Today's story centers on The Pope's Cologne — stop laughing, I am not making this up — a product purportedly based on the private cologne formula of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878), and being
shamelessly hawked to credulous suckers tastefully offered for sale to the devoted ranks of the faithful. PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame came across this charming story about it on the Christian News Wire:
What I experienced later will be a sight I will never forget!!! The widow used the cologne to "anoint" her husband EVERY 20 minutes. She would sprinkle it on his hands, his head, his forehead, and his neck. You could see in her eyes she had found a way of redemption through the cologne. Everyone was asking about the cologne and its origin. Everyone that came in to give her their condolences could not stop asking about the pleasant aroma they were experiencing. Everyone was quiet and in awe for hours. She also kept on rubbing the bottle as if it was some sort of amulet or charm.
Lots of commenters on Pharyngula, and indeed PZ himself, are going with the humorous side of the story. And I can't say that I blame them. There's definitely a ghoulishly funny aspect to it, like something you'd see in a Gahan Wilson cartoon when he was in a particularly sick mood.
But personally… well, maybe it's because it's been a long day and I'm tired and cranky. But I'm having a hard time seeing this as hilariously wacky. I'm mostly seeing it as sick and sad and awful.
Be forewarned: Today I have my cranky pants on. And my snarky underwear. I am not going to be nice. I am not even going to try to be nice.
Cranky Thought Number One:
Let me see if I have this story straight.
A grieving widow is obsessively smearing cologne on the corpse of her dead husband, and rubbing the bottle it came in as if it were a magical object.
And her fellow mourners are
a) touched and awestruck by the gesture, and
b) struck by the nice smell.
They're not — oh, say, just for instance — simultaneously pitying and grossed out beyond belief? They're not wondering, "What on Earth is she doing? What does she think she's going to accomplish by this?" They're not wondering if they should gently encourage Grandma to see a therapist?
What the zarking fardwarks is impressive and awe-inspiring about this spectacle? Other than, "Man, people do some strange stuff when they're grieving"?
Cranky Thought Number Two (closely related to CT #1):
I do not ever — ever — want to hear another progressive theologian say that modern religious thought doesn't involve magical thinking.
Anyone who's hung around the atheosphere for more than twenty minutes has almost certainly run across this argument. It gets leveled at Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion a lot. "You're battling a straw man," the argument goes. "You're arguing against archaic religious beliefs that nobody takes seriously anymore. Nobody still believes in the personal interventionist God who answers prayers, and hands out rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior, and responds to sacred potions and objects. That's just silly."
Well, maybe nobody still believes it in theology schools. Maybe in theology schools, they mostly believe in the impersonal, non- interventionist, largely abstract God: the God who is, in any practical or meaningful sense, entirely indistinguishable from no God at all.
But if you think nobody believes it in the rather larger world outside of theology schools, you need to visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to any one of the roughly 50% of Americans who believe human beings were created by God in more or less their current form about 10,000 years ago.
Or else, just go to a funeral where the grieving widow is anointing her dead husband with Magical Oil of Pope.
In fact, a not very nice part of me wants to buy a bottle of this Eau de Pontiff crap.
So the next time I hear someone make the "you just don't understand modern theology" argument, I can throw it in their face.
Mask photo by Marsyas.