Best Prayer in the Air

With my current job I travel quite a bit. With all the attendant time hanging around airports, I have time to think back to pre-deregulation days when flying meant some kind of care in the air. It has been in the news the last few days that Alaska Airlines is removing the prayer cards from its trays during meals. When I saw that, the real surprise to me was—airlines serving meals? When did they start doing that? A couple years back I flew coast to coast on Alaska Airlines with nothing more than a sack of peanuts. I would have been happy to have had a prayer card to eat. I agree with those who pointed out to the airline, when it served these alleged meals, that paying customers shouldn’t be proselytized. You can get enough of that by watching GOP debates. And I certainly hope the message wasn’t that the plane only flew on a miracle.

I’m sure that some people will say there’s no harm in a little non-invasive sermonizing. Therefore I must make my own confession; I was a teenage evangelical. Although I never actually did tracts myself, I hung out with kids who did. Once, on the way home from a youth meeting, a carload of us stopped to get a bite to eat in a diner. Now, we were high school kids, not flush with money, but even I knew it was right to tip—waitresses have to put up with a lot for little pay. One of my friends told us that if we really wanted to help the young lady out, we should leave a tract as a tip. What reward could be better than salvation? Surely that would help to feed her family or buy her kids a new pair of shoes. Indoctrinated as I was (and I hadn’t even been to college yet, Mr. Santorum), it seemed like a good idea. Still, I felt bad when we left.

These two situations are not dissimilar. In both cases someone would rather print cheap words on cheap paper with free sentiments rather than giving a person sustenance. It’s been a few years since I’ve darkened a pulpit, but I do seem to recall Jesus insisting that the hungry be fed. I don’t recall what he said about tracts and prayer cards.

Religions have a way of focusing on the forgettable minutiae while overlooking the real need right in front of them. In November I flew from New York to San Francisco, subsisting on a tiny bag of peanuts and some airline orange juice. If old Deutero-Isaiah were sitting next to me he might have said, “why spend money on what is not bread?” But I was thinking that maybe the karma of that tipless waitress was simply coming back full circle.


It was a nippy 42 degrees with a chill January breeze cutting through the brightly garbed crowd of maybe two-dozen stalwart souls. There were Molly dancers holding hands and skipping in a circle. Smoke from a bonfire caught the breeze as a woman with a painted face sang about the circle of the sun. The whole event had a Wicker Man sort of feeling to it, but participating in an ancient tradition is strangely fulfilling. A basket on the table held pencils and paper on with instructions to write your wish and burn the paper in the bonfire so that “Your message will travel into the cosmos.” The bare apple trees were seasonally pruned and discarded branches littered the ground. It all sounds suitably pagan for a Sunday afternoon in New Jersey.

Having grown up in a rather sheltered small-town environment I never even heard of wassail until planning for my December wedding nearly twenty-five years ago. A low budget affair with the reception in a church basement, my wife decided not to offend Methodist sensibilities by serving wassail, a spiced cider drink generally associated with Christmas. As I learned this midwinter, wassailing has a deep and mysterious ancestry that is a mix of pagan and Christian traditions. One aspect of wassailing is associated with Christmas carols and is based on the tradition of the wealthy sharing with the poor during the holiday season (a practice clearly extinct these days). The second type of wassailing goes back to nature religion and the blessing of the apple trees. It was observed on midwinter, which, before the Gregorian calendar, fell on January 17. At Terhune Orchards the festival fell on the 29th this year.

After watching the Molly dancers and sending our wishes up to the cosmos in the bonfire, one of the orchard proprietors gathered the crowd, now having about doubled to fifty, to sing the Somerset Wassail and then to make noise to drive out the evil spirits. This the crowd did with enthusiasm. We were then asked to recite the wassail prayer, printed on a signpost for all to see. Bread was passed out which we dunked in cider and hung on the naked apple trees. After a final blessing we headed to our car to preserve our own wassail. In England’s apple-growing regions, wassailing the trees is still practiced with a sincerity that marks the deeply mysterious. Some Christian sensibilities, I’m sure would be offended, but this ancient custom, like leaving a tree to stand in the midst of a plowed field to propitiate the spirit of nature, goes profoundly into human consciousness. I, for one, will lift a cup of cider and join the ancient rite to brighten a winter day.

Instruction, through Film

In an increasingly technological world, the acquisition of knowledge often seems like a moving target. For thousands of years the process of research meant lifting yourself out of the chair, or couch, or log, and going to where the written collection of human knowledge resided—the library. Assurbanipal, emperor of Assyria, assembled a great library in antiquity, as did the sages of Alexandria, Egypt. From those days until my own lifetime, if you wanted to learn something you went to where the books resided. The birth of the Internet has changed knowledge storage considerably, but not completely. You might find bits of Assurbanipal’s Akkadian wisdom online (Alexandria’s, unfortunately, didn’t survive antiquity), next to thousands of e-books, blogs, and tweets. And of course, videos. Although many of my blog posts refer to horror movies, one of my favorite sources of information has always been the documentary. Despite the fact that it’s spoon-fed knowledge, there’s nothing quite like watching the experts tell you what you need to know on this or that topic.

Assurbanipal, lion hunter, emperor, librarian.

I was, naturally, pleased to learn of The folks from the site were kind enough to contact me since they offer many religion documentaries for free. I suspect that most readers of this blog have some interest in religion since I seldom write about anything else. currently has over thirty professionally made documentaries from various producers (including the History channel) available for viewing. Just sit back, click, and learn. I added to my own knowledge-base yesterday. This is particularly nice for those of us who can’t really afford the constantly increasing expense of buying access to television service. If your interests are greater than religion, they have many other categories of documentaries available as well. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

One of the questions that arises in my conversations these days is whether all of the material online is changing knowledge itself. There’s no question that it’s a time saver. Prof. J. C. L. Gibson once remarked, while looking for a passage in class at Edinburgh, “So much of scholarship is turning pages.” He was a man who still did not use a typewriter, up to the day of his death. There is something to the old form of knowledge that stays with me as I watch the world inexorably change around me. There was a thrill to finding a book from 1516 on the open shelves at the New College library of Edinburgh University, to touching its centuries-old pages and marveling. Sitting in John Gibson’s office as he puffed on his pipe and trying to defend my new ideas against his old ones, I felt that knowledge was being hammered into me. There is an arcane knowledge to starting every day with a wee dram and a prayer that the World Wide Web just hasn’t managed to capture yet.

Tweeting the Bible

I have an underused Twitter account. My life isn’t so interesting that I need to give my few followers (fewer even than those who read this blog) updates throughout the day. In fact, I mainly use it to let my Tweethearts know what I’m blogging about on any given day. While reading a book on the influence of technology on religion (more anon) it struck me that one of the more interesting aspects of biblical studies is the fact that the well never goes dry. For those who read sacred texts, there is no end of interpretation. I’ve addressed this before on this blog—religion is as individual as each believer. The more I read biblical interpretations, however, the more I see the subtle textures and layers that readers find in the text, despite what most religious leaders desire. And I don’t restrict this to the Bible—any sacred text can be read in multiple ways. The Bible, however, has been foundational for this person that I’ve become, and so I’ve decided to do some close reading.

I’m going to tweet the Bible. (If you are one of my rare followers, don’t worry—read on.) I’m going to tweet the maximum 140 characters per message once a day. For this task I will be using the King James Version, arguably the most influential book ever written in the western world. Doubt me? Watch a presidential candidate debate. Or google Girl Scout cookies. Why am I doing this? Well, I wonder what the Bible says when it is broken down into byte-sized nuggets. At character 140 I will stop, and the next day I will begin where I left off the day before. This exercise will be a way of looking at the Bible from a fresh angle. Besides, it’s been a few years since I’ve read the entire KJV. I don’t pretend that nobody else has thought of this—I’m sure there are many Bible tweets out there. I’m curious, however, at 140 characters a day how long it will take, and what will emerge. Yes, I know that there are mathematical whizzes out there who could calculate the answer in a matter of seconds, but I just have to see for myself. The doubting tweeter.

A new look at an old book.

There may be occasions when I fail—isn’t the Bible about forgiveness anyway? In my job I travel quite a bit, and sometimes Internet access is dicey. Most hotels, however, still sport a Gideon Bible, so resources should be no problem. It will be an adventure, and the Bible could stand some adventure these days. Besides, interesting pericopes will give me something to blog about occasionally. For those who haven’t been subjected to years of higher education on the Bible (or other texts), a pericope is a passage cut out from its surroundings. It is the favorite of televangelists and other proof-texters who prefer to not to face the larger implications of reading the whole Bible in its context. I like to think of this exercise as Internet hermeneutics. So let the adventure begin. If you are really bored and want to follow a glacially paced Bible reading, my Twitter name is stawiggins. When interesting observations emerge, however, I will let my blog readers know as well. In the technical age, life is tweet.

Three Degrees Below Zero

Rick Santorum has turned his attack on intelligence against American universities, according to a story in the Huffington Post. He claims the left uses colleges for indoctrination to keep themselves in power. Sounds like somebody’s been sipping a little too much communion wine. I know many people who might have a right to make such claims, but Santorum isn’t one of them. Santorum earned a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, from the wicked, indoctrinating Pennsylvania State University. He then succumbed again to the indoctrination when he, apparently accidentally, earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of Pittsburgh. Somehow he stumbled onto a J.D. with honors from Dickinson School of Law. A man this indoctrinated, I say, has no business being president.

During these senior moments (not to offend any seniors who might actually make that claim) Santorum seems to have missed that universities are among the most under-funded, crisis-ridden institutions on American soil. With rare exceptions, universities are cutting programs, canceling positions, and slashing budgets. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve vented a fair amount of criticism on our universities and I know, firsthand, that they aren’t perfect. I rage because I love. It seems that some children of privilege like to rage because it’s in fashion. If you’re going to take on those smarter than you, at least try to get the facts straight. Higher education is such a small segment of the American employment force that the only reason you’d go after them is that, well, you’re in a church. Baptist Catholic Santorum made his remarks while at a church in Florida, a state which, despite insidious power-mongering, boasts some of the finest universities in the country.

Taking stabs at Obama, Santorum claims the president wants all kids to go to college, and that’s a bad thing. You don’t want an educated electorate. It is harder to get educated people to march in goose-step with everybody else. Talk about indoctrination! Vote for me, because I will keep you safe from the horrors of an education of which I couldn’t stop my self from taking advantage. Don’t send your kids to law school. There can be real danger even in sending them to grammar school, for there they learn to spell. I wonder, if in the course of earning his three degrees, Mr. Santorum ever learned to spell the word “hypocrite.”

Just an average guy, hanging with his buds.

Grapes of Mirth

Growing up in a teetotaling family, when I first encountered Greek mythology I paid scant attention to Dionysus. Assuming him to be “just the god of wine,” I had no interest in the wares he was peddling. Of mythology itself there was no end of fascination, and many of the great classics have been toned down to Disney, or even more insipid, for the entertainment of children. What we often fail to appreciate is that this is religion. Mythology that does not address the very real human concerns of sex, intoxication, and false dealing is really of no help at all. If in doubt, read your Bible. (Not the children’s version.) When I came back to Greek mythology as an adult, it became clear that Dionysus differed from other gods in considerable ways. While teaching my mythology classes, I decided to read more about this intriguing god. Well, it was just like the Fates that I would get a new job before reading Walter Otto’s book, Dionysus, but the urge was still strong and I was glad I’d read it.

Otto wrote in the days of Frazer’s technique of comparing sometimes questionable sources, and yet he produced a masterful, and poetic study of Dionysus. What quickly becomes clear is that the popular association of Bacchus with wine is a gross oversimplification. Dionysus is the god of madness, of blurring distinctions, and of losing control. He is the most frequently represented god in Greek art because, like us, he sometimes loses it. Greek society is famed for its rationality and order. It is sometimes overlooked by the reasoning mind that creativity, emotion, wildness are part of the complexity of humanity. Dionysus is the god who understands the need to let go once in a while. This is not hedonism, nor is it debased. Bacchus represents the human in full form. He is the god who comes to humanity, the god of appearing. Dionysus, the friendly god.

In the early days of Christianity in the Greek world, many Greeks supposed that the Jesus preached to them was Dionysus (to the chagrin of many missionaries). The connections, however, are remarkable. Like Jesus Dionysus has a god for a father and a human for a mother. He lives a carefree life and is the god who actually comes down to live with people. He is a god who dies and who is resurrected. Like Jesus, he enjoyed a glass of Bordeaux every now and again. And his followers were fanatical. As Otto makes clear in his dated, but insightful, book, Dionysus left a deep imprint on culture itself that continues to affect us even today. Even if we’re teetotalers, we can appreciate the depth of character and the complex nature of a god like Bacchus. And if we’re honest we’ll admit that there are times when we just have to let it go.

Cookie Time

All right, who wants to be the big meanie now? The fact that politics manage to besmirch just about any human enterprise, no matter how noble, is a lesson many of us learn on our slow trek to adulthood. I sadly came to realize that the church is incredibly political, and that universities could rival congress for the backstabbing and posturing that goes on. In the midst of all this politicking, one of the truly good NGOs left in the world is Girl Scouts. Sure, there will always be some councils with personality issues, and some troops will have a difficult scout or parent with which to cope, but the organization is based on the principle of giving girls the confidence and assurance they need to be successful in life. What could be wrong with that?

My wife pointed out a story on that reveals some anti-abortion groups are now claiming that Girl Scouts supports Planned Parenthood. This is patently not true. Even if it was, it would hardly be a crime to teach girls reproductive options (after all, when is the last time a Pope or President carried a pregnancy to term?), but since people don’t think with precision, it seems best to keep girls in the dark. Some right-wing groups are boycotting Girl Scout cookies as if the devil himself were the baker. Not to be outdone in perceived self-righteousness, some Catholic Churches are kicking out Girl Scout troops for supporting abortion! All of this based on a lie. The road to the unconscionable position of the Catholic Church toward reproduction has been long and mentally torturous. Anyone who has taken the trouble to trace the church’s strange love affair with the fetus may be surprised to learn how recent the concern became an issue and how very androcentric it is. The church’s claims here rely on nothing more than good old testosterone-generating glands and the love thereof. To punish the Girl Scouts for a fictitious association with an unapproved organization shows just how mature the largest church in the world truly is.

The male bias in the majority of the world’s societies is bad enough. The United States likes to hold itself up as an icon of fairness and equality. It is the spirit upon which this nation was founded. Except when it comes to females. We don’t want our girls to have reproductive autonomy because that might make men look somehow less masculine. As for those wimpy guys who like to read, the Bible backs them up completely on this issue. God is a guy, and made guys to be in charge. No matter how much education you offer, you won’t be able to change that one-book-fits-all outlook. What will we have lost if we seriously and honestly treat both genders equally (and even those intersexed individuals)? Only the apparently fragile male sense of superiority. I say, in the spirit of America vote for equality! Buy Girl Scout cookies!

Deliver us from evil.