Go to, Let Us Make Brick

Next year marks a quarter century. It’s a sobering thought. A quarter century of attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. A lot has changed over the years. Much of the loss, I fear, has been of innocence. When I first flew into Kansas City, naive at 29, and still believing the world offered opportunities for those who would work hard enough, the academic job market was tight. I had no interviews whatsoever, and spent many hours in the employees’ hopeless lounge, dreaming that someone might call my name. Although no jobs came of it, I could hardly blame the academy for “market conditions” outside their control. An economy based on unadulterated greed and emulating the worst practices of the business world was eating higher education alive, from within. I had no way of knowing. For a couple of decades I attended more often than not, optimistic that the lies I’d been told might yet turn out to be false. That those who had the gifts and abilities would be recognized for what they were. I was so terribly young then.

Through a variety of roles I have continued to attend this conference for all these years. I have not seen so much hopelessness until this. Colleagues come to me, barely holding back tears. Conditions in our universities are bad and are getting worse. We have no students, but clients. The hours of preparation for the classroom are now being measured in metrics like “return on investment.” The basic vocabulary of higher education has evolved to the point that it is a new Tower of Babel. It sits on Wall Street and considers what is offered to our young as commodities. Nobody worries if they learn anything or not. The exchange of goods at personal advantage is the only way that one can exist in a market economy.

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The only hope any culture may dare to claim for its future lies in education. Those economies that have not suffered as much as our own are those where education is still revered. Where you don’t have to hold a MBA to speak with authority. Where truth might just be an abstract and where not all things can be measured in shekels. I have been attending this conference for a quarter century and never I have I seen despair such as this. I have to wonder about a nation that takes those highest achievers and those with the most initiative and slaughters their hopes on the altar of the angry deity of vain baubles of self-aggrandizement. We bet on futures that are no futures at all. My beard is whiter now, and my glasses stronger. I am still able to see, however, the folly of launching into the North Atlantic in early April before any kind of radar has been invented with lifeboats made only of money. I only hope I’m wrong.

Birth of a Legend

I was sitting in the restaurant attached to W, a boutique hotel cum chain, with my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson. He was on a book tour and kindly treated me to breakfast. Above his head I noticed a slightly salacious painting portraying a nude lady in bed saying “Of course I think you’re adequate. I love you!” In the doorway stood a headless man in a red coat, clearly intended to be the headless horseman. I pointed it out and Neal, being an author, made some inquiries about it. Nobody in the hotel seemed to know anything about the image’s relevance, so I did some internet sleuthing. I knew Washington Irving was born in New York City. I don’t know where precisely, and I’m not really sure how to find out. New York, in those days, didn’t reach so far up Manhattan Island, and we were near downtown, at Union Square. Probably this was the outskirts back in Irving’s day. I had already started my research for my paper on Sleepy Hollow, so I was attuned to the clues. W is now a chain, but I think the first W was the very one where we met. The restaurant where we had breakfast was the Irvington. The website said nothing about the origin of the name. Had we been eating where Irving had spent his youth?

This was a slight synchronicity. I had been researching Irving and had ended up meeting someone at a hotel which, it may turn out, had been named after him. Which Washington was the Squire really named after anyway? Washington Irving had been named after George Washington, so perhaps the point was moot. Months passed, and I wrote and honed my paper for public delivery. I’d almost forgotten the existential pleasures of following a lead and drawing some conclusions, whether or not history might bear them out. My brain was fully active.

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My flight to Atlanta yesterday for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting took off from Newark Airport on time. I thought I had a row to myself, but a couple of guys came in, talking, just before the cabin door was closed. They obviously knew one another, but not terribly well. One asked if the other was from Valatie, “where Ichabod Crane is buried.” These were not professorial types, which you often see at the airport this time of year. Just regular guys. “Yeah, there’s an Ichabod Crane High School,” the other replied. Their conversation moved on to other topics, but I sat there thinking about the synchronicities my paper seemed to be generating in my life. Of course, many people do watch Sleepy Hollow, not many, I suspect, are academics looking for connections to American religious thought. It seems that research never really ends.

Atlanta Bound

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Every year as the latter half of November rolls around, the mind of religion scholars goes toward the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. This morning I’m off to Atlanta to join a myriad of others who still think the academic study of religion is a good and noble thing. For those who read this blog regularly, it will be no surprise that I’m giving a paper this year. Honestly, I’m a little nervous. I haven’t delivered a paper in years—it is nearly impossible to do research when you are cut off from academic libraries and, more importantly, the time it takes to do the work. Having only weekends to pull ideas together is not conducive to pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward. Sleepy Hollow came to my rescue this time around. That, and reception history.

Reception history is the hermeneutic that looks at the Bible from the point of view of later interpreters. For the Hebrew Bible that reception might be that of the New Testament, or even later books within the Tanak itself. Of course, the Bible has been studied and interpreted for nearly two millennia now, and not all those reading the Good Book have official training. Increasingly, with religious extremists making headlines from decrying the color of Starbucks cups to an all-out attack on Paris, understanding the reception of religious texts is important. The Fox network hit Sleepy Hollow is an excellent example. The show begins with the Bible and although the end has yet to be determined, Scriptures have played a role throughout. And a viewership of pitiful biblical literacy drinks it all in. It is important to understand how the Bible has been, and is being, perceived.

It may be, over the next few days, that my posts will be disrupted from their usual schedule. It is always a little hard to predict how things might play out when you’re away from home. I’m not sure what wonders Atlanta might bring. My own book should be on display in the book stalls for the first, and likely only, time. I will be meeting with people from dawn to dusk, discussing their book ideas. And I will, of course, be listening. Listening for the gallop of horse hooves in the background. Yes, the meeting is always a stimulating event, and with apocalypses in the news, I think I have selected a very timely topic this year indeed. If the frogs croak my name, I will know it is only my imagination.

Schrödinger’s Luggage

I recently had the misfortune of flying on Delta Airlines. In all honesty I suppose my antipathy to Delta began with a flight on which I was not actually a passenger. A few years ago a news story of a Delta flight navigating to the wrong city created smirks for those who can afford to fly airlines that have better track-finding skills. With all of my flying over the past years, I’ve ended up on Delta a couple of times and my sense of their muddled thinking has only been confirmed. On a recent flight before which we were informed that our boarding would be “expediated” since the captain was late landing his jet at the next gate and would be flying right back to Atlanta whence he’d just arrived, I hoped the navigation would be better than the grammar. Landing in Atlanta for a flight to the thriving metropolis of Allentown, Pennsylvania, the gate agent repeatedly told us that the flight to “Aberdeen” was about ready to board. Several customers had to call out “Allentown” a few times before the agent realized her mistake. My misgivings grew. When I landed in Allentown, my checked bag had decided to take a tour of Detroit. It was late at night and I might have been a bit brusk with the poor, graveyard-shift Delta agent, but he assured me that my bag would be in by noon the next day.

Not a particularly trusting soul any more, I called Delta baggage information the next morning after looking at their website. The website showed the bag sitting just 15 gates from my departing Atlanta flight but then taking off to Detroit. When I called the representative told me that no information was available on my baggage (the artistry of understatement!). I informed her that I had the website up and that it showed my luggage in Detroit, I wanted to know when it would be in Allentown. Her tune changed to indicate, “oh yes, it is in Detroit.” But then, she could neither confirm nor deny that it would be on its scheduled flight. I had already determined to drive back to the airport to collect it. If Delta cannot be trusted to navigate to the right location in the air, then what would be their chances be on the ground in New Jersey? As I kindly suggested to the representative that they hire employees who could read, I couldn’t help but think of Schrödinger’s cat.

Erwin Schrödinger was the physicist who came up with the thought experiment of a cat placed in a box with a deadly substance. Whether the cat is alive or dead is only a matter of speculation without looking in the box, so, in reality, the cat is both alive and dead simultaneously. I’m no physicist, but I thought of Schrödinger’s luggage being both in the cargo hold and not being in the cargo hold at the same time. This was the very mystery of the universe, courtesy of Delta’s ineptitude, being foisted upon my frantic brain. Where was my bag? It was not in my possession, and I had last entrusted it to an airline that thought the best route from the Midwest to Allentown was through Atlanta and then Detroit, but they weren’t really sure if that was the case either. There is a consolation, however. You can get a refund of your twenty-five dollar baggage misplacement fee, in the form of a voucher for your next lost luggage episode on Delta airlines. I’m about ready to crawl into that box with Schrödinger’s kitten and await my fate.

Both here and not here.

Both here and not here.

Soulless Robots?

Robots have taken over my life. At least in the short term. As my friend Burke commented on Easter: “Alleluia! The robots have risen… up against us?!” Actually, the robots I encounter are benign and all follow Asimov’s rules. I have mentioned before the phenomenal First Robotics program, a venue to encourage high school students to consider careers in engineering. Team 102, Somerville High School’s robotics team, recently won a regional competition in Hartford, Connecticut. My role has mostly been to watch other people design and construct the robot while occasionally correcting the grammar on written documents. The joke my friend made, however, has at its roots a deep-seated human concern: how do people deal with soulless machines?

Stephen Asma, in his book On Monsters, has a chapter concerning the human fear of a robotic future. Electronic gadgets with uncompromising metal bodies and no consciousness that we recognize present a frightening combination. The question that concerns me more, however, is the concept of the soul itself. The Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul as it would later be adopted by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Hebrew Bible a body is a soul; when the soul dies the body dies – people are a monistic unit, not a dualistic entity with a part that hangs around the spirosphere after the biological part rots away. Of course, in Christianity the soul has become an essential aspect of church doctrine and we fear other creatures that lack them. Souls have never been observed in a laboratory and we have yet to prove their existence.

Reading the news and seeing how biological, soul-fueled humans treat each other is a sobering task. Each day I lay the newspaper down with a new kind of dread. Perhaps souls are only mythical beings concocted to shore up a theology that can’t survive without them. Or maybe all living beings have souls. Perhaps even mechanical ones. As Team 102 heads to the national competition in Atlanta in the days ahead, I know that I’ll be rooting for a soulless machine that may be a bold step towards humanity’s continuing evolution.

Sorry for the blur, the robot just wouldn't stop shaking me!