Category Archives: books

ring of gyges

Someone Would Know

mall bookstoreHey Justin! What if you had a ring that made you invisible when you put it on? Would you use the ring to take the books you’ve been wanting from the kid’s section at the bookstore the next time we go to the mall?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

In the summer of 1989, as I prepared for my first PhD-candidate solo flight in the classroom scheduled for the coming fall semester, I solicited advice from anyone and everyone in the philosophy department, from fellow grad students to those breathing the rarefied air of full professor, about what to include in my introductory level ethics class. There were as many “must do” suggestions as there were colleagues. But they unanimously agreed on one suggestion—I had to put Plato’s Ring of Gyges story from Book II of the Republic on the syllabus. A guy who finds a ring of invisibility and uses it to seduce the queen, kill the king, and become top dog in the kingdom of Lydia. Using my seven-year-old son as a guinea pig, I asked him what I would be asking my students in a few months—What would you do with the ring?

floating booksWho would know?

How are they going to explain the books floating out of the store?

Well, what if anything you touch or hold when you’re wearing the ring becomes invisible? Now would you take the books?

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

I wrote last Friday about my belief that this little story tucked into the early pages of the Republic was the inspiration for the Ring of Power at the center of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, an epic tale that teases out the moral issues and implications of such a scenario.Ring of power

A Trip to Middle Earth

The ring put immediate pressure on each person’s most sensitive areas—what do you really want? In what ways are you hindered from getting what you want by obedience to moral norms? What would you do if the pressure to abide by moral norms were lifted? Justin, living in a house with an academic father and step-mother, was a great lover of books and regularly received a “no” answer to his requests to buy more books when visiting the local bookstore (we were living on a tight graduate student budget, after all). The ring of invisibility would give him direct access to the world he really wanted—one filled with every book his heart desired.

empty bookshelvesJustin, who would know?

There would be spaces on the bookstore shelves where I took the books from.

So you fill those holes up with books from some other part of the store that no one’s looking at. Now would you take the books?

No.

WHY NOT?

Because someone would know.

More than twenty-five years later, I would guess that I have taught the ring of gygesa class focusing on the Ring of Gyges at least fifty times. The story teaches itself. It is an extraordinarily flexible tool to get people of all ages and various life experiences to start immediately thinking about why they follow moral guidelines and principles at all. As the director of a large interdisciplinary humanities program, I am frequently asked to give “mock lectures” to weekend groups ranging from alumni and board members to prospective students and their parents. One of my two “go to” lecturse for such events is “The Ethics of Invisibility: Plato’s Republic and Gyges’ Ring.” After a few minutes of set-up, I ask my audience what I asked my son all those years ago—suppose you had the ring of invisibility. Do you think you would find yourself doing things when wearing the ring that you don’t normally do?

Who is going to know??!!

I’ll set off the alarm at the front of the store when I walk out.

So let’s say that when you’re invisible the machine can’t detect you or anything you are holding! NOW are you going to take the books?

No.

WHY NOT??

Because someone would know.

Except the occasional goody-two-shoes who claims she would use the ring for good (no guy has ever claimed this), virtually every one of my classroom companions admits that they would behave differently when wearing the ring than they normally do, pressing and eventually breaking through the envelope of basic moral expectations. When asked for specific examples, people usually start small.

  • Listen in on conversations you have not been invited to be part of.
  • Play tricks on your friends.
  • Steal something small and insignificant, just to verify that the ring actually works.

first classTo raise the bar a bit, I ask “how many of you would use the ring to give yourself a free upgrade to first class instead of sitting in the cheap seats in the back the next time you are on a plane?” Almost everyone always admits that they would.  When asked why they don’t give themselves such an upgrade without the ring, the answer is never “Because it’s wrong.” Rather, we don’t give ourselves free upgrades because we are afraid we’ll get kicked off the plane if our theft is discovered. Which is exactly the point of the Ring of Gyges scenario—we behave morally because we fear the consequences of not doing so. As soon as we are convinced that “no one will know” if we do something immoral, a world that the ring of invisibility places within our grasp, our commitment to moral behavior vanishes just as we do when we wear the ring.

As time allows me to push the envelope even further with my audience, I generally find that there is a moral glass ceiling through which very few people are willing to crash wearing the ring, even when it is guaranteed that they will never be held accountable for what they do. Other than the random person (always a guy) who says he would use it to kill people he doesn’t like, everyone stops short of murder. Many would stop long before travelling that far along the path. But only rarely is there someone like my seven-year-old son who says he would not use the ring at all. What is wrong with people like that?

YOU’RE FREAKING INVISIBLE!! NO ONE’S GOING TO KNOW!!

I would know.

frodo and samOut of the mouths of babes, as the saying goes. Where did my seven-year-old get a moral compass so true that it could (might) override even one use of the ring of power? Perhaps Jeanne and I had already brainwashed him sufficiently in the rules of proper human conduct. I doubt it. Tolkien was right when he suggested that the seemingly simple hobbits Frodo and Sam were the most appropriate persons in Middle Earth to deal with the ring—moral strength disguised as simplicity. Perhaps it really is as basic as what it says in Deuteronomy: “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” Worth remembering the next time I am tempted to see what I can get away with. Someone would know.

I Think It’s Going To Rain Today

Broken windows and empty hallways, a pale dead moon and a sky streaked with gray.

Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today. Randy Newman

scandalThe latest television show that Jeanne and I are binge-watching is ABC’s “Scandal,” an addictive series about a Washington “fixer” trying to break off an affair with the President she helped get elected while descending for 47 minutes on a weekly basis into the depths of depravity, violence and dysfunction that we all suspect is daily fare in the nation’s capital. It does not match my favorites—“Breaking Bad,” “Homeland,” “Downton Abbey,” “The Wire,” “The Newsroom” and more—in quality of acting, production value, or award-winning writing; it’s just addictive entertainment. “Scandal” is currently in Season Four, so we are catching up through Netflix.

Jeanne has been travelling for work frequently on the weekends over the past several weeks and took off for edmontonEdmonton on Friday morning. When I returned from work late Friday afternoon, the next three “Scandal” DVDs were in our mailbox. Without even pausing for a moment to consider the protocol and etiquette of whether one should by oneself watch new episodes of a show that one is watching with one’s significant other, I sat down with my dinner to pick up with Season Two, Episode Five (I’ll just watch it again with Jeanne when she returns without telling her that I’ve already seen it). A lot of craziness packed into 47 minutes once again, leaving the viewer hanging on a cliff and salivating for more—and playing behind the final montage was a song I probably hadn’t heard in four decades, one of my favorites from my 60s youth: “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today.” This poignant, sad Randy Newman song has been recorded by many artists over the years, from Newman himself to Judy Collins, Bette Midler, Peter Gabriel, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand and Dusty Springfield. Here’s a recent, lovely rendition from Norah Jones:

“Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles, with frozen smiles to keep love away. Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.” Wow. I don’t consider myself to be a dark person. Frequently ironic, sometimes sarcastic, often introspective, always introverted (except when I am getting paid to be extroverted in the classroom)—yes. tin canBut not dark. Yet darkness has been coming across my radar screen for several weeks in books, on television, in movies, on the radio, in the classroom—my inner sensibilities have become tuned sufficiently over the past few years that I now take notice of such “coincidences,” wondering if someone is trying to tell me something. I have never been able to hear “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” dry-eyed. As a young teen I thought my emotions directly challenged my manhood-to-be; now I just think it’s because I’m a human being resonating with a beautiful, artistic expression of the sadness and loneliness that is just beneath everyone’s surface.

I have long believed that if the faith I profess is going to mean anything, it has to directly touch this sadness in the human heart. And the gospels are clear that it must. But I was raised in a very different version of Christianity, one that bbtBarbara Brown Taylor accurately describes as “full solar spirituality,” which

Focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. You can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer.

The fact that our fervent prayers often went unanswered and the presence of the divine was often undetectable didn’t matter—we were urged to live out a religious version of “Fake it ‘til you make it” because, after all, how can you not be happy when you have everything right and God is on your side?

Unfortunately I was not gifted with a full solar personality—I guess my resonance with tunes like “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is direct proof. I am more of a lunar than solar person, preferring the reflected light of Artemis and the moon to the solar splendor of her twin brother Apollo. galadrielTolkien’s lunar elven queen Galadriel is my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings. And I found in Barbara Brown Taylor’s description of her own spiritual orientation something very familiar.

I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. . . . All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.

I heard on NPR not long ago that on the eve of the conclave that would elect him as the next Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio urged his fellow cardinals to remember that Christians should live by the light of the moon rather than of the sun. Followers of Christ should reflect the source of light rather than acting as if they are the source. With regard to the hierarchy of the religious structure he would soon be elected to lead, popehe said that the church exists to reflect Christ—as soon as it believes it itself is the light, disaster occurs and the church becomes an idol. Preach it, Francis. Five words I thought I’d never say: I really like this Pope.

While there might be many reasons to fear the dark, times of darkness are part of being human and spiritual darkness is central to a search for the divine. The way many persons of faith talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, human kindnessbut as Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, “to be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.” The final lines of Randy Newman’s lyrics shine a pale light into an often dark world: “Right before me, the signs implore me—Help the needy and show them the way. Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.” Here is Peter Gabriel’s version—I dare you to have dry eyes at the end.

I am not special, and neither are you

the dunkA regular occurrence at home Providence Friars basketball games is when, during one of the first media timeouts in the first half, the crowd is introduced to an armed forces veteran with local roots. As the veteran’s accomplishments in the military are read over the public address system, he or she is brought onto the court along with family to the increasing cheers of the thousands of fans in the crowd. By the time it’s over virtually everyone is on their feet, many in the student section are chanting U-S-A! U-S-A!, and a little more American exceptionalism steam has been released. usaEvery time this happens, I am reminded of a recent NPR interview with a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which the interviewee expressed an unexpected opinion concerning such patriotic displays. “Ever since 9/11 it has become not only typical but expected for every person in uniform to be called a hero,” the general said. “This is not a good thing. Just putting a uniform on doesn’t make anyone a hero.” His point was that indiscriminately calling every soldier a hero is not patriotic—it’s actually a dangerous mistake. If every soldier is a hero, then the military gets a free pass on everything it does. But, he went on, the military should be held to a higher standard of moral behavior than any other group of citizens. “Every soldier is a hero” is a subset of “America—Love It or Leave It” and “My Country, Right or Wrong.”

In the six-plus years of his Presidency, President Obama has often annoyed and outraged many of his fellow citizens by his frequent refusal to play the game of American Exceptionalism by the accepted rules. He doesn’t even seem to be able to say the ubiquitous “God bless the United States of America” that ends virtually every American politician’s speech with the proper tone. It sounds more like a request or prayer when he says it than a command or expectations. prayer breakfastSpeaking of prayers, last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, at a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

In less than ten minutes, the President managed to throw both American and Christian exceptionalism under the bus. city on a hillAlmost four centuries after John Winthrop told the citizens of his future Massachusetts Bay Colony that they would be the “city on a hill” spoken of by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Americans still want to believe that they are that shining beacon, a God-blessed fusion of the best people, best opportunities, best religion and best everything. And they don’t enjoy having it pointed out that they seldom, if ever, live up to the hype.

The reaction to the President’s remarks from many quarters was swift and negative. The former governor of Virginia, for instance, said “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. exceptionalismThis goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.” And what exactly might those values be? That my faith or my country cannot possibly be wrong? That history doesn’t matter? That regardless of what the history of Christianity or this country is, using it to put people at a prayer breakfast in a thoughtful, introspective, or (God forbid) repentant frame of heart and mind is contrary to important moral values? Or is it simply that it is bad taste to remind anyone that triumphalism and exceptionalism are always reflective of willful ignorance and blindness? I’m just wondering, because I am a believing Christian in the United States and found absolutely nothing offensive in the President’s remarks. Just saying.

Exceptionalism is an example of a basic human way of understanding the world, particularly those parts of the world that directly challenge one’s own comfort zone. In my “Markets and Morals” colloquium seminar last week, our texts were two late 19th/early 20th century Christian voices responding to the social upheaval that had arisen world-wide from the Industrial Revolution that had imprinted itself in a range of ways on human society. leo xiiiPope Leo XIII and Walter Rauschenbusch agreed that the class divisions and devastating impoverishment arising from unfettered capitalism must be addressed, but disagreed sharply in their proposed prescriptions to their shared diagnosis. Leo begins his influential 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a clear and thorough rejection of the socialist alternative to capitalism, claiming that socialism’s proposed elimination of private property is contrary to the right of every human being to own the fruit of her or his labor, a right established by God-designed natural law. After disposing of socialism, Leo proposes a retooling of various features of capitalism while preserving its most foundational features.

In the final chapter of his 1913 book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Walter Rauschenbusch takes a sharply different approach. rauschenbuschAlthough he does not advocate a Communist revolution as Marx and Engels had over a half century earlier, he does believe that socialism is the only possible solution to the ravages of capitalism. Furthermore, Rauschenbusch argues that both Christianity and patriotism lead directly to this conclusion.

Man is Christianized when he puts God before self; political economy will be Christianized when it puts man before wealth. Socialistic political economy does that. . . . If such a solution is even approximately feasible, it should be hailed with joy by every patriot and Christian, for it would put a stop to our industrial war, drain off the miasmatic swamp of undeserved poverty, save our political democracy, and lift the great working class to an altogether different footing of comfort, intelligence, security and moral strength.

To say that my students had a problem with Rauschenbusch here is a serious understatement. I had asked each of my eighteen sophomores to submit a 500-word reflection on the sharp disagreement between the Pope and Rauschenbusch prior to seminar. It came as no surprise that my students—seventy-five percent of whom are business or economics majors—unanimously favored Leo’s position.

But this led to a fascinating seminar discussion, in which several students incrementally realized that their real problem with Rauschenbusch was not so much his insights and arguments (which they frequently resonated with) but rather simply that his conclusion presented a Christianity and patriotism radically different from what they were accustomed to. Upon reminding them that “I disagree with X, therefore X is wrong” is a very poor argument, american sniperwe had the opportunity to evaluate both men’s arguments on their merits and for a short time see just how different the world looks from perspectives other than those we are accustomed to and comfortable with.

As I listened to a packed movie theater erupt into applause at the end of American Sniper a few days ago, I wondered why. Was the applause similar to that at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center whenever a veteran is introduced, applause that swells simply because a person in uniform is a hero who needs to be thanked for her/his service and who represents the greatest country in the world? Or did the movie viewers applaud because they resonated with the less-discussed but very clear anti-war message of the movie? It reminded me of something else from Rauschenbusch, written just before the world erupted into a war that kicked off the bloodiest century in human history:

If war is ever to be relegated to the limbo of outgrown barbarism, we must shake off its magic. When we comprehend how few wars have ever been fought for the sake of justice or the people; how personal spite, the ambition of military professionals, and the protection of capitalistic ventures are the real moving powers; how the governing classes pour out the blood and wealth of nations for private ends and exude patriotic enthusiasm like a squid secreting ink to hide its retreat—then the mythology of war will no longer bring us to our knees, and we shall fail to get drunk with the rest when martial intoxication sweeps the people off their feet.squid

match

Home for Each Other

alumni weekendTomorrow is Valentine’s Day, but in their infinite wisdom both the College’s Alumni office as well as the Office of Admission have planned big Saturday events on campus. This means that I will be giving back-to-back-to-back “Mock DWC lectures” to remind the visiting alums and give prospective students and parents a taste of what the program I direct is all about. In typical introverted fashion I usually appoint myself when asked to find colleagues who might be interested in giving such a lecture. Not surprisingly, my colleagues are usually loath to come to campus on Saturday, even when promised an honorarium. Furthermore, I live five blocks from campus, so doing a Saturday gig is less onerous for me than most (and I’ll pay myself handsomely!). My lecture-a-thon will be followed immediately by a 4:00 Friars game downtown at the Dunk where I will hopefully help cheer the Friars on to yet another big win. Since there’s not a lot of room to squeeze in traditional Valentine’s Day activities tomorrow, and furthermore since Jeanne is in Manhattan until late tomorrow, here’s my Valentine’s Day post one day early.small victories It’s for my lovely Jeanne first and foremost, but also for all of those who have learned over the years that good things do actually get better with age.

In her recent book Small Victories, Anne Lamott includes a hilarious chapter describing her year as an early sixty-something on Match.com. Four years after her last serious relationship ended, she decided to go high-tech and find some dates on line. If she had asked me, I would have advised against it. I know a handful of people who have gone the Internet dating route and ultimately wished they hadn’t, matcheither because they failed to find anyone close to acceptable or, even worse, because they actually found someone and are now living to regret it. As she put her Match.com profile together, Anne asked herself what she was really looking for. Fun? Adventure? Sex? As it turned out, she realized that she was really looking for something better than all of the above.

Union with a partner–someone with whom to wake, whom you love, and talk with on and off all day, and sit with at dinner, and watch TV and movies with, and read together in bed with, and do hard tasks with, and are loved by. That sounds really lovely.

“Wow,” I thought as I read her description. “That sounds like Jeanne and me—except that Anne forgot about the three dogs in bed part.” And Anne is right—it really is lovely.

As we both inch closer toward six decades on this planet (Jeanne nine months ahead of me), it is a surprise when I realize that we have now spent almost half of our lives on earth together. A surprise, because in some ways it seems longer than that—I have to concentrate to remember details of my life before we met over twenty-seven years ago. People in their early thirties have a lot of history behind them and are carrying a lot of baggage—mine included a failed marriage and two young sons—Trudy and Bruce June 1982but in many ways I feel as if my life truly began when my parents introduced the two of us the day before Thanksgiving so many years ago. I suspect that  knowledge of everything the ensuing twenty-seven years would hold might have given us pause. But lacking such knowledge, we did what people who have fallen in love frequently do—we decided to give it a shot. As Kierkegaard once said, even though life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forwards.

And as they say, life is what happens while you are making other plans; or, I might add, what happens when you are too busy with the details of the daily grind to notice. The best thing anyone has ever said to me about Jeanne’s and my relationship came from a very wise friend in the middle of a particularly challenging time a number of years ago. “You and Jeanne are home for each other,” my friend said. And she was right. Homes need repairs on occasion, need sprucing up at other times, require regular infusions of resources, and should not be taken for granted—it is a terrible thing to be homeless. That applies to the physical structures we live in as well. But the space that Jeanne and I inhabit has truly become what Anne Lamott was looking for (and didn’t find) on Match.com—a place to comfortably live.

I think many of the people who knew us individually before we met wondered how two people who are so different would be able to make a long-term relationship work. We still are very different, but have built our days and nights around the things that we love and appreciate together. 100_0712Our three dogs. Great television. Going to the movies. Going to Friars games (that’s a new one). Texts more often than phone calls. A shared commitment to trying to figure out what faith means and what God is. And the simple but profound joy of having one person in the world who knows me better than I know myself, a person who I don’t need to try to impress or to convince of my value and worth on a daily basis, who knows both the best and the worst I can be and is still there. And the pleasure of returning that favor of love.Jeanne singing

Jeanne and I occasionally argue about who is going to die first—she says that she is and I say that I am. It’s not that I am uninterested in living as many years as possible—I’ll take as many as I can get as long as I’m accompanied by all my faculties. It’s just that I don’t want to be homeless. Happy Valentine’s Day to the person who agreed to build a home with me many years ago when we were too young and in love to know what we were doing—thanks for twenty-seven years of finding out together what love really is!The lovely couple

lieseldeath

Haunted by Humans

9780770437855_custom-0fec8d6bec6f0261063ff3be14ce66895270b9a5-s6-c30A bit over a year ago I read Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner during Christmas break. I picked it up at the college bookstore, where it was sitting amongst a bunch of other books I had never heard of. The review blurb on the front shouted “Chilling, nasty, smart, shocking and unputdownable.” I love it that reviewers can get away with inventing words; at least it didn’t say that the book is a “tour de force” or “electrifying.” “Chilling” and “nasty” convinced me that this would be great holiday reading.

The story is built around the conversation between two couples at a pretentious, overpriced dinner with several courses at a pretentious, over-priced restaurant. The Dinner is well written and entertaining, but I recommend it only to those who don’t mind being reminded pointedly of just how petty, mean, self-centered, manipulative and just downright bad we human beings can be. I don’t want to ruin the story for those with the nerve to read it; one example will suffice. We find out through flashbacks that Paul, the narrator and one of the four main characters, is a retired high school history teacher who seems to miss the classroom. It turns out that several years before the dinner he found himself in the midst of a midlife crisis. While trying to help his students grasp the holocaust-montagenumber of victims of the Holocaust, he goes off on a rant that sounds like an angry stand-up comedy routine, as he explains to his boss, the principal.

I let them do some simple arithmetic. In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? Look around you. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about the one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreated his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude. If that member of the family were to be wiped off the face of the earth. And now think about all those trillions of victims of all the wars there have been in the past, and think about the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims who we need to have around like we need a hole in the head. Memorial530Even from a purely statistical standpoint, it’s impossible that all those victims were good people, whatever kind of people that may be. The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiseled into the war memorials.

Well now. That wasn’t very nice. Not surprisingly, the principal invites Paul to take a non-optional leave of absence to rest up—a leave from which he never returns. But admit it—Paul does have a point. His rant reminds me of when Ivan Karamazov tells his brother Alyosha in brothers_karamazovThe Brothers Karamazov that he has no trouble loving humanity. It’s individual people that he can’t stand. The Dinner was indeed unputdownable, because it tapped into the misanthropic vein that lies just beneath the surface of even those of us who consider ourselves to be most loving toward and accepting of everyone

Shortly after finishing The Dinner, I read Markus Zusek’s The Book Thief. Narrated by Death and set during World War Twobook thief, there is no shortage of humans at their worst in this book either. Even those characters with glimmers of goodness in them are frequently petty, spiteful and hurtful. Yet it is these bits of goodness in midst of a very dark and seemingly hopeless world that drive the plot and regularly cause Death to be confused about the nature of the creatures he spends his time with. “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugliness and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both,” Death observes. “The contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.” I agree. This is why I frequently tell my students that by far the most interesting topic in philosophy is us. Human beings, in all of our glory, tragedy and destruction. In a final soliloquy at the end of The Book Thief, Liesel&DeathDeath ruminates about the main character, Liesel, both about what has happened to her and what her future might hold.

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race—that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant. . . . I am haunted by humans.

APhitler_speer3[1]For my colloquium on the Nazi era, I am currently reviewing Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, Speer’s memoir written during his twenty-one years of imprisonment in Spandau prison as a Nazi war criminal. Speer was Adolf Hitler’s official architect, ultimately the wartime Minister of Armaments for the Third Reich, and one of the few people who might have been considered as Hitler’s “friend.” The back cover of Speer’s memoir includes a picture of Speer and Hitler looking intently over a set of blueprints. The caption is a brief quotation from the memoir: “One seldom recognizes the devil when he is putting his hand on your shoulder.” But the actual text of Speer’s memoir belies the caption. The Hitler who Speer knew as well as anyone from the early 1930s, described in great detail in the memoir, is not a “devil.” He is intuitive, insecure, eloquent, childish, visionary, petty, surprisingly insightful at times, unbelievably ignorant at others, capable of both great eloquence and of mind-numbing banality. the_book_thief_by_snowydrifter-d371qnbThis same description also loosely fits Speer himself. Speer and Hitler are, in other words, just two typical examples of what haunts Death in The Book Thief—human beings.

In the syllabus for our Nazi colloquium, the beginning of our course description reads as follows: “A Polish Franciscan priest. A Lutheran pastor and theologian. A French, Jewish social activist attracted to Marxism. A French novelist and philosopher. A group of young German college students. The citizens of an isolated rural town in France. What do the above persons have in common? In unique and profound ways, Maximillian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, the members of the White Rose, and the people of Le Chambon were witnesses to the power of the human spirit and the dignity of the human person in the face of unimaginable horror and atrocity.” So much good. So much evil. Just add water.

cromwell and more

Wolf Hall

Jeanne’s and my evenings are often organized around which of our favorite television series’ latest episode is on, bemoaning the end of a series’ current season, and anxiously awaiting something new that promises to be of high quality. CromwellThe next upcoming television event I am anxiously awaiting is Masterpiece Theater’s airing of the BBC’s “Wolf Hall,” a promised several week immersion in late April and early May into the world of Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of his consigliere Thomas Cromwell. The series is an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, the first two parts of a projected trilogy (the third part to be published this year) that have each won the Man Booker Prize (the British version of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction). She is only the third author to win the prize twice, and the first to win with a sequel, Bring up the Bodies in 2012 following Wolf Hall’s victory in 2009.wolf hall It promises to be great television. In preparation I started rereading Wolf Hall a couple of weeks ago and, as often happens, am finding both that I had forgotten how good it is and that there are many great passages I missed the first time around. Early in the novel, Cromwell provides us with a flashback to when he was a young star in Cardinal Wolsey’s orbit, a firmament containing another, brighter star—Thomas More—who in Mantel’s treatment becomes one of Cromwell’s opponents and competitors for the attention of the great and powerful. But more importantly, Cromwell reveals a fundamental difference between him and More that raises issues transcending this particular story:

He [Cromwell] never sees More . . . without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? cromwell and moreWhy does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Or, someone might add, show me where it says “liturgy” or “dogma” or any number of other things that are staples of Christian tradition even outside Catholicism. I have no idea whether Mantel’s characterization of Cromwell and More is accurate (neither does she, for that matter), but I am so strongly aligned by nature with fictional Cromwell in this passage that I share his utter astonishment with the fictional Mores among us. Wolf Hall is set during the early decades of the sixteenth century when the revolutionary impact of the Protestant Reformation is already making itself known in England. Thomas More is the epitome of religious certainty, imagined by Mantel as a vigorous, devout, hair-shirt-wearing and frequently inflexible defender of Catholic orthodoxy.

wolseyAlthough Cromwell rises to influence as the right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, he is far more comfortable with situational flexibility than with pre-established beliefs and principles. When Wolsey falls from grace because of his failure to facilitate the king’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell’s ability to quickly adjust to changing circumstances and maneuver creatively brings him into the king’s inner circle. But he always keeps the Mores of his world in view, simultaneously envious and wary of anyone’s unflinching commitment to principle.

I hedgehog and foxfrequently find myself inadvertently dividing my fellow human beings into various categories (introvert/extrovert, high-maintenance/low-maintenance, Platonic/Aristotelian, hedgehog/fox, and more); Cromwell/More is another important distinction, especially when religious belief is under discussion. The older I get, the more Cromwellian I become, finding that even my most fixed beliefs not only are regularly under scrutiny, but that constant adjustment and change is a symptom of a healthy faith. Christopher Wiman puts this insight better than anyone I’ve read:

WimanIt is why every single expression of faith is provisional—because life carries us always forward to a place where the faith we’d fought so hard to articulate to ourselves must now be reformulated, and because faith in God is, finally, faith in change.

I am frequently reminded in a number of ways by various Mores that a Cromwellian embrace of change is dangerous in that it leads to the brink of the worst of all abysses, a relativistic world with no absolutes and no fixed points. I admit that it can be disconcerting to find that one’s most reliable cornerstones have crumbled or shifted, but I have learned to find stability in commitment rather than in content. Within the well-defined banks of commitment to what is greater than us, the river of faith sometimes flows swiftly, sometimes pools stagnantly, and always offers the opportunity to explore uncharted waters. The terrain of commitment looks very different from various vantage points, and in my experience spongseldom provides confirmation of what I have believed in the past without change and without remainder.

I remember several years ago that I came across one of John Shelby Spong’s books in Borders with the provocative title Why Christianity Must Change or Die. I read the book and found that the changes that Spong, the liberal retired Episcopal bishop of New Jersey was calling for were not changes I was willing to make then—or now. But I fully resonate with the energy of his book’s title. The Christian faith that I profess has not only changed greatly over the past few years (and promises to change even more going forward), but the Christianity I was taught in my youth would have died long ago if it had not changed. And this is as it should be. As James Carse writes,

carseThis is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is to stop criticizing or belittling those who build their belief systems in the manner of More, shaping all new experiences and information in the image of their most fixed and unchanging commitments. There are a number of Mores among my friends and family, and I’ve learned not only to appreciate them (usually), but find myself occasionally envying them. But at heart I’m happy being Cromwell as I watch the corners get knocked off my certainties.

Deflategate and the Nazis

deflated ballAs I write this on the morning of this evening’s Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl, I am unfortunately thinking about deflated balls. The other day Jerry Rice, an NFL Hall of Famer and wearer of several Super Bowl rings, said that if the New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX (that’s “49” for the Roman numeral challenged) there should be an asterisk next to their win in the record books. Why? Because of “Deflategate,” the tizzy arising from the possibility that someone on the Patriots reduced the ball pressure in the footballs they used during their 45-7 dismantling of the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game. cialisI’m a New England sports fan and am anything but objective, so I won’t weigh in on the controversy other than to say that I doubt footballs deflated 1.5 pounds psi can fully account for a thirty-five point win. My favorite of the thousands of media comments on the tempest in a tea pot came from “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR, when Peter Sagal asked “What made people suspect that the football was underinflated? Probably when after scoring a touchdown, instead of spiking the ball, one of the Patriots just folded the ball up and put it in his pocket.”

In the world of sports, asterisks are placed next to team and individual records that are suspect for some reason or another. Barry bondsSuch as Barry Bonds’ single season and career home run chemically enhanced records. Like the record-breaking home run numbers put up by McGwire and SosaMark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, a steroid-pumped contest that is largely credited with re-energizing interest in baseball. The 1919 World Series. An asterisk is affixed in order to draw our attention to the fact that things aren’t as they seem, that someone did something out of the ordinary that makes the numbers suspect. An asterisk means that things are not as they seem on the surface. But as a matter of fact, nothing is as it ever seems on the surface. The students in my “Grace, Truth and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium are finding out during the early weeks of the semester that this applies even to those persons we think we know everything about that we need to know. People like Adolf Hitler.

truthRoughly the first half of the Development of Western Civilization colloquium I am team-teaching with a colleague and good friend from the history department is dedicated to immersing thirty-seven sophomores in the world of the Nazis, from their rise to power in the years after World War One through the devastation of World War Two and the horrors of the Holocaust. My colleague and I premiered this colloquium last spring and are back by popular demand—both times we have offered the course it has been the most requested colloquium of the twenty-five offered, with less than a quarter of the students seeking to get in actually making it onto the student roster. When another colleague asked me about the popularity of “Nazi Civ,” as the students came to call it last year, I replied that apart from the obvious spectacular reputation for teaching excellence established over the years by my teaching partner Ray and me, the real reason for the colloquium’s success is that you can’t go wrong with the Nazis. Any course with “Nazi” in the title will immediately sell out. Nazi accounting, Nazi calculus, Nazi social work, Nazi basket-weaving—there’s just something about those Nazis.devil nazis

I’m convinced that the “something” about the Nazis that makes them a guaranteed pedagogical draw is that here we are dealing with something that everyone can agree on. The Nazis were evil monsters, diabolical aberrations in apparently human form. We can all feel comfortable in despising the Nazis in the same way we could all comfortably despise flesh-eating twelve-foot green aliens from Mars—they aren’t like us. The Nazis are, as the philosophers might say, in a different ontological category than regular human beings. By considering the Nazis as evil monsters, we are able to dismiss them as horrific invaders from Planet Awful who tragically and inexplicably took control of a highly cultured and civilized nation and almost ruined human history. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck—it’s terrible and destructive, but we can’t get enough of it. evil naziPut it on YouTube and you’ll get several million hits. There is, so to speak, a huge asterisk in our imaginations next to “Nazi”—they weren’t really like us. And it is this asterisk that my colleague Ray and I seek to start peeling away on the very first day of class.

We started with Patrick Hicks’ devastating novel The Commandant of Lubizec, a work of “documentary fiction” based on the real-life Nazi extermination camps Bełżec, Treblinka and Sobibór. The Commandant is Hans-Peter Guth, who by day administrates the murder and disposal of over fifteen hundred Jews per day, returning home in the evening to his wife and two children with whom, by all accounts, he has a strong and deep relationship. Last week’s readings focused on Adolf Hitler’s childhood and early adulthood. Hitler wwiThe product of an emotionally and physically abusive upbringing, Hitler served as a messenger in the trenches during World War One, recognized twice for bravery. An aspiring artist and architect, he was refused entrance to a prestigious Vienna art and architecture school twice in the years after the end of the war.

The various articles we read offered the above facts not as an excuse, but rather as at least partial explanation for the man Hitler became. My students found this information both important and challenging, recognizing that abuse and rejection are part of the human experience and often shape both one’s history and future. While all insisted that this information did not excuse Hitler’s actions in the least, it did something even more problematic—it humanized Hitler. As one of my students wrote perceptively in her intellectual notebook, “I learned that Hitler was not a monster, but rather was a human being who did monstrous things.” Hitler architectWith this realization, it becomes much more difficult to put an asterisk next to Hitler—he is one of us. It also becomes much more difficult to avoid the question “could I do such things in similar circumstances with a similar history?” It is an important insight to realize that, as Albert Camus wrote, “The plague is in each of us.” It is also uncomfortable and disturbing.

At the other end of the behavior spectrum we also tend to place an asterisk next to human beings who we wish to set aside as special in a positive, saintly sort of way. Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dr. King, Jesus—they all receive the saint asterisk both to honor their excellence as well as to excuse us mere mortals from the moral challenge of striving to be like them. The temptation to excuse ourselves from moral excellence is particularly strong when reading the gospels. dillardIn her essay “The Book of Luke,” Annie Dillard reflects on just how challenging it is to find out that the disciples and early Christians were just like we are—no haloes and imperfect to the core.

What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians. . . . What a pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance. . . . They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them? They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester. Who could believe salvation is for these rogues? book of lukeThat God is for these rogues? For they are just like us.

            Unless, of course—

Unless Christ’s washing the disciples’ feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture. . . . Unless those pure disciples themselves and those watercolor women—who so disconcertingly turned into The Christians overnight—were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences. If they were just like us, then Christ’s words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge—and we are lost. There is no place to hide.

In the end, either we all are asterisks in our uniqueness or there are no asterisks in our common humanity. We are each formed by our histories, shaped by our limitations, inspired by our possibilities, and responsible for who we are and what we become. And Annie is right—there is no place to hide. Especially from ourselves.asterisk

lion and dachshund

The Dachshund and the Lion

Those who know me well or read this blog once in a while know that I live in a world dominated by dachshunds. Jeanne and I (and our Boston Terrier) share the house with two of them. FriedalinaFrieda is clearly the alpha of our three-dog pack—actually, she’s clearly the alpha-living-thing in the house, an extroverted diva who expects her world to work according to her agenda (and it usually does). Her agenda includes eating 24-7, being in charge of seating arrangements on all furniture items, and standing in the driver’s lap to look out the window while on a coveted automobile ride. 100_0870Winnie is a perpetual puppy who defers to Frieda in just about everything, wants nothing more than to have her belly rubbed, doesn’t like being outside or riding in the car, and has a few screws loose that cause her to bite strangers on the foot when least expected.

Friends and acquaintances know that my love of dachshunds rivals (but does not surpass) my obsession with penguins, so they occasionally forward to my Facebook page pictures or videos they think I will enjoy. My brother, for instance, a doctor who wishes he was a cowboy in Wyoming, send me a YouTube clip of a dachshund herding cows the other day.

I absolutely can see Frieda doing that (Winnie would run and hide in the barn). It would be good for Frieda—she could stand to lose a couple of pounds.

Here are a few things you need to know about dachshunds (whether you want to or not):

  • The tubular, short-legged body frame of the dachshund is a good example of what Darwin called “selective breeding”—human attempts to speed natural selection along for human benefit. Dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers (hence “dachshund”—“badger dog”); their low to the ground frame made badger lairs more accessible.watch dachshund
  • Remembering that dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers and that badgers are very nasty animals, it is not surprising that a 2008 study in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science ranked the diminutive Dachshund as the most aggressive of all breeds.
  • http://www.dogguide.net/blog/2008/07/the-3-most-aggressive-dog-breeds-revealed-pit-bulls-rottweilers-youll-be-surprised/
  • Dachshunds are notorious for being hyper alert. They are wary of strangers and tend to bark loudly when their suspicions are aroused. Or when a leaf blows across the lawn. Or when someone is walking another dog five blocks away.
  • Dachshunds were to Queen Victoria what Corgis are to Queen Elizabeth II. That’s probably because Queen V’s husband, Prince Albert, was from Germany—where the breed originated in the middle to late nineteenth century.Queen V
  • Things did not go well for dachshunds during World War I in the allied countries. Dachshunds were routinely kicked or stoned to death in the streets of England; owners of dachshunds who risked going out into public risked being labeled as German sympathizers and having their dachshunds killed in front of them.propaganda
  • Dachshunds are hard-wired to burrow. Since there are few badger burrows in the neighborhood, that means under your blankets, your clothes, anything they can dig under. 002They will burrow so deeply under things that they apparently have little need for oxygen while submerged.

Frieda and Winnie are great companions; Frieda, in particular, has been my tubular “Mini Me” for all of the years since she showed up in our house and decided I would be her pet human. I have learned a great deal from them about confidence and persistence. I have even learned things from the random dachshund videos my friends and acquaintances send me.

A few days ago I posted an essay called “Playing with Fire” in which I considered the tendency of the typical person of faith to be satisfied with tame and safe versions of engagement with the divine rather than risking being burned or consumed by the real thing.

Playing with Fire

In a comment, a new friend named Mitch—the new priest at the Episcopal church we attend—wrote “We certainly do want domesticated warmth; to tame the untamed God & capture the God who is known in freedom. barthReminds me so much of Barth in this. God will do what God wants; not our will.” I hadn’t been thinking of Karl Barth when I wrote the essay, the twentieth-century Protestant theologian who, among many other things, continually emphasized that “God is God and we’re not” in his voluminous writing, but Mitch was right. His comment reminded me of something my preacher/teacher father used to love to throw regularly into a sermon or class: Barth used to dismiss the notion of “defending the faith” by asking “if you had a large and hungry lion in a cage, what would you do when threatened—stand in front of the cage and defend the lion, or open the cage door and let the lion defend itself? The lion can take care of itself. And so can God—just get out of the way.”

Which reminded me of something else. From domesticating the divine through Karl Barth to a dachshund video—pretty typical of the connections my brain makes.

Comments on Facebook ranged from “Chomp!” to “I wonder what the lion had for lunch before this—it must have been good!” and “One day that Lion’s gonna find some mustard and a bun.” But from one commenter who actually knows the story, the following:

That is Bone Digger and the puppy is Milo. Bone Digger had problems walking when he was a baby and this little dog would go and bring him his food and literally put it in his mouth. He saved this Lions life. Such a touching story. He lives at the GW Zoo in Wynnewood, OK; you can see him any day of the week.

Lions are often used as placeholders for the power and majesty of the divine; just think of aslanAslan in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or, if you would rather go secular, Simba in The Lion King. Nice to look at and admire from a distance, but likely to have you for a meal if you get too close. But the flip side of that—and of “Playing with Fire” a few days ago—is that this wild, powerful and consuming God reportedly is interested in intimacy with us mere mortals. Bone Digger not only enjoys his pint-sized friend Milo, but at least at one point in his life needed Milo. What does God need from us (besides someone to rub up against the divine fur and provide a needed teeth cleaning)? I have no idea, but I won’t find out unless I muster some dachshund-like nerve and confidence on occasion and venture into the lion’s den.100_0865

the jesus lizard

What I Would Love to Find

bird by bifdIn Bird by Bird, the best book on writing that I have read, Anne Lamott tells the writing wannabe to “write what you would love to find.” That’s great advice—but of course that means the prospective writer has to do a lot of reading. At least I do, since I often don’t know what I would “love to find” until I find it. When things get busy, when I tell myself that I don’t have the time to read anything other than what I’ve assigned my students for the week (since it’s always a good idea to be a class or two ahead of them), my blog writing begins to resonate like vibrations in an echo chamber or the sound of one hand clapping. one handWhen I tack a new paragraph at the beginning of an essay I wrote a year ago and call it a new essay, I know it’s time to find another hand to clap with.

In my current state of affairs, this happens during semester or summer break. Last summer was filled with reading multiple volumes of Scandinavian noir mysteries which provided me with new ways to consider the familiar. What would I discover during the all-too-short Christmas break between semesters that just ended? I have learned to trust the apparently random suggestions of friends and colleagues for new reading material over the years, and once again they delivered. Thanks to two friends, I have discovered two more authors to love and to use as new sparks of writing energy.

The first suggestion came from my friend and colleague Bill, who occupies the office directly across the hall from mine in our still-new cathedral to the humanities. Bill and I know each other well; we have taught on an interdisciplinary faculty team together, have frequently talked about pedagogical issues, and share the privilege (?) of having directed the program I currently run (he was the director before I was). abyssBill brings his sons to his office on occasion—they like to peek into my office to see the penguins. And Bill reads my blog. One morning not long ago he said “I’m reading a book you would like. It’s called My Bright Abyss; Christopher Wiman is a poet, but this is sort of a spiritual memoir. It’s tough reading at times, but he writes about the sort of things you write about.” On Bill’s recommendation I ordered it from Amazon, despite Wiman’s being a poet (I have frequently described myself as “poetry challenged”).

Boy was Bill right. One of the many things I love to find is well-trampled territory described as if the author just discovered it for the first time.

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions.

Ain’t it the truth? I call myself a “person of faith” regularly, but that makes faith sound like something that—once the decision is made—is a regular part of one’s daily apparel like shoes or underwear. But faith is much more ephemeral than that, something that Wiman captures perfectly. When Jesus asks Peter, whom he has just rescued from drowning at the end of Peter’s ill-fated effort to walk on water, doubt“Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’m hoping Peter answered (or at least thought) “Because I’m a human being and this faith thing is like a magic trick: Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Wiman also has little resonance with the notion of finding comfort in religious belief. My students often suggest that “comfort” is the main attraction of faith commitment: comfort that “all things work together for good” and comfort that in an afterlife “everything will work out.” The next time I hear that in a classroom discussion (or anywhere else), I’ll introduce this from My Bright Abyss:

shardChrist is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

Imagine if Jesus had said that “following me will be like a shard of glass in your gut.” How many followers would that have attracted? Come to think of it, though, the gospels claim that Jesus said many things like that. We just tend to ignore them.

My other Christmas break discovery came to me when my good friend Marsue asked if I had ever read in the darkLearning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. “I want to get it for you,” she said, “but the last time I got you a book you already had it.” I had not read any of Taylor’s work, but her books have showed up frequently enough in the “Suggested Reading” on my Amazon Prime site (which I guess is generated based on what I have purchased in the past) that I have had this very book on my “Wish List” for a few months. Not wanting to undermine Marsue’s intended generosity, but taking this suggestion from a trusted friend seriously, I read three of Taylor’s other books over break. Not only have I found another literary soul mate, Jeanne is reading these books as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is her memoir of how tending for her own spiritual health and growth required her leaving the active Episcopal priesthood, a story that I resonated with at many points. Her treatment of suffering and the book of Job in altarAn Altar in the World, however, was unforgettable, beginning with her memorable description of why pain and suffering are not logical puzzles to be solved or abstract challenges to faith to be overcome.

Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act can vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove. Your virtues can become as abstract as algebra, your beliefs as porous as clouds.

I have for the most part been mercifully free in my life thus far from the sort of paralyzing pain that she is describing. I also have no reason to believe that the faith I care about and profess would mean much of anything in the face of such pain. But her directness and honesty is unusual and much appreciated from a priest and theologian. She’s excellent at “making it real”—something I continue to strive for both in my writing and in my life.

What would I like to find (and what am I interested in writing)? Anne Lamott is right—the answer is often the same to both questions. A friend and colleague the other day asked who the audience is for what I write. I couldn’t believe it when I answered “I guess my audience is people like me.” I’m writing in the hope that once in a while something I write will be what someone else will love to find. I write for people who might resonate, as I do, with Christopher Wiman’s analogy for the life of faith:

To live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.the jesus lizard

consuming fire

Playing with Fire

Somewhere I heard or read that one of the top television programs in Finland (or Sweden or Norway) is a few hours of watching a fire burn in a fireplace. I don’t know whether or not this is true—I would hope that my Scandinavian cousins might go for a real fire in a fireplace rather than one on a screen. But Google “fireplace youtube video” and you will find several dozen to choose from.

During the two-hour final exam in one of my classes last semester, I put a fireplace video on the big screen up front while the students worked on their exams. Nobody commented on what I thought was a stroke of genius. I didn’t notice a significant increase in the quality of the exams, but I’d like to believe that it might have reduced the stress a bit. There is something mesmerizing and comforting about such videos; the one I chose is complete with the crackling of the logs (and no elevator music in the background). It’s low maintenance, too. No heat, but no kindling, no mess to clean up, no chance of the fire jumping out of the fireplace and causing damage edith(as in Edith’s room in Downton Abbey a couple of weeks ago), and no burns. There’s a lot to be said for domesticated fire—except that it isn’t fire. That’s what usually happens when we try to domesticate something wild and dangerous. It becomes something else entirely.

Domesticating the wild and dangerous is a favorite and necessary human activity, beginning with the domestication of the small human barbarians we call “children.” As a child, my favorite character in the pantheon of classic Bugs Bunny characters was the Tasmanian Devil.Taz I lived vicariously through his uncontrolled and destructive energy. Who doesn’t occasionally wish for the opportunity to make a god-awful mess with impunity and without repercussions, just because you can? Mom doesn’t like the way I picked up my room? I’ll show you “picked up”! I whirl into a tornado of destructive frenzy, clothes and bedding flying everywhere, leaving a child-sized hole in the wall as I exit the scene. Dad doesn’t like my attitude?  I’ll show you an attitude, as I leave flying paper and debris in the wake of my Tasmanian exit through your floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Just as the Tasmanian Devil was an infrequent visitor to the Bugs Bunny Show (maybe once every third Saturday), tasmanian_devil_and_bugs_bunny_by_erickenji1so I wasn’t looking to be destructive on a regular basis. Infrequent and arbitrary scenes of total chaos would have been enough to keep everyone on edge and suitably respectful.

I was reminded of the Tasmanian Devil as we read portions of Psalm 29 last Sunday morning:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare . . .

dillardBroken cedars, whirling oaks, naked forests—sounds like the Tasmanian devil has been here. But for the most part, this is not the God we encounter in church (or anywhere else for that matter). As Annie Dillard writes, we tend to “come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though [we] knew what [we] were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.” We want contact with the divine, but not with the Tasmanian Devil deity or with the consuming fireGod that Deuteronomy and Hebrews describe as “a consuming fire.” We want a domesticated God that we can predict and perhaps control. Why is that?

In When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we opt for a domesticated God because we suspect that the alternative is too disturbing to consider. Religious history is littered with stories of those who asked to meet God face to face and barely survived to tell about it. “Many pray for an encounter with the living God. Those whose prayers are answered rarely ask for the same thing twice.” Persons of faith complain (frequently, endlessly) that God is silent, that no direct communication from the divine is ever forthcoming, at least not in a language anyone can understand. Just ask Job. But it just might be that God is silent because this is what, in our heart of hearts, we have asked for. As the children of Israel quaking in their boots at Mount Sinai after God’s direct communication, we would rather dabble around the edges, and we would much rather hire someone to represent God to us (and us to God) than take the face to face risk.

god is silentWe are not up to direct encounter with God. We want it but we don’t want it. We want to be warmed, not burned, except where God is concerned there is no such thing as a safe fire. Safe fire is our own invention. It is what we preach to people who, like us, would rather be bored than scared.

The next time I am in church I’ll have a hard time forgetting the YouTube video of a fireplace burning. A pleasant enough experience, I suppose, but offering nothing of the warmth and danger of the original. As we proceed through the various portions of the liturgy—Gloria, Sanctus, sermon, creed, confession, collection, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on—Annie Dillard will be poking me in the side.

I often think of set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed . . . If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.

Indeed we would be—and attendance the following Sunday would be effected. Much better to pretend that we know what we are doing and that God somehow is entertained. Because the alternative—that God might actually show up and do something, including making us responsible for what we so blithely parrot every week—makes us uncomfortable. And above all else, human beings want to be comfortable.

holy the firmWhy do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? . . . On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. Annie Dillard