Planet A

Two of the classics of ecology, A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, and The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, were published by Oxford University Press. In its present-day iteration the press has a Green Committee, on which I’ve sat from very nearly the beginning of my time there. As a committee, we’re reading these classics to see what we might learn some half-century-plus after they were published. I’d never read A Sand County Almanac before. It’s a pity, since I lived in southeast Wisconsin, from which the book takes its genesis, for about a dozen years. The writing is poetical prose, but the ideas are solid science—the land on which we’ve evolved knows how to take care of itself. When one species becomes too greedy, all suffer. Leopold ends his book by suggesting a land ethic should be put in place. Now, a human lifespan later, has it?

Hardly. Watching the Trump Administration doing everything it can to commodify any aspect of the environment that might make a buck—or at least a buck for the wealthy—is alarming in the extreme. There is no soul in the land, to this way of thinking. They believe that because they themselves lack a functional soul. A soul cannot exist without ethics. What we do to this planet is one of the largest ethical issues imaginable. No species, rational or not, destroys its own habitat. Except our own. Arrogant to the point of supposing ourselves divine, we think we can take what we want and give nothing back. And everything will be just fine. I wonder that we’ve had this inexpensive, readable guidebook this last seven decades and have continued to ignore its sage advice. Maybe we’re too busy making money to read something that sounds suspiciously like poetry.

One of the observations I had about the Almanac was how attuned to the philosophy of nature it is. Philosophy has many enemies these days, from prominent scientists to Republicans. Nobody seems to value the capacity for deep and thorough thinking through of a problem that is unbeholden to any orthodoxy. The philosopher can ask “what if?” without regret. When it comes to the environment, humans aren’t the only philosophers. We’ve convinced ourselves so completely that we’re more advanced than other species that we suppose they can’t teach us anything. One thing they do, however, without our interference, is create balance in nature. It’s an ethic to which even our species might aspire. If only we would listen to the wisdom of those who pay attention to the world that has given them life.

Biblical Literature

HB as LitIt must be difficult to write a Very Short Introduction. Although the series is published by Oxford University Press, I’m not being a shill. As someone who writes the equivalent of several of these little books a year, I imagine it must be nearly impossible to confine what you need to say to such a small space. I recently read The Hebrew Bible as Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Tod Linafelt, and I imagined the anguish of my colleague as he had to decide what to leave out. Professors these days appreciate short books because there is an actual chance that students might read them. The Bible itself is intimidating as a textbook—massive and brooding as it is. Then, in addition to the Ding an Sich, the instructor also has to provide interpretive tools. One of the most common these days is that of the Bible as literature.

This obvious assignment is not without dispute, however. Literature is defined by some as a secular category. The Bible, as a set of one, is a holy book. That is to say, it can’t be considered literature at all. As a collection of written texts, however, the Bible can be understood as a literary venture as well as a sacerdotal one, and for many schools this is the only way the Bible can be legally taught. Not only that, but almost all scholars now realize that, protestations aside, the Bible is literature. It is one of the great books of the western canon. Civilization for huge swaths of the planet was based, in some way, on this book (the Bible, that is). Understanding it as literature is the venture of a lifetime, and condensing that down to an easily digestible Very Short Introduction is no mean task. Linafelt performs his duty admirably. The basics of prose and poetry are covered, as well as their interaction. The examples he chooses are compelling and I learned quite a bit myself, even having taught the Bible many years.

As I read, it struck me that the main objection to the Bible as literature revolves around the concept of truth. Linafelt raises this question early, and it stayed with me throughout the book. In a kind of sacred exceptionalism, “Bible believers” treat literature literally. Ironically, this can lead to grave misunderstandings. Truth, however, is a difficult concept to pin down. Many people equate literature with fiction and truth with fact. Truth is actually a bit more fluid than that. As any poet knows, some truths can’t be expressed in prose. Or history. Or philosophy. And some truths are best expressed in fiction. That brings us back to literature as a form of truth. I suppose that’s a good thing too, because were I to write much more I might be in danger of accidentally composing a Very Short Introduction. As long as I’m being a shill, just consider this a very short introduction to a Very Short Introduction.

Psalms of Lament

Fate can be decidedly cruel sometimes.  Accidental discoveries can be the most painful of all.  As my regular readers know, I wrote a book on the Psalms (Weathering the Psalms, Wipf & Stock—on sale now!) while teaching at Nashotah House seminary.  I sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press, and it was declined on the basis of one review.  Subsequently, I met the reviewer at a conference reception and he is now working on a book proposal for me.  Such are the ironies of life.  I can let that go with a chuckle of existentialist bonhomie.  The twist of fate comes in through helping a colleague with a question about the Psalms.  I grabbed the nearest book at work that would help, the newly published Oxford Handbook of the Psalms.  I’d glanced through it before, but this time it fell open to the contributor’s page and the words “Nashotah House” fell upon my eye.

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During my years at the seminary, I published at least one academic article a year, as well as a book, and I attended and delivered papers at the major professional conference every year.  No one ever approached me about contributing to a Handbook, apart from my advisor and friend Nick Wyatt.  I labored at building an academic career for 14 years in obscurity.  Now, the newly hired replacement (not the faculty member hired to replace me) gets invited to contribute to a major reference work.  I do not know the man.  He may be a perfectly personable chap.  Some of us, however, can work our hardest and never get noticed.  It seems as if the world of scholarship is really just a house of cards. 
 
Perhaps in times of schlock and flaw, such as these, I should turn to Ecclesiastes for comfort, rather than Psalms.  Yes, the Psalms say some pretty challenging things to God—not as challenging as Job or Jeremiah, but still.  Ecclesiastes, however, is the one to calm the intellectual’s soul.  There are those who claim that the Bible no longer has any utility in a post-Christian society.  Wise Qohelet, I’m sure, might just agree, even as he disagrees.  I tried, without benefit of sabbatical, and with additional administrative duties, to make an academic life for myself.  I was, in reality, just shuffling the deck with old Solomon.  We took turns building layer upon layer, he and I, both knowing that our house, like any built on sand, could never stand.  It must be some of that sand in my eyes; otherwise I can’t explain why they are watering so.

Sects for You

Oxford University Press has a religion blog. (Well, who doesn’t these days?) Apart from being jealous about their numbers, I find some of the posts fascinating. A recent entry by Linda Woodhead on the approval of women bishops in the Church of England was particularly well done. Woodhead is known for her in-depth knowledge of religiosity in Britain, and she begins her post with a distinction between two types of churches that I find most helpful. She mentions the “church type” that embraces society and tends to have less trouble keeping up with social changes, and the “sect type” that insists on keeping a long distance from the evils of society. She points out how the Church of England went from the former to the latter and how its numbers have subsequently declined. Her article made me realize that for much of my life I’ve found myself among the “sect type” believers. Fundamentalists, among whom I grew up, are naturally suspicious of the world. Grove City College, where I cut my critical teeth, was dead-set against change. And Nashotah House—need I utter more than its very name?

Sects are indeed concerned about being right. Not only being right, but being the only ones who are right. I recall a New Testament class in seminary at Boston University where an unnamed professor said, “If anyone can join, what’s the draw? Barriers are important.” Christianity, he claimed, grew strong by excluding others. This professor would have a difficult time being retained by many seminaries today. The “church type” church realizes that without embracing society it will embrace empty collection plates. Unless, of course, you court conservative political causes, for which there seem to be bottomless pockets of money available. Sects thrive on the feeling of superiority. Knowing that we got it right and everyone else got it wrong is cause for great rejoicing. Others are encouraged to join, just as long as they jettison their point of view. We are the Borg.

It is no wonder that religions struggle in a world with the Internet. Too much information, 24/7. Religions you’ve never heard of are suddenly right there at your fingertips, and the believers are sincere and convinced. Some are sects and some are churches. Some are open to any belief system while others have just what the (church) doctors prescribed. To me this raises a fundamental question of religion: what is its purpose? Is it to seek the truth, or is it to exclude others and make members feel special? Truth is an expensive commodity. Indeed, nobody has a universally accepted version of it yet. While some religious believers will not rest while the search continues, others made up their minds centuries ago. And those believers use sects to get what they want.

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Peretz Partensky, Wikimedia Commons

Silver and Gold

“He has also set eternity in the human heart,” old Ecclesiastes lamented at the end of the most famous passage in his book, noting that it is nevertheless impossible to conceive. We mark the passing of time in centuries. I suppose we like a good round number, but it is also a convenient frame since few of us make it much beyond the century post, so we can keep it in our eye as a reminder of how long we might have left. Life has held more fear for me than death, so I approached and passed my fiftieth birthday without much anxiety. When it comes to others, however, the caviler perspective soon fades. Centuries are important. And so are halves. And so are quarters. At twenty-five the world stretches endlessly before you. But to what have we really committed to twenty-five years? How much have we changed in that time? Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The “silver” anniversary they call it. Although I’m not much of a Hallmark kind of guy, the fact that one woman has put up with me for a quarter century continues to amaze me, and we had made plans for a grand celebration. Then Routledge slashed my job. Fortunately, Oxford University Press came to the rescue.

Ah, but with provisional requisites. You see, I had saved a week’s worth of vacation so that I might spend my anniversary at home (or on a little trip) with my wife. Publishers do not get the week between Christmas and New Years’ off. While our academic counterparts are sleeping late and spending time with their families, we’re rising early, commuting into the City, and sending emails that won’t been seen for a few weeks at least. Business rules. Routledge took away my accumulated vacation days, carefully squirreled away during the long year, and since I’m a new hire at Oxford, I haven’t earned any vacation yet. Twenty-five years, and I can’t even give my wife a day. Silver in a world defined by gold. It’s not easy being married to me.

I began work at age 14. With a single exception I have never quit a job. I am a very hard worker and I have never had a performance review that did not say as much. Since Nashotah House set about ending my academic career, I have suffered through three dismissals, all following very positive reviews. You may be forty, forty-five, or fifty, but you are starting over again. Bottom of the pay scale, bottom of vacation days earned. Child in college and eternity in your heart, you have to watch those pennies and be to the office on time. Nobody’s stopping you from going to a nice restaurant (as long as it’s not too expensive), but the bus will drop you off about 7 p.m. and you’d better be asleep two hours after that so that you’re not groggy at work the next day. My old friend, Ecclesiastes, you are wiser than your years. And Kay, thanks for an amazing quarter century. I know of nobody else who would’ve put up with it.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Away as a Stranger

I’ll admit it. One of the things many scholars secretly enjoy about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is discount rates at fancy hotels. Unless things have changed drastically since my teaching days, professors don’t make enough to spend nights at four-star hotels as a matter of course. This year, however, Routledge pulled the rug out from under me less than a month before the conference. I had to cancel my reservation and forget the dreams of a leisurely train ride to Baltimore, a nice walk to a luxury hotel, and four days of schmoozing with the intellectuals (or at least those who are considered smart enough to write books). Then, Oxford University Press. I started work on Monday, and by Friday I was attending AAR/SBL. But with a twist. All the hotels were full—not a room in Bethlehem, I mean, Baltimore. So I had to find a run-down hotel several miles away and drive four hours to get there frazzled and decidedly unacademic. Still, map is not territory.

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Getting back to the hotel from the Convention Center, I had technology issues. You see, I didn’t have time to plan the trip out this year. I had no maps, figuring my smartphone was more intelligent than I (I don’t set a very high bar). Alas, for the GPS on my phone knows Baltimore less well than me, apparently. When the scenery turned industrial and I could see the ocean although my hotel is miles west of the city, I knew I was loss. My GPS, groping for dignity, kept instructing me to make u-turns on the interstate. Finally, I pulled off an exit and tried to use dead reckoning. Baltimore, like most cities, has problem areas. My GPS took me on a tour of them, as darkness was falling. Boarded up row houses leered at me as I took each turn the phone dictated. I noticed with alarm that the low battery indicator had come on and I was nowhere near anything that looked like a conference center, highway, hotel, or even Salvation Army. I had trusted technology, and it had let me down. Finally, with 8 percent battery power remaining, I spied my seedy hotel in the distance. I was never so relieved.

I have attended this conference since 1991 (I’ll leave the reader to do the math), and only one year did I not stay at a conference hotel. I think I remember why. People are discarded here. Entire cities left to crumble. Without a map, I witnessed territory that I’d rather not have seen. My academic friends, I know, were tipping back a glass, knowing that they had only to find the elevators to be home. Map is territory. And the terrain is untamed. We have created our urban jungles, and it will take more than a GPS to get our way through them. Tomorrow I will try again, if my trembling fingers can find the ignition, so that I can drive to where the more fortunate dwell. Some dreams are best left undreamt.

Oxford’s Hire

In 1478 the first book printed in Oxford heralded the eventual founding of Oxford University Press. Just two years earlier Vlad III, the Impaler, had been assassinated. In 1478 the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Spain. Just over a century earlier, the Black Death decimated the population of Europe. Things looked a bit dark at that time. Nicolaus Copernicus, however, was five years old in 1478 and the Enlightenment was just around the corner. The printing press had been, well, hot off the press for just a couple of decades at the time. The University of Oxford had been around for nearly four centuries already, making it one of the oldest and most prestigious centers of learning in the world. Oxford University Press early on began the business of printing Bibles and shedding light on a world where things were somewhat dim. Progress often brings misery with it, but the idea that a literate public stood a better chance of improvement bore an optimism that has occasionally been realized, even in free market times. I’m very glad for Oxford University Press.

These are among my thoughts as I prepare for my first day as Associate Editor for Bibles and Biblical Studies at Oxford University Press. It is a heady sensation. Bibles were among OUP’s first printing projects. As part of an increasingly secular society in an increasingly religious world, I’m aware of the power the Bible has had and still has. Love it or hate it, it has shaped this thing we call modern culture in ways both profound and facile. The opportunity to work in this division is sobering. A little unnerving, even.

John_Speed's_map_of_Oxford,_1605.

Ironically, my career has largely been Anglo-oriented. Perhaps it is because those based in England appreciate the solidity of a degree from Edinburgh University, although this is only speculation. Nashotah House was a profoundly anglophile institution, at least once upon a time it was. The founder of Gorgias Press had studied in both Oxford and Cambridge. Routledge is a British-based publishing house. Ironically, British culture is not as prone to Bible-reading as that of the United States. My jobs, which have largely focused on the Bible, have been British-oriented. I try to add it all up but get lost in the midst of the numbers. Call it first day jitters. Twenty-five years ago at this time I was preparing to get married and to move to Scotland. Little did I suspect that a quarter-century later I would be coming back to an ancient university of the United Kingdom again.