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.
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.
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?
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.