Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.

Galilean Blues

Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips.  In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics).  Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”).  When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.”  It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even.  Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was.  It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.

Spellcheck disagrees.  It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament.  Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic.  This blog should be proof of that.  Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names.  The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country.  Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused.  They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.  They say kap-er-NEE-um.  Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.

When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day.  Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue.  Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name.  Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor.  Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!).  Important people came from big cities and had family connections.

Some things don’t change much over the millennia.  The famous often find their spotlight because of connections.  If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first.  And it would help to have some product endorsements.  Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in.  Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important.  More than anything, you want something people can pronounce.  And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

Book Naked

Alogotransiphobia doesn’t just strike me when I’m on the bus.  Whenever I travel anywhere I try to take a book along.  To the DMV.  To movie theaters.  To take the paper to the shredding truck.  Anywhere there might be a line.  There comes a time when you realize every second is a gift, and time runs swiftly through the glass.  Life’s too short not to read.  So it is that I find myself in a hotel for a night.  Feeling somewhat like taking a risk, I’ve only brought three books.  Will I read them all tonight?  Most likely not.  But just in case…

Alogotransiphobia is real.  In my long-distance commuting days—in a past still very recent—I tried to calculate carefully.  Would I finish this book in the three hours I knew I’d have on New Jersey Transit?  If even a chance seemed to exist that I would, I would add another book to my bag.  But then that occasional Monday morning would arrive when somehow Sunday night seemed to slip away unbidden, leaving me bleary eyed and foggy brained to face pre-dawn alone on a deserted street corner.  And I neglected to calculate the chances.  Once in a great while, on such a day I would finish a book only to face a very long ride home without another.  Alogotransiphobia would kick in.  I would squirm in my seat as well as in my mind, anxious to get off that bus, as if I needed to shower to wash the feeling of wasted time off me.  A commute without a book was remaindered, unrecoverable time.  Lost time.  Squandered.

For two months now I’ve been delivered from the daily commuting life.  Now I find the opposite phobia.  That which entails staying at home and having so much to do that time to read is stolen back by that cosmic trickster we call fate.  I try to carve out time for reading, but the funny thing about work is that when you do it from home you feel you have to prove yourself.  I suspect employers know that.  A certain type of worker—perhaps one who’s lost a job or two in recent years—will always reach for supererogation.  And such a one will even sacrifice literacy on the altar of an assured paycheck.  Until recent days I was like a hermit on the bus.  Those around me may have been going in the same direction but we were in completely separate places.  I was, during the commute, lost in a book.  Alogotransiphobia was in the seat right beside me.

 

The Persistence of Unity

I came across some Ray Bradbury books while unpacking.  I recently learned that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian.  Now, the religion of a writer is only ever an ancillary bit of information, yet for someone of my combination of interests, it’s compelling intelligence.  Having grown up reading Bradbury, my own fiction often comes out seeming like an imitation of his.  I discovered him the way I found most of my early, influential writers—through Goodwill.  Living in a town with no bookstores, Goodwill was a great venue for walking out with a good handful of books for under a buck.  Since Mom was there looking for “practical” stuff, I hovered over the book tables and discovered a new world.  Then I grew up.

Embarrassed by my childish interests, I gave away or sold most of my Bradbury books after college.  I was more sophisticated than that now.  I read Greek and was soon to learn Hebrew.  Books were meant to have footnotes, and lots of them.  Who wants to be seen with Bradbury on their shelves?  But the indiscretion of youth does come back to haunt one.  About two decades later I began to yearn for something missing from my life.  Perhaps like a good Unitarian I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it was lacking.  Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 for school reading.  I tried to read whatever she was assigned, and once I did memories of Bradbury flooded back.  I no longer had his books, but that could be remedied.

Occasionally I’m criticized for having too much in the way of books.  I’m sometimes asked if I will ever read some of them again.  The answer is how should I know?  I jettisoned Ray Bradbury with Episcopal pretention, only to find that behind the ceremonial there was a more unified version of things waiting.  A continuity with my younger self.  A lust for imagination.  A desire to remember what it was like to walk on Venus.  Or to see a man presciently covered with tattoos.  Or simply to thrill at the idea of October.  I began to acquire the old books again.  The newer editions lacked the visual resonance of the old, but the essence was still there.  Orthodoxy, I discovered, often isn’t true to life.  What’s true is what we discover early on.  Sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yes, I may well just read that again after all.

A Kind of Happening

The roofers were here.  One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information.  Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks.  And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head.  Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office.  I figured it was an opportunity to learn.  As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another.  Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.

It’s a matter of framing, I suppose.  I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device.  This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film.  (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.)  Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact.  If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin.  And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it.  This is Bucks County territory, after all.  Another frame of reference, mediated by media.

As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame.  Like a camera lens, it limits my view.  At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business.   Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever.  I was completely cut off from the outside.  (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.)  Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing.  At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial.  You couldn’t see individuals down on the street.  The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame.  Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well.  I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much.  There’s work to do because there are bills to pay.  And horror films prepared me for that as well.  It’s the ultimate framing device.

Hashtag MAGA

Mental Acuity Gone, America?  When facts face a nation, naked, unobscured, and the faithful still deny them, we’re truly on hallowed ground.  Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen are guilty of very serious crimes in which MAGA POTUS is implicated.  Of course, anyone with an intact medulla oblongata knew that Trump was lying from well before the election.  I just wonder if America is suffering from mass mental illness.  

A few years ago I visited Ellis Island.  This port of entry into the United States turned the hopeful—let’s call them dreamers—away for many reasons.  The room at the museum that bothered me the most was the one where mental illness was discussed.  An enormous number of would-be Americans were turned away because of what we would now recognize as mental illness.  It had many less flattering names back in the day, but the idea was that we only wanted bright, or at least competent, specimens to build up this nation.  Theirs was a misplaced and misguided fear; we specialize in home-grown.  Any rational person has difficulty explaining the election of Trump in any other way.

Who can imagine running for the highest office in the land with literally thousands of open lawsuits against him (or her)?  Who can claim to be elected when their own home state—which knows him (or her) best—roundly and soundly rejects him (or her)?  When clear evidence of Russian collusion emerges, the GOP rises up and says “We see nothing wrong with a foreign government running the country.”  And this is not mental illness?  Is our Mental Acuity Gone, America?  Have we become a nation of (hashtag) idiots?

The events of the last few days have revealed in clear light what many rational people knew from the beginning—there has been massive and willful deception from the very inception of this administration.  The simple fact that 45 would assert that Cohen wouldn’t flip on him indicates that the incumbent had done something wrong and was counting on the loyalty of comrades to keep him in the clear.  Mental illness takes many forms.  One of them is a pathological avoidance of the truth.  Now that we know truth isn’t truth and that 45’s fixer knows more than he’s said so far, we have to wonder how deep down this incompetence goes.  Yet the GOP marches along in goose-step.  Depending on your angle of view, Miss Liberty won’t even show her face.

A Star in the East

The times they are a, well, you know—nobody wants to violate copyright.  In any case, nothing stays the same for long.  New York, for example, is a city in a constant state of transformation.  Fully grown buildings now stand where there were literally holes in the ground when I began working there.  One building near Times Square recently had a facelift that revealed the steel girders beneath.  On the I-beam were the words “Bethlehem Steel.”  And it’s not just New York.  Our cultural transformation has been taking place over the last few centuries as populations have moved to urban areas, abandoning farming to the few who remember how.  Being from western Pennsylvania, I pretty much thought the eastern part of the state was Philadelphia.  I’d heard of other urban regions, of course, such as Scranton and Allentown, but they were well outside my experience.  We didn’t get out much.

Now that I’m here in the eastern part of the state, I’m begun to explore the ever-changing micropolitan area of Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton.  The three cities blend at the edges, and this region is the third largest population zone in the state, after Philly and Pittsburgh.  It’s also the fastest growing region in the commonwealth.  I suppose we might’ve helped with that statistic.  The other day I had to run an errand in Bethlehem.  I pulled over to marvel at the hulk of what had once been Bethlehem Steel.  Now, I grew up in a town with an active steel mill, and Pittsburgh grew to fame for the same metal, but this was a behemoth of a plant.  Subdivided and open to development, it now houses a casino, in part, and an arts center.  And still there’s more space.

Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve by the Moravians.  Perhaps appropriate for a town trying to resurrect itself, Bethlehem calls itself the Christmas City.  Star imagery abounds, and many businesses name themselves with this Christian symbol.  The image is quite different from that of a steel city with hard-working men on the shift.  The grime and din of industry.  Bethlehem, like many places in the state, was named for its biblical forebear.  On my visit to the original Bethlehem many years ago I was, like many tourists, disappointed that it isn’t “O little town of” anymore.  There were people everywhere and it was difficult to imagine a quiet stable inside a noisy stone church thronging with the faithful.  Clearly things don’t remain unchanged for long, even in towns famous for their remoteness.  Although far from New York, they share a common heritage of people everywhere, and that heritage could bring us peace if only we would allow it.  The answer, it seems, is blowin’ in the, well, you know.

Truth under Fire

As Evangelicals continue their unflinching support for Trump, Rudy Giuliani has at last said something that rings true with these “Christians.”  According to a Washington Post story 45’s lawyer declared, “Truth isn’t truth.”  This was regarding the Russia probe, something that would’ve led to the ouster of any real president by now.  We’re all used to Trump’s constant state of obfuscation after all these long months, and the former mayor of New York has just come clean—truth is what we want it to be, no more, no less.  It is a meaningless word, a chimera.  If the son of god in the White House has broken the law (and he has) then the truth is there’s no law to be broken.  Democracy is just a made-up word in the hands of the Republican Party.

Now, I don’t have much truck with politicians.  Leopards, according to a certain book, can’t change their spots.  Nevertheless, Evangelicals should object to Giuliani’s direct assault on their sacred text.  The Good Book, you see, is all about “the truth.”  But the truth isn’t the truth.  When it claims that Jesus died to atone for your sins, that can’t be the truth because the truth isn’t.  The only truth is what Trump personally wants.  And the GOP won’t lift a finger to stop him.  Long ago it was clear that the party of Lincoln had abandoned the will of the people they’re elected to lead, but if there were truth we’d see the deep, stinking muck of corruption everywhere within its doors.  At least you’d expect the neat and clean Christians to object.

A certain man about two millennia ago said, according to the Book, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  But Rudy says “Truth isn’t truth.”  The Beatles said they were more popular than Jesus and the public revolted.  Rudy says Trump has more authority than Jesus and the Evangelicals cheer.  The capacity for untruth has always been part of politics.  Most politicians know to lie discreetly, when fact-checking will reveal some ambiguity.  Now the gospel-truth is whatever comes from the unholy mouth of Trump.  There is no truth.  There are alternative facts.  There’s fake news.  Surely the Prince of Peace wouldn’t have cancelled a military parade.  Meanwhile someone once said “the truth will set you free.”  The great Giuliani has informed us, however, that there is no truth.  And if truth isn’t truth, there’s no hope of freedom.  At least according to a guy named Jesus, whoever he may be.  

Financial Ethics

In a conversation with a professional colleague recently, I was discussing what might happen to ethics when sex with machines becomes common.  That statement might seem a little bizarre out of context, so let me widen the net a bit.  We were discussing the Bible and sexual ethics.  This led to the question of how those who apply the Bible straight from antiquity might apply their beliefs to a world vastly different than first century Palestine.  In biblical times, in other words, sexual options were limited and people didn’t understand the whole issue of human sperm and eggs, neither of which can be seen without a microscope.  Applying their outlook directly to today is problematic, and so how do we apply a book without outdated views to a world vastly more complicated?

Someone recently paid me a small debt via PayPal.  If sex is complicated, then let’s not even get started on Bitcoin or Apple Pay—for some of us money is money and even getting paid electronically is somewhat suspicious.  I sometimes buy things online with PayPal.  It goes straight onto one of my credit cards and then I write an old-fashioned check to pay for it.  So I had to approach the altar of PayPal itself to figure out what it meant to have money in my account.  What am I to do with it?  Then I found the FAQ—TFIA (The Future Is Acronyms).  One of the questions: “What is PayPal’s policy on transactions that involve sexually oriented goods and services?”  Now, here’s a question of biblical proportions.

Paying for sexual “goods and services” goes all the way back to the book of Genesis when none other than the ancestor of David and later progeny did so.  This is nothing new.  But the question of ethics now looms extra large.  For those who pay for such things, a new layer of complexity has apparently been added—can you pay with PayPal?  My transaction had to do with tickets purchased for a concert online, where we wanted seats together so someone had to do the buying for everyone.  What if the purchase had involved a somewhat more intimate setting?  Who needs paper or plastic when a string of 16-digits, or even a username and password, will do?  That’s to say nothing regarding the ethics of the transaction—this is, as it were, purely mechanical.  What would Moses say?  Surely this is a question of appropriate tips, for Tamar veiling herself by the side of the road had the moral high ground over her father-in-law who was simply looking for a good time.  A staff and seal, however, were no less complicated that paying for goods and services online.

Away and a Stranger

“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.”  Strangely enough, the great physician (although we know nothing of his medical practice) Luke was writing about a place an ocean and a sea away from here.  The place names of eastern Pennsylvania demonstrate the religious awareness of the early colonial Europeans who brought their Bibles and diseases to this nation.  Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was known more for being a house of steel than being a house of bread.  It’s just down the road from the little town of Nazareth, made famous by The Band’s classic hit, “The Weight.”  The road to Emmaus is nearby.  And the major medical facility is, you guessed it, St. Luke’s.

The Band had an influence somewhat surprising for those who may have trouble recalling their nondescript name.  “The Weight” is a story of a traveler coming to, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  So taken by the song was a Scottish band that they adopted the name Nazareth before informing us that “Love Hurts.”  This is something the evangelist and purported doctor Luke presumably knew.  If you go down from Nazareth even unto Bethlehem, you’ll find the steel city recast as the Christmas city.  For those of us who grew up in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh was the real steel city anyway.  When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was the 16th largest city in the country.  It now sits at 65th, because, like Bethlehem it had trouble drawing people without the natural hardness that is Pennsylvania.  There’s a parable in a city transforming from a heavy metal to a holiday.  There’s no Pittsburgh in the Bible.

When Luke begins his Christmas narrative (think of this as one of those “Christmas in July,” or August things), quoted above, he ironically leaves Mary until the next verse.  Joseph, whom later tradition will say had nothing to do with the conception anyway, still gets first billing.  One wonders what might’ve been different had Mary led the way.  It was much later, after the gruesome crucifixion account, that Emmaus came into the picture.  Two unnamed disciples were walking along that road and didn’t recognize who Jesus was.  Had they kept walking, I wonder if they might’ve ended up in Pittsburgh, for the biblical names soon give way to places like Kutztown and Fleetwood, the latter of which, I have to admit, I never got into.  Had Mary taken a load off in Nazareth, this story would’ve been completely different.  Thus saith The Band.

Horse Senses

If a horse can be made a senator, surely an ass can be made a president.  History can be unkind to those who think too highly of themselves.  It’s a horse of a different color than Incitatus that’s on my mind today.  This past week I read a news story in the Washington Post about Justice (there may be some double-meanings here, so hold onto your horses).  Justice used to be called Shadow, and Shadow was an abused horse.  Justice is now suing his former owner.  The story explores the question of whether animals can sue.  As a vegan for moral reasons I can see the point, but I also have to wonder how you defend those who have no voice to be heard, kinda like the electorate in the sham of a democracy.  How do we know what a horse really wants?

If horses could draw or sculpt, Xenophanes quipped, their gods would look like horses.  Asses, it stands to reason, worship one of their own.  Animals should have rights, but the difficult question falls onto our species—how do we know what they want?  Anyone whose spent time with animals knows that they think.  I can see a cat in a neighbor’s yard from my window.  Separated by a flimsy-looking hurricane fence is the next yard over where two large dogs often prowl.  If the cat and dogs happen to be out at the same time, there will be barking and braying but the cat will not appear to show concern.  The way my heart hammers at those barks, however, I have to suppose my feline friend also feels a bit of fear at the threat.  The cat must decide how to act, but it also must know that a barely visible fence keeps the canines at bay.

What does Justice want?  It’s a loaded question, for sure.  As much as we wish there might be, there is no Lorax to speak for the trees.  Or horses.  Nevertheless it’s obvious that horses think.  Perhaps like Job, Justice wondered why he was being punished after being a good horse.  The church magnanimously grants that animals cannot sin, after all.  One must wonder, however, about breeds developed by human engineering to be destructive, but that’s another parable.  While Justice might be given a day in court, and might win a cozy stall and protection from the elements, those of use bound by language will never know if justice has been served.  The limitation is our own.  Just ask Balaam.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained.