Fantasy Land

As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate.  I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far.  Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations.  As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer.  Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field.  I didn’t know that, of course.  Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.

I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies.  There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire.  I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things.  Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive.  Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself.  My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.

Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared.  Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions.  I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so.  As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city.  I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch.  And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all.  If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.

Caveat Emptor

When you work in academic publishing, various higher education news sources find you.  Not able to distinguish faculty from industry professionals that rely on them for their by-products, these sites often offer friendly advice on how to succeed in academia.  Having had not a little experience in that venue (if you’ll pardon my litotes), I noted a recent headline before clicking the delete button.  I can’t reconstruct it word-for-word, but the gist of it was that if you wanted to earn more as an academic, you should study overseas.  Your salary, the article implied, would be higher if you did.  Now I recognize that things constantly change, but in my field of study if you want to get any job at all, let alone a good paying one, you study domestically.  Specifically at Harvard.  Academics, just like publishers, rest on their laurels.

The funny thing about this headline is that it contained the same advice that I received all the way back in the 1980s.  I followed up on it, choosing Edinburgh after having been accepted at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews.  Only later did I learn that of those schools only Oxford opened the door to positions in my native United States, being, as it is, the Harvard of the United Kingdom.  Defying the odds, I did get a job that, when I became Academic Dean with access to industry stats, I discovered was among the lowest paying of its peers.  Studying overseas, in other words, had the exact opposite effect than the headline promises.  Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years.  Even today I have to remind people that Edinburgh is a world-class research university, one of the four ancient schools in the kingdom of the Scots.  Some of the most famous minds in human history studied there.  Ach, well, a job by any other name would smell of sweat.

Xenophobia isn’t unique to the GOP.  It exists in higher education too.  Academics are extremely tribal, and if you try to break in from the outside—no matter where you study—you’ll learn that your money might be spent more wisely learning a trade.  As a homeowner, I’ve discovered that just about any practical job that doesn’t require college pays better than what you can get with the detritus of a doctorate on your résumé.  In fact, during times when work was scarce I tried to hide it.  One of the skills I picked up in my educational journey was not to believe everything you read.  Problem is, you only pick that up after you’ve already paid that tuition bill.  The delete button is right there; don’t be afraid to use it.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Blogday

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

Rookie Mistakes

So now it’s got a stain on the cover. And it didn’t even come with a book jacket. Perhaps it’s symbolic? The year was 1993. I’d finished my doctorate at Edinburgh the year before, and, against all odds, had landed a full-time teaching position. That position was at Nashotah House, but never mind. Like all doctoral students I’d sent out my dissertation for publication. It’d been accepted by the prestigious series Alter Orient und Altes Testament, produced by the dual publisher Verlag Butzon & Bercker and Neukirchener Verlag. Most European houses print these books cloth-bound (mine in blue!), no dust jacket, straight to the library market. I was proud. I had my first copy in hand in time to show around at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. There I spied William Holladay, my Hebrew teacher, now deceased. He was sitting on the floor in a corridor, eating his lunch. I joined him and showed him my book. In his inimitable way, he snatched it (leaving a grease stain on the cover) and within seconds said, “there’s a word misspelled in your title.”

Crestfallen, I took my first copy back. I wrote to the publisher, but these things only ever receive one printing and I never heard back. How embarrassing! Your first foray into academic publishing, and you look like an idiot who can’t spel. Now, in my defense, the cover is simply what I thought was a photomechanical replication of the the title page. The world “Millennia” was spelled correctly where I’d proofed it inside. How they left out an “n” on the binding die is a mystery. I never got proofs of the cover. Besides, a book’s title is on the title page, right? Never judge a book by it’s cover! Mine has a stain on it.

The book, although on Asherah, never got much notice. It’s still routinely overlooked. One of the truly sad things, though, came from a senior scholar in the field, nameless here, who did mention my work. In his book he put a [sic] after the ailing word on the cover. That was an intentional slight. Had he looked at the title page—from which I’d been taught to take bibliographic references—he would’ve found the word spelled correctly. Many publishers do not let authors proof the binding die for their cloth-stamped covers. A senior scholar knocking down a struggling junior with an obscure three-letter word. Welcome to academia. The book did get a kind of second life when Gorgias Press reprinted it, with additional material. I still sometimes pull that first copy off the shelf, however, and wonder what can take the stain out of blue canvas. As long as someone can feel superior citing a mistake beyond a young colleague’s control, I suspect it will remain.

The Pace of Progress

Scientists tell us the earth is slowing down. It’s only by a fraction of a fraction of a second, but like a top set spinning these endless revolutions can’t go on forever. Although the evidence all points in this direction, it feels like it’s speeding up. How else can I account for the apparent loss of time I’ve been sensing? Let me contextualize that. I’ve been attending the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion annual meeting since 1991. That first meeting in Kansas City’s acid-etched in my friable consciousness with the long hours waiting for interviews that never came and no mentors to show me what to do. Those three-and-a-half days stretched on into an endless Tom Sawyer summer. I was anxious to get back to my wife in Edinburgh to and finish my dissertation. Fast forward a quarter of a century.

My days are now filled with back-to-back meetings. Normally by now I’d have had a leisurely perambulation among the bookstalls (where I spend all day) taking in the volumes the competitors publish, noting what I need to read. Instead, the time has been shortened. I have to keep a constant watch on my watch for the next appointment. Hearing about new books being born rather than tending the infants that surround me. We are a thriving population of readers here. Although it looks like a large crowd, I know that in reality we don’t make much of a dent. Boston’s big enough to absorb us and all our feverish ideas. When wakefulness arrives at my usual New York commuting time, even the nights seem to be shorter. Where has the time gone?

Most of those I meet have no idea I write books of my own. It was a process started long before the conferral of a diploma from a university far away. The earth is spinning in that direction, I’m told, so I should be in the tailwind of Edinburgh all the time. I’ve grown old with some of these colleagues. Those I’ve known since I was a young man, thinking he knew something about life, learning how little he really knew in this very city. I’m pretty sure I know even less now. The world, for example, seems to be speeding up to me. In fact I know it’s slowing down. Days are growing longer, but there is ever more yet to do. And all I want to accomplish right now is to walk around a bit and browse the books that others have written. I’m absolutely sure the earth is indeed speeding up.