Past Knowing

It’s like watching a fall in a movie in slow motion.  You know you can’t really stop it, as much as you’d like to.  We see the collective world pieces moving into place for a third world war and thinking people worldwide are wondering why countries such as Italy and Sweden are electing hard right candidates.  Especially when Russia is invading countries at will.  I’m no politician and I resent having to be drawn into political topics, but at times you just have to say something.  Even if it won’t change anything.  Parts of the Bible are like that—witnesses simply wanting it to be noted.  Something seen, something said.

My family wasn’t political as I was growing up.  They pretty much just voted Republican, being in a rather Pennsyltuckyish county.  When I was nearing voting age I asked my mother about the political parties.  We’d learned about hawks and doves in school, and having been taught that Republicans tended to be those who started wars I wondered why Christians voted for them.  She really didn’t have an answer for me and I later came to realize that as a certain segment of Protestantism is actively attempting to bring about the second coming, this fits the plan.  One way to do so is by initiating wars—environmental degradation is another—because they believe it’s all going to end soon anyway.  Although Jesus advocated for peace, they choose war, ironically, to bring Jesus back.  That was the start of my journey to the Democratic party.  War serves no purpose.

In democracies worldwide right-wing parties are propagandizing heavily to urge nationalism.  Separatism.  Fear of the stranger.  Many in Russia believe Putin’s rhetoric that Ukraine is a dangerous threat to the largest country in the world.  China, the largest country in terms of population, feels threatened by the small island nation of Taiwan.  Borders around much of India are disputed.  The control of resources, in thrall to capitalism, makes people want to close borders and watch out for their own.  At least their own that are members of their party.  From my perspective it’s difficult to see a peaceful way out of this.  Even the world’s oldest democracy falls prey to the propaganda of a known swindler.  Human society is complex.  We have enough resources to meet the needs of all except the greedy, but it’s the greedy who run for office.  We have, it seems, forgotten the last century entirely.

Photo credit: Remember, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Banning Together

Banned Book Week starts today.  As the political situation in this country continues to deteriorate into a Republican fascination with fascism, we find books challenged and banned for suggesting real fascists were anything other than nice, white boys misunderstood.  It will take decades, if not another World War to undo the damage Trump unleashed.  Instead of sitting in my corner worrying about the future, I read.  Banned books make up quite a bit of my reading, but I do try to read one every September intentionally in honor of the occasion of Banned Book Week.  It’s misguided to suggest children shouldn’t grow up.  A deep-seated fear of education reveals the hypocrisy at the very heart of book banning.  Adults should know better.  They should read.

I love America, but nationalism is poison.  Just like those who believe that only their religion can be right, many believe only their nation can.  Divide that up among the almost 200 nations of the world, with individuals in each thinking this way, and conflict logically arises.  Those who look at other cultures—read about them—and try to understand them, realize we each have our own way.  One of the major problems is that capitalism insists all must trade and barter the way that we do.  We think of people in terms of their “net worth”—which is, in reality, infinite—and want to know who owns more and is therefore more powerful.  Lackeys will always follow the wealthy, kissing posteriors and professing loyalty until they have enough of their own to challenge the more wealthy.  It’s enough to send any Bible-reader back to Ecclesiastes.

Books have stirred up ideas ever since they were invented.  The Bible wasn’t the first book, but it too appears on Banned Book lists.  Many of those who thump it read it with the acumen of a kindergartener.  That’s not why it’s sometimes banned, however.  It is full of sex and violence.  The bits about love and hope are far outweighed by it.  Books contain ideas and ideas will get out.  There’s a reason I surround myself with books.  They are a strange sort of castle that invites others in even as it protects.  It’s not comfortable to challenge the way that you think, but nothing fascinates like a new idea taking root and growing.  One of the best ways to meet people far distant and explore the way they think is to read.  Banning reflects our small-mindedness, and even worse, our desire to keep that small-mindedness intact.


Social Horror

Some books get you thinking in ways you don’t expect.  That’s one of the pleasures of reading.  Lindsey Decker’s Transnationalism and Genre Hybridity in New British Horror Cinema may sound terribly specific—there are a lot of qualifiers in that title—but it actually has some very broad implications.  I was reading it specifically from the horror angle for a project I’m currently working on, but I was surprised at the social commentary I found while doing so.  One of Decker’s main ideas is to show that British horror is, well, transnational while maintaining its Britishness.  She focuses mainly on five films in the book, only two of which I’ve seen.  Very aware of the history of British cinema, she points out many characteristic features and situations that make British horror what it is.

The social commentary comes in when discussing “hoodie” horror films.  These are movies showing how the working class, particularly the youth, are dangerous and anti-society.  The more I read the more it occurred to me that imperialist, capitalist systems are built on the corpses of the poor.  Even good kids from bad situations have difficulty getting ahead in life and those above them on the “social ladder” more or less despise them and make policies to keep them in poverty.  This leads to anger and resentment, and often, in reality, this spills over into violence.  It all comes down to those who benefit from the system refusing to make it more equitable.  When the inevitable happens—those pressured without sufficient means boil over—they are blamed for their own circumstances.

Having grown up in a working class system and having struggled all my life to somehow maintain a comfortable existence for my family, I know the kinds of obstacles faced.  In my particular case, retirement is not a likely outcome.  I’ve worked, except for (and often even) when I was in higher education, since fourteen.  I’ve seen others with connections, educated parents or influential friends, get ahead.  I’ve also watched while many of us get shunted aside because, well, who are you?  Some people wonder why I watch horror.  There are many reasons for it, and at times I think maybe I’ve seen enough.  But then I look around at the corpse-strewn foundations of our current system and I see how reality plays into that fear.  Decker, I’m pretty sure, was meaning for her words to apply to mainly the fiction of horror, but there was a different kind of hybridity there as well, at least for me.


The Truth, for Free

The Book of Common Prayer, reaching back to my Anglican days, is and always has been in the public domain.  Although the poetic language and culturally relevant phrases could by charged for use, they’re not.  The idea seems right-headed to me.  Although the Church of England, like many other religious bodies, has its own specific theology and approach to things, which it believes is right, as opposed to all other belief systems, it shows its conviction in making its sacred text free.  Copyright exists to protect intellectual property.  If an individual or an institution, or a company, creates something, copyright assures them that nobody else can monetize it without the creator’s permission, and often such permission involves a royalty.  The C of E has foregone that.  Print away!

I tarried many years among the Episcopalians before it became clear to me that I wasn’t exactly the kind of saint they were looking for.  I’ve had to move on, but I very deeply appreciate the integrity of an institution that says, “I made this, but you can have it.  I really believe in it.”  If you’ve decided to print and sell religious books, however, beware the Bible.  Most of the common translations in circulation (apart from the good old King James) are covered by copyright.  Unlike the Church of England, the bodies that sponsor Bible translations expect to be paid for the use of said translation.  This is, in part, a business decision.  They have valuable property—for many the keys of salvation itself—and if you want it you should be willing to pay for it.

This contrast has often struck me as very odd.  How capitalist religion has become!  In what do Bible translating bodies really believe?  Believe me, I know that any large publishing effort requires a lot of work.  Resources.  Still, those who do the translating generally have church or university jobs.  They’ve already got a steady stream of income, no?  And yet they will expect to be paid their billed hours for bringing the truth to the world.  I’m not a good investment thinker.  Money doesn’t really motivate me.  This is one of the reasons I have tried several times to find acceptance as a clergy person.  My values seem out of sync with the rest of the world.  I even bothered to learn the original languages in which the Bible was written, the better to read, mark, and inwardly digest them.  Still, I wonder if those who truly believe would not feel more authentic giving away all they have in order to attain the kingdom of Heaven.


Not a Scholar

It’s insensitive.  And behind the times.  Google Scholar, I mean.  They send me emails telling me that people can’t read my research because I don’t have a verified email.  When I sign on and enter my email, it tells me to enter an institutional email instead.  I don’t have one.  So it sends an error message implying I’m not really a scholar after all.  Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics, I had to settle for a job in the corporate sector.  Unlike some of my colleagues, I still research and write and try to maintain a web presence so I can be found.  Compared to non-academics those of us who’ve been through the system are few.  Even so, this can be an exclusive lot.

There are quite a few academic websites these days.  I’m not sure which is the biggest or best regarded—I’m not verified, after all.  I have an active account on Academia.edu, and recently, to gain access to an article I needed, I joined Research Gate (dot net).  Academia is after me every day to upgrade—they follow the “free cookie” model.  It’s free but if you really want to be discovered you can pay a modest fee for an upgrade.  I suspect Research Gate is the same.  And Google Scholar.  These websites aren’t out simply to promote you for your own benefit.  Of course, real scholars can be naive.  I’ve been in the business world long enough to be suspicious.  There’s no such thing as a free account.

What such websites don’t take into account is that academia is a harsh and punishing place.  Institutions are almost always run by businessmen these days and professors are deemed too expensive to maintain.  (Nobody’s talking about how university president salaries are too high, I notice, but they’re verified.)  To push knowledge forward we get rid of those who’ve dedicated their lives to study.  Those departments that bring in money—greed is not an academic field—thrive.  The academy was founded to further religious knowledge.  Soon study of the law was added, but law was considered something handed down from on high.  Some of us, and not a few, were naive and unverified enough to believe that fields that had been around for a millennia or so would be around for at least long enough to get us through to retirement.  Instead, learning has shifted online.  And to be part of that club, you must be verified.  At least according to Google Scholar.


The Nature of Nationalism

I was recently reading about China.  The particular take of this piece was that China began, just over a dozen years ago, an attempt to become the world’s recognized superpower.  As I read about its aggressive stance in many areas (investment in tech, foreign relations, military), and realized that the United States had done a similar thing after the Cold War ended, I began to wonder who we’re all trying to impress.  Like many people I believe America has had it good for quite a long time.  (At least for some of us.)  I also believe we have used underhanded ways to get to this point.  Trump has definitely set us back on the world stage, but as China is investing in science and tech, we’re polishing off our Bibles.  (Take a look at the Supreme Court and disagree, if you can.)

In a world that has enough for all, why do we find it so hard to share?  Growing up with the Bible I was pretty sure that was the central message.  Instead, we seem to want to become the Nebuchadnezzar of the world, the great—well, you know—Babylon.  Ironically, Babylon doesn’t fare too well in Scripture’s final book.  Nationalism, it seems to me, is a great problem.  People seem unable to feel good about who they are without hating those of different countries.  It would seem that globalization should’ve taught us a thing or two about that.  Perhaps it’s the nature of our leaders—people who promote themselves until there’s no further ladder to climb beyond world domination.  Is that what we’ve come to?  Is there any hope?

I keep wondering who such people think the final arbiter will be.  Hasn’t history demonstrated over and over and over again that those who think too highly of themselves will be remembered most poorly?  Do they lack the capacity to see from the viewpoint of other people?  Our political and economic systems reward those who step on others and who think highly of themselves, it seems.  Capitalism especially dwells in the fantasy world of endless growth in a limited environment.  Combined with the restless curiosity of science and rapid growth of technology, this system seems set to go off the rails.  Especially when world leaders see each other in competition with one another instead of working cooperatively for the benefit of all.  No, I don’t believe Utopia is possible—there are too many self-interested leaders for that ever to work—but I do believe that national agendas that overlook differences (think the European Union) are far more worth our time than trying to become, or remain, a “super power.”


Conflicting Lifestyles

Sleep patterns often don’t fit with work patterns.  The reason I wake up so early is that for years I had to do it to get to Manhattan.  For work.  Since ending the commuting lifestyle four years ago, I haven’t been able to adjust back to normal, whatever that may be.  During a recent heatwave weekend, when it wasn’t really conducive to be doing yard work, I suggested to my wife that we watch The Godfather on Sunday afternoon.  Somehow I thought it was only two hours, but it is actually much closer to three.  Now this Coppola film is considered one of the greatest movies of all time and I have literally wanted to see it since 1972.  There were no VCRs in those days and life has been, well, busy since college days.

It is a powerful movie, even today.  I knew the basic plot and I started to read (I can’t recall if I finished it) the novel in the early seventies.  All I know is that I sat engrossed as the temperatures tempted 100 degrees outside.  Because I awake so early Sunday afternoons are often sleepy times for me, but I don’t nap.  Napping leads to long nights and I awake early no matter what.  The movie doesn’t allow for a lapse of interest.  One of the scenes that had the most impact is when Michael is attending the baptism of his godson and the priest asks him if he renounces Satan intercut with scenes of his hitman killing his rival family bosses.  The religious nature of the violence in the story is perhaps one of its most shocking elements, even today.

That night it was still hot, and all the water that I drank during the day made itself rather urgently felt around 2 a.m.  The trick to the late night bathroom run is to keep your mind shut off.  Although The Godfather ended nearly twelve hours earlier, it crept back into my head, keeping me awake after that.  Of course, I had a full day of work—there are no allowances for aging in this thing of ours called capitalism—ahead.  The thing is, when else do we find three consecutive hours to catch up with a cultural landmark but a Sunday afternoon?  Are you supposed to take a vacation day to do it?  I have no regrets about having watched the movie—it was like an offer I couldn’t refuse.  It’s just the rest of life that, well, simply won’t compromise.


Celebrate Juneteenth

It’s everywhere you look.  Prison statistics.  Poverty statistics.  Gun violence statistics.  We gave lip service to ending slavery but never really made our black brothers and sisters free.  Red-lining.  Police shootings for traffic stops.  It should not be illegal to be of African descent.  Juneteenth is a celebration, but a muted one.  There is much, much work left to do.  When “black lives matter” signs are countered by “blue lives matter” we know there’s a deep-rooted problem.  It’s an especially unfortunate, and hypocritical problem for a melting pot like the United States.  We have room.  We have resources.  Until recently we had commitment to freedom.  Now, just as things should be improving we cave once again to unwarranted fears and paranoia.  What’s holding us back from celebrating Juneteenth?

The solution’s not simple, but it has a clear starting point.  Our elected officials must stop valuing power over people.  Racists—of either party—should know without a doubt that they can’t win nominations.  The good people of this country will not stand for it.  Running on a platform of vacuous celebrity only—how many celebrities are really deep, clear thinkers?—should be soundly shouted down.  The two-party system requires at least a third serious challenger.  America’s leadership must start looking like the people who actually do the work in this country, not those who suck up all the profits.  Catering to the wealthy inevitably causes problems on the other end of the social ladder—the end upon which that ladder must stand.  We no longer need slaves.  We never really needed slaves.  What we need is high principles.

Othering may be normal human behavior but that doesn’t make it right.  We are able to overcome our prejudices.  We are able to say “black lives matter” without following it up with “all lives matter.”  We are able to recognize the sins of our past and repent.  Christianity has produced great followers.  These followers require leaders who have the best for the people in mind, not the best for themselves.  Corporate climbers do not understand this.  Brains addled by money, they see America as a company to run and a way to skim profits off the top.  Politicians are constantly comparing the sizes of their “war chests” for the next election when they should be soul-searching instead.  Let’s celebrate Juneteenth.  Let’s say “we were wrong” and “our theology was wrong.”  Let’s promise ourselves that any racist should fear running for high office.  Let’s end systemic racism and celebrate the results.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Companies

Perhaps you’ve seen them too.  Big companies that express what they do purely in platitudes that apparently impress business types.  I’ve looked at some of their websites and after considerable poking around I can’t conjure even a ghost of an idea of what they do.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, we all know what companies like Exxon, Random House, or even Planned Parenthood offer.  They have a function—a product or service that you can recognize.  Some of these vague large corporations seem to exist simply to exist.  And get paid for it.  It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa asks a corporate executive woman what her company produces and she answers “Synergy.”  We see these “centers of excellence” popping up here and there.  Excellence in what?  Excellence is a quality, not a commodity.  Or maybe I think too small.

Someone I know recently changed jobs and I looked up the company she’d switched to.  It obviously had money for a slick website and an office in Manhattan.  The list of industries it supports as clients was wide and impressive.  But what does this company actually do?  They spew platitudes.  Corporate climbers apparently like this lingo.  You’ll never catch me citing “best practices.”  Are they trying to imply that the rest of us use worst practices?  Do they mean a better way of doing things?  Why not say what you mean?  I like to play with words.  It doesn’t pay very well, but I’m wondering if I’m perhaps missing an opportunity here.

We could form a company that spins out new corporate phrases to make business sorts sound intellectual.  We wouldn’t actually need to do anything except attend company meetings about our company and throw out a few phrases likely to become trendy.  Maybe hire a publicist to get those phrases going.  Surely some company has the money to spend on that.  Those of us who actually do peddle words for a living have trouble getting big corporate money.  Publishing is a low profit-margin business.  But a company that makes you sound intelligent?  Priceless.  Growing up there seemed to be only a few standard jobs.  Of course, I lived in a small town where the options were indeed limited.  Each of them, however, had a defined role.  You knew what the job entailed.  This new company, which will have a vague name, will be in keeping with the times.  Who’s with me?  Just be sure to bring your checkbook.


Blood Money

The overdose crisis is very real and very sad.  Even so I couldn’t help being stopped and shocked by how economics was brought into it in a recent New York Times article.  Lab-made drugs are cheaper, so dealers pass on the savings to users.  Does anyone else see the problem here?  Isn’t the real drug capitalism?  Or take the Republican acceptance of violence as a legitimate political tool, also highlighted in a recent Times article.  Their blind followers think it’s about saving unborn babies but anyone who’s studied politics knows it’s about the money.  If you can distract the electorate with an emotional issue you can pick their pocket at the same time.  Capitalism smiles on the wealthy.  And only on the wealthy.

I’m not naive enough to suppose we can do without the dismal science, but the more I learn of economics, the more dismal the dismal science becomes.  I was recently reading about the ranching industry in early American expansion and the amount of power concentrated in those who raise animals for slaughter would make the most bloodthirsty of gods smile.  Indeed, Europeans coming to a new country wanted to make it in the image of their lives back home (they were largely successful).  Especially those who raised specially bred varieties of sheep, goats, and cattle.  Since grazers and browsers require a lot of land, the American west appealed to them.  Although big beef and big dairy produce more environmental problems than most big industry does, we let economics make the decisions.  And in economics the big and the selfish always win.

Photo by Tanner Yould on Unsplash

A bit of wisdom comes from the musical 1776 where John Dickinson explains in “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” that the common person will always vote for those who preserve the (near impossibility) of becoming rich, the myth of capitalism.  The average person lives each day not worrying that they will be struck by lightning.  Those who are often believe it isn’t likely and remain out in a storm.  What are the chances of a poor person actually becoming rich?  In this economic system?  Don’t go outside in a lightning storm.  Americans have been taught to retch at the word socialism despite the fact that it works extremely well in most of Europe.  Instead we proliferate guns and drugs on the free market model and wonder what could possibly go wrong.  Yes, there really is an elephant in the room.  And we’re burying far too many people because of it.


Foreign Christianity

I’ve been reading about missionaries in Southeast Asia.  One of the things that has become clear to me is that as Christians moved into different cultures they perhaps didn’t realize just how their religion was being blended with a completely foreign worldview.  Catholic missionaries were particularly savvy about accommodating local outlooks.  Add the mass on top of them and you’ve got your converts.  What they were, perhaps unknowingly, doing was changing Christianity.  Yet again.  Monotheism has a myth of the pure religion.  The fact is that as soon as Paul disagreed with Peter Christianity had begun to splinter with each faction believing it had the pure form.  When this protean religion moves into other cultures with other ways of thinking, interesting new forms emerge.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Today there’s a lot of interest in Celtic Catholicism.  This is another example of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Christianity, particularly in Ireland, took on a pronounced Celtic flavor.  It doesn’t always play by the rules, but as long as Rome’s okay with that, well, who’s to complain?  What is Catholicism?  What is Methodism?  What is Anglicanism?  It depends on where you join it.  Doesn’t that problematize those absolute truth claims?  Churches are savvy political players.  The rank and file believer has little idea what goes on behind closed doors.  They might be distressed to find out just how much bishops talk about budgets.  Theology is left to the public view.  No organization can survive without money and church leaders understand this.  Missionaries go to under-developed countries and make them capitalists.

People living in different parts of the world view life from varying perspectives.  Many see change as the nature of life where western religions see fixity.  Many religions know we’re reincarnated.  Western religions see one ride per ticket with souls ending up in a final holding place.  When it comes to eternity, people obviously want some security.  Even with reincarnation a badly lived human life can lead to a worse next life.  The question of what happens when such ideas come into contact with Christianity, or Islam, is a fascinating one.  Judaism, the root of monotheistic traditions, never really embraced missionary activity.  When missionaries encounter those whose very ways of thinking about life approach the question from a different direction, creative mixes are bound to occur.  It’s safe to say that when early Christians were sent out to “the whole world” they had no idea how big that world actually was, under the dome in which lived the sun, moon, and stars.  Nor had they any idea what interesting hybrid religions would emerge after their fertile preaching.


Fight for Mom

The spring holidays come think and fast.  Depending on when you start spring we’ve got Valentine’s Day followed a month later by St. Pat’s.  On it’s roving schedule Easter hops along, with its precursor Mardi Gras.  There’s Earth Day, May Day, and Mother’s Day.  One thing they all have in common, apart from being holidays, is they’re not worthy enough to be days off work.  You have to wait for Memorial Day for that.  Today, in any case, is Mother’s Day.  We stop to think, as if we shouldn’t every day, about our mothers.  Women are pretty poorly represented in the holiday scheme, unless you’re Catholic (and even those aren’t days off).  Mother’s Day always comes on a Sunday so employers are eternally thankful.  A holiday with no consequences.  But should it be?

We’re only just beginning, after being “civilized” for five thousand years, to give women their due.  Only just beginning because capitalist systems are built on male fantasies of growing rich without the female humane element.  It’s not a system friendly to mothers unless we find a way to make people spend money.  Women remind us to look for cooperation and not just competition.  Working together we can make things better for everyone.  Men, left to their own devices, go to war.  Men take what they want and women act as our conscience.  Mothers sacrifice to keep us safe and alive.  Their self-denial resonates better with the Christianity suborned by men into a money-making venture.

It’s Mother’s Day.  It’s a day to put aside our acquisitive, war-like tendencies and think of someone else.  It’s a day to imagine what it might be like if we made a habit of good behaviors.  It’s like those grades they used to give in school for “deportment.”  It wasn’t all just about how well we learned our facts.  Mothers teach us what it means to set aside our own wants for the needs of another person.  Without that the human race simply wouldn’t survive.  Instead of politically stacked courts taking away women’s rights, today we recognize that without women none of us would be here.  The human experiment only succeeds when women are recognized for all that they contribute to life.  To civilization.  To society.  We may not have commodified it, so why not listen to our mothers’ wisdom?  Why not make it every day instead of just the second Sunday of May?  Don’t forget to thank your mother today.  Better yet, fight for her rights.


For Sale for Free

It’s one of the signs of spring.  Although it may be more appropriate for winter when we’re holed up inside for much of the time, the library book sale often takes place when it’s a bit more conducive to being outdoors.  When we travel, which isn’t frequently these days, we often spontaneously stop into an advertised library book sale.  Most of the fare is fairly pedestrian, but sometimes you find something you simply didn’t expect.  On one such recent outing, that’s just exactly what happened.  Back when we lived in New Jersey the Friends of the Hunterdon County Library book sale was a much-anticipated event.  It remains, in my experience, one of the largest of such sales.  (Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to pointing inveterate readers to book sales and that’s how I found this one.)  That’s not the surprising part, however.

One year when I went, one of the library friends was working the pre-entry crowd, proclaiming some of the treasures inside.  One of them, he announced, was a Bible from the nineteenth century.  They were asking more than the usual one or two dollars for that one.  If I recall, it was $100.  No, I didn’t buy it.  I have dozens of Bibles right behind me at this moment and if I had a Franklin to spend I’d load up on books I don’t already own.  Many of the books mentioned on this blog came from just such sales as these.  That big Bible’s not the surprising thing either.  Here it is: on a recent library book sale day, I saw a shelf with Bibles.  They were free.  Library book sales are intended to raise money, but Bibles for free?  Unexpected, no?

America is the land of free Bibles.  They are printed in vast quantities and sold cheaply, without a thought to what this says in a capitalist world.  Some Christian rock groups were famous for throwing free Bibles from the stage—you’ve got to think those in attendance already had one—and any county fair will usually have at least free New Testaments for the taking.  Ironically, most of those who distribute free Good Books are also the staunchest supporters of capitalism, one of the most exploitative economies ever invented.  Attending library book sales entails more than just finding books that you perhaps didn’t know about.  It’s more than being tempted by something for which you’d rather not pay full-price.  It is, perhaps surprisingly, a learning experience in and of itself.


Highest Education

The average church-goer is often impressed with the idea of seminary.  The thought that someone could devote three years of their lives to theological minutiae in order to take a job with long hours and substandard pay, is mind-boggling.  Having been a seminary creature for so many years, however, makes me wonder if many church folk realize that seminaries are businesses.  Non-profits, yes, but businesses nonetheless.  This is a trait that they share with other institutions of higher learning.  Customers pay money for a good or a service (I’m not sure which) in the form of a degree.  If a student can’t cope academically, they’re often “grandfathered”through because, well, it costs a lot of money and you deserve to get what you paid for, right?

This business concept of higher education is dangerous and is primarily prevalent where governments do not support education.  Schools have to raise money and if alumni don’t give, well you have to raise tuition.  And the more somebody pays the better case they have for getting their degree.  Seminaries, however, also suffer from generally low-income alumni and sponsoring churches needing clergy.  (It’s not difficult to get accepted into most seminary programs.)  Only when a candidate is a serious problem will they tend to be weeded out.  And congregations get the results of such a system.  My level of cynicism probably results from having gone through seminary and then having taught at one for many years.  At no point have I been ordained.  In fact, even churches facing clergy shortages have shown no interest.  Call it sour grapes.

To me, however, the crisis in higher education is the result of business practices being applied to education.  The two don’t mix.  In a world where job options are limited for those too weak to dig and too proud to beg, ministry has some appeal.  You can be considered a community leader and an expert in the relatively innocuous arcane area of “theology.” And most of the people you serve will have no idea what seminary delivers, or doesn’t.  I attended events for seminary administrators offered by the Association of Theological Schools—the seminary accrediting body.  I learned that they too are under pressure to approve unless there’s a serious problem.  Even heads of accrediting bodies have to eat.  So we let the system churn on as it has since the earliest universities turned out educated clergy.  And we don’t stop to think what all of this means.

Tradition

Shopping Screed

Capitalism is insidious.  Those of us with modest incomes—and I’m quite aware that many, many people are poor—are constantly being bombarded with new schemes to get us to pay a little each time for something that used to be free.  Look, I realize the economy was hit by the pandemic.  We’re all paying for it.  Still, even basic stores you’ve used your whole life now want you to sign up for schemes that will only cost you a dollar each time and which never really pay anything back.  The one that’s got me thinking about this is a drug store.  Like it’s a surprise that you’ve decided to buy something at a drug store.  They get you to sign something you vaguely understand as you’re trying to rush out the door with your prescription and then they send you daily emails telling you how great it’s going to be.

And surveys—the endless surveys!  They sound more neurotic than I actually am.  Did we do this right, and could we have done it better?  It’ll only take a quarter hour of your time.  Each time you stop in.  And please do that daily.  The last time I did one of these surveys for the promise of a prize worth $90, I ordered their version of a fit-bit as my prize.  I’m curious how many steps I take in a day and no, I don’t carry my phone with me everywhere.  The “prize” arrived late and when I charged it up and turned it on (it came with no instructions readable in my native language) it worked for a total of literally 3 seconds before the screen died a pixelated death.  Now that same company wants me to answer surveys weekly and pay an extra dollar each time I come in.  It’s enough to make me want to use the other drug store, but they’ll probably do the same.

The thing is it’s not just pharmacies.  All the stores are doing it.  You shopped here once?  Look what else we’ve got!  Some of us shop for what we need.  We live on a budget.  If you’re going to start charging me for the privilege of shopping at your establishment I’ll have to start going somewhere else.  The items on offer for promotional plans are things I just don’t buy. If you want me to spend more, then reframe your economics and pay me more.   And I don’t have money to just give away.  Have you even taken a look at your last heating bill (thanks Mr. Putin)?  I’ll come to the store again as long as it’s free to shop there and it has something that I actually need.

Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash