Boston Brahmins, lock up your doctrines—AAR/SBL’s come to town. Boston always has special associations for me. My first home away from home. Where I met my wife. Where I learned what you can only learn at seminary. Coming back is like coming home. Of course, I’m here to work. As I was getting ready for this trip I recalled that the conference met in Boston when I was studying for my Master’s degree at Boston University. Unlike many graduate schools these days, no overtures were made for students to attend. In fact, I didn’t know what all the in-joking among the faculty was all about. I relearned the existence of the conference as a grad student in Edinburgh a few years later. Few traveled across the Atlantic for it, at that point. In fact, none of the Edinburgh faculty who’d eventually become regulars had ever considered going. My first meeting was in Kansas City.
The meeting has grown since those days. Now regularly expecting about 10,000 scholars (can one help but think of 10,000 maniacs?) a year, the venues are limited. Atlanta, Boston, San Antonio, San Diego. Chicago and Denver once in a while. Personally, I’m glad it’s close enough for a train ride. New York City and Boston, two peas in a pod. My only regret is that I won’t be able to get out to my old stomping grounds. Some colleagues (few read this blog) contact me at the last minute asking if we can get together. My schedule’s booked from breakfast through supper each day. Those who attend as participant-observers have no idea. These are the longest working days of my entire year. Still, they’re in Boston.
I often muse about place on this blog. We’re attached to the place where we’re born—it’s our personal sacred space. In life we grow attached to other places, whether we can settle there permanently or not. I wanted to live in Boston. I did so for a year after attending seminary here, making a living doing this and that. Having a master’s degree in religion doesn’t get you far in life. In those heady days of sleeping on the floor and finding out what life was really like for the unconnected, I learned an awful lot. And when the woman I wanted to marry came back for a visit, I proposed. I’ve only ever visited Boston since. But whenever I manage to do so, even if it’s just for work, it’s like coming home.
I’m on a train heading to Boston. If you notice a dearth of religion scholars in your neighborhood this weekend, it’s because it’s time for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. If a religious emergency comes up, take two of your favorite scripture and call the office next week. Viewed from the outside, this must be one of the stranger scholarly gatherings. A few thousand people get together in posh hotels and convention centers to exchange ideas about which the larger world cares very little. Ironically, the vast majority of people in the world are religious, but as a society if we know enough about the Bible to get us through the most recent indiscretion, so we’re good. Let the scholars have their fun.
This year there’ll be a session on monsters and monster theory that I helped to organize. That doesn’t mean I’ll get to attend it—the conference is a very different beast for those on the exhibit hall floor—but I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s happening. Years ago I discovered that many of my colleagues who are teaching shared an interest in monsters. Many of us weren’t aware of the others because this isn’t the kind of thing you talk about in polite company. One thing an editor may be is a vector. We hear what widely separated people are working on. Every great once in a while we’re able to put the pieces together. So it was with monsters. There seemed to be a critical mass, and two or three colleagues took the idea and ran with it. Or ran from it, whichever you do with monsters.
For me Boston will be a series of meetings that will blend into one another until I’ll have to consult my notes to remember anything at all. If I could feel this wanted outside the conference I’d never have to dream of being a rock star. You see, editors are the gatekeepers of academic publication. For those lucky enough to have teaching jobs, it’s publish or perish, so the editor is a vital link. The rest of the year we fall into the background. Emails go ignored. Reminders are forgotten. Requests unanswered. But here, out on that carpeted concrete, we’re the ones they’ve come to see. What we do in the conference matters very little to the world at large. But we do it anyway. We gather together just before Thanksgiving, thankful to be reminded that there are others like us.
If you stick with something long enough, you’ll get onto all the mailing lists. These days even if you innocently click on an internet ad it will come back to haunt you for weeks on every web-page your visit. One kind of ad I don’t mind is the book catalogue. For those of you old enough to remember print catalogues, you’ll know what it was like, paging through. You’d see volumes you didn’t know about, but suddenly you couldn’t live without reading them. Around the time of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, your mailbox would fill up with these catalogues from anyone who publishes books on religion. Not a single year passed when I didn’t come up with a wishlist based on those catalogues.
The other day one arrived called simply “The Religion Flyer.” I flipped it over to see from whom it came. No indication. Inside the offerings were largely Catholic. But then some evangelical publishers appeared there too. And the Society of Biblical Literature. The only commonality I could find here was the Bible. These were biblical books. Again, as I taught Bible for nearly two decades, this was no surprise. Still, who was to benefit from these sales? I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that books aren’t produced if they aren’t projected to make money. Sad, but true. So who sends out a catalogue with no contact information? Who benefits? The backside has a list of bookstores, along with an order form. As in the catalogue itself, the stores are mainly Catholic, with a few Evangelicals thrown in. The Society of Biblical Literature, which sells its own books, didn’t make the cut.
Could this be truly altruistic book advertising? Not many people suppose that biblical study is good for the world, so I admire the conviction of these stalwarts, whomever they may be. Publishing is a business like any other. The powerful voices that say knowledge should be free don’t, I notice, office their classroom instruction without university tuition to pay their salaries. We’re all the victims of capitalism, I fear. Someone, or ones, took from the limited time that they have to produce a catalogue simply to promote the subject. They were likely hired to do so—I’m not really that naive—but they did so without drawing attention to their own efforts. There once was someone who said that acts of goodness should be done by one hand without the other hand knowing. Not many believe that any more. Even though it’s biblical. Who benefits? Those who have eyes to read.
We’ve had a lot of rain lately. One rainy night over this past weekend I talked my wife into watching Dracula with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this classic myself. Difficult to believe that it was ever scary. This is the film that launched the horror genre that has become such a major part of the entertainment industry. It has the right mood for a rainy night. Movies were paced much more slowly in the 1930s, and viewers are given ample time to drink in what’s happening. In some current day films the cross-cutting in action scenes is so rapid that I really have no idea what took place. Dracula is slow, stately even. Thinking back, I believe this was the first monster movie I ever saw, so it has a resonance with me. When Renfield balks at the huge spider web in Dracula’s castle, the vampire quotes from Leviticus—“the life is in the blood.” Monsters are religious creatures.
A year ago in January, with the help of two colleagues, I proposed a new unit for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting—Monsters and Monster Theory. After working on this proposal a couple of months (strictly off work time for me), the new unit was declined by the academy. We decided to try again. This year our exploratory session was approved. The idea had come to me when I noticed that papers on monsters and religion had been on the rise, but there was no central forum to discuss them. They were like zombies without a shepherd. Not being an academic, I couldn’t start the session by myself. Now the society agrees that we’re worth at least one meeting room and a couple of hours to see whether the topic might become a recurring one.
Some people, I’m well aware, find this combination odd. Religion, after all, is about sweetness and ethereal light. Being nice to one another. Things like that. Monsters, on the other hand, inhabit the dark. They’re creepy and unsettling. They’re also wonderful metaphors for so much of life. What some of my colleagues have come to realize, and the academy seems to be backing us up on this, is that if anyone can understand monsters, religion can. Psychology will continue to try. Literature will continue to create them. Scholars of religion, however, are those who would like to bring some order to a chaotic world. We study monsters to learn about what it means to be human. It has been raining quite a lot lately.
I’ve never started a fight. I’m actually a very conciliatory type, willing to be wronged in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This election has made me feel a little pugilistic, however. The sheer size of Trump’s loss based on the popular vote makes me hope I’m not alone in this. I find myself in San Antonio at the moment. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, which rolls around the weekend before Thanksgiving, has been a regular aspect of my career since 1991. My hotel room overlooks the Alamo, and the implications—indeed, the irony—are not lost on me. I don’t know a great deal of Texas history, but what kid grows up without hearing about Davy Crockett, who died a few yards from where I lay down my head?
I’ve known many Texans in my life. Many of them have been, and continue to be, perfectly reasonable people. Good and loyal friends. Lots of people like to live here. Indeed, the population of the state has swelled over the past quarter century. I’ve also encountered Texans (particularly at Nashotah House) who acted like the enemy at the Alamo wasn’t Mexico, but the other states. In the light of last week’s election I’m reminded of the words of one of the Mexican officers, after Santa Anna declare the battle a light one. Reportedly another officer quipped, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.” Voices from the other side of the wall. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from getting in so late, but I’m looking at the Alamo and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is going through my head. The lesson of the Alamo is that although you may lose the battle you can still win the war.
This is my second visit to San Antonio. Last time I was here, for the same conference, one of my doctoral advisors was over from Edinburgh, and we walked through the Alamo together. Today we are lamenting Brexit and Trump together. By slim margins the alt-right has learned to game the system. The problem seems to be apathy. It’s clear that we’re going to have to fight from now on just to get a little social justice around here. Strange words coming from the fingers of a lifelong pacifist, but you’d think that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony might have had more lasting effects. Perhaps it truly is time to remember the Alamo.
Yesterday I spent at the Mid-Atlantic Regional American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Not a registered guest, I was there in mufti. Those who know me stopped by to greet me, even without a name tag, but I noticed, as I increasingly do, the youth of the attendees. Apart from the business discussed, the issue of these younger colleagues kept arising. It’s as if the tap was left on but the glass is already full. Presidential aspirants aside, we live in a world where people are increasingly realizing that you can’t squander resources. We have compulsory education to try to make the next generation smarter, more fortunate than our own. And those who have the inclination and ability to go on for advanced study, we throw into menial jobs and poverty because, despite the myth, a doctorate doesn’t help your financial prospects. Universities have become businesses and one of their top-end products is the doctorate. The doctorate with no future.
Sitting in the lobby between appointments, I can’t help but thinking back to a younger me. I am part of what older colleagues are calling “the lost generation” of humanities scholars. Those who have the credentials but no opportunities. A wasted resource of a nation that loves reality TV and blustering windbags, as long as the windbags are billionaires. It makes me sad to think that instead of making a place for those driven to high achievement, that we’ll offer them poverty-level adjunct positions with Obamacare, food stamps, and excessive hours. When they burn out, like a high wattage bulb, we’ll go to the closet and screw in another to replace them. Just don’t turn off the tap. Graduate students bring in money.
This is a moral issue. Since it involves what are scare-quoted as “the elite” we seem not to care. Isn’t it fun to knock down those who think they know too much? I sit in the lobby and watch the bearded young men, the young ladies with heavy backpacks thrown over their shoulders, and I want to warn them all. And it’s not just me. My colleagues, lost generation or not, all agree. We’re sending our best students to oblivion. In the most prosperous nation in the world. You can tell we’re prosperous because all it takes to gain the confidence of a political party is lots of money. Lots and lots of money. I won’t mention the obvious that such loose lucre could be put to good ends, making jobs for those who’ve poured their lives into bettering their minds. Or maybe I will. It is a moral issue, after all.
Some colleagues and I are working to meet a deadline. I suppose I use the word “colleague” rather grandly, since they both have teaching positions, nevertheless, we have a common goal. We are fascinated by monsters and we’d like to see the American Academy of Religion dedicate a small section of its large annual meeting to them. We’d do all the work. At first glance, this might seem an odd topic for the serious study of religion. The fact is, however, that monsters are a part of human experience—at least in our imagination—and the conceptual space overlaps considerably with religion. Many monsters have their origins in religious thought. Some theorists go further than that and suggest the very concept of “monsters” comes to us, courtesy of religious beliefs. We can see it time and again in popular culture; the movie or television show, or novel that features monsters ventures into the territory of religion.
The reason for suggesting that this relationship be formalized is the fact that, although this connection exists, it has not be given adequate study. Monsters are the denizens of childhood imagination. When we grow up we leave our monsters behind. But not really. We just stop talking about them. With our mouths. The film industry knows that a horror film will generally draw in the lucre. Halloween has become a major commercial holiday. Stephen King is a household name. I’m not sure why all of this is so, but I think it might have something to do with repression. When we grow up we are taught there’s no such thing as monsters. Those who refuse to relinquish those beliefs are ridiculed. We have more important things to do. Things like making money. Deep down, however, we may still believe.
The fantastic and belief are intimate companions. In fact, belief is at the root of much of our experience. That’s not to say there are really monsters in the night, but at some level we believe there are. And we also believe that infinite deities control this infinite universe that may be only one of many multiverses. It just seems likely. Evidence may point in the other direction. Empirical proof is lacking. And yet, we believe. I’ve discovered a number of colleagues over the years who share this academic fascination with monsters and religion. I don’t know if we’ll be approved by the powers that be, but at least we will have begun to raise the question. What lurks behind it is a matter of belief.