In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated. 

On a Jet Plane

So I’m heading to England.  Not for pleasure—this is a business trip.  Long ago, back when I worked for Routledge, I discovered that I dislike business travel.  Unlike vacation planning where the possibilities spread out beautifully before you—for this is free time and you decide—business travel is, like Peter was told, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”  Indeed.  Business travel is at the whim of the man, and you can’t really look forward to the sights, the relaxation, or even being given the choice of where to go.  You’re on assignment.  Or consignment, I can’t recall which.  The carefully honed routine with which you hold back the chaos of the world is blown apart.  It begins with the red eye.

You see, companies don’t like you to make your own travel plans.  You might chose a flight that’s pennies more expensive than some itinerary that routes you through Albuquerque at four a.m.  It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do, right?  And since you’re exempt, we’ll take your Sunday, gratis.  Where’s your team spirit?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a creature of habit.  The hour of the typical red eye is when I get up to write.  That can’t be done in an airport, or on a plane, where everyone can see you.  No, this is a private thing.  Everyone else must be asleep.  Most of them, preferably, in another house.  So I’m flying to London and catch a late-night bus to Oxford.

Part of my worry, dear readers, is you.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I’ve been in the habit of posting daily for many years.  Mostly at the same time—weekends and commuting days are exceptions, of course—and when you’re changing time zones you might do well to have Rod Serling with you.  I can’t figure them out.  British hotels, also, do not offer wifi in their rooms unless the boss wants you to pay extra for it.  And considering the mandated flight behavior, that’s best just taken off the table.  So, as I prepare to leave before sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, I don’t know if or when I’ll get to post over the next few days.  I won’t even know what time it is.  Like pay toilets, charging for internet access ought to be criminal these days.  But opportunities to take money are everywhere.  And those of us who travel for business always rely on the kindness of capitalists.

Relatively Unknown

The Edinburgh Festival draws people from around the world to experience culture and fun in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.  The festival also attracts the fringe—artists not associated directly with the festival, but who get included in what used to be a huge, thick catalogue that would keep us busy for hours, considering what a student and spouse could afford, and what you could not afford to miss.  One year a group called Outback was performing at an area church.  It featured Graham Wiggins on the didgeridoo—an Oceanic aboriginal instrument that is essentially a tree branch hollowed out by termites.  It’s so long ago now that I can’t recall if I knew ahead of time, but the leader of the group, the didgeridooist, was Graham Wiggins.  While not exactly a rare surname, Wiggins isn’t common either and when I saw him a strong family resemblance was immediately obvious.  So much so that after the concert we went to meet him only to find out his Wiggins side was from Oxfordshire.  Mine was from South Carolina.

Graham Wiggins, who was a month younger than me, was known as “Dr. Didg” because he held a D.Phil. in solid-state physics from Oxford University.  While an American, he had decided to stay in the UK to make a living from his music.  Some months later, on a Christmas break, we saw him busking in Bath on a chilly night.  We bought the band’s second CD from him that evening.  When my wife put on our Baka disc the other day, I grew curious whatever became of him.  I was surprised and saddened to learn that Graham Wiggins had died three years ago.  I knew we shared a surname and a family resemblance, as well as UK doctorates, but I learned he went to the British Isles from Boston University, which is where I had studied before attending Edinburgh.  He left the year I arrived.

Websites are reluctant to say of what Wiggins died.  I learned of this just days after finding out that a high school classmate had passed away, so mortality has been on my mind.  Wiggins, unlike this Wiggins, was a talented musician with a brilliant mind.  We saw him interviewed on television about the physics of didgeridoo playing.  I never did find out if we were distantly related.  The US Wiggins clan from South Carolina doesn’t have strong genealogical interests, although we know they started out in North Carolina many years ago.  It stands to reason they had come from England at some point, since it’s an English surname.  I only met Graham of the clan twice, but now I can’t get the fading didgeridoo sounds from my mind.

Biological Imperative

DiamondNothing used to make you feel smarter than being in a British bookstore. With that curious blend of proper, insane, and bawdy, books are displayed that you might find surprising. Alarming, even. Last year as I strolled around Blackwells in Oxford, I spied Why is Sex Fun?, by Jared Diamond. I mean, it was sitting right there, face-up, on a table with perfectly respectable, straight-laced books. Curious, but not curious enough to pick it up in a public place, I remembered the title so that I might find it on Amazon, where it could arrive in a nice, safe, opaque box. I finally stored up enough points on Amazon to get it, but then the problem was how to read it. I do a great deal of my reading on public transit—a place where you inordinately care what others might think of you. Finally, planning a seating strategy that would hide the cover by sitting on the left-hand side, next to the window, I took the book along, hoping it would keep me interested to and from work.

Subtitled The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the book isn’t salacious at all. It is scientific, but not clinical. I’ve mentioned before that all religions have something—quite a lot, usually—to say about sex. While religion doesn’t play into Diamond’s book, morality does. What I found interesting is his use of the phrase “God or Darwin,” which comes up a few places in the book. Diamond is a witty writer, and he explains that not all his phraseology is to be taken literally, but I appreciated his hedging his bets, nevertheless.

This book isn’t really titillating. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing. Perhaps it’s just phrasing again, but the production of offspring is described in economic terms. Resources, investment, efficiency, and the like. I think back to being a child. My family life wasn’t ideal, but I never thought of myself as anyone’s resource or investment. I was just me. That delusion stayed with me until I started working in the corporate world. I quickly discovered that others considered me a resource. “Human resources,” we call it. An investment. My efficiency was valued. Was it God or was it Darwin? Although I learned a lot from this little book, I wonder if it was worth the effort of having to hide the cover on the commute. After all, we’re all stuck together on this bus, units of investment, born to yield a profit. Why not have a little fun on the way?

Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

Strange Days

The flight from London to New York is eight hours. Although I always travel with books, sometimes the selection made before the actual reality of time on a plane turns out to be too academic. I read academic books on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York and back, but these trips are not so drawn out as the long flight across the Atlantic. Since my flight was departing Terminal 2 at Heathrow, I had trouble finding a bookstore. There are stores that sell books, but having been to Blackwell’s the day before, the selection was not inspiring. I wandered to the magazine section. Magazines can be good travel fodder since they don’t demand the rigors of a monograph, and glossy pictures always add to the appeal. But what to buy?

ForteanTimesLooking over the covers, I found one featuring vampires. It turned out to be the Fortean Times, but since I had a row to myself on the plane, I couldn’t see the harm in having a magazine about strange phenomena. I’d never actually read an issue of the Fortean Times before, although I had a general idea of what to expect. While it may seem odd, there is a pretty solid connection between the paranormal and religion. I’ve noticed this for years. Reading through the Fortean Times, it was clear that others have made the connection as well. Many of the articles, including the ones on vampires, touched on obvious religious themes and motifs. This was so much the case that I began to wonder if any kind of solid wall can be erected between the two.

Religion, broadly conceived, tends to be concerned with the non-material world. Its claims tend to defy empirical verification, and its subject matter is often at odds with science (at least in the mainstream). The paranormal is open to scientific investigation in that it tends to be based on secular claims. Like religion, however, it tends to dwell in the non-material realm. After all, vampires coming back from the dead is hardly a phenomenon that is readily recorded with any instrument beyond a Hollywood movie camera. Still, most religions are hostile to the paranormal, and investigators of the paranormal may be unconnected to religion. Both, however, are an engaging recipe for a long flight. Especially if nobody is sitting in the row next to you.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

Oxford Haunts

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When I travel, when I have time to plan, I like to visit the haunts of literary figures. It would be difficult to think of two more influential (or abbreviation-ridden) English writers than J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both Oxford men, they liked to drink, I believe, at the Lamb and Flag. I stopped by to see, but just in case it was actually the Eagle and Child, I back-tracked to see it as well. Post-war Oxford was a place for an academic to write, and C. S. Lewis has influenced an entire generation of evangelical fans who overlook his penchant for drinking, and J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have invented the perfect fodder for CGI animators. Perhaps there was something in the air. Although no less of a literary talent, it may be less common to hear Thomas Hardy’s name. He is rumored to have written Jude the Obscure, appropriately, mostly in this pub. Good to know there’s someone else so obscure, by definition. It’s hard not to feel scholarly in Oxford.

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I have to confess, I dressed the part. I wore my Harris Tweed jacket and my Edinburgh school tie. It was a beautiful spring day, the like of which were extremely rare in Scotland some two decades ago. Not knowing that my business trip would offer the opportunities to explore the city a little, I hadn’t done much homework. A colleague suggested I stop into St. John’s College to look at the gardens. They’re only open from 1 to 5, and I timed it right to get there shortly before closing. Students wandering out in jeans, staring at their smartphones, could have been students at any number of universities I’ve known. The setting was, however, quite beautiful. There seems to be evidence that they don’t walk on the lawn. Tradition is treated with considerable respect here. Although, upon closer look, graffiti does make an appearance now and again.

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As I was stepping out the door of St. John’s, a family from eastern Asia was coming in. It was near closing time. The father asked me if this was Oxford University. I explained that it was part of Oxford University, but that the university was quite large and was all around the town. As he pressed me for more information, I wondered why he was asking an American who’d only been to Oxford once before about the place; I hadn’t done my homework, after all. Then it occurred to me. I was dressed rather like a prototypical professor. The tweed, the beard, the glasses, the consistently confused look on my face—I’d been mistaken for an university professor. I stepped outside and looked around. In a different time, perhaps it would have been true. And maybe Tolkien and Lewis would have lifted a warm pint in a cold pub and we all might have learned something.

Paper Oxford

PaperTownsIt looks like a brilliant blue morning here in Oxford, yet my body is telling me that it’s the middle of the night. And that’s saying something, since I normally get up around 3:30 anyway. Routine is kind of a religious thing. In fact, it seems to be the root of ritualistic behavior. The passing of time is a matter that affects us all in some way. Jet lag is one of those ways. I’ve got an important meeting to attend in an hour—that’s why I’ve come all this way—and yet my mind will be telling me I should be elsewhere. Perhaps back over the north Atlantic, looking down at icebergs from the air, wondering if climate change is really that far advanced. Are there any polar caps left at all? Didn’t the Titanic hit an iceberg at this time of year, and wasn’t it a great surprise? At least on a ship you don’t get jet lag. There’s nothing like travel to shake you out of the ordinary.

I suppose that’s part of the draw to John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read on the flight over. Although it’s young adult literature, Green has a way of capturing what it was like to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood, and the need to become who we are meant to be. It is a story of leaving home, and of living on the edge. Once a friend said to me that he couldn’t understand someone wanting to leave the place they grew up. I, on the other hand, was only too eager to leave a verbally abusive situation in an industrial town that was slowly dying with no prospects for the young. Needless to say, Paper Towns resonated with me. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in a single sitting. Although I’ve been an adult for decades, I can still remember the feeling of being young, of falling in love, and wondering what this was all about. High above the north Atlantic, I was sure I still hadn’t figured it out.

There’s nothing religious about Paper Towns. The characters in it assume God to exist, as most Americans do. We make a lot of assumptions. My body is assuming it’s only two in the morning. My clock is telling me that it’s seven. Time is relative, but only one of those placeholders will determine if I am late to work in this place I find myself waking up. I remember being young, and although Oxford has its usual charm, I also know what it feels like to have to leave. The clock tells me that I have to go. The novel in my head tells me the same thing. I’m not sure what time it is. For the moment my paper town is Oxford, and it seems very real indeed.

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.

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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.

Everything’s Better at Harvard (Except Religion)

My wife pointed me to an important article in Newsweek on the plight of religious studies at Harvard. Now, I have to admit to a couple of bunches of sour grapes right up front. I was accepted at Harvard but elected not to go. Only after I had completed my doctorate at Edinburgh University after a lifetime of the study of religion and found that no jobs were available did I realize my mistake. I met colleagues who had jobs while attending academic conferences. All of those well settled in respectable positions had graduated from Harvard. A similar phenomenon exists in Great Britain. Those who actually find satisfactory positions hold doctorates from Oxford. Problem is, neither Harvard nor Oxford corner the market on good education (oh, the heresy!). People, however, are simplistically impressed by lineage.

In any case, this article by Lisa Miller points out the high drama of academic discord at the Shangri-La of American institutions. The famous linguist, Steven Pinker, who personally believes religion to be a severely faulty means of seeking enlightenment, has worked to prevent a required course in religion at the famed secular university on the grounds that faith and reason do not share the same status. Miller goes on to express how small colleges and state universities are picking up on the slack. My limited experience at Rutgers bears out her observations. In this large, rambling, decidedly secular school, my classes in the religion department are always full and I have to turn students away. Yet the university refuses to allow for a full-time hire. Secular America is deep in a state of denial. Because many academics reject religion personally, they simply can’t see how vital it is to understand it. I personally believe no one should be allowed to hold public office without having completed a course in Bible and its political abuse.

Meanwhile, Harvard still holds back. Its reticence will not prevent misinformed people from using their religion as a means of power and destruction. Pretending that since religion is not personally important it is not important at all has deadly consequences. To me it seems obvious that it is not the school you attend that is important, but what you learn while you are there.