On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.

Dog in a Manger

I’m easily amused. I suppose I never outgrew that sophomoric fascination with the little things that seem like big jokes. The other day, for instance, I was given a copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education to read. The supplement featured Great Colleges to Work For; what are we supposed to do with that? None of them have jobs, so why advertise? It’s so funny when those who have a great thing going advertise it, even though there’s nothing to it beyond bragging rights. Those of us who’ve tried repeatedly to get into higher education (and I even succeeded for nearly two decades, in some measure) would love to take a job at even the worst college to work for, but they’re not hiring either. Nobody is. So why does the Chronicle want to remind us that the fruit will always be just out of reach, and that the water will be just too low to sip—even if we’re bathing in it?

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The frustration that settles in when the laughter dies off is because everyone I know agrees that I should be teaching. Colleagues, tenured and not, former students, friends. “Why aren’t you a professor?” they say. Many of my best friends are. Full professors. Sabbaticals. Grants. Time that’s not spent on the bus or in the office. Perks of every sort. Ask them. Or ask the Chronicle. I can’t reach the grapes, but they’re probably sour anyway. I mean, I can’t help it that I spend hours on faculty webpages and see those who made the cut not writing the books I have like jets in a holding pattern over Newark. How can the get written when time is he one thing I haven’t got? (Oh, and money too, but you don’t need so much of that to write.) Any one of those Great Colleges to Work For appear on the advertisement pages? Anyone hiring a warmed over religion professor who reads a hundred books a year? Nah!

Just joshin’ ya. I poke fun at higher education like you can only tease a lover. I’m into exercises of nihilism as much as the next prof. Didn’t old Ecclesiastes say it centuries ago: learning is a zero-sum game? So the academic vehicle that doesn’t boost the number of jobs offered will continue to tell us where we should work, if there were any jobs. Perhaps professors of privilege demand more than I think. Just give me a classroom and a syllabus to teach her by. I’ve done so in very primitive conditions at a college that make no marks on the “Best of” scale. Real world experience, however, doesn’t count. We’re only telling you what you can’t have anyway. Isn’t that better than where you work now?

Geneva Conventions

As an alumnus of Grove City College, I generally don’t have the chance to consider other colleges as unreasonably conservative. College taught me, after all, that education involves thinking things through, and that, of all things, doctrine is one of the many human constructs that wilts under close examination. Both religious and political doctrine fall under this rubric. So when an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education fingered Grove City’s near neighbor, Geneva College, I was both relieved and not really surprised. Grove City was strict, but Geneva, located down the road in Beaver Falls, was even more Reformed. Tales at the Grove said that even off-campus dancing was an infringement of the student code there, and that even a legal sip of beer with dinner, off campus, could get you expelled. You know how students talk. In any case, both cut from Presbyterian fabric, Grove City and Geneva Colleges hold out against the world and its multiple evils. So why did humble Geneva merit notice in the exalted Chronicle?

Geneva College recently sued for exemption of the contraception-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act. You see, in many conservative religious traditions pre-marital sex is not only from the Devil, it practically never happens among true Christians. If it doesn’t happen, why should you be forced to pay for its treatment? Denial runs profoundly through these conservative colleges. While at Grove City, in a first-floor dorm room, my roomie and I were awakened one night by a group of pretty obviously drunken frat boys from the third floor. Cursing loudly, one of them rammed his fist through our window, showering the floor with glass before stomping loudly up the stairs. When I went to the housing office the next morning, they wondered about my story. Students at Grove City, drunk? It simply did not happen. In all likelihood, I’d broken the window and made up the story so I wouldn’t have to pay. I pointed out that campus security had noted the glass was inside the room and my roommate and I were both there at the time. Reluctantly, while still withholding judgment about the drunken part, I was believed.

Conservative Christian colleges often face the specter of reality. College kids were killed driving drunk. Girls, gasp!, did get pregnant and did not always decide to keep the baby. Real world issues declared anathema by a magisterium with its hands firmly over its eyes. No matter one’s view of morality, singling women out for punishment of sexual sins is just plain unfair. The issue here is health care, not the consequences of a decision made in the heat of passion. How often the anonymous male gets to scamper off, his health fully covered. The co-ed, however, is treated like Eve holding a newly bitten apple. Students attend Christian colleges for a wide variety of reasons, and the education, apart from the theology, can actually be excellent. It is the ethical obligation of the schools to cover all the human needs of emerging adults, not just those based on a morality still mired in the Middle Ages.

Time for a Reformation?  Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

Time for a Reformation? Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

With My Luck

I wish I didn’t believe in luck. I guess I’m just not lucky that way. And I’m not alone. Of all the “superstitions” that haunt the human psyche, luck is among the most pervasive. We either have windfalls that make our lives easy, or, like many of us, a series of unfortunate events against which we constantly have to struggle. We call it luck. But is it real? William Ian Miller wrote an intriguing piece called “May You Have My Luck” for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review. There’s nothing as mysterious to me as the hapless professor. I mean, they have it all, right? Educated at fine schools, cushy jobs that pay reasonably well, interviews on documentaries, jobs that among the rarest on earth? Who wouldn’t want that kind of luck? (I am also a believer in myth, so that also must be taken into account.) The reason I raise luck here, however, is that Miller’s article again and again returns to religion. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just unavoidable. Luck, no matter how we define it, goes back in some way to the favor of the gods.

We all know people that we think of as lucky. Success seems to follow on success for them. They are at the right place just at the right moment, and their lives seem to be easy and not so full of stress as those of the rest of us. Most people, as Miller observes, have middling luck. Things go our way sometimes, and then they don’t go our way at others. My fascination, however, lies with those on the other end of the spectrum. There are those who seem to get very few breaks. They may do all the right things, follow all the wisest advice, work harder than anyone else, and still end up on the bad end of luck’s roulette. Ironically, they may be religious people to boot. Their deity, according to their sacred traditions, is the most powerful entity in the universe. And yet things don’t go their way. We call it luck. Is it more powerful than the divine?

This question, or more properly, conundrum, lies behind any concept of luck. Shifting to the paradigm with which I’m most familiar, does God direct luck or does luck exist independently of God? Does luck even exist at all? Is it just the name we give to a series of random happenings in retrospect and which have no inherent meaning? Ah, that seems to be the very point! Meaning. What do these things that happen to us mean? Whether or not we believe that life has any meaning, our minds are biologically programmed to seek it out. Very few of us are content to find only food, shelter, and air to breathe. We want something more out of life. We may not be able to name it, but whatever it is, we could conceivably call it meaning. We are looking for a purpose to our mere existence, even if we don’t believe in it. Gods or no gods, we are left trying to discern what they require of us. And whether we find it or not, it seems, is purely a matter of luck.

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Catholic Nones

In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article pondered the future of Catholic universites in an age of nones—those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition. As with so much in life, the evidence countermands expectations. Enrollment is stable and even non-Catholics are attending. Part of this, no doubt, is because a greater number of high school students are being channeled into college, but there seems to be more to it than that. Those interviewed suggest that it is often that students, nones included, favor an education with a moral grounding. Materialism doesn’t give one much to go on besides human convention. Even if students don’t accept Catholicism, there’s no doubt that the Catholic Church presents itself in a way that admits little doubt over what’s right or wrong. Even if you choose not to observe the strictures, there’s a comfort in know they’re there.

One of the schools foregrounded in the article is Marquette University in Milwaukee. While at Nashotah House I came to know some members of the Theology Department there, and I visited the campus numerous times. One of the interlocutors in the article is a physics professor who, admitting concerns at first, has found Marquette—a Jesuit university—remarkably open to science. The days of Galileo are over. Even Catholics know science is science. Indeed, the Vatican itself employs scientists and a Catholic priest was the first person to formally postulate the Big Bang. As someone who has applied to many Catholic universities over the years, and who has had a fair number of interviews, my sense is that the close-mindedness comes with theology, not science.

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Especially in the days of retrenchment under John Paul II, control over hiring for religion (“theology”) faculty at Catholic schools underwent renewed scrutiny. I was informed that I was not selected for positions because I was not Catholic. You could, however, be a none physicist and land a job. This discrepancy of knowledge has led me to fine tune the Chronicle’s question a bit. The Catholic Church is well funded. Its universities would only be in danger from radical drops in student numbers. This favors the hiring of mainstream professors in every discipline. Except religion. It is as if this small presence on a large campus, such as Notre Dame, could hold out against the humanist knowledge emanating from every other department. A candle, as it were, in the hurricane. And that candle, amid all the nones, must accept official doctrine. At least on paper. And all will be well.

Campus Crusade

The Chronicle of Higher Education also chronicles the trials and travails of religion in academia. A recent edition of CHE reported on how California State University withdrew official recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because its leadership is, by definition and constitution, Christian. The organization contested the decision, and, in this thorny situation, I think, rightly. The disestablishment clause cuts both ways. Government can’t establish a religion, but it can’t prevent one either. InterVarsity, although not exactly to my taste, has been a fixture on campuses for decades. It offers alternatives to pong and related forms of diversion without being pushy about faith. Indeed, it does not insist that participants be Christian, and, in my experience, doesn’t try to convert them. It offers a service that is useful for undergrads and has every right to be on campus, as much as the young republicans do. Can an organization be banned for having Christian leadership? How much can we disestablish before we become oppressors?

I recently had a conversation with a college humanist chaplain. There aren’t many of these, but they are beginning to appear on campuses, offering the services traditionally given by religious organizations. Many people don’t know what to make of this. Not all rationalists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists are enemies of spirituality. We can be both spiritual and human. Some would argue that we have no choice in the matter but to be. Some express it as Christianity. Others as a non-doctrinal recognition that being human means wanting to affirm unions and weep at funerals. Maybe it is more than just chemico-electrical signals across gray matter after all. Colleges and universities should be places to explore. Like it or not, without the influence of the church, and before that the synagogue, the concept of higher education likely would never have developed at all.

How much of the baby do we throw out with the bathwater? Evangelicals cost me my first real job. I had, however, grown up among them. Although not in InterVarsity, I did participate in Christian groups in college. I don’t think it damaged my education. How can a person learn to compare when one of the options is displaced? Will Newman House be permitted to stay? Even government officials can’t agree on exactly what it means to have a religion-free government in a religious, if post-Christian, nation. Why antagonize an organization that is only trying to offer a service? Every time I pull up to a gas pump chances are pretty good that I disagree at a pretty visceral level with the ideology behind the company supplying me my fuel. And yet, here I am, running on empty. Ideologies and services, it seems to me, are very different things. Those that don’t cause harm should be the least of our concerns.

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Science Fiction Double Feature

Two news stories last week—one from the Associated Press and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education—hit upon a common theme: scientific illiteracy. Both articles presented scientists who felt that if they could just reach the (mostly) American public with easily digested facts, then belief in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming would suddenly make sense to everyone. It may not be my place to say, as I’m not a scientist, but I believe they’re wrong. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming. In fact, I spent part of last week flagellating myself (metaphorically) for not posting something appropriate on Earth Day. I worry a lot about global warming and what we do to our only planet. What I mean is, these scientists don’t understand religion. People don’t willfully reject the facts. That takes religion.

One of the reasons that I continue my daily efforts on this blog is that our educated elite constantly refuse to acknowledge the blue whale in the room. People are naturally religious. Some grow out of it, some are educated out of it. For most, however, the price to do so is far too high. Science offers little to take the place of faith. For all of its innuendo, the Big Bang tends to leave most of us cold. I don’t support religions spreading ignorance, but even the Bible recognized that it is useless to say to a poor person, “stay warm and well fed” if you don’t offer a blanket and some food as well. It’s chilly in an infinite, yet expanding universe. Why don’t scientist understand that if you give a jacket, maybe people might actually warm up and listen?

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Religion, however we define it, is a coping mechanism. Even many atheist biologists admit that it has an evolutionary utility, embarrassing as that may be. Evolutionary scientists also tell us that we don’t evolve according to plan. Nature (de-personified, of course) opportunistically uses what’s at hand to help creatures survive. Instead of trying to understand religion, many in the hard sciences think that speaking loudly in single-syllable words will convince those who’ve found meaning in evolution’s solution of religion that somehow evolution was wrong. The worst thing we can do is to waste more money trying to understand religion! I hear it’s very cold in outer space. Still, things seem to be warming up down here. For those who can’t evolve gills, it’s time to learn to swim.

Rocket Cats

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A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

For Love or Money

IMG_1258The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities is seeking a Christian way out of a contract. It seems, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, that Edward Blews was released from his $300,000 position “without cause” (I know how that feels—not the $300K part, but the “without cause” aspect), and he wants this resolved “in a Christian manner.” To the tune of two million dollars. That’s Christian if anything is. Christian higher education counts for a fair proportion of schools in the United States, while the CCCU, defining itself as “Christ centered” has only 120 members in North America at the moment. It was founded in 1976. Ironically, my old alma mater does not find itself on the list, although Grove City College often proclaimed itself as God’s Country Club during my years on campus. Among the services listed on the CCCU website is advocacy and public policy, that will allow them the “crucial right” to hire “only persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ.” And perhaps, who can’t afford a lawyer.

Academic freedom has been on my mind a lot lately. Conservative Christian views seldom benefit from academic inquiry. These views, most of which are decidedly modern, are passed along as a package with political riders, and strive to see themselves as counter-cultural, although, in fact, they resemble the 1950s more than the 2010s. I have no idea why Blews was let go, but I do know that “without cause” hides a multitude of sins. In my case, it was shorthand, I think, for just being too liberal. I was doing a great job, but endangering the morals of majors, I guess. Teaching critical thinking does have a price tag. I don’t see seminaries on the CCCU member’s A-list at all.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to understand more about human religious motivations. Reason alone cannot satisfy brains where emotion may be just as critical to thinking as logic is. I know that when I’m depressed all thoughts seem to flee, except the most dismal of the lot. Reason can’t penetrate this fog. Yet reason itself cannot be ignored. The facts it teaches are frequently uncomfortable—to scientists as well as religionists. There’s nothing fair about it. When it comes to legal agreements, however, we are at the mercy of lawyers. Ironically, those who head Christian coalitions of various sorts feel the need for financial compensation. A little lucre to wash down the humility of dismissal. “Without cause” can be the most unkindest cut of all, eh Marcus? Even Judas got his 30 pieces of silver, but the cash never satisfies.

Which Bible?

No doubt the Bible holds a privileged place in western civilization. Arguably, it is the most influential book that exists in terms of its cultural influence in this hemisphere. Not that the Bible has had an easy ride of late. Many are vocal about its shortcomings, notably its violence and steadfast consistency with its own social mores of patriarchalism and election. Unfortunately these critiques sometimes (often) discourage people from reading it. (It is a very big book.) Having spent a good deal of my career dealing with the Bible, however, it is like a friend. Most friends have a habit or two that drive you to the brink of madness, but still, you know and trust them and tend to see the good rather than the flaws. The Bible is a holy book with warts. I cringe when I read parts of it. I’m not quite ready to let it go yet, however.

One reflection of this ambivalence I see often is that scholars (among others) have now taken to spelling the Bible without a capital letter: the bible. Perhaps it is the latent editor in me, or perhaps it is the Chicago Manual of Style that hangs like Damocles’ dictionary above my head, but like it or not, the Bible is a proper noun. In English we capitalize proper nouns. On Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube (all of which my computer auto-corrects to capitalized proper nouns), I understand. Most hands don’t get sufficient pinkie exercise to make that stretch to the shift key. But in academic writing? I’m pretty certain that e. e. cummings had nothing to do with the title, and other than loss of prestige, I’m unsure how to explain it. I have read book proposals from biblical scholars (biblical, by the way, is an adjective and does not require capitalization unless it is part of a title) who leave Bible all in lowercase letters. Have we come to this?

Leaving the “Holy” out of the title is academically sound. After all, Holy is a confessional modifier, and scholars strive for neutrality. With the proliferation of bibles—everything from Beer Bibles to Gun Bibles are out there, all capitalized, I note—we should take care to treat the Bible with grammatical care. It shows nothing of one’s faith commitment to capitalize it properly. God, on the other hand, may be used as either a proper noun or a common noun. Usage dictates capitalization. In the Bible Elohim is more often a title than a name. I knew civilization was in trouble the day I saw the phrase “butt crack” in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The least we can do to combat the decline is to stretch that pinkie once in a while as an offering to the god of good grammar.

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Chronic Religion

The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a surprisingly large number of articles that touch on religion. I write “surprisingly” somewhat ironically here, since religion and higher education have been inextricably tangled from the very beginning of post-secondary education (and even before). A recent article by Donald L. Drakeman caught my attention because of the tag-line: “A venture capitalist with a doctorate in religion sees the value of a bear market in the disciplines.” In all honesty I have no idea what a venture capitalist is, but I do understand “doctorate in religion.” Dr. Drakeman’s article is entitled “The Highly Useful Crisis in the Humanities.” Drakeman points out that during times of economic hardship the number of students studying the humanities declines. During times of economic prosperity they rise. And he also points out that this can be interpreted in more than one way. Since I’m afraid of venture capitalists, I feared that religion, along with the rest of the humanities, was about to take another trip to the woodshed where it would come back again but might chose to stand rather than sit for a few days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dr. Drakeman suggest that this disparity actually demonstrates the inherent value in the humanities. Tough times lead us to pare down those things that we value so that we might survive. Once a kind of stasis is reached, we try to climb once again. Humanities, in other words (speaking for myself and not Drakeman), represent the pinnacle towards which we strive. When money gets in the way, as it often does, we lose our focus and down comes baby, cradle and all. The humanities are what we live for; money represents pure survival. It is no surprise that those who lose their sense of human fellowship sometimes become survivalists—the individuals who can thrive with no other people around. But what about when the post-apocalyptic stock market recovers? Where will they be without the humanities?

Education, apart from simple survival skills, began as a means of ensuring that the religion that sustained our ancestors through hard times was passed on to the next generation. At times the more literal-minded suppose that means that the religion itself should never change—as if the religion were the point of it all. Although they may not have articulated it so, the ancestors, I believe, had a different goal in mind. Those who are parents already know what it is. We want our children to have it better than we do. If religion helped us, it should help them. It only becomes a problem when the religion itself is mistaken as the goal of the process. Everything evolves. A religion that changes with the needs of society is among the most vital aspects of the humanities, whether or not our forebears would even recognize it as religion at all.

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Disorganized Religion

In an Advice column in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, subtly pseudonymed Madalyn Dawkins contributed a piece entitled “Dodging the God Squad.” Dawkins, the wife of a senior college administrator, is an atheist and she shares anecdotally the woes of non-believing administrators everywhere. Even in state universities administrators must not reveal their lack of belief because powerful donors may withdraw their support or other administrators may bring them down. This leads Dawkins to posit a “God Squad” that silently polices university administrators, ensuring a kind of conventional belief structure. Of course, with any covert operation speculation must be involved. Dawkins notes that instructors may declare themselves non-believers with few consequences, but for administrators the game is much more political.

Doubtlessly covert religious groups exist; we discover them all the time. In this case, however, I wonder if Dawkins has wandered into that territory some of have written about for years but to which most academics are blind: the world is actually a very religious place. I sympathize with Dawkins. Those who are educated cannot unlearn what they’ve discovered on their academic journeys. What they often do, however, is suppose that others have kept apace. I see this all the time in the public posturing of the other Dawkins, Sir Richard, that is. Railing against belief as if it is a disease, he doesn’t seem to understand why the unwashed masses don’t get some kind of flu shot of the mind and destroy this pesky infection. What academics sometimes—often—forget is that religion serves many valuable functions in people’s lives. In a world where the privileges of an academic lifestyle are rare and becoming rarer, the disparity is only going to increase. There is no “God Squad.” There is society and there is academia.

I’ve been around the quad a time or two. I know that academic administrators often see no reason to study religion. Many of them are non-religious, as I’m sure many people know. Supposing that all others share their views, however, they cancel funds for the study of religion (one of the departments hardest hit by the “it doesn’t lead to a job squad”), as if silencing the rational voices in this discussion will make the phenomenon go away. Higher education exists for the sake of society. Those who are educated can help to educate others and slowly, slowly progress will ensue. Some of us have tried patiently to do just that over our years in the classroom. I never belittled a student’s religious belief. I did try to raise questions, and I tried to teach students to raise their own questions. My positions, however, were repeatedly cut out from under me by eager administrators. There is no God Squad. For the sake of us all, however, it would be best if administrators acted like this mythology is really true.

An early view of higher education.  Literally.

An early view of higher education. Literally.

Misplaced Zealotry

zealotReza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has brought public interest back to the only begotten, and it’s not even Easter time. A confession: I’ve not read Aslan’s book, so my thoughts here are purely academic. (In a time-honored tradition, I will comment without benefit, or liability, of having actually read.) My interest is, to be frank, less on what Aslan has to say than with how people are reacting to him. Within days of publication, the internet began to swell with news stories about public reaction to Aslan’s treatment. My interest was raised by the Chronicle of Higher Education, where an article by Peter Monaghan quotes Lauren Green of Fox challenging Aslan, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” I know this is Fox, and that it is poor form to abuse the idiot, but I couldn’t help but to wonder at such a misguided question.

I would ask, honestly, how many Christians have read a book on Moses or David, or any Hebrew Bible figure, that was written by a Christian. Far fewer hands would be in the air if the same question were framed with the caveat, “written by a Jew.” Every supersessionist religion reserves the right to analyze what has gone before in the light of its own theology. We all know the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille, but how many know the Jeremiah of Abraham Heschel? Do we bother to read what the believer writes about his or her own hero? Would we need to? We already know what the conclusion is going to be. I, for one, am very curious how some Muslims perceive Jesus. That’s always a fascinating question, since Islam, in many parts of the world, superseded Christianity, and has, until recent times, often peacefully coexisted.

Is it not because the author is Muslim that the challenge was issued? How quickly we forget that western civilization (which began in the “Middle East”) owes much to Islam. While Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were rediscovering Aristotle and making genuine progress in science. And yet, we are suspicious of what is discovered by those of “alternative” cultural heritages. I would be more surprised should Muslims show no interest in Jesus. During the past presidential election, many non-Mormons flocked to bookstores (okay, that’s an exaggeration; nobody flocks to bookstores any more, now that Harry Potter is done), eager for books about Latter-Day Saints. Most of them written by non-Mormons. I don’t know what Aslan has to say about Jesus. I suspect some are disconcerted because he bears C. S. Lewis’ code-name for Jesus in the Narnia chronicles, but Aslan may well have something to teach us about ourselves. I, for one, welcome it. How can we ever learn tolerance if we’re unwilling to hear how we appear to others?

Sleepy Jean

Last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article by Cristina Richie entitled “The Scandal of the (Female) Evangelical Mind” appeared. Richie points out that despite great strides being made in employing women in religious studies positions, Evangelical institutions still fall behind. This dynamic is not unexpected, however. Those of us who grew up evangelical know that no matter how much it may talk the talk of equality, evangelicalism walks the masculine walk of deeply seated patriarchalism. For those who literally “believe the Bible” there is simply no way around a male Jesus. Even if you go that dangerously risqué step and suggest that the Holy Spirit is somehow feminine, when the divine couple gets together (and Father is always in charge), the offspring must be either male or female. In any literal reading, women cannot possibly claim equality. For their very salvation they are dependent on a male. A god with testosterone. As in heaven, so on earth.

Evangelical institutions have a difficult time with women leading men. They’re not alone. As early as the first century of the Common Era, Paul had the same issues. Literal religion in a biologically dimorphic world will always be problematic. Either there is one god, or there are three. In either scenario the males outnumber the females. Should we posit a divine couple (as some in ancient Israel appear to have done—please wave “hi” to Asherah for me) we still have a culture that is dominated by men. The divine couple will always have the goddess deferring to the will of the god. And you can be sure that he will never pull over and ask for directions. We already know which way this chariot is going.

Every once in a while, the Chronicle likes to sit back and take stock of the religious landscape. Religious studies is, despite the bad press, a thriving area of academic interest. Surely to those in more quantifiable fields, our little squabbles over whether god is a man or a woman must seem pedantic and a little pathetic. And yet, the evangelical institution has an instruction book. That book, if followed word-for-word, leads to eternal rewards for those who are willing to foot the hardships. And for at least half of those (and likely much more than half) that will mean living on an earth that mirrors that realm beyond the sky. Although you can’t see it with any telescope, if you believe hard enough, it is there. And in that ideal place, the god in charge is a man’s god.

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