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.


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.


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