Foster, by Claire Keegan

We are not cheap moviegoers, really. It is just that we do stay and watch until the last credit has appeared on the screen. That is how Bette and I found out that the movie we had just seen, The Quiet Girl, was made from a book called Foster, by Claire Keegan. We stopped on the way home and got it out of the library.

I have enjoyed reading it several times now. The language is unusual. It is told from the viewpoint of a young girl; younger, I think, in the book than in the film.

The first line that really caught my attention was spoken by the husband of the family who agreed to keep the girl for the summer. his name is John Kinsella. Here’s the line; then I’ll give a little context.

“Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.”

John Kinsella’s wife, Edna, agreed to let a very nosy neighbor take the girl home early from a wake. The neighbor abused Edna’s trust by asking the girl a flock of inappropriate questions. That is what John Kinsella is referring to.

Strange things happen,’ he says. ‘A strange thing happened to you tonight, but Edna meant no harm. It’s too good, she is. She wants to find the good in others, and sometimes her way of finding that is to trust them, hoping she’ll not be disappointed, but she sometimes is.’

He laughs then, a queer, sad laugh. I don’t know what to say. ‘You don’t ever have to say anything,’ he says. ‘Always remember that as a thing you need never do. Many’s the man lost much just because he missed a perfect opportunity to say nothing.’

“Always remember that as a thing you never need do,” he says. That is the lesson that belongs with the proverb which begins, :Many’s the man…”

The summer ends—a truly wonderful summer for the Kinsellas and for the girl—and it is time for her to be taken home. Her mother is immediately suspicious.

‘What happened at all?’ Ma says, now that the car is gone.

‘Nothing,’ I say
‘Tell me.’

‘Nothing happened.’ This is my mother I am speaking to but I have learned enough, grown enough, to know that what happened is not something I need ever mention. It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.

Look at the sequence of the girl’s reflections. “Learned enough to know, grown enough to know…” And then her conclusion. This is it; this is the time. “It is my perfect opportunity to say nothing.

The girl grew up in a lot of other ways, too, but this is the first one that caught my eye and the one I still like best. The perfect opportunity to say nothing.

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Far enough away to enjoy it

I want to share with you today my favorite line from “The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students’ Conservatory Band.” Yesterday, the Plaza Singers–a choral group at the Senior Center where I live– sang it and some other songs from failed Broadway plays.

To really appreciate the line, you have to grasp the perspective of the narrator. When he knows the band is coming he admits “the bright gleam of pride is in my eye.” Further, “the old college spirit is upon me and I shout every time at the top of my voice.” And “to me,” he summarizes, the finest in the land is the New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students’ Conservatory Band.”

He mentions some problems. There is, he admits, “a suggestion in the oboe of the sound of a hound beneath the moon; the “trombone’s a little independent” and so on.

So we know where the narrator is coming from. Even so, he is forced to admit that there are some who feel otherwise. It is the character of their critique that caught my attention. Here it is.

If you’re analytical, sensitive, or critical, you’ll like it more the farther back you stand

Note the three traits that he admits might make the experience problematic. Being “analytical” will not help, although he did make that invidious remark about the oboe. Being “sensitive” might also be a difficulty. It is a dysphonic marching band after all. And finally, being “critical” might predispose you toward offhand remarks.

There is something you can do, however, and this is what I like best about this line. You can keep your distance. In fact, if you have any of these three disabling difficulties, the farther away you stand the better.

But what do you get for taking these precautions? You will like it more than you would if you did not take the precautions. In the language of this payoff, two words stand out. They are “like” and “more.” As agile as the other language is, it cannot accommodate “like.” For people who tend to be ASC (analytical/sensitive/critical) there is no question of liking it. Possibly there is a question of surviving it.

But not only might you like it if you take the proper precautions, there is the chance that you will like it more. The more space you allow to buffer yourself from the experience, the more you will like it.

It is that final turn—not “like” so much as “more” that makes the whole lyric so sweet.

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Packaging Ourselves

I liked Michelle Goldberg’s column in the February 24 New York Times. I liked it for some good reasons and some not so good. Among the not so good is that she said she had been working on the topic of “the politics of depression” for awhile, but “since I lost faith in my initial interpretation …I never ended up writing about it.

”It was an experience I have had so often that I was just barely able to keep myself from writing her to say, “Really? You too?” That is a really bad reason for liking her column.

Fortunately, there is a better reason That better reason is this paragraph:

Social media didn’t just cut into offline socializing. It precipitated a revolution in consciousness, in which people are constantly packaging themselves for public consumption and seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified. It’s not shocking that this new mode of existence would be particularly fraught for those in a stage of life where both fashioning the self and finding a place to belong are paramount.

Let’s start with “precipitated.” That saves her from having to say that social media caused “a revolution in consciousness.” She can say that it was the final element of some toxic cocktail. She could have said, herself, what the other elements of the cocktail were or she could have let anyone else do it. She has identified the straw that broke the camel’s back and it is that straw she wants to talk about. It is social media.

Social media precipitated “a revolution in consciousness.” There is a way of being before this revolution and a different way afterward. She doesn’t say what it was like before, but the “after” account is pretty vivid. People are “constantly packaging themselves for public consumption…” I would have said that that is the normal condition of society. We all do the things we need to do to belong. And after that, we all do the things we need to do to stand out. We are fully aware of neither process, discovering only later what we did and being forced to speculate about why we might have done it.

But the next part of Goldberg’s account is riveting: “…seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified.” Two aspects of that seem potentially disastrous to me. The first is the quantification. Nearly all the information that comes with normal social assessment is lost in a single quantified assessment and all the parts of it you might want to argue about are lost behind the blank fact of a number. Not only is it beyond argument as a number; it also seems truer.

What is not captured in this metric? Oh…not much. Only your own intention and your own assessment of the quality of your work. Hardly anything at all compared to the quantified and casual assessments of others.

What could be more central to the self than an answer to the question, “What am I trying to do?” What I am trying to do is more likely to be linked to my fundamental identity than any other single measure I know. The sense of self-efficacy as it is called in some fields or of “agency” as it is called in other fields begins with an answer to that question.

And that is true, I maintain, despite that fact that we are not always doing what we thought we were doing. The readiness of standard categories for intention and action means that we are quite likely to use one of the standard labels—Oh, I’m just making sure he is held accountable—rather than giving a more thoughtful and accurate account. Coming up with an acceptable account of why you are doing something is no mean feat in itself. To skip over that part and to consult, instead, a quantified measure of whether others approve of what you are doing, seems like giving away the store.

And not only that, if you know what you are trying to do, you know both whether you are succeeding and whether you are giving your best efforts to the project. Assuming that you would choose to make some changes if your efforts are failing, it would be nice to know whether they are failing. If you pay careful attention to what you are trying to do, you have a good chance of knowing that.

The world of quantified assessment that Michelle Goldberg talks about seems horrific by contrast. It is a world in which not only you but everyone else in that world is assessed on things that have nothing to do with their intentions. They have to do only with the reactions of others to the way you “package yourself for public consumption.”

The reaction that many young people have to this situation is one Goldberg describes as characterized by loneliness, depression, and alienation. And why would it not be? The people who buy this kind of world or find themselves swept up in it, have lost the crucial connection between what they intend and who they are,

Whether there is a way out of this or not depends on how deep a hold social media have on how many people. There are lots of other things to worry about. The aggregate category some are calling “deaths of depression” continues to rise, for example. Maybe the social media bubble is going to burst and we will look back on it as an oddity, as if we had been visited by a powerful and quirky relative and were glad to see them leave.

Or maybe it is fundamental to who we have become. I hope not.

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The ashes of Ash Wednesday

This Wednesday, a lot of Christians are going to have a mixture of ash and olive oil applied to their foreheads. I am not. There are two reasons, one of which isn’t really very respectable. It is that it seems to “high church” for me. The churches that had access to me when I was young were markedly low church. I didn’t like that either, but when very high church things show up, I head back home in my mind.

The Ash Wednesday service at my church this year is going to be held at noon. That means that some people of our congregation are going to go about the rest of their day with a cross of ash on their foreheads. Why?

The second reason is really a better one. I teach a bunch of Bible study classes. It is what I am known for in the settings where I live most of my life. At the CCRC where Bette and I live, I regularly have the experience of seeing a new acquaintance learn that I teach Bible studies and then seeing them shrink back as if I have somehow become dangerous. If that’s how they react to learning how I spend my free time, how do you think they will respond when I show up with a dirty smudge on my forehead?

The principal resource I bring to the Bible studies is that I am not weird. Not, at least, in any ways that can be traced back to my religious life. In all the settings where I teach about the Bible, there are people who have been damaged by earlier teachers or—even more often, earlier preachers—and who welcome a chance to work it out.

I offer a framework of thought that is pretty robust. It isn’t going to bounce around or get distorted by anyone who says it’s ridiculous and self-contradictory. It is just going to stay there and the conversation we want to have will take place safely within it.

Often a starting point is that the Bible is ridiculous because it is self-contradictory and therefore unreliable. The issue there—the thing really worth talking about—is whether “the Bible” is a single thing, so that differences in the accounts it offers are “contradictory,” rather than just “different.”

Here are two examples. There are two Creation stories in Genesis. The first one—commonly attributed by scholars to the Priestly school of editors (referred to as P)—begins at Genesis 1:1 and goes to Genesis 2:4. The second one—thought to be the work of a Yahwist school of editors (and therefore designated “J”) begins at Genesis 2:5 and goes to the end of the second account.

When you give up “the Bible,” you give up the contradictions and then you get to ask what the P version of the Creation story is like contrasted with the J version. The “contradiction” vanishes. There are two accounts. It would be possible to press on to the question of which of them is true, but that is not ordinarily the concern of the people I talk to. Their common external response is, “Really? Why does P insist on this when it is of no interest to J at all?” Their internal response is likely something like, “Now that I have found a safe place to ask questions I have always been condemned for asking, I find that I am really curious.”

Ask yourself whether any part of that transaction would be improved by my wearing a cross of ash to class the next Thursday.

Another example is a course I have offered in several settings about how Matthew’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus differs from Mark’s. I’ll tell you why I think that has been so well received, then let’s go on and look at how it works. When attention is drawn to the differences between the two accounts, the conversation is not about what Jesus really said or did or what he was like. It is about why Matthew made the changes he made in Mark’s text, leaving some things out, adding other things, and rephrasing a good deal of the rest. That’s not all that horrible.

The material is taken over whole from W. D. Davies and Dale Allison’s study of Matthew. They list a series of occasions where Matthew makes changes and make observations about what those changes have in common. Matthew wants to use a much more reverential approach to his account of Jesus than Mark does, so every time Mark sounds caustic or critical, Matthew makes changes. Armed with Davies and Allison’s scholarship, all we have to do in class is look at the two particular texts and note the difference. Then we look at the next two and note the difference. Then we compare just how those differences are alike.

All those discussions arebiblical; they are all scholarly. They are all unthreatening to people who have been raised in the “contradictions in the Bible” culture and so they are a ground where real engagement with those texts can happen.

For me to help those things happen, I need to be knowledgeable. That means that I read Davies and Allison before they did. I need to be stable. I can easily do that. I don’t even have a dog in this fight. And I need to be willing to let them start from where the grievance is and work on it at whatever rate they like best—and to stop whenever they need to.

No one in any of those studies wonders whether I, myself, am a Christian. I am as candid about my own faith as I am about my commitment to secular study of the texts we work on together. I am reasonably sure that after a while, no one in any of the classes thinks I have designs—friendly or not—on their immortal souls.

Jesus does. Or so his followers maintain in the texts we have. One of the best-known of these texts pictures Jesus as standing at the door of someone’s house and knocking. The resident needs to decide what to do, at that point, and none of the answers is really easy. Listen to the knocking for a long time? Go to the door and say, “Go away.” Go to the door and invite him in? Then what?

So Jesus may be knocking on doors as I teach my classes. I wouldn’t know. But I am not. I need to keep on making that clear to people whose trust has been repeatedly abused. And wearing an ash cross on my forehead would not help. It would, in fact, be an imposition.

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Two Cheers for White History Month

First, my congratulations to you for having gotten beyond the title. If your political sensitivities are at all like mine, you are not at all likely to read a column with a title that means what you think that one means. But, it this case, that’s not what it means and we can go on to have a conversation.

At some point in my career as a teacher of undergraduates, a part of the Student Union was set aside for the exclusive use of black students. It was called “the Black Student Union.” Predictably, there was a demand for a “White Student Union,” according to the logic described above. This demand wound up on the desk of the administrator whose brief included student affairs and he took the protesters on a quick tour of “the” student union. “Do you see any black students?” he asked, according the the account of it that came to me. They didn’t, of course, because there weren’t very many black students and it would have been unusual to see some at a time chosen at random.

It is stories like that that form the background of things like “White History Month.” Nevertheless, I would like to have it favorably considered, for several reasons. One is that once the distinguishing white from black almost inevitably asks the question of why other races ought not be so distinguished. I know there are complications in that direction, but there are some fairly lighthearted solutions as well. You could say that we will have to stop at 12 because the number of months is fixed. You could say that we could use the breakdown the National Bureau of the Census uses. If you go down into the subcategories, you can get to twelve, no problem.

But that reason has whimsy laced through it and it doesn’t sound serious. Here’s a better one. When you start naming population groups by particular names, national (Korean) or regional (East African) you leave everybody else uncharacterized. White history month would deal with that.

The easy—and true—counterargument is that the whiteness of our history is taken for granted. That’s true. On the other hand, what truths do you learn about what you take it for granted? When you say that blacks have particular traits, you sound racist. But wouldn’t it be a great advantage to say that whites have particular traits? It would be challenging, sure, but look at the alternative. Each of the ethnic or racial minorities have “traits;” but the white majority do not.

Stop and think for minute. It’s going to be hard to agree to that statement because it sounds wrong. But after you have thought, a minute ought to do it, it should be clear that you do not describe traits that you have taken for granted. You don’t want to argue that people who come from parts of the globe where other racial groups are common do have traits, but that people who come from predominantly white parts of the world do not have traits. At least you don’t want to say it is public. If you said it in public, there would be someone who would say, “So…there is something about the white race that prevents identifiable traits from being formed?”

And now you are talking about why white people don’t have “traits” like everybody else. You don’t want to do that.

“White History Month” isn’t a complete solution, of course, but it solves the problem we have when whiteness is taken for granted. What do we learn about whiteness if we keep presupposing it? Nothing. There are “normal, regular people” and then there are ethnic and racial minorities. Some races are treated focally and others are ignored. I am treating “presupposed” as the same as “ignored” from an analytical point of view.

Once we start focusing, we are going to see things we will wish we had not seen. That’s inevitable, but it’s not serious. What’s serious is treating whiteness as the standpoint from which “races” are evaluated. Having a White History Month would move the standpoint to racial heritage and it is not “races” but “all the races” that are evaluated.

I heard a lecture on racism some years ago by an academic who was black himself. He brought the room to life when he declared that the slaves from Africa did not become black until they got to America. If he had written that instead of saying it, he would have said that they did not become “black” until they reached America. Everyone would have caught the quotes and wondered why they were there. He followed by saying that before they arrived here, they were Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba. Here, they were only “black.”

The analytical problem of whiteness is like that. Except, of course, much worse. It would take a pretty sophisticated course in American racial studies to talk in a meaningful way about the continuation of Yoruba-like traits among American blacks. If the course in racial studies included the white race, the problem would be bigger, but not different in kind. We would have to confront “Polish-like traits” or “Norwegian-like traits” as kinds of answers to the question of white people are like.

“White History Month” is a modest step—only two cheers—in that direction.

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Dominant Cultures

As a common practice, “dominant cultures” and “majority cultures” are used interchangeably. When I argue that easily misused expressions like “dominant” should be used very carefully, I am told that it really doesn’t make a difference.

And that may be correct. What, after all, is lost in the current (mistaken) expression “pin their ears back?” The old expression “put their ears back” referred to something dogs do. It indicates something about the dog, possibly a reaction of fear or timidity. On the other hand, “pin their ears back” indicates something that would be done, metaphorically, to the dog. It connotes [1] an aggressive action toward the dog, a scolding perhaps. The common choice of football commentators is that on third and long, when a pass is more likely than a run, the defense “pins their ears back” and comes after the quarterback. Obviously, that is not what they meant to say. “Put” has been transformed to “pin” and nobody cares.

Does it make a difference? Not much. It removes an expression from the context that once gave it meaning. It becomes a rote expression. It is not meaningless because hearers understand what it means. It is the relationship between the original context and the expression that is lost. If anyone new to the expression were to say, “Why do they say that? we would not know how to answer.

That’s the loss. It doesn’t seem, like much, does it?

But “dominant cultures” is more serious. Dominant cultures dominate. Presumably this is not received well by the people who are being dominated. It is commonly said that that “men dominate” in this profession and that “women dominate” in that one. That means that in the first profession, there are more men than women and in the second, more women than men.

That means that majority describes what is literally the case; “dominant” is an implicit accusation. Unless, of course, you hold that one group of people really ought to be dominated by another group of people.

Is it worth fixing? I think so. It is not that great damage is done, but rather than the point is made by the kind of comparison that is used, not by any truth about the relationship. No data are relevant to the question of whether one sex is “the dominant sex” in the field of accounting, let’s say. Yes they are, you say, offering sex-based employment records; No they aren’t I say, asking for any evidence of domination. It is worth being clear about such questions because of how easily they slide over into blaming.

It is an argument based on the choice of one metaphor rather than another. It is not based on evidence of any kind at all. And, in fact, no evidence could be offered that bore on the question. That is not how one chooses metaphors.

Obviously, you cannot resolve an “argument” that is based on the choice of metaphor. I think we are better served by arguments that can be supported by facts and logic, as these cannot.

We don’t lose much when people say “hang up the phone” when they have never seen a cradle onto which a phone (a “receiver”) could be hung or to say “throw out the baby with the bath,” when they have never seen a bathtub that could be emptied by throwing out the water. Cultures change and the words once based in them remain. It can be charming. It can’t be dangerous.

“Dominant cultures” can be dangerous.

[1] As “the Grammarian” says, “to have one’s ears pinned back and to pin one’s ears back are two phrases that are extremely similar but have very different meanings. We will examine the difference in meaning between these two phrases and where they are most often used, as well as some examples of their use in sentences.”

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But do your own research

This phrase has become more common recently at the end of a sentence, the first part of which contains some outrageous and controversial assertion. It gives the speaker all the room they need to say whatever they want to say, but blurs the consequences of what they said. Benjamin Franklin used to end a sentence that contained an assertion with “…or so it appears to me at the moment.” Very genteel, certainly, but it has the same function—exculpation—that DYOR has.

But what does “own research” mean? I have asserted a function, but I have not yet considered a meaning. Part of the problem is the word “research.” Back when research was done by researchers, it was taken for granted that the researchers had the tools necessary for a particular kind of research. But what does DYOR mean if no tools are available?

I say that all the affairs on earth are and have always been controlled by the intentions of a Gyrzyt, a lizard-like creature on the planet Tyzryg. That’s what I say, but DYOR. DYOR is meaningless in such a context, I would say.

One of Garrison Keillor’s funniest skits was about a protest by the parents of Lake Woebegone that their children were being taught things in their French class that they ought not be taught. And after all, how could the parents know for sure? DYOR actually means something in this scenario. First you find a Francophile you trust and ask them what is being taught. Alternatively, you can learn French and DYOR. Both those could be cumbersome but the meaning of DYOR is clear.

I. F. Stone made a substantial reputation by doing his own research. He used public documents, as a rule; information that was “available” to everyone. But he read with such a rich background of understanding and he read so carefully that he came up with truths—statements everyone agreed, afterward, had been true from the beginning—that were new to everyone except the perpetrators when he published them. Stone actually Did His Own Research.

The principal meaning of the phrase today is to imply that you, who have just read some outlandish allegations, can confirm them to your own satisfaction by going online and finding other people who also assert that it is true. “Finding Other True Believers” (FOTB) is really not DYOR. The use of the word “research” borrows all the connotations of careful study by knowledgeable people who are prepared by careful study to confirm or disconfirm an allegation.

One of the things about this new usage that makes me angry is that it trashes the word “research” which is a very important word to me. It is a word that makes a contribution to the careful use of English and ought to be important to us all for that reason.


Sometimes confirmation is difficult. One of my favorite stories is about a patient meeting with his psychiatrist. The patient’s core belief is that he is dead. They have had many conversations about this over the years. Suddenly, it occurs to the psychiatrist that empirical evidence might in this instance, be brought to bear. “Dead people don’t bleed, do they?” asked the psychiatrist. “No, certainly not,” replied the patient.

The psychiatrist picks up a letter opener and sticks the tip of it in the patient’s forearm. Blood well up out of the wound. “Well?” asks the psychiatrist.
“Well I’ll be damned,” responds the patient. They Do bleed.”


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The Count of Monte Cristo as a Plot Device

I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo recently. He’s not an easy character to write. He needs to stretch the limits of our believability by what he knows and what he can do and I think that works as long as we attach to the plot primarily. That is how the book is supposed to work and I know I am crossing some important boundary when I look at the Count himself. It’s like watching a magician perform a trick over and over until finally you see how he does it.

Now you know. But now you don’t get to enjoy the trick anymore.

The Count speaks fluently all the languages that the plot requires. Dumas takes the trouble to note, in the case of European languages, that he speaks them naturally; either with no accent at all or with just the accent his character requires. When you look at the Count himself, rather than at the plot, some account needs to be given for how he does that. It is not said that he is particularly apt or that he has studied long and hard. Everything is swallowed up in that time between his acquisition of his fellow prisoner’s treasure and his appearance as an avenging angel.

Sometimes Dumas goes too far. In an early portrayal of Lord Wilmore, one of the Count’s many aliases, he seems British. Really British. And Dumas makes a point of commenting that the way Lord Wilmore (the Count) walks is unmistakably and naturally British.

That was too far for me. If Dumas wants the reader to keep his eye on the plot and the relationships in which it primarily consists, he needs to be careful not to flaunt a skill that the Count could not plausibly have mastered. After all, Dumas himself has a notion of what the required abilities of each character—both the permanent ones and the temporary ones—have to be. A character like the banker Danglars, would know certain things and be ignorant of others. An invented character, like Abbe Busoni, similarly, would know certain things and be ignorant of others. That really has to be true of the Count, too, no matter how many things he knows how to do (like how to poison people or to fend off a poison).

But I felt that how each character walked or gestured would be outside Dumas’ range of required abilities. Calling attention to them, as Dumas calls attention to the way Lord Wilmore walks, is, in some obscure way, a violation of the rules. He ought not to have called my attention to it.

OK, now I’ve “seen the trick.” I will never drink in the person of Monte Cristo again, as I have so many times before.

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Peace on earth to…somebody

Here is the way Luke puts it.

“And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favors.”

All kinds of new issues began to show up at my door when I shifted over from trying to understand biblical texts from one mode to another. The one I learned first required that I read the texts as if they were accounts of events by eyewitnesses. I have taken to calling this mode “the journalistic fallacy.” The mode I favor now, when I can remember to use it, I call “narrative focus.” It emphasizes the questions:“who is saying what to whom and why?” It treats these texts as literary forms, each element of which is there to represent something important to the author or to the author’s community. A common question would be, “Why did Luke say that?”

I am satisfied with the approach to Bible study that this makes possible, but it does raise new questions about what to do with religious texts that have been taken over lock, stock, and barrel by a culture that has its own notions of what God has done or what God should do.

God would not, we are sure, say anything like, “Peace on earth to those who enjoy my favor.” If he really understood what He was doing, He would say, “Good will to men,” or possibly “Peace to men of good will.” If He really understood the importance of being inclusive.

This is the time of year when we sing Christmas carols. We sing them in both sacred and secular settings. In neither setting do we sing “Peace to those God favors.” There are some good reasons for this and also some bad reasons. One of the good reasons is that it is hard to formulate the best understanding of what the verse says (Luke 2:14) into a line that is easy to sing. One of the bad reasons is that Christmas is the time when we like to pretend there is a civic religion. It is a degerminated and safely secular form of Christianity.

I admit that is is a spectacular image of what the shepherds saw, but it does distinguish, as many pictures do not, between the one angel who explained what was going on and the reserves he called on to deliver the cantata which contains all the problematic words.

As a public property, its theological underpinnings need to be in line with the people doing the singing—or at least not so out of line with those underpinnings that they will notice. And people who have a different view of God (Christians, for instance) or of the best understanding of what the text says (scholars, for instance) are faced with a dilemma. Should they say “That song is ours and you can’t have it?” or should they say “It too—that understanding of what Christmas is about—is worthy and as a citizen and a participant in the general culture, I will join you in celebrating it.”

I actually like both versions. Singing the “peace to all” version adapts the message of the angels to the message we so desperately need today. All it costs is cutting the umbilical cord that connects it to a vital and meaningful home. Singing the “peace to those whom He favors” version keeps Luke’s understanding of what was said front and center at the risk of alienating your fellow citizens, who are all about inclusiveness. When I sing either version in the right spirit, I find it positive and engaging. When I make one primary and criticize the other for its deficiencies (see above) it goes a little flat on me. [1]

What to do? Recognize the benefits of each version in the context where it belongs—the civil religion version here, the religious doctrine version there—and enjoy each one for what it offers.

I am not entirely sure I am capable of that, but I think it is the right answer.

[1] And since “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which has that text, is written in four flats already, that may be a cost my singing cannot afford.

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Agreeing about Marriage

The more I think about political discourse, the more I am reminded that the meaning of the most important terms is absolutely dependent on what the participants think they are talking about. From Heather Cox Richardson’s recent column (Letters from an American), I find three references to laws about marriage. I’m going to deal with them in historical order.

In 1924, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed The Racial Integrity Act. Anybody here against “integrity?” Before “integrity” became an all-purpose good word, it had a meaning of its own. It meant, “having the characteristics or quality of an integer.” And an“integer” is a whole number, rather than a fraction. This is not a moral critique of fractions, of course, but while the first meanings of “integer,” are “intact, whole, complete,” we moved quickly to symbolic meanings like “untainted” and “upright.” [1]

Framing the question of whether marriage ought to be “fractured” or to have “integrity” is very helpful to the people who have the ability to define what “marriage” is. It asserts what marriage is and asks whether we want it to be whole and healthy. Sure. We want it to be healthy. In Virginia at the time, “healthy” required that the marriage partners be of the same race.

In 1996, the Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. “Marriage” was, apparently, under attack and because we value marriage, it is crucial that we defend it. The attack was gay marriage: men “marrying” men; women “marrying” women. [2] There were policy implications, of course, including a direct attack on the “full faith and credit” provisions of federalism in the Constitution, but we are considering only the language itself here.

“Marriage” is good, but it is good only as we define it. When we “defend” marriage, it is that definition of marriage we are defending. It could have been called the Defense of Heterosexual Marriage Act, but only a complete idiot would have done that. That title offers a choice of what the issue is. Are we talking about marriage or are we talking about homosexuality? That choice is not what you want to offer to potential opponents in the title of the bill.

Finally, we have the Respect for Marriage Act. I, myself, would have preferred the Respect of Marriage Act, which is really not as good a title, but it would give us ROMA and we could have had ROMA/DOMA controversies. I think I would have liked that.

Again, the question is just what is to be respected. “Marriage” is to be respected and in this context it is clear that both homosexual and heterosexual marriages are “marriage.” The “marriage,” that is to be respected, in other words, is not at all the same as the “marriage” that is to be defended by DOMA and that is not at all clear in either title.

So what might look to the casual observed like a great and broad agreement among Americans is, in fact, a debate. It is not that “marriage” should have integrity and it should be defended and respected. I suppose that is a proposition that would be assented to by large majorities of Americans if the question were put without a context. But, as we have seen, each of these measures has in mind defining marriage so that includes some ideas about it and excludes others. It is not a great concurrence. It is a debate.

[1] These come from, one of the best and most accessible sources for etymology.
[2] All of the debates that made up the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) presupposed that “men” and “women” were intact categories–that the categories, in other words, had “integrity.”. In today’s context of “gender fluidity” the presupposition of men and womenas the necessary categories sounds almost quaint.

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