Against (bad) theory

August 22nd, 2022

I don’t like literary theorists that take their thoughts more seriously than the integrity of the work under examination. Making a text dance to whatever tune you impose belongs among the Forbidden Curses. I remember some time ago telling Robert Coles I was considering dumping medicine and getting a PhD in literature. His apt response was decisive: “But I thought you LIKED books!”

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Place, people, and property

July 13th, 2022

History is a messy business, an exercise in imposing order on contradictory information, a series of provisional efforts to select signal from noise, and is best understood, as Steven Shapin wrote about the sciences, “as if it was produced by people with bodies; situated in time, space, culture, and society; and struggling for credibility and authority.” That said, the conceptual legacy of imperialism, with its underlying assumption that “we” can put the land and its bounty to better use than those who live there, seems particularly difficult to unlearn. Witness the contorted reasoning in this article on why the Elgin marbles have stories that can only be told at the British Museum and that returning them to Greece, where the Acropolis Museum is ready and waiting to tell the stories in their proper setting, “would only feed the beast of ideology and nationalist myth.”

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A Poem by Scott Cairns

August 6th, 2021

A poem for the Feast of the Transfiguration

As We See

“The transfiguration of our Lord, that is the radiance
in which he was bathed at the pinnacle of Mount Tabor
did not manifest a change in him, but a change
in those who saw him.”
-Isaac the Least

Suppose the Holy One Whose Face We Seek
is not so much invisible as we
are ill-equipped to apprehend His grave
proximity. Suppose our fixed attention
serves mostly to make evident the gap
dividing what is seen and what is here.

The Book there on the stand proves arduous
to open, entombed as it is in layers
of accretion, layers of gloss applied
to varied purposes, hardly any of them
laudable, so many, guarded ploys
to keep the terms quite still, predictable.

Which is why I’m drawn to — why I love — the way
the rabbis teach. I love the way they read —
opening The Book with reverence for what
they’ve found before, joy for what lies waiting.
I love the Word’s ability to rise again
from chronic homiletic burial.

Say the One is not so hidden as we
are kept by our own conjuncture blinking,
puzzled, leaning in without result. Let’s say
the meek, the poor, the merciful all
suspect his hand despite the evidence.
as for those rarest folk, the pure in heart?
Intent on what they touch, they see Him now.

-Scott Cairns

Hear the poem read by the author here.

Where your treasure is…

June 30th, 2021

It’s been more than fifty years since der Kniefall von Warschau, Willy Brandt’s spontaneous embodiment of German remorse and responsibility for the annihilation of Poland’s Jews. When asked after the event why he knelt, he said, “Unter der Last der jüngsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordeter.” (“Under the burden of recent history, I did what people do if words fail. That is how I remembered (the) murdered millions.”) Guy Raz recently recalled the moment on a Facebook post, placing it in a contemporary American context. I quote it here in full:

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Science, Poetry, and the Imagination Online

February 6th, 2021

Join me Wednesdays in March for the Inaugural L’Engle Seminars featuring poets, scientists, and mathematicians from both sides of the Atlantic. Details and registration here.

How not to talk about what happened

January 7th, 2021

Much has already been written or said about yesterday’s violent assault on the US Capitol building. Some have noted the date, January 6, celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox, and several Protestant traditions as the Feast of the Epiphany. The word, “epiphany,” comes from the Greek meaning “to make manifest or reveal.” The feast is meant to commemorate the revelation of Christ to all nations, the latter embodied symbolically in the magi as recounted in Matthew 2:1-12. Yesterday’s attack did nothing to change that, though it served as a secondary, perhaps unintentional revelation – namely, the sickness at the heart of a politics of fear and resentment.

Much more will be said and written about the causes and consequences of yesterday’s deadly and destructive events. Some of it will be true. For those who care about words, however, especially people of faith, careful thought must precede utterance. Certain words and phrases should be used, if at all, with a measure of suspicion.

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For the Time Being

January 5th, 2021

Christmas comes to an end. Tomorrow is Epiphany. Those who still have a tree up can’t but notice the dry needles. The shopping malls and radio stations for whom Christmas is all consumption and sentiment packed up the glitter and kitsch days ago, where they’ll gather dust until next Halloween – or earlier if there’s profit to be made.

Our revels now are ended. Now is the winter of our pandemic and political discontent. There are dark days ahead and long COVID nights. There will also come days of warmth and light, evenings of light breezes and clear, starry skies. Now comes the in-between time, some of us still imagining our New Year’s resolutions might last until Groundhog Day, others firmly in the grip of old habits, both good and ill.

Did Christmas come and go with any lasting consequences? Was all that talk about peace and good an exercise in mass self-consolation? How will you keep Christmas in the days to come? What might you return to from these days of reflection?

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Living Toward Yes

January 4th, 2021

There is all this untouched beauty
The light the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone?

-Karin Bergquist

In an earlier post in this series, I hinted at two versions of freedom. Standard contemporary understandings of freedom center on the power to choose among alternatives. A second, older view locates freedom in the giving of consent. Consent freedom doesn’t mean passive acceptance of evil or injustice. These must be named and opposed. Consent freedom involves reckoning with human and earthly limits, living responsibly, and acknowledging we control almost nothing in life save how we respond. It requires constancy in a world where the chief constant is change. It means finding goodness in the shape of what’s given and saying “yes.”

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Tending Your Legacy

January 3rd, 2021

While leading a recent online course on movies, the ever-gracious Gareth Higgins suggested that the well-intended advice, “Live every day as if it’s your last,” puts a bit too much pressure on the imagination. “Better to think of how you might live each day if you knew you had only six months.” In response, a participant wondered aloud how we might live if we treated everyone we met as if it were their last day.

It takes a gifted teacher like Gareth to draw such a vision from his students and say, as he did, “That’s putting it better than I did.” How carefully might we attend to the truth and kindness of our words if there were no tomorrow to mend fences? Would we act more thoughtfully if there were no “later” to repair the damage, no “next time” to reveal our heart’s deepest longing?

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own

January 2nd, 2021

In his book, Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie recounts how he was talking to African-Americans theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, about what the world needed when Thurman interrupted him and said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Thurman, who knew how much it had cost to do what made him come alive, would undoubtedly bristle at the ways his words have since been sentimentalized by American therapeutic individualism. Left to the self-help gurus, Thurman’s wakeup call becomes, “What the world needs is a better, happier me.”

A helpful corrective, perhaps, is to read Thurman’s advice in light of Frederick Buechner’s observation that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if serving the world’s deep hunger is the key to my salvation, however one might define that last word? Happy are they who know and abide at that meeting place. Some have yet to find it. Others have forgotten, lost the way, or wasted time on seductive distractions.

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