Reading the Hard Way

There are so many reasons to like Elizabeth Bennet. In Chapter 13 of Pride and Prejudice, she faces a very tough opponent. Her prejudice. [1] She is reading a letter from a man [Darcy] who has shown only contempt for her and in the letter, she is reading thoroughly damning charges against a man [Wickham] who courted her esteem very skillfully. You will admit that is a very difficult situation for anyone. It takes all of Elizabeth’s considerable strength to be willing to give the letter a fair reading, then to draw the conclusions she feels she must draw.

It is a letter that must be read the hard way.

We don’t really need to consider the case that is made. Let’s just follow the action as it unfolds. There is a commitment to fairness that lies behind all the exertions we see here, and an expectation of self control as well. She is amazing.

“With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what happened at Netherfield.”

Although she begins to read with a strong prejudice; nevertheless, she does begin. When she has had all she can take, she folds the letter up. But she takes it up again because “it would not do.” That is not a judgment in favor of her comfort but a commitment to the possibility that these awful criticisms may have some merit.

“His account made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice.”

She does not want to do him justice. Nevertheless, she does want to act in the ways she most values; to behave in accordance with her most important values. And that requires an attempt to do him justice even when she very strongly wants not to.

“…collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham.”

“…and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence.”

It is the attempt to do what she really does not want to do that requires the “collecting herself” and that effort produces the ‘command over herself’ we see in the second quote. It enables her to evaluate independently the meaning of each sentence. One at a time. Is it really possible that the case being made in the letter, a case by a man she despises, is credible even though it is about a man she is attracted to? That is what is at stake.

She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality…

I think Jane Austen does us a favor here by admitting that Elizabeth’s attempts to achieve impartiality probably don’t get quite there. Austen says earlier that that Elizabeth’s feelings were so strong as to be “difficult of definition.” She couldn’t even say with confidence just what she was feeling; the strength of the feelings simply overwhelmed the categories she could confidently use.

Many of [Wickham’s] expressions were still fresh in her memory. She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger and wondered it had escaped her before.

She remembered clearly the self-justification Wickham offered. Given that Wickham’s “countenance, voice, and manner” were so pleasing, she failed to give them the scrutiny she might otherwise have exercised. But now, reading and evaluating each sentence on its own merit, she wondered how it was that Wickham told her all these things given that they had just met.

Every lingering struggle in [Wickham’s] favor grew fainter and fainter..

Here we must remember that Elizabeth continues to struggle to favor Wickham. It is still what she wants. But she also wants to be in command of her faculties and further, she had a commitment to fair judgment. She realizes that she is exercising this commitment well after the evidence was gathered. She is demanding of herself the stringent examination of information she first accepted with simple credulity.

I have such admiration for Elizabeth. We have all been in her place, presented with information we wish to be false. We have not all—certainly I have not—demanded of ourselves the impartiality that costs so much. Why would I do that, we might say. Elizabeth doesn’t even ask that. She is committed to fairness and she understands that that commitment means nothing if she is not in command of herself.

[1] And, although this is not the pride of the title, she does say of herself in this chapter, “I who have prided myself on my discernment…”

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Transparency and Accountability

I have learned to shy away from expressions like “whatever it takes.” When it is dropped into a drama at just the right place and is said in just the right way by just the right person, it sounds pretty good. But right place or wrong, good person or bad, it means what it means.

So what does it mean?

“It” is the accomplishment of the goal at hand. It is easier to feel good about the expression if the goal is a good one, but even if it is a good one, the achievement of a goal will have consequences we cannot foresee.

“Whatever” is intended to accept whatever tactics are required and, as there are bad goals, so there are bad means.


I want to think about transparency today. I want to think of it as an alternative to trust. The people I am most likely to get in trouble with are people who hear me saying that trust is good and transparency is bad. I am not saying that. I am saying that trust is always better when it is justified; transparency is Plan B.

Let me start with marital fidelity. A man trusts his wife to be “faithful to him.” [1] It’s a cheap kind of trust; it presumes her fidelity. His trust is not a conclusion; it is not an intention. It is a presupposition. Then he hears some gossip that his wife has begun to entertain hopes of a relationship with someone else. Because he trusts her, he dismisses the gossip; he refuses to entertain it. [2] Finally, there are not only persistent rumors, but also anomalies in her behavior and these anomalies are consistent with her having an affair.

At that point, he decides that he want to be sure of his wife’s fidelity so he hires a private detective to follow her around and survey her electronic communications. The detective not only finds no reason to doubt the wife’s fidelity, but he also comes up with harmless reasons for the behavioral anomalies. Happy ending, right?

I look at it as the collapse of trust. To continue to trust his wife’s choices and her relationship to him would be a very expensive trust—not at all like the cheap trust he took for granted at the beginning. But now he will always know that he can be assured of his wife’s “fidelity” because he has the reports of the detective to rely on. He no longer trusts her; now he trusts the reports. It is to get to this stark alternative that I skipped over any conversation they might otherwise have had.

In this example, “transparency” is achieved by the surveillance of the detective. There is really no need for a detective. The wife could always have chosen to provide documentary evidence—written, auditory, visual—of where she had been and what she had been doing. You could say that her life is “transparent” to her husband if she did all that, but you might wonder why they are together at all, if such measures are required for him to be confident of their exclusive relationship.

So…is transparency a good thing? Only if it is necessary. [3] Trust is better. It is often argued that transparency is part of a good governance process. It is not a hard point to make in the abstract, but as soon as you begin to apply it to particular circumstances, it gets slippery. What if I need to trust your intentions? Can anything make your intentions transparent to me? It is hard to see how.

Would “accountability” be better?

Not really. It doesn’t take much looking at the word to see the “ability” suffix. If you are able to give an account—you could, should the occasion arise—give an account of your actions. The account you would give would, presumably, answer any questions there were about those actions—or intentions or attitudes or whatever.

Giving those accounts, on the other hand, when there is no need or, many times, no interest, in them, has no value at all. “Accounting” is the name of a necessary and valued profession, so I can’t really use the word here the way I would otherwise, but if it were not, it would be easy to call the giving of accounts no one wants to hear, “accounting.” That would nicely distinguish accounting from accountability. Accountability would mean the ability to give an account of your actions should one be required; accounting would mean the routine giving of accounts whether there was any interest or any need or not.

This strikes me as a sensible distinction, were the words available to make it; everyone would agree that accountability is a good thing but the routine giving of pointless accounts is not. But look what happens when “accountability” is made into a good thing by itself. “The giving of accounts” becomes the right thing to do. The difficulties emerge almost immediately. Once it is detached from an interest in the matter about which an account might be given, there is no way to specify how just how much accountability is good. It is easy to back into the position that because if accountability is good, the more giving of accounts there is, the better for all.

Where does that leave us?

In my mind, transparency and accountability are medicines. The provision for transparency—the ability of relevant members to see the workings of the operation in question—is an unquestioned good. When transparency means that people who have a right to know and who are interest can see the actions they need to know about, I am all for it. Similarly, when accountability means that a person with a public trust can give a satisfying account of their actions when asked, I am all for it.

But without those specifications, “transparency” and “accountability” are no more virtuous than “turning left” or “sitting quietly” or “drinking water.” Those are all things it would be nice to be able to do when the time is right, but they, like transparency and accountability, are not good in themselves.

I think I remember a line that was attributed to William F. Buckley Jr. As I remember it, he commented on the effect of Nixon’s impeachment because of Watergate by saying, “There will be a drawing of morals ’til healthy stomachs retch.” It sounds like Buckley and if you add in all the “-gates” that have followed in its wake, I might agree with him, rather than just relishing the cadence and the vocabulary.

It does capture how I feel about accountability and transparency. Because the actual exercise of these ideas—rather than their simple availability—requires a good reason, they need to be there. They need to be available. They don’t need to be provided any more than I need to have the plumber show up every week to show me that the plumbing in my house is still working properly.

[1] I’ve written a fair amount over the years on what “fidelity” might mean, but here, let’s just say it means not having sex with anyone you are not married to.
[2] I am skipping over any conversation the two of them might have had about it. That would be perfectly appropriate in some circumstances, but I don’t need it here.
[3] On the other hand, see the study by the Mather Institute available on NaCCRA website: “Respondents were asked what they thought were the advantages and disadvantages of providing greater transparency. The most frequent answer was a greater sense of trust in management (91%), followed by an enhanced relationship between management and residents (88%), and increased resident satisfaction (83%)’

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Columbus Day. Again.

I missed Columbus Day again this year. I had to go online to find out if it is still a recognized event. I’ll bet there are still come places in the U. S. that celebrate Columbus Day, possibly places where there a lot of people who still think of themselves as Italian in some significant way.

We do “celebrate” Indigenous People’s Day on the same day when we used to celebrate Columbus Day. Although, as you can tell from the quotation marks I put around the verb, I don’t think we celebrate it. The Biden administration has declared October 10 to be Indigenous People’s Day.

The whole thing has raised some questions in my mind, some serious, some trivial. I’ll let you decide which are which.

Question 1. Is Christopher Columbus an indigenous person? Answer: Of course. He was born to a “people” who had been living in the area we now call Italy for a long time. Everyone is indigenous to somewhere. I see the value of using North America as the context. We can presume the area when we declare some people’s to be indigenous and others not. But no people have lived at any particular place forever. In most cases there is a before and an after. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the time we use to determine indigenousness were the arrival of Christopher Columbus? I think I would like that.

Question 2. What is the best way to celebrate indigenous peoples? I really don’t know. I have a general kind of answer that will have to do for this year. We need to assign them a part in “our national story.” I am not really sure what part. “Innocent Victim” doesn’t seem promising. “Nature Loving Mentors” isn’t much better. It needs to be a part that will add something of value—by that, I mean, something of value to the collectivity as a whole—to the narrative and to increase the likelihood that it will continue to be told.

“The American Story” seems to have become complicated. It has become morally ambivalent and perilous. Some will say, I suppose, that that is just what American history is. Bright parts and dark parts; people and events to be proud of and people to be ashamed of. I suppose. But a story isn’t a history. We need a story. No one tells a history. Even back in my childhood, when there were plenty of Columbus Day Sales, there were no Indigenous Peoples Sales. And there won’t be.

Is there really a way to approach this new conflict? Sure. I recommend, as an example, Stan Freberg’s treatment of the initial confrontation between Columbus and “an Indian Chief.” The Chief speaks “broken English,” of course, but he is wise and he is witty. Someone like this could be put in the story as a standing notice that the people who were already here had something to offer.

It is hard to say just what the chief offers in Freberg’s narrative, but it is clear that he knows what Columbus knows, that they are working off the same script, and that they share the same presuppositions. You might way that will not take us very far, but we aren’t going very far anyway. Maybe it’s worth a try. Here are some examples.

Columbus asks what “you people” eat. The Chief says, “Berries, herbs, natural fruits and organically grown vegetables” (he pronounces it veg-e-tab-eles: four distinct syllables) Columbus says that’s what he thought. That’s why he has come to this country, to build an Italian restaurant. Give people some real food: spaghetti, starch, cholesterol.

He wonders, though, if there is room for a parking lot. “You kidding?” the Chief responds. “Whole country is parking lot.”

They finish the skit by having Columbus tell the Chief he is a little short of the cash he would need to buy a property for the restaurant, but if the Chief will direct him to the nearest bank, he will get a check cashed. “You out of luck today,” says the Chief, “Bank closed.”

“Oh….why?” asks Columbus, drawing it out in a way that means to everyone who knows this kind of humor, “OK, hit me with it.” The Chief says, “Columbus Day.” There is a long pause and finally “Columbus” says, “We going out on that joke?” The Chief responds, “No, we do reprise of song, that help.” Then, after some thought, they both add, “But not much…”

My view is that Freberg’s picture of the first meeting between Columbus and the indigenous peoples has a lot to recommend it. Not a lot of facts, of course, but a narrative with some value in it.

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Why there is no such word as “illability.”

Some years ago, I had a discussion with my son, Doug, about the kind of seating one might want in the front seat of a car. He said he preferred bucket seats because they help maintain stability. I’m sure he meant positional stability. I go slightly out of my way to specify that because I suspect we will be talking about other kinds before I finish up this morning.

I didn’t have any particular preference. I may never have thought about it before. I do think a fair amount about words, though, and something moved me to say that I preferred bench-style seats [1] because they help maintain lability. [2] I said that because I had the sudden intuition about the way the words were related to each other. The more stability, the less lability. The more lability, the stability.

And right after that, I realized that words are very seldom used like that. One of them becomes the idealized notion; the good end of the spectrum. And then deviations from it keep that notion. So we would say “instability,” as if “stable” were a good thing and therefore, “unstable” was a bad thing.

But that is true only if you keep the original image. What I did in my reply to Doug was to introduce another image, therefore another idealized notion, therefore another spectrum with another “good end.” So if “lability”—the tendency to slip easily along the bench seat—is a good thing, then you can keep that same image and prepare to complain about the loss of lability. There isn’t actually an English word for that from this family of words which makes this flight of fancy particularly valuable. I suggest illability, by analogy with illegality. [I think I begin to see something in Doug’s preference for bucket seats.]

The availability of such a word would have allowed me to complain about the pernicious illability of bucket seats using the same word model that Doug had used to complain about the instability of bench seats.

That was a long time ago; somewhere on the order of 30 years. And I still don’t care anything about bucket or bench seats, but the relationship of the words as anchoring different spectrums caught my interest at the time and interests me still. This is, after all, a relationship of relative values. I say “relative values” because absent context, there is no reason to prefer the one to the other. If you were stringing beads on a string to make a necklace and you found one that just wouldn’t go where you wanted it to go, would you really call it “stable.” Of course not. If the presupposition of the task is that slipping beads along the string is the goal, you will want a way or relating words (and therefore values) to each other that presumes the goal. So the good beads have “lability.”

So what Doug and I were really doing was presupposing some good state of affairs (slipping around, not slipping around) and naming the scale, the whole scale, according to that preference. Doug’s scale would go from stable to unstable. Mine would have gone from labile to illabile (had there been such a word at the time). Doug would have said that what I was calling “illabile” was actually just “unstable.” In doing that, he would move the word from my spectrum of meaning to his. I would have said—did say, actually, although I didn’t notice at the time—that what he was calling “stable” was just illability, moving the word from his spectrum to mine.

Had this gone on, he would, in time, have accused me of importing euphemisms, as if “labile” were just a good-sounding word for “unstable.” Had he done so, I would have accused him, in turn, of importing dysphemisms, as if “unstable” were just a good-sounding word for “labile.”

There is some sense in that argument, but the difference between a good-sounding word and a bad-sounding word is a small difference compared to the difference between the spectrums they represent. Doug chose a stability-emphasizing spectrum and what is a good word and what a bad word are controlled by that choice. I chose—pretended to choose, actually—a lability-emphasizing spectrum and what is a good word and a bad word are controlled by that choice.

Everything OK so far?

This substitution of one value dimension for another is the commonest thing in the world. There is a good reason for that. In many areas of discourse, the choice of value dimension which is crucial, tends to be invisible, whereas the choice of words, which reside on that dimension, are prominent.

I have heard Paul Simon’s excursion into African music—or African settings, at least, featuring African vocalists and styles—excoriated as “cultural appropriation.” Had he not gone that way, he could have been accused of “a music of racial purity,” or, more simply, of “racism.” You would have to know a lot more than I do about cultures and music to determine what, if any, merit there might be to those charges. My point is simply that “appropriation” [3] defines the category. In this context, it means “stealing.” Any word you want to use that falls along the spectrum defined by “appropriation” will bear the marks the the spectrum. People who think Simon’s venture into African music was more like a tribute to another musical tradition have not only substituted one judgment for another, but one spectrum for another. “Tribute” anchors another spectrum entirely.

This could go a lot further, as you can probably see, but let me bring it to a close by referring to a common clash of spectrums in contemporary politics. Then-President Trump made his demand of Vice President Pence on the grounds that Pence should be a “stand-up guy.” He was asking Pence to subvert the election process, to violate his oath of office, and to deny the certification of the votes of the citizens of the U. S.

You could start a spectrum at the “treasonous” end and then back slowly away. How treasonous was it? Not THAT treasonous. Trump began with another spectrum entirely, a “personal loyalty” spectrum. A “stand up guy” will do whatever he is asked to do at whatever cost to himself because of his loyalty to the cause, if there is a cause, or to the leader. As a matter of values, “treasonous” assesses the relationship between the formal demands of allegiance to the Constitution, while “stand-up guy” assesses the relationship between the dutiful follower and the leader. There is no point, in other words, in arguing (except in the context of a trial court) whether Pence was being urged to commit treason or to be a stand-up guy. Those are not terms that fall on the same spectrum at all. It is the choice of the spectrum that determines the value.

Pence’s choice, it turns out, was between moral lability and moral stability. Once the spectrum is chosen, which words are “good words” will not even be debated.

[1] If that is the right term, I am pretty sure he provided it later. It doesn’t seem very likely that I would have had it handy and I’ve told this story a lot of times since then.
[2] We get the word from the Latin verb
labi, meaning “to slip;” not always in a physical sense. The adjective form, labilis, means “prone to lapse,” which doesn’t sound like a physical term. We do have “collapse” for that.
[3] As is often the case, the origin of the word gives a clue to the path it has traveled to make itself available to us. This one comes from the Latin verb
propriare, meaning “to take as one’s own.” It was originally a financial term, but you can see how attractive it is as a token of cultural warfare.

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A fairly high proportion of the people who read this blog like words. Not just the efficient or elegant use of words, but also the words themselves. I understand that; I am like that myself

To those people, I offer this morning a choice of problems. You could either work out an understanding that would keep the people who find out that I teach a collection of Bible studies from flinching and hurrying to change the subject. That’s one. That’s the Mission Impossible version.

The other is to think of something else to call them. I am working on an acronym of sorts. I have gotten as far as ANERT (hence the title, as if this faux adjective were kin to a faux noun). As far as I have it so far, this would mean Ancient Near Eastern Religious Texts. It would be much more useful, of course, if I could come up with a different first letter: I am thinking of an I. That would open up all kinds of playful possibilities.

But I can’t think of an appropriate word beginning with I. It’s pathetic, really.

And that is the reason I keep drifting back to the first problem. I don’t mind calling these gatherings of friends and colleagues “Bible studies.” In fact, of the three I teach, one of them is a part of a church and I don’t get as much of a flinch there as elsewhere. But even in church, the difficulty is not what we do when we meet, it is what the expression “Bible study” calls up to the people who hear it.

It reminds me very much of a cartoon I once saw in which two guys are waiting for a bus. One is wearing a tee shirt that says LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS. “Oh no,” he says to the other guy. “I’m not really religious. But this guarantees that I will have a seat to myself.”

In fact, the two Bible studies I teach that are not associated with a church are secular studies.[1] They are not more than studies of ancient Near Eastern religious texts except that all the texts come from the Old Testament or the New Testament. Let me illustrate. The three I am teaching or preparing to teach are: a) Foundational Myths, b) Mark and Matthew, and c) Post-exilic Politics.

Foundation Myths is a study of eight stories—beginning with the Creation in Genesis 1:1 and ending just before Exodus 1:8, which describes the coming to power of a “a new king which knew not Joseph” (in the King James version that everybody in my generation grew up on). A “myth” is the story that a “people” tells because it selects and preserves something out of their past that enables them to be the people they are trying to be. It is a “foundation” myth because these people build things on it.

Mark and Matthew is a study of the changes Matthew makes in Mark’s text which, as we picture the situation for the purposes of studying it analytically, sits on Matthew’s desk. The changes are obvious; especially the omissions. But just why Matthew makes these changes is hard to explain. We’re working on it. Why, for instance does Matthew take a text where Mark says that Jesus was not able to do any miracles in Nazareth and change it to “did not do many miracles there.” Why the change? That’s what we work on.

Post-exilic Politics is a study of just how the Jews who returned to Canaan from their captivity in Babylon set about organizing their society so that God would not punish them again. They had about 150 years of prophetic announcements that told them that if they didn’t get their act together—didn’t organize their public life and their private lives so that they were in accord with the character of Yahweh who rescued their ancestors from Egypt (see Myth #8 above) they were going to get “punished.” Or “undergo the cure” as later prophets understood it.

But “politics” is the organization of public life so that various valued goods—wealth and power at one end of the scale and fertility and social status at the other end—are distributed as they should be. The seductions of power are just as real as the Jews come back into their old homeland as they were before they got expelled from it. How to organize the cultic practices and the property laws and commerce and judicial proceedings so that they are “fair” or at least tolerable. Those are the problems Ezra and Nehemiah, a priest and a diplomat, worked on.

Now I ask you, what is there about those really interesting problems that has the effect that the LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS tee shirt has? I have not idea. But it does.

So there you are. I need for you to change the way people react to the expression “Bible study.” Or, if that is not your problem of choice, to come up with a good word beginning with I that will enable me to call these courses INERT. You remember…the near-eastern religious texts. So whichever one you choose, do good work and let me know if you get lucky.

[1] One involves a collection of my fellow residents at the Senior Center where my wife and I live. The other involves a collection of very good students—and now good friends—whom I met when they were undergraduates at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and I was trying to teach them political psychology. That was 40 years or so ago and this new project allows us to work together again after all these years.

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Identifying with Nicodemus

Identification—who or what you identify with—is a major determinant of how things seem to you. Everybody knows that. It would seem obvious, then, that changing “who you identify with,” would produce big changes in how you understand what you see and what you hear.

And it does.

But changing who you identify with isn’t as easy as you might think. I’m going to get around to John’s treatment of Nicodemus in John, Chapter 3, but I want to play a little with identification first.

I heard a story long ago about a father who wanted to take his son to see a popular movie about Christians in Rome. Unfortunately, part of what was shown was the slaughter of Christians by lions in the arena. The father told his son about what was going to happen and assured him it was OK, it was just a story. But when the scene began, the son began tugging on the father’s sleeve. “Daddy, look at the little lion.” The father tried to quiet him, “We already talked about this, son. It’s only a movie.”

This happened several more times. If you are telling this story and if you have the time, make this part of the story come around several times. It builds up our appreciation of the father’s frustration. Then, finally, the father says, “What is it, son?” It is his chance, finally. “Daddy, look at the little lion. He ain’t gettiin’ any!”

So take a minute and think what that long-familiar “Christians in the arena” scene would mean to someone whose highest hope was that even the little lions would get something to eat; that they would not be forced to watch the bigger lions get it all. The father did all the explaining he could, but he did not attach the son’s interest firmly to the poor Christian martyrs, suffering for their faith, and move it off the fate of the poor little lion. It doesn’t matter to the story, but it is not hard to imagine that the son is on the small side himself and has to face the possibility that the bigger kids—bigger brothers?—are going to get all the good stuff and leave him nothing.

Just a guess.

When I study the first of the Discourses in the gospel of John, I might think I have my choice about who to identify with. I see three possibilities. Jesus, Nicodemus, and John. If you were raised in church, you already know that you ought to identify with Jesus, but what if you don’t like him? He talks funny. He’s not nice at all to Nicodemus. And the fact that you are supposed to like him best might not help. Particularly it will not help if, after a lifetime spent with this tension, you try to identify with someone else.

You might try to identify with Nicodemus, but there isn’t much Nicodemus to relate to. He is a stage prop. His only real function, apart from representing a possibly pro-Jesus faction of the Pharisees, is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying and, by that means, open up the next topic Jesus wants to address. If you do manage to identify with him, it is with his role as a victim. “Victim” gives a moral cast to the transaction. It is hard to identify with a stage prop.

Of, after you have been exposed to a number of scholarly treatments of this Discourse, you might try to identify with John. That’s where I am at the moment. That’s why I know how hard it is to change earlier identifications. John has to present Jesus as someone you could understand and follow. Nicodemus can’t, but you can. So you can join in the general laugher when Nicodemus is struck nearly dumb with the idea that Jesus is instructing this grown man to get back inside his mother’s body and come out again through the birth canal. Nicodemus says, “Surely you jest!” and we are supposed to think that he should have understood what Jesus really meant.

But what if you don’t understand, either, just how Jesus’ answer was a good one. That’s not on Jesus; that’s on John. It’s easier in Greek, the language in which the gospel was written. The word Jesus uses, the one Nicodemus hears as “born” can mean that; it can also mean “begotten.” And the word Jesus uses, the one Nicodemus hears as “again” can also mean “from above.” So “born again,” wrong as it is in the context of this conversation, is perfectly plausible and it isn’t wrong…exactly. But what Jesus clearly means—the understanding that fits naturally into the other things he is saying to Nicodemus—leans strongly toward “begotten from above.” It is the Heavenly Father who begets; it is from Him that the life comes.

Following the scholarly route, you can say that John is trying present Jesus as “the one from heaven,” and being the one from heaven, he speaks the heavenly language, he assumes the heavenly perspective. By giving to Jesus expressions that will be misunderstood by people whose minds are not ready but that will be the best news ever to those to whom the truth is revealed, John is saying something about Jesus. Jesus is Other. He is “not like us.” He is Someone to whom we can aspire.

If I had to guess, I would guess that as a communications strategy, that fit the audience John had in mind. Jesus is to be aspired to. One sign that you, the listener, are “begotten from above” is that you understand what Jesus means. And if you don’t, entirely, you want to. What, after all, are the implications if you do not?

That’s not really how a modern audience comes at the question. We hold that the speaker has the burden of communication and if we have not understood, the speaker has failed. You could think of Jesus of the speaker. It would be hard for a child not to and if they did, it would be hard to change later on. It’s more an emotional wound than a cognitive judgment. Or you could think of John as the “speaker,”—it is John who has chosen this mode of communication as a way to represent a crucial truth about Jesus. So if it doesn’t work, it’s on John. It didn’t work for Nicodemus, for sure. So we can criticize John for having chosen a communication strategy that doesn’t work as well twenty centuries later as it did at the time. You could, that is, if you could stop feeling sorry for Nicodemus. He is, after all, the “little lion” from the movie and saying that he just doesn’t get it is not all that different from saying that he isn’t getting any, even the leftovers.

I had hoped that I would be able to write this so that it was less transparently autobiographical than it has turned out to be. I am at the place in the process where I am trying to appreciate what John’s problem as a writer really is and to assess how well he does at this difficult problem. He needs to present Jesus as Truly Other, but yet as telling a truth we can come to understand and live by. That requires that we aspire to understand the speaker, when the current fashion is to critique the speaker for whatever part we don’t understand at the first pass.

I believe the truth of what Jesus says, as nearly as I understand it. I feel with Nicodemus. He had a tough night. I hope his wife didn’t ask him, when he got home in the early hours, how it went. I have a dawning appreciation for John’s strategy. It is daring, even for his people in his time, let alone for my people in my time. I find myself trying on, and then abandoning, other strategies he might have tried.

And the more such strategies turn out to be failures, the more willingly I turn back to what John actually did and I think, “You know, that a lot better than I thought it was at first.”

I’ll keep trying. If it starts to work better, I’ll let you know.

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What are school boards for?

If you look at an ordinary school district, you see the professional providers organized in the expected way. That’s what the “professional” part provides. The teachers are the subject matter experts and the de facto social workers. The administrators organize the teaching staff and, in the best of circumstances, set school-wide goals attractive enough to affect the choices made by the teachers. The unions represent the interests of the teachers so that the administrators have to keep an eye on their collective welfare.

The nonprofessionals—the political context of the school district—are the school board. They are the Congress of the district, chosen by the voters of keep an eye on things, levy taxes, adopt regulations and the support educational success as the voters in their district define educational success.

I have taken a little time with the structure because it is now coming under concerted strategic attack by conservative idealogues. School board elections have been local affairs. The candidates are voted for mostly on the basis of wanting to keep things the way they are, to change things, or to keep them the way they are but pay less money for it. Not any more.

Under Steve Bannon’s guidance, the conservatives are are funding ideologically conservative school board candidates. The issues they are using are standard issue “resentment of liberals” issues. “They threw God out of the schools,” the conservatives have been saying, so the new candidates want to put God back in the schools. “In God we trust” posters are now required in these schools. The recent emphasis on the perversion of American history we levied on ourselves with the encouragement of slavery—now crystalized in Critical Race Theory—is to (See ) be ignored because it is “divisive.” Certainly it is that. Sexual variations from the standard bipolar set are not to be accommodated, even by the provision of restrooms.

In short, the new well-funded candidates for school board seats are conservative ideologues. What interest they have in educational quality in their district is not a part of the campaign for office. They are running for the school board as if they were running for Congress.

It almost goes without saying that the left wing and the center could contest these seats by the same means. They could fund and run candidates that represent their take on the issues that have been brought to the fore by the conservatives. You could oppose forcing religious practices on students who were unwilling to adopt them. That is what the Supreme Court did in its liberal phase. The conservatives would call it “keeping God out of the schools” but now the question would be “or do you think we should force students to adopt religious practices?” I think the public by and large would just like that one to go away.

The same for the study of the effects of race on U. S. history and American character. Some very negative things can be said—they have been said—in a way that points to a less racist more inclusive direction for the future. The whole notion of what is “divisive” is very thin; these things used to be called “controversial” and the teacher’s job was to find a way to engage the students in dealing with the controversy.

Would that work? Yes it would, in the very limited sense that all the battles for school board positions would be turned into proxy battles for ideological victories at the national level. It would get down to the “we win some and they win some.” [The picture from my very own school district, Portland Public Schools.]

But I don’t call it working because such elections are no longer, even marginally, about how the school board is to perform as the elected supervisory body of the district. If the ideological charges are highly salient and the educational issues are only visible at the margins of public attention, then running for a board position on an educational issue is just a sure fire way to lose.

When you look at the problem I have sketched out as a balance of issues, it is clear that local voters are either going to have to care a lot less about ideological warfare or a lot more about the education of their children. It’s hard to see how that will work out.

One possibility—not a very attractive one, I admit—is to have a “meta-campaign.” That would be a campaign about what kind of campaign to have. So one candidate starts out on the ideological ground along the lines of…oh…make America a Christian nation again. The other candidate doesn’t oppose the proposition, they instead call attention to what kind of campaign his opponent is running. “Look,” the second candidate says, “My opponent wants to rile up the district with ideological warfare, when what we really need is schools that will meet our children’s need for education.”

The point of the first candidate is that you should vote for them because they believe in…oh…Truth, Justice, and the American Way (TJAW). The point of the second candidate is that you should vote, instead, for them because they want the campaign to be based on educational issues. The first candidate accuses the second of being unpatriotic; the second candidate accuses the first of being a dangerous zealot.

The good outcome for the educational candidate requires the votes of the district to put aside the sugar high of ideological rectitude and vote for school board candidates based on what kind of education they want for their children. That is asking a lot of these parents, but it is hard to see how we can hope for an education-related outcome (of a school board election!) by asking for less.

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The grass withers, the flower fades…

There is an activity that characterizes every age group. There is an age when all your friends are getting married and getting jobs. There is an age when they are all having children and getting promotions. And then the one when they are all retiring and planning, or in some cases, actually taking, vacation trips. It’s the bucket list era. Then there’s the age when they are mostly dying.

Now if you are old, like me, and if you are an attentive reader like me, you will want to point out that at the age I am referring to, the bucket list and the dying off are both prominent activities. That is true and I find my attention moving back from one to the other. One is in the foreground; the other in the background. Then they trade places. But always, both are true.

The Recycle Box

I had an experience recently that put the dying part in the foreground. This is what it was. Recently three people have died who were members of the choir at my church or notable friends of the choir. The choir is not called upon to sing at memorial services as a rule, but these three were “our people” so we did. That’s three quick reminders that death needs to be thought about.

For each of the services, the choir director prepared a packet of music. We put it in a three ring binder and used that binder for rehearsals and for the service. That’s not just a detail in this account. I want you to be able to see ahead of time what came to me only in the moment. That’s important because it is the moment I want to tell you about.

We finished the music we were asked to sing and at the end of the service, we went back to the choir room. If we had been using music from our regular files, we would have put it back on the table so it would be there when we needed it next. But this packet was a one-time use and when that event was over, we would have no further use of it. Ever. So I popped the binder open and took out the contents and dumped them in the recycle bin.

I could still hear in my active memory what had been said about this person at his memorial service. He was an avid golfer or a respected physician or a long time member of the church. The widows in both cases sat in the service listening to these words. And then I clicked open the binder and dumped the contents in the recycle bin. “Well,” I thought, “That’s that.” All perfectly appropriate.

Then I had a quick vision of another choir member doing that same thing with the materials that had been printed out for my memorial service. I have held, as had the members of the church whose lives we had just celebrated, a number of positions of trust. I have made friends and enemies. I have worked consistently at what I think of as the work I have been given to do. That’s how I experience my own life as a rule. But for that moment, I experienced it as that choir member will and as I, myself, did so recently. It goes into the recycle bin so the binder will be ready for the next one.

Nothing I have written here has come as news to me. When I began by saying that there is an “everybody’s doing it” phase to every age, I knew I was going to say that dying is one of the two that belong to my age. But there are moments when you experience that phase with extraordinary clarity. This was one of those. For that moment and several that followed it, there were not the two views whose reality I am committed to, but only the one view. Finish the service and dump the papers in the recycle bin.

That is why, if I can find a way to arrange it, I will have a piece from Brahms’ German Requiem sung at my service. Brahms set a text from Isaiah to some striking music. I am not fool enough to try to convey the music to you except in this one way. The text (Isaiah 40:8) goes like this: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains for ever.’

There are two sentiments there; one before the word “but” and one after. The section before sounds like a dirge. It is slow and pulsating; the tympani go on and on (and on) with the same five stroke pattern, Then, after a pause, the choir erupts fortissimo, “…but the word of our God remains forever.” I want it in German because I learned to care about it is German. “..aber des Herrn Wort bleibet, bliebet in Ewigheit!“

The experience with the Requiem and the experience with the recycle bin are both true and I value them both. On behalf of the choir member, I know there will be another service next week and the space in the binder will be needed for the new music. For me—if I am the guest of honor—or for my friend whose service we just sang, it is true that the word of the Lord abides forever.

Since, in my judgment, both are true, I think it is perfectly appropriate that I feel each one and the occasion presents itself.

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Frederick Buechner’s gift

In his column in this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks reflects on the life of Frederick Buechner, the much beloved writer who died this week. Buechner was an ordained minister and you could almost tell that from the push and pull in his writing. He couldn’t leave faith commitment alone, but he also couldn’t say what it was. In all fairness, he didn’t really try to. He told stories.

Brooks recalls, as many memorialists will this week, Buechner’s description of his conversion. He was attending, “a church service in New York where the pastor was talking about how Jesus is crowned ‘amid confession, tears and great laughter.’ At the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.”

It seems completely appropriate to me that is was a verbal expression that tripped the switch for Buechner. There was a lot of other stuff going on in his life, of course, but had George Buttrick, the preacher that morning, chosen another way of saying that, the switch would not have been tripped. Maybe somewhere else at some other time, but not there and then.

That seems just right to me. I had that experience reading Buechner. Here is a passage from Lion Country to which I responded as Buechner did: “tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.”

The main character in Lion Country, Antonio Parr, is having an LSD-fueled vision. In it, the roast pig they had had for dinner is chasing him across a dry and barren land. He isn’t fast, but he won’t stop. Finally Tono stops running and the dead pig trots up to him and drops a silver dollar out of its mouth into his hand. Then this happens.

“On the dollar there was something written, and—how do I say it? What was written on it wasn’t Antonio Parr or Tono or Bopper or Sir or any of the other names I’ve been called by various people at various times in my life, and yet it was my name. It was a name so secret that I wouldn’t tell it even if I remembered it, and I don’t remember it. But if anybody were ever to show up and call me by it, I’d recognize it in a second, and the chances are that if the person who called me by it gave me the signal, I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.”

I got as far as “if anybody were…to call me by it…I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.” Then I just put the book down and sat there and sobbed. Buechner wrote a lot of competent prose and he told some good stories, but if he had written nothing but that paragraph, he would occupy an honored niche in my private hall of fame.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 (12b) “Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.” That’s really it, isn’t it? To be fully known. Paul places it here in the context of the last days, or, as he puts it, “then.” It is that moment that Buechner captures with the notion that he has a secret name. It is secret even from him. He doesn’t know what it is. But if he hears it, nothing else will matter at all.

Buechner’s way of casting the story of “the name” is powerful. And for me, it is primary. I mean that I know where he got the idea. He got it the same place I got it. Look at this from Revelation 2:17.

“Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: to those who prove victorious I will give some hidden manna and a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the person who receives it.”

A new name. That means a new identity. A name known only to the person who receives it. If you were given a new name—your true name—wouldn’t you follow the one who spoke it to the ends of the earth?

But when I say Buechner’s language is powerful, I mean that for me, I now read about the white stone with Tono’s experience in mind. That’s how vivid it is for me. And that is Frederick Buechner’s gift to me. And to a lot of other people.

The man had a gift and it required words.

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I saw this word for the first time this week and my heart leaped upward! “At last!” I said.

Let’s leave my heart’s upward mobility aside for a little bit and look at what is happening here. I want to place it on the linguistic level and also on the historical scale.


The linguistic part is easy, even if it may be unfamiliar. There is a Greek verb izein, meaning, roughly, to make or do. Those core verbs are notoriously general in meaning. This verb is the source of the English suffix -ize, which means to make something into something it had not previously been. Think of uses like hypnotize and plagiarize. If you can mange it, do not think of “hide your eyes,” which Tom Lehrer introduced as a nice rhyme for plagiarize.

But as simple as it is, it is also fundamental. This suffix gives us a way to say that something was that and have been made into this. [1] The problem comes with people who will want to say that it was always this. It has not been “changed into this;” it has not been “ized.” In this case, I think they are wrong.

I hope that part is clear. That was the easy part.


The place that slavery has held in the teaching of history in the public schools has been a front of the culture wars for a very long time. When I was teaching history in an elementary school in the early ‘60s, I tried and failed to get a copy of an American History text made for use in southern schools. I had been told that the American story as it bore on race, on states’ rights, and on the Civil War, was told in very different ways than northern texts tell it. Almost certainly true, but I couldn’t get a copy.

A recent article in The Hedgehog by Johann Neem describes the current state of this front in the war. There has been an account of American history called the 1619 Project and a response, a contrasting perspective ginned up during the last days of the Trump administration, called the 1776 Report. To oversimplify each of these oversimplifications in turn, the first says that American history is based on the moral blot of slavery and nothing else; the second says that it is based on the aspirations of the early patriots—liberty, justice, and freedom for some—and nothing else.

Neem wants to begin to talk about an “adequate history.” I think that is an important step in the right direction.

Is there a way to tell an honest story about our past, one that squarely faces the history of race and exploitation without evasion? Most Americans think so. In contrast with the narrow understanding of American history offered by the post-Americans (the 1619 crowd) on one hand, and reactionary nationalists (1776) , on the other, it is the belief of most Americans that the United States is a flawed but worthy nation. [2]

That’s what Americans want, according to a lot of polls by a lot of organizations. But, speaking as a former history teacher here, this lopsided preference that “the truth be told” is not a willingness to be the people who tell it. It is a preference that someone else tell it.

At this point Neem follows William McNeill in making a distinction I think is too much and one I think will not be successful. Here is what Neem says:

The question is what kind of history do we want—and need—to have. The answer determines what we teach in our schools. In other words, we are arguing over what the historian William McNeill called “mythistory.”

“Facts,” McNeill wrote, do not “in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past…. To become a history, facts have to be put together into a pattern that is understandable and credible.”

going to save it. His point is about what facts are for. The real problem, according to Neem, “,,,arises in the organization of the facts. One cannot have history without facts, but one cannot put facts together without a conception of history.”

Yes. That is crucial. But I would like to see us get all that work done just using “narrative.” The narrative of our nation is what we want to teach and it is the sense of who we are that strengthens us or weakens us. The facts that support the narrative need to be true, of course, but there are lots of other true facts we are not using. When Sen. Moynihan famously said that no one was entitled to his own facts, he misspoke. He meant that you couldn’t just make them up. But he could not have meant that you couldn’t choose the ones that best supported your narrative. It is what he did, after all.

So I don’t want to follow McNeill into “mythistory.” I have just given one reason. Here is the other reason. No history is going to work if the nation’s people don’t want to tell it. It has to be appealing and it needs to be a narrative you can tell in public. It has to be a narrative that will pass muster with people who would prefer to substitute their own private narrative, but who support your telling because they know there is no other single narrative that will do the just that has to be done.

This is, in other words, “the narrative we have agreed to tell and to support in public.” It is a narrative we like to tell, even though we have a private subgroup narrative that we also tell in the appropriate circumstances.

That’s where we need to wind up. Rejecting the principled hocus pocus of the 1776 Project is a good start. Rejecting the racialization of American history at the heart of the 1619 Project is also a good start. But if there is not a story we want to tell, neither of those will be enough.

[1] Just so we don’t get distracted, the same transformation is going on in Latin using the verb facere, which shows up in English as -ify. Think of words like “sanctify” or “reify.”
[2] Johann N. Neem, “A Usable Past for a Post-American Nation”

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