"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

18 December 2007


Last night, CSI-Miami shocked us -- apparently hell really is freezing over. First Criminal Minds has a main character return to Christian faith; now CSI-Miami has declared that unborn children are exactly that -- living human beings who have the right to continue living. A murdered woman was found to have been pregnant. The medical examiner was the only one who used the medical term at any time in the show, but here's what she said: "I found fetal tissue -- she was pregnant -- you need to find the monster who did this." The rest of the show the words "baby" and "child" were consistently used, and the anger of the whole team was clearly doubled at this double homicide. Wow.

One class down, one taking an exam right now, two to complete tomorrow morning. Fill in the final exam grade, add it up, and I'll be done. How can an objective time period of 3 months feel so much like both a week and a year? One thing I love about academia, though -- every semester really is a new start, and it always ends in a set amount of time.

Thursday morning we leave early for Kansas and a visit to our second son, followed by visits with my mother-in-law and my parents. It will be a long trip, and we'll be without computer access most of that time. That will be fine with me -- no one can make demands if they can't reach me! This is probably the last Inscapes post till January, so blessed holy days to you all, and be safe.

What I Told My Students

My Advanced Composition students have given me an outstanding semester, as they often do (this is a course for those in the writing minor). The following is the letter I've enclosed in their final portfolio.

I wish I could thank each of you individually for the specific ways you have encouraged me this semester; but, since time doesn’t allow, please accept this – because what I have to say applies, as it so rarely can, to each one of you.

During a semester rife with personal difficulties that often weighed me down and made ordinary work seem almost beyond bearing, you have made this class an oasis of joy and hope. You have come prepared and eager, challenged and challenging, with humility and cheerful spirits. You trusted me, doing the assigned work with the assumption that it had a purpose whether you always understood it or not, you came with willing hearts expecting and loving to learn – and this allowed me to trust you, to know that you
would learn, without my having to constantly expend energy seeking ways to make and keep you interested and involved. For that most invaluable gift, I thank you, as well as for the gifts of your prayers and encouragement, smiles in the hallway and chats in my office. Your love for your Lord has cast light on my way at many unexpected, now cherished, moments.

At the end of my first-semester freshman English class, my professor – a man not given to flattery – told me, “Keep writing; you’ve got what it takes.” Those have kept me going through many discouraging times. I do not repeat them lightly, or to just anyone, for flattery is destructive. But I can say to each of you in this class: “Keep writing.” Every one of you has the ability to do more than merely competent writing, and if you have the desire – if God has given you the desire and you have the commitment and discipline to pursue it with passion – you can serve your neighbors with this ability in profound ways. Whether your writing in the future is missionary newsletters, magazine articles, academic studies, memoirs for your family to enjoy, books read by millions, letters to the editor or letters to your grandchildren – you have the ability to touch hearts and minds through the truths you convey with the written word.

Lately I’ve been revisiting Thomas Merton’s meditations in No Man is an Island. He has much to say about this journey we’re on which helps me to remember who I am and why, and which draws me to desire the One who knows me and loves me as no one under the sun can. The past several days, I’ve kept re-reading the final chapter, “Silence.” Certain of his words seem especially apropos for those who are called to the vocation of wordsmithing:

“If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts, where Christ lives and speaks in silence. We will never be anything, and in the end, when the time comes for us to declare who and what we are, we shall be found speechless at the moment of crucial decision: for we shall have said everything and exhausted ourselves in speech before we had anything to say.”

But on the other hand:

“If we fill our lives with silence, then we live in hope, and Christ lives in us and gives our virtues much substance. Then, when the time comes, we confess Him openly before men, and our confession has much meaning because it is rooted in deep silence. It awakens the silence of Christ in the heart of those who hear us, so that they themselves fall silent and begin to wonder and to listen. For they have begun to discover their true selves [in Christ].”

May your Christmas break contain silences in which you hear the voice of the One whose coming we celebrate, calling you into oneness with Him so that He can make you more fully yourself. Take great joy always in words, but bathe your words in silence before the Word Himself, and let Him tell you when to speak before men what He has shown you, what He has made you.

12 December 2007

"How the Grinch Stole Back Christmas"

Over at Mere Comments yesterday, David Mills posted this poem written by MC commenter Joe Long. Enjoy! And Merry Christmas, Happy Holy Days, and all that.

(One more week, just one more week . . .)

03 December 2007

Christmas Cheer

Saturday evening, K went for a walk as night was falling on a gloomy dusk at the end of a cloudy, cold day. Returning, he told me that he'd been walking along in a bit of the spirit of the evening when he turned a corner and there were simple Christmas lights in someone's yard -- cheery color leaping out from the gloom to lift the spirit; further on, another display of simple cheer as a reminder.

Gems of joy; gems of joy.

29 November 2007

Sculpting in Time

I have been reading Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky's book Sculpting in Time, thanks to the recommendation of this young man, a film communications major. It is one of those books that gives one chills by its insight and expression. For this morning, a sample:

In setting great store by the subjective view of the artist and his personal perception of the world, I am not making a plea for an arbitrary or anarchic approach. It is a question of worldview, of ideals and moral ends. Masterpieces are born of the artist's struggle to express his ethical ideals. Indeed, his concepts and his sensibilities are informed by those ideals. If he loves life, has an overwhelming need to know it, change it, try to make it better, -- in short, if he aims to cooperate in enhancing the value of life, then there is no danger in the fact that the picture of reality will have passed through a filter of his subjective concepts, through his state of mind. For his work will always be a spiritual endeavour which aspires to make man more perfect: an image of the world that captivates us by its harmony of feeling and thought, its nobility and restraint.

15 November 2007

Hath Hell Frozen Over?

Real Christianity out of Hollywood?

Criminal Minds astounded me last night. The team is called in to investigate crimes committed by someone leaving satanic symbols as a calling card. On the way, they discuss satanism, and Hotch and Dave Rossi (the new man, played by Joe Montegna) are cautioning the rest that such people are especially dangerous because of their belief that they are possessed by the devil’s power. Morgan says, “My mother took us to church every Sunday, and this devil stuff doesn’t bother me.” Reid responds, “Maybe the devil stuff didn’t take because the god stuff didn’t either.” Morgan, enraged, tells him, “You don’t know what I believe.” It’s clearly not a casual issue with him, much as he might want it to appear so.

At the small town where the crime has taken place, Morgan asks Rossi to speak to the priest (there’s only one church in the town) and he (Morgan) will talk to the victim’s parents; Rossi instead asks to speak to the parents himself, leaving Morgan with the priest. The priest, immediately sensing Morgan’s hostility, asks him, “How long has it been since you’ve been in the Lord’s house?” Morgan, refusing to answer, is rude to him again and again, his repulsion continually evident.

Morgan gives the priest the profile they have come up with and asks him to look at the list of church members among whom the killer must be; when the priest can’t tell him who he thinks it is, Morgan says “he is imitating faith; it isn’t real; he goes to church only because everyone else does.” The priest answers in frustration that all his congregation have “imitative faith,” all of them attend church because everybody else does, and he does all he knows how to help them understand and live real faith – again Morgan becomes angry and says, “we’re not here about you, we’re here to find a killer, and you say you can’t help us.”

Finally, the priest asks him, “what happened to you that you can be so hateful to a man you don’t even know?” Morgan tells him that “something terrible” happened to him when he was a child (he was abused by a man who was supposedly being a “father figure” to him after his father died) and he went to church every day and begged God to make it stop – and “you know what God did? Nothing – that’s what God did.” The priest tells him, “God never gives us anything we can’t handle.” Morgan replies, “Then God expects way too much of 13-year-old boys.”

Later, Rossi points out that he left Morgan with the priest as “an opportunity for personal growth,” and Morgan decides at least to apologize for his rudeness. (A nice touch, I thought – when the killer admits what he has done, the priest lunges across the table and tries to throttle him. I think this impressed Morgan.)

On the plane back to D.C., Morgan asks Rossi if all the “luck” the killer had experienced over the years – the unbelievable ways he had managed, although not intelligent at all, to evade detection for years – could suggest that he really did have some kind of “help” from a supernatural power. Rossi tells him at first not to worry about it – their job is to find the evil and put a stop to it, not to be concerned with where it comes from. But then he says, “I think Reid is right, you know – if you accept one, then you have to accept the other.”

And the almost-final scene shows Morgan in a church, sitting down in a back pew and clearly steeling himself to begin a journey home.

This is Hollywood? CM has always shown respect for Christianity; some of the villains have used religion as an excuse for evil, but this has always been pointed out as a perversion and not to do with true religion. But this – this amounts to the gospel on a popular crime show: a critique of “imitation faith” by someone trying to live real faith, an acknowledgement that God doesn’t “tempt us beyond what we are able,” a main character – a hardened, angry FBI agent – beginning a journey back to Christian faith? Hath hell indeed frozen over?!

13 November 2007

The Generosity of Centered Love

for June, who has loved me

Some 34 years ago, I happened to work in the curriculum library at The University of Kansas, reshelving and rearranging and doing whatever projects the director needed me to do. A strikingly beautiful woman with a soft Southern accent happened to be a doctoral student under the director, with a desk in the library’s office area. Her inevitable kindness, her ready smile and laugh won me instantly – and one day she invited her younger son to take us out to lunch at Pizza Hut, thereby (not quite unknowingly) selecting her daughter-in-law.

From the first, June considered me a daughter, loving me neither less nor differently than she loved her own children. And I have always called her “mom,” because she immediately became a second mother to me, as precious as my own.

Sometimes I envied her energy and her talents. She could make anything on a sewing machine from a simple skirt to complex valanced drapes. She could cook anything from scratch and taught me to love simple beans and cornbread as well as exotic tabuli. She canned and froze and dried the produce of the family farm and in her children’s youth had driven the tractor, planted trees, and helped put out the fire that younger son inadvertently started in the outhouse. Her eye for beauty ensures that nothing in her various homes has been accidental or happenstance, and each one has inevitably been both elegant and comfortable, truly home to all who step across the threshold. She taught economics and home economics at Texas Women’s University and she is an artist and a landscaper and a homemaker par excellence.

But I understood immediately that she didn’t expect me to be like her, that she realized that my upbringing, my talents, my preferences and abilities, even my lesser store of energy are uniquely mine and to be valued as such. Never have I felt a moment’s slightest disappointment from her, but only encouragement to follow my own paths, to excel in being the woman I was created to be. And while I’ve not, sad to say, learned to sew or cook or decorate my home in the complex ways she does, I have learned from her anew the most important lesson my own mother has always impressed on me, not by speech but by example.

For Mom generously, fiercely loves people, with a deep loyalty and a vulnerability that draw and enfold. All that she does arises from this love. When she bakes bread and prepares a lovely pot roast and a sumptuous dessert, it is an offering of time and love to those who will share it, as is the time given to teach her grandchildren to sew and draw and paint, showering love along the way. Her home opens vistas of quiet beauty where guests feel free to relax, from the cushioned window seat and afghans in the den and deep leather couches in the living room to scented soaps on the bathroom sinks and lush down pillows on the beds. Her paintings – like the two I see each time I glance up from this writing – greet the viewer with a profusion of soft colors that draw the eye into a centered depth of beauty that is like the depth of her own centered love, the theme of all her interior decoration, even to simple trinkets hanging in a window.

One year, we arrived at Mom’s the Monday morning before Christmas, racing ahead of sleet and snow, the day sagging about us, grey and drizzly. Bringing dishes to the sink after lunch, I noted the several multi-colored, multi-shaped, flat pieces of glass hanging in the kitchen window that had been there since I could remember. Pretty, I thought, and didn't notice them again. Wednesday dawned bright, the ordinary sun dazzling after nearly a week's hiding behind the wintry grey. Around mid-morning, I started from the den toward the laundry room -- and was arrested by vivid rainbows reflected on the white walls, a brilliance that abruptly stilled my teeming mind. After catching my breath, I approached the window to find their origin, and, for the first time ever, I saw among the colored baubles two small, clear glass pieces: a ball and a teardrop, each with dozens of facets cut into the surface, joyfully refracting the sunlight into radiant beauty.

Simple elegance – yet with depth, richness, brilliance like the love of the woman who, with her instinct for beauty, hung the glass in that perfect place to provide moments of sudden delight. This is her way – not extravagance but quiet gestures that never waver, never halt, but need only the light of our gratefulness to break into beauty enough to delight the universe.

07 November 2007

Words, Only Words

This morning, noting the waning moon as I stand by my car in the college parking lot, I can see it only as darkness moving to complete eclipse, the one brilliant arc remaining along its lower edge soon to be swallowed in sorrow as a woman I love -- a woman who has been like a mother to me since I married her son almost 33 years ago -- faces implacable Death.

How, I often wonder, do those without hope live life well and, especially, face Death? For even with the hope that I cling to, darkness marks me today.

Death, where is thy victory? Christ has risen; the victory is His.

Words, words, words. I who know the power of words see them today as mere puffs of wind on the air, marks on a page whose blankness holds the only meaning.

Because today death remains victorious, and I rage against the waning of the moon, the coming loss of so much love, so much reflected light, to the world.

30 October 2007

Happy Endings

Last week on Criminal Minds, the team searched for a missing child, finding out in the course of the search that she had been abused by her uncle. The quotation at the end was from G.K. Chesterton: "Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed."

I was thinking about this yesterday morning while reflecting on why I write. Generally speaking, children's literature does have happy endings, because we know that children need to believe in hope. And I am always seeking a vision, an ideal, hope, when I write. And so I wrote:

"I am, then, seeking happy endings when I write. Not sappy, unrealistic, 'perfect' endings, but ones that are possible in a broken world which has been entered by redemptive power, ones that are possible because brokenness is not all there is. The flawed beauty we see all around us, the flawed goodness of people we meet on our way, tells us this -- so much of beauty and goodness within the brokenness, if we look for it, tells us this, tells us that the world is indeed still 'charged with the grandeur of God,' that 'there lives the dearest freshness deep down things' even in a world 'seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.'

"I write to find and articulate gems of joy, glimpses of the ideal, prisms of hope. I only know that my world is flawed because I know there is an ideal by which to judge it. And without this ideal, if we reject the vision of an ideal, there is only despair. We must offer hope by offering the ideal we glimpse, the vision shimmering always on the edge of sight."

I have never been ashamed of happy endings, of beauty, of hope. I am grieved that so many in the past century have found it more likely that life doesn't offer these, that so many have turned from the search and offered the lies of despair in the name of realism. Because, as I also wrote:

"I read for the same reason: I read to find the ideal. Not to avoid reality, but to see that reality is not the mere observable broken world that drowns me every morning when I wake, that drowns me when I wake from a literary world that has drawn me into its beauty, when I wake from a rare immersion in the reality of God's love. Reality is not brokenness and despair; reality is redemption with all its hope in the midst of the brokenness and despair."

Our happy endings here will always be tinged with some edge of sadness. And yet -- there is an ultimate happy ending where all tears, all sorrow will be washed away forever. How, otherwise, can one find courage to live?

23 October 2007

Daylight Moon

"He must increase; I must decrease." And so of course it had to be and was.

But this never meant John the Baptist was forgotten or useless, even after the increase of Jesus. His story, while only ever reflected light, and now subdued in the full light of day, still teaches who Jesus is, and much more besides. It is one of the altar stones this side of Jordan. And those still in darkness, unaware of the Light, may be moved by it to seek Him.

The moon on a cloudless autumn afternoon reminds me of the darkness where she lit my way -- and will do again, as long as we remain east of Eden. She reminds me that my reflected light is loved by the Son, whether lighting a dark path in the shadowlands or simply basking in the full light of His presence.

"Come be My light," Mother Teresa heard Jesus call to her. Answer, and then leave all to Him. "Take what He gives and give what He takes with a big smile," she also wrote. All is up to Him; we need only receive His light and leave the times of increase and decrease up to Him.

22 October 2007


Yesterday afternoon, I heard the Yorkie sisters from next door barking furiously, so I moseyed out to the front porch to see if I could cajole some playful cuddling from one or both. It was no go – they were focused on the neighborhood cat in regal procession down the middle of the street, her cool Queen of Sheba stroll declaring disdain for her enraged antagonists, the elder Sophie on the porch, intrepid Sadie in the drive. The disdain was well-placed, as we all knew that if Sadie dared to follow, the royalty need only turn, sit, and casually lick her fur to send the little grey-white creature into an even greater frenzy, backing away in consternation at the perceived challenge. When I called, both dogs merely glanced my way, impatient at the interruption, Sophie safely ensconced in her normal reserve, Sadie giving a good imitation of obedience to the convenient sharp calls of her owner, usually hopeless and unheeded, to “stay here!”

Laughing, I sat down on the steps to watch the show and enjoy the warm sun and cool breeze of the almost-autumn day. At mid-afternoon, the sun made luminous green of the trees at the top of the valley sides, melding into cool contrasting shadows in the depths. Looking up into the cloudless blue, I was greeted by the half-moon winking at me with a sardonic grin. Although it contributed no new light to the world, still it shone merrily, unconcerned with anything but its work of reflection, leaving the results to its master the sun.

And so back to work with a better will.

19 October 2007


Just had to say that my oldest son is back from his overseas deployment! He was gone "only" three months this time, and he will be in the States for his son's fourth birthday, after missing his third one last year. It's not like I'd have been seeing him these past weeks, and yet I missed him so much more than when he was in Virginia, just knowing that he was so far away. It feels as though he's right here with us, even though it would still take a day's drive to reach him. Maybe it's to do with knowing that I could make that day's drive, instead of knowing that reaching him would be essentially impossible.

What a lovely end to my break, a special gift to carry into next week and lift me up when the daily round begins to grate again.

11 October 2007

Fall Break

Fall break is coming up. For me, it mainly means sleeping in (oh, the luxury!) and grading all day instead of all night. Or reading all day and still grading all night. I could have gotten more grading done this week, maybe -- but I'm not convinced. I've reached that stage of exhaustion where I merely stare, stupefied, at lists and more lists, unable to determine which of the thousand items is most urgent, much less most important.

But eagle's wings do uphold me, and I look forward to gathering my strength in the sheltered quiet of the aerie nest prepared by my Father.

10 October 2007

Crystal Sky

The sky burnished black crystal with glittering ice diamonds strewn across its surface . . . heart-wrenching beauty to spark joy in a new moon of the soul.

Not an original image, by any means, but it became mine for the first time this morning --

08 October 2007

Come Be My Light

The title of Mother Teresa's book Come Be My Light, is not a prayer of hers to Jesus; it is His call to her in a vision -- a call to be His light to the poorest and most undesirable in India. From her writings:

"If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself."

"To the good God nothing is little because He is so great and we so small -- that is why He stoops down and takes the trouble to make those little things for us -- to give us a chance to prove our love for Him. Because He makes them, they are very great. He cannot make anything small; they are infinite. Yes my dear children [her sister nuns], be faithful in little practices of love, of little sacrifices -- of the little interior mortification -- of little fidelities to Rule, which will build in you the life of holiness -- make you Christ-like. [. . .] Don't look for big things, just do small things with great love . . . The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love."

She could say this and live this way because, as the editor says, "she trusted that His will for her would always be an expression of [His] unfailing love, however difficult or even impossible it might be at times to fathom His designs"; and elsewhere, "She entrusted herself to His providential intervention and her trust was rewarded."

04 October 2007

The Little Way

Michael Novak writes about Mother Teresa in the 24 September National Review, in an article called "Way of Darkness." Therese of Lisieux, often called "Therese of the Little Way," was Mother Teresa's patron saint; Therese's autobiography is The Story of a Soul, out recently in a new translation which I am enjoying very much.

Novak summarizes Therese's "Little Way" in his article:

The kernal of Therese's teaching is often called "the little way," meaning that no Christian is too humble or too insignificant to follow it. No matter what spiritual darkness you find yourself in, choose as your North Star a tender love for the persons that life's contingencies have put next to you. Do not go looking for more fascinating neighbors to love. Love those who are nearest. You cannot see God, even if you try. But you can see your neighbor, the tedious one, the one who grinds on you: Love him, love her. As Jesus loves them. Give them the tender smile of Jesus, even though your own feelings be like the bottom of a bird cage. Do not ask to see Jesus, or to feel him: That is for children. Love him in the dark. Love for the invisible divine, not for the warm and comforting human consolation. Love for the sake of love, not in order to feel loved in return.

I just got Mother Teresa's Come Be My Light yesterday. She lived her patron saint's "little way," by all accounts; I am awed already by the first few pages. Her humility and her absolute, profound love for Jesus and desire for His glory shines forth in her letters and what others say about her. If we gave one-hundredth the love that such people do, what might the world look like?

30 September 2007

The Gist of Things

We are reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life in freshman composition this semester. A student the other day challenged my insistence that one needs to understand the meanings of key words and concepts to understand a writer's work. He had gotten the gist of the assigned chapter without knowing the meanings of the words I'd brought to the class's attention, he said, and wasn't that all that mattered, after all?

Of course, we all read books and articles with words unfamiliar to us, and we don't necessarily sit with dictionaries at our elbows. We learn much by context, and "sort of" know many words we might be unable to define articulately at a moment's notice.

But the comment struck me, still, as somehow wrong; it's not about learning from context but about getting the gist of something without attention to detail. My first reaction thus was simple: "But this isn't casual reading to get the gist of things -- this is reading for the purpose of study." The job of the student is not to be casual; it is to be intense, focused, detailed, desirous of learning all one can. Casual reading lends itself to casual learning -- or, more likely, no real learning at all. That may be fine in its place, but is its place the readings assigned in a college classroom?

But the more I've considered it, the more I'm convinced that the real issue lies still deeper.

I am not in the least opposed to casual reading. (After all, I read detective novels all summer.) But how much of our reading should be merely casual; how often is the "gist of things" enough? And, in fact, if one does not know the meanings of key words, images, concepts, how is it possible to know if one has actually gotten the "gist of it" and not misunderstood altogether, reading oneself instead of the writer, as we so often tend to do?

And if the reading is for some purpose beyond relaxation, why would the mere gist of things satisfy? It isn't the gist of something that challenges and changes us -- the depth and profundity, the compelling force, of the idea lies in the careful building of detail to drive it home. Otherwise, why not just say "writing helps me discover what I think" and skip the first several paragraphs of The Writing Life altogether, condense the whole chapter into one paragraph, the book into a short monograph?

The gist of things often makes me shrug, or yawn. I very likely already knew it, or, if not, I find it mildly interesting, or a little odd, or, perhaps, "stupid" or "worthless." However, when I attend to the details of a well-crafted work, I find that the idea may be truly powerful, compelling, even life-changing -- or, perhaps, truly horrific, to be rejected and actively battled. But never "mere," never casual, never mundane . . . not when I attend. And how can I attend if I have no idea what some of the key images, words, concepts mean?

When I think of the time and energy Dillard must have poured into this book, searching for the exact metaphors, the most precise words placed in syntax painstakingly created to carry her meaning, I wish to honor her by attending to the work as she did herself. Literary critic F. R. Leavis likens the good reader to "the ideal executant musician, the one who, knowing it rests with him to re-create in obedience to what lies in black print on the white sheet in front of him, devotes all his trained intelligence, sensitiveness, intuition, and skill to re-creating, reproducing faithfully what he divines his composer essentially conceived."

I want my students not to be satisfied with the gist of things. I want them to be challenged, to challenge themselves. I want them to find ideas compelling and never casual, to become so well-read, so familiar with words and ideas, that even casual reading will no longer be truly casual, even when it seems to be, because the heart takes in depths of which the mind may not be consciously aware. (Those detective novels make me think about justice, love, betrayal . . .)

And here I find myself back in sympathy with Dillard, as I often am, when she says of her writing students after one of her passionate rants about what it takes to be committed to writing as a career: "They thought I was raving again. It's just as well."

21 September 2007

Criminal Minds Reprise

Last night was the repeat of last season's Criminal Minds finale, in preparation for the new one to begin. I discovered that I was too kind to Hotch's supervisor, who I said was firing Hotch and putting Prentiss in his place. Instead, she tells Prentiss that Hotch needs to lose his job -- and she expects Prentiss, out of gratefulness for having been placed on the team over the objections of others, to now ensure that this happens. In other words, she is asking Prentiss to be not just a mole, but an active agent of dissension and destruction to her team.

Most interesting. It will be interesting to see how she negotiates this.

In other news, I am absolutely heart-broken because Mandy Patinkin is leaving the show. It just isn't right. Who else could ever play father and confessor to the others as well as he? Criminal Minds without Jason Gideon . . . ? Unimaginable. He set a remarkably high bar for the actor who will take his place.

Early Morning

Ebony clouds sweep across an indigo sky and a blush of pink on the eastern horizon. Hope rises, new every morning; moon and stars hold despair at bay in the long night.

20 September 2007

Musing on the Muse

The last couple of mornings, I've missed the moon on my drive to work. A few late stars show in the darkened sky, but too far and too faint to compete with the glare of the streetlamps and blinking bus lights and blinding advertisements that conceal more than they reveal. I'm too lazy (or busy, by your leave) to find out if Phoebe's rising too late or too early these days for my early morning delight, but the sky seems lonely without her, though never without beauty.

The moonlight at night has attracted me from the time I can remember, but when we got a second vehicle and I began driving to work a couple of years ago, I began to notice her more often in the early mornings, as I was focusing on the road and my surroundings instead of talking with others in the car. About the same time, I also found myself wanting to improve my ability to see and describe the physical world.

(Most of you know that this physical world generally only comes to my attention when it impinges upon me in some abrupt and usually painful way. This is a distinct liability for a writer, even one who writes about the life of the mind.)

And so I began to observe Phoebe more closely, and her moods and phases fascinated me: how she could be so warm one morning, so cold another, how her light could fill the sky or barely light herself, and how this did not seem dependent on whether she were a mere sliver or at the full. As I thought about these vagaries, I thought too about the one constant -- she is reflected light only, useful only in the darkness.

Thus Phoebe became my muse, because I see myself as reflected light, subject to phases I can't always control, offering more or less light on any given day, but startled by the way the True Light can use even the tiniest sliver to illuminate someone else's way. It's never me; it's always and only the Son in me. There's humility in that, a good humility that gives hope and joy because I don't have to constantly strive to be approved, and when the clouds come, the clouds that He has created and allowed, I can be at peace, too, knowing that His light has not failed and never will.

And what joy to know that ultimately I will know Him for who He is, as I stand in His actual presence, subsumed by His brilliance, and yet, too, become fully myself, knowing at last my created nature revealed in His Light, the darkness forever gone.

07 September 2007


A brilliant sliver of moon lit the cirrus clouds into a light blue against the indigo sky this morning, loveliness to make one's heart ache. I wish I could paint.

03 September 2007

On Mother Teresa Again

Another wonderful post from Tony Esolen about Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul.

Home Again

In the summer, I mostly stay indoors because of severe allergies, and I sleep till long past dawn so that I can sleep at all. And so I miss seeing the moon except for the occasional night my son calls me in to see its beauty through his bedroom window.

Since the term has begun, it's been hazy skies when I've left in the early morning dark, and I've missed Phoebe lighting my way down the old ferry road. Instead, there is only the harsh, blinding glare of the neon lights by the side of the road, more distracting than helpful to barely woken eyes.

This morning, I thought it must be cloudy again as I drove to work and saw no sign of her. Then I got out of the car in the parking lot behind the library and looked straight up into a crystal clear sky -- to see a perfect quarter moon glowing in alabaster beauty. As I walked across campus toward my office, her brilliance heightened the garish look of the man-made lamps surrounding me and I kept looking up, risking a stumble on the concrete, feeling that I was being welcomed home.

29 August 2007

Come Be My LIght: Doubt and the Christian Life

Tony Esolen has written a lovely post on doubt and the Christian life at Mere Comments, in response to an article in Time Magazine (which he links) about the new book of Mother Teresa's letters, Come Be My Light. She was even more amazing than any of us knew, and knowing why opens new vistas of hope and new strength for enduring.

I can only say, read them both and thank God for His grace. The book, of course, is on my amazon list, and I'll have to order it as soon as I dare.

24 August 2007

On Confusion and Learning

"You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything." -- Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Prize winning chemist from Harvard

If one were never confused, one would never need to learn anything.

Now, if I can just convince my students that confusion is not necessarily a bad thing -- help them learn to use it as a catalyst for learning. But it means a willingness to trust the one who brings on the confusion and an ability to spend a certain amount of time (maybe a little, but maybe a lifetime) in a state of negative capability.

And another semester begins.

16 August 2007

Art and Philosophy

In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver talks about the relation of reason to sentiment (not "sentimentality"): "We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest" -- in other words, we must care about something before we will bother to think carefully about it. He then goes on to say, "We have no authority to argue anything of a social or political nature unless we have shown by our primary volition that we approve some aspects of the existing world. [. . .] We begin our other affirmations after a categorical statement that life and the world are to be valued. It would appear, then, that culture is originally a matter of yea-saying."

I like this. It is so easy to get caught up in "what's wrong with the world" -- after all, there is a great deal wrong with it! But if we forget or refuse to acknowledge that there is good, that there is that which should be valued, then we argue from negativism, bitterly and hopelessly. The best art affirms even as it critiques; that which can be affirmed forms the standard by which we critique that which has fallen from it.

But it's not mere sentiment that's needed, not sentimentality, by any means. Sentiment, to provide the foundation for right reasoning, must be formed and informed by what Weaver calls "the metaphysical dream" -- an understanding of design and purpose outside of and beyond man himself: "There must be a source of clarification, of arrangement and hierarchy, which will provide grounds for the employment of the rational faculty" (and which forms the sentiment).

How is this "dream" inculcated in us? The "poetry of representation ['mythology' broadly understood as answering our questions about who we are and how and why we are here], depicting an ideal world, is a great cohesive force, binding whole peoples to the acceptance of a design and fusing their imaginative life. Afterward comes the philosopher, who points out the necessary connection between phenomena, yet who may, at the other end, leave the pedestrian level to talk about final destination." Both art and philosophy are needed, then -- art to show us the ideal, to move us, to make the dream alive to us; and philosophy to help us understand how the metaphysical (including the metanarrative of art) and the physical world are conjoined, to be able to articulate the dream when necessary, to reason from it to evaluate action.

He sums it up like this: "Thus, in the reality of his existence, man is impelled from behind by the life-affirming sentiment [belief that there is that which is of value in the world] and drawn forward by some conception of what he should be [pictured by the artist and articulated by the philosopher]."

13 August 2007

Why We Teach

Richard Weaver, writing in Ideas Have Consequences in 1948:

"There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and passions will take precedence over all. [Weaver refers to a liberal arts education here, not particularly a religious education.] The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in this world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet the prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire enough wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic virtues. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires a reverence for good.

"In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

"The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology [. . .] has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite."

One could certainly pen the same words today. Of course there are schools and teachers who understand education to be for more than material gain. But the prevailing philosophy remains the same as that which Weaver described six decades ago. Even colleges which hold to a higher ideal than material gain are every day making decisions about admissions, retention, curriculum, programs, etc. based on whether these will attract students who want to get a piece of paper to get a job, losing sight of their ideals not in the big picture but in the details -- but, of course, it is in the details where the battle for liberal education will be won or lost. As long as the bottom line -- for the college or for the students who attend it -- remains the primary concern (instead of a vision and enough trust in the Lord that He can make the vision reality), we will continue to lose the most important battle we are here to fight.

Meanwhile, those of us who still believe in the vision of a liberal arts education from a specifically Christian perspective are preparing to face another set of young people, many of whom have been spoiled by their culture into thinking college should be primarily lots of fun, leading to a high-paying job without much effort on their part. May we find ways to challenge them out of that cultural morass of lies into a world of deeper satisfactions through the discipline of mind that John Henry Newman calls for in The Idea of a University.

08 August 2007

On the Cost of Writing

I've been reviewing the books I'm using this semester, and last night I was skimming back through Philip Gerard's Creative Nonfiction. In the chapter "Putting Yourself on the Line" he discusses issues in writing about one's self such as finding one's own voice through seeking truth and writing honestly (no cliches!), avoiding egoism by finding universal insights in personal experience, being a reliable narrator, dealing with the instability of memory, considering the reactions of family and friends who are included in one's story. At the end, he discusses the personal emotional cost of writing about one's self:

"Unlike a fiction writer, the personal essayist, the author of memoir, has no buffer, no illusion of narrative distance, between himself and his subject. [. . .] That's the thing about writing your own life: It doesn't work unless you're prepared to come clean. But when you can take a deep breath and address the things that scare the h*** out of you, that drive you to grief you thought was beyond words, that amaze and confound and baffle you, that keep you up at night and give you nightmares, that cause you joy so keen it begs to be expressed, you can come to terms with the truth of your own existence."

Scary is not even close. Terrifying is more like it. But the rewards are commensurate with the risks.

26 July 2007

On Loving One's Neighbor as Oneself

Recently I was reading one of those books that tells us we must first learn to love ourselves, then we can figure out how to love our neighbors. I've always taken issue with this progression.

The Lord says: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

He doesn't say, "Love yourself so you can love your neighbor."

The distinction seems obvious to me. He assumes that we love ourselves, and therefore we already know how to love others: do to them as we would have them do to us.

Where this tends to get hung up is when we witness self-loathing in some people. "Oh, I'm a rotten person, I hate myself, the world would be better off without me." Surely this person must learn how to love himself before he can be expected to love others.

But I think this is not really the issue, not at heart. I think the person who claims to loathe himself is actually mired in a kind of improper self-love, an inversion of arrogant egotism. I say this, by the way, as one who has been through -- and still goes through far too often -- the self-loathing litany.

Consider: the egotist obviously loves himself improperly because he thinks too highly of himself. He shows off in one way or another, drawing attention to his wonderful self and expecting everyone to bow before his brilliance. What is this but an inordinant self-absorption?

The one who claims to loathe himself may actually think too little of himself. Or he may actually think quite highly of himself: oh, poor me, nobody appreciates me the way I should be appreciated. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll go into the garden and eat worms. In any case, his self-loathing is a means of drawing attention to himself, of expecting everyone to cater to him, to feel sorry for him, to bow down to his neediness by telling him how wonderful he really is. What is this but another kind of inordinant self-absorption, a self-love that is just as improper as that of the egotist?

In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis says that the humble person doesn't go around thinking of himself as less than he is (a talented musician doesn't pretend to be untalented or a pretty woman to be plain), trying to make everyone think he isn't arrogant. The humble person does his work for the Lord and his neighbor the best he can and is unconcerned with himself. If he does his best with what he has, he is content. If someone else does better, he is content. His focus is not on himself but on the Lord and others.

I'm also reminded of Lewis's discussion of gluttony, in which he points out that the person who refuses to eat what is put before him, demanding "less" and putting everyone out by "not wanting so much" or "so rich" food, is just as much a glutton as the person who stuffs himself -- because he has made food his idol. It seems to me that the self-loather is as much an idolator of self as the egotist, in a similar way as the dainty glutton is an idolator of food.

The cure is the same for the egotist and the self-loather: stop focusing on the self. It will not help the egotist to stand in front of the mirror saying 1000 times "I am not the center of the world," nor will it help the self-loather to stand in front of the mirror saying 1000 times "I am a person of infinite worth." What they both need is to get out from in front of the mirror!

That doesn't mean that some salutary understandings of value (I am of value to the God who gave His Son for me; but I am of no more value than my neighbor) aren't ever in order. But I have found that for me this comes most clearly when I stop studying about my value and focus my attention on the Lord and on serving the neighbors He brings into my way. When I do this, I generally find that without realizing it I have stumbled into a balanced understanding of my own value -- and also that it really doesn't matter that much anymore because I'm doing what I was designed to do in the first place.

20 July 2007

"Feeling Unabstracted"

Some thoughts stimulated by yesterday's quote from Gardner: "True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt."

The YM and I have been reading Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences this summer. One thing Weaver stresses is the need for "abstraction" -- for what he calls a "metaphysical dream" (a worldview that takes into account something above and beyond us) -- in order to place the physical observations we make and experiences we have in a context which gives our lives meaning and purpose. He was objecting in particular, in 1948, to the philosophy of nominalism, the emphasis on the material world as all there is which leads to materialism and desire for comfort, ease, physical well-being above all else.

Nominalism, for all that I understand it is not accepted in philosophical circles these days, has made its mark well on our culture, and I would say that most of us probably, practically speaking, pretty much live as though the material world is all that is (or all that matters, anyway). (Patrick Henry Reardon has
a good article on this at Touchstone.)

But even more than material goods and comfort, we seem to have moved to an idolatry of emotional well-being these days. One sees it everywhere, but I am always discouraged by my observations on this Christian campus. The large majority of our students certainly claim to have a "metaphysical dream," to embrace the Christian worldview as a foundation for their lives. Yet a significant portion of them live in a world of emotional reaction devoid of any clear connection to that supposed foundation.

So long as they are "happy," then all is well. If a chapel service makes them cry and lift their hands and laugh and feel warm and fuzzy about their faith, then all is well. Never mind that they might have stayed up half the night playing video games or blogging at myspace or texting with someone in the next room, then started on their homework at 3:00 a.m. and come to classes late, sleepy, and unprepared. What does that have to do with faith?

And if we dare to point this out, they resent our "attack" on their "walk with the Lord," which is obviously fine because it makes them feel happy (or, in some cases, it has made them feel sad, and that's also good because feeling sad is the same as repentence, right? Then they can feel happy about having felt sad and thus feel happy about themselves again).

"Feeling unabstracted." "Abstraction unfelt." This is where they live. Their feelings are self-justified, their claimed foundation moves them not at all. Or, rather, they confuse their feelings with the worldview itself.

How does one battle this? I think that Gardner is right, that it must come through art somehow. (Yes, yes, I know that it is the Holy Spirit --but how can He work if we give Him nothing to work with? "How shall they hear without a preacher?") Some, of course, will "get it" from a clear exposition of what they are doing to themselves. But most won't listen or can't hear it this way.

And we have so little time to reach them through art. One course in literature. One novel in another required course. It's not enough, and most of them don't and won't read more -- or won't read any better works than the junk that passes for literature in the Christian community today, which only affirms their wrong understanding of faith.

If art is the answer, if art is the conduit, then we must somehow find a way to reach them with true art so that it can have its effect. And I don't see how that will happen, here or anywhere else.

"[G]iving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love" (2 Peter 1:5).

In art lies the means for inculcating virtue, not just in preaching it from the parental or church pulpit. If our art is not virtuous, or if we silence our best artists by refusing to read their works, how will we understand and desire to practice virtue? And without virtue, knowledge is dangerous, and we will not add to it self-control and the rest, but we will only add to it more self-centered manipulations of the world to gain "happiness."

I really believe this. And right now it is making me despair. So few, so few that we can reach . . .

On a Criminal Minds re-run the other night, Gideon said to Hotch, who was near despair about the apparent futility of their work, "Save one life, save the world." I guess I will have to embrace that philosophy, because it's all one person can do at a time.

19 July 2007

True Art

More from John Gardner's On Moral Fiction:

"True art is a conduit between body and soul, between feeling unabstracted and abstraction unfelt."

09 July 2007

On Commitment

Some of us have been exploring the concept of Christian liberal arts education this summer, and in one of the books we've been reading, Arthur F. Holmes' The Idea of a Christian College, we found some comments I may start including on my syllabi:

"The pursuit of truth [. . .] carries with it certain moral prerequisites: the willingness and determination to learn, intellectual honesty, a self-discipline that makes lesser and more selfish satisfactions wait."

The student needs to understand that "education is a Christian vocation, one's prime calling for these years, that education must be an act of love, of worship, of stewardship, a wholehearted response to God. Attitude and motivation accordingly afford but a beginning: this personal contact between faith and learning should extend to disciplined scholarship and to intellectual and artistic integrity."

"How a student may feel about a teacher or administrator or about rules and requirements is secondary to his moral commitment to [the] task [of education]. I do not expect students to like everything about me or my courses or the college, but I do expect them to be committed to gaining an education. It is that which qualifies them as members of an academic community."

I would say that if a young person doesn't have these attitudes toward education, he will be better off finding a different task for the present. This will not, however, remove from him the need for commitment and self-discipline.

Because, clearly, one can change the "college education" of Holmes' remarks to any task whatsoever and the admonitions still apply. Whatever one sets out to learn, whatever one wishes to accomplish in life, these attitudes of commitment to the task are paramount, or mediocrity will be the earned reward. As Richard Weaver points out in Ideas Have Consequences, this is a hard concept to sell to a culture which has rejected transcendentals, lives for comfort, and expects the rewards of excellence without work.

Pray for the parents and teachers who are trying to counteract what everything around us teaches the young people entrusted to our care.

05 July 2007


At the end of the two-part "Fisher King" episode of Criminal Minds (repeated last night), Reid speaks this quotation by Rose Kennedy:

"It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone."

This makes intuitive sense to me. I agree that wounds never "go away." However, sometimes the building of the scar tissue actually makes the wounded site stronger, not just less painful. For this to happen, one has to go through the pain of the injury, and it is the injury itself that is the indirect, but necessary, cause of the new strength. The injury isn't "gone" -- but it is re-formed, and we are better off for it.

On the other hand, writers have said that the only way to write truly is to explore the wounds, to keep the scar tissue from getting too thick while using the pain to understand something important -- not just about the self but about this world we find ourselves set down in. Perhaps the writing, the fingering of the wound for the purpose of understanding, is the writer's way of keeping sanity. (Of course, if this be so, the results are not always encouraging; writers are not known for their sanity as a general rule.)

Hmm. I have no idea where this thought is going. We know that pain in this fallen world can be a source of despair or a source of strength, depending on our response to it. So do we let scar tissue form and lessen the pain, or do we worry the wound to find what it may teach us? Or both, somehow, to find our way through?

25 June 2007

Flyin' High

"Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?"

"So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober. Which accounts for my talking so much."

(from Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novel Gaudy Night, Harriet questioning Peter)

I am not quick with witty words in speech like Harriet and Lord Peter, far from it, but I am often drunk on words -- the words of brilliant writers like Sayers, and the words that place their demand on me for my own wordcraft . . . how much have I written just because I love the beauty of words, the power of words, the look and the sound of words on the page . . .

I begin to feel like Emily Dickinson lately. Just leave me alone in a quiet room removed from the rest of the house so that I can immerse myself in words . . . ah, the bliss that would be!

21 June 2007


I have been reading my poor allergy-prone eyes into blindness every evening this summer, but it's been well worth it. This week one of the books I've read is Anne Rivers Siddons' Islands. This was my first read of Siddons' work, and I will definitely be looking for more, hoping not to be disappointed. (Note to self: put this name near the top of the list for the next used bookstore visit.)

Islands is literary fiction, so it's slow-moving and character-oriented, both of which traits I love. It follows the lives of a group of childhood friends from Charleston who have remained close, buying a beach house together where they and their families spend much time on weekends and in the summers. Of course there are tensions and conflicts and, as they are getting older, deaths. The novel is really about the ways we react to disappointment, tragedy, and betrayal, and does a good job of showing these quite realistically, ending on a note of hopefulness that is rare for the modern novel of this type.

Siddons is a good writer, too. I wouldn't put her in the top tier, but she brings Charleston to life quite well and especially the beach scenes, which are not cliche but help one to see, hear, taste, and feel the setting. She also sets the story up extremely well with the prologue, a dream of the main character. Anything more would be a spoiler.

I think what I like most is how true to life the characters seem. I didn't feel at any particular point that anyone was behaving out of character, and even her rather off-the-wall folk rang mostly true. This tells me Siddons is a good observer of human nature and willing to tell it as truly as she can, rather than trying to propagandize us into some ideological agenda.

11 June 2007

Thinking . . .

Just for fun, today, a quote from Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm, after the moth description:

"A nun lives in the fires of the spirit, a thinker lives in the bright wick of the mind, an artist lives jammed in the pool of materials. (Or, a nun lives, thoughtful and tough, in the mind, a nun lives, with that special poignancy peculiar to religious, in the exile of materials; and a thinker, who would think of something, lives in the clash of materials, and in the world of the spirit where all long thoughts must lead; and an artist lives in the mind, that warehouse of forms, and an artist lives, of course, in the spirit. So.)"

31 May 2007

Walking on Water

I've been re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water, as I am using it in my Creative Nonfiction course this fall. It always amazes me how a truly good book, when one returns to it, seems both like an old friend and a text one has never read before. I have been enjoying it immensely.

L'Engle writes at one point about reading someone's theory that all artists are "neurotic, psychotic [. . .], not one is normal." She admits her first reaction was outrage, but since then she has accepted that such labels are not worth getting upset over ("he means one thing by his labels; I would call it something quite different"). Then she goes on to discuss what she thinks makes an artist the way he is:

"[T]here is no denying that the artist is someone who is full of questions, who cries them out in great angst, who discovers rainbow answers in the darkness, and then rushes to canvas or paper. An artist is someone who cannot rest, who can never rest as long as there is one suffering creature in this world. Along with Plato's divine madness, there is also divine discontent, a longing to find the melody in the discords of chaos, the rhyme in the cacophony, the surprised smile in time of stress or strain.

"It is not that what is is not enough, for it is; it is that what is [has] been disarranged, and is crying out to be put in place. Perhaps the artist longs to sleep well at night, to eat anything without indigestion; to feel no moral qualms; to turn off the television news and make a bologna sandwich after seeing the devastation and death caused by famine and drought and earthquake and flood. But the artist cannot manage this normalcy. Vision keeps breaking through, and must find means of expression."

If it's only the suffering, the discontentment, that keeps one awake, then indeed that way lies real madness. But L'Engle seems to suggest that it's also the search for the melody, the rhyme, the surprised smile that keeps one awake, -- because these exist, they are real, and they tell us that suffering is not all there is. Vision . . . the little pictures of hope, of order in the midst of the seeming chaos, these are what make life worth living, and these are what I hope to capture in my writing. I write about the suffering because one must process it somehow and because it is real. But it's the little gems of loveliness that remind me that suffering is not, in fact, all there is.

L'Engle's book itself has been one of those gems for me this past week.

28 May 2007

Memorial Day

I am far too tired to be eloquent today, but I wish to express my own gratefulness for all those who have served our country in the military, especially those who gave the greatest sacrifice. I fear at times that we are no longer worthy of such sacrifice, but I hope and pray that we may, by God's grace, yet be. And being a Navy mom, I cannot but also look to those serving today and say thank you for the sacrifices you are making, knowing that the ultimate one may come. The church member who will miss the birth of a child -- again -- because of redeployment; the former student recovering from a severe wound and struggling with the deaths of several of his comrades; my son, back from overseas and to return in a couple of months . . . I am so pampered myself, so far from real danger and real sacrifice, and this remains so because all of you are willing to fight the enemy on his own ground -- so that I can enjoy my freedom to carp and complain over the mundane and ridiculous inconveniences of a life most people in the world would take in a heartbeat over their own. God help us all to have perspective, and most especially me.

23 May 2007

Fiction: A Brief Apologia

Periodically, someone challenges the reading of fiction with comments about its lack of seriousness or its lack of substance or the "fact" that it's mere escapism or whatever other reasons to dismiss it as an activity unworthy of much of a serious person's time. Books have been written on the subject, of course, but I was thinking about it last night and jotted down some thoughts that might serve as a starting point for its defense.

Fiction offers particular pictures of theories about human nature; it is "theory become flesh," as a student once put it. It is where we see these theories tested (what if x kind of person were placed in y situation with z conflicts . . . what would happen?) and can decide if they make sense.

When I read Kate Chopin's "The Storm," for example, I find myself thinking about the emptiness of her picture of adultery making people happy and making them better marriage partners. This just doesn't make sense given what I observe about human nature and what I think I know about women in particular. And so I reject her theory about human nature, marriage, and sex, while recognizing that of course some of her critiques of social norms and attitudes are still true.

When I read "A Domestic Dilemma" by Carson McCullers, on the other hand, I find myself thinking how true is her portrayal of the ambiguities of love in a marriage with an alcoholic wife, the complexity of emotions and the decision of the husband to love in spite of the crushing disappointments, how true the wife's reaction to her circumstances is for certain women. And so I accept her theory of love and marriage, of commitment in difficulties, even if I don't accept every aspect of her critique of society.

Sometimes reading theory is helpful and even necessary. But it's in story that it's made real, that we see and understand its implications and its truths, its strengths and its weaknesses, its power or its emptiness. (By "theory" here I don't mean literary criticism so much as I simply mean any serious nonfiction study of anything having to do with how we live or should live.)

Scripture is a story, and stories within a story. Of course, it contains exposition as well, but we are always seeing the theory played out in particular lives. Jesus told parables because stories about a particular man who loses a sheep or a particular woman who loses a coin made His hearers see themselves, be able to put themselves into the story and understand how they should then live (or not live). And often He did not expound the parables; He left them to work in the souls of those who were willing to learn.

Stories move us, make us want to laugh and to cry -- and to be better people. "I want to be like Aragorn" or "Oh, I don't want to become like Saruman" is far more compelling (and helpful) than "I would like to be more patient and persevering" or "I should not be greedy for power."

Stories work at the level of intuition. They can be explicit in the principles they embody, but usually they are not. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," Jesus said of the parables -- meaning a heart to hear. The subtleties are what make story dangerous, yes -- too much Chopin can convince the undiscerning reader that her errors are truth. But it's also the subtleties that carry story's great power for good. The best stories allow for the complexities and ambiguities of life in a fallen world, while still giving clear pictures of virtue and vice. And they open our hearts to mystery and wonder, beauty as well as truth. Imbibing such stories from childhood on is more likely to lead to a subconscious desire to be virtuous than if a child is merely preached at with theory.

The real substance of knowledge is in story. The theory just helps me to articulate what story makes me know and understand.

17 May 2007


I've been slowly making my way through Neil Postman's Technopoly, sandwiching it between novels and other lighter reading. It's very good; everyone who promotes the indiscriminant use of technology (it exists, therefore we must have it) should read this book and give it some serious thought. One of his most salient points thus far (I'm only in chapter 3) is that we rarely are aware of the far-reaching implications of technological change -- it's not just the addition of tools, but it affects the very way we think and how we see the world. And he makes a good case for our having reached the point where we no longer ask why about technology but only how -- it now exists for its own sake and not for ours.

He acknowledges early on that those of us who suggest that technology is not necessarily an unalloyed good are seen as curmudgeonly folk who fear and hate all technology -- which is obviously absurd, as we all use and benefit from technology each day. I know of no one who seriously wants to go back even to medieval Europe, say, much less live in a truly technology-free culture (even soap is technological!). Postman writes in response to this allegation, "My defense is that a dissenting voice is sometimes needed to moderate the din made by the enthusiastic multitudes." No kidding!

The line I really love from this first chapter, his apologia for the book, is this one: "A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away. The wise know this well, and are rarely impressed by dramatic technological changes, and never overjoyed."

So take that, technophiles. I'm not the only curmudgeon out here; in fact, I take Postman as pretty good company (and a lot better writer and broader thinker).

And no, I don't look forward to the mandated upgrade to Vista in my workplace. I'm quite content with all the familiar bugs and irritations of XP, thank you very much, and do not care to have a new set of them forced on me. And yes, I very well might be induced to go back as far as electronic typewriters, if I could ever learn how to type without fifty errors a paragraph.

13 May 2007


I've been reading Tony Esolen's translations of Dante, which are not only remarkable poetry but worth the cost for the introductions alone. I finished Inferno the other day and was browsing through the appendices, which include quotations from various influences on Dante. Among the quotes from Thomas Aquinas is this one on acedia (sloth):

"It is written: The sorrows of the world worketh death (2 Cor. 7:20). But such is sloth, for it is not sorrow according to God, which is different from the sorrow of the world. Therefore it is a mortal sin.

". . . Mortal sin is so called because it destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us. So any sin which by its very nature is contrary to charity is a mortal sin per se. And such is sloth, because the proper effect of charity is joy in God, . . . while sloth is sorrow about spiritual good . . .

"Sloth is opposed to the precept about hallowing the Sabbath-day. For this precept, insofar as it is a moral precept, implicitly commands the mind to rest in God and sorrow of the mind about the Divine good is contrary to that."

We tend to think of sloth as mere laziness, but it is more like ennui, a weariness that arises from having no purpose, no hope. Baudelaire describes it in "To the Reader" from his Flowers of Evil. The person suffering from ennui (the link gives several translations; some call it ennui, some boredom) can't even rouse himself to do evil, he has so little energy to act. This is the greatest sin of all, to Baudelaire; great evil would be better than inaction. One of my students this year commented that the poem reminded him of the Lord's statement that one should be either hot or cold, but never lukewarm. A different context, but a similar idea.

I like the Aquinas quote because it brings sloth into much clearer focus than any other description I've read. One is to rest in God and not be discouraged about the divine good. This suggests that sloth is born of not trusting God -- God is not here, He doesn't care, He ignores evil and doesn't do good . . . and so I lose all incentive to do anything myself.

But trust in God allows for joy even in the inevitable sorrows of a fallen world (not sorrow because "God isn't here"). And that reminds me of the hope that holds me together so often -- no matter how I feel on any given day, no matter what my circumstances are, He does love me and works for my benefit at all times. I fear that sloth will be my temptation this summer, as it often is. May I remember to look on Him and take courage.

08 May 2007

Criminal Minds: Modern "Morality"?

Last week, Criminal Minds finally thoroughly disappointed me.

I didn’t catch the quotation at the beginning, so maybe that would make some difference, but I doubt it. The ending left me most frustrated; I hope the issue raised at the end is addressed again but this time with an answer.

The show was a take-off, I’m sure, on a short story I read years ago and can’t now recall the name or author of – a man goes overboard from a ship and ends up on an island, where the psycho who lives there sends him out into the jungle in order to hunt him, since mere animal prey no longer interests him. {Ah-ha: someone finally told me: "The Most Dangerous Game" by Robert Connell.} So the plot of CM last week involved two brothers who kidnap people near their Spokane auto garage and then loose them in the Idaho forest to bow-hunt them.

At the end of the show both brothers die. The younger is attacked and stabbed by one of their kidnap victims, who then also attacks the older brother but isn’t able to kill him. She is rescued by someone – I’m not sure if it was a local cop or if it was Morgan or Prentiss – shooting him just before he can let the arrow go that would kill her.

The victim asks Prentiss how people can do such evil things (she has watched four people die as she and others have tried to escape the killers). Prentiss replies, “They don’t think like we do.”

Fine, as far as it goes. Then they are on the plane returning to D.C. and she is obviously disturbed, so Morgan asks her what’s wrong. She tells him about the victim’s question and her answer. Then she goes into how they – the BAU – actually do think “just like” the killers. They “hunt” killers to “bring them down” and so “how are we any different from them?”

And Morgan doesn’t answer her. That’s what disappointed me.
He doesn’t answer her.

Is it not obvious to anyone with any moral sense whatsoever how hunting criminals in order to bring them to justice and prevent further crime, even learning to think like they think in order to hunt them, is vastly different from hunting innocent people in order to rape or torture or kill them for one’s own sadistic pleasure? How could this be a question without a clear answer?

Speaking of a modern/post-modern way of thinking . . . of course, if you don’t know the difference, maybe you are just like them. Maybe that’s what made it possible for Elle to kill an unarmed man walking away from her in cold blood – maybe she didn’t know the difference either.

So . . . I hope they don’t leave that question hanging like that. Because “that’s just wrong,” as my son would say.

Update: So now they're firing Hotch and putting Prentiss in charge because the team is "out of control" and "has lost sight of the big picture"? Which big picture? The one where they are just exactly like the evil murderers they "hunt"? I sure hope this last show was purely a tease for the fall season and we get Hotch back in control. Unbelievable!