On Being An Academic And A Christian

I am writing this reflection on faith and the academy for two reasons, to recall myself to my vocation when impetus is waning, and also in the hope that it may be helpful to others on the same journey. I wish to begin with my extreme gratitude for the position I have, teaching Old English online – it is not something I expected and is in so many ways an answer to prayer, and I am privileged to have wonderful students who are passionate about learning, the kind of students that English professors’ dreams are made of. Yet alongside this there is always in me the depressive tendency toward despair, the eternal tentativeness and difficulty finishing things that is OCD, and the temptation to envy – there are always more successful scholars and teachers who seem so much better equipped, with few real challenges and an ability to navigate the politics of academia with ease – they seem to have never had their lives shattered. It is easy to envy such people – but it is also a sin, though not an uncommon one. It is something we find in Israel throughout the Old Testament – a tendency to envy the success or at least ostensible success of other nations – and two of the key weapons used against envy are thankfulness and memory: the memory of God’s freeing work in Israel’s history, and Psalmic entrance into the courts of God with thanksgiving. I have expressed thanksgiving above; what I wish to do in what follows is to remember, to trace some of the seasons I have encountered with regard to my faith and academic work. I realize that it may be absurd for someone merely 30+ years old to speak of “seasons” of life; but I shall abide that absurdity and perhaps come back to edit it in 30 more years.

Thus far, I have encountered three such seasons, which I will divide into undergrad work, graduate work, and post-graduate work. Each is a little different from the other, and requires different tools and supports. To begin with undergrad, it was a time of growth, a discovery of “the scandal of the Evangelical mind” (Noll) and the fact that many of the myths cherished by Christians concerning the university simply were not true. Certainly, as a home-schooled student I had been sheltered from much of the rampant anti-intellectualism in both Christian and secular culture, yet one always heard stories – and they are still prevalent enough for Christians to be producing horrible caricatures of the university such as the recent film “God’s Not Dead.” In any case, what I found at university was far different from such caricatures, a place where one could meet supportive Christian friends who were actually open to discussion and thinking about things. And while all the professors believed something and were certainly biased in certain ways (who is not that lives a life worth living and believes in something?), they were far more intolerant of laziness and ignorance than they were of faith. I certainly never encountered the militant atheists looking to convert me through sermonic lectures, and it is indeed rather hard for me to imagine the existence of such creatures – it seems to me a basic tenet of pedagogy that lectures neither are nor should be sermons of any kind, whether atheist or Christian, but rather attempts to probe whatever mysteries lie in the material of the class.

But with regard to personal dealings in matters of faith and the academy, one of the striking things was an assumption of monolithic definitions of both faith and particular fields. It was – or at least seemed – possible to come up with a definition in entirety of a thing called faith and a definition in entirety of a thing called academics (or whatever discipline one was in). Coming from an Evangelical background, faith for me was defined as something quite personal and experiential, but there was less by way of historical content – dealing in matters of faith and academics meant bringing a Christ whom (it seemed) had only been discovered yesterday into dialogue with whatever field one was engaging. And to a certain degree this worked, and in many ways gave an impetus to my work that other students did not have. Whatever else one says about Christian approaches to faith, it certainly lends an impetus and earnestness and worth to one’s endeavours so often lacking in many of the social imaginaries available to those of my generation. And when faith is considered something expansive – the grounds for exploration – rather than constricting, there is little fear of it producing caricatured and shoddy work. To be sure, I probably indulged on occasion in an overly anachronistic mapping of my own faith onto faith in the literature of the past, but all undergrads begin with the encounter between themselves and the texts in any case, and the question is never whether we “bring in” our own perspectives or not – we always do – but whether we are open to using those perspectives as a launchpoint for curiosity, exploration, and a discovery of reality, or whether we are seeking to confine and box in our material (and this latter is not something unique to undergrads, but something even good scholars of both Christian and secular ilk can fall into).

One of the charms of this season is the fact that one can still find books on “Christianity and x,” where “x” is whatever you happen to be doing – one has not (as happens in grad school) become so specialized that the existence of such a book on one’s topic would in most cases mean it was too generic a topic to make good material for graduate dissertations and theses. Which brings us to the second season, graduate work.

The intriguing thing is that it is sometime during grad school that the equation flips in terms of faith and the academy. Whereas in the undergraduate degree it is faith impelling one outward to explore the breadth and depth of all the many fields, it switches roles in the graduate degrees and becomes the thing keeping one sane, human, and balanced – at least to the degree such things are possible in grad school. This is necessary on account of a number of factors. One is the realization of the sheer scope of academics and the academy – one begins knowing in that Socratic way precisely how little one knows, how much more there is left to know, and that one is very unlikely to be at the top of the heap – thinking about it in terms of “tops” and “heaps” indeed comes to seem simplistic. At the same time, one is delving deeper and deeper into a very specific instance in a specific field, and the magnification of that specificity simply increases awareness of a complexity that is beautiful yet felt most often as disconcerting in its slipperiness, particularly when it comes to articulating it and pinning it down.

Further, whereas undergrad involved the discovery that university does not pose the caricatured dangers to the soul so often feared by Christians, graduate work is the place where one begins to discern what I like to call “the principalities and powers.” These are the political and administrative forces that sway and move the course of the university – often only indirectly and ambiguously influenced by the core staff of the university, the professors – and the amount of articles available online lamenting the state of higher education suggest that it is not even a uniquely Christian perspective allowing us to see this; others are noticing the fruit. Indeed, it seems to me that in many ways C. S. Lewis was uncannily prophetic in much of his third space trilogy novel, That Hideous Strength, in which a collusion of politics and the academy and administration end with a large conglomerate uninterested in the real purposes of the university and headed by a demon. The narrative is of course hyperbolic and parabolic and all those other things, but I shall leave it to the reader to decide whether such a demon or some incarnations of modern university administrative practice are more frightening – or, for that matter, whether the two are distinguishable from each other. This is not to say that one gives up on the modern academy and also not to say we should tar all administrators with the same brush – I have been blessed to know some very good ones, and they need all the support from us they can get. However, it is a discovery that the Christian caricatures of the spiritual dangers of the university are in part correct, if not in the content, then at least in caution – there are perhaps demons after all, but they are elsewhere than the atheist bogeys seeking to convert the innocent Christian – atheists in any case are usually at least half Christian insofar as they believe in the cogency of reason.

All these factors – administrative culture and the potential to become inextricably entangled in both the overwhelming breadth of one’s field and the dizzying specificity of one’s project – mean that one is in danger of getting lost. I think this is something that every graduate student goes through, but it can be intensified for the Christian academic who already feels rather out of place and going against the grain in relation to other students whose belief systems are often more permeable (the spinelessness produced by late capitalist consumer culture) and who “fit in” in the overarching secular liturgy that has shaped them. What this all means is that, in graduate school, the question is not so much an intense obsession with the “academics and faith” question as it is a question of what kind of faith will preserve one as a whole and entire human being throughout the enterprises of dissertations and theses etc. Theses and dissertations written by such whole human beings nurtured in faith will indeed come out in some way as a response to the “academics and faith” question, but not because of an intense obsession over that, but because one’s faith managed to preserve one from the disintegration of self possible in graduate school. Hence it is that I would suggest that, whereas the primary engagement of faith and academics in the undergraduate season is intellectual, the primary spiritual mainstay in graduate work is liturgical, mystical, and mandatory, the thing that calls us from time to time out of the ghettos in which we fear we may be lost to remind us we are part of a whole and healed body, the body of Christ. And then one suddenly finishes one’s degrees.

This is the third season, the one I am in at the moment. This season is the one in which all the “other things” looming on the periphery during one’s prior work come into play – jobs go to those most politically savvy and good at selling themselves, or alternately to those in the right place at the right time – and I do feel that those who have had to reckon with matters of faith throughout their degrees have a bit of a disadvantage, not necessarily because hiring committees are anti-Christian, but because a certain self-consciousness has developed making it difficult for Christian academics to speak and act with the definitiveness that usually gets people jobs. At the end of the day, our faith is the reason we do what we do, and even Christian universities often fail to realize how the complexities of this make straightforward interview questions difficult, how it is in certain ways impossible to know the full relation of our work to our only partially understood selves suspended between now and the Eschaton. And yet it is only, I think, the recognition of such suspended selves that differentiates the professor from the processing machine. We falter because we are in wonder at a world that cannot be reduced to data and that will not fit neatly into a powerpoint slide – but it is the power of powerpoint that gets one jobs, and institutions are being increasingly sanitized and purged of the sting of the scholarly gadfly.

It is at this juncture – when one is in the middle of games of power and comparison and temptation to envy – that I have found it most helpful to revisit my first loves. Somewhere hidden in a deep down part of me is the person who switched from pre-medicine to the study of literature because it was authors – Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, and Tolkien – who could touch my soul. Somewhere is the person who followed Lewis and my supervisor – one of the most remarkable, committed, and caring academics I know – to the study of Milton. Somewhere is the person in whom Tolkien planted vague inklings that would later bloom into a dissertation on Old English and Biblical wisdom. Somewhere in me is still that person, and it is helpful to remember. Beauty and good do not die easily and they run deep, deeper than politics and games of self-justification and the feeling of being reduced to one’s CV. Deeper than fear is life, and it is this that has sustained and will continue to sustain me. I do not know how I will fare as I continue on the rough seas of the current academic job market, nor do I need to know. What I have known is the gentle impression of beauty and truth, gentle and dazzling and complex all at once. And in medias res, it is necessary to remember.

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The Sudden Longing: What I Learned From a Weekend With Malcolm Guite

Given that this blog is about building into the Church, and given that I have been built up to some degree this weekend, I feel I am maybe bound to share this and had best do so before I convince myself as I am wont to do that it will go nowhere and is not worth doing. In any case, I spent the weekend at a retreat led by Malcolm Guite at a local Benedictine monastery, and the topic was on C. S. Lewis’s conception of inconsolable desire – the inconsolable desire we feel this side of heaven in many ways about so many things and that at the end of the day finds its end in God (cf. Hiræth) – and God’s heartbreaking and beautiful desire for us his children.

The central piece we looked at was of course “The Weight of Glory,” but Malcolm came armed with a number of other beautiful things to share – one was a poem by R. S. Thomas with a similar theme, called “The Bright Field.” In any case, as often happens on retreats, we had a space of silent reflection and prayer on the things we talked about, and while I was doing this I suddenly found myself slipping into Ignatian prayer around one of the Biblical texts central to “The Bright Field.” This in itself was remarkable, as I haven’t really been able to do this all summer. I had no spiritual director after the five week session in Spring that ended in an unexpectedly climactic way, and without guidance and the prayer of others, attempts at such prayer simply end with me losing myself inside my head. But with Malcolm guiding the retreat, and with the general atmosphere of prayer that seeps from a Benedictine monastery (as Malcolm put it, it works like a bicycle built for two – even when one is not strong enough on one’s own to sustain prayer, there’s always someone in the background praying for and with you), I found myself somehow able to venture back to that space of reflection and prayer and converse with Christ concerning his Word. And as sometimes happens in such cases, I came out of it with a germ of a poem I kept developing over the weekend. It started with the treasure in the field, which the man in the parable sells all he has to possess. But then it started mingling with other parables and the Song of Songs and the Dark Night of the Soul and Innocent Smith’s discovery of a country that was already his, with the dual Old English pronoun even making an appearance.

By the end of the retreat, I had the following poem. I feel there may be a few stanzas I have not yet discovered between the ultimate and penultimate stanzas. And yes it is written in archaisms, but I figure in three or four hundred years what we call modern English will sound pretty outdated anyway, so it is hardly worthwhile to try to keep up. I am grateful to have discovered this and to be able to share it – and grateful for the graciousness of Malcolm Guite, who through God’s grace made himself available for it to happen:

The Sudden Longing: A Poem Emerging From Ignatian Reflection on Matthew 13:44, with Some Assistance from Thomas, Guite, and Lewis

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.

I came upon a treasure hid
There in a sudden valley,
With lilies blooming like the rood;
I thought a sudden folly:

To sell my goods, a costly price,
And what cost more, my evils,
That I might all my wealth increase,
But then I thought, “’Tis devils

Call me forward to my sin,
The valley is another’s
The treasure that I wanton pine
Is rightly his; to gather

My earthly goods to cozen him,
And cheat him of his treasure,
Were reckoned at the end of time
The worth of Achan’s seizure.

But then – behold – I saw the man
I took to tend the garden;
I made me to address him then
I thought to be the warden.

“Sir,” I said, “you may not wot,
But under us a bounty
Lies – I would have bought it, but
The master of the country

Is rightly him to whom it ‘longs;
And knows he of its tally,
The wealth beyond the tell of tongue,
Here in the sudden valley?”

Said he, “The vale is jointly owned
By lovers having quarrelled;
One hid booty in the ground
And went to wend the world;

Called the other horrible hard
In reaping fruit he sowed not;
Not to him he’d be inured;
He loved – he knew not what…”

Said I, “And knows the other yet
To dig where it is stashed away?”
He: “where and how, he knows it, but
He still will let it lie

For love of him that left it there;
For love – he loving burns,
And daily does he look out where
His lover might return.”

Said I, “And will it cost him then
Who must win back his leavings, hid?”
Said he, “It will cost everything
He left here with: his pride.”

Said I: “And why returns he not
For chance of wealth so full?”
Said he, “For shame he lingers yet,
Remembers not the whole

Of loves he has found harrowing
His soul; of ling’ring pangs
Nestled in a heart too long,
Forgetting what was sung.”

Said I, “But does he linger now,
Here near this sudden valley?”
“Yea, and closer than you know
But more I say not plainly.”

“Who is the man?” But then I stopped,
A memory stirred, of longing;
“Would I were that man,” I quipped,
“And would my heart were singing,

Would the treasure were my lot
Bid hidden in this valley,
And yet I think – I know not what –
I think – but it is silly…”

Then broke I off – my heart was stirred
Here – in this sudden – folly?
I broke for memory of a word
Resembling a lily;

For memory of a kiss or else
More sweeter still than wine –
I broke – for memory of a mess
My own strength could not win.

Then sudden minted like the first
Smallest of loves star-numbered,
Embraced wit’ were in lilies blest;
He looked; and I remembered.

Be Here: A Prayer

Here be;
Not for trump and shout,
The clang of victory,
But for the stillness of a heart
Seeming to overflow
With quiet something
– is it joy?

Be here
Where I have not always been;
Where I – how true –
Have pushed you just to see:
Could seventy times seven
Plus one
Be also reckoned
In salvation?

Be here in that place I have loved
Your rival,
The place of loving masks;
Here where I hurt you;
Be here;
Here where I have invited again and again
And betrayed.

Be here,
Where we had our first fight;
A heart on the floor in pieces
Is a hard thing
To recall.

Be here at last when mysteries probed
Discover me guilty
And sentence me
To what I comprehend little;
Be here, for wrath I can bear,
But quiet joy
Pervading hearts to flood…
Lord, who can stand?

Ah, Lord!
I beg you here
Thickening
My silence
Wandering
Through foreign lands
Of Joy.

The Booty at the Bottom of Grief: Why I Appreciate The Wanderer

Like most great literary texts we read when we are hungry, The Wanderer worked on more levels than I could understand when I first read it – and will most likely continue to do so. But in recollecting what it was that brought me and keeps bringing me back to the poem, I can’t help but conclude that it was similar reasons to the ones that taught me to love Milton – a Christian way of speaking about suffering. For much of my life, I had felt somewhat bipartite – believing in Christ and the hope offered by Him, yet simultaneously feeling a darkness and sadness that seemed so much at odds with the impression I got from many Christians. To be completely fair, it was not as though I had or have an annoyingly happy-clappy family, or that my closer friends were like this. But it did feel as though there were broader cultural pressures, and that there was little place for my darkness. In retrospect, having watched many of those I grew up with walk away from faith, I have realized the unspeakable darkness was not my problem alone – others had it too – and for many when it burst out the dichotomy seemed black and white and either faith or internal integrity had to go, and it was usually faith. But I did not walk away, even though I frequented the same corridors that had led them away from Christ, and indeed had and have much empathy with them. But I also had and have The Wanderer, a poem that can tether my heart to heaven even in the deepest moments of doubt, pain, confusion, and loss.

The whole key to the poem – as I understand it – is the description of the speaker at the conclusion of the poem sitting sundor æt rune – apart at rune. Rune here can mean council, but also mystery, and though certainly not the primary meaning, it also has shades of the old pagan sense of reading the runes. But if the speaker is sitting apart contemplating a rune – a mystery – what exactly is this mystery and how does it pertain to the seemingly abrupt turn to heaven at the conclusion – good is it for the one who seeks comfort and fastness in heaven? But I shall respond in terms of what I have learned from the poem in a roundabout way.

Grief and sadness utterly emaciate identity – as we know from instances of prolonged torture, a person can in fact be ground down psychologically to a bare set of stimuli – it is enough to make us wonder about the nature of the self and what it might be. This can raise problematic questions about grief and the self. When we mourn, is the mourning in fact “going anywhere”? Or is it merely a response, like the yelp of a dog when it is kicked? It is important to ask because up to this point in history, we have proceeded under the Christian assumption adopted by Freud, that what we do with our psyches actually does take us somewhere. To be sure, this “somewhere” in Freudian theory is different from the “Somewhere” in Christianity, but whatever the case, there was a sense of interior teleology.

Now, however, in a a post-human age, we feel that such a conception of interiority is naïve and romantic. We are kicked and we shout, but the shout is what it is – a response not pointing anywhere but echoing across an empty expanse populated by similar illusions from which we weave illusory meaning. There is no point in “following” the shout or the impetus behind the pain – even the idea that there is a “where” for it to go is a fiction. And of course, if it is all fiction anyway, we would do just as well to pursue other things more pleasant – pleasant rather than painful fictions. I call to mind the wonderful irony noted over and over again by Flannery O’Connor – Nietzsche saw himself as a mouthpiece for the hidden suffering and pain underneath civilization, but its acknowledgement without any relief didn’t lead culturally to especial honesty in these matters, but rather to the illusions of advertisement culture – the docile opiate suggesting (as in Wise Blood) that “this’yer peeler” might change your life.

It is said that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. But the human desire for poetry runs deeper than our vigilance concerning suffering, and all this means is that when we break our fast panting and hungry and ready for poetry – and our lack of practice will produce bad poetry, such as ad copy – we are less likely to remember Auschwitz because we have too thoroughly severed it from the poetic seat of memory that we will always return to as humans. Describing evil as unspeakable is both bad practice and bad theology, for ineffability is reserved for God – it is to grant evil a power and glory it does not deserve, to give it the status of the thing lurking in the nether regions and which stimulates fantasies as an opiate and cover. As a pretender to divinity, evil aspires to be unspeakable – but a word is enough to break the spell.

And this is precisely what I like about The Wanderer; it takes head on the question of whether grief and the expression of that in fact leads anywhere. It does seem to have been a live question at the time. There is of course some retrospective reconstruction involved, but if Anglo-Saxon paganism resembled at all some of the later Old Norse witnesses, cattle die and kinsmen die, but fame lives on – leaving little room for the expression of grief. For Beowulf, speaking out of the most pre-Christian part of himself, it is better to avenge one’s friends than mourn overmuch. Action is everything. Grief leads nowhere. And one would do better to enjoy the warmth of the mead hall than anticipate and grieve the chaotic darkness awaiting the sparrow outside.

This is in part what the wanderer’s reluctance in speaking is about – to describe silence in the face of suffering as a “noble custom” may be a case of typical Anglo-Saxon understatement – there is nothing noble in doing something pointless in any case, in which words will fall flat, idel and unnyt. But it is this precisely that comprises the riddling rune. The wanderer is indeed speaking, and even if his speech is considered something internal rather than external – on mode – the poem as a whole is an acknowledgement of the worth of its articulation. Here is a monument built to something that isn’t supposed to matter – why?

The answer comes near the conclusion: one shouldn’t mull over these things unless one expects out of it some kind of bote– treasure. This means that the former articulation of grief can really only be justified on the grounds of some expectation of the direction in which it is going, and the expectation driving this particular instance is articulated at the opening of the poem – the wanderer expects are, grace. Far from being a cheap appropriation of a “pure” pagan grief for Christian purposes, the point of the poem is the opposite – the only context in which we can actually muster real speech about these things is one moored in the fastness of heaven – else such speech is pointless and lost. Like sentinels, the fastness of heaven and the expectation of grace stand as referents for the aforementioned bote, guarding against the twin incursions of vengeance and fame leaving no room for grief. In good Augustinian fashion (cf. Phillip Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self), Christianity becomes here the guardian of the inner self and its griefs. That Christianity could not only allow but could in fact be a defender of realism and grief – and that precisely because it could articulate a telic frame for grief – is precisely what I needed to hear. And that is one of the many reasons I appreciate The Wanderer.

They Also Serve: Milton on Circumspection, Problems of Evil, and the Matter of Creation

As a follow up to my post on old books, I was going to write this post communicating what it is I appreciate about John Milton. I say “was going” because it quickly became clear that there was too much to say. I could talk about how wonderful a space Milton opened up for a Christian student from a homeschooled background learning the art of navigating spaces of secularity and the sacred in the academy – how Milton was in a sense the perfect advocate, showing still to modern readers how the Christian narrative could be something intellectually rigorous and serious rather than a mere escapist opiate. Milton was I think too the one who introduced me to theological anthropology, though it would only be much later that I would learn to call it by that name. But what I want to discuss at the moment is circumspection – how Milton taught me to step back and look about me once or twice before stepping forward.

The bait of his epic was theodicy, the question of the justice of God in a suffering world – could Paradise Lost in fact justify the ways of God to men? As a Christian from a particular kind of Evangelical background, I was hungry for a Christian way to talk about pain and suffering. And I fell for the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Indeed, I refer to it as bait for a very particular reason – in the search for a Christian means of talking about suffering, the epic would take me on winding routes I had never intended to go and into places I would never have considered connected with the problems of evil and suffering.

Indeed, part of the problem is that the question of God’s justice in relation to evil is never either purely philosophical or purely psychological. Answer the psychological impact of suffering with philosophy or theology, and you have Job’s comforters. But answer real philosophy with mere empathy, and you had just as well throw a drowning man a deflated life buoy – both psychological consolation and the consolation of philosophy are needed, and in varying ratios depending on the nature of the questioner and the phrasing of the questions. And this is where Milton is brilliant. It is true as Bloom notes that he is not Shakespeare – and modern readers are likely to hold this against him because we prefer the empathetic psychological approach, which is what Shakespeare does well. But the important thing to recall is that, if Milton is not Shakespeare, he is also not the speaker of Pope’s Essay on Man. If his precision and reason and sometimes apparently clinical tone discomfit some readers of a more literary bent, they arguably also discomfit the philosopher for being too literary. Putting the matter in the form of an epic story complicates things – suddenly, the unmoved mover is spoken of in a dramatic form that consists in movement. Dramatizing things has a tendency to keep ideas and ideals from staying put.

When I first encountered Milton, I don’t know if I knew how to make the distinction between a strictly philosophical problem of evil and the more visceral experience of suffering requiring a more empathetic psychological response. The two were entangled in my head and, as mentioned earlier, I swallowed the bait of the theodicy question without any idea of where it might take me or how. But twitch one part of the spider’s web, and the whole trembles; follow the clue of one thread and you will begin to discern its complicated entanglement with everything. This of course is the point of Job – you can’t answer even the simplest question about yourself and your suffering without finding yourself delving into the very foundations of the cosmos; as dramatized in the Terrence Malick film Tree of Life, the process of grappling with God and the problem of evil is likely to take you back to the Big Bang and the time of the dinosaurs. 

And this is precisely what I found. I started with personal questions regarding evil and suffering, and found myself suddenly peering into the dizziness of a vast cosmos and an infinitely complex anthropology. I only meant to emote about suffering, but Milton forced me to step back and look, both carefully and hard. I followed my hunger – but Milton taught me to discipline and dialogue with that hunger rather than simply become it. He taught me circumspection, to not only listen but also to hear before speaking – not only the question and the answer, but the whole rushing world of which they are a part. It was as though the portal for discerning all creation began, not with exotic searching, but with the questions on the doorstep of my heart. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door,” says Bilbo Baggins. “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Begin with the problem of suffering, and you may just find yourself being swept off to consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Or, as has been the case for a Milton scholar I am honoured to call a mentor and friend, begin with the question of the goodness of God, and you may just find yourself overawed by multiverses and cosmological revolutions.

Two Opportunities: Shippey on Myth, and the Old English Language

Given that some of you who read and follow this blog do so on account of an Inklings-esque interest in myth and a love of Old English, I felt it may be appropriate to post the following service announcement. I have recently taken up a position as preceptor for an Old English course through Signum University, sponsored by the Mythgard Institute. Signum is young and still in the process of seeking accreditation, but they have gathered around them an incredible community of individuals and scholars interested in Tolkien, Inklings-esque myth, and related matters – the school is just now branching out in the creation of its language department.

In any case, the first matter of which I wanted to make everyone aware is the free online public lecture – by webinar – by Tom Shippey; all you need to do is sign up online, and you will be sent a link that will allow you to join the lecture live on September 10 (the time varies depending on your time zone). There are a couple of very good reasons you should sign up for this lecture. First, it’s Tom Shippey. If you have had anything to do with either Tolkien or Old English scholarship, you will know that Shippey has made immense contributions in both fields; I am particularly interested, as without the publication of his Poems of Wisdom and Learning, my field – Old English wisdom literature – might not be a field; his work is that influential.

Second, the suggested reading texts are simply marvelous. Of course there is “On Faerie Stories,” as we might expect for a talk sponsored by Mythgard. But the other two are some of Lewis’s best. That Hideous Strength is in my opinion the best of the space trilogy, and that for its exploration of the intersections of old lore, Christian faith, and modern ideas of progress. And then there’s Till We Have Faces, which is arguably Lewis’s best work of fiction. I shall write more about this at some point, but it is Lewis’s approach to the Miltonic inquiry, whether God (or the gods) are just, and the narrative is an organic instantiation of the ideas in The Four Loves, which Lewis would write later – Till We Have Faces explores the primal, grubby, and beautiful roots of these loves. High level scholarly engagement with the work is relatively rare (though slowly catching on), so this is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

My second announcement is that, if you’ve ever been interested in learning the Old English language, the course for which I am precepting is a fabulous opportunity. The primary lectures are by Michael Drout, one of the most creative and active scholars in the field, and you will have access to the knowledge of three different scholars, Drout, Nelson Goering, and myself. Moreover, the course can be taken from anywhere in the world – all you need is internet access. I am to be sure extremely grateful for my own initial training in my undergraduate degree, which my professors kindly undertook – often at the cost of time and energy – in absence of a dedicated Anglo-Saxonist at our institution. But others in similar situations at small and mid-sized universities may not be so fortunate. If so, this is your opportunity to learn Old English – or pass the word along to any friends you might know hankering to learn this beautiful language!

The Nation Rejoices: Stephen Colbert, Suffering, and Holy Folly

At the beginning of my scholarly career, there were two literary matters that fascinated me: hearbreak and holy folly. In my professional work, I have done more exploration of heartbreak than holy folly, but I do believe my attraction to these things emerges from the same underlying power of both to disrupt societal lies and niceties such that the truth is seen more clearly. There are a variety of instances I might note, but handily Shakespeare has included both for us in King Lear – there is the fool who through his antics expresses real insight into the treachery of Lear’s daughters, and there is the scene in the storm where Lear encounters “true divinity” much as does Job in the whirlwind.

I have not yet had much of an opportunity to explore holy folly – Anglo-Saxon authors are better at doing storms than folly, and even in the Solomonic debate tradition, the adversarial Saturn is sober, unlike his incarnation in later Medieval tradition as the clownish Marcolf. However, I was reminded once again of my interest in holy folly when I read one of the most recent articles making the Facebook rounds, the GQ article on Stephen Colbert.

Now, I have always appreciated Stephen Colbert, which is saying something because I am a bit like the Anglo-Saxons I write about, that is to say, I am a good Scandinavian and ancestrally grim; even humor with me is usually grave humor. But I knew Colbert to be a Christian, and couldn’t help reading much of his dead-serious persona as something in the tradition of fine Christian satire, a bit like Swift’s justly famous “Modest Proposal.”

But I didn’t realize just how much I really like him until I read this article, which beautifully reveals what I mention above, the secret thread connecting heartbreak and folly. On the surface, the article is about Colbert’s replacement of David Letterman on “The Late Show.” But intriguingly, this is really only a hook that pulls you into a different story, a story that has left the interviewer and writer of the article profoundly affected and contemplating matters of suffering, faith, and gratefulness. Summarizing this at the opening of the article, the author asserts:

I’ve easily played the recording of that conversation a dozen times, only one of them in order to transcribe. And while we spent plenty of time talking about comedy and the conventions of late-night and the sheer practical challenge of doing a show twice as long as his old one—the thing I’ve been thinking about the most since my time with Colbert is loss. The losses he’s experienced in his life, yes, but really the meaning we all make of our losses. Deaths of loved ones, the phases of our children’s lives hurtling by, jobs and relationships we never imagined would end. All of it. Among other things, our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it. I’ve never met anyone who’s faced that reality more meaningfully than Stephen Colbert. I suppose, more than anything, that’s what this story is about.

That last sentence is a rather bold claim – and something perhaps unexpected from someone who makes a living making other people laugh. But he is dead serious. Colbert’s life story is tragic, and he was deeply affected at the age of 10 by the death of his father and two brothers in a plane crash. However, in a narrative recalling figures such as saints Monica and Mary, it was his mother’s faith and receptivity of grace that saw him through; the way she made allowance for sorrow even while refusing to let it harden into bitterness has marked his life:

“I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.

Something certainly stuck, because he has since become the sort of person who could sport on his computer a reminder that “joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God,” and about whom an interviewer can say, “It’s not just that he doesn’t exhibit any of the anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians; it’s that he appears to be so genuinely grounded and joyful.” Yet in this joy he is not dismissive of the pain; as he says when the interviewer queries him about this joy through woundedness, he wants to consider carefully lest he be too pat; he himself is, as he says, “mystified,” as baffled by the outcome that is himself as anyone else. Later it comes out that part of this mystifying joy comes from gratefulness, the recognition of the giftishness that is even a part of suffering. He is one who can say of the world: “It’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” When pressed as to how this works, he offered an anecdote concerning J. R. R. Tolkien:

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

That will be a hard saying for some of us – lives there who loves his pain? – but it is a very Christian saying and one we can and must live into. It puts me in mind of all kinds of saintly works past and present, from the discovery of grace through giftness in the Old English “Gifts of Men” to Niggle’s Tolkienian exclamation when he reaches the other world and sees his art alive, “It’s a gift!” However, in terms of resonance, pride of place must be given to G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton arguably knew pain and, I would argue, was at points nearly suicidal – it was certainly something he wrestled with. However, out of that somehow he was also able to pen the following paragraph, one of the best instances I know of Christian joy:

But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration. It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?

This stammering wonder at life expressed by Chesterton – who could also write truculent poems with serious points (like “A Ballade of Suicide”) as well as more sobering poems on suicide such as “Thou Shalt Not Kill” – reminds one in many ways of the mystified Colbert, grateful and unconscious of anything he has done to deserve it. Colbert is at once both realistic about suffering and joyful. I had thought perhaps we had lost the figure of the holy fool for good, a relic of a bygone age. But here is a figure who can with Feste sing with a glint in his eye and a wink at the deep, secret joy of the universe, “the rain it raineth every day.” And I find myself just a little grateful.

Stephen Colbert: A Modern Holy Fool?