AKA

“Professor?”  While not technically correct, I was surprised and not unpleased to hear the title yesterday while on the streets of Easton.  One of the greatest compliments a former teacher can receive is word from a former student.  While dressed in Saturday clothes on the way to the country’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market, I wasn’t sure the voice intended was for me.  I’ve been out of the classroom now since 2011.  Sure enough, one of my students from Rutgers recognized me and called out.  We had an ersatz but wonderful conversation after a completely chance meeting.  Already since graduating he’s had a few different jobs, but he remembered the classes I’d taught and I recalled that he’s the person who started me reading Neil Gaiman.  Teaching is, you see, a two-way street.

I’m doing a guest service at a local church next Sunday.  In preparation I’ve had lots of emails (for me).  One of them was from the music director.  He opened by calling me “Reverend.”  I’ve never been a reverend.  The idea isn’t unappealing but I’ve gone pretty far down the path of independent thinking and any church that would ordain such as me would need to be comfortable with that.  In fact, I heard a sermon recently by an Episcopal priest and was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and, dare I say, liberal it was.  I was never really welcome in that club, I know.  When I was still fairly fresh out of seminary and working on my doctorate the idea of being “Rev. Dr.” was still appealing.  Now I go by my first name.

Labels.  I tend to eschew them.  Like my young colleague I’ve had to learn that work doesn’t necessarily define you.  (I’ve had many employers, however, who not only beg, but insist to differ on that point.  The ideas of owning individuals die hard, apparently.)  On the weekend, though, off the clock, people are calling me “professor” and “reverend.”  I’m generally sitting in a corner with my laptop on those early mornings calling myself a “writer.”  For none of these things do I receive any pay.  (Well, perhaps some for writing, but very little and very infrequently.)  The move to our new location was a chance, I think, to try to remake myself.  A chance to figure out what labels, if any, really fit.  Better throw “telecommuter” and “remote worker” into the mix.  Those are the ones, come Monday morning, that matter most.

Breaking Day

When does the day start?  Years of awaking around 3 a.m. may have distorted my perceptions a bit, I suppose.  Here in the mid-Atlantic states, the sun is never up that early.  Year round I get out of bed when it’s still dark.  I’m not complaining—this is generally a peaceful time, a rarity in New Jersey.  If the bus didn’t come so early I’d get an awful lot done in a day.  But when does the day really begin?  I rise early to write.  Computers have changed my writing style quite a bit.  I used to write everything by hand.  Even as a kid with a second-hand typewriter, I preferred longhand first.  I still do, truth be told.  It’s slow, though, morning’d gone before I got too far.

So I get up and boot up.  I’m not sure that I’m crazy about my computer knowing so much about my personal life, but one thing it simply can’t understand is that I’m an early riser.  Many days my laptop will condescendingly ask me if I mind if it reboots—it’s been updating software when it thinks I’m asleep.  For the computer, day doesn’t begin this early.  Sometimes I worry that my blog doesn’t get readers because the new posts come up around 5 a.m., before I jump in the shower and head for the bus.  If things don’t appear in the feed at the top of the page, well, they’re old news.  I admit to being guilty of that myself; yet knowing when it’s day has consequences.  Maybe I should be posting a bit later?

For some reason my computer likes to send me notices.  Like I’m not already paying attention.  I’m sure there a setting someplace I could change, but I’m busy most of the time and figuring that sort of thing out takes longer than I have time for.  Birthday notices for complete strangers—maybe they’re connected on LinkedIn?—appear, at 9:00 a.m.  I’m at work already by then.  I think this is my devices’ way of letting me know that it’s a nine-to-five world.  As an erstwhile academic I never cottoned onto that.  I started getting out of bed at 4 a.m. when I was teaching so I would have time to write before daily chapel.  I also taught classes that ran from six-to-ten (p.m.) while at Rutgers.  When does the day start?  When does it end?  The decision’s not mine, as my laptop’s only too happy to remind me.

Admission Price

bibleandcinemaThe drama of acquiring Adele Reinhartz’s Bible and Cinema: An Introduction almost overshadows the joy of reading it at last. Back in my teaching days I realized that in very long class sessions (some went for four hours at Rutgers) students needed a break from me almost as much as I needed a break from myself. So I showed short clips of movies that had the Bible in them. The problem was, there was no easy way to find such movies. I’d seen many myself, but academics hadn’t written much on the subject and even a web search, in those days, wasn’t much help. Reinhartz is one of those scholars who understands we can learn about the Bible from movies, and her book would’ve been welcome in those days of fumbling my way through a darkened room, as it were.

Bible and Cinema is a Routledge book. In fact, it was underway during my brief tenure at the press. I very much wanted to read it but for questions best left to the empty ether, my welcome at Routledge wasn’t prolonged. The book came out before I left, yet I didn’t have a chance to get my hands on a copy. Being Routledge priced, I couldn’t afford it with my own funds. The book stayed with me, though, and last year I found a used copy, in passable shape, offered on Amazon for the price of a regular book (currently about $16). I immediately ordered it and anxiously awaited it. December came and went. The book didn’t arrive. Amazon informed me that it hadn’t been shipped and they would cancel the order unless they heard from the seller. In the new year, that’s what happened.

Once I’ve made to order a book, I have a hard time stopping. I had to cough out a bit more since reasonably priced used copies still couldn’t be found now that the one had gone AWOL. I’d been bitten, though. The new seller also delayed. The Trump administration began. I received a familiar message from Amazon. I wrote to the seller in anxious tones—if only I’d comped myself a copy before exiting Routledge! At last, late, and a bit beat up for the price, it arrived. It was worth the wait. This is a fine exploration of how the Bible has been made into movies and how movies have incorporated the Bible. Reading it was like watching movies on the bus. And for that, it’s hard to overestimate the price.

Vitruvian Savior

If memory serves, I was still in seminary when “Piss Christ” was first unveiled. As photographic art, I can’t say when the shutter snapped, but I seem to recall animated discussion over it and since seminary animated discussion has been at a premium, so I think I’d remember something like that. In any case, the artwork still has the power to shock and enrage as the world teeter-totters in its love-hate relationship with religion. Some people seem surprised when other people respond somewhat pointedly to what they perceive as affronts to their beliefs. The thing about beliefs is, well, people believe them. In this day of electro-chemical signals between synapses it may be hard to attribute any substance to belief. Still, if someone makes that claim, insult their mother and see what happens. Beliefs, by their nature, are sacred.

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I was reminded of this when my wife pointed out to me a story about Dartboard Jesus. If you’re not a Rutgers University person (as I no longer am), it takes only a little imagination to visualize this artwork. Conjure a dartboard in your mind. Then picture a crucifix superimposed on it with darts instead of nails. Red darts, if that helps. You’ve got it. The official name of the piece is “Vitruvian Man,” but the public outcry was enough to have the piece removed from public display. I taught (strictly as an adjunct, no complications, please) at Rutgers for four years. People sometimes expressed surprise that multiple sections of Intro to “Old” and New Testaments filled up every semester. I wonder if the university ever takes measure of its students’ beliefs. I had Seventh-Day Adventists in my courses. I had Jains, Muslims, and Hindus. I had Atheists and, God help us, Episcopalians. One thing all these people had in common was belief. Not beliefs, but more singular: belief.

No one in the world intentionally believes falsely. Indeed, should Oxford Dictionaries be trusted, belief is “Something one accepts as true or real.” By definition, it seems, beliefs are believed. Artists serve a valuable function in expressing ideas that words struggle to articulate. There is more going on when your crucifix is juxtaposed to a glass of urine or a dartboard than you might otherwise imagine. It says something about belief. In some cultures such heresy is punishable by death. It isn’t so much a matter, I would suggest, of freedom of expression as it is a matter of advocacy. Artists are teachers and even teachers sometimes don’t consider how their lessons will be taken. Respecting belief, perhaps, is something electro-chemical signals leaping tall synapses in a single bound simply don’t understand.

The Climate of Belief

As I’ve noted before, in our culture where an individual voice is hard to hear, those without institutional affiliation are generally considered self-promoting hacks. That’s really too bad, given that so many highly educated people end up in menial positions—our society’s “greatest resources” squandered away behind a counter or sequestered in a cubicle. So it was my great honor to be asked to present Rutgers Presbyterian Church’s Autumn Guest Lecture this year in Manhattan. When I taught at Nashotah House invitations to speak came frequently, even though it was a small school. I even once received an invitation to talk when I was an adjunct at Rutgers University. Since “going corporate,” it seems, I have nothing to say. It really is wonderful to be asked to speak again. Practicing my talk brings back many fond memories. Lecturing is in my blood. The Pastor asked me to come after my book, Weathering the Psalms, was published. Never intended as a best-seller, it has quietly sat on the sidelines, like its author.

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I suppose a bit of shameless self-promotion might be in order, but of course, I will feel ashamed for pointing out, when it’s all over. If you happen to be in New York City this coming Saturday and Sunday, so will I. Rutgers Presbyterian is located on the upper west side, not far from Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History. I’m always glad for an audience. See? Now I feel bad for having said so. My theme over the weekend will be “The Climate of Belief.” In addition to the weather, we’ll be talking about religion and science. Two worldviews that seem to be in constant conflict are not really the bitter enemies they seem to be. I won’t give away any spoilers since then you’d have no reason to come to my New York debut.

Further along, I am scheduled to give a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT) session on sensing scripture. My talk on that occasion will be on how the Bible is presented as an iconic book in the first season of Sleepy Hollow. Be sure to mark your November calendars now! It’s not too often that a person with no institution willing to back him gets to speak twice in a year. Someone who’s in a position to hire professors once told me that with so many candidates out there, you have to wait until you fall in love with one. Being a Don Juan, whether in amore or academia, has never been my strong suit. Still, if Elijah is to be believed, even an unamplified voice may carry. I’ll utter my “yop” for those who wish to listen.

Weathering Academia

Come the end of September, I’m scheduled to give a talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. I’m personally very flattered by this because, as it has become clear to me, an academic without a post is mute. I’ve seen colleagues who teach at schools I’ve never heard of consulted by the media—and there is obviously more to it than this—because they have teaching positions. Those of us who used to be professors apparently forgot everything when we take jobs out of necessity. That’s why I’m so flattered. My talk will be on the larger issues behind my book, Weathering the Psalms. I never expected this book to be a bestseller. I knew that it was, in some sense, incomplete. Academic books are the kinds of things you write when you have an academic post. When your day is not programmed with “enter this data, follow up on that book, and when you have time, get other people to write books.” People, of course, with university posts. The rest of us know not whereof we speak.

It’s funny. Back when I was teaching, even if it was only at Nashotah House, I used to be asked to give little talks all the time. It was rare for a year to pass without someone asking me to lead a seminar or share what I’d learned with some august body. That tapered off once I became an adjunct, although a Presbyterian Church in Princeton once invited me to speak because I was teaching at Rutgers (the university). And as I prepare my talk in my free time, I wonder about a society so tied up with name prestige that someone who has something interesting to say is just a crackpot unless a college or university or seminary or think-tank hires them. There are many of us—hundreds, if not thousands—who know as much as our university colleagues about a topic. An individual doesn’t have a name big enough to flash around, so we don’t get asked to share. Keep your hand down and your head down on the desk, please.

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In any case, it has been good for me to come back to the weather and think through some of the larger implications. I’d just had the book declined by a big name academic press when Nashotah House terminated my position. For many years I couldn’t look at the manuscript since it seemed a symbol of my failure. No, the book isn’t everything that it could be, but there is some good information there. The larger implications are actually of some importance here. The weather is studied both by science and by religion. Both understand aspects of it that the other misses. I’m looking forward to exploring this with the good folks of Rutgers Presbyterian who were kind enough to invite a guy with nothing more than a book and an obscure name to come and talk about something that most academic colleagues just don’t notice.

Truly Educated

Binghamton University looms large in my consciousness, for rather obvious reasons. Although it sits in a small corner of upstate New York not particularly near anything famous, it has its own culture. Having taught at several schools, and having studied at many along the way, I’ve always been particularly struck by the genuine nature of Binghamton. For example, it is the only school—apart from a hazily recalled “Bible Study” led by the then president of Grove City College—at which the president has made himself available to be met and chatted with by hoi polloi. I’ve met and talked with him twice, and although I taught a phenomenal number of courses at Rutgers, and conveniently solved a crisis in the religion department for a year at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I never found a time or place when the president was available to the likes of mere mortals. Not only that, but at a time when other universities are cutting whatever faculty they can to make more administrative posts, Binghamton is actually hiring faculty and expanding. I feel renewed when I visit the campus. You can tell they care about people.

A story in the Washington Post underscores this. One of the graduation speakers at the Watson School of Engineering is an Orthodox Jew. His commencement ceremony fell on Saturday—the sabbath. According to the dictates of his faith, speaking through a microphone system that passes through a soundboard is considered work, and could not be done on the sabbath. In today’s climate, I would expect most universities to say, “too bad.” Religion is not to be taken seriously, right? So just get over it. Here’s where Binghamton, however, shines. They taped the address beforehand, allowing the speaker to take the stage and have someone else broadcast his speech. This isn’t about picking apart the logicality of anyone’s personal Torah, it’s about recognizing the human.

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Our very religious society has a way of compartmentalizing religion so that we can still get away with what we want to do. We can be religious when our clergy so dictate, but otherwise we’re pretty much free to look out for number one. This story is one that makes me proud to have once been a part of a system that includes a school that can truly lay claim to the designation “higher education.” We learn about the world to become, ideally, better citizens of it. Any university that is able to take what might seem to be a petty problem and recognize its human dimension deserves to have our admiration. It restores my faith in the future. At least in a small corner of upstate New York.