Aging Music

Poignant is the word that comes to mind.  Perhaps in stark contrast to my listening to My Chemical Romance, I’ve also been listening to the latest albums by artists such as Bruce Springsteen (Letter to You) and Meat Loaf (Braver Than We Are).  And Leonard Cohen (Thanks for the Dance).  In the last case the album was so late as to be posthumous.  Before that I spend quite a bit of time with David Bowie’s Blackstar.  These albums are, at least in part, about growing older and dying.  Now death is nothing new to rock-n-roll, but it seems as if as some of my favorites age they’re sending a message out from the autumn of their careers.  We may still be here, but we won’t be forever.

 

I’ve never really been afraid of dying.  In fact, as a kid I often imagined myself as an older man with some anticipation.  Now that I’m approaching that threshold of elderhood the view is just a touch different than it was to a small boy with a lifetime in front of him.  Leonard Cohen, at least, was dealing with aging as early as Various Positions, the album where he gave the world “Hallelujah.”  And Springsteen has toyed with it in various places, such as Devils & Dust.  What I’m hearing in these songs, however, is a kind of acceptance that isn’t really fearful at all.  It’s as if rock suddenly matured.  So many of the original pioneers died young and tragically, and those who survived have been calling to us like ghosts to let us spend our worn-out days in peace.

Perhaps it’s just that it’s November.  Light is becoming a rare commodity, and it will remain in short supply until around the middle of March or so.  Music helps us through the transitions.  There are albums that convince me I’m immortal.  If I weren’t so tired at the end of the day I might continue to believe that.  On a weekend when I had a few free moments I went to a local CD store.  Wearing mask and gloves, I could see that only people about my age were there to buy actual discs.  We’re not the streaming generation.  It gave me some comfort to see the names of bands I’d almost forgotten.  These artists, of course, will continue to live on after they’re gone.  They’ve left us a legacy.  We’d be wise to consider their advice from time to time.  And take a moment or two to reflect on the coming of December.

Hearts are Dark

For the most part, reading introductions to literary works is tedious.  Since this edition of Heart of Darkness was brief enough, and the introduction wasn’t as long as the novel, I decided to follow through.  I’m glad I did.  I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s classic before, but it was helpful to have pointed out before this reading just how much darkness is in the story.  Drawn in by Kurtz’s famous last words, I suspect, many readers make the heart of the darkness the life lived by this contradiction of a man.  An individual who’d set himself up as a deity, and who pillaged the region for his own gain.  A man who wasn’t above using terror to acquire his ends.  An enigma.

But in actual fact, the story is about as full of darkness as an early Bruce Springsteen album.  The story begins at sunset and ends at night.  There is darkness to the Europeans’ dealing with the Africans throughout.  Even Marlow participates in that interior darkness that seems present in all people.  Delivering the deceased Kurtz’s letters to his still grieving fiancée, he meets her as darkness is setting.  He lies about her beloved’s last words, preferring to preserve her feelings than to reveal the truth uttered upon the deathbed.  There are layers of interlaced darkness here and Conrad never gives a definitive statement about what it really is.

We live in dark times.  I suspect that, for someone somewhere, that will always be the case.  The corruption of our government is so blatant and obvious that we seem to have fallen under the shadow that must’ve driven Conrad to pen his novel.  When living in darkness it helps to have a guide who’s been there before.  No matter what evil Kurtz has perpetrated, he’s treated as a god by those he oppresses.  He knows their suggestibility and preys upon it.  Although slavery was no longer (officially) a reality when Conrad wrote, the attitudes—embarrassing in the extreme today—lingered.  Even more embarrassing is the reality that they linger even today.  Not just linger, but assert themselves and then deny that they exist.  This is the heart of darkness, I believe.  We cannot allow others to live in systems that don’t kick money back into our own.  Trade on our terms, with our worldview being the only legitimate one.  Like so many writers, Conrad has been made a prophet by history.  And we all know the horror.

Dancing

An artist is never really gone.  I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance.  Haunting in the way of Bowie’s Blackstar, there’s a poignancy to listening hard to the dead.  Especially when they saw it coming.  Artists are never really gone, and we can forgive them because they’re oh so very human.  Cohen was an exceptional poet and this album captures a man who knows the end is near.  Still he sings of girls and sins and God.  There’s an eternal soul there, and Cohen captures longing better than just about anyone.  The artist knows longing and understands not knowing for what.  The album struggles with religion and depression, a remarkably common combination.  Memories of glories that linger even as the body ages.

Listening to someone else’s music is taking a stroll through her or his head.  Someone once gave me a disc of songs built around a theme.  Although the theme came through I feared a little of what I heard here.  Some who know me primarily from my overly pious upbringing would be shocked to find Cohen on my favorites list.  For me he has no pretense.  Instead of ignoring religion, sexuality, or politics, he tried to make sense of them through song.  For me—and listening to music is a very personal thing—I think I understand when I’m drawn into his lyrics.  His experience of life was vastly different from what mine has been, yet he’d accurately mapped the direction my mind might wander, if given free rein.  Religion will hold your imagination captive, if left to its own devices.

Those who reduce Leonard Cohen to his over-used “Hallelujah” catch only glimpses of this complex man.  I once read an article about Bruce Springsteen in which a friend of his said that if he hadn’t succeeded in music he might’ve become a priest.  There’s an authenticity to these artists who write probing songs that have deep spirituality yet allow themselves to be human.  Cohen’s songs revealed he could see death with some ambivalence from afar.  Even in albums recorded thirty years ago the hints were there.  Instead of running and attempting to hide, Cohen’s lyrics, at least, indicated that he’d continue to try to live.  Maybe these are just the reflections of a middle-aged man who’s only glimpsed a fleeting connection between an artist in perpetual motion and a one-time scholar sitting up alone at 3:00 a.m., seemingly stuck in one place.  Whatever else they may be, such quiet moments will ones be haunted by Thanks for the Dance.

Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Blood Brothers

Every once in a while I take a chance and write about music. I don’t do this too often since it’s a very personal thing, and as open as I may be on this blog, I’m not as accessible as I seem. We all need a place to retreat in this world, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is one of those places for me. Late last year, just after it was published, Springsteen’s Born to Run—his philosophical and revealing memoir—sold briskly for several weeks. Since it made its way into my stocking I’d been intending to read it since then. And putting it off. There’s something disillusioning about finding out your heroes are only human. The best among mine are heroes precisely for that reason. Gods need not apply. Overcoming my fear, I dove in.

Two things stood out in this autobiographical account: religious imagery looms large, and depression mingles liberally with it. I recall reading an early review where the writer expressed surprise that the Boss suffers from depression. I responded (perhaps out loud), “have you ever listened to his songs?” I became a Bruce fan because he sang about working class people. Bruce and I share that background. He knows that your roots never let you go. Indeed, roots are what keep you grounded. Many of my academic colleagues, I learned, were simply carrying on the family business—and a privileged business it is. Those of us who had to overcome poverty to get in the door were never really welcome in the ivory tower. You can’t help where you’re born, but you can sure be punished for it. Bruce understands that.

I’ve never been to one of his concerts. I don’t even like to listen to his music when someone else is in the room. There’s something deeply personal about communing with someone you feel understands you. Of course I’ve never met Bruce Springsteen. I probably never will. He won’t know the kind of influence he’s had on my life and I feel that I’m risking an awful saying so here on this blog. There aren’t too many heroes in my life. I’m not inclined to idolize people. In this memoir, however, Bruce won’t let himself become an idol. He’s not perfect and he takes pains to make sure that you know that. We were, nevertheless, raised in situations not dissimilar from each other. Unlike Bruce, I have no musical gifts. No, I’ll never likely meet him—and if I did I wouldn’t want it to be with other people around. Some things are just too personal that way.

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?

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This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

The Last First

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Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.

Once and Future Bible

RiseFallBibleWhile I may not share Timothy Beal’s view that print culture is on its way out (I harbor hopes every time I see vinyl records making appearances in stores), he is certainly correct most of the time in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. Written for non-specialists, this book nevertheless gives his fellow biblical scholars pause to stop and think. Beginning with an eerily similar childhood experience (although mine was considerably more dysfunctional and appears to be veering back in that direction by career exigencies), Beal recounts how he came to study the Bible with a critical eye and to observe a number of important things. One of the scholars associated with the Iconic Book movement, he shows how our biblically illiterate society still values the symbolic nature of the book in various ways. We still buy, for example, lots of Bibles. We still want elected officials at least willing to swear on one. We still think it has some special kind of power.

Beal gives a brief history of “the Bible” as an idea. It is essential, as he notes, to realize that as a “thing” the concept of Bible is fairly recent. Certainly nobody in Jesus’ day thought of it as we do. What’s more, and more to the iconic element, Bible sellers have been looking for “added value” to boost the sales. Biblezines (of which I’d not heard) and Manga Bibles are only two examples of the many “extras” Bible vendors add to their texts. In essence they are making new Bibles. Beal wonders how much buyers read the actual biblical text as opposed to the other, more eye-catching material in these books. Bibles are made trendy and hip, decorated, dissected, and dolled up. And we feel virtuous for purchasing them. We play right into Big Dan’s hand, if you get my meaning.

A fascinating collection of interesting bits about the way the Bible has been re-presented to the same public for over two centuries, The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book is an appropriate subtitle here. Those who fueled the Bible craze—those that we now routinely call Fundamentalists—are among those most distressed by the indignities perpetrated upon what was once considered a sacred text. What can be more fundamental than making money off people’s beliefs? Still, for Beal and his colleagues who have managed to land the rare positions teaching Bible, there is an urgency about this whole enterprise. “These jobs,” in Bruce Springsteen’s words and my own experience, “are going boys, and they ain’t comin’ back.” Meanwhile our culture will continue to make love to its holy book, even though they may not recognize who they wake up next to in the morning.

Always with You

DeerHuntingIf you read only one book this year, let it be this one. I picked up Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus at a used book sale because of the title alone. The blurbs on the back suggested it would be hilarious, and even the subtitle, Dispatches from America’s Class War, didn’t sink in until I began reading. Written during the dark ages of the Bush administration, the contents are a bit dated, yet timeless. Although there’s humor here, I, like Bageant, was born and raised in a working class environment. My father was a house painter (before it became chic) and my stepfather was a blue-collar Joe who did the kinds of jobs nobody else wanted to do. Life was coarse and rough at times, but the people I knew were fiercely patriotic and staunchly Republican. Most adults I knew had never read a book since they’d managed to escape from high school. Deer hunting was nearly as religious as church, and anything you heard in either venue was to be taken absolutely literally. And yet government programs to help them get along were merely shams that politicians knew they couldn’t see.

Like Bageant, I feel at home among the working class. I am one of them. My job may be in Manhattan, but the sensibilities that got me this far are from the backwoods of Pennsylvania. Those who know me outside the office still occasionally call me a redneck. Perhaps it’s an affectation, but it is an affectation born of deep appreciation of the honesty of the worker. They’re no saints, the working class. They will get away with what they can (what bobble-head wagging above a white collar can honestly claim that it doesn’t as well?), they will laugh at the crudest jokes, and they will be mean and turn on each other if provoked. They are, however, good people caught in a system that won’t let them improve. The only possibility is education, the one service governments slash at every opportunity. The system, as Bageant shows, was built just to do that. Like Moses, throughout the book, he calls them “my people.” I know exactly what he means.

When I visit my hometown, it’s like a Bruce Springsteen song. Windows are boarded up and the streets seem even meaner than they were when I was a kid. These are people in ill health with a government that would rather not spend the money on them—we’re used to it, and Uncle Sam knows that—so it assures that the only businesses that thrive are fast food and liquor stores. You can also find a television and rifles, but not much else. The liberals, as Bageant states, don’t know how to relate to the common man. In my own experience, the redneck who earns a doctorate won’t have a chance of getting a job. The university liberals have their own agendas, too busy trying to save the planet to worry about the real people who make their lifestyle possible. I picked up Deer Hunting with Jesus as a joke, but found it the most important book that I’ve read in many years. Please read it and try to understand.

No Beef

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Burger franchises aren’t always the best option for vegetarians. When you’re traveling, however, choices can be slim. My wife and I recently pulled into a Burger King. They do have a veggie burger, although it is clear that those who prepare them seldom eat them. They must be frozen because they inevitably have that tough edge that comes from microwaving them just a little too long. Anyway, we were sitting down to have a bite, or chew, when a group of three gentlemen in the corner booth caught our attention. They were arguing, in a friendly way, over Christianity. Among the topics of conversation was the age of the earth. (Ten thousand years, at the outside.) Overhearing the conversation, I started to get nervous. I noticed the guy at the table next to them glancing curiously their way.

I glanced around. Other people having conversations about mundane things. Perhaps this is what we’re taught to do. Speak of things that have little depth. We are in a public place. We don’t discuss religion or politics here. But then I reconsidered the situation. If I were to join their discussion I’m sure we would have found little in the way of common ground, but I realized that conversations around religion do have depth. These guys, despite the media’s incessant message that religion is for non-intellectuals, were thinking deeply about topics of ultimate concern. When’s the last time I talked with a colleague about what really matters over lunch?

A blurb in a recent Christian Century mentioned Bob Dylan. It suggested that in a recent interview that he’d intimated that if he hadn’t gone into music, he would likely have studied theology. Likewise, I recalled an interview many years ago with Bruce Springsteen that suggested he might have made a good priest. Listening to the lyrics of many of the songs of these two icons will reveal that depth and public religious discourse many not be so rare as this incident in Burger King seemed to suggest. Maybe the words aren’t always direct. Maybe we speak in metaphors and with guarded asides. Maybe we speak with our actions instead of our words. Many of the most profound conversations we have, when viewed in that light, are like those of three men in a Burger King.

Fair Country?

One of the lesser known Bruce Springsteen songs is “County Fair.” I hadn’t heard the song until I purchased The Essential Bruce Springsteen some years back when you actually had to buy a disc to get the music. Not a rock-n-roll anthem, it is a quiet, poignant song about the existential pleasures of a county fair. My daughter has been a 4-H member for six years and we’ve annually attended our county fair-the largest free fair east of the Mississippi, it is said-each of those years. In a good year 10,000 people will wander through, looking at farm animals that seem so foreign in our urban lives and which most people only recognize covered in gravy or some glaze. They see the exotic animals and pets so cute that they should be illegal. Like a fledgling college campus there are Arts and Sciences tents. Model planes, model trains, and model automobiles. To a sophisticated adult this might seem like pretty mind-numbing stuff, but I never fail to leave feeling inspired. I play “County Fair” religiously before heading out the door. Yesterday saw the close of the sixty-fifth Somerset County 4-H Fair, and despite the periodic showers, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Under the commercial tent stands the Gideons’ table. Each year the fair is literally littered with free Bibles. I noticed with interest that the sign, which had originally read “Free Testaments” had been redacted to “Free New Testaments.” I tried to imagine the conversations, or confrontations that led to such a change. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect Hebrew Bible professors are not among the higher demographics of fair attendees. Most of the colleagues I know would never confront a poor Gideonite about ambiguously handing out New Testaments. I did, however, experience a kind of existential downgrade here. Christians used to declare, doctrinally at least, that the “testaments” were equal. Sure, when you’re standing on the George Washington Bridge trying to decide whether or not to jump, there’s some parts of the older testament that you’d probably be better off not reading. Nevertheless, doesn’t the rule book say the two are part of a whole?

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Nationally, as I well know, there are fewer “Old Testament” jobs than “New Testament.” But that slick little book the Gideons hand out feels a lot more streamlined than the bulky full edition. And I also realize that walking around a relaxing event like a county fair, seeking the most innocent kinds of fun imaginable, that a Bible in your hip pocket is probably overkill. There seems to be no devil lurking here among the sheep and the goats. Feet damp from the rain, under a cloudy, August nighttime sky, sitting in the car my daughter reflects on how this is her last fair as a 4-H member. I wish there were some twinkling stars overhead to make this a storybook ending. But all I’ve got is a truncated Bible in my pocket, and it is missing my favorite part.

Endorsement

Since a blog is a variety of media, and since media endorse their candidates, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World endorses Barack Obama for President of the United States. I endorse Obama for the working class, for those who think clearly, and for those whom society doesn’t give a chance.

Working class credentials are at a premium these days among politicians who want to appear to be just like the most of us. Often it is, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Some of us, many of us, maybe most of us, have grown up in the working class. We are fed a theologically conservative line by our clergy and sometimes they make efforts to wrap it loosely around political conservatism as well. I don’t buy it. I grew up working class and that mentality has never changed. This is something Obama understands. He may not be perfect, but in this working world, none of us are. Empathy is still currency.

Bemusement would be my reaction to the factual gaffs made by not only Mitt Romney but also most presidential candidates from the GOP over the last two decades, were they not so serious. They show a loss of touch not only with the average person, but with reality itself. In their world of corporate-level wealth and extreme privilege they don’t even have to obey the laws of climate change as long as their obsequious sycophants are willing to change the facts for them. I am amazed at how easily the wool is pulled over the eyes of the American public. Does anybody really listen to what these guys are saying? Does anybody bother to try to add it all up? No, not even a slide rule will help.

The economy was not fixed over night. Too many years of too much greed have dug us deep, deep in a rut. From their armored cars speeding along in the midst of motorcades maybe the politicians don’t see the homeless I walk past every day on my way to work in the richest city in the nation. Maybe they don’t see the utter lack of hope, the death of possibility in the eyes of those who, through no fault of their own, society deems useless. I’ve been unemployed, even though I played by the rules. I learned there are no rules, save one. Those with wealth will do whatever it takes to keep it.

I think Barack Obama understands all these points. As for the honorable opposition, I think his diamond-lens glasses may have grown too thick to read clearly what the tablets say. And those tablets, I’m told, are made of gold.

The Future of Theological Education

It is almost like stepping into a time warp. To be honest, it is difficult for me to admit that I graduated from Boston University School of Theology a quarter of a century ago. Standing here outside 90-92 Bay State Road, where I once lived, is like looking into a shattered mirror. Behind those doors much of what made me who I am took place. Perhaps I left some of myself there. I don’t even know if the property is still the single student “dorm” for the school of theology or not. Kenmore Square has transmogrified from an area that felt like Times Square in the ’80’s to an upscale dogtown. When I stepped into 745 Commonwealth Avenue, it was like being hit in the face with a combination of nerve gas and roses. The hallways look wider now then they did back then. The hallways where so many of my assumptions curled up and died. They still have chapel and community lunches. The Boston Book Annex is closed.

Boston University has sure poured a lot of money into the Back Bay redevelopment. Whence that sense of personal offense when I see a multimillion dollar new building there and recall the financial aid interviews where I was told, like in a Bruce Springsteen song, “we’d like to help you out, but we just can’t”? Has social justice come to live in these halls? In those days anyone who didn’t have an oppressed status was a minority. And I learned as much about hate as I did about love within these implacable walls. Is it ghosts that I feel rushing through me as i walk down Bay State Road, and stare out over Storrow Drive? I’m not sure of the future of theological education. Until schools of theology can lay down their swords and become truly ecumenical, can any change truly occur?

Theology is an exercise in the unknown. When I donned my red robe and graduated here, the world seemed to be full of possibilities. A lot of erosion can take place in twenty-five years, you know. I thought I was contributing to the future of theological education when I studied the Bible so minutely that no single letter existed that didn’t have a prehistory deep in the realm of pre-Israelite society. I assumed that truth was the end goal of theological inquiry. Problem is, for many, the end goal was written two millennia ago and we of the lost generations ever since have as our task simply to reinforce the crumbling foundations and assure our benefactors that we did have it right, we have had it right, all along. As I write this a very able colleague at another seminary is undergoing what can only be considered heresy trials for teaching the truth. Is theological truth so fragile? Maybe this is why it has taken a quarter century to return. Maybe this is the future of theological education. Those of us who still believe in theological education seem to be a dying breed, along with the ghosts of Bay State Road.

Tattered Dreams

If I sometimes wax rhapsodic about Bruce Springsteen, it is partially because the world is sorely in need of believable prophets. I’m not the only one to notice this phenomenon. Writers on American culture and religion frequently cite Bruce, and his message has been called everything from a prayer to a gospel. The fact is he, like the best of prophets, is one of us. To those of us who grew up in working class families, Bruce seems like the torchbearer who encourages us to keep going. We may end up still in the darkness, but we’ll be a little closer to the light. Sunday’s paper has a review of Bruce’s latest concert tour kickoff, and there is some sadness there at those who’ve been lost. Although I haven’t yet had time to listen to Wrecking Ball, I did read the tribute to Clarence Clemons in the liner notes. It reads like a secular liturgy.

The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” or some such concept. And that is what Springsteen has always projected, the honor, the angst of the working class. There is trouble in paradise, from Cadillac Ranch down Thunder Road to My Hometown. Through it all, despair is always tinged with hope in, for lack of a better word, resurrection. In times when many artists focus on the escape, Bruce reminds us that hardship is real. Escape may be a possibility but even Born to Run still ends in New Jersey. Unlike many, the Boss is not willing to give up on this humble state. Perhaps the most diverse mix of people in the country, New Jersey is the American dream, scars and all.

Although his music has brought him fame and wealth, Bruce has not forgotten whence he came. Social inequality has been highlighted throughout his oeuvre, from the late 70’s on, and guess what? We’re still there. Like children of alcoholic parents we’ve grown used to promises being made that will never be kept. After reading what contenders for the presidency are saying, I cower, shivering with fear. I’ve never been one to believe a good beating is the way to solve anything. How is it possible that we’ve come so far only to have left so many behind? The American dream is indeed tattered, a mirage thrown to those slowly dying of thirst. If we’re going to make it through difficult times, we’re going to have to do it together. I guess that’s why I keep coming back to Bruce. In a world where lies are the coin of the realm, the words of true value can still be found, even in New Jersey.