Abortion and Whack-a-mole

Gov. Janet Mills, of Maine, is in the process of putting on the books a law that will allow physicians’ assistants and nurse practitioners to perform abortions.  I had not thought of that approach and when I read it in Vox Sentences this morning [1] I thought, “Well….of course.”  My brother, John, captured this experience perfectly when he said “What I found was a surprise that should have been an expectation confirmed.” [2]

Maine 1This is an ongoing game of Whack-a Mole.  Let’s start with Roe v. Wade (1973).  The question there was whether the government of Texas was permitted to intrude into Roe’s “zone of privacy” and forbid her having an abortion that she and her doctor thought she should have.

Does the Constitution provide “a zone of privacy?”  Certainly it does.  Right after Roe v. Wade declared that it did.  So states are not allowed to “forbid” abortions.  They can, of course, “constrain” abortions, (Whack) provided it does not pose an “undue burden” on the woman.  (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992)

Due burdens are perfectly OK.  “Zone of privacy” standards are yes and no standards.  “Undue burden” standards are “how much” standards.

So who pays for an abortion? [3]  Ordinarily, that is a medical insurance question.  If no medical insurance plans cover it, it becomes unavailable to most women.  That is why the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) required institutions that provide insurance for employees to include abortions in the covered procedures. [4]

maine 3At this point, the “state intrusion into the zone of privacy” mole has been whacked.  But that becomes burdensome sometimes (as, in Pennsylvania, when it required spousal consent), so “undue burdens” are forbidden.  Whack.  Now we have required insurance coverage.  But companies are allowed to opt out under some circumstances.  Whack.

So, where can I have this procedure done?  Well, at any licensed facility.  Sure.  And what are the requirements for licensure?  Let’s get creative here.  Let’s say that no medical facility can be licensed to practice in Georgia if a virus has ever been discovered on the property.  We are only concerned about the health of the women you understand.

maine 3So “all hospitals are allowed to (a federal standard) becomes “all licensed hospitals are allowed to” (a state legislative standard) and the state standards are set so that no hospital meets them.  Whack. [5]

But aren’t there federally funded and licensed hospitals and clinics?  How about them?  Well, so long as Roe v. Wade stands, the feds cannot forbid abortions at such clinics, but they can defund them.  The way this would work is that no federal funds are available for a clinic at which abortions are (also) performed.  Along with appendectomies. Whack.

And at what age do these restrictions bear upon the fetus?  Casey (1993) establishes that the ability of the state to regulate begins at the “age of viability,” or when, in the opinion of the doctors, the fetus could live outside the womb.  And when would that be?  Well, the fact is that medical practices has advanced to the point where the “age of viability” has been pushed back a very long way.  The money it costs to rescue a child from this new expanded “age of viability” is staggering, but then again, it isn’t the parents’ money.

maine 3The problem with this expansion, from a political point of view, is that it is technical.  Only doctors (elites, not people like you and me) can establish an age of viability.  Georgia’s approach to this difficulty—the difficulty, remember, is that we turn these questions over to elites—is to establish the fetal heartbeat as the sign of viability.  Georgia’s new abortion law is called the “fetal heartbeat” law and you will notice, I hope, that this is a perfect solution to the political problem.

People “know” that life starts when the heart starts beating because they know that life Maine 4stops when the heart stops beating.  It’s something that everybody knows.  It’s “common sense.”  [7]  Whack.

And, finally, who is permitted to perform abortions?  Well, doctors, of course.  And there are only so many doctors.  Enter the state of Maine.  It isn’t just doctors [6] but also physicians’ assistants (PA’s) and nurse practitioners (LPN’s) and there are lots more of them.  Whack.


Here’s the deal.  There is a virtually unlimited number of women who want to have abortions or who want to make sure that they are available should they be needed.  There is a limited number of mechanisms by which executive, legislative, and judicial bodies can make abortions unavailable.  So each specific law or decision or regulation—each whack of a particular mole—is going to put the pressure on some other part of the system and cause another mole to pop up.

There is no shortage of moles.  Whacking is a lot of work.  The moles are going to win.

[1]Thank you, Kevin Miller of thePortland Press Herald.Vox gave me a hyperlink to his article.

[2]  June 10.  He was talking about the internal structure of grapevines, but I recognized the sentiment.

[3]  There is no strategy for abortion elimination that prevents someone with a lot of money from going somewhere in the world that a safe abortion can be provided.  Regulating abortions by regulating how much they cost is a strategy for ordinary people.

[4]  There were also “fig leaf” provisions that allowed this coverage to be provided by someone else so long as it was paid for by the employer.

[5]  We’ll just skip over, here, the attempts to define an abortion procedure as a murder and the attending physician as a murderer.  It’s just too complicated.  And it doesn’t cover the doctors who have been murdered.

[6]  And eight other states.

[7]  The heart starts beating at about three weeks, depending on just how you are looking for a heartbeat.  Fetuses are not medically viable at 22 days.  The mother is unlikely to know she is pregnant at 22 days.  But the fetus is politically viable when the heart starts beating.

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Goodies-in-the-hamper time

Below you will find the text of the prayer of confession we used at our church this week.  I liked it a good deal when I first read it.  Now I have worked with it a little since then and I like it even more.  I know the title of this post is obscure and idiosyncratic, but it does establish in my mind an image I would like to keep, so I’d like to share it here.

The title comes directly from Russell Hoban’s Best Friends for Frances, a story about little badgers.  Albert has refused to allow Frances to play baseball with him and his friend Harold.  Frances retaliates by packing an enormous picnic lunch and refusing to let Albert have any.  It turns out that only “best friends” are allowed to go on the outing.

Then we get this.

 “Can’t I be a best friend?” asked Albert.

“Well, I’m not sure, said Frances.  “Maybe you’ll be best friends when it’s goodies-in-the-hamper time, but how about when it’s no-girls-baseball time?”


The “goodies” are the beautiful language that the confession offers.  Here it is.  The expressions marked in red are emotional reactions we are “confessing;” those marked in blue are that actions we take as a result of those reactions.

1.  Our God, we come in humility,

2.  confessing that we are slow to respond

 3. to your call and claim on our lives.

4.  When your Spirit speaks, we hesitate to hear, 

5.  for we fear what you may call us to do.

6.  When the wind of your Spirit blows, 

7.  we close the windows of our heart, 

8.  afraid the wind will disrupt our ordered lives.

9.  When the fire of your Spirit touches us,

10. we quench the flame,

11. wary of the ardor it would bring.

12. Forgive us, O Lord, and renew us by your Spirit.

There are old good words here.  I like “call and claim” in line three and “the windows of our heart” in line seven.  I like “quench” and “ardor.”


But I had no sooner read and enjoyed those words—the goodies—than I began to weavehamper 1 a hamper for them.  I began to think of them not just as words, but as kinds of words (these are motives, for instance and those are actions) and then to notice patterns that relate these kinds of words.  Note, for instance that the sequence of “slow” (line 2), “hesitate” (line 4) “close” (line 7) and “quench” in (line 10) seems quite deliberate.  They are an ordered series, each more active and more defensive than the previous one.

I noticed then that each of these reactions is an emotion (a motive) that is followed by an action.  [1] We fear something in the first step, so we take measures to make it less scary.  This thing we fear is a life of Christian discipleship.  That is why it is something that needs to be confessed.  See what you think.

We fear what you may call us to do, God, so we hesitate to hear what you are saying, for instance, in lines four and five.  Note that in that event, we simply do not hear what we are being called to do. [2]  We fear, lines seven and eight,  that the wind will disrupt the order we have established for ourselves so we close “the windows of our heart.” [3]  We are wary of your ardor, in lines ten and eleven, so we quench the flame.

The relationships of those words, causal, in this case,  are a new way of attaching myself to the meaning and power of the confession as it applies to me.  The fears line up and raise the question for me, “What are you afraid of?”  The consequences of giving in to those fears are much more varied.  We “hesitate to hear”—or, worse, refuse to hear—what we are being called to do.  Imaging being part of a team assigned to protect someone and just taking the earpiece our of your ear.  “What?  No, I didn’t hear anyone ask me to cover the approach from the balcony.”  See the earpiece?

hamper 2We protect, in the second clause, the order into which we have put our lives.  As someone who struggles to put his life in order, I have very little emotional resonance with that one, but the writer probably intends to celebrate God’s order rather than the disorder I picture from the wind blowing in the window.  I understand that a disorder may be the necessary first step to a new order.  It may be.  But this suggests, not that it may be, but that it is.  It is the first step and that way of understanding it goes further than I want to go.

The third clause asks the question of emotional temperature.  God has a great deal of ardor, in this way of thinking about it, and not much prudence. [4]  We are failing in “ardor” as the writer of this confession sees it.  I think we are failing in a lot of other things—generosity, for instance—that an increase in ardor will only make worse.

We have arrived at a hamper, of sorts; a conceptual construct meant to contain and amplify the meanings of the beautiful words themselves.  Those words are the goodies; the construct is the hamper.

The Goodies OR the Hamper

This is the way it is often put to me.  Veterans of a much more emotional practice of liturgy, study, and prayer think of these constructs as ways of buffering the powerful meaning of the words.  As they see it, the better choice is the goodies themselves, never mind about the hamper.

And, of course, there are people for whom the hamper is really all that is of interest.  These are often people for whom the “goodies” have long since become rancid and toxic.  They want nothing more of these goodies —like the wind of the Spirit and the windows of the heart, for instance—than an excuse to build hampers. [5]  Theological or psychological or sociological constructs are the prize here, not that the “goodies” have gone bad.

The Goodies in the Hamper

That’s not how I see it, obviously.  Some of the people I know and love best look at the hampers I build and roll their eyes, but isn’t a rejection of what I have done.  It is a recognition that, a) I have done it many times in the past, that b) I seem to find it meaningful and c) that some other people seem to like it as well.  These particular people find it unhelpful for themselves, but knowing that I find it helpful, they support it in me, while rejecting it for themselves.  These people I know and love are pretty nice people, as you can see.

The goodies became toxic for me a long time ago.  I got over it.  I look at those goodies differently now, finding meanings where I once found only emotional power and I continue to be attracted when many others can manage only repulsion.

So “goodies in the hamper” time is a very good time for me.

[1]  “Followed” is just a sequence.  The words may come in either order.

[2]  The first result of receiving no call is doing nothing but we are not built for doing nothing, so we do other things and elevate them to significance in our lives.

[3]  The reference to “the heart” here is probably meant to call up emotional reactions we are trying to avoid, but the scriptural use of “heart” had much more to do with intentions and actions.

[4]The Latin prudentia, from which we get “prudence” is a contraction of providentia (seeing ahead of time) from which we get “providence.”God is vastly practical, as He is portrayed in our scriptures, and this is based on what He knows.

[5]  This use of the noun, “hamper” is related for these people to the verb, “to hamper.”

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Jesus had two dads

Just playing around a little.

This picture was sent to me along with a rash of other church signs. Some of them were quite witty, but this was my favorite. This is exactly the kind of prompt I was anticipating when I chose the word “dilettante” as the basis of this blog’s title. So let’s have some fun.


I am a Presbyterian, myself. [1] I attend “the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon.” Notice the difference. If you look at the sign above the display, you will see “the First Baptist Church in America.” That is not said casually. If you go to the church’s website, you find this.

The First Baptist Church in America has been on College Hill in downtown Providence since 1638, sharing the good news, with Christ-centered enthusiasm, biblical preaching, dynamic caring ministries, advocating the separate and complementary relationship between church and state, and the vitality of traditional worship. What Roger Williams established is still worth standing for.

When I began to take the title seriously, my mind went immediately to Roger Williams, that noted un-Puritan, who was chased out of Massachusetts Bay and went down to Rhode Island (often called Rogue’s Island at the time) and founded an un-Puritan church. 1638, it says. Nineteen years after the first boatload of slaves docked here. Two years later than the founding of little Harvard College.


Theologically, the idea that Jesus had “two dads” is preposterous. That’s part of the fun of it. Anyone who has prayed the Lord’s Prayer has begun, “Our Father—not the earthly one, I mean the Heavenly one—hallowed be your name. Why the need for the distinction?

Very often, Hebrew usage referred to Abraham, from whom all the children of Israel (Jacob) derive, as “our father, Abraham. (John 8) Jacob is also referred to as “our father” (John 4). So it may be that the principal reason for “heavenly Father” was distinguishing that relationship from “ancestral father.”

But that wouldn’t be enough to give this sign the pop it has. [2] To get there, you have to introduce two entirely modern contexts. The first asks in what sense Joseph, Mary’s husband, was Jesus’ “father.” First, it is important that Joseph be Jesus’ father because Joseph is descended from David and Jesus needs to be descended from David. Nothing we are considering here has anything to do with DNA.

Luke has Mary refer to Joseph as Jesus’ father in the famous abandoned at the Temple incident, but that would have been true whatever Jesus’ parentage provided that Joseph named him and counted him as part of the family. And if Jesus was a carpenter (Mark’s language) or just the son of a carpenter (Matthew’s language), he would have been raised under Joseph’s tutelage.

So Jesus could be said to have one Father (John’s emphasis) or two,(Matthew’s emphasis) or three, counting all the references to Abraham, our father. You can count up the fathers as far as you like and never get anywhere near the adoption of a child by a gay couple, which is the discrepancy that the sign board is playing with.

And I think that is why I like it so much. The desert between Jesus as “the son” of Abraham and Joseph and God, on the one hand, and as “having two fathers” in the current usage, is vast. The two references have nothing at all to do with each other. That’s the discrepancy. And, following Max Eastman [3] that is why it is funny.

Of course, it isn’t funny to everyone, which is also part of why it is funny to me. People who allow themselves to get their undies in a bunch [4] over a joke that pairs Jesus with gay dads are marching right past a joke they really could have afforded to enjoy. Which seems a shame.

[1] Although I have been a Baptist myself. The church I attended near Dayton, Ohio descended from this experiment by Roger Williams . Churches descended from his shoot are known as the American Baptist Church, a very un-Southern Baptist kind of place.
[2] No pun intended. I didn’t see it before you did.
[3] Eastman defines humor as a discrepancy taken playfully.
[4] Thank you, Garrison Keillor.

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Teaching alienation to citizens

Peter Berger says in one of his early books on sociology that “society” is a show that is meant to be seen only once.  It’s like a magic act.  The first time the illusion is complete.  Later on, you begin to wonder what the other hand is doing while you are watching the hand the magician is showing you.  Finally you get how he does it and the “magic” is over; now, it’s just deception.

In my 80s now, I have been more and more getting the feeling that I have seen this show before.  When I read in the New York Times about the crap that Mike Abate took from flooded out locals, I was reminded very much of Tom Wolfe’s essay, “Mau mauing the Flack Catchers.” [1]

I didn’t like the process much when I first read about it in the 1970s.  Since then, I have had some experience as a “flack-catcher” which I also didn’t like very much, so I responded to this piece about citizen outrage even less well that I did the first time.

To tell you the truth, it reminded me of my time as a legislative assistant in the Oregon Legislature where part of my job was to take calls from constituents who were either just pissed off or were deeply confused.  My boss, who had actually won an election, would eventually get to the place where he would just tell a persistent caller to shut up.  I didn’t get to do that. [2]  

The constituent who comes most readily to mind would call on Friday afternoons and give me a tongue-lashing about how much money the national government spent on military hardware.  I agreed with her completely (but didn’t say so) and then she would go on to demand that I intercede with my representative to get him to withdraw his support.  My explanation that my boss was a state legislator and that we did not, in fact, control any military spending at all, did not move her. [3]

It is experiences like that that make me sympathetic to Mike Abate.

So Mike is appearing at a meeting of angry flooded out citizens and as part of this abate 2confrontation, something happens that bothers me a good deal.  It is not John DesBarres allegation that the Corps of Engineers made a mistake in retaining or releasing floodwaters.  That may be true of partly true or entirely untrue.  Mike says the Corps did everything its policies require it to do in balancing the range of interests they have to balance., but DesBarres has suffered a loss and he is angry about it and he wants the Corps to have done something different.


Then he says that the government owes them money in compensation for their losses.  The government “took” their property he says, referring I presume to the “takings clause” of the Constitution.  I think that is far-fetched.  In a situation of triage among several classes of constituencies, someone is not going to be in first place, but still, it is an argument DesBarres is making and it relates to his losses.

Mostly fine.

Then he does this.

Mike Abate, the chief of civil works in the Corps’s Tulsa District, was asked [by DesBarres] if his home had flooded.

That’s over the line, I think.  It isn’t the worst thing that happened at the meeting.  I’m still getting to that.  The question takes away the obvious situation, that there has been a lot of rain and that people’s homes and businesses are going to be at risk.  For that situation, DesBarres substitutes one that puts Abate on one side of the divide and “honest citizens” (who don’t work for the government) on the other side.  Abate and his property have been “privileged” or “protected” in some way, treated as elites.  Abate and his cronies have rigged the course of this natural disaster so that DesBarres’ home is flooded and Abate’s is not.

That is what DesBarres does and I think he should be condemned for it.  But that’s not the worst thing.  Here’s the worst thing.

At the church in Sand Springs, flooded neighbors and some officials came up to Mr. DesBarres when the meeting was over and thanked him for speaking out.

That’s the worst thing.  DesBarres neighbors saw him making absurd accusations againstabate 1 Abate and they thought of it as “speaking out.”  Presumably, “speaking out” is a good thing.  It is a citizenship skill.  It calls tyranny by its name and opposes it in public.  Those are the connotations of “speaking out” as I see them.  And that expression, which I treasure, is used to refer to DesBarres’ “mau mauing the flack catcher.”  Abate is the flack catcher.  Here is the caption the Times put under that picture: “John B. DesBarres, a lawyer whose home was flooded, was met with applause as he spoke out against the Army Corps of Engineers at the meeting.”

These neighbors are going to tell this story to others.  This kind of bullying of public officials is going to be identified as “good citizenship,” as behavior not to be deplored, but to be lauded.  Treating it that way is only going to make it more common and the self-inflicted gap between citizen expectations and government performance gets wider and wider and more to be condemned.

Mike Abate is really good about it.

Mr. Abate stayed in the worship center after the meeting ended to answer residents’ questions. He defended the agency’s decision to not prerelease water until the rain starts coming down, and said he didn’t mind the heated comments. “I work for the government,” Mr. Abate said. “I’m a public servant. If I need to serve the public by getting yelled at, that’s O.K.”

I like it that he stayed until he wore the dissidents down.  That’s a really good thing to do.  On the other hand, he thinks he is serving the public by presenting himself as a piñata and I am not convinced at all that that is true.

His taking the abuse DesBarres is dealing out—and is modeling as good behavior for his fellow citizens— is playing the confirming role.  The combination of the two roles defines them as a natural pair and therefore as solid and enduring.  As “normal;” maybe even as a duty.  The bureaucrat who thinks getting yelled at is part of his job and the angry lawyer who thinks personalizing the flood is his job.

If I am right about that, then we all lose by DesBarres’ irrational anger (the third charge, not the first two) and by Abate’s idea that he is serving the public by taking it.  A direct confrontation of DesBarres might be inflammatory in the long run, but if he is supported by his agency all the way up and if what he rejects is the abuse, not the hard questions, it might repair a little of the breach he and DesBarres are creating.

DesBarres wants as Us v. Them scenario.  He wants Abate to be held personally accountable for not getting flooded out.  Us v. Them is going to hurt us all.  It will hurt Abate’s children and grandchildren and DesBarres’ children and grandchildren.  It valorizes irrational personal vilification and it is wrong.

Then this:

Mr. DesBarres approached Mr. Abate after the meeting. Mr. DesBarres was done venting. He wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. He extended his arm to Mr. Abate, and the two men shook hands.

I see that the reported does go so far as to call DesBarres’ outburst “venting.”   DesBarres wants to be sure, privately, that the outrage he perpetrated publicly was OK.  He probably said, “It wasn’t anything personal.”  And the two men shook hands and the public damage caused by that redefinition of what nature  does, will continue to spread.

[1]  Wikipedia: “Wolfe describes hapless bureaucrats (the Flak Catchers) whose function was reduced to taking abuse, or “mau-mauing” (in reference to the intimidation tactics employed in Kenya’s anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising) from intimidating young Blacks nd Samoans, who are seen as reveling in the newfound vulnerability of “the Man. ”.

[2]  Which I thought, even at the time, was eminently fair.  He had run for election and had won and that gave him the right to choose me as his flack catcher.  I liked most of the job a great deal but I didn’t like that part.

[3]  Eventually, I did what Mike Abate did.  I just outlasted her.  I took all the questions and all the rebukes and asked if she had any more until she didn’t have any more.  Then she stopped calling.



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Signs of Scotland

You wouldn’t think it would be that hard.  You start in…oh…York, England and drive about 200 miles north and somewhere in there, before you get to Edinburgh, Scotland, you should see a sign that says “Welcome to Scotland” or some such thing.  But the signs of Scotland I am thinking about this morning are the ones I saw while I was there recently that just tickled me.

And that reminded me that I chose the name of this blog—the dilettante’s dilemma—when I discovered that our word “dilettante” is built up from the Latin delctare,” to allure, delight, charm, or please.”  So I decided to write a blog about the things that delight me. [1]

Today, I would like to share with you some signs I saw in Scotland.  I think this one might be my favorite. 


It was posted on the door of a public toilet and the idea that it might have been posted there by the Queen just tickled me.  It allured, delighted, charmed, and pleased me.  No standing on royal privilege here, I thought.  I think there is just a little extra snap in this for me by the distance the mind has to travel to get from Queen Elizabeth to this public toilet.

Nearly all the “signs” I write about are deliberate misunderstandings of some word or other.  This one is not.  English is constructed in such a way that the adjectives stack up before the noun and we are  supposed to tell which applies to which by their context.  Well…we call these birds woodpeckers because they peck wood.  If you found a woodpecker made of wood, would probably be forced to call it a wood woodpecker. [2]  I hope that the artist who did this smiled to himself all the while.


The best book I know about humor, Max Eastman’s The Enjoyment of Laughter, says that at the heart of it all, humor is a discrepancy taken playfully.  Human beings are discrepancy detectors.  That is why we  have lasted this long.  But discrepancies taken playfully might turn out to be every bit as important, if sociability really is our species’ ace in the hole, as many evolutionary studies have concluded. 

This next one I found on the bulletin board of a church in Dunkeld.  The thing that made it funny to me was, again, how far the mind has to travel from the obvious “carpenters and joiners”  According to Wikipedia, “the main trade union for American carpenters still calls itself the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.” But when you specify Nazareth, it becomes clear that you are thinking about a particular carpenter and that makes “joiners” mean something different as well.


I want to use this last one to acknowledge my long debt to Richard Armour, author of a number of books, the titles of which begin, It All Started With…  This one comes from It All Started with Europa.  In that book, he invented a character named Sir Martin Fourflusher [3], a descendent, Armour says, of the early Saxons who, as a result, knew all the Angles. 

I read and enjoyed that line in the 1950s and ever since, when the context lends itself to the association, I hear Angles when someone says “angles.”  It  helps, of course, to know that before there was anything “Anglo-Saxon,” there were people called Angles and people called Saxons, but there is no relationship at all between “angles” as in “knows the angles” and Angles as in Anglo-Saxon.  None.IMG_0326.jpeg

Or, at least, there was none until I read in Armour about Sir Martin Fourflusher.  This sign, as you can see, makes only the very slightest bow in the direction I took it in after highjacking it.  Still, it allured, delighted, charmed, and pleased me, so here it is.

[1]  It hasn’t worked out entirely.  I have written a good bit, over the last nine years, about things that intrigue me, not always in a good way, or things that alarm me.  I started worrying about the Trump phenomenon, for instance, when he was just a gleam in the eye of the Tea Party.

[2]  Wood pecker wouldn’t do the job because of the other uses to which the word “pecker” has been put.

[3]  A helpful explanation from Wikipedia:  “A four flush… is a poker hand that is one card short of being a full flush. Four flushing refers to empty boasting or unsuccessful bluffing, and a four flusher is a person who makes empty boasts or bluffs when holding a four flush.”

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The Battle of Culloden, 1746

I had a chance to visit the battlefield this year. “Culloden”—just the name itself—has the kind of clout that an American might feel about “Gettysburg.” [1] It’s a big deal.

This is the piece of Culloden that has stuck in my mind. This is a photo I took on the battlefield itself. I don’t think of myself as sensitive to poetry, but every now and then, some way of drawing pictures with words just reaches out and grabs me. This was one of those. [2]IMG_0242.jpeg

Aoghas MacNeacail wrote that, as you see, in 2012, but it is written from the perspective of a soldier who fought on the side of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746.

Here are a few things I noticed at the time and that have stayed with me. The first is the lower case p- in “prince.” That is considerably less than “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” It is less that he was used to receiving, as the head of the Stuart attempt to regain the throne but it is only what he deserves, according to MacNeacail. It goes in the direction of putting the title in quotation marks, as if the claim itself were spurious or shameful.

The second is “we followed you.” That’s personal. You can hear the disappointment in later words like “ocean” and “desert.” In point of fact, these soldiers did follow Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than his military advisors. [3] The standard highland battle tactic depended on speed of attack. Hundreds of clansmen yelling and running down the hill at you functioned as a kind of blitzkrieg. Culloden was flat. It was also marshy. [4] There were solid military reasons not to fight there that day, but Bonnie Prince Charlie insisted on it and I think MacNeacail has that in mind in “we followed you.”

I also think he means to refer to the personal following. Prince Charlie was a charmer. He left a lot of meetings with consent in his pocket that had not looked at all likely at the beginning of the meeting. He was charismatic. That attracts followers. But when the failure comes, it is the person and the relationship that bears the brunt. “You failed us” is implicit in the personalization of the charge.

The third is “this ocean.” Admittedly, the pointing finger represented by “this” requires that the poem be read on the battlefield itself. I think “to an ocean” would have been OK, and what can you do, really, when the sign is elsewhere. But “this” makes you want to stop reading and look around to see what “this” means and I did that.

Third, what you see when you look around is not a “desert” in every sense of the word. There are tourists everywhere, so it is not “deserted.” Does MacNeacail mean that the soldiers were deserted by some Gaelic equivalent of Lady Luck? Were they deserted by good military sense? Were they deserted Prince Charlie himself, who was taken away from the battlefield unharmed, unlike the 1500—2000 of his army killed or wounded?

It doesn’t take sand and palm trees to make a place a desert. It takes no one living there. It is a place made for despair and grief and calling this flat boggy land a desert catches some of that.

Finally, I was struck by the pairing of “flatness and bullets.” Those don’t really belong together and I suspect that is why it struck me so forcibly. It was a “desert of flatness,” as I pointed out above, and also a “desert of bullets.” The forces under Cumberland had much better firepower. They had cannons firing grapeshot. They cut the charging highlanders to bits.

I hear the pairing of “flatness and bullets” as a way of picturing that desolation. The fact that those two unrelated words are paired makes them both more powerful to me. This is a lament I think I will never forget. [5]

[1] And those are not the only similarities.
[2] I had a feeling much like this one when, in high school, I first “saw” this picture in McBeth. “Sleep, which knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” I felt that all at one time and I just put my book down on my desk for a little while so the moment wouldn’t go away.
[3] In another Gettysburg similarity, the choice of that battlefield was a risk and it is a risk Robert E. Lee himself decided on. General Stonewall Jackson made himself notorious afterwards by continuing to campaign against that decision, maintaining that he had warned Lee to withdraw and fight elsewhere but Lee had refused.
[4] Some of the Scottish leaders calculated that the soft ground would be an impediment for the cavalry that the Duke of Cumberland had available, but it was not.
[5] I did read that passage from MacBeth in 1952 and it still affects me, so I have confidence that Culloden will stay with me as well.

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Biblical tools and “sharing”

In July, I’m going to try something I have never tried before.  I am going to try to begin a Bible study based on a scholarly examination of the Bible with fellow residents at Holladay Park Plaza, where we live.  I have new sense of daring about it.  Suddenly, it seems like a big deal

Just how precarious it is was brought into focus by my friend, Steve.  We met on a Road Scholar tour of the Scottish Highlands and on a bus tour there are lots of in between times.  In one of those, I was telling him about this forthcoming study.  Steve has been a teacher for most of his life and he went right to a question I had never considered adequately, “What are you trying to do?”  He asked another good one later, but let’s deal with them one at a time.

Here was my first answer.

“I am trying to make available to my students a richer and more satisfying reading of the Bible than they currently have available by focusing on the interpretive tools they will need to read the Bible in a new way.”

I have lived with that answer for a week now.  It has led me to some uncharted territory, for which I am grateful, but I am not sure it says what I really want to say.

The first hurdle I ran into [1] was “make available.”  Here in Scotland, they make haggis available at nearly every meal. [2]  Americans, by and large, on finding out what haggis is, say “No, thanks.”  That does not mean that the haggis was not made available. 

Here are three scenarios.   It might mean that the whole notion of eating sheep’s haggis 1intestines for breakfast is not a natural thing for Americans.  It is a concept that comes from so far away that the first barrier is just imagining the possibility.  On the other hand, it might mean that they had haggis pushed on them as children—in the school cafeteria, let’s say—and have acquired an aversion to it that amounts almost to anger.  And finally, it might mean that they are really committed to something else, say tomatoes and boiled red potatoes, to meet that particular part of the breakfast menu.

Those are three challenges to the expression, “make available.”  Let’s say that I wanted to begin this Bible study with the story of Tamar. [3]  Tamar is declared to have made the right decision in a difficult time.  Her solution was to seduce her father-in-law so that her dead husband’s lineage could be preserved. [4]  The declared goal of my approach is to offer the students a way to understand the story the way the storyteller understood it.  In this case, it means that preserving her husband’s progeny is crucially important (also commanded by God) and “sexual fidelity” is not—or at least is less so in this circumstance.  And I am making this point to people who have never heard of levirate marriage and who, on having it explained to them, find it bizarre.  There may also be, in my group of students, people who have had traumatic experiences with the failure of marital fidelity and they will feel somehow complicit by treating it as a minor matter in Tamar’s case.

What does “make available” mean for these students?  For some, it means that they will have to get really interested, quickly, in a social practice they have never heard of before on no better grounds than my promise that they will understand the story better if they do that.  For the others, it means that they will have to deal intellectually with a topic that is viscerally powerful for them. 

Both of those sound unlikely to me as I consider it from Steve’s standpoint, but I began with the notion that I am “making available” something that is really worth their while.

Steve’s second question was, “How will you know when you are done?” [5]  There is a sense in which you are never “done” with a fundamental part of your life, and that is what Bible study has been for me once I got the rebellion out of my system.  But in terms of the “goal” as I formulated it, I think there really is an answer.  When these students, who, when they leave the room are colleagues and friends, understand what I am offering them and make a thoughtful choice about whether they prefer it to what they are currently using, I will be “done.”

There is no question that I have my own experience with biblical scholarship as a measuring stick.  I don’t really know how that could be otherwise.  Ever since I threw away the kind of Bible study I learned as a boy [6] I have had one experience after another of discovering new meanings with real delight.  Whatever I decide to say to the class, the truth is that I would like for them to have the experience I have had.  I know that is not realistic, but down in my gut, it is really what I desire.  And I know that if I try to use it as a standard for “when are we done,” I will fail.  

haggis 2So I need something more reasonable.  Let’s try Tamar once more.  If there is a lesson is the story of Tamar, it is that you might have to exercise considerable ingenuity and dare the wrath of important people if you are really committed to doing the right thing.  When I formulate it as an “outcome” of the study of Tamar it seems tinny to me.  A little cheap.  What I really want is for the students to marinate their minds in that world, the world where those options confronted Tamar.  I want them to give their imaginations to it.  To do that, they will have to understand a few things, some of them taught by the story, many more presupposed by the story.  Of the things presupposed, some are persistent and intrusive.

Take the experience of Onan, the second brother, for instance.  The only word I know from the story of Tamar that has become an English word, is “onanism,” which refers to masturbation.  How on earth did that come to be a featured meaning in the story of Tamar?  Well first, you have to take Onan’s action out of context.  The story says that he “spilled his seed on the ground.”  [7]  How, of all the many ways Onan could have managed that, my early teachers decided on “masturbation,” is a puzzle, but the storyteller shows no interest at all in “how:” only in “why.”  And the answer to “why” is that he wanted to defraud his brother of what he owed him.

Nothing in the story that matters to the storyteller has anything to do with masturbation.  The idea that someone thought that should be ripped out of the story and presented as God’s Commandment would be abhorrent if it were not so silly.

For anyone who was taught what I was taught about “Onanism,” this return of the narrative to its rightful course can be a relief, it can be funny, it can be a downpayment on other, more important, thingshaggis 4 a scholarly approach to the Bible can offer.  So what I will actually be looking for—my “when will we know when we are done question”—will almost certainly be related to those realizations and the feelings that go with them.  Relief.  Incredulity.  Maybe anger for a little while.  Hilarity.  

Those are all good and they are all ways of tracking my success in offering the kind of course I want to offer.  So…thanks, Steve.

[1]  I’d like for you to think of that in the most literal way.  You’ve all watched the 400 meter hurdles and you know that running into hurdles is not the way to victory as a rule.

[2]  I have seen deep-fried haggis patties on a menu.

[3]  Which is currently scheduled for week two.

[4]  This requires a more thorough consideration of levirate marriage than I want to try here, but you can get the rudiments in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

[5]  He raised it as an appropriate “exit question” but the form of the question I am using is biographically significant to me so I changed the form a little.

[6]  And had confirmed in college by some very bright conservative professors.  I didn’t actually come to the crisis of rejecting it until I was nearly 30 years old.

[7]  That’s the King James Version as I remember it.  The New Jerusalem Bible has it as “let it go to waste whenever he joined with his brother’s wife.”

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