Signal

It’s difficult to tell signal from noise sometimes.  Specialists in such things tell us that it’s easy to mistake noise for signal.  An exception to this seems to be music.  I don’t often write about music for a couple of reasons: one, it’s very personal, and two, I have little formal understanding of it.  Unlike my wife, who can sing well and who can play more instruments than I could ever dream of, I always struggled in music class.  The teachers I had seemed impatient when I couldn’t quite understand what pitch was, or when I had difficulty keeping a beat.  (Part of the problem is that I overthink such things.  I wondered about things like whether a beat represented the beginning, middle, or end of the sound.  Or how, since your voice sounds different in your head than it does on tape, could you tell if you were replicating the pitch of a note.)  I told you it was personal.

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash

None of this detracts from my enjoyment of music.  In fact, it means quite a lot to me.  Growing up I tended to consider it in the form of individual songs I liked.  Since we didn’t have much money I didn’t buy a lot of music, but the radio was free.  My choice of which albums to buy—starting in college, really—was based on whether I liked enough songs on them to justify the expenditure on an entire LP.  I already knew that the quality of 45s was inferior and that many albums were united by a theme.  Something I didn’t do was get to know a band by its “sound.”  That only started for me recently.

I still don’t have a lot of money.  I also object to paying money for MP3s that seem to disappear when you change devices and you have to buy them all over again.  Still, I’ve begun to discover some bands by their sound without being able to point to a specific song.  MCR (My Chemical Romance) was one.  The Pixies was another.  And recently Radiohead.  The voices of the lead singers speaks to me of youth and all its angst.  Although these bands all have quite different sounds, I find them mesmerizing if the mood is right.  I tend to discover bands once they’re beyond their peak popularity, but I’m personally pleased that I’m learning, in my own way, to separate signal from noise.  It reaps rich rewards.


Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


Keep at It

Photo credit: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps it’s an indication of just how sick the United States has been for four years—waking up each day wondering what new crisis Trump would have put us into—that I heard nothing about our next Mars visit.  I’m normally quite interested in space exploration.  I seriously considered astronomy for a career, until I found out it’s mostly math.  In any case, I’ve watched our planetary explorations quite closely.  Yesterday, until just about five minutes before the landing of Perseverance on the surface of the Red Planet (earth is supposedly the Blue Planet), I knew nothing of the mission.  When my family alerted me to NASA’s live feed of the event I tuned in for those five minutes to watch as we safely landed our fifth such probe on our neighboring world.

It’s funny how a self-absorbed person can take a whole nation down with himself.  It was a relief to look outside for a while, and to wonder.  I remember when the rovers Curiosity and Spirit landed.  The advance of technology was evident in yesterday’s deployment.  No more bubble-wrap was necessary.  The landing system was incredibly elegant, and if there are any Martians I’m sure there were several UFO reports yesterday afternoon.  As the NASA interpretive explainer told what was going on, I wondered just how life might be on the Blue Planet if we were able to put all our tech to work for peace and the betterment of all.  Instead I find a Congress only too willing to acquit a traitor so we can continue the hate.

Emotion is a funny and unpredictable thing.  Although I knew nothing of Perseverance until five minutes before touchdown, I was immediately drawn into the feeling of the moment.  My eyes weren’t exactly dry as I watched the cheers of jubilation from those masked engineers in the control room.  This had been the culmination of years of hard work, and yes, math.  They were able to calculate fall rates and counter-forces, landing spots and trajectories.  And all of this from about 140 million miles away.  Perseverance was launched back in June—you can’t get there overnight—when we were still reeling down here from the overt evil of white supremacists.  Stoked by a man who would be king.  Leader of the Red States.  Would-be ruler of the Red Planet.  How I wish our technology could help us on our own planet.  Any probes landed here from elsewhere must, I suspect, not believe their mechanical eyes.


Too Fast

In the Easy Reader book Hooray for Henry (available on Amazon for $768.57; that’s $12.60 per page), our eponymous protagonist Henry can’t win any of the events at the picnic games.  One of the refrains as he participates in the races is “faster, faster—too fast” (I may have got the punctuation wrong, but then I haven’t read the book for at least a couple of decades and I can’t afford a new one).  That story seems to have become a symbol for those of us mired in technology.  The rate of change is, as in Henry’s experience, too fast.  The other day I noticed an annoying warning on my laptop that claims I’m low on memory and that I have to close some applications.  What with all that tech requires of us these days I probably do have too many things open at once.  It pops up, however, when I have even just one application open.

A web search revealed this is probably a virus (something that used to be rare on Macs, but that was back in the day when things moved a little slower).  The steps for removing it were technical and appeared to be extremely time-consuming.  What I don’t have is time.  And it’s not just my rare time off work that’s too full.  On the job we’re constantly having to learn new software.  It doesn’t really matter what your line of work is, if it involves sitting behind a computer we’re constantly being told to learn new applications while trying to find time to do the jobs we’re paid to do.  There’s no question of which is the tail and which is the dog here.  With an economy driven largely by tech, because that’s where all the jobs are, you risk everything if you don’t upgrade (about every two weeks at present).

I’ve been writing a long time.  Decades.  Some of my earlier pieces are no longer openable because the software with which I wrote them has been upgraded to the point that it can’t read its own earlier writing.  To the prolific this presents a real problem.  I have, literally, thousands of pieces of writing.  I can’t upgrade every single one each time a new release comes out.  The older ones, it seems, are lost forever.  I used to print out every post on this blog.  Given that there are now even thousands of them, I eventually gave up.  I know that they will inevitably disappear into the fog some day.  For writers who’ve been discovered after their deaths this would be a Bradburian fate.  Or perhaps a Serlingesque twist.  The world realizes a writer had something important to say, but her or his writing can no longer be read because the tech is outdated.  Faster, faster—too fast.


Call It Therapy

For many years, about all I ever pursued, research-wise, was ancient Near Eastern studies.  It’s still the reason people visit my Academia.edu page.   From the stats it’s clear that not many people are interested in the horror aspect of my work.  Still, I know what motivates me (most of the time).  I recently read a piece that features a brief interview with Peter Counter, discussing the therapeutic value of horror.  Since my interest in the genre has been rekindled (starting, not coincidentally, around 2005), I think I’ve known all along that horror is therapeutic.  The people I know who watch horror aren’t the kind many people picture—creepy troglodytes who don’t come out of their houses where the shades are always drawn.  No, they are normal folks, at least for academics.  They find the genre profound, for the most part.

The interview with Counter (in the Nova Scotia Advocate) makes clear that Counter uses horror therapeutically.  The first reason that he gives is that it’s honest.  I agree.  You see, I grew up with more than my fair share of phobias.  I could go into the reasons here, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you with them just yet.  In any case, I worried a lot about things that could go wrong, often involving everyday circumstances.  I didn’t think watching monster movies was a coping technique—I didn’t even know what a coping technique was.  I just knew that somehow those kinds of movies made me feel better.  I began reading gothic novels in my teens, even as I was becoming very religious.  I never saw a conflict between the two.

Now, as an adult, I feel that I have to explain this “unusual” interest to people who know me.  Now I can more clearly see the therapeutic value in such movies.  I can even see elements of it in movies that are classified otherwise.  I recently watched Groundhog Day (back around, well, Groundhog Day).  It had been many years since I’d viewed it, and the elements of horror in the film struck me.  Being trapped in the endless return, Phil Connors contemplates, and indeed commits suicide many different ways only to reawaken in the same scenario the next morning.  The look on Bill Murray’s face when he snaps the pencil before getting a couple hours sleep when he begins to realize what is happening says it all.  A similar realization same came clear on a recent rewatching of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Watch it with an open mind.  The interview with Counter makes the point that a pandemic like this is an opportunity.  Isolated, we can watch horror and we can learn to cope.


Love or Saints?

One of the many oddities of life at Nashotah House was that we never celebrated St. Valentine.  I wouldn’t expect a mostly male and neurotically homophobic community to mark Valentine’s Day as for lovers (most of the faculty and many students were married, however), but the saint’s name wasn’t uttered in my years there.  Of course, commercialization of holidays does taint them somewhat.  It’s difficult to take a day seriously when you’re being told that how much you spend will be the sign of how special it will be.  With St. Valentine’s Day, however, I believe the topic was much too close to something the church had long feared—sexuality.  I’ve often pondered how this strange obsession evolved.  Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, isn’t the origin of this antipathy to being fully human.

The trouble likely starts in the Bible.  The New Testament, in particular.  No mention is made of Jesus having been married.  Paul, in his usual way, made it an issue but fell short of outright condemning it.  His words would help convince the Roman Catholic Church that mandated celibacy was a good idea.  Clearly, however, Augustine of Hippo, who lived after Valentine (depending on which one you elect to follow) saw the whole enterprise as flawed.  Making up the concept of original sin and tying it in with sexuality was a certain means of creating a problem.  Not that Christianity is the only religion that promotes celibacy, of course.  But when it came to Nashotah House there was really no concern about what other religions taught.  Even on February 14 no collects were recited mentioning the saint who must not be named.

The history of saints’ days is a fascinating one.  A few of them made it into pop culture—after Presidents’ Day there’s no national holiday until Memorial Day in May, so who can blame people for looking for reasons to celebrate while still waiting for spring?  Saint Patrick wasn’t similarly given the cold shoulder at Nashotah in my years there.  And although it moved around quite a bit, you could usually count on April for delivering Easter.  We didn’t celebrate Presidents’ Day.  Nor Martin Luther King Day—not being Catholic his canonization process was a non-starter.  The long, cold stretch between Epiphany (now Insurrection Day) and Lent was one devoid of popular holidays.  I suspect that despite the number of saints (and there are lots of them) the singling out of Valentine was considered to be asking for trouble.  That was many years ago.  Oddities, however, have a way of remaining in long-term memory.


Gothic Celts?

Two separate projects lately set me on the trail of preliterate Europe.  While this isn’t the best time to celebrate white cultures (timing has never been an especial strength of mine), I have been researching the Celts as part of a longterm project.  Not only are these people part of my ancestral mix, they are also mysterious.  Having arisen in central Europe, they were pushed to the margins of the continent by invading Huns from the east.  It’s from those fringes that I came to identify my heritage.  Not only do I have Irish ancestors, but Wiggins, it seems, is a Breton name.  The Bretons were a Celtic people on the northwest coast of France.  Since the ancient Celts didn’t leave a huge written archive, we rely on what others (such as the Romans) wrote, or what archaeology reveals.  Mysterious.  At the same time another project had me reading about the Goths.

The Goths are tricky to define, and again, didn’t leave literary archives.  Also politically incorrect, they were a Germanic people—another significant piece of my ancestry—and they must’ve lived quite close by the early Celts.  Although my parents wouldn’t be born for many centuries yet, their ancestral “tribes” may have known one another.  It’s fun to think about.  There’s quite a lot of interest in the movements of peoples in ancient times.  One thing that influenced both the Celts and the Goths were large, organized forces.  The Roman Empire, with what would come to be understood as Classical style, was one source of pressure.  Another was the aforementioned Huns.  The Romans considered all of them barbarians.  One of the results of these large pressures was the eventual establishment of nations in Europe, often with contested borders.

All of this splitting eventually led to nationalism, a dangerous force.  We’ve seen some of the end results in recent years.  A single nation thinking it is the best.  I’ve always felt that travel—difficult during a pandemic—is a great form of education.  Encountering the “other” on their own territory makes it hard to stereotype and boast.  Nationalism tends to lead to excessive pride, especially when a country is as isolated as the United States is.  And then it even tries to build a wall between one of only two neighboring nations because they speak a different language.  How different this is from the situation when Celts and Goths were moving somewhat freely across the European continent where, at the time, borders were fluid.  I realize I’m idealizing what was certainly not a perfect situation, but I also think Rome may not have been the best model to emulate either.

 


Mittens and Circuses

Bernie Sanders, since we’re now making up our own facts, clearly won this election.  Or at least the inauguration.  An inescapable meme of Sanders, bundled up with his notable mittens, has made major media as well as pedantic punters on the web.  Thanks in part to an app created to allow users to place Bernie anywhere, I’ve seen him at all kinds of places from Oxford University Press to Dirty Dancing to the exhibit halls at the AAR/SBL annual meeting.  As someone who suffers from the cold I was initially concerned that he must feel laughed at by it all, but Bernie seems to be taking it in good humor.  The only reason I bring it up here is a meme (I think) that my wife pointed out to me of Bernie among the Fond du Lac Circus.  I can’t find any credit for the creator, but it appeared on the Episcopalians on Facebook group.  (I don’t know how Facebook works, checking above the fold once a day only.)

I’ve actually posted on the Fond du Lac Circus before.  The photo was extremely popular at Nashotah House when I taught there.  The diocese of Fond du Lac (in which I once preached) is just north a bit in Wisconsin.  The photo was a celebration of the installation of a bishop with ecclesiastical haberdashery at its finest on display.  In my mind, Nashotah House stands for all that’s conservative.  I’m certain a great deal of the population supported Trump.  A former dean had a shrine to George W. Bush in the deanery.  I kid you not.  So seeing the most progressive senator amid that crowd of backward-looking clergy, apart from being unspeakably funny, made me reflective.

Many years of my life were spent among the Episcopalians.  Too many of those years consisted of feeling oppressed by the interpretation of “orthodoxy” held at Nashotah House.  The hubris of “the only right teaching” has haunted me ever since.  Faith can be a good thing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  The greatest danger is when it ceases to be reflective.  Faith must involve constant thought and assessment to be honest.  Unthinking compliance was something Jesus, for one, simply didn’t accept.  Challenging the way it’s always been done is a venerable part of the agenda for those who start new religions, Jesus included.  When that religion becomes ossified (or too obsessed with appearances) isn’t it time to start looking toward the future?  Bernie Sanders is popular with the young.  They have little patience for the selfishness that’s been on display in American culture for far too many decades.  Would that he really attended the Fond du Lac Circus!  Perhaps a grassroots movement to improve conditions for all might’ve actually emerged long ago.


Bookstore Odyssey

Work isn’t the best place to express yourself.  Once a marketer asked for input from everyone concerning their favorite independent bookshop.  Well, I might’ve gone a bit overboard, admittedly.  I listed several, each with their attributes.  I was living in New Jersey at the time so The Bookworm in Bernardsville and The Labyrinth in Princeton featured large.  But so did Farley’s in New Hope.  And the Clinton Book Shop in, well,  Clinton.  Then my mind roved to the unfortunately deceased River Front Books in Binghamton.  Then back to Wisconsin where we lived within walking distance from Books and Company.  Then to Illinois before that, where Pages for All Ages was a hangout.  We’re spoiled here in the Lehigh Valley with the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem,  Book and Puppet in Easton, Let’s Play books in Emmaus, and plenty of used bookstores about.  And the Montclair Bookshop back in New Jersey—okay, I told you I went a bit overboard.

Ithaca, New York, is the very definition of a college town.  Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, it has a sizable student population.  It once boasted seventeen bookstores.  By the time we’d started visiting they were down to one indie new book store (Buffalo Street Books) and two used bookstores.  Since then one of the used stores has closed.  Like a phoenix, however, a new indie has opened: Odyssey.  On a recent trip to Ithaca we stopped in.  During a pandemic I feel compelled to make trips short, but there was a lot to see there.  Like most indies, it’s small.  As Andrew Laties notes in Rebel Bookseller, such shops thrive by becoming part of the community, and stocking books the community will buy.

Our visit, I suspect, proves his point.  If you set up shop in a university town you can stock intelligent books and make a living at it.  Despite the weather and the virus we weren’t the only customers in the store.  And we didn’t leave empty-handed.  The independent bookstore is a symbol of hope.  Books are not clutter.  Literacy is not dead!  As much as our beloved internet tries to tell us the future is digital, I like to open the door and step outside once in a while.  And leave my phone behind.  During this pandemic I’ve gone to four kinds of stores only: grocery, drug/necessity, hardware, and book stores.  The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for trade books—bored with staring at screens all day, people are starting to read actual books again.  I’m not naive enough to think it will last beyond Covid-19, but I just remembered Watchung Booksellers in Montclair and the Town Book Store in Westfield…


Early Literature

In a recent discussion I was asked what piece of literature that I first recollected as being superior.  A couple of provisos here: I’ve got a few decades to reach back and memory may not be as sharp as it once was, and as a child I didn’t have a ton of reading choices.  (There were no local bookstores, for which we didn’t have money anyway, and I had to be driven to get to a library.)  The first piece of writing that, apart from the Bible, I came up with was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  It’s still my favorite short story.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  While not a national holiday, it is a literary one.  Poe was one of the early experimenters in trying to make a living from his pen alone.  His fame was primarily posthumous.

I don’t recall how I learned about Poe.  I know that I picked up a book of his stories at Woolworth’s in Oil City (you see what I mean by no bookstores) for something like a quarter.  It was a cheap, large-print edition with a strange selection of stories, but the first one was Usher.  Such an impact was rare in my young literary experience.  Many years later, riding a horse as a counselor at horse camp, the initial scene of Usher was the one that kept coming to my mind although I hadn’t read the story for a very long time.  I ended up writing one of my first high school English papers on Poe.  By this time I had a good library I could access, even if I couldn’t drive myself there.  While sometimes submerged for years at a time, my appreciation for Poe always eventually resurfaces.

For anyone who’s read Nightmares with the Bible the appreciation of Poe should be obvious.  One of the peer reviewers suggested I should remove the Poe references since he didn’t write about demons.  Struggling against demons, to my way of thinking, counts.  In fact, Poe is largely the thread that holds the book together.  I’m aware that at its price point the book will be little read.  Still, having a literary tribute must be a form of consolation.  Mine is but one of many, I know.  As we stand on the cusp of an unknown future, hoping the maelstrom is truly behind us, I gladly acknowledge that Poe has helped me get this far.  And like the Raven, let us hope it is truly nevermore.


Childhood Music

I recently happened to hear the Alice Cooper song “Desperado.”  If you’re thinking of the Eagles’ song, think again.  Cooper’s song is from his 1971 album Killer.  I came to know it as a child from his Greatest Hits album, and I came to know it very well.  Although I’ve not heard the song for probably two decades, I remembered every beat, every word.  In fact, anticipating music videos, as I child I penned a comic-strip rendition of the song.  Although it is long gone, I vividly recall every panel and how poorly they were drawn.  I’m not sure why that particular song spoke to me so intensely, but it is quite clear that Alice Cooper was a major childhood influence.  This was strange because I was an evangelical Christian as well.

Image credit: Hunter Desportes, via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Furnier has had a tremendous impact on rock music.  When I went to see him in concert on his Along Came a Spider release tour most of the other people there in Atlantic City were guys my age.  I’d probably’ve been afraid of most of them if I’d met them on the street at night, but this wasn’t exactly a sell-out stadium event.  In fact the room for the show wasn’t that large and we could get fairly close to the stage.  You had to have tickets for the after-party, but Cooper was standing outside the room where it was being held, and we passed within mere feet of him on our way back to the car.  I wanted to let him know just how much he’d shaped my identity, primarily through his first solo album Welcome to My Nightmare, but I could barely hear after the show, and besides, I didn’t have a ticket.

I know Nightmares with the Bible isn’t being marketed or sold as a trade book but anyone curious about the title might consider Alice Cooper as an inspiration.  During seventh grade I missed a lot of school due to sickness (I was a sickly child).  During those days off I listened to Welcome to My Nightmare over and over, thinking about death.  Pretty intense for a thirteen-year old, but then I’ve always been that way.  Even at a young age I realized we all die.  It therefore made (and makes) sense to think about it.  That’s something my religion and fascination with horror tropes have in common.  Alice Cooper seemed to be able to blend these things, in his own way.  And that’s a lot to come out of a song last heard decades ago.


Stay Curious

Needle felting.  I’d never heard of it.  I’d got along some five-plus decades without knowing a thing about it.  My daughter received a needle felting kit as a Christmas gift and, being the kind of person I am, I had to research the history of felt.  I always knew felt was different from other fabrics, but I couldn’t say precisely how.  I came to learn it is perhaps the oldest textile in the world, known by the Sumerians.  Felting is a process for making non-woven cloth.  The natural fibers of some wools are scaled, like human hair is, and when compressed and worked with moisture (wet felting), becomes cloth.  Finding out how things work is one of the great joys of life.  It also made me think again of how anyone could possibly be arrogant.

The longer I’m alive the more I’m learning what I don’t know.  Granted, felt has appeared in my life at numerous junctures—how many crafts do kids make of felt?  And I have a felt hat—but I had never thought much about it.  My wife likes to read about pioneer women who had to make pretty much everything by hand.  We call such people “rusticated” these days, but they know far more than most urbanites, simply by dint of having to do things for themselves.  Modern conveniences are great, but I often wonder how many of us might survive if we had to make it on our own.  Just the last couple of weeks we worried about losing power with the storms that blew through.  What do you do when the thermostat no longer works in winter?  Something as simple as that vexed me for days (I had to work rather than worry, so it couldn’t properly use my brain power).

I’ve known many people impressed with their own knowledge.  I can’t imagine how actually learning new things doesn’t make someone humble.  The universe is a vast and mostly uncharted space.  Down here on our somewhat small planet we have so much yet to learn.  I’ve studied the beginnings of agriculture, metallurgy, writing, and religion.  There’s still so much I don’t know.  I wouldn’t do well on Jeopardy—I second-guess myself too much.  Staying curious about the world is a good way, it seems, to keep humble.  I entered into this holiday season thinking I knew a fair bit about various crafting options.  As a family we cover the creative spectrum fairly well.  Then a small, soft thing such as felt made me realize just how little I really understand.  Any invitation to learn is one that should be accepted.


Religion Prof

Back in 2009, when Sects and Violence in the Ancient World started out, there was a fair bit of interest.  At one point I was listed among the top fifty “biblioblogs.”  Back in those days I got to know James McGrath, the curator of Religion Prof, a great blog now hosted on Patheos.  If you want a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in religious studies, you should read him.  With an energy I can’t conceive, he posts interesting stuff every day, even while being a professor.  And like me, he’s fascinated by religion and pop culture.  He also understands something—links and likes and shares are important.  People in my generation and beyond often don’t think that clicking that little thumbs up will do anything.  It does.  More so, that share button.

I was really pleased when James agreed to do a virtual interview with me about Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  You can find the interview here—and be sure to recommend and share it.  James has several interesting books of his own.  You should check them out.  The world of religious studies (and dare I claim it, biblical studies) is hardly moribund.  Underfunded, yes.  Socially devalued, certainly.  But alive nonetheless.  James’ blog is proof of that.  My regular readers will know my usual jeremiad about how higher education has been treating religious studies.  You see, I’m an historical thinker.  Where we come from is important.  Higher education began because of religion.  Its origins lie in monastic communities preserving learning—some of it secular—for the good of the world.  Now administrators looking for a department to cut know just where to turn. Shouldn’t we treat our ancestors with a little more respect?

I’m forcefully reminded of the many times analysts have declared that religion would fade away.  The claim has been made multiple times over the centuries.  At the same time scientists studying humankind conclude that religion is good for us, and that we’re naturally inclined to it.  Of course we should cease studying it!  Well, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World has also evolved over the years.  Not all of my posts are about religion anymore.  Most of them touch on it, however, because I’ve studied it my entire life.  Not only did religion make Homo sapiens what they are, it also formed some of us individually in ways so profound that we’ll never escape it.  Some of us even wear it proudly.  Great job with the blog, James, and thanks for the shout out!

Remember the early days?


Bounce Back

Bounce-backs are when an author receives a rejection letter and immediately emails the publisher back.  They are some of the worse ways to ensure future prospects with a publisher.  Now, I’m more sensitive than most editors, but I know of none, absolutely none, who feel good about writing rejection letters.  We’ve all received them and we know how bad it feels.  In publishing in general the appropriate response to a rejection is silence on the part of the author.  Since I submit more fiction for publication than non, it is mostly in that realm that I experience rejection.  (I’ve had my fair share in the nonfiction realm as well.)  I know, however, that if I want a future chance with a publisher you simply walk away from a rejection.

Photo by Mel Elías on Unsplash

Bounce-backs are a bad idea for a number of reasons.  First of all, they don’t change anything.  Unless a rejection is conditional (it rarely is), all a bounce-back does is make an editor who probably already feels bad about it feel even worse.  Misery may love company, but it’s unprofessional to spread it around.  Secondly, bounce-backs hurt your future prospects.  Nobody wants to establish a professional relationship with someone who can’t take rejection.  A third reason is you’re asking someone who’s already considered your project and who’s moved on, to take more time with a book (or article, or story) to which they’ve already said “no thank you.”  A fourth reason is that a bounce-back announces loudly and clearly, “I didn’t take time to think about this; I’m reacting emotionally.”

One of the best things an aspiring writer can do—and this includes academics—is to learn about the publishing industry.  There are tons of resources out there.   The best information I personally have found on success in academic publishing is reading about how to submit fiction for publication.  I have a very long list of rejections to hold up against the twenty-something stories I’ve had published.  None of those rejections felt good.  Obviously, I thought my material was good, otherwise I wouldn’t have sent it in.  I try not to take it personally, but slowly learning those lessons has led to more frequent success.  You need to practice submission to get better at it.  I’m somewhat of an expert on aporripsophobia, so I can say with confidence that even a nice, polite, “thank you” in response to rejection is not favored.  Simply let it go.  That’s the professional thing to do.


Home Alone

Due to circumstances beyond my control (and what other kind of circumstances are there, anyway?), I recently had to spend a few days alone.  Even as an introvert I’ve never enjoyed “batching it” for long, perhaps because my imagination is so untamed as to belong in a zoo.  Nevertheless, you learn things with time alone.  Particularly in a pandemic.  I’m not inclined to seek the company of strangers, and I don’t know many people here in town yet.  So I introspect.  Of course, Zoom and FaceTime keep me in touch with others, but I can’t help remembering a PBS special I saw about Admiral Richard Byrd.  Byrd famously self-isolated himself in a one-room shack in Antartica for five months when weather made travel impossible.  His contact with the outside world was limited to electronic communication.

Photo credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

Byrd had been seeking the ultimate isolation.  It turned out to be psychological torture.  Even those of us who are introverts are social creatures.  We just need smaller doses than most.  I can’t recall the name of the PBS series that Byrd was part of, but I do recall the profound impact it made on me.  I was teaching at the time and there was another series on PBS that I was discussing with my fellow professors and it was because of this other series that I had the television on at all.  The Byrd program came next and eclipsed the former.  (We essentially lived without television in our Nashotah House days.  Cable wasn’t available and trying to get reception with an inadequate aerial antenna led to frustratingly snowy, dizzying reception.)

We like to have other people around.  I grew up with siblings and time alone was a rare commodity.  I left home to live in a dorm with roommates for four years.  After that apartments in the Boston area often felt isolating, even with housemates.  It was a time for introspection.  By the time I moved to Edinburgh I was married and I’ve not really looked forward to my time alone since then.  November typically brings AAR/SBL with it’s five nights alone in a hotel room.  I get by because I’m so exhausted by the  event.  Nevertheless I often think of Admiral Byrd and how this mentally strong man began to break down under the strain of not seeing another person for five months.  We need each other.  The pandemic has been teaching us lessons of self-reliance, but hopefully it’s also teaching us to reach out to others.  Even America can feel like Antartica sometimes.