monday). For those who may want to swing by and hear some new (or sorta new) biblical stories, the abstract is below:

Tony Burke and Sarah Veale (York University)
Two Martyrdoms of John the Baptist

In 1904 Alexander Berendts (Die handschriftliche Überlieferung der Zacharias-und Johannes-Apokryphen. TU, N. F. 11/3. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs) published a comprehensive survey of five martyrdoms of John the Baptist extant in Greek and Slavonic. Of these, only Passion 5 (the Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist; CANT 181) has seen much attention—a critical edition and French translation was published by François Nau (“Histoire de saint Jean Baptiste attribuée à saint Marc l’Évangéliste,” PO[1908]: 521-41) and an English translation was prepared by Andrew Bernhard for New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures (forthcoming). As for the other four texts, there is much confusion in Berendts’ and Nau’s reports about the contents of the unpublished manuscripts. This paper seeks to make some progress in sorting through the various witnesses by presenting editions and English translations of two texts: Berendts’ Passion 2 (the Decapitation of John the Forerunner attributed to his disciple Eurippus; CANT 180.2) and an unedited, related but lengthier text (untitled but also attributed to Eurippus; CANT 180.4). The translations will appear along with introductions in the second volume of New Testament Apocrypha: More Noncanonical Scriptures.

For more information, you can download the full CSBS programme here. I hope to see you there in Ottawa!

Posted in Academic, Conferences | 5 Comments

Religion Beat Radio Hour

Religion Beat Radio HourThe Religion Beat Radio Hour recently crossed my Facebook feed, and I was pleasantly surprised when I clicked the click-though. As it turns out, Religion Beat Radio Hour is a podcast affiliated with the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and is run by two of my future colleagues over there: Judith Ellen Brunton and Christopher Cornthwaite, who are both in the PhD program at UofT.

In the first episode of the podcast, Chris and Judith are joined by fellow PhD student Patrick Stange to talk about issues related to the study of religion. Over the course of the hour, they hash out a call to save the environment by suspending AAR meetings, debate the ethics of destroying mummy cartonnage for ancient texts, and review a Zoroastrian vampire movie. If that last bit isn’t enough to get your attention, well then, I don’t know what is.

The podcast is part of the larger Religion Beat outreach project at the Religion Department, and you can also find in-depth blog posts on religious-related topics, such as the recent controversy over Jesus’ wife (this one, not that one). It is great to see the department coming alive like this and seeing the students engage with these weighty (and not so weighty) topics.

For more info on the podcast, or the Religion Beat blog, please see the links below:

Posted in Culture

Graduate School: An Announcement!

When I returned to university in 2010, it was with the goal that I would go to graduate school. At the time, I saw a lot of people doing really cool work and I wanted to be a part of it. After five years at York (this one, not the one in England!), graduation is right around the corner. And yes graduate school remains in my future.

I began researching my options several years ago. Most graduate programs are applied to a year in advance, and each has their own requirements. Because I wanted as many options as possible, I ended up putting on a double major at York (Religious Studies and Classical Studies). This turned out to be a sound strategy, even if it meant an extra year of course work!

I applied to four graduate programs for my master’s degree: University of Toronto Classics, University of Toronto Religion, York University Ancient History, and York University Humanities. As a mature student, moving around for a master’s degree wasn’t really on the table. Luckily, Toronto has some fantastic schools that make relocating a bit of a moot point—why leave when you have the best right at your door?

And then something amazing happened: All four programs offered me admission!

Deciding which program to attend was not easy by any means. It didn’t help that a strong case could be made for all my options. Moreover, while most programs offered a fully-funded graduate school experience, one of my top choices did not. I had a number of long conversations with prospective departments, conferred with my academic mentors, and talked with my colleagues about what road to take. Objective friends tempered my aspirations with practicality. Of course, The Husband provided a patient sounding board as I deliberated night after night, switching my decision back-and-forth between two programs which offered equally amazing—yet entirely different—opportunities. For someone who is normally very decisive, this was new for me.

The Winning Offer…

Anyway, I am happy to announce that I will be joining the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion in the fall!

The University of Toronto is Canada’s top-ranked university, and is ranked sixteenth internationally. The Religion program itself is highly competitive, and attracts the top students from all over the world. Every admitted student must have an A- Grade Point Average or higher, though this alone does not guarantee admission. Many highly qualified applicants are turned away from the program—for every 100 applicants to the MA/PHD program at the DSR, only around 20 receive offer letters. Needless to say, I am thrilled to be one of those persons admitted to the program!

For those of you who have read this far and still want more details: The Department for the Study of Religion is an extremely diverse program, and thus divides itself into nine sub-fields. I will be working within the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity section. This is an exciting group of students and faculty who are working on a number of ground-breaking projects in antiquity. Some of the projects currently being worked on include prophesy and ecstatic religion, early Christian manuscript diffusion, and even curses (!). I am really looking forward to being a part of this group and contributing to the scholarship which is currently being produced.

My proposed project seeks to challenge existing models of religious identity in antiquity through the lens of Dionysiac associations in the Roman Empire. This project allows me to continue working with “on the ground” source material, such as inscriptions, and I hope that my research will broaden our understanding of Dionysiac cult as well provide a new approach to religion in the Roman Empire. Of course, I will have a lot of coursework to sift through before that happens, but it’s a challenge I am eager to begin! Huzzah!

 

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A Dramatic Example of a Confession Curse: Sophocles’ Antigone

This article is cross-posted from AncientCurses.com, a research project about curses and cursing in the ancient world.

Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the better known Greek dramas. It relates the tragic events that follow after a power struggle in ancient Thebes. The political dispute ultimately continues among family, when formerly warring factions find themselves under the same roof.

The protagonist of the play, Antigone, is at odds with Kreon—the new Theban dictator who also happens to be her uncle and guardian. The issue at stake is whether or not the body of Polyneices (Antigone’s brother and Kreon’s nephew) should be buried. Kreon says no—Polyneices was an enemy of the state; Antigone says yes, and even more, that the gods demand it.

Long story short: Antigone buried her brother in contravention of Kreon’s edict. For this she is condemned to death.

In a pivotal scene of the play, Antigone is led by guards to the cave where she will die. As she laments her fate, she unleashes a final curse upon her enemies, saying the following:

ἀλλ᾽ εἰ μὲν οὖν τάδ᾽ ἐστὶν ἐν θεοῖς καλά,
παθόντες ἂν ξυγγνοῖμεν ἡμαρτηκότες:
εἰ δ᾽ οἵδ᾽ ἁμαρτάνουσι, μὴ πλείω κακὰ
πάθοιεν ἢ καὶ δρῶσιν ἐκδίκως ἐμέ.
(Antigone 925-928)

But if these [actions of men] are good to the gods,
having suffered this, I could agree that I had erred;
but if these men err in these matters,
let them suffer no fewer bad things
than what they do unjustly to me.
(Translation mine)

This curse could be considered a confession curse, and it is likely that Athenian audiences would have recognized it as such, for reasons we will see shortly. Such curses seek to exculpate a person when they have been accused of wrongdoing. Confession inscriptions fight fire with fire, so to speak. By inviting the god to punish them, the author effectively demonstrates their innocence and turns the gods against their enemies.

Two examples of confession inscriptions will serve to illustrate this point. The first is an inscription from the first century BCE found in Cnidus, in Asia Minor. In our first example, a woman has been accused of poisoning her husband. She pleads her innocence, and asks that the gods punish her accuser:

I hand over to Demeter and Kore the person who has accused me of preparing poisons/spells against my husband. Having been struck by a fever, let him go up to Demeter with all of his family, and confess (his guilt). And let him not find Demeter, Kore, or the gods with Demeter (to be) merciful…I hand over also the person who has written (charges) against me or commanded others to do so. And let him not benefit from the mercy of Demeter, Kore, or the gods with Demeter, but instead suffer afflictions with all of his family. (Gager no. 89=DT 4 no. 85)

The second also comes from from Cnidus and also involves a case of poisoning. Here, the woman (coincidentally named Antigone—no relation!) submits herself to divine punishment in the event she is truly guilty of her crime:

I, Antigone, make a dedication to Demeter, Kore, Pluto and all the gods and goddesses with Demeter. If I have given poison/spells to Asclapiadeas or contemplated in my soul doing anything evil to him…[if so] may Antigone, having been struck by a fever, go up to Demeter and make confession, and may she not find Demeter merciful but instead suffer great torments. (Gager no. 89 = DT 1 no. 81)

It is easy to see the parallels between Sophocles’ Antigone and the confession inscriptions here. Both seek to clarify the nature of the punishment in proportion to the crime. Both argue that they are willing to accept the punishment, as long as it is just. They also request divine retribution in the event that they have been treated unfairly. The function of these curses is obvious: These persons  are using them to clear their name, explain their situations, and enact revenge on their accusers.

Confession curses are thought to be very important in situations where legal redress wasn’t always possible. In such cases, the gods themselves are called upon to rectify matters (Assmann 150-151). Confession curses expand upon this theme; there is the question of whether proper action has been pursued, and an appeal to higher powers for a reevaluation. Clearly, it is hoped that the gods will determine, once and for all, the degree of appropriateness of a given punishment.

For Antigone (the one in the play), the laws of the gods are timeless and superior to any temporal, ad hoc decisions made by humans. She specifically lays out here reasons for disobeying the laws of Kreon by citing the supremacy of the gods. For example, in one passage she says:

οὐ γάρ τί μοι Ζεὺς ἦν ὁ κηρύξας τάδε,
οὐδ᾽ ἡ ξύνοικος τῶν κάτω θεῶν Δίκη
τοιούσδ᾽ ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ὥρισεν νόμους.
οὐδὲ σθένειν τοσοῦτον ᾠόμην τὰ σὰ
κηρύγμαθ᾽, ὥστ᾽ ἄγραπτα κἀσφαλῆ θεῶν
νόμιμα δύνασθαι θνητὸν ὄνθ᾽ ὑπερδραμεῖν.
οὐ γάρ τι νῦν γε κἀχθές, ἀλλ᾽ ἀεί ποτε
ζῇ ταῦτα, κοὐδεὶς οἶδεν ἐξ ὅτου ‘φάνη.
(Antigone 450-457)

It seems to me that Zeus was not the one who was declaring these things,
nor did the Justice of the gods below lay down these very laws for men,
Nor did I think that your proclamations were strong in such a way as to be able to prevail, because you are being mortal,
and since the laws of the Gods are unwritten and unshaken.
Indeed, the laws of the gods are not something that had been placed today or yesterday,
but these things live on always,
and no one knows from when it was revealed.
(Translation mine)

As Mark Griffith observes, appeals to “universal codes of morality” were frequently used in court cases to challenge the validity of a charge (Griffith 201). And I think this is where the confession curse comes in. Antigone has been defeated by the mortal courts, which she had little faith in to begin with. As such, she appeals to what she see is the real authority in the case—the gods. It is the gods she looks to rectify what she see as an unjust situation. Sophocles tacitly supports this view as the play—and Kreon’s life—unravels. It is the gods who have the final say in the affairs of men.

Confession inscriptions then can be seen as a key component of extra-legal redress, not just in situations where access to recompense is hindered, but also where human adjudication may not render the desired outcome. The gods are viewed as superior to humans, and thus able to rectify situations gone wrong on earth. Antigone’s curse represents the incorporation of a cultural practice into a dramatic literary form. It is likely that ancient audiences would have clued into her final invocation of the gods and recognized her actions as an attempt at divine exoneration.

Sources:

Assmann, Jan. “When Justice Fails: Jurisdiction and Imprecation in Ancient Egypt and the Near East,” in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 78 (1992): 149-162.
Gager, John G. Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Sophocles. Antigone. Edited by Mark Griffith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Posted in Ancient, Curses | 2 Comments

Book Review: Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics

Aleister Crowley, the so-called Wickedest Man in the World,  is quickly becoming a subject of serious academic study. No doubt this is greatly aided by the number of scholars working on the Great Beast, but certainly the quality of scholarship produced must also be affecting perceptions about this controversial figure—for the better!

Of course, you’d be hard-pressed to delve into the field without bumping into Marco Pasi, a professor at the University of Amsterdam who’s also an expert on all things Crowley. His recent book, Aleister Crowley and the Temptation of Politics, looks at Crowley through the lens of—you guessed it—politics, and examines the relationships Crowley had with various movers-and-shakers in the political world. It goes without saying that the book provides significant insight into this specific dimension of Crowley’s life.

I had the opportunity to review this book for The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. If this sounds like your thing, book reviews can be read for free over at the website. Here’s a snippet for those of who you can’t wait:

Throughout Temptation, the reader meets a cadre of well-connected media figures, political agitators and bonafide spies with whom Crowley cavorted during his pragmatic period. These “illuminated politicians,” such as J. F. C. Fuller, Thomas Driberg, and Gerald Hamilton, sought Crowley out as a spiritual guru, and Crowley in turn sought their connections to bring his new religion to the masses. Crowley’s lobbying in this regard has led to much speculation about his relationship to totalitarian regimes (Fascism, Nazism, Communism). Crowley emerges, however, as an ideological chameleon who appealed indiscriminately to large-scale movements which could serve his missionary purposes.

Since this is my first “scholarly” book review, I want to thank Christopher Chase and Chas Clifton over at The Pomegranate for giving me the opportunity to review what is no doubt a very important work for this field. I would also like to thank the folks at Acumen Publishing for generously supplying me with a review copy of the book. Huzzah!

Posted in Academic, Thelema | 5 Comments