Distance Education

As an exile from academia, I do feel for my employed colleagues who are having to learn distance education techniques on the fly.  I do also feel compelled *ahem* to note that I was trained in online teaching long ago at Rutgers University.  The school declined to hire me then, and I’ve had no offers since.  Now it’s become fashionable for academics with virtually no online experience to look to the hills—whence is their help to come?  It’s not very often that I can claim to have been ahead of the curve.  In fact, I’m usually so far back that I don’t even know there is a curve.  Mismatches like this (someone who’s always been good at teaching, and trained to do so online, who’s been deemed exile-worthy while the unprepared now brush off their virtual bona fides) occur all the time in history.  It’s one of the things that makes it interesting.

Higher education isn’t a luxury.  I disagree with President Obama that all people should go to college, though.  Not everyone needs to.  Everyone should be able to attend, however, if they feel compelled to do so.  There are a number of myths about it that politicians of all stripes should seek to dispel.  One is that the more education you get the higher salary you’ll be able to demand.  As a Ph.D. holder I know that is decidedly not the case.  There are plenty of manual labor jobs that pay better than the options open for a humanities Ph.D. earner.  I also know that universities don’t tell new doctoral candidates this fact.  The old ways are changing.  I’ve often wondered if the collapse of civilization would be slow or rapid.  Living through it I now can see it looks slow from the inside.  Future historians will need to assess for future readers how it looks from the social distance of chronological clarity.

Historically crises have helped people pull together.  This one seems only to have divided us further.  If our government knew how, it could now model kind and considerate behavior.  It doesn’t know how.  The selfish often don’t comprehend how the wellbeing of others can affect their own.  Some companies are beginning to realize that customer loyalty after the crisis may depend on reasonable treatment at at time like this.  For others it’s more difficult than house-training a new puppy.  Nobody wants to go into exile.  When you do, however, you can’t help but notice how it changes your view of things.  Ironically I was hired away from academia the very year I had completed my training in distance education.  I can image how it might’ve been.  But then, I’m living in a land not my own.

Weird Publishing

It’s a weird world.  Publishing, I mean.  In the early days of shock and angst after Nashotah House, when it had become clear that UWOsh—the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh—wasn’t going to hire me full-time after a full-time year there, I considered that classic fall-back of the academic—publishing.  I wasn’t exactly clear on what an editor did in those days, but I was pretty sure I could learn.  Gorgias Press hired me and after just over two years, downsized.  I’d been in publishing long enough at that point to have learned about Transaction Publishers.  Housed on the Livingston campus of Rutgers University, where I’d been teaching for a few years at this point, Transaction had been founded by the sociologist Irving Horowitz.  Now that Gorgias was out of the picture, I contacted Transaction out of the blue and landed an interview with Horowitz himself.  Although he was most cordial, it didn’t lead to a job offer.

Eventually I was recruited by Routledge.  I was about to learn the nature of publishing in a whole new way.  Early in my time in the Taylor & Francis group (they had a letter signed by Walt Whitman in one of the board rooms) I learned that presses grow by acquiring other presses.  I suggested Transaction, only to be told it was too small of a “concern;” Taylor & Francis preferred larger fish.  When Routledge downsized I found myself again applying to Transaction.  Irving Horowitz had passed away by this point and before I could make an appeal, I was hired by my current employer.  There I have been ever since.

The other day I had cause to look up Transaction.  It was with some surprise that I learned they had been acquired by Taylor & Francis and merged with Routledge.  I’m sure that my suggestion of that acquisition had nothing to do with it, but I pondered what would’ve happened had I been hired by Transaction after Routledge cut me loose.  A few years later I would’ve found myself working for Routledge again.  And likely I would have found history repeating itself.  Publishing is a fairly small industry.  Books are a low-margin commodity (it pains me to type those words, but that’s the way the business world sees them).  Not too many people are interested in a company that has to sell lots of a specialty item in order to make them profitable.  Consumers tend not to buy books in bulk.  My time in publishing has been about connections.  And some of those connections are just plain weird.

Book and Bell

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan, is a book I’ve read before.  The subtitle was used for a cinematic version.  I discovered the book, however, through what might be considered a chance encounter with the author.  He was teaching a course on offering distance education courses at Rutgers University, and, as an adjunct teaching over eight classes per year, I’d been selected for the distance education program.  (As life goes, of course, I was hired by Routledge for a full-time job before I could actually deliver the course.)  By a strange irony, I had watched An American Haunting just the weekend before the course, and I had no idea who would be teaching it.  Neurotically punctual, I was the first one there for the class, and as Dr. Monahan and I talked, I knew I’d need to read the book.  I posted on it back when I did, but this time I decided to pay better attention than one can on a bus.

Of course, when you watch the movie first, which I had, you know “the reveal” well before it comes late in the novel.  In case you’ve done neither, I won’t give it away.  The tale is based on an historical haunting, attested in sources from near the period.  And it is a strange kind of possession story.  The “witch” is actually a demon conjured by a trauma, and although book wraps things up nicely, it leaves a few questions at the end.  I suppose that’s appropriate for a scary book.  One of my current projects involves tracing the accounts behind fictionalized narratives to their originals.  The Bell Witch was well researched, and is a good example of how the line between fiction and fact can be effectively blurred.

The Bell Witch legend is credited with influencing several horror films, including The Blair Witch Project and others which tellingly have “Bell Witch” in their titles.  The story has a fairly incredible longevity, given that it was a localized legend from early in the nineteenth century.  Monahan’s novel is written as a “confession” from the schoolmaster, and historical personage Richard R. P. Powell.  This blurring of the lines makes for the kind of ambiguity that gives horror its particular ability to stand between fact and fiction.  The early versions of the lore, combined with elements intended to offer verisimilitude, leave plenty of queries at the end.  So much so that I’ve occasionally contacted the author for clarification.  What really happened?  It depends which side of the line you prefer.

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.

Biblical Art

Although the United States is a religious nation, according to all polls, not many Americans know about the American Bible Society. This organization, based in New York City, has been vastly influential in the history of the nation. Even more influential, however, has been the Bible itself. It pervades every aspect of life in America, whether acknowledged or not. It is an integral part of the fabric out of which the nation is cut. I used to ask my Rutgers students: if there were some unseen force that impacted your life every day in ways that you couldn’t imagine, wouldn’t you like to know about it? Of course they would! But our society has very little tolerance for actually learning about the Bible. As a story in the New York Times states, the American Bible Society had to sell its historical Manhattan property recently. I visited the site on my first trip to New York as a seminary student. Here amid the towering secular concerns of money and greed, was a building dedicated to Sacred Writ.

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The New York Times piece, however, is pointing to the fact that the selling of the building has led to the closing of the Museum of Biblical Art. As Randy Kennedy makes clear in his piece, the Museum was (technically will have been) dedicated to showing the impact of the Bible in secular contexts. The American Bible Society is an evangelistic organization. They arrange for the distribution of Bibles not for secular reasons, but for good, old fashioned conversion of the heathen. This set the Museum a little bit at odds with its host. The Museum, critically acclaimed according to Kennedy, is (was) generally secular in outlook. It recognized that the Bible has influenced us in ways far less than obvious, pervading into our artistic sensibilities.

Although I’ve worked in Manhattan for about four years now, I never had occasion to nip into the Museum of Biblical Art on a lunch break. (Lunch break? What’s that? Money takes no breaks.) This is unfortunate. It seems that the message I had been trying to pass along to my temporary charges was being openly displayed here for New York society to see. Little do people realize, I suspect, that the principles of capitalism—the very system that transfuses the lifeblood into the city—developed out of biblical outlooks on private property. Not that the Bible itself is capitalistic, but it gave a society the basis to develop a form of thought that is, honestly, quite foreign to the biblical outlooks themselves. And ironically, the American Bible Society will continue, even though its intent may be less in keeping the spirit of the very book whose impact the Museum attempted to display.

Public Knowledge

Sometimes the media gets it wrong. If one were to believe in the tales of industry prognosticators, our libraries would be closing, we’d all own Kindles, MOOCs would have replaced expensive college courses, and New York City should still be shoveling out from the worst blizzard since the Ice Age. We thrive on extremism. Although I don’t regularly read the newspaper (who has time?), the internet makes news memes available just as they happen and I feel somehow cheated if I have to wait more than an hour for trenchant analysis of an event I’ve just witnessed. Still, the publishers haven’t all shut their doors yet, colleges are managing to stay afloat, and libraries can be happening places. This became clear to me when I recently attended an event in the quaintly named Old Bridge Public Library. It was a Saturday, the time of the week when the gripping fingers of employers feel their weakest. Although I saw no evidence of an old bridge anywhere, I made my way through the traffic to the library where I met with a surprise—the place was crowded!

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For those of you not fortunate enough to live in New Jersey, Old Bridge is probably best considered a satellite of New Brunswick, home of Rutger’s University stadium. (I think there may be a university associated with it too.) That is to say, it is an urban area, and any antique structures to convey one across the water have long devolved to only nomenclature. Like anything in north-central New Jersey, it’s not far from New York City. When I arrived for my event, the parking lot was already full. It was not because of the event, either. Less than 20 showed up for that. When I went inside I found the library a veritable hive of activity. And it wasn’t just lonely, homeless people trying to get out of the cold. Families with kids, people with their grandparents, even other middle-aged adults like myself, all found their way to this island in the sea of a municipal complex not walkable from anywhere. I left encouraged.

Yes, the world of books and education is changing. Publishers feel stress, but that stress mostly has to do with predicting the best form to provide for content. Self-publishing has become a phenomenon, but many know that the self-published book has a difficult life in front of it. Libraries, however, are not the graveyards we’ve been told that they are. We need repositories of information that isn’t on the internet. And more importantly, we need places where, although the librarian shushing us may be iconic, we can get together with like-minded individuals and truly educate ourselves. I do sometimes tremble when I think of the future. The values I acquired as a young person seem, at times, on the verge of extinction. I learned that when this seems to weigh too heavily on my mind, I need to head to the nearest public library and support the old bridge to knowledge.

History Department

Rather like an embarrassing personal blemish, many universities tend to hide the fact that they were originally servants of the church.  Ouch!  I know that hurts.  When I was working at Routledge I had to educate some of my fellow employees about the strange interaction between religion and higher education.  Most of the earliest universities were founded primarily as theological colleges.  That stands to reason, since as light slowly began to dawn at the fading of the Dark Ages, the practice of literacy had largely been the domain of clerics, and even today, the clergy are among society’s most dependable readers.  Universities sprang up because churches desired leaders who were informed—educated, even.  Men (at that point) who knew how to reason well.  This impetus eventually led to the kind of thinking that allowed science to emerge, although it soon had fights with its parents over who had the better perspective.  Some things never change.

University or church?

University or church?

Even considering the Ivy League here in the United States, we have schools that were generally founded for clerical purposes.  Harvard was founded mainly to train Puritan ministers.  Yale was intended to provide clergy and leaders to the colony of Connecticut.  Brown was founded by Baptist clergy, while Columbia owes its origins to the missionary wing of the Church of England.  Princeton was founded for the training of Presbyterian clergy.  Dartmouth’s Puritan clergy founded wanted a school for preparing missionaries.  Even non-sectarian Penn had clergy among its early leaders.  Cornell was the lone gunman of the truly secular schools.  The pattern even reaches to state universities that now cower at the thought of expanding or sometimes even maintaining their religion departments.  Rutgers, where I had the privilege to teach as an adjunct for a few years, was originally founded as an enterprise of the Reformed Church in America, scion of the old Dutch Reformed Church, thus giving rise to the small New Brunswick Theological Seminary that still sits in the middle of the College Avenue Campus of the State University of New Jersey.

Every now and again, I ponder this state of affairs.  Religion, love it or loath it, is foundational not only for higher education, but for civilization itself.  If the evidence of Göbekli Tepe is to be believed, religion may have been the very glue that brought societies together in the first place.  Despite the decline in mainline denominations, public survey evidence indicates Americans are just as religious as ever, or at least spiritual.  How quickly we forget that it was biblical mandates to go out and spread the news that led to the idea of a literate, educated society.  The lure of money and technology is great, and has managed to reshape the higher education landscape.  If you look, however, at the lists of institutions of higher education in the United States, even today, the largest subset is either currently affiliated with, or had been founded by, Christian groups wanting to offer education to their children. Today there are still hundreds of universities and colleges affiliated with religious groups.  Somehow I get the sense that the affection showed is not completely mutual.

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

Vampire Science

ScienceOfVampiresHow is one to take a book that combines science and vampires? That was the thought going through my head as I stood in Borders during the sad process of their going out of business sales, Katherine Ramstand’s The Science of Vampires in my hand. I knew already that I would buy the book—how could I not?—but I wasn’t sure whether it had been placed in non-fiction by accident or not. Ironically, I began reading the book on the day I was ultimately informed that my position had been made redundant. Vampires have been much on my mind since then. For several days I couldn’t concentrate enough to read, which is a kind of vampiristic encounter in its own right, in my case. Now that I’ve finished Ramstand’s study, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Holding a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Rutgers University, Ramstand knows the fields of forensics and the supernatural surprisingly well. The Science of Vampires does indeed address the mythic creatures from a forensic perspective. The lore of the vampire is thoroughly examined and subjected to scientific scrutiny. Surprising results sometime arise. The book also contains its share of very disturbing material, more along the forensics than the fictional vampire side. I put it down woozily more than once. Yet, I found considerable insight here. Ramstand, although not focusing on the religious element, readily acknowledges the deeply religious nature of the vampire concept. She tends to focus on the scientific, rather than the spiritual, but she does have a telling interview with a professional counselor with a theological background. She quotes him as stating that he vampire is the disenfranchised among us—the pariahs of society: the homeless, people of color, those of differing sexual orientations, the working poor, the unemployed. Okay, I’ll admit that I added that last one to the list. I do, however, understand the point.

While supernatural powers may not create vampires, our society does. There are those who drain others of their resources, and there are those who are cast out. Both, in this post-modern world, might be considered vampires. At times Ramstand almost had me believing that Dracula might be more than fiction. As I read accounts of the horrors some people remorselessly perpetrate against other human beings, it seems that a vampire might be the lesser of two evils sometimes. As a symbol, both religious and secular, the vampire has proven to be irreplaceable. Hopefully some day we may outlive our use for those who prey on others.