The Happy Science

Many seem to be wondering, if the media are to be believed, why America, like REM, is losing its religion.  (And yes, I know that the expression for the latter means to lose one’s temper, not literally to lose one’s faith.)  Derek Thompson at the Atlantic recently wrote about how the more literal loss took place around 1990.  He posits that the rise of the Christian Right, the Cold War coming to an end, and 9/11 are behind the loss.  As an historian of religion, even with a more ancient focus, I have to wonder if his gaze goes back far enough.  Being born early in the sixties was an opportunity to have a front-row seat.  My family was very religious.  To us, the rest of the world may have been going to Hell, but locally we were trying to please God, as most everyone we knew was.

Theologians and sociologists thought God had died.  Nietzsche, always ahead of his time, had declared as much nearly a century before the sixties got underway.  The public face of religion, however, is never the same as what’s going on below.  The religious right was built on a deep-seated hypocrisy from the beginning.  Now hypocrisy is so very human it’d be easily forgiven were it not for the constant insistence on self-righteousness followed by the revelation of some base human vice.  Time and time again televangelists didn’t cover the tracks of their peccadillos well enough, and Catholic priest couldn’t fight that feeling.  They were doing what humans have probably always done, but while wearing the vestments of public respectability.  Like Cthulhu, it seemed like God was dead but dreaming under the sea.

Religion, as all scholars of the phenomenon know, changes only very slowly.  Church attendance began dropping in the seventies, but back then there was such a thing as the rule of law and a real concern that your neighbors didn’t think you a Commie.  Fast forward to the era of Trump when the rule of law broke down completely and religions rank right up there with Republicans as being the most dishonest elements of humankind.  We look back at when the slow trickle seemed to breech the dyke in the 1990s.  The real game changer (since 9/11 was still in the future) was the birth of the internet.  People began to talk freely about the two subjects—religion and politics—that those of us from the sixties were taught assiduously to avoid in polite company.  Nietzsche published Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in 1882.  It would take about a century to sink in, and human religious leaders would be the ones to prove his point.  At least in this world of choosing our confessions.

TMI

Recently I was left alone for the entirety of a Saturday.  On rare days when I feel affluent, I’ll go and purchase supplies to take on the many tasks that need doing around the house—most of the books on my office are still stacked on the floor for lack of shelves.  I can build them, but that takes money.  Often when I have an unclaimed day I plan it out weeks in advance.  Things have been busy enough of late that I didn’t even have the time to do that.  All the sudden I woke up on a November Saturday with tabula rasa in front of me.  Then I realized one of the constant pressures I face: TMI.  One of my nieces—the one who started this blog, actually—first introduced me to Too Much Information (TMI).  I don’t get out much, you see.

Like most people who flirt with tech, I snap photos with my phone.  When we go somewhere that I suspect we’ll never be able to afford to go again, I take an actual camera and let fly like I work for National Geographic or something.  Since my laptop’s on a data diet, all of these end up on a terabyte drive, hurriedly downloaded as IMG or DSCN files, waiting to be sorted later.  Do this since the inception of digital photographs and you’ll get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  My laptop says it’s full and I have to delete images with that dire warning they’ll go away forever.  I back them up.  When was the last time I did this?  I wrote it down, but I forgot where.  What did I even name the file?  Did I back it up or is it on my hard disc?  Why are there eight copies of the same photograph?  I spent the day sorting, virtually.

Before I knew it, the sun was beginning to set.  I’d awoken at 4:00 (being a weekend I slept in), and after a day of organizing electronic photos into electronic folders, I’d barely made a dent.  Deduping alone takes so much time.  Some of the pictures, while nice, I couldn’t remember at all.  I shudder, though, thinking about grandparents that burned old photos because nobody remembered who they were any more.  Then I realized that our lives are the most documented of any in history (so far) but nobody really cares.  You could learn an awful lot about some stranger just by going through their photos—where they’ve been, what they thought important, and just how obsessive they could be.  As I wound up the day, I realized why I don’t get out much any more.

Dead Language

Tis the season for returning from the dead.  Goodreads is one of the few websites that I allow to send me notices.  I try to check them daily, and I even read their monthly updates of new books by authors I’ve read.  I was a bit surprised when November’s newsletter began with The Andromeda Evolution by Michael Crichton.  I really enjoyed The Andromeda Strain when I was in high school.  The fact that I was in high school four decades ago made me wonder about the robustness of Dr. Crichton, especially since I knew that he had died over a decade ago himself.  I don’t know about you, but the writing industry feels crowded enough without dead people keeping in the competition.  It’s like those professors who refuse to retire, but also refuse to teach or do research.  Some people, apparently, can never get enough.

We live in an era of extreme longevity.  In the scope of human history, people haven’t lived so long since before the flood.  Some of us—not a few, mind you—work in fields with limited job openings.  We are the sort who don’t really get the tech craze, intelligent Luddites who’d rather curl up in the corner with an actual book.  There are very few professorates available.  Even fewer editorships.  And anyone who’s tried to get an agent without being one of the former knows that there are far too many writers out there.  Now the dead keep cranking ‘em out.  I’ve got half-a-dozen unpublished novels sitting right here on my lap.  Crichton’s gone the way of all flesh, but with an active bank account.

The end result of this Novemberish turn of events is that I want to read The Andromeda Strain again.  I haven’t posted it to Goodreads since when I read it the internet itself wasn’t even a pipe dream, except perhaps in the teenage fantasies of some sci-fi fans.  Since you can’t rate a book twice on Goodreads, and because paper books don’t disappear when you upgrade your device, I can do it.  I can actually walk to the shelf and pull a vintage mass-market paperback off it.  Even if the Earth passes through the tail of some comet and all networks are down.  And I seem to recall that the original strain came from outer space.  As did the strange radiation that brought the ghouls back to life on The Night of the Living Dead.  Now if only some of the rest of us might get in on the action.

The New Light

Sometimes you meet kindred spirits in books.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been waiting patiently.  It’s one of those books that I suspected would meet me where I live, and regarding this I was correct.  Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest and professor of religion (both of which I attempted but failed to achieve), has the courage and insight to suggest that darkness might just be a friend.  The darker half of the year settled hard on me this year.  As its black wings gathered about me I reached for this book.  I’ve been struggling with a question I’m sometimes asked: why do I let my thoughts linger in what must be considered darker corners?  I watch horror and write books and stories about monsters.  What’s wrong with me anyway?

One accusation may be fairly leveled at much of American religion is that it is shallow.  Light is uncritically accepted as good and dark becomes somehow evil.  There are biblical prooftexts that can be used to “prove” this, but they change color when you wrestle with them.  Learning to Walk in the Dark contains many ways of reflecting on realities which are inevitable.  Brown Taylor visits museums that give the sighted the experience of being blind in a safe environment.  She spends time in caves.  She stretches out beneath the stars and contemplates the dark night of the soul as well as the cloud of unknowing.  These latter two are, of course, spiritual classics.  There’s quite a bit that can be learned from experiencing darkness and listening intently.

My own predilections toward subjects called “dark” are forms of therapy.  My religion simply can’t be shallow.  I need enough water to swim.  And yes, I’m afraid of deep water.  Darkness perhaps comes more naturally to those of us who are awake for every sunrise.  If I move far enough north that may cease to be the case, but for the last decade or so my internal alarm goes off a couple hours before the first sliver of light creeps over the eastern hills.  And I seem to have assimilated to it.  As I read Learning I could imagine the accusations flying from my former Nashotah House context.  Looking at that patriarchal theology of sin and misery, however, I think there’s no question whence true darkness comes.  Without the dark we could never tell that it was light.  Since we need both, it seems wise to follow the sage advice here offered and get to know the dusky side a bit more intimately.

Old Grains

Back when I was somebody—a professor is somebody, even if only a seminary professor—I was invited to meet with a group of Seattle writers and intellectuals.  I was in Seattle already because driving all the way out here was possible when you live in the Midwest and your summers are basically open and free.  (Professor’s privilege.)  One of the group members, the one who invited me, asked me about grain.  When the club met they ate.  With a bent toward history, one of them brought period-appropriate bread.  What kind would be fashionable for a night of ancient Near East talk?  (I was still researching and writing on Ugarit at the time, before Ugaritology passed away.)  Without stopping to think I replied “Einkorn.”  I didn’t know if einkorn was still around or not.  All I knew is that it was the earliest (at least as understood at that time) domesticated grain.  The loaf that arrived that night was a more accessible grain variety.

All of this came back to me as I stood in the local health-food store.  We don’t shop here for regular groceries—it’s expensive to eat healthily—but we’d been invited to someone’s house and said we’d bring appetizers.  The health-food store had vegan cheeses, so we needed crackers to go with.  Then I spied the word “einkorn.”  The Seattle discussion had to be well onto two decades old by now.  I was finally able to answer my question, einkorn was still alive.  The craze for ancient grains did not exist in my professorate days.  Some companies, according to occasional news stories, were trying to brew the beer of ancient Egypt or Sumer, but the health conscious hadn’t gone so far as to trying to replicate the diet of the earliest agriculturalists.

Ancient grains cost more because the yields are smaller.  Although the grain heads look disturbingly like those house centipedes that scamper in the basement when you flip on the light, they aren’t nearly the size of a current wheat head.  It stands to reason that it takes more of them to make up the same amount of flour, and appetites have grown over the millennia.  Like most vegans, I read boxes.  Another ancient grain cracker, apart from brown rice, included amaranth, flaxseed, millet, quinoa, sesame, and sorghum.  Never mixed this way in antiquity (for amaranth and quinoa were part of the “new world” and the others “old”), modern mixologists have devised new ways of using ancient grains.  Einkorn nearly went extinct with the development of wheat, rye, and barley.  But it hung on, and now, as a dozen millennia ago, it has a way of sustaining both dreams and fantasies.

Greatest Weakness

What a privilege it must be to work in a world of ideas!  (And to get paid handsomely to do so.)    My particular (and peculiar) career—if that’s what you call it—is intimately bound up with academics.  Those who know me personally treat me nicely, but the vast majority who haven’t a clue that I’m anything other than a guy who’s helping them get published sometimes forget their privilege is showing.  I’m not busting on my homies; I know what it’s like.  But I’ve noticed some interesting trends (“turns” in academese) that are fascinating from the point of view of an ordinary mortal with a mortgage and a great deal of anxiety about it.  For example, I find catch phrases time and again.  (See what I did there?)  Academic writers learn that if they buck the conventions they’ll be relegated to presses that don’t enhance your career.  All roads lead to Harvard, after all.

All of this is preamble to a curious trend that I’ve been seeing claiming that an idea’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  I read this time and time again, so I began to wonder about the origin of this idea.  Now, not even Google understands “what is the origin of the phrase greatest strength is greatest weakness?” but it does bring up about a thousand-and-one websites about job interviews.  I’ve had many of these throughout this thing I’m calling a career, and just like everyone else I’ve read that when asked what your greatest weakness is reply that your greatest strength (whatever it may be) is it.  The classics such as “I’m a workaholic,” or “I just can’t stop acquiring more x” (and we all need more x), are tired cultural tropes.  How did academics pick up on this?

Does it stretch back to Achilles and his heel, or Goliath and his gigantism?  Or is it that to admit weakness is to disqualify yourself from a job?  A well-meaning friend told me I should go through this entire blog (as if anyone, including me, has time to do that) and expunge all mentions of having lost my job.  They should be replaced with insinuations that I’d chosen to leave.  “Nobody,” he implied, “likes a loser.”  Well, I guess my greatest weakness is that I’m an honest graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  Novels and nonfiction books, short stories and essays, and even a learned article or two.  I used to be an academic you see.  And I was always honest.  It was my greatest weakness, if you see what I mean.

The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?