Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life
That was my father’s prophecy every morning as he raised the shades, let in the light, and roused us to the day. It was fatuous, and he knew it. An introvert’s vaudeville, over the top in his under the vest manner. Like Jack Benny, he made the same joke every day, and that was what made it a joke.
I was brought up in a Christian home. In my father’s Christian house there was no war of faith and learning. To understand a Bible passage, you had to inform it as you would a sonnet, bringing all your heart and all your soul – and all your mind. Poetry, music, philosophy and history, plays and novels were our prayer life, and these were not harsh disciplines, like hair shirts to irritate the flesh, but sports and tournaments of delight. Above all, words. Words of the scripture, of Shakespeare or Milton or lesser poets, or words of daily life, trained to athleticism by stunts, puns, colossal spoonerisms and daring inversions. A regimen of poetry, transcending calisthenic and precipitating laughter.
His darkly bound books in many languages, shelved to the ceiling, were family gods, and though they would not speak to me, I knew these lares were friendly. Later I learned that his collection included both scholars of Higher Criticism who taught us to ask of scripture the questions we would ask of other reverend books, and prophets of Neo-Orthodoxy who taught us we might still be sinners as we did so. But there were other works as well, and there was no barrier between scriptures of the church and scriptures from outside it. If Yeshua said that what we did for the least of his kin we had done to him, Arthur Miller said that a man is not a piece of fruit, you can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – and Arthur Miller was just as likely to show up in a sermon.
My father wrote his sermons between midnight and three on Sunday mornings. He cranked up the music as he banged his typewriter: Bach and Brahms, Mahler and Wagner, Poulenc and Honneger, Haydn and Mozart, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gilbert and Sullivan, Victor Borge and Ray Bolger, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Virgil Fox. In our bedrooms we might wake for a moment to his blessing and assurance of safety. How could anything harm us when our father was awake and working below, communing with theologians and artists and scripture while Mormons sang the German Requium?
In our Christian home, religion and learning were intimate. When did study become a sin, and education a sign of moral degeneracy? By what perversion of the American dream has expertise been designated a disgrace? To what prophet was it revealed that only residents of tiny dying towns have values, and that people of the urban centers (most of us in fact) are not real Americans?
We liberals like to point our fingers at others, but we have also played our role in the war on intellect. Drones and imitators in the universities turned an obscure French philosopher’s difficult technique of reading into a school of nihilism, in which all discourses are equivalent and the illiterate is as good as the eloquent – 50 Cent and Jerome Kern in the same display case. Liberation theologians shamed us for appealing to the laws of reason that make liberation necessary. Those who sabotage themselves so effectively scarcely need enemies. The self-loathing of intellectuals turns out to be no more liberative than their arrogance. The proud and deliberate ignorance of our culture and its leaders was an ejaculate of deconstructionist dreaming.
My father died five years ago. But if he were still with us, he might say this week that he got his country back. And in memory I got his learned Christian home back. The lovers of ignorance, haters of knowledge, of those who gather it and of the places where it is gathered, took it on the chin this week, and for a time they are chastened. Let us, then, be up and doing . . . still achieving, still pursuing . . . Awake!
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