Trading Ideas

Sometimes you read a book where the author seems to have your same experiences.  I suspect that’s why many of us keep reading, looking for connection.  I just finished Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders and immediately began wanting more.  Anyone who’s faced teetering stacks of rejection letters from agents will appreciate the story of Cecil Po, a bookseller in Tandomon.  Like many of us who wind up in book-related industries, Po is at heart a writer.  Like most writers, he’s down on his luck.  When he discovers a deceased, truly third or fourth-rate writer who’s acquired some level of fame, a wild plot begins to hatch.  The story is so compelling that I spent much of this past week wishing for just a few more minutes to read.

One of the things the story does exceptionally well is to point out the foibles of scholars.  Self-important and self-focused, they often fail to see the obvious right in front of them.  There are some laugh out loud moments here for anyone who’s spent time in academia.  Po’s laconic commentary is no-nonsense and witty.  It also seems to contain a rebuke for the big publishing houses that effectively limit what gets read.  Anyone who’s tried to navigate publishing knows the truth of this tale.  There are those who decide which writers will get noticed and then build them up to continuing successes.  It even happens in academic publishing.  Po, talented but uneducated, and—more importantly—unconnected, has resigned himself to a life of peddling books while knowing he has written better than some of what he has read.  Brown takes the gloves off, but gently and politely.

There are tonnes of great, but undiscovered writing out there.  Even those of us in publishing (perhaps especially so) find it difficult to spend the time we wish to on reading.  There is reading and then there is reading.  If people did more of it there might well be less pandemic to go around.  And if more people read for pleasure there would be more demand for books.  It might also lead to more people writing.  The Traders is a fascinating little parable that draws you in with possibilities.  Cecil Po is like so many of us who dream big but live small.  I won’t put any spoilers here since the novel deserves to be widely read.  And it’s just possible that the reader will discover a bit of him or herself between the covers along with Po.

Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

Learning To Shift

Beliefs have a way of shifting with time and learning.  A regular part of my job is to spend time on college, university, and seminary websites.  Indeed, an editor in my field has to know quite a bit about institutional affiliations.  No matter how much secularists dislike it, our institutions of higher education tended, historically, to be founded by religious organizations.  That’s not unexpected since the very idea of higher education grew organically from the concept of monasteries as the places that preserved learning.  Many, if not most, universities have grown away from their founders’ faiths.  Harvard University, for example, was founded largely for the supply of Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Not officially affiliated, it nevertheless owed its founding vision to religious needs in the colony.  The fact of moving away from religious traditions is understandable in the cases of universities because learning is essentially a secular enterprise now.

Seminaries are a little different.  When searching for my first (and, to date only) full-time teaching job, I was acquired by Nashotah House because I was Episcopalian.  All the faculty were.  I’ve been turned down for a good many jobs over the years by seminaries silently stating that I wasn’t Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Ironically, as I’ve come to know many seminary faculty members through work, most of them are not of the same denomination as their institution.  Quite often they are Bible faculty, which, when you think about it, is pretty surprising.  Denominations, especially Protestant ones, draw their lines in the sand over their interpretation of Scripture.  

All of this leaves me wondering what it really means to belong to a religious body.  After Nashotah House sympathetic Episcopalians were difficult to locate.  Even those in the academy seemed to accept my sudden disappearance with a studied lack of curiosity.  I’ve sat on the sidelines for a decade and a half now, watching others play the game.  Some win.  Many do not.  Some have denominations that open up for them.  Others do not.  Looking back at the origins of higher education, those of us who studied the original academic field are now considered non-essential even among the non-essentials.  And yet society feels like it’s reeling because of its lack of understanding regarding what religion is.  There are few places to go to learn what your particular brand teaches.  But then again, beliefs do have a way of shifting over time.

Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

Wondering about Fall

I’m not a professor, but I play one on—no, wait—wrong commercial.  I’m not a professor, but I used to be.  Now as the spring semester, which ended remotely, is winding down all over schools are asking what they should do in the autumn.  Should the fall semester—the great migratory event of the human species—be virtual or actual?  We know the coronavirus will still be lurking out there, and we know that colleges mix people from all over the world, which is one of the real essentials of education.  I try to picture myself teaching to a classroom of masked faces.  I try to envision frat parties with social distancing.  I try to imagine the dining halls where students are packed in closely together, handling knives, forks, and spoons that others have touched.  I think and shudder.

I know some younger folks.  They tend to trust certain internet personalities because they seem smart.  I’ve even occasionally asked what the qualifications of such personalities were only to receive an “I don’t know” answer.  This is among educated viewers.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t have my diplomas on the wall behind me.  I never even had them framed.  They’re still in the tubes.  I had to show my Ph.D. diploma to two recent employers even though I was hired by universities without ever having to unroll it.  That was back in the day when you could have face-to-face interviews.  Back when a bona fide degree from a world-class research university meant something.  Now economics are being weighed against wisdom.  It’s not a fair fight.

There’s a reason economics is called “the dismal science.”  With Malthusian overtones, we increase to the point of stressing our resources.  A disease breaks out and quickly spreads through our dense populations, but not our denser individuals.  We don’t want to be seen as uneducated, but there’s the great god Mammon to consider.  Funny thing is, back when I was still teaching schools like Rutgers had a difficult time getting tenured professors to train for online courses.  Why put yourself through the trouble when your job is already secure?  They trained adjuncts such as myself instead.  There was, to put it in economic terms, already a demand for online education.  But there are campuses to be maintained, and there’s only so much you can do at home with your own chemistry set.  And so we face the summer wondering how it will end.  It’s time for some critical thinking, but that’s above my pay scale.

Ancient Technology

The pandemic, like any news event these days, has generated a whole new vocabulary.  I had to look up PPE on Google (Personal Protective Equipment, if you live in a cave like me).  I want to help with the effort to curb the coronavirus, but being a non-essential worker, I’m not sure what I can do.  Then my wife found an organization making PPEs.  In this case the equipment they make is face-shields.  And they were looking for, believe it or not, transparency paper.  Well, it’s really not paper, but acetate.  Although we’ve had to move several times since being pushed out of the Nashotah House nest, when I went looking for that box of transparency film that I paid for out of my own pocket in the PPPD (Pre-PowerPoint Days), I found it without too much trouble.  We still had 25 unused sheets left, and we donated them to the cause.

Nashotah House used to have one semester of required Hebrew and one semester of Greek.  Since the curriculum was highly regulated in those days, there was no opportunity for further courses in either language.  If you teach Hebrew you know that no textbook assumes just fourteen to sixteen weeks to learn it.  I quickly gave up using textbooks and had students begin translating as I walked them through it.  I had to use an overhead projector since Nashotah had no internet connection until the turn of the millennium.  It was such a small account that the cable companies didn’t want to go all the way out there to lay the physical lines then necessary for connectivity.  So I bought transparency film.  I even learned how to run it through my printer which, thankfully, wasn’t dot-matrix.

Over the years I bought quite a few boxes of the stuff.  Then the Enlightenment.  Let there be PowerPoint.  I converted all my teaching to PowerPoint slides while others made fun.  When my services were no longer required, I had to purchase a projector so that I could continue to teach on a freelance basis.  But I kept that expensive transparency film.  Now it is out there covering faces, and hopefully, unlike seminary education, saving lives.  As an erstwhile teacher of Greek and Hebrew I’ve found myself having to make some flashcards to learn the new words the crisis is giving us.  It’s a good thing, then, that when I was looking for transparency film I also found a couple packs of unopened index cards.  Sometimes antiquated pedagogy is commodious after all.

White Whales

Every once in a while I return to Moby Dick.  I’m not sure why exactly Melville’s classic has such a hold on me.  Perhaps because I first read it while living in Boston.  For a land lubber like myself being so near the ocean was a kind of epiphany.  I read the novel as part of a course on wisdom literature in the Bible.  Harrell Beck, who was an influential person in my life, insisted that if wisdom themes were truly wisdom they would be found outside the Good Book.  We were assigned a list of modern novels from which to choose and I selected Moby Dick.  The thing that immediately struck me about the novel was just how biblical it is.  Ahab and Ishmael aside, the many references to Jonah and Job and incidental asides referencing scripture made this an intense reading experience.

I started reading it for the fifth or sixth time just before the pandemic became a crisis.  It is a large book and I didn’t want to rush through it.  I tried to pause and appreciate it this time around and I noticed just how remarkable it was that a man who made much of his life as a laborer, without any higher education, was so incredibly literate.  Classical references that I had to look up, and citation of sources blend together in a story that is compelling as it is unsettling.  Long explanations and descriptions are part of the tale, and the soliloquies are so philosophical that you have to sit back in a reverie after reading them.  I’ve read many novels in my life, but no others like Moby Dick.

As metaphorical stories go, the book is remarkably natural.  The descriptions of whales are as scientific in their own way as they are literary.  For an author with no scientific training this too is remarkable.  Indeed, a good part of the draw of Moby Dick is Herman Melville himself.  Although I have gathered a few degrees over the years, in my mind I am, like Melville, unlettered.  I’m sure he would’ve understood.  The fiction I write, although in a very different style, is a tip of the hat to him.  Friends used to tell me that nobody writes like that any more and that no publishers would show an interest.  The latter has proven to be true, and so much more’s the pity.  We could use more novels like Moby Dick.  And were my days not even fuller during the pandemic, I might even have a few moment to pursue my own white whales.

Honey and Wine

Academic writing tends to be limiting.  Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy reading a well-crafted academic work, but when facing a new one I always experience that sinking feeling that this will be difficult work.  That doesn’t stop me from getting a little thrill when something academic I’ve written appears.  Pickwick, an imprint of Wipf & Stock, recently released the cover of Some Wine and Honey for Simon, the Festschrift for Simon Parker to which I’ve contributed.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this was an orphaned article that required some polishing up to be able to submit.  Thinking back on it, I reflect on how much has changed since then.  How I’ve left the land of Festschriften.  How my own research has changed.

Research, traditionally wrought, requires an academic library and lots of time.  You need to be able to spend your hours requesting books and articles that you can’t afford—really publishers?  $40 to purchase twenty pages that I won’t even enjoy reading?  Access to JSTOR will cost you if you don’t have a university post.  Now I trawl Academia.edu hoping to catch what I need in my net.  Sometimes it works.  Other times you bring up a coelacanth.  That’s the way of research outside the academy.  Also, I find myself reading books that appeal to me rather than strictly books on topic.  Many of them aren’t academic, but they are informative.  Part of research, it seems to me, is learning to access sources you wouldn’t normally find.  There’s the element of discovery.

Monsters appealed to me as a research area since there hadn’t been much written on them academically and I’d read most of what had.  The field is starting to take off now, which means  high-priced monographs and inaccessible research.  Working in publishing I think I understand the mindset—employees are expensive, especially in the United States.  They require salaries so they can live, and medical coverage so they can continue to live.  And most books sell so few copies that they really aren’t profitable.  But I like to think people would read about monsters, if they were priced down around the level of the demographic that appreciates them.  So one of my academic articles is about to be released to the world along with some wine and honey.  I’m still trying to sort out how to contribute from the margins.  And I hope Simon, who was always kind to me, appreciates the effort to honor a scholar and a gentleman.

Leg Up

It’s amazing how often J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes up in conversation.  The book struck a nerve.  Reading it wasn’t easy because there were so many shades of my own childhood that I felt uncomfortable at several points.  Not from the same circumstances as Vance (his family seems to have been better off than mine, from the descriptions), I was more a hillwilliam (shoutout to the author of Verbomania for the portmanteau) than a hillbilly.  We weren’t educated people, but my mother’s family wasn’t as poor as the one she married into.  We were socially mobile alright, but in the wrong direction.  Anyone who hasn’t come home from school to find carp swimming in the bathtub simply can’t understand.  The way of the poor is inscrutable, but something Vance gets spot on—it is almost impossible to improve yourself without a leg up.

The chapter where this really hit me was as he was describing how easy his life was after being admitted to Yale Law School.  He made connections and learned to work them.  That part never came in my case.  Like Vance I grew up without a father.  Unlike him, I didn’t have grandparents to come to the rescue.  It’s a long story, but when I left home my life became a search for a father figure only to discover than nobody really wants to help somebody else’s kid.  Although I was accepted into the high profile schools, I had no one to coach me to go there.  Even now people barely recognize Edinburgh for the wonder that it is.  It didn’t connect me the way Yale Law apparently does.  My career has been in freefall a time or two because of this lack.  As Vance explicitly notes, when you grow up poor you don’t have the training or family experience to know what to do.

Many people, I realize, are much worse off than I was growing up.  What Hillbilly Elegy, written by a Republican, shows is that the government simply does not care for the poor.  In what used to be the wealthiest nation on earth there is a tremendous amount of poverty.  Vance has a keen analysis of what the abnormal psychology of want does to people.  I grew up more of a Pennsylvania redneck than a full-blooded hillbilly, but many of the same lessons apply.  While some of us can muster the willpower to escape, we know we are in the minority.  We learn as adults that others don’t share our concern for those who struggle daily to get by.  This is an important elegy, and if only it were read seriously by those able to make policy there might be some glimmer of light in these dark hills.  The right leg up can do wonders.

Ethics of Nations

If it hadn’t started two world wars last century, Germany would likely have a stellar reputation.  I don’t say this because of my own Teutonic blood, but rather because as a nation they seem both intelligent and troubled.  Philosophical, if you will.  A story in Times Higher Education explains how Germany is planning its reopening with the input of humanities experts as well as scientists.  The stance is driven by ethics.  We know that when strictures are loosed more cases of COVID-19 will break out.  More people will inevitably die of it.  Germany realizes that this makes it an ethical issue as well as an economic one.  And ethics are best discussed by those who study humanities.  I noticed that they’re even including theologians on their panels.  This seems smart to me.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s reopening team in Britain is secret.  Not wanting the public to know who’s making the decisions that will certainly kill some of them, they prefer to act under cover of darkness.  The thing about the cone of silence is that it never works.  Historians will scratch their heads over how, in the course of one century, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad the good.  Have the Allies become an—to borrow a phrase—axis of evil?  The wealthy alone are worth saving, and the economy takes presedence over the welfare of the greatest number.  Back in my philosophy classes we learned about utilitarianism and also its problems.  You see, being a humanities specialist means learning to think through thorny issues, looking at all different angles.  Being a conservative means looking only at the bottom line.

Humanities are related to the concept of humanitarianism.  I know that’s a big word, and it doesn’t bring in much mammon, but still, it encompasses all of us.  This crisis could bring out the best in humankind, or we can let the narrative go to the Clorox-eaters and those who believe winning elections are all that’s important, even if there’s nobody left to govern when its all over.  Being a politician is a zero-sum game I guess.  Looking at the numbers, Germany seems to have brought the number of deaths down when measured against the count of established cases.  That to me seems like a human goal worth striving for.  Of course, we could just incite riots in our own countries to infect even more people.  Being reelected so as to give oneself even more tax breaks is all that really matters.  At least among the axis powers.

White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.

Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.

Begging Your Question

I still remember when I first consciously heard it.  The phrase “begging the question,” I mean.  I was a doctoral student at the time and one thing you do in grad school is ask a lot of questions.  I asked my advisor what the phrase meant.  “Asking a question when you’ve already assumed the answer,” he replied.  I’ve been writing quite a lot about feedback loops these days, and this was yet another of them.  Begging the question, in other words, is a fallacy where the asker isn’t seeking an answer, but is attempting to persuade another of a pre-decided outlook.  The concept is subtle, but important.  That’s why it disturbs me that most academics these days use the phrase “begs the question” when they mean “asks the question.”

I’m afraid I don’t have statistics here, but I read academese all day long—it’s my job.  I can’t footnote where this occurs but I can attest that it happens all the time.  Whenever I read “begs the question” I stop and reason it out.  Does the author mean “begs” or “raises” or “poses” or “asks” the question?  Begging a question isn’t the same as raising or posing or asking it since the latter three indicate an answer is being sought.  Precision in thinking is difficult work.  It can give you a headache.  We all fail sometimes.  Perhaps that’s why we eschew it, as a society.  It’s much easier to beg the question.  Still, doesn’t that mean this valuable concept is in danger of losing its, well, value?

I realize that posing such a question makes me sound like one of those old guys who says, “back when I was a youngster…” but the fact is the educational system in the United Kingdom made you ask lots of questions.  In a way that’s unheard of over here, where money assures your credentials, I knew two students who failed out of the doctoral program at Edinburgh when I was there.  One of them an American.  It wasn’t just a matter of laying your money on the barrelhead and walking out the door with a diploma.  I’ve read certified copies of dissertations (not from institutions in the United Kingdom) where Zeus was spelled “Zues” (throughout) and the biblical seer was called “Danial.”  Now, I suppose that raises the question of the value of degrees where you don’t even need to spell your subject’s name correctly.  Begging the question is a fallacy, not a synonym for asking.  And I know that if your thesis begs a question then you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that won’t stop you from landing a job in the academy.

Reading Connections

It’s flattering to have someone notice your work.  The other day I had the very first email from someone who’d read Holy Horror and wanted to discuss it.  It was from an undergraduate, no less, who was doing a report on religion and horror.  She’d read my book (and yes, it’s undergrad friendly) and wondered if I’d be willing to talk about it.  I can’t express how surprised I was (and still am).  You see, I have emailed authors after reading their books.  Many of them show no interest in carrying on a conversation with someone they’ve “met” through email.  I’ve had so many single-sentence responses with no enthusiasm whatsoever that I’ve begun to think of those employed in academia as hopelessly stuck in tunnel vision.  If you write a book you’re wanting conversation with those who read it, I should think.  At least I am.

Those of us outside academe don’t have tenure committees to please or effectiveness committees to placate.  We write books to try to engage readers.  Unfortunately Holy Horror is priced for the library market.  During our phone interview, my interlocutor asked about the cover.  She said something publishers should hear: when walking around with Holy Horror her friends asked what the book was about because the cover is intriguing.  (It’s actually based on Chloë Grace Moretz from the reboot of Carrie, discussed in the book.)  In the midst of a pandemic, this first show of interest made my day, like seeing the first crocuses after a long, hard winter.  I do welcome conversation about my book.  I don’t have a classroom of students to force to buy and read it.  It’s out there for discussion.

Nightmares with the Bible is nearly finished.  Of course, publishers have hit a bit of a slow patch with many of their business partners shutting down.  Some publishers have gone into hibernation during the pandemic.  Books, though, will get us through.  A colleague of mine said the industry reports are showing that novels continue to sell while nonfiction is suffering.  Well, I’m no expert, but I do wonder if nonfiction might do better if authors would be willing to respond to this who express an interest in their work.  I know it’s a radical idea.  I also know that my books reach nowhere near what most publishers consider a viable readership.  What people are looking for during enforced isolation is a sense of connection.  Reaching out to find someone reaching back.  Books can do this, even if we never physically meet.

Bunny or No?

Since we’re in the midst of a smaller holiday season (capitalistic societies can only get away with one major holiday season because the workers must work) many people are wondering whether they should go to church for Easter tomorrow.  I’ll confess I woke up from a nightmare this morning where I accidentally forgot about COVID-19 and went to church.  I stepped inside and the building was full.  I tried to find an empty pew to socially distance myself from all but the Divine, and there was no room.  I felt infected as others started to cough around me.  In real life I’d just read from the World Health Organization’s situation report (number 80, located here, in case you want to see) that we’ve just reached day 100 since WHO received its first notification of this new disease.  The report has guidance for those who feel compelled to gather for religious services.  It makes for very interesting reading.

WHO, like certain political parties, knows that people will listen to their religious leaders rather than reason.  (And still our universities cut positions in their religion departments since, apparently, it is best not to know about such things.)  Recognizing that a secular, science-based organization simply can’t compete, WHO urges religious leaders to spread the word about evidence-based responses to the outbreak.  Don’t gather large Easter-day crowds (they also mention Passover and Ramadan), but, interestingly, do keep the services going.  WHO recognizes the psychological (you can’t say “spiritual”) value of religious belief.  It gives people hope and comfort.  It keeps them going in difficult times.  Call it mental health, but the World Health Organization has wellbeing right there in its title.

Photo credit: ItsLassieTime, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the same day I saw an email from the other acronym in my life, SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature).  They were releasing their annual report showing the dismal job market figures for the discipline over the last year.  These jobs are fading and although WHO recognizes billions of people are motivated by religion our smartest institutions are shifting their money away from understanding it.  The COVID-19 outbreak puts us in this strange place where disjunctures become focal points.  If you look at a field of uniform gray long enough you’ll stop seeing anything at all.  You need contrast for vision to work.  WHO recognizes that religious observance constitutes a major challenge for the effort to keep people isolated.  Universities now in isolation, continue to see no reason to study this.  I’m waiting to awake from this nightmare.