Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Alma Mater Matter

I was a teen-age religion major. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start college at 19 and, being a first generation matriculant, had no idea about majors. No idea about colleges either. The school you choose stays with you for your life—especially if you decide to go into academia. A couple of recent events brought this home to me again. Grove City College is stridently conservative. Since I was raised Republican, it felt like a good fit at the time. It was cheap and close to home, and since my parental contribution was a total sum of zero, both of these factors counted heavily. Overlooked by many a hiring committee, it was also academically rigorous at the time. For better or worse, it’s now on my permanent record. Enough ancient history.

Recently a colleague asked me about an author, noting his undergraduate degree was from a school not unlike Grove City. I saw myself from the outside (yet again). Conservatism can be a lifestyle choice. My fellow religion-major grovers mostly went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or other bastions of further conservative thought. Their minds were already made up. In their early twenties, no less. I headed to Boston University, at the time the most liberal of the United Methodist seminaries, by reputation. But still my record says “Grove City.” My academic writings should leave no doubt as to my scholarly outlook (most of these papers are available on Academia.edu), but there is always a shadow of suspicion over a former grover. You can’t change your alma mater, no matter what the next decision you make says about you.

Then I came across a recent writing sample from one of my Grove City professors who’s still on the faculty. This piece showed that as this faculty member was in the early eighties, so he is still today. Biblical literalism all the way down. With over three-and-a-half decades to read, that’s incredible to me. I guess I just don’t share the kind of arrogance that declares you got it right the first time and that everything you read confirms a literal Adam and Eve. And a snake and a tree. What am I to think when I see a conservative undergraduate school on someone’s academic record? I would hope that I would know to look at the next step to see what that reveals. I am a grover, but a bad grover, I guess. You have to know how to read a permanent record.

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

In Poor Taste

I remember seeing a television commercial once (not during the Super Bowl) where an older guy, a lawyer, complained at the camera, “It used to be that lawyers didn’t advertise.” He went on to say that he felt uncomfortable promoting himself since it was in poor taste, but since the legal profession had swung that way he was entering the game. I know how that guy felt. I grew up with the firm notion that self-promotion was in bad taste. If my career has taught me anything, it’s that unless you’re born well connected, if you don’t promote yourself nobody else will. Still, it rankles. With that hearty introduction, I would, in poor taste, point out that my latest article has been published. Those of you who keep an eye on this blog will know that I gave a paper about the Bible in Sleepy Hollow to a learned society a couple years back. That paper is now available in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.

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Doing research is difficult when you don’t have institutional support to carry it out, but doing such things as an independent scholar can be kind of liberating. I used to research, write, and get published an article a year, back in my teaching days. Nashotah House didn’t have the greatest library, but they did have interlibrary loan and, towards the end of my time there, internet access. More than that, life wasn’t measured in increments of nine-to-five. Living on campus, commuting could be measured in seconds rather than hours. Although publication didn’t bear the weight there that often pressures academics elsewhere, like that lawyer whose name I can’t remember, I wanted to be in the game. I guess I still do.

In these days of uneducated government, if you don’t do it yourself nobody’s going to do it for you. It’s what I once called “the educational imperative.” We are duty-bound, as conscious beings, to move knowledge forward. How many apocalyptic scenarios are there where, when the powers that be devolve into inanity, the monks in their cloisters have to keep knowledge alive? (The question’s rhetorical.) I’m reminded of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel since there women do a good bit of keeping the culture alive when society collapses. Or, to put it another way, like Sleepy Hollow. When the forces of evil break into the world, it’s an African American woman who saves it. If your school has access to JSTOR, you’ll be able to find out more in my paper.

The Big Chill

It’s cold. It may not be Alaska, or even Wisconsin, but I can’t feel my fingers and the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day. New Jersey doesn’t get the incredible chills we used to experience in Wisconsin, but I’ve been outside going on two hours and I really need some warmth. And it’s not just me. At least a couple hundred of us are out here and it’s not for the Super Bowl. It’s for justice. We’re rallying at the beautiful courthouse of Somerset County, in solidarity with our Muslim Americans, protesting the latest actions of our own government. Some of the people here are old enough to remember Hitler. Others are young enough that they have to be held. We are from countries all over the world. We are saying “No!” to the evil that is coming out of Washington.

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Those who voted for Trump out of a sense of fiscal conservatism were sorely misguided. This was a hostile takeover of what used to be a democracy by people who rely daily on alternative facts. Who make up massacres that never happened. Who claim that their personal billions have made them victims. Who believe that men have a God-given right to determine what women can do with their bodies. Who state that men who aren’t attracted to women or women to men are somehow deviant. Who openly mock the disabled. Who resist Black Lives Matter. Who can’t tell you one of the five pillars of Islam but can tell you that they’re all wrong. A government that’s over the people, despite the people, and against the people. Self-serving, self-enriching, and self-satisfied. A government where party has become more important than the welfare of the nation. A government that lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and those were only the ones who bothered to get out to vote. A government that lays its hand on the Bible and lies. That prays for itself, not for the good of its people.

That’s why I’m out here in the cold. I’m standing in a crowd that, like those who gather at airports, courthouses, and city streets, is saying “Enough!” The abuse of power is taking advantage of what you can “legally” claim without regard for the will of those you represent. Representative government fails when it fails to represent the people. We don’t want to be out here freezing our fingers, noses, and toes. We’d rather be comfortable and warm at home. As chilly as it may be in New Jersey tonight, it’s colder in the heart of this country and unless we the people do something, Hell itself is in real danger of freezing over.

Love Thy Enemy

The line for the train snakes through Union Station before 6:00 a.m. Many of us, maybe all of us, were at the Women’s March on Washington. Listening to strangers speak to one another, it’s clear that this was the largest “love in” in history. Trump supporters say it was about hate—we know they rely on “alternative facts” now. Nearly every speaker at the rally emphasized love. The government gives us Orwellian doublespeak. 1984 must become required reading once again. We can’t let the fascists control the narrative. Those who control the narrative sway the crowds. The Women’s March on Washington was not hateful. This was a peaceful gathering in the name of love. I write fiction as well as non. (My fiction has even fewer readers than this blog.) The point is, I know about controlling narratives. If you let a government with a documented history of distorting the truth (at just one day old) control the narrative, friends, we are lost.

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The March was the beginning. I saw children just old enough to march. Children so young they had to march in strollers. I saw grandmothers in wheelchairs. I saw mothers and daughters. Sons, brothers, fathers. Not one unkind word among people standing shoulder-to-shoulder for over four hours. No room to sit down. Bathrooms inaccessible. We were united. We are united. This government has already shown that it will offer post-truth rather than facts whenever possible. Do not let them control the narrative! They will be trying to silence our voices. They will, like all fascists, try to make lies our national narrative. George Washington, they will tell us, voted for Donald Trump. And those who find blindly will believe it. Those who don’t read history will have no way to assess this. They will follow any narrative with a combed-over talking head. Question everything. Question what I write. Check it out. I believe in facts.

We are embarking on a dangerous journey. These waters, however, are not uncharted. The Bismarck steamed this way. Marches have been documented around the world. Millions of eyes are watching. They are part of the narrative. Write the story. Talk to others about this. Incessantly. The truth is not arbitrary. There are groups near you that you can join. Resist. Peacefully protest. Write the narrative. Share the narrative. If we need to March every weekend, we will. If we need to take turns, so be it. This is our story. Unlike the blatant post-truth we’re already being fed, our story is non-fiction. Read it and tell everyone else to read it too. This is what democracy looks like.

Elephants and Snakes

I try to be a good son. As good as you can when living a few hundred miles from home. I call my Mom every week and when the mood’s right, we reminisce. During a recent conversation I was recollecting my first trip to Washington, DC. My grandmother, who lived with us, had been born there and wanted to see it again before she died. I don’t remember much about the trip. I would have been maybe 5 or 6, possibly 7. The Washington Monument I remember because I was terrified of heights and didn’t want to go up. The sharpest memory, however, involves the motel.

We didn’t have much money and very, very rarely stayed at motels. In fact, this is the only time I remember it happening before I went to college. It was one of those cheap places where you park right outside the door to your room. In the morning, bright and sunny as only childhood mornings can be, I remember racing around the oval, gravel drive with my brothers. We had our favorite stuffed animals with us. Mine, ironically, was an elephant. I remember that elephant well. I remember running with him under my arm and laughing and having one of the most carefree moments of my entire life. Now I think of elephants in Washington, DC and the magic is gone. We never had much money when I was growing up, but my other favorite stuffed animal was a long, black snake. It was as long as I was tall and I loved the fact that snake and my name began with the same letter. I loved him so much that his eyes came off and my mother sewed large purple buttons in their place. At that time I had no concept of how apt the symbolism might be.

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The snake and the elephant are two of the most feared creatures on land. (There is a bit of symbolism here, so please don’t be too literal.) In the biblical world the serpent can stand for good but more often it represents temptation, danger, and treachery. I loved that snake as much as I feared its real-life counterparts. And now I find myself headed to DC again. I’ll shortly be on the train to join the Women’s March, my first official protest. I don’t know that I’ll have internet access the next couple of days (I hear Washington’s a swamp) so I may not post again until the work week starts. This time I’m not taking either elephant or snake. They exist already in abundance in our nation’s capital.

Alas, Binghamton

“Store Closing” the signs veritably shout. “Everything Must Go.” It’s something I hate to see in an economically depressed town. The tragedy is redoubled when it’s an independent bookstore. While undergoing the ritual of returning our daughter to college after the holiday break, we were driving through Binghamton, appropriately enough, at twilight. In that first, lonely freshman year we’d discovered River Read books in downtown. Like many indies, it was small. Intimate even. I never walked out, however, without some treasure that I wouldn’t have found in a larger store. River Read eventually became an irregular habit based on parents’ weekends and academic breaks, and I’ve come to depend on it after a long drive across three state lines. Once again, however, the lack of concern regarding reading takes another victim.

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In the ancient world there was a poetic genre scholars now call the lament for a fallen city. I’m that way about bookstores. Amazon has proven wonderfully capable of getting things to me quickly. Obscure tomes, sometimes. Since our nearest independent is a 25-minute drive, this is often a necessity—I can spare 25 minutes only on a weekend, and then, only select ones. Ironically, just on the way to Binghamton we stopped at the Bookworm in Bernardsville, New Jersey. We try to help them survive. My mind goes back to fond occasions outside the home and how often they involve bookstores. Finding a new one. Returning to one already well loved. Even, back in the day, Borders. In a pique of nostalgia I starting searching the web pages of past favorites. Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Farley’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Pages for All Ages in Savoy, Illinois. Ah, alas, the latter has also closed its doors forever. The store I’d visit after a long commute to Nashotah House and back, looking for something I really want to read.

The neon after dark is like an alien invader in my car. River Read is closing. The liquor stores and “gentlemen’s clubs” seem to be fine. The cars up here sure weave around on the road a lot after 9 p.m. on a Saturday. It’s not just here, I’m sure. I’m seldom out this late any more. Perhaps, even likely, this has been a long time coming. Civilization unable to support its foundation. Literacy, after all, spread the common ideals we used to share. Presidents united us and we were eager to read and every town wore its own bookstore like a badge of honor. I’ve seen the signs and I lament the fall of yet another fondly recalled city.

Samaritans, Good and Otherwise

It’s the coldest day of the winter so far. I’m noticing this because I’m standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike counting the NJ Transit buses that are flying by at highway speed. It’s been a morning of irony so far, which explains why I’m standing out here instead of sitting inside the broken down, but still warm bus right next to me. I felt the cold while waiting at quarter to six for my bus to show up. Thankfully on time. It’s very empty this morning; I’m maybe the fourth passenger. Somewhere along Route 22, miles later, the bus gives a distress cry. Ironically, the engine is hot. The temperature outside is in the single digits. Also ironically, the radio on our bus isn’t working, so the driver has to call dispatch on his smart phone. Meanwhile, the engine cools down enough for him to try it again. We’re fine until we pass exit 15 on the Turnpike.

While I try to think of others before myself, I sit near the front of the bus—the first or second row. That way when it’s time to get off I don’t have to wait for dozens of people to wake up, stretch, and slowly shamble into the aisle. (If you think that’s an exaggeration, you don’t commute by NJ Transit.) “The first shall be last,” the Good Book says, and I believe it. I lost count of how many of the company’s buses have zoomed past, but when one finally stops, I’m person number 8 off the bus. The Good Samaritan driver stops me outside his bus. “Sorry, no more seats. No more standing room.” No room in the inn. My driver urges the long line behind me to get back on the bus, where it’s warm, to wait. I was first, now I’m last. That’s why I’m standing out here in the cold. As I approach the bus I see all the first several rows are filled by those first back on the disabled bus. They will be the first to be offered a ride by the next driver along this road to Jericho.

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The guy behind me, now in front of me, comes to the same conclusion and waits outside too. At least we both have beards. I’m thinking of Jesus’ words about the end of the world. “Pray it won’t come in winter.” Out here, all prayers are frozen. At least thirty NJ Transit buses buzz by creating their own wind chill before another stops. I want to be first because I paid more for my ticket than those who sat further back on my bus. In fact, I could rent a small apartment in many places in the country for what I pay a year for a bus pass. I wonder if that’s what it means that the first shall be last. Or maybe my brain’s just frozen, since it’s the coldest day of the winter so far.