When you are a scholar of religion, sometimes you forget how seriously people take religion.
Riding across New Mexico this week on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, M. and I went to the dining car for supper. All the tables seat four, and to save space and facilitate service, if there are fewer than four of people, the steward will seat others at your table (or you at theirs) to fill them up. To some people, this is social event; others just greet you politely and then ignore you.
We had just one companion, however, an older man who introduced himself as “Fred.” I don’t know how it came up, but he said that he wrote books on various topics, including theology. (Uh-oh.) Also, he said, he had produced a new version of the Bible in 21st-century English. (What a concept! No one has thought of that before!) It became clear that his theology is very conservative.
He asked what I did. I said I had worked as a newspaper journalist and magazine editor, which is perfectly true. I did not say that I was on my way to the annual joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, because if nothing else, many people will think you are Bible Answer Man or something.
Like the time I was riding a shuttle bus between my Chicago hotel and the McCormick Place convention center and the bus driver shut the door, looked over his shoulder, and said, “I bet you gentlemen know when Jesus is coming back.”
I let the Protestants on board handle that one.
My encounter with Fred, though, was mild compared to what another friend encountered on her trip to San Diego this year:
[I spent the flight] listening to some techbro explain to the Dean [of a certain seminary] how he and his friend started their own church based on self-actualization through electronic dance music.
He ended the plane ride by making the Dean make a Facebook video for his gurufeed (his words) about what he was grateful for and the great synchronicity they had.
I thought about trying to send the Dean a rescue party, but the Southwest flight attendants wouldn’t allow it.
If you are shy or just feeling anti-social, sometimes it is better not to say that you are a religion scholar.