Abroad at Home

Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence.  That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar.  At least I do.  For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high.  Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion.  Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera.  (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.)  Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them.  The same was true of the change in currency.  I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good.  Money for nothing, or nothing for money?

Currency is highly symbolic.  Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad.  And I’m not picking on the UK here.  When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns.  This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power.  Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian.  We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back.  Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return.  Who can see the future?

Impermanence is part of being human.  Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture.  The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971.  Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender.  I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it.  If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was.  That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence.  If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender.  It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted.  The symbol itself, it seems, has changed.  And that applies even at home.

Meaningful Fear

BeVeryAfraidReading about the things that wrong, like terrorist attacks, may not be the best way to occupy your time on a bus heading to New York City. Robert Wuthnow’s Be Very Afraid is appropriately titled, in any case. I had been warned. Discussing sociological reactions to nuclear war, terrorism, pandemics, and global warming, Wuthnow suggests, sensibly, that action is the best response. He also points out that, statistically, people tend not to panic. What I’d like to focus on is his repeated assertion that humans need to find meaning. Disasters only bring this into clearer view.

We live in an age when religion and philosophy have been relegated to the children’s table of academic pursuits. They are, however, the traditional intellectual ways of finding meaning . Economists may be paid much more, and scientists receive more respect, but when the bombs fall or avian flu really strikes, even they sometimes turn to their beleaguered colleagues for answers. Money is notoriously poverty-ridden when it comes to purchasing meaning. Reductionistic materialism may allow a final shrug as the curtain falls, but plenty of scientists hope for a little something more. Not everyone, of course, finds meaning in religion or deep reflection, but we are all human and we want to know what it’s all about. We need to have somewhere to look.

Even as a child I was preoccupied with meaning. I wanted to be the usual things when I grew up—scientist, firefighter, G.I. Joe—but when it came time to make actual choices I moved in the direction of careers that would allow me to find meaning. I swiftly learned they didn’t pay well. Money is not meaning, however. I was teaching in a seminary when 9/11—a major topic of Wuthnow’s study—occurred. I saw people desperately seeking meaning, but not knowing where to look. This was just my fear, growing up; what does it profit someone to gain the whole world if s/he is groping about in the dark for meaning? We’ve created a world where even greater causes of fear are likely to arise. In our emergency kits, it seems, we should leave a little room for meaning.

Excuse Me, Mammon

An article in the New York Times back in December explored the use of God in adverting. The piece, by Michael McCarthy, suggests that religious viewers are not very forgiving of commercials using God, unless they are respectfully done. The occasional spot will score points for being funny, but overall the issue is whether the deity is treated well or not. I always find it interesting when the media seems surprised that people don’t like to have their religious beliefs belittled. When I was growing up it was common sense that you didn’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. Now, of course, both topics are open for constant debate in the media, and few ever treat religion as one that deserves respect. That’s odd since most people in the world claim to be be committed to their religious traditions. It’s almost as if someone personally isn’t religious they can’t understand why anyone else would be.

Amos5

Quite apart from that, I wonder about the larger question of the purposes of advertisements. Ads are intended, as we well know, to make money. They are a marketing ploy. We appreciate the extra effort for a funny commercial on nearly any topic. Religion may be an exception. And one might wonder, is there a natural objection to using a religion to earn money for a non-religious cause? Maybe mammon and religion simply don’t mix. It may be difficult to convince marketers, however, that there are issues that lie outside the purview of the purse.

This past week I found myself in the waiting room of a local clinic for a while. Such places always make me uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. I was waiting in a room where the commercials for all the things that could possibly go wrong with me edged my blood-pressure up a bit, I’m sure. It occurred to me, however, that medical ads have the same intention as religious ones, namely, getting more business. If you can’t be made aware that something is “wrong,” how can you know to ask your doctor for their product? Is there anything mammon can’t buy? Our physical health is up for bids, it seems. Why not throw in the spiritual as well? But that will have to wait; I’ve got to talk to a doctor about a new condition I’m just sure I’ve developed here. I’m sure money can fix it.

Lords a’Leaping

As I’m writing a not insubstantial check for the rent, as I do every 25th, I am participating in a Christmas ritual. Having grown up with trees, presents, cookies, and a general warm glow about the holiday where you got things for free and didn’t have to do any work (home or otherwise), it is hard to believe that this kind of Christmas is a modern invention. Some years ago I wrote an unpublished book about the holidays. In researching it, I learned that Christmas was only gradually accepted as a day of celebration. For many it was too popish, and for others it was too frivolous. It was the day when tenants paid their rent to their landlords—and here is the tradition in which I’m participating—for landlords who don’t make money from their tenants are no lords at all. Indeed, this commercial transaction gives the lie to the common lament that Christmas has become commercial. It has been commercial for a very long time.

Some suggest that Charles Dickens—who wrote not just A Christmas Carol, but several stories about Christmas—is largely responsible for our sentimental image of the holiday. Individual traditions of the day go back to Medieval or earlier times, but the conglomeration of events that occur around December 25 come from many sources. Human beings, entrepreneurial by nature, recognize the economy of bringing various disruptions to the flow of money onto a single day. Indeed, the day after Christmas is often a day to rival the holiday itself, with people returning items and purchasing more. Soon enough Epiphany will ring in austerity. In watching for economic recovery, Christmas is a mere indicator of financial health. There need be nothing more to it.

A capital Christmas

A capital Christmas

As I was sitting in my windowless cubicle this week, receiving little email from academics (who are the main business partners for publishers) already out on a semester break, my thoughts turned toward the deeper meaning of the holiday. Business is business. Meetings with recurring set dates popped up for Christmas reminding me of events that, one senses, are only reluctantly cancelled. The true entrepreneur can’t wait to get back to the office. I’m busy looking deeper. The trappings may be modern, but the idea of celebrating in the darkest time of year is very ancient. We are hoping for something better. We are looking for a new start. Christian or not, anyone looking over the sprawl that we’ve made of everyday life can appreciate the symbol of a baby on the day the rent is due.

A Cougar’s Mother

While on a stroll between appointments at Indiana University in Bloomington, I came across a tree with flowers laid underneath and a memorial plaque at its base. I glimpsed the name Mellencamp, and for a fan of rock, it didn’t take much imagination to tie it to John Cougar. Indeed, the memorial is dedicated to his mother, an artist, who died earlier this year. I first came to know of Indiana University because of music. I married a musician who, like myself, had to sacrifice a career doing what she loved in order to “get by.” Although she hadn’t studied at Indiana, my wife knew the reputation of the campus well. At a sunny moment between appointments I sat outside one of the music buildings listening to students practice through the open windows and read about Marilyn Mellencamp. An article in a local paper explains that this week an exhibition of her art is on display in Bloomington. When I read the quote from Waldron Arts Center Gallery Director Julie Roberts that the arts “are viable ways to make a living and they are vital part of being a happy and alive person,” I felt a renewed sense of hope. There are others, it is clear, who see that the arts are called the humanities for a reason. In a culture where only money matters, there is no culture. Think about it.

Since the industrial revolution we’ve been told that the measure of a human is how much money they are able to make. Something profound has been lost since then as great universities cut programs for the arts and humanities while business departments build new facilities. Talk about gaining the world but losing your soul—business cattily replies, “I have no soul.” While John Mellencamp never rivaled the biggest bands for income, his work, particularly Scarecrow, is full of human empathy. I listened to that album over and over in 1985, recounting the farm crisis and the demise of those not driven by corporate greed. And looking at this maple tree I wonder when the last time was that someone honestly mourned the death of a corporate mogul.

It is the mark of a deeply schizophrenic society that we all aspire to what fails to inspire. Our economy is driven by the material—money—and not that which speaks profoundly to what it means to be a human being. We keep the arts alive because the wealthy require something worthwhile upon which to spend their lucre. Is not buying art buying part of another person’s soul? We can’t define souls materially, science must conclude they don’t exist, but every time you say, “I feel happy/fulfilled/satisfied” you belie the facts. Souls may not be material, and they may never be found in laboratories. They are nevertheless part of the human constitution, and I for one, would lay a flower under a tree and know that it is more than just fertilizer for the next growing commodity.

Hallowed Be Thy Game

I don’t follow sports. At all. This may seem an unmanly confession, but I think of it as more a silent protest against a society that pays excessive bonuses to people who play for a living. It’s not that I have anything against physical fitness – I still jog regularly and have been known to rattle the free-weights around a time or two – it’s simply the recognition that the more difficult achievements, intellectual achievements, are undervalued. Not that I make any claims of being an intellectual – I have no time for those who tout Ph.D.s like intellectual currency – but I see things from a different angle. Usually when I reach the sports section, I simply flip over the whole wad of pages to get onto what’s next. Today, however, a front-page sporty headline caught my attention, “‘God Can Turn Mistakes Into Miracles’ is the message Michael Vick sent out…” I confess, I don’t know who Michael Vick is. But he knows what God can do in some sports venue.

I grew up with God. The information I was given was that those who devote the majority of their time and attention to God will receive their reward. Not always in money, despite what the Prosperity Gospelers bray, but at least in kind. Being the kind of person who likes to follow things through to their logical conclusions, I ended up with an appropriately named “terminal degree” in religious studies. The prosperity came in the satisfaction that I could teach others for a reasonable, if low-end, salary and continue my goal of deeper understanding. Then Prosperity Gospelers took over the seminary and those of us without material cache were kindly kicked out. I was jogging between seven and nine miles a day, looking for answers.

The headlines this year have included tragic college sports-related injuries, one of the more dramatic from my own part-time home of Rutgers. Immediately medics rush to the field and prompt, professional medical care is given. I am covered by no medical plan. Many athletes take my classes, and they can count on the good graces of God and university officials to take care of them. In my opinion they are just as capable of learning as any other students, but the incentives just aren’t there. Why earn a degree in a field that will plant you on your backside all day for minimum returns when you can perform miracles in the athletic world for more money than the average citizen can even imagine? If God can turn mistakes into miracles, perhaps this misspent life of religious studies can turn into a lucrative position after all.

Miracle or mistake?

New York Sinning

Men’s Health, a magazine I’ve never read, is making a foray into spirituality. Or at least religiosity. According to an article in the Friday New Jersey Star-Ledger, the magazine noted for its washboard abs and iron biceps is poised to claim New York City among the least devout cities in the country. Even lower on the scale are New Jersey’s own Newark and Jersey City. Quite apart from wondering what a magazine whose cover frequently involves suggestions on how to improve your sex life has to do with religious devotion, the criteria for this assessment also give pause. According to the article, a city’s saintliness is measured by the per capita number of worship venues, the diversity of religious groups in the city, and the amount collected in donations. Interesting criteria.

I’ve spent enough time in New York to know it is hardly Heaven – still it is one of my favorite venues – but that it is hardly Gomorrah’s brute step-brother either. Per capita places of worship as a measure of spirituality overlooks size of venue and number of services. A Midwestern town with a dozen churches, each with a dozen members and with one service a week scores ahead on such a scale against a city with more than 2000 churches, 1000 synagogues and 100 mosques, many with multiple congregations. Diversity of religious groups? Surely New York and New Jersey must come out in front on that! I’ve been to Europe, and even Israel, and there are days when I’d swear New Jersey has a higher percentage of ethnic groups than any similar-sized region I’ve experienced.

My main concern, however, is with the amount of donations criteria. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” a famous guy once said. Was the treasure monetary? Precisely the opposite seems to have been the point. True, money today is often a measure of value, but it is not the only such measure. In fact, the same guy who made that statement once said a poor woman’s two cents were worth more than the lucrative eternal investment of the wealthy. I don’t doubt that New York, Newark, and Jersey City have their share of innovative sins. Their citizens, however, are just about as religious as people are anywhere. In my opinion the trouble is not in the souls of the masses, but in the design of the assessment. But with pecs like that, what does it really matter?

A God's eye view of Sin City