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.

Large Projects

Now, where was I?  I suspect it’s the same with you.  We’ve got so many things going that it’s difficult to keep up with them all.  When one big project comes along—say reading book proofs for a deadline—everything else gets displaced.  After a week of intense concentration you emerge from a daze and try to remember where you left off with other projects.  What was so dreadfully important before the large project began?  I’m used to deadlines at work, but there aren’t too many in my personal life.  I have goals and targets, to be sure, but due dates slip and slide with the slings and arrows.  When the big project’s done there’s relief, but also a kind of reboot that has to take place.  I’m afraid to look at the news.

The corrected proofs of Nightmares with the Bible have been submitted, along with the index, and now all I can do on that front is wait.  Which of my many other projects, neglected for an entire week, should I take up now?  Part of the difficulty is knowing whether to work on fiction or non.  Given my work-life commitments, fiction is easier.  I enjoy writing it, but I have trouble getting published.  Nonfiction, on the other hand, is simpler to get published but brings in very little remuneration.  I know as an editor that we distinguish between academics (who already have a good paying job) and, say, journalists, who write nonfiction trying to earn a living.  What about an editor who isn’t paid like an academic, but has a regular job nevertheless?  (When talking to an independent, nonfiction publisher a few years back, I heard him respond to the question of if he was non-profit with, “Well, that’s not how I intended it…”)

I have two nonfiction books well along at this point.  I also have several fiction projects, including an eighth novel and a short story collection.  I also have some essays underway for sites beyond my own blog.  A week seems like a long time to put all these things aside and then to pick them up again.  That week wasn’t vacation either.  Nor did it suggest topics for me to address on my blog because if you want to know about Nightmares with the Bible you’ll read the book.  The evening I finished the proofs I had a dream that seemed to stretch through the entire night that I had come up with a complete college curriculum all by myself.  As much as my weary mind wanted to go on to other things it was fixated at that stage.  I awoke to wonder where I’d left off on real life projects, none of which are very near the finish line.  Now, where was I? 

Propaganda

“[F]or the most part, thinking is inherently and irrepressibly liberal.”  As much as those who’ve drunk the Trump Kool-Aid (watered down, for sure) might want to deny it, these words by Jeff Kripal are true.  Thinking itself is nearly always a liberal activity.  This election has become one of propaganda versus thinking.  Propaganda is, according to Oxford Languages, “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”  People who, I know for a fact, were taught about propaganda in high school (lots of little heads were nodding yes that they understood what propaganda was and then nodding no that they were never fall for it) have now jumped onto Trump’s propaganda bandwagon, claiming that facts are “liberal hoaxes.”  Thinking is liberal.  Thinking hoaxes, I guess.

Liberals, as I’ve stated repeatedly, don’t take anyone’s word for it.  We fact-check.  Herein lies the difference.  If Joe Biden were to state that Democrats couldn’t win without cheating in the election, liberals would be all over this, fact-checking.  Where did he get this idea?  Did he cite his sources?  Does science concur?  And then if he were to lie about having said it, liberals would point out the contradiction.  Trump’s followers, who have nearly four years of massive lies, well documented, taped, and public, to draw upon, simply deny he said them.  The “liberal hoax” they cite is propaganda, by definition.  It is not to be fact-checked because they might not like what fact-checking reveals.  In high school we were taught about Nazi propaganda.  We all understood.  Now we conveniently forget.

This election is about trying to bring a deeply divided nation back together again.  Trump’s lies from day one (biggest inauguration ever, although those of us actually there could see the lie clearly) have been about dividing and conquering.  Most Trump supporters have no idea what liberals are.  The very definition of liberal concerns broadening knowledge.  Higher education teaches us not to take anyone’s word for it.  Not only do Trump supporters accept his lies about liberal hoaxes, they simply dismiss the fact that liberals’ greatest critics are other liberals.  We don’t sit around coming up with hoaxes—we hardly agree with one another!  The most insidious thing about all of this propaganda is that Trump supporters distrust those who’ve seen behind the screen.  They won’t, however, look for themselves.  All the news from all the world lies, they say, if it doesn’t support Trump.  Thinking back to high school, I can imagine no better way to illustrate propaganda.  At least to those who were willing to pay attention to their teachers.  For those who refuse to learn, education itself is all a hoax.

Looks more like today, America under Trump…

Google Scholarship

The other day I had to check something on Google Scholar for work.  Since our computers now know who we are, mine asked if I would like to update my profile on the site.  I figured it couldn’t hurt.  I waited until after work, however, since my scholarship is strictly separated from my job.  When I went to complete the profile I learned that you can’t do it without a .edu extension on your email.  In other words, and independent scholar is no Google Scholar at all.  It’s not the first time I’ve run into this bias.  I have sat through many meetings where those with no institutional affiliation are spoken of with deep suspicion, as if the extreme shortage of academic jobs has left only the worthiest employed.  Classic blaming the victims.

Having once been a full-time academic, I have watched the job ads for nearly three decades now.  The number of positions has steadily decreased while the number of new Ph.D.s has readily increased.  There aren’t enough jobs to go around and those who don’t land one of the few available are considered inferior scholars.  Even Google says so.  The interesting thing about this is there is little outcry from academia itself.  You’d think that, given the protests that go on in other areas of perceived injustices that the educated would call for redress.  You’d think incorrectly.  As a society we distrust those who don’t have an institution backing them.  Unless they’re rich (for money is a kind of institution).  It’s a strange state of affairs.

In my line of work citations on Google Scholar don’t really matter.  In fact, many publishers are kind of embarrassed when their employees are published, or are even cited in the books they produce.  Scholarship, in other words, is institutionalized.  The thing is, life in our society isn’t so neatly categorized.  My first job, in a poverty-level family, was working as a janitor.  I was always surprised at how philosophical the discussions were among the cleaning staff at our local school district.  Many of these guys were deep thinkers behind a  broom.  In the schools where they worked the students tended to make fun of them.  You certainly won’t find their musings on Google Scholar.  I tend to think that our society might be more equitable if we’d recognize intelligence where it exists rather than sticking it behind the walls of academe.  But then, I’m no Google Scholar so you need not believe a thing I write.

Marching down the Middle

It is true that I have a fondness for nineteenth-century British novels.  Even though they often lack a strong speculative element they tend to be gothic, at least if written by one of the Brontë sisters.  I’d only ever read one of George Eliot’s novels before, and that was in ninth grade.  Middlemarch has been on my list for many years, but due to its intimidating size I’ve kept putting it off.  Now that I’ve read it I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I had no idea what the story was about in advance, and no idea how it ended.  Unlike many pieces of literature of its time it hasn’t made a huge impact in pop culture, so this was the opportunity to lose myself for a few months in a world completely unknown.

I’m not foolhardy enough to try to summarize an 800-page novel here, but one aspect that the reader can’t help but notice is the prominence of clergy.  And not only prominence, but prestige.  In a world built around the solid belief in different classes of individuals, where pride takes a place in marriages that are supposed to be within class, the clergy are minor nobility.  Since this is the Church of England the vicars can marry and indeed, one such marriage sets off the tension that lasts throughout the hundreds of pages to come.  The clergy of the time were often gentleman scholars—the role that was envisioned for Charles Darwin as a young man.  Eliot plays on that idea with some of her preachers being amateur scientists.

The conflict—that now feels inherent—between science and religion has less to do with older forms of Christianity than it has to do with evangelicalism.  A relatively new expression of Christianity, evangelicalism set itself against modernity and its science.  Quite often today when commentators rail against “religion” it is really evangelicalism that they have in mind.  In the world Eliot sketches, she sees no difficulties between a rational view of things and an ecclesiastical one.  Clergy are often seen at the whist tables and taking long walks down country lanes.  The distinction between them and the average citizen is that they have been to university to study.  Today, in mainstream Christianity anyway, clergy are educated at least to the master’s level.  They’re no longer among the minor nobility, however.  Middlemarch has more than a hint of nostalgia to it, and the clergy roles show that clearly.

Never Too Late

In these weary days of bleak news, I’m always glad to find a bit of cheer.  A friend recently shared the story of Giuseppe Paternò from The Guardian.  Paternò is a 96-year-old first time college graduate.  As the story explains Paternò had wanted to attend college his entire life but being raised in poverty he never had the opportunity.  We all know how life is a rushing river that snatches you in its current, and thus Paternò found himself unable to attain his dream.  Until his nineties.  Just this year he graduated from the University of Palermo.  What really spoke to me about this story is that Paternò is now considering working on his master’s degree.  While some might wonder if this is practical, to me it demonstrates that knowledge is never wasted.

We live in an era where education is seen as either a useless luxury or as just another business.  Both views are fatal to our civilization.  We have reached where we are by progressively educating our young (and old) so that our collective knowledge-base grows.  When education is seen as a business (and I saw this in my ill-fated university teaching career) it becomes something different.  This isn’t on the part of the faculty, for the most part, but on administrations.  Paying corporate-level salaries to administrators—schools top-heavy with deans—they can’t afford to hire faculty and cut departments that aren’t profitable.  Knowledge, in turn, suffers.  Paternò, I sincerely hope, avoided the politics of academia.  A man hungry for knowledge, he studied philosophy at an age when most of us think people should just sit around and stare at the walls all day.  Knowledge should never be wasted.

Those of us who’ve been excluded from the academy sometimes try to continue our contribution.  Some of us still write books and articles.  It does nothing for our promotion or tenure.  It certainly doesn’t bear much in royalties.  “Why do it?” a friend once asked me.  When we cease seeking knowledge we stagnate and die.  We see this playing out in the politics of our day.  Washington houses many who see education as a threat to the unrestrained acquisition of mere money.  This is why universities suffer—they are not businesses.  One size does not fit all.  At their best they’re places where those of us raised in poverty can go to have our eyes opened.  And they are places where even nonagenarians can go to contribute to the growth of knowledge.

Update on Nightmares

Progress continues on Nightmares with the Bible.  Despite pandemic conditions, I received a happy email last week telling me that the manuscript had been transmitted to production.  If you don’t work in publishing that probably sounds like a pretty simple step, but in reality it’s immensely complicated.  The job of many editorial assistants is often just making sure books get through the transition from author to publishing engines safely.  Since Lexington/Fortress Academic is short-staffed at the moment (publishing is a “non-essential” business), they ask authors to take on additional responsibilities.  One that they passed on to me was to find people to endorse my book.  Fortunately I’ve got star series editors who agreed to take on the task, sparing me from going to someone and saying, “Um, hi.  Would you like to say nice things about my book?”  I’m shy that way.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not excited about the book.  It came about in an odd way, but like any parent an author loves her or his books, even if they aren’t quite what you expected.  Getting a fourth book published is kind of a hallmark for me, especially since I spend a lot of time on the websites of successful academic colleagues older than me that haven’t reached that benchmark.  Publishing books, for me, is a kind of validation.  The original ideas of editors aren’t much valued, either in publishing or in society at large.  Who cares what an editor thinks?  Put that same person in a college and s/he’s a superstar, eh, Qohelet?  So I sit here like an expectant parent, wondering what the book will look like although I already know what I’ve put into it.

Nightmares was never meant to be a research book.  Indeed, Holy Horror was written with an eye toward trade publication.  I’ve been working on my next book project (which I’m keeping under wraps at the moment for fear that someone with more time might get to it first, since there’s no getting the genie back in the bottle).  Before too many weeks have passed I’ll need to brush off my indexing skills (in as far as I have any), and get proofs submitted.  I’m afraid I’ll miss the coveted Halloween launch yet again with this book.  “Scary topic” books always sell best in September/October, but if you miss it, the next year you’re old news.  Like an anxious parent I sit here and wait because at this point things are literally out of my hands.

Gratefully

I confess.  I read acknowledgements.  Part of it is the vanity of finding someone’s name I know.  Or the worse vanity of finding my own name.  Acknowledgements, however, reveal quite a lot about the book you’re about to read, or have just read.  Not all books have them, of course.  Most academic books do.  A recurring theme occurs in the acknowledgements I read: privilege.  Many academics are feted and pampered and their institutions pour money on their desks.  Often they show a nonchalance about it all.  ‘Tweren’t nothin’.  What seems to be missing to me is the struggle.  Anything worth having, in the experience of many, is something for which sacrifice was required.  Hard work, long hours, and nobody pouring money on your desk.

Privilege breeds a strange kind of entitlement.  Many academics complain of how difficult they’ve got it.  (The stories I could tell!)  Now, I haven’t walked in their loafers so I can’t say if the personal circumstances of others are trying or not.  My own experience at Nashotah House—how good I had it!—wasn’t exactly pristine.  Conflicts between dean and faculty.  Required chapel twice a day whether you needed it or not.  Your every move watched for any indication of heresy or disloyalty (that’s not limited to the Oval Office).  And yet, those days were much better than I realized at the time.  Once in a while you have to crawl up next to Job on his ash heap to get an idea of what you simply couldn’t see before.

Acknowledgements are often like mini biographies.  You try to make sure you don’t leave out anyone that helped you along the way.  Books, particularly academic books, are the product of many people, not just the author.  Sure, the author’s the star of the show, but if the support staff wasn’t there, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  Book making is incredibly complex, which is why self-publishing, while sometimes necessary, often shows in the end results.  Editors come in many flavors: acquisitions editors, copyeditors, line editors, production editors, and more.  Sometimes there’s overlap between positions, but even books that barely get read have plenty of sets of eyes upon them before they come to the public.  Acknowledgments don’t always name everyone.  In fact, they simply can’t.  It takes a village to publish a book.  Instead of feeling entitled,   I find acknowledgements always instill a sense of humility.  It’s an honor to be part of bringing a book to birth, even if your contribution is hidden away in unread pages.

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.