On Desiring the Kingdom

I’m reading James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom as part of an online book club hosted by the university where I serve as adjunct instructor. I started the book today over lunch, and this quote struck me.

An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out “skilled workers”) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption.

kingdomSeveral observations:

One, I want to push back on Smith’s objection to education meant to produce “skilled workers”. I have a feeling Smith is objecting primarily to university degrees that emphasize career skills at the expense of the humanities, but when I think of “skilled workers,” I think of the trades and vocational school. It’s worth noting that if education is indeed material and embodied, there are few greater opportunities for being material and embodied than the trades, and as Matthew Crawford has written, the materiality of the trades may be good for the soul. Vocational training may be closer to Smith’s ideal education than he assumes.

Relatedly, I’m not sure what Smith’s concern with being a “producer” is. After all, we human beings are created in the image of God, to be creators ourselves. Surely in producing things, especially within the “skilled trades,” allows us to fulfill our created mandate? (The emphasis on finding fulfillment through consumption remains a problem, of course.)

Two, I notice that Smith sets up a contrast between education which seeks primarily to “provide information” and one that seeks to stoke a hunger for “a particular version of the good life.” I think this contrast explains both the reason that so many students are reluctant to take my courses, especially Introduction to Literature, and the importance of that course.

Students are reluctant because they see education primarily as a pathway to a career. They want to get to that career as quickly as possible, and they can’t see what possible relevance a course in literature or writing has to that career. After all, when they graduate and become an accountant or a local business owner or a second grade teacher, they’re hardly going to be called on to interpret the symbolism in T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” So they CLEP out of my course, assuring me all the while that it’s not personal, they just want to focus on more “important” classes, where “important” means “informational”.

But if education is about more than information, then the importance of a literature class is clearer. Stories speak to the heart; they sharpen and shape what we hunger for. I’ve long urged my students to take my course as a kind of “applied theology,” a chance to wrestle with what they believe and think to be true in the context of fictive worlds. But perhaps a more accurate, and compelling, reason to take my course is that unlike their other courses, literature does not only tell them what is good and true; it whets their appetite for goodness and truth. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) the beauty of poetry and the tension of the stories we read are soul-shaping in a way more powerful than even students’ theology courses.

This brings me to my final observation about this quotation, that as an instructor it’s important for me to think about not only what I’m teaching but how I’m teaching it. C.S. Lewis once compared his love of writing to the love that a cook feels when pouring hot jam into clean jam jars; there is delight, he said, in seeing his ideas take shape.

I’ve been noticing lately that when my students have a hard copy of the text in front of them, they’re able to speak about it in greater detail; they make more insightful observations. This speaks, I think, to the importance of embodiment and physicality in class, and so the question remains: What am I doing, when I set up my classes, to help bring what my students’ are learning out of their heads and into the real world? This is a particularly difficult question in terms of the online course I teach, and I have no easy answers.

But it remains important that I, as a teacher, guide not only my students’ intellectual development but their development as whole persons, who both know and hunger for Wisdom.




Liturgy for the End of the Semester

After posting final grades, I leave the

Office for the local big-box bookstore.

There, I lose myself in the sanctuary of

Its wide aisles and white fluorescent lights.

I linger in the cooking aisle, its

Tall shelves stocked with books on beer, burgers, and

Bread. I thumb through a guide to Persian food,

Gorgeous glossy photos of food I will never make –

Herbed frittata with fenugreek,

Saffron rice with sour cherries,

Pomegranate chicken –

Then seek at last the comfort of comic

Books, with their squat spines and their bold colours.

I read old Calvin and Hobbes for hours.


After dark, I go home to my dim flat,

To my supper of toast and tea. I put

All my books away, turn out the lights, and

Go to bed.


Teaser Tuesday: Four Roads Cross

At my cousin’s recommendation, I’ve been reading Max Gladstone’s Four Roads Cross. It’s an excellent “urban fantasy” novel which imagines the gods as currency and faith as contract law and, despite this, manages to be a lot of fun.

Here’s a (randomly chosen) excerpt:

“Don’t treat us like children, Ms. Abernathy – not you, not Lord Kos, not the priests or the gargoyles or the Goddess Herself. If the world’s changed, the people deserve to know.”

Time’s one jewel with many facets. Tara leaned against the desk. A year ago she stood in a graveyard beneath a starry sky, and the people of her hometown approached her with pitchforks and knives and torches and murder in mind, all because she’d tried to show them the world was bigger than they thought.

Admittedly, there might have been a way to show them that didn’t involve zombies.

“People don’t like a changing world,” she said. “Change hurts.”

From the Goodreads blurb:

The great city of Alt Coulumb is in crisis. The moon goddess Seril, long thought dead, is back—and the people of Alt Coulumb aren’t happy. Protests rock the city, and Kos Everburning’s creditors attempt a hostile takeover of the fire god’s church. Tara Abernathy, the god’s in-house Craftswoman, must defend the church against the world’s fiercest necromantic firm—and against her old classmate, a rising star in the Craftwork world.

Highly recommended.

Note: Teaser Tuesday is a (semi) weekly series I’m doing, posting an excerpt from a randomly-selected page in whatever book I’m reading. More info here. Feel free to chime in with whatever book you’re reading!


Teaching as Planting Seeds

IMGP7017Lately, I’ve started to feel as though my friends have outpaced me in a career.

My cousin and sister have been promoted.

A close friend is halfway through her graduate program.

A (different) cousin just earned her doctorate degree.

And here I am, plugging away at the same job I’ve been at for the past six years, still living in my apartment, with not much hope for advancement in the near future. (I’m exploring a few ideas, but I don’t have any strong plan yet.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m good at what I do, and I enjoy it. (At least, I do when I’m not grading the nineteenth paper in a row!) But the fact remains that when I was growing up, I thought I’d be changing the world.

There’s an expectation, I think, that in our work we need to go big, as big as possible, as soon as possible. All those “30 before 30” lists only feed this mindsets, as does every article about yet another high school student who is changing the world or starting a business or feeding refugees.

But not everybody achieves big things, in big, visible, immediate ways.

And yet.

One of my former students, Aaron, texted me a month ago, asking for the title of the essay we read about censorship in Intro to Literature. (It was Milton’s Areopagitica.) I knew he’d enjoyed the essay when we read it in class, but not until he reached out to me did I realize how deeply it impressed him and shaped his views on cultural engagement.

The thing is, before Areopagitica impressed Aaron, it impressed me. I teach it because when I read it for the first time ten years ago, it changed my life. Now, I’ve asked more than a hundred Introduction to Literature students to read it too. I’ve asked them to memorize the same passage from Areopagitica that I was asked to memorize. I hope it will bear fruit in their lives as it did in mine, and I think my recent conversation with Aaron shows that sometimes it does.

Yet the professor who taught me Areopagitica does not, as far as I know, know about any of this. She knows, I believe, that I enjoyed reading Areopagitica and that I thought about it after leaving school; she doesn’t know that I teach it; she certainly doesn’t know what kind of impact it has in my students’ lives!

Teaching, especially teaching in the humanities, is not a job with big, immediate, visible results. I know that it’s cliche to say that teaching is like planting seeds, but I’ve been thinking lately how true that is. What I teach my students may germinate for months and years; when it finally bears fruit, there’s a good chance that I won’t get to see that happen, as my teachers don’t see their work coming to fruition in the lives of my own students.

I mentioned at the beginning of my post my discouragement, my feeling that the world was racing on without me. Yet I’ve also been feeling that I cannot let this discouragement define my work. I need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and not let the lack of visible results distract us from our work. I need to be willing to play the long game.

Teaching does not have an immediate, visible payoff. It does not result in yearly promotions and (if you work at a tiny institution like mine) yearly raises, like in the business world.

But if I’m patient, I’m confident that it will pay off richly.

*Student names have been changed to protect privacy. 


The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~ Wendell Berry

I stumbled across this poem perhaps a year ago, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t find it particularly artful or deep. It was a nice nature poem about finding peace in the woods, nothing more.

But the poem has been on my mind lately, and the more I’ve read it, the deeper and more beautiful it becomes to me. Berry is like George Herbert, with a knack for writing deceptively simple poetry (I love this kind of poetry.)

Most recently, what I’ve loved about this poem is Berry’s recognition of the grief he causes himself through fear.

Towards the beginning of the poem, he describes his fear: he is afraid ‘for what my life and my children’s lives may be” (3).

Berry’s fear is very human. It is in the nature of human beings to hope that their life will turn out for the best, despite the troubles they face, and it is in the nature of parents to be afraid for their children.

Yet I’m struck by the conditional verb and the vague word choices. Berry is not afraid of any particular thing. That Berry chooses the verb may be suggests that a difficult life for himself and his children is a possibility, not a certainty; it is equally likely that everything will turn out well in the end. Indeed, that Berry is worrying over “what may be” implies that the source of his trouble is not one particular looming difficulty, such as a lost job or an illness in the family. He is concerned in general that the lives of those he cares about will not turn out very well.

I don’t want to minimize Berry’s worry, only to point out that the kind of fear that Berry describes here is one very common to the human race. Sometimes we worry about things that are really happening, as when my identity was stolen several years ago, and I worried about the impact of the extra charges on my credit history. But how frequently do we find ourselves in a relatively stable condition, with a job and good health and friends, and yet (often inspired by all the bad news around the world!) fret that something will yet go wrong, to ruin our lives or the lives of the people we love.

Ironically, Berry suggests that this worrying causes us the trouble that we fear.

Alone in the wild, the speaker contrasts himself with the animals. Unlike him, they are not worried; they “do not tax their lives with forethought / Of grief” (7-8).

The word “tax” stands out to me here. Taxes are very necessary. They pay for public servants who (hopefully) do their jobs with integrity and efficiency; they pay for smooth roads and health care and public education; they pay for the courts to administer justice and the government to administer aid to those who need it.

But although logically we know that taxes are important, nobody really likes to pay them. Many taxes are not necessary; many are misspent. Surely taxes frustrated Berry, known for his belief that big urban areas drain the best parts of local communities. Given this context, the tax referred to his this poem is better seen in the negative, a drain on the resources of our lives.

The thing is, this is a drain that we ourselves cause, through our vague fears for the future. Put simply, such fears buy trouble before it happens. Berry does not deny that trouble may well happen, nor does he deny that we should consider, perhaps with some fear, how we may respond to such troubles.

But his poem insists that we be honest about the consequences of our fear. In choosing to worry about things that may not happen, in choosing to worry when when don’t even have anything certain to be worried about, we drain our life of the very joys that we fear will be taken from us through some future trouble.

This is not to say that trouble will not come. It will. Yet rather than anxiously awaiting such trouble, Berry implies that like the woodland creatures, we are best off rejoicing in what we have today, and letting tomorrow take care of itself.