Why Leadings?

Not to lead, but to be led            -- by the Holy Spirit.

See Leader, Servant, or Slave? in the section below, "Walking the Walk".

Jack in Denali National Park, 2012.

God's Wrath

Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: "This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, full-ness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy."

That's also why Jerusalem was destroyed.

And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to "strengthen the hand of the poor and needy".

"Strengthen the hand" is the King James wording. Modern translations say "help the poor and needy." And there's a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That's charity. It's doing for, not doing with.

My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, "Wooooh, colder than charity."

Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That's risky. You're vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.

Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches -- which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we're afflicted with the Ameri-can curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe -- a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us "the Israel of God" -- the new 13th tribe.

Jesus said, "The poor you shall always have with you." He didn't mean that as a curse -- the notion that the poor are an inevi-table nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, "You shall always be among the poor."

When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . ." It's a glorious responsibility and promise.

And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor -- and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.

As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, "God save the United States of America..." 

Monday
May232011

THE DOOMED HOUSE OF ATREUS

We all know the joy of discovering by-ways in the country – finding beautiful places where most folks never go.  There are also literary by-ways.  Among the most fruitful I know are in James Michener's little-sellers.

I read Michener's The Novel, which is about a novel and a murder among the Amish and Mennonites in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  I was astonished to find in Chapter 3 a great teaching about being a writer.  It applies even better to playwriting and to acting.  Here's the teaching:

Chapter III

THE  CRITIC

By James A. Michener

[Mecklenberg College Professor of English, Karl Streibert, writes about himself:]

IN COMPILING THESE somewhat scattered notes, written as I approach my fortieth birthday, I have had only one ambition:  to explain how I, a gangly red-headed Mennonite farm boy whose Pennsylvania Dutch parents had not finished high school, became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, a critic of American literature, the head of a writing school and a visiting professor at Oxford.  It was not an easy route.

After a dozen years of teaching the advanced course on writing at Mecklenberg College, I find that nine of my graduates have become professional authors, and a tenth, Jenny Sorkin, about whom I have the most ambivalent feelings, seems assured of publication by Kinetic Press next year.

A graduate who landed a Literary Guild Selection with her first novel wrote this description of my class for a journal that presumed to teach amateurs how to become professionals:

"It was a class for serious students only, never more than fourteen a semester, and since each session lasted ninety minutes, you could be sure he would call on you, so we were prepared.  We girls thought he was a very odd type; he had never married, and we could guess why.  He was quite tall, but very thin, with red hair that would not stay combed and eyes that preferred not to look at you unless he was about to ask a question that might reveal how stupid you were.  His clothes?  Well, yes and no, sloppy but clean, but always of a style about ten years back.  A strong baritone voice that went up in scale when you least expected it to, and where the average professor might display a sense of humor, he offered a taste of bile. We girls sometimes cried in his class when laughter was directed at our mistakes, and several boys told me they wanted to sock him, but one, a football player said:  'We held back because a real blow might of broken him in half.'"

A young man who now taught in another college said, "Streibert had one virtue that eclipsed his faults. The moment you entered his class he let you know that no matter how he behaved, he was on your side. Come hell or high water, he fought for you, was determined that you become a writer, and would do anything to assure your success.  He got me my job.  When you enrolled with him, he offered you a contract:  'Bide with me, and I'll show you how it can be done.'"

Another graduate who has published two rather good novels said:  "You could see it in his face.  He willed that you produce something meaningful.  And I got the curious feeling that he saw us as his last chance. He'd wanted to be a novelist, you know.  Failed miserably.  Published one, and it was murdered.  Never went back. After that I think he realized that his life would be justified if he helped his students succeed."

I feel quiet pride when these former students report:  "I would never have made it if I hadn't taken that class with Professor Streibert."  I know it sounds as if I were touting my own teaching, but I'm not.  In interviews they never say what a charismatic person I was (I'm not), nor how brilliant my analyses of literature were. No, they always say:  "That mural he had painted on our classroom wall made all the difference."  Because when a young would-be writer finished memorizing that damned mural, and passed the drill on it, he or she had a visceral understanding of what great books were.  One student said, "I'd read a dozen novels before coming to grips with Professor Streibert's mural, but I hadn't caught any of the hidden meanings."

Students who entered my class later than Christmas 1983 invariably commented on the mural, the typical evaluation being one delivered by a graduate student named Timothy Tull, who would achieve considerable fame at Mecklenberg and in the publishing world.  He said, "My writing life began when I sat in Streibert's class, studying that awesome mural, analyzing it privately until I caught a sense of what literature in the grand sense involved.  It invited me into the actualities of life and showed me how a great writer dares to use the facts."  Another student said, "Streibert's mural, a preposterous thing, which the college authorities wanted to paint over, taught me more than any normal class I've ever had.  There was the world of human behavior, stark, cruel, infamous and dramatic."

   One  

KEY  TO  THE  CHART  OF  THE  DOOMED  HOUSE  OF  ATREUS

0         Pluto was a goddess whose parents were either Cronus & Rhea or Oceanus & Tethys.

1         Cenomaus had an incestuous desire for his daughter and killed any young man seeking to marry                   her. 

2         Pelops' father cooked him alive and served him to the gods.

3         Because of her pride, Niobe's fourteen children were slain before her eyes.  Apollo killed the                         seven sons.  Artemis killed the seven daughters.

4         Atreus' fratricidal strife with Thyestes dooms his house.

5         Aerope conducts a liaison with Thyestes and exacerbates the quarrel between Atreus and                                Thyestes.

6         In revenge for his wife's faithlessness, Atreus serves Thyestes his own sons for dinner.

7         Clytemnestra kills Cassandra at the killing of Agamemnon.

8         Pleisthenes is sent to kill his father, Atreus, but instead is slain by Atreus.

9         Aegisthus and Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon.

10       Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, murder her husband, Agamemnon.  In turn, her son,                          Orestes, kills her.

11       Helen of Troy and her fraternal-twin-sister, Clytemnestra, marry brothers, Menelaus and                                Agamemnon.  Helen also bigamously weds Paris.

12       Pelopia commits incest with her father, Thyestes.  She is thus both sister and mother to Aegisthus.

13       Atreus kills, cooks and serves these two sons to their father, Thyestes.

14       Aegisthus becomes Clytemnestra's lover and murders her husband.  Together they rule Mycenae,                  until killed by Orestes.

15       Orestes, to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon, murders both his mother, Clytemnestra,                and her lover, Aegisthus.  He is then attacked by the Furies for his matricide.

16       Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, at Aulis, in order to gain a favorable wind for his                    ships.  In some versions, Artemis replaces Iphigenia with a deer on the altar and transports                           Iphigenia to Tauris.

17       Electra helps Orestes kill their mother, Clytemnestra.  Electra then goes mad and tries to kill her                    sister, Iphigenia.

18       Hermione marries Orestes soon after Orestes kills her husband, Neoptolemus.

19       Erigone sees Orestes kill her brother, Aletes.  Later, she has a son, Penthus, by Orestes.

20       Tisamenus was the son of Hermione, conceived and born after Orestes had killed Hermione's first                  husband, Neoptolemus.

21       They are Furies, the Erinyes -- avenging deities and personified curses -- who torment criminals.                 They haunt Orestes for his matracide.  They can forgive a husband killing his wife, but not                          fratricide, patricide or matricide.  Aeschylus, in The Oresteia, calls them the Eumenides,                              “the kindly ones”.  They relinquish their just claim for Orestes’ death, in return for receiving                       special honors from the Athenians.

____________

One sharp interviewer who'd done some writing was not satisfied with these generalizations and asked: "How specifically did the mural help you become a writer?" and a young man explained:  "He conducted a drill. Pointed at you cold turkey and shouted: 'You're number seventeen and tomorrow you're going to kill your mother, the Queen.  What do you say to yourself when you lie awake at three in the morning?'  And you had to stand, usually a man playing a woman, or vice versa, and you had to become her, and speak as she might have spoken."  The interviewer had interrupted:  "A way to teach, I grant, but what did you learn?"

The young man said:  "That unless you have a strong sense of blood coursing through your veins when you write, significance won't be in the words you write.  I learned that writing is an act that draws upon every part of my body.  Streibert told us:  'If you can't throw everything into the pot when it starts to bubble, you'll never be a writer.'"

A woman writer told the newsman, "Mecklenberg itself didn't want to obliterate his mural, but some girls from good Lutheran families objected to it on moral grounds, although great literature is full of heinous goings-on. Streibert said:  'If it goes, I go,' and so it was allowed to remain – thank heavens, for it showed me the way."

My mural was entitled THE DOOMED HOUSE OF ATREUS.  It covered a wide spread of wall and consisted of an intricate genealogical chart showing members of the Greek family upon which the focus of early Greek literature rested.  It showed the father of the gods, Zeus, marrying the earth goddess, Pluto, who gave birth to Tantalus, who sired the man Pelops, of whom Milton sang.  The sons of Pelops, Atreus and Thyestes, were bitterly estranged, and their actions and feelings fueled the brooding tragedies that preoccupied Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and laid the groundwork for subsequent literature.

Those fateful names loomed before the students – Agamemnon, Menelaus, Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Helen of Troy, Orestes, Iphigenia, Electra – and after each name appeared a bright red numeral, from 0 through 21, so that students could trace the awful tragedies.  There it was, all spelled out, the hideous doings of the Atreides.

On a Tuesday in February, 1989, when students who had come into my course at the end of the autumn semester had their first meeting with me, I launched my introductory lecture on the essential nature of literature.  After stressing that it dealt primarily with human emotions and passions, I said:  "If you cannot imagine the emotions that drive your characters and identify with them, you'll never be a writer. Regardless of how horrible their behavior, how noble, how self-sacrificing, how banal, you must goad yourself into putting yourself, not only in that character's situation, but also in his or her heart."

At this point in my introduction to the chart, I have a ritual.  I designate without previous warning some would-be writer to imagine himself or herself one of the Atreides caught in some  terrible dilemma and to recite either his hero's speech of the moment or his unspoken reflections, as if writing a dialogue for a story in which the ancient Greek appeared.  On this day I chose a young woman about whom I had had mixed reactions.  A transfer from the distinguished writing school at Iowa, she had brought with her a finished novel of quality, but she had the nasty habit of wearing form-fitting T-shirts that carried across her chest provocative messages that might have been considered amusing in Arkansas or Oklahoma but seemed out of place at Mecklenberg. Her name was Jenny Sorkin, and on this day emblazoned across her chest was the challenge:  WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET, and I judged that now was the time to test her merit.

"Miss Sorkin," I said abruptly, "you are Number Fourteen, and you have been asked to lunch by your sister, Number Twelve, whom you have just discovered to be your mother as well.  I want you to speak in two distinct voices, one that your mother-sister hears, the other that only you hear.  You have entered the room where she waits to serve you and you speak."  Before Miss Sorkin, a normally brash young woman, could collect her thoughts I shouted, standing close to her:  "Go!"

I realized that she had been given a most difficult assignment.  She was required to be a man, and he was to find himself in a shattering situation, and I feared she might not be able to handle it.  But I was in for a shock because Miss Sorkin had been studying the mural and had learned that her man Aegisthus14 was one of the real swine of Greek tradition, the seducer of Queen Clytemnestra10 and the murderer of her husband, Agamemnon.9  So, with a skill that astonished the class, who had not previously taken favorable notice of her, she became a man, adopting an oily and sycophantic approach to his sister and establishing himself as a weasel.  Then the voice dropped to an Iago-like snarl as he contemplated killing his sister for the wrong she had done his mother through her incestuous relationship with Thyestes,6 their father.

She spoke four times in each voice, and at the conclusion all of us in the room were satisfied that Aegisthus14 was capable later on of killing not only his sister Pelopia12 but also his king, Agamemnon.9  I led the class in applause, concluding:  "I have a suspicion, Miss Sorkin, in spite of your T-shirts, you might become a writer," and again the class clapped.

Then I made the subsequent points I wished to hammer home, and they came as a shock to students who heard them for the first time:  "Throughout the remainder of your lives you are to be the guardians of literature, the ones who combat censorship in all its forms.  If some Baptist women's group in Oklahoma protests that a book or a play quote deals with ugly themes unquote. I want you to remind them that some of the greatest literature the world has ever known, the stories that got us started, were founded on the behavior of this gang of scoundrels," and I jabbed at the mural:  "Murder.  Matricide.  Incest.  Betrayal. Patricide." Halting dramatically, I said:  "So do not listen if anyone presumes to tell you what decent literature is and what is forbidden.  And if you need strength to fight them, remember this mural and the names of the men who relied upon it for their inspiration:  Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides.  They showed us the way."

Then with a sudden leap, I pointed at a young man, "Mr. Cates, you are Number Seven and you're having tea with Number Ten, but because you are a seer you foresee that she is going to murder you.  Two women's voices, please.  Their conversation."  Cates was not the impassioned actor Miss Sorkin had been, but he had subtle insight as to what the two women were up to, and when he finished their dialogue I said: "Less dramatic than Aegisthus, but you know what you're doing, Mr. Cates.  Your heart is attached to your mind, and vice versa.  The story you submitted for entrance made me think you might make it.  Your performance today doesn't change that estimate.

I then proceeded to my third message from the mural:  "Shakespeare wrote three majestic studies of murder – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello – but I strongly doubt that he himself ever committed a murder.  He didn't have to.  Watching the prisons and the hangings, he deduced what murder signified and allowed his fevered brain to do the killing.  Homer imagined and Aeschylus daydreamed.  They didn't have to commit these horrors."  And then I slammed the wall and said,

"You don't need it here.  You need it here, in your head, and down here, in your heart, and way down here in your guts and your loins."  Several students remarked later that when I said this I seemed "to grow in majesty . . . no longer a skinny red-headed Dutchman but one of the Atreus family . . . maybe Orestes awestruck by the terrible duties he was about to discharge."  Another said, "From that moment on, when he challenged us to become the Atreides, everything changed.  We saw literature in a nobler and more passionate light."

In the silence following this episode on the opening day of the winter semester, I said quietly:  "Mr. Thompson, you are number Sixteen on a summer's afternoon in Aulis, and you see your Father coming toward you.  You are not sure what he is about to do, but as a sensible girl you have an idea.  You do not speak to him, but to yourself.  What is it you say in these last moments of your life?"     

Thompson was not equal to the assignment.  He had studied the mural so assiduously and with such a powerful sense of identification that he became Iphigenia, beautiful daughter to the king and queen, and the thought that he was about to die so overwhelmed him that tears flooded his eyes and he stood mute.  When it became obvious that he would not be able to speak, some students grew restless, others embarrassed, but I in my gentlest voice resolved the impasse:  "Excellent, Mr. Thompson.  You may have come closest of all to the truth, because it's probable that our beautiful princess in Aulis that day, realizing that her father was about to kill her, did what you have just done.  She wept."

_____________

[From The Novel  by James A. Michener, Random House, New York, 1991]

____________

Purpose of this blog is to compile a book for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.

____________

 I welcome your reactions.  Please click below on "Post a Comment".