AKA

“Professor?”  While not technically correct, I was surprised and not unpleased to hear the title yesterday while on the streets of Easton.  One of the greatest compliments a former teacher can receive is word from a former student.  While dressed in Saturday clothes on the way to the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market, I wasn’t sure the voice intended was for me.  I’ve been out of the classroom now since 2011.  Sure enough, one of my students from Rutgers recognized me and called out.  We had an ersatz but wonderful conversation after a completely chance meeting.  Already since graduating he’s had a few different jobs, but he remembered the classes I’d taught and I recalled that he’s the person who started me reading Neil Gaiman.  Teaching is, you see, a two-way street.

I’m doing a guest service at a local church next Sunday.  In preparation I’ve had lots of emails (for me).  One of them was from the music director.  He opened by calling me “Reverend.”  I’ve never been a reverend.  The idea isn’t unappealing but I’ve gone pretty far down the path of independent thinking and any church that would ordain such as me would need to be comfortable with that.  In fact, I heard a sermon recently by an Episcopal priest and was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and, dare I say, liberal it was.  I was never really welcome in that club, I know.  When I was still fairly fresh out of seminary and working on my doctorate the idea of being “Rev. Dr.” was still appealing.  Now I go by my first name.

Labels.  I tend to eschew them.  Like my young colleague I’ve had to learn that work doesn’t necessarily define you.  (I’ve had many employers, however, who not only beg, but insist to differ on that point.  The ideas of owning individuals die hard, apparently.)  On the weekend, though, off the clock, people are calling me “professor” and “reverend.”  I’m generally sitting in a corner with my laptop on those early mornings calling myself a “writer.”  For none of these things do I receive any pay.  (Well, perhaps some for writing, but very little and very infrequently.)  The move to our new location was a chance, I think, to try to remake myself.  A chance to figure out what labels, if any, really fit.  Better throw “telecommuter” and “remote worker” into the mix.  Those are the ones, come Monday morning, that matter most.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?

Celestial Happenings

Science fiction used to be the mainstay of my reading. Unlike a true fan, I was never exclusively devoted to it—my tastes are far too eclectic to be contained by any genre. Nevertheless, at a used book sale, on a whim, I picked up Frederik Pohl’s The Day the Martians Came. It had a cool looking spaceship on the cover, and I recognized his name from my childhood reading. I prepared myself for an adventure. Instead I found a disillusioned tale of humans and their foibles, many of them religious. Many tales, in fact. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised to find out that this was originally a set of discrete short stories later laced together into a novel. The point, it seems, would be appropriate to Qohelet. Human beings run around doing their pointless things and failing to communicate with one another. That much was true to life.

The Martians, who are more evolved and intelligent than humans, but who appear to be mere docile animals, are discovered near Christmas. Much is made of the fact that humans still celebrate Christmas on Mars. And, if you can cut through all of the snark, there’s also a message that we like to live out our prejudices whenever possible. So the humans, excited about Martians being transported back to earth, try to take advantage of each other any way they can. Some of the most complex of the stories involve religious leaders who dismiss science and assert mystical knowledge of these extraterrestrials. These leaders, of course, are only after the money of the gullible. They’re playing the popularity circuit, or running cults, and the clueless are drawn to them. And so the book isn’t really about Martians at all, but about human folly. Mainly religion.

Science fiction means different things to different people. In a used bookstore I noticed Neil Gaiman under science fiction. As much as I enjoy his work, I’d classify it as general literature instead. Genres are there to help us find related material. The name Frederik Pohl and the word “Martians” in the title suggest science fiction, but the book itself doesn’t really meet the criteria. At least for me. Perhaps it’s because we’ve landed rovers on Mars and are now talking about a human expedition. Mars has become somewhat less exotic. Religion, meanwhile, continues to churn and muddy the waters. Not always as cynical as the leaders seem to be in this book, nevertheless they are part of the discussion since once we get off this planet we’re going to have foreign deities with which to deal. Whether we respond with snark or science fiction is entirely up to us.

Good, Evil, and Normal

GoodOmensTo date I’ve read a fair number of Neil Gaiman novels. One of my students started me out on American Gods and I pursued his others on my own after that. I was a little unsure about Good Omens, however. I guess I’ve always been dubious about the quality of co-written books. Terry Pratchett, an accomplished novelist in his own right, paired up with Gaiman on this one, and it took the wisdom of another student, albeit recently graduated, to assure me that it was worth the effort. Given that it’s about the apocalypse, or perhaps an apocalypse that doesn’t quite take off, there seemed to be no reason not to give it a try. It is, at the end of the day, a charming book with colorful characters and an Antichrist who gets switched at birth and grows up in a normal household and herein lies the tale.

One of the most common religious themes in novels is the end of the world. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are one of the most striking literary tropes of the first century, if not of all time. The real question about the end of the world, it turns out, is—why can’t it be funny? For those who’ve pondered that, Good Omens is the book for you. It actually does help, however, if you’ve read the Bible. It adds to the cumulative effect. Subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Witch, the book revolves around the certainty of the written word. Prophecy, however, just as in the book, only achieves verisimilitude in retrospect. The prophets didn’t always get it right, even in the Bible. Human choice often causes a breakdown in divine plans. In Good Omens, you’re pretty sure from the beginning that the world won’t end, but you’re not quite sure how it won’t end. The unfolding of the story eventually addresses how a prophecy can fail.

Free will, those who specialize in theology and philosophy will say, is among the more difficult of phenomena to pin down. Some predestinarians would say it’s all an illusion. We are programmed to do what we do. Ironically, some reductionistic materialists would say the same thing. Each of us, however, trudging through out days of toil and play, feels like we’re making our own decisions. True enough, sometimes circumstances decide for us, but if we were given the choice of good or evil, wouldn’t we approach it the way we approach just about everything else? Along the way, the demon Crowley asks a pointed, poignant question: why would God make people inquisitive and then forbid them some obvious, desirable fruit? Isn’t the conclusion foregone? Any writer today would know the outcome before the first sentence was finished. And so, free will is off and running. I hope that the fact that the world doesn’t end won’t be a spoiler for anyone, because I also hope that others will read Good Omens and learn a great deal about how demons can be good, angels can be naughty, and people will always just be people.

Write the Truth

XalliopePublication is a tricky business. Just ask my friend, K. Marvin Bruce. Marvin and I have known each other for years as he’s been trying to break into fiction publishing. I don’t envy him. His novel, Passion of the Titans, was under contract with an indie publisher who eventually reneged on their agreement. What can you do? As a supporter of publishers you don’t want to sue, so the novel is floating around again, looking for a home. Meanwhile, I was flattered to receive in my mailbox a copy of Calliope magazine. Calliope is published by the Writer’s Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd. Marvin’s story, “Initiating an Apocalypse,” won third place in their fiction open. Not only am I pleased for my friend, but I was glad to see his story was about gods. Zoroastrianism doesn’t get much attention these days, but Marvin’s tale is about a hapless professor who wants to start an apocalypse by using Zoroastrian deities. I won’t give any spoilers since I’m sure few people have read the story.

His tale has me thinking of gods in fiction. I suppose mainstream literary fiction avoids deities, but fantasy, science fiction, and horror all make good use of them from time to time. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods made quite a splash, and although Marvin has no hope of becoming a widely recognized name, his novel also features gods. It is a literary incarnation. We like to see gods in some ways limited to human circumstances. Omnipotence rarely makes for a good plot. In many respects the Bible attests to this. If God is omnipotent (which is not a claim the Bible actually makes) why can’t the world be a happier place? Indeed, the solution most fondly groped by theologians is either free will or a version of the Zoroastrian solution: a god who is evil. Enter the Devil.

The Devil is also undergoing a kind of literary renaissance. We find a plethora of books and movies starring the prince of darkness. Despite the panegyrics of rationalism delivered by angry atheists, nothing salves the human soul like a good supernatural entity. Fiction writers have long recognized that. Gaiman was not the first to make the gods do his bidding in literature. There is a likelihood that even Homer knew the appeal. Many people can accept that gods might exist, and they certainly don’t object to stories in which they cavort. Fiction, as literary analysts know, teaches us about reality. The characters may not be literally true, but the fact is that in our minds there is still plenty of room for gods. And, if you one of the rare ones to read Marvin’s story, you’ll see that, true to human experience, deities don’t act as we expect them to. Savvy publishers, it seems to me, would do well to recognize the appeal of the gods.