Reptile Fantasy

LizardPrincessThe generous folks at Exterminating Angel Press graciously sent me a copy of Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess to review. A fantasy novel that includes a conflict between a world that admits of the supernatural and skeptics who deny anything beyond the material, it is a tale for our time. Indeed, the antagonism is real enough. We live in a world where fantasy can bring in untold wealth while we are taught that not an atom of it is true. Clearly material explanations fit the physical world we inhabit. It’s the world inside our heads that often rejects such materialism being taken to its “logical” conclusion. Davies clearly feels the angst of this discord. The Lizard Princess is a fantasy in the face of harsh reality. And we still need fantasy—perhaps we need it more than ever.

Throughout The Lizard Princess, whether intentional or not, biblical imagery pervades. The Bible offers classical stories that, no matter how we might receive them, continue to influence our ideas and ideals. Here, in a world created especially for the reader, the battle between good and evil is an everyday reality. The turns taken along this path are unconventional, and at times even uncomfortable. The awareness that there is a larger story in the background, however, offers some consolation. Angels, the Devil, and even a subtly veiled God are all players in this fantasy world of Arcadia. Mythical creatures abound, and transformations lead to new perspectives along the way.

In my conversations with other scholars I’m reminded that academics don’t often turn to novels for escape. Some do, of course, but the academy recommends a steady diet of technical non-fiction for those who wish to make an impact upon the world of knowledge. I have always been grateful for literature, however. During my years in graduate school and early in my teaching career I neglected the kinds of books that were my constant companions growing up. In a rural setting far removed from any institutions of higher learning, novels were often the only reading readily available. I never considered the time between their covers wasted. I found in The Lizard Princess a vivid world strangely like our own, but different enough to be more a parable than a simple piece of fiction.

Seeing Red

Not being commercially minded, it took many years for me to understand why it is called Black Friday. To many people “black” indicates negativity, sort of the opposite of Good Friday which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem so good. After I was forced into jobs in the money-making business, I came to realize that budgets were written in black and deficits were written in red. Since my lifetime, with a few exceptions, has been a series of economic disasters following one another (the implications should be obvious) and businesses operate in the red while projecting budgets ever higher the next year. This model is, in a world of limited resources, the very definition of unsustainable, and yet we keep raising our sights and getting disappointed. Nobody knows for sure where the term Black Friday originated, but it is a modern term. A holiday for those who measure celebration in terms of dollars and cents. (Mostly dollars.)

As I was pondering this phenomenon, my thoughts turned to red letter days. Red here is a positive thing—special days on the calendar that let us step outside the usual routine of pushing ourselves to make this year’s budget and allow us to relax with family and friends. The black and the red have switched places here. In fact, red letters, apart from the dismal science, have historically been considered good. Think of the red letter editions of the Bible. These Bibles had the putative words of Jesus printed in red so that they would stand out. The concept dates back to the change of the twentieth century. Red letter Bibles caught on among Evangelical readers. Red letters, however, go back even further in history.

Who said what now?

The book that Catholic priests used to set on the altar was a missal. Missals contained the instructions for saying mass, and during certain parts of the ceremony priests were supposed to make specific gestures. The places at which these actions were to be made were printed in red to draw the priests’ attention. They were called “rubrics” since they were written in red. Missals date back to the Medieval Period and they give us perhaps the first positive use of red writing that we know. Even further back in history when inks were organic, red writing was found. Epigraphers of antiquity know of red inscriptions but the meaning at that time remains speculative. We call this Black Friday because the one percent hope to get a bit richer. Those of us further down are supposed to enjoy the trickle. For me, in principle I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I see it as a red letter day.

To Whom? For What?

Thanksgiving remains one of the few relatively uncommercialized holidays. Not tied to a specific religion, but with a general sense that gratitude is important, there’s nothing really to sell. Grocery stores may see a bump in profits, but we need to eat every day, so this is only a matter of degree. The icons of Halloween quickly transform to those of Christmas and even Thanksgiving begins to pale next to Black Friday as companies give employees the only four-day weekend of the entire year. Without money changing hands what can there possibly be to celebrate?

The strident question of to whom one is thankful is graciously subsumed under that of for what. History has demonstrated that the relative abundance that we enjoy in matters of gustatory gifts is indeed not to be taken for granted. Droughts are realities. Dustbowls and depressions occur. In many parts of the world starvation is stark reality. Having enough—even too much—to eat is less a sign of blessing for good behavior than it is an obligation to help others. Want is a specter that no one can debunk. The homeless here in a land of plenty remind us that holidays are truly opportunities to be thankful. Thankful simply for being able to get by. Not for what we buy.


Holidays have their origins in religion. They may wander far from their foundations, but we have religions to thank for every day there’s a break in the routine of trooping into the office for yet another stint of work. Days when staying home is acceptable and spending is purely optional. The stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving is long. This goal can only be reached by a frame of mind rather than a state of one’s bank account. Having a day when money falls from focus is cause for thankfulness indeed.

Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.


Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

Book Deaf?

It’s Tuesday morning and I have been listening to authors pitching their books for three solid days now. Truth be told, I am a bit jealous. I’ve got a few more books in me yet, but research time simply does not exist in the world of capitalism and its discontents. Not that I envy being on the author’s side of the table—I remember how it felt to pitch Weathering the Psalms to several editors and to receive an icy “no” in response. I think now I begin to understand. Yesterday one of my appointments asked if I was “book deaf” yet. It was a term I’d never heard, but I immediately knew what he meant. Editors hear pitch after pitch. I pull out my phone and look at my calendar and see a new project every half-hour throughout the day, but no, I’m not book deaf. In fact, I have to constrain myself to keep my credit card firmly inside my wallet. Being surrounded by books is like being in a jungle teeming with deadly animals.


From the exhibitor’s booth, Tuesday is a day of relief and worry. Most of the papers are over at AAR/SBL, and most of the participants have already left. As at any conference, fair, or exhibit, we are strictly forbidden from taking down the booth before closing time. We stand about, straining our ears to hear that first transgressive ripping of strapping tape from its roll, indicating that someone in another booth is being naughty. We’re tired, weary even, but not book deaf. Never book deaf.


In my unguarded moments I sometimes think that maybe some day I’ll have a book here that others will clamber to find. Maybe someone like me will prowl to a pre-selected booth with a specific title firmly in mind, and that title will bear my name. I suppose it could happen, although it isn’t likely at this point. I hear each pitch and more. I hear the dreams and deep desires of every author. We want to be heard. We want others to think us respectable, honorable even. There are publishers out there who will publish anything. They will accept books to fill catalogues and websites and you’ll never hear from them again. Still, you’ll find some interesting things if you wander by their table. And if someone sees that you’re an editor while you’re browsing you’ll never turn a deaf ear. This is what religion scholars live for. Books are our reality.


The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.


Go to, Let Us Make Brick

Next year marks a quarter century. It’s a sobering thought. A quarter century of attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. A lot has changed over the years. Much of the loss, I fear, has been of innocence. When I first flew into Kansas City, naive at 29, and still believing the world offered opportunities for those who would work hard enough, the academic job market was tight. I had no interviews whatsoever, and spent many hours in the employees’ hopeless lounge, dreaming that someone might call my name. Although no jobs came of it, I could hardly blame the academy for “market conditions” outside their control. An economy based on unadulterated greed and emulating the worst practices of the business world was eating higher education alive, from within. I had no way of knowing. For a couple of decades I attended more often than not, optimistic that the lies I’d been told might yet turn out to be false. That those who had the gifts and abilities would be recognized for what they were. I was so terribly young then.

Through a variety of roles I have continued to attend this conference for all these years. I have not seen so much hopelessness until this. Colleagues come to me, barely holding back tears. Conditions in our universities are bad and are getting worse. We have no students, but clients. The hours of preparation for the classroom are now being measured in metrics like “return on investment.” The basic vocabulary of higher education has evolved to the point that it is a new Tower of Babel. It sits on Wall Street and considers what is offered to our young as commodities. Nobody worries if they learn anything or not. The exchange of goods at personal advantage is the only way that one can exist in a market economy.


The only hope any culture may dare to claim for its future lies in education. Those economies that have not suffered as much as our own are those where education is still revered. Where you don’t have to hold a MBA to speak with authority. Where truth might just be an abstract and where not all things can be measured in shekels. I have been attending this conference for a quarter century and never I have I seen despair such as this. I have to wonder about a nation that takes those highest achievers and those with the most initiative and slaughters their hopes on the altar of the angry deity of vain baubles of self-aggrandizement. We bet on futures that are no futures at all. My beard is whiter now, and my glasses stronger. I am still able to see, however, the folly of launching into the North Atlantic in early April before any kind of radar has been invented with lifeboats made only of money. I only hope I’m wrong.