Falling into Fiction: On Meeting Philip Roth

Philip Roth, Nobel or not, means more to me than any other writer. Reading his work for the first time was like stumbling blindly into an experience both familiar and alien, and built wholly from words. These words did not represent the life I had lived, but they captured the life I’d felt. Roth’s words projected a truer than true landscape of human relationships on the wall of my Platonic cave. Through the experience of his fiction, the skirmishes between my individuality and my communities found a vocabulary and a mythology — and this magical purgatory was entirely constructed out of words. It all hung on the word.

The precise word to call just the right sense and emotion into being. For all the joy this act brings to the right reader, it is, most surely, a brutal task for the writer.

Roth, now 80, has cited this brutality in his decision to call it a career.

As disappointed as I am, I also understand.

I’ve been struggling for months to capture a particular experience in words and, like Keats’ Grecian Urn, preserve it for posterity. Yet the weight of this task has been too much for me and linguistic paralysis set in. It isn’t writer’s block I’m struggling with (I know this because there is no such thing). Rather, I feel too much responsibility to choose the right words to capture something truly unique and special. Like the speaker in Keats poem, for whom the urn was “Sylvan historian, who canst thus express/ A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme,” I feel my words can’t do justice to the event.

Fiction, Life, and the Park Bench

Last March, I had the honor of presenting a paper on Roth’s work at a conference in celebration of his 80th birthday. The conference was in Newark, New Jersey, which may sound disappointing to most readers, but it is Roth’s hometown and we were treated to some opportunities that were truly remarkable for people interested in his fiction. In addition to the excellent academic conference, there were guided tours of Roth’s childhood home and other special events. The main event was a speaking engagement featuring a litany of literary dignitaries and culminating with a talk by Roth himself, followed by a birthday party at which we would occupy the same room as The Great Man.

The “life in photos” collection at the Newark Public Library was special enough, but when I broke out a copy of Goodbye, Columbus while there and read passages describing the park across the street, I was overcome. In a strange haze, I hobbled to the bench Neil sits on as he surveys the park and library, reflecting on his attachment to Newark.

Here is a point where my failings as a writer taunt me. I don’t have access to The Words.

It was as if I had briefly entered the novella I’d so long admired. For a moment, I was able to step out of my existence and into the fictional body of Neil Klugman. Postmoderns like myself love to talk about the collapse of ontological distinction between fiction and the actually-existing world, but, so help me, it happened. Either I diminished into the world Roth’s words wrought, or those words escaped the covers of their book and sat with me on that park bench. I cannot stress the strangeness of this moment enough and, if you stick with me, I will return to it again.

Falling into Fiction

Our Disney-Roth vacation also included a bus tour that took us to various Newark landmarks, Rothian and otherwise. Each bus load of wide-eyed academics was given a tour guide who gracefully read passages from Roth’s work that described the locations we visited. The readings were often, as one would expect from Roth’s work, humorous, but what stood out to me was the descriptive power of the writer’s words. Though Newark has morphed into an altogether new social space in the 50 years since Roth became its emotional historian, his words, when religiously invoked in those spaces, collapsed time and space. Just as with my experience on Neil Klugman’s park bench, Roth’s words, when experienced in the places they froze in literary time, recreated the modern world in the image of Roth’s Atlantean Jewish Newark.

In a comically appropriate way, the driver of my bus was surely the doppelganger of the elderly Arthur Miller, and, fittingly our representative from the world of fiction drove us headlong into that world.

The tour’s highlight was a dual stop at Roth’s youth. First, we pulled in front of his old school, Weequahic High, and we scurried into the cold to snap photos of ourselves in front of its entrance. Here is my own selfie:

2013-03-19 13.05.03

The postmodern romantic in me likes to think that with each of these photos, we not only commemorated our visit to literary history, we hurled ourselves into literature. This act intensified when we boarded our bus again and headed to the pleasure-dome of Alexander Portnoy’s own “Kubla Khan,” The Philip Roth House.

Located just around the corner from the high school whose daily lessons we interrupted, the house that Roth grew up in politely sits in a quiet, even pleasant neighborhood, so utterly dignified that it disorients the devoted reader of Roth’s sometimes raucous fiction. Undaunted by all this oppressive respectability, my colleagues and I tumbled out of the bus for voluminous digital photographs of Alexander Portnoy’s house of Atreus, each shutter-click seemingly inaugurating dirty jokes by extremely smart people. There was a sense that we’d been dissolved into Roth’s great fiction and were powerless to behave like folks with Ph.Ds. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself immensely, nor that I regret the dirty jokes and neighborhood disturbance. I am simply in awe of the experience.

 The Counterlife

As the day drew us closer to The Event, my metamorphosis into a fictional character escalated. At a stop on the way back to the fabulous Newark Museum, where the festivities would be held, I was approached by a reporter who asked if I’d like to comment on the tour. I didn’t catch the gentleman’s name at the time and I assumed he was a reporter for a local, Newark paper. Professionally and politely, he asked me several questions about my experience and, still on a fanboy high, I answered them. As it turned out, the reporter, Matthew Schuerman was a reporter for WNYC, New York City’s NPR affiliate, and he completed my voyage into Wonderland by describing me, in his article, as almost sounding like one of Roth’s “compulsive, self-doubting characters.” He might as well have introduced me as “the nebbish, Danny Anderson.” Note that I don’t blame Mr. Schuerman for this. He crafted a fine account of the event, and it isn’t his fault that I had chased the White Rabbit so far down the hole.

Oh, and, hmm…well…there’s also…you know…an…audio package that was aired and features my interview. Here’s the link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/276933-bus-tour-brings-philip-roths-newark-life/

 Out of Body Experiences and Jumping Valences

My pumpkin eventually brought me to the ball in my best suit and I lightly entered the ballroom, certain that I was going to be found out and escorted home — or at least back out into the streets of Newark, with Cory Booker nowhere around to save me. Yet this did not happen. Instead, I saw some of my fellow academics, many of whom are actual big-wigs in the profession. The fact that they were as outwardly shaken by our shared out-of-body experience as I was either comforted me or added to my terror. I could not distinguish.

Nonetheless, we chatted about our excitement, hit the fruit-and-cheese table, and I avoided the alcohol, thinking water was the wise choice given my recent postmodern dissolution into fictionality. Like Bob Hoskins’ fear of Toon Town in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was sure I was dangerously close to becoming Alvin Pepler and I decided not to take unnecessary risks.

So, feigning a witty and urbane manner, I nibbled on my kiwi fruit and cheddar as the small talk took us. Events then began to snowball.

First, someone identified Paul Auster in the crowd. City of Glass is a favorite novel of mine and I involuntarily gasped at the sight of its writer. Our celery sticks were abandoned as we started to scamper into the crowd, pointing out literati as if we were playing nerd-bingo. “Look there’s Nathan Englander.” “I heard Mia Farrow was supposed to be here.” “Is that Jonathan Lethem? I almost wrote about him in my dissertation.”

Then.

My index finger rose and directed awe-inspired traffic to Don…“DeLillo! He wrote White Noise, for Pete’s sake!” I unashamedly swooned in front of my colleagues, and not because of DeLillo’s purple sweater.

By this time, the room had been transformed into a great atom, with excited electrons like myself whirling around it. I had no idea how not to buzz around in such company. I just write and teach about these people, I don’t rub shoulders with them. Yet, as a former person who was now a fictionalized avatar, I did.

Then, through an archway that divided the marble room from the marble hall that encircled it, I saw Philip Roth. He was maybe 100 feet from me, thin, healthy, and dressed in black. As if bombarded by an intense heat source, the highly charged electrons in the room tried to jump levels, from the nucleus of finger foods and plastic wine glasses, up the brief staircase to the energy source dressed like Johnny Cash. Physics got in the way of my migration, however, as the staircase served as a bottleneck that trapped me long enough for Roth to be removed to the auditorium in preparation for the talks in his honor.

C-SPAN fortunately recorded this part of the event, so I need not try and recreate my experience of it in words. Words, it seems to me, are sirens, tempting sailors to their doom. An experience like this, that was for me so meaningful and profound, begs me to not let it drift off onto a Sea of Forgetting. Never again, I suspect, will my consciousness touch the border between our physical world and that of our cultural imagination. I have been tortured by the desire to keep its magic ever existent, carrying it with me through my everyday life without it falling victim to the Everyday. I could do so, I suppose, by boring people with my story for the rest of my life, like the speaker in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” But it seems to me that this is what writing is for. The tortuous act of rendering multifarious experience into words is supposed to accomplish the work of Keats’ Grecian Urn.

Yet finding those words is brutal. Worse yet is the act of placing the words into the right relationships, and capturing not only fact and chronology, but emotion, newness, and wonder. This is, I think, what lurks behind Roth’s retirement. A lifetime of finding words, typing them, becoming discontented with them, erasing them, and replacing them is more than I can imagine bearing. Let me just say that I’ve never been more captivated by a speaker in my life. Listening to Roth read a few pages from Sabbath’s Theater was what the Romantics meant by sublime. Thank God for C-SPAN’s videographers and sound engineers. Do yourself a favor and take some time to watch it here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/311957-1

Shaking the Hand that Shook the Liver

I had assumed that Roth’s speech would be the end of the evening, and that would have been enough. There was more, however. The attendees, great and small, would gather once again in the marble Xanadu of the Newark Museum to wish Roth a happy 80th birthday and consume pieces of an amazing cake, which was baked and frosted into images of Roth’s novels. I ate a piece of Nemesis, myself.

Standing near Roth while we sang and toasted to his honor (Louise Erdrich provided a toast in Ojibwe — Roth responded that he had wanted her to “jump out of a cake”), was, I thought, the culminating moment in my escape from tyrannical reality. I was wrong.

Roth proceeded to sit down at a table and, organically and without prompt or organization, two greeting lines formed. Still uncomfortable in my alternative-universe skin, I suppose, I hesitated to join the line. Meeting Roth terrified me. I tried even to avoid eye, let alone physical, contact, as I didn’t wish for my carriage to revert back to a pumpkin at an embarrassing moment. My dissertation adviser, friend, and mentor, Judy Oster, however, pushed me into line, providing me with a gracious and loving slap in the back of the head.

As I waited, I watched others greet the man and I was jealous that they actually seemed to have something to say to him. I am, in professional circles, rather a Nobody. I feel that my great contribution is almost entirely in the classroom and not the journal. So I watched and waited my turn, jumping in and out of line to snap pictures of the others, who I now realize were just as awestruck as I was. The childlike giddiness with which they took in their own experience of the event was a truly heartwarming sight. That people who had held me in such envious awe were, in the end, not so different than me, was an oddly comforting epiphany.

As my camera was passed to a colleague for my own photo op, Roth’s intimidating gaze landed on me at last. Maybe it was the lifetime of breaking experience down into sensory-rich words that gave Roth’s eyes such an intensity, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was under observation even in conversation. Were he to write another novel, what great schmuck might I inspire?

Surrendering at the outset, I decided to get out quickly. I said, “Mr. Roth, I don’t want to take up any of your time. I just want to say that it’s a great honor to meet you and to wish you a happy birthday.”

I was satisfied with this. I had spoken to him and shaken his hand. I needed no further magic. Yet there was some. As if to convince me that I was not just a disembodied consciousness perceiving an experience, but also a being to be perceived myself, Roth held me up: “Ok. Now who are you?”

“Who?” The events of the day had somehow almost made me forget that I was a Who. Ironically, Roth had reached within the novel I’d sunk into and pulled me back out into my own skin. The creator of fiction re-established my reality. I was not “the nebbish, Danny Anderson,” I was, again, “Danny Anderson.” A name that once having recovered, I announced to the man shaking my hand. And then, “I’m just a teacher, and I wanted to say how much I admired what you did tonight in your talk. You made literature come alive in me in exactly the way I want it to come alive in my students.”

Roth politely listened to me, we shook hands again, and I ceded my place at the table to the next admirer.

I walked away, restored to my body and name, emerged from Wonderland, filled with an extraordinary magic and the dread of losing it.

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Christian Kryptonite

Kryptonite

Kryptonite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some reason, I can’t get away from Superman this week (is it the abs, do you think?). My last post puzzled over Man of Steel, I brought the movie up in my Introduction to Literature class, and here I am responding to more critics of the film.

This time, I want to address the phenomenon of Christians taking umbrage with the Christologizing of Kal-El.

Lately, I’ve been on the hunt for journals of cultural criticism that aren’t stupid and petty. The quest led me to an article calledMan of Steel and the tiredness of Christ Figures” at a website called think Christian. The author, Josh Larsen, has written a thoughtful and somewhat surprising diatribe against finding Jesus in secular movies, Man of Steel being the occasion for his argument.

I find the article intriguing, if only because it is so unexpected. The overwhelming trend in Christian cultural criticism (if such a thing exists) seems to be to (maybe a bit desperately) usurp popular cultural artifacts and re-purpose them as extended metaphors for the Cross. I think there must be some money to be made here in packaging youth group bible study curricula or something. “Finding Jesus in True Blood.” Coming to a Christian bookstore near you.

But I digress.

At any rate, Larsen argues that this is a wasteful endeavor and he makes a sound case for his position. In addition, I find it admirable that someone writing for what seems to be a mainstream Christian publication has the courage to stand against that very current. His willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxy is a welcome sign. Somehow though, his claim doesn’t sit entirely well with me.

The following statement is where I get stuck:

It seems to me that the practice of identifying Christ figures almost always brings more to the movies at hand than it does to our understanding of Christ. It adds religiosity and resonance (even if neither are intended), yet rarely informs our faith. As a theological exercise, Christ-figuring is a one-way street.

Larsen is a good writer, and the claim he makes here offers an insightful dissection of a shallowness in much Christian thinking about culture. He is right; often, Christians who try and apply the Jesus-stamp to movies like Man of Steel approach it in an intellectually lazy way that serves neither the faith nor the film very well.

Yet while Larsen correctly identifies a flaw in contemporary attempts at what he calls “Christ-figuring,” I think he unnecessarily pushes the practice as a whole into the mud as well.

If anything, a film like Man of Steel should be a very productive theological exercise if the viewer is willing to challenge his or her own imagination. The film presents what is clearly meant to be a vision of Jesus, yet this is not the same thing as presenting Jesus himself. It is in that distinction, subtle though it may be, that the “one way street” Larsen identifies can open up a new lane.

If we are to accept the analogy of Zack Snyder’s Superman as Jesus, then it offers a challenge to the Jesus that Christians widely accept. This Sacrificial Lamb takes out a whole lot of buildings on his way to Golgotha, mostly by throwing a rather sympathetic Satan through them. This is a motif in the film that many critics point and laugh at, but to the Christian viewer who is willing to stretch his or her imagination, it can be thought-provoking and it might just be profound.

Does a Christian really believe that the coming of Christ had a profound impact on the world? If so then we must accept that it was an act of utter violence, not just to the body of Jesus, but to the structures and fabric of human civilization. Christ is every bit as offensive to our world (including us) as Superman is to Metropolis’s version of Grand Central Terminal.

I do not suggest that this is a great film (though I freely admit enjoying it a great deal). I do, however, think that it offers the Christian who is willing to challenge his or her own personal orthodoxies an opportunity to do so. For the Christian who is, as Larsen complains about, simply trying to project dogma upon the movie, I agree that their efforts are juvenile. Shallow readings such as these have done incalculable damage to the Christian Imagination.

There is, though, a possible second direction in this cultural exchange. There is a revolutionary quality to Jesus’s messianic work, and revolutions do not look like Vacation Bible School crafts. By reflecting the horror of abject violence back at Christians who want to see smiling, gentle Jesus in everything, Man of Steel forces the imaginatively vibrant Christian to come to terms with a disturbing element of the faith, and though perhaps not entirely orthodox in itself, this vision can strengthen Orthodoxy in the long run. This, however, requires a dedication by the Christian to engage with culture via multi-lane highways, not, as Larsen identifies, one way streets.

Though we may like to imagine Jesus as muscle-bound in spandex, there are consequences inherent in that image. But I argue that the Christian Imagination is an underdeveloped muscle that needs tossed against a few buildings from time to time.

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Critics of Steel

Man of Steel

I am not well-equipped to comment about current events or, God-forbid, new movies. For whatever reason, having opinions about new things doesn’t interest me, and it sure doesn’t come very naturally.

I am, however, a bit confused at the critical reaction to the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. So confused, in fact, that I must jot a few notes down about it. I just returned from watching it with our French exchange student and was surprised to find myself entranced. I had gone in expecting to be underwhelmed and was, happily, not.

I’m not a movie critic, so I won’t play on in the blogosphere, but as a viewer of the film and an observer of culture, I found it to be thrilling, thought-provoking, and full of heart, everything its critics say it is not. Ultimately, I think that the movie has much to add to our contemporary discourse regarding the freedom of the individual to be unpredictable and, thereby, vital.

The Atlantic‘s Connor Simpson recapped the movie’s opening-weekend success in a rather snarky way:

Hey, so, a whole lot of people sat through this two and a half hour bad movie. Man of Steel’s very successful opening weekend in the wake of a week of bad press for being not good and also kind of soulless was definitely a surprise. This was the second best opening of the summer. The only movie to have a better opening weekend was Iron Man 3. It’s just another example of D.C. falling behind Marvel at the movie theater. But, who cares? This thing already has a sequel planned and will make a jillion dollars globally. Then, in three years, we’ll get an equally bad and soulless sequel and the same thing will happen because people won’t remember how bad this one is. The movies are just magical.

A heartfelt, soulful review if there ever was one. Also, it’s probably worth noting that the definitive evidence offered in his summation of critical response were links to two other articles from The Atlantic. So at least he did his due diligence, I guess.

In all fairness, though, I read other responses to the film in advance and the sentiments described above pretty well cover much of the critical reaction. However, to read this blurb one would think that the film was universally panned. On the contrary, Rotten Tomatoes has it checking in in the mostly good range, with audience reaction positive by a wide margin. 

As I’ve said, I’m not interested in bashing critics, but I am confused about what they want at times. Is it too ridiculous? Is it too serious? Can it be both? (I’ve linked only to the same Atlantic articles as above, so I guess I’m a lazy reviewer too).

Let me just say that I think Superman is difficult to film in our day. He is not dark. He is an overwhelmingly good person. This has been traditionally what makes the movies about him suffer in recent years. How many ways can we think of to get kryptonite into our hero’s general vicinity?

I thought that Man of Steel did the only thing that could have been done with such a dilemma. It made the notion of actually being Superman central to the plot. So yes, this means that much of the opening act will be pensive and serious. What does it mean to be Superman in the modern world? For all those complaining about Christopher Nolan’s darker influence in the film, perhaps the answer is that it means something similar to what it means to be Batman.

I’ve also read critics who are bored with the whole Jesus thing going on in the film’s subtext. I can see their point on some level, but I don’t see how it’s a particularly boring mechanism. In fact, it seems that messianic imagery is so inescapable in this source material that to excise it is to impose an academic orthodoxy upon it by mechanical rote. Have fun with it. Make Superman tell us that he is 33 years old (as they do in the movie). We get it. We can nod appreciatively or dismissively, whatever our religious preference.

One element of the film that I found particularly rich, and that I haven’t seen written about, is the cultural disintegration of Krypton described in the movie. Superman’s father, Jor-El (played brilliantly by Russell Crowe) is debating with General Zod (played with more nuance than he’s getting credit for by Michael Shannon). One point of contention between the men is that Superman is a product of natural childbirth, the first in centuries on Krypton. The culture had instead come to develop Matrix-style fetus-farming, genetically pre-conditioning every Kryptonian for his or her role in life. Zod was designed to be a soldier etc.

Jor-El saw this as a dangerous avoidance of chance and partially blames its de-humanizing effects for the ultimate doom of Krypton. Zod saw Jor-El’s actions as heresy. This, to me, correlates with a contemporary debate in our society.

Our economies, our technological advances, our governmental structures, and our educational systems, seem to more and more favor specialization for the individual. College degrees must be STEM degrees and so on. Against these systematic forces stand the humanists and the people of faith (too often at odds with one another to see that they share the same adversary). I draw the battle lines between the forces of icy efficiency and those of passionate humanity — though I realize that those lines are not always (or even often) very neat. Nonetheless as we allow less and less room for uncertainty and individual diversity into our policy, do we risk creating a generation of Zods? Good men defending their own individual roles against the greater good of society, and ultimately becoming monsters?

In all the critical complaints about the necessity of another origin story for Superman, perhaps what is being missed is that Superman’s origins are indelibly tied to the doom of his race. And this might stand as a warning for our own future.

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The Twitterati and the Limits of Christian Charity

What would I be capable of if I weren’t bound by the ethics of Christian charity?

Let’s see. I might write something like this.

Earlier this week, from seemingly nowhere, I was attacked on Twitter by a complete stranger. I woke up, checked my email, and saw that some (I suppose we should call him a) person had responded to six or eight of my recent tweets in a most hostile manner.

Now let’s bear in mind the origins of these tweets of mine. Most of them were online articles I had posted links to, and the rest were little jokes forwarded from my Facebook page, ephemeral quips like:

Twitter   Interactions 1 (Internet is boring)

Nothing world-shattering here, merely me obviously ready for beddy-time.

Nonetheless, our hero-from-the-Twittersphere apparently took great offense to this.

Twitter   Interactions 2 (Internet is boring response)

Well.

First, while we’re on the topic of mirrors, let’s just say the blurring feature I’ve used here has done the world a great favor. But to my larger concern, what could provoke such disproportionate hostility?

One might, if one were so inclined, assume that the lets-call-him-a-man who composed the response falls into the ever-useful category of “nerd.” The particular variety of geek I’m thinking of is that which so-wanted Second Life to make it big because their Actual Life was lonely and pathetic. Days spent lusting over this or that animated woman, nights occupied with online message-board arguments over authentic translations of Klingon. What have you.

The argument for this assumption is simple: the personage responsible for the Tweet seemingly has no life outside its Linux-based operating system, so it must desperately cling to the mechanisms of its tenuous relationship with what passes for social. The internet is the best option for such a …

See now here is where I get confused. I can’t quite get myself to refer to the Tweet-consciousness as a person. This is why I reject the “nerd hypothesis” I just outlined. I kind of like nerds and find them to be extremely human.

Instead, I honestly think that this… I guess for simplicity’s sake, we should call him a person… person conceives of himself as a “brand.” A product habitating a cyberspace where social awkwardness is rewarded with “followers” and body odor is irrelevant. The Onion recently captured the essence of such an individual.

I’m quite convinced of this because of the full context of our exchanges.

In addition to his defiant defense of the internet, I awoke to a barrage of insightful commentary about what he kept referring to as my “techno-phobia.” I assume from his use of this term that he thinks I’m against recognizing marriages between blenders and the iPhone 3. I’m not really sure what else it could mean.

At any rate, I had, recently posted a few links to articles that were certainly critical of techno-utopianism. What’s-his-face, however, drew some starling conclusions from these posts, and his reactions were severe. For instance, I posted a link to an article that calls attention to some of the destructiveness of Silicon Valley. It’s an illuminating piece that offers a fair critique of the Sean Parker wedding. The brand responded with:

Twitter   Interactions 3

For some reason, I decided to jab back.

Twitter   Interactions 4

Alright, I’m immature. I know this already. Move on.

This wasn’t the end of his assault, either. I had also linked (at some point) to an article about attention spans and internet writing.

Here is the offending Tweet:

Twitter   Interactions 5

His response was actually a fair one, if dogmatic and defensive:

Twitter   Interactions 6

This all took place, mind you before I woke up in the morning. Without a single peep from me, our friend from the fantasy land of microchips and no girls went off:

Twitter   Interactions 7

Well, I never.

I decided to fire a shot across the bows.

Twitter   Interactions 8

My accusation, I maintain, was spot on. I took a look at his Twitter activity and it’s pretty clear that he is driven by an attention-seeking mechanism worthy of Paris Hilton, Rasputin, and the Naked Cowboy of Times Square. A large percentage of his tweets are, like the ones he aimed at me, inflammatory, un-invited, and focused on absolute strangers. He, in fact, is a troll, looking to start fights so as to establish his “brand” as an “influencer” in the social mediasphere. When he lures someone into his acne-ridden web he responds like this:

Twitter   Interactions 9

Checkmate. A pathetic gesture that brings back memories of junior high, when the geek (usually me) guilted a moderately attractive girl to couple-skate down at the rink at 7:30 on a Friday night.

This is all on Twitter, so I can only speculate about what our friend sounds like in real life, but I imagine it’s like this:

And yes, I decided he would get nothing. And like it.

Only by nothing, I mean pushback against his egocentric techno-mania.

His witticism regarding my troll comment:

Twitter   Interactions 10

And then…

Twitter   Interactions 11

Again, I know. Immature. Youbetcha.

Then he got nasty (in the way you’d expect from someone who cuddles up to his Ewok Pillow Pet each night):

Twitter   Interactions 12

I’m having a little fun here, but I do want to make a serious point. As the conversation (if such a thing is possible on Twitter) progressed, the shallowness of his reasoning, and more importantly his worldview, revealed itself. As if he forgot his own dig at the humanities, he threw out a quote from a …gulp…novelist, Isaac Asimov. The subsequent responses are telling:

Twitter   Interactions 13

First of all, yes. His name is apparently Julian. Let it go. Focus instead on his lack of response when I brought up the specific implications of his quotation. This silence demonstrates to me that he basically found an isolated quote that, out of context, supports his narrow worldview. There is no attempt to struggle with the complications his “source” introduces in the conversation. In my freshman composition class, this merits a major point deduction.

This is the root of my caution when it comes to messianic visions of technology. The world is not written in binary code. It is impressionistic at its most clear.

The English nerd that I am, I also scolded the logic of some of his rhetoric:

Twitter   Interactions 14

…and so here we are.

There was no immediate response, nor has there been a delayed one. The troll is never interested in depth, only the ignorant defense of ill-considered dogma — and the acquisition of “followers.” Well I will not follow a fool down a blind alley.

Despite this fellow’s assessment of me, I am not against technology. Case in point, I’ve employed it in the composition of this post and I use it in the classroom each day. I am, however, cautious about it. As a tool, it is wonderful. As a philosophy in and of itself? Not so fast. Just look what it has done to our poor troll’s ability to think.

Fortunately, I am bound by notions of Christian charity, so I would never write such a mean-spirited, vengeful thing as this.

Oops. Dang.

As always, I’m ever-dependent upon Grace.

Ashamed of myself,

d

A Tournament, A Tournament, A Tournament of Lies

tournamentBracket

The end of the semester has sure been hard on my blog. Oh well. Onward and upward.

One of the pleasures of moving is experiencing a new culture with child-like curiosity. There’s real joy in being an innocent, unencumbered by the cynicism that comes with familiarity. I’m sure that certain things about the Athens, GA area will eventually wear down my resistance to bitterness, but I’ll fight that dread fate until the end.

What helps in my efforts for now is the fact that I possess two small children, 8 and 4, and their wonder naturally becomes mine. From my youngest’s fascination with Southern accents (“Mommy, I speak English, but I don’t speak y’all”) to my eldest’s wholesale adoption of cowboy boots as essential fashion, I am constantly reckoning with this new culture and landscape, and this has been blissful.

It’s become obvious (to me at least) that any proper exploration of Athens for my kids must include an introduction to the Great American Band, R.E.M. The band and this community are practically synonymous and their music is therefore essential to understanding the local culture. To this end, I’ve loaded my Android up with all my old albums and have been playing them for the girls, who have been loving it (and what’s not to love?). The seminal song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is high up on the family playlist, much to my delight. Take a moment to refresh your Gen X memories:

The song is catchy and enigmatic and weird and wonderful. One of the great pastimes of my generation was reciting the lyrics – making sense of the rapid-fire rhymes and idiosyncratic references was, if successfully pulled off, a trip to the Bank of Cultural Capital. If you were privy to the song’s secrets, you had what the kids today like to call “street cred.” In short, it captures that most imperceptible element, the “coolness” that Athens contains within its city limits.

Hearing it again, freshly, through my daughters’ four ears, has been been an intellectually stimulating experience as well. It’s lyrical rejection of paranoia as a motivating political tactic was powerful enough in the throes of the Cold War. (This is a theme throughout the entire Document album – see “Exhuming McCarthy). Today it is an essential defense against our public discourse.

In our time, and to a degree that Michael Stipe and company could never have imagined, paranoia and fear are co-conspiring kings.

Perhaps it is because of 9/11.

Or.

Perhaps it is because conspiracy has become big business.

The fact is, now more than ever, the most important decisions we make as a society are driven by fear and that is truly frightening. (Yes, the irony of that sentence is purposeful). The profits of cable news depend on the motivation fear provides, and the networks therefore have no qualms about packaging and selling conspiracy. It is a money machine.

This is, quite simply, a cultural disaster.

Caution and suspicion are not inherently bad things. In fact, when kept in check, they provide a vital conscience for both the individual and society. Fear is an instinct that has helped humankind survive from The Great Flood through Y2K, but its proper place is at the margins of life, not the center.

When thrust into the role of a life’s organizing principle, fear is crippling and destructive, forcing the individual to hide away from the world and forgo much of the experience that makes life worth living in the first place.

When extrapolated out to the societal scale, centralized fear breaks all the bonds that unite diverse people. All challenges then become more than obstacles to be faced and solved, they become the fault of “someone else.” Conspiracy theories are constructed, packaged, sold, and applied to every difficulty the nation experiences. These theories strive to make sense of chaos where sense does not exist. They are bought and sold in an economy that depends on victimization as its primary export. I believe that our hero Westley, from The Princess Bride said it best:

Indeed we are being sold fear, and consumer demand is high. This is a crisis we all now face. Together.

For all the good and great things the Enlightenment has brought us, this fascination with the individual has gone too far. We are more than individual consumers whose fates are our own concerns. George Costanza said it best, I think, when he said, “you know, we are living in a society!” Instead, we have drifted off, too far, into our own imaginary islands and left the very real mainland to rot. And it’s more than that we’ve simply drifted. We’ve fled one another’s great company.

R.E.M.’s song offers the wisest advice I can think of to confront this crisis. “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” In other words, don’t worry so freakin’ much.

The video that accompanies the song captures its essence as well as any could. The boy rummaging around the deserted shack in the wilderness, the end of civilization as it were, neither weeps nor gnashes his teeth. His forebears have left him ruins and rummages through them them with curiosity and humor. Then he skates among them.

We find ourselves in the same position as that boy. Our fathers and mothers have left us messes to clean up, as theirs did for them. There are problems to be solved and there alternatives to be chosen, but there is some joy to be found in the process. And isn’t it better to go through it with other people?

My family has staked out Athens as the place where we’ll make our stand. It is different from what we’ve known. We came here alone. Scary, but hey, we have R.E.M. to guide us. Coming up on our first year here, we can see a lot of progress in making this strange place our home. But, our strategy has not been installing security systems and building safeguards. It has been risk. It has been getting to know people. A place is not just its landscape and buildings, it is its people. Bad things will invariably happen to us as they do to everyone, but we will not be alone as we face them, blaming the hands of unseen and non-existent conspirators. Life is with people.

The past year has, in fact, been the end of the world as we knew it.

But we feel fine.

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Preachin’ to the Choir

apollo with lyre

Digression

Three months into this blog, I’ve reached a strange crossroads. Looking back over the topics I cover, I see posts about teaching, religion, conspiracy theories, werewolves, and child rearing, among others. It’s a dizzying array of topics that I’m sure confuses my readers and makes it difficult to “build an audience” for my blog. In all honesty, this has bothered me too much, I think. The great blogger Bryan Daniels has inspired me to not care about numbers so much in this post on his blog, Chief of the Least.

Liberation! Wasn’t that easy?

Anyhow, as it turns out, the posts I like best are the ones that blur the distinctions between my topics. My recent post, “The Werewolf Priesthood,” is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s about werewolves, yes. But it is also about faith. And teaching. And parenting. Is my confusion clear? Where are the lines at which one topic begins and the others end?

So this is how I will approach this blog for the time being. Numbers be darned.

Psst. But seriously, one or two shares or likes on Facebook or Google+ makes a huge difference to my fragile, pathetic self-esteem! 🙂

Oh, Original Sin. You fascinate me.

End Digression

This post will hopefully be focused on and applicable to a specific audience, to be consumed and distributed as they see fit. I do hope, however, that the broader intersections are apparent as well, because they are important to me.

 

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colo...

English: the first of the Epistles to the Colossians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Sometimes, listening to the sermon in church pays off. I recently heard a sermon about the Epistle to the Colossians that opened my eyes to something I’d never known. Verses 15-20 of chapter 1 are apparently lyrics to a popular hymn in the proto-Christian era.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

(Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

This was a revelation to me.

The Apostle Paul’s subsequent advice column was not simply information given to instruct the intellects of his readers. Instead, it organically erupted out of an engagement with art! Paul seems to know that his readers engage with the world through means that transcend mere rational logic. In fact, I argue that the logic of religion must engage the imagination as much as the brain. It could very well be that because I happen to teach English, I find this element of Colossians more exciting than anyone else does, but, nonetheless, it struck a chord with my inner poet.

The lyrics in this little ditty are certainly pedagogical in nature and they offer an essential vision of orthodox Christian theology. Yet they are innately poetic as well. Phrases like “image of the invisible God,” and “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” are not literal, but imaginative, and they offer the human reader an entryway into the supernatural, the Divine. Theologically,  they establish a theme in the first line about Jesus springing forth into history, directly from the central God. The theme is repeated (becoming a motif!) by the use of imagery that subsequently centralizes Jesus, making him the center around which the Christian life revolves. Whether one is a believer or not (I imagine many of my readers are not), there is an aesthetically pleasing poetic structure in these words that is admirable.

Paul, being the … ahem … great prose stylist that he is … cough cough … builds his instruction, or argument, upon this poetic beauty. Thank goodness!

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

(Colossians 1:21-23 ESV)

This snappy bit of prose (wink wink) makes even less sense if the reader does not understand Jesus as central to salvation. Given the supernatural and mystical nature of this belief, it is a concept much better conceived in the poetic than it is driven home in didactic form.

I have, as I’ve alluded to in the past, severe difficulty with contemporary Christian music (and culture in general). We’ve found a way to isolate the emotional and pedagogical elements of faith, assigning the former to music and the latter to sermons. This makes for bad poetry (“Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy, wet kiss” – ick) and, in my opinion, a degraded culture. This discovery about Colossians, which was new to me, was therefore exciting. Here is a model that insists we do better.

This discovery not only has theological ramifications, it also opens up yet another intersection, that between faith and literature. I’ve posted about this particular crossroad before; if you missed it here’s the link.

As an English professor, this discovery is not only exciting, it is a relief. Maybe I’m not Jekyll and Hyde after all.

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Towards a Werewolf Apologetics

werewolves

Quick note at the start. If you haven’t yet, please click the Facebook “Like” button to the left. I try to supplement this blog with miscellaneous links and such on Facebook a couple of times a week. Having folks look at them would be great. Now for this werewolf business.

I recently introduced my students to Michael Chabon’s short stories, specifically one entitled “Werewolves in Their Youth.” It’s a great story that revels in both the wonder and the danger of the human imagination. It’s right up my alley, in other words.

I have a strategy when it comes to teaching. It basically boils down to confusing my students whenever possible, then working to help them catch up. I call this “education.” I pace around the room and stand beside them, lean over and ask them a direct question face to face . . . I basically model my classroom presence after Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Law in Order: Criminal Intent. Sure they look at me like I’m a little crazy, but at least they pay attention most of the time. What can I say? As much as I’d like to be Lionel Trilling, I’m ever only Groucho Marx. Sometimes I even dress like him to teach.

Anderson Groucho

I know, I know. But sometimes a cigar is just a rolled-up piece of brown construction paper. More Freud further down.

Anyway, many of my students were disturbed when they looked at the syllabus on the first day of class and saw the title of the Chabon story. I teach at a small Christian college in a rural area and I think that I may have, as the kids say, “freaked them out” a little. Not wanting to have the villagers descend on my castle with pitchforks and torches, I assured them that there weren’t any actual werewolves in the story, just two misfit boys with wild imaginations.

But now I’m thinking, why not?

I happen to really love werewolf movies (a shock to my regulars, I’m sure), and I’m quite certain that a course devoted to werewolves would be entirely appropriate at any college, particularly a Christian college.

Alright, time for apologetics mode. Stay with me.

Treatise on the Christian Werewolf

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf describes the human condition as such:

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.

The werewolf, as imagined in Hesse’s novel, but particularly the classical Hollywood rendition, is a splendid image of what it is to be human. All of us, each in our own way, walk the line between civility and brutality. This (I assume) mythical creature embodies that struggle. Here is a human body striving to live in a society with other humans, and upon it, brutal, cruel nature has collapsed.

Now, with the advent of the Twilight franchise, I know that the ancient conflict between human and nature is not fashionable. Ms. Meyer has popularized what I call, “the Magical Werewolf.” This is an individual who has come to some sort of happy oneness with nature and draws upon its violent resources to gain righteous empowerment and glittery self-actualization. This is self-help gibberish and I’ll have nothing to do with it. By stripping the creature of its agony, the Magical Werewolf has also stripped it of its dignity. I prefer the An American Werewolf in London vision:

A true Christian

This scene leaves no doubt that David is cursed. Well, I don’t want to break this to you, but we are all cursed. At the beginning of the film, David is just an innocent college-kid hiking across Europe on summer vacation. By the end, he is a vicious killer. The scene above captures the tortuous moments which comprise the border between the two. And I submit that these moments are where we all are most of the time. This film (my personal favorite movie) shows us the torment of living in a society as fallen, sinful creatures. The werewolf is a uniquely sympathetic monster because he or she is each of us.

There is, I think, ample evidence in the Bible for my argument. As cursed punishment, Adam and Eve are placed into direct and eternal conflict with nature, banished from their previously easy communion with the animals (take that Team Jacob). This forced distinction between human beings and nature is consistent. Over and over, association with nature equates with cursedness. Chosen Jacob was a man of the house, rejected Esau, a man of the wilderness. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is cursed in a manner that startlingly resembles the above clip:

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.

“The Dew of Heaven” is one of my favorite poetic images in the bible. It has the sound of pleasure, as if the divine has graced the recipient with soothing, life-giving refreshment. The reality for the once and future King, however, is horror. This divine drenching washes the humanity from his body. This is precisely the tragedy of the Wolfman. Nature has not empowered him to be a better human, it has overtaken his body and stripped away his humanity entirely. This is the very definition of horror. All I am trying to say here is that there is textual precedent in the Bible for the metaphor I’m trying to extend to Christianity.

However, I don’t mean to set the werewolf’s borders at Christendom. This tragic figure speaks to me mainly as a human being. In previous posts, I’ve tried to own my less than flattering moments because I think they are a big part of whatever meaning rests in human experience. To ignore my cruel self is to ignore the conflict between Civilization and its Discontents. My responsible wishes to contribute to society perpetually wrestle against my desires to destroy it. Culture versus Anarchy. Perhaps this conflict is what inspired Matthew Arnold’s animalistic sideburns. I am Tyler Durden.

The werewolf helps us visualize the precarious position we humans occupy on this planet as we strive to wedge civilization into the natural realm. Its tragedy, its horror, its loss of the human pronouns “he” and “she,” help us imagine and experience the wondrous horror that life is.

Wolverine

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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.