Global Swarming

It’s a veritable horror trope.  The swarm, that is.  We fear being overwhelmed by vast numbers of apparently innocuous insects or arachnids, although they are much smaller than us.  It’s their logistical superiority, and perhaps their utter disregard of personal space.  Summer at Nashotah House was the time of the earwigs.  They came out in such numbers that no room in the house was safe from them.  There was a horror element to pulling your toothbrush out of the holder only to find one hanging onto the place you were about to put your fingers.  Or opening the refrigerator to find that one had crawled into the butter.  Any time you picked something up you might find an earwig under it.  They would crawl up the walls and across the ceiling.  Other places on campus would be overrun with ladybugs or black flies.  It was in the woods, after all.

Most places we’ve lived since then have had their native bug that gets in, often in numbers.  Our current nemesis is the box elder bug.  Although harmless, it is a true bug in every sense of the word.  I’m Buddhist in my desire not to kill and there are too many to catch and take them back outside.  Fortunately they’re pretty localized—they like my study, probably because its southern exposure means it gets sunshine even into December.  We’ve had some cold days but November has been experiencing global warming and the box elder bugs, clueless, wander all over the place.  Most of them are near the end of their life and die after poking around for a few days.  Others are quite frisky.  Some remind me of horror movies from the fifties.

I have one of those desk set Stonehenge models.  I don’t have the space to set it up fully, and the die for the model was obviously done with poorly sculpted clay, so it takes some imagination to think the trilithons resemble those of the actual site.  When I noticed a box elder bug crawling over one, however, it took me back to Tarantula and other such films where the menace wasn’t just a little old bug, but a huge one.  Our monsters these days have shrunk, however, and fear comes in small packages.  Box elder bugs are harmless but annoying.  Of course, they’re still out this year because we’ve warmed the place up for them and even in November they, well, swarm.


Dark Academia

Genres can be slippery things.  Those of us who dabble in fiction sometimes find it difficult to describe what we do.  Writing is individual expression and it may have elements of this and that.  Given my disposition, much of my fiction has some horror features but I tend to think of it as something else.  My wife recently sent me an article on Book Riot about the genre Dark Academia.  The piece by Adiba Jaigirdar begins by asking the question of what exactly dark academia is.  The label conjures up books about something untoward happening in the halls of learning, and that certainly qualifies.  It’s difficult to be more precise because it’s different things to different people.  Some of my fiction, in my own mind, falls into that category.  Things go wrong in higher education all the time.  Why not preserve it in fiction?

I’ve attended, and worked at some gothic places.  The contemporary university, such as Rutgers—although it’s old by American standards—has continuously modernized and although I don’t know it’s history well, I suspect gothic was never its aesthetic.  The same is true of Boston University where I went to seminary.  Edinburgh University, while also modernizing, has retained much of its gothic feel.  That’s certainly true of New College, where I studied, in the heart of the medieval old town.  There’s a gravitas to such dark settings.  They invite strangeness.  My first teaching job was at the intentionally gothic Nashotah House.  Although I didn’t agree with the politics I loved the setting.

I seem to have slipped from Dark Academia into Gothic Academia.  Indeed, it’s difficult to keep the two distinct in my mind.  When I taught I maintained the tweed jacket and somewhat disheveled look of someone who has something else besides grooming in mind (this is entirely genuine).  Indeed, that’s one of the great charms of higher education.  You need not constantly worry about each hair being in place—they’ll take care of that when they shoot the movie.  Not many people, and probably a diminishing number given the state of things, experience full-time life in academia.  It can be well lit and modern.  If done right, however, it should take you into odd places.  Discovery is generally messy.  Perhaps that’s part of the dark of dark academia.  When we use our brains we end up in unexpected places.  I’m not sure I understand dark academia, but I have a feeling that I’ve lived it even without my fiction.


Eve’s True Desire

Psst—don’t tell anyone!  There is a free copy of my first book available on Academia.edu.  I thought I was kind of radical for doing that, but people who write books want people to read them.  Having a book priced $70 or more, heck, even $30 or more, means only diehards will buy it.  Nightmares with the Bible promptly sank at $100 cover price, released during a pandemic.  I’ve always admired scholars who’ve bucked conventions to make their work available.  Recently I needed to consult a book.  I won’t say what it is because I fear a take-down order will be issued where I found it.  The author, aware the book was hard to access, actually photocopied the entire book and put it on a website.  I stand up and cheer!  Photocopying an entire book is a lot of work, a labor of pure love.

Now, I’m all for authors getting royalties.  It takes a lot of time and energy to write a book.  It can cost years of your life.  You ought to get something back for it.  It seems to me, however, that a different model is required for academic books.  Why are they so expensive?  Not only that, but smaller publishers without the distribution channels often publish worthwhile books, but in small quantities and they go out of print after the initial run is sold.  The academic enterprise (knowledge for knowledge’s sake) has become a captive of capitalism.  There’s no other way to trade in that market.  Books that have willing, even eager, readers are sequestered in libraries only accessible to employees.  Is there anything wrong with that picture?

Academics at less wealthy institutions often find ways around the rules.  I did my research for Weathering the Psalms at a small seminary that had trouble getting unusual items on interlibrary loan.  Bigger schools were distrustful of this tiny enclave called Nashotah House.  Would they ever get their rare property back?  Meanwhile worldwide mail service crisscrossed with offprints sent for free from scholar to scholar.  It was like your birthday, or Christmas, when a long-awaited piece of research landed in your mailbox.  Nobody was in it for the money.  We were beguiled by learning.  Eve looking wistfully up into the tree.  Now it’s all business suits with dollar signs for eyes.  The academic who puts their book up for free on the internet is nothing less than a saint.  Seeking knowledge is never really a sin.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Before Current Parameters

I recently had cause, for a work project, to survey which Episcopal seminaries are still around.  You see, I began my teaching career at Nashotah House.  (There were few teaching jobs in the early nineties, although we’d been promised a glut in the late eighties when I set out on that career track.)  In any case, I remembered marveling that the Episcopal Church had eleven seminaries.  For perspective, one of the largest Protestant denominations, the Methodists, only had thirteen.  Enrollments were high in those days.  Before the rise of the Nones, seminary teaching was a viable, if perhaps staid, option for a career.  Or in the case of some of us, it would be a holding pattern until something more suitable came along.  (I’ve always thought of myself as a small college professor.)

So the list of Episcopal seminaries is now down to ten, but those ten are much diminished from what they were back in the nineties.  Seabury, the nearest competitor to the south of Nashotah, has merged with Bexley Hall to make a very small federation.  Berkeley at Yale is a Jonah in the whale.  Episcopal Divinity School had to vacate campus and merge with Union in New York, leaving the tradition Episcopal stronghold of Boston.  The others seem to be clinging on.  In the midst of all this I learned that the Anglican Church in North America, a conservative break-away denomination, has reissued the Book of Common Prayer.  The BCP, as it’s fondly known, has a long and venerable history.  The 1979 edition has both a more conservative and a more modern liturgy, but even that doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent fracturing.

Photo credit: Church of England, via Wikimedia Commons

Fracturing.  Estimates for the number of denominations in North America set the figure at about 40,000.  No wonder Nones are among the fastest growing category!  If you’re going to place your eternal salvation on a bet, and there are that many options to choose from, the odds seem awfully long.  In some cases it’s a matter of being in the right state, or city, where the “one true church” exists.  If you miss it by thirty miles you could end up in Hell.  And all this with shrinking numbers.  The landscape has changed since I entered the seminary world.  Even as the numbers go down the fragmentation increases.  From a bird’s eye view this looks pretty odd.  Even if you look to the Prayer Book for solace you have to ask which one.  I just make the sign of the cross and move on.


Healing Time

Twenty years ago today I walked into the refectory at Nashotah House after morning mass and wondered why the television was on.  Normally people had their own theological issues to hash out over breakfast, so this was unusual.   When I saw what was happening, I skipped breakfast and went home to my family.  I remember the feeling of shock and terror of those days.  America, I knew, wasn’t the innocent nation it projects itself as being.  We had provoked, but none of that mattered as the isolationism of over two centuries on a mostly friendly continent crumbled.  We were vulnerable.  Living in the woods of Wisconsin there was no immediate danger, but the sense of confusion—and certainly the feeling that a less-than-bright president wasn’t up to handle this—made us all feel weak, even with the most powerful military in the world.

Yesterday the New York Times headlines ran a consideration on whether we’ve emerged better in the ensuing two decades.  Looking at where we are—a deeply divided nation because a narcissistic president that the majority of voters voted against put (and still puts) his ego ahead of the good of the country—the answer seems obvious.  It will take years, if not decades, to heal the damage that one man did.  His putative party (really his only party is himself), seeing his popularity as their means to power, refuse to distance themselves.  We simply cannot move forward.  Not in the midst of a pandemic where Trump followers won’t get vaccinated causing new waves of the virus to surface and thrive.  I’d like to think that on September 11 we might reflect—yes, I know it’s hard work—on how we all need each other.

Photo by Jesse Mills on Unsplash

Little could I have guessed in 2001 that a mere ten years later I would find myself working in Manhattan.  Somewhere in my mind on every day of that long commute I wondered if something might again go wrong.  On the bus I was thrown together with people of every description—well paid and just getting by, women and men, gay and straight, from all around the world—and we knew our fates were linked together.  Differences had to be put aside.  Selfishness has no room on a crowded bus.  That was my introduction to life in New York City.  Those who hear only the poison rhetoric of 2016 through 2020 should try commuting with an open mind.  If we all took the bus, life after 9-11 might’ve turned out very differently.


Screaming Season

The signs are all around.  The orange and black Spirit Halloween signs are appearing where vacant storefronts stand.  Advertisements for autumnal activities are cropping up.  Brochures broadcasting local haunted festivities now adorn store counters, free for the taking.  I picked up a leaflet for the local Field of Screams the other day although I really don’t like to be in scary situations.  I do appreciate the spooky sense that they generate, however.  This local event runs from early September through early November—the two months enterprising farmers can draw urbanites to their land, cash in hand.  Halloween has been a major money-maker for many years now.  The less doleful minded wonder why, but I think that lots of us are really afraid.  Halloween says it’s okay to be so.

Perhaps it’s the realization that it’s all in good fun and nobody will really hurt you.  I’ve attended a few of these haunted events over the years, but it was more fun to participate in them.  Perhaps it goes back to Nashotah House.  I’m guessing that most of you’ve never been.  Nashotah is a gothic campus, at one time pretty isolated, out in the woods.  Halloween was, once upon a time, a real celebration there.  Our maintenance crew would offer a hayride through farm fields owned by the school, then through the cemetery on campus.  I used to dress in a grim reaper costume and carry a kerosene lamp through the graveyard, awaiting the tractor.  Nobody instructed me to do it, but we all knew it was in good fun.  And I wasn’t the only volunteer who’d pop out from behind headstones.  Students got into the spirit of it too.

These days remembering such shenanigans is more appealing than actually going out at night to have other people scare me.  The last time I went to a haunted maze it was really too unnerving for me to enjoy.  I volunteered instead for a local haunted house in New Jersey.  The run up to Halloween was usually an intensely creative time of designing and fabricating homemade costumes, and thinking of ways to make pumpkins look scary.  Now it’s become a season in its own right.  An important segment of the economy.  I won’t be going to our local Field of Screams, but I will understand those who do.  Changes are in the air.  It’s dark quite a bit earlier these days.  The air is chilly in the morning.  And the local fear fields open this weekend.


EBW

Nashotah House was a strange place to begin (and end) a teaching career.  Not only did you see students every day, but as faculty you were required to eat and worship with them twice a day.  (You were grudgingly permitted to have supper at home, with family, if applicable.)  You got to know students, and sometimes their families, well.  I suppose that was the point.  We had a lot of students from Texas, and one year a student spouse said she cried all the way home when she found her first colored leaf on the ground.  Granted, Wisconsin winters could be cold.  Even here in balmy Pennsylvania we have to use the furnace from October through May, leaving only four months of the year without artificial heat.  And even September can get pretty chilly.  I was thinking about this student spouse when I started to see the walnut trees turning yellow in July.

Yes, each plant has its own rhythm.  Not all of them need all their leaves until October or November.  Walnuts, however, are an interesting species (or whatever the plural of species is).  The walnuts you eat are probably of the Persian or English walnut variety.  Here in the United States, the Eastern Black Walnut is perhaps the most common deciduous tree east of the Mississippi, but since the nuts are hard to crack they aren’t grown commercially.  Squirrels worship them.  The EBW (do I really have to type out Eastern Black Walnut again?) is famous for its use of allelopathic chemicals.  Some people say it poisons the soil, but more specifically, allelopathic plants distribute chemicals into the soil that favor the growth of “friendly” species and inhibit others.  Yes, plants are quite smart.  The EBW is also wise in its use of the squirrel.  These ubiquitous chewers disperse the nuts widely.  It isn’t uncommon for me to find one on my porch when I go out for my early morning constitutional.  

The air is beginning to feel cool once in a while in the early mornings.  Like the walnut trees and the squirrels, I think I’m at the very early stages of feeling autumn coming on.  We’re still many weeks away from the colors of fall, harvest, and Halloween, but the wheel of the year is still turning.  It never really holds still.  We have the languorous month of August ahead, with its long, warm days and summertime activities.  The walnuts stand as sentinels, however, reminding us that nature is ever restless and ever inclined to change.  I don’t weep to see the changing leaves, but I do marvel at how nature seems to plan ahead for autumn, even in the midst of summer.


Looking In

There’s a real danger to the lifelong study of religion.  Learning to look at any tradition from the point of view of an observer will create a sense of being on the outside looking in.  I’m a member of a religious organization.  I occasionally consider pursuing ordination within it—this was my original sense of my calling in life—but I’m compelled to consider the phenomenon of being outside looking in.  When I was an Episcopalian (before the church showed its true colors in my particular case), I wrote a letter to my rector asking how I could get off of the church steps and be invited inside.  My rector wrote back with some insipid advice and was among those who voted, as a trustee, to oust me from my fourteen-year career at Nashotah House.  Outside again.

Studying the history of religions provides dangerous levels of insight.  Simple, mindless acceptance of teachings becomes impossible.  This isn’t arrogance, as any who know me can attest, but rather a form of hyper-awareness.  You can’t emerge from forty-plus years of reading about, and deeply pondering, religion unscathed.  Many, of course, dismiss any observations by those lacking the denominational seal of approval.  “If you knew what you were talking about,” so the reasoning goes, “you’d be a minister or a professor.”  So you speak from the sidelines at best.  Outside.  Even within my own group I have merely the role of “member,” lacking the official piece of paper from the seminary or other accrediting body that states I might know some things.

Of course, I have much yet to learn.  This religion thing is a tough nut to crack.  Were I younger and better paid I might consider undergoing college again to take a different path.  As it is, I’ve invested more than a half-century trying to get where I am, wherever that is.  I sit outside watching the birds.  They’re back pretty much in full force now.  They seem so certain about where they’re going.  How can you fly without a full level of commitment?  Earthbound, I muddle about with my head somewhere above the clouds I cannot reach.  I read about religious traditions unknown to me.  Often I find nuggets of great value in them.  Of course, I’m not clergy so you need not take my word for it.  I, after all, draw inspiration simply by sitting outside, always outside, and watching the birds. 


Pandemic Thoughts

Waiting for rescue.  For many years now, I’ve been hoping for it.  It goes back to my first professional job at Nashotah House, perhaps earlier.  Particularly late in the game, I found myself wondering when I might be rescued from that difficult situation.  The teaching and research I loved, but the context was brutal.  The hoped for salvation never came.  Since those days the wishes have swung around to a steady job in a field I love.  One for which I trained.  The feeling arises particularly on weekends.  Often busier than even workdays, I nevertheless sense an almost gothic freedom to them, and Monday rolls around again reminding me that salvation never came.  Things are still the same.  Now, I don’t just sit around waiting for rescue.  I throw out all kinds of lines.  I shout and squirm and try to make myself known.  The ocean is large, however, and my voice is small.  

Perhaps this sense is a natural outgrowth of being raised in a religion that emphasized personal salvation.  The sudden conversion experience.  It was easy to believe things could change rapidly for the better.  Science, particularly uniformitarianism, tells us that the same slow processes always hold.  Solomon was right after all—there’s nothing new under the sun.  At least nothing that we couldn’t see coming for a good, long time.  Out here the horizon stretches ever so far in every direction.  Religions realize the problems with this sameness.  They give us sacred times and sacred spaces.  (The latter of which, however, the pandemic has forced online.)

Rescues that evolve can take many years to reach effective strength.  As a child I recall anticipating the rescue of adult respectability.  When I grew up people would listen to me because I was an adult.  For a brief while that was the case when I stood in the classroom and some students came because they wanted to learn.  I learned from them, and they, I hope, learned from me.  Perhaps this situation arises less among those raised in stable, middle-class families.  Perhaps they don’t sense the constant wolf pacing outside the door.  Maybe salvation is primarily for the poor.  Whoever it’s for and whencever it comes, the feeling has been with me for decades.  Rescue, it seems, is a construct we badly need.  At least on a philosophical level.  The pandemic has leveled our concept of time to a stifling sameness.  I’m prepared.  I’ve been waiting for rescue for as long as I can remember.  Then Monday rolls around again.


Love or Saints?

One of the many oddities of life at Nashotah House was that we never celebrated St. Valentine.  I wouldn’t expect a mostly male and neurotically homophobic community to mark Valentine’s Day as for lovers (most of the faculty and many students were married, however), but the saint’s name wasn’t uttered in my years there.  Of course, commercialization of holidays does taint them somewhat.  It’s difficult to take a day seriously when you’re being told that how much you spend will be the sign of how special it will be.  With St. Valentine’s Day, however, I believe the topic was much too close to something the church had long feared—sexuality.  I’ve often pondered how this strange obsession evolved.  Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, isn’t the origin of this antipathy to being fully human.

The trouble likely starts in the Bible.  The New Testament, in particular.  No mention is made of Jesus having been married.  Paul, in his usual way, made it an issue but fell short of outright condemning it.  His words would help convince the Roman Catholic Church that mandated celibacy was a good idea.  Clearly, however, Augustine of Hippo, who lived after Valentine (depending on which one you elect to follow) saw the whole enterprise as flawed.  Making up the concept of original sin and tying it in with sexuality was a certain means of creating a problem.  Not that Christianity is the only religion that promotes celibacy, of course.  But when it came to Nashotah House there was really no concern about what other religions taught.  Even on February 14 no collects were recited mentioning the saint who must not be named.

The history of saints’ days is a fascinating one.  A few of them made it into pop culture—after Presidents’ Day there’s no national holiday until Memorial Day in May, so who can blame people for looking for reasons to celebrate while still waiting for spring?  Saint Patrick wasn’t similarly given the cold shoulder at Nashotah in my years there.  And although it moved around quite a bit, you could usually count on April for delivering Easter.  We didn’t celebrate Presidents’ Day.  Nor Martin Luther King Day—not being Catholic his canonization process was a non-starter.  The long, cold stretch between Epiphany (now Insurrection Day) and Lent was one devoid of popular holidays.  I suspect that despite the number of saints (and there are lots of them) the singling out of Valentine was considered to be asking for trouble.  That was many years ago.  Oddities, however, have a way of remaining in long-term memory.


Mittens and Circuses

Bernie Sanders, since we’re now making up our own facts, clearly won this election.  Or at least the inauguration.  An inescapable meme of Sanders, bundled up with his notable mittens, has made major media as well as pedantic punters on the web.  Thanks in part to an app created to allow users to place Bernie anywhere, I’ve seen him at all kinds of places from Oxford University Press to Dirty Dancing to the exhibit halls at the AAR/SBL annual meeting.  As someone who suffers from the cold I was initially concerned that he must feel laughed at by it all, but Bernie seems to be taking it in good humor.  The only reason I bring it up here is a meme (I think) that my wife pointed out to me of Bernie among the Fond du Lac Circus.  I can’t find any credit for the creator, but it appeared on the Episcopalians on Facebook group.  (I don’t know how Facebook works, checking above the fold once a day only.)

I’ve actually posted on the Fond du Lac Circus before.  The photo was extremely popular at Nashotah House when I taught there.  The diocese of Fond du Lac (in which I once preached) is just north a bit in Wisconsin.  The photo was a celebration of the installation of a bishop with ecclesiastical haberdashery at its finest on display.  In my mind, Nashotah House stands for all that’s conservative.  I’m certain a great deal of the population supported Trump.  A former dean had a shrine to George W. Bush in the deanery.  I kid you not.  So seeing the most progressive senator amid that crowd of backward-looking clergy, apart from being unspeakably funny, made me reflective.

Many years of my life were spent among the Episcopalians.  Too many of those years consisted of feeling oppressed by the interpretation of “orthodoxy” held at Nashotah House.  The hubris of “the only right teaching” has haunted me ever since.  Faith can be a good thing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  The greatest danger is when it ceases to be reflective.  Faith must involve constant thought and assessment to be honest.  Unthinking compliance was something Jesus, for one, simply didn’t accept.  Challenging the way it’s always been done is a venerable part of the agenda for those who start new religions, Jesus included.  When that religion becomes ossified (or too obsessed with appearances) isn’t it time to start looking toward the future?  Bernie Sanders is popular with the young.  They have little patience for the selfishness that’s been on display in American culture for far too many decades.  Would that he really attended the Fond du Lac Circus!  Perhaps a grassroots movement to improve conditions for all might’ve actually emerged long ago.


Home Alone

Due to circumstances beyond my control (and what other kind of circumstances are there, anyway?), I recently had to spend a few days alone.  Even as an introvert I’ve never enjoyed “batching it” for long, perhaps because my imagination is so untamed as to belong in a zoo.  Nevertheless, you learn things with time alone.  Particularly in a pandemic.  I’m not inclined to seek the company of strangers, and I don’t know many people here in town yet.  So I introspect.  Of course, Zoom and FaceTime keep me in touch with others, but I can’t help remembering a PBS special I saw about Admiral Richard Byrd.  Byrd famously self-isolated himself in a one-room shack in Antartica for five months when weather made travel impossible.  His contact with the outside world was limited to electronic communication.

Photo credit: US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

Byrd had been seeking the ultimate isolation.  It turned out to be psychological torture.  Even those of us who are introverts are social creatures.  We just need smaller doses than most.  I can’t recall the name of the PBS series that Byrd was part of, but I do recall the profound impact it made on me.  I was teaching at the time and there was another series on PBS that I was discussing with my fellow professors and it was because of this other series that I had the television on at all.  The Byrd program came next and eclipsed the former.  (We essentially lived without television in our Nashotah House days.  Cable wasn’t available and trying to get reception with an inadequate aerial antenna led to frustratingly snowy, dizzying reception.)

We like to have other people around.  I grew up with siblings and time alone was a rare commodity.  I left home to live in a dorm with roommates for four years.  After that apartments in the Boston area often felt isolating, even with housemates.  It was a time for introspection.  By the time I moved to Edinburgh I was married and I’ve not really looked forward to my time alone since then.  November typically brings AAR/SBL with it’s five nights alone in a hotel room.  I get by because I’m so exhausted by the  event.  Nevertheless I often think of Admiral Byrd and how this mentally strong man began to break down under the strain of not seeing another person for five months.  We need each other.  The pandemic has been teaching us lessons of self-reliance, but hopefully it’s also teaching us to reach out to others.  Even America can feel like Antartica sometimes. 


Hypersensitivity

Tell people you’re hypersensitive and the first thing they’ll say is “I’m sorry.”  The way I use the term is, however, somewhat literal.  Some of us experience sensory input in especially intensive ways.  Psychologists say that those of us who do often stop and assess in new situations.  We can become overstimulated and sometimes “shut down” if too much is going on.  It doesn’t mean I’m going to burst into tears if you insult my haircut.  (It’s homemade, we’re in a pandemic, after all.)  The reason I bring hypersensitivity up at this point is two-fold.  The first fold has to do with the fact that I no longer get out much, which means much of the “ordinary” now seems new.  The second fold is that I wonder if hypersensitivity had a role in leading medieval people into monasteries and convents.

Back to point one.  If sensory stimuli can overwhelm one, going back into TMI territory can be almost traumatic.  I commuted into New York City for about seven years.  Manhattan is difficult for a hypersensitive person to take.  Over time I became accustomed to it, and familiar environments are more easily navigated.  The pandemic, however, has me spending about nine or ten hours a day in the same small room at home.  Actually, working remotely had already done that, but I used to get out on weekends.  We recently took a safe weekend trip, stopping only at places with few people and staying with family.  Less than 24-hours out from home I realized I was feeling overwhelmed.  Too much interaction.  We had stopped at a town I’d never visited before.  The trees were spectacular.  I soon regained my bearings, because no matter how late I stay up, I still awake early to write.

This leads to the second point.  I suspect things moved much more slowly in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but I can see why certain individuals might like to cloister themselves.  While I disagreed with the theology, I taught for fourteen years at Nashotah House, a cloistered seminary.  You saw the same people day in and day out.  The campus was suspicious about this thing called “the internet” for quite a long time.  You ordered books through the mail and waited a month or more for it to arrive.  In some ways this was a comfortable existence.  Of course, it blocked me from much of what was happening in the wider world.  The pandemic has, in some measure, brought me back to that space.  I wonder if, historically, they might be connected.  But right now it’s time to get to my ten-hour room and work.


Holy Smoke

I’m not inclined to read news about drug use, and, to be honest, I barely have time to read about the culture of ancient Israel any more.  I very occasionally hear from people who find out that my book on Asherah is free on Academia.edu (it is) that tell me how they plan to use the information.  It’s gratifying, but as with anything put out there for public consumption, you never know which direction it’s going to go.  Thus I found myself on Lucid News’ website.  With the tagline “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness,” ideas begin to form in the mind.  But a citation is a citation, and so I read the opinion piece “Drugs, the Israelites and the Emergence of Patriarchy,” by Danny Nemu.

The story follows on the announcement from some time ago that chemical analysis of an interior altar of an ancient temple at Arad (from ancient Israelite times) revealed that it had been used to burn cannabis.  The biblical story—now questioned by archaeology—is that there was only one official temple and that was the one in Jerusalem.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and then again by the Romans in the first century CE.  We have no access to the altars that stood in the temple, but we do know that incense, particularly frankincense, was valued for its pleasant smell.  According to the article in Lucid, a second altar in Arad showed residue of frankincense.  Both altars were in a small, enclosed room—the bong of the Lord, as it were—and that together the two forms of smoke would’ve created an intense religious experience for a priest in there for any length of time.  Although the article doesn’t suggest this, it could also explain why animal sacrifices were going on in the courtyard, I guess.

You might be wondering about Asherah.  While the jury’s out on her actual worship and what it entailed, the academic establishment has decided that she was Yahweh’s spouse and was worshipped together with him in the ceremonies that have been forgotten to time.  With all that heavy substance burning I guess it’s not surprising that some things might’ve been forgotten.  I don’t really advocate the use of drugs, but the science behind archaeology shows us that religions have used them for centuries and centuries to reach other levels of consciousness.  I was in chapel services at Nashotah House where the incense was so thick you could barely breathe.  Did such circumstances play a role in the religion that now identifies itself as white-shirted evangelicals?  It boggles the mind.


Bonded

It happened this way.  When my daughter was young she was interested in dinosaurs.  Most kids are.  In fact, my wife and I went to a public lecture by a paleontologist in Edinburgh where he pointed out that the real experts on the subject in the audience were generally twelve or younger.  I took an interest in what my daughter found fascinating, and you can’t study dinosaurs without knowing a bit of geology.  Now, the professor’s lifestyle is a thing of wonder.  You may have a heavy teaching and publication load, but the freedom to spend your unstructured summer time pure learning was (still is) a huge draw.  I began studying geology.  I joined the Wisconsin Geological Society.  I was even made an officer.  My, a biblical studies professor.

At one point I bought a jeweler’s loupe.  Many geologists have them.  To get down to the level of the crystalline structure of most rocks you’ll need something more powerful, but for fieldwork (and I’ve got a garage full of rocks to prove it) your average loupe will do.  When Nashotah House decided I should no longer be a professor (and the rest of academe acquiesced) I seriously considered going back to school to study geology.  Time was against me, however.  I had to find a job with a family needing support, and so here I am in publishing instead.  And not only that, but I’m a Bibles editor.  Most people have no idea what that means.  Some days even I don’t.  But one thing I have learned is that you’ve got to know your leather.

This is a bit uncomfortable to me as a vegan, but I have learned that many people want their Bibles wrapped up in animal sacrifice.  I’ve also learned there are many different kinds of leather.  The typical leather Bible is pigskin.  Yes, that’s right.  In the trade you can call a Bible with any animal hide leather.  Bonded leather means that it’s pieces glued together.  The most expensive Good Books are “genuine leather.”  Cut from whole cloth, as it were.  I keep my jeweler’s loupe in my work desk.  Sometimes I need to look at something closely, off screen.  My loupe came in a leather case.  One of the sides peeled off during our move and I could see clearly what bonded leather means.  In fact, the “nded” part of “bonded” is clearly visible like a secret Bible code on the underlayer of my case.  Nothing, it seems, is ever wasted.