Monday, March 10, 2014
What's stuck with me after all these years is the way the melt-off flowed down from the hill east of our place, a slow, very gradual descent to a pair of storm sewers on either side of the street, but enough of a slope to create something wide enough to plug. I remember those early spring streams for their seeming purity--winter snow melting a'pace into run off that sparkled in a warm spring sun. We'd couldn't help it--we had to drink it because it looked so pure, even though just beneath it lay a gritty gravelly base you could, easily enough, get between your teeth.
No matter. When the snow melt began, those snow-melt rivulets ran life into souls far too long locked up by winter, as if something in the very heart of things had been madly loosed. Pure and cold and sweet, the run-off on the street always sparkled like a blessing. I'm sure we were told not to drink it, but some temptations tear through every last restraint.
Yesterday was that kind of day, water starting to flow on the river behind us and pooling throughout the field's low spots over a landscape where just last week single-digit temperatures kept everything under a frigid lock and key. Last Sunday, at little church we sometimes attend close by, there were just a few more people in the pew than there were in the choir loft. Before worship, the maestro swung an arm forward, asking the rest of us to come up and join.
But this Sunday, temps shot up almost 60 degrees. Across the field, the geese returned as if their two-week sabbatical (they arrived, then left again when the cold swung back) was itself way too long. Thousands, literally thousands flew over in bands that stretched in endless echelons as far as we could see out back. What snow is left in the shadows outside my window this morning looks creepy, almost villainous.
Yesterday, on the Sabbath, we sat out on the deck, and the grandkids peppered an empty pop can with bbs. It was gorgeous afternoon, a particular species of gorgeous one only experiences here when you've been--as we have--locked up in winter's fist. No one shivered out there beneath an azure sky, freedom itself in the air.
I'd have had to look elsewhere for the kind of melt-off streams I remember years, but that same feeling was in the air yesterday--that mad release, that sweet refreshment of a mud-luscious Sabbath for which I'm mightily thankful this morning, winter itself finally withdrawing. Sweet.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 10:41 AM
Sunday, March 09, 2014
[This meditation is obviously dated, having been written when my mother was alive (she died in November of last year) and during the second administration of George W. Bush. Our pastor used to say that the commandment most repeated in the Bible was "Fear Not." Old as it is, these words--not my mother's favorite, by the way, still have some currency, methinks.]
“Do not fret because of evil men
or be envious of those who do wrong. . .”
The only fret I have is whether or not I do enough frettin’.
Take my mother, for instance—she’s sure that the world is slowly sinking toward a moral morass, some iniquitous black hole that will eventually suck most all of us in, until, gloriously, the Lord, in glory, comes again. She frets about the life’s seamy appearances, and her continual frettin’ affects her mood.
She’s old enough to deserve my respect no matter what her views or how much she frets; besides, she’s my mother. But I’m not taken by the way she flirts with such obsessions because I don’t think she should spend the last years of her life frettin’.
We live in strange times. I don’t think it’s possible to locate an era in the last decade or so when spirituality in general and Christianity in particular was ever quite so popular. The vast majority of Americans, unlike citizens of any other nation, claim to believe in God. A significant majority go to worship frequently. Crime is down, as is drug use, as is teen-age pregnancy. Even abortion rates are lower than they were.
On the campus where I teach, just about every student wears a t-shirt with a Bible verse. Students flock to praise-n-worship gatherings voluntarily and exude a piety that existed only among the most devout just twenty years ago. Lots of parents tell me their kids are far more spiritually mature at 18 than they were at that age.
Politically, the U. S. government is in the hands of Republicans, my mother’s party. Many politicos and pundits claim the last Presidential election was a wake-up call to many opinion-leaders who never took Christians seriously. Most major newspapers now concede that for too long they didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the hearts and heads of an huge segment of their own readership—American evangelicals.
It’s difficult to argue, I think, that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, although sometimes I think my mother would like to think so. Specifically, what troubles her is that this Christian nation is becoming secular, forbidding prayer and tolerating abortion, tossing the Ten Commandments and, in its place establishing, “political correctness.”
I think she’s frettin’ way too much. She thinks I’m worse—liberal.
When Black Sunday came to the Great Plains, when clouds of dust arose from recently plowed Oklahoma land and swept all the way up into South Dakota like a murky blizzard, lots of good people presumed the world was at end. Not long ago, a woman told me that she had a childhood memory of looking up at the preacher in the little country church she attended and, on Black Sunday, seeing only the preacher’s white collar.
When things got dark, good people thought we’d finally come to end times. It’s understandable, but it didn’t happen. Most believers I know plot out the trajectory of our lives in the same direction—things are just getting worse and worse.
Maybe not. But then, as I said, maybe I just don’t fret like she does. Maybe I will in just a few years.
But I know this—both Mom and I can take heart from verse one of Psalm 37, which says, in a nutshell, “don’t do that.” The enemy—whoever they are—aren’t worth my time or anxiety, nor are they worth hers.
Next week I’ll quote that verse to her. Maybe it will help.
Probably not. She’ll probably still think I’m a liberal.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:48 AM
Friday, March 07, 2014
It took two novels for Casey Kuipers to pull off a conversion. He wrote three of them, mid-Depression, "mission post novels," he called them. Nobody "got saved" in the first one; no one got baptized. But someone does in the second. An old Zuni man who suffered tribal shunning after being accused of witchcraft, an old man who dies soon after asking for baptism, turns his life over to the Lord.
The circumstances for his conversion are worth mentioning because Kuipers carefully engineers it. The missionaries at Zuni pueblo come up with an idea: they ask some Hopi Christians to come by for a revival of sorts, even though, quite frankly, there's no one there to revive.
The Hopi evangelists come but some of them are frauds, and the Zuni people see it, even though the missionaries don't. It's not pretty. The Hopis leave, the missionaries try to pick up the pieces, and lo and behold an old man who heard the Hopis preach says what they said from the pulpit convinced him to accept Jesus into his life. The frauds did God's work--that's the story.
In the last few days, Bill Gothard resigned from the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a long-time para-church ministry which, some say, helped thousands upon thousands. Gothard's "Basic Life Principles Seminar" was the first real Christian fad I'd ever experienced, even though I never attended. Years and years ago, a three-ring binder full of BLP righteousness was considered by some people I knew as essential for the Christian life as the Apostles Creed.
Through the years, many Basic Life Principles graduates had to have been helped by Gothard's weekend seminars, even if its founder and guru couldn't keep his hands off young girls. It's altogether likely he was so convinced of his own sanctification that he didn't recognize the horror in his hands. Gothard is a tragic figure--a man with considerable strengths who goes into a tail spin he doesn't see even though he's at the controls, even when his own brother was long ago shown the door after sexual abuse with several office staff. Still, a couple days ago Christianity Today published a note from one of his broken-hearted followers who claimed his life was changed by BLP. I don't doubt that's true.
Some of the excesses of the Second Great Awakening are not only silly but reprehensible. Revivalists used the imminence of the Second Coming to terrorize, preached the possibility of human perfectionism, and railed against any fellowship didn't fall into lockstep emotionalism. It stampeded people into religious frenzy, into horrific divisiveness, may well have created an entire denomination--the Mormons.
No single name is as central to the movement than Charles G. Finney, the man some call "the father of revivalism," the man who originally called the northern New York region where he conducted initial revivals, "the burned-over district." "Toast" is essentially what successive revivals created in the neighborhood of the Erie Canal.
Finney's own enthusiasms eventually melded into something less frenetic when it attached itself to social issues like temperance. All that wild itinerant ranting got him to Oberlin College, which became the seed bed for anti-slavery sentiment in this country, and the first institution of higher learning to admit women and African-Americans. Oberlin missionaries--good and bad--left for Native tribes across the face of the continent.
All three are amazing stories, whose plot lines are repeated time and time again among the highly spiritual. Somehow God almighty uses filthy rags to spin his quilts. Somehow, He grows beauty in a thousand cracked pots.
Not a bad thought for Lent.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:06 AM
Thursday, March 06, 2014
Okay, let me come clean. I roll my eyes--not publicly, but inside my head--when Hollywood's leading women (notice I didn't say "leading ladies") start going on and on about discrimination. It just seems to me that thinking of Kate Blanchett as if she were some fortuneless victim is--how do we say it?--pushing the envelope. Most news media cover the Oscars by red-lettering the winners; but once the news is out, what they flash is the red-carpet cleavage wars, or is that just me?
Cry me a river. Hollywood women grumbling about discrimination doesn't make this liberal's heart bleed. Nope. Sorry. I shop. I see the score of tabloids at every last cash register. Sometimes there are men on the covers, but mostly not. I have no trouble conjuring images of Kate Middleton; but the guy she married?--what's-his-name, you know? and what's he look like again? isn't he losing his hair?
Still, as Maureen Down reports the numbers, I can't help but raise an eyebrow. In yesterday's NY Times, she reported some rather startling stats. Recent surveys have indicated that
women accounted for 6 percent of directors, 10 percent of writers, 15 percent of executive producers, 17 percent of editors and 3 percent of cinematographers. And women are still more likely to be working on romantic comedies, dramas or documentaries than the top-grossing, teenage-boy-luring animated, sci-fi and horror movies.Okay, maybe there's a case to be made, I thought when I saw those numbers. Open your heart a little, you sexist.
Then this. Dowd says Geena Davis, who runs a LA institute that studies women in media, explains the problem she feels is at the heart of Hollywood's glass ceiling: “the most important thing is having female protagonists. It doesn’t matter if they’re a villain or a hero. It just matters that their actions have consequences."
Osage County was not the feel-good picture of the year. It was dark and brooding, as if the script was a collaboration between Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee, who got together, got drunk, and spent an all-nighter conjuring the darkness. But there they are on the screen before us--Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, two giants, two superstars, two women any director would die for, in central roles because in that pestilence-filled family of theirs "actions have consequences." They are the protagonists. They are the dynamic characters. They are the ones who change--or at least have the opportunity.
The novels of John Gardner have likely disappeared from most library sales tables already. They were never popular reads, although his revision of Beowolf still, I'm sure, gets picked up in lit courses. It's fair to say Gardner did much better at talking about stories than he did at writing them. In MFA programs, I'm guessing he still has great currency.
When Gardner talked about "the morality of literature," he got himself in trouble because so many people--writers too--believed he was talking about sex. He wasn't. He was talking about being true to life, about the importance of creating characters who had--as we do--choice. A moral writer doesn't lie about the human condition, doesn't assert that we're incapable of assessing our own possibilities. Where characters can't see their hands in front of their faces--think literary naturalism, for instance--the writers were being, well, "immoral," or so claimed John Gardner.
Whether characters choose for good or bad is irrelevant. The truth of a story is revealed in the fact that they've had the opportunity to choose, that their lives make clear the fact that, as Geena Davis says, "actions have consequences."
When I read that line from Ms. Davis, I think I understood more plainly what all the fuss was about. Geena Davis doesn't want women to be mannequins. She doesn't want them only displayed on red carpets. She wants them to be--and young women to see--that their own decisions have consequences. It's that simple.
Economics 101 in Hollywood goes like this. Women are a freebee. Men won't go to chick flicks, but women will trot along to what industry insiders call "tent-poles," the blockbusters that make gadzillions. Hollywood doesn't have to worry about women buying tickets; they will, no matter what. It's high-school boys they've got get if they're going to fill the coffers with something other than popcorn.
I got a royalty check from a book I wrote years ago, a book that's still selling some copies--not many but some, a couple hundred maybe. It's the true story of a woman who was at the center of a Dutch Resistance group in the Netherlands during the Second World War, a biography titled Things We Couldn't Say. For the first time last month, it included $150 for movie rights.
Someone bought movie rights. For years I thought Things They Couldn't Say could really be a great movie--her story is just incredible. But she's the dynamic character. She's the one whose life has consequences. She's the protagonist.
Who knows?--maybe it'll happen. But if it does, it'll be because of Geena Davis and Maureen Dowd and a ton of others keep carping and railing at Hollywood high rollers who would much rather keep their women in high heels on red carpets or proudly displaying their wares beside supermarket cash registers.
Yesterday my only granddaughter turned 13. Maybe that's it.
This morning, I think I get it, at least as much as some old male chauvinist pig can.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:40 AM
Wednesday, March 05, 2014
Too much of friendship, I suppose, can be stifling. Too many friends may well stretch a person so thin that no one of them can really matter and none of them quite fill the bill. If you hang out too often together, life starts to feel like a gated fortress.
How we define friends is almost entirely personal. Women define them in slightly different ways than men, I think, but no one chooses them quite the same way--a friend is a go-to guy; a friend is the guy I fish with. Fill in the blank___________________________.
Strangely, if you've got a half dozen, it's likely that not all of them are alike. In fact, if they are xerox copies, they're probably not real. The more I think about it, the more I believe you don't choose 'em at all, and they don't choose you--you just somehow end up together, you know, predestined.
Friendship isn't something you grow into. Generally--I may be wrong--people know fairly quickly whether that guy over there with the smirk is going to be one of them. Somewhere it just registers that the one that doesn't say much or that one, the one with the glasses--you know, he just strikes me someone I'd like to know.
Friends are there, but they're not cloying. They're not constantly at your back door--or front; but if you need 'em, you can be confident that they'll show, often half-clothed because they're regularly giving you the shirts off their backs.
You don't necessarily think alike, don't necessarily not argue, don't always agree; but when you do come to blows, you part as friends, most often at least, because to be enemies is unthinkable. A friend, some smart guy once said, is someone who knows all about you and still likes you. Here's C. S. Lewis: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
Here's what my wife says--a friend is someone to whom you can tell your deepest, most personal secrets. Not that you do--that's not the point. But that you could. And you know it. And so does she. That's the point. That's a friend.
This morning I'm thankful for friends.
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
Strange, how some odd moments stick with you. I remember the prof, remember the material, but nothing else about the class--what the classroom looked like, the names or faces of any of the other students. It was 1972, my first semester as a grad student, the prof's name was Marvin Fischer, and we were starting on Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"What do you think raised the ire of the traditionalists more than anything else about Emerson's transcendentalism?" he asked us.
I didn't know but neither did anyone else because soon enough he offered an answer himself: "It had to have been the belief in continuing revelation."
To Ralph Waldo, the Bible was not closed. That persistent belief stands at the heart of his transcendentalism--that Jesus Christ was no more the one-and-only savior than was Davy Crockett. What Jesus did was demonstrate how each of us can be divine. God told him so--Emerson, that is. I'm not sure what he may have told Davy Crockett.
I remember thinking Marvin Fischer was likely right. Even if I hadn't thought of it myself, I should have, even if I'd really liked reading Emerson. Still, the idea that the Bible is still being written was every bit as "out there" to me as it must have been to the Old Lights.
At just about the time Emerson was writing that goofy classic, "Nature," things were popping theologically out west in New York, most famously, perhaps, on the farm where young Joseph Smith lived with his parents, the place where two indistinct angels came to him and told him there was another scripture burned on golden plates and buried in the earth at the top of a hill, another bible, another revelation of God that he should look for, translate, and open up to the world. Smith's revelation created, single-handedly, the faith both Mitt Romney and Harry Reid hold to, Mormonism.
Smith and company didn't stick around Palmyra, New York. They left, like so many others, for the untrammeled west to find a place of their own, a place where Smith could be mayor/prophet. That place was Nauvoo, IL, where Smith also died, by the way, at the hands of a mob. God may well have spoken to Joseph Smith, but what he said he wasn't telling everyone.
In Palmyra, Smith was hardly an eccentric. All through the region, circa 1830, there were dozens other rogue theologians--spiritualists and Shakers and what not else--most of them created by the furious spirituality of the Second Great Awakening. Just a few weeks ago, we stopped at the place where Smith had his vision, walked through an almost heavenly museum, and got ourselves evangelized by Brother Something-or-Other, a paunchy apologist who'd left his Idaho farm, once he'd retired, to sing LDS praises to pagans like ourselves, right there where it all so blindingly began. The truth is, there were a dozen other Joseph Smiths, each touting his or her own religion, toting their own versions of God's revelation.
Historians have called the region "the Burned-Over District" because of the almost endless succession of devout believers, some outright crooks, some just plain loony, who brought their own versions of God's immediate revelation to wanting souls in the region. Wave after wave after wave swept through in the 1830s and 40s, each of them lighting revival fires that sometimes fueled the souls and sometimes simply consumed them--hence "burned-over."
In The Burned-Over District: the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion on Western New York, Whitney R. Cross, a historian who was born in nearby Rochester, lays out cause-and-effect in ways that seem, at least to me, perfectly plausible, attempting to explain why people seemed to go religiously nuts right there, right then. All of them were millennialists, all of them were Arminian, all of them believed passionately in immediate revelation.
Old Jonathan Edwards loved the First Great Awakening a century earlier because it lit up slumbering souls. Ben Franklin thought that wide-spread revival of the 1740s perfectly extraordinary. Even though he didn't buy in himself, when he heard revivalist George Whitefield hold forth in Philly, he tossed in a couple bucks when someone passed the hat. The guy's performance was that impressive, Franklin says in his Autobiography.
But Edwards, in "A Divine and Supernatural Light," suggested to spiritual hot heads that one test whether any ongoing revelation has currency--yours, mine, and the weirdo's down the street--is that what God whispers in your ear isn't something he's not said before, which is to say that if he tells you to take out your four-wheeler and knock down every stop sign in the county, you shouldn't listen unless you can find a similar injunction somewhere in Deuteronomy. I think Edwards was on to something.
Just yesterday I listened to a man go on and on about what God was telling him. I don't think he's about to start a movement or evolve in the next few months into some hell-fire and brimstone itinerant, although he's well on his way. Besides, I don't think he'd disagree with Jonathan Edwards.
But if what happened in the Burned-Over District of western New York in the first half of the 19th century is any witness, and if Harold Camping's bizarre end-of-times predictions are of any value at all, please forgive my skepticism.
Skepticism is the opposite of faith, I suppose, isn't it? What's more, if I have it, I've got to know, sadly, that I'm not among those who hear the peculiar voice of God, at least not out here in a snowy landscape north of Alton.
Tell you what. If I do--if I tell you that God almighty told me to put up a tent and ignite a real revival right here beneath that towering cottonwood on the banks of the Floyd River, and if you spot dumped stop signs around the county, promise me you'll nod courteously, give me a gracious smile, and make other plans.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:16 AM
Monday, March 03, 2014
And it is humble. And it is opinion. And it is mine. Take it with a whole blessed shaker full of salt.
With two semesters of on-line education behind me, almost, I don't have a ton of experience to bring to the discussion, but I'll tell you what I think I know.
First, on-line education drives me perfectly crazy because I am someone who taught eyes. If I didn't have them, if they seemed spacey, if it was obvious their gaze went elsewhere, or if--and when--they were closed, I knew I wasn't teaching effectively. Students' engagement is something you can see, I would have said, for all of my forty years in the classroom. You look into their eyes, which is to say, of course, their souls. If there's nothing there, then nothing's going on and nothing's going in.
There are no eyes on-line. If there can be, I don't know how to get them up on the screen; but even if I did I don't know that on-line eyes would be as readable. On-line, it's easy to believe you failed if you're an old prof, someone accustomed to evaluating your own success by a classroom full of eyes wide open. I did. I had to be told I hadn't failed. True story.
Teaching "by eyes" assumes authority that a ton of educationalists say is best displayed in some dusty teaching museum. If all the eyes are on the lecturer, none are on the work in front of them. If the teacher is the star, celebrity may feel good; but celebrity doesn't guarantee anything is being communicated. You want stares from 19-year olds?--show a whole gaggle of movie previews. But does a theater full of slack-jawed staring really mean learning is happening?
Still, I miss eyes. I miss them big-time.
Sightless though it is, on-line teaching still holds some startling possibilities. The greatest of these possibilities is dependent on numbers, as everything is in education. It's just plain easier to teach a class of 15 than it is a class of 55, and I've been blessed, both semesters, with very sweet and modest numbers. The claim I'm going to make is heavily dependent on numbers.
And, communication is a two-way thing, of course--there is no noise if no one hears a tree fall; but IMHO on-line education offers more opportunity for individual learning, more opportunity for close interaction, more opportunity for intimacy (may I use that word?) than does the classroom.
I know teachers who went out of their way to schedule conferences with every one of their students--I wasn't one of them. I figured they were adults: if they needed me, they'd show up. I still feel that way.
But it's impossible not to talk to students one-on-one when you're on-line. You may be talking to a screen, but anybody who writes as much as I do knows that the letters marching out of my fingertips have effects. I wouldn't write if they didn't.
It goes without saying that I'm never there in the room. None of my students visit my office. But I talk to my on-line students more individually and with more diligence--because I must--than I did individual students from those classrooms where once upon a time I held forth.
IMHO, here's the bottom line. After two semesters of teaching on this screen, it kills me not to see the students, not to see their eyes. At the same time, individually, I think each of them are getting more of their prof than the classroom, by itself, ever offered.
Whether that's good or bad is a question only they can answer.
One of my students this semester told me he was taking this on-line course because two of his siblings had taken the very same course from me in the recent past in a classroom, and they told him that taking Schaap is interesting not because you just learn about literature (neither are English majors) but you learn about life. That's why he signed up, he says--and I don't think he's just some charming brown-nose.
The real question will be, I suppose, has that been true also for him?
I don't have that answer. What I'm saying is that I believe the chances for that happening are just as good on-line as they are in the classroom. Maybe even better.
My ex-peers are going to be meeting soon to chart out possibilities for more on-line education at the college where I held forth for most of my life. Quite frankly, I'm surprised that it took so long for the college to get serious about it. There are all kinds of good bad reasons to do it, after all--money being one of them.
IMHO, there also some very good reasons.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:28 AM