A Four Letter Word

By ceaseless and careless repetition, our society teaches us many things. Few Presbyterians under 40 years of age, I suspect, can distinguish between Rocinante and Dulcinea. However, everyone knows, and has been influenced by, Don Quixote’s conviction, “When in Rome do as the Romans do” (Part II, Chapter 54). Since conforming to the behavioral norms of one’s society is usually prudential advice, such folk wisdom is passed from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, those who say, “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” might hesitate to recommend, “When among cannibals, do as the cannibals do.” Interestingly, when Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed in cannibal theaters, Puck’s famous line is rendered either as “Lord what foods these mortals be” or, alternatlvely, “Lord what fools these morsels be” (III.2.115).

Our culture also passes along the superstitions of the past. For example, a sneeze was once thought to expel demons from your head. As protection against demonic re-infestation, the phrase, “God bless you” was quickly addressed to the sneezer. Even total strangers in grocery check-out lines, who might be thought completely indifferent to my demon count, address blessings to my head. This practice is especially annoying because it interrupts my research concentration on magazine covers that Margaret would never allow me to bring into her house. Most people close their eyes in sneezing thinking thereby to see no evil. The scientific reason for closing your eyes is to prevent the sneeze’s muzzle velocity from popping your eyeballs right out of their sockets.

According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the American personality was powerfully informed by the lure of the “frontier.” In earlier times, any American who was unhappy in his present location could shout, “Westward Ho” and join a wagon train. A lot of Methodists took the suggestion to “Go Wesley, young man.” Presbyterians, on the other hand, accepted Paul’s advice to be content wherever you found yourself (Philippians 4:11). Therefore, Presbyterian ministers, clinging to the eastern seaboard, were learning Greek and pondering the mysteries of patristic theology while Methodist circuit riders were entering frontier saloons to preach for repentance and against “demon rum.”

According to Sidney Mead, America and American theology moved in a decidedly Methodist direction after the second great awakening (The Lively Experiment, p. 55). Americans now assume they are captains of their souls, masters of their fate. Indeed the Methodist conviction of individual freedom and personal responsibility is so strong that it almost inevitably involves a weakening of the Reformed conviction of God’s grace and providence. Lamentably, even some Presbyterians use the four letter word: luck. (For a small fee absolution is available to those who were thinking of a more taboo four letter word that recent movies cannot seem to do without.)

I do not like to add to the burdens of those with too much time on their hands who read these lines. Still, you should know that the next generation of Presbyterian ministers have been overheard in seminary halls during final examinations piously and piteously wishing each other “Good Luck.” Apparently they have not yet learned that Reformed theology categorically denies the ontological reality of Lady Luck, the Goddess Fortune (Sophia’s wilder sister) and the Epicurean view of radical contingency also known as “taking your chances.”

Sophisticated Calvinists recognize that the term “Good luck” indicates a defective understanding of the providence of God. True Presbyterians therefore wish each other, “Good Predestination.”


A Late-Life Trifold Pursuit

Until now I have concentrated on the first two of the so-called “Dowagers of Philosophy”, to wit, Truth and Goodness. Of late Beauty in the eye of this beholder, “in a fine frenzy rolling”, is making a belated claim.
Since my life has entered “the sere, the yellow leaf” and forfending “the winter of our discontent” and although it is undoubtedly too late to “gather ye rosebuds while you may” since “Old Time is still a-flying,” one must avoid an unnecessary situation of “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound into saucy doubts.” My solution is European travel with whomever of our adult children (and their families) is able and willing to take me along to places we mutually agree that we want to see and/or see again.

However, being the senior member of my family, “The Old Geezer” (and sometimes “Der Alter Knabe”), as I am affectionately known, I needed to establish some discipline among the young whippersnappers. Otherwise they would be all over the place. I informed them that I was always willing to consider Munich, Vienna, and London. Additionally, I might be talked into Paris, Budapest, Prague, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Milan, Florence with other destinations to be determined and allowed. Nevertheless, since geography is not the chief determinant of travel, each child must continually check the internet to see where in the world and how many of the following requirements can be met.

The first is great painting. I have long been frustrated by my poor visual memory and immensely envious of the immense learning of art historians. Still, I greatly admire the art I call great. The worlds represented in colors on a flat surface are magically beautiful. I will go a long way to stand in front of any painting by Peter Paul Rubens and delight to know who else is hanging out with him.

With great painting, you must be there to see it.

The second is great music. Never having been any kind of musician, I cannot explain why there is a song in my heart. Some kinds of music I can happily leave alone, but some–mostly Mozart–I must take. The worlds represented by flowing and disappearing sound are magically beautiful. I note that at the top of my musical scales is opera. I will go almost anywhere to join the audience for The Magic Flute, La Boheme, and Madame Butterfly. My second tier is expanding and now includes Cosi, Figaro, Aida, Fledermaus, and Don Giovanni.

With great opera, you have to be there to see and hear it.

The third is great Willy. The genius of William Shakespeare with our common language is beyond praise. As a tribute and amusement, from the beginning of my career, I have tried to smuggle in a small citation of one of Shakespeare’s lines in every sermon as a challenge for better educated congregants to identify. They have to listen on two levels. What directors and actors can do with four hundred year old words is magically beautiful. Still, I admit to you, dear reader, I prefer the comedies starting with Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With great Willy, you have to be there to see and hear those words come trippingly on the tongue because Shakespeare plays better on the stage than the page.

Not being an English literature major, I thought I could take serious instruction in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton for the pure joy unalloyed. Moreover, as the one philosophy major in the senior college level Shakespeare class, I assumed I was safe from performance expectations. However, as the only male member of the class who could speak a little French, I was ordered to play the courtship scene from Henry the Fifth opposite a scary, hot babe. Granted that was 60 years ago and Nancy may not now be as hot or scary as she was then. Still, I hope very soon to quit being embarrassed by my performance that day.

Must go now. I hear the Bard of Avon calling.

In the Big Inning

Baseball is, of course, a biblical game because we are taught “the homer shall be the standard measure” (Ezekiel 45:11, RSV). Jesus was looking for the diamond when he asked, “Where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17) Baseball is congenial to Christians because it is played in green pastures and often beside still waters (in Pittsburgh, however, we cross three rivers to get to the park). We keep our voices limber for hymns by singing about peanuts and crackerjack. While neither of those viands is our daily bread, we want our best hitters to come to the plate — and with ducks on the pond.

We plead with them not to strike out because that means their teammates “die” on base. Relief pitchers come in to “save” the game. And the really big stars become “immortal” and are “enshrined” in the Hall of Fame. If baseball were a simple game, there would be a fourth base, but baseball, like theology, is all about getting home safely.

The congregation comes from many “walks” of life, but shy people like to take a friend to baseball games. My best friend, having grown up in Africa, thought baseball was slow and boring. I convinced her otherwise by casually suggesting one of the players looked a bit like our oldest son. When the mighty maternal instinct kicked in, I had created a monster fan who soon learned more about baseball than I knew. However, I pride myself on being one of those guys who can handle having a wife a lot smarter than he is.

Like Christian faith, baseball has a fine balance between group and individual accomplishments. Baseball and church are both essentially team sports requiring tremendous cooperation on the field of action. However, there are also many opportunities for individual excellence. This is because, unlike contemporary American Presbyterians, everybody plays by the same rules.

Man and boy I have watched a lot of baseball, but the other night for the first time I saw a player hit for the cycle. To produce a single, double, triple, and home run in one game is extremely difficult. Even rarer is this feat for a catcher — most of whom are quick of decision but slow of foot — something like rolling a cement block around the bases.

The game was in late innings and we (meaning, of course, the Pittsburgh Pirates) were leading by double digits. Our pitcher was cruising to a complete game so the contest was practically over. The die-easy fans had already gone home, but die-hard fans, like my Margaret, do not fade away. They stay to the end. Our catcher came to the plate needing a triple to complete the cycle, the hardest hit in baseball to achieve. A tremendous shot to left center sent him chugging around the base paths — running incidentally on an ankle that had been shattered in a freak accident the previous season and was supposed to keep him in a rocking chair the rest of his life.

When our hero slid safely into third I suspect the good Lord was also on his feet cheering. After all, the Bible starts off with a description of what God did in the Big Inning.

Holmes Sweet Holmes

Teaching at a theological seminary has its fun moments, but it is mostly the serious business of trying to provide survival skills for the leadership of the church.  Presbyterians especially obey Our Lord’s command to worship God with the mind (Mk 12:30; Mt 22:37; Lk 10:27).  Obviously we need first-rate institutions to nurture first-rate ministry.  I am truly grateful for my quarter century on a seminary faculty and the importance of the subjects I teach.

Nevertheless, I confess to an occasional nostalgia toward, a strong appreciation of, and a genuine regret for, the former fine frenzy freedom of college teaching.  In those days, restricted only by the range of my whimsy, I was allowed to offer courses in Bible, history until 1815, literature nobody else was interested in, and religious studies, which means anything you want it to mean.  Mainly, I chose subjects I wanted an excuse to study.  However, being hired by his predecessor to teach philosophy, I was concerned when a new dean arrived on campus.  I was even more concerned when I learned he had some very good friends in the philosophy department at the college he left.  Dean Ecks thought philosophy courses should be popular.  My classes were always small and (I liked to think) select. Since I was without tenure, I found myself between a rock and a hard-nosed dean.

Displayed in a prominent place of honor on my bookshelves is the text that convinced the dean he should not fire me.  In the January term, students enrolled in only one course and nearly the whole student body signed up for mine.  I was only somewhat sorry that other instructors had to cancel their offerings.  The title of my textbook and my course was “The Philosophy of Love.”  Although sex had not then entirely replaced love, even college students in the seventies had figured out there was what we call an intimate connection.  I have always believed that I was granted tenure based on my outstanding expertise in this area.

In another January term, I taught The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes.  We did a lot of delightful digging around in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by William S. Baring-Gould (who must be related to Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote “Onward Christian Soldiers”).  The class also took in the movie version of The Seven Percent Solution, which is sometimes called a pastiche.

A few years ago in Pittsburgh there were two Holmes societies.  I attended meetings of the “Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers” named in honor of the army regiment Dr. Watson served as assistant surgeon.  Not everyone understands that the Holmes stories written down by Conan Doyle are factual not fictional.  Indeed there is a marker at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where Mr. Sherlock Holmes greeted John H. Watson, M.D. with these immortal words, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” (“A Study in Scarlet”).  We learn that Dr. Watson was wounded near Kandahar in the Second Afghan War when a Jezail bullet shattered the bone in his left shoulder and grazed the subclavian artery (see also “The Cardboard Box” and “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”). Strangely, according to the Canon (or Conan) eight years later Watson is limping because of his old war wound (“The Sign of the Four”).  The question, of course, is what kind of wound to the shoulder causes a man to limp?

Scholars think the most likely explanation is that Dr. Watson was leaning over a fallen soldier in a posture that allowed the bullet to hit his shoulder first and then his leg.  Moreover, Jezail bullets can wander a bit and injure other organs which Victorian modesty and delicacy would consider unmentionable.  This sensitive situation explains why Watson, married three times, had no children.

In a recent column, William Safire of the New York Times cited Holmes’s deduction in the story “Silver Blaze” concerning the dog that did not bark. Safire mistakenly assumed that the curiously silent watchdog was named Silver Blaze.  At last count, he ruefully confesses, 753 irate Sherlockians wrote to correct this terrible error.  One wrote, “Safire, you butt head, Silver Blaze was the name of the race horse, not the dog.”  Another wrote, “The failure of Silver Blaze to bark can be attributed, primarily, to his being a horse.  The dog, alas, goes unnamed.”

In my own letter, I suggested that any pundit who thought Silver Blaze was the dog’s name would undoubtedly believe that “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” was a medical story featuring John H. Watson, M.D. lancing a boil.  The truth is the Countess of Morcar’s carbuncle was a garnet cut with a domed top.  Garnets are found in the colors red, orange, yellow, brown, purple, black, and white.  Among the more remarkable facts of Sherlock Holmes’s remarkable career as the world’s only unofficial consulting detective is that this gemstone was the only blue carbuncle ever seen.

This nostalgic essay has a sequel.  On a trip to Zurich last week, son Charles and I paid our respects to Huldrych Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, especially Bullinger.  For most of my life I defended Calvin’s view of the Eucharist.  I now think Bullinger was more correct.  Anyway, after Zurich we drove to Meiringen and by cable car up to Reichenbach Falls where Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty fought and fell. For a number of years, I have picked up a common rock from the ground in places I wanted to remember.  Therefore, next time I see you, remind me to show you the rock both Zwingli and Bullinger stepped on, as well as the one Holmes and Moriarty fought over.   

A Jezebel Sermon for Mother’s Day

So far as I can remember, no young preacher has ever asked me for advice. This is a real shame because I have had spectacular success in the creation and implementation of bad ideas. A whole preaching generation could be improved by learning from me what to avoid.
I would start out by insisting that Mother’s Day is not the best time to preach on this text: “What peace can there be so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?” (II Kings 9.22 NRSV). I still believe the verse raises an important biblical question, but I now believe it is best considered on another Sunday.
When I started to think about my very first Mother’s Day sermon, it occurred to me that every other preacher talks about good mothers. Thus, I expected rapt attention for my exegesis and exposition using the traditional Presbyterian three points of a world-class bad mother. First, Jezebel was ecologically insensitive. She encouraged her husband, Captain Ahab, to kill Moby Dick, the great white whale who had swallowed Jonah. The Book of Jonah reminds us that in the religion business — the prophet motive is the bottom line. (This was not actually the first point, but I thought it was a good one.) Second, Jezebel was the daughter of a priest of Astarte and she taught her three children to worship the false god, Baal. Jezebel is described in a Bible dictionary as ruthless, power-mad, relentless and remorseless. These are not generally considered proper motherly virtues. Third, and my final point, Jezebel was extremely vain. We know this because when she heard that Jehu had come to Jezreel, “she carefully put mascara on her eyes and called her maid to do her hair and only then looked out of the window” (verse 30 translated directly from the Hebrew by Professor Elizabeth Arden). Toward the end of the sermon I noticed that, as usual, all the men had their eyes closed, but the women were frowning with what turned out not to be concentration.
The fact is that mothers are serious business. Nobody is loved like a mother. Indeed, one of the delights of growing older is to live long enough to hear your daughter ruefully admit that in something she has become exactly like her mother. That girls imitate their mothers is not unusual since mothers are normally their most steady influence. A professor once told us that a young man who wanted a happy life should find a woman twice his age whom he really liked and marry her daughter.
Equally interesting is the effect mothers have on their sons. At one time, my wife had planned to study medicine and go back to Africa where she was born. Thus, it is not strange that one son took his physics Ph.D. off to the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Having four scientists in the family means that I am occasionally obligated to interrupt the table conversation to remind them that if they had really been smart they could have studied theology, the king and queen of sciences.
Still, fathers are not entirely negligible. After all, there would be no Mother’s Day without us. My daughter-in-law, Sara (also a physicist), tells me that growing up she was a very serious little girl. However, of necessity she has gradually changed as the result of dating and then marrying my madcap son, a block off the old buffalo chip. According to Sara, “I once bemoaned the decline of chivalry and, much to my dismay, from then on Jonathan made a big production of opening the automatic doors at the grocery store for me. He would throw himself in front of me waving his arms like a lunatic until the electric eye caught these gyrations and opened the door. Then, with a courtly bow, he would intone, ‘After you, my dear.'”
“When we arrived in Ethiopia,” Sara wrote, “while all the other missionary husbands were learning to say in Amharic, ‘How are you? I am fine,’ my dear husband was learning how to say, ‘Careful! My wife has rabies.'” On Mother’s Day it is a great satisfaction to know that your son shares some portion of his dad’s DMA — which (if I remember my science correctly) stands for Demented Male Attitude.

Fingernail in the Meatloaf

Being an expert on women, I am often called upon to give advice to young men.  

Those who can breathe and walk upright do not need to be told to look for Beauty.  They are doing that already.  Sadly, some need to be reminded that Brains in a female person is not really a serious disqualification. However, most young men–including me when I was–are not sufficiently aware of the third “B” which is Brawn.  I sometimes think that the ideal woman should weigh about 290 and bench press about 400 pounds.

Soon after flirtation turned to courtship and long before engagement turned to wedding, I recognized there was no way Margaret was going to promise to obey me.  This was to be a negotiated partnership.  I never saw my father cook a meal or change a diaper, but I realized I would do both in order to fulfill the maxim, “Happy wife, happy life.”  Our daughter was the only girl in high school to take shop rather than home economics.  Queen Margaret thought power tools were more educational than pots and pans.  The school was not happy, but what could they do.  They had met both an immovable object and an irresistible force (aka a woman who thinks she is right).

Since I have never believed that a man is working unless he is sweating and his muscles ache at the end of the day, I often enjoyed working outdoors.  However, there were two curious, feminine exceptions to “I can do anything better than you.”  One was shingling a roof.  The other was building a 10 foot retaining wall.  Somehow, and ineluctably, a delivery of 8 by 8 by 10 lumber and concrete blocks sent Margaret right into the kitchen for a number of days.  I had the local pizza place on speed dial, so we would not have starved, and I could have enjoyed some companionship around the H beams and rebars.

Nevertheless, I was glad my lady wife was not in the yard when I smashed my finger between two concrete blocks.  I would have had to explain my vigorous and repeated articulation of a short Anglo-Saxon sibilant, which I had learned in the men’s locker room, but had never employed in her presence.  Soon my fingernail became a spectacular black-blue and loose.

Now boys (and by extension–men) do not cry.  Margaret does tear up when chopping onions, so a few days later she (still in the kitchen) called me in to deal with the onions for meatloaf.  Generous to a fault, I decided to squeeze the sliced onions into the ground meat.  And that was when my fingernail came off!  I searched around in the meaty glop but the shining onions hid it.

I concluded that if the Queen bit into the fingernail it would be both nutritive and sterile–and her fault.  If she had been out helping me, I would most likely not have smashed my finger.

Unfair to Men

Medical experts report that some blind people who regain their sight are unable to distinguish between men and women. This would be a serious developmental handicap, which I have never shared. On occasion at a great distance, I can be confused by long hair, a smooth face, and earrings, but, and this should not come as a surprise, women are not shaped like men, they move differently, and smell a lot better.
I have been amused, but never fooled, by Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” or Viola in “Twelfth Night” pretending to be men. Either Orlando and Orsino are real dimwits or they were just playing along to stay near their sweeties. This latter is my theory and a manly thing to do since “men are deceivers ever.” The ability to distinguish male from female is a high-level survival skill. Neither Dustin Hoffman, playing a woman in TOOTSIE or Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a man in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, fooled me for a minute.
A man who cannot spot the difference is likely to say something improper or even worse to touch something improper and get his face slapped–which hurts. In any case, separating men from women is a fair problem. What is completely unfair is how easily a woman can disguise herself by changing her hair style and makeup, as I have the emotional scars to prove.
Some years back Margaret got a “permanent” (which, of course, is really a “temporary”). Later on when we arrived at the party, I sidled over to several male and female friends and asked them to say to Margaret, “What did you do to your hair? It looks terrible!” By the middle of the party she was feeling quite dejected until she figured out that I had fostered the little hair thing to add sparkle to her evening. I must say she took my prank extremely well. I only received a painful pinch on a sensitive part of my anatomy when no one was looking.
Being unaware of the feminine capacity for revenge, a few weeks later I was calmly enthroned in the smallest room in our house. The focus of my attention was directed to a book by a rival in which I read a page and then tore it out in order that the page might serve a dual purpose. When I was a kid, this fate was the destiny of every old Sears and Roebuck catalog residing in the outhouse.
In the meantime Margaret had covered her glorious auburn tresses with a grey wig, applied lavish and garish lipstick, donned a cape and thick glasses. She hammered loudly on the door to my quiet study, then immediately jerked open the door and shouted, “Who do you think you are?”
Startled out of my wits, I jumped to my feet, trying to decide between fight or flight, to which the apparition responded, “You would be better advised to remain seated.”