Category Archives: stories

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

Je me souviens Québec

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series has everything a lover of mysteries could want. Fascinating characters developed from book to book, psychological insights into the best and worst of human nature, a bit of humor, a lot of creativity, a quaint setting where nothing ever happens (other than a murder every few months), and plenty of dead bodies. GamacheOne of the additional selling points is usually an exotic and unfamiliar setting, but here Penny’s books are different from the P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Jo Nesbø, and Jussi Adler-Olsen series that I particularly like. Chief Inspector Gamache does his work on territory very familiar to me, only a few dozen miles from where I grew up. Accordingly, I feel that I am returning home every time I open one of Penny’s books.

Since we lived only forty miles south of the Canadian border, I saw many Québec license plates during my youth. “Je me souviens,” each plate said—to my great confusion. license plateI knew no French; my brother, who took two or three years of French in high school, was useless when it came to actually translating something in real time. He struggled reading a menu in French, but at least could translate the word “meubles” (furniture) on a Québec billboard. I remember my father’s uproarious laughter as my brother tried to explain how the word was pronounced in French—it sounded like a cow mooing through its nose. mooAs I got older I was equally useless translating French, since I spent four years in high school learning Latin—I didn’t learn any French until college, and then only French for reading classics in the original. All highly impractical, and all poorly fashioned for translating license plates. Tracing “Je me souviens” back to possible Latin roots (“subvenio”), I thought it might mean “I assist” or even “Follow me.” I knew that the “me” on the license plate made it a self-referential verb, but “I assist myself” or “I follow myself” didn’t make sense. I didn’t know anyone who knew French, never thought of asking the French teacher across the hall from the Latin class, so I left northern New England for college not knowing what the saying on Québec license plates meant.

Many years later I realized that “Je me souviens” means “I remember,” something that reading Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series has reminded me of. I’m not sure what Québec drivers are remembering—the province has a fascinating and convoluted history, both internally and with the rest of Canada (as well as the U.S.), so it could be most anything. But “I remember” matches my own thinking about Québec these days—as I live with the characters in each book (nine so far and counting) in their little town of Three Pines (which would be no more than fifty miles from where I grew up if it existed) and as they travel to Montreal and Québec City, the memories come flooding back.mee ho

I remember that Sherbrooke, a small city (or so it seemed to a country boy such as I) only a bit over an hour away, was the location of Mee Ho, our favorite Chinese restaurant (actually the only Chinese restaurant I ever ate at before I turned twenty). God forbid that we should ever explore our neighboring towns and find out whether Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom had any Chinese restaurants; once my father found something he liked, he never wanted to change. Our trips over the border were so frequent that the border guards at the Newport, VT crossing eventually started waving us through—we just needed to slow down sufficiently for them to realize who it was. Sort of like EZ Pass decades before its time. It was during these monthly excursions to Sherbrooke that I benefitted from Canada’s tolerant laws concerning when human beings are allowed to consume alcohol. As long as they are accompanied by an adult, a child could have an adult beverage at any age. I don’t doubt that the law is the same fifty years later.

The champlainI remember Montreal, the big city of my youth, much closer to our house than Boston to the south. The Chateau Champlain was our downtown hotel of choice; now Marriott, it was a Canadian Pacific hotel when we stayed there–the train station was right under the hotel. My cousins and I used to each take one of the four elevators, ride from the lobby to the thirty-fifth floor, then down to a random floor, jump on another elevator—and see how long it would take until we ran into each other. I watched my mother drink her first alcoholic drink (a Brandy Alexander) at L’Escapade, the circular restaurant and bar on the top floor (she didn’t like it). We always requested a room overlooking Mary Queen of the World Basilica. As a hardcore Protestant kid, I was both attracted to and repelled by St. Joseph’s Oratory, with devoted pilgrims climbing steep stairs on their knees as well as discarded crutches and canes hanging on the walls as mute testimonies to miraculous healings over the decades is imprinted indelibly on my memory more than forty-five years later.

chateau champlain restaurant

Queen of the World

 

 

 

 

 

oratory

I remember Québec City, especially its middle-of-the-winter Carnival, where I first experienced cold intense enough to freeze the tears in my watering eyes. bonhommeThe red-sashed snowman Carnival mascot Bonhomme, the toboggan run on the boardwalk along the Saint Lawrence River, and elaborate ice sculptures made the bone-numbing cold worth it. The spectacular Chateau Frontenac looking all the world like a medieval castle, with its pricey st. laurent barSt. Laurent bar where patrons can view the Saint Laurence River and the boardwalk through a semicircular glass wall. Aux Anciens Canadiens, the oldest house in Québec turned into a restaurant, with its servers dressed in period costumes, white exterior and red roof. The Plains of Abraham, where the English and French fought a landmark eighteenth-century battle for the control and soul of the territory and where Generals Montcalm and Wolfe both died. The Chateau Pierre, a small bed and breakfast where we always stayed. I’ve not traveled much outside of North America, but am told that the old, walled portion of Québec City is the closest one can get to old Europe without going there.

aux anciens canadienschateau pierre

 

 

 

 

 

frontenacAll of the above and more are woven into the Chief Inspector Gamache series; each book opens a different door in my memory. Even as an adult, Québec remained important in my life. My honeymoon as a barely twenty-year-old kid was spent in Montreal, then Québec City. We stayed in the Chateau Pierre—that marriage didn’t work out. Twenty years later I returned to both cities with Jeanne (her first time) and discovered just how limited my early experiences had been. I saw Old Montreal and the Lower City of Québec below the cliffs on which the Old City perches for the first time.lower town

old montreal

 

 

 

 

 

We didn’t stay in the Chateau Pierre. Jeanne has traveled to Montreal numerous times since then for work—I have not been to Québec for close to two decades. But with Louise Penny I am remembering a thread of my life tapestry that, although largely forgotten, has defined more of who I am than I realized. Funny how that happens.

A More Plausible God

I concluded early in my career as a philosophy professor that there are many problems in philosophy that cannot be solved—at least not as they are traditionally fashioned. Consider, for example, dualism—the popular theory that claims that human beings consist of two entirely different things: matter and something else. body and soulThe body, in other words, and something else. This something else, which is usually called the “soul” or the “mind,” is not physical, although dualists are hard pressed to say what this something else actually is. Dualism also has a very difficult time accounting for the obvious fact that the human body and mind interact constantly—something that they should not be able to do if they are substantially different. Rene Descartes, one of the greatest philosophers in the Western tradition, when pressed to explain how two different substances can interact with each other eventually said “I don’t know—they just do.”

I have been thinking about a different philosophical problem over the past couple of weeks as I start considering the two General Ethics classes I will be teaching in the fall. Although the question of how a good and powerful God—a “perfect” God, in other words—can allow the suffering, violence, and pain that human beings and other living things are subject to in our world is not a question that fits seamlessly on the syllabus of an ethics class,just perfect I know that the question will come up. It’s difficult to avoid the problem of evil in a classroom filled with students who have, or at least the majority have, been taught in church and parochial education that God is perfect. I’ve included the problem of evil in dozens of courses over the past twenty-five years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be solved—as long as we insist that we know the characteristics of the divine. But what if our insistence on God’s perfection is misguided? What if, in other words, we need to consider a different personality description than the one we have traditionally been saddled with? Are there more plausible ways to think about God?

In a November 2012 contribution to “The Stone,” a recurring New York Times column focusing on philosophy, Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony argues that there is a simple adjustment to the traditional, theistic conception of God as perfect that will solve the problem of evil. Stop thinking of God as perfect. HazonyHazony cuts to the chase quickly in his brief column:

Philosophers have spent many centuries trying to get God’s supposed perfections to fit together in a coherent conception, and then trying to get that to fit with the Bible. By now it’s reasonably clear that this can’t be done . . . I’d start with this: Is it really necessary to say that God is a “perfect being,” or perfect at all, for that matter? As far as I can tell, the biblical authors avoid asserting any such thing. And with good reason.

Hazony goes on to argue that the whole idea of God as a Perfect Being comes much later to theism, when Christian thinkers tried to bring the biblical text in line with the Greek philosophical tradition, in which folks like Parmeniproblem of evildes and Plato conceive of the divine as perfect. But this was a misguided project, since “you can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously.” In other words, and as usual, it’s the philosophers’ fault.

I often frame the problem of evil as a series of claims that are logically incompatible:

  • God is all good (omnibenevolent)
  • God is all-knowing (omniscient)
  • God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
  • Evil exists

The first three claims are fundamental to traditional theistic belief, while the truth of the fourth claim is self-evident to anyone who is the least bit observant of our surrounding world. Logically, all four claims cannot be true simultaneously. Blake's GodPick your favorite three to double down on, and the fourth has to be false. Which sucks, because any committed theist who is also an observant human being wants to affirm all four claims.

Heroic philosophical and theological efforts have been made to solve the problem of evil; the most obvious (but for many, the most disturbing) tactic is to stop thinking of God as a bundle of perfections. What if God is not all-knowing, all-powerful, all good, or any of the above? Hazony suggests that we ask a prior question: Where did theists ever get the idea that God is perfect in the first place? A careful look at seminal biblical texts indicates that such a conception is not to be found there. I will beConsider, for instance, God’s revelation of the divine name to Moses from the burning bush in the book of Exodus. God says I am that I am, at least according to most English translations. That’s a name consistent with an immutable and perfect nature. But, Hazony points out, that translation comes from the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew text into Greek already showing the influence of Greek philosophy on translators and interpreters. The better translation from the Hebrew of the divine answer to “What is your name?” is I will be what I will be, an imperfect verb tense that indicates incompleteness, process, and change. Which would explain why the God of the Jewish scriptures seems so imperfect, human, arbitrary, and so unlike the perfect deity many of us were taught to believe in. The ancient Israelites did not believe in such a God.

So if the God of Exodus and the Hebrew scriptures is not a bundle of perfections, then what is he/she/it? Hazony suggests that this God is exactly what the various ancient texts, particularly the Psalms, point toward:

The God of Hebrew scripture is meant to be an embodiment of what is, of reality as we experience it . . . It is the hope that God is faithful and just that is the subject of ancient Israel’s faith: we hope that despite the frequently harsh reality of our daily experience, there is nonetheless a faithfulness and justice that rules in our world in the end.God hope

God as a promise and a hope, rather than a perfect Being—that, obviously, would be a game changer. Hazony suggests that early Christian philosophers and theologians imposed Greek philosophical categories on theistic belief because they feared that an imperfect God would not attract many followers. Instead, theists have inherited a God spoken of in sweeping idealizations of perfection, a conception whose relationship to the world in which we actually live is impossible to imagine. Traditional theism is losing ground in many parts of our country and the world; as Hazony advises at the end of his column, “surely a more plausible conception of God couldn’t hurt.”

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 yesterday 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 church or 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]

To the Graduating Seniors

For those who read this blog regularly, it will come as no surprise that I believe I have the greatest job in the world. So great, in fact, that I don’t consider it to be a job at all. It is a vocation, a calling, what I was made to do—pick your favorite description. But every commencement season I am reminded that there is one teaching related thing that I have never had the opportunity to do, something that I badly want to be able to do before I retire or die (whichever comes first—probably death). I have never been invited to give an address of any sort to the graduating seniors. academicawards[1]This is particularly annoying because on my campus, the major faculty address to the seniors, part of the academic awards ceremony on Saturday morning of graduation weekend, is delivered by the current Accinno Teaching Award winner—our “Teacher of the Year” award. This tradition began ten years or so ago, two or three years after I won the teaching award. I suspect there is some sinister plot behind this. So every year at the awards ceremony I write an impromptu address to the seniors in my head as some less deserving colleague is delivering the real faculty address. Here is this year’s version.

Provost: . . . . Please welcome Dr. Vance Morgan.

Thunderous applause

Me: Father President, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, honored graduates and your families—thank you for this opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. One hundred and eighteen years ago,  at an obscure university about fifty miles north of here, books[2]Professor William James gave a talk to the Young Men’s Christian Association at Harvard University. The topic the group asked him to speak on that evening was “Is Life Worth Living?” For the next few minutes I would like to explore that topic—“Is life worth living?”—with you.

I know, I know—you’re thinking “Come on Professor Morgan, that’s really a downer. This is graduation weekend. We are expecting to hear how hard we have worked, that the world is waiting for us with open arms, that we can be anything we want to be if we simply set our minds to it.” I am well aware that this is what you want to hear this weekend, and I guarantee that plenty of people on this dais and the dais at the 013[1]Dunkin’ Donuts Center tomorrow morning will tell you exactly that. But for the moment—let’s get serious. No one in this room, especially those in the center front who are graduating tomorrow, wants to consider tough questions this weekend. But I guarantee that many of you already know, and everyone in the Peterson Center today who is over thirty knows, that someday, sooner or later, you will wake up and find that “Is life worth living?” is a very meaningful and pressing question. So note to self—when that day happens, remember these few minutes we have together today. It may save your life.

To remind you that there is a long tradition in which such questions are taken seriously, let me drop a few names on you from the distant past—your DWC days. Hey, what did you expect, I run the program! For instance, in his History of the Persian Wars, HerodotusWorldMap[1]Herodotus tells the following story about how a certain Thracian tribe welcomed the birth of a new baby. “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

Ready for another story? In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche (never thought you’d hear from him at graduation, did you?) tells a story from Greek mythology. “According to an ancient legend, 67a37eee-699c-40f5-8fae-01aabd563d38[1]King Midas had long hunted the forest for the wise satyr Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into his hands, the king asked him what is the very best and most preferable of all things for man. The stiff and motionless satyr refused to speak; until, forced by the king, he finally burst into shrill laughter and uttered the following words: ‘Miserable ephemeral race, children of chance and toil, why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is—to meet an early death.’”

Had enough yet?  How about one more from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the last seminar with my Honors freshmen this semester? Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,”king_lear2_edgar_gloucester[1] living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward: As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.

Over and over again throughout literature, philosophy, theology and more, an important question arises that is as pertinent now, for everyone in this room, as it was several thousand years ago. How am I to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that frequently lacks either one? The world does not come to us wearing meaning and values on its sleeve. The universe does not care that you are graduating with honors and is oblivious to whether your hopes and dreams are realized.220px-Dorothy_Allison_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival[1] In a reality such as this, where are meaning, values and purpose to come from?

Novelist Dorothy Allison provides a clue when she writes that “there is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto—God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.” In other words, you are responsible for being bearers of meaning into the world. Is life worth living? It is if you make it so. Truth, goodness, value, hope, all of those things that are central to a life worth living are not the objects of a treasure hunt. They are the products of a continuing creative task that each of you has been assigned as an educated and nurtured human being—to create the world that you want to believe in and live in.

For me, this task is best understood in a framework that includes what is greater than us, that is infused with the divine. Perhaps this framework will work for you as well. Benedictine sister sisterjoan[1]Joan Chittister expresses it this way: “Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.”

In ctintern-abbey[1]losing, let me drop one more DWC name. In his signature poem “Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth describes our world as one that is “half-created, and half-perceived.” There’s not a lot that we human beings can do about the “perceived” part. As my wife would say, the world “is what it is.It-is-what-it-is2[1]” But great moral traditions from the ancient world to the present tell us that it is the “half-created” part that makes all the difference. The question is not “what is going to happen?” but rather “what am I going to do with what happens?”  The power and the privilege of shaping and creating a better world is yours. There will be days when life may not seem worth living—on such days, what will your response be? William James’ closing words to those young men at Harvard over a century ago are my final words to you. James said “These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” Believe it.

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What Do You Want?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly or even occasionally knows that I love movies. Solidly in my top ten, maybe even in the top five, is the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” About half way through the story, Ray and TerryRay Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.what do you want

Sometimes, “What do you want?” is just a question about one’s lunch or dinner preferences. At other times, the question raises far more important issues. In John’s gospel we find a classic “What do you want?” situation where a man’s health and happiness hang in the balance. It’s an odd story, relatively straightforward on the surface but with many layers of complexity underneath. While in Jerusalem early in his ministry, Jesus and the disciples come to the Pool of Bethesda, rumored to have healing powers, but only under special circumstances. “An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” A strange phenomenon, for sure, but hey, this took place before modern science told us that this sort of thing is impossible. Not surprisingly, the perimeter of the pool is crowded with “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.”bethesda

Among this multitude is a man who has been afflicted with an unspecified infirmity for thirty-eight years. When I first heard this story in Sunday School as a kid, I thought that this guy had been at the pool for thirty-eight years, which would definitely suck. But in truth, we are not told how long he has been there, nor why Jesus chooses him at random out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people seeking healing to strike up a conversation with. Jesus asks the man a strange, seemingly stupid question: “Do you want to be made well?” All sorts of possible responses come to mind:

  • No, moron, I just like hanging out with sick people.
  • I thought I did, but now that you ask I realize that I sort of enjoy being incapacitated.
  • Yes, but the copay on my health insurance is so large that I have to wait for my next disability check to come in.

Ask a stupid question, you usually get a stupid answer. But Jesus’ question reminds me of a character from Louise Penny’s Still Life, who I wrote about a month or so ago.still life

Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, and Inspector Gamache, Penny’s talented murder-solving hero, are having a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. He had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

So maybe “Do you want to be made well?” isn’t a stupid question after all. It’s interesting that the man at the Bethesda pool doesn’t simply answer “yes” or “no.” Instead, he provides an excuse and defensive explanation for why he hasn’t been healed already. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Roughly paraphrased: “It’s not my fault that I’m in this position—I have no friends or family to help me out, everyone hates me, there’s a vast conspiracy to keep me from the pool, it’s unfair that only the first person in gets healed, yadda, yadda, yadda.” take up your bedMaybe he realizes, for the first time, what the cost of being healed might be. Is he ready to live without the limitations with which he has lived so long, which have in a strange way become his friends and enablers? Who will he be when he is no longer defined by his infirmity? Sure enough, Jesus heals him, he rolls up his mat and walks, and gets into trouble with the Pharisee Sabbath police because Jesus chose to heal him on the one day that it is illegal to do any work (including carrying your mat). Be careful what you ask for.

“What do you want?” It’s a question each of us would do well to consider carefully. As well as “What changes are you willing to undergo in order to get there?” We need to be sure that we wouldn’t prefer to keep things as they are.

Sheets from Heaven

VT hunting seasonI grew up in hunting country where at the appropriate times each year the males of the species took their preferred firearms and started shooting things. I remember my father returning from a day of hunting with a partridge or two or even a squirrel in his backpack (much to my mother’s consternation). Every third year or so he would hit the jackpot and get a deer, setting us up with meat for most of the upcoming winter. My older brother became a fellow hunter with Dad when he reached the appropriate age, but when my time came, problems arose. I didn’t want to do it. hunting seasonI did not know that principled objections to killing non-human animals were available to me—it just was very clear to me that this was not something I wanted anything to do with. At the time I didn’t have any trouble eating the meat my father and brother brought home; it wasn’t until many years later that I cut red meat out of my diet.

The first reading a week ago Sunday from Acts told the story of one of the most game-changing events imaginable, a “kill and eat” scenario with implications far beyond mere dietary preferences. The story of Acts, of course, is about the early Christian communities and the spread of the “good news” inexorably from Palestine toward Rome and beyond. Often lost in the midst of the story is just how disorienting and belief-challenging all of this must have been. Major debates raged about exactly what this new system of beliefs is. Is it a new version of Judaism? If so, then new Christians are subject to the same dietary and behavioral rules from the Pentateuch that all Jews are subject to; male converts, for instance, should be circumcised. Or is this new set of beliefs something new altogether, perhaps a challenge and direct threat to Judaism? Complicating the issue, at least according to evidence from the gospels, is that Jesus himself was not always clear or consistent about who his message and teaching was for. Jesus was a Jew, and at times clearly said that kill and eathis message was for the “House of Israel,” while at other times he packaged it for everyone, including non-Jews.

In Acts 10 we find Peter, the man who perhaps knew Jesus best and who, as the lead disciple, is now at the forefront of spreading the good news, hungry and exhausted after an extended prayer session on the rooftop of a friend’s house in Joppa where he is staying. And then the strangest thing happens, as Peter reports to some critics in the next chapter:

In a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

The sheet is full of all sorts of animals that, according to Jewish law, must not be eaten under any circumstances, as Peter immediately recognizes.

unclean animalsBut I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”

Peter knows the rules backwards and forwards; furthermore, he knows that for a Jew, strict obedience to these rules is required in order to be right relationship both with God and with his community.

But as seems to happen so often in the context of what we think we know about God and our relationship with the divine, the rule book is thrown out entirely.

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Imagine Peter’s consternation and confusion. Imagine the consternation and confusion of his fellow Jewish believers when they find out that he has been hanging out with and spreading the good news to Gentiles. For after the voice from heaven in essence tells Peter “You know all of that stuff about what not to eat in order to be in right relationship with God, the stuff that has defined the diet of a faithful Jew for the past couple of millennia? Never mind. You can eat anything you want,” CorneliusPeter is further informed that the human equivalent of unclean animals—the Gentiles—are now to be recipients of the good news that you might have mistakenly thought was just for Jews. There’s this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius who has been asking some really good questions—go to his house and help him out. Subsequent chapters in Acts pick up the theme. Cornelius and his household convert to the message of Christ, start speaking in tongues as Peter and the other disciples did at Pentecost, more conservative Jews are appalled, and eventually there is a big council in Jerusalem to decide what the hell’s going on. But Pandora’s box has been opened never to be closed again. The old rule book is out, and it’s anyone’s guess where this is going to end up.

Don’t you hate it when someone changes the rules of the game just when you’ve gotten really good at working within the framework of the old rules? Just when you think you have everything relevant and necessary figured out, it all changes. In truth, we are currently in the midst of a radical, contemporary parallel of Peter’s vision.dt and owg In politics, one major party’s presumptive candidate for President has risen to the top of the polls by ignoring or deliberately breaking just about every traditional rule for success, while at the same time resisting the best efforts of traditionalists and moderates within his own party to derail his candidacy. Pundits and talking heads are reduced to “I don’t know” and “beats me” when asked to predict what is likely to happen in the next several months. transgenderPublic attitudes concerning homosexuality and same-sex marriage have evolved and shifted more quickly than anyone could have foreseen. People are talking about the rights of transgendered people. More millennials are checking “none” when asked about their religious affiliation than check the box for an identifiable religion; these “nones” exhibit little interest and find no home in traditional religious structures. Sheets from heaven filled with female priests, less-than-conservative Popes, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, and seventy-five-year-old Socialists are being lowered before the eyes of those who thought they knew what they were supposed to think about such things. What’s a person to do?hemingway

Jeanne and I saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” last evening, enjoying the sights of Havana that we experienced when we visited in 2003. Hemingway tells his young reporter friend on a couple of occasions during the movie that the value of a person depends entirely on how much that person is willing to risk. Sheets from heaven such as Peter experienced provide an opportunity for extreme risk—how willing am I to leave all of my preconceptions and frameworks of understanding behind in exchange for growth and change? Peter could have dismissed his experience as merely a result of overwork and hunger. But instead he helped to change the world. We are presented with similar opportunities every day.

Under My Skin, Part Two: Yes, It Hurts!

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, it began. Actually, it began around 10:30 on Wednesday morning—that’s bright and early for my son, who often works late into the evening. He had tattooed until midnight on Tuesday night. After Photoshopping two pictures of my dachshund Frieda into one, tracing the picture onto what looked all the world like carbon paper (familiar to those old enough to remember typewriters), then transferring the tracing onto my left arm, we were ready.

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“Looks like you’ll be doing paint by number,” I said to Caleb. “Thanks for reducing my profession to a kid’s activity, Dad,” he replied.

With a small light strapped on his forehead, Caleb looked like a miner. My sister-in-law LaVona had been asking me for a couple of days if I was nervous. I wasn’t, but even if I had been, I had announced to my corner of the world that this was happening, so I would be a great disappointment to all and a total pussy if I backed out now. cleatsI wasn’t sure what a tattoo needle biting into my skin would feel like, but it really wasn’t that bad (stay tuned). I told those present (Caleb, my brother, and me) that “It feels like a centipede is walking on my arm with tiny cleats on.” That was kind of a cool visual, one that worked for at least a while.

Caleb’s job was to do the tattoo, my brother’s job was to document the event with his camera and my tablet, and my job was to stay as still as possible as I reclined in the tattoo version of a dentist’s chair. All three of us are Tolkien fans, so we talked about our various favorite parts of the books and movies, then moved to “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Game of Thrones,” and every other movie and television show we could think of.WIN_20160413_12_51_08_ProWIN_20160413_12_06_29_Pro

 

 

 

 

This took up the first ninety minutes or so of the event, as Caleb tattooed from the bottom of Frieda’s outline (her coat) up through the right side of her face. I learned that different tattoo needles cause different uncomfortable and annoying sensations—the shading needle is not as intense as the outlining needle, for instance. But I was doing great—no cold sweats or familiar light-headedness that precedes fainting, and no fighting off the desire to scream or cry. I was the man, impressive to all present—especially me.WIN_20160413_12_51_16_Pro

The female contingent of my entourage—Jeanne, LaVona, and my daughter-in-law Alisha—Caleb’s partner in life and business as well as a tattoo artist in her own right—arrived around 1:00, fully expecting to hear screams, I think. They also were impressed with my Stoic determination. Jeanne tried to feed me an orange until Alisha reported that food is not allowed in the tattooing area. Apparently the Florida health inspector would not approve. Jeanne sat next to me on the opposite side from Caleb, LaVona watched Caleb’s activities with the same interest that people probably showed in Michaelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling, and Alisha—who sees and does this sort of thing every day—headed to the other room with Stephanie, the office manager, to do some paperwork and pay some bills. After a while, Jeanne and LaVona headed out to experience the wonders of downtown Fort Myers. They invited my brother to join them, but he knew better than to abandon his assigned photography tasks.WIN_20160413_14_07_55_ProWIN_20160413_13_51_37_Pro

 

 

 

 

About two hours in, we took a brief ten-minute break—I got to eat my orange (plus another), take a bathroom break, and was ready to finish this thing up. Caleb noted that it might feel a bit more painful when he started up again. That was an understatement. “FUCK!!!” my internal child yelled as we recommenced. “You’re right, that does hurt a bit more,” my outward philosopher commented. As it turns out, Caleb began to explain, first-time tattoo subjects tend to go through a version of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief while under the needle—I had spent the first two hours in Denial. But my best manly-man efforts kept me on top of sensations that were beginning to cross the line from annoying to “that fucking hurts.” And Caleb continued to fill Frieda in from the bottom up with his fancy tattoo-by-number instruments as I observed the process upside-down.WIN_20160413_14_26_29_Pro

At about the three-hour mark, Caleb got to Frieda’s left ear—the closest portion of the tattoo to my armpit. Apparently that’s a sensitive area. “HOLY SHIT!!!” my internal child screamed. “Are you using the outlining needle?” my external Stoic calmly asked—he was. Then he revealed that it was likely to get worse. Before long he would be returning to the bottom, coat area of the tattoo to add some shading (apparently the light colors have to be saved for last to avoid discoloration). “Whatever,” I thought—it can’t be any worse than it already is. About this time Jeanne and LaVona returned; after a few minutes of sitting next to me and observing that I was fidgeting more than when she had been there earlier, she helpfully suggested that I should sit still. “I’m doing the best I can!” I replied in a not-so-pleasant tone—Caleb observed that I had now moved from Denial to Anger. Helpfully, Tom Petty started singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” right about then on the Pandora station Caleb had queued up, so I didn’t have to say any more.WIN_20160413_14_43_19_Pro

As he moved to the shading portion, Caleb reminded me of his warning that “this is not going to feel amazing.” It didn’t. For the first time I started practicing the deep breathing through my nose and my mantra from Psalm 133: “Surely I have set my soul in silence and in peace.” “You can scream, you know,” Jeanne reminded me. “That’s not how I roll,” I thought as I rummaged around for my silence and peace spot.WIN_20160413_15_14_51_Pro

I never fully found it, but got close enough to sort of stay on top of something that had passed from an annoying sting to at least the first circle of descent into pain. “How much longer do we have?” I asked Caleb as I moved from the Anger stage into Bargaining. “Not that much longer,” he replied, helping me skip from Bargaining over Depression into Acceptance.

I interpreted “not that much longer” to mean about five or ten minutes—by the time Caleb finished the shading and added some white highlights, it was about forty-five. In addition to the pain level increasing slowly but steadily, I also got a major left-cheek ass cramp that wouldn’t go away. Pandora gifted us with “Stairway to Heaven,” the greatest rock song ever, and shortly after, it ended.WIN_20160413_15_34_58_Pro

I rolled out of the chair, Caleb wiped the fruits of his labor down with alcohol, and I got to see the finished product in a full-length mirror for the first time. And there was Friedalina, with her “I am superior to you in every way” attitude, looking back at me from my upper left arm. It was worth it—I now have a tattoo immortalizing a dog, who also happens to have been the subject of my very first blog post almost four years ago and of my first short essay attempt at a writer’s conference eight or nine years ago.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

From essay to tattoo—there’s something appropriate about that.WIN_20160413_16_04_14_Pro

lots of books

Forty-Seven Books

WIN_20160404_11_32_58_ProLast June as my sabbatical officially began, I decided to keep a running list of books read over the next year. Usually academics head into a sabbatical semester or year with a lengthy list of “must read” texts, tomes directly relevant to their research and the articles or books that are the required product of such semesters. Not me. My primary sabbatical project had over 300,000 words of my own writing from my three-and-a-half-year-old blog to work with. All of that writing was strongly influenced by dozens of books I read over the past several years; over the past nine months I have been in the enviable position of being able to read whatever the hell I wanted to rather than what I had to. As of today my “Read During Sabbatical” list is at forty-seven books and counting. A quick look at the list is very revealing, to me at least.

Mysteries11

I prefer my mysteries in series; over the past few months I have caught up on Anne Cleeves’ series set in Scotland’s Shetland Islands and Jussi Adler-Olsen Department Q series set in Copenhagen. pennyI’m just starting Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books set in southern Quebec, no more than an hour or so from where I grew up in northern Vermont. I’m pleased to see that there are twelve books in the series—that will keep me busy for a few weeks.

Why do I love mysteries so much? And why do I prefer them in series rather than in stand-alone volumes? The growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities of my mystery friends from volume to volume remind me of just how complicated and fascinating the human journey is. They remind me of me. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing exactly twenty years ago today, just as I can’t tell you what murder case Tommy Lynley and Barbara Havers were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. But I can tell you about how their love/hate partnership and friendship has developed and grown over their virtual years, just as I can tell you about my own wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in.

Novels—19

Each summer for the past couple of decades I have chosen a well-regarded novelist whose work I have never read and immerse myself in her or his work. This year I chose Joyce Carol Oates, which turned out to be a mistake. tarttAfter plowing through three of her dozens of novels (selections recommended by my Facebook friends familiar with her stuff), I decided that (1) I am impressed that she is one of the most highly thought of contemporary novelists and, (2), I am not sure why she is so highly regarded.

  • Best novel read: Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Close second: A Big Enough Lie, by my friend and colleague, Eric Bennett.
  • Worst novel read: A tie between Wm. Paul Young, Eve and James Martin, The Abbey

Theology (very broadly conceived)—6

I suppose it says something about my tastes that the two most recent theology books I have read are Pub Theology and Evolutionary Faith. These titles reflect dominant threads in my blog over the past few years. No Barth, Newman or Schillebeeckx for me—I agree with a Benedictine monk friend who was a high school biology teacher before he retired several years ago. In a group discussion he once said that “Darwin has taught us more about God than all of the theologians combined.” And he said it with a beer in his hand.

Philosophy (broadly conceived)—3

A philosophy professor who has read only three philosophy books during the first nine months of sabbatical? My philosophical hunger gets fed from many sources these days; very few of them are professional philosophers narrowly defined. But then, philosophy should never be “narrowly defined”—I tell my students that philosophy, the art of better and better questioning, is a natural human activity that can and should be applied to everything. It can also be stimulated by anything.Robinson

Collections of Essays—3

Two of the three volumes of essays on my list of forty-seven books are from Marilynne Robinson. Her novels, particularly Gilead, are pristine, beautiful, and powerful—her essays reveal the philosophical and theological underpinnings and insights that make such fiction possible. One paragraph of a Marilynne Robinson essay provides anyone with an attuned mind and heart with enough to chew on for days on end. Reading and digesting anything by Robinson requires work—work that is abundantly rewarded.

Memoir—3

Memoir has fascinated me ever since I was told seven or eight years ago at a writer’s workshop that my essays are “philosophical memoir.” The genre is tricky; it is difficult to thread the needle and use one’s own experiences as a pointer to something important instead of delusionally thinking that one’s self is that important thing. Perhaps my favorite book from the past nine months is an example of memoir at its best: meadRebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. It’s a book I wish I had written myself, given that Middlemarch is the greatest novel I’ve ever read. Guess I’ll have to write something else.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells aspiring writers that they should write what they would love to read. After reviewing my list of forty-seven books, I find that the relationship between reading and writing is both two-way and continuous. I do tend to write about themes that I love to read about and ponder, but I regularly gravitate toward new books that shine fresh light on what I’ve been writing and thinking about. I’m sure that a person with the proper training could conclude a number of things about me by studying my list of forty-seven books; my own conclusion is that Jeanne was right many years ago when she observed that I don’t need a lot of human friends, because my books are my friends. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to spend so much uninterrupted time with them.

For those who demand way too much information, here’s my sabbatical reading list as it currently stands, in the order that I read them:lots of books

  • Nesbo, Blood on Snow
  • Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus
  • Klein, Travels with Epicurus
  • Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Carthage
  • Tartt, The Goldfinch
  • Grose, A Good Place to Hide
  • Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem
  • Henry, We Only Know Men
  • Kanon, Leaving Berlin
  • Hawkins, The Language of Gracewatchman
  • Lee, Go Set a Watchman
  • Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
  • Cleeves, Raven Black
  • Cleeves, White Nights
  • Cleeves, Red Bones
  • Bennett, A Big Enough Lie
  • Cleeves, Blue Lightning
  • Oates, them
  • Wallace, Consider the Lobster
  • Ebrahim, The Terrorist’s Son
  • Jeeves, Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods
  • Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
  • Malesic, Secret Faith in the Public Square
  • Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints
  • Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing
  • Young, Eve
  • Martin, The Abbey
  • Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
  • Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companionironic christian
  • Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance
  • Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
  • Wiseman, The Plum Tree
  • Gregory, The Taming of the Queen
  • Robinson, The Givenness of Things
  • Hannah, The Nightingale
  • Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene
  • Russell, Dreamers of the Day
  • Cleeves, Dead Water
  • Cleeves, Thin Air
  • Berghoef, Pub Theology
  • Adler-Olsen, A Conspiracy of Faith
  • Gulley, Evolutionary Faith
  • Russell, Doc
  • Russell, Epitaph
  • Adler-Olsen, The Marco Effect
  • Penny, Still Life

Jesus, Moe, and Curly

IT’S APRIL FOOL’S DAY–A PERFECT TIME FOR SOME IRREVERENCE!

One of my unexpected reading delights in the past few years has been discovering the writings of Anne Lamott. In her struggles with faith, she is equally intense in both her relentless pursuit of the transcendent and her irreverence. In Bird by Bird, she writes that “the mind frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colorectal theology, offering hope to no one.” The phrase truly inspires a picture worth more than a thousand words. I don’t mean to just pick on theologians, though; there’s plenty of colorectal philosophy, too. A Jesuit priest who was one of my professors and mentors during graduate school days once described logical positivism, the rigorously reductive philosophy of language that dominated philosophy in the English-speaking world during the middle decades of the twentieth century, as “mental masturbation.” I’ve been trying not to further develop the picture of Rudolf Carnap, A. J. Ayer, and Moritz Schlick in a Vienna Circle jerk, one that Ludwig Wittgenstein refused to join, ever since I heard the phrase.

My sense of humor tends toward non-sequiturs, irony, sarcasm, and (especially) irreverence. My comic heroes include Monty Python, The Three Stooges, just about everyone in The Blues Brothers, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and Gary Larson; I’ve frequently told my students that the day Larson stopped writing The Far Side  was one of the darkest days in the history of Western Civilization; Stewart’s retirement from The Daily Show rivals it in darkness. Given that academics tend to take themselves FAR more seriously than any group of human beings ever should, hardly a day goes by at work without my having the opportunity to be irreverent. Nietzsche (a very funny guy) wrote that “the noble soul has reverence for itself.” My response is that the healthy soul has reverence for very little.

Humor is one of the best antidotes to an overly serious and somber attitude toward things religious and spiritual. I learned this, amazingly enough, from my Baptist minister father whose sense of humor I inherited. He was always quick to shine an irreverent light on religious smugness and pomposity, although I most often saw his humor in action in the privacy of our home. There’s very little humor in the Bible; Jesus is not reported as ever even smiling (let alone laughing), so far as I’m aware. I wrote recently about a great novel in which two characters have an ongoing debate about whether Jesus ever laughed:

Making the Truth Laugh

But we only get a cardboard cutout Jesus in scripture—to see him as a man, I think some irreverent thoughts. Given that we human beings are flawed, imperfect, and funny to our toes but have perfectionist delusions, irreverence is a universal humanizer.

I like to imagine Jesus and his entourage sitting around a campfire telling off-color jokes, or the disciples having a farting and belching contest. It’s a given that each of the disciples had some peccadillo or personal habit that everyone else laughed at and made fun of. Jesus nicknamed James and John the “sons of thunder”—they were flying off the handle and getting inappropriately pissed all the time. Some laid back disciple (maybe Thaddeus—we never hear about him) was always playing practical jokes on them just to piss them off. Philip was a klutz, Bartholomew was a slob. Andrew snorted when he laughed like Jeanne does, causing everyone else to crack up (as she does). Matthew wrote “Kick Me” on the back of Peter’s robe. Someone in the group (probably Judas) was always trying to get out of paying his share at a restaurant. Everyone was always attempting to get Thomas to believe something without saying “I doubt it” first. They didn’t get their halos until a lot later. If the Bible censors and editors centuries later hadn’t been so humorless, we would have found out about the thirteenth through fifteenth disciples, Larry, Moe, and Curly.

Can’t you just see Jesus mocking and imitating the Pharisees’ tones of voice and mannerisms when they weren’t looking? Talk about irreverent—this guy made vats of wine for his first miracle, ate meals with the riff-raff of the day, and popped balloons of self-righteousness every time he saw them. I’ll bet he set people up just so he could do it. If there wasn’t a lot of smiling and laughing going on, the Jesus caravan  wouldn’t have hung together for so long. Son of God or not, he still had to put his robe on the same way as everyone else.

If God doesn’t have a sense of humor, we are in big trouble (or I am, at least). I admit that there’s a lot about divine wrath and judgment in scripture and the tradition, but enough already. I take comfort in one of the few references to laughter in the Bible. Heavenly strangers visit Abraham and tell him that he, at 100 years old, and Sarah, a 90-year-old spring chicken, will have a son within a year. Now the two of them have been trying for a long time (70-75 years) with no luck. Sarah, on the other side of the tent flap, laughs at the news—well to be fair, the KJV says she “laughed within herself.” It was probably one of those “yeah, right” or “whatever” sniffs or smirks. But her “within herself” laugh was outside herself sufficiently that the visitors hear it and call her on it. And then she lies and says she didn’t laugh. At this point the perceptive reader says “Oh Geez—you’re in trouble now. Aren’t you aware, Sarah, that in the very next chapter your niece-in-law Lot’s wife is going to get turned into a pillar of salt for just looking in the wrong direction?”

But Sarah isn’t divinely fried, or turned into a warthog, or a pepper shaker. After a brief “no I didn’t,” “yes you did” exchange with the divine visitors, Sarah leaves and Abraham starts bargaining with them over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. But three chapters later, sure enough Sarah’s and Abraham’s son is born. And they call him Isaac—“laughter.” He’s grain of sand number one in the great nation that has been promised to Abraham which will number as the “sands of the seashore.” If Lot’s wife had laughed first, then looked, she would have been fine.