Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Situation Norman

It was in a locker room. I couldn’t believe I was here. First of all, at Gordon College—that bastion of conservative Christianity. Second of all, in the same room as him. A friend had offered to drive me up here from Boston, where we were both in seminary. I was a little saddened to see less than 200 chairs set up on the gym floor, carefully arranged on a tarp so as not to mar the shining wood beneath. Larry Norman came onto stage to great applause, and was remarkably intimate with his fans. He’d been a big name in the 1970s, almost single-handedly starting the Christian rock genre. After the concert was over, my friend said “Do you want to meet him?” Here he was, in the locker room, taking the time to speak with fans, individually. He refused to sign autographs, preferring to give the glory to the Lord. But he listened, he responded, and, it was clear, he loved.

While the sections of the brain that process religion and music may not be the same, we know that our gray matter is intricately interconnected. Analysts have noted that the most famous religious leaders of modern times have quite often been deeply affected by music. Religious services without some form of music are in the minority for a reason. And it really doesn’t matter what style said music takes, it moves people. Instead of apologizing for my own musical tastes, I’ll simply note that I was exposed to Larry Norman at a young age. Although his religious perspective and mine had parted ways before I had the chance to meet him, I’ve never disparaged his music. It is authentic, innovative, and above all, sincere.

Gregory Alan Thornbury has just published a biography of Larry Norman. I will surely read it. Although Christian rock has grown insipid and cloying since it began, it is still a remarkably lucrative business. Evangelicals will pay good money to get those rock rhythms with unthreatening words and praise of Jesus thrown in. Norman’s songs, however, were complex and nuanced. Equal parts love and social justice, they might not even mention Jesus. Or when they did, they might suggest he was a UFO. Unconventional. Blasphemous to some. As the ‘70s faded into the ‘80s, Larry Norman was considered old news. He had, however, started something that was bringing other people lots of money. And he looked me directly in the eyes late one night in the locker room of a conservative Christian college, and told me to keep on believing. Obscurity, he showed by his life, is no measure of a person’s actual importance. And music and religion can never be separated.

Private Browsing

Montclair, New Jersey, is a diverting place. At least it is for me. I used to teach—strictly as an adjunct of course—at Montclair State University. And like many other diverting towns, Montclair has multiple bookstores. On the occasions my wife has to spend a Saturday working in Montclair I often accompany her. If the weather is decent I can walk to both bookstores and have a leisurely browse. Since anything leisurely is rare these days, I eagerly anticipate such trips. Typically I’ll sit in my wife’s work place counting off the minutes until I can leave to get to the Montclair Book Center just as it opens. Used bookstores are a bit like archaeology—you never know what you’ll find, and some of the treasures may be unique. I often have the store mostly to myself, for private browsing.

This time, however, I had another task to accomplish first, before I could go to the first bookstore. By the time I arrived, it had been open for over an hour and there were, surprisingly, plenty of people there. We’re accustomed to hearing that people no longer care for books. While it’s true they won’t bring in the numbers of, say, those wanting the latest video game, it’s also true that on a pleasant Saturday morning an independent bookstore can be a crowded place. It warmed my heart to see so many readers out. And they weren’t all old like me. Younger people talking about the merits of this or that author, browsing in the sections I frequently haunt. Although I found none of the books on my list, I still had that blessed feeling you have when you discover you’re not really alone.

The other store, Watchung Booksellers, is a couple miles to the north, at least by the walking route I use. A small indie, it typically has what modern-day people might be expected to be interested in. I arrived to find it crowded as well. I’ve been there a number of times in the past and usually there are two or three others browsing. This time it was actually a little difficult to get around the small space. Seeing children there made me especially glad. A crowded bookstore is a sign of hope. As we struggle against the forces of ignorance and hatred that seem to have gripped the privileged classes, Saturdays at bookstores doing brisk business are an indication that the future may correct such ill-informed sentiments. Bookstores are termometers of national health, and seeing them busy made my Saturday. It’s worth getting up early just to spend such a day in Montclair.

Dreaming Reality

It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.

Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.

Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.

Updates

So, I’m getting ready to update this website. I’ll give you a warning before things change. Another update, however, is in order. I’ve been promising that I’d let you know when my forthcoming book with McFarland received its final title. Well, drum roll please! The final title is actually the first title I proposed—Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. And it has an ISBN: 978-1-4766-7466-7. And a cover design too, but I can’t share that just yet. It is appropriately lurid, matching the subject. But in all seriousness, the book makes a case for the fact that many people understand their religion via popular media. Being a bad boy, I look at it through horror movies.

The title Holy Horror was a play on Douglas Cowan’s excellent book, Sacred Terror. I recall reading that book, starting the night I bought it as SBL, curled up in the swank conference hotel bed, turning pages until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. It had honestly never occurred to me that religion scholars could get away with writing about horror movies. Cowan had the natural advantage of being a Canadian, something I’ve always longed to be. He also has a secure university post. I was, at the time, just a guy trying to feel secure in what seemed like (and turned out in reality to be) a threatening seminary position that was shortly to end.

It may be difficult to understand how horror can be consoling. It can. I’m a squeamish guy. I don’t like blood and gore. I hate being startled. Nevertheless, I took comfort in this genre as my career was falling apart. Holy Horror was a cathartic book for me to write. There’s more than a little metaphor in it. One thing that will become clear to readers is that the Bible is no stranger to horror movies. Ironically, many of them are strangely conservative—Carol J. Clover’s classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws (which I’ve reviewed on this blog) made that point clearly. Horror often has the same message as your typical Disney film, although it’s presently slightly differently. How so? Well, I can’t say very much here or you’ll have no reason to read my book. McFarland does a great job with publishing this kind of title. You won’t find it in Barnes and Noble, and not likely in your local indie either, but it’ll be available on Amazon and these days that’s enough. And before long these pages will change to reflect its coming.

Ithaca Musings

Ithaca may be the ultimate hippie town. Open and accepting of diversity, it’s a place where anyone can speak out against what’s going on in the government and not worry about finding any objectors. Yesterday when I was in Buffalo Street Books, customers openly vented their frustrations with the way Washington’s handling things, and others joined in. There’s a sense of righteous anger here that hasn’t been fashionable since the days of the biblical prophets. You have heard it was said Watergate was a bad thing, but verily I say unto thee something much worse than Watergate is here. And although winter is still holding on in upstate New York, nobody doubts global warming is real.

From my first visit here, I knew that I wanted to live in Ithaca, but it is one of those places you can’t afford to live. Amazing how the liberal cities are the places people want to reside. Places where you can’t just turn off the realities of a diverse world just because some things make you uncomfortable. Places where if you notice that other people are different you are reminded that you, in their eyes, are the different one. There is no static, monochrome, cookie-cutter American. Why is this an idea so hard to sell? Capitalism leads to and fuels the desire to own. And owning leads to the desire to own more. I’ve often noticed this since being out of higher education—even within your own company others want what you have. The basic civility of the socialist is missing. That’s where the “me first” attitude leads.

In upstate New York, as in many parts of the nation, the very names remind us that others “owned” the land before Europeans arrived. Native American concepts of ownership were so different from the capitalist ones that forcefully landed on these shores that those views were forced, under firearms and steel, to assimilate to the foreigners’ ways. Capitalism takes no prisoners. Turnabout, they used to say, is fair play. We no longer feel that way as a nation. The interlopers have taken over. We’ve made the country in our own image. And it certainly isn’t any more noble for it. Being in a place like Ithaca always makes my spirits ebullient. The very concept of ownership is an odd one, I realize. Mere mortals can never really own anything. We can pretend to, or perhaps we can take a more enlightened view. We are all borrowing things here. And I would love to borrow a piece of real estate here in Ithaca.

Power in the Bus

“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…

The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.

Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.

Americanism

I’m a bit too much of a contrarian to be a regular bestseller reader. I do occasionally bow to curiosity though, and I do have a lot of time on the bus. But that wasn’t the reason I turned to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Purchasing this book was a statement. Another in a long line of protests in which I’ve taken part since January of 2017 (and even before). You see, I mourn. I mourn what our country has become. My first indication that I should write (which I of course ignored) was the winning of a statewide essay contest my senior year in high school. The topic of the essay was “Americanism.” My piece was respectfully cynical; I was surprised I won. This was in the days before personal computers and I didn’t think to keep a typed, or even hand-written copy.

The essay was cynical not because I don’t believe in America, but because I do. I’ve been confronted on this issue concerning my blog occasionally. My jeremiads. You see, you only get this fed up with things when you love them deeply. I sometimes rail about higher education, for example, because I care about it. Fire and Fury created in me a—to borrow from the book’s vocabulary—Kafkaesque bewilderment about how a nation based on high principles could possibly sink so low. Politicians are perhaps the most self-serving of human beings, but at least they try to make sure the country doesn’t go off the rails. This train leapt the tracks months ago, and our elected officials refuse to do anything about it, each playing their own angle, hoping personally to come out of it ahead. Worth a jeremiad, I’d say.

I was a Republican in high school. I wasn’t old enough to vote, so that party affliction was never official. When I did register at 18 it was as an independent (remember, contrarian). As a Fundamentalist I was ahead of the Tea Party, at the time. Even with this level of patriotism I wrote an essay taking my country to task. I was raised in a poor family. Told an education would improve my chances, I found myself facing predatory loan officers and others eager to wring my blue collar until it was possible to twist no further. If I had no money, my future money would do. I’d already had a taste of that as a high schooler. That was three-and-a-half decades ago now. I kinda hoped the country might improve in all that time. And I kinda wish I’d kept a copy of that essay as a memento of more optimistic days. Fire and Fury sells so well, I suspect, because I’m not really alone in feeling this way.