Moral Compass

Recently I was introduced to The Poor People’s Campaign, in its most recent iteration.  I was drawn in because I was raised in a poor family and have struggled to make up the shortfall my entire adult life.  Those raised in middle class (and above) households often don’t realize that when you start below zero, in a humanities-based career it may take literally decades to catch up, if you ever do.  There’s no safety net and there’s no inheritance.  You begin with years of higher education debt and sub-standard pay in your profession.  But I digress.  The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is non-partisan and it is about more than just the poor.  It’s about restoring true morality to our political system.  Organized by the Rev. William J. Barber II, it has had some success in presenting the plight of the poor to a congress that has largely failed to care.

Politics is full of dirty money and lobbying to the point that many people are cynical and convinced that morality has no chance of survival in this city set on a hill.  The pony and puppet show in a White House run by an entrenched narcissist shows just how far concerns for justice are from the aims of our government.  Barber and his colleagues actually read from the Bible (which, it turns out, advocates justice) rather than just saying that they do.  Compared with Martin Luther King’s 1968 campaign by the same name, The Poor People’s Campaign today is smaller, but growing.  More and more citizens with a conscience realize that our government requires rescue if any semblance of fairness is to throw its hat into the political arena.  We’ve become the victims of to government’s bread and circuses, but without the bread.

The most disturbing aspect of our current political spectrum is the complete lack of a moral compass on the side of politicians who cynically use issues to win elections only for personal enrichment.  We have an Oval Office occupant who refuses to divest himself from his own business interests while using his position to increase his own wealth.  Others in his party follow suit.  The Poor People’s Campaign is non-partisan because corruption easily crosses the political aisle.  At least one party seems to be aware that the poor really do suffer even as the White House tells them tax breaks for the wealthy will make everything better.  When a government proposes “camps” for the homeless to get them off the streets, we should see that we’re clearly in trouble.  And unless someone sounds the alarm the wealthy will never bother to take notice. 

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.

The New Purple

Those of us who grew up Evangelical hold an unusual place among our liberal peers.  We’re often able to peer around, over, and under that wall that has been built between those who want a faith-based nation and those who want a free one.  Angela Denker is a fellow traveler on this road, and her book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a useful roadmap.  Some of us fall further from the tree than others, but one of Evangelicalism’s more endearing traits, when taken seriously, is the love of those who are different from you.  That love is often forgotten in the political rhetoric daily whipped into a froth by an unstable president being used by his party to install agendas that hardly fit the moniker “Christian.”  That’s why books like this are so important.

I confess that reading studies such as this make me uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because my Evangelical past haunts me worse than any ghost, but also because Denker is clearly right that basic humanity is being left in the garbage as battle lines are drawn up in what could be a great, diverse nation if a leader were determined to work for unity.  I recently wrote about lunar landings.  Kennedy was a Catholic who had to work to bring a nation together around a common goal.  Instead of tearing the country apart for his personal aggrandizement, he pointed to the moon.  Sure, there was a xenophobia concerning the Soviet Union, but at least in this pocket of the world there was a sense that we should work together.  When religion entered politics with Richard Nixon and his followers, a deep rift opened up.  The two topics you were never to discuss—religion and politics—were now in the same bed.

Red State Christians is an extended road trip on which Denker interviews people who largely fall under the Evangelical umbrella.  Some of them are Catholic.  Some of them are Hispanic.  Some of them are less concerned with social issues, but are hard-working laborers often overlooked by the Democratic Party.  The resulting pastiche is one in which Americans are cast not in sharp relief, but rather with the hazy edges that are a far more accurate way of understanding human beings.  Many, it becomes clear, elected Trump out of fear, or out of fear of his opponent.  These aren’t bad people, but they are people afraid.  This wasn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important one.  And those who want to work for a future that might include realms beyond the moon might find this work a small step in the right direction.

Pointing to the Moon

The failure of India’s  Chandrayaan 2 to maintain contact, intended to make India the fourth nation to successfully conduct a lunar landing, sent me reading about the moon.  I remember the first manned landing, which happened when I was six, so the idea that we could make it that far seemed less impressive than it really is, I suppose.  I was fascinated by early space travel, and part of this may have been because of the moment of silence announced in school the day Apollo 13 safely returned to earth after the oxygen tank explosion that made its landing impossible.  As I was reading about the many moon missions that took place before I was born, I was surprised to learn how many nations are still attempting to reach our nearest neighbor.  This year alone China, Israel, and India have all attempted to land up there.

Israel’s mission called its lunar lander Beresheet.  It was the first attempt to land the Bible on the moon.  Beresheet is the Hebrew title of Genesis.  The US missions were named Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, and Apollo.  Ironically for the persistently religious nation, our only supernatural title was the name of a Greek deity.  Israel was true to its roots with its naming convention, but there is kind of a paradox involved.  In the world of the Bible the earth is the center of the universe and the moon is a quasi-living being circling about our stationary fix in this fictional view of the cosmos.  That’s not to say our own views may not some day be regarded as fictional as well, but simply that we now know the view in Genesis is incorrect.

Of course, the word “genesis” can mean a purely secular beginning as well.  It is a compound word that is often translated as “in the beginning.”  As such, it is appropriate for the first attempt at a moon landing, or any other great venture.  Still, it is instantly recognizable as the first word in the Bible, indicating a kind of strange juxtaposition where the biblical moon—which is not the same as the astronomical moon—are brought together.  Unlike the book of Genesis, the moon has been reached many times by others before.  The old and the new meet in this attempt to reach into space.  Meanwhile our problems continue down here.  Maybe that’s why we continue to attempt to reach the heavens.  And in that sense, no better title applies than that of the book that somehow defies rational explanation.

Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Gods, Monsters, and Publication

One of life’s great ironies is that those of us not born to wealth have to spend the years we’re young enough to enjoy ourselves stabilizing our situation until suddenly we realize we’re too old to do that kind of thing any more.  I know I’m being overly dramatic, but it often does feel like life operates backwards.  My professional career began where I’d hoped it would end, as a professor.  I taught and published for almost twenty years and really nobody paid much attention.  At least I had my teaching.  I also had a family to support, so I had to accept the shift to publishing when that came along with an offer of a full-time job.  Thus it has been for about a decade now.  Within the last decade colleagues have begun to approach me, asking me to contribute to academic volumes, or to be involved in pursuits that are more associated with professors than editors.  I could do with more irony in my diet.

All of this is a long-winded invitation to check out the new Journal of Gods and Monsters.  I probably won’t be writing articles for it; lack of library and research time (both of which I had when invitation-free) assure that my scribbling will be non-technical and hopefully of the more general interest crowd.  Then why am I telling your about this journal, fresh from the box?  I’m on the Executive Advisory Committee and the first Call for Papers has been issued.  Now, this blog really has no way to include attachments that I know of, so if anyone wants in on the ground floor for this journal please contact me (the About page on this website says how).  I contributed to the first number of the first volume of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions and look where I am now!  You just never know.

In addition to the books on which I’ve been assiduously working, I’ve got a number of commitments to edited volumes and encyclopedias (these invitations waited until I was safely out of academe before rolling in).  The monster crowd is, I assure you, a welcoming one.  As we seem to have turned the corner into autumn a touch early this year, and I see leaves beginning to change before August is out, my mind turns toward the realm of the uncanny.  It may be less academic than ancient religions, but the world of monsters feels much more relevant these days.  If you’re a researcher in these realms I’ll be glad to send you a call for papers.

 

 

 

 

https://godsandmonsters-ojs-txstate.tdl.org/godsandmonsters/index.php/godsandmonsters

Meatings

It was almost a little too real.  As I looked at the fake blood—this wasn’t a horror movie—I had a hard time accepting this wasn’t the real thing.  I mean Beyond Meat’s vegetable-based sausage.  My daughter recently sent me a captivating article about artificial meat.  Unlike many paeans to its virtues by fellow vegetarians and vegans, this was written by an omnivore who unabashedly stated that we’ve reached the point where synthetic meat has surpassed the real thing in flavor and the eating experience.  The piece on Outside made me glad.  Feedlots, apart from being the largest industrial polluters in this country, are a horror film based on a true story.  The way we treat “food animals” violates just about every ethical stance in the book, and it’s a big book.  We do it for profit, of course.  Now that artificial meat is turning a substantial profit, those who slaughter are starting to pay attention.

I recently ate at a local restaurant where our waiter recommended the cauliflower burger.  The thought wasn’t appealing.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like cauliflower.  I prefer it raw, however, since cooking brings out its more cruciferous qualities.  In any case, our server said, “It’s new on the menu.  We offered it once before and so many people requested it that we’ve made it a regular item.”  Now we don’t exactly live in a hippie haven here.  Still, enough people are asking for alternatives that we’re discovering it pretty easy to find plant-based protein in some pretty remarkable places.  It put me in mind of my most challenging course in college: biomedical ethics.

A class that asked, and then pressed on very sensitive questions, biomedical ethics required a term paper.  I wrote mine on animal testing.  This was back in the 1980s, and technology has moved on since then.  Even back in those dark ages of Reaganomics, artificial tissue was being lab grown, eliminating the need for animal testing on many products.  Now we’re reaching the point where the same may apply to comestibles.  I’ve long used vegetarian alternatives (now vegan ones) and they’ve increasingly improved.  When I had the most recent alternative, however, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat.  It was too real.  I’m not morally opposed to verisimilitude, I assure you.  The closer they get to the real thing, the better it is for the animals who’ll never need to be born to be killed by us.  It’s just I find the fake blood upsetting, and I’m happy to be reminded that this is only a simulacrum after all.