In my younger growing-up years, my mother gave me a gift that I’ve since learned to wonder at. She answered my questions. All of them.
When I opened the window blinds last Saturday morning, I beheld festoons of damply fluttering white streamers draped gracefully all over the shrubbery like festival banners or flags of peace. To put it colloquially, I’d been TP’d (toilet-papered, to the uninitiated) by a crew of freshman boys. That’s the second time this year.
The beginning of summer now slouches towards us, presaged by change not only in atmosphere but also in attitudes. Disconcertingly, students who had been fascinated by dactylic hexameter and the Fibonacci sequence and the nervous system are once again more interested in their TV shows and fashion fads; students who maintained at least of veneer of respect all year now talk over their tired teachers, perhaps even mock them; and those teachers themselves may find that their beloved, chosen work has become monotonous.
Forget the self-help shelf. When I need life advice, I reach for some literary criticism.
After all, if our lives are story-shaped, what could fit us to fare forward in them better than Story’s cartography? If in His book are written all the days fashioned for us, how better to interpret them than by learning the story-rules His own great narrative has set? Or if, in some mysterious way, we join our Author and finisher in the crafting of our lives, how better to learn wisdom than by imitating the storyteller’s art?
Witty and perceptive she may be, but clearly, Scout Finch is not strong on compassion. Within the first three chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird, she shames Dill, slanders Boo Radley, mortifies Miss Caroline, beats up and then dresses down Walter Cunningham, and sprinkles in some rather harsh commentary on a cast of other Maycomb characters: Calpurnia “was all angles and bones; she was nearsighted; she squinted; her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard”; Miss Stephanie Crawford was “a neighborhood scold”; Mrs.
I’ve just finished re-reading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter. In it, twice-widowed Hannah retells Port William’s story from the view of her places in and around it—the rundown farm of her childhood in Shagbark, the boarding-house room in Hargrave, the generous Port William farmstead of the Feltners, and finally “the old Cuthbert place” that she and Nathan loved back into being. It is a story already partly told, from different vantage points, by Jayber Crow, Andy Catlett, Nathan Coulter, and the other Port William characters who narrate Berry’s novels.
Among the more famous doors in literature is one “perfectly round . . . like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle”: the front door of Bilbo Baggins’s Bag End, through which his unwelcome adventure arrives with thirteen dwarves and one wizard on a Wednesday afternoon. Yet, however distinctive, Bilbo’s door shares a characteristic common to all doors: it fits the nature of the house it guards and the guests it welcomes. A perfectly round door does very well as the entry to a round hobbit-tunnel, and it does very well in admitting small round hobbits.
Lifting the thin wafer, the man suspends it a moment before the eyes of those gathered before him. The crack as it’s split in half breaks a silence brewed for centuries—a silence of meditation and memory, its vintage richer every year, bitter and sweet together. Following the crack come the words: “There arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not of the good deeds that Joseph had done for that country . .
A recent reading in Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music, and Time fascinated me with an exploration of the way that music educates our emotions. His account reminded me of similar explanations of the way that stories shape our responses and hence our character—for example, the Pevensies knew the robin could be trusted because, as Peter reminded them, robins are good birds in all the stories; and Eustace had no idea what to do in Narnia because he had read all the wrong books.
“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?”
That question, posed by and answered in James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, is one of the most helpful aids to teacherly meditation and evaluation that I know. It is always timely, always chastening, always hope-bringing. For not only do I easily forget to love, and forget what to love, but I also forget what love is. Excitement and enthusiasm for my subject? Connection to my students? Passion in directing our studies towards love of God?