Monthly Archives: November 2014

Get Out of Town

If the Bible were to be written today, it would be more graphic. Those who’ve read it know that it is a graphic book already, but with no literal illustrations. Somewhat surprisingly for a post-Christian society where the Bible generally gets bad press, this year has seen the release of at least two major movies based, loosely, on scripture. Noah came with a flood of hype this summer, and even then we were told to keep an eye out for a movie on the exodus later in the year. The New York Times heralds the imminent arrival of Exodus: Gods and Kings with a movie preview. Like Noah the new movie will take liberties with the biblical accounts of the exodus. (The Bible itself is not consistent on the story in any case. The “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 differs considerably from the prior prose account.) Ridley Scott, who gave us Alien, has cast the iconic Batman, Christian Bale, as Moses. When I first read about this during the summer, I wondered how Bale would take the meek role of the humblest man on earth. With considerable chutzpah seems to be the answer.

The review by Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, however, make the most not of Moses but of his mentor, Yahweh. Using an eleven-year old, Isaac Andrews, as the deity, the movie “preserves the awful severity of the Old Testament God.” In this it touches on one of the sore-spots among biblical scholars and theologians both—the characterization of a bifurcated deity. God in the New Testament is frequently said to be loving and kind (except for the iron-clad rule that makes him (as he is male) sacrifice his own child), while the deity of the Hebrew Bible is said to be angry, mean, and vindictive. Others say he’s simply just just. We like to see a divinity who is swayed by mercy and is deeply aware of the human condition. The Bible presents, it seems, a conflicted God who is sometimes just as confused as we are.

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Casting a deity who is forever young, however, may be a stroke of genius. In the Bible, in as far as there is a coherent storyline, God does seem to evolve. Sure, there are those who claim God always remains the same, but any deity whose first recorded words to Adam and Eve, after laying down the rules, take the form of an interrogative certainly must be able to learn and grow. Of course, it is very much like a human to suppose that the world could not have existed before we got here to see it. We who are so fascinated by the idea that the world could have carried on without us for the generations before we were born. What was God doing in those eons, besides playing with dinosaurs, like a child? I don’t suppose Exodus will delve into those questions, busy as it will be with battle scenes and other adult situations. At least if it’s true to the Bible, which, despite popular opinion is so graphic that would have a hard time retaining an R rating, if taken literally.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.

Welcoming the Stranger

Profiling is alive and well. In our post-9/11 state, we are even more suspicious than those who are different than we were before. After the Ferguson decision, profiling once again led to unrest. If we didn’t do it so much, cases like this wouldn’t be necessary. If we didn’t shoot first and ask questions later, how much more would we understand? It happens, unfortunately, at all levels. I have no desire to trivialize the tragedy that continues to unfold over race relations, but divisions of those perceived potentially to cause trouble occur at even smaller, less significant levels. We tell ourselves that it is possible to gauge a person’s potential for violence based on a number of factors which happen to fall along lines of gender and race. Your typical airport screening is an example.

As my readers know, I object to the millimeter wave scanners in use in many airports. In general, I object to being treated as a criminal when I have been a pacifist since high school. (And likely before.) I am treated like a law-abiding citizen everywhere except the airport. Flying home from San Diego, I noticed that at check-in men traveling alone were separated out and sent through the scanner. The side on which I had to pull off my shoes and belt and coat, empty my laptop from my bag, and stand on the chilly floor awaiting an opt-out, was very masculine indeed. The woman in front of me, who looked far more frazzled than I did, was sent to the metal detector, along with her stroller. No threat there. Being male, however, is always a threat. Two priests stood before me in line. They didn’t go for the pat-down.

Potential terrorists, all.

Potential terrorists, all.

On the plane, many passengers began to talk about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. After all, about half the passengers had just come from the conference. For me, I was ready for some quiet. Some time to center myself after playing the extrovert and talking to people I don’t know for four long days. As debates about religion broke out on the Boeing 737, I began to understand why religious folk are often profiled as potential threats. Their convictions, public and firmly held, are more likely to remain constant in the face of contrary evidence than are most opinions. I wonder if airport security couldn’t save us all some time, money, and embarrassment. Couldn’t they just ask passengers to declare their faith? Of course, we’d need to find some other employment for government officials whose duties involving feeling strangers with latex gloves before wishing them a pleasant trip. While high above the planet riots are breaking out down below because we distrust those who are different.

Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.

Saint Diego

Didacus of Alcalá fortunately, I think we might all agree, was more commonly known as Diego. The city of San Diego is named for him, as his nickname was a diminutive of Santiago, or Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Ironically, the more recent Saint Diego is best known for his visions of St. Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. To keep your saints straight you need a score card sometimes. To go by the names, California must be a most sacred place. 120 miles north is the City of Angels. Then the city on the bay named after Saint Francis. Then Saint Barbara. One of my favorites, however, is San Louis Obispo. Everywhere saints. What of Didacus? Born in Spain, he was a missionary to the Canary Islands. I don’t think he ever visited southern California. The Franciscan mission dedicated to him, however, is what grew into the presently eighth largest city in the United States.

Wandering the streets of the old part of San Diego, you might find evidence that a mission led to this sprawling city. Or perhaps not. Now it is famous for fun in the sun—beaches and clubs and the US Navy. I have to wonder what Didacus would have thought of his namesake. I wouldn’t presume to speak for a saint, but I can’t see him surfing or enjoying perpetual summer. Did he have any idea what he might have been starting by denying himself and helping others? He was known for his curing of the sick, although he himself died of an abscess some five-and-a-half centuries ago this month. Like most ascetics, it seems one thing he highly valued was being left alone to contemplate. Would he have even survived in modern San Diego?

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One of the observations I make quietly, from the sidelines, is how frantic religion scholars seem to be. Frantic to write that book, get that tenure, find that recognition. It is sometimes easy to forget that educating students is a reward in itself. Having attended large conferences like this for nearly a quarter century, I have watched carefully. Saints and sinners both wander these carpeted halls with motivations as widely diverse as those of Didacus and Daedalus. Although there are 10,000 people here, including, briefly, Jimmy Carter, the world will go on tomorrow as if none of this ever happened. The homeless will still sleep in the park across the tracks from this world-class convention center. We’ll send our sick to hospitals instead of to churches. And if it weren’t for this conference in this city, I would never even heard of Didacus of Alcalá.

Flight of Fantasy

Today marks the end of the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. As the last attendees who have stayed through to the final half-day make their way through the dreaded Tuesday-slots for papers and wander the exhibit halls in search of last-minute bargains, I wonder what impact we will have made in San Diego. Many of my conversations this year included lamenting over the state of higher education, particularly in the study of religion. Religion, which led to the very concept of higher education, is now perceived mostly as little more than a somewhat unsophisticated intrusion into the cold, hard reality of business. And educating future entrepreneurs is, make no mistake about it, business. Wither the institutions go, publishers will follow. The life of the mind is a perk that we no longer can afford. And yet, as colleague after colleague attests, this is what students really find fascinating. Perhaps even important.

As we get ready to head back to the airport, I reflect how it is so much like being a passenger on a plane. We’ve purchased tickets to get us near where we want to be, but we aren’t directing this jet. The pilot, isolated from us by an unsurpassable barrier, will, we trust, get us to the designated airport. That, however, is not really where we want to go. We won’t happily loiter there. Impatiently we’ll await our baggage at the carousel so that we can wend our way back to our homes. Where is the business end in that? Isn’t it, however, what we live for? And what of the San Diego we’ve left behind? How many people will say that their lives will have been improved by having the lion’s share of religion scholars in their neighborhood for a long weekend? Will the number of homeless have decreased? Will they have found jobs?

While those of us “not from around here” ride elevators more nicely appointed that some people’s houses, the televisions meant to prevent us from growing bored from the twentieth floor to the first, show how the other half lives. It’s sunny and nearing eighty today and Buffalo has snow higher than our heads. Reporters flock to the snow-locked city and wonder at nature’s extremes. It doesn’t seem to play along with our business plans. There must be some way to make some money out of this. But I have an unconventional theory. Maybe I’ve watched Bruce Almighty too many times, but I wonder if all those prayers made by children for a snow day may have been stored up in, what scripture assures us, is a great divine warehouse awaiting release. Perhaps the doors of that storehouse have been thrown open to remind us that sometimes the business of living is simply the wonder of watching it snow. No matter how inconvenient it might be. And lives will have changed for the better.

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The Presence of Ideas

Attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is a bittersweet experience. There is nothing as awe-inspiring as being in the presence of ideas. Whether it is meeting friends who have grown old with me over the years, or younger scholars who promise a fascinating future, or those newly discovered that feel like old friends, they all have ideas. Of course, it is not the editor’s job to produce content, no matter how long or deeply one has been trained to do so. Here is where the bitter of the flavorful metaphor comes in: the suppression of ideas is painful. Throughout my career I have had the benefit of being trained by maverick thinkers who, although I hadn’t realized it at the time, were showing me the way to a kind of enlightenment. Enlightenment, whether it be the absence of thought or the plenitude of it, will lead to places we can’t possibly expect.

When talking about ideas with others I realize how artificial our trite divisions are. For many years I was labeled as a “Hebrew Bible scholar.” “A seminary professor.” Or any number of other simplified categories. My interest, however, was always the finding of the truth. No other goal, it seems to me, is really worth all the energy we put into academic discourse. Sure, I may have studied obscure dead languages—the kind of work that is required to read what many call the word of God in the original (and even earlier than original) language(s). There I found deities battling monsters and chaos perpetually lurking in the background. Ideas in conflict. I somehow knew truth would always win. In fact, I more or less took it personally when AAR initiated its temporary separation from SBL. The two need each other, no matter how much they might argue in the night.

What's the idea?

What’s the idea?

After my first full day of the conference, my head was so swimming with ideas that I had a night full of frightful intellectual dreams. Although I may have trouble convincing the great institutions of this land, I do know that I have something to offer. Ideas crowd around me like a newly exorcized man, seeking entrance to a receptive mind. The more we claim we know, the more we have to learn. I face another day of greeting ideas and seeking their company. Of course, I’m a company man, and I should know what I’m here for. The bittersweet truth of the matter is, however, somewhat more complex than that. I can think of no better place to explore it in the company of friends I’ve known for years, or even only for the past few minutes. As long as they bring their ideas.