Requiem for a torch-bearer

Our beloved friend and companion, the valient Knobby Foot, has passed on
to the warrior’s world of Valhalla. We found him last night, carefully
composed on a bier, with a spear in his hand and a determined, noble
look on his face. A note placed beside him read, “Do not stand at my
grave and weep. I am not here. I do not sleep.”

Knobby Foot was a true hero. He bravely faced and vanquished many foes,
including various fruit flies and paper towels. He had the capacity to
carry nearly his bodyweight in dried fruit in his cheek pouches, and was
often seen swaggering across Herot with cheeks wider than he was long.
He had been injured in single combat at an early age, earning his name
as well as a clubbed foot. Although the smallest of his litter, and
despite having the broken limb, he was also the fastest and one of the
most engaging. He proved that diminuative size was no obstacle to a
creature with his heart and courage.

Knobby Foot was predeceased by his mother Mrs. Robinson and his father
Mr. Jingles. His fruit-fly-foes will raise a glass of fermented tomato
in his memory. His many friends and admirers will miss him. His name
shall never pass from story or song.

What I learned from Medieval Studies

In some ways, learning about the middle ages was as much anthropology as history. (I suppose most history has an anthropological aspect.) I mean, there are historical facts and pieces of literature, but in some ways, I found attitudes and beliefs more interesting. My thesis was basically on medieval literary *attitudes* towards music. It wasn’t what they believed was true about music, it wasn’t about what music actually did in that period, it was about how people writing literature were likely to portray music in that literature.

This is a long introduction to one of the things I learned which blew me away when I realized it. With, I’m sure, many exceptions, people living in the Middle Ages did not anticipate that the world was going to change!!! Consider: 1) A medieval painting of King David — dressed in medieval garb with a medieval lyre and medieval-looking courtiers. 2) Rent declared in perpetuity that is not adjusted for inflation. Can you even imagine telling someone they and their children can rent an apartment from you and your heirs forever and ever for $1200? No! We’d never let it go that long, and if for some reason we did, we’d figure out a way to make sure it at very least moved with inflation. Unless we didn’t care about losing money. There are other examples. I’m sure there are counter examples of people who anticipated change. But I think they were also less likely to perceive change as progress. The Vandals sacking Rome was change, but it wasn’t progress. The black death was at some point new, but it wasn’t progress. Rising illiteracy in the beginning of the middle ages was a change, but it wasn’t progress.

Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a culture where change was not expected? (I’m sure this was true of other cultures — China comes to mind.) For all every generation feels like the one that is following it is going to hell, can you imagine a world where you actually anticipated depopulation, diminishing technology and deflation? What would change about *you* if you were a believing part of a culture who thought that the world was always going to be like it is today?

Of course that brings up eschatology, and the belief that the world wouldn’t change, it would simply end. We’re more likely to believe that if we don’t change, the world will end.

Why I had trouble with literary theory

I was an English major in school. My reasons for picking the major were pretty obvious — I’m good with language. I love to read, I enjoy writing, and I can do both reasonably well. I love various parts about the major were getting to sit down and read a novel, or a romantic epic, or a poem and call it homework. I loved getting to seriously think about and engage with what I read, and view it from multiple perspectives. I enjoyed the challenge of finding a new way to look at a work. (To me, essays are and always have been prisms through which literature can be viewed — and no piece of literature can be viewed without some prism, some perspective from the viewer.)

When I reached my junior year of college, all of a sudden someone started talking about literary theory. Huh? Here was something new. So, I attempted to delve into neo-historisicm, feminism, deconstruction, etc. To me, they seemed to be pre-fabricated prisms useful for looking at literature. A feminist reading focuses on the role and implications of women in literature. A historicist reading focuses on the culture and background of a work of literature. A deconstructionist view can pretend that the work was written in a vaccuum and read it accordingly. I have reached these conclusions after struggling with the concept for, oh, years.

My problem with literary theory? When I was encountering it, absolutely no one told me what I just told you above. They said it was important. They had huge tomes on it. They worried about whether their majors were getting exposed to it. They argued about which ones were valid. (I was on the English advisory board, on a search committee, and spent a lot of time with the professors, so I was privy.) But when I asked, haltingly, why theory was important. What it meant. Why to study it. Well, absolutely no one had an answer for me, and they looked at me like I was crazy for asking.

It was at this point I realized that not everyone asks why they are doing what they are doing. I was shocked. How could you possible study literature without asking why the study of literature was important and valid? How could you teach literary theory without understanding why it is important — and I don’t just mean because they also teach it in graduate school. I was flummoxed. I can’t do something unless I understand for myself why it is worth doing. Completely acceptable answers are because it is enjoyable, or I love it, or it gives a useful perspective on life. Unacceptable answers include because there is a large group of people also studying it. Well, why are THEY studying it? To get tenure? Then why is it worth tenure?

So to all you still in college, my advice. On the first day of class, ask the teacher to tell you: why the topic you will be studying is important in the world and why they chose to dedicate their lives to it. See if you believe their answers. And then answer that question for yourself.


I have lived in New England for 7 years now (not coincidentally, the same amount of time I have been with my husband). The last three years I have lived here full-time; no summers spent in the Northwest for me. 7 years represents just under a third of my life. My adult life has been lived in New England — four years of college, three of marriage in Boston. I have lived in my sunny apartment in Roslindale for far longer than we spent at the Shillinger house. And yet.

Not so long ago, I treated myself to an hour long massage at a spa near downtown Boston. Although I spent the first part of it consciously paying attention to enjoying myself, I inevitably slipped into the half-consciousness of relaxation, where my mind wandered through its subconscious world. Where, you may ask, did I go? Did I wander Newbury Street and visit the Commons? Did I fly kites on Peters Hill in the Arnold Arboritum? Did I canoe the Charles?

I was treated to a slide show of the loveliest, the most beautiful places I had ever seen in the Northwest. I saw sunset on the replica of Stonehenge near the Columbia. I saw the lightening storms over Horse Heaven. I walked the quiet trails of the West Side of Mount Rainier – walking from deep forest to high alpine and returning to deep forest. I saw the rocky crags of the Coast, the salt water beating almost to the mossy feet of tall fir trees. I saw the bountiful plenty of a clear cut in August, full of red berries with the soft sound of a distant chain saw and the haunting whistle of a steam engine in the background. I saw a cathedral with walls of dark hemlock, a stained ceiling of dappled needles and leaves shifting to let the sunlight down, and a faerie floor of bright green wood sorrel hiding the shifting and unreliable bones of former branches. I saw the beaver dam and the blackberry bramble. I saw the gold of Lithia Park in twilight after Shakespeare. I saw the silhouette of Indian riders on an unexpected hill. Thick snowflakes fall like a movie prop on a mountain pass outside of Missoula. My feet walked almost every step of White Pass, pausing especially outside of Nachez where I pretended to be an Indian and realized that I did not have super-human eyesight.

I think a lot about the beauty of the Northwest – especially when caught in Boston traffic on a rainy Monday morning. I have come to realize why I miss it so very much. New England is beautiful. The miracle of spring is one I never appreciated before, the architecture is lovely, the flowers or plentiful and colorful, the hills with their dappled colors are enchanting. I like to watch the fens move with the wind, and mark the progress of leaves. But New England is somehow staid. It is a question that has been answered. I look at the Blue Hills and I see the Blue Hills. They’re pretty. Yay.

When I looked out the living room window at home, I saw Round Top, with its rumors of Indian caves. It has a set of cliffs on it (which I have climbed) that seem unutterably mysterious and profound. Beyond it are mountains in which a person could get lost. I know the next road that direction, and it is far away and lonely. After that there are no roads until you come to the desert. Behind them and to the left stands all 14,411 feet of Mount Rainier. Majestic. Dangerous. Powerful. Beautiful. I once saw the moon, Venus hanging brightly on its every word, rise above the ghost of that mountain. I have stood on her hips as shreds of clouds have torn themselves on her trees, but I do not know her inner secrets. She has not confided to anyone living.

The beauty of the West I miss. They mystery and promise of mystery I had at every unexpected corner, I miss more.

I had considered writing about the fear that the mystery is gone – that the overlay of meaning was the fevered imagination of a youthful mind. There are other things there too – traffic worse than even Boston, strip malls, and more disabled cars on blocks in lawns than people. There are a proliferation of things that tarnish or hide the beauty. But I know it is still there. Every year I have come back and walked the quiet woods. The magic, the hope, the mystery – they have waited for me patiently like a field of fox glove in the warm sun waits for the forest to reclaim it. It waits for me to come there and live again, and dream more deeply, and discover that it is even more beautiful than I remember.

What I learned in Sunday School

I have really enjoyed teaching Sunday school, because it’s forced me to interact with the Bible again on a thorough and intellectual level. Whatever you think of Christianity, it’s hard to really get to know the Bible and not think it’s an amazing book. The quality is spotty at times. It’s contradictory and frustrating. It’ll start out on this fabulous path and you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh yeah! This is the stuff!” and all of a sudden it’ll take this left turn, and you end up flipping the page quickly so you don’t have to read it too closely. But you can come back to it again and again, and find new richness in it, and new hope. Everytime you read it, it seems like a portion of it was written just for you, and for your problems.

I’ve read the New Testament in completion between three and four times. I read the whole thing long before I could understand it. But then again, I’m not sure anyone’s reading comprehension is ever sufficiently high that they truly understand the Bible. The last time I read the whole thing was for a New Testament class I took in college — a factual instead of faithful class. I figured that in that reading, I’d really read the whole thing, and understood much of it.

Oh how wrong I was.

As you probably know, I’m writing my own curriculum for my Sunday school kids, mostly because I didn’t have time to research one I liked, and I was inordinantly underwhelmed by the one I had, which I used to teach the Old Testament. During the summer I mapped out what I would cover on what Sunday. I knew that I could fill in the details each week. And so I have.

I started with the letters. They were some of the first books written in the New Testament. It’s important to realize that Paul predates the writing of the Gospels. They are also much less familiar material. We’ve all heard the lectionary readings over and over… the 8 verse snippits of the gospels that pastors use as molds for their sermons. But rarely do we look at a whole book, and if we do, it’s not going to be the letter to the church at Ephesus. So I gave nearly half a year to the letters.

Advent is coming. It’s a good time to return to familiar stories, and the week after next, I’m going to turn to the Old Testament messianic prophecies, to prepare for the coming of the christened one, the Messiah. Next week, the few turkey-coma-survivors and we will review the Epistles. I won’t give you the review I’ll give them. Instead, I’ll tell you the three things I learned.

1) I must never have read the New Testament before
I was amazed at how much of it felt new and unfamiliar, even though I know for a fact my eyes have passed over it before. I think it’s because I read it so regularly, with the same format and clear mind each time. But who knew that Hebrews sounds so much like a medieval text, harkening back to prior ‘auctorities’ with it’s repetition of magic numbers, and lists of historic figures? How different the letters are, in their tone and intent. How strange, the degree to which they speak to us, and the degree to which they talk against other things that have no relevance in our world. I had never understood before, but I am now convinced that when I come back to the New Testament again, with eyes made older by other seeings of the world, it will speak to me on totally different issues than it did this time.

2) The disciples are relatives and old time friends of Jesus
I don’t know about you, but when I think of where the disciples came from (rarely) I imagine the fisherman close to the shore, pulling in his nets. And Jesus standing there and saying, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And I imagine Peter dropping his net — his whole life to that point — and swimming to Jesus and standing before him dripping wet, leaving behind an angry crew, ready to follow. That may very well be how it happened. What I didn’t realize is that: James the apostle is Jesus’ brother (eg. the son of Mary and Joseph). Judas (not Iscariat, the one who wrote the book of Jude) was also Jesus’ brother, although younger than James. John may very well have been Jesus’ cousin. At least, this according to the introduction notes in my Bible. I can only assume I never knew this because Catholicism got so wrapped up in the whole “ever-Virgin Mary” business that it hid, forgot about, or ignored any information that said otherwise. But Jesus wasn’t wandering around Judea with a bunch of random guys at his back. He was walking with his friends and his family.

3) Most of the letters are written for A Reason
A very decent proportion of the letters are written combatting the heresy of Gnosticism (the idea that the body is pure evil, the soul is pure good, it doesn’t matter what happens to your body, oh, and for good measure, since Jesus forgave all your sins, go ahead and sin all you want!) I’d say it’s at least 1/4 of the letters, especially the general letters. This means that the letter writers were focused on one particular issue, which really isn’t much of a problem anymore. It makes me wonder… what if the “issue” of the day had been a different one? What if it had been facism or cruelty by someone in the early church? What if the heresy they wrote against had a different slant… how different might the Bible be? Golden calves and secret knowledge aren’t that much of a problem today. We have our own issues, just as real and just as pressing. But it’s important to remember that the apostles weren’t writing about our issues.

It’s been a fun journey so far, and I’m looking forward to the Gospels. I’m very curious about what I’ll learn, that I never expected to.