Belated Lughnasadh

We’re accustomed to think of summer as a “non-holiday” season beyond the bookends of Memorial and Labor Days, and the midsummer Independence Day.  Still, ancient people felt the turning of the year at the start of August with the festival of Lughnasadh.  I often forget it myself, although I’ve been feeling a tinge of autumn in the air this past week.  You can smell it at the very tip of your nose if you’re sensitive enough.  The cool of the pre-dawn air presages changes to come.  The wheel turns constantly.  Lughnasadh was actually Sunday (August 1).  Along with Samhain (Halloween), Imbolc, and Beltane (May Day), it divides the year into quarters (now called cross-quarter days since they fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes).  It reminds us that summer is getting on; Lughnasadh was the festival of early harvest.

Lughnasadh was originally said to have been initiated by Lugh, one of the most prominent of Celtic deities.  Several European cities, such as Lyon, have names that likely derive from Lugh.  A warrior god renowned for his ability with crafts, he was also a savior god.  Although I’m no expert in Celtic mythology, it’s difficult to live in a Gaelic country for three years and not absorb some of the fascination for it.  Unlike Greek mythology, there aren’t large numbers of ancient literary pieces that tell the full story.  There are tales enough to know that Lugh was a major god of pre-Christian Europe and that as Christianity spread he was challenged by another savior god.

Although now rather obscure in much of the world, the Christian holiday of Lammas, or “Loaf Mass” was settled on August 1, likely to draw attention from Lughnasadh.  It too was a celebration of first fruits, for as reluctant as we are to let the light and warmth of summer go, plants are beginning to feel the onset of fall.  Lammas is a festival of communion—thus the loaf—and continues to be celebrated with local customs.  It includes the blessing of bakeries or of bringing bread to church to be blessed.  Lost in the modern rendition of summer, Lughnasadh or Lammas is barely recognized by most of us.  I’d never heard of it until I began researching holidays for a book I wrote that was never published.  Festivals that celebrate the changing seasons have an appeal to those of us isolated indoors behind screens all the time.  Perhaps it’s time to bring some summer holidays back. Lugh says yes.

Perhaps Lugh, via Wikimedia Commons

Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.


Strange Reading

What more can you say about the Bible?  A lot’s been said already.  So much, in fact, that nobody can read all of it in a lifetime.  That realization started to come to me as I was trying to find everything that had been written about Asherah—who’s mentioned in the Bible—to write my dissertation.  I didn’t find everything, but I found a good deal of it.  Enough, in any case, to write my cautionary words about the subject.  Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book brings the insights of a fellow traveler to the fore.  In a serious yet lighthearted way, she points out, as the subtitle says, The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible.  In other words, it’s not what most people—especially those who speak the loudest about it—think that it might be.

There are many angles from which to approach the Good Book.  One size most definitely doesn’t fit all.  A book like this would benefit from being read by those who take the Bible literally, but one of the problems is that literalists have no motivation to read such a book.  Indeed, their trusted leaders actively warn against it.  Such treatments are dangerous at best, and are possibly demonic.  One of my professors once put it well: fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem.  In any other area of life those exact same literalists will apply reason and logic.  When it comes to their beliefs, however, refusal to engage with the tools that make their lives otherwise successful becomes an eleventh commandment.

Swenson points out things that will likely be old news to biblical scholars.  Having been through all this in a way ourselves, we remember what it was like to become “woke.”   To those raised as literalists, this is no small ask.  It stabs at the heart of everything you’re raised to believe.  The fear is that there’ll be nothing on the other side, at best, Hell at worst.  These are very real fears.  They may never completely leave, no matter how long you’ve been awake or how much rational coffee you’ve drained.  Such fears deserve a sympathetic hearing.  Without it I’m not sure any progress can be made.  Strip below posturing and bravado and you’ll find fear.  I do hope A Most Peculiar Book will find its way to such folks.  Swenson shows there is life after biblical studies and her book has some fun facts for those unfamiliar with the book about which there’s somehow never enough to say.


Evolving beyond Fear

Live Science recently reported on a story that may shed light on human evolutionary behavior.  While my conclusions are speculative, they make sense, given the circumstances.  Titled “Albino chimp baby murdered by its elders days after rare sighting,” the story by Nicoletta Lanese describes how an albino chimp caused a fear reaction among its community shortly after it was born.  A few days later it was killed by the chimps.  Scientists must be careful not to attribute human motive to such attacks, and so they note that this particular community has a tendency toward infanticide, but that doesn’t explain the initial fear reaction.  An individual who was “different” appeared and the response was one of deadly violence.  We’re far from understanding human motivations, let alone those of animals, but it’s difficult not to see this as typical human behavior.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

Just because a behavior has evolved doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.  We evolved out of our need for tree dwelling in order to open new potential habitats—an experiment that proved wildly successful.  Can we not evolve out of fear of those who are different?  That seems to be the idea behind recent diversity and inclusion initiatives.  There are those who still resist them, but examine their beliefs and you’ll soon find fear of those who differ.  This atavistic tendency is remarkably close to the chimp behavior in killing an albino.  If we are to remain civilized, we must name such fear for what it is and grow beyond it.  Conservatism is often based in fear.  Fear of change is natural enough, but had our ancestors given in to it we’d still be in the trees.

We need to admit that the lives of those different matter. How long will we allow difference be a reason to fear other human beings?  The story on Live Science is difficult to read.  The chimp behavior is so typically human that we can feel sympathy for the murdered infant and his mother.  Fear, if left unattended, can bring us to this.  The antidote is education.  The more we learn the better we can cope with fear, which is, after all, a natural and necessary response to an evolved world.  Our fear of being prey has caused us to drive extinct most of our natural predators.  The world is hardly a better place for it.  Might not weighing fears and thinking through reasonable solutions be a better coping technique?  Fear can revert a human back into an animal state.  Or it can drive us toward improvement.


Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


Not Archives

There was a historical Dracula.  The cognomen of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad III of Wallachia, Dracula’s association with vampirism surprisingly dates back only to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  And much of what I read about Vlad III as a child has been reevaluated, with much of it being reassigned to exaggeration.  (I often wonder if this isn’t part of the reason so many of my generation have become conservative—it can be unsettling to have the certainties with which you were raised topple like so many dominoes.)  In any case, I started reading about vampires when I discovered our high school library had historical books on them, and so I recently picked up Raymond Rudorff’s The Dracula Archives at a book sale, despite its lurid cover.  The reason?  The back cover classification is “nonfiction.”

Clearly that was a marketing ploy, and although the book cost me merely pennies on the dollar for a mass-market paperback from that era (1973), I was a little disappointed to find it was a novel.  I figured it out within a page.  (You have to understand—at a book sale the normal rational faculties don’t always apply.  Anyone who’s been to a library book sale in Scotland knows that little old ladies throw elbows to get at a book they want, and you have to think fast if you’re on the fence.)  So The Dracula Archives is intended to be the prequel to Dracula.  Mirroring the latter, Rudorff’s work is comprised of diary entries and letters, slowly building up a fictional identity for Stoker’s titular character.  It isn’t as fast paced as the cover blurbs indicate, but it does manage to sound historical although it’s clearly not.

Reading such a book during a crisis of truth makes me question the marketing wisdom of the back cover label.  Yeah, it’s kinda cute, I admit.  And Trump didn’t seem like a national threat in the seventies.  But still, the mixing of the fundamental category of book (fiction or non) doesn’t seem quite fair.  Of course, caveat emptor applies to small purchases as well as large.  I go into book sales with a list, and I try to limit myself to it.  But then, I’ve not heard of every book—not by a long shot—and finding an unknown treasure is part of the draw.  Raymond Rudorff wrote several books but hasn’t merited a Wikipedia page yet.  This one is by far his most famous novel.  It’s a fun read and a reasonable prequel, but it won’t likely scare anyone as much as Republican politics do these days.


Religion and Its Objects

UFO religions—or should they now be called UAP religions?—have long been of interest to scholars of religion.  A recent piece on Religion Dispatches titled “With Release of Pentagon Report, UFO Narrative Belief System Is Suddenly Supported by Military Witness Testimonies,” by Diana Pasulka, explores this.  Anyone following mainstream media is perhaps experiencing a bit of whiplash on the topic since, prior to admission of interest by the government, the official stance was to ridicule the entire topic.  That’s the reason what were long known as Unidentified Flying Objects now have to be called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  Since a government can never admit it made mistakes, it simply changes the terminology.  My interest here, however, is in the connection with religion.

I’ve explored the connection between horror and religion from time to time—ahem—and so it is natural enough to wonder about the relationship between religion and UAPs.  (Or should I stick with UFOs?)  The two have some commonalities.  Initially, both deal with the unknown.  Indeed, the word monster comes from a root denoting an omen, or a revelation.  Something isn’t a revelation unless it’s been keep hidden.  So with UFOs.  The government’s long interest, which had been somewhat successfully hidden, allowed for a reveal.  Religions, however, tend to thrive on hidden things.  The monotheistic religions, for example, claim to inform us about what God has chosen to reveal about (generally) himself.  Even today when pushed into a theological corner, believers will appeal to mystery.  Both monsters and UFOs live in mystery.

Science prefers things out in the light.  Is it any wonder that scientists are reluctant to apply themselves and their hard-earned credentials to the UAP problem?  Those of us in religious studies generally have little to lose.  It’s not like we’ve got prestige on our side, or some billion-dollar grant riding on our reputation.  We can afford to take a look and monsters and other unknowns and see how they trigger the religious impulse.  Pasulka’s article has more to do with credibility.  UFO religions have long struggled with being considered outsider belief systems.  UFOs were publicly ridiculed, so any religion that focused on them was, by extension, laughable.  I’ve long believed that ridicule serves little purpose when it comes to belief systems.  Making fun of a mystery is less common than shaming those who believe in what we’ve been told definitely isn’t real.  Until suddenly it becomes real.  Is there any question why religions develop when mysteries remain?


EBW

Nashotah House was a strange place to begin (and end) a teaching career.  Not only did you see students every day, but as faculty you were required to eat and worship with them twice a day.  (You were grudgingly permitted to have supper at home, with family, if applicable.)  You got to know students, and sometimes their families, well.  I suppose that was the point.  We had a lot of students from Texas, and one year a student spouse said she cried all the way home when she found her first colored leaf on the ground.  Granted, Wisconsin winters could be cold.  Even here in balmy Pennsylvania we have to use the furnace from October through May, leaving only four months of the year without artificial heat.  And even September can get pretty chilly.  I was thinking about this student spouse when I started to see the walnut trees turning yellow in July.

Yes, each plant has its own rhythm.  Not all of them need all their leaves until October or November.  Walnuts, however, are an interesting species (or whatever the plural of species is).  The walnuts you eat are probably of the Persian or English walnut variety.  Here in the United States, the Eastern Black Walnut is perhaps the most common deciduous tree east of the Mississippi, but since the nuts are hard to crack they aren’t grown commercially.  Squirrels worship them.  The EBW (do I really have to type out Eastern Black Walnut again?) is famous for its use of allelopathic chemicals.  Some people say it poisons the soil, but more specifically, allelopathic plants distribute chemicals into the soil that favor the growth of “friendly” species and inhibit others.  Yes, plants are quite smart.  The EBW is also wise in its use of the squirrel.  These ubiquitous chewers disperse the nuts widely.  It isn’t uncommon for me to find one on my porch when I go out for my early morning constitutional.  

The air is beginning to feel cool once in a while in the early mornings.  Like the walnut trees and the squirrels, I think I’m at the very early stages of feeling autumn coming on.  We’re still many weeks away from the colors of fall, harvest, and Halloween, but the wheel of the year is still turning.  It never really holds still.  We have the languorous month of August ahead, with its long, warm days and summertime activities.  The walnuts stand as sentinels, however, reminding us that nature is ever restless and ever inclined to change.  I don’t weep to see the changing leaves, but I do marvel at how nature seems to plan ahead for autumn, even in the midst of summer.


The Price of Independence

Recently I was updating my Amazon author page.  Since this is purely a self-promotional place (my books aren’t exactly priced to move) I try to approach it with a sense of humor.  I need to be in the mood to write funny, and some followers of this blog often mistake what I’m doing when I try it here.  (Satire and irony, at least to me, have quite a bit of inherent humor.)  In any case, the trick with Amazon author pages—or any internet sites really—is being an “independent scholar.”  To both the academy and to educated laity, that moniker suggests you’ve somehow failed to impress the academic establishment.  No institution wants to claim you, and why should anyone listen to someone who “blows their own horn”?  If you sell enough books you’ll gain some credibility, but at these prices?

Still, I try.  The marketers and publicists I know all talk about building a platform (“shares” and “likes” help).  Platforms require a lot of planks.  One plank I recently learned about was JSTOR (a not-quite acronym for Journal Storage).  Well, I’ve actually known about JSTOR for decades but only recently have been able to use it.  JSTOR scans and indexes academic journals.  While that may not be exciting to the average layperson, for academics (and independent scholars), this is a great tool.  Prior to JSTOR you had to spend hours plowing through various indexes to learn what had been published on a certain topic.  Then you had to go into the stacks and look the material up.  And probably end up photocopying it.  JSTOR makes all of that obsolete with a few keystrokes.  The problem was you could only get in with your university’s subscription.

I stand and applaud JSTOR because they have now made it possible for independent scholars (we are a growing demographic!) to access 100 free articles a month.  Even though “independent scholar” often means you have a nine-to-five with no sabbaticals, that’s quite a lot of articles you can now access.  While I think this is a great move, I do wonder if it’s part of the writing on the wall for higher education.  Around the world universities (except those well endowed, or supported by federal funds) are having trouble staying solvent.  Knowledge is free on the web, until you run into that paywall at internet speed.  Well, at least for now we have JSTOR and access to otherwise inaccessible journal articles.  But that’ll have to wait until after work.  And after I update my Amazon author profile.


Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.


Following It

Perhaps while I was sleeping (or busy keeping to myself), several horror movies of the “intelligent” variety appeared.  Those scare quotes aren’t to imply the films aren’t actually intelligent, but rather that many people assume horror can’t be smart.  Yes, there have been some cheap scare phases in the genre when viewers didn’t need too much intellectual capacity to figure out someone else was about to get snuffed, but since the late 1960s many cerebral movies have appeared.  It has only recently become acceptable for academics to address horror, and now that they have begun to do so several more provocative films have become part of the discussion.  I’m now trying to catch up (as I can afford to) with those more intellectual movies.  One of them was It Follows.

Of course, seven years ago, when it was released, it didn’t get much press.  It did, however, impress the critics.  A movie about sexual awaking, it wouldn’t make Puritans very happy, but it is pretty scary.  The premise itself is frightening: “it” (never defined) follows young people after a sexual encounter with someone already “infected”—it is visible only to intended victims and although it follows slowly, it is persistent and unrelenting.  It will eventually catch up.  It can take the shape of anyone—stranger, friend, family.  The only way you can tell “it” is that it’s walking slowly straight toward you and nobody else can see it.  To get it off of your trail, you have to pass it along to someone else.  It starts killing and working back to the previous victims, so once it starts you’re never safe.

Part of the visual appeal of the movie is the urban decay around Detroit, where the film was shot.  Another is the lack of adults.  A few are shown here and there, but this is a young persons’ dilemma and the young people have to sort it out.  Bleak and contemplative, the movie has a literary streak to it.  This isn’t just horror for screams—there’s an existential element as well.  The only place that adults really play a role is when it finally catches up to its victims, it appears as their parent.  Various critics have suggested it is a movie about STDs, but to me it felt more like a movie about struggling to cope with the complications sexuality brings.  Unlike most horror I discuss here there really isn’t an element of religion to It Follows.  It may be some kind of demon, but never defining it makes the viewer stop and think.  And that makes it intelligent.


Building Trust

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the Trump presidency was the four years of eroding trust.  People, it seems to me, no longer trust each other.  I’ve noticed it most since the reign of a pathological liar.  It’s kind of like a nation of children of alcoholic parents—trust is a real struggle.  I regularly deal with academics.  Now, critical thinking tends to make a person skeptical, at least to a degree, but it seems to me people would trust a very old, highly regarded institution.  Lately I’ve noticed that trust eroding in various ways, and that puzzles me.  If we can’t trust those who’ve done the heavy lifting of keeping a solid reputation for centuries, well, who can you trust?  It’s a real dilemma.  Maybe it’s because we had four years of equating “my opinion at the moment” with “facts.”  The damage will take many years to repair.

The basic way that civilization works is with trust.  We tend not to pay our money for something unless we believe it’s worth what we’re spending.  Skepticism, in appropriate measure, is a good thing.  So is trust.  One way that I often see this is in the hiring of contract managers.  Yes, there is such a thing!  Many younger academics now hire companies to make sure the publishing contracts they sign aren’t cheating them.  When I was in academia you simply went by the reputation of a publisher.  Everyone knew who had a good reputation because of, well, their reputation.  What a publisher represented was well known and respected for what it was.  Perhaps I’m mistaking the desire for personal advantage for lack of trust.

Companies sometimes engage in trust-building exercises.  Getting beyond someone’s politics to the person beneath seems to be a dying art.  Deep divisions are difficult to achieve when people trust one another.  Consider the anti-vaxxers who are now feeding the delta-variation of Covid-19.  They’ve been taught not to trust the scientists and officials who offer a way to ending this pandemic.  For free.  They even don’t believe the post-presidential interview with Trump where he encouraged (far too late) his followers to get vaccinated.  Trust has to be built slowly.  Over centuries sometimes.  One man’s selfishness tore down the modicum of trust that had been slowly growing since the 1860s.  Now uninformed skeptics think critical race theory is some kind of plot.  Trust isn’t a bad thing.  It is the only way to move forward.  Trust me on this.


Thy Sting

“It’s hard to imagine a more alarming sign of a society’s well-being than an inability to keep its citizens alive.”  This quote is from the New York Times’ The Morning team yesterday.  Life expectancy in the US has been dropping.  Not coincidentally, the article notes, so has the wealth disparity in the country been rising.  And guess whose lives are shorter.  Isn’t it often the same people who vote for those whose wealth keeps them (the candidate) alive longer, and in luxury?  This story struck me as poignant.  Have we lost our national will to live?  We see politicians who give no mind to what the people want getting themselves elected to further their own means.  People know they’re not being cared for.  That they’re being lied to.  Perhaps it’s working its way into our national mortality rates.

I think quite a bit about mortality.  Death is a natural part of life and we seem to have bought into the capitalistic idea that more is always better.  The debates in ethics classes were always about such issues of quantity versus quality.  Is a good life better, even if it’s shorter?  Improving the lot of others increases, we hope, the number of good lives.  Not everyone wants to be rich.  Part of the problem with our current system is that we’re narrowing it down to one way of existing—the way of earning more money.  Those occupations suffused with meaning are disappearing because they’re not profitable.  Does the will to keep on living grow when money is substituted for meaning?

Books on “the good life” sell well.  Whether it’s stoicism, Buddhism, or feel-good Christianity, people want to read the answers.  In a capitalistic system only so many can be rich.  They accumulate power to themselves and many have nothing beyond this for which to strive.  How many classes are available for finding meaning in life?  As universities continue their march towards the status of business schools, the philosophy and religion departments struggle.  They don’t bring in money, but they do, I suspect, discuss the systems that give meaning to people.  That could instill the will to press on.  The article makes the point that although Covid-19 has led to a good part of the decline, it isn’t the only factor involved.  We’re all so busy that we don’t have time to think about it and yet, finding a reason to continue to improve might give us what we need.  Maybe slowing down a little and pondering things would help.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.


Phony

It happened right in the middle of a phone call.  The phone just died.  Well, honesty it had been sick for some time, but its departure was somewhat unexpected.  This is a landline we’re talking about.  Yes, I have an iPhone but I seldom use it.  Especially for phone calls outside the family.  I don’t want people calling me on what I consider a private number.  That’s what the landline is for.  Now, I had a call scheduled for later in the afternoon and I had to postpone it (via email—does anyone else see how strange all of this is?) until I could get a phone.  Since it was the work week the soonest I could get out was Saturday—I often have evening obligations after work.  So I ordered one online instead.

I was in a bit of a hurry, I’ll confess.  I don’t need a lot of features.  As long as it works for talking to others across a distance, I’m happy.  When it arrived I realized it didn’t have an answering machine.  Hadn’t thought of that.  The number of people who actually call me is quite small.  But if they are actual people I do like them to leave a message if I can’t get to the phone.  Then I remembered that answering machines used to be sold separately.  You didn’t need to have everything in one device.  Our modern way of living encourages that—keep everything together.  The phone in your pocket is a camera and computer and GPS all in one.  And more.  I’m more of a component guy.

Back when records were still a thing, my stereo was a component system.  Ostensibly because some components performed better for certain functions than others did, but really because some were on sale at Lechmere’s.  Nevertheless, the concept stuck.  I’ll admit that the all-in-one functionality is convenient, but I also think it becomes problematic when we have to buy more than we need just to keep up with the Joneses.  People are so reachable (with the exception, it seems, of many academics and contractors)—that we’re spoiled for choice.  In fact, it seems that the only polite thing to do is ask others how they’d prefer to be reached.  The telephone, of course, reaches into one’s private world in a way that email doesn’t.  I suppose that’s why many people are careful not to give out their numbers.  And if they do, we expect to be able to leave a message if they’re not home.