Burned Over

Western and central New York State, in any religious history of America, have acquired the nickname, “The Burned-Over District.”  This graphic metaphor arises from the constant evangelizing and, more importantly, the fertile soil for new religious movements left in its wake.  This region could claim to be the home of Seventh-Day Adventism, Spiritualism, the Oneida Society, and the Latter-Day Saints.  It was also an early home of the Shakers and the land chosen by the Publick Universal Friend for her new Jerusalem.  The sense of place is important to religions.  The Latter-Day Saints, however, grew restless in this region where Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and began a torturous trek that would land the Mormons in Utah.  Joseph Smith never made it that far.  Religious leaders being persecuted are nothing new; Smith had been tarred and feathered, was wanted on charges of fraud, and was eventually murdered for his beliefs.  He was also one of the most intensely creative individuals America has produced. His extraordinary creative venture is often overshadowed by the religion that grew out of it.

With Mitt Romeny’s campaign stoking up steam, many people find themselves wondering about Mormonism.  I first learned about the Latter-Day Saints from a rather biased World Religions course at Grove City College.  One aspect which was true in that course, however, was the great secrecy surrounding Mormon teachings. Of course, the Book of Mormon is in the public domain and is easily available to those who wish to read it.  Official Latter-Day Saint beliefs, on the other hand, are frequently inscrutable.  For all its problems (and they are sometimes significant), mainstream Christianity is very open (and often vocal) about its belief system.  The same holds true for Judaism (mostly) and Islam.  If you want to know what they believe, just ask.  Americans tend to be a little perplexed by the Latter-Day Saints because there is always a feeling that there is something they’re not telling you.  It goes all the way down to the underwear.  All religions are concerned with sex.  Some may not disclose the details in public, but they all deal with it somehow.  Latter-Day Saints have rules about underwear–I’m sure other religions do too.

If Americans are really, seriously curious about the religious heritage of a potential president, a great way to find out is to read a bit of our own history.  I learned about the Burned-Over District back in college and have periodically read about it several times since then.  It is no secret.  Our society is not likely to expend the energy needed to learn about its own heritage.  As several of my recent posts have intimated, even higher education has no time for the study of religion (or history, or anything that doesn’t make money–Romney surely does!). Instead we will charge fearlessly ahead into the dark.  And when we are in the dark we may start to wonder why we’re wearing this unusual underwear. Wondering about religion is far easier than supporting those who study it.

Have you seen this man?

Divine Fury

“It was like Armageddon,” a woman in Colorado Springs told a reporter, according to CNN, after seeing the wildfires raging down the mountains onto the city. The article opens with a reference to Godzilla. The story is a wrenching reminder of how helpless humans are in the face of disaster. When facing danger far bigger than ourselves, language of God is never far behind. The things we control—the future we engineer—is bright in prospect. We’ve impacted our own chances for the better in a steady surge since the Middle Ages. Of course, there have been notable blips along the way where we’ve fallen victim to our own paranoias, but generally, things are better. Controlling fire was among the first of human innovations that eventually led to civilization. Humans took a natural force and put it to work for us. It is easy to forget that fire serves no master. Until nature reminds us.

Earth, wind, fire, and water. The ancient Greek philosophers had narrowed the basic environment down to four features. Each of them holds profound dangers for a small species like our own. No wonder the ancients ascribed each of these elements a guardian deity or two. On driving trips to the west, I have gone past fires whose intense heat could be felt hundreds of yards away in the air-conditioned comfort of our car. Still, I shuddered. In this day of advanced transportation, most people can drive themselves away from the danger of wildfires. The problem is that material goods take up space, and in a world that values material goods above all things, well, you still can’t take it with you. My heart goes out to those who tell their stories of impossible decisions of what to take. What in our lives can’t be replaced? What do we truly value?

Funny thing is, we’ve known since I was in high school at least, that our own actions were changing the climate. The wildfires may not be directly related—I don’t know—but I do know that we’ve been in deep denial. We’ve been caught in a sin so black that the only way out is to lie until we’re even deeper in it. We’ve been destroying our own environment for money. Money with which to buy material possessions. Earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, and flood. None of the four elements are safe. We can put our material goods in a secure house in a mountain stronghold and still lose everything. It is the fate of a culture that puts too much faith in material goods. Colorado is beautiful and peaceful, much of the time. But nature respects no human. Yet we put our faith in material things. Maybe she was right after all, it is like Armageddon.

Friend and foe.

Lost Professors

In front of my desk at home sits a chair.  That chair came to me when Gorgias Press was subleasing some of its office space and was necessarily divesting itself of unnecessary furnishings. Gorgias Press came to inherit the chair with the closing of the for-profit Katherine Gibbs School of Business, a branch of which leased half of the building.  I sit in that chair, contemplating the future of education.  I have just finished reading Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (as recommended by my friend Marvin).  Despite the fact that it is the first academic book I can recall leaving me in tears, it is a book every Ph.D. and potential Ph.D. in the Humanities should read and/or be forced to read.  Buck the trend!  Buy a book!  Donoghue is a rare individual who actually takes time to research what is going on in higher education and who has the courage to report it directly.  My regular readers will know that for nearly two decades I worked in higher education, spending every one of those years hoping that the next year things would get better.  Thank you, Dr. Donoghue, for speaking the truth.

I didn’t enter higher education as a child of privilege.  My career ambitions in high school were to be a janitor.  Encouraged along the way by well-meaning teachers and professors, I eventually found a job (lackluster as it was) in higher education.  What I didn’t realize is that the game had been rigged.  I recall being told with crystalline clarity that college and university positions were headed for a vast turn-over in the 1990s and jobs would be abundant.  Donoghue heard that story too.  His research shows that the writing had been inscribed on the wall as early as the 1970’s (before I reached high school) that this would not happen.  This is not hindsight either; studies were already indicating that higher education was going after the vaunted business model of the glitzy for-profit world.  Shiny baubles.  Worse yet, the roots of this inevitable transformation reached back to the Civil War and the nation that emerged from it—replace the dead on the battlefield with the dead in the factory.  Only only method of judging value existed: money.

The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the irreversibility of this trend: in today’s world only one value system is admitted, and it is purely material. No other way in higher education is capable of assessing worth. Rather, the alternate ways are being ruthlessly silenced by the transformation of university to corporation. That transformation was well underway long before the 1970’s, of course.  I had recognized at a young age that capitalism is a cancer that eats away the soul of people, convincing them that financial success is the only goal worth pursuing. I protested.  I spent years earning a doctorate in the Humanities to show that other values still throbbed away in the hearts of those who weren’t taken in by shiny baubles.  If you have any interest in resuscitating the human spirit, read Donoghue and weep with me.  The only consolation that I have is that I am sitting on a chair of a for-profit school that fell victim to the value system it once supported.  Capital and cannibal are too close for comfort.

Cabin Fervor

It’s a sure sign that work is growing overwhelming when I’m too tired to watch my weekend horror movies. Well, I decided to fight back the yawns and pull out Cabin Fever this past Saturday night. I’d seen the movie before, and I’m not really a fan of excessive gore. The acting isn’t great and the characters aren’t sympathetic, yet something about the story keeps me coming back. In short, a group of five teenagers (it always seems to be five) are renting a cabin for a week when they get exposed to a flesh-eating virus. They end up infecting just about everyone in the unnamed southern town before they all end up dead. It doesn’t leave much room for a sequel, but that hasn’t stopped one from being made. One of the unfortunate victims of the virus is torn apart by a mad dog. The locals, fearing their safety, decide to hunt down the surviving youths.

On the way to the now gore-smattered cabin, one of the locals mutters that they’ve been sacrificing someone—a natural enough conclusion when body-parts are scattered around, I suppose. He says, “it ain’t Christian.” Well, yes and no. Sacrifice is at the putative heart of Christianity, although human sacrifice (beyond infidels and women) was never part of the picture. As is often the case with horror film tropes, the victim who has been dismembered is a woman. The guys whose deaths are shown are all shot. Now, I have no wish to attribute profundity where it clearly is not intended, but there does seem to be a metaphor here. Our society and its staid religion tolerate the victimization of some over others.

One of the hidden treasures of the best of horror movies is the social commentary. George Romero made an art form of it in Night of the Living Dead and its follow up Dawn of the Dead. Many other writer/directors have managed to do it quite effectively. We can critique our world when hidden behind the mask of the improbable. While the commentary for Cabin Fever may be entirely accidental, I still find a little redemptive value in it. That, I suppose, is the ultimate benefit of social commentary—it is true whether intentional or not. Is there a larger message here? I wonder if the fact that when women are victimized no one survives is pushing the metaphor a little too far. It’s hard to say; I’ve been working a little too much lately.

Ancient Wisdom

The Huffington Post recently ran a story on Stonehenge. Part of the endless fascination with the ancient monument is that no one really knows why it was constructed. Given the tremendous amount of effort the building represents, it is clear that this was important to the cultures constructing it. The article in Huffington cites archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson as suggesting that Stonehenge was a monument to the unification of Britain. While not as sexy as explanations that draw on human sacrifice, precision astronomy, or alien visitation, something rings true about it. In the long course of human development, we’ve had to overcome many, many hardships. At one time humans were relatively easy prey animals for large predators. Our evolution didn’t endow us much in the way of body armor or built-in weaponry. Our eyesight and other senses pale next to various other animals. Even with all these deficiencies, our biggest challenge hasn’t been nature, but other people.

Archaeologists have also been discovering that a peaceful prehistory to humanity does not match the facts. Warfare and strife have been as much a staple of human behavior as the perennial hunt for food and safe shelter. Civilization involved cooperation at unprecedented levels. People had to trust one another and work to maintain the infrastructure that allowed diversification of talents and abilities. Fighting and wars still occurred, of course, but less frequently and with less brutality. With economies of surplus, however, capitalism also eventually evolved. It is an aggressive organism. It is visible in the greed embodied in the thought process that the only good in life is financial and the only worth of humans can be calculated in dollars and cents. It is this thinking that has erected the monuments more familiar to us today in our cities and centers of civilization.

Stonehenge could never have been a money-making venture (not until the development of capitalism at least). It is in the middle of nowhere, in a sense. The Salisbury Plain is fairly empty—no large cities nearby, no grand scenery as one might find in Cornwall or the Grampians. According to the theory, its location has to do with it being in a very rough middle between various regional cultures. Building impressive monuments is very difficult to do if one has to watch constantly over one’s shoulder. I suppose in my Romantic notions Stonehenge will always represent a mysterious past suffused with unanswered questions. For the present, however, Pearson’s explanation seems more than likely—it sounds absolutely vital in a world so dangerously divided as ours. Perhaps it is time to start a truly monumental building enterprise involving every nation. It will give future generations something to wonder about.

Time to build another henge.

Gothic Religion

Every great once in a while, you run across a book that seems to have been written just for you. I’m cheap enough to wait for most books to be issued in paperback (and storage is getting to be an issue in our cozy apartment), but sometimes the urgency is too great and I can’t resist. In Providence a few weeks ago, I visited the university bookstore—one of my favorite places in town. On the new arrival table was Victoria Nelson’s Gothicka. For what seemed inexplicable reasons, I always found Gothic tales among my favorite growing up. Poe was a standard, but he was accompanied by other stories that elicited the same cocktail of sensations, accompanying a dark and mysterious atmosphere with a suggestion of menace. Transfixed by even the mere presence of this book, I knew I was in the power of a force to which I would eventually succumb. And, unexpectedly, the book helped to explain part of my childhood.

Not every book I read has to do with religion. Far from it. I expected Nelson to discuss literature and movies and culture—all of which she does—but not necessarily religion. The first three chapters proved a revelation in that regard. Nelson deftly explains how Gothic largely overlaps with the characteristics of religion, bringing the supernatural into human lives and insisting that we tremble before it. Perhaps best explained by pastor Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy; the transcendent is something that terrifies as well as compels. In a culture where organized religion appears to be losing ground, Gothic offer the opportunity to tremble before the supernatural, and many people find it almost a religious experience. As becomes clear, the “almost” may appropriately be dropped.

Tracing the trajectory of my own reading interests, Nelson next provides an insightful chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. In many ways the initiator of worship of the dark divine, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and kith and kin represent an undisguised secularization of deity. At the same time, the trembling is still very much present—indeed, it is a native part of the experience. Lovecraft, who was an atheist, understood the literary utility of gods. They frightened and haunted him with their very non-existence. That is power. Gothic acknowledges and embraces that power while never relinquishing its darkness. Nelson’s Gothicka holds the potential of a journey of self-discovery. As she ranges deeper and deeper into that world, the reader discovers just how much it is part of being human in a world tormented by fallen gods.

Help from the Friend

Being unconventional does carry certain risks. I first learned of the Publick Universal Friend, born Jemima Wilkinson, from Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. There are many things, I imagine, worse in life than being labeled “occult,” but the Publick Universal Friend seems to have been more eccentric than occult. The “Friend” of her chosen moniker was a mark of her Quaker roots. The Quakers, while never among the most numerous of Christian sects, are infrequently considered occult. Two U.S. Presidents were Quakers, as is that friendly face smiling at you from your breakfast cereal box. What Jemima Wilkinson did that pushed her over the edge into the unconventional was actually the fault of her father: she was born female. In the 1770s religious leadership was nearly unanimously male. 

Wilkinson underwent a near-death experience that, like John Wesley some 70 years earlier, led her to believe that she was born to some higher purpose. Quakers, or Friends, generally eschewed excess showiness and the Publick Univeral Friend liked to make her presence known. She rode a white horse into Philadelphia and rode around in a carriage with her own logo, a kind of evangelical branding, if you will. Eventually tiring of the criticism of city folk (Publick Universal Friend was strictly platonic, advocating absolute celibacy), she moved to a region of New York that would eventually become the birthplace of several distinctive American religions. She settled near Keuka Lake and formed a community called Jerusalem.  New York and Pennsylvania would eventually harbor many utopian groups.  Both states were (and are, to a large extent) rural and it was a fairly easy matter to locate unclaimed real estate and establish a little bit of heaven here on earth. 

The message of Publick Universal Friend was peace and friendship, nothing too radical.  If preached by a male it would have been considered gospel. In fact, in a less darwinian world it might actually work.  The pull of nature on some people is too strong.  On others it is too weak. Maybe it is the legacy of having been born in a state that began as a “holy experiment” by William Penn, but I find it sad that the Publick Universal Friend has been nearly forgotten. Perhaps the Friend will have the final laugh. It seems that a young man named Joseph Smith might have been influenced by her in the days before writing up the Book of Mormon. As I’m sure Joseph Smith learned in the town of Carthage, we can all use a Friend who encourages us all to get along.

Ms. Found in an Email

The other day I received a distressed message from a friend that I met in college. Marvin’s career somewhat parallels mine; he went on to get a PhD, taught for a few years in New Hampshire until the economy claimed his job, tried to make it as a fiction writer and adjunct instructor for awhile before moving to Boston to work with a publishing company. He’s never made any money for his writing, but that may be for his own good because the money that authors make goes to support the CEO of whatever corporation owns the publishing house. Still, I wish him luck. Yesterday he emailed me about a book he’s reading, The Last Professors, by Frank Donoghue. He’s convinced me that I should read it, but I thought his message would be appropriate for this blog. In Marvin’s words:

“If a more bleak preface has ever been written, I’m an illiterate ape who never reads. The writing has been on the wall for years, but those of use who are able to see it have been hopelessly myopic. In the preface he tells how industrialists since the end of the Civil War have been dead-set against liberal arts education as useless. People like the two of us who studied ‘useless’ fields, they would have as the cogs in their efficient machines, suppressing our thoughts. The only useful education they can deign to approve is one that earns them more money. There’s only one value system in the world, it seems.

“Don’t you feel like a sell-out, working in New York City, that cathedral of capitalism? Is NYU on anybody’s list of tourist stops for people down there in New York? Who goes to visit a university when there’s so much of commercial interest to see?

“And yet, corporate types are the ones who can afford tickets to shows written and put on by people educated in their ‘useless’ craft, but who are in reality their unwitting chattels. And who wants to be seen with authors and intellectuals to enhance his personal prestige, so that he will appear smart? Who are the dogs in the manger who keep everything they can’t possible use for themselves, for fear that others might enjoy it?

“We all play along with their game—we wear jeans on casual Friday and declare how good we have it. We speak their demeaning language, using humiliating phrases like ‘best practice,’ ‘core competency’ and ‘corporate values.’ In this dehumanized state we all live in cages that we’ve helped build. Corporate moguls hold their power over us because we let them. We, the workers, have the power to change it. They make the rules and we obey because we all want to be in their place.

“Education is the way out—that’s why they hate it. There’s an entire support industry built around it; those of us in the book business rely on educated readers. What happened to Borders looks prophetic to me. Time to close—I’ve just arrived at work.

“Sent from my iPhone”

Just another useless lay-about


Providence has been on my mind lately. Most obviously, traveling to Providence for my niece’s graduation from Brown brought the city back to mind.  A book I’ve been reading has been referencing H. P. Lovecraft, a person readily associated with Providence as well.  And who can forget the Baptists?  While in Providence we visited First Baptist Church, widely considered to be the actual first Baptist church in America.  Portions of the commencement ceremony are held here, but between times it was open for the curious.  I guess I qualify.

Baptists are a widely diverse group.  In the United States they are often guilty by association with the shenanigans of the Southern Baptist Convention, and given the numeric force of the Baptist Church that can appear a little intimidating.  Nevertheless, Baptists were (and generally are) great defenders of religious tolerance.  Their own non-hierarchical tradition allows considerable freedom within the denomination itself.  Houses of worship (originally meeting houses, not churches) were plain and devoid of symbolism.  That is still a hallmark of most Baptists today.  Inside First Baptist, I was surprised to see a symbol.  A chunk of rock, an Ebenezer, rested on the table at the back of the meeting house.  The origin of a “stone of help” (an adequate translation of “ebenezer’) is certainly biblical-the reference goes back to the story of Israelite victory over the Philistines in 1 Samuel 7.  Samuel is reputed to have set up the stone as a memorial of the unanticipated victory.  After that story, the stone never reappears in the Bible.

The Baptists have always been concerned with idolatry. They do make a point that some Christian traditions rely very heavily on trappings to get the message across.  They are also correct in that early Christianity was a much simpler faith than the densely layered, extremely complex, imperfectly blended varieties of religion that today claim the title “Christian.”  It isn’t a copyright-protected brand and there is little that all Christians could be said to have in common.  As I touched the stone of help, I realized not even all Baptists share the stringent standards of no symbolism in their churches.  That is probably a good thing, because that, in itself, is symbolic.

Making Light

Back when I was a starry-eyed camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, “Christmas in July” was a chic (in as far as Christians can be chic) trend. Kids lucky enough to be at camp that week were treated to a neo-Christian holiday that included a half-birthday for Jesus and cheap gift-giving. (The fact that Jesus’ birthday, in as much as it can be determined, is mid-way between December and July seemed a strangely mute point.) Our “gifts” were generally manufactured from natural products found in the woods and were a diversion to help the homesick campers concentrate on the truly Christian practice of getting stuff. Interestingly, here on Midsummer (the solstice is actually the first day of astronomical summer, but our pagan forebears were more into astrology, it seems, than astronomy) we are on the second most-celebrated holiday in the northern latitudes. With its midnight sun in the far north, and warm temperatures starting to make a regular appearance, light outweighs darkness for just a little bit, and life is never easier than this. No wonder Midsummer appeals to the archetypal mind.

Of course, Christianity could not accept a purely natural holiday, attributed as it was to the beneficence of heathen gods. In an even more dubious exercise than fixing the date of Jesus’ birth, Midsummer became the nativity of John the Baptist, or St. John’s Eve. While some scholars dispute the historical existence of Jesus (not terribly convincingly), the case against John the Baptist might be a little stronger. The prototypical forerunner, the herald announcing something greater than himself is so uncharacteristic of religious folk that it lends itself to considerable doubt. John is described like Elijah, one of the greatest prophetic figures of biblical times. John’s birthday? Anybody’s guess. Since he is second to Jesus, put his birthday on the opposite solstice. (I realize the solstice was June 20; at this early hour of the morning, I think today may also qualify.)

Back at Easter, historically near the vernal equinox, I found myself at Stonehenge. Knowing I was missing Druid priests by a full set of quarter days, it was still an exhilarating experience. Ancient people welcomed the return of increasing light with religious fervor. The effort it took to move these monoliths to the barren plains of Salisbury is nearly unimaginable. They represent, at some level, the invincible nature of the sun, our warmth and light. In physical, astronomical, terms they had no idea what the sun might be. It was, undoubtedly, the source of light and warmth, and even every lizard and turtle sunning itself on a rock participates in welcoming its return. So we’ve come to the solstice once again. It is the high point of the year. Now we begin our slow descent back into nights that will grow longer until the winter solstice once again reverses the trend. We don’t need Christmas in July–we already have it in June.

Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.

Buying the Truth

Every now and again the Chronicle of Higher Education dips its trowel into the biblical archaeology debate. Those of us who’ve made extensive arguments based on ancient texts and artifacts know the territory a little too well. Archaeology, which largely grew out of biblical scholars attempting to “prove the Bible,” eventually started on its own track of scientific respectability with the predictable result of distancing itself from the Bible occurred. So far, so good. Then biblical criticism took a turn towards post-modern sensibilities. The truth cannot be known, and therefore the safest approach is to stop seeking any truth at all. Archaeologists in the know joined this venture (biblical scholars and archaeologists often cross borders in this exotic land), and began to deny historical Israel, as well as the rightly dismissed historical Abraham and Moses. Once you’ve walked a few leagues down that path, however, it is difficult to turn back. This is, of course, an over-simplified account of a complex dynamic, but the issues raised, as seen in the Chronicle, are real. Our perspective flavors our interpretation. If you don’t believe in a historical Israel you’ll never find one, no matter how hard you look. (A similar dynamic is at work in studies of religions and “paranormal” phenomena.) The word “evidence” is finessed as readily as fine hair treatments and the kinds of evidence that convince vary depending on the scholar. It is safest to admit we don’t know, sometimes.

The more troubling aspect, as far as I’m concerned, comes when the Chronicle introduces the concept of corporate sponsorship to archaeological digs. As an erstwhile volunteer on a dig (somewhere back in the Iron Age, it feels like now), I know that archaeology is frightfully expensive. There’s nothing like being on a dig to witness firsthand the amount of labor that goes into removing all that dirt–carefully! Carefully! Universities can’t afford it (stadiums don’t come cheap, you know!), so many digs rely on corporate donors–often television and film companies. And if you’re paying for footage, you want something to bring in watchers. An unnamed archaeologist quipped honestly in the Chronicle, “I don’t agree with everything they say in the films, but they pay me an awful lot more than I could ever earn from writing or teaching.” There it is, staring us straight in the face. The truth goes to the highest bidder.

That may sound benign enough, but in Israel especially, archaeology has high political stakes. You see, politicians are easily swayed by the “we were here first” argument. To get an idea of its specious nature, just ask a Native American! Proving the veracity of a David or Solomon no longer just gets God off the hook, it also builds the basis for claims against people who’ve been here an incredibly long time. The sad reality is that in archaeology, as in higher education, money speaks with an inordinately loud voice. As an agreed means of exchange, money is certainly important, but is it “true”? For those who’ve stopped short of the post-modern abandonment of that great philosophical ideal of Truth, we should be wary of allowing lucre to decide the issue. Those with money already help to decide what courses will be taught and what tels will be excavated. We run a real risk when we let those same people decide what will be considered the truth. In a society enamored of media and its ease of use, the truth is sometimes what comes across the television. There is another way, but it involves heavy digging and lots of reading. Maybe next time—but for now just pass the remote.

Home Grown

In a seedier neighborhood of Midtown stands a five-story apartment building that would be easily overlooked on an ordinary day. Back in the late nineteenth century an investigator of the Lincoln assassination, and lawyer, by the name of Henry Steel Olcott began to meet in this apartment with a Russian mystic who came to be known as Madame Blavatsky. Their base of operations was call the Lamasery. The “religion” that resulted from their collaboration came to be known as Theosophy.

I remember distinctly when I first learned of Theosophy. I was attending an academic conference and as I passed along the bookstalls I noticed the Theosophical Society with their table of wares. A newly minted doctor of philosophy, a nagging worry sprung up in my head: was this a form of philosophical thinking that I should’ve learned about? Had I somehow forgotten lessons on Theosophy? Should I rush back to the library (this was before the Internet, let alone Wikipedia) and find out what Theosophy was? Well, I did make the effort and soon learned that it was considered an occult group and therefore I need not concern myself any more.

What I hadn’t fully realized is that although Theosophy did indeed integrate some elements of the Spiritualist movement, it was in many ways America’s introduction to Buddhism and Hinduism. America in the nineteenth century had some experience of Islam, but generally the only religions that were widely recognized were Christianity and Judaism. Anything else sounded occultish and vaguely heathen. Olcott and Blavatsky raised awareness that religions elsewhere in the world did not necessarily conform to American tastes. There was more to religious belief than met the eye.

Theosophy never made it big in the New World, but it continues to survive to this day. America has become the premier place for new religions to emerge. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a religion like Mormonism—a distinctly American belief system—gaining an infant foothold anywhere else in the world. Although largely identifying ourselves amorphously as “Christian,” Americans are great religious experimenters. And Theosophy was a faith that grew out of experimental ideas in New York City with tendrils stretching all the way to India and China. The movement even bestowed upon Gandhi his famous epithet of Mahatma. The words inscribed on his Serbian monument would serve us all well to memorize: “non-violence is the essence of all religions.”

Shelley, Byron, Trelawny, and Ahab

“I took up the word [atheist], as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.” The words come from Percy Bysshe Shelley, according to Edward Trelawny. After visiting the display Shelley’s Ghost at the New York Public Library last week, I was struck by how little I knew of Shelley. I’d read some of his poetry, and had watched the fictional movie Gothic (maybe more times than is really healthy) to get a sense of this candle in the wind, the Romantic poet who died in a shipwreck before reaching 30. Edward Trelawny’s reputation as an historian is somewhat suspect, but he did form friendships with Shelley and Lord Byron and arranged the disposal of their earthly remains. His book, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, while somewhat self-serving, weaves an intriguing account. Among the mementos in the library display are some fragments of Shelley’s skull, taken after his cremation by Trelawny. This erstwhile biographer did prove his mettle by reaching into the pyre and pulling out Shelley’s heart, according to his own account, that eventually returned to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his widow.

Trelawny admired Shelley’s atheism, and even applauded Darwin’s Origin of Species when it appeared. The nineteenth century was setting the stage for a strange Frankenstein’s monster of political and religious backlash against the freedom of the Romantics. Not all of the Romantics, obviously, were atheists, but their works extolled the wonders of nature and a sense of liberty from tyranny that would define them as dreamers and idealists. Lord Byron comes across much less favorably in Trelawny’s account, although their friendship lasted through some difficult times. After the poet’s death, Trelawny claims to have examined his feet, discovering the cause of a lifelong limp. His psychologically astute conclusion is that Byron’s disagreeable personality traits arose from his lifelong anger and anxiety about his birth defect.

Being an ardent admirer of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I have to admit that the elements of anger at the divine for a limp (Captain Ahab forcefully stomps into mind), and the emphasis on ships and shipwrecks (as in Shelley’s death) tie these three literary geniuses together into a knot of suffering and seeking. Religion had consoled many in the nineteenth century, just as it continues to do now in the twenty-first. Among many of those who have endured through their literary works, however, God had slowly disappeared. Not quite as dramatic of a demise as Shelley’s, nor as unforgettable as Captain Ahab’s, but one for which there will be few biographers.

Faith Falls

Niagara Falls, despite the crowds and commercialization and the diminished flow of the Niagara River to serve hydro-electric dreams, is nevertheless impressive. It is also one of those landmarks from my childhood since I had a great-aunt and cousins who lived in the town of Niagara Falls. That was back in the days when you could cross between the United States and Canada without a blink of a sleepy customs officer’s eye. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of a guy who’s not quite young any more, and maybe it is the sheer intensity of the negative ions released from all that falling water, but Niagara Falls remains one of my favorite places to visit. It is one of those places that you leave feeling like maybe you’ve been touched by something divine. At the office yesterday when talk turned to Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across the Falls last night, memories began to surge. I didn’t watch the live broadcast (I don’t have television service and with my commuting schedule I can’t stay awake past nine p.m. most days), but reading about the successful crossing this morning, I again found something divine.

When reporters asked Wallenda how he’d accomplished the feat he replied, “a lot of praying, that’s for sure.” Here’s where I had to stop and pause. Prayer is a common response to stress. Those moments when people face something that is beyond human capabilities—be it illness and loss in the family, financial ruin, or almost certain death—we often reach out for that which we hope will help us. When Wallenda stepped off that rope, his experience validated his assumptions that God helped him to do what is, in any rational universe, a very foolish thing. At the same time, he asked for divine aid in facing what must be, in that universe, a divine death-trap. Anyone who has stood close to Niagara Falls, or walked the wooded trail along the class five rapids of the Niagara River has come as close to the divine as humans are ever likely to get. To believe that prayer gets you through is to believe that God defies God.

Daredevils live for a thrill that transcends the comfort zone of most religious folk. I grew up during the days when Eval Knievel was a household name and his insane stunts drew millions to their televisions. Surrounded by television cameras, just nine months before his death he undertook his most dangerous stunt. He was baptized at the Crystal Cathedral, spawning hundreds of copycat baptismals. His death, it is generally acknowledged, resulted from complications of his many lifetime injuries. I remember his failed Snake River Canyon jump in 1974. Years later, staring out over the Snake River Canyon for the first time, I felt just a little of that transcendence that draws people to dramatic places. A friend tells me that whenever she goes to Niagara Falls she feels the urge to jump in. She is a very religious person. Hearing her remark about doing a Wallenda without a tightrope, I think she might be the most truly religious person I know.