Brown Out

Brown University’s commencement ceremonies include a deluge of academic mythology. The curse of my chosen field of academic study is the tendency to see mythology everywhere. Some individuals see dead people, others see myths. I always feel an inordinate sense of pride in the graduates, especially those who are related to me, but the whole arrangement takes part in the mythology of higher education. Who wouldn’t feel awe in the presence of the illustrious recipients of honorary degrees? There on the Jumbotron, Viola Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Diane Sawyer, and John Lewis. In the program book the seemingly arcane symbols of academia are explained. These are the scriptures backing the mythology. I always wondered why some old professor always carried a mace in academic processions.

But the mythology of higher education runs deeper than the symbols and ceremonial. Education itself is under intense fire for participating in the realm of finance that it helped to create. Despite constant affidavits to the opposite effect, there is more to life than money. The cost in educating our young requires a greater input than becomes obvious in the immediate return on the investment. Often I hear concerns expressed over the cost of higher education, and there are certainly excesses that must be addressed. The real profit in this transaction, however, is our future. Who can look at the ocean of mortarboarded potential and not feel, deep down, a sense of optimism, no matter how guarded?

The mace is a symbol of violence. Education, if done right, is violence against ignorance and ossified old ways of prejudice, discrimination, and selfishness. For those of us who have tried—and some of us have not been successful—to shed some light on future generations, commencement is a humbling experience. While at Nashotah House I sat through many of them, and sometimes the mythology mingled with hypocrisy as I saw raw hunger for power and the lust to control the lives of others. It was refreshing to experience the mythology anew in a setting where genuine hope seemed to linger among faces full of optimism and pride of achievement. Perhaps it was the obvious inclusiveness instilled by outgoing president Ruth J. Simmons, but prayers by women clergy, and honorary degrees conferred across the spectrum of humanity are signs of hope. The mythology of academia is one myth worth believing in, if it is truly a commencement.

Bible Review

The Christmas edition of the New York Times Book Review begins with the Bible. Appropriate enough for a book that gave us “in the beginning” and the Christmas story in the first place. Reviewed by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, the Bible is presented as the unacknowledged source of much of our literary culture. It is a message that bears repeating every now and again, since the Bible itself is often equated with those who thump it instead of trying to comprehend it. The Bible is often guilty by association. Like any book, it has parts that we wish weren’t in it, but that is only problematic for those who think of the Bible in authoritarian terms, a book that must be rebuilt into modern culture, jot and tittle. Taken alongside other ancient writings, however, the Bible is a fine example of human evolution. It represents a segment of our developing culture. And, every now and again, atheist and evangelical should acknowledge, the Bible gives us profound insights.

Robinson’s article mostly focuses on reiterations. The Bible’s influence is deep, and in the English literary world, nearly universal. What authors have written in the past—and what they are still writing today—bears the stamp of the Bible. It was the first formative book in western culture, and to dismiss it completely is to throw away a valuable part of our selves. At the same time, even so able a writer as Robinson can’t escape the subtle supersessionism that coheres to the mythic reading preferred by a large cross-section of society. The Bible is a self-referential text, but the Bible does not know that “the Bible” exists. Books that eventually made it into the collection were written without an awareness that they would become authoritarian tomes millennia down the road. Modern believers still invest the books with the mystique of divine authority, often in subtle ways.

A point made by Robinson should be read by those aspiring presidential candidates super-bussing their ways across Iowa. “Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them,” she writes of the biblical narrative. The vast majority of us are marginal in this sense. Those in seats of power frequently forget that it is the unassuming compliance of those further down the food chain that lends them their power. The Bible is nearly always on the side of the oppressed. The Bible, however, can also empower those deprived by the crass world of politics. It must be rescued first. Once they are done kissing babies and shaking hands, once they settle in their opulent offices built with the money that would have otherwise gone to those babies, politicians forget the basic truths of the Bible. As long as it can be thumped once in a while, however, they will keep it in the bottom drawer until it is needed again. Only by dealing with the Bible sensibly can its abuse be stopped.

There is, I hear, balm there.