Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Ammonia Avenue

It’s 7:00 p.m. I’m still sitting on a bus, in unmoving traffic a mere three miles from home. I stepped out of my front door over 13 hours ago and I have only another hour before retiring to start it all over again tomorrow. My phone’s down to a charge level that the effort of getting a non-wifi connection will only drain it completely. I have no idea why I’m being rerouted. Later I’ll learn that we’ve been instructed to shelter in place because of a N-Aminoethylpiperazine spill. Better living through chemicals. I’m sheltering in place, all right. This bus is my ark.

There’s much about this complex world that I don’t understand. I readily admit that I don’t know much. One thing I do know is that I live my life trying not to impact others negatively. I’m reminded of this every time someone blows a cloud of smoke into my path, plays their music so loud that even they can’t really hear it, or spills Aminoethylpiperazine all over the place. I don’t haul corrosive chemicals (beyond what may be trapped in my gray matter) through anybody’s hometown. I think of that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind—a dangerous chemical spill. Evacuate Devil’s Tower. There’s nothing to see here, folks. It strikes me that this is a larger ethical issue. The right to use, and potentially destroy, somebody else’s space. If you inhale Aminoethylpiperazine fumes, it can be fatal. It may take longer, but the same is true of second-hand smoke. The things that go beyond our own personal self-abuse into the realm of harming others. Somebody call an ethicist!

Commuting isn’t really a lifestyle choice. There may be a few stalwarts on this bus that really enjoy it, but from hearing the weary conversation of the regulars somehow I doubt it. We’ve been rerouted to New York City for our jobs. Our free time is consigned to an aluminum lozenge on wheels. Sometimes it actually moves. Have you ever tried to read a book when the head of the snoring guy next to you keeps falling into your lap? I think about those animals on the ark. Life is more than eating and breathing. You’ve got to have some space to move about. Even when I wake up I’m not in the same position as when I went to sleep. Of course, ethics demands I look at it from the other’s point of view. Someone needed a truckload of Aminoethylpiperazine, and they’re disappointed that it never arrived. Just don’t breathe too deeply. This flood can’t last forever.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

Overdone

One of the things you see quite a lot of as an editor is “the next big thing.” Authors with an ego that awes me ensure me that this book will be the sea change we’ve all been waiting for. Things will be different after this is published. I don’t blame them. The trades all say that you’ve got to convince the editor that this project is worth her or his while. Overstating the case is par on this course. All of this got me to thinking. If you’ve read biblical studies seriously you’ll recognize the name Wellhausen. I don’t even have to use his first name—you know who I mean, right? Well, we’ve gone beyond the days when you could be a Wellhausen. When I was a student people spoke of the Wright, Bright, and Albright school. We knew who each of these gentlemen was. Now there are so many spoons in the pot that we’re not even certain what’s cooking.

Have you seen this man?

I’m not sure what the attraction to advanced degrees in this area is. If my case is anything to go by (and I don’t claim that it is) you grow up in a Bible reading family and you want to take the next logical steps. When you’re far enough along on the path to realize what’s happened, it’s too late to turn back. Many things in life are that way. There is a tipping point, a moment of crisis, then nothing will be the same. Then you learn you’ll never be the new Wellhausen. There was only one, and that was a couple of centuries ago now. I run into some pretty strange stuff when it comes to ways of reading the Bible. When the dust settles, however, we’ll still be counting J, E, D, and P on our fingers.

This isn’t a field for fame. Don’t believe me? Approach a stranger on the street and ask them if they know who Wellhausen is. Alas and alack, one of our greatest names is nobody outside the academy! In my own days among the privileged professorate, I never suspected I’d be anything but one of many voices trying to be heard. After all, my training was really more in history of religions than Bible in the first place. Dead languages had to be negotiated, but that’s all part of becoming an expert in something nobody really cares about. But then I think of Wellhausen. There was a time when all of this could make a nation such as Germany sit up and take notice. That day was centuries ago, and I’d better check that pot—I think maybe whatever’s in it may be done.

O Absalom

It feels like confession every time I go to get my hair cut. I sit in the chair and a girl younger than my daughter looks perplexed when I explain it’s been a few months since my last shearing. “Forgive me, daughter, for I have sinned…” Haircuts take too much time is the truth of it. I’ve never been one to worry overmuch about outward appearances. I’m an internal kind of guy. I’ve never liked shaving and I can’t really see giving up ten more minutes of my busy morning than I have to, only to hover a sharp blade near my already beauty-challenged face. No, the scissors trim takes just a few minutes once a week or so, and everything’s good for a few more days. But the haircut is more on Absalom’s time schedule. Frankly, I just don’t think about it. Suddenly hirsute.

Absalom’s hair was both his pride and his fall. Usurping the kingdom from David, Absalom had a head of hair that left the girls screaming. Then, routed in the forest, his head got caught in a tree. The Bible doesn’t say specifically that it was his hair, but use your imagination. In antiquity, hair meant something. Alexander the Great was known for his luxurious locks. Even the word “Caesar” means “hairy.” Hair was considered a natural head covering, a kind of piety that required little effort. Ironically in evangelical circuits the Roman haircut and clean-shaven look predominated. I had a job after college that required me to shave my beard since “customers don’t trust a man with facial hair.”

But I’m not into hair for the fame. I just don’t have the time. Weekends are scarce and short and I’ve got a lot to do. I’ve got a book that needs publishing and a life that needs living. I can do it with long hair. I can’t do it without time. Absalom spent his free time plotting. His coup was the result of careful planning. I’m sure he didn’t stand there outside the city gates thinking, “people would like me better if I had short hair.” Quite the opposite. In this country of clean, biblical living, however, we’ve opted for the razor and scissors. I’ve had people ask if a beard is hard to keep clean, as if I’m a dirty old man under these silver strands. Hair and beards can be washed and be as hygienic as any person can be in New York City. I just take care to duck when I go under trees.

Fame and Fortune

I was that awkward introvert in high school. Actually, I’m still that awkward introvert now, as easily talked over in editorial board meetings as I always have been at the lunchroom table. As a consequence I’ll gladly take any help I can get on my street cred. No doubt it will have to come from others. I get rejection emails from agents saying I’m just not famous enough to merit attention, so I guess I’ll have to bask in the glory of strangers. I do have a famous brother-in-law. It also turns out that I’m also only 43-degrees separated from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ll take it!

One of the beauties of genealogy is that we learn we’re all connected. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from any unsightly Trumps in the family tree, we are all, at some remove, related. J. R. R., as those of us in the fam like to call him, had a common great uncle who had some descendants who by marriage became connected to the obscure Tauberschmidt family, of which I’m a member. I posted some time back on my degrees of separation from Bob Dylan, but the closest near miss to fame in my background is Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot Dillinger.” Even he’s only related by marriage. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we all took our relations seriously if it might not help to understand that when we oppress anyone we’re actually violating our own family. Makes you think.

Wiki-Tree is a great place for finding connections. Unfortunately I don’t have much time for genealogy anymore. I used to spend quite a bit of time at it and now I can’t even find my paper files. Those of us on the obscure end of the human continuum have to take whatever jobs we’re offered, even if it means moving so many times that those family tree files from pre-electronic days get buried in the back of some attic crawl space in your rental. So it goes. I’m sure J. R. R. had his own rough times. At least he doesn’t have to try to get published in today’s market. I suspect that if the Inklings were to meet today they’d all be chatting about the merits of self-publishing on Amazon. In ebook form. Publishing’s not for the feint-hearted. So as I open yet another pinhead email, I think of my 43rd cousin and smile.

Incident at the Wailing Wall

While reading about Jerusalem lately, I recalled my first visit to the Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is the only standing part left of the temple that Herod the Great refurbished on the site of the temple originally built during Solomon’s reign, destroyed by the Babylonians, and rebuilt under the Persians. This was called the “Second Temple” because the first had been razed and although Herod had basically rebuilt it, the second one had never been destroyed (that would happen a few decades down the road). Today the Wailing Wall, the western wall of that magnificent temple, is a sacred site to Jews, and to not a few Christians. My visit took place in 1987. I was volunteering on a dig at Tel Dor, and on a free weekend I’d taken the bus to Jerusalem with some friends to look around.

It was late Friday afternoon. I was on my first trip overseas, and, like most fresh-eyed youngsters, photo-documenting as much as I could. I raised my camera. A guard walked up to me. “No pictures on the Sabbath,” he said. He had a machine gun and I didn’t, so there was no arguing the point. Besides, I had just finished the roll. (Does anyone out there remember film cameras?) I stepped into the shade of an alcove to change the roll. A couple of Hasidic men stopped me. “No photos on the Sabbath,” they warned. I assured them I was just changing my film. It was clear, however, that no more pics would be snapped. I rejoined my party and took out a notebook—at least I could jot down a few impressions. Another guard approached, “No writing on the Sabbath,” he said.

This episode has stayed with me over the years. With Trump’s international tour, I’m reminded that I’ve always striven to avoid the “ugly American” syndrome. I respect the local rules. The incident at the Wailing Wall, however, was a case of religious rules, wasn’t it? Does the enforced rest of the Sabbath apply to Protestants? Indeed, I’d been warned that if I didn’t catch a bus before sundown I’d never make it to Jerusalem on a Friday evening at all. Conflicting theocracies have led to more than their share of international sorrow. Why not take the high road and simply absorb what is going on around me? There’s a profound wisdom in that. Travel should inform our worldview. Those who encounter walls should stop and consider all they might mean to all who will eventually face them.

Becoming

It’s pretty difficult to summarize the feelings when watching your own child graduate from college. Of course, she’s not a child any more, but that’s always the way you’ll think of her. Binghamton University, a “public ivy,” is a competitive school to attend. Hard to get in, and hard to get out. And you know that there were serious struggles to get to this point. Courses conceptually impossible for a humanities ex-professor to understand marked the trail to this point. The academic robes, the positive energy, and the overall sense of accomplishment make this one of those joyous occasions that mark the transition from being the instructed to becoming the instructors. It’s a time unlike any other.

Most of my collegiate thoughts, despite my three degrees in religious studies, have focused on science and engineering. It’s not that the basis of truth has shifted, but the practicalities of “finding a job” have to take precedence these days. The STEM universe may be the only real one, according to those smart enough to know such things. It’s difficult not to feel that studying religion was chasing a chimera, if not a little deluded. Tomorrow, though, the college of arts and sciences will send forth even more graduates into a world where employment itself may be a reverie. Still, I can’t help but think these engineers from the Watson School are just a little brighter than their more humanities-inclined classmates. Parenting is its own kind of bias.

Commencement is a singular moment. Parents sitting in the crowd want to attract their child’s attention for just a moment. Each one down there is a star. You want to be seen by them, recognized if only for a fleeting smile or subtle wave. They’ve accomplished something and everyone is here to cheer them on. Your meaning is tied up in being associated with that person that you’ve coached through so many aspects of life, and you hope you’ve done it well. They’re ready to leave academia behind and experience a bit of the wider world. It’s a cycle as old as this planet’s first molten rotations as it revolved around a distant star. And as those walking across the stage are growing in magnitude, those of us cheering them on try to recollect what it was like to have so much loving goodwill focused on us. It’s difficult to summarize these feelings, but I’m pretty sure I’d call them religious.