Friday, October 21, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Big Orange Wolf?

More or less to a woman, my friends insist that I should be terrified.
Have you heard what he says about women? (I paraphrase.) He's misogynist, sexist, dangerous. He thinks he can grab women by the pussy without consequence. He judges women on their looks. He says mean things about them! 
I am probably going to lose my feminist credentials here...oh, wait, I don't have any...but I'm not feeling it.

And, yes, I watched The Video. I saw a bus driving into a studio parking lot. I heard a man bragging to another man about trying to make a move on a married taking her furniture shopping. And confessing how he didn't manage to sleep with her because she was married. I heard a man talking about how beautiful another woman was, and the other man congratulating him, "Donald has scored!" At which the man calls the other man a pussy. I saw several other men get calmly off the bus, clearly professionals going about their jobs. I heard a man say he needed to take a Tic Tac "in case I start kissing her" and bragging about how women throw themselves at him and let him do whatever he wants, even grabbing them by the pussy, and the other man laughing...because (as I hear it) this was clearly a joke. (That is, it doesn't happen, the women don't let him do these things, he is just pretending they do because he is nervous.)

And then I see the two men get out of the bus--without falling, as the man said he was anxious not to--and greet a woman who is a) clearly beautiful (at least by most Hollywood standards) and b) somewhat skimpily dressed even by Hollywood standards without the man a) lunging at her as if drawn by a magnet to kiss her or b) grabbing her by the pussy. In fact, she seems to enjoy bantering with the two men, apparently willingly hugging both of them at the other man's suggestion and offering to walk between the two of them as they make their way through the building. To judge from the way they make sure to stand, all three are clearly aware of being on camera, and it is the other man who prompts her: "Which of us would you want to go out with?" To which she replies: "I'll take both." And at the end of the video, when the woman takes the man off to star with her in the soap opera episode, the other man asks for his microphone back, which the man willingly and without embarrassment (No: "Oh, my God! I forgot about that!") surrenders. In other words, there was nothing secret about the making of this video tape or the recording.

Nor, as I see it, was there anything sexist. The men defer to the woman throughout their encounter with her. She enjoys their attention and (horror of horrors!) flirts with them. If this is sexism, thank God! Men admiring women and wanting to work with them? Men anxious about the impression they are likely to make and worrying whether a woman finds them attractive? Men taking the care to eat a Tic Tac because they don't want to put a woman off with bad breath? A man bragging about trying to seduce a taking her furniture shopping?! (Pro tip, gentlemen: Couches, not diamonds; they'll get us every time!) Are we to blame the woman for dressing attractively? Or the men for acknowledging, as she clearly wanted them to, that they found her attractive? The whole point of this encounter--the whole point of the video--was to capture on camera the moment when the guest star met his counterpart. Which means they were all acting a part for the sake of the audience. Was the man really nervous about meeting his co-star for the day? Was she really pleased to be working with him? Who knows? This is Hollywood, where everyone lies.

Or do they? It is so hard for those of us sitting at home to know because, truth to tell, we want to be them. Okay, maybe you don't. But I do. Sort of. Okay, not really, but, yes, of course I do. I want to be beautiful enough to have men want to take me out. Okay, no, I don't, I get so nervous when men look at me like that. But, okay, yes, I do. I am so jealous of my sister (as I have written before) for being so much better at the attraction game than I am. I am so used to playing the Ugly Sister, I quite frankly don't know what to do when men tell me they find me attractive. 'Cause I'm not, see? 'Cause if I were, they would flirt with me and banter with me and that would be nice...No, it wouldn't, I'd hate it. What if I didn't like them? How would I be able to say no? They are so confident in themselves that they are attractive...wait...could it be that men get nervous, too? Could it be that in making a move on a woman by, say, taking her furniture shopping, they aren't in fact sure that she is going to say yes? Could it be that they fantasize about women whom they find attractive letting them kiss them, even grabbing intimate parts of their bodies, because in real life they never would? Somebody tell the porn industry, there may be a plot here!

I don't work in film, but my sister does, and to judge from the stories she tells, it is one big orgy 24/7. Okay, that's not quite true. But it is edgy and intimate in a way that most of us (as my sister assures me) never experience, certainly few of us in academia. Good grief, we can barely manage to get dressed in time for class most of the time, never mind put on make-up; we work alone more often than not, and the most excitement that we get on a regular basis is a good discussion once or twice a week in class. In Hollywood, where women are expected to be beautiful to standards that almost nobody can attain, you are judged more relentlessly than the most paranoid graduate student can possibly imagine (we're cowards, that's why we go into academia), because there is actual money on the line. Again, this from my sister, who has regaled me for decades about how expensive it is to do even the most ordinary shoot; once you get the crew together for the day, you have to shoot something, and you aren't going to stop until the shot is in the can. Who on earth would ever want to work in such an industry?

Ahem. Donald Trump judges women by their appearance. He talks about wanting to kiss them. He talks about how beautiful he finds them--or not. He flirts with them and takes them shopping. Does this make him a despicable cad? He dumped his first wife (and, yes, I worry about her divorce testimony), but, hey! So did my father, my sister's husband, my husband (sorry, that is one of my dark secrets, not proud of this one), my aunt (okay, she dumped her first husband, my cousins' father), my neighbor's husband, several of my colleagues' spouses, more Hollywood stars and starlets than it is possible to count; it is practically our national pastime, having affairs and dumping our loved ones. And why? Because we fall in love, find somebody other than our spouse attractive, and have mad, passionate, transgressive sex with them, just like in the movies. 'Cause, of course, we all hate it when somebody cheats in a movie. (I think we actually do hate it; I don't think people like cheating, but they do like the feeling of danger.)

So why are all my women friends afraid of the Donald? Again, I'm not feeling it; I'm simply not. I am pretty much positive that he would not find me attractive, although my guess is, if he met me, he would be polite. But there would be more or less zero chance of his hitting on me. He seems willing to hire women to prominent positions in his organization, so maybe if I wrote something he liked, he might offer me a job, but I doubt very much he would offer to buy me a couch. Does that make him a misogynist? Some of my male friends in my Facebook feed have said some fairly insulting things about my intelligence of late, including friends in academia. It's not my looks, granted, but it still stings. Are they misogynists for disagreeing with me? Or is it just that they disagree with me, regardless of the fact that I am a woman? (Actually, I think some of them are threatened by me, but I don't think it is because I am a woman; rather, my guess is they behave this way with other men as well and I just feel it differently because I am me.) Or maybe it is that I have the opposite of gaydar: I am incapable of detecting misogyny except at its most blatant. If only I were a real princess like the woman in the video; maybe then I could feel the pea.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Birds of the Word

I know what you're thinking. Or, at least, what you should be: what are all those birds doing on a pulpit? I see an eagle, a turkey, a pelican, a crane, a rooster, a peacock, several that look like hawks, more eagles, most likely a dove or three. I'm not much of a bird-watcher, but all of them seem fairly specific, as if it mattered to represent them as true as possible to life.

Here's what the leaflet guide to the cathedral says: "The impressive pulpit in the nave...was originally created for St. Bernard's Abbey to the south of Antwerp. The birds and plants portray the frivolous diversity of creation." Frivolous diversity? Well. That's me told. No point in looking for any symbolism here.

My heart hurts. Here I am, sitting in a cathedral in a city in a diocese (according to the leaflet) all "dedicated to the Virgin Mary," and nobody seems to know why.
Again, from the leaflet, advising visitors on how to approach the experience of being in this magnificent church:
When entering sit down on one of the chairs at the back of the cathedral. Can you feel the majesty? Gigantic pillars support the rib vault above your head. Large stained glass windows filter the light. You are surrounded by opulent works of art. People are frequently reduced to silence by such beauty...
As were, clearly, the authors of the leaflet. Reduced to silence, that is. Are you kidding me? That's the best you can do? "Can you feel the majesty?" Give me a break. No wonder nobody in Belgium knows how to defend the ancient faith. Nobody knows what it means, it is all about feelings, sensations, the surface beauty of art. Heaven forfend we mention something about, say, the massive crucifix hanging over the altar (no mention) or the Ark in the side chapel to the south (not marked on the map).

Judging solely from the pamphlet, nothing particularly sacred happens here. Visitors are invited to "visit the cathedral at your own pace, [and] focus on what draws your attention and be inspired." Pardon me, but inspired to what? You may visit the shop or join a free tour, but please don't take flash photos.

Oh, wait, here's something: "The cathedral was built as a house for God but today it continues to receive the many Catholics who wish to celebrate [no object] and pray here. We thank you for your respect for this sacred space."

Chapel of the Madonna of Antwerp
Now I feel sick. I know, I know, it is just a tourist leaflet. There is no point in making a big deal about the fact that this church is Christian or that what "the many Catholics" come here to celebrate is the Mass. (All the odder, since the pamphlet clearly expects most of the visitors not to be either Catholic or Christian.) Commendably, both of the main side chapels, the one to the north housing the Madonna of Antwerp and the one to the south housing the Ark of the Covenant, are both set aside "only for prayer." And while I was visiting, there was a Mass being celebrated off to the side of the main altar, along with accompanying chant tones played on the organ.

But. "Frivolous diversity." Majesty you can "feel." "Opulent works of art." Exactly why was it so difficult for the authors of the pamphlet to say something about why Christians build beautiful churches in which to celebrate Mass in the first place? Or do they really think that it is all just to inspire people to enjoy pleasant feelings?

Getty, MS Ludwig XV 3, fol. 2
Here is what the twelfth-century cleric Hugh of Fouilloy said about why he depicted the dove in all its beauty and colors*:
Desiring to fulfill your wishes, dearest friend, I decided to paint the dove whose wings are silvered and the hinder parts of the back in pale gold (Psalm 67:14), and by a picture to instruct the minds of simple folk, so that what the intellect of the simple folk could scarcely comprehend with the mind's eye, it might at least discern with the physical eye; and what their hearing could scarcely perceive, their sight might do so. I wished not only to paint the dove physically, but also to outline it verbally, so that by the text I may present a picture; for instance, whom the simplicity of the picture would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so.... 
Because I must write for the unlettered [Hugh addressed his work to a nobleman who had become a lay-brother in a monastery], the diligent reader should not wonder that, for the instruction of the unlettered, I say simple things about subtle matters. Nor should he attribute it to levity that I paint a hawk or a dove, because the blessed Job and the prophet David bequeathed to us birds of this sort for our edification. For what Scripture means to the teachers, the picture means to simple folk. For just as the learned man delights in the subtlety of the written word, so the intellect of simple folk is engaged by the simplicity of the picture.
This is what medieval clerics did when they wanted to "dumb down" their exegesis: they drew pictures. Let's look at what Hugh says about his "dumbed down" picture.
If you sleep among the midst of the lots, you shall be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and the hinderparts of her back with the paleness of gold (Psalm 67:14). 
The silvered dove is the Church, expert in the teaching of divine eloquence, which, by analogy [with the dove] is said to have a beak of preaching, by nature divided, in which it may collect the seeds of barley and corn, that is, the maxims of the Old and New Testaments. 
Aha! Maybe the sculptors of the pulpit for St. Bernard's Abbey had a purpose in putting birds on a pulpit from which preachers preach.
It has a right eye and a left eye, the moral and the mystical sense [of Scripture]. It observes itself with the left eye [the moral sense], but gazes upon God with the right [the mystical sense]. It has two wings, the active and the contemplative life. When it is at rest, it is covered by these two wings; in flight it is lifted up to the heavens by these two [wings]. We fly when we transcend with the mind; we are at rest when we are temperate with [our] brethren. Inasmuch as feathers are set into the wings, the feathers are the teachers, adhering steadfastly to the wings of right action and divine contemplation.
Nothing yet about the "frivolous diversity of creation." Let's keep reading.
The dove is any faithful and simple soul: [the bird] with silvered feathers, [the soul] revealed in its virtues by report of good reputation. [The dove] collects as many seeds for its food as [the soul] takes models of righteous men in order to do good deeds. [The dove] has two eyes, right and left, that is to say, memory and perception. With the latter the soul foresees the future, with the former it weeps for past deeds. Our fathers in Egypt closed their eyes, for they did not understand the actions of God, nor were they mindful of the abundance of His mercy. Now [doves] have two wings, the love of one's neighbor and the love of God. One wing is extended in compassion toward the neighbor, the other is raised to the Lord in contemplation. From these wings grow feathers, that is, the virtues of the soul. These feathers shine with silvery brightness when, through report of good reputation, they offer to listeners a sweet tinkling like silver.
I'm still having trouble finding any frivolity here. I see something about virtue and how to live well; I see something about the faculties of the soul and the difficulties of perception; I see something about attending to things that are to come and things of the past, if you will, science and history; I see something about how Christians understand themselves as one with the fathers sojourning in Egypt, although they differ in the way in which they interpret the Scriptures; I see something about compassion and contemplation and the love of God. I see the beauty of God's creature, the dove, but nothing frivolous. Perhaps the leaflet authors didn't mean the doves.

Oh, look, Hugh has something to say about some of the other birds on the pulpit.
On the difference between the tame and the wild hawk: Interpreted allegorically the wild hawk both seizes and eats the bird taken, because any wicked person continually disturbs the actions and thoughts of simple folk. But the tame hawk is any spiritual father, who seizes the wild birds whenever he draws laymen to conversion through preaching. 
On the pelican: I am become like to a pelican of the wilderness (Psalm 101:7). The pelican is an Egyptian bird, living in the wilderness of the River Nile. This bird is reported to kill its chicks with its beak and to weep over them for three days. After three days it pierces itself with its beak, and sprinkles the chicks with its blood. And thus those whom first it killed, it restores by a revitalizing aspersion of blood. In a spiritual sense the pelican signifies Christ, Egypt the world. The pelican lives in the wilderness because Christ alone deemed it worthy to be born of a virgin without union with a man. Furthermore, the wilderness of the pelican [signifies] that the life of Christ is free from sin. 
On the cock (quoting Gregory the Great): "There is something else to be carefully observed in the cock, because when at the moment he prepares to give his call, he first shakes his wings, and striking himself, he makes himself more alert. This we see clearly if we closely observe the life of the holy preachers. Indeed, when they begin the words of a sermon, they first prepare themselves by holy actions, lest, being sluggish within, they should with their voices urge others [to be the same]. But beforehand they shake themselves by lofty deeds, and then they make others eager to do good deeds." 
On the peacock: For Solomon's navy...once in three years went across the sea to Tharsis, and brought from thence gold, and silver, and elephants' teeth, and apes, and peacocks (3 Kings 10:22).... The fleet of Solomon is sent once in three years across the sea to Tharsis. Solomon's fleet is the virtue of confession. In this fleet we are carried through the sea of this world, lest we be drowned. Therefore, the fleet is sent to Tharsis, which [fleet] is said to bring back from there gold and silver, the tusks of elephants, monkeys, and peacocks. There is said to be gold and silver in Tharsis, that is, men famous for wisdom, skilled in eloquence, who, while they call upon and search out the joy of the present world, know themselves, and while they come from Tharsis to Jerusalem with the fleet of Solomon, in the peace of the Church they are made purer through confession. From this purest gold King Solomon made golden shields (3 Kings 10:16). The golden shields are those who live a pure life and defend others from the attack of the Devil. Also from the aforementioned silver are made silver trumpets, that is, the teachers of the Church.... The peacock has a fearful voice when the preacher threatens sinners with the unquenchable fire of hell. It walks with an easy gait whenever he maintains humility in his actions. It has a serpent-like head while his mind is maintained in the care of experienced caution. But sapphire color on the breast denotes the desire for heaven in the human mind.... 
On the eagle (again quoting Gregory the Great): "By the word 'eagle' the subtle discernment of the saints is represented, whence so likewise is the prophet [Ezekiel] while he described his vision of the four Evangelists in the form of animals (Ezekiel 1:5-10). Among these it is the fourth animal, that is, the one symbolizing St. John, which left the earth in flight, because by subtle discernment [St. John] penetrated the innermost mysteries by comprehending the Word." Likewise, they who still deliberately abandon worldly things, like the eagle and St. John seek heavenly things through contemplation.
Now, there are many things we might call this exegesis, but simple is unlikely to be the first adjective that springs to mind. Nor, I would venture, would most of you call Hugh's interpretation dumbed down; rather, more likely, over-elaborate, pretentious, elitist, or obscure. More generous readers might suggest imaginative or colorful, albeit, my guess would be, with certain reservations: "Too much allegory; this is not what the Scriptures mean."

Sometimes the Christian tradition really drives me nuts. Not with what it teaches about God or the soul or virtue or prayer or the holy; all that is excellent. But how it confuses everything with this talk of "the simple," cutting off its nose, as it were, to spite its face. You want to know why that leaflet that the cathedral hands out to its viewers is so insipid? Centuries upon centuries of authors like Hugh of Fouilloy trying to make the complexities of God's self-revelation through the incarnation of the Word comprehensible to the unlettered, the simple, the Everywoman and man. At least in the Middle Ages preachers still believed in giving their flocks something substantive, teaching them about virtue and the contemplative life and how compassion depends not just on feelings, but also on intellect. Preachers in the Middle Ages took as their purpose to explain, even to the simple, how the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the New; they didn't confuse them with lots of historical criticism about reading the texts for the contexts in which they were originally written.** They gave them the meat of what it meant to say that God had taken on flesh in the womb of a virgin, becoming present to the world through her as once he had made himself present in the worship of the Temple. They did not shy away from insisting that God likewise became present through the bread offered at the Mass, such that the faithful ate not just in remembrance, but in substance the very flesh and blood that he had offered out of love for humanity as a sacrifice on the Cross. They talked not of "social" justice, but of God's, calling the penitent to confession so that they might reform their lives through penance and thus grow in virtue. They warned of wickedness, the wickedness of speaking ill of one's neighbor and of the failure of compassion; for those taking the cross to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land, they warned of the dangers of doing so without first acknowledging one's sins. When they spoke, they spoke in the language of Scripture, which they had ruminated over day after day for the whole of their lives. And when they looked upon creation, they saw not a "frivolous diversity," but a meaning-soaked whole, every creature made by God lifting its voice in praise of its Creator--except, when fallen into sinfulness, man.

And then came the Reformation, and the preachers insisted that the medieval clergy had neglected to preach (they hadn't); and then came the Enlightenment, and the philosophes insisted that the medieval clergy had wallowed in superstition (they hadn't); and then came the nineteenth century, and the university professors insisted that the medieval clergy made up their exegesis on a whim (they didn't); and then came the twentieth century, and the scientists (or, rather, their boosters in the academy) insisted that the medieval clergy believed only in magic (they didn't), and Europe's faith died. And all the while the preachers kept dumbing their message down, lest the faithful be scared away by the rigors of theology and virtue. Okay, I give, it is slightly (but only slightly) more complicated than this.

But. But we in the West are presiding over the death of one of the most exquisite theological cultures the world has ever known, such that great cathedrals like Antwerp's welcome their visitors with the most platitudinous bilge: "Have you come to admire this Gothic bishop's church and its splendid works of art? Have you come to pray or are you looking for a quiet place for reflection?" How about this instead: "Are you looking to encounter the Living God whom Isaiah beheld seated above the seraphim, who cried out to one another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory' (Isaiah 6:3)? Have you come to worship the Creator of Heaven and earth, and to sing his praise with all the creatures in Creation (Psalm 148)? Are you looking to behold God in his glory, who humbled himself so as to enter into his creation that he might restore it to the goodness in which it was made? Or have you come to pray for forgiveness of your sins that you might love your neighbor more perfectly, even as you love God?" 

We keep talking about how we all need to be "respectful of other cultures." Here's a novel thought: how about we start with our own?

*The Medieval Book of Birds: Hugh of Fouilloy's Aviarium, ed. and trans. Willene B. Clark (Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992).
**Okay, not quite true; they did try to teach them about the historical sense, but they did not have the criteria of authorship we now use.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Our Lady, the Ark of the Covenant

Pop quiz: which of these two images represents the Virgin Mary? Hint: you can find both of them in the Cathedral at Antwerp, the one on the left on a pillar to the right of the altar, looking out over the people as they pray; the one on the right in one of the two main side chapels of the cathedral.

The answer, of course, as I am sure you have already guessed, is both of them, but I suspect you are wondering why. I remembered the pillar image from my first visit to the cathedral, eight years ago when my brother moved here and I came to see him the summer that I was starting on my current research project on the Hours of the Virgin. I had forgotten about the Ark, and yet there it was. Indiana Jones could not have been more surprised.

We like to think of the Ark primarily as a mystery of the Old Testament: the gilded box in which the ancient Hebrews carried the tablets of the Law written by the finger of God and brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai or Horeb (Exodus 25:10-28, Deuteronomy 9-10). As everyone knows, or thanks to Indiana Jones, thinks we know, the ancient Israelites carried the Ark in battle as they conquered the land promised to them by the LORD.* When not carried in battle, the Ark was kept in the Temple of Solomon, more specifically, in the Holy of Holies, where it served as a throne for the presence of the LORD, as it says in the Psalms: "The LORD reigneth, let the people tremble; he sitteth between the cherubims, let the earth be moved" (Psalm 99:1 KJV).

But, as Dr. Jones explained to the army intelligence officers, the Ark was lost sometime in antiquity, possibly taken to Babylon along with the other temple furniture (1 Esdras), possibly (as 2 Maccabees 2:4-10 would have it) hidden away by Jeremiah along with the tabernacle and the altar of incense before the Babylonians captured the city of Zion in 587 BC. Alternately, according to the Babylonian Talmud Horayoth 12a, the Ark had already been hidden away at the time of King Josiah (d. 609 BC), along with the anointing oil, Aaron's flowering almond rod, and the jar of manna. These same items, as Margaret Barker points out, were listed by the author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews as having been kept in the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:4), suggesting at the very least that the tradition associating the Ark not just with the tablets of the Law (1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chronicles 5:10), but also the other items mentioned by the late antique rabbis was well-known to the early Christians.

More to the point, the early Christians, more specifically the author of Revelation, believed they knew exactly where the Ark was. As the seer recorded, when at the Great Angel's behest he had eaten the book and measured the temple, and the seventh angel had sounded the trumpet,
the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of the testament was seen in his temple. And there were lightnings and voices and an earthquake and great hail. And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
As Barker explains, while in modern Bibles, these two verses (Revelation 11:19-12:1) tend to be read separately, as describing two different mysteries, in fact, read without the chapter divisions that were added in antiquity and the verse numberings added in the Middle Ages, they clearly refer to one: the temple opening in heaven where the Ark was seen. The Ark, like the sign, appeared in heaven, that is, Barker explains, the Holy of Holies. And the great sign seen in the Holy of Holies was the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, crowned with twelve stars, who, as it says in verse 5, "brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with an iron rod," as it says in the Psalms: "Thou shalt rule them with a rod of iron, and shalt break them in pieces like a potter's vessel" (Psalm 2:9 Vulgate). Mary, as medieval exegetes argued, was this Woman.

More recently, Scott Hahn has argued for significant narrative parallels between Luke's account of the Visitation and King David's journey from Jerusalem to the house of Abinadab to bring the Ark into the city of which he had been anointed king (2 Samuel 6). The tradition, however, is a very ancient one, as I show in my (mirabile dictu!) forthcoming book. As Richard of St.-Laurent (my main guy, you will want to know all about him!) put it in the mid-thirteenth century in his De laudibus beatae Mariae virginis (lib. 10, cap. 1, n. 1, my paraphrase, his scriptural citations):
Possibly the church
where Richard is buried.
Mary is the ark because in her God hid himself (Isaiah 45:15). The material ark was made that in it might be preserved memorials of the divine activity: the rod (virga) in memory of the liberation from Egypt, the manna in memory of the feeding in the desert, the tablets of the giving of the Law (Hebrews 9:4). Mary, the spiritual ark, was made "that in her might be placed the price of our liberation." The rod signifies his divine nature, for the Son of God is the power of God (Psalm 109:2 Vulgate); the two tablets signify his created nature, namely his soul, with its intellect and affect; the manna signifies his corporeal nature, pure of all stain of original sin except its penalties. This manna is the bread that Wisdom prepared (Wisdom 16:20), and the bread for which Christians pray, saying, "Give us today our daily bread."
Richard was a deacon of the metropolitan church at Rouen; his tomb has been found at Les Andelys, about four and half hours by car from my brother's house. I do not know enough about the cathedral at Antwerp (or, rather, haven't tried to find out, a girl needs a few mysteries) to know why there is an ark there. What I do know is Mary meant me to see it yesterday, perhaps even as a sign. I have not found any manuscripts of Richard associated with Antwerp, but I do know this much: in 1625, the printing house of Martin Nutium published the first edition of Richard's work to be correctly attributed to him, all previous printed editions having suggested that his work was by Albert the Great. Martin Nutium was a publisher in Antwerp.
As Sallah says to Indiana when they decipher the headpiece of the Staff of Ra (I paraphrase): "We've been digging in the wrong place!" Perhaps Abner Ravenwood is not the only professor at the University of Chicago to know something about the Ark.

*I have a Note to the Reader about this way of rendering the Name in my book. The all-caps refers to the Tetragrammaton, the Name Too Holy To Be Pronounced, translated as Kyrios in the Septuagint, Dominus in the Vulgate, and LORD in the King James Version of the Bible.

Onze Lieve Vrouw

Antwerp, Belgium
I'm back! Eight years ago plus a month or two, I stood before the doors of this very cathedral wondering what I was going to be able to say in praise of the Lady in whose honor it was built. I had a plan: write something about the way in which medieval Christians prayed the Hours of the Virgin. And I had the inklings of a methodology: commentary on the texts at the heart of her Hours, most particularly, the antiphons and psalms. In the first year that I had on leave to work on this project, I made elaborate Excel charts of all of the different versions of the Hours that I could find in published form, as well as charts of the psalms of many Uses for which I had only the templates provided by the late Erik Drigsdahl at his Center for Handskriftstudier i Denmark (now hosted by Peter Kidd at And I was able to write two chapters, one on the history of the Hours of the Virgin, a second on the way in which medieval Christians said the Ave, Maria, the invitatory antiphon for the Hours. And then, as you all know, I hit a wall. For a whole year and a half after that summer, I could not write. Anything. Not a page, not a paragraph, not a sentence. I could teach, which was some relief, but I could not bring myself to write, except on this blog. Books that I had agreed to review had to be sent back to the journal editors with groveling apologies. Articles that I had promised to contribute to volumes of essays had to be withdrawn. I started to wonder whether I would ever write anything scholarly ever again.

And then I found Robert Boice and began to make my way back. At first, as these things necessarily go, slowly, mere paragraphs at a time. Gradually, as I practiced working in Brief Regular Sessions on my translation of John of Garland's Epithalamium, more substantively. According to my c.v. (no, even I can't remember these things off the top of my head), I managed my first scholarly book review since 2009 in February 2012; since then, I have done eleven, including one of the volumes from which I had had to withdraw. And then, thanks to Margaret Barker (have I told you about her before?), I discovered the key to the commentary that I had wanted to write, and somehow, over the next academic year that I had on leave (2012-2013), I managed to write a complete draft of my book. Which, as again I suspect you recall, I sent off to readers with a fair amount of anxiety; as it turned out, I was not wrong to be anxious. It took over a year to get the reader reports back from the press (it usually takes no more than six months). For those in the know: there were three. Editors usually only have to get two in order to convince an editorial board to go ahead with a book, but mine--thanks to the first, most detailed, and most scathing review I have ever seen, even about my own work (and there have been those)--took three.

I had what you might call a Goldilocks moment. The first reviewer said, in short: "There's no book here, maybe a few articles, but nothing that could interest a scholarly press." The second said (here I quote): "This is one of the most beautiful, well-argued, and exciting pieces of Marian scholarship that I have read." The third said (I paraphrase): "There is a book here, but it needs work." Lots of work, particularly in making the case for Barker's Old Testament scholarship as a window onto the medieval understanding of Mary. I spent a whole month in winter 2015 writing my response to my readers for my editor, and she spent the whole summer that same year arguing on behalf of my book with the editorial board, while I got down to business revising the first two chapters, about which the readers had had fewer concerns. It was (or so it felt from my perspective) touch-and-go the whole time, but I got the contract, got the word-count that I requested, and even got twenty-five plates (for a consideration, a.k.a. subvention). I am certain, without irony, that Our Lady had a hand in some, if not all of this. Including that scathing first review.

Yes, you read that right: including the reviewer who concluded (again, here I quote): "Much of what RFB wants to say is inappropriate for a book purporting to explain mediaeval devotion to academic historians, who simply won't read it." I remember the moment well. I was at our church on Maundy Thursday, having finished my response to the readers and sent it off with my fingers crossed and my heart in my throat, and I was regaling our assistant priest with my authorial travails. "This is the way my first reader started his or her review," I told him: "'I presume that Rachel Fulton Brown (RFB) is the married name of the former Rachel Fulton...'" (If only they knew.) My priest listened carefully, and then said: "This is your Devil's Advocate." And the scales fell from my eyes! It was! My scathing reviewer was not a threat, but a gift! (Okay, it took a little longer than that to get used to the idea, but not much.) This was the Opponent whom Our Lady had sent to force me to make my argument as strong (and as strongly) as I could.

You know what a Devil's Advocate is, right? The one who stands in at the process of canonization for a candidate for sainthood making all of the arguments that the Devil would make against recognizing that particular person as holy. But here's the thing: you don't want the Devil's Advocate to be weak. You want the Devil's Advocate to make the most scathing attack that he can because you want the candidate's sanctity to be put to the ultimate test. Did he or she actually produce miracles? Did he or she ever say anything that might be considered theologically suspect? Did he or she ever do anything that might suggest flaws in his or her character or failures of virtue? Is there anything that someone coming along later might say to suggest that maybe the Church got things wrong in recognizing a candidate as one of the blessed? (Methinks this might be a valuable exercise for most of our current political candidates to consider.) It is to nobody's benefit for the canonization to go forward if the Devil's Advocate has not done his job.

Onze Lieve Vrouw
Likewise, with my first reader for the press: I needed to be pushed to defend my argument. I needed to know where readers might find it less than persuasive. I needed to know when my efforts at inviting my readers to imagine themselves into the devotion I described tipped over into what some might read (in my Devil's Advocate's words) as attempts at conversion or confessional apology. (Thanks to the responses I got in person from some of my colleagues at our intellectual history seminar, I now know that one of the most difficult aspects of my approach was simply using the terms "Our Lady" and "Our Lord," never mind that in other languages, e.g. French [Notre Dame] or Dutch [Onze Lieve Vrouw] they just read like titles.) I needed my Devil's Advocate, otherwise how would I have ever known? (I have no idea whether my Devil's Advocate will find this thought comforting when he or she sees my book published next year; I hope so.) Accordingly, this has been my project this summer: to revise my argument and adapt my voice so as to show that the Devil's Advocate had a point, while at the same time standing firm in my use of Barker as a way of helping readers imagine an exegesis of the Scriptures which they have previously been unable to see, thanks to the many changes our Western culture has undergone over the centuries since it was normative to salute Mary as the one in whom God took on flesh as the Mediatrix of humankind.

It was, therefore, as I am sure you can imagine, with no little emotion that I stood in Our Lady's cathedral yesterday, thanking her for sending me on the journey there and back again that she has. Last time, I came, I now realize, asking for a sign, some hint that I was on the right path, some clue to what my journey was going to be like. I found many signs, many images of Our Lady, but no hint whatsoever of how hard a journey it was going to be. I have neared despair more than once, resigned myself over and over again to the likelihood of failure, told myself stories about how it would be fine if I never finished this book. But for some reason, I never quite believed them. Or, at least, looking back now, I can't remember if I did. Time is a great healer, but so is work. What I know now is that I cannot imagine having written the book that I have (all 300,000 words of it--yes, it is that long) without having risked what I have: professional stagnation, ostracism by my colleagues (at least with respect to my methodology), the utter failure of having my book rejected (which, you will realize, it wasn't--academic publishing is not nearly as competitive as the actual market). "No pain, no gain," as my high school swim coach liked to say. "No risk, no progress," as we might better put it in our national debates about capitalism. I think Our Lady knows all of this, which is why, in my next book, I am going to try to show how it is she who gave birth not just to Our Lord, but our whole modern world of artistic and commercial excellence.

But that is for my next journey. For the moment, it is good to be home.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A few words of advice to Trigglypuff--and her teachers

I would not want to be this young woman. By now, five months after the event she attended at the University of Massachusetts Amherst featuring a discussion with Christina Hoff Sommers, Steven Crowder, and Milo Yiannopoulos on the problems besetting university campuses with speech considered "triggering," she has become a favorite meme among those who see such concerns as at best mildly hysterical, at worst a symptom of the total breakdown of our national character (I paraphrase). Audiences at several of Milo's recent talks (which you can see here) have made reference to her, imitating her arm gestures (which I am having a hard time ignoring on the gif as I am writing) and laughing at her expense. Milo, to his credit, has admonished them: "No, we love Trigglypuff! Trigglypuff is wonderful!," while insisting that it is not she, but those who have lied to her about what will make her happy that are to blame. "She is going to be miserable," he has said (again, I paraphrase), "because feminists have taught her to believe that she can be fat without consequence," pointing especially in his talk at Louisiana State University to the health effects of obesity. While, as long-time readers of this blog know, I have had my own struggles with fat shaming, I think he does have a point: it is possible to take "body positivity" too far the other way. Just as it is possible to be too thin, it is also possible to be too fat; we risk young (and old) women's lives suggesting that fitness and size have no effects on their ability to be happy.

But when I look at the full video from which the gif was generated, I see something other than just a young woman who needs to lose weight. I see a young woman who needs training, not only in formal methods of debate (wait for the question and answer period to raise your concerns), but even more fundamentally, in schooling her soul. Here, as Fencing Bear, I would like to give her a few words of advice about how to begin.

First, consider the falcon. This was a meditation that first came to me as I was thinking about my weight and my responses to eating, how hard it seemed to sit with the feelings that constantly threatened to overwhelm me and which, as I learned reading Geneen Roth, I would stifle with food. Milo likes to say: "Fuck your feelings," whenever anyone tries to use his or her sense of being offended to try to shut down debate. Roth, more gently, would say: "Practice sitting with them." Practice sitting with all of the anxieties and fears and doubts that feel like they are going to overwhelm you. Practice feeling your feelings, letting them simply be there, not trying to make them go away, not trying to fight them, just feeling them. Sit with them long enough to realize that they are only feelings, they cannot hurt you, however overwhelming they may seem. This applies to feelings that you have by yourself, when you are alone and wishing you could be with friends; when you are struggling with your schoolwork (more on this in a moment) and your demon is telling you how stupid are; when you are listening to someone speak and he or she says something that you aren't sure about, particularly when it conflicts with things you have previously been taught by your parents, teachers, or friends. Sit with them, let them wash over you, feel them in their full force...and then, over time, realize that they aren't scary anymore. They're just feelings.

Second, develop a skill. Here, your falcon training will serve you well, because one of the greatest barriers (as Fencing Bear knows all too well) to developing a skill is, you guessed it, your feelings. Feelings of envy and pride. Feelings of "should." Feelings of frustration and anger and doubt and impatience. Feelings of all the times someone (e.g. your father or mother) suggested that you didn't have the talent for this or that art. Feelings of the shame that washed over you whenever your mother told you not to "show off." Feelings of wishing you were anyone other than who you are. Again, they are just feelings. They can make you miserable, but they cannot make you happy. What can? As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued, skill. More particularly, skill exercised under the appropriate conditions of difficulty, such that you are neither anxious or bored. "Flow," he calls it, as if it is easy. Which it is--but only in concept, almost never in execution. (I, Fencing Bear, am living proof.) Why? Because real happiness comes not from doing things we find easy--or, worse, from following our "passion"--but from confronting challenges and rising to them. Here, competition is our friend because it gives us opportunities in which to exercise our skills, but even more importantly, because it provides real opportunities for failure. We learn nothing when we win, except that our skills were adequate to the task. We learn--and learn big, if having learned to sit with our feelings, we can ignore them and pay attention to what we need to change in our practice.

This, to my mind, as both Fencing Bear and Professor of History, is the real scandal afflicting our university and college campuses today. Not that the students are feeling triggered by the feelings that they experience when confronting ideas or assignments that they do not know how to address, but that we, their teachers, have failed to give them proper challenges because we (and, no, I don't really include myself in this group, but as a teacher, I know I always have room to improve) have become so obsessed with making sure that they never feel bad. Well, to coin a phrase: "Fuck our feelings!" Fuck our discomfort when we ask them a question and they don't know the answer. Fuck our anxieties about whether we are implicitly biased (of course we are, Mrs. Clinton is hardly the first to make this observation--as the Avenue Q puppets put it, "Everyone's a little bit racist!") when we respond to them. Fuck our feelings when we grade their assignments and feel sorry for them because, in all honesty, we cannot give them an A, no matter how hard we know they tried. Fuck our feelings--because, if we don't, we are lying to them, and that is far worse than making them feel a little bad. Why? Because, as teachers, it is our JOB to give them accurate and honest feedback about the work they are doing, the thoughts and opinions that they express, their grammatical and arithmetical skills, their comprehension of the material that we have assigned them and their ability to work with it.

If, as Milo likes to say, "feminism is cancer," grade inflation is heart disease, diabetes, and suicide rolled into one. And not just the kind of grade inflation that everyone talks about, when all the students at Harvard get As. The kind that sucks at your soul because you have never been presented with an actual challenge and so have no idea whatsoever what to do with a novel and difficult task or idea. Political correctness is a symptom, not a cause. It is a symptom of putting students in situations, for whatever well-meaning reason we might give, for which they do not have the skills because they have never been given accurate feedback about how they performed. Of course they are triggered when they encounter professors like Christina Hoff Sommers suggesting that maybe all college-aged men are not rapists or that equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome, if every time that they have been presented with something that made them mildly uncomfortable--for example, like losing a fencing bout--they have been told that what mattered was their feelings rather than that they learned what they needed to do to improve either their understanding of what the speaker has said or their ability to provide an appropriate answer. This is one of the key elements, as Csikszentmihalyi has shown, of experiencing "flow": immediate and unambiguous feedback, combined with clarity of goals and a concentration on the task at hand, so that one learns from the practice and thus can grow in skill.

By now you will have guessed that I admire Milo greatly for what he is doing in making his tour of our college campuses. He has inspired me to take up some of these difficult issues on my blog, about which I hope to say more over the coming weeks, but above all, the thing that struck me most when I started watching the videos of the talks that he gave last year and has continued to impress me as he makes his current tour, is how he is training our students to understand the difference between emotional outpourings and actual questions, to the latter of which he responds immediately and unambiguously with appropriate facts. If we want our students to stop feeling so triggered, we need to start practicing feeling less triggered ourselves. The Dangerous Faggot Tour, I would submit, is a good place to start.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Safe Spaces vs. Sacred Spaces

As I am sure you are all aware, a few weeks ago, John Ellison, the Dean of Students in the College at the University of Chicago, sent a letter out to all of our incoming freshman in which he described some of the things that they should expect--and not expect--to encounter as students in the College. "One of the University of Chicago's defining characteristics," he told them, "is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.... Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort."

Not, arguably, all that remarkable a claim, you might think. Of course our students should expect to feel challenged, possibly even uncomfortable at times, they have been admitted to one of the top universities in the country, the university where, as it says on all the t-shirts, "fun comes to die." But there was more. "Our commitment to academic freedom," Dean Ellison went on, "means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." The response from the nation at large (who knew so many were paying attention to us?) was sharp and swift, none sharper and swifter (at least in academia's terms) than the letter that 150 of my fellow faculty members signed and published in the campus student newspaper during Orientation week in which they distanced themselves from the Dean's take on things.

"Those of us who have signed this letter," they told the students, "have a variety of opinions about requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces. We may also disagree as to whether free speech is ever legitimately interrupted by concrete pressures of the political. That is as it should be. But let there be no mistake: such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges. To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy." They went on to talk about how important it was for the work that we do in the classroom to be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and to a commitment to learning from "a wealth of histories and experiences--to more discussion, not less; to openness, not closure." After which they offered a brief history of the history of "safe spaces" in "gay, civil rights, and feminist efforts of the mid-20th century to create places protected from quite real forces of violence and intimidation.... It would be na├»ve," they acknowledged (or insisted?), "to think that the University of Chicago is immune from social problems. Yet the administration [that is, our dean of students, who is an administrative dean, but also our college dean, who is a member of the faculty; Dean Ellison's letter was meant as a cover letter for Dean Boyer's book] confusingly disconnects 'safe spaces' it supports (see the list of mentoring services on the College's own website) from 'intellectual safe spaces' that it does not, as if issues of power and vulnerability stop at the classroom door."

I did not sign this letter. Not because I do not think my colleagues did anything inappropriate as such in publishing it--quite the reverse! They would not be University of Chicago faculty if they didn't get up in arms about something the administration says at least twice a decade. That, as our very own Dean John Boyer has chronicled at length in his recently published history of the College, is what we at Chicago do: fight with the administration. But likewise we argue with ourselves, sometimes at length, not always as openly as perhaps we should. I was happy when I saw the posts streaming on my Facebook feed about Dean Ellison's letter. I was afraid when I saw the email sent to my department letting me know about the faculty's letter and inviting me to sign. I was even more afraid when I read the names on the list of those who approved the faculty letter, among them colleagues in my own field of medieval studies, many of them colleagues in my own department of history. What would they think of me if I didn't sign? I am scrolling through the list of names again now; it has grown since the letter was originally circulated. My hearts sinks just a little bit when I see the name of someone I respect; I breathe easier when there is a name missing. What if, I asked myself when I first saw the letter, I just pretended I was too engrossed in my research to have known about it? I am on leave this quarter and next, not attending faculty meetings or functions on campus. Nobody would ever know that I had seen the letter and refused--not just neglected, but refused--to sign. Oh, look, there is my upstairs neighbor's name; what if she reads through the list of names and mine isn't there? Oh, and there is the colleague whose office is next door to mine, whom I saw only a week ago or so in the grocery store. There are several of our MacArthur fellows, three of them in my department. There is another of the colleagues whom I respect the most.... Oh, look, there's an Editor's Note: "The online edition of this article will be continually updated as more faculty members sign the letter." I will have no excuse come Spring when I am back on campus, will I?

If I am this frightened at the thought of disagreeing with my colleagues--me, a tenured faculty member--think how our students must feel if they agree with the Deans and disagree with their teachers on issues of "power and vulnerability" and what should be done about them. Yes, we're talking political correctness here, even at the University of Chicago. Seriously, my colleagues think that the administration is creating a hostile environment for our students by telling them that they should expect to be challenged and made uncomfortable over the course of their studies? I should hope so! Otherwise what are they coming here for? College is not therapy. It is more like a monastery (or should be--wouldn't everybody be better able to study if we were all segregated by sex and expected to be celibate?): a schola for training the soul. And training the soul is terrifying work.

This is the way Benedict of Nursia described the purpose of the monastery in the prologue to his "rule for beginners" on which the Benedictine tradition was based:
And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matthew 7:14). For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God's commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter 4:13) and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom.
You will say: "But colleges and universities aren't monasteries; they are institutions of higher learning, not communities of prayer." To which I would respond: "But they are; where do you think all that higher learning comes from?" Here is where I think we, as professors, have done our students a terrible disservice in preparing them for what it means to engage in the kind of learning that we do--or ought to be doing--on our university campuses. To judge from the outrage that has been sparked (should I say, triggered?) over the past year or so by such events as Milo Yiannopoulos's "Dangerous Faggot Tour" or Ben Shapiro's speeches on the importance of diversity of thought and free speech, our students come to campus woefully ill-prepared to encounter arguments that run counter to the things that others in our on-going national conversations about race, class, and gender have said. In part, this is because their teachers themselves do not know these counter-arguments, at least to judge from the responses that I get from my colleagues if I even mention that I may have read about them, never mind taken the time to find out what these dangerous speakers actually say. (Pro tip: it isn't what you read in the mainstream media. As I told Dean Boyer when I wrote to thank him for the book that he sent the students about academic freedom at the University of Chicago, maybe it's because I'm a medievalist, but I do dislike people being labeled heretics without a proper inquisition. Plus, I'm a medievalist. More or less on a daily basis I am wrestling with the way in which the history of Europe has been distorted by, as my colleagues would put it, "concrete pressures of the political". Don't even get me started on Marx.)

Golden Circle
But the problem, I think, goes deeper than this, which is why our students are feeling so anxious and, yes, triggered by some of the things that we ask them to read, talk, and think about in our classrooms and lecture halls. (What happens on campus outside of the classroom or lecture hall is a topic for another post; bear with me.) Bluntly, we aren't teaching them. (Okay, not me, I think I am, at least I hope I am, but I am trying to be inclusive here.) Sure, we assign them reading to do and problem sets to solve, we ask them questions in our discussion sections, we critique their writing and supervise their research. But these are just exercises, like standing and singing the Psalms over and over for the whole of one's life, as Benedict's monks did. To put it in Simon Sinek's terms (see circle), they are the WHAT of intellectual labor: the things that we do as scholars, whether writing papers, conducting experiments, giving talks to our colleagues, and so forth. Arguably, for most of us, this is the only level at which we engage with our students' encounter with the materials of our respective fields. We assign them things to read or problems to work and then test them on their ability to manipulate similar materials according to the models we have given them. (This, by the by, is why we have so much scholarship that simply takes the dominant modes of interpretation--by now in the humanities and social sciences almost exclusively "race, class, and gender"--and "applies" them over and over again; we are stuck at the WHAT.)

Occasionally, although even at Chicago, less and less so (ask me about the BA requirements in my department that my colleagues just voted on), we force ourselves to engage with the HOW: training our students not just to practice manipulating texts or data according to the models we have given them, but getting them to look at intellectual labor (I am using the term here in its monastic sense, the labora of the cloister and scriptorium as opposed to the ora of the choir) as itself a kind of practice that makes certain kinds of demands, above all, on the imagination, but also on the ego, as anyone who has ever faced the terrors of writer's block knows. (Go here for tips on how to deal with this.) Almost never, and I do mean never, do we address the question at the center of Sinek's Golden Circle: the WHY of what we do, whether as teachers or scholars. This, I would argue, is what is most triggering to our students. Why? Because the WHY question is not something you can answer in terms of skills or employability or credentials or any of the other external measures by which we gauge our effectiveness as teachers and our students' ability to learn. WHY should students spend tens of thousands of dollars being tested in particular subjects so as to gain the credential of a BA? Nobody--at least, nobody in my nearly thirty years in academia--ever asks. WHY? Because asking this question requires us to do far more than perform well on a test or get an article accepted through peer review (the professors' equivalent of a mid-term exam). Because asking this question opens us up and lays us bare before God.

Tolkien, as always, put it best. Towards the end of his life, Tolkien received a letter from Camilla Unwin, the daughter of his publisher, asking him for help with a school project on the theme: "What is the purpose of life?" Tolkien responded (late, as always): "What does the question really mean?"[1] Such questions, he argued, are "only really useful when they refer to the conscious purposes or objects of human beings, or to the uses of things they design and make." The value of all other things, those things not designed and made by human beings, lies not in their utility to people, but in themselves: "they ARE, they would exist even if we did not. But since we do exist one of their functions is to be contemplated by us," and given that we are human--that is, curious--we are prone in our contemplation of things other than ourselves to ask the question HOW they came to have the patterns and structures that they do, which then brings us to the question WHY all other such things exist. "But WHY in this sense, implying reasons and motives, can only refer to a MIND. Only a Mind can have purposes in any way or degree akin to human purposes," which brings us to the Question: "Is there a God, a Creator-Designer, a Mind to which our minds are akin (being derived from it) so that It is intelligible to us in part. With that we come to religion and the moral ideas that proceed from it." Without belief in such a personal God, Tolkien contends, "the question: 'What is the purpose of life?' is unaskable and unanswerable. To whom or what would you address the question?" But since (he continues) there are things in the Universe who have developed with minds to ask such questions, it is likely that if the Universe were to reply it would say something like this: "I am as I am. There is nothing you can do about it. You may go on trying to find out what I am, but you will never succeed. And why you want to know, I do not know. Perhaps the desire to know for the mere sake of knowledge is related to the prayers that some of you address to what you call God. At their highest these seem simply to praise Him for being, as He is, and for making what He has made, as He has made it."

This, for Tolkien, was the purpose of life, the only purpose life could conceivably have, given that "purpose" implies by definition "being made":
to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: Laudamus te...  We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour. And in moments of exaltation we may call on all created things to join in our chorus, speaking on their behalf, as is done in Psalm 148, and in The Song of the Three Children in Daniel II [3:57-88, 56, The Benedicite]: PRAISE THE LORD...all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing.
Such praises, I am sure you are unsurprised to hear, have little to no place in the modern university--but, I would argue, our students sense them nevertheless. They come to us hungry for meaning, hungry for understanding, hungry for some sense of WHAT IT ALL MEANS. And we feed them scraps, the leavings of centuries upon centuries of human inquiry into the workings of our souls and of the universe as creatures of God, disconnected from the WHY that originally gave them purpose. Because, of course, for most of the centuries of the existence of universities (and before them, monasteries) the whole point of academic inquiry was to prepare for the encounter with God in the choir. The labora was never intended as an end in itself. Rather, it was the discipline which the monks and scholars practiced so as to be able to endure the great mystery of the choir: the encounter with the Creator of Heaven and earth in all his awe-inspiring love. This was the reason that Benedict provided the rule that he did, with all of its recommendations for how the monks should schedule their labors and prayers: such encounters with the sacred are terrifying, difficult for mere mortals to withstand without going mad.

Our students are going mad. We have brought them into a place where we systematically expose them to the terrors of existence, its beauty and tragedy, its greatness and profundity, and we give them no training in how to prepare themselves for this encounter, in large part because we as teachers have no training ourselves. How does one train for the encounter with God? Perhaps we might start by acknowledging that we should.

[1] Letter 310 To Camilla Unwin, 20 May 1969, in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (1981).

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Taking Umbridge

I thought it was a funny photo, so I shared it on my Facebook wall. Apparently, or so several of my friends are anxious to tell me, it isn't funny at all and I should be very careful at this moment in our nation's election season not to make jokes about Secretary Clinton, because as everyone knows, Donald Trump is terribly, terribly dangerous. 

As one of my friends from college posted almost immediately: "Dislike! Rachel, I respect and love you, and consider you one of the most intelligent persons I know, but I believe that you are not seeing Hillary Clinton for the strong candidate that she is. I had issues at first, too, but then I realized that my prejudice was more about Bill Clinton, and I now admire Secretary Clinton without reservation."

Another friend submitted soon thereafter: "Submitting Barty Crouch Jr (lunatic with borderline multiple personalities who impersonated Mad Eye) as a better substitution for Lockhart, if we're in this universe." At which, I asked if she had seen the image of both candidates as Darth Vader, which I shared on my wall some months ago. 

"I'm cackling omg," my second friend replied. But my first friend was still greatly concerned: "At this point in the election, with the race so close, my personal opinion is that it is in the disinterest of our society as a whole to vilify the obviously qualified candidate. To compare her to Dolores Umbridge is not only wrong, but potentially damaging to our nation. Rachel, you influence a lot of minds, as you should. Your posts and your words have power."

Others jumped in over the course of the day. At present the post has four thumbs up and two hahas, but several of my friends are arguing strongly over Clinton's accomplishments, and at least two more have come on board to try to warn me off making jokes about Clinton. One pointed out that even conservatives, particularly those like David French at National Review say that Donald Trump is dangerous. In French's words: "[Trump is] most dangerous where he has the most power, and that should send a chill down everyone's spine." In my friend's words: "I agree with [French] on this, and probably on little else. I think this is a moment in which fear is fully justified given the madman almost half the country will vote for in a few weeks." Another friend explicitly tried to shame me for the joke: "Hot take: it's good to know that educated white women can be just as dismissive of a woman's accomplishments as a conniving trust fund man-child." "Please," my first friend pleaded with me. "Please, if you can't take a stand [I don't think she means that she would like me to stand for Trump, so I assume she means "in favor of Clinton"], then bow out. With what is at stake, your humor is perilous." Plus, my first friend pointed out: "You have, in humor, equated our first potential female president with an evil, sadistic witch. If you cannot see the harm, and the complete UNfunny nature of that comparison, I am at a loss."

In short, my friends wanted to tell me, be afraid, be very very afraid; this is not the time for making jokes.

Excuse me, but why ever the h*ll not?! One way or another we are about to elect one of the least trusted presidential candidates ever. Even Clinton's supporters don't seem interested in giving her that much support, to judge from the numbers reported turning up for her minimal rallies. This doesn't mean they won't still vote for her, but it does suggest they aren't all that interested in hearing her speak. Likewise, as rousing as Trump's rallies are, he is having a very hard time convincing any one else--at least to judge from the shares on my Facebook feed, not to mention the writers at National Review--to trust him. Darth Vader or Darth Vader? To coin a phrase, at this point, what difference does it make if I post a joke on my Facebook wall pointing up the dilemma our country is caught in? Particularly when, contrary to my friend's confidence in my influence, I have not seen one friend in my Facebook salon change his or her mind thanks to the many articles I have shared over the last ten or twelve months trying to make sense at the very least of why Trump has so many supporters, if not in fact defending him as such. (I saw no point in going there, there are only so many hours in the day, even if I did read Ann Coulter's book.) And when, by the by, David French finds Clinton equally scary, if for rather different reasons.

Well, here my friends are right: it makes all the difference in the world, but not, I would argue, for the reasons they were giving me. You know who else doesn't like jokes? Satan. At least, that is, Milton's magnificent and awe-inspiring Satan brooding over the kingdom that could have been his--should have been his--if only God hadn't gotten in the way of his ambition. Likewise, every earthly tyrant who has ever followed in Satan's footsteps in his (or her--are there female tyrants? There must be, women can do anything men can do) efforts to dominate others' wills. Okay, I admit it, I am channeling Tolkien here, but recall what Gandalf says explicitly about Sauron, when Frodo asks why Sauron should want hobbits as slaves: "He does not need you--he has many more useful servants--but he won't forget you again. And hobbits as miserable slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free." This, you will likewise recall, was the proper purpose of the One Ring. Not to make its wearer invisible (as with ordinary magic rings), but rather to bring all the free peoples of Middle-earth under the dominion of Sauron's will.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, 
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

And for what? Not, as Gandalf pointed out, because all or indeed any of those bound would be useful as slaves; Sauron was not interested in making things. What he wanted was control over other people's thoughts.

How can you tell when you have control over other people's thoughts? They no longer laugh. When people are free, as another friend of mine likes to put it, they laugh; they make jokes about everything. But those under the control of tyrants do not laugh; they are too afraid to laugh, because under tyrants, laughter means death. I am sure you can think of a few examples here without my having to tell you. And before you ask, no, I do not think either Clinton or Trump is interested in being a tyrant. But my friends still keep telling me that it is dangerous to laugh. Which is far more frightening than anything I have heard either candidate say.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Gratitude and the Fellowship of the Sword

You may remember that I quit this sport.

Well, on Friday this past week, in Dallas at the USFA Summer National Championships, I finished 5th in Veteran Women's 50-59 Foil, which with my other two results from this competition year (6th-place Finalist at the December 2015 NAC in Baltimore, and Silver Medalist at the April 2016 NAC in Richmond), enabled me to qualify as a member of the USA Foil Team for the 2016 Veteran World Championships this October in Germany.

I'll wait for you to get up from off the floor. Laughter is always good medicine.

I should probably write some more about how I came back from quitting and what it has been like since I did. But for now, I need to say, "Thank you."

Success is not something that happens without friends. I had no idea when I started fencing thirteen years ago more or less to the day that this journey would be as challenging as it has been. I would not be the fencer I am now without years and years of others' love and support.

Thank you to my coaches, Bakhyt Abdikulov and Peter Habala, for sharing with me their love of our sport, for training me, encouraging me, sticking with me even when I wasn't the easier fencer to coach.

Thank you to my club mates, especially Ed Kaihatsu, Marie Angkuw, Neal White, and Victor Pisman, my fellow veteran fencers and stalwart training partners, for all the bouts, hugs, encouragement, and friendship.

Thank you to my tournament room mates, Lynn Botelho, Sara Nash, and Rebecca Schneider, who have been there for me in both joy and frustration, bought me drinks to celebrate the victories and let me cry, and cry, and cry when there was nothing else I could do.

Thank you to all my fellow Veteran fencers, who have taught me more than I can say about sticking with our sport even when it felt most difficult, who have modeled good sportsmanship and determination for each other under pressures only those who have met each other on the strip can know, who have been there at the competitions year after year so that we could all hone our skills together. Ladies, you rock!

Above all, of course, thank you to my family, my husband JP Brown, who has coached me through more tearful conversations over the phone than either of us can recall; my son Rush Brown, who began the journey as a fencer with me when he was only seven and was with me at the tournaments through my childhood as a Fencing Bear; my mother, who always watches out for me when I travel and makes sure I know she is there rooting for me; my brother and fellow athlete, who has shared with me his love of competition and mindfulness in sport. I would thank my father, too, and hope he is proud of his daughter for not giving up, just as he never gave up on me.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

All Cultures Are Not One

Over at Stanford, things are heating up: a group of students are calling for a discussion about whether their college's curriculum should include a "Western Civilization" humanities requirement, and the fur has well and truly started to fly. As the editor of the Standford Review reports, in the past two weeks since the Review published its petition,
People writing articles in defense of the Western canon have been marginalized and silenced within groups whose policy priorities have nothing to do with curricular requirements. Signers of the petition have reported being personally called out in dining halls and student group meetings, and have been systematically contacted to justify their signatures, They have also been publicly branded as supporters of “racism”, “elitism”, “classism” and “hatred”. Finally, two members of the Stanford activist community have publicly announced that they have downloaded the list of signatories, and intend to use it against voters in case they “want to run for office”. 
The supporters of the petition for a conversation (not even yet a specific proposal, just a discussion about having such a requirement in the curriculum) point to all the obvious facts: that, in the language of the petition, "the politics, history, philosophy, and culture of the Western world" have had a "unique role" in "shaping our political, economic, and social institutions." That studying the sources of our culture in the Western tradition is not the same as saying that that tradition has had no limitations or flaws or that it is the only source of our institutions and ideals. That the ideals and institutions of Western civilization have had effects far beyond the regions that identify now as "Western." To little avail. According to their fellow students, to require study of the Western tradition is by definition to exclude other traditions, induce homogeneity, and "harmful to our campus well-being." And we wonder why we have so much trouble defending the study of the humanities in our schools.

I know what you think I am going to say at this point, but you're (probably) wrong. Yes, I believe that the West is the source of some of the most important institutions and ideals that the world has ever known, including some of the ones that the promoters of the Stanford Review petition have highlighted, much to the distress of their peers: free speech, rationalism, and individual liberty which in the authors' words "fueled the intellectual destruction of colonialism in Western and other societies." And, yes, it is maddening the way in which the critics of the proposal seem not to realize that the very criticisms they are bringing are often themselves products of the hated "Western" tradition, e.g. feminism, Marxism, anti-racism, all of which my students and I have talked about this quarter in our discussions of European civilization. But, pace some of my more conservative friends, I would argue that it is not these kinds of criticisms that are the root of the problem, at least not as such. (Self-criticism is one of the great strengths of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as everyone who has ever recited the Miserere mei knows.) Rather, as I see it, the root of the problem in our defense of the humanities is yet another of our tradition's highest ideals: the willingness to see not just all human beings, but all cultures, more particularly (because this is really the root of the matter) all religions as essentially the same.

Even the Vatican promotes this ideal. As the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate proclaimed by his Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965, puts it:
From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father. This perception and recognition penetrates their lives with a profound religious sense. Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.
Which, surely, is all to the good in these fractious and perilous times when simply citing the criticisms that earlier Christians have made about, for example, Islam can become occasion for attacks on churches and death threats.

Boston University Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero would beg to disagree. As he argues in God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter (2010), fashionable as it has been since the 1960s to affirm "that all religions are beautiful and all are true," such refusal to engage the real differences between the religions tends directly to the detriment of actual understanding as well as of any real hope of peace. In his words:
[The idea, "as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, 'The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the non-essentials'"] is a lovely sentiment but it is dangerous, disrespectful, and untrue. For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one. This wishful thinking is motivated in part by an understandable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise [not quite the way most Christian missionaries put it, but it is true they want all people to be saved through Christ--FB]. For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves--practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, purveyors of fanciful myths [again, something of a caricature; Las Casas did not see the Aztecs or Incas as inferior, and Gregory the Great famously described the pagan Anglo-Saxon youths he saw for sale as slaves as "angels" ("Non Angli, sed angeli")--FB]. The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink--call it Godthink--has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religion that threaten us worldwide.... One purpose of the "all religions are one" mantra is to stop [the fighting and killing to which adherents of different religions are moved by their differences]. And it is comforting to pretend that the great religions make up one big, happy family. But this sentiment, however well-intentioned, is neither accurate nor ethically responsible. God is not one. Faith in the unity of religions is just that--faith (perhaps even a kind of fundamentalism). And the leap that gets us there is an act of the hyperactive imagination.
Prothero goes on to reflect on how this well-intentioned desire for religious unity has left Americans in particular so uncomfortable with expressions of difference as to make them "allergic to 'argument'": like most Americans, his own students "see arguing as ill-mannered, and even among friends they avoid it at any cost." Rather than acknowledge the differences between religions or the cultures they have fostered, Americans would rather "pretend that these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, more moral." We tell world history as if religion did not matter, and we pretend that the great conflicts afflicting our modern world have primarily economic or political roots, whatever the religious motivations those involved in these conflicts invoke. Likewise with the arguments that erupt from within religious traditions. Those who would insist that all religions are basically the same prefer to pretend that "the differences between, say, Christianity and Islam are more apparent than real, and that the differences inside religious traditions just don't warrant the fuss practitioners continue to make over them."

The result, as Prothero has shown here and elsewhere, is a profound ignorance on the part even of believing Americans about the complexities of their own traditions, never mind those of other parts of the world. Religion, in particular Christianity, is the great Unmentionable in our schools, leaving students at sea when confronted with the question how it was that the West became so open to other cultures in the first place or concerned itself with the effects of its expansion in the way that it did. More to the point, it leaves them at sea in understanding why any culture should value anything other than material development or power precisely because it is through religion that human beings express what they value most--and human beings of different cultures and religions value different things, not all of which are mutually compatible with the values of other cultures and religions. For example, the ideal of Christianity as expressed by the Apostle Paul, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28), which arguably is the ultimate, if typically unacknowledged source, of the trinity of modern social justice concerns (race, class, and gender). Accordingly, when certain of the Stanford students oppose the Stanford Review's proposal on the grounds that their stories and voices are not included in the account of "Western civilization" that they have been taught ("dead, white, European, and male"), whether they realize it or not, they are speaking in terms of the ideal of Pentecost, that the gospel should be preached to all in their native language, so that all peoples, regardless of race, class, sex, culture, or politics might be included in the Church (Acts 2:1-21).

But to make such arguments requires us to make certain choices--and choices is the last thing that most humanities professors feel inclined to make. Not for themselves--we all have our specialties which we have chosen, often at great cost to the things we believe other people base their decisions on (prospects of material development, power). But oddly and devastatingly, for our students. Because, we say, we don't want to impose our beliefs on anyone. Because it is not for us to say what they should value (although, of course, we do, simply by refusing to say). Because we don't want to offend. Because there are truths in all traditions, although we cannot give our students any criteria for distinguishing truth from lies or even half-truths. To be sure, not all of us are so reticent: some, particularly those who feel called upon to serve as social or political activists, are quite open about their desire to teach their students particular ways of viewing the world. But the majority of us believes with Pope Paul VI that we live in a world where the paths to truth are multiple and regards all cultures and religious traditions as equal in their access to the basic truths, the "fundamentals or essentials," as Swami Sivananda would put it. (Full disclosure: I have chanted prayers to Swami Sivananda as guru and sat satsang with his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda about a year or two before he died.)

Noble, even Christian, as this perspective is, however, it has its costs, not the least of which being we leave ourselves no ground as teachers of the humanities on which to defend the actual content of our lessons. Perhaps the greatest cost is not, however, intellectual, but emotional, as the accusations flying now at Stanford illustrate. In refusing to make the argument for the values and ideals on which our universities were founded beyond just the "skills" that we purport to teach, we have abandoned our students to a world in which the only truths are personal and the only motivators political or economic. This is not to say that we should become evangelists ourselves; we are teachers, not preachers. It is to say, nevertheless, that we need to reexamine our own core beliefs, including our insistence that if the truth is out there, we have no idea how to find it other than through our unexamined faith that the only differences in cultures or religions are "non-essential," if not even real.*

To be continued...

*Unless, of course, they come from the West. Then they are diabolical.