Wild Oats

The day after Thanksgiving, although it’s too late for millions of industrially slaughtered animals, is a good time to think about plant-based diets.  I’ve been a vegan for three years now, and it has led me to some interesting places.  One of them is oat milk.  Like most Americans, I eat cereal for breakfast most days.  (When I volunteered for the dig at Tel Dor in 1987, however, olives, Nutella, and bagels made quite a passable morning meal.)  Apart from cereal breakfasts being a religiously motivated practice, they’re easy to prepare but difficult to do without milk.  You can (and many sometimes do) eat dry cereal, but we’ve been conditioned to pour milk on it to make a kind of soupy, grainy start to our day.  It feels familiar.

We started out, after much research, using soy milk.  It has to be a particular brand, though, because it can have an oily taste.  We eventually switched to oat milk.  Unlike soy, I can actually drink it like regular milk.  We’ve been buying Planet Oat, but recently we tried Oatly.  Now, I’m one for a working breakfast.  Time is precious and work begins uncompromisingly early.  That means I don’t read cereal boxes or milk cartons any more.  That changed with Oatly.  I found an entertaining and eloquently stated kind of creed on the back of the carton.  When’s the last time someone brought spirituality to the breakfast table (apart from introducing the eating breakfast cereal craze)?  It makes me feel more grounded.

The intricately interconnected web of life makes me think that we should be cognizant of our food.  What we eat should be approached reflectively.  If we had government subsidies for fields of oats rather than industrial farms for the inhumane treatment of “food animals” it seems to me the world would be in a better place, spiritually.  There’s been some comeback of wildlife since Covid-19 forced us all indoors.  I am glad to see it.  These creatures are our siblings.  Even if that seems to be going too far, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny that animals have emotions and minds, particularly those that humans eat.  Given the foodieness of contemporary society (everyone’s talking about food rather worshipfully these days) it would seem that pondering at least how we treat animals before we eat them should be a matter of common courtesy.  Being so far removed from our sources of sustenance has done something to us, I fear.  There are great alternatives out there, and some even make you smile while munching your cereal.

Rest and Be Thankful

Many years on Thanksgiving I find myself distressed.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for all the good things in my life—and they are more than I regularly stop to count—but life has a way of tossing reality bombs into the mix.  This year, though, there is much for which I’m feeling particularly grateful.  Family and friends foremost.  Fairly good health and a day or two off work.  These are all wonderful.  This year gave us a couple more great gifts: the rejection of a leader who always and only thought of himself and convinced millions that he cared for their interests and beliefs.  A “leader” who refused to acknowledge defeat but just this week began a transition that should’ve begun nearly three weeks ago.  Many are inexpressibly thankful for this.

Although on a much smaller scale, I’m thankful for Nightmares.  Nightmares with the Bible, that is.  Although it’s expensive (I’ll thankfully give a discount code to all askers), it is with a publisher that will promote it better than Holy Horror.  It was a very pleasant surprise to receive the book before Thanksgiving, even with its Halloweenish theme.  Anyone who puts years of their life into a project knows the gratitude in seeing it come to fruition.  Nightmares was a labor of love and I hope all who venture to read it will be thankful that they did.  I know I”m grateful for having lots of other book ideas.  That’s one area where there’s a substantial surplus.

Like many people I’m becoming aware of the dark under-narrative to the American Thanksgiving myth.  What we were presented in state-sanctioned school curricula was a story of grateful pilgrims wanting to share abundance with the American Indians.  History shows that their motivations in colonizing were actually subjugation and making slaves of the indigenous people, something we now recognize as a form of evil.  Such lessons are difficult to learn as an adult when the holiday has so many happy, cozy memories associated with it.  We have just been through four years of national chaos in which “othering” became a wedge intended to fracture the fragile unity of this country.  Yes, the guilt is real.  We cannot, or at least should not, deny what history reveals about our motives.  Instead we should widen our tables.  Invite others to join us.  (Virtually this year.)    And be truly thankful for the many good things—some very large, and others very small—which we have.

Trade Wars?

A few friends are suffering sticker shock at the cost of Nightmares with the Bible.  I offer my sincere apologies.  To those in the normal world (outside academia) such pricing appears predatory.  It is, but you’re not the intended prey.  One of the pillars upon which capitalism rests is “what the market will bear.”  You price up any product until people stop buying it, then you retreat.  I’m no fan of the dismal science, but I am certainly not in the cheering section for capitalism.  Institutionalized greed.  Still, I can explain a little of why Nightmares comes with such a high price tag.  Publishers have long indulged in “library pricing.”  Although many libraries now buy ebooks instead, the model persists.  The idea is that libraries can afford higher prices than mere mortals.  For those of you not in academia, $100 is actually on the low end.  Believe it or not.

In researching Nightmares I saw monographs I coveted.  Some of them priced at $175.  Considering that some of these were under 200 pages, my primitive math sets the rate at about 87 cents per page (single-sided).  Here’s where the disconnect comes in.  Nightmares was written for general readers.  I long ago gave up the idea that to be intelligent a book must be impenetrable.  And academics wonder why people question their utility?  Only after I signed the contract did I learn that the Horror and Scripture series, of which Nightmares is the second volume, would suffer “library pricing.”  There is a discount code for those who may not be libraries.  But please, have your library buy a copy.  That’ll give me fuel for a paperback argument.

In a “catch-22” scenario, it goes like this: a publisher tells an author, “if your book sells well enough at this price we’ll issue a paperback.”  The truth is your hardcover only sells well if you’re well known or if your choice of topic is truly compelling.  If the unit cost were actually the same as the library pricing I’d be a rich man.  Where does all that money go?  It’s a legitimate question.  It’s not royalties!  Academic publishing is an expensive business to run.  Apart from overheads—there are always overheads—you need to pay tech companies to ready your files so they can be printed.  Unless the print run (generally under 200 now) is intended to sell out you’ll have it done domestically so that you don’t have to pay warehousing costs on unsold stock.  I knew a single-man academic publisher who stored his stock in his basement.  Excuses aside, my apologies that Nightmares costs so much.  I’ll send the discount code to anyone who’d like it.

Childhood’s End

Childhood.  It’s a time of many lessons that we soon learn to apply to all of life.  One of those earliest lessons is “Don’t be a sore loser.”  When someone else wins you congratulate them with a smile, even if you’re inwardly aching.  Fair play, it’s called.  Or morality.  All of these characteristics are sadly lacking in the Grand Old Party, it seems.  There has been no evidence of voter fraud, Biden currently leads by over 5 million votes, and yet Trump refuses to concede.  Not only that, the dissembler in chief, Mitch McConnell encourages such behavior.  In my fundamentalist church you’d have failed Sunday School for less than that.  And where are the biblical literalists?  Right there with them, thumping their Bibles but not reading them.  What happened to turn the other cheek?  Or even, for God’s sake, an eye for an eye?

Instead the world is watching as a putatively grown man throws a temper tantrum about losing.  Hilary Clinton conceded on the night of the election.  I’m sure it didn’t feel good to do so.  Nor did it feel pleasant for the 44 other losing candidates (in fact, more) who had to go home with their hats in their hands.  Not content to act like a king, Trump is behaving like a monarch for life.  His followers, perhaps aware that Americans will never again put up with such a travesty of a presidency, insist that someone must’ve miscounted by about five million.  They won’t be content until they can count themselves, throwing away any ballots they disagree with.  And they’ll continue to call themselves Christians.  Because, like the Donald, they can.

I’ve reached the stage in life where childhood has become a lingering preoccupation.  I sure got some things wrong.  Not being a sore loser isn’t one of them, however.  Like all people I’ve lost my fair share of contests.  Sometimes the stakes have been very high.  If you want to retain any dignity or moral standing at all, you know you simply have to admit, “I lost.”  We knew as soon as Trump was nominated in 2016 that he wouldn’t admit he lost then, even if he had.  We knew four years ago he’d never admit he lost when he would.  The Republican enablers stoked those fires in which to burn the Constitution.  Some of us, at least 77 million at latest count, are tired of all this political theater.  Big boy pants, it seems, are difficult to locate this season.

Dreamland

I don’t keep a dream journal, but with my odd sleeping habits I’m thinking maybe I should.  You see, waking in the middle of a dream is a good way to remember it.  Often I bolt awake in the middle of the action.  Well, I assume it’s the middle of the action, but how would I know?  Dreams are that way.  Whether in the middle or at the end, I wake up able to remember them in some detail for a few hours.  I have noticed a pattern over the past several months.  Not surprisingly, the characters in my dream worlds know about the pandemic.  It often plays a role in the story.  I have yet to remember a dream where the people are wearing masks, however.  They sometimes talk about it, but never do it.

The subconscious is a slippery place.  Although psychologists are often fascinated by dreams, nobody can say for sure what they mean.  One class of dream that I often have on an annual basis is the AAR/SBL anxiety dream.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting has been a fixture throughout my professional life.  Usually I have a dream where I’ve forgotten something important for the conference, such as forgetting to stop in the exhibit hall to see the new books.  I recently had my annual conference anxiety dream.  This year the conference is virtual so I’m not actually going anywhere.  In the dream I did.  And nobody was wearing masks.  The dream, however, was mainly about keeping my boss happy.  That’s simple enough to understand.

Most years I get several blog posts out of the conference (which takes place in November).  The virtual conference has been postponed until after Thanksgiving, and lengthened out by over a week.  Accommodating all those papers (thousands of them) via Zoom must be a logistical nightmare.  Since editors go to these for meeting people, there’s no reason for me to sign up.  Instead, I’ll be right here in eastern Pennsylvania, huddled down waiting for the pandemic to be over.  I’ll be wearing a mask whenever I venture off my own property.  It is my hope that others might do the same.  I read of covid-weary people burning their masks, putting themselves at risk as the number of infections continue to rise.  In my subconscious mind I’m somewhere else.  Perhaps I can convince them to wear masks in my imaginary world.  After all, anything is possible in dreams.

The Halloween

Halloween seems especially portentous this year.  Some of us thrive in this introduction to what was a major set of Christian holidays that encompassed many pagan traditions.  The lynchpin was All Saints Day (All Hallows), which in good Christian fashion upheld its favorite sons (and a few daughters) to remind the rest of us what a sorry lot of humanity we are.  Followed by the more democratic All Souls Day where the vestments went from white to black, it was preceded by Halloween.  Through mostly Celtic additions from Samhain, the first of the three days became decidedly spooky and came to be a commercial holiday.  There’s more to it than that, of course, but we all know Halloween.

This year a number of other phenomena are converging on today.  Not only is it a full moon, but a famed blue moon—the second full moon this month.  It feel like something could happen.  And if that weren’t exciting enough the powers that be have decided to end Daylight Saving Time tonight (well, technically tomorrow morning).  And Tuesday is the most importation election day in the history of our nation, when we decide whether to retain democracy or become a monarchy.  Seems like a strange confluence of phenomena.  Meanwhile, outdoors a pandemic rages and some locations have had early snowfalls.  The last of what had been Hurricane Zeta blew through here yesterday.  Who needs Halloween to be scared?

For some years I’ve been contemplating the spirituality of Halloween.  We live in a death-denying culture while knowing full well we all die.  Halloween has become a holiday when we can think about it openly.  Pretend we’re someone/something we’re not.  Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we might learn something from it.  It has become a boon for horror films, but they’ve been successfully spread through the rest of the year as well.  There’s plenty to be frightened of in July and January too.  Still, there’s something about Halloween.  Some of my earliest memories are of this particular holiday.  Poor as we were, we always had costumes for the day.  I remember sitting on the school bus, wearing a mask, thinking that nobody knew who I was, and I could really be the hero or villain that my costume suggested that year.  Now we wear masks all the time and we’re frightened every day.  Halloween is coming along with a blue moon this year.  There must be some significance to that.

Wild God

Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is one of those books I wanted to put down gently after reading it, for fear that it might explode.  Or maybe it was my head I feared might combust.  Describing it is difficult because it is so wide-ranging.  On the one hand it is an atheist’s view of religion.  On the other hand it is a spiritual biography.  On a third hand it is coming to terms with having had a profound mystical experience.  It is one of those books where, knowing my life has been so very different, yet I feel that Ehrenreich and I have had so much in common that we’d be friends if we ever met.  It is also the work of a woman who is scary smart and whose teenage thoughts were so intense that my own seem puerile by comparison.

But that mystical experience!  I’ve had many of them in my life, but I don’t know you well enough to share them here.  They’ve been recorded in an unfinished book that I may or may not try to publish some day.  (Ehrenreich was smart and took a job as a journalist, which means others assume you know how to write.  Even those of us in publishing have trouble convincing agents and others who hold the keys to non-academic pricing that we understand the craft.)  Mysticism quickly becomes a staid discipline, not at all like the life-directing experiences such encounters themselves actually are.  It’s difficult to explain without sitting down and talking to you.  It’s something academics tend to avoid like Covid-19.

The books that mean most to me are like conversations with an absent author.  Drawn in by an openness, or perhaps by the fact that we’ve lived in a few of the same places over the years, perhaps passed one another unknowingly on the street, you feel that they’ve invited you into their very head.  What you find there has a strange similarity to what is in your own head, while being completely different at the same time.  We should all strive for such honesty in our writing.  In the end Ehrenreich, with a doctorate in science, suggests we need to be open.  That kind of validation is important for those of us who’ve poured our lives into the study of religion.  She was drawn in from atheism, and I have been trying to escape from literalism all my adult life.  We have ended up in places not dissimilar from each other and I’m glad to have met her through this profound book.

Dreams and Nightmares

Since posting just a few days back about the cover of Nightmares with the Bible it has now been posted on the Rowman & Littlefield website (more on that in a moment).  I’m pleased with the cover because it includes a photo I took.  It’s a little blurry, but that adds to the effect.  In the days before my commuting began, I could easily stay awake until regular hours and one autumn weekend we arrived home to find the spooky house next door all lit up, under a full moon.  I appreciated the eerie look of the situation and snapped this photo, which I’ve used a few times on this blog.  I’m not sure the house next door was haunted, but it sure looked like it.  More to the point, it reminds me of the poster for The Exorcist.  It has always been a dream of mine to have one of my photos appear on a book cover.

I also received the happy news that the book is with the printers.  That means it will soon be available.  It will be expensive, but I should be receiving a discount code that I will be glad to share.  “Library pricing” is something publishers unfortunately have to do to make books pay themselves off.  In the past several years so many books have been appearing that the bottom has fallen out of the academic library market.  Too much supply, to put it in capitalist terms.  Many publishers, however, will give discounts to individuals who want to buy a copy.  All you have to do is ask the author.  (I don’t have the discount code yet, but I will be glad to share it once I’ve received it.)

Nightmares with the Bible is being published by Fortress Academic.  A few years ago Fortress Press partnered with Lexington Books to handle their library market books, including those in the series Horror and Scripture, in which Nightmares appears.  Lexington Books is an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.  It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of publishing houses since there has been a lot of consolidation over the centuries, accelerating in recent years.  Publishers don’t sell as many individual books as they used to and with Amazon’s arrival a new shift in the market took place.  It tends to favor trade publishers over academic ones.  In any case, that means even books written for trade readerships, like Nightmares, are priced for libraries.  If you have access to an academic library please recommend they buy a copy.  If the book succeeds in that venue a case can be made for a paperback edition.  In the meantime, the book should be, barring an apocalypse, out on schedule.

Keep It Covered

I’ve seen it at last.  The cover concept for my book.  I’ve been manicly checking the Rowman and Littlefield (parent company of Lexington/Fortress Academic—a roadmap would be useful) webpage to see what it might look like.  I’ve “seen a sighting” at last.  Nightmares with the Bible seems to be actually happening.  As a writer there’s always some doubt involved with your book.  You wonder, will it really come out?  Will someone pull the plug at the last minute?  Is any of this real at all?  Those kinds of things.  I’ve mentioned before that waiting is a very large part of the process.  Publishing is a slow business and the world changes so fast.  I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever leave books behind.

My waiting hasn’t been idle, of course.  My next nonfiction book is well underway but I’m focusing on fiction at the moment.  I had two short stories published within the last month and I’m inclined to follow where some success shows itself.  Besides, fiction and nonfiction aren’t as far apart as is often claimed.  Seeing the cover of the book, however, nudges me back towards nonfiction a bit.  Since I’m no longer an academic it’s a toss-up.  A few colleagues like what I’m doing, but my fiction work is secret.  So the process continues, waffling back and forth.  It’s all in service of learning how the publishing industry works.  That’s one of the many things they don’t teach you in graduate school.

It’s October and I should be thinking about monsters.  Although I’ve gone through my closet of DVDs, there are many that bear watching again.  If only I could fabricate time!  One of the things I’ve noticed about this pandemic—and I know it’s not just me—is that time seems to have been swallowed up.  A simple walk down the local biking trail now requires masking up before and washing hands after.  Less than a minute of time, for sure, but it adds up.  And if you go after work there’s not enough light left to paint the porch by when you get back.  Such are the contradictions of this wonderful season.  You really can’t pin anything down.  The colorful trees put you into rapture then they’re bare.  The bright blue sky looms under relentless clouds.  You throw off your jacket one day and it snows the next.  And there might just be monsters lurking out there.  One of them, it’s said, will be released in November.  Given the nature of this season we’ll just have to wait and see.

October Reflections

The people are dressed in their finest.  The best food and drink available are spread on white tablecloths while rats scurry underfoot.  The feasters invite Lucy to join them.  “It’s the last supper,” they say, hoisting a glass, knowing that they will soon die of the plague.  This is one of the most powerful scenes in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.  It’s October and we’re in the midst of a plague.  The wealthy retain their fortunes while the poor die in the streets.  Do I really need to explain why someone so focused on religion and social justice finds horror films as able conversation partners?  My two books that relate to the topics don’t come outright and say it, but there are spiritual lessons to be learned here.

Genre is a convenient, perhaps even necessary, means of making sense of the vast creative output of humankind.  We write fiction, poems, and songs.  We film movies.  We produce these forms of entertainment at a stunning rate, especially when we consider the large number of pieces made that never find official publication.  Genre helps us sort through—this is like that, etc.  Still, some of my favorite pieces of literature, and movies, don’t really fit into neat genre divisions.  Take Herzog’s Nosferatu.  There are definitely horror elements here, but it is also an art film.  Some scenes, like that described above, are suffused with religious meaning.  When circumstances align correctly we can see it and say, “ah, now I understand.”  That was what came to me recently.  I haven’t seen the movie for years, but circumstances with Covid-19 brought it to mind.

October is a month of poetry and transitions.  We turned the furnace on only to find ourselves in the midst of a string of days reaching near 70.  The cerulean sky which looks so different this time of year suddenly disappeared with nearly a week of heavy cloud cover.  There’s beauty in the daytime and monsters in the night.  Outside lurks a plague.  Lacking the willpower to overcome it, people are growing weary of the restrictions.  We’re not used to being locked up.  The thing about the last supper is that life goes on even after it’s over.  Changed, yes, but October is all about change.  We’re anxious, wondering if it was indeed a vampire that bit us.  Meanwhile the leaves continue their journey from green to yellow, orange, and red, their litter becoming the food for next year’s growth.  Yes, there are spiritual lessons here.

Ode to Bookstores

The pandemic has changed everything.  You knew that, of course.  Like many people in fields of regular job uncertainty, we’ve curtailed spending as much as we can.  Never very securely established after Nashotah House, we’ve managed to get by by not thinking too far ahead.  I can’t imagine retirement (if there’s still a job left to report to).  Even more, I can’t imagine a life without books.  The only way I get through each day is by trying not to think about it.  Still, I miss bookstores.  Pre-pandemic, when jobs at least felt somewhat secure, we’d often nip into one of the many local independents of a weekend.  Missing browsing shelves sorely, we stopped into Book and Puppet over in Easton, when on a trip to buy produce at the outdoor farmer’s market.

It felt strange, the thought of going into a store that wasn’t dedicated to groceries or hardware.  Masked, of course, but would there be lots of people there, crowding the air with germs?  No.  There was maybe one other customer in the place.  I have to admit that I was a bit disoriented, trying to read over spines on a shelf, not wanting to touch anything.  I’ve tried hard to curb any spending during these highly uncertain times, but could I imagine a world with no bookstores?  Would I even want to?  Books, you see, give me hope.  My vision of heaven is October and a never-ending stack of books (and, of course, friends).  Books allow for escape and exploration.  Life will continue after the pandemic in books.

The fear has gripped many of us, I suspect.  I’m old enough to retire, but not well-off enough to do so.  Our house requires a two-person income at our level (highly educated, under-employed), and the pandemic rolls on.  I think of the Black Death—I’ve read about that too—and how history changed because of it.  In this pandemic we’re dying (all but the wealthiest) piece by piece.  The most vulnerable first, of course, but the middle class may well be in the sights.  The owner of the bookstore said he wasn’t sure how long he could hold out.  Just last year at this time I was participating in the Easton Book Festival that he’d organized.  I had a book-signing at the nearby Moravian Bookshop.  I can’t remember a time I felt so hopeful, knowing I had another book coming out, and if we survive long enough, another after that.  I really shouldn’t, but I’m in a bookstore.  I’ll buy one in hope that the future may just offer a place to keep it.

The End of Snow Days

It’s a chilling thought.  An article in the New York Times said it, but we were all thinking it.  Snow days may well have become another victim of Covid-19.  No, it’s not snowing yet (but give climate change a chance!), but New York City schools have figured out that if students can learn from home then one of the truly treasured memories of our youth may no longer be necessary.  In fact, snow days ended for me when I began working remotely.  My supervisor had suggested, even before that, that I take my company laptop home daily, in case of inclement weather.  The idea of awaking, wonder-eyed, at the world covered in white—that cozy feeling of knowing you had no obligations for the day but to enjoy the pristine world out your window—is a thing of the past.

Technology has changed our lives, and some of it is even for the better.  It hasn’t made work easier for some of us, but has made it longer.  We used to talk about kids and their continuous partial attention, but now work is always at home with you and that time signature on your email says something about your work habits.  As the days are now shorter than the nights, as they will be for six more months, finding the time to do what you must outdoors (it may be cooler, but lawns still insist on growing) is always a bit more of a challenge.  And when the snow does fall you’ll still have to shovel the walk.  All time has become company time for a truly linked-in world.

The real victim here, it seems to me, is childhood.  Snow days were a reminder that no matter how strict, how Calvinistic our administrators wanted to be, the weather could still give us a smile now and then.  A legitimate excuse not to have to go to school and, if parents couldn’t get you to daycare, a day off for everyone.  The strict number of limited holidays allotted by HR had limited power in those days.  Although we all know that well-rested, happy workers tend to do better jobs than those who are constantly stressed out and who have trouble sleeping, we’ve now got the means to make the sameness of pandemic life the ennui of everyday life, in saecula saeculorum.  Thanks, internet.  At least now we work where we have a window and can look out on nature and can see what we’re missing.

Hot Breakfast

Cooking in a pre-dawn kitchen has a certain appeal as the weather cools.  Knowing that something with warmth will set you right before the nighttime cold forces the furnace on for the next six-to-nine months.  After a recent tooth extraction I was told to keep on a soft diet until the wound healed.  A fan of crispy breakfast cereals, I faced a new dilemma—what to eat before work?  Being vegan means bacon and eggs won’t do (there is passable vegan bacon available, but so far the plant-based eggs haven’t managed not to taste like mung beans).  On a recent frenzy of nostalgia I had purchased a box of (now mostly empty) farina.  Often known by its commercial name “Cream of Wheat,” farina is more like flour and milk (many vegan options available) but with a better texture than paste.  It reminded me of childhood Saturdays.  Then the box was empty and grocery day was the better part of a week away.

Grits seemed a little more challenging.  The particle size is larger and might cause problems in the healing wound.  Still, I gave it a try.  Since my father was from South Carolina I grew up eating things like grits and black-eyed peas.  This makes for a hearty breakfast as long as you keep the grits on the other side of your mouth.  When the black-eyed peas were gone, I turned to oatmeal.  Bigger pieces yet, but still soft.  Oatmeal works best with some kind of sweet accompaniment.  Brown sugar and cinnamon is a standard. Sweets bother my teeth, however, so I need to be careful there.

The problem with all of these options is that one serving of these hot cereals was too little to keep me going.  I wake early and eat breakfast early, so I need about six hours of energy from this meal.  Two servings are too much.  Ratios are beyond me.  So I turn to my religious roots.  Whenever I think of breakfast I’m reminded that our cereal-eating culture (hot or cold) was largely influenced by Seventh-Day Adventist sensibilities.  Adventists are vegetarians, and some prominent among them by the name of Kellogg launched massive, religiously motivated campaigns to have the day begin with grains, back in the day.  It stuck.  I suspect Kellogg was good with numbers.  I wish I could figure out how third-cups and quarter-cups relate to one another.  Like most things in life, it’s falling midway between that is difficult.  It’s chilly in here and I too hungry to do math.  At least the religion part I partially understand.

Electricity

After the oven incident (see last Monday’s post), I took some time to examine the burned out bake element from the range.  Clearly a break in the piece led to some arcing like you might get in Frankenstein’s laboratory.  By the time I’d arrived on the scene (I always seem to be behind my time), the fire was snaking along the element itself and now that the piece is cooled and removed I was fascinated by the damage it caused.  I suspect this is why I leave any electrical repairs to experts.  This is dangerous stuff.  Interestingly, in the realm of monsters electricity is most frequently associated (in my mind, anyway) with Frankenstein’s creature.  Mary Shelley’s novel isn’t explicit about how galvanism resurrected the patchwork human, but it was clearly part of the tale.

Electricity retains a certain element of mystery for some of us.  If we stop and reflect on how recent our understanding and harnessing of it is, that further adds to the drama.  People have been thinking about and trying to understand religion for thousands of years.  Like early electricity, religion involves invisible forces.  Of course, lightning and sparks and arcing oven elements can be seen, but seeing isn’t the same as comprehending.  We are a curious species and we want to understand.  Being inside the situation, however, our understanding will never be complete.  We can get a pretty good grasp, a functional one even, but our brains will always limit just how much we can understand.

It should come as no surprise that those of us who chose to study religion are intrigued by mysteries.  The divine, the transcendent—no matter what you want to call it—can never be fully understood.  Thus the impatience with evangelicals and others who pretend they’ve got all the answers.  No, we’re all still attempting to get to the bottom (or top) of this mystery.  Like electricity, religion can do an enormous amount of damage.  Motivating those who have only a cursory understanding how it works has historically led to debacle after debacle.  It has generated wars and perpetuated human misery.  Like electricity, when used properly religion has done a tremendous amount of good in the world as well.  The thing is, as my bake element shows, we have all come to learn that electricity should be handled by those who know what they’re doing.  Ironically, religion has never gathered the same level of respect for the specialists.

The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons