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.
Posted in Higher Education, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged AAR/SBL, Higher Education, MOOC, San Diego, Seaport Village, USS Midway
Deep in the stacks of the New College library at Edinburgh University, I came upon a book in the open shelves with a date of 1611. Once the staff had been notified, this book, which had simply aged in place over the centuries, was quickly moved to special collections. It is the dilemma of many a writer that books seldom see the light of library reading lamps. This episode came to mind as a friend shared an interesting story about doodles. Historian Erik Kwakkel has one of the most enjoyable jobs in history (seems appropriate). His research takes him to old books, and by “old” I mean handwritten, to look for pen trials—how pens were tried out before serious writing began. A lot may be learned from not just the words, but how they were formed. A different friend I knew was working on the forensic study of the order of stylus strokes in cuneiform writing. It was completely fascinating. With the right tools, you can find out in just what order strokes were made in clay, their depth, and a host of other information such as the right- or left-handedness of the scribe. Writing reveals the writer. In any case, Kwakkel has a great excuse for looking at doodles.
One point in this fun story, however, struck a serious note with me. Scribes were, in final copy, expected to be completely anonymous. Their labor was to go unremarked through history. We owe them some of our greatest treasures, and in a bizarre back-formation, modern scholars give these anonymous scriveners names such as “the tremulous hand of Worcester,” in a vain attempt to recover them. In rare instances we are given the names of scribes. Some may have been creators as well. Most will remain forever nameless. Those who love books may be excluded from them by their very love.
There once was a joke that went around that asked “what do you call a writer who actually has a job?” The answer? “An editor.” In the old days, anyway. Now you can earn university degrees in publishing and editors very quickly vanish into the background, like the ninjas of literacy. Like those ancient scribes who, perhaps bored by the rote task of copying out somebody else’s words, left little doodles behind in the margins as their own attempt at immortality. In many ways this blog is my chance to offer a few doodles to the world. I used to be (and still hope to be) a content producer, but now I understand that content has no room for doodles. The serious business of publishing is all about showcasing the author whose ideas are worth spreading. Oh, there’s a subtext here, all right. A palimpsest, one might say. However, like the anonymous doodlers of history, many of us scribble away awaiting future discovery, long after our names are irrecoverable.
Hegemony is a funny word. In studies of antiquity it is commonly found since it denotes the “Leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Today it has a vaguely imperialist taint, although it doesn’t necessarily require that one nation actually pillage another’s wealth or resources. The idea that people are, and should be, free is pretty much assumed in developed nations. Or so at least our rhetoric dictates. The word hegemony came to mind, however, as I saw an interview with a corporate leader. He was discussing how his company had budgeted for technology development on an increasing scale, to catch up with current developments, and then leveled the tech expenses off after that so that the business could move into its prime objectives. The reality was vastly different, however. Each year’s budget saw increasing technology costs and it shows no signs of slowing down. Every industry, it seems, will have to keep devoting larger and larger shares of its budget to technology. Hegemony.
It’s not that any one company is solely responsible for our obeisance to technology, so this hegemony has no head. It is the idea of progress gone wild. Last year as I set out for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, a notice popped up on my laptop that a software upgrade was available. Since I file that I required was no longer accessible unless I updated, I clicked through all the agreements and provisos that I can’t understand and began the upgrade. Download and installation time measured in hours rather than minutes and I soon had to interrupt the process to get to the conference. This had consequences that nearly led me to becoming utterly lost in a part of Baltimore I’d been warned to avoid. The gods of technology demand their due. Now, less than a year later, I can’t access certain files unless I upgrade again.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a complete Luddite. I enjoy the instant gratification of finding information in seconds through a web search, but I’m not always sure that I can believe what I read. Technology means photos can be manipulated, sounds can be fabricated, facts can be created, all with no basis in reality. I used to have students ask me if such-and-such a fact they’d read online was true. Facts, it appears, are now negotiable. Nobody’s really in charge, it seems. Instead we are lead by the vague idea of progress, a new god with technology as its prophet. Even now I know people who think they never use computers but they drive without realizing their car is full of them, and turn on the television not realizing that the tech is no longer chip-free. Meanwhile those in the technology industry seem to have plenty of extra cash around, while those of us in the humanities ponder whether the ancient hegemonies have really changed at all. Let me look that up on the internet, once this upgrade is through.
In the age of Steampunk, New Jersey is among the world capitals. Indeed, today is the second day that the International Steampunk City will be inhabited in Speedwell, home of the telegraph. For yours truly, Steampunk is an escape. Alternate realities often look better than the pedestrian one we’ve inherited, so we like to look at the world through steamy lenses and imagine how it might have turned out differently. New Jersey, in the spring, also hosts the Steampunk World’s Fair. Perhaps we have more pressures to escape here in the Garden State. Imagination is certainly in no short supply. I attended the International Steampunk City last year and decided that I’d like to be a part of it. Knowing a thing or two about ancient technology, I thought I might share a bit with the Steampunk crowd. What is Steampunk without tech? Some ancient technology, although not very well known, is perhaps of even greater influence than we might imagine.
One of the connections that is easily misplaced in this era of purely scientific advance, is that technology was devised in the service of religion. At least in the early days. The greatest architectural achievements came under the aegis of temple building. Domes, arches, and eventually flying buttresses that could hold tons of stone high over your head—these were to please the gods. We can’t imagine Stonehenge as anything other than a capitalist venture these days, a way of drawing in the money. Of course, ancient builders knew of the financial benefits as well; temples were often the equivalent of ancient banks. Still, beneath all the pride of accomplishment there was the belief that the gods were somehow pleased with our innovation. Perhaps we’ve just done away with the convenient myth. Steampunk often has a religious underpinning. Many of the stories I’ve read touch on our ancient mythologies. Only, in fantasy, there are different possible permutations.
We sometimes think that technology is a modern phenomenon. Actually, it is quite ancient, as far as human culture goes. The first “computer” was invented around about the first century. Since it didn’t have an obvious benefit to the control of the masses, however, no technological revolution took place. The steam engine was, in nascent stages, invented also in ancient times. Until we learned, however, that it could be enslaved to make certain industrialists rich, we had no need for it beyond a diverting toy. Technology does not take hold without a deeper purpose. Every now and again I get a little paranoid knowing that I carry a telephone that knows my exact location at all times. As if I were important enough for anyone to care. Then the feeling passes and I open my iBooks app and turn to my latest Steampunk novel. I am a slave. I wonder what innovations there will be at International Steampunk City this year that might change the world. Only the imagination will limit the possibilities.
Facial follicle emasculation, i.e. shaving, has some interesting religious implications. A recent Associated Press story highlighted this when students at Brigham Young University began a protest against the ban on beards at the school. Shaving has a very long pedigree but, as one who doesn’t shave I feel obligated to point out, not as long a pedigree as not shaving. Nobody knows for certain where or when shaving began, but it has been suggested Egyptian priests began the tradition. Others suggest it was an attempt among some early societies to control lice. Homophobic religions, it used to be, promoted beards as signs of masculinity. Alexander the Great, however, noted that beards are easy to pull during battle, although, for those who don’t fight it isn’t such an issue. Of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity is the only one that generally promotes shaving as the norm, and here it is only the practice in the western branch of the religion. Eastern Orthodox churches still retain bearded clergy. It has been suggested that the Roman preoccupation with shaving led to early Christian preferences for this practice, and there may be something to that.
Having an old-growth beard (I last shaved over a quarter of a century ago) I have often found myself in the minority. While beards—mostly highly styled or glorified stubble—are making a bit of a comeback in New York City, they are still not as common as the alternative. In one of my many preprofessional jobs (that of a bag-boy at a Pittsburgh grocery store) I was told I had to shave. “Customers don’t trust a man with facial hair,” my manager told me. Delving into this a bit, I was told that beards mask the facial nuances that an honest man wants to show. What’s a beard trying to hide? Watching what clean-shaven presidents and Wall Street moguls get away with as “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with my beard, thank you.
I’d trust this man.
Evangelical traditions, such as Mormonism, I long ago noticed, wish to control nature. Lawns must be manicured and trees, with their sloppy abundance of leaves, must be few and carefully spaced. Faces should be rid of the hair that Jesus and the disciples were said to wear, and clothes must be neat and tidy at all times. It’s an image thing. Among the evangelical crowd, those with beards keep them neatly trimmed, tamed, and penitent. For me, scraping my face with a cold bit of metal first thing in the morning is about the least civilized thing I can imagine. Spending too much time shaping and toying with DNA’s dictates seems to go against nature. Much of my beard may have gone white, but I have nothing to hide. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, my beard simply represents what it means to be human. Trust me.
Posted in Current Events, Egypt, Just for Fun, Posts, Sects
Tagged beards, Brigham Young University, Egyptian priests, evangelicalism, Monotheism, Mormonism, shaving
Irony is all around. When we hook words up into phrases or titles they often take on unexpected connotations. I often see the sign for Jesus’ Bookstore on a highway not far from here. I didn’t know the Lord sold books. In this economic climate, I hope he’s diversified his portfolio. One of the other ironies of life is that as soon as I started getting mailings from AARP (aarrpp, indeed! Retirement is a myth!) I also started to receive advertisements for funeral homes. While you’re planning for retirement (hah!) why not plan for the next step beyond? It is more certain. A nice, long sleep sounds good right about now. So I didn’t ignore the flier from the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What’s not to like about that?
That name, though. Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit. What sense of that troubling little preposition “of” is intended? Has the Holy Spirit been buried here? Or is it the of of ownership? One should probably be concerned with whom will be around the premises if one is to spend the rest of eternity there. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The drawing of the mausoleum indicates that this is an effort at fund raising. We certainly prefer our graves to be whitewashed. That is the biblical way.
“We sincerely regret,” the reverse reads, “if this should reach any home where there is illness or sorrow, as this was certainly not intended.” In a world of ubiquitous illness and sorrow, such must be a risky proposition from the start. Also, one might note, if one is not Catholic. Are those not welcome at the eucharistic altar welcome at the Mausoleum of the Holy Spirit? What if one has a down-payment? Isn’t all of life a down-payment on eternity? In this day of facile information sharing, it isn’t unusual to have people you don’t even know wishing you happy birthday online (by the way, it’s not). It seems we’ve now gone to the other extreme to anticipate a happy death-day. That is, if I’m reading that preposition correctly.