Tag Archives: New Jersey Star-Ledger

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Publish or Perish

Working in publishing, I’m well aware of the stresses of the information industry. Jobs frequently evaporate as new, less formal ways of spreading ideas develop. To the typical academic what a university press offers is the secret knowledge of where to send their monograph to get it printed and bound. As if a printer and spiral binder weren’t available at the local Kinko’s. Oh, wait. Kinko’s doesn’t exist any more. You can do most of this at your own university anyway. With 3-D printers you might even be able to print a reader. No, what academic presses have to offer is credibility. If we’re honest we’ll admit that some presses are known for publishing just about anything sent to them while others are selective. The selective presses are often considered the more reliable since they set up the highest hurdles and accept only materials that come as close to being true facts as information can. Self publishing, as might be expected, has muddied the waters.

The same is true in book publishing’s cousin, the newspaper industry. As analysts point out, you can get whatever “news” you want from social media. With varying levels of truth. Stop and think about the people you knew in high school. Those who tend to friend you on Facebook. Would you trust them for accurate news? This has become all the more important because our government is now in the business of fabricating facts. Fact checking is too much work and besides, who has time? It’s easier just to believe lies than it is to buy a copy of the New York Times. Newspapers, you see, used to offer the same thing as the academic press—credibility. The New York Times and the National Enquirer are two different things—you could tell at a glance. Now it’s hard to tell where the news originates.

img_3186-copy

This point was made by Deborah Lev in a recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The real problem is our nation’s founders presumed that democracy would work for informed voters. Yes, there were difficulties with the way the system was set up. It was based on privilege and convention. We’ve finally, in theory, gotten to the point that any citizen of a certain age can vote, but we have no requirements for ability to discern the issues. That would be elitist. And we have eroded the traditional sources of attaining quality information—publishers of all sorts are struggling. For some topics self-published books outstrip traditionally published tomes by a fair margin. You can’t believe everything you read. Don’t take my word for it. I’m open to fact-checking. Just be careful where you reap your facts, because not all facts are created equal.

Paying off College

img_2985
“Want College to Pay off?” the headline asks. It depresses me. I’m an unapologetic idealist. Cost-benefit analysis has its place, but that’s not all there is to education. Or better yet, cost-benefit analysis isn’t just about money. The article has suggestions for finding good paying jobs, which is what higher education is all about these days. Getting an education to increase knowledge and to benefit society in that way has become the mark of true naivety. We tell our kids not to study the arts, humanities, or literature since there are no jobs in these fields. We want them to be able to survive in a culture that has cool devices but which has lost its soul. Pretty strange for an institution (or “industry”) that began primarily to study theology.

The earliest universities focused on the then-related fields of law and theology. Since people took religion seriously, this was not the mere diversion that it is today. There are those counter-cultural warriors who study theology to take parishes to combat their increasing irrelevance, but really, the study of law and theology parted ways long ago. Neither one guarantees the return on investment that they used to. Society’s interests are in racing ahead with technology—discovering even faster ways to text while driving, or better ways to ignore those walking down the street with you. Or making money so you can build large towers in major cities and name them after yourself. We call that success. Thinking deeply about an issue, looking at it from multiple angles, and critically assessing it, these are “luxuries” that aren’t “worth” studying. College must, as the headlines say, pay off.

The rapidity with which this has transpired is truly amazing. We allow electronics to drive our culture. Who has time to keep up with all the posts, tweets, and grams that populate every second of every hour? We crowd-sourced knowledge into some great wikipedia of human experience that substitutes for taking time to look closely and think through the implications. It’s not that I despise technology—I use it quite happily daily—it’s just that I think there’s something more. I studied ancient religions and I see many of those archaic patterns beginning to repeat themselves in electronic format. It’s as if by replacing theology with technology we’ve lost sight of just a piece of what kept progress moving forward. Maybe I need to go back to college. I’m just not sure of the cost-benefit analysis.

Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

Holy Oak

IMG_2876 copy

It was already ancient when first discovered by the early European colonists of New Jersey. The Basking Ridge oak is a well-known and time-honored New Jersey denizen. Over six centuries old, the white oak, it seems, is dying. Like it’s cousin, the Swamp Oak that I mentioned back in January, this tree is dear to many in the state. It is also historical. An article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger begins with some religious associations: George Whitefield, one of the evangelists responsible for “the Great Awakening” from which we’re still trying to awaken, preached under this very tree. George Washington also knew it. It has been tended and cared for by the town for so long that there is a reluctance to let it go. In the words of another New Jerseyan, “well everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” Job, in a more optimistic moment, declared, “there is hope for a tree.” Like the Good Book, the good folk of Jersey wax religious about this sexcentarian, and for good reason. The human outlook is far too short.

Think, for example, of what was happening when the Basking Ridge oak was a mere acorn. In the early 1400s there were no Protestants yet. That didn’t stop Jan Hus and Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake, however. Although the Vikings, and perhaps others, had ventured here from across the ocean, North America was blissfully unaware of those waiting to claim for their own any land they could set foot on. Good thing too. The Inquisition was still underway and witch trials lingered on, flying in the face of enlightenment. Cambridge and Oxford University Presses were, in some sense, neophyte businesses. This Eurocentric view overlooks the great achievement of Machu Picchu down south. As the Dark Ages were beginning to lighten, this oak began its life’s journey. We who are a mere blink of its slow eye are still spouting hate for those who are different and are determined that nobody should outlive us.

The Holy Oak, as it is known, stands beside a Presbyterian Church. One of the trustees of the church is in charge of the tree. In the article he stated that this is about eternal life. From our perspective, trees seem to live forever. That’s because we are so dreadfully short-sighted. It’s surprisingly easy to become nostalgic for a tree so old. In terms of accomplishment, we think humans are exceptional for surviving a century of all the misfortune we dish out for one another. The tree, however, seems innocent by comparison. We’re changing the climate even now, making it more difficult for trees to thrive. We continue to shoot people for the color of their skin and although we don’t call it witch-hunting any more we still find ways of oppressing anyone who is different. At this rate we may need six more centuries to come to our senses. If only we had the perspective of a tree.

Rainbow Nation

By now I suppose it’s old news that North Carolina has joined the wall of ignominy as the latest state to try to discriminate against gays. It seems our aging leadership just doesn’t get it that a large majority of people in the younger generation just don’t have a problem with accepting homosexuals for who they are. Laws are generally still made by old white men, though. One might be tempted to say “good ole boys.” They may make the claim that this is political, but as one astute editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out, this is about religion. The editorial, which ran on Saturday, notes that studies have shown that when people learn a law sequestered under “religious freedom” is actually discriminatory, the law loses support. The government by the people thing seems to be working backwards. What will it take for elected officials to realize that we are a rainbow nation? And rainbows, according to the Bible, are good.

MyFavoriteNoah

I’m always amazed at these attempts to turn the clock back. It is the season of “spring forward” is it not? Religions that have a problem with homosexuality also have an unscientific understanding of human sexuality as well. Not one person in the Bible had a clear idea of how conception worked. If they didn’t understand the facts of life, how can we expect to learn the life of facts from them? What amazes me most is that such views don’t take the whole picture into account. Intersex individuals—of whom there are many—demonstrate that easy definitions of gender are sure to be wrong. Even tying the concept of gender to sex seems to be misguided. And yet we pass laws the favor a first-century understanding of what it means to be human.

In the end what will change the minds of the corporations will not be their heads or their hearts. The decision will be made by their backsides where their wallets will be growing a bit lighter as corporations decide to take their facilities elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary on our society when justice isn’t enough to strike down a prejudicial law. It takes money to do that. It is a strange world indeed where it take lucre to lead to light.

Measuring Religion

How do you measure the religiosity of a people? While the boundaries of the United States are somewhat porous, internally, we nevertheless still consist of somewhat self-governing states. One measure of religious belief is to take your metrics by state. Of course, some people—perhaps many—owe their state of residence to their work and not their natural choice. You’re judged by the company you keep, regardless. So when the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a front page piece about religion in the Garden State last week, I was intrigued. I do spend quite a few of my waking hours in the neighboring New York, but for statistical purposes (and taxes and tuition) I’m considered a New Jerseyan. So what’s the damage?

IMG_2702

The story is actually about a Pew survey undertaken last year. New Jersey, it seems, ranks 19th from the top when it comes to religious states. Ranging from Alabama as the most religious to New Hampshire as the least, the measures of devotion are four: do you attend worship, do you pray frequently, do you believe in God, and do you profess yourself religious? Each of these questions provides its own set of problems when it comes to being an actual measure of someone’s commitment to religion. I maintain, as I often declare on this blog, that religion is one of those non-quantifiable aspects of life. It cannot be measured accurately because the tangibles are immeasurable. Deep commitment may be found among those who don’t frequently attend worship. What if your religion is a very private affair? And besides, doesn’t all of this measuring sound like a locker room contest?

As a nation, we spend a lot of time worrying about how religious we are or aren’t. Since such events as presidential elections have hinged on candidates’ piety since I’ve been old enough to vote, that’s understandable, I suppose. Nevertheless, such surveys are about surface belief. I recall in college being told that if your living space didn’t have enough evidence to convict you, you weren’t really religious at all. I know I’ve got quite a few Bibles laying around, and although we rent, we do have some religious artwork on our walls and mantle. I blog about religion daily. Still, I wonder where I might fall on some survey designed to tell me how religious I am. Such things can’t be measured with surveys, but in situations where the stakes are so high, we will do what we can to understand the imponderable.