Tag Archives: Boston

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.

Some Bible Lovers

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.

Of Fancy

Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.

One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.

The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.

Maine Event

We have no control over where we’re born. Place, however, has a sacred significance. Many people have a sense of where they belong. Life may be a prolonged journey, like that of a salmon, to find one’s way there. While in seminary, one of my professors had the class introduce itself by name and town of birth. This was in Boston, at a school with a highly eclectic student body. I was born in the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania. Other than having been the setting for an X-Files episode may years later (not filmed there, of course), it was not the kind of place anyone was likely to have heard of. In a class of maybe 50, imagine my surprise when an older gentleman announced he was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania. We was not of my generation, but it turns out, we had origins in common. As the introduction passed further forward, someone about ten years my senior announced, with a glance at the first student, that he was from Franklin as well. By the time it reached me, this seemed more of a synchronicity than a mere coincidence. We were all entering Juniors (the starting year of seminary), all born in the same hospital, and none of us had known the others existed prior to that day.

I was in Boston, however, because of a deep-down conviction that I belonged in New England. More specifically, Maine. After having grown up for about a decade in Franklin, we moved to Rouseville, Pennsylvania when my mother remarried. Apart from the industrial, drug-intensive culture, there was a haunting sense that this was not where I belonged. I began to read voraciously. My literary adventures found my spiritual home: Maine. Vividly I could imagine its rocky coasts and large stretches of northern woodland. I had never been to Maine—had never even seen the ocean at that point—but I knew, without a doubt, that Maine was my spiritual home. While a student in Boston I made several trips to Maine, each one convincing me more that I shouldn’t be leaving when Sunday afternoon rolled around. I should be staying here.

Life has, however, kept me from my beloved Maine. Academic jobs, mythical beasts that they are, are location-specific. You have to follow the jobs (I almost wrote herd there, but there’s nothing close to a herd of such employment). The population of Maine doesn’t support the number of schools that places like Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania do. Even all of these were closed to me. Maine never abandoned my dreams. I moved to Wisconsin, following a job that abandoned me. I moved to New Jersey to take another, which also abandoned me. One of the motifs to which I constantly return is the sacredness of place. A sense that a person belongs somewhere. Out in the ocean, many salmon are captured before they make it to the stream of their birth. I wonder what their thoughts might be as they lie gasping for breath, knowing deep in their piscine souls, that this is not where they were meant to be.

Maine

Land’s End

Although not due for release for another two years, the internet is already buzzing about Pirates of the Caribbean 5. Thing is, once a studio finds a successful formula, they’re reluctant to let it go. Nevertheless, with a couple days off for New Year’s, and all the family here, we decided on a marathon of the four movies available for home viewing. I used to use a clip from the second movie (Dead Man’s Chest) in my classes to demonstrate how the Bible is portrayed in popular culture. In the scene where Pintel and Ragetti are rowing toward the beached Black Pearl, Ragetti is leafing through a Bible, although he can’t read. He says, in his defense, “It’s the Bible. You get credit for trying.” Indeed, the Bible appears disguised as the huge codex of the pirate code (a kind of over-compensatory pentateuch), and, as I noted before, the book that saves the mermaid’s life in On Stranger Tides. In fact, for those willing to look behind the scenes, the Bible shows up repeatedly in the series.

Even as a landlocked child maritime themes and concepts were compelling to me. I yearned for the ocean without ever seeing it. Long I stared at the cover of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us in wonder. When I finally had the opportunity to strike out on my own, it was to Boston I headed, with its rich New England tradition of the sea. I have tried, ever since, to return there. Theologians, although I don’t count myself among their number, have often found a religious resonance with the sea. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, based as they have been on a Disney ride, nevertheless manage to tap into the romance of the ocean. Not compellingly written, apart from the fun antics of Captain Jack Sparrow, they don’t present an entirely coherent story line, but they do put the viewer, vicariously, at least, on the ocean. And they have been among the most successful film series ever released. Many, I suspect, are drawn by the lure of the open ocean.

Rewatching the films also reminded me of Cthulhu’s influence on the character of Davy Jones. The origins of the euphemism “Davy Jones’ locker” are uncertain, although some trace it back to Jonah. Nevertheless, it stands for the place of death on the sea floor—the very place where Cthulhu lies dead but dreaming according to his creator H. P. Lovecraft. No doubt, Lovecraft’s description of Cthulhu played into the depiction of the character of Davy Jones as presented by Disney. At the end of At World’s End, Jones falls dead, once again, into the maelstrom that will take him back, dreaming, to the ocean floor. In so doing he participates in the endless give and take of the sea. I suspect a couple years hence will find me in a theater to watch what seems a somewhat tired trope, but it will be more the sea than the sparrow that will draw me in.

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Anthony92931, Wikipedia Commons

The Tower

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. In truth, I’m not even sure what its significance might be. Beyond giving a spectacular view of the Delaware River valley, it is my understanding that it is a memorial built to George Washington and his many activities in this region. It’s not even that old. I have come, however, because of a memory not my own. Many decades ago, my mother visited the tower with her parents. She has pictures but couldn’t remember the name of the tower, or even where it was. As fate and happenstance have it, I live a mere hour away and I’ve undertaken this journey to a tower I’ve never seen to bring a sacred sense of place back to life for someone else. Too bad the park is closed today. It is a sunny Saturday in July, and it seems that everyone is outside. We drove across that impossibly narrow, rickety bridge between New Jersey and Pennsylvania at Washington’s Crossing (so named on both sides in both states) to find our way to this quiet park to find a lost past. “Closed” the sign laconically says.

The urge to travel, speaking strictly for me, is the pursuit of sacred space. Over Independence Day weekend we traveled to Boston not only to see fireworks, but to revisit a site of some personal significance. In my three years in that city life took me places I never imagined I might have gone. The memories, mine this time, although hazy, still permeate the air. Boston is a sacred city. Since childhood I have had dreams of Maine. From Boston I pushed further north to the rocky coasts and gray oceans of the stormy north Atlantic. Although neither God nor angel appeared, I knew that I had once again discovered the sacredness of space. Every time I leave, I count the days until I might return.

Many locations are sacred to a person. Some of mine are in the west, and some in the east. And when I’m there I require some time alone, for the sacredness of space is a deeply personal matter. When, many years ago, I was jostled into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher amid ecclesiastical robes too numerous to identify, I knew this was a holy spot for many. The very dust of Jerusalem seems sacred with age. But what had happened to me here? Beyond the endless readings and rereadings of the biblical tales, Jerusalem was someone else’s sacred location. Aside from the dark crusaders’ crypts, there was no place to be alone. I’ve never been to Bowman’s Hill Tower. Despite driving to Pennsylvania for that sole purpose, it is a place I have yet to see. And when I finally do climb that tower, it should, I hope become clear to me whether anything of the numinous remains in this dusty corner of somebody else’s memory. Sacred space is like that, and it keeps some of us forever on the move.

Soldiers of Forfeiture

Somebody, perhaps a robot, reads my blog. I can’t imagine what keeps this feeble enterprise going sometimes, since continued growth of readership has been elusive for several years now. Still, I get requests to post information on my daily soapbox, sometimes for issues of which I’ve never heard. Civil Forfeiture is one of those issues. I’ve only ever been stopped for driving too fast once. I’m not a speeder by nature, and it was an oversight in one of those slowdown zones between a highway and town. I had no idea, however, that civil forfeiture might happen without any conviction or charge. See the infographic below from one of my readers at arrestrecords.com.

Social justice is perhaps the leading motif in my existence. I was attracted to the life of the clergy out of a profound sense that life is unfair. As if it’s not bad enough that nature posts us each at unequal starting places, human society joins in the game by contributing rules that are inherently unfair. Healthcare in the United States, for example, has been unequally distributed. I had figured this out even as a child when my family doctor walked into the examination room with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, asking why I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t know what chronic bronchitis was in those days, but thankfully I grew out of it. In any case, laws for fair treatment of all citizens should underlie any just society. Not just healthcare, but basic, constitutional rights.

Having been reared in a small community where arrest was not rare—most of the time certainly deserved—I was woefully ignorant about what a person was free to do. I still am, I guess. I go to work each day hoping that I don’t infringe on any unknown law that stands to make this land a nest of freedom. Having arrived in Boston with a migraine after driving all my worldly possessions from Pennsylvania back in 1985, I parked in Winthrop, outside my apartment, with the right wheels to the curb, just like every other car on the block. I stumbled inside and fell into my unmade bed. My first morning as a Massachusetts resident, I awoke to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I went to the police station to explain what happened only to have the receptionist say, like a line from Gilligan’s Island, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I can think of no better excuse. Is a law degree necessary for fair treatment? Whom did I harm by parking with the rest of the residents? At least I didn’t face civil forfeiture. If I had, all they would’ve found would’ve been a few boxes of books and enough clothes to get me through the week—all my possession fit inside my VW Beetle in those days. What more does a person really need?

Civil Forfeiture, an infographic from ArrestRecords.com