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.

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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.

Harboring Hopes

I am not what you’d call a fashion-conscious man. I literally still wear clothes I had in college. Most of them are petty much for around-the-house, given the condition they’re in, and although I wear jeans less, I have never really tried to “change my look.” I wear my hair (now grayer) the same way I did in high school, and most of my clothes, realistically, come from my teaching days. As I walked along the Seaport Village walk here in San Diego, a group of red-shirted workers, on break from unloading a truck, called out to me. Now, I know better than to talk with strangers, but working class types are my people. I am from a deeply blue collar background, and I feel that I have much more in common with them than with the priest who’s handing me a pink slip. Or the average professor. So I stopped. “Are you a professor?” one of them asked. In honesty I answered, “I used to be.” The fellow turned to his companions and said, “I knew he was a professor.” Turning back to me he said, “of what?” This is the part where crickets start to chirp and a tumbleweed blows by. “Religion,” I confessed.

This led to a spirited debate between two of the men. The one who called out told me that he’s now a Christian. He was raised Catholic but after having been out on an “effing ship like that” (the USS Midway) he found Jesus. One of his companions began arguing that religion was a terrible thing—causing people to insist that they are right and others are wrong. He argued that faith was fine, but as soon as you start calling it a religion, problems arose. I put my hand up to shade myself from the late afternoon sun. I was far from home, and I had no idea what these men wanted from me. Was I supposed to give them the answer to which was the true religion? Maybe they just wanted to be heard. I demurred and encouraged them to continue seeking. As I walked away, one of them said, “that’s a smart man.” The first said, “I told you he was a professor.”

What does a professor profess? While waiting for my plane in Newark, I heard two religion professors (actual, and ancient) discussing the fact that they’d retired. “But I want to keep on teaching,” one said. Without, I thought, considering that you’re keeping younger scholars from finding gainful employment. Yes, teaching is enjoyable—I know nothing like it—but there can be other outlets for sharing your wisdom. My wife has recently taken to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). There are community events where you might not get paid, but your wisdom would be providing a service. And you’d be opening the door for others. Sounds like a religious thing to do, instead of being selfish or self-important. Or then, you could just walk along Seaport Village. Rather than turning away from the common worker, answer him or her when he or she calls out to you. It is the way of true teachers.

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