Just Binghamton

I seem to find myself in Binghamton again. The town, while clearly economically depressed, still retains a bit of its 19th-Century charm with some beautifully restored downtown buildings and a sense of history. While too many store-fronts are still vacant and too little money exists to improve the area sufficiently, I happened upon a warm and cheerful independent bookstore—River Read—and that always gives me hope in such circumstances. Bookstores such as this are like seeing the first crocuses after a long, harsh winter. There is some life in this seemingly dead planet yet. Outside the bookstore stands a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., backed by a sluggish river and yet more vacant windows. I think of justice and all that it means.

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My own hometown (not Binghamton) is virtually a ghost town. It is a feeling difficult to describe, visiting a place that served as your first secure setting in the world only to find it crumbling under an economy with so much wealth with so little reach. Where is the justice in that? Binghamton, near the founding location of IBM, ironically began suffering at the decline of the Cold War. Manufacturing has gone for pastures of a different kind of green, leaving a sometimes sad and forlorn city in its wake. Binghamton sheltered a young Rod Serling, a man who would give the world the Twilight Zone and its endless spinoffs. It is home to a first-rate university. And a wonderful bookstore.

While in River Read we heard some locals talking, in almost Springsteenian fashion, of local civic traditions that had disappeared. Times have changed. Cities like Binghamton don’t draw in the curious or those with liberal purse-strings. Endicott Johnson, the shoe manufacturer, developed a strong sense of welfare capitalism in the city last century—capitalism with a heart seems to have gone extinct these days. The idea that those with the means to create jobs and livelihoods should care for their employees would seem to be a matter of common sense. Instead, common cents have come to rule. Binghamton University is investing in the town, and a sense of cautious optimism dares to suggest itself. Justice is a matter of distribution rather than entitlement. And that’s why I’m standing out here under gray September skies, staring at the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Dystopian Dreams

Hunger_gamesOne of the most terrible stories in the Bible is the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. Of course, depending on your point of view, this was either a necessary evil or an act of wanton cruelty by a deity with anger issues. Still, it ends with a bunch of dead children. Then, as if that weren’t enough, a horrible reprisal comes at the birth of the child of the main character, with Herod slaughtering the innocents in Israel. And let’s not forget the very source of Kierkegaardian angst, the knife poised above a bound Isaac by his completely believing father. More recent, less literary examples could add poignancy and reduce the distance: Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech—the murder of children is beyond the farthest reaches of perversion into a realm that no longer classifies as human. I think the Bible might agree with me there. So it was with some trepidation that I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, at the urging of my daughter.

Although written for a young adult readership, The Hunger Games is a classic dystopia with a dark future and repressive government mandating the killing of twenty-three children every year, just to make a point. Deftly combining teenage angst with the bleakness that just about any future-based novel seems to hold, Collins spins a sad but engrossing tail. Dystopias have grown in popularity since some of the earlier, Cold War exemplars such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. The number of dystopian novels grows every year. I suppose if I were an elected official I might cast a worried eye towards the increasing number of exposés of a society where consumers read so many books of the future gone awry. I know many intelligent, sober people who seriously wonder if we’ve already shifted onto that track. Tomorrow is only an extension of today.

Dystopias are among the most biblical of literary genres. The Bible itself is a bit of a dystopia. Consider the framing of a perfect world ending up with the original apocalyptic tale, the Apocalypse, or Revelation. It only ends well for 144,000. In-between there are pages and pages, chapters and chapters of oppression, violence, and suffering. Paradise gone bad. That’s the essence of the dystopia. Although Collins doesn’t make any overt biblical or religious references in The Hunger Games, the very genre she chose can’t escape the biblical bounds laid out for it. And besides, long before the year both Collins and I were born, the Bible had already set its vision for our society. And that vision, to our everlasting trembling, includes the massacre of innocents.


True Possession

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Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.


Arduino Anything?

Before my daughter enrolled in college I’d never heard of an Arduino. Since her high school robotics team leadership has now passed into more able hands, I figured that I’d go back to my naive days of not thinking about automated mechanical devices, devoting my gray matter to grayer matters. Still, over the past several weeks robots keep seeking me out. A spread in Delta’s in-flight magazine for July featured robots, as did an alumni magazine for August. Now the issue of Time for September has a story about robots. When my daughter sent me the Arduino video, by TED, I knew I’d better try to pay attention. Technology will change us, whether we want it to or not. It seems that from the first knapping of flint our destiny was set to manipulating our world and making it into something we create. Robots make us gods.

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The real issue, however, in the TED video is that Arduino is open-source. Open-source means that the designs, instructions, and application of the device are voluntarily not held under copyright. Academics throughout the world are increasingly favoring open-source material—not just software and hardware, but the knowledge behind them. In my work at a for-profit (i.e. “commercial”) publisher, I know that open-source is a huge concern. It used to be that open-source, that is, free—information, was considered inferior. Like the early stages of recycled grocery bags. Arduino puts the lie to that supposition. An international team has made a device that is extremely flexible in application, and is giving it away. Many academic journals, traditional cash cows for the publishing industry, are now going open-source. Those of us who research and write don’t often do it for money—we just want our ideas shared. Commercial interests, however, are heavily vested in turning a profit from information. It is a clash of worldviews.

Never one of the great capitalists, I find open-source an intriguing concept. The problem is that those who think need to find a way to make a living in a society over-awed by spending. Universities charge tuition because professors have to be paid. Publishers charge a week’s wages for textbooks because editors have to be paid. Knowledge—the most valuable commodity people possess—fits uneasily with entrepreneurial ideals. This blog is open-source. Maybe that is why it has never garnered much attention, like a first-generation recycled paper bag. These same ideas, however, when presented in the context of university classrooms were subject to fees of thousands of dollars. Registration filled up every semester. The source is the same, a guy with a Ph.D. from a major research university making observations about how religion impacts each and every one of us, often in unexpected ways. Some things you can’t even give away. Well, if trends continue I shouldn’t be surprised if someday even this is taken over by a robot. Right, Mr. Čapek?


No Cult

MakingAmericanReligiousFringeThe image of hundreds of lifeless bodies in the jungles of Guyana foregrounded by a metal tub of poisoned Flavor Aid is a difficult one to forget. If it were not for the media, however, most of us never would have heard of Jonestown. The term “cult” was applied to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, just as the word was increasingly becoming a pejorative term for those with “other” beliefs. Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955—1993, is a probing study into what makes a religion “mainstream,” versus a “cult.” (I know, too many “scare quotes.”) McCloud considers the role that journalists, as reporting in major news magazines, have had on determining American views of what is normative religion. If, that is, normative religion can be posited at all. It is quite clear, upon reflection, that any religion has some odd beliefs: you can’t wear this or eat that, you have to be at this place on this day, you must shave your head, etc., etc. The question McCloud explores is why some end up being called cults and others do not.

Scholars of religion have abandoned the term cult, for the most part, because of its arbitrariness. The defining markers of “cults” are unclear, and one religion influences another so that a continuum forms from Moses to Moonies. That’s not to say religions are all the same, but it is to say they are not so different either. The declaration of a religion as a cult, if based on belief systems, is tenuous. All religions make claims impossible to verify. Some, very traditional, are also very small in membership. Religions have been fabricated from antiquity to present, and even as I write this new religions are likely being conceived somewhere. McCloud points out that the popular media gave us the distinction between “mainstream” and “cult.” That distinction itself may be more telling than the differences between various groups of believers. It is the language of exclusion—true religions versus false religions. And any more than one religion, if considered seriously, is problematic.

Religions, old and new, large and small, make truth claims. These claims cannot be tested this side of eternity, so they must be taken by faith. The minds of many will be turned toward extreme actions motivated by idiosyncratic understandings of religion today. McCloud shows us that fringe is an integral part of the fabric—religion is woven from the experience of people through the millennia of our existence. And yet we still have no consensus. We have enough experience, however, to know that when one religion unravels another will be woven from the dangling threads. Some will be misguided, although all will claim to have the truth. Until that ultimate truth is definitively known, the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.


Down the Garden Trail

According to NBC, a new “Christian” alternative to Boy Scouts USA is being launched in (over)reaction to the vote to allow gay teens to “join” the organization. Calling themselves “Trail Life USA,” this redeemed-only organization is supposed to be “safer” than other scouting options. This issue, of course, is all about perception. There have been gay Boy Scouts from the beginning and there will be gay Trail Life members. People are people, and just by saying that a sexual orientation is excluded does not mean that it will be, or ever can be (nor should be). “This is not another church program,” John Stemberger, one of the founders, is quoted as saying. “This is going to be a masculine outdoor program to raise young men.” The subtext is sluggish with irony. I am reminded of the scene in Disney’s Mulan where Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po are about to climb the pillars to the emperor’s palace in drag and the song “Be a man,” starts its reprise. Masculine outdoor program indeed.

Photo by Bruce Anderson, Wikipedia Commons

Photo by Bruce Anderson, Wikipedia Commons

The idea of separating youth from the realities of the world to keep them safe is like taking them into the woods without telling them there may be bears. Those of us who’ve spent nights in the woods know that hating bears is a ridiculous posture to take. Bears, even when gnawing on your arm, don’t hate you. They simply exist. It is the balance of nature. Studies of nature have time and again revealed that homosexuality is far from unnatural. Several species practice various homosexual behaviors and I am certain that the more we observe nature the more we will find ourselves mirrored in it. Nature can be quite encompassing in that way.

Christianity also has a long history of being at a kind of equilibrium with homosexuality. The all-male priesthood of the Middle Ages could hardly be classified as all self-denying heterosexuals. Even some televangelists of the most Protestant stripe have confessed to gay encounters and episodes. New uniforms and solemn promises will not change the way a person is born. Of course, if the child is Jewish or Hindu or Muslim, he will need to abide by a statement of Christian belief. What of Mormons or Seventh Day Adventists? Thankfully lines drawn in the sand are easily washed away. Exclusion may have been the trope of the Christian past, but as Boy Scouts boldly go where every man should’ve gone before, Trail Life, it seems, may have been appropriately named. It’s life John, but not as we know it.


Instant Education

Among the “non-essentials” upon which I spend my earnings, books hold the top spot, if not in value, certainly in quantity. Reading is more than a pass-time—it is perhaps the most basic aspect of who I am. I love books. While reading a New Jersey Star-Ledger piece by Allan Hoffman entitled “Learning by the book,” however, an uncomfortable truth dawned on me. Hoffman gently laments that the search for information has gone almost wholly electronic. As a person who currently works in the book industry, I know he’s right. More than that, I know it from my own life. I can’t remember the last time I opened a phone book, other than to retrieve a pressed leaf I’d inserted between its pages for pressing. If some bit of information about a religion or a biblical passage escapes my distracted brain, a few keystrokes work better than shuffling to the shelf, pulling off the reference books, and thumbing through until I find the datum. No, we are all addicted to speed.

Despite the best effort of Google books, much material necessary for research in many subjects remains sequestered in actual books. The problem is, for contemporary knowledge, book production is slow. In my editorial work, and as an erstwhile author, I know that the five years I spend researching and writing a book, the submission time to a publisher, the eventual decision, and then the year or longer production time, all equate to immediate obsolescence. Any non-fiction book is outdated by the internet even before it is shipped from the warehouse. New truths are born at the speed of light while books take years to make. I agree, Mr. Hoffman, we’ve lost something in our idolatry of the instant knowledge. If you need urgent info (What do I do about a snake bite? Where is the nearest Starbucks?) the internet is your up-to-date databank.

I have long known that the study of religions is often the study of texts (most of which are online now). Believing some ancients knew more about the ultimate realities of life than we do, either by dint of divinity or enlightenment, we search the texts about them or by them in hopes of joining them in a knowledge beyond knowing. Now in the age of the internet, new messiahs arise almost daily, proclaiming their truths across the world-wide web of wisdom. I have a feeling there is a dissertation or two in there. Of course, it will take a few years before you’ll see them in print.

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To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

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Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”


Proselytization and Cheese

One of the universals of many childhood lives is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. If I were the financial sort, I would consider investing in it. As my daughter was moving into college, I noticed other worried-looking parents sitting by their unpacked cars, some with corporate-size boxes of Mac and Cheese shrink-wrapped and ready to tide a son or daughter through difficult times. It is a comfort food, a warm and welcoming friend. Some would say heavenly. Eventually, as adults, we learn to view processed foods with some introspection, moving toward the harsher, but healthier fresh varieties. Secretly, most of us would welcome the opportunity to eat like we did as kids when the consequences were unclear and the guilt was still a plucked apple away.

IMG_0960So at a college organizational fair, my daughter sent me a picture of savvy marketing. Christ the King Lutheran Church giving away boxes of childhood. When that warm, gooey, comforting sensation of childhood hits those whom society is suddenly telling they’re adults, they might have their thoughts turn to the Lutherans. Or the many other faith-based organizations eager to recruit among the young and newly independent. This, of course, is nothing new. Religions have long displayed their benefits to convince those with more earthy things on their minds. The evolution of religion is a fascinating study from the days of enforced loyalty despite belief up to the buyer’s market that religion represents today. How do you convince those who legitimately have a choice? What brand of religion is better than the others? Which is the tastiest variety?

The irony of appealing to the body to gain the commitment of the soul is one religions have had to adopt. There was a time when the way to heaven came through self-denial and spiritual discipline. Earning salvation was hard work. Now if we can get you into the pews on Sunday morning, preferably with your wallet, all is good. It is well with your soul, it is well. I feel for the modern, institutional religions. They were once a powerful force in society and by default people believed that they had a special line to God. Up to the 1950’s, even, this perception was especially strong. People learned, as people will, what they could get away with. Turns out, religion is optional. But eating is not. Not if you’re going to survive in this harsh world. And even if you don’t believe in heaven, we will always believe that in the kitchens of paradise they will be serving Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.


The Goddess

WhenGodWasAWomanMerlin Stone was a sculptor and an artist. I met her only once, a few years back when I was still recognized as an “authority” on ancient goddesses. At one of the many Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings I attended, she came and introduced herself to me, thanking me for my work. Of course I knew who she was—the author of When God Was a Woman, one of the books that was most influential in the revived goddess movement of the 1980s. I have always appreciated those women who have dared to take on the often amorphous patriarchal power structures of society to raise the necessary questions of fairness and justice. Stone was one of those women. Her book, while based on sometimes questionable historiography, nevertheless highlights some of the issues that many male scholars have chosen simply to ignore.

One of the biggest problems faced by authors like Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas has been the shifting sands of history. I recently had a deep conversation with a couple of feminist friends of mine where the issue of truth emerged. Truth, as I came to realize, may be a temporary phenomenon. What is true today (the earth is the center of the universe) may not be true tomorrow. It is always contingent. Historians reconstruct a past to which they do not have direct access, and further discoveries will often detail the errors made along the way. When God Was a Woman was originally published in 1978. Some of the historical constructs that Stone uses have since crumbled, but the main point of the book remains firm—women have as real a claim on the divine as do men. (I can’t help but wonder if there is some connection between this and the recent trend towards prominent male thinkers declaring themselves atheists.)

Although I can’t agree with everything Stone wrote, one of her ideas dropped a hook in my brain. In describing the sexuality that apparently attended worship of “the goddess,” she notes how male scholars came to refer, always derisively, to the such religions as “fertility cults.” Turning this phrase about, Stone wonders whether far distant future analysts will look at monotheistic religions that decry sexuality as “sterility cults.” Not that the goddess is all about sex. Religions, however, always weigh in when such spiritually significant activities as sex take place. Men, who are often eager participants, are the ones to construct religions condemning what should be a most obviously sacred human activity.

Merlin Stone may have died just over two years ago, but her book will stand as a yad vashem to half of the human race who have been religiously subjected to the other half. And perhaps there is a goddess out there yet who will bring about liberty and justice for all.


Chronic Religion

The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a surprisingly large number of articles that touch on religion. I write “surprisingly” somewhat ironically here, since religion and higher education have been inextricably tangled from the very beginning of post-secondary education (and even before). A recent article by Donald L. Drakeman caught my attention because of the tag-line: “A venture capitalist with a doctorate in religion sees the value of a bear market in the disciplines.” In all honesty I have no idea what a venture capitalist is, but I do understand “doctorate in religion.” Dr. Drakeman’s article is entitled “The Highly Useful Crisis in the Humanities.” Drakeman points out that during times of economic hardship the number of students studying the humanities declines. During times of economic prosperity they rise. And he also points out that this can be interpreted in more than one way. Since I’m afraid of venture capitalists, I feared that religion, along with the rest of the humanities, was about to take another trip to the woodshed where it would come back again but might chose to stand rather than sit for a few days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dr. Drakeman suggest that this disparity actually demonstrates the inherent value in the humanities. Tough times lead us to pare down those things that we value so that we might survive. Once a kind of stasis is reached, we try to climb once again. Humanities, in other words (speaking for myself and not Drakeman), represent the pinnacle towards which we strive. When money gets in the way, as it often does, we lose our focus and down comes baby, cradle and all. The humanities are what we live for; money represents pure survival. It is no surprise that those who lose their sense of human fellowship sometimes become survivalists—the individuals who can thrive with no other people around. But what about when the post-apocalyptic stock market recovers? Where will they be without the humanities?

Education, apart from simple survival skills, began as a means of ensuring that the religion that sustained our ancestors through hard times was passed on to the next generation. At times the more literal-minded suppose that means that the religion itself should never change—as if the religion were the point of it all. Although they may not have articulated it so, the ancestors, I believe, had a different goal in mind. Those who are parents already know what it is. We want our children to have it better than we do. If religion helped us, it should help them. It only becomes a problem when the religion itself is mistaken as the goal of the process. Everything evolves. A religion that changes with the needs of society is among the most vital aspects of the humanities, whether or not our forebears would even recognize it as religion at all.

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Divine Sex Change

One of the greatest problems in reconstructing ancient religions is the ambiguity of the evidence.  Most ancient artifacts are not labeled (they probably didn’t need to be for the original viewers) and few have textual materials explaining them.  This became clear to me when studying the famed inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the mid-1970s.  The most (in)famous aspect of this artifact was that an inscription overlapped a doodle, and due to the urgent desire to interpret the inscription a particular way, the line drawing was supposed to be an illustration of the inscription.  The inscription is commonly translated as something along the lines of “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and his asherah.”  Many scholars took asherah to mean Asherah, the goddess, despite no evidence for pronominal suffixes on personal names in classical Hebrew.  The doodle shows three figures, perhaps related, of which two were said to be Yahweh and Asherah.  Despite the very clear resemblance to the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes (Kuntillet Ajrud is between Israel and Egypt), it was argued that the figures in the “foreground” should be considered Yahweh and his main squeeze, Asherah.

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The artistic analysis of these doodles has always been torturous. Tiny, perhaps insignificant, details were ascribed great importance—particularly those indicating the gender of the figures.  For the Yahweh-Asherah connection to work, one had to be male and the other female (with the male preferably in front).  The problem was that both figures seemed to have penises (in keeping with Bes’s typical representation).  In order to make it clear that the right-hand figure was female it was claimed that she was wearing a lion skin and the “penis” was literally a tail, the leopard’s tail, seen between “her” legs. The problem seemed to be a possible scrotum appeared to be present.  The left-hand figure, larger (therefore, in front) had a clear scrotum, and that sealed the case, in a manner of speaking.  Little chestal circles were said to be breasts on the right-hand figure, but male nipples on the left-hand figure were lacking.  Oh, and they were dancing, as shown by the woman playing the harp in the “background.”  Believe it or not, seriously scholarly debate raged over this—nothing short of the discovery of Yahweh’s wife seemed to be at stake!  A colleague recently emailed me to tell me the final report of the archaeologists concludes that the “scrotum” on the right-hand figure was a mere dust smudge and so, aha!, she is a female after all!


I argued years ago that this drawing was clearly a representation of Bes. The connection with the inscription is accidental (the jug on which the inscription occurs is full of doodles); if someone wanted to illustrate an inscription, they would not draw figures that actually obliterate part of the caption. Assumption is built on assumption here, however, making for a very shaky foundation indeed. Don’t get me wrong: I would like to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity. It is not good for the god to be alone. Still, it is going to take more than a divine sex-change operation to transform Bes into Asherah. If nothing else this divine gender-bender ought to serve as a cautionary tale for scholars, yet somehow I doubt that it will. We see what we want to see.


Have a Blessed Day

“Last stop: New York Port Authority. Have a blessed day.” This secular blessing is sometimes appreciated after the harrowing commute to Manhattan, but I often wonder about its origins. Bus drivers are among the most under-appreciated of employees, I reflected on Labor Day. They are routinely blamed for matters beyond their control: accidents that snarl traffic for hours, mechanical problems, highway construction. Often I only reach the Port Authority Bus Terminal on time two days a week. I always say “thank you” to the driver while exiting, however. I’m very glad it’s not me behind the wheel.

Photo credit: Hudconja

Photo credit: Hudconja

A few months back, however, I noticed that a few of the drivers, while announcing the terminal stop, will add “Have a blessed day.” Last week I sat back further than usual, and heard an interesting exchange as I awaited my turn to exit. The driver had wished us a blessed day (whether we wanted one or not), and several of the passengers, upon disembarking, said back, “Have a blessed day.” I’m sure the driver appreciates it. As a lifelong student of religion, however, I found it fascinating. New York City is a great place to observe religious developments. “Have a blessed day” is innocuous in its lack of specificity. Who is doing the blessing here? At the behest of what intermediary? The driver has literal street cred by making it to the Port Authority unscathed. S/he has the power to bless and to curse. Those of us helpless as passengers are at their mercy. If the driver doesn’t drive, we can’t serve the god Mammon.

I always thought “Have a blessed day” was like an after-sneeze blessing. It is unusual for the sneezer to panegyrize their blesser by wishing good fortune back. Most often they are too busy blowing their noses. Here on the bus the driver might be Muslim (it is clear that some are), Christian, or Hindu. Some are likely among the most deserving of atheists. A blessing laid is a blessing played, however, and many are the passengers who are now returning the favor. We don’t know which deity is being invoked; it may be that it is simply the force that is with us. As we climb off that bus into a city that crushes a human soul as easily as a cockroach, we all could benefit from a blessed day. And I wonder on my way to work whether I’ve just witnessed a new religion being conceived.


Disorganized Religion

In an Advice column in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, subtly pseudonymed Madalyn Dawkins contributed a piece entitled “Dodging the God Squad.” Dawkins, the wife of a senior college administrator, is an atheist and she shares anecdotally the woes of non-believing administrators everywhere. Even in state universities administrators must not reveal their lack of belief because powerful donors may withdraw their support or other administrators may bring them down. This leads Dawkins to posit a “God Squad” that silently polices university administrators, ensuring a kind of conventional belief structure. Of course, with any covert operation speculation must be involved. Dawkins notes that instructors may declare themselves non-believers with few consequences, but for administrators the game is much more political.

Doubtlessly covert religious groups exist; we discover them all the time. In this case, however, I wonder if Dawkins has wandered into that territory some of have written about for years but to which most academics are blind: the world is actually a very religious place. I sympathize with Dawkins. Those who are educated cannot unlearn what they’ve discovered on their academic journeys. What they often do, however, is suppose that others have kept apace. I see this all the time in the public posturing of the other Dawkins, Sir Richard, that is. Railing against belief as if it is a disease, he doesn’t seem to understand why the unwashed masses don’t get some kind of flu shot of the mind and destroy this pesky infection. What academics sometimes—often—forget is that religion serves many valuable functions in people’s lives. In a world where the privileges of an academic lifestyle are rare and becoming rarer, the disparity is only going to increase. There is no “God Squad.” There is society and there is academia.

I’ve been around the quad a time or two. I know that academic administrators often see no reason to study religion. Many of them are non-religious, as I’m sure many people know. Supposing that all others share their views, however, they cancel funds for the study of religion (one of the departments hardest hit by the “it doesn’t lead to a job squad”), as if silencing the rational voices in this discussion will make the phenomenon go away. Higher education exists for the sake of society. Those who are educated can help to educate others and slowly, slowly progress will ensue. Some of us have tried patiently to do just that over our years in the classroom. I never belittled a student’s religious belief. I did try to raise questions, and I tried to teach students to raise their own questions. My positions, however, were repeatedly cut out from under me by eager administrators. There is no God Squad. For the sake of us all, however, it would be best if administrators acted like this mythology is really true.

An early view of higher education.  Literally.

An early view of higher education. Literally.


Which Way to Eden?

We don’t have television service, and I haven’t watched TV regularly for about two decades. Over the years, however, we’ve collected the DVDs of the shows we miss, or which we wish we’d seen so that we missed them, and use those in lean times. Feeling a bit lonesome over the weekend I downed a few Twilight Zones followed by a Star Trek chaser. On a three year mission to explore strange new worlds, my wife and I have been working our way through Star Trek, the original series. We’ve finally reached the final chapters of the final frontier. I’ve noticed as we’ve gone through the episodes just how biblically literate the series is. Even Spock quotes the Bible from time to time. Over the weekend, to keep my mind off present reality, we ended up watching “The Way to Eden.” As much as I enjoyed Star Trek as a kid, when it was still new, the overtly ’60’s-themed episodes bother me as an adult. I’m very much still a hippie at heart, but I don’t like lingo, and the alien cool cats in their weird shorts and funky hairdos chanting “Herbert! Herbert!” still really bother me. Somewhat predictably the aliens hijack the Enterprise to reach their fabled paradise.

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968

Spoiler alert! For those of you who’ve been asleep since 1969, or have had no curiosity about the inspiration behind all those geniuses who’ve ushered in the technological revolution, I’m about to reveal some details. Eden is deadly. The landing party finds the short-pants wearing, funky guitar-strumming crooner dead under a fruit tree. “His name was Adam,” Spock laconically notes. The scene of Dr. Sevrin’s burned foot has stayed with me since childhood, and I still cringe when he leaps out of the shuttlecraft to take a bite of the poisoned fruit. It was only as an adult that I realized his name was reminiscent of Eve, indeed, a kind of blending of the words “sin” and “Eve.” In a kind of homoerotic death scene, the two male leaders end up under the tree together. Probably my overactive imagination.

Sometimes I ponder how much a biblically illiterate society misses. I frequently told my students that the Bible is foundational for our culture. Whether or not you’re aware of it, it is reinforced regularly in ways both ortho- and heterodox. Despite our very secular self-awareness, entire movies, such as The Book of Eli, can be based on the premise of biblical literacy. It is entirely possible to watch movies and television shows, and to read novels (graphic and literary) with enjoyment and not notice the allusions. The reasons they are there, however, is that despite the abuses of literalism, the Bible does have some profound things to say. It’s up there with Shakespeare and Chaucer. And even with Roddenberry and his host of staff writers. And I suspect that it still will be, in some form, in the twenty-third century.