Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Editing the Week

Every great once in a while I have to pull my head from the clouds and remind myself I’m an editor.  Actually, that happens just about every Monday morning.  Surprisingly, academics who have trouble getting published don’t bother to consult editors for advice.  Having sat on both sides of that particular desk, I certainly don’t mind sharing what I’ve learned since publishing isn’t as straightforward as it seems.  It has its own mythology and authors—I speak from experience here—feel extremely protective of their books.  Nevertheless, editors are under-utilized resources when it comes to figuring out how to approach a topic.  They often possess valuable advice.

It’s easy to think publishing exists to preserve and disseminate ideas and insights, tout court.  The idea that if you get past your dissertation committee you’ve done service that requires wide readership is natural enough.  Publishers, however, have other angles to consider.  Books incur costs, and not just paper, glue, and ink.  There are many people involved in bringing a book from idea to object, and each of them has to be paid to do their part.  (Many academics in the humanities may not understand the concept of “overhead,” but it’s an everyday reality in the publishing world.)  Not only that, but even the book itself is a matter of negotiation.  My latest book (and I suspect well over 90 percent of the authors with whom I work have no idea that I write books as well) had a chapter expunged and a new one written at the behest of my McFarland editor.

One of the pervasive myths in this business is that authors write whatever book they want and then find a publisher.  Sometimes that works.  Often when it does the authors are disappointed in the results.  There are presses that specialize in cranking out such works, slapping an enormous price tag on them, selling them to libraries, and then letting them go out of print.  I’ve been there.  I know.  Academics want prestige presses to take their books to a higher profile, but without having to change things according to the advice of an editor.  There are hidden lives of editors.  I can’t share much of that here, but I can expound its corollary—taking advantage of free editorial advice makes good sense.  I wouldn’t be bothering you with such mundane thoughts on this blog, but when I rolled out of bed today I learned it was Monday morning.

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.

Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.

Personal Gothic

As I continue work on Nightmares with the Bible, I am reminded just how influential Edgar Allan Poe has been in my life.  It’s not that I read Poe every day, but it’s more that his stories have stayed with me since childhood.  For an English term paper in high school, the last one I recall writing, I selected Poe as the subject.  Something of the sadness of his life made me feel as though we were kindred spirits, although I could never meet him, and never let him know that he would have had a friend if he had been born a maybe a century and a half later, and if possible, in Franklin, Pennsylvania.  If his fondness for drink came with him, he would likely have met my father in such circumstances.

Even today I feel a kind of fiercely protective interest in Poe, as if his poems and stories had been written exclusively for me.  Seeing a handwritten fine copy of “The Raven” on display in the Morgan Library and Museum brought tears to my eyes.  Like Poe, I strive to make a living as a writer, but unlike Poe, I cop out.  I’m too afraid of losing everything.  Jobs necessarily interfere with writing, and some jobs actively discourage it.  Nevertheless, I still feel the shudder when I think about the first time I read many of his stories.  This was, I suspect, what fed my young interest in horror.  It wasn’t the blood and gore of the slasher film, it was the quiet, sad, disturbing atmosphere of Poe.  It has been recaptured by few, in my experience maybe only by Shirley Jackson.

Those who write are connection seekers.  Writing is a way of testing to see if we alone see the world in our own way.  Will others respond?  Poe somehow, mainly after his own lifetime, touched a responsive chord with many.  His work is now very widely known.  His visage appears on everything from bandages to socks.  His stories and poems are endlessly retold, adapted, and parodied.  When I read Poe I hear someone speaking from a life of hard knocks.  His response was to strike back, through his writing.  The life story written by one of his relatives suggests that he wasn’t as gloomy and tortured as he is generally portrayed.  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, those of us who find gothic literature somehow redemptive know, once we close the cover, who it is we should thank.

Captive to Capitalism

Some people are born capitalists, while others are not.  I recall the old TIAA-CREF ads showing some famous thinker and stating that some of us don’t have time to think about money.  Since I’m an obscure private intellectual I feel hard pressed to put myself in such exalted company as university professors, but here I am anyway.  I just don’t think much about money, other than to panic over my lack thereof.  It doesn’t motivate me and as long as I can get along without too many worries, I seldom think about it.  Or so it used to be.  Then I bought a house.  Suddenly everything is about money.  This needs to be fixed, and that requires repair.  Instead of spending weekends writing (as I’m fond of doing), I now try my hand at skills like carpentry and masonry.  At least now the grass has started to turn brown.

I was never offered TIAA-CREF as a fiduciary option.  (I can’t believe I even know what fiduciary means!)   Having grown up poor I didn’t think much about things like retirement or dental care.  These were things middle class people did.  Now that I’m technically part of the club, I think back to being a poor kid working my summers away.  I had lots of time to write in those days.  It’s not that ideas for writing have stopped—they’re rather backed up—but the concerns and cares of this world have forced me to think about that thing I’d rather not face.  You see, capitalism takes no prisoners.  Once it starts the entire world has to play its game, otherwise the rich can’t keep getting richer.  Those of us who’d like to make a living by creativity take jobs that, in turn, take our time.  And more than just 8 hours a day of it.  Some people don’t realize that money doesn’t motivate everyone.

Accuse me of being a utopian; I promise I won’t take offense.  I can imagine a world where money would be an opt-in.  I’m careful to be discreet about it, but there are frankly some of us that would work for books, should our other basic needs be covered.  Secular monks, perhaps, unleashed from dogma and allowed to roam where the human mind can go.  Once you start thinking about money it’s difficult to stop.  You want to have a cushion that will soften unexpected eventualities—which seem to be coming somewhat more frequently these days—and every time you rub your back after a fall you think that pad should be a little thicker.  Getting paid for writing?  In your dreams!  I’d say more about it but I think Lowe’s is open now.

Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.