As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.Norman’s song rings in my ears.Only this isn’t a biblical plague.We’re just acting like it.
No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.What is essential travel anyway?Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?I wish we’d all been ready.
The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.I do wish all of us had been ready.
I recall the time I first heard the word “merch” used as a verb.I was with some wonderful ladies on the second annual Women’s March, in New York City.We had to leave fairly early to get there from Jersey and as we made our way to the march route, we saw the goods. Vendors had all kinds of things on sale, from the ubiquitous tee-shirt to refrigerator magnets.One of the women in the group said, “I guess you can merch anything.”And so you can.People will buy all kinds of identifying marks.It’s a craze I personally don’t get into.I buy plain clothes, having more of an Amish aesthetic.Still, I was a little surprised to notice that the Society of Biblical Literature is now merching itself.
Now, who can blame a non-profit for trying to score a little on the side?We all know what that’s like.What I find myself most curious about is who would want to advertise that they’re working on a degree that will, in all likelihood, find them on the breadline when it’s all over?I’ve known many who’re proud to be nerds—they’ve got employment to give them creds.Those of us tormented by the meaning of it all, not so much.My decision to go to grad school was accompanied by the blessed assurance that there’d be plenty of opportunities, but there was no merch.Indeed, I was two years into my doctorate beforeI even found out what the SBL was—the great connector whence came jobs.At least in theory.I found my post at Nashotah House because a friend told me about it.I still have some of their merch.
Knowing what I do now, would I have done it any differently?It’s difficult to say.Who can recall the frame of mind of his younger self with such clarity as to know his choices?Having studied Bible I was curious whence it came—to turn back even further the pages of history.As I sit here in the early morning I have on my last two remaining pieces of Edinburgh merch.My moth-eaten woolen divinity scarf and my blue alma mater sweatshirt.I try hard not to think how close to three decades ago it was.I was so sure I’d find a job with that rare Scottish degree, imprint of John Knox’s breeches still fresh upon my head.Instead the merch of my current employer—a coffee mug—stands before me, reminding me that work alone awaits.
Image credit: NASA/ISS Expedition 28, public domain from Wikimedia Commons
They call it reentry, I suspect, because of the perils and stress experienced by astronauts reentering the earth’s atmosphere.If the calculations are off, you either burn up or bounce back into the void.Neither is a pleasant prospect.It is also the feeling many of us experience at returning to work after the holidays.We’ve had a taste of life without gravity, then suddenly you’re back into the thick of things.It didn’t help that among my accumulated emails (I do not check work emails during my few allotted vacation days or holidays) was the notice of the sudden death of fellow scholar Gary Knoppers.Gary’s interest early on included Ugaritic, before shifting to Second Temple Studies.I once asked him over breakfast if he recalled the question I posed as a grad student when he presented an Ugaritic paper back in Kansas City.Of course he didn’t; I don’t recall any questions I was ever asked either.(With one exception.)
Gary died prematurely, just back before Christmas.The usual venues for finding out such news, like the Society of Biblical Literature portal, were also on vacation.It is maybe best that I didn’t learn about it until reentry.Still, it didn’t make it any easier.I can’t claim to have known Gary very well, but the suddenness with which someone you know dies can lead to shock.Not so much the fact of death itself, but that it has claimed someone you knew.I was working with him on a book idea for my employer.We had traded health complaints about not being young men anymore.It’s all so very human.
On Ash Wednesday a couple years back one of my colleagues asked if I was going to get ashes.I replied that I thought about death every day and that I didn’t need ashes to remind me.She thought it was a funny response, but it is actually true.One benefit of my religious upbringing is that it early took away the fear of dying.Since all people have to face mortality, it never made sense to me to fear it.That doesn’t mean the same thing as wanting to die, but the price to pay is frequent visits to the valley of the shadow in my mind.I was merely being honest that Ash Wednesday; my interest in horror is, by the way, related to that constant awareness.Gary was a productive scholar and a kindly man.Learning of his death so soon after the holidays became its own kind of reentry.And a reminder that January looks both forward and back.
So, I’m packing.Have been, on and off, since January.One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets.You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets?We have no danger of that.Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff.Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours.Our closets have led full lives.It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating.We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?”Then I came upon it.The layer of SBL tote bags.Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.
If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean.Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy.Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books.(That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.)But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags.I’ve been attending SBL since 1991.Do the math.I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda.And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.
Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets.What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already?Reduce, reuse, recycle they say.At least half of my totes have never been reused.Zippers?Who thought of that?Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors.I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that?(San Francisco, 2011.)The black leather edition—remember that one?(SBL, n.d.)The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale.You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance.Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs.From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail.I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana.I’m sure that’s just me.Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery.I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.
So the Museum of the Bible is now open in Washington, DC. It actually opened while a quorum or more of biblical scholars were busy making their way to Boston for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Many of the guild realize that the museum’s a conservative, evangelical venture, but it brings some attention to the beleaguered field and so it’s strangely welcome. This shows itself in the rather surprising names on museum publications. Renowned scholars don’t seem to think through the implications of supporting such places with the star appeal of their names. Indeed, many in the professorate are starved for attention—I’m not judging; I implicate myself even by making such a suggestion. When such an institution opens, it validates those it implicitly condemns.
A Bible museum?
Scholars can be woefully naive. Visiting places such as the Museum of the Bible, or the Creation Museum, or the Ark Encounter, pumps money into the already very well-funded Christian right. Such believers are extremely political and seek to get candidates like Trump elected. By slaking our puerile curiosity, we’re funding those who’d have us stripped of our very freedom to believe as we do. The paper trail’s there for any who wish to follow it. Supporting such ventures in any way will lead to headaches in the future. Sure, I’d love to see dioramas of dinosaurs on the ark so that I could feel superior for a little while. There’s a price for such vanity, however, and that price is the loss of freedom itself. We see it at work in our government at this very moment.
Museums are places for artifacts that are outdated. This is an ironic statement to make concerning the Bible. Especially by those who believe it is the final word. Why put that word into a museum? The irony’s worth it if enough paying customers arrive. Scholars meanwhile try to find ways to analyze this. Articles and books are appearing, stating what we already essentially know. The Green family, motivated to repressive political action because of their Bible belief, have spent money to build an elaborate museum, money that could’ve been used to help the poor. The book that appears in that museum suggests that the poor should be our concern. And although it actually does say that idols shouldn’t be worshiped, it has the great potential to become one itself. All you have to do is pay the admission price to find out.
Boston Brahmins, lock up your doctrines—AAR/SBL’s come to town. Boston always has special associations for me. My first home away from home. Where I met my wife. Where I learned what you can only learn at seminary. Coming back is like coming home. Of course, I’m here to work. As I was getting ready for this trip I recalled that the conference met in Boston when I was studying for my Master’s degree at Boston University. Unlike many graduate schools these days, no overtures were made for students to attend. In fact, I didn’t know what all the in-joking among the faculty was all about. I relearned the existence of the conference as a grad student in Edinburgh a few years later. Few traveled across the Atlantic for it, at that point. In fact, none of the Edinburgh faculty who’d eventually become regulars had ever considered going. My first meeting was in Kansas City.
The meeting has grown since those days. Now regularly expecting about 10,000 scholars (can one help but think of 10,000 maniacs?) a year, the venues are limited. Atlanta, Boston, San Antonio, San Diego. Chicago and Denver once in a while. Personally, I’m glad it’s close enough for a train ride. New York City and Boston, two peas in a pod. My only regret is that I won’t be able to get out to my old stomping grounds. Some colleagues (few read this blog) contact me at the last minute asking if we can get together. My schedule’s booked from breakfast through supper each day. Those who attend as participant-observers have no idea. These are the longest working days of my entire year. Still, they’re in Boston.
I often muse about place on this blog. We’re attached to the place where we’re born—it’s our personal sacred space. In life we grow attached to other places, whether we can settle there permanently or not. I wanted to live in Boston. I did so for a year after attending seminary here, making a living doing this and that. Having a master’s degree in religion doesn’t get you far in life. In those heady days of sleeping on the floor and finding out what life was really like for the unconnected, I learned an awful lot. And when the woman I wanted to marry came back for a visit, I proposed. I’ve only ever visited Boston since. But whenever I manage to do so, even if it’s just for work, it’s like coming home.
I’m on a train heading to Boston. If you notice a dearth of religion scholars in your neighborhood this weekend, it’s because it’s time for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. If a religious emergency comes up, take two of your favorite scripture and call the office next week. Viewed from the outside, this must be one of the stranger scholarly gatherings. A few thousand people get together in posh hotels and convention centers to exchange ideas about which the larger world cares very little. Ironically, the vast majority of people in the world are religious, but as a society if we know enough about the Bible to get us through the most recent indiscretion, so we’re good. Let the scholars have their fun.
This year there’ll be a session on monsters and monster theory that I helped to organize. That doesn’t mean I’ll get to attend it—the conference is a very different beast for those on the exhibit hall floor—but I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s happening. Years ago I discovered that many of my colleagues who are teaching shared an interest in monsters. Many of us weren’t aware of the others because this isn’t the kind of thing you talk about in polite company. One thing an editor may be is a vector. We hear what widely separated people are working on. Every great once in a while we’re able to put the pieces together. So it was with monsters. There seemed to be a critical mass, and two or three colleagues took the idea and ran with it. Or ran from it, whichever you do with monsters.
For me Boston will be a series of meetings that will blend into one another until I’ll have to consult my notes to remember anything at all. If I could feel this wanted outside the conference I’d never have to dream of being a rock star. You see, editors are the gatekeepers of academic publication. For those lucky enough to have teaching jobs, it’s publish or perish, so the editor is a vital link. The rest of the year we fall into the background. Emails go ignored. Reminders are forgotten. Requests unanswered. But here, out on that carpeted concrete, we’re the ones they’ve come to see. What we do in the conference matters very little to the world at large. But we do it anyway. We gather together just before Thanksgiving, thankful to be reminded that there are others like us.