Tuesday, January 27, 2015

a long provoking snow day read from my New Hamshire brilliant brother whose thoughts pierce the muddled darkness


            Step into my high school English classroom for a moment. Perhaps this will bring the sweet nostalgia--or, more probably, the unpalatable sour--of your own high school English class experience. According to my curriculum, the pedagogical task at hand is to read and teach William Cullen Bryant’s early nineteenth-century romantic poem Thanatopsis--or, translated from the Greek, A View of Death. Here’s the start:
  TO HIM who in the love of Nature holds

Communion with her visible forms, she speaks

A various language; for his gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware.

            Take the text of that poem and read it to a typical crowd of 16- and 17-year olds, and I think you’ll get a very limited response. It is a text that I would never assign as homework--at least for a regular class--because most will not continue reading after a few lines, some will Spark Note it, but most will completely ignore it because of its relative irrelevance to their daily ebb and flow. It’s a typical response to early-American romantic poetry. Standard didactic methodology would be to assign it, do the questions at the end of the text, perhaps lecture to students about something bewilderingly significant only to the echelon of English-teacher types (and maybe a few of their brown-nosing students) then move on to the next literary excursion.
            Whoever wrote my classroom text, dubiously entitled Adventures in American Literature, suggests that my students embark on their “adventurous” consideration of this poem by--and I quote --“Find[ing] three lines of Thanatopsis in which there is a variation of the basic rhythm, and point out the variation. Is it dependent upon stress or caesura?”
            What do you think? What do you think your average sixteen-year old will do with that question? Adventures in American Literature: Doesn’t that sound like a good time? I don’t know if the text writer who the publishers, Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich found to write their textbook has ever spent any time at the short end of twenty-glazed-look classroom experience, but all I think of when I see that content question juxtaposed to the textbook title is the word misnomer. I think my students would have my back on this one. There’s nothing Adventurous about poetic meter in Thanatopsis.
            You see, most things in education are about the how or what rather than the why, which is why I think there is such a turn-off to what I would call “regular English instruction.” It’s about the right answer on the blank rather than Why is this a significant question to ask? It comes from the mentality that curriculum content is the answer to the human experience. It’s all about the information rather than the mostly-messy journey through life. That’s why I think that as a teacher, I am called to pursue some “irregular English instruction.” So, after wandering through a nearby graveyard for a half-hour with my students, allowing them to ruminate about their own inevitable mortalities and another fifteen-minute walk amid a streamed woods, my students are much more introspective regarding what it is that nature might have to say about death and dying, and how life might be lived differently because of that revelation. Maybe they’re a couple steps closer about why a careful writer might put some reflective pause in his poem--why such pause might be “… dependent upon stress or caesura.” Otherwise, the words of William Cullen Bryant are dead on the page. The teacher is the one responsible to breathing a little life into them. I’m the one who “gets it,” the literary representative, if you will, of any truthful power that might be in those words penned over two hundred years ago.
            I happen to be involved with a group of guys who cut and split cordwood to give it away to local, low-income families. Once, one of my wood-ministry partners introduced me to a couple of hardened loggers who had agreed to help us out with a day’s work in the woods. Before the cacophony of chainsaws, wood splitters and other he-man apparatuses could really get going, one of the woodsmen casually encountered, “So, what do you do, Tom?”
            “Uh, well I’m a high school English teacher.” There was a palpable pause, as if we both smelled the passed gas, but neither would admit to it.
            More awkward silence.
            “Well, I gotta check the third chain tooth on my Husqvarna before we get going--it’s been given some problems. Good to meet you, Tom.” He made a bee-line toward his truck, relieved that he just missed a conversation about the difference between poetic stress and poetic caesura.
            Such a reaction is because of what the general populace thinks that we as “language arts” folks are all about. And, of course, such impressions are mostly wrong. I don’t know about you, but you can count me out. I’ll take a day killing trees in the woods, over poetic meter any day of my life.
            I get the same feeling when I meet anyone who finds out that I am “religious,” a Christian, and that I pursue a relationship with God. Frankly, those who have come to know me as a prankster, a philosopher, a redneck--almost anywhere outside the walls of First Baptist Church of New London, New Hampshire--they are surprised to find that I teach an adult Sunday school class. It doesn’t fit in their mindset that someone who is into “church and all that stuff” actually has a mind who asks more questions than there are answers, who lives in a way that they might say is dangerous and spirited. It’s similar to finding an English teacher who relishes working the smart end of a manual maul the woods, fighting his way through some stubborn yellow birch.
            Just like these woodlot warriors expected my conversation to never get beyond poetic caesura, and probably imagined my pickup cab to be filled with volumes of Shakespearean sonnets, most folks can’t imagine anything relevant about God beyond a robed minister and a row of pews at a wedding or funeral in a steepled building. I think it’s because a lot of our past religious doggedness has become religious dogma. That, and because the text we feed from is as dead as a Dickens doornail. The corpus has become a corpse.
            It’s five in the morning where I am right now, and I have just plowed through a chapter of Isaiah (about how Sargon, King of Assyria, sent a supreme commander to Ashdod) a chapter of Zechariah (how a cry will go up from the Fish Gate and a wailing from the New Quarter regarding the upcoming  plunder of Jerusalem), and a chapter of Timothy (covering church regulations regarding the financial keep of widowed congregants). I use the word plowed in the same way that I sense many of the juniors put their heads to task as they face the prospect of poetic caesura. Just like in my English text, our treatment of the Word has become all methodology rather than application; it’s all about the how or what rather than the why, which is why I think there is such an equal turn-off to what I would call “regular biblical instruction.” It comes from the same type of mentality that strict curriculum content is the answer to the human experience. Have problems with life? Well, a little Bible reading is what you need. Here’s a Gideon’s and call me in the morning.
            Similar to my role as an English teacher bringing life to early American romantics to today’s skeptical teen, I too am a minister of the Living Word, to mediate the divinely abstract into the mundanely practical. I think that my role as a teacher in the classroom really isn’t manifest until I breathe some oxygen into Bryant’s words--ironically in a nearby graveyard--by my own living and personal application. Well, I guess that I’m ready to say that the same is true of my role as a priest, handling the Word of God. Somehow it is connected to the mystical relationship--a cooperative relationship. God needs me--or maybe He needs The-Spirit-Who-Lives-In-Me--to bring life to the words that He has spoken, but which lie dormant on the page. Maybe that’s a better image--not dead words, but much more like an Ezekielian valley of dry bones. The words that God spoke into being are only made alive when they are borne and born by me, birthed into air-giving life.
            There’s probably a paragraph or two of thoughts about that idea that may belong in another essay on spiritual sexuality or something. Maybe that’s why I’m the Bride of Christ, because--still rich in the marriage metaphor--I am the bearer of life that is resident in me if I ever manage an intimate encounter with my God rather than a lot of religious foreplay.
            More importantly, I claim to be a son of the Most High. I wonder what I have to say about being around Him that has any bit of life to it. Thou shalt or shalt not? And what does that mean, anyway? “Living Word?” When someone cracks a bible and begins to read out of it, tripping over Semitic names and places, I tend to become skeptical--kinda like my students when I ask them to turn to a page in an Adventures in American Literature textbook. Unless I have anything to say or show by my twenty-first century living, well, maybe the textual words should stay where they are: dormant in a book. That way at least I’m not messing around with stuff that I really don’t understand. Unless I have something about God’s Word that I have borne and bred, maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all. That’s how religious elitists can begin emphasizing what should not be emphasized, thereby skewing the purpose of the words in the first place. I imagine that Bryant was more interested in relationship between the life before him relative to his inevitable death rather than whether his audience recognized his poetic stress or caesura. My classroom Adventures text has become the religious dogma of my work day--something some lifeless editors had to dream up because they themselves have never wandered from their celotex office cubicles to wonder about Life’s Big Questions in a wooded glade.
            So, let me say this in more simple terms: There is nothing living about God’s Holy Word until I, myself, begin to interpret what that Word might mean to folks by the way I am alive in Sunapee, New Hampshire. Let me say it again a different way: God needs my help in breathing life into His Word, in a similar way that Adam received life from Logos. In the same way that the Spirit came upon Mary. In the same way that Ezekiel commanded life into bones. He needs me to make it alive. The resuscitation of the text is dependent on my Spirit-breathed interpolation to make it alive--that’s interpolation by the spirit, an extrapolation by my mind heart and hands.
            I can’t really believe that as Paul wrote down a letter to some friends, he was mindful that what he wrote would, thousands of years later, be considered sacred Scripture, inerrant and God-breathed. It’s only alive because of what he did with it and what  I do with it. I, myself, am the life-giving air. The text itself has no power. It is the power of God that renders salvation to the hearer--and where is the power here? In the words on the page, or in me, busily scribbling away at my life?
            I teach an adult Sunday school class, and just the other week, a retired pastor-student in the class commented on the cover-peeling, binding-broken, page-worn appearance of my Bible. If he could look inside, he would have seen pen-littered comments--statements of epiphanal amazement, acrid skepticism, and sophomoric complaining. Now, part of the truth is that anything that I have owned more than ten years bears the scars of rather sloppy care. (My bible has spent the night out in the rain, for example.) But most of my Bible’s raggedness is that the book makes the short-list on things that I spend time a lot of time with.
            When I hand out novels for my students to read, all my students know that they are allowed to write in the books--encouraged to write in the books as they read: underlined key phrases, exclamations, complaints--anything that shows they have read, mulled, and internalized. I want them to feel free to show how words written in the nineteenth century might have some relevance to their lives here in the twenty-first.
            It’s the same with my Bible. The littered marginal writings are what really draw my attention as I flip through its pages. The thing that I most appreciate about my Bible is that it has extra-wide margins which show years of the pulmonary resuscitation that I have been pumping into what I would call dry, dusty bones of others’ thoughts and experiences. There’s nothing magic about these words other than their antiquity, no more than there is anything life-changing about the nineteenth-century Thanatopsis, except perhaps the collective remembrances of a whole lot of people who have read it. I have to bring the pulse to the letters on the page. The printer’s typeset is dormant and that follows an infinite regression all the way back to the author’s original stylus; it is my handwrit that pulses with awakedness.
            The former is static; the latter, dynamic. One is past-perfect; the other, progressive. It’s a matter of text versus context.
           
You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
[c]
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”

            There is a permanence, a Godheadedness, about scripture that is only brought to life with my life-giving breath--with my life-giving breath. It’s a marriage of His permanence with my evanescence (and in a way that I haven’t fully pondered, this mystical union enacts my own eternalness). There have to be both, lest an ephemeral vapor escapes one hand, or a stony deadweight crushes the other.
            Does this mean that the harsh, cautionary letter that my seminary-ensconsed friend, Tony, will write in response to this essay, or the introspective meandering response that I will receive from my brother, Scott, are holy texts? Absolutely--and they are both perform their eternal work in the manner that they shape me. Both writings will be alive with the God-breath of the Spirit, but only because Scott and Tony have breathed them by their lives.
            I have been prompted to speak the very Logos spoken in the beginning--or more correctly speaking now in the beginning, lasting far beyond my own view of death, my own Thanatopsis, resonate with the Voice of Kairos who has shown me how to talk and write, but more importantly, how to live these words--even these words, now--if someone today, tomorrow, or years hence, will pick them up and consider them, live them, and bring them back to life.