Monthly Archives: September 2014

Dirty Words

I don’t have any bumper-stickers on my car. As clever as I may think any particular one to be, driving down the highway is not the place that I want other drivers to get ticked off at me. A more judicious use of turn-signals would be my preference over mass-produced witticisms. I suspect that most readers know of my liberal leanings. Some have even bothered to inform me that they no longer read my musings precisely because of this. On the information superhighway, unlike the real highway, you can just click off and not be annoyed anymore. My bumper, therefore, will stay clean. While in a parking lot recently I saw a bumper-sticker reading “Not A Liberal.” I had to ponder this a bit.

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I grew up conservative, although, as working-class folk, we didn’t label ourselves with that word at home. I wouldn’t have even known what it meant. Liberal, in its basic form, has to do with generosity and being respectful of others. The media has built it up into a kind of evil juggernaut that intends to take over the safe, unchanging world of religion and politics. I wonder how liberal became a dirty word. Who, among your friends, would want to remain so if you disrespect their views and refuse to show generosity? I get the sense that even conservatives are liberal with their friends. When I walk past the homeless sleeping on a subway vent to keep warm, I wonder if conservatives ever read the parable of the good Samaritan. What bumper-stickers would the homeless wear?

A polarized society had better prepare for the big chill. In my admittedly limited experience, people come in a continuum of positions, not just one extreme or the other. It makes better news, however, when we divide into camps, the more clearly to spar with one another. What separates us is more important than what brings us together. Yes, I grew up conservative. I continued, however, to grow up. I suspect in some things I am still conservative, while in many I am liberal. I’m not sure what I’d put on my bumper-sticker. What do I want people to know about me while I’m driving? I think it might be better to suggest “I Respect You,” than an implied “I don’t like your views.” Then again, since it happens so often, I now look for a Jesus fish automatically when I’m cut off in traffic. Be careful of what you put on your bumper, because dirty words are in the eyes of the reader.

Knockin’ Where?

KnockinOnHeavensDoorFor a while, when I was with Routledge, I tried to kick-start the old series Biblical Limits. I didn’t initiate the series, but it had been cutting edge at the time, and one thing biblical scholars seldom get to claim is that particular adjectival phrase. Alas, my enthusiasm wasn’t contagious and the series never moved ahead. Recently I decided to read Roland Boer’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: The Bible and Popular Culture. Little did I realize that it would be a book that would make such a literal fit for the symbolic nature of my blog title. This is a book that my internet savvy would declare NSFW: not safe for work. Boer explores the sex and violence that are really rather pronounced in the biblical text, but which are often sublimated into object lessons for the faithful. We hear that such books as Song of Songs are allegories since they can’t possibly be about real people really attracted to each other. Would God sanction such things, well, after Genesis 1, I mean?

Post-modern readings of the Bible like to place the obvious before the reader. There is, no doubt, some over-reading going on here, but there is plentiful insight as well. A number of places I stopped and thought, I could use that, were I still teaching. Popular culture isn’t just movies and video games. There is a very human element to culture. Indeed, culture would not exist without such a thing as human interest. Boer explores everything from David’s carnal interests to Alfred Hitchcock’s morbid ones. McDonalds to Ezekiel in Guns-n-Roses. This is not the usual finding Christology in E.T. This is more like the bad boy’s Bible.

If the Bible cannot be made applicable to a constantly changing culture, then it becomes irrelevant. Many object to Boer’s bold treatment, but I believe that unless we can move beyond our concerns with J, E, D, P, R, Q, and double, or triple-redactions, we’re going to lose readers from page one. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is a page-turner. You can sit on the bus and have people think you’re reading about the Bible when in reality, a chapter on pornography may have you blushing madly. It brings to mind Odysseus in Polyphemus’s cave. But then, blind giants may be the most dangerous of all.

Cuneiform Lover

I’m busy. Too busy most of the time. You see, I used to be able to keep my mental files neatly in order. Recall was swift and efficient. I suppose that was back when I was doing the job for which I’d been preparing my entire life. Then a midlife, unexpected career change shifted things a bit. That mental file that you always kept here has now been shunted over to there. I suppose I always knew this was coming, and that’s why I started writing things down. Of course, this led to stacks of papers and a whole series of notebooks that follow varying forms of logic. “Commonplace books” as they used to be called. Then computers. I never used a computer until after my master’s degree. My wife showed me how. And then writing ideas down became pretty easy—who could ever afford more than one personal computer? And since they were as heavy as a small television (cathode-ray tube variety, of course), you always knew where you’d find it. Then laptops. iPads. iPhones. Something called “the Cloud.” A computer on my person at all times and I still can’t find that ruddy file, and has anybody seen my phone?

I wrote an important (for me) paper back in 2012. Just two years ago. I remembered vividly typing it on my laptop, working on it for weeks. Recently I wondered where I put it. I searched my laptop. Not there. I must have backed it up. Checked my backup files, on CD. Not there. Where did I put the thing? Although a Luddite at heart, I don’t delete old files. Please, tell me I didn’t do something like back it up on a floppy disk! I can barely remember when we used those. No, no, it was much more recent than that. Was it on this laptop or the one before? Maybe I stored it on the hard disk of the antiquated one. When you get a new computer (or at least when I do) it is such a rare occasion that you don’t bother backing up every single little loose file on your old machine—there’s too much shiny new stuff to admire. But the file wasn’t there. Finally I attached a terabyte backup, admittedly overkill for someone of my limited mental ability, and searched. Although the icon said it was on the terabyte drive, the file was actually on the Cloud, and since I hadn’t updated my software in a while, I was denied access.

I learned to write with fallible pencil on cheap, lined tablet paper. Back when tablets were paper. Our ancient ancestors started the process by writing on clay. For some five thousand years this pressing stylus unto substrate method worked fine. All of scared writ was scrivener-mediated that way. When computers were new you stored your files on floppies. At least you knew where they were. Now dialogue boxes ask me questions in a language more obscure than Sumerian and quickly shuttle my files off to I-don’t-know-where, assuring me that I’ll be able to get them back. Honestly. As long as I remember to upgrade my system, which will, of course, require periodic outlays of substantial sums of money. You can choose not to pay, but your documents are with us. I’ve still got some clay here, and a sharpened flint taken to a twig will make a stylus, old school. And clay tablets have been known to last for millennia.

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Ironic Icons

The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.

Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.

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But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.

Casing the Promised Land

In one of the great ironies of the English language “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Sometimes an extra syllable can make all the difference. “Ideas are incombustible,” wrote Ellen Hopkins in the final stanza of “Manifesto.” Unlike inflammable, that which is incombustible can’t be burned away. Most literally expressed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ideas are, however, endangered in a culture that claims to support them while secretly allowing them to be banned. Orwell called it doublespeak, and we all owe it to our heirs to fight it wherever we can. Sometimes the promised land may not be all that it seems. Can the brave truly be this afraid? Some politicians think “Born in the USA” is a complimentary song. Never has there been a better case for emphasizing literacy.

We fear the ideas our children might encounter, making them into the people they are meant to be. I’d like to return to an idea I broached at the beginning of this year’s Banned Book Week—the Bible has been a banned book. According to the antics of various preachers and vigilantes, so have been the Quran and the Book of Mormon. Destroying books or their authors, however, only creates martyrs. Until the world begins to understand that memes are more durable than genes we will fight our futile wars to drive the thoughts away. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of how some regimes want to control even our dreams. As if cutting the wings from angels were even possible. How do you physically cut an incorporeal being? Some may need to look “incorporeal” up in a dictionary.

I can’t remember when I started to read for fun, but I do know I haven’t been able to stop since. I have no idea how many books I’ve read, but it certainly comes out to more than the money I’ve ever been able to save. I write this with not an iota of regret. In my humble opinion people are products of the books they read, the songs they hear, the movies they watch. Ideas. Ideas permeate us and we, like sponges, absorb our nutrients from them. Inevitably we come to resemble the concepts we ingest. Ingesting concepts is perhaps the best way to think of Banned Book Week. Inflammable and flammable mean the same thing. Incombustible, however, is something completely different.

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Afraid for God

ReadingLolitaInTehranReading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is not easy. It is, however, rewarding. Appropriate for Banned Book Week, we might want to remind ourselves what a society that bans books actually looks like. Nafisi, an Iranian teacher of English literature, had broadened her mind and had traveled abroad. When she returned to her home country to take up a teaching post, she discovered that the world you always knew can be very unstable. It can change without you realizing it. (Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, left even the sages scratching their heads.) The Revolution, as it was known in Iran, brought in the radical conservatism of religious outlooks that saw women as little more than temptations for men. The wearing of the veil was enforced by law. Nafisi was told it was a small price to pay for the greater good. The rhetoric is the same every time I’ve been frisked at the airport, although I’m a lifelong pacifist. In Iran, things were much worse.

Nafisi recounts gathering a group of her women students together after she was forced out of the university. They would meet at her apartment to discuss literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. How must it feel to be a woman reading about a man’s obsession with a girl so young? As Nafisi points out, girls of Lolita’s age are considered marriageable in some Islamic states. It isn’t Islam that’s the problem, it is extremism. When I read about how she became “irrelevant,” I literally shuddered. In my own way too, I had been made irrelevant to higher education by those who felt any means would justify religious ends. And the bookstores in Tehran were closed, for they sold dangerous ideas. The irrelevance of one woman, or even half the population, is a small price to pay for self-righteousness.

“You say you’re afraid for God,” Ellen Hopkins wrote in “Manifesto.” Afraid for the Almighty. Such a strange concept. Fundamentalists of all monotheistic stripes believe in an all-powerful God whom they arrogantly presume to protect. How can a human even conceive such hubris? We feel secure in our Bible-emboldened superiority, challenged when reminded that the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or even Science and Health came later, and by definition supersessionism inevitably takes hold. “Paranoia is in bloom,” Muse reminds us. Missiles fall on Tehran, killing women and children. We elect, however, officials who agree that healthcare for women is politically negotiable. The reason has nothing at all to do with justice. It has everything to do with using a black-bound book for power over those who are just twelve-year olds wondering how any of this is even possible.

Academic Freedom

Azusa Pacific University, 2013. Emmanuel Christian Seminary, 2012. Interdenominational Theological Center, 2012. University of Illinois, 2010. Carroll College, 2005. Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, 2005. Unfortunately the list could go on and on. Academic institutions in the land of the free and the home of the brave dismissing faculty for saying or writing something that offended their doctrines. This is the land of my birth, and yet I’m still rocked by its permissiveness. That’s not permissiveness in that sense. I was latterly working on a paper called “the myth of academic freedom.” I know too many people for whom that myth has become a reality and all the while the governments, state and national, try to decide on more important issues such as whether or not to give children equal opportunity, our institutions crumble for petty points of pretentious pugilistic piety. Not only books may be banned, but those who potentially write them as well.

“You say you’re afraid for America,” Ellen Hopkins’s “Manifesto” suggests. Academics, of all people, should be afraid. Our society asks us to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars to become experts in some obscure topic only to release us from any possibility of finding employment that allows us to pay off said debt. “I don’t need no arms around me,” but I sure could use a podium in front of me. I am afraid for America. I am afraid for a nation that doesn’t defend its thinkers, instead following the wealthy to the peak of an unscalable Everest.

Academic freedom was once the guarantee that no question was disallowed, no thought anathema. We live in a time of pronounced conservative pushback, where those who feel threatened by knowledge persecute those who dare to think. Ironically in this situation many academics have become complacent. Having a place of your own, and the compunction not to make waves in this bathtub will allow your toy boat to float for many a year. Long enough to reach safe harbor. Beneath the surface shipwrecks lurk and books will never be written. Banned books are easiest to engineer at the aborted career stage. Even a pro-lifer knows that.

They don't write 'em like that anymore...

They don’t write ’em like that anymore…