Come Salem Away

It’s the season.  Here in the fast waning days of September we can already taste October and thoughts turn toward ghosties and ghoulies and their kin.  Susan Fair’s American Witches: A Broomstick Tour through Four Centuries is, as any book in the nation of Salem, a mere skeleton crew of a long and feared tradition.  As is true of most things in the last two years, this book takes on a poignancy that was perhaps unintentional since it was written for fun.  It is a somewhat uncanny combination as it is—witch accusations often led to (and perhaps lead to, far from official eyes) someone dying.  We fear witches.  Fair reaches back pretty far, going even to the point of discussing those (generally women) hanged on ships on their way to America because their shipmates thought them witches.

Salem so dominates our witch consciousness that we sometimes forget these other episodes.  Fair explores, along with snarky asides, many early cases outside Salem.  In fact, the sad chapter in our history where hearsay became fact—one can’t help but think of “fake news”—the mass, “legal” murders carried out in Salem, is part of a larger pattern.  Not surprisingly women feature as the victims in this unholy web of fear and piety.  The combination is a dangerous one and otherwise rational people sanction evil rather than confront what is a mere perception of evil.  Fair moves on, however, to discuss other witchcraft scenarios—the witches (fortune tellers) of New York, the murder of a “witch” in Booger Hole, West Virginia (did I mention there was snark?), and the hex murder of York, Pennsylvania.  All of these represent an underlying fear that won’t go away.

This breezy tour ends near the author’s hometown outside Burkittsville, Maryland.  Although it is widely known that The Blair Witch Project was fiction from start to finish, this tiny town has been beset by those who refuse to accept that reality.  Such credulousness should stand as a warning to a country even capable of electing someone like Trump.  We are a suggestible nation with many people incapable of independent thought.  We are natural believers.  At the same time we’re a people that sees no value in studying religion even as it destroys us.  It’s like that embarrassing relative we never talk about.  But people still come to Burkittsville nevertheless.  Fair’s book was written before the election that showed who we really are.  Although the writing is charming, it’s hard to laugh about the subject these days.  We have forgotten Salem and all it taught us.

Some Baltimore Lessons

As someone who hovers around the edges, perhaps I’m preoccupied with perceptions. I have been attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting regularly since 1991, with a few years off for bad behavior. Usually it is held in a colorful US city that can afford to have a myriad of religion scholars show up all at the same time. I have noticed, over the years, what a conspicuous lot we are. As I drove into Baltimore, for example, I could tell who the locals were right away. They fit their environment. When I reached the medical area near one of the large hospitals, the people were wearing scrubs and white coats. I could navigate to the convention center by following the bearded, tweeded, and professionally dressed feminine to where the specialists in arcane subjects gather. We rather stand out. The funny thing is, once you get us together, we don’t always have a lot in common.

I used to teach, and as a teacher you run into this strange contradiction of roles where you are expected to keep your expertise up-to-date, to entertain students in the classroom, and to write books and articles in your spare time. I excelled at this and found my niche for a while. The beard I already had, but the look had to be acquired. Tweeds were not difficult to locate in Scotland, and so I returned to the States with the image already down. At Nashotah House, I recall many students complaining about the rules that forbade wearing a “seminarian collar.” Yes, even priests have a guild. A seminarian collar looks like a Roman collar, only it has a dark vertical stripe in the middle to warn the penitant that this is not a full-fledged priest and confessing your darkest deeds might not be a good idea. Don’t buy any wafer’s s/he’s selling. Their complaint was that to learn the role you have to dress the part. The administration at the time had rules against it. Confusing someone for a priest can have serious consequences. (Never mind that on a campus with at most 50 students everyone knew everyone else by name and habit.)

So I sit in my car at the stoplight and watch the academic parade. In this crowd there are people with god-like status in the academy, but whose names would mean nothing in even a highly educated household. The metaphorical Red Sea of scholars in the bookstalls parts at their approach. On the street corner they look lost. To the locals it is obvious that a horde had descended upon the town. Many forget to remove their name tags, announcing to the secular world that there be giants here. But they are shivering giants, as if they might’ve forgotten to pack a coat and the wind sure is chilly for this time of year. I suppose I must look like one of them myself. After all, I’m trying to turn the wrong way on a one-way street again.

Am I that obvious?

Am I that obvious?

The Write Place

In my mind, Baltimore is inextricably bound to Edgar Allan Poe. From the accounts of Poe’s life, it is clear that he sensed nowhere as a welcoming home. Indeed, he was barely mourned at his passing and the memorial gravestone in this city was only added decades later when his works had attracted serious attention. Many of the eastern cities now like to claim him: Boston (although with Bostonian diffidence), New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond. All have various mementoes of his transient existence in those places, although he was not made to feel at home there when he was actually alive. The writing life is a difficult and often lonely one. Poe knew that better than many. It is so lonely that nobody is even sure why he was in Baltimore when he died, or what the cause of death was. He has become an icon to many that write.

Ironically, my career has repeatedly shoved me back to the publishing industry. That doesn’t mean that it is any easier to get published, however. The world is full of words, and those who hold the key to publishing respectability have so little time (a fact I know well, as a sometime editor). Some of us resort to blogs and pseudonyms while others die young in Baltimore. The world loves a self-promoter. Those with something intelligent to say are often discovered only in retrospect. And soon their work enters the public domain and can be claimed by all.

Other writers have called Baltimore home. Not many have football franchises named after their literary works, whether here in Maryland or elsewhere. And Baltimore, like many of the major cities of the United States, has great swaths of the neglected, the poverty-bound, and the hopeless. As I drive through the city it is clear that many have been left to face the cruelties of a self-promoters’ economy. They live with little—overlooked and forgotten. But there’s a party in town for those who can afford it. As I settle down with a cask of Amontillado and my notebook, I know that I have only just begun to get to know Baltimore. Maybe I will meet the ghost of Poe here, amid the brightest lights of scholarship and the darker shadows beneath.

Poe in New York

Poe in New York

Away as a Stranger

I’ll admit it. One of the things many scholars secretly enjoy about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is discount rates at fancy hotels. Unless things have changed drastically since my teaching days, professors don’t make enough to spend nights at four-star hotels as a matter of course. This year, however, Routledge pulled the rug out from under me less than a month before the conference. I had to cancel my reservation and forget the dreams of a leisurely train ride to Baltimore, a nice walk to a luxury hotel, and four days of schmoozing with the intellectuals (or at least those who are considered smart enough to write books). Then, Oxford University Press. I started work on Monday, and by Friday I was attending AAR/SBL. But with a twist. All the hotels were full—not a room in Bethlehem, I mean, Baltimore. So I had to find a run-down hotel several miles away and drive four hours to get there frazzled and decidedly unacademic. Still, map is not territory.


Getting back to the hotel from the Convention Center, I had technology issues. You see, I didn’t have time to plan the trip out this year. I had no maps, figuring my smartphone was more intelligent than I (I don’t set a very high bar). Alas, for the GPS on my phone knows Baltimore less well than me, apparently. When the scenery turned industrial and I could see the ocean although my hotel is miles west of the city, I knew I was loss. My GPS, groping for dignity, kept instructing me to make u-turns on the interstate. Finally, I pulled off an exit and tried to use dead reckoning. Baltimore, like most cities, has problem areas. My GPS took me on a tour of them, as darkness was falling. Boarded up row houses leered at me as I took each turn the phone dictated. I noticed with alarm that the low battery indicator had come on and I was nowhere near anything that looked like a conference center, highway, hotel, or even Salvation Army. I had trusted technology, and it had let me down. Finally, with 8 percent battery power remaining, I spied my seedy hotel in the distance. I was never so relieved.

I have attended this conference since 1991 (I’ll leave the reader to do the math), and only one year did I not stay at a conference hotel. I think I remember why. People are discarded here. Entire cities left to crumble. Without a map, I witnessed territory that I’d rather not have seen. My academic friends, I know, were tipping back a glass, knowing that they had only to find the elevators to be home. Map is territory. And the terrain is untamed. We have created our urban jungles, and it will take more than a GPS to get our way through them. Tomorrow I will try again, if my trembling fingers can find the ignition, so that I can drive to where the more fortunate dwell. Some dreams are best left undreamt.

Traces in Between

I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe as an adolescent who believed monster movies actually represented physical malefactors. By the time I was writing high school term papers, Poe had become my favorite author, and I delved a bit into his sad life story. It has taken a few decades for me to realize that no lives really fit into the prepackaged paradigms that we’re sold. We think of Poe as a writer, but he was also a man who wandered from place to place, dying in Baltimore and nobody really knows why he was even there at the time. Sure, he had lived in Baltimore fourteen years earlier, but his fractured career had taken him many places in between. Having nothing but his published writings and gut feelings to go on, it seems to me that Poe was a man who felt unconnected to any single place. His view of the world made others uncomfortable, as even a cursory reading of his obituary demonstrates. He may have been attempting to find a place to belong. Maybe that’s why I’m standing here in Baltimore next to his burial place.

In a world characterized by xenophobia, having a sense of place can be a matter of life and death. I often wondered, as a child, at the fact that I was born in a different state than either of my parents, and that my mother was born in a different state than either of hers. Where was my place? I really didn’t start to travel until attending seminary, and since then I’ve lived in many places. At times I think of Poe and his peregrinations—not that I would dare compare myself to him; Poe was a genius in a world that couldn’t understand him. I am merely a disciple.

On a recent college-visiting trip, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Poe spent a few weeks as a student before being forced out by his debts. Later that day I was in Baltimore, and I could not neglect a stop to pay my profound respects. Throughout my life I have felt a connection with writers whose work I admire. Perhaps as an erstwhile dabbler in the literary arts I feel as though I might somehow connect to the guild. The sense of knowing, I realize rationally, is entirely one-sided. Standing here in Westminster Cemetery, however, feels like being in the presence of a friend. Even had I lived in the nineteenth century I would unlikely have ever met Poe, just as I am unlikely to meet most of the authors I read who still walk among us. Maybe I just feel no fear of rejection—call it a sense of place—among the deceased, unquiet spirit who is Edgar Allan Poe.

Floods and Fairytales

Never mind that the Bible gives only a cursory description of “Noah’s ark.” Never mind that the story in Genesis is clearly derivative from Mesopotamian originals such as the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh (the Utnapishtim version). Never mind that all species of animals cannot survive within a single, extremely limited biosphere without evolving afterward into the diversity that the world currently hosts, even counting extinctions. Never mind that not enough water exists (with apologies to Kevin Costner) to cover all landforms without every mountain being pounded flat and stacked neatly on top of the ocean floor. In short, never mind reality—people will continue to build replicas of Noah’s ark. As a literary trope the ark has proved invaluable; many of my posts demonstrate how it appears and reappears in books and movies as a symbol of human irresponsibility. And yet, in order to demonstrate the veracity of an ancient myth, we continue to build fundamentalist arks.

Yesterday my wife pointed me to a msnbc story of an ark being built—and sailed—in the Netherlands. Certainly those in the “low countries” have global warming to deal with more immediately that those on higher (geologically, not morally, speaking) ground, and the engineer of this particular ark does not strike the viewer as a rabid literalist (he is a little too unkempt for that, and his shirt is not white and he wears no tie). John Huibers, however, worries about a more localized flood in the Netherlands. The ark may be overkill since polar bears, koala bears and panda bears are rare in Amsterdam, at least when one is not medicated. Arks, however, make great tourist attractions.

In Hong Kong the Kwok brothers built an ark replica in 2009. Greenpeace has one in Istanbul. A Christian theme-park featuring a full-size ark is under development in Kentucky, and just two years ago I drove past a roadside ark being built in Maryland. Most of these arks, interestingly, follow the design in the Sun Pictures’ production In Search of Noah’s Ark rather than the more traditional, mythic design in my children’s Bible. It is a natural human tendency to mistake form for substance. The story of Noah is a cautionary tale that has taken on daunting real-life implications in our treatment of our planet. Water is the signature of life, but for us land-dwellers too much is not a good thing. Thankfully, should a flood come, there will soon be enough arks around the world that would-be Noahs may find themselves in a buyers’ market.

Still my favorite ark

Bible Land

Once upon a time I took a trip to visit a friend in West Virginia. I made the drive from New Jersey across parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Having grown up in Pennsylvania I never supposed it to be considered part of the “Bible Belt,” but it seems that some of the spillover may be making its way north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Interstate 78 has recently struck me as being highly evangelized. I saw a billboard reading “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” and remarked at how out of context this verse was taken. Last time I checked, the Bible tended to be concerned with Israel, not the United States. Further along I saw a church near Bethel, PA called the Assembly of Yahweh. Not being aware that there was confusion as to who the God of the Israelites was, it amazed me to see that they have their own radio station called “The voice of the Assembly of Yahweh.” This struck me as a missed opportunity; the real message could have come through more clearly with “of the Assembly” left out. Yet further along was an ominous billboard from a local Mennonite Church that sounded eerily like Amos. “You Will Meet God” it announced.

Storm's a-comin'

Storm's a-comin'

As I entered Maryland the sales tactics intensified. In Frostburg there was God’s Ark of Safety Church where an actual replica of Noah’s Ark is being built right along Interstate 70/68. Since the steel frame is all that was currently finished, I was glad that it hadn’t recently been raining. Perhaps a more recent translation of the Bible has updated gopher wood to Bethel steel. Further along I spotted a lighthouse atop a hill over a hundred miles from the nearest substantial body of water. This was the World Lighthouse Worship Center. While visiting an actual lighthouse on Lake Superior a few years back the docent informed me that lighthouses were now considered superfluous with the advent of Global Positioning Systems. (Shhh — please don’t inform them that science has again trumped a quaint piece of folklore! I can imagine that the lighthouse may be useful when the new ark is completed.) Along route 219 in McHenry, MD I saw “A House of Love Gathering Place” that I just couldn’t dissociate from the B-52’s for some reason. Just about on the border to West Virginia was the Fresh Fire Church of God.

The United States is truly an impressive reservoir of biblicism. Perhaps university administrators who believe the study of religion isn’t worth the meager salary of an assistant professor should take a road trip. It would be a learning experience.