Back to Normal

The western philosophical tradition is built on the idea that permanence is reality.  From the Greek philosophers on, the idea has been to identify the basic, unchanging building blocks of reality to get at what’s really real.  The eastern philosophical system posits that change is reality.  Permanence is illusion, and that which we think of as unchanging is a deceptive projection of our own minds.  This dichotomy keeps coming back to me when things change and I keep waiting for them to go back to “the old way” or “the usual way.”  Most recently, for example, the shift to or from (I can never remember which) Daylight Saving Time.  This was followed closely by a mandated trip to San Diego, three time zones away, that lasted five days.  While there I met with potential authors later into the evening than I generally stay up on eastern time.  Now that I’m back home I keep waiting for things to go back to the way they were.

My response to all of this is to wonder if maybe I have the wrong philosophical disposition.  Problem is, the entire western world is built on the proposition that permanence is reality.  The things that worry us are, in eastern thinking, part of the constantly changing flux of reality.  While away from the usual constant connectivity of life at home, bills still come electronically.  Websites ask you for passwords that, like eastern thought, are constantly changing.  I play along, even to the point of “buying” property so that it will always be mine.  Right now lots of things are up in the air in the western world—the future of democracy itself is uncertain—and I keep waiting for things to get back to normal.

Part of the problem is that I keep too busy.  It is easier for me to maintain this illusion if I slow down and have time to think it through.  Things change too quickly for that, however.  Using time as a pole star to navigate this constantly heaving sea, I’ve become a little confused about my longitude.  I’m settling back into eastern time at the new hour they tell me that it is, but I feel as though I’ve left lots of things behind.  I’ve had a little time off work over the holiday and there’s a tremendous amount of change awaiting me once I fire the laptop up again.  I want to go back to where I was before I boarded that plane, back before I “gained” an hour.  Back before I had to learn everything you need to know to “buy” a house.  I look to the east and nod.

Mad Dog

Like those who write long books, those who write very many books ask for some level of commitment from their fans.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing I had more time to read.  I tend to be driven to Stephen King’s novels by the movies made around them, and there’s nothing wrong with that I suppose.  I decided I wanted to read Cujo some years back when I was on a werewolf kick.  I knew it wasn’t a werewolf story, yet as one who suffers from cynophobia even a large household pet will do.  I didn’t know the story in advance, and I had no idea how it ended.  It’s good to read novels like that sometimes.

I took it with me to San Diego and read most of it on the plane, finishing it somewhere over the mountain west.  It is a bleak story, one of King’s more drawn-out and wrenching tales.  It’s made more so by the fact that it could happen, at least in the main storyline.  Or could have happened.  Maybe I waited too long to read it, but I kept thinking as I was going through—today we have cell phones.  A large part of this story unfolds because of Donna Trenton’s inability to contact anyone while a rabid dog keeps her trapped in her car during a record-breaking heat wave in Maine.  I suspect it’s kind of a story about redemption, but I really need some time to think about it before rushing to such conclusions.  There’s not much you can really consider religious in this particular tale, and perhaps it’s because Cujo is a very natural kind of monster.

I saw my first rabid dog when I was maybe five.  My brothers and I reported a dog acting strange to our mother, after which she kept us in the house.  That wasn’t the origin, I don’t think, of my cynophobia.  Two of my brothers were bitten by a family dog when I was little, and I was once chased by a dog about as big as I was, certain that it was going to eat me.  At the same time, we had dogs as pets, and apart from the one that liked to bite, they never gave cause for fear.  Cujo tapped into those memories and made me reflect on what it means to befriend wolves.  It won’t be my favorite King novel, but it did help to pass the time from coast to coast.

Post Facto

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.”  Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did.  There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane.  My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond.  This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars.  Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive.  I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.

Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.”  While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales.  The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising.  Should it not read “Unemployment Center”?  That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery.  I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences.  Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview.  I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place.  Some of them mine.

Now I’m high over Death Valley.  It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way.  The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot.  Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty?  And statements like Tenure track is not the norm.  The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right.  If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it.  The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.

J L Seagull

Perhaps it has happened to you as well.  At some undisclosed period life became so busy that you felt as if—in a good southern California metaphor—you were riding on a huge wave and you couldn’t get off.  Back in my teaching days I had time to plan my trips to AAR/SBL and fit in some human activities as well as maybe even getting around to see the outside once in a while.  It’s great to run into so many people from every stage of my academic life—toddlerhood at Grove City College through my current doddering editorship—but I can’t help having the feeling that I’m popular now because I’m thought to have something others want.  The keys to the kingdom.  A possibility of getting published.

Those of you who read my daily reflections know that I’m glad to share publishing knowledge.  I encourage academic authors to learn a bit about the publishing industry.  It’s rapidly changing and when you have an inside track (here is the real added value) you need to look beyond your current book project to see what goes on behind the veil.  Widen the focus.  There’s a whole world out there!  My glimpses out the hotel window inform me that there’s an entire bay to be explored.  I watched seals or sea lions (it’s hard to tell from this distance) playing in the water as the sun rose.  Then a seagull flew up and landed inches from my face on the windowsill of my room.  It stayed for nearly a minute, looking me over as I looked it over.  Noticing the tiny white feathers that formed a W on the edges of its beak.  Its Silly Putty pink feet with small black nails.  The emerging red patch on the underside of its bill.  It took a step off the ledge, spread its wings and looked elsewhere for a snack.  I soon learned why.  A second later a larger gull landed in its place.  We too regarded one another curiously.  Had the glass not been there, we could’ve easily touched.  It also lept off to be replaced by an even larger, more mature gull.  None of the three were in any hurry to get away, but when they realized I couldn’t give them what they wanted, they left.

I’m a great fan of metaphor.  Academic writing, unfortunately, doesn’t encourage the craft of utilizing it (neither does it often encourage being coherent).  Later this morning—it will be early afternoon back home—I have to rush to the airport to catch a hopeful tailwind back east.  Someone else will check into my room.  If, perchance they sit by the window with the curtain drawn before dawn, the gulls will visit.  And maybe a lesson will be taken away.

Armed Forces

You ought to feel safe with the U.S. Navy so close by.  The naval base at San Diego is the second largest surface base in this particular branch of our sprawling military system.  From my hotel room I can watch the ships chugging through the harbor and from the Convention Center you can see quite a spread of naval real estate.  Still, all this hardware doesn’t make me feel safe.  Perhaps because I’m a child of the sixties, I can imagine a world at peace where military budgets don’t literally take food from the mouths of hungry citizens.  The last time I was in San Diego for AAR/SBL I toured the USS Midway aircraft carrier.  It’s clearly visible from my room.  I was amazed at both the technology and the obvious expenditure for such a craft.  It can’t be easy to set a city afloat.

Whenever I experience things like this I can’t help but wonder what we might accomplish if we loved each other as a species and put our heads together to try to solve our problems.  Lack of water—perhaps ironically in this naval city—is a serious global issue.  Poverty is the ghost of civilization.  The grasping of power by the driven but inept is clear worldwide.  We build great, complicated war machines.  The noise generated by the helicopters charging overhead bespeaks their weight and weaponry.  Down here in the southwest there are places civilians just can’t go because our military is busy keeping us too safe to allow us to wonder what they’re up to.  Black budgets must be nice.  I stand here among religion scholars and dream.

Ironically religion often leads to the fear that leads, in turn, to militarization.  We want to protect our “way of life.”  We’ll follow the prince of peace into war any day.  Just give the signal and release the missiles.  It doesn’t make me feel safe at all.  One time on a family visit, we drove through Norfolk, Virginia.  We stayed at a cheap hotel, because, well, we’re cheap.  The metal door was heavily reinforced with a stolid steel lock.  Navy men, we were informed, didn’t always behave well while ashore.  The locks were to keep us safe from those protecting us.  We stayed only one night and left early the next morning.  So I while the annual meeting away under the watchful eye of our largest line item on the budget.  They’re keeping our bodies safe, but who’s keeping track of our souls?

Focus on Religion

Publishers Weekly, or PW to those in the biz, is a great place to get information about, well, publishing.  I often spend AAR/SBL telling authors and prospective authors something that I wish I’d been told when teaching: time spent learning about publishing is never wasted.  PW every year has a “Religion and Spirituality Update” released in time for this meeting.  Despite the relatively small number of sales, religion is a discipline that loves its books.  I’ve only been quoted in PW’s special edition once, and it’s not been for a few years, nevertheless I always learn a thing or two from this free—yes, if you’re here in San Diego it’s free!—update.  It may seem odd to suggest that religion titles can be hot, but it is indeed possible.  Sexuality is hot.  I suppose that goes without saying.

A number of titles dealing with religion and sexuality appear every year.  What caught my attention, however was an observation from Jennifer Banks, from Yale University Press.  Noting the rancor that sexuality often introduces to discussions of religion, she observes that (and this is a quote from PW, not directly from Banks) “some Christians apparently need others to go to hell.”  (I can send the full citation, if you want to know.)  In an era when academics have been stressing inclusion, the retrenched religious world has been spinning in the opposite direction.  Instead of inviting everyone to Heaven, as might, say a Universalist, many conservative Christians consign fellow believes to Hell, and gleefully so.  It’s almost as if Christianity and capitalism have merged into a zero-sum game.  If some win, all the others have to lose.  They haven’t however, studied the history of Hell very well.

It’s kind of an insidious idea.  Given that we all want to justify ourselves, some go to the extremes of demonizing those who see things differently.  This form of religious thinking was original neither with Christianity nor the Judaism from which it grew.  There was no Hell in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea, when it did develop, wasn’t a place to torture your enemies, but rather a place demanded by justice.  Those who were utterly and unrepentantly wicked couldn’t hobnob in God’s country club with those who tried to be righteous.  In the modern evangelical narrative those who make certain medical decisions for basic human situations are among the utterly wicked.  Not surprisingly their sins are usually sexual.  If you want to see this in a wider context, pick up a PW when you pass by the stand.  “Anything free,” to quote another sage, “is worth saving up for.”  And who knows, it might keep you from Hell?

Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.

Speedy Delivery (SD)

Ritual, no matter what scientists say, is deeply woven into the fabric of human psyches.  It may be either the warp or the weft, but it’s downright basic.  I was reminded of this on my hurried and slow trip to San Diego yesterday.  I always wear the same shirt when I fly to this conference.  This isn’t superstition, but rather it’s a case of sticking with something that works.  I don’t often wear turtlenecks, and one reason is that they seldom fit well.  More years ago than I care to admit (I’m wearing the shirt in the photo below, which was taken at Nashotah House nearly two decades in the past) I found a navy blue turtleneck from Land’s End (this is not a sponsored post, although it probably should be) that works perfectly.  Even today it fits snugly around the neck after hours of wear.  Maybe ten years back I bought a black turtleneck from the same company and after pulling it over my head, it gaps something awful.  I tend only to wear it around the house.  The original still does the job.

I was ready to drive myself to the airport yesterday and I grabbed a quick lunch at home.  Part of said lunch involved opening a ketchup bottle probably nearly as old as the shirt I was wearing.  (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)  I ended up looking like a murderer, which is not something you want to try to explain to a TSA agent.  I quick threw said ritual shirt into the washer and the drier buzzed at the same time as my phone did for when I had to leave for my two-hour-ahead check-in.  This remarkable shirt was dry and ready to serve.  Maybe you can see now why I’m so ritualistic about clothes.  I also opt-out of those Star Trek scanners at the airport.  This means I get lots of governmental pat-downs.  It feels more authentic when you have actual hands running down your body—at least it’s honest.

The TSA agent commented that you don’t see many turtlenecks these days.  I explained that it’s good for flying because I’m always cold on planes.  As this stranger’s hands were rubbing down my chest, I was wondering how many times this shirt has been felt up by the US government.  It has no pockets to pick, and besides, at airport screenings everything is stowed in my carry-on, including wallet.  At midnight San Diego time, I checked into my hotel.  East coast time said I’d been awake 24 hours because who can really sleep on a plane?  Once my patted-down body reaches 3 a.m., Eastern Time, it wakes up.  In these circumstances it’s good to know I can rely on that shirt in my drawer.  That’s what rituals are all about.

Daylight Saving Time Zone

One or two of you out there—you know who you are—put yourselves through reading my musings on a daily basis.  I haven’t missed a post in nearly a decade, but travel always complicates things.  Yes, it’s that time of year again—I’m on my way to AAR/SBL.  The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is the trade show of the guild.  This year we’re meeting in San Diego, California.  The hope of many of us is that it’ll be sunny and warm.  Last year, of course, I missed the conference for the first time, exchanging the Denver Hilton for a night on the floor of Newark’s Liberty Airport.  This year I’m flying out of a different venue—one where egress is possible in the case of snow.

I always like to post a reminder to the faithful few that normal service on this blog may be interrupted.  One never knows what might happen when away from the regular routine.  And three time zones will surely wreak havoc with circadian rhythms that haven’t yet caught up with the end of Daylight Saving Time.  Or is it the beginning of Daylight Saving Time?  It makes no difference, because it lead to lack of normal sleep, no matter what we call it.  In any case, San Diego may make usual posting unusual.  At the very least it’ll be a few hours off.  I’ve become a creature of habit, posting my thoughts between six and seven on weekdays.  On weekends I’m up just as early, but I give the web a chance to sleep in.

These annual meetings are exhausting when you go on behalf of a publisher.  Unlike the leisurely experience of a paying customer, you don’t get to go back to your room for a nap, or even to sleep in.  Every year colleagues ask me to receptions but I decline because every day is a school day.  And I have appointments from 8:30 until 6:30 daily.  Sometimes even later.  You, my gentle reader, have been given advance notice.  I’ll try to continue my daily chronicle of life inside this particular head as thousands of scholars of religion mill about, wondering about the answers to the big questions.  Right now the big question is whether I’ve packed everything I’ll need.  I’ll gain three hours on the way out, but I have to leave them at the desk when I get back.  Along the way I’ll scatter posts like breadcrumbs to help me find my way home.

Underrepresented

Underrepresented groups, I am told, are eagerly sought by academic institutions. The white male establishment has begun to develop a conscience, it seems. If I appear more credulous than an academic should be, it’s because I grew up poor. While I have no doubts that the entrenched power structures need to change, in an unguarded moment I wonder about the obvious overlooked financial demographic. What of the poor? I’m told by my friends with academic posts that universities are eager to find authentic poor folk—working class people who’ve worked they’re way up. To me, as one such person, this is another academic myth. Even a “white” man can struggle. If you’re born into an uneducated, blue-collar, paycheck-to-paycheck family, getting ahead is often sublimated survival. Those who’ve had me in class may not believe that I grew up with red-neck family values. Duck Dynasty? Well, in my case it was more a case of Deer Destruction, but I lived in a small, industrial, rust-belt town on the edge of the woods. From middle school on I worked to buy my own clothes for school which, I could always tell, were bargain rack compared to other kids who’s parents struggled less. In times of stress (and they are many) I find myself slipping back toward my blue-collar days and wondering just what is wrong with privileged America.

shtgn

I don’ t pretend to have grown up in abject poverty. My wife, from a middle class family, was, however, a victim of culture shock when she first visited the house I grew up in. (I still end sentences with prepositions from time to time.) And that was after the improvements. College was my choice and was paid for by my own work since parental contributions hovered somewhere around the zero line. Along the way I learned to act like others. I even became Episcopalian and most of my “peers” had no idea I didn’t really fit in. I say all this not for pity, but because of a deep conviction that the poor are the hidden demographic. We, as a society, need people to take away our garbage and plow the snow from our streets and dig our ditches. We don’t really want them educated since, well, they would be overqualified. Disgruntled. Our institutions may say they want to hire them, but they lie. The poor make the affluent uncomfortable even as they make them comfortable.

In my campus experience (which, all told, comes to over 25 years) I always found talking to the grounds or maintenance staff more comfortable than the academic staff. I understood where they were coming from. Even now as I wonder how I’m going to afford to get the car fixed, I recall conversations around the more practical matters of life with which I grew up: how to make sure poorly insulated pipes don’t freeze up in winter. Eating venison, or coming home to find carp that a neighbor caught swimming sluggishly in the bathtub were not unknown. While I didn’t go to bed hungry, the food available made me wonder what was in front of me in some fancy restaurants in San Diego. If academe is serious about understanding the poor, they’re going to have to start listening to them. And when they form a department of red-neck studies, they’ll hire someone from an established academic family with an Ivy League degree to lead it. I’ve always been more credulous than I should be.

Welcoming the Stranger

Profiling is alive and well. In our post-9/11 state, we are even more suspicious than those who are different than we were before. After the Ferguson decision, profiling once again led to unrest. If we didn’t do it so much, cases like this wouldn’t be necessary. If we didn’t shoot first and ask questions later, how much more would we understand? It happens, unfortunately, at all levels. I have no desire to trivialize the tragedy that continues to unfold over race relations, but divisions of those perceived potentially to cause trouble occur at even smaller, less significant levels. We tell ourselves that it is possible to gauge a person’s potential for violence based on a number of factors which happen to fall along lines of gender and race. Your typical airport screening is an example.

As my readers know, I object to the millimeter wave scanners in use in many airports. In general, I object to being treated as a criminal when I have been a pacifist since high school. (And likely before.) I am treated like a law-abiding citizen everywhere except the airport. Flying home from San Diego, I noticed that at check-in men traveling alone were separated out and sent through the scanner. The side on which I had to pull off my shoes and belt and coat, empty my laptop from my bag, and stand on the chilly floor awaiting an opt-out, was very masculine indeed. The woman in front of me, who looked far more frazzled than I did, was sent to the metal detector, along with her stroller. No threat there. Being male, however, is always a threat. Two priests stood before me in line. They didn’t go for the pat-down.

Potential terrorists, all.

Potential terrorists, all.

On the plane, many passengers began to talk about the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. After all, about half the passengers had just come from the conference. For me, I was ready for some quiet. Some time to center myself after playing the extrovert and talking to people I don’t know for four long days. As debates about religion broke out on the Boeing 737, I began to understand why religious folk are often profiled as potential threats. Their convictions, public and firmly held, are more likely to remain constant in the face of contrary evidence than are most opinions. I wonder if airport security couldn’t save us all some time, money, and embarrassment. Couldn’t they just ask passengers to declare their faith? Of course, we’d need to find some other employment for government officials whose duties involving feeling strangers with latex gloves before wishing them a pleasant trip. While high above the planet riots are breaking out down below because we distrust those who are different.

Saint Diego

Didacus of Alcalá fortunately, I think we might all agree, was more commonly known as Diego. The city of San Diego is named for him, as his nickname was a diminutive of Santiago, or Saint James, patron saint of Spain. Ironically, the more recent Saint Diego is best known for his visions of St. Mary, or Our Lady of Guadalupe. To keep your saints straight you need a score card sometimes. To go by the names, California must be a most sacred place. 120 miles north is the City of Angels. Then the city on the bay named after Saint Francis. Then Saint Barbara. One of my favorites, however, is San Louis Obispo. Everywhere saints. What of Didacus? Born in Spain, he was a missionary to the Canary Islands. I don’t think he ever visited southern California. The Franciscan mission dedicated to him, however, is what grew into the presently eighth largest city in the United States.

Wandering the streets of the old part of San Diego, you might find evidence that a mission led to this sprawling city. Or perhaps not. Now it is famous for fun in the sun—beaches and clubs and the US Navy. I have to wonder what Didacus would have thought of his namesake. I wouldn’t presume to speak for a saint, but I can’t see him surfing or enjoying perpetual summer. Did he have any idea what he might have been starting by denying himself and helping others? He was known for his curing of the sick, although he himself died of an abscess some five-and-a-half centuries ago this month. Like most ascetics, it seems one thing he highly valued was being left alone to contemplate. Would he have even survived in modern San Diego?

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One of the observations I make quietly, from the sidelines, is how frantic religion scholars seem to be. Frantic to write that book, get that tenure, find that recognition. It is sometimes easy to forget that educating students is a reward in itself. Having attended large conferences like this for nearly a quarter century, I have watched carefully. Saints and sinners both wander these carpeted halls with motivations as widely diverse as those of Didacus and Daedalus. Although there are 10,000 people here, including, briefly, Jimmy Carter, the world will go on tomorrow as if none of this ever happened. The homeless will still sleep in the park across the tracks from this world-class convention center. We’ll send our sick to hospitals instead of to churches. And if it weren’t for this conference in this city, I would never even heard of Didacus of Alcalá.

Flight of Fantasy

Today marks the end of the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. As the last attendees who have stayed through to the final half-day make their way through the dreaded Tuesday-slots for papers and wander the exhibit halls in search of last-minute bargains, I wonder what impact we will have made in San Diego. Many of my conversations this year included lamenting over the state of higher education, particularly in the study of religion. Religion, which led to the very concept of higher education, is now perceived mostly as little more than a somewhat unsophisticated intrusion into the cold, hard reality of business. And educating future entrepreneurs is, make no mistake about it, business. Wither the institutions go, publishers will follow. The life of the mind is a perk that we no longer can afford. And yet, as colleague after colleague attests, this is what students really find fascinating. Perhaps even important.

As we get ready to head back to the airport, I reflect how it is so much like being a passenger on a plane. We’ve purchased tickets to get us near where we want to be, but we aren’t directing this jet. The pilot, isolated from us by an unsurpassable barrier, will, we trust, get us to the designated airport. That, however, is not really where we want to go. We won’t happily loiter there. Impatiently we’ll await our baggage at the carousel so that we can wend our way back to our homes. Where is the business end in that? Isn’t it, however, what we live for? And what of the San Diego we’ve left behind? How many people will say that their lives will have been improved by having the lion’s share of religion scholars in their neighborhood for a long weekend? Will the number of homeless have decreased? Will they have found jobs?

While those of us “not from around here” ride elevators more nicely appointed that some people’s houses, the televisions meant to prevent us from growing bored from the twentieth floor to the first, show how the other half lives. It’s sunny and nearing eighty today and Buffalo has snow higher than our heads. Reporters flock to the snow-locked city and wonder at nature’s extremes. It doesn’t seem to play along with our business plans. There must be some way to make some money out of this. But I have an unconventional theory. Maybe I’ve watched Bruce Almighty too many times, but I wonder if all those prayers made by children for a snow day may have been stored up in, what scripture assures us, is a great divine warehouse awaiting release. Perhaps the doors of that storehouse have been thrown open to remind us that sometimes the business of living is simply the wonder of watching it snow. No matter how inconvenient it might be. And lives will have changed for the better.

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The Presence of Ideas

Attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is a bittersweet experience. There is nothing as awe-inspiring as being in the presence of ideas. Whether it is meeting friends who have grown old with me over the years, or younger scholars who promise a fascinating future, or those newly discovered that feel like old friends, they all have ideas. Of course, it is not the editor’s job to produce content, no matter how long or deeply one has been trained to do so. Here is where the bitter of the flavorful metaphor comes in: the suppression of ideas is painful. Throughout my career I have had the benefit of being trained by maverick thinkers who, although I hadn’t realized it at the time, were showing me the way to a kind of enlightenment. Enlightenment, whether it be the absence of thought or the plenitude of it, will lead to places we can’t possibly expect.

When talking about ideas with others I realize how artificial our trite divisions are. For many years I was labeled as a “Hebrew Bible scholar.” “A seminary professor.” Or any number of other simplified categories. My interest, however, was always the finding of the truth. No other goal, it seems to me, is really worth all the energy we put into academic discourse. Sure, I may have studied obscure dead languages—the kind of work that is required to read what many call the word of God in the original (and even earlier than original) language(s). There I found deities battling monsters and chaos perpetually lurking in the background. Ideas in conflict. I somehow knew truth would always win. In fact, I more or less took it personally when AAR initiated its temporary separation from SBL. The two need each other, no matter how much they might argue in the night.

What's the idea?

What’s the idea?

After my first full day of the conference, my head was so swimming with ideas that I had a night full of frightful intellectual dreams. Although I may have trouble convincing the great institutions of this land, I do know that I have something to offer. Ideas crowd around me like a newly exorcized man, seeking entrance to a receptive mind. The more we claim we know, the more we have to learn. I face another day of greeting ideas and seeking their company. Of course, I’m a company man, and I should know what I’m here for. The bittersweet truth of the matter is, however, somewhat more complex than that. I can think of no better place to explore it in the company of friends I’ve known for years, or even only for the past few minutes. As long as they bring their ideas.

Dry Nation

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is a big thing. It draws a myriad (literally) of scholars together every year and invades a fair sized city that may or may not be a religious haven. San Diego feels like a pretty Catholic city to me. My cab driver from the airport was a Muslim, but many of the churches and place names around here reveal a natural comfort with Catholicism. My first night in town, on my own and somewhat weary from awaking at 3:30 on the other coast to get ready to catch my flight, I wandered through the Gaslamp District looking for some authentic Mexican food. It is surprisingly tricky to find, although I’m only twenty miles from Tijuana. Along the way I passed a bar that had a welcome AAR/SBL poster in its window. Now here was a vender that recognized their client!

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Many of those outside the profession assume such conferences as this are like higher education Sunday schools. Undoubtedly, there are those who wish they were. For some, perhaps, the annual meeting allows for the indulgence of personal peccadillos far from watching administrative eyes. Others are more sanguine about it all. Religion scholars are just as human as the next guy. As I looked at this bar window, I reflected on how Christianity (in particular) came to regard alcohol as an evil. Wine and beer were known from ancient times, and even the New Testament has Jesus presented as an imbiber. Temperance, however, grew out of American Fundamentalism that seemed to have forgotten its scriptural roots. I remember learning, as a child, that the wine Jesus drank was really only grape juice with a little kick. Who wants an inebriated God running around the Middle East?

Still, I realize that drinking has its consequences. As the child of an alcoholic, I know the damage that this can do. On the other hand, I know many religions view “controlled substances” as gateways to alternate realities. Other planes of existence. There are even cases where Native Americans have been arrested for using their traditional ceremonial substances in a nation not quite Christian, not quite not Christian. Even on my way to the Gaslamp District, I was saddened to see so many homeless about the city. I knew that as evening fell and the scholars arrived, the bar would come alive. And I knew that when the rain came, some would get wet while others stayed nice and dry.