Friday, May 20, 2011

Loose ends

It may be a while before I write another blog post, so here are a few things I need to get tied up first.

• On Monday I'm going under the knife (under the laparoscope, actually) for abdominal surgery that I hope will fix the diverticulitis problem that has cursed me throughout the past year. I was originally supposed to have this done on July 18, after my summer teaching was over, but it's become increasingly evident that it can't wait that long. The recovery will take a few weeks, and then I may feel up to serious intellectual challenges again. In the meantime, they'll have to wait.

• As of today, guns on campus appears to be dead in Texas. It took an awful lot of phone calling, testifying and petitioning by an awful lot of concerned people, but it looks like we actually beat the NRA. Let me repeat that: WE ACTUALLY BEAT THE NRA! (And in the process, we affirmed the will of the majority of Texas voters.) Of course, I've been wrong about this before.

• The joint recital that I was planning to give with my son Jeremy will have to be postponed until late summer or early fall. We absolutely will be giving it. In the meantime, Jeremy will have sung Donaudy at the state-wide solo and ensemble competition in Austin and traveled throughout the United Kingdom as a People to People Student Ambassador. He will sing and play the piano better than ever. Watch this space for the final recital date.

• My daughter Jennifer just finished her freshman year at Baylor, has moved back into the house, and is cleaning up her room. This is almost as remarkable as the last two points.

• My father had some extraordinary complications after his bypass surgery, but he's home and doing much better.

• My blog had its 4,000th pageview sometime this week. I know this isn't much of a post, but I appreciate all of you who have been reading what I have to say. Assuming I'm right and the Rapture doesn't happen tomorrow—in fact, assuming I'm right and the Rapture is a gross theological distortion that nobody who understands any of the three major Abrahamic religions could take seriously—I'll be back.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Grace in the Making

It has been, to put it mildly, one hell of a way to end a semester. The second week in April, just as the first set of research papers came in for my attention, my publisher emailed me two chapters of the book I am writing and asked for immediate revisions. This took my full attention for a week and a half. Then a job search in which I had been involved went into high gear and consumed most of another week. By the time Easter Break rolled around, I had two sets of research papers I hadn't looked at yet and was ready to do some serious catching up. That was when I was ambushed by the 5th flareup of diverticulitis I've experienced this year; it literally struck during the final meeting of the search committee. I was laid out flat for several days, and ended up farther behind than ever. The most important thing to keep in mind, my doctor reminded me, was that recovery requires lots and lots of rest, and I absolutely must not push myself too hard. Meanwhile, final grades were due in two weeks, and the mountain of work I had to do in that time seemed insurmountable.

During the final week, I learned that my father had been hospitalized for what turned out to be nearly complete occlusion of two major arteries, and would require emergency quadruple bypass surgery. The operation went well, but complications set in, and at first every report I heard on how he was doing was more discouraging than the last. As far as I know, he has now turned the corner and will be home sometime next week. As I was finishing my grades, however, I didn't even have complete confidence that he would recover - and since he's in Florida, there was obviously no way I could go visit him when so many people were counting on me to turn in their grades so they could graduate.

I was hoping for one significant satisfaction during this ordeal. May 10, the day before my grades were due, was also the final day on which Sen. Jeff Wentworth's guns on campus legislation could clear the Texas State Senate before being declared dead for another two years. I was prepared to post a triumphant status on Facebook as I finished the grades last Wednesday proclaiming that we had succeeded against all odds in blocking this phenomenally misguided legislation from becoming law. Instead, on Monday, as my father lay in pain in a Florida hospital room and I struggled to force myself to keep grading one paper after another so the grades would be in on time (my doctor's advice to get lots and lots of rest and not push myself too hard resonating like an ironic mantra in my brain), Sen. Wentworth managed through some stealthy trick to attach his bill as an amendment to a completely unrelated piece of legislation and get it onto the Senate floor, where it promptly passed. For those of us who had invested everything we could possibly muster in opposing a bill that we found literally inconceivable, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. Wentworth and the gun lobby had triumphed. I went to bed Monday night with the heaviest heart, and the most crushing sense of utter, complete defeat that I can remember having experienced in a long, long time.

It just seemed like the world was coming to an end. In that context, I posted a link to the news story about the gun legislation on Facebook, and stated that after the grades were in, I expected to be writing a blog post explaining why I no longer wished to remain in this country when I retired. It drew a few comments.

Fortunately for my sanity, the first thing I did when I turned in the grades was to get away to Fredericksburg with my wife Barbara for two days of relaxation and regeneration. I left on Wednesday still thinking my father was at death's door, still thinking guns on campus was inevitable, and with a series of indignant emails I had received from a student I had just failed on a paper rankling at the edge of my comfort zone. Those two days turned out to be the greatest gift I could have given myself (and Barbara, of course).

Now I'm back home, and with an absolutely clear conscience I will be skipping both Baylor commencements today to watch the simulcast of Die Walk├╝re from the Metropolitan Opera. My father seems to be doing much better, and at least for now, the companion bill to Sen. Wentworth's piece of folly has failed to clear the Texas House with a guns-on-campus amendment attached, so the struggle continues. I feel like a different person. In particular, the time we spent visiting Texas wineries (Did you know that the stretch of Highway 290 east of Fredericksburg is now the second most popular wine destination in the US, after the Napa Valley?) helped to ground me in a sense of local identity that I'd momentarily suppressed. This is where I live, and it's good to know we're doing something people like that doesn't involve guns.

Make no mistake: I still feel profoundly out of place in 2011 America. I still ask myself if I belong in the same country with the Tea Party mobs I've been seeing on the news regularly for what seems like forever. If the legislature does end up passing guns on campus, it will feel exactly as though they had shown up at my house dressed in white sheets and burned a cross on my lawn. Even though I teach at a private university that will be allowed to "opt out" of letting students bring guns to class, the passage of such a bill would in itself constitute a massive slap in the face to everything I ever thought my life and my profession stood for.

However, I have also been reminded that this is where I live, and that's also part of who I am. Not only am I an American, but I have now lived most of my life in the South, and settling down anywhere else would feel pretty strange. Therefore, I can only hope to find the grace to continue affirming my rootedness in this time and place, since no other real option is available. As tough as it may be, I'm ready to stay.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Seduced again

An empire needs a lot of validation. In particular, it needs to make up stories about itself. If you are a powerful empire at the crossroads of the world, it might make sense to tell one like this: A vigorous young god grows tired of his mother's constant meddling, so he murders her and stretches out her corpse to form the cosmos. The many splatters of blood become stars, resulting in the pretty but violent world we all inhabit.

This is essentially the creation myth of ancient Babylon, but it lives on as what theologian Walter Wink has called "the myth of redemptive violence." According to this myth, a wrong can only be avenged through violence. At its most powerful, such violence is indeed a creative force, and the god, person or nation who exercises it performs an act of redemption.

The most stunning realization of the myth of redemptive violence I have ever seen is the movie Independence Day. After millions of people have been killed and an entire alien civilization destroyed by our nuclear weapons in retaliation, we are asked to leave the theater believing that we have seen a "happy ending." After all, "they" were not even human.

Before I go on to make the obvious parallel with current events, I would like to point out that there is another creation story with which we are ostensibly more familiar: one that grew up in the shadow of Babylon, and in opposition to it. In this story, God does not use violence to create the world. God stands outside of creation, yet cares deeply enough about it to find it good. We have also heard this story many times, but we may not realize how strongly it contrasts with the Babylonian creation myth - because it is the latter that still often guides our most important choices.

Things do not go smoothly in Genesis either, of course. Cain kills Abel, planting a seed of violence that grows and festers until it creates a cancer that seems impossible to eradicate. In many ways, our imaginations are still bound by the limitations of the creation myth of ancient Babylon.

We have been asked this week to accept that the death of Osama bin Laden is an act of justice. Perhaps it is. Let me be clear. I am not sorry that the man is dead. He was evil, and he brought what happened on himself many times over. We may well be safer because he is no longer alive.

Nevertheless, I have come to believe that a truly evil person can do no greater evil than to cause others to rejoice over his or her death. I refuse to grant bin Laden that final victory over my soul. I will not be happy that he is dead. He does not deserve it.