What Remains?

As our government continues to pretend it has an interest in anything but enriching the individuals in Washington, a rather constant refrain of “broken system” has emerged.  It heard that phrase repeatedly in conversations in San Diego, on a variety of topics.  Now, I’m no stranger to buzzwords, but this strikes me as particularly apt to describe what we’re seeing.  A democracy within a republic builds safeguards to prevent the abuse of power, but when abuse of power occurs and one political party insists on enabling such abuse, the system is indeed broken.  Not only that, but there’s no will evident to fix it.  The GOP glories in it, feeling like it’s somehow winning the game as families and individuals suffer as a result of it.  In the past, it seems to me, there was a desire to repair what was an obvious problem.

Self-delusion, it seems, has become very common.  That, and some older politicians may not be aware how frequently they’re shown in their foibles on the internet.  Information that used to take weeks or months to filter out is now known instantaneously, and everybody’s overloaded and confused.  Politicians, instead of trying to show us the way in such a landscape are rather acting like my late stepfather in saying “Do as I say, not as I do.”  A fine bit of hypocrisy, that.  At least he tried to mend his ways, even if not successful in his efforts.  He would’ve known, however, that he had no business being president.  I reflect on this broken system quite a lot and I wonder what is next for us.  When trust in government is completely eroded, where do we turn?

Many have celebrated the decline of religion.  Let’s be more precise here and say organized religion.  Survey after survey reveals that we aren’t necessarily becoming less religious, but we’ve been watching prominent religious leaders throw their unstinting support behind a broken system.    Many of them continue to ignore the truth to support an incumbent who’s demonstrated that he’d just as soon turn on them as help their cause.  And for what?  Simply to prop up a tottering system, to squeeze out the last drops of what can be used to make things better for themselves before it all falls down.  As I was flying essentially coast to coast, it was evident from the air just how diverse a nation we are.  For nearly 250 years we’ve been able to make it work.  Now that it’s clearly broken, it seems the will to make it better has vanished.  And only politics remain.

Prophets and Precipitation

I have no idea how they name winter storms, or even if they should.  Weather-hype is yet another instance of click-bait, or watch-bait that requires constant upgrading to draw in increasingly jaded readers/watchers.  Winter storms are a fact of life, particularly in northern states.  If you name them, then you think you own them, as the saying goes.  In any case, beyond the fact that they go through the alphabet to draw their inspiration, I have no clue what criteria are used for giving names.  The storm that many of us were out in for much of the day yesterday was “Ezekiel.”  There are plenty of “E” names available, and I wondered at this biblical choice.  Ezekiel is often treated as a name for eccentrics, and I wondered if something about this storm was proto-apocalyptic or what.  Beyond the standard “snowpocalypse,” I mean.

The storm may have been considered of “biblical” proportions since it affected/is affecting much of the nation (as it is me, even as I write).  We tend to use the Bible for things that are of large scale, and, frequently, beyond our control.  Prophets often called for events on national level, and Ezekiel’s message had to do with a kind of ultimate redemption.  I suppose it’s the kind of message our nation could use right now, snow or not.  We could use good times sent from above, following the decidedly unbiblical evangelical administration we’ve put up with for three years now.  What would Ezekiel say?

Back in my teaching days, I had to cover Ezekiel in less time than the prophet deserved.  He pantomimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem, and, among the exiles, proclaimed their return to a better future.  Now I can’t say if winter storm Ezekiel will lead to a better future or not.  It will lead to some sidewalk shoveling, some travel headaches (as we experience firsthand yesterday), and the usual array of winter wonders.  I do know that claiming insanity to label a prophet is a cheap shot when it comes to explanations.  Ancient people recognized madness when they saw it, and prophecy, they knew deep down, was different.  None of this suggests this storm has been in any way predictable.  Yesterday with its accumulation of sleet and freezing rain, and today with its projected snow are all part of a typical December around these parts.  As people addicted to media stimulation, I guess we have to give it a name so that we can feel properly awed.

Steel and Snow

I sometimes feels I need to pause before launching back into my usual reflections.  Commercialism tells me the holiday season is here (I noticed while watching Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade that the real highlight is Santa and the official start of Christmas).  Please don’t misunderstand—I love the holiday season and look forward to it every year.  It’s not that I want to get things or spend lots of money.  For me the holidays are about rest and respite from the constant stream of work that never really gets done.  I need to retreat once in a while.  Ensconce myself in a quiet room and not have to worry about the next crisis facing me as an editor or the publishing industry as a whole.  I do love the holidays, but I often wonder about how we’ve let their symbols become the main point.

Now that we live near “the Christmas City,” we attend the Christkindlmarkt in Bethlehem while family is home.  One of the more stark symbols of this festival is the juxtaposition of a Christmas tree against the now silent and rusting steel stacks of what used to be Bethlehem Steel.  The evergreen, of course, was a Teutonic symbol of life continuing in the midst of the shutdown of the growth season.  Nature hasn’t really died, although it may appear to have done so, but we feel that difficult times with short days and cold temperatures will now dominate our existence.  Our industrial efforts participate in this slowdown too.  What once identified one of Pennsylvania’s two steel cities has ceased an Bethlehem has had to adapt.  We see the change and wonder.  I grew up just north of Pittsburgh when it was a very large industrial city.  When I was in high school it was the 16th most populous city in the country.  Currently it’s 66th, with Charlotte, North Carolina holding its former place.  We adjust to changing seasons.

Christkindlmarkt is a lively place with four large tents dedicated to symbols of the season.  Christmas merchandise is a large part of it, of course.  Small business vendors, however, take advantage of the fact that crowds throng in.  Food, naturally, comes to hold a place of some significance as your blood sugar drops after spending a few hours on your feet.  Music is in the air and people don’t seem to mind the masses of others who all had the same idea.  I never purchase much at the event, but I enjoy being among those inspired by it.  Some of us are the rusty towers in the background, and others are the lively, decorated tree that stands before them.  The season has begun, and the symbols are open for interpretation.

Thanks for the Giving

The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food.  I object, on more than one level, to calling it “Turkey Day.”  No, the wonderful thing about Thanksgiving isn’t the food, but rather the universal aspect of the holiday.  From Fundamentalist to atheist, everyone can be thankful and we all have things for which to be thankful.  The holiday may have begun in a Christian milieu, but you need not believe in a God in the sky to give thanks.  We can thank one another, we can thank the universe, we can thank whatever powers that be, or we can simply be thankful, no matter to whom.  As I write this in the early morning hours, I’m thankful for being home after spending several days on the west coast.  Hearing the November wind howling outside, I’m thankful for this warm cup of coffee.  I’m thankful for the ingathering of family.  There’s so much goodwill today.

Thankfulness leads to a kind of optimism.  Thankful people can perhaps see that we need not hate others to feel good about ourselves.  I think of Thanksgiving as a feeling of love and acceptance.  Perhaps more than any other holiday.  I’ve heard people of many religions and backgrounds wishing others a happy Thanksgiving.  Would that all holidays could be so accepting!  Of course, holidays themselves have their origins in religions.  Were it not for beliefs, one day would be the same as any other.  There are religions that refuse to celebrate holidays, but when critics become too harsh on religious beliefs I’m thankful to remind them that they have religion to thank for both holidays and weekends.  We could all use a break.

Thanksgiving comes at different times in different countries.  In some places no equivalent holiday exists.  There are secular holidays, of course.  The very concept, though, of a “holy day” comes from that great generator of calendars—religion.  As chronologically challenged as I am (I can’t figure out time changes or time zones or even what time it is anywhere non-local) I often think of the marking of time and how a religious impulse started our species doing so.  Sure, it may have been the urge to start planting, or the awareness that the herds of prey were moving on, but in those early days such things were infused with religious significance.  And when calendars became canonical, there were religious impulses present to drive it.  So, in a way, it is good to be thankful even for religions—as problematic as they can be—on this Thanksgiving.  

Focus on Religion

Publishers Weekly, or PW to those in the biz, is a great place to get information about, well, publishing.  I often spend AAR/SBL telling authors and prospective authors something that I wish I’d been told when teaching: time spent learning about publishing is never wasted.  PW every year has a “Religion and Spirituality Update” released in time for this meeting.  Despite the relatively small number of sales, religion is a discipline that loves its books.  I’ve only been quoted in PW’s special edition once, and it’s not been for a few years, nevertheless I always learn a thing or two from this free—yes, if you’re here in San Diego it’s free!—update.  It may seem odd to suggest that religion titles can be hot, but it is indeed possible.  Sexuality is hot.  I suppose that goes without saying.

A number of titles dealing with religion and sexuality appear every year.  What caught my attention, however was an observation from Jennifer Banks, from Yale University Press.  Noting the rancor that sexuality often introduces to discussions of religion, she observes that (and this is a quote from PW, not directly from Banks) “some Christians apparently need others to go to hell.”  (I can send the full citation, if you want to know.)  In an era when academics have been stressing inclusion, the retrenched religious world has been spinning in the opposite direction.  Instead of inviting everyone to Heaven, as might, say a Universalist, many conservative Christians consign fellow believes to Hell, and gleefully so.  It’s almost as if Christianity and capitalism have merged into a zero-sum game.  If some win, all the others have to lose.  They haven’t however, studied the history of Hell very well.

It’s kind of an insidious idea.  Given that we all want to justify ourselves, some go to the extremes of demonizing those who see things differently.  This form of religious thinking was original neither with Christianity nor the Judaism from which it grew.  There was no Hell in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea, when it did develop, wasn’t a place to torture your enemies, but rather a place demanded by justice.  Those who were utterly and unrepentantly wicked couldn’t hobnob in God’s country club with those who tried to be righteous.  In the modern evangelical narrative those who make certain medical decisions for basic human situations are among the utterly wicked.  Not surprisingly their sins are usually sexual.  If you want to see this in a wider context, pick up a PW when you pass by the stand.  “Anything free,” to quote another sage, “is worth saving up for.”  And who knows, it might keep you from Hell?

Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.

Speedy Delivery (SD)

Ritual, no matter what scientists say, is deeply woven into the fabric of human psyches.  It may be either the warp or the weft, but it’s downright basic.  I was reminded of this on my hurried and slow trip to San Diego yesterday.  I always wear the same shirt when I fly to this conference.  This isn’t superstition, but rather it’s a case of sticking with something that works.  I don’t often wear turtlenecks, and one reason is that they seldom fit well.  More years ago than I care to admit (I’m wearing the shirt in the photo below, which was taken at Nashotah House nearly two decades in the past) I found a navy blue turtleneck from Land’s End (this is not a sponsored post, although it probably should be) that works perfectly.  Even today it fits snugly around the neck after hours of wear.  Maybe ten years back I bought a black turtleneck from the same company and after pulling it over my head, it gaps something awful.  I tend only to wear it around the house.  The original still does the job.

I was ready to drive myself to the airport yesterday and I grabbed a quick lunch at home.  Part of said lunch involved opening a ketchup bottle probably nearly as old as the shirt I was wearing.  (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)  I ended up looking like a murderer, which is not something you want to try to explain to a TSA agent.  I quick threw said ritual shirt into the washer and the drier buzzed at the same time as my phone did for when I had to leave for my two-hour-ahead check-in.  This remarkable shirt was dry and ready to serve.  Maybe you can see now why I’m so ritualistic about clothes.  I also opt-out of those Star Trek scanners at the airport.  This means I get lots of governmental pat-downs.  It feels more authentic when you have actual hands running down your body—at least it’s honest.

The TSA agent commented that you don’t see many turtlenecks these days.  I explained that it’s good for flying because I’m always cold on planes.  As this stranger’s hands were rubbing down my chest, I was wondering how many times this shirt has been felt up by the US government.  It has no pockets to pick, and besides, at airport screenings everything is stowed in my carry-on, including wallet.  At midnight San Diego time, I checked into my hotel.  East coast time said I’d been awake 24 hours because who can really sleep on a plane?  Once my patted-down body reaches 3 a.m., Eastern Time, it wakes up.  In these circumstances it’s good to know I can rely on that shirt in my drawer.  That’s what rituals are all about.