Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Sell-by Date

Labels give us the information we need to enact our prejudices immediately. Having been on the receiving end of great cruelty by “conservatives,” for example, I’m immediately cautious of anyone bearing that brand. A strange confession, perhaps, from someone who grew up in that camp. I struggle to remind myself that a label’s not a person. For example, I had a very good education at Grove City College, a conservative school. It wasn’t uniformly that way, of course. Now having a better sense of higher education politics I can see how this might happen—how a school committed to a doctrine might inadvertently challenge that view in the name of education. Quite a few things swayed me to broaden my view as a religion major at Grove City. One of those collegiate experiences was watching Cabaret.

Enough time has passed that I can’t recall the exact context of the film. I suspect it was a weekend entertainment required by some humanities intro course. For a kid from the sticks, seeing a ménage à trois on the big screen made a deep impression when I’d always thought of the world in binary terms. The larger message of the film was not lost on me, however, that those who are prejudiced will always find ways of expressing their hatred, if society will let them. Last night I watched Cabaret again. As a movie it hasn’t aged a day. Society, however, seems to have regressed back to those days when a Nazi could stand and proudly sing at a social gathering and others, distressed by economic hardship, would willingly  overlook the evil that lay in plain sight in the hope of change.

Back when the film was made I suspect the Vietnam War was on the public mind. We thought we’d safely gotten beyond the fascist threat. In the scene where the boarding house residents are complaining about conspiracies between “Jewish bankers and Communists” it became clear that people fall for the same tactics time and again. Rumors, fear, and economic disappointment are a dangerous combination in a democracy. The players have changed but the fact of fascism hasn’t. We can see it being enacted plainly, as it has been every day since 11/9. Accommodation is more deadly than conservatism. As the story opens Nazis aren’t welcome at the Cabaret. By the end they predominate there. Their hateful agenda had been accommodated, normalized by the press. And who can forget the song that could well be the anthem of the current administration, “Money Makes the World Go Round”? There’s an accurate label for that, I’m sure.

Blizzard Warning

The dangers of prognostication were well known in antiquity. Most prophets, who didn’t so much tell the future as warn about probable outcomes, weren’t the most popular of people. They knew that feeling of walking into a crowded room and announcing their career had something to do with religion only to have the place fall silent. Cricket chirps. We all have our secret sins we’d rather not have some stranger judge. So it is with the weather. Something like this must’ve been in the back of my mind as I was trying to write Weathering the Psalms. I lived in Wisconsin in the days before Paul Ryan and, like said Ryan, tornados could strike at any time, unannounced. My family and I spent an anxious afternoon or two in the spider-infested basement based on the inherently uncertain predictions of how a nearby tornado might move.

Those of us in the northwest are sitting here wondering about this monster nor’easter. It’s been in the making for several days and the forecasters, unlike the prophets of old, have been hedging their bets. If this massive cold front from the midwest fails to meet up with the intense storm off the east coast we could end up with only a smattering of snow. If the two collide, well, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel together can’t help us. It’ll be like the book of Revelation. Only colder and with far more snow. Oh to be able to predict the future! It would certainly help when it comes to deciding whether to climb onto that bus or not. I mean a simple rainstorm can add two hours to the homeward commute without the threat of a meteorological Trump coming our way. I thought Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow.

Although predicting the future wasn’t really what prophets did, it didn’t take long before people thought that’s what they were up to. People have always wanted to have the advantage of being able to see disasters before they arrived. Wouldn’t it have been helpful to know the results of 11/9 before Thurston Howell the President was elected? We could’ve bought our Russian grammars and dictionaries before there was a run on the local Barnes and Noble. At the same time I politely dispute the saying that hindsight is 20/20. If we could see anything that clearly we would be such Untied States at the moment. Right now the glass seems to be falling and the wind’s picking up from the northeast. What does it mean? Nobody really knows.

Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Ready, Ames,

Ames, Iowa is famous for many things. Not only is it where my wife grew up and where we were married, but it’s also the home city of Howard Bannister from What’s Up Doc? and it served as the staging ground for the crew of Twister, which includes some scenes shot in the area. Probably its greatest claim to fame, apart from the sadly defunct Do-Biz Cookies, is being the location of Iowa State University. Often I lingered near campus during family visits, wistfully hoping that someday someone in the religion department would welcome me among the faculty. My academic curse, however, is a powerful one. And that brings me (finally!) to the topic of this post—the haunted history of ISU.

Even the first president had a biblical name.

The website onlyinyourstate (we’re evolving out of the need for a spacebar) has a whimsical story about the hauntings on ISU’s main campus. The story isn’t scary at all, but it does raise that interesting specter of the ghosts of higher education. I’ve read a few of Elizabeth Tucker’s books about haunted campuses (Tucker teaches at another family school, Binghamton University) and, having spent a good deal of my life in academia, I’ve heard many tales first-hand. The very institutions that repeatedly bash our heads with facts can’t escape their own spooky pasts. Even conservative Christian Grove City College had its share of hauntings that we all knew about. You know, the Ketler ghost, and the spirit of the basketball player who broke through a glass door and bled to death right there on campus? Every campus I’ve known has had its baleful wraiths.

Sometimes I wonder if such stories aren’t a natural reaction to having the wonder excised from the world as we mature. Most of us can make it through high school somehow believing in the real possibilities that the world might offer, only to graduate from college to a 9-to-5 existence robbed of any supernatural splendor at all. Is it any wonder coeds see ghosts? Just the other day I read that a tree trimmer with a high school education in Iowa makes a much higher salary than I do with a Ph.D. working in New York City. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the movie Ghostbusters so much. When the reality of higher education and its politics and cruelty become clear escapism can be your best friend. And if you find yourself in Ames, you might want to avoid Friley, just in case.

World Stories

worldofstoriesAlthough I’ve not formally studied it, Buddhism has long been part of my thought process. Like Thomas Merton—and this may be the only point of comparison between us—I find little difference between the contemplative worlds of Buddhism and Christianity. Mindfulness knows no denominations. I suspect David R. Loy’s book The World Is Made of Stories would cause anxiety for some. Those not comfortable, for example, with paradox. Or those who believe that only the literal is meaningful. Separated by the vast land mass of Asia, eastern and western ways of thinking about the world—telling their stories about the world—diverged widely in antiquity. There was a kind of “rediscovery” of south and east Asian thought in the late nineteenth century western hemisphere. Since then occasional famous explorers such as the Beatles, or professional practitioners such as the Dalai Lama, have brought Buddhism’s ideas to the mainstream, but because they coexist well with Christianity there has been no cultural reason to displace them.

I found Loy’s world compelling. All is narrative. That’s the way human brains work. If you’re reading this right now, you’re following my narrative. If you’re not really paying attention, another narrative has gripped you. Science is a narrative just as religion is. It is the way we think. The internal monologue. Consciousness itself. Stories. People will follow a story quite naturally, which is one of the reasons it’s such a shame so few people read for pleasure. We can watch our stories (what is a sporting event but a narrative playing out before a fan’s eyes?) and many people do. The written story often, however, takes us deeper.

Contemplation is an endangered species. Although I found the enforced quiet days at Nashotah House (such as Ash Wednesday) to be an onerous rule, I would arrive home with little to say in any case. The world of busyness that we’ve made our business can choke the meditative spirit. Although some workplaces offer yoga sessions (themselves based on Hindu spirituality) they hardly encourage meditating at your desk. It seems the natural enemy of productivity when, in reality, it increases it immensely. Who doesn’t work better after a vacation? The business world often presents the religious life as one of indulgent non-productivity. I remember being made to feel stupid asking for one Good Friday off while working my first full time job in retail. When cash transactions grew to be too much I’d find a church on my lunch hour and just sit. Now I only find time to read Buddhist books on the bus on the way to work. Look deep enough and there’s a story in that.

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.

ichabods_chase_crop

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.