The 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.
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Books, Current Events, Posts, Sects
Tagged 1640, Bay Psalm Book, Bible, David M. Rubenstein, Massachusetts, O Brother Where Art Thou, Psalms, Puritans, Stryper, The Green Bible
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.
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.
Posted in Literature, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Rock-n-Roll, Twitter Bible
Tagged Baltimore, Boston, Charlottesville, Edgar Allan Poe, Kenmore Square, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, pilgrimage, Vietnam
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.
Posted in Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Islam, Massachusetts, Pagan, paganism, pentacle, Quran, Sikh, Springfield, symbols, witches
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.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Mesopotamia, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Travel
Tagged Black Death, Joseph McCarthy, Massachusetts, Nashotah House, Salem, Satan, Sumer, theodicy, Tim LaHaye, witches
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.
Posted in Bible, Books, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged cedars of Lebanon, Da Vinci Code, Gnostics, Holy Blood Holy Grail, Masons, Massachusetts, Old Sturbridge Village, Salem Towne House, Solomon