Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

Leg Up

It’s amazing how often J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes up in conversation.  The book struck a nerve.  Reading it wasn’t easy because there were so many shades of my own childhood that I felt uncomfortable at several points.  Not from the same circumstances as Vance (his family seems to have been better off than mine, from the descriptions), I was more a hillwilliam (shoutout to the author of Verbomania for the portmanteau) than a hillbilly.  We weren’t educated people, but my mother’s family wasn’t as poor as the one she married into.  We were socially mobile alright, but in the wrong direction.  Anyone who hasn’t come home from school to find carp swimming in the bathtub simply can’t understand.  The way of the poor is inscrutable, but something Vance gets spot on—it is almost impossible to improve yourself without a leg up.

The chapter where this really hit me was as he was describing how easy his life was after being admitted to Yale Law School.  He made connections and learned to work them.  That part never came in my case.  Like Vance I grew up without a father.  Unlike him, I didn’t have grandparents to come to the rescue.  It’s a long story, but when I left home my life became a search for a father figure only to discover than nobody really wants to help somebody else’s kid.  Although I was accepted into the high profile schools, I had no one to coach me to go there.  Even now people barely recognize Edinburgh for the wonder that it is.  It didn’t connect me the way Yale Law apparently does.  My career has been in freefall a time or two because of this lack.  As Vance explicitly notes, when you grow up poor you don’t have the training or family experience to know what to do.

Many people, I realize, are much worse off than I was growing up.  What Hillbilly Elegy, written by a Republican, shows is that the government simply does not care for the poor.  In what used to be the wealthiest nation on earth there is a tremendous amount of poverty.  Vance has a keen analysis of what the abnormal psychology of want does to people.  I grew up more of a Pennsylvania redneck than a full-blooded hillbilly, but many of the same lessons apply.  While some of us can muster the willpower to escape, we know we are in the minority.  We learn as adults that others don’t share our concern for those who struggle daily to get by.  This is an important elegy, and if only it were read seriously by those able to make policy there might be some glimmer of light in these dark hills.  The right leg up can do wonders.

Begging Your Question

I still remember when I first consciously heard it.  The phrase “begging the question,” I mean.  I was a doctoral student at the time and one thing you do in grad school is ask a lot of questions.  I asked my advisor what the phrase meant.  “Asking a question when you’ve already assumed the answer,” he replied.  I’ve been writing quite a lot about feedback loops these days, and this was yet another of them.  Begging the question, in other words, is a fallacy where the asker isn’t seeking an answer, but is attempting to persuade another of a pre-decided outlook.  The concept is subtle, but important.  That’s why it disturbs me that most academics these days use the phrase “begs the question” when they mean “asks the question.”

I’m afraid I don’t have statistics here, but I read academese all day long—it’s my job.  I can’t footnote where this occurs but I can attest that it happens all the time.  Whenever I read “begs the question” I stop and reason it out.  Does the author mean “begs” or “raises” or “poses” or “asks” the question?  Begging a question isn’t the same as raising or posing or asking it since the latter three indicate an answer is being sought.  Precision in thinking is difficult work.  It can give you a headache.  We all fail sometimes.  Perhaps that’s why we eschew it, as a society.  It’s much easier to beg the question.  Still, doesn’t that mean this valuable concept is in danger of losing its, well, value?

I realize that posing such a question makes me sound like one of those old guys who says, “back when I was a youngster…” but the fact is the educational system in the United Kingdom made you ask lots of questions.  In a way that’s unheard of over here, where money assures your credentials, I knew two students who failed out of the doctoral program at Edinburgh when I was there.  One of them an American.  It wasn’t just a matter of laying your money on the barrelhead and walking out the door with a diploma.  I’ve read certified copies of dissertations (not from institutions in the United Kingdom) where Zeus was spelled “Zues” (throughout) and the biblical seer was called “Danial.”  Now, I suppose that raises the question of the value of degrees where you don’t even need to spell your subject’s name correctly.  Begging the question is a fallacy, not a synonym for asking.  And I know that if your thesis begs a question then you’re barking up the wrong tree, but that won’t stop you from landing a job in the academy.

Merch

I recall the time I first heard the word “merch” used as a verb.  I was with some wonderful ladies on the second annual Women’s March, in New York City.  We had to leave fairly early to get there from Jersey and as we made our way to the march route, we saw the goods.  Vendors had all kinds of things on sale, from the ubiquitous tee-shirt to refrigerator magnets.  One of the women in the group said, “I guess you can merch anything.”  And so you can.  People will buy all kinds of identifying marks.  It’s a craze I personally don’t get into.  I buy plain clothes, having more of an Amish aesthetic.  Still, I was a little surprised to notice that the Society of Biblical Literature is now merching itself.

Now, who can blame a non-profit for trying to score a little on the side?  We all know what that’s like.  What I find myself most curious about is who would want to advertise that they’re working on a degree that will, in all likelihood, find them on the breadline when it’s all over?  I’ve known many who’re proud to be nerds—they’ve got employment to give them creds.  Those of us tormented by the meaning of it all, not so much.  My decision to go to grad school was accompanied by the blessed assurance that there’d be plenty of opportunities, but there was no merch.  Indeed, I was two years into my doctorate before  I even found out what the SBL was—the great connector whence came jobs.  At least in theory.  I found my post at Nashotah House because a friend told me about it.  I still have some of their merch.

Knowing what I do now, would I have done it any differently?  It’s difficult to say.  Who can recall the frame of mind of his younger self with such clarity as to know his choices?  Having studied Bible I was curious whence it came—to turn back even further the pages of history.  As I sit here in the early morning I have on my last two remaining pieces of Edinburgh merch.  My moth-eaten woolen divinity scarf and my blue alma mater sweatshirt.  I try hard not to think how close to three decades ago it was.  I was so sure I’d find a job with that rare Scottish degree, imprint of John Knox’s breeches still fresh upon my head.  Instead the merch of my current employer—a coffee mug—stands before me, reminding me that work alone awaits.

Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.

Conservation?

I am not a conservative.  There, I’ve said it.  You have very little control over who your parents are or how they raise you.  As I confessed here many times, I was raised in a conservative Christian home of the fundamentalist stripe.  Like most kids scared of Hell I took it all very seriously.  It is the reason I followed the career path—or perhaps career swamp trek—that I have.  In any case, the other day I was looking through a Baker Academic catalogue.  Baker, in case you don’t follow the high drama of the publishing industry, is one of the many Christian publishing houses with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like most publishers in that collective, it tends toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.  As I flipped through I noticed bio after bio of authors with Ph.D.s from Edinburgh, Cambridge, and other prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

I hadn’t been warned, you see.  Many conservatives who want a doctorate study in the UK because they can do so without taking all those classes that will make them examine the Bible critically.  That’s not why I went to Edinburgh, but I can see how it might look like that from the outside.  I went to Grove City College—a bastion of conservatism.  (I was raised that way, remember?)  My next educational move should give the lie to my attempt to remain conservative; Boston University School of Theology was considered the most liberal United Methodist seminary in the pre-Internet days.  I attended for that very reason.  Edinburgh, my true alma mater, was selected because they offered a scholarship that made it possible for a poor kid to finish a doctorate.  I wasn’t conservative when I went, and I wasn’t conservative when I came out.

I didn’t get the memo, I guess.  The sneaking suspicion that I might be conservative has dogged my career.  My dissertation can be read that way, but it’s not a conservative argument.  I merely suggested the decision to marry Yahweh off to Asherah was a bit hasty, based on the actual evidence.  I’m all for married deities—they tend to be less frustrated toward humanity.  Maybe the Almighty could speak to Mrs. God about correcting these worries about what I “really believe.”  I went to a conservative college to learn—there were a fair number of attempts to indoctrinate there, but if you thought about things you could see through them, even with a fundie upbringing.  But as I thumb through the catalogue I can see how perceptions can work against you, especially when your first job is at a conservative seminary, eh, Mrs. God?  

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.

Zounds Like

Liberation from the confines of academia allows for the occasional indulgence in taboo subjects. I can’t remember when I first heard of stigmata. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and, like many Protestants, distrusted much of what came from Rome. Still, I was interested in the supernatural. When I learned that people in this modern day and age sometimes developed unexplained wounds corresponding to crucifixion, I was intrigued. Ted Harrison’s book, Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age, is the first I’ve actually read on the subject. It has some fascinating observations to share. It was some time after seminary that I learned that Francis of Assisi (aka St. Francis) was the first stigmatic. I had admired Francis for turning down wealth to assist the poor and commune with nature—what’s not to like?—but I didn’t realize that he had initiated this rare, but real phenomenon.

Harrison considers the question of why it was only in the 13th century that the stigmata began to occur. They have occurred ever since, in very small numbers, primarily in Italy and primarily among women. But why then? He points out that the church, shortly before this time, began to emphasize the physical suffering of Jesus on the cross. We’re probably all familiar with some of the gruesome images that emerged from the church and its artists at that time. As such images proliferated, people were given a visual focus that directed their devotions. Every great once in a while, this led to stigmata. Why women? As Harrison points out, men with intense spiritual needs could become priests. Women could not. The church would not forbid personal devotion, and if such devotion led to stigmata, well, a person arguably had a direct line to the divine. That was something normally preserved for priests through the Eucharist.

Stigmata have to be understood in the context of mysticism. The more recent cases studied by Harrison include some non-Catholics and some other unexpected candidates for what is, after all, a very intense spiritual experience. What emerges is a thoughtful, one might dare say contemplative, approach to the issue. Some stigmata have been self-inflicted. Some have not. Medical personnel have witnessed and examined these improbable wounds and have not explained them away. Once, during a faculty meeting at the New College of Edinburgh University (I was post-graduate student representative) one faculty member groused after one of my advisors had presented a challenging idea: “you’ve dropped us in a mythological world. I want to get us out.” There it is in a nutshell. Some people can live in a world where stigmata occur. Others have to explain it away. The difference is all in the matter of perspective.

Brick in the Wall

Kids. You never know what’ll come out of their mouths. Not bounded by logic or the rules of physics, they come up with some of the most truly creative ideas that grace our species. The growing up process usually includes filters that separate the real from the imaginary. But not always. In a recent statement, Donald Trump said that his proposed wall between Mexico and the United States should be invisible. His concern, according to a Washington Post story by Christopher Ingraham, is that catapults could be used to launch drugs over the wall. Somebody could get hit in the head. (It sounds like somebody has been already.) So the wall should be see-through. This wall, which the majority of Americans don’t want, and which will have to be deconstructed at great expense after his presidency (such as it is), will be a technological marvel. It’ll even have solar panels, added by old king coal himself.

I can’t help but think of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Earth is being destroyed—not by Trump in this scenario, but by aliens looking for whales that we’ve driven extinct (there’s the Trump part). The crew of the Enterprise, in a Klingon warship, have to transport humpback whales from the 1980s into the future. The problem is see-through aluminum does not yet exist. Scottie, posing as a professor from Edinburgh—back in the days when my alma mater bore some cachet—gives the formula to a San Francisco manufacturing firm in return for enough of the metal to make a holding tank for the aquatic mammals. They slingshot around the sun back to the future just in time to save earth from a catastrophe worthy of Trump Enterprises. Problem is, see through aluminum is fiction.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

In my daydreams I often picture this wall. My thoughts inevitably go to Berlin and shortsighted solutions. History (which most American presidents have made a point of studying) teaches that walls don’t work. The technology is ancient. As is the technology of how to get around, under, and over walls. In fact, basic career counseling will often use the wall as an exercise to get you thinking of ways to overcome obstacles in your path. Dealing with walls is one of the most time-honored of human pastimes. You see, walls were originally built to keep us safe especially from non-human threats. We didn’t want toothy big cats or cave bears wandering in during the night and making snacks of us. We built walls. Then we wondered what was going on over on the other side. Just now, it seems, that idea has begun to dawn on a man who might benefit from trying to understand The Voyage Home.