Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XLIX

Here's three excerpts from a book I read earlier this month, "Nature Writings," by John Muir:

We are governed more than we know, and most when we are wildest. Plants, animals, and stars are all kept in place, bridled along appointed ways, with one another, and through the midst of one another—killing and being killed, eating and being eaten, in harmonious proportions and quantities. And it is right that we should thus reciprocally make use of one another, rob, cook, and consume, to the utmost of our healthy abilities and desires. Stars attract each other as they are able, and harmony results. Wild lambs eat as many wild flowers as they can find or desire, and men and wolves eat the lambs to just the same extent. This consumption of one another in its various modifications is a kind of culture varying with the degree of directness with which it is carried out, but we should be careful not to ascribe to such culture any improving qualities upon those on whom it is brought to bear. ("Wild Wool")


Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed,—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of the old trees—tens of centuries old—that have been destroyed. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods,—trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time—and long before that—God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools,—only Uncle Sam can do that. ("Features of the Proposed Yosemite National Park")


The making of gardens and parks goes on with civilization all over the world, and they increase both in size and number as their value is recognized. Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. This natural beauty-hunger is made manifest in the little window-sill gardens of the poor, though perhaps only a geranium slip in a broken cup, as well as in the carefully tended rose and lily gardens of the rich, the thousands of spacious city parks and botanical gardens, and in our magnificent National parks—the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc.—Nature’s sublime wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like anything else worth while, from the very beginning, however well guarded, they have always been subject to attack by despoiling gain-seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators, eagerly trying to make everything immediately and selfishly commercial, with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy, industriously, sham-piously crying, “Conservation, conservation, panutilization,” that man and beast may be fed and the dear Nation made great. Thus long ago a few enterprising merchants utilized the Jerusalem temple as a place of business instead of a place of prayer, changing money, buying and selling cattle and sheep and doves; and earlier still, the first forest reservation, including only one tree, was likewise despoiled. Ever since the establishment of the Yosemite National Park, strife has been going on around its borders and I suppose this will go on as part of the universal battle between right and wrong, however much its boundaries may be shorn, or its wild beauty destroyed. ("Hetch Hetchy Valley")


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XLVIII

Here's two excerpts from a book I read this month, "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," by Frank Bruni:

“I cannot remember a single thing I learned in college,” [Time Warner Chairman and CEO Richard] Parsons told me. “But it worked for me because what I learned was that I could make it in this world.” He had traveled five thousand miles from his home, and was able to circle back to Queens to visit his family only once a year, during the summer. He had been sixteen when he arrived in Honolulu. He didn’t have local relatives, local connections, any kind of ready safety net. He was utterly on his own. And the magnitude of that dislocation had forced on him a maturity and poise that another, different college experience might not have. “At the end of four years, I was still standing,” he said. “Maybe wavering a bit, but still standing. I learned that surviving and prospering—with a small p—was something that I could do.” Back in elementary and middle and high school, when he’d been skipping grades and prophesying Princeton and was blissfully unaware that the boldest plans have a way of being thwarted, he’d had arrogance. Now he had something less gaudy but infinitely more useful. “Confidence,” he said. “And for me, that was an essential part of the equation of success.”


As I listened to [Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz, I longed more and more for a robust, sustained national conversation about the ways in which all college students, and in particular those at exclusive institutions, navigate their years of higher education and what they demand from that chapter of life. And I yearned for that largely because college has the potential to confront and challenge some of the most troubling political and social aspects of contemporary life; to muster a preemptive strike against them; to be a staging ground for behaving in a different, healthier way. We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. We live in the era of the Internet, which has had a counterintuitive impact: While it opens up an infinite universe of information for exploration, people use it to stand still, bookmarking the websites that cater to their existing hobbies (and established hobbyhorses) and customizing their social media feeds so that their judgments are constantly reinforced, their opinions forever affirmed. And college is indeed a “perfect place,” as Catharine Bond Hill said, to push back at all of that, to rummage around in fresh outlooks, to bridge divides. For many students, it’s not only an environment more populous than high school was; it’s also one with more directions in which to turn. It gives them more agency over their calendars and allegiances. They can better construct their hours and days from scratch—and the clay hasn’t yet dried on who they are. But too many kids get to college and try to collapse it, to make it as comfortable and recognizable as possible. They replicate the friends and friendships they’ve previously enjoyed. They join groups that perpetuate their high school cliques. Concerned with establishing a “network,” they seek out peers with aspirations identical to their own. In doing so, they frequently default to a clannishness that too easily becomes a lifelong habit. If you spend any time on college campuses, you’ll notice this. And you’ll understand why one of my utopian fantasies is a student orientation period in which students are given these instructions, these exhortations: Open your laptops. Delete at least one of every four bookmarks. Replace it with something entirely different, even antithetical. Go to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and such, and start following or connecting with publications, blogs and people whose views diverge from your own. Conduct your social lives along the same lines, mixing it up. Do not go only to the campus basketball games, or only to campus theatrical productions. Wander beyond the periphery of campus, and not to find equally enchanted realms—if you study abroad, don’t choose the destination for its picturesqueness—but to see something else. Think about repaying your good fortune by mentoring kids in the area who aren’t sure to get to college, or who don’t have ready guidance for figuring it all out. In some American studies classes at Columbia University, this is a course requirement, and there are similar arrangements and programs at other schools. It’s a trend that’s worth tilling, a movement that should grow. Now more than ever, college needs to be an expansive adventure, propelling students toward unplumbed territory and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who they already are. And students, along with those of us who purport to have meaningful insights for them, need to insist on that.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XLVII

Here's an excerpt from a book I read this month, "Mom & Me & Mom," by Maya Angelou:

On the third day after I returned, I went to visit Mother. I took her hand and said, “I’ve been told some people need to be given permission to leave. I don’t know if you are waiting, but I can say you may have done all you came here to do. “You’ve been a hard worker—white, black, Asian, and Latino women ship out of the San Francisco port because of you. You have been a shipfitter, a nurse, a real estate broker, and a barber. Many men and—if my memory serves me right—a few women risked their lives to love you. You were a terrible mother of small children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as a mother of a young adult.” She squeezed my hand twice. I kissed her fingers and gave them back to the woman sitting beside her bed. Then I went home. I awakened at dawn and raced downstairs in my pajamas. I drove to the hospital and doubled-parked my car. I didn’t wait for the elevators. I ran up the stairs to her floor. The nurse said, “She just left.” I looked at my mother’s lifeless form and thought about her passion and wit. I knew she deserved a daughter who loved her and had a good memory, and she got one.


Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet XLVI

Here's an excerpt from a book I read earlier this month, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus Book," by Charles C. Mann:

Europeans had been visiting New England for at least a century. Shorter than the natives, oddly dressed, and often unbearably dirty, the pallid foreigners had peculiar blue eyes that peeped out of the masks of bristly, animal-like hair that encased their faces. They were irritatingly garrulous, prone to fits of chicanery, and often surprisingly incompetent at what seemed to Indians like basic tasks. But they also made useful and beautiful goods—copper kettles, glittering colored glass, and steel knives and hatchets—unlike anything else in New England. Moreover, they would exchange these valuable items for cheap furs of the sort used by Indians as blankets. It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers’ used socks—almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper’s peculiarities.


How I Read the Bible

Living in Philadelphia and being an avid non-fiction reader, I can’t help but consume history books in large quantities.  They say that if you don’t know your history you’re destined to repeat it, and indeed whether in personal or professional settings I have seen how looking back to the back story is essential to interpreting what is happening now and what will happen next.

What’s particularly great for this history lover is that there is so much history to consume.  For example, perhaps black history, classical Rome, and famous scientists are old hat for you, but for me they are a wide field of fascinating stories that I am enriched by digesting because they are largely unexplored by me to date.  So it’s wonderful to think there is so much more out there to digest.

In the course of reading history, what has been interesting to me lately is not just learning about the history itself but learning about history is recorded.  After all, history isn’t exactly the history itself but rather individual authors’ choices about how to explain it to future generations.  We are connected to history not directly, but rather indirectly through the words of historians, who are finite and have agendas and are subject to the influences of their day.

Growing up in America and going to very good public schools, I learned about history in a very modern, Western, and intellectual way.  History in this form is linear, descriptive, and thematic.  It has only been since my grade school days that I have come to learn that history is messier and more fluid in other settings, at other times, and for other peoples.  Other approaches to history are no less accurate – indeed, it is often our modern Western textbooks that gloss over important contextual details out of a need to hew closely to a simplified and archetypal depiction of key people and events – they are simply different, and need to be digested accordingly.

Which brings us to an important history book, the one I read daily if I can help it, which is the Bible.  Perhaps you don’t believe the Bible is a history book or that it is inspired by God.  Please bear with me, because I respect that opinion although I do endeavor to want to influence you to reconsider. 

But my post today is less for you than for people who may heartily assent to my claims about the Bible but may be discomfited by what I am about to say, because it may seem contradictory and even heretical to their core beliefs.  Although I assure you that I am writing not in the spirit of tearing down treasured truths but rather building them up on stronger foundations.

Taking the Bible literally as a historical document is a very Western impulse.  Not to say that things like creation, Noah’s ark, and Jonah in the belly of the whale are purely allegorical, with no basis in scientific or historical reality.  But neither were they intended to be consumed as history in the same way we read about yesterday’s stories in today’s newspapers.  Rather, they were events processed by contemporary authors – working under the guidance of God’s direction but also subject to the influences of the day – to make a point.  And, contra what we are used to with our modern Western eyes and ears, history back in the day was untethered from our need for precise sequencing and literal descriptions.

Do not misunderstand what I am saying.  I am not suggesting that the Bible is not historically accurate, nor that historical accuracy is unimportant.  I am suggesting that we acknowledge that our frame of reference for historical accuracy is based on a modern Western construct that is not the same as the construct that Biblical authors operated under when they wrote the books of the Bible under divine inspiration.  Therefore, the key to absorbing the Bible is not trying to understand it from our frame of reference but rather trying to understand what its authors were intending to convey from their frame of reference.

Let me also address a little bit of a pet peeve of mine by saying that the key to reading the Bible is not to know your point and then find verses that support it; it is to read its words and wonder what point God and the words’ authors was trying to make.  Which is why I do not like thematic writings or sermons that start with a premise and then pick and choose passages that line up with those themes.  All too often such an approach yanks a phrase or sentence out of context, thus rendering its truths far less powerful.  Better is to approach passages more humbly, trying to understand the circumstances being described as well as the circumstances within which the authors are reaching into the future to convey something in their time. 

Related to yesterday’s post about "modern-day Pharisees," I see in this country far too much deification of a certain set of messages that purport to be from the Bible but are merely a modern, Western, and shallow extrapolation of portions of it – and a historically poor and out-of-context extrapolation at that.  The real Bible and the real characters and messages found in it are so potentially transformational.  Yet, sadly, there is far too little good reading of the books and chapters and verses.  I know there is far too little good reading because there is far too little wonder and far too little uncomfortable shifting in place, and far too much false pontificating and far too much fretting over the accuracy of literal interpretations.  This is a bad reading of history, with grave consequences for our souls and this generation.  And we are the worse for it, mind and body and spirit and society.


Modern-Day Pharisees

(Going into Biblical prophet mode…)

There is a distinct brand of Christianity in this country today.  It is not all of the Christianity in this country but it is a big chunk and it is often the most well-known among the general population.  And if you know your Bibles, you will recognize this Christianity, because it appears there.  It is the modern-day version of the Pharisees Jesus railed against in the gospels.

Before we slam Pharisees, whether from the Biblical era or the modern day manifestations, let’s stop for a minute and say some good things.  These were the folks back in the day who knew the religious law, and not only knew it but loved it and lived it.  In every way, you would consider them to be the well-respected, God-fearing, society-leavening segment of the population.  If you wanted a moral, healthy, and religiously robust community, you wanted there to be lots of Pharisees in it.

And yet, in no uncertain terms Jesus has some very harsh words for the Pharisees.  And, to amp up the dissonance even more, He spends a lot of His time with the social outcasts and the morally repugnant, and with a small and motley crew of peasant followers who He spends a lot of time teaching in the ways of hanging out with and serving those social outcasts and morally repugnant. 

If you accept that Jesus is God incarnate, then the more dissonant thing to take in is not His choice of who to rail at and who to embrace, but what modern-day Christianity has morphed into.  Although, in a sense, nothing has changed since Jesus walked the earth.  There are modern-day Pharisees who have a veneer of doing and being good but who need a sharp rebuking, and there are modern-day social outcasts and morally repugnant who need to be touched and embraced and elevated and instructed.

We are obviously in a divisive and unprecedented presidential election season, and the Republican candidate gets a lot of press for his controversial beliefs and incendiary statements, and for the bigoted and narrow-minded beliefs of his supporters that his words and actions are emboldening.  And, to be sure, many of those supporters are among those who can be described as modern-day Pharisees, among other epithets.  And yet, as a counterbalance, I must also note that many of his supporters would be counted among the groups Jesus loved and embraced and publicly connected with, rather than prominently smearing or dismissing. 

Whatever your political or religious persuasion, please know that Jesus left no doubt as to who warranted sharper words of rebuke and who was worth spending meaningful time with.  May that give us pause as we consider how our society is sorted, and how we behave ourselves in the choices we make about the words we use and the people we associate with.

(PS This morning's Bible reading, Luke 7:36-50, called to mind a sermon I gave five years ago on that passage, which explored some of the same themes as this morning's post.  You can find a transcript of that sermon here.)


Recommended Reads, 25th in a Quarterly Series

Stuff I've read recently:

* The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Mukherjee).  I am allergic to medical terms so I appreciated how readable this was.

* SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Beard).  I definitely need to read more about this time period.

* The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Isaacson).  So important to understand just how innovation happens.

* How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (Johnson).  I adore Steven Johnson.

* No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (Rice).  An interesting review of a very recent and tumultuous period in American history.

* 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Mann).  Can't say I knew a smidgen of all the interesting things happening in North America before Chris arrived.