1692. The Enlightenment is reaching toward full swing. In what will become blue Massachusetts, women are condemned for being witches. The proof to make such a conviction is difficult to obtain without resorting to “spectral evidence.” The Republicans of the era, who would otherwise reject such obvious speculation, greedily swallow the fake news by the mouthful. This is just the kind of smoking musket they’ve been seeking. Spectral evidence can’t be reproduced in court because it’s supernatural. Anything can be fake news if you bluster loudly enough. Even the judges, one can imagine, could put the accusations made against their own wives and selves into that category. The Devil, they say, is a shape-shifter.
Menelaus had Proteus pinned. The water god also known as “the Old Man of the Sea” could change shapes at will. Shifting from tree to snake to lion to water, Proteus couldn’t escape Menelaus’ grasp. At last the Old Man had to reveal the truth. Such is the nature of evidence. Speculative ideas are as easily built as walls to separate countries—easier, in fact. With a certain amount of braggadocio anything is believable. They say there are still mammoths roaming in the Russian steppe. Did Watergate really happen at all? Isn’t this evidence just spectral? Meanwhile we’ve got all these women here waiting to be hanged—shouldn’t we just get on with it?
The rule of law, I heard in a discussion in Jeff Bezos’ boathouse one summer, is inevitable. Once the concept takes hold it won’t be undone. At the far end of the table I disagreed. Nobody liked what I said, and I took my solace with Cassandra. Who reads Greek mythology any more anyway? The greatest minds of Massachusetts Bay Colony, even those with Harvard educations, admitted that what was seen in adolescent visions of the night was just as real as what happened in the cold light of day. What do you think we are—gullible or something? Meanwhile the Old Man of the Sea gave his name to an adjective most useful for white men in authority. The rule of law, indeed the concept of Truth itself, is a most protean entity. Like water it can be a man or it can be a god. It all depends on your perspective. A fox can be as dangerous as a lion. Proteus even changed into a pig when the need became great. What say you, judges of Oyer and Terminer? Do you accept the evidence or not?
It’s like they knew we were coming. The towns that host AAR/SBL must remember the event after we leave. We make quite an impact around the convention center, and since everyone wears their name tags in public, it’s pretty clear that we’re all related. So when I stepped down into a local sandwich stop on Newbury Street, I saw a sign that could’ve been commissioned just for us. “A sandwich is a sacrament” it began. Going on to list the wholesome ingredients, the sign concluded “A ritual, a craving, a desire fulfilled.” I’d been taught that a sacrament was an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Of course, it could be more carnal than that. I’m not a priest, after all.
Food is indeed intimate. With packed restaurants full of religion scholars hungry for more than just sustenance for the mind, the city makes way for what may be a secular sacrament. Those who cook for a living do so in exchange for lucre. Everyone has to contribute something, and while we’re burning our calories debating fine points of theology, or in lexicographal deliberation, someone’s stoking the fires for the lunchtime rush. We hand over our credit cards and don’t stop to think about what we’ve just experienced. We’ve been given the means to convert matter to energy, an energy we’ll expend in purely cerebral consultation. The meeting of the minds. After the outward and visible sign of a sandwich becomes in inward and digested energy. And so the cycle spins on and on.
Large conferences like this bring the blessings of cash flow to local economies. Even in the poorest of times eating out’s a necessity. We’re not, after all, close to home. Time is at a premium with papers peppering each hour of three-and-a-half days, lined up like items on a menu. We select and choose, keeping to our intellectual diets. Or not. It takes plenty of energy to think so much. Some sit in the restaurants and return thanks. Others pay their respects in less visible ways, for this is the world of sacraments. Not ordinary time. What goes into a person, a sage once said, does not defile. Rather, what comes out does. We sit in respectful silence and listen to what emerges from our fellow conventioneers. It’s like being in church, almost. And we all know, deep down, when the talking’s done it’ll be time to eat.
Boston Brahmins, lock up your doctrines—AAR/SBL’s come to town. Boston always has special associations for me. My first home away from home. Where I met my wife. Where I learned what you can only learn at seminary. Coming back is like coming home. Of course, I’m here to work. As I was getting ready for this trip I recalled that the conference met in Boston when I was studying for my Master’s degree at Boston University. Unlike many graduate schools these days, no overtures were made for students to attend. In fact, I didn’t know what all the in-joking among the faculty was all about. I relearned the existence of the conference as a grad student in Edinburgh a few years later. Few traveled across the Atlantic for it, at that point. In fact, none of the Edinburgh faculty who’d eventually become regulars had ever considered going. My first meeting was in Kansas City.
The meeting has grown since those days. Now regularly expecting about 10,000 scholars (can one help but think of 10,000 maniacs?) a year, the venues are limited. Atlanta, Boston, San Antonio, San Diego. Chicago and Denver once in a while. Personally, I’m glad it’s close enough for a train ride. New York City and Boston, two peas in a pod. My only regret is that I won’t be able to get out to my old stomping grounds. Some colleagues (few read this blog) contact me at the last minute asking if we can get together. My schedule’s booked from breakfast through supper each day. Those who attend as participant-observers have no idea. These are the longest working days of my entire year. Still, they’re in Boston.
I often muse about place on this blog. We’re attached to the place where we’re born—it’s our personal sacred space. In life we grow attached to other places, whether we can settle there permanently or not. I wanted to live in Boston. I did so for a year after attending seminary here, making a living doing this and that. Having a master’s degree in religion doesn’t get you far in life. In those heady days of sleeping on the floor and finding out what life was really like for the unconnected, I learned an awful lot. And when the woman I wanted to marry came back for a visit, I proposed. I’ve only ever visited Boston since. But whenever I manage to do so, even if it’s just for work, it’s like coming home.
I’m on a train heading to Boston. If you notice a dearth of religion scholars in your neighborhood this weekend, it’s because it’s time for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. If a religious emergency comes up, take two of your favorite scripture and call the office next week. Viewed from the outside, this must be one of the stranger scholarly gatherings. A few thousand people get together in posh hotels and convention centers to exchange ideas about which the larger world cares very little. Ironically, the vast majority of people in the world are religious, but as a society if we know enough about the Bible to get us through the most recent indiscretion, so we’re good. Let the scholars have their fun.
This year there’ll be a session on monsters and monster theory that I helped to organize. That doesn’t mean I’ll get to attend it—the conference is a very different beast for those on the exhibit hall floor—but I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s happening. Years ago I discovered that many of my colleagues who are teaching shared an interest in monsters. Many of us weren’t aware of the others because this isn’t the kind of thing you talk about in polite company. One thing an editor may be is a vector. We hear what widely separated people are working on. Every great once in a while we’re able to put the pieces together. So it was with monsters. There seemed to be a critical mass, and two or three colleagues took the idea and ran with it. Or ran from it, whichever you do with monsters.
For me Boston will be a series of meetings that will blend into one another until I’ll have to consult my notes to remember anything at all. If I could feel this wanted outside the conference I’d never have to dream of being a rock star. You see, editors are the gatekeepers of academic publication. For those lucky enough to have teaching jobs, it’s publish or perish, so the editor is a vital link. The rest of the year we fall into the background. Emails go ignored. Reminders are forgotten. Requests unanswered. But here, out on that carpeted concrete, we’re the ones they’ve come to see. What we do in the conference matters very little to the world at large. But we do it anyway. We gather together just before Thanksgiving, thankful to be reminded that there are others like us.
Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.
In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?
Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.
Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?
Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?
Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.
For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?
It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.
No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.