Friday, December 28, 2012

Some thoughts on the first Hobbit movie



I wanted to like the new Hobbit movie. I really, really did--want to like it, that is. All the signs seemed favorable: I had enjoyed Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies (yes, I still complained about what was left out, but the movies seemed true enough to my experience with the books that I had no problem embracing them). The timing of the release was perfect. Not only was it a holiday movie I could enjoy with my family, but also I had just completed a re-reading of the book with my freshman seminar class. How could this not be a great experience?

Well, as it turned out, my experience would have been better had I not re-read the book because, as a number of reviewers have already pointed out, Jackson makes little attempt to stay faithful to Tolkien's story, characterizations, and tone.  Anna Klassen, of The Daily Beast, has identified 19 ways in which the movie strays from the book. Oliver Gettell writes in The Los Angeles Times that movie critics from the LA Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle have all expressed disappointment at Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's story. Novelist Frank Schaeffer, writing in The Huffington Post, pulls no punches:

The spirit of the book has been almost entirely lost and replaced by a movie that looks as if it was made to spin off theme park rides and videogame derivatives rather than to tell the story as written in the beloved children's classic.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings film trilogy that largely succeeded in maintaining the spirit and details of the books, The Hobbit departs so far from the text that is has little to nothing to do with the original. Worse, the film as a film is just another overblown barely coherent effects extravaganza dud more akin to Transformers in spirit than to anything that Tolkien wrote.
And as if these movie critics' concerns weren't enough, even a theologian has gotten into the act. Miroslav Volf has called the Hobbit movie "utterly lame."

Before expressing a few of my own concerns, I want to mention aspects of the movie I liked. The scene near the beginning with the dwarves invading Bilbo's hobbit hole is wonderful. It establishes the contrast between the ways of hobbits and dwarves as well as Bilbo's reluctance to undertake an adventure. Perhaps exceeding this scene in excellence is the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo where Bilbo outwits Gollum in a game of riddles. Like the LOTR, the movie is beautifully filmed with the New Zealand landscape providing breathtaking scenery. I also thought music was used effectively and the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo was successful.

And yet it is the treatment of Bilbo's character that disturbed me most. As mentioned earlier, the opening scenes do a great job of establishing Bilbo's status as the reluctant hero. Tolkien takes pains in the novel to identify the two strains in Bilbo's genetic line. He's a Baggins, which means he's cautious, plays it safe, and avoids risks; "Adventures," Bilbo tells Gandalf, "make one late for dinner." But Bilbo is also a Took, which means there's a part of his personality that relishes adventure. Unfortunately, in the movie, while Gandalf mentions that Bilbo is a Took, the significance of the reference is never explained.

While the movie begins by presenting a protagonist consistent with Tolkien's, it goes quickly off track.  One way it goes wrong is by creating a needless conflict between Thorin, the leader of the dwarves and Bilbo. In the book, all the dwarves are somewhat doubtful of Bilbo's skill and courage, but none more than the other. Tolkien allows Bilbo to gain the trust and respect of the dwarves gradually over the course of the action. In the movie, Thorin constantly questions Bilbo's courage and resolve in much more aggressive terms than appear in the book. Only after Bilbo saves Thorin from death at the hands of the Pale Orc at the end of the movie (more on this later) does Thorin admit that he's been wrong about Bilbo and embrace him as an equal.

While Bilbo does develop as a character in the movie, he develops in a way totally inconsistent with the protagonist in Tolkien's novel. A key to understanding Bilbo's character development in the book is that Bilbo is not a traditional swashbuckling hero. He's a lover, not a fighter. If he survives the journey at all, he will survive on his wits and his ability to move quietly and stealthily--not on his strength in battle. And the movie begins by presenting Bilbo in this way. When Gandalf hands him the small elvish sword, Sting, Bilbo responds that he's never used a sword before. So far, so good. Yet moments later in the mines of Moria, we see Bilbo brandishing his sword against a goblin like an experienced swordsman.

Most distressing and inconsistent of all is the battle scene with which Jackson concludes his first of three Hobbit movies. The company has been chased up trees by the wargs and the Orcs, led by the Pale Orc, and Gandalf attempts to frighten the wargs off by setting pinecones on fire and tossing them at the warg's feet. So far so good as most of this happens in the book. In the book, however, the primary enemies are wargs, and Gandalf's pinecone strategy backfires, literally, as the trees the dwarves, hobbit, and wizard are perched in catch fire. It is then that Gandalf summons the Eagles to rescue them.

In the movie, the Orcs, and specifically the Pale Orc, are added to the mix, and Thorin engages in combat with the Pale Orc. When things go badly for Thorin, Bilbo descends from his perch with Sting and attacks the Pale Orc, saving Thorin from certain death. Now it would be hard to imagine an action more inconsistent with Bilbo's character. Even the movie has taken pains to establish Bilbo as a reluctant hero who eschews physical activity and violence, yet in this climactic scene Bilbo is suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a fierce warrior. This will never do!

Years ago I heard Larry McMurtry speak about his experience in seeing one of his novels brought to the big screen. His basic message was that when a book is adapted for film by Hollywood, the author should abandon any hope that the result will bear any resemblance to his or her literary creation. So I get that movies are different than novels. I'm even okay with the director adding and subtracting from the plot of the book; it has to be done. But I view things differently when a director is handling a much-loved literary classic that has been read and re-read by fanatical fans for over sixty years. In fact, I feel much the same about what Jackson has done to Tolkien's Hobbit as I felt about what the director did a few years ago to Lewis's Prince Caspian. I understand that additions and omissions must be made, but it seems to me that there should be very strong reasons for the changes and that the changes should not fundamentally alter the characterizations of the novel, especially those of authors like Tolkien and Lewis who presumably knew what they were doing with their characters and plots.

Perhaps where Jackson went wrong, as some critics have already suggested, was in trying to turn The Hobbit, which is a straightforward, humble, and amusing children's fantasy story, into an adult adventure/romance story similar to The Lord of the Rings. I still enjoyed the film, but I wish I could have enjoyed it more. And don't get me started on Radagast the Brown!



Friday, December 21, 2012

Preparing for Peace: The Peace Pilgrim Project, Part 2

"The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love."Peace Pilgrim

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting aspects of the life and teachings of Peace Pilgrim. For those who aren't familiar with her story, you can check out my previous posts here:

http://garytandy.blogspot.com/2010/05/will-walk-for-peace.html
http://garytandy.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-peace-pilgrim-project-part-1.html

Like other mystics, Mildred Norman's (she later changed her name to Peace Pilgrim) journey began with a vision experienced while she walked in the early morning. She later described it like this:
All of a sudden I felt very uplifted, more uplifted than I had ever been. I remember I knew timelessness and spacelessness and lightness. I did not seem to be walking on the earth. There were no people or even animals around, but every flower, every bush, every tree seemed to wear a halo. There was a light emanation around everything and flecks of gold fell like slanted rain through the air. This experience is sometimes called the illumination period.

The important part of it was the realization of the oneness of all creation. Not only human beings--I knew before that all human beings are one. But now I knew also a oneness with the rest of creation. The creatures that walk the earth and the growing things of the earth. The air, the water, the earth itself. And, most wonderful of all, a oneness with that which permeates all and binds all together and gives life to all. A oneness with that which many would call God.

Peace Pilgrim's vision is beautiful and impressive, but what fascinates me even more than the vision is what she does next. I imagine that if I were the recipient of such a vision, I would want to write about it, speak about it, find some forum to publicize it--immediately. (Perhaps this is why, so far, I've been granted no such visions.) But Peace Pilgrim responded differently. She recognized that good spiritual practice requires study and reflection and processing. Spiritual growth requires intentionality and time. It can't be rushed. Most of all, Peace Pilgrim knew that it requires preparation.

So rather than leaving on her walk for peace immediately, Peace Pilgrim spent 15 years in preparation. 15 years!  In this process of waiting and prayer and contemplation, she discovered four preparations that were required of her.

The first preparation: Adopting a right attitude toward life

Peace Pilgrim describes this preparation:
Stop being a surface liver who stays right in the froth of the surface. . . . Be willing to face life squarely and get down beneath the surface of life where the verities and realities are to be found.

If you could see the whole picture, if you knew the whole story, you would realize that no problem ever comes to you that does not have a purpose in your life, that cannot contribute to your inner growth. . . . If you did not face problems, you would just drift through life. It is through solving problems in accordance with the highest light we have that inner growth is attained.

Now collective problems must be solved by us collectively, and no one finds inner peace who avoids doing his or her share in the solving of collective problems, like world disarmament and world peace. So let us always think about these problems together and talk about them together, and collectively work toward their solutions.
The second preparation: Bringing our lives into harmony with the laws that govern this universe

Peace Pilgrim believed there were fundamental laws in the physical and psychological realms. As we are able to understand and bring our lives into harmony with these laws, our lives will be in harmony. As we disobey these laws, we create difficulties for ourselves. She writes:

I recognized that there are some well-known, little understood, and seldom practiced laws that we must live by if we wish to find peace within or without. Included are the laws that evil can only be overcome by good; that only good means can attain a good end; that those who do unloving things hurt themselves spiritually.

So I got busy on a very interesting project. This was to live all the good things I believed in. . . . If I was doing something that I knew I shouldn't be doing I stopped doing it. . . .And if I was not doing something that I knew I should be doing, I got busy on that. It took the living quite a while to catch up with the believing. . . . As I lived according to the highest light I had, I discovered that other light was given; that I opened myself to receiving more light as I lived the light I had.

I love Peace Pilgrim's distinction here between believing and living, especially her phrase, "It look the living quite a while to catch up with the believing." This phrase might describe the history of Christianity, and it's tempting to apply it as a diagnosis of the anemic condition of much religion today. But perhaps it's more appropriate to apply Peace Pilgrim's formula to me. When I do, I find my own practice lagging far behind my belief. Like the greatest spiritual teachers, Peace Pilgrim's words seem so simple yet so profound.

The third preparation:  Finding our special place in the Life Pattern

Peace Pilgrim believed that "no two people have exactly the same part to play in God's plan" and that the way we discover our part is to look within, seeking guidance from God. We seek this guidance in receptive silence. Peace Pilgrim's method was "to walk amid the beauties of nature" where "wonderful insights" would come to her.

Peace Pilgrim believed you begin to do your part in the Life Pattern by "doing all of the good things you feel motivated toward, even though they are just little good things at first." She describes her own
experience like this:

Every morning I thought of God and thought of things I might do that day to be of service to God's children. I looked at every situation I came into to see if there was anything I could do there to be of service. I did as many good things as I could each day, not forgetting the importance of a pleasant word and a cheery smile. I prayed about things that seemed too big for me to handle--and right prayer motivates to right action.

In the beginning I helped people in simple ways with errands, gardening projects, and by reading to them. I spent some time in the private homes of the elderly and the recuperating ill, assisting them to overcome their various ailments. I worked with troubled teenagers, the psychologically disturbed, and the physically and mentally handicapped.

My lack of expertise was more than offset by the love I extended to others. When love fills your life all limitations are gone. The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love.

I also did some volunteer work for the American Friends Service Committee, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
There's been much conversation in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings about mental illness and troubled teens. I find it interesting that these were two populations Peace Pilgrim sought out in her quest to do good for others and find her place in the Life Pattern. This passage also gives us a truth for all times but one that seems especially appropriate now: "The medicine this sick world needs so badly is love."

The fourth preparation: Simplifying our life

As Peace Pilgrim sought inner peace and began to find her place in the Life Pattern, she discovered another principle that would guide her practice: simplicity. She became convicted that she could "no longer accept more than she needed while others in the world had less than they needed." As a result, she experienced "a wonderful sense of peace and joy, and a conviction that unnecessary possessions are only unnecessary burdens." Peace Pilgrim found a need level that was so low it would seem absurd to most Americans, living on a budget of ten dollars per week, but she acknowledged that those in different situations (those with family and children, for example) would have a higher need level. What was important, she warned, is that "anything beyond physical needs tends to become burdensome."

In the following passage, she writes about how simplicity is not just a principle that applies to individuals but also one that applies to society:

There is a great deal to be said about such harmony, not only for an individual life but also for the life of a society. It's because as a world we have gotten ourselves so far out of harmony, so way off on the material side, that when we discover something like nuclear energy we are still capable of putting it into a bomb and using it to kill people! This is because our inner well-being lags so far behind our outer well-being. The valid research for the future in on the inner side, on the spiritual side, so that we will be able to bring these two into balance--and so that we will know how to use well the outer well-being we already have.
I don't really know what I can add to those words, so I'll just encourage us to read the words of this wise woman and meditate on them until they become part of our belief system. And then we need to live them until our "living catches up with our believing."

Next time:  the four purifications.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

To Speak What We Feel




Shakespeare's King Lear ends with these telling lines from Edgar:

     The weight of this sad time we must obey,
     Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

That quote's been on my mind a lot these past twelve months, which have been a time of saying goodbye to family and friends. It began with the death of my friend and colleague, June Breninger; it continued with the passing of my Dad on New Year's Day; a few weeks ago, Dorothy Salsma, who I worshiped with for fifteen years at East County Church of Christ, died; and today is the memorial service for Ryan Woods, a former Cascade student and a thirty-year old husband and father of two children, taken by cancer.

And I've  only mentioned those I've been acquainted with personally. Many of my friends have experienced significant loss as well. What does one say in the midst of so much pain, so much suffering, so much death? "This sucks" seems appropriate. It's what I said to my students the other day when I told them the story of Ryan Woods. What I didn't tell them is that shortly after Ryan's death his brother-in-law, Ben, former youth pastor to our kids, was admitted to the hospital with an acute case of pancreatitis.

Somehow it seems worse when it's young folks, like Ryan and Ben, who suffer. Or like my friend, Adam Langford, who was in his twenties when he died in a traffic accident near Jinja, Uganda, where he was living and serving the people of that part of the world. In one of his novels, Hemingway says that if you are young and gifted, life will kill you quickly, or words to that effect, and it's hard not to feel that way when I consider Adam and Ryan.

I haven't been able to escape talk of death and suffering in the classes I teach either. We've covered C. S. Lewis's Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, the story of his struggle with God after the death of his beloved wife, Joy, from cancer. And then there's Shakespeare, who seems at times to be the poet of grief and suffering and injustice. Far from trying to escape these realities, Shakespeare's impulse was to immerse himself in suffering with all its complexities and ironies and suckiness.

This is particularly true of King Lear. The play's ending, where the innocent Cordelia dies at the order of the evil Edmund, was so shocking to the 18th Century critic Samuel Johnson that he could not bear to read it again until he was forced to when he published an edition of Shakespeare's works. Taking his cue from Johnson, Nahum Tate rewrote the ending, letting Cordelia live, and this was the only version of the play that audiences saw for over a hundred years.

Frederick Buechner, who calls King Lear the most religious of Shakespeare's plays, suggests that Edgar's concluding lines may describe Shakespeare as well. That is, Shakespeare was perhaps offering his own explanation for why he would write such a shocking and horrible ending. The playwright was, according to Buechner, speaking what he felt, not what he ought to say. If he had written what he ought to say, in other words, perhaps Cordelia and Lear would have lived out the golden years of the foolish king's life together. If he had written what he ought to say, he would have had the play come out the way 18th century audiences desired because they thought virtue should always be rewarded and vice punished. It's doubtful, of course, that things always worked out that way in real life in the 18th century, but they preferred their literature to tell stories of things as they ought to be--not as they oftentimes were.

It would be interesting to know what was going on in Shakespeare's life that caused him to write the play he did. Buechner speculates it could have been the prospect of his own old age and problems in his relationship with his two daughters, but all we can do is speculate. What we do know is that he altered in significant ways the sources he used for the story of Lear and his daughters. Those sources had both Cordelia and Lear surviving and presumably did not have such gloomy views of life as that expressed by Gloucester in Shakespeare's play: "Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport." While Shakespeare does include some more hopeful visions of the relationship of gods and humans in the play, they are far outnumbered by a vision of a world where the good suffer and the evil prosper.

I can't say that reading King Lear has cheered me up as I've reflected on pain and death and human suffering, but in a strange way it's helped me by echoing my own feelings that this life is sometimes unfair and even absurd. I'm thankful that Shakespeare had the courage to write the story the way he felt it rather than to write the one his audience expected him to.

Sometimes our stories don't end the way we expect or desire them to. Ryan's didn't; Adam's didn't. Sometimes life sucks, and telling the truth about that is the best we can hope to do. Later, we may have something more hopeful and redemptive to say, but for now we bear witness to the tragic. We face the darkness and hope for light. We speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Peace Pilgrim Project, Part 1



    
Peace Pilgrim in Hawaii                       
This is the the way of peace--
overcome evil with good, and 
falsehood with truth, and
hatred with love.
                -The Peace Pilgrim


A few years ago, shortly after I began this blog, I wrote a post about The Peace Pilgrim. To provide some background for those not familiar with this remarkable woman, here's a few paragraphs from that post:

After 15 years of preparation, this woman began her first cross country pilgrimage in 1953 from Pasadena, California. So devoted was she to the cause of peace that she rejected her legal name and took the name Peace Pilgrim.  The compilers of the book honoring her describe her pilgrimages:

"Peace Pilgrim walked alone and penniless and with no organizational backing. She walked 'as a prayer' and as a chance to inspire others to pray and work for peace. She wore navy blue shirt and slacks, and a short tunic with pockets all around the bottom in which she carried her only worldly possessions: a comb, a folding toothbrush, a ballpoint pen, copies of her message and her current correspondence."

And she kept it up.  This was no one-time, publicity seeking event.  By 1964, she had completed 25,000 miles on foot for peace.  She vowed "to remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace," and she was faithful to her promise.  Before her death, in 1981, she would walk in all 50 states and complete seven cross-country pilgrimages.

In my original post, I expressed my surprise that I had never heard the story of this woman and her unique peace testimony. What I've learned since then is that very few people have. I've asked a number of my faculty colleagues at George Fox University if they have heard of her. Ironically, since George Fox is a Quaker university with its own Center for Peace and Justice, my inquiries have elicited mostly blank stares or quizzical looks. On a visit to Wheaton College this summer, I asked the same question to two English professors, neither of whom had ever heard of Peace Pilgrim.

I've had a growing conviction over the past three years that the story of Peace Pilgrim needs to be told--for several good reasons.

First, our world needs to hear a message of peace. In the 1970s Peace Pilgrim believed we had entered a crisis period in human history "walking the brink between a nuclear war of annihilation and a golden age of peace." Some 30 years later, how much has changed? We hear threats of nuclear war from Iran, the United States is still at war, and one of our presidential candidates wants to increase military spending.

Second, I sense that many today are looking for inner peace. Peace Pilgrim's message was not simply about the absence of war. She believed her pilgrimage covered the entire peace picture: peace among nations, peace among groups, peace within our environment, peace among individuals, and inner peace, which she talked about most often because that is where peace begins.

Finally, I need desperately to hear Peace Pilgrim's message about the simplification of life. One of the convictions that led Peace Pilgrim to her pilgrimage was the belief that she could no longer accept more than she needed while others in the world had less than they needed. As a result, she found great freedom in simplicity of living.

My intent over several blog posts is to provide a summary of some key elements of Peace Pilgrim's life and teaching. I hope that these posts will eventually grow into a nonfiction book. At the least, I hope they grow into the 25-page paper I need to submit for Westmont College's conference on War and Peace as Liberal Arts. I invite you on this pilgrimage with me and my teacher, Peace Pilgrim. I hope that you will be convicted, encouraged, and inspired as much as I've been by the teachings and life of this wise woman.

Next time:  The Four Preparations






Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Still Young after all these years, Part 2

Neil Young



In my previous post, I revealed my lifelong fascination with and appreciation for the music of Neil Young. I suggested that you can't really talk about Young's music apart from his person, or, perhaps more accurately, the persona he's created over the years through his life and music. I quoted a couple of assessments from Rolling Stone that, in describing Young's vocal and instrumental style, used words like lonely, unique, and desperate and suggested that these words provide windows through which to see Young's persona.  I'd now like to explore that persona, quoting from Young's lyrics and referring to some of his biography.

Loneliness is a persistent theme in Young's lyrics from his first solo album, which included the song, "The Loner":


There was a woman he knew
About a year or so ago.
She had something
that he needed
And he pleaded
with her not to go.
On the day that she left,
He died,
but it did not show.
Know when you see him,
Nothing can free him.
Step aside, open wide,
It's the loner.

In this final verse, Young addresses romantic love--a subject that is omnipresent in his early songs. And, as it so often is in his lyrics, it is failed or frustrated love.

"The Losing End," a song from Young's second solo album, Everybody Knows this is Nowhere, continues the themes of isolation and failed romantic love in a simpler vein:

I went into town to see you
yesterday
but you were not home.
So I talked to some old friends
for a while
before I wandered off alone.

It's so hard for me now
But I'll make it somehow,
Though I know I'll never be the same.
Won't you ever change your ways,
It's so hard to make love pay
When you're on the losing end,
And I feel that way again.


This song, with its country sound, is reminiscent of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Neil Young can do lost love, cryin' in your beer songs with the best of 'em.

This lonely, frustrated lover persona dominates Young's early work. Other notable examples include "Oh, I've Loved Her so Long," where Young assumes the courtly love posture of the man who admires his love from afar; "Tell Me Why" ("I am lonely but you can free me/All in the way that you smile"); and "Out on the Weekend" ("See the lonely boy/Out on the weekend/Tryin' to make it pay").



The subjects of Young's songs are not just lonely; they're emotionally vulnerable and filled with doubt--not just about love but about life. Typical is the lover in "I Believe in You," who wonders if he's lying when he says he believes in his love and speaks these tortured lines: "Coming to you at night/I see my questions/I feel my doubts." Also, the searcher from "Tell Me Why," who wonders why it's so "hard to make arrangements with yourself/When you're old enough to repay
but young enough to sell."


The main characters of Young's songs are trying to figure out who they are. They have a desperate need to connect with others, but that desire to connect is most often thwarted by their own self-doubt, introversion, and anxiety. In addition to being vulnerable, Young's heroes often have an innocence about them that allows them to feel deeply and appreciate fully but that can lead to trouble when encountering the real world. Representative songs here would include "I am a Child," and "Sugar Mountain," as well as the one who keeps on "searching for a heart of gold" but who is also "getting old." 

I always caution my literature students about leaping too quickly to the conclusion that a writer's poems are autobiographical. However, when you're reading Romantic poets (think Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman), it's hard to escape the conclusion that they are writing about themselves--or at least using the "I" in the poem as a symbol of some human truth or behavior. Young, who is nothing if not a romantic poet, writes about himself all the time.  And often the characters he creates end up looking very much like Neil Young.

If you look at Young's career as a musician, he's always been "The Loner." This in spite of collaborating successfully with groups. From Buffalo Springfield, to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, to the Stray Gators, to Crazy Horse--these collaborations have been on again-off again affairs, usually more off than on. Before their summer release of Americana, it had been ten years since Young and Crazy Horse had played together. Apparently most members of the band just sit around waiting for Neil to call, and often there's a long interval between calls! 

People who write about Young attribute this to his ruthless pursuit of his unique musical vision. He's so intent on playing what he hears in his head or "following his muse," as he puts it, that he can't be tied one group of musicians--at least for very long.  

Young has also managed to create over the years a persona much like the innocent, vulnerable, overly sensitive hero of his songs. Maybe it's the voice or what one writer described as his "aw shucks" stage demeanor, but when I hear his songs, it's hard not to make the immediate connection to the writer. This is partly what creates the raw emotional impact of a song like "Helpless." Who else could ring so much emotion out of a song that pretty much repeats one word over and over--and over? 

Young's vulnerability and helplessness is not just emotional, however. He's experienced eplilectic seizures since childhood. His biography is titled "Shakey," a reference to the fear Young's early bandmates had that he might experience one of his episodes on stage (he never has). In a 1975 interview, Cameron Crowe asked him about his condition, and Young responded:


I don't know. Epilepsy is something nobody knows much about. It's just part of me. Part of my head, part of what's happening in there. Sometimes something in my brain triggers it off. Sometimes when I get really high it's a very psychedelic experience to have a seizure. You slip into some other world. Your body's flapping around and you're biting your tongue and batting your head on the ground but your mind is off somewhere else. The only scary thing about it is not going or being there, it's realizing you're totally comfortable in this...void. And that shocks you back into reality. It's a very disorienting experience. It's difficult to get a grip on yourself. The last time it happened, it took about an hour-and-a-half of just walking around the ranch with two of my friends to get it together.


Young has not let his disability stand in the way of his pursuit of his musical vision. Like his emotional doubts and insecurities, he incorporates it into his music. I think this willingness to put himself out there with all his imperfections is part of what makes Young a unique artist. 


Another aspect of Young as artist that most critics mention and that I admire is his adventurous spirit and creative genius that lead him to constantly change musical styles and genres. Young addressed his willingness to change in his interview with Crowe:

You gotta keep changing. . . I'd rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way. If that's the price, I'll pay it. I don't give a shit if my audience is a hundred or a hundred million. It doesn't make any difference to me. I'm convinced that what sells and what I do are two completely different things. If they meet, it's coincidence. I just appreciate the freedom to put out an album.


In this way, Young is like Bob Dylan, who has pursued his own artistic vision even at the risk of losing fans who preferred a particular style or genre of music. Young talked about how this pursuit is a personal one for him:


Every one of my records, to me, is like an ongoing autobiography. I can't write the same book every time. There are artists that can. They put out three or four albums every year and everything fucking sounds the same. That's great. Somebody's trying to communicate to a lot of people and give them the kind of music that they know they want to hear. That isn't my trip. My trip is to express what's on my mind. I don't expect people to listen to my music all the time. Sometimes it's too intense. If you're gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don't put on Tonight's the Night. Put on the Doobie Brothers.


It's interesting that Young uses the term "autobiography" to describe his albums, lending further credibility to my suggestion that Young's poetic and personal persona are closely related.



Young's pursuit of his artistic vision have also led him outside the musical realm to other art forms. Over the years he's acted in and produced films, most notably a trilogy of movies with director Jonathan Demme (the third, Neil Young Journeys, will be released this fall). He's also become a writer, having just completed his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace. He commented in a recent interview that writing a book is like writing songs--just without the melody.


"Desperate" is a final word I'd like to use to describe Neil Young. In my last post I quoted a writer from Rolling Stone who described Young's guitar playing:  "It's like he desperately wants to connect. Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience." I would like to apply that description more broadly and suggest that all of Young's art is a desperate attempt to connect--to connect with himself, with his friends and lovers, with his audience, and with his world. Herein lies a paradox, of course, since we've already heard Young say he doesn't give a shit about his audience. But he means that in the sense of not letting audience preference and tastes determine his artistic course. When he believes in something strongly, when he's passionate about it, Young wants nothing so much as to achieve that connection--to make his audience feel what he feels and see what he sees.

A final observation is that as Young has matured as a writer and person, he's transformed his early romantic love vision into a broader vision that includes his hope for a better and kinder world. Since he wrote "Ohio" as an anthem for anti-war protestors in the 60s, Young has always been passionate about pursuing peace and social justice. He has an entire album on the subject, Living with War, and in one of his more well-known songs, "Rockin' in the Free World," he paints a moving picture of the realities of poverty and drugs:

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away,
and she's gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she's done to it
There's one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.


Young has always been an insightful commentator on social problems and politics. What is striking about his presentation of these problems for me is that he brings the same wide-eyed innocence and vulnerability to his treatments. We don't just see the problem; we see the problem through Young's eyes. We feel his profound disappointment as he looks for a world that could be but faces the one that exists. He longs passionately for a world of peace where people are not separated by race, religion, and economic status. He longs passionately for an earth that is protected and nourished by its inhabitants, and he reacts in horror when he sees what we've done to Mother Earth. In this Young is presenting what for me is a theological vision though he might not describe it in these term. It is most certainly a Shalom vision, and it's one of the features of his art that makes it so important to me. Notice how strongly this theological vision stands out in his song "Living with War":



I'm living with war everyday
I'm living with war in my heart everyday
I'm living with war right now

And when the dawn breaks I see my fellow man

And on the flat-screen we kill and we're killed again
And when the night falls, I pray for peace
Try to remember peace


I join the multitudes

I raise my hand in peace
I never bow to the laws of the thought police
I take a holy vow
To never kill again
To never kill again




This post has gone on much longer than I intended, but, as Neil says, sometimes you've got to follow your artistic vision and not care too much about what your audience thinks. To those few who have stayed with me this long, thanks for reading. I leave you with a video of Young and Pearl Jam doing an amazing rendition of "Rockin' in the Free World" at the MTV awards in the 90s. It's worth watching to see Young's passionate guitar playing--and to see Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam smashing guitars and microphones at the song's conclusion. Guess I forgot to mention that Neil Young has also been called the Godfather of Grunge.



Keep on rockin' in the free world.













Saturday, August 11, 2012

Still Young after all these years, Part 1

Neil Young

When I was a freshman in college, I was at a talent show on campus when a guy got up with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and performed Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." This became a defining moment for me. I was impressed. I'd never seen anyone play the harmonica with one of those harmonica holders; plus, the student's name was Homer, which would have made him cool even without the talent.

The next day I went to a music store, bought a G-harp and one of those holder things (is there a name for those?), and proceeded to spend hours in my dorm room learning to play "Heart of Gold." (I'd like to offer belated apologies to my roommate.) Over the years, I've performed that song multiple times at church and college events. If you mention my name to students who attended Cascade College, they probably won't remember much about my writing and literature classes. They'll be more likely to say something like "Oh yeah, he's the guy that always played Neil Young and Bob Dylan songs." I later added a couple of Dylan tunes to my repertoire that allowed me to leverage my investment in the harmonica and holder, but my skill level with the harmonica never progressed beyond those few tunes.

What did progress was my fascination with the music of Neil Young. His songs have been faithful companions to me over many years, stretching from my high school days until the present. If someone wanted to make a video of my life and times (no one's offered so far), the songs of Neil Young would make the perfect soundtrack. I can visualize it.

The story would begin with my life as a shy and awkward teenager looking for love ("See the lonely boy/Out on the weekend/Tryin' to make it pay/Can't relate to joy/Tries to speak and/Can't begin to say"); proceed to the birth of political and social awareness in my twenties ("Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio"); capture my growing environmental awareness in my thirties ("Oh, Mother Earth with your fields of green/Once more laid down by the hungry hand/How long can you give and not receive/And feed this world ruled by greed"); reflect my appreciation for friends and family in my forties ("We've been through some things together/With trunks of memories still to come/We've found things to do in stormy weather/Long may you run"); and highlight my growing religious progressivism and political liberalism in my fifties ("Was he thinkin' about my country or the color of my skin?/Was he thinkin' 'bout my religion and the way I worshiped him?/Did he create just me in his image or every living thing?/When God made me").



But enough about me. What I really wanted to write about is Young's music and explore why this singer/songwriter has been such an influential figure in my life. But I've realized that you can't really write about Neil Young's music without writing about Neil Young the person (or perhaps the "persona" that he's created with his music).


I'm no music critic, but I think it's safe to say with Neil it all starts with the voice--that unmistakeable, haunting voice. A Rolling Stone writer put it this way:



An engineer at an early Neil Young studio session told him, "You're a good guitar player, kid, but you'll never make it as a singer." But Young soon proved himself able to convey emotional truths with a sound no one else could produce — a quavering, lonesome tenor that works equally well over the crazed distortion of Crazy Horse and the acoustic chords of his ballads. "It's very difficult for anyone else to sing his stuff," says David Crosby. "You go somewhere when Neil sings — you definitely don't just stay in your seat." Says Lucinda Williams, "That voice summons up something. It's ethereal, spooky, soulful, and completely unique to him." 

I remember loaning a Neil Young album to a college friend who attended another Christian university. Next time I saw him, he said he loved the album, but his suite mates wouldn't let him play it. Apparently Neil's piercing vocals and guitar solos on "Down by the River" didn't fit well with the Christian soft rock preferred by his fellow students.

Speaking of guitar solos, Young's guitar playing, like his voice, is unique. Again from Rolling Stone:


If I was ever going to teach a master class to young guitarists, the first thing I would play them is the first minute of Neil Young's original "Down by the River" solo. It's one note, but it's so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger. It's like he desperately wants to connect. Neil's playing is like an open tube from his heart right to the audience.




The above descriptions of Young's vocals and his guitar playing provide some helpful windows into his persona.  Three words are especially telling: lonesome, unique, and desperate. I'll cover those in my next post.  Until then, you might want to relive the 70s with a little classic Neil Young:

I want to live,
I want to give
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.





 







Saturday, June 30, 2012

On C. S. Lewis, Research, and Kindred Spirits

This past week I got to do something I've been wanting to do for years: visit the Wade Center at Wheaton College. Ever since I wrote my dissertation on Lewis in the 1980s I've been aware that the Wade Center is the mecca for Lewis scholarship in the United States. Clyde Kilby, a professor at Wheaton, is often credited as the man who "discovered" C. S. Lewis and helped make his writings known in this country. Kilby struck up a correspondence with Lewis, visited him in England, and, eventually, became friends with Lewis and Lewis' brother, Warnie. As a result, Warnie began to send his brother's letters, papers, and books to the Wade. Today the center holds about 2,500 books from Lewis' personal library, as well as personal books, manuscripts, and papers from British writers of period associated with Lewis: J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.

It has been said that Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, but, I tell you, for someone like me, the Wade Center is the happiest place on earth!

Here's a shot of me at work at the Wade Center. One of the great benefits of being in this setting is the immediate acccess you have to research materials. For example, one day I was reading through Lewis' letters and came across a reference to a 17th century spiritual work called The Way to Christ by Jacob Boehme. Though I had never heard of Jacob Boehme, the reference was interesting because Lewis wrote the letter in 1929, some two years before his conversion to Christianity. I asked one of the archivists at the Wade if I could see Lewis' copy of the book and within a few minutes, I was holding it in my hands. I could see what passages Lewis had underlined, and I could read his annotations in the margins of the book. It was so cool!

As I planned and anticipated my trip, this is pretty much what I envisioned myself doing. I saw myself mining the vast resources of the center. In my more optimistic moments, I saw myself making some remarkable discovery that would change the face of Lewis scholarship forever. I imagined myself putting in long days of reading and notetaking and then returning to my little apartment in the evenings, perhaps to do more research--or maybe watch some baseball.

Well, I didn't make any earth-shattering discoveries during my week at the Wade. I did rent a remarkably comfortable apartment from two Wheaton graduates that was perfect and very reasonably priced. I did watch some baseball and even parts of the NBA draft. I did find some great new resources and clarified the direction of my current research project. I also came upon several other topics of interest that I would like to do research on in the future.  Many of these clarifications and new topics came not simply from researching but from talking to the people I met during the week: Chris Mitchell, the Wade Center director and Marj Mead, the associate director; the two archivists who hang out in and supervise the Reading Room: Laura Schmidt and Heidi Truty; Wheaton College professors Jerry Root and Wayne Martindale; and Andrew Lazo, a fellow CSL scholar from Wheaton whose research trip coincided with mine.

Here's a shot of me and Andrew. Andrew is a high school teacher in Houston who spends his summers researching and writing about Lewis--not for his job, not for tenure, but simply because he loves it. The people I met on this trip--that's what I had not anticipated. I was awed by the kindness of strangers, with their eagerness to answer my questions, with their interest in my research project, with their generosity, and with how quickly they became new friends rather than strangers. They took me to lunch; they invited me into their homes; they offered me pipes and scotch (more on that in another post); one even gave me a first edition of a Dorothy L. Sayers book because, as he said, "When I give my books away, I experience two moments of joy: one when I find the book and buy it, the second when I give it away. 

In the space of a few days, I discovered a whole community of scholars, bound together by their common interest in the writings of a British professor who died in 1963. In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. It was Lewis, after all, in The Four Loves, who noted that it is often common interests that draw us together as friends. He talked about that "aha" moment when we realize that someone else is interested in the same books (or music or movies or gardens or ideas) that we are when we thought we were the only ones.

Out of many great moments in the week, this picture will probably stay with me the longest (unfortunately I don't have a photo of this one).  I'm sitting in the garage of a Wheaton College professor with another scholar who is doing research at the Wade. We're sitting in the garage rather than on the patio because there's thunder and lightning outside (for my Northwest friends, this is real thunder, not the measly, soft rolling thunder we get in the Portland area). We're drinking red wine and smoking pipes (though unlike my more experienced companions, I'm having a hard time keeping mine lit), and we're talking about C. S. Lewis. At one point the other Wade researcher talks for a good 30 minutes about a discovery he thinks he's made from reading the letters of Joy Davidman. He thinks he's found that, contrary to what the Lewis biographies say, Lewis invited Joy to stay at the Kilns the first day they met in Oxford and that the widow of Charles Williams advised Joy on the dress she should wear to make the best impression at her first meeting with Lewis. He meticulously traces the dates and tries to reconstruct the chronology and present the evidence for his theory as the two of us listen with rapt attention. It strikes me that if someone overheard our conversation they would think we were talking about someone still alive, a friend or relative that had just begun an exciting love affair. It also occurs to me that if that same person found out that our intense discussion was about someone long dead, she would think we were crazy or geeky or both.

As the night winds down (at about 2:30 a.m.; the other researcher had a 5:30 a.m. flight), I express my gratefulness for the many kind people I'd met during the week and wonder aloud whether all the folks attracted to the study of Lewis are so nice. Our host says, "I've been lots of places and met lots of folks, and, in my experience, there's no chumps among the lovers of  C. S. Lewis."  I can only hope that he won't change his mind after meeting me!

Monday, June 11, 2012

It's Time to Man up about Christian Feminism

 


 I grew up in a Christian denomination that discriminated against women. It took me years to admit this, and I don't think the congregations of this group did so out of maliciousness or ill intent. Rather they had adopted a hermeneutic (a method of reading scripture) that led to the conclusion that Paul's instruction for women to keep silent in church assemblies was a universal rule that should be followed in the church for all time.

Rachel Held Evans has been posting a very good series of blogs on egalitarianism (rachelheldevans.com), and my friends Melanie Springer Mock and Kendra Weddle Irons have a lively blog that regularly addresses the ways images in evangelical Christianity limit the freedom of women to live out their calling before God (deconstructingchristianimages.blogspot.com). I want to stand in solidarity with these women and throw my own small pebble into the stream of discussion.

What I don't want to do in this post is to engage in biblical exegesis. That's what I did in the early years when I first became aware of the "women's role in the church" issue, as it was called. I tried to analyze and slice and dice all those New Testament passages, tried to understand what the Greek word for submission really meant, pondered whether it was elder Junia or elder Junius, and whether Phoebe was really a deacon (or a deaconess!). While interesting, those efforts often seemed to end in confusion and frustration. It just seemed impossible to arrive at any solid conclusion.

I'm not saying those kinds of biblical explorations don't have value. Rachel Held Evans does a great job in her blog series of surfacing and explaining all those questions, so if you want to go down that path, I recommend checking out her series.

So instead of focusing on biblical interpretations, I want to share a bit of my own story. I want to talk about the process by which I arrived at my current views and identify some influences along the way. My hope would be that my story might provide some insight into why people change their views on issues like this. Maybe someone out there might even identify with my journey. If not, this may be an exercise in self reflection and exorcising my own demons, and that's not all bad either.

First, just to be clear, here's pretty much where I'm at these days on the "women's role in the church" issue:  “Decisions about who should do what [in the church] should . . .  be made on the basis of individual gifts and not on the basis of gender—any more than we would automatically allocate tasks and resources on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, or class” ( A Sword between the Sexes? C. S. Lewis and the Gender Debates by Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010, 188). 

The last part of this quote is significant for me. My real movement on this question came about when I began to see it, not as an issue of biblical hermeneutics, but as an issue of social justice. That was the game changer for me.

I could write tons on this topic, but I will limit myself to two observations about my story.

First, my changing views on this issue came about not through intellectual argument, but through my experiences and my relationships in churches and in the workplace. When I think about my attitudes and opinions on the role of women in the church, my mind goes--not to books, not to seminars, not to bible class discussions, but to people, both men and women, whose life and actions spoke to me. One of the first people I think of is Oliver Howard. Oliver was one of the most brilliant biblical scholars I've ever known. His theological degree was from Hebrew Union, but at the time I knew him he was a practicing corporate attorney in Tulsa. He was the one who first introduced me to the biblical questions and conundrums surrounding this issue. But Oliver's actions spoke louder to me than his words. You see for years Oliver spoke at my denomination's lectureships, hoping to open peoples' minds to more freedom for women in the life of the church. But Oliver and his wife had three daughters--bright, capable, excellent public speakers. Ultimately Oliver and his wife realized that their daughters would never be given the opportunity to use their gifts, and so he and his family left and joined a denomination that practiced equality in ministry for all members. 

My views also changed because of the many wonderful, spiritually gifted women I worshiped with over the years: Carol Sherwood, Suzanne Wood, June Breninger (I could go on). As I listened to these women share their hearts and spiritual insights in small group or Bible study settings, it began to dawn on me that they were prohibited from sharing those same spiritual insights with the larger congregation. This didn't seem right. I began to wonder what we were missing by effectively silencing half the church.  A fairly recent stage on the journey for me has been working at George Fox University. The Friends movement has a long history of equality for women in ministry, and even though my Quaker colleagues tell me that there are still struggles in many of their churches about women's leadership, I've observed a marked difference that occurs in a faith tradition that begins with the assumption that all members are equal in gifts and ministry.

One of the characters in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, says that during the Civil War, he had to leave his Presbyterian church and “go sit with the Quakers” for awhile—to get away from the Christian patriotism and expressions of support for war in his own church. I’ve felt somewhat the same about my last three years, and I’m thankful for the change of scenery religiously that has given me space to reflect on what I feel and believe about women and ministry.

In my faith tradition, I also saw how this religious practice influenced the ways women were treated (and mistreated) in the life of the church and in the workplace. Sometimes this manifested itself in subtle ways, sometimes more blatantly.  I'll give a couple of examples from the religious colleges where I taught. In the college setting, of course, women were not prohibited from teaching or chairing committees or achieving academic honors. However, because of denominational beliefs, there were certain things that female faculty members could not do that male faculty members could do. For example, a female faculty member could not speak in chapel. At one college a capable, theologically prepared female faculty member was asked to teach a freshman Bible course; however, enrollment in the course had to be limited to women because, obviously, a woman could not exercise a teaching role--at least in a "Bible" course. Never mind that other female faculty members were no doubt "teaching the Bible" to their male students in a variety of English, History, and Psychology courses. At another college, an Academic Dean opened a faculty meeting by reading scripture and making some devotional comments. She was later visited in her office by a couple of concerned (male) faculty members, who suggested that, next time, she should ask a male faculty member to lead the devotional. Presumably, it was OK with these male faculty members that the female dean could craft a college mission statement, oversee the curriculum, and hire and fire faculty--just so long as she didn't intrude on their sacred patriarchal privilege of reading and interpreting scripture.

I also saw how this religious stance played out in more subtle ways. I can recall several meetings where it was obvious to me that a female faculty member or female administrator's ideas were being discounted--not because they were bad ideas--but simply because the person presenting those ideas was female. I'm not even sure the male faculty members and administrators were aware of what was going on, but it was obvious to me. I could see it in the way a male faculty member interrupted a female speaker in a meeting or the way he dismissed a woman's suggestions without consideration. As I look back on it now, it's actually surprising to me that more of this kind of thing didn't go on. After all, if you live in a religious system where women are silenced in arguably the most important hour of the congregational life of the church on a weekly basis, where women are relegated to proscribed roles like teaching children's classes and Bible classes where only "ladies" are present, and, further, where men are likely to be taught that the role of their wives in the home is to submit to their God-given male leadership authority, what would you expect to happen?

Second, my views changed when I began to look more at the way Jesus treated women. As a result, I came to view the debate in terms of social justice. It seems clear to me as we read the stories recorded in the New Testament about Jesus' encounters with women we notice that his tendency was always to move in the direction of more freedom of expression and more voice and more significant spiritual standing for women--and that this tendency was diametrically opposed to the cultural and religious assumptions of his own day. Can you really imagine Jesus silencing a woman who wanted to pray or share a Bible verse? Can you really imagine Jesus advising a woman not to teach a man? I think Jesus was fully aware that women in his society were oppressed, and, as a result, he always tried to grant more freedom, more opportunity, and more dignity to the women he encountered. For me, this example of Jesus is much more convincing and much less confusing than trying to sort out the advice Paul gave to 1st century churches. 

I remember Oliver Howard once posing this question to a group of church leaders: if a woman were to approach you with a request to share a prayer or a devotional thought with the congregation on a Sunday morning, what would you do? Would it be right to deny this woman the opportunity to share what she believes is her spiritual gift? Or would it be right to allow this woman to share? WWJD?
If you have to err, would you rather err on the side of law and restrictions? Or would you rather err on the side of grace? 

Looking back, I suppose that was the day I became a Christian feminist. 

I mentioned that I now see women's equality in ministry as a social justice issue, so here's another analogy that's been helpful to me. I've always admired the Freedom Riders who stood up for equality in the segregated South. While I realize that the black Freedom Riders were risking more in the struggle, I've always been impressed with those White Freedom Riders who chose to stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters, risking life, limb, and reputation because they believed in the rightness of the cause, not because it necessarily affected them personally. 

Perhaps it's time for a similar freedom ride where guys like me stand in solidarity with their Christian sisters: To stand against discrimination and oppression and misogyny in all its forms. To declare clearly and boldly that "there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Wisdom of the Head and a Wisdom of the Heart


 Heart : studio shot portrait on isolated white background of a Beautiful Funny Woman expressive


I've been thinking a lot lately about change--not global change or political change or climate change or religious change. My focus is more personal than that.  I want to consider why I change and why you change your beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and actions, and I want to use a literary and a biographical example to do so.

This spring I reread Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times with my Great British Writers class. As one of his shorter novels, it's a great introduction to Dickens' world. It contains all the glories of character and all the faults of sentimentalism of this great Victorian writer. To me, the most interesting character in the novel is Thomas Gradgrind, the retired merchant turned schoolmaster, who speaks these words at the opening of the book:  "Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!"

Within the societal context of the novel, Gradgrind (whose name describes his educational philosophy well) stands for the Utilitarian philosophy that scientific principles could be applied to social problems and thus create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. What Dickens reveals as the novel progresses, however, are the tragic consequences of Gradgrind's philosophy when applied to his own children. His son, Tom, becomes  a thief, and his daughter, Louisa, forced to accept an arranged marriage with the much older Josiah Bounderby (because it is the practical and sensible thing to do), grows unhappy in her marriage and comes dangerously close to adultery with the unprincipled aristocrat, Harthouse, saving herself at the last moment by running to her father's house and confessing her deep unhappiness to him.

His daughter's confession is both crushing and life giving for Gradgrind. "The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet," he says to Louisa the next day. But it turns out that this disorientation was necessary to bring about change in one who had been so firmly committed to his system of "nothing but Facts." Gradgrind is essentially the only dynamic character in the novel. Dickens shows us the extent of his transformation through this climactic speech: "Some persons hold .  .  . that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. I have not supposed so; but, as I have said, I mistrust myself now. I have supposed the Head to be all-sufficient. It may not be all-sufficient: how can I venture this morning to say it is! If that other kind of wisdom should be what I have neglected, and should be the instinct that is wanted, Louisa--" Gradgrind's experience gives him the courage to end the marriage between his daughter and Bounderby, and his transformed beliefs and values are demonstrated by his actions in the rest of the novel.

We see the same principle of change operating in the life of C. S. Lewis. In the 1940s, Lewis published his first apologetic work, The Problem of Pain, in which he took on the question of human suffering, specifically: how can a God who is both good and all-powerful allow suffering? It was the book that launched his career as a popular apologist for the Christian faith. It attracted the attention of the director of religious broadcasting for the BBC and led to the series of radio talks that were later published as Mere Christianity. In The Problem of Pain Lewis explored intellectual and philosophical questions about human suffering. It demonstrated, in Thomas Gradgrind's words, the "Wisdom of the Head." Some twenty years later Lewis was to experience something that caused him to question much of what he had written in that early apologetic work: the struggle with cancer, remission, reoccurence of cancer, and death of his beloved wife, Joy Davidman. As he saw, up close and personal, his wife's suffering and the ultimate ineffectiveness of his fervent prayers (in which Lewis even asked God that he be allowed to take Joy's pain into his own body), he came to the realization that "Experience is a bitter teacher. I've just come up against a bit of experience" (Shadowlands). Following Joy's death, Lewis wrote a book under a pseudonym called A Grief Observed, which recorded his grieving process. The emotions in the book are so raw, so honest, that it makes for difficult reading. I would suggest that if Lewis' early apologetic work expressed the "Wisdom of the Head," A Grief Observed expressed Lewis' "Wisdom of the Heart."


So what makes people change their beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and actions? I don't know all the reasons people change, but I do think that a big one is life experience. People don't change easily, so I'm thinking that often it takes some pretty significant events, perhaps even dramatic and catastrophic ones to bring change about. A couple of biblical examples come to mind. Near the beginning of the book of Acts we have Pentecost: a rushing, mighty wind; tongues as of flame; and people hearing the gospel in their own language. I imagine those pilgrims who came expecting the same old Pentecost celebration got more than they bargained for--and, as a result, their beliefs and lives were changed forever. Later in Acts, when God wants Peter to go preach to the Gentiles, he sends him a dramatic vision on a roof to declare that all foods are clean, rocking Peter's world, introducing him to a new reality in which "God is no respecter of persons." That life experience would change Peter's worldview and practice forever (though one does wonder why the Pentecost experience wasn't enough for Peter).

So one conclusion I want to draw is that life experience is a catalyst for change. These experiences are often surprising and unsettling and often unpleasant. They disorient us. After such an experience we may say, with Thomas Gradgrind, "The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet." But that disorientation is temporary and can lead to a new way of seeing and being in the world. It may even lead us to the recognition that there is a whole realm of understanding and a way of relating to other human beings that we never knew existed. As a result, we may attain to the Wisdom of the Heart.

Have you had those kinds of experiences in your own life? In a future post, I hope to explore this idea of change more and use a personal example of how I've been led to change my beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and actions based on life experience.