As many of you know, I took a few days at the tail end of my time in Prague to visit London. One of the things I remember most about that trip is how refreshing it was to hear and see English everywhere. After six months in the Czech Republic, I was fairly comfortable with the Czech signs and the basic Czech phrases (especially the one for, "I don't speak Czech."), so I was astonished that the pleasure of the English language was powerful enough to be almost physical.
This weekend, I experienced something similar: I spent a long weekend at a literature conference in California. Before I went, I was looking forward to giving my talk and sharing some of my own poetry. I hoped to see the Pacific Ocean. Yet I was only mildly interested in the conference itself: In graduate school, I attended two conferences (one on rhetoric and literature, another on Willa Cather) and while I enjoyed both, neither stands out.
My conference in California was outstanding. Yes, I stood at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and yes, I read my own poetry to an audience of perhaps fifteen people. Yet the conference itself was equally a treat. There, I talked about narrative structure, the horror genre as a vehicle for religious themes, Lady Julian of Norwich and phenomenology, and T.S. Eliot. I picked up tips on using literature circles in class, and I brainstormed about how to fold service learning projects into the notoriously messy English Composition class that I teach. At the end of the conference, several other (very sporting) participants and I headed off to a nearby trail for a hike and trooped through the Southern California sun heatedly debating the narrative potential of video games and the differences between English and French romance novels.
Confession: I kinda want to go back for a PhD now. Oops.
(For those of you who don't keep up with humanities higher education, the job market for PhDs in literature is terrible these days.)
Here's what I think made the weekend such a treat, especially compared to conferences I attended in graduate school: I am trained and love to analyze literature as a scholar, but I rarely hold scholarly, in-depth conversations about literature anymore. In graduate school, I had such conversations all the time. I was guaranteed an interesting, thought-provoking discussion about literature whenever I showed up to my class on DeLillo and the postmodern American novel or to my seminar on literary theory. Now, the closest I get is teaching Four Quartets to my mother so that she can teach it to her high school literature class.
I am reminded of a passage in The Last Battle. Towards the beginning of the novel, nearly all the characters - Edward, Lucy, Peter, Jill, Eustace and the Professor - meet to "have a good jaw about Narnia (for of course there's no one else we can ever talk to about things like that)". What made my weekend in California such a treat was the chance to "have a good jaw" about T.S. Eliot and Julian of Norwich and all the rest.
When I was a child, I used to wonder how in the world the early Christians could bear to be together so much. They seemed to gather all the time, for great lengths of time. You remember the young man who fell out the window during the middle of Paul's sermon? I always had complete sympathy for him, thinking to myself, "How I would hate to be stuck in a church service that long!" Or Paul will instruct the elders of a church to read the epistle to the rest of the church, and I would imagine sitting through a reading of all fifteen chapters of I Corinthians and think to myself, "How boring!"
Of course, my problem was not that I was disinterested in faith; I was simply saturated with it. I was homeschooled. I had Christian parents. I read the Bible daily and I prayed daily. Sunday mornings were simply an extension of my ordinary week, but with me stuck in a hard pew and growing hungrier by the minute.
Now, I am better able to appreciate why the early Christians met so often and for such long times. The fact that no one else in my world reads literature like a scholar does not, of course, compare to the fact that no one else in the world of the early Christians cared two cents about Jesus.
Yet all the same, I know now that what compelled them to meet until they could not stay awake any longer was the almost physical pleasure in having a good jaw about Jesus Christ. From dawn to dusk, they were surrounded by members of the Roman Empire: people who worshipped Anubis and Isis, Jupiter and Minerva; people who regularly engaged in temple prostitution or who spent their wealth acquiring wines and spices from the far corners of the universe. No wonder they stayed up till all hours listening to Paul whenever he came to town.
To turn again to Lewis (this time, his nonfiction), I am reminded of his analysis of friendship: "born", he writes, "at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" Especially since we are not created to live alone, the discovery of like-minded people - whether they share the same language, the same scholarly interests, or deepest of all, the same faith - is good.
Incidentally, in writing this post I caught myself slipping into a kind of utilitarianism. I spent perhaps thirty minutes with visions and revisions of what I should write about why friendship was good. I had very practical reasons: It encourages us. It keeps our interests going. It keeps faith from dying out. This is true, but I think we forget that friendship - that being with other people - is created to be an intrinsic good for us. God has designed us to spend time with people who share our language and our interests and our faith, and when we take delight in that, we take delight in a goodness that He created for us.
Yet it is this goodness that should send us away from our friends and back into the world again. Here, I can write more concretely. If I never stopped talking about T.S. Eliot, none of my students would read him. Too much time with literature scholars, and I am no longer able to talk intelligibly to non-majors (Just ask my senior English class in Prague, whom I overwhelmed with twelve pages of Milton.)
If we believers never left the church, no one would be converted. Perhaps expectedly, the church emphasizes the need for more church. Go every week, our pastor tells us. Join a weekly Bible study! Meet up with Christians for prayer before work and lunch during work. This is true and good advice, yet it is just as important that we eventually leave church and talk to other people.
As individuals with a wide range of interests and faiths, we are not meant to indulge those alone. What we are meant for is to indulge them in community, to drink deeply of the pleasures of friendships, and then to pass the cup around for those who have not yet tasted them.
Coming up: I plan to post about faith sometime before the end of the month. Keep your eyes peeled!
Poem: Several of you (meaning, my parents!) have asked about my poems. I have a separate post with all three poems here.