Spectral Parable

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?

Ordinary Sacraments

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.

Sacred Places

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.

Some Bible Lovers

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.

Witching Well

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.

Gray Magic

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?

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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.

GF or TGIF?

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.

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Gallows Hill

Over the past couple of weeks it has been in the news that the site of the “witch” hangings in Salem, Massachusetts has been identified. The actual site had long been suspected, and it was only recently confirmed by a group of historians using the empirical evidence available to historians. Although my interest in the Salem trials pre-dated my wife, nothing brings you so close to history as being a part of it. Descended from the brother of three of the women accused of being witches at Salem, my wife brings a sense of reality to the tragic accusations of three centuries ago. Although toyed about in the media (an episode of Sleepy Hollow, “Spellcaster,” in season two, featured an actual Salem witch) the fact is that nineteen innocent people were executed for a fanciful belief that the Devil was roaming about New England, and when you can’t catch the Devil, you have to use a scapegoat.

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One of those investigating the location of Gallows Hill was Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia. I’m sure Professor Ray wouldn’t remember me, but one day as I was doing a campus visit for Routledge, I had taken AmTrak to Charlottesville to visit the religion department. Many of the faculty declined to see me, and as I sat on a bench in the hall (one of my academic dates had stood me up), Dr. Ray walked up to me and asked me if he could help. I explained who I was and he invited me to his office where we talked about Salem. I told him was wife was related to Rebecca Nurse, Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce, the two former, as he knew, executed for an imaginary crime, and the third accused. A strange quiet settled over the office. He told me his interest began because he too had descended from a Salem family. His ancestor, however, had been an accuser rather than a victim. It was a strange rapprochement. Opposite sides brought together in scholarship.

What truly frightens me about Salem is that we have not outgrown it. Presidential hopefuls spew the same fear and hatred toward Muslims, the hispanic immigrants who make our economy possible, and women (this should sound familiar) trying to “take the place of” men. And the crowds cheer, as crowds will do. Even though Donald Trump cussed twice in his Liberty University speech (an infraction for which a student would have to pay), President Jerry Falwell, Jr. (typing that makes me shudder) shrugged it off saying that we’re all sinners. Some sinners, however, carry a wicked, knotted rope with them while other sinners try to eke out a living in a nation where some can get rich by owning casinos while others frantically spend their inadequate cash hoping to win Powerball. We now know where innocent people accused of witchcraft died, but have we learned anything from it over these past three centuries?

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Soldiers of Forfeiture

Somebody, perhaps a robot, reads my blog. I can’t imagine what keeps this feeble enterprise going sometimes, since continued growth of readership has been elusive for several years now. Still, I get requests to post information on my daily soapbox, sometimes for issues of which I’ve never heard. Civil Forfeiture is one of those issues. I’ve only ever been stopped for driving too fast once. I’m not a speeder by nature, and it was an oversight in one of those slowdown zones between a highway and town. I had no idea, however, that civil forfeiture might happen without any conviction or charge. See the infographic below from one of my readers at arrestrecords.com.

Social justice is perhaps the leading motif in my existence. I was attracted to the life of the clergy out of a profound sense that life is unfair. As if it’s not bad enough that nature posts us each at unequal starting places, human society joins in the game by contributing rules that are inherently unfair. Healthcare in the United States, for example, has been unequally distributed. I had figured this out even as a child when my family doctor walked into the examination room with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, asking why I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t know what chronic bronchitis was in those days, but thankfully I grew out of it. In any case, laws for fair treatment of all citizens should underlie any just society. Not just healthcare, but basic, constitutional rights.

Having been reared in a small community where arrest was not rare—most of the time certainly deserved—I was woefully ignorant about what a person was free to do. I still am, I guess. I go to work each day hoping that I don’t infringe on any unknown law that stands to make this land a nest of freedom. Having arrived in Boston with a migraine after driving all my worldly possessions from Pennsylvania back in 1985, I parked in Winthrop, outside my apartment, with the right wheels to the curb, just like every other car on the block. I stumbled inside and fell into my unmade bed. My first morning as a Massachusetts resident, I awoke to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I went to the police station to explain what happened only to have the receptionist say, like a line from Gilligan’s Island, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I can think of no better excuse. Is a law degree necessary for fair treatment? Whom did I harm by parking with the rest of the residents? At least I didn’t face civil forfeiture. If I had, all they would’ve found would’ve been a few boxes of books and enough clothes to get me through the week—all my possession fit inside my VW Beetle in those days. What more does a person really need?

Civil Forfeiture, an infographic from ArrestRecords.com

To the Swift

Despite its generally secular reputation, one of the great charms of New England is its churches. I was forcefully reminded of this during my recent trip to Boston. Each city along the way boasts impressive churches that might be glimpsed even from the highway, and although there are now many taller buildings it is possible to imagine the days when the steeples stood over all. Boston’s historic churches remain stunning symbols of the power Christianity once held in this city. We first climbed off the T at Arlington in the shadow of the great stone Arlington Church. On the Esplanade the looming steeple of the Church of the Advent violently reminded me of the deep mysticism that drew me to the Episcopal Church even while I was a Methodist seminary student. Park Street Church, King’s Chapel, The Old North Church, the Old South Church, and finally Trinity Church in Copley Square invited us to gander and ponder. Almost like fossils, these churches remind us of the history of what made the city, or the nation, what it is.

Trinity Church lies nestled at the base of the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s tallest building. A blue glass Brobdingnagian, this prophet of capitalism represents the highest possible aspirations of our race, so we are led to believe. The material triumph over the spiritual. And yet the tourists stop to photograph the stunning church. It is on the street level, down here among us mere mortals. Upon closer examination, I noticed the statue of the tortoise and the hare in the plaza of Copley Square, the holy terrapin racing toward the sanctuary, it appears from my angle. It seems that I have unexpectedly received a kind of epiphany.

Look closely.

Look closely.

I first came to Boston many years ago as a spiritual seeker. In the intervening years during which I was attempting to find out what that might mean in a life that was intellectually honest, many bronze sculptures appeared in this city. The one commemorating Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, installed after I completed my studies at Boston University, would not have caught my pre-parental attention, as I had never read the book. Now you have to stand in line even to snap a picture. The work of local artist Nancy Schön, both “Make Way for Duckings” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” are part of Boston’s continual evolution of character. Officially, we are told, the turtle and rabbit are representative of the Boston marathoners who trudge the final feet past this church toward the finish line. To me, this sculpture suggests something more as the hare dawdles and the tortoise breaks toward the church. It may be a marathon, indeed, but the race, I remind myself, is not always about being swift.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.

Freedom Trail

The machine gun on the bow of the National Guard boat would’ve impressed me as a boy. Now it kind of scares me. The helicopters overhead pass frequently. Police on jet skis chase girls in a canoe away from the shore of the Charles as if they were piloting a landing craft on D-Day. A whole blessed platoon of chartreuse-garbed police on bicycles pedal by, some clearly out of shape, creating a presence. It has been a quarter century since I’ve been in Boston to celebrate our freedom. I wonder where it’s gone. To get onto the Esplanade you have to be brushed with a metal detector. Although the web site said backpacks would be searched, the guy at the gate claims it said they were not allowed at all. “You can empty it out”, he said, “and put the contents in a plastic bag,” but the empty cloth must stay here under a tree like a naughty dog. “Happy Independence Day,” he says. I wonder if he’s aware of the irony.

Big Brother

Big Brother

We have become the most skittish home of the brave I know. We are being watched, we are told, for our own good. The watcher is not some enemy nation, but our own “leaders.” Lead us not, I pray, into temptation. I wonder when we considered chasing girls in a canoe away from the shore a matter of national security. In 1985 I called Boston home. When my wife and I came to the Fireworks Concert as a young engaged couple, we lazily wandered down to the Esplanade, plopped on a free bit of grass and saw maybe an officer or two the entire day. Now everyone on this grassy strip is treated as if they’re on a grassy knoll. Armed police on boats cruise the shore to make sure we’re minding our manners. After dark that helicopter spotlight can’t help but to make you feel guilty of something. There’s a hurricane coming, and three tons of fireworks are sitting anxiously on the barges in the river. The concert begins, but soon so does lightning. They skip right to the fireworks, forget the 1812 Overture. I wonder about my evil backpack under the tree.

The woman behind me is talking to her companion about how illogical the backpack rule is. “If the bag is empty, why can’t you take it in?” she asks. I’m not one to talk to strangers, but I have to turn around to agree. We exchange horror stories about being screened at the airport. Doesn’t anybody see how offended our revolutionary forebears would’ve been by such a military presence in peacetime? What if some crazed national decided to do something insane? Would that wicked machine gun hit me and my family, right on the waterfront, while trying to get the perpetrator? Are we collateral damage on the trail to freedom? Or is freedom even in the picture any more? We can’t let the terrorists win. Every time we face a backpack full of homemade explosives with hundreds and hundreds of chunky guys on bicycles and hovering our heads with deadly force, I can’t help but think it’s no contest. There’s a hurricane coming. They rush through the fireworks and I join the other owners of dispossessed backpacks looking for my luggage. Then the fattest raindrops I have even felt begin to fall.

Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

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Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”