Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Denny Miller- Happy Birthday!

If there was a visual soundtrack to my life it would probably be the various television shows I’ve watched through the years. And someone who has been apart of that visual soundtrack is Denny Miller, cowboy, jungle man, space man and fisherman extraordinaire. Not that he has actually done all these things (I don’t think he’s been to space) but he has had the privilege of portraying all these roles and many more on the screen, both big and small. The productions he’s been involved in reads like a list of the classics of television, Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Incredible Hulk, Battlestar Galactica, V and many more.
However one of the roles that he is best remembered for was that of Tarzan in the 1959 movie, Tarzan the Apeman, which saw him putting on the loin cloth in the first ever colour version of the original Tarzan story. It was here, in a virtually non-verbal performance, that Denny’s strong screen presence shone through and set the scene for a long career as a successful character actor. Today he is the oldest living Tarzan, one of the patriarchs of the world wide Tarzanic tribe and a nice guy to boot. He is also celebrating his 80th Birthday today, so with out much ado……..


Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Wrestling With Calvin

I realised recently I harboured a grudge. My grudge wasn’t against the living but against a long dead fellow Christian. It’s one thing to harbour a grudge against a school bully who genuinely did you harm and you are struggling to forgive. But to hold it against a person from history, who ultimately is on your side is crazy. The subject of my dislike was a man by the name of John Calvin and his only crime was to try and organise the Christian belief system in a way that was functional, practical, logical, faithful to the broader orthodoxy of the time and firmly based in the scriptures. Why did this gripe me so much, because firmly laid at his door was the idea that he came up with the doctrine of predestination. Broadly speaking, predestination is the idea that the only pople that God will save for eternal life are those he chose in the first place and all those who face damnation are those he seemingly didn’t choose. This is the polar opposite of my faith tradition which broadly says that Christ died for all people and it’s up to the individual to accept this gift of salvation or not, a doctrinal position called Arminianism, named after Arminius, a protégé of Calvin’s protégé, Theodore Beza.


John Calvin was born in Noyon, France in 1509. A notable part of John Calvin’s spiritual journey began when he was sent to Paris to study at university to prepare for a career in the church. Beginning his education initially at the University of Paris, he later enrolled at the University of Orleans. At this time France was under going a period of legal reform which sought a return the legal system to Roman law. Rather than reading these laws in the light of tradition, commentaries and interpretative glosses, which had been the custom, the French sought to read the texts, unadorned, in the original languages and thus doing away with the perceived obstacles to the original meaning of the text. This approach had a flow on affect to the study of other areas, especially the study of scripture. It was here in the universities of Orleans that John Calvin came to study civil law. Through this study he learnt the value of reading a text in it’s original language and methods of applying the ancient meaning to a current situation. Of this Alistair McGrath says,


‘Although it is often suggested that predestination stands at the centre of Calvin’s system, this is not the case; the only principle which seems to govern Calvin’s organization is a concern to be faithful to scripture one the one hand, and to achieve maximum clarity of presentation on the other.’


It was at this time in his mid twenties that he came into a new experience of Christ. After studying law, Calvin returned to Paris to resume his theological studies and instead of taking up a church post, left the church of Rome to become apart of the reform movement. This eventually led to him writing his famous Institutes of the Christian religion and his famous reforming work in the city of Geneva.


 Rightly or wrongly, Calvin’s teachings on predestination are often presented as a distinctive hallmark of his writing, but it must be remembered that Calvin was not promoting a new perspective on salvation but was endeavouring to present the common understanding in a new way.  To depart from this was close to heresy and this was punishable by death. Richard A Muller says’


‘Unique or individualized doctrinal formulation was not Calvin’s goal. If, for example, there is anything unique in his doctrine of predestination, it arose from the way in which he gathered together elements from past thinkers in the tradition and blended them into his own formulations.’


Like many of those before him, Calvin believed Salvation was something for the pre-ordained/church and not specifically for all humanity. Salvation is primarily the act of being rescued from damnation and going to heaven. In his institutes he says,


This prescience extends to the whole circuit of the world, and to all creatures. By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.—Institutes of the Christian Religion [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Faith, Chapter21 section 5 ]


Salvation was seen by Calvin to be limited to the few that God had chosen by his free will to save. It is not achieved in any way by their efforts but by God’s undeserved favour on them. Salvation is an act initiated by God and achieved for the selected few by the death of Christ. Strange and harsh as this may sound to my Armenianist ears, it can be argued from scripture and was not a new thought. It’s an argument that personally hasn’t won me over but one that speaks loudly when one is trying define clearly who is in and who is out by divine declaration, something the Protestant and Catholic Reformation were busy trying to do. For me, God did predestined a group of people to be his people, but like Ruth the Moabite who chose join God’s chosen people the Israelites, we choose to become part of God’s chosen people.


Although for Calvin it seems that the main thrust of salvation was to receive eternal life, it wasn’t the entirety of his view. Gonzales says,


Calvin, as a theologian of the second generation, did not allow the doctrine of justification to eclipse the rest of Christian theology, and therefore was able to pay more attention to several  aspects of Christian faith which Luther had virtually ignored-in particular the , the doctrine of sanctification (Gonzalez, 77).


In his Institutes Calvin said,


We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. (Institutes 3.1.)

For Calvin, Christian regeneration or sanctification was inextricably linked with justification. He sees both of them of God’s grace, one flowing into the other. Salvation is not just something decided upon for the individual before the dawn of time and benefitted from after death. It also brings about a regeneration in this life that allows a person, in union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, to be a more a Christlike person and to benefit the world around us. This bit warms the cockles of my little Salvationist heart. For me, Christianity is a selfish pursuit if all it entails is having insurance for the after life. For me it needs to make a difference now, in the same way that Jesus’ ministry was just as much about the present as it was about the future.

It seems my days of wrestling with Calvin may be over, as he and I settle down to an easy truce. Rather than seeing him as the mastermind of a doctrine that potentially renders Christians into self righteous pew warmers, I now see him as one who tried to make the outworking of the Christian faith active and relevant to his day and beyond. Calvin was the one in the Reformation who didn’t drop the ball on holiness. He actively promoted the concept that regeneration or sanctifacation was inextricably linked to justification, or in other words, salvation was not just something that affects the future but impacts positively on the life of the believer and those around him now.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

The Gates of Hades from Wrath of the Titans (2012)
I was stunned to notice this week that the Gates of Hell have been unearthed by a team of  Italian archaeologists. As I read the headlines my heart skipped a beat as two thoughts crossed my mind. The first thing was that I finally would know how to get to Hell, Hades in the Greek, if I ever needed to go save someone. I love those stories where the hero must ascend to the underworld to save a loved one who has been wrongfully stolen by death.  Like the hero Orpheus in Greek mythology, with a hand full of loose change, I could brave the River Styx (however, as Chris De Burgh once sang, don't pay the ferry man till he gets you to the other side). I could sing AC/DC songs to put Cerberus, the three headed hell hound, to sleep. Another thing I must remember to do when storming Hades is not to look into the Slough of Despond or I too may never get out alive (or is that from Pilgrims Progress, I get so confused). At this point it may sound as though I know my Orpheus very well or that my knowledge of the Netherworld is more than it should be (the temptation to write nether regions there was extremely great). However I have a source of knowledge on my side that can beat no other when it comes to knowing about doing commando raids on Hell,.......sword and sandal films. Films like Hellhounds (2009), The Scorpion King 2 (2008) and Odysseus: Voyage to the Underworld (2008) aren't bad, Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief (2010) is fun, but the classic is Mario Bava's atmospheric, Hercules in the Haunted World (1961). With body builder Reg Park as Hercules and Christopher Lee as the evil King Lico, it's a sensational and atmospheric peace of fantasy film making.

Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

The second thought that ran through my mind was the appropriateness of this being announced at Easter, when Christians in the Western churches are celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who, they believed  'descended into Hell;  (and) on the third day....rose from the dead (Apostles Creed). In Christ, Christians see one who has loved them so much that he stormed the world of the dead to lead them into the way of life. Jesus said of St Peter's faith in him, 'on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it (Matthew 16; 18).' Whether it be the act of death and resurrection, or the life giving faith of his people, Jesus and Hell storming go together.

So before I present myself as a Meat Loaf wannabe roaring out of the gates of Hell 'like a battering ram on a silver black phantom bike', I had to find out exactly what this gate of Hell was. In fact the sight known as  Pluto's (Hades') Gate was uncovered in Turkey at Pamukkale, known in the ancient world as the great temple complex of Hierapolis and famous for its hot springs.

I might also take a moment at this point to explain that the Pluto referred to here is not Mickey Mouses' dog or the planetoid, but refers to the Greek God of the underworld, also known as Hades, just as the whole world of the dead was known as Hades.
Would Disney's real god of the underworld please raise their hand.
Hell, the English name for this realm, is taken from the name of the old Anglo-Saxon goddess Hel, who was the ruler of the world of the dead, Helheim. In The Old Testament this realm was known as Sheol (often translated 'the grave') and it was seen as a world of shadows and darkness. The realm that Christians usually think of when they say Hell, the place of eternal imprisonment for fallen angels, the belligerently evil and unrepentantly wicked, is more correctly known as Tartarus in Greek and Niflheim in the mythology of the Anglo-Norse, that informs much of our traditional English theological terminology.
The ruins as they are today (photo F D'Andria)

These Turkish Gates of Pluto, are actually a subterranean vent that emits Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A recent news report stated,

          'A staired terrace overlooking the temple and pool would have held onlookers and initiates    as eunuchs led bulls into the cave - and dragged them out, dead. Francesco D'Andria of the University of Salento said the "visions" were probably hallucinations caused by breathing diluted fumes wafting up from the Gate to Hell. And the portal is still a killer, he said."We could see the cave's lethal properties during the excavation," D'Andria told Discovery News."Several birds died as they tried to get close to the warm opening, instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes."The site had been damaged by Christians in the 6th Century and the destruction was completed by later earthquakes."We found the Plutonium (Pluto's Gate) by reconstructing the route of a thermal spring," D'Andria said.' (

 Birds that have dropped dead near the opening of the cave  (Photo: F D'Andria).
After reading this I get the feeling that any sortie into this infernal gateway would be sorely disappointed. I suspect, rather than ferry men, three headed dogs and underworld celebrities one would be met with unbreathable air and  dark caverns which, instead of leading to the place every one must go after paying their taxes, would lead to more unbreathable caverns, hot water and eventually lava. But one thing is sure, a voyage to the world of the dead probably would result, one I would never come back from. Although I'll still put the Plutoneum on my list of places to visit, it is at this point that I think I'll leave the sorties into Hades to the veteran himself, the one who said through the visions of St John, 'Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Revelations 1: 17b-18). '
A digital reconstruction of the Plutoneum as it would have looked in ancient times (Photo: F D'Andria).

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Prodigal Statue

Front cover of a photo novel with Denny Miller as Tarzan standing in front of the statue.
The Beginning
In 1981 I picked up a comic from my local news agency. As a nine year old with a love of the fantastic, I grabbed a comic entitled Hellfire, which featured a horned monster on its cover terrorising  a young couple. It was a striking cover that captured my imagination. I enjoyed reading it (mainly stories about the DC horror superhero, The Demon), but it was the image on the cover that has stayed with me through the years and started me on a strange journey of discovery. 

 Hellfire (1981), a one shot horror comic published in Australia by Murray Publishing.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1959) 
It was a year or two later that I first saw the film Tarzan the Ape Man (1959), starring Denny Miller as Tarzan . It's at the films climax when Tarzan is saving Jane, her Father and his partner Holt from a fiery sacrificial death, that a large statue of a horned humanoid monster holding a snake is featured. As the film finished I raced to my comic box, feeling I had seen the horned statue before. As I flicked through the stack, I finally came to Hellfire and realised that I had a match. The idol, on whose sacrificial alter the wild inhabitants of the lost city tried to present Jane as a burnt offering, was the same as the one on the cover.

Holt (Cesare Danova) and Jane (Joanna Barnes) climb the statue to escape the fiery sacrificial pyre in Tarzan the Ape Man (1959)
I thought that this would be the end of the appearance of the mysterious statue, however sometime later I sat down on another Saturday morning to watch another epic fantasy movie, director George Pals, Atlantis: the Lost Continent. It was as the characters were entering the temple of Atlantis that something caught my eye, there sitting in the middle of the temple was a familiar statue, the horned man beast from my comic and from the lost city high a top Tarzan's Mutia Escarpment. However here the head of the snake had been removed and replaced with a dome like structure and it appears that another coat of paint had been applied to give it a different look from it's previous appearances.

Azor the High Priest (Edward Platt) and Demetrios (Sal Ponti) look upon the statue, minus the snakes head and mace, in Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961)
Until recently the statue had become just a faded memory from my childhood until I was discussing  Denny Miller's Tarzan the Ape Man with fellow fans on FaceBook. It was now that I realised  that I may be able to solve the mystery of the amazing horned idol. After some discussion with my fellow fans, I discovered that the statue originally appeared in the 1955 movie, The Prodigal, starring Lana Turner and Edmund Purdom and Directed by Richard Thorpe (Tarzan Escapes (1936), Tarzan Finds a Son (1939), Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). According to some ( the statue is of the Babylonian goddess Astarte. The art direction for this film was over seen by Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell and it is they that were most probably responsible for the amazing statue. However it is interesting to note that the set decoration was the responsibility of Edwin B Willis and Henry Grace, the latter of which was also the Set Decorator on the other two MGM movies, Tarzan the Ape Man and Atlantis, The Lost Continent.

Where it all began, Samarra (Lana Turner) and the statue in The Prodigal (1955).
In the end it seems that Henry Grace was the common denominator in utilising this stunning 11 foot tall and 3000 pound, fibreglass, statue ( in several movies produced by MGM and thus increasing the cinematic presence of this amazing product of the Art Department.

Worship in the Temple of Astarte in The Prodigal (1955).
The Statues Identity
However as to the statue being Astarte, as The Prodigal evidently suggests, there are some issues, primarily that Astarte is a Goddess, which the statue is clearly not. The horns seen on some statues of Astarte are usually those of the crescent moon, symbolising here royal power, however they are not those of a bull.

Depictions of the the goddess Astarte.
It is more likely that the statue is of her male counterpart, the storm god and fertility god, Baal (Lord) Hadad. He, and the many versions of the storm god throughout the ancient near east (ie, Marduk, Teshub, Enlil etc) were usually portrayed as having the horns of a bull and sometimes the body of a bull and at other times, riding a bull. He is often depicted holding a club or mace, as in the above picture, as well as a hand full of thunder bolts.

Depictions of the storm god with the horns of a bull and wielding an axe or mace
in his right hand as the movie statue is. The figure on the left, instead of
holding thunder bolts is holding a snake as the movie statue is.
There is also the accompanying legend of the storm God fighting and defeating the great dragon or serpent of chaos that symbolises the sea, an action which resulted in the appearance of land out of the primordial ocean. In the minds of the ancients, this battle was re-enacted time and time again, when people on the land witnessed the storm raging over the sea, thunderbolts being hurled down from the heavens into the raging waters. In the movie statue being discussed, it is possibly this defeated serpent of chaos that can be seen in its hands of the storm god. Another possibility is that it is the 'Serpent of Splendour' or the Mushussu, often depicted in many Babylonian pictures of the  storm god Bel (Lord) Marduk.
Bel Marduk and his Mushussu (The Serpent of Splendour).

Depictions of the storm god from various ancient near eastern cultures,
each featuring the bull motif either as a physical feature or chariot/throne.
Many of these themes can also be found in the Hebrew Bible and explain the association of the golden calf (although discouraged) with the worship of the Israelite god Yahweh (Deuteronomy 9: 16, 1 Kings 12: 25-30).

Moses smashing the tablets of the Ten Commandments in protest against the Israelites  depicting Yahweh as a golden calf.
At various points he is also depicted sometimes as a storm god, slayer of the dragon and consequently the one who divides the seas to bring forth land (eg. Job 26: 1-14), themes that are also found in the New Testament (Mark 4: 35-40, Revelations 12). As can be seen the power of this mythology and imagery is very strong and continued to persist, entering classical mythology (Zeus transforming into a bull) and even Norse mythology (Thor's wielding of a hammer and battle with the serpent Jormungandr).
Clock wise from left to right: DC comics character Baal-Hadad, the movie statues head, and another picture found on the internet depicting the god Dagon but seemingly inspired by the movie statue.

Where is he now?
Having now identified the statue not with Astarte, but her male counterpart Baal Hadad
 the storm god, the question must be asked, where is the statue now? After sometime surfing the Internet, I managed to piece together some of the statues journey after its movie career ended.
It appears at some point  during the 60's or 70's it ended up in a second hand/junk shop, in Ogletown, Delaware, for several years ( It was around this time, or at least some time before 1980, that the statue was used as the inspiration for the cover of the comic mentioned earlier. Eventually the statue was sold to a travel agency, Tranquillity Travel, in Dover, Delaware, where it sat out the front of the business on Route 13 ( It was here that the statue got it's next big modelling gig, appearing on the cover of the Live Skull album, Snuffer, released in 1988.
In 2003/2004 the statue was bought by Denney Van Istendal for $5000 in Lumberton, New Jersey, much to the horror of the local community ( Eventually, after much controversy, the statue was put up for sale again in 2009 and, as of Oct 2011, it appears to have been sold to a bar in Philadelphia ( With this news, many questions still remain: where is the bar that owns the statue located in Philly? Will the statue ever be placed in a museum somewhere and restored to its cinematic glory?  Will it ever be reunited with a new snake head and mace? And finally, will it ever make a cinematic comeback?
The statue in Lumberton, New Jersey
The statue with the 'For Sale' sign.