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.