Category Archives: friends

Strange and Beautiful

Forgive me for name dropping, but I went to dinner with a New York Times best-selling author earlier this month. Twice. Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace, and a number of other wonderful books is a visiting scholar at Providence College this academic year and occupies an office that is literally across the hall from mine.kathleen I have known Kathleen for a number of years, but she was responsible for changing my life before we ever met.

I am currently in my final semester of teaching before a year-long sabbatical—it is still unclear exactly how it will all shape up and shake down, but I’m pumped. It seems like only a few months ago, but eight years ago I was in exactly the same situation—a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. During my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I didn’t go anywhere; instead, I holed up in my office and wrote the first draft of a book that was published two years later. As I began to think about my second sabbatical on the horizon, I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics on sabbatical do), but my career has been shaped to fit the campus where I have now taught for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to begin.

the cloister walkA few months earlier I had picked up a book called The Cloister Walk while wandering around Borders. I liked the picture on the cover, a cover that also announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review excerpt from The Boston Globe:

This is a strange and beautiful book . . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’s book becomes lectio divina, or holy reading.

The Cloister Walk became my bedtime reading—a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’s quirky faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful just as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with the imagination of a poet.” I had no idea before I picked the book up that this was exactly what some unknown part of me had been looking for, nor did I know that on a practical level it would point me toward where I would spend my sabbatical semester a year later.Institute

Kathleen’s experiences that frame The Cloister Walk occurred during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily Liturgy of the Hours with the Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey about a ten minute walk away; she writes that the Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time.” The Cloister Walk is the fruit of that liturgical immersion—a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman who I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly resonated with the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in Protestant tradition as I am—rule of benedictexcept that she was strangely attracted to the Benedictines and their ancient Rule.

An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “attentive waiting.” A spark is struck; an event inscribed with a message—this is important, pay attention—and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.

I was familiar with the notion of “attentive waiting” from Simone Weil, another strange and beautiful person whose work had been the focus of my own spiritual journey as well as academic research and writing for at least fifteen years (Simone would have loved the Benedictines), but embedding such activity in the pressures of the “real world” had pretty much escaped me.

Kathleen describes in The Cloister Walk the frustration that her fellow resident scholars at the Institute felt with the poetic and decidedly non-academic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess I as an academic also occasionally felt when wandering through the intuitively organized labyrinth of her book. buberBut then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are persons following a path.

When it comes to faith . . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow,” and Martin Buber implies that discovering that means might constitute our life’s work. He states that “All [of us] have access to God, but each has a different access. [Our] great chance lies precisely in [our] unlikeness. God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one [person].”

I had no idea at the time just how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level I had ceased hoping to find my unique spiritual path over the years, weary of running head on into what a monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named ‘but we’ve never don’t it that way before!’ And people wonder how dogmas get started!”

At the time I did not trust my ability to hear a possible word from God—I entirely relied on my intuitively attuned wife to do that for me. 209 inaugurationBut as I worked my way through The Cloister Walk I realized that something more than my usual resonance with a fine writer’s craft was going on—I wanted what she was writing about. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009, and on the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44th President, a crystal clear Minnesota day with a high of zero degrees, I found myself in a tiny apartment situated in the very same complex and on the shores of the very same lake I had read about eighteen months earlier. my apartmentWhat on earth was I doing here away from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only good answer was that I wanted what I had read about. And the rest is (my recent) history.

Professionally what I carried from that sabbatical was a new way of writing (that a few years later turned into this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that as of yet have not been published (because I haven’t sent them out). But I was changed from the inside out. I immediately tested the waters of daily noon prayer with the monks up the hill at the Abbey, a commitment that within a few weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened a “deepest me” space that I have come to recognize as the place where the divine in me hangs out. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is in those ancient poems.

God behaves in the psalms in ways he is not allowed to behave in systematic theology.

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

[The Psalms’] true theme is a desire for the holy that, whatever form it takes, seems to be a part of the human condition, a desire easily forgotten in the pull and tug of daily life, where groans of despair can predominate.

One day at noon prayer one of my friends from the Institute nudged my attention toward the row behind us. “That’s Kathleen Norris!” my friend whispered in a slightly too-loud-for-noon-prayer voice.beatles I don’t know what I was expecting a famous author to look like, but it wasn’t this. That evening Kathleen—on campus for a university board meeting—visited the Institute for dinner. For many of us it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes in one-on-one conversation (which I was sure she would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had brought me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough. A year and a half later, while I was back in Collegeville for a writer’s workshop at the Institute, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (I forget why she was on campus). We had several breakfasts and lunches together, enjoyed some conversation on the guesthouse patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I particularly enjoyed the envious looks on my workshop colleagues’ faces when they observed me lunching with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. randall lectureAnd now, several years later, she’s our current endowed scholar on campus and inhabits the office across the hall.

When my birthday came a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne and I took Kathleen out to dinner—she’s a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. Our plan had been to include our good friends Marsue and Robin (Marsue is also a Norris groupie), but our umpteenth snow storm of the season made that impossible. So the next week we did it again, and this time Marsue got to meet one of her literary heroes in person. It’s strange how things work out. Last August, just a few days before the beginning of the new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business and I heard a voice from the stairs behind me—“I know you!” It was Kathleen. “And I know you too,” I thought. “You’re the person who changed my life.”

red_blue_states

Red and Blue Bubbles

As Jeanne and I do various things in the house on Saturdays, we often have NPR on. This past Saturday, however, our local NPR station was in the midst of fund-raising,RINPR interrupting the shows we wanted to hear so that two locals in the studio could talk to each other about how fabulous it would be if people would call in or go online and contribute money so that we could avoid having our local public radio station circle down the drain for another few months. About as exciting as watching paint dry. I actually am a monthly contributor (sustaining member, no less), which makes having to listen to fund-raising even more annoying. There should be a special station where people such as I can listen to what they tuned in and paid for while fund-raising is going on—I’m told that a couple of NPR stations  actually do have such an arrangement, but they have a far greater listening audience than our tiny state can muster.

MN_LakeWobegon1aTurning to WGBH, the mega-Boston NPR station, I was glad to hear that they were not fund-raising. “Prairie Home Companion” was on, which I find mildly amusing—fictional Lake Wobegone is actually based on a little town in central Minnesota close to where I spent a few months on sabbatical five years ago—but generally not amusing enough to fully engage my attention. Then guest musician Brad Paisley sang a song with the following lyrics:

Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea
Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap boots and jeans
Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race
Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace”

southern comfort zoneThe song is “Southern Comfort Zone,” a zone about as far from my comfort as one could possibly get. Paisley is bemoaning how tough it is to be away from his Tennessee home, which I find hilarious. Dude, I lived in Tennessee for three years and was looking to escape within two months of our forced arrival (Memphis was the location of my first teaching job after graduate school). I do go to church and do know the words (lyrics, that is) to “Amazing Grace,” but other than that, the comfort zone Paisley is longing for is as far outside mine as possible. I don’t own a gun, I find sweet tea vomit-worthy, mtajikand I think NASCAR is probably the preferred entertainment in hell. Somehow I think I would be more at home in Tajikistan than in the “Southern Comfort Zone.”

I was reminded of a survey that popped up on my Facebook wall a week or so ago. This one, “Do You Live in a Bubble?” is much more detailed and serious than most quizzes that have popped up in the past months.

Do You Live in a Bubble?

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist at the AEI.pngAmerican Enterprise Institute, argues that the super wealthy, super educated and super snobby live in so-called super-ZIPs, cloistered together, with little to no exposure to American culture at large. Such people, he says, live in a social and cultural bubble. His 25-question quiz, covering matters of interest from beer and politics to Avon and “The Big Bang Theory,” is intended to help readers determine how thick their own bubble may be. After taking the quiz one is given a score from 1-100; the higher the score, the less thick one’s liberal, pointy-headed, academic blue-state bubble is.

I fully expected to receive a negative score, if that is possible, given that the vast majority of my friends are liberal, Episcopalian, college-educated and/or college professors (often all four). Sure enough, questions such as these clearly skewed me toward the center of a thick-walled blue bubble.

Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements? I have many acquaintances with whom I would have such disagreements if we talked about politics. But we don’t.

During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes? Definitely not.

Do you know what military ranks are denoted by these five insignia? (Click each one to show the correct rank). I might have guessed one of them correctly.army-insignia

During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge? We’ve had this conversation before– If I Were a Beer . . . No.

Do you own a gun? During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? No, and no. We haven’t been hunting, gone to a NASCAR event, or eaten grits or biscuits and gravy either, just in case you are wondering (they were).

Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or a meeting at a union local? Really? No.

But I scored a 53 on this quiz, which essentially means that I’m comfortable in both the elitist blue bubble and the sweet-tea-drinking red(neck) bubble. That’s not true—it’s not even close to true. How the hell did this happen? Undoubtedly because of questions such as these:

Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? As a matter of fact, yes. A number of years ago, under circumstances too complicated and forgettable to summarize, the only working vehicle Jeanne and I owned was a small Ford pickup that was barely road worthy.DIGITAL CAMERA

Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights? Once. I played the sousaphone in my high school marching band my senior year. And by the way, how often do war protest or global warming parades happen?

Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Yes. My uncle owned a small factory that assembled modular homes and I visited once.

Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day? Are there really people out there who could honestly answer this one “No”? Now that’s really a 1% bubble! I had many such jobs as a teenager and twenty-something—and my brain often hurts at the end of a long day of teaching.

Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Yes, for at least twenty of my fifty-eight years.

Johnson_Jimmynscs_jimmie_johnson_456x362.png.mainThere were also questions about whether I know the difference between Jimmie and Jimmy Johnson (I do), and how often I ate at Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Fridays or Chili’s in the past year (fortunately, only a few). And then the question that totally skewed my score:

Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian? The survey went on to clarify that The distinguishing characteristics of evangelical Christians are belief in the historical accuracy of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, including especially the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and belief in the necessity of personal conversion — being “born again” — as a condition for salvation.

evangelicalism-300x462Mr. Murray. You really don’t have to explain to me what an evangelical Christian is. Everyone I knew growing up was an evangelical Christian, including me. I’ve spent the last forty years or so not so much trying to get over it as to try to understand how it has shaped me and what is still forming me. I don’t call myself an evangelical Christian any more—“freelance” presses that boundary way too far—but I have drunk the Kool Aid, and lived to write about it.

I was somewhat embarrassed to post my results—I really don’t want to be as well-balanced in this case as the quiz claims I am. Several of my Facebook acquaintances in the blue bubble were offended by the obvious sense in which the quiz was trying to make us feel badly about how thick our bubble walls are. These friends suggested a few questions that could be asked in an alternative “Do You Live in a Red Bubble?” quiz.

Do you know who Mr. Casaubon is?
How many times in the past year have you eaten arugula?
Do you know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites?sunni-vs-shia
How many of your friends are nonwhite?
Do you know anyone who is married to his or her first- or second-cousin?

Well, I threw that last one in but you get the point. The problem with this sort of exercise is that it tends to thicken the walls of one’s bubble rather than making it more likely that one will go to the other bubble for a couple of weeks on vacation. Unless you live in a blue bubble and your relatives live in a red one. Then you bite the bullet and do your duty, trying to smile as you turn down yet another offer of sweet tea. But I am not watching NASCAR.??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

oil change

In a Nutshell

John 3 16

 

Sports fans old enough to remember the 70s and 80s will recall that a regular occurrence at baseball or football games either in person or on television was, when the camera panned the stands, to see a person—often wearing a colorful fright wig—holding up a large homemade poster board sign with a cryptic reference that made sense only for initiates: John 3:16. John 316I often imagined the confusion that many might have felt at this ubiquitous, almost subliminal communication, especially in a pre-Google world. John 3:16? What does that mean? But for those in the know, it was no mystery, for John 3:16 is the address of perhaps the most familiar of all Bible verses, the first one (followed by hundreds more) that I learned as a young Baptist boy.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

In our fundamentalist, evangelical world, the whole gospel was summed up in this verse, often followed by its less quoted companion John 3:17:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

It really does have it all—a God of salvation rather than condemnation, of love rather than judgment, the incarnation, and—most important in the religious world of my youth—the promise of eternal life, which we interpreted as going to heaven and avoiding hell. It really is the gospel in a nutshell. Really. gospel in a nutshellI remember a crafts event during summer Bible camp when we inserted the text of John 3:16 in tiny print rolled up like a paper towel inside the two halves of a walnut shell which we then glued together with the end of the John 3:16 roll sticking out of a convenient slot. When completed, the text could be rolled out and admired, then snapped back in like a window shade.

Typically, but unfortunately, the textual context of this gospel in a nutshell was usually ignored. John’s gospel is strange and (for me, least) somewhat off-putting. It was written last of the four gospels, at least twenty years later than Matthew and Luke, perhaps thirty years later than Mark. The Jesus of John often sounds more like a theology professor than the no-nonsense man of few words and mighty deeds in Mark’s gospel. In John chapter 3, Jesus is visited secretly at night by Nicodemus, setting up one of the strangest conversations you’ll ever hear.

laurenceNicodemus, described by John as “a ruler of the Jews,” was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin—a significant player in the religious and political structure that Jesus was clearly challenging. For me Nicodemus will always be the bearded and aging Sir Laurence Olivier as he played the role in Franco Zeffirelli’s  Jesus of Nazareth. Nicodemus undoubtedly comes by night because he does not want his colleagues to know of his fascination with Jesus. It’s sort of like John Boehner checking in with President Obama in the middle of the night for budget-making advice—Boehner wouldn’t be able to live it down if word got out. Nicodemus gives Jesus an opening which Jesus takes by saying cryptically “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We Baptists took this to mean that “unless you accept Jesus into your heart as your personal savior, you don’t get to go to heaven” (although Jesus doesn’t say this), but the “eternal life” business isn’t what catches Nicodemus’ attention. Taking the “born again” line literally, he wants to know “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born”? Debates were raging in Jesus’ world between the Pharisees and the Sadducees about whether resurrection of the dead is possible—Jesus and NicodemusNicodemus, familiar with those debates, thinks Jesus is taking a position. But he’s not. He’s talking about something else entirely.

As the conversation continues, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the strange story from the history of the children of Israel wandering in the desert that was the focus of our first reading this morning from Numbers. In response to yet another round of blatant disobedience, God sends snakes into the midst of the children of Israel; many of those bitten by the venomous serpents die. In response to the people’s recognition of their rebellion and their penitence, God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and lift it up on a pole for everyone to see. “And so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”   bronze serpentApplying the story to himself thousands of years later, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Which sheds a whole new light on the gospel in a nutshell passage just two verses later. Jesus is not talking about crawling back into your mother’s womb, nor is he talking about going to heaven when you die. He’s talking about importance of what we choose to look at.

Iris Murdoch tells us that human beings are creatures who make pictures, then over time come to resemble the pictures they have made. And the pictures we make will be fashioned from what we are looking at and what we see most clearly. Two years ago when standing in this pulpit I talked about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” a tale about a secluded New Hampshire valley; on the perpendicular side of a nearby mountain hung some immense rocks which, when viewed from the proper angle and distance, “precisely resembled the features of a human countenance.” Old_Man_of_the_Mountain_4-26-03In the valley there is a legend that someday “a child should be born hereabouts, who is destined to become the greatest and noblest personage of his time, and whose countenance, in manhood, should bear an exact resemblance to the Great Stone Face.”

Ernest, a young man born and raised in the valley, was obsessed with the story of the promised great man his whole life, spending hours per day staring at the Great Stone Face and sharing the villagers’ disappointment as numerous visitors failed to live up to expectations. As the years pass and Ernest becomes an old man, he is loved by his neighbors and family but sadly concludes that the legend will not come true in his lifetime. Then one day as he talks simply and clearly on his front porch with a number of his friends about matters important to them all, the setting sun strikes Ernest’s face and someone sitting next to him exclaims “Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!” He had become what he had spent his life lovingly looking at. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and is telling us, that the possibility of transformation and renewal is right in front of us—but our attention is focused elsewhere.

It’s interesting to note that John 3:16 does not require us to do anything but believe. No deeds need to be performed, no special words need to be said, no special prayers need to be offered, no sins need to be confessed. Just believe. I spent many years trying to figure out what I needed to do to gain God’s favor—I suspect I’m not the only one in the room who has tried to figure this out. As it turns out, belief is about focusing my attention on the right thing. Not on my shortcomings and failings, nor on my strengths and what I think I have to offer that God might be able to use. lookJesus’ message to Nicodemus is “don’t act—LOOK.” In our consumer society we want solutions that we can make our own, that we can add to our list of useful things we have consumed. But Simone Weil writes that “To look and to eat are two different things. The only people who have any hope of salvation are those who occasionally stop and look for a time, instead of eating. Looking is what saves us.” The gospel in a nutshell.

Nicodemus’Michelangelo_Pieta_Firenze conversation with Jesus clearly had an impact; we see him two more times in John’s narrative, once when he reminds his brethren in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged, the second time when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial after the crucifixion. He did not drop everything he was doing and start following Jesus, but he did begin to see things differently. As we travel the Lenten path we would do well to wonder the same things that Nicodemus must have wondered about. Where do I usually focus my attention? What would it mean to shift my gaze toward something different? What would it mean to stop looking at the shortcomings, failures and sins in my own life and the lives of those around me? What would it be like to stop staring a few inches in front of me as I sleepwalk through my days and weeks and look up? What difference would it make if I looked at the promise of life rather than the inevitability of death? The bronze serpent lifted in the wilderness. The Son of Man hanging on a cross. Both are iconic images of God’s love and forgiveness, promising that new life can be ours now, that the kingdom of God is available now, and eternal life begins now. All we need to do is look.

on the jumbotron

Retiring Undefeated

048Prominently displayed in the office I occupy as director of the Development of Western Civilization program is a signed basketball perched on top of a small megaphone that says Let’s Go Friars. I won this basketball last year when my seat at the Friars-Marquette Golden Eagles basketball game was randomly selected as the “Lucky Seat of the Game.” Microphone man Harry interviewed me briefly during the first official timeout, got a “Go Friars!” out of me, and for the first time in my life I was on a Jumbotron for twelve thousand fans to admire. This picture was taken by one of my admiring fans in the History Department. My blog post two weeks later about sitting in the lucky seat of the game and generally being insanely fanatic Me on the Jumbotron(I guess that’s oxymoronic) about Friars basketball was one of my most popular posts ever.

Being a Fanatic

Even now when visitors to my office comment about my basketball and get the story, I add “it was the biggest day of my life.” Not any more—it was surpassed last weekend.

Last November I received an email from M, the Academic Coordinator for Men’s Basketball on campus, asking if I would be interested in participating in the inaugural season of the Honorary Faculty Coach Program which would offer me and a guest the opportunity to attend a Friars practice, sit behind the bench at a game, get a peek behind the scenes in various places and gain access to the Holy of Holies—the Champions Club Room where big bucks contributors to the college and athletic program get to eat crappy food and pay for drinks before the game and during half time. Given the opportunity to choose which home game to be the honorary coach for, I chose the March 1 game against the Marquette Golden Eagles for a number of reasons. marquetteFirst, last year’s Marquette game was my “lucky seat” game (which we won in double overtime). Second, it was the game closest to my birthday. Third, I am a proud alum of Marquette University, earning my PhD there in 1991.

I was thrilled when Marquette joined our Big East Conference several years ago, but am not so thrilled that they have kicked our ass on a regular basis since then, including a double-digit win in Milwaukee earlier this season. I am a proud alum and am always happy when they do well—except when it is at the Friars’ expense. When I first arrived here at Providence a couple of decades ago, friends and colleagues asked who I would cheer for when the Friars played the Golden Eagles (called the Warriors at the time—this was pre-political correctness in sports names). I took that to be an extraordinarily stupid question, until I found out over the years that many colleagues favor their alma mater over where they are earning a paycheck if forced to make a choice in a sporting event. Not me—all Friars, all the time.

Today is my birthday (number 59 and counting), so please humor me as I randomly reflect on my honorary coach experience last weekend.ents

  • These guys are huge. I’m six feet tall and have never felt more like a midget than when in close proximity to people a half-foot to more than a foot taller than I am for a couple of days. I felt like Merry and Pippin in Fangorn Forest with the Ents in Tolkien’s The Two Towers, except that the Friars have a much quicker first step than Treebeard and his buddies.
  • Sham 1Favorite moments included connecting with a former Friar who is now an assistant coach for the team. God Shammgod (the greatest sports name ever) was the point guard on the best Friar team of the twenty-one teams since we have been in Providence. Shamm led the 1997 Friars to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament—Jeanne and I got to know the team well and were crestfallen, along with all Friar fans, when Shamm left after his sophomore year to go pro. Now he’s back as the undergraduate student assistant coach, finishing his bachelor’s degree; he proudly told us that he’ll be walking across the stage at commencement in May. with RyanHe’s a great story and a greater guy.
  • Sitting about fifteen seats down from us was Ryan Gomes, the all-time leading scorer in Friars history. I had him in class ten years or so ago—classy kid then, still keeping it classy now.
  • The Friars-Marquette game was a sell-out with over twelve and a half thousand fans showing up to watch me coach. I was recognized at halftime and received my second game ball from the Providence College chaplain on the court—On court 3all on the Jumbotron once again. My life goal going forward is to be on the Jumbotron at the Friars-Marquette game every year.
  • Come to think of it, why was the college chaplain assigned the task of giving me my ball? As Harry the microphone man read the brief bio I had provided, Father C remarked that “you know how high you rate when I’m the one they send out to give you the ball.” I’ll have to ponder the implications of this.
  • Another favorite moment was spending a minute or two with John Rooke, with Rookethe legendary radio voice of the Friars for longer than we have been in Providence. During the 1997 season my son Justin had scoliosis surgery—John, as well as the coaching staff and many of the players, was very kind to Justin and my family during that time. I hope to hear many more “Holy Moleys!” from John in the years to come.
  • I love my seat in Section 104 Row D, but being on the court about three feet behind the bench is very exciting. Even more exciting is that Jeanne and I were on national television. A lot. My son texted me early in the game from Colorado and said “Dad! Every time the ball is in your end of the court I can see you and Jeanne!” The next day when I should have been grading papers I watched the replay of the game, and there we were—screaming, cheering, booing the stupid refs in our gray PC sweatshirts. Check out 35:59 in the game video:

  • I knew that Jeanne likes guys with large craniums (I have a large cranium), but I can’t compete with her new boyfriend.Friar 2
  • My assumption since last November has been that I was asked to be an honorary coach because everyone in the athletic department knows what a fan I am, knows that I have had many Friars in the classroom over the years, read my blog post about being a fanatic last year, and in general thought that I was by far the most worthy member of the faculty to be recognized in this manner. I still believed that even when I saw a couple of faculty friends/colleagues honored similarly at earlier games this season, figuring that they were just warmups for me. At practice on Saturday I found out that my being asked had nothing to do with my spectacular reputation. In order to avoid any whiff of favoritism, the names of all faculty who had a Friar in class either last semester or currently were put in a hat and one of the Dean’s picked the names of the needed number of coaches-to-be. It was entirely random. But I choose to believe that as if by Adam Smith’s invisible hand the Dean’s attention was drawn to my slip of paper.

By the way, we won the game. The Friars built a twenty point lead, frittered it away in the closing minutes until Marquette closed to within five points, then put it away at the foul line. I thought my presence and input on the sidelines made a big difference—I willed them to the victory. And I am now retiring from coaching as the only undefeated coach in the history of Division One NCAA basketball. It doesn’t get any better than that.049

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.

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

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Hanging Out With Juno

My usual reaction as a seasoned New Englander to panicked reports of the next big “Snowpocalypse” event coming our way is “whatever.” So when I heard on the local NPR weather update last Saturday as it snowed a couple of sloppy inches that asnowpocalypse “MAJOR SNOW EVENT” was coming our way late Monday night into Tuesday, I took it with several grains of salt. How many times in my life have the prognosticators predicted a “historic weather event,” only to have it embarrassingly fizzle into little or nothing when the appointed time comes? Except, of course, that weather experts appear to be immune to embarrassment or even the ability to say “we were wrong.” They just keep on predicting the worst in the blind hope that sometime they might actually be right.

But a few things indicated that this time might be different. First, the predictions from various venues were remarkably similar (I heard later that this is because they were using a new model—the American model—for the first time rather than the usual European one. Makes sense). It will start on Monday night, go straight through Tuesday, the wind will be 40-50 miles per hour, 18-24 inches are predicted, and the Providence-Boston area is the bull’s-eye. No waffling, no saying that “the amounts will range from one inch to fifty depending on how the storm tracks,” no qualifications such as “it might turn out to be all rain.” Just “you’re in for a serious weather ass-kicking, Providence.” heraSecond, although I despise the Weather Channel’s insistence that even the most minor weather event must be named, I took notice when I heard that the impending storm had been named Juno. The late January storm last year, named Janus, was bad enough. But everyone knows that Juno/Hera was a bitch. She was manipulative, nasty, arbitrary, and generally not easy to get along with. I know, the fact that her husband Jupiter/Zeus was a serial cheater who slept at the drop of a hat with semi-divine and mortal women in forms ranging from a swan or bull to a shower of gold probably helps explain Juno/Hera’s general bad attitude. But maybe Jupiter/Zeus’ straying activities had something to do with the fact that he couldn’t stand being around his wife. Just saying.

For a teacher, especially early in a new semester, rumored weather cancellations of classes are a pain in the ass. Just as the students do, the faculty claims to be excited about the prospect of an unexpected “day off”—on Sunday I posted on Facebook that I was thoroughly annoyed that the promised storm was coming Monday night through Tuesday. snow dayGiven that Tuesday is the day this semester that I am not in class, I wanted to know why the storm couldn’t be scheduled for Wednesday, by far my heaviest teaching day of the week. What is the point of cancelled classes on a day when I have no classes? But in truth, what I was really worried about was that if Juno turned out to be as bad-ass as predicted, the odds were high that both Tuesday and Wednesday classes would be cancelled. As I chatted with colleagues Monday about the incoming weather event, we privately agreed that having to retool and revise the syllabus in the wake of cancelled classes was a far greater pain than any benefit received from getting to sleep an extra hour or two because of a snow day. I much prefer snow events on the weekend (except when they cancel church on a Sunday that I am scheduled to play the organ—this happened once last winter). In short, people need to check with me before they plan unusual weather.

Jeanne and I decided to park our car in the underground parking lot on campus to spare our Hyundai Eva (named after Adolf Hitler’s girlfriend—a long story) getting snowed and blown on and us the annoyance of digging her out of six-foot drifts. The snow started late Monday afternoon, intensified in the evening, hit hard in the middle of the night, and was going strong when I woke up at my usual 5:15—just as the prognosticators said it would. snow 002Good for them—even a broken clock is right twice every twenty-four hours. Looking out the window I was reminded of my days in Laramie in the eighties where it the wind was so strong during a winter storm that it snowed sideways. It was impossible to tell how much it had actually snowed; due to drifting we had received anywhere from nothing to five feet of the stuff, depending on where I looked. I know from growing up in Vermont that one should never wait until a storm ends to start shoveling—better to shovel 6-8 inches several times than three feet once. But not this time—trying to shovel while Juno was still in Rhode Island would have been as effective as spitting into a hurricane.

snow 004On Tuesday I watched the drifts pile higher and higher, particularly amused when I discovered that there were two feet of snow drifted tight against the back door as well as a larger four- or five-foot drift between that door and the snow shovels six feet away that we had wisely moved from the garage to the back patio to make them easy to grab when the storm was over. This happened at about the same time I learned that classes were also cancelled for Wednesday, throwing all three of my syllabi into complete disarray. And who said that living in New England during the winter is not fun? Jeanne and I did zero shoveling on Tuesday, watched episodes four through nine of Season Five of Downton Abbey (we got the whole thing in DVD a couple of days ago because Jeanne started throwing a few monthly bucks WGBH-PBS’s way a few weeks ago), I drank Balvenie, and we slept well.

Wednesday was less fun because the shoveling maids failed to show up and we had to do it ourselves. According to a Facebook acquaintance the official snowfall in Providence from Juno was 19.5 inches (and we know that Facebook is always right), but because of tightly packed three- to four-foot drifts from top to bottom of our driveway, it shoveled like a lot more. With impeccable timing, just as we were close to finished our neighbor Al, with whom we share a driveway, said that he was going to be borrowing a friend’s snowblower and would have been happy to do our side with it. snow 007Actually Al’s a sweetheart and came back with it in time to blow out the end of our drive where the plow had deposited five feet worth of cement-heavy material. Later today I’ll be retrieving our car from the campus lot and parking it in our shoveled driveway just in time for the plow to pile a few feet more of snow in the end as it makes a sweep pushing the banks back in the middle of the night.

Strangely enough, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love New England, including the storms, and snow emergencies bring out the Good Samaritan best in everyone. Al cleared out the end of our driveway, we kicked in $10 to some enterprising youngsters to shovel out our neighbor across the street when she didn’t have enough cash on hand, and everyone is in a “pay it forward” mood. Except the fool who blew his horn impatiently for ten minutes as he sat behind an oil truck delivering oil to our elderly neighbor on the other side whose tank had run dry. I hope Winter Storm Javier dumps five feet on him next January.snow 008