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Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.

Love Will Win

Picture the favorite vehicle that you have ever owned. Did it look like this?imagesCAZSZF9L

Or this?imagesCATWFKR9

Or this?Corvette_Stingray_454_For_Sale[1]

Mine looked something like this.img_4135[1] (Not exactly, but close. Amazingly enough, I have no actual full pictures of the vehicle in question). On a very sad morning five years ago, the morning that my favorite vehicle ever was towed out of my driveway, I wrote the following reminiscence of how this candidate for the world’s ugliest station wagon played an important role in helping me learn to embrace my inner self.

I watched a piece of history disappear out of sight this morning, as it turned the corner at the end of my block—a piece of my history. It was perched on the back of a flatbed tow truck. As my car rounded the bend, donated to charity for a tax write-off and undoubtedly destined to be dismantled for parts, I began to wax nostalgic. Although I came of age during the turbulent sixties and early seventies, I was not your classic anti-establishment rebel. I grew up in rural northern New England, was raised in a conservative Protestant religious tradition—these are hardly contributing factors to being a masters-of-rock-issue-7-psychedelic-60s[1]60s counter-culture flower child. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to make up for lost time during my 40s and 50s. As I get older, I continue to attribute a number of my defining features—my liberalism, the delight I take in enabling young people to think for themselves, my ponytail—to the atmosphere of the Sixties that seeped into my bones unbeknownst to me as I was growing up. The vehicle in question was a significant addition to this development.

The Chairmobile was a 1991 Honda Accord station wagon—it had about 190,000 miles on it when it dropped in my lap in the summer of 2004; as it left the homestead this morning, it had 250,000. It should have looked like this:blue[1] It didn’t. The Chairmobile’s registration said it was blue, but no one who ever saw it called it blue. It looked red to me, but I’m partially color blind. It had a serious rust problem on both fenders; it was apparently in an accident before it came to me and has a gash on the driver side front door that is also rusting around the edges. It was also covered with graffiti-style yellow spray paint, making the question of its true color moot. The hood said, in large yellow letters, “Cuba Caravan 2004,” in honor of the (illegal) caravan of humanitarian aid to Cuba in which Jeanne participated in the summer of 2004. Along the two driver side doors the words “Love Will Win” are sprayed. The two doors on the other side read “Pastors For Peace,” although the fading letters are hard to read in places. The back window had some more propaganda painted on it.062904-p4pcar-rear-2-250px[1]

Around all four sides of the roof were sprayed the names of various heartland cities, from Minneapolis, MN to Wichita Falls, TX, towns it visited as it was loaded with aid to be driven to the US/Mexican border. The car was intended to go on a barge with the rest of the aid from Mexico to Cuba, but the Cubans could only take diesel fueled vehicles that summer. Jeanne had just accepted a job at a university on Long Island that started in late summer and would be taking our sole vehicle with her. The beat up, graffiti-wearing, Cuba-rejected Honda was there for the taking, so I figured I’d drive it for a few months until it croaked.

That was five years ago. I christened it “The Chairmobile” because I had just started four years as chair of the philosophy department a month earlier. It came with a bumper sticker that said “Be a real revolutionary: Practice your faith.” EB789263[1]I added a few more, such as “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bartlet,” “Dissent is Patriotic,” S460_DissentIsPatriotic[1]and the symbol for the ACLU, just in case there was any doubt about the political leanings of the Chairmobile’s owner. Every time I drove out of the driveway I was screaming to the world “I’m a fucking liberal! You want to make something of it?? What are you staring at?? You want a piece of me??” Not the best vehicle for an introvert who would just as soon be anonymous at times, but driving an extroverted car boosted my confidence level.

I have enough stories about reactions to the Chairmobile to fill dozens of essays. A local cop pulled me over in the grocery store parking lot within a week of the Chairmobile’s arrival for no reason other than that he simply could not believe such a horrible looking car could be current and legal in its insurance, registration, and inspection. More recently, as I was minding my own business loading groceries in the same parking lot, a twenty-something yelled “Hey buddy, Osama kills liberals too!” as he drove by in a BMW convertible. Another time somebody hollered imagesCASHU94X“Love sucks!” at me as I turned the corner from a stop light—obviously his girlfriend had just dumped him. My friend Montana Bob, a veteran of the Cuba caravans, reports that a few years earlier, he was driving a similarly graffitied vehicle through Colorado Springs, gathering humanitarian aid on the way to the Mexican border. Someone at a stop light asked “If you love Cuba so much, why don’t you go live there, you Communist?”, to which my friend, in the true spirit of Christian charity, asked in return “why don’t you pull over into that parking lot so I can kick your ass?” Montana Bob is a committed advocate of muscular Christianity.

But in the years I drove the Chairmobile, I received far more smiles from strangers than frowns. A woman in the neighborhood told me (in the grocery store parking lot once again) “I love it when I see your car—it always makes me feel good, especially these days.” How different would the world be if everyone wore their inner selves on the outside, in the same way as exoskeletal lobsters and crabs do?rusty_crayfish[1] For the few years that I drove the Chairmobile, I announced to the world in no uncertain terms some things about me that were both true and could no longer be hidden. Such as that what my car looks like is about 1037th on my list of priorities. That at least in theory I care more about people in need than people’s opinions. That I believe being a person of faith has little to do with church attendance. That I’m a person of faith in the first place. And that I’m living out some repressed rebellious tendencies that had no outlet in my youth while rebellion was erupting all around me.

The money required to keep the Chairmobile inspected and running finally became prohibitive; its replacement is also used (1996), has high mileage (update: 145,000 then—225,000 now, four years later. Jeanne and I like cars with more mileage on them than we have), but has no rust, no dents, and no graffiti. That worries me—I’ve become used to my car making a statement, sort of like a sandwich board advertisement for the driver. So I’ll be headed for the hardware store to get some spray paint soon.100_0876 I need some new messages, though, to reflect the new and revived me that emerged from my sabbatical months. “St. Benedict is the man.” “Monks rock.” “Big Bird is watching you.” “My dachshunds can beat up your honors student.” Stuff like that. And perhaps the opening lines from daily noon prayer: “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” It never hurts to ask—all the time.