Horsemanship

Hi ho Silver, away! I’ve been pondering academic freedom. (It was suggested to me that I might discourse on such.) My academic career, three years cold in the grave, seems a long way away. In religious studies it is kosher to fire someone for academic freedom issues. Doctrine permits no challenges, for it has already been decided. This doesn’t only apply to conservative religions, but to academic institutions of all stripes. Nobody likes to be challenged. Somehow, since 9/11 any academic dispute in religion is a potential threat. I have known many academics to have lost their jobs. I also know how it feels to see colleagues go from grace to grace because they have an institution that will vouch for them. I don my black mask and saddle up Silver. Those of us raised in working class families watched that show, you know, religiously. And Gunsmoke, among other campy westerns. Caricatures of good guys versus bad guys. You know the story.

In a moment of self-delusion, I thought I might be asked to deliver a paper at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I plodded along in my cumbersome way, reading a few books on academic freedom and interviewing a couple of its sacrificial victims. Turns out I was, well, self-deluded. It is probably for the best since I don’t wish to put myself forward as an expert on anything. Still, it felt like arriving at the front desk on that great and terrible day to find out your name’s not in the book after all, and so, where do you go now? Academics are running along as healthily as they always have. I was not raised knowing the difference between a salad fork and a meat fork. Some colleagues insist that universities crave the voice of hoi polloi; the authentic blue collar academic who worked his or her way up from a disadvantaged start through a doctoral program. I know it’s all just fancy talk. Academics are just as xenophobic as the rest of us.

Losing an academic position is easy. It’s like falling off a horse. I speak from experience here, having fallen off a big horse during a canter while helping underprivileged kids at horse camp one summer. It didn’t seem much like the wild west at the time. Seeing the world in a side view of the horse as you’re sliding off has a way of changing your perspective. You know the ground is coming fast. You just hope that your feet have slipped the stirrups. When it was all over the horse whisperer (or whatever they were called back then) publicly berated me for letting the reins fall from my hand. I should’ve slipped them over the saddle horn on my way down. Didn’t I know that the horse might’ve stepped on them? Rubbing my sore backside, I didn’t feel like such a masked lawman anymore. Silver had gotten away. At the dining hall I could feel the uncomfortable stares. Which one is the salad fork again? I never could keep my silver straight.

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fashions to Slaves

Howard Thurman was a theologian who held saintly status in my days at Boston University. As an African-American he’d experienced episodes while growing up that nobody should have to face. I remember him writing about being stuck with a pin in the hand by a caucasian girl who declared, “you don’t feel pain.” That image has stayed with me for decades. Unfortunately, that image hasn’t remained alone. I’ve been reading about slavery in the ancient world. No matter your race, slavery was considered a kind of ontological state. The color of your skin didn’t matter; your social status did. Slaves, you see, were less than human. When the slave trade began its hideous trans-Atlantic business ventures, essentially an entire race was classed as subhuman, because it is easier to feel good about mistreating a subhuman than it is a fellow being with a soul just like yours, if only purer.

This is not to deny the very real and troubling, criminal mistreatment that African-Americans experienced during the colonial period. The deeper problem with slaves was that of social status. If you look closely enough, you can always make someone “the other.” Heck, we’ve done it for millennia with those of the female gender. Something that has always bothered me has been how sociologists, political scientists, and historians constantly overlook the concomitant issue of class. In the new world we like to image we’re a classless society, but we’re not. The plight of many African-Americans today is economic. If you prevent people from having access to education and good jobs, they become much more easy to repress. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, just someone with the will to look. Those who write the history are those comfortably ensconced in offices and with research assistants, and people who empty the departmental garbage for them after hours.

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

How easy it is to suppose that the other is not the same as me! Most people do not like to challenge their preconceived notions. This is one of the real values of an education in religious studies. Take that intimate belief and put it under a microscope. Many would leave the lab screaming. Those who remain, patiently probing, learn uncomfortable truths. If the biologists are right—and there seems to be no reason to doubt it—all people evolved from common ancestors and we have more in common than we have that separates us. Skin color is only skin deep. Gender differentiation is merely in the service of species reproduction. What really makes us different is culture. And culture always requires classes. As even the ancients knew, some tasks are odious, and it is far more pleasant if we can compel someone else to do them. First, however, we must use our religion to explain why they can be made our slaves. If anyone doubts this, read Howard Thurman and see if he can’t change your mind.

Dark and Stormy Night

LadyAndHerMonstersI miss my monsters, especially when I stay away too long. I had eyeballed Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece nearly a year ago in a busy Port Authority bookshop, and wanted to curl up with it right away. Well, work and the world intervened, but finally I found time for the beast. Although a member of the monster kid generation, as a child I never felt much kinship with Frankenstein’s creation. I think it is because there was so much human intention involved in his origins. Almost ungodly. Too godly. Vampires and werewolves, and even mummies, seemed to have come up on the wrong side of a curse and couldn’t be blamed for being what they were. Frankenstein’s monster had a willful, if neglectful, creator. A human being, and fully so. There was, it seemed, some kind of blasphemy at work here.

Montillo’s book, however, gives me pause to rethink this. I had never realized, foe example, that Shelley’s book unfolds over nine months, and that Mary Godwin Shelley had suffered as her own fate unfolded—or unraveled—after Percy Shelley’s death. Nor had I stopped to consider that in the lifetime of these young lovers scientists and poets were overlapping careers with philosophy holding them together. I also hadn’t realized that Percy Shelley also shared his beau’s enchantment with the fantastic. But Montillo gives us so much more, wandering through the seedy world of body-snatchers and scientists who experimented on the dead, often with an eye toward a secular resurrection.

Frankenstein’s monster has, of course, become an instantly recognizable fixture in our society. Indeed, it is almost the definition of monstrosity: the ultimate mischwesen while being technically only one species. A creature that crosses boundaries and is both dead and alive, a miracle and a curse, innocent and evil. Morillo places this creature in the context of a world where galvanism was thought to bring life and medical schools scrambled to find corpses to dissect and on which to experiment. A world where the Shelleys would visit Lord Byron and Polidori, literally on a stormy night, and give the world both Frankenstein and the prototype of Dracula. Where the three men of that night all died prematurely and tragically, survived by a struggling Mary who lived only to fifty-three and who gave the world one of its most memorable nightmares. Horror fiction was, and is, considered lowbrow entertainment, but there is something profound here. And we are richer, if more unsettled, for having it.

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.

Confusion_of_Tongues

Sustain This

Sustainability“Grant me chastity and continence,” Augustine famously prayed, “but not yet.” That tragicomic scene kept coming to me as I read Jeremy L. Caradonna’s Sustainability: A History. Few ideas can bear the sheer weight of irony than that of a human population destroying their own and only planet. We know we’re doing it, and yet for a few more greenbacks to flash before our fabulously wealthy peers, we don’t mind warming the place up by a few degrees. There’ll be time to throw on the brakes right before the crash. I once took a ride, perhaps unwisely, with a friend who believed nothing could go wrong. Although the car didn’t actually roll, it came awfully close, and I am haunted by what might have happened. The difference between that incident and destruction of the environment is that the latter has already happened.

I’m cynical enough not to believe in simple solutions to complex problems, and reading Caradonna was a sobering finish to a day that had started out optimistically. Such books are not easy to read. Science does not come charging over the hill like the cavalry to save us at the end of the picture. You can’t take your marbles and go home when the marble is home. Sustainability does not set out to be a bleak book. There is a guarded optimism to it, and I was particularly pleased to see that sustainists readily recognize that without some kind of just distribution of goods, no system will ever be sustainable. I had no idea, until I read this book, that some economists advocate for a steady state economic existence instead of the ridiculously illogical constant growth. Constant growth in a world of limited resources is the worst kind of delusion.

We’ve gone pretty far down the road to destroying our planet. Already it will take many decades to repair the damage done. If we can muster the will to address corporate greed with a good old dose of primate ethics. Society, in all honesty, may have to collapse before that happens. If it does, of course, the strong will survive. I have a prediction to make, and it’s one that rationalists won’t like. If we can’t avoid the wall that is right before us, and if society as we know it buckles under its own greed, the survivors will, as sure as gray matter, devise a religion to explain it. As a species we are all about myths. Like fabled saints we believe we can have our fossil fuels and consume them too. Before rising sea levels wash us all away, do yourself a favor and read Sustainability. And when you’re awake for nights afterward, tell everyone else you know to read it too.

Dystopian Paradise

Dystopias resonate with me. As I ponder why, two factors seem to rise to the surface: dystopias are inevitably populist in orientation, and I was raised religious. Each of these factors requires some explanation, but so does the choice of addressing dystopian topics on a cheerful September day. In an article by Debbie Siegelbaum in the BBC News Magazine, Project Hieroglyph is featured. Project Hieroglyph, which involves some people I know, is an attempt to write a more optimistic future back into science fiction. To understand my reservations, I have to confess to having grown up as a nerdy science fiction reader. The stories from the 1950s and ’60s to which I had access (growing up poor, and buying books at Goodwill and second-hand shops) tended to be optimistic—people colonizing other planets, creating great labor-saving inventions, traveling time itself. In the meanwhile I slept in torn sheets in a ratty room and had to work to buy my own school clothes, inevitably cheap. For a few years our house didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. It wasn’t an easy existence, and I found solace in religion and science fiction, both of which promised a better future.

Today, forward-looking literature tends to be pretty bleak. With reason. Optimistic futures are the luxury of the elite. The average working person labors under a constant threat of unemployment and no jobs to replace the one you have. Hey, some of the people I see begging in Midtown are not dressed in the rags of the classic ne’er-do-well. Their signs asking for help are articulate and neatly written. The elite may look to a brighter future, but from street-level things appear a bit more challenging. There’s no question that politicians long ago lost touch with the commoner. They have no idea what life is like for most of us. Same is true of most university folk (cited in the article); unless they’ve been cast out, I suspect, they can conjure a pretty rosy future. With tenure.

That’s the populist angle. Now for the religious. The basic idea of Project Hieroglyph is as old as Buddhism, or perhaps even older than that. Salvation. Religions promulgate the idea that people require salvation. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to get people up on a Sunday morning and convince them to drop their money in the plate. Look, however, at what has been happening to mainstream churches. So technocrats and other elites think technology, rather than the gods, will save us. Those devices of optimistic 1950’s and ’60’s sci fi have turned on us, and we have become slaves to our own technology. Gee, it’s awfully gloomy in here! Perhaps we need a brighter vision of the future where technology makes things better. It sounds like a return to the stories I read as a child. Still, I can’t help noticing all the closed churches I see, and how much the penmanship of the indigent has improved with the passing of time. If only I could decipher hieroglyphs my future might look shinier too.

Is this paradise or what?

Is this paradise or what?

The Cost of Being Human

In last week’s Time magazine Joel Stein’s “The Awesome Column,” a humorous endnote for somber weekly news, spoke to me. Although Stein writes as light relief, when he addresses humanities education I have to sit up and take notice. Like being in class all over again. Although Stein is trying to be funny, I find the decline in the humanities to be no laughing matter. I don’t think Stein does either. As an uncle once said to a relative recovering from cancer—you might as well laugh about being bald, what else can you do? The humanities are so called because they are what makes us human. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stein addresses this in the issue following that which commemorates Robin Williams. As I’ve written before, I don’t consider myself a Williams fan, but I can’t help but associate him with what I consider his best movie, Dead Poets Society. The humanities are what we live for.

I’m a little too nearsighted to claim to see the future clearly, but Stein makes the accurate assertion that our great ideas have tended to come from our humanities dreamers. Presidents and Popes, he notes, have not been drawn from the sciences, but from the arts. Herein, I suspect, many would suggest lies the problem. We are a schizophrenic society (with apologies to those who believe schizophrenic is a slur word). Who wants a warm puppy on your lap when you can have a warm laptop instead? Indeed, you can carry your computer under your arm, in your pocket or purse, or even around your wrist. Instant access to the internet and every other wired person all the time. Isn’t that what we really wanted? But then we come out of the movie theater complaining that the show was poorly written, if technologically flawless. We have just walked out of John Keating’s classroom, methinks.

Is this worth more than just money?

Is this worth more than just money?

“We live in a time,” Stein opines, “when smart people want to discuss only politics, technology, and economics.” Truth be told, the deeper you look behind any of these topics the more boring they become. Politics? Everyone wants to rule everyone else, what’s new there? Technology? Electrons dance better in some substrates, and if we can only get this confusing formula right… Economics? I want what you have, so why don’t we trade? How banal! Anyone who’s ever lost him or herself in a novel, a movie, or a song (even, dare I say, a prayer?) knows that transcendence trumps technology every time. As the weather begins its long decline into a bleak and icy winter, I’ll be sitting here with my laptop on my lap, but I can guarantee that this is one place where I can fully agree with the departed Charles Schultz. Happiness would actually be a warm puppy.