Post Facto

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.”  Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did.  There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane.  My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond.  This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars.  Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive.  I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.

Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.”  While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales.  The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising.  Should it not read “Unemployment Center”?  That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery.  I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences.  Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview.  I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place.  Some of them mine.

Now I’m high over Death Valley.  It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way.  The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot.  Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty?  And statements like Tenure track is not the norm.  The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right.  If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it.  The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.

Speedy Delivery (SD)

Ritual, no matter what scientists say, is deeply woven into the fabric of human psyches.  It may be either the warp or the weft, but it’s downright basic.  I was reminded of this on my hurried and slow trip to San Diego yesterday.  I always wear the same shirt when I fly to this conference.  This isn’t superstition, but rather it’s a case of sticking with something that works.  I don’t often wear turtlenecks, and one reason is that they seldom fit well.  More years ago than I care to admit (I’m wearing the shirt in the photo below, which was taken at Nashotah House nearly two decades in the past) I found a navy blue turtleneck from Land’s End (this is not a sponsored post, although it probably should be) that works perfectly.  Even today it fits snugly around the neck after hours of wear.  Maybe ten years back I bought a black turtleneck from the same company and after pulling it over my head, it gaps something awful.  I tend only to wear it around the house.  The original still does the job.

I was ready to drive myself to the airport yesterday and I grabbed a quick lunch at home.  Part of said lunch involved opening a ketchup bottle probably nearly as old as the shirt I was wearing.  (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)  I ended up looking like a murderer, which is not something you want to try to explain to a TSA agent.  I quick threw said ritual shirt into the washer and the drier buzzed at the same time as my phone did for when I had to leave for my two-hour-ahead check-in.  This remarkable shirt was dry and ready to serve.  Maybe you can see now why I’m so ritualistic about clothes.  I also opt-out of those Star Trek scanners at the airport.  This means I get lots of governmental pat-downs.  It feels more authentic when you have actual hands running down your body—at least it’s honest.

The TSA agent commented that you don’t see many turtlenecks these days.  I explained that it’s good for flying because I’m always cold on planes.  As this stranger’s hands were rubbing down my chest, I was wondering how many times this shirt has been felt up by the US government.  It has no pockets to pick, and besides, at airport screenings everything is stowed in my carry-on, including wallet.  At midnight San Diego time, I checked into my hotel.  East coast time said I’d been awake 24 hours because who can really sleep on a plane?  Once my patted-down body reaches 3 a.m., Eastern Time, it wakes up.  In these circumstances it’s good to know I can rely on that shirt in my drawer.  That’s what rituals are all about.

Trench Warfare

Once something becomes socially acceptable, it is nearly impossible to change. I’m no prude, but I remember when “swearing” in public was considered bad taste. When I was a tween (and there was no such thing as tweens then) I heard a guy talking to a friend in a department store. They were on the other side of those kinds of shelves where you can see through to the other side. One of them cussed and his friend said, “Man, you shouldn’t say that when there’s a little kid just there.” I wasn’t shocked by the word; I’m more worldly than most people grant me credit for being. Still, the sentiment was appreciated. These days I dodge f-bombs all the way to work. It’s effing acceptable.

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The tragic multiple shooting in San Bernardino to which I opened the paper yesterday morning was completely dispiriting. The statistics showing more multiple shootings than there have been days in the past year while Republican hopefuls chain their wallets to their pockets backing the NRA should give anyone pause to reflect, no matter their party. Our gun madness has led to a collective deathwish for our country. The only acceptable solution, according to the GOP, and Texas, is to get more guns out on the streets. The Old West is called “Old” for a reason. We should’ve become more civilized by now. Instead we accept fantasy for reality.

In a land where politics is making love to gun lobbies, the surest investment is the casket industry. It has become socially acceptable to shoot lots of people and then kill yourself or get yourself shot. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t read about such an incident in the news. Swift, decisive action is called for but we’re mired down by politicians who need ever so much more money to campaign. Bread and circuses. I know responsible gun owners. It has become clear that the only real solution now is to do what is socially unacceptable. Give up our guns. If those who are responsible gun owners were willing to lead by example we might stand a chance against a socially acceptable plague that we’re unwilling to name. Even US citizens can be terrorists in their own country.

Duck Overboard!

Moby-DuckI remember the moment precisely.  I was in Santa Barbara, California on a campus visit for Routledge.  I stopped into the university bookstore to see which of our/their books were being used.  From the cover of one of popular books in the general reading shelf stared a friendly yellow duck.  My thoughts went, as they often do, to my daughter back home.  The cover copy explained that this was the true tale of a bunch of “rubber” ducks lost at sea and the captivating story of how they ended up in diverse places.  I bought it for my daughter since rubber duckies had been a kind of childhood theme, and when I saw it on her shelf recently I also grew curious again.  I’ve always been fascinated by the sea, even applying for jobs at the Maine Maritime Academy just to be near the water (and in Maine). 
 
Of course I’m referring to Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.  It wasn’t really as cute and cuddly a book as I thought it might be—that duck on the cover sure looks happy—but it was far more important.  As Hohn explains, he was a teacher captivated by the story of a cargo container holding plastic (not rubber) bath toys falling into the Pacific Ocean on a crossing from Asia.  The ducks (and frogs, turtles, and beavers) spread out as far as Alaska and points south on the west coast of the US, and some perhaps made it back east.  Some were even reported in Maine (but Hohn came to doubt they are the right ones).  So he set off on several ocean voyages to follow the trail of the toys.  He has left us a moving and thoughtful memoir of the journey, and also much more.
 
The oceans are incredibly polluted.  As Hohn points out at several points, entire cargo containers—sometimes several at a time—tumbling into the ocean and being left behind is not uncommon.  Add to that the trash, particularly the plastic, that otherwise makes its way into the ocean, in some places forming islands of garbage so large that they can be spotted by satellites, and I begin to grow truly alarmed.  Hohn learns about plastics and how toxic they might be, as well as how thoughtlessly they are hurled into the oceans.  Not written as an environmental manifesto, Moby-Duck—literate, witty, and very human—nevertheless narrates how a father came to see the world through the eyes of parenthood.  And some of what he finds is truly frightening.  My takeaway?  Little things matter.  Immensely.  That, and we need to clean up our act before it’s too late.  No bath will wash away the stains we’re still in the process of creating.

Get Me Jesus on the Line

The letter is the greatest casualty of the internet. I sometimes obsess about how little time people put into their emails, often coming across as gruff or short. I always start mine with a greeting and end them with a closing followed by my name. Of course, I’m from an older generation where communication was initiated with respect. Getting an actual letter is now, however, occasion for great wonder. A friend recently mailed me a couple of fascinating articles from the Prescott Journal, a Wisconsin newspaper. Dated to 1868, the articles actually post-date Nashotah House, but still count as when Wisconsin was rather more pioneer than Pioneer territory. Both articles involve what might be termed “scams” today. Newspapers in the nineteenth century were notorious for sometimes perpetrating hoaxes, and at other times falling victim to them. Still, as the only sources we have for some of these delightful tales, it is difficult to check them out beyond the fact of noting that the amazing stories have been subsequently forgotten.

One of the stories was wired in from San Francisco, the article claims. A certain F. Wilson was applying for copyright on a letter he acquired near Iconium, written by Jesus. As my friend noted in her letter, this is perhaps the earliest case of a rock inscribed “turn me over,” promising some kind of reward. Wilson claimed to have found, under a large (implied) rock, a letter written by Jesus. The rock could not be turned, despite reading “Blessed is he that shall turn me over,” even by a group of men. Then, according to folkloristic protocol, a small child turned it unaided. The letter underneath, although written by Jesus, was signed by the angel Gabriel. The letter contained the ten commandments, a note from Jesus answering a missive from King Abrus, an account of Jesus’ miracles, and a description of his person. The story doesn’t tell if the copyright application was successful.

Newspapers were a form of entertainment a couple of centuries ago. Of course, some four decades earlier than this story Joseph Smith had claimed to have found documents to which he was led by the angel Moroni. He published them and, although lynched some 24 years earlier, had nevertheless done pretty well for himself, as his followers would continue to do. Why not cash in on the new religion craze? After all, this was California, and even in the woods of Wisconsin some religious zealots had started an institution that would grow strong enough to displace dreams and livelihoods. What struck me most reading this story was just how little things have changed. Outlandish religious claims are still credulously accepted by the gullible. And the web encompasses the entire world. This story though, must be true, because it came to me in that most magical of forms—an actual letter.

"Don't forget to look for my letter!"

“Don’t forget to look for my letter!”

Saint Diego

Didacus of Alcalá fortunately, I think we might all agree, was more commonly known as Diego. The city of San Diego is named for him, as his nickname was a diminutive of Santiago, or Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Ironically, the more recent Saint Diego is best known for his visions of St. Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. To keep your saints straight you need a score card sometimes. To go by the names, California must be a most sacred place. 120 miles north is the City of Angels. Then the city on the bay named after Saint Francis. Then Saint Barbara. One of my favorites, however, is San Louis Obispo. Everywhere saints. What of Didacus? Born in Spain, he was a missionary to the Canary Islands. I don’t think he ever visited southern California. The Franciscan mission dedicated to him, however, is what grew into the presently eighth largest city in the United States.

Wandering the streets of the old part of San Diego, you might find evidence that a mission led to this sprawling city. Or perhaps not. Now it is famous for fun in the sun—beaches and clubs and the US Navy. I have to wonder what Didacus would have thought of his namesake. I wouldn’t presume to speak for a saint, but I can’t see him surfing or enjoying perpetual summer. Did he have any idea what he might have been starting by denying himself and helping others? He was known for his curing of the sick, although he himself died of an abscess some five-and-a-half centuries ago this month. Like most ascetics, it seems one thing he highly valued was being left alone to contemplate. Would he have even survived in modern San Diego?

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One of the observations I make quietly, from the sidelines, is how frantic religion scholars seem to be. Frantic to write that book, get that tenure, find that recognition. It is sometimes easy to forget that educating students is a reward in itself. Having attended large conferences like this for nearly a quarter century, I have watched carefully. Saints and sinners both wander these carpeted halls with motivations as widely diverse as those of Didacus and Daedalus. Although there are 10,000 people here, including, briefly, Jimmy Carter, the world will go on tomorrow as if none of this ever happened. The homeless will still sleep in the park across the tracks from this world-class convention center. We’ll send our sick to hospitals instead of to churches. And if it weren’t for this conference in this city, I would never even heard of Didacus of Alcalá.

Flight of Fantasy

Today marks the end of the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. As the last attendees who have stayed through to the final half-day make their way through the dreaded Tuesday-slots for papers and wander the exhibit halls in search of last-minute bargains, I wonder what impact we will have made in San Diego. Many of my conversations this year included lamenting over the state of higher education, particularly in the study of religion. Religion, which led to the very concept of higher education, is now perceived mostly as little more than a somewhat unsophisticated intrusion into the cold, hard reality of business. And educating future entrepreneurs is, make no mistake about it, business. Wither the institutions go, publishers will follow. The life of the mind is a perk that we no longer can afford. And yet, as colleague after colleague attests, this is what students really find fascinating. Perhaps even important.

As we get ready to head back to the airport, I reflect how it is so much like being a passenger on a plane. We’ve purchased tickets to get us near where we want to be, but we aren’t directing this jet. The pilot, isolated from us by an unsurpassable barrier, will, we trust, get us to the designated airport. That, however, is not really where we want to go. We won’t happily loiter there. Impatiently we’ll await our baggage at the carousel so that we can wend our way back to our homes. Where is the business end in that? Isn’t it, however, what we live for? And what of the San Diego we’ve left behind? How many people will say that their lives will have been improved by having the lion’s share of religion scholars in their neighborhood for a long weekend? Will the number of homeless have decreased? Will they have found jobs?

While those of us “not from around here” ride elevators more nicely appointed that some people’s houses, the televisions meant to prevent us from growing bored from the twentieth floor to the first, show how the other half lives. It’s sunny and nearing eighty today and Buffalo has snow higher than our heads. Reporters flock to the snow-locked city and wonder at nature’s extremes. It doesn’t seem to play along with our business plans. There must be some way to make some money out of this. But I have an unconventional theory. Maybe I’ve watched Bruce Almighty too many times, but I wonder if all those prayers made by children for a snow day may have been stored up in, what scripture assures us, is a great divine warehouse awaiting release. Perhaps the doors of that storehouse have been thrown open to remind us that sometimes the business of living is simply the wonder of watching it snow. No matter how inconvenient it might be. And lives will have changed for the better.

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The Presence of Ideas

Attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is a bittersweet experience. There is nothing as awe-inspiring as being in the presence of ideas. Whether it is meeting friends who have grown old with me over the years, or younger scholars who promise a fascinating future, or those newly discovered that feel like old friends, they all have ideas. Of course, it is not the editor’s job to produce content, no matter how long or deeply one has been trained to do so. Here is where the bitter of the flavorful metaphor comes in: the suppression of ideas is painful. Throughout my career I have had the benefit of being trained by maverick thinkers who, although I hadn’t realized it at the time, were showing me the way to a kind of enlightenment. Enlightenment, whether it be the absence of thought or the plenitude of it, will lead to places we can’t possibly expect.

When talking about ideas with others I realize how artificial our trite divisions are. For many years I was labeled as a “Hebrew Bible scholar.” “A seminary professor.” Or any number of other simplified categories. My interest, however, was always the finding of the truth. No other goal, it seems to me, is really worth all the energy we put into academic discourse. Sure, I may have studied obscure dead languages—the kind of work that is required to read what many call the word of God in the original (and even earlier than original) language(s). There I found deities battling monsters and chaos perpetually lurking in the background. Ideas in conflict. I somehow knew truth would always win. In fact, I more or less took it personally when AAR initiated its temporary separation from SBL. The two need each other, no matter how much they might argue in the night.

What's the idea?

What’s the idea?

After my first full day of the conference, my head was so swimming with ideas that I had a night full of frightful intellectual dreams. Although I may have trouble convincing the great institutions of this land, I do know that I have something to offer. Ideas crowd around me like a newly exorcized man, seeking entrance to a receptive mind. The more we claim we know, the more we have to learn. I face another day of greeting ideas and seeking their company. Of course, I’m a company man, and I should know what I’m here for. The bittersweet truth of the matter is, however, somewhat more complex than that. I can think of no better place to explore it in the company of friends I’ve known for years, or even only for the past few minutes. As long as they bring their ideas.

Dry Nation

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is a big thing. It draws a myriad (literally) of scholars together every year and invades a fair sized city that may or may not be a religious haven. San Diego feels like a pretty Catholic city to me. My cab driver from the airport was a Muslim, but many of the churches and place names around here reveal a natural comfort with Catholicism. My first night in town, on my own and somewhat weary from awaking at 3:30 on the other coast to get ready to catch my flight, I wandered through the Gaslamp District looking for some authentic Mexican food. It is surprisingly tricky to find, although I’m only twenty miles from Tijuana. Along the way I passed a bar that had a welcome AAR/SBL poster in its window. Now here was a vender that recognized their client!

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Many of those outside the profession assume such conferences as this are like higher education Sunday schools. Undoubtedly, there are those who wish they were. For some, perhaps, the annual meeting allows for the indulgence of personal peccadillos far from watching administrative eyes. Others are more sanguine about it all. Religion scholars are just as human as the next guy. As I looked at this bar window, I reflected on how Christianity (in particular) came to regard alcohol as an evil. Wine and beer were known from ancient times, and even the New Testament has Jesus presented as an imbiber. Temperance, however, grew out of American Fundamentalism that seemed to have forgotten its scriptural roots. I remember learning, as a child, that the wine Jesus drank was really only grape juice with a little kick. Who wants an inebriated God running around the Middle East?

Still, I realize that drinking has its consequences. As the child of an alcoholic, I know the damage that this can do. On the other hand, I know many religions view “controlled substances” as gateways to alternate realities. Other planes of existence. There are even cases where Native Americans have been arrested for using their traditional ceremonial substances in a nation not quite Christian, not quite not Christian. Even on my way to the Gaslamp District, I was saddened to see so many homeless about the city. I knew that as evening fell and the scholars arrived, the bar would come alive. And I knew that when the rain came, some would get wet while others stayed nice and dry.

Only Midway

Unlike some employers, my current one sees the wisdom in arriving early for a major conference. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature is meeting in San Diego this year, and for those of us in the New York area, it’s about as long a flight as you can have in the lower 48. Having arrived in good time, and not knowing much to do in San Diego (I don’t know of any famous writers from this area whose childhood homes I might haunt), I ended up walking to the USS Midway. I’ve never been on an aircraft carrier before, and, on the eve of a religion conference, it was a strangely moving experience. Maybe it was the recognition that I was standing on a floating city on which many people had died in various wars. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a massive piece of machinery designed for its destructive potential. Or it might have been the sheer determination that appeared in every placard: this was a cause we had to win.

No doubt, the Second World War was a just cause. The force of destruction had to stop and the aircraft carriers that enabled the war effort were a huge feature in the “Pacific theater.” Staring at these massive jets, the finest technology of their day, I knew that our greatest efforts had been poured into violence. These were not mere deterrents. Yes, people had died here, but those launched from these decks also killed. War makes claims that way. As I pondered these sobering thoughts, I came to the chapel. Obviously I had to see. An eerie recording of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” came over the speakers as I walked in. Yes, those on a warship are in peril on the sea. If they are successful, others will have died.

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A little further along the corridor (or is it “hatchway”?), I came upon the chaplain’s room, along with my first Bibles of the trip. (I knew they would be here.) A mannequin of the chaplain, cookie in one hand, Bible in the other, sat, apparently, preparing a sermon. What does one say to those going to war? God is on our side, obviously. But what more? The Bible does not forbid warfare. It was a way of life in the centuries during which it was composed. We like to think we may have advanced since then. But as I prepared to exit back onto deck in the warm California air, I passed a display of aircraft carriers past and present. More sophisticated, more deadly weapons continue to be built. And in this day of nones, I wonder who their chaplain might be.

Someplace Beyond Longing

November is a month pregnant with significance. It is the month of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month; when I tried it a few years back I finished a novel in three weeks). It is the start of the “Holiday Season” with Thanksgiving kicking off a slightly more relaxed schedule for businesses and students alike. Often the first day of Advent falls near the end of the month. In many places it has already provided the first snow of the season. For scholars of religion, however, November is the month of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. This year it will be held in San Diego, and will, no doubt, impact my blogging schedule somewhat. Being a creature of consistency, I try to upload my posts around 4:30 a.m. eastern time on weekdays, as I start pulling myself together for work. I’ll be three hours off for the latter part of this week, but if trips to California conform to any pattern, I may still find myself awaking at 1:30 wondering why the city is so quiet. California, here I come!

When I attended as a participant, I gave a paper nearly every year. Several of these papers were making their way toward a book that will never be published. Some produce content. Others only consume. Attending as a participant was kind of like a professional vacation—a few days off the usual teaching schedule, trying to find colleagues to catch up on, listening to papers. From the publishing perspective, it is a non-stop four-day weekend of work. As I see my colleagues on their way to late night receptions, I have to beg off. Tomorrow’s a working day for me. The exhibit halls open at eight, and I will have no idea what time it is in any case.

Ironically AAR/SBL is one of the things that has remained consistent in my professional life. It is almost a migratory feeling. I began attending in 1991, only missing the odd year here and there when something more important took its place. I was, however, never an insider. I chaired one of the sections for six years, but nobody ever contacted me suggesting we meet up. I could advance no one’s career. Now my calendar’s full. Now that I have something others want, suddenly I’m a commodity. Funny thing about a conference dedicated to disciplines associated with selflessness. As I pack my bags and make my plans to take care of details while I’m gone, my mind wanders to the purpose of it all. I used to dream that I would forget to visit the book stalls, and on the plane returning home I’d realize that I’d missed one of the most important parts of the show. That nightmare no longer plagues me. It is now the sole purpose for which I attend.

Am I that obvious?

Am I that obvious?

Saints and Serpents

Santa Barbara feels like paradise.  To a guy who grew up under the gray clouds and sometimes cruel winters of the northeast, the sun-washed placidity of the California coast feels almost surreal.  I’d never witnessed a flight of pelicans before, or visited a university campus that felt more like a spa.  Nothing introduces trouble into paradise like guns.  As we are beginning to try to make sense of yet another mass shooting involving college-aged kids, the somber-faced newscasters talk about how difficult it is to handle mental illness as they fret over seven more coffins that should never have been necessary.  It’s the right of Americans to own guns.  It’s the heritage of many to experience mental illness.  Elliot Rodger only had three guns and over 400 rounds of ammunition in his car.  Where’s Charlton Heston when we need a little comfort now?

 

America’s love affair with firearms is too protracted and entrenched simply to turn back the clock.  Guns are functional devices, but their deterrent force seems effectively only on those who don’t own them.  We’ve opened Pandora’s box and shook the last bit of hope out of it.  College is the stage of growing up where we learn about what life has to offer.  Choosing majors, meeting potential mates, gaining a measure of freedom.  Freedom.  Those who own guns don’t seem to appreciate how unbalanced this makes the rest of us feel.  When I walk behind someone smoking on the city streets, I can’t help but think that I’m doing nothing to foul the smoker’s air.  If only I had a gun.

 

One of the most poignant scenes in the Ellis Island museum is where the potential immigrants are being tested for mental illness.  As a hopeful paradise, we seemed to say, we don’t want to invite any problems ashore.  Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer.  Making guns available to those who suffer depression and rage is madness.  And despite the rhetoric, the only one with gun in hand who ever seems to stop the rampage is the killer himself, by turning his own on the victim and perpetrator.

 

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Standing on a beach in Santa Barbara, you are looking out over five thousand miles of placid, unbroken, blue water.  The sky and the ocean seem to blend together.  A scoop of pelicans flies overhead, becoming lost in the sun.  And there is a serpent wrapped around a tree somewhere nearby.  There always is.

California Weeping

Once again, we as a nation are left to mourn. Gun violence against the young seems, according to the posturing of the NRA, to be a legitimate diversion. I remember watching Gilligan’s Island growing up. The episode “The Hunter”—where if Gilligan survives being stalked by big game hunter Jonathan Kincaid, the castaways will be rescued—now seems strangely prescient. The location changes every few months, however. Yesterday it was in Santa Monica, California. College kids studying for finals being shot at by a man with a semi-automatic rifle. And even after Sandy Hook, and Columbine, and Virginia Tech, we still do not have the will, as a nation, to safeguard our young. Such a perversion of evolution the natural world has never seen.

The logic of allowing widespread ownership of firearms doesn’t make me feel any safer. Judging from the number of young victims of various gunmen—most of whom end up dead so no questions may be asked—we are willing to allow our children to be collateral damage in the war to keep personal weapons. As city after city after city is scarred by the anonymous guy who’s got anger issues taking it out on the helpless, we still insist that guns are our friends. I’d rather be friendless.

My fingers grow fatigued scrolling through the increasing list of multiple shootings. It takes one of sterner constitution than this writer even to make it through the Wikipedia page listing school shootings. Those who die give us ample cause for tears. Those who survive will spend lives dealing with horrible memories. Schools are where we place our hopes for the future. The lessons learned there should give our young the knowledge they require for a lifetime in this complex society we’ve created. Unfortunately that society also includes facile access to deadly weapons that kill with ease. Our hearts raced as Gilligan outsmarted Mr. Kincaid, although we knew he would have to survive. The star always does. But television is a poor guide to reality, unless it’s the NRA telling us why the only reasonable response is to increase the number of guns and let civilization do its work.

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California State of Mind

California, it is sometimes said, is a state of mind. I leave today after a few days in Santa Barbara with a bag of mixed impressions of one of our nations great schools. My first impression on the University of California Santa Barbara campus was almost a physical one. Literally. I had no idea of the bicycle culture and nearly stepped into a bike lane with the flow of a New Jersey storm drain during a Nor’easter. California is a culture of wheels. I’d never been to a campus before that has four traffic lanes for non-motorized travel: two bike lanes going opposite directions, a skateboard lane, and the humble pedestrian walkway. There are so many skateboards here that the counter-culture has become conformist. Sorry, Bart, it’s true. And concern for the environment is palpable. Reclaimed rainwater feeds the lush plant life, every possible recycled item is sorted and sent to the correct facility, students bicycle instead of drive, smart cars are very evident for the two-wheel impaired, and almost nobody smokes. And as I ate my supper alone in the student union two separate groups of Christian students were having very vocal conversations about their faith. Free spirits not realizing that they’re trapped.

One conversation with a Native American specialist stayed with me. She spoke of how missionary work has damaged indigenous cultures irreparably. I listened in fascination as she told me about the local history. How an historic Spanish mission was publicly adorned with the skull of a murdered Native American and how it took years of persuading to get them to take it down, even in the late twentieth century. Across campus students are praying to Jesus for the courage to continue witnessing. In Newark, I suspect, a couple of guys are still laughing.

On a brief respite from my busy day of meetings, I walked the Lagoon (sorry, I can never see or say that word without thinking of Gilligan’s Island) Trail. Emphasizing the environmental features of this wetland habitat, the trail leads down to the ocean where flocks of pelicans and egrets fly overhead, unperturbed on the shores of the vast Pacific. In 1969 what had been to date the worst US waters oil spill took place from Platform A, still visible in the distance from the beach. My thoughts turn from Gilligan’s Island to Deepwater Horizon. My laughter to tears. The Lagoon Trail winds through the headland to a labyrinth. In today’s resurgence of interest in the labyrinth, it is viewed as a spiritual journey. Labyrinths appear in churches as early as the Roman Empire, but nobody knows what they mean. I silently stand beside the maze. What does it mean? Platform A leers from the ocean. Christian undergrads look to convert the world. And under the cross is not the skull of Adam, but that of an anonymous Native American. What does it mean?

Tortured Gospel

Tornadoes? I don't see any tornadoes.

It is a little difficult to force yourself to think of tornadoes when you’re in sunny California. On my flight into Santa Barbara I could see the tail end of the gray whale migration from a few thousand feet in the air. Outside the tiny municipal airport (with its full-body scanner) I see palm trees swaying in the wind. The air smells like flowers. Life is too easy in California for me ever to live here. I need more angst in my diet. I can’t come to the sunny coast, however, without the Eagle’s “Hotel California” replaying endlessly in my head. It was the running joke at Nashotah House that the real Hotel California was located in the woods just outside Delafield, Wisconsin. The haunting lyrics by Don Felder, Don Henley, and Glenn Frey managed to capture the witch’s brew of mind control, humiliation, and desire that laced that little, gothic seminary in the woods. Yet even sitting in California with its full greenery in March, I see that Pat Robertson is blaming the devastation of the recent tornadoes on lack of prayer.

Blaming the victim is a classic fascist technique, and it is very easy to proclaim one’s own righteousness when not in harm’s way. Herein lies the darkest sin of the self-justified; they think themselves specially blessed and therefore not responsible to help the victims. While flying over the Santa Ynez Mountains, seeing the smoke from California wildfires climbing like the terminal flames of Babylon, I could hear a voice like a choir of fascists singing, “Alleluia And her smoke rose up for ever and ever.” Schadenfreude fuels too much of the evangelical worldview. According the Gospel writers, when Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept. WWJD, Rev. Robertson?

Tornadoes look so much like divine judgment that it is almost understandable how a naïve believer might see them as coming from God. We, however, are the gods destroying our own planet with the accompanying degradation of the weather. Neo-cons deny the fact of global warming. It is not a myth or a theory, there is inconvertible proof that it is happening. Still, it is more convenient to blame God. After all, chances of him showing up to deny false charges, as history repeatedly shows, are very slim. Ask any innocent woman tied to a stake in Medieval Europe accused of being a witch. Apparently the divine calendar is too full to worry about the troubles of hundreds of thousands, or even a few millions who are falsely accused. Why not send some terror from the sky? It is hard to think of such things in sunny California. Yet as the “good news” of the televangelists spreads to the ends of the earth, even those forever in the sun will need to stand in judgment before a very capricious deity.