After several consecutive days of my job demanding even more extroversion than usual, my inner introvert (who is very powerful) is screaming for attention!
Although I suppose the whole point of being on Facebook is to be noticed, I always have a brief twinge of angst when someone tags me in a Facebook post. The other day one of my colleagues and friends did just that, providing a web link and commenting “Many will like this list, especially Vance Morgan.”
I’d like to say that I can’t imagine why someone would think that I would be the least bit interested in Barnes & Noble’s list of “99 Book Nerd Problems,” but my colleague was right. At least half of the items on the list were very familiar, some uncomfortably so. In no particular order . . .
Cracked spines. I was recently told in the results of the “What type of book are you?” Buzzfeed quiz that
You are a second-hand book! Sure, you’re a little tattered around the edges, and you might not smell the freshest. But that doesn’t matter: People are so blown away by your wit and wisdom that they want to share your words with everybody they know. Whether you’re handed from one friend to another or discovered on a travel lodge bookshelf, you bring the magic everywhere you go.
This is not true. Oh, I’m down with the wisdom and wit stuff, and I only need to look in the mirror in the morning to be reminded that I’m getting “a little tattered around the edges.” But I am not a second-hand book. Why? Because I do not like used books—at least books that look like they are used.
“Cracked spines” sounds like a problem shared by book geeks and chiropractors. One of the early signs, twenty-five years ago, that my attraction to the beautiful redhead whom I eventually would move in with and marry was not going to be all puppies and roses was when I observed her reading a paperback for the first time. She picked it up, opened it in the middle, and bent the pages back so far with both hands that she creased the spine. I know this is hard to believe, but some people actually read books this way. I have spent a lifetime doing everything I can to make sure that my books look just as new on the exterior when I’m done with them as when I started—but not Jeanne. This is why over the past two and a half decades I have, more often than not, spent the extra money on hardback editions of books. A sturdier spine, along with dust jackets that cover a multitude of sins, has largely solved a problem that could have been a deal breaker. And they look impressive on our bookshelves.
A few weeks ago a colleague in Publications on campus contacted me wanting to borrow some books. The summer edition of the quarterly alumni magazine will contain various articles about the rejuvenated version of the Development of Western Civilization program that I direct; we are just concluding our first full academic year in the new DWC. Vicki-Ann mentioned several typical texts from the program—The Aeneid, The Bible, Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy and others—wondering “do you have a copy of any of these that we could borrow for a few days? We’d like to take a picture for the magazine of some of the texts used in the program.” “I have at least five versions of each of them,” I replied. “Knock yourself out.” In short a student assistant arrived at my office to pick the books up. Later in the day Vicki-Ann sent me an email: “Do you have copies of any of these books that look like they have been used?” “No.” I can’t help it if my frequently read texts are indistinguishable on the outside from books sold back at the end of the year by students who never opened them. That’s just the way that I am.
Hand-wringing articles that claim nobody reads anymore. Just the other day a headline shouted from my computer screen that TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT READ A SINGLE BOOK LAST YEAR! Really? I find that about as hard to believe as I would find a headline screaming TWENTY-NINE PERCENT OF AMERICANS DID NOT GO TO THE BATHROOM LAST YEAR! hard to believe. But then I read comments on various articles and posts on-line, find out about the guy who failed to win thousands of dollars on Wheel of Fortune because he could not correctly pronounce the word “Achilles” when it was fully spelled out in front of him on the ‘big board,” and my disbelief begins to dissipate. Who are these people? Everybody I know not only reads, but most of them are book geeks. Of course that is not surprising, given what I do for a living and who I spend my days with. Nobody I know doesn’t read. But wait . . .
“I’m really not much of a reader”—Caleb Morgan, oldest son of book geek Vance Morgan.
This is a shocking development. My youngest son, Justin, has his face in a book almost as often as I do. Jeanne, who was not a book geek when we met twenty-five years ago, became an honorary book geek many years ago just from breathing the same air as I breathe for long enough. But Caleb is not a reader. How did this happen? Lest you think I was a complete and total failure as a parent, Caleb is successful, happily married, has an extraordinarily full life, jets back and forth with his wife Alisha to Germany three or four times per year, sends out dozens of texts and emails per day, runs his own tattoo school, and falls asleep sprawled in front of the TV in the evening on the rare occasions when he’s actually home in the evening. How on earth does he find the time to do all of this? I know, I know—he’s “really not much of a reader” and spends the millions of hours I spend buried in a book doing something else. Shut up.
I have a number of other book geek problems that will be the focus of future posts. But at least one of the problems identified in the B & N article is not one that I struggle with.
Family members who don’t respect my shelving protocol. There aren’t any. They know better.
“When you aren’t reading philosophy, what do you like to read?” he asked. This had all the makings of a loaded question. When the president of the college where you are interviewing for a tenure track job asks any question, it’s loaded—but this one had all sorts of implications. He was a Dominican priest—what should I say? The Bible? The Summa Theologica? Three years earlier various folks had informally prepped me for what the president of the tiny college at which I currently worked and desperately wanted to leave would ask me and what answers he would want to hear, but no one had provided me with similar help this time. I was on my own. “Mystery novels,” I said truthfully, fully expecting that this probably sealed my not getting the job. “Me too!” he replied, and over the next half hour we compared notes—as it turned out, he was as big of a fan of Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry as I was. He never asked me about my response to the college’s mission statement, why I wanted to leave one tenure track position in exchange for another; he didn’t even try to sound me out about what I thought it would be like to teach at a Catholic college as a non-Catholic. But I suspect he found out more about me from our conversation about mystery novels that he would have from my answers to any number of standard queries. Father Cunningham was a smart guy.
The story of how I came to love mystery novels parallels the story of the early months of Jeanne’s and my relationship. I often tell people that I read for a living. Actually I’m a teacher, but a philosophy/humanities professor spends far more time reading than in the classroom. Furthermore, I’ve been an incurable bibliophile since I started reading a couple of years before I started first grade. But even though mystery novels occupy a surprisingly large percentage of space on Jeanne’s and my many bookshelves at home, their entry into my world of that-which-must-be-read was relatively late. The early months of 1988 were more full of adventure, new beginnings, and over-the-top stress than any months I had previously (or perhaps have since) experienced. Jeanne and I met late in 1987; early in the New Year I went with her to Santa Fe, affording us the opportunity to find out whether actually living under the same roof would put a damper on our new relationship that had, up to this point, largely been one of lengthy, nightly long distance phone calls.
As Jeanne worked and studied through the final semester of her Master’s program at St. John’s College, I navigated the final stages of choosing a PhD program to start in the fall, struggled through the emotional and legal thickets of custody issues with my ex, and tried to find a job. I soon landed a piano-playing gig at a large Methodist church sixty miles south in Albuquerque, which paid just about enough to cover the gas used for two weekly round trips in “The Bird,” Jeanne’s rather unreliable vehicle. I also found what would have been, under different circumstances and several years earlier, a dream job—working as a jack-of-all-trades in a tiny independent bookstore, called “Books West,” in a shopping plaza just a five-minute walk from Jeanne’s apartment.
Sue, my boss at “Books West,” soon realized that she had a rare find on her hands—someone who had actually read a lot of books. When not working the single cash register up front, my duties included ordering appropriate selections for the one-shelf philosophy section which largely consisted of Ayn Rand junk and various new-agey stuff with the word “Philosophy” in the title, as well as making selections to beef up the “Fiction” section, which when I arrived contained nothing written earlier than around 1950. The store was tiny, so before long I had ordered way more than would fit on the shelves and my book selection activities went on hiatus. The bookstore had little traffic most of the time—there is just so much time that one needs to spend straightening out shelves that very seldom are touched—so fortunately Sue had no problem with employees reading at the front counter—just as long as it did not lead to ignoring a customer, should such a creature actually show up. What a job! Hours of reading time, and getting paid slightly over minimum wage to do it!
I am both an organized and an obsessive reader. Organized in the sense that I generally have a method to my reading schedule, obsessive because once I establish the method, I follow it through without deviation. I had a small bookstore at my disposal containing several genres of paperbacks I had never delved into. What to read? Where to start? The Science Fiction shelves held little interest, and I avoided Fantasy because I was quite sure that with The Lord of the Rings I had already read the best fantasy—several times—ever written. The Mystery section was promising, but I had no idea of who might be worth reading and who was just pulp mystery. I asked my co-worker John, a tall, skinny guy who next to my friend Anthony was the most “outed” I have ever encountered if he had an opinion. “I prefer Young Adult Fiction myself,” he said (he was probably thirty-five or so), “but I hear that P. D. James is pretty good.” “P. D. James it is,” I thought, and I grabbed Cover Her Face, James’s first mystery. I loved it. I read her next one, then her next one, and didn’t stop until I had finished every mystery she had written to that point (that’s my obsessive method or methodical obsession in action). Then Sue Grafton. Then Sara Paretsky. We’re talking two or three dozen 200-300 page paperbacks by this time. Jeanne graduated, we hightailed it out of Santa Fe eventually landing with my sons (we won the custody battle) in Milwaukee for the beginning of my PhD studies at Marquette, but I was armed with the names of several dozen more mystery writers to try out. Deborah Crombie. Elizabeth George. Anne Perry. Every one of them writing continuing series with returning characters and plots that develop over several volumes.
Why do I love mysteries? I suppose there are all sorts of reasons. I teach and write on the edge of mystery all the time, exploring the boundaries between the known and unknown in various areas of investigation—human nature, change and permanence, certainty and probability, reason and faith, human and divine. A student once expressed this sort of boundary analysis memorably in an oral exam several years ago. “It’s like being on the inside of a room with walls made of tinfoil,” she said. “You can’t get out of the room, but as you press against the walls from the inside, you can feel and then begin to imagine the shape of what’s on the other side.” I would add that there’s a certain element of moving the walls back a bit as the pressing and pushing continues. The room of the known gets larger, but the suspicion deepens that what’s on the other side of the tinfoil is far more interesting and greater than what is inside the room.
But I suspect that my attraction to mystery novels has a far less mysterious and far more practical explanation. Each of my favorite mystery authors writes in a multiple volume series, developing a handful of main characters throughout as they engage with and solve the latest murder. Adam Dalgleish, Tommy Lynley, Barbara Havers, William Monk, Charlotte Pitt, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Ferguson have become parts of my life not because they brilliantly solve case after case, but because their growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities over the years that they have been my mystery friends remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy and Barbara were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. But I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in. (By the way, my latest mystery favorite is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series set in upstate New York. Its setting reminds me both of the rural Vermont of my youth and of the people I go to church with every Sunday. If you love the rural Northeast and/or Episcopalians, it’s to die for!).
Hope springs eternal! A blog post for a Wednesday morning.
At the end of last year, just in time for the holiday season, a new book by Sarah Palin was published. Entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy, with the subtitle A Happy Holiday IS a Merry Christmas, the book was promoted, among other things, as “a fun, festive, thought-provoking book, which will encourage all to see what is possible when we unite in defense of our faith and ignore the politically correct Scrooges who would rather take Christ out of Christmas.” Every fall in recent years various conservative voices have called for like-minded persons to “take Christmas back” from various elements and constituencies seeking to secularize and remove Christ from it. This strikes me as a relatively recent phenomenon. My upbringing was as conservative Christian as it comes, yet my family had no problem mixing the baby Jesus in a manger with other not-so-Jesus-like features of the holidays, such as the year I got both a BB gun and a G.I. Joe doll (but don’t call it a doll) under the tree. The violent presents must not have had much of an effect. I do not own a gun nor have I shot one in at least thirty years. I’m glad the Christmas police never came to my house—we would have been in trouble.
But that’s nothing compared to the trouble we would have been in had the Easter police ever showed up at the wrong time. Easter is a confusing holiday for a kid, much more confusing than Christmas. Christmas is dependable—it comes on the same day in December every year. But Easter is confusedly flexible—it can show up on any given Sunday between the middle of March and late April. I learned as an adult that there is actually a method to when Easter occurs. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring either on or after the vernal (spring) equinox. Although this formula sounds very new-agey and smacks of Druids and such, it apparently was established at the Council of Nicea in 325. No telling what a bunch of theologians and bishops will do with too much time on their hands. All I knew as a kid was that Easter didn’t seem to know when to show up, except that it was always on a Sunday—with either snow banks or flowers outside, depending on the year.
I also knew what Easter was supposed to be about. Jesus was dead and now he isn’t any more. But my real interest was in various not-so-Jesus-like accoutrements that went with Easter—bunnies, Easter baskets, chocolate eggs (crème-filled or hollow) and, my ultimate obsession and downfall, jelly beans. My mother, very much like a Cadbury egg, was hard (or at least Swedish and stoic) on the outside and soft on the inside. She talked a good game about Easter being about Jesus and not about bunnies, eggs, and candy—but my brother and I knew that every Easter morning before we headed off to church would be an early spring version of Christmas morning. Each of us would find an Easter basket filled with our favorite sweets, as well as a toy or two. Mine was usually a small stuffed animal, facilitating my inexplicable and very strong stuffed animal obsession. One Easter, my mother said that in addition to the Easter basket, she had hidden two solid chocolate rabbits, one for each of us, somewhere in the house—it was up to each of us to find ours.
My brother found his within five minutes or so slid out of sight but within reach behind the piano. But I could not find mine. I’m usually pretty good at this—Jeanne will attest that I am almost always the “finder of lost or misplaced things” in our house. But I could not find my freaking chocolate rabbit. It came time to head off for church and my mother would have caved and revealed where she had hidden it, except that—typically—she could not remember. I knew better than to suggest that I stay home and find my chocolate rabbit while the rest of the family went to church, but I was not thinking “He is Risen!” thoughts while at the service. I was wondering “where the fuck is my chocolate bunny??” (or something like that—the “f” word had not made it into even my inner vocabulary yet).
The chocolate rabbit was never found. To his great consternation, my mother made my brother share his rabbit with me. Several weeks later, though, we found out what had happened to my bunny. As I helped my mother move the massive console record player in the corner of the living room so she could clean underneath, we discovered the box that had contained my chocolate rabbit, empty with a large hole chewed in the bottom left corner. My bunny had been confiscated and eaten by one of the several mice who lived in our old barn of a house. We could hear them running behind the walls on occasion. My father set mousetraps in various closets and the furnace room on a regular basis; one of my older brother’s jobs was to check the traps occasionally and discard any unlucky mouse with a broken back that he discovered. I hoped at the time that the freaking mouse who stole my bunny was one of the ones caught by a trap, or at least that the mouse died of a sugar and chocolate overdose. But the Easter Mouse has become iconic in my personal mythology over the years, representing the continuing pull of sacred and secular that has evolved from a confusing tension as a child into an endless source of fascination, ideas, and challenges for growth (as well as blog posts!) as an adult. Santa Claus or the baby Jesus? Santa’s elves or the angel Gabriel? Rabbits or an empty tomb? Jelly beans or unleavened bread?
As I sat toward the back of a full Trinity Episcopal Church for Easter Sunday service yesterday morning (Jeanne was up at the altar again), I was reminded of something provocative that a good friend of mine once said: “The heart of Christianity is what you believe about the stories. Do you believe the stories are true or don’t you? Yes or No?” In a slightly more formal way, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has the following to say about the stories:
The practical, theological, spiritual, ethical, pastoral, political, missionary, and hermeneutical implications of the mission and message of Jesus differ radically depending upon what one believes happened at Easter.N. T. Wright
Indeed they do—but beyond confirming that I believe the Easter story is true in the sense that “these stories are true—and some of them actually happened,” I not very interested in debates concerning the historical veracity of the foundational stories of Christianity. Personally, I’ll take the Incarnation over the Resurrection as the seminal truth of my Christian faith. But here’s what I do know to be true about Easter:
- I know that resurrection is real because I’ve experienced it.
- Easter is a reminder that death does not have the last word, that life always springs from what has been left for dead.
- New life is often unexpected, inexplicable and unpredictable. I don’t know what the dozens of little green things that have sprouted up throughout my back yard and flower beds are (I’ve never seen them in previous springs), but they are alive. I don’t know what the little downy woodpecker hammering away on the vinyl siding of our neighbor’s house this morning was thinking, but it was life in action.
As the newly sighted man said when interrogated about the person who healed his blindness, “I don’t know about Jesus but one thing I do know—I was blind and now I see.” My life narrative will always include the language of incarnation and resurrection—that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But this I know for certain: New life is for real.
It is April, and we have apparently survived a very tough winter. Actually, it was just a winter, with noticeable snow and cold temperatures—nothing unusual, except that in Rhode Island, we sometimes get no winter at all. So a normal winter provides ample reason to talk about “Snowmageddon, the “Snowpocalypse,” the Polar Vortex, and to wonder what ridiculous name the Weather Channel will come up with for the latest “storm” that promises to drop at least three inches of snow or the dreaded “wintry mix.” My northern Vermont heritage, along with adult winters spent in Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Minnesota qualifies me to make fun of people who are unaware of what a real winter is like—Rhode Islanders generally fit the bill.
A few days ago I walked out the front door of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and was struck by a distinctive scent wafting on the breeze. Somewhere on the olfactory spectrum between a pristine pine forest and an overpowering air freshener hanging on the rear-view mirror of a car, this scent had rotting organic material tones, with the tangy hint of chemicals. “I love the smell of mulch in the morning! Spring has arrived!” There are a number of interesting sights as well as smells that accompany the arrival of spring. That same day as I approached the house returning home briefly for lunch to check up on our four-legged daughters, I saw a squirrel hanging upside down by his back feet from the top of the metal shepherd’s-crook pole that holds several bird-suet cages on our side lawn, using his front paws to open the latch on one of the cages for a free lunch. Our blue spruce that the feeder is next to has apparently grown large enough that an enterprising squirrel can leap to the feeder from the closest branch at risk of falling several feet to the ground. Amazing what some people will do for a taste of bird seed encased in blocks of greasy suet.
One of the perks of teaching at a Catholic college is that we get some extra days off around Easter. Easter is late this year, which is perfect because it is time to start getting the yard in shape—one of my favorite projects of the year. I use the word “yard” loosely, since we live in the city and our available land is postage-stamp size, comparatively speaking. That’s fine with me—we have lived here for eighteen years and I am regularly grateful that it takes no longer than twenty minutes to mow the lawn, back, front, and side. I have little interest in a luxurious, weed-free lawn. Indeed I suspect that in the height of summer at least one-half of our lawn is covered with what those in the know would call weeds. But the lawn is green, and that’s all I care about.
What I do care about is flowers. I had no idea how much pleasure there is to be found in the annual cycle of cleaning flower beds in late March and early April (I haven’t started yet, so I’m late this year), watching lilies, columbines, and peonies poke their heads through the dirt despite having as much as six-foot snow banks on top of them during the winter. I keep a sharp eye out for the first leaf and flower buds on the flowering cherry tree, roses, and hydrangea bush in front, as well as the butterfly, blackberry, and lilac bushes in the back. I inspect each potential bud-producer every day and take it very personally when no progress is evident. The process has been entirely trial-and-error over the years; assorted azaleas and hydrangea bushes have failed to make an appearance in given springs, tulips and daffodils have tended to be a disaster, leading to digging up last year’s remains and replacing them with something that might possibly do better. The perennials and flowering bushes we presently have are survivors of Morgan’s version of natural selection—if you don’t show up when I think you should, you’re out. The plants that have survived both my impatience and incompetence over the years are hardy enough to survive nuclear winter. I’ve learned a few things over the years, of course—loosening the flower beds and working in bags of shit from Lowe’s (really—they contain manure), then covering with a layer of mulch is a stimulant for growth and a deterrent for weeds. The primary purpose of the mulch for me, of course, is to get high on the aroma. I never seem to buy enough bags, though, and always have to make another trip to purchase three or four more.
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”
Jesus must have had a bad experience with fig trees as a child; Holy Week Monday a couple of days ago is the day that Jesus killed a fig tree for failing to bear fruit, even though it was not even the season for fig-bearing. He probably was in a bad mood because he knew what was coming in a few days. I completely understand the impatience of the fig tree owner. There is no room for fruitless and flowerless plants in my yard—no slackers allowed. But the fascinating part of the parable is the remedy suggested by the gardener, the resident expert, for the figless tree. He says “Let me disturb it at its roots, throw some crap in there, and I’ll bet it will start producing!” That’s generally the suggested solution for any recalcitrant plant. Cut it back to the ground, lop its branches indiscriminately—in short, do things to the plant that any sensible person fears will kill it, then wait and see what happens.
It seems to be a truism in almost all everything I’ve ever read about spiritual growth that such growth is impossible without conflict, pain, suffering, and violence. Even the great and extraordinarily difficult philosopher Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel wrote that “periods of peace are blank pages in the book of history.” I want to know why. Of course, the classic expression of this problem is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and, more problematically, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But I’m not that concerned about why human beings have to suffer and struggle—this is such an obvious feature of the human landscape that it hardly seems worth asking about. I’m more interested in what to make of a creating being who presumably had infinite options when choosing the guiding principles and template for the world to be created, and chose to do it in the most open-ended and messy fashion imaginable. This is not a world created with efficiency in mind.
In her fascinating and eclectic memoir Wild Harmonies, classical pianist and dedicated environmentalist Hélène Grimaud writes that “we can be essential only when we are suffering. It encourages us to remain honest.” I think most of us would appreciate being given a shot at living essentially and honestly without suffering, but we don’t get that chance. Instead we get to do it as plants do it, through productive seasons and dormant, through times when even we are astounded by our beauty as well as those times when even the most generous observer would swear that we are dead. In a charismatic church I attended many years ago in a previous lifetime, we often would start the morning service with an annoying song based on Psalm 52:8.
Like a tree, like a tree, I’m like a green olive tree
In the house, in the house of the Lord.
I will trust in the mercies of God forever,
I will trust in the mercies of God.
I’ve never heard such a song about being a fig tree.
What is bothering me incessantly is the question of what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over—and that means the time of religion in general. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters from Prison
The end of last week was a bear, beginning with nine hundred freshmen registering for their fall sections and seminars in the interdisciplinary program I direct on Friday; I swear that at least several hundred of them sent me an email begging for overenrollment in a full section. That was followed on Saturday by Family Day duties that kept me on campus from mid-morning until late afternoon. I was strongly tempted to skip church on Sunday morning for the first time in months, but I thought “its Palm Sunday so I should go, Jeanne’s going because she’s doing the chalice on the altar,” my Protestant guilt kicked in and off to church I went. At least it was going to be the first Sunday service in weeks in which I had nothing to do but sit in the pew—no seminar to lead, no scripture to read, and no organ to play. I would try to enjoy the dramatic reading of the Passion narrative that is always part of the Palm Sunday service before returning home to finish our taxes. What fun.
As I walked in the back, our rector and my good friend Marsue was looking dramatic in her chasuble, appropriately red for Palm Sunday, as she waited to process with the servers, readers, and choir. Motioning me over, she whispered “do you want to read?” “Not really,” I thought as I looked to see what roles for the upcoming Passion reading were still available. Just about all of them, as it turned out, including the role of Jesus. “I’ll be Jesus,” I sighed. “I’ve never gotten to read his part.”
“I’ll be Jesus.” That’s really what it boils down to for those of us who have signed on to the project of trying to live out a serious Christian faith commitment. Holy Week is a time that many try to virtually “walk in the steps of Jesus” liturgically in the various special services during the week. But to actually be God in the world, to be the vehicle through which the divine makes contact with our human reality—that’s nuts. No wonder we are so creative in finding ways to make the demands of the life of faith more manageable. But my own attempts to avoid the challenges of what I claim to take seriously have been most recently exposed by the prison letters of twentieth-century Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In the months between his imprisonment and his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer wrote dozens of letters to his best friend Eberhard Bethge, letters in which he explored and pressed the boundaries of his Christian faith, a faith for which he would eventually die, in ways that have challenged and shocked readers ever since. Facing imminent death has a tendency to focus one’s attention and to clearly reveal what is important and what isn’t. As Bonhoeffer asks, “What do we really believe? I mean, believe in such a way that we stake our lives on it?” These letters are causing me to think about and look at the Holy Week narrative very differently.
Underlying the liturgies and activities between Palm Sunday and Easter is a shocking story in which “God lets the divine self be pushed out of the world onto the cross.” God is apparently either unwilling or unable to engage with the suffering and pain of the world other than to become part of it. If the dramatic events of Jesus’ final days are models for our lives in a suffering and distressed world, it is clear that “Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.” I remember a rather dramatic solo that my aunt used to sing in the church of my youth almost every year at some point leading up to Good Friday that includes the line “he could have called ten thousand angels, but he died alone for you and me.” If we take all of the accretions of dogma and doctrine out of the picture, the story of Jesus’ last days is a disaster—as I read last Sunday morning during the Passion narrative as Matthew presents it, the final words Jesus gasps from the cross are “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Precisely the question Bonhoeffer must have been asking from his prison cell.
I’ll be wrestling with some of this here this week; at the moment, I’m focused on the following from one of Bonhoeffer’s last letters:
To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself . . . but to be a person—not a type of person, but the person that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
How to do that? That is the question.
I have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.
I wrote about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas a couple of posts ago—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world. In addition, I am teaching in an interdisciplinary course this semester that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! Actually we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.
But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had this semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Sesame Street—some things just don’t go together.
Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. In the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.
Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables. Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.
This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” If you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:
It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.
“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:
Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!
The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.
Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!
BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.
Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.
Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?
BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.
Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?
In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.