Monthly Archives: November 2016

True to Nature

A friend recently sent me an article on Jack London from smithsonian.com. As the article by Kenneth Brandt makes clear, London is an author for our times. Someone who might truly be called a populist, London, like many of us born in the working class, had an epiphany. Perhaps his came earlier than many, but at the age of 18, while working laboring jobs, he noted that he “was scared into thinking.” He decided, before the idea of sending all kids to college had caught on, that he should acquire an education. In the words quoted by Brandt, he wanted to become a “brain merchant.” Certainly London’s works need no introduction from a guy like me. Robust and masculine, his stories are those of man pitted against a nature that is often out to crush, freeze, or starve him. Today we need to loosen up those pronouns a bit. Women, who’ve arguably had it tougher than men for all of biological history, have had to struggle for survival too. In the current political climate we all need to remind those who substitute testosterone for brains that we all share human rights.

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The Religious Right, or “alt-right” as they seem to prefer these days, wasn’t always a fetus farm. It has been historically documented that it was Francis Schaeffer, erstwhile hippie and free thinker, who when he got abortion stuck in his craw, decided that men had to protect the unborn from women. He seemed to have forgotten whose gonads planted that seed in the first place. Prior to Schaeffer Christian saints tried to avoid sex all together. Among the original “abstinence only” crowd, some of the more zealous put their money where their testicles were and castrated themselves. Ah, men were real men in those days. Today masculinity means ganging up on women and grabbing them by the Call of the Wild, apparently.

Like London, I think we all need to be scared into thinking. We’ve let a wildly distorted view of humanity—one-sided and with dangling evidence of gender loyalty—to steal the White House from the woman who thoroughly won it from the vox populi. Where is Buck when we need him? London knew, as evolution repeatedly teaches, in Brandt’s words, “abusive alpha males never win out in the end.” I say that “swing states” should look carefully at that hanging chad. In the meantime, while the fat cats bicker and argue over the best way to suppress females to make themselves look bigger, I think we should all read again about what happens when Spitz meets Buck. If you haven’t read The Call of the Wild before, it’s time to do so now.

Hollow Bible

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The proofs for my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow are now here. It will be appearing shortly in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. For those who know my previous academic work—hi, both of you!—this represents a departure from the familiar for me. Some years back, floundering for a teaching position like a fish that’d flipped out of the acadarium, I talked to a colleague who confirmed what I’d long suspected: study of the biblical text is dying. Face it, nobody cares about J, E, D, and P, or even Q, anymore. We’ve made our point. The Bible is a composite document with many sources that people can still tuck under their arms on the way to the polls. It’s so easy to forget that this text is the basis for so many lives and eternal plans. While we scholars have been arguing with one another, culture has moved on. That’s why I looked at the Bible in “Sleepy Hollow.”

If the Bible isn’t relevant, why bother studying it? If the main character—dare we call him protagonist?—of the New Testament says to turn the other cheek and his “followers” advocate for gun ownership it’s time to ask what went wrong. Scholars know the Bible, but do we know the Bible? Long ago meaning slipped away from academics. Consider science. We can question global warming because the science has become a topic of conversation among specialists that the rest of us can’t hope to understand. Instead of trusting that they know what they’re talking about, we politicize it. Scientific research, even in major universities, is funded by interested third parties. You know, some scholars don’t think there really was even an E after all.

The Bible no longer means what the specialists say it does. I may have spent years of my life and thousands of dollars to speak as an expert, but I soon learned nobody was listening. Meanwhile, culture marches on, somehow supposing if two Corinthians walk into a bar the rich man in his tower makes the best sense, according to the Good Book. Indeed, if you want to find out what the Bible says, all you need to do is head up the Hudson Valley for a season. Or listen to those who hand out tracts and purchase firearms. What could possibly go wrong there? My article will be out in a few weeks. If you’re one of the two who read it keep in mind that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Holiday Season

Now that the holiday season is upon us, I stop to think about what holidays really do. “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs have popped up like winter dandelions as Trump signs consider to litter the landscape. Thanksgiving, however, gave me the opportunity to forget about all of this for a while. The culture of signs. Signs telling us we must bow down and worship. The holidays signal a season when it is okay to hibernate and forget that more powerful forces out there may wish you harm. Part of the trouble is that those who are coming sometimes can’t see beyond their own interests. Perhaps what I do for a living conflicts with the job I’m paid to do. Conscience dictates that one or the other must go. But conscience is such an old fashioned idea.

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The holidays start with Thanksgiving, but it is now the Monday after. Those in liturgical traditions of Christianity will note that we are in Advent, a season of anticipation. I do wonder what we’re anticipating. Perhaps it’s because Thanksgiving came and went in a blur of travel weariness this year. The few days when commuting wasn’t an issue were the opportunity to stay still for a while and not look at news feeds and reflect on all we’re thankful for. I started hearing Christmas carols in stores shortly after Halloween. We’re entering the season of money in a country in love with lucre. Take a close look and see what lies in that manger.

Most years the stretch of dark months of November through January are accompanied by a sense of peace. Human beings loving each other and getting along. I guess I’ve been away from the news for a few days. I know there was a Black Friday last week. I also know that money has a strange way of funneling upward, a kind of osmosis of Mammon. On my quiet strolls I wonder what we, as a country, truly value. On the highway stuck in traffic with thousands of others returning home, I try to think that in these metal shells are living, breathing, loving human beings. Many of them only trying to get ahead. We’re all in a rush since there’s so much to do before we allow ourselves another holiday. Wouldn’t life be better with more days for reflection? I’d rather not politicize the holiday. Keeping Christ in Christmas seems to be asking for one not to forget the offering plate. I’m wondering about those sleeping in the street not far from Trump Tower. I’m wondering what ever became of conscience.

Bibliotherapy

This may sound strange, considering the source, but I fear I don’t read enough. An article by Sarah Begley in a recent issue of Time, reinforces what we’ve known all along—reading is incredibly good for you. Even fiction. Especially fiction. For the most part, as I’m commuting, I read non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it doesn’t always help with literacy issues that might call for a bibliotherapist. You see, literacy builds a kind of psychological strength that helps with real-world issues. Part of it is because many books go through a rigorous process of approval. Still, it’s important to realize that this kind of reading may not be the popular fiction that can be found in grocery stores and airports—although even that is fine—but the level of writing that really helps is somewhat mysteriously labeled “literary fiction.” The kind of book an author writes, rewrites, and rewrites. Deep thought and care go into such books, and they can be a help to their readers. Reading isn’t just fundamental, it is transformative.

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I remember my school years well. Kids are amazing in their level of energy. They crave activity and experience. Getting them to read can be difficult. You need to sit still. And concentrate. Concentration isn’t easy. You have to train a child to read, and, at least where I grew up, that was a struggle. The fact that it’s possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate is one of the signs that learning to enjoy reading doesn’t always take hold. I knew guys in middle school who would rather do just about anything other than read. I often wondered what anyone could do to make them realize what they were missing. I read books and stories that took my breath away. There was something incredible going on between the covers—but how to convince others?

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that those of us in publishing are, statistically speaking, a very small number of people. We work in an industry that serves a small number of people. We are an odd lot. We read books, and some of us write books, and we do so for a small sector of society. Signs are hopeful that interest in reading is growing. Leading by example may help. At any one time I have at least one, generally two or more, fiction books going at the same time. On the bus I read through non-fiction at a faster rate. Maybe the mix is actually right. Fiction reading takes more time. It could be because I’m getting more out of it than I realize. I just wish I had more time to do it. More time for reading health. I may need to see a bibliotherapist.

Radio Nowhere

Those of us who somehow managed to be educated without the use of computers, at least nothing more advanced than a TI-30 calculator, fumble our way through the world-wide web. I’ve got this blog, a Twitter and a Facebook account, and I’m on Google + and Medium, and I really don’t know how any of these things work. One of my motivations for starting this blog was to continue the tradition of speaking to audiences that I used to have in my lectures while I taught. I was told that such a format was known as a podcast and I found a host site where I could leave my recordings for free. I could then make a link and bring them onto the podcast page of this blog. How any of that works, I have no idea.

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Recently a few would-be listeners have asked what has happened to the podcasts. Since I don’t really know where they were in the first place, I’m not sure how to send a map to them now. One of my readers, however, has kindly set up a new webpage where all 23 podcasts are available. You can find it by clicking on this link. My thanks to Ahmed Fasih for setting this up. The podcasts cover various aspects of ancient religion. Even now, every great once in a while, a world-recognized name in academia will ask me about some of these topics. When you’re an academic you have the opportunity to spend vast amounts of time focusing on a single subject. The only subject you have that privilege with outside academia is money. I do hope my friends in the academy realize just how lucky they are.

In any case, the podcasts are back. Maybe now that they’re not invisible any more, and since in coming days it may be important to remember when things were better, I may find time to add to them. Blogs—at least those that are regularly read—are locations for discussion. I’m always glad to answer questions that are posted here. During the work week my time is constrained, so you might need to wait for a weekend, but I will respond. I know religion is passé. I know people have better things to do with their time. I also know that for the vast majority of humankind religion remains a vital and integral part of their lives. Exploring it seems to make sense to me. For those who’d rather listen than read, the podcasts are once more available.

Found in Translation

embassytownTraduttore, traditore—“translators are traitors”—is an Italian saying invested with a great deal of truth. Anyone who’s worked with the proliferation of languages in the world knows the truth of the adage. What is said in one language can’t be stated precisely in another language with all the depth and texture of the original. China Miéville’s Embassytown is a sprawling novel that addresses the question of how cultures evolved on widely separated world can ever understand one another. I can’t possibly go into a detailed summary of the story—it took me about 30 pages to begin to understand what was going on—but the book drew me in nevertheless and left me happy to have expanded my conceptual world.

The reason that I’m bringing this novel up in a forum where religion lurks in the background is that Miéville explicitly brings religion into his story. It may be impossible to explain precisely how he does this without the detailed summary that I’ve already begged off giving, but it is nevertheless noteworthy that in any sufficiently complex world religion emerges. We tend to think that religion is something that evolved from the slime and now that we’ve bathed in the light of pure reason it will eventually be washed into the gutter of discarded concepts. History demonstrates repeatedly that such is not the case. Religion is resilient and, dare I say it, inevitable. Human beings—perhaps also other conscious beings—know that there is something outside ourselves. That’s the foot in the door for higher beings or forces or worlds. In a word, religions.

Fiction writers frequently appeal to religions for verisimilitude. Are imaginary worlds believable without religions? It’s a long stretch. Star Wars has characters calling belief in the force a religion. Star Trek, in any number of episodes, dealt with gods. Anathem was based on the monastic ideal. Science fiction has trouble when it leaves religion completely out of the picture. A non-deistic universe is nearly incomprehensible to the human mind. Even great scientists and other rationalists occasionally lapse into thoughts about luck, fate, or fortune. Embassytown doesn’t focus on religion throughout, of course. It may be a minor subplot. But translating an alien world with a language that can’t be understood into a fiction of English is facilitated by putting a religion into the general mix. This is a smart and complex world, but when you read it you’ll find it believable because a religion naturally emerges. And that, I say, is realism.

Abundance

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A few weeks before Leonard Cohen died I saw a story on how his song “Hallelujah” had been done to death. Covered and recovered, it seemed to be on every cover artist’s playlist. It is a haunting song, however, and the notion of a cold and broken hallelujah feels somehow appropriate this Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong—I am thankful for more things than I can name or would care to share with complete strangers on the internet. In fact, when I literally tried to find a job in Canada in anticipation of a horrible November surprise, one of my immediate regrets was that I’d no longer have American Thanksgiving to celebrate. Thanksgiving, to me, has been images of a cozy indoors with special food while the chill takes over outside. Two days in a row off of work. Sleeping until I’m not tired any more rather than waking according to schedule, no matter how troubling the night might have been. In short, feeling safe and secure in a world growing colder.

Since the first week of November the iciness has been growing more intense. I know it’s the circles I go around in—and perhaps they are small enough to call them semi-circles—but I have seen more sad and depressed and scared faces in the past weeks than I have seen in my previous half-century on this planet. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and even vegetarians look forward to something special by way of fancy nourishment. But it feels like a cold and broken hallelujah to me. Entrepreneurs have already been reminding us that tomorrow is Black Friday. We should get our game-faces on and our credit cards out and head to our favorite retail establishments. Pack up our troubles in the old plastic bag and spend, spend, spend.

Thanksgiving, of course, was an originally generic religious holiday. It’s hard to give thanks without someone to, well, thank. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or even one of those who thanks dharma, karma, or chance. Just be glad that we’re here right now and even though the wind is gusting and there’s perhaps a bit of snow in the air, we have an indoors where nobody hostile is looking for means to exploit us any further than we wish to be exploited. That our planet, for the time being, still supports human life. And that by any measure other than the Electoral College we all really want progress and fair treatment for all. I am thankful and mindful of those who had to sacrifice to allow us the privilege of being here today. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful.