Category Archives: Reflections

In Praise of Small-Town Post Offices

I think that the Heidegger podcast saved me from the grumpiness that I could hear over the lecture around me.

Yes, I’m listening to a Berkeley course on Heidegger’s Being and Time as I read through it with Michial Farmer.  It’s quite nice.

Anyway, as I listened to Hubert Dreyfus expound on the role of norms in the life of Dasein, a line of roughly twenty-five people formed up at the one register (there was equipment there for four to be open) active at the Athens west side post office.  A couple college boys expounded on how awful banks are going to be if Obama nationalizes them (never mind that the Postal Service makes its money selling stamps rather than through government bailouts), a young woman was cussing like Rod Blagojevich on a wiretap about having to wait in a bleeping line to buy bleeping stamps, and an angry woman two people from the counter was expounding loudly on the fact that an employee was meandering, seemingly without aim, in and out of doors behind the counter while we waited.

I let my eyes follow this gentleman as I listened to my lecture, and sure enough, he didn’t seem to be doing anything in particular.  The employee operating the one active register was moving as fast as I’ve seen any postal employee move, but she was but one person, and her response time differed, predictably, with the complexity of each customer’s request.

Still the man wandered.

After about half an hour, I gave up, delivered the last three months’ cardboard to our town’s recycling center (that was my other task after work today), and headed for the Statham, Georgia post office.  Once inside, I waited for a few minutes until, seeing that there were four people in line (four whole people!), an employee opened a second register to handle us as quickly as possible.  I was in and out, despite having to mail a dozen packages of various weights (enjoy Micah’s school pictures, mine family!), in ten minutes.

Now both of these are branches of the same self-sustaining government agency, but in a place where people know each other’s faces, things went more quickly.  (The man who helped me at the counter has helped me the last dozen times I’ve been in that post office).  This ain’t communism; it’s subsidiarity, and it’s nice.

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Like Christmas, but Every Week

Sundays not the Same Today

Normally I don’t get halfway through Darrell Huckaby’s weekly column before I roll my eyes and give up.  That’s alright; he probably doesn’t read this blog either.  Darrell is one of many local columnists in Georgia who makes his weekly hay talking not exclusively but often about the way things used to be (always for the better) before all the Yankees got here.  This one, however, caught my eye because of the recent Sunday school series I taught about Christmas and because it’s an interesting instance of cultural nostalgia in its own right.

I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before now, but the anxieties about the demise of Christmas are at least of the same flavor of if not identical in content with concerns about Sunday mornings.  Change a word here and there, add a bow for good measure, and Huckaby’s lament about the Sunday afternoons of old sound like the roots of a War on Christmas:

And back in the day, nothing was open on Sunday except the church. No shopping. No movies. No soccer games. No nothing on Sunday afternoon, except visiting with friends or maybe watching a ball game on television.

Now, of course, it is hard to distinguish Sunday from any other day of the week. Everything is wide open, except Chick-fil-A, and visiting, as I recently noted, is a thing of the past anyway. In fact, Sunday seems to be prime shopping time and youth sports activities typically abound – and this year there promises to be a strong lobby to have laws passed to sell packaged alcohol on Sunday, as a way of stimulating the economy.

As I taught through my series on the history of Christmas a month ago, I stressed to my class over and over that there is no singular or pristine Christmas to which Christians can point for the sake of a fixed point of reference; instead, what Christmas requires, if Christians wish to be faithful to Christ, creativity rather than nostalgia, a willingness to evaluate the elements that make up the modern, hybrid sacred/commercial “season” and to submit it to strong theological scrutiny.  Neither Dickens nor Charlie Brown nor Bill O’Reilly can do that for us; in our fiercely congregationalist tradition (note the lower case there), faithfulness is our own responsibility.

Perhaps that strange pop nostalgia that’s present everywhere I travel but especially prevalent in the South is one of those things that I’ll never understand, having grown up in the eighties, the birth-decade of MTV and the time in which Iran-Contra proved to us Americans what we already knew from Watergate.  Because I can’t point to anywhere in my own memory as “the good old days,” I’ve never had much of an urge to return to them. I imagine it’s a product of the way that people taught history in the eighties and nineties, but I tend to look at documents from the past and see not divine order but provisional and often brutal measures to contain what people fear most, and I’m none too eager to repeat that.

I suppose, reflecting for a moment, that I should try to think inside the shoes of those folks who do, and I try to do so that I do not condemn, but I wonder whether those of us who experienced childhood in the twilight of the Cold War and after will ever really understand the horror of seeing “those times” encroaching on a world that once made sense.

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Proselytizing and the Character of History

El Ick’s blog recently had quite an interesting conversation about differences between proselytizing (a word for which I always need spell check) and conversation, and rather than write long paragraphs  in his comments bar, I figured I’d write this here and then link back.  So now that I’ve linked back, I should write those paragraphs.

The bit that most intrigued me as we proceeded was in El Ick’s 7 December comment:

I think of “proselytizing” as an act of persuasion. In midst of conversation, one participant implies–brazenly or subtly–the superiority of his/her position over that of the other participant(s). In doing so, this changes the interaction from discourse to debate. I prefer not to debate matters of faith, but I’ll discuss them all day.

As you can read in what followed, my initial question was whether anyone holds any position without thinking it’s the best one.  If one thought that another position were better, the honest next move would be to switch one’s position.  And after that, the Icky one conceded that a stance that positions others–situates them in such a way that “I’m not committed to any of them, and I’m content just so” is an intelligible option–itself stands as an option rather than a non-option.  (I’ll resist quoting the Rush song.)

I almost wish that I could have a log of the revisions that this post has gone through, because it might serve as a parable about the difficulties of this situation.  At first, I wanted to say that being not-sure was only an intelligible option in certain metanarratives, but then I realized that the word “sure” is itself freighted with certain assumptions about what’s at stake when two people talk about God.  To say that one is “not sure” or “agnostic” presumes that Christianity’s main aim is to inspire verbal/mental assent, that “to believe” is not the pledge of allegiance that the Greek pisteuein is in Josephus’s and John’s texts but rather something closer to what one does when one does not have “ocular proof.”  (I just had to sneak Shakespeare in there.)  The way that eventually I phrased it is closer, though “commitment” has become such a staple in chick-flick lexica that I’m not sure it does the work I’m looking for either.

The point I’m trying to get to is that, as I said in a comment there, human history (at least that part of history that happened between Japan and Ireland) makes little sense if one does not acknowledge the historical phenomenon of religious conversion: in fact, some of the most interesting and under-studied Christian history happens precisely where Christian missionaries meet up with Buddhist missionaries in Confucian China.  Archaeology has revealed that each tradition’s monasteries held the other in some degree of respect even as they preached very different messages to the people, and the ruins of each tradition’s libraries have copies of the other’s holy writings.  (I was a research assistant to a Church historian interested in those moments, in case anyone wondered.)

The fact is that by means fair and foul, by proclamation and education and intimidation and reorientation and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things, people historically have stopped being Zeus-worshippers and become Jewish proselytes, ceased their Arabian polytheism and become Muslims; and renounced the things that Gautama renounced to become Buddhists, and people who convert into one of these can just as easily convert out and into something else.  I tend not to believe in intellectual vacuums, so I tend always to think that there’s something else claiming ultimate allegiance.  If anyone wants to make a contrary case, I’d be glad to read it.

My point in all this is that civility and proselytizing have, historically, lived in some places together, most often when the proselytizing tradition does not control the levers of the state.  And while those who claim (as I do) to be representing traditions that are true ought always to behave civilly when in the civitatis (and one is always in the civitatis), nonetheless a tradition like Christianity or Islam or Capitalism that claims to interpret other traditions in its own terms cannot help but start out assuming that its own story has the capacity to do just that.  The historical fact of conversion should give pause to people who think that such closed systems are impervious to influence, but I tend to think that living inside a tradition and inviting others inside that tradition is not rudness but hospitality.

This is one that I hope gets some comments.  I realize that people ought to be away from their computers this time of year, so perhaps I’ll link back to it at some point.

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Me? A Humanist?

Folks write all the time about the bizarre ads that gmail pops up alongside their messages, and this post is going to be another instance of the same.  I was reading my emails this afternoon when, glancing over to the commercials, I saw three consecutive ads asking me to join humanist organizations.  Given that I was reading a newsletter from a Christian publication, I assumed that someone this month must have written something against “secular humanism.”

erasmusI remember encountering Christian humanism for the first time as a Milligan undergrad and thrilling at the possibilities.  Erasmus and More became heroes of mine that year, and I’ve lost little respect for either as years have passed.  Insofar as I enjoy learning the language in which ancient people wrote interesting texts (I’m not all that good at any of them, but I can translate Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Old English), I share in their excitement for returning to the sources, and insofar as I try to start with the text of the Bible when I do theology, I find myself pulled mightily towards the hermeneutics of Erasmus, grammarian and translator that he is, when he duels with Martin Luther over human agency and how one should read the Bible.

I suppose that’s why I get so sad when I see that every organization at UGA that calls itself humanist more or less assumes that its constituents will be atheists, and I get sadder still when preachers use the word, assuming that everyone in the audience will assume that they mean atheists.  I know that history kept happening after Erasmus and More passed from the world stage, and I don’t begrudge any group’s use of the word, but there’s still part of me that wants to be an Erasmean, to challenge bad theologies with the tools of of philology (not that my tools are anywhere near as sharp as Erasmus’s) and to celebrate those powers of intellect that God has given particularly to human beings.

As people who have actually read Calvin’s Institutes cover to cover to cover to cover (I read Battles’s 2-volume edition) and who know Calvin’s biography are aware, Calvin himself was no enemy of classical learning or of reason in general; in fact, he priases reason early on in his great book, noting that in matters not directly related to revelation, human beings should develop and correct political and economic and philosophic all sorts of other knowledge with that particularly human faculty, and his political sections in book four of the Institutes reveal at least some familiarity with Machiavelli.  He started off his career as a translator of Seneca, and he makes copious references to Homer and Cicero as he progresses through the relatively philosophical first book of the Institutes.

I’m not sure why that Google ad inspired this little reflection, but I do hope that in my little sphere, as I commence a career somewhere, I might make a good name, in my corner of the world, for a Christian humanism.

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Educating for Questions

Listening to Berkley’s podcasted Introduction to Astronomy course the other day (I’m up to the midpoint of the semester and as far out as Jupiter), I finally started to understand Neil Postman’s more common riffs about education, namely that question-asking should be one of the skills that schools should teach.  I always thought of this bit of counsel as a simple “question authority” bit of anti-dogma, and for all I know, that’s as far as Postman meant it.

But I was thinking about the community of scholars worldwide, in all the fields of human knowledge, I realized that any given person with an Internet terminal could have, in theory, access to the best living minds, and in proximity to a library with a courier service or even a mailbox, one could get in a relatively short time and for relatively little money.  (I know that such things are always more available to those living in wealthy areas and with disposable income, but insofar as entire populations in certain areas have access to them, it’s a pretty significant development historically.)

As I was marvelling at this and listening to my Introduction to Astronomy podcast, something dawned on me: given my access as a university student (an ABD in a Ph.D program, no less) to some truly great minds in a vast spread of knowledge-disciplines.  I could talk to one of arguably the world’s top quantum chemist, physicists, economists, historians, and geologists, not to mention all of the experts in various business fields.  The problem is that, other than the historians, I would not have any idea what to ask them.  For that matter, I’m not exactly sure what quantum chemistry is, though I know that UGA’s Center for Quantum Chemistry building is quite nice to look at.

Then I remembered when first I purchased my language tools for Hebrew and Greek back in seminary.  At first glance, Danker’s monster Greek lexicon (with a pink and baby blue cover–whose idea was that?) and the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon with its small print and tightly-packed entries were quite intimidating.  I was accustomed, after all, to opening a book and reading it, but these books I had to be taught to read.  And sure enough, after two semesters each of Greek and Hebrew, I could use the tools, and after two more each, I had made them my own.  (That’s four semesters each of Greek and Hebrew, if anyone’s counting.)  And that’s the key: in order to benefit from access to that information, I had to be educated.  The content of said education is no different than what my forebears in seminaries three hundred years ago learned, but now that basic level of proficiency is a ticket to rapid access, to instant contact with scholars, to all of that information that the Internet enthusiasts told us about.

The problem is, of course, that most Christians, for reasons good and bad, never take any semesters of Greek or Hebrew.  Most college English teachers never learn what quantum chemistry is.  And most citizens of America and Western Europe, though we have fast access to a wealth of information about our solar system that would have made Galileo so envious that he would have gotten meaner than he already was, simply do not know what questions we must ask if we are to make sense of astronomical scholarship.

So now, though I probably should have figured it out much sooner, I’ve realized what an education-for-questions might look like beyond a sophomoric hermeneutics of suspicion applied to blue jeans ads.  It’s learning enough, not just about Biblical languages but about any human knowledge-discipline, that one can actually use the vast and speedy resources at our disposal.  It’s not just about questioning the motives of the producers; it’s acquiring enough of a basic vocabulary that one knows what a question looks like.

Go ahead, O reader.  Tell me you figured this out long ago.  I have it comin’.

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The Last Polite Bigotry

I really did have high hopes for Bill Maher’s podcast.

I started downloading podcasts a couple weeks ago, and when I discovered that HBO offered the audio of Maher’s show for free, I downloaded the last bits of last season.  So on some level I suppose I was like the old men in “Rip van Winkle” who waxed philosophical about six-month-old newspapers.  The events weren’t current, but they had a great time with them.  And so did I, for a spell.

Yes, I know that his endless quips about how much he loves porn get tiresome in a hurry (him and Dennis Prager–just hard to tell sometimes), and I know that he gets sanctimonious about the awful and inexcusable ignorance of the masses at the drop of a hat, but his material is usually genuinely funny, and despite what people say about him, he strikes me as an equal opportunity hatchet man.  Perhaps that’s his Libertarian politics coming out, and now that I think of it, I think that more Libertarians should become comedians, mainly so that they’re not holding public office.

(Okay, that was a bit mean.  I’m sorry.)

But as I listened to the penultimate episode from April, he brought up the Pope’s visit to America, and the anti-Catholic jokes started coming fast and furious.  They’re idiots who believe anything former Nazi priests tell them.  They hate sex and women.  (And presumably sex with women.)  They approve of child molestation.  And so on.  And so on.

I know that anti-Catholicism remains the last socially acceptable bigotry; nobody I’ve talked to can even conceive of a publishing house sending to press a book about a global Jewish conspiracy to turn all white Gentile men gay so that their race will become extinct.  Nobody would publish a book about a worldwide Black conspiracy to confiscate the property of all Mexicans.  Nobody would even think of writing a book about the awful things that the Sikhs are plotting. People would say (and rightly so) that nobody with an ounce of sense in a liberal democracy should be getting off on conspiracy theories about such gigantic segments of the human race.  Such things would be bigotry, pure and simple, and bigotry has no place in places like England or Canada or the United States.

But Catholics?  We’ve had a bestseller recently about a global Catholic conspiracy to keep women powerless and keep people from having sex.  (If I remember right, they also hired albino assassin monks to shoot Tom Hanks, but it’s been a couple years.)  There’s a children’s book series that, according to reviews I’ve read (I plan to read the novels themselves soon, as I did the first Left Behind novel, probably this school year), presents a thinly-veiled Catholic Church as a global organization dedicated to dominating people’s minds and stripping them of their magic weasels.  (It’s a children’s book.  What do you expect?)  For whatever reason, the Catholics, unlike Blacks and Jews and just about any other significant segment of the human race, are acceptable targets for “sophisticated” malcontents and their “hip” fans.  I think it’s garbage.

Back to Maher, I realize that he takes shots at public officials and celebrities that make people laud him as “not politically correct.”  (How that awkward phrase became a term of unqualified praise is a bit of a travesty itself.)  I realize that he’s of the clan of David Letterman, that if I want a Jay-Leno-ish personality I need only tune in to Comedy Central and watch Jon Stewart.  But it’s not the meanness this time that I won’t keep listening to; it’s the bigotry.  I know he wants to ingratiate himself with Dawkins and Hitchens and all the latest pop-atheist superstars, but I don’t have to listen to him as he does it.  I deleted last season’s last episode this afternoon, and I don’t expect I’ll be downloading the new season.

It’s a pity; it was a pretty good little podcast otherwise.

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Time to Think

No time to think?

I was reading around as the library day wound down, and I stumbled upon this little piece on Arts and Letters Daily. (You didn’t think I found these little Internet nuggets on my own, did you?) I don’t have any major critiques of it, just a moment of gratitude to the folks who have led me towards teaching as a career and allowed me to keep at it. (Mary, that’s you.) The fact of the matter is that, because we work with the young, we teachers have, relatively speaking, some of the most humane schedules in America, and if we are willing to stand up to the pressures to become “productive” at the expense of other things, we ought to have plenty of time to think, to read books, to play, and to enjoy our families. I shouldn’t use plural pronouns. I have had time over the last few years to do all these things, so long as I’ve been willing to forgo the drive to be the best at everything. That’s not to take away from those who are in fact the best at everything; I’ve got nothing against any of you.

Now that’s not to say that I never work, but I do think that, even given the necessity for a side job and such, I’ve done well in things that don’t show up on bank statements or curricula vitarum. (If you’re reading this, Magister Lasater, I apologize if I botched that.) My hope, I suppose, is that I can get into full-time college teaching and achieve the balanced life that I’ve seen exemplified by folks like Jack Knowles, Lee and Pat Magness, Phil Kenneson, Craig Farmer, and all of the wonderful folks who taught me in Tennessee.

Here’s hoping.

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