Only Midway

Unlike some employers, my current one sees the wisdom in arriving early for a major conference. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature is meeting in San Diego this year, and for those of us in the New York area, it’s about as long a flight as you can have in the lower 48. Having arrived in good time, and not knowing much to do in San Diego (I don’t know of any famous writers from this area whose childhood homes I might haunt), I ended up walking to the USS Midway. I’ve never been on an aircraft carrier before, and, on the eve of a religion conference, it was a strangely moving experience. Maybe it was the recognition that I was standing on a floating city on which many people had died in various wars. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a massive piece of machinery designed for its destructive potential. Or it might have been the sheer determination that appeared in every placard: this was a cause we had to win.

No doubt, the Second World War was a just cause. The force of destruction had to stop and the aircraft carriers that enabled the war effort were a huge feature in the “Pacific theater.” Staring at these massive jets, the finest technology of their day, I knew that our greatest efforts had been poured into violence. These were not mere deterrents. Yes, people had died here, but those launched from these decks also killed. War makes claims that way. As I pondered these sobering thoughts, I came to the chapel. Obviously I had to see. An eerie recording of “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” came over the speakers as I walked in. Yes, those on a warship are in peril on the sea. If they are successful, others will have died.


A little further along the corridor (or is it “hatchway”?), I came upon the chaplain’s room, along with my first Bibles of the trip. (I knew they would be here.) A mannequin of the chaplain, cookie in one hand, Bible in the other, sat, apparently, preparing a sermon. What does one say to those going to war? God is on our side, obviously. But what more? The Bible does not forbid warfare. It was a way of life in the centuries during which it was composed. We like to think we may have advanced since then. But as I prepared to exit back onto deck in the warm California air, I passed a display of aircraft carriers past and present. More sophisticated, more deadly weapons continue to be built. And in this day of nones, I wonder who their chaplain might be.

Sola Scriptura

IMG_1641Would you buy a Bible from this man? “The trade is not a complicated one,” quoth Big Dan Teague. People are looking for answers. To making a living selling Bibles, however, requires some finesse in a world where scripture may be had for free. The trick is added value. Now, for those who approach this from a religious angle the obvious question is how you add value to what is claimed to be the word of God. It is, however, a matter of understanding it. Martin Luther, apart from starting the Protestant movement, also translated the Bible into German. The concept was simple: if the Bible contained the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then if the laity read it, we wouldn’t need priests. Greek and Hebrew (and a smattering of Aramaic) are no longer the main elements of a well-rounded education so we need a version that anyone might read. Even the King James is a little rusty, what with words that don’t mean what they seem to—who wants to suffer? Especially in the biblical sense.

Contrary to Big Dan’s assertions, the Bible trade is a complicated one. The text of the Bible (if not specific translations) is in the public domain. The Bible is, however, more than words. It is ink, and paper, and binding. It is an object. By swearing with your hand on it, you can convince the court you’ll tell the truth. Or become president. Or raise a lot of money. Despite the Bible’s decline in academic prestige, it remains a source of popular trust. Not too many items that can be had for free can make such claims of power. It is the book that founded western civilization.

As I board a plane for San Diego, I know that I’m about to see lots of Bibles. Lots and lots of Bibles. Thousands of scholars who spend their lives studying it will gather to discuss its continuing significance and debate its finer meanings. Some will venture to purchase new Bibles. New versions of old words. See what others have to say about them. Somewhere distant I hear Big Dan breaking a branch from a shade tree. This, like most patterns, repeats itself endlessly. Some with tenure will argue that the whole thing ought to be abandoned. Others, forever denied tenure, will vociferously disagree. “One, find a wholesaler, the word of God in bulk, as it were.” And so the debate will continue long into the night. And over the weekend. In fact, ’til Tuesday.

The Past of Education

Meanwhile on earth, I have been checking up on my colleagues at General Seminary. While I’m limited in what I’m allowed to say, an article last week on Inside Higher Ed indicated that a provisional readmission of seven of eight of General’s faculty is now in place. There will be mediation. People are especially good at recognizing patterns. Some years ago, a naive and overly trusting individual, I also participated in mediation. The faculty at a certain seminary had been turned over to Conflict Management Incorporated to learn that you need to make the pie larger before slicing it up. Everyone can get enough to be satisfied. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll still have a job after the dessert course. Power structures being what they are, no one willingly lets go. And we’ll do just about anything to get the media off our backs.

Seminaries are probably more important to higher education than anyone would like to admit or acknowledge. The impetus to gather and educate individuals began as a religious enterprise. The earliest universities were often founded for that very purpose, and even the great intellectual powerhouses of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were originally established to train clergy. Religion and education have been inextricably tied together since the Middle Ages and even before. Ironically, these days clergy are often cast as backward and superstitious. When’s the last time a seminary faculty landed a robot on a comet? If you ever venture to a church door, however, often the denizen of the pulpit is seminary bred. And there is power here. The collective collections can support such splendor as the Vatican. The faithful, we know, are willing to give. With a little pressure.

The Protestant traditions, despite their power structures, never officially developed a doctrine of ex cathedra truth. It is actually a difficult concept to pull off when there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity, and many other religions besides. But we can insist that our clergy attend special schooling. We can pay close attention to those we hire to teach them. Not everyone can read a dead language. Anyone, however, can quote scripture (or at least look it up on the internet). Seminary professors must have advanced degrees and faithful hearts. A combination that may be rarer than a comet. And we will put those individuals into a power structure that dates from the Middle Ages and wonder why it no longer works. Somewhere out past Jupiter a human device sits on a comet. Meanwhile in New York City we’re just not sure we can trust these people with our future priests. People are, however, especially good at recognizing patterns.


Rosetta’s Stone

Among the earliest forms of writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs were known long before they were deciphered. Despite the famed insanity of Napoleon, his visit to Egypt led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and we’ve been able to read what was once pure mystery for over a century now. A week ago today, Rosetta, a robotic space probe, landed on a comet in flight. For a guy who finds a rendezvous with a bus that runs on a supposedly regular schedule a challenge, this is nothing but mind-blowing. If you know the math, you’ll go far. Comets, you see, have long been the provenance of both religion and science. The ancients, apart from being very religious, we also first rate astronomers. Limited by a universe that circled the earth, they nevertheless figured out how to predict things like solstices and eclipses and phases of the moon. Some suggest that megalithic structures as impressive as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza were aligned to significant celestial events. The eyes in the skies.


Comets were generally considered harbingers. Even in ancient times they were difficult to figure out; their orbits aren’t easily deciphered and some never survive their close encounter with Old Sol. Still, they can be impressive. Living in the cloudier climes, glimpsing comets is not a guarantee. Light pollution, especially on the horizon, interferes with all kinds of observations. Now, however, the European Space Agency has shown us that it can be done without seeing where you’re going. A decade of travel time, after at least as long of planning for the trip, and you can boldly go where no person has gone before. Recordings of the electromagnetic frequencies, translated into human audible range, confirm everything from Predator to Signs. 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has its day in the sun and 2001 every day comes closer.

Just a year ago comet ISON disappointed many in its failure to live up to the hype. In our workaday world, we’re eager for a harbinger of some kind. A sign that something out there can still evoke wonder. Comets have long been stripped of their religious garb. They are merely rocks and ice lit up by the sun on their weary trek through the cold loneliness of space. Still, landing on a comet can’t help but change our perspective. It’s like looking at the earth from the moon. Or Mars. We name our planets after gods, but comets bear the names of human discoverers. And we have constructed our own Rosetta stone to read the mysteries of the universe. Meanwhile, the bus waits for no one. If you calculate the trajectory correctly, you’ll hopefully get to work on time. And that, after all, is what really matters.

Holistic Universe

HolographicUniverseThings have been so busy that a satellite landed on a comet and I didn’t even know. I have always wondered about the universe. In fact, as a young man, vying with my tendencies toward ministry I had a vibrant interest in astronomy. The universe, however, has a predilection towards mathematics that frustrates my attempts to understand. I did well enough in my college astronomy class, but I knew it could never be my major. My recent reading reminded me of Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe—a book that has been on my shelf since about the time it was published. In my mind, holograph had translated into arithmetic, and every time I picked it up, fear gripped me anew and I vowed I’d read it later. Later caught up with me the last few days, and I found myself plunged down a rabbit hole that I did not even know was there. When I took physics there was no talk of quantum mechanics. It was all the three laws of thermodynamics and the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection and things like that. Nevertheless, I continued to read science written for the laity, and Talbot’s book rather caught me off guard.

First off, I still have no idea how a holograph works. It is something that seems, to my pragmatic way of thinking, impossible. As Talbot explores this strange concept, however, he introduces a universe I began to recognize. This is one of those realities where the edges don’t quite meet and things that shouldn’t exist show up anyway. In other words, phenomena that are often called “religious” can be made to fit into a holographic universe. Talbot spends a great deal of time discussing miracles and healings. We know that they happen, but we’ve been conditioned to question them. They don’t fit into that universe Mr. Wynecoop told you about in eighth grade. And yet, there they are.

Even after reading the book, I can’t claim to understand how a holographic universe works, but I did come away with a model of reality that allows for the evidence generally swept off the table. Everything from ghosts to time warps are possible in a universe that is a holograph. I’d step off the bus never sure which reality I’d encounter. Still, glancing up at the dark sky, I knew that millions of miles away, someone had recently scored a direct hit on a comet and if we can’t even interpret all that we see on Mars, we’d better be prepared to open our minds for something new. After all, we only see what we allow ourselves to see. Society programs us, just as surely as any computer. And if, like a virus, you play by your own rules, you’ll be the enemy. If you’re willing to ask the uncomfortable questions you’ll be labeled as having tea down a rabbit hole. Maybe, however, I can find a home here. As long as Deacon Dodgson can take care of the math.

Someplace Beyond Longing

November is a month pregnant with significance. It is the month of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month; when I tried it a few years back I finished a novel in three weeks). It is the start of the “Holiday Season” with Thanksgiving kicking off a slightly more relaxed schedule for businesses and students alike. Often the first day of Advent falls near the end of the month. In many places it has already provided the first snow of the season. For scholars of religion, however, November is the month of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. This year it will be held in San Diego, and will, no doubt, impact my blogging schedule somewhat. Being a creature of consistency, I try to upload my posts around 4:30 a.m. eastern time on weekdays, as I start pulling myself together for work. I’ll be three hours off for the latter part of this week, but if trips to California conform to any pattern, I may still find myself awaking at 1:30 wondering why the city is so quiet. California, here I come!

When I attended as a participant, I gave a paper nearly every year. Several of these papers were making their way toward a book that will never be published. Some produce content. Others only consume. Attending as a participant was kind of like a professional vacation—a few days off the usual teaching schedule, trying to find colleagues to catch up on, listening to papers. From the publishing perspective, it is a non-stop four-day weekend of work. As I see my colleagues on their way to late night receptions, I have to beg off. Tomorrow’s a working day for me. The exhibit halls open at eight, and I will have no idea what time it is in any case.

Ironically AAR/SBL is one of the things that has remained consistent in my professional life. It is almost a migratory feeling. I began attending in 1991, only missing the odd year here and there when something more important took its place. I was, however, never an insider. I chaired one of the sections for six years, but nobody ever contacted me suggesting we meet up. I could advance no one’s career. Now my calendar’s full. Now that I have something others want, suddenly I’m a commodity. Funny thing about a conference dedicated to disciplines associated with selflessness. As I pack my bags and make my plans to take care of details while I’m gone, my mind wanders to the purpose of it all. I used to dream that I would forget to visit the book stalls, and on the plane returning home I’d realize that I’d missed one of the most important parts of the show. That nightmare no longer plagues me. It is now the sole purpose for which I attend.

Am I that obvious?

Am I that obvious?

Revisiting Jericho

I don’t get out from the office much. As those who commute to New York City will readily tell you, there is a constant anxiety about getting to and from the city that keeps you in the office (cubicle) as long as possible. Just yesterday my bus broke down on halfway there. I seldom take lunch away from my desk, and even more rarely get out to see what’s actually in Manhattan. Besides work. Earlier this week I wrote a post about the Berlin Wall. Wanting a picture that wasn’t somebody else’s work, I decided to visit the famous slab of the wall in Paley Park. Like many parks in Midtown, this is a mere pocket in the shadow of a high-rise, but a large slab of the Berlin Wall had been there for years, drawing tour guides and history buffs alike. It is only 19 blocks from my office. I’m a fast walker, and I made it all the way catching only three red lights. Since the anniversary of the wall’s Jericho moment had been twenty-five years and a day before, I expected crowds. Instead, no Berlin Wall was to be found. Businessmen smoking away their lives and lunch hours, but no oppressive wall. I double-checked my location. Triple-checked, with GPS. Then I walked 19 blocks back.

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Visiting the comments on one of the wall’s websites, I saw that it had been, perhaps unintentionally symbolically, removed. After standing in this pocket park for nearly a quarter of a century, the slab had been absconded mere weeks before the anniversary when I, and given the number of cameras I saw, not I alone, had gone to see and to reflect. Where does one put the Berlin Wall? There was another piece, I read, at the United Nations gardens. You only had to pay 18 dollars to get in. Although it is close to my old office at Routledge, it is a lengthy walk from where I now find myself. Once I arrived home I searched for answers. The wall had been removed for restoration. A wall that had been sufficient to divide a city, scrawled with graffiti, apparently, required restoration. On the long walk back, I considered my similarly ill-fated trip a couple years back to find the closed Gotham Book Mart. Like the wall, have I become useless history?

My Germanic ancestors came to America nearly two centuries ago, and although I never knew that side of the family well, I suspect it was for economic, not religious reasons. It is sometimes easy to think, given all the rhetoric, that Europeans came here to be part of a Christian free-for-all. No doubt, some did. Many others, however, had more mundane motivation. A strong Protestant work ethic that somehow seems genetic, and a belief that somewhere else is better, will help you get along. So I’m told. So the tale goes in the book of Joshua. Israelites, wanting to cross the water to a new home, blowing their trumpets and raising a shout. Yes, the Berlin Wall did come down. Like the fallen wall of Jericho, it’s nowhere to be seen.