The Hebraic Roots of Christianity

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Marvin Wilson of Gordon College about his new book Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage. Wilson argues that Christianity was not invented in the first century and, in fact, begins with Abraham, not Jesus himself. He claims that in undervaluing these Jewish roots, Christian thought relies too heavily on Greek-influenced dualism and leaves much of the richness of the faith unexplored. In an attempt to deepen Christianity’s own intellectual tradition then, the author offers examples of Jewish theological practices that he suggests might serve the life of the Christian mind well.

The podcast of the interview can be found at the Christian Humanist at the following link:

http://www.christianhumanist.org/2014/09/christian-humanist-profiles-11-marvin-wilson-on-our-hebraic-heritage/

Pick Your Poison: Grade Inflation or Administrative Bloat

I typically avoid current controversies. I ran across the phrase “Silence like an interruption” in a Cynthia Ozick book and I’ve adopted it as protection against cultural stupidity. But an article posted by Libby Nelson on VOX today irritated me enough to break Ozick’s rule.

The article, “What Wellesley learned when it stopped giving out so many A’s,” details the findings of a study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The authors of the study suggest that the problem of grade inflation (which is certainly an issue worth considering) can be objectively solved by administrative fiat and uses Wellesley as a case study. Appalled that in 2000, the average grade was an A-, Wellesley apparently dictated that all 100-200 level classes have an average grade of no higher than a B+.

I’m sure that this made someone feel very effective and powerful in their pursuit of institutional excellence.

The entire study fills me with personal and professional angst, but let me just touch on a couple of points.

First, the experiment seems to be based solely upon the fact that in 1960 the average grade in college was a C and now it is an A or a B. This reeks of an Andy Rooney “Back In My Day” argument and no apparent attempt has been made to look into WHY this might be the case. The administrative strategy suggests that because this happened, students are being coddled. Left unasked is the question of how much pedagogical practices might have contributed to this shift. Let me be clear: grade inflation is certainly a problem worthy of our attention, but I think it is such a problem that it requires our FULL attention. Let’s not be lazy with our inquiry here.

Second, one of the findings VOX highlights is that professors who follow orders and actually give lower grades get lower “ratings” from students. This makes so much sense that it seems obvious, but how much subsequent pressure is now on said professors to improve their teaching, which will then lead to the higher grades that got them in trouble in the first place? This seems to me like an academic version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22:

“Dr. Yossarian, we value teaching at this institution, and that means helping students succeed. We expect you to help your students succeed, and if they do, we will assume that you are a poor teacher.”

Finally, the authors of the original study (Kristin F. Butcher, Patrick J. McEwan, and Akila Weerapana) show how black students bear the institutional brunt of this initiative. According to Nelson:

“The researchers put the best possible interpretation on this, suggesting that a more even grading policy among different departments at the college will do a better job of demonstrating which students need help. But grading is an imperfect, subjective science, and the burden appears to have fallen more on black students than on others.”

In other words, the researchers report: “gosh, that’s weird.”

The lack of clarity about this disturbing aspect of the policy opens the door to yet another administrative policy down the road. Oh boy. All in the name of returning to the glory days of 1960, where, in the words of Garrison Keillor, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

 

 

 

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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