In a systematic theology class at an American seminary, a strangely dressed man takes a seat one morning and all the seminarians sneak glances at him. His clothes are strange. When the professor arrives, he asks the stranger to identify himself. The stranger claims he has been sent from the future. The professor appears alarmed at first, but asks the stranger what he wants. The stranger says he has been sent from the future to learn about the beliefs of the past. The professor tells the stranger he may ask the seminary students whatever he would like.
Do you care if you’re remembered after death?
We need our homes. But we have things, and our things need homes, too. Some of our things can stay with us, but we have so many things, all of our things will not fit in our homes. And so we have built little apartment complexes for our things which we call storage units. Many of our things live in nicer little homes than a great many human beings in the world.
From time to time, typically while teaching Dante, a student objects to the entire Divine Comedy and claims, “Good works are symbolic, but they do not accomplish anything tangible. We perform good works to show that we love God. Good works are born out of a love of God, but are not synonymous with a love of God.”
We have all read the story in which the “classy detective with a sixth sense and an addiction,” accompanied by his “naive sidekick,” deduces that the “suicide case,” closed by the “bumbling policeman,” is obviously a murder. The author invokes “stormy skies” which reflect the detective’s mental state as he confronts a “secret from his past,” leading inevitably to redundant sequels, poorly parroting the style of the Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These well-worn clichés constitute the matter of what Annie Dillard would call dishonest literature.
In the first portion of our excursion through the sticky saying that we discover in Homer’s Achilles I explored the idea that we’re not as different from Achilles as we think. Hearkening back to Bespaloff (On the Iliad), we might at this point be able to recognize that while in spirit we admire Hektor, more often than not in action we emulate Achilles. For confirmation, we only need to survey our society in which appearances, wealth, fame, brash self-assertion, and power are our golden calves.
In 1982, Walter Warren Milliken was the third wealthiest man in the world. Oil magnate, news chief, captain of the steel industry, shipping merchant, beef and milk tycoon. Fifty years old, five wives behind him, Milliken was the only Western man worth more than a billion dollars who wore a full beard. He said, “The fullness of the earth is mine,” and ate raw pink abalone every day. For twelve minutes one Christmas Eve, he became possessed by a demon with an unpronounceable name. Strong as a bear in the arms.
A few weekends ago, on a bitter forty-degree night (oh you who laugh, you too might shiver if you lived in the South where no buildings hold heat and no people own coats!), a hundred or so people braced against the chill to take in the wonder being enacted on the outdoor stage: a one-man performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, delivered with subtlety and zest by a skilled local actor, who seemed to have memorized every page of the novella, word-perfect.
We teach Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn every year in our American Lit class. Despite its unassailable status as an all-time classic of the genre, my reasons for the choice are as personal as they are professional. I assign it over and over because of how much I loved it as a boy.
It is December and the year is waning. The calendar year fades away with its annual decline, while the liturgical year renews itself again in Advent. I don't know about you, but I delight in fresh starts, as long as I carry into the that new beginning a unified vision and the practices to support it.