Editing Sheep

Many academics I know dismiss editors as just another species of laity put on earth to serve the guild. There’s perhaps some truth to that. Without people to write books—and few beyond the professorate are granted the time and leisure to do so—we’d be without a job. One of the more hidden aspects of being an editor is, however, its prophylactic role. One thing that those of us who’ve written books know is that we get pretty close to our subject. We have to. Writing a book while viewing your topic from a distance is possible, but not desirable. Being too close to your subject, however, often leads to extreme myopia. Many are those who are quick to dismiss editorial suggestions wonder later why their books didn’t do better. Think about it. Editors, by definition, read all the latest stuff.

We’re kind of like shepherds, my fellow editors and me. We try to keep the ideas in order. We’re not the owners—the authors are—but without an able shepherd you soon find yourself lacking the sheep that make you wealthy. The benefit of an editor is having dispassionate eyes—often knowing eyes—viewing a nascent book without the love of a parent. Don’t get me wrong—we often have great fondness for those books we didn’t write. We can tell the author something s/he is too attached to the text to notice. We can help the writer avoid mistakes. Not that we’re perfect, but we are critical because we’re rooting for you. Facilitators.

It used to be common for editors to be authors. With the growing atomization of specialization, however, this is fairly rare these days. As a colleague of mine once put it, editors are more like deans than faculty. We look at book budgets and statistics. We face the harsh realities. And some of us were once faculty. I receive dismissive notes now and again, supposing that I’m an English major who made it good. Unlike many editors, however, I write. I’ve sat on both sides of this desk and when I offer advice it’s for your own good. Academics and publishers need each other. For one, without books there’s no promotion. Without books, for the other, there’s no paycheck. Like any shepherd, however, we know that the sheep are the important assets. We shepherd ideas into books. But you have to trust the shepherd to do the job.

Sky Blue

How do you capture a true and abiding fascination in words? That’s a thought that comes to me once in a while when I think about the sky. It’s so hard to define, yet it’s always there. To quote myself: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine” (used with permission). I waited for The Imagined Sky: Cultural Perspectives, edited by Darrelyn Gunzburg, for years. I think I first saw an ad for the book two years in advance of publication (yes, scholarly presses can do stuff like that). I kept stopping by the Equinox booth at AAR/SBL to see if it was available. It was the same kind of drive that led me to write Weathering the Psalms. That hope of grasping the intangible. To hold the sky itself. One of my early creative writing club stories was about a boy who wanted the sky. I wanted this book.

Like all books of essays from different authors, it’s a mix of fruits and nuts. There’s some very interesting pieces in here while others seem to have been made to fit only with some difficulty. Still, the sky. I admit to being somewhat disappointed as I read along. This wasn’t for research—my book on the topic is already done—it was for pure intellectual curiosity, what passes for pleasure among academics. Many of the pieces were mired down in detail. Written bout the sky, they refused to soar. Then I came to Tim Ingold’s essay. Here’s what I’d been looking for. Someone who knew the sky could only be approached in terms that contradict themselves at every turn. There is something to say about the daytime sky. It has to do with the nature of light. And of the sky seeing us.

The sky, by definition, is larger than this rocky substrate we call home. It encompasses everything above us. I work in a cubicle with no access to outside windows. I wilt daily like a plant deprived of sun. (Although the wonderful article on light pollution by Tyler Nordgren gave me pause over even that.) I need to see the sky. When clouds block my view, my outlook begins to suffer. It’s that ethereal cerulean I crave. Without it I am but a troglodyte eking out a minimal survival on toadstools and lichen. The sky is our orientation. It is our timepiece. It is eternal. Of the things we do that are evil, polluting the sky is one of the most unforgivable. The key may be in the word “imagined,” but if we could only understand the sky we will have found true religion. They’re called “the heavens” for a reason.

Serpent Number One

I haven’t read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Yet. My reading list is frighteningly enormous and constantly growing. I just can’t seem to get on top of it. In any case, my wife sent me an NPR interview with Perry that set me to thinking about monsters. (It really doesn’t take much.) One of Perry’s answers in the piece by Ari Shapiro stopped me in my tracks. Perry admits that recent political events have made her question her belief in benevolent humanism. I’d never thought of our current crisis in that way before. This is one example of what happens when it’s—pardon the expression—every man for himself. We’ve stepped away from religion as any kind of public conscience. The religious right doesn’t fit any classification of religion that I know of, so I’m discounting it as a legitimate form of belief. When we look out for number one, a self-appointed number one takes over.

With an insidiousness that can only be called evil, our elected “representatives” tried to sequester away the facts of their healthcare bill that they wanted to ram through in order to give the wealthy serpents tax breaks. The thing about looking out for number one is that you’re only number one to yourself. There can only be one one. Lining one’s pockets with the tax money of others is a trick as old as civilization itself. In ancient times, however, they at least called themselves kings and emperors and made no excuses for what they were doing. We said we were advanced enough to do without the religion that supported these outdated views. We’re back to the days of kings and emperors. Anyone who believes differently is fooling him or herself. There have been snakes in the garden from the beginning. Getting rid of religion won’t clear them from the grounds.

There are many benevolent humanists. There are many more who are suffering under the weight of current political systems. Unhappy people elect dictators. It has happened before—in the current lifetime of many, no less. The warning signs are all there to be ignored. The fruit sure looks nice, hisses our constant companion. Looking out for number two is the first step. Then number three, and twenty, and eight-billion. That’s benevolent humanism. Anything less is, well, a walk down the garden path. We’ve been down that path before. Those who trust serpents must learn to count. To do anything less is less than human.

Fishers of Cars

The car was drunkenly weaving across lanes in substantial traffic along Interstate 80. Erratic driving that, although not breathalyzer confirmed, suggested impaired operating. It’s something you never like to see. We stayed behind the vehicle, knowing that it was safer to keep such a car in view rather than attempting to overtake it when the driver veered into the left lane. Since the same muted colors recur on vehicles these days, we needed a quick way to identify this driver at a glance. The Jesus fish on the rear served the purpose well. This situation struck me as a kind of parable, although it really did happen. One of my brothers is a driver by profession. He often tells me that if someone cuts him off in heavy New Jersey traffic, more often than not the car bears a Jesus fish. WWFD?

The ostensible purpose of the Jesus fish is to witness to the world “here is what a true Christian does.” While the New Testament, if I recall, indicates that the true believer puts others before him or herself, the rule of the road is somewhat less spiritual than that. None of us are saints when we get behind the wheel. We’ve got places to go and the drive isn’t really much fun with thousands of other cars bunging things up constantly. Still, if you take the extra effort to put that Jesus fish on your car, aren’t you signaling that this driver holds her or himself to a higher standard? Or maybe the fish is a talisman, like “Baby on Board,” that will somehow protect from the careless, aggressive driver thinking only of self.

The irony here is not that the driver is making poor, or aggressive decisions behind the wheel—let the one without sin cast the first stone—but rather that s/he implicates Jesus in the act. There’s a ready, steady market in evangelical paraphernalia. The WWJD bracelet keeps the question within sight much of the time—but keep your eyes on the road! One of the main problems with the Ichthys symbol is that it is generally on the rump of your car. Out of sight, out of mind. As you finish that last drink before climbing in behind the wheel, the fact that your personal Lord and Savior is being announced to the world may just slip your sodden mind momentarily. The real question is whether a car is the best place to announce your religious commitments. It was the the man in front of the fish, after all, who said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Except in heavy traffic, of course.

Media May I?

“Television today plays too great a part in our national life for us to allow it to fall into misuse by unprincipled hucksters. We must demonstrate at the polls tomorrow that we will not be treated like suckers at a nation-wide Republican carnival.” The words aren’t mine. Nor are they of this decade. Orson Welles (not the actual source) was reputedly speaking for Adlai Stevenson in the 1956 campaign against Dwight D. Eisenhower. There is a larger context, of course. That context, with a changed cast of characters, reaches right up to this minute and is explored in David Haven Blake’s Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics. In the 1950s Eisenhower disliked and distrusted television as a serious political tool. As Blake traces the story, however, his televised likability led to key components in the elections of John F. Kennedy and the once Democratic Ronald Reagan. Americans, swept off their feet by media advertising, ceased to elect the better candidate, starting over half a century ago.

Don’t get me wrong—Blake is no conspiracy theorist. His book was published before the otherwise inexplicable election of Donald Trump. It is a disturbing thesis to contemplate. The progression is impossible to miss. Eisenhower permitted Madison Avenue ad men to commodify him, reluctantly. John F. Kennedy embraced the media. He was, however, a career politician. Richard M. Nixon tried to play the game, and did so sufficiently to win. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, a Democrat inebriated by the money and power of big business, was a B-movie actor cum politician. He won elections like any high school popularity contest. The course was laid. Elections would be won or lost on superficial appeal. No longer would education, intelligence, and the good of the nation be primary in the minds of the electorate. We would vote the way the media decided we would vote.

Blake’s book, as stated, was written before Trump. Many noted last year, although the media was against him, it handed him the election. Front and center in headline after headline, in retrospect how could the election have gone otherwise? His narrow victory (and downright landslide loss in the popular vote) required every bit of energy on the side of reason to combat. Reason, however, is hardly a worthy opponent to media. We want an entertainer, not a leader. After all, that’s what television’s for. Even now the Tweeting’s on the wall. We mainline our news and wonder why things are the way they are.

Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.

Science of the Immaterial

One of the truly frustrating things for the honestly curious is a lack of good resources. Specifically here I’m talking about ghosts. More generally, about the supernatural. “Don’t worry,” laugh the reductionists, “there’s no such thing.” But some of us are seriously curious. Those who are willing to admit candidly the events of life will eventually confess to things they can’t explain. People have been seeing ghosts since at least the Stone Age, and yet finding a serious, non-dismissive approach to the topic can be annoyingly difficult. Curious about the background to the film The Conjuring, I wanted some kind of objective treatment to the Perron family haunting. One of the girls involved has written a three-volume treatment, but that will take some time to get through. So I turned to the investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens were (Lorraine is still alive) some of the world’s first ghost hunters. Self-taught and deeply religious, they referred to themselves as demonologists. Lay Catholics, they couldn’t perform exorcisms, but they could assist in them. Apart from the Perrons, they investigated Amityville, the haunted doll Annabelle, and the Snedeker house, and many other famous cases. A guilty pleasure read, Ghost Hunters, written by Robert David Chase, along with the Warrens, thumbs through several of the investigations. When all is read and done, however, people who claim to know better accuse the hauntings of hoaxing and since there is no arbiter, the curious are left with that unsatisfying state of “he said, she said,” but no real answers. Ghost Hunters contains a potpourri of cases, mostly of demonic possession. Nothing about the Perron family, though.

No doubt much of the hoopla around reality television ghost hunting is clever marketing and nothing more. Even the acclaimed Ghost Hunters were caught gaming the system a little on their Halloween specials. That doesn’t stop people from seeing ghosts, however. Some academics have attempted to address the issue and soon find themselves in untenured positions (so much for freedom of speech) or mocked by their more “serious” colleagues. What ever happened to old fashioned curiosity? Materialism isn’t the only show in town, is it? We need treatments of the subject that move beyond the anecdotal. It’s difficult to get a ghost into the machine, apparently. Science hasn’t figured out a way to study the immaterial yet. Until it does, those who want to know the truth will be left relying on those who make a living by addressing questions even empiricists fear to ask.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

Scaping By

Failure is a part of life. We don’t like stories about failure, however, unless the protagonist goes out with a memorable bang. So it is that when we fail we start looking for a scapegoat. Now it’s a little too early to tell if Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter can be considered a failure. According to a story on Friendly Atheist, “Ken Ham is Now Blaming Atheists for the Economic Failures of Ark Encounter,” the ark may be loaded with dinosaurs, but not money. People need their myths, yes, but myths that take themselves too seriously often fail to convince. Atheists, even the friendly variety, have always been convenient scapegoats. I wonder how many scapegoat species are in the Ark Encounter.

I don’t know about you, but I’m curious about the Ark Encounter. I don’t want to go because I don’t want them to have any of my money. As I’ve told academic friends who visit—I just can’t see contributing to their cause. Although the Right seems to implode when it reaches power (there are far too many selfish people in the Party, and selfishness leads to easy splintering) one thing that it has is money. Think about it, the extremely wealthy are on their side. If I was given a free pass I might find it worth my while to wend my way back down to Kentucky. Who doesn’t like a spectacle? And I would like to see how they represent scapegoats in their dioramas. Besides, with sea levels rising from “fictional” global warming it might not be a bad idea to get a few tips on how to build an ark, no matter what you believe.

You only fail when you fail to try. That was a phrase a friend used to repeat to me before disappearing from my life. A friend from college once told me that I had to stop admitting my failures if I wanted to move ahead in life. There is a danger in easy appearances of success, however. Failure can be a very noble teacher. There are mornings when I’m walking across Manhattan, passing the homeless in their blankets on the street, and I realize that I would not be where I am were it not for failures. I could hide them, but if I haven’t learned from them they’ll only burst out of the closet again when it gets too full. Is Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter a failure? It’s far too early to tell. One thing we know for sure, however, is that scapegoats will never be an endangered species even if there’s a world-wide flood.

James Tissot,Agnus-Dei: The Scapegoat (Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

Gilded Age

What relevance could the Gilgamesh Epic possible hold for contemporary people? Well, one of my colleagues has said that every book is now about Trump. While I resist such thinking, he has a point. Even in reading David Damrosch’s The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh it’s hard to avoid making comparisons. The famous epic is about a bully king who is eventually humbled by the gods. That should make the contemporary association clear enough. Damrosch’s book, however, is actually about how one of the world’s classics—if not the first classic—was lost to the human race and rediscovered only in the nineteenth century. The cast of characters involved in finding the text is colorful and tragic, rather like the epic itself.

Hormuzd Rassam, associate of some of the largest names in Assyriology, was a native Iraqi whose role in the recovery of antiquity was overlooked in his lifetime. Although Rassam did much of the actual finding he was unfortunate enough not to have been born English. While Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Sir Austen Henry Layard, and even the irrepressible George Smith, gleaned fame over the rediscovery of the glories of ancient Iraq, the very model of a modern Middle Easterner simply didn’t receive his fair share. Rassam wrote books that were essentially ignored. The moving tale of his treatment makes this already gripping story poignant. The Epic, however, not only became world famous—it forced scholars to reevaluate how to interpret the Bible. Although not the earliest flood story, already in the mid-1800s it was recognized that the flood myth in Gilgamesh had more than just a passing influence on grand old Noah.

One of the stories behind the preservation of Gilgamesh is that of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian emperor. Ashurbanipal believed that to be a world leader one had to be well read. He was the most powerful man in the world in his time. The idea of government is useless without the corrective of history. That doesn’t mean people should only look backward, but those who refuse to look back at all are doomed to make mistakes that go all the way back to the Bronze Age and before. In fact, Stone Age mistakes can (as we are living to see) be repeated even in a nuclear age. That’s part of the charm of Gilgamesh. Reading the classics serves a higher purpose than might be obvious at first.

Ammonia Avenue

It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m still sitting on a bus, in unmoving traffic a mere three miles from home. I stepped out of my front door over 13 hours ago and I have only another hour before retiring to start it all over again tomorrow. My phone’s down to a charge level that the effort of getting a non-wifi connection will only drain it completely. I have no idea why I’m being rerouted. Later I’ll learn that we’ve been instructed to shelter in place because of a N-Aminoethylpiperazine spill. Better living through chemicals. I’m sheltering in place, all right. This bus is my ark.

There’s much about this complex world that I don’t understand. I readily admit that I don’t know much. One thing I do know is that I live my life trying not to impact others negatively. I’m reminded of this every time someone blows a cloud of smoke into my path, plays their music so loud that even they can’t really hear it, or spills Aminoethylpiperazine all over the place. I don’t haul corrosive chemicals (beyond what may be trapped in my gray matter) through anybody’s hometown. I think of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a dangerous chemical spill. Evacuate Devil’s Tower. There’s nothing to see here, folks. It strikes me that this is a larger ethical issue. The right to use, and potentially destroy, somebody else’s space. If you inhale Aminoethylpiperazine fumes, it can be fatal. It may take longer, but the same is true of second-hand smoke. The things that go beyond our own personal self-abuse into the realm of harming others. Somebody call an ethicist!

Commuting isn’t really a lifestyle choice. There may be a few stalwarts on this bus that really enjoy it, but from hearing the weary conversation of the regulars somehow I doubt it. We’ve been rerouted to New York City for our jobs. Our free time is consigned to an aluminum lozenge on wheels. Sometimes it actually moves. Have you ever tried to read a book when the head of the snoring guy next to you keeps falling into your lap? I think about those animals on the ark. Life is more than eating and breathing. You’ve got to have some space to move about. Even when I wake up I’m not in the same position as when I went to sleep. Of course, ethics demands I look at it from the other’s point of view. Someone needed a truckload of Aminoethylpiperazine, and they’re disappointed that it never arrived. Just don’t breathe too deeply. This flood can’t last forever.

Making Prophets

I first read 1984 around its eponymous date. The context is informative. I was a student at Grove City College, a conservative, Reagan-esque school of strong free-market inclinations. Being a first-generation college student I knew nothing of choosing a school, and since my upbringing was Fundamentalist, and since Grove City was a place I’d been many times, it seemed the natural choice. As my four years there wore one, my conservatism became effaced before what should be the effect of higher education. I was reading and learning new things—ideas that in the pre-internet days were simply inaccessible to someone from a small town which had no library, no bookstore, and, to be honest, no charm. How was someone supposed to learn in those circumstances? Largely it came down to high school (for those who finished) in a nearby town, and television. George Orwell saw the potential of the latter far too clearly.

It was in this great conservative bastion that I read 1984—I don’t even remember what course it was for. I do remember vividly the discussion of the Appendix on Newspeak—that it was a danger, a very real danger, to engineer language to prevent free thought. That was conservatism in the literal era of 1984. When that year passed we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Orwell’s prophecy hadn’t happened. Maybe Orwell wasn’t a prophet after all. The thing about prophecy, however, is that it unfolds slowly. Trump may have caught the world by surprise, but the evidence is there that the Orwellian groundwork was being consciously laid from the time of the Clinton Administration onward. Those who seemed to think Ingsoc was onto something good began working in local politics—the level of school boards and state elections, to build a strong conservative bloc. How many states have Republican governors? Go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait.

Progressives blithely moved ahead, making real ethical strides. One problem that they’ve always had, however, is believing that Evil is real. It’s an outmoded idea, fit for Medievalist thinking only. There are, however, very real racial supremacists out there. And avowed, unrepentant sexists. They feel that the great white way has been slighted and they are itching for revenge. Don’t believe me? Turn on the news. This is not your father’s Republican Party. In 1984 the Republicans were warning us about 1984. By the next decade they were actively emulating it. Orwell died paranoid and the world was relieved as his prophecy was harmlessly classified as fiction.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

Remember Ronnie?

Listening to Comrade Trump, I wonder what it is the GOP really wants. My doublethink may be fuddled a bit, but I’m old enough to remember a guy called Ronald Reagan—champion and darling of the Republicans, some of whom say he was the greatest president ever—who stood firmly against Russia and its designs on this country. Now there is clear evidence that, no matter what the Comrade-in-Chief personally did, his inner circle has been dancing with Putin and they’re more than just a little tipsy. And the GOP stands up and cheers. I don’t know about you, but those who voted for Trump have to be wondering where they laid their Russian dictionaries about now. The Red Scare has come to town and Ronnie’s rolling in his presidential tomb.

The utter stupidity of not seeing when you’re being played astounds me. Look, I’m not the most worldly guy—I taught Bible for goodness sake!—but even I can see when a senator’s smirk says “sucker!” Where were the Trump supporters in the 1980s when we were against everything the Russians were doing, and that’s when they had Gorbachov leading them out of communism? It’s enough to make an old believer in common sense like yours truly crawl into a bottle of vodka and never come back out. Of course, in my days at Nashotah House some in the Episcopal Church were having their own fling with Russian Orthodoxy. Even to the point that the refectory was ordered to serve borscht. I personally didn’t see the charm in it.

I’m not the greatest nationalist alive. Borders, which are artificial, cause far more problems than they solve. You might call me a communist, since that’s in vogue these days. Nevertheless, if we wanted another country to decide our fate for us, I wouldn’t have chosen Russia. My personal choice? Vatican. As the smallest nation in the world they seem to have the best leader on offer. Pope Francis at least has a serious concern for the poor and needy at heart. There are those, after all, who argue that JFK, our only Catholic president, was even better than Reagan, as hard to believe as that might be. There seemed to be a little kerfuffle about missiles in Cuba, I seem to recall, but let’s let bygones be bygones. We live in a world of Newspeak and tweets. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say this borscht tastes a bit off to me.

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.