Tag Archives: New York City

Religion in the City

It’s 5 a.m., so what are all these people doing here?  On the highway.  It’s still dark and I’m on my way to the choice of public transit that will take me to New York City.  You see, telecommuting is never 100% city-free.  Somehow I’d been thinking that once we’d gotten away from New York things would be quieter.  Then I remembered that in two decades, if current trends and models continue, nearly half of the US population will live in just eight states.  New York and Pennsylvania are two of them.  Those of us who’ve moved here to get out of the rat race have made our own little mouse race, I guess.

Being in the city after an absence of almost three weeks was a shock to the system.  The first things I noticed were how loud and crowded it was.  In the summer Manhattan has, I was forcefully reminded, lots more tourists than the winter months when it feels like, as one comrade says, Leningrad.  As always when I’m in the masses on the streets, I think about how religious New York City is.  And how secular.  It is, I suspect, a cross-section of American (and international) beliefs.  People come here looking for something transcendent.  Otherwise, why leave home?  Tourism can be a sacred industry.  It brings people from different places together and, in the best of circumstances, forces them to get along with one another.

There are plenty who seek to convert those who are different.  On my way to Penn Station last night, as the light was beginning to fade in Herald Square, I woman had set up a portable mic and speakers.  She was preaching, ignored, to the evening crowds.  Among the strangers are those who believe differently.  Those who are ripe for conversion.  It’s all part of New York’s background hymn.  Then on the sidewalk I spied, scrawled in chalk, “Repent and obey Jesus — Heb 5:9;” the writing on the walk.  “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” the selected verse reads.  We can overlook that it says nothing about repenting.  This is, after all, the melting pot where religions encounter, mingle, and blend.  Even the Fundamentalists must feel it from time to time.  The traffic home at 10:30 p.m. is quieter.  The day, I will learn, is not over yet.  Such is religion in the city.

Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?

A New Look

I beg the indulgence of my regular readers as I post a public service entry today. As I noted a few weeks back, I have filled the allotted free space on WordPress. That meant I had to move to a paid plan and what with all the extra space in here I hired a professional web-designer to help me spruce the place up a bit. This note is to let you know that within the next 24 hours the appearance of this website will change dramatically. Don’t worry, Sects and Violence in the Ancient World will still be part of it. I hope that, if you subscribe, you’ll be willing to move that subscription to the blog page because I’ll continue to use it. The new home page will allow me to attempt to bring my books to the attention of the world while continuing to do whatever it is I do on a daily basis here at the blog. Since you’ve been kind enough to read this far, I figured I could share a little of my thinking about the blog in an exercise in meta-narrative.

First of all, the title. Why do I call the blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World”? As much as I’d like to say it was an intentional quasi-anagram involving my initials and other key letters of my full name, that wasn’t actually it. This blog began as a summertime conversation with my extended family while on vacation. I hardly knew what a blog was then (and some would argue I clearly don’t know what one is even now!), but but brother-in-law suggested it as a place to do some podcasting. (I did, until I started working in New York City, which ate up virtually all of my free time during the week.) One of my nieces said “What would you call your blog?” Off the top of my head I said “Sects and Violence,” well, you know the rest. I originally had hopes that my career teaching ancient West Asian religions would continue some day. Indeed, I still post in that area, but my interests have shifted a bit since then. The main theme of the blog has remained religious studies, broadly conceived. I don’t limit myself to that, but I do use it as a personal pole-star.

Writing is its own reward. And besides, WordPress told me I’d run out of space. The next time you check in here, things will probably look a bit different. The blog will still be there, but there will be some other pages and features. Thanks for coming at least part way on the journey with me. And when I run out of space again, we’ll see where it goes from there.

Dreaming Reality

It was like that dream—you know, the one where you find a penny on the sidewalk, stoop down to pick it up, and discover that there are hundreds more of them. Maybe that’s the kind of thing those born in humble circumstances dream of, but we all recognize the draw of a windfall. People are pretty tight with their money in Manhattan, but it was early in the morning, still dark, and rainy when I saw it. A hundred dollar bill on the ground. Then I noticed more—a while bunch of them. When I reached down to pick one up, it came apart in my hand. Of course, it was a novelty replica of an actual piece of currency. When I walk through the garment district I often find great swatches of scrap cloth that have spilled out of designers’ trash bags. I’m tempted, I’ll confess, to pick them up and save them for future use. Nevertheless, this hundred dollar bill wasn’t what it appeared to be. Many things aren’t.

Religions around the world are predicated on the fact that what seems to be real isn’t. Even long before The Matrix came along. The idea that what occurs in our heads—or to use more conventional religious language, our hearts or souls—is truly real automatically takes us a step away from material reality. It’s not to say that this soggy, pulpy piece of paper in my hand has no existence, but it simply isn’t what it pretends to be. On mornings when the fates are all synched just so, I’ll look out the window of the bus from the helix and see Manhattan laid out in front of me like a picture postcard. “It’s not real,” I whisper to myself. Unlike the tourist in awe during a first visit to the city, I actually mean it. This concrete, glass, and steel world is not real. I’d feel a bit exposed suggesting such a thing on this blog had I not the biggest names in world religions behind me. One thing that they all seem to agree upon is that reality isn’t just what we experience in this corporeal vehicle that we currently call home.

Religion has been called the opium of the people. Marx wasn’t the first to suggest that the more needy among us were the driving force behind belief. Nevertheless, belief is present in all forms of thinking from extreme rationalism to naive acceptance of what your parents told you. The thing about religion is that it conscientiously advocates belief. It admits up front that it holds certain things to be true. One of those beliefs happens to be that things are not what they appear to be. Here in Manhattan we’re all so busy rushing around that who has the time to stop and think like that? I frequently walk past Holy Innocents church on my way to work. I may function, in this world, as an editor of biblical studies, but as I pass that edifice to a faith to which I don’t even belong, I feel the draw. Inside those doors—and I know this is true because I can sometimes hear the bells—a different reality awaits. Out here there may be hundreds of dollars scattered on the ground. When you look closer, however, you discover that they’re not what they appear to be.

Power in the Bus

“You’re not in control on a bus” my friend Marvin once wrote, in his short story “O Driver.” The commuter is the consummate captive. I don’t like to beat dead horses—we might need all the horses we can get before this is all done—but some commuters need to learn silence is golden. I take a very early bus with some hope that we might beat the inevitable traffic jams coming into New York in the morning. Every minute counts. Some people, however, feel compelled to comment when they think the bus is early. They’re already sitting on the bus, so what’s the problem? There’s another coming in 30 minutes and those of us concerned with getting in before the traffic make a point of being at the bus stop, well, early. The other day a guy got in at the stop after mine. He told the driver that the bus was running early (it actually wasn’t) but the driver obligingly sat for several minutes. The commuter’s always right, right? We got into the Port Authority late that morning. All because of one man’s mouth and his inability to keep it shut. I wonder why they even have that sign saying not to talk to the driver. That only applies when the bus is in motion. So…

The very next day the driver on the route was new. She was on time. Until. To understand this, you need to know my route is an express—it is entirely highway except for one short jog into another town about 10 miles down the road. My driver was doing great. “You missed the turn,” another passenger said. The driver apologized. A three-point-turn in a bus just isn’t possible on the highway, so she had to drive to an exit, wait for the light, and turn around. We were now speeding west, heading to New York City. The passenger, now acting as GPS, didn’t know this area very well. “Take the next exit,” she instructed. The driver dutifully did. It was a ramp with no reentry to the highway. We were touring rural New Jersey for some time before the driver found a place to make another U-turn. “Missing the turn,” the passenger now said, “That turn’s inconsequential. There’s another bus that comes just after this one.” She’s right. No less than three routes into New York follow that jog. But it was too late for us now. Finding our way to the highway, we again headed west. This time our driver took the correct exit, apologizing all the way. The next day we had a new driver.

Actions have consequences. For each and every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. I learned the latter in physics class. The former is a life lesson that might properly be called the mother of morality. When you talk on the bus you’re taking charge of about fifty lives. It has become clear to me through my years of commuting that most people shouldn’t have that kind of power.

Urban Evolution

They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.

I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.

Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.

Odd One Out

The older I get, the more I realize I’m the one that’s weird. Go ahead and say it, “You’re just now figuring this out?!” This epiphany came to me on a stiff breeze. To understand you have to get the idea of commuting on New Jersey Transit. Although twice in one week my route was blessed with a brand new bus, the general operating procedure is to use the oldest, least reliable buses on my route. It is one of the longest routes the company runs into New York City, which means that it is one of the most expensive. You’d think they’d use their best buses, but then you’d be thinking like me. Breakdowns aren’t as frequent as they had been for a while, but other discomforts are fairly common. Just this past week, for instance the heat was stuck on high. Add about 50 bodies to an enclosed, overheated space, and well, let your imagination go.

Now interstate buses aren’t like the school species. The windows don’t open. There are, however, two escape hatches in the ceiling. When I got on board I noticed immediately that it was a sauna bus. The last time this happened (and yes, this wasn’t a unique situation in my experience) passengers opened the escape hatches to create a breeze. Problem was, it was winter this time. The day was struggling to reach 40 degrees outside. As we hit the highway the wind was blowing full against those in my row and I learned what wind chill really can be. There wasn’t much traffic, so the bus was tooling along at about 65. I could feel my left eye beginning to freeze up. My book pages were flapping wildly in my blue-tipped fingers. The personal nor’easter cut right through my winter coat. In my row we were lined up like eskimos, all bundled up. There were no free seats to which we might move. I couldn’t reach the hatch to close it. Nobody said anything.

Here’s where the weirdness comes in. As I child I was raised being taught that true believers think of others first. Other people may not see it, but I consciously try very hard in subtle ways to make sure others get what they need before me. I’m learning not everyone necessarily thinks that way. If I had a degree in fluid dynamics I might be able to describe airflow on a speeding bus. Instead, let me put it this way: the guy who opened the hatch was sitting in the row in front of it, out of harm’s way. The icy blast didn’t hit him, but it did everyone behind him. Passengers tend to think of themselves first. I’m sure I do, too. Just trying to get home after a trying day of work is, well, trying. It’s just that some folks try not to do things that cause others pneumonia, no matter how warm they feel. But then, I’m the odd one, I know.