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Viking Trail

History is a powerful elixir, capable of transforming sinners to saints with the mere passage of time. Well, calling Vikings saints may be a bit of a stretch, but still, they have become some of the sexy bad boys of the Middle Ages, and with the finding of a Viking horde in Scotland last month, they are in the news once again. Vikings and monks were kind of like medieval dogs and cats. Monasteries, located in lonely regions, often amassed wealth and Vikings, looking for loot and less scrupulous about bloodshed, were eager to take it. The give and take (literally) of this violent lifestyle involving seafaring, battles, and churches, makes for good ancient drama and much of it took place along the coasts of Scotland. Our Scandinavian scourge, however, didn’t stop there. It is well established that the Vikings made it to North America well before Columbus. Those who don’t dismiss the Kensington Rune Stone also claim that the Vikings reached Minnesota long before football ever did. Whatever the reason, we are fascinated with Vikings.

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Perhaps they are the ultimate autonomous self-promoters. We all would secretly, at least, enjoy being able to set our own standards so that they favored us and our loved ones. The Vikings represent the flaunting of the rule of law, traveling far to take what they want by force. And, perchance, leaving a bit of treasure behind as well. The Vikings became Christianized and the slave trade (long before the New World caught hold of the idea) was effaced to the point of becoming uneconomical to them. Nobody is certain why, but the Vikings, probably for a variety of causes, ceased to be the terror of the seas. Now the Scandinavians are considered among some of the most literate peoples of the world.

Along with the decline of the Vikings, however, also came the fading of the monastic cultural hegemony. To be sure, there are monks and nuns still today, but the force with which they gripped the medieval imagination began to decline with the Protestant Reformation and the recognition that vast wealth, even if cloaked in poverty, is still vast wealth. Now the finds from both monasteries and Viking sites constitute historical treasure. Information about a world long gone. The underlying idea, however, is never very far from the surface. We may lay claim to post-colonialism, but powerful economies have a way of getting what they want in the way of trade treaties and tariffs in any case. When a Scot finds a Viking these days, it is a cause for celebration as we let bygones be bygones and cut the humanities curricula nevertheless. The Vikings never really disappeared.

Doodle Dandy

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.

491px-Luise_KritzelzeichnungOne 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.

North Tarrytown

Ichabod Crane has undergone many incarnations since Washington Irving conjured him. Not very sympathetically described in the original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he was gangly and somewhat clumsy and full of self-importance. The story of which he is forever a part, however, has become iconic of American myth-making. A deep symbolism runs through the story of the headless horseman, and for those who’ve actually been to Tarrytown, the modern incarnation of Sleepy Hollow, there may be a disconnect between the urbanity of a town so near to New York City and a rustic school teacher in a rural setting. Still, there seems to be quite a bit of buzz about the current television series “Sleepy Hollow” that I decided to see for myself what was happening. The conceit of Ichabod Crane reawakening, in a kind of Rip Van Winkle twist, in the present day is engaging. He is now a professor at Oxford University turned patriot to the American cause, which brings him to the point of actually beheading the horseman in the first place. But this literate, witty, and moody retelling involves more than Irving. The Bible is pretty much central to the series, at least as far as I’ve seen.

The headless horseman is none other than Death, the final of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, according to holy writ. Although the characters all refer to the Apocalypse as “Revelations,” something that causes premature baldness in biblical scholars, the program places the town of Sleepy Hollow at the crux of the oncoming end of the world, with the other three horsemen to be summoned along the way (Pestilence or Conquest, War, and Famine, for those who are keeping score). Also, witches, hearkening back to Salem, have a prominent place in the narrative, and the forces of rational law seem to be at their collective wits’ end to make any sense of religion breaking into a secular world. Without the Bible’s final book, Sleepy Hollow would have no legs (as well as no head).

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In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane came through as a detective plotting science against superstition. At the end, however, even the most rational had to admit there was more going on than the science of the day could explain. That is part of the appeal of the Sleepy Hollow legend. No matter how strong the light we shed on them may be, our psyches reach out for the immaterial, the ghostly, the supernatural. We like to believe in sacred books and spells to protect from evil. Even the Twilight Zone episode “The Jungle” plays on how in even the most advanced cultures we still build skyscrapers with no thirteenth floor, as if our towers represent an unknown hubris for which we may be held accountable. Irrational? Perhaps. But Sleepy Hollow is not so somnolent these days when the Bible once again takes center stage and hoofbeats are heard once again in the night.

Empire State

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.

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Know It All

Perhaps it’s the fact that I had a career malfunction in the middle of my chosen vocation, or perhaps it’s a natural consequence of earning an advanced degree. Whatever the cause, I am convinced that I know less than I used to know. That’s not the same as not having learned—indeed, it is a consequence of precisely that. You see, my education has led me to believe that things I thought I knew were not, in fact what I knew them to be. We all live with false assumptions—the sun rises and sets, the earth holds still, and that we aren’t made up of particles so tiny as to be invisible and that are mostly empty space. There was a time when I believed that science gave “the truth,” but we now think of science as ever provisional—the best theory to account for the facts at this time. It is open to change. And in fact, we know very little.

A deep irony lurks in the fact that many people treat their religion as the locus of certain knowledge. This is a known fact; Jesus resurrected, Muhammad was a prophet, Maroni spoke to Joseph Smith. When confronted with contrary data, such thinking withdraws into itself claiming all the more loudly that it knows the truth already. Learning should, I think, may one more humble. More circumspect. Of course I think I’m right about things. If I thought I was wrong, I would change to the correct way of thinking. What I know, however, is a different matter. As I set out to learn a new career, I find I know less than I thought I did. I know little and I know less all the time.

As an academic I can’t help but to spend my life trying to gain knowledge. I read voraciously, I try to engage in intellectual exchange with others. If I’m lucky, I learn something. And know that much less. That which I learn teaches me that I know less than I did before. The world is vast. The universe infinite, according to our best understanding at the moment. We travel through it all, picking up information and treating it humbly as we go along. I’m moving toward knowing nothing at all. Perhaps that is the true goal of all of this—to get to the point of knowing nothing. Then we shall be truly educated. Except, of course, for the true believers who already know everything there is to know. Of course we are all mostly empty space. I think.

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Monsters of Science

ScienceOfMonstersMaybe it’s the ebola in the air, or perhaps the gas from all the midterm elections verbiage, but I’ve been on a monster run this October. I just finished Matt Kaplan’s The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear. It is a charmingly written book, at parts approaching the finesse of Mary Roach. Beginning with the ancient Greeks (and sometimes stepping back into the world of the Bible or the Mesopotamians) Kaplan examines the major categories of monsters and tries to offer scientific explanations for why people came up with them. It is a keen conceit and it is deftly handled. Noting that animals sometimes got jumbled in the fossilization process, he offers explanations for creatures such as the Chimera, Griffon, and perhaps even the Sphinx. Some of the unlikely episodes are quite fun to visualize as well, as when a snake slithers over a tar pit where a goat got stuck and was eaten by a lion that also got stuck. Beast after hideous beast he brings down to analytical size, sometimes convincing even this old monster lover.

One of the problems, however, is that science often doesn’t comprehend the symbolic nature of mythical thought. Quite apart from sheer creativity—and it does exist!—some of the material in Kaplan’s analysis would have benefited from having a mythographer’s look. For example, demons do not suddenly appear as monsters in the Middle Ages. Kaplan knows this, but that’s where he starts. The ancient Mesopotamians knew of them very, perhaps, too, well. And Lilith isn’t even mentioned when discussing succubi. Still, there’s a great deal of interesting conjecture here, and some scientifically, if not mythographically, viable suggestions on whence vampires and werewolves. As expected, modern sightings of cryptids are simply swept off the table, but I almost shouted aloud when I read that he gave credence to Wade Davis’s work on Haitian zombies.

The larger question here is one of approach. Do monsters lend themselves to scientific explanations at all? The case that elephant/mammoth skulls might suggest a cyclops seems reasonable enough, and the occasional dinosaur bone that represented a giant in ancient times is entirely possible. (Who can tell one femur from another anyway?) But the monster is primarily a creature inhabiting the shadowy realms of religion and psychology. Our fears are seldom directed toward science, although, now that I’ve read his chapter on “The Created” I’m not so sure. Constructing backward toward the unknown is always a dicey proposition, as those of us who’ve studied history of religions know. We may be able to find the genesis of modern monsters, but, admittedly, the fun for most of our scary friends is that they are mysterious. Impervious, as it were, even to science.

Campus Crusade

The Chronicle of Higher Education also chronicles the trials and travails of religion in academia. A recent edition of CHE reported on how California State University withdrew official recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because its leadership is, by definition and constitution, Christian. The organization contested the decision, and, in this thorny situation, I think, rightly. The disestablishment clause cuts both ways. Government can’t establish a religion, but it can’t prevent one either. InterVarsity, although not exactly to my taste, has been a fixture on campuses for decades. It offers alternatives to pong and related forms of diversion without being pushy about faith. Indeed, it does not insist that participants be Christian, and, in my experience, doesn’t try to convert them. It offers a service that is useful for undergrads and has every right to be on campus, as much as the young republicans do. Can an organization be banned for having Christian leadership? How much can we disestablish before we become oppressors?

I recently had a conversation with a college humanist chaplain. There aren’t many of these, but they are beginning to appear on campuses, offering the services traditionally given by religious organizations. Many people don’t know what to make of this. Not all rationalists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists are enemies of spirituality. We can be both spiritual and human. Some would argue that we have no choice in the matter but to be. Some express it as Christianity. Others as a non-doctrinal recognition that being human means wanting to affirm unions and weep at funerals. Maybe it is more than just chemico-electrical signals across gray matter after all. Colleges and universities should be places to explore. Like it or not, without the influence of the church, and before that the synagogue, the concept of higher education likely would never have developed at all.

How much of the baby do we throw out with the bathwater? Evangelicals cost me my first real job. I had, however, grown up among them. Although not in InterVarsity, I did participate in Christian groups in college. I don’t think it damaged my education. How can a person learn to compare when one of the options is displaced? Will Newman House be permitted to stay? Even government officials can’t agree on exactly what it means to have a religion-free government in a religious, if post-Christian, nation. Why antagonize an organization that is only trying to offer a service? Every time I pull up to a gas pump chances are pretty good that I disagree at a pretty visceral level with the ideology behind the company supplying me my fuel. And yet, here I am, running on empty. Ideologies and services, it seems to me, are very different things. Those that don’t cause harm should be the least of our concerns.

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