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?
Long ago there lived a people who believed the world was made of music. Above them the skies sang, and within them melody knit their marrow to their souls. So, hearing harmony in the both the world without and the world within, they created their own music to echo it. Through the art of composition, they transposed intangible universal laws into realities grasped by human senses. These people were the medievals, and they believed in the harmony of the spheres—a cosmology that, for them, had the same explanatory power that the solar system does for us moderns.
I used to think of teaching as a kind of seed-sowing: you toss the little specks into the ground, lose sight of them, and pray they’ll sprout and flourish and bear fruit. But as I have been preparing my garden for this spring, I have changed my mind. Teaching is a lot more like cultivating dirt.
In literature, as in life, ending well is the great, hard achievement. No mere conclusion, an ending completes and shapes the meaning of the whole story, the whole life. Last week my students and I reached the ending to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which surprises the reader as much as it does the characters. The steady degeneration of the boys’ miniature society into bloodthirsty, animistic savagery climaxes in the hunting of a boy who’s destined to be impaled and offered as an appeasement to the fantastic, unknown Beast of the island.
When I’m thirty pages and fifty comma splices into my weekend’s worth of grading, that fifty-first comma splice often gives me pause. Is it worth writing in this correction again, I wonder? Does the repetition actually help? Or will the students just mindlessly transcribe my edits into their computer documents, reprint the assignment, and turn in a clean paper that signifies no learning?
Throughout this strange December—strung with news of bombings and shootings; campaign bickerings; and quiet, solemn tragedies closer to home—hope burns on in the bright-edged realism of the Christmas carols.
Ours is a word-formed world. God spoke, and it came to be; echoing Him, we speak, and our words also form “worlds.” Not ex nihilo, but as sub-creators, our words shape the raw facts we encounter into meaningful entities among which we can dwell. There is a tree: the pagan calls it a deity; the Puritan calls it a cipher of God’s attributes; the scientist, a specimen; the lumberjack, a commodity; the child, a fortress. Repeated a million times over, this naming shapes the whole meaning we make and response we owe to the world.