Sunday, October 02, 2016


University of Nottingham, England

When I signed up for “Academia,” which is an internet platform for long-form scholarly essays, I was thinking of materials about Blackfeet more than my project of understanding the creation of sacred moments as in worship, with particular attention to sensory means and metaphorical thought.

This whole University of Nottingham YouTube series is far more sophisticated than most — even TED or EDGE.  I wish every writer about religion knew to watch these vids.  It is too much to hope for ordinary reporters to watch them.  They believe only what Hollywood tells them.  They don’t even know that there’s more to learn. 

Professor Thomas O'Loughlin

I did not expect to find people like Thomas O’Loughlin, nor to connect him to YouTube videos, such as this one, based on a small ancient lamp.   Here is an approach that fits with what I explore in “The Bone Chalice.”  The series is called “Why Study…”?  These are not glamorous people — they are learned people.

Dr. O’Loughlin is a committed Chrisian believer, as was my thesis advisor John Godbey.  I am not.  But this does not mean he is not valuable or should be resisted entirely.  It is interesting to me that physically he is a type who is contemporarily cast as the trustworthy “second” or sidekick “Samwell” in “Game of Thrones” or “Ferd” in “Longmire.”  He’s a “Samwise” to use the name of the “Lord of the Rings” version.  He is a kind of proto-Universalist, wanting a domestic and joyful version of religion, always rooted in life at ground level, which some call “place,” which supports O’Loughlin’s interest in paleogeography.

Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin)  "Lord of the Rings"

“Longmire” is another surprise element in the Irish thread of my thought.  In the series airing now on Netflix, the sheriff is facing the “Irish Mafia,” which spread throughout the US and Canada in the 19th century, mingling revolution with crime.  When I googled, I hit a major lode of history.  The University of Montana employs professors of Irish thought and history.  That fellow at the Montana state capital who is waving a saber overhead is Thomas Meagher, our Irish first governor.  Another connection is through the Irish mother of Gerald Tailfeathers, famous Alberta Blackfoot artist.  It is thought that Churchill sent his niece to investigate possible Irish and Metis collaboration during WWII.

"Ferd"  Adam Bartley

But getting back to O’Loughlin, here are some quotes from his page at University of Nottingham:

“. . . the early churches used codices rather than scrolls - the effects are still with us; theology became a university discipline when it moved out of a primarily oral environment and Christianity became a book-based religion; now what will happen in the new orality that arises with the web? These questions about communication fascinate me and crop up again and again in what I write.”

“ . . .Moreover, in recent years I have become ever more interested in how we are entering a new age of orality - learning is taking place through listening and watching - which is based not around the hearth in the household nor in the village church, but on the internet.”

“. . . The other area that I am interested in developing is how believers have used maps over the centuries to give expression to their faith and how their maps are the expressions of their world, which includes their religious world.”

“ . . .It would be fair to say that one of the characteristics of historical theologians is that they prefer empirically founded statements about what a specific group believed - which can then be studied - to vast statements that take the form: 'faith demands ... “

“I co-teach with Dr Simon Oliver the module 'Darkness and Light: The Mystical Tradition of Theology.”  (See

If you put thought like this, which is confined to the Christian Era, since it is about what developed from the life of Jesus, alongside articles like this one:  “The Modern Mind May Be 100,000 years old” at  which begins with the earliest presumed anatomically modern humans, then a pre-book.pre-scroll, pre-writing sense of what is sacred becomes urgent.  And since it seems, as O’Loughlin says, we are entering a time that is post-book, post-writing, and possibly post-book-based religion, the exploration is even more  pressing.

Where I go, and possibly O’Loughlin goes, in this search for sacred meaning is to the material culture as drawn from the ecology: tiny marine snails with holes punched for stringing into necklaces, the jawbone of a boar clasped in the arms of a buried child, a little lab for baking yellow ochre into the more prized deep red, and a sense of the world that offered what must have been symbolic or at least metaphorical, since that is one of the bases of thought.  Or was it then?  Did humans only nudge and guide, and make encouraging noises like my cat trying to get me to pick up the canopener?

The historical study of something like Communion leads both back into history through Passover to communal and possibly human sacrifice and forward to the Unitarian flower communion or feminist water-mingling.  The challenge of the historian is then to keep the radiant and unique meaning of that one communal meal by making it real and relevant today.  Strangely the dismemberment of it into elements, maybe in defiant non-compliance adds meaning.  I think of the woman who was denied by her seminary the opportunity to serve Communion because she was female and only males could do priestly acts.  She served a NON-communion of bread and water, which then emphasized the meaning of wine/blood by showing what a bloodless act the denial was — denying community which is the basis of the act.

Writing emphasizes the transcendence of the sacred and can lead to a hair-splitting logic that plunges necessarily into an apophatic understanding that God/Sacred is simply unknowable by the human perception.  I appreciate this point of view.  I support it, though it is the basis of George RR Martin’s Wall of Ice that keeps out the despair of the Whitewalkers.

"Samwell Tarley"  John Bradley-West

But if we go back to the oral conveyance of meaning, we admit the immanent, what wells up within life and the world and the dialogue between them which is religious thought.  Then we can sit down with Sam at the stone hearth and talk about life itself, turning that little stone lamp over in our human hands and smelling the olive oil of its original use.

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