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Requiem for Galatea

with 2 comments

Oh, ack.  I’m having one of those days when I wonder if I shouldn’t be in some other business, because I don’t seem to be having such a good time getting my point across.

To answer Robert–I said nothing at all about whether or not Christianity was “dying,” although, given other comments here, it might be.  What I was talking about was the public face of Christianity, which is not just a matter of who makes the evening news.  Back there somewhere or the other in this blog, I pointed out that one of the traditional functions of imaginative literature in the post-Enlightenment world was to provide us views of ways of living with which we otherwise do not have contact of knowledge–to show the way we live n ow, yes, but also to show us that there are other was to live than the way we live now.

Donne was nowhere near the minor figure that you make him out to be, even in his own time.   He was married to Lord Egerton’s daughter, and he was a celebrated poet in a time when poets comanded the kind of esteem we now give only to movie stars. 

But what’s more important than that is that he was only one of a numbe of writers who wrote about the lived experience of Christianity in a way that was pitched not to the emotions but to the mind. 

When I was growing up, there was on offer a fair number of examples of the lived experience of Christianity pitched to the mind, and those examples were not generally news reports.   Consider Thomas Merton, a student at Columbia who had already built up a considerable reputation in literary circles as a new and promising young poet, who converted to Catholicism, left his university, and entered the Trappist monastary at Gethsemane, Kentucky.   He then produced a book about his religious journey, The Seven Storey Mountain, that became a significant best seller.   It’s not an easy book..  It’s not pitched to the lowest common denominator of anything.  It’s not an attempt to kick the reader in the solar plexus.  And it’s long. 

Or consider what I think of as near the end of the period when the public face of Christianity still offered an intellectual option–the Audrey  Hepburn film of The Nun’s Story.  I say the film and not the book because, although the book was also a signivicant seller, it is very simply written and it was aimed at the infrequent reader.  The movie, on the other hand, was distinctly pitched up–it’s a long movie, it has a distinct and yet complex narrative arc, and it takes religion seriously as something thinking people do.

One of the things that I am constantly struck with in my students is the way in which they are isolated, culturally and intellectually.   For all the sources of information available to them, they seem to know absolutely nothing about the way other people lived in other times, or that other people live in this time.  They seem to have no idea that there is in fact any significantly different way to live.  To the extent that they’ve been made aware of the “multicultural,” it’s been limited to pictures of native islanders somewhere wandering around beaches with flowers around their necks, usually accompanied by captions explaining how these islanders are much more matter of fact and sensible about sex than we are.

At one point this past term, I had to explain to a class that there was a time right here in Connecticut when having sex with somebody not your spouse was against the law, and when children born out of wedlock suffered significant legal disadvantages in regard to things like inheriting money from their biological father’s estate.   These laws were in effect when I was a child, and although I’m rapidly approacing the geriatric, I’m not there yet.  In other words, all this was less than fifty years ago, and they’d never heard about any of it.

What’s more, they have been presented with a world in which sex is about as morally important as defecating.  The only moral issues they recognize in sexual matters concern telling one’s partner about STDs and following the standard rules of ‘relationships” (including no cheating while still formally in it). 

The idea that there might be something else going on in a reationship than the ephemeral, the idea that men and women might look for something else in each other (and themselves) than being “hot,” the idea that there might be some point to life that isn’t having as much sex and getting as much “stuff” as possible, is entirely foreign to them.

When I say that it was a destructive thing to make the churches of the “religious right” the only public face of  Christianity, it’s this I’m thinking of–that without people like Thomas Merton and Sister Luke, we have lost an important counterexample to current assumptions about what it means to be a human being alive today.  We’ve especially lost an important counterexample to current trends in what it means to be female.  Too often, the only examples my students have of what it means to be female are  Paris Hilton and the sort of self-proclaimed feminist who seems to be angry and judgmental all the tiem, about everything.

Yes, there are and always were other kinds of feminists, but they don’t seem to have much of a public face these days either.  Maybe I’ll get back to them at some point.

Lately I’ve been considering giving my students a poem by Henry  King, Bishop of Chichester, called “Exequy.”   I’m not going to post the whole thing here, since it’s very long, but this is the web address where you can find it


and I’ll just warn you to watch out for the pop ups. 

That said, King wrote this poem to his wife after her death, in the 17th century, and it, too, like the Donne I posted yesterday, is an example of poetry presenting Christianity as a lived experience:

But woe is me! the longest date   35
Too narrow is to calculate
These empty hopes: never shall I
Be so much blest as to descry
A glimpse of thee, till that day come
Which shall the earth to cinders doom,
And a fierce fever must calcine
The body of this world—like thine,
My little world! That fit of fire
Once off, our bodies shall aspire
To our souls’ bliss: then we shall rise
And view ourselves with clearer eyes
In that calm region where no night
Can hide us from each other’s sight.
  Meantime thou hast her, earth: much good
May my harm do thee! Since it stood
With Heaven’s will I might not call
Her longer mine, I give thee all
My short-lived right and interest
In her whom living I loved best.
Be kind to her, and prithee look
Thou write into thy Doomsday book
Each parcel of this rarity
Which in thy casket shrined doth lie,
As thou wilt answer Him that lent—
Not gave—thee my dear monument.
So close the ground, and ’bout her shade
Black curtains draw: my bride is laid.
  Sleep on, my Love, in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy tomb.
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way, 

Okay, I have no idea why the font size changed or what it is I’m supposed to do to fix it.  I’m sorry if I’ve caused any problems for any of you reading.

My point is just that that above also represented part of the public face of Christianity of its time, and an expression of the lived experience of that Christianity.  It’s not a lecture on dogma or morality.   It’s not didactic at all.  I have no idea where Bishop King stood on the issue of the Real  Presence or the nature of the Trinity.

And I don’t have to.  I don’t even have to believe in life after death to understand what is going on in the Bishop’s emotional commitment to his wife, because I have such a commitment, and it perserveres in spite of the fact that I do not believe there is anything at the end of this waiting but the dark.

Bishop King and I still have more in common than either of us do with most of my students, who increasingly see themselves as one more commodity and the only point to anything as feeling good right here right now.  

My students need alternatives, not only religious ones but secular ones.  They need to be presented with other kinds of models for other kinds of living. 

Christianity used to provide one of those models.  Today, I get megachurches and Help, Lord!  The Devil Wants Me Fat!

And I’m not making that last one up.

Written by janeh

December 28th, 2008 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Requiem for Galatea'

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  1. You are not the only person sometimes misunderstod. But in this case I did understand you, and when I wrote “The Christianity of John Donne and St Theresa of Avila” I meant just that. If I had meant the Christianity of Pat Robertson–or maybe Whitefield or Tetzel-I’d have written that. It was and still is, one of several ways Christianity is practiced. (And it’s not as though Egerton gave the bride away: Donne was YEARS recovering from that marriage above his station, and getting on Egerton’s good side.)

    The “mass media” are exactly that, sometimes: people trying to sell hundreds of thousands of paperbacks, or fill millions of seats in theaters–or tens of millions in front of televisions. Messages are simplified, muddied or re-written so as not to offend. Sometimes something gets through anyway, and I’m grateful, but it was never the norm. Does nothing get through today? It’s not really what I check television or film for. People who have a hard time getting space opera right aren’t likely to be much use on the care of the soul.

    If you want models of a less commercial and worldly Christianity, the old examples are still out there and I believe from time to time one is still added.
    If you want to show your students that the customs of their tribe are not the imutable rules of human behavior, some contemporary novels of earlier periods might be useful, and well-done historical novels more useful still. Neither ought science fiction and fantasy to be overlooked.

    But don’t look for best-selling books or popular television programs to unsettle people. That’s not what they’re for.

    Oh–and for those who think “megachurches” are new, check the career of Aimee Semple McPherson. Or go earlier: During the First Great Awakening, Whitefield was preaching to 20,000 at a time, and no P.A. system–reenacting Bible stories as he went. None of which kept his contemporary and friend John Wesley from going off alone to chapel and having his heart “strangely warmed.” The big revival and the life of contemplation and prayer have both been with us some time now, and shall continue to be so.


    28 Dec 08 at 10:49 am

  2. I don’t know why you are having trouble with fonts; when I tried to paste formatted text, all the formating was stripped out! You could do that manually if you wanted to.

    I think that the tension between intellectual and emotional approach to Christianity has been there from the very beginning. I just finished a book on the structure of the very earliest church in which the author claimed that both formal organisation and concern for correct teaching AND what he called the ‘charismatics’ existed right from the start – and both speaking in tongues and the gifts of leadership and organization were recognized as charisms from God.

    They aren’t both of equal weight in different societies, times, segments of society. Perhaps the anti-intellectualism of our time is tied both to the current popularity of emotional forms of religion and the tendency of so many people to believe that what ‘feels good’ must be right (and the only reason to choose a particular course of action), or that what they like – and can easily understand – is the only determinant of what is good artistically.

    Maybe the exact nexus of passion and intellectualism is missing – I can’t think of someone who is both a brilliant poet and enough of a theologian and administrator to hold down a Bishop’s position or equivalent today. I can think of people who write and broadcast religious arguments that aren’t based on emotionalism and that range from the very basic to the stuff with some of the footnotes in Greek – and from the conservative to the extremely radical.

    This doesn’t seem to get into the public media much, though. Just about anything I’ve read there on religion (especially when it’s about an issue I actually know something of) is wrong, often in the most basic fashion. I don’t know if that’s much different from a lot of mass media reporting on a lot of issues, though.

    As for your students – I know some people like that, and I am simply baffled by their lack of curiosity. I can’t understand how anyone could get through school, however poor the school was, and not get some inkling that other people live different lives than their own, and then be curious enough to find out more.

    Even the student I had who thought that TV soap operas were a realistic portrayal of life, especially the bits people liked to pretend weren’t happening, knew that some people lived differently than those in her hometown. I suppose she still wasn’t curious enough to find out details, though.


    29 Dec 08 at 7:15 am

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