Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.


The other day I had a hankering for Religion Index One.  I don’t think it exists anymore, at least not in the format I once knew it.  RI1 was a print volume produced by the American Theological Libraries Association, or ATLA.  This tome was an indexed list of journal articles that had come out on any given topic in the past year or so, and it stretched back to the 1940s.  The idea was that it was as close to “one stop shopping” as a scholar could get for finding publications while doing research.  I suspect it’s all done online now.  One of the tricks of the trade I’ve learned from not being part of the academy is that if you maintain membership in one of the larger bodies—the American Academy of Religion, or the Society of Biblical Literature—you can find out who’s working on what by searching the programs of their annual meetings.

This may sound like a terribly geeky thing to do; admittedly it is.  Nevertheless, I’ve uncovered lots of information by doing just this.  If you want to know who’s been researching a topic, look for who’s presented a paper on it over the past few years.  It’s not failsafe, of course.  Some of us aren’t really encouraged to give papers on company time anyway (and what time isn’t company time?) but we nevertheless research anyway.  All the journal articles and book chapters that I’ve contributed over the past six years or so have been invited submissions, with one exception.  Ironically, I taught and published full-time for nearly 15 years with no outside invitations made.  Once I was no longer in a position to access RI1 people started to invite me to submit papers.  It’s pretty difficult to do in current circumstances.

With the continuing factories churning out doctorates in religious studies—itself a stagnant job pool—there’s plenty being published.  Online sources mean even more venues to get things “in print.”  There really is no clearinghouse to find it all, beyond Google.  ATLA still exists, and they now produce a searchable database.  Like JSTOR, however, it’s only available to the traditional academic and the occasional wealthy bystander.  Since the AAR and SBL programs are open to the public for searching, even sorts like me can gain access to a small wealth of knowledge.  Or at least a wealth of papers and publications, which may not be the same thing.  Still, in quiet moments I reflect on walking to a physical library and thumbing through a book made of authentic paper, and feeling, at the end of the day, as if I’d accomplished something.

Social Madness

I’m reading a book written in the mid-1980s.  (All will become clear eventually.)  The author notes the connection between social madness and personal mental illness.  He cites the alarming rise of teen suicides.  This was over three decades ago.  Suicide rates have continued to climb, and this particular author got me to thinking about something that troubled me even as an undergrad.  Although I went to college intending to be a minister, I ranged widely in the subjects I studied.  (Being a religion major in those days allowed for quite a bit of flexibility.)  I took enough courses in psychology to have minored in it, if I had declared it.  Since my mind was set on church work I saw no reason to make said declaration.  The thing that troubled me was I had also taken sociology classes.

Like most people who grew up in uneducated households, I suspect, sociology was something I’d never heard about.  Asking what it was, in college, someone answered along the lines of “psychology of groups.”  My own experience of it was that it involved math and graphs—it was a soft science, after all—and now I read sociologists who say that such numbers can be made to declare what the sociologist wishes.  In other words, psychology.  The point of all of this is that the book I’m reading suggests societies exhibiting illness cause individuals to be sick.  Sociology leads to psychology.  In times of national turmoil, individual mental illnesses rise.  I had to pause and put the book down.  The eighties weren’t a picnic, but the national madness of the Trump era bears no comparison.  We are a nation gone mad, and when society can’t project health, the many who stand on the brink of individual mental illness simply get pushed over.  That sure makes sense of what I’m seeing.

Looking back, I often think I should’ve probably declared that minor.  Raised in a strong biblical environment, however, I wanted to learn as much about the Good Book as possible.  I was teaching Greek by my last year in college and in seminary I specialized in the Hebrew Bible.  It would’ve been a natural place to continue studying psychology.  By that point I’d decided to go on to a doctorate, and psychology required medical training.  For a guy as squeamish as me that wasn’t possible.  Ancient languages, though, they were something I could handle.  It’s rather frightening that those writing at that time already saw America (in the Reagan years, I might add) teetering towards national insanity.  We’ve gone far beyond that now.  And a society that doesn’t know it’s ill will sacrifice many individuals who realize that it is.


Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

Job’s Jobs

Many years ago, after Nashotah House decided it no longer required my unique outlook, I bought a book.  (That’s my default reaction.)  This book was on how to write killer cover letters.  I don’t remember the title or the author, but I followed the advice, well, religiously.  It got me nowhere.  Business tricks, at least historically, don’t work in academia.  Sitting at home, pondering my sins, I flipped to the chapter on advice to take if none of the rest of this was working for you.  Here’s where the human side began to show through.  Have you been eating onions or garlic before your interviews? it asked.   Do you need to lose weight?  Try dressing nicer.  It occurred to me that the business world lacks the imagination required for denying jobs.  And besides, who was getting any interviews before which I shouldn’t eat garlic?

Business advice is, in a word, shallow.  It assumes that if you’ve got the goods there’s no reason you won’t get hired.  Reality is a bit more complex than that.  I often ponder how people simply go for what they want.  They reach for the biggest piece without pondering the repercussions of their actions.  I see it in my small world of publishing all the time.  Those who are “hungry” (read “greedy”) succeed.  Those who wait behind to help others simply can’t compete.  So the cover letter book did get that part right.  Is it possible, however, to devise a society where everyone fits?  Not all are created equal, perhaps, but do we have to reward those who seem to care only for themselves?  Let them eat garlic.

The cover letter book, in the end, never really did me any good.  I found my way into publishing by being willing to aim low.  I’ve written many cover letters since leaving Nashotah House, and only two ever led to a job.  Those who work in business, what with their concerns about readers’ aromas and weights, seem never to have considered the intricacies of the intellectual job market.  What strikes me as particularly odd is that there are plenty of smart people out there, and yet they haven’t organized to offer alternatives to the greed-based structure on which our work lives are based.  They can’t, it seems, gaze beyond capitalism as a mechanism for helping individuals lead productive lives.  Business operates on the principle of replaceable parts, many of which happen to be human.  And even those who know how to write can’t hope to compete against those who prefer cogs that know to avoid onions.

Powerful Wink

Those of us who became academically aware (in the biblical field) in the 1980s knew the name of Walter Wink.  Now, if you’ve ever become academically aware, you know that we all know some names vaguely, as if seen in a glass darkly, and some more intimately.  Wink fell into the former category for me.  He specialized in “the other testament,” and although I read Greek quite well, my academic track led me through Hebrew to Ugaritic and beyond, in the opposite direction.  I taught New Testament in my academic career, but never found the time to go back to Wink.  I knew he’d written about “the powers,” and the idea was interesting, but I had other research I was doing and I never got around to him.  Now I’ve finally finished the first volume of his famed trilogy on the powers (Naming the Powers).

“Powers” was a circumlocution for many things in antiquity.  It is a high abstraction.  Why do you do what you’re told?  The powers.  They can be human, such as bullies or governments (which are increasingly difficult to distinguish), or they can be supernatural.  Much of Wink’s book is technical—this isn’t easy going, even if it’s theology.  He looks closely at the terminology of power and exegetes it minutely.   The book comes alive, however, in part 3.  There were quite a few worthy insights here, but the one that struck me the hardest is how institutions generate a power that no one individual can control or contain, let alone comprehend.  As Wink points out, a school isn’t a building.  What goes on inside such a building takes on a power that reaches beyond any of the individuals involved in teaching or learning.  Think of Harvard.  What is it?  Who is it?  It bears power simply by the citation of its name.  No scientist can quantify it, but none will dispute it either.

Thinking about “the powers that be” in this way is transformative.  Wink draws this into the ancient perception that what is happening “down here” is merely a reflection of what is taking place on high.  Not unique to Christianity, or even monotheism, the idea that our lives reflect the reality of some higher power is pervasive in human thought.  And institutions.  Harvard, as most prestigious universities, essentially began as a place to train clergy.  Even at this stage it began to exert a power.  Today Harvard (and many other schools) still hosts a seminary and training ground for clergy.  They face a largely unbelieving society when they’re done.  And if they’re at all like me, it might take them decades to realize something may be missing.