I recently created a little video offering some general advice about writing, and about writing essays. It is intended to be a basic resource for students enrolled in my Beginning Theological Studies class. It may be that parts of it are of some help to other students also. You should feel free to use/share it if you think it is suitable for your mob too.
Ross Douthat has written a good little piece about the humanities in the NYT in which he riffs on W. H. Auden and Alan Jacobs’ recent book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in An Age of Crisis. The entire (short) piece is worth reading, but here’s a snippet:
In an Apollonian culture, eager for “Useful Knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts. And both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.
At the moment both efforts look like failed attempts. But is there an alternative? ….
– Ross Douthat, ‘Oh, the Humanities!’. The New York Times, 8 August (2018).
Image: Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Apollo and Python’ (exhibited 1811). Tate.
A good little letter by David Hall published in this month’s Crosslight newspaper alerted me to Don Watson’s old book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, and to the wonderful words in its Introduction:
PUBLIC LANGUAGE CONFRONTS MOST of us every day of our lives, but rarely when we are with friends or family. Not yet, at least. It is not the language in which we address lovers, postmen, children or pets. So far.
True, in the households of young professionals they will say sometimes that the new dog adds alpha to their lifestyle; that they need closure with their orthodontist or mother; that they are empowered by their Nikes. There is seepage from the public to the private. But that’s all it is. At this point in time.
Public language is the language of public life: the language of political and business leaders and civil servants – official, formal, sometimes elevated language. It is the language of leaders more than the led, the managers rather than the managed. It takes very different forms: from shapely rhetoric to shapeless, enervating sludge; but in every case it is the language of power and influence. What our duties are, for whom we should vote, which mobile phone plan we should take up: in all these places the public language rules. As power and influence are pervasive so is the language: we hear and read it at the highest levels and the lowest. And while it begins with the powerful, the weak are often obliged to speak it, imitate it. ‘Even politicians speak / truths of value to the weak’, Auden said. Believing as they do that everyone needs something even if they don’t know it, marketing people would agree.
The influence of marketing shows itself in advertising and commerce, where we would expect to find it, and in politics and war, where its presence might surprise us. Marketing goes wherever the media goes and the media goes pretty well everywhere. Naturally the language goes too, which is why all kinds of institutions cannot pass on the simplest information about their services without also telling us that they are contemporary, innovative and forward-looking and committed to continuous improvement, as if the decision to raise their rates or change their phone number can only be grasped in this context-sensitive way. To help us all get going in the same direction they might give the context a name, like Growing Victoria Together or Business Line Plus, or Operation Decapitation where the service is a military one.
Managerialism, a name for various doctrines of business organisation, also comes with a language of its own, and to such unlikely places as politics and education. Even if the organisational principles of management or marketing were so widely appropriate, it is by no means certain that their language is. Marketing, for instance, has no particular concern with truth. Management concerns are relatively narrow – relative, that is, to life, knowledge and possibility. This alone makes marketing and managerial language less than ideal for a democracy or a college. In addition their language lacks almost everything needed to put in words an opinion or an emotion; to explain the complex, paradoxical or uncertain; to tell a joke. If those who propagate this muck really believed in being context-sensitive, they would understand that in the context of ordinary human need and sensibility their language is extraordinarily insensitive. It enrages, depresses, humiliates, confuses. It leaves us speechless.
Public language that defies normal understanding is, as Primo Levi wrote, ‘an ancient repressive artifice, known to all churches, the typical vice of our political class, the foundation of all colonial empires’. They will tell you it is in the interests of leadership, management, efficiency, stakeholders, the bottom line or some democratic imperative, but the public language remains the language of power. It has its origins in the subjection or control of one by another. In all societies, ‘To take power is to win speech’. Whatever its appearance, intimidation and manipulation come as naturally to public language as polite instruction, information and enlightenment. That is why vigilance is needed: an argument concerning the public language is an argument concerning liberty.
To Levi’s list of obfuscating types we could add many sociologists and deconstructionists, including some who design school curricula and courses with the word ‘Studies’ in them. The politically correct might have a case to answer for years of philistine abuse (often, strangely, in the name of cultures), had the Prime Minister not abolished them. We are now all free, he says, to speak our minds; but the language continues to decay, which rather lets political correctness off the hook. Political correctness and its equally irritating twin, anti-political correctness; economic rationalism; dope-smoking; Knowledge Management – wherever cults exist the language inclines to the arcane or inscrutable. This is no bad thing of itself, but obnoxious in a democratic or educational environment. Among Druids, Masons or economists we expect the language to be unfathomable or at least unclear or strange. They speak in code. This can only be because they do not want us to understand, or do not themselves understand, or are so in the habit of speaking this way they have lost the ability to communicate normally. When we hear this sort of language it is, therefore, common sense to assume there is a cult, or something like a cult, in the vicinity. And be alert, if not alarmed.
While English spreads across the globe, the language itself is shrinking. Vast numbers of new words enter it every year, but our children’s and leaders’ vocabularies are getting smaller. Latin and Greek have been squeezed out of most journalists’ English and ‘obscure’ words are forbidden unless they qualify as economic or business jargon. You write for your audience and your audience knows fewer words than it used to and hasn’t time to look up unfamiliar ones. The language of politics is tuned to the same audience and uses the same media to reach it, so it too diminishes year by year. Downsized, business would say. Business language is a desert. Like a public company, the public language is being trimmed of excess and subtlety; what it doesn’t need is shed, what is useful is reorganised, prioritised and attached either to new words or to old ones stripped of meaning. In business, language is now productivity-driven.
What of the media whose words we read and hear every day? The code of conduct of the International Federation of Journalists is categorical: ‘Respect for the truth and the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist.’ There can be no respect for the truth without respect for the language. Only when language is alive does truth have a chance. As the powerful in legend turn the weak or the vanquished into stone, they turn us to stone through language. This is the essential function of a cliché, and of cant and jargon; to neutralise expression and ‘vanish memory’. They are dead words. They will not do for truth.
Therefore, to live according to their code, journalists must choose their own words carefully and skilfully and insist that others do the same. The proper relationship of journalists to the public language is that of unrelenting critics. It is their duty to see through it. But we cannot rely on them. Norman Mailer once wrote on behalf of writers like himself that ‘the average reporter could not get a sentence straight if it were phrased more subtly than his own mind could make phrases’. They munched nuances ‘like peanuts’, he said. True, it happens and it’s maddening, but inadequate prose is still journalism and roughly meets the requirements of the code. It is something else, however, when journalists ignore abuses of the public language by people of influence and power, and reproduce without comment words that are intended to deceive and manipulate. When this happens journalism ceases to be journalism and becomes a kind of propaganda; or a reflection of what Simone Weil called ‘the superb indifference that the powerful have for the weak’.
The war in Iraq provided a case in point. The military provided brand names – Shock and Awe, for instance – and much of the media could see nothing but to use them. Each day of the campaign the media were briefed in the language of the Pentagon’s media relations people, whereupon very often the journalists briefed their audiences in the same language. The media centre in Doha was always on message, and so was the media. When the military said they had degraded by 70 per cent a body of Iraqi soldiers, this was what the media reported. Few said ‘killed’ and only the Iraqi Minister for Information in his daily self-satire said ‘slaughtered’, which was a more honest word but a blatant lie because he said it of American soldiers, not Iraqi ones. One journalist, who knew something about the effects of Daisy Cutter bombs, said ‘pureed’. And no one showed any pictures of the bodies. To be embedded with the Coalition forces was to be embedded in their language and their message. It turned out that embedded just meant ‘in bed with’ in the old language. If they said they had attrited an enemy force, generally that was what the media conveyed, and it was the same if they said deconflicted. All this was a sad retreat from both the journalists’ code of conduct and the noble achievements of twentieth-century war reporting. Just as significant was the way these words spoke for the willingness of journalists to join the military in denying the common humanity of ordinary soldiers – especially the largely conscripted cannon fodder – on the opposing side. Here was another retreat: from war reporting standards going back to Homer.
The public language will only lift in tone and clarity when those who write and speak it take words seriously again. They need to tune their ears to it. Awareness is the only defence against the creeping plague of which this is a microscopic specimen. The inquiry may allow for relevant businesses or industries to be identified and for investigation into the possibility that certain regional or rural areas of the state would be more affected than others. No doubt in the place from which these words came they were judged competent. But they are not competent in the world at large. They are not competent as language. They represent an example of what George Orwell described as anaesthetic writing. You cannot read it without losing some degree of consciousness. You come to, and read it again, and still your brain will not reveal the meaning – will not even try. You are getting sleepy again. Read aloud, in a speech for instance, an audience hears the words as they might hear a plane passing overhead or a television in another room. We can easily make it sound less like a distant aeroplane by the simple expedient of saying it as if we mean it: The inquiry will decide which businesses are relevant and which parts of the state will be badly affected. In fact, to guess at the intended meaning, it might come down to the Inquiry deciding which businesses and which parts of the state will be most affected.
Of course, it’s just one sentence. But we have to begin somewhere.
We must keep it in perspective of course. The decay or near death of language is not life threatening. It can be an aid to crime and tragedy; it can give us the reasons for unreasoning behaviour, including war and genocide and even famine. Words are deadly. Words are bullets. But a word is not a Weapon of Mass Destruction, or a jihad, or unhappiness. Like a rock, it is not a weapon (or a grinding stone) until someone picks it up and uses it as one. We should not get cranky or obsessive about words. You can’t eat them, or buy things with them, or protect your borders with them, and it will not do to make a great display of your concern. There are more important things to think about than what we say or how we say it.
In any case resistance is probably futile: as futile as the Luddites’ resistance was futile. Managerial language may well be to the information age what the machine and the assembly line were to the industrial. It is mechanised language. Like a machine, it removes the need for thinking: this essential and uniquely human faculty is suspended along with all memory of what feeling, need or notion inspired the thing in the first place. To the extent that it is moulded and constrained by opinion polls and media spin, modern political language is the cousin of the managerial and just as alienating. To speak or be spoken to in either variety is to be ‘not in this world’.
Bear in mind just the same that if we deface the War Memorial or rampage through St Paul’s with a sledgehammer we will be locked up as criminals or lunatics. We can expect the same treatment if we release some noxious weed or insect into the natural environment. It is right that the culture and environment should be so respected. Yet every day we vandalise the language, which is the foundation, the frame and joinery of the culture, if not its greatest glory, and there is no penalty and no way to impose one. We can only be indignant. And we should resist.
I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:
- Damion Searls on how psychiatrists used Rorschach tests to examine Nazis during the Nuremberg trials.
- George Monbiot’s piece on being ‘Screened Out’.
- Julian Cribb on why ‘coal will kill more people than WWII’.
- Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne, and John Menadue reckon that ‘we can stop the boats and also act decently, fairly and transparently’.
- The announcement about the National Gallery of Australia’s ‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ coming up later this year!
- Chris Green’s Ash Wednesday reflection – Christ’s Death Lives in Us.
- Steve Wright’s Ash Wednesday reflection – To dust.
- Mary Beard is simply awesome: check out her piece on Seneca and her lecture on women in power, delivered at the BM.
- For those within cooee of Melbourne, this looks good – Thomas Crow, Anne Dunlop, and Charles Green talking about theological originality in art.
- Matthew Sharpe on Montaigne’s Essays.
- Jane Hutcheon talks to Reg Mombassa.
- Michael Hobbes on the epidemic of gay loneliness.
- Jonathan Sacks on the architecture of holiness.
- Rick Floyd has been looking for light in the shadow of death.
- Jason Guriel on Christian Wiman and ‘kind of faith that a poet had better not lose’.
- Queensland, a part of the country where most locals seem to espouse the philosophy that two wongs don’t make a white and which is not especially well known for a radical brand of Christianity, sees some religious fanatics charged for beating swords into garden hoes.
- A funeral homily by Kim Fabricius, plus his good little introduction to Christianity.
- Raimond Gaita on Donald Trump’s America.
- John Milbank on the problem of populism and the promise of a Christian politics.
- Scott Jackson asks, ‘Was Niebuhr a “Real” Theologian?’
- The University of Divinity is seeking a Director for its Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP).
- Swee Ann Koh asks, ‘Is there racism in the church?’
- Paul Collier reviews a couple of recent efforts to understand the logic and opportunities of, and challenges to, capitalism. Along the way, he has some insightful things to say about nationalism, ‘nationhood’, multiculturalism, and global citizenship too. (However, given the reality of religion, for example, it would be very difficult to defend the claim that ‘nationhood is the only force that has proved to be sufficiently powerful to bind millions of people together in a sense of shared identity’.)
- Why students hate peer review, and how to make it work better for them.
- Watching Umberto Eco and his books and books and books and paintings and books and books and ladders means that I will tolerate no more complaints on this subject, from anyone.
- Speaking of no complaints, Doug Gay’s third public lecture on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism is now available here.
What insights and gifts do various church traditions offer to each other, and to the world?
Well, the Orthodox remind us that this girl is old, much older than you think. In fact, she’s a real nanna. The Pentecostals remind us that this girl likes to experiment. The Seventh Day Adventists remind us that the graffiti on the back of the dunny door announcing that this girl likes Marcion, who also goes by the name of ‘Marci’, is just slander. The Anglicans remind us that this girl plays best when she’s playing with all sorts of different girls. (‘Anglicans’ who don’t get this might as well become Brethren.) Speaking of which, the Brethren remind us that this girl shows us that weirdness can be catholic too. The Baptists remind us that this girl is supposed to have a thing about unprotected sex with civil authorities, and that she has a mind of her own. The Presbyterians/Reformed remind us that this girl is a bit of a nerd. The Methodists remind us this girl can sing! The Lutherans remind us that this girl can drink! The Salvos remind us that this girl can go without drinking at all because her arms and legs alone keep her alive. And the Roman Catholics remind us that this girl is not a girl at all but actually a boy who likes playing dress ups.
Now the thing that I really want to reflect on here is the gift that each of these habits and idiosyncrasies are to each other, and how much poorer this girl would be were any of these features made to be unwelcome, or not given opportunity and space to flourish. I’ll take one – the Presbyterian/Reformed commitment to education.
In his little book The Church Transforming: What’s Next for the Reformed Project?, Michael Jinkins writes:
The Reformed project has always promoted theological education to support and strengthen the church in its mission. We live at a moment, however – an axial moment in the history of the church – when some question the rationale for the theological education of those called to lead the church. Today we must argue convincingly for a theologically well-educated ministry if we care about the quality of preaching and the worship of God, of pastoral care and counseling, of Christian teaching and nurture, of mission, service, and evangelism. We must make this argument powerfully if we care about the nurturing of a church that can grapple with the social and cultural challenges it faces. Theological education will not solve every problem: it will not heal our every disease or deliver us from every evil. But theological education can teach us that we don’t have to be mean or stupid to follow Jesus of Nazareth. And in our culture today, this is one of the most countercultural messages we can articulate.
Education, including theological education (a subject about which I’ve blogged a bit before), proved to be fundamentally important in the birthing of the Reformed movements in the sixteenth century, both through Grandpa Calvin’s emphasis on catechesis and the ‘sermon’, and through the establishment, in 1559, of the Genevan Academy, which became the training ground for an ‘educated clergy’ and the nursery of Reformed movements in France, the Netherlands, England, Poland, Scotland, and elsewhere.
In his masterful biography on Calvin, Bruce Gordon has observed that ‘Schools were, in Calvin’s mind, essential to the building of Christian society’. Calvin shared with the Genevans a commitment to the humanism of the great European centres. This commitment found expression in the creation of and widespread support for the Academy, which had two parts – the schola publica which trained ministers and the schola privata where Genevan children, each of whom was believed to be a gift from God, were schooled. The schola privata, in particular, received substantial support – a claim buoyed by the fact that it was provided with new buildings, and it received nearly 20% of the city’s annual budget in 1559–60, money gained largely from the dissolution of the monasteries. In addition, citizens of Geneva were required to bequeath legacies to the Academy in their wills, and were expected to pray for the Academy and its work.
Undergirding such a commitment is a deeper commitment to the world itself. The church has often faced the temptation to disengage from the world, to take a turn inwards and focus almost entirely on churchly matters, to become a mere sect. By and large, the Reformed have resisted this temptation.
Indeed, historically, one of the real gifts that the Reformed have bequeathed to the wider Church and to the discipline of theology has been the rigour with which it has applied the life of the mind in the service of God and of God’s work in the world. So Jinkins:
From the first, Reformed Christians have sought to advance the best thinking in the face of superficiality, superstition, bad religion, social reactivity, and anxiety. As expressions of confidence that Christian faith and the promotion of knowledge go hand-in-hand, the Reformed project established the first programs of universal education, founding universities, graduate schools, and teaching hospitals as it moved across the world. Today the world’s problems have become extraordinarily complex, and many religious people try to prove their religious devotion by refusing to test their convictions intellectually or by seeking to silence those with whom they disagree. Now more than ever, we as Reformed Christians must foster the curiosity and intellectual openness that have driven us to think deeply, for there is desperate need for faithful people who are bold and unflinching thinkers, people who will use their best knowledge and concerted intellect to engage and mend a broken world.
So we are thinking here about the habit of the Reformed to love God – and so God’s world – with our mind, as well as with our heart, soul, and strength. The Reformed are typically among those in the body of Christ who worry most about what will become of Christian faith – and, indeed, of the world – if Christians fail to love God and God’s world with a love schooled and tenacious enough to ask – and to keep asking – the tough, deep, critical and sometimes intractable questions about life. They are among those who are ‘concerned about what it will mean for our faith if we choose to ignore life’s most profound mysteries and insoluble riddles’, who are ‘concerned about the integrity of the church if we abandon the curiosity that is unafraid to swim at the deep end of the pool, if we jettison a passion for ideas, for knowledge, and for wisdom for their own sake’ and who are equally ‘disturbed about what will become of society if persons of faith retreat from the public sphere, where ideas must fight for their lives among competing interests, where justice is served by vigorous argumentation and intelligent action as much as by high ideals’. They are certainly among those who believe that the greatest heresy the church faces today is not atheism but superficiality, and its attendant ‘cult’.
To cite Jinkins, again:
Occasionally I hear editors of church publications or church growth consultants arguing that Christian laypeople just aren’t interested in theology, or that laypeople aren’t interested in the history of their faith or, worse still, that laypeople simply can’t understand complicated ideas. Yet, when I speak in congregations around the country, I regularly encounter crowds of lively, intelligent laypeople hungry to know more about their faith. These are laypeople, incidentally, who in their daily lives run businesses and shape economies, teach, read or even write important books on a variety of serious subjects, argue legal cases before judges and juries, write laws that shape our common life, and cure our diseases of the mind and body. These laypeople are tired of being infantilized at church. They want to understand their faith more deeply. The comments of the laypeople I meet, people who want to learn more about their faith, are often along the lines of what an elderly woman said … one Sunday after [Tom Long] had preached in one of the many congregations in which he speaks around the country. As he was making his way from the pulpit to the sanctuary exit, the woman stepped forward to greet him. Earlier in the evening, Tom had invited members of the congregation to share with him any messages they’d like him to take back to the future ministers he teaches in seminary. As this woman stepped forward, Tom greeted her with the question, “Is there a message you’d like me to take back to the seminary, something you’d like me to tell our students?” “Yes, there is,” she said. “Tell them to take us seriously.” Now, I know that not every person in our churches, or indeed in our society, craves to understand God (or anything else) more deeply. But I would also maintain that at the core of the gospel there is a sacred mandate – we call it “the Great Commission – to go into all the world to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The word disciple translates a Greek word that means “pupil” or “willing learner.” As church leaders, then, we have this duty, this mission, this commission: to teach, to kindle curiosity, to expand knowledge, to renew minds, to make our people wiser. And there are many, many people only too eager to learn.
The Reformed emphasis on the importance of education needs to be tempered, however, with the kind of humility that the Reformed emphasise concerning human personhood in general, and about the noetic effects of what its Augustinian forebears named ‘the Fall’. Truth, as the saying goes, is the first casualty of war. But self-criticism is among the first casualties of insecurity, especially those brands of insecurity that transform thinking people into an unthinking herd.
Christian faith, on the other hand, thrives on a spirit that resists taking itself too seriously. Healthy girls know how to party, and they do. As G. K. Chesterton once suggested, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Devils, on the other hand, fall under the weight of their own self-regard. But God help us all when Presbyterians and Uniting Church folk start parking their brains in the shopping cart, as some of their own members and not a few of their ecclesial cousins are want to do.
So, three cheers for serious theological education, wherever it’s happening.
I’m excited to learn that Dr Oh-Young Kwon, of Whitley College, will soon be teaching a New Testament course for Korean pastors, Church leaders and anybody else who is interested in studying theology in Korean.
When: On Monday nights (5:30 to 8:30 PM) for 10 weeks, beginning on 28 July 2014.
Where: Whitley College, in Melbourne.
For more information, or to enrol, email or phone (03 9340 8021) Whitley College.
This piece by Jennifer A. Franssen rang too many bells to not repost:
A perplexing fate awaits a reader in an elementary school. There is no place for this strange child in classroom, library or playground. Watching my daughter caught in this predicament I find myself troubled by the paradox of an institution charged with teaching children to read that seems unable to offer either welcome or nourishment to the ardent reader within its walls.
With the arrival of the child came the books. From the shelves of used bookshops, thrift stores, libraries and Oma’s house, from the Amazon and Indigo warehouses, out of wrapped packages at Christmas and birthdays the books arrived like an endless small town fair parade – floats, marchers, brass bands, clowns – some finer than others, in crowds bunched together or singly straggling, not well-marshalled, but hanging together somehow. Each met with narrowing, gleaming eyes – what will this one do? Mother Goose, the Grimms, Kipling, Seuss, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear and the Ahlbergs. A perverse favourite known as “Josh and Jude” that put readers-aloud into hypnotic trance.
By the time the child started school she had taught herself to read. Joining the carnival, she kept company with her favourites as long and as often as she liked. She met Moomintroll and Mary Poppins, Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking, Loki and Laura Ingalls, Borrowers and Bastables, Swallows and Amazons. Awake and dreaming she gazed on Asgard, Olympus, Canaan, and Camelot. She lived at Willoughby Chase, Villa Villekula, and Greene Knowe. She stopped reading only when the book was pried from her small hands.
The books from school came home in a Ziploc bag with a detailed letter explaining how her parents or caregiver should read with her at home every night for ten minutes. The first small ten-page book was called “Noise,” its recurring line “Yukka, dukka, yukka, dukka, ya, ya, ya.” There was one book to last the week. “Noise” was the beginning of a parade as well. All entries wore the same uniform, had the same number of performers and arrived at precise weekly intervals. The drill lasted ten months a year for four years. In December of the first year, the child said she wanted to get up off the kerb and go home.
At the parent-teacher interview, the child’s mother sits in a small chair, knees at her chest.
“I wondered about the reading,” says the mother. She holds up two books – The Borrowers, from home, and A Bad Day, from school. “Do you have any books more like this one she just finished reading? She’d love to bring something more like this home from school, and it might . . . well, make more sense than sending these other kinds of books home.”
“Sequential levelled readers” are making their punctual way to the house in the backpack, one every week. The teacher leans forward and says, mysteriously, “There is a difference between decoding and comprehension. Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Raised fingers twitch around his words.
From junior kindergarten to Grade 2, the child’s classes march linewise down the hall to the school library for a weekly visit. Pre-selected books in a box wait to be grabbed and checked out at the end of library period. The students file in and obediently sit down. The librarian dims the lights and presses play on the DVD player. The child reads in the dark as the videos play. The librarian confiscates the book. “Stop reading and watch this movie.”
During library period in grade 4 the librarian teaches the children computer skills: making their names appear in various colours and fonts on the screen and designing brochures. At the end of the period there are a few minutes to check out two books. Most children decline the offer. The child sees a book she wants high on the top shelf and asks the librarian to reach it for her. “No. You can’t have anything with a yellow sticker. They are too hard for you. You might be able to read it, but you wouldn’t understand it. Pick one of the books with green stickers.” Green stickers mark the spines of The Magic School Bus, The Babysitters’ Club and The Pokemon Guidebook. The book the child has just finished reading, Oliver Twist, is not in the library at all.
It is the first day of school in grade 3. All morning the child looks forward to recess. The pavement is still warm in September. She will make a pillow of her jacket and lean against the brick wall, reading. The bell rings. The teacher pulls her from the line on the march downstairs, “Give me the book. You have toplay outside during recess.”
That afternoon, the child tucks The Two Towers inside the sleeve of her jacket before she makes her way outside. Vigilant against unauthorised reading, the teacher looms in the stairwell. She puts her hand out. “Give me the book. That’s sneaky – hiding that book under your jacket.” Then, very slowly and clearly, “Don’t – be – sneaky.”
The teacher calls the child’s mother. “She has to stop talking in class about the books she’s reading. It’s very insensitive. She’s making other students feel bad.”
“They feel bad? Why? What is she saying?”
“She said that Harry Potter isn’t hard to read.”
* * *
School is no place for a reader. An object of suspicion and a source of discord in the classroom, the reading child is a threat to school harmony. Her act of reading is itself a provocation to authority. She must be stopped and made to play team games or gaze dumbly at a screen. The silent reader dangerously escapes supervision and the escape is most threatening when the content of the book is unknown.
But reading boosterism is everywhere. Notices in the hallways advertise the Book Fair. Slogans abound. “Reading Rocks!” “Reading is Cool!” “I ª 2 Read!” Oracular posters prophesy “TODAY A READER, TOMORROW A LEADER.” A spurious promise. Reading seems at least as likely to undermine a desire to “lead” as to encourage it. In the act the reader retreats from the world, makes herself absent from the forum. When I think of “readerly leadership” Tolstoy’s General Kutuzof comes to mind – observing, waiting, delaying action, frustrating the ambitions of courtiers and counsellors. His was a leadership prone to doubt, aware of the vagaries of chance, and the unpredictability and frequent futility of action – “When in doubt, don’t.”
The Book Fair tables are filled with things that aren’t books – pencil sharpeners, stamp art kits, novelty pens – and things that only look like books – video game character guides, Lego sets packaged in a book form, One Direction Fact Books, Power Rangers and Angry Birds advertisements disguised as “Early Readers.” The Book Fair is a hoax.
Not only does school present a shallow conception of what reading is, the experience of school offers almost no opportunity to read with pleasure. Readers need relatively quiet libraries and classrooms well-stocked with excellent books, tended by well-read teachers and librarians always ready to suggest a book or to read out loud with enthusiasm and familiarity with the story.
The judgement of teachers and librarians putting books in the hands of children should be formed through wide reading, experience and appreciation of written language. Instead a member of one school library committee in Ontario can say that he doesn’t see any difficulty at all in consolidating two school libraries into one, smaller, space. After all, he never has any of his students check a book out of the library. “What’s the point? They should be using Wikipedia.” His fellow member (two of this type, on one small school board committee!) concurs, “I have taken loads of courses over the years – upgrades, professional development, content courses – I have never needed to read a single book. No one reads books anymore. It’s all articles and PowerPoint.”
School libraries are filled with computers and the shelves are filled with dreck based on video games, cartoons and movies. It is said that this is the only way to tempt children away from screen to page, but these book impostors are created to foster and capitalize on an appetite for a product. Is it likely that “Barbie in a Mermaid Tale,” printed out as sixteen pages of dull and disjointed summary, will increase the odds of the child reading Alice in Wonderland or Swallows and Amazons? Whatever the market may cast before consumers, school should not be its enthusiastic accomplice in corrupting the taste and abilities of the young. We must know these things for what they are. The Pokemon Character Guide is not a book, it is a toy. Children ought to have toys, but they should also have books.
Chances for reading in school are too frequently squandered on something else – computer training (a ludicrous idea equivalent to teaching students how to operate a DVR or a microwave oven), fundraising, and, most egregiously, watching mainstream commercial movies and television programs. Why, if reading is universally agreed to be essential to learning, if we all “ª” reading, would teachers choose to fill those inevitable unplanned 50-minute periods with a movie rather than have students read to themselves, or hear a book read aloud? Every child in school lives in a world throbbing with noise and the constant flickering of video display. Why would a movie ever displace the chance of a quiet hour with a book in school?
Sitting in waiting rooms with children over the years I have had the same experience time and again: when I open a book and read out loud every child in the room wanders over. They stop complaining, leave behind their iPod or NintendoDS. Children are transfixed by books read aloud. They should hear books and poetry often. Even if we adults rarely, or never, speak well, through reading out loud our children will hear the cadence of beautiful language. Children will listen to words, will imitate purely for the pleasure it gives them. Even the youngest children in the schoolyard parrot insidious pop song lyrics like “So here’s my number, so call me maybe.” Surely this has less meaning for them than Jabberwocky? And unlike Carroll’s nonsense, the pop lyric is devoid of the invention and impact of language shaped by formal considerations.
I have read a great deal in these pages and elsewhere about the demise of a literary sensibility and the dwindling number of discerning and independent-minded readers, not only among the population at large, but also, and more inexcusably, among university students, professors, publishers and critics. We are reaping a crop sown in the soil of elementary school, fertilised with Scholastic pseudo-book order forms, literacy texts, and reading logs, and grown in the glass house of bookless classrooms and school libraries converted into computer labs.
Lest we think the Ziploc reading bag a local phenomenon, here is poet and children’s writer Michael Rosen on the British “reading scheme” (in his 2007 Patrick Hardy Lecture):
Schools want and need parents to be partners in the education of the children. . . . But in this matter of reading – how should parents be partners? When? Where? And with what? Is the parents’ role to be a matter of reading the book a child comes home with? More times than not, in more schools than not, I have a pretty strong feeling this book isn’t actually what I’d call a book. It’s more a kind of pamphlet or booklet that tells some strange inconsequential tale about a group of people who don’t say things in any kind of recognisable, nor indeed utterly fantastical way. They seem to talk mostly in short statements in the form of instructions, intentions and conclusions, ‘I am going out.’ – ‘I am happy.’ Is this what the teachers mean by reading with your children?
That fierce and erratic writer for children, Roald Dahl, created in his eponymous heroine Matilda the archetype of the avenging autodidact book lover. She discovers her uncanny powers in the rage provoked when her father tears her book apart. She first comes to the attention of the nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull as the impossible child reader of Nicholas Nickleby, a book the Trunchbull praises for the liberality with which the “admirable” headmaster Wackford Squeers uses his stick on his pupils:
“A fine book, that. But I don’t suppose this bunch of morons we’ve got here will ever read it because by the look of them they are never going to learn to read any thing!”
“I’ve read it,” Matilda said quietly.
“Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Trunchbull.”
“You are lying to me madam!” the Trunchbull shouted, glaring at Matilda. “I doubt there is a single child in the entire school who has read that book, and here you are, an unhatched shrimp sitting in the lowest form there is, trying to tell me a whopping great lie like that! Why do you do it? You must take me for a fool! Do you take me for a fool, child?”
Dahl’s own schooldays were remembered bitterly in his autobiographical story, “Lucky Break.” He felt the only worthwhile learning in his long, expensive and brutal English boarding school education came during two and a half weekly hours spent with one Mrs O’Connor, who supervised the boys while the teachers made their Saturday morning outing to a country pub. To each boy, she gave a copy of her six-page list of the most significant works of English literature and she talked about and read aloud from one of these books during each of her visits. “And the result of this,” wrote Dahl, “was that by the age of thirteen I had become intensely aware of the vast heritage of literature that had been built up in England over the centuries. I also became an avid and insatiable reader of good writing.”
Matilda’s Mrs O’Connor appears as the village librarian, the kindly Mrs Phelps, whose very great service is to aid and abet Matilda’s precocious reading while rejecting the prohibitions and ignorant judgments routinely pronounced against child readers:
“Mr Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,” Matilda said to [Mrs Phelps]. “Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.”
“A fine writer will always make you feel that,” Mrs Phelps said. “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”
Dahl gives us a vivid image of the misfit child reader in school and the antipathy she can provoke in teachers. He also shows us the ease with which a sympathetic adult can make a place for the child – Let her read books.
Why should school be such hostile territory for readers? Why this ambivalence toward reading?
In part, at least, a difficulty is thrown up by the imperative to pursue a “literacy agenda” – the teaching of reading as a functional skill and the concomitant concern about testing results has left little place in school for literature.
In the fulfilment of the literacy agenda – enabling functional and useful reading – it really doesn’t matter what books kids are reading, so long as they’re learning how to read. Levelled readers, The Magic Treehouse, The Ninjago Guidebook, Barbie movie derivatives – the texts are disposable and fundamentally interchangeable. Because it is easier to test and assess based on a system of sequential readers, because it is easier to trick students into picking up a book because it looks and sounds like a television programme, the shelves are stocked with such things in the name of efficiency. The way that literacy is pursued in schools has profound implications for books. Readers of CNQ – writers, editors, publishers, critics, booksellers – take heed. Children’s education in literature and, but more often or, literacy prepares the field on which you carry out all your endeavours. The literacy agenda has resulted in the near elimination of actual books from schools. Peter Hunt describes the situation in Children’s Literature: “[A] utilitarian culture sees the ability to read and write as paramount and looks for simple methods of achieving it. . . . The teaching methods . . . eliminate fiction on the overt grounds that it is too complex, and on the covert grounds that the unrestrained imagination is not politically malleable.”
Arguably, the literacy agenda is a limiting approach that ill serves all children in schools. It is inarguable that it ill serves those who are already readers.
Does it make any sense for the child who is reading fluently, far beyond her grade level, to spend hours in school learning “strategies” for sounding out words, completing phonics worksheets and reading basic introductory texts? Is it wise to have her sit in school for years waiting for a time when she will be taught, when she will be challenged and drawn deeper into her ability? What might be done for this reader? Teachers already have a great deal to do in addressing the many problems and challenges in the classroom, but does that absolve schools from doing what they might for readers?
Perhaps a talent for reading is more easily and readily overlooked than a talent for mathematics. Certainly it seems widely felt that identifying and fostering talent in math is essential to national economic success. Millions of dollars in government funding are available for Science Technology Engineering and Math (so-called “STEM”) initiatives from kindergarten to grade 12 with the goal of “developing the next generation of STEM leaders to fuel business innovation.” A plethora of specialist math and science programs are available in schools – Scientist in the School, Science Fairs, Math Olympiad, FIRST Robotics competitions, among others – programs that recognize the importance of students interacting with knowledgeable practitioners in the field.
In my experience, the usual approach to talented readers is to keep them busy with extra writing assignments – book reports, independent study projects and worksheets. Asking them to make predictions before, during and after reading, to explain how predictions help them understand their reading, to make connections between text and text, text and self, text and world. I instinctively dislike this approach. I might be persuaded that it is an attempt to break down the actual engagement with literature into teachable component “skills,” but it produces only a parody of thinking. And applied to a ten-page, 60-word text it is just nonsense.
The earliest version of writing about reading in school is the reading log. The kindergartener draws a face in the box beside the title to show how she felt about the book – the mouth curved up or down, or sliding across the face in a straight line, resisting, I think, the demand that she make a judgement. The reading log expands and continues through the grades and the smiling or frowning faces must become prompted opinions: “I liked/did not like this book because . . .” Virginia Woolf thought giving an opinion of a book forced the reader to “get outside that cloud of fertile, but unrealized, sensation which hangs about a reader, to solidify it, to sum up. . . . [The reader] says it is a great book or a bad book. Yet, as he knows, when he is content to read only, it is neither.” Doesn’t that “cloud of fertile but unrealized sensation” sound like childhood? Let it linger for the child reader.
In searching for something to offer young readers in school, perhaps we ought be guided by those most experienced and able of readers – writers.
Eudora Welty remembered in One Writer’s Beginnings her mother instructing the public librarian that the 9-year old girl had permission to read “any book she wants from the shelves, children or adult.” Eleanor Farjeon rejoiced in her family’s “Little Bookroom” – filled with the precious dust of ages – “a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.”
Let the books work on the reader, and let the reader do work that will make her consider and become more familiar with the form of written language.
She might study Latin – a language not for conversation or writing, but for reading. Again, Welty: “It took Latin to thrust me into bona fide alliance with words in their true meaning. Learning Latin . . . fed my love for words upon words, words in continuation and modification, and the beautiful, sober, accretion of a sentence.” Our own John Metcalf regretted in his memoir not having learned the ancient languages from his elementary school years. This would indeed be a gift to the young reader. If this seems far-fetched consider that in the UK and the US the study of Latin in primary schools is growing rapidly through programmes developed by classics organizations outside the school system, and being met with eager appetite by students and parents.
She might commit poetry to memory. Clive James wrote that what “we need to make explicit, for the benefit of our children if not ourselves, is that the future of the humanities as a common possession depends on the restoration of a simple, single ideal: getting poetry by heart.” Through memorizing she will acquire a feel for metre and might be taught to scan poetry and be introduced to a vocabulary of form that has the taste, delicious to the child reader, of the esoteric and encoded. In encouraging child readers to think about what they are reading perhaps we cannot do better than having them memorize and perform it. Reading a poem or play out loud is, in fact, a retelling and a work of understanding – one that does not require a reductive judgement.
If we can imagine a school that allows children to read widely for pleasure, spreading before them a large and varied collection of excellent books; that makes time for them to read and to listen; that instructs them in the form of words and written language; that fosters their imaginative engagement with reading and teaches them to resist facile judgements; if we keep before us Woolf’s idea of the reader, who –
must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill . . . the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading. . . . For the true reader is essentially young. He is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom reading is more of the nature of brisk exercise in the open air than of sheltered study.
– then we will have begun to imagine a place for a reader in school.
Every now and then, someone who is considering undertaking a PhD by thesis will seek my thoughts about doctoral supervisors. And while there are lots of things I might draw the enquirer’s attention to, my standard reply is that I reckon that you want to look for 3 things in a supervisor:
- Someone who makes time for you, including responding to your calls/emails in a timely manner. There’s an element here too of the ‘pastoral’ reality in the supervisory relationship. A good supervisor knows, or at least acts as if they know, that they are working with a person and not just with ideas, and that most often that person experiences ‘the thesis’ as a mixed ride, and often with not a little stress, both internal and external. Some confidence that the supervisor is an aid – which includes some basic reliability on the communication front – and not a thorn in this journey is pretty important. (Side note: The 3-year thesis has some affinities with pregnancy, or so I’m led to believe. The first trimester is often about excitement and adjustment, and some weird conviction that this baby is going to be the best thing ever. Sometimes vomiting is involved too. The second trimester is like being in cruise control, and the baby sort of just hangs around while one starts to be a little more lax about the ‘no-alcohol’ rules and stuff. And the third trimester is something akin to ‘Let’s just get this baby out of here – enough is enough’.)
- Someone who knows what a doctoral thesis looks like. Just because a person has one doesn’t guarantee that they know what one looks like, or how to go about authoring a decent one, or helping someone else to do so.
- Someone – and this is perhaps the most important of the three – who asks the right kinds of questions. In other words, you’re not necessarily looking for someone who knows everything, or even a lot, about your subject of interest. But you are looking for someone who has a good nose for the general area and who can help you articulate the right kinds of questions. In PhDs – as in life – the right questions are always much more important, and much more interesting, than the answers.
‘Throughout the history of the Reformed tradition, the central place both for the ongoing hermeneutic process urged in the confessions, and for the general influence of the confessions in the Church, has been the pastoral office through preaching, teaching, oversight, and leadership. Correspondingly, it is chiefly the minister of the word, among the other ordained ministries, who is held accountable in the constitutional questions for following the leading and guidance of the confessions of faith. Appropriately, theological education was in the past structured by the theology of the confessions. Rather strongly, thus, I wish to remind those of us that find our calling in theological education that it is scandalous for a faculty member in any discipline in the church’s seminaries not to be able to locate his or her work and thought and teaching matter with relation to the confessional teachings. We do not want again the old teaching oath, or any teaching oath at all, and the inevitably stifling conformity it promotes. But neither do we want the On resistsing that leave the relation of thought to life in the empirical church to the improvisation of individual ministers. Further, theological education carried out in programs of continuing education or presbytery projects of many types, should be oriented by a reasonable awareness of what the Church teaches in its confessional and creedal literature.
More broadly, it is the educational ministry of the Church on all levels that should bear the chief responsibility for a confessionally rooted hermeneutic, worship, and mission. The idiom of the tradition, whether in words or ethic, needs to be exercised in spiritual, biblical, theological, and ethical education.
It would be well, we often think, if one might be just a Christian, and not a Presbyterian, Catholic, or Methodist. But so, it might seem, is the case with language. What if we could avoid German or English and just speak language? But it doesn’t work. Esperanto is a wonderful idea, but like Basic English a few years back, it is bereft of the richness of meaning and naturalness of a true language. So a theological Esperanto, or ecumenical Esperanto—for the time being at least—leaves us far from the concrete reality in which we live and speak. The idiom of the Reformed tradition, when fully understood, is the ground and motive both for ecumenical awareness and progress, and for other kinds of reform and advance. Not abandonment, but reform, as new light breaks forth from Scripture and illuminates new situations in our culture and environment and in the world Church, is the promising idiom of our tradition’. – Edward A. Dowey Jr., ‘Confessional Documents as Reformed Hermeneutic’, Journal of Presbyterian History 79, no. 1 (2001), 58.
‘There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the “practice of freedom”, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world’. – Jane Thompson, in Peter Mayo, Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education: Possibilities for Transformative Action (Global Perspectives on Adult Education and Training) (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999), 5.
‘Discussion of university faculty salaries highlighted their concern that a primary aim of the proposed national school system be the development of the preaching pastorate. Teachers of mathematics, physics, and philosophy were to receive 100 pounds a year; teachers of medicine and law 133 and 1/3 pounds; but teachers of Hebrew, Greek, and divinity were to be paid 200 pounds, the salary of a college principal’. – Robert M. Healey, ‘The Preaching Ministry in Scotland’s First Book of Discipline’. Church History 58, no. 3 (1989), 347.
Now there’s a society with the right priorities! There were, of course, less favourable features, but we shall not dwell on these here …
There’s a recent article in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr (author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google) which explores the effects of the internet on our reading – and thinking – habits. Drawing upon research by developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf and sociologist Daniel Bell (among others), and citing as examples Friedrich Nietzsche’s use of a typewriter, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s efficiency experiments, Gutenberg’s printing press, and Kubrick’s 2001, Carr makes us wonder what we might be risking when we hand over to the internet (and Google) what we once considered to be far too invaluable to even commit to print – our ability to think!
Carr recalls the spirit of Plato’s Phaedrus, wherein Socrates bemoans the development of writing: ‘He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong – the new technology did often have the effects he feared – but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)’.
Carr also cites from a recent essay by playwright Richard Foreman wherein Foreman writes:
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’ – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”
For the full article.
Trevor Cairney has posted a helpful (and encouraging) review of the ‘Your Baby Can Read!’ program developed by Dr Robert Titzer. While I was unaware of Titzer’s thesis, the concerns Trevor outlines make real sense to me. As I noted in a comment on his post, I spend all day with a 2-year-old. We cook, play, dance, listen to music, read, count the dongs on the grandfather clock, paint, sort through food, and eat leaves in the garden, among other things. It’s learning all the way, and the resultant growth in her is obvious. I can’t imagine how spending an hour a day sitting in front of a TV (which she is not interested in at all) watching DVD’s can compare with sitting on dad’s knee reading, or kicking a football or counting flower buds in the garden, or learning to share toys and attention with friends. I’m keen to hear from others who may have had experience with Titzer’s program, and whether or not their experiences echo any of Trevor’s concerns.
If you were a school teacher the 1850s, here are 13 rules to which you probably were required to adhere:
1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys [lamp globes], and trim wicks.
2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
3. Teachers will make their pens carefully. They may whittle nibs to individual tastes.
4. Male teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.
5. After 10 hours in school teachers should spend their remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
6. Women teachers who marry or engage in uncomely conduct will be dismissed.
7. Every teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his/her earnings for his/her benefit during his/her declining years so that he/she won’t become a burden on society.
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barbershop will give good reason to suspect his/her worth, intentions, integrity, and honesty.
9. The teacher who performs his/her labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents per week in his/her pay providing the Board of Education approves.
10. Teachers will maintain a garden on school grounds to provide additional food for themselves or students.
11. Teacher candidates must be at least 16, be able to read and write, do simple arithmetic, and have a clergyman’s letter in hand attesting to their sound moral character.
12. Teachers must attend a house of worship every Sunday.
13. Teachers must keep the school clean, haul any necessary wood to keep the stove going, bring water from the well, and start a pot to boil in the morning so students who bring their lunch can heat it if necessary.
What a breeze … and no emails to check. O how much more fun it is to whittle your own nibs and cut your own hair at home.
‘It is part of the mythology of childhood itself that children hate learning and will avoid it at all costs. Of course, anyone who has had a child knows what an absurd lie this is. From infancy onward, children are the most fantastic learners in the world’. – Daniel Quinn, Schooling: The Hidden Agenda.
In her book Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman’s Passage in the American West Sally Denton provides us with a glimpse into raising children in upper-crust London in the mid– 1800’s. Jean Rio Baker is married to Henry Baker, and they have eight young children, less the one who has died as a toddler. Jean Rio later forsakes this life in the pursuit of Mormonism in America:
“Child rearing was left to governesses, and the children were taught what one of them called ‘the pure Queen’s English’ by private tutors, [while] Jean Rio pursued her musical career throughout Europe. A cook and butler handled domestic matters, and Jean Rio and Henry took their meals separate from the children. The family regularly attended public celebrations for Queen Victoria, and, to judge from their proximity to the royal family at these times, the Bakers were apparently among the elite of mid-nineteenth-century London society.
“Henry, a prominent engineer, built a miniature steam locomotive for his children. The couple routinely read Shakespeare aloud to their children from a leather-bound volume of the complete works – a book Jean Rio would eventually carry with her to Utah, along with many others. ‘They were taught personal cleanliness, morals, manners, and religion in no uncertain terms,’ wrote a descendant. As each child turned fourteen, he or she was invited to the family dinner table, having received training in etiquette. At that age, the sons were presented with a silver watch and chain. By that age as well, the children were expected to have mastered the common requirements in history and literature, as well as bookkeeping and higher mathematics that included algebra. Upon turning sixteen, the boys received a gold watch and, as son William George remembered the symbolic rite, were told by Jean Rio and Henry that they would now be expected to conduct themselves as proper gentlemen at all times. All the children learned horsemanship and regularly rode the bridle path in Hyde Park; it was a proficiency that would serve them well in their future lives on the American frontier.”
Sally Denton, Faith and Betrayal: A Pioneer Woman’s Passage in the American West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 13–4. (HT: Delancey Place)
Oh how times have changed!
Robert W. Jenson & Solveig Lucia Gold, Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006). 158 pages. ISBN: 97815874321613. Review copy courtesy of Brazos Press.
When was the last time you had a conversation about baptism, temptation, purgatory, time, economics, the Nicene Creed, creation, the Trinity, Christmas, metaphysics, church calendars, evil, indulgences, the Holy Spirit, liturgy, Lucifer, hamsters, a ‘really stupid’ bishop, the disestablishment of the Roman Church, the imago Dei, and a host of other things, all with the same person? When was the last time you did so with a person who just happens to be a world-renowned Lutheran, and ecumenical, theologian? When was the last time you did so with an eight-year-old who knows more about Dante than not a few philosophy undergrads?
In this remarkable book, we are invited to eavesdrop on a spontaneous and unscripted conversation between elementary schoolgirl Solveig Lucia Gold and her septuagenarian grandfather affectionately called ‘Poppi’, more formally known as the Reverend Canon Professor Dr. D. Robert W. Jenson, B.A., B.D., M.A., D.Theol., D.H.L., DD.
The book comprises the verbatim transcripts – with minor editing of ‘Ums’, ‘Well, buts …’ and ‘You knows…’, etc – of conversations recorded on a Radio Shack cassette recorder over a series of weekends in which Solveig visited her grandparents (‘Poppi’ and ‘Mimi’) in Princeton. After each session, Mimi typed it up.
The authors invite us to read their book ‘as you would a Platonic dialogue, though in this one, the role of Socrates goes back and forth’ (p. 10). Their discussion is more wide-ranging than most systematic theologies, and is filled with wit, warmth and wisdom.
Time for an example:
Solveig: How can God pick who goes to heaven or hell?
Poppi: By looking at Jesus, who loves you, Solveig.
Solveig: Can you show me?
Poppi: One way of saying what happened with Jesus is that Jesus so attached himself to you that if God the Father wants his Son, Jesus, back, he is stuck with you too. Which is how he picks you. (p. 20)
The young Episcopalian and her ‘sort of half Anglican and half Lutheran’ (p. 70) Poppi return to some themes a number of times over the weekends. One such theme that offers some of the book’s richest insights concerns the Spirit, or ‘God’s liveliness’ (p. 38), as the good Professor Dr Poppi likes to remind his granddaughter. Solveig tries on more than one occasion to argue a case that the second and third articles in the Creed ought to be reversed not only because ‘all of us share in the Spirit’ (Father and Son included), but also because that’s how you cross yourself. Poppi agrees, ‘Father, Spirit, Son is probably a better arrangement’ (p. 146). The Spirit is also ‘God’s own future that he is looking forward to’ (p. 42). They compare God’s liveliness with Santa Claus who is ‘sort of like a messenger from the Holy Spirit – in a way’ (p. 100), before coming to discern the spirits to see if they are from God, for whom to have Spirit means that he ‘doesn’t stay shut up in himself … but that the goodness and mercy – and wrath, when it comes to that – that is in God blows out from him to hit you and me. And that means that just like your spirit is yours and not mine, even though your spirit effects me, so God’s Spirit is his and not a spirit like Santa Claus’ (p. 101).
In between laughs, they talk about what it is about Holy Communion – Solveig’s ‘favourite part of going to church’ because she gets to ‘stretch and walk around a little’ (p. 31) – that means that ‘the wine should be the very best’ (p. 33) and that dissolvable bread should be banned. The meal should be appetising, and not like those baptisms ‘when they just dribble a couple of drops on the baby’ (p. 34). They also talk about a confirmation service led by ‘this weird bishop guy’ who is ‘really stupid’ (p. 34).
While I’m trying to resist the temptation to share every gem in the book (and there are lots), allow me one more, this time on heaven, purgatory, and hell:
Solveig: Do you think of where you might go after you die as two places or three places? I think of it as three places.
Poppi: What three is that?
Solveig: Heaven, purgatory, and hell.
Poppi: So you hold to the doctrine of purgatory?
Poppi: You know that is very controversial.
Solveig: Why? It’s in Dante, isn’t it?
Poppi: Well, it’s in Dante, yes. But of course, Dante isn’t exactly in the Bible.
Solveig: No. But he’s still …
Poppi: The thing about purgatory is that it’s a very reasonable idea. It’s just that we don’t know if it is true.
Solveig: Except … Maybe God thinks that you should just go to two places. If you are bad, he has no patience with you at all, and he will just sort you to go to heaven or hell. I think that is reasonable enough.
Poppi: That God is impatient?
Poppi: That’s where I think the notion of purgatory is reasonable. I don’t think the Bible talks about God’s being impatient in quite that way.
Solveig: If he isn’t impatient, maybe he doesn’t want us to spend time thinking about where we should go.
Poppi: You know that plate that your mother and father gave us that hangs on the wall in the dining room?
Poppi: Remember what it says on it?
Solveig: I don’t remember what it says.
Poppi: It says, ‘I desire not the death of the wicked.’
Solveig: ‘As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’
Poppi: Right. So the biblical God takes no pleasure in sending people to hell, and that’s why I think that purgatory is a reasonable idea. The problem is we don’t have any way of knowing whether the purgatory idea is true or not.
Solveig: It’s just Dante’s idea.
Poppi: Well, it was older than Dante.
Solveig: It was?
Solveig: Yes. Well, see, I think of Dante as a theologian, in a way.
Poppi: He was a very great theologian.
Solveig: Yeah, I know. I’m saying that he kind of liked to make up things he wasn’t quite sure about, if you know what I mean.
The delightful exchanges in this album offer us a model of how good theological dialogue can and should take place: with mutual respect and humility which delights in both the giving and the receiving; with an eye on the scripture, an eye on the tradition, and an eye on the world (for those who possess at least three eyes); and within an environment of safety in which no idea is too whacky and no avenue of enquiry cut off prematurely.
Carl Braaten’s words regarding this book are worth repeating,
Robert Jenson has created a new medium, with his granddaughter Solveig, to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Just as Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism for children, this book of conversations covers the beliefs and practices of the Christian church – among them the commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the sacraments – in a way that parents, regardless of their denomination, can confidently read and discuss with their children. Robert Jenson has translated the core convictions of his two volumes of Systematic Theology into simple truths that his eight-year-old grandchild can understand in the course of their unrehearsed and lively conversations. If you want to know what a sophisticated theologian really believes, listen to him explain the mysteries of the Christian faith to a child in simple terms without being simplistic.
Here’s a preview:
… sometimes parents just need to give their child enough time to let the cogs turn, to allow a moment to process the information. Those few more seconds might take some patience on our behalf, but they could be absolutely priceless when it comes to our child’s personal development. Their little minds going over the words, processing what they mean, deciding what to do. I wonder if when parents hurry their children up, push them out the door, they deny them the opportunity to do that … Parents seem to be under increasing pressure these days, run off their feet. In the choice between the quick hit or the slow release it might feel like we have no time to go for the lengthier option. But in the long run, when they look back, parents might be glad that they extended just a little bit more time to their children, time to allow the cogs to turn.
There’s also a good podcast here on Family Values in The Simpsons and one here on Steiner Schools and a discussion on whether public schools are as good as private schools.