Holy Haunted Book

Religion is one of those words that defies easy definition. As I’ve suggested before, you know it when you see it, but trying to pin the idea down is a different matter. Consequently, religion is closely related to a number of other areas of interest: philosophy, ethics, monsters, and the paranormal, to name a few. I was interested, therefore to see a blog post recently concerning a “haunted Bible.” Call me naive, but the thought had never occurred to me before: could a holy book be haunted? Churches are notorious for housing ghosts, of course. As someone who’s spent overnight retreats in churches I can vouch for the fact that a sanctuary after dark is a naturally eerie place. I’ve never seen a ghost in a church, however, and I’m not entirely convinced they exist, and if they do, what they might be. In any case, a haunted Bible is a different story.

David Weatherly is a fairly well-known paranormal writer. My web search brought up his blog where he explains that the haunted Bible was for sale on eBay with an asking price of $180,000. The owner, who remains anonymous, claimed to take no responsibility for any damage the supernatural scripture might cause. Instead of thinking that we have here a genuine haunted leather scripture, I know it can be nothing other than a genuine hoax (not on Weatherly’s part). Realtors know well that a haunting can, in today’s climate, counterintuitively drive the price of a house up. With people hungry for some element of the supernatural in their lives, and ghost hunters of all sorts on their televisions, they are willing to shell out a few more dollars to have a spirit around. And since ghosts can’t sign contracts, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there once you move in. The supernatural can, it turns out, be the perfect scam.

If items can be haunted, I suppose a Bible might as well. When an owner, however, turns down an offer of 50,000 pounds that odor you’re smelling is that of a rat. I love old books. I have a few around that have more than a century’s weight on them. Looking at used bookstores longingly, I see first editions of Poe or Shakespeare that sell for far less than the asking price of the most printed book in the western world. Bibles, if you know where to look, can be had for free. I’ve got at least a dozen of them myself. Nothing makes fakery quite so clear as greed. No wonder the haunted Bible was such a disconnect. There’s nothing paranormal about love of money. That’s all too normal for anyone who tries to sell a Bible for implied spirituality.

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Used Bookends

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday in a bookstore. It is actually a rare treat these days with Borders gone and some of the smaller indies having trouble keeping up. I particularly like used bookstores. Unlike most durable goods, books—at least some of them—grow in character with renewed ownership. Like most academics, I have books that had previously been owned by big names in the field. Sometimes because I was a student of one of their students, at other times because their library went for sale and I found the tome in a second-hand shop. A few years back I had to go to Boston for work, and I stopped at the Boston Book Annex only to find it closed. It’s sad when even a used bookstore can’t keep up.

So when my wife told me she had to work on Saturday, and it was in Montclair, my thoughts turned to the Montclair Book Center. It isn’t the largest bookstore around, but it does have used books and it is a healthy walk from my wife’s office. I never go planning to spend much, but being in a bookstore, you see things you didn’t know existed. When the staff comes up to ask if they can help me find anything I just smile and say, “No thanks, I just want to browse.” Maybe it’s because I have no idea what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it.

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I used to visit the Cranbury Bookworm. In a sprawling old house outside Princeton, I often found pleasant, used surprises there. Then the landlord evicted them. They sold off most of their stock and moved to a closet down the street. Even though it’s tiny, there are always others there. I’m never alone in a bookstore. Other patrons feel the draw. I wonder if everyone who reads doesn’t owe a debt of obligation to stop into their local bookstore and pitch in. I grew up in a town without any bookstores at all. The nearest one I knew of was thirty miles away. I know what it is to be book-deprived. It’s Saturday, and a little too cold to spend much time outdoors. It’s probably just an excuse, but you’ll find me in the bookstore nevertheless.

Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.