Category Archives: literature

Wherever You Go

The 8:00 show at church is for early morning people and those who prefer silence to typical church music. That means me—I’m a regular. Since I am one of the few regulars who is also on the official lector list, I have been the reader three of the past five Sundays. My assigned readings from the weekly lectionary have been a confluence of favorites. One Sunday I read from Proverbs, a selection that included the verses that I used to dedicate my first published book to my mother: “She opens her mouth with wisdom . . . her children rise up and call her blessed.”arrows The assigned Psalm my next Sunday as lector was Psalm 127, which includes the passage I used when dedicating my second book to my sons: “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord . . . Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.” Next time I read I’ll be looking for something to use for my next book’s dedication; I already have a full draft in hand and know to whom it will be dedicated, but have yet to find the perfect dedicatory text. Such lovely, unexpected confluences are for me continuing proof that once in a while what’s greater than us takes notice of little old me. Thanks, Big Bird.

As if that wasn’t enough, the first reading of the day the last time I read was from one of my favorite books, a little, seldom read gem dropped into the Jewish Scriptures between the historical books of Judges and First Samuel. I always assign the Book of Ruth when we are in Old Testament week in the interdisciplinary program I teach in for several reasons. First, it is brief enough to be read in one setting and I can safely assume that the majority of students in the class will have read it. the book of ruthMore importantly, it is unique among the books of the Old Testament in that women are the main characters and God never makes an appearance. No miracles, no divine insecurity or meddling with the lives of human beings. Ruth is a story of normal human beings trying to live their lives with integrity and care in a middle of a world that is both challenging and unfair. Sounds a lot like the world we live in.

The Book of Ruth is set during the decades between the children of Israel’s occupation of the Promised Land recounted in Joshua and the events leading up to the kingship of Saul and David recounted in First Samuel. The interim period described in Judges is a time of political fluidity during which the various tribes of Israel, in very loose confederation, stake out territory and frequently have to defend themselves against attacks from various indigenous groups they had displaced. One of these groups is Moab, to the southwest of the land occupied by the Israelite tribes. migrationThe Book of Ruth is set during the time covered in Judges, and tells a story that is contemporary in many ways—it’s a story of people migrating from their native land in search of better lives.

An Israelite family from the tribe of Benjamin during a time of famine migrates to Moab due to rumors that there is food there. At first things work out reasonably well for Naomi and her family; even though it is a violation of Jewish law described in the Pentateuch for an Israelite to marry a non-Israelite, Naomi’s sons marry Moabite women—Ruth and Orpah. But then disaster strikes—both of Naomi’s sons and her husband die of disease and she finds herself a widow with two widowed non-Jewish daughters-in-law. In a strongly patriarchal world, what options are available for a husband-less middle-aged woman?

Naomi advises her daughters-in-law to return to their families while she, her life in many respects over as an older woman with no male to protect her, will return to her own homeland. Orpah sadly does so, but Ruth and naomiRuth refuses to leave. In the best-known passage from the book, Ruth tells Naomi “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” A number of years ago, a musical setting of this text was standard fare at wedding ceremonies; very few were aware that these words are not about the love between a man and a woman committing themselves to each other, but rather are the expression of a young woman for an older woman whom she cannot bear to leave, even for the best of reasons.

Back in her homeland, Naomi relies on her considerable intelligence and powers of manipulation to worm her way into the orbit of Boaz, a relative of her deceased husband, on whose support she has a distant claim according to the law. gleaningWisely she uses the youthful and beautiful foreigner Ruth to draw Boaz’s attention, first as Ruth works in his fields, then in the following passage that was the central portion of what I read as lector:

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.  Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.  Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

An odd passage to read from a church lectern. I have heard many ministers fumble around with this portion of the story, but my eighteen year old freshmen know exactly what’s going on. Naomi is telling Ruth to seduce Boaz. And it works—Boaz does tell Ruth “what to do,” they soon marry, and their son, Jesse, is the father of David, the shepherd who becomes king and whose descendant will be Jesus himself.


A few takeaway’s from Ruth’s story:rahab

  • The divine likes to work outside the box. Including the foreigner Ruth and the prostitute Rahab from the Book of Joshua in the royal bloodline is a violation of God’s own law—and God doesn’t seem to care.
  • Naomi never waited for a “word from God” to decide the best path forward. She relied instead on her own knowledge, intuitions, cunning, good nature, and ability to work the system to her advantage.
  • God frequently doesn’t say anything—that does not get the person of faith off the hook of responsibility for her or his own life. As Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “There is no shaft of light that comes from heaven and says to you ‘Okay, my son or my daughter, you are right.’ You have to hold on to it by the skin of your teeth and hope that there’s going to be vindication on the other side.
  • Women are better than men at working their way out of seemingly impossible situations.

Welders and Philosophers

After attempting to watch significant portions of the first three debates among the multitude of candidates for the Republican nomination for President, I chose not to watch round four the other night, figuring I could catch the high or low lights the next day on line. I was greeted with the following lead from

It was a tough night for philosophers at the fourth GOP debate. To make a point about skills training, Sen. Marco Rubio said the world needed more welders than philosophers. cruzSen. Ted Cruz attacked “philosopher kings” for trying to figure out what was happening in the economy. And Gov. John Kasich, who tried at times to get philosophical and even quoted one—Michael Novak on the ethical duties of Wall Street—was clobbered by Donald Trump. “I don’t have to hear from this man,” Trump said after Kasich labelled him as untruthful.

My goodness. I’m sorry I missed it (not).

Don’t worry, I’m used to philosophers being trashed. Several years ago Jeanne and I were visiting my cousin and his wife for a few days and attended services with them on Sunday morning at their conservative, evangelical mega-church (something I would only do for someone I like a lot, and then only one time). megachurchThe pastor’s sermon that morning was about how important it is for Christian believers to live according to the precepts of the Bible and not to think too much about it. On several occasions he belittled those with too much education who urge people to think and ask questions about what they believe—we don’t need “philosophers” (using air scare quotes) telling us what we need to do when the Bible is perfectly clear, he repeated to a growing swell of “Amens.” My cousin’s wife was mortified. As she introduced me to the hand-shaking pastor at the exit door after services, he said with a beaming Christian smile “So nice to meet you! Where are you from and what do you do?” “He’s a philosopher,” my cousin’s wife said as his smile slowly faded.

I won’t take the time to address Cruz’s comment about philosopher-kings, since anyone who has cracked the cover of Plato’s Republic knows that true philosopher-kings would never besmirch their minds and characters with such low-level drivel as economics. As for Rubio, in answer to how he would counter Democrats’ proposals for free or subsidized college education, he said “For the life of me, I don’t know why we stigmatize vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Apart from not realizing that he meant “fewer” and not “less,” Rubio gained the distinction of being the first person to blame America’s economic woes on a surfeit of philosophers. The morning after the debate a Fox News interviewer opined to the senator that plato welder“Plato would have been so much more successful if he had just welded and stopped yapping about his philosophy. Senator,” an insight that Rubio did not challenge. I’m glad to report, though, that a multitude of news outlets from the AP and the Washington Post to the New York Times and resisted throwing philosophers under the bus with headlines like “Marco Rubio is wrong on this,” “Sorry, Marco Rubio, philosophers actually make way more than welders,” “Marco Rubio is wrong: Working philosophers make almost twice as much as welders,” and so on (note, though, that it said working philosophers). even provided helpful graphics to support philosophers, the first comparing earnings over time between welders and people with bachelor’s degrees in either philosophy or religious studies:

vox chart

and the second comparing the mean average wage of welders with people who teach philosophy or religion.

welders vs philosophers

I appreciate the support, although it is unfortunate that thinks that philosophy and religious studies are the same thing. Sigh.

The above gives me the opportunity to get on a high horse that I have been on occasionally in the years of this blog’s existence. The whole kerfuffle concerning welders and philosophers beginning with Sen. Rubio and continuing with reactions the next day was focused on money, on the apparently self-evident idea that the most, perhaps the only, important issue at hand is who makes more money. Of the dozen or so news sources I checked, I found only one that shifted the issue closer to where it belongs. The Weekly Standard argued that

There was far more wrong in Rubio’s assertion than the mangled grammar. For one, the idea that the only purpose of higher education is to make money is dangerously misguided. At its best, education makes us (as the term liberal arts implies) free men and women, and better citizens. And it’s bizarre, as Rubio seemed to suggest, to believe that anyone studies philosophy in order to get rich.

Now that would be bizarre—I’m exhibit A that one should not study (or teach) philosophy in order to get rich. But the Weekly Standard’s comments move the issue in a fruitful direction, away from “How much money do they make?” toward keep-calm-and-study-philosophy-21“Why would anyone study that in the first place?”

Several years ago during my four-year stint as chair of the Providence College philosophy department, I found myself sitting at a table with several very concerned parents. It was during one of the summer orientation sessions for incoming freshmen, and these were the parents of students who had indicated interest in majoring in philosophy once their college career began in the fall. The question, expressed in various ways, that all of these parents wanted an answer to was “What on earth will my daughter/son be able to do with a major in philosophy?” This is a discipline-specific version of a broader, equally challenging question: What can one do with a liberal arts education? The answer I gave those worried parents some years ago also serves as the best answer to the second, broader question. My answer is “you are asking the wrong question.”

The life of human flourishing depends far more on the sort of person one is than on what one is doing and is more a matter of continual character development than of supply and demand. Critique of Pure WeldingBringing Aristotle’s insights to the issue of liberal arts education, the best question to ask is not “What can I do with a philosophy major and a liberal arts education?”, but rather “What sort of person will a philosophy major and a liberal arts education help me become?” That is a question that will be answered through a vast variety of lives, only one of which is teaching philosophy. Philosophy and the liberal arts equip a person with a host of valuable transferable skills appropriate to the living of a flourishing life. Even a welder can benefit from philosophy—especially since philosophers earn more than welders. Thanks, Sen. Rubio, for helping bring that to light.

vermont cows

A Green Mountain Boy

bernThe candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination for President over the past few months has put the little State of Vermont on everyone’s radar screen—a screen that more often than not it has avoided during my lifetime. One of the many activities my family used to entertain ourselves during our occasional trips from New England to the West Coast during my growing up summers was to see how many days it took us to see license plates from all fifty states. Not surprisingly, Alaska and Hawaii usually turned out to be the last two, although cars from the Deep South were rare, since we never took that route going or coming. We often forgot that the plate on our own car was as rare as a license plate from Mars in some parts of the U.S. One time as an attendant pumped gas into our Chrysler—it was in Oklahoma or some such place—he remarked “Vermont?!? Is that in America?” mapTo which my annoyed father asked “Have you ever heard of Canada?” “Yes . . .” “It’s just south of there.”

I lived all but six months of my life until age eighteen in Vermont, but I am not a native Vermonter. That’s because those were my first six months, spent in southern New York State where I was born just prior to my family moving slightly north and east. If you were not born in Vermont, you are not a Vermonter. Yet this little landlocked piece of real estate (it’s the only New England State that does not border on the Atlantic Ocean), surrounded by New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Quebec, shaped and formed me in ways I am still discovering. I had the opportunity to return to Vermont earlier this week and kill two birds with one stone. Bird one was attending my friend and colleague’s installation as the Poet Laureate of Vermont on Monday evening in Montpelier, making bird two—spending Monday night and Tuesday morning with my uncle and his wife who live fifteen miles away—a no brainer.Summer 2014 015

I was taught many important things about Vermont in my early public school education, including that Vermont has the most beautiful fall foliage and produces the most delicious maple syrup in the universe (despite the bogus claims of the much larger and more famous state on the other side of Lake Champlain). We took pride in being the first new state in the fledgling United States of America after the original thirteen, earning statehood in 1791 after a successful secession from New York (which they have never forgiven Vermont for). We learned that despite being shaped like an upside-down Vermont, our neighbor New Hampshire was inferior to Vermont in every measure that mattered. I have had many opportunities to test this claim over the past five decades, and have found it to be completely accurate. I was not surprised to learn that there were more dairy cows than resident human beings in Vermont. road not takenRobert Frost was our literary hero (we memorized “The Road Not Taken” in fourth grade), Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge were our favorite Presidents (because they were born in Vermont), and the heroes of every Vermont boy were Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Ethan Allen was a “farmer, businessman, land speculator, philosopher, writer, lay theologian, and American Revolutionary War patriot, hero, and politician.” All I knew about him as a kid was that he regularly kicked British ass, pioneering the sort of guerrilla warfare that was a central part of the American patriot victory in the Revolutionary War. His most famous escapade with the Green Mountain Boys was blowing up the ammunition dump at Fort Ticonderoga, an attack he co-led with Benedict Arnold before Benedict’s name became synonymous with “traitor.” green mountain boysAfter 9/11, I have often used Ethan Allen in class as an example of how whether someone is classified as a hero or a terrorist depends entirely on one’s perspective. Ethan was our hero; he was undoubtedly on top of the British “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.

As I drove south to north up the spine of Vermont on my way to Montpelier and my friend’s installation as poet laureate on Monday, I listened to two straight hours of Vermont Public Radio. This was nothing unusual, since Rhode Island or Boston NPR is just about the only radio I ever listen to at home. But one hour of VPR was a bit different—it was a local show describing, among other things, the planned “Legithon” at the Vermont Statehouse later in the week where regular citizens could drop in for a day’s worth of workshops on how legislation makes its way from somebody’s good idea into a legislative bill. I got the impression that the congressman being interviewed was expecting the statehouse to be flooded with citizens not only wanting to find out how laws are made but also with their own ideas about what those laws should be. Vermont politics is truly local.vermont cows

At my friend’s installation ceremony on Monday night I learned some interesting new facts, including that dairy cows now no longer outnumber human beings in Vermont (although it’s still close). But the total population of Vermont is well below the population of the greater Providence area. My friend was appointed poet laureate by the Governor of Vermont, who (disappointingly) was a typical politician in the sense that he clearly wanted to be the center of attention and spent more time introducing the new poet laureate than the new poet laureate took in his own remarks. But I learned from his bio in the program that the Governor “likes to fish, hunt, and garden, and can sometimes be found spreading manure and cutting hay at his farm,” so there’s that—I doubt that the Governor of Rhode Island has spread manure recently. I probably need to rethink that.

I drove to Vermont on Monday by a slightly longer route deliberately to avoid Boston traffic (and New Hampshire), but returned the New Hampshire and Boston way on Tuesday. I have to admit that the New Hampshire/Boston path between Providence and Montpelier is 25 miles and 15 minutes shorter than the Springfield, MA/Vermont route that I took on Monday. WIN_20151102_11_26_15_ProBut I was reminded on Tuesday that Vermont has far better rest areas and license plates than New Hampshire and that the extra hour or so in Vermont going the other way is well worth it. I’m not sure how much of who I am as an adult is due to my growing up in Vermont, but I suspect that my ponytail, liberal politics, and independent spirit are all traceable back to being a Green Mountain boy. Of the 200 or so people at the installation ceremony Monday night, there were at least ten males with gray ponytails and beards that put mine to shame. I’ve never met any guy from New Hampshire with a ponytail.

Religionless Christianity

One of the few benefits, perhaps the only benefit, of breaking my ankle in a bicycle mishap four weeks ago is that my sabbatical writing activities have been accelerated. I have two book projects; my unofficial goal for the first project was to have a proposal in hand to start shopping around to possible publishers by Christmas. I am well ahead of the pace I was projecting since I’ve been writing during the three or four hours per day that I had been biking until my unfortunate mishap. WIN_20151006_13_03_05_ProI now have in hand a full second draft complete with references and bibliography and can start working on a proposal this week. Yay me—but I would rather have been riding my bike.

Working on this book project has put me back into direct conversation with a writer who over the past fifteen or so years has been as influential on my thinking and overall development as any other—Iris Murdoch. In preparation for the book I thought I was going to write during my last sabbatical, IrisI read all of her twenty-plus novels and her most important philosophical essays; over the past three months I have been reviewing well over a hundred pages of single-spaced notes I took as I wandered through her extensive body of work. Iris came into my life when I discovered that Simone Weil—a thinker so influential on my intellectual and spiritual development that Jeanne calls her my “mistress”—was similarly influential for Iris Murdoch. In her last completed work (she died in 1999 after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s), Murdoch asks a question that is arguably the central issue explored in both her fiction and her philosophical work—“What can we do now that there is no God?”

Writing in the decades after the Second World War, Murdoch assumes that human beings are required to grapple with a difficult world lacking the tools provided by traditional Christianity (or any other traditional religious framework). Yet she is by no means a happy atheist along the lines of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett.ddh Murdoch believes that the traditional conception of the divine, along with the various frameworks that have traditionally surrounded that conception, is meaningless, yet points out that while it is easy to say that there is no God, it is not so easy to believe it and to draw the consequences. Human beings are not the sorts of creatures that can simply fill the vacuum created by the absence of God with the closest thing available. We are incapable, by sheer force of will, of addressing the spiritual hunger and need that now-defunct frameworks and vocabularies were intended to address. There is something in the human heart that needs to believe in something greater than ourselves.

The search for the transcendent, for what is greater than ourselves, in Murdoch’s hands becomes a high-wire act with no safety net. She sets for herself the task of finding out what can be preserved of belief in the transcendent and in moral goodness without the trappings of religion that have supported such beliefs—a “Religionless Christianity” if you will. She preserves the notion of faith, but without guarantees—persons with such faith intuit something greater than themselves but refuse to embrace traditional descriptions of this something. Murdoch calls such a person a “mystical hero”:e and m

The man who has given up traditional religion but is still haunted by a sense of the reality and unity of some sort of spiritual world. . . . This hero is the new version of the man of faith, believing in goodness without religious guarantees, guilty, muddled, yet not without hope. This image consoles by showing us man as frail, godless, and yet possessed of genuine intuitions of an authoritative good.

Such a person, Murdoch believes, will exhibit many of the characteristics that traditionally religious people might aspire to.

Our life is an interconnected whole and a religious man would feel responsible for the quality of all his thoughts and experiences . . . This sort of–perpetual work–seems to me what religion is . . . It’s humility, and unselfishness–and setting yourself aside to make room for other things, and people.nones

I thought of Murdoch’s mystical hero the other day when reading an article describing how more and more of the students enrolled at various divinity schools across the country are unaffiliated with any religious denomination. Such students are called “nones” (pronounced “nuns”), since they are the sorts of people who check “None” when asked about their religious affiliation on a survey.

Secular Students Turn to Divinity School

I think this is very cool, but something tells me that many people would stop reading after finding out early in the article that nones are predominantly found at places inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism like Harvard Divinity School and Chicago Theological Seminary. “Well of course,” the complaint might go. “Such places are bastions of secular humanism with words like ‘Divinity’ or ‘Theological’ on their letterhead for show.” Such concerns are not unique to the Protestant flavor of Christianity; cinoI have taught for the past twenty-one years at a Catholic college that, at least according to its current President, seeks to thread the needle between extreme conservative Catholic campuses and larger Catholic Universities (usually Jesuit) that many judge as CINO (Catholic in name only).

The game of “who is more faithful to the message” is usually zero sum, though, and leaves little room for phenomena such as the nones. What might an agnostic or even an atheist find attractive about divinity school? Several of the nones interviewed in the article provide clear answers. “I am attracted to the search for social justice and for spiritual meaning. And I recognize those things as the fruits of religious tradition,” one none said. “So it makes sense to go to a place where you can study religious tradition.” Another could have been channeling Iris Murdoch: “If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government . . . and philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places. And when you find it, it’s not easy to abstract it. You have to connect it to a tradition.” I am currently leading a discussion group at church using a text about knowing God written with millennials in mind; current research shows that one-third of millennials are nones. Where are such persons to find a spiritual home or community? If Iris Murdoch is right, the answer to that question will require great creativity and courage across the board, even in traditional places where such creative and courageous challenges to the status quo seem to strike at the very heart of what the place stands for.eckhart

I am not a none, but only because I believe that the Christian tradition is broad and resilient enough to accommodate outliers with the nerve to call themselves freelance Christians. And a “heads up” to the nones who are deliberately placing themselves in the atmosphere of divinity school—you never can tell what might happen. Meister Eckhart, a medieval Dominican monk who almost lost his life due to his out of the box theology, wrote that “God begets his Son in you whether you like it or not, whether you sleep or wake—still God is at work.” And more recently, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reported that a person wrote her a worried email:

I think I’m having a crisis of faith . . . I think I believe in Jesus.

nadiaTo which Nadia replied:

I’m so sorry. But sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Book Geek Problems

Two months ago President Obama and Marilynne Robinson had a lengthy conversation, not about foreign or domestic policy, economics or politics in general. Robinson and PresidentThe conversation, under the guise of an interview for the NY Times Review of Books, happened because the President is a big fan of Robinson’s work. I get that–so am I. I just finished her collection of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books this morning; the final essay “Cosmology” began with this description of Edgar Allen Poe:

I have always thought of him as a man waiting out the endless night of his life with a book in his hand, some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, noting the smell and feel of the leather binding, the pretty trace of gilding on the spine, almost too moved by the gratuitous humanity of the thing to open it and put himself in the power of whatever old music still lived in it.

God, I wish I could write like that. And God, I love books.

I was part of a small book group discussion a bit over a week ago, a group that meets once every other month. This was only my second time as part of this group;Gilead I went because they were discussing Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead at my recommendation. There were only five of us—the other four are regulars in a different discussion group I lead once a month after church, so we know each other well and are good friends. Gilead is one of my favorite novels (in my top two or three) and our conversation was wonderful. But I could not help being distracted a couple of times as I noticed the difference between my copy of the novel and theirs. My copy is very used and looks it, with a coffee stain on the back cover that seeped through to the final twenty pages or so, lots of underlining, annotation, and other evidence that this was my fourth or fifth time through the book. The copies in my friends’ hands all looked alike and very different from mine. They were all pristine hardbacks, snugly covered with clear protective sleeves, all sporting a small white square at the bottom of the spine containing a few indecipherable letters and numbers. They were, in other words, library books. I don’t get it.WIN_20151022_07_58_38_Pro

Don’t get me wrong, I think the lending library is one of Benjamin Franklin’s greatest inventions, right up there with the Franklin stove, street cleaning, electricity and our country. But it’s a good thing that the success of libraries does not depend on people like me. I have spent a lot of time over the past three weeks in our little library recliner, due to my broken ankle, so I’ve had two of the many bookshelves in our house in view more than usual. I love how books look on a shelf—arranging them is one of my favorite pastimes. I love how they feel, how they smell. I love that they are mine. Hence my problem with borrowing books from a library—those books are not mine. I have the same attitude about books as Gollum has about the Ring of Power. gollum preciousThey are my “Precious.” Probably only 20% of the books on our bookshelves are ones that I have read more than once; with Jeanne unemployed we could probably make a month’s worth of grocery money with a book sale. But it ain’t happening. These books are mine; there is a great difference between owning a book and borrowing one.

These attitudes, of course, tell you everything you need to know about my opinion of things like Kindles and Nooks. Once in the middle of an airplane flight I was deeply engrossed in reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. As the woman seated in the seat across the aisle one row in front of me returned from a journey to the facilities, she noticed what I was reading. “Do you like it?” she asked. “I love it,” I replied. “So do I!” she exclaimed as she pulled her Kindle out of her purse.” “I’m reading it too! Isn’t that weird?” I thought something that an extrovert or a rude person might have said out loud: wolf hall“It would be a weird coincidence if you were actually reading, but looking at words on a screen is not the same thing as reading.” As I’ve said many times to many people over the past several years, when they invent a Kindle (or whatever) that feels and smells like a real book, I’ll buy one.

I have written about my obsession with books and the peculiar problems this obsession causes before, inspired by a “99 Book Nerd Problems” list a Facebook acquaintance sent me (it reminded her of me—I can’t imagine why).

Cracked Spines

Let’s call these “book geek problems.” I have encountered a few more of them recently.

Only four pages to go . . . and the doctor will see you now. This one just happened to me two weeks ago—on consecutive days. I always have a book with me to read if there is the slightest chance that I will have to wait or be in line for more than one minute.doctors office First on the Tuesday after my bicycle mishap as I waited for my ankle to be x-rayed at an Urgent Care facility, then (when I turned out I had a broken fibula) the next day in the orthopedist’s office, I made myself as comfortable as I could with a painful leg, pulled my book out of my carrying bag, put my reading glasses on, and settled in for what I assumed would be at least a half hour of reading the novel I was in the middle of. On both days I heard “Mr. Morgan?” from the nurse at the door just as I was at a crucially interesting part of the story. Far be it from me to complain too much about being called into the doctor’s office more quickly than I expected, but they could have timed it better. Very inconvenient.

Books that won’t stay open when you’re trying to read and eat at the same time. This is a particular problem since I refuse to crease the spines of books I am reading in order to get them to stay open. I wouldn’t like a cracked spine, and I assume a book wouldn’t either. I have come up with some pretty creative methods for getting a book to stay open while my hands are occupied, involving other books, clamps, paper clidog eared pagesps—but they don’t always work. One time my book broke free from its restraints and landed in my food. But at least its spine was intact.

Bent page corners. After hearing a nice interview with Mary Oliver on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio program a few days ago, I decided to try Oliver’s poetry on for size. I’m poetry challenged; I find it by far the most difficult genre of literature to resonate with. But I liked what I heard her read during the interview very much so I ordered a couple used copies of her poetry volumes—advertised as “Like New”—from Amazon. One of them showed up in the mail very quickly with no marks or cracked spine. Good thing. But it has two dog-eared pages. Very Bad thing. more dog eared pagesThere should be a special circle of hell for people who fold the corners of pages over to mark their place—have such persons never heard of bookmarks or scraps of paper used as bookmarks? Persons in the dog-eared circle of hell would have their ears folded in half and laid flat by bibliophilic demons every day for eternity.

Clearly I have a number of book geek issues—and this is only a sampling. Thank goodness I live with a person who, at least to a certain extent, has learned to accommodate and even facilitate my peccadilloes. I remember, though, when I found out early in our relationship that she cracks the spines of paperbacks. It was almost a deal breaker.


Joy in a Minor Key


The readings from the Jewish scriptures today and last week are from the last chapters of Job, including a portion today that scholars say was added centuries after the main text. It reminded me of a post from a bit over a year ago–what can we learn from the “minor key” portions of our lives?

At some point early in their musical training, all serious musicians are introduced to the “circle of fifths,” a handy chart that maps out the complicated but fascinating relationships among the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, as well as the associations between the major and minor keys.I was fortunate to have Katrina Munn, a graduate of Julliard, as my piano teacher from age four to eleven—she was a stickler for theory and precision and had a large poster of the circle of fifths on the wall of her studio. I was immediately fascinated—it looked like a labyrinth or something out of The Lord of the Rings, and as I was gradually introduced to the twelve major keys, the twelve related minors, and their harmonic relationships I was able to trace geometrically on the chart the harmonies I had been hearing in my head for as long as I could remember.

Recently the following from Richard Powers’ Orfeo got me to thinking about the major and minor keys in a new way.

There’s joy in a minor key, a deep pleasure to be had from hearing the darkest tune and discovering you’re equal to it.

MajorMinor1A lot can be learned from the major and minor keys that is applicable to everyday life. Traditionally the major keys have been described as “bright, extroverted, upbeat” and so on, while the minor keys are “introspective, complex, sad” or even “depressing.” Yet the circle of fifths shows that each major has its relative minor that is literally only one note different—a note that makes all the difference. Powers, who is a classically trained musician, is noting something important about the minor keys—they are rich and evocative in ways with which the brighter and more popular majors cannot compete. Yet the dividing line between major and minor is razor thin—if we are to pay proper attention to the music of our lives, understanding how major and minor interweave is crucial.

I had the opportunity to explore this with “Living Stones,” the adult Christian education group that I lead after church once a month (and have written about in this blog)

Living Stones

last Sunday after the morning service. I was doing double duty, as I was also organist that morning,003 alternating with the organist emeritus every other week through the summer as the church searches for a new full-time music minister. The fifteen or so regulars have a wide range of experience with music (or lack of same), so I presumed no prior knowledge. Gathering in the choir stalls by the organ rather than in our usual location, I oriented them to the major/minor distinction by suggesting that in the cycle of liturgical seasons, Easter and Christmas are major key seasons while Advent and Lent are minor key seasons. We moved then to a listening exercise, as I played first My country“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” our closing hymn for the morning because of it being July 4th Sunday, in F minor rather than its original F major, then a representative minor key hymn, “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Thee,” in G major rather than its original G minor. As the Living Stoners compared the new keys to the hymn texts, they agreed that major is appropriate for the first hymn than minor and minor more appropriate to the second than major. Different texts require different tunes—and so it goes with the chapters and texts of our lives.

The Book of Job from the Hebrew Scriptures is a case in point. The story is familiar. Job, “a man blameless and upright . . . who feared God and shunned evil,” is the topic of conversation between God and Satan, “the accuser.” In response to God’s “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on the earth,” Satan replies “Well duh! You give him everything he wants and you have built a protective hedge around him.” In response to God’s agreeing to remove the hedge at Satan’s suggestion just to see what happens, Job’s flocks, crops, Job-wife1servants and children are swept away within six short verses and one of the greatest texts on the dynamic of suffering is underway.

The drama of Job is relentless, with his suffering unaddressed by his apparently well-meaning friends and his less than supportive wife. Underlying it all is Job’s insistence that his suffering and pain is not justified in any sense that he (or any other human being) can understand. It is clear that he will not “curse God and die,” as his wife advises him to do—his commitment to his God is unshakeable. “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him.” Job’s commitment, however, is neither passive nor facile. He wants answers and challenges a silent God to provide them. With very few exceptions, the Book of Job is entirely written in a minor key; the message of Job is that sometimes minor keys do not get resolved into major keys. Sometimes the text of one’s life demands a minor key; simply “waiting it out” or longing for it to be something it is not is to rob oneself of the richness and depth that only minor harmonies can provide.

0_21_0706_stockdaleWhen God finally does respond to Job’s questions and challenges, it is in a way that on the surface, at least, is entirely unsatisfactory to our contemporary sense of fairness and justice. God does not provide any reasons for Job’s misfortunes, nor does God explain himself. Rather, God makes clear in a lengthy soliloquy that he does not have to explain himself at all. As Admiral James Stockdale once described God’s response to Job, “I’m God and you’re not. This is my world—either deal with it or get out.”

It’s a tough message for our modern sensibilities, but is far closer to the reality of the world we find ourselves in than the stories we tell ourselves about “things working out in the end” or “justice will prevail.” Whatever value there is in suffering cannot lie in hopes for its removal or resolution. Yet we continue to try. jobs-restorationThere is nothing hokier or more forced than to resolve a composition from a minor key to its accompanying major in the last measure of the piece. But this is precisely what we find at the end of Job. In the final verses of the last chapter, after Job has been subdued by the divine display of power and superiority, Job magically gets everything back—children, flocks, servants, lands—and even his useless “comforters” and unhelpful wife get told off by God. “And they lived happily ever after,” in other words. I learned from one of my theology colleagues a number of years ago that these closing verses are not in the oldest texts of Job, but were apparently added in several decades or even centuries later.

Why? I asked my group. Why would someone want to change the original minor key story of Job, resolving it to a major key in the last measure? “Because the original ending is too tough,” someone suggested. “Because people want to believe that the suffering has a point, that it is all for something,” another thought. Which makes the better story? The original or the one with the new ending? “The original is truer,” an eighty-something Living Stoner said. “People don’t come back. Things that you lose don’t return.” And she was right. If there is meaning in the minor key movements of my life’s symphony, it has to be in the movement, not because the final movement will return to a joyful major key. The major keys ride the waves, but the minor keys plumb the depths, depths that give a life its richness and texture.lean forward As Richard Powers suggests, there is joy and satisfaction to be found in the midst of the suffering, a joy that is largely unavailable in any other context.

A few months ago, MSNBC (the only 24-7 news channel I can stomach, and even that not for very long) had a new ad campaign: Lean Forward. Out of context, it made little sense. Lean forward to what? But in the minor keys of our lives, “lean forward” or “lean in” is far better advice than “hold your breath and wait it out.” The purpose of the minor keys is not to provide a temporary alternative to majors. Rather, as another ad campaign many years ago suggested, sometimes minor harmonies are the most important threads in “the fabric of our lives.”

Sam’s Inn

What would you call a friend who is as unpredictable as the weather, who shows up unexpectedly behind the scenes to arrange things in your favor on occasion but who never seems to be around at crunch time? What is the right word to describe an acquaintance who you are sure can help in difficult situations and never is available, but who also has just the right word or advice when you are least expecting it? Unreliable? A godsend? Disappointing? Big_Bird_-_Library_of_Congress,_Living_Legends,_Award_&_Honors,_2000[1]I just call her Big Bird. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into the imagination of a six and a nine-year-old accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street an unforgettable image of the divine. My sons are now in their thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves,” specifically the Holy Spirit, still is Big Bird. We have shared the nickname with many friends over the years and it seems just random and strange enough to fit. She was a topic of discussion at lunch the other day.

As the agreed upon time for lunch with our friend Marsue came and went and Marsue did not arrive, I asked Jeanne “should I give her a call?” We were meeting in an unfamiliar part of town at a restaurant none of us had eaten at before—Sams InnSam’s Inn—an establishment chosen on the recommendation of a friend and because it is relatively close to where Marsue was dropping her husband Robin off for a VFW lunch that she was happy to escape by hanging out with Jeanne and me. Answering on the fourth ring, Marsue said she was running late and had just dropped Robin off. As I helped her try to figure out how to get from her current location to the restaurant, she hung up. Oh well, I thought—if she doesn’t show up in ten minutes I’ll call her back and give the phone to the waitress or hostess to provide directions.

Five minutes later, in walked Marsue with a story. When I had been talking with her on the phone, she was buzzing through a school zone at least twenty miles over the posted speed limit trying to make up lost time. She met a town cop coming the other way, he did a U-turn with his lights on, and soon she was sitting on the side of the road with a police officer approaching her window. pulled over“You know why I pulled you over?” he asked; “I know, I’m was going too fast. I’m late meeting friends for lunch at Sam’s Inn, and I’m not sure where it even is. Can you help me out?” Switching quickly from law enforcement to GPS mode, the officer assured her she wasn’t far from the restaurant and gave her directions, ending with “please be careful with your speed—this is a school zone.” He didn’t write her a ticket.

As we caught up on each other’s past few weeks, a common theme emerged—unexpected challenges that have upset our apple carts of plans. My sabbatical so far has been built around getting into the best shape of my life on my new bicycle, so I tip over and break my ankle. Jeanne was “celebrating” one year of unemployment that day; other than a welcome eight weeks of work in August and September, the job applications of a highly qualified and experienced professional have been met with the sound of crickets chirping.Marsue Marsue, a supposedly “retired” Episcopal priest, is trying to figure out what’s next. All three of us are dedicated persons of faith—none of us have a clue as to what God might be thinking. But then there are little incidents like Marsue’s with the policeman—if you’ve been doing this faith thing long enough, you will be able to tick off any number of situations like that. Instances where, out of the blue, something gratuitous reminds you that something bigger is going on.

As if on cue, Jeanne offered another example of divine randomness. We are counting our dollars more carefully than usual because of her unemployment, so when she found an online class on healing that she wanted to take, she wasn’t sure where the $350 course fee was going to come from. Until she remembered that for a while she had been squirreling extra money here and there, including the money she received in cards for her June birthday, in an envelope in the hutch cabinet (she calls it a “breakfront”—a Brooklyn thing, I think). Her remembrance was that there was $325 in the envelope, and obviously we could find the extra $25 somewhere (I could lay off Dunkin’ Donuts for a couple of weeks, for instance). Upon further investigation she discovered that in addition she needed to purchase $35 of text books, pushing the total to $385. So now an extra $60 was needed. Upon checking the envelope, KilianJeanne discovered not the $325 she expected but—you guessed it–$385.

I know, normal human beings are inclined to call such events “chance” or “coincidence.” But the three of us around the table that afternoon at Sam’s Inn have long experience with what the poet Kilian MacDonnell calls “Our preposterous God with a preposterous love.” I noted that this is so typically Big Bird. She can unexpectedly fund an online course perfectly but seems incapable of finding Jeanne suitable employment. She sends Marsue directions to the restaurant by way of a policeman who has stopped her for speeding. She can fill my days and weeks with all sorts of intimations of holiness and yet is too busy to prevent my ankle from being broken when my bicycle harmlessly tips over with me on it. The life of faith I am familiar with has as many What the Fuck?? moments as periods touched by grace. This is a constant reminder that God does not work according to our expectations. I need to learn how, as our rector described in his sermon last Sunday, how to recognize apparently bad news as part of the gospel’s good news, news that seldom reveals itself as we expect. Mary OliverMary Oliver’s poem “I Go Down to the Shore” captures it perfectly.

I go down to the shore in the morning / and depending on the hour the waves / are rolling in or moving out, / and I say, oh, I am miserable, / what shall— / what should I do? And the sea says / in its lovely voice: / Excuse me, I have work to do.

Tapestries or Quilts

I am currently leading a discussion group focused, among other things, on the inadequacy of traditional religious structures to address real spiritual hunger. The foundation that recruited me to form this group provided us with the text to discuss, and the group members are not impressed. Their common complaint is that the book is haphazardly and randomly constructed, with little apparent concern for underlying theme or connecting threads. Reading it is like going through a buffet line, piling several random items on top of each other, and calling it a healthy meal.

I concur with my colleagues’ critique–I’m as interested in well constructed texts as anyone. But are our lives not often cobbled together in similar, seemingly arbitrary ways? My group’s concerns reminded me of an essay I posted three years ago today, one of my first essays on this blog. Are our lives more like woven tapestries or patchwork quilts?

My father was an autodidact, a learned man with little formal education beyond high school. He was a voracious reader of eclectic materials, usually books with God and spirituality at their center of gravity. He often was reading a half-dozen or more books at once, all stuffed into a briefcase that could barely hold the strain. During the times he was home, a regular part of his schedule would be to take off in the dim light before sunrise in the car on his way to a three or four-hour breakfast at one of the many favorite greasy-spoon breakfast establishments within a fifty mile radius. While at breakfast, he would spread his reading materials in a semicircle around the plate containing whatever he was eating, and indulge in the smorgasbord of spiritual delights in front of him. He used colored pencils from a 12-pencil box to mark his books heavily with hieroglyphics and scribblings that were both wondrous and baffling. It was not until I was going through some of his daily notebooks a few weeks after he died that I came across the Rosetta key to his method.

He often would marvel, either to the family or (more often) to his “groupies” listening in rapt attention during a “time of ministry,” at the wonders of watching God take bits and pieces of text, fragments from seemingly unrelated books, and weave them together into an unexpected yet glorious tapestry of brilliance and insight. God, mind you, was doing the weaving—Dad’s role apparently was to spread the books in front of him and simply sit back and see what percolated to the top, in an alchemical or Ouija-board fashion. God, of course, did stuff for Dad all the time. God even told Dad where to go for breakfast and what to order. This, for a son who had never heard God say anything to him directly, was both impressive and intimidating.

From my father I have inherited a voracious appetite for books, which is a good thing. Once several years ago, in the middle of an eye exam my new ophthalmologist asked me “do you read very much?” Laughing, I answered “I read for a living!” Actually, it’s worse than that. I recall that in the early years of our marriage Jeanne said that I don’t need human friends, because books are my friends. At the time she meant it as a criticism; now, twenty-five years later, she would probably say the same thing but just as a descriptive observation, not as a challenge to change. Just in case you’re wondering, over time I have become Jeanne’s book procurer and have turned a vivacious, extroverted people person into someone who, with the right book, can disappear into a cocoon for hours or even days. Score one for the introverts. But Jeanne was right—I take great delight in the written word. I’ve always been shamelessly profligate in what I read. My idea of a good time, extended over several days or weeks, is to read whatever happens to come my way along with what I’m already reading, just for the fun of it. As one of my favorite philosophers wrote, “it’s a matter of reading texts in the light of other texts, people, obsessions, bits of information, or what have you, and then seeing what happens.”

I admit that my bibliophilic ways sound a lot like what my father was doing at breakfast. I’ll go even further and admit that, despite the spookiness of Dad’s claim that God wove disparate texts together for him into a tapestry of inspiration and insight, I know something about that tapestry. How to explain the threads with which I connect Simone Weil, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky and William James through Anne Lamott, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and P. D. James to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Annie Dillard, the second Isaiah, and Daniel Dennett? How to explain that an essay by the dedicated and eloquent atheist Richard Rorty provides me with just the right idea to organize a big project about spiritual hunger and searching for God? How to explain that a new novel by an author I never heard of (Muriel Barbery), which Jeanne bought for herself but passed on to me instead (“I think this is your kind of book”), was so full of beautiful characters and passages directly connected to what I’m working on that it brought chills to my spine and tears to my eyes? Is God weaving tapestries for me too?

Maybe. But I think a different sort of textile is being made. The process of throwing texts together and seeing what happens is not really like weaving a seamless tapestry at all. It’s more like sewing together a very large, elaborate, polychrome quilt in which the pieces and patches can be attached, separated, contrasted, compared, in the expectation that something unusual and exciting just might emerge. Why can’t Freud and Anselm have a conversation with each other? Why can’t Aquinas and Richard Dawkins get into a real debate without knowing ahead of time who is supposed to or has to win? In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot writes “these fragments have I shored against my ruin.” I’ve never liked that, since it sounds as if T. S. can’t think of anything better to do with the pieces of stuff lying around the wasteland than to use them as props shoring up his wobbly whatevers. Try making a quilt.

I suspect that the transcendent makes many demands on us, most of which we have only fuzzy intimations of. This one I’m pretty sure of, though: truth is made, not found. The divine emerges from human creative activities in ways we’ll never recognize if we insist that God must be found as a finished product. As a wise person once wrote, “The world is not given to us ‘on a plate,’ it is given to us as a creative task.”

The “F” Word

There’s nothing like unexpectedly dropping an f-bomb on a bunch of students. But it’s even better when one of them does it. I teach at a Catholic college, so one would think that the students would be used to talking about the f-word—we Baptists certainly were when I was growing up. F-wordBut dropping an f-bomb in class, even when the context is entirely appropriate and the word is germane, is like farting in church. Everyone clams up, an uncomfortable atmosphere fills the room, and no one wants to deal with it. And I am presented with, as professors like to say, a “teachable moment.”

Mark Twain once defined “faith” as “believing something you know ain’t true.” Strangely, I find that my largely parochial school educated students think of faith in this way. Faith is opposed to reason, to logic, to evidence, yet is the foundation of what they have been told are the most important truths imaginable. Things believed by faith are certain and beyond question; I’m reminded of the bumper sticker on a number of vehicles in the church parking lot of my youth: “bumper stickerGod Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.” But in my estimation just about all of the above “facts” about faith are false. I agree with Anne Lamott when she writes that the opposite of faith is not doubt—the opposite of faith is certainty. But that’s not something I can just drop early into a conversation about the f-word. I have to build up to it.

A good place to start is with another excellent insight from Anne Lamott—faith is a verb, not a noun. It’s an activity, not a thing. So what exactly are we doing when we are “faithing”? I use a good technique that I learned in grammar school—“Somebody use the word “faith” in a sentence that has absolutely nothing to do with religion, church, or God.” That’s a temporary challenge for many of my students, but pretty soon someone says something like “I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will not collapse.” Or “I have faith that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year.” I suggest “I have faith that when the time comes, my friend John will make the right decision.” All of these sentences are still treating faith as a noun rather than a verb, as something you have rather than something you do, but progress is being sox

“Do you know that the chair isn’t going to collapse?” I ask. “Are you certain that the Red Sox will make the playoffs next year?” (especially since they have finished in last place in their division three of the last four seasons, with a world championship in the other season). “Well . . .no.” So you’re just guessing? In both cases, the answer there is “no” as well. Apparently faithing is an activity that occupies the vast territory between certainty and guesswork—the knowledge territory in which we human beings spend a great deal of our time. Although my student can’t prove that her chair won’t collapse in the next minute, she can refer to past experience to support her faith claim—she’s seen human beings in thousands of such chair situations in her life and has never seen a chair-fail yet. Red Sox fans can point to the positive second half of the season after an embarrassingly abysmal first half, the promise of three or four brand new young players, a shake-up in upper management, and so on. faithingMy faith in my friend John is not blind—I’m convinced that the phrase “blind faith” is an oxymoron—it is based on years of observing his careful consideration of important alternatives before making a decision. When removed from the confines of religion, faithing turns out to be a perfectly natural activity—the activity of moving past evidence in hand toward a conclusion for which there is not complete evidence. Faith is the activity of inching past probability toward something stronger (although the goal is never certainty).

With this in hand, we move to my go-to definition of faith: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My Catholic students who are largely ignorant of what the Bible contains are often surprised to find out that this is from the Book of Hebrews, the first verse of Hebrews 11 which is sometimes called “the honor roll of faith.” They are even more surprised to find that the definition says nothing about God, religion, heaven, hell, or any of the other accompanying items they are used to seeing in the entourage of a definition of faith. Instead, it is an excellent summary of what we have been discussing about faithing as a normal human activity.  We faith when we want to provide substance to something important that we are hoping for (the chair will hold me up, the Red Sox will make the playoffs, my friend will make a good decision). All of the items hoped for are “unseen” because they either have not happened yet or cannot be proven true with certainty. rene-descartesFaithing fills in the gaps between evidence and what we hope for, realizing that further evidence over time may force us to adjust our hopes or discard them altogether.

In one of his letters, Rene Descartes tells the story of a king who refused to eat anything unless he could be convinced with certainty that it was not poisoned. And he starved to death. Some things—most things—cannot be established with certainty. Sometimes we just need to faith our way along. Faith in the realm of things divine is a case in point. I cannot know with certainty anything about God or even that God exists. But this does not mean that I am guessing or shutting down my brain when I faith. I can point to any number of past and present experiences that I count as evidence from which to take a faith leap in the direction of the divine. As I wrote in a Facebook discussion not long ago, facebook“Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” Faith in the spiritual realm involves applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. I can’t prove it, but neither am I guessing.


Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

Mark’s gospel from last Sunday  includes a classic “fine print” experience. A young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.


But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.


You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.