Author’s note: This two-part post is based on a talk first delivered to Baylor University’s Crane Scholars (2010), a cohort of Christian undergraduates considering careers in academia, and then to undergraduates in Baylor’s Honors Residential College (2015).
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About the weird title—I had better confess right now that I am not a Facebook user, and my grasp of the current lingo falls somewhat short of jinky. Nevertheless, from what I understand, at least three of the current nuances of “friending” are indeed what I want to convey, no matter how insistently my computer underlines the word with a red squiggle. First, friendship is not merely a private relationship between two similarly ranked individuals, but an initiation into a larger community or network. Second, whereas the English verb “befriending” implies condescension or verticality, “friending” suggests something more like parity. Third, verbing nouns is precisely the sort of thing done by the star of this speech, the great nineteenth-century Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.
As for the other half of my title, I’d like to put in a plug for the dead. I think many in the current generation, whether or not they would articulate it as eloquently as Huckleberry Finn, probably share his attitude upon discovering the truth about Moses and the Bullrushers: “by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.” As Christians, however, we are in possession of an important truth, a paradox, like all Christian truths: just because people are dead doesn’t mean they’re not alive. Our sojourn on this side of the river is the blink of an eye compared to the numberless thousands of years we’ll be on the other. Since the dead will be our companions at the heavenly banquet, it would make sense to start building up our network. Yet for most of you, that prospect is distant enough not to be particularly compelling. So let me offer some more pressing reasons why a relationship with the dead is urgent for the living, here and now.
As Samuel Johnson once observed, people require more often to be reminded than instructed. Let us briefly review the meaning of life, as revealed to us by the author of life (John 15:12-14):
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
The purpose of our existence, then, which must also necessarily be the purpose of Christian scholarship, is friendship—with one another and with Christ.
So how exactly do the dead fit in? Shouldn’t we be focusing our attention on the living, the people we encounter every day? The answer is: Yes, of course, but insofar as relationships are created and nourished primarily through conversations, what exactly are we going to talk about? Don’t get me wrong; what we call “small talk” is essential to the health of the community. Like sunshine, pleasantries are necessary to human happiness in ways that are both obvious and mysterious. Birds get something out of twittering, and so do humans. But there’s also a deep hunger in each of us for “big talk,” and we can easily be starved for this in a society that dines primarily on sound-bites. Here’s another Christian paradox for you: Immanuel Kant, the cleaning lady, the baby one day old in the womb—all are infinitely valuable, infinitely loved, infinitely interesting to the Word who spoke the universe into existence. And yet, for some reason, most of our communications with our fellow human beings don’t obviously reflect this fact.
If you’ll forgive me for quoting the Bible and The Onion in the same speech, the irreverent journal targets this problem rather well in its lead story of June 9, 2008:
PASADENA, CA—A team of Caltech scientists announced Monday that they have discovered a type of conversational detail smaller than minutiae, the class of particulars long thought to be the smallest possible building blocks of mundanity. “These tiny sub-minutiae, or ‘boredons,’ are so insignificant that they contain almost no information, useless or otherwise,” said head researcher Dr. Nathan Yang, adding that the conversationally inconsequential details naturally occur in elevators and other enclosed spaces containing high concentrations of vaguely familiar acquaintances. “At least six must be combined to make up a detail that even remotely approaches the declarative weight of a triviality, and more than 200 are required to compose a viable trifle.” Yang said that the basic unit of tedium remained undiscovered for so long because boredons are instantly forgotten as soon as they are heard.
Now here’s where the dead come in. I don’t think the dead are necessarily smarter, or better, or more interesting than anyone else, but they do have one advantage: in the monuments that have reached us, the boredons were screened out long ago. Poets like Horace and Ovid liked to claim they had achieved immortality through their words, preserving the best part of themselves from oblivion and death. As Christians, we know this isn’t actually true. In fact, the best part of ourselves will live on, forever, in the presence of God, a weight of glory we can’t possibly imagine. Let me attempt to cleanse the Onion stain by quoting the end of a Hopkins poem descriptively entitled “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”:
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
Nevertheless, if the ancient writers haven’t left us the best part of themselves, they’ve at least left us a pretty darn good part of themselves. Whether or not they are right about the important things, like the meaning of life and the nature of love, they have pondered them deeply and expressed their thoughts beautifully, enough so to be considered worth preserving for thousands of years. Through the written word, they’ve created worlds, they’ve given us a language in which to think, and they’ve left us the incalculably precious gift of their own personalities. There is a very real and spine-tingling sense in which Ovid’s final prophecy in the Metamorphoses comes true: “I will live.” It is not for any particular idea or turn of phrase that I enjoy these people, but for what Hopkins would call their “inscape,” their unique self-ness, their Ovidity or Virgility or Horacity. To read them and talk about them is to bring them to life, as music comes to life only when it is played or sung.
Their world would be entirely closed to us without our commitment to scholarship and teaching. (Those things are not separate, by the way—scholarship just means teaching and learning from a larger community.) We have access to our dead friends only through the artifacts they have left us, which means primarily the written word. Like most things that are worth anything in this fallen world of ours, building this relationship takes some work. Learning any foreign language—since many of our dead friends spoke in another tongue—means countless hours memorizing vocabulary and struggling with grammar. Even to read them in translation takes great effort. Filtering a sequence of symbols through our own imagination and language and mentally recreating a world both like and unlike ours requires a concentration and self-discipline that are becoming increasingly rare in the age of clicks and tweets. And yet without an anchor in the past, we are doomed to be tossed about by whatever flotsam happens to be floating across whatever screen happens to be in front of us. C.S. Lewis expresses this beautifully in his 1939 essay Learning in War-Time:
A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.
Now here’s a sobering thought. Unless your generation makes the effort to keep the dead in the conversation, those voices will be silenced forever. Only through you can they take their rightful place in the community of friends that is the Kingdom of God on this earth. If the roots of civilization are cut off, how long will it be before the leaves wither?
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This is the first part in a two-part series. Please return tomorrow for Part 2, which reflects on how scholarship—that is, friendship with the dead—enriches and is enriched by friendship with the living.