Missing Markers

Something truly remarkable happened this week.  The Society of Biblical Literature, which, along with the American Academy of Religion, meets annually in November, has canceled its in-person meeting.  I’ve been attending this conference since 1991 (with a few years off for good behavior).  It always meets the weekend before Thanksgiving, stretching to the Tuesday prior.  Some academics use the meeting to have an exotic Thanksgiving break with their families, particularly when it congregates someplace warm.  (It was scheduled for Boston this year.)  So I’m ruminating what this will mean for a year of missing markers.  Some of you may recall I missed two years ago, electing to stay in Newark Airport instead, but this is different.  We’re all being changed by this virus.

Missing markers.  That’s what my wife calls it.  March 12 was the day that Covid-19 became a crisis.  In my extended family that’s in the middle of birthday season.  Travel plans had to be altered.  Trips to see loved ones had to be delayed.  Then cancelled.  Memorial Day came and went.  It was a long weekend, but for most of us it was a long weekend at home.  Our usual summer trip to the lake was also a victim.  A remote lake may be the safest place to be, but you have to get there.  Flying doesn’t seem safe and we don’t have enough vacation days to drive all the way out and back.  Here we are halfway through the summer and each day feels pretty much like the one before, even if it’s a day off work.  Time seems out of whack.  Back in April it was hard to believe it was still 2020, now it’s difficult to comprehend that the year’s more than half over and there will be no AAR/SBL in November.

Growing tired of the phrase “unprecedented times,” I prefer “missing markers.”  Yes, the weather’s still doing its time-keeping job.  This summer has been quite hot around here, for the most part.  I remember shivering in my study sometime not so long ago, bundled up in layers and thinking that when summer rolled around this coronavirus would be a bad memory.  If only there were something governments could do to keep people safe.  If only there were people in the White House who cared.  I had visions of professors, hundreds and hundreds of them, wearing masks with their tweed.  It was a vision of wonder.  They’d walk up to you, extending an elbow to bump, but you’d back off.  That’s actually too close.  And lecturing spreads germs very effectively.  Over time 2020 itself will become a marker.  I’m not sure anyone will miss it, however.

Bunny or No?

Since we’re in the midst of a smaller holiday season (capitalistic societies can only get away with one major holiday season because the workers must work) many people are wondering whether they should go to church for Easter tomorrow.  I’ll confess I woke up from a nightmare this morning where I accidentally forgot about COVID-19 and went to church.  I stepped inside and the building was full.  I tried to find an empty pew to socially distance myself from all but the Divine, and there was no room.  I felt infected as others started to cough around me.  In real life I’d just read from the World Health Organization’s situation report (number 80, located here, in case you want to see) that we’ve just reached day 100 since WHO received its first notification of this new disease.  The report has guidance for those who feel compelled to gather for religious services.  It makes for very interesting reading.

WHO, like certain political parties, knows that people will listen to their religious leaders rather than reason.  (And still our universities cut positions in their religion departments since, apparently, it is best not to know about such things.)  Recognizing that a secular, science-based organization simply can’t compete, WHO urges religious leaders to spread the word about evidence-based responses to the outbreak.  Don’t gather large Easter-day crowds (they also mention Passover and Ramadan), but, interestingly, do keep the services going.  WHO recognizes the psychological (you can’t say “spiritual”) value of religious belief.  It gives people hope and comfort.  It keeps them going in difficult times.  Call it mental health, but the World Health Organization has wellbeing right there in its title.

Photo credit: ItsLassieTime, via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the same day I saw an email from the other acronym in my life, SBL (the Society of Biblical Literature).  They were releasing their annual report showing the dismal job market figures for the discipline over the last year.  These jobs are fading and although WHO recognizes billions of people are motivated by religion our smartest institutions are shifting their money away from understanding it.  The COVID-19 outbreak puts us in this strange place where disjunctures become focal points.  If you look at a field of uniform gray long enough you’ll stop seeing anything at all.  You need contrast for vision to work.  WHO recognizes that religious observance constitutes a major challenge for the effort to keep people isolated.  Universities now in isolation, continue to see no reason to study this.  I’m waiting to awake from this nightmare.

All Been Ready

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.

Merch

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 before  I 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.

Reentry

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.

 

Extra Baggage

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.

Museum Piece

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.

Sacred Places

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.

Some Bible Lovers

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.

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.