Too Much Light?

The summer solstice comes whether we want it to or not.  Today is the longest day in the northern hemisphere although, as I write this the sun has not yet risen.  It was a sleepless night, making this day seem even longer than it already is.  Over on Horror Homeroom, where they understand sleepless nights, my piece on the movie Midsommar will appear.  I won’t say here what I say there, or you might not go and read it.  I will say that for a horror film Midsommar boldly sets itself in a sun-bathed atmosphere, making it all the more unsettling.  To see more you’ll need to visit the Homeroom.

There are implications for the longest day.  One of the most obvious is that from here on out days will be getting shorter.  That’s the thing about anticipation—we crave the light when it’s in such short supply in December and January.  This year of Covid, the spring blended into a long stretch of social distancing and isolation, even as the days were growing longer and the weather warmer.  It was like some spokes were missing from the wheel of the year.  Now that summer’s here many people are acting as if the need for caution is gone.  Midsommar may help with that, since it shows that the daylight sometimes shows us what we don’t really wish to see.

Ancient peoples kept an eye on the seasonal changes long before they learned to write.  Etched into the landscape markers like Stonehenge and Avebury and countless others were oriented toward celestial points on the solstices.  Equinoxes were also observed, as well as the half-way points between.  This altering of the earth to commemorate the progressing of the year took great effort, so we must assume it had great importance.  You don’t move boulders unless you feel strongly compelled to do so.  Such compulsion strikes us all as religious.

So it’s the longest day of the year.  What will we do with it?  When we look back at it, will we see what we wished we might have done with all that light on our side?  Will we treat it just like any other day?  The beauty of holidays (of which capitalism recognizes far too few) is that they teach us to stop and reflect for a few moments on the messages our planet sends us.  Our longest day is also a message.  What we do with that information is up to us.

Juneteenth

Education is important.  For example, I never really knew what Juneteenth was, although I’d heard the name a few times.  Perhaps because of the “teenth” part I had it in my head that this was something to do with young people.  The amazing thing I’ve been learning over the past several weeks is just how deliberate the “white male” narrative has been in perpetuating the racist mechanism in the employment of capitalism.  Years ago I learned that race is a human construct—it has no basis in science or biology.  It has served various entrepreneurs throughout history, beginning in 1619 and has been perpetuated ever since in order to ring the last possible copper from the coffers.  Now we see what that looks like when a standing president holds these “truths” to be self-evident.

Juneteenth was proclaimed in Texas in 1865.  Even in the extreme and conservative Lone Star State it was recognized over a century ago that all people have the right to be free.  Of course we don’t celebrate it as a national holiday.  Give people too much time off and they might get to thinking.  If, perchance that thinking turns toward the heartless machine of capitalism it might be realized that there are better ways to ensure people are treated fairly, regardless of their skin color.  This year, for the first time I have seen, many organizations—some of them corporations, even—are closing in honor of Juneteenth.  Black lives do matter.  We should be able to see that, but it takes innocent deaths to make the obvious appear.

Yesterday I listened to three Pulitzer Prize winners discussing racial equality.  All three of them had written on the African-American experience.  All three knew the evils of racism.  Research has been done that indicates much of what stands behind white evangelical support of the Republican Party is racism.  Many of the movement’s leaders still buy into myths about race and believe it is something God built into the human soft machine rather than something we made up ourselves.  For political purposes.  We need Juneteenth.  We need reminders that the evil we’ve constructed can be dismantled.  People should not die because of a false human construct.  It wasn’t lack of curiosity that prevented me from learning about Juneteenth when I first heard of it.  No, it was being overwhelmed with the problems Washington was spewing out (and continues to), that I had to divide my energies depleted by the capitalist Moloch.  Now I realize, because by their fruits we shall know them.  Floyd George was murdered on camera and we need to expose the thinking that allowed that crime to happen.

Old Seas Man

Although my fiction writing has been said to resemble his by one of those websites that tell you who you write like, I’ve never read any Ernest Hemingway before.  In the wake of Melville I had a hankering to read his The Old Man and the Sea.  I honestly had no idea what it was about or how the story went.  I’d read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” so Hemingway’s classic was the last of the holy trinity of sea-faring literary classics to remain unread.  Not knowing what to expect, I was blown out to sea by it.  Published about a century after Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea visits some of the same themes but also pulls into new ports as well.

Santiago has hooked a massive fish after nearly three months with no luck.  To do so, however, he has gone out too far from land.  This watery hubris leads him to make fast to a reasonable stand-in for God.  I don’t know Hemingway’s religious outlook, but sea-faring novels already have such a large dose of Jung that it’s difficult to imagine there’s nothing divine in the massive marlin Santiago snags.  With many classics the end is known before beginning to read.  I wasn’t sure if Santiago was going to make it back to land, or indeed, if he would kill the fish.  The old man’s conversations with himself are the heart of the novel.  And one in particular turns to the religious idea of sin.

Not a religious man, Santiago bargains Hail Marys and Our Fathers for the successful catching of the fish.  Then he begins to reflect on sin.  In words similar to lyrics discussed in a recent post, Santiago declares everything a sin, even though he doesn’t believe in sin at all.  His view of life is stunning at this point, and commentary on which theologians would do well to chew.  Sin is a concept meant to impute guilt to mistakes, often made unintentionally.  What might’ve begun as a form of social control has grown into a mass neurosis for those who believe humans are capable of no good.  This is especially worth pondering if the reader considers the marlin to be God.  Try it and see what you come up with.  I know little about Hemingway, but having read his Nobel Prize-winning novel, I do feel that I have learned something worthwhile.  And I also feel the trilogy is complete.

Long Ranger

The summer solstice is nearly here (on which more anon).  The coronavirus outbreak reached crisis level in the United States just before the vernal equinox, so we’ve been living with this now for over a quarter of the year.  The World Health Organization has been warning that the greatest danger now is complacency.  I’ve been seeing troubling signs of it.  Many people equate the partial opening up as a license to ditch the masks and start having parties again.  I go jogging around 5 a.m. these days because, well, the solstice.  It’s light enough and I’ve already been awake a couple of hours by then.  Parks and playgrounds around here are officially closed still, but the other day just after first light I jogged by a group of guys playing basketball before sunrise.  The days are longer and it feels like nothing can harm us in summer.

Like most other people I worry about the economy.  You’d think books would be big business during a lockdown and in fact many kinds are doing quite well.  The academic kind less so.  Still, I haven’t given up my hope that the pandemic will prove transformative.  We should emerge from this better than we were going into it.  Granted, the Republican Party has put the bar really, really low, but people are, I hope, starting to realize we’re better than our government.  We know that black lives matter.  We know that science is real.  We know that people matter more than money.  Nevertheless it’s difficult to keep wearing masks when we’ve shed the winter clothes and donned short sleeves.  Disease, like Republicanism, doesn’t respect human desires.  We need to keep the masks on.

A strange kind of giddiness comes upon us during these long days.  There’s so much light!  Those who can sleep past 4 a.m. are finding the sky already glowing when they awake.  At this latitude it stays light until almost 9 p.m., or so I’m told.  Thinking back to our primal ancestors, we were only really active during daylight hours.  Sluggish and sleepy in the winter, we’re now stimulated with so many photons we don’t know what to do with them all.  I sincerely hope that Covid-19 has had enough of the human race and is ready to leave us alone.  In the light of the day, however, the evidence isn’t there to bear that out.  We can still celebrate the longest day of the year with masks on, knowing that six months from now things will be very different.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.

Rainbow of Reading

Reading in a time of plague is more than just a pastime.  It’s an opportunity to learn.  I keep fervently hoping that an occupation might be made out of reading, but those I’ve tried always have many long strings attached, most of them tied to capitalism.  Early on in the social distancing phase, a group in my town began posting children’s stories on lawn signs in the park.  Each sign stands six feet from the last one, and if you linger a few minutes you can take in a children’s book, presumably for the benefit of your child.  Such signs have cropped up in a couple of the parks here in town.  I’m pleased to see the attempts at literacy education continuing.  If anything’s going to get us out of this crisis, it’s going to be reading.

The local library, again early on, began giving away books that normally make up part of the book sale.  Libraries, which have proven their worth over and over, have been doing what they can to get people through the difficult times of loneliness, and in some cases, joblessness.  Those of us who cottoned onto reading at a young age realize just how much problem-solving you can glean from reading a novel.  Instead of encouraging writers, however, the capitalistic system makes agents and publishers interested only in those writers who are deemed to have commercial value.  All the rest, who often find a core audience after their deaths, are left to obscurity since money makes the world go round, right MC?  And yet where would we be without our formative fiction.

I’ve quite often admitted that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is my favorite novel.  I’d always assumed that it was a success but I recently learned that it too was a flop.  At first.  There was little interest in what has become the prototypical great American novel.  Its draw is in the lessons it teaches.  A bit too long to put on signs in the park, it explores what drives some people.  Indeed, for the owners of the Pequod it is money.  But there are more important things.  As the weather has been improving, it makes me glad to see the signs of summer.  The signs posted with books.  While I have no small children to take to the park, I am made happy by the efforts of those who take the initiative to show young people the way out of any crisis.  You must read your way through.

Under the Plague

Some events transform a society.  While we keep waiting for things “to get back to normal,” many of us have already come to realize that there is no normal to which we can get back.  That’s my main impression after reading Albert Camus’ The Plague.  The story is set in 1940s Algeria where the Bubonic Plague breaks out in a single town that has to isolate itself from the rest of the world.  As the months and realizations of long duration develop, the emotions the characters go through are very much in line with what seems to be happening with Covid-19.  Indeed, that’s why the novel seems to be going through a surge of popularity right now.  I’ve always associated Camus with the great existentialist writers, but that slipped to the back of my mind while reading this poignant story.

Existentialism is all about making one’s own meaning in a meaningless universe.  This is precisely what Dr. Rieux does in Oran as his former life becomes one long ward call of service to the town.  He befriends characters who represent the best and the worst of human nature as they respond to the pressures of isolation and boredom.  Camus pointedly notes that despite the equalizing forces of death and hardship, the rich manage to make sure they have it better than the poor although they all end up in the same common grave.  There are morals to this story, and it’s clear that “leaders” in Washington have never read it.  Literature quite often teaches important lessons, but to get at them you have to read.

Rieux befriends Tarrou and it seems to me that Tarrou’s lengthy monologue on why he has volunteered to stay in Oran and help those who are suffering is the main message of the book.  Tarrou understands the lessening of suffering, the attempt to bring peace, as the main purpose of human beings.  He says at one point that it’s like becoming a saint.  Despite the ways saints are often worshipped these days, that is at the heart of their canonization.  Care for others.  Rieux points out that Tarrou doesn’t believe in God, and yet, as the story winds down it is clear that he has become a kind of savior figure.  The novel is disturbing in its simplicity and in its timeliness.  It would seem that if we’re to get anything at all out of being under the cloud of a modern plague that we need to take the view that others matter, despite what Washington says, perhaps even more than ourselves.

Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

Temple Mysteries

Maybe you’ve noticed it too.  If you read the Bible, rather than just pose with it, you’ll wonder what went on in the temple when you’re done.  Yes, it’s obvious there would be the bleeting of sheep followed by an eerie silence, and that “that Burger King smell” would be pervasive, but what of the interior of the temple itself?  The Good Book says next to nothing about what happened inside.  We do know that going to temple wasn’t the same as going to synagogue or church.  The laity, for one thing, weren’t allowed inside.  Although the temple in Jerusalem can’t be excavated, many ancient temples have been found and archaeologists have the ability to analyze residues found on altars and that tells us something at least.  A story on Artnet News publicizes an archaeological report that rests behind a paywall, so I’ll use Artnet’s headline: “Did Ancient Hebrews Get High During Temple? A New Archaeological Discovery Suggests They Did.”

The story explains that chemical analysis of the famous Arad temple from ancient Judah shows that one of the altars was used to burn cannabis.  I guess that could help explain all the animal sacrifices.  Like most religions, that of ancient Israel kept much in the dark (literally).  Read the biblical account again.  The temple had no windows.  The holy place was illuminated by the menorah, so there was light.  The holy of holies was completely dark.  Other than the rituals of the Day of Atonement, we’re not given much information on what the priests and levites did for the rest of the year.  They may or may not have burnt cannabis.  It might be that what happened in Arad stayed in Arad.  What hath Arad to do with Jerusalem?  We simply don’t know.

Another altar in Arad, according to the story by Sarah Cascone, burned frankincense.  That sounds much more biblical.  I’ve never been a smoker and I’ve never smoked anything in my life.  I did, however, attend many services at Nashotah House where the small space of St. Mary’s Chapel was filled with so much incense that I wondered about its health affects.  I’m not sure if others felt they were getting lightheaded from all the fumes or not.  Incense, to be used effectively should be handled sparingly.  Its purpose was, theologically, to cloud the air in case God decided to show up.  You weren’t allowed to see him.  If he did show up, though, maybe it was party time.  And there’s bread and wine just out in the vestibule.  Some mysteries will never be fully explained.

Learning To Shift

Beliefs have a way of shifting with time and learning.  A regular part of my job is to spend time on college, university, and seminary websites.  Indeed, an editor in my field has to know quite a bit about institutional affiliations.  No matter how much secularists dislike it, our institutions of higher education tended, historically, to be founded by religious organizations.  That’s not unexpected since the very idea of higher education grew organically from the concept of monasteries as the places that preserved learning.  Many, if not most, universities have grown away from their founders’ faiths.  Harvard University, for example, was founded largely for the supply of Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Not officially affiliated, it nevertheless owed its founding vision to religious needs in the colony.  The fact of moving away from religious traditions is understandable in the cases of universities because learning is essentially a secular enterprise now.

Seminaries are a little different.  When searching for my first (and, to date only) full-time teaching job, I was acquired by Nashotah House because I was Episcopalian.  All the faculty were.  I’ve been turned down for a good many jobs over the years by seminaries silently stating that I wasn’t Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Ironically, as I’ve come to know many seminary faculty members through work, most of them are not of the same denomination as their institution.  Quite often they are Bible faculty, which, when you think about it, is pretty surprising.  Denominations, especially Protestant ones, draw their lines in the sand over their interpretation of Scripture.  

All of this leaves me wondering what it really means to belong to a religious body.  After Nashotah House sympathetic Episcopalians were difficult to locate.  Even those in the academy seemed to accept my sudden disappearance with a studied lack of curiosity.  I’ve sat on the sidelines for a decade and a half now, watching others play the game.  Some win.  Many do not.  Some have denominations that open up for them.  Others do not.  Looking back at the origins of higher education, those of us who studied the original academic field are now considered non-essential even among the non-essentials.  And yet society feels like it’s reeling because of its lack of understanding regarding what religion is.  There are few places to go to learn what your particular brand teaches.  But then again, beliefs do have a way of shifting over time.

Under Pressure

Cars don’t get driven as much these days.  Working from home does save quite a bit on the cost of filling up a couple times a week.  Cars that sit, however, sometimes get leaky tires.  So wearing a mask like a bandit, I found myself at a local gas station air pump, dumping quarters in for three minutes of air.  As I knelt on the asphalt, I was thinking of when air used to be free.  Gas stations made enough money on fuel that it was considered a courtesy to provide a public compressor.  As gas prices grew from a quarter a gallon (that makes me sound old) to, at one point over three dollars for the same quantity, the petroleum industry became very lucrative.  And they started charging for air.

The idea is what bothers me.  Shouldn’t air be free?  I didn’t grow up a very political kid (that had to come with maturing), but I used to hear adults complaining that soon you’d have to pay for air.  They meant the kind you have to breathe, of course, but that idea stuck.  Air should be free.  All land animals have free access to it, and our biology demands it.  The only difference with this black hose I’m holding is that it has a nozzle that forces said air into a tire valve.  I remember trying to inflate a bicycle tire by trying to blow into it.  No, for that you needed a hand pump, so air wasn’t really free even then.  If there’s a way to charge for a necessity, we’ll find it.  Of course cars pollute the actual air we breathe, so we’re paying double, really.

Gas prices tumbled just as the COVID-19 pandemic began.  I’m afraid I just can’t raise any sympathy for big oil, even if we are on the cusp of the second Great Depression.  I guess I still hope for a government that has some sympathy, and not profits in mind.  Millions and millions are unemployed and all we see is mean spiritedness toward those in need.  If their tires are flat they’ll have to pay for the very air they pump.  And I’m paying four times as much to do that as a gallon of gas cost when I was a kid.  Some things, it seems to me, should just be free.  A capitalist system can’t have that, however, since money must be kept flowing.  Perhaps they should dispense it through pumps.

Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

Teutonic Ennui

I don’t remember its title or its author.  I do recall that there was a character, or perhaps there were characters, who kept saying “etwas muss getan werden”—“something must be done.”  You see, we read quite a few existentialist short stories in German IV in high school.  There were so few of us left from the freshman intro all the way back in ninth grade that our teacher could put us right in the middle of German literature and have us read.  I wish I still had that facility now.  Although I can work my way through many languages academically (German, French, Spanish, Italian, and, of course, the dead languages of koine Greek, classical Hebrew, Ugaritic, and assorted other semitic dialects), the fluency of sitting down and just reading atrophied long ago.  Still, etwas muss getan werden.  That sense of anxiety feels like it’s permanent now.

Every now and again, when tensions are running high—this past week is an example—I find myself nervously checking online news sources frequently to see if anything dramatically good has happened.  This gets to be almost a tic.  I need to have some assurance that we’ve not become a dictatorship, or that there are those in power with enough humanity left inside them have tried to do something to make things better.  Being a nation of throw-away people is ethically wrong no matter what scale you use.  Skin color and national heritage do not lessen the worth of any human being.  We can’t even get out to protest properly because a pandemic, which is still being mishandled, rages.  The days are full of such sameness.  Etwas muss getan werden.  Please.

I wish I could remember the stories I read in high school.  Some have stayed with me through the years.  German class was my introduction to existentialism, a philosophy with which I still mostly identify.  That was the reason I would pick up books by Kafka, Camus, and Dürrenmatt when I would find them in the once plentiful used book stores.  I remember the latter’s Der Besuch der alten Dame. I recall seeing the play performed and being reminded that we are all players in a drama whose only sense comes from our assignment of the same.  Now I sit inside on sunny days.  Afraid of economic insecurity—who knows how long the jobs will hold out?—I don’t go to stores and try to order as little as possible online.  I keep waiting for something to happen.  As I learned in high school etwas muss getan werden, no matter where I read it.

Sinning

The other day I was searching through the CDs we have and came across the Pet Shop Boys’ album, Actually.  Curious, I googled them and was surprised to learn that they are considered the most successful British pop duo ever, by some metrics.  Who knew?  I lost track of them after 1987.  As I played the album—and synth-pop really isn’t my style—I began to wonder why I’d bought it.  Then “It’s a Sin” played.  The Pet Shop Boys’ second number one hit from ’87, that song was part of my personal history that has led, indirectly, to my last two books.  Let me set the scene:

In 1987 I graduated from seminary.  I was just a small town boy, having grown up in rural northwest Pennsylvania.  My exposure to big cities was limited, and that was one reason I’d chosen Boston for said seminary.  It was there that I began to realize just how much popular culture referenced religion.  “It’s a Sin” is emblematic in that regard.  Everything the boys want to say or do is a sin.  Sounds like Calvinism to me. Still, the song was heard by millions.  I bought the album because of it.

As I recall, there were several pop artists singing about religion at the time.  Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was still eight years away, but it was becoming obvious to me that people took religious cues from pop media.  I once described the ability to find references to the Good Book as “Bible radar.”  If you’re raised in that culture you learn to spot religion in the most unlikely places.  The concept of sin is a purely religious one.  We all have consciences (I hope) but to make an act Hell-worthy requires religion.  And according to some forms of Christianity just about everything is a sin.

That idea lay dormant for decades.  I read novels and found religion embedded in them, often in biblical form.  I saw it on television.  And in movies.  Even horror movies.  While I sometimes elected to expose myself to intentionally religious media, these references often came from secular sources.  As I began to research this, I came to realize that religion is intricately woven into the fabric of society.  Try to tease it out to isolate it and the cloth starts to come undone.  We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than that, but the truth is at some level we still believe it’s a  sin.