"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 May 2005

“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

excerpts from the essay by literary critic Roger Rosenblatt, originally published in The American Spectator in 1972

Rosenblatt notes the reactions of most people when confronted with the fact of his profession -- the teaching of English. After the inevitable "Oh, I'll have to watch my grammar," there is the question of what exactly the English professor does -- what does it mean to teach literature, why does one teach literature, and is it of any actual value to do so? This essay, then, is Rosenblatt's apologia for literary criticism. The following excerpts especially struck me, and I will, for the most part, let them speak for themselves.

“I start with a working definition a little narrower than the general designation of literature as written work of enduring importance. For the teacher of English who deals directly or indirectly with people, literature must also deal with people, and it must be good. Literature, then, is the beautiful and orderly expression of human activity in written words. It deals with people, and it does something good. In the highest uses of language it shows our common heroism, cruelty, capacity for gentleness and stupidity, our resilience, friability, magnanimity, selfishness, our blunderings and grace. In short, among the arts it is the most comprehensive expression of our humanity. Accordingly, literary criticism is the instrument by which such expression may be made clear or clearer (clarity not being necessary to beauty or order), made known or more widely known. What beauty may mean I leave to the proving power of the individual critic. The larger point is that literature does something good, and that literary criticism also does something good, though it is not the same good.”

Literary criticism, Rosenblatt says, has five parts, which he summarizes as follows (emphasis added): “To disclose the secrets of a work of literature is to see something clearly for its various components; to know its patterns is to see something steady and whole; to recognize its worth is to make informed evaluations; to appreciate its precision is to appreciate the act of saying what one means; to understand that what you’re reading is not what you’re living precludes your corruption of either. Done right, literary criticism teaches these things, and the learning of them in turn reminds some people at least that such revelations and processes are not inborn, but must be continually coaxed from us, restated and rehearsed, lest we once again convince ourselves of our latent divinity. The function of literary criticism at the present time – are you ready? – is the advocacy of common sense.”

“In a world of ever increasing sentimentality it is essential to know how to probe, unravel, and evaluate all sorts of grand constructs, and in so doing to be able to recognize one’s proper relationship to them. This is the basic sanity of literary criticism.”

And his final paragraph, which says what most of us are afraid to claim, and yet . . . without the skills the literary critic teaches, how can we understand our world and both form and articulate our beliefs about how to live well in it? Perhaps he speaks arrogance, but he says what I have often thought -- not with arrogance but with terror:

“The purpose of this essay was to report that a literary critic and teacher does something. That done, I leave to others the task of determining that among the various walks of life ours is the most enlightened, the most humane, the most scrupulous and intelligent, and the most essential to national security. For the moment it is enough to note that in the history of human communications there have been relatively few men and women [the great writers] who have heightened our language and the account of our thoughts and actions to a degree where we would look upon ourselves with as much fear and wonder as we would look upon the gods. Then there are some others [the critics] whose commonplace job it is to remind us that we are only human, a condition complicated and tough enough in itself without seeking higher office, and at times quite splendid, almost satisfactory. These others are saints. One does not ask a saint what he does for a living.”

27 May 2005

“Trust Me”

I have been immersed in detective novels the past few days, my usual wind-down from the semester. Sayers, Marsh, and another British woman I’ve never read before – Elizabeth Ferrars. Not knowing the name, I only picked up one of her books, A Legal Fiction, which looked intriguing. When we return to McKay’s, I shall pick up more.

In A Legal Fiction, the protagonist is given plenty of reason to believe that the young woman (a childhood acquaintance) who got him into the mess they are in may well be part of it herself – assault, theft, fraud, and now murder. She has hardly acted forthrightly, much evidence is against her, and now someone gives him a perfectly reasonable explanation of her actions which fits quite well with her involvement. So . . . he immediately executes a number of actions which will seal his fate unless she is actually loyal to him.

Hardly rational? When he encounters her again, she tells him she has made a decision to trust someone whom they have both suspected of involvement in the crimes. When he asks why, she says, in effect, “At some point, you just have to decide to trust someone.” He replies, “I’ve come to the same conclusion.”

Of course, here it is a matter of heart ruling head because he is in love with her. (You didn’t expect otherwise, I hope!)

But sometimes we are required to let heart rule head, too. I love the image of Reason as a dwarf in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. There he is, toddling along behind Red Crosse and Una, doing his best to keep up (and yet important; if they leave him behind altogether they do get in trouble), but always subordinate to Faith.

Scripture tells us the mind must be renewed by the Word. But we do not always allow this renewal, and anyway God’s ways are not our ways. And so we fret and fume and try to figure things out and get hot and bothered when the journey, or even what appears to be the destination, seems all wrong.

And all the time He is saying, “Trust Me.” “Be still and listen.” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “Trust Me.”

If I love Him, I must choose to trust Him. And sometimes, that love for Him will require me to let my heart – fully His – rule my head. May I learn to walk with Him so that trust becomes a way of life. And may I keep the dwarf in his proper place, important, but always subordinate to Faith.

24 May 2005

"Let marriage be held in honor"

Many of our students/former students are getting married this summer. This is a brief meditation I wrote for a wedding card for one of them. It's far from complete, but my goal with our young folk is to hold before them the reality of commitment. The butterflies and fireworks are great fun, but you won't live there much, as any married folk can attest. So it is important to be alerted to love as action instead of love as feeling.

Love is commitment shown through sacrificial actions which benefit the beloved, not emotion based on how the other meets my needs and fulfills my desires.

As you enter this new state of life, it may seem that the butterflies and fireworks will last forever and carry you through whatever may come. Even though you know that this is not actually the case, the reality of day-to-day life is yet to come, that reality in which you will learn what love really is.

One day, for whatever reason, you will find yourself thinking, who is this person? Why did I marry him or her? And in that moment, you are given a choice – to act on feelings or to act on faith.

Love has nothing to do, ultimately, with feelings. Feelings, rather, grow out of love, which is a choice we make, embodied in our actions.

When he has hurt you by words or deeds, will you make his favorite supper (that dish you hate!) and smile as you serve it? When she has failed to understand your needs, will you wash the dishes and do the laundry just because she is tired and anxious? These will be the kinds of actions that ground your love in reality and bring it to the depth God intends for it to reach.

May the Lord bless you as you learn to walk in His ways, and may your marriage be a blessing to all around you, drawing others to the One who makes it sweet and strong.

Love . . .
is patient and kind;
does not envy or boast;
is not arrogant or rude;
does not insist on its own way;
is not irritable or resentful;
does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth;
bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.

Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends. - John 15:13

We love because he first loved us. - I John 4:19

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. - Ephesians 5:1-2

Many waters cannot quench love. - Song of Songs 8:7

21 May 2005

Considering the Lilies

Chambers’ May 18 meditation reminds me of Hopkins’ “As kingfishers catch fire”:

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they simply are! Think of the sea, the air, the sun, the stars and the moon – all these are, and what a ministration they exert.”

Chambers goes on to apply this to our frequent “self-conscious effort[s] to be consistent and useful” and reminds us that “[w]e cannot get at the springs of our natural life by common sense, and Jesus is teaching that growth in spiritual life does not depend on our watching it, but on concentrating on our Father in heaven. [. . .] [I]f we keep concentrated on Him we will grow spiritually as the lilies.”

This is so simple and yet so hard to do! I am having the most difficulty in looking at that long to-do list and frantically trying to figure out when to do what and wondering how I will get it all done and looking at who and what are depending on my actions . . . and I keep forgetting that none of it, in the end, is actually dependent on me, but on Him. And so if I am frantically doing without listening to the One who desires to direct me, I may do far more damage than good in all my attempts at usefulness.

“The people who influence us most are not those who buttonhole us and talk to us, but those who live their lives like the stars in heaven and the lilies in the field, perfectly simply and unaffectedly. Those are the lives that mould us. If you want to be of use to God, get rightly related to Jesus Christ and He will make you of use unconsciously every minute you live.”

So true. One must hear the words to understand why such people live in faith, but too often the words, and the deeds, are not flowing out of love for Him but a misplaced need to earn His approval.

I want to learn to listen . . . and listening is my weakest point. I can only be grateful that He knows our frame, that He holds us and that our life in Him is itself dependent on His abounding and never-failing love and not on our perfection in responding to it.

14 May 2005


Tuesday night we came home to find

* that our oldest son and his wife had lost their eagerly anticipated Christmas baby, a second miscarriage.

Wednesday we called our married children to tell them

* that their beloved grandmother is beginning chemo again for the cancer we had willed ourselves to believe was conquered.

During those calls we learned

* that a good friend of our oldest son had died in a motorcycle wreck and he is attending the funeral today;

* that our older daughter’s son, who has a blood disorder, is having to return to the hospital, but the treatment he’s been receiving has ceased to be effective in any significant way, leaving his parents with frustratingly inadequate or frighteningly invasive options they will eventually have to choose among;

* a good friend of our younger daughter’s, after two miscarriages due to a rare genetic disorder, lost a near-term baby to a totally different, also rare, condition.

I am almost relieved that our middle son was not at home; I am not sure I can take in whatever his most recent encounter with death or injury or illness has been.

My younger daughter remarked as we talked that there was no particular reason she “needed” three healthy children while her friend cannot seem to carry a healthy baby to term; she wondered why some of her “good luck” couldn’t have been given to her friend. And while her four-year-old was unaware of this baby, she has been talking excitedly about her aunt and uncle’s for days. And so my daughter tries to explain that some babies are meant to live with Jesus instead of with us.

How to explain death to a four-year-old? How to explain it to a grieving mother, a grieving son, anyone who knows loss?

Today, the brokenness of this world overwhelms me. My words seem too simple and altogether inadequate. At least God has given us others to love and comfort us, I say. They walk past my words, but actions tell me they understand; my daughter, for example, has bought a May birthstone necklace to commemorate the life and death of a child hardly known but deeply beloved, and she will travel across the state to give it as she offers her time and her tears to mourn with her friend.

We cannot make the brokenness less broken, nor make it hurt less, but we can offer what comfort we can because, in the midst of it all, He is still God.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “who comforts us in all our afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (II Cor. 1:3-4 ESV).

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” Jesus taught the multitude. May His comfort be with us all today and may we find ourselves blessed.

10 May 2005


Traveling is not an easy task for people who are quite different from each other, especially if one of them (must I name names?! I prefer to protect my guilt!) tends towards testiness. I am so looking forward to this extra trip to visit my folks, a trip we never make in the summer; may I not spoil it by irritability over foolish things but seek to serve the Lord by serving those with whom I travel -- and especially this wonderful man who is putting off his own projects and sacrificing his comfort and preferences to make it possible. Gratefulness; may I learn to live in gratefulness.

08 May 2005

NRO Atlanta

(I had the privilege last week of attending a seminar/dinner with several of the editors and writers of National Review, the journal of conservatism founded by William F. Buckley some 50 years ago. The following is from my journal of the evening.)

During the panel discussion and Q & A time, I am certainly impressed by the NRO editors and writers – they are articulate, funny, knowledgeable, at ease with themselves and each other, confident in their opinions yet arguing differences with respect. Jay Nordlinger – the most gracious human being on the planet – moderates; Andrew Stuttaford holds forth on movies, Kate O’Beirne gives us an inside look at CNN; between sessions, Kathryn Lopez seems to be in constant motion, yet stops to give her full attention when I approach and accepts a compliment with delighted sincerity, while John Derbyshire admits his perfectionism about writing and laments the demise of decent copyediting.

At dinner, several of us are carrying on a conversation with Ramesh Ponnuru. He is seated about midway down the side of a longish table; we are across from him and/or to his right. As our plates are removed, a young lady quietly excuses herself to move to the opposite end of the table, where a crowd is beginning to gather. Ramesh glances that way and rolls his eyes, feigning aggravation. “Why does Jonah have to come to my table? No one will want to talk to me now.”

Warren Bell arrives and sits next to Ramesh, and the conversation turns to Hollywood, feminism, and his journey to conservative thinking. Ramesh joins for a while, but soon turns to the conversation going on to his left, where Jonah Goldberg is indeed attracting a growing crowd.

I have been up since 5:00 a.m., given a final exam, and driven 3 hours to be here. 5:00 a.m. is now some 15 hours gone. As tends to happen when I am fatigued, I find myself checking out from direct involvement and becoming an observer.

The small group around Warren is quietly serious now, talking education. Laughter punctuates the conversation at Rich Lowry’s table behind me, where Rich leans back, suit jacket gone but tie still professionally in place, holding forth earnestly on something or other. I hear Ramesh say something about Kansas – my home state, as his – and turn my attention to that end of our table.

Immaculate in a perfectly tailored dark suit and tie, Ramesh is leaning forward, gesturing eloquently to his rapid and impassioned words as he dissects the insulting book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Jonah is leaning back, eyes half-closed, nodding and listening. His sport shirt, open at the neck and tieless, the casual blazer and worn blue jeans, and his unruly mop of hair offer a contrast with Ramesh, as does his style of speech – slower, pausing to choose his words, fewer gestures and more deliberate body language.

But the passion is there, in his eyes and in his tone, and it is the same passion I have noted in all these folk today, and I am struck with hope.

Immersed in the writing of college freshman for nine months, it is easy to lose perspective, to begin wondering if anyone will in the future be able to defend truth, to articulate sanity and moral principles. But I thought the same thing a decade and two decades ago, when many of these writers were college age, and here they are – accepting the mantle of William F. Buckley and carrying on his vision in a worthy manner.

I find it amazing that these highly intelligent people, especially those younger ones whose generation abounds with cynicism and materialism, have chosen to use their considerable gifts with language to challenge the rapid downward spiral of our culture and society. They are not content to use their gifts and energy for personal gain, as they so easily could. They refuse to succumb to cynicism or elitism. Rather, they hold ideals and values which they have decided are worth sacrificing to live by. The sacrifices they make are real – but the vision is clear. We owe them more than we know.

May their wisdom continue to increase and their influence to expand. My heartfelt thanks to them all.

07 May 2005


This academic year is truly over. We faculty are weary and glad to see it go, but this morning the student speaker held our attention and gave us reason to hope in those we are sending out.

Annali did not bother with clich├ęs and tired aphorisms. Rather, she addressed the necessary discouragement and despair the believer must experience and face in order to understand hope. And she told her classmates to accept the brokenness of their world and enter it with the hope of Christ to show forth to others.

Perhaps most refreshing, she rejected the common misconception that our campus is a Christian bubble where no one is challenged with brokenness or able to learn our need for the God of hope. Instead, despite the strong Christian influence that exists, it is a place where fallen human beings struggle to find His way to live in a broken world, where believers are challenged to learn what it means to hope, to live in hope, to show forth hope.

For those of us sitting behind her, as she thanked us for our example and exhortations, insistence and forgiveness, encouragement and inspiration, we were reminded of the terrible burden and wondrous privilege of teaching, of the fear and trembling with which we are required to approach this holy honor of having young people within our influence for four of the most significant years of their lives.

May we be found worthy, despite our failings and floundering. May we depend on Him daily, hourly, and never forget the seriousness of our need to live honestly before Him and those who look to us for an example of His loving care.

The Daily Round

from Oswald Chambers, 21 October:

“Discipleship is built entirely on the supernatural grace of God. Walking on the water is easy to impulsive pluck, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is a different thing. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he followed Him afar off on the land. We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.”

Now, obviously, the grace of God is a tremendous wonder in crises – but I have lived what Chambers means here. Something – can it really be pride? perhaps I am too proud to admit it – rises up in me and says, I can get through this, I will not make a fool of myself, I will survive; and often I do manage it. And we see people manage it day after day who know nothing of the grace of God.

But the daily round? That indeed is a different story. Grading papers, attending committee meetings, prepping classes, making the course website work; creating a dinner, washing dishes, reading to my son, listening to my husband . . . These activities are “only” the makings of daily life, “only” what I ought to do in any case. But these are exactly the activities that I fret and fume over, and exactly the activities in which God calls for excellence.

I do not tolerate short cuts in my writing. May I learn not to tolerate short cuts in the far more important daily round of my life.

06 May 2005

"Do not fret yourselves . . ."

Skimming through Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest yesterday, searching for a quote I’d read somewhere that hadn’t been referenced by date, I realized I am at a place where I need to hear his challenge to live in simple fellowship with our Lord once again.

I would like this summer, amid the five hundred items on my to-do list, to learn to look to Him and trust him for each moment. Chambers says in his 5 August meditation:

“His call is to be in comradeship with Himself for His own purposes, and the test is to believe that God knows what He is after. The things that happen do not happen by chance, they happen entirely in the decree of God. God is working out His purposes. [. . .] A Christian is one who trusts the wits and the wisdom of God, and not his own wits. If we have a purpose of our own, it destroys the simplicity and the leisureliness which ought to characterize the children of God.”

May I rest and listen to Him to know how to spend my moments this summer, and not be fretful over that to-do list but leave it in His keeping and trust that His purposes will be accomplished.

03 May 2005

Eagles’ Wings

End of the semester is always bittersweet, especially spring. One is always glad to let it go; the tiredness increases hourly and rest looks so very sweet.

Of course, it is sad to see the seniors leave. We have gotten to know them so well, love them so much for all they have given us in the past four years, rejoice in the ways they have matured. Their words of thanks at our departmental awards night humbled us all and encouraged us to keep on.

But by finals week the tiredness overwhelms even that sorrow. I only wish it to be over, to have some time to ponder and play and be a wife and mom, read and write for something other than tomorrow’s class, next week’s exam. I feel inadequate, frazzled. Depression hits and I want to succumb. Calling means nothing to me this day.

So glad, so glad, that I am not here alone living my life for whatever purpose I can pretend it has. So glad for the strength He so graciously gives even as I think there is no strength left, His hold on my call and His hold on me to live it whether I will or no.

Jeremiah, when he wearied of the mocking of the people against his prophecies, said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’” (20:9 ESV).

Whatever weariness, whatever discouragement, those who desire to live for Him find His Spirit a burning fire that will not let us continue in silence, that reminds us He is with us, to give us wings to mount up like eagles. Rest will come, but His strength is with me now, and I will wait on Him to receive it from His hand. (Is. 40:31)

02 May 2005

Politically Correct Annoyances

I watch very little TV; I have little to no patience with most of it and would much rather read a book or work a crossword puzzle if I wish to relax. But there are a few shows I enjoy, and two of them supremely disappointed me this weekend.

JAG – how could they end this whole series with that silly coin toss, as if it were an impossible thing to let Mac decide she wants to be Harm’s wife and a mother to Maddie? Clearly, the show has been taking her that direction for some time, but then they wimped out. Letting fate decide their lives? Never, not once; their choices decided their lives all along. Silly. And further proof that feminism is not about women freely making any choices they want to; it’s about making the choices that the feminists value. Why else be afraid to let Mac make that choice?

But Sue Thomas: FBEye was a bigger annoyance to me. At least the coin toss was cute. But Sue Thomas has always been a show that didn’t shy away from being politically incorrect – until last night. The silliness of Darcy’s decision to go to LA to be an editor at the LA Times (never mind that with her new conservative mindset she’d never be hired there; it had to be a big deal and on the opposite coast) while basically telling Bobby that if he wanted her he’d have to follow along like an obedient pup was bad enough. But when he decided to give up everything he had earned there in DC because he loved her so much he didn’t want to live without her, her response was the ultimate in feminist political correctness: (sarcasm alert) “Oh, Bobby, you know I love you, but, Bobby, I’m scared to death that I might actually be dependent on you, so I have to go to LA by myself to prove that I don’t need you, and once I’ve proved that I don’t need you, then maybe we can get married someday, because you know I love you!”

Aargh! Why didn’t the guy just say, in the first place, “Hey, Darcy , I love you and I want to marry you, and I’m staying right here in DC. It’s up to you.” You know, men used to do that – a man proposed and the woman decided that if she wanted to marry him, she would be his helpmate, not an independent soul following her own career and making him follow along for her sake. And marriage is all about dependence, not independence. There’s nothing wrong with needing another person; God created us to need each other. The man was not complete until the woman was created – and she was not created as an independent being going her own way, but as his helpmate. So sad that even in the church we can’t say that anymore for fear of offending someone.

On the other hand, I read a review of the DVD version of The Incredibles, and apparently there is an alternate opening to the movie, in which Helen tells her neighbor that she gave up her “significant” career of fighting evil to raise her children, and no one could possibly tell her that raising children was less significant or important – YES! I’ve decided I may even want to see the movie now. Maybe there are actually a few shots of a contented housewife . . . what an anomaly that would be . . .