Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith as Rational as Language (or Poetry)

Response after reading a Newsweek review of an atheist's screed against irrationality of religion; hearing songs on my nephew's gospel CD by a group "Casting Crowns"; reading the latest issue of Weavings, a journal of devotional and thoughtful readings.


A rash of atheist books and commentators have been in the public eye recently, not to mention a series of articles about religion's distortion of public policy and an expose by a Bush White House insider about his former colleague's cynical manipulation of Bush's religious base. The message is direct: faith is irrational at best.

My immediate reaction is to assert that the best things in life are irrational -- love, music, watching a play, reading a story, enjoying rhymes, enjoying weather....

Then again, those eighteenth century conversationalists who are celebrated in a new book (reviewed in Weekly Standard's latest issue) were believers both in revealed religion and in rationality. I certainly hate irrational argument, irrational behavior of mobs, and political appeals prejudices and to irrational fears.

I see a way to integrate both rationality and religion without appeal to historical artifacts of Resurrection or supposed holes in Darwin's work.

Let's ask, is metaphor rational? We communicate often through metaphor, using a shared image to bridge a gap between people's objective experiences. Stories affect us as metaphors, some kind of analogies to our own experiences. Language itself is a metaphor, in which symbols "equal" things to which they are not at all related. Math is perhaps the ultimate language, for its symbols represent universal experiences -- its statements operative whether we're counting sheep, atoms, or stars.

Language of any sort helps us to manipulate our ideas of objective experience. Without math, we can't easily divide or multiply, predict the trajectory of a space craft, calculate the right drug dose for a patient of a certain weight.

Now, let's ask if religion -- a mix of "myth" with "rites" -- doesn't work as an all-encompassing metaphor, one on which all who share it can draw upon. The CD by a gospel group Casting Crowns (appealing to fans of the popular rock group Counting Crows, no doubt) uses images drawn from the Bible as a way to work through day-to-day conflicts. The articles in this month's Weavings magazine frankly look upon the horrific and fascinating imagery of Revelation as metaphors for ends-of-worlds that our civilization periodically has experienced (as when the old Catholic order fell under the weight of Reformation, Muslim invasion, and Renaissance humanism).

As one part of an answer to those atheists angry at the falseness of religion, I'd say, "It's no more false than HAMLET or ALL THE KING'S MEN, and most of us (except some religious fundamentalists) see the merit in using those fictions as a lens for viewing our lives." I imagine a kind of chain of language, each useful in a different way:

objective reality - experienced by one <-- ordinary speech <-- metaphor, image <-- story <-- religious myth <-- mathematics As we move on my continuum further to the right of "objective reality" (something experienced by one person), we move into language that communicates the essence of that experience to more and more people. Remember that language doesn't just express, but it allows us to manipulate thoughts, as math does. So, we can apply rationality to metaphor to reach rational conclusions. Work back from metaphor to daily life, and act. So, say that Jesus never existed. Say that there is no God. Regardless, we find that the stories of the Bible, and the perrennial drama of the Church year, are a helpful way to think about ourselves, our world, our shared experiences. Now, I would add something else: that, as Paul writes, the Judaeo-Christian myths run counter to "the wisdom of the world," and seem all the more true because of that. To me, that's a sign that there's a reality speaking to us through the story that was not arrived at through human intellection alone.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Vermeer, Updike, and Poetry Editorial

(occasioned by reading an essay in the Oxford Companion to John Updike, a review of Robert Frost's notebooks in Weekly Standard Oct. 2006, and an editorial by John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, in Poetry magazine, Sept. 2006)

Funny how an editorial castigating contemporary poets appears in the issue of POETRY that most annoyed me by page after page of obscure, pedantic, and coarse lines. John Barr's editorial in POETRY tells poets to live life first, and write about what they see, because (echoing Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter?) it's becoming insular stuff, poets writing for poets.

Robert Frost, in quotatations from his notebooks, reviewed in Weekly Standard, compares poems to jokes -- the insight that got me hooked a few years ago. Poems should do something. He adds that sincere feelings are not enough: the presentation must be made "queer" and messed around a bit for the reader to "get" them. Whatever, he's after a connection with the reader.

I turned from reading those articles to a collection of essays about John Updike, whose work I've read now for over twenty years. Updike's style builds on reporting what he sees, and second, on letting the seen world reflect faith.

I'm reminded of an exhibition of paintings by Vermeer that I travelled to New York to see. Updike idolizes Vermeer, and I'd read of the old Dutch master in Updike's Just Looking. Yet I was disappointed by the exhibit, "Vermeer and his Contemporaries." It was all slice of life, with some contrast and realistic depictions of streets scenes, interiors, daily lives in 17th century Holland. It took me a couple of rooms to realize that I was looking at work of his contemporaries, not of him. I saw one that looked familiar, and thought, "Here, at last, is the real thing." That, too, disappointed up close. Then I saw that this, also, was not Vermeer's, though it resembled one that he had painted.

In peripheral vision, I glimpsed the first Vermeer in the exhibit, and chills started at the back of my neck. I approached.

What was the difference? Style, subject matter, and true-to-life drawing -- these were all the same. But Vermeer's paintings seemed to glow from the inside. I felt there that I was seeing not just a slice of life, but that it was reaching out to me.

At Updike's best, he makes me see and feel places in realistic detail, but these places glow, and resonate still, though it may have been twenty years since I read about them. He himself writes of the mythological resonance of places he knew as a child; his writing has given those places to me.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Teachable Bytes

(Reflections during a meeting with representatives of the National Writing Project in Kennesaw, GA, today. Education )

I have this response to variations of the question, "Are you teaching technology, or are you teaching writing?"

I sometimes fear that what we used to teach has become obsolete. Who writes well-reasoned speeches anymore? Who debates with reason? Who but scholars look for scholarly warrant for opinions? Who appreciates writing that conveys nuances? Who even wants writing that doesn't move or have pictures?

Meanwhile, every child and adult today routinely encounters alarming claims, arresting images, instant messages and instant reactions to distant events, images that suggest more than they depict, easy access to information of dubious value, news filtered through various media and all squeezed by commercials to tiny spaces or short bursts. This isn't all on line, either; it's radio, bumper stickers, magazines, billboards, all-pervasive tv, and it's easily possible to encounter all of the above waiting at a stop light. It happens to me daily.

Let's add a scary element, too: that even images broadcast live on tv can be altered digitally, sounds and documents and whole websites easily copied and altered. (A technician admitted a couple years back that Whitney Houston looked too scrawny and unhealthy for her Grammy performance on TV, so she was "enhanced" to look rounder and healthier for the television viewers -- during the live performance!)

When we use technology to teach research or writing, we take advantage of what a veteran teacher today called a "teachable moment" in our history to achieve the goal of literacy - which I define as the ability to respond to whatever one encounters. Today literacy isn't a matter of words alone, but of images, of sounds, of forms and formats, of different cultures' values, of commerce and commercials, of numbers and statistics, and of technological manipulations of all the above.

We want the next generation of adults to be responsible, i.e., able to respond to new information, conflicting claims, emotional appeals, as well as to numbers, data, personal quanderies, and competing values. To respond, to investigate, to recognize context, to judge, to persuade others -- these should be the goals of education.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Atlanta Opera: Elevation of Claptrap

Response to the Atlanta Opera's double bill of Paagliacci and Carmina Burana

Pagliacci is the worst kind of operatic humbug: there's no believable love, friendship, or reality in it, just a pretext for one ironic aria -- the emblematic tearful clown -- and the second act play-within-a-play. None of the other emotions are real, but somehow when they're replayed by the characters in clown makeup as "Columbina" and "Arlechino" and "Pagliacci" the stakes are raised and we can identify. Chills mount as the actors playing "Columbina" and "Arlechino" suddenly find their lighthearted scenario turning into something uncontrollable. There must be something in real life like that, or our reactions wouldn't be so strong.

The real surprise in today's double-bill, for which I had low expectations, was that I was thrilled by overly-familiar material (Orff's Carmina Burana) and ballet.

The director began Carmina Burana where Pagliacci ended - same actors, same set, same tableau. The chorus, in proletarian garb, sing "O Fortuna" as a kind of commentary on the bad luck of the earlier opera. Then a moon lowers and a tree raises, and dancers enter. The lovers become soloists in Orff's piece, each doubled by a dancer in identical clothing, and the whole cantata seems like an extension of the doomed love affair.

Children appear in the third part, "Court of Love," and almost make you cry, their freshness such a contrast to the very modern-feeling bitterness of the Tavern section. The lead singers, seated on opposite sides of the stage, meet through their dance doubles, and seem to consummate a relationship just as "O Fortuna" reprises... and they are swallowed up by the chorus as it sings about how youth and health vanish in time. The dancers in grey -- four couples, plus the main couple, and a woman with a live python -- impressed with athleticism (a woman at one point lifting the man over her head to twirl him... as he had just done to her) and humor.

It's all familiar, all cliche, and yet, performed with conviction and authority, and with precise diction and controlled orchestra, it all seemed fresh and strong and wise.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Terminally Cute: Kris Radish's Fabulous Funeral

(Reflections on Kris Radish's novel Annie Freeman's Fabulous Travelling Funeral, with some thoughts about Iris Murdoch's novel Bruno's Dream.)

Nearly every second paragraph of internal monologue in Kris Radish's novel contains a four-letter word, promptly repeated in italics for emphasis. Why? The novelist wants to write an irreverent, hilarious, grittily (wittily) realistic yet life-affirming story about facing midlife, terminal illness, and loss. Instead, she has written a tedious one-joke story. The joke is, "Annie Freeman's last wish was for her friends to cast her ashes (contained in her old sneakers -- how irreverent! how hilarious!) at different places that were important to her in life." Mostly her characters are thinking or saying variations on one thought: "Oo, dammit! Annie's gone, and I miss her." But that's unexceptional sentiment, so Radish throws in an impolite word to make it seem authentic.

After eighty pages, during which the initial situation is reiterated every five pages or so, I skipped to the last chapter, and found the same group of women, thinking more or less the same basic thought, and still those obscenities punctuating their thoughts, and, incredibly, still marvelling at the irreverence and hilarity of the initial premise -- a traveling funeral! ashes in sneakers!

Describing this book to a friend, I welcomed her short comment. "Can we say, 'belabored?'"

I'm a big believer in making lemonade from lemons, so I'll cite one sentence I liked. "Nothing's the same [because of the death of a close friend]. How wonderful is that?"

This was assigned reading for a group of teachers of a certain age who are considering issues of caring for parents through old age, Alzheimer's, and disease.

Iris Murdoch, the philosopher-novelist whose own descent into Alzheimer's (starting with her last novel Jackson's Dilemma in 1998) was chronicled by her husband and made into a movie (Iris with Judi Dench), wrote a more fantastic novel that was also more real, more deep, more wide-ranging. Bruno's Dream has a grotesque invalid at its core, a man who has become like the spiders he used to study. A web of relationships, old scores to settle, money, and guilt connect family to him and to each other. Fearful, he confesses to a nurse that he has so little reality left, it's like he's living inside his own mind, like a dream. "We all do that," says the young but wise nurse, drily.

I find more to contemplate about dying and old age in the very description of that novel than in Radish's book.

Another problem with Radish: She could only think that her "irreverence" is funny if in fact she is inordinately reverent about death. For an Episcopalian, or for a thoughtful agnostic like Murdoch, death is one big deal among many, and absolutely considered a part of what makes life worth living. Radish's view is shallow and secular, with death the ultimate obstacle to life.

For once, I don't recommend the book.

Fiction | Religion

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

7th Grade History and Current Events

(Reflection on rights from the 17th century to the 21st. Education News and History)

In the past week, my seventh graders have acted Mark Twain's PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, heard my own digest of English history, and read the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1640). All of these materials focus their attention on the idea that "even rulers must obey the rules" and especially on a right enshrined in Magna Carta, and confirmed in 17th century rebellions against a couple of proud kings, the right to challenge the government's power to imprison someone. The Body of Liberties, written against the wishes of John Winthrop and his ruling council in Puritan New England, guarantees this right and more even to "strangers" who just happen to be passing through the community.

These rights have been suspended or bent or selectively applied before -- by Lincoln (who wrote several pages of closely argued justification based on the Constitution), the US Government vis-a-vis Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, and racist regimes in our various states. Always there's the excuse that the troublemakers pose too great a threat to risk letting them roam free, and we should trust the authorities.

But at our best, we stand for "rule of law," something I've always understood to mean that our governors are governed by rules and procedures fashioned during times of careful consideration to guide us during times of hot feeling. This is what Ronald Reagan stood for, and he repeatedly cited the Soviet Gulag as the opposite.

Our President and a majority of Ronald Reagan's party feel that this emergency supersedes the old conservative ways, passing a bill that pays lip-service to law while allowing the President prerogative to rely on his own judgement.

This isn't what I voted for, and it's not what I've taught for twenty-five years.

News & History

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Body, Spirit, and Embodying Spirit

Reflections after a second reading of Ronald Rolheiser's book THE HOLY LONGING: The Search for Christian Spirituality (Doubleday, 1999).

Theologican Ronald Rolheiser has wise observations about lots of topics, with apt examples and quotations to savor, but he has one insight above all that took me by surprise. He simply takes the familiar idea that we are the "body of Christ" and treats it as a statement of fact instead of metaphor.

His other insights relate to this physical body - including the obvious fact that has escaped me all these years, that food we eat becomes a part of us, and vice versa, that our body is what we eat. That takes the metaphor out of communion. As Flannery O'Connor said, "If it's just a symbol, to hell with it."

Now, I've been charged to write a very short personal note to parishioners I don't know to encourage them to pledge this year. I re-read Rolheiser to prepare. Let's see what I can do:

If you don't already pledge to St. James Church, I hope you'll consider a lesson I learned there. I used to pay the church every year for its "services" to me, a consumer of comforting ritual and teaching. But our true "service" is doing God's work in the community, being His face, hands, and voice. I hope you will consider pledging both money and time to help us serve our community.

If I can fit that on our little pledge note card, maybe it'll do some good.