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Courage: A Case for Local, Independent Journalism

Thomas_Aquinas_in_Stained_GlassThere are high-tech adventures in theaters to strengthen one’s New Year’s resolve.  Many of them have the word “courage” in the description.  I recommend Spotlight.  It is the most encouraging movie I have seen in forever.  

Thomas Aquinas offers a helpful description of courage.  This thirteenth-century writer is the authoritative theologian for the Roman Catholic Church.  I have learned tricks over years of trying to entice Protestant students to read him.  The section of his classic Summa Theologiae that hooks students is on virtues and vices.  No one parses the fine distinctions between, for example, jealousy and backbiting, or anger and spite, or temperance and insensibility like Thomas Aquinas.  It only takes a few years in a real congregation with actual people to note the almost infinite variety of vice and virtue.

Thomas continues in a tradition to treat fortitude (courage) as one of the four basic or “cardinal” virtues.  Along with practical wisdom, temperance, and justice, courage is one of four habits of being that orient a person to understand who and where they are, and how their corner of the world fares in relation to the pivotal aspects of life that make life good.  To understand what Thomas means by the cardinal, or orienting, virtues, think of the opposite: an intentionally disorienting story.  Some writers try intentionally to disorient people, for laughs, or to make life appear utterly random.  Such writing can make you temporarily unable to regain your balance.  Courage is one of four virtues that may allow a person to regain her bearings.  Courage is often necessary to determine what is just, or practical, or temperate, particularly when people with power around you are impractical, intemperate, or unjust.  Thomas further explains that each of the four cardinal virtues balance between two excesses.  Courage is a habit of being between foolhardiness, on the one hand, and, on the other, living fearfully.  Sometimes a person has to cultivate courage in order to point out what is nonsensical.  

Or to point out what is obscene.  The word obscene names something so disorienting that it assaults your senses, rendering you senseless.  Here is one local example.  Several years ago this newspaper ran an article on how some executives at Duke University had given themselves large bonuses during a period when supposedly everyone at the university needed to “tighten our belts” and do with less.  While librarians and surgeons and nurses and teachers were doing much more with much less, some higher-ups received giant gold checks.  The week the story broke, one distinguished colleague saw me in our office hallway in a tiara and black velvet dress.  He asked me what in the world I was doing.  I told him I was on my way to perform street theater to draw attention to the scandal.  He shook his head and said, “It really is obscene.”  He did not go on record, but I used his word “obscene” repeatedly in public to characterize the mess.  The most courageous thing I have done ever was declare publicly that my marriage was untenable.  The most brazen thing I have done ever was participate in a group effort to whistle-blow, at my employer, wearing a tiara. But we would not even have had a whistle to blow without old-fashioned, journalistic muckraking.     

In his description of courage, Thomas Aquinas thinks through how courage intertwines with endurance.  Spotlight relates with similar attention to detail the actual story about a team of journalists with the Boston Globe who together discover the courageous patience sufficient to trace a pattern of disorienting deceit.  Boston clergy, lawyers and other public figures sustained a meticulously crafted, multi-faceted cover-up of the fact that at least a thousand children had been sexually violated by over a hundred church leaders in the Boston area alone.  The film depicts the slow, steady, journalistic tenacity necessary for raking up such stealthily buried muck.  The film also shows how a brilliantly lying set of liars can hone the subtle skills of manipulation and intimidation.  Each journalist in the story has to develop the courage both to note subtly delivered threats and to continue, even while noting the power behind these threats, the mundane but heroic tasks to expose truth.  An important part of the film is how Boston is a “small town,” and how a key, regional institution may develop a shield of amoral invisibility.  “The Church” had become a given, an indisputable “Good,” capital G, both uniting and silencing people.  Spotlight is in this way a real story comparable to Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People.”  Ibsen also relates the stakes of telling the truth in a town living a lie.  Both stories vividly show why courageously independent, local journalism is vital for living well.

Black Friday is a Mixed Bag

Before I confirmed a call to ordained ministry, my dad told me something I now tell students preparing for ordained ministry.  The life of a pastor can be summed up in one imperative.  On Christmas Eve, after the last worship service, make sure every toilet in the church is flushed.  This imperative assumes an important fact.  The imperative assumes that, on Christmas Eve, the pastor is the only one working.  Even though the church may have someone on staff to lock up doors and to care for post-worship tidying, that person will not be working on Christmas Eve.  My dad has flushed many Christmas Eve toilets over his half-century of ministry.  Such is the glamorous life of an inn-keeper at Christmas.

Growing up in a parsonage, Advent involved more than the usual tidying up, as we hosted choir parties, youth parties, and Sunday School parties.  The parties were spread out over Advent, so “Christmas” started early.  My brother and I sliced sausage rolls and cut crusts off fancy little loaves of bread used only for such parties.  We cleaned bathrooms and took out trash and dusted bookshelves, so guests would know we considered them worth the trouble.  The timing of these church parties at our house necessitated that Christmas jump the calendar forward to Thanksgiving.  We would often put up the tree before Thanksgiving, so everything would be ready when we came back from my grandparents’ annual Thanksgiving reunion.   Technically, Advent is about anticipation – anticipating the birth of Jesus.  But my mother is a practical woman, and she was not about to let a liturgical rule discombobulate the proper ordering of things.  

My second home growing up – my home away from home – was the nearest shopping mall.  My mother loves shopping malls.  A fantastically creative seamstress, she goes to the mall to spark her imagination for unique twists on fashion.  She started a Thanksgiving shopping tradition when I was young.  Thanksgiving was my father’s family’s holiday.  One set of cousins on that side did not celebrate Christmas, and my father always worked on Christmas Eve, so we would travel each year to Mineral Wells for a Thanksgiving extravaganza.  This involved Russel Stover candies, squash casseroles, fried okra, turkey, ham, and at least a dozen pies.  After all this cooking and an interminable amount of dish-washing, every woman and girl-child in the family was exhausted.  While every man and boy-child sat around watching football Friday after Thanksgiving, those of us who had cooked and cleaned on Thanksgiving escaped to a fancy shopping mall in Ft. Worth.  We spent the Friday after Thanksgiving walking under sparkling Christmas lights, looking at neatly arranged clothes – and decidedly not cooking or cleaning.  

These are the backdrop stories for my assessment of what has come to be known as “Black Friday.”  This time of year, news and social media sources offer a clashing combination of enticement and shame.  “Shop big savings!” advertisements compete with “Shame on greedy shoppers!” op-eds, videos, and photos.  News crews take cameras to big box stores, not upscale boutiques.  Women who shop in bulk at Costco are not particularly greedy.  But they apparently create a better spectacle for moralistic scorn than women shopping at Talbots.  And women shopping anywhere are apparently a more effective story about the ungodly spread of rampant consumerism than are men watching football in the living room.  I counter that dressing rooms can be a place for sisterly bonding, even with complete strangers.  I prefer trying on clothes alongside other real people, with real, non-photo-shopped bodies and faces.  Malls are more humanizing than shopping on my computer, trying to imagine what a dress on a pretend person would look like on my actual self.  There can be a camaraderie of such kindness on “Black Friday.”  I have seen holy mischief at the mall – the presence of God in the mix of neighbors watching mechanical bears sing “Silent Night,” weeks before we are, technically, supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I have been searching my brain for any possible upside to a new “Black Friday” trend, and I have come up short.  Some stores have taken to opening on Thanksgiving night and staying open all night long, jumpstarting the holiday season by telling employees to host people all night long.  This, I submit, is a story of greed, and not on the part of shoppers.  My dad taught me to assume that a good employer does not expect the janitor to work on Christmas Eve.  Charles Dickens teaches us that a boss who expects employees to work on an important feast day is headed toward a gloomy fate.  Executives who tallied the numbers and opted for the trend of all-night holiday shopping should take another look, in the mirror.  

We Need Time Together

My daughter has been texting all weekend.  She has respected my rule not to text during worship, meals, or late at night.  Even within these guidelines, I find myself talking like a Saturday Night Live character named the Grumpy Old Man. The Grumpy Old Man skit involved Dana Carvey describing the good old days, when children did not have confounded cell phones.  Throwing up my hands in frustration, I did what any modern mommy does.  I turned to the internet.  Watching the musical number “Telephone Hour” from the 1963 hit Bye Bye Birdie made me feel better.  What did we do before cell phones?  We tied up our household’s landline for hours, talking about vastly important teen crushes.  At least I did.  

I relate the story above, about telephones, in part to reassure readers that I am not against all technological communication.  Most of the time, I am not a caricature of the Grumpy Old Professor.  But, when a friend told me recently that the future of pedagogy is online education, I vowed to resist.  I am as opposed to this form of the future as I would be if a friend told me that the future of sex is online, or that the future of worship is online, or that the future of our friendship is online.  Learning – like friendship, worship, or sex – is a gift best shared with other human beings, face to face.  A song from the musician Red Grammar puts it well: “It’s as simple a thing as the air that we breathe; we need time together.”

A school can avoid paying teacher salaries and basic benefits if they move toward distance education.  This is the ostensible reason that children in Durham are “taking classes” online, with someone, somewhere, answering their typed-in questions.  Money is also the ostensible reason that Christians are working online for degrees through my own institution.  We sit in front of a computer, skyping, which means that we awkwardly see one another on a screen.  The display looks sort of like the television game show “Hollywood Squares.”  I submit that the loss is not worth the monetary gain.  What we lose in online learning is fundamental to the gift of teaching.

I have taught a seminar on a Danish philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard ten times during my sixteen years teaching at Duke.  We have read the same books* together, each iteration of this seminar, but every semester is different.  Classes are made up of people, and people are individuals, with snowflake-unique experiences and perspectives.  I learn something new that surprises me every time I teach, even when I am teaching a book for the umpteenth time.  A vital part of this gift is the trust that students build with one another over time.  The interactions in person matter, as we each let down our guard and risk showing confusion, or insight.  Body language matters for teaching.  If a student crosses his arms and scowls, I know I need to pause the conversation.  Has the conversation left him lost?  If he is lost, chances are someone else in the room is also lost, but trying to hide it.  This is one obvious example.  Good teachers learn to pick up subtle cues, to help each person in the class learn.   Even if the class is about information – about facts – the classroom matters.  A geometry teacher learns how to teach geometry well by answering questions from befuddled students.  She may stay up late thinking about how better to explain a difficult concept and, the next year, she has a new pedagogical trick.  I may be able to see consternation on a student’s face online, and some confused students will risk typing a question online.  But trust is best built minute by minute, session by session, in person.  

We may enjoy the polished perfection of a carefully constructed TED talk on screen, but polished perfection is not the same as teaching live people to whom you are accountable and from whom you are learning.  Which brings me back to a question I asked last month in my essay against superheroes.  How can online learning be the “future” of education in a democracy?  A flourishing democracy requires not only a people filled up with facts, but people who have been formed to learn from one another by listening to distinct voices and hearing particular stories.  Sharing the task of learning with people who are different than you are is a hedge against tyranny.  This is one reason why we finally desegregated public schools across the United States.  Placing each student in front of her own little computer, interacting on screen, is a form of re-segregation.  The gift of time together is worth public support in a vigorous democracy.

[*] Blog editor’s note for the philosophically curious: Fear and Trembling, Repetition, either Stages on Life’s Way or Philosophical Fragments, and Works of Love, in that order.

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