Dead Hungarians

Staring at the monument raised the hair on our arms.

A bleached statue of a Hungarian soldier, stoic and bundled for his long European winter, stood atop a list of those claimed by the Great War. Our American fingers first pointed at, then reached out to feel the ridges of the name Scheibelhoffer, inscribed in the stone.

We’d come to Hungary with my wife’s family in hopes of reestablishing a connection with the past. Kim’s great-grandfather, Joseph Scheibelhoffer, had left his home in the early 1900’s and the only trace of this rejected life was a photograph of his large family. The photo, creased and sepia toned, rescued a single moment from time, capturing the family as they stood in front of their home, shoulder to Hungarian shoulder. The image was an heirloom, a single thread tying ahistorical Americans to the fabric of their history. Scrawled on the bottom of the picture was the town’s name, Szerecseny.

Coat of arms of Szerecseny, Hungary

Coat of arms of Szerecseny, Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a geopolitical scale, Hungary’s borders have been notoriously mobile. And although towns like Szerecseny may have paid taxes and tribute to various capitals, their soldiers fighting for various armies, the land and the homes built upon them remain, their roots deeply planted.

Our monument stood just across the small, barely paved road from the Scheibelhoffer home depicted in our photo. The progress and destruction of the last century had seemingly ignored Szerecseny, which looked exactly as it did in the fading picture of its past. Time had replaced the tiny village, its silence, and its humble, stucco homes with an exact replica of itself. I felt that our disintegrating brown photo would vanish before the place it was desperately trying to save from time’s cruelty. But this is an intolerably American form of fancy.

As we snapped our own pictures, of the family name memorialized by Szerecseny’s only piece of monumental art, we decided to seek out the town cemetery. The names of the dead suggested their bodies lay near.

A comical series of tourists’ loops finally brought us to the graveyard. A dirt road leading from this town to some distant other was where Szerecseny’s dead slept.

On the way to the graves of Scheibelhoffers past, a very tall, thin man stood at the road. Silent as the town, he simply stood there as if to usher us forward into the past. He wore black slacks and no shirt, only a tight black leather vest. He had a type of cowboy hat on, also black, and stood proudly, his thumbs in his belt loops, head cocked back. He looked like a large crow and he nodded at us as we drove past.

The cemetery was circled by a large, black, wrought-iron fence, like a thousand little crow-men keeping watch over it. We walked through the corner gate and felt the silence giving rest to the dead as we read their names. All this as excitement and somberness wrestled within us.

Tony, Kim’s father and the American heir to the Scheibelhoffer name, reverted to his suburban instinct for pulling weeds, for which we scolded him. How could one distinguish the weeds and flowers here? And can the weeds be removed from a place like this without setting in motion the decay of progress? An image of the town finally decaying into the wilting sepia of its photo after our visit haunts me.

As we ambled through this silent, restful place, the care lavished upon each plot was overwhelming. Unlike American graves, where a single field grows over and through all the plots, overwhelming them with cruel patience and time and, except perhaps on Memorial Day, erasing the absent person, here, each bed rested under its own garden, beautiful and simple, like the town itself. Covering the dead were stone boxes, carved with ornate designs, that held fresh flower arrangements.

It was the freshness of the flowers that took me. These were not plastic flowers, fading and cracking under the sun year after year between visits from distant, busy relatives. These were flowers that radiated beauty, aged, dropped petals, and withered. These were flowers which required human care.

This was common to nearly every grave in the cemetery; graves of the recently deceased as well as those of people who died in 1960, 1950, 1920… All were memories cherished by the town, and the natural devotion to this place united the living and the dead. The slowness of time in this small Hungarian village extended to, or perhaps from, its cemetery.

Professor Anderson’s Goals

Copied from my Introduction to Literature syllabus.
Kafka at the age of five

Kafka at the age of five (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to make you miserable.

I’m sort of exaggerating about that, but not really. If the humanities, particularly literature, are to claim any purpose in college, part of that purpose must be to unsettle you, and this requires a bit of misery. Fortunately then, we have Kafka to start us off this semester.

Anyone attending college today has probably been victimized by a happy lie. The lie suggests that you students are powerful beings who only need the magical institutional credential of the college diploma to take the world by storm. In this environment, the courses you take are procedural rungs on the triumphant ladder of progress and achievement. You believe you can fly and we can provide the jetpack. Just Do It, and we’ll give you a fancy piece of paper that proves you did (frame not included).

Even in this course. The objectives outlined above are very good. They give us specific skills to focus on and those skills will unquestionably help you in your economic, post-college lives. And they will help me to assign a grade to your efforts. This, along with some elaborate fonts, boosts the credibility of the wall decoration you get for your four years of effort.

The problem is that none of this really has much to do with education.

Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you.

On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.

Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.

This course on twentieth-century and contemporary literature is an opportunity then. Think of it as a speed bump in the soul-killing progressive-triumphalist superhighway (you may not be able to exit – we’ll read Sartre at the end of the semester – but you might be able to slow down sometimes). Here is a too-rare chance for us (and I purposefully include myself here) to unsettle things that are settled and stale. This literature will not be easy to face because it very often undermines our heroic views of ourselves and our society. This brutality is exactly its value.

I do not wish to change your mind or your worldview. And I certainly don’t want to empower you. I hope to challenge you to confront your mind and your worldview in an effort to perfect them.

This is a burden I look forward to helping you with, but, like all real education, it is ultimately yours alone.

My office hours are listed above.

3 Things to Remember When Talking about This Issue on the Internet

This is the Issue that people are talking about on the internet today. While there are no strict rules for participating in this “conversation” per se, there are three important guidelines which should govern one’s actions. They will enhance the predictability of your contribution and ensure that the status quo remains undisturbed:

1). The future of civilization is at stake.

We are at the threshold of Hell. Whatever happens with regards to This Issue will solely determine the course of our survival/freedom/access to delicious apple pies.

Make no mistake; this event or controversy is unprecedented in the course of human events and our response must be unquestionably and demonstrably correct, or Hitler will have finally won.

2). You are Right and They are Wrong.

At perilous times like these, it is obviously vital that the boundary between those on history’s good side and the minions of Cthulu are absolutely clear.

If our certainty in our own righteousness wavers even a little, then our journey to the Dark Side will be complete. To graciously listen to the positions of our best opponents is paramount to treason. Violators of this ethos will be stained with the blood of the innocent and ostracized.

In fact, let’s just get this straight right now: there are no “best opponents.” The group is defined by the actions and opinions of its most fringe members. The appearance of thoughtfulness or nuance is a trap designed to steal your soul. If you disagree with Them, They are both flotsam AND jestsam.

In addition, since the construction of this border wall between obviously-good and obviously-evil is so vital, lumping vast numbers of people into convenient ideological groups is crucial. Don’t be fooled by apparent “reasonableness.” If They say something that challenges You, throw them in your prefabricated box and let history judge them harshly. Also, come up with some sort of devil-term to describe the lot of them. That’s always good.

3). You cannot go too far in making your point.

Again, I cannot stress the significance of this moment enough. It’s all riding on what you’re about to post to Facebook, so go big or go home. Manners and goodwill toward others is some Necronomicon crap. Remember how nice Idi Amin seemed in that movie?

Seriously, if a public figure makes a statement that puts them in the devil box, they probably have unnatural relationships with squirrels or something. If not that, then they were in some elite college fraternity where they swore to destroy the world of goodness and rainbows and replace it with toxic nerve gas and New Coke. And now they’re in power. What are you going to do about it?

The world is a buffet of curse words and reductionist logic.

You know what you have to do.

English: A black and white icon of two people ...

English: A black and white icon of two people talking to indicate discussion with peers or neighbors, possibly in educational settings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Final Paper (A Parody)

Final Paper

Have you ever thought about starting your paper with a rhetorical question? It is said that this is a great way to get attention to your topic. Dictionary.com defines attention as “the act or faculty of attending, especially by directing the mind to an object.” Albert Einstein once stated brilliantly “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking” (Brainyquote.com). This is a good quote to use in a paper because it talks about reading and it is a source from a credable person and the paper needs sources because of the assignment. As you already can see, I already have two cites in the paper already and I only need one more to get it to three. It is therefore undeniable that since the dawn of time, writing papers is a thing that is essential to getting the attention of readers. I shall prove that writing good is an incredibly important part of finishing an assignment in which there is a word count minimum that needs sources.

Einstein_tongue

On Smart Phones, Freedom, and Alephs

Aleph

When people ask me what makes something “literary,” I typically say something about how literature reads you even as you read it. Literary art provides an opportunity to think.

The moments at which my job is most satisfying are those in which the stories and poems I’ve assigned point an accusing finger at me and draw back the curtain between the mystical and the “real” in my life. I love it when the book I’m reading seems to know me, and I really love it when it tells me I’m not OK.

I have, like many others, brought my smart phone into numerous aspects of my life. It is communication, entertainment, work, and study; so much of what makes me human has been given over to the machine. There is a certain liberty in this. I am now able to find answers and questions anywhere I am. Wherever I am, the universe is before me in all its complexity, its strangeness, and its dullness. So remarkable is the device, I never stop to ask whether it is me or the phone that’s the tool.

I’ve thought of instruments like my Samsung as a kind of power so liberating I’ve even encouraged my students to wield it, but I wonder if I’ve been living a free life within a prison.

The Aleph (short story collection)

The Aleph (short story collection) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I taught Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph.” The story is landmark of magical realism, and therefore asks the reader to not only question the distinction between magic and real, but to look for the magic in the real.

The story’s narrator, Borges, has an irritating acquaintance, Carlos Argentino, who is the cousin of Borges’s late love interest, Beatriz Viterbo. Carlos Argentino is a bad poet who, as it turns out, has access to a magical point in the universe in which all other points in the universe can be seen. This is the Aleph, and it gives Argentino direct visual access to all the objects, landscapes, and people about which he writes his terrible poetry.

The story is awe-inspiring as a work of literary art, and the paragraphs in which Borges describes what he finally sees in the Aleph are particularly mesmerizing. In addition, it is an extremely funny story, with Borges’s subtle digs at Carlos Argentino’s ineptness and inflated ego providing the narrative spine of the story. I was therefore a little disappointed that it proved to be a little alienating and difficult for my students to enthusiastically embrace.

To combat moments moments like this, I’ve developed a little bag of teaching tricks, and I pulled one of them out during our discussion of “The Aleph.” The internet has given us tools for live polling via text messaging and Tweeting. When I have difficulty getting students to pose questions or make observations in class, I will from time to time project one of these live polling environments to the screen in our class. Often, this will jump-start conversation by providing students with a concrete statement or question to respond to.

In this particular case, however, our retractable white screen was as silent as my students. This was slightly disappointing, but I was mostly irritated by the fact that the vast majority of the class were clearly typing things into their smartphones. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but even I could deduce that I was merely providing them cover while they mentally exited my classroom and entered the intoxicating liberation of cyberspace.

Eventually, I squeezed a little water from stone and we had a decent conversation about the story. One moment in particular seemed to draw some interest. After Borges has experienced the majestic, God-like view the Aleph offers, he stumbles into the street and makes the following observation:

In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar. I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’ Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again.

This puzzling moment was productive for us. It raised questions about the value of mystery, wonder, and imagination. Carlos Argentino had endless, literal access to everything in the universe and his poetry suffered for it (though he ironically garners acclaim from the publishing industry – another hilarious cultural critique Borges offers). His direct, instant access reduced his poetry to pale, mimetic description. His poetry was strangled by the brutish hands of fact and the oxygen of imagination was cut off.

The fear that Borges experiences then is a powerful one, and the relief his forgetfulness brings is tangible. The overwhelming clarity of the Aleph threatened to sap the very joy from life, which lies in encountering the unknown and struggling to make sense of it.

After class, I wandered back to my office and noticed just how readily and enthusiastically students slip into the black mirrors of their smartphones at any opportunity. Like Carlos Argentino scurrying under his basement steps to submit to the easy immediacy of the Aleph, we compulsively reach for our devices to connect us to our digitized universe. And this is by no means exclusive to the young. At playgrounds, restaurants, and school assemblies all over the industrialized world, people of all ages, myself included, shun the profound, magical surprise of the street, the stairs, and the subway for the pale titillation of the virtual.

What to ultimately do about this new reality is unclear to me. Until I figure it out, I will leave my phone in the car when I go out to eat with my family. Perhaps the answer lies in the unexpected things children say.

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Dave Ramsey and the End of Community

I once spent a little too much money on a coat at a small, struggling mall store owned and solely-staffed by a really nice Christian man. This was apparently un-Christian of me.

The Dave Ramsey Show

The Dave Ramsey Show (Photo credit: .imelda)

Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University has found a vibrant marketplace in churches across America. The program of responsible spending and saving that Ramsey has packaged together speaks to many of Christendom’s historic values; temperance, wisdom, and modesty, to name a few. Particularly in the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession, FPU has been instrumental in helping many people responsibly live within their means.

Ramsey has, of course, clumsily talked his way into the Culture Wars as of late, but I don’t want to use this space to pile on his comments about the poor. Instead, I’d like to reflect on the consistency of his Financial Peace with the the notion of Christian Peace.

I too have gone through the program, which was a series of videos and homework assignments designed to systematically identify belt-tightening and investment opportunities in the student’s actual finances. I won’t spoil the details of Ramsey’s system, but I will say that it was, in an amateur’s opinion, pretty logical advice.

I was never entirely comfortable with the enterprise, however.

For one thing, there was, to me anyway, a crassness and a brashness about Ramsey’s on-stage persona that often made me squint like Clint Eastwood in an old Spaghetti Western. His beaming self-confidence, his carefully manicured “working-man’s clothes,” and his absolute faith in individualism can at times make one feel as though they are watching a particularly bad TED Talk.

These particular complaints all spring from personal preference however, and, though I find these rhetorical strategies to be an uncomfortable fit with the Christian ethics Ramsey tries to tie his product to, they are not what most unsettles me about the enterprise.

What is most disturbing about Christendom’s relationship with Financial Peace University is the extent of Dave Ramsey’s influence and the fact that his ideas are not simply taken as wise advice about personal finance, but as a broad philosophy about the nature of human communities. In short, the problem with Ramsey is not one of kind, but of degree. To live within one’s means is good. To live within one’s own isolated economic reality is not.

Without giving away any of his specific financial success secrets, I came away from Dave Ramsey’s sales pitch with an overall sense that the responsible person will seek to take such command of his or her own finances as to completely withdraw from any shared economic relationship with others. In the Ramsey-verse, all debt is evil, while goodness is found in the individual consumer prying the lowest price from a retailer, no matter the social cost.

This is not simply advice, it is philosophy, and it is a socially dangerous one. It is not dangerous because it favors the Wal-Marts of the world over local businesses (though it certainly does). No, the danger of Ramsey’s philosophy lies in its lack of imagination about what human beings are. It reduces each of us to isolated economic functionaries whose value is primarily measured by purchasing power and accumulated liquid wealth.

What this philosophy undercooks is the fact that humans need other humans. In fact, part of what makes us human is our dependence upon relationships with one another. Those relationships are social, sexual, and even economic.

Many of the Bible verses we’ve committed to memory – “Do unto others” etc… – emphasize the need to de-centralize self-interest in Christian community. Not many people in Christendom would seriously advocate self-centeredness as an ethical standard in friendships or romantic relationships, yet our wholesale adoption of Ramsey’s product (and I keep emphasizing this basic fact of the enterprise’s nature) basically advocates centralizing the self in our economic relationships. This puzzles me.

People will surely argue that I am ignoring moments when the product mentions the ethics of community, and certainly I remember a few obligatory nods to things like giving to charity and so on. And sure, I suppose that if an individual becomes rich, they can conceivably give away more money.

This is theoretically plausible, but in the context of FPU’s overall emphasis on self-empowerment, even this act of giving is itself one of power, not of the powerlessness that is the emphasis of the Christian Gospel.

Save your money and spend it wisely.

Give your life away to others recklessly.

I leave it to the reader to reconcile those two philosophies.

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Mark Driscoll and Christian-on-Christian Crime

By now, most people who would care about such things already know about the allegations of plagiarism against Mark Driscoll, the Seattle-based megachurch pastor. For those who wish to get caught up on the situation, Slate ran a fabulous take-down of Driscoll that should fill in the gaps, here.

Pastor Mark preaching at the Temple of Artemis

Pastor Mark preaching at the Temple of Artemis (Photo credit: Mars Hill Church)

His guilt or innocence is less interesting to me than the public conversation about him. I frankly have rather low expectations for much Christian writing, so the idea that a Christian Bestseller is less than academically rigorous is not exactly world-shaking to me. Andy Crouch wrote what I think is the best response to this situation, and he makes that same point. Crouch’s main point, however, is a brilliant one; that the major problem with the Driscoll plagiarism affair is that is an example of a dangerous idolatry among believers, a point I will return to at the end.

I am, however, still haunted by the question of how people of faith should respond to one another.

One thing I constantly try to do in class is to get my largely Christian students to think critically about their faith. “Critical” is the critical word here, because this goal necessitates casting suspicion upon people who ostensibly believe as they do. This sometimes causes friction with students who take an broad “us against them” view of the role of salt and light in the world. 

This conflict spilled over into my personal life as well. Like many people, I posted a snarky link to the above Slate article on my Facebook page, with a comment along the lines of “Hey Driscoll, is it the kick-butt Jesus or the panzy Jesus that cites his sources,” alluding to (and let’s just admit it — poking fun at) Driscoll’s famously hyper-masculine view of the Christian faith. There was a pretty good conversation that followed that link, but I later noticed, in other friends’ feeds, status updates that complained about Christians publicly complaining about other Christians (I know, I know. The irony of that was not lost on me either. It was all I could do to refrain from pointing it out — you guessed it — publicly). 

Being who I am, the whole thing reminds me of any number of Philip Roth stories. The Ghost Writer, for example, spends much of its narrative energy chronicling young Nathan Zuckerman’s conflict with his Jewish community over the scandal of his fiction. The story naturally bears striking parallels to Roth’s own personal history with his community’s reaction to his work going back to the beginning of his career. Essentially, the conflict boils down to “is it good for the Jews.”

The communal fear on display in this story is not without merit, but also not healthy from a perspective of self-reflection. I wonder if Roth’s work offers parallels that Christians might make use of as we adjudicate Driscoll’s actions in public. Primarily, we must ask if it is truly bad for the Christian public image for believers to show that we are thinking beings and that we demand certain ethical standards be met in spite of our “oneness.” Is it really better that we remain publicly silent while the culture of idolatry that Crouch identifies proliferates and is rewarded?

I believe this all points to a paradox built into the very fabric of the faith. I’m sure than many Christians who prefer the “Thin Blue Line” approach to controversy point to New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 6 as their guiding scripture. The edicts of those verses demand that Christians show a united front to non-believers and that they not bring public lawsuits against one another. There is, of course, much wisdom here, but I think it must be doing more than asking “is it good for the Christians?” It is asking of believers to rise above the crassness and self-interestedness of their non-believing neighbors. If Crouch is right, then are Driscoll’s critics not identifying a similar crassness in his public-celebrity persona?

This is a complication, but the paradox I mentioned above lies at a different level. The passage from 1 Corinthians. Has that letter not become a public scolding of Christians by another Christian? Does the visibility of that fracture within Christendom not build respect for the faith? What is good for the Christians?

 

 

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