Tag Archives: Society of Biblical Literature

Books Anonymous

If you stick with something long enough, you’ll get onto all the mailing lists. These days even if you innocently click on an internet ad it will come back to haunt you for weeks on every web-page your visit. One kind of ad I don’t mind is the book catalogue. For those of you old enough to remember print catalogues, you’ll know what it was like, paging through. You’d see volumes you didn’t know about, but suddenly you couldn’t live without reading them. Around the time of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, your mailbox would fill up with these catalogues from anyone who publishes books on religion. Not a single year passed when I didn’t come up with a wishlist based on those catalogues.

The other day one arrived called simply “The Religion Flyer.” I flipped it over to see from whom it came. No indication. Inside the offerings were largely Catholic. But then some evangelical publishers appeared there too. And the Society of Biblical Literature. The only commonality I could find here was the Bible. These were biblical books. Again, as I taught Bible for nearly two decades, this was no surprise. Still, who was to benefit from these sales? I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that books aren’t produced if they aren’t projected to make money. Sad, but true. So who sends out a catalogue with no contact information? Who benefits? The backside has a list of bookstores, along with an order form. As in the catalogue itself, the stores are mainly Catholic, with a few Evangelicals thrown in. The Society of Biblical Literature, which sells its own books, didn’t make the cut.

Could this be truly altruistic book advertising? Not many people suppose that biblical study is good for the world, so I admire the conviction of these stalwarts, whomever they may be. Publishing is a business like any other. The powerful voices that say knowledge should be free don’t, I notice, office their classroom instruction without university tuition to pay their salaries. We’re all the victims of capitalism, I fear. Someone, or ones, took from the limited time that they have to produce a catalogue simply to promote the subject. They were likely hired to do so—I’m not really that naive—but they did so without drawing attention to their own efforts. There once was someone who said that acts of goodness should be done by one hand without the other hand knowing. Not many believe that any more. Even though it’s biblical. Who benefits? Those who have eyes to read.

Remember the Alamo

I’ve never started a fight. I’m actually a very conciliatory type, willing to be wronged in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This election has made me feel a little pugilistic, however. The sheer size of Trump’s loss based on the popular vote makes me hope I’m not alone in this. I find myself in San Antonio at the moment. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, which rolls around the weekend before Thanksgiving, has been a regular aspect of my career since 1991. My hotel room overlooks the Alamo, and the implications—indeed, the irony—are not lost on me. I don’t know a great deal of Texas history, but what kid grows up without hearing about Davy Crockett, who died a few yards from where I lay down my head?

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I’ve known many Texans in my life. Many of them have been, and continue to be, perfectly reasonable people. Good and loyal friends. Lots of people like to live here. Indeed, the population of the state has swelled over the past quarter century. I’ve also encountered Texans (particularly at Nashotah House) who acted like the enemy at the Alamo wasn’t Mexico, but the other states. In the light of last week’s election I’m reminded of the words of one of the Mexican officers, after Santa Anna declare the battle a light one. Reportedly another officer quipped, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.” Voices from the other side of the wall. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from getting in so late, but I’m looking at the Alamo and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is going through my head. The lesson of the Alamo is that although you may lose the battle you can still win the war.

This is my second visit to San Antonio. Last time I was here, for the same conference, one of my doctoral advisors was over from Edinburgh, and we walked through the Alamo together. Today we are lamenting Brexit and Trump together. By slim margins the alt-right has learned to game the system. The problem seems to be apathy. It’s clear that we’re going to have to fight from now on just to get a little social justice around here. Strange words coming from the fingers of a lifelong pacifist, but you’d think that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony might have had more lasting effects. Perhaps it truly is time to remember the Alamo.

Moral Money

Yesterday I spent at the Mid-Atlantic Regional American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting. Not a registered guest, I was there in mufti. Those who know me stopped by to greet me, even without a name tag, but I noticed, as I increasingly do, the youth of the attendees. Apart from the business discussed, the issue of these younger colleagues kept arising. It’s as if the tap was left on but the glass is already full. Presidential aspirants aside, we live in a world where people are increasingly realizing that you can’t squander resources. We have compulsory education to try to make the next generation smarter, more fortunate than our own. And those who have the inclination and ability to go on for advanced study, we throw into menial jobs and poverty because, despite the myth, a doctorate doesn’t help your financial prospects. Universities have become businesses and one of their top-end products is the doctorate. The doctorate with no future.

Sitting in the lobby between appointments, I can’t help but thinking back to a younger me. I am part of what older colleagues are calling “the lost generation” of humanities scholars. Those who have the credentials but no opportunities. A wasted resource of a nation that loves reality TV and blustering windbags, as long as the windbags are billionaires. It makes me sad to think that instead of making a place for those driven to high achievement, that we’ll offer them poverty-level adjunct positions with Obamacare, food stamps, and excessive hours. When they burn out, like a high wattage bulb, we’ll go to the closet and screw in another to replace them. Just don’t turn off the tap. Graduate students bring in money.

This is a moral issue. Since it involves what are scare-quoted as “the elite” we seem not to care. Isn’t it fun to knock down those who think they know too much? I sit in the lobby and watch the bearded young men, the young ladies with heavy backpacks thrown over their shoulders, and I want to warn them all. And it’s not just me. My colleagues, lost generation or not, all agree. We’re sending our best students to oblivion. In the most prosperous nation in the world. You can tell we’re prosperous because all it takes to gain the confidence of a political party is lots of money. Lots and lots of money. I won’t mention the obvious that such loose lucre could be put to good ends, making jobs for those who’ve poured their lives into bettering their minds. Or maybe I will. It is a moral issue, after all.

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Book Deaf?

It’s Tuesday morning and I have been listening to authors pitching their books for three solid days now. Truth be told, I am a bit jealous. I’ve got a few more books in me yet, but research time simply does not exist in the world of capitalism and its discontents. Not that I envy being on the author’s side of the table—I remember how it felt to pitch Weathering the Psalms to several editors and to receive an icy “no” in response. I think now I begin to understand. Yesterday one of my appointments asked if I was “book deaf” yet. It was a term I’d never heard, but I immediately knew what he meant. Editors hear pitch after pitch. I pull out my phone and look at my calendar and see a new project every half-hour throughout the day, but no, I’m not book deaf. In fact, I have to constrain myself to keep my credit card firmly inside my wallet. Being surrounded by books is like being in a jungle teeming with deadly animals.

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From the exhibitor’s booth, Tuesday is a day of relief and worry. Most of the papers are over at AAR/SBL, and most of the participants have already left. As at any conference, fair, or exhibit, we are strictly forbidden from taking down the booth before closing time. We stand about, straining our ears to hear that first transgressive ripping of strapping tape from its roll, indicating that someone in another booth is being naughty. We’re tired, weary even, but not book deaf. Never book deaf.

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In my unguarded moments I sometimes think that maybe some day I’ll have a book here that others will clamber to find. Maybe someone like me will prowl to a pre-selected booth with a specific title firmly in mind, and that title will bear my name. I suppose it could happen, although it isn’t likely at this point. I hear each pitch and more. I hear the dreams and deep desires of every author. We want to be heard. We want others to think us respectable, honorable even. There are publishers out there who will publish anything. They will accept books to fill catalogues and websites and you’ll never hear from them again. Still, you’ll find some interesting things if you wander by their table. And if someone sees that you’re an editor while you’re browsing you’ll never turn a deaf ear. This is what religion scholars live for. Books are our reality.

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The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.

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Go to, Let Us Make Brick

Next year marks a quarter century. It’s a sobering thought. A quarter century of attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. A lot has changed over the years. Much of the loss, I fear, has been of innocence. When I first flew into Kansas City, naive at 29, and still believing the world offered opportunities for those who would work hard enough, the academic job market was tight. I had no interviews whatsoever, and spent many hours in the employees’ hopeless lounge, dreaming that someone might call my name. Although no jobs came of it, I could hardly blame the academy for “market conditions” outside their control. An economy based on unadulterated greed and emulating the worst practices of the business world was eating higher education alive, from within. I had no way of knowing. For a couple of decades I attended more often than not, optimistic that the lies I’d been told might yet turn out to be false. That those who had the gifts and abilities would be recognized for what they were. I was so terribly young then.

Through a variety of roles I have continued to attend this conference for all these years. I have not seen so much hopelessness until this. Colleagues come to me, barely holding back tears. Conditions in our universities are bad and are getting worse. We have no students, but clients. The hours of preparation for the classroom are now being measured in metrics like “return on investment.” The basic vocabulary of higher education has evolved to the point that it is a new Tower of Babel. It sits on Wall Street and considers what is offered to our young as commodities. Nobody worries if they learn anything or not. The exchange of goods at personal advantage is the only way that one can exist in a market economy.

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The only hope any culture may dare to claim for its future lies in education. Those economies that have not suffered as much as our own are those where education is still revered. Where you don’t have to hold a MBA to speak with authority. Where truth might just be an abstract and where not all things can be measured in shekels. I have been attending this conference for a quarter century and never I have I seen despair such as this. I have to wonder about a nation that takes those highest achievers and those with the most initiative and slaughters their hopes on the altar of the angry deity of vain baubles of self-aggrandizement. We bet on futures that are no futures at all. My beard is whiter now, and my glasses stronger. I am still able to see, however, the folly of launching into the North Atlantic in early April before any kind of radar has been invented with lifeboats made only of money. I only hope I’m wrong.

Birth of a Legend

I was sitting in the restaurant attached to W, a boutique hotel cum chain, with my brother-in-law Neal Stephenson. He was on a book tour and kindly treated me to breakfast. Above his head I noticed a slightly salacious painting portraying a nude lady in bed saying “Of course I think you’re adequate. I love you!” In the doorway stood a headless man in a red coat, clearly intended to be the headless horseman. I pointed it out and Neal, being an author, made some inquiries about it. Nobody in the hotel seemed to know anything about the image’s relevance, so I did some internet sleuthing. I knew Washington Irving was born in New York City. I don’t know where precisely, and I’m not really sure how to find out. New York, in those days, didn’t reach so far up Manhattan Island, and we were near downtown, at Union Square. Probably this was the outskirts back in Irving’s day. I had already started my research for my paper on Sleepy Hollow, so I was attuned to the clues. W is now a chain, but I think the first W was the very one where we met. The restaurant where we had breakfast was the Irvington. The website said nothing about the origin of the name. Had we been eating where Irving had spent his youth?

This was a slight synchronicity. I had been researching Irving and had ended up meeting someone at a hotel which, it may turn out, had been named after him. Which Washington was the Squire really named after anyway? Washington Irving had been named after George Washington, so perhaps the point was moot. Months passed, and I wrote and honed my paper for public delivery. I’d almost forgotten the existential pleasures of following a lead and drawing some conclusions, whether or not history might bear them out. My brain was fully active.

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My flight to Atlanta yesterday for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting took off from Newark Airport on time. I thought I had a row to myself, but a couple of guys came in, talking, just before the cabin door was closed. They obviously knew one another, but not terribly well. One asked if the other was from Valatie, “where Ichabod Crane is buried.” These were not professorial types, which you often see at the airport this time of year. Just regular guys. “Yeah, there’s an Ichabod Crane High School,” the other replied. Their conversation moved on to other topics, but I sat there thinking about the synchronicities my paper seemed to be generating in my life. Of course, many people do watch Sleepy Hollow, not many, I suspect, are academics looking for connections to American religious thought. It seems that research never really ends.