Category Archives: literature

office hours

A Modest Proposal

a modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame anonymously published a short work entitled A Modest Proposal, one of the great works of satire in the Western literary tradition. The complete title of Swift’s essay is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick; in it, Swift in apparent seriousness proposes that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a matter-of-fact style that can easily convince the reader, for a while at least, that he is perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landlords.

I love satire and frequently use it in class to great effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average college undergraduate can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet. I am currently team-teaching a colloquium called Markets and Morals—our text for lecture and seminar a couple of weeks ago was Michael Sandel’s recent book SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy, a fascinating investigation of how in our contemporary world market economies are inexorably turning into market societies. A market society is one in which values, ideas and practices that have traditionally been outside the realm of the dollar sign and commodification have begun to be treated as just another thing to be bought and sold. From marriage arrangements to human life, everything has become a commodity for sale.

Tucked among tons of real-life case studies, Sandel provides some useful tools for identifying “market creep.” Trust your intuitions, he says—if your gut tells you, for instance, that there is something wrong with employers like Walmart buying life insurance policies on their unsuspecting employees then cashing in big when the employees die, or if you think there’s something morally amiss with high-powered special interest groups such as congressional hearing queuebig oil hiring people to stand for hours in line to secure coveted seats in congressional or Supreme Court hearings (and thus doing an end run on the democratic, “first come, first served” process), chances are that there is either a problem of fairness or a problem of corruption in play. Either something that has traditionally been thought of in egalitarian terms has suddenly become for sale to the highest bidder (fairness problem), or a value that we cherish is being eroded and cheapened as it gets sucked into the market vortex (corruption problem).

Rather than use Sandel’s own examples (the majority of which you can watch him discuss with various audiences on YouTube—the guy’s a rock star phenomenon in the world of academia), I decided to develop my own case study situated directly within the context I share with my students twice per week: classroom and course dynamics. I introduced my “modest proposal” as follows:

It has been my practice for many years when assigning students a paper in a class to offer my time and expertise for reviewing up to two pages worth of double-spaced rough draft material up to five days before the paper is due. I will read and comment on the rough draft material and send it back within 24 hours of receiving it. My experience is that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft commenting services earn on the average a grade that is five points higher than those who do not.

Since in any given semester I have anywhere from 60 to 75 students for whom I am the sole grader and there are times (such as around midterm) when a written assignment is due in all of my classes, it is often difficult to keep up with the rough draft demands, particularly when many students send their rough draft material to me just before the deadline. I always read this material on a “first come, first served” basis; it is undoubtedly the case that I am not able to pay as much attention to each student’s rough draft material as I would like because of the pressure to return the material with comments in time for it to be helpful in writing the final draft. office hoursThose students who are unable or unwilling to start their papers early are at a disadvantage in terms of getting my full attention and expertise when I am swamped close to the deadline.

A similar problem arises during my scheduled office hours during the days leading up to the due date for a major assignment or exam. A line of a dozen or more students is a frequent occurrence outside my door. Often I am not able to see everyone because my office hours end and I have to go to class or a meeting; often students who have waited for a long time have to leave before seeing me because of a class or another appointment (or because they get sick of waiting). So I wish to make a modest proposal for your consideration:

QUEUE THE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

At the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:Preferred access

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

I have said on occasion over the years that teaching is often like acting—a convincing performance is everything. On this particular morning, I was good; the students were unaware that a good deal of the “data” I used in the setup for my proposal was made up on the fly. For instance, I have no evidence that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft-reading services earn five points higher in their final grade than those who don’t. That’s an educated guess, primarily based on my observation over the years that the students who do send me rough draft material are the A-/B+ students who probably are the only ones in class who don’t need my input and suggestions. office hoursFurthermore, I don’t know if I have ever had more than two students waiting outside my door during office hours, even when a paper is due. In my proposal I am channeling people like my colleague across the hall in the philosophy department who often has more than a dozen students sitting on the floor waiting to see him. I would say I’m envious, but I’m not—I’m an introvert.

But I sold my modest proposal to my students with sincerity and a straight face, then asked them to discuss my proposal in small groups for ten minutes, both constructing an argument in favor and imagining what a critic might say. When we got back together, the conversation soon revealed that they had taken me seriously, and they were not amused. My proposal didn’t strike them as being quite as problematic as selling one’s children to rich people as snack food, but close. Stay tuned next week for A Modest Proposal—Part Two; or why my time should not be for sale. Until then, what do you think of my modest proposal?

LIBBS

Come In, and Come In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Just Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

script_poster_5_isaiah_585B15DTo loose the bonds of injustice

To undo the thongs of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free

To share your bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless and poor into your house

To cover the naked when you see them

Try doing that for a while and see what happens.

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

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

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

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

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

When It’s Over

Although I regularly find myself immersed in things medieval with a bunch of freshmen around this time every year, I am not a medievalist. I must confess that I often find medieval literature, philosophy, theology, and just about everything else medieval largely boring, inscrutable, or both. hellStill, it’s hard to go wrong in the classroom studying Dante’s Inferno with eighteen-year-olds. Sin, violence, torture—what could be better? Is suicide worse than lying? Is adultery less problematic than treason? How do gluttony and simony compare? Does sloth trump cowardice? Great discussion material.

Every time I descend into Hell with the Pilgrim and Virgil, my attention is drawn to something different. This time I took special notice of the first bunch of folks Dante encounters. Squeezed into Canto III, Dante - La Divina Comedia - Canto VI - Doré - Descontexto-2between a trio of threatening beasts and the virtuous pagans, we find “those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise,” lives so non-descript that neither Paradise nor Hell wants them. These are “wretches who had never truly lived” whose sins or faults don’t even rise to the level of getting a name. Call them the hello-my-name-is-whatever“Whatevers” who never committed themselves to anything. Their actions were neither good enough to earn praise nor bad enough to require mercy or justice. These are “wretches who never truly lived; the world will not record their having been there.” The Whatevers remind me of the Laodicean church in the Book of Revelation, about which God says “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spit you out of my mouth.”thoreau1a

It was the fear of spending eternity in the land of the Whatevers that motivated Henry David Thoreau to shake things up in his life. He begins Walden with “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreaus_Walden_BandB_Lincoln_Massachusetts_1120A couple of summers ago Jeanne and I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast—furnished with a wonderful hostess, hundreds of feeding birds and at least a half-dozen Chihuahuas—literally across the road from Walden Pond. On the other side of the lake, about a half-mile from where we were staying, Jeanne and I got to see the foundation and stone chimney of the tiny hovel Thoreau built for himself when he went to the woods. But Thoreau had the luxury to go to the woods in the first place, hardly a wilderness, since Walden Pond is only three or four miles from Concord, where Henry David could get a free meal at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house any time he chose. 400000000000000220639_s4These are luxuries that most of us do not have. Is it possible to learn to live deliberately without removing oneself from real life?

In his very interesting novel Putting Away Childish Things, theologian Marcus Borg frequently drops favorite book titles, excerpts and poems into the lives of his various characters. One of the poems is Mary Gordon’spsu11_gord_9780307377425_aup-528f73a7869d8ffa19e2691985af84ff573f6a23-s6-c30 “When Death Comes,” portions of which resonate with me more strongly than Thoreau’s more famous lines on the same theme.

When death comes

Like the hungry bear in autumn;

When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

To buy me, and snaps the purse shut . . . 

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness . . . 

When it’s over, I want to say; all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. 

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

If I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

Or full of argument. 

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

            I have yet another birthday coming this week, a good reason to wonder how I’m doing with this business of “making my life extraordinary,” as deadpoetsaltMr. Keating challenges his young students to do in my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society. On the first page of Walden, Thoreau writes that he wants to “suck the marrow out of life,” something that never sounded particularly attractive to me. “Suck the marrow out of life” sounds a lot like “Be all that you can be,” or “Go for the gusto”—a call to fill my life with as many various and diverse experiences as possible, never stopping for a breath until I don’t have any breaths left. I guess I’m not the “marrow-sucking” kind of person. An extraordinary life need not be bursting at the seams with things purchased, places visited, or frequent flyer miles—although there is nothing wrong with any of these. be where you areMy mantras for an extraordinary life have become “Be where you are” and “Do what you are doing.” Pay attention. Be aware. In the busyness of the day don’t forget that each moment in class might be the moment that transforms someone’s life. Take notice that every “like” clicked on my blog means that someone, somewhere, read what I wrote and liked something in it. Be thankful every day for the gift of spending so many years of my life married to an extraordinary human being. Don’t ignore the multiple signs that my sons have become wonderful men.

Those who profess the Christian faith, of course, have all sorts of stories concerning what happens “when its over.” But as I’ve noted on a number of occasions on this blog, I have never found the promise of eternal life to be particularly compelling when compared to the question of how to live this life. The older I get the more I find myself drawn, when thinking about my mortality, to Psalm 90. I first consciously encountered this Psalm five years ago during noon prayer with a bunch of Benedictine monks; the time must have been right, because it has wormed its way deeper into me ever since. grass_dark_wallpaper-hdAfter spending the first several verses reminding us that humans are “like the grass; in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered,” the Psalmist drops the hammer. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” imagesThanks for bumming me out with the truth. But the suggested response in verse twelve makes all the difference. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” I’ve come to realize that numbering my days is not about trying to guess how many I have left. Rather, it is about treating each day as the unique gift that it is—that opens the door toward wisdom. Be where you are. Do what you are doing.

When it’s over, I will have been more than a visitor to this world if I have taken attentive ownership of the small piece of it given me during my lifetime. I only ask what the Psalmist asks at the end of Psalm 90: “May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.” And please deliver me from the land of the “Whatevers.”

ring of gyges

Someone Would Know

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

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

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

floating booksWho would know?

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

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

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

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

A Trip to Middle Earth

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

empty bookshelvesJustin, who would know?

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

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

No.

WHY NOT?

Because someone would know.

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

Who is going to know??!!

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

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

No.

WHY NOT??

Because someone would know.

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

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

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

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

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

I would know.

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

puppet[1]

The Designer God Project

Jean-Antoine Houdon ~ Voltaire[1]Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In truth, we invent God all the time, often with seeming disregard as to whether the God we have invented actually exists or not. Anne Lamott suggests that we can be pretty sure that we have created God in our own image if it turns out that God likes all the people and things that we like and dislikes all the people and things that we dislike. So how am I, or how is any God-believer, supposed to tell whether the God I believe in exists in reality, or exists simply as a figment of my self-obsessed imagination? I’m having the opportunity to explore these issues with my students early this semester, and the process has been both dynamic and illuminating.

The texts for an early seminar last semester in the interdisciplinary program I both teach in and direct was the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis and the first twenty-four of Exodus.gen-ex[1] It is often a challenge to get freshmen to discuss anything in seminar in the early weeks of their first semester; getting a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, most of whom are products of twelve years of parochial education, to talk about the Bible is even more difficult. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have a lot of tricks. After assuring them that no one has ever been struck dead in any of my classes for speaking honestly about their reactions to what they’ve read in a “sacred text,” a few brave souls began to admit that the God of these Old Testament stories is quite different from the God they had been taught to believe in. This God frequently seems insecure, petty, unfair, and arbitrary—what’s up with that??

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a thought experiment was in order. I said “Okay, if you don’t like the God of Genesis and Exodus, let’s work for a while on what we do want God to be and to act like. Let’s create a ‘Designer God’—you get to create God from scratch. Write in your notebooks for ten minutes on the following topic: Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics. Come up with three characteristics and explain why any God worth believing in would have to have them. Go.”

After the writing portion of the thought experiment, the students compared notes and found that the God they had just designed individually was pretty similar from person to person. As they offered their favored divine characteristics, I wrote the list on the board:

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

Loving (at least to those who deserve to be loved)

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

As we discussed selected characteristics on the list, a number of issues were revealed.

Fairness and justice: The biggest problem the students had with the Old Testament God is that this is a God who plays favorites. 172663381_640[1]Any God worth believing in should treat everyone the same. “Why?” I asked. Do all of you treat everyone the same? Do you like the seven billion plus people in the world the same? Do you even like the few dozen people who you know really well the same? They had to admit that they didn’t. “Then why do you expect God to do something that you make no attempt to do?” I wondered. The students struggled for an answer other than that God is God and we’re not—the divine should be held to a higher standard than we are, although where that standard would come from other than God they weren’t sure.

images[6]Love and forgiveness: At first, the idea was that any God worth believing in should be loving. Period. “Even mass murderers, drug dealers and child abusers?” I asked. Well, several thought, we need to qualify this love thing a bit. God should love those who deserve it, or those who believe in God, but not everyone indiscriminately. Love that is equally spread everywhere without qualification is cheapened somehow. God’s love is transactional, in other words. I do this, God responds with love.

Power: Omnipotence turned out to be a big one—no God worth believing in is wimpy or weak. “But God in Genesis and Exodus is powerful and has no problem exhibiting that power on a regular basis. And you didn’t like thatomnipotent[1],” I reminded them. As it turned out, Designer God should be powerful but should not be all about using that power all the time. “When is it appropriate for God to use that divine power?” “Whenever I or my group is in trouble or needs something” was the most common response. So you want God to be like a 9-1-1 operator or a lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That didn’t sound right, but maybe so. That led to another Designer God must-have trait.

Dependability: God needs to “be there” was the way that many students put it. “Dependable” and “trustworthy” were synonyms in this discussion. “Being there” means on call, though—the students clearly were not interested in a proactive God that demanded much of them. When things are going badly, listen up and answer my prayers. When things are going well, leave me the hell alone. No-Micromanage-150x150[1]The students were largely in agreement when I reframed this trait as a requirement that God not be a micro-manager. An overall plan for my life is fine, but I want to have a great deal of choice in terms of how I choose to find out about and pursue that plan (even freedom not to follow that plan if I so choose).

As we entered the last half hour of seminar, I asked everyone to take a mental step back and look at the list of Designer God characteristics that we had been discussing. 1834269-a-macro-of-santa-claus-face[1]Truth be told, they looked like the characteristics of a combination of a non-interfering Santa Claus and my students’ parents on a good day. Or the personality traits of the pleasant, vanilla God they had been taught to believe in. The question to ask, I suggested “What evidence is there that the God you have just designed actually exists?” Is there any evidence that these are the character traits of the divine, or are these simply a projection of what we want to believe in? A careful and clear consideration of the world we actually live in reveals that for every piece of evidence supporting the existence of the Designer God, an equally obvious piece of evidence suggests either the Designer God’s non-existence, or—perhaps more challenging—that whatever God is, God is something quite mysterious, exhibiting characteristics not on our list, and well outside our comfort zones. puppet[1]The Designer God Project was a two-hour exercise in creating God in our own image. And maybe that’s where most of us would like to stay. We’re like the Israelites in Exodus who get the shit scared out of them when God actually talks to them directly. They are very uncomfortable with the noise, the lightening, the fire, and the obvious power. Their response? “Moses, you go talk to God and tell us what God wants. We can deal with you, but don’t want to deal with that.”

The writer of Hebrews suggests that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Something created in my own image is far more comfortable, predictable, and manageable. Forrest-Gump1[1]The uncomfortable thing about adventuring with a real God rather than hanging out with a projection of myself is that it opens the door to continual growth and surprise and blows the doors off my comfort zone. Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

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.