Monday, September 23, 2013

Gregory Wolfe's Image in Barnes and Noble

Years ago someone asked me how I decide what to put on the blog.  I have no idea.  Some things end up here others not.  It's a good example of free will and divine providence inexplicably playing out.

Yesterday , after hanging there for a bit, I was determined to leave Barnes and Noble without buying anything. In the end I got a snack for the body and a journal for the soul. I couldn't resist checking what the latest Image looked like before leaving the store. When I read the editor's Editorial Statement I was pulled in. I bought it and then I bought it.

He reminisces about an English teacher in around eighth grade who drilled through the whole Julius Caesar with the class - line by line and word by word. He gave definitions, background, etc. It was slow. Young Gregory Wolfe didn't care for old Mr. Taussig's approach. One day, though, he had an epiphany which brought him to feel the beauty of the words. And he is positive that he only could have received this gift which opened him up to a life lived in a world of beautiful words through Mr. Taussig's method.

This piece resonated for me on so many levels. it made me think of how I came to appreciate Gemorah, Tefillah, Tanach, and (lehavdil) literature and poetry.

By praying every day with a linear Siddur I was privileged to have the Siddur open up to me. By breaking my teeth on daf after daf - bekius style - with the help of the old all English Soncino I was blessed to enter the world of Talmud in a way that, after years of adolescent resistance finally felt like a spiritual home. The same happened with Chumash thanks to the old Silverman linear and to Nach thanks to Artscroll.

Like most people I hated poetry when I was young, but in retrospect my exposure to "If" and "The Bells", and "Trees", and "The Raven", and "Anabelle Lee"", and Richard Corey" (these are some of the poems we studied in school that come to my mind immediately) paved the way for my turning into a reader and writer of poetry years after Mrs. Levine and Mr Schrek's classes had mostly faded from my mind.

Wolfe cites a lot of people including Leon Weiseltier in support of his disagreement with today's  thematic approaches to learning over careful word by word readings and related matters.  He cites many sources about how education is meant to be enjoyable while being an effort but not a pain. He believes in taking life in in a way that seems to be a lost art.  
Weiseltier said in a Brandeis commencement address, "Perhaps culture is now the counterculture." (I think Weiseltier saying that popular culture today is junk and the indie/non-mainstream realm is the place to find a decent movie, book, radio show, TV show, comic book, pretty much anything - even food.)

Wolfe describes a world of thoughtless worker bees and says, "This is the world we inherit and it is killing us.I think about these things in part because when you edit a literary quarterly you often encounter people who advise you to give up on such an outmoded and burdensome enterprise why publish long stories and essays and poems that no-one will read in the age of Twitter and blockbuster movies? There are even those less jaded and more gracious souls who applaud me for publishing such a 'scholarly' journal."

His line about the misplaced focus of today's society killing us reminded me of something else. When I gave in my first paper to (Oxford trained) Elsbeth Couch in social work graduate school I followed what I thought was protocol for writing such papers. I wrote everything in a removed and objective way. She told me that my work was great but that I should have included myself more, more "I" and "me" was what she felt my paper needed. I told her I thought that the contemporary thinking in social work frowned on that. She said, "It does. And it's killing our profession."

I am grateful that Wolfe perseveres, despite opposing forces. His journal, which is published by the Center for Religious Humanism at Seattle Pacific University. is a beautiful one. May he be given strength to fight his inner and outer laments. May we all be so blessed.


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