Category Archives: movies

Is Democracy Overrated?

It is Memorial Day, a great day to honor those who have made sacrifices over the years, including the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, to protect our freedoms. It is also a good day to consider how well we are living out the freedoms that these sacrifices were made for.

house of cardsJeanne and I are anxiously awaiting the release of Season of Three of House of Cards on DVD in July (we don’t do the streaming thing). On this Memorial Day I am thinking about politics; in one of the early second-season episodes, then Vice President Frank Underwood (played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey), fresh off another policy victory energized by skillful manipulation and lying, turns toward the camera for one of his patented asides to the insider audience. “I’m the second most powerful man in the country without a single vote being cast in my favor. Democracy is so overrated!”

senateFrank knows, of course, that technically the United States is not a democracy—it is far too big for that. It is a representative republic, in which eligible voting citizens elect representatives who then cast votes on behalf of those who elected them in legislative bodies from the local to national level. But this doesn’t dilute Frank’s intended point, which is that what matters in politics is power, manipulation, who you know, and money. This is true in any sort of government, since all forms of government are run by human beings, creatures motivated by self-interest and greed more than anything else.

lit.aristotlepolitics.coverRepublicFrank’s point puts him in good company. Plato’s and Aristotle’s Republic and Politics are respectively two of the greatest works of political philosophy in the Western tradition, and even though both Plato and Aristotle were thoroughly familiar with the Athenian experiments in democracy that we look back on favorably, each were highly critical of this form of government. When Plato lists various forms of government from worst to best in the Republic, he ranks democracy as next to worst, only slightly better than tyranny.

Socrates-on-trialThere are many reasons for these great philosophers’ rejection of our favorite form of government, some of which were undoubtedly personal. Plato’s mentor Socrates, remember, was convicted and condemned to death by a jury of 501 of his Athenian peers in a straightforwardly democratic fashion—and Plato never forgave either Athens or its ludicrously misguided form of government. A generation later, when Aristotle found himself on the wrong side of the political landscape in Athens, he left town immediately, reportedly commenting “I do not intend to let Athens sin against philosophy twice.” alexander-aristotle-grangerAristotle ended up going north to Macedonia where he was hired as tutor to a young man who would soon become one of the greatest tyrants the world has even seen—Alexander the Great.

Although their philosophical problems with democracy were many, Plato and Aristotle agreed that democracy’s deepest flaw is that it is built on a serious misreading of human nature. Democracy’s unique calling card is its openness to treating all eligible citizens as if they are all equally qualified to participate in making political decisions, an openness that is rooted in the bizarre assumption that these citizens are fundamentally the same in some important and relevant way that qualifies them for participation. This notion of fundamental human equality is so misguided that it would be laughable, say Plato and Aristotle, were it not that the effects of taking this notion seriously are so problematic.

bbcsmDoes it really make sense to invite the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to choose political leaders along with those far better suited by education, class, and abilities to do so? No more than it would make sense to invite a senator into the bakery or butcher shop to bake pastries or cut up a side of beef. There is an obvious hierarchy of skills and abilities, both physical and mental, among human beings and it makes obvious sense that a working society should identify these strengths and weaknesses efficiently so that each person can do what she or he is best suited for. This is why Plato ranks aristocracy—the rule of the aristos or the “best”—as the best form of government. Democracy is built on the idea that since all human beings are fundamentally the same, each of us can legitimately consider ourselves equally qualified for everything, including choosing our leaders. To which Plato and Aristotle say “BullCarter Fordshit.”

I remember facing these issues clearly in November 1976 as I walked into a polling booth in Santa Fe, New Mexico to cast my vote in my first Presidential election—Carter vs. Ford. As many first-time voters, I was dedicated to being the most informed voter in the country that election cycle. And it was a tough choice, much more difficult than any of the nine Presidential elections in which I have voted since. I had decided, after much thought, to vote for Carter a few days before the election and did so with pride on the first Tuesday of November. elephants and donkeysThe polling place was the elementary school just a couple of blocks down the street from the house we were renting; as I walked home after voting, I started having disturbing thoughts. What if some fool who had not spent one second thinking about or studying up on the issues followed me into the voting booth and voted for Ford rather than Carter because he liked elephants more than donkeys? What if my uncle, jesusvotesrepublican1who always votes straight Republican because he thinks Jesus was a Republican has already cancelled my vote out? This sucks! Why should some uninformed boob’s vote count as much as my vote wrapped in intelligence and insight counts? Whose stupid idea was this “one person, one vote” thing? Exactly what Plato and Aristotle want to know.

Over the succeeding years I have had many opportunities to tell this story to a classroom of students and to share my proposed solution. Voting should be considered as an earned privilege for eligible persons, not as a right. Citizens of an eligible age, if they choose to vote, should be required to pass an eligibility quiz at the polling place—say a 70% on questions based on current issues and events as well as testing for basic knowledge of how government works—before entering the booth. I often tell my students that a liberally educated person has to earn the right to have an opinion. This would simply be a real application of that truth. I’m not saying that the quiz should be as demanding as what immigrants are required to pass for citizenship—how many natural-born citizens could pass that—but something between that much knowledge and total ignorance is not too much to ask for.

Do You Have What It Takes to Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?

My students, by the way, almost always think by a slight margin that this is a good idea. Those who don’t often raise questions like “who is going to construct the quiz?’ to which I reply “I will.”

The only reason to favor democracy in its various forms over other forms of government is the equality thing. If, notwithstanding Aristotle, Plato and the vast majority of political minds historically over the centuries, we truly believe that all persons share a fundamental equality so deep and definitive that it trumps the whole host of differences staring us straight in the face, then democracy is an experiment that deserves our continuing, energetic commitment and support. JeffersonBut simply saying that everyone gets to vote regardless of race, gender, social status, wealth, or other difference-making qualities is not a sufficient expression of our belief in fundamental equality. Not even close.

If we truly believe, in Thomas Jefferson’s memorable words, that “all persons are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” we dishonor that belief by thinking that everyone getting to vote covers the bases. If we truly believe that all persons possess equal dignity as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with social and political arrangements that deny equal access for vast numbers of our fellow citizens to the various structures intended to facilitate the flourishing of that dignity throughout a human life. It is fine once or twice per year on Memorial Day or Independence Day to celebrate our continuing American experiment in democracy with flag waving and parades, but real patriotism requires spending the other days of the year on the hard work of actually trying to make this experiment work.

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost this Sunday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

ubi_caritas_et_amor_wedding_sticker_template-re6fcd4ed855b45a3b33a27c44272a696_v9wf3_8byvr_210[1]

work in progress

There It Is

I did something a couple of weeks ago that I have not done in four years—present a paper at an academic conference. Conference papers are the bread-and-butter of the academic life when climbing the tenureconferences and promotion ladder, but I’ve never been a fan. A lot of posturing, name-dropping, networking and having papers read at you. I do not learn much just by listening to someone—I’m more a visual and tactile learner—but traditionally that’s been the way things go at conferences. Of course I usually forget that when I present a paper, I’m expecting my audience to appreciate mine far more than I enjoy theirs.

I have many colleagues and friends who like nothing better than giving papers at conferences. More power to them—I don’t. I have many conference pet peeves. The person who starts out her paper with work in progressThis is a work in progress. Really? How about finishing the work in progress, then presenting it at next year’s conference. Or the guy who says I’m going to just talk instead of reading a paper. Great—such people always ramble on past the allotted time, have no text to ground their blabbing, and generally sound like a Facebook post in person. Or the person who brought a thirty-page paper to be read in thirty minutes (humanly impossible), then with five minutes left summarizes the last seventeen pages with a brief paragraph then says that we can all talk about the full version of her argument over lunch. Fat chance.

A “truism” in the humanities end of academia is that when weighing the importance of various professional activities toward tenure and promotion, the following equation is a good rule of thumb: A published book is worth five blind refereed articles, and a blind refereed article is worth five conference papers. tenure and promotionI like this equation, because it favors those who prefer the introverted activity of writing over the extroverted activity of conference-hopping. When applying for promotion to full professor a number of years ago, I presumed I was in good shape in the research portion of the teaching/research/service trinity because with two books and a dozen or so articles in print, I was well over the standard publication bar for full professors at my college. After I recovered from the shock of a negative promotion decision, I got a member of the super-secret committee who makes such judgments to tell me (someone always will) what the fuck the problem was. My colleague revealed that questions were raised when discussing my promotion case about a surprising paucity of conference presentations. “Really?” I thought. “Don’t these people know how to do the research math?”

westmontI decided that the next year I would overwhelm the committee with conference presentation splendor by participating in as many conferences as my available faculty travel funds would allow. Ranging from Santa Barbara (beautiful) to Rochester (not so beautiful), I gave papers at five conferences during the next academic year, including a paper on a Saturday morning attended by four people—my wife, my father, and two guys who had agreed the night before to come to my paper if I would come to theirs on late Saturday afternoon when half of the conference attendees would be headed for the airport to fly home. But a vita does not specify how many people came to each paper on the presentation list, so how is the promotion committee going to know? Notre DameOne year after rejection, I received a unanimous vote for promotion. And I still remember that year with less fondness than most.

My most memorable academic conference was in the fall of 2008 when I was invited to give one of the keynote papers at a conference in Paris. This was my first ever trip to Europe, let alone Paris, so I took full advantage of the experience. street sceneThe conference was held at a hostel sort of establishment in southeastern Paris, only a couple of blocks from a major Metro station. Big Bird was with me, as my paper was scheduled first on the first morning of the three day affair. Starting with lunch that first day, I tirelessly walked or Louvrerode the Metro for 48 hours straight, stuffing in as many sights, sounds and tastes of the City of Lights as I could. Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the left bank (and the right), the little street where my favorite Zola novel is set, the Pantheon, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur—I saw them all and more. I don’t remember much about the conference, which is no surprise since I did not attend a single paper other than my own. Sacre CoeurBut I saw Paris—at least some of it. Beats the hell out of Rochester.

“So,” you ask, “what was the topic of the conference paper you just presented?” Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but I’ll tell you anyways. The conference was the annual colloquy of the American Weil Society, the one group of academics I enjoy hanging out with (although I have missed the colloquy two of the last three years). My paper was entitled “‘To Look until One Exists No More’: Iris Murdoch and Simone Weil on the Metaphysic and Ethic of Attention.” The title will undoubtedly have to be shortened when they make the movie version. The paper is a rather detailed look at the influence of Simone Weil on Iris Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction—it’s fine if you wait for the book and the movie. I wrote a good deal of this paper during my last sabbatical six years ago as part of early work on a book that never got written. But as I read the paper to an audience of twenty-five or so the other day, I took note of a vignette from Murdoch that summarizes a shift in perspective that has become central in my life—cezanneone that I barely took note of when I put it in the paper six years ago. Murdoch writes:

Rilke said of Cezanne that he did not paint “I like it,” he painted “There it is.” One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals, or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need.

How to engage things as they are rather than as I wish them to be. Remembering that I am not, after all, the center of the universe. Not to stifle the beauty and promise of a day by wrapping it in what Murdoch calls “the avaricious tentacles of the self.” These are newly learned lessons that I need to practice as I move into sabbatical in six weeks. I am glad for the reminder—even if it came at an academic conference.

How Do I Get There?

I was at a conference last Friday and Saturday to present a paper for the first time in five years, an opportunity to connect with old friends and colleagues while being reminded of why I really don’t like academic conferences (a blog post about that coming soon). The conference was held in a room that clearly had once been a chapel, containing a huge, round stained glass window on the front wall.VANCEPC - WIN_20150424_083221

From a distance I could not figure out the theme of the window–its central figure was a young man in full medieval armor, so I figured it was probably St. George without the dragon. Upon closer inspection, I read the text on the banner underneath the soldier: “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” “Oh my God!” I thought as I returned in memory to my childhood–“that’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress!”

As I followed the various scenes around Christian clockwise around the window starting at the bottom, I observed Christian’s struggle against various tempters and opponents on his journey from despair to heaven. PilgrimThis book, with beautiful illustrations, was a staple of my childhood home, ranking in my mind equally with the omnipresent picture Bible. My mother read it with me frequently–I’m pretty sure I hadn’t thought of it in forty years. But it came flooding back to me as the conference began–Pilgrim’s Progress introduced my at a very early age, more effectively than anything in scripture, to the most basic human questions that have obsessed me my whole life. Where do I come from? Where am I going? And, most pressingly, how do I get there?

220px-Dead_poets_society[1]In my all-time favorite movie, Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating teaches an important lesson about non-conformity to his students with a brief experiment. Bringing his young charges out of the classroom into a nearby courtyard, Keating directs three of the students to start walking around the perimeter. Although they start off at a different pace, soon all three are marching in lock step, with Keating singing an impromptu Marine-style tune and the other students clapping in accompaniment. Keating’s point is about conformity. Given the opportunity to walk uniquely and independently, the boys choose instead to fall into step with each other. Keating then evokes Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken ” to introduce the alternative of individual risk and choice.

IMV5BMTc2MzgwNjAzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTUyNjQzMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR7,0,214,317_[1]n another of my favorite movies, Young Frankenstein, director Mel Brooks inserts a hilarious version of a visual joke that’s older than the hills. After entering the Transylvanian castle where he is employed, Igor, played by Marty Feldman, says “walk this way” to Gene Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein, then sets off with a cane-assisted gait, dragging his lame leg and hunchbacked self down the stairs. Frankenstein follows him down the stairs with precisely the same limping and awkward gait, until after a few steps Igor turns around and says, “No, I mean follow me!”

The right way to walk, the best road to take, is on my mind a regularly as a teacher and just a normal human being. I frequently have the opportunity to introduce freshman students to Rene DescartesFrans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_Descartes[1], one of the most—arguably the most—influential philosophers in the Western tradition. I wrote my dissertation on Descartes twenty-five years ago and was told by my director that, at that time at least, more secondary literature had been written on Descartes than any other Western philosopher, including Plato and Aristotle. After his education was finished, Descartes in his early twenties decided to see the world. As many young men of his time, he chose to do this by signing up as a mercenary soldier for a local political power-broker, in Descartes’ case the Duke of Bavaria. One night while on campaign in the winter of 1619, Rene sought refuge and warmth in a small, stove-heated room.220px-Fouday-Poêle[1] That night he had three dreams or visions that changed his life. In the third dream, he opened a book of poetry and read the following line from the Roman poet Ausonias: Quod vitae sectabor iter? What path in life should I follow? Descartes’ self-interpretation of this dream produced his lifelong project—the unification of science and, ultimately, all knowledge on a foundation of unshakeable certainty. What path in life should I follow?

It is a great question, perhaps the best question, to get nineteen-year-old freshmen to consider. Strangely enough, I have found over the past few years that it is an equally important question for a now fifty-nine year old guy to ask.Marquette University Old Postcard[1] In many ways my professional path has been clear from the moment I chose in my early thirties to major in philosophy in graduate school and do my PhD at a Catholic university (to the dismay of my professors and mentors in my Master’s program at a secular state university). Twenty-five years later I have achieved some success as an academic scholar, great satisfaction in the classroom on a daily basis, and have never regretted walking down this particular academic professor path. But I’ve learned more and more over the past few years that there are many paths more important than the professional one. By defining myself for years by what I do, I found it very easy to forget about figuring out who I am.micah_prophet[1] As Christian found out in Pilgrim’s Progress, the path to wholeness and integrity as a human being is fraught with far more pitfalls and dangers than any path to professional success. The prophet Micah tells us that all God wants is for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. But what is the nature of this walk? What paths am I to take? These questions have become more and more pressing.

Yesterday was “Good Shepherd Sunday” with sheep/shepherd readings from both the Gospels and the Psalms. Psalm 23 is all about paths. We are told that the Lord our shepherd leads us in paths of righteousness and even is with us in our darkest hours, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Such a familiar text, however, can breed, if not contempt, at least complacency. Shepherds and sheep evoke a pastoral and peaceful image,sheep1[1] but very few of us have any knowledge of what the daily lives of shepherds and sheep are like. I got a peek into this life once over twenty years ago while we were living in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is a city of festivals, with every ethnic group imaginable getting its own weekend and festival. During a celebration of all things Scottish, Jeanne and I were with the boys at one of the many large parks that Milwaukee has to offer for Scottish Fest. The weather was appropriate, drizzly and foggy with bone-chilling dampness.

One of the events that day was a demonstration of sheep herding. Upon being let out of the penned enclosure in which they were being held, a flock of forty or fifty sheep immediately scattered to the four winds, running into the surrounding residential neighborhood faster than I ever imagined sheep could move their fat, wool-laden selves. The shepherd remained standing in the now-sheepless park, with two small border collies at his side, as residents of the surrounding streets wondered where the hell the sheep in their back yards came from. Then at a signal from the shepherd, the border collies leaped into action. After they disappeared into the neighborhood like lightning bolts, we could hear the dogs occasionally barking in the distance. Border Collie, 9 months old, rounding sheepWithin a few minutes, sheep started appearing from various directions, with the border collies running manically back and forth behind them, nipping at their heels and talking trash as only a dog can. Before long, all of the sheep were back in the pen and the border collies returned to the shepherd’s side. He bowed in acknowledgement of our applause, even though his four-legged buddies had done all of the work.

As a youngster I always bristled at the frequent Biblical comparison of human beings to sheep, because I knew (or had read at least) that sheep were both smelly and stupid. I appreciated our rector pointing out yesterday that in ancient times, sheep were highly regarded sources of milk, wool and companionship, only becoming mutton once they became too old to provide any of the other stuff. I still resist the analogy, though, and believe that there are many more fruitful paths available to me than to a sheep. 5800660559_37c6d20f29_z[1]But it is comforting to know that there is divine companionship and guidance on whatever path I find myself on, as well as to know that if I listen, all of those paths lead home to God.

Two years ago, a couple of weeks after the end of the semester, I headed for the Benedictine New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California for a week of silence, meditation, centering, writing, and sampling of monk-made fruit cake (their specialty, apparently). I heard about the place from an Episcopanapa_valley[1]l priest I met the year before at a “Wisdom school workshop.” His parish is in the California wine country; someday I hope to have a chance to connect with him. Strange where unexpected paths might show up—“Yea though I walk through the valley of Napa . . .” My week at the hermitage was perhaps the most fruitful week of writing I have ever experienced. I may not be a sheep, but I’m happy to take whatever guidance that happens to come my way.

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Pleasure and Joy in the Work

As the end of the semester draws near and my upcoming sabbatical looms, I’m wondering what it will be like to be out of the classroom for fifteen months. This post from a year ago makes me think that it’s not going to be easy.

Last Saturday, virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman was the featured guest on ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite NPR show. PerlmanHe was a fascinating interview, full of stories about the world of being a recognized genius in the midst of mere mortals and the world of classical music. Guest host Michael Pesca asked Perlman “which would be better—the second-best violinist playing the best violin in the world, or the second-best violin being played by the best violinist in the world?” “The second one,” Perlman answered immediately, illustrating with a story from the life of another violin virtuoso: A woman once approached MenuhinYehudi Menuhin after one of his concerts and said “your violin was beautiful tonight.” Menuhin held his Stradivarius to his ear and said “That’s funny . . . I don’t hear anything!”

I remember something one of my teaching models and mentors in my early years as an assistant professor once revealed that he told his advisees when they sought his input about which courses to take the next semester. “Go for the jockey, not the horse.imagesCAXUPZEMA mediocre horse ridden by a great jockey will do better in a race than Secretariat ridden by a mediocre jockey. Something taught by the best professor on campus will always be better than the greatest syllabus in the universe taught by a less stellar professor. Arrogant? Probably. But absolutely true. Over the years I have often said that students will choose “challenging but interesting” over “boring but easy” every time. I have seen enough counterexamples over the years to know that this is not a self-evident truth, but it is better than that—a time-tested hypothesis.

I have cultivated my teaching craft for twenty-five years now, all the time making it known to anyone who would listen that I have the greatest job in the world, that I actually consider teaching to be a vocation rather than a job, and that I consider myself to be inordinately privileged to be able to make a decent living doing what I was born to do, something that, happy-april-fool39s-day-image1if I were independently wealthy, I would do for free. I pulled off my most effective April Fool’s Day stunt ever last year when I posted on Facebook that “Despite my frequent claims to the contrary, I have decided that my job really sucks.” People who don’t know me very well immediately commiserated with “I know, it’s that kind of day, isn’t it?” and “I know it’s a thankless job, but if it helps you’re doing great!” A colleague from my department came up to me at lunch the next day and said, with appropriate EeyoreEeyore-like visage, “Vance, I’m really sorry.” I think he was disappointed when he found out that it was a joke. Those in my closer circle of friends and colleagues knew, however, after a few seconds of confusion, that it was a prank. “You had me going for a second—Happy April Fool’s Day!” was their typical response. Because they knew that if I ever came to the point that I said “my job really sucks!” and meant it, I would no longer be me. Simple as that.

This sort of narrative breeds and exudes confidence, so much so that I’ve learned over the years that I often need to tone my enthusiasm for teaching down, lest I be misinterpreted as someone who has a superiority complex and never experiences the insecurities, mistakes, and failures that are necessary parts of a teacher’s life. Trust me, I’ve had more of these than I could possibly remember—the “it isn’t working” moment of alarm happens as frequently now as it ever has. But now it exhilarates rather than frightens me—I have fun with the moments that, in earlier years, might have paralyzed me in front of a class.

A couple of days ago, I introduced a bunch of freshmen to the Scientific Revolution in the interdisciplinary humanities program I direct and teach in. The class immediately brought to mind a class with the same material roughly a year ago with a different pair of colleagues, a class which almost became the sort of nightmare that all teachers fear. I came to class expecting to rely on what I modestly considered to be a fabulous PowerPoint show. And the computer wouldn’t work. What in earlier years would have caused the sweating of bullets instead spawned a few jokes, then a living illustration of the heavenly bodies moving in circles, epicycles, and eccentrics created by my assigning different students the roles of the various planets circling and interweaving with each other, all with the purpose of showing how a beautiful theory can become so complicated over time under the pressure of new and continuing data as to collapse under its own weight. EpicyclesMy guess is that the students will remember what we did far longer than if they had seen it on a screen. One of my colleagues asked “How did you come up with that idea?” My answer, as always, was “I don’t know—it just seemed that it might work.”

The process of transformation from scared-to-death graduate student to comfortable-in-my-skin professor has been a long one with many landmarks along the way. One of the first was my favorite movie, “Dead Poets Society,” which was released in 1989, the very year that I was thrown, as a completely inexperienced and totally frightened graduate student into my own classroom for the first time. It has become trendy recently to trash this movie in various ways,

Dead Poets Society is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities,

but I don’t read such critiques. This movie was seminal for me, showed up at the right place at the right time in my life and continues to inspire my teaching energies. imagesDozens of scenes could illustrate; one will suffice. As the dynamic young teacher Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, gradually inspires his students to think for themselves, his young charges start taking their new-found freedom and running with it in unpredictable ways, as teenage young men are apt to do. One of these young men suggests at a school assembly that God wants girls to attend their all-boys school; the sheer outrageousness of the idea as well as the impromptu and disrespectful manner of his expressing it almost gets the student expelled.

The young man expects that Mr. Keating will admire his daring and creativity, but he soon finds out otherwise. “You being expelled from school is not daring, it’s stupid. You’ll miss some golden opportunities,” says Mr. Keating. “Like what?” “Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.” I want my classes to be like that, I thought. I want to teach classes that will make students glad they came to my school. It’s one thing to see it in a movie, though; WFGit’s another thing to find the path that might lead, over a career, in that direction.

Three years later, at a silent retreat, I stumbled across the work of Simone Weil, who in Waiting for God expressed the energy and passion at the heart of the learning process so well, it became and remains my “teaching philosophy.”

Contrary to the usual belief, [will power] has practically no place in study. The intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade.

Early in my life I had been infected by the love of books and of ideas; at this early point in my career it was becoming clear that all my teaching really amounts to is the desire to pass this infection on to others. All I want to do is to help others find the joy in learning that has sustained me through times in my life when there seemed to be nothing else worthwhile except a book. IsaiahSimone gave me the words to express what I’d intuited all along, that for me, teaching is a vocation, a sacrament, a holy thing.

Last year I was assigned to be lector on Palm Sunday at our church, something I had forgotten until I walked into the service. Completely unprepared, I read from Isaiah that “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher . . . Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” My best days are the ones when I don’t forget this.

My Leading Man

As the director of a large interdisciplinary program required of all students during their first four semesters on campus, I am quite used to hearing both students and their advisors refer to the required sixteen credit hours in the program I direct, the centerpiece of my college’s rather extensive core curriculum, as something that students need to “get out of the way” before they are free and clear to start their real education in their major. I have spent a great deal of energy and time over the past four years trying to change that attitude—with mixed success. MitchBut I must confess that I had something like the “get it out of the way” attitude in place last Sunday when it came to Easter church duties. When our friend Marsue was rector, Trinity Episcopal provided only one super-celebration on Easter morning at 9:00, but Mitch, the new rector guiding the congregation through Holy Week festivities for the first time, scheduled 8:00 and 10:00 services on Easter morning. I’m an early morning person, Jeanne said she would join me at the early show, and by slightly after 9:00 AM our Easter church duties had been gotten out of the way. Priceless.

cinderellaI suppose it reveals my latent barbarian and irreligious tendencies to say that our real Easter activity last Sunday was going to see the new Disney movie version of the classic fairy tale “Cinderella.” But think about it—there are actually some Easter related themes there—redemption, transformation (pumpkin into coach, lizards into coachmen, goose into coach driver, mice into horses), unconditional love. Cinderella and Easter are both “feel good happy ending” tales. Even the life mantra Cinderella learns from her mother—“Have Courage, and Be Kind”—before her mother dies sounds like some versions of Christianity I’m familiar with. Not convinced? courage and kindnessNeither am I, but it really was a lovely movie with great CGI effects, good acting by Rose and Daisy from Downton Abbey as Cinderella and wicked stepsister #1 respectively, and a good time was had by all.

As fairy tales go, I prefer Cinderella over Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, but in a recent foray into Facebook/Internet personality quiz-taking revealed something quite accurate and appropriate about me.Snow White

Which of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs am I?

I’ve always thought Snow White to be a radically chauvinistic tale, since the main reason the little guys love Snow White is that they finally have a woman in the house to cook and clean for them, but I was still intrigued. I used to know the names of all seven of the dwarfs (couldn’t produce them all now), but my result makes perfect sense.

docYou are Doc! In a chaotic world, you’re the one who keeps everything grounded. You’re a natural-born leader, even if you don’t always find the right words to get your vision across. You are a caretaker and a control freak at heart, but you go weak in the knees for life’s more beautiful things!

Those all sound like the qualities that I’ve had to rely on (even though I didn’t know I possessed many of them) in my now decade-long foray into academic administration, first as chair of a large department, then director of a much larger program. Except for the weak-in-the-knees business. The only thing that does that to me is an unexpected victory by the Friars or the Red Sox.

Continuing with the personality quiz theme related to movies and television, a while ago I came across a perfect quiz:

Which British Detective Are You?

This one might not work for you, but Jeanne and I are Anglophiles of a cosmic order when it comes to television detective shows. Sherlock? Lewis? Morse? Barnaby? This one knocked it out of the park.Tennison

Your result: Congratulations; you are Jane Tennison (from ‘Prime Suspect’)!

Ever since she played Morgana in Excalibur back in the early 80s, Helen Mirren has been one of my favorites, and her role as Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect” is brilliant. I can’t say, though, that much of the description fits me.

Your life and career is a long and bitter tale of struggle and injustice, stretching back as far as you’d care to remember. And of course, that sort of thing leaves a mark. You’re no longer sure if you became good at your job because of natural talent, or because no one thought you could do it and you had to either prove them wrong or leave. Whatever the reason, all of this battling has brought out the best in your personality. You’re tough, strong and ready to fight your corner whenever adversity comes your way. excaliburThis does make it hard to drop your guard sometimes, and of course it won’t protect you from heartache because in order to admit you have feelings, you have to be vulnerable. And nothing hurts like betrayal. But woe betide the person that crosses you. LOTS of woe.

That sounds a lot more bad-ass than I consider myself to be, but I’ll take just being in the same paragraph with Helen Mirren—channeling Jane Tennison’s bad-assery is something I will work on. Maybe a sabbatical project. And by the way, Jeanne and I saw Helen in her newest movie “Woman in Gold” last evening. She’s as great as ever.

I’m a great lover of movies and good television, almost to the point of addiction. Of the dozens of online personality quizzes I have taken (I guess I’m addicted to them as well), I anxiously awaited the results of

Which Actor Would Play You in the Story of Your Life?ddl mohicans

I had taken this one several months ago but forgot to record the results—this time around I won’t forget.

Daniel Day-Lewis has been cast to play you! Daniel Day-Lewis’ onscreen personality and character traits: Passionate, fiercely intense, wise, unafraid of a little insanity, romantic, intimidating, fearless, able to speak other languages, ddl my left footintimate, up for any challenge, cosmopolitan, adaptable, proud, forceful, powerful.

With roles ranging from Christy Brown in My Left Foot through Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans to Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, the only actor who has won three Lead Actor Academy Awards, this guy sets the bar higher than I could aspire to in my corner of the world. Of the various words and phrases in the description above, less than half of them sound like me. But there’s something about this that I relish—if the chameleon-like Daniel Day-Lewis and the brilliant Helen Mirren had a love child, it would be me!ddl lincoln

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.

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.”

how convenient

Sorry for the Inconvenience

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m writing to let you know that I won’t be in class today at 11:30. Our lacrosse match on campus that was scheduled for yesterday was rescheduled for today at 3:30. Our pre-game prep starts at 12:00, so I won’t be able to make class. I know that I have already missed a couple of classes this semester [four, as a matter of fact], but I’m hoping this won’t be a big problem. snoopyMy academic advisor’s email address is xxxxxxxxx@providence.edu if you have any questions. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Dear Dr. Morgan: I’m very sorry, but I won’t be able to make Friday morning seminar. I’m in a wedding on Sunday back home; I had a Friday afternoon flight home, but my mother changed it to Thursday afternoon because she was able to find a better fare on that day. I’ll contact you next week to see if there’s anything I need to make up. Sorry for the inconvenience.

My response to each of the above student emails that I received last week was something along the lines of “Dear Student: It is your responsibility to do whatever is necessary to account for missed classes (check the syllabus for the course policy on attendance)—you are also responsible for whatever we work on in the class that you miss. Your missing class is not an inconvenience to me at all—the inconvenience is entirely yours. Dr. Morgan.”

In student/teacher communication, “Sorry for the inconvenience” has become the “go to” email comment with which to close a communication containing information that you don’t want to take responsibility for. inconvenienceThe sender is saying “I hope that maybe a half-hearted apology for making your life difficult will cause you to be merciful, even though I know that you don’t have to and that I should have handled the situation differently.” On the level of effectiveness, the “sorry for the inconvenience” strategy ranks just slightly above the ostrich strategy which requires pretending that the situation never even happened. Used more broadly, “sorry for the inconvenience” could mean “I know what I just did or failed to do messed your day (week, month, year, life) up. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do anything about it or try to set things right—but I wanted you to know that I am aware of the inconvenience I just caused you.” Sort of like “I just wrecked your car—sorry for the inconvenience,” or “I am sleeping with your significant other—sorry for the inconvenience.”

convenience storeHuman beings do not like being inconvenienced. Although we might not admit it, we love “convenience stores” and have made them a ubiquitous part of the American landscape, simply because they are “convenient.” Early in the 2000s, shortly after the Supreme Court decided to appoint George W. Bush as the 43rd President of the United States, Al Gore wrote a book as well as both starring in and producing a documentary about the dangers of global warming with the wonderful title “An Inconvenient Truth.” I have often wondered why millions of people worldwide, but particularly in this country, are so vehement in either their denial that global warming is real or in their insistence that if it is real, human beings are not responsible, given the mountains of evidence and data that prove its reality and our complicity. an inconvenient truthThe title of Gore’s documentary and book directly answers such questions—people often go to extremes in their efforts to avoid anything that, if accepted as true, would force them to adjust their attitudes and actions in uncomfortable ways. I’m reminded of what Vera Brittain once said that teachers should never forget—learning is an uncomfortable process and “above all, human beings desire to be comfortable.” In addition, above all they desire not to be inconvenienced.

Which is what makes yesterday’s gospel reading from Mark so problematic. In response to Peter’s insistence that he is not going to go to Jerusalem to die, Jesus first puts Peter in his place in Jesus’ inimitable style, then issues this attractive invitation to his would-be disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

To which Jesus might have added, Sorry for the inconvenience. Because what Jesus is describing is more than an inconvenient truth. He’s warning his would-be followers then and now that, as bonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s an inconvenient faith.

There is another story in Mark’s gospel that caught my attention in one of my first posts on this blog almost two and half years ago. 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, listing 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.

We all know Jesus’ response—he tells him the inconvenient truth. “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.” rich young rulerWe also all know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” Jesus had inconvenienced the rich young man beyond his toleration level. But what precedes Jesus’ sharing this inconvenient truth is very  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 this is an inconvenient faith—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 a story about being called to come and die. The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of dispensers of inconvenience. “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.

These gospels are “hard sayings” because they run roughshod over our desire that our dealings with what is greater than us be similar to a convenience store transaction. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z to get a break?” are the sorts of questions we so often want answered, but they are always wrong sort of question when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical several years ago I heard the poet browneMichael 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. The inconvenience of trying to believe in a God who never calls, writes, or tweets is transformed into the challenge of being God in the world.

I Think It’s Going To Rain Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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