Tag Archives: Boston

Wise Women

At a neighborhood holiday gathering the topic of a local living nativity came up. This year they need some wise men (don’t we all!) and some of the women mentioned that wise men should have beards. As the wearer of an old growth facial forest, I became the subject of a couple of queries—could you be a wise man? I replied that I wasn’t smart enough, but in the back of my mind I was attending the last church nativity play I’d been in. It was at the Church of the Advent, Boston’s high Episcopal establishment. I was cast as a centurion and was directed to deliver my lines woodenly. Being who I am, I did as I was told. I was invited to the cast party on Beacon Hill anyway. It was one of my few brushes with society folk in Boston.

Like many boys raised in church, I’d been cast in such plays before. One of three boys each born just one year apart, I was assigned the role of wise man along with my brothers. Far too young to grow a beard, I wore a costume made by my mother and carried a jar from a science experiment as a gift for baby Jesus. Being poor, we had no gold—or even frankincense or myrrh—lying around. In school we’d done this science project where a solution grew crystals up the inside of an ordinary coffee jar and out over the top. Stain it with food coloring and you have a gift fit for a king. So the illusion went.

The Christmas we celebrate today isn’t based too much on fact, but it is a prime occasion for plays. It’s a dramatic story, although the New Testament has to be bent and twisted to make it all fit into the comprehensive narrative of proselytizing playwrights. The king nobody recognizes being born in a barn. The creator of the universe being rejected by the very world for which he (the baby was always a boy) was responsible. The story is as timeless as Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and it’s enacted thousands of times each year in churches large and small across the country. Is there any reason that, as long as we’re straying into realms of imagination, the wise visitors shouldn’t be female? The ability to grow facial hair has little to do with any kind of intelligence. In fact, we’d be much better off right now with a woman in charge.

Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.

Museum Piece

So the Museum of the Bible is now open in Washington, DC. It actually opened while a quorum or more of biblical scholars were busy making their way to Boston for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of the guild realize that the museum’s a conservative, evangelical venture, but it brings some attention to the beleaguered field and so it’s strangely welcome. This shows itself in the rather surprising names on museum publications. Renowned scholars don’t seem to think through the implications of supporting such places with the star appeal of their names. Indeed, many in the professorate are starved for attention—I’m not judging; I implicate myself even by making such a suggestion. When such an institution opens, it validates those it implicitly condemns.

A Bible museum?

Scholars can be woefully naive. Visiting places such as the Museum of the Bible, or the Creation Museum, or the Ark Encounter, pumps money into the already very well-funded Christian right. Such believers are extremely political and seek to get candidates like Trump elected. By slaking our puerile curiosity, we’re funding those who’d have us stripped of our very freedom to believe as we do. The paper trail’s there for any who wish to follow it. Supporting such ventures in any way will lead to headaches in the future. Sure, I’d love to see dioramas of dinosaurs on the ark so that I could feel superior for a little while. There’s a price for such vanity, however, and that price is the loss of freedom itself. We see it at work in our government at this very moment.

Museums are places for artifacts that are outdated. This is an ironic statement to make concerning the Bible. Especially by those who believe it is the final word. Why put that word into a museum? The irony’s worth it if enough paying customers arrive. Scholars meanwhile try to find ways to analyze this. Articles and books are appearing, stating what we already essentially know. The Green family, motivated to repressive political action because of their Bible belief, have spent money to build an elaborate museum, money that could’ve been used to help the poor. The book that appears in that museum suggests that the poor should be our concern. And although it actually does say that idols shouldn’t be worshiped, it has the great potential to become one itself. All you have to do is pay the admission price to find out.

Ordinary Sacraments

It’s like they knew we were coming. The towns that host AAR/SBL must remember the event after we leave. We make quite an impact around the convention center, and since everyone wears their name tags in public, it’s pretty clear that we’re all related. So when I stepped down into a local sandwich stop on Newbury Street, I saw a sign that could’ve been commissioned just for us. “A sandwich is a sacrament” it began. Going on to list the wholesome ingredients, the sign concluded “A ritual, a craving, a desire fulfilled.” I’d been taught that a sacrament was an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Of course, it could be more carnal than that. I’m not a priest, after all.

Food is indeed intimate. With packed restaurants full of religion scholars hungry for more than just sustenance for the mind, the city makes way for what may be a secular sacrament. Those who cook for a living do so in exchange for lucre. Everyone has to contribute something, and while we’re burning our calories debating fine points of theology, or in lexicographal deliberation, someone’s stoking the fires for the lunchtime rush. We hand over our credit cards and don’t stop to think about what we’ve just experienced. We’ve been given the means to convert matter to energy, an energy we’ll expend in purely cerebral consultation. The meeting of the minds. After the outward and visible sign of a sandwich becomes in inward and digested energy. And so the cycle spins on and on.

Large conferences like this bring the blessings of cash flow to local economies. Even in the poorest of times eating out’s a necessity. We’re not, after all, close to home. Time is at a premium with papers peppering each hour of three-and-a-half days, lined up like items on a menu. We select and choose, keeping to our intellectual diets. Or not. It takes plenty of energy to think so much. Some sit in the restaurants and return thanks. Others pay their respects in less visible ways, for this is the world of sacraments. Not ordinary time. What goes into a person, a sage once said, does not defile. Rather, what comes out does. We sit in respectful silence and listen to what emerges from our fellow conventioneers. It’s like being in church, almost. And we all know, deep down, when the talking’s done it’ll be time to eat.

The Pace of Progress

Scientists tell us the earth is slowing down. It’s only by a fraction of a fraction of a second, but like a top set spinning these endless revolutions can’t go on forever. Although the evidence all points in this direction, it feels like it’s speeding up. How else can I account for the apparent loss of time I’ve been sensing? Let me contextualize that. I’ve been attending the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meeting since 1991. That first meeting in Kansas City’s acid-etched in my friable consciousness with the long hours waiting for interviews that never came and no mentors to show me what to do. Those three-and-a-half days stretched on into an endless Tom Sawyer summer. I was anxious to get back to my wife in Edinburgh to and finish my dissertation. Fast forward a quarter of a century.

My days are now filled with back-to-back meetings. Normally by now I’d have had a leisurely perambulation among the bookstalls (where I spend all day) taking in the volumes the competitors publish, noting what I need to read. Instead, the time has been shortened. I have to keep a constant watch on my watch for the next appointment. Hearing about new books being born rather than tending the infants that surround me. We are a thriving population of readers here. Although it looks like a large crowd, I know that in reality we don’t make much of a dent. Boston’s big enough to absorb us and all our feverish ideas. When wakefulness arrives at my usual New York commuting time, even the nights seem to be shorter. Where has the time gone?

Most of those I meet have no idea I write books of my own. It was a process started long before the conferral of a diploma from a university far away. The earth is spinning in that direction, I’m told, so I should be in the tailwind of Edinburgh all the time. I’ve grown old with some of these colleagues. Those I’ve known since I was a young man, thinking he knew something about life, learning how little he really knew in this very city. I’m pretty sure I know even less now. The world, for example, seems to be speeding up to me. In fact I know it’s slowing down. Days are growing longer, but there is ever more yet to do. And all I want to accomplish right now is to walk around a bit and browse the books that others have written. I’m absolutely sure the earth is indeed speeding up.

Sacred Sartorialism

Proselytizing comes in many forms. It can be what you say to people, or how you treat them. It can even come down to what you wear. Every year I’m struck at the AAR/SBL annual meeting some attendees wear religious garb. I’m not criticizing it, please understand, simply observing. This is an academic gathering. Participants represent many different religions, and few, I suspect, are here to outright convert others. Seeing clerical collars and Buddhist robes, however, it becomes clear that what we wear says quite a bit about what we believe. Most attend this gathering vested in mufti. Should anyone in the tweed industry be reading this, I would humbly suggest not having a booth here is a missed opportunity. You are what you eat. You are also what you wear.

I was thinking just the other day how people used to be recognized by their clothes. In the days before consumerism, it wasn’t unusual for people to have just one or two sets of clothes. You knew who was coming, it seems from reading these older accounts, by recognizing the clothes before the face. Religious vestments are a signaling device somewhat akin to animal breeding displays, I suspect. The priest dresses differently to let you know that this person can be approached for true spiritual advice and consolation. Did your paper not receive the accolades you expected? Is there a clergy-person in the house? For sure there is. You’re never far from a practitioner here. As one of those who is unaffiliated, perhaps I’m just jealous.

What do my togs say about me? I tend to wear the same old clothes here year after year. Tucked somewhere in the furthest reaches of my closet are those duds not touched since last year. Publishing, for those who only see it in movies, is a very casual business. We don’t dress up, and I have to stop a moment before the mirror to remember how a half-Windsor goes. I’m guilty of donning aforementioned tweed from my teaching days. Students used to say I dressed like it was the 1970s. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the clothes were often of precisely that vintage. Long after I’m gone, and AAR/SBL carries on without me, I wonder who might bear the uniform of this peculiar office I occupy? Not priest. Not professor. Not mere participant either. The name tag may say “Exhibitor” and that’s only part of the story, but it’s the pectoral cross I wear.

Sacred Places

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.