It takes a mighty powerful stimulus to get the media to pay attention to biblical scholars. It is no surprise, therefore, when the Society of Biblical Literature meets with the American Academy of Religion each November that, for a few days a year, Bible becomes chic. This year various newspaper articles appeared, perhaps warning Chicagoans what all these crusty professors were doing invading their fair city, but the one that caught my eye was in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle is the purveyor of all that is high-brow and sophisticated, epithets seldom applied to the Bible. The story in November 19’s edition made this clear by throwing in a little scandal—some Bible scholars believe the Bible to be “morally bankrupt.” Now there’s a twist. Nor is it really that hard to understand. Anyone who’s read the Bible seriously will have to admit to having squirmed a time or two at the moral implications. Dashing babies heads against the rocks will be one of those places.


In a society accustomed to seeing in black and white, morally at least, it is difficult to get the religiously convicted to admit that the Bible is a pastiche. Some parts are morally sublime (yes, even in the Hebrew Bible where “love your neighbor as yourself” originates) while others are ethically execrable (can I get an amen from the babies?). It is always interesting to see friends quoted in the media. I taught Hebrew Bible for 18 years without anyone really being that interested (including most students). I guess maybe I wasn’t radical enough. To me the Bible has to be viewed in balance, the moment one falls on their knees before it the corruption has begun. Interestingly, the article focuses on the New Testament side of the equation. That’s where the sexier conflicts wallow.

People arguing about the Bible. Is there anything more representative of American culture? It happens every four years, at least. Ironically the Bible quite often stresses the unity of those who believe. With thousands of denominations mutually excommunicating each other, one has to wonder if the Bible is living up to its full potential. Not that anyone will notice. Amid all the well-heeled, tenured professors, satisfied with their lot in life mill the hundreds who’ve spent thousands earning their advanced degrees. They are the lost generation—those for whom there are no, never were any, jobs. They are every bit as capable, and in many instances even more capable, than their tenured compatriots. The level of concern, at least at a visible level: nil. That, more than anything, indicates to me the true morals of studying the Bible.

Creature Feature

Gregory L. Reece’s Creatures of the Night is a strangely profound book. I picked it up to read on the plane home from Chicago and I wasn’t disappointed. Promising to explore ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons and devils, Reece suggests that maybe the key to such fascination rests with the late Rudolf Otto. I had over a decade of students read Otto’s famous little book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto, whose palindromatic surname suggests something uncanny, characterized the holy as the fascinating mysterium tremendum, the wholly other. (I will refrain from calling it the wholly holy.) The mystery that makes us tremble. The monsters that haunt our nights and imaginations are aspects of this utterly other.

Along the way Reece proves an able tour guide. He recognizes, as I have repeatedly stated in this blog, that religion and fear are conjoined twins. He also knows how to get your skin crawling. For Reece there is no question that such things are real. Real doesn’t mean that they are physically lurking outside your window at night—for who is to say that only the physical is real?—but they are as real as religion. No doubt strange things have transpired in history and continue to occur. And the reason we go into church may ultimately be the same reason that we watch a horror film.

As Reece comes upon the topic of demons the air in the room (or plane, or bus) thickens. Here we have documented accounts of impossible events. No amount of rational training can remove the shudder from these stories. Explanations of epilepsy only go so far before terror takes over. By herding them together with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, Reece stakes his claim that they all are real. Rational reductionists may shrink our world down so tightly that no room appears in the inn for our creatures of the night. But those who are honest, even among the reductionists, will admit to a mysterious tremor, even if unintentional, on a dark and stormy night.

Theology of the Apes

“Alter what you believe to be the course of the future by slaughtering two innocents, or rather three now that one of them is pregnant? Herod tried that and Christ survived.”

“Sir President, Herod lacked our facilities.”

So the conversation between Dr. Otto Hasslein and the President goes in the 1971 continuation of the saga, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Few probably pondered the weighty theological significance of this dialogue; it is not represented on IMDB’s quotes page from the movie. In fact, many critics aver that the Planet of the Apes movies devolved as they went on becoming less and less original. Nevertheless, the number of serious issues thoughtfully addressed in Escape made it one of the most well received pieces in the series. The world was a scary place in the early 1970’s, as I experienced it. It was easy to believe that we were on the brink of our own destruction—there were enough nuclear warheads to assure mutual destruction, and even a little boy in Rouseville, Pennsylvania could believe that his small town was significant enough to be a target. That message I’d heard as early as the final scene of the original movie.

The Planet of the Apes series is profoundly theological. I rewatched Escape from the Planet of the Apes recently, and was struck by just how many social issues were addressed. Consumerism, abortion, racism, espionage, the arms race, and even eugenics. In each instance the humans are inferior to the apes who had not even developed the combustion engine before learning to fly a spacecraft back through time. The conservative fear of Dr. Otto Hasslein drives the plot; he is ambivalent about the apes and what they portend. It is the destruction of his own comfortable way of life. He suggests quietly killing the apes, succeeding where Herod failed. (Think through the implications!)

“Before I have them shot against the wall I want convincing that the writing on the wall is calculably true,” the President biblically insists.

“How many futures are there? Which future has God, if there is a god, chosen for man’s destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God’s will or obeying it? Am I his enemy or his instrument?” Otto Hasslein does not know. His science which tells him there is no God also worries him that he is the very enemy of the non-existent deity. No, the Planet of the Apes movies are not the most profound films ever to escape the camera, but there is, as in any good theology, the raising of questions. And like any theology worthy of latter-day Herods, there will always be far more questions than answers.

Ruby Tuesday

If you’re reading this, you survived Cyber Monday. Not that I personally remember the Middle Ages—I have no desire to return to them—but there was a time when nearly every day of the year was known by a saint’s name. Even as an Episcopalian, nominally Protestant, I was surprised just how many red letter days there were. Black letter days seemed special by comparison. Now, however, our days are named by the shopping expectations. Not only do we have Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we have the moveable feasts of “shopping days before Christmas.” And many other holidays participate in this bonanza dedicated to Mammon. Halloween is a major cash-generating holiday and Valentines can be counted on for buying love. St. Patrick’s for buying green with gold. Ironically, all of these were once, at some remote time, holidays decreed by the church. Many of them are even older than that, going back to pagan times, but religious nonetheless.

In a sluggish economy such times are indeed anticipated. Still, I don’t hear of the one percenters suffering during these difficult times. “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette once was supposed to have said. Cakes are celebratory desserts, of course. We make them everyday occurrences with birthdays that should, in theory, keep the river of cash flowing all year long. The great corporate cathedrals require the offerings of the average citizen, and they insist on far more than a tithe. Then the investment firms complain that people don’t think ahead and save their money for retirement. We see many who live long enough to experience want in their declining years. There should be an app for that.

I wonder if there is something much deeper going on. Those who run so fast usually have something from which they wish to hide. There is the story of King Herod who, according to popular reconstruction, tried to buy the favor of his subjects by monumental building. Herod was not a popular king, and he had a reputation for being bloodthirsty when enraged. It is difficult to verify, but the basics of the story still ring true; when his way of running society was threatened he decided to kill the innocents. Such stories, one might hear a pontiff declare, fall within the genre of the folktale, the story told to make a point. What might that point be? Might it not be that each day is itself a gift and that spending money is not the only way to make time sacred? Of course, as long as you’re online, why not just PayPal your way to true happiness?

A techno-log on Cyber Monday.

Au Fait in the Manger?

On Friday CNN ran a story about the Pope’s new book “debunking” myths surrounding Christmas. The headline certainly looked intriguing, but it turns out that the “myths” debunked are those of a very dim magnitude. Is anyone surprised—gasp!—that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25? And, guess what—those cows you’ve always seen in the manger? The Bible doesn’t actually mention them! Angels aren’t at the manger either! What kind of Christmas will this be? A biblical one, it sounds like. I haven’t read Jesus of Nazareth—The Infancy Narratives, but it really doesn’t sound like I need to. The Bible is very spare on stories about Jesus’ birth; nobody knew he would be a Lloyd Webberian superstar at that point, so we have a few loose traditions that tell of humble origins in an obscure setting. Not very good for commercial interests, however, and besides, the average person doesn’t read the Gospels to find out about Christmas. There are far too many television specials to be bothered with “Lo, there were in the same country…”

Christmas was not a big deal until relatively recent times. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not a grinch who believes the holiday shouldn’t be celebrated. I see nothing wrong with people giving things away, even if it is to pretend that they are celebrating an ancient Roman-occupied Judean birthday. This is the essence of what being religious should be all about; holidays should be occasions for thinking about others before one’s self. In my lowly opinion anyway. We’ve built an entire economic cycle on it, however, otherwise Black Friday might just be a free day to spend with family and friends instead of being trampled to death at Wal-Mart. Perhaps if society could find a way to distribute wealth more equitably every Friday would be in the black.

The Pope’s new book is an attempt to make the Catholic tradition appear up-to-date with scholarship. Plans are for the book to be published in an entire Septuagint of languages with a print-run the envy of nearly every academic editor in New York. The problem is there is no real news here. News should be, by definition, new. A book by the Pope declaring the true equality of all people, throwing open full sacerdotal participation to women as well as men, and the distributing of papal wealth to the poor—that would be a Christmas present worth the waiting! Instead, when you pull the shiny paper off this book on December 25, you’ll only discover that you’ve received it on the wrong date and there will be no angels singing. The cattle will be lowing, however, if you can use your imagination.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Phantom Prayers

Religion and theater have much in common. I suspect that this is one reason several religious traditions initially protested against the secular theater. Morality plays were one thing, but dramas about purely human matters are quite another. Being given the very generous gift of tickets to the Phantom of the Opera, I recently had the opportunity to experience Broadway’s longest continually running show. It occurred to me that theater can often, if done right, draw in huge crowds—the line to get in was certainly impressive—while other than megachurches and very conservative religious movements based on reaffirmation of one’s superiority, many religious houses struggle to draw people in basically for free. It could be argued that secular entertainment requires less of an attendee than a religious service, but I wonder if that’s true. To receive your money’s worth for a show, you must be willing to put yourself into it.

While Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been afraid of religious themes—think of Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or even Whistle Down the WindPhantom of the Opera is loosely based on the early twentieth century novel by Gaston Leroux, the story of a hideously deformed musician who falls in love with a beautiful opera star. Although characterized as “a monster,” the Phantom is, after all merely human. Lloyd Webber’s adaptation leaves much of the story undeveloped, allowing the imagination to chart its own course. This is precisely where theater diverges from religious performance—imagination. Religions frequently claim to possess all the answers and questioning or imagining new approaches to age-old dilemmas is often discouraged. Unless, of course, the dilemma is how to draw more people in. Those who run megachurches learned the lesson of theatrics long ago.

For all that, Phantom of the Opera is hardly devoid of religious sensibilities. In one moody scene where Christine visits her father’s grave for solace, and perhaps advice, the first set piece visible is the cross atop the tomb. It is from this cross that the Phantom in the guise of the “angel of music” comes to her. Having the representation of death emerge from a cross is a powerful enough symbol. During this scene Christine’s plaintive cries to her father sound like a prayer. The prayer is heard, however, only by a phantom. The end of the story is ambiguous, something religious performance simply cannot tolerate. And yet, as I was being pushed and propelled down a crowded Broadway after the show, amid a flood of humanity that had emerged from many theater doors, I wondered if this “secular” experience might not be religious after all.

Religious tracts?

Prayers in Space

Science with heart. That’s one way to characterize Mary Roach’s writing. Uninhibited is another. I began reading her books when I saw Spook on the science shelf at Borders some years back. The nexus between what science teaches us and the magisterium of religion (ghosts certainly, by definition, fall into the “spiritual” category) has intrigued me all my life. I posted on both Spook and Stiff earlier in this blog. Her current work that my wife and I have just finished reading is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. The message that has rung loudly in my ears throughout the reading is that humans are evolved for this planet—space is not our native environment (well, at least not in a non-metaphysical sense). So many of the troubles she documents stem directly from the fact that we are biologically programmed to keep our feet pretty firmly on the ground. Weightlessness atrophies our bodies, cosmic radiation destroys our tissues, and there is always the difficulty of finding fast food in space.

One of the most telling points Ms. Roach makes, as is frequently the case, comes in a footnote. The note could, with some imagination, have been expanded into an entire chapter. “Religious observations are even tougher in a real spacecraft,” she begins. She points out specifically the difficulties of taking communion on a moon trip or praying five times a day aboard the International Space Station that renders a day a mere 90 minutes in length and staying Mecca-oriented is difficult when moving so far so fast. Religious leaders have to make special dispensations for those who take their religion beyond the bounds of earth-evolved faiths.

All of this raises a question that religions are reluctant to ask directly—what are we to make of petty observances that our belief systems demand when they are clearly based on outdated information? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all developed in a flat world in a geocentric universe with a dome-like sky above them. The regulations were drawn up for just such a fictional world. When the religious become astronauts they leave that world behind them in a way that must stretch the credibility of a doctrine developed without the input of an astrophysicist. How does an astronaut hope to go to Heaven when some missions take her or him far beyond the realm of the gods into the cold reality of outer space? Looking down on Heaven must be disorienting indeed. If Mary Roach had an equal in the world of religion writing, I would hope that she would ask that very question. In any case, we are fortunate enough to have the one and only Mary Roach to raise the question for us and to keep us oriented toward our true home.

Hallowed be thy Kane

Watching the alien burst from Kane’s distended abdomen as he appeared to have eaten too much seemed somehow appropriate on Thanksgiving. I’m well aware that my taste in movies does not always match expectations and few bother to comment on my idiosyncratic observations. Nevertheless, it had been years since I’d watched Alien and on this particular holiday it felt like synchronicity. I’ve seen the film a few times before, but this is the first time since starting this blog. Not surprisingly, some biblical allusions popped out at me as I watched the crew of the Nostromo struggle with alien life. And I’d just read of NASA’s “exciting discovery” on Mars, a discovery whose official announcement for which, like Christmas, we’ll have to wait until December. Learning that the gut-busting alien was modeled on Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon (a contemporary one) only sweetened the analogy.

Character names hide aspects of personality and intention. Sometimes the writers may not even be aware of all the shades of gray. The alien’s first victim is Kane. On paper he seems an ordinary citizen, but on the screen the euphony with the first human child, Cain, is obvious. As Parker is lamenting how large the alien has grown in just a short time, science officer Ash whispers, “Kane’s son.” Or is it Cain’s son? Cain, the infamous ancestor of the sinful Grendel and any number of other villains of literature and cinema. Cain is, significantly, the first child born in Genesis, himself the genesis of sin in the world since his murder of his brother is the first act that the Bible declares a “sin.” The alien, born worlds away, conforms to biblical expectations.

Since Ash is actually an android and has no real feelings, he admits the alien to the ship and protects it until he is destroyed by his shipmates. He represents unfeeling science amid the horror of human bodies being invaded and rent apart. When accused of admiring the alien, the resurrected (!) science officer states, “I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Is he not really describing science itself? Religion is running rampant on the Nostromo. As Ripley sets the detonation charges and finds her escape blocked, she races back to the console and cancels the self-destruct order which the HAL-like Mother ignores. In a secular prayer Ripley calls out to Mother who, like any deity, does not answer all human pleas. And even as she escapes the detonating ship, Ripley will find that Cain’s son is still lurking in the corner of the emergency shuttle, for the science can never truly escape from Genesis.

Holy Gobblers

I wonder if this is how religions get started. Yesterday President Obama continued the lighthearted tradition of pardoning two turkeys prior to Thanksgiving. There has been a gifting of turkeys to the United States president at least as far back as the Harry S. Truman years, but the pardoning began, as did many myths, in the Reagan years. Ronald Reagan took considerable heat for pardoning Oliver North after his crimes in the Iran-Contra Affair. Handling criticism with a joke (again, of which there was no shortage in those days), he offhandedly mentioned pardoning the turkey. Reagan had already decided not to eat the bird and had it sent to a petting zoo. The first recorded official pardoning came in 1989 with George H. W. Bush. This seems so close to the origins of the concept of salvation that I have to pause and baste in the implications. Pardon is only effective when there is guilt involved, so presumably turkeys sin. The only sin that suggests itself is gluttony, but I’ve seen more than my share of wild turkeys and they seem to have any natural weight problems under control.

Ironically, the guilt in this case seems to rest with those who do the pardoning. Turkeys grow fat because they are raised to do so. They are, like most eating animals, sacrificial victims—sinless and slaughtered. Again, there is another beautiful religious trope here, but we seldom sing the praises of the noble turkey that takes away the hunger of the (first) world. So, as crimes are committed in real time, we can shift the focus to the turkey. The analogy with sheep in the first century is apt. Like the turkey, the sheep was known as a creature of rather simple mental capacity. The lamb was sacrificed for sins it did not commit. Yet we don’t sing hymns to the noble turkey. In fact, Thanksgiving, being a non-commercial holiday, has largely been eclipsed by Black Friday.

I see a future religion in which the turkey plays a supporting role. All we, like turkeys, have gone a-peckin’. Turkeys have no shepherds, but they are kept in tiny cages, and the pardoned pair are the great Moses and Aaron of the turkey world. They are released to live out the rest of their short, obese lives in relative comfort, having been messianically chosen from before hatching to be spared the fate of being consumed by the ultimate consumer. This is the very stuff (stuffing?) around which Bibles are written. The theology here is as thick as gravy. As a vegetarian, however, my sympathies are with the birds. Heaven help us all when the pardoned pair come back and declare, “Let my turkeys go!”

Gonad Make Disciples

The funny thing about authority is that when it counts those who have it are often afraid to use it. So yesterday the “mother church” (if that honorific still applies) of the Church of England voted not to allow women bishops. According to Reuters, the voting breaks down into three parties: the bishops, the clergy and the laity. The bishops and clergy both approved the motion while the laity fell short of approval by only four votes. My regular readers will know that I normally shy away from coarse language, but I wonder, along with the Joker, “what happened, did your balls drop off?” In a church built around hierarchy, where there is tremendous authority—according to official teaching, the very power to let one in or keep one out of Heaven itself—vested in the clergy, can they not say, “this is the right thing to do” and just do it? In a Protestant milieu where Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans have all overcome centuries of chauvinistic stain, why does the Church of England not do what the collected bishops and clergy have decreed correct? Are the laity now running the show?

I have had a long history with the Church of England. As laity I know that when the clergy want to throw their considerable weight around they are not afraid to do so. My entire career was thrown into turmoil because just such tonnage was shifted. And I had met the Archbishop of Canterbury (before he ascended to the throne) as he received an honorary degree from Nashotah House. When a layman could still shake his holy hand. It is time for the church to drop its magical infatuation with testicles and get on with the business of making the world a better place. Otherwise Heaven may include too many football games and deer hunts to really make all of us comfortable. The gender divide should be dropped and the church should be getting on to matters that really could use some compassion, both human and divine.

It seems that the staid laity of the C of E didn’t follow the fortunes of the radical right very closely in the recent elections this side of the big water. The day of exclusivism is over. It should have been long ago. Many have been the times when I was informed that doctrine is not a matter of democracy. Perhaps in an issue so basic, so fundamental as the equality of humankind, this should be one of those instances. The titular head of the Church of England is a woman. Has been for decades. Before Elizabeth the Second, for six decades of the nineteenth century Queen Victoria held that role. I think I speak for the majority of sensible laity when I say, in the spirit of the departed monarch, “We are not amused.”

She’s got the whole world in her hand.

Under the Influence

A news story over the weekend—when oddball stories of religion are welcomed by the media—revealed that a judge in Muskogee County, Oklahoma sentenced a youth to a decade of church for a serious DUI crime. An underage drinker, the defendant committed the unforgivable sin of killing another youth while driving under the influence. It is a sad and tragic case. Law makers in Oklahoma are challenging the church decision, according to the video blurb on Newsy, but there is a much deeper flaw in the logic of Judge Mike Norman here. Had the lack of compassion and common sense so blatantly on display during the recent presidential campaign come from other than committed “Christians” it would have been considered downright shocking. We tend to excuse misanthropy when it comes wrapped in doctrinal packaging, a Twinkie in a Cliff Bar wrapper. The judge himself maybe needs a little churching.

There was a time when the moral values of a good, Protestant upbringing were unquestioned. The problem is, we live in a much more diverse world now. What is particularly telling has been the evangelical response to this growing siblinghood of humankind. It is seen as a great evil, perhaps the reverse of Babel itself. We are bringing people of different religions together in what is comprehended as an unholy mix. Thing is, many of these people participate in religions far older than Christianity that have no Babel story to put themselves in proper context. How can they know they’re inferior unless we can get them to read our Bible, attend our churches, learn our religion?

Timothy McVeigh went to church during his youth. Reverend Jim Jones started his own church. Would time in Westboro Baptist Church in nearby Kansas count? There is a reason that church and state should be kept separate. As an institution the church is nearly as diverse as the human race that invented it. Religion has seldom been the solution to crime. Law enforcement officials used to wear a pentagram for a badge, not a cross. But that was back in the days when Oklahoma was the wild west and white-steepled churches didn’t exist to inveigh against the evils of a satanic symbol worn by the representatives of the territory. And since Oklahoma doesn’t believe in evolution, we’ve got to wonder if some things will ever change.

Would this church be all right?

After the Gold Rush

The morning I flew to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, the headlines in the morning paper were about the rocket attacks in Tel Aviv. Ironically, the in-flight magazine cover on United, I noticed as I fastened by seat belt securely low across my waist, read “Three Perfect Days in Tel Aviv.” The irony wasn’t so much funny as it was sad. The situation in the Middle East is hopelessly entangled, but it all comes down to our obsession with dividing people into groups. Religious, ethnic, social: somehow we are not like them. We’re better, superior in some way. It matters not that proving superiority is a purely subjective enterprise. After all, we just know it. When history places one persecuted group in a position of persecuting another group, well, I’m afraid we all know what happens.

The problems in the Middle East are largely biblical and predominantly petroleum-based. Even those who tend to read the Bible figuratively can see a land claim based on an Abraham who probably never existed as strangely literal. Especially when there’s oil in them thar wells. Isolationism served the United States well until it was discovered that they had more black gold than even Texas does. Establishing a foothold in the region was not such a subtle policy; the x-ray vision of politicians funded by heavy industry saw beneath the sandy soil to the real deity that lay beneath. Dig a well, hit a gusher, and, like the Bible says, “he anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” Good news for modern capitalists. But some people will have to die.

As I sat in the lobby of a posh hotel, waiting for an appointment, I heard a fragment of a conversation as a couple of scholars rushed by. They were discussing the aftermath of the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. One suggested to the other, in the context of how many Palestinians might die in retaliation, “well, if they can keep the numbers down…” and then they were gone. My mind jumped to The Prisoner. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” crashed in my head with the way that the dead in the Middle East are piled up as “the numbers.” I’m sure it was only intended as a convenient turn of phrase. Outside the hotel lobby the striking workers from the Hyatt labor disputes were protesting in a cold, crisp Chicago morning. They were soon cleared away. My fear, Number Six, is that you are wrong. We are all numbers, even the best of us.

Dreaming of a Black Xmas

By my best reckoning, Thanksgiving has not yet taken place this year. Since Halloween, such as it was, is now over, we must still be in November. As I was exiting my office building last Wednesday, I noticed that the holiday tree was already going up in the lobby. A few blocks away and I heard the first Salvation Army bells of the season and shouts of holiday cheer. The great tree in Rockefeller Center was being erected. (I picture burly guys with a super-sized tree stand swearing in the cold air—”Left, nudge it to the left!”) Maybe it’s just a storm-weary city glad to be rid of Sandy, but it does seem to be a bit early to me. Holidays, in any modern sense of the word are about opening wallets and injecting cash into the system. The very corpuscles of capitalism. I enjoy holiday cheer as much as the next guy or gal, but I don’t mind waiting for it to arrive. Antici-

Holiday seasons are as old as holy days themselves. In our work-obsessed culture, however, convincing bosses of the regenerative utility of granting more than a single day off at a time is an uphill battle. Productivity is what we’re all about. And so we lengthen our public show of holidays instead. Thanksgiving’s not much of a banker except for grocers, and although turkeys may make great primary school decorations, they don’t really match the productivity and professionalism that corporate offices like to promote. The December holidays, however, give us Black Friday. Listening to the news over the last few days, it is clear that many people are biding their time, already ready to get those distant family members out the door, and let’s get those bargains! pation.

Holidays reflect what we hold sacred. I’m not one of those purists grinches who see gift-giving as some inherent evil—in fact, giving things away is one of the under-utilized tenets of most major religions—but I do wonder how much of it is an appeal to the ego. I feel good when I make someone else happy. Yet at some level, I’ve indebted them to me. I’ve made a business deal. The holy days have been infected with capitalism. Warm memories of not having to go to school for nearly two whole weeks, being with my family—the place I was unquestioningly accepted—and getting presents as well? What could be more sacred than that? But I’m getting ahead of myself. It is still mid-November. After all, Black Friday (and what’s that day before that called?) hasn’t even started yet.

A waif in a manger?

AAR/SBL Chicago

On just about any playground you’ll spot the kid who’s watching from the side, instead of playing with the others. That’s me. I don’t suspect that anyone starts life wanting to be left out, but some of us—attuned to the subtler messages of life—become aware that we’re not really invited or welcome. That sensation bathed me in its eldritch light once again while waiting for my flight to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I’ve often wondered what it must be like for those innocent aeronauts not clued in that the Friday before Black Friday (the real holiday, I’m led to believe) that flights to a specified city will be choked with crusty professors of religion. Sitting in Newark Airport and hearing the word “Ugaritic” from the seat behind me, I knew it had begun. I turned around. No flash of recognition. If was as if I hadn’t spent years learning that obscure language and publishing in the main journals. The invisible man.

The airport before the AAR/SBL annual meeting is a theological locker room where the guys gather to compare the size of their, um, theses. It’s pretty hard not to overhear, once you’re tuned in to your specialization, as colleagues lay out their publications, invited papers, international travel plans. I’ll admit to being jealous. They’re living the life for which I trained. I had taught for nearly twenty years and was never really invited to play. Now here I sit, knowing what Ugaritic is among the perplexed business travelers, but I’m not one of the big boys.

I realize that outside the rarified world of higher education Ugaritic matters even less than the homeless unfortunates shivering in the streets of Manhattan or Chicago. Back in the brief days when I tried to be a player, I remember attending an Ugaritic conference here in Illinois. Crowded into an elevator with renowned colleagues, one of them joked, “If this elevator falls, the field of Ugaritic studies may never recover.” An exaggeration, but not by much. Present company excepted. Of that august group, only one was asked to step off into the void. His exit was barely noticed. Ugaritic studies thrives. The poor beg for alms. And one kid, even though he now understands the rules of the game, still watches from outside.

Night of the Johnstown Flood

Floods always have a whiff of old Noah about them. I first heard of the Johnstown flood from a minister who has had a profound impact on my life. He had been in Johnstown for the 1977 flood, and that led me to learn a little bit about America’s first great natural disaster. I decided to follow up David R. Montgomery’s flood book by David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. Like most stories of human tragedy, this devastating flood combined elements of human culpability with nature’s own inscrutable workings. The 1889 flood came during an unusually heavy rainstorm. Some years before, an exclusive millionaire’s club had repaired an artificial dam rebuilt for the recreation of the wealthy high above the town. Records show the repairs to have been lackluster—at one point they purchased hay to act as cheap fill. Although the members knew of the danger they did nothing to avert the deadly potential a breech in the dam would inevitably cause. When the dam burst during the storm, over 2200 people died.

Wrenching, like most natural disaster accounts are, the story of human misery raises questions of theodicy and basic humanity. Members of the club were those who ran Pittsburgh in the days before their steel mills fell silent. Apart from a few like Andrew Carnegie, who gave generously to those in dire need after the tragedy, most of club members gave nothing to the relief effort for what their negligence helped cause. They hadn’t even hired an engineer to consult about their dam project when they decided to rebuild it. Lawsuits filed failed to touch them; the suffering of thousands failed to move them. Fast forward just over a century—as the towers of the wealthy came down the working class tried to save as many as they could, some at the cost of their own lives. We all know who are regarded as the heroes.

“Was it not the likes of them [club members] that were bringing in the [foreign workers], buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country?” McCullough’s words, explaining the sense of those who’d lost everything to the idle dalliances of the leisured class, still ring true in the world of one percenters. Often it takes a tragedy to bring society’s inequalities into focus. As a nation we’ve gone on to have even more costly disasters since May 31, 1889, but the instability built by corporate greed has kept pace, indeed, perhaps even surpassed what it was back then. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” or so I have it on good authority.