No So Innocent

Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad.  Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today.  Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably.  Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example.  People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks.  There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.

I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece.  It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous.  Travel broadened him also.  A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born.  My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time).  Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage.  Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.

Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion.  There are inklings of it here.  Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand.  During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example,  he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition).  Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question.  His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes.  And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526).  Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.

Fear Writing

Unless your publisher is good at marketing, that book you spend years on will remain unknown.  That “share” button in the right hands can make all the difference.  The other day while searching for reviews on Holy Horror I came across Scriptophobic.  The website had started a column titled “Holy Horror,” and so I contacted them asking if they’d like to review my book that shared the title.  They graciously accepted.  I want to drive traffic (in as far as I can drive anything) to their website, so I’ll simply say the review may be found by following this link.  It’s too early to tell if it will raise much awareness, but I’m glad to see a review at last.  I suppose I should let the publisher know.

Reviews are one way to get notice about a book out there.  It may not help that the idea behind the volume is a strange one: what can we learn about the Bible by watching horror?  (Or, as the reviewer points out, some not-quite horror.)  I’ve always had a bit of an issue, I suppose with strict genres.  Movies I consider horror may not be so for someone else.  I’ve read enough theory to know that even the experts have a difficult time pinning it down.  The real unifying factor behind the book is actually the Bible.  If I’d waited a little longer to write it I would’ve had more material to use, but I’m not getting much younger, and I needed to get the ball rolling or continue to wish I had.  Holy Horror really falls into the category of reception history, and more specifically as the study of iconic books.  Many biblical scholars, I’m discovering, have no interest in horror, or pop culture.

Books that bring unusual ideas together have always appealed to me.  Were I in a university department I would’ve asked colleagues to comment and critique, but this was a book done solo.  Appropriate to horror, perhaps, I was pretty much isolated when I wrote it.  Still, all things considered, I’m pleased at how it turned out.  No reviews have appeared on biblical sites, and I’ve always found the horror community to be so much more welcoming anyway.  That should be saying something right there.  Think about it.  In any case, if you’re interested in what intelligent horror fans think of a book like my humble effort to start a discussion, I encourage you to take a look.  Don’t wait for the biblical studies reviews unless you care to wait a very long time.

Who Watches You

When my wife saw Dominic Johnson’s God Is Watching You on the top of my pile she said “Are you sure you want to be reading that?”  Her question was justified, of course.  I was raised in a religion where the punishment of God was very much on the surface.  Heaven’s carrot was nothing next to Hell’s stick.  I still suffer from that religious outlook in innumerable ways.  Johnson’s subtitle, however, is How the Fear of God Makes Us Human.  Johnson, who holds doctorates in evolutionary biology and political science, is well placed to try to untangle what those of us with just one doctorate in religious studies deal with constantly: what is religion?  The main idea of the book is deceptively simple—we have evolved the way we have because we feared (and continue to fear) supernatural punishment.

Johnson establishes that sociological and anthropological studies have shown that humans respond much more readily to punishment than reward.  Reward is like icing—you can eat a cake without it and still enjoy it—while punishment is like the threat of all food being removed.  You see the difference?  One has a far greater motivating factor than the other.  This idea spins out into many aspects of religion, and even perhaps hints at the origins of religion itself.  I have often written on this blog that animals exhibit religious behavior.  We don’t speak their language so we can’t know for sure, but some of what various animals do seems very much like what we do in church, synagogue, mosque, or gurdwara.  Accusations of anthropomorphism fall flat, to me.  We evolved, did we not?  Then why do we resist pointing out in animals where that behavior sticks out like a sore opposable thumb?

Human societies worldwide share the fear of divine punishment.  Interestingly, even a significant portion of atheists admit fearing it too.  Often those who know me ask about my preoccupation with fear.  It sometimes shows in my writing about horror, but I think Johnson may well have the key in his pocket.  Religion is about fear.  It’s not just about fear, but it clearly is about avoiding divine (however defined) wrath.  Lose a job or two broadly defined as religious and disagree with me.  Am I sure that I should be reading this book?  Now that I’ve finished it I can definitively say “yes.”  While I don’t agree with everything in it Johnson has clearly hit on something that all people who study religion should know.

Virtual Bible Study

Like just about everybody else, I spend my days online during the pandemic.  Well, actually, I spent my days online before that since I’m a remote worker.  Even before that, when spending a considerable part of each day commuting to and from New York City, once I got there I’d sit in a cubicle and work online all day anyway.  To borrow a tagline, the truth is out there.  Somewhere on the internet, I think.  Probably on the deep web, but I understand that’s a scary place.  I’m not sure why it is that I started receiving email ads for something called Virtual Bible Study.  I suppose I spend enough time, and my computer eats enough cookies on Bible Gateway that the Virtual Bible Study people think I’m the typical customer.  

Having led many Bible studies in my life, and having taught biblical studies professionally, I’m aware that you can never learn it all.  Indeed, biblical study is the original never-ending story.  Stay with it long enough and you’ll earn plenty of enemies.  Recently my mother was telling me that she’s doing a Bible Study where you follow a schedule and read the “liner notes” that come with a particular curriculum.  She mentioned to me that she was having trouble with Deuteronomy 28.  It’s a chapter with which I’m quite familiar.  I remember reading it as a young person and being terror-struck by it (those who wonder what horror might have to do with the Good Book ought to read it.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You can find it on Bible Gateway.).  This is one of those places where God spells out the blessings (somewhat limited) for obedience and the curses (very many) for failure.  The list is long and terrible.  I’m not a chapter-and-verse citer, but from my very first read-through of the Bible I could tell you what was in Deuteronomy 28.  It was burned into my memory.

I do have to wonder about the efficacy of online Bible Study.  I sure do appreciate not having to look everything up in a print concordance any more.  That was quite a time-consuming activity and you needed to be very familiar with the particular version you were using to make it work.  I know I grouse a bit about technology on this blog, but given my vocation, and avocation, I sure like having Google on my side when I need to look up a verse that I can only partially recall.  I do have to wonder, however, since the truth is out there, whether anybody’s found a good way to comfort their elders who get stuck on the curses that essentially wrap up the covenant in good old Deuteronomy.

Virtually the Bible

Too Close?

Some time back I did a Google search on something like “best novels about possession,” like one does.  I was in the midst of writing Nightmares with the Bible at the time.  One of the titles that came up was Sara Gran’s Come Closer.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I started to look out for it.  I finally found and read a copy.  It is a page-turner.  A first-person narrative, it is a story about how a woman became possessed and how her life changed because of it.  Creepy and moody, it isn’t your typical Exorcist-type story.  What it highlighted for me (I don’t want to give too many spoilers) is the dilemma of those who a) live in an era when such things are routinely dismissed, and b) who have no religious background on which to fall.

While there are some quasi-religious characters in the story, there are no priests.  There’s no Catholic Church with its reassuring, if disturbing ritual.  Nobody seems to know how to handle a powerful demon.  One of the features that fuels exorcism movies (and presumably many novels on the subject) is the uncertainty of success.  Will there be deliverance or not?  I’m not going to tell you the answer here for Gran’s novel, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, but the dilemma of where to turn is believably laid out.  Amanda, a well-employed professional, lives without religion.  She acknowledges that strange things happen, but when she gets an inkling that a demon is after her, she doesn’t know where to turn.  As the story builds the loss of personal control is convincingly portrayed.  What do you do without the church?

I often ponder the particular power of The Exorcist narrative.  The threat to a young woman (as I discuss in Nightmares) is part of the key.  Another is the knowledge that the Catholic Church has packed away a powerful ritual that is only brought out in what are clearly extreme circumstances.  Like Amanda, the MacNeils aren’t church-going individuals.  The difference is that they live near Georgetown University where help may be found.  Unveiling this ancient rite was perhaps the greatest brilliance behind the story.  We live in a different age, however.  Simultaneously both more religious and more secular.  With the old certainties now under question, people wonder what they are to do when the impossible happens.  That is the driving pathos behind Come Closer.  It is a scary story on many levels.

November Dreaming

I recently took part in a non-partisan postcard-writing effort sponsored by Moms Rising.  The idea is simple enough: encourage people to get out and vote.  Such is the state of our country that some people see this as a liberal agenda.  An anti-patriotic act.  Who would object to people voting (apart from the Republican Party, that is)?  Apparently we’re now simply supposed to accept what the present administration hands down, including its desire to retain power legally or illegally.  Those who suggest that people should be given their constitutional voices are considered radicals.  This would be ironic were it not so dangerous.  The only reason the powers that be are in office is because of an election, and one that was “won” by that gaming of the system known as the electoral college.  Now that Covid-19 is ravaging our country, those who refuse to do anything about it want to strengthen their grip.  And their followers blindly say “Amen.”

Postcard writing does not involve telling the potential electorate whom to choose.  The message we’re instructed to write is simply encouraging others to vote.  Gerrymandering and making people stand in Covid-laced long lines have been “tactics” used by current supporters of the modern-day plague to keep their hold on power.  When trying to get people to vote is considered an act of sedition we need to stop and think what democracy has become.  If you don’t believe everyone should vote then you have no right to object—your voice is your vote.  I stand with Moms Rising to test the room.  Let’s see if what’s happening here is really the will of the people.  And I don’t mean that house of lower education, the so-called electoral college.

If you’re inclined to help with the effort, all it costs is a little time.  Check out Moms Rising’s website.  They’ll send you a packet of postcards for free with a postage-paid envelope to mail them back.  All you need to do is write a sentence or two in the blank space on the back, put the cards in the envelope, and drop it in a mailbox.  It costs so little and so much is at stake.  Time is a commodity, I know.  Given that our time is running out, however, it seems that sparing a bit of it to keep democracy breathing is important.  No— vital.  My regular readers know how I often express my wish/need for just a little more time to accomplish what I’d like to squeeze into a day.  I’ll gladly sacrifice ten minutes for the good of the country I call home.

Everybody Knows

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is “Everybody Knows.”  On a related note, the best-selling book in America last week was Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.  With the publisher citing 900,000 copies sold upon release, it produced numbers that most publishing houses only dream of.  I’d preordered it on Amazon but for the first time ever I did not have a copy on the day of release.  There were a lot of people ahead of me in this line.  That’s even more remarkable than it sounds because we all pretty much know what the book says.  We also know that its subtitle is true: we have a very dangerous man (daily rising Covid deaths show this to be true) given free rein by Republican senators.  Even adults without high school educations that I talk to know there is something seriously wrong.  Indeed, anyone who knows how to fact-check can see it.

A very popular way to deal with inconvenient truths is to posit a conspiracy theory.  Evangelicals (now defined as Trump supporters) have long used conspiracies as ways of explaining how facts simply don’t support their views.  From the moment “alternative facts” left the lips of the administration in January 2017 I knew we were in deep, deep trouble.  Funny thing is, many Evangelicals had to read Orwell in school, like the rest of us.  How they could support anyone that had such a long, long track record of criminal cases against him before placing his hand on the Bible and swearing to uphold a constitution he’s been daily dismantling since is anybody’s guess.  Daily life, it seems, is now a conspiracy.  

One of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs is “Everybody Knows.”  The lyrics suggest that whatever it is we want to keep secret everybody, well, knows.  That’s what’s so distressing about America’s current decline.  Everybody knows that being president is a very difficult position and that it’s only handled adequately by well-trained and smart people who, despite their faults, put country above self.  With the election of 2016 it was clear from even before day one that ego was the driving factor behind 45.  Americans love their outrageous television personalities and somehow think that appeal on the small screen somehow translates to leadership ability.  We’ve learned before that this isn’t true.  I haven’t read Mary Trump’s book yet—it just arrived in the mail—but when I do I’m sure I’ll find out what everybody knows.

Hebrew Class

It is utterly remarkable that in this year of the Common Era 2020 that even in Unicode you can’t write Hebrew in Microsoft Word without gymnastics.  The task at work was a fairly simple one: proofread the Hebrew in a typeset manuscript ready for the printer.  This means the manuscript is a PDF at this point and to get Hebrew to appear in a comment bubble you need to copy it from Word and paste it in.  But wait!  Word only has some Hebrew letters in its Symbols menu.  Try getting a yod to appear.  I looked up a Unicode chart, copied and pasted the Unicode unique identifier and Word gave me a capital P.  Not a jot or tittle to be found.  So, to get the yod I had to fetch my personal Mac and use the language menu and type the word out.  Copy.  Paste in an email from my personal account to my work account.  Wait.  Open work email message.  Copy again.  Paste again.

Using this method, a task that would take me maybe twenty minutes stretched into hours.  There was simply no way to get Microsoft Word to display a full Hebrew alphabet shy of changing the language on the computer.  And since I don’t read Modern Hebrew I had a feeling that would lead to disaster.  Part of the problem is that programmers thought it would be smart to make Unicode Hebrew automatically appear right to left.  This has been the bane of many of us since the earliest word processors tried to replicate the language.  We grew used to typing it in backwards.  Now you never know which letter is going to disappear if you hit delete—it doesn’t help that it can act differently on a Mac than on your standard business-issue PC.  Not only that, but when you paste it the receiving document often automatically reverses word order.  Can I get a pen and paper over here?

I sometimes jokingly lament the hold that technology has on us.  In some instances the joking takes on a serious tone, I know.  I do wonder about having techies drive where we’re going.  It’s one thing to make it possible to print Hebrew letters in electronic form, but it is quite another to read them and have a sense of what they’re saying.  And those of us challenged by the whole right-left orientation and a cursor blinking on one side of a word but having its effect on the other wonder if it’s worth the effort.  There’s a reason ancient people wrote in clay, it seems. 

Graphic Graphomania

You can spot them fairly easily.  Graphomaniacs.  Perhaps it’s a bit closer to the surface when you work in publishing, but the person who writes too much can run risks.  Some authors turn out a book every few months.  While this may be okay for potboilers, for academics it is seldom possible to do this well.  Research and reflection take a long time.  Those who churn out book after book sometimes wonder why their works don’t sell.  Graphomania has to be reined in.  Horses have to be held.  I’m sympathetic, actually.  If you write every single day you’ll soon end up with a surplus.  So much so that your computer will tell you to empty some stuff out or it’ll go on strike.  I had to order a new terabyte drive this week exactly for that reason.

To free up some additional space on my laptop I went through the many, many folders that have essays, book drafts (both nonfiction and novels), stories, blog posts, etc.  While I didn’t throw them away, I had to clear them off my working disc.  As I did so I realized that the great majority of these writings will never see the light of day.  There are really a lot of them.  Part of the problem is you never know what you’ll feel like writing when you get up in the morning.  Sometimes the best ideas come after a wretched night’s tossing and turning.  Well-rested you can get up to a brain so content that it doesn’t have much to say.  Or that story you started yesterday may seem dumb today.  That nonfiction book that burned with passion just last week may now seem lame.  My fear is that by moving them off my hard disc they’ll become forgotten.

The terabyte drive is a thing of wonder.  It can hold so much information.  I have to go back and hook it up to my laptop to find it, however.  Out of sight, out of mind.  I’ll move on to other things.  I honestly can’t count the number of projects I have going.  Graphomania can be a problem.  This blog is a daily outlet, and you, my faithful few readers, are saints for coming back.  In my attic, next to the brick wall of external hard drives, are folders full of handwritten material.  Many of them are stories that are complete, but that haven’t been transcribed.  Some writers suggest flooding the market with your stuff.  Others of us know that graphomaniacs are feared in some quarters, and so we keep our own counsel.

Photo credit: NASA

LinkedOut

There are different philosophies behind LinkedIn.  (What a world we live in where such a statement is even possible!)  When I first signed up, it was a professional social network.  Warnings boldly declared that you should accept invitations only from people you actually knew—others might hurt your career.  Friends pointed out (I was unemployed at the time) that if you wanted to use the potential of connecting, you had to take risks and accept invitations from strangers.  Now LinkedIn seems to be a social network just like any other, although many of the individuals on it are perhaps a bit more educated and many of them have good jobs.  That doesn’t stop them from posting snarky comments and using the site as if it were Facebook.

Although I’ve met some good people through it, I’m beginning to grow wary.  Or weary.  Perhaps both.  Now I hover with a bit of angst over that “Accept” button.  Many people, mistaking me for someone with some power in my organization, immediately direct message me after accepting.  I wish they wouldn’t.  Many of them ask me what jobs I might be able to offer.  If they’d search me out a little further on the web, they’d find the dusty path to this blog and learn a bit more about that guy they’d invited to connect.  I don’t work in a hiring capacity.  Bible editing isn’t exactly a growth field.  But connections are connections.  So I click.

Worse yet are the number of people on LinkedIn who immediately direct message you advertising their book, encouraging you to buy.  I work in publishing.  I know that authors have to take the initiative or find their books overlooked (believe me, I know all about that!).  Still, LinkedIn is not the place to advertise your book.  The buzz among publishing types (if they’d only check out to whom they’ve sent that invitation to connect) know that the social media of choice for advertising books is Twitter.  Facebook is okay but if you read the kinds of comments you find on posts there you’ll see many aren’t the book-buying type.  And the advice, to which this particular URL stands in silent testimony, is that starting a blog is an ideal way to build a following.  Social media, it seems, isn’t really peopled too much by those who do a lot of book reading.  If it were it would be a world in which you wouldn’t have to worry about LinkedIn philosophies before clicking that accept button.

No Smoking

I have never smoked anything in my life.  As a kid with chronic bronchitis few things scared me as much as being unable to breathe.  I have not assassinated anyone or consorted with aliens—at least not that I know of.  Otherwise I think I understand the Smoking Man.  As far as my X-Files rewatching saga goes, I recently reached “The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”  I remember the first time I saw it I found it improbable that the assassinations of the 1960s were the work of a single man.  What hit me this time around, however, was the Smoking Man’s real frustration in life.  He wants to be a writer.  Having completed several novels myself, none published, I have received pin-head letters very much like those he does in this episode, only in greater quantities.  When he finally finds a publisher, he writes his resignation letter to whomever hires assassins and those who change the course of history.  I know just how he feels.

You’d think that by the logic of any reasonable system that those who work in an industry might have some inside tracks.  Some, no doubt, do.  Others of us in publishing are just like the average, uninformed person on the street.  Publishing is a cliquish place.  A friend with some success getting novels published advised me to look at the names of editors and editorial boards on the literary journals that get noticed.  “You’ll see the same ones coming up over and over,” he said.  It is, as the Smoking Man discovered, a kind of cabal, which is, I suspect, the point of making him out as a frustrated novelist.  He can set the course of history, but he can’t get a legitimate novel published.  Cue the X-Files theme. 

I know many academics who write fiction.  My second novel (depending how you count these things—this one was never finished) was a pet project while I worked at Nashotah House.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to publish it when I worked there.  In fact, my first fiction publication only came three years after being shoved out of the nest of academe.  I’ve completed seven novels now and I’ve managed to get some short stories published.  Then again, I don’t have clandestine knowledge from a lifetime of access to the truth about alien-human interaction.  I don’t shoot people for a living.  I’m not even a professor any more.  Still, I think I can begin to understand why someone might turn toward a more interesting career, given the situation when it comes to getting published.

Potboilers

“Potboiler” is used in publishing to describe a book written merely to keep a writer going.  Full-time authors are comparatively rare, and many occasionally resort to churning out books simply to generate income.  I have no doubt that most of them start out as most artists do—creative, and looking for a career that allows them to be so.  If you want to earn money, to keep your pot boiling, you need to follow the formula.  Those are my thoughts on having finished the last book for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge.  One of the categories was three books by the same author and I had three unread Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Frightened Bride, number 22 in the series, was clearly a potboiler.

As I’ve confessed before, these books are guilty pleasure reads for me.  My literary tastes have changed over the years, however, and such journeyman writing sometimes betrays itself.  Even if a book has vampires and werewolves.  Dark Shadows was a melodramatic soap opera of my youth.  Still, it was moody and gothic—something these books manage to convey, even if the stories don’t live up to their promise.  Some of the plot elements in this particular installment don’t even line up, and having read Jane Eyre I’d guessed the ending shortly after the beginning.  I often wonder how the book series might have turned out with a truly literary attempt to tell the story.  Writing takes time.  Good writing takes a lot of time.  But even writers have to eat.

I’m not a Dark Shadows connoisseur.  I haven’t bought the original television series on DVD and I haven’t watched it since I was about ten.  Early memories, however, are formative.  With a remarriage, a death in the family, and a move, childhood got swept away rather swiftly, and along with it, watching Dark Shadows.  The series ended in 1971 after over 1200 episodes had been filmed.  Ross’ serialization began during the six-year run of the series, and, I suspect, he had to keep up a hectic pace.  Books 13 through 24 were all published in 1970, a rate of over a book a month.  I’ve suggested before that academics ought to take pop culture seriously.  Even before this era of fandom becoming mainstream, Dark Shadows spun off a small media empire and it continues to retain public interest.  The daily show struggled, despite being partially modeled on Jane Eyre, until the supernatural was introduced.  Although the Ross novels may not always show it, the hunger remains for supernatural explanations.

Quantum Religion

Quantum mechanics shows deep connections based on empirical evidence.  This is Einstein’s famous “spooky action at a distance.”  Particles that split apart from one another seem to be in communication as they track on trajectories away from one another at incredible speeds.  It’s almost as if there’s will involved.  Maybe there is.  If intention is part of the natural world, we’re in trouble.  Well, at least stark materialism is.  You can’t measure will.  We all know what it is because we feel it.  Try to define it.  Isn’t will a matter of what you want?  What could a particle possibly want?  If it’s small it can’t hurt us, right?  But once it crosses a certain level, it no longer works.  Science trembles at quantum mechanics being applied at the non-microscopic level.

Ironically science is wedded to an idea proposed by a medieval cleric.  Early scientists were often clergy—an association most scientists would prefer to forget these days.  William of Ockham (fourteenth century) proposed an idea that became the surefooted stance of science in its toddler phase.  Simply reduced it goes like this: the single natural explanation, without relying on outside forces, is probably the best.  It’s known as Ockham’s Razor (aka Occam’s Razor).   Yet Ockham was a Franciscan Friar, a cleric.  His thinking and reasoning were necessarily informed by ecclesiastical thought.  Or, not to put too fine a point on it, theology.  His razor avoided entanglements.  Ironically, science refers to this quantum connection as entanglement.

Humans, it seems, have a tendency toward contrariness.  We’re oppositional.  When we’re told that quantum mechanics applies only to the very small, we wonder if maybe the same principles don’t work “up here” at our scale.  It’s hard to conceive that even our scale is simply a matter of perspective.  Since we’re uncomfortable with the idea we suggest that only our species is conscious.  That way we can keep the will out of animals as well as subatomic particles, let alone larger scale entities such as planets, galaxies, and universes.  Maybe entanglement suggests Ockham’s Razor is dull.  Before getting out the philosophical strop, perhaps we should ask if the simplest explanation is really the best after all.  Maybe the best answer is far more complex than we’d like to admit.  I love science.  I still, when I have time, read science books written for the laity.  It’s just that science, like religion, is part of a larger picture.  As much as we fear entanglement, it is an empirically observed part of life in our universe.

Gratefully

I confess.  I read acknowledgements.  Part of it is the vanity of finding someone’s name I know.  Or the worse vanity of finding my own name.  Acknowledgements, however, reveal quite a lot about the book you’re about to read, or have just read.  Not all books have them, of course.  Most academic books do.  A recurring theme occurs in the acknowledgements I read: privilege.  Many academics are feted and pampered and their institutions pour money on their desks.  Often they show a nonchalance about it all.  ‘Tweren’t nothin’.  What seems to be missing to me is the struggle.  Anything worth having, in the experience of many, is something for which sacrifice was required.  Hard work, long hours, and nobody pouring money on your desk.

Privilege breeds a strange kind of entitlement.  Many academics complain of how difficult they’ve got it.  (The stories I could tell!)  Now, I haven’t walked in their loafers so I can’t say if the personal circumstances of others are trying or not.  My own experience at Nashotah House—how good I had it!—wasn’t exactly pristine.  Conflicts between dean and faculty.  Required chapel twice a day whether you needed it or not.  Your every move watched for any indication of heresy or disloyalty (that’s not limited to the Oval Office).  And yet, those days were much better than I realized at the time.  Once in a while you have to crawl up next to Job on his ash heap to get an idea of what you simply couldn’t see before.

Acknowledgements are often like mini biographies.  You try to make sure you don’t leave out anyone that helped you along the way.  Books, particularly academic books, are the product of many people, not just the author.  Sure, the author’s the star of the show, but if the support staff wasn’t there, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  Book making is incredibly complex, which is why self-publishing, while sometimes necessary, often shows in the end results.  Editors come in many flavors: acquisitions editors, copyeditors, line editors, production editors, and more.  Sometimes there’s overlap between positions, but even books that barely get read have plenty of sets of eyes upon them before they come to the public.  Acknowledgments don’t always name everyone.  In fact, they simply can’t.  It takes a village to publish a book.  Instead of feeling entitled,   I find acknowledgements always instill a sense of humility.  It’s an honor to be part of bringing a book to birth, even if your contribution is hidden away in unread pages.

Missing Markers

Something truly remarkable happened this week.  The Society of Biblical Literature, which, along with the American Academy of Religion, meets annually in November, has canceled its in-person meeting.  I’ve been attending this conference since 1991 (with a few years off for good behavior).  It always meets the weekend before Thanksgiving, stretching to the Tuesday prior.  Some academics use the meeting to have an exotic Thanksgiving break with their families, particularly when it congregates someplace warm.  (It was scheduled for Boston this year.)  So I’m ruminating what this will mean for a year of missing markers.  Some of you may recall I missed two years ago, electing to stay in Newark Airport instead, but this is different.  We’re all being changed by this virus.

Missing markers.  That’s what my wife calls it.  March 12 was the day that Covid-19 became a crisis.  In my extended family that’s in the middle of birthday season.  Travel plans had to be altered.  Trips to see loved ones had to be delayed.  Then cancelled.  Memorial Day came and went.  It was a long weekend, but for most of us it was a long weekend at home.  Our usual summer trip to the lake was also a victim.  A remote lake may be the safest place to be, but you have to get there.  Flying doesn’t seem safe and we don’t have enough vacation days to drive all the way out and back.  Here we are halfway through the summer and each day feels pretty much like the one before, even if it’s a day off work.  Time seems out of whack.  Back in April it was hard to believe it was still 2020, now it’s difficult to comprehend that the year’s more than half over and there will be no AAR/SBL in November.

Growing tired of the phrase “unprecedented times,” I prefer “missing markers.”  Yes, the weather’s still doing its time-keeping job.  This summer has been quite hot around here, for the most part.  I remember shivering in my study sometime not so long ago, bundled up in layers and thinking that when summer rolled around this coronavirus would be a bad memory.  If only there were something governments could do to keep people safe.  If only there were people in the White House who cared.  I had visions of professors, hundreds and hundreds of them, wearing masks with their tweed.  It was a vision of wonder.  They’d walk up to you, extending an elbow to bump, but you’d back off.  That’s actually too close.  And lecturing spreads germs very effectively.  Over time 2020 itself will become a marker.  I’m not sure anyone will miss it, however.