Friday, January 20, 2012

tender and touchy as a rug burn

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My father's father was a Presbyterian minister and my father grew up memorizing great hunks of the Bible by candlelight. This training taught him an enormous disdain for Christianity in particular and religion in general. He fled, instead, into the religious zealotry of the intellect, teaching Shakespeare at an Ivy League college and being utterly devoted to the chilly particulars of James Joyce.

For all that, he once tried to introduce a college course that would examine the Bible as literature. The course was a flop. It seemed that those who were interested in the Bible loved it too much to stand at any requisite distance ... they wanted their faith buttressed and uplifted; they were not ready to hold it at a cool, quiet and analytical arm's length. The visceral demands outweighed any willingness to parse the religious sentence, to see religion as a human endeavor like any other ... to demote religion to a world of intellectual Tinker Toys.

What a razor's edge -- the line, if line there be -- between the intimate blood that religion can inspire and the theological and literary appreciations that can be brought to bear. Besides being a razor's edge in college courses, I imagine it is a razor's edge for individuals as well: How much of religion in anyone's life is a matter of parroting and dissecting what someone else says and how much is buried or branded on some intimate, life-giving 'soul?' The whole matter can be as tender and touchy as a rug burn: Raise up the one and the other grows testy as an old man with arthritis. Raise up the other and the one rears up in fulminating insistence.

What brought all this to mind was the lead line on an Associated Press story I skimmed today: 

Aleeza Adelman teaches Jewish studies at a Jewish school, yet she considers herself a teacher whose subject is religion, not a religious teacher.
The story concerns the confusion arising from a U.S. Supreme Court decision. It is hard to envy the justices who may have tried to parse and clarify the distinction asserted in the quote above. Can such  distinctions be made? Can they be allowed to dive into an unexamined oneness? It reminds me a little of the doubts that enter my mind when a philosophy teacher is dubbed a "philosopher." Does a love of wisdom (the definition of "philosophy") mean that anyone is, ipso facto, wise? The questions for "religion" and "philosophy" may seem abstruse and distant and unworthy of consideration by anyone who has to put spaghetti on the dinner table. But just try dismissing those questions out of hand -- what a bunch of assholes! -- and take note of the resulting furor: This is 'serious' and worthy of human controversy....

Touchy and touching as a rug burn.

-- In India, a group of men is hoping to gain equal rights with the women who rule the matrilineal roost.

"[We] do not want to bring women down," as he puts it. "We just want to bring the men up to where the women are."
...
 "If you want to know how much the Khasis favour women just take a trip to the labour ward at the hospital," he says.
"If it's a girl, there will be great cheers from the family outside. If it's a boy, you will hear them mutter politely that, 'Whatever God gives us is quite all right.'"
...
"A tree is masculine, but when it is turned into wood, it becomes feminine," he begins.
"The same is true of many of the nouns in our language. When something becomes useful, its gender becomes female.
Tender and touchy as a rug burn.

Not for the first time, I realize how fortunate I was to have been sent away to a boarding school from the fourth to the eighth grade. The paralyzing sense of abandonment I initially felt gave way to a recognition in some part of my being that this was a healthy setting. Boys and girls did the same things. They hiked and learned to type. They wore sheath knives or carried pocket knives as tools to be used for cutting the strings around hay bales in the barn ... where everyone did barn chores. Everyone learned how to shoot. When there was a knitting fad or the game of jacks became popular, everyone was knitting or playing jacks. Some were better at one thing and worse at another. But, in a setting where parents could not interfere, it was just boys and girls. They were different, but the same. When it came to kissing and other amorous pursuits, the differences were a delight ... but not extraordinary or debilitating. Who can possibly be "better" or "worse," "stronger" or "weaker" in the midst of a single kiss? I was so fortunate to have lived in such an environment that when, in the sixth grade, my mother asked me if I would like to come home and live with her, I said simply, "no."

Tender and touchy as a rug burn.
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