Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

Bleak Friday

Among the high holy days of capitalism, Black Friday stands as a beacon for those in the service of Mammon. It seems that we’ve taken the basic process of fair trade and constructed from it an über-religion based on getting more for less. Certainly in my little world of academic publishing I’ve encountered those who believe marketing a book is far more important than what it actually says. Ironically, my last two publishing jobs were located through LinkedIn. LinkedIn allows you to put your professional life online and those who shop for souls are free to “find” you, read about your accomplishments, and even occasionally contact you with employment options. It may not work for everyone, but it has for me. LinkedIn will also email you with opportunities, and this Black Friday as I opened my email I discovered that the top article they’d selected for me was entitled, “How Neuroscience Is Key to Successful Marketing Strategies.” Welcome to the temple of Mammon.

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Neuroscience has been as fascinating to me as it can be to a layperson. Since we all encounter the world through the gateway of our brains, we stand to learn a lot through its study. Of course, my mind always goes to the deeper questions: what can we learn about religious belief through neuroscience? What can the study of the brain reveal to us about reality? Will this science eventually reveal to us that more than brains are involved in the pure, raw experience of the ultimate? Of course, you can also use this study to figure out how to make a buck. We are so eager to make money that we’ll open stores on the prototypical family holiday itself, before the turkey is even digested. Try to corral the stampedes in a day early, and the great god Mammon smiles. We consume, therefore we are.

If you want to shop, someone has to be on duty. The worker might be enticed from her or his family by the prospect of “time and a half” pay. It might sound tempting, but I ask what the baseline cost really is. We’ve known since at least the days of the Charlie Brown Christmas and the original Grinch that happiness does not accompany owning more stuff. As a society we’ve promoted materialism so heavily that we are left feeling empty without the urge to buy making us feel like we’re accomplishing something important. I still find learning new things more satisfying than buying new things. Ironically, just below the neuroscience article, LinkedIn suggests I read “The End of the Public University?” It seems to me that Black Friday might have more than a single connotation. Of course, I’ll have to check in with Mammon on that; the smart money’s on the most demanding god.

Unusual Thanksgiving

Believe it or not, preaching was once part of my job description. At Nashotah House all faculty were called to the pulpit, ordained or not. Falling into the latter camp, my obligations were generally held down to once a semester. My first homily, focused on the lectionary readings for the day, was about the problems of social inequality. Afterward the senior faculty member came to me in the vestry and said, “It has been a long time since I’ve heard the social gospel preached from that pulpit.” This little incident came to mind as I was reading a CNN Belief Blog story my wife pointed out to me. The article highlights some of the provocative comments by Pope Francis in his recent document Evangelii Gaudium. Francis, in a startlingly refreshing vein, suggests that the church must get back to basics. Human basics. I agree with those who say the church has not gone far enough on gender equality, but the idea that the cut of your surplice demands more divine attention than the homeless and starving has got to go.

At Nashotah House many students who wanted to be Catholic priests but also wanted to be married (the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak) had Pope cards, rather like baseball cards, in their chapel stalls. This was in the era of the great conservative John Paul II, affectionally known as J2P2 in the theological ‘hood, when men ruled and a congregation might split over the use of a maniple. The gnat-strainers were clogged in those years. Camels fled for their lives. I wonder what these priests now make of the very head of their favorite chauvinistic church stating that even the papacy itself must change. I keep wondering when Pope Francis will have his accident, or unexpected heart attack or stroke. As the Belief Blog makes clear, not all appreciate the challenge to the status quo. There is too much power at stake.

This Thanksgiving, this old Protestant finds himself unaccountably thankful for a Pope that is willing to start turning things in the right direction. It will take decades, if not centuries, before the church can possibly catch up with the realities faced by the vast majority of the powerless, disenfranchised, and the needy. These are uncomfortable realities. When I saw a picture of Pope Francis laying his hands on a badly deformed man during a service in Rome a few weeks back, I could almost believe that someone was taking the message of Jesus to heart. That message was, and is, a radical one. We only have all-male disciples because we can only count to twelve. And we tend to forget that just about all of those guys were working-class slobs. Maybe if we could really be thankful for the gift of people all of this might just come to mean something significant after all.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Reach Out and

Contact_ver2Carl Sagan, one of the great proponents of the idea that earthlings have never been visited by aliens, wrote a novel entitled Contact. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but many years ago, on a long plane ride, I caught part of the movie version—most of it without the sound on, as I recall. While the ideas have been brewing for about a decade, I’ve been meaning to get around to watching the film. It is a bit of a slow-starter, but I finally sat down to watch it, with sound. While the movie ultimately remains agnostic—with a Twilight Zonish twist at the end—about whether the contact is truly alien or not, one aspect leaves no room for doubt: the movie is really about the relationship between religion and science. Eleanor Arroway cannot raise faith in anything but science, especially since her father’s premature death. Although she has a brief affair with Palmer Joss, a theological journalist, she just can’t believe what her senses don’t confirm.

Once the alien signal is announced, the response of the populace is overwhelmingly religious. One sect in particular seems to channel its faith into the hatred of science, and even Palmer, now an advisor to the president, questions whether science alone can really help humanity to progress. He is the one who nails shut the coffin of Dr. Arroway’s hopes of going to Vega to see the aliens. The reason: she doesn’t believe in God, and therefore is not qualified to represent the human race. Ah, the cruel irony of it all. When she finally does get a chance to visit space, the results are both Freudian and religious. She finds her father in a place like heaven, but her beloved science makes no record of her journey. At a congressional hearing she is made to admit that she believes in what happened without proof. Science is now standing on faith while the religious look smugly on.

Despite the pacing, Contact is an enjoyable movie. In many ways it hasn’t aged much since its 1997 release. Science and religion are still at loggerheads in some camps, and we are no closer to the stars than we were a decade and three-quarters ago. Reading books on the nexus of religion and science, one often gets the impression that the two are inevitably foes. Much of it goes back to a principle that recurs throughout Contact—Occam’s razor. The idea that the simplest explanation is the best does not seem to serve science (or religion) well. Although it works most of the time, it is because, as a friend recently said, we are willing to sweep the stuff that doesn’t fit off the table. Contact showed Occam’s razor with its indiscriminate cutting. Both the religious and the scientific end up bloody when it’s all over (metaphorically speaking, of course). It seems what religion and science really need is indeed contact.

Imagine Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus spake the Lord one day long ago. So the Bible says. The problem is that humans are visually oriented. We teach our young to read by enticing them with books with pretty pictures—images that captivate. We make things that are pleasant to see, some of them are even graven. I used to ask my students what the difference was between a god and an idol. The answer is, of course, perception. “Idol” is a word that implies falsehood. The item represented is somehow divine, but is not actually divine. There are ways around the rules, of course.

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I spent many years in the United Methodist Church. Many people I knew claimed that the local Catholics were idol worshippers, and when I entered a Catholic church for the first time I was struck by the graven images that seemed to stand in blatant contradiction to the second commandment. How could this not be a direct violation of divine orders? After all, this wasn’t some minor infraction—it was one of the very commandments! Back in my Methodist context, I began to wonder, however. We had crosses, some of them in the round, right up there on the altar. True, there was no corpus on our crucifix, but that seemed to be a handy bit of casuistry. Human beings naturally convert images to idols. We all knew, Protestants though we were, that you should never take a sacred object out to the streets and treat it profanely. An image in a sacred venue could be an idol.

Over the years it seems that the strictures of the ten commandments might have been relaxed just a little. Collectively as a culture, the real has become more and more virtual. We buy our movies, music and books in electronic format. We play our games on computers. In such a context a physical image may seem somehow less real. Our idols have been digitized. It doesn’t seem like the Bible was looking that far ahead when attempting to create an exhaustive list of what might anger the divine. After all, electricity wouldn’t be discovered for millennia. Reality was dry, dusty, and deadly. The prohibition was against physical images. It is no longer an issue for many in the Judeo-Christian tradition that a statue or an icon might be a sign of piety rather than profanity. Things seem to have come full circle when I find a statue of John Wesley, nearly of bobble-head proportions, looking at me with eyes seeking prevenient grace. I guess the powers that be might just be willing to overlook even Methodists gone native.

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Some Baltimore Lessons

As someone who hovers around the edges, perhaps I’m preoccupied with perceptions. I have been attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting regularly since 1991, with a few years off for bad behavior. Usually it is held in a colorful US city that can afford to have a myriad of religion scholars show up all at the same time. I have noticed, over the years, what a conspicuous lot we are. As I drove into Baltimore, for example, I could tell who the locals were right away. They fit their environment. When I reached the medical area near one of the large hospitals, the people were wearing scrubs and white coats. I could navigate to the convention center by following the bearded, tweeded, and professionally dressed feminine to where the specialists in arcane subjects gather. We rather stand out. The funny thing is, once you get us together, we don’t always have a lot in common.

I used to teach, and as a teacher you run into this strange contradiction of roles where you are expected to keep your expertise up-to-date, to entertain students in the classroom, and to write books and articles in your spare time. I excelled at this and found my niche for a while. The beard I already had, but the look had to be acquired. Tweeds were not difficult to locate in Scotland, and so I returned to the States with the image already down. At Nashotah House, I recall many students complaining about the rules that forbade wearing a “seminarian collar.” Yes, even priests have a guild. A seminarian collar looks like a Roman collar, only it has a dark vertical stripe in the middle to warn the penitant that this is not a full-fledged priest and confessing your darkest deeds might not be a good idea. Don’t buy any wafer’s s/he’s selling. Their complaint was that to learn the role you have to dress the part. The administration at the time had rules against it. Confusing someone for a priest can have serious consequences. (Never mind that on a campus with at most 50 students everyone knew everyone else by name and habit.)

So I sit in my car at the stoplight and watch the academic parade. In this crowd there are people with god-like status in the academy, but whose names would mean nothing in even a highly educated household. The metaphorical Red Sea of scholars in the bookstalls parts at their approach. On the street corner they look lost. To the locals it is obvious that a horde had descended upon the town. Many forget to remove their name tags, announcing to the secular world that there be giants here. But they are shivering giants, as if they might’ve forgotten to pack a coat and the wind sure is chilly for this time of year. I suppose I must look like one of them myself. After all, I’m trying to turn the wrong way on a one-way street again.

Am I that obvious?

Am I that obvious?

The Write Place

In my mind, Baltimore is inextricably bound to Edgar Allan Poe. From the accounts of Poe’s life, it is clear that he sensed nowhere as a welcoming home. Indeed, he was barely mourned at his passing and the memorial gravestone in this city was only added decades later when his works had attracted serious attention. Many of the eastern cities now like to claim him: Boston (although with Bostonian diffidence), New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond. All have various mementoes of his transient existence in those places, although he was not made to feel at home there when he was actually alive. The writing life is a difficult and often lonely one. Poe knew that better than many. It is so lonely that nobody is even sure why he was in Baltimore when he died, or what the cause of death was. He has become an icon to many that write.

Ironically, my career has repeatedly shoved me back to the publishing industry. That doesn’t mean that it is any easier to get published, however. The world is full of words, and those who hold the key to publishing respectability have so little time (a fact I know well, as a sometime editor). Some of us resort to blogs and pseudonyms while others die young in Baltimore. The world loves a self-promoter. Those with something intelligent to say are often discovered only in retrospect. And soon their work enters the public domain and can be claimed by all.

Other writers have called Baltimore home. Not many have football franchises named after their literary works, whether here in Maryland or elsewhere. And Baltimore, like many of the major cities of the United States, has great swaths of the neglected, the poverty-bound, and the hopeless. As I drive through the city it is clear that many have been left to face the cruelties of a self-promoters’ economy. They live with little—overlooked and forgotten. But there’s a party in town for those who can afford it. As I settle down with a cask of Amontillado and my notebook, I know that I have only just begun to get to know Baltimore. Maybe I will meet the ghost of Poe here, amid the brightest lights of scholarship and the darker shadows beneath.

Poe in New York

Poe in New York

Away as a Stranger

I’ll admit it. One of the things many scholars secretly enjoy about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is discount rates at fancy hotels. Unless things have changed drastically since my teaching days, professors don’t make enough to spend nights at four-star hotels as a matter of course. This year, however, Routledge pulled the rug out from under me less than a month before the conference. I had to cancel my reservation and forget the dreams of a leisurely train ride to Baltimore, a nice walk to a luxury hotel, and four days of schmoozing with the intellectuals (or at least those who are considered smart enough to write books). Then, Oxford University Press. I started work on Monday, and by Friday I was attending AAR/SBL. But with a twist. All the hotels were full—not a room in Bethlehem, I mean, Baltimore. So I had to find a run-down hotel several miles away and drive four hours to get there frazzled and decidedly unacademic. Still, map is not territory.

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Getting back to the hotel from the Convention Center, I had technology issues. You see, I didn’t have time to plan the trip out this year. I had no maps, figuring my smartphone was more intelligent than I (I don’t set a very high bar). Alas, for the GPS on my phone knows Baltimore less well than me, apparently. When the scenery turned industrial and I could see the ocean although my hotel is miles west of the city, I knew I was loss. My GPS, groping for dignity, kept instructing me to make u-turns on the interstate. Finally, I pulled off an exit and tried to use dead reckoning. Baltimore, like most cities, has problem areas. My GPS took me on a tour of them, as darkness was falling. Boarded up row houses leered at me as I took each turn the phone dictated. I noticed with alarm that the low battery indicator had come on and I was nowhere near anything that looked like a conference center, highway, hotel, or even Salvation Army. I had trusted technology, and it had let me down. Finally, with 8 percent battery power remaining, I spied my seedy hotel in the distance. I was never so relieved.

I have attended this conference since 1991 (I’ll leave the reader to do the math), and only one year did I not stay at a conference hotel. I think I remember why. People are discarded here. Entire cities left to crumble. Without a map, I witnessed territory that I’d rather not have seen. My academic friends, I know, were tipping back a glass, knowing that they had only to find the elevators to be home. Map is territory. And the terrain is untamed. We have created our urban jungles, and it will take more than a GPS to get our way through them. Tomorrow I will try again, if my trembling fingers can find the ignition, so that I can drive to where the more fortunate dwell. Some dreams are best left undreamt.

Nothing Unusual

WhyDoestheWorldExist“Is this a world?” Ranger Tom asks seriously, “And if it is, am I in it?” On the lips—or fingertips—of some, this set of questions appears profound. Although I’m not technically a philosopher, I find it impossible to walk by a book with the title Why Does the World Exist? and not pick it up. I am not familiar with Jim Holt’s other work—I engage a little too heavily with books to spend much time with magazines—but the question of the title is one I’ve often pondered. It is right up there with “Why can some people get published and others can’t?” Holt is, however, on a serious quest. Not surprisingly, religion features prominently in the discussion. For the usual existential reasons, including a couple of significant deaths in the family, Holt asks perhaps the most basic of all questions and engages a number of prominent philosophers on the issue. Why is there something rather than nothing? For some in the western world such a question appears a non-starter, because our culture is biblically suffused. Whether we want to admit it or not, our social ocean veritably bobs with the basic belief that God created the world, end of story. We don’t need to ponder it, we just have to accept it. For those who look deeper, however, the answers aren’t that easy.

Holt goes through some serious computation in various forms of logic to try to arrive at a schematic demonstrating that the world is a surprising place. Not trained in such rigorous logic, I was interested to notice how the language occasionally slipped from “world” or “universe” to “reality.” Reality is perhaps the slipperiest concept of them all. Many simply accept their own experience as real, a position known as “naive realism.” Others probe somewhat deeper, seeking to verify reality. How do we know what is really real? It is, however, a different question than the existence of the world. Reality has the distinct ability to haunt with its half-answered questions and surfeit of ambiguity. Every time I wake from a dream I ask myself what is really real.

Once the divine is removed from the equation, why the world is here becomes a much more complex issue. Holt engages the new atheists as well as the neo-orthodox. It turns out that God may not help as much as we generally assume: whence God? Or, in its more childlike version, where did God come from? Once brute fact is ruled out, this becomes a tangled problem indeed. Faced with an endless regression, logic quails. Perhaps, however, we have reached the limits of rationality—even Einsteinian physics breaks down at the Big Bang. No matter what scientists or philosophers may tell us, we will always wonder, “and before that, what?” I put Holt’s book down with a sense that I’d spent a few pleasant hours considering the possibilities, but I still wonder, with Ranger Tom, if this is a world. And if it is, am I in it?

Meaningless Words

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I’m glad to be back in New York City. It’s a funny place. A walk down the street can be an education. When I saw this shirt the other day, I had a thought—what happens when words lose their meaning? I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “bad words” since I was a kid. Although I never uttered them, I wondered why they were considered bad. That thought gets stretched out a big longer in this instance, to wondering whether overuse destroys the power of the swear. Although most religions claim taboo words are made that way by god(s), some psychologists have suggested that the function of swearing lies precisely in its ability to shock. If so, what happens when the shock wears off? We may need to come up with new words for copulation to take the place of the f-bomb. And it’s not just naughty words that are at risk.

I saw a report a while back that made reference to “Libertarian fundamentalist Jimmy Wales.” Wales is at least the co-, if not sole, founder of Wikipedia. The libertarian label didn’t surprise me, but the fundamentalist part did. Wales is no conservative religious believer. Of all people fundamentalists are the least likely to support a wiki concept where the final version is never nailed down. It would be like reading a Bible where the words keep floating around the pages, shifting combinations, changing meanings. Of course, the concept of words even having meanings is a matter of debate. A colleague of mine used to remind me, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” He was technically correct. Even the f-bomb, when uttered in other languages, as sophomorically portrayed in many a movie, has an entirely different usage.

Dictionaries are filled with archaic words. I don’t recall the last time I saw eftsoons in print, or iwis, or maugre. Have they lost their meanings, or just their usages? In any case they live on in written language history. Overuse of a word leads to calls for restraint among literary types, as when the word “awesome” got out of control a few years back. The case for the f-word is somewhat different. When I walk through the streets of the city it is obvious that it is one word that is in no danger of dying out. The gerund, or more properly, adjectival form ending in -ing, is freely interspersed in blasé sentences with complete abandon. For some people it appears to fill the mental pause generally reserved for “uh” or “um.” When it ceases to shock us, it will become just another Howard Stern of the lexical world. And some tee-shirts, I expect, will be available quite cheaply then.

Fateful Dreams

Popular historians love a good coincidence. I suppose it is a way of reading order into a chaotic world where many events, in the final analysis, just don’t make sense. Perhaps academic historians shy away from coincidental events—after all, they contain a whiff of the improbable about them, and academics can admit no greater force driving our efforts toward a civil existence. The rest of us, however, like to note them. This week contains the anniversaries of a couple of significant landmarks of United States history, and they may somehow be related. November 19 marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address while November 22 is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The events, a century and three days apart, stand for transitions in American society, and the implications of both still linger on as unfairness and fear continue to haunt our hopes for a future where all might indeed be considered created equal—and not just all men, but all people—and where optimism might edge out cynicism in the political world.

486px-Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Of course, both Lincoln and Kennedy died at the hands of assassins. America has never been terribly comfortable with dreamers. The century that separated the Gettysburg Address from Kennedy’s tragic death was not enough time to swing the ship of state around to bring about a world of dreams. Unfortunately, war also defined both presidencies. The dream of a world at peace has been more difficult to attain than a human desire for such a world would seem to merit. If we all (or most) want a world at peace, why can’t we bring it about? Unfortunately, it seems that a basic sense of justice is lacking.

500px-John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portraitPerhaps it is a coincidence that many of the world’s religions stress the concept of a just society. By far the majority of the world population associates itself with one form of religious belief or another. Not all religions get along, however. Many of the conflicts that have erupted into wars have had a basis in differing religions. Power is easily seized from dreamers, religious or not. Watching modern elections is a terribly sobering event. We don’t advertise what we might accomplish, but rather what is so wrong with the other guy so that we win by a paltry default. Victory for whom? And why consider it a victory? A friend once suggested that Christians should start out as bishops and eventually be promoted to the level of laity. I thought it was a brilliant idea that could be applied to politics as well. Think of it: elected officials as servants of the people. Of course, by coincidence, I am a hopeless dreamer.

Rites and Wrongs

One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.

The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.

Oxford’s Hire

In 1478 the first book printed in Oxford heralded the eventual founding of Oxford University Press. Just two years earlier Vlad III, the Impaler, had been assassinated. In 1478 the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Spain. Just over a century earlier, the Black Death decimated the population of Europe. Things looked a bit dark at that time. Nicolaus Copernicus, however, was five years old in 1478 and the Enlightenment was just around the corner. The printing press had been, well, hot off the press for just a couple of decades at the time. The University of Oxford had been around for nearly four centuries already, making it one of the oldest and most prestigious centers of learning in the world. Oxford University Press early on began the business of printing Bibles and shedding light on a world where things were somewhat dim. Progress often brings misery with it, but the idea that a literate public stood a better chance of improvement bore an optimism that has occasionally been realized, even in free market times. I’m very glad for Oxford University Press.

These are among my thoughts as I prepare for my first day as Associate Editor for Bibles and Biblical Studies at Oxford University Press. It is a heady sensation. Bibles were among OUP’s first printing projects. As part of an increasingly secular society in an increasingly religious world, I’m aware of the power the Bible has had and still has. Love it or hate it, it has shaped this thing we call modern culture in ways both profound and facile. The opportunity to work in this division is sobering. A little unnerving, even.

John_Speed's_map_of_Oxford,_1605.

Ironically, my career has largely been Anglo-oriented. Perhaps it is because those based in England appreciate the solidity of a degree from Edinburgh University, although this is only speculation. Nashotah House was a profoundly anglophile institution, at least once upon a time it was. The founder of Gorgias Press had studied in both Oxford and Cambridge. Routledge is a British-based publishing house. Ironically, British culture is not as prone to Bible-reading as that of the United States. My jobs, which have largely focused on the Bible, have been British-oriented. I try to add it all up but get lost in the midst of the numbers. Call it first day jitters. Twenty-five years ago at this time I was preparing to get married and to move to Scotland. Little did I suspect that a quarter-century later I would be coming back to an ancient university of the United Kingdom again.

I See Only Nothing

Once considered to be bad omens, comets are becoming a fad for those who can take their eyes off the screen for a few moments to look at the sky. Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), apart from falling trippingly from the tongue, is apparently now visible with the naked eye. I’ve been looking forward to this comet since at least January, although living just to the west of New York City complicates viewing possibilities quite a bit. You see, although I am now an urbanite, I’m really a rural rube at heart. I grew up in a town of less than 1000, and was born in a town of less than 15000. I attended college in a small town and my first teaching job was in a rural setting in Wisconsin. Apart from the fact that I’m now convinced people have very little control over their own destinies, I have preferred to live in places where I can see the night-time sky. Perhaps it was my love of science fiction as a child, but for whatever reason, space has always captured my imagination. I used to drag my brother out on frigid nights to look at the stars, and even tried to teach myself the azimuth coordinate system to document precisely where I’d seen something. I took astronomy classes in high school and in college. In middle school I did an intensive report on comets that saved my science grade that year.

Hyakutake, 1996.  My first comet.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Comet ISON, however, has been refusing to behave as it was projected that it might. Although it could still turn into a very bright sky-show, so far it has been difficult to spot, and, at least for my location, at inconvenient hours of the day. Much to the chagrin of creationists, ISON is 4.6 billion years old, although it is just getting out for it’s first tour of the solar system. Part of the Oort cloud region, Comet ISON is probably a piece of a never-formed planet out past Neptune that decided to take its first cosmic stroll about a million years ago. It’s had a date with the sun since that time. The scientific jury’s still out as to whether ISON will go out with a blaze of glory after its close encounter with our sun and if it will come back around again to wow generations of our distant progeny (presuming we survive that long). For me it will be a matter of seeing if the clouds ever break in the east at 4 a.m. so that I can actually get a glimpse of the sky.

Hale-Bopp, 1997; a little over-exposed--one of the hazards of amateur photography with film.

Hale-Bopp, 1997; a little over-exposed–one of the hazards of amateur photography with film.

Comets were once thought to be heralds of the gods. Like other variable objects in an otherwise pretty predictable night-time sky, they can be either very bright or very dim (even invisible, for all practical purposes). When Halley’s Comet came around in 1986 I was living in Boston and couldn’t see the heavenly visitor. In 1996 Hyakutake buzzed earth, I stood in wonder in the woods of Wisconsin, photographing my first comet. A year later when Hale-Bopp blazed through the sky, I was out with my camera trying to capture it on film (a medium, I understand, that is about as old as Comet ISON). Were these visitors bad omens? One comet may have been decidedly devastating for our dinosaur friends, while some speculate that life on earth was seeded by a comet (making it a kind of secular god, I suppose). I’m only convinced that we have no control over our fate as I stand outside at 4 a.m. yet again, only to find clouds in the east and a comet in my heart.

History Bites

historian-elizabeth-kostovaAfter reading a post I’d written about Dracula last year, a friend recommended that I look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This novel is very easy for a vampire fan to lose oneself in, taking a sweeping scope of the Balkans and western Turkey, and adding enticing bits of northern Europe as well. Although it is a novel, it is also a history lesson in international relations and in the costs that accompany clashing religious empires. Christendom and Ottoman powers frequently exchanged hostilities long before the Bush presidency, and it was in this milieu that Vlad Tepes, the Dracula of history, emerged. Interestingly, although vampires had been part of religious folklore since the earliest civilizations, it took Bram Stoker to make Dracula into one. It is difficult to believe that, with the household name-recognition of Vlad III’s epithet, Dracula would’ve likely remained one of history’s more gruesome footnotes without Stoker’s undead imagination. Vampires would’ve survived, I’m sure, but Dracula might not have come back to life.

Kostova does an excellent job of blending fact and fiction in an epic vampire hunt. She also takes the somewhat unusual step of making the historical Vlad her actual vampire. A defender of the Christian faith against the Turks and their Muslim ways, Dracula did earn a reputation for cruelty (and unusual punishments) during his lifetime. Kostova keeps him alive through a kind of scavenger-hunt through history as his decapitated body must be brought back together with his head, and then through the wilds of Transylvania, Wallachia, Bulgaria, and even into the cosmopolitan streets of Constantinople. This is an intellectual’s vampire story if ever there was one.

Although Dracula’s association with the vampire mythos began with Bram Stoker, his role as a symbol of religious conflict boasts much older roots. Indeed, conflict over what is the “one true faith” has been a bloody avocation of humanity since universal claims of salvation began to be made. The conflict continues, in a somewhat more civil guise, as science flexes its considerable muscles over the less empirical realm of religious belief. No matter which strand of religion one believes, if any, faith has a strange ability to set people seeking one another’s blood. The symbol of the vampire does not seem to be departing any time soon, for vampirism is part of human nature. We may never shed the physical blood of another, but we continue to participate in cultures where the strong impose their wills on the weak. And that is a scene darker than even the scariest tomb painted in The Historian.