Goats, Sheep, and Politics

Reasonable evangelicals need a new name.  As a voting bloc, evangelicals have, according to many of their leaders, fallen from grace.  Ironically it was the “draw”—whatever that could possibly be—of the cult of Donald Trump that caused it.  While encouraging their sheep to vote for him both in 2016 and 2020, some of these leaders had their eyes opened to what many of us saw from the beginning, but it took an insurrection to pry their lids apart.  A story by Rachel Martin on NPR, “’How Did We Get Here?’ A Call for an Evangelical Reckoning on Trump” explores this unfortunate, and avoidable catastrophe.  Such evangelicals don’t excel at fact-checking.  It’s far easier to believe what you’re told by a dynamic individual.  Along the way they’ve jettisoned the morality of that “old time religion” for the lust of power.  Now some of their leaders are wondering what they’ve done.

I’m not one to idolize the 1950s.  Heck, I wasn’t even born yet.  One truth from them, however, has always stayed with me: religion and politics don’t mix.  Try this experiment some time: ask Trump evangelicals what party their church (if it existed then) supported in the 1950s.  Many Christians were Democrats, particularly in the south.  Oh, if they confess this they’ll start using language about the Dems falling from grace (while still defending Trump, who can never fall from anything), shifting the onus back onto a theology not even half-baked.  Now their ministers are trying to remind them that morality actually is part of being an evangelical.  A very small part, but not completely evaporated.

History will teach us, if we’ll let it.  Richard Nixon saw evangelical voters as a bloc.  Himself a Quaker (currently among the most liberal of Protestant denominations, and devoted to peace), he was a political opportunist.  Evangelicals are taught that they are sheep.  Sheep are easily herded.  Imagine what might happen if their leaders tried to get them to think for themselves.  To fact check.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for things just because I could call myself “doctor.”  Check my sources.  See if I might’ve missed something.  This is the way knowledge progresses.  The NPR story gives me a modicum of hope.  Some leaders are realizing that their own mindless support of a known criminal—before he even got the nomination in 2016—was maybe a bad idea.  Of course, others still defend his actions after his attempted insurrection.  Sheep, if fed, will always follow.


Feelings of Horror

One thing that’s become clear to horror fans (or those of us who try to analyze it, anyway) is that more and more pundits are asking serious questions about its appeal and its utility.  A particularly interesting piece on Bloody Disgusting (and that title isn’t representative of the site) explores how horror is often about probing grief, loss, and mourning.  People who immediately associate horror with slashers and blood and gore probably became aware of the genre in the 1980s.  In the post-slasher era (and even during it) many thoughtful films have dealt with the primary areas associated with pastoral care: mourning, grief, and loss are the bread and vegan butter of ministerial work.  These are elements all people have to face, and some horror is remarkably adept at helping viewers do so.

We all die.  Horror has never been shy about that fact.  When the dead do come back it’s seldom good.  Given the permanence of the situation, it seems reasonable to think about it in advance.  Shallower topics are good too—life without fun is hardly worth the effort.  Horror, however, reminds us that the bill remains due at the end.  One of the main points of Holy Horror is that people tend to find their meaning through pop culture.  (It can also be through more classical means as well, but the point remains the same.)  We watch movies for more than entertainment.  Movies other than horror deal with loss, mourning, and grief, of course.  But as Stephen King once noted, this genre forces the reluctant to look.  What seems to be under-appreciated is how sympathetic it is to the human condition.

Apart from a few colleagues who work in this same nexus of religion and horror, I know few fans of the genre.  Most people I know shy away from it.  For me, it seems to be a brutally honest genre.  There are speculative elements in much of horror—those are the elements that make the films fun to watch, in my opinion.  Speculative is often synonymous with supernatural, or spiritual.  Spirituality is often coded as a positive.  Life throws a lot of loss and grieving our way.  A genre that brings these things together can’t be all bad.  Some of the more recent transcendent horror can be downright profound in its probing.  The editorial by Marcus Shorter doesn’t take the step of addressing the pastoral aspects of the genre, but they are plainly there.  And they can offer solace that all people can use.


Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


Year Book

I have to confess that I’ve had trouble letting go of the holidays this year.  Actually, that’s kind of normal.  The let down from “sacred time” (however that may be understood) to “ordinary time” is often a rough transition.  Anthony Aveni discusses this, among other things, in his short study, The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays.  Not a deep history, but a thoughtful consideration of the seasons of our celebrations, the book informs and entertains.  There are surprisingly few books that cover the holidays, despite their centrality to modern life.  What person in business doesn’t look forward to the third quarter?  Who doesn’t anticipate a little time off work, punctuated throughout the year?  Aveni is one of the few general purpose books that you can go to for background on several seasonal holidays.

Aveni is somewhat of a polymath, being both an astronomer and an anthropologist.  He clearly has a special interest in first nations studies as well, as The Book of the Year occasionally dips into the rituals of Latin America.  A number of holiday traditions are explored here, leaving the reader wanting more.  I find the question of why we celebrate the way that we do a fascinating one.  Many of our customs have unexpected roots and many of them were transformed along the way by the church.  An unusually high number boast recent developments that we tend to think of as foundational to their essence.  The holidays as we grew up with them likely stay in our minds as the default way they should be.  Interestingly, bringing them into continuity with ancient customs reveals a steady evolution, mostly from sacred to commercial.

Since I wrote a book (unpublished) about the holidays several years ago (and have read a number of the same), I’ve always dug into books like this whenever I can find them.  Holidays are the heartbeat of the year.  Many of us look for something to help pace us in the reckless spinning vortex that we call capitalism.  Our lives are all interconnected, and the holidays also have subtle intricacies as well.  As they wind down, they tend to point both back to the previous red-letter day and forward to the next one.  Aveni doesn’t cover political holidays very much.  He does mention Martin Luther King Day, the next federally recognized day of rest.  As Aveni points out, the end of the Christmas season can stretch as far as Candlemas, so I guess we still have a few weeks to go before it’s all officially over, in sacred time.


Childhood Music

I recently happened to hear the Alice Cooper song “Desperado.”  If you’re thinking of the Eagles’ song, think again.  Cooper’s song is from his 1971 album Killer.  I came to know it as a child from his Greatest Hits album, and I came to know it very well.  Although I’ve not heard the song for probably two decades, I remembered every beat, every word.  In fact, anticipating music videos, as I child I penned a comic-strip rendition of the song.  Although it is long gone, I vividly recall every panel and how poorly they were drawn.  I’m not sure why that particular song spoke to me so intensely, but it is quite clear that Alice Cooper was a major childhood influence.  This was strange because I was an evangelical Christian as well.

Image credit: Hunter Desportes, via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Furnier has had a tremendous impact on rock music.  When I went to see him in concert on his Along Came a Spider release tour most of the other people there in Atlantic City were guys my age.  I’d probably’ve been afraid of most of them if I’d met them on the street at night, but this wasn’t exactly a sell-out stadium event.  In fact the room for the show wasn’t that large and we could get fairly close to the stage.  You had to have tickets for the after-party, but Cooper was standing outside the room where it was being held, and we passed within mere feet of him on our way back to the car.  I wanted to let him know just how much he’d shaped my identity, primarily through his first solo album Welcome to My Nightmare, but I could barely hear after the show, and besides, I didn’t have a ticket.

I know Nightmares with the Bible isn’t being marketed or sold as a trade book but anyone curious about the title might consider Alice Cooper as an inspiration.  During seventh grade I missed a lot of school due to sickness (I was a sickly child).  During those days off I listened to Welcome to My Nightmare over and over, thinking about death.  Pretty intense for a thirteen-year old, but then I’ve always been that way.  Even at a young age I realized we all die.  It therefore made (and makes) sense to think about it.  That’s something my religion and fascination with horror tropes have in common.  Alice Cooper seemed to be able to blend these things, in his own way.  And that’s a lot to come out of a song last heard decades ago.


Slow Jinn

You can sort of tell when an author has a background in religion.  Early on in my blog writing, I made note when novels had religious elements.  It’s so common that I seldom do that anymore.  Matt Ruff’s father was a minister.  His understanding of the religious landscape comes through in The Mirage.  It wasn’t on my reading list, but someone gave me a copy and the story drew me in.  In case, like me, you only know Ruff from Lovecraft Country, this tale’s quite different.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’re thinking of reading it fresh, you’ve been warned!

Set in an alternate reality in which the superpower in the world is the United Arab States, the story follows three police agents of Homeland Security as they uncover a perhaps unwelcome truth: the world they know is a mirage.  It is, in fact, the work of a jinn.  Before commenting on that, I would say that you don’t learn about the jinn until a good way into the story.  Up to that point I’d call this simply literary fiction.  The jinn adds a speculative element to it, and also explains, mostly, how things ended up the way they did.  Jinns, by the way, are often considered demons in Arabic culture.  They are quite different from Christian demons, and that point makes itself clear as the story unfolds.  Our three protagonists begin to uncover hints that the twin towers didn’t actually stand in Baghdad, and that Christian terrorists didn’t fly planes into them on November 9 (11/9).  They have run-ins with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as warring factions vie for power in the UAS.

This is a great story for trying to understand the world from the point of view of a different religion (unless you’re Muslim).  This is a world where Christians are terrorists (you get to meet David Koresh as well) and the United States is a backward country divided over religion.  Reading this as events unfolded in Washington, DC last week was a little bit disconcerting.  Alternative realities are often just a heartbeat away.  The plot is a bit complex at points, but it’s a fairly quick, if profound read.  Religion is the heart and soul of this book.  That religion could be either Islam or Christianity.  Perhaps even something different.  The way it plays out is very much like real life, dividing people against each other until reality becomes difficult to bear.  For anyone interested in what a Muslim-run world might have looked like, this is a good starting place.


Look, New…

You may’ve noticed a new look to my website.  That isn’t intentional.  I woke up Friday only to learn that Word Press (which used to be friendly to individual bloggers) decided to change at least one of the few templates they allow paying customers to use (if I upgrade even more to “business class” I have lots more options).  One of those templates happened to be the one I’d labored over, sacrificing an entire weekend about a year ago to get it just how I liked it.  Now, I’m a Neo-Luddite.  Behind the scenes my daughter and one of my nieces have helped me with technical aspects of this blog from the very beginning.  Several years ago I reached capacity for the free service, where, understandably, templates are limited.  Now I pay for both the domain name and the privilege of hosting it on Word Press.  But they like to limit privileges to try to force you to upgrade.  What would Amos say?

A few weeks back my iPhone began to lose its charge at an alarming rate.  I’d unplug it, and, doing nothing but occasionally checking for non-existent texts, it would be red-lining a couple hours later.  I feared I might need to get it serviced.  This went on for several weeks.  It occurred to me that Christmas was approaching and Apple has been known to slow down devices in order to encourage you to buy a new one.  Upgrade!  Everybody’s doing it!  Well, I don’t make enough money to constantly upgrade, so I kept my phone plugged in all the time when I was home (which, during a pandemic, is pretty much all the time).  Then, a few days after Christmas, when it was clear I wasn’t buying a new one, the battery began to hold its charge again.

The tech industry has us in a strangle-hold.  As soon as you purchase that first laptop, tablet, phone, or smart-watch, you’re an indentured servant to upgrades.  So I went to Word Press’s template library and tried to find something that didn’t look too bad with the images and “feel” I’m going for here.  Almost as if they’d chosen an algorithm that made available only a handful of templates that worked worst with what I’m trying to do on this website, I found their selection extremely limited.  If I upgrade to “business class” (which I will need to do when the capacity for my “service level” (not cheap) is full) I will have a plethora of choices.  Until they add a new service level above that, that is.  Then I’ll need to upgrade yet again to unlock all the neat features they “offer.”  Thanks, Word Press.  I’ve been with you over ten years now and I have to ask, is that the way you treat a longterm, paying friend?

Remember this?


Prophet Margins

One of the most misunderstood of biblical phenomena is prophecy.  One of the reasons it’s so misunderstood is that other ancient peoples came to associate it with predicting the future.  Now, what prophets said often had implications for the future, but they were more forth-tellers, as they say in the biz, than fore-tellers.  Amos, for instance, was a prophet concerned with social justice.  We know little about his life, but we can discern that ancient prophets could be paid to become “yes men” (“yes persons” just doesn’t sound right, and most were male) for the establishment.  Kings then, as now, surrounded themselves with sycophants who would tell them their policies were approved, or even ordained by God.  Amos was not one of those.

Amos points out in the book attributed to him that he was no paid prophet.  He was an honest worker with a great concern for social justice.  He lived in a prosperous time, but the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor troubled him.  (Amos has never been a favorite among prosperity gospelers, since his message has always been recognized as authentic among both Jews and Christians and he condemns the inequality rampant in society.)  Many in the eighth century BCE believed ceremonial actions—like, say, holding up a Bible in front of a church—pleased God.  Amos boldly declared such things sickened God as long as society favored the rich at the expense of the poor.  There’s a reason Evangelicals and Republicans tend to avoid Amos.  “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” is not an easy thing to hear when you’re busy giving tax breaks to those who earn more than enough while refusing basic health care to the poor.

Prophets tend to speak of the future in conditional terms.  If your ways don’t change, then this will happen.  Some Christians, anxious to prove that Jesus was the messiah, came to see prophets as great predictors of the future.  Amos would likely have taken exception to them.  Even in his own day Amos made people uncomfortable.  His favorite image for God was that of a lion ready to attack.  His contemporaries told him to shut up.  Amos then made the famous statement that he was no professional prophet.  He would not adjust his message so that the comfortable could feel good about themselves.  If Amos were in America the last four years would’ve had his throat raw with pointing out to “Christians” how they’d come to misrepresent everything the prophets stood for.  We need more like him today.


Christian Fragility

Having read White Fragility, I was intrigued when a friend asked me if there might be such a thing as Christian fragility.  I think he was onto something.  To see how this might work, it needs to be understood that white fragility is the intense fear of having whiteness problematized.  We have been raised, conditioned, to think of it as the default form of humanity.  All others are “minorities”—aberrations, as it were.  Because of that “Caucasians” are reluctant to discuss race.  What my friend was suggesting, I think, is that there might be such a thing as Christian fragility as well.  Long considering itself the default true religion, Christianity has falsely convinced millions of Americans that this country was founded as an explicitly Christian one.  Many are surprised to learn Islam was here very early, largely because of African slaves.  And what of the indigenous religion of American Indians?

The idea of America as the ideal Christian nation is so deeply rooted that it’s something we bristle at talking about.  Think about it: educational institutions of the secular stripe don’t like to admit that many of them were founded as seminaries.  When I was growing up the two forbidden topics of conversation were politics and religion.  It seems that fragility may be a useful explanation.  Many academics refer to our culture as “post-Christian.”  They haven’t gotten out much.  Our culture is thoroughly suffused in Christianity.  It’s the air we breathe.  It’s the basis for many of our laws.  Much of science training (as I’ve argued before) is based on Christian assumptions.  Because Christianity shares so much background with Judaism clearly the picture is more complex than this, but the point I’m trying to make stands: we feel very uncomfortable when that implicit Christian identity is challenged, no matter how secular we are in reality.

Prior to Trump fear of “godless Russians” or “godless Communists” ran deep.  Ironically, evangelical Trump supporters now look to Putin’s Russia as a kind of model for political leadership.  We’re flailing about in Christian waters, baptizing the worst of human behaviors because we can’t bear to discuss whether something beyond Christianity might be worth considering.  I can’t claim to have absorbed the concept of white fragility fully, but I think the basic idea is sound.  American culture is extremely reticent to open discussions that suggest white, and Christian, aren’t defaults.  That people come in all kinds of shades of pink, tan, brown, red, yellow, and black are just as American.  That Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and any number of other religions belong in a melting pot.  Christian fragility might well explain why this is so.


It Happened on Epiphany

Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you spell treason?  It does begin with the letters “T-R-.”  The events of yesterday made it difficult to sleep securely in “the land of the free” as thugs took over the capitol building in Washington, and even after that Republicans still contested the electoral votes from Pennsylvania, preferring a treasonous president to a democratically elected Joe Biden.  As all of this was playing out, Georgia gave control of the senate to the Democratic Party.  Like many Americans born in a democracy, I stared at the news aghast yesterday as Republicans, fully in the public eye, tried to dismantle the very system by which they themselves were elected and even went so far as to claim they were patriots for doing so.  They draw the evil courage to do this from their “Christian” faith.

Yesterday was Epiphany, a Christian holiday.  To see Republicans—claiming the name Christian—attempting to overturn democracy on that very day was sickening.  To my mind it will live on like 9/11 as one of the most dangerous days in US history.  When asked to get the crowds that he personally incited to disperse, Trump released a video on Twitter telling his followers that the election was stolen and fraudulent but they should go home.  Pouring gasoline on a fire he himself lit, sending both houses of congress into hiding, his snakes-in-the-grass continued to support the myth that Trump hadn’t been defeated.  When the smoke clears this American thinks it’s time to dust off laws about treason and start applying them again.

Congressional leaders, and the president, swear to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible.  In the most closely watched election in history, with no evidence of fraud, when the loser wouldn’t concede his party backed him.  The Republican party has been infected with evil, I fear.  Even after seeing the turmoil that their posturing caused, they tried to discount the votes from my state just to keep a very dangerous man in power.  Our democracy didn’t die yesterday.  It died four years ago.  Claiming the name “Christian” without ever reading the Bible or attending church or caring about their fellow human beings, the Republican party has gone down in infamy on the feast of Epiphany.  The electoral vote count by congress is a mere formality, and I, a native and resident of Pennsylvania, am outraged that anyone claiming the power of a democratically elected office—disputing the very process that gave them any influence at all—questions my right to vote.  Why hasn’t treason been invoked?  Four years under the influence of the Evil One has shown its effects, and it happened on Epiphany.


Manifest Duty

As slaves to Mammon our celebrations are frequently curtailed.  In agricultural culture, winter was a time when fields couldn’t be cultivated (at least in northern climes) and thus the twelve days of Christmas could be relaxed without much consequence.  The history of this holiday complex is fascinating, and while many of us have been back to work for a few days already, today, Epiphany, is the “official” end of the season.  Twelfth Night, in some traditions yesterday and in others today, was a day of celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas.  Ancient pre-Christmas holidays such as Saturnalia lasted several days.  Today’s business world frequently gives a Scrooge-like single day off and many of us spend our hard-earned vacation days to fill out the week that is inevitably slow at work otherwise.

In Christianity, until recent times, Epiphany was a bigger holiday than Christmas.  Of the two it was the original day for gift-giving,  That makes sense in the commemoration of the visit of the magi that Epiphany represents.  They were the first givers of Christmas gifts.  Since Jesus was Jewish the idea of a manifestation, or epiphany, to the gentiles became an important marker.  Magi are styled as Zoroastrians from Persia.  The story occurs only in the gospel of Matthew and clearly wasn’t intended to coincide with the arrival of shepherds and angels.  As the Epiphany story grew to include Christmas it also encompassed many of the shadowy events of Jesus’ early years.  His questioning of the teachers in the temple was a kind of epiphany, as was his baptism.  All these things came together during a fallow time and were sufficient reason to take it easy for twelve days between the end of December and the beginning of January.

Some of our employers have expressed surprise that things continue to run fairly smoothly with workers reporting remotely.  These same people also seem surprised that people come back from several days off refreshed.  I suspect that they are also astonished at how well their computers work after being rebooted.  Time off is sacred time.  Whether we dress it up with elaborate stories of kings, wise men, sages, or magicians traveling great distances to see a baby in a foreign nation or whether we make it the day when one cousin baptized another, Epiphany grew into a major feast in medieval times.  Today it’s just another work day.  And with it the end of another holiday season will need to last us until near the end of yet another year.


Comedic Horror

Spoofs can be a great way of preventing us from taking ourselves too seriously.  Extra Ordinary is a film I’d completely missed until my wife made a gift of it.  We weren’t quite sure if it was a horror film or a comedy, and genres aren’t always helpful here.  I would call it a spoof on possession movies, something of particular interest after writing Nightmares with the Bible.  Apart from being a bit of much-needed silliness after a terribly serious year, it’s also a demonstration of how genre can be helpful in knowing how to interpret what we see.  Not knowing anything about the film, it begins with the statement that it’s based on a true story.  There’s an interesting history behind that phrase, but when it comes with a spoof it only adds to the fun.

Extra Ordinary follows the adventures of Rose Dooley, a driving instructor who was raised by a ghost-hunting father.  Blaming herself for her father’s death, she’s taken on an anodyne career that she feels is safer.  A particularly desperate widower whose daughter is targeted by a hapless Satanist, brings her back to her true calling.  Although there are some horror-comedy scenes (that’s an entire sub-genre often eschewed by horror fans who don’t like to laugh at themselves) the witty dialogue and crude jokes make it fun rather than anything to be worried about.  Possession occurs in a specific way to move the plot along—Rose has to have a partner (the widower Martin Martin) accept possession by the ghost in order to send it to the beyond.  Although there are clever takeoffs from The Exorcist, the idea of possession is much different.

What is evil?  The film asks the question directly (if comedically).  Although washed-up rock star Christian Winter has become a Satanist, the demon in the film is Astaroth, a later development from the pre-biblical goddess Astarte.  As discussed in Nightmares with the Bible (for which this film could’ve been profitably discussed), there’s a confusion among demons.  (Beelzebub is also mentioned by name.)  The element that ties them together with the human condition is clearly sex.  The frantic search for a virgin, and the communal shaming of unwed mothers makes that obvious.  Although deliberately campy, Extra Ordinary answers the question of evil by noting that it is a person using their powers (magical, in this case) for their own benefit rather than for the good of others.  There is a moral to it, after all.  And if we can’t laugh about the human condition once in a while, we deserve to be spoofed.


Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.


Bookselling 101

My wife and I have sometimes toyed with the idea of running a mom and pop bookstore.  Our combined lack of business sense (and capital) have always prevented us, but dreams can be comforting and persistent.  I met Andrew Laties at his bookstore Book & Puppet Company in Easton.  His neighbor, a professional colleague, introduced us just as things were gearing up for the first Easton Book Festival, back in pre-Covid 2019.  It was a big event, and Andrew surprised me by remembering my name when we ran into each other at one of the many presentations held that weekend.  It was there that I picked up a copy of his acclaimed Rebel Bookseller: Why Indie Businesses Represent Everything You Want to Fight for—From Free Speech to Buying Local to Building Communities.  Although the subtitle is lengthy, it encapsulates what the book is about.

A true liberal, Laties is also a savvy businessman.  Rebel Bookseller is the one book you want to be sure to have on hand if you ever dream of starting an indie.  Independent bookstores stand for so much of what liberals value—helping local communities, free expression of ideas, education.  Indeed, one of the draws of the Lehigh Valley is its ability to support several independent bookstores.  We lived for years in an affluent (yours truly excepted) community in New Jersey.  It had a small indie that closed after just a few years.  The nearby mall (which draws employees a nearly two-hour commute from New York City, I kid you not) was a better measure of the local mindset.  We had to drive to Bernardsville or Princeton to find indies, or perhaps all the way to New Hope or Montclair.  Communities that support bookstores are great places to live.

The acquisition of knowledge is, according to a most rudimentary understanding of human civilization, our most basic need.  The invention of writing is what set us on the track to true progress.  Anyone who has benefitted from modern medicine, technology, or the rule of law, has writing to thank.  Books represent the surest way to keep knowledge alive.  Rebel Bookseller moves beyond the sobriquet of knowledge into wisdom.  This is a very well-informed book.  Laties knows the realities of how publishing works and the real costs involved with big box corporations deciding what people will read.  For anyone who wants to think independently, a local bookstore is an essential business.  My wife and I will likely never be able to run our own little indie, but we both reaped the rewards of reading, and dreaming, about the possibilities.


Impatience

It’s only human nature, I suppose.  We see our own circumstances and fail to appreciate how others have equally (or perhaps more) complexity to juggle.  I’m thinking ahead to work on Monday.  The week before the holiday break the most popular question posed to me in my work emails was, “Why haven’t I received my copies of X yet?”  It’s a fair question.  What it betrays, however, is a lack of comprehension of just how complicated a business publishing is.  I should be flattered that we make it look so easy!  To begin with, publishing, and printing, are nonessential businesses.  Most of them may be up and running at, at least partial capacity, but the flow of materials to printers didn’t stop just because a pandemic hit.  It simply did what backlogs always do—it piled up.

Publishers have very intricate and, for the most part, efficient operations.  If a blockage occurs at any point—even the end point—other things back up.  Have you ever seen a toilet overflow?  I have, and it’s not a pretty sight.  Add to that the fact that many academics, unable to travel or do their other privileged activities, decided to finish up their books and send them in early.  Everybody should be happy, right?  Have you ever overeaten?  The happiness lasts only until your brain catches up with what your body has done.  I can’t speak for all publishers, but this combination of more input of material than expected and the inability to *ahem* process it has stressed the system.  Schedules exist for a reason.

Covid-19 has affected everything.  And continues to do so.  As we live through this pandemic we find our coping mechanisms.  Once we reach a level of uneasy symbiosis with our situation we stop thinking about how others might be dealing with it.  I think of those who’ve been out of work for months now and who’ve been evicted from homes because of what the wealthy can call force majeure and hire lawyers to argue.  Indeed, the coronavirus outbreak is the very definition of force majeure and the response we all ought to have is compassion and kindness to one another.  It’s not easy to think of other people before meeting our own needs—it’s not human nature.  Species that learn cooperative, altruistic behavior, however, are those that thrive.  As we say goodbye to a year of willful government inaction—the Trump administration knew of the danger well before it hit, but doesn’t believe in science—let’s vow to do what our leaders won’t.  Show compassion.  Recovery will occur and let’s hope we come out of it better than we went in.  This seems a good mantra for the beginning of a new year.