Saturday, August 28, 2010

MORSE AND LEWIS: AN APPRECIATION

What do you remember learning in high school? I learned, from Miss Zamow, in A.P. English, that the landscape functions as one of the characters in Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native.”

I thought of this as I reflected on how Oxford, with its “dreaming spires,” twisted lanes, and ancient pubs serves as one of the characters in the PBS Mystery series, “Inspector Lewis,” the new season of which begins Sunday, August 29. And an engaging and engrossing character it is. In the same way that the geography and architecture of Oxford form the backdrop to every scene, the idea of Oxford is in the minds and, alas, the sometimes spilt blood of the characters. (This is a detective series, after all.)

“Inspector Lewis” is a sequel to the long-running PBS Mystery series, “Inspector Morse,” which came to an end upon the death of its lead actor, John Thaw, in 2002. A good deal of the entertainment in “Morse” was the relationship between the Oxford-educated chief inspector and his long-suffering, stalwart, blue collar sergeant, Lewis; a connection that had obvious advantages when it came to producing a crime-fighting team.

The fun (if predictable) development in “Lewis” is that the casting of character is reversed, and the now-elevated Chief Inspector Lewis – still very much blue collar – is served by the young Cambridge-educated Sergeant Hathaway. Hathaway, whose elite view of things is as maddening to Lewis as his former boss’s was, is a loyal sergeant and a wealth of knowledge – knowledge that often appears at first to be useless but turns out to be exactly what is needed to break the case. (And he’s a theologian!) In a telling bit of business from last season’s final show, Hathaway recognizes a painting – by artist, date, and style – from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum; Lewis knows it from a set of coasters he has in his apartment.

I agree with the New York Times critic that the writing is “sharp.” In a recent episode, Lewis struggles with questions about Hathaway’s sexuality in a way that is understated, true to the plot, and true to Lewis’ character. I found the dialogue and character development around this issue to be at least as engaging as the mystery of the crime, which was engaging, indeed. This is, after all, a series in the grand tradition of British whodunits.

Caryl and I have spent time in Oxford, which adds to our enjoyment of these programs, but I’ve never been to Egdon Heath, and it still comes to life for me when I read Thomas Hardy. Oxford comes to life in these dramas. It is one of the characters, along with Morse, Lewis, Hathaway, and, of course, the highly-educated villain.


That's it. This is just an "appreciation," and, I guess, a recommendation. PBS or Netflix.






The “Morse” and “Lewis” series are based on the crime novels of Colin Dexter, who appears in a cameo in almost every episode.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

PRESENTING THE RIGHT HONORABLE... (HONEY... WAKE UP... YOU'RE DREAMING AGAIN...)


The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
                                ~Naomi Shihab Nye

I am a South Dakota boy. In my college days I harbored a brief but real ambition to become governor of South Dakota. My reasoning was, “It’s a small state; what could be so hard?” (I was the losing gubernatorial candidate at Boys’ State in 1965 -- a pretty good predictor of my chances.) It gradually dawned on me that I was really out for the fame -- the responsibility of actually governing the state not being my chief motivation -- and I let the ambition slide. (I understand the reasoning of theologian E. Stanley Jones, who, when informed that he had been nominated for bishop, replied, “I’d love to be elected but I don’t want the job.”)

If I had been asked as a young man if I would be willing to accept fame at the cost of not being able to go anywhere on my own, or where I would not be known, I would have said, “Bring it on,” without hesitation. Now, I’m not so sure. The few times I’ve run into the truly famous, I’ve been hampered by the same truth that hampers them: The realization that there is nothing -- nothing -- I can say that they haven’t heard a hundred times before; so I say nothing. (Except to Ian Tyson, to whom I said, “Thanks, Ian.” He raised his coffee cup to me. Class!)

Years ago, on a family road trip, we stopped at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. As we trudged up toward Last Stand Hill, there was Dick Cavett looming over us, seated on a large horse. He was filming a PBS special on new findings at the Battlefield.  I raised my camera, clicked, and said, “Do you mind, Mr. Cavett?” To which he replied (sneeringly, I swear), “I guess there’s nothing I can do about it now.” My disgust was divided equally between Cavett, for the supercilious remark, and myself, for the toadying way I approached him. (Still, I like his New York Times blog. All is forgiven, Dick.)

As the years have passed by, I have only once or twice considered wistfully the life in the governor’s mansion that was not to be mine, and I have concluded that being a pastor in a mid-size city provides fame enough for me: When I go to the grocery store I always run into someone I know -- but I don’t know everyone. And, at the risk of sounding corny, I’m famous to my grandson -- I can’t imagine a greater accolade.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

LAND OF THE FREE FOR ALL

Do you remember how, on the Statue of Liberty, it says,
"Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...?"
The trouble is, people did! 
                             ~ "Beyond The Fringe"

I am a fourth-generation American; my great-grandfather came from Denmark in 1889. The older I get, the more it seems as though I should put it this way: “I am only a fourth-generation American.” The 121 years of Jorgensen residency in this nation (my lifetime comprising almost exactly one-half of that time) seems like an inch on a yardstick as compared to the generations stretching back for hundreds or even thousands of years in the old country. (I’m going to do one of those National Geographic DNA swabs and find out just how far back.)

My point is not that I’m pining for the land of my ancestors -- just the opposite. I have felt and known myself to be completely American since the moment of my first rational consideration of the matter. Although I grew up with a sense of curiosity and, eventually, appreciation for my Danish and Norwegian heritage, I have never thought of myself as a Scandinavian-American, but simply as an American. (Although, I arrived in my current parish twenty-one years ago just in time to get a mention in the congregation’s history book. The mention? I am the congregation’s “first Danish pastor.”)

Like immigrant families today, my ancestors migrated immediately to established communities of their nationality and old-country language. The first generation (especially if they were over forty) never learned English; the next generation always did. For those who, like my father, were born here, Denmark may have been in their blood, but America was in their bones -- from the first. (My father, whose father was born in Denmark, never spoke or learned Danish.) So, to the charge, “Why don’t they speak English,” the answer is two-fold: 1) Your ancestors didn’t, either; and, 2) Give them a generation -- they will.

(I know that your ancestors spoke English if they came from England, but at least my Norwegian and Danish ancestors were legal. Those so-called Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 -- about 600 years after my Norwegian fore-cousin Bjarni Herjolfson, by the way -- definitely were not. Their very first act, by their own account -- when their clothes were still wet from their desperate landing -- was to steal a granary of Native corn. You’ve got to watch those borders!)

During our wonderful years in Alaska, I was amused to observe that an old Alaska pioneer was apparently someone who’d been there ten minutes longer than the next guy. Those politicians who play the immigrant/race-baiting game seem to forget just how recently they’ve arrived -- and that those who keep arriving are just as American as they are.

Of course this is an old story, emblematic of but not unique to the U.S. of A. It is because we wander and end up in new places that become our true home that DNA tests are eventually necessary to trace the wandering. Father Abraham traveled from -- of all places -- Iraq. Johann Christian Bach, son of the most German of German composers, became a Londoner -- a more famous composer in his day than his father -- and is buried in LondonOur Korean-born daughter teaches the children of all kinds of Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachussets; and my dad -- who’s father was born on an impoverished Danish farm -- was playing saxophone in a swing band on a Midwestern college campus when he was twenty. Now that’s America

Sunday, August 15, 2010

TO BECOME AN INTERESTING -- AND INTERESTED -- PERSON

Everything our parents told us was good for us is bad: the sun, milk, red meat,... college. ~Woody Allen

Much is written these days questioning the value of a college education. Some of the musing is financial: articles reporting that parents and students are increasingly wondering about the payback of a high- (or even mid-)ticket four year private institution in a turned down economy.* Others, represented most insightfully by Matthew Crawford in his provocative, “Shop Class As Soul Craft,” propose the hypothesis that not only is college not for everyone, but we do some very gifted young people a disservice by insisting that their gifts can only be realized in a four-year college program (as opposed to technical school or the work place).

I believe both issues are well worth pondering, and I accept a variety of answers to the questions being pondered. But I want to hold a place for the worthiness of college – not as being necessarily superior to vocational education in all cases, but in the sense that it offers riches that cannot be calculated at the bottom line, and it is a useful adjunct to the lessons learned in tech school and even the school of hard knocks.

When I say “college” I mean, most pointedly, liberal arts. In the same way that we are rediscovering phys. ed. as a valuable part of a child’s elementary school experience (how eliminating it, and recess, are short-sighted responses with long-term consequences), so we are realizing (according to many social commentators), that an over-specialized approach to college as mere “job training” results in citizens who are more and more insulated from the larger questions of what it means to be a member of society and, well, “civilized.”

In their book Higher Education?, with the provocative sub-title, “How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money And Failing Our Kids And What We Can Do About It,” Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus propose,
What do we think should happen at college?  We want young people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking hard about realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers. To quote a friend, colleges should be making their undergraduates more interesting people. Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives.**
 In a kind of vicious cycle, as more and more  students enroll for preparation in what they understand to be the sought-after professions of the moment, more and more colleges are cutting down on liberal arts in general and the English department in particular because these departments aren’t making a profit for the schools and in fact are costing money.***

In my vocation, pre-seminary students are often advised to major in anything other than religion, the idea being that this will have the effect of producing a member of the clergy who is actually able to communicate with those in the real world. In the same vein, perhaps the engineer or business major who knows something of how poetry works, or the novels of Dickens, will discover that a light bulb of understanding will flicker on years down the road in a situation they never would have imagined or “prepared” for.

And to continue with my own profession as an example: Many candidates for ministry discern their calling after years in another occupation. Similarly – surveys show – over half of those who enter college with the intention of becoming engineers do not end up pursuing that field – even in their college years. Better to be prepared for life, which just might include a course in Shakespeare offered at the technical college.
*A related issue, for another post, perhaps, is the radical idea that a top-notch education may be attained at any number of modestly-priced institutions.
**Hacker explains some of their findings and proposals in this interesting interview on NPR.
***Here is an award-winning and thought-provoking essay by William M. Chace in "The American Scholar:" The Decline of the English Department.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"I'M ALMOST CERTAIN THERE IS NO GOD..., WELL, PRETTY SURE..."

Here lie I, Martin Elginbrod,
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
As I would do, were I Lord God,
And thou wert Martin Elginbrod!
   ~ tombstone, from George MacDonald


I am fascinated by the faith-science interchange and the dialogue/controversy between people of faith and the "new atheists" which is a subset of it. It is in part a matter of intellectual recreation for me, and in part an earnest component of my mindset and beliefs.

I have never entered an internet "chat room" (always been kind of scared of them), but a few days ago, while following a link, I stumbled upon the blog of a self-described skeptic and joined the blog's comment chain that, for a while, became a real-time back-and-forth debate. After hunching over my keyboard for about forty-five minutes, firing comments into the ether as fast as they were fired back at me, I extricated myself from the fray, and have not returned. I felt like I was fleeing a crescendoing spiral of madness out of Fellini. (Not "madness" because of the content of the comments, but because of the feeling that one could become trapped in a Hydra-headed argument without end.)

The subject of the comment chain was (to oversimplify a bit) "is there a God?". There were six or seven of us in the real-time back-and-forth, and I was the only one arguing for the philosophical possibility that God might exist. I was not arguing for the Judeo-Christian God, or against evolution (which I buy), but for an uncreated non-material force that was the causative agent for everything material.  Two things surprised me. One was that the conversation - though frustratingly anonymous - was relatively civil. The other was the number of my correspondents who said something to the effect that of course there is a chance that something like a god exists but, "he's certainly not doing much," to paraphrase one comment. I was surprised that some so easily allowed a chink to open in their skeptical armor. (The argument seemed to be "I may be persuaded that God exists if only he behaves according to my pre-conceived notions of how God would behave if God existed.")


Although I do not have a record of this exchange (as I said, I ran away, so I admit this is a one-sided report from my memory), I found the arguments rather un-subtle. It is as though they had given up belief in a Sunday School God, and the only thing that would convince them would be a divine Sunday School performance. I came away with the distinct impression that they -- like the more well-known atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins -- mainly just have a beef with the church and with "religion" (as do I); they do not probe very deeply into the philosophical question of whether or not there may be a god. Certainly doubt is a part of faith (including mine), but this exchange wasn't so much about faith as reason.

All this to introduce a good essay on this subject by Gary Gutting in the New York Times Opinionator blog. I recommend following the links referred to in the essay. But, be careful, you might get trapped!


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I have posted elsewhere on this subject. Here and here.  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

IF I HAD A HAMMER...

Prosper the work of our hands, O God; prosper our handiwork. ~Psalm 90


Matthew Crawford's Shop Class As Soul Craft - a book that convincingly makes the case that the work of our hands demands and reflects as much intelligence as that of our heads - reminded me, a Christian minister, that I serve a Lord whose story is tied up with the carpenter's trade, and that the first preachers of the gospel were fishermen and a tentmaker.

Ironically, the president of my seminary used to advise graduating seniors that if we had any useful skills we should not let our parishioners know about them, allowing ourselves to be thought of as helpless as babes, laboring piously in our studies with holy books as our only tools. Because of my aptitudinal deficits, this assignment has, unfortunately, been only too easy for me to fulfill.

My brother-in-law, a fellow Lutheran pastor, is, however, a skilled woodworker who has built custom homes, crafted a bed as a gift for each of his children, and patiently instructed me in the use of the scribe, the miter saw, and various wood finishes as we've worked together to build the cabin we share. (When our children were little, whenever I embarked upon a home improvement project they would chant, “Call Uncle Jeff!”)

The cabin has been and continues to be a labor of love (there’s no other way to put it) and, along with our other preacher brother-in-law who, as an old farm boy is handy in all kinds of ways, we have built it in a series of retreats that are a hearty organic mix of theology and sawdust.

I love discussing theology with these my brothers, but it's a much richer conversation when we’ve put down our hammers or saws or paintbrushes and we're sitting in a half-finished kitchen sharing a break from honest labor over a thermos of coffee.

“It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” (Anaxagoras, 5th century B.C.)

Anaxagoras quoted by Mathew B. Crawford in Shop Class As Soul Craft, Penguin Press, 2009.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

THE TRUTH WILL OUT... WON'T IT?

The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is initiating a policy of interfering with the use of the Blackberry smart phone because, in the words of one reporter, "They're finding it too hard to spy on." (The NPR story is here.

This report reminded me of another: Just before his surprising execution (surprising mostly to him) at the hands of revolutionaries in 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu proclaimed an edict outlawing typewriters and copy machines. I recall thinking at the time that outlawing typewriters is truly the last-gasp act of a desperate man.  (The Fearless Leader actually tried to cover other threats by requiring the registration of hand-writing samples.) Although the image of the bodies of Dictator and Mrs. Ceausescu slumped under bloody sheets is not particularly funny, the typewriter gambit still makes me laugh.

I suppose this amusement has to take a kind of long-range view: Certainly the U.A.E. Blackberry crackdown will have immediate effects, but certainly it, too, will eventually be viewed as the laughable, desperate measure that it is.

Reasonable folks can disagree about the positive or negative effects of the recent WikiLeaks exposure of the Afghan war logs, but surely an internet-enabled transparency is a good thing for freedom. (I have not yet read an analysis comparing the Wikileaks release to that of the Pentagon Papers -- and who is on which side regarding these two exercises in truth-telling.)

We have learned by now that technology can't save us ("You said, 'We will ride upon swift steeds'--therefore your pursuers shall be swift!" - Isaiah 30:16), and the openness of the web will simply call forth more creative attempts to hide reality and disseminate untruths. (Ironically, the internet helps to expose lies and to spread "the big lie.") But is it not true, dear reader, that, in the words of my late friend Gerhard Frost, "We can put the truth out on the street and let it take care of itself."?