When I noticed the big gift-wrapped box under the tree I was so excited. I couldn’t really believe it when I saw it. I was perhaps nine years old and my passion was photography. I’d managed to acquire a little basic photography darkroom setup. I had a little Kodak Brownie camera that had film (think it was called Kodak 120) that took maybe a dozen black and white pictures per roll. For a film developer I had this little Bakelite container that had a screw tight lid and inside was a reel device somehow spring loaded that allowed the film to be wound around it in grooves so it wouldn’t touch itself. The top had some sort of cone shape that allowed liquids to enter and exit without light contamination inside. I’d go into some closet and sit underneath the coats and clothes with my back to the streak of light at the edge of the door and take the film from the camera. By touch I’d get it loaded into this reel device and placed inside the container and screw on the lid. Then I could take the container out into the light. I had little packets of chemicals that I’d mix up. The first to be poured in was surely a developer. Then carefully timing it I’d swirl the inside reel using a little knob that stuck out the lid. Dumping the developer out next came the “stopper” and “fixer” (these might have been the same chemical solution). Again the same process. Finally dumping that out, I could open the container take out the film and hang it over the bathtub to dry. Continue reading

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Cyborgs R Us

Like a few million others, I got a new iPhone for Christmas. I think it has 56 gigabytes of memory. I’m eagerly anticipating the release of the Apple Watch in a few months. I’ve promised my daughter I’ll buy her one and doubtless I’ll get one for myself. Then I’ll be a full on cyborg with my heart rate, step and activity patterns, sleep (or not-sleep is more like it) record, and I can’t imagine quite what all else (but I want it!) will be recorded and readable to me (and maybe millions of others, but I can’t comprehend why they would be interested) on my iPhone, my iPad, my MacBook Pro with its retinal display (which I’ve never quite understood, but know it is “good,” no “better than good … as in great”), and my Mac (sitting there on my desk all lonely because it can’t get up and go). I’ve had a FitBit exercise monitor for years and have dutifully entered on my FitBit webpage every morsel I’ve put in my mouth; never mind that I’ve gained weight despite never (in almost 3 years) having had a day where my caloric intake was more than my burn. Crap! I step naked on my FitBit scale every morning and the results (not just weight, but also percent body fat … however it knows that) are automatically sent to all my devices. Every morning I get a cup of coffee and sit down to check my stats … and then fire up my financial tracking program to monitor my “total net wealth” (thankfully it is above zero). This is 2014 and I’ll soon be 72. Continue reading

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Enhancing in the Fat Present

Paleoethnographer André Leroi-Gourhan understood the hand as the first tool; I prefer to think of the finger as claiming that honor. The first intentional point of a finger, both phylogenetic and ontogenetic, is a gesture that directs the eye beyond the physical body to an object “there” that aligns with the finger “here.” The act creates a copresence with the implication of enhancing and awakening—identification in separation. The finger prosthetically extends the body beyond its physical limits into the world coincident with bringing the world into the body; the loop that characterizes all gesture richly understood. Leroi-Gourhan saw the hand as a fundamental tool enabling the externalization of memory, the origination of symbols and writing and enumeration—the beginning of the digital age—eventuating in touch pads, handhelds, gestural controlled technology, and wearables that, assimilated with the skin, enhances by gesture and touch the entire body. What Leroi-Gourhan understood, recognized by Jacque Derrida’s and Bernard Stiegler’s attention to his work, was that this prosthetic extension of the body into the production of graphics is an enhancement that does not reject physicality and body even in these body-transcending actions. Sociologist Marcel Mauss recognized the inevitable cultural, historical, and psychological shaping of all gestures and that these “techniques of body” serve to mark cultural, historical, individual identity. Gesture accomplishes the seeming impossibility of transcending the physical realized by means of the body’s capacity for living-movement. Continue reading

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Religion Writer

The study of religion is bound in the often uncomfortable tension between opposing positions and forces.  It seems we would need to know what religion is in order to study religions, yet how do we know what religion is without encountering religions.  How do we state what we know about religion without predisposing these definitional and categorical statements toward specific “prototypical” religions?  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that the current study of religion is based heavily on Christianity being the prototype, yet tacitly so.  Religion, in perhaps the most common sense experience, is loaded with non-language experiential bodily phenomena, yet the study of religion seems tightly bound, almost exclusively so, to language phenomena (scripture, philosophy, doctrine, description, history, and other academic studies).  Academic methods, including academic writing conventions, demand objectivity and scorn subjectivity and feeling and emotion.  Academic methods are restricted to the mind and ignore and discount the body.  Yet, extensive research during the last half century has increasingly supported the position that conceptual and propositional thought, even reason itself, is based in subconscious sensorimotor patterns, schema, and meanings. Continue reading

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A Horse is an Automobile without Wheels

September 8, 2012

In memory of Kenneth Morrison

Thirty years ago I published a book titled Beyond “the Primitive:” the Religions of Nonliterate Peoples (1982) that was intended to establish some less biased position or stance from which to appreciate and understand folks living in small-scale cultures, tribal or, what was for some time called “traditional,” peoples.  While studying at the University of Chicago, I found that much of the heritage of the academic study of religion was established in the study of what was called “primitive” people and in those days there was only a nascent awareness of the inappropriateness of this term.  It was the primitives that told us how religions got started in the process of human cultural development and the issue was variously framed in evolutionist terms (in which case magic preceded the rise of religion) or essentialist terms (in which religion, being essentially inseparable from divine creation, existed in the earliest of times found in “primitive” cultures evidenced by the presence of a “high god”).  In a fascinatingly illogical position contemporary people who live in small cultures were considered to represent these ancient people, the people “of the beginning.”  My teacher, Mircea Eliade, perhaps the most influential religion scholar of the twentieth century, was a major proponent of this approach, constructing his influential understanding of religion, one still present in popular understandings, by exemplary studies of “primitive people,” especially the aboriginal people of Australia.  Decades later my book Storytracking: Texts, Stories, and Histories in Central Australia (1998) attempted to place this approach in a constructive and comprehensible context (or history) if a critical one as well. Continue reading

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Origins and Evolution: Writing in the Long View

Origins is not something that I have ever found engaging.  In the formation of the academic study of religion (a good place to learn more details is Walter Capps’s 2000 book Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline), the question of origins was a constituting issue.  The concern has a late nineteenth century flavor because this is when the evidence supporting biological evolution began to establish Darwin’s audacity despite the Christian biblical attribution of origination to god.  The matter has yet to be settled and continues to create in public society something resembling schizophrenia, especially for those who are Christian and also accept biological evolution.  How could it not?

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I Don’t Want to be a Mystic!

July 26, 2012

Sam Gill

for Meghan Zibby

It was a pause that left a trace really, just one of those moments that sometimes surprise us when, in the midst of reading, a word speaks emotional volumes to us even when we aren’t altogether all that sure that we know why or even what the word means.  This time, in the midst of reading a novel, the word was “mystic” and it was used to identify a man who in his maturity was handling a situation with confidence and grace and wisdom and wonder and enthusiasm and charm.  Another character, his official superior, quietly watching him in awe identified him as a mystic.  Never mind that this guy was a Jesuit priest, the word struck me powerfully and personally.  At this point in my life (why have I waited so long?) I’m eager to cultivate qualities that will allow me to live with grace and quiet (hmm? maybe not) confidence, giving of myself in such a way that is delicate and genuine and generous.  I’ve been musing about how to go about doing this when at my age (seems this is more a concern to me than I thought) there is such a draw to grief and loss and regret and depression if not also moments of pure desperation.  I’ve been thinking of it as an age or stage of life thing, but when I give it a little more thought I can’t really see why it should be anything other than a life thing. Continue reading

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Memorial Day, 2011
for Corbin, Jenny, & Fatumata
Sam Gill

I awoke this morning with the sobering thought that, as important as we feel our own lives to be, the specificity of us, our personal identity, the “me” stuff, doesn’t survive us for very long.  I tried to remember the lives of my ancestors that I have known and realize that my memory peters out with my dad’s parents, my grandparents, and my mom’s aunts and uncles.  Even though I did some personal genealogy when I was in college, I can’t put any personal traits to any of the names I know.  Just checked the records and the earliest birth among all of them was in 1870 and most of them lived long lives.  I remember when I was a kid I’d stop to talk with an old man who sat on his porch down the street.  I have always remembered that he told me that he had fought in the Civil War, but I just did the math and that can’t be right.  Maybe I didn’t know the difference between WW I and the Civil War, or he didn’t remember, or I manufactured the whole thing.  That’s remembering for you.  It turns into fiction and I suppose it does so sooner than later.  That makes the presence of the remembered dead even more tenuous in one sense, yet as Scott Momaday told us to make something into a story is a way to endure it, but to also give it lasting meaning.  Suppose the best we can hope for is to become a story, one that entertains enough to be remembered.  Better yet to become a story turned into a song. Continue reading

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Christmas Conspiracy

It was about 12:30 p.m. when I started up Flagstaff Mountain Trail, perhaps my favorite close-in hike, just to the west of Boulder.  I’d eaten a quick lunch of leftovers from yesterday’s family celebration of Christmas because I wanted to get on the trail early, knowing that, this time of the year, the sun dips so far to the south and west by even midafternoon to shade parts of the trail.  It is a gorgeous warm day, but shade can still be chilling.

Hiking midday I thought that I’d likely have the trail to myself, reasoning that most would still be in the midst of their Christmas feast to be hiking.  Perhaps later, bundled up, some groups and couples would be ready for this mildly strenuous hike to work off the lethargy of tryptophanic turkey and a few calories.  Even as I had parked my car this idea was altered as a woman, I’m guessing in her late 30s or so (though I’m terrible at recognizing age), parked her SUV behind my car and hoped out to head up the trail a few yards ahead of me.  The trail was actually more populated than usual, yet, with mostly single and mostly male hikers.  I did encounter several couples that I’d guess were either empty nesters or childless couples.

My attention was rather strongly focused on “the vitality factor” or “the vitality life” and all the things I could write about this topic, yet, I began to realize that while all the hikers made the usual courteous greeting to fellow hiker when paths cross, not a single one of us acknowledged the day, by saying “merry Christmas,” “happy holidays,” or “feliz navidad.”   We constituted a silent conspiracy to avoid the obvious, that we were all spending Christmas alone.

Sam Gill

December 25, 2010

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That Little Thing

Completing my undergraduate major requirements in mathematics before I was a senior, I had grown impatient with mathematics largely because it seemed to me at the time so isolating from people.  I was utterly naïve of course and had become a math major simply because my mom told me to do so believing, why I have no idea, that with a degree in mathematics I’d surely get a good (meaning well-paying) job.  I took a course in business administration from Professor Larry Jones.  He was a tall clean-cut pipe-smoking intellectual-looking man.  On one assignment I was asked to indicate what I would do in a particular business situation and the situation was extensively described.  I wrote my paper on the many reasons I was sure that I would never have gotten myself into that situation in the first place and would thus not have to deal with the thorny problems clearly present in the situation.  He gave me a “D.”  I was not, however, discouraged because I caught a glimpse of a sea change that was at that moment taking place—this was the mid-‘60s—a shift from a behaviorist perspective to methods of quantitative analysis supported by the introduction of computers into the business environment.  I realized that with my background in mathematics I was rather well placed to put this to use in the business environment.

Entering a graduate degree program in business I found myself positioned with the right stuff at the right time.  Professor Jones had landed a senior administrative position for the Coleman Company—he would later become president of the company (and would later run for governor of the state)—and he was not so put off by my performance as to recognize that I might have something to offer even if I could be counted on to argue with premises.  I was hired in a research position at the Coleman Company, I somehow landed a position teaching a class in the Business School at Wichita State University on quantitative methods, and I was a full time graduate student.  I enjoyed many privileges and opportunities in these interrelated capacities, even though I was a bit busy.  Financial and business success seemed completely assured.  All was smooth sailing I felt and I totally loved everything I was doing.

We never know what comes next in life, what little thing might happen on any day that will alter the course of our lives, or so it would seem anyway.  As I had been impressed by Professor Larry Jones and did all I could to learn and be inspired by him, I admired even more Professor Harry Corbin.  He had been a young president of Wichita University, a municipally based school when I entered in 1960, and in the early ‘60s he ushered through the Kansas State Legislature the necessary measures to have the university accepted into the state system of higher education under the new name of Wichita State University.  As an undergraduate student leader in numerous capacities I had had many opportunities to observe President Corbin in action.  He too was a tall handsome reserved quietly powerful clearly brilliant man.  He seemed to me the very epitome of an academic.  Once the school had been accepted into the state system, Corbin gave up his presidency and returned to his research and teaching.  He had studied political science at the University of Chicago and was deeply interested in religion.

During my graduate studies in business, I learned that Professor Corbin was teaching a course on world religions.  I knew it was likely similar to history and I was concerned about that since the only “C” grade I had ever gotten was in a world history course.  Still, I truly wanted the experience of being in a class taught by Professor Corbin.  My business advisor allowed me to take the course, most likely because Corbin was so respected that it would be unacceptable to suggest that his course would not contribute to any student’s work.

So there it was.  That little thing.  A course that didn’t fit my program, taken for personal reasons.  Once the course started, it didn’t take long.  I have often described the experience I had in that course as like discovering a door theretofore unknown to me that when opened revealed the enormity of a world I didn’t even know existed.  Small town Kansas education is not all that worldly, for sure, nor are studies in mathematics and business even in a state university.  But here it was … an enormous rich complex confounding luscious world of peoples in era after era and culture upon culture.  That little thing had suddenly turned into one of almost unfathomable dimension.

Though my work and study and teaching were all exciting, the success I experienced in all of them was perhaps the greatest wedge to the need for change.  In the research capacity I enjoyed at Coleman I was centrally involved in replacing groups of working people with computer applications.  I saw upper level executives forced into early retirement because they couldn’t adjust to the tsunami of computer technology.  My satisfaction with a job well done, with my role in facilitating the march of technology, was tempered by my experience of the human costs I observed on people being displaced and outmoded.  As my power and accomplishments grew, so did my doubts and concerns.

Somehow I got the idea that I would benefit from a brief sabbatical from business to reflect and regroup.  I sensed that the timing was crucial, because I could feel that I was quickly approaching a point of no return.  My superiors at the Coleman Company were sympathetic to the idea, so I set about considering what I might do for a while to beneficially fill a leave of absence.  This took me to Professor Harry Corbin.  And this is actually the part of the story I want most to tell.

I met him in the office he had occupied as university president, retained I’m sure as a way of honoring his considerable contributions.  It was handsome and elegant and simply made one feel important to be in.  I explained my situation to him and asked his suggestions.  Corbin said, “Well, I’ve studied off and on for decades at the University of Chicago.  Might you consider that?”  I very clearly remember asking, “Oh, do they have a university in Chicago?”  He assured me that they did and that it might be worthy of my consideration.  Since I had studied world religions with him, I thought that might be fun to continue those studies and asked if that would be possible there.  He indicated it was and referred me to the Divinity School.  The story gets better, or perhaps worse.

Knowing not a thing about it, I contacted the Divinity School and asked for an application for admission.  I received it and filled it out and sent it back.  I was informed that I’d need to take an entrance exam and that they had their own exam which would be sent to Wichita State where it would be administered to me.  I remember taking the exam, but absolutely nothing about it.  This whole thing was premised on my firm belief that I’d be there just a few months.  I was then notified that I had been accepted to the Divinity School and was asked what field I wished to study.  I wrote back to ask them what fields I might choose among.  They sent me a list and I really didn’t recognize much of anything on the list so I selected “Christian Theology.”  They wrote back indicating that that field had filled, but might I be interested in a field called the “History of Religions?”  Even with my concerns about studying history, I knew it really didn’t matter, short termer as I was planning to be, so I responded, “sure.”  And that is how I entered the University of Chicago and a profession that is still unfolding over more than forty years.

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