Rumors of Wars

Now that Black Friday and Thanksgiving are behind us, the holiday season compels us to think of what comes next. Whether it is Hanukkah or Christmas or Kwanza, people are preparing to celebrate during the longest nights of the year, hoping to encourage light to return. It is a most primitive urge. Darkness is easy to come by; light takes a little more effort. In the western world the season was largely instituted by the celebration of Christmas, although this took many, many years to catch on. Now it is a begrudging nod in the direction of workers who spend more and more of their time on the job since the internet makes it difficult to claim that we are unavailable. Smart phones, smart watches, tablets, and computers are ubiquitous, so access to work email is only a click away. In any case, the holiday season invariably brings stories of offended people to the surface.

A recent piece in The Baxter Bulletin, sent to me by my wife, rehearses the story of Baxter County, Arkansas and the challenge against a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. Such stories always seem to me to be cases with no winners. A courthouse should remain neutral territory, but the nativity scene hardly seems an offensive weapon. I can’t claim to know a great deal about the history of creche scenes, but it doesn’t appear likely that they were ever covert attempts to convert. They were celebrations, and nobody has a problem with them as long as they’re kept on private property or church garths. I do wonder, however, if driving them out of public sight really has any purpose. We all know that this time of year is gearing up to holidays when the ordinary takes the back seat for a few days and we can stop the rat race and reflect on a wonderful myth of biblical proportions.

Tree, bush, or asherah?

Tree, bush, or asherah?

Similar stories are unfolding in countless venues now that December is practically here. Even stopping into Starbucks for a cup of coffee can land you in the middle of a culture war. It would seem to me that in this troubled world we might instead try to focus on peace. Whether or not the story of the manger has any historicity at all, the fact is the first century was a period of extreme unrest. This was a moment to pause and imagine what a world without war might be like. Now the holidays have become an occasion for declaring a new kind of sniping war about who has the right to make reference to a legendary event. Or where they may do so. In some cases there may be legitimate cause for concern. Most of the time, however, only those fixated on belligerence manage to draw everyone in to a fractured fairy tale of a holiday season where money is at stake.

Deserted Village

Hands up, anyone who’s heard of David Felt. Until just recently my hand would’ve remained down too. In his day, however, Felt was famous enough to have a town named after him (Feltville, New Jersey) and wealthy enough to leave it when it failed. Today the Deserted Village is a small tourist attraction, a wooded site on the National Register of Historic Places, and the residence of a few locals who prefer the quiet life. David Felt settled in Union County back in the days when it was rural, and established an industry around a mill. The available literature is frustratingly silent on what kind of a mill it was, but it was important enough for him to build housing to accommodate his workers out in the middle of nowhere. While many of the houses no longer stand, including that of Felt himself, the property has a few remaining buildings and a sense of history.

2015-11-06 22.16.35Upon walking into the park, part of the Watchung Reservation, the first building you meet, after a private residence, is the Union Church. Felt was a Unitarian. He nevertheless insisted that residents—his employees, remember—attend services weekly. The church, which is one of the few buildings open to the public, was a center of communal life. The timeframe here is the mid 1800s. Today employers are more likely to try hard to distance themselves from any religious activities, renaming any holiday gatherings with more neutral titles and hoping, rather than praying, that they won’t offend anybody. Of course, Felt’s business venture failed. Others that followed, sans church, didn’t fare much better.

The man that employees knew as “King David” went on to other ventures and has largely faded from history. Incredibly in this age of internet fame he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. Symbolically, the only building that remains accessible to the public in the church—now a museum with a few artifacts from a century-and-a-half ago. Having lived not far from Feltville for nearly a decade now, I had no idea of its presence until a chance meeting held there brought it to my wife’s attention. We can build our own little kingdoms, it seems, and call them after our own names. They are no guarantee, however, that what we leave behind will not become a ghost-town as the interests of civilization move in directions we had never anticipated.

Reptile Fantasy

LizardPrincessThe generous folks at Exterminating Angel Press graciously sent me a copy of Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess to review. A fantasy novel that includes a conflict between a world that admits of the supernatural and skeptics who deny anything beyond the material, it is a tale for our time. Indeed, the antagonism is real enough. We live in a world where fantasy can bring in untold wealth while we are taught that not an atom of it is true. Clearly material explanations fit the physical world we inhabit. It’s the world inside our heads that often rejects such materialism being taken to its “logical” conclusion. Davies clearly feels the angst of this discord. The Lizard Princess is a fantasy in the face of harsh reality. And we still need fantasy—perhaps we need it more than ever.

Throughout The Lizard Princess, whether intentional or not, biblical imagery pervades. The Bible offers classical stories that, no matter how we might receive them, continue to influence our ideas and ideals. Here, in a world created especially for the reader, the battle between good and evil is an everyday reality. The turns taken along this path are unconventional, and at times even uncomfortable. The awareness that there is a larger story in the background, however, offers some consolation. Angels, the Devil, and even a subtly veiled God are all players in this fantasy world of Arcadia. Mythical creatures abound, and transformations lead to new perspectives along the way.

In my conversations with other scholars I’m reminded that academics don’t often turn to novels for escape. Some do, of course, but the academy recommends a steady diet of technical non-fiction for those who wish to make an impact upon the world of knowledge. I have always been grateful for literature, however. During my years in graduate school and early in my teaching career I neglected the kinds of books that were my constant companions growing up. In a rural setting far removed from any institutions of higher learning, novels were often the only reading readily available. I never considered the time between their covers wasted. I found in The Lizard Princess a vivid world strangely like our own, but different enough to be more a parable than a simple piece of fiction.

Seeing Red

Not being commercially minded, it took many years for me to understand why it is called Black Friday. To many people “black” indicates negativity, sort of the opposite of Good Friday which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem so good. After I was forced into jobs in the money-making business, I came to realize that budgets were written in black and deficits were written in red. Since my lifetime, with a few exceptions, has been a series of economic disasters following one another (the implications should be obvious) and businesses operate in the red while projecting budgets ever higher the next year. This model is, in a world of limited resources, the very definition of unsustainable, and yet we keep raising our sights and getting disappointed. Nobody knows for sure where the term Black Friday originated, but it is a modern term. A holiday for those who measure celebration in terms of dollars and cents. (Mostly dollars.)

As I was pondering this phenomenon, my thoughts turned to red letter days. Red here is a positive thing—special days on the calendar that let us step outside the usual routine of pushing ourselves to make this year’s budget and allow us to relax with family and friends. The black and the red have switched places here. In fact, red letters, apart from the dismal science, have historically been considered good. Think of the red letter editions of the Bible. These Bibles had the putative words of Jesus printed in red so that they would stand out. The concept dates back to the change of the twentieth century. Red letter Bibles caught on among Evangelical readers. Red letters, however, go back even further in history.

Who said what now?

The book that Catholic priests used to set on the altar was a missal. Missals contained the instructions for saying mass, and during certain parts of the ceremony priests were supposed to make specific gestures. The places at which these actions were to be made were printed in red to draw the priests’ attention. They were called “rubrics” since they were written in red. Missals date back to the Medieval Period and they give us perhaps the first positive use of red writing that we know. Even further back in history when inks were organic, red writing was found. Epigraphers of antiquity know of red inscriptions but the meaning at that time remains speculative. We call this Black Friday because the one percent hope to get a bit richer. Those of us further down are supposed to enjoy the trickle. For me, in principle I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I see it as a red letter day.

To Whom? For What?

Thanksgiving remains one of the few relatively uncommercialized holidays. Not tied to a specific religion, but with a general sense that gratitude is important, there’s nothing really to sell. Grocery stores may see a bump in profits, but we need to eat every day, so this is only a matter of degree. The icons of Halloween quickly transform to those of Christmas and even Thanksgiving begins to pale next to Black Friday as companies give employees the only four-day weekend of the entire year. Without money changing hands what can there possibly be to celebrate?

The strident question of to whom one is thankful is graciously subsumed under that of for what. History has demonstrated that the relative abundance that we enjoy in matters of gustatory gifts is indeed not to be taken for granted. Droughts are realities. Dustbowls and depressions occur. In many parts of the world starvation is stark reality. Having enough—even too much—to eat is less a sign of blessing for good behavior than it is an obligation to help others. Want is a specter that no one can debunk. The homeless here in a land of plenty remind us that holidays are truly opportunities to be thankful. Thankful simply for being able to get by. Not for what we buy.

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Holidays have their origins in religion. They may wander far from their foundations, but we have religions to thank for every day there’s a break in the routine of trooping into the office for yet another stint of work. Days when staying home is acceptable and spending is purely optional. The stretch from Labor Day to Thanksgiving is long. This goal can only be reached by a frame of mind rather than a state of one’s bank account. Having a day when money falls from focus is cause for thankfulness indeed.

Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.

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Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

Book Deaf?

It’s Tuesday morning and I have been listening to authors pitching their books for three solid days now. Truth be told, I am a bit jealous. I’ve got a few more books in me yet, but research time simply does not exist in the world of capitalism and its discontents. Not that I envy being on the author’s side of the table—I remember how it felt to pitch Weathering the Psalms to several editors and to receive an icy “no” in response. I think now I begin to understand. Yesterday one of my appointments asked if I was “book deaf” yet. It was a term I’d never heard, but I immediately knew what he meant. Editors hear pitch after pitch. I pull out my phone and look at my calendar and see a new project every half-hour throughout the day, but no, I’m not book deaf. In fact, I have to constrain myself to keep my credit card firmly inside my wallet. Being surrounded by books is like being in a jungle teeming with deadly animals.

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From the exhibitor’s booth, Tuesday is a day of relief and worry. Most of the papers are over at AAR/SBL, and most of the participants have already left. As at any conference, fair, or exhibit, we are strictly forbidden from taking down the booth before closing time. We stand about, straining our ears to hear that first transgressive ripping of strapping tape from its roll, indicating that someone in another booth is being naughty. We’re tired, weary even, but not book deaf. Never book deaf.

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In my unguarded moments I sometimes think that maybe some day I’ll have a book here that others will clamber to find. Maybe someone like me will prowl to a pre-selected booth with a specific title firmly in mind, and that title will bear my name. I suppose it could happen, although it isn’t likely at this point. I hear each pitch and more. I hear the dreams and deep desires of every author. We want to be heard. We want others to think us respectable, honorable even. There are publishers out there who will publish anything. They will accept books to fill catalogues and websites and you’ll never hear from them again. Still, you’ll find some interesting things if you wander by their table. And if someone sees that you’re an editor while you’re browsing you’ll never turn a deaf ear. This is what religion scholars live for. Books are our reality.

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The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.

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Go to, Let Us Make Brick

Next year marks a quarter century. It’s a sobering thought. A quarter century of attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. A lot has changed over the years. Much of the loss, I fear, has been of innocence. When I first flew into Kansas City, naive at 29, and still believing the world offered opportunities for those who would work hard enough, the academic job market was tight. I had no interviews whatsoever, and spent many hours in the employees’ hopeless lounge, dreaming that someone might call my name. Although no jobs came of it, I could hardly blame the academy for “market conditions” outside their control. An economy based on unadulterated greed and emulating the worst practices of the business world was eating higher education alive, from within. I had no way of knowing. For a couple of decades I attended more often than not, optimistic that the lies I’d been told might yet turn out to be false. That those who had the gifts and abilities would be recognized for what they were. I was so terribly young then.

Through a variety of roles I have continued to attend this conference for all these years. I have not seen so much hopelessness until this. Colleagues come to me, barely holding back tears. Conditions in our universities are bad and are getting worse. We have no students, but clients. The hours of preparation for the classroom are now being measured in metrics like “return on investment.” The basic vocabulary of higher education has evolved to the point that it is a new Tower of Babel. It sits on Wall Street and considers what is offered to our young as commodities. Nobody worries if they learn anything or not. The exchange of goods at personal advantage is the only way that one can exist in a market economy.

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The only hope any culture may dare to claim for its future lies in education. Those economies that have not suffered as much as our own are those where education is still revered. Where you don’t have to hold a MBA to speak with authority. Where truth might just be an abstract and where not all things can be measured in shekels. I have been attending this conference for a quarter century and never I have I seen despair such as this. I have to wonder about a nation that takes those highest achievers and those with the most initiative and slaughters their hopes on the altar of the angry deity of vain baubles of self-aggrandizement. We bet on futures that are no futures at all. My beard is whiter now, and my glasses stronger. I am still able to see, however, the folly of launching into the North Atlantic in early April before any kind of radar has been invented with lifeboats made only of money. I only hope I’m wrong.

Birth of a Legend

I was sitting in the restaurant attached to W, a boutique hotel cum chain, with my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson. He was on a book tour and kindly treated me to breakfast. Above his head I noticed a slightly salacious painting portraying a nude lady in bed saying “Of course I think you’re adequate. I love you!” In the doorway stood a headless man in a red coat, clearly intended to be the headless horseman. I pointed it out and Neal, being an author, made some inquiries about it. Nobody in the hotel seemed to know anything about the image’s relevance, so I did some internet sleuthing. I knew Washington Irving was born in New York City. I don’t know where precisely, and I’m not really sure how to find out. New York, in those days, didn’t reach so far up Manhattan Island, and we were near downtown, at Union Square. Probably this was the outskirts back in Irving’s day. I had already started my research for my paper on Sleepy Hollow, so I was attuned to the clues. W is now a chain, but I think the first W was the very one where we met. The restaurant where we had breakfast was the Irvington. The website said nothing about the origin of the name. Had we been eating where Irving had spent his youth?

This was a slight synchronicity. I had been researching Irving and had ended up meeting someone at a hotel which, it may turn out, had been named after him. Which Washington was the Squire really named after anyway? Washington Irving had been named after George Washington, so perhaps the point was moot. Months passed, and I wrote and honed my paper for public delivery. I’d almost forgotten the existential pleasures of following a lead and drawing some conclusions, whether or not history might bear them out. My brain was fully active.

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My flight to Atlanta yesterday for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting took off from Newark Airport on time. I thought I had a row to myself, but a couple of guys came in, talking, just before the cabin door was closed. They obviously knew one another, but not terribly well. One asked if the other was from Valatie, “where Ichabod Crane is buried.” These were not professorial types, which you often see at the airport this time of year. Just regular guys. “Yeah, there’s an Ichabod Crane High School,” the other replied. Their conversation moved on to other topics, but I sat there thinking about the synchronicities my paper seemed to be generating in my life. Of course, many people do watch Sleepy Hollow, not many, I suspect, are academics looking for connections to American religious thought. It seems that research never really ends.

Atlanta Bound

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Every year as the latter half of November rolls around, the mind of religion scholars goes toward the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. This morning I’m off to Atlanta to join a myriad of others who still think the academic study of religion is a good and noble thing. For those who read this blog regularly, it will be no surprise that I’m giving a paper this year. Honestly, I’m a little nervous. I haven’t delivered a paper in years—it is nearly impossible to do research when you are cut off from academic libraries and, more importantly, the time it takes to do the work. Having only weekends to pull ideas together is not conducive to pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward. Sleepy Hollow came to my rescue this time around. That, and reception history.

Reception history is the hermeneutic that looks at the Bible from the point of view of later interpreters. For the Hebrew Bible that reception might be that of the New Testament, or even later books within the Tanak itself. Of course, the Bible has been studied and interpreted for nearly two millennia now, and not all those reading the Good Book have official training. Increasingly, with religious extremists making headlines from decrying the color of Starbucks cups to an all-out attack on Paris, understanding the reception of religious texts is important. The Fox network hit Sleepy Hollow is an excellent example. The show begins with the Bible and although the end has yet to be determined, Scriptures have played a role throughout. And a viewership of pitiful biblical literacy drinks it all in. It is important to understand how the Bible has been, and is being, perceived.

It may be, over the next few days, that my posts will be disrupted from their usual schedule. It is always a little hard to predict how things might play out when you’re away from home. I’m not sure what wonders Atlanta might bring. My own book should be on display in the book stalls for the first, and likely only, time. I will be meeting with people from dawn to dusk, discussing their book ideas. And I will, of course, be listening. Listening for the gallop of horse hooves in the background. Yes, the meeting is always a stimulating event, and with apocalypses in the news, I think I have selected a very timely topic this year indeed. If the frogs croak my name, I will know it is only my imagination.

As Others Think

As analysts step in where angels fear to tread, we have been given expert opinion on why ISIS’s terror in France was counterproductive to its goals. A few voices have chimed in stating that the result of escalation is just what an apocalyptic group hopes for. Rational people, having no idea how a fundamentalist thinks, are scratching their heads. Long I have wondered why universities and other bastians of higher education haven’t sought the advice of experts. No one can understand fundamentalism who hasn’t experienced it personally. Problem is, most people who have experienced it are experiencing it still. Those of us who thought our way out of fundamentalism are passed over repeatedly for university posts, while those better connected (surely not of fundamentalist stock) are handed influential positions from which to scratch their heads. You want to understand fundamentalists? Ask someone who’s been there.

There is nothing rational, in the common parlance, about fundamentalism. It has, however, its own internal logic. If you believe with every mitochondria in your body that the Bible (or any holy book or doctrine) that you were taught is true, and truly believe it, no amount of reason can convince you otherwise. This is (partially) because the ultimate cause of all events is open to question. Science does not address ultimate causes—it can’t. The endlessly creative human mind, however, can rather simply conjure them. If God is the ultimate ultimate cause, and if God said, x, y, or z, then other interpretations are simply wrong. If God has decided an apocalypse is necessary, what use is reason in the face of the impending certainty? Is there no way out?

There is. Some of us have made it. We, no matter our credentials, are not generally well-connected drones of the middle class. Fundamentalism is prized by the poor. Those who have no future on this earth look for another, better world. This is a perspective I understand very well. Our increase in ease of communication and exploding technology with ease of access have only given new tools to those who think in terms of ultimate causes only. You can’t talk a suicide bomber out of action with reason. You need to know the language of belief. We glory in our lack of belief and rationalism. We, however, close our eyes to the fact that the vast majority of people in the world are believers. And we won’t talk to them because they make us uncomfortable. We have written our own recipe for apocalypse.

From NASA's photo library

From NASA’s photo library

All for Naught

ZeroPhilosophy, it used to be said, was the handmaid to theology. According to some among the scientific establishment the whole lot should be thrown out, baby, bath water, and tub. It has always distressed me to read scientists dissing philosophy (theology I can understand). Empirical outlooks are definitively based on a philosophy, and no matter what we may think of post-modern theorists, we are indebted to philosophers far more than we probably realize. I just finished reading Robert Kaplan’s The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero. I noticed the book when it was first published, but found it recently at a book sale for almost nothing. I’m glad I did.

I can’t pretend to understand all the equations in the book. There aren’t that many, thank goodness, but Kaplan uses them to make his point. He shows, through a combination of history and logic, how zero has made our modern world possible. One of the features that immediately stood out is how often religion entered the discussion. Kaplan isn’t hostile to it, he merely notes that some theologians resisted it along the way while others declared that nothingness was necessary and inevitable. Likewise philosophers. And mathematical proofs lead into some strange neighborhoods when zero’s your traveling companion. Indeed, some chapters of this little book so resembled philosophy that it was easy to forget a mathematician was our actual guide. I took some advanced math in high school that I survived only with the aid of my brother, but this book helped to make some sense of a past largely forgotten.

Science is all about numbers. Quantification. In fact, many scientific theories would simply fall apart without the math to back them up. A scientist learning math, as Kaplan demonstrates, is learning a philosophy. Even in the strange world of quantum mechanics, we’re told, the math holds up. We wouldn’t even know about some worlds if it weren’t for the equations. If math is near kin to philosophy, how can any right-minded scientist reject philosophy as nonsense? Isn’t this, logically, rejecting the basis for your own quantified discipline? And, if I may be so bold, philosophers generally acknowledge that their discipline has a, perhaps estranged, relationship to religion. If we look at it holistically instead of calling each other names, we might come to see that knowledge comes in many forms. Perhaps the most unexpected among them is that of the lowly zero.

Ports of Call

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,” so began far too many evenings of my childhood. Well, although as an adult it may seem that the time was ill-spent, Gilligan’s Island was the induction to popular culture that I had to undergo some time. The series has aged well; we bought the DVDs (speaking of aging) as soon as they came out and watched them all, multiple times. But what must it really be like to be on a boat, and for more than a three-hour tour? Here’s where I’m lucky in my extended family. A cousin, who is much younger, has been working as a musician on a cruise ship for a couple of years, and has recently started a blog. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a singer on a vacation vessel, check out David Tarr’s take. He has a more realistic outlook than Ginger did, although seeing Tina Louise in person was still quite a thrill, back when she stopped into the local Borders. Back when there still was Borders.

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It seems to me that we don’t often enough take the time to wonder what other people’s lives are like. We are a myopic species. Apart from the occasional educational tour in school, we don’t have much opportunity to consider what it feels like to be someone else. I grew up in a working class family that lived at the poverty level. I didn’t get along with my step-father, but I have, in the years since he died, thought back on his perspective. He worked long hours, had little education, and was very patriarchal. When he was too old to do his duties as a laborer, he took a job running an elevator in one of the five-story buildings in a nearby town. I once went to visit him on duty. He was sitting in the tiny cube of a metal box, waiting for the very rare customer. I asked if I could bring him something to read, something to do, to pass the hours of tedium. No, he replied, he didn’t want to miss any calls from potential passengers. What must it be like in the head of such a man?

The internet has given us a chance to learn the lives of others. David is living a young man’s dream, with the good and bad. We have lost all hope when such things are no longer possible. Too soon we find ourselves chained to a desk, 9-to-5, working to make money for others. Dreams are strictly forbidden, at least on work time, which is the only time there is. Somewhere on an ocean, there is a ship. It may take a three hour tour, a three week cruise, or a three month voyage. It is more than a ship, regardless. It is the people on board, and their lives, and hopes. I’m not sure of the course charted for me. I suspect it has no cruises to exotic climes. It has, however, writing written all over it, and that is one thing I share with a talent cruise singer in my extended family.

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.