LinkedOut

There are different philosophies behind LinkedIn.  (What a world we live in where such a statement is even possible!)  When I first signed up, it was a professional social network.  Warnings boldly declared that you should accept invitations only from people you actually knew—others might hurt your career.  Friends pointed out (I was unemployed at the time) that if you wanted to use the potential of connecting, you had to take risks and accept invitations from strangers.  Now LinkedIn seems to be a social network just like any other, although many of the individuals on it are perhaps a bit more educated and many of them have good jobs.  That doesn’t stop them from posting snarky comments and using the site as if it were Facebook.

Although I’ve met some good people through it, I’m beginning to grow wary.  Or weary.  Perhaps both.  Now I hover with a bit of angst over that “Accept” button.  Many people, mistaking me for someone with some power in my organization, immediately direct message me after accepting.  I wish they wouldn’t.  Many of them ask me what jobs I might be able to offer.  If they’d search me out a little further on the web, they’d find the dusty path to this blog and learn a bit more about that guy they’d invited to connect.  I don’t work in a hiring capacity.  Bible editing isn’t exactly a growth field.  But connections are connections.  So I click.

Worse yet are the number of people on LinkedIn who immediately direct message you advertising their book, encouraging you to buy.  I work in publishing.  I know that authors have to take the initiative or find their books overlooked (believe me, I know all about that!).  Still, LinkedIn is not the place to advertise your book.  The buzz among publishing types (if they’d only check out to whom they’ve sent that invitation to connect) know that the social media of choice for advertising books is Twitter.  Facebook is okay but if you read the kinds of comments you find on posts there you’ll see many aren’t the book-buying type.  And the advice, to which this particular URL stands in silent testimony, is that starting a blog is an ideal way to build a following.  Social media, it seems, isn’t really peopled too much by those who do a lot of book reading.  If it were it would be a world in which you wouldn’t have to worry about LinkedIn philosophies before clicking that accept button.

Geocheating

So, we geocache.  Not as much as we used to, but over 15 years ago my family and I began the sport and really got into it for a while.  Geocaching involves using a GPS to find a hidden object (“cache”) so that you can log the find.  It’s all in good fun.  The organization that hosts the website also offers the chance to log “trackables”—these are objects with a unique identifier that you sometimes find in caches and you get credit for logging your find.  There are no prizes involved.  We started several of these “travel bugs” ourselves, years ago.  If you started one you got an email when someone logged it, and you could see how far around the world your little bug had gone.  For many years we’ve not heard much about any of ours and assumed them to be MIA.

Recently I started getting several email notices about a resurrected travel bug.  It was as if someone had finally found a cache somewhere deep in the Sahara where it’d been hidden for a decade.  Then I had an email from a fellow cacher, in German.  I figured it must be serious.  The message was that a Facebook page was publishing trackable numbers so that anyone could claim to have found them.  One of ours was on that list.  I went to the page to look.  It said, “Let’s face it, it’s all about the numbers.”  And they proceeded to list hundreds of numbers so that you could claim to have “found” the pieces with your posterior solidly sunk in your favorite chair.  This is annoying not only because we had to pay for the trackable dogtags, but also because it was cheating.  I said as much on the page only to have my comment blocked.

How sad is it when people cheat at a game when there’s no gain?  All they do is claim to have done something they haven’t, for no prize or recognition.  A fun family pastime falls victim to the internet.  Ironically, geocaching was really only possible because of the internet.  It required a place where players could log their finds in a common database.  Facebook, continuing its potential for misuse, allows someone to spoil it.  I, along with my unknown German counterpart, reported the page to the powers that be.  But since we live in a world where the powers that be don’t recognize any rules beyond inflating their own numbers, I shouldn’t be too optimistic of any results.  I guess this is how Republicans play games.

Making Memories

I’m a little suspicious of technology, as many of you no doubt know.  I don’t dislike it, and I certainly use it (case in point), but I am suspicious.  Upgrades provide more and more information to our unknown voyeurs and when the system shows off its new knowledge it can be scary.  For example, the other day a message flashed in my upper right corner that I had a new memory.  At first I was so startled by the presumption than I couldn’t click on it in time to learn what my new memory might be.  The notification had my Photos logo on it, so I went there to see.  Indeed, there was a new section—or at least one I hadn’t previously noticed—in my Photos app.  It contained a picture with today’s date from years past.

Now I don’t mind being reminded of pleasant things, but I don’t trust the algorithms of others to generate them for me.  This computer on my lap may be smart, but not that so very smart.  I know that social media, such as Facebook, have been “making memories” for years now.  I doubt, however, that the faux brains we tend to think computers are have any way of knowing what we actually feel or believe.  In conversations with colleagues over cognition and neurology it becomes clear that emotion is an essential element in our thinking.  Algorithms may indeed be logical, but can they ever be authentically emotional?  Can a machine be programmed to understand how it feels to see a sun rise, or to be embraced by a loved one, or to smell baking bread?  Those who would reduce human brains to mere logic are creating monsters, not minds.

So memories are now being made by machine.  In actuality they are simply generating reminders based on dates.  This may have happened four or five years ago, but do I want to remember it today?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on how I feel.  We really don’t have a firm grasp on what life is, although we recognize it when we see it.  We’re further even still from knowing what consciousness may be.  One thing we know for sure, however, is that it involves more than what we reason out.  We have hunches and intuition.  There’s that fudge factor we call “instinct,” which is, after all, another way of claiming that animals and newborns can’t think.  But think they can.  And if my computer wants to help with memories, maybe it can tell me where I left my car keys before I throw the pants containing them into the wash again, which is a memory I don’t particularly want to relive.

Memory from a decade ago, today.

Alien Ideas

One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest.  The movie, of course, is Alien.  The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead.  Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979.  I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me.  I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original.  It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention.  Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.

Science fiction and horror are closely related genres.  They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse.  Consider the most famous scene again.  Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face.  The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid.  Then it falls off and dies.  Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved.  He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress.  Something is eating him from inside.  The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed.  That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.

Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease.  He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life.  Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s.  In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses.  It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise.  I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment.  It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person.  If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.

The Job of Theodicy

Most people, I suspect, don’t think about diseases until someone they know is afflicted.  It’s natural enough to try to avoid thinking of the negative, and I know that I’ve always felt overwhelmed when it came to worthy causes seeking donations.  I surprised myself, therefore, but putting up a Facebook fundraiser for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.  Someone close to me was diagnosed with the disease, and seeing suffering first-hand has a way of changing your perspective.  You want to do whatever you can to help.  Instead of feeling completely at the mercy of chance, I put my fundraiser online and I’m hoping for the best.  A doctor I know informed me that foundations for diseases are among the most helpful websites for those with the condition.

In my mind, as in that of many others, disease is intricately tied in with theodicy—the problem of innocent suffering in the presence of a God supposed to be good.  Theodicy is frequently the first stop on the road to non-belief, as a careful reading of many of the “new atheists” reveals.  No theologian has devised a satisfying theodicy.  The question always comes down to the fact that a universe without debilitating diseases can be imagined by those of us with feeble human abilities, so why not by an almighty being with no limitations?  Human evil can be attributed to free will.  Natural evil, such as diseases not keyed to behaviors that lead to them, is a different matter.  Often we’re left to our own human devices against conditions we don’t fully understand.

Facebook may not be the best place to post a fundraiser, however, it has a reach far greater than this simple blog, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation page helps to get such fundraisers set up.  For all of its problems, Facebook does provide a way to bring people together for common causes.  Seeing someone we know suffering is never easy.  And there are so many worthy causes out there.  The situation naturally reminds me of the book of Job.  People who turn to it looking for an answer to why innocent people suffer (Job is presented as perfect in the prologue to the story) come away disappointed.  No reason is given and the question of theodicy is left unanswered beyond the claim that human understanding is limited.  God may ask how Job has the boldness to question divine action, but there’s no suggestion that he shouldn’t try to find relief with his broken potshard.  My Facebook fundraiser is my potshard, I guess, although the larger questions still remain.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

Paying Troll

There was a time, should the media of my youth be believed, when a man insulted another man’s wife at his peril.  A barroom fight, or perhaps a sober brawl, would ensue.  Such chivalrous days are likely over and the internet makes nasty comments so easy to disseminate (how terribly masculine!) for all the world to see.  Hiding behind assumed names, avatars, or delusional fictions, you can feel like a big man by saying unkind things to a person you’ll never meet.  Such is the world of Trump’s America.  Although he may think himself divine, Trump didn’t invent Twitter or the internet.  Neither did Al Gore.  Still, the distasteful political rancor leading up to the midterm elections led to a man (I presume) trolling my wife behind a mask of Facebook anonymity.

It’s hard to tell how to react.  Feminism doesn’t always want a man to step in and defend, but we’re all raised with tales of princesses and those who honor them.  Having been raised by a woman with an absentee husband, I have nothing but admiration for strong women.  Although categorized as a “white man,” I can’t see my own brand as better than any other.  We are all human beings, and with some rare exceptions, we deserve respect.  Like all evolved creatures, however, I sometimes reach deeply back into my primate roots and the tropes of my childhood begin to simmer.  Who trolls another man’s wife over politics?  Who doesn’t stop to consider that every woman is a daughter and many are mothers and sisters?  If you want to pick on someone, well, you know how the saying goes.

The midterm elections brought some much-needed balance to a government way off kilter.  There are still trolls under the bridges, however.  The storybooks tell how knights vanquish trolls and even the liberated male can’t help but imagine himself on that proud steed.  What kind of man takes a keyboarded cheap-shot at another man’s wife?  The quality of his discourse speaks volumes.  Those on the left believe in equality and can’t respond in kind.  It is, ironically, a far more biblical response than trolling on the right.

I’ve lost readers of this blog due to politics.  Some of my former readers have even told me so.  I appreciate their candor.  We can’t all agree, I know.  What we can do, however, is be civil.  Those who put themselves in elected office know that they are opening themselves to criticism.  It is very hard to slander a United States president, in the words of the Good Book, “how the mighty are fallen.”  Those with thin skin should think twice (or even once) before running for the most criticized office in the world.  Most, until now, knew that what they said would set the tone for the nation.  We’re all entitled to an opinion, and, for the time being, are free to express it.  Still, I’d think twice before insulting another man’s wife.  But then, I’ve always been a hopeless idealist.

Twitter Me This

Techoncrat I’m not. At least I understand that to be authentic in this world you need to be on social media. I have a Twitter account. Have had for years. I don’t follow it religiously, but then, I don’t treat any social media like holy writ. The other day I noticed a disturbing trend. Donald Trump’s tweets end up on my bird feed. No, I didn’t accidentally follow him—I have a natural aversion to fascists with delusions of divinity—but nevertheless his mug shows up so frequently that I tend not to follow the bird maybe as much as maybe I should. I wonder how someone thinks s/he has the right to buy part of my consciousness.

Tweet or honk?

Tweet or honk?

The world-wide web is without laws, like the subconscious mind. Thoughts from around the world—at least the affluent part of it—milling, swirling about in an electronic soup thickened by irony. It’s addictive. The opiate of the masses. Perhaps it is a religion after all. Tweets are micro prayers. Blogs are sermons. Facebook is coffee hour. All these connected minds have created a consciousness of their own. Like Victor Frankenstein, we too know what it feels like to be God. It’s not a particularly joyous place to be. Does God, I wonder, lack the control that we experience on the Internet?

I like Twitter. It doesn’t demand much. The only problem is that to stay on top of things you have to have it going all the time. I turn it off and when I come back on I’ve missed hundreds of tweets. And then there’s Donald Trump again. I can come up with my own nightmares, thank you. I don’t need Twitter to suggest any.

Perhaps this is the apotheosis of capitalism. The ability to buy anything, including space on somebody else’s bird feed. Buy the most powerful office in the country, if not the world. Buy hatred and distribute it freely. One thing you can’t buy is intelligence. At least, up until now, some universities still understand that. It has taken me years to gather Twitter followers, like Mrs. Partridge the family band-mates fall behind in a neat, technicolor line. I have no money. I have very little influence. I’m really not a very good capitalist at all. I give away for free what universities charge for. Just like in the classroom, few pay attention. What do I expect? Who really listens to sermons anyway?

Forgive Us Our Tabs

Forgiveness is somewhat of a specialization among the crowd courted by the new GOP. Although it is forgiveness that goes only one way, at least it’s a start. Think back to Bill Clinton making his non-inhalation declaration followed by W who could not hide from his drug-fueled Yale days. Televangelists who admit, in tears, that they had an affair stand a fair prognosis for at least a limited recovery. The religious right loves a repentant sinner. I suspect it will be the trump card in the deck, come this fall. A host of sins can be banished under this incredibly effective rubric. This past week Mike Webb, Republican hopeful for Virginia’s Congress, having lost his party’s bid decided to run as an independent. No forgiveness required. What’s right is right. During his announcement of his decision, however, he posted a screenshot on Facebook without checking his tabs. As the Washington Post article by Justin Wm. Moyer reveals, some of those tabs included porn sites. In a move no Democrat could’ve made, the conservative candidate thanked God for his mistake and his likes increased by 25 percent.

Technology is a kind of big brother. By their tabs you will know them. Our browser histories reveal who we really are. Browser histories, however, may be cleared. And those who know how to manipulate the forgiveness card can make no mistakes. After all the Gospels declare that you must forgive the repentant 490 times (taken literally), which leaves a comfortable margin to get elected. A little bit of time with the Good Book can do wonders for your campaign. The problem is, it only works with the GOP. If he admitted to inhaling, you can be sure that the War on Drugs would’ve crashed down on the White House. Dems have to keep squeaky-clean records because forgiveness doesn’t apply to that crowd.

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One of the ironies, apart from the Viagra ad on the page telling this story, is that such incidents reveal a basic misunderstanding on the part of the electorate. No tenet is more easily finessed than forgiveness. Who’d hit a dog who’s rolled over on his back, exposing his vulnerability, admitting that he’s just eaten what you left on the counter for your dinner? Apologies can be accepted for some of the most outlandish sins. They’re cheap to make but reap rich rewards. As a former evangelical I know this may sound terribly cynical. All I can say is I’m sorry, please forgive me. And don’t look too closely at my tabs.

Social Media and Persia

A story appeared on the BBC recently about “sin free Facebook.” The website, which started in Brazil, is based on the idea that users don’t like having swear words and violence among their friends. According to the story some 600 words are banned from use, making me think that I’m seriously behind the times. With an “amen” button and a keyword of “bless” Facegloria has been growing dramatically. Some 100,000 friends are now on board. Of course, the concept of friends in a religious conceptual context goes back to the Quakers, but they tended not to use computers, if I remember my history correctly. The odd thing, to me, is that on social media you get to select your friends already. If you don’t like what they post, why are you friends?

Sin is going through a resurgence of academic interest these days. One of the features that emerges from all this exploration is that sin is not as clearly defined as we might think it is. Wrong and right. White and black. Things in their proper order. In the biblical world the word “sin” seemed to mean missing what you’d aimed at. From there it grew to cover all kinds of infractions. Today most people think of sin in sexual terms—those things you aren’t allowed to do. Ironically we call other things phrases like “hate crimes” rather than “hate sins.” And crime is supposed to make it worse, since sin is often not illegal. Or if it is illegal, it’s not often brought to the law.

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I have a Facebook account, but I have to confess to not looking at it much. My days are busy and although the marketing departments of publishers use Facebook, those of us with editorial roles are seldom encouraged to spend time on it when we could be doing something more valuable. I arrive home so late I don’t even check my email before bed. I guess I haven’t had the time to notice the sin on Facebook. Yes, a few of my friends use what Spock might term “colorful metaphors,” but I seldom feel the need for confession after reading a post or two. My friends, like me, are fallible and many of them are in less-than-ideal circumstances. I really don’t think social media with further restraints would help the situation. Of course, I could use an “amen” button on this blog, I suppose. I think I’d rather have it read “verily,” though.

Skynet

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Of cultural innovations, none rivals the internet. Engulfing the world in its wide web, the constant availability of signal has changed everything. In the past five years, civilization has become something that it was not. Take today’s northeast blizzard, for example. Apocalyptic meteorologists (are there any other kind?) are sincerely telling the camera that nothing like this has been seen in recorded history. Meanwhile, my wife’s company sends a Honeywell alert to our phone saying the offices will likely be closed, and please make arrangements to work from home. The snow day is dead. One of the simple joys of life, that delightful naughtiness of playing hooky, is now extinct. Work knows where you are at all times. You are being watched. Sound paranoid? I have known people who had firsthand knowledge of employers following them on Facebook to make sure they didn’t say anything that might make the company look bad. The world is not the same one into which I was born.

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I happened upon a web page the other day advertising for an Advanced Assistant Professor in Digital Shakespeare Studies. A poem by any other name we would tweet. So we have become part of this collective mind known as www dot. The internet is aware that it is still snowing, but only in an academic sense, since it’s not going anywhere. The internet has never had a three-and-a-half hour commute home because of an accident on a single highway in New Jersey. Oh, and don’t forget to check your work email when you get home. We may have sometime more for you to do once you’ve clocked out. Maybe I should see what my social network is up to.

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LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google +—they all suggest people that I might know. Someone I might rate, or like. The internet, after all, knows which of its myriad sites I’ve viewed, whom I’ve emailed, and what I’ve purchased. The ads from those companies show up on every website I visit from now on, world without end. ThinkGeek emails me every day. My new best friend. Google + is the more intellectual Facebook, I’m told. Whenever I log on, it tells me with whom I might want to connect. Just now Newt Gingrich showed up in my list. Should I add him to my circles? Or should I just venture out into this blizzard and hope I make it to New York City alive? To me, it seems, the odds are equally good in either case.

Small Town Heroes

When World War Three starts I hope someone will let me know. You see, I barely have time to satisfy the needs of employers and tax collectors to get everything done in a day, let alone read newspapers. Or Facebook. I check my page, very briefly, twice a day and get on with the business that I’m assigned in life. But yesterday I had a notice from a high school friend that one of my teachers had died. Since I don’t name people I know here without their permission, suffice it to say I took a current events course with this teacher in either my junior or senior year. Then, as now, I didn’t read newspapers. Given the small town rags available in rustic regions, there was often not much mentioned beyond deer season and local tragedy anyway. Originally enrolled in the regular curriculum, several friends told me, “You’ve got to take Current Events! The teacher is great!” Those who’ve influenced my life for the good were great teachers, and despite my reservations, I took the class. When it came time to sign up for projects, I was a bit flummoxed. What did I know of current events?

Our teacher kindly allowed me to offer evolution as a topic. It was occasionally in the news then. Six of us decided to debate the issue, three for, three against. My religion having held me in a headlock, I was the lead debater against evolution. The day for the debate came and we ran over the bell. Our teacher, with his usual calm wisdom, suggested we continue the next day. And the next. Three days of sometimes acrimonious debate and it looked, from my point of view, as if creationism had demolished evolution. How terribly naive I was. Ironically, I had just posted a piece on evolution yesterday when I saw the notice about my teacher’s demise. The position in my post was a sharp 180 from high school. It was a tribute to the love of education.

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

I was an outsider in high school. I literally lived outside of town and after school activities were not really feasible. We were poor and couldn’t afford extra-curriculars anyway. I wore a large cross on my chest and although I was shy, I felt that it said all I had to say. My teachers, to their eternal credit, let me explore. In college I learned about Fundamentalism. I had never heard the term although I grew up in it. Gently my teachers nudged me to think more deeply about things. Through three degrees delving more profoundly into the origins of religion, as well as humankind, I came to see the errors of my ways. Had I been forced in high school I would’ve fought back. Instead, a persistent, patient wisdom guided many of my teachers. I don’t know how they recognized that I might be worth salvaging, but they apparently did. They let me speak, they let me trip. Just as I was about to fall they caught me. And I hope, in my own small way, to repay this favor in kind.

Unspoken Reality

In that impressive cultural marvel known as Facebook, a few gems amid the overburden occasionally appear. The post of a friend brought to my awareness a site known as everyday feminism, where, last year a post about religious privilege appeared. The brief piece entitled “30+ Examples of Christian Privilege” highlights one of the persistently overlooked aspects of religious liberty. No matter how much the founders of the United States valued freedom of religion, the colonials were, at least on the part of the non-slave side of the equation, Christians. Whether Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, or Guanahani, those Europeans who first set foot ashore did so under the banner of one variety of Christianity or another. (Such a case might be made for Vineland as well.) Religious liberty meant fleeing the oppressive practice of state religion—always Christianity—that kept shifting according to the whims of frequently unstable monarchs. For all its wide variety, Christianity is cut from a bolt of the same cloth. At least in the lining.

The Christian Privilege cited on everyday feminism is the most insipid kind brushed with the widest strokes. Still, it does reveal just how thoroughly Christian even the secular can be. Christianity, as I often told my students, pervades our culture. We live it, breathe it, ingest it. Often subconsciously. America was and wasn’t founded as a Christian nation. Intentionally, according to the wishes of the founders, no. Unintentionally, according to the dictates of privileged classes, yes. The problem here is not Christianity—it is privilege. Depending on whence you read the words of Jesus, his message seems to have been one of a general equality, or at least fairness. Those same words, however, can be distorted to support the monolith of the privileges granted those who follow the “one true faith.” The privilege to own slaves, for example. Or to oppress others born into less fortunate circumstances.

Ironically, among academics, I’m told, there is a push to hire those who are authentically unprivileged. Although I must, by my accidental Caucasianness, maleness, and inherited Christianity, be classified as privileged oppressor, I did grow up in economic privation. So much so that my wife feared to take our infant daughter to the unsafe house in which I was reared (which was, fortunately, condemned and demolished before that became an issue). It still shows in my natural, placating obsequiousness to supervisors and bosses—I was raised knowing my place. Yes, sir. As a first generation college student, I still find myself confused by why I was rejected by a higher education into which I poured all my youthful energy. Yes, in such circumstances, it is difficult at times to see the privileges. They are there, however, as anyone willing to walk across town with their eyes open may see.

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Heaven Forbid

Cars can be a nuisance—they consume resources, pollute the environment, and have a habit of being very expensive to repair. We’ve been pretty good about taking our car in for its regularly scheduled Toyota check-up. Since the garage is several miles away and my wife and I both work, it is often a matter of the one who can most easily work from home the day of the car doctor appointment taking it in. Our Toyota dealer has in-store wifi for those who can’t live without the internet. For some of us, work is almost exclusively internet. So it was that I drew the short straw and dutifully drove out to the dealership. I was pleased that my VPN connected so easily; this was going to be a snap. I was working happily away when I had to find somebody on a university website. I googled the name and clicked. I received a forbidden website message (copied below) explaining tersely: “Block reason: Forbidden Category ‘Religion’.” I tried again on the Society of Biblical Literature website—same message.

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Now I can understand workplaces blocking pornography sites, and even Facebook (I found the latter to be blocked at Toyota some time ago, but I’ve never tried the former), but religion? I am a religion editor. How am I to work when I can’t access websites that contain the word “religion”? The more I pondered this—I could still check my email, and do VPN-type work with files from the office—the more it bothered me. On the television in the background inane daytime talkshow hosts were interviewing someone who’d written a book about God. How many more businesses out there are biased against internet religion? That means my blog is blacklisted along with the scantily clad and overly chatty. I fully support the disestablishment clause, but I also subscribe to the freedom of religion. Smirks aside, there is a serious undertone to all of this.

I have no desire to be proselytized at work. I also agree that it is the right of others to expect the same. Sometimes, however, a little religion might help work go down like a poppinian spoonful of sugar. One time when I worked for Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts (I seem to have a knack for working for businesses that are on the way out), I had a tough day. Some of our customers could be quite abrasive, and since the customer is always right, we had to take personal insults with a smile. One lunch-hour I told my manager that I needed to recoup my moxy (I didn’t use those words). I ducked out the door and stomped to the first church I could find and asked if I could just sit in the pew for a few minutes. The church secretary, a complete stranger to me, said “of course.” Ten minutes later I returned to work collected and able to face more unreasonable customers for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe it wasn’t religion, maybe it was only the calm of sitting in what some believed to be a sacred space, but my capitalist company got better performance out of me that day because of it. Ironically, at Toyota, my religion editing is cast in with the tax collectors and prostitutes. Only the tax collectors, I’m pretty certain, are always permitted to work.

OMG, MOMA!

New York City can wear you out, spiritually. I suppose that’s why so many people go there, to face the challenge. Thanks to Target, Friday evenings the Museum of Modern Art gives out free tickets for its world-class collection. We knew that Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was there, and had planned on seeing it sometime. Well, Friday of spring break offered an opportunity, so last night, with several hundred, maybe a few thousand, others, we made our way to MOMA. We arrived around 5 p.m. and found the line literally around the block. It wasn’t as cold as it had been, so we braved the hour to wait our turn. Yes, it was worth it. As my wife noted, it was very good to see so many people wanting to see art. Manhattan offers many, many other diversions for a Friday night, but hundreds opted for art. I had long anticipated this. Since my school days I’d seen replications of many of the paintings in the museum, and it was inspiring to be packed in so close with so many people wanting to be close to art. Hoping, somehow, to commune with the emotion in us all seeking such profound expression.

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It was a little difficult to commune, however, with so many other religious seekers. This is a religious experience, to touch the soul of another. Standing inches away from The Starry Night, I could almost feel the desperate, longing hands of van Gogh stroking out a manic sky, surreal and ethereal. I could almost hear the echo of his spirit. Were it not for the many crowding next to the painting to be photographed with it. Fellow spiritual seekers, I hope. Van Gogh was a troubled soul, as we all know. How many artists take their own lives after reaching out to touch what so few of us even dare. A sadness so profound as he climbed down that mountain. The starry night is the photograph of a suffering soul.

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Then there was Edvard Munch’s classic, The Scream. On a limited engagement at MOMA, facing, just across the hall, van Gogh’s Starry Night. Was there ever such depth of soul in such close proximity? It was there that I began to question the faith that I had hoped impelled the countless masses yearning to observe free. MOMA allows photographs, and cameras, cell phones, and iPads were ubiquitous. To reach The Scream was to endure a crunch of strangers’ bodies pressing you forward, cell phones held aloft, illicit flashes popping, worried looking docents. I was anticipating another spiritual moment when I heard a woman say that she had to get close for a picture. “This is going to be my status!” she cried. So this is modern spiritually, the life splayed on Facebook, bragging about bagging Munch. Yes, Edvard, I am screaming too.

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