It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.
A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.
These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Travel
Tagged Anabaptist, Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past, sacred space, Sarah Hutchison Tassin
Albert Camus preferred the label “absurdist” to “existentialist” to describe himself. The problem with labels is that we don’t always get to pick our own. As a young man fascinated with existentialism, I was introduced to Camus as one of their number that I should read. Categories, of course, are only abstractions to complex realities. So, for learning about existentialism Camus was recommended reading in those days. I selected The Stranger. So many years have passed since then that I only recollected a single part of the plot. Coming back to it as an adult is like walking down that beach a second time, unaware that you’ve just been down this way and something bad happened last time. Existentialism is like that.
Meursault is little effected by life. He has no strong opinions since, at the end of the day, everything seems pointless to him. He sheds no tears at the death of his mother because death is to be expected. When a heat stroke confuses him sufficiently he unintentionally kills a man. At his deposition the examining magistrate finds Meursault’s atheism inexplicable. In the face of the possible consequences of his actions, such indifference leads him to refer to the prisoner as “Mr. Antichrist.” Awaiting his execution, Meursault has a final confrontation with the priest that has come to his cell unbidden. The prisoner is convinced that even on death row he believes more sincerely than the man of the cloth. Camus’ story is surreal but realistic. A parable for his day and ours.
I’ve lamented before about the decline in philosophical literature. Taking philosophy straight requires the kind of concentration that I lack on the bus or before going to bed. Novels like The Stranger express such ideas in digestible form. The reader identifies with and despises Meursault. Why doesn’t he do something to help himself? Boredom and indifference will literally kill him. He is, however, steadfast, and that is something to admire. Along the way existential ideas are woven into the character’s thoughts and dialogue. Everyone is like an actor in a play—they did not write it, they simply perform the roles assigned to them. When it’s all over they end up in the same place. Absurdism and existentialism aren’t very far apart. They’re both categories devised to help us comprehend the enigma that we confront in books such as The Stranger. Meursault can’t give the chaplain any false belief since, as he notes, those who believe have more need of convincing than those who don’t.
I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.
A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.
Posted in American Religion, Archaeology, Books, Consciousness, Higher Education, Mysticism, Posts
Tagged alternative states of consciousness, anthropology, demons, Felicitas D. Goodman, Higher Education, Indiana University Press, psychology of religion, Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences
Book contracts make me happy. After slipping from higher education into the limbo of editing, it took a few years before realizing that not all books have to be academic monographs. For the past couple of years I’ve been silently writing a book intended for general readers. The subject will remain hidden for now, but a contract for the book has arrived and I’m happy. As my friend Marvin says, “for a man being published is about the closest you can come to giving birth.” There’s a bit of truth to that. Several months of thoughts growing in your head finally culminate in a full developed form, capable of surviving outside the confines of your protective mind.
The motivation for many academics to write is “publish or perish.” In my career track I both published and perished. The thing is, I write because I read. It seems unfair to read so much and not to share a bit of what I’ve learned. If you read this blog regularly you know that I have a restless intellect—the kind of thing that in the old days would’ve made you a professor. I no longer have access to university libraries with their arcane journals and massive collections, but reading on the bus is its own kind of research. (Anyone who’s tried to write notes on a bus, however, knows that the research is limited strictly to what can be remembered after a wearisome 90-minute-plus ride in stop-and-go traffic.) A few years back I decided to start writing up what I’d been observing. Slowly a book was formed. The process is not a swift one.
Many people question the ability of editors to write books. No, seriously. Agents are generally only interested in professors, celebrities, and journalists, not those who may have been one of the above once upon a time. That’s why this book contract feels like a small victory. Weathering the Psalms was written for other professors while I was still one myself. A lot has happened since then. I’ve read hundreds of books in the intervening years. Slow study that I am, it took some time before I realized I could begin to analyze all of this and write it in a way the average educated reader could find engaging. Agents declined the project, but now I’ve found a publisher who believes. When you work on your own, like many authors do, finding just one believer is sometimes all that it takes.