On Taking Students Seriously

“La Leçon de catéchisme.” Jules-Alexis Muenier; oil on canvas; 1890.

On Taking Students Seriously:
A Pedagogue’s Reflection on C. S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”

Trent D. Demarest
Dean of Academics, Trinity Lutheran School, Cheyenne, WY

(Presented at the Seventeenth Summer Conference of the Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education [CCLE XVII], “A Pedagogy of Truth,” July 11-13, 2017; PDF here; audio here)


Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

 

From “The Buried Life,” by Matthew Arnold

I must apologize in advance for the conspicuous absence of the term “truth” from the title of my paper. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I wrote this paper awhile ago and submitted it to Pastor Cain back in February before I had looked at the conference theme. It passed muster with him and the CCLE Board, so they must have determined that what I wrote was germane enough to “A Pedagogy of Truth” to be presented. Here’s hoping.

The title of my paper, “On Taking Students Seriously,” is directly inspired by C. S. Lewis’s well-known essay, “The Weight of Glory,” which comprises chapter one of his book by the same title. Specifically, I have chosen to use some lines from the final paragraph of the essay— which could in more ways than one be termed its “ultimate” paragraph— as a sort of heuristic frame for my comments today. It seems most fitting, and only fair, that I should begin my talk by reading the relevant excerpt, so that you all will get to hear at least some real eloquence during this next hour. It’s a longish paragraph, so sit tight. Starting in medias res:

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, the weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.1 It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations— these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner— no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat— the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.2

So far Lewis.

[A few comments on this text:3

While we all likely recognize that Lewis’s title, “The Weight of Glory” comes from 2 Corinthians 4: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,” writes St. Paul (loci, 17). Fair enough, but many a line of inspired scripture has been put to ill use as a tail to wag a heterodox dog. In my experience, which admittedly is no sure guide, I have found that some Lutherans are quite triggered by any mention of us lowly creatures receiving “glory” in heaven, as they associate such talk with the insidious “theology of glory” which Dr. Luther righteously decried in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation. And they— we— are right to be skeptical: the great heap of heterodoxy and heresy which mounds like an earthen siege-ramp outside the walls of the Church contains all manner of false teaching on the scriptural topics of “glory,” “glorification,” etc. We are right to be vigilant here.

I’ll ruin the surprise— and perhaps my reputation— by telling you that in this matter, I think Lewis’s treatment is orthodox. Lewis’s gloss of glory is that it is favor Dei— the unmerited justifying favor of God— consummated. In heaven— and here I use the term “heaven” as a synecdoche for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting— we shall only ever be glorious in a derived, participatory sense; we will only be “glorious” because we will have been “glorified” by the pure and unmerited favor of the Triune God, the God Who speaks His approving Word to us, the God Who even now dwells in our hearts as His very temples. God will reiterate what He said to each of us in our Baptism: “I have called you by My Name. I have purchased you with My Blood. You are mine.” Glory, then, as favor Dei, is always extra nos. We will never originate it, not even in heaven— indeed desiring to originate glory is the original cosmic sin, the sin which immutably transformed Lucifer, Light-Bearer, into Satan, Prince of Hell. No, glory is always bestowed, always gift— the fullest instance, in fact, of God “crowning His own gifts” in us, as St. Augustine put it.4

In another quotable few lines, right near the beginning of his essay, Lewis writes:

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

How fitting an analogue this is for the mentality of certain students— or perhaps for any student at certain times— any of us can tell: if you’re like me, you can probably recall several instances when you, the teacher, were so sure that your presentation of some wondrous line of poetry or enthralling concept in logic was sure to ignite unmitigated wonder in your pupils, and all you got were looks ranging from glazed to confused— like cows staring at a newly-painted fence, to adapt a memorable line from Dr. Luther. Yet, of course, the half-heartedness which Lewis describes here is the human condition, not just the student’s condition. In fact, as you know, the word “student” derives from the Latin verb studeo, studēre, which means “to be eager for” and “to desire,” as well as the more active “to strive for.”

So, really, this half-heartedness is the human condition precisely because each of us as fallen, incurvatus in se creatures, fail truly to be students in the true and original sense of that word. Left to our own devices, we are not eager for, we do not desire, and we do not strive for goodness, truth, and beauty (— or, for you Aristotelians in the room, for that which is good, true, and beautiful). Understood this way, our task as teachers is in fact to make students out of little humans, all while cultivating a student’s habitus, ourselves— not in some proletarian “we’re all equals in this classroom, just trying to help each other out”; by no means, no! But we must have a desire and a striving eagerness for goodness, truth, and beauty, and for God, in Whom they subsist. We cannot instill this in our students if we do not have it ourselves.

Lewis goes on:

A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point.]

There’s something quite wonderful in this phrase “the pitiless walls of the world.” It richly suggests two ideas, both very Christian, I think. In the most obvious sense, it provides us with a martial image: Christ the Victor over sin, death, and hell has conquered the world, not to destroy it, but to rule over it in perfect justice, that is to say, in perfect righteousness. He has breached the walls. The world is His, and because it is His, it is ours. He calls us into it, to be salt and light, to cultivate it, to partake of its blessings, and to exercise true dominion over it through the estates which God has ordained, as has always been our charge from the beginning of time.5 In Christ the Second Adam, to Whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given, the orders of creation are reiterated, reaffirmed, and recapitulated.

There is, however, a second and more subtle image suggested by this phrase. I’ll read it again: “A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.” We hear echoes here of Lewis’s oft-reiterated contention that although heaven— that is, the kingdom of God— is by no means some gnostic negation of this world, it is at the same time “other”— it is not non- or anti-worldly, but nor is it this world in its mereness. Heaven is at right angles to this earthly plane, infinitely near. In the pursuit of godly knowledge, through the ordinate use of our reason, we see through to the meaning of things; to use Plato’s terminology, we contemplate the form of things. The exterior of the world might look like a pitiless wall, repulsive to reason and sense— think of the portrayal of “nature” found in Hobbes or Darwin or even London. But we who are wise, who have the mind of Christ, can see that there is order and harmony— indeed, that sin has been unable utterly to efface goodness, truth, and beauty from God’s handiwork.

In all of this Lewis articulates some very high stakes for our earthly work as Christians, and, by extension, for our work as Lutheran schoolteachers. The neighbors whom we serve, the weight of whose glory is in some sense laid upon our backs, are our students. Our students are the immortals to whom Lewis refers, the “potential gods and goddesses.” We need not think that he is a crypto-Mormon for this turn of phrase— he employs these terms poetically and not literally, and we shouldn’t get hung up on that.

A more substantive critique might be leveled at this suggestion: “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations”— namely, heaven or hell. Is that true? It seems like Lewis might be falling into what the Rev’d Heath R. Curtis has termed “functional Arminianism,” which he (i.e. Curtis) defines as “multiplying the possible causal agents of salvation” beyond one, namely God. I don’t know. Perhaps Lewis is wrong here. He wasn’t a Lutheran, and in places his theology certainly departs from ours.

On the other hand, Lewis may simply have been imprecise in giving voice to an apparent Scriptural paradox: no one can snatch Christ’s little ones out of His Hand (John 10:28-29); and yet, whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Christ to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! (Matthew 18:6-7). “Stumbling” and “Offenses” here refer to things which have the potential to cause one of Christ’s little ones to doubt or even lose the faith. Certainly no one would comfort himself with the thought, “No matter what lies I tell these gullible children, their faith will be unharmed.” No Christian would think that. More generally construed, then, Lewis’s claim seems to be that the work of our various vocations is consequential, redounding to the good or harm of souls. For those whose vocations entail much speaking— certainly both pastors and schoolteachers fit such a description— the words of Our Lord in Matthew 12 are sobering: “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (loci, 36).

“This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.” Lewis says. “We must play.”

I have to believe that Lewis, ever the subtly allusive student of Plato, has in mind here the notion of “serious play”— “play” not in the sense of idle frivolity or diversion, but play as the very enactment of life, the participation in things for their own sake, as ends, not as means. What Lewis says next certainly lends itself to this understanding:

But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner— no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

If we were to set for ourselves the somewhat abstract task of enumerating or describing the necessary conditions of education, what would we say they were? As Lutheran schoolteachers we might start with the brass tacks of our parochial school tradition: perhaps we would list those things from the back of the report card, things like “diligence,” “efficiency,” “timeliness,” “thoroughness,” “neatness,” and “organization.” As classical educators, we would know better than to stop there, however: we might go on to list such qualities as “willingness to learn,” “honor for authority,” “reverence.” Some rendition of the classical and theological virtues would not be without warrant. I wonder, though, whether we might be justified in considering one quality as fundamental to all those which have been listed, namely “seriousness.”6 This seriousness— literally, “taking each other seriously”— is the basis for true merriment. It is the basis for serious play, which we, because we are classical educators, know as one of our favorite buzzwords: paideia.

The word “serious,” like all words worth knowing, comes from Latin. Specifically, it derives from the classical Latin serius (spelled the same as “serious” but without the “o”) via the medieval Latin seriosus, via the French serieux. Google will quite unhelpfully inform you that all of these words mean “serious.” But it also says “earnest,” and that, I think, is actually helpful, although for me it immediately conjures up images of Earnest the Turtle, the levelheaded companion of the rash and overly-trusting Adam Raccoon from the evangelical picture-book series, The Adventures of Adam Raccoon, which I read as a child.

Definitions only help us so much, though, leading as they do (if we let them) to an infinite regression into the dictionary. If none of these words ever conjures an image in our minds— or, to be more logically precise, a concept— they have done us little good. I at least have an anthropomorphic turtle in my mind right now— what have you got?

In all likelihood, the word “earnest” brings to mind one of your students. This student approaches every subject as though there were something to be gained from it. He perceives a lack in himself: he knows that he does not know, and he wants to change that state of affairs. Worries about grades may come and go, or maybe they never do, but he seems to think that what he’s doing at and during school matters, not just what he gets after he’s done doing it— namely, a grade. School is for him the serious play— the paideia— to which Lewis alludes. It is just as fun, and probably even more fun, than recess. And this is precisely because he takes it so seriously.

This student’s seriousness, his earnestness, is not self-generated, nor is it maintained wholly by effort, as though it were a function of some continuous act of the will. Simply put, to him, the world, together with all of its strange inhabitants, is fundamentally interesting, and he doesn’t quite know why. He is enthralled by it. The fact that God made all of it…well, that’s more than interesting to him. The world, heaven and earth, all the works of God— these are wonderful! He knows this…maybe not “full well” yet, but does any of us?

It’s important to recognize that such a student is not in a perpetual state of wonder— and if we’re honest, we neither expect nor want such a state to be perpetual. No, but he is predisposed to wonder, because he believes, and by such faith he knows, that the world is wonderful. Thus he is ready for wonderment, and the readiness is all.

We should keep in mind that “seriousness” is not a mood nor even a temperament— our serious student might be naturally cheery, or he may be more melancholic; he may be excitable and expressive, or he may be more subdued and contemplative. None of these in and of itself necessitates or precludes seriousness. Seriousness also is not synonymous with solemnity. Lewis rightly says that as Christians we are not “perpetually solemn.” And yet it would be wrong to think that seriousness never coincides with or entails solemnity— it most certainly does, at the proper times and places…which are probably more frequent and numerous than we moderns are wont to acknowledge.

Now that our student has attained to the full stature of an archetype, let’s give him a name: Earnest. (Mind you, he is no turtle.) As each of us knows, however, many of our students have yet to discover the importance of being Earnest. Maybe you have Earnest on your roster, maybe you don’t— maybe your students take turns being Earnest. Maybe Earnest shows up for the first quarter, plays hooky for the middle two, and then gets rounded up by the truancy officer and reappears in the fourth. Maybe some weeks, some months…some years, even, Earnest is not in your class.

It would be a bit unrealistic and trite to pretend that Earnest is present on a day when he clearly is not. However, it is not idealistic to be earnest, yourself, regardless of whether your students are. Now, I don’t think it’s mere historicism or simple nostalgia to suggest that such earnest seriousness is a rarer and more elusive quality now than it has been in time past. The seriousness of the world and of education as a going concern has not changed, of course— how could it? For many reasons, though, this seriousness seems to have lost its purchase in our society.

The objection may perhaps be raised: “All seriousness and no joy? No fun?” But this is to misunderstand seriousness. If seriousness goes, so does joy. So, too, eventually, does fun, and even all humor (— more on this last point in a moment). Joy is not the opposite of seriousness. Joy is rather its concomitant, arising only from that which seriousness alone affords, for joy is the saved soul’s perception of God in His works, which are the good, the true, and the beautiful. The eye of faith takes joy in the good creation of God which it espies beneath the marring of sin, the good world which the fire of heaven will, at the last trumpet, purge and make new. Joy is the highest transfiguration of wonder. It is a deeply serious affair.7

Lewis says all of what I have just attempted to express abstractly in a better and more winsome way towards the end of The Last Battle, the final installation of The Chronicles of Narnia:

“Listen, Peter,” [said Lord Digory] “When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.” His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” the older ones laughed. It was so exactly like the sort of thing they had heard him say long ago in that other world where his beard was gray instead of golden. He knew why they were laughing and joined in the laugh himself. But very quickly they all became grave again: for, as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.

Wow. What an image! In every way, just wonderful. I’m telling you folks, if you’re not on the Christian Neoplatonist train with me, Clive Staples, and Dr. E. Christian Kopff, you’re just plain missing out! Plato— feature, not a bug!

Are not we, as classical Lutheran educators, trying to acquaint our students with precisely this “kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious,” that is “too good to waste on jokes”? Yes, yes we are! Our students are already acquainted with the cheaper variety of happiness, which bottoms out at the merely “fun.” This happiness is much more common. It is not a bad thing per se, but it is lower. They don’t need us to help them attain it. It may be a result or an incidental aspect to what we do, and that’s well and good, but it is not, properly speaking, the end or goal of education any more than the provision of a daily snack-break is. The happiness that makes one serious— this is the end of education.

As Lewis’s foregoing words from The Last Battle suggest, true happiness is inseparably paired with wonder, that placid yet awed gaze of the mind upon the real, the perception of the works of God. “Be still, and know that I am God,” the Holy Spirit says in the Psalms. This “knowing-in-stillness” is the greatest happiness, and on this side of heaven we know it only in part as a vision through a darkened glass. Such knowledge is a foretaste, a prolepsis, the first-fruits or earnest of the beatific vision. Whatever it is, it is not “fun,” not trite, not material for jokes.

There is certainly a time and a place for humor. But for the teacher, that time is not “whenever” and that place is not “wherever.” It is often said that humor is a good way to defuse a serious or tense situation. That’s true to experience for each one of us, I’m sure. But is seriousness— or even “tension”— always so unwelcome as to require defusing? I would argue the contrary: when a natural hush comes over a group of students, there is no urgent need to lighten the mood. More likely than not, the mood reflects the fact that the limit of their knowledge has been reached. They are on the edge not only of their seats, but of the hitherto unknown. A joke might seem like a great way to make them comfortable, to assure them that everything being discussed is quite familiar, copacetic, and relatable. But none of that that is true! A student who has never read Shakespeare, upon hearing the St. Crispin’s Day speech of King Henry V for the first time, rightly feels awed and humbled. He has never thought about courage, about honor, about brotherhood, about mortality in this way before. He never has, and after eighth-grade graduation, there is no guarantee that he ever will again. Yes, the room is silent after the final lines, but, no, this is not an “awkward silence”! Away with this cynical postmodernist cliche and all suchlike! The silence might not last long, but let it linger just a bit. Make eye contact. Yes, it’s more than likely that they’ll each turn away, and they’ll soon be trading glances and smirks with their classmates, so to comfort themselves. This is normal. But they tasted it. “Be still, and know the works of God.” (No, not by or of themselves are the works of men known as the works of God, but because of everything else that your students have learned from you, they’ll detect the Christianity in Shakespeare.) And sometimes a student will meet your gaze in that silence as you scan the room, just for a moment, smile furtively, bob his head just a little bit, and say, “Wow!” And that’s enough. That’s great.

In many if not most instances, to defuse the seriousness of a situation is effectively to anesthetize one’s students to the very occasion in which they might otherwise have learned something— and not just learned in the sense of “memorized a fact” or “improved a skill.” What is defused at that point is the ignition of wonder. The proper followup to reading Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech is not nervous laughter and a joke about how King Henry will at some point in the future say “Hey, bro!” to the men who fought with him when he “sees them on the street,” or some such proletarian shibboleth (— I know no one here would do this, of course, but such a hypothetical is useful, I think, as hyperbole magnifies the kind of things we ought to avoid). No, such a transition would shatter the moment of poignant awe which cannot but follow the declamation of such immortal lines. If you are demonstrably not moved by what you have just read, if you are not humbled, it is all but guaranteed that your students will not be, either.

The reflex of “making fun” of everything is regnant in our postmodern culture. Satire is not a new genre— indeed, it’s as old as the written alphabet, which means that it’s about as old as mankind. But the withering snark which is now so ubiquitous (unless you consciously eschew most contemporary media) is not satire. The satirist excoriates in order to bring his object down to the right size, punctures hubris for the sake of sanity, lambasts ridiculousness in order to point up dignity and propriety. Not so today. Today’s cynical hucksters do not have objects or topics— they have targets. Mark well the obvious difference. In our era there is no such thing as a “right size” to be brought down to, no such thing as sanity to return to, no such thing as dignity or propriety to reattain. Targets are for blowing up. Behind the putative humor of today’s comics is nothing but a pit of jaded nihilism and the cult of ego.

As with satire, the floor has shifted here: it used to be that the men most admired for their sense of humor were rather serious and profound thinkers— Sophocles, Juvenal, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, just to name a few. They were aware of an immanent moral frame upon which even their humor depended. It is not so today: all humor is now gallows humor, we laugh because we’re going to die, and we are pretending that we don’t care.

Have any of you watched or listened to Louis C.K.? He’s a funny guy, I guess. More notably, though, he is a miserable, grotesquely withered and withering soul. He’s extremely profane and obscene, but he often talks about being a single dad in his routines, so I guess that helps people to appreciate his shtick as the absurdist ramblings of an “average guy” doing the “best that he can” to deal with the vicissitudes of modern life, which allows them to do the same vicariously (or something like that). I watched a few of his sketches back in the day, but I just can’t anymore— to say that there is nothing of delight and wonder in C.K.’s material, or in the rest of the dog’s breakfast of bitter sludge and flippancy which dominates the entertainment media is to undersell understatement.

Of course, one of the most enviable postmodern virtues these days, though not quite as enviable as not knowing your gender, is being “funny.” Everyone wants to be funny, and almost everyone, it seems, thinks of himself as being very funny. For various reasons, the humor threshold might indeed be getting lower, such that more people can be said to have a “sense of humor”— I suspect this has much to do with an increasing level of transgenerational and cross-demographic participation in the hivemind of shared pop-cultural “knowledge” via social media, perhaps most notably via the world of so-called “internet memes. The point remains, though, that all humor is premised upon the pointing-up of irony. Without this, there is nothing to laugh about. It is precisely here where humor itself, at least in its postmodern iteration, is beginning to fail at achieving its telos— which is really pretty serious, given how reliant postmodern Westerners are on ingesting “comedy” as a means of taking the edge off of their anomie and self-loathing. Also, it is genuinely sad.

So, to reiterate, all humor is based on irony. What is irony? Let’s clear the air on this, just so that the record shows that we are not among the great unwashed who abuse this word— in the same manner that they torture the word “literally”— by attempting to communicate the opposite of what it actually means. For my part I have yet to find a more lithe and compact definition than the one furnished by Dr. Daniel Sundahl, one of my English professors at Hillsdale College; to wit: Irony is the contrast between reality and expectation. Perhaps the sequence “the contrast between expectation and reality” is better. In any case, humor, for the longest time, has relied on a fairly optimistic and credulous metaphysic when it comes to getting the irony it needs to work with: simply put, God made a good world, and “the way of things” in this world is good— that is, the way God has ordered his creation (granting, of course, that sin has corrupted His handiwork). In all comedy, then, this ordinary and orderly “way of things” is temporarily interrupted, suspended, or inverted; certain apparent absurdities in “the way of things” are noted and explored. And yet, in the narrative told by the comedian8, which we find to comport in some way with our knowledge and our experience of life, things do not come to naught, are not unraveled, and the world is still as it should be. This delights us. We smile. We laugh. (We should note, though, that comedy as a literary genre isn’t necessarily humorous— see Dante; comedy is, however, necessarily cosmically-affirming, which, although it sounds like something from a weird Hollywood cult, simply means that things come right in the end.)

That beloved and most well-known form of micro-comedy, the joke, works by telescoping all the major elements of this sequence, thus heightening our perception of irony. The best jokes have the complete plot of a comedy, as it were, but in the space of a few seconds. I have to give an example:

Knock-knock
Who’s there?
To
To who?
To whom.

If irony is the contrast between reality9 and expectation, but people no longer share a common credulous perception of reality, then there can be no common enjoyment of irony.

Given that ours is an age of increasing solipsism— in which solipsists sort and group themselves according to their respective “identities”— it is not only possible but practically inevitable that we will see more and more surfeit of discourse which meets the technical specifications of humor…yet somehow fails to be funny. It also seems inevitable that people will be unable to recognize the truly funny, will become incapable of genuine lightheartedness, and will find themselves “triggered” by the most benign of comments, necessitating the creation of ever more restrictive “safe-spaces” until it’s just “Myself. Myself alone.”

Why? My sense is that there still is a latent common perception of reality, to be sure— it cannot ever be completely done away with, after all. But this latent true perception is today resented with a vengeance as “false consciousness.” (Low-level millennial Marxists don’t know much Marx, but they know that one.) Those who do not hate many-splendored reality but instead look upon it with credulity and love— such people must repent, or be destroyed.10 Resentment, then, is the expected posture in the now regnant secular culture, especially among the college-aged youth. Those not yet poaching in full-on resentment might nonetheless be simmering in its earlier stages: boredom, skepticism, incredulity, and, yes, to come back to Lewis at long last, flippancy— a corrosive, enervating metaphysical flippancy. Not taking the world at all seriously. Not acknowledging that the “way of things” is good, but not necessarily thinking that it’s bad, either— just thinking that it’s lame, or stupid, or unimportant, or fit only for mockery. It is this latter condition— flippancy as opposed to resentment— that we are likely to encounter among some of our students, especially, but certainly not only, those who come from non-Christian or nominally Christian homes. But my point is this: if there is no common perception of reality, there can be no irony, for there can be no commonly perceived contrast between expectation and reality. Just as private languages can’t exist, private jokes can’t be funny.

This would explain, at least in part, why now we hear of such neoterisms as “post-irony” and the “anti-joke”: there, where you were waiting with a credulous smile for something unexpected, like the Green Lady of Perelandra, all eager to be delighted and to laugh, here is…nothing ironic whatsoever. The “joke” is on you. I, the teller of the joke, am laughing at you for expecting something typical like some schmuck. How do you like them apples? Or maybe you and I are both so used to this cynical genre that we tell actual jokes in the old-fashioned way, but we tell the obvious punchlines so as to mock the very existence of punchlines as a category, and then we literally pretend to laugh. If one’s default posture toward reality is that it is not worth taking seriously, only worth combatting as a melange of “oppressive” forces or mocking in a desultory fashion because “everything is stupid”, there is a bigger problem afoot for which the loss of funniness is but a symptom: joy has been lost.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates this. In another life I worked as an after-school tutor for middle- and high-schoolers in the DC-area. One afternoon the particular student I was working with that day came walking up to the table with that slow shambling gait characteristic of a tween trying to walk and watch YouTube at the same time— it’s unmistakable, I’m sure you’ve all seen it. I didn’t allow phones during tutoring sessions, and she knew this, so I told her to put it away. She looked up, still laughing. “OK, OK, OK. But you’ve got to see this first.” “I’m not interested,” I said. Then, my curiosity got the better of me. I guess I felt like I needed to take a sounding, get an idea of what “kids were watching these days.” “OK, what is it?” I said. Well…I’ll do the best to summarize:

It looked just like the scene from the end of the movie The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy is saying that she’s homesick. Glinda the Good tells Dorothy, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas….close your eyes and tap your heels together three times. And think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home’.” Of course, in the movie, there’s dialogue in the middle of that, but in this little clip, they had that whole line from Glinda all together, just like I read it, and after she says “close your eyes and tap your heels together three times. And think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home’,” there’s a record scratch, and Dorothy says, “Seriously? What the f–k?”— then there’s some canned laughter— “You mean I could’ve gone home this entire time?” More profanity, more canned laughter.

My student, laughing rather stupidly— is there another way to describe a laugh which is wholly bereft of delight?— put her phone away and noticed my pursed lips and furrowed brow. “Wasn’t that funny? Haha.”

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The best description I can give for what I felt is not anger, but sadness— sadness and pity for this twelve-year-old girl who knew nothing of the simple sweetness of this charming story. I thought about how my mother and her sisters loved this movie and just delighted in it when they were little girls. I realized— and not solely as a result of her showing me this video, mind you— that this girl had more or less skipped childhood, not because she was extraordinarily mature for her age, but because, for her age, she was extraordinarily lacking in innocence. This, I came to learn, was far more her misfortune than her fault. After all, she was just a kid. Now she is a young woman. God keep her, wherever she is.

Sadly, this is not all that exceptional. School is not the only acculturating force in our student’s lives, and, depending on their situation, it may not be the strongest. This is almost certainly true if students not only do not attend orthodox Lutheran churches, but do not attend church at all. What about all of that stuff about Earnest? Assume Earnest is the exception, even if he is not, even if he and Earnestina currently sit at every desk in your classroom. Assume this, because at least with respect to contemporary culture, especially contemporary “youth culture,” he very much is.

I don’t say this to be defeatist; I say it to be realistic. There are significant reasons why we should not be surprised if our students are extremely unserious— and here I refer to reasons other than the fact that they are children, which, by itself, also isn’t a reason. These reasons have everything to do with the temper of the age in which we live, the character of the times, or, if you’ll pardon the whimsicality of the term, the Zeitgeist.11 Call it what you will, our age is glutted with flippancy, presumption, superiority, mere tolerance, and indulgence, those dehumanizing (or all too human) vices which Lewis marks as inimical to “seriousness.”

When we say that these vices characterize our age, or our culture— in truth, I would rather call it an anti-culture— what do we mean? Do we intend to explain? To warn? To exonerate? Is this foul oversoul ubiquitous in our societal atmosphere, like a sickly miasma that we cannot help but breathe? Or is it more like a substance that we have in fact chosen to purchase and ingest? This question seems to be perennially vexing, and not just for us Lutherans. It is a variation on the theme of “What does ‘being in the world but not of it’ mean/look like/necessitate?” I have not attempted to answer this rather large question in this paper. I will simply assert that we have a great amount of choice here, and in this matter and many others in this world under heaven, our wills are not bound. “You cannot keep the birds from flying overhead,” Blessed Doctor Luther says. “But you can keep them from nesting in your hair.”

Our students do not need our help developing their snarky senses of humor. If they don’t have one yet, good. If they do, they probably need help in curtailing it more than anything. Our students need to know, above all, Christ and Him crucified. They need to know the Holy Scriptures. They need to know the Christian faith in all of its richness. They need to know that God is the author of all that is good, true, and beautiful, and they need to be led to perceive, comprehend, and imitate those things which are good, true, and beautiful, not because salvation is to be found in such knowledge or in such imitation— we are not gnostics, nor are we synergists. But our students carry the treasure of faith in earthen vessels, as do we all. And from a human perspective, carrying this treasure is a fraught matter, especially in these evil days. Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

I’d like to close with a few more lines from Matthew Arnold’s, “The Buried Life,” which I also quoted at the beginning of my talk. It’s too long to share in its entirety, but a really marvelous poem which you should all read:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis not true!

Let us not be untrue in our speech to our students. Obviously, we are not lying to them in the sense of telling them falsehoods. But let us not lie to them by modeling a merely street-smart eloquence which can only traffic in irony, sarcasm, and insincere deflection. Let us take each other seriously. Thank you.

 

+VDMA

 

  1. The words of that melancholic Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, come to mind: “I have never been so far in my life, and am never likely to get farther than to the point of ‘fear and trembling’, where I find it literally quite certain, that every other person will easily be blessed — only I will not. To say to the others: you are eternally lost — that I cannot do. For me, the situation remains constantly this: all the others will be blessed, that is certain enough — only with me may there be difficulties.” (Søren Kierkegaard, cited in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988, p.88)
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, New York, HarperCollins, 1949, 45-46.
  3. This bracketed section was omitted from the version presented at CCLE due to time-constraints
  4. “When, however, the Pelagians say that the only grace which is not given according to our merits is that whereby his sins are forgiven to man, but that that which is given in the end, that is, eternal life, is rendered to our preceding merits: they must not be allowed to go without an answer. If, indeed, they so understand our merits as to acknowledge them, too, to be the gifts of God, then their opinion would not deserve reprobation. But inasmuch as they so preach human merits as to declare that a man has them of his own self, then most rightly the apostle replies: ‘Who makes you to differ from another? And what have you, that you did not receive? Now, if you received it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7) To a man who holds such views, it is perfect truth to say: It is His own gifts that God crowns, not your merits,— if, at least, your merits are of your own self, not of Him. If, indeed, they are such, they are evil; and God does not crown them; but if they are good, they are God’s gifts, because, as the Apostle James says, ‘Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights’ (James 1:17). In accordance with which John also, the Lord’s forerunner, declares: ‘A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven’ (John 3:27) — from heaven, of course, because from thence came also the Holy Ghost, when Jesus ascended up on high, led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, On Grace and Free Will; Ch. 15, “The Pelagians Profess that the Only Grace Which is Not Given According to Our Merits is that of the Forgiveness of Sins”; New Advent, “CHURCH FATHERS: On Grace and Free Will (St. Augustine),” http://bit.ly/2lidBTN. Accessed February 18, 2017.)
  5. This idea of exercising dominion, so triggering to moderns in its bold affirmation of lordly authority, is bound up with the end of education.
  6. If you think it odd prima facie for me to suggest that “seriousness” is somehow more fundamental than reverence, let me quickly say that I am not sure that it is. I think I would rather say that both reverence— fear and love of God— and charity— love of neighbor— both entail and are entailed by this concept “seriousness.”
  7. This seriousness, while no precondition of saving faith— for there are and can be none— is nonetheless transfigured by the Holy Spirit, such that the souls of the saved are, as it were, still, silent, and unaware of all but Christ, who through the veil of His flesh has brought them to know God as their Father, God who is beyond all changing. The souls of the righteous are in the nail-pierced hand of God.
  8. I here use the term “comedian” in a sense broad enough to include Dante.
  9. Reality either as state or outcome.
  10. Cf. “Why Do Progressives Resent Reality So Much?” by George Fields. June 24, 2015. The Federalist.
  11. I am trying to avoid referring to any of this as “our modern American culture,” or even as a culture at all. It is an anti-culture, or else “culture” means nothing. On this point I commend to your reading Dr. Anthony Esolen’s essay, “You Can’t Have a Culture of Life if You Have No Culture at All,” which ran in Crisis Magazine in August of 2014.

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