Falling

Time.   It’s a resource of which I’ve become acutely aware.  If I probe this I find that among the assorted reasons is the fact that I’ve finished my fourth book and I realized I’m much further behind that I’d hoped to be at this point.  It took me a decade to get Weathering the Psalms published and Holy Horror seems never to have gotten off the ground.  I’ve pretty much decided to try to move on to writing that people might actually read, and academic publishing clearly is not the means of reaching actual readers.  I can’t help compare myself with prolific writers like Neal Stephenson.  (It helps that he’s a relative.)  I just finished Fall, Or Dodge in Hell, and was wowed by the impact of both the Bible and mythology on the story.  I’ve always admired the way that writers like Neal can not only comprehend technology, but also can project directions into which it seems to go. 

Not to put lots of spoilers here, but the story of one generation of gods being conquered by another is the stuff of classic mythology.  Many assume it was the Greeks who came up with the idea, what with their Titans and Olympians and all.  In actual fact, these stories go back to the earliest recorded mythologies in what is now called western Asia.  For whatever reason, people have always thought that there was a generation of older gods that had been overcome by a younger generation.  Even some of the archaic names shine through here.  Like many of Neal’s books, Fall takes some time to read.  It’s long, but it also is the kind of story you like to mull over and not rush through.  Life, it seems, is just too busy.

There’s a lot of theological nuance in Fall, and the title clearly has resonance with what many in the Christian tradition categorize as the “Fall.”  (Yes, there are Adam and Eve characters.)  Those who are inclined to take a less Pauline view of things suggest that said “fall” wasn’t really the introduction of sin into the world.  Anyone who reads Genesis closely will see that the word “sin” doesn’t occur in this account at all.  One might wonder what the point of the story is, then.  I would posit that it is similar to the point of reading books like Fall.  To gain wisdom.  Reading is an opportunity to do just that.  And if readers decide to look into matters they will find a lot of homework awaits them.  And those who do it will be rewarded.

To Be Continued

I’m about in the middle of Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.  I’ve also just about finished Walter Wink’s Naming the Powers.  At the same time I’m revising the draft of Nightmares with the Bible, which will become my fourth published book.  While doing all of this at the same time (and working about nine hours a day), it occurred to me that to really “get” an author you should theoretically read her or his oeuvre from start to finish.  Ideally, to trace the arc of thought, you shouldn’t leave anything out.  The reason that this is as important as it is futile is one of the nagging problems that came to me while working on my doctorate: how do you know what a source you’re citing is really saying?

Pardon my nihilism, but this is an important matter when it comes to academic practice.  Academics cite many sources, and often miscite them.  I’ve seen it regarding my own work.  One scholar argued the exact opposite of what I published in an article and even made the point that he was building on what I’d stated.  Clearly he was digging where I’d been building or vice versa.  We were going in opposite directions and what I’d written was to undermine what he was arguing.  The thought came to me now because both Stephenson and Wink are the writers of many volumes.  I need to cite my sources, but it’s clear that the books are merely slices of lifetimes of thought.  Academia wants you to show your work, but its dated even before you press the “send” button.

I’m not knocking scholarly process.  It’s the best system we’ve come up with for getting near to the truth.  Since no one person has the entire truth, however, we get closer still if we follow a writer from start to finish.  Those of use who use pseudonyms in order to keep our day jobs only complicate things.  Our works (which we hope will outlast us) are only fragments of a larger world of thought that goes on behind the writing of books.  And what about weblogs, or “blogs”?  The million-plus words on this one are a stream of consciousness that weave within, behind, and outside of the books, articles, and stories I write.  Some writers make bold as to attempt biographies of other writers.  Some try to read everything said writers wrote.  Even so they’re only getting part of the picture.  To understand where a writer’s coming from requires more commitment than we’re likely willing to spare.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some books to finish.

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.

Upstate Reading

In terms of cash flow I don’t fall into the wealthy bracket.  My assets are largely in pre-printed paper form, and when I visit the local Little Free Library it’s generally to donate books rather than to take them.  Over Labor Day weekend I was in Ithaca.  One of the more famous features of the town is its weekend Farmers’ Market.  Indeed, the north-south corridor through town is a continuous traffic jam during Market hours.  Not only are there farm stands in the permanent open-sided structure, but there are a few craft booths and several places to buy al fresco fair from local restaurants.  In the summer parking can be hard to find, but the place has a carnival-like atmosphere nevertheless.  It also has a Little Free Library.  I’ve been to the Market many times but I’d never noticed it before.

Upstate New York is beautiful but it tends toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.  Ithaca is a pixel of blue in a screen of red, and that strangely showed in the Little Free Library.  Many of the books were either Bibles or popular kinds of devotional titles.  Given that Cornell isn’t known for its religion department (Ithaca College has a respectably sized philosophy and religion department, however) these books aren’t the kind you’d expect to find in an institution of higher education.  That’s why I was surprised to see a near mint copy of Bart Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot on the shelves.  The Gospel of Judas hasn’t been big news for a few years now, but this was a book that suggests a different demographic than your average evangelical readership.

Like Ehrman, I once made a living as an adjunct at Rutgers University.  Indeed, it was this commonality that helped me to get to know him a bit.  He’s gone on to a kind of fame rare for biblical scholars.  Indeed, to have a sufficient number of copies of your book printed to end up in a Little Free Library—in other words, you have to have more cachet than your garden variety Ph.D.  In my local community LFL I like to leave books for others to take.  Just last week I stopped by and noticed that the summer had depleted the stock.  Ironically, I had noticed one of Neal Stephenson’s novels in the same circumstances as Ehrman’s.  I’m glad to see intelligent works on offer for the reading public.  And trading books with no money involved suggests to me that there’s a better form of economy than material greed.  All it takes is a Little Free Library and a little good will.

Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.

Stand-in Line

Pop culture borrows from religion without knowing it.  Or maybe it’s just that religion has become so irrelevant that people no longer care.  Whichever may be the case, those who contribute to pop culture have a rich treasury from which to take withdrawals.  This occurred to me while waiting for a bus into New York.  Many people don’t want to stand in line (who does, really?).  In the Park-n-Ride subculture, you may leave an avatar in your place.  It’s probably not called an avatar, but since there’s nobody here to ask, I’m going to use the pop culture name.  You put your bag on the pavement, marking your place and then go sit in your car.  Since I’m going to be sitting in a big car for the next two hours, I prefer to stand outside.

The idea of an avatar is mediated to most people through either computer language or the movie.  I first encountered the term in the former sense in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  I was an internet neophyte and had trouble conceiving a virtual world in those days.  Some time later came the latter.  James Cameron’s film embodied the idea—linked through software, the tired hardware of physical bodies could be given new life.  In some senses it was an even better life.  Now everyone knows what an avatar is.  Perhaps except that the idea is native to Hinduism.

Hinduism was never an organized, intentional religion such as Christianity.  It is rather a wide array of traditional beliefs that, in the light of missionary activity, had to be given a name.  There are many gods in Hinduism, and when a deity descends to earth s/he appears in a form recognizable to humans—an avatar.  Not being an Indologist, my understanding of the concept is very basic, but it’s enough to know that this religious idea found a role in pop culture first through computer representations of human beings.  We had flattered ourselves with being gods, since we had created a virtual world.  A world we couldn’t physically enter.  Avatars were, therefore, how we wanted others to experience us.  Snow Crash is peopled with all kinds of representations.  The internet today, nearly 30 years on, has many more.  After all, there are many gods.

I glance at my watch.  The bus should be here any minute now.  When it enters the lot I’ll see the deities behind these canvas and leather avatars.  They’ll be less impressive than I’ve imagined them, I’m sure.  And although we’ve created virtual reality, I still have to get on a physical bus to go to virtual work.

Blogday

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

Making Lovecraft

Perhaps it’s all just coincidence, but once in a while a number of unexpected things come together. Since I do a lot of reading this often happens in the context of books. The current case begins with my first noticing Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I saw a review online, and since I enjoy contemporary novels that build on the worlds created by H. P., I added it to my reading list. The first coincidental aspect of it was that I found in Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca. Like most independent bookstores, it’s not huge, so the selection of books that cater to my odd tastes is always adventitious. I found it on the staff recommendation shelf and recalled that it was on my reading list. A second coincidence came in finding Neal Stephenson’s name under a cover blurb. My brother-in-law’s name is enough to get a book onto the bestseller’s lists, but I had no idea this kind of book would be to his tastes as well.

I began reading it right away. The third happenstance is that Ruff crafted a biblically literate story here. In a day when those of us associated with the Bible are definitively passé, it is nice to see popular fiction fighting back a little bit. Not that Ruff is advocating or proselytizing, but his finely tuned story is definitely enhanced with a bit of biblical knowledge. He’s unapologetic about it. In our religion-critical outlook these days we sometimes forget that the Bible has several stories that maintain, and even reward, contemporary interest. The most obvious example in Lovecraft Country is the story of Cain. There are plenty of others that can be dug out as well, and Ruff even leaves some on the surface so that they aren’t hard to find. Not that this is a religious book. It’s just not afraid of religion.

Some may find that odd in a homage to the noted atheist Lovecraft. What they may not see is that the master himself used religion from time to time in his tales of horror. Also, for those who are willing to be honest, we know that an unsavory racism resided in Lovecraft’s outlook. Ruff, like other writers who see the positive side of this author’s work, tells a story of African-American struggles in the “idyllic” 1950s. The protagonists, dropped into a world of real Lovecraftian magic—and in a very self-aware way—are all a close-knit black family and their friends. Which led to another coincidence. Quite unconnectedly, I’d been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This plays an important part in the story as well. Sometimes reading itself can lead to a cascading set of coincidences. Lovecraft Country is one instance where it happened, but that may just be my unusual taste in books.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Dead Sea, Live See

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Nothing fascinates quite like the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is, unless you’re a disgruntled Ugaritologist. Mention the Dead Sea Scrolls and the journalists will form a queue. Never mind the relative importance of Ugarit. But I digress. There is something quite dramatic about the discovery and recovery of the scrolls. It involves science and sculduggery and that utterly captivating name “Dead Sea.” This past week the scrolls were in the news again as a new technology was used to read an illegible roll. The New York Times story by Nicholas Wade describes how something like a CT scan can be used to find the ink on an unrolled scroll and software can be devised that associates the ink to its nearest surface. A little virtual unrolling and you have a legible document that has no visible letters that the naked eye can see. Turns out this one happens to come from Leviticus. Figures.

You might think this would lead to joyful leaping on the part of someone who used to make a living reading ancient documents, but such are the times in which we live that even silver linings turn to lead. Years ago I learned about Van Eck phreaking from Neal Stephenson. I thought it was sci-fi, but in fact it is a legitimate—or illegitimate—method of reading a person’s electronic device without being able to see the screen. Since so few people are eager to read my blog, I can’t think anyone would be wanting to spy on my laptop. Nevertheless, with the advent of new technology that can—think about it—read a closed book, I have to wonder about the implications. Reading some dead scribe’s Dead Sea Scroll is one thing. Your sister’s locked diary can be quite another.

Being more of a clay-and-stick man, I was pleased when it was discovered that rapid flashes of light around the circumference of a clay tablet could lead to a virtual computer model that could be rotated 360 degrees with illumination from any angle. The technology had other applications as well, of course. (It certainly wasn’t developed to read forgettable texts.) With a clay tablet we can be reasonably certain that nothing too private was being impressed. But then that’s what you’d expect an Ugaritologist to say. It seems that my days of reading ancient documents are a closed book anyway. But that’s just the problem. Not even a closed book is safe any more. If I were in any danger, I’m sure it would show in my stats before anyone bothered to park a nondescript van outside my door and scan through all the countless tomes with which I surround myself daily. But I do wonder.

Infernal Religions

infernalDevicesThe first steampunk novel I read, although some would dispute the classification, was Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. To be sure, I’d noticed other Victorian-style science fiction, but the idea of prescient technology settled into my head to nest for a while. I read a few other exemplars of the genre, finding each interesting in its own right. Having just finished K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, however, I get a sense that I’ve neared the fount. Jeter is generally credited with coming up with the neologism “steampunk,” and this novel, while not his first, is fascinating for the heavy religious symbolism that is used throughout. In our secular, post-Christian age, we tend to forget that in the nineteenth century (actual, if not alternate reality) religion still played a tremendous role in people’s lives and outlooks. Infernal Devices uses that outlook quite effectively. The remnants of Cromwell’s puritan cause appear as the Godly Army, set against science and technology in a society still imbued with religious belief. When a flying machine appears overhead, the Scots suppose it is the beast of Revelation harbinger of the world’s end.

Like most steampunk offerings, Jeter offers us plenty of mechanical wonders. The hapless Mr. Dower, our protagonist and narrator, is the son of a mechanical genius, now deceased. The story involves Dower trying to unravel the many strands his father wove in a lifetime of invention and innovation. The one device that stood out to me, however, was the automaton priest and choir of Saint Mary Alderhythe, Bankside. Dower’s father had invented a robotic priest to go through the mechanical motions of an Anglican mass. Having sat through hundreds of such masses, I could see the point he was making. There are variables, but the overall draw of ritual is, well, its ritualism. The sameness that assures an assuaged deity and a safe congregation. The Godly Army, however, is more revisionist in intention.

Jeter, I’m sure, did not intend for the novel to be read for religious truths. It is rollicking and fun, with characters that you can’t believe but you want to. The driving force, however, behind much of the story is the religious bias of elements of London society. Dower, blamed for vices he doesn’t really have, is chased from his home by the Lady’s Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice. The Godly Army, however, steals the show. Perhaps the most profound observation comes from Scape, who quips “That’s what you get.. when you give people Bibles and guns,” about the Godly Army. “It just messes up their brains.” At this point I began to wonder whether the story were really fiction after all. In this case the truth indeed perhaps lies in steampunk’s alternate history.

Steampunk Messiah

HomunculusSteampunk emerged as a genre of science fiction just as I was finishing seminary. It went largely unnoticed as I continued my “serious” academic work, with my first introduction being Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Since then, I’ve picked up the occasional Victorian tale and enjoyed an escape into an alternative history. Most recently that escape took the form of one of the originals of the genre, James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus. Considered to be one of the first exemplars of the emergent literary type, it has rollicking, free-wheeling tone—full of strange characters who are attempting to find various hidden treasures. One of those characters is a latter-day prophet by the name of Shiloh, who believes himself the new messiah. Since, as an emerging genre, no rules had been established, steampunk was free to cast whatever characters it found intriguing. A religious fanatic who often drives the action through his own need for self assurance is a tried and true actor in any literature that considers what motivates the masses. Firmly in the cast of “bad guys” in the story, Shiloh patronizes the mad doctor who’s experimenting with reanimating the dead. And Blaylock manages to squeeze a bit of profundity into the role as well.

Nevertheless, the character with the best quote is the ambiguous Bill Kraken, on the side of right, generally, but deeply flawed. In a conversation about immortality, he says “I’m a man of science and the spirit both, and I don’t trust to neither one entirely.” In this he sums up the dilemma of the honest individual who takes science seriously, but who knows that science can’t completely encapsulate the human experience. He trusts science, but Kraken has seen the living dead. There’s an alchemy at work here, and that box he carries on his lap houses the very homunculus that gives the book its title. An alien, actually, the homunculus is sought after by Shiloh, who supposes him to be his father. It is the homunculus who animates the dead and flummoxes the scientists.

Fiction often leads us where fact simply cannot. I strongly suspect that Blaylock had no moralizing message here, other than perhaps to beware of fanatics, and yet a message remains to ponder. That which we seek the most is that which most wishes to escape us. In the end neither scientist nor religious aficionado ends up with the homunculus under control. This is an alternate reality, after all, and the limits of human experience remain untested. Perhaps such bright thinkers as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein had it right. Perhaps the universe in which we find ourselves is not either-or, but both-and. It was our religion that brought us to science, and it is sometimes our fiction that points to the facts.

Virtually Divine

So I decided to try virtual reality for a while. I have been reading about the influence technology has on religion, so I thought a trip to Wikitude would be instructive. Now I don’t want to sling lingo like I’m some sort of real techie, but Wikitude is an app that shows the artificial worlds of virtual reality in your immediate environment. Many of us live our day-to-day lives without realizing that we are surrounded by powerful, invisible beings who can only be seen through electronic eyes. We have given our physical world an imaginary overlay that may turn out to be more real than reality itself. So I clicked on Wikitude and took a peek around my office on Third Avenue. Wikitude shows those things that I would have called “dialogue boxes” as a kid, but that now stand in for overlays against any mapped reality. In Manhattan there are many, many of them. I clicked on the one nearest my finger. It read, “A monster is destroying the city.” Like it read my mind.

In some ways I never got over the naïve realism I grew up believing. I first read about avatars in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Back then the idea of virtual worlds was still pretty new, and although Norman Spinrad and William Gibson had played with the idea earlier, the Snow Crash version is what stayed in my head. Avatars, I knew from my research on ancient religions, came from very early Indian belief. In what we now casually call “Hinduism,” some believed that gods came down and walked among us as avatars. Christians would later call this “incarnation.” In virtual reality, we are the gods and we descend into the world of human making as embodied electronic versions of ourselves. The idea, however, goes back to one of the most ancient religions in the world.

I’m not sure I feel safe in this virtual world I’ve discovered. I was relieved when I clicked on Wikitude the next day to find the menacing monster nowhere in sight. But is it really gone? The physical world has no shortage of ways to frighten the very sensibilities out of us. Many of them go by the name of religion. In this world, I can’t just click off the screen and be safe. It used to be that our simple, domed world had a divine bowl above it with a loving, if often very stern, parent watching over us. Now we have become that god, creating monsters and worlds to house them. Maybe that is the best answer to theodicy yet. When we create virtual worlds, we always include evil in the picture. Perhaps it has always been thus with the gods.

Reality or not?

Name Recognition

Some two and a half years ago when my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson suggested I start a blog (primarily for the podcasts to which I intend to return), he asked me what I would call such a site. “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World,” was my attempt at a witty, non-committal riposte. Since I was unemployed at the time and still hoping some deus ex machina might put me back into a full-time university post, complete with an Ancient Near Eastern religions component, the title seemed apt. I determined that I would not exploit my relationship to a best-seller author since I wanted to earn my own readership. Sects sells, does they not? Since then I’ve had a number of curious readers wonder why I tend to address modern religious issues, unlike my title suggests. The reason goes back to what I want to be when I grow up.

How many eighteen-year olds really know what their lives will hold in store? Our society asks them to select majors and pick a career path far too young. I had visions of clergyhood in my head so I majored in religion. Like many children of alcoholics, I tend to be addictive in my devotion, so after completing a Master’s in religion, I had to have just one more degree—then I’ll stop—and a doctorate in religion finished ossifying my career track. Having been weaned on the Bible, I’d stuck with it for three degrees and found that during that time the job market had evaporated around me. As I watched society from the sidelines, I saw so many people at the place I had started out, staring wistfully at the Bible, looking for answers. Uncritically, magically expecting a miracle. Just like Oral Roberts said. Once my teaching career had been derailed by misguided Fundamentalists, I realized my interests were much more in the effect religion has on people. It was too late, however, to go back to school.

My way of dealing with any dilemma is to parse its history. That’s why I studied pre-biblical religions along the way to my doctorate in Bible. A couple of things had become clear along the way: religions are very fragile and easily splinter into sects. And most of the large-scale violence in the history of the world has a religious basis. (Probably much of the small-scale violence does as well.) Its origins are literally more ancient than history. What is religion in today’s world if not the direct descendent of sects and violence in the ancient world? And since my idiosyncratic musings have passed the 200K hit mark, it seemed all right to acknowledge the role my brother-in-law has played in all this. So, in good academic fashion, I’d like to acknowledge the suggestions and support of Neal Stephenson in starting this blog, but any errors are, of course, my own.

Metaphor

Author Neal Stephenson, inspired by fellow author George B. Dyson, built a baidarka a few years back. The baidarka, an Aleutian version of the sea kayak, was such a necessity of life among the Aleut that it was treated as a living being. Whenever I find myself at the same latitude and longitude as the baidarka Neal built, I like to take it out for a relatively safe lake voyage. I’m not much of a swimmer, and taking boats out on the big water always chills me before the water actually touches my skin, but this is a kind of ritual that I feel compelled to observe. It is a participation in the mythic world of the Aleut. As spiritual beings, kayaks were a necessary part of life for island dwellers. In their own way, I suppose, they are saviors.

Author and partner in the baidarka

Traveling by water, I find, is a spiritual experience that eschews scientific quantification. It is a feeling, not a measurable commodity. To quote the great sage Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” We are born of water, mostly made of water, and ineluctably drawn to the water. Rachel Carson suggested in her classic, The Sea Around Us (always one of my favorite books), that having evolved from the sea we are forever yearning to get back to the sea. Water is life as much as blood is.

broken water

When water breaks by being forced into an unyielding shore or by being thrown over a cliff to become a waterfall, flinging refreshing spray into the air, its great energy is released. Although its flow may be interrupted it will break apart granite and basalt, literally moving mountains and carving coastlines. Water that is placid in the morning may be raging by the end of the day. Water is life, and if life is anything more than a metaphor no one has yet convinced me of it.