Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Fleeting Meaning

Just a year before I had been unceremoniously dismissed from a fourteen-year teaching job at Nashotah House, devastating everything I thought I knew. I’d found a temporary job at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and the head of the department encouraged us to go see the mandala that some Buddhist monks were constructing in Oshkosh one weekend. My family came up and we breathlessly watched as the orange-draped, shaven monks meticulously tapped brightly colored sand into an intricate pattern of incredible beauty. My daughter, quite young at the time, wondered what they would do with it when they were done. We’d been told, in the department, that the sand would be safely flushed into a local waterway, as Buddhism teaches about the transitory nature of life. My daughter was upset at the thought of such a nice piece of art being destroyed. But that’s part of the point of a mandala. As the Buddhists say, too many people concentrate on the hand pointing at the moon rather than on the moon itself.

Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons

Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons

I’m no expert in Buddhism. It is a complex way of thinking, and, like many religious systems, it is not unified into one particular thought-structure. Nevertheless, one of the main teachings of Buddhism is that life is, pardon the crass translation, suffering. We experience desire and we will continue to experience desire until we die. Then we’re reborn to experience desire all over again. Those who are enlightened may break out of this system into Nirvana, or a kind of non-existence where desire can no longer afflict us. There is an appeal to this way of thinking in a universe that science tell us will eventually burn out so that we’re all just a bunch of cinders in infinite, but expanding space. Almost Buddhist in its conceptualization, actually.

So when this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger had a front-page, below-the-fold, story of a mandala incident in Jersey City, I had to read. This entire past week, three monks have worked on a mandala at City Hall in Jersey City, for up to ten hours a day. Having watched this work, I know it can be backbreaking, and it is incredibly meticulous. Yesterday, after four days of work, a three-year old, while his mother was distracted, jumped on and ruined the mandala. A mayor’s aide, horrified, had to show the monks what had happened. A mandala is all about the transitory nature of life. Its fleeting moments are, after all, suddenly swept away. Despite the drama, the monks repaired the mandala and one of them quipped that perhaps the child’s action had underscored the lesson the mandala was intended to teach. Indeed. Many religions recognize that children know something about life that most adults simply forget. It’s the moon that’s important, not the hand.

Dagon Cthulhu

Cthulhu has taken over the world, thanks to the internet. I wonder what H. P. Lovecraft thinks as he lies dead, but dreaming under the loam of Providence. A lifetime of struggle to gain recognition as a writer left him without much of a following, relegated to pulp magazines for low brow and Innsmouth-dwelling mentalities. Now everywhere from Davy Jones’ face in Pirates of the Caribbean to car bumpers in any parking lot, Cthulhu has awakened. My wife sent me a photo of a couple of such bumper-stickers recently: “Arkham’s Razor,” reads one, “The Simplest Explanation Tends to Be Cthulhu.” “Nyarlathotep is my co-pilot” reads another. I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through bumper-stickers.


Back in my post-graduate days in Edinburgh, I had decided to write my dissertation on Dagon. This seemed a reasonable topic as no serious, book-length treatments of this elusive, Mesopotamian deity existed. My advisors talked me out of it, however, noting that material on Dagon was so scarce that it would be extremely difficult to scrape enough together to call it a dissertation. A few years later, it turns out, an academic book on Dagon finally appeared, but the fact remains that he was, and is, a major deity who somehow mostly disappeared from the ancient records—the victim of chance finds and perhaps more aggressive gods. For my birthday one year my wife bought me a bumper-sticker with a “Jesus fish” that had the word “Dagon” inside. I posted it on my office door in Oshkosh and the department chair asked me what the tentacles were meant to represent. An web search indicated that the Dagon was not the biblical “fish god” but the Lovecraft reincarnation. I had experienced an epiphany.

Lovecraft, although an atheist, knew his Bible. I once wrote a scholarly article on the Dagon story in 1 Samuel 5 where the Philistine statue of Dagon falls down, decapitated, before the captured ark of Yahweh. This is the sole narrative involving Dagon in the Bible, and it concludes by saying only Dagon’s “fishy part” was left intact. Lovecraft took this obscure Bible story and built an entire mythos from one of its characters. Cthulhu, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and their companions have risen from the deep, and encircled the world in an electronic web. The fact that kids who’ve never read Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu at a glance, attests to his power. Even Batman fans who cite Arkham without knowing that it was originally Lovecraft’s creation keep the master alive beyond the grave. Isn’t that what resurrection is really all about? Even if a writer has to be discovered through bumper-stickers.

God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.


One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.


Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

Religious Aliens

While surveying books purchased as texts in religion courses (something that an editor sometimes does), I came across a book called Interdimensional Universe by Philip Imbrogno. As I’ve often suggested on this blog, the study of the paranormal is related in people’s minds with the study of religion. I suspect a large part of it is because both deal with matters that go beyond mundane, daily experience. Indeed, the tiresome caricature of those interested in the paranormal is that they are individuals dissatisfied with their lives who project their disappointments into bizarre beings or situations to make up for the emptiness. Sometimes the same thing is said of those who are religious. What is really lacking in both fields, it seems to me, is people with strong critical thinking skills who remain open minded. There are serious scholars who study the paranormal—not many of them—and it is clear from the market-informed choices that Hollywood makes, people are intensely interested. So I decided to read Interdimensional Universe.

On the bus, however, I fidgeted to find ways to hide the cover and contents of the book. I don’t want some urban, Manhattan sophisticate seeing the letters U-F-O in my reading material. Still, like most honest, open-minded people, I have to admit curiosity. After a couple of chapters Imbrogno’s work appeared to be a standard UFO book. Then it started to get weird when he suggested that angels and jinn are, like aliens, interdimensional beings. He went from citing declassified Air Force and FBI documents to quoting the Bible. And not just quoting. He assumed the historicity of biblical accounts that scholars have extensively exegeted (oh, that word!) and demonstrated to have more plausible explanations. For the jinn he draws extensively on Islamic lore, believing that they are responsible for much of the trouble in the world, tricksters like the Marvel Universe’s Loki.

I put the book down disappointed. I still consider myself open minded. I admit to not knowing what is really going on with paranormal phenomena. If the number of reports alone are anything to go on much of the human race is either insane or is seeing some unusual things. The subject requires some real academic consideration. When self-proclaimed experts, however, veer into mythology to start explaining the unknown, we are getting no closer to finding the truth that, as Fox Mulder assures us, is out there. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I taught a course entitled Myth and Mystery. It was some of the most fun I had in the classroom. It was also one of the most difficult classes for which I’d ever had to prepare. Is there intelligent life in outer space? I don’t see why not—the universe is awfully big to rule it out categorically. Are there jinn literally lurking in the closet? For that I’m afraid for that there is a much more prosaic answer.

Do Unto Others

Having just finished my first week as Religion Editor at Routledge, I have learned many things. The lengthy commute into New York City is filled with many lessons along the way and working for a publisher of some distinction is a privilege. My working life began with the work of a common laborer at 14. Conditions weren’t bad although the work was hard—we have laws to protect minors against exploitation. Funnily, after people reach a certain age exploitation is freely allowed, as long as someone benefits from it (not the one doing the labor). Being from a working class family, I gravitated towards dirty jobs. My college career was supported by many long hours in the dishroom, washing the cups and plates sent back by kids whose parents could foot their bill. I didn’t complain—physical work has always been relaxing to me. Mind work is much harder.

The majority of my adult life has been whiled away under the Damoclesian stare of religious institutions or individuals. Christians don’t make good bosses. My years at Nashotah House felt like some combination of Alcatraz and Bedlam. Under the authority of the religious I was taught to quake and fear. After over a dozen years of this, released into an empty academic void, I found a job with a Christian publisher who once again lived to dominate. I try hard to believe it is not inherent in religion itself, but often those who wish to bend others to their whim have some sacred sanction. For a brief respite I had a wonderful experience at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. My boss was secular and very caring. The same applied at Rutgers University. When Gorgias Press tired of my efforts, the secular academy came to my rescue.

Routledge once again reinforces that paradigm. For the first time in my professional life I feel that I am truly valued. As a rule, adjuncts are like Kleenex—there when you need them, but disposable after used. The university people were kind but could offer little. Now I am accepted among the secular and the little knowledge I’ve gained over the decades is appreciated. The scars, however, still show. The fear of long years of subservience are not easily dismissed. It is my hope that some day they may become effaced enough that the terrors wielded by the religious might be only nightmares recalled vaguely in the full light of day. If such deliverance comes it will have been because of my non-religious bosses. Such a parable should teach us about what religion has become in this “Christian country.”

No mean city.

Religion Al Dente

I first learned of the Flying Spaghetti Monster while teaching a course on the Bible and Current Events a number of years ago at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Being freed from the confines of my humorless seminary teaching post, I was free to explore innovative ways to approach my subject matter. When discussing evolution, it was helpful to bring in Pastafarianism as an example of how some highly intelligent—and very creative—people deal with the ridiculousness of Creationism. Lest I be accused of unfairness here, Pastafarianism is also ridiculous. That is precisely the point. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) was formed to demonstrate that any inane idea might pass as a religion and should be given equal time with those who use ultra-conservative views on the Bible to effect public policy.

A friend sent me a link to a BBC story of an Austrian man who has finally been successful in his attempt to wear a pasta-strainer on his head in his driver’s license photo. Claiming the headgear to be demanded by the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Niko Alm wished to have his official ID photo taken with the symbol of his faith. I sense an evolution taking place here. The Church of FSM has gone mainstream in many respects; there is a Bible available, you can buy a bumper-magnet to rival a Jesus fish, adherents have designed a slick website, and it boasts many, many followers. While the website of the Church of FSM defiantly refuses to be taken seriously, it makes legitimate claims—religions do not require literal belief, and therefore Pastafarianism is a true religion with believers not being held to any particular doctrine.

The outcry against the FSM movement (which began roughly early in the new millennium) demonstrates its effectiveness. Are there really people who believe this religion? A tour of the website should be proof enough. The claims made by the group have analogues in traditional religion; many major religions teach events and doctrines that are equally unbelievable in the confines of the physical world in which we find ourselves. It is difficult to believe that Niko Alm actually takes this seriously, but who are we to judge? The FSM has moved from making fun of Intelligent Design to casting the very definition of religious belief into sharp relief. Who’s to say we haven’t all been touched by his noodly appendage?

Touched by his Noodly Appendage

Ipse Dixit Dragon

Confession time: I have little patience for scholars who have already made up their minds before examining the evidence. Anyone who has put themselves through the ordeal of reading my academic publications will know that I do not advocate sloppy research or slipshod thinking. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about our world, we must follow the evidence. It is for this reason that I sometimes read unconventional material. I am well aware that untrained amateurs sometimes misinterpret what they see (so do trained professionals), but when evidence exists, why deny it? I just finished reading Archie Eschborn’s The Dragon in the Lake. Chalk this up to my having lived for many years in southern Wisconsin, and maybe a touch of nostalgia. I first learned of Eschborn’s book while teaching for a year in the Anthropology and Religion Department at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. The chair of the Anthropology Department had me in his office one day and showed me this book by a “crackpot” amateur underwater explorer who really believed the claims that Rock Lake – between Madison and Milwaukee – actually housed underwater Native American structures.

I visited Rock Lake during my years in Wisconsin, along with the nearby prehistoric site of Aztalan State Park. There is no doubt that Aztalan was a major settlement of Native American mound builders. The structures there, while not quite rivaling Cahokia in southern Illinois, are quite impressive. Aztalan is three miles east of Rock Lake. Rumors of “pyramids” in Rock Lake have circulated for many, many years. The lake, however, is clouded with marine growth and sediment, and although there are undoubtedly underwater features the official line is that they are glacial artifacts rather than human constructions. Eschborn’s book is an attempt to demonstrate the artificial nature of these features. At his own expense and effort, the author built up a small research society, purchased a boat, and spent several early springs and late falls (when the water is clearest) sending divers and sonar scanners into the water to document what is there. While the book was self-published (and could have used some professional editorial attention) it nevertheless lays out solid evidence that Rock Lake does house a mystery worthy of exploration.

While I can’t accept all of Eschborn’s conclusions, I would insist that his evidence demands the attention of those who deny it is even worth investigation. This is less a struggle of evidence versus absence of evidence than it is a struggle against academic arrogance: professionals know better and need not be bothered with evidence. I have personally witnessed this in my own field many, many times. It is what Eschborn calls “ipsi dicit” [sic]; ipse dixit, “he himself said it,” is the assumption that a well-respected authority may be accepted as uttering the truth in principle, based on reputation. Many professionals in this country make their living based on this faulty premise. Eschborn died prematurely shortly after his book was published, before he could launch the next phase of his investigations. While his interpretation of the data may reach too far, the world suffers for the loss of a truly open mind, and the establishment ruling, as usual, still stands.