Tozer’s Grave

Tozer's grave

Aiden Wilson Tozer was one of the Twentieth Century’s great Christian writers. A major figure in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Tozer wrote scores of influential devotional books, including the classic The Pursuit of God, happily available as a free kindle book here. A couple of years ago, someone recommended I read it and I must say I was rather blown away by Tozer’s eloquence and insight into the struggle that faith not only is, but should be. The book has chapter titles like “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing,” and cleverly insightful sentences like, “The modern scientist has lost God amid the wonders of His world; we Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word.” What an Arnoldian aesthetic. I was hooked.

A. W. Tozer

A. W. Tozer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, as it turned out, I had lived right down the street from Tozer’s grave for most of my youth and hadn’t had any idea. So, the Romantic that I am, I decided to take a trip down Interstate 77 to visit my old haunts and to gain some perspective on my life that I hoped would steady me for the upcoming move to Georgia. With the goal of ending my day meditating about my own fallible pursuit of God over the grave of the man who wrote the book, I drove around my old neighborhood.

I had been by the old house every so often already, so there wasn’t much to see there. Instead, I drove my car through the streets my bicycle had once carried me over. Lost memories of course returned, as in a Proust novel, and I felt the return of a heretofore absent emotional attachment to the place. I was both filled with nostalgia and excited: I sensed, I could build on these emotions and surely come to some meaningful epiphany at Tozer’s grave.

My swoon took me to the beauty parlor my mother had owned and I walked in, only to find that it was now a mom and pop computer repair shop. Stupefied, I explained to the lone repairman what I was doing and, with some embarrassment, pointed to where my mom’s row of hairdryers once stood, then clumsily left. Fortunately, it just so happened that Tozer’s graveyard was just around the corner from the corpse of my mother’s beauty shop. I sensed that my emotional state was intense enough to make a memorable and profound experience out of my visit to the Great Man’s ghostly remains.

The graveyard rested behind an old church in the middle of a busy part of town, so peacefulness had been replaced by a bit too much bustle, but I eagerly approached it, desperate to cash my emotions in for a Profound Experience. I had no idea that Tozer’s grave was near the back of the lot, so I began in the front, momentarily visiting the remains of dozens of anonymous people. Then, suddenly, profundity arrived. I came to it.

Not Tozer’s grave, but the final resting place of Hazel Lain. I had known Hazel since I was a child and the sight of her grave reminded me that I had indeed heard that she’d died sometime back. Her passing was apparently not impressive enough for me to remember it, but the sight of her grave was quickly, and forever, seared on my memory.

Though the cemetery was beautiful, Hazel’s place in it was not. She was pushed off to the side, away from the others, right next to a chain link fence that separated the graveyard from what I believe was an auto repair shop, or something of the sort. The noise was irritating, and there were no trees to offer Hazel’s visitors any shade. But I suppose there aren’t going to be many visitors anyway.

What stopped me on my quest to associate with Tozer’s celebrity was the cruel realization that Hazel’s life, as I had known it, seemed to point toward the indignity of this final resting place. She was a quiet, shy old woman who was, to my knowledge, never married. She cackled like a cartoon witch when she laughed. One of her eyes (the fact that I can’t remember which one should tell you something) had gone pale and glassy as she went blind in it. To those who did not know her, she could have seemed frightening. Those of us who did know her entrusted her with the church’s babies each Sunday. With inhuman vigilance, she spent her Sundays in the back, with the children, in the nursery. While we sang, she changed diapers. While we listened to the pastors’ sermons, she wiped noses. While we socialized afterward, discussing football games and other important matters, who knows what she did. There were, admittedly, the occasional “lets bring Hazel up and let her know how much we appreciate her” love fests, but I should have been in her life without that prompting.

The guilt I felt was profound.

As with my earlier drive, another lost memory had crystallized before my eyes. I saw the loneliness of Hazel’s life when I saw her shabby grave, pushed off to the side. Not only could I see it, I could feel it. Pushed off to the margins in life, pushed off to the margins in death.

I pulled away from Hazel’s grave, shamed and full of bitter regret. I stumbled past other graves that were shepherded into tight communities, then I came to Tozer’s grave. It was lovely, but there was nothing special about it for me. I was spent. I looked at the headstone for a few minutes, then walked back to Hazel’s grave. I mumbled my regrets, turned, and left.

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Love is a Dirty, Brutal Thing

Sometimes, an object says more than words ever could. I give you Charlotte.

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Charlotte was once, like all of us, a brightly-colored, firmly-stuffed consumer product available for purchase at a mall. Then one day a 10-month old girl named Nora spotted her. Her reaction was explosive. Her eyes widened as she pointed, bounced, and laughed hysterically in her stroller. Nora’s grandparents, of course, purchased Charlotte and a heavenly match was made in the Disney store. Nora was in love and I like to think that Charlotte was too.

Like any really true love, Nora’s and Charlotte’s was apparent to everyone. It was also not always pretty. Where Nora went, she dragged Charlotte along with her. The bond between the two of them was instant and violent. The intensity and devotion of Nora’s love soon began taking its toll. Charlotte’s wrists withered within the vice of Nora’s loving fist. Yet, the two were becoming one and their relationship warmed everyone’s hearts. Soon, anyone who knew Nora knew Charlotte, and on the few occasions when Charlotte was misplaced, a mob of truly frightened people, grown-ups and children alike, would scour the cabinets, chairs, and laundry baskets to recover the hind-and-seek artist formerly known as Pooh. When she was found, the collective sigh of relief, would shatter windows.

Yes, Charlotte was meant to be a Pooh bear like billions of others, but Nora invested her friend with her own personality. Soon, the familiar, corporate-approved red vest disappeared, replaced, after a time, by a stained, tight-fitting ballerina outfit originally designed for God knows what. And Charlotte wore it well. Like her clothing, her name was also unsanctioned by Disney. “Pooh” was re-christened “Charlotte” in honor of the new baby at Nora’s daycare. In short, Charlotte was adopted, fully assimilating into the identity she and Nora had forged together.  Life had come to Charlotte and, weird as it may sound, Charlotte came to life.

But life, like love, isn’t easy on any of us. The years passed, and though their bond would not wither under the strain of developing toddler-hood, Charlotte’s body would. She was made only of fabric and fluff, while Nora was flesh-and-blood and eventually had to grow teeth. As you might notice in the picture, Charlotte’s nose gradually flattened, a result of its remarkable and unintended utility as a teething ring. For a time, Charlotte’s nose could hardly be found outside Nora’s mouth. Nora would run about the house like a dog, jerking her head from side to side with a gleeful viciousness that stretched and soiled Charlotte’s former nose into a stigmata of her suffering. Charlotte limply waved through the air, battered, but happy to take Nora’s teething pain upon herself.

Then there is the dirt. We all become stained by something as we live and Charlotte is no different. Since she went everywhere with Nora, she, like her human friend, touched everything. Whether it was mud, markers, or masking tape, Charlotte’s life has been spent Joyfully scraping against the wonders of a child’s world, even as the experience wore her bright yellow skin down to a pale, dirty hue.

This is not a sad recollection. Charlotte, to my mind, has had the happiest life of any Pooh that has ever sprung from Disney’s Chinese assembly lines. She has not spent it in a box or on a shelf. She hasn’t followed the rules under which she was born. She hasn’t chosen neatness and perfection over experience. She has lived her life the way we were all meant to. With defiant joy.

Nora will be four very soon and Charlotte is still with her.

No.

She’s still with us. I cannot look at her withered, feeble body and not see the sparkling life of my daughter, as it slowly accumulated on her over time. Charlotte’s life has been a beautiful one because it has captured the glorious brutality of living. She has experienced what it is to be human. Nora’s tears, her saliva, her vomit, as well as her playful joy are all frozen in time in the graying, bleak yellow of Charlotte’s cotton blend skin. Nora has a massive imagination and her exuberant love has required more than one needle-and-thread surgery. Someday, Charlotte will need to be put on a shelf and rewarded with her well-earned rest.

But not quite yet. Please not yet.

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Please feel free to share with other mommies and daddies.

 

Learning Through Teaching

First, a sidebar. If you stopped by here last time because of the sudden attention the great singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell gave this blog on his Facebook page, thank you! (I seriously don’t think I’ve ever been given a greater compliment). I hope that you stick around and feel free to share your thoughts with me. This posting is about another topic, but I don’t think it’s entirely unrelated.

I want to make sure everyone appreciates how much I love my students. I truly have fun in class with them and I frequently find myself knocked-over by their insightfulness. Getting the Ph.D was quite often a drag, but it was totally worth it.

This past week, we discussed three short stories, each wildly distinct from the others. I was purposefully trying to disorient them and worked all week to keep them in that state. Please don’t call the authorities on me, but I’m convinced that this is the heart of education. Constructive confusion is the way to enlightenment. I believe this deeply and I cherish the struggle it brings.

In the middle of the week, we read and discussed Bernard Malamud’s great short story “Angel Levine.” I feel a special duty to make my students read at least one thing by Malamud each semester. His legacy is sadly eroding and if English professors don’t make people read him, no one will. A couple of malamudyears ago, I went to a major literature conference and attended the Malamud panel. I was the only member of the audience until some elderly gentleman joined us, I think out of pity. From that moment on, I decided to keep his work alive as much as my limited ability would allow.

At any rate, “Angel Levine” is a lovely tale about Manischewitz, an elderly Jewish man who, like Job, falls upon inexplicably hard times. He prays for deliverance and lo and behold an angel appears. The problem is that the angel is a former Jewish man named Alexander Levine and is now an African-American angel who lives in Harlem and is in a probationary period. Thus, the protagonist has doubts, as you might imagine. This angel contradicts his expectations in every imaginable way. Yet, he must overcome his doubt in order to believe before the angel can help him. This is the story’s central dilemma.

I always like to start with a question, so I had my students write for five minutes about why we suffer. Their answers were quite intelligent and often profound and they found the connection to the story themselves. We had great discussions about this fine piece of literature. I was happy that they had experienced the story in the way that I had hoped.

As the day went on and I taught the story in my subsequent classes something dawned on me. They were also seeing the story in ways that went beyond my hopes. The story came alive through their eyes and I was seeing it anew with each class that had engaged with it. Their unique perspectives had brought something to the tale that was new for me and, in turn, made it richer.

By the second class, I began to see the story as not only a modern Job-like morality tale, but also as a literacy narrative, much like Malamud’s great story “A Summer’s Reading.” Manischewitz’s dilemma is one of broadening his mind. His “sin,” if he has one, is that he sees the world only as it exists in front of his face. When he has to leave his neighborhood and make the arduous journey to Harlem to find the angel, he is, in essence, beginning the process of opening himself up to new experiences. In the end, his world is richer not only because of his faith, but because of his willingness to explore it.

Then I became aware, to my horror, that I was Manischewitz! I was the one who had come to class already knowing what I knew about this story. In leaving my own certitudes and following the bread-trail my students were leaving, I found new meaning in the story. Like our downtrodden hero, I too had grown. It was wonderful. But, like all wonderful things, it was also scary.

It was so wonderful, that I went all mushy with my class. I confessed to them the impact the story has had on my life. I had unwittingly scheduled this reading for this week 2 months ago and had no way of knowing that it would be waiting for me at a special moment in my life. As I shared with some detail in my previous post about Rodney Crowell (if those readers are still with me, thank you!), I’ve reached a point at which I’m starting to feel the gravity of my move from Cleveland. Like my re-discovery of Crowell’s music, re-reading this great story really meant something to me. This time, I felt the suffering in a new way and, more importantly, I felt the conviction that belief is risky. To believe in something, anything, is to risk something. Manischewitz risked his perception of the world and the afterlife to believe in his angel. I’m left to ponder what it is that I am willing to risk. I, like my students, am still disoriented and struggling to right myself. I suspect this is a life-long condition. I am still learning.

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Ancient Aliens: Religion is for Suckers, Try Blind Faith Instead!

Ancient Aliens

I have to confess something rather embarrassing right from the outset. I have fallen into the habit of falling asleep at night while watching what I can only call “speculative documentary” programming. Conspiracy stuff, Bigfoot and friends, and, of course, alien propaganda. This post is, I suppose a belated companion piece to my previous one about the Georgia Guidestones. Here’s the link to that if you’re interested. I find it all so very amusing and can doze off without feeling like I’ve missed anything important. Commence with your psychoanalysis. I’m sure I deserve it.

At any rate, Amazon Prime has just added three seasons of the (ahem) History Channel program Ancient Aliens. I have been sleeping very well these days.

title screenshot

title screenshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The premise of the show is pretty simple, really. Ancient aliens. What about them? Whatever, it all comes back to ancient aliens. The pyramids? Yes. Zeus? Yes. Noah’s Ark? The Holy Grail? Thomas Jefferson? Yes. Yes. Yes. Even Bigfoot! It seems that anything that has or has not transpired in the human experience is a direct result of some paternalistic race of space travelers.

I have no interest in taking the time to debunk the program’s claims. Arthritis would surely kick in before I could finish. Besides, there is already a website that does that. Here. I’m more interested in basking in the delicious irony of this program’s ontological claims.

To summarize, people who call themselves “proponents of the ancient astronaut theory” find a way to stuff everything that the human mind has ever conceived of into their box of pre-conceived, dearly-held notions. Always at odds with “mainstream archaeologists  or “mainstream scientists,” these folks insist that nothing our race has ever done or thought of could have been accomplished without help from “flesh and blood extraterrestrials.”

It goes without saying that the program is ridiculous, but I should take a moment to add that it is also insulting to everyone who is a human of any sort whatsoever. One mainstay in its presenters’ rhetorical bag-of-tricks is to claim that folklore, mythology, and religion are always misunderstood as metaphors or stories. The show’s main “character,” this Giorgio person pictured in the meme above, always insists that the literary and artistic images left by ancient man were not creative inventions, but rather literal depictions of alien technology and beings. This denial of the primacy of the human imagination kind of infuriates me, in all honesty. To deny that human beings have the capacity to engage with the world and all its complexities and create an imaginative representation of that variousness is to deny that we are human at all.

Wait a minute. I guess they do deny that. At about 23 seconds in:

Each program has its own theme (the Bigfoot one is a special hoot), but I’m particularly interested in those that graciously correct our misguided religious notions. According to the ancient astronaut theory, the Bible is full of stories of extraterrestrial encounters. We, in all our silliness, have mistaken them for accounts of religious experience with the Divine. Adam and Eve, Jacob’s Ladder, and even the life of Jesus himself are all literal recorded accounts of contact with aliens. Let’s be clear about that. This group of people maintains that everything in the Bible is literal. It just isn’t divine because that would be crazy. Jesus was a flesh and blood alien. Jacob saw, not angels, but (you know) aliens descending and ascending the ladder. Adam and Eve were genetic mutations created by the aliens!

Two things strike me as ironic here. First, these people take the Bible far more literally than I do as an orthodox man of the Christian faith. I’m perfectly OK with Job being an existential three-act play passed down to help us deal with the terrifying complexities of life. But, oh yes, I forgot. We have no capability of imagination of this sort. Oops. My bad.

Second, let’s think about this systematic debunking of not only the imagination but of the supernatural as well. I have elsewhere maintained that the imagination and religious practice are intimate partners. So what happens to our faith in the ascendance of the ancient astronaut theory?

According to the ancient astronaut theory (I do so love typing that phrase), angels and gods (and God) are misinterpreted flesh and blood aliens. Our adherence to belief in the supernatural quality of these beings is clouding our vision and we are unable to see the truth; not just about this, but about human history. The death of religion as we know it is a natural consequence of this epiphany. We are now free from our slavish devotion to a God that insists that we live our lives in such a way that glorifies him in everything we do or say or think. No longer must we look back at our lives and even history and look for ways in which he has guided and protected us. No longer must we look forward to the return of a God that doesn’t even exist.

Now, with this new vision, with this freedom that comes with realizing that there is no God, but only aliens, we can imagine our place in creation differently. We can know that we were created in the image of these aliens. We can see how they’ve guided us through the ages, inspiring our art and helping us mature as a race. We can feel the elation that comes when we know their plan for our lives; when we accept that they could not have created us for no reason. We can seek their will for our growth as a species. And finally, when they at long last return to welcome us into the universal community of planets, we will be ready because we’ve been expecting them all along.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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Rodney Crowell and My Salvation from Christian Music

The Houston Kid

The Houston Kid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one needs another polemic about the banality of contemporary worship music. This is a topic that’s been theorized and explored by people who care about it a lot more than I do. Here’s one fairly recent example I found lingering in my Pocket account.

Basically, the problem is that I have a rare medical condition, and if I hear a song that uses the words “amazing,” or “awesome” more than 37 times, my pancreas will explode and I will die.

OK, that’s not true, but I think you see my point. Contemporary worship is a genre that primarily rewards the emotional and scolds the intellectual. For instance, only this shameless genre could offer the world the phrase “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss,” with an un-ironic, straight face.

Of course I paint with a broad brush, but largely the genre fetishizes the …ahem… “awesomeness” of God, while ignoring the particulars of how that awesomeness is created. The problem with ignoring those details is that anything complicated about the Christian faith is left out of the experience. And if there is anything that Christianity has to offer contemporary society, it is the complications the religion carries within itself. This makes it real and relevant. Jacob, as a chosen scoundrel, undermines all notions of fairness and justice. This creates a beautiful confusion within the individual pondering the patriarchal story. It is a confusion that challenges the listener in a way that worship music refuses to, leaving my pancreas to suffer. Imagine Michael Phelps splashing in a kiddie pool. This is an image of what worship music too often does to Christianity.

Beautiful Despair in Rodney Crowell

This brings me to the subject of this post. Growing up listening to the Country Music of my parents, I first became aware of Crowell (dare I refer to him as Rodney here?) because of the great popularity of his hit album Diamonds and Dirt. The wit and depth of his lyrics, along with his stubbornly traditional approach to pop-country, made me a lifelong admirer.

As I grew older however, the Clash came calling for me and I neglected to follow Rodney’s career for many years. This was an insightfully blind mistake on my part. As luck would have it. I caught up with him around the time I was approaching 40, just in time for Rodney to guide me through that time in a way that Christian music would never have been able to.

What makes his music resonate with my own Christian Imagination is that, far from avoiding the beautiful confusion of life, he hones in on it as the very subject that makes life worth living. His song “Beautiful Despair” from 2005’s The Outsider, perfectly captures this attitude.

Beautiful despair is slouching forward

Toward a past you might regret

All to suck the marrow out

Of every magic moment that you get

The “awesomeness” that this lyric captures is not rooted in happy sentimentalism. Instead it captures the delicate dance that joy and pain share in the human experience. What is beautiful is not that we may avoid pain, but that the pain we will feel makes the joy worth feeling. This is the sweetness and light that Matthew Arnold wrote about, and to hear a wise, aging poet capture it in musical art provides more solace and inspiration than any endless repetition of shallow superlatives.

I was fortunate enough to see Rodney perform in a small venue in Athens, GA a few months ago and I noticed that his set consisted strictly of early and recent material. I didn’t feel that he was regretting the popular material of the late 80’s, but an artistic symmetry between the work of the brash young troubadour and older sage is clearly apparent. His classic early material, highlighted by songs like “‘Til I can Gain Control Again,” and “Song for the Life,” show an intimacy with the wisdom of recent songs like “Beautiful Despair,” “Earthbound,” and “My Father’s Advice.”

I feel a large measure of discomfort being mushy and personal so publicly, but given the nature of this post, I think I have an obligation to explain the depths of my appreciation for this great artist’s music. I have recently moved my family 11 hours from home for a job that I am most grateful for. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching this group of students. I see great meaning in what I’m doing and I’m blessed with an institution and colleagues that encourage me in my work. As a person of faith, I see God’s hand in the events that ultimately led to this job.

Yet I am also feeling a sometimes overwhelming sense of loss and isolation.

Though I’ve met almost nobody I don’t like very much, I still search for the intimacy I left in Cleveland, Ohio. I sit through worship music that seems to uplift everyone around me, but leaves me unmoved. The music simply cannot withstand the contradiction of my situation. The abandonment of comfort. Finding my loss. Loving what sometimes makes me sad. Rejoicing for the opportunity to struggle. In short, the Beautiful Despair.

I am so fortunate to have abandoned Rodney Crowell’s inspiring music for so long, as now, with fresh ears, I can not only hear and enjoy it, but I can feel it.

The vision in both his lyrics and vocal performances captures the complexity of life as I currently lead it. I do not regret the pain and loss. Without them, the joy and passion would be incomplete.

Please watch this performance.

I Know Love is All I Need–from The Outsider

Though my parents are still with me (though still not with me), the speaker in this song captures the grateful isolation, the feeling of having arrived at lostness, that I feel. This is a feat that, sadly, Christian music does not attempt, yet it seems to me that it is an integral part of the Christian experience. To know and be confused. To trust and still fear. To carry doubt with sureness. To know that the experience of fear gives one the exhilarating chance to escape it. And knowing that the escape will still bring doubt along with it.

These contradictions are not to be avoided, as worship music often does. They are to be embraced as the very gift God has given us. Life is beautiful because it is inconceivable. Seeking the answer is a big part of answer. Rodney Crowell, thank God, understands that. With the help of his art, I can joyfully suck the marrow from this wonderful, terrifying life I’m lucky enough to still be living.

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An eminent professor of English has written an insightful defense of majoring in English on a CNN blog today. I’ve never tried this “Reblog” thing before, but I found the ideas to be worth spreading. Essentially, English as a discipline needs to think about ways to make a larger contribution to the culture. The professionalization of the discipline has been destructive on many levels, one of which is our self-imposed exile from the worlds of commerce and business. English majors, if encouraged to take their humanistic education outside the academy, could, I believe, make a major impact on the culture.

Schools of Thought

Courtesy Michael BérubéBy Michael Bérubé, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael Bérubé is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, and the 2012 president of the Modern Language Association.

(CNN) — Almost every college student who considers majoring in English — or French, or philosophy, or art history — inevitably hears the question: “What in the world are you going to do with that?” The question can come from worried parents, perplexed relatives, or derisive, incredulous peers, but it always implies that degrees in the humanities are “boutique” degrees, nice ornaments that serve no practical purpose in the real world. After all, who needs another 50-page honors project on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire?

Well, strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French…

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