Puny Windstorm

Nothing says wrath of God like a hurricane. Those of us along the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States are hunkered down wondering what’s to become of daily life when the storm is over. Responses to the situation have been, well, religious. Store owners spraypaint prayer-like sentiments to Sandy on their plywood protection, urging the storm to be kind. Interviews are laced with language appropriately placating to a deity. The storm named after a mythical monster has become a god. Such responses are not limited to Hurricane Sandy, of course. In fact, when death is expected pleading with the powers that be is routinely recognized as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s bargaining stage of the dying process. We always hope that forces stronger than us might be willing to make a deal, cut us a bargain. The storm, given a human name, is personified as a deity. It is such a very human response to any phenomenon that forces us to realize just how small we are. Our egos may reach to the ends of the universe, but in reality we are fragile, scared children begging for the protection of a supernatural parent.

Last night as we were sitting here waiting to be hit, my family watched The Avengers. The juxtaposition of deities and heroes in the Marvel Universe fascinates me, and, of course, the movie has to explain that Thor and Loki are really only aliens perceived as gods. Compared with their human companions, they are immeasurably strong but they do not decide the outcome of the cosmic battle that devastates New York City. No, it is Tony Stark who flies the atomic bomb through the portal to the invading ice giants, saving humanity. Thor is too busy battling flying metal dino-whales. Humanity is responsible for its own salvation. The gods may help, but they alone cannot deliver. Against his protests of divinity, the Hulk bashes a protesting Loki into the floor of Stark Tower with the grunted huff, “puny god.” His only line in the movie. The portal, swirling hurricane-like over Midtown is forced closed and human technology, in the form of Iron Man’s admittedly cool armor, saves us all.

Hurricanes remind us that our technology can’t save us all. The advance warning may very well have spared many lives by the time this all blows over. As early as Thursday I was wondering if work would be called off or if I’d have to battle the rain and winds and storm surges to get to my office (which would have provided an awesome view of the final battle in The Avengers, facing, as I do, the Chrysler Tower and Grand Central). We have been warned. Our technology, however, can’t stop the force of the storm. Sandy may not be divine, but she is massive—much larger than any person who believes that there is some trace of divinity within him or her. As I sit here listening to the wind and the rain, I wonder what the weather is like in Asgard today.

Silent Fright

“[A] sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make,” is how Rachel Carson described the indiscriminate use of herbicides fifty years ago. Silent Spring, although clearly dated, remains a chilling book for a number of reasons. One of the most obvious is that although the book is half-a-century old, the breakdown of some of our toxins released into the environment before it was written is still not complete. And perhaps more frightening still is the fact that we continue to stumble forward without giving enough thought to where our actions against our planet might lead. The quote above presses urgently at the heart of the matter: those with the destructive interests are almost always those who set the agenda. As Carson noted fifty years ago, the right of the nature lover to enjoy an unspoiled part of nature is just as valid as the right of the greedy to rape the landscape for “resources.” But we all know who eventually gets their way.

On a finite planet with finite resources, one of those that cannot be replaced is the beauty that nature has spent billions of years evolving us to appreciate. Desire for beauty reaches down to our most primal and basic levels. In the United States how many people drive hundreds or thousands of miles just to see Yellowstone every year? And yet, last time I was there I spied an empty can carelessly tossed into one of the stunning blue hot pools that require a delicate balance of nature to maintain. Those who appreciate the glory must always be those who pay the price. The fancy name for this is aesthetics, and some writers have suggested that the violation of beauty is a deeply disturbing problem on a philosophical or theological level. The basics are easily comprehended: we mar the planet at the cost of not only our own, but of every future generation.

Silent Spring warned those empowered to make laws that a dangerous road had already been selected. The radioactive fallout from bombs detonated to indicate national superiority continues to render some locations uninhabitable, and all of us carry traces of toxins that others have spread in our bodies. Humans, as Prometheus represents, have the ability of forethought. It is not always easy; in fact, it is often very hard. Somewhere back in a cave somewhere, long, long ago, even before our species emerged, future humans realized how. We teach. We teach our young of the dangers we’ve discovered, and instruct them to avoid them. As society evolved, money—the ultimate poison—crept into the environment and education became devalued. Even now, higher education—established for the joy of learning—has become economically driven job training. And people we’ve never met, and companies we’ve never heard of, pay off those who make laws, and another piece of our pristine environment disappears. Silent Spring remains in print, but how can we convince the disinterested to read it?

New Prometheus

Nothing portends the wrath of the Almighty like an unseasonal storm. The late season Hurricane Sandy, now dubbed the Frankenstorm because of its potential hookup with two wintery systems making their way east and south, is poised to make an apocalyptic scenario on the east coast, we’re told. Well, it is 2012, the year of apocalypses, after all. In an interesting shift, however, this storm is named after not a divine character, but Frankenstein’s monster, the human-made nightmare. I first read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein back in high school, and I was immediately subdued. The story, undoubtedly frightening when first heard, is unremittingly sad. The “monster,” like all of us, finds himself in a cold and lonely world where he is rejected because he is different. It is cruel and Republican kind of world. All the monster seeks is companionship, acceptance. I found the story so sad that I’ve had trouble reading it ever since.

The naming of a storm after a terror created by humanity may be prescient, in a regrettable way. Only the most gullible (read “greedy”) believe that industrialization had nothing to do with it. We toasted our own planet for a buck or two. In biblical terms we have sowed the wind, for which there is only one kind of produce. Hurricanes are quite natural, and although the irregular weather of 2012 may prove simply a meteorological anomaly, it may be the result of our tinkering with the baubles of divinity. They certainly seem to be getting bigger than they used to be.

I have to admit to having a persistent fear of those doing the cobbling. Too often their motivation appears to be flat and green and indigestible. And nothing like stockpiling it makes a person somehow less human. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Frankenstein not for money, but for love of words. The modern chimeras we construct are mere carnival side-shows by comparison. And like Victor Frankenstein we have engineered beyond our capability to understand. Our best option may be to stand silently and wonder at the forces that hold us enthralled. For in the novel, at least, the real monster is not the cadaver stitched together underneath the sheet.

Endorsement

Since a blog is a variety of media, and since media endorse their candidates, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World endorses Barack Obama for President of the United States. I endorse Obama for the working class, for those who think clearly, and for those whom society doesn’t give a chance.

Working class credentials are at a premium these days among politicians who want to appear to be just like the most of us. Often it is, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Some of us, many of us, maybe most of us, have grown up in the working class. We are fed a theologically conservative line by our clergy and sometimes they make efforts to wrap it loosely around political conservatism as well. I don’t buy it. I grew up working class and that mentality has never changed. This is something Obama understands. He may not be perfect, but in this working world, none of us are. Empathy is still currency.

Bemusement would be my reaction to the factual gaffs made by not only Mitt Romney but also most presidential candidates from the GOP over the last two decades, were they not so serious. They show a loss of touch not only with the average person, but with reality itself. In their world of corporate-level wealth and extreme privilege they don’t even have to obey the laws of climate change as long as their obsequious sycophants are willing to change the facts for them. I am amazed at how easily the wool is pulled over the eyes of the American public. Does anybody really listen to what these guys are saying? Does anybody bother to try to add it all up? No, not even a slide rule will help.

The economy was not fixed over night. Too many years of too much greed have dug us deep, deep in a rut. From their armored cars speeding along in the midst of motorcades maybe the politicians don’t see the homeless I walk past every day on my way to work in the richest city in the nation. Maybe they don’t see the utter lack of hope, the death of possibility in the eyes of those who, through no fault of their own, society deems useless. I’ve been unemployed, even though I played by the rules. I learned there are no rules, save one. Those with wealth will do whatever it takes to keep it.

I think Barack Obama understands all these points. As for the honorable opposition, I think his diamond-lens glasses may have grown too thick to read clearly what the tablets say. And those tablets, I’m told, are made of gold.

Barely Departed

Back before any of us, or anyone we knew, had attended Grove City College, one tragic night a student on the basketball team crashed through the glass doors of the gym on west campus and bled to death. If you walked across that part of campus at night, it was said, you would see his ghost. Everyone knew his name was Jim, but I never saw him. Folklorist Elizabeth Tucker presents a rare treat of the anomalous and academic in her book Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Professors have traditionally shied away from the paranormal. It can be a risky way to spend your time since the supernatural has been banished from the academy for ages. That doesn’t mean that students and professors have stopped seeing ghosts, though. Tucker, like a good prof, doesn’t just tell us ghost stories and dismiss class. She tries to unpack a bit of what they might mean.

Ghost stories, even when entertaining, are able teachers. Kids going to college find themselves in liminal situations. Not really independent, not really supervised, they test the limits of what they’ve been told. Ghosts, not supposed to exist, are the ultimate rebels. They don’t even obey the laws of physics or biology. But what are ghosts if not the embodiment of the human spirit? We call them spirits, and they represent that part of us that stubbornly refuses to go gentle into that dark night.

Tucker’s book will not convince a skeptic that ghosts exist. It probably won’t cause you any sleepless nights (unless you are about to send your child off to college). Her book is more about what ghost stories say about the living, as would be expected of a folklorist. Although not a comprehensive survey, Haunted Halls may well bring back the ghostly tales of your own college years, for very few places are without their specters, especially on a rainy October night. And even though I never saw Jim as I cut across west campus in the dark, who am I to say that he’s not really there?

Mrs. Jesus

First we learned that Yahweh was married. Then we hear, “like father, like son.” A Galilean tempest in a Wonderland teapot. A papyrus fragment from centuries after the fact implies Jesus might have been married and the media smells blood. The scholars who translated the materials tried very hard to demonstrate that their efforts indicated nothing about the historical Jesus, but that doesn’t sell newspapers, magazines, and website hits. Jesus being married does. Spying an article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, I pondered why this might be. Why the great fuss over Jesus’ potential marriage? This is not an easy fabric to unweave. Americans have been routinely taught to idealize Jesus in order to underscore his divinity. A man without warts, no faults, perfect hygiene, completely symmetrical. His unwed nature is silent testimony to male superiority—when God chose to incarnate, he picked a masculine template. And for a man to need anything is a sign of weakness. If some Coptic Gnostic suggests that maybe Jesus had a weakness after all, well, that’s scandal enough to sell a million copies right there.

Theologians are quick to say that God is really beyond gender, but we sexual beings are so, well, focused on our biological packaging that we just can’t conceive a deity any other way. American culture thrives on the concept of a personal relationship with God. It is difficult to have a relationship without assessing the sexual roles. More than reproduction, our sexuality defines how we interact with others. By recasting Jesus as a married man, the whole dynamic is thrown off. Girls who are taught to uphold the virginal Jesus as an ideal man would now have to create room for the other woman. Boys would no longer have to consider the monastery. Overestimating the impact of marrying off Jesus in this country might well prove impossible.

The Chronicle takes a bemused look at the issue, as befits a disaffected, intellectual publication. For most Americans the relationship can never be so diffident. Scholars may find it funny, but we are vastly outnumbered. Like a divine paternity test, ink analysis of the papyrus fragment is out at the lab. If it’s just another forgery, life goes on much as before. The fact is, as has been stressed all along, all that can be potentially proven is that some people in the fourth century thought Jesus had a main squeeze. People have wondered that for centuries, with or without a papyrus to spark discussion. We are sexual beings, and like Xenophanes’s horses, our gods must look like us or become like the shadow over Innsmouth.

“And I think the couch should go over there!”

Fall Silent

Some books impact an individual profoundly. Others are powerful enough to influence an entire society. Rachel Carson was the author of both. Tributes to the fifty year landmark of the publication of Silent Spring have appeared this month, and although the players have changed, the plot remains the same. Bryan Walsh’s tribute in Time a few weeks back captures the essence of the situation: an environmental danger is discovered, “industry” will at first deny it, then attack the science, and then try to frighten the population with the inevitable escalation of costs. Sometimes common sense wins, but only after a long tantrum by those whose main desire is personal enrichment.

Silent Spring is credited with starting the ecological movement. Until the early 1960s the world seemed vast enough to absorb our filthy, toxic run-off. We were only on the cusp of understanding that the world is much smaller than we had ever imagined. Disney had not yet published the theme song that would get through to the American imagination. We had yet to stand on the moon and look back at just how tiny our troubles were in an infinite universe. Using pseudo-religious backing, industries often claim the planet was made for us. In truth, we evolved to adapt to this planet. The sad story after sad story of those who’d figured out how to line their pockets at the expense of the health, and often the lives, of others constitutes an ignoble hall of shame. Rachel Carson, who truly deserves the title of prophet, was considered the enemy of progress. Better living through chemicals—who hasn’t heard the phrase?

The science behind DDT, which nearly drove the bald eagle to extinction, is not the culprit. The radium that rotted the teeth, mouths, and jaws of young women employed to paint it on watch hands, had always been radioactive. The coal still burning under Centralia suffers from properties properly discovered by science. In case after case we find greed running away with the science. Science unlocks the secrets of our universe, but it also gives ideas to those who are always looking to make a buck. It may be that Rachel Carson knew she was slinging stones at giants when Silent Spring was published. This one biblical metaphor might come in useful for those who are able to see the larger picture. We’ve only got one planet and if we want it to survive we’ve got to make it last. Giants should come to fear the disadvantaged who know how to use slings, whether with rocks or words.

Secret Life of Apples

Considering that the story of Eden fits the pattern of many an ancient myth, modern writers still occasionally argue about what the fruit on the tree of life might have been. The favorite with medieval theologians seems to have been the apple because of the similarity of its name in Latin and the presumed badness of the act. Apples, however, are nutritious and make up a large part of autumn’s outdoor appeal. While at a local orchard over the weekend, apple picking, my daughter pointed out a tree with what might be termed biblical properties. A tree full of ripe apples yet to all appearances the tree was dead or dying. Perhaps that is nature’s way with apples, but it also seemed like such a resurrection symbol that I just couldn’t let it go. Would the apples carry on the line of the dead parent tree? Was there life after death?

I’m not sure why I’ve associated apples with new life. Shortly after my father died, I planted an apple seed in a plant potter in our Wisconsin home. To my surprise, the seed germinated and began to grow. We did not own our house, but we lived on a wooded campus and two large shade trees had been blown over in the past few months, so when the young tree was large enough, I planted it outside. The lawns on campus were rather aggressively mown with students who sometimes had anger issues, so I put up a little fence around the young tree to keep it safe from accidental mulching. By the time I was asked to leave Nashotah House, the tree was taller than me (not such a feat, but the fact that it survived so well was pleasing). No apples had yet appeared, but the tree is a symbol of new life. No one on campus knew its meaning, and I doubt very much that anyone thought much about it one way or the other after I left.

I often wonder if that little tree is still alive, and, if so, whether or not anyone enjoys its apples. Every year when the trees begin their long journey into a winter’s sleep, the apple trees send forth the own message of resurrection. Some will associate the fruit with sin while others will find pleasant autumnal memories. And a very few, I should suppose, will always think of trees as a symbol of someone they wish they might have known a little better. Far from being a sign of sin, the apple can be a sign of forgiveness and self-giving. Whether it is a myth or not, the northern hemisphere has begun its inexorable turn away from the sun. I look at a tree that is dead and full of life at the same time, and to me it seems to be a very different kind of fall than some suggest the Bible intends.

Buyer Beware

Pain, it is said, has a wonderful way of focusing the mind. So when I woke up in what can best be described as a body position used for extras in the movie, Twister, I took a few aspirin and got on with my life. I had purchased non-refundable tickets for a campus visit, and capitalism is nothing if not unsympathetic. The lower back pain was fine when sitting, or standing. Try anything in between, however, and you’ll learn the real meaning of reading the riot act. Once off the train—slowly, slowly—I was fine again, until I had to sit down. The next morning, facing a day of meetings (why is everyone’s office on the fourth floor? Why do Brownstones still lack elevators?), I decided I’d better pop into CVS for some meds. It was with considerable irony and not a few groans that I noted all the products for back pain were on the bottom shelves. The condoms, in the same aisle, were right at eye-level. Sitting on the floor, pondering the relative merits of chemicals of which I’d never heard, I thought about what we take for granted.

Parents and guardians are our first teachers. Among those early lessons are often the religious ones. Recently speaking with both seminary professors and pastors, I have heard the common refrain that church membership is declining and the number of younger people listing themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. I noticed this in my teaching outside the seminary setting; quite apart from students of other religious traditions, many undergrads took my class knowing nothing at all of the cultural matrix of Christianity in which they’d been raised. It is also true in a consumer mentality that one shops for religious experiences just like one shops for backache medicine. You go with the one that works for you. Few bother to ask if they agree with the theology, after all, Methodist = Baptist = Presbyterian = Lutheran in many people’s minds. Doan’s or Bayer? Take your pick.

Now that Dark Shadows has been released for home viewing, another component may be added to the equation. We pass on what we value to those we love. While the writing for Dark Shadows leaves quite a lot to be desired, there are a few memorable lines. Angelique, you may recall, cursed Barnabas Collins for unrequited love, turning him into a vampire. When he laments to Elizabeth Stoddard that Angelique hates him, she replies, “No, if she had hated you she would have merely killed you. A curse takes devotion.” Passing on our beliefs, perhaps, somehow ties into all this. As believing creatures, perhaps we each need to find our own solutions. My only fear is that when I find the right remedy, it may very well be on the bottom shelf.

Read the caption

Where is it?

When I step outside to pick up the morning newspaper, I always look at the sky. I think this is a very early evolutionary trick. It may be because there was a time when primates were smaller and birds of prey larger, or it may be because some big cats like to drop on prey from trees. It may be simply that we don’t like to get wet, especially unexpectedly. For whatever reason, the sky is a source of endless fascination. Helen T. Gray, in a piece written for the Kansas City Star yesterday, ponders the place of Heaven in the space age. 80 percent of Americans report believing in Heaven, she points out, and she describes how Heaven has shifted from an improbably physical place to a transdimensional or neurologically embedded place. We, as a people, believe that there must be a better place than this. No matter where we locate it, Heaven is always a decided improvement on this place where too many people suffer too much and all of us suffer some of the time.

I once considered astronomy for a career. My high school, built in the fretful days of the Cold War, had an actual planetarium as the space race was burning over the red line. I took a high school class in astronomy and when I got to college I followed it up with an undergraduate course in the same. While I enjoyed learning about all the strangeness of space, it soon became clear that astronomy was simply another word for mathematics; the class involved intensive equations stressing a regularity that Metamucil would be proud to claim. And, of course, since we live on a sphere every direction is up. The belief in a better place is nothing if not resilient. It survived the knowledge that “up there” is either nowhere or everywhere, depending on your point of view. Most theologians after Galileo’s day finally admitted that. When I go for the paper, I still look to the sky, however.

In Hebrew the word translated “heaven” is the same word that is translated as “sky.” The Hebrew Bible knows no separate place called Heaven, but the latest parts do indicate a life restored after death. I wonder if Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley might not have gotten it right when they wrote the song that would help solidify Belinda Carlisle’s solo career. Maybe Heaven is a place where love prevails. Not just the erotic love of pop music, but the love that sees not a Muslim, an African, a Hindu, or an Oriental, but human beings. That stranger experiences those same feelings, hopes, aspirations that all of us do. He or she should not be left shivering, hungry on the street corner begging for quarters to buy his or her next meal. If it’s clear outside I linger as I gaze at early morning stars and planets, feeling deep yearnings I can’t hope to express. No, Heaven may not be a Mormon planet where you get to become God after you die (ahem). Heaven is not a mansion in the clouds (I’m sure some satellite would’ve picked it up by now). Heaven is not where I get to go and you don’t. Heaven is here and now, but we all have to work for it.

Seeing the Dark

The Dark may be a movie that tries to do too much, but it does illustrate an idea that has been lurking around my head for a few years. That which we fear and that which we worship are never far apart. Since The Dark was pretty much panned, in brief it goes like this—a separated couple gets back together in Wales to draw their troubled teen daughter back. While there she drowns and the ghost of a girl from the past shows her mother how to get her daughter back. The film is notable as being the first I’ve seen that could make sheep scary. Skulking in the back story is a minister, “the shepherd,” the father of the ghostly girl, who started a new religion over the ocean cliffs of Wales half a century ago. When his daughter died, he convinced his flock to leap off the cliff to reach a place that is a combination of Heaven and a Welsh mythical afterlife called Annwyn. The shepherd, however, is really using their sacrificial deaths to bring his daughter back from the dead. The story is complex and the darkness of the narrative is at times overwhelming, nevertheless, it is a showcase of how religious conviction can be more frightening than consoling at times.

Some years back I researched the Welsh mythology of the Mabinogion. Having been a student of ancient religions, however, I knew there was only so far I could go without the lexical support of learning Celtic languages. (This is a fact of mythological study often overlooked by popular treatments; if you really want to get what is going on there is no substitute for reading texts in their original language. I was too busy learning Ugaritic and the time, and struggling with Akkadian, to pick up Gaelic as well.) Nevertheless, the mythology struck me as particularly compelling. Some of the roots of the Arthurian legend lie deep within this lore, and although often uncredited, it still influences our society today. Mythology is simply religion dressed to go out for the evening. The concepts form the basis of much that we still believe and that which still has the power to terrify.

Although the critics didn’t care for the film, the dense interweaving of misplaced religious devotion, Welsh mythology, and basic human longing make The Dark in many ways a classic horror movie. It may be hard to find the characters sympathetic, but they are in some ways archetypal. With a sinister minister driven by personal loss turning to pagan folklore to bring his daughter back, we have a secondary character who curses the fate of an all-too-human condition. The concept of sacrifice becomes a tool for selfish gain rather than a means of helping others. Possibly those who panned the movie did so without an appreciation of the mythology that pulses just beneath the surface here. And while sometimes horror films are simply puerile escapism, at other times they should give us pause to think, and maybe even learn.

Hallowed Eve

My last night in Boston found me in Copley Square. This has always been one of my iconic Boston locations; something in the juxtaposition of squat, solid, dual-toned Trinity Church with its wide, open plaza, the blue glass razor of the Hancock Tower, and the classical facade of the Boston Public Library where Sophia broods over the world, arrests my wondering gaze. Across Boylston Street stands the gothic Old South Church like a guardian for straying souls. As I walked through the square a local band of street musicians jammed and the first neons of an October evening were awaking. As I strolled past Old South I had to back up a step or two to see if I’d read the sign right.

Scared for Good, a Halloween organ concert featuring spooky music, will soon be on offer. Business-types have long noted that Halloween is a great potential selling holiday. With kids who want to dress up and parents stressed for time, the selling of costumes has grown into an increasingly substantial accessory item holiday. People want their houses to look scary, knocking down real cobwebs to make way for the artificial ones, hanging out orange and purple lights, and ordering pre-carved, artificial pumpkins. All the fear is, of course, a charade, and we laugh at ourselves for taking it too seriously. Some churches object vociferously to the very holiday itself, claiming it is devil worship and evil.

While Halloween does have some serious pagan influences, it is, in its present form, a good Catholic holiday. The night before All Saints, aka All Hallows, begins a period of reflection on mortality. I’ve celebrated “Protestant” Halloween from my youngest days and have never been in any way tempted toward devil worship. It is fun to be scared when you know it’s not real and it won’t last long. That’s why I applaud Old South Church’s Scared for Good concert. Reading the list of pieces included, it sounds like it should be a grand time. Too bad I won’t be in Boston for the occasion. As I walk back to my hotel in the chill of the evening,the only fear i feel is that moments like this evening come at insufferably long intervals for those who feel about the city as must the denizens of Copley Square.

The Future of Theological Education

It is almost like stepping into a time warp. To be honest, it is difficult for me to admit that I graduated from Boston University School of Theology a quarter of a century ago. Standing here outside 90-92 Bay State Road, where I once lived, is like looking into a shattered mirror. Behind those doors much of what made me who I am took place. Perhaps I left some of myself there. I don’t even know if the property is still the single student “dorm” for the school of theology or not. Kenmore Square has transmogrified from an area that felt like Times Square in the ’80’s to an upscale dogtown. When I stepped into 745 Commonwealth Avenue, it was like being hit in the face with a combination of nerve gas and roses. The hallways look wider now then they did back then. The hallways where so many of my assumptions curled up and died. They still have chapel and community lunches. The Boston Book Annex is closed.

Boston University has sure poured a lot of money into the Back Bay redevelopment. Whence that sense of personal offense when I see a multimillion dollar new building there and recall the financial aid interviews where I was told, like in a Bruce Springsteen song, “we’d like to help you out, but we just can’t”? Has social justice come to live in these halls? In those days anyone who didn’t have an oppressed status was a minority. And I learned as much about hate as I did about love within these implacable walls. Is it ghosts that I feel rushing through me as i walk down Bay State Road, and stare out over Storrow Drive? I’m not sure of the future of theological education. Until schools of theology can lay down their swords and become truly ecumenical, can any change truly occur?

Theology is an exercise in the unknown. When I donned my red robe and graduated here, the world seemed to be full of possibilities. A lot of erosion can take place in twenty-five years, you know. I thought I was contributing to the future of theological education when I studied the Bible so minutely that no single letter existed that didn’t have a prehistory deep in the realm of pre-Israelite society. I assumed that truth was the end goal of theological inquiry. Problem is, for many, the end goal was written two millennia ago and we of the lost generations ever since have as our task simply to reinforce the crumbling foundations and assure our benefactors that we did have it right, we have had it right, all along. As I write this a very able colleague at another seminary is undergoing what can only be considered heresy trials for teaching the truth. Is theological truth so fragile? Maybe this is why it has taken a quarter century to return. Maybe this is the future of theological education. Those of us who still believe in theological education seem to be a dying breed, along with the ghosts of Bay State Road.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Oil City Millionaires

Oil City Junior High School. Ninth grade. As a kid who grew up politically naive, Mr. Baker’s words felt like the Gospel. “People will never elect a president against their own economic interests,” he once said. Then came the Reagan years with “trickle down” bs, and, let’s be honest, the working class has been hurting ever since. Reading the political headlines, I’m frankly distressed that politicians no longer have any clear idea what working class life is like. Online I see working-class friends following, zombie-like, the richest man to ever run for President, daily proving Mr. Baker wrong. I’m not naive enough to think that most career politicians of either party know what it’s like to struggle for a living, but I have seen time and time again the Democratic Party trying to stretch out safety nets for those who receive no trickle down hand-outs. I do know what it is to struggle, and I do know that getting an education does not equate to getting a job. I also know that no Republican since Eisenhower has tried to be fair to the working class.

I grew up just outside Oil City, Pennsylvania. It was a town founded by potential millionaires because petroleum had been discovered in the region. Many get-rich-quick schemers settled these pleasant hills and valleys, but the oil pools were as shallow as a politician’s sympathy, and some of the towns in the region became ghost towns. The Oil City I knew was working class families, trying to get by; many grasping religion when politics never ceased to disappoint. We were children of Damocles. Somehow the message has morphed from when I was a child paying attention in school. The issue is now, “I’m not well off, but I sure as heck don’t want the government helping those worse off than me!” Trickle down indeed. To me it seems obvious why the wealthy skew “pro-life”—their schemes cannot succeed without a constant stream of desperate workers. Keep those kids coming!

Because as a child I read all the time, I knew there was a life outside Oil City. Paying my own way through college with crippling debts, I managed to get out and earn an advanced degree overseas, just to be fired by a Republican who thought my advocacy for fair treatment had no place in a seminary. Yes, I’ve felt the barbed lash of unemployment. I spent years wondering what might become of my small family as trickle-downs began defying gravity and wormed their way back up to the wealthy. I’ve never owned a house; none has ever trickled down to my income level. Those Oil City millionaires never gave me any handouts. But Oil City did give me an education. I learned to see through those who say they are protecting me and my future. The only thing they are protecting is securely tucked into their back pockets. I’ve seen their ads castigating Jimmy Carter, a president who is actually out there building houses for the poor. I’ve heard them blaming Obama for not filling in a trench that took Bush the Less eight years to dig. I say let’s just let trickle-down fill that hole. I’m sure the Oil City millionaires will be glad to kick in a greenback or two; after all no one ever votes against their own economic self-interest.

Trickle down.