Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government  or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.

No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.

By the book

A book’s a funny place to look for answers. If customer support took that long to answer my question, I’d hang up.

Some books make the Bible into an answer book. On supermarket displays back by the butcher’s and druggist’s counters, you may pick up books of Bible verses, helpfully categorized by issues. Spin the display, and the cookbooks appear.

When I was younger, many of my Jesus friends made decisions by closing their eyes, opening the Bible, and pointing to a verse. They honed their prophetic sense by learning how to read the sometimes-opaque tea leaves.

I’m not reading much differently if I’m still reading just for answers. I’m not living by the book; I’m limiting my reading to my narrow questions. Michael Casey puts it better:

Anything that feeds into our current concerns is accepted as relevant; everything else is dismissed as of lesser importance. . . . As a result, we do not build the infrastructure on which “relevant” insights will depend.

My reading must, at least, broaden an issue until the original question becomes, in retrospect, a fillip, and now an afterthought – maybe even irrelevant (ironically). But I must not set out on my more important reading to find anything relevant to the day’s exigencies. Casey:

Not everything is immediately relevant. Sometimes we have to juggle two apparently divergent themes in our minds until some sort of connectedness links them.

Living by the book means, in part, carrying the word around and watching it shape life. Casey:

Perhaps we hear the word and understand it intellectually. Because we do not carry it around, bridges are not built between the text and daily life.

Seek wisdom, the Bible says. But wisdom may not have answers.1 Maybe wisdom isn’t even only the expansion of a question into a broader, more comprehensive issue, though that’s often important. Maybe wisdom is God’s fellowship.2

Answers are overrated.

Am I like Saul, going to the prophet Samuel to find my donkeys?3 “Blah, blah, blah, and your donkeys have been found.” I won’t find the “blah, blah, blah” on supermarket carousels.

Reflections on reading “Irrelevance,” a paragraph on page 74 of Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

  1. Maybe a “word of wisdom” redirects my inquiry – points me to a better path.
  2. Or maybe God himself. The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman (chapter 9). And Paul says, with little explanation, that Jesus is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  3. 1 Samuel 9 & 10.

Psalm 39: next to nothing

3PictureJobByzantineManuscriptRobert Alter finds a neat way to end Psalm 39, the psalm that most focuses, in semantics and structure, on man’s evanescence.

Alter’s notes for Psalm 39 demonstrate (1) the predominance of “breath” (e.g., “Mere breath is each man standing”), (2) the echoes from Job (e.g., “You . . . melt like the moth his treasure”), and (3) the contrast between the psalm’s triadic lines (psychological tension) and dyadic lines (symmetry). Alter’s last verse confronts these components.

I’m used to the psalm ending on something like the Revised English Bible’s simpering:

Frown on me no more; let me look cheerful
before I depart and cease to be.

But Alter likes how Raymond Scheindlin translates Job’s end for its chapter 10, rendering the “disputed verb avligah” as “catch my breath”:

Let me alone so I may catch my breath

before I go on my way, not to return
into a land of darkness and deathgloom

Psalm 39’s final verse uses the same verb. Alter adopts Scheindlin’s strategy, giving the last verse’s dyadic structure something of the roundedness of the previous triadic lines:

Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.

Based on these lines alone, I just ordered a copy of Scheindlin’s Job – a used, hardcover copy for next to nothing.

The illustration is from a Byzantine manuscript in Rome’s Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. You have to love how it depicts who I guess are Job’s friends: all mouth.

Lectio: snuggling inside a phrase

3PictureIlluminatedRicePsalterI’ve been reading Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary at about a psalm-every-two-days clip, and I’ve had to balance my excitement of reading an accurate and startlingly fresh translation with my goal of getting back into lectio divina. When the new translation’s freshness or the commentary’s new information unexpectedly leads me into lectio, as it did this morning, my usual balance board acts more like a launch pad.

Today is the first day of Psalm 26. Here are Alter’s versions of verses 2 and 3:

2 Test me, O LORD, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
3 For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.

Here’s part of his commentary regarding verse 3:

This is a clear instance of what some biblical scholars call a breakup pattern. The phrase “kindness and truth” esed-weemet, meaning something like “steadfast kindness,” is split between the two versets, standing as bookends at the beginning and end of the line. (Kindle Locations 2526-2529)

The psalmist seems to sandwich verse 3 between the two concepts the phrase esed-weemet holds together. Verse 3, then, can be read as an examination of the phrase. He suggests from it, I think, that the Lord’s kindness he insists on keeping before him is the only means of walking in the Lord’s truth (or, as the Revised English Bible and the margin note to the New American Standard have it, his “faithfulness”).

But it’s a personal examination, too, a prayerful consideration of himself inside the phrase. His amplification inserts himself between the phrase’s two meanings like a kid who snuggles between her parents in their bed. It’s the “prayerful reading” that “is the first moment of lectio divina” (Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, 61). It shows a ready and imaginative heart, one willing to pry with prayer into a single phrase’s meaning, willing to section a phrase’s fruit and eat its sections one at a time with slow attention.

(The illustration is a detail from the Rice Psalter.)

Speak of the Devil: an Easter homily

3PictureThreeBearsThree bears talk about someone over three bowls, three chairs, and three beds, and the perpetrator herself shows up in the last bed. This dramatic irony, along with the literary rule of three, seems to hold the many iterations of the famous fairy tale together. So far, so good. But after the bears discover the girl (or in some versions, the old woman) in the third bed, the iterations go their separate ways. She runs through the woods, gets rescued by her mom, or gets impaled on a steeple. She could fly to the moon, for all we care. Ultimately, it’s the irony that counts – the discovery of the anecdote’s subject in bed mid-anecdote. The Three Bears demonstrates that reality intrudes on anecdote or, conversely, that anecdote invokes reality.

The idiom “speak of the Devil” speaks of the former, I think. A friend walks in while we’re talking about him: reality intrudes on anecdote. It’s one of life’s stock ironies. But in the past, “speak of the Devil” spoke of the latter. Our current idiom is short for the medieval adage “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” Because anecdote can invoke reality, adherents of this superstition tried not to mention you-know-who.

Three witches, courtesy of you-know-who, invoke Macbeth much as the bears’ conversation invokes Goldilocks. They even employ the three bears’ three-times-three:

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm’s wound up. (1.3.33 – 35)

This “wound up,” or fully prepared, charm bears out our adage more than our idiom since the charm purports to summon its object. As soon as the witches say it, in walks Macbeth for the first time. The witches seem to have anticipated even Macbeth’s first words, which reflect the witches’ earlier “foul is fair” irony: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.36).

At least three Bible stories feature someone walking in on an anecdote about him or her. (I’m using “anecdote” not only in the sense of a story but also in the sense of a story in a story, such as Pilar’s anecdotes in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov.) The least complicated of the three may be the first in time: Elisha’s servant is regaling the king with stories about his master’s exploits, one of which involves a woman whose young son the prophet has raised from the dead. In the middle of his anecdote, she and her son walk in. Speak of the Devil. Based on this irony, presumably, the king grants the woman’s request to have her land restored (2 Kings 8:1 – 8). Even a king will honor irony’s authority.

The second story, from the book of Esther, is juicier because the irony’s doubled, maybe tripled. Haman walks in on a conversation between the king and his attendant, who have been discussing whether any honor has been done to Mordecai, the Jew, who stopped an assassination attempt on the king. None, O king.

The king asks Haman what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman, thinking he has interrupted a conversation about himself, suggests that the king have a high official lead the honoree over the capital’s streets. Haman has come to the king for permission to hang Mordecai, but he ends up lugging Mordecai around the city instead. And that rule of three again: Mordecai is wearing the king’s robe, riding the king’s horse, and is crowned with the king’s diadem (Esther 6:1 – 11).

From Haman’s perspective, fair is foul and foul is fair.

Anecdotes, then, can turn out to be examinations of how they may involve the reader or hearer. Haman’s ironic misreading reminds one of Carly Simon’s telescoping refrain: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The subject of You’re So Vain is, and is not, its subject. A story about reality intruding on a story can, perhaps, have it both ways. Certainly a story about reality intruding on a story suggests that a “real reality” may come tearing through the paper at any moment.

And maybe the invocatory power of narrative explains the universality of the “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear” adage. Heinz-like, Wikipedia lists fifty-seven varieties of the adage. Each variety is from a different culture and in a different language or dialect. In these adages, the Devil isn’t always the Devil; he might be a donkey or a wolf or even a child, acknowledged now to be legitimate thanks to her incursion into her own story’s telling.

My favorite’s the Yiddish, the last language of this alphabetized list. I like how the Yiddish version combines irony with Esther-like disparagement. It’s best introduced here with a phony anecdote about an anecdote. Imagine Ida and Martin Morgenstern of The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame discussing their daughter Rhoda. In walks Rhoda. Her parents, seated, turn their heads to her, and then back to each other. Ida says, “Eh, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.”

Which brings me to my third, and last, subject-bites-story Bible story. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, two men walk seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are Jesus’ disciples, and they are sad. He was crucified. He failed to liberate Israel. Their women said they saw a vision of angels, who had said he was alive.

As they talk about this, Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s Jesus. They catch him up on their conversation.

“How dull you are!” he answers. “Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering into his glory?” (Luke 24:25 – 26, REB).

So foul and fair a day they have not seen.

For the remaining miles, he talks about the scriptures that refer to him. They reach Emmaus, he makes as if to go on, but they beg him to stick around for supper. He breaks the bread, blesses it, and they finally recognize him. He immediately disappears, and they immediately return to Jerusalem.

But wait: this subject-bites-story story morphs into a subject-bites-the-subject-bites-story story. Back in Jerusalem, the two men tell the other disciples about how Jesus “had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.” As they do, “there he was, standing among them” (Luke 24:35 – 36). Jesus walks in on a story about Jesus walking in on a story about Jesus.

This kind of insistence on the present is the message of Easter. The gospel’s implied third interruption is always now. Anecdote invokes reality, and reality intrudes on anecdote.

When we break bread together, Jesus walks in on our anecdote. Here’s Jesus’ own version of the “speak of the Devil” adage: “For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, REB).

Indeed, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.

Easter is many Christians’ second Passover – the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, after all – during which they prepare a place at the table for Elijah, just in case this year he comes.

Who’s at the door?

Couldn’t resist. Happy Easter.

3PictureCaravaggioEmmaus

The illustration is by Peter Newell and is found in Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907. The painting is Caravaggio’s Cena in Emmaus.

The children’s apocalypse

3PictureBethany01

Last month at Kenyon’s Gund Gallery, Victoria and I moved among Bethany’s hundred-and-forty-odd, glowing and pulsing sculptures. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we found that we were becoming part of the installation. It was ourselves, and not the sculptures, that we began to see and understand.

This secret knowledge hid us from later visitors, at least from those who didn’t stay long enough to discover that the sculptures’ lights weren’t static. The lights pulsed neither in unison nor in disregard for one another. I sat under them to see how they got along, much as I spent long stretches on beds of pine needles as a kid wondering how the trees got along.

I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton this week, particularly his short essay “In Defence of Baby-Worship.” Here’s one excerpt from it; a second I’ve inserted at the end.

The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are, first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

3PictureWarren01

My video below is only from one static point looking at one part of Bethany’s installation, just as a telescope might stand at one place on earth and train on one sector of sky. To walk among the silent shapes was, for a little while, anyway, to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Bethany’s into craft, and she’s learning how to defend it from some art critics. Separated from the crafts’ beauty and utility, a piece of visual art these days too often seems to expire after delivering up its ironic or recondite message. Craft art, on the other hand, “has a special magic created by a union of the beautiful, the spiritual, the conceptual, and the useful through the conjunction of the visual and the tactile,” according to artist and art critic John Perreault.

Bethany’s work sometimes seems like an abstract celebration of craft and, consequently, of life. In the statement outside her installation, she describes how she worked with the translucent polymer clay to form the shapes:

After kneading and flatting the clay, it is pure improvisation. I follow automatic decisions made at the fingertip level, occasional vague ideas, and the clay itself as it tears, droops, or supports itself in various ways. I have begun to think of it as a dance between my fingers and the clay.

Each of her shapes slowly pulsing in the dark room was a joint creation of the creator and the created, much as we are. Walking among Bethany’s stars or microbes or sea creatures reset my spirit, much as another piece she had made about ten years earlier had. For me, wonder is a fresh improvisation with some common, diaphanous material: we’re all both creators and creatures, both apart and a part, both verse and the keenest lacunae.

3PictureBethany02
More Chesterton:

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not found — that on which we were born.

3PictureBethany03

Photos are of Bethany and Warren as children. (I’m still trying to learn how to focus a camera.) The two excerpts from Chesterton’s “In Defence of Baby-Worship,” along with the entire essay and his 1911 book, In Defense of Nonsense, and other Essays, that contains the “Baby-Worship” essay are found here. Bethany’s installation’s web page on the Gund Gallery’s site is here.

The winter in winter

The snow is almost gone, a lot of it eaten by a neighborhood dog but most of it melted by still-below-average temperatures. Winter returned three times in March, each time with a few inches of snow. Sixty-two inches this winter — a lot for Virginia, even for its northernmost corner where we live. Four inches of snow this past Monday, but I rode my bike for an hour and a half Friday. Winter, that symbol of life’s final stages, may be in its own final stage. Some final flurries are expected here tonight, but I might mistake them for moths.

“Death, thou shalt die.” My tenth graders are busy emulating conceits such as John Donne’s by writing their own Metaphysical poetry. Some of their poems examine life’s common paradoxes well. My students’ relative success makes me wonder if there’s room for Metaphysical poetry’s drama, argumentation, idealism, and tough artificiality today. Eliot learned a good deal from these poets. And many modern poets have been (maybe unknowingly) returning to their concision, uneven meter, and irony for decades.

I keep returning to my best posts. WordPress tells me that I’ve revised “Ice, hail, & the reign thereafter” sixty times and “Jesus teaches the compare & contrast essay” sixty-five times. Neither post is even more than two months old. But all that refining is when I do my best writing, maybe because my imaginary reader is the most present with me, threatening to read a flawed version I posted in my haste. I almost wish my feed wouldn’t feed until a post’s fiftieth revision.

But my revising is also a working out of my ideas — well, more of a working in. After fifty drafts, even if it doesn’t seem like it to my reader, my post’s theory gets personal. “Ice” is teaching me that I’m never going to be fulfilled in this life. In fact, my faith teaches me that I wasn’t designed to be. “Compare & contrast” is teaching me that my passivity isn’t often very spiritual. In fact, it’s passive aggression towards the Father I never had.

“Compare & contrast,” then, is teaching me that I’ve buried my talent for too long.

The trick for me is to live in the still-inchoate paradox birthed from these two posts’ relationship.

No two snowflakes are alike, but I’ve seen identical snowflakes. This seeming paradox is easily resolved: if winter can return after three years away, then maybe snowflakes can, too. Maybe I’ll see an old friend tonight.

Or maybe that’s just a conceit. Heraclitus’s famous adage: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m slowly reading twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’ll be winter again before I’m done. Popper thinks Plato hated Heraclitus but nevertheless believed him and wrote The Republic in reaction to him. We must stop change, Plato believed. Poets lead the people astray, Plato said. It all adds up, and I’m with Popper so far: Plato was a brilliant and dangerous reactionary.

One’s politics is based on two things: how one understands the river, and to what extent and by what means others should be made to understand the river the same way.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, understood politics in kaleidoscopic terms: all the fragments — the people, the politicians, the ideas — had to fall into alignment to get things done. To me, poetry readings are a twist of the kaleidoscope. Different people read the same poem different ways, emphasizing and, with their inflections and pacing, seemingly rearranging certain of the poem’s pieces. The resulting patterns are sometimes striking. Voice Alpha recently asked its readers to perform Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.” Nic Sebastian, Voice Alpha’s curator, collected fourteen readings, including my own. Some of them taught me new ways to return to and engage with a very old friend.

3PictureBrokenStainedGlassRandyCalderone

Above: “Broken Stained Glass — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” by Randy Calderone. Used by permission. I took the above Vine video in our neighborhood earlier this March.

My children

My children

The city needed lawyers.

– Alister McGrath, from In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

That epigraph has little bearing on this post. I just like the idea of a city needing lawyers. Remember all of those American constitutional lawyers flying to Moscow shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union? Those were heady days. There’s reason to conclude that Putin has since retained other counsel.

1 John's opening in Tyndale's version
1 John’s opening in Tyndale’s version

Anyway, Geneva needed lawyers, and John Calvin needed work. The rest is history. But I’d like to refer to a little of it here as an introduction to a particular English translation of 1 John 1:1 that has resonated with me a lot lately.

The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was a fruit of Calvin’s association with Geneva’s Protestant Reformation, and it remained the most popular English Bible for decades after the King James hit the presses in 1611. Between 1578 and 1616, the “Geneva Bible” also became the common name given to a number of very similar translations, Alister McGrath reports. Christopher Barker, to whom Elizabeth had granted sole publishing rights to the Geneva, would modify the text based on the work of English exiles in Geneva.1 (Why would Elizabeth grant a license to a Bible she didn’t really like? It was complicated, but the biggest factor was the Geneva Bible’s overwhelming popularity in England. Elizabeth was no fool, as I’m sure you know.)

I’m really into how one of these “composite” Bibles (as McGrath calls them) – a 1599 version – renders that first verse, and the next three, of First John.

First John opens like John’s gospel, though the syntax isn’t as grand and doesn’t echo Genesis’s opening as directly. The Word is still the subject, but it’s not the grammatical subject; “That which” is, or, I guess, “was”: “That which was from the beginning.” The epistle’s opening discards the gospel’s anastrophe (“In the beginning was the Word”) for a series of subordinate clauses that makes the subject the object. The epistle sounds flatter, too, and without the slight reverb; we’re exchanging Lawrence Olivier’s intonations for maybe Calvin Coolidge’s.

1 John’s opening in an early Geneva version

The audiences and purposes differ, too. The gospel’s stated audience is those who haven’t heard or believed in the Word, but the epistle’s audience is “my little children.” The gospel’s purpose is that, “believing, you might have life in his name.” The epistle’s purpose – bringing the readers into equal fellowship with the Word the witnesses have seen, heard, and touched – is as focused as its syntax is unfocused. My 1599 Geneva puts all of verse 2 in parenthesis and interrupts verse 3 with an “I say” just to signal that we’re trying to complete the sentence the epistle starts with. Just to clean things up for the English eye and ear.

Now we’re getting to what I love about the 1599 version of 1 John’s opening. Where Tyndale (an earlier New Testament version) has “which we have sene with oure eyes which we have loked vpon and oure hondes have hadled,” my 1599 Geneva adds words to create an incredulous tone through an occasional iambic meter:

That which was from the beginning, which wee haue heard, which wee haue seene with these our eyes, which wee haue looked vpon, and these handes of ours haue handled of that Word of life, [emphasis mine]

I can see John, standing before his children, pointing his index fingers to his eyes at “seen” and “these” and “eyes,” and repeatedly moving his outspread fingers away from his breast to the rhythm of “hands” and “ours” and “handled.”

You need a fix of incarnation or immanence? Meditate on this, children.

° ° °

We’ll be in the flesh at Kenyon for B’s senior art show this weekend. Very excited about it. So nice to have the four of us together again.

For her wide-ranging project, B’s been bringing in extra help – a physics professor to help her with electrical issues, some kind fellow students to help her with installation and other matters. Before she started, she knew almost as little as I do about physics, but her outreach to the physics professor landed her this semester in what has become one of her favorite courses, a survey of the physics involved in different gadgets, some of which the students get to create. Kenyon’s been a good match for B’s art because she wants to incorporate stuff outside of traditional art-think (whatever that is).

Her two-week spring break ended today. It really wasn’t a break; she and her fellow senior art majors, about twenty of them, had moved into some new dorms and had worked on the ten-day show that opens Wednesday night.

° ° °

I don’t know how many winter breaks we’ve had. We celebrated the season’s fourteenth snow day today after last night’s nine inches. So today I shoveled, napped, and graded essays. We’re now a day shy of missing three weeks of school. We’re also a day shy of using up all of our fifteen-snow-day allotment. After Day Fifteen, they’ll extend the school year further into June.

It snowed some more today after school was canceled, and it stayed below freezing all day, too, but they’re still making us go back tomorrow. It’s possible, though, we’ll get another snowstorm before the month’s over, according to the weather bureau’s long-range forecast. After all of this, I’d hate to leave that last day on the table.

  1. Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, at 128.

Jesus teaches the comparison and contrast essay

The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix - van GoghJesus is a rhetorician, and he teaches the modes. Today he teaches comparison and contrast.

“Teach us to pray,” a student asks.1 So Jesus compares God to an unloving friend. He loans bread, but he doesn’t give it. He loans bread to his friend not because he’s a friend but because he’s pestered.2

Later, teaching on prayer again, Jesus compares God to an unjust judge. The judge gives justice not because he’s a judge – he owns that he neither fears God nor respects men – but because he’s pestered.3

We get these comparisons, but we don’t get the contrasts. So we learn the wrong lesson: we base our prayer not on friendship or justice but on magic and importunity.

Then Jesus teaches on our life’s calling. He compares God to a hard man, a man who makes others do the work, but who gets all the profit.4

Knowing this, the man’s servant buries his talent. I buried mine, too.

° ° °

“You’ve got me confused with another master!” he responded. “I am loving and gracious; I’m not a hard man, as you call me. I don’t reap where I haven’t sown; I don’t gather where I haven’t scattered. I represent God in this parable. He’s a loving father and only wants the best for you. Therefore, you should have used your talent and not have buried it.”

It doesn’t end that way.

° ° °

Jesus speaks in parables because they’re all we can hear.5 They are, in part, our echoes. Or our mirrors. If they reflect our false selves, they’ll point to a false god. When they ask him why he speaks in parables, Jesus quotes Isaiah:

“By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.”6

God doesn’t necessarily speak plainly to Christians,7 I think, but to his creation – to the trees and rocks and sun. But I have created myself.8 Somewhere God was absent, and there I parented myself. There my understanding of the parables may say more about me than the parables say about God.

The experience of helping an emotionally wounded friend seems apt. How can you help him see beyond his difficult upbringing? Even though you dare not speak too plainly, your friend still may misunderstand your words, even your intentions. One way to think about Jesus’ parables is to reflect on such sessions.

Most of us were orphaned on some landing of the heart, and from there we’ve seen the Father as an uncaring friend, an unjust judge, or a hard man. From there we’ve taken ourselves in and raised our false selves.

“Born again” without growing up again is just a different orphaning, albeit a religious one. But growing up again, this time as God’s creation, is hard work. After baptism “our life becomes a series of choices between the fiction of our false self . . . and our loving consent to the purely gratuitous mercy of God,” Thomas Merton writes.9 When I choose the latter over and over, I begin to share the integrity of the rocks and the trees. And I begin to hear better.

Jesus compares God to an evil father.10 Isaiah compares God to an unmindful mother.11 Those are tributes to many people’s experiences. But Jesus and Isaiah ultimately find the comparisons inadequate. “How much more . . .” Jesus says. “She may forget, but . . .” Isaiah says. We comprehend the comparisons because we’ve lived harder lives than we know. But we don’t comprehend the contrasts because they’re untold, unexplained, or unillustrated. They’re beyond. When they touch on God’s character, they’re apophatic. They sometimes point to something we haven’t experienced, or haven’t experienced enough.

Jesus’ parables suggest the Word’s mission in the depths of my being.


Painting:
The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix by van Gogh.

  1. Luke 11:1
  2. Luke 11:5 – 10.
  3. Luke 18.1 – 8.
  4. Matthew 25:14 – 30.
  5. Matthew 13:10 – 17.
  6. Id.
  7. Jesus’ disciples said with relief at the Last Supper: “Now you are speaking plainly and not using a figure of speech” (John 16:20). One such figure of speech – we must eat his body and drink his blood – thinned the ranks of the disciples considerably (John 6:53 – 67). John’s Jesus prefers metaphorical language, while Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels prefers parables. Both forms of speech seem encompassed by the phrase “dark sayings” that Jesus adapts from Psalm 78 (Matthew 13:35).
  8. Ephesians 4:22 – 24.
  9. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation at 41 – 42.
  10. Luke 11:13.
  11. Isaiah 49:15.

Jesus on reading

3PictureBooksInIPhone

I have two shelves of devotional books, plus lots of other books – books of poems, writing instruction, history, and even political science – that often seem to act on me like devotionals. More than enough devotionals. When I’ve lost my way, as I have again now, I sometimes go back and read parts of a few of my earliest devotionals, works by Nouwen, Merton, and Steere. My heart doesn’t know or care if it’s a first or twentieth read, after all. My heart knows only if it’s being fed. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination – years of it – to digest some short but vital writing I feel drawn to. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination to rediscover the heart in its feeding again.

We have record of Jesus referring to reading six times. On each occasion, he asks his audience – always Pharisees, chief priests, elders, Sadducees, or scribes – if they have read some bit of scripture. (Matthew 12:3 & 5; 19:4; 21:16 & 42; 22:31.) He asks ironically, of course, knowing that they have indeed read the text he refers to. But his irony suggests that his audience hasn’t read or thought about the text sufficiently.

Jesus therefore counsels second or multiple readings – fresh reflections on texts that acknowledge the gentle way in which our hearts feed. Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and the like, perhaps. He suggests, I think, that we revere the Scripture so much as to disclaim our deeper understanding of it, because for Westerners, to understand words is often to exhaust and dismiss them and to starve the heart.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew 9:13, KJV)

I’m going with the Pharisees for another read.