Archive for December, 2009

Thank You, RVW

A piece originally written for Springhouse and published in 2008.  I didn’t listen to quite as much holiday music this year, compared to other years.  But I always play Vaughan Williams’ Christmas music.  In a way, that music helps me not isolate the spiritual aspects of Christmas within the very nostalgic season.

For many years, I’ve loved the music of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). He was born 135 years ago last year, and died fifty years ago this coming summer. As editor of the 1906 English Hymnal, Vaughan Williams (RVW) adapted folk tunes or wrote his own music for hymns like “For All the Saints,” “I Sing the Almighty Power of God,” “At the Name of Jesus,” “Hail Thee, Festival Day,” “Come Down, O Love Divine,” and others that are found in many hymnals today, so I first heard his music at my childhood church. Later, when I was a master’s degree student, I attended a choral recital with my musician friend Jim Hicks. One of the pieces was RVW’s setting of Burns’ poem “Ca the Yowes.” The song was one of those hair-standing-on-the-neck moments best experienced from a live performance, although a recent CD version (Over Hill, Over Dale on the Hyperion label) comes close.

Over the next several years I collected LPs of RVW’s music. At first misinterpreting his double last name, I looked in vain under “Williams” at the mall record shop, but then I found (and played till it crackled) The Pastoral Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, a champion of his music. Another time, I spotted RVW’s opera Sir John in Love at an out of town record store. My wife worried about the cost, so to please her, I didn’t buy the set, and then I kicked myself all the way home. A few months later, though, we returned to that particular mall, two hours away, and the set was still for sale! “Buy it, for heaven’s sake,” my wife said. I also shopped used record stores. In Carbondale, Illinois, there is a record store called Wuxtry’s. I loved that place when I lived in the area. One time I purchased an LP there, an RVW “nativity play” called The First Nowell (1958). The LP was a classical music club recording, out of print, and no other recording existed, so I took gentle care of the record for over twenty years until, finally, a new recording on CD appeared a year ago on the Chandos label.

Today I play my old LPs less and less, but RVW’s music still fills my CD and Download collections, along with other favorite composers. If pressed, I’d had to say my favorite musical pieces of all, by anyone, are his third and fifth symphonies. The former, a mostly quiet piece known as the Pastoral Symphony, actually reminds me some days of hiking the woods of Millstone Knob, while the latter reminds me of driving Illinois 37 in the early morning.

Vaughan Williams was born in the Gloucestershire village of Down Ampney, which he honored by naming a hymn tune for the town (usually heard as “Come Down, O Love Divine”). His first name was pronounced “Rafe,” and his double surname was once hyphenated. His relatives included the Wedgwood family, known for their pottery, and on his mother’s side, he was a grandnephew of Charles Darwin. RVW studied with composers Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Charles Hubert Parry, and Maurice Ravel. Beginning in 1903 he began collecting English folk songs, which influenced his direction as a composer. He volunteered in World War I and served as an ambulance driver in France. He and his first wife, Adeline Fisher, a cousin of Virginia Woolf, were married from 1897 until her death in 1951. Among the couple’s friends was Ursula Wood, a young woman whose poetry RVW set for several of his pieces. Ursula’s first husband died during World War II. In spite of a 39-year age difference, Ursula and RVW married in 1953. She passed away just last year.

Mrs. Vaughan Williams wrote a lovely biography of her husband (R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Clarendon Paperbacks, 2002), and his friend Michael Kennedy wrote an excellent account of his life, The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Clarendon Paperbacks, 1994). Among other books available about the composer, I also have a short biography by Simon Heffer (Vaughan Williams, Northeastern University Press, 2000), the cover of which features not only RVW but also his cat Foxy. This week I’ve been watching a brand-new documentary, O Thou Transcendent, available on DVD, directed by Tony Palmer.

Several composers are known for nine symphonies—Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Dvorak, Bruckner, and Glazunov, among others—and Vaughan Williams wrote nine. In his long career he also wrote five operas, numerous instrumental and choral works, song cycles, and film music. Some of the popular pieces of his early period include In the Fen Country (1904), the song cycles The House of Life and Songs of Travel (also 1904), Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 (1906), the choral Toward the Unknown Region (1907), the song cycle On Wenlock Edge, the incidental music The Wasps (1909), A Sea Symphony (1909), Fantasia on English Folk Songs, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (both 1910), Five Mystical Songs (1911), Phantasy Quintet (1912), Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912), and A London Symphony (1913). Among these, the Norfolk rhapsody, the Tallis fantasia, and the English folk songs suite incorporate folk tunes.

His pieces following World War I include The Lark Ascending (written in 1914 and revised in 1920), A Pastoral Symphony (1922), Mass in G Minor (1922), The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains (1922), the opera Hugh the Drover (1924), the choral Flos Campi, the oratorio Sancta Civitas (both 1925), the opera Sir John in Love (1928), Job, a Masque for Dancing (1930), the Piano Concerto in C Major (1931), Fantasia on “Greensleeves” (1934), Symphony No. 4 in F Minor (1934), Five Tudor Portraits (1935), the operetta The Poisoned Kiss, the cantata Dona Nobis Pacem, the opera Riders to the Sea (all 1936), Serenade to Music (1939), and Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” (1939). It’s interesting to realize that his fourth symphony premiered when he was 60, and he still had five to go. During the war, his best known pieces were the Symphony No. 5 in D Major (1943) and the Oboe Concerto (1944). Recently, The Lark Ascending, for solo violin and orchestra, was voted listeners’ #1 favorite piece in a Classic FM poll.

Following World War II, he wrote symphonies (1946, 1952, 1955, 1957), An Oxford Elegy (1949), Concerto Grosso for Strings (1950), the opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (1951), Tuba Concerto in F Minor (1954), the cantata Hodie (This Day) (1954). Listening to RVW has also led me to explore other English composers, especially Gerald Finzi, Edward Elgar, and RVW’s close friend Gustav Holst.

Sometimes it’s hard to say why certain music “speaks” to you very deeply. If I’m feeling verklempt and need a good cry, all I have to do is put on the Tallis Fantasia, the Dives and Lazarus variants, the Norfolk rhapsody, the last movement of the Sea Symphony, beginning at the section “Bathe me, O God, in thee,” or the third and fifth symphonies. Such gorgeous music! Musicologists refer to RVW’s use of modal harmonies and the pentatonic scale. I’m pretty ignorant about musicology, though, so if we were listening to CDs together, I’d point out favorite themes and harmonies in his music—a “Vaughan Williamsy” sound, as one author puts it—like a tritonic chord that I hear in the first movement of the fifth, the last movement of the Pastoral, and also in Sancta Civitas, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and others.

Music provides all kinds of private associations which are not at all important “in the big scheme” but are deeply important and personal to the listener. Think of music that instantly takes you back to a certain time or place. I purchased several Mendelssohn LPs in Maryland, very early in my marriage, and now Mendelssohn’s music tends to transport me to that area and that time; the Scottish Symphony might as well be the Interstate 70 through the Hills West of Baltimore Symphony. Mozart, which I also play almost daily, reminds me of several locations. Vaughan Williams might be amused to know that his music connects me to my roots in Southern Illinois—and that it inspires me when I’m writing religious curriculum. As I wrote earlier, I first heard his music as hymn tunes in my local church. Eventually I embarked on a religious career, and church music naturally continued to be nourishing. Because the English folk tradition not only influenced his hymnal but also his lifelong work, it’s easy for me to feel happy and uplifted by nearly all his music, religious or not. I’ve written appreciative letters to people whose art I admire, but I was a toddler when RVW died, and so this article expresses my thanks.

Vaughan Williams was an atheist in his youth and a “cheerful agnostic” in his adulthood. He seemed to have liked the idea of being a “Christian agnostic.” In the film O Thou Transcendent, Tony Palmer tries to balance the familiar image of RVW—a folksy, avuncular papa bear—with the image of a suffering man whose doubts about life’s meaning are reflected in pieces like the fourth symphony (a consistently angry piece), the sixth symphony (a haunting work consisting of three movements full of conflict and a final, eerie, pianissimo movement that people have associated with postwar desolation), as well as the ambivalent mood of his ninth symphony, completed not long before his death. One of Palmer’s interviewees says that the conclusion of the sixth—with a major chord and a minor chord moving back and forth until the symphony ends with E minor—sounds like an “amen” that never resolves into affirmation. RVW had two notable sources of suffering in his life, his experiences in World War I, and the fact that his wife Adeline was a longtime invalid from arthritis. Perhaps he also suffered from being fatherless at an early age and also from having no children. We shouldn’t assume an equation between an artist’s work and autobiography (and the film sometimes comes too close to that kind of equation), but pieces like these symphonies (and the Pastoral Symphony, which is actually inspired by the Western Front rather than English countryside) surely have roots in the composer’s experiences. And yet, so do his many “happier” pieces. His very last piece, after all, was The First Nowell, the lovely Christmas piece that I’ve cherished for over twenty years.

In the June 2006 issue of Journal of the RVW Society, Eric Seddon argues, “Just as it does no good to quibble about whether Vaughan Williams was really a secret Christian in disguise, so it is useless to claim that his works are not profoundly Christian; that is, that they are derived from a Christian world-view, informed by Christian theology, and resonant with the Christian message.. What other composer of his day produced such monumental meditations on the nativity, the apocalypse, the relationship of the soul to God, and the Eucharist?” (p. 23). Maybe it would be better to say that Vaughan Williams’ works were profoundly influenced by England, but “Englishness” includes deeply Christian traditions. RVW’s agnosticism didn’t preclude an appreciation for the mysteries beyond human existence, and in his words, he wanted in his music “to stretch out to the ultimate realities through the medium of beauty” (Journal of the RVW Society, 10/06, p. 16). He didn’t profess to know what those ultimate realities are, and he seemed prepared to accept that there are none.

And yet his “stretching”—and his willingness to be of service to people whose beliefs he couldn’t embrace—makes his works wonderful listening for a Christian like me. He worked his whole life on music associated with Bunyan’s story The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the conclusion of the opera, at the point where the character Pilgrim (“Christian” in the novel) succumbs, the trumpets and songs of Heaven appear within the silence of death, envelopes the listener in glory, and disappear again. We find a similar effect in a more disturbing piece, Sancta Civitas, based on apocalyptic texts: when the vision of divinity appears, it overwhelms and terrifies in a way consistent with the biblical angelic appearances. These are just two pieces; as Seddon writes, RVW composed so much beautiful church music. The CD Shepherd of the Delectable Mountains (Hyperion, 1993), containing A Song of Thanksgiving and The 100th Psalm, is another personal favorite.

John Francis writes (Journal of the RVW Society, 6/07), “If anyone loved his neighbor, throughout his life, I think it was Vaughan Williams.” In that article, Francis quotes a Musical Times writer, “[RVW] was instantly ready to support from his own purse the many appeals…that came to him. Indeed it was sometimes difficult to persuade him that some causes were more deserving than others. His instinct was to help first and judge later, a trait of character occasionally too optimistic, but always endearing.” Francis notes that Vaughan Williams “embodied ‘Christian’ (actually humanitarian) values to such an extent that Christians are perhaps just disappointed that he was not a paid up member” (p. 19). Lincoln seems a similar case: a deeply spiritual not-quite-believer whose human sympathies and integrity capture the imagination.

Over the years I’ve been very inspired by RVW’s eagerness to encourage people and to serve. He enlisted in World War I and served near the front, when he might have used his age (42) and class to avoid the war, in which he lost close friends like the composer George Butterworth. During World War II he helped with refugee efforts and other kinds of assistance, like scrap collection and even, according to Palmer’s documentary, cleaning public lavatories. We’ve all known people in our various professions who should’ve taken the time to be encouraging, but who did not. It’s a very human tendency to disdain interests and pathways that aren’t your own, or to be snobbish toward others who don’t meet your standards. RVW supported the work of other composers, like Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, whose styles were different from his own. Commenting on his generous attitude toward his students, RVW said he’d rather encourage a fool than discourage a genius. Words that have inspired my own teaching!

Simon Heffer writes that “the sheer quality and genius of his work is denied only by curmudgeons, and is in huge demand by radio audiences, concert halls and the CD-buying public … what Vaughan Williams had to say is timeless in its appeal. It is …an appeal which, even though designed by an Englishman for the English, has now safely and popularly travelled around the world” (Journal of the RVW Society, 2/08, p. 14). This little essay is my thank you to RVW, and also my own contribution in keeping that music traveling!

Read Full Post »

A Very Fine House

Not a Christmas story exactly, but a story of the place where many Christmases happened…
A few years ago I authorized the sale of my childhood home. Mom had moved into a nursing home, so first I hired a company to auction furniture and other saleable items, and other good people to discard the rest of the house’s contents. The process went very well, and I’m grateful to my realtor and the workers and auctioneers. When I first wrote the following recollections a couple years ago, I felt very positive about the house, for the sales had helped my mom. Now I’m back to “processing” the house; I’m sad that I’ve no childhood home to return to. Every so often, I’ve a dream wherein I’m back at the house, letting ready for work as if I lived there, or talking to my father (who is deceased), or some other odd mixture of past and present.
My mom and dad and I moved into their house in 1960, when I was three. Dad was a truck driver; Mom had worked in retail until she became pregnant with me, their only child. Our house was brand new, and so was our car: a ’60 gold Cadillac, complete with fins! What a typical, post-war, middle-class image.
For many of us, our earliest memories are the clearest and strongest. Too young to be a Sixties hippy, I spent the decade journeying through childhood days centered around our home, while strange, often scary things were meanwhile happening in the world. Mom shuttled me around town; I enjoyed elementary school; I read library books; with neighborhood kids, I played in the backyard and in the parks. Our house was just a few hundred feet from an outstanding park that connected to other parks. Busy through long, summer days, my friends and I bravely addressed a series of crises that affected our hometown at that moment in time: rampaging dinosaurs and alien invaders.
Thanks to Boomer nostalgia and our blond-wood, black and white TV, some of my household memories lounge around the living room, where I watched cartoons and kids’ shows. I’ve no clear memories of the Howdy Doody Show, which ended when I was three, but I liked Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room, and St. Louis programs like Corky’s Colorama and The World of Mr. Zoom. The new Hanna-Barbera productions kept me endlessly entertained: Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Ruff and Reddy, and others. I went to sleep with a Huck Hound doll rather than a teddy bear. I enjoyed other shows: Three Stooges shorts, Looney Tunes, Popeye, Tom Terrific, 8th Man, and Fireball XL-5. Later, I loved the nail-biting adventures of Jonny Quest, infinitely preferring that show to softball.
Naturally my childhood memories can be linked to other aspects of concurrent history. I don’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened when I was five, but I remember being afraid of some impending disaster. I remember a nightmare that I had; in the dream, I was watching television at one end of the living room-dining room, and at the other end a creepy monster with all his friends started running toward me in a dusty stampede! Remembering this dream now, I realize that the monster was the character Flubadub from the Howdy Doody Show: the creature with a duck pill, Cocker Spaniel ears, and a giraffe neck. How creepy! Since I’ve no memories of the show, I must’ve been spooked by the character during my very earliest years. A few years later, when In Cold Blood appeared, I became as afraid of intruders as of the Soviets and Flubadubs.
Our house was strewn with the toys that my folks loved to buy me. I even had a toy gold 1960 Cadillac, which I crashed around the living room with aplomb. Not surprisingly, several of my toys had tie-ins with television shows or with kids’ products advertised on TV. I had a Popeye watercolor set and a spy decoder gizmo from Keds Shoes. Santa brought me a Western-style BB gun, but unlike Jean Shepherd’s Ralphie, I liked but didn’t crave it. I liked model airplanes and science-fiction toys the best. One toy became a source of reminiscence between Mom and me. It was Fred Flintstone atop a “dino-crane,” and the thing ran along on battery-powered wheels. Dad bought it in 1961, I believe, when The Flintstones was in its second season. It was either a Christmas present for 1961, or perhaps a birthday present for my upcoming birthday in January 1962. For some reason the toy made me cry. I just didn’t like the dinosaur. So the toy went, box and all, into the attic. Dad’s feelings were hurt; he thought I’d love the gift. The attic became the place where, eventually, Dad stored nearly every toy I’d outgrown.
Comic books! I had quite a few: Donald Duck (surely several by Carl Barks), Uncle Scrooge, Dennis the Menace, Top Cat, Ruff and Ready, and the like. For a while, my mother kept my comics in my old wicker bassinet. Eventually my tastes ran to Superman, Bat Man, and various adventures of costumed heroes, and jungle dwellers. The last series I remember enjoying was Enemy Ace, the adventures of a German World War I pilot who flew a red Fokker triplane and, while regretting the horrors of war, caused even his comrades to recoil from his cold-blooded missions.
I had a series of household pets over the years: a horned toad, a salamander, a hamster, at least one gold fish, all eventually buried in the backyard. We had outdoor cats at different times, but we lived on a busy street … enough said. (We could’ve had our own small cemetery, like that of Natalie Portman’s character in the movie Garden State.) Our two main pets were a sad old cocker spaniel, Lady (1954-1967), who lived in the backyard and, in wintertime, the garage; and an incontinent, loveable dachshund named Baron (1968-1979). For his eleven years, Baron barked at every moving object that he happened to notice outside our picture window; he’d nearly have a stroke if someone came to the door. Barking was a leitmotif in the soundtrack of our home, but love accepts a lot. When she died, Lady was just old and tired; we buried her at my grandmother’s farm. Baron had a bad heart, presumably from eating too many skins from Dad’s tasty fried chicken. Baron is buried in the backyard, though my parents eventually lost track of the exact spot.
As a little kid, I didn’t think too deeply about the plan of our house, which is typical of the era. The one-story house has a low, rectangular design, a pitched roof with deep eaves, brick siding, large picture windows, and an attached one-car garage, plus a full, unfinished basement. Inside, a minimum of interior walls divide the rooms. If so inclined, a person could run laps through the living-dining room, the kitchen, the den (my parents’ office), down the hallway past the full bathroom, past the two bedrooms, and then back into the living room.
The basement had an informal bedroom corner where my grandmother slept during her visits, a work bench for Dad, a sewing area for Mom, plus shelves for books, and other shelves for Dad’s various canning projects: jelly, green beans, tomatoes, and the like. A great place, but at first I feared the basement. (Do you get the impression from these recollections that I was a nervous little kid?) Sure, I felt brave as I addressed the dinosaurs and Martians in the yard; they were out in the open. The monsters in our basement had places to hide! Eventually I toughed up and considered the basement a cozy, cluttered place for personal and social time and a cool refuge on hot summer days. An old recliner went to the basement, along with other replaced furniture from the living room. A portable TV, once in the kitchen, also went to the basement.
I won‘t talk too much about Mom and Dad‘s life together besides the few things I write here, and the fact that they were married 58 years. I had a lovely childhood, no traumas that would make compelling reminiscence. My biggest “issue” was the fact that, because I was an only child, I grew up with considerable pressure to fulfill my parents’ dreams, to fill an emotional space in their often melancholy marriage. When I became older, one of my first orders of business was to begin addressing the insecurities that arose from those dynamics: to become comfortable “being my own person,” as the cliché goes.  I’ve spoken to other only children who’ve had a similar experience of growing up feeling deeply responsible for the family’s well being.
A dear friend loves a certain memory of mine: one day in the late 60s, during a family trip to the St. Louis Zoo, I found someone’s transistor radio beside our car. It didn’t look as if it had been dropped; it was directly behind one of the car’s rear tires. I wonder if someone wanted the thing smashed, the way I used to put pennies on the Illinois Central tracks in order to return and find them flattened. In any case, I took the radio home and played it while I was outdoors. I also remember using it in the very early morning hours, whenever I awakened too soon.  In retrospect, I think I must’ve had childhood depression, the way I worried about things during the day then couldn’t sleep after 3 AM.  While awake, though, I’d turn the radio on and listen to the white noise until the local radio station came on the air.
Our house and its contents are symbols of memories, and memories themselves. Maybe that’s why I’ve so many memories of the place, for over these years, Mom and Dad accumulated a lot of “stuff.” Before they traded the Cadillac for a more modest, 1966 Chevy Impala, our one-car garage had become an extra family room, though never decorated as such. Mom and Dad began to place their “overflow” belongings into the garage. With stuff in the garage, well . . . why not put some chairs out there? And also the old black and white television! Mom and Dad purchased an upright piano and set it in the garage. I could practice for piano lessons and also watch Lost in Space.
Eighteen in 1975, I was too young for Vietnam. Dad, a wounded artillery-division veteran of Leyte and Okinawa, discouraged any thoughts I might’ve had about military service. I think his exact words, when I was quite young, were, “Like Hell are you going to join the Army!” So the 1970s—my second decade at our house—rolled along through the miasmas of adolescence and the uncertainties of early adulthood. Junior high school was terrible for all three years, but I found refuge in rock music. My bedroom became an adolescent sanctuary of late-Sixties-early-Seventies music and black-light posters, a place to manage anxiety attacks. High school was much better; I actually fit in! I became a Seventies hippy, long-haired and bell-bottomed. My first car, parked outside the house, was a 1963 Chevrolet, a seen-better-days source of freedom. In the late 1970s, I commuted to a nearby college, which was cheaper and quieter than dorm-living, but more challenging for a good social life.
Our house became full with belongings as the years went on. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad collected antiques. Many of our Sunday afternoons were spent shopping local antique stores or in shops in nearly small towns. My folks loved antique clocks, and their living room and bedroom walls became decorated with gorgeous clocks: twenty-nine in all. Mom and Dad enjoyed antique furniture, too, though they needed a vaster house to hold their treasures.
The clocks resonate in connection to another memory: the time when I discovered my life’s vocation. During my freshman year of college, I purchased a required course text called A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology by William E. Hordern (Macmillan 1955, 1968). The book opened my eyes to the joys of religious studies, giving me an idea for a career in religious work and writing. I even rose at 4 AM to finish the book. For some reason I sat in the den for that early-morning project. It was a pleasant room in which to watch the sun rise, and so I read the book, overjoyed, near five of the old clocks. The clocks seemed to say to me . . . “Why are you up so early?”
Mom and Dad were formed by the Great Depression. Be saving; everything (an empty box, an old towel, out of style clothing) might have an eventual use. Toys came be played with by grandchildren. Food should never be wasted. Money should be watched carefully. Dad loved to drive among our small town’s groceries to find the best buys. Neither of my folks could part with things easily. My old toys resided in the attic and the basement, while cast-off items became stored away. I told my folks that, if they ever wanted to have a big garage sale, I’d come home and help with it. They thought that was a good idea for extra money. But they never wanted to take the first steps; each looked to the other to take the initiative.
By the 1980s, after all, my folks were growing older. Mom had had health problems for years, and Dad had entered his seventies. In time, they didn’t want to depart with any of their plenteous “stuff.”
My memories of the house seem to fast-forward through the Eighties. I lived in Connecticut for my master’s degree, then back to Illinois for two years. A long-time friend and I reconnected, fell in love, became engaged, and married. Beth and I moved to the east coast for our doctorates for three years, and we moved then to Arizona for four years teaching positions. Our daughter was born in Arizona. We saw my folks on comparatively fewer occasions, usually when we made the trip at holidays. Mom and Dad promised to travel to see us between holidays, for Dad had by then retired from trucking, but like the forever-postponed garage sale, my folks each looked to the other to make the plans and so they visited us seldom. Eventually they became too infirm for easy travel. The single time they visited us in the Southwest, Mom became ill.
We moved again in 1991, to northern Kentucky, and so throughout the Nineties, Beth, our daughter Emily, and I lived about 250 miles from my folks. During those years, I visited my parents every two months, on average, and did chores for them. Beth, Emily and I drove over together a couple times a year. During that time my folks became quite frail. Mom required a wheelchair because of her arthritis and other health problems. Dad needed his walker and struggled with heart trouble and type-2 diabetes.
I worried about their well-being, and about balancing my job—at the time fraught with stressful challenges —with my own household responsibilities and also with my parents’ increasingly pressing needs. My folks wanted me to do more for them, but they also resisted my efforts and ideas. One time I enrolled them in Meals-on-Wheels to help Dad, who could only cook one-handed, by holding his walker. That lasted a day. Their food is no damn good, Dad said. Even finding a kid to mow their lawn each week for $10 met with parental resistance; couldn’t I make the five-hour round trip each week and do the job, and save my folks that money? 
Meanwhile, Emily loved to visit my folks and their cluttered home. Quite little at the time, she loved to watch television at Grandma and Grandpa’s. I knew, of course, that the TV was in the same place in the living room as all its predecessors back to 1960. She loved to play in the backyard and especially in the parks just a few hundred feet from the house—the same areas I’d enjoyed years before. Sometimes she slept in my old bedroom. Time with my parents was special to her. In the last years of my parents’ lives, my life with their house made a lovely circle.
I speculated what to do, someday, with the house. At that point the issue was theoretical, but since I’m an only child, I knew that the house would become my responsibility. Mom and Dad always wanted me to have a nice inheritance, including their belongings. I was very grateful for their love for me and treasured their many gifts, but I couldn’t keep and cherish all of their possessions. To paraphrase a popular mid-Sixties song, “cherish” is not the word I use to describe old newspapers and broken appliances. The house, and also a small and a large shed in the back yard, became filled with stuff, good and useless. By the late 1990s the basement had scarcely a one-person path through the empty boxes and cast-off belongings. Talking to them about this subject was a minefield.
Dad used to pull Beth and me aside in the house. As early as 1984, the year we were married, he confided that Mom’s health was failing; we should be ready. He wasn’t sure how much longer Mom would be with us, and he was deeply worried about her. His concern for her well being, I’m sure, amplified qualities such as his sometimes impractical stubbornness.
But he died first, in September 1999, when he was 87. He was doing what he loved best, messing around in the kitchen. Mom (80 that year) was in the bathroom when she heard him fall. With great difficulty she got herself back in the wheelchair and went to him. According to her, someone had rung the front door bell and then went around to the back door and knocked. In attempting to answer the knock, Dad nearly made it to the back door when he died instantly of a cardiac aneurysm. We never knew who was at the door.  There’s a good explanation of some kind, but part of me thinks of all those Touched by an Angel episodes that my parents enjoyed.
Later on, I found forty-four hundred-dollar bills hidden in Dad’s diary of his blood sugar readings. Mom and I had a sad chuckle about that; how he worried about money!
The Nineties ended, and the new century began. My family and I moved to Ohio for better jobs. Dad had done all the basic household chores, and Mom scarcely could become suddenly independent, especially as her health continued to deteriorate. But she wanted to stay at her own house, so we hired excellent live-in help. Soon after Dad’s death, Mom volunteered to me to take some of their antiques and to locate the family pictures to keep. I took care of Mom’s financial affairs, grateful for the chance to help her more effectively than I could before. I wished she would’ve moved closer to me; yet I understood, cognitively, the desire to remain in a beloved house. The challenges of the house and its contents were naturally postponed amid Mom’s very intense grief and worries. I tried to think of the kinds of considerations that I’d want if I were in her situation. All Mom’s mail was forwarded to me for processing. During the next several years Mom’s time took on a sad yet contended sameness, and as before, I traveled to see her as often as possible.
In time, Mom had to go a nursing home. I gave her plenty of warning when the time approached: several months, in fact. When the day to move her came, I thought my heart would break as her nurse and I helped her to the car. She was leaving the house in which she lived for forty-six years. Thankfully the transition went fairly smoothly; the nurses commented, compassionately, that I seemed more distressed than Mom. I made numerous trips back home to help her acclimate. She’s lonely in the nursing home but she tells me, “As long as you’re handling things, I’m alright.”
As I wrote before, I readied Mom’s house for eventual sale by hiring an auctioneer to handle her better belongings and also good people to dispose of unsellable things and to clean.  My realtor was a gem.  During that process, I rediscovered my childhood toys, so much a part of my memories of home. The attic was accessible only by ladder through the ceiling of the garage, and so anything stored there seemed far beyond the ken of man. But I hired a team of fellows to empty the attic’s contents into the garage. There were other things besides my toys—old chairs and stools and the like—but the resulting pile filled nearly a whole side of the garage, nearly over my head. “Paul never lacked for toys!” commented a friend whom I’d hired.
I decided the now-vintage toys should be sold at auction, for they’d bring an excellent price for Mom’s finances. I felt fortunate to have the chance to retrieve at least a few representative items: many people have already lost their toys to the trash, long-ago garage sales, and the like. I knew a few items would never be located, like the transistor radio, for which I‘d searched over the years. I didn’t bother to look for my old Huck Hound doll; if it existed, it would’ve been moth-eaten and musty.
On several occasions I visited the house alone, in order to carry away financial records (some from the 1960s) that I didn’t want to leave in the house. While searching, I found a stack of my old comic books in a forgotten drawer: Quick Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound, Donald Duck … and surprisingly also some Western comics like Have Gun, Will Travel. I’d completely forgotten about those.
Thank goodness the 40-year-old Fred and dino-crane, still in the box (and with the D battery), made it to the top of the pile of toys that had been removed from the attic. It was the first toy for which I searched. I’ve displayed the box and toy atop my bookshelves. Hey, Dad, now I’m not afraid of the toy! It’s cute! Thank you. Providentially, the Cadillac, too wasn’t difficult to locate. I was glad to find it, although the toy, with its smashed roof and loose tires, has “condition issues,” as they say on Antiques Roadshow.
But don’t we all? I’m a Christian but I deeply appreciate a central teaching of Buddhism: attachment brings suffering. We attach ourselves to certain things—whether possessions, family, a image of ourselves, a love, a dream, a notion about the way things ought to be—out of many motives, good and bad. But nothing to which we attach ourselves is permanent; thus the pain of living, the human condition.
But amid the pain of living come divine surprises. To paraphrase a saying, sometimes answered prayer comes at you sideways. For one thing, I’m happy that Mom and I could work together so she could continue to have good care. For another, I hadn’t realized how many people have dealt with similar situations with their older parents or grandparents. I found terrific friends who shared their own family experiences and were “there” when I felt glum. I also realized that those years of worry about my folks had a positive outcome. I found that I’d already worked through some of the grieving process concerning my parents and the eventual sale of their home. Thus, when the time came to handle the hard responsibilities of Mom’s care, I felt stronger and more clearheaded to do so. These days, however, I’m back to the grieving process; how sad I feel, some days and in dreams, that I don’t have a childhood home to return to any longer. This essay represents emotions-in-progress.
When I walked through the house for the last time, it was completely cleaned out and looked big and spacious. I’d  no desire to live there; the years of concern about my parents’ well-being had eliminated that need, somehow. In fact, I dearly hoped the next family, whoever they may be, will love the place. Will they live here over forty years? Probably not. Will they be able to choose the memories they have? No more than I can. As a dear friend says, memories choose us, not the other way around.
A case in point is that Flintstone toy, which at the moment is in storage again, pending an upcoming move. (The poor thing has spent most of its existence in darkness.) In A Christmas Story, Ralphie poignantly calls his Red Ryder gun the best Christmas present he would ever receive. Needless to say, I didn’t initially feel the same about Fred and the dino-crane! But now, it represents something dear about our loving, imperfect family.
At that same Christmas, Santa also brought me a little drawing board. For some reason I decided to practice writing dates on it, so I started with that year, 1961, and continued through the decade till I got to 1969 and “19610.” Dad explained to four-year-old me that after “nineteen sixty-nine” we’d come to “nineteen seventy,” not “nineteen sixty-ten”. So I learned about counting, about dates, and in a very childish way, about the passing of time.
Now, from the vantage point of what I would’ve called “Nineteen Sixty Forty-Nine,” I feel a little better about the house, for even though I don’t return to it physically, in my memories my parents are still there, and the house with its familiar contents is still open to me, and never far away. 

Read Full Post »

I taught the course “Life and Times of Lincoln” several times at the University of Akron. I’m still not sure what I think of this speech. Deeply moving, it is also troubling and challenging.

Fellow-Countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

That’s the opening paragraph among four total paragraphs. Here he uses the speech’s only instance of the first-person pronoun. Lincoln does not recount the achievements of his administration, but says, in effect, “We all know what is happening with the war, so I need not summarize that information.” We must remember that, although we know that the war lasted only a little over a month after Lincoln gave this speech, he and his audience did not. For all they knew, the war could go on for many more weeks or months. Thus the last sentence.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation.

Quite true: Lincoln’s first inaugural reached out to the South: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

That is what Lincoln said in 1861.nNow, in 1865, he continues.

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish,

–a sorrowful, classic understatement, considering the 600,000 dead in the conflict—

and the war came.

The third paragraph is an astonishing piece.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

Lincoln turns to theology here.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but

–He quotes Matthew 7:1–

let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Certainly no quarrel with that theology! I wish more people, including politicians who invoke God’s blessings, understood prayer as Lincoln does: God is not “on our side,” no matter how just we believe our causes are. God’s purposes are far higher and greater than we can imagine, and we should pray to understand how God is working so that we can follow God more clearly.

Next, Lincoln quotes Matthew 18:7

Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Wait a minute! Is Lincoln saying that God is acting in American history the way he acted in judgment of Israel and Judah in the Tanakh?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,

–“Sunk” is an old economic term meaning to pay off a debt–

and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said

–and he quotes Psalm 19:9–

“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

I have always thought the American Civil War, had rather “biblical” qualities in the sense of a mysterious logic.  Think of events in the Bible like the “accidental” death of Ahab (1 Kings 21:20f; 1 Kings 22:34), or the salvation of Jeremiah based on the chance event of an overheard conversation (Jer. 38:1-13), and then think of the way Lee’s plans in Maryland were discovered accidentally, rolled around a batch of cigars, or the way Stonewall Jackson’s strange and untimely death became a turning point for the war. Opportunities for the war’s early end always seemed to evaporate, as if the course of the war had a terrible inevitability. But does that mean God allowed a hideous war to happen as judgment for the sin of slavery? Lincoln does not quite say that in the crude sense: “God allowed this war to happen to punish America for the sin of slavery.” But he comes very close.

Lincoln’s words become problematic not only because of the horrors of the war, but also because we know the rest of the story that Lincoln did not know. We know that he was killed by an assassin; was that, too, in the Providence of God? Was the nearly hundred years of continued oppression of African Americans in the Providence of God?  Was World War I, fifty years later, a judgment of bloodletting for some sin in the soul and history of Europe.  I personally would answer all these questions, Surely not!  But what is God’s plan when human circumstances are tragic?  

We have to be very careful in our thinking about God’s judgment.   As an interpretation of events, the doctrine seems best affirmed as an acknowledgement of God’s power and sovereignty, not as the underlying cause of particular events. I could never attribute someone’s cancer to God’s judgment, for instance, nor the outcome of some battle, nor a moment when something terrible happens. We affirm God’s unfailing love and his lordship, but we must be humble and sensitive in “reading” God’s activity. 

We also have to be very careful in attributing God’s providence to national events. The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer writes, “The success of the Normandy invasion in 1944, in and by itself, does not prove a special favorable disposition in God toward the West European people anymore than the liberation of Stalingrad, in and by itself, proves a special favorable disposition in God toward the Russian people. The Providence of God included West and East, but everything depends, for both, on how the facts are understood. In the absence of true faith, liberation can be turned against a people, as [biblical] Israel’s resting its case for expected blessings on the mere fact of the exodus was turned against her. God’s way with the world cannot be summarized with charts or statistics. Each of His acts, and his gifts, is charged with a new summons to obedience and new reminders of responsibility” (p. 179).

Lincoln is not preaching a Christian sermon. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross reminds us that God sent his son to die for us, and to pay our debt for us, so that there is no longer need for blood sacrifice on an altar. This raises another question, then, whether Lincoln is wrong to think that God would any longer require any blood sacrifice for atonement, including the sin of American slavery. Not at all to denigrate the Tanakh, but we can wonder what, if anything, Lincoln might have said differently if he had been more “christocentric” in his beliefs about judgment and atonement.

In the end, Lincoln properly affirms that God’s purposes are mysterious. Lincoln might have additionally affirmed, with Isaiah, that God’s thoughts and ways are not our thoughts and ways. We must have faith that God’s purposes are righteous and true.

The second inaugural’s last paragraph is one of Lincoln’s best-known utterances and is, to echo Berkouwer, a reminder of obedience and responsibility.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

“Orphan and widow” are very much biblical terms, referring to those who most need care.  Lincoln’s vision is biblically-true and appropriate: not revenge, but peace and healing, sentiments missing in more smug pronouncements you could think of concerning God’s will. Whenever we request God’s blessings upon America, we can keep Lincoln’s final paragraph in mind as a model, and seek to avoid the us-and-them dichtomy that saw its extreme manifestation in “this mighty scourge of war.”

Read Full Post »

Revisiting “Peanuts”

An essay written for Springhouse magazine.

When I was growing up in Vandalia, Illinois, a small drugstore operated on the north side of Gallatin Street around the corner from Fourth, near (or next door to) the Hotel Evans. I was about eight years old—the mid 1960s—and I was shopping downtown with my mother and grandmother and perhaps some of my great-aunts. In the back of the store was a rack of paperback books, and I spotted a collection of Peanuts strips. It was called What Next, Charlie Brown? published by Fawcett Crest in 1965 for 40 cents.

Mom purchased it for me (she expressed mild concern about its cost), and I still have it, along with other collections published in the mid and late Sixties. Several were published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston—You Can’t Win, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Come Home, The Unsinkable Charlie Brown, and so on. (I found a website about this series: http://www.tonystrading.co.uk/galleries/comicstrips/peanuts-original.htm. ) Other books excerpted the Holt, Rinehart books and were published by Fawcett Crest—Fun With Peanuts, Very Funny, Charlie Brown, You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, etc.

I dearly loved these books! I liked the strip because its dry humor and the characters were all kids. The stories had the appeal of small, friendship adventures. Although the strip’s landscapes were simply rendered (Charles Schulz himself had no special notion where the kids lived), the town looked neat and neighborhoods pleasant, with good sidewalks, fences, and yards. Stores were close enough for little kids to walk to town for comics and candy. One of the Peanuts stores reminded me a little of the old Capp’s Drugs in Vandalia.

I love music and, honestly, one early influence was Schroeder, the character who played beautiful sonatas on a toy piano with the black keys painted on. I became a nine-year-old kid who wanted to know about music and composers. At the time, the theme to the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report was the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I loved, so that was serendipitous. I told my third-grade teacher that I liked Beethoven and Chopin and didn’t understand why she chuckled when I pronounced the second name “Choppin’”. My poor mother signed me up for piano lessons, which I hated. I would’ve preferred a more spontaneous mastery like Schroeder’s, not the week-after-week practicing of simple pieces in the John Thompson piano books.

If I remember correctly, Peanuts appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat during this time frame. My parents subscribed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but they also purchased the weekend edition of “the Globe.” I loved to read the two pages of comics in the Features section of the Post—strips like Ponytail, Belvedere, Andy Capp, They’ll Do It Every Time, and others—but the weekend Globe had other favorites like Dick Tracy (during its “space period” when Tracy regularly journeyed to the moon), Freddie, and Peanuts.

My enjoyment of Peanuts lasted a few years during the late 1960s period when the strip reached a peak of popularity. Mom and Dad, always supportive of my interests, bought me a few classical records, the Royal Guardsmen albums about Snoopy and the Red Baron, and also Robert Short’s book The Gospel according to Peanuts, plus some bobble-head figures of Schroeder, Linus, and Pig-Pen. I even looked for books about World War I aviation and the historical Red Baron. Like most kids, I had several “series” of hobbies that lasted a while then petered out. I wasn’t too interested in Peanuts after I was thirteen or so. I missed all the television specials except for the classic Christmas and Halloween shows, and I read the strip more sporadically.

But the happy childhood memories remained. In 2004, the publishing company Fantagraphics began a series of the complete run of Peanuts. So far, several volumes have appeared, at a rate of two a year, and each book contains two years of strips. Eventually twenty-five volumes will contain the 17,897 strips from the 49-year run, all written and drawn by Schulz himself without assistants. I’ve been purchasing these books as they’re published and I’ve enjoyed rediscovering the comic. If my dad were still alive, I’d buy him his own copies.

As many fans know, Charles Schulz began a single-panel cartoon Li’l Folks which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. Soon the cartoon developed into a four-panel strip distributed by United Feature Syndicate and first appeared, in only seven newspapers, on October 2, 1950. Schulz never liked the syndicate’s new name for the strip, Peanuts, which alluded to Howdy Doody’s “Peanut Gallery” but which, he thought, trivialized the strip. Schulz also drew a cartoon about churchgoing teenagers, called Young Pillars, during the 1950s and 1960s, a sport-related cartoon called It’s Only a Game in 1957-1959, and he also illustrated Art Linkletter’s 1957 anthology of his show Kids Say the Darndest Things. Of course, the Peanuts strip also spun off into several television shows and the characters were used in commercials for MetLife®, Dolly Madison®, and other products. Schulz died on Feb. 12, 2000, the night before the very last strip appeared. While writing this essay, I found a website with enjoyable information about the strip: http://www.peanutscollectorclub.com/peantfaq.txt.

The melancholy and “edgy” qualities of the strip eluded me as a little kid. It shouldn’t have eluded me; I was a picked-on and laughed-at kid in junior high, very Charlie-Brownish. The very first Peanuts, October 2, 1950, has two not-yet-named children (Shermy and Patty) sitting on the steps as a smiling Charlie Brown (in a plain tee shirt without the zigzag pattern) walks by. In the first three panels, Shermy says, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!”… “Good ol’ Charlie Brown… yes, sir!” … “Good ol’ Charlie Brown”… In the last panel, after Charlie has walked on, Shermy looks sour and says, “How I hate him.”

Wow! That’s harsh! In the next strip, Patty gives Charlie Brown a black eye. Snoopy appears in the third strip, when Patty pours water on his head while watering a plant. When I teach 1960s history, I tell my students they should watch Dr. Strangelove if they want to see a hilarious movie about nuclear war. Peanuts achieves a similarly difficult feat: it’s a comic strip filled with meanness and cruelty and yet is funny and sympathetic rather than sadistic. (Writers have placed Peanuts within that cultural period of alienation and social disaffection that, for instance, also inspired the Beat poets and On the Road.) There isn’t a stereotypical bully in Peanuts, like Moe in Calvin and Hobbes. All the characters show some edge. Interestingly, the girls—Lucy, Patty, and Violet—are the harshest to Charlie Brown; in one strip, Violet and Patty absolutely tell Charlie off and then comment how strange that they rarely see him smile.(Have you ever been treated very harshly and then the same people criticize you for your hurt feelings? You can chuckle at Charlie Brown’s predicament!)

By reading the strips in chronological order, one can enjoy the development of style and the evolution of character’s personalities. Charlie Brown, Patty, Shermy, and Snoopy comprise the first cast of the earliest strips, followed by Violet on February 7, 1951, and Schroeder on May 30, 1951. Not until September 24, 1951 does Schroeder acquire his toy piano. Lucy is introduced as a bug-eyed, out-of-it toddler—bossy but not yet crabby—on March 3, 1952. Then Linus appears as a diapered baby (propped up by boards so he won’t fall sideways) in September 19, 1952, and the siblings quickly become dominant characters, while Shermy, Patty, and Violet join the supporting cast and, eventually, appear no longer. In the beginning, Charlie Brown is as much of a mean little mischief-maker as the other characters, although as early as the April 5, 1952 strip, he declares “nobody loves me” as he walks into the wind.

Charlie Brown’s interest in baseball develops later in the 1950s; early in the strip, you find him and Shermy playing a lot of golf! In fact, in three early Sunday comics (May 16, 23, 30, 1954) Charlie Brown and Lucy play in a golf tournament amid groups of adults. Grown-ups, of course, never appear in Peanuts, and so how disconcerting to see them (drawn much more realistically than the kids) in these three strips. Not only that, Charlie is a coach and mentor for Lucy! Schulz admitted that cartoonists try things in strips that turn out to be mistakes.

A few characters who appeared in early strips didn’t “take.” Charlotte Braun appeared in only ten strips in 1954 and 1955, as a loud-talking counterpart to Charlie Brown. Pig-Pen, introduced in a Lord of the Flies parody strip in 1954, is a one-joke character like Charlotte but somehow he endured in the supporting cast; his dirtiness had more comic potential. A little boy named 5 was featured in 1963 and occasionally thereafter (his father hated how people are numbered with zip codes and the like so, in a self-defeating protest, he named his kids 3, 4, and 5). Frieda, a naturally-curly-haired character introduced in 1961, had a cat named Faron, after the singer Faron Young, but neither girl nor cat endured many years.

Other, later characters did. Sally Brown debuted in 1959, Peppermint Patty in 1966, and Rerun in 1978. Controversially for the time, Schulz introduced an African-American character, Franklin, in 1968. Now that the Fantagraphics series has entered the 1970s, I’m pretty much reading the strips for the first time.

One of the introduction writers for the book series notes that Charlie Brown never cries. I found only one time, the Sunday, March 30, 1952 strip, when still-teething Lucy chewed up and ruined his record collection. You’re surprised to see him cry. Like the visible adults in the golf tournament strips, this is something that just doesn’t happen in Peanuts. Charlie Brown loses and is picked on and becomes discouraged. But, Sisyphus-like, Charlie keeps doing, keeps trying again. He doesn’t break and he never retaliates.

Do you think Charlie Brown and the eternally cruel Lucy are a little depressing, if you think of them in isolation from the other characters? I actually prefer the very early strips of Charlie Brown where he displays not only endurance but some edge. I want Charlie to forget about the unattainable Little Red Haired Girl and enjoy the attention of Peppermint Patty; I want him to scold Lucy (as Schroeder regularly does) and never fall for that football trick again. Fortunately Charlie and Lucy have plenty of contrast, for instance, with Linus’ philosophical attitude and Snoopy’s joie de vivre. (Some years, in fact, Snoopy is the strip’s dominant character.)

But we do identify Charlie Brown’s failures. All of us have goals we can’t quite attain, insecurities which have no half-life, sources of discouragement that we can’t rationalize away, people who bring us down, and reasons we lie awake at night. It’s amazing that Schulz was able to express these emotions and experiences in a way that is, indeed, funny and recognizable rather than maudlin and depressing. According to Forbes, Schulz was the third-highest paid deceased artist in 2007, behind Elvis and John Lennon, with an income of $35 million. Obviously many people still love the strip and the characters!

I haven’t read the recent biography of Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis (Harper Collins, 2007), but I watched the American Masters feature about the cartoonist on PBS. Schulz suffered with feelings of depression and failure all his life. He nursed grudges and slights for decades, and yet his life also had wonderful times and opportunities. Apparently his ambivalent relationship with his first wife is reflected in the exchanges between artist Schroeder and pushy, practical Lucy. Schulz was a humble and generous person. He downplayed his wealth and accomplishments and wrote hand-written notes of encouragement to younger cartoonists who sent him letters. The rich imaginative life that we find in Snoopy must’ve been Schulz’s too, considering the feat of 18,000 comic strips.

I still like the strips that feature Schroeder, his devotion which, unlike Charlie’s ball playing, results in skill. Those arcane notations that appeared above his toy piano intrigued me when I was a little kid and opened for me a world of music. How did he play so well? How, for that matter, did someone draw an endearing comic strip, which people still love to read, for nearly fifty years?

Read Full Post »

A few thoughts imported from paulstroble.blogspot.com.  Recently I read a news story from a Midwestern community. The high school band had designed tee shirts that featured an image of a primate moving through stages until it becomes human: that famous illustration of evolutionary development. Each figure held a brass instrument. It seemed a clever way to encourage band spirit for their fall program. The tee shirts were banned, however, because of parents’ complaints that the shirts promoted evolution. The article reported that an assistant superintendent said that the school district must remain neutral about religion [1]

I’m religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think a bit about the issues involved. The school official and the complaining parents apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief.

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, ais that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that “God created the heavens and the earth.”

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students–and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics–bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion–a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith’s words shed light upon some the issues raised by the critics of the band tee shirts. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public. (In fact, the tee shirts don’t even represent current science, which no longer posits such a linear progress of species development.)

Let me make a slight turn here and bring in material from a yet-to-be-published book I’ve written about the Bible. People who worry about the contradiction between science and the Bible usually focus upon Genesis 1. But actually the Bible has numerous “unscientific” words about the nature of reality. Exodus 20:4, for instance, depicts a three-tiered cosmos; Ps. 24:2 and Ps. 136:6 depicts the earth as founded upon seas; 2 Samuel 22:8 says that the earth is set upon foundations; 1 Samuel 2:8 talk about the pillars on which the earth is set. Leviticus 11:13 and 19 lists bats among kinds of birds. Must we assume all these images are literal truth? If we defend them as metaphorical, well … we’ve immediately acknowledged that the Bible contains passages that are not literal but metaphorical and poetic truth.

Scoffers at biblical truth would zero in passages such as these in order to discredit religious belief. But religious people, too, must defend the truth of the scriptures in spite of the ancient world view that the Bible reflects.

Both defenders of biblical inerrancy and scoffers at biblical truth make a similar mistake in reasoning: if the Bible has errors, then the whole Bible is discredited. But God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2) and the whole Bible is true.

That is a false choice. We don’t typically make such distinctions. For instance, I made an unintentional error in a history book that I wrote back in the 1980s. I made an informed conclusion but new information emerged later. I made the mistake because my human knowledge is incomplete, but that doesn’t mean my whole book was a lie, or that I’m a liar, or that I need to explain my error through artificial arguments.

The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that we shouldn‘t confuse error in the sense of incorrect knowledge, and error in the sense of deception and sin. Limited as they were by their historical and cultural circumstances, the biblical authors has far less knowledge of science than we do. But we cannot thereby call them “liars” or deny that the Holy Spirit inspired them. As Berkouwer notes, when the definition of “error” is so formalized, “the relationship of the organic, God-breathed character to the organic unity and scope of the total testimony of Scripture is almost totally ignored.” [2]

Berkouwer, a conservative and very biblically-based Calvinist theologian, writes that we can safely recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers. Therefore, when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we shouldn’t worry that we’re “selling out” the Bible to science when we recognize the Bible’s ancient cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible wholly false if the scientific discoveries do not conform to biblical details. What is needed, he believes, is a “naturalness” on our parts to witness to the reliability and authority of the Bible in its overall purpose as a God-breathed witness to God—not a science book.

Berkouwer cautions that ideas of biblical inerrancy shouldn’t be ridiculed, only that its application be examined so that the sincere desire to uphold scriptural authority should not damage that authority rather than advancing it.

1.  http://www.sedaliademocrat.com/articles/0px-18740-span-font.html

2. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1975), pp. 181-183 (quote on p. 182).

Read Full Post »

A Spirit of Reasonableness

Some irenic thoughts about a current topic.  One of my favorite courses to teach–which unfortunately I won’t be teaching again soon, now that I live in Missouri–was “Buckeye Presidents,” a survey of the eight presidents from Ohio (W. H. Harrison, U.S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, W. H. Taft, and Warren G. Harding). The course is essentially a history of the Republican party from the early days of the Whigs through the 1920s, when the GOP’s conservative wing took precedence over Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism. I use course time to educate students, in a non-partisan way of course, about the differences of philosophy and policy of both parties. I tell students that I hope they gain an awareness of politics so that they could make informed decisions.

After feeling dispirited, lately, about politics–the fact that we’ve seen such polarization during the past two presidencies and now Obama’s–I found two articles this past fall that gave me some hope. One was Jon Meacham’s excellent editorial, “Words Have Consequences,” in the Sept. 28, 2009 issue of Newsweek, where he decries both the liberal demonization of President Bush and the current conservative demonization of President Obama. (See http://www.newsweek.com/id/215744 )

I was also interested in an article, “Getting to No: The Republican Dilemma in the Age of Obama” by Peter J. Boyer in a recent New Yorker (Sept. 28, 2009, pp. 32-36). Boyer quotes former congressman Pat Toomey, “I’m pretty conservative. I’m pro-life, for instance. But it never occurred to me that someone who is pro-choice can’t be a good Republican, or shouldn’t be part of our coalition. We can disagree about that issue, we can try to persuade each other about that issue, but that should never be a reason for excluding someone. On fiscal matters, nobody’s got a monopoly on exactly what the right number is that we ought to be spending this year. Now, I think we’ve spent too much, and I’ll argue that pretty forcefully. But reasonable people can disagree about what the right number is. Those are all very health discussions to have within a great party. But there does have to be a unifying theme–there has to be some idea that brings us together, or else it’s completely meaningless” (p. 33, first column).

Boyer notes how the GOP has rebounded since 2008, but that “[w]ithin the Republican Party, the intensity is all on the side of the aggrieved base” (pp. 36, top of second column). Thinking about Toomey‘s comments, Boyer writes, “The question remaining for many Republicans is whether the Party can develop a strategy beyond opposition, an argument for governing that will expand its appeal [and thus increase a sense of inclusion within the party] beyond its ideological core” (p. 36, bottom of third column). Jacob Weisberg’s article, “Do As We Say, Not As We Do,” in the Dec. 21, 2009 Newsweek (see http://www.newsweek.com/id/226481) illustrates the way some GOP congressmen are still leading-through-opposition rather than through a well-thought-through ideology.

This week, I’ve wondered if the Democrat’s efforts to accomplish Senate passage of the reform bill before Christmas will possibly contribute to the erosion of public support for health-care reform, support which has been dropping some during the past few months. In order to gain the key 60th vote from Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Nelson himself gained additional federal funds to help Nebraska pay for its large Medicaid-eligible population. Nelson’s demands concerning restriction of abortion funding were also controversial among both pro-choice and pro-life contingents. Another senator, Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), expressed pride in a late-inserted funding increase of $10 billion for community health centers around the country. Still another controversial addition to the bill was increased government funding for Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming hospitals.   Such excessive government spending and interference is one of the chief concerns of critics (see http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091219/ap_on_bi_ge/us_health_care_overhaul )

For those of us who support some kind of  just health care system because of our religious convictions–specifically, the Bible’s call for a  society in which the needy are cared for–rather than primarily through a particular party’s platform, the political process seems worrisome, and not very just! That’s the reality of politics: legislation, and the social change that results from legislation, is often the result of persuasive rhetoric, deal-making, pressure tactics, compromise, the pulse of public opinion, the likelihood of a party’s reelection, and so on.

But although politics is a necessarily a messy business, one of the reasons why I’ve been discouraged this year has been the seeming dominance of angry, irrational voices in our current climate, not only media commentators and politicians but also folks on the street. Those who claim the high moral ground resort to slogans and sarcasm, even those who are attempting rational discussion. I would never say that all conflict is unhealthy: conflict can be a necessary way to move issues forward and achieve positive change.  But, to echo Rep. Toomey, how do you achieve political wisdom and cooperation when conflict becomes strident?

I’m being idealistic. I’m a teacher and I enjoy open, positive discussion in classrooms.  But even very early presidential elections like 1796 and 1800 were bitter, slanderous campaigns. So were several of the campaigns of the eight presidents I mentioned earlier, and others that you could name. As Meacham notes in his editorial, bipartisan cooperation may be an ideal but we’ve never had anything like a golden age of political concord. Throughout our history, our political system has held together reasonable discussion, intense controversy, public and backstage maneuvering, aggrieved opposition, and goals of social change.  A good reason always to keep our government and leaders in our prayers!

Read Full Post »