Category Archives: evil

LIBBS

Come In, and Come In

As I considered with my students this past week one of the most beautiful, challenging, and disturbing true stories I have ever encountered, I was reminded of what I wrote about that story a year ago.

Once many years ago, a couple I was close friends with was having marital problems. For the first (and only) time in my life, I found myself frequently playing the role of telephone confessor and therapist for each of them—I’m quite sure that neither was aware that I was doing this with the other. imagesThe phone calls became so frequent that one evening as I talked to the male in the relationship, the woman beeped in on call waiting. Toward the end of their relationship, she complained to me one evening that “There is no problem so great that he can’t ignore it!” These informal therapy sessions were unsuccessful; the couple soon divorced, one of them remarried, and both seem to have spent the past twenty years far happier than they were when together. Maybe that means my input was successful after all.

My friend’s complaint about her husband was, unfortunately, all too recognizable as a typical human reaction to information or truths that we don’t want to hear. il_570xn_240184042In the Gospel of John, Jesus is reported as having said “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I don’t think so. I think the real situation is more like what one of my students wrote in a recent intellectual notebook entry: “The truth doesn’t set a person free, but it does complicate their life.” So what is one to do when the truth about something is so obvious that it cannot be ignored—and you don’t want to deal with it?

  Along with a colleague from the history department, this semester I am in the middle of a colloquium entitled mein kampf“‘Love Never Fails’: Grace, Freedom, and Truth during the Nazi Era.” After several weeks of immersion in the world of the Nazis, including Mein Kampf and Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich, I could tell that everyone was feeling the same way I was—worn out by exposure to human pain, suffering, and evil and how these are facilitated by deliberate ignorance and evasion created through the choices we make. LIBBSWe returned from Spring Break to Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The subtitle of Hallie’s remarkable book is “The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.” It is, in many ways, more challenging and disturbing than being immersed in the depths of human depravity.

Hallie’s book is the little-known story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small and insignificant Protestant village in south-central France that, during the later years of World War II, “became the safest place for Jews in Europe.” Le ChambonBetween 1940 and 1943, the villagers of Le Chambon, with full knowledge of the Vichy police and the Gestapo, and at great risk to their own safety and lives, organized a complex network of protection through which they hid and saved the lives of at least five thousand Jewish refugees—most of them women and children. As a woman whose three children’s lives were saved by these villagers told Philip Hallie decades later, “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain—and Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Hallie comments that Rainbow“The rainbow reminds God and man that life is precious to God, that God offers not only sentimental hope, but a promise that living will have the last word, not killing. The rainbow means realistic hope,” a hope that was incarnated in Le Chambon.

It is a beautiful story, one that is virtually unknown in comparison to more familiar and dramatic narratives. Everyone who cares about the human spirit should read it—I dare you to make it through with dry eyes. My first question to the thirty-some students in the colloquium at our first class on this text was simply “How did this happen?” There is nothing special about Le Chambon—there are hundreds of similar rural villages throughout Europe. There were dozens of them within a short train ride of Le Chambon. Yet none of them did anything like what the Chambonnais did; indeed, many of them collaborated with the Vichy police and turned their Jewish neighbors and Jewish refugees in to the authorities as the occupying Nazis demanded. What made Le Chambon different? Andre and MagdaHow did goodness happen here?

According to the Chambonnais in virtually every interview Hallie conducted, there was nothing special about what they did at all. After being described as a “hero” or simply as “good,” Magda Trocmé, wife of the village’s dynamic pastor André Trocmé, asked in annoyance

How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Who else could help them? And what has all this to do with goodness? Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people. Who else would have taken care of them if we didn’t? They needed our help and they needed it then. Anyone else would have done the same thing.

“Is she right?” I asked my students? “How many think anyone else would have done the same?” Not a hand was raised—certainly not mine. So the question remains. How did this happen? How did goodness happen here?

As with a giant jigsaw puzzle, a possible answer can be assembled from various facts throughout Hallie’s book. 130528-004-C0524E59The Chambonnais, for instance, are Huguenots, descendants of French Protestants who were a persecuted minority from the sixteenth century forward in predominantly Catholic France. What it means to be in danger and what it means to resist, to stubbornly stand for something in the face of persecution and death, is embedded in the DNA of these villagers. Le Chambon was also blessed during the war years and the decade before with the daring and lived leadership of men and women who by example showed them what it means to be a true community. But the most important reason that goodness happened in Le Chambon is so simple and basic that it cannot be overlooked. The Chambonnais believed one fundamental thing concerning human beings—that all human life, whether French, Jewish, or Nazi, is fundamentally precious and must not be harmed. Period. Many people, then and now, profess to believe this; the Chambonnais not only believed it—they acted on it. Consistently and regularly. Without questioning or equivocation. For such people, Hallie describes, “The good of others becomes a thing naturally and necessarily attended to, like any of the physical conditions of our existence. For certain people, helping the distressed is as natural and necessary as feeding themselves.” TrocmeThe villagers of Le Chambon were such people.

The source of this simple but powerful lived commitment depended on the person. For Pastor André Trocmé, on the one hand, his commitment to nonviolence and active goodness was rooted in his commitment to emulate Jesus and to take seriously, in a remarkably straightforward way, the message of the gospel. During his theological training, for instance, he was taught by his professors that the 6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wiSermon on the Mount is intended to be read as an allegory or as a standard set impossibly high so we can understand our sins and failures more clearly. André had no patience for such evasions. In a book written shortly after the end of the war, he asks

If Jesus really walked upon this earth, why do we keep treating him as if he were a disembodied, impossibly idealistic ethical theory? If he was a real man, then the Sermon on the Mount was made for people on this earth; and if he existed, God has shown us in flesh and blood what goodness is for flesh-and-blood people.

André’s wife Magda, on the other hand, had no patience for doctrine, religion, or any esoteric debate that might take her attention away from what was right in front of her. MagdaShe did not believe that something was evil because it violated God’s commands. She believed that something is evil simply because it hurts people. A person’s need was the basis of her moral vision, not any sentimental love she might or might not feel for the person in need, and certainly not any calling to moral or religious excellence. There is a need and I will address it was her motivating energy. Simple as that.

I have taught this book a number of times in ethics classes, but not for seven or eight years. As I worked through the story with my students last week, I realized with a new depth just how disturbing and shocking the story of Le Chambon is. “I think I know why I haven’t taught this book in a while,” I told them. “These people make me uncomfortable. They let me know just how wide a gap there is between what I say I believe and what I actually do.” When the truth of what I profess is laid out in front of me in a way that I cannot ignore, I want to look away. I shift into philosopher mode—“This is idealistic, this won’t work in real life, real human beings won’t treat each other this way,” and so on. And my students would have been very happy to be told all of this, because they were just as uncomfortable with the Chambonnais as I was and am. 14992918595385727520But goodness did happen there in the midst of some of the worst evil humans have ever manufactured. Real people created goodness in the midst of evil by actually taking what they believed seriously enough to do it. I have a two-hour seminar with eighteen students this afternoon that will continue our exploration of this book. The best I can do, which is perhaps a lot better than I could have done not long ago, is to make Hallie’s closing words in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed my own and invite my students to come along.

I, who share Trocme’s and the Chambonnais’ beliefs in the  preciousness of human life, may never have the moral strength to be much like the Chambonnais or like Trocmé; but I know I want to have the power to be. I know that I want to have a door in the depths of my being, a door that is not locked against the faces of all other human beings. I know that I want to be able to say, from the depths, “Naturally, come in, and come in.”

Just Do It

In the middle of a second run through my team-taught colloquium “‘Love Never Fails': Grace, Freedom, and Truth in the Nazi Era,” I find myself thinking–just as I did last year at this time–about all the excuses and avoidance techniques that help us do nothing when something needs to be done.

I9780547725147_custom-7ea8f0969dfd404059558eab13a60fdfc6cf6a67-s6-c30n the early hours of a recent Sunday morning, I read the final pages of Daša Drndić’s Trieste, the most powerful, unrelenting and unforgiving book related to the Holocaust I have ever read. As a reviewer for Amazon wrote, “Trieste is not a book for the faint-hearted, either in style or subject. . . . Enter if you are brave enough, and if you stay the course you will be changed.” No one—those in authority, the church, those who turned their heads, those who simply did whatever they could to stay alive—are spared in this brutally honest and unflinching account of what human beings are capable of.

As I read I was reminded of something a post-Holocaust Jewish theologian wrote: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.” 5210537_f248With regard to those men who were at the same time both murderous killers and yet tender fathers and husbands, Drndić writes that a father is not “a sacrosanct being. . . . There are no sacrosanct beings. Even God is not sacrosanct, perhaps He least of all.” To those who wish to excuse the culpable silence and frequent collaboration of religious institutions, she writes that “this caricatured parade and more than revolting fabrication, this costumed theatre of transparent lies and empty promises should be done away with right now, once and for all.”

And then Jeanne and I went to church. I was lector, she was chalice bearer—we couldn’t skip, but I was hardly in the mood. I was responsible for the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, a text I had briefly glanced at during the week, describing it to Jeanne as “kind of weird.” At the lectern, I found myself channeling something unexpectedly disturbing.

Isaiah 58 begins with the prophet mimicking the complaints of the “house of Jacob”: We have been fasting and humbling ourselves, just as you require. Why aren’t you answering our prayers? Why aren’t you taking notice? In response the prophet laughs with the voice of God. pisaiah“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight. Is such the fast that I choose? . . . Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” In other words, your “fast-day” is all about you. It’s all about your pitiful and self-centered attempts to twist divine favor in your direction. It’s all about having convinced yourself that skipping a few meals, attending a few extra meetings at your preferred house of worship, that arguing with each other about which forms of ritual are best, are all that it takes to draw God’s favorable attention. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

You want to know what a real fast-day would be like? What it would really be like if you humbled yourselves? Here’s a clue:

script_poster_5_isaiah_585B15DTo loose the bonds of injustice

To undo the thongs of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To share your bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless and poor into your house

To cover the naked when you see them

Try doing that for a while and see what happens.

As I observed in a recent post, Blessed, Jesus says this sort of thing frequently in the Gospels. But in Isaiah’s prophetic tones, the call to attend to the hungry, poor, widows and orphans is not a suggestion or an invitation to try out something new, as we might mistakenly read the New Testament texts. imagesThe text from Isaiah is a flat out command. Just fucking do it. And until you do, stop pretending that you are anything other than a self-centered piece of shit. And stop expecting anything other than a perpetuation of the continuing, sad human story of injustice and violence. Period.

As I haphazardly told Jeanne about some of the difficult aspects of Trieste on the drive to church, she said “I hope I die before this all happens again. Because it will—eventually no one will remember.” As we proceed through the early weeks of our colloquium with very bright nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, the most frequent sort of question raised isReichsgründungsfeier, Schulklasse “How could they have done this?” or “How could people have gone along with those who were doing this?” Trieste has convinced me that before proceeding with these students, for whom the Holocaust is history as ancient as Julius Caesar and Pericles, to love, grace, truth and freedom in the midst of horror, perhaps more time should be spent in the horror part. No one in Trieste dropped in from an evil planet other than Earth—each person is a human being with darkness ready to erupt when inattentiveness and self-interest push common human decency into the background.

tumblr_l5rqy6R4A01qbmt20When one of the characters in Albert Camus’ The Plague is described as a “saint,” he responds “I have no interest in being a saint. I’m more interested in being a man.” This strikes me as a good place to start. A central problem illuminated by texts such as Isaiah and Trieste is the powerful human tendency to set the moral bar so low that even the most basic moral behavior looks like heroism or sainthood—a standard perhaps to be admired but not one that I hold myself to. We are told in sacred texts over and over again that God demands that we be fundamentally aware of each other. But the belief that basic morality and common decency require a conscious awareness of needs other than our own, particularly those of other human beings, need not be rooted in religious faith or practice. Whatever it takes to convince even a few of us that not only our thriving, but our very existence and survival depends on expanding the membership of our moral community to more than one is worth hanging on to.

On the final page of The Plague, at the end of a harrowing tale of individuals fighting against an out-of-control evil that could not be stopped, the main character Dr. Rieux takes stock of what he has learned now that the plague has left as inexplicably as it came. “He knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saint but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” 220px-William_James_b1842cThis is both a thankless and glorious assignment, one that William James in “The Will to Believe” recommends that we embrace with enthusiasm:

For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.

Your Heart’s Desire

fortune cookie“This thing better have good news in it,” I said as I unwrapped my P. F. Chang’s fortune cookie. And it did.

You will receive your heart’s desire

“Great,” I thought. “I wonder what the hell that is.

It had not been a good day. That morning I had received a rejection letter from the ##### Foundation to whom I had applied for sabbatical funding last fall. In typical rejection letter style, I was informed that “We received 76 applications and awarded 10 grants. The quality of the grant proposals made the work of the selection committee challenging indeed. I regret to inform you . . . blah, blah, blah and so on.” sabbatical proposalI’m surprised they didn’t add “Sorry for the inconvenience,” since that phrase has been on mind lately.

Sorry for the Inconvenience

This sucked big time because of the two funding proposals I sent out last fall, this was the one I thought I had the much better shot at. The other proposal involves a semester residency at a think-tank on the campus of a prestigious university who shall remain nameless but whose name rhymes with “Voter Game.” The email I received from the think-tank confirming receipt of my full proposal application contained the following throw-away line at the end: “Please note that ***** Fellowships are very competitive, with past annual acceptance rates of 4 to 9%.” Nice.

I do not handle rejection well—not that I’ve had a lot of it in my career. I have never been an adjunct professor. Both of my teaching positions have been tenure track. Both times that I actually got an on-campus interview I got the job. My ascent of the tenure and promotion ladder had only one easily correctable glitch. I have spent twenty-one years teaching at the same college, loving every minute of those years (or at least 95% of the minutes). Three books, a number of articles, a teaching award, two significant administrative posts—I'm OkayI’m not writing this to impress anyone, but rather to illustrate my inner dialogue every time I do get rejected. I immediately start trying to convince myself that I’m really okay, despite the fact that the ##### Foundation did not deem my sabbatical project worth spending a dime on.

These are the times when I am grateful both for my training in classical music and for being forced to memorize lots of verses from the Bible in my growing up years. As soon as I read the cookie’s promise that I will receive my heart’s desire, my memory tapes started playing a song I don’t believe I had thought of in years, perhaps decades. It is a solo from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, with the seemingly appropriate (but very difficult to actually do) title “O Rest in the Lord.” I hate it when this happens, because the last thing I felt like doing that day was waiting or resting. My heart’s desire is to have funding for my sabbatical project, and what felixI considered to be my most likely source of that funding just said “thanks for playing, but no.” So “rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires?” Whatever—I don’t think so.

Mendelssohn’s Elijah is a dramatic musical treatment of various episodes from Elijah’s life as described in the Jewish scriptures, including his getting to ride in a flaming chariot to heaven once his prophesying work was over. In Part One of the oratorio Elijah has one of the greatest and most spectacular successes any prophet of God ever has or will experience. In a high stakes contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, God has shown up in impressive fashion, as Elijah calls down fire that consumes the sacrifice, the wood on the altar, the stones that the altar is made out of, and the water surrounding it.elijah All this after five hundred prophets of Baal failed to arouse even a spark or a whiff of smoke out of their god after hours of praying, chanting, dancing, and self-mutilation. The people fall on their faces and cry “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” In the exhilarating glow of spectacular success, Elijah has the five hundred prophets of Baal taken down the mountain to a brook and executed.

But then King Ahab reports to his wife, Queen Jezebel—a woman who in terms of evil and just plain nastiness puts Lady Macbeth to shame—what has happened to her prophets and everything changes. Jezebel sends a message to Elijah saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” elijah and angelBy the beginning of Part Two, Elijah is fleeing for his life into the wilderness. Exhausted, he eventually collapses into a fetal position under a broom tree and has a classic drama queen moment: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” And for once, God does something practical. While Elijah sleeps, an angel makes him breakfast; when Elijah stirs, the angel serves him the meal, then entertains him by singing a lovely setting of Psalm 37—which three thousand years or so later makes it into Mendelssohn’s Elijah as “O Rest in the Lord.”

Mendelssohn’s text rearranges a few of the verses from Psalm 37, but captures the point perfectly. For those who are fretting and stressed about what the future holds, the Psalmist provides a set of simple promises.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;

Do not fret over those who prosper in their way,

Over those who carry out evil devices.

Although this text is steeped in a religious perspective that I became familiar with before I learned to walk, the Psalmist’s advice sounds remarkably like what the ancient Stoics tell us—be clear about what is in your control and what is not. Don’t waste energy trying to control the latter and create your moral and spiritual home out of the former. What I can control is how I will respond to what the largely uncontrollable world hands me—disappointment, dashed hopes, unexpected opportunities, and a hell of a lot of the mundane, daily grind. The verbs in Psalm 37 are telling: trust, commit, be still, be patient, don’t worry, and take delight. These are the core of a life of centeredness and peace—something available even when things don’t go my way.Psalm 37

As I venture into the last third of my years on earth, I realize that I have often received my heart’s desire, and it almost never has been what I would have predicted. I’m not so sure I even know what my heart’s desire is going forward, but I do want to tune my inner receptors more and more carefully so that I will recognize it when it crosses my radar screen. I have had two sabbaticals in my career so far. I wrote a book during the first, and the second changed my life. Even a disappointing letter from ##### Foundation can’t deter a new heart’s desire from wandering into my life during this upcoming one. I just wish I knew what it looks like.

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.

A Trip to Middle Earth

Everyone has an unforgettable teacher or two in his or her history; I aspire to be that teacher for a person or two in every class I teach. When thinking about those teachers in my own history, I usually go no farther back than my mentors in graduate school, about whom I have written occasionally on this blog.

Resembling the Picture

But as I stood in line for a movie ticket for hobbit movie“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a few weeks ago, I remembered Mrs. Lord, the wonderfully monikered teacher of my college-prep English class as a freshman in high school. We spent a lot of time with grammar (something that I think fell by the wayside in high school English classes long ago), but I remember the literature. Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” just to name a few. I was well read for a ninth-grader, but had heard of neither the title nor the author of the book from that year that had the greatest influence on me. The Hobbit? I thought? What the hell is a hobbit? And why does tolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien find it necessary to have three initials rather than one first name? I don’t exactly remember the details of my original reaction to this book, but it was strong enough that after finishing it in two days, I went to Mrs. Lord after class and said “I really like this book. Has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact, yes he has,” she replied. And I was hooked for good.

This was decades pre-Amazon, and there were not a whole lot of bookstores in northeastern Vermont, so I don’t exactly recall how I got my hands on paperback copies of the three-volume The Lord of the Rings. But I did (probably my mother pulled it off—it’s the sort of thing she did behind the scenes all the time), and I feel headlong into Middle Earth. In many ways I have never fully returned. lotrStarting that year (1970), for the next three decades I read the trilogy through from cover to cover on the average of every three years. When I heard over a decade ago that a Peter Jackson was planning a trilogy film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, I was fully prepared to be a critic with the same intensity that the fundamentalists of my youth were critical of Biblical epics (“That’s not scriptural!” “That’s not in the Bible!”). But I loved the trilogy on the big screen (more than I enjoyed the unnecessary trilogy of The Hobbit), and plan to watch the fifteen-hour extended version of the trilogy I have at home straight through at least once before I die (when Jeanne’s out of town—she’s not into this hobbit/elf/dwarf/wizard/orc/ent/ringwraith stuff).

There has always been a great deal of speculation about where Tolkien got his ideas and inspiration from, beginning with the Ring of Power itself, the possession or destruction of which is the driving energy of the thousand plus pages of the epic.

Ring of powerOne Ring to rule them all

One Ring to find them

One Ring to bring them all

and in the Darkness bind them

I can’t say for sure (although I’m sure that dozens of websites would be happy to school me on this), but I know where I hope Tolkien got the idea for the Ring of Power from. As a classically trained scholar, Tolkien knew his Plato—and so he also knew that at the beginning of Book Two of his masterpiece The Republic, Plato tucked a memorable story of another insignificant nobody who found a ring with remarkable powers and corrosive effects—the Ring of Gyges.

republicThe topic of conversation in The Republic is justice broadly conceived—something more like what we would call “morality” or “right living” rather than the narrower sense of justice as equality or fairness that we contemporary folks are familiar with. The overarching question in the early pages of The Republic is “Why be moral at all?” Socrates intends to argue that being moral is natural to human beings, but before he can get started one of his conversants, Plato’s older brother Glaucon, begs to differ. Normal people, Glaucon claims, believe that human beings are not moral by nature—we are self-interested, aggressive and competitive creatures who want what we want when we want it and are willing to pursue it at any expense, including the welfare of someone else, as long as we think we can get away with it. We impose morality and law on ourselves and each other because we are afraid of each other, but being moral is an artificial state for a human being, something contrary to our basic nature.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a lowly shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia named Gyges. One day while he is bored out of his mind tending the sheep and goats, ring of gygesGyges does a bit of exploring and finds a pretty gold ring. He has never owned anything so sparkly and shiny, so he keeps it. A few days later, as he is sitting in the middle of the weekly shepherds committee meeting with several of his colleagues, he is fiddling with his new toy and discovers that when he turns it a certain way on his finger, he turns invisible! Gyges uses his ring of invisibility as an instrument of empowerment—in short order his seduces the queen, kills the king, and becomes the ruler of Lydia. Furthermore, Glaucon argues, any person, from moral giants to lowly degenerates, would do the same thing with the ring of invisibility that Gyges did—whatever they wanted to do. And they would be fools if they did not.

The purpose of Glaucon’s story is to emphasize his point that being moral is artificial, not natural. We restrict our pursuit of self-interest because we fear what will happen if we are discovered breaking the rules of society, rules intended to keep aggressive and self-centered creatures from killing each other. We bind ourselves with the restrictions of the social contract while secretly wishing for a world in which we could do whatever we desire. gollumThe ring of invisibility opens for its wearer that very world, a world of power and opportunity—a world in which everything can be accomplished without fear of retribution or responsibility. That Tolkien’s Ring of Power turns its wearer invisible, just as Gyges’ ring does, is a telling connection to Plato’s ancient tale. But Tolkien introduces a new element—empowerment comes at a cost. Every character sucked into the vortex of the ring’s influence—wizard, elf, dwarf, hobbit or human—experiences the corrosive effect of power without responsibility. Sméagol the lowly hobbit devolves into the tortured Gollum; SarumanSaruman the White turns from a powerful force for good into an even more powerful force of destruction; kings become bodiless wraiths; once used, unlimited power is both seductive and deadly.

On the surface, the cosmic conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings seems reducible simplistically to Good vs. Evil, a simplistic reading that makes Tolkien’s fantasy an endless source of ideas for violent video games. But lying just below the surface are the timeless questions that should obsess all of us. What are we? What is morality? Are good and evil mutually exclusive? How should we live our lives in the middle of a reality largely outside our control? Next Friday, I’ll return to the ring of power tales with the story of how I learned something twenty-five years ago from my seven-year-old son that I’ll never forget, something that forever influenced how I think about what is good and what is not.

lent_card[1]

Beauty for Ashes, or Why Lent is a Bad Idea

Last Sunday as New England was enjoying the latest entry in the blizzard of the week trend that started in late January, I noticed a couple of Catholic colleagues on Facebook angsting over what to do about Mass in the middle of a snowstorm. Their Bishop had apparently sent out a cryptic “mass is important but be safe” message–what to do? “You could be an Episcopalian and not worry about it,” I commented, then wondered (to myself) “What would they do if there was a blizzard on Ash Wednesday? How deep would the drifts have to get to deter a faithful Catholic from receiving their yearly imposition of ashes? images[1]Which made me think about a post from about a year ago–the ruminations of a non-Catholic on Ash Wednesday.

One sunny morning in September 1983, when I was struggling in my late twenties with serious financial problems, a failing marriage, and a general malaise both spiritual and physical, I wandered into a Sunday morning service at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming. In a rush of emotional response to the beautiful organ, the stately procession of choir, crucifer, deacon and priest from back to front, and the overwhelming expressions of welcome from dozens of strangers, I felt that I had stumbled into a home whose existence I had not been aware of but for which I had been longing my whole life.

Over the succeeding weeks and months Saint Matthew’s became a life-preserver in more ways than oneseason1_scale[1]—no wonder I jumped into the strange and wonderful world of all things Episcopalian and the liturgical calendar with the enthusiasm and abandon of a true convert. My enthusiasm and commitment deepened as I experienced Advent for the first time, as Christmas liturgies framed the holidays, and as Epiphany revealed Jesus’ coming out party and early ministry in new ways. ash-wednesday11[1]Then Ash Wednesday happened. I remember it well. I regularly attended the 7:00 AM morning prayer run by lay people, but this morning the Dean was there. We went to a place in the prayer-book I had never seen before and proceeded through the most depressing liturgy ever. I found myself in the aisle queuing up to receive ashes. As Dean Mobley traced a cross with his ash-covered finger on my forehead and said “Vance, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I thought “This time you’ve gone too far, Morgan. This is just too weird.” I washed the ashes off my forehead as soon as I got home, convinced that I was never going to do that again.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]I related this thirty-plus-year-old story two years ago just before the evening Ash Wednesday service to Marsue, rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, one of my best friends, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual adviser. I had not planned to go—just observing dozens of people walking around with ashes on their foreheads on my Catholic college campus was sufficient Ash Wednesday experience for me. But as I was settling in after yet another eleven-hour workday to eat dinner while watching first Chris Matthews, then a Netflix video before going to bed, Jeanne reminded me that she had been scheduled as chalice bearer at the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday service. “You don’t have to go,” she said, but it was clear that she wanted me to. So I agreed to go, after making it very clear that I did not intend to get any ashes. In response to my story, Marsue laughed and asked “weren’t you jealous of the Catholic kids in the neighborhood when you were growing up who got ashes on Ash Wednesday? I was!” My response was that there were no Catholic kids in my neighborhood growing up. And there certainly weren’t any within range of our Baptist church. Marsue headed to the back of the church to process to the front with the choir and with Jeanne, looking angelic in her white robe. After the procession, it was clear that the folks up front significantly outnumbered us regular folks in the pews.

collegeville-inst[1]My most memorable Lent occurred in 2009 during the first half of my four-month sabbatical stay at an ecumenical institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had arrived in the middle of January; by the time Lent began I was joining the monks at St. John’s Abbey every day for noon prayer; by the time it ended I was reading and praying with them three times a day.003 (2) The internal adjustments, changes and growth that began during those weeks were unexpected and appear to be permanent. And they had nothing to do with it being Lent—that just was the part of the calendar in which we happened to be. I don’t remember the monks doing anything particularly different during Lent or the Abbey being decorated (or not) with Lent in mind. I’m sure there were weekly or daily Stations of the Cross events, but I did not participate, having decided many years earlier that this was another practice that was “too weird” and “going too far.” The internal work and change was so slow as to be almost imperceptible, only noticeable when other people told me that I was different than when I had arrived a few weeks earlier. It literally only occurs to me now that this began during a Lenten season.primary-merton[1]

The idea of Lent—a time in which persons of faith are challenged to give something up or take something on as a sign of renewed or deeper commitment to God—bothers me. I agree with Thomas Merton, who wrote that “The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and there are no shortcuts. Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.” And Lent—a time set aside to “get serious” about faith in practice—can easily turn into such a gimmick. lent_card[1]I can give up anything for forty days, but whatever I choose to sacrifice, unless it is simply frivolous (I know someone once who claimed he was going to give up celibacy for Lent), is something that I should probably consider giving up for good. Whatever I choose to take on for forty days with the intent of becoming a temporarily better person is, if I choose to be serious about my choice, something that I should undoubtedly seek to establish as a permanent part of my life.

Of all the things that have remained with me from that Collegeville Lent, the most important is that the life of faith, the life of seeking God, is incremental and daily. The liturgical calendar provides a different color and atmosphere for this daily process: hope and expectation for Advent, self-reflection for Lent, joy for Easter and so on. But hope, reflection and joy (and a whole bunch of other things) need to be part of my daily travels with the divine. Dropping bad habits and attitudes cannot wait until Lent, and neither can the addition of new habits and attitudes that my commitment to the life of faith calls for.

And oh yeah, I did get in line and receive ashes from Marsue two years ago, partly becausebeautyforashes[1] I did not want to be the only person in the building who didn’t. But more than thirty years after my first Ash Wednesday experience, with birthday number fifty-nine coming in a couple of weeks, a reminder that I am dust and will return to dust before long is not a bad thing. The brevity and fragility of it all makes God’s presence in the world and in us all the more remarkable. There is beauty in these ashes, a beauty to be embraced anew every morning.

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.

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

Zombie Jesus

A bit over year ago, as I prepared for the depression sure to occur upon the end of “Breaking Bad,” I ruminated on just how great television is these days–except for zombies. I hate zombies. But they get me to thinking . . .

Breaking-Bad-1[1]We are living in the golden age of television. I grew up on sitcoms, westerns, and sports—when we were allowed to watch television, that is—subjected to a three network, pre-cable fare that made the term “idiot box” entirely appropriate. That has all changed. Without ever having to check the basic networks other than for news and sports, viewers today are offered options rivaling anything on the big screen in both production value and quality of acting. Thanks to the wonders of on demand viewing, I can keep up with “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,”imagesCA3I36MA “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Newsroom,” or something from across the pond like “Downton Abbey” or “Broadchurch” with no scheduling conflicts while fast-forwarding through AMC or FX commercials, Downton_Abbey[1]descending just a notch or two lower to “Boardwalk Empire” or “Game of Thrones” when I feel like slumming it.

When Jeanne and I discover a series that’s been going on for a while, we can use Netflix to catch up on several seasons in short order, swept up in a viewing frenzy that is limited only by our inability to stay awake into the wee hours of the morning. This most recently happened when we discovered the great BBC series Inspector-Lewis[1]“Inspector Lewis” which eventually made its way to PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater,” watching six seasons worth in little over a month, and then descending into temporary television depression when realizing that we would no longer be swept up into the underbelly of Oxford with DCI Lewis and DC Hathaway because the sixth season was the final one. I was sucked similarly into “Breaking Bad” a couple of springs ago when my oldest son kept pestering me into watching. “You’ve got to watch ‘Breaking Bad,’ Dad!” Caleb insisted. “The main character Walt reminds me of you!” After using my Amazon Prime account to watch the first two episodes on my computer, I called him back. bryan-cranston1[1]“The only reason Walt reminds you of me is he’s a teacher and so am I! You don’t see me making a bit of extra money on the side by cooking meth with a former philosophy student, do you??” But I was hooked and literally watched five seasons of “Breaking Bad” in two weeks of extended evening viewing on my computer sitting in bed with a dachshund on either side while Jeanne was on the road. I am now preparing for an extended period of withdrawal from the adventures of Walt, Jesse, Skylar, Marie, Hank and Walt Jr. once the current final season concludes in a few weeks. I’m not over the withdrawal yet.

One of the side benefits of the current fabulous fare on television is how it regularly works its way into conversations with my colleagues on campus, conversations that in the past might have been focused on the intricacies of Descartes’ cogito or Hegel’s Logic rather than the unexpected bloodbath at the conclusion of season three of “Game of Thrones.” imagesCA1LUVQZOften these conversations turn into a confessional of just how much time each of us spends watching TV, as well as (usually) good-natured debates about which series is the best. “What do you mean you never watched ‘The Wire’??” a fellow philosophy professor sputtered as we were having a beer or two the other afternoon. “That’s the greatest television series ever!” he claimed, implying that I would forever be stuck in the television-viewing minor leagues until I graduated to the big show of “The Wire.” Things calmed down shortly after when we agreed that regardless of the current “Greatest Series Ever” title holder, it was soon to be replaced by “Breaking Bad” when its final season ends. Following my colleague’s advice, I watched one episode of “The Wire” on my tablet per visit to the gym this past summer. Great show.

banner_stargate_studios_the_walking_dead_952px[1]There is one show that has been touted and recommended to me by at least a dozen people as the best out there, a show that I guarantee I will never watch. “Have you ever watched ‘The Walking Dead’?” I frequently am asked. “Man, you’ve got to see that! Acting, storyline, suspense—there’s nothing better!” Let’s suppose, just for argument’s sake, that “The Walking Dead” is the greatest show ever to grace the small screen. I still won’t be watching it. I don’t like zombies.

As a philosophy professor I should be both familiar and comfortable with zombies, since in philosophy of mind the analysis of zombies has been somewhat of a cottage industry for at least a couple of decades. Really. Zombies in philosophy are imaginary creatures used to illuminate problems about consciousness and its relation to the physical world. issue96[1]Unlike those in films or witchcraft, philosophy zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but without conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie. Yet zombies behave just like us, and some even spend a lot of time discussing consciousness. Lest the non-academics among you take this philosophical zombie obsession as evidence that the ivory tower needs to be torn down or blown up, it gets worse. I have been at large philosophy conferences where more than half of the papers presented were focused on the philosophical analysis of zombies. I did not participate—zombies creep me out.

I really do not get the general infatuation, academic or otherwise, that our culture has with zombies. A few weeks ago, as Jeanne and I were riding with our friend Michael and his eleven-year old son Sam to the grocery store during our annual Florida trek, we rode past a sign on the side of the road advertising a “5K Zombie Run” in downtown Tampa a few days later. I’m not sure how zombies could run five kilometers without falling apart, but my question was more general. “What the hell is the big obsession that people have with zombies??” I wanted to know. In short order Sam started to talk about zombies in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, zombies in books, in movies, in video games. “Really,” he concluded, “all a zombie is is someone who was dead and now isn’t any more. Hmm–Jesus was a zombie!”

zombie-zoom[1]I thought Sam’s “Zombie Jesus” connection was original—boy was I wrong. Just Google “Zombie Jesus” and see what happens, but don’t do it until you have taken your gross-out pills and fortified yourself with a main-line injection of irreverence and stupidity tolerance. The image to the left is the most tasteful one I could find. Zombie Jesus day (Easter, in other words), Zombie Jesus Facebook pages, a short film called “The Passion of Zombie Jesus” loaded by someone called “championofhell” on YouTube and described as “the most sacrilegious film in human history” (I didn’t watch it)—you  get the point. I find this laughably weak if intended to be a critique of Christian belief; certain believers might be outraged, but something tells me that the divine does not fall off its throne or lose any sleep over such things. But there it is again—the zombie meme has a viral life of its own, and I just don’t get it.

Unless, of course . . . unless the zombie thing is just another way in which the human desire to believe that there is more to our existence than just our short-term physical presence on earth pops up. Beneath the crudity and lack of imagination of the zombie obsession lies that deep human need to believe that this is not all there is. The-Walking-Dead-S3-Mid-season-1[1]It says something about the limitations of the human imagination that a bunch of almost-dead, decaying corpses staggering around and eating the flesh off fully alive humans is the best “life after death” scenario we can come up with, especially since a much more exhilarating and inspiring story is available.

“He who believes in me will never die.” That’s a pretty shocking and “out there” promise, but the prospect of taking it seriously enough to try to figure out what it means and how it might transform a life is far more attractive than wasting time with the undead. Sam’s attraction to zombies is understandable—things that were once dead do not generally come back to life, even in a half-baked, decaying form. But a full-fledged resurrection from the dead, new life awakening in a soul left for dead?  “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst . . . It will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Someone should make a television show about that!

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That Mary Thing

I have a colleague and friend with whom I share a lot in common. Eric and I are both “Johnnies,” graduates of the St. John’s College Great Books curriculum (he graduated a few years before I did in the seventies). SJCWe are both Simone Weil scholars and aficionados (he founded the American Weil Society more than thirty years ago). He was an outside reader on one of my books, as I was on one of his a few years later. And we are both hardcore Protestants. I write about my Baptist roots frequently in this blog; Eric is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has been a theology professor, a college chaplain, and for the past several years has been a hired-gun interim pastor for several large Presbyterian congregations on the Eastern seaboard.

Eric and I see each other once a year at most at the annual Weil colloquies. A few years ago as we chatted at dinner I found myself describing my professional life as a non-Catholic who has been teaching philosophy in Catholic institutions of higher learning for more than two decades. “I could never be a Catholic,” Eric observed. “I just don’t get that Mary thing.” Neither do I. But every fourth Sunday of Advent, including yesterday, is “Mary Sunday,” testament-of-mary-book-jacketso every year I get to think about the Mary phenomenon once again.

A couple of years ago I read Colm Toibin’s novella The Testament of Mary. Toibin places the reader in the mind of Mary many years after her son was crucified. She is full of guilt and bitterness, has little use for Matthew and John who visit on occasion to fact check their accounts of Jesus’ life, and is convinced that her son’s death was not worth it. The book is not for the Christian faint of heart—the gentle, submissive, ethereal, and holy Mary of tradition and art masterpieces is nowhere to be found. But as always, I found it exhilarating to consider a religious icon as the flesh-and-blood human being that she was.

I believe that over the centuries Christians have made two mistakes concerning Mary. We have treated her either as a museum piece or as a holy relic. In the tradition I grew up in, we treated Mary as a museum piece. The only time I ever heard about Mary was around Christmas or if the text for the day was the marriage at Cana when Jesus is unaccountably rude to her. At Christmas, Mary showed up in the pageant.imagesCAXNTWCG I remember in various Christmas pageants being the innkeeper, a wise man, a shepherd—all of the usual male roles; once I even got to be Joseph.  So there was a Mary wing in the Baptist Christian museum of my youth, but it was small and uninteresting.

In other Christian traditions, such as the one in which Jeanne grew up, Mary plays a slightly more central role. In these churches Mary often gets more face time in artistic representations than Jesus himself. Attention to Mary has evolved into complicated ritualistic forms which in some cases border on the cultish. San+Gennaro+Festival+Returns+New+York+Little+1r1OJyXXSo3l[1]You may remember a scene from the movie Godfather II  in which a much larger than life statue of Mary is carried reverently through the streets of Manhattan as onlookers attach dollar bills to her. Jeanne tells me that such Mary-as-a-holy-relic events are by no means uncommon—if it’s Tuesday, it must be time for another Mary parade!

Because we have either placed her virtually behind glass or smothered her in ritual, Mary has been effectively hidden from us. But if Mary is neither a museum piece nor a holy relic, who or what is she?

From the few details provided in the gospels, joined together with what we know about the culture in which she lived, we can sketchily picture Mary. Mary is young, most likely in her early teens.2006_the_nativity_story_007[1] She is engaged to Joseph, a man much older than Mary, an engagement arranged between Joseph and Mary’s father. Mary is almost certainly poor. Her skin is darker than suggested in traditional artwork. She has dirt under her fingernails. We do not know whether she has siblings, nor do we know from the gospels anything about her parents. She’s nothing special, just an insignificant young girl living in a nothing town in the eastern backwater of the Roman Empire. And she is visited by an angel.

In scripture, angels are always the heralds of new beginnings, inviting us to adventure. They introduce mystery—they do not clarify. Angels announce new departures and the beginning of something whose end is not in view. This particular angel’s announcement to Mary is an explosion of beauty from the first sentence: annunciation1[1]“Greetings, favored one—the Lord is with you.” And in the narrative of incarnation that Advent prepares us for, the Lord is with all of us. “Greetings, favored ones—the Lord is with us.” We are all too aware of our humanity, of our shortcomings and failings, that we bear the burden, as John Henry Newman wrote, of “some aboriginal calamity.” But we are also the bearers of the divine. The promise of incarnation is that God chooses, inexplicably, miraculously, to inhabit flawed and imperfect matter, to become human. The promise to Mary is the promise to us—the Lord is with us. We, as Mary, are the wombs from which the divine enters the world each day. We are the incubators of God.  Mary’s response to Gabriel is the only one possible—“How can this be?” It is a mystery. It is also a great story.

When Mary gathers herself sufficiently to comment on the angel’s announcement after he leaves, she begins in the right place. “For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” Mary is saying that “I’m nothing special. I’m just a garden variety human being. But the divine has shown remarkable and glorious favor toward me and has bestowed abundant blessing on me by choosing to inhabit me.” There is only one possible reason for this favor, because Mary knows that she has done nothing to earn it. This reason is love. Love is holy because it is a lot like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. The astounding mystery and wonder of God’s love for us permeates throughout the beautiful story of the Annunciation. This favor and blessing continues. hands_and_feet_2[1]The incarnation narrative—the story of God becoming flesh—is a direct response to our inherent flaws, imperfections, limitations, and evil. Divine favor and blessing is offered to all of us. And the status of humanity is raised when God inhabits it. I remember singing a Sunday School song that included the lines “we are his hands, we are his feet.” That is the mystery, the scandal, and the beauty of the incarnation story: God entrusts flawed human beings to be the divine in the world.

At St. John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville Minnesota, Benedictine priestdiekmann[1] Godfrey Diekmann was a rock star. He and his mentor, Fr. Virgil Michael, were perhaps more responsible for liturgical reform and renewal in the Catholic Church than any others. When I was a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute at St. John’s in the Spring 2009 semester, I heard many Godfrey Diekmann stories—his wit as well as his temper were legendary. My favorite of these stories might be apocryphal, but I heard it so often that I suspect it is true. One evening while eating with colleagues and students in the student dining room, Diekmann got involved in a spirited conversation about the heart of Christian theology and life. He startled those at his table as well as those within earshot by slamming his hand on the table and shouting “It’s not the Resurrection, god-dammit! It’s the Incarnation!” As students, stunned into silence, slipped away he added “But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe that we are invited to become the very life of God.” The Christmas we anticipate—that is incubating in each of us—is the moment of salvation as God enters time, history, and each of us.matthew_fox_original_blessing[1]

We are His hands. We are his feet. It almost makes me agree with former Dominican Matthew Fox, who has argued for years that the doctrine of original sin should be replaced with the doctrine of original blessing.

NativityAdvent’s strongest image is pregnancy. Elizabeth’s . . . Mary’s . . . so unexpected, so miraculous. Advent reminds us that in our lives there is always a child ready to enter the world—the divine child that is in each of us and the child of God that each of us is. So here we all are, favored of God, loved by God, regardless of whether we feel it or deserve it. A great gift has been placed in us, a gift that carries with it unlimited responsibility. How will we nurture this child? How will we bring it to birth? What is incubating in each of us is as individual and unique as each of us is—and it is divine. How will we welcome this child? Mary’s response must be ours: “Here we are, the servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your Word.”024