Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


Critical Snow

No two snowflakes, I’ve always been told, are the same.  Far be it from me to question the collective wisdom of our species, but I wonder how this fact is ever confirmed.  I suppose I’ve personally swallowed a good deal of the evidence over time.  Snowflakes melt and we can’t get them all under the microscope, can we?  This year has been a winter of more than usual snow around here.  During our most recent storm I stared out the window and tried to count.  Billions of snowflakes collected in my yard alone, and no microscope-bearing statistician was anywhere to be seen.  I like the idea of each flake being unique, but I know it’s a theory impossible to falsify, and I wonder if it’s accurate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about critical thinking.  At its base, critical thinking is about asking questions and learning reputable places to find answers.  Not “fake news” or “alternative facts”—these are tools in the Devil’s workbox—but evidence-based information.  Primary education, it seems, is about learning to read, and write, and handle numbers.  It is about learning who we are  and who we’ve been.  About the way that science helps us understand this old world.  Higher education, as it’s generally conceived, used to be about learning critical thinking.  That was before colleges became mere trade schools, catering mainly to careers with high earning potential so that alumni would give more money back to the college.  Where will we learn critical thinking?  No two are the same, right?

Instead, knowledge and hearsay become very similar things.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for it.  Just because I can legitimately put the word “doctor” in front of my name doesn’t mean I know everything.  Yes, I am an expert but even experts aren’t exempt from the test.  So, as more snow starts to fall, I think about all the many, many places I’ve heard that no two flakes are the same.  I think of the astronomical number of snowflakes that have fallen this year alone.  The number of years before we ever evolved on this planet.  In ice ages and even during human-initiated global warming.  And I realize nobody’s done the actual work of comparing every single snowflake to every other one.  Tradition is like that accumulating snow, building on past layers until great glaciers form.  And who, I wonder, would argue with a glacier?


No Go Subjects

The problem with being eclectic is that you never catch up with everything.  Although I was once a professor of Hebrew Bible—not technically the field in which I’d studied—I read (both past and present tenses) widely.  Anyone who’s brave enough to follow this blog for any length of time must know that.  I tend to think the element that ties them all together is religion, or a curiosity about religion.  I have read material on science, art, psychology, history, geology, astronomy, literary theory, mythology, the paranormal, religious traditions, monster theory, to name just a few.  Because of my interests across standard disciplinary lines, I often wonder about “no go” subjects.  No go subjects are interests that will likely ruin your prospects of getting either a job or basic human respect.  Although the government is taking serious interest in the topic, one of those subjects is UFOs.

For historians of religion such as myself, the study of UFO religions is sometimes acceptable.  Indeed, there is a correlation between some evangelical sects and the UFO phenomenon.  I experienced that firsthand as a child when my mother drove us to a church meeting where a guest preacher was discussing UFOs and God.  I have only the vaguest recollections of that event in my then young mind, but it did leave me with the question of why respectable people aren’t allowed to look at certain subjects.  Why does taboo even exist in an academic setting?  I recently ran across David Halperin’s website.  I’d known of him because his recent book, Intimate Alien, had gotten a lot of press.  What I didn’t know was that he was formerly a professor of religious studies.

It seems to me that many of the interesting, outré topics fall into the baskets of religion scholars.  We touch the taboo objects that nobody else will.  Why?  Because there should be no “no go” categories.  Sex?  Religion scholars study it.  Politics?  We’ve got it covered.  Paranormal?  We go there too.  Perhaps it’s because religion scholars have so little to lose.  We’re not high on the prestige list.  I tend to think, however, it is because people who go into religious studies are innately curious.  (Not all, of course, but many.)  We’re drawn to that which doesn’t fit into the everyday, the ordinary.  Transcendence, seeking that outside of which we daily operate, haunts us.  Why do people scoff at what they don’t understand?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at it and try to increase our comprehension?  To me it seems to be basic human nature, even if the interest is literally out of this world.


In Praise of Brevity

I recently read an article in praise of short books.  Marina van Zuylen, whose response led to the article by Steven Weiland, praises not only brevity, but also print.  There is a difference between reading an actual book and reading something on a screen, even if an actual book of it exists somewhere.  I don’t buy the argument that books are clutter.  Books are my life, and if you start tossing them out you might as well start chopping bits off my body.  But it’s her thoughts on short books that really caught my attention.  Not that there’s anything wrong with long books.  Good ones are like getting lost in a pleasant mind-forest.  But I miss short books and the sense of accomplishment they engender.

Maybe like me you see a book online and get excited.  You really want to read it and then you click on its landing page and learn it’s over 300 pages long.  Or 400.  Or more.  You stop to think; do I really want to invest that much time on a single book?  As van Zuylen explains, some tenure committees don’t take short books seriously.  They want heft.  This blog should stand as proof that anyone can multiply words.  There are well over a million words on this blog alone.  As a book this blog would be about 3,650 pages.  Without footnotes.  But it’s not a book, and that’s the point.  Your time is valuable.  You’re choosing to spend a little of it with me (Thank you!).  I keep my posts around 400 words.  A five-minute read.  And I like books that I can finish in a week or two, along with my full-time job and other life responsibilities.

The electronic revolution—as good as it’s been—distorts things.  Even the very definition of “book” is up for grabs.  My mind always goes back to the scriptoria with weak-eyed monks rubbing aching backs as they laboriously copied books out by hand.  Today we don’t even wait for the paperback, but download it instantly.  How is this the same?  And yet we have less time than ever.  That’s why I enjoy short books.  Some of the most impactful (oh, that word!) books I’ve read have been brief.  As Pascal long ago noted, it’s more difficult to write a short piece than a long one.  So I join Dr. van Zuylen in her praise of the short book.  Long may they live!

At least it’s real…


Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.


Impatience

It’s only human nature, I suppose.  We see our own circumstances and fail to appreciate how others have equally (or perhaps more) complexity to juggle.  I’m thinking ahead to work on Monday.  The week before the holiday break the most popular question posed to me in my work emails was, “Why haven’t I received my copies of X yet?”  It’s a fair question.  What it betrays, however, is a lack of comprehension of just how complicated a business publishing is.  I should be flattered that we make it look so easy!  To begin with, publishing, and printing, are nonessential businesses.  Most of them may be up and running at, at least partial capacity, but the flow of materials to printers didn’t stop just because a pandemic hit.  It simply did what backlogs always do—it piled up.

Publishers have very intricate and, for the most part, efficient operations.  If a blockage occurs at any point—even the end point—other things back up.  Have you ever seen a toilet overflow?  I have, and it’s not a pretty sight.  Add to that the fact that many academics, unable to travel or do their other privileged activities, decided to finish up their books and send them in early.  Everybody should be happy, right?  Have you ever overeaten?  The happiness lasts only until your brain catches up with what your body has done.  I can’t speak for all publishers, but this combination of more input of material than expected and the inability to *ahem* process it has stressed the system.  Schedules exist for a reason.

Covid-19 has affected everything.  And continues to do so.  As we live through this pandemic we find our coping mechanisms.  Once we reach a level of uneasy symbiosis with our situation we stop thinking about how others might be dealing with it.  I think of those who’ve been out of work for months now and who’ve been evicted from homes because of what the wealthy can call force majeure and hire lawyers to argue.  Indeed, the coronavirus outbreak is the very definition of force majeure and the response we all ought to have is compassion and kindness to one another.  It’s not easy to think of other people before meeting our own needs—it’s not human nature.  Species that learn cooperative, altruistic behavior, however, are those that thrive.  As we say goodbye to a year of willful government inaction—the Trump administration knew of the danger well before it hit, but doesn’t believe in science—let’s vow to do what our leaders won’t.  Show compassion.  Recovery will occur and let’s hope we come out of it better than we went in.  This seems a good mantra for the beginning of a new year.


Pre-Soul

Streaming seems to be the way of the future.  I’m reluctant to trust corporations (does anyone remember Ultra Violet?) keeping content I’ve paid for, but the pandemic makes movie theaters scary places.  Some of the movies I’m eager to see aren’t even released on DVD or Blu-ray any longer, and your only choice, increasingly, is to subscribe to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts method of “buying” a subscription.  You’ve got to go where the content is.  All of this is a long way of saying I saw Disney/Pixar’s Soul very nearly on its release day.  It underscored a couple things for me.  One is that the idea of transmigration of souls is alive and well.  Second, and this is a point I make in Holy Horror, movies are often where people get their understanding of religious concepts.

In case, like me, you have to have movies pointed out to you by others more aware, Soul is about a jazz musician who dies the very day he gets his big break.  On his way into the great beyond, he tries to escape and ends up where souls are prepared for their embodiment on earth, “The Great Before.”  In order to make the leap, they must find their “spark”—the thing that makes them who they are.  Pixar may not be a theological seminary, but there are people who find meaning in many of their films, even to the point of  using them as coping mechanisms for real life.  When the internet didn’t exist and animated films required years of drawing or stop-motion animation to complete, people tended to go to religious/psychological professionals for such issues.  Now we have corporations.

The reason I find this of concern is that I have an idea of how content is created.  How those who come up with ideas have to pitch them to financial backers or publishers, and how those backers weight concepts in the scales of lucre.  In other words, money is frequently the deciding factor.  Those doing the pitching are seldom the same people with specialized training in the subject addressed, and yet they reach far larger viewerships than the classroom of such an expert does.  The financial implications are troublesome.  None of this is to suggest Soul is a flawed film.  I know many former seminary professors who’d quibble—or perhaps something stronger—with the way the afterlife/beforelife are presented here.  The movie itself is both fun and profound.  Don’t ask me, though.  I’m still trying to figure out this streaming thing.


Religion Prof

Back in 2009, when Sects and Violence in the Ancient World started out, there was a fair bit of interest.  At one point I was listed among the top fifty “biblioblogs.”  Back in those days I got to know James McGrath, the curator of Religion Prof, a great blog now hosted on Patheos.  If you want a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in religious studies, you should read him.  With an energy I can’t conceive, he posts interesting stuff every day, even while being a professor.  And like me, he’s fascinated by religion and pop culture.  He also understands something—links and likes and shares are important.  People in my generation and beyond often don’t think that clicking that little thumbs up will do anything.  It does.  More so, that share button.

I was really pleased when James agreed to do a virtual interview with me about Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  You can find the interview here—and be sure to recommend and share it.  James has several interesting books of his own.  You should check them out.  The world of religious studies (and dare I claim it, biblical studies) is hardly moribund.  Underfunded, yes.  Socially devalued, certainly.  But alive nonetheless.  James’ blog is proof of that.  My regular readers will know my usual jeremiad about how higher education has been treating religious studies.  You see, I’m an historical thinker.  Where we come from is important.  Higher education began because of religion.  Its origins lie in monastic communities preserving learning—some of it secular—for the good of the world.  Now administrators looking for a department to cut know just where to turn. Shouldn’t we treat our ancestors with a little more respect?

I’m forcefully reminded of the many times analysts have declared that religion would fade away.  The claim has been made multiple times over the centuries.  At the same time scientists studying humankind conclude that religion is good for us, and that we’re naturally inclined to it.  Of course we should cease studying it!  Well, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World has also evolved over the years.  Not all of my posts are about religion anymore.  Most of them touch on it, however, because I’ve studied it my entire life.  Not only did religion make Homo sapiens what they are, it also formed some of us individually in ways so profound that we’ll never escape it.  Some of us even wear it proudly.  Great job with the blog, James, and thanks for the shout out!

Remember the early days?


Conflict Management

Conflict has come to dominate the twenty-first century in an unhealthy way.  No longer do religions, political parties, or even scholars of different disciplines want to try to see it from somebody else’s point of view.  Such “I’m rightism” is distressing, given that the greatest minds in history always left some room for doubt.  Einstein tried not to say too much about God, but his occasional references left some space for admitting he just didn’t know.  He was following closely in the footsteps of Sir Isaac Newton, who, ironically and iconically stands as one of the founding fathers of empiricism.  I say “ironically” because his real driving interests, as became clear only after his death, were religious.  With the science and religion conflict paradigm, it took a long time for many to admit that Isaac Newton was fascinated by religion.

A story in The Guardian recently noted that Newton’s unpublished notes on pyramidology have gone on auction.  These papers are even further indications of just how much religion mattered in the mind of the man who gave us a clockmaker God who wound up the universe and left it to run according to scientific principles.  My wish isn’t to cast any aspersions on Newton.  No, quite the opposite.  I wonder if we mightn’t use his wide-ranging interests to raise a relevant question: why do we see religion unworthy of attention while science, because it can be “proven,” is all we really need?  Especially since scientifically-based hypotheses about the origins of religion tell us that human beings need it.

Admittedly Newton was just as human as the rest of us.  Perhaps far more intelligent than most, but still human.  The humanities are the part of the human curriculum that has been under duress for many years at “universities.”  As business interests and money have taken on larger and larger roles in how schools conceptualize themselves, the humanities—which don’t make money—are undervalued and cut.  Capitalism takes no prisoners.  Education that has bought into that paradigm is bound to overlook certain facts.  Newton’s “arcane” interests were well hidden for a couple of centuries because who wants to think of the great rationalist as beholden to such a paltry thing as religion?  We’d rather keep our eyes firmly closed.  A conflict paradigm seems the better way to eradicate this troubling, so very human, aspect of even geniuses.  As long as there’s money to be made conflict will be the reigning model. 


Seeking Knowledge

So, I’m doing some research into a seventeenth-eighteenth century alchemist named Johann Konrad Dippel.  He lived in what would become Germany, and had a bit of a reputation.  The first stop for information these days is Wikipedia.  Now, as any academic knows, you can’t rely on what you find on the site.  I use Wikipedia to help start my bibliography.  The references here are rather slim.  I see there’s an Encyclopedia Britannica article (1911 edition) available for free.  I check their references.  They wouldn’t have passed my 100-level courses.  They contain the initials of the authors, no titles for their books, years and cities of publication but not the publishers.  Okay, so I’ll google/ecosia the authors with just their initials.  And the years.  And the cities.  Nothing comes up.

The next step is WorldCat.  It’s never let me down before.  Indeed, my first search brings up the bibliographic information on one of the mysterious, initialed authors.  (The WorldCat entry doesn’t even have a last name.)  The book is in German and the nearest copy is at Yale.  Looks like I’d better keep looking.  The next book doesn’t show up on WorldCat at all.  No combination of author (with only initials and surname), place, and date appears.  What was Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 thinking?  It’s at times like this that I miss paper research.  Although the privilege is no longer mine, roaming an academic library stack to stack, checking the card catalogue, breathing in the perfume of old books, acquiring new knowledge, these come back to me with the force of meeting an old friend after many years’ separation.

Less about the subject and more about the journey, seeking knowledge used to be an embodied thing.  I suspect somewhere in a bio-mechanical future with the internet coursing through our veins, it will seem quaint to think of oldsters like me tapping away at a keyboard and peering at a screen to find information about a nearly forgotten dead white man.  But even with all the knowledge of the web in intravenous electronic supply, will our future selves be able to put it all together?  Will they solve the problems of sexism, racism, capitalism, and dare we go any further than that?  Of will they elect leaders who care only for themselves and call on Christians to join them in deep corruption and fraud?  Or will, after some collapse, future Leibowitz stumble across a mysterious piece of melted plastic and wonder if there really was anything here before?


Dreams and Nightmares

Since posting just a few days back about the cover of Nightmares with the Bible it has now been posted on the Rowman & Littlefield website (more on that in a moment).  I’m pleased with the cover because it includes a photo I took.  It’s a little blurry, but that adds to the effect.  In the days before my commuting began, I could easily stay awake until regular hours and one autumn weekend we arrived home to find the spooky house next door all lit up, under a full moon.  I appreciated the eerie look of the situation and snapped this photo, which I’ve used a few times on this blog.  I’m not sure the house next door was haunted, but it sure looked like it.  More to the point, it reminds me of the poster for The Exorcist.  It has always been a dream of mine to have one of my photos appear on a book cover.

I also received the happy news that the book is with the printers.  That means it will soon be available.  It will be expensive, but I should be receiving a discount code that I will be glad to share.  “Library pricing” is something publishers unfortunately have to do to make books pay themselves off.  In the past several years so many books have been appearing that the bottom has fallen out of the academic library market.  Too much supply, to put it in capitalist terms.  Many publishers, however, will give discounts to individuals who want to buy a copy.  All you have to do is ask the author.  (I don’t have the discount code yet, but I will be glad to share it once I’ve received it.)

Nightmares with the Bible is being published by Fortress Academic.  A few years ago Fortress Press partnered with Lexington Books to handle their library market books, including those in the series Horror and Scripture, in which Nightmares appears.  Lexington Books is an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.  It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of publishing houses since there has been a lot of consolidation over the centuries, accelerating in recent years.  Publishers don’t sell as many individual books as they used to and with Amazon’s arrival a new shift in the market took place.  It tends to favor trade publishers over academic ones.  In any case, that means even books written for trade readerships, like Nightmares, are priced for libraries.  If you have access to an academic library please recommend they buy a copy.  If the book succeeds in that venue a case can be made for a paperback edition.  In the meantime, the book should be, barring an apocalypse, out on schedule.


War of Egos

As an author you have to believe in your book.  Experience has taught me that if you don’t, nobody will.  Still, there are ways of believing in your book while keeping your ego in check.  Given the ego we’ve seen along Pennsylvania Avenue these last few years it may come as little surprise that even some wannabe authors can nearly match it.  The line, as professionals draw it, is balancing between the importance of your work with the realism that few books sell well.  Your best approach, as author, is humility.  Many people don’t read the professionals.  You quickly learn this if you’re in an editorial role.  It is normal to receive emails from authors telling you how important their work is, some even claiming it as an even on a cosmic scale (I am not joking).

I often consider how much pain authors could spare themselves with just a tiny bit of research.  If a publisher has turned your book down twice already, don’t submit it a third time.  (You already crossed the line the second time you sent it.)  And don’t send your proposal with a list of demands.  What I’ve noted both on this blog and elsewhere is that editors value professionalism.  We don’t like turning down books.  We don’t want to ruin a prospective author’s day.  There are, however, safeguards you can use to prevent the worst kinds of disappointment.  Rule number one is check your ego at the door.  Do you know how many books have been published?  Do you know just how difficult it will be for your book to get noticed?  Take a reality check.

Also, scale your expectations.  How many bestsellers have come from university presses?  If you’re after bestseller status you need to aim for a trade publisher.  This is pretty basic stuff.  Those of us who publish in the academic world do believe our books are important, but many of us also know that they start only small conversations.  Biblical studies isn’t exactly a growth field.  We talk amongst each other, a collegial little group for the most part.  And to keep things on the collegial level it is helpful to remember that we’re not publishing for ego.  We’re publishing to try to move knowledge ahead, even if just by a micron or two.  Good writing, I was once told, is simply clear thinking.  Getting that writing published is part of a conversation and conversation only works if  we are willing to keep our egos on their leashes.


Unintentional Patterns

Time, they say, is what prevents everything from happening at once.  I’ve noticed something about my reading life (is there any other kind of life?).  One of my favorite topics on this blog is books.  Both reading and writing them.  When I wake up and try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from my head to think about the day’s post, I always feel relieved when I have a book I’ve just finished because that’s an eager and ready topic.  When I’m in the middle of a large book, it seems like a long time until I’ll be able to jot down some thoughts on it, and the ideas don’t always flow.  It’s here that I’ve noticed a strange kind of pattern and it has to do with the way I read.  Interestingly, it isn’t intentional.  It goes back to my post-commuting literary lifestyle.

I read nonfiction in the mornings.  I awake early and after about an hour of writing I try to get in an hour of reading before thoughts turn to work and its unraveling effect on the fabric I’ve been weaving before the sun rises.  The nonfiction I read depends, to a large extent, on my writing projects.  Not exactly the kind of research that time and libraries afford academics, but still, research in my own way.  Often these nonfiction books are large—400 pagers seem to be the trend.  I’m a slow reader, so they take some weeks to finish.  At night (or actually evening, for I retire early) I read fiction.  It isn’t unusual for my fiction choices to be briefer than the nonfiction books of the morning.  It always seems, however, that I finish two books very near the same time.  Then I have two book posts in a week and many days without any.

Since we married over thirty years ago, my wife and I read to each other.  Usually she reads while I wash dishes.  Those reading choices are by mutual consent.  They sometimes make their way into my research, but more often they show up in my fiction writing.  In any case, they also seem to fit this same pattern.  When I finish a large nonfiction book in the morning, the same day, or the next day, I generally finish my fiction book.  Shortly after that our dishes-reading book finishes.  I’ve noticed this happening over the past couple of years and I always wonder about unexpected patterns that I find.  It doesn’t always happen this way, but it does often enough to make me wonder.  If I intentionally set out to do this it would be understandable, but as it is, it simply happens.  As they say, things tend to occur in threes.


Secretly

There are not too many books that I would call epiphanies.  I always lay down Jeffrey Kripal’s books with a sense of wonder and awe.  His Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions is one book I initially skipped over due (as usual) to not being able to afford even modest academic pricing.  (Hey, my books are even worse in that regard, so that’s not a criticism!)  I’ve met Kripal a few times and have had some conversations with him that always leave me feeling strangely empowered.  That’s the place this book left me.  I’m a slow reader and it isn’t a small tome, so it took me some time.  Also, I didn’t want to rush it.  Doing so would’ve been like trying to jog across a boulder field.  I hardly know where to begin.

Kripal is an historian of religions.  His own experiences in the academy are narrated in this book, so I urge the curious to look.  Many people who know me think that I’m a biblical scholar.  My training, however, is in history of religions.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to classify a doctorate, but my focus was on how ideas appeared in several ancient cultures, with no real expectation of evolution beyond what appeared later in time than something else.  As many who study ancient texts know, this translates to “biblical studies” in the academy and so for many years I taught Hebrew Bible.  Friends in the academy suggested I should shift my research to Bible (as I did in Weathering the Psalms) in order to get a solid placement in academe.  It backfired in my case.  This isn’t a pointless digression.

Secret Body is a trippy book.  It deserves to be read widely and engaged with by academics (among which I no longer count).  It is a ground plan for the study of our field.  Kripal understands, better than just about anyone, why religious studies is foundering.  He’s also brave enough to delve into the unspoken areas that we all know are terribly, terribly significant.  And he isn’t a materialist.  There’s much in this book to give the reader pause.  Indeed, it’s more than a stop sign on the superhighway of the academic business.  It’s the kind of book you need to keep at hand in case “the real world” gets you ensnared in its ropes and chains.  It makes me believe that I need to go back to school all over again.