Tag Archives: Tolkien

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

scandalJeanne and I are television binge-watchers. A couple of years ago, our obsession was 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” was in its fourth season when we discovered it, so we had a lot of catching up to do via Netflix.

One late Friday afternoon when I returned home from work, the next three “Scandal” DVDs were in our mailbox. Jeanne was away in Canada on a work junket; 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, intending to watch it again with Jeanne when she returned 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, then 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.

Good Morning, Psalms

Last Thursday, in just our second class of the semester, I had the opportunity to introduce my ethics students to the master of all things ethical. The key to Aristotle’s understanding of the life of human flourishing is that such a life depends on the formation of the best habits—Aristotle ethicsthe virtues—to guide one’s life. Aristotle conceived of the life of freedom and moral excellence as a life constructed out of the virtues, good habits that, when cultivated, incline a person to do the right thing as a matter of developed character rather than conscious choice. Habits are established by repetition and, once formed, are often very difficult to change. Accordingly, one should take great care that one’s moral habits are the right ones (virtues) and not the wrong ones (vices), since the wrong habits, once entrenched, will be next to impossible to replace with better ones.plato footnote

I have taught Aristotle’s ethics for many years and believe that although Alfred North Whitehead was probably correct when he said that all of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, the best thinking about ethics begins with Aristotle. And his insights concerning the importance of habits are relevant beyond the ethical realm. I find myself in the best physical shape of my life now in my early sixties because several decades ago my grudging daily trips to the gym somehow turned into a habit that I no longer had to talk myself into. Reading psalms with 100_0670Benedictine monks in Minnesota three times a day during my 2009 sabbatical established a habit of reading the three or four psalms appointed for each day in the Book of Common Prayer that continued for several years after my sabbatical ended. Between my alarm at 5:15 AM and getting to the gym by its 6:00 opening time I read the day’s psalter aloud (or murmured it, lest I awaken the dogs and Jeanne). I am convinced that this simple habit both helped transfer important changes in my life from sabbatical to real life, and also contributed to the preservation of my sanity as I juggled full-time teaching with the additional full-time duties of running a large academic program for four years.

But then I lost the habit, under the strangest of circumstances. My next sabbatical arrived, and with the prospect of unlimited time to rest, re-center, read, and write in front of me, somehow the daily regimen of early morning psalm reading fell by the wayside. I no longer needed to arise at 5:15, I rode my new bicycle obsessively instead of daily workouts at the gym, I applied myself energetically to my sabbatical writing project, and somehow my simple ten to fifteen minutes alone with the psalms every morning didn’t make the cut. habitsI made no conscious decision to end the habit—I just did. If Aristotle is correct in saying that well-established bad habits are very difficult to break, it turned out—in my case at least—that good habits can be broken very easily. I didn’t even realize consciously that my psalm reading habit had gone by the wayside for several weeks; once I noticed its absence, I made a few half-hearted attempts to start again over the following months. But they didn’t take.

I returned to the classroom for the first time in fifteen months a week ago, and decided that along with a return to a 5:15 wake-up call, I would attempt to re-establish my psalm reading habit. With only a week under my belt, the returns are promising; coming back to the psalms has been like becoming reacquainted with very wise friends who have been away for a while. My renewed acquaintances include:

Monday, August 29: Psalm 139

The opening psalm on the list for my first day back was one that, depending on my mood and what’s going on in my life, has been either very disturbing or deeply comforting.

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away . . .

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast . . .

big[1]For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.

Sometimes this Psalm reads like a description of a divine stalker, but more often the mere improbability that the creator of the universe cares about lil’ ole me is overwhelming. If I were inclined to be an atheist, or at least an agnostic, it would probably be because of this very point—the idea that God cares about human beings in any specific sense at all. Most of what we observe and experience screams against it. Our obvious insignificance screams against it.

Psalm 139 offers hope in the face of insignificance. Perhaps there is one place where I do not need to be an impostor or be overwhelmed by my insignificance, a place where I am known better than I know myself and am valued more highly than I could ever manufacture. The other day at convocation, NY Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist kristofNicolas Kristof told the hundreds of students and faculty in attendance that at those times when one feels insignificant, like a single drop of water in a very large bucket, a drop that can’t possibly make a difference, we should remember that buckets are filled by one drop of water at a time.

Tuesday, August 30: Psalm 146

The final entries in the collection of 150 poems are praises of various sorts—noon prayers at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, the place where I first learned to inhabit these ancient poems, include one of the final five psalms in rotation. I always looked forward to Psalm 146, which for me summarizes what God—and therefore those who profess to follow God—cares about the most.

It is the Lord who keeps faith forever, who is just to those who are oppressed.

It is God who gives bread to the hungry, the Lord, who sets prisoners free,

the Lord, who gives sight to the blind, who raises up those who are bowed down,

the Lord, who protects the stranger and upholds the widow and orphan.john the baptist

When John the Baptist sends some of his followers from his prison cell to ask Jesus whether Jesus is the Messiah, “the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus responds in the language of Psalm 146. Tell John that the blind see, the lame walk, the hungry are being fed, strangers are being welcomed, and those imprisoned are being set free. That’s how you can tell when the divine is in the house, when human beings are in tune with what is greater than themselves. Imagine how different our nation, our world, would be if the above lines were the defining touchstone for success.

Thursday, September 1: Psalm 1

The compilers of the Psalms chose to kick things off with a description of happy people, those who “delight in the law of the Lord.”

They are like a tree that is planted bedside the flowing waters,

That yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade;

and all that they do shall prosper.

006I have always been fascinated with trees, but have come to love them in a deeper way over the past several years. Their stability, rootedness, and beauty have become iconic for me. I write about trees frequently in this blog: within the past few months I have written about Tolkien’s Ents, arboreal survival strategies, oaks of righteousness, and how the removal of a 150+ year old tree on campus this summer was traumatic for all involved. In an interview with Krista Tippett, theologian Ellen Davis said that “anything in our world now that slows us down is to be valued and maybe as a gift and even a calling from God.” The fact that the first analogy in the Psalms for the person who “meditates on God’s law day and night” is a tree silently proceeding through its seasons of fruitfulness and prosperity confirms Davis’ insight. I may not meditate on God’s law day and night, but fifteen minutes a day is doable.

I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

It’s a Mystery

 

The brand new installment in Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers mystery series just arrived–Jeanne and I are in disagreement about who gets to read it first. I am reminded of what I wrote a year ago about my love of mystery novels . . .

cunningham1When you aren’t reading philosophy, what do you like to read?” he asked. This had all the makings of a loaded question. When the president of the college where you are interviewing for a tenure track job asks any question, it’s loaded—but this one had all sorts of implications. He was a Dominican priest—what should I say? The Bible? The Summa Theologica? Three years earlier various folks had informally prepped me for what the president of the tiny college at which I currently worked and desperately wanted to leave would ask me and what answers he would want to hear, but no one had provided me with similar help this time. I was on my own. “Mystery novels,” I said truthfully, fully expecting that this probably sealed my not getting the job. “Me too!” he replied, and over the next half hour we compared notes—as it turned out, he was as big of a fan of Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry

anne perry as I was. He never asked me about my response to the college’s mission statement, why I wanted to leave one tenure track position in exchange for another; he didn’t even try to sound me out about what I thought it would be like to teach at a Catholic college as a non-Catholic. But I suspect he found out more about me from our conversation about mystery novels that he would have from my answers to any number of standard queries. Father Cunningham was a smart guy.

The story of how I came to love mystery novels parallels the story of the early months of Jeanne’s and my relationship. I often tell people that I read for a living. Actually I’m a teacher, but a philosophy/humanities professor spends far more time reading than in the classroom. Furthermore, I’ve been an incurable bibliophile since I started reading a couple of years before I started first grade. But even though mystery novels occupy a surprisingly large percentage of space on Jeanne’s and my many bookshelves at home, their entry into my world of that-which-must-be-read was relatively late. The early months of 1988 were more full of adventure, new beginnings, and over-the-top stress than any months Sante-Fe-NMI had previously (or perhaps have since) experienced. Jeanne and I met late in 1987; early in the New Year I went with her to Santa Fe, affording us the opportunity to find out whether actually living under the same roof would put a damper on our new relationship that had, up to this point, largely been one of lengthy, nightly long distance phone calls.

As Jeanne worked and studied through the final semester of her Master’s program at St. John’s College, I navigated the final stages of choosing a PhD program to start in the fall, struggled through the emotional and legal thickets of custody issues with my ex, and tried to find a job. I soon landed a piano-playing gig at a large Methodist church sixty miles south in albuquerqueAlbuquerque, which paid just about enough to cover the gas used for two weekly round trips in “The Bird,” Jeanne’s rather unreliable vehicle. I also found what would have been, under different circumstances and several years earlier, a dream job—working as a jack-of-all-trades in a tiny independent bookstore, called “Books West,” in a shopping plaza just a five-minute walk from Jeanne’s apartment.

Sue, my boss at “Books West,” soon realized that she had a rare find on her hands—someone who had actually read a lot of books. atlasshruggedWhen not working the single cash register up front, my duties included ordering appropriate selections for the one-shelf philosophy section which largely consisted of Ayn Rand junk and various new-agey stuff with the word “Philosophy” in the title, as well as making selections to beef up the “Fiction” section, which when I arrived contained nothing written earlier than around 1950. The store was tiny, so before long I had ordered way more than would fit on the shelves and my book selection activities went on hiatus. The bookstore had little traffic most of the time—there is just so much time that one needs to spend straightening out shelves that very seldom are touched—so fortunately Sue had no problem with employees reading at the front counter—just as long as it did not lead to ignoring a customer, should such a creature actually show up. What a job! Hours of reading time, and getting paid slightly over minimum wage to do it!

I am both an organized and an obsessive reader. Organized in the sense that I generally have a method to my reading schedule, obsessive because once I establish the method, I follow it through without deviation. I had a small bookstore at my disposal containing several genres of paperbacks I had never delved into. What to read? Where to start? Lord-of-the-RingsThe Science Fiction shelves held little interest, and I avoided Fantasy because I was quite sure that with The Lord of the Rings I had already read the best fantasy—several times—ever written. The Mystery section was promising, but I had no idea of who might be worth reading and who was just pulp mystery. I asked my co-worker John, a tall, skinny guy who next to my friend Anthony was the most “outed” I have ever encountered if he had an opinion. “I prefer Young Adult Fiction myself,” he said (he was probably thirty-five or so), “but I hear that P. D. James is pretty good.” “P. D. James it is,” I thought, and I grabbed Cover her faceCover Her Face, James’s first mystery. I loved it. I read her next one, then her next one, and didn’t stop until I had finished every mystery she had written to that point (that’s my obsessive method or methodical obsession in action). Then Sue Grafton. Sarah ParetskyThen Sara Paretsky. We’re talking two or three dozen 200-300 page paperbacks by this time. Jeanne graduated, we hightailed it out of Santa Fe eventually landing with my sons (we won the custody battle) in Milwaukee for the beginning of my PhD studies at Marquette, but I was armed with the names of several dozen more mystery writers to try out. Deborah Crombie. Elizabeth George. Anne Perry. Every one of them writing continuing series with returning characters and plots that develop over several volumes.elizabeth george

Why do I love mysteries? I suppose there are all sorts of reasons. I teach and write on the edge of mystery all the time, exploring the boundaries between the known and unknown in various areas of investigation—human nature, change and permanence, certainty and probability, reason and faith, human and divine. A student once expressed this sort of boundary analysis memorably in an oral exam several years ago. “It’s like being on the inside of a room with walls made of tinfoil,” she said. “You can’t get out of the room, but as you press against the walls from the inside, you can feel and then begin to imagine the shape of what’s on the other side.” I would add that there’s a certain element of moving the walls back a bit as the pressing and pushing continues. The room of the known gets larger, but the suspicion deepens that what’s on the other side of the tinfoil is far more interesting and greater than what is inside the room.

But I suspect that my attraction to mystery novels has a far less mysterious and far more practical explanation. Each of my favorite mystery authors writes in a multiple volume series, developing a handful of main characters throughout as they engage with and solve the latest murder. dalgleishAdam Dalgleish, Tommy Lynley, Barbara Havers, William Monk, Charlotte Pitt, Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Ferguson have become parts of my life not because they brilliantly solve case after case, but because their growth, maturation, mistakes and inanities over the years that they have been my mystery friends 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 and Barbara were solving eight or nine Elizabeth George mysteries ago. BJulia S-Fut 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 wandering path over the past two decades. Alasdair MacIntyre is right—human beings are “story telling animals.” Pick your favorite genre and dive in. (By the way, my latest mystery favorite is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series set in upstate New York. Its setting reminds me both of the rural Vermont of my youth and of the people I go to church with every Sunday. If you love the rural Northeast and/or Episcopalians, it’s to die for!).

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.

Someone Would Know

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

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

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

floating booksWho would know?

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

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

No.

Why not?

Because someone would know.

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

A Trip to Middle Earth

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

empty bookshelvesJustin, who would know?

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

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

No.

WHY NOT?

Because someone would know.

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

Who is going to know??!!

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

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

No.

WHY NOT??

Because someone would know.

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

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

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

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

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

I would know.

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

A Trip to Middle Earth

Everyone has an unforgettable teacher or two in his or her history; I aspire to be that teacher for a person or two in every class I teach. When thinking about those teachers in my own history, I usually go no farther back than my mentors in graduate school, about whom I have written occasionally on this blog.

Resembling the Picture

But as I stood in line for a movie ticket for hobbit movie“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” a few weeks ago, I remembered Mrs. Lord, the wonderfully monikered teacher of my college-prep English class as a freshman in high school. We spent a lot of time with grammar (something that I think fell by the wayside in high school English classes long ago), but I remember the literature. Great Expectations, A Separate Peace, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, “Romeo and Juliet,” just to name a few. I was well read for a ninth-grader, but had heard of neither the title nor the author of the book from that year that had the greatest influence on me. The Hobbit? I thought? What the hell is a hobbit? And why does tolkienJ. R. R. Tolkien find it necessary to have three initials rather than one first name? I don’t exactly remember the details of my original reaction to this book, but it was strong enough that after finishing it in two days, I went to Mrs. Lord after class and said “I really like this book. Has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact, yes he has,” she replied. And I was hooked for good.

This was decades pre-Amazon, and there were not a whole lot of bookstores in northeastern Vermont, so I don’t exactly recall how I got my hands on paperback copies of the three-volume The Lord of the Rings. But I did (probably my mother pulled it off—it’s the sort of thing she did behind the scenes all the time), and I feel headlong into Middle Earth. In many ways I have never fully returned. lotrStarting that year (1970), for the next three decades I read the trilogy through from cover to cover on the average of every three years. When I heard over a decade ago that a Peter Jackson was planning a trilogy film treatment of The Lord of the Rings, I was fully prepared to be a critic with the same intensity that the fundamentalists of my youth were critical of Biblical epics (“That’s not scriptural!” “That’s not in the Bible!”). But I loved the trilogy on the big screen (more than I enjoyed the unnecessary trilogy of The Hobbit), and plan to watch the fifteen-hour extended version of the trilogy I have at home straight through at least once before I die (when Jeanne’s out of town—she’s not into this hobbit/elf/dwarf/wizard/orc/ent/ringwraith stuff).

There has always been a great deal of speculation about where Tolkien got his ideas and inspiration from, beginning with the Ring of Power itself, the possession or destruction of which is the driving energy of the thousand plus pages of the epic.

Ring of powerOne Ring to rule them all

One Ring to find them

One Ring to bring them all

and in the Darkness bind them

I can’t say for sure (although I’m sure that dozens of websites would be happy to school me on this), but I know where I hope Tolkien got the idea for the Ring of Power from. As a classically trained scholar, Tolkien knew his Plato—and so he also knew that at the beginning of Book Two of his masterpiece The Republic, Plato tucked a memorable story of another insignificant nobody who found a ring with remarkable powers and corrosive effects—the Ring of Gyges.

republicThe topic of conversation in The Republic is justice broadly conceived—something more like what we would call “morality” or “right living” rather than the narrower sense of justice as equality or fairness that we contemporary folks are familiar with. The overarching question in the early pages of The Republic is “Why be moral at all?” Socrates intends to argue that being moral is natural to human beings, but before he can get started one of his conversants, Plato’s older brother Glaucon, begs to differ. Normal people, Glaucon claims, believe that human beings are not moral by nature—we are self-interested, aggressive and competitive creatures who want what we want when we want it and are willing to pursue it at any expense, including the welfare of someone else, as long as we think we can get away with it. We impose morality and law on ourselves and each other because we are afraid of each other, but being moral is an artificial state for a human being, something contrary to our basic nature.

To illustrate his point, Glaucon tells the story of a lowly shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia named Gyges. One day while he is bored out of his mind tending the sheep and goats, ring of gygesGyges does a bit of exploring and finds a pretty gold ring. He has never owned anything so sparkly and shiny, so he keeps it. A few days later, as he is sitting in the middle of the weekly shepherds committee meeting with several of his colleagues, he is fiddling with his new toy and discovers that when he turns it a certain way on his finger, he turns invisible! Gyges uses his ring of invisibility as an instrument of empowerment—in short order his seduces the queen, kills the king, and becomes the ruler of Lydia. Furthermore, Glaucon argues, any person, from moral giants to lowly degenerates, would do the same thing with the ring of invisibility that Gyges did—whatever they wanted to do. And they would be fools if they did not.

The purpose of Glaucon’s story is to emphasize his point that being moral is artificial, not natural. We restrict our pursuit of self-interest because we fear what will happen if we are discovered breaking the rules of society, rules intended to keep aggressive and self-centered creatures from killing each other. We bind ourselves with the restrictions of the social contract while secretly wishing for a world in which we could do whatever we desire. gollumThe ring of invisibility opens for its wearer that very world, a world of power and opportunity—a world in which everything can be accomplished without fear of retribution or responsibility. That Tolkien’s Ring of Power turns its wearer invisible, just as Gyges’ ring does, is a telling connection to Plato’s ancient tale. But Tolkien introduces a new element—empowerment comes at a cost. Every character sucked into the vortex of the ring’s influence—wizard, elf, dwarf, hobbit or human—experiences the corrosive effect of power without responsibility. Sméagol the lowly hobbit devolves into the tortured Gollum; SarumanSaruman the White turns from a powerful force for good into an even more powerful force of destruction; kings become bodiless wraiths; once used, unlimited power is both seductive and deadly.

On the surface, the cosmic conflict that dominates The Lord of the Rings seems reducible simplistically to Good vs. Evil, a simplistic reading that makes Tolkien’s fantasy an endless source of ideas for violent video games. But lying just below the surface are the timeless questions that should obsess all of us. What are we? What is morality? Are good and evil mutually exclusive? How should we live our lives in the middle of a reality largely outside our control? Next Friday, I’ll return to the ring of power tales with the story of how I learned something twenty-five years ago from my seven-year-old son that I’ll never forget, something that forever influenced how I think about what is good and what is not.