About Steve Wiggins

Associate Editor, Oxford University Press.

Look, Don’t Touch

It’s spooky.  Going to the grocery store, I mean.  In the best of times I don’t get out much, but since groceries are only really in supply (somewhat short) after senior hour, and since I’m an early riser, I head to Giant at 7:00 a.m.  Nobody’s talking to anybody else, unless the check-out line is long.  Even then it’s brief.  Most people (including myself) are wearing rubber gloves and face masks.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this in a horror movie or two.  As in The Body Snatchers, we’re afraid of each other, not knowing who might be “one of them.”  Gun sales, meanwhile, are booming.  Since I get in once the seniors have checked out the toilet paper and high fibre cereal are decimated.  I’m glad I’m vegan because most of that stock remains untouched.

The funny thing is daily life for me is otherwise pretty normal.  I’m an introvert who normally works from home and has no one beyond family check in on me.  I don’t normally buy out the grocery store, however.  I don’t hoard.  (Yes, I have a lot of books but they’ve been bought slowly, over many years.  And only one copy of each.)  So it seems that when non-introverts are forced inside they hoard.  And purchase firearms.  Or maybe I’m missing something.  I think back (if I can) to before this all started.  Going to a crowded grocery store on a Sunday afternoon where nobody was wearing gloves.  You could see their faces.  There was chatter.  Now when we get home we’re supposed to leave our groceries outside where the squirrels will get them before we do.  Then we disinfect them and wash our hands before and after washing our food.

A work colleague in New York City reported seeing grocery delivery individuals wearing hazmat suits.  We can’t see with whom we’re dealing any more.  The truth about introverts is that we’re social creatures as well.  We just require smaller doses than most.  That doesn’t mean we all want to live on a desert island.  Our quietness is a mask, you see.  We observe.  We try to help when we can.  That’s why it’s me in the grocery store.  My special talent is waking up early.  I’m not yet a senior, according to public transit or grocery shopping guidelines.  My hair is turning gray, though, and my beard is white.  You won’t see it though, if we pass in the grocery store.  Like everyone else, I’m wearing a mask to get through this crisis.

All the Tea

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately.  Political scientists have been interested in its economic growth for some time and it has rivaled the GDP of the United States in such a way that it’s an open question as to which is the larger.  With so many things to keep track of in daily life, I’m loathe to add poli sci to the list, but I’ve always found history fascinating.  China has long been the target of Christian missionaries.  Finding a culture that had developed quite differently, in some sense socially distant, they were anxious to make them in their own image.  China had its own religious heritage of folk traditions, Confucian beliefs, and Taoism (as well as Buddhism and Islam), and Christianity’s claim of being the only true religion caused considerable social turmoil.  One such event was the Taiping Rebellion in the nineteenth century.

Image credit: Wu Youru, via Wikimedia Commons

A complaint of evangelical pastors, even in the United States, after Billy Graham had come through town was that local people, all riled up on revivalism, had unrealistic expectations for what their local churches could do.  Viewing this from a different angle, the issue was that one outlook on Scripture could lead to consequences that others didn’t understand.  The same thing applies to Taiping.  Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, had read his Bible (the activity encouraged by missionaries) and became convinced he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  He set about trying to establish what is called the Heavenly Kingdom.  This clashed with the government of China during the Qing Dynasty.  Eventually foreign powers even got involved.  The end result was between ten and thirty million deaths.  That’s right, ten to thirty million.

Religious ideas are powerful.  This is one reason that repressive governments often try to outlaw religions.  Other governments (including some not too far from here) use religions for political ends.  True believers are great followers.  I first learned about the Taiping Rebellion only relatively recently.  I’ve been reading snippets about China for several years now.  Its economic power may well be greater than that of the country in which I grew up.  Perspectives are shifting.  Vast numbers of people die because of religious conflicts.  If you’re one of them the real tragedy is that, in Stalinistic terms, you become simply a statistic.  There’s a reason authoritarian governments try to keep the opium from the hands of the people.  I’m no political scientist, but history reveals much about religion and its discontents.

Denying Reality

The science-deniers in the White House have had to accommodate themselves to evidence-based facts and they look none too happy about it.  Science denial has a long and venerable history in a certain type of evangelicalism.  Science teaches us that most things are more complex than they seem and this is also true of religions.  There are evangelicals all over the board, but those claiming the name most loudly have been outspoken Trump supporters.  The administration has had a three-year spree of decrying science and now that a very real virus is killing us they have no choice but to listen, albeit reluctantly.  So why do certain strains of evangelicalism deny science?  Is it all for profit?  Is there some kind of biblical mandate?

As someone who spent many years making a living as a biblical scholar (and it still plays into my work), I often think about this.  There is the underlying reliance on miracle as opposed to naturalism, for sure.  If God can do anything then science is ever only contingent.  Any moment a miracle (a word that doesn’t occur in the Bible, by the way) could happen and there’d be no way to measure it.  The main reason, however, goes back to Genesis and its creation stories.  When you read a book first impressions are important.  The Good Book begins with a theological account that eventually came to be taken literally.  It’s as if someone decided to live by a poem, taken as fact.  Some things can’t be expressed except with metaphorical language.  But since this creation takes place up front, any challenge to it is an affront to the Almighty.

The antagonism set up by Darwin’s discovery of evolution set the whole confrontation in motion.  Evangelicals in the late 1800s were feeling pushed into the corner by the overwhelming evidence that the creation accounts in Genesis were not factual.  This insult to miracle has simmered for well over a century—the Scopes trial, well into this period, took place 95 years ago.  Fear that the Bible’s loss of science authority might somehow lessen its spiritual message became a ditch in which to die.  Big business learned, back in the seventies, that evangelicals made great followers and could constitute a voting bloc if only a cause could be raised around which they’d rally.  We all know what that was.  That issue has led to the denial of science and the acceptance of anyone ill-informed enough to accept such denial.  Only after learning that you must fight pandemics with science has the White House had to start changing its story.  When it’s all over, however, it will go right back to denying everything.

WHO Cares?

During this time of crisis my employer has suggested keeping an eye on the World Health Organization website.  I’ve been doing that with a nearly religious fervor.  I’ve been looking over the daily situation reports.  These not only contain advice not poisoned by government agendas, but also list the new outbreaks and provide pages of statistics.  The numbers differ from many news sources, but WHO tracks new cases, the number of deaths, and the vectors of transmission.  I’m trying to make a learning exercise out of this, instead of just further cause for panic.  More secretive world states, WHO warns, are preventing containment by under-reporting.  You’d think that in a time of global crisis that even autocracies would want to cooperate.  You’d think wrong.  

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

WHO has indicated that some nations (the usual suspects) are keeping numbers down not through effective measures, but through not reporting them.  Since honest reporting helps to trace, track, and understand transmission, such nations are essentially holding out hope that they’ll somehow bend this crisis to their advantage and appear stronger than they actually are.  I’m guessing these nations are male. 

Interestingly, the names of the countries on the overall list don’t always match those I’ve learned in my own study of geography.  The Vatican, for example, is listed as “Holy See.”  I know that’s its name, but it seems kind of odd against Lichtenstein, Peru, and Mozambique.  The Holy See, last time I noticed, had 6 cases.  The number gave me pause.  With a population of just over 600, Vatican City does seem to be a male nation.  It’s a country of clerics. 

Those in ministry toe a difficult line during a pandemic.  Governments are telling people to isolate themselves to halt the spread of disease, and yet clergy, like medical professionals, often have to put themselves in harm’s way.  I think of how Pope Francis had laid hands on the sick, even when it must’ve been difficult to do so.  Local churches have, for the most part, shut down.  Clergy are self-isolating, social distancing.  It is the socially responsible thing to do.  How it fits within an ecclesiastical view of life, however, must be quite a balancing act.  I often think of how I’d be acting if I were a minister.  Would I go to the home of someone suffering in isolation, or would I be afraid of infecting my own family?  Would I be a nation reaching out to the rest of the world with largess, or would I be a holy see cut off from the people?  I don’t have an answer.  I wonder if anyone does.

More Than Books

Careers.  A pandemic is no time to think about changing jobs unless you’re forced to, but I often wonder if I got it wrong.  No matter what my job was, I wanted it to be about books.  When I was considering ministry it was largely because of the Good Book, and I did a lot of reading of books about it.  Over time my mindset morphed to that of a professor and the book-lined study was my icon.  I admit I’m fixated at that stage.  Now I’m an editor.  Life would’ve been different if I’d become a librarian.  Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is a volume that opens up the cloistered lives of librarians and shows just how vital libraries remain.  I have to confess that before reading this I don’t recall ever having heard of the central Los Angeles library fire of 1986.  Now I can’t forget it.

More than just an account of the fire—although a suspect was arrested it still isn’t clear that he was guilty—this is a book about libraries.  An account of the fire alone would not have been so interesting.  Orlean tells us about this history of the Los Angeles Public Library and the importance of libraries around the world.  She introduces us to several librarians and gives us insight into why they became such and what it is they do.  Here’s a hint: it’s a lot more than re-shelving books.  And there’s the sad tale of an unsolved fire that destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of books.  Having had hundreds of books destroyed by water myself, some parts of this book were difficult to read.  Books are vulnerable, like butterflies they must be treated with care.  The idea of them burning, then being soaked, is distressing.

Like many people, I suspect, I began this book thinking libraries were on the way out.  The internet has changed things.  What I didn’t fully appreciate is that libraries have been evolving to keep up with the times.  And that they provide social services, such as a place out of the weather for the homeless.  I experienced this myself in Montclair, New Jersey.  When accompanying my wife there on Saturdays when she had to work, if I finished with the bookstores early I’d head to the library.  You could sit there for free.  I always have books with me, so I could read.  I could use their wifi for free.  Libraries, you see, are all about giving.  They give so much to the community.  Now that we’re living hermetically sealed lives, it might seem strange to think of libraries as places of social gathering.  And of course they’ll have books.  Orlean’s account makes me think perhaps my career has been off-track.  Perhaps I should’ve been a librarian.

Haunted States

I’ve been going through a spate of watching “The Haunting” movies.  Just to be clear, I don’t mean The Haunting, by Robert Wise (1963), which is excellent.  Instead I mean movies spun off of the Discovery Channel’s series A Haunting.  Several years ago, between jobs and too near an FYE store, I picked up a cheap two-fer.  This set contained the television movies A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia.  I watched them once and then traded them in to get something else.  The first one really bothered me.  The Connecticut story deals with a childhood cancer victim, and that alone is scary enough.  It had the limitations of a television movie and left me thinking it wasn’t too satisfying.  The Georgia haunting was more of a documentary, but it was also open-ended.

Then someone got the idea to make a movie out of the two.  The Haunting in Connecticut blows the plot over the top.  I kept thinking as I watched it, isn’t it in bad taste to make a horror movie based on the true life horror of tragic disease?  The protagonist of the story, Philip Snedecker, died about three years after the movie came out.  Although the plot generally followed the first movie an entire subplot was added to pad it out.  A nineteenth-century funeral director has enslaved a young man to be his medium.  The undertaker steals and marks dead bodies to enhance the boy’s powers.  These completely fictional characters intermingle with the real life tragic Snedeckers.  As you might expect, chaos ensues.

The oddly named The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia also had to add an entire fabricated story to the troubles of the Wyrick family.  In real life the Wyricks moved into a house where their daughter started seeing things, including a kindly ghost named Mr. Gordy.  She also saw some sinister spirits.  So much so that her family invited a parapsychologist to investigate.  The theatrical version adds in a stationmaster on the underground railroad who was also a taxidermist.  Instead of helping all the slaves to freedom, he saved some for stuffing later.  No real motivation is given, beyond his enjoyment of sawdust and thread and death.  

While these two movies really didn’t help much, I generally find watching horror during a pandemic therapeutic.  Horror films sometimes help viewers envision worst-case scenarios and figure out how they might deal with them, learning from the victims’ mistakes.  I suspect that’s why, a few years back, the CDC posted instructions on what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse.  It was all about disaster preparedness.  Of course, in those days we had no idea what was really coming to Connecticut, and Georgia, and to every state of the union.

Disease Divine?

I suspect many religious people are wondering where God is amid the current pandemic.   Theodicy (explaining the suffering of the innocent while defending the goodness of the Divine) has always been the bête noire of monotheistic belief systems.  (Polytheism has the advantage of always being able to blame another god.)   People have been pointing articles out to me that show the religious implications of a crisis.  I’m not at all surprised by the irrationality of the subjects.  The first article was an opinion piece in the New York Times.  It makes a good case that the religious right paved the way for the COVID-19 contagion in the United States.  The religious right is anti-science because they (wrongly) believe the Bible is a science book.  Even a small dose of seminary could cure that ill.  Katherine Stewart nevertheless makes a strong argument that the survivors of all of this will know whom to blame.  Science denial is not the same as authentic religion.

From NASA’s photo library

The other news stories that arise are of evangelical leaders defying government bans or guidance, even when delivered by messiah Trump, to large gatherings.  One of the main reasons for this is that said messiah kept saying the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.  Only when re-election seemed unlikely with all the uneducated dead did he finally start issuing warnings to avoid such idiotic congregating.  In the midst of it all, Jerry Falwell Junior (why did all these evangelists have to propagate?) decided to reopen Liberty University.  No doubt confident that God will keep them from any harm, the university officials decided it would be good to gather students from all over the country and put them together in dorms again.  If you’ve ever lived in a dorm I’m sure you can see why the decision is anything but wise.

It’s sad that evangelicalism has decided to pander to the uneducated.  You can believe in Jesus (many mainstream Christians do) without parking your rationality in the farthest parking spot from the door.  Many of us, huddled in our houses, not having seen other living people for days, are trying to isolate this thing and drive it to extinction.  Meanwhile, those who trust their own version of the supernatural are doing whatever they can to ensure the virus continues to spread.  Why?  They have long been taught that science isn’t real.  Never mind that their cell phones work and they get the news of open dorms through the internet, the science behind it all is bunk.  An entire executive branch administration that doesn’t believe in science is as sure a road to apocalypse as any.