Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Fictional Facts

“If you want truth,” Indiana Jones famously said, you need to go to philosophy class. The sad fact is most people have little practical training when it comes to such issues as discerning truth. Some time ago I read an article about how fake news travels faster and is more deeply believed than actual truth. I suspect that’s because the truth is hard. The age-old trope used to be a wizened elder sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position. A lifetime of thinking through the labyrinthian corridors of wishful belief to get to what is finally and unassailably true. Our president, with the full complicity of the Republican Party, is out to dismantle the concept of truth once and for all.

Indiana Jones was contrasting facts to truth in this scene from The Final Crusade. The idea was that facts sometimes make you question truth. In GOP University, however, facts have alternatives. He who bellows the loudest is the harbinger of truth. Never mind that still small voice that comes after the raging wind. The voice that can stop a fiery prophet in his tracks—a man who could raise the dead, for crying out loud—but even his successor called Herod a FOX. In the culture of the shrug, who really cares? Finding the truth is so much navel-gazing. There are real enemies to bomb and somebody has some money that I can take away and claim as my own. To do so we can make up facts as we go along and lies will see us through. With the Evangelical seal of approval.

Even with rumors of a fifth film swirling, I miss Indiana Jones. In his formative days fascists were the enemies, even of the Republicans. Although he was showing his age in Crystal Skull, Jones still couldn’t countenance oppressive regimes. Scientific studies show people would rather believe fake news. We’re hopelessly prone to fantasy, I guess. Even as I volunteered on the archaeological dig at Tel Dor, although I had little money a fedora was required. There was a difference, however. I knew I really wasn’t Indiana Jones. I was digging for facts so solid that they could be held in my hand. Unlike Dr. Jones’ students, I did go down the hall to Dr. Trammel’s philosophy class. Surrounded by the young Republicans of Grove City College, none of us doubted that truth was spelled with a capital T. Now Truth is apparently an artifact buried in the sand, awaiting a hapless archaeologist to bring it to light. Amid all the forgeries that non-specialists can’t tell apart.

Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?

Incident at the Wailing Wall

While reading about Jerusalem lately, I recalled my first visit to the Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is the only standing part left of the temple that Herod the Great refurbished on the site of the temple originally built during Solomon’s reign, destroyed by the Babylonians, and rebuilt under the Persians. This was called the “Second Temple” because the first had been razed and although Herod had basically rebuilt it, the second one had never been destroyed (that would happen a few decades down the road). Today the Wailing Wall, the western wall of that magnificent temple, is a sacred site to Jews, and to not a few Christians. My visit took place in 1987. I was volunteering on a dig at Tel Dor, and on a free weekend I’d taken the bus to Jerusalem with some friends to look around.

It was late Friday afternoon. I was on my first trip overseas, and, like most fresh-eyed youngsters, photo-documenting as much as I could. I raised my camera. A guard walked up to me. “No pictures on the Sabbath,” he said. He had a machine gun and I didn’t, so there was no arguing the point. Besides, I had just finished the roll. (Does anyone out there remember film cameras?) I stepped into the shade of an alcove to change the roll. A couple of Hasidic men stopped me. “No photos on the Sabbath,” they warned. I assured them I was just changing my film. It was clear, however, that no more pics would be snapped. I rejoined my party and took out a notebook—at least I could jot down a few impressions. Another guard approached, “No writing on the Sabbath,” he said.

This episode has stayed with me over the years. With Trump’s international tour, I’m reminded that I’ve always striven to avoid the “ugly American” syndrome. I respect the local rules. The incident at the Wailing Wall, however, was a case of religious rules, wasn’t it? Does the enforced rest of the Sabbath apply to Protestants? Indeed, I’d been warned that if I didn’t catch a bus before sundown I’d never make it to Jerusalem on a Friday evening at all. Conflicting theocracies have led to more than their share of international sorrow. Why not take the high road and simply absorb what is going on around me? There’s a profound wisdom in that. Travel should inform our worldview. Those who encounter walls should stop and consider all they might mean to all who will eventually face them.

Insane Deities

GodsMustBeCrazyIt was 1987. I was in Israel for a good part of the summer excavating at Tel Dor. Between degrees and trying what to do with my life, like many people, I sought out a holy place. One evening while I was there, the locals (I can’t recall if it was the dig coordinators or the local community) sponsored a public showing of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The movie was fairly recent then, and it was the first and only time I’ve seen a movie captioned in Hebrew. I had a seminary friend who often showed me movies at his place, but this was one I had somehow missed, even though it came out when I was in high school. I’ve seen the movie several times since then, but not in the past seven years or so (this blog is a pretty good record of my movie viewing as well as book reading). This weekend we dusted it off and popped it into the DVD player and I noticed a few things for the first time.

Spoiler alert: not for the movie, but for reality. The portrayal of the bushmen in the movie is pure verisimilitude. While living much more in harmony with nature than modern, industrial late capitalists, they are not a completely peaceful people with no violence. We can overlook the “noble savage” viewpoint for the sake of entertainment, but anyone who researches human cultures closely finds that the perfect society doesn’t actually exist. Still, what I noticed in the movie diegesis was the bushmen had no need of theodicy. Theirs was a world where the gods gave them only good. The Coke bottle becomes their “tree of knowledge,” to put a Judeo-Christian spin on it, and they even use it for curing snake skins. The movie doesn’t work, of course, without this fictional view, but in reality all believing people require a theodicy.

Our particular disc of this movie has a less-than-dynamic special feature of someone who never identifies himself following up on the movie. This rambling, twenty-minute featurette shows “current” (for it must be a decade old by now itself) developments among the bushmen. Two hundred miles from the nearest electrical grid, schools are being equipped with solar panels so that the children can learn about computers. A laptop in the middle of the Kalahari. As I reflected on the loss of innocence theme, this struck me as surely as an angry serpent. The world in which we live allows for only one way of existing. It is a world of money where even the self-sufficient must be wired into the matrix. If ever there was a need for theodicy, this was surely it.

In Touch with History

A friend recently sent me a package with a Roman jar handle from Caesarea Maritima. It’s not everyday that I receive 2000 year-old artifacts in the mail. Holding that ancient jar handle reminded me of my short stint as a wannabe archaeologist, not far from Caesarea at the site of Tel Dor. There’s no thrill like unearthing an artifact that has been buried for millennia, knowing that you are touching something a fellow human being dropped for the last time back in the days of the early Roman Empire. It is a humbling experience. In all probability the final touch was a heave into the dump, since clay jars are easily broken. But as I finger this ancient piece of useless junk, I can plainly make out how fingers like mine twisted the clay and pressed it on the jar body, much as I once did in art class, decades ago. I am connected with a stranger over the millennia by this simple bit of clay. We are united in an ancient family.

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Archaeology began as a biblical venture. Anyone who watches Raiders of the Lost Ark with archaeological sensibilities, after rolling their eyes (yes, it’s deserved) can’t help but realize a kernel of truth is buried here. Archaeologists don’t search for the ark, but it was religion that gave them the idea in the first place. Travel to the Middle East and begin digging up the places mentioned in the Bible. Those early archaeologists wanted to prove that the Bible story happened just as it was laid out. Only it didn’t. Archaeology soon began to reveal a more complicated picture. Jericho was uninhabited in Joshua’s day. And was there even a historical Joshua? What began as a charge to demonstrate that the Book of Books never gets it wrong transformed into a science with its immutable commitment to objectivity. And objects.

The desire for historical proof meets a deep need in people. We want to know what really happened. This simple jar handle before me tells a mute story of a person like most of us—never famous, never noticed in the noise of first century Palestine. Just some Jane or Joe throwing out the trash. That is the story of archaeology. That is the story of human life.

Every once in a while I ponder how insignificant we are. The vast majority of us will be remembered only a few years or decades beyond our demise. What will our artifacts say about us? One of the relics that will be found in the rubble of my life will be a Roman jar handle from an even earlier age. Long ago deemed junk by a person so different, but not so very different, from me. It was discarded two millennia ago. When it was found in the twentieth century it was a treasure. Thanks, Susan, for putting me in touch with history.

Rock Hard Cafe

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At first glance it may not appear to be much. A small chunk of rock, probably limestone. Hardly large enough to be used in a sling against a giant in a pinch. Still, it is special. What makes this rock special is the context from which it was removed. A friend has recently returned from Israel and he brought this rock for me. It is from the Mount of the Temptation, atop which sits a lonely monastery cared for by a single, elderly monk. The thought of someone thinking of me in such a (literally) God-forsaken wilderness is touching. My brief travels through the desert of Judea offered plenty to occupy my restless mind. I’m pretty sure we zoomed by the base of the Mount of Temptation in an air conditioned bus one day on our way to somewhere less desolate. Or more. The sharp-voiced little skeptic in my head immediately kicks in: if Jesus was alone when tempted, how could anybody possibly know where it happened? I can’t picture him leading a tour there later—“and this is where I almost turned stone to bread; don’t those pebbles look like challah to you?”

But then, it’s not about historical accuracy. This little stone in front of me is a symbol. Broken off of the karst geography of the rocky spine of the Holy Land, this shard is meant to remind me to avoid temptation. A nearly identical piece of stone from Israel sits among my teaching trinkets. One of my students went to Israel back in my days at Nashotah House and returned with a bit of limestone for me. She said, “you can keep it as long as you put it on top of my gravestone when I die.” This was a custom I’d observed long before I’d even heard of Nashotah House. Long before religion grew flinty and unyielding. Stones bear remembrance. Although Israel is not as arid as many people believe it to be, rock is a natural resource of uncommon abundance. We age and die, but the rock remains. The rock remembers.

My six weeks in Israel were spent among the rocks of an ancient settlement known as Tel Dor. Archaeology, I learned, is mostly just removing the dirt from the rocks in the ground—at least at the entry level. Those stones tell a story. They were once a city, a district administrative center. Now they lie in dusty profusion, and only the most ardent of Bible readers will recall ever seeing Dor’s name in the pages of Holy Writ. Built by Solomon, the Bible grandly claims. Now all is ruins. The grandeur of a king toppled with the passage of time. My mind is drawn back to a treeless stretch of a mountain devoid of even the hardiest plants. A person can grow mighty hungry there. Mighty hungry indeed. Temptation comes, unbidden. Life is an unbroken chain of temptation, for those willing to be honest in the desert. That little stone is, in truth, bread.