Qohelet’s Washcloset

Cast your bread upon the water, as Ecclesiastes says, and it will come back to you when you need it.  Since bread is a common slang word for money, and since the toilet paper has arrived that I ordered two months ago, I see the truth in this.  Paper spent for paper to use.  While I’m pretty sure that’s not what old Qohelet exactly had in mind, it is the reality in which we live.  There are experts that tell us the toilet paper shortage isn’t due to panic buying, but over eight weeks into this crisis and the shelves in Target and grocery stores still look like Mrs. Hubbard’s cupboards.  All those people working from home must need more fibre in their diets.  Or is it less?  I can never remember.  What other than bread satisfies?  Clearly toilet paper does.  And the fact that the nearest yeast, according to Siri, is in Tennessee, clearly has nothing to do with panic buying.  Nothing at all.

People will go to any lengths to prove that we’re rational beings.  We don’t like the image of being the panicky herd beasts we are.  When I first realized the crisis was hard on us, it was March 16.  That was my first grocery store trip where beans were as rare as moral Republicans and we still can’t find pasta or flour around here, even with stores stocking daily.  The announcements on the loudspeaker beg buyers to get only what they really need, and leave some for others.  The thing about panic, though, is that it’s anything but rational.  It’s based on emotion washed in the myth of scarcity.  It also shows what an unregulated economy soon devolves into.  I’m sure many people rationalize panic buying as “just until things get back to normal.”  Vanity, vanity, says Ecclesiastes.

Instead of the myth of scarcity we should believe in the myth of normalcy.  That should’ve ended, for any reasoning being, in November of 2016.  It isn’t normal for a prosperous nation to offer up someone who clearly has no governing ability for the most powerful office in the land.  Two months into the largest crisis we’ve seen since the days of FDR and the White House response has been the null set.  Meanwhile, I ordered toilet paper from abroad on March 16.  The ship slowly made its way across the Pacific from China where, I understand, toilet paper is abundant.  I’m just glad that there’s a rational explanation for all of this.

VFD

It’s been a few years since I read Fahrenheit 451, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury.  Like so many dystopias, it’s seen a resurgence of interest since 45 was elected.  (I can’t help but notice the shared digits.)  Bradbury was a writer of his time.  So much, I suppose, could be said of all of us who write—how can we be anything else?  Still, it’s difficult not to see that his fear was of television decimating reading.  And intelligence.  We’ve got the internet now, so the effect has been magnified a bit.  The tale, despited being dated, is poignant.  The more electronic we become the more of what used to be termed “real life” we miss.  At this reading it was clear that The Book of Eli was largely based on the last pages.

When Montag confesses to his wife that he’s been secreting books away, and she finds him insane for doing so, he takes the book in his hand to a former acquaintance, Faber.  It turns out that the book is the Bible, perhaps the last in existence (see what I mean?).  On the subway ride he tries to memorize the Good Book.  Now, I’ve been on the New York City subway, and I know the delays can be long, but there’s an error of scale here.  The Bible’s a big book.  Still, he gets pieces of it down.  Now, in the 1950s, when Fahrenheit 451 was published, the Bible was known for its liberating qualities rather than its darker side.  Also the atomic end of World War II was clearly still a painful living memory.  The two may not be unrelated.

Given the age of the story, I won’t worry about spoilers.  In case, however, it’s on your list proceed with caution.  The war that’s been building the entire story takes place the night of Montag’s escape.  Along with the intellectuals forced out of the cities, he becomes part of a human library.  Each person is, through a memory recovery technique, capable of recalling the books they’ve read.  Montag becomes, appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes.  Perhaps the least evangelical book in the Bible, along with Job (with which most evangelicals find themselves cheering on Job’s friends), Qohelet has long been one of my favorites.  It’s an honest book.  The same can be said for Bradbury’s novel.  Primarily a short story writer, Bradbury didn’t sustain the narrative to novel length very often.  But when he did he fashioned a book that, particularly now, needs to be read.

The Struggle for Relevance

Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:

If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.

An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.

The Preacher

Ecclesiastes, I used to tell my students, is one of the most unusual books of the Bible. And that’s saying something. When we think of the Good Book we think of pious thoughts and lofty feelings—you know, the white-shirt, evangelical sort. The Bible, however, isn’t what most people think it is. Ecclesiastes, nestled right there near the geographic center of the Protestant Bible (and there’s more to say about this) is a book unlike any other. It is philosophical, weighty, and somewhat gloomy. It is a book where God can’t be relied on to help you and the world may very well be against you. It honestly admits that things just aren’t as they should be. “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools,” it says, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one bungler destroys much good.” (That’s 9:17-18, in case you want to check me out.)

America used to be known around the world for its pragmatism. Now it’s being laughed at as the master of irrationality. I remember when elections were matters of gravitas and serious consideration of the issues. They’ve now become high school popularity contests, even including the locker-room talk. Trump insults his own party and they kiss up. We have a president more impressed by kid’s toys in Saudi Arabia than by the top-notch research universities in his own country. I turn to Ecclesiastes for consolation. It’s a good book to read when everything’s going wrong. “For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.”

My white-shirted friends will surely object. I’m taking verses out of context—prooftexting, it’s called. But, my evangelical friends, you say Scripture is the word of God. Fully inspired and inerrant, is it not? How can you dismiss the wise, wonderful, woeful book of Ecclesiastes? The world is a complex place. Those who seek office as public servants should at least be able to distinguish the servant from the master. They lay their hand upon the Bible to take a sacred oath of office. Beneath that withered hand lies the book of Ecclesiastes, forsaken among its more cheerful siblings. Do not forget Ecclesiastes. It is the book that best makes sense of our day. “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit.” Herein lieth the truth.

To Whom It May Concern

Everything we do is an investment in the future. Some times it’s intentional, and other times it’s purely accidental. My wife sent me a CNN story about what might be the oldest message in a bottle ever found. It’s difficult to conceive an idea more romantic than the lonely castaway throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping for rescue. The size of the oceans make any such chance qualitatively smaller than the smallest possible needle in the largest possible haystack. The sheer volume of the oceans is among the most mind-boggling quantities on earth. The chances of finding a single bottle in the blue is practically nil. Still, the message in the bottle is an investment in the future. We hope it will be found, despite the odds.

This particular bottle, although of some scientific value, is the least of the romantic kind. George Parker Bidder III, a third-generation scientist, dropped about a thousand bottles into the sea to study deep ocean currents. This was more than a century ago. Those finding the bottles were instructed to send the message back to Bidder, now long dead, so that he might enter the data in his notes. Bidder died in 1954, and one of his bottles was just recently found in Germany. Here is a case of a man writing to himself beyond the grave. Could he ever have imagined that six decades after his death a sample of his work would be found? For those who’ve labored only to be forgotten in their own lifetimes, this is like finding a genie in a bottle. We want to believe our lives have made a difference. For most of us, we go through our daily chores never really sure that any more than a handful of people care, and most of them only care if it is earning something for the company. Others stand on the shore and throw bottles into the sea.

The Bible has positive words to say about casting your bread upon the waters. Indeed, it will come back to you, we’re told, in a time of need. This is a metaphor, of course. It is all about investing in the future. When it comes to money, this doesn’t often work. Some people are fortunate in their investments, but many are not. Bidder wanted to know about deep water currents. This bottle would have told him something about them, but he isn’t here to receive the news. Instead he is being heralded as someone who deserves to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Maybe not a scientist’s first choice of memorials, but an investment is an investment. More people will read about world records than will ever find a message in a bottle, no matter how metaphorical.

Casting bread on the water, New York style

Casting bread on the water, New York style

Buying the Kingdom

Who doesn’t admire the presidential wannabe who can take a personal hit without flinching? We are, after all, a nation of tough-minded individualists who think they know quite a lot about God and the way the universe works. So Donald Trump has been, according to Steve Benen on MSNBC, been saying the Bible is his favorite book. As Benen notes, when asked to point to some specifics, the ultra-rich contender prevaricates, recently saying that of the Testaments, he liked both equally. I wonder which verses are really his favorites? I’m guessing Proverbs 11.28 must be among them: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall; but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” Or 28.22, “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.” Or maybe Ecclesiastes 10.6, “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.” It could be that the New Testament has a slight edge over the Old. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19.23) must be right up there. Or Luke 6.24, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” Maybe James 5.1, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Actually, a near constant vexation to those who try to take the Bible seriously is it’s refusal to take one position on wealth. Written by many people over hundreds of years, it is clear no single viewpoint emerges. Wealth is considered both a blessing and a curse. One thing, however, that the Bible refuses to countenance is the presence of great wealth while poverty still exists. Those who have riches are expected to make sure everyone has enough before enjoying their surplus. Who among the one percent, no matter how much they claim to give away, can ever honestly claim the Bible as their favorite book? There are places where the rich are let off easy, but they are few. Wealth corrupts, and those who have riches in great abundance don’t come off looking good. Still, you can’t be a presidential candidate without the Bible. And money.

I can think of no better use of the Bible as an iconic book than Trump’s claims to valuing it as his favorite, if private, book. This is a Bible containing no words. It is a hollow leather shell that can be used to buy votes—spiritual currency of the highest market value. When is the last time someone could be a non-religious candidate for the highest office in the land? If you can buy your way into the White House, you can surely buy it into Heaven as well. Every god has his price. If I were a rich man running for the presidency, I’d put my money in needles. If I were a literalist, I’d have one cast so large that I could easily walk through. This would be my best chance to inherit every possible kingdom through the use of money.

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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?

Psalms of Lament

Fate can be decidedly cruel sometimes.  Accidental discoveries can be the most painful of all.  As my regular readers know, I wrote a book on the Psalms (Weathering the Psalms, Wipf & Stock—on sale now!) while teaching at Nashotah House seminary.  I sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press, and it was declined on the basis of one review.  Subsequently, I met the reviewer at a conference reception and he is now working on a book proposal for me.  Such are the ironies of life.  I can let that go with a chuckle of existentialist bonhomie.  The twist of fate comes in through helping a colleague with a question about the Psalms.  I grabbed the nearest book at work that would help, the newly published Oxford Handbook of the Psalms.  I’d glanced through it before, but this time it fell open to the contributor’s page and the words “Nashotah House” fell upon my eye.

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During my years at the seminary, I published at least one academic article a year, as well as a book, and I attended and delivered papers at the major professional conference every year.  No one ever approached me about contributing to a Handbook, apart from my advisor and friend Nick Wyatt.  I labored at building an academic career for 14 years in obscurity.  Now, the newly hired replacement (not the faculty member hired to replace me) gets invited to contribute to a major reference work.  I do not know the man.  He may be a perfectly personable chap.  Some of us, however, can work our hardest and never get noticed.  It seems as if the world of scholarship is really just a house of cards. 
 
Perhaps in times of schlock and flaw, such as these, I should turn to Ecclesiastes for comfort, rather than Psalms.  Yes, the Psalms say some pretty challenging things to God—not as challenging as Job or Jeremiah, but still.  Ecclesiastes, however, is the one to calm the intellectual’s soul.  There are those who claim that the Bible no longer has any utility in a post-Christian society.  Wise Qohelet, I’m sure, might just agree, even as he disagrees.  I tried, without benefit of sabbatical, and with additional administrative duties, to make an academic life for myself.  I was, in reality, just shuffling the deck with old Solomon.  We took turns building layer upon layer, he and I, both knowing that our house, like any built on sand, could never stand.  It must be some of that sand in my eyes; otherwise I can’t explain why they are watering so.

Dark Sight

TimeDarkBarbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.

The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.

Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.

Weathering Qohelet

Over the weekend I finished the initial formatting of Weathering the Psalms, my long-suffering book on the weather terminology in the Psalter. While I’ll have to give it another going over, a strange cocktail of feelings has come over me in the process. Scholars age quickly. The time between putting that last period on that last sentence and the book showing up in a few dozen hands is generally over a year. You feel outdated. Not only that, but this book was finished, for all practical purposes, a dozen years ago. In this world of endless, indeed, almost insane academic publishing, many books and even more articles have appeared that I should have read, pondered deeply, and incorporated into my work. That, however, is a luxury reserved for those society deems fit to place in colleges, universities, and seminaries. The predominant feeling, apart from relief, was a kind of melancholy, however. The book represents a world that no longer exists. Indeed, a young scholar who no longer exists.

From the day I started teaching at Nashotah House in 1992 (or even before), I knew it would be a limited-time engagement. The then dean, interviewing me, knew that I was too liberal to fit the medieval theology then current (and still current) at the school. As a teacher of the “Old Testament,” however, the damage I might do was deemed minimal. I wrote several articles on my beloved Ugaritic, but no job interviews came. Those who’d sussed the system suggested I try publishing biblical material—after all, that’s where the jobs are. (Ha!) So I began. Weathering the Psalms took several years to research and write in scholarly isolation. I began rising at 4 a.m. to find the time to do the writing. Most of the book was written between four and six in the morning. Yes, it’s rough. And tentative. A young scholar unsure of himself. Now I’m an old man even more unsure of himself. Still, there are insights in that outdated tome that I hope some will find worth their time.

I have a photograph of myself that my daughter took at the time. I was putting on my boots to go shovel some snow. The face in the photograph is young. Optimistic, even. I was facing the weather. I’ve come to realize that all photographs are lies. They capture an instant of time that has already vanished. In my case, a livelihood. A dream that was shredded on the plains of some theologian’s ideological Somme. Winters seem to have become much harsher since then. Colleagues who’ve found jobs prosper while the rest of us fight against nightmares and that sense that all we ever tried to do was, in the end, vanity. One of the questions in the study, The Bible in American Life is, which is your favorite book of the Bible? Mine has always been Ecclesiastes. And even as I make final preparations to ship my manuscript to Wipf and Stock, I know that the preacher is right: there is nothing new under the sun.

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Of Cuckoos and Kings

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Having a life-long phobia of mental institutions, I shy away from situations that refuse to make sense. Some have attributed this to my having had an alcoholic father and responding with an über-rational expectation of analyzing how other people would likely act. Whatever its cause, the fear is real. So thirty years ago, when I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I assumed it would be the last time. It was a relatively recent movie at the time, and it was required viewing for one of my college courses. With my phobia I really couldn’t get beyond the heebie-jeebies to consider what was going on beneath the surface, which is to say, most of the movie. Well, a few decades will cure many ills and I sat down to watch the movie again and my own experiences of asylum-like, heartless institutions in the intervening years had indeed hardened me a bit. I noticed much that I’d missed the first time around. For one thing the story of King David kept coming to mind.

For those who read the Bible somewhat objectively, David is a player, and not always the most admirable character. He has a subtle charm that wins the reader of the books of Samuel back time and again. He steps into a situation where his ambition is held back by a kind of Nurse Ratched named King Saul. So what does David do? He pretends to be insane and runs off to join the Philistines. He gathers a band of miscreants about him and goes to towns taking what isn’t his. He even brings a forbidden woman into his house. As R. P. McMurphy goes through these same shenanigans, he comes to really love young Billy (Saul’s son Jonathan). In the course of the movie our ersatz David takes a suffering nation and heals it. There, however, the parallels end and Ken Kesey’s story takes over.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Kesey intentionally drew on the story of David—that would be crazy talk—but I do often wonder about the aphorism attributed to his son Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. There were those who felt that Solomon had lost touch with reality as he sat down to write Ecclesiastes. The great stories, in some sense, have already been told. But not all. Those of us who write seek new truths, and sometimes use ancient sources to do it. David is remembered as one of the great biblical characters. One of the reasons, undoubtedly, is that he is so fallibly human—he’s not impossibly pious like Moses, or unfailingly sad like Jeremiah. He is a good man with peccadilloes for which we are willing to forgive him just for the pleasure of watching him go on. No, Kesey may not have had the Bible in his hand as he dreamed up the character of R. P. McMurphy, but he produced a true representation nevertheless. Of course, I might just be insane myself.

Silver and Gold

“He has also set eternity in the human heart,” old Ecclesiastes lamented at the end of the most famous passage in his book, noting that it is nevertheless impossible to conceive. We mark the passing of time in centuries. I suppose we like a good round number, but it is also a convenient frame since few of us make it much beyond the century post, so we can keep it in our eye as a reminder of how long we might have left. Life has held more fear for me than death, so I approached and passed my fiftieth birthday without much anxiety. When it comes to others, however, the caviler perspective soon fades. Centuries are important. And so are halves. And so are quarters. At twenty-five the world stretches endlessly before you. But to what have we really committed to twenty-five years? How much have we changed in that time? Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The “silver” anniversary they call it. Although I’m not much of a Hallmark kind of guy, the fact that one woman has put up with me for a quarter century continues to amaze me, and we had made plans for a grand celebration. Then Routledge slashed my job. Fortunately, Oxford University Press came to the rescue.

Ah, but with provisional requisites. You see, I had saved a week’s worth of vacation so that I might spend my anniversary at home (or on a little trip) with my wife. Publishers do not get the week between Christmas and New Years’ off. While our academic counterparts are sleeping late and spending time with their families, we’re rising early, commuting into the City, and sending emails that won’t been seen for a few weeks at least. Business rules. Routledge took away my accumulated vacation days, carefully squirreled away during the long year, and since I’m a new hire at Oxford, I haven’t earned any vacation yet. Twenty-five years, and I can’t even give my wife a day. Silver in a world defined by gold. It’s not easy being married to me.

I began work at age 14. With a single exception I have never quit a job. I am a very hard worker and I have never had a performance review that did not say as much. Since Nashotah House set about ending my academic career, I have suffered through three dismissals, all following very positive reviews. You may be forty, forty-five, or fifty, but you are starting over again. Bottom of the pay scale, bottom of vacation days earned. Child in college and eternity in your heart, you have to watch those pennies and be to the office on time. Nobody’s stopping you from going to a nice restaurant (as long as it’s not too expensive), but the bus will drop you off about 7 p.m. and you’d better be asleep two hours after that so that you’re not groggy at work the next day. My old friend, Ecclesiastes, you are wiser than your years. And Kay, thanks for an amazing quarter century. I know of nobody else who would’ve put up with it.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Grand Delusion

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“The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Rick memorably quoted in his once safe haven in Casablanca. Rick had fled his country for moral causes, only to become jaded and callus in an unfeeling universe. So it was with interest that I read the story of the Gastonguay family that my wife pointed out to me. The Gastonguays were stranded at sea when they took their kids and father-in-law and tried to sail away from a US rife with abortions, homosexuality, and “the state-controlled church.” Apart from sailing lessons, and perhaps a primer on US history, the little family had all they needed. They believed that their religion was sufficient to survive on Kiribati, their personal Xanadu, where there aren’t enough people to interfere with free religion. The Gastonguays, however, ran into a series of ocean storms after they set out from San Diego in May, eventually being rescued by a presumably Catholic Venezuelan fishing vessel. Their plane fare home is being footed by the godless government they fled.

Mrs. Gastonguay seems to be the family spokesperson. She notes how the Bible is pretty clear on social issues, according to the story on NBC. I couldn’t help, perhaps a bit naughtily, of thinking of the Bible as well, particularly Ecclesiastes 11.1. “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.” That bread may be quite soggy, however, and the government you distrust might just have to bake you some new if you are to eat. I complain about government policies and shenanigans on this blog, but it is because I appreciate the ideals upon which this country was founded. Religious freedom is more or less a reality. Our government doesn’t force you to have abortions or marry a homosexual. School vouchers, which the Gastonguays may appreciate, are about the closest we come to a state-sponsored church.

Shifting genres a bit, I think of the hair band Styx’s hit, “Come Sail Away.” On that mythic journey the unnamed captain sees a gathering of angels swirling about his head. Of course, the angels are really aliens inviting him aboard their starship for an even more dramatic exit from a planet so full of troubles that any good Christian should have trouble sleeping. I can’t say that I don’t dream of escaping every once in a while. The ills that churn my stomach most are a pythonesque capitalism that just won’t let a poor soul breathe free without having to earn an extra greenback or two on the side. If it was up to me, however, I think I’d rather hang with Dennis DeYoung and await the unfolding of the grand illusion. That starship might just be the closest any of us will come to heaven on earth after all.

Charon’s Obol

One of the concomitants of spending time with religion is a non-morbid fixation on death. As a college student I was surprised to learn that other people my age did not think about death nearly every day. Perhaps with a typical college student’s obsession with the other end of the life cycle this is only natural. Ever since I was a child, however, I felt frustrated by the lack of permanence that characterized all of the striving involved with life. We work very hard and then we die. I suppose that is one of the reasons religion appealed so strongly to me—it had an answer to this dilemma. Science, as I began to experience it about the same time, suggested a radically different conclusion: we have no souls, and so it is best to accept the fact that death is the end and get on with life. No wonder Ecclesiastes has always been my favorite book of the Bible.

While reading about–shhh!–death recently, I came across an interesting tidbit. Pope Pius IX was buried with a coin. I’ve read that even John Paul II was buried with coinage, but I’ve not been able to find credible sources on that. What is fascinating about this practice is that no matter how it is vested, burial with money is a form of Charon’s obol. With movies like Clash of the Titans, many modern people are aware of the need to pay Charon to cross the River Styx. (Back in the radical days of traditional education just about everyone would’ve learned this in the course of studying the classics. In any case…) The gifting of the dead with money represents the survival of a pagan custom that likely stretches back well before ancient Greece. Even before money was invented people buried the dead with goods that the living would never be able to use again. They may not have considered this payment to a ferryman, but the principle is the same.

This idea has a strong grip on our psyches. Not one of my favorite movies, I have watched Ghostship a time or two. What initially brought me to the movie was the fact that it is a horror-movie built around the character of Charon. The mysterious stranger who lures the crew of the Arctic Warrior onto the Antonia Graza laden with gold is named Ferriman. The salvage crew quickly forget the tons and tons of metal that they came for in exchange for the a few dozen bars of gold. Of course, a sole survivor lives to tell the tale. The thing about Charon’s obol is that once he is paid, death is inevitable. Thus death and money are inextricably twined like earbuds carelessly tossed into a backpack. It seems that no matter how you measure it, the only winner is Charon. Maybe the Greeks have something to teach us yet.

Charon’s got ahold of our Psyches

Map is Territory

Far be it from me to challenge the established certitudes of the experts in academia, but I’ve been beginning to think maybe map is territory. This insight came to me from an unorthodox source (of course). I was watching War of the Colossal Beast over the weekend—among the corniest of corny 1950’s sci fi flicks. If you were born around the middle of the last century you already know the premise: a nuclear device has converted a man into a towering giant who resists all attempts to stop him or keep him under control. The reason that map and territory came to mind was that this 60-foot tall man (an apt companion for the 50-foot woman) could not be found by the authorities although he was terrorizing Los Angeles. Just as I was climbing on my high horse I realized that the problem they faced was communication. (And maybe they needed glasses.)

From the perspective of the twenty-first century and the vast network of instant communication (you can tweet your latest observation while on public transit, deep under the Hudson), map has become territory. There is nowhere left for the sixty-foot giant to hide. I am not the only one to speculate on the effect this shift will have on religion, but when we have become so intricately inter-connected, we seem to have squeezed the mystery out of life. Every trail has been blazed, every path has been trod. Old Ecclesiastes is laughing up his wizard’s sleeve. If a giant escapes among us its location will be texted across the territory second by nano-second. There is nowhere for us to hide either.

Our dependence on electronic media has changed part of the human race. It is easy to forget that in places not too distant, some of them even in the developed nations, there are human beings untouched by the revolution that has compressed map and territory. I have to wonder if their lives are better or worse for the ease that pervades our culture of flying fingers and ultra-dexterous thumbs. Avoiding the concept of the noble savage, I sense of kind of purity in the life free from the constant buzzing of 3G and 4G networks, wi-fi hotspots, and microwave towers disguised as trees. Theirs is a life where map is not territory, where being unplugged is natural and normal. It is a world where giants might hide in the night, and those who fear them may be all the more human for doing so.