Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Parable of the Rice Paddy

The parable of the vineyard, found in Jacob 5, is one of my favorite sections of scripture. But now, after reading Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, I have an added appreciation for the Zenos's parable.

According to Gladwell, rice paddies are a unique phenomenon in that the output of a given plot of land is directly related to the time that a farmer spends working the land. For most crops, this is not the case--once the weeds are gone, it doesn't matter if you continue to hoe your rows of beans; if you don't believe me, just ask Thoreau, who was more than happy to walk away from his beans when the necessary work had been done and who still reaped a bumper crop. For rice paddies, however, additional work leads to additional rice. This is because the plots of land that rice grows on must be perfectly level--the water with which the farmer floods the field must rise to a uniform height on each plant or else the yield decreases. Since no field is perfectly flat, there is always additional work that can be done which will allow each individual rice plant to flourish.

Jacob's vineyard, however, is no rice paddy. Recall that "the Lord of the vineyard wept, and said unto the servant: What could I have done more for my vineyard?" when he discovered bad fruit on his trees even after he had dug and dunged and pruned (Jacob 5:41). In the Lord's vineyard, the work of his servants is not directly correlated with the fruit that his trees produce. This should be comforting on two levels. First, when we are acting as his servants, we should recognize that bad fruit happens, even when there is nothing more we could have done for the vineyard. This shouldn't be an excuse for laziness, but it should provide comfort to those who have worn themselves out in the Lord's service without the comfort of seeing good fruit come from their labor. Second, inasmuch as we are the trees of his vineyard, we can take comfort in the knowledge that our salvation doesn't depend on our own ability to make the rice paddy perfectly level, metaphorically speaking. The Lord doesn't require a perfect effort from us, and yet he rewards us with the perfect fruit of his love.

Not that Jacob or Zenos had ever even seen rice before...but aren't you glad that Jacob 5 isn't the parable of the rice paddy?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The 23rd Psalm.

Fear not, little flock (and I do mean little):

I am your blogger; you shall not want for copious reading material.

I write to you on the environment-friendly internet; your green pastures will not be polluted by paper waste products.

I will restore your faith in my blog, if only for my name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of PhD exams, you should fear no blogdeath; my keyboard and computer will inform you.

I prepare an overabundance of words for your consumption; your patience with my verbosity will run out.

Surely my blog will haunt your inbox all the days of your life, and I will never stop writing. Ever.

My PhD exams have kept me busy and prevented me from writing for the past month. A special thanks goes out to Uncle Dave, whose hand-turned tulip wood pen made my success (I passed!) possible; so that you too can have an idea of what it's like to read and regurgitate 200 books in a marathon nine hour exam, I've reproduced one question and answer from the exam (involving books you might actually have read) below:

Question: Describe the ways in which the Puritan of American authors writing in the nineteenth-century affected their works.

Answer: New England writers in nineteenth-century America were forced to grapple with their Puritan roots, and many of them reacted by rejecting the example of their Puritan ancestors and rebelling against the strictures of Calvinist theology. Writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Catherine Sedgwick expurgated their guilt for the actions of Puritan colonists by writing novels that rejected the ways in which Puritan colonists exploited and victimized those at the margins of societies—Indians and witches. Emily Dickinson turned her back on God when she could not share a conversion experience in her time at Mount Holyoke College, and Lydia Maria Child likewise rejects the sectarian Puritans for a more comprehensive view of religious toleration. In the nineteenth-century, the Puritans were (generally) to be repudiated, not celebrated.
In the House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne recounts the history of the Pyncheon family whose forbear, Colonel Pyncheon, executes Matthew Maule, a local wizard, to obtain his land. On Maule’s land, Pyncheon builds the house of the seven gables, but his legacy of hate weighs on the Pyncheon family, which decreases in prominence through the years until the nineteenth century. The legacy of guilt and sin even affects the family chickens who wither away and degenerate. Only when Phoebe Pyncheon, a distant branch of the main Pyncheon line that has revived somewhat in the country, returns to the familial mansion and marries Holgrave, Maule’s descendant, of her own free will and choice is the family curse finally lifted. Judge Pyncheon, the last remaining member of the family with the necessary cruelty to reenact the Colonel’s murder, dies and the mansion crumbles, freeing Phoebe of her legacy. The House of the Seven Gables demands reparations for the sins of Puritan ancestors from whom New England is inherited and threatens continued moral degeneration without a rejection of this cultural legacy.
If Hawthorne writes House of Seven Gables in order to demonstrate that an atonement must be paid for the sins of his forbears, Sedgwick actually rewrites history in Hope Leslie, depicting the suffering that Indians endured at the hands of the colonists and that the colonists effaced in their historical record sympathetically. When Magawisca comes to live with Everall, she tells him of the massacre that her people endured at the hands of the colonists, who saw how their own homes would fit nicely on the sites of Indian wigwams and teepees. It is with this broader explanatory context that Sedgwick portrays the massacre of Everall’s family at Northampton when Magawisca’s father comes to rescue her. Sedgwick turns the Indians into heroes and the Puritans into oppressors; Magawisca bravely sacrifices her arm to free Everall, and the Puritans insist on reclaiming Hope’s sister Faith from her Indian husband despite the fact that this visibly distresses her. Sedgwick does not suggest, as does Hawthorne, that a price must be paid for Puritan crimes against the Indians, but she does insist that Americans view their heritage without rose colored glasses and recognize their own culpability in a history of unnecessary violence.
For Emily Dickinson, the Puritan legacy is a crime against herself as much as it is against the marginalized communities that Hawthorne and Sedgwick defend. Where an earlier poet such as Bradstreet was willing to work through her own rebelliousness because she trusted in God, even if she did resent the exigencies that sent her to the New World, Dickinson has nothing but resentment. In “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun,” Dickinson expresses her frustration over the strictures of Calvinist doctrine as she waits for a conversion experience. She sits in a corner, neglected, as an unused gun might until the day when her Maker puts her to use and speaks through her mouth; even then, she resents the inefficacy of her life, that she has only the power to kill, that he has not endowed the human race with more of his creative power and less of the power to kill. Her frustration with the whims of an ineffable God are similarly expressed in a poem describing the death of a flower. The flower brings its viewers joy and is a good thing, but dies at the hands of frost; though the flower’s death is a great tragedy, the frost does not notice, and the world continues in its course for “an Approving God.” For Emily Dickinson, as for Edwards before her, the doctrine of absolute sovereignty is the problem; she rebels against an impartial God who kills and saves seemingly at random.
In Hobomok, Lydia Maria Child depicts another young woman who rebels against the doctrines of Calvinism; Mary Conant is already an outcast who must settle at Naumkeak because her father does not wholly subscribe to the Separatist doctrines preached in Plymouth, and she loves a young man who fully supports the episcopacy of England. Her father forbids her from marrying him, however, and she accedes until his death leaves her heartbroken. She then marries Hobomok because he is (to her) no worse than anyone else after he lover’s (apparent but not actual) death. Child, like Sedgwick emphasizes the heroic character of the Native Americans; when Hobomok finds Conant’s lover while wandering in the woods, Hobomok insists that he become Conant’s husband because she loves him more and sacrifices himself (like Magawisca) for the greater good. When Conant is finally reunited with her lover, they send their children to England, to escape the religious persecution of the Puritans who surround them, and it is only there that anyone in the novel finds lasting happiness. Conant rejects the sectarianism of her Puritan forbears for the religious pluralism that characterizes nineteenth-century America, confident that this new atmosphere of tolerance will promote more happiness and religious growth than the religious strictures of seventeenth-century New England allowed.
For nineteenth-century New England writers dealing with their Puritan legacy, the strict doctrines of Calvinism and the Puritan persecution of the societal margins are causes for guilt and shame. Even when, as in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, a seventeenth-century Puritan is portrayed in heroic or exemplary terms—as Hester and Dimmesdale are, I would argue, by the novel’s end—their heroism and virtue is in spite of the Puritan culture by which they are surrounded, not because of it. The Puritan legacy of religious oppression and persecution is portrayed as a heritage to be overcome, not celebrated, and the absolute sovereignty of a jealous God is to be rebelled against absolutely. While David Shields contends in Oracles of Empire that the American identity as an imperial consumer and self-made-man depends more heavily on economic realities than on Puritan religious culture and aesthetic plainness, the continuing concern with Puritan roots in nineteenth-century fiction corroborates Sacvan Bercovitch’s claim for the The Puritan Origins of the American Self at least in part; like their Puritan predecessors, these nineteenth-century authors are intensely engaged in introspection and constantly question their own morality and the morality of their inherited Puritan legacy.

Don't worry (or do); I'll be writing more regularly hereafter.