My Letter After the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

Dear Senator Cornyn,

I am deeply disappointed, if not surprised, that you voted for Betsy DeVos to be the Secretary of the Department of Education. You were wrong to do so, as she disqualified herself in her incompetent interview for the position and in her prominent role as a critic and enemy of public education. Moreover, you did so despite the clear opposition to her candidacy of the educators you represent. I do not even know a conservative colleague of mine in public schools who supported her!

I wish that you would recall that your oath is to serve the people and the good of the country, not the good of your political party. In this issue, very clearly, you did not do that.

Sincerely,
John Pierce

Letters to Congressmen

I’ve been pretty horrified (though not surprised) by the events of Donald Trump’s first week in office. One commitment I’ve made is to do something each day in response to the incompetent and inhumane policies I’m expecting. Among these is to write to Congressmen, just short, pithy notes on a single subject. I’m planning to post them here, too.

Here is a first:

Dear Representative Mike Conaway,

I would like to call your attention to the beginning of Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Please note the simple point here, that the things of Creation speak out the glory of God. Indeed, God’s Creation is His first act of love, the first sign of His goodness, and God’s incarnation into this world in the person of Jesus Christ further sanctifies Creation as a holy and good.

The notion to me that the things of Creation speak out the glory of God to all of the earth is an extraordinarily fruitful one. What does it say, though, if humankind does harm to this world that speaks out to all God’s glory? Doesn’t the Creation belong to God, with ourselves as its stewards? Isn’t anything that harms God’s creation a terrible theft? If we destroy God’s possession that speaks to us of His glory, doesn’t that harm our efforts to evangelize?

Donald Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt as the potential head of the EPA, Mr. Trump’s attempts to dismantle environmental regulations, and his desire to reauthorize the Keystone and Dakota Pipelines are all actions that will serve to harm the earth. In doing so, they also harm humankind, and even greater, they represent blasphemies against God the Creator.

I ask you to please stand opposed to Mr. Trump’s moves to harm the environment, in particular his appointment of Scott Pruitt, as deeds that are offensive to the earth and that betray our God-given responsibility to care for the earth.

Sincerely,

Mr. Pierce

A Wendell Berry Poem for Today

I am not sure where I first read the quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill, “America will always do the right thing…at the last possible moment.” But evidently, I grew up believing its truth, that in the truly crucial moments America would default to its ideals. I hadn’t realized how much confidence I had in the United States, however, until I felt that faith fading away on the evening of November 8th as the election results became more and more clear.

The United States, who had elected Barack Obama eight years before, had chosen to replace him with a man whose political career was launched by questioning President Obama’s very Americanness. Donald Trump is a man who flaunts his misogyny, builds wealth on the backs of the vulnerable, mocks the disabled, scapegoats religious and ethnic minorities… The list of deeds and statements which bear witness to Mr. Trump’s flagrant meanness and despicability goes on and on.        

I was naive and foolish before election night for refusing to fully face up to the depravity that might deliver the office of the presidency to a man like Donald Trump. In fact, I fear that mine has been a willful foolishness, born of the privilege of having lived in easy circumstances, never having had to make the difficult choice to stand exposed against power.

This week features the harsh juxtaposition of Martin Luther King Day with Inauguration Day, which forces to my mind the necessity of resistance against the powers and principalities that Mr. Trump’s administration clearly represents. At this moment, I have found one of Wendell Berry’s untitled poems from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 to be an especially edifying piece of resistance writing, filled with wisdom about how to proceed:

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin, November 6th 1995.

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard.

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light. It will be

the light of those who have suffered
for peace. It will be
your light.

I value this poem for several reasons. It doesn’t flinch from the wickedness of which humankind is capable. As countless testimonies have reminded us, the weak and vulnerable of this world are always under siege from the forces beholden to death. The choice is always there before us, whether we acknowledge it or not, to resist the darkness that desires to consume us. Berry’s poem ennobles all of those who, successful or not, engage in the struggle for justice and peace.

Even more importantly to me, Berry’s poem acknowledges the fear and hatred toward which we are all tempted to submit. I live in the South, in a county in which more than eighty percent of voters selected Trump. And since the election night, I have felt at times within me a percolating hatred and distrust toward my Other, those who supported Mr. Trump’s candidacy. But I also have had to remind myself that those others are not, in fact, “others.” They are, instead, my work colleagues, my church members, my friends, my students–in short, my neighbors.

Mr. Trump’s election win, surely, was a triumph of hatefulness and ignorance, cultivated as it was within a culture of bitterness and fear. Mr. Trump’s policies promise to be cruel and destructive, and we must be willing to stand with the suffering and against the looming injustices. But Berry’s poem also reminds its readers that the hard work of resistance is even harder than it at first seems because it also means combating the very culture of darkness that produces such men as Mr. Trump. Resistance must also be carried out with an eye toward the stronger community of peace we hope to build with all others in a hopeful future. To me, that means that I must find the courage to resist the abuses of the Trump administration with fervor, but I must also maintain the resources of hope and love necessary that I might do so without caving to the impulses of hatred. Such resistance strikes me as a difficult–but necessary–order indeed.

Review: The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg

When I was in the 9th grade, I created The Great List–a list of classic novels that I wanted to read in my lifetime. I still maintain the list, which has grown to more than 700 titles.

Anyway, at the time I started the list, my definition of “classic” was that the book be listed in an encyclopedia. The result is that quite a number of obscure books that, for whatever reason, interested me and were listed in my grandmother’s 1963 set of World Book Encyclopedias are included on the list, though they would be considered classics by very few people. Louis Bromfield’s The Stranger Case of Miss Annie Spragg is one of the stranger inclusions on the List.

The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg

I am duty bound to read all of the books on the list, and so I was pretty excited when I discovered this novel back in print and, then, when my wife purchased it for me as a Christmas gift. It was the first book I read in 2017.

I’m glad I read it. The novel is an odd duck, but it was a worthwhile read. The novel opens with Miss Annie Spragg’s death in Italy, after which many claim to have seen her display signs of the stigmata. The novel follows her story back to her birth to a John Smith-style religious prophet on the American frontier. She, at some point, breaks off from the Prophet’s movement alon with her eccentric, fundamentalist brother. Miss Spragg makes virtually everyone she encounters uneasy, at the same time being a hermit and a subject of sexual desire to nearly everyone who encounters her, before eventually ending up a religious hermit in Italy.

The novel doesn’t just follow Annie, though. It also contains a sort of kaleidoscope of characters whose lives have, sometimes in small ways, touched Miss Annie Spragg. These include an American medium, who preys upon rich tourists in Europe, and her homely niece. An older bachelor who realizes that he’s wasted his life and seeks to save the rest of the time he has. A young prostitute who is transformed by an unlikely romance. A nun whose life is changed at Annie Spragg’s death. And really even several others.

The book is pretty modernist in some ways–obvious ones such as the multi-vocality and the attempt (think The Waste Land or Harte Crane’s The Bridge) to identify a meaning-making myth within the West’s primitive traditions (here, definitely tied up with Pan and pagan fertility goddesses). The book seems intent on searching out a sort of mystic tie to all of these people and events.

The only problem is that the characters are sometimes pretty stereotypical, and the storytelling is often pretty predictable (despite its strangeness). The characters are not quite convincing, and the writing is not distinct enough that it creates its own convincing world. So, all in all, it was an interesting, entertaining, but not overly memorable novel.

Book of the Year – 2016

My “Book of the Year” choice for 2016 is really obvious. In truth, kind of wasn’t even a fair fight.

My choice:

Image result for sense and sensibility book cover

Yep, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.

I have a habit–probably a bad one–of not reading  my favorite authors. What happens is this: I discover that an author is magnificent, and so I, naturally, rush to read several of their books. Until I start to run lower on them, that is. At which point, I tend to hold back some of their books, and I can’t seem to ever make myself read them.

I’ve done that again and again so that it’s pretty common for me to have read all of the minor novels of a major author while not reading his or her most significant works.

In fact, the probable runner up to Sense and Sensibility for this year was Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, which I had neglected to read even though I’ve owned the book for a decade and even though Percy is one of my all-time favorite novelists.

So, with Jane Austen, I’d finally read all of her novels except Sense and Sensibility. And there actually was a little sadness upon finishing the novel, since this means that there are no new reading experiences of Austen left. But at least the book was fantastic.

It really was, for all of the reasons that Jane Austen’s books are typically wonderful: the acute observations, the sharp pricks of humor, the perfect pacing so each revelation of character and plot unfolds at just the right moment to maintain suspense and interest.

I think I especially appreciated two things when reading Austen this time. I found it pretty remarkable how driven this story is by the moral concerns of Elinor and Marianne. Readers, I know, often think of Austen’s plots as driven by the romance in them, and of course, the romance is a lot of what makes the plots satisfying. However, reading Sense and Sensibility, it seems to me as though the plot was structured with a romantic backdrop against which a moral drama played out. Much of the tension (and certainly a lot of the characters’ concerns) resulted from the question of how to proceed properly (not just “proper” as in “the most socially acceptable” but “proper” as in the most morally suitable) in a messy and human situation. In addition to being a good romantic read, the novel is also edifying.

Secondly, reading this last Austen novel, I was struck with how the “happy endings” of the novels seem to me to be reflections of a cosmic perspective of Austen’s that I quite like. What I mean is that Austen seems acutely aware of the failings of the people around her. She can quite sharply dissect and reveal the injustices and moral failings of her society in general and of particular characters in the books. But she seems to view these people, even the rogues like Willoughby (and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice), with sympathy. A lot of them are viewed with a eye of amusement, and at worst, they seem to arouse a little pity (Willoughby, while his behavior is clearly awful in the novel, certainly seems pitiable). In short, people are good in Austen’s world, no matter how flawed they are. And the world is good, too, which means that these stories she tells have their sorts of happy endings. These endings seem a different thing, say, from the endings of a basic romance novel, which can still be quite cynical. Austen’s viewpoint seems to be truly comic.

I think that comic perspective is deep and so is a part of the reason why Austen is definitely re-readable. So, I at least have that solace now that I have finished all of her books.

++++

Some other top reads from 2016:

Book Goal – Part 4

Every year, I choose one author or thinker whose work I’ve not yet sufficiently explored. So far, these are the authors I’ve covered:

This year, I’m going to read at least 4 books by Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist who takes something of a back seat to Dickens, Eliot, and the Brontës.

Picture of Anthony Trollope.jpg

I’ve chosen Trollope for a few reasons:

  1. I’ve owned the whole of the Chronicles of Barsetshire since high school and yet have never read it. Reading this pile of books fits in the spirit of my other reading goal for the year of reading books which I already own. It’s also, flatly, practical because I already own four unread Trollope novels.
  2. The one book by Trollope which I’ve read–The Warden–was excellent.
  3. I’m curious about the Doctor Thorne television series.
  4. A lot of writers I really respect–Stanley Hauerwas, W.H. Auden, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf–cite Trollope as a favorite, particularly for the sharp moral dimension of his novels.

I hope, at the end of the year, to give my estimation of Trollope as a writer.

Book Goal, Part 3 – 2017

This is the easy part of the book goal. Though I’m focusing on only the number of words read per year and am planning to read only books that I already own, I’m also planning to keep up with some of the very long-term goals that I typically have. So, to that end, I will read some books in these categories:

Pulitzer Prize Winning Novels:

1.

2.

Modern Library Top 100 Novels:

1.

2.

Presidential Biographies:

1.

2.