Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

Of Fancy

Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.

One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.

The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.

The Day After

I don’t mean to be insensitive. Sometimes I get so busy that I don’t even look at the date for days at a time. This can’t be good, but I was surprised when the anniversary of 9/11 caught me completely unawares this year. That’s the kind of summer it’s been. Not acknowledging 9/11 to New Yorkers is like making ethnic jokes—it’s inherently offensive. The City is always subdued on this date of infamy. Coming the same week as Labor Day this year, I think my timing was just off. In my family, September was always the month of birthdays. My present to my brother of the 12th was late in 2001. I wanted to find something old. Something solid. Something time-honored. I wanted a sense of stability to return to a chaotic world. Being an inveterate fossil collector, I went to a local rock shop and bought him a fossilized cepholapod shell. It wasn’t much, but it was a message and a metaphor.

Today, being a birthday and a day after, feels a little like an apology to me. At the time of 9/11 I knew a few colleagues teaching in New York, but in 2001 I’d not really known the city. I’d visited a few times. I was still employed, although my personal career trauma was, unknown to me, already underway. And looking at the state of the world some fourteen years later, I wonder how much better things are. We haven’t suddenly improved, and as a nation we seem more deeply divided than ever. Candidates who resemble their caractitures more than actual people frighten me. The rhetoric is a sermon of doom. Have we all forgotten how that morning felt?

Television reception was poor, or it may have been the tears falling from my eyes as I watched, at the safe distance of Wisconsin. We’d just sent our daughter off on the school bus and now wanted her back home. I called my brother in Pittsburgh in a panic. The news had said a plane had crashed in southern Pennsylvania somewhere. It seemed the the possibilities of horror were endless that day. And yet. I awoke yesterday fretting over work. My mourning routine was harried and frantic. I didn’t even know what day it was. I glanced a paper headline on the way to work and realized that I’d overslept a tragedy. Some scars never heal. Those wounds cut by religion are the deepest. So we find ourselves on the nexus of a tragedy, a birthday, and a new year. How we respond is entirely up to us.

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Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

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Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.

Night of the Johnstown Flood

Floods always have a whiff of old Noah about them. I first heard of the Johnstown flood from a minister who has had a profound impact on my life. He had been in Johnstown for the 1977 flood, and that led me to learn a little bit about America’s first great natural disaster. I decided to follow up David R. Montgomery’s flood book by David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. Like most stories of human tragedy, this devastating flood combined elements of human culpability with nature’s own inscrutable workings. The 1889 flood came during an unusually heavy rainstorm. Some years before, an exclusive millionaire’s club had repaired an artificial dam rebuilt for the recreation of the wealthy high above the town. Records show the repairs to have been lackluster—at one point they purchased hay to act as cheap fill. Although the members knew of the danger they did nothing to avert the deadly potential a breech in the dam would inevitably cause. When the dam burst during the storm, over 2200 people died.

Wrenching, like most natural disaster accounts are, the story of human misery raises questions of theodicy and basic humanity. Members of the club were those who ran Pittsburgh in the days before their steel mills fell silent. Apart from a few like Andrew Carnegie, who gave generously to those in dire need after the tragedy, most of club members gave nothing to the relief effort for what their negligence helped cause. They hadn’t even hired an engineer to consult about their dam project when they decided to rebuild it. Lawsuits filed failed to touch them; the suffering of thousands failed to move them. Fast forward just over a century—as the towers of the wealthy came down the working class tried to save as many as they could, some at the cost of their own lives. We all know who are regarded as the heroes.

“Was it not the likes of them [club members] that were bringing in the [foreign workers], buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country?” McCullough’s words, explaining the sense of those who’d lost everything to the idle dalliances of the leisured class, still ring true in the world of one percenters. Often it takes a tragedy to bring society’s inequalities into focus. As a nation we’ve gone on to have even more costly disasters since May 31, 1889, but the instability built by corporate greed has kept pace, indeed, perhaps even surpassed what it was back then. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” or so I have it on good authority.

Guide Me, O Thou Great

You are an apostate, or worse. Unless, that is, you belong to the relatively select religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having grown up in a town bereft of Witnesses, my first exposure came as the result of an American Religions course. Grove City, Pennsylvania was not an ideal locale to experience religious diversity, outside the Protestant Neapolitan flavor. When we had to visit a religious service outside that milieu, I joined some classmates for a trip to the local Kingdom Hall. There are few situations as uncomfortable as watching other people being religious. It is so intimate. When Watchtower study began, my classmates and I, good Christians all, were shocked to hear even a young child answer one of the questions put by the leader with “the Christian apostates!” She was quite enthusiastic. If you were not a Witness you were an apostate.

Since that time, Witnesses have been no strangers to my door, so I read Andrew Holden’s Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (Routledge, 2002) with interest. Holden is a sociologist who undertakes an analysis of the ascetic, millenarian group in a conflicted situation. Modern society proves quite difficult to reconcile with Witnesses’ authoritarian biblical literalism. The assertion, now quietly overlooked, that the world did not end on cue has proved an embarrassment more than once. Most recently Armageddon was scheduled for a 1975 time slot, but this stubborn, old world just keeps limping along. In many ways, it is a sad tale. Witnesses advocate clean living and fair dealing, but if you’re not part of the club you are a danger to those who are. Non-monastic, they nevertheless shut themselves off from much that the world has to offer.

Holden’s study is a model of fair-minded analysis. He is not out to humiliate or insult the Witnesses or their lifestyle. He remains true to the evidence (but not the doctrine) and offers a rare, objective look at a New Religious Movement. Distinguished as one of the few religions to have started in Pittsburgh (the city that also gave us the cinematic zombie), Witnesses are now a six-million strong, worldwide religion. While Holden gives only a cursory glimpse of their doctrine, he does offer a rare view into an exclusive faith struggling for the end of a pluralistic world. It is a study well worth reading. Especially for an apostate.