Flight of Fantasy

Today marks the end of the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. As the last attendees who have stayed through to the final half-day make their way through the dreaded Tuesday-slots for papers and wander the exhibit halls in search of last-minute bargains, I wonder what impact we will have made in San Diego. Many of my conversations this year included lamenting over the state of higher education, particularly in the study of religion. Religion, which led to the very concept of higher education, is now perceived mostly as little more than a somewhat unsophisticated intrusion into the cold, hard reality of business. And educating future entrepreneurs is, make no mistake about it, business. Wither the institutions go, publishers will follow. The life of the mind is a perk that we no longer can afford. And yet, as colleague after colleague attests, this is what students really find fascinating. Perhaps even important.

As we get ready to head back to the airport, I reflect how it is so much like being a passenger on a plane. We’ve purchased tickets to get us near where we want to be, but we aren’t directing this jet. The pilot, isolated from us by an unsurpassable barrier, will, we trust, get us to the designated airport. That, however, is not really where we want to go. We won’t happily loiter there. Impatiently we’ll await our baggage at the carousel so that we can wend our way back to our homes. Where is the business end in that? Isn’t it, however, what we live for? And what of the San Diego we’ve left behind? How many people will say that their lives will have been improved by having the lion’s share of religion scholars in their neighborhood for a long weekend? Will the number of homeless have decreased? Will they have found jobs?

While those of us “not from around here” ride elevators more nicely appointed that some people’s houses, the televisions meant to prevent us from growing bored from the twentieth floor to the first, show how the other half lives. It’s sunny and nearing eighty today and Buffalo has snow higher than our heads. Reporters flock to the snow-locked city and wonder at nature’s extremes. It doesn’t seem to play along with our business plans. There must be some way to make some money out of this. But I have an unconventional theory. Maybe I’ve watched Bruce Almighty too many times, but I wonder if all those prayers made by children for a snow day may have been stored up in, what scripture assures us, is a great divine warehouse awaiting release. Perhaps the doors of that storehouse have been thrown open to remind us that sometimes the business of living is simply the wonder of watching it snow. No matter how inconvenient it might be. And lives will have changed for the better.

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The Presence of Ideas

Attending the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting is a bittersweet experience. There is nothing as awe-inspiring as being in the presence of ideas. Whether it is meeting friends who have grown old with me over the years, or younger scholars who promise a fascinating future, or those newly discovered that feel like old friends, they all have ideas. Of course, it is not the editor’s job to produce content, no matter how long or deeply one has been trained to do so. Here is where the bitter of the flavorful metaphor comes in: the suppression of ideas is painful. Throughout my career I have had the benefit of being trained by maverick thinkers who, although I hadn’t realized it at the time, were showing me the way to a kind of enlightenment. Enlightenment, whether it be the absence of thought or the plenitude of it, will lead to places we can’t possibly expect.

When talking about ideas with others I realize how artificial our trite divisions are. For many years I was labeled as a “Hebrew Bible scholar.” “A seminary professor.” Or any number of other simplified categories. My interest, however, was always the finding of the truth. No other goal, it seems to me, is really worth all the energy we put into academic discourse. Sure, I may have studied obscure dead languages—the kind of work that is required to read what many call the word of God in the original (and even earlier than original) language(s). There I found deities battling monsters and chaos perpetually lurking in the background. Ideas in conflict. I somehow knew truth would always win. In fact, I more or less took it personally when AAR initiated its temporary separation from SBL. The two need each other, no matter how much they might argue in the night.

What's the idea?

What’s the idea?

After my first full day of the conference, my head was so swimming with ideas that I had a night full of frightful intellectual dreams. Although I may have trouble convincing the great institutions of this land, I do know that I have something to offer. Ideas crowd around me like a newly exorcized man, seeking entrance to a receptive mind. The more we claim we know, the more we have to learn. I face another day of greeting ideas and seeking their company. Of course, I’m a company man, and I should know what I’m here for. The bittersweet truth of the matter is, however, somewhat more complex than that. I can think of no better place to explore it in the company of friends I’ve known for years, or even only for the past few minutes. As long as they bring their ideas.

Dry Nation

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is a big thing. It draws a myriad (literally) of scholars together every year and invades a fair sized city that may or may not be a religious haven. San Diego feels like a pretty Catholic city to me. My cab driver from the airport was a Muslim, but many of the churches and place names around here reveal a natural comfort with Catholicism. My first night in town, on my own and somewhat weary from awaking at 3:30 on the other coast to get ready to catch my flight, I wandered through the Gaslamp District looking for some authentic Mexican food. It is surprisingly tricky to find, although I’m only twenty miles from Tijuana. Along the way I passed a bar that had a welcome AAR/SBL poster in its window. Now here was a vender that recognized their client!

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Many of those outside the profession assume such conferences as this are like higher education Sunday schools. Undoubtedly, there are those who wish they were. For some, perhaps, the annual meeting allows for the indulgence of personal peccadillos far from watching administrative eyes. Others are more sanguine about it all. Religion scholars are just as human as the next guy. As I looked at this bar window, I reflected on how Christianity (in particular) came to regard alcohol as an evil. Wine and beer were known from ancient times, and even the New Testament has Jesus presented as an imbiber. Temperance, however, grew out of American Fundamentalism that seemed to have forgotten its scriptural roots. I remember learning, as a child, that the wine Jesus drank was really only grape juice with a little kick. Who wants an inebriated God running around the Middle East?

Still, I realize that drinking has its consequences. As the child of an alcoholic, I know the damage that this can do. On the other hand, I know many religions view “controlled substances” as gateways to alternate realities. Other planes of existence. There are even cases where Native Americans have been arrested for using their traditional ceremonial substances in a nation not quite Christian, not quite not Christian. Even on my way to the Gaslamp District, I was saddened to see so many homeless about the city. I knew that as evening fell and the scholars arrived, the bar would come alive. And I knew that when the rain came, some would get wet while others stayed nice and dry.

Harboring Hopes

I am not what you’d call a fashion-conscious man. I literally still wear clothes I had in college. Most of them are petty much for around-the-house, given the condition they’re in, and although I wear jeans less, I have never really tried to “change my look.” I wear my hair (now grayer) the same way I did in high school, and most of my clothes, realistically, come from my teaching days. As I walked along the Seaport Village walk here in San Diego, a group of red-shirted workers, on break from unloading a truck, called out to me. Now, I know better than to talk with strangers, but working class types are my people. I am from a deeply blue collar background, and I feel that I have much more in common with them than with the priest who’s handing me a pink slip. Or the average professor. So I stopped. “Are you a professor?” one of them asked. In honesty I answered, “I used to be.” The fellow turned to his companions and said, “I knew he was a professor.” Turning back to me he said, “of what?” This is the part where crickets start to chirp and a tumbleweed blows by. “Religion,” I confessed.

This led to a spirited debate between two of the men. The one who called out told me that he’s now a Christian. He was raised Catholic but after having been out on an “effing ship like that” (the USS Midway) he found Jesus. One of his companions began arguing that religion was a terrible thing—causing people to insist that they are right and others are wrong. He argued that faith was fine, but as soon as you start calling it a religion, problems arose. I put my hand up to shade myself from the late afternoon sun. I was far from home, and I had no idea what these men wanted from me. Was I supposed to give them the answer to which was the true religion? Maybe they just wanted to be heard. I demurred and encouraged them to continue seeking. As I walked away, one of them said, “that’s a smart man.” The first said, “I told you he was a professor.”

What does a professor profess? While waiting for my plane in Newark, I heard two religion professors (actual, and ancient) discussing the fact that they’d retired. “But I want to keep on teaching,” one said. Without, I thought, considering that you’re keeping younger scholars from finding gainful employment. Yes, teaching is enjoyable—I know nothing like it—but there can be other outlets for sharing your wisdom. My wife has recently taken to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). There are community events where you might not get paid, but your wisdom would be providing a service. And you’d be opening the door for others. Sounds like a religious thing to do, instead of being selfish or self-important. Or then, you could just walk along Seaport Village. Rather than turning away from the common worker, answer him or her when he or she calls out to you. It is the way of true teachers.

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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.

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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.

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