Where I spray-paint my thoughts…


Shelf Esteem: Bookshelf Tour

Over on Tumblr, I often see book bloggers sharing beautifully shot photographs of their artfully arranged bookshelves, organized by colour, by theme, or some other clever scheme. My books are arranged by “whatever fits on that shelf” and the result is quite messy. Despite this, I decided to take friends and vlog viewers on a tour of (some of) the many bookshelves in my home. I also offer viewers a chance to pick out books for me to talk about in upcoming videos and even win a book, so play along!


All Will Be Well

This is the song I’ve been listening to over and over all week (since discovering it on the soundtrack of a Parks and Recreation episode).

Julian of Norwich, that odd medieval mystic, famously said “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” And this is a statement of faith that I hear quoted a lot, both from people who share Julian’s Christian faith and those who most emphatically don’t. It’s a statement that I love but find hard to believe.

As near as I can figure from my reading, when Julian said it she meant it in the broadest cosmic sense — in fact, she was probably expressing the theological idea that today we would call Universalism — that no-one will be lost, that God will, in the end, find a way to save all creation. This is an idea I found powerfully appealing (though not necessarily Scriptural) — but I think many of the Christians who like to quote this line might disagree with this idea.

A lot of people seem to use “all will be well” as general sort of assurance, a kind of “everything will work out in the end” when you’re going through hard times. I struggle with this, not least because it’s certainly not a kind of assurance Julian would have recognized. As a medieval mystic, she not only expected but welcomed suffering, another perspective not shared by most modern Christians. I assume many Christians who say “All will be well” today mean that somehow, God is in charge and things will pretty much work out, even though you might be having some tough times now.

Some days I believe that, but some days I don’t. I’ve lived a life blessedly free (so far) of shocking tragedies, but I see enough horrific tragedies and senseless losses in the lives of those around me that I find it hard to trust that God is going to just “work things out.” As for those who don’t have any religious faith but still quote this? I have no idea what they’re trusting. The universe? Karma? Either way, “all will be well” doesn’t seem to be working out very well for either the Christians or the atheists of my acquaintance — unthinkable tragedy seems to hit both groups equally.

So I’ll admit I struggle. I don’t see either God or a beneficent universe offering people any guarantees that everything will work out OK, which means that whenever someone says “All will be well,” my chattery inner voice jumps up and says, “Well, maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but it’s distinctly possible that God’s definition of ‘well’ may be incompatible with mine, and how ‘well’ did things work out for the parents of that poor kid who died last week, and and and and ….”

Suffice it to say I have a hard time drawing comfort from these words.

And yet, when I heard this song by the Gabe Dixon Band, I just fell into it like I fall into bed at the end of a hard day. It warmed me. It comforted me. I listen to it over and over again.

I’m a wordy person, but sometimes words need music with them for me. Especially if they’re going to connect to me at a level that goes deeper than my incessantly-analyzing rational mind.

When I hear people quote “All will be well,” I think “Yeah, but ….” When I hear Gabe Dixon sing “All will be well,” I feel it. I feel that all will be well. Maybe it’s because the song itself acknowledges that all-wellness is problematic — that the fight is just as frustrating as well, and sometimes this is hard to tell. But I think it’s just that music gets past my defenses. I know there’s no rational way to understand how “All will be well,” that I can’t pull out a signed contract from God or the Universe or Whoever guaranteeing that I and all those I love will be safe from major trauma and I will triumphantly overcome all obstacles. But when I sing along, I don’t need that. “All will be well” is not about the rational mind. It’s about something deeper and more inarticulate — an attitude that approaches this big, scary life with openness and hope rather than with fear and dread.

It’s true in a part of me that theology and reason can’t reach, but music can. All will be well.


What is Common Knowledge?

I’ve been thinking about the question of “common knowledge” — things that everyone is supposed to know — a little this week, partly because of the “Friends” clip above and partly because I had another crack at the Jeopardy! Online Contestant test, which is always good for revealing how much “common knowledge” I actually don’t know.

Awhile back the whole ten seasons of “Friends” appeared on Netflix, and both our teenagers watched the series, which meant a lot of blasts from the past for me and Jason if we were in the room at the time. We relived not only the highs and lows of what was (in its early years) an extremely funny sitcom, but also the years of our own lives that unrolled while we watched that show (we dated, married, bought our house and had both our kids while Friends was on air, so we kind of grew into adulthood along with the characters).

One of the things that really struck me in re-watching the show was how aggressively anti-intellectual all the characters (except Ross, who has a PhD in Paleontology) are. Four of them (Ross, Chandler, Monica and Rachel) apparently have college degrees, but the things they don’t know, and the pride they take in not knowing those things, is sometimes staggering. This is exemplified in the clip above, where the three women make fun of Joey for not knowing who “we” (i.e. the US) fought in World War One, and then realize that they don’t know either, but think maybe it was Mexico.

This is jaw-droppingly ignorant, and I’m inclined to put it down to typical sitcom exaggeration — making characters look dumber than anyone could possibly be, for the sake of getting a laugh. But then I reflected a little more and thought, maybe it only seems staggeringly stupid to me because I have a history degree, teach history, and am a history geek. Maybe the question of who fought who in WWI is not actually general knowledge for most educated people? And that (along with trying the Jeopardy quiz) made me think — what’s actually included in “common knowledge”? What can most educated people be expected to know?

I would think that “Who did we fight in WWI?” would be a general-knowledge level question that most people can answer, while, “What were the terms of the Treaty of Versailles?” is a specialized-knowledge question that I’d expect only someone with a strong background in history to be able to answer (I would hope that my World History students could answer it on the days before and after the final exam, but I know most of them will forget it within a week).

I wondered, what about my “general knowledge” in areas I’m not particularly strong in? Science, for example. I studied Biology and Chem in high school and got good grades, did first-year Biology in university, and haven’t touched a science subject since then. I know that I have forgotten a lot of things I learned in those courses.

One of the Jeopardy Online questions was “Na is the symbol for this element,” which I knew immediately (sodium). But another (from a different night when I didn’t take the test) was “Generally this metal has to be at -37.93 degrees Farenheit to become a solid” and I would not have gotten that answer (mercury) within the allotted 15 seconds. I might have figured it out given more time, by asking myself, “Aren’t all metals solid anyway? What metal do we commonly see in a liquid state?” but I definitely would not have gotten there in 15 seconds.

Is that “common knowledge”? By definition the people who get on to Jeopardy! (and trivia buffs in general) have to have a knowledge base that’s at least a bit broader and deeper than the general population. But they don’t ask expert-level questions on Jeopardy — that is, not the kind of questions you’d have to answer if you were getting a degree in a subject.

So what all this thinking has taught me is — I don’t actually know what constitutes “General Knowledge” or “Common Knowledge.” I’d hate to think that I’m looking down on people, like Monica, Rachel, Joey and Phoebe, for not knowing things that seem obvious to me, if those things really aren’t common knowledge. (I don’t actually mind looking down on sitcom characters, but I’d hate to transfer that snobbery to real people). At the same time, I’d like to think that I know enough things, outside my own area of expertise, to avoid looking stupid about things like Math and Science, but I’m not really sure I do.

So I put it out to you, blogosphere and social media friends! What do YOU consider general knowledge, or common knowledge? Do YOU know who your country fought in World War One, without being a hardcore history junkie? How much do you know about subjects outside your own area of expertise? And just how dumb ARE the characters on Friends?


Richard III: A Reburial Message


As a regular-person history buff who has read about the life and followed the weird afterlife of England’s King Richard III with some interest, I was disappointed to read a recent Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper report about his re-interment service. As we all know, the ceremony was full of pomp and circumstance, people in great outfits, and a lovely poem written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and enhanced by the mellifluous voice and eerie alien beauty of Benedict Cumberbatch.

(That’s a bit off-topic, but I’m not going to miss an opportunity to post a Cumbervideo). Sadly, the actual sermon delivered by the officiating clergyperson was, according to the Mystery Worshipper at least, rambling and insipid. If true (I haven’t actually listened to the sermon myself) I think that’s a shame. I would have no trouble coming up with a homily that’s relevant to the story of Richard III, and I don’t know why nobody asked me. Other than me not being a Church of England clergyperson, I guess. Anyway, since they didn’t ask me, here’s the sermon I would have preached for the re-interment of Richard III, had I been given a shot.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to re-bury the mortal remains of Richard of York, Duke of Gloucester and King of England, remembered by most people for the last five hundred years as a hunchbacked usurper whose physical disfigurement mirrored his misshapen soul, and whose crimes culminated in the brutal murder of his two young nephews, the Princes in the Tower, the elder of whom ought to have reigned as King Edward V.

Why, then, have we laid on the pomp and circumstance to re-bury this notorious villain? Largely because of the historical significance of the discovery of his bones — it is, after all, a piece of our past, whether or not it is one we are happy to claim. And also, perhaps, because both scholarly and popular reflection in the last century has caused us to re-examine Richard’s legacy, to at least entertain the possibility that he might have been a good king maligned by history, accused of a heinous crime he never committed.

Most of the scorn heaped on Richard III after his death is due to Shakespeare’s undeniably excellent play Richard III. There is no doubt that Shakespeare’s Richard is a brilliantly evil villain. There is plenty of doubt about whether that character accurately represents the historical character whose name he shares. What’s not in doubt is that Shakespeare did very well off the royal patronage of Queen Elizabeth I, granddaughter of the man who defeated Richard in battle and took his crown. That man, Henry Tudor, had good reason to encourage the belief that Richard was a usurper and a murderer, as did his Tudor descendants. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a masterful piece of drama — but it’s also a masterful piece of political propaganda, one that has shaped our interpretation of history for centuries.

Shakespeare knew the power of words to make or break a memory. In one of his most famous sonnets he tells the object of his admiration that while the beauty of a summer’s day, and the darling buds of May, will all fade with time, his beloved’s beauty will never fade — it will last eternally. Why? Because, as the closing couplet assures us,

As long as men can breathe, or eyes can see
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

What is “this,” the magical potion that guarantees immortality? The poem. Shakespeare’s words. We know very little about the person for whom Shakespeare wrote the poem — not even, some might suggest, that person’s gender — but we know she (or he) was beautiful to Shakespeare, because Shakespeare wrote it down. When a gifted writer writes that you are beautiful, those words endure, inscribing the memory of your beauty in literary history. Likewise, if a gifted writer writes that you are hunchbacked villain, misshapen both in body and soul, that version of you becomes part of our historical memory.

Shakespeare, who probably had a larger part than anyone in destroying Richard’s historical reputation, knew the power of reputation. He knew how words can shape reality, including the way we see a person. In Othello, he has another of his great villains, Iago, say:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

Even Scripture appears to affirm the importance of reputation: Proverbs 22, verse 1 assures us that “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

But good name, and the esteem of others, are fickle, changeable things, as the man we are re-committing to the earth here today could surely tell us. Richard III seems, according to many contemporary accounts, to have been well-liked and trusted in his own time — certainly by many of those he ruled. A historian writing in his own time described him as “a good lord” with “a great heart.” Richard’s reputation was unmade by the words of men — mostly those who lived long after his death. Such rehabilitation of his memory as has gone on in the last century has also been done by the words of men — and of women (if you only know Shakespeare’s version of Richard, and want to explore the other side of the story, read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour). Words can make or destroy a person’s reputation — but the words others speak about us reflect imperfectly, if at all, who we really are. Reputations rise or fall like royal houses and fashion trends. What remains? What is reliable?

Scripture — at least, the proverb we read a moment ago — seems to suggest that reputation matters. And it does — in this life, there’s no denying that people judge you by what others say about you, and what others say about you is at least partially influenced by what you do. Those who urge us to live lives beyond reproach are giving at least partly good advice, difficult advice though it is to follow in this tell-age age of social media. But the Scriptures also reveal that there is something deeper than reputation, truer than what others can see in our Facebook feed. God Himself expresses this deeper truth to the prophet Samuel when Samuel was about to anoint David’s handsome, strapping older brother as the next king of Israel. In that case of royal succession, which was to lead to conflicts every bit as bitter as the Wars of the Roses, the prophet received a divine message:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

Due to the discovery and authentication of his remains, we know a good deal more about Richard III’s appearance and the height of his stature — both issues hotly debated by scholars — than we did when we had only the words of historians to go on. But no archeological dig can reveal the state of the man’s heart. In all likelihood, Richard was a man like most of us — a mixture of good and bad, loved by his friends and hated by his enemies. He may or may not have ordered the murder of his nephews, but he certainly did, as did every medieval autocrat, deeds that would horrify a modern citizen of a democratic society. Reputation changes. Reputation, and the facts behind it, may be subject to debate. But as we commit Richard’s mortal remains to the soil in a ceremony far more grand than was granted him by his victorious enemy over 500 years ago, we recognize that his soul, like all our souls, can be committed only to God. God is the only true Judge, the only one who truly knows the secrets over which both historians and gossips love to speculate.

In the end, Richard’s eternal fate, like yours and mine, does not rest on what people say, or what scholars or novelists write. Nor does it rest even on the deeds he did, anymore than on the deeds we do. Scripture assures us that “by grace are we saved, through faith, and that not of [ourselves]; it is the gift of God.” The presence of God’s saving grace in a life is something that those around us may never see, something that may never be inscribed in the historical record. It is known only to the Judge before whom Richard III, and you, and I, will at last stand, in a light both more clear and infinitely more loving than that which falls across the pages of history.


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