Feb 13, 2002
In the death chamber at San Quentin just after midnight on January 28, a confessed killer was executed by lethal injection. He was convicted two decades ago for the murder of an 81-year-old woman during a botched burglary in which he cooked noodles in her kitchen as she died. California Governor Gray Davis, a liberal Democrat and steadfast backer of capital punishment, denied clemency in the case—as he had for two other death row inmates in the past three years.
In the safe, posh setting of the seminary, the Bible can seem straightforward enough. For example, my class one day was considering 1 Samuel 5, which is about the capture of the ark of YHWH by the Philistines, who brought it to the town of Ashdod and placed it before Dagon, the Philistines’ god. In a strange nighttime turn of events, the statue of Dagon is turned on its face before the unblinking ark of the Lord, and then Dagon’s face lies shattered before the unimpressed ark.
Many of the most moving experiences I have had with students in class have involved encounters with members of other religious traditions. When teaching at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, I used to invite Rabbi Herman Schaalman to speak to first-year seminarians about the importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue since the Shoah.
The encounter that most decisively shaped my teaching occurred during my very first year in the classroom. I was fresh out of graduate study at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the lines of my life, as the psalmist says, had fallen in pleasant places. It was a lovely spring afternoon in 1972, when the North Carolina azaleas and dogwoods were in glorious blossom, and the late April breeze was wafting into my office past the maple tree outside my open window. All seemed indeed right with the world.
Our parents are our first and most important teachers, but they cannot teach us everything. Sometimes they are not equipped to teach us some things we need. Sometimes they teach us things that we do not need. So we move at age five or so to additional teachers.
When I first started teaching, the dean thought it would be a good idea for me to warm up to the vocation (after five years in the pastorate) by teaching summer school. The summer school was designed for second-career folk—those called into the pastoral ministry late in life. Some of these students, I was to discover, are the most interesting kind. Many of them have walked away from lucrative jobs. Many are already serving in some—shall we say—challenging congregations.
With A Beautiful Mind, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Cocoon) and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (Batman and Robin, A Time to Kill) have produced a polished and carefully crafted piece of Hollywood glitter that seems intent on celebrating (to borrow from Faulkner) humanity's ability "not merely to endure, but to prevail." The sojourner in question is John Forbes Nash Jr., a real man and acclaimed mathematician.
Gosford Park: One could easily mistake director Robert Altman for a misanthrope; his dark humor (famously displayed in M*A*S*H* and The Player) borders on meanness, while the parabolic ironies of a film like Nashville throw the audience off balance. "Is this guy making fun of the human condition?" we wonder. The answer is yes and no, but in Gosford Park, a spacious murder mystery set in prewar Britain, it's mostly no.
Lawrence Langer explains in Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory that written accounts of life in the Nazi concentration camps often seek to integrate the Holocaust experience into a larger structure of meaning. Holocaust then becomes a testimony to the “indomitable human spirit,” an example of growing through suffering, a proof that moral integrity is possible even under extreme duress, a source of a more informed sense of ourselves as human beings, and so on.