Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

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Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”

Heaven Forbid

Cars can be a nuisance—they consume resources, pollute the environment, and have a habit of being very expensive to repair. We’ve been pretty good about taking our car in for its regularly scheduled Toyota check-up. Since the garage is several miles away and my wife and I both work, it is often a matter of the one who can most easily work from home the day of the car doctor appointment taking it in. Our Toyota dealer has in-store wifi for those who can’t live without the internet. For some of us, work is almost exclusively internet. So it was that I drew the short straw and dutifully drove out to the dealership. I was pleased that my VPN connected so easily; this was going to be a snap. I was working happily away when I had to find somebody on a university website. I googled the name and clicked. I received a forbidden website message (copied below) explaining tersely: “Block reason: Forbidden Category ‘Religion’.” I tried again on the Society of Biblical Literature website—same message.

ForbiddenReligion copy

Now I can understand workplaces blocking pornography sites, and even Facebook (I found the latter to be blocked at Toyota some time ago, but I’ve never tried the former), but religion? I am a religion editor. How am I to work when I can’t access websites that contain the word “religion”? The more I pondered this—I could still check my email, and do VPN-type work with files from the office—the more it bothered me. On the television in the background inane daytime talkshow hosts were interviewing someone who’d written a book about God. How many more businesses out there are biased against internet religion? That means my blog is blacklisted along with the scantily clad and overly chatty. I fully support the disestablishment clause, but I also subscribe to the freedom of religion. Smirks aside, there is a serious undertone to all of this.

I have no desire to be proselytized at work. I also agree that it is the right of others to expect the same. Sometimes, however, a little religion might help work go down like a poppinian spoonful of sugar. One time when I worked for Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts (I seem to have a knack for working for businesses that are on the way out), I had a tough day. Some of our customers could be quite abrasive, and since the customer is always right, we had to take personal insults with a smile. One lunch-hour I told my manager that I needed to recoup my moxy (I didn’t use those words). I ducked out the door and stomped to the first church I could find and asked if I could just sit in the pew for a few minutes. The church secretary, a complete stranger to me, said “of course.” Ten minutes later I returned to work collected and able to face more unreasonable customers for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe it wasn’t religion, maybe it was only the calm of sitting in what some believed to be a sacred space, but my capitalist company got better performance out of me that day because of it. Ironically, at Toyota, my religion editing is cast in with the tax collectors and prostitutes. Only the tax collectors, I’m pretty certain, are always permitted to work.

More Witches

WitchHuntAronson It’s been some time since I’ve been to Salem. It’s been even longer since I’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The events of 1692, however, continue to haunt me. I recently read Marc Aronson’s Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Intended for a young adult readership, Aronson’s book really isn’t proposing any new theories about why religious violence was perpetrated against the vulnerable, mostly female, pool of those living in a very superstitious society. It does, however, show some of the issues in sharp relief—more academic books sometimes cloud the issues with erudition. Historians will continue to debate what happened in Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century when the Enlightenment was getting underway and the explanatory value of science was overcoming the world of miracle and magic. Even with science on our side, however, adequate explanations of the sad social madness of Salem are still lacking.

As Aronson points out, there seems to have been a certain amount of greed involved as laws allowed the property of “witches” to be confiscated. Equally culpable are the learned clergy of the day, some of whom overrode their disinclination towards belief in witchcraft to hang a few women (and fewer men) for an imaginary crime. Lack of full historical documentation and the unrecorded lives of women often combine to raise many questions about Salem. It remains clear, however, that the outlook of the clergy influenced perceptions on the ground. Aronson suggests that Cotton Mather’s earlier accounts of Goodwife Glover of Boston—a woman executed as a witch without even her first name having been recorded—may have “inspired” similar violence among the population of Salem. When devils are suspected, the clergy are never far.

When the mania died down after a lethal year, the clergy, both Increase and Cotton Mather among them, recanted the easy execution of a few expendable women, and fewer, less expendable men, in Salem. Since we lack documentation, we will never know fully what was behind the witch-hunts, apart from misogyny and misperception.

Aronson ends his little book by asking us to consider modern terrorist hunts and the eerie similarities to the mindset of Salem. Listening to some media interviews, particularly on Fox, after the Boston Marathon bombings, we haven’t traveled so very far from Salem. In a world of high technology, where Satan is said to once again stroll the streets of Massachusetts, we have to wonder if the witch-hunts will ever truly end.

Loneliness of Long-Distance Runners

1988. I was standing along Boylston Street, in Copley Square, watching the Boston Marathon. As the weary first place runner trudged by, I somehow neglected to take a photograph. I did snap one of the number two winner. I always have had an affinity for those who don’t win. Those who try, only to be beaten by others. His name didn’t stay with me, but I still have that photo, a moment in time, when everyone was excited about the culmination of a long tradition. When I heard that there was a bombing at the marathon yesterday, I experienced a different kind of culmination. I wondered what kind of people we had become. The Boston Marathon, a long-time symbol of endurance and pushing oneself to the limit, came to a crashing end. Along with another chapter in the innocence of a world gone mad. Just last October, I posted a photo on this blog that I had snapped near where one of the bombs went off. As I write this nobody has a clue as to who was responsible or what they were trying to prove.

BostonMarathon

The NRA gun barons were not on hand to stop the terrorists, I note. Funny how they always show up too late. Perhaps we should all start carrying hand-grenades. We all have a choice whether to do more good or evil in the world. To leave behind a better place or a worse one. The Boston Marathon is an international event, with long-distance runners from around the world competing. More against themselves than against anyone else. Just to finish the grueling course. Who would want to hurt just anyone, including several children—those who love to race and dream and hope for a better tomorrow?

The news saddens me, for we like to think we live in an enlightened nation. Maybe a little soft around the middle, but generally a congenial place. We hold events like the Boston Marathon to celebrate human achievement—those who push themselves to the limit but then keep going. Standing in the crowd in 1988, I remember how we clapped for those who seemed too exhausted to trudge those last few yards to the finish line. We wanted them to succeed. I couldn’t tell you one of their names, but we were all wishing the best for them. That is the human spirit. It takes a coward’s coward to plant bombs amid crowds and then not even claim your own evil victory. Terrorism, already heinous, without even trying to make a point. And yet the runners run on. Like the marathon itself, we must keep believing that we can reach that ribbon and that the vast majority are hoping for our success.

Soul University

ExcellenceWithoutSoul Cambridge, Massachusetts is a likable town. As students at Boston University my friends and I would occasionally take the red line to Harvard Square and shuffle through the leaves of that venerable institution that gives the square its name. One of the treats was stopping in The Coop, the Harvard bookstore that made us all feel smart. While at Harvard last year, The Coop was part of my professional, editorial remit. I spied a book entitled Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, by Harry R. Lewis. I have often thought about how higher education has slipped its moorings these past few decades, and wondered what an erstwhile Harvard dean had to say about the matter. The leaves on campus weren’t so abundant last October, but I felt that same inferiority complex that being on the Harvard campus always gives me. Of course, I had received an acceptance letter from Harvard Divinity School when I considered transferring there, but it was easier to stay at BU and complain.

Lewis’s book is a somewhat nostalgic consideration of how Harvard has evolved from a seminary to a powerhouse university—the powerhouse university—in the new world. There is no doubt that Harvard is our oldest institution of higher education, and there is no doubt that it has the money to be “the best.” But by what measure? This is one of the questions Lewis asks, repeatedly. Still, the assumption is always lurking in the background that Harvard is the best, but as Lewis notes in the book, there is no one best doctor just like there is no one best book. Harvard is good, but so are many other schools. They all suffer from the same indifference in a society that takes education for granted. The real problem is that we like simple solutions. Take a look around you—you’ll see what I mean.

It is difficult to feel sorry for Harvard. The elite of the elite, it has that time-honored patina that antique specialists love so much. What it doesn’t have it can afford to buy. There is no doubt, however, that as Harvard leans, so tilt the other universities of this country. In my professional field I’ve seldom met an unemployed Harvard Ph.D. Those of us who attended even older universities (yes, the Europeans came up with the idea first) with even more recognizable alumni—has anyone heard of Charles Darwin or David Hume? Adam Smith?—are used to being passed over for positions while Harvard writes its own checks. Elitism may be at the heart of the problem. It’s not that I wish hard times on Harvard, it’s just that I wish we’d be honest about the academic enterprise. Has higher education lost its soul? To find the answer we’re going to have to look beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the leaves in autumn are certainly pretty, if not so abundant as they were before.

Hallowed Eve

My last night in Boston found me in Copley Square. This has always been one of my iconic Boston locations; something in the juxtaposition of squat, solid, dual-toned Trinity Church with its wide, open plaza, the blue glass razor of the Hancock Tower, and the classical facade of the Boston Public Library where Sophia broods over the world, arrests my wondering gaze. Across Boylston Street stands the gothic Old South Church like a guardian for straying souls. As I walked through the square a local band of street musicians jammed and the first neons of an October evening were awaking. As I strolled past Old South I had to back up a step or two to see if I’d read the sign right.

Scared for Good, a Halloween organ concert featuring spooky music, will soon be on offer. Business-types have long noted that Halloween is a great potential selling holiday. With kids who want to dress up and parents stressed for time, the selling of costumes has grown into an increasingly substantial accessory item holiday. People want their houses to look scary, knocking down real cobwebs to make way for the artificial ones, hanging out orange and purple lights, and ordering pre-carved, artificial pumpkins. All the fear is, of course, a charade, and we laugh at ourselves for taking it too seriously. Some churches object vociferously to the very holiday itself, claiming it is devil worship and evil.

While Halloween does have some serious pagan influences, it is, in its present form, a good Catholic holiday. The night before All Saints, aka All Hallows, begins a period of reflection on mortality. I’ve celebrated “Protestant” Halloween from my youngest days and have never been in any way tempted toward devil worship. It is fun to be scared when you know it’s not real and it won’t last long. That’s why I applaud Old South Church’s Scared for Good concert. Reading the list of pieces included, it sounds like it should be a grand time. Too bad I won’t be in Boston for the occasion. As I walk back to my hotel in the chill of the evening,the only fear i feel is that moments like this evening come at insufferably long intervals for those who feel about the city as must the denizens of Copley Square.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Symbolic Confusion

While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.

I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.

This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.

Crossing Over

The periodic reforms that have swept through the church like so many Massachusetts tornadoes have often whirled around the matter of ceremony. Certainly there have been disputes over obtuse points of esoteric doctrine for which there is no final arbiter, but frequently the rancor involves what the faithful do when they meet together. In keeping with ancient templates, religion is generally a matter of what people do more than of what they believe. I personally had my love of ceremony beaten out of me by its plangent and perpetual repetition at an institution so enamored of it that humans and their needs were viewed as mere obstacles to sacerdotal perfection. Nevertheless, as the school year winds down, ceremony is all around us: graduations, awards dinners, rites of social passage. Last night I attended a Girl Scout bridging ceremony. Bridging is the symbolic crossing of a bridge to indicate a new level of commitment and integration into the larger Girl Scout community.

It's just a bridge.

As I sat staring at the bridge, waiting for the celebration to begin, it occurred to me that this was very much like a religious service. A group of spectators had gathered to watch a ritual unfold—a ritual that involved everyday objects invested with a new significance by the context. The bridge is just a small arch bridge over artificial water; before the ceremony kids run and jump over it with no fear of divine reprisal. Once the correct words are spoken, however, crossing the bridge becomes a solemn act. The ceremony opened with a kind of invocation, a creed (the Girl Scout law), a kind of Scripture reading—complete with exegesis of what that “Scripture” means and a reference to God as creator of all—a sacramental act of transformation, and even a hymn or two. The main difference I felt between this ceremony and most religious events was that the Girl Scouts are far more accepting and affirming than most religious conglomerations. Of course, there is the matter of gender distinction, but what is a church without any exclusivity?

I have great admiration for the Girl Scouts. In the face of a community that continues to act out male supremacy as a matter of God-given right, the Girl Scouts (and other similar organizations) offer a place for young women to assert their sense of belonging. Religion has just as often been used to suppress aspirations as it has been to uplift them. Life is difficult enough without God breathing down our necks. Human institutions that encourage thoughtful regard for those who are different, or underprivileged, or simply overlooked, often fill the gaps that religions callously leave behind. Yes, some religious institutions still display a social conscience, but if we wait for the religious to solve the suffering of the world, it is good to have groups like the Girl Scouts around who actually put their beliefs behind their ceremonies into action.

Malleus Practice

Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.

This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.

To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.

Witch Kitsch

Salem is a town with a conflicted identity. The true history of the death of innocent women and men for a fictional crime is sobering. In a day when few take witches seriously—certainly not many believe that supernatural, green-faced hags fly the unfriendly skies—it is difficult to sense the utter terror the idea once comprised. We are still afraid, but our fears take more current forms. So with its lugubrious history, Salem now demonstrates itself as a model of tolerance. One local source cited the fact that eight or nine hundred modern witches live in the city. Modern Wicca, while taken very seriously by its practitioners, is laughingly appreciated by those who find release in the caricature of fictional, idealized witches. The police cars in the city of Salem even have witches riding broomsticks on them.

In this day of triteness and easy entertainment, it is easier to project the fictional image of the pointy-hatted witch and laugh at our past mistakes. Salem bills itself as “Witch Town” and hosts several witch museums, varying in historical accuracy. Shops throughout the town exploit this image of the harmless witch. It is difficult for the visitor to know which witch believes his or her establishment to be authentic and which is just out for a quick buck.

Places have a feel to them, as any pilgrim knows. The National Park Service, in its visitor center for Salem has a question-board that asks, “How Many Witches were Executed in Salem?” The answer underneath is “None.” Instead, twenty regular people were murdered for a crime they didn’t commit. The witch hysteria happened so early in the history of the town that it appears foundational for all its later developments. Who would go out of their way to visit yet another thriving mercantile port of the eighteenth century, were it not for the tragedy underlying it all? Like children laughing while making guilty eyes at their parents, those who prosper over Salem’s sad history realize that whether modern witches live there or not, religious intolerance is never a heritage to wear proudly. Exploiting a tragedy to make a profit is a time-honored American practice, and the real witch to fear is the one who says, “cash or credit?”

Lesson of Salem

I married a witch. I suppose I ought to clarify that a bit. My wife is descended from Rebecca Nurse’s brother Jacob. Rebecca Nurse was one of those unfortunately hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. My family has been spending the last couple of days touring Salem, seeking to get in touch with our heritage. Yesterday we had the rare opportunity to tour the home of Rebecca Nurse which, remarkably, still stands over 300 years after the tortured events of the late seventeenth century. Our tour guide was impressively knowledgeable about the witch hysteria. She noted that in the Puritan (Reformed) mindset, with no science to speak of, evil could only be explained by the Devil. If misfortune came, the Devil was to blame. Even after the “witches” were exonerated (too late to save 20 lives), it was understood that the Devil incited the girls to make their false claims against their ultimately and penultimately righteous neighbors. Without the Devil none of this made sense.

The Rebecca Nurse homestead

Salem was founded as a utopian community free to live out its Puritan religion. It was named after Jerusalem, a city of peace (!). As our guide noted, religious freedom was not the same as tolerance; the Puritans wanted the freedom to celebrate their own religion, but were extremely suspicious of all others. One of those hanged as a witch, George Jacobs, had nearly beaten a neighbor to death simply because he was a Quaker. Rebecca Nurse, however, at 72 years old, was no threat to anybody. She was a member of a Christian community that turned on her. Condemned for charges the nearly deaf woman could not even hear properly, she was hanged for consorting with a mythical Devil.

Rev. Parris's house, where the witch hysteria began

No doubt the religion of the Puritans was a harsh religion with a God nearly as unforgiving as that of Sweeny Todd. The problems occurred, however, when the law came into the hands of religious leaders. There is an allegory and a moral to this story. Today many of the tourist attractions in Salem focus on the need for true tolerance. They no doubt come closer to the spirit of the founder of Christianity than the Puritans ever did. As I stood looking over the hole in the ground that is all that remains of Rev. Parris’ parsonage—the very location the witch hysteria began as his daughter Betty started to act odd after hearing the stories of the slave Tituba—a profound sadness afflicted me. Twenty people died and many lost all their worldly possessions because of an uncontrolled mythology of a church convinced of its own righteousness. An allegory and moral for the twenty-first century indeed. Have we yet learned the lesson of Salem?

Agnostic Gnostic

Ever have the feeling that you’re being watched? While touring the Salem Towne House in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, that fact that Mr. Towne was a Mason became abundantly clear. In the ballroom of his historic house the “eye of God” was looking down from the ceiling, and those who are astute observers could find other Masonic symbols in the house. Indeed, the ballroom walls were painted with cedars of Lebanon, the very trees Solomon was said to have utilized in the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Historically nothing is known of Solomon and the tradition of the Masons originating with that event can be nothing more than folklore, yet the connection is taken very seriously by some Masons.

Cedars of Lebanon

My grandfather was a Mason, but the desire to join the secret society never blossomed in me. I’d read Holy Blood, Holy Grail long before The Da Vinci Code ever drew attention to it, but being of a somewhat skeptical bent, I found most of it unbelievable. There is no doubt that the Masons had a very influential, if secretive impact on early modern history. I never seriously researched the group, but it is clear that their origin myths are very religious indeed. I looked right into God’s eye yesterday—how was I to question it? I was standing amid the cedars of Lebanon, after all.

Somebody's eye is watching you.

The desire to possess secret knowledge runs profoundly throughout history. Those who possess knowledge possess power. The Gnostic tradition is based on this very idea; God has revealed secret knowledge to some while the rest of us grope in the dark. Best to keep that knowledge clandestine. The Masons, wittingly or un, are part of this tradition. They are the putative guardians of esoteric knowledge, hidden amid the shadows of cedars and behind the clouds in the sky. In this day of abundant, free knowledge—it is given away every day on the Internet, for those who know how to discern—it may be difficult to comprehend that much can be hidden. As I stood looking God in the eye yesterday, however, I realized that there is far too much for any one scholar ever to learn.

Take Your Medicine

Sanofi-Aventis is a local pharmaceutical company. I drive by their massive campus on my way to Montclair a couple times a week. The facility is immense: it has its own three traffic lights on a state highway. Nestled in the center of this large sanctuary to engineered improvements to natural life is the Sri Venkateswara Hindu Temple (it too has its own traffic light). The first time I saw this temple – it is still under construction – I almost drove off the road. It is a stunning structure to see in the edges of rural New Jersey and it is a testament to the religious diversity of the state. Being small-minded in matters of zoning and construction (I’ve never owned property or a house), I wondered how this fascinating building came to rest in the center of a major pharmaceutical company’s strip.

As I considered this juxtaposition, it occurred to me that I was seeing a living metaphor. In our country of (admittedly uneven) advanced healthcare, an industry driven by science and its wonders is still penetrated by a religious institution. A temple to ancient Indic gods surrounded by a temple to human accomplishment. We can lengthen life, if there is cash on the barrel-head. Being technically unemployed, I do not receive healthcare benefits. According to bravado wafting from the governor’s office, other state employees may soon be joining me. Yet it is the cost of healthcare that has consistently caused the stagnation of some sectors of the economy. According to this month’s Harper’s Index, since the year 2000 Massachusetts has allocated $1,200,000,000 (yes, one-billion, two-hundred-million dollars) to decrease class sizes and to increase teacher pay. Of that amount, 100 percent has gone to cover rising healthcare costs. Kali have mercy!

Those of us in central New Jersey, like our Hindu temple, are surrounded by pharmaceutical companies. I have, because of my robotics avocation, been inside some of the facilities of a couple of these companies. Their visitor lounges surpass any faculty lounge I’ve ever witnessed in both opulence of appointments and sense of wealth. Yet I know that legislators refuse to tap these shoulders when it comes to taxes. Those wealthy beyond compare have already paid their dues. Besides, these guys have the keys to life: bad heart? Overweight? Sexual malfunction? All can be cured, given the cash-in-hand. Yet in the center of the capitalism’s campus stands a temple for a time-honored religion. Where your heart is, there will be your heart medication also.