“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.” Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did. There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane. My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond. This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars. Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive. I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.
Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.” While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales. The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center. The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising. Should it not read “Unemployment Center”? That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery. I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences. Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview. I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place. Some of them mine.
Now I’m high over Death Valley. It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way. The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot. Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty? And statements like Tenure track is not the norm. The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right. If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it. The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.