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It’s disconcerting. Being mistaken for somebody else. I suspect I’m not alone in having shown up somewhere I’ve never been before only to have people mistake me for a local. It’s happened to me a couple of times, and what with the recent Steve Wiggins incident in Tennessee, it’s enough to make me question my uniqueness. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of undergoing identity theft some years back, and floating myself out here on the internet is something the wisdom of which I sometimes question. If I’ve got enough doppelgängers running around out there, perhaps I should be careful of revealing too much online. Such problems my grandparents never had.

A long time ago I turned off the warning alerts on my phone. It’s not that I don’t care, but rather it’s that I keep odd hours. Without revealing too much, I think I can say that I’m awoken somewhat often by those who don’t go to bed so early, or who don’t think about timezone changes before hitting “send.” We here in the American orient awake earlier than others. So I switched off my alerts. Then I started reading that other people were getting “Steve Wiggins alerts.” Was fame passing me by in the night? While this wasn’t the kind of fame I’d hoped to attain, a few stray visitors to this blog couldn’t hurt. When I searched Google for information on “Steve Wiggins” I found myself listed in the Google box on the right as “other.”

Some people who’ve written only two books are listed as “author” on Google. In my case it seems Google can’t figure out why anybody would be searching for me. “Other.” They say Google knows everything. It certainly knows how to flatter the self-seeker, at least most of the time. What does it mean to be an “other?” The unclassifiable? My work, indeed, falls into the “other” column, like that of many people who’ve made plans only to run into the cold reality that fate has laid out for them. Not being a professor any longer is a source of constant confusion to me. Books I read state that x or y knows about a subject because university z or w has hired them. There are those kinds of experts, then there are the “others.” And because of recent events, there are those instantly famous for killing another man and running away. Who am I? I’m not legend; I am other. What exactly that means I still haven’t sorted out.

Biblical Stories

The Bible had quite a week last week. It went from being vetoed as the “state book” of Tennessee to making it onto the list of the ten most challenged and banned books of the year for the first time. Did you ever get that feeling that you should’ve thought a bit more closely about career options? I mean, the Bible’s not half bad. Yes, it has some naughty bits, a few instances of cursing, and adult situations. There are homicides, suicides, and genocides. It endorses slavery and advocates religious intolerance. It’s not all bad news, however.

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We find it easy to make summary judgments based on our own tendency to elevate human products to divine status. That which is most holy, after all, becomes the most profane when it’s defiled. The Bible itself can be like any other book. Printed on paper, bound between two covers, it contains ideas that must be interpreted. There’s no such thing as “just reading.” Even that road sign that says “slow children” is open to hermeneutics. What is objectionable is the use to which the Bible is put. And that use is objectionable due to the claims made about it. Saying that God rolled up his immaterial sleeve and took a transcendent pen into his incorporeal hand and began to scrawl is a bit naive. We know that people wrote the Bible—and much of it is sublime—and other people compiled it into a book that eventually acquired sacred status. It wasn’t born holy, it had to grow into it.

Once the Bible became objectified it turned into what people eventually use all objects for: a weapon. We can take sticks and stones and break your bones (no, that’s not in the Bible), and we can take paper and ink and hang you as a witch. Or pillory you as a liberal. Or say that it forbids the love you feel in your God-given heart. Something strange has happened here. The Bible’s not a bad book. It’s a bit on the long and repetitious side, but it has many, many memorable sayings and noble sentiments. Entire civilizations have been based on it. Or readings of it. They’ll ask you to put your hand on it and swear in court, and then they’ll ban it so your kids can’t read it. It’s been a tough week for the Good Book. Somehow, however, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it because people love a conflicted story.

States Slights

States, at least the united kind, can have personalities. Some of us move after the diminishing herd of jobs and so end up in places we hadn’t really planned to live. In each state where I’ve made by domicile (six, as of the present), I’ve met people born and bred, down home and with no intention of ever leaving their native land. To such people, I imagine, state symbols may be important. I always felt unjustly proud of Pennsylvania’s Keystone status. I was born there, but neither of my parents and none of my grandparents were. I don’t live there any more myself. I was pleased and just a little surprised to learn that New Jersey has a state dinosaur (the hadrosaurus), discovered right here in the Garden State. This past week, according to an NPR story my wife sent me, Tennessee is trying to garner its own state dinosaur, in the form of the Bible as the State Book. I think it would be a great idea for each state to have an official book, but I would think that it might be a book written by someone from that state.

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Senator Steve Southerland, according to the story, put forward the legislation due to the Bible’s importance in the Volunteer State. The problem is, of course, the Bible is a religious book and that by choosing a religious book you’re getting dangerously close to choosing a state religion. “There used to be a wall here,” you can almost hear the constitutionally minded saying. The Bible is important. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, no well-informed individual can deny that the United States has had a long and complicated love affair with the Good Book. As I try to show in many of my posts, the Bible still permeates our society in unexpected ways. Nobody’s trying to erase that history, but really, which state is going to select the Rigveda for its own book? Or the Qur’an? The Analects?

States are justly proud of their contributions to the whole. We have state flowers, mammals, trees, and birds. Tennessee’s is the Mockingbird. We have state slogans and mottos. But can any single state claim the Bible more than any other? I have to be just a little suspicious about claims that there’s no religious jingoism at play in suggesting it should be any state’s book. Yes, many Bibles are printed in Tennessee. Many writers have called the state home as well. Wouldn’t the more distinctive contribution come from a book that Tennessee actually had a hand in producing? Bibles, like it or not, can be claimed by all. I can see a tug-o-war coming with Texas, should this state symbol be canonized.

States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

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Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.

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The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Darwin Down the Road

Chapman TrialsThe accidents of birth are the stuff of evolution. When I first heard of Matthew Chapman, direct descendent of Charles Darwin, over a decade ago, I was determined to read his book (then new). Like the accidents of birth, the finding of books at used bookstores is also a kind of evolution, so I picked up Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir recently and finally read it. Mission accomplished. It had been long enough that I couldn’t recall what the reviews said that made me so eager to read it—I had been developing a course on science and religion at Nashotah House and had been reading about evolution—but I’m glad I got around to it. The book was neither what Chapman nor I had expected. Maybe I’d better explain.

The year 2000, apart from its millennial aspirations, was also the 75th anniversary of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Chapman, a screenwriter from England, decided to go to Dayton, Tennessee to report on the reenactment of the Scopes Trial that was caused, accidentally, by his great-great-grandfather. With acerbic and self-deprecating wit, he narrates how he missed the performance by arriving for the wrong weekend and yet how he’d already begun the book based on it. Instead of reviewing the reenactment, he wove his own life story into those of the people he met on his two trips to Dayton, and left us with an engrossing memoir. Most Europeans, we know, consider American reaction against evolution with some puzzlement. As an Englishman, Chapman shares that curiosity and also, he admits, kind of wanted to make fun of southerners. His encounters, however, forced him to realize just how human all people are.

There’s a healthy dose of exposure to some of the weird ideas of fundamentalism here, but Chapman pulls no punches. The people he met treated him kindly. Some fundamentalists were even likable, even though they could not agree on much. At turns very funny and very sad, this autobiography represents, in its own way, the tensions of any life. The sensual confessions would have made famously squeamish Darwin blush, no doubt, but demonstrate to the reader that a man who can make a lot of money writing movie scripts can be very human as well. And so can the religious. The denizens of Dayton didn’t convince Chapman that their exclusive faith was true. They did, however, open him to the realization that such faith is not as simple as it may seem. A fortnight may have passed since the millennium, but creationism has continued to gain ground. Until more people take Chapman’s cue and actually try to understand those who believe, the trial of the century will continue to go on and on, ever evolving.

Fear of the Known

Social media has become the new reality. Not that rumor ever had much trouble before the internet, but now our cultural memes explode so fast that we have to be wired constantly to keep up. And what we see makes us afraid. The other day I came across a story on channel 7 WSPA website out of Spartanburg, South Carolina. I don’t suppose I have any business needing to know what was going on in South Carolina, but the headline “Mysterious ‘woman in black’ spotted in Tennessee” got my spidey sense going (or my Men in Black sense, but that’s just a bit cumbersome). Was this a female urban legend who shows up after UFO reports and warns the witnesses to keep quiet? The truth is much more mundane. She’s a woman, dressed in black, walking south from Virginia, currently in Tennessee. Police say she has a name and she’s from Alabama. Since she’s all over social media, however, people are worried.

She’s on a Bible mission one woman has claimed. A Blues sister in black? Others claim she’s from an Islamic nation. Some implicate the Pentagon. When someone exhibits unusual behavior our minds turn to religious causes. Why would a person dress in black and walk down the highway? It’s just not done! Must be religion. On YouTube apparently a video shows her arguing about religion with a man in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where’s the element of surprise there? If there are any firmly fixed social markers they are surely Wal-Mart and religion. Time to be afraid.

Scarcely a day passes when I’m in New York that I don’t see someone doing something peculiar. It’s the new normal. I suppose religion is sometimes the motivation, but I wouldn’t know. The gospel can be pretty difficult to identify definitively these days. You can’t trust someone just because they dress in black any more. After all, we’ve seen agents K and J battling aliens on the big screen since 1997 and there doesn’t seem to be much preaching involved. There is conversion, however, and just a dash of conspiracy theory. That’s more like American-style speculation. Internet fame is remarkably easy for some. Put on your black and walk down the road. And if you see Johnny Cash along the way, there will be no doubt that this is newsworthy indeed.

Bible-thumper or alien?

Bible-thumper or alien?