Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Citation Anxiety

As a recovering academic, I sometimes am compelled to look when Academia.edu sends me notices. Academia, most of my academic colleagues don’t realize, is a for-profit website that advocates open access. “Open access” (or OA in the biz) is academic trash talk for making the published results of research available for free. It’s a great idea, but it often doesn’t take into account how complex publishing really is. Peer review, printing, and distribution of articles all take money and to make all research free cuts out what those who publish the research can use to fund the venture (with a cut taken out, of course, to make the whole thing worth their while). That’s the way capitalism works. (Look it up under economics.) In any case, not realizing that Academia is also a profit-making venture, lots of us put our published papers on it, making them freely available to anybody who cares.

Once in a while Academia will send its users a flattering notice: “X-hundred people have cited your papers.” Be still, my throbbing heart! Desperate for any attention, most academics (let alone us exes) are thrilled that more than 100 people have read their stuff. So I clicked their link. “309 papers mention the name ‘Steve Wiggins’ or ’S.A. Wiggins’” it cheerfully reads. I know something the robot apparently doesn’t. I’m not the only Steve Wiggins on Academia. There is a slightly older agronomist whose name I share. He’s employed in academia and has more papers than me. And “S. A. Wiggins” could be anybody. My 309 paper mentions shrinks to double digits. Not high double-digits either. Names are hardly unique identifiers. With some seven-and-a-half billion people, there’s bound to be some reduplication. I always tell the few curious to search “Steve A. Wiggins”—with the quotation marks—to find the few, true references.

Taking on the internet is a fool’s errand. This blog gets a few piddly hits a day. I often consider closing it down. Readers don’t share it enough to get any attention. It takes a lot of effort on my part since I write books (both fiction and non) in my hours not at work. So when Academia shows up in my inbox my excitement spikes, just for a moment, and I go on with my other work, which never seems to get done. And then, when I’m sure nobody else is looking, I go ahead and click on the link.

New Religious—Bang!

Religion, no matter what the skeptics say, gives us something to believe in. Even those who claim no religion believe in their non-religion. We can’t escape belief. It’s no surprise, then, that new religions constantly emerge. As people find new things—or events—meaningful, and they come together around the phenomenon or episode, a religion eventually emerges. Take the example of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. On February 15, 2013 a resounding explosion rocked Chelyabinsk. What was likely a former asteroid had headed for Russia (which they seem to prefer almost as much as Donald Trump) and became a meteoroid (the name for meteors while they’re still in outer space). Once it entered the earth’s atmosphere and became a meteor proper, it superheated and exploded in the sky—a phenomenon known as a bolide. For those of us who’ve experience them, bolides are unforgettable. Once the pieces of the exploded meteor hit the earth they became meteorites.

Image credit: NASA/ESA, public domain

Meteors are an everyday occurrence. Any time you see a shooting star—which you can do any clear night—you’ve seen one. Large, exploding meteors are rare. Shortly after the Chelyabinsk meteorite fell, according to Astro Bob, the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite formed. This group did not wish for the main body of the surviving meteorite to be raised from Lake Chebarkul, where it fell. Their protests became religious as they chanted, prayed, and sang. A new, if temporary, religion was born. Astro Bob goes on to say that religions and meteorites are no strangers. Indeed, up until the Middle Ages and even a little beyond, it was believed that rocks could not fall from the sky. A meteorite, then, was a sign from either God or, well, you know who. When the impossible happens religions are quick to follow. Astro Bob’s story was written in 2013, so he doesn’t declare the fate of the Church. The meteorite was raised from the bottom of the lake in October of that year.

New Year’s Day in 1987, while I was home from seminary on break, putting a puzzle together with my brother, our house shook. A loud boom accompanied the shock wave. We ran outside to find the neighbors staring at the sky, and a few casting a wary glance toward the petroleum refinery in town. The news later that day told us a bolide had exploded nowhere very near us. We were within the shock wave, and those fortunate enough to be outside that January saw a flaming meteor in the daytime sky. I remember it well thirty years later. I already had a religion at the time (Methodism, starting to tend toward Episcopalianism) so my plate was already full. It was nevertheless a dramatic event, and when your world is literally shaken, you will naturally look for something to believe.

The Price of Worship

The wind resistance alone must drive the cost of gas up considerably. Of course, with Yahweh on your side you don’t need to worry about pocket change. We were driving through a sleepy town in the Poconos. A light rain was falling. We came upon a truck advocating not for the usual and expected Christ, but instead for Yahweh. Promising “dramatically affected” lives for those who do so, the implied message on this portable billboard is somewhat ominous. We are apparently being restrained by “non-mortal, non-native beings of ill-intent.” The grammar of the placard confuses things a bit since it seems to suggest that calling on Yahweh will “release restraints on” said non-mortals, and that’s hardly a good thing. I suppose they can’t reveal the nature of these entities without giving away spoilers for drawing the curious in.

This vague, supernatural world presided over by the personal name of the deity seems just a little out of place in Bible country. There’s a kind of literalism about Pennsylvania that I find strangely comforting. It is where and how I grew up. I never encountered God’s personal name—at least not with first-person familiarity—until I attended college. Even then we were encouraged to be careful with its use. The commandment about taking the divine name in vain is just a bit disconcertingly unspecific, considering that it isn’t spelled out in more detail. And who exactly are these beings of ill-intent? They’re all the more frightening for not being named. Demons, I must suppose, but I don’t recall the Good Book saying anything about their restraints being released. This is a new kind of apocalypse maybe.

The thing about the Bible is that it’s everybody’s book. Some modern translations use Yahweh rather freely, opting for the admission that translating it leads only to more questions and “Lord” is obfuscation. Still, it seems awfully familiar. The need to air one’s personal beliefs, in some quarters, is very intense. There’s a passion behind this proclamation that I can’t help but admire. People stop and stare. Some, like yours truly, will want photographs of your vehicle. I suppose that’s the point, nevertheless, not too many people like being stared at. Evangelical culture demands it, as I recall from my youth. Putting your personal beliefs out there comes with a price. Part of that may be reduced gas milage and, consequently, pocket change.

Making Excuses

Those of us who watch horror are often asked “why?” Many of us have a difficult time answering that question. To be sure, there are those who like thrills, blood, and violence, but some of us do not. We can’t seem to help ourselves—watching those in difficult, dark places hardly seems edifying, and yet we do it anyway. After reading Jason Zinoman’s book with the supernaturally long subtitle, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, I may have gained a little insight in my own case. Zinoman is a film critic, so he has an automatic excuse. What I found interesting among the narratives of the directors and writers of modern horror is that these were largely men who grew up with absent fathers. Not all of them, of course—demographics are never so neat—but enough of them to start to discern a pattern. The world can be a scary place without a father.

It’s no accident that some religions use the father image to refer to God. Amid the chaos and uncertainty of life that has evolved to benefit the aggressive, the more contemplative often experience fear. Having grown up without a father, I think I might have a better idea now about why I watch what I do. As I’ve often told family and friends, I do not like being scared. Startle moments in movies bother me. I don’t like blood and gore—I’m squeamish both in real life and in the diegesis of the film I’m watching. Yet something compels me to keep coming back. Is it related to the fact that many of those who gave us the classics in the field (and yes, there are bona fide, canonical members even in this genre) know this same sense of childhood alienation that I did? The missing father is, in our culture, a source of horror.

I don’t mean to overly psychologize what Zinoman is doing here. He’s telling the untold story of the auteurs of the field. Some of them are familiar and others less so. They tended to grow up reading H. P. Lovecraft—I’m more of a Poe fan, myself, although Lovecraft still manages to deliver an existential angst that will do in a pinch—and they found ways of expressing the anxiety of being alive. Most of them are highly intelligent people. Some have even been professors. They learned to tap a deep source of fundamental fear that speaks to some of us on a level that other emotions don’t. I still can’t say why I enjoy a good horror film, but maybe now I’ll be able to do so without feeling like I need to make excuses.

News Pause

One of the benefits of “getting away from it all” is the blessed respite from news. Given the political situation these day I suppose that’s a rather risky proposition since the government is now based on presidential moods rather than any kind of policy or strategy. I worried as I got onto the plane home whether regulations might have changed when I was in the air and whether I’d be landing in the same country as the one from which I’d taken off. Maybe it was more than just time zones that we were changing. Being a child of the ‘60s I couldn’t help thinking about the Twilight Zone—getting onto a plane and then something happens. Quite a few episodes deal with that theme. Only now it’s real time. Real fear.

I have to wonder about the impact of constant news. Since November I’ve been obsessed with frequent updates—scanning headlines for any sign of hope that what began as a joke might have finally reached its punchline. Instead, the press has fallen into normalizing Trump, writing and reporting as if this is what happens in a democracy. It should be illegal to elect a dictator. It’s one of those logical conundrums, but it is a real one. Democracy shouldn’t be just those people who feel like they should getting out to vote. It should be a legal obligation. We know that if votes were counted straight up Trump could not have won the election. Since politicians like to play games we now live in the Twilight Zone of government. Every day Trump is allowed to remain in office the more credibility in government erodes. The knock-on effect will continue for years.

Since stepping off that plane I’ve been wondering what has changed over the past week. Has some basic fact of life been overturned by a presidential temper tantrum? Is what I’m doing now illegal? Has a horse been made a senator? Anything is possible. When I last paid attention it seemed we were well on our way to becoming the United States of Russia. I’m afraid to look at the headlines. The glow of getting away from it all hasn’t faded yet. It’s a hazy, dreamy reality that makes government seem like a bad dream. What would happen if they privatized air traffic control when I was in the air? The results are just to scary to contemplate. I think I need a vacation.

Berrying Perspective

Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.

I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.

While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.