Ready, Ames,

Ames, Iowa is famous for many things. Not only is it where my wife grew up and where we were married, but it’s also the home city of Howard Bannister from What’s Up Doc? and it served as the staging ground for the crew of Twister, which includes some scenes shot in the area. Probably its greatest claim to fame, apart from the sadly defunct Do-Biz Cookies, is being the location of Iowa State University. Often I lingered near campus during family visits, wistfully hoping that someday someone in the religion department would welcome me among the faculty. My academic curse, however, is a powerful one. And that brings me (finally!) to the topic of this post—the haunted history of ISU.

Even the first president had a biblical name.

The website onlyinyourstate (we’re evolving out of the need for a spacebar) has a whimsical story about the hauntings on ISU’s main campus. The story isn’t scary at all, but it does raise that interesting specter of the ghosts of higher education. I’ve read a few of Elizabeth Tucker’s books about haunted campuses (Tucker teaches at another family school, Binghamton University) and, having spent a good deal of my life in academia, I’ve heard many tales first-hand. The very institutions that repeatedly bash our heads with facts can’t escape their own spooky pasts. Even conservative Christian Grove City College had its share of hauntings that we all knew about. You know, the Ketler ghost, and the spirit of the basketball player who broke through a glass door and bled to death right there on campus? Every campus I’ve known has had its baleful wraiths.

Sometimes I wonder if such stories aren’t a natural reaction to having the wonder excised from the world as we mature. Most of us can make it through high school somehow believing in the real possibilities that the world might offer, only to graduate from college to a 9-to-5 existence robbed of any supernatural splendor at all. Is it any wonder coeds see ghosts? Just the other day I read that a tree trimmer with a high school education in Iowa makes a much higher salary than I do with a Ph.D. working in New York City. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the movie Ghostbusters so much. When the reality of higher education and its politics and cruelty become clear escapism can be your best friend. And if you find yourself in Ames, you might want to avoid Friley, just in case.

Do the Twist

TwisterA used book sale is like a box of chocolates, if I may abscond with a simile that fits many scenarios. After all, you are there to buy books that others have discarded. Some of them show their age rather blatantly. Keay Davidson’s Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie is one such title. Those who know me well know of my fascination with weather—I wrote a little book on the subject based on that obsession. Although the weather informed and formed me long before I was ever near a tornado, these particular terrors were so exquisite that I couldn’t help but look. Although I grew up in Pennsylvania—not exactly tornado alley—one night when I was away from home a tornado swept by less than ten miles from where my family was. It toppled trees down one side of a hill and up another. It was eerie and uncanny and in many ways shook me out of the feeling that I never had to worry about them. Then when I went to Ann Arbor for a weekend with my fiancee the sky turned bronze. Rain was whipping past horizontally. Later we learned that a tornado had passed maybe four miles from where we were. Living in Illinois and Wisconsin, we experienced many tornado warnings. I never saw a tornado, but somehow thought I should.

It goes without saying that if I see a book on tornadoes that is reputable and cheap, I can’t pass it up. Davidson is a journalist whose work appears (as of the two decades ago when the book came out) in National Geographic. Some of you may not have been living in tornado alley twenty years ago, and therefore may not have felt the excitement that Twister, the movie, promised. By the time it came out I had already been thinking about Weathering the Psalms, at some level. I was a bit disappointed in the film itself, but it does mention that an F5 tornado is “the finger of God.” Davidson’s book picks up on this as well. At several points witnesses, and even scientists, lapse into divine language to describe tornadoes. One person even says that a tornado is an image of God, or that the storm is God. That’s a very natural way for people to think. The power of a Midwest storm has to be experienced to be believed.

The divine represents the highest echelon of language. The tornado fits because it is the most powerful wind on the planet. Concentrated, raging, and fickle. One can’t help but think: I was raised Protestant, what if the Catholics are right? Substitute any religion in either half of the equation. The weather simply does not do what we want it to do. It reminds us that humans can’t comprehend our own atmosphere that we so blithely pollute. The book may look dated—who remembers Twister anymore?—but it is a forceful reminder. When you need a metaphor for the most intense experience the weather will always be waiting.

Buyer Beware

Pain, it is said, has a wonderful way of focusing the mind. So when I woke up in what can best be described as a body position used for extras in the movie, Twister, I took a few aspirin and got on with my life. I had purchased non-refundable tickets for a campus visit, and capitalism is nothing if not unsympathetic. The lower back pain was fine when sitting, or standing. Try anything in between, however, and you’ll learn the real meaning of reading the riot act. Once off the train—slowly, slowly—I was fine again, until I had to sit down. The next morning, facing a day of meetings (why is everyone’s office on the fourth floor? Why do Brownstones still lack elevators?), I decided I’d better pop into CVS for some meds. It was with considerable irony and not a few groans that I noted all the products for back pain were on the bottom shelves. The condoms, in the same aisle, were right at eye-level. Sitting on the floor, pondering the relative merits of chemicals of which I’d never heard, I thought about what we take for granted.

Parents and guardians are our first teachers. Among those early lessons are often the religious ones. Recently speaking with both seminary professors and pastors, I have heard the common refrain that church membership is declining and the number of younger people listing themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. I noticed this in my teaching outside the seminary setting; quite apart from students of other religious traditions, many undergrads took my class knowing nothing at all of the cultural matrix of Christianity in which they’d been raised. It is also true in a consumer mentality that one shops for religious experiences just like one shops for backache medicine. You go with the one that works for you. Few bother to ask if they agree with the theology, after all, Methodist = Baptist = Presbyterian = Lutheran in many people’s minds. Doan’s or Bayer? Take your pick.

Now that Dark Shadows has been released for home viewing, another component may be added to the equation. We pass on what we value to those we love. While the writing for Dark Shadows leaves quite a lot to be desired, there are a few memorable lines. Angelique, you may recall, cursed Barnabas Collins for unrequited love, turning him into a vampire. When he laments to Elizabeth Stoddard that Angelique hates him, she replies, “No, if she had hated you she would have merely killed you. A curse takes devotion.” Passing on our beliefs, perhaps, somehow ties into all this. As believing creatures, perhaps we each need to find our own solutions. My only fear is that when I find the right remedy, it may very well be on the bottom shelf.

Read the caption

Weather the Psalms

Among the academic detritus cluttering my desktop is a book I wrote while employed at Nashotah House. Not being a native Midwesterner and finding myself where severe thunderstorms are a blasé fact of life for much of the year, I was captivated by and terrified of the weather. At the same time, daily recitation of the Psalms was a major part of our required, twice daily worship. With the thunder louder than I could ever imagine it outside, we’d calmly read the Psalms, at our stately pace, confident that he who rides upon the clouds could protect us, his humble servants. After many years of recitatio continua I noticed the plenitudinous mentions of the weather in the Psalms. After a painstaking five years of reading and rereading the entire Psalter, I had translated every verse with a weather reference and had written commentary on them.

Publishers showed no interest, this despite the enormous success of Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, and Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (both of which I eagerly read) and the recent release of Twister. One publisher deigned to make comments as to the great problems of my thesis, so I sat down to revise this behemoth of a book. The very day I was called into the Dean’s office and fired was the last time I looked at the material. I had been revising the book that very morning. The one sad aspect of this entire episode is that every colleague to whom I mentioned the book was excited to read it when it came out. There was a real interest, but no publisher willing to take on the project, this side of vanity publishing.

Some days I think I may go back to that dead beast of a project and try to resurrect it. My academic publishing has slowed to a tortoisene pace without full-time institution support or interest (independent scholars are not worth investing in, I have learned), especially under the weight of teaching nearly a dozen classes a year. Nevertheless, the idea seems sound to me. I keep a weather-eye on the academic horizon and I have yet to spot a book like mine anywhere within the publication catalogues. Considering the importance of storm gods in the ancient world, perhaps we’ve simply moved beyond this interest, tucked away in our interior settings. Nevertheless, when a rare thunderstorm comes to New Jersey, I still remember the majesty of the weather and a forgotten book on the Psalms.

Even the NWS recognizes Noah

The Divine Finger

As the thunderstorms break out overhead yet once again, I am naturally reminded of tornadoes. I grew up in a part of the country relatively free from natural disasters. In my little corner of western Pennsylvania we felt secure from the earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, mudslides, and hurricanes that seemed to plague other parts of the continent. Then one night a tornado came. I happened to be a few hundred miles from home working a summer job when the cheery newscaster announced that a tornado had swept through my hometown during the severe thunderstorms we’d had the night before. I had always believed our unrelenting hills made us somewhat resistant to the tornadoes that plagued our next-door neighbor Ohio. It was probably then that my fascination with severe weather, especially the tornado, began.

Pulling the divine plug?

Pulling the divine plug?

One of the reasons for the entirely understandable fear accompanying tornadoes is that they have all the hallmarks of an ideal divine weapon. In an article soon coming out in Maarav, I argue that an obscure Hebrew word should probably be associated with whirlwinds rather than tumbleweeds. Although violent tornadoes are rare in Israel, the story of Elijah seems to imply that a weighty prophet may be hefted skyward by a whirlwind, and that sounds tornadic to me! There are passages where whirling winds are referenced as harbingers of divine wrath, an association that clings to tornadoes even today. I ended up writing an entire book on weather terminology in the Bible that had been fueled on by this ambiguous fascination. Publishers, it seems, alas, do not share my enthusiasm for the topic.

Classic F-5

Classic F-5

The popular media, however, shows a glimmer of understanding. The second half of the 1990s (when I finished my draft of my book/doorstop) was a bonanza of American storm fascination; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (1997) was shortly followed by Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm (1999) and both tailed the much-touted movie Twister (1996). Being somewhat of a connoisseur of tornadoes, I was disappointed by Twister, but one scene remained scoured into my memory. A layman asks one of our overly-folksy, lovable storm-chasers what an F-5 tornado (the F-, or Fujita-scale is the measure of a tornado’s intensity based on the level of damage it leaves behind — 5 is the highest number on the scale) would be like. One of our jocular heroes becomes suddenly serious and replies, “The finger of God!” Despite the cornball, this is an accurate explanation of the awe that surrounds a storm as random as a tornado. Adjacent houses can suffer entirely different fates in a tornado, or, in a poignant story I’ve never forgotten, a Wisconsin tornado killed one of a set of young twins in the same house during the storm. Finger of God, indeed. If Moses had lived in Iowa I’m sure he would have made liberal use of the tornado for precisely that image.