The Unsound Academic

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My earliest memories of colleges all seem to connect to buildings. I can vaguely recall visits to several Texas colleges at at about five or six years old. But more than the names or locations, I remember the aesthetic of atriums, classrooms, and performance halls. Most distinctly, I remember the UT football stadium I visited with my dad, and how the ramp under the stadium reminded me of a parking garage.

But why is this important? At some point, the word college stopped translating to football stadiums or fancy architecture that little Randy could run around and explore. College started to denote the people, and not just the place. And as I started to connect people with the ideas and opinions, I made the subconscious shift to associate ‘college’ the word with ideas. Put another way, college meant the thoughts expressed in a space, and neither the space itself nor the people in it. And I can’t help but wonder: is this the best picture of college? Is an academic merely the sum total of their positions? Is there another view of college besides thinking of it as a repository?

The idea for this new category (or rather, the revised version) is to make a space where I can examine a variety of mental puzzles and ideas, from the dusty corners of literature that I’m persistently enamored with, to curiosities about how words are used and what they really mean. To a degree, I’ve already tested this idea out in blog form (see the earlier posts about magic and literature). And while that was a notably successful period for this blog, I want to refine the concept a little.

I want this section to include more than just musings and ideas. As I implied earlier, I am uncomfortable with the understanding that an academic is merely what he or she thinks. To me, that feels a lot like describing a college campus by its buildings. Certainly, they are integral for the academic work, but unoccupied, the buildings are without intellectual value. People are what transform a campus into a college. We always have some reason for the logic trains we’ve adopted. My stories are what contextualize and color the lenses that I see through. And those stories have meaning because of what I believe about them.

As that last point implies, the section will likely find its way into more contemplative waters, but that isn’t to imply that some nonintellectual force will invade the space of scholastic rigor. Consider the phrase, “I heard/read it from X authority,” or “I have observed this phenomenon with X sense.” The empirical basis for a conclusion— the logic, inquiry, or scientific observation— is ultimately based on the trust in our means of gathering and processing information. As a person in the liberal arts, I would be lying to you if I pretended that what I believe doesn’t affect how I think. I hope you will join me on both fronts. I hope that we can explore stories, wrestle with ideas, and generally perform the life of an academics together.

 

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Grumbling and Gratitude

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There are a handful of conversations that stick to me as much as with me. When I look back, I can pick out comments or conversations that have permanently shaped how I think about myself in the world. One of these came from Brent, a seminary intern at my church who I met my first year in the high school youth group. We were having lunch at a $5.54, all you can eat Chinese buffet near the church, and I was explaining why I had left the church to attend another youth group.

To simplify an hour’s conversation into one sentence, I wasn’t happy with people in the youth group or the church. I felt excluded. The church wasn’t taking care of the outsiders to the group (me), and it sucked. And Brent didn’t disagree with me, but he also didn’t just validate my feelings and apologize for how mistreated I had been. Instead, he observed an “ability” to see the flaws in groups— in the church and in the youth group. He then asked, “how are you using that gift?”

I’ve thought a lot about that question, and two things stick out. First, the problems weren’t marginalized. As one of only a few kids who didn’t go to a public or private school, I had no natural connection to the other kids. And rather than recognize their head start in the social circle called ‘youth group,’ the kids simply went about their routine, talking to friends, relating to each other in a way that I couldn’t join in. There wasn’t any awareness for the excluded kid, and Brent validated me in seeing that.

However, the response to the problem was antagonized. What I didn’t recognize at the time, and what Brent’s comment helped me see, was that knowledge of a problem didn’t change anything. Complaining about the problem didn’t help either. The only way my perception could turn into something positive was if I stayed in community with those who hurt me.

Now why is this important? Because for a system (be it a youth group, a church, or a nation) to work properly, its participants have to be willing to move together into closer proximity. That requires us to have lightly malleable identities and an awareness of those around us. If my identity is unchangeable, then I will only look for those who are exactly like me to form a group. I will, knowingly or unknowingly, cut others out; I will see them as the horrific other; I will be much quicker to think of them as my enemies.

The system also requires us to be willing to create rather than merely criticize. I said at the last restart of my blog that I want this blog to be something different than the world around me. I don’t think I can help you if I’m just criticizing you. I don’t think I can even know who you are if all I do is complain about you. And complaints and criticism from people who hardly know me always feels unfair and hurtful. I don’t want to feed that back into the system if at all possible.

I wish I could delve deeper into this last point, but I’m out of space. To be brutally brief: I’m thankful for Brent, and for the others that I believe God put in my life to force me to think differently. I’m thankful for their patience at a slow learner, for their generous mercy in allowing me to mess up. More than just appreciating Brent’s comment, more than just being thankful for the little dose of life he poured into me, I’m grateful by striving to not just see the problem anymore.

Poison in the System

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Before we dig in, I need to apologize for a quick change of plans. I had hoped to use the pages as my primary posting spot, but that didn’t really work a couple weeks ago. So, I’m going to revert to the older and simpler design of uploading to the blog, and sorting materials through tags. And with that said….

I think I’ve mentioned this once or twice before, but I was a committed talker as a little boy. I could talk to anyone, and I would say exactly what was on my mind. In response to this, Mom gave me a very specific rule for when we took one of my older siblings to a piano lesson: avoid the topics of religion and politics; talk about the weather, or even your health. Now if memory serves, she told me this, and not five minutes later I began quizzing a somewhat puzzled college teacher about the weather.

But if I could defy my mother’s advice for a minute, I’d like to not just write about one of these two taboo topics, but combine them. I want to do this, but not because I’m particularly excited by the idea. Truth told, I’ve spent the last six to eight years trying to keep my digital presence divorced from almost all political discourse. I have deliberately tried to keep quiet, and I think it’d be helpful for me to parse out why.

One reason for my silence is that I really don’t know how my faith should affect my voting. When I step into a voting booth, I see flawed candidates who are more defined by their political parties than by any professed faith. For my own part, I believe that humans are created in the image of God, that they have intrinsic worth just because of how they’re designed. That belief leads to a dislike of abortion (traditionally a red position), but also to a more nuanced position on immigration (a blue argument). This frustrates me in a way Tim Keller brilliantly described in a New York Times article, writing, “political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.”

I also say nothing because of the volume of the current debate. I don’t think it’s a stretch to describe our current political discourse as cacophonous. The sheer volume of the debate, the tenor of people’s voices and the sharpness of their fingers smashing into keyboards— it leaves me uneasy. I doubt I can be heard, and so I say nothing. But I’m increasingly unhappy with this choice. I can’t tell if, in my silence, I am complicit in the way political debates have evolved.

Where does this leave me? I suppose in one sense, it has spurred me to reopen this blog. But I don’t want to simply serve as a bibliographer of every rhetorical failing, and I don’t want to sit here criticizing both sides because I belong to neither. To me, that last option sounds a lot like pouring my own venom into a swimming pool in protest of the toxins already there. I want to encourage, not criticize. I want to look for little ways I can help others, caring for what needs I can meet, and praying for those I can’t. And that leads me to tomorrow.

There’s a sign outside the front door of my house for a political candidate. Across the street, there are two houses with signs for the other party’s candidate. And while that might lead to (or imply) political enmity, I’d rather it not. I want to tell my neighbors that I care about them, and that I want to encourage them regardless of our political or philosophical differences. which leads to my plan for Tuesday.

I have ingredients for cookies at home, and I plan to share a batch with my neighbors. Maybe the political warfare won’t be solved by a plate full of sweets. But maybe, just maybe, my neighborhood doesn’t have to be defined by those I associate with and those I don’t. If nothing else, there will be something sweet to savor tomorrow night. It might just be cookies and milk, but it might be a little more than that.

Another Restart

By my reckoning, it’s been a very long time since I last considered this blog. I have gone from entering graduate school to the other side of coursework (though not done with my thesis just yet). I’ve had the opportunity to teach first year comp twice, to read Lewis and Tolkien (and call it homework), and to again return to my hometown and reconnect with church and family. And in the midst of these developments, I remembered this place, and recalled how I left my musing on magic in a corner (unfinished).

If it is just the same, I think I will leave those musing for the time being. Certainly I want to talk about magic (and a great many other things). I want to tell more stories to anyone who reads this little blog. But I also want to talk about logic, and about Lewis’s vision of rhetoric and literary criticism. I want to wonder aloud about belief, and how my faith intersects with presents concerns in the US.

I suppose if I had to summarize my desire for this blog, it would be this: I want to be as honest with you as I possibly can. Not that this place will become a sort of diary, or even that I intend to make this place into a confessional booth; I hope to offer an alternative that I’ve wanted for the last decade or so— a place beyond the growing cacophony. I want this blog to feel like home on a cold winter night. You step inside, and immediately your cheeks and nose sting from the change in temperature.

On the logistics side, my plan is to publish an update about once every two weeks (or there abouts). I will try to use the blog itself as more of a general housekeeping/update center, with other writing being divided into various pages. If I end up needing to change that plan, then so be it. But the intent, currently, is that the various pages and subpages will organize the content so that a reader can pick and choose what interests them.

Present Concerns

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While this blog, in its small, discontinuous form, has never heavily delved into the world of religion and faith, I have always had a personal interest in how belief intersects with questions from the various social spheres that I occupy. Put into a simple question: what is the relationship between what I believe and how I respond to political, social, and familial issues (to name just a few arenas)?

The immediate response, and seemingly a popular one, is to divorce belief from the public space. “Leave religion at the door,” an idea that recently reappeared in connection to the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition, has often appeared as the starting point for intelligent debate. Certainly the idea is popular, but hopefully over the course of the next weeks and months, I can describe why I’m uncomfortable with it.

With regards to fore-grounding self-disclosure, it seems easiest to stop at the point of saying, “I’m spiritual,” as such a designation can be understood to mean an observance of an internal force as much as it could an external one. But acknowledging spirituality is far too individualistic for my taste. I want to ask how my faith relates to public spaces, which I think requires something that goes beyond my own feelings. Put another way: spirituality (by itself) is too internal—too much about my own feelings and experiences.

More than this, I could escape some personal scrutiny by declaring, “I’m religious.” This at least solves the question of how beliefs relates beyond my own person hood. That said, I’ll grant that the self-ascription carries an associative component as well. I might be judged based on who else identifies with a particular religion (or denomination of a religion). However, religiosity can still exclude application outside of itself (I could say I practice religion only on Sunday, for example).

This leads to the next step, “a person of faith,” in the continuum of belief and identity. I think the muddiness begins here (and thus, my own interest). This particular term begins to link the internal perception with the external practice. What I believe might be seen affecting my choices or my philosophy of living. And for the rationalized western society, I don’t think anything can be more strange, or horrific, or (dare I say) transgressive.

As with the academic page, I don’t suppose that the positions I intend to post are so concrete as to never change. In fact, I imagine that I will probably spend as much time revising these posts as I do drafting them. I do intend to experiment, somewhat publicly, and I invite any reader (whoever is willing) to join me in stumbling about.

Switching to KDP

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Howdy Folks!

So, I’m sorry for the delay in posting to the blog. I had intended to pick things back up when the term ended (in mid December), but one thing led to another and here we are nearing January. I will try (again) to get this blog rolling with some semblance of consistency, however that will probably not begin until sometime in the new year.

On a slightly brighter topic, I discovered by pure accident a way to reduce the price of the printed version of Shadowlander! The retail price of $23 USD has, since the beginning been my greatest frustration with Create Space. However, I found out today that KDP (the service I used for the kindle version) offers a similar print-on-demand feature, but that their price minimum is much lower. This means that the price per printed book will drop to $15 as soon as the book is cleared for release by KDP.

Please consider giving the book a gander once the price has been reduced. If you do buy a copy (digital or print), then I’d make the small request that you please give the book a rating on Amazon.

 

Interlude: Sonnet 30

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The chant that night was louder than before:
“You must speak now, or spoken for will be!”
But only signs of chorus did I see—
The quoted thing they didn’t dare abhor.
“Where are the voices that do not agree?”
“The other side of town where they belong.”
Another rally met ten thousand strong,
And, like this one, they met opponent-free.

Both sides agreed to “right a wrong” that night,
And choosing force, they waged their holy war.
They both declared, “No choice, but whom to fight!”
I saw that fork, but chose a third recourse.

So falls the role to call for silent peace
Upon the mute who walk between two streets.laura-picture

~

Howdy y’all!

Hope you liked the poem and picture. Credit for the latter to my good friend Laura Parrish– a fantastic artist and writer. For those new to the blog, please feel free to explore, and check out my book Shadowlander. It’s currently on Amazon, and can be acquired in e-book form for less than a dollar.

Will be returning to my academic ramblings next time– hoping to dive into a discussion of elementalism or music. Will most definitely involve a return to the Inklings, and possible a foray into other more recent works of fantasy writing.

Cheers!

The Trick Explained

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First, I am very sorry for the two-week delay. I said at the start of this mini series that my grad school deadlines would likely be a serious difficulty to my regular posting, and the past two weeks have proven those words true.

Apologies aside, I want to try and conclude our discussion of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea so that we can hopefully consider another aspect of blended magic after a quick interlude of poetry (or maybe a bit of prose I’m working on).

Looking over my notes for Earthsea, I realize that there are actually two or three more posts that could be made regarding this book and the magical education. And while some aspects can be postponed, one that cannot is the concept that the magician’s arc often is often fused with the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.

As I said more than a month ago, two common themes in magical education stories are the ideas of untamed power and the haunting of self-made evil. Using Le Guin’s protagonist as an example, Ged begins the story with a great deal of potential, and is constantly surprising his early instructors and caretakers with what he can do. But Ged also proves to be impatient, and in his desire to gain knowledge, he unleashes a dark power that he has to later fight against. And while Ged excels at the feats of strength, he regularly fails at gaining wisdom.

To show this point, I need to give you a rather long excerpt from Earthsea that will be out of context due to the constraints of this medium. To briefly summarize, then: Ged and his current instructor, Ogion, are traveling in the country. And Ged is growing impatient because he feels like the wizard is wasting his time.

Though a very silent man he was so mild and calm that Ged soon lost his awe of him, and in a day or two more he was bold enough to ask his master, “When will my apprenticeship begin, Sir?”

“It has begun,” said Ogion.

There was a silence, as if Ged was keeping back something he had to say. Then he said it: “But I haven’t learned anything yet!”

“Because you haven’t found out what I am teaching,” replied the mage…

Ged did not answer him. It is not always easy to answer a mage.

“You want to work spells,” Ogion said presently, striding along. “You’ve drawn too much water from that well. Wait. Manhood is patience, mastery is nine times patience. What is that herb by the path?”

“Strawflower.”

“And that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fourfoil, they call it.” Ogion had halted, the coppershod foot of his staff near the little weed, so Ged looked closely at the plant, and plucked a dry seedpod from it, and finally asked, since Ogion said nothing more, “What is its use, Master?”

“None I know of.”

Ged kept the seedpod a while as they went on, then tossed it away.

“When you know the fourfoil in all its seasons root and leaf and flower, by sight and scent and seed, then you may learn its true name, knowing its being: which is more than its use. What, after all, is the use to you? Or of myself? Is Gont Mountain useful, or the Open sea?” Ogion went on a half mile or so, and said at last, “To hear, one must be silent.”

(Wizard of Earthsea, pp. 22-23)

What I want to draw attention towards is how Ogion uses riddles to try and teach Ged wisdom. In the quoted passage, the riddle begins by Ogion doing the exact opposite of what he promises to do when he and Ged first meet (teach Ged magic). But Ged fails to understand the riddle, asking when Ogion will start teaching, and he fails a second riddle when Ogion points out a simple plant beside the road.

Interestingly, there are other examples of characters in Fantasy literature who begin with one distinct “virtue” who have to learn a second more difficult trait. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit, Thorin has to learn to become a good king as well as a good warrior. In the same book, Bilbo’s intrinsic curiosity and cautiousness has to be meshed with a willingness to act decisively (among other things). And with regards to the magician’s heroic story arc, the wizard (or wizardesse) has to learn wisdom to go along with their natural power.

As I said before, this will sadly be all that we can do with Magic and School. If you are interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to comment.

Interlude: Cathedral Prayer

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Opted to take a short break this week from our series. Thought I’d share a photo and poem from my recent trip to Edinburgh. Hope you enjoy!

Cathedral Prayer:

Lord, let my work appear to you
As fine a stone-carved legacy
That, standing for a thousand years,
I might be lost among my peers
But sinners brought to holy tears.

Lord, let your light cut through the fog—
Your rays of joy through colored glass—
That failed words might radiate
(And heart divorced from selfish hate)
A single glimpse of Heaven’s gate.

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Magic and Study

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On rereading my earlier post (here), I noticed that I had created a simple binary system that on the one hand lauded what I called “pure magic” while disparaging “blended magic.” This is nothing short of erroneous. While there are some works that do hold to a pure magic, the vast majority do not. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nearly all of the examples we will examine during this series can be understood as having a blended magic system, and I count many as personal favorites.

Put simply, a strict binary (pure or blended magic) is far too crude an instrument for our purposes. As with many other things, there exists a spectrum regarding the degree that magic is blended with other elements. In few cases, we will face the unexplained and inconceivable—pure magic. But for the most part, we will observe several large camps within which fantasy books and myths can be categorized. To that end, I’d like to spend my remaining space looking at a very common (and popular) rendition of blended magic that is tied to education.

As stated before, Lewis’s theory of wonder in magic hinges on mystery. According to Lewis, we can only be awed by magic so long as we do not attempt to understand magic or break it down into simpler. To oversimplify, a direct proportion equation can be created. There will be a greater sense of wonder with the greater degree to which the magic isn’t explained (in theory at least). And while this formula does hold up in certain examples, we must also consider alternative approaches that prove to be just as delightful as Lewis’s version of magic.

First on our list of forms to examine is what I plan on calling “magic and school.” This is perhaps one of the most common forms of blended magic, given the (relatively) recent success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And really, Rowling is a great example of magic and school. The protagonists often follow the coming of age arc, and the stories tend to focus their explanations of magic on technique. Finally, before we examine an example of the form, magic and school stories often begin with very distinct elements of the hero’s journey (more on this another time).

Now, despite having mentioned it already, I don’t intend to use Harry Potter as our case study for this form of magic. While a delightful read, I prefer us to focus on Ursula Le Guin’s, A Wizard of Earthsea. To that end, I would like to offer this brief passage for consideration:

Ged had thought that as the prentice of a great mage he would enter at once into the mystery and mastery of power. He would understand the langage of the beasts, and the speech of the leaves…and learn to change himself into any shape as he wished.

But it was not so at all. They wandered, first down into the Vale and then gradually south and westward around the mountain, given lodging in little villages or spending the night out in the wilderness, like pour journeyman-sorcerers, or tinkers, or beggars. They entered no mysterious domain. (Guin 17)

While there are a great number of things that can be said about magic and study, I want to reference just one point before we close for today (we will have revisit Earthsea for a second post I think). This point is the temptation for deeper power that runs alongside the mage’s journey. For Harry, this was partly embodied in the constant haunting of Voldemort. For Ged, the temptation is more transparently seen as a longing for greatness. If you’ll allow a slight rabbit trail, it is perfectly described by the hauntingly beautiful first stanza of W. H. Davies’s poem, “Ambition.”

I had Ambition, by which sin
The angels fell;
I climbed and, step by step, O Lord,
Ascended into Hell.
(Davies)

This element is critical to recognize in the magician’s journey. Often, the magician must spend their life unmaking the very evil that they released in their youth (in Harry Potter, this arc is visible in the story of Professor Dumbledore atoning for his sister’s death).

 

I think we’ll revisit Earthsea for one more week with hopefully more time spent on contrasting Lewis’s view of magic with Le Guin’s (the whole point of this series). But before signing off, I wanted to say that there will be another weekend where Shadowlander will be offered for free in its kindle format. As before, I simply ask that you please take time to write an honest review of the book after reading it. The giveaway will be for Saturday and Sunday on Amazon.