School’s Out Forev… Oh Wait, We’re Back

So I’m back in college. This is an unexpected turn of events, but (not counting a brief and semi-disastrous stint in a graduate English program) my somewhat meandering 20180823_172911professional arc has passed through a place where it actually makes concrete sense to go back. And on August 16th I found myself back in a classroom with people who are almost literally half my age. Let’s just say this 21st-century classroom is a lot different even than the 21st-century classroom I was in when I was 18.

In a sort of sequel to what I saw on campus during my brief tenure working at a college, here’s 5 bits of advice (read curmudgeonly opinionating) that I’d offer my classmates this time around.

  1. Close your laptop. This means you, guy who sits in front of me and plays solitaire through half the class. I mean, at least you’re not looking at pornography, at which point I’d have to whack you over the head with my textbook (see point 3 below). Anyway, you or someone you know has paid upwards of $2000 for you to sit in this course, which breaks down to this hour costing around $70. If you want to pay someone $70 for wifi and a place to sit for an hour, I’ll clean out my garage and get a Square swiper. Bring a friend.
  2. Seriously, close your laptop. Do the research. It’s not helping you learn and it’s likely inhibiting you from learning. Take notes on paper. You’ll remember them more clearly.
  3. Spring for the real textbook. This semester has been my first exposure to the abomination that is the eTextbook. At least the version I’m using from McGraw Hill seems to actually function as though reduced comprehension were an intended goal from the outset. For one, it greys out what it considers unnecessary text. Useless stuff like the intro paragraph to each chapter that frames everything you’re about to read and offers an outline. It’s a built-in layer of disengagement.
    McGraw Hill also offers something called Smartbook Learn Smart (Which, give me a break with the redundancy. If you have to insist twice in three words that your gadget is “smart”, well, color me dubious.) It’s basically a series of quiz questions that pop up while you’re reading. To keep you engaged, I guess. Some small quibbles, though. Like the questions run out before the chapter ends so you can “finish” without finishing. And there’s that issue of literally, in the book itself, teaching to the test. It actively trains your brain to glean just enough facts to escape its clutches. All told, it’s shallow comprehension and minimal retention. And it’s a pain in the ass to navigate, hence the longing to escape. You can keep your keyword searches and just let me scan the chapter. Learning happens in the fringes, too.

    1. This brings up a broader point about college as a whole. It’s a great place to learn and it’s filled with smart people from which to do so. But, the university as an institution cannot deliver learning. What it delivers institution wise is a GPA, which is a shorthand for performance that can be strikingly divorced from what you actually leave college knowing. It’s been my experience as a hiring manager out in The Real World that GPA doesn’t mean much on a resume. It really only matters to grad schools. Do what you have to do to keep your scholarships/athletic eligibility/position yourself for more education or whatever, but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll be out there building a life from what you learned long after anybody cares about your transcript.
  4. Don’t bother taking a picture of the white board with your phone at the end of class. If you can even find that photo in the avalanche of selfies and other ad hoc photojournalism of your college life, it’ll just be a meaningless bunch of scribble on a wall. Take your own notes. See point 2 above. And, because I love pointing people to Wendell Berry, give this a read. Especially the last 10 paragraphs or so.
  5. Ask questions. Forget the stuff about “No such thing as a stupid question” and “If you have a question, someone else probably does, too.” Filling in gaps is the lowest purpose a good question can serve. If not more importantly, at least more conscientiously, questions make professors feel like they’re in a room with fellow humans who care about what’s going on. Having done a stint in front of a classroom, engagement is one of the best services you can offer any teacher. But, also, asking questions disrupts the lecture in important ways. It opens the door into a different part of your professor’s brain. Not the part delivering prepared material, but the live creativity. Considering that your professor got their job for a reason, this is probably my only really good advice. Try to access that part of any professor’s mind as often as you can.

Outside the classroom, I can’t really help you. I’m doing by best to keep up with a marriage, two rowdy boys, two even rowdier dogs, the job for which I’m going back to school to do better, a first-floor renovation at my house, and occasionally writing something so I don’t get kicked out of my writing group. I can not even imagine the world of a true college freshman anymore so I won’t pretend to have anything worthwhile to say. But in that classroom, we’re on the same page together. Think about making it a paper one.

Excerpt: a fellowship of the redeemed

Excerpt: a fellowship of the redeemed

This is an excerpt of an essay called ‘In Community Group with David Foster Wallace’ that can be read in full at The Gospel Coalition blog.

Wouldn’t this be a great kind of church, a great community to be a part of? One filled with listeners who identified your pain as part of their own. One of such un-pretense that even the most bottomless confession is received with grace by people who all count themselves as the chief sinner. One of such consistency that the people live life together instead of merely gathering when they feel like they need it and scattering until the next crisis. This sounds like the kind of community that would give life. This sounds like the kind of community that is so thoroughly and humbly acquainted with themselves that they can see Jesus with a magnificent, binding clarity. This is not [high-achieving, upper middle class][1] Christianish-ity[2]. This is a true fellowship of the redeemed.

*     *     *

[1] Edit thought up while driving to work, made post publication at TGC

[2] TGC editors calmed Christianish-ity down as ‘Christianity’, perhaps understandably not wanting the homophone sounded out by the double suffix on their blog. Though, that’s kind of the joke.

Paradise Lost: an American tale

<em>Paradise Lost</em>: an American tale

A work of art must endure a while to become a classic. It must survive its own novelty and still speak. Paradise Lost has earned its prestige as a classic of classics. Milton set a poetic standard when he composed the 12-book epic (while blind in the 17th century, no less. 150 years before braille). Pure craft, though, only carries one so far. Paradise Lost endures because Milton used his craft to bore into the strata of reality until he struck bedrock truths. His characters and themes contain an evergreen sap, especially as they enact and interpret political endeavor. John Milton was a regicide-endorsing revolutionary and a fiercely literate Puritan of sorts, so he certainly had some rather passionate ideas about authority and cultural conflict. What might he have to say to the American culture war of the 21st century? In particular, what might he have to say to the American church?

The generation now coming into its own in the American church was born about the same time as the famed Moral Majority and other organizations in the broader Christian Right movement in American politics, and so this generation of local churches has been steeped in the waters of a church embroiled in overt political activism. This generation has also outlived the Moral Majority, and may yet outlast any notion at all of a “Christian” political right, whose legislative and cultural legacy is presently being swallowed up in defeat. The American church now must find a way forward in the long shadow of that divisive if well-intentioned movement.

In many ways, the Moral Majority was a movement of force that, while waged against the throne of the god of this world, tragically, turned all too readily to all too familiar tactics. A politically-engaged and contentedly public face of the church interpreted her great commission as a call to arms in the public square and by the calculus of political might and, often, social shaming. There’s no way around it, the most aggressive parts of the church fought the ruler of this world on his own terms, with his own weapons, and, it would now seem, has wrought a stinging defeat on the church as a whole.

In a lot of ways, Paradise Lost is about misguided ambition. If you can see such in recent church history, then you can read Paradise Lost in a post-Christian America with and uncanny sense of recognition. Milton gives us an unconventional hero: Satan. Not that Satan’s actions are admirable or good, but his conquest drives the narrative; we’re asked to relate to him who, having himself waged an ill-advised revolution against the throne of his world, is similarly stung and defeated. Now, lest we think it beneath us to relate to such a notorious villain, let’s remember that even as we read the Bible itself, we ought to feel most comfortable relating to cheating-hearted Israel and tax collectors if the Scriptures are to make any sense, so this bad example shouldn’t seem so scandalous.

Paradise Lost gives us the story of imprudent war and its consequences. Satan and his angels fought the throne of heaven, lost, and were exiled. The political dealings of the so-called Christian Right followed a strikingly Satanic arc, that is the same arc as Milton’s Satan. In the wake of its rebuffed gambit, the American church’s exile from the spheres of political and cultural influence now mirrors the defeat fall from heaven of Milton’s Satan. Take line 824 of book six in Paradise Lost. Answering his Father’s call to arms after two days of war, the Son of God stands his army down:

“So spoke the Son and into terror changed
His countenance, too severe to behold
And full of wrath bent on his enemies.
At once the four [cherubim] spread out their starry wings
With dreadful shade contiguous…
He on his impious foes right onward drove
Gloomy as night.” (6.824-832)

To survey the conservative blogosphere’s account of the cultural backlash against the Christianity is to feel the sinking dread of the church experiencing such a fate. Perhaps she may even do so.

Like Milton’s Satan, the American church may well have earned her lumps. Attempting by force of law that which can only be won by grace, the church entered an arena in which she was explicitly not equipped to do battle—an arena of force and fear over winsome meekness, of efficiency over faithfulness—and now faces hard lessons in the true application of earthly power. A political kingdom has never been in the books for the church, though she is often tempted to forget and reach once more for power (which is the real kind of Satanic). No, the church’s mission is that of salt and light and hidden effort. Power and recognition in this world are their own reward, and a paltry, fleeting one at that. Still, as she enters exile from ideological influence, the church, like Milton’s Satan, may be permitted her second thoughts.

In book four, Satan has some alone time upon arriving at the newly-minted earth. He rages at the sun for recalling to him the state from whence his “pride and worse ambition threw [him] down.” (4.40) He even comes to the precipice of repentance (4.80), but, of course, if his pride had permitted him that path, the book wouldn’t be called Paradise Lost. What kinds of second thoughts, though, might the church have about her politics?

At the least, a strong argument could be made that a Christian politician does not exist to pass “Christian” laws, but to make disciples—like any other Christian—of those around him or her with whom they personally relate (albeit in the halls of power, an intricately fraught arena for the gospel of a contrite heart). And, this is not with the further end in view of a Christian voting bloc to ram through legislation or otherwise enforce a “Christian” society upon a pluralistic people. The salvation of men and women is the end, never the means. Anything to the contrary flows from a confusion in the church about her place and role in this world, and just as likely from jealousy of those who aren’t the subject of Matthew 5:11 if one were frank. It’s not fun to stand out, open to rebuke. Of course, it’s tempting to try to build some kind of society into which one blends seamlessly. Biting at this lure has never served the church well. May the church cross the threshold of repentance.

In making a way forward after the catastrophe of her most recent power play, which she bears on the credibility of her presence in the cultural landscape, the generation of her people in a secular age can yet turn to Milton, to his depiction of a debate within Satan’s high command, and see her potential paths. A proper paradise is at stake.

In book two, the fallen angels gather in Pandaemonium to lick their wounds and argue their future. Three of the fallen step forward.

First, Moloch advocates redoubled war; for his cohabitants of hell to “armed with hell flames and fury all at once…[to turn] our tortures to horrid arms against the torturer” (2.61)—namely God—and “disturb his Heaven, which, if not victory would at least be revenge.” (2.102, 105) The church could take this course—indeed some have—by seizing what power remains in reach, redoubling its efforts to wed the church to some kind of political or social power structure and, by cold force of law, legislate some earthly paradise under the banner of heaven. This might look like economic boycotts or thoughtlessly taking the side of anything peddled under the adjective “Christian” with no prudence as to its quality or character, and it certainly looks like puffery and vitriol on the Internet. Antagonizing ones enemies in the culture war, “torturing the torturers”, must be anathema to the church. Her battle is not against flesh and blood and so the tactics and reflexes of the flesh have only a hellish place in her.

Belial offers a less hawkish alternative, though riddled with fear of further suffering and, should God completely destroy them in response to further violence, losing his cherished intellect, his “thoughts that wander through eternity.” (2.148) Preening even in Hell. He counsels staying put and suffering silently, but his words finally belie his true ambition: that, after some time, God would

“remit His anger and perhaps, thus far removed
not mind us not offending, satisfied
with what is punished, whence these raging fires will slacken.” (2.210-212)

Prizing comfort more than his mission, he hopes to slink back into Heaven by disappearing into a neutered inoffense. Again, the church could follow such a path, to blend silently back into the kingdom against which it warred, coming to heel at the foot of that dark prince. This could look like excising, bit by bit, everything which might offend a neighbor—real or imagined—until the church is utterly eviscerated, that is gutless. Mammon chides Belial’s wile as “splendid vassalage”, and well put. What, then, would this last devil advise?

First, he sees no integrity in singing “forced hallelujahs” to a throne vehemently opposed, yet sees further war as bull-headed vanity. His thesis, then is to “seek our own good for ourselves…though in [exile] free and to none accountable. [To prefer] hard liberty before the easy yoke of servile pomp.” (2.252) His entire soliloquy is a brilliant rejoinder to the folly surrounding him on the left and the right, and he is met with a storm of applause. Of particular interest for the church, though, is his notion of liberty.

The church might see herself as Mammon sees his position save for one critical difference: he rebelled against heaven and the church is in rebellion against hell. Their two exiles are of perfectly contrasting character. Mammon’s pride and sense of liberty, however, applied in the right direction, is beautiful. Though the path be hard, actual liberty is unassailable, especially by a cosmically illegitimate power. The church must rescue her notion of liberty from her notion of success and even of fairness. She is always free to bear witness whether in comfort or in chains and even (perhaps especially) in death. Jesus’ liberty, after all, took him to the cross.

Now, political liberty is good and worth advocating. The church, however, ought to discern the kind of liberty felt in comfort from her higher liberty of conscience. This may look like the church singing hymns in chains like Paul and Silas, or even blessing her captors—literal or philosophical—but it will always look like faithful courage at any cost.

Consider her true position. Any king can only punish his own subjects; his sovereignty is limited. Setting aside Milton, the real Satan is no different. All of his power withers up and dies at the border of the eternal Kingdom of the Son of God. So long as the church prizes faithfulness over success and popularity, dividing fleeting from eternal, she will be preserved through any Satanic furnace even if that furnace is stoked so hot that its flame consumes the guards tasked with throwing her in. True liberty is immortal.

Mammon is also right about one other thing: “[thriving] under evil and [working peace] out of pain through labor and endurance.” (2.261) The church, aided by the Spirit, can indeed make prosperity from adversity. Mammon, though, restricts the scope of good to his fellow fallen. His exile is closed; there are only the fallen in Hell. The church, however, remains in place in this pluralistic world, living out her deportation before the watching citizenry. She can, therefore, make good for herself, but also for others who observe her exile. And in so doing, the church’s faithfulness to the character of her founder can be made to produce fruit. In a final irony, the church can actually see achieved what Milton’s Satan lit out from Hell to do by corrupting Adam and Eve: to drag others “down” with her and spite the god of this world on his throne. The church does this, however, knowing full well that in this inverted world, down is up and her defiance of its god abets an act of rescue from his crumbling stronghold. What a final coup if the church, in faithfulness, holds her courage.

Paradise Lost gives us a highly unexpected blueprint for the church in this world, especially in those seasons following an overt grab for power that ends in failure and backlash. We read the classics because, at their best, they clarify those parts of our mutual passage through history that endure deeper than generational novelties. And with clarity comes courage.

What Are People For?

What Are People For?

In an earlier post, I wrote about Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and my long wait to actually get and so enjoy that lovely book. What Are People For? by Wendell Berry was both the catalyst for my finally embracing Dillard and a wonderful complement to that read. This collection of essays was a watershed moment in my intellectual and spiritual growth.

I came to this book in my early 30s—which is to say at an opportune time. I’d graduated from a liberal arts institution where I learned to be skeptical. I’d done an intensive two-year stint as a pastoral assistant where I learned that skepticism must be anchored in some bedrock truth lest my thoughts sink into despair. And I’d left the moral comfort of church employ for the diverse often confounding ethic of the marketplace.

A decade into what I’d call adult life—which I take to mean life under my own authority (in as much as I had free choice as to which authority I ought to submit)—I had a robust set of suspicions and convictions. I was suspicious of power (thanks, liberal arts college), and especially the economic sort. The trickery of money, the prostration before the mercy seat of the marketplace, the ways in which people distance themselves physically and psychically from one another in order to compete with the supposedly necessary ferocity of the ‘free’ market with a clear conscience, or at least a conscience sufficiently numbed. This knit together with my growing conviction that all problems, deep enough down, are broken-hearted-human problems (thanks, theological training), which, in order to live a good life, I ought to know about the roots of those sorts of problems in myself and others in order to advocate for their resolution. Thinking through my convictions and suspicions, much less articulating them in ordinary speech, would be a lot of work. Wendell Berry has been hard at work.

What Are People For? was my introduction to the fruits of his labor and immediately I was almost spooked to read wonderfully clarified and usually upgraded versions of my own uneasy thoughts. I had found something of a mentor almost as an act of providence. I had barely even a vague idea of Wendell Berry’s writing and to find in this book a map to my own angst was to have found a treasure, and a shocking one considering its age.

I would read an essay such as the brilliant “An Argument For Diversity”, deep in the context of my own modern world, and come to the end to find that Berry had written in 1988. Almost 20 years ago. That Berry’s observation and reflection still read as deeply vital in my technologically transfigured time speaks to both the subcutaneous depth with which he spoke of human living and to his clairvoyant ability to point downstream from his time and lay out the matured consequences of seemingly small actions. Truly this man knows how seeds work.

If I had to boil this book down to one point (which is impossible), I could at least say that the theme which kept jumping out to me was that in daily life we all steward the land, the created world, and our own human dignity is bound to that stewardship. Any shortcut around wise care is a fool’s bargain that ultimately and literally costs the seller his own self. Convenience is a viper that strikes us while we wrestle its tail.

So Berry advocates a kind of human slowness. He challenges me to use more of my own energy to reduce the demands I place on my world and ultimately on others. My own energy calls for patience and close observation while adjusting to a healthier threshold for contentment. And somewhere in that slowness I found the key to engaging Annie Dillard: once you stand still and take something as it is, it will reveal itself to you.

It so happens that these two books harmonize well. In one duet, Dillard’s chapter in Tinker Creek called “Fecundity” set ringing my recollection of Berry’s essay “Economy and Pleasure”. She captured my imagination and hunger for the wonder of creation and he reminded me that I am inseparable from that world by any means, and creation will ultimately afford me reciprocal dignity.

I owe Wendell Berry a debt. For affirming that I am free in all my thoughts with the same pencil that reminded me that only some of my thoughts are good and sustaining. For helping establish a way of thinking by which I can weigh my freedom and measure it out with some integrity. And also for re-teaching me how to write. In a brief explanation of why he writes by hand and not with a computer, Wendell Berry redirected my own creative process sight unseen. Where fancy software didn’t help unstick my mind, a simple reminder of the bodily act of writing shook things loose. I drafted these responses to Dillard and Berry by hand and while I can’t speak to their quality, I can speak to how un-frustrated I felt writing them.

Wendell Berry is always looking beyond the horizon, so much so that some have criticized him for being too idealistic. But I wonder if he looks even beyond the horizon of death and into a new world. Certainly his view of human beings in communion with one another and with their particular place is so exact and so beautiful, and so fundamentally at odds with our current state and trajectory, that at times I had to think of heaven while reading to keep from having my heart broken at the present impossibility of such a way. But Berry never ceases to aim at practical daily living. If he glimpses heaven, he does so only to advocate for that kingdom to come, that will to be done on earth. So I am deeply challenged in this life. And I hope to God I get to be a farmer in heaven.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek


It took me seven years to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Not because it is an exceptionally long book, but because I had to grow into Annie Dillard.

I bought the book in 2007 and attempted it then, but didn’t make it much past the first 20 or so pages. I remember a frog got eaten by some bizarre water bug. I wasn’t patient enough to let my eyes adjust to a brilliant and alien prose before moving on, to slow my mind enough to drift down into the granular detail with which Ms. Dillard presented her world. Still, after that failure the book remained on the shelf, waiting and occasionally daring me to pick it up again. Perhaps this is why we buy books: so they can remain in close company and taunt us for putting them down. Still, subsequent reads fared as well as that first. And then I encountered Wendell Berry.

I received What Are People For? as a gift several months ago and was introduced to slowness—unhurried urgency. Several essays into that volume I returned to Tinker Creek and its mysteries finally opened to me, much to my pleasure. That the wonder of Dillard’s Tinker Creek and Berry’s meditations on human dignity and its place in the world harmonized so well was a nice bit of serendipity. For this reflection, though, I’ll dwell on Tinker Creek.

Annie Dillard is a theological ninja. She presents a fully-fledged wonder at this created universe both intricate and glorious and at once grotesque and broken. Her book resounds with all of the creaturely joy of Psalm 148 and the dischordant the groaning in Romans 8. Of course, Dillard is hardly so pedantic. Rather more beautifully she points to what’s out there, colliding little details and vignettes. She offers it for your heart to take hold and make of it what you will. If you are ready to see God, he is plainly there and she’ll do you no disservice by shouting so that you miss him.

This is perhaps the most satisfying quality of the book, for my appetite anyway: Dillard lets God speak for himself, or rather she simply repeats what he has said and lets it be just as hard to follow, even hard to love, as life. And often, so often, magnificent. Those with ears, let them hear.

Annie Dillard does an adroit at sleight of prose in Tinker Creek. She has a knack for turning your attention to something small, even microscopic, describing at some length its form and function. She draws you in and in to the wonder of this tiny fragment of a portion of a creature until it fills your mind and then she abruptly tugs you into a completely unexpected sphere where the tiny detail connects to staggering enormity and she pushes the border of your imagination out. She’s caught you and then you realize you had already swallowed the bait several pages earlier and Dillard had only just set the hook. She does not hurry as she lures you in.

This is why I read: to be caught up in wonder. With this book, it is the wonder of all of the stuff out there—in the world, the universe, my own back yard—that just happens without any consent or particular help to speak of from me or us. Annie Dillard illuminates the ordinary things that simply carry on in delicate yet dogged balance. In her telling, this wonderful creation reflects glorious radiance as though sustained by some powerful word of which our understanding can only touch the hem, but which our eyes absorb in ripples and waves everywhere we look. It’s wonderful.

In spite of such a breathtaking, mind-bending journey, this book still reminded me of being a boy. Of visiting my grandparents’ farm and heading out to explore acres of hilly Kentucky countryside to see what creatures I could see. Of trying to figure out how to walk in such a way as to sneak up on a frog and so see it before it leapt with a yap into the pond. Of collecting jelly-like eggs from the bottom of a rock in a creek in hope that they’d hatch and I could watch the amazing change from tadpole to salamander. Of just hoping I’d come across a praying mantis anywhere. I count as a true gift any book that makes me feel tapped into the remote wisdom of the universe and simultaneously like a child. And I’m thankful for Wendell Berry for encouraging me to slow my mind so that I might finally, after seven years of trying, open the gift of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.