Sunday, September 18

Literature and Spirituality: Wrapping Up Augustine and Unwrapping Boethius

In my last post, We've been in class for a few weeks and I have to say conversation has been, well, let's go with muted. There are three or four students who are willing to speak up. I'm not convinced all of them have read the texts even when they speak up, but one step at a time.

One of the things I said in my last blog post was that maybe students needed a bit more time to warm up. I was thinking they needed to warm up to me, to the class, and to each other. After all, I know that the majority of the students are taking the class because it fits in their schedule and meets the upper-level literature course they have to take.

I've battled that mindset before and it won't be the last, so I'll deal and try to whine less.

Last week I tried a different kind of activity. I'd given students questions to consider for many of the books. I created four overall topics from those questions and each topic was on its own piece of chart paper. Students created their own groups, each group had a marker, and each group started at a different piece of chart paper. They discussed and wrote whatever they thought applicable to that very broad topic. Then they rotated to another piece of chart paper, and so on. Then they revisited the chart paper to see what others had written after them, and then we did a debrief.

The next class period I tried a variation of that theme with a sort of Jeopardy-like question approach, but that wasn't quite as successful. We had several students missing that day, and that change in dynamic matters.

This week we'll be wrapping up Augustine and I'm going to ask them to start a spiritual "map," and I use the word "map" very loosely. I had shared this image with them early on in the semester. I refer to it periodically to help them be mindful of how others might think of spirituality as well as how others might view religion and faith as, perhaps, an expression of their religion and/or spirituality. This speaks, I think, to those who believe themselves spiritual, but not religious.

I've also reiterated what Augustine wrote in Book I, Chapter 5: "Why do you mean so much to me? Help me to find words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you, that you should command me to love you?" (24).

I've reminded my students that those two questions could be at the root of anyone's spiritual journey even if they are rephrased. "What is my purpose?" "Why am I here?" "Why do I matter?" "Do I matter?" I might add the question "To whom do I matter other than my family and friends, and how do I know that?"

For those who are seeking a life of meaning and purpose, regardless of what they believe to be true about God or gods or a Supreme Being, these are important questions.

This, for me, is so powerfully important to the consideration of spirituality, especially if I'm looking for a life of meaning and purpose. As I've said before, we have the opportunity, and perhaps even the privilege, to read how others have wrestled with these questions and with their understanding of sin or what it could mean to fall short or believe they fall short of whatever their god or gods expect or might want. 

So as we wrap up Augustine and turn towards Boethius, I want them to somehow map or document what they've learned using this image as a starting point. How would they adapt it and why? In wrapping up Augustine, we're going to focus on 1) his key relationships: his mother, Bishop Ambrose, and Alypius, a friend of conflicting influences; 2) Book VIII and what pulls him toward evil and what pulls him toward good; and 3) those spiritual journey signposts in Book VI that might translate, if you will, to anyone's spiritual journey.

Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy as he awaited execution for treason and other things, such as magic and sacrilege. The text is a dialogue between Boethius, as Prisoner, and Philosophy, personified as a beautiful woman. The work is a logical argument. Is it consolation or comfort as we might surmise? Hmmm. Probably not to many readers, but the questions Boethius asks have startling relevance.

Is Boethius's Consolation specifically Christian, even as Christianity was understood in his time? No, and that is significant. The work also challenges us to think about the role of reason and the senses in grappling with reality as well as how we understand however we perceive God.

How each student creates his or her "map" will be up to them, and they will revise and update it as we continue to read other classical texts (Donne, Bunyan) and then more contemporary texts (Tolstoy, Achebe, Tan, O'Connor, Sepetys, Lewis).

Tuesday, September 13

"Getting Away With" Abortion and What's Wrong With That Thinking

In the September issue of Christianity Today is an article about Dallas Willard and the genesis of what has become the spiritual formation movement. I was looking forward to reading that article but was sidetracked by this article title:

Go ahead and feel whatever you want and need to feel. Note what I've circled. I'll get back to that.

I will say this about my position on choice, life, and abortion. I am pro-choice and by that I mean that it is none of my business what another woman chooses to do with her body. 

I am also pro-life and by that I mean that I believe we have an obligation to try to take care of one another. Use The Golden Rule or Bible verses or any other texts. It's a fairly universal sensibility that it takes a village. And it takes a village from birth to death. So if we insist on taking care of the unborn, we have to take care of the born. Period. But if you need Bible verses: John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:17-18, 1 Timothy 5:8; Galatians 6:9-10; Matthew 25:40; James 1:27; James 2:14-17; Deuteronomy 15:11; Romans 15:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:24; Romans 12:10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Galatians 5:14. There are more, but you get the idea.

I am anti-abortion in that I would prefer women not have to get an abortion, but I also recognize it is a medical procedure in some cases and that there can be other extenuating circumstances that are none of my business if the womb isn't mine.

While I identify as a Christian, not everyone does and I have no business trying to legislate my beliefs to force anyone to live as I do. That is hardly a good witness, in my opinion. Screaming at someone and calling them a murderer seems unbiblical and certainly not particularly charitable nor even pro-life. James 3.

So I was angry when I read the title and really struggled to read the article because of my fury. But the paragraph that tipped me right over the edge--and keep the article title in mind--was this one:
I'm sorry, what? Use pictures to show the humanity of unborn children? (I may have been screaming at my monitor at this point.)

And so I wrote an email. And sent it angry. And then sent a follow-up email about two weeks later because I was still angry. The content of the first email follows and remember what I circled in the title about changing cultural attitudes.

Got away with? My oh my. That title was designed to raise some ire. Oh my goodness yes. Got away with. Sure, that's easy for Marvin to say because he's probably never been raped and he's probably not been sexually abused and ended up pregnant by a father or brother or uncle. I bet he's never had a miscarriage either. Or suffered an ectopic pregnancy. He's probably never carried a dead fetus in his womb and had to carry that until his body expels it, which is now considered an abortion in some states. So, yea, let's not let any women get away with that one.

Let's take away the capability of any girl or woman to protect herself against unwanted pregnancy by self-righteously refusing to allow the woman to take birth control pills. Or let's refuse those birth control pills as a form of abortion because, you know, it's better to be righteously right than know why that female is taking those birth control pills that might be for something that actually protects the female's life.

You want to change cultural attitudes? Then make sure that rapists don't get away with rapes. Make sure that women aren't accused of "asking for it" or dressing inappropriately if they get raped. Make sure that young men learn they have a responsibility, too, because a female cannot get pregnant by herself. Talk to the incel men who think women somehow owe them and can get violent if a woman doesn't put out. Talk to the men who think it's cool and fun to drug women before having sex with them while they're passed out.

You want to change cultural attitudes? Then make it easier for sexual predators to be identified and brought to justice without shaming the female, regardless of her age. Yes, SBC, I'm looking at you and your 205-PAGE list of names of sexual abusers. Yes, I'm looking at the Indiana pastor who resigned after confessing adultery with a 16-year-old and how the congregation prayed for him even after she made it clear the relationship was much different than he claimed. I'm sure that pastor would have been delighted to pay child support and take care of that baby if that 16-year-old MINOR had gotten pregnant.

So let's talk more about how men get away with being predators and sexual abusers. 

So let's talk more about how men get to use their power to use young girls and women in their congregations or in their businesses or in their offices or in their homes.

So let's talk more about how schools and churches shame young women but are more than willing to let "boys be boys."

Sure, let's talk about cultural changes but let's be clear the changes aren't all the responsibility of the women and girls. And let's be clear that not all abortions are about pro-choice, but often about medical conditions. And let's also be clear that Judaism and Islam have different beliefs about abortion and that self-righteous Christians who want to use pictures "to show the humanity of unborn children" when they might, at the very same time, fail to show any compassion or humanity to the individual facing this terrible decision.

The follow-up email was about an incident about which I had no direct knowledge, so my on-going outrage was based on someone else's account of an incident. I trusted and trust the speaker and believe that the incident actually happened, but my information is hearsay. That a high school boy convinced a middle school girl, both of whom attended the same Christian school, to have sex with him and recorded it, then shared the video with his buddies. As you can well imagine, she and her family bore the brunt of the shame. 

The boy? Nothing. Nothing happened. 

So let's just hope that middle school girl didn't get pregnant because, you know, we don't want her to get away with anything she shouldn't.

Saturday, September 10

Literature and Spirituality: Examining St. Augustine's Confessions

 We've been in class for a few weeks and I have to say conversation has been, well, let's go with muted. There are three or four students who are willing to speak up. I'm not convinced all of them have read the texts even when they speak up, but one step at a time.

We spent the first two weeks with the Vedic Texts and flood myths. Students were to have read some texts about Pandora as well as a wonderful summary version of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

There seemed to be no curiosity about the antiquity or longevity of the ideas. There seemed to be no wonder about the approaches to the story of a flood, even though there may be over 200 versions of that story. So no one else who seemed to say, "Huh. Potentially hundreds of versions of the story that tell us there was a flood. All of the stories say humanity was destroyed. All of them have versions about how the Earth was repopulated. What does that suggest to us?"

Sure, that may become more of a theological question than a literary one except for the fact there are texts--literature--that relate the history (also humanities) of a flood. Different versions, yes, and with significant cultural details (also humanities). Also insights into how culture was and has been influenced by those very same stories.

Nothing. Maybe they were busily wondering and being curious in their heads.

And so, to Augustine and his Confessions. We had a rough slog through the first two books. I went slowly through Book I to highlight key ideas because, you know, literature. I pointed out figurative language. I pointed out other literary devices, but mostly I paused at certain moments to ask how current Augustine's thinking seems to be. Crickets.

So before we started Book II, I asked students if they would prefer lecture to discussion. I told them it doesn't matter to me because I'm happy to try to facilitate discussion. However, if they chose discussion, they had to actually discuss. All of them. Not just the three or four students who seem to speak up.

They chose discussion. Maybe they need to warm up more.

So I've really been having fun reading Confessions. Sure, there are some things that seem dated and yet others that are powerful and current. I'll mention two things.

The first was humorous to me because I teach writing. In Book I Augustine complains about his education, even as he expresses how much he values learning. There were some things he wasn't too excited about having to read, and I laughed when I realized he was reading Homer's Iliad. In Greek. And probably Homer's actual version. He didn't much care for some of his school masters just as many students don't much care for how their teachers teach today. At least in Illinois they don't have to worry about corporal punishment, which isn't the case in all states.

In Chapter 13 of Book I, Augustine writes "The first lessons in Latin were reading, writing, and counting, and they were as much of an irksome imposition as any studies in Greek" (34). He goes on to say the lessons were practical and valuable. "They gave me the power, which I still have, of reading whatever is set before me and writing whatever I wish to write" (34). Then he mentioned he wasn't overly fond of Aeneas, something students in 2022 might say though for different reasons. At least today's students aren't reading it in Latin.

The second thing I found in Book I, Chapter 5; it set the tone for the spiritual philosophy of this text. Augustine wrote "Why do you mean so much to me? Help me to find words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you, that you should command me to love you?" (24).

I told my students that those two questions could be at the root of anyone's spiritual journey even if they are rephrased. "What is my purpose?" "Why am I here?" "Why do I matter?" "Do I matter?" Those are questions many of us have asked and some ask in pain or wonder.

Any believer of any faith could ask why they mean so much to their god? Or if they actually mean anything to their god?

This, for me, is so powerfully important to the consideration of spirituality, especially if I'm looking for a life of meaning and purpose.

We have the opportunity, and perhaps even the privilege, to read how others have wrestled with these questions and with their understanding of sin or what it could mean to fall short or believe they fall short of whatever their god or gods expect or might want. 

We saw that in the excerpt we read of Hymn CXXI. The line repeated throughout this hymn is "What God shall we adore with our oblation?"

In Book II, in which Augustine focuses on the theft in the pear orchard, Augustine writes ". . .yet no one is to be feared by God alone, from whose power nothing can be snatched away or stolen by any man at any time or place or by any means" (Ch. 6, 49).

The last three lines of that book are powerful; it is possible to see the arc of Augustine's thinking in Chapters 8 and 9, at least. The last three lines read: "In him [God] that is goodness itself he [anyone] shall find his own best way of life. But I deserted you, my God. In my youth I wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste" (53).

The imagery alone of the creation of one's self a barren waste is powerful. The connection, to me anyway, to those questions of mattering to God and wondering why God matters to any of us, is present in these observations about choices and their consequences.

In class? Thoughtful nods. Maybe they need more time to process.

So students were given questions to consider for Books III and IV. I'll post questions to consider for Books V through IX. And I'm working on some strategies that will require students to discuss their thoughts. I don't think they believe me that there are no right answers about what they think about these texts, provided they are reading them.

And so it goes.

An Adventure with Comcast Xfinity, or How to Ensure Your Customers Hate You and Other Lessons Learned

It started as a lovely Thursday evening. It had been a challenging technology day with nearly every class I taught at the university, but we figured it out and got through it. My intent was to sit outside in the cool early evening and enjoy a glass of wine.

 All was well until I tried to scroll through some news stories on my phone and noticed the load time was excessive. I switched to data because I was too comfortable and lazy to go inside to check the cable modem. When at last irritation overrode laziness, I realized my cable modem was indeed offline although the router was fine. And so I did was any reasonable person would do, I reset and rebooted everything. 

Still no joy. Okay, well, let’s try the power cycle. Powered down everything. Checked the coax coming into the house, checked all of the cables to make sure they hadn’t somehow loosened during the day. And rebooted. The cable modem still did not come online. 

Although I do know the definition of insanity and truly tested it over the next several hours, I went through the process once again in case I missed a step. I’ve been in technology long enough to know how easy that is to do.

Still no cable modem. Well, okay, it’s possible the cable modem, which is only a little over a year old, bricked. Anything is possible. And it had now been nearly two hours so maybe a new modem is in order. Yes, Target was still open and had modems in stock, so off to Target.

Except Target didn’t have the model I wanted but had something that looked it might work. Purchase made. Receipt safely tucked away and back home.

I was still not yet adept at navigating the absurdly user-unfriendly Comcast Xfinity app to get to the link I needed to activate a new modem. So once I got to that link, with a great deal of muttering and probably a smattering of swear words, I tried to activate the replacement modem. 

Nope. That did not work. But then I found where I needed to scroll through to find compatible modems and the one I’d bought was not on the list. At that point it was late, so I logged into Amazon to order the overnight delivery of the same model as the original modem and settled in to have another glass of wine and read my book.

I was up early on Friday morning and the modem was already on my front deck. So as soon as I could, I set that up and managed to get to the activation page with less difficulty, squinting to get the CM MAC and started that 11-minute process. Yet again. 

Nope. Then I checked the packaging and yes, the CM MAC was there and easier to read, so tried again in case I’d keyed in the wrong information. Another 11 minutes went by and nothing.

By now I’d reached out to the chat assistant and a customer service connection through Messenger. The Messenger connection sent me a link so I then had two chat conversations going. 

I shared the same things with both and reported what each was saying because, big surprise, their solutions were not the same.

A brief aside here for the brilliant empathy training the Comcast Xfinity people have received. Having done a smidge of customer service work, I appreciate that training and heard it and saw it consistently. Even as my frustration and anger increased along with my heart rate and probably my blood pressure. However, they are not trained to actually read the words or hear the tone of voice, apparently. And when a customer says at 3P on an afternoon that said customer has been trying to fix a problem since 7:30 the night before, excessive perkiness and empathy (yes, I’ve been a customer too) are not helpful. It’s just aggravating because said customer service person has not heard my tone of voice nor my words.  

Back to the story. I was at the point I really needed to get to some place with internet to take care of some business things, so took a 3-hour “break” to go to the library so I could get to some internet.

Another brief aside. I had a very clear moment of illumination of how very fortunate I am. One, I take internet access for granted. Yes, I pay for it but I also assume it will be there. Two, I am aware that many do not have internet access and this brief experience brought home the significance of that lack.

Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash
Once I was back home, I again took up my chat threads to try to solve my modem problem. One person told me it was because my modem, apparently without warning and some time in the afternoon, was not compatible with my home phone service. Well, I’d wanted to get rid of that anyway, so I girded my emotions and placed a phone call.

 Getting through the menu system is its own challenge because if you don’t wait until the voice has gone through the entire menu, your choice isn’t recognized. And if you enter the choice too often or too fast, it’s entirely possible you will get reprimanded for too many tries and then disconnected. So once again into the phone fray and I was at least connected with someone who thought I wanted to cancel my home service (don’t tempt me) because the stupid menu system processes only certain words and isn’t that “smart.”

I took a deep breath and said something like, “Please understand I’ve been trying to solve a cable modem problem since 7:30 last night so my frustration level is very, very high.” I get the chirpy “Yes, I understand and appreciate your frustration.” Oh no, no precious you do not, but carry on. I explained about canceling the home phone service, and she wants to go through my TV service to ask about every. single. channel to make sure I want to keep those and if I want to add any others. I interrupted her. Rudely. I told her I just want to cancel the home phone service and I’ll make other changes later if I want to make other changes. The purpose of this call is to cancel the home phone service. Another chirpy response and “Okay, I just want to ask about. . .”

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash
At that point I interrupted her again because I’d lost my temper and I shouted, “If this question isn’t related to the home phone service cancellation, do not ask it.” Long pause. Silence because I’d been muted or put on hold.

When she returned to the call, she told me she was processing the order. We finished that. I apologized for getting angry and yelling at her. I asked how soon the process should take effect. She stammered a little and gave me an answer I didn’t believe, and we hung up. 

I waited an hour. Just because.

I did a power cycle again. Just because. Did the modem work? Of course not.

Back to the chats. Oh no, I was told. It may take up to three days because of some blah blah blah about porting to new numbers of some other crap. And that’s what I told him. That’s crap. And then gave him a much more eloquent and emotionally tightly controlled response about there not being any number porting required and it was absurd to say it would take a service that purports to be high-traffic and high-speed to take that long for my account to recognize a removed service. And, oh, by the way, my app already indicated the service was gone so, in theory, it shouldn’t be an issue.

I should also point out that nearly every time I did the power cycle, I used the old modem and then the new modem because I couldn’t tell which modem was in the account because the app won’t let me see that.

Back in the chats and I was told I needed to call someone to activate the modem even though I’d just been told to use the /activate option in the app. (By the way, Verizon thanks you for all of the minutes I used.)

Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash
So I called. With trepidation. An hour later after the young man had said with such confidence that he’d be able to solve my problem (and kept mispronouncing my name but I was beyond caring about that) and he had tried to manually set the new modem and then the old modem, and then told me I’d have to take the modem to a store to get something widget done to it, and then tried again to reset the old modem without success. That was when he said, “It must be the wiring in the house.”

Except the TV downstairs works fine. It’s only the stuff connected to streaming that did not work. So I did scream at him and then hung up. I felt bad later. I still feel bad because I did not get to apologize to him. Yes, we had hit the 23-hour mark, but even so. It wasn’t his fault.

And so, I had a glass of wine and read my book and could watch tennis on the small downstairs TV. I figured I would take both modems to the Xfinity store in the morning and get the widgety thing done and check which modem is actually in my account.

This morning I was having breakfast and the doorbell rang. A young man wearing a Comcast shirt asked me if I’d been having trouble with my internet. Yes, I said, with perhaps too much enthusiasm. He said my neighbor had also been without service. Since Thursday night.

Oh wait, I thought. You mean all those times I asked if there was a service problem in the area and was told there were intermittent outages but they were confident the problem would be solved soon they actually didn’t know there was an internet outage that affected several homes in the area? Huh.

So the young man climbed a ladder to check the pole, which is in my yard or I might never have known about this, and then came down and told my neighbor that he couldn’t fix the problem. I wouldn’t have known that either had I not gone outside to ask.

Less than an hour later I heard another ladder going up in the backyard. This technician had taken a different route to get to the pole, but I went outside to ask because I was channeling my inner Mrs. Kravitch (old Bewitched reference; just think nosy neighbor). Apparently the neighbor behind me had also reported a problem.

The technician said he’d check in with folks when he was done, which he didn’t do with me but I wasn't the customer on the order. But, after about an hour of drilling and whatever else he was doing up there, we had service.

I’d shut down everything, but was working on my laptop and noticed the internet indicator change on the tool bar. I went upstairs and recycled everything and, yes, hallelujah, everything worked.

I’d heard from Xfinity asking me for feedback about my call last night. I gave them a 0. They asked why. I gave them a very lengthy response that also noted the quality of their CSR empathy response but the fact that their CSR systems are apparently not synced is ridiculous and the fact that the CSRs really don’t have accurate information about the state of access, it’s no wonder they have to tap dance around answers.

So here’s the final tally:

  • The cancellation of the home phone service I didn’t want anyway, but wasn’t an issue for the modem. Draw.
  • The purchase of an incompatible modem at Target that I might not be able to return as it was on sale. Probable loss.
  • The purchase of a compatible modem that I should be able to return. Win.
  • Several hours’ worth of Verizon minutes used to solve an Xfinity problem. Another moment of illumination that I had the minutes to try to solve the problem. Draw because I learned another valuable lesson.
  • Access to the internet. Win.
  • Loss of most of a day’s worth of work. Clearly, a loss.
  • Incredible frustration and yet insight into how horrible Comcast Xfinity systems are for their CSRs. Draw.
  • Realization that Comcast Xfinity systems practically ensure some degree of failure on the part of the customer service representatives. Draw.