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Thinking Out Loud
  • There Be Dragons

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 11, 2014

    Recently, my old friend Scott Black Johnston and I spent a morning wandering through The Cloisters at the northern-most tip of Manhattan Island. This museum, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum system, contains some of the most extraordinary treasures of medieval art and architecture to be found anywhere in the world.  

    The seven beautiful (and piercingly sad) tapestries of the "Hunt of the Unicorn" are worthy of a visit even if one saw nothing else in the museum. The tapestry titled, "The Unicorn is Found" has been read by many as a visual allegory of Christ's passion. It is extraordinarily moving interpreted through that lens. However, I have to say, the next tapestry in the series, "The Unicorn is Attacked," took my breath away when it is read Christologically. This tapestry portrays the gratuitous violence of the crucifixion as powerfully as the most graphic crucifix, placing the murderous spears in the hands of the twelve hunters (who, in the previous panel, may represent the apostles).  

    Moving from room to room in the magnificent building that looks like a Romanesque or Gothic monastery transplanted from the French countryside to the cliffs above the Hudson River, I was most struck by the recurrence of one particular figure in paintings, statues, frescoes, tapestries and other works of art: the dragon.  

    Dragons lurk everywhere in medieval art. Crushed beneath the heels of Christ or a saint, an abbot or a unidentified "wild man," dragons yield to the power of God. Rushing through the air pursued or pursuing a lion, one dragon displays the aerodynamic features of a jet in a fresco that looks like it was painted by an Art Deco enthusiastic, though the guidebook assures us that it is Spanish, ca.1200. Curled beneath the talons of an eagle, another dragon looks menacing, its tongue lapping at the air ready to spit fire, despite the bird's tenacious grip.  

    Evil, we are told again and again in medieval art, is all around us. Dangerous though it may be to mortals like us, spreading its malignancies through pestilence, warfare and crime, evil is ultimately defeated already by Christ.  

    One art object, in particular, almost teases and mocks evil, converting the good news into a message of divine comedy. A golden water vessel (known technically as an aquamanile) is crafted in the shape of a dragon. It sits on a table or shelf as harmless as a small terrier, its mouth agape as a spout, its tail curled into a handle. The fierce beast may once have breathed fire, but its fire is now quenched by the water in which you wash your hands for dinner.  

    The interplay of the art, from a faith perspective, is almost overwhelming. Yes, the dragon causes great suffering, yes, its venom and fire inflict great pain, but the dragon's end is already assured.  

  • Rough Neighborhood

    by Michael Jinkins | Feb 04, 2014

    Jim Stewart, the pastor of the Danville Presbyterian Church in Kentucky has a great sense of history. He serves one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Kentucky. Indeed, his congregation, organized in 1784, reputedly once occupied the first house of worship for Presbyterians in Kentucky; a replica of the log church stands today on Constitution Square in Danville. Last fall while I was there preaching for the Danville Church, Jim gave me a copy of their history: Richard C. Brown's The Presbyterians; Two Hundred Years in Danville, 1784-1984 (1983).  

    There are older Presbyterian churches in the United States. The Reverend Patrick O'Connor, a trustee of Louisville Seminary, serves the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Queens, in New York City, a church which started in 1662, and has bragging rights to being the oldest continuously serving Presbyterian Church in the United States. But as I read Brown's history of the church in Danville, a town proud also to be home to Centre College and the birthplace for Danville Presbyterian Seminary, our predecessor, I was again struck by what a rough neighborhood Kentucky was in the late eighteenth century.  

    Of course, it wasn't even Kentucky then. In those days we would have been considered Virginians. And a good deal of the "roughness" of the neighborhood was in fact caused by our own Presbyterian forebears who were not particularly polite to their church-going neighbors.  

    These were the years just before and after the American Revolution, you see. The organizing pastor of the Danville church settled his family there in 1783, the year Britain recognized the independence of the new United States of America. Feelings still ran high in the former colonies, especially toward those former colonists who belonged to the Anglican Church, the state Church of England. Reading their story, I couldn't help but reflect on how far we've come in ecumenical relations.  

    Presbyterians could be particularly hostile to traveling Anglican clergy on the frontiers of the Carolinas and Virginia. One such traveling Anglican, the Reverend Charles Woodmason, writing in his journal, complained bitterly of bothersome Presbyterians.  

    Presbyterians "interfered" with Rev. Woodmason's pastoral activities, he tells us, by changing the dates of preaching services on posted notices, hiding the keys to the Anglican meeting houses, and distributing whiskey "two hours before his services to get his congregation drunk." Presbyterians, he said, refused him hospitality (a serious offense on the frontier) and gave him false directions. "And if that wasn't enough, one entry in his journal states, 'they hir'd a band of rude fellows to come to service who brought with them 57 dogs (for I counted them) which in Time of Service they set fighting, and I was obliged to stop.'"  

    The passage that raises Rev. Woodmason's complaint to art is that parenthetical remark "for I counted them." Can't you just picture this poor Anglican preacher in a spin, besieged by ruffians and dogs, stopping to count the fifty-seven cantankerous canines?  

    I'm pleased to say that relations between the Anglican and Reformed communions has improved considerably since the seventeen hundreds. Benign neglect of the ties that bind is, thankfully, our most egregious ecumenical failing.  



  • Lewis Sherrill: Presbyterian Pioneer for Theological Education

    by User Not Found | Jan 30, 2014

    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us

    This blog post was guest-written by Louis WeeksPresident Emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. In retirement, he preaches and teaches, consults with churches and seminaries, and he contributes for websites including Faith and Leadership and Resourcing American Christianity.  He is the author of a number of books, most recently: To Be a Presbyterian, Revised Edition, 2010, and A Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What's Working and Why (2012). For 24 years he was a member of the faculty of Louisville Seminary.

    In his sesquicentennial history of the seminary, Many Lewis Joseph SherrillLamps, One Light, Rick Nutt claims that the contributions of Lewis Sherrill helped "make Louisville stand out in the practical area of theological education-the area for which it has been best known and most distinctive."[1] True, indeed! In fact, one can argue that few others have done as much as this pioneer to set the course for appropriate preparation for congregational ministry in North America.

    When we moved to Louisville in 1970 and I began teaching at the Seminary, Helen Sherrill was among the first to offer us the hospitality of her home. She had us for dinner after I preached at the Anchorage Presbyterian Church, where she had been the first woman ruling elder. All four of us were there--our son Lou who was five, second son Sid age three, my wife Carolyn, and me--all of us! Lou and Sid behaved well for the most part. Carolyn and I did too, for that matter.

    Over the mantel in her home, Mrs. Sherrill had a dignified portrait of Lewis, her deceased husband. He gazed out on us with a penetrating look, a half smile. Both kids noticed his portrait. I determined to learn more about both of the Sherrills. And so I came to appreciate Helen Sherrill pioneering in the social work arena, her lobbying for women to become students at Louisville, and her church leadership. And I contributed an article for the Journal of Presbyterian History on the contributions Lewis Sherrill made to theological education and to the church more broadly.[2]

    Lewis Sherrill was a Texan. Born in Haskell, Texas in 1882, he stayed in Texas through his undergraduate experience at Austin College (A.B., 1916). Venturing East, he came to Louisville Seminary for a B.D., interrupted as he served the YMCA and the U.S. Army during World War I. Graduating from Louisville in 1921, he married Helen a week later and soon was serving the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Tennessee. As a pastor he read broadly and deeply in the new discipline of psychology, and he joined the vibrant Religious Education Movement in its early years.

    The faculty at Louisville recognized his gifts as well as his new area of involvement, and they called him to become a member in 1925. He taught such subjects as "Religious Education," "Church Efficiency," and "The Religious Education of Adolescents." As it did for some other members, the Louisville faculty gave him a leave for Ph.D. studies at Yale University under Luther Weigle. Sherrill and his family returned to Louisville in time for the Great Depression, which tested the resilience of Louisville Seminary as other schools and non-profits more generally. Nevertheless, he taught and preached prolifically throughout the thirties. He found time, too, to write some profound, simple books for the church: Presbyterian Parochial Schools...,(1932) Religious Education in the Small Church,(1932) Becoming a Christian(1943), and The Rise of Christian Education, (1945).

    While some in the Religious Education Movement paid more attention to the social sciences than to the Bible and the Church, Lewis Sherrill certainly was not one of them. His 663 sermons, archived in the Ernest White Library, reveal his mature struggle with the texts of Old and New Testaments, a rich comprehension of the issues confronting congregants, and a concern with the whole of the Christian life. Over time, his orthodox conservative theology yielded to a variegated ecumenical, inclusive worldview, as for many of us.

    Sherrill's later books, for which he is better known, Guilt and Redemption (1945), The Struggle of the Soul, (1951), and The Gift of Power (1955), evidence the anxiety and the retreat from a facile faith in progress that had characterized the pre-war West. Increasingly, his writing focused on the crucial nature of Christian community and congregational koinonia. All three books grew from lectures he provided for various seminaries. All exercised considerable influence on the whole generation of post-World War II theological leaders, not just Christian educators and those in practical theology. And his influence emanated from his administration as well as from his books and teaching.

    Sherrill spent 20 years as Dean of Louisville Seminary and helped, with Charles Pratt and Morton Hanna, fashion the unique "Todd-Dickey Rural Training Parish" experience for hundreds of seminarians, permitting them supervised ministry in small groups while they served small churches in southern Indiana. This "laboratory" for apprenticeship in ministry, in turn, helped characterize the distinctively practical nature of the Seminary's course for future. Naturally, such a trajectory would later come to include such elements of the of Louisville Seminary courses of study as the DMin program, the congregation-based instruction, and even the focus on marriage and family therapy.

    When theological seminaries banded together for mutual support in an increasingly bureaucratized culture of American higher education and to establish standards for the various degree programs, Sherrill made another contribution by serving as the first Executive Secretary of the nascent American Association of Theological Schools, from 1935 to 1938. He gave again as its president, from 1938 to 1940. There he made certain that supervised "field education" was part of the curriculum, as well as practical theology.

    Sherrill moved to Union, New York, for the final seven years of his teaching career, 1950-1957, the year of his death. His final two works were published while he served there. But the major work of Lewis Sherrill occurred while he served and helped lead Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.          

    [1] Rick Nutt, Many Lamps, One Light: Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary: A 150th Anniversary History. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002). p.72.

    [2] Weeks, Lewis Sherrill: The Christian Educator and Christian Experience. Journal of Presbyterian History (1973)   pp. 235-248.

  • Bonhoeffer and the Mission of a Seminary

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 26, 2014

    The kind of education needed to lead congregations wisely and well has been debated for centuries. One can discern the battle lines being drawn in the early church. But in the modern era this battle has often broken out in the apparently placid halls of academe.

    What do those preparing for ministry need to know and when should they know it? And where should it be taught and by whom?

    In Europe, during the past couple of centuries, there was a sharp division between theological education as it was understood and taught in universities and the practical instruction for ministry provided by seminaries. The most recently published volume of the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 (Fortress 2013) reveals Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attitude to this division.

    The editor comments: “Like many other university students of the time, Bonhoeffer viewed the requirement of attending one of the church’s seminaries which were designed to provide practical instruction preparing students for the second examination necessary for ordination, as a waste of time. Students such as Bonhoeffer, who had been engaged in the rigorous academic work demanded by the universities, did not think that much was to be gained from this requirement. However, by the mid-1930s his attitude had changed dramatically; the changed circumstances in which the church found itself made the underground seminaries of the Confessing Church a necessity.” Virtually overnight, we learn, the seminaries went from being, as Eberhard Bethge said, “the step-child” to “the darling” of the church (2). In fact, one need only peruse the companion volumes 14 and 15 (the second of which was previously published in 2012 as Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940) in Bonhoeffer’s works to understand why both Bonhoeffer’s and the church’s attitude changed toward theological education.

    The crisis faced by the church in Bonhoeffer’s time was, of course, the rise of Nazism and its totalitarian claims, its efforts to bring every aspect of human life under the singular rule of Hitler and the political, nationalistic, racial and social ideology he represented.  For an all too brief, shining moment there was a viable resistance movement within the church, but this soon splintered then calcified, as the world plunged into war. By attending to the efforts of Bonhoeffer and others during this interlude we can learn a great deal about the purpose of theological education.

    Bonhoeffer, as leader of a seminary to provide ministers to the “Confessing Church,” adamantly refused to allow the study of scripture and theology to devolve into merely “objective” disciplines. His deep critical understanding of scripture and his astonishing knowledge of theology and the history of Christian doctrines are evident everywhere in his lectures. He is unsentimental in his views of community, staunchly anti-utopian and subtle in his analysis of social justice. He is courageous and courageously inconsistent, a man of integrity who navigated the realities of a dangerous political world deftly. All of thiscould have been said of him as a university professor. What one sees coming to the fore during these crucial years, however, is the confessional subjectivity of this remarkable teacher and his understanding of the vital roles of preaching, pastoral care, spiritual nurture, teaching, catechism and biblical study in the lives of the whole people of God.  He wants his students to inhabit a theological world, to allow spiritual realities to shape them into a particular kind of congregational leader.

    Bonhoeffer points to the incompleteness of the study of theology that refuses to be mindful of confession of faith. He also notes the fragmentary nature of a study of scripture that will not recognize that this text which we critically examine is the earthen vessel through which God’s Word is communicated. Perhaps even more significantly, Bonhoeffer’s change of attitude reflects an elevation of the life of the laity—to seeing the whole people of God (in all the complexities and contradictions of their lives) as Christ’s Body in the world.

    Each crisis bears its own gifts. The crisis faced by Bonhoeffer’s church and academy is very different from the crisis we face today. Our culture is racked by divisions of all sorts; some people seem to nurse a spirit of aggrievement in order to gain power over others who are different. Others just nurture the divisions themselves for personal and political gain. A galloping sense of entitlement and exceptionalism fans the flames of individualism, threatening even the most essential institutions. At the same time, the hide-bound entrenchment of institutions resists even the most necessary changes that would allow them to adapt, flourish and nourish human life for generations to come (the essential benefit of institutions in the first place).  I could, of course, go on and on, but analysts of our society and church have trodden this ground until it is a beaten path. Theological education that hopes to address the contemporary crisis must hold together the critical and the constructive. It must be courageously counter-cultural in insisting on the highest standards of knowledge and critical thinking. But it must be equally courageous and equally counter-cultural in insisting on the scandal of the gospel. I find that the three sentences beginning with “our culture is racked” could be more explicit and clearer overall. I find the assertions rather too abstract to know precisely which societal/cultural divisions and problems you are alluding to.

    The biggest questions facing theological education today are not related to which “delivery platforms for educational content” you may wish to choose; the biggest questions concern the very purposes of graduate-level theological education in the first place. For what ends are our students learning? The roles they will play in leading congregations must determine what they need to know and how we can best teach them (and learn with them).

    What I find most hopeful in Bonhoeffer’s story can be summarized simply. I find it hopeful that in the midst of crisis people are indeed able to change and to grow. Bonhoeffer certainly caught a new vision for theological education which led him to serve as leader of the seminary at Finkenwalde (1935-1937) and to find new ways to provide theological education underground after Finkenwalde was closed. The students who studied with Bonhoeffer were products, as was he (as are most of us who teach in seminaries today) of the university system which had previously had no time for the kind of seminary they founded together at Finkenwalde. I also find it encouraging that the seminary they founded was not a replication of the ones that preceded them. In a time that demanded uniformity of thought (under the totalizing power of Nazism) they formed a kind of Protestant monastic community whose allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ was a deliberate provocation and act of resistance. And, I find it deeply hopeful that they believed that history lies in God’s hands and that the Word of God speaks whether through us or despite us, but that what we do matters as an expression of God’s love for God’s whole world.

    As Bonhoeffer said in a sermon on Isaiah 60: 1-6: “But be consoled, do not become depressed at the darkness over the earth; it will become light, light through you.” (598)

  • The Maladjusted Prophet

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 21, 2014

    Most of us cannot now hear a particular passage from the Prophet Amos without thinking of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The passage reads: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The prophet’s words are carved into stones memorializing Dr. King’s legacy, and, I suspect, will always be linked to the martyred leader’s ministry.

    What may not be remembered, however, are Dr. King’s fascinating characterizations of the Prophet Amos, and some others, which appear in some of his greatest writings and sermons.  In Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (a text that should be considered essential to the “canon” of sacred documents in our national life), Dr. King speaks of the role of the extremist in our culture. “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction,” he writes, from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love…. Was not Amos an extremist for justice…. Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ….” (James Washington, ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 297; all quotes from Dr. King in this blog are from this invaluable volume.)

    Dr. King’s characterization of the Prophet Amos as an extremist reminds me of Abraham Heschel’s portrait of the prophets, as persons with a divinely gifted apprehension of evils among us to which we have become insulated to the point that we “may be dying without being aware of it.” “The prophet’s word,” Rabbi Heschel once wrote, “is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” (The Prophets, New York, Harper & Row, 1962, Vol. 1: pp. xii, 16) Amos, like the other prophets, feels the world at a higher intensity than most of us. All of the prophets are as Dr. King observed, “extremists”: extreme in their sensitivity, extreme in their unwillingness to accept the harm done to others as “standard operating procedures.”

    In several other writings, however, Dr. King uses another term to characterize the work of the Prophet Amos and others: “maladjusted.” Dr. King is being deliberately ironic in these writings, taking a term used to dismiss behaviors as odd or pathological and breathing into that term a new and deeper ethical understanding.  Dr. King observes that there is a technical sense in which the word “maladjusted” can be usefully employed. In psychological terms, none of us want to be thought “maladjusted,” he observes. “But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination,” he writes, “I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.”  (Washington ed./ King, “The Current Crisis in Race Relations” 1958, p. 89)

    A prophet, like the Prophet Amos, according to Dr. King, is and ought to be “maladjusted” to the injustices of the age. Amos’ maladjustment led him to cry out, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

     In various sermons and addresses across the years, Dr. King included Lincoln and Jefferson in his list of the socially and ethically maladjusted, along with Jesus of Nazareth. But, in his last sermon, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968, on the eve of his assassination, Dr. King does something very interesting as well as prophetic. He seems to assume that his audience has heard his previous comments about the maladjusted prophet, and he becomes even more personal, even more intimate in his invitation to those listening to his address. “We need all of you,” he says. “And you know what’s beautiful to me, is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel…. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.’” (Washington, ed./King, “I See the Promised Land” p. 282)

    Abraham Heschel, in a fascinating chapter in Volume 2 of his study of The Prophets, reflects on “Prophecy and Psychosis.” Interestingly, he titled a section of this chapter, “The Prophets are Morally Maladjusted.” He writes: “The prophet is a person who suffers from a profound maladjustment to the spirit of society, with its conventional lies, with its concessions to man’s weakness…. The prophet’s maladaptation to his environment may be characterized as moral madness (as distinguished from madness in a psychological sense).” Rabbi Heschel’s analysis helps us understand the genius of Dr. King’s ethical insight, and, by extension, of Dr. King’s invitation to us all. Heschel writes: “The prophet claims to sense, to hear, and to see in a way totally removed from the normal perception, to pass from the actual world into a mysterious realm, and still be able to return properly oriented to reality and to apply the content of his perception to it. While his mode of perception may differ sharply from the perceptions of other human beings, the ideas he brings back to reality become a source of illumination of supreme significance to all other human beings.” (Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 2, 188)

    Let us give thanks for the maladjusted prophets with whom God has blessed us. And let us pray that we may share in their spirit of maladjustment for the sake of the reign of God among us.

  • Fatal Events

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 14, 2014

    Please file this blog under "Rants."

    The commercial for a new pharmaceutical wonder - marketed directly to the public - touts its remarkable healing powers complete with heart-warming video.  Then, in the audio disclaimer, we are warned of the drug's unfortunate side-effects.  "Ask your doctor if Winklemyoxydromide is right for you. Side effects, which are usually temporary, may include vomiting a weird purple gelatinous substance while whistling annoying commercial jingles, uncontrollable shouting of the words "Huxtable  wobbles," scurvy, dropsy, oopsy, and doopsy.  Some subjects have experienced a fatal event while taking Winklemyoxydromide.  See your physician immediately if you experience any of these side effects."

    Hold the phone!  

    I ran the commercial back using the replay function on that clever handheld television control device of which the U.S. Constitution guarantees every male citizen of this country exclusive possession.  There it was again!  

    "You may experience a fatal event," stated with the insouciance of the soulless.  

    I turn to my bewildered spouse, who is doing something constructive, though I can't recall what.  

    "What does that mean," I ask.  "A fatal event?"  

    "Death," answers Debbie.  


    Since when did death become a fatal event?  

    Can we really imagine Dylan Thomas raging, raging against the fatal eventuating of the illumination?  

    Those of us of a certain age will remember a comedy routine by the late George Carlin, in which he talks about the tendency in American culture to use language to avoid meaning while simultaneously increasing the syllable count.  Turns out that not only was Carlin brilliant and hilarious, as well as stunningly profane, but also prophetic.  The fatally-eventuated (aka, late) Carlin chronicled the inflation of terms that over time become increasingly less clear.

    "I don't like words that hide the truth," Carlin says, "I don't like words that conceal reality."  

    Carlin took as his prime example the term "shell shock."  Memorable, simple, clear, descriptive (two alliterative syllables), the term "shell shock" was coined in the First World War, Carlin said, to describe the condition of soldiers who were psychologically scarred by the terrors of war.  "The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap."  By the time of the Second World War, "shell shock" had become battle fatigue, "four syllables now," Carlin said, and it doesn't sound so bad, maybe a condition you could cure with a nice nap.  During the Korean War, "shell shock" had become "operational exhaustion," eight syllables and the condition "sounds like something that might happen to your car."  In the Vietnam War, "shell shock" became post-traumatic stress disorder, eight syllables PLUS a hyphen: unimaginable pain, Carlin says, "buried under jargon."  

    His humor lifts up for us the obfuscation masquerading as euphemism that has become so prevalent in contemporary society that we hardly notice that we ought to call it by its original term:  lies. 

    So, back to my rant.  The ad (if it should be made at all, and frankly I think it is a bad idea to market pharmaceuticals directly to the public) should say: "If you take this drug, your pimples might clear up, but you also may die."  

    By the way, I guarantee the next euphemism for death will be “post-existential episode” (more syllables, a hyphen and even less clear).

  • Overcoming Tribalism

    by Michael Jinkins | Jan 07, 2014

    By now we've all seen the relatively new research about the aversion very small children have to people who differ from them. "Stranger aversion" runs just as deeply in society, it seems, as its opposite "hospitality" runs in our faith.

    Jared Diamond, in his brilliant study of traditional societies, "The World Yesterday" (New York: Penguin, 2012), observes that aversion to, suspicion and distrust of strangers is a common element in most traditional, small scale societies. Based on five decades of personal, in-depth research among small tribes as varied as the Dani (from the Baliem Valley of the New Guinea Highlands) and the !Kung (from Africa's Kalahari Desert), Diamond analyzes many aspects of their cultural norms, one of the most fascinating of which relates to a frequently observed aversion to strangers. Clearly Rousseau missed something pretty important on this score.

    Diamond observes that "speakers from the Central !Kung dialect" refer to speakers of their own dialect (relatively speaking, a very small and localized society) as "true, good, honest, clean, not harmful" persons.  They have a word specifically constructed for those who speak their same dialect. They also have a specific term for those who do not share their tribal dialect: "bad, strange, harmful." Diamond writes: "Like members of other small-scale societies, the !Kung are apprehensive of strangers. In practice, they succeed in finding some kin term to apply to almost every !Kung whom they meet. But if you meet a strange !Kung and can't discover any relationships ... then he is a trespasser whom you should drive off or kill."

    Of another tribal group, the Nuer, Diamond comments that strangers are either attacked, particularly if they belong to the rival tribe, the Dinka, or they are "merely despised (if they belong to any other type of people.)" From their perspective, there are really only three categories of humanity: their tribe (whom they trust and defend); the Dinka people (whom they hate and with whom they war); and all other people in the world (whom they despise and look down on).

    During his extensive travels and research in New Guinea, Diamond has observed a similar phenomenon among traditional societies there. The concept, indeed, of friendship, in the sense of "people we like" and with whom we "share interests," is foreign. Instead one finds commonality on the basis of "whether one's group is politically allied with the other person's group." At one particularly self-revealing moment in Diamond's account, he says, referring to the concept of friendship: "I was astonished to realize that I had been making an incorrect assumption of supposed human universals that It hadn't even occurred to me to question."

    Diamond's analysis of traditional societies provides valuable insights into our common humanity and fascinating ideas, for example about child-rearing, that we would do well to study, perhaps even imitate. But when it comes to stranger-aversion, the resonance between the insularity and tribal-affiliations of traditional societies and certain aspects of modern culture and politics in the United States are disturbing.

    I confess that there are times when I am surprised, for instance during an election cycle, of the similarities between bitterly divisive political ads in the three regions where we have roots: Kentuckiana; Georgia; and Texas. I'm sure the same can be said of political ads in virtually every state of the Union, but I know from personal experience that in all three of these "markets" I have seen political ads that reassure the viewer (often in a deep, well-modulated, but "folksy" voice): "The people of [fill in the name of your local tribe] are hard-working, family-minded people. We use our common sense. We go to church on Sunday, we love and care for our children and our elders, and still value the things that matter." By implication, people from other tribes and regions are lazy, irreligious, lacking in common sense, don't love their families, don't care for children or old folks, and have rotten values. There's a version of "thinking local" that is really just an expression of tribalism, in other words, and it is neither very attractive, nor productive, nor conducive to our basic humanity.

    Reading Diamond's study, I reflected anew on one of the most formative books of the twentieth century, Martin Buber's classic I and Thou. This remarkable book shaped the thinking of generations of theologians, philosophers, cultural students and political thinkers, its terminology entering the mainstream of our speech. Buber challenges us to move beyond making "objects" of other people, projecting onto them our assumptions and stereotypes or simply using them to promote our own agendas, to see and hear and understand other persons as living subjects, as "thou" in relation to "I." By so doing, we reflect the fundamental "I and Thou" relationship between God and each of us.

    There seems to be an act of intellectual empathy that precedes and makes possible the emotional empathy needed to transcend a tribal aversion to strangers. Once we can fathom that every other person, however different, however distant, is also made in God's image, indeed, that the image of God is most fully reflected in our being in relationship, then we are empowered to imagine what it means to be both human and different. There's no real virtue in loving those who are just like us and who serve our interests, at least according to Jesus of Nazareth; virtue lies in loving those who are different, even potentially troublesome. Maybe Jesus knew a thing or two about overcoming the destructive power of tribes. 

  • Yet Another Auld Lang Syne

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 31, 2013

    The threshold of each New Year is decked with tinsel and anticipation. Celebrationis the dominant theme. But as anyone who has lived through several New Years knows each year like each day brings its own troubles and challenges. These lie before us unknown scrabbled among the joys to come. How we negotiate the unknown aspects of yet another auld lang syne says a great deal about us and our faith. 

    Late one damp English night last summer, Debbie and I were taken on an after-hours tour of St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, by a member of the Military Knights of Windsor. An inscription we saw at the tomb of King George VI spoke to us of the faith necessary to deal with the future. 

    King George VI was the reluctant monarch who guided Britain through the Second World War. His brave story is told in the movie "The King's Speech" in which Colin Firth plays the part of the King. The inscription at his tomb comes from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins, and it was quoted by the King in his radio broadcast on Christmas Day 1939, the first Christmas of the conflict which would become World War II. 

    The inscription reads: 

    "I said to the man

    who stood at the

    gate of the year,

    Give me a light that I

    may tread safely into the unknown

    And he replied

    Go out into the

    darkness and put your

    hand into the hand of

    God, that shall be to

    you better than a light

    and safer than a

    known way."

    When I was young I did a lot of camping, hiking and canoeing, much of it in the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota and Canada. We would trek into the wilderness for weeks at a time, portaging from one lake or stream to another across rocky trails. On one of these trips our guide allowed the group to experiment a bit with our rudimentary navigational skills, and we ventured off our map and wound up in a swampy region beset by clouds of mosquitoes and the biggest, most vicious flies I had ever seen. Even the faint trail disappeared as darkness fell. I still recall the fear I felt testing each footstep, longing for a little more light to see us safely to higher ground where we might pitch camp for the night. But it was the hand of our experienced guide that got us through our misadventure and back on a safe path. 

    Doubtless we have all been on a path when the one thing we wished for was light. But the King's inscription reminds us that there is something even better. 

    Whatever this New Year brings - and I hope it brings you great joy - we can be sure it will bring challenges and even sorrows as well. May God's hand guide you through the unknown.   

  • The Christmas Miracle

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 17, 2013


    The miracle of Christmas has been described so beautifully by so many, from the authors of the gospels to contemporary poets. Here is a classic description and its modern echo: 

    Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the greatest theologians of the early church, preached a sermon, "Christmas, the Word of God Cannot be Explained by Humanity." It remains one of the most evocative descriptions of the miracle of Christmas. 

    "And now, with what words shall we praise the love of God? What thanks shall we give you? God so loved us that for our sakes, God, through whom time was made, was made in time; and God, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of God's servants in the world; God who made humanity was made a man; God was given existence by a mother whom God brought into existence; God was carried in the hands which God formed; God nursed at breasts which God filled; God cried like a baby in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless." 

    Madeleine L'Engle, famous for her classic book, A Wrinkle in Time has written some moving reflections on her faith, including The Irrational Season from which this Augustinian echo comes: 

    "Cribb'd, cabined, and confined within the contours of a human infant. The infinite defined by the finite? The Creator of all life thirsty and abandoned? Why would he do such a thing? Aren't there easier and better ways for God to redeem his fallen creatures?" 

    However we try to articulate the Christmas event which theologian Karl Rahner described as "the miracle of the possibility of the free gift," the incarnation remains beyond even the best gifts of our greatest wordsmiths. 

    In the presence of the Eternal Word made flesh all humanity falls silent. 

    Merry Christmas!  

  • An Improbable Union

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 13, 2013

    By Ashley Schaffner, with assistance from Rick Nutt 


    Editor's note: for the next several months, as we celebrate the 160th anniversary of our founding, Thinking Out Loud readers will receive sporadic blog posts about key people and events in the life of Louisville Seminary. We'd love for you to share your memories. Email us

    In 1853 a group of brave Presbyterian leaders launched the Danville Theological Seminary on the campus of Centre College in Danville, Ky. The seminary, like nearly every other seminary, barely survived the Civil War and the period of reconstruction that followed. In 1893, another Presbyterian seminary was started in Louisville. The Louisville seminary was made up mainly of southern Presbyterians, while the Danville Theological seminary was mainly northern Presbyterians. During a time when few thought the union of, or even cooperation between, these two groups was possible, leaders of the two schools joined forces in 1901 creating the only seminary jointly sponsored by both sides of the church. 

    Let's back up a bit to the middle of the 1895-96 school year at the seminary in Louisville. The endowment income was not as robust as seminary leaders expected, and churches were failing to provide sufficient gifts. To ease the financial pressure, the faculty recommended that aid no longer be offered to students, a decision that greatly decreased the number of applications and ultimately the student population. From 1896 to 1901, the student body had dwindled more than 50 percent (from an enrollment of 67 to just 28). 

    Post war struggles in Danville and the declining enrollment in Louisville had both seminaries in dire financial straits. It became clear that divided Presbyterianism in Kentucky could not support competing schools, and it was then that the seminary in Louisville began exploring merger with 'that other struggling Kentucky Seminary' in Danville. 

    Early talks eventually led to plans of consolidation, with both boards approving the merger in the spring of 1901. The Louisville board approved unanimously, although board member B.H. Young stated his judgment that the plan was "not satisfactory or wise." 

    The plan called for joint ownership and control of the new seminary in Louisville. The Board of Directors would have 24 members. The PCUS Synod of Kentucky elected six members, the PCUS Synod of Missouri elected six and the PCUSA Synod of Kentucky elected 12. Since the PCUSA did not have to elect people who were members of the synod, the school could receive wider ownership. The plan took into consideration the anticipated objections of those who saw the merger as being on 'shaky theological ground,' noting that both seminaries existed for the same purpose of educating people for ministry, and that the Confession of Faith and Catechisms of both churches were the same. The PCUSA synod approved the consolidation plan easily. 

    The PCUSA General Assembly voted in favor of consolidation without incident, but the proposal generated substantial opposition in the PCUS from those who feared cooperation with northerners who were considered more liberal (both theologically and socially). They reasoned that the Old School Calvinism of the PCUS could be compromised by the joint control of the training of the ministers. With questions of safeguarding the traditions of the PCUS muddying the waters, it became unclear whether the merger would actually ever happen. 

    When the PCUS General Assembly met in 1901, the Committee on Theological Seminaries, by a vote of six to five, recommended in its report that the denomination not approve the consolidation of Danville and Louisville. The majority sympathized with the difficulties of both seminaries, but, among other reasons, thought recruitment would only be more difficult if the seminary were put under outside control (outside the synod). 

    Thankfully, the issue finally came to a close when a substitute motion that included approval of the merger passed by a vote of 120 for and 56 against. It was clear that the General Assembly was not completely on board with the merger, especially when it made this declaration: 

    "That while the Assembly may not wholly approve the wisdom of the consolidation of the two seminaries, yet, in view of the fact that there was practical unanimity in the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri as to the measure, and because of the safeguards thrown about the compact, this court hereby imposes no bar to such consolidation, but gives its assent thereto, leaving the entire responsibility thereof to the Synods of Kentucky and Missouri." 

    In other words, "It's your baby. Good luck."

    A couple of protests were filed against the vote, but to no avail. And thus, Danville Seminary and Louisville Seminary were joined in 1901 as the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Kentucky. This was also the start of the modern-day Seminary's reputation of being a 'bridge' between North and South. Though the phrase was meant almost literally back then, the metaphor has changed over the decades. The modern-day Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary is still a bridge: a bridge between theological differences, a bridge between the academy and the church and a bridge between races and faiths.  

    Ashley Schaffner is director of communications at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Rick Nutt is professor of Religion at Muskingum University and author of Many Lamps One Light, a 150th Anniversary History of Louisville Seminary.

  • Flannery's Gift

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 10, 2013

    "Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work.... Please help me dear God to be agood writer and to get something else accepted.... I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace. Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing." [Flannery O'Connor, A Prayer Journal (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2013).

    Mary Flannery O'Connor got what she prayed for. That was the tragedy and the blessing of her life and her art.

    While working on her Master's degree at the University of Iowa, the young native of Savannah, Georgia (whose spoken tongue was all but indecipherable to her teacher, Paul Engle, when she asked him if she could be admitted to the Writer's Workshop) wrote an eloquent and moving journal of spiritual growth, now published as "A Prayer Journal." Page by page, traversing the calendar from January 1946 to September 1947, we are drawn into the inner life of a writer Thomas Merton refused to compare with the likes of Hemingway and Sartre, but with "someone like Sophocles." [Robert Giroux, "Introduction" to Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985), vii, xv. ]

    "I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God," she writes, "Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You." (39) At one moment she revels in the sense of serving as God's instrument to express an early published story, at another she laments her mediocrity, a mediocrity not only she feels in her art and craftsmanship, but in her humanity and love of God. "Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself; yet I see myself so equal to it that it is impossible not to throw it at myself." (22) "I don't want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feeling for Christ," she prays, "I want to feel. I want to love. Take me dear Lord, and set me in the direction I am to go." (35)

    Surely O'Connor is not the only young writer who has prayed, "Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel." (18) But the field of pious aspiring novelists narrows considerably to very few who might kneel with her to pray also: "I would like to write a beautiful prayer but I have nothing to do it from." (7) "I would like to be intelligently holy." (18) "Please help me to push myself aside." (3) And:"give me a strong Will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father." (5)

    She yearns for purgation, for the cleansing refining fire of God's love, to burn away the dross and to leave her pure and true. "What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that -- make mystics of cheeses." (38)

    O'Connor discerns a connection between suffering and sublimity that runs through Christian devotion. She prays for God to forge in her the beauty of virtue and art for which she believes she was created, and she prays for God to give her the courage to submit to the pain required for such beauty to be forged. She knows that only God's grace can make her open herself to God's creative work, and that only God's grace can sustain her through the course God sets for her. "We are dependent on God for our adoration of Him, adoration, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace, dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself. Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You.... Give me the grace to be impatient for the time when I see You face to face and need no stimulus than that to adore You." (8-9)

    What O'Connor did not know during the year in which she wrote these passages, during a year in which she also struggled with seminars and short stories and the start of her novel, Wise Blood, was that just before the Christmas of 1950, some three years after the close of this journal, on a mid-winter train journey home from Connecticut to Georgia, she would suffer her first attack of lupus, the disease at the hands of which she would suffer for the remaining thirteen years of her life, restricted to the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. This woman who prayed for an ascetic revolution, but also insisted that she didn't want to be a nun, nevertheless did undergo a kind of rural anchorite hermitage where "revelations of divine love" were crafted and recrafted to the incessant squawks of peacocks. W. A. Sessions, closes his introduction to O'Connor's prayer journal by observing: "Paradoxically, those years of suffering became the most fertile for her writing, and she produced some of the greatest fiction in American literature. Ironically, the prayers of her journal had been answered." (xii)

    I suspect that O'Connor might have quibbled with his adverbs. Her prayers, however, were answered. 

  • Leadership and Attentiveness

    by Michael Jinkins | Dec 03, 2013

    Over a decade ago, psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote some exceptionally helpful resources on "emotional intelligence." Leaders and students of leadership have learned a great deal especially from the essays on this subject which he contributed to the Harvard Business Review, such as "What Makes a Leader" and "Leadership That Gets Results." When I taught leadership, management and finance in Texas, I found Goleman's approach to flex between different leadership styles helpful for demonstrating to students how effective leaders draw on a variety of models of organizational leadership, shifting from one model to another depending on what is most needed in a particular moment with a particular organization. Goleman understood that the leader's "emotional intelligence" guides him or her to know what sort of personal touch or perspective or response is required at which moment.  

    In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, Goleman contributed new insights building on his earlier work in an essay titled, "The Focused Leader." Those responsible for leading organizations will want to read the article for themselves so I will not provide a comprehensive summary of his ideas. But I would like to zero-in on one key idea. You might consider this a follow-up on a theme introduced recently in the blog, "Would Jesus Multitask?" in which I explored attentiveness and mindfulness, subjects Goleman also discusses in his essay.  

    The "focused leader," according to Goleman, possesses sufficient self-understanding to be able to focus on the needs of others (within the organization and those served by the organization). People who are self-aware, those who have self-knowledge, are the most capable of relating well to others. As Goleman explains, those who are cognitively and emotionally empathic, those who demonstrate empathetic concern for others, are able to find an appropriate level of distance from the feelings of others (while also understanding those feelings cognitively and emotionally) so that they can respond wisely and well as leaders, and are able to resist merely reacting, i.e. being drawn into emotionally high situations such as conflicts.   

    Goleman describes this balance between feeling with others (empathy) and finding the appropriate emotional distance from them as the "intuition-deliberation mix." Those who get this "mix" just right are able to keep an organization moving forward while staying in relationship with the organization's internal and external constituencies. Those who get it wrong either lose touch with constituents or become so distracted by the anxiety or hostility of constituents that they can't lead. He provides a helpfully nuanced way to re-conceptualize some key insights many of us learned from Family Systems Theory. However, it is at the point of his analysis of strategic thinking that his insights really come home for me. 

    "Any business school course on strategy will give you the two main elements: exploitation of your current advantage and exploration of new ones," Goleman writes. He uses the terms "exploitation" and "exploration" in a technical sense familiar to those who have done strategic planning. He continues: "Exploitation requires concentration on the job at hand, whereas exploration demands open awareness to recognize new possibilities." 

    Both exploitation and exploration are essential to imagine innovative approaches and make them a reality on the ground. But exploitation, focusing as it does on making the most of the immediate situation, "is accompanied by activity in the brain's circuitry for anticipation and reward." As such, exploitation is reinforced by staying in the familiar course. If we did it "this way" last time and the time before that, and it worked well enough and we felt good, then we feel an internal motivation to keep doing it that way over and over in the future. However, in a rapidly changing environment (such as the one in which every organization exists today), exploitation of current advantages may not be what is needed "next," at least not if we want an organization to thrive into the future. 

    Exploration is required for successful innovation, but exploration requires a very different mindset from exploitation of current advantages. "When we switch to exploration," Goleman writes, "we have to make a deliberate cognitive effort to disengage from [the routine of exploitation] in order to roam widely and pursue fresh paths." Exploration not only does not feed the anticipation/reward circuitry of the brain that exploitation does, coasting along "in a familiar routine," it even creates some anxiety because it pushes us out into the unknown. And it is precisely here that a really problematic collision occurs that can prevent an organization from moving forward. 

    In order for exploration to be stimulated, leaders must be mentally, emotionally and (I would add) spiritually able to reflect creatively. What keeps this from happening? Goleman asks. "Sleep deprivation, drinking, stress, and mental overload all interfere with the executive circuitry used to make the cognitive switch [from exploitation to exploration]. To sustain the outward focus that leads to innovation, we need some uninterrupted time in which to reflect and refresh our focus." However, if the anxiety of an organization's internal or external constituency is sufficiently high and constituents are highly reactive, they may seek to keep the organization in the (relatively-speaking) more comfortable mode of exploitation. They may try to find ways to sabotage their leaders' capacity to explore and innovate by undermining the mental and emotional resilience of leaders. The long-term health and vitality of the organization can be held hostage by those with a strong interest in exploiting the present, unless leaders find ways to claim the time and space to rest and play, and sustain the good health necessary for generative and recreative thought.  

    Strategic thinking is a lot closer to surfing - sensing how and when and where to position yourself on the surfboard to ride a promising wave while staying aware of what is going on in the larger environment - than it is to producing a massively footnoted volume on the nature and destiny of your organization. Goleman helps us figure out at least a few of the most important things to pay attention to while we're paddling out to catch the next big one. The most important factor for good strategic thinking, however, according to Goleman, may simply be keeping our balance!  

    The essay to which I refer in this blog is, Daniel Goleman, "The Focused Leader," HBR (Dec. 2013), 50-60. Goleman's new book is Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (HarperCollins, 2013).


  • Thanksgiving for God’s Providence

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 25, 2013

    Several years ago there was a contest in Britain to determine the country's citizens’ favorite word. It turns out, the British best love the word “serendipity.” According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, serendipity means “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” As such, serendipity is the secular sibling of providence. 

    Providence, a tradition-encrusted old word with Latin roots, is theological tooth and claw. It is also more robust than serendipity.

    Providence speaks of God’s government of nature, history and humanity. While serendipity evokes playful, happy coincidence, providence bespeaks responsibility: the buck stops with God.

    Providence, as a doctrine, almost inevitably leads to knotty theological conundrums. But providence, as a personal promise from God, leads to a sense of confidence that no power on earth can shake. Providence speaks of God’s provisions for us in life and in death.

    Recently something happened that caused me to reflect anew on God’s providence.

    My wife Debbie was asked by the large and active Presbyterian Women’s group at my son, Jeremy’s, church in Virginia Beach, to speak at their monthly gathering. At the close of the evening the benediction was given by Chaplain Autumn Butler-Saeger, an active duty lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. Chaplain Butler-Saeger has seen more active service than most of us can imagine, her most recent deployment having been on a ship patrolling the coast of Somalia. She was on exactly the kind of ship that figures into the story of Captain Philips, whose crew was taken by Somali pirates. An earlier deployment took her to Al Anbar Province in Iraq, which, for a time, was just about the most dangerous place on earth. Her job there was to serve as the chaplain to a group of U.S. Marines.

    The benediction Lieutenant Butler-Saeger gave the group of Presbyterian Women at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Princess Anne was the blessing she gave every night to the Marines who went out on patrol in a very dangerous place. It went like this:

    “Go forth from this place to love and serve. Return no one evil for evil. Help one another. Honor one another. Hold each other accountable. Now may God go before you to guide. May God be around you to protect. May God dwell within you to keep you safe.  Amen.”

    There are likely many things that resonate with us in this blessing. But the utter absence of abstraction surely must be high on the list. God’s providence is not a distant pie-in-the-sky dogma meant to produce head-scratching puzzles. God’s providence is at its heart the promise that God will walk with us into every dangerous night, that God will remain closer to us than we are to ourselves, that God holds us more precious than we can possibly know and is hard at work to do for us better things than we can ask or imagine for this life and the life to come.

    This is something to be thankful for today, and every day, and in the midst of every dark night.

    Let us give thanks for God’s providence.

  • Would Jesus Multitask?

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 19, 2013

    Over the past year or more, I have taken on a new discipline. I have begun to learn the practice of mindfulness meditation. Dr. Mark W. Muesse, professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, has been one of my guides in the process, through a wonderful video course, “Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation.”  Dr. Muesse observes that mindfulness meditation does not belong to any particular religious tradition, and variants of mindfulness can be found in almost every faith, though “historical evidence suggests that mindfulness was first widely taught 2,500 years ago by the individual known today as the Buddha.”

    My own interest in the practice increased last January when the Presbyterian Seminary Presidents and Board Chairs read together Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (2012).  A chapter in that book, “The Resilient Mind,” convinced me that I should explore the mindfulness discipline more deeply.

    The practice of mindfulness meditation helps people reorient themselves toward their own emotions, understanding that feelings are not just things that happen to us. Even more critically, however, mindfulness meditation allows us to attend more fully to that which is before us. It helps ensure that we not miss life while distracted by anxieties, worries, speculations, and the unrolling of all those tapes we seem to keep scrolling through in our brains. The practice can even help us learn to focus our attention and to cultivate a capacity to step back from highly-charged emotional situations so that we can make better decisions. Those who value being self-differentiated and non-anxious as leaders will especially appreciate the value of this discipline. It is possible to learn how to be (not just appear) well-differentiated and non-anxious.

    I have found it helpful to turn to a variety of different resources and various media in beginning to learn this practice. One of the best books I have found is Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice (New York, 1974) by Thich Nhat Hanh, whom many of you will remember from his association with Father Thomas Merton. My wife, Debbie, recently asked me to summarize what I thought the practice of mindfulness meditation was about. I turned to him for a summary, paraphrasing an ancient sage who said something like this: Those who practice mindfulness breathe, walk, eat and drink. This doesn’t sound any different from what anyone else does. But when they breathe; they attend to breathing. When they walk; they are attentive to walking. When they eat; they attend to eating. When they drink; they attend to drinking. Whatever they do, they are attentive to that act. When their minds wander, they gently call them to return to that to which they need to attend. Through this practice, we train our minds to attend to that which we wish our minds to attend, rather than to live distracted lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, the aim “is a clear vision of reality, seeing things as they are.”

    After patiently listening to me, Debbie, very perceptively, asked: “So, can you practice mindfulness and multi-task?”

    That is when it hit me. No. You can’t. And probably we shouldn’t anyway.

    Multi-tasking is the cultivation of distraction. Mindfulness is the cultivation of attentiveness to that which is at hand.

    That’s when something else hit me, something intimately related to the Christian faith. There’s a wonderful resonance between the practice of mindfulness and one particular story of Jesus, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42).  Henri Nouwen draws on this story in his book, Making All Things New (New York, 1981), when he says that the Christian answer to living our tumultuous, busy lives is not to remove ourselves from life, but to cultivate attentiveness to that which truly matters. Nouwen says that Jesus “asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the ‘many things’ to the ‘one necessary thing.’”

    What mindfulness meditation does is provide the mental, emotional, even spiritual exercises or tools so we are better equipped to focus our hearts and minds appropriately. Which brings us to the issue of multi-tasking, or the cultivation of distraction.

    Would Jesus multi-task? It is not an idle speculation. Jesus seemed to possess a rare capacity to attend to that which was at hand. He exercised a life that moved from prayer in solitude to being in community and back to solitude again and again. He calls us to lives that banish anxiety. He calls us to lives that rest in trustfulness. Again, as Nouwen says: “One way to express the spiritual crisis of our time is to say that most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions…. ‘All these other things’ keep demanding our attention. They lead us so far from home that we eventually forget our true address, that is, the place where we can be addressed.”

    Recently my pastor, Steve Jester, and I were talking about the Christian spiritual life and the potential intersection with mindfulness meditation. Steve noted the language of our prayers for illumination in worship: “silence in us any voice except your own,” we often pray. There are doubtless many ways to silence those voices so we can attend to the Word of God.

    More important than the method, however, is the end: that we may attend to each moment God places before us, and that we may attend with appropriate respect, even reverence. What a shame if one day we look up from our multitude of distracting devices and desires to realize that life has passed us by!

  • Early Days, Early Struggles: Danville Theological Seminary During the Civil War

    by User Not Found | Nov 18, 2013

    This blog post was guest-written by Laura Garrett, daughter of Dean Sue Garrett and recent graduate of Centre College.


    Danville Theological Seminary opened in 1853 on the grounds of Centre College in Danville, Ky.; the institution would transition to become the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1901.  

    It thrived in its early years, with more than sufficient endowment and enrollment. Many of its students came directly from Centre College: in the 1850s, more than two-thirds of all Presbyterian ministers in the state of Kentucky were Centre alumni.[1] While the seminary focused on educating its students in theology and ministerial preparation (articles written by the faculty included such titles as "Nature and Revelation in relation to the Origin of our Conception of a God" and "The Nature and Import of a Christian Profession"), it could not escape the pressing political issues of the day-namely, slavery and the Civil War. 

    The seminary's founder, the Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, was an outspoken gradual emancipationist. While he believed that slavery was a sinful practice, he also thought that it would be a greater sin to abolish slavery immediately, and that it was the duty of benevolent owners of enslaved people to train African-Americans to live on their own before entrusting them with their freedom. 

    Breckinridge owned more than 21 enslaved people who worked on his hemp plantation near Danville. Other constituents of the seminary were also owners of enslaved people who believed in gradual emancipation. One such person was the Rev. John C. Young, president of Centre College, close friend of Breckinridge and moderator of the General Assembly in 1853. Young followed the trend of many gradual emancipationists in sending the enslaved people whom he freed to Liberia. 

     When the Civil War began in 1861, the Presbyterian Church split into Northern and Southern factions, and the seminary split along with it; the student body was divided almost evenly among Union and Confederate supporters. While the Danville seminary remained with the North, students in support of the Confederacy left Danville and organized a seminary in Richmond, Ky., as a Southern alternative. 

    Breckinridge's own family was split in half: one of his sons joined the Union army and the other enlisted in the Confederacy. It was likely with his sons in mind that Breckinridge wrote in his theological magazine the Danville Quarterly Review, "Utter madness, raving insanity, has ruled the hour, and men born to be brothers have fallen to cutting each other's throats . . . ."[2] 

    A drought occurred in Kentucky during the summer of 1862, leaving the town of Perryville, 10 miles west of Danville, with the most water in the region. It was this water that drew Confederate troops to the area, with Union troops close on their heels. The two sides fought in the Battle of Perryville in October 1862, leaving 7,500 troops dead or wounded. Wounded soldiers from both sides filled Danville's buildings after the Battle, as homes and public buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals.[3] 

    The seminary occupied one of the largest buildings in town, and as such it became a main hospital site. While most area hospitals only nursed either Union or Confederate patients, the seminary was one of the few to house soldiers from both sides. (The seminary housed the Union and Confederate soldiers at opposite ends of the building, however, to keep the men from fighting with one another.) Many of the wounded were in critical condition, while others endured ailments such as typhoid, pneumonia and dysentery. By the time the seminary was able to end its hospital duties in 1864 its grounds had been wrecked. Fences had been burned for fuel, furniture and books had been torn apart and every wall needed repainting. 

    The seminary suffered a great financial blow as a result of the damages to the school, and it was never able to fully recover. That, coupled with its diminished enrollment (because Southern students were now choosing to go to seminary in Richmond), left the seminary unable to survive on its own.  

    In 1901, Danville Theological Seminary merged with the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary to form the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In 1907 the school applied to the federal government to get $5,000 in restitution for the damages the school incurred in connection with the Battle of Perryville, but never received the money. The buildings of the Danville Theological Seminary deteriorated and were eventually razed.[4]

    1. Richard C. Brown, A History of Danville and Boyle County, Kentucky, 1774-1992 (Danville, Ky.: Bicentennial Books, 1992); Bob Glass, "Danville Theological Seminary," CentreCyclopedia (Danville, Ky.: Centre College, undated), www.centre.edu/web/library/ency/d/dts.html. 

    2. Robert J. Breckinridge, "A Biographical Sketch of the Rev. John C. Young, D. D., Late President of Centre College," Danville Quarterly Review 4:1 (March 1864): 151-166; Richard C. Brown, "Danville Theological Seminary," The Kentucky Encyclopedia, ed. John E. Kleber (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 253; Brown, A History of Danville. 

    3. Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: the Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington, Ky.: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 110; Stuart W. Sanders, "Danville Theological Seminary contends with the aftermath of Perryville Battle," The Cost of War: Centre College and the Battle of Perryville (Danville, Ky.: Centre College, 2004), www.centre.edu/web/library/sc/special/perryville/seminary.htm. 

    4. Sanders, "Danville Theological Seminary."

  • Local Heroes

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 12, 2013

    Some artists and writers become so closely identified with a particular patch that it is hard to think of them without evoking that spot, or even to imagine the particular locale without seeing it through their eyes.

    New Mexico and Georgia O'Keefe are like that for me. Say the phrase "Sangre de Cristo mountains" and my first thought is of her paintings of that iconic range, though I have stood in wonder gazing at the actual mountains themselves many, many times.

    Conversely, read a few lines from Wendell Berry and I am transported to the magical countryside of Kentucky about which he writes so beautifully. Such artists and writers as O'Keefe and Berry are known far beyond the regions they champion through their art, but there are others whose fame remains local or regional.

    Alfred Wainwright's guidebooks for those who love to walk the paths of England's Lake District are beloved, but the audience is not exactly universal. Stay in any good bed and breakfast in Cumbria and you'll trip over a stack of his books. And it is hard to spend a summer holiday in Britain when there's not at least one BBC program on A. Wainwright. But most Americans will not be acquainted with the gorgeous, detailed pen drawings, maps and prose of this rather eccentric, if not to say profoundly odd, man who spent virtually every weekend of his adult life often alone, walking, mapping and chronicling the footpaths of a region about which he was obsessively passionate.

    This summer I picked up a copy of Hunter Davies' wonderful volume, The Best of A. Wainwright, and was reminded of how it is a regional artist can become such a beloved figure; it is because they first love the region so much. There's a lesson there for all of us. When A. Wainwright, who died in 1991, wrote of "Haystacks" or "Great Gable" he wrote with the attentiveness of a lover who cannot get enough of his beloved. And those who also love the places of which he writes, find their own romance rekindled, and adore him for it.

    As a Texan, one writer above all others has long occupied the place of local literary hero: John Graves. Graves died this summer at the age of 92, and reading of his death in the New York Times, sent me immediately to the bookshelf of our cottage where a ragged copy of his greatest book, Goodbye to a River holds court over lesser regional volumes. Since first reading this book, at the recommendation of my old friend Jimmy Johnson, long-time senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Waco, I have loved Graves' prose.

    Though Graves tried his hand on the national literary scene, even living for awhile in New York City, he returned to Texas to help out with his family. There he discovered his true voice, writing naturally and with clarity, of a journey down the Brazos River from below Possum Kingdom Dam to the site of the next big reservoir coming to the river near the town of Whitney, Texas. It is an utterly unpretentious story of a young man, a small dog and a canoe, a rainy fall and a river on the verge of being forever tamed. The story of the daily trek is interspersed with historical vignettes and philosophical reflections.

    It has been said that John Graves is the best-loved Texas writer for most Texans, and the Texas writer least likely known outside the state's borders. Probably true on both counts. Unless you're of a certain age and you've grown up with a canoe paddle in your hands, a fishing rod, shotgun and tent stowed away, and have known the magic of an intimate southwestern stream, you might not "get" Graves. But that is the point of every great regional artist. Their art is inseparable from the place because the art proceeds from a love for the place and cannot really be understood or appreciated apart from it.  And their art invites those who also love the place to remember, certainly, but also to go outside again and to listen and take a deep breath and attend as lovers do.

  • The Danger of Values

    by Michael Jinkins | Nov 05, 2013

    One of the more disturbing features of American culture today has to do with the meaning and status of “values.” During election cycles we often hear about the voting preferences of “value voters,” a phrase that gives the impression that only some voters have values while others do not. In fact, all voters have values, as do all people. The real question is not whether everyone has values, it is how one handles one’s values. There is a real danger about values, and the danger has both theological and political dimensions. 

    When we say we value something, we are saying that the thing or idea we value matters to us, that it is of concern. We orient and order our lives – to some degree, maybe to a considerable degree – relative to this thing or idea we value.

    The political danger of values has to do with a pretty pedestrian fact: every thing or idea we value exists in relationship to other things and ideas we value. Sometimes these values will be in conflict with one another. And often it will not be easy (and sometimes it will not be possible) to determine that one value has priority over the other. Thus irreducible tensions among some values are inevitable. And sometimes the choices we make between values leads to unavoidable losses.

    Any society that wishes to negotiate its way through decision-making and policy-making must recognize these basic facts and develop political structures and processes that allow us to go about the business of living together as a society. The U.S. Constitution recognizes the fact that values compete with one another, that balances must be achieved among the competing values, and that the arrangements of one time and place may not fit another occasion or place. In other words, the Constitution enshrines the fact that values inevitably compete.

    To take one example from the proverbial “front page” of our newspapers, there is a real tension between “the right to privacy” and “national security.” To take another example, there is a genuine tension between “public safety” and “the right to bear arms.” Each of these values is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. And all of these values find themselves in tension with other values from time to time.

    This has always been the case. Nothing new here; including the tendency of some people to try to make absolute a value that is relative. This is where, of course, politics (which always includes the negotiation of various values as well as interests in the public arena) gets very knotty indeed. When a person or a group refuses to recognize the relative nature of a particular thing or idea they value (that is, when they refuse to accept the fact that every value exists in relationship to other values, and claims that a particular value trumps all others all the time), then it may be very difficult – if not impossible – to negotiate life together in society.

    Absolutism of values is not just a political problem, however, but a theological problem, at least for persons of faith. Here I shall speak primarily from a Christian perspective, though the argument applies to all three Abrahamic faiths. 

    When we make a value absolute we run the real danger of substituting a value we hold for the 
    God we worship. In other words, there is a way of holding our values that can lead us into idolatry. In this sense, the higher the value, the greater the danger. Any “good” (even a very great “good”) can become evil if substituted for the place of God.

    As Kathryn Tanner observes, “Replacing the divine with the human or confusing the human with the divine threatens … to make a Christian way of life an idol.” In her book, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Fortress, 1997, 126), Tanner gives new depth and precision to a theological concern that has spanned the ages of classical theology from St. Augustine to Paul Tillich. “Faith,” as Tillich said, “is the state of being ultimately concerned.” And to substitute our conditional and finite concerns for our ultimate concern is to construct an idol (Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Harper, 1957, 1, 3, 14).

    Tanner insists that while our ultimate allegiance as Christians is to God, and that the claim God makes on our lives is unconditional and absolute, we must be very careful making claims in the name of God. As she says, “Even in Christ, the human never approximates the divine but remains distinct and unmixed, no third thing approaching the divine by way of the alteration of its own properties. The Word can be identified with a particular human being, Jesus Christ. But his Christian disciples ever follow him at a distance. And the Incarnate Word is only at best indirectly identifiable with even those human words of the Bible that Christians believe effectively witness to him” (Theories of Culture, 126).

    To claim, in other words, absolute status for my values does not mean that I am being more righteous or faithful. In fact, ironically, if I claim absolute status for my values, my action calls into question my basic faith in God, because I have placed my values (and this includes whatever I construe as “my Christian values”) in a place above God. Not only is it possible to be so “value oriented” that I just can’t live sociably with other people, I can become so “value oriented’ that I can deny God.

    Of course, we don’t really need theologians to tell us this. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount remains the definitive text on religiosity that does not reflect God (see Matthew, chapters 5-7). Jesus calls us to reflect God’s perfection by the quality of our mercy, not the intractability of our values.

  • Wonder

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 29, 2013

    “In the end I would rather wonder than know,” writes poet Mary Ruefle in a collection of lectures she titled, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2012). She continues: “Because I would rather wonder than know, my interests and talents lie in the arts rather than the sciences, although, like the monk who discovered champagne – an accidental event that unexpectedly happened to his wine – I have on occasion come running with open arms toward another with the news, ‘Look! I am drinking the stars!’” (101).

    I get Ruefle’s point, at least for her personally, that it is because she would rather wonder than know that she followed the path of the arts rather than the sciences. But many scientists I have known did not seem to have such a dichotomy between wonder and knowledge. I think, for example, about the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. The breakthrough in the thinking that led to the discovery for which he won the Nobel Prize for Physics came while he was watching a student in the university cafeteria spinning a plate on a stick. Feynman was swept up in wonder that led him to try to figure out the math behind the phenomenon, and one thing led to another. So, let’s not force wonder away from knowledge, but allow wonder to serve as the muse for knowledge in whatever human endeavors we happen to be involved.

    Perhaps this is what Rumi was getting at when he wrote:

    “With us, the name of everything

    Is its outward appearance;

    With the Creator,

    The name of each thing is its inward reality.

    In the eyes of Moses, the name of his rod was


    In the eye of the Creator, its name was ‘dragon.’

    In brief, that which we are in the end

    Is our real name with God.”

    (Kabir Helminski, editor, The Rumi Collection: An Anthology of Translations of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Boston: Shambhala, 2005, 84-85).

    Wonder knows that God gives everything its true name. Wonder invites us both to stand back and say, “Wow!” and to look beneath the surface to ask “Why?” The question does not violate the reality at which we wonder. In fact, both “Wow” and the “Why” are impulses of wonder.  And these two impulses of wonder are not at war with one another; each requires its own manner of respect, its own reverence.

    As the ancient Tao Te Ching reminds us, our deep calm allows us to perceive the mystery of the eternal, while our deep longings lead us to see the diversity of phenomena in the world that surrounds us. “These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gate to all mystery.” (Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, trans. (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1989), 3).

    Wonder may lead to spiritual rapture, silence of the creature in the presence of the Holy. Wonder may also lead to months, even years, of disciplined scientific research to understand more fully a phenomenon that might have beneficial application to humanity. Wonder, whether explicitly recognized as such or not, is a kind of prayer. And the potential for such prayer surrounds us every day.

     Anne Lamott writes: “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. ‘Wow’ means we are not dulled to wonder…. ‘Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes.” (Anne Lamott,  Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Riverhead, 2012, 71).

    So much of life is like the monk’s discovery of champagne, it seems to me. So often we find ourselves at dawn on the banks of a salt marsh, or in rapt admiration of the beauty of a newborn child, or in the afterglow of a long conversation with an old friend wanting to run to the nearest crowd of people with the news, “Look! I am drinking the stars!”  When we are open to wonder, a lot of life tastes like Dom Perignon. 

  • Creativity and the Wheel of Fortune

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 22, 2013

    John Calvin was famously opposed to Christians attributing good or bad phenomena to luck, chance or fortune. Calvin was entering into a stream of thought that was in full flow by the time he came along; many of the leading lights of the Renaissance had written on the subject of “fortune.” For Dante, Fortune (and the word probably should be capitalized for Dante) was a kind of divinely created power, the “general minister and guide” who, as Ross King writes, “doles out good and bad luck more or less unpredictably and inexplicably.” Other Renaissance writers, from Boccaccio to Machiavelli to Sir Thomas More, wrestled with the meaning of “fortune” and whether humanity’s efforts or virtues had any effect upon it (Ross King, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, 152-156; and Sebastian de Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell, New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994, 204-215).

    While the philosophical and theological questions about “fortune” have raged since classical times, and I find them fascinating, I have been even more interested recently in the ways in which fortune interacts with creativity. Or, rather, how fortune favors certain products of creativity and casts others on the rubbish piles of obscurity.

    In his fascinating book, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (San Francisco: Believer Books, 2012), Tom Bissell asks the question: “Is greatness, in the end, no purer guarantee of survival than awfulness is for swift dispatch?” (23). Quoting Ecclesiastes, Bissell reminds us that “the race is not to the swift… nor the battle to the strong… but time and chance happen to them all” (20). To illustrate, he considers the fate of three writers almost universally acknowledged today as supremely accomplished: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. While the three “form American literature’s most influential troika,” Bissell writes, “[b]ut for post-mortem developments that had, at best, oblique connections to their work, it is possible that Melville would be familiar only to a small group of antebellum scholars, Whitman remembered only as the author of the Lincoln eulogy ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’, and Emily Dickinson enduring only in the whispers of Dickinson descendants as the unmarried shut-in who wrote abstruse verse” (25).

    Whitman’s fate should have been sealed by no less than the New York Times which said, in its review of Leaves of Grass, “that Whitman could not be called ‘a great poet unless we deny poetry to be an art’” (28). Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, was dismissed by the most important reviewers of his day. Thirty-six years after its publication, “it went out of print… with a total of 3,180 copies sold.” Joseph Conrad wrote that the book was a “rather strained rhapsody with whaling for a subject… [with] not a single sincere line in the 3 volumes of it” (30). Had it not been for a chance discovery by Carl Van Doren of Moby-Dick in a used bookstore, and the subsequent essay he wrote about it, and the “chance” that this essay caught the eye of D. H. Lawrence, who was “then in the midst of writing Studies in Classic American Literature,” Melville’s book would be still likely be collecting dust in the sections of libraries dedicated to “fishing and fisheries.”

    Bissell has other examples. William Faulkner at mid-career, with every one of his greatest novels except Sanctuary out of print, was making his living writing screenplays in Hollywood (and drinking a great deal). His career appeared pretty-much over when Malcolm Cowley wrote an essay on Faulkner that was published in the New York Times Book Review. This essay was followed by a collection of Faulkner’s fiction which Cowley also edited, and which was published by the Viking Portable Library series. As Bissell observes, five years after Cowley’s reappraisal of Faulkner, he won the Nobel Prize, and today is regarded as a member of the Pantheon of twentieth-century American writers (36-37).

    Fortune’s fickle wheel turns for music as well as literature. As Alan Light chronicles in his story of the fate of Leonard Cohen’s anthem, “Hallelujah,” and as Sylvie Simmons also observes in her biography of Cohen, this song which has become in just a few short years a kind of secular hymn, which has been recorded by singers as varied as Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang, and has appeared in settings as different as the television series, The West Wing, and the children’s film, Shrek, languished forgotten for years. The album for which it was originally recorded was rejected by Cohen’s American recording label. When, eventually, the album did appear, hardly anyone noticed “Hallelujah.” As Alan Light says, in the album’s “review in Rolling Stone” the song didn’t even merit a mention. (Alan Light, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, New York: Atria Books, 2012, 34-35).

    A song that took Leonard Cohen five years to write, and which many consider the greatest pop song of all time, missed utter obscurity by a whisker (Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, New York: HarperCollins, 2012, 338).

    Bissell reflects philosophically on the vagaries of fortune and the fate of “great” works of literature. And we might extend his reflections to music and to other creative arts as well. “One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment [that determine the success of great works and the obscurity of lesser ones]. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course” (Magic Hours, 38).

    These stories of fortune left me wondering what great works of creativity and imagination may have been lost along the way. Or, to put a positive spin on it, I wonder what great works are lying around just waiting to be discovered. Who knows who will be the next person to step into the cockpit, touch the pilot’s controls and raise from obscurity some neglected act of genius?

  • The Interpreter’s House

    by Michael Jinkins | Oct 15, 2013

    “Then he went on till he came to the house of the Interpreter, where he knocked over and over; at last one came to the door, and asked who was there….

    Then said the Interpreter, Come in; I will shew that which will be profitable to thee. So he commanded his man to light the candle, and bid Christian follow him….” John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

    In John Bunyan’s famous allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, “the house of the Interpreter” is where our lives receive the grace of enlightenment, where we see things as they truly are. Perhaps most importantly, it is where we see ourselves in the light of God’s grace.

    Many of us have had the experience – reading a particular poet – when we felt ourselves entering into the “Interpreter’s House.” The experience can be life-changing. Especially vivid literary epiphanies can remain in our minds for years. For example, I doubt if I shall ever forget first reading Louise Glück’s Averno. The lines: “death cannot harm me/ more than you have harmed me,/ my beloved life” and “It is true there is not enough beauty in the world./ It is also true that I am not competent to restore it./ Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use” are burned into my soul. Glück made me see myself and my vocation as an educator in a new light.

    We can also have this experience reading great interpreters of poetry.

    Though it is completely against my practice, I have loaned my own copy of Helen Vendler’s Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery (Princeton, 2005) to friends so their lives could be blessed with the illumination of a great interpreter – and so that they could see how extraordinarily the vocation of the interpreter (to which many of us aspire) can be performed. Vendler, a professor of English at Harvard University, not only illumines our understanding of life in light of certain poets, she also makes me want to re-read these poets to peel back layer upon layer of understanding, to go ever deeper.

    This week, when reading a fine new book by John Drury, Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert (London, 2013), I reflected again on the experience of entering a literal literary “house of the Interpreter.” Like Vendler, Drury interprets familiar poems. But he does so with such care, with such attention to reconstructing the world that surrounds the poem and poet, that we find ourselves in the presence of truths of which we were not previously aware.

    One example will have to suffice. In the first four pages, Drury takes up the interpretation of what many consider to have been Herbert’s greatest poem, “Love (III).” He reminds us that this poem “is saturated in the conditions of life in seventeenth-century England. It is set in the hall of some substantial household, given to hospitality, such as Herbert lived in for most of his life. It draws on the manners and etiquette expected of guests and hosts which were the subject of numerous books. At the same time its truth and beauty speak directly to readers anywhere and at any time at the deepest psychological level: its setting is the inmost heart or soul. How does it do it?” Drury asks.

    How indeed? How does a poetic genius draw on the ordinary furniture of social relations inviting us to see through them divine judgment and divine grace? First and foremost, Herbert, the seventeenth-century poet-priest, makes us slow down if we are to understand. We cannot rush through the house of the Interpreter, he seems to tell us. We cannot attend deeply to life when our attention is divided and diverted among the clamor of a dozen different sights and sounds. We must allow our breath to follow the deep rhythm of nature and the creator God. We must pause. We must listen. We must feel. We must reflect. The meter, the shifts in conversation, the words themselves conspire to slow us to follow the flows and eddies of the poem which, like a stream, run into its deep pools. “It is astonishing to notice,” Drury writes, “that within the short and lucid compass of “Love (III)” Christianity’s whole grand biblical narrative of humanity is contained as its subtext.”

    Like a Beatrice guiding Dante through Heaven, great interpreters of poetry, such as Drury and Vendler, guide us deeper into our own lives; allowing themselves to be amazed, they invite us into their amazement. They allow themselves to be illuminated, and let us follow along benefiting from the candle lit before us.

    I was just reading the newest “Everybody’s-gotta-read-this-hot-off-the-press-book” about Washington politics (This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich) when Drury’s Music at Midnight arrived. Never has virtue so thoroughly tempted me from a guilty pleasure as did the arrival of Drury’s Interpreter’s House. Never has it become so clear to me, the difference between real pleasure and its ephemeral counterfeit. May we all be so seduced by grace.  

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