Sunday, December 30, 2012

Teaching Playfulness, Reaching God

(Reflection on blogposts of my own that are tangents to themes in yesterday's posting about John Polkinghorne and Kate Braestrup -- link

This morning I re-discovered some long-forgotten insights while searching for something else.  I typed in "sondheim + god" to find a copy of my own article for the SONDHEIM REVIEW's issue #50,  but I found a lot more, besides, and they all interlock nicely with yesterday's posting, "Macro God, Micro God."

As a teacher of both middle school students and adult churchgoers, I want to remember "Teaching Beauty," a post from 2007 (  For teachers of children, there's this insight: "Interpretation will not get you to appreciate the beauty. The beauty attracts first, promising depth, and then you want to dive in. Interpretation is part of the diving." That is to say, we teachers who teach interpretations are slamming doors in students' faces just when we should be coaxing them through to undiscovered country.

This discussion of beauty leads by tangent to a commentary about interpreting the Bible, prompted by this exchange between a priest and the late, grating atheist Christopher Hitchens.  They found common ground in a belief that beauty transcends matter.  But they clash over Scripture:
Hitchens' critique of religion begins from reading Scriptures as a fundamentalist would. When the interviewer pointed this out, Hitchens snapped back, "It's either God's word, or what use is it?" He thinks that ends the discussion, but of course, it's only a start. Hitchens thinks religion is lies, and art is good. I'd simply retort, "Religion is art." That's not to say that Christianity and the Bible are fiction.
There's some explanation about the nature of the Bible before the article pulls together all the strands: "Can Hitchens see that a leap of faith is an act of imagination? ...[F]aith is a pleasure that changes lives and builds community."

Another article repeats Polkinghorne's question, "What is the evolutionary value of Mozart [or any other examples of gratuitous and graceful ingenuity]?"  The question arose when a book of puzzles based on New Yorker cartoons struck me as evidence of the real "Intelligent Design."  Will Shortz comments about the "snap" when all the interlocking pieces fall together, which reminds me of a quote from Ellington, to the effect that this snap "is happiness."  This leads in the article to a tribute for one of the most strikingly useless pieces of cleverness I've ever seen, a book of French "poetry" that's actually punning on English verse.  Got that? For a fuller explanation, go to

Another article for teachers relates to gratuitous play, without reference to God.  We read about a corporate consultant who sets aside the agenda when there's an impasse, to "play." That means, he sets a goal and encourages divergent ways to reach it.  This is inclusive, not to be confused with exclusive "competition." There's a memorable anecdote connected to this, about an encounter between a polar bear and a sled dog on a chain.  What looked at first like a horror in progress turned into laughter.

Finally, there's an article about ARCADIA, a play that incorporates every thread in this article.  In fact, it's all in one paragraph:
What Stoppard says, and demonstrates so convincingly through these polished but real characters, is that the big questions are interesting, the ones on the biggest scale and smallest scale - big bang, or sub-atomic particles -- but it's the unpredictable nature of what happens in between that makes life worth living. Hannah, after the big blow up, makes a comment about faith. She says that she has no problem with God or spirit, but she can't stand the notion of an afterlife: "If we're going to find out everything in the end [I'm quoting from memory].... if all the answers are in the back of the book, what's the point?" What these characters demonstrate as they talk and talk and talk, is the pleasure in finding out through investigation, surmise, and testing hypotheses.

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