Sacrificing Our Sacred Cows: Rethinking the Literary Canon in Secondary English

white ceramic man head bust      person holding opened book

In my class, I refer to literature in two categories: Real Lit and Junk Lit. Real Lit means texts that you need to unpack, that have layers, that speak to the human condition. Junk Lit is mostly comprised of those free titles on the Amazon e-books list—you read them fast, but never tell anyone, and they have catchy titles like, Southern Peach Pie and a Dead Guy (yes, that is a real book that I did really read, and it was hilarious!). (Orepitan, 2019)

For decades now the English language arts has been challenging its own standards for what books make their way into the classroom. The canon has been under fire for its lack of inclusive voices (traditionally dead, white males have formed the English canon) as well as its lack of relevance to modern issues or modern reading preferences. (In what other high school subject do you intentionally read so much “outdated” material besides the occasional excerpts of primary sources?)

However, I resonate with Vikki Orepitan’s statement above. If given their way, a lot of kids would probably just settle for “Junk Lit,” right? I personally love many of the classics. And these are classics we’re talking about, known for their timelessness and universality! These have been treasured texts in English classrooms for years. Our contemporary literature can even trace their own ancestry back to these foundational stories. Maybe students won’t like them now, but they’ll appreciate them when they’re older! (We say this like we would upon lecturing our own children, but let’s be honest, is that really the philosophy  we want associated with a passionate, voracious consumption of reading? And are you catching the blatant fallacy of appealing to tradition?)

When I’m being honest, though, it’s not that my own personal reading is mired only in the classics. I do enjoy reading classics during my free time (much to the dismay of students, friends, and even my wife), but that’s not all I read. Like the rest of the world, I too am waiting for Patrick Rothfuss to finish his Kingkiller Chronicles. I’m a fan of Stephen King novels. I try to keep up with Pulitzer prize winning fiction (currently reading the 2020 winner Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead). In fact, after finishing a dense classic, I’m usually intentional about finding more light reading. And if I’m being really honest, I wasn’t absolutely in love with my reading material in high school (my love for classic literature blossomed late in college, echoing the experience of Donald R. Gallo cited below). And if I’m being really, really honest, the last semester of my senior year, I used Sparknotes as a replacement for every one of my reading assignments. (I was overwhelmed by my high school commitments as a high-achieving, college-bound, student, so when I actually ended up scoring the highest I had all year on a test for a book that I had only studied the Sparknotes for, I was addicted.) So why don’t I extend this same grace to my students? Do I really expect them to read classics in class and supplement that reading material with Junk Lit on their own time? That’s a little naive on my part. And what if other scholars and experienced teachers are actually backing the need to rethink the canon?

In his article “How Classics Create an Aliterate Society,” Donald R. Gallo defines aliteracy by stating that “We are a nation that teaches its children how to read in the early grades, then forces them during their teenage years to read literary works that most of them dislike so much that they have no desire whatsoever to continue those experiences into adulthood” (2001, p. 34). This grim indictment is followed up by pointing to a study in Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books which concluded that, though teacher objectives point to a desire to increase reader enthusiasm and appreciation of great works, curriculum is set up to accomplish the opposite (Gallo, 2001, p. 35). Furthermore, in Workshopping the Canon, Mary E. Styslinger indicates a 2013 NAEP report (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that notes more than 60 percent of middle and high school students scored below the proficient level in reading achievement (2017, p. 2). However, she goes on to point out that recent research has highlighted that “We have discovered that many of our students possess secret literacy lives, not always evident or valued in schools,” particularly YA literature (p. 2). For Styslinger, this information has helped her develop a workshopping approach to better connect students to reading that matters. Perry and Stallworth take up this challenge as well:

Certainly, some of the works students are asked to read should mirror their own experiences. However, the reading curriculum must also reflect our global society, and to ignore the impact of technology on today’s young adolescents would be a disservice, given that media is endemic in the way our students interact on a daily
basis. As Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2011) state: “It is not possible to adequately prepare students for reading and writing in the twenty-first century without integrating new literacies into the everyday life of today’s classrooms” (p. 29). (2013, p. 16)

Additionally, Beach et al. point to several studies and examples in which students are reading in new and innovative ways.

Meanwhile, researchers in the field of literacy (e.g., Jocson, 2013; Vasuevan, 2006/2007) have documented the diversity of adolescents’ literate practices, from slam poetry (Fisher, 2007), to engagement with comics and graphica (Low, 2012; Simon, 2012), young adult novels (Hayn & Kaplan, 2012), or digital storytelling (Hull & Katz, 2006). As young adult author Sherman Alexie (2011) notes, teenagers continue to engage with ideas and texts “because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books–especially the dark, and dangerous ones–will save them.” (Beach et al., 2016)

Thus, research clearly indicates that students are reading; they simply aren’t very interested in reading the material offered in class, and they continue to be in need of growing in their overall reading achievement. In her article at Edutopia, journalist and author Holly Korbey mentions an APA study which indicates an alarming trend in pleasure reading among high school seniors: a decrease from 60% in the late ’70s to 16% in 2016 (2018). She goes on to mention this growing concern among educators:

On social media, teachers are adamant about the risks of an uncritical devotion to the classics. Some teachers have argued that these concerns are especially pertinent for children of color, who are less likely to be represented in traditionally selected texts. Though U.S. classrooms are rapidly diversifying—in just a few years, half of American students will be students of color—the English literature canon, many argue, has remained mostly unchanged and mostly white. (hyperlink in the original)

Korbey goes on to highlight the trend towards student choice in reading as a means to stimulate interest. Thus, to summarize the research in this post, the following should be considered in future ELA curriculum design:

  1. Reading material should incorporate digital and other innovative modes that reflect the type of reading that students are doing in the 21st century.
  2. Reading material should encourage pleasure reading outside of the classroom.
  3. Reading material should reflect student choice to varying degrees.
  4. Reading material should champion underrepresented voices.

In addition to these curriculum suggestions, other methods and strategies will continue to come to the forefront as research continues. (Check out this recent article about the importance of phonics!) However, it should be clear that no strategy, no push for improvement can really take flight without proper motivation from the reader. As an added bonus, teachers can secretly celebrate to know that scholarly research is backing up what they’ve been afraid to voice all along because it sounds so, well, unscientific: We want reading to be FUN! (I bet every English teacher has a litany of books they’d really like to integrate into the curriculum.)

Some educators have referred to the current state of literacy in the United States as a crisis though others have disputed that label. Nevertheless, the conversation and battle over the formation of the English canon continues to rage. Personally, I wonder at the disservice I do my students by not joining the fray, by not examining my curriculum and asking the hard questions about how to best prepare my students for the future and–as is the passion of every ELA teacher–how to create life-long, passionate readers. What is the cost for not sacrificing my sacred cows? Sacrificing my students instead?

 

References

Beach, R., Appleman, D., Fecho, B.,  & Simon, R. (2016). Teaching Literature to Adolescents. Taylor & Francis.

Gallo, D. (2001). How Classics Create an Aliterate Society. The English Journal, 90(3), 33-39. https://doi.org/10.2307/821305

Korby, H. (2019). The Reading Wars: Choice vs. Canon. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/reading-wars-choice-vs-canon

Lenters, K. (2006). Resistance, struggle, and the adolescent reader. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(2), 136-146. https://doi.org/10.1598/JAAL.50.2.6

Orepitan, V. (2019). NCTE Reads: Reflections from a New Member. National Council of Teachers of English. https://ncte.org/blog/2019/07/ncte-reads-reflection-new-member/

Perry, T. & Stallworth, B. J. (2013). 21st-Century Students Demand a Balanced, More Inclusive Canon. Voices from the Middle, 21(1), 15-18. https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/VM/0211-sep2013/VM0211Century.pdf

Styslinger, M. E. (2017). Workshopping the Canon. National Council of Teachers of English.

 

 

 

The Beauty of Complexity

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Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning book (1975), she writes the following:

The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork–for it doesn’t ….–but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz. (139)

In this profound chapter entitled “Intricacy,” Dillard adroitly explicates the strange details of nature, details so intricate and numerous as to defy reason. As an example, she mentions that “All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine” (134). In another place, she notes, “And it occurs to me more and more that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous” (130). And again: “… even on the perfectly ordinary and clearly visible level, creation carries on with an intricacy unfathomable and apparently uncalled for” (133).

The truth that Dillard is driving at is that even though much of creation has a known and recognizable function, much of it does not. The brightest among us are wringing their hands, are shuffling their feet, looking a little bashful. We “simply don’t know, can’t imagine.” Thankfully, there are those scientists, those discoverers, those revelers in studying the universe that let out a sigh of relief at life’s mysteries. They are satisfied not to know. Or to know that they cannot know. There is a holy reverence of the universe due to our human limits, like an invisible wall declaring, “Try as you may, you shall go no further; indeed, you cannot.” Space is infinitely large, the quantum level simply too small and weird to nail it down with precision. (Check out this BBC article: What Is the Smallest Possible Thing in the Universe?)

But many of us don’t like the mysteries. Everything must fit tidily in the library catalog of the cosmos; every jot and tittle must have a function. However, as Dillard elaborates, “There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say, ‘Now that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’ If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet.’ Is our taste so much better than the creator’s? Utility to the creature is evolution’s only aesthetic consideration” (136, emphasis added).

Everything must have a function. This is why the arts are dying. We can accept a piece of art that has a message. But what about a bowl of fruit? Can we appreciate the expert contours of a master painter, one who bends light and darkness and the perfect amalgamation of color and texture, message-less save for beauty? This is why there’s a whole branch of philosophy dedicated to aesthetics; we simply can’t agree on what to do about it. That’s the mystery, though, that so much of our lives are surrounded by gratuity; it’s inscribed into the infinite. Dillard quotes Thoreau, “‘Nature,’ said Thoreau in his journal, ‘is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work'”  and adds herself that “The creator … churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. This is the point” (128).

Finally, I want to finish my post with this final passage from Dillard’s chapter:

The texture of the world, its filigree and scrollwork, means that there is the possibility for beauty here, a beauty inexhaustible in its complexity, which opens to my knock, which answers in me a call I do not remember calling, and which trains me to the wild and extravagant nature of the spirit I seek.

May we all embrace the spirit of wild, inexhaustible, gratuitous, and extravagant beauty.

 

 

Work cited:

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. HarperCollins, 2007.

10 Years Ago Today: “loos’d of limits and imaginary lines”

*Follow this journey on my former (now inactive) blog: Europe 2010

My memory is hazy since my departure for Europe ten years ago (to the day). I can’t remember all the sensations of saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, laden with my brand new North Face 60 liter backpack, stuffed to the breaking point (I’d really test the limit before the end of my trip by adding several antique books I found at a shop in England) with one pair of jeans, a rain jacket, one fleece shirt, one flannel shirt, a long sleeve body thermal shirt, a pair of thermal leggings, a pair of shorts, a few t-shirts, socks, a pillowcase and sleeping bag liner (just an extra layer between me and the sometimes not-so-thoroughly-washed linens of hostel beds, a suggestion from an REI employee), my toiletry kit which included Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 hemp soap, a journal, a Bible, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (I hadn’t finished the last book). The rest of my travel gear was worn on my body.

I can’t really recall what was on my mind when I boarded the flight. I don’t remember feeling particularly scared. I think maybe it felt surreal, an opportunity I never imagined as a freshly minted 22-year-old college graduate. I didn’t think of myself as particularly adventuresome. My first time out of the country had only been less than four years prior, and my list of foreign travels included only Costa Rica and Mexico (for no more than one week). I just decided to go. At one point in college I had somewhat of an internal crisis which caused me to re-examine my college experience. Was I really taking advantage of that stage in my life? I felt like the answer was no, so I made plans to study abroad, something I had never previously envisioned in my life. However, when my “best laid plans” fell through, at the suggestion of a friend, I just took all the money I had been saving for studying abroad and decided to go abroad anyway.

I spent three and a half months backpacking around by myself. Today I would say that experience is unusual but by no means unique, especially when you consider the travel habits of other nationalities. I have talked to so many individuals and couples who were spending a year or more backpacking around the world. So in the game of comparisons, my little adventure wasn’t so noteworthy. And yet, if you’ve spent any amount of time around me, you’ve probably heard me mention that experience several times (perhaps you’ve rolled your eyes at me; maybe I sound like I’m trying too hard to impress by name-dropping these random travel experiences). I promise, I’m not trying to be pretentious. It’s just that to this day, despite the myriads of adventures I’ve been on since, that trip was one of the most transformative for me as a person.

I left on January 14, 2010. I had no smartphone (or regular phone for that matter), tablet, or computer while I was there; these forms of technology–though growing–were not as ubiquitous as they are now. I occasionally posted travel updates via archaic hostel computers or (now nearly obsolete) internet cafes. While staying in hostels, bed and breakfasts (no, not Airbnb), and people’s homes (and once on the streets), I was not able to distract myself with Netflix or social media. I was forced to spend time with fellow travelers or read a book (I read LOTS of books). I was forced to spend time in my own head. I went on walks. I sat on trains and stared at the stunning scenery outside my window. I filled multiple journals with musings and stories that I began writing, my imagination exploding with life and vigor. Occasionally, if I wanted to “check out,” I could plug in to my 3rd generation iPod Nano. I remember listening primarily to Switchfoot’s “Hello Hurricane” album and a playlist that a friend made for me before I left (to this day I can’t listen to the “Hello Hurricane” album without being transported back to those endless train rides).

In the course of three and a half months I visited Ireland, Norway, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy, and then back to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales, and England before heading home. For two of those months I had a two-month Eurail pass, hopping on trains as often as I wanted and only paying nominal seat reservation fees here and there. I saw the world in a new way.

Most importantly–and the point I’m trying to make–my eyes were opened. I met new people, new ideologies, new lifestyles, new beliefs, new perspectives. I got a taste (of course hopping city to city for three and half months could only provide a taste) of new cultures: new languages, foods, and traditions. I grew as an individual, accepting silence and solitude and personal companionship where before I was very uncomfortable being by myself. I developed new habits of voracious reading and writing and deep reflection. I learned to take even more risks and continue to seek new experiences when I can (side note: I might never have met my amazing wife in El Salvador if it hadn’t been for this initial experience). In short, my bubble burst. My myopic and limited view of the world had broken, and there was no way to stuff my old way of seeing the world back inside the box I had been living in.

nice, france
Nice, France

I recognize that the opportunity to travel as much as I have demonstrates the incredible privilege I was born into. It’s easy to judge others who have limited travel experiences, but the majority of the world simply does not have the means or the opportunities that I have had (even if I have worked hard to realize those opportunities). HOWEVER, almost everyone can do something. While living in El Salvador, I had friends who couldn’t afford to travel as I have but who had been on trips to Honduras or Nicaragua. Even in their own capacity they had ventured outside their comfort zone to know new places, people, and cultures (yes, the language is basically the same, but if you know much about Spanish, the variation from one country to the next can be extensive both in accent and in local vocabulary). So the challenge I want to make still stands: POKE THE BOX.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, poke the box of nominalism. Step outside your comfort zone. Do something new. Spend time with someone different than you.

If you have the means, travel. If the timing’s okay, try traveling solo. (All of my solo traveling took place while single; I’m not advocating shirking family ties to travel. Instead, bring your family along!)

Bring a journal with you. Bring some thoughtful reading material, too.

Try to unplug when you go (I’ve gotten worse at this since that first trip).

Perhaps the quote is overused, but let me leave you with this:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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Journal entry from the day I left

He Knew How to Keep Christmas Well

Rain of Snow in Town Painting
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

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…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Almost every year I try to set aside a little bit of time to read Charles Dickens’ famous holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. You can see in the pictures above my favorite copy, an edition of beautifully vibrant water-color illustrations done by P.J. Lynch and put out by Candlewick Press.

This classic story is filled with a powerful lesson; it is more than a warm-fuzzy Hallmark-esque display (though, to be fair, there’s some of that too). A man is forced to reckon with his own cold heart and the consequences thereof.

I need this reminder every year. I can easily become focused inwardly for the holidays, but the birth of Christ was always meant to be a Star for all.

My challenge for me this Christmas and for you is to keep Christmas in your heart all year: turn away from our cold hearts and seek the welfare of our neighbors January through December.

Will it be said of you, “She knew how to keep Christmas well?”

 

Merry Christmas Greeting Photo
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

“Advent”: A Poem

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Advent

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Lamp-posts line
cold streets: lightless,
lifeless, leafless poking
about in irrelevance.

Rosy cheeks cross rosy
streets, a subtle blush
sponged upon the winter droll;
everything is fine.

“Say it enough, and it’s
yours if you just believe,”
thumped from a television
set, just another sound.

We hold on
to our demise–
what things we
hold on to!

Many years ago some shepherds were
in a quiet place waiting but they
didn’t know it: angel news
has never been too common.

The ugly earth in naked
unconcern started glowing
with the messengers. Do not
fear didn’t stop the trembling, but

in a pinprick moment
a baby squealed, wrapped in
prophecy and misguided expectations.
Are we held? Despite everything.


I began writing this poem back in the winter of 2014, sitting in a coffee shop on Brookline Avenue in the Boston area. (I’ve tinkered with it here and there and perhaps will tinker with it more.)

I wanted to capture in one poetic space the frailty of our grasp on fleeting things, the emptiness that many experience around the holidays, and the paradox of the real Christmas event in Bethlehem.

This Christmas–in joy or sorrow–I hope we can better reflect on the earth-redefining significance of a seemingly innocuous moment in a small, Middle Eastern village two thousand years ago. I pray that it triumphs over all our silly little trivialities.

My First Published Poem


Really, this is late news, but last fall a poem of mine was selected to fill the pages of Glass Mountain, “a literary journal edited by undergraduate students at the University of Houston” and “dedicated to showcasing the works from undergraduate and emerging artists.” This, of course, is a humble achievement (I wasn’t exactly published in The New Yorker), but I am extremely grateful for the consideration and encouragement that at least something of mine was halfway decent. I continue to write, polish, and submit poetry (I actually just joined a critique group in my area) and hope to share more in the future. I also am working on a novel. Many people know how important reading and writing are to me but very seldom get to see any of the fruit of my constant labor. So here’s something. 


This is perhaps one of the “heavier” poems I have written, but from the perspective of a teacher, I wanted to capture the tension between the ephemeral and eternal. The question, “What redeems the time?” is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. 

Macbeth, the anti-David

 

Just the other day, my class was performing skits of various scenes in the life of David before becoming king of Israel (and the king of Israel’s brief Golden Age). As I was sharing a few personal thoughts to the end of one performance, I suddenly realized just how closely it paralleled the story of Macbeth. In 1 Samuel 24 we read that Saul is in pursuit of David. Taking a break to relieve himself, Saul goes into a cave where, unbeknownst to Saul, David is hiding with his own men. David creeps up to Saul probably to kill him (the text never says that was his original intent but can be surmised from the context of the situation), his enemy, and gain the throne of Israel. However, instead of killing Saul, David secretly cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. Even that act, though, causes David deep remorse for touching “the Lord’s anointed,” and he orders his men not to attack Saul.

So what are the parallels with Shakespeare’s famous Macbeth? First, in Macbeth the titular character begins as a brave warrior and Thane (nobleman) of Glamis. However, he receives two prophecies by a group of three witches. First, he would be Thane of Cawdor; this takes place later that scene. Second, Macbeth would become king of Scotland. However, Macbeth toils over the conundrum of his own role in the fulfillment of the second prophecy. “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir” (Act I, Scene 3). Can he trust the prophecy that what had been foretold will come to pass without his direct intervention? Or must Macbeth act on his own behalf? Well, SPOILER ALERT (for those of you who somehow are unfamiliar with the story of Macbeth), Macbeth takes matters into his own hands: He kills the king and, to secure his throne, kills many others besides. Before he knows it, he declares, “I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (Act III, Scene 4).

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David, the antithesis of Macbeth, also receives a prophecy that he will become king, foretold by the prophet Samuel. Not only must David decide if he will wait for the efficacy of the prophecy (and God’s dictation), he must submit himself to the temptation of seizing control when fate seems to have favored him with the opportunity to kill Saul in the cave at En Gedi. David, however, remains true to his own humanity (and God’s law), and passes through the test having only gone so far as to cut a piece of the king’s robe. God, true to his word, later allows Saul to be killed in combat, and David, integrity intact, ascends to Israel’s throne.

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Do you believe that Macbeth would have eventually become king even without his own violent intervention?

Can you think of other examples of leaders (fictional or real) passing inner tests of integrity before ascending to their position?

Till We Have Faces: My Blog’s New Look

image by Nicole Mason

 

About a year and a half ago I began this blog primarily as a literary resource for students when I was teaching in El Salvador. I posted on the blog, but it was usually in a literary or educational capacity: a creative attempt to engage with my students. When I moved back to the U.S. because of visa application requirements (read here), I took a job as a sixth grade teacher in the Kansas City area (I teach three sections of language and one section each of Bible, history, and reading). However, I struggled with the purpose of my blog. That, coupled with busyness, allowed the blog to atrophy. Nevertheless, I grew to miss the writing and posting, and therefore, I’ve decided to re-tool/re-brand the look and purpose.

I guess if I had to define it, this would be a life blog of sorts. I want to write about things that matter, things that affect and move me, things to think about, and, hopefully, things that challenge and encourage others. Topics will be relevant to my own life:

  • Education
  • Literature and writing
  • Travel
  • Culture
  • Faith

FAITH

The Christian perspective has come under a lot of fire these days. The reasons are, of course, myriad, and I don’t want to dive into all of them here. What saddens me, though, is when people treat faith and religion of any type flippantly. Religion essentially answers the big worldview questions:

  • How did the world come to be?
  • What’s wrong with the world (if anything)?
  • What’s the fix?
  • Who am I?
  • Is there life beyond the grave? What kind of life?

Christianity, of course, centers around Jesus. The teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of the Church are both simple and complex, easily grasped and infinitely profound. It’s filled with paradoxes (e.g. Incarnation), and I love that.

At the core of what attracts me about Christianity, though, is its message of hope. We call this Good News or Gospel (the word in Greek is eu-angelion which literally means “good news”). The Good News from the Christian perspective is that, through Jesus, wrong is made rightThe Bible teaches that both humans and creation are messed up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you and I and all people were made to be more than we are. God is trying to make us all fully human again. Additionally, creation itself is to be perfected someday. So this reality that we live in now is not the final answer. There’s more. And through Jesus, we have access to that more. He is the fulfillment of all of our deepest longings.

The title for this blog, “a great, real place,” comes from a quote from Till We Have Faces, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, CS Lewis. Let me share a few quotes that tie in to what I’ve been saying and that really lay the foundation for this blog.

“Death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that’s all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet.”

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

The milky way galaxy and a person's silhouette at nighttime in Kôprovský štít
image by Štefan Štefančík

 

November 5th

Bare trees with branches, tentacle-like, grasp. Exposed bark. Leaves cling to a few oaks, green tinged with yellow, orange, brown.

There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. God has given us nature to surround us and wrap us like a garment, and I have had only a few moments of electrifying clarity in my life, always at the hands of an important book or nature. It seems no accident that mystics seek nature to sharpen their visions and their divine movements.

And perhaps there is a mystical connection with coffee.

#HappySunday

Thanks to my parents for the blessing of their house, their little hermitage, their house tucked away in the woods that has often been a retreat over the years. 

6 Reasons to Read Macbeth

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Macbeth is definitely my favorite Shakespeare play…so far (I am more widely read in Shakespeare than the average person, but I am still woefully ignorant of the entire Shakespeare canon). However, spending any time at all among Shakespeare’s works quickly enlightens us as to why the Elizabethan playwright is so profoundly famous and global: his fantastical use of history, myth, and folklore as the backdrop to his stories; his ability to tap into the human predicament with violent images and lovely romances; his wordsmithing and timeless passages. All these and more have made his legacy timeless. We may not all be the lovesick youth of Romeo and Juliet. We may not all be the desperate and revengeful Danish prince, Hamlet. But Shakespeare has tapped into the universal human longings for love and justice, the plots in all of our lives that merely take various forms.

This morning I was reading in Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden, and in his chapter “Shakespeare and a Christian Worldview,” Barrs goes into a more thorough examination of Macbeth. This of course summoned in me all the passionate emotions I have experienced during my multiple readings of the play. So here are five reasons why you should take some time to read Macbeth this fall.

1. The supernatural elements are great for your fall/October/Halloween reading list.

Witches, spells, curses, ghosts, visions of floating daggers, murder. Here is a fantastic backdrop for your spooky seasonal reading. “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” (4.1.10-11).

Image result for macbeth's witches

2. The Scottish setting

Scotland is the more rugged, wild neighbor to the north of England. The misty, green landscape is the perfect backdrop to the evil machinations of Macbeth. Though Shakespeare takes great liberties, there is a historical connection to the play’s characters.

DunsinaneHill From BlackHill 12APR03.jpg
Dunsinane Hill from Wikipedia

3. The universal themes

Fate versus free will. The thirst for power. The meaninglessness of life. Here are themes that have been gripping audiences throughout all eternity. Biological determinism is a contentious idea today. Greedy capitalism drives men and women to do unspeakable things in order to get ahead. And sometimes we feel like the arbitrary puppets of a madman.

…[Life] is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. (5.5.30-31)

Basically, Macbeth uses vivid images to examine what is actually in humanity’s hearts. Your life might not be surrounded by royal bloodshed, but it does not mean that a battle doesn’t rage just below the surface of what’s seen.

4. The enticing plot

From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare’s plot moves quickly from royal prophecy to bloodshed to massacre to madness and finally to its gripping conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the fancy language; this is a fast-paced story!

5. The brilliant writing

Books have been written about Shakespeare’s contribution to language. He is responsible for penning new words and phrases that are still in use today. His ability to express the depth of the human experience in profound ways is unparalleled. Yes, it may be difficult for the untrained reader, but keep at it; there’s treasure to be had. Here is the expanded passage of the lines already quoted above, my favorite of the whole play.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (5.5.22-31)

6. The great adaptations

Okay, so perhaps I can’t speak immensely into all the adaptations because truthfully I’ve only seen the Michael Fassbender film. But I really enjoyed the interpretation. I felt that Fassbender played the part well, the cinematography was top notch, and only the original dialogue was used. It was a great treat for the class I was teaching last year. However, I still need to check out other adaptations.

 

Finally, if reading Shakespeare is daunting, I highly recommend the Folger editions of the texts. On the right page is the original text, but on the left page are thorough notes to help with more challenging words and phrases as well fascinating factoids.

So, what’s your favorite Shakespeare play?