Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Not Quite Eschatology

Realized eschatology, if you’ll pardon my French, is a term that describes the “already/not yet” aspect of the “end of the world.”  In other words, some theologians suggest that the eschaton—the end—has elements of both the present and the future in it.  The term came back to me yesterday as we returned to our old apartment to take care of things the movers left behind.  (And “left behind,” I realize, isn’t really a biblical eschatological concept at all.)  Joined by our daughter, I felt a bit resentful of her time being taken from our new home to spend in the old.  I felt an almost adulterous desire to leave the old and cleave to the new—hadn’t we already paid, and overpaid, for that apartment many times over?  The house, on the other hand, is new (to us) and still requires much attention.

As we organized the remaining items, broke down boxes we didn’t use this time around, and waited for the Got Junk guys to arrive and haul it away, I noticed our daughter gazing wistfully at the empty space that had once had our imprint all over it.  It dawned on me that she’d spent her teenage years here—after the Nashotah House debacle, this was the place she’d lived the longest.  This empty apartment was, for her, home.  I began to feel insensitive about my earlier anxiety to leave.  We all live between at least two worlds—our pasts make us who we are in the present.  The world of our teenage years is fraught with emotion and memory.  The world looked so different at that time, as I sometimes forget.

Moving is one of the most stressful situations human beings encounter.  We have a love/hate relationship with our past.  To me the apartment represented a place we occupied out of a kind of desperation.  Five states to the west, we had to move to New Jersey with little money and tons of boxes—one of them Pandora’s, with hope nestled inside.  We told ourselves the apartment was temporary—maybe a year—only until we could buy a house.  Twelve months turned into a decade, then more, with each year accreting memories in every crack and corner.  Part of us will always be in that apartment, for every place people have lived before is haunted.  On our way back to our new home at the end of the day, we were each lost in our thoughts.  Perhaps not so much realized eschatology as experienced reality, we’d spent a day in a present that will never fully arrive.

Awakening

Waking up for the first time in our new place, I felt a strange relief.   I hadn’t realized how much you feel owned when you have a landlord.  Slipping out of the bed while it’s still dark, vague shapes that eventually resolve into unpacked boxes lurk in the shadows.  They mean me no harm.  I go downstairs.  Downstairs!  Without revealing too much personal information here, I can say that I’ve always believed in sleeping upstairs.  In our several apartments my wife and I have lived on one floor.  Going to sleep meant walking down the hall into another room.  It lacked proper transition.  When we looked at houses it took some time before I could put my finger on it—we needed a two-story house.  You go “up to bed” for a reason.

The thing about writing is that it’s an activity of habit.  Not aware of the location of light switches yet, I shuffle slowly through my own personal towers of Babel.  Find the coffee maker.  Where do I go to write?  Not wanting to wake my wife, I decide it should be downstairs.  There’s the study, with its desk.  Seems pretty obvious.  Mug in hand, with no lights on, instinct drives me back to my usual chair in the living room.  Habits are seldom planned.  They happen.  I’ve become used to writing electronically, but as I wanted badly to explain to the movers, I grew up writing on paper.  Writers are readers and there are two things you don’t throw away—books and your old writings.  Carpenters don’t ditch saws and hammers just because they’re heavy and numerous.  There’s a kind of religious devotion here.

Don’t worry, I’ll soon be back to my more abstract topics on this blog.  Religion and all that.  Right now I’m in a transition and I’m wondering that if that means I’m now officially grown up.  If so, does that mean abandoning my childhood dream of being a writer and facing the fact that all these boxes were moved in vain?  Not having food in our new place, our first day we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The locals were talking.  Their concerns?  Lawn care and propane.  Everyday things.  Clean-cut and suntanned, they can tell at a glance that I’m a stranger with my unkempt hair and prophetic beard.  Is my writing fantasy just childhood gone to seed?  No.  Books and writings are my identity.  The movers may have mixed them in with saucepans and power tools, but I know at a glance which boxes contain books.  Soon they will be in every room of this house.  That will make anywhere feel like home, even if I can’t find the lights.  

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

Unnatural Connections

The last time we moved internet service was just becoming an issue.  When we first came to our Somerville apartment we had dial-up.  Do you believe it?  Shortly after that FIOS came to town and we decided to give it a try, but at a fairly low speed.  We’ve always tried to be responsible with money and I naturally balk at paying for something as intangible and amorphous as “internet connectivity.”  I guess I’m a naive realist after all.  In any case, one of the top priorities in moving to our new place was getting internet set up.  Even before electricity or gas or water.  It has become THE utility.  The place to pay the bills for all the other utilities.  And since I’m now telecommuting, the umbilical cord that connects me to work.

I don’t mean to sound all grandpa-ish on you, but just twelve years ago we struggled for any connection at all.  We had one computer (and one work laptop) and only the desktop had internet access.  Many of the arcane pieces of hardware found in the attic were from attempts to get us onto the net more efficiently.  We even had to draw up a contract for who could use the computer and for how long since all of us wanted that magic window onto the virtual world.  Now, like most households, we have wifi and high speed access.  When we’re not at the computer, we have our smart phones at hand.  The strangest thing about all of this is that now that we’ve got constant connection, our nation has become as polarized as it has ever been.  Perhaps we see a little too much of each other?  Or too little?

The web has connected us to those we like.  Walking down the street it’s rare to find someone not staring at their phone, ignoring all living beings around him or her.  We’ve been able to filter out those we don’t like.  Those who have different points of view.  The net shows us that we aren’t alone, and even those with extreme views can find plenty of compatriots in cyberspace.  There’s a reason we used to be told not to discuss religion or politics.  Now we know everybody else’s business.

There was a time when moving meant going to where the jobs are.  Especially in academia.  Colleges and universities exist in set locations.  In space-time.  Telecommuting isn’t an option (although even that’s happening in some cases now).  Moving these days means weighing your internet access options.  Satellite is just too slow and unreliable.  Who would’ve imagined, for those of us born just after Sputnik went up, that now even space-based connections just aren’t advanced enough?  Cyberspace has become more infinite than outer space.  And I still prefer pencil and paper.

Blogday

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

The Moved Unmover

To say it was an easy move would be a lie.  I write this on a beautiful, cool, clear July morning.  Only I can’t even calculate the last time I slept.  Not new house syndrome, but that move!  Our personal account manager at International Van Lines was supposed to call us between 4 and 6 p.m. on Friday to confirm the time of the move.  She would also tell us how much money was needed, in cash, by the movers.  In cash?  She’d taken my deposit by credit card; why couldn’t the balance be paid that way?  She was supposed to call to clarify.  I suspect my tone makes it sufficiently clear that she didn’t.  I went to bed not knowing if we would be moved or not—I only reread her email after packing the last box (or so I thought) at 7 p.m.  The IVL offices were closed.

I awoke at 3:30 to an email saying they would be there between 9 and 11 a.m.  And they would be wanting an uncomfortably large amount of cash.  My wife went to get it, and three guys and a truck arrived at 9:15.  I could see their faces blanche at the walkthrough.  They’d been told it would be a ten-hour job.  It turned out to be seventeen.  Nothing makes you feel a cad quite like being thought a snake-oil salesman.  Our bill of lading was just a bit short of reality.  Packing the truck wasn’t finished until 9 p.m.  Unpacking until 2:30 a.m.  Our three guys were joined by two more for the unpacking.  Most everything went into the garage because, well, no stairs.

Twice during the day the amount of cash needed was upped by a significant amount.  This was one of those “we’re in it now” situations.  We paid what was requested.  The internet guy was arriving potentially by 8 a.m. this morning.  Who can sleep knowing the alarm is set for four hours from now?  And our labeling scheme was so arcane that, well, most everything ended up in the garage.  The movers themselves?  Absolutely fantastic!  I’m sure they’ll be talking about this move for months to come.  

Looking outside, the yard wants mowing.  The internet guy is coming.  Who needs sleep when my life of telecommuting begins tomorrow?  The good news is it took only half an hour and one trip to the garage to find the coffee filters.  I’m looking out at a beautiful, crisp morning.  Over an Everest of boxes.  But you won’t know any of this until the internet guy gets here.  Somehow I sense we just accomplished something quite extraordinary.

Moving Day

So, it’s moving day.  Amid all the packing and sorting—outside the regular 9 to 5—I realized that this was the first move I’ve made outside the constraints of academia.  Well, maybe not strictly so, but I left Nashotah House in the summer, and I was unemployed when I moved to New Jersey to start in the publishing world, so there was no office work involved.  The move without changing a job is a tricky thing.  And exhausting.

I didn’t write about the process early on, in case it didn’t happen.  Buying a house is an exercise fraught with peril and it can collapse at several junctures over the three-or-so months it takes to finalize things.  Then there’s the move itself.  Back in January I found myself setting books aside that I thought I might not need again in the next few months.  We started hauling boxes down from the attic to pack those books in February and March.  We finally made an offer on a house in May, and now, seven months after the process began, we’re ready to move.  Or so I tell myself.

Our last move didn’t go exactly as planned.  Like Bartleby and Loki, we were moving from Wisconsin to New Jersey, perhaps seeking our destiny.  Who knows—maybe undoing the universe?  We hired Two Men and a Truck to move us.  My brother in New Jersey said he’d meet the truck since it was going to take us a little longer to get there.  On arrival day, no truck.  We called the company to find that the said Two Men had actually abandoned said Truck in a parking lot in Chicago.  Although embarrassed, the big Two Men upstairs made no offer of a discount on the move, even if it cost my brother an extra day of work.  We’re hoping for better things this time around.

International Van Lines didn’t call the night before, like they said they would.  After a somewhat restless night (should I stay or should I go?) my usual 3 a.m. internal alarm kicked in.  An email, like a thief in the middle of the night, told us when to expect the big guys and their vehicle.  Moving is kind of like prophecy in that regard.  In any case, for those accustomed to early posts, there will be a delay tomorrow since the internet people are finishing the virtual move around 11 a.m.  Church time on Sunday.  If we pull this move off, I might have to admit there are miracles after all.