Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

Cool Cash

The seller’s market is the place to be in a capitalist society.  Last year, when we were looking for a house, it was a seller’s market.  Our realtor said he’d never seen inventory so low and staying so low.  We found a domicile we liked, but it was older and had obviously (only after moving in) been neglected.  The previous owners, it was clear, had simply let things go (and they were younger than us, and had no excuse).  When we asked for a new roof they had flat-out refused.  With no other options (our lease was about to expire) we agreed to take it on anyway.  We’ve been having the roof done in installments—and if you’ve been getting the record levels of rain that Pennsylvania has, you know our decision was, in a literal way, short-sighted.  Ah, capitalism!

So, just after I noticed the piles of sawdust that the web tells me are carpenter ants, the refrigerator died.  Of course.  I tried to keep cool.  We don’t have what the overlords call “liquidity.”  Our cashflow is dammed at the source, as it were.  A new major appliance was not a welcome addition to the fixer-ups that appear nearly every day.  The first warning was that my soy milk was room temperature when it splashed on the cereal yesterday.  All of this made me reflect on how much we rely on our appliances, our modern conveniences.  When talking to my mother later in the day, I realized that as recently as her generation not everyone had a refrigerator.  You could live without one.  You could also live without a dishwasher, believe it or not!  

The whole episode of packing the food in ice sent me on a Calvino-esque reverie of what we keep in the refrigerator.  There are foods that must be kept cool or they’ll spoil, foods that are better if they’re kept cool but can be left at room temperature, foods that you prefer to drink cold but can be kept anywhere, and items which are technically not food.  Considering the state of our kitchen, there are also foods that you keep on top of the refrigerator because no amount of cupboard space is ever enough.  As the carpenter ants make their free lunch of our porch, we have to throw away food for which we paid because an appliance has come to the end of its life cycle.  And since it’s a holiday weekend we’ll pay for a more expensive replacement unit because it’s on a holiday sale.  For unlike my soy ice cream, I lack liquidity.

Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

Bradbury’s Dream

There’s a Ray Bradbury story—I can’t recall the title, but with the Internet that’s just a lame excuse—where explorers on Venus are being driven insane by the constant tapping of rain on their helmets.  They try to concentrate on discovery, but the distraction becomes too much for them.  Living in Pennsylvania has been a bit like that.  I grew up in the state and I knew it rained a lot.  Here in the eastern end we’ve hardly since the sun since March.  And when you’ve got a leak in your roof that only compounds the problem.  If I were weathering the Psalms, mine would be a lament, I’m afraid.  You see, the ground’s squishy around here.  Mud all over the place.  Rivers have been running so high that they’re thinking about changing their courses.  And still it rains.

There’s a lesson to be taken away from all this.  The fact that we use water for our own ends sometimes masks the fact that it’s extremely powerful.  Not tame.  The persistence of water to reach the lowest point contributes to erosion of mountains and valleys.  Its ease of transport which defines fluidity means that slowly, over time, all obstacles can be erased.  It’s a lesson in which we could stand to be schooled from time to time.  Rain is an artist, even if it’s making its way through the poorly done roofing job previous occupants put into place.  Would we want to live in a world without valleys and pleasant streams?  And even raging rivers?

There’s no denying that some of us are impacted by too much cloudiness.  When denied the sun it becomes easy to understand why so many ancient people worshipped it.  Around here the temperatures have plummeted with this current nor-easter and the heat kicked back on.  Still, it’s good to be reminded that mother nature’s in control.  Our high officials have decided global warming’s just alright with them, and we’re warned that things will grow much more erratic than this.  As I hear the rain tapping on my roof all day long, for days at a time, I think of Bradbury’s Venus.  Okay, so the story’s appropriately called “The Long Rain” (I looked it up).  Meanwhile tectonic forces beneath our feet are creating new mountains to add to the scene.  Nature is indeed an artist, whether or not our species is here to appreciate it.  If it is, it might help to bring an umbrella this time around.

Different Kind of Salvation

It’s encouraging and disheartening all at the same time.  And seldom has the evil of money been so obvious.  Last night I attended an environmental panel discussion at a local church.  It was encouraging to see so many people out on a rainy, chilly night in Bethlehem, a city famous for its might steel mill.  Everyone there knew the problem and agreed that something had to be done.  As the speakers gave their presentations it became clear just how corrupt politicians are.  Corruption is bipartisan, of course.  In the name of “economic growth” we allow the fracking rape of our state despite the known and proven environmental hazards.  Despite the fact that Pennsylvania has a green amendment in its state constitution.  Money, as Cyndi reminds us, changes everything.

Shortly after even Mitch McConnell admitted climate change is real, at the state level climate deniers are running things.  It brought to mind the frightening and omnipresent teachings of my Fundamentalist youth: the sooner we can destroy this planet the sooner we’ll make Jesus come again.  Convinced of the absolute certainty of that second coming, there is almost a mandate to ruin, pillage, and plunder natural resources because the Good Book ensures us that, upon a white horse the savior will come in the nick of time.  Politicians, elected officials believe this.  They also believe in mammon.  If you’re gonna go down, you might as well do it in style.  Like John Jacob Astor on the Titanic.  It’s the way of the aristocrat.  Rising seas drown rich and poor alike.

It was a miserable night to be out.  The weather has been freakishly off for some time now, and all the science—real science, that is—predicts it’s only going to get worse.  How the government became the enemy of the planet that gave it birth would be a fascinating story if only it were fiction.  The truth is we’ve elected people that can be bought.  And bought easily.  Laws are passed that violate the constitution of this commonwealth and meetings are held behind closed doors.  Local activists are very active while most of us struggle to keep ourselves employed, heads, as it were, above water.  We need to pause now and again to consider what a wonder this planet is.  We must learn that the only power money has is that which we freely give it.  Rain was pouring down.  Brontide was actual thunder as the state legislature drew up chairs for the last supper.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.