Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

24 March 2008

Radio Blues

I was interviewed today regarding my post of 28 February—about allowing my daughters to watch The Hills Have Eyes—on a Christian radio program called John and Stephanie. Stephanie was clearly outraged that I would let Charlotte watch again a movie that had given her nightmares and then that I would let her even younger sister watch it. I explained my miserable parenting as a preference for permission with discussion over prohibition and simply relenting to teenager pressure. And I tried to talk about the other part of my post: the fact that equally creepy stories are found in the Bible, and I see this as evidence that we are to confront and talk about such matters, work them through, even with our children, and not simply forbid the topics altogether and deny their existence.

As is to be expected in any discussion of objectionable or graphic material undertaken among believers, Stephanie quoted Paul to the Philippians: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things" (4:8). Then she asked me if I didn't think allowing my kids to watch the movie with discussion wasn't tantamount to letting them have sex in the living room or use drugs in my presence. She also wisely pointed out that, while the Bible was made for teaching us how to be, movies were made for entertainment. Her parents had forbidden such movies, she said, so she had never seen them and never wanted to see them. The few glimpses of scary scenes she had caught in her life had stayed with her and damaged her.

I felt bad afterwards. I suppose it shouldn't have been any surprise that my parenting looks exactly as bad to others as I always feel it is. Parenting, I've said many times, is the hardest work I have ever done, and I always feel like a failure.

For the record, though, here's what I'd like my parenting to look like: I seek to be an engaged parent by being aware, really aware, of what my girls are thinking about. I want my daughters to like and trust me enough to keep me in the conversation, so that they will later talk to me openly about more difficult and personal issues—issues that I kept secret and dealt with entirely on my own at their age. I want to allow my children to gradually grow up and away from me. At the same time, though, I also want to have the kind of relationship with them that permits me to retain some small input in their decision-making.

Currently, I am the cool parent among my daughters' acquaintance. Not cool in the sense that I allow my kids to do anything I consider dangerous or immoral, like having sex or using drugs in my livingroom. And not cool in terms of being on top of the latest fashions or able to sing along with the popular music they like, as some of their parents can. Just cool in the sense that I am open to any discussion. I am frequently stern and preachy and demanding, even toward children not my own. I forbid language that they blithely use that, even in jest, belittles and hurts others, and I hold them accountable for racist and sexist views. They have to, in other words, talk nice. But just about any topic, as long as it's seriously considered and not raised purely for the sake of shocking me, is allowed in my presence. So we talk, and because we do I am cool, and my coolness—as well as the fact that my girls like spending time with me—is my main hope in this business of parenting my kids out into a pretty scary world.

My Christian students at JBU often intimate to me that I must be glad not to have been a Christian when I was their age because I got to experience, with impunity, all the stuff they missed or are missing out on. They think my life before I became a Christian must have been, in other words, more fun than my life afterward—and, more importantly, they think that a life without God is probably more fun than their own Christian lives are. I think this sort of skewed thinking comes from never really talking with their parents or other experienced people about depravity. My students grew up believing that sin, however true it might be, was something you just didn't talk about. As a result, they romanticize sin and don't realize such simple truths as that foulness really is foul and feels foul and that immoral behaviors never result in happiness.

There wasn't time in my discussion with John and Stephanie for me to go on about the thinness of the line—if there is a line at all—between teaching and entertaining. I think all art—and I include among it, somewhat reluctantly, even the often bad art of popular culture, even movies like The Hills Have Eyes—has the capacity to teach. Indeed, that's what I think the unconscious goal of most writers and filmmakers and painters and composers is: to teach while entertaining, or, to use Horace's words, to delight and instruct. I think the biblical writers have the same goal, otherwise there would be no complicated organizational schemes, like arranging a psalm's lines in the order of the Hebrew alphabet—no word play, no verse. The stories of scripture, Jesus's stories, would not teach as well if they had not been designed to entertain, and entertain well.

Anyway, I'm somewhere way off topic and must to bed. Sleep well, all.

18 March 2008

An Intercessory Prayer of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester

I really like this prayer—the specificity of its generalities, especially. I also like how the selective capitalization—reminiscent of e. e. cummings and Thomas Carlyle—throws emphasis on certain words. The prayer is excerpted from "Prayers for the First Day of the Week," from the private devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, originally composed in Greek and Hebrew sometime during Andrewes' lifetime (1555-1626), here translated and abridged by Florence Higham in her biography, Lancelot Andrewes (London: SCM, 1952). I've become a fan of the biographer, who wrote a number of books about 17th century religious thinkers. I'm also reading a translation of Andrewes' devotions by John Henry Newman, but I don't like it as much.

I covet Andrewes' ability to pray outside of his own experience—to think of farmers' concerns and nursing moms and those who, surely unlike him (he was known for his sweet cheerfulness of temper), are tempted by suicide. Anyway, just thought I'd share it, as it seems as though this wonderful little biography doesn't get checked out much. Here it is:

O Thou that art the Hope of all the ends of the earth,
remember Thy whole creation for good, visit the
world in Thy compassion . . .
O Thou that wlkdest in the midst of the golden candlesticks
remove not our candlestick out of its place,
Set in order the things that are wanting,
Strengthen the things that remain.
. . . . .
Grant to Farmers and Keepers if cattle good seasons;
To the Fleet and fishers fair weather;
To tradesmen [I'm sure Andrewes and Higham meant traders], not to overreach one another;
To Mechanics, to ursue their business lawfully,
even to the meanest of work[ers],
even down to the Poor . . . .
Do Thou arise and have mercy
on those who are in the last necessity.
. . . . .
All in extreme age and weakness
All tempted to suicide
All troubled by unclean spirits,
the despairing, the sick in soul or body,
the faint-hearted.
All in prisons and chains, all under sentence of death,
orphans, widows, foreigners, travellers, voyagers,
women with child, women who give suck,
All in bitter servitude, or in mines, or in the galleys,
Or in loneliness.
. . . . .
O Lord I commend to Thee,
my soul and body,
my mind and thoughts,
my prayers, and my vows,
my senses and my limbs,
my words and my works,
my life and my death;
my brothers and my sisters, and their children,
my friends, my benefactors, my well-wishers,
those who have a claim on me;
my kindred and my neighbours,
my country and all christendom.

That's it. And I agree. Amen.