Holding Still

For some people today is the start of the “holiday season.”  Thanksgiving begins what often becomes a rush up until Christmas.  Moods tend to be more festive, if not carefree.  As for me, I always save up vacation days so that I can make my own mini “semester break” late in December.  From the onset of the holiday season I can see far enough to be able to make it through the rest of the year.  For me the season seems to begin at Halloween.  It’s not a federal holiday and I don’t know anyone who gets Halloween off of work, but I take holidays seriously, and Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are all anticipated days.  And in the spirit of the day, I’m thinking of the many things for which I’m thankful.

Family, friends, and health go without saying.  I really don’t need a holiday to remind me to be grateful for these things.  This year I’m thankful to have made it back from Denver unscathed.  Since it was over twelve hours of travel (less than three of those hours spent in flight) to get home, it was a long, weary, mask-wearing day of travel.  Denver Airport is nearly an hour from downtown.  The American Airlines agent was able to get me an earlier flight to Chicago.  My reading was disrupted by sleepiness and the fact that the woman next to me was watching Jordan Peele’s Nope on her laptop.  I’ve been meaning to watch it again, so I hope I wasn’t obvious when I didn’t strictly observe the custody of my eyes.  The most grueling part, however, was the four-hour layover in Chicago’s O’Hare.  

No matter what the owners do, there’s a limit to how comfortable airport waiting can be.  You have to keep a constant eye on your bags.  Very, very few people are wearing masks.  And two days before Thanksgiving is a busy travel day with people trying to avoid the busiest travel day of the year (yesterday).  I’m thankful to have gotten home and not to have been too much the worse for the wear.  And I’m thankful to spend a day not having to wear a mask.  It’s funny how having to wear one for five straight days all day long can become a point of dread.  I like being able to take a drink of water without having to pull down a mask.  Returning to life as usual will take some adjustment—it always does.  So much travel after spending years not doing it is a bit of a shock to the system.  I’m reminded of one of the most colourful place names we encountered in the highlands of Scotland, and it is my theme this Thanksgiving: Rest and Be Thankful.

Rest and Be Thankful, unknown photographer

Religion in the Air

There’s a physicality to it.  Being in Denver, I mean.  My hotel was a mere four blocks from the convention center and the short walk inevitably found me huffing and puffing.  My first night there it had me wondering if something was wrong—should I call a doctor?  I jog on a regular basis and try to stay healthy and so I’m not used to being winded by an inconsequential walk.  My second scheduled meeting saw me with a seasoned scholar.  He pointed out as we slowly made our way to the seating area that the altitude was probably to blame.  The mile-high city does lack the oxygen more abundant down where we lowlanders dwell.  I often wonder if my first trip here was beset by altitude sickness.  I met a colleague at the conference, on his first trip here, who had the same non-Covid symptoms I had all those years ago.

We’re used to our own air.  The familiar atmosphere we breathe each day.  Taken out of that context we’re not exactly fish out of water, but we’re not exactly not either.  The combination of back-to-back meetings, the effort it takes to walk around city center, and the constant chill in the air during my time there dissuaded me from exploring.  Or even finding places to eat.  I started to worry that they’d recognize me at the Chipotle where I ordered carryout the first three nights in the city.  I know there must be other places to get some good, vegan options, but it was always dark by the time I was done with work and I was still waking up on Eastern Time.  On the positive side, I didn’t get sick this time.  And I would really like to explore the place further.

Many years ago, on a family driving trip from Wisconsin to Idaho, we drove through Colorado on the way home.  High above Denver, in the Rockies—driving through Rocky Mountain National Park—I told my wife I felt strangely elated.  “It’s like a religious experience,” I said.  Perhaps it was the physicality of that altitude, mountains spread out before us, that led to that brief moment of rapture.  It’s so closely related to that acrophobia that whispers the warning not to fall off the edge of this globe when you’re so high in the air.  Even now as I’m heading home from Denver when I’ll be even higher in the sky for a few hours, I reflect on what it means to be a physical being enveloped by the air.  And I’ll appreciate with wonder the planet of mountains, endless plains, and eroding hills on which I live, and I’ll be thankful for every breath.


Kids’ Stuff?

Do you want to be popular with the kids this Christmas?  Do you want to hear the squeals of pure delight that every mom, dad, aunt, or uncle wants when that special present is unwrapped?  Might I suggest a book of theology?  Yes, one of the publishers here at AAR/SBL has a table of Theology for Kids.  Staring at that sign during the long hours on the conference floor, my mind kept wandering back to Richard Dawkins’ comparison of teaching children religion to child abuse.  Indeed, my wife had sent me an article in Rolling Stone a few weeks back that declared an Evangelical childhood was a, to put it politely, a total mind-fornication.  It is something from which those of us raised religious spend all our lives recovering.  Some never escape, while others try to make sense of the world without it.

Publishers of religious bodies make up a substantial part of those present at the annual meeting.  The ones with the biggest, flashiest displays are often buoyed up by evangelical dollars.  Teaching kids to think this way is a core part of keeping the meme alive and those of us who dared question it with our God-given brains are the modern heretics and heathens.  Some years here, various publishers are piously closed on Sunday morning (this is only a three-and-a-half day conference) with signs telling the rest of us that they’re observing the Lord’s day.  America is a strange mix of evangelical and secular, the kind of place where you can purchase theology for kids.  I know I grew up with such things, even though we really couldn’t afford the other children’s classics that I only learned about from having a child of my own.

The canon is important to this self image.  For me, I’ve come to expand mine a bit over the years.  That expanded canon includes unconventional sources of spiritual inspiration, or so my conversations with others leads me to believe.  Theology can, and often does, lead to death sentences for adults.  And sadly, occasionally for children.  It’s difficult to blame adults for trying to ensure their children’s eternal salvation, especially when religion is so terribly difficult to escape even as an adult.  I suppose that’s why I still advocate for learning about religion although it has damaged me personally as well as determined what would pass for my career.  So I stand here awaiting my next appointment and find myself again taken into my past which was full of theology for children.


Reflections of a Hermit

Although I acknowledge that Covid has made even more a hermit of me—I won’t deny it—and I often complain when I have to travel for work, I generally end up glad that I have.  (As long as I avoid Covid.)  Being at the AAR/SBL annual meeting is like being in a living library.  You meet and talk with so many smart, smart people and their ideas and yours begin to blend in an amazing kind of way.  I suspect that it shows that my books have been written by a guy in isolation.  That is, they could be improved by other eyes on them.  That’s what peer review is about, of course, but there’s something exciting about talking to my monster friends and engaging them about their ideas.  Frequently they will ask about mine.  I’ve even had colleagues mention that they’ve read some of my work.

The only real problem with how this unfolds is that I have so many meetings in a day that I sometimes lose track of the many ideas that crowd into my head.  Hastily-scrawled memos in my notebook—I’m too busy paying attention—mean that only fragments remain the next morning.  Each of them a gem.  (Fitting for Denver.)  When conversation comes around to what I’ve been working on, no matter how obscure it is, my monster friends know the root story and even have ideas that help shape my work.  No one scholar can read everything, and those of us who tend towards being hermits have the limited sources of one human imagination.  When imaginations get together, however, these ideas blossom.  I learn so much from these brief days that I think I might’ve been dangerous if I’d remained in the academy.  The man with an exploding head.

I sincerely hope that I give as well as receive at these meetings.  It’s really unfortunate that we don’t support humanities scholars in this nation.  These are some of the bright stars in our national constellation, yet they struggle with underfunding, and pressures such as “metrics,” as if you can quantify the influence on young brains and the potential future of our collective imaginative life.  Although I grouse, as is perhaps to be expected of an aging hermit, I can’t help but be enriched by the fertile minds I encounter, even if behind a Covid mask.  I’m never quite sure how to thank all these idea-conjurers properly.  I wouldn’t have met most of them had my career not taken the strange turns it has.  Now I realize that even hermits may have many friends.


Day Two

You have your suspicions when you first spot them, but you have to wait to confirm it.  You’re flying in mid-to-late November and they’re concentrated around one particular destination.  They won’t be the only ones going there, of course—families with kids, late vacationers, others traveling for business—but they will be among them and you can learn to spot them.  The attendees of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting.  Pre-pandemic there were reliably about 10,000—a biblical myriad—of them.  We’ll have to wait to get the figures on them this time around.  In any case, I make a game of spotting them at the airport.  Well, if you’ve got a connecting flight you need to wait until the final leg.  It’s possible some got on with me in Allentown, but I didn’t spot any likely candidates.

The male of the species is easier to identify at a glance.  Bearded, serious demeanor, slightly out of touch when it comes to fashion.  Incongruously sometimes they’re wearing jeans but you know that’s just their traveling raiment;  once they arrive and get tweeded up they’ll be easier to place.  Otherwise you can identify them on the path by their talk.  If they enter into discussion with a seat mate or someone walking to the baggage claim or getting onto the public transit, or even in restaurants, they will speak of strange things.  Their language will grow technical and their frowns will be discerning.  They are assessing, you know, assessing the ideas that don’t fit with their personal theories about samsara, or Origen, or Jeremiah.  And they don’t mind saying so, right out in public.

As important as I know religion to be, and as much as I know that to understand it deeply you must spend years and decades studying it, I sometimes wonder just how others must view us.  I still dress like them, although I travel in my tweed because it makes my suit-bag too bulky to pack it.  On the plane I read an actual book (likely about religion, but that’s not a guarantee), and once in a while someone who hasn’t realized that the conference is over will want to talk business in the airport while waiting for a flight when all I want to do is pull out a novel and try to get the shop talk out of my head for a little while.  This is the unusual experience of attending AAR/SBL.  I’m sure there’s enough material here for a sociological study, but I think the sociologists have conferences of their own to attend.


Remember November

I didn’t get his name.  I could have, because he was wearing a name tag.  I was too busy thinking, “that won’t be me.”  I ended up being wrong about that point.  He was sitting in that depressing place at the AAR/SBL meeting in Kansas City.  That room for those waiting to see if they’d scored any interviews.  “I’ve got publications,” he told me, “I’ve got years of teaching experience, but no interviews.”  Our capacity to fool ourselves should not be underestimated.  I was just sure that once I was in that place—publications, teaching experience—I would be able to find a professorship.  I did find one that lasted about fourteen years, but after that, my nameless friend, I have to say “you were right.”

I can’t help but think of that when I attend this conference.  It’s a place of lost dreams for me.  I can see my books on display here.  I can see literally hundreds of people that I know.  I’ve gone from a vocation to a job, and there’s no going back.  Sometimes I wonder if adjacent careers are a good idea or not.  I’ve put some books under contract from new Ph.D.s who eventually decide to disappear.  Not to be found anywhere in academia, their books left unpublished.  Perhaps they met my mysterious prophet.  Maybe they came to realize that working in a job right next door to where they want to be will only ever remind them of loss and regret.  We continue to the glamour of a conference that reminds many of what they never found.  El Dorado.

So as I sit here in Denver with my past.  I actually made it to Denver, which is, I suppose an improvement over last time.  There was snow, in Denver, but the locals seem to be fine with it.  Not many people are wearing masks these days, I’ve noticed.  There were a few stalwarts on the plane(s) and a few here at the conference who did.  The pandemic doesn’t bend to the will of people, not even religion scholars.  Viewing Denver from the airport (it’s a considerable way out), it looks so small and insignificant backed by the front range of the Rockies.  Maybe that’s what all of this is about: significance.  My association with this conference spans 31 years.  Perhaps there’s a bit of weariness here too.  The pandemic may never really end, not in any meaningful way.  I do wonder if my nameless friend ever found a job and if he still attends.  If he does I wonder what he would say about all of this.


The Denver Curse

I’m posting this early today because I’m flying to Denver for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) annual meeting.  At least that’s the plan.  I don’t have a good track record with Denver and this conference.  I’d been attending AAR/SBL since 1991.  I can’t recall what year it was when I first attended in Denver.  I was still a professor then and had a paper to read.  I also had free time (something editors don’t have at conferences).  I decided to view the world-famous mineral and dinosaur exhibits at the Museum of Natural History the morning of my paper day.  While at the museum something very embarrassing happened—I got sick in public.  It was scene-from-a-cheap-movie bad.  Literally sprinting to a public waste can to throw up in front of strangers.  I’d never been sick at AAR/SBL before, despite the November timing.  When I went to read my paper that afternoon, the motion of my eyes made me sick again and I had to sit with my head between my knees while a bunch of biblical scholars looked on with what passes for concern in academic circles.

The second, and last, time I was flying to Denver  for the conference there was a small snowstorm.  I was flying out of Newark on an evening flight.  Because of the snow (which ended up being about two inches) my flight kept getting delayed and delayed.  They made the decision to cancel the flight after 11 p.m. by which time all local hotels were full from the earlier cancelled flights.  To make matters worse, there was no way out of the airport.  All public transit shut down.  Even if I could’ve caught a taxi where was I to go?  I live in Pennsylvania.  With no other choice, I slept on the floor of Newark’s Liberty International Airport.  I awoke early, having used my briefcase as a pillow (a step up from a stone, I expect) and found my way to Somerville, where we used to live.  My wife picked me up at the train station there and drove me home.  I missed the conference, needless to say.

And so you see that I’m a bit dubious about trying this again.  I have nothing against Denver.  Before getting sick I was enjoying my time there.  So, if things go according to plan, I’ll be on a plane headed that direction by the time I usually post my daily thoughts on this blog.  Will the Denver curse be broken?  Only the next few days will tell. Watch this space.

Photo by Acton Crawford on Unsplash

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.


Honest Labor

When an artisan begins a new job, s/he must acquire the tools of the trade.  During a period of unemployment I seriously considered getting certified as a plumber.  I’d done some plumbing repair and, unlike many people, I wasn’t afraid of it.  (I am, however, terrified of electrical work.)  When I was looking into it, it became clear that there would be a significant outlay of tool purchasing up front.  While all of this may seem obvious, people are often surprised to learn that writing books also involves tools acquisition, although it generally pays far less than plumbing. The tools used to be made of paper, but they can wrench pipes apart and rebuild a bathroom from scratch.  I’m referring to books, of course.  In order to write books you have to read books.

Long ago I gave up on trying to read everything in an area before writing.  There’s just too much published these days.  When I was teaching and actually had a modest book allowance I would attend AAR/SBL only to come back with armloads of books that I needed for my research.   Of course I had the backing of the seminary library as well, so I could find things.  As an independent scholar doing the same work, however, you have to do a lot more tool acquiring since no library will back you up.  Nightmares with the Bible came back from peer review with a standard-issue academic who wanted me to “show my work.”  (I.e., document everything.)  Apart from slowing the book down (it is written), this also means acquiring tools.  AAR/SBL always reminds me of just how much is being published these days and that my toolbox, although already quite hefty, isn’t nearly big enough.

As I’m going through Nightmares rewriting and adding footnotes, I’m discovering more and more material that could be included.  As an editor myself I try hard to keep to assigned word counts, and the entire allotment could easily be taken up by bibliography alone.  I am very modest in my spending at conferences now—independent contractors have to be.  Nightmares will likely be my last academic book; I can’t afford to keep going like this.  I don’t plan to give up writing, of course, just academic publishing.  Both this book and Holy Horror were written for non-specialist readerships, to showcase my non-technical way of explaining things.  Both ended up with academic presses and are slated to be among those specialist tools that the beginning artisan covets but for which s/he has to budget.  And when this house is finished it will have an impressive, if most unusual, private library.


Post Facto

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.”  Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did.  There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane.  My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond.  This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars.  Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive.  I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.

Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.”  While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales.  The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising.  Should it not read “Unemployment Center”?  That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery.  I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences.  Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview.  I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place.  Some of them mine.

Now I’m high over Death Valley.  It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way.  The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot.  Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty?  And statements like Tenure track is not the norm.  The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right.  If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it.  The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.


J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.


Armed Forces

You ought to feel safe with the U.S. Navy so close by.  The naval base at San Diego is the second largest surface base in this particular branch of our sprawling military system.  From my hotel room I can watch the ships chugging through the harbor and from the Convention Center you can see quite a spread of naval real estate.  Still, all this hardware doesn’t make me feel safe.  Perhaps because I’m a child of the sixties, I can imagine a world at peace where military budgets don’t literally take food from the mouths of hungry citizens.  The last time I was in San Diego for AAR/SBL I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier.  It’s clearly visible from my room.  I was amazed at both the technology and the obvious expenditure for such a craft.  It can’t be easy to set a city afloat.

Whenever I experience things like this I can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we loved each other as a species and put our heads together to try to solve our problems.  Lack of water—perhaps ironically in this naval city—is a serious global issue.  Poverty is the ghost of civilization.  The grasping of power by the driven but inept is clear worldwide.  We build great, complicated war machines.  The noise generated by the helicopters charging overhead bespeaks their weight and weaponry.  Down here in the southwest there are places civilians just can’t go because our military is busy keeping us too safe to allow us to wonder what they’re up to.  Black budgets must be nice.  I stand here among religion scholars and dream.

Ironically religion often leads to the fear that leads, in turn, to militarization.  We want to protect our “way of life.”  We’ll follow the prince of peace into war any day.  Just give the signal and release the missiles.  It doesn’t make me feel safe at all.  One time on a family visit, we drove through Norfolk, Virginia.  We stayed at a cheap hotel, because, well, we’re cheap.  The metal door was heavily reinforced with a stolid steel lock.  Navy men, we were informed, didn’t always behave well while ashore.  The locks were to keep us safe from those protecting us.  We stayed only one night and left early the next morning.  So I while the annual meeting away under the watchful eye of our largest line item on the budget.  They’re keeping our bodies safe, but who’s keeping track of our souls?


Focus on Religion

Publishers Weekly, or PW to those in the biz, is a great place to get information about, well, publishing.  I often spend AAR/SBL telling authors and prospective authors something that I wish I’d been told when teaching: time spent learning about publishing is never wasted.  PW every year has a “Religion and Spirituality Update” released in time for this meeting.  Despite the relatively small number of sales, religion is a discipline that loves its books.  I’ve only been quoted in PW’s special edition once, and it’s not been for a few years, nevertheless I always learn a thing or two from this free—yes, if you’re here in San Diego it’s free!—update.  It may seem odd to suggest that religion titles can be hot, but it is indeed possible.  Sexuality is hot.  I suppose that goes without saying.

A number of titles dealing with religion and sexuality appear every year.  What caught my attention, however was an observation from Jennifer Banks, from Yale University Press.  Noting the rancor that sexuality often introduces to discussions of religion, she observes that (and this is a quote from PW, not directly from Banks) “some Christians apparently need others to go to hell.”  (I can send the full citation, if you want to know.)  In an era when academics have been stressing inclusion, the retrenched religious world has been spinning in the opposite direction.  Instead of inviting everyone to Heaven, as might, say a Universalist, many conservative Christians consign fellow believes to Hell, and gleefully so.  It’s almost as if Christianity and capitalism have merged into a zero-sum game.  If some win, all the others have to lose.  They haven’t however, studied the history of Hell very well.

It’s kind of an insidious idea.  Given that we all want to justify ourselves, some go to the extremes of demonizing those who see things differently.  This form of religious thinking was original neither with Christianity nor the Judaism from which it grew.  There was no Hell in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea, when it did develop, wasn’t a place to torture your enemies, but rather a place demanded by justice.  Those who were utterly and unrepentantly wicked couldn’t hobnob in God’s country club with those who tried to be righteous.  In the modern evangelical narrative those who make certain medical decisions for basic human situations are among the utterly wicked.  Not surprisingly their sins are usually sexual.  If you want to see this in a wider context, pick up a PW when you pass by the stand.  “Anything free,” to quote another sage, “is worth saving up for.”  And who knows, it might keep you from Hell?


Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.


Speedy Delivery (SD)

Ritual, no matter what scientists say, is deeply woven into the fabric of human psyches.  It may be either the warp or the weft, but it’s downright basic.  I was reminded of this on my hurried and slow trip to San Diego yesterday.  I always wear the same shirt when I fly to this conference.  This isn’t superstition, but rather it’s a case of sticking with something that works.  I don’t often wear turtlenecks, and one reason is that they seldom fit well.  More years ago than I care to admit (I’m wearing the shirt in the photo below, which was taken at Nashotah House nearly two decades in the past) I found a navy blue turtleneck from Land’s End (this is not a sponsored post, although it probably should be) that works perfectly.  Even today it fits snugly around the neck after hours of wear.  Maybe ten years back I bought a black turtleneck from the same company and after pulling it over my head, it gaps something awful.  I tend only to wear it around the house.  The original still does the job.

I was ready to drive myself to the airport yesterday and I grabbed a quick lunch at home.  Part of said lunch involved opening a ketchup bottle probably nearly as old as the shirt I was wearing.  (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)  I ended up looking like a murderer, which is not something you want to try to explain to a TSA agent.  I quick threw said ritual shirt into the washer and the drier buzzed at the same time as my phone did for when I had to leave for my two-hour-ahead check-in.  This remarkable shirt was dry and ready to serve.  Maybe you can see now why I’m so ritualistic about clothes.  I also opt-out of those Star Trek scanners at the airport.  This means I get lots of governmental pat-downs.  It feels more authentic when you have actual hands running down your body—at least it’s honest.

The TSA agent commented that you don’t see many turtlenecks these days.  I explained that it’s good for flying because I’m always cold on planes.  As this stranger’s hands were rubbing down my chest, I was wondering how many times this shirt has been felt up by the US government.  It has no pockets to pick, and besides, at airport screenings everything is stowed in my carry-on, including wallet.  At midnight San Diego time, I checked into my hotel.  East coast time said I’d been awake 24 hours because who can really sleep on a plane?  Once my patted-down body reaches 3 a.m., Eastern Time, it wakes up.  In these circumstances it’s good to know I can rely on that shirt in my drawer.  That’s what rituals are all about.