Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why I Don't Write, Part II

Wow, has my blog really been here this long? I first wrote a post on why I don't write back in 2006. I think I'm worse now that I was then.

I'll begin by sharing a story about a trip I made last year to Israel to do some training for my business. Most of the men in the group I support there are Orthodox Jews, and I have a very good working relationship with them. On the last trip, I was working with a fellow from Brooklyn who studied the Torah for the first half of the day, then came to work as a technical writer for the rest of the day. He was very sharp.

One of the big differences between Israel and the US is that faith is not relegated to the private sphere there as it is becoming here. (Remember the addage about religion and politics in polite conversation. We can thank our WASP forebears for that bit of nonsense.) This particular colleague wanted to discuss the authority of Jesus to countermand the Law of the Old Covenant. This man was trained in yeshivas since he was six-years old, and he analyzed every word of the Torah. Believe me, orthodox Jews who are brought up in this tradition will tie you in knots, G-d bless them. His training was enviable. The problem was that I could not answer any of his challenges. I knew that I should be able to respond, but the answers wouldn't come to me. It wasn't until I left that all of the correct responses came to me. It was as if I was being prevented from responding verbally. Why? I don't know. Perhaps my response was not intended to be verbal. Perhaps my role was to witness by my actions and not to struggle to convince him (which may simply have resulted in contention). For whatever reason, I felt almost as if I had been stricken dumb by the Holy Spirit.

Now, I am several years into my theology training, and while I should be writing more about theological topics, I find less and less inclined to do so. Part of the reason is that I have become aware of my own limits in this area. Certainly, when people ask me questions, I will respond. However, at this phase, I know enough to be dangerous. For example, there are many faithful Catholics who follow the teachings of the Church but who do not necessarily understand how doctrine develops or what level of authority certain statements have. (This point is particularly clear if you talk to just about anyone who has read the canons of the Council of Trent but has no training on the different levels of Magisterial authority associated with such canons.) While I have enough training to reveal some guidelines in this area, I do not have time or the exhaustive data stores required to convince fervent heretic hunters. I would much rather point them to Cardinal Dulles' Models of the Church and Lumen Gentium and let them sort out the mess themselves.

However, I often ask myself why I have certain abilities but lack the inspiration to do something with them. This is not to say that I'm being intentionally slothful. I pretty much live the life of a secular Benedictine: work, pray, study. Yet, as with music (where I have skill in playing but not in song writing), my abilites don't translate into books and essays. I have written lengthy essays on literature (including a book-length thesis on a novel by Pynchon), and can certainly hold forth on theological topics for my coursework. But when it comes to producing anything for publication, I'm at a loss. I don't know what questions need to be addressed. I'm so focused on the fundamentals of theology that I don't know which issues are hot in contemporary theology. Same goes for scripture study.

One of the things I dislike about the distance learning program I'm in is the lack of mentoring. Because we work primarily with tutors, we don't have the same level of guidance that one gets with a professor you see weekly. Some students do cultivate relationships with the tutors, but it's not as easy to do with others (who often respond as if any contact outside of the narrow defines of the course are an unwarranted infringement on their time).

The problem may also be that I simply have not stewed in my theological juices enough. Often, part of my writing process includes taking in massive amounts of data and letting them mix in my subconsciousness. My best writing has always come from this approach. The piecemeal nature of my studies now (due to time constraints and competing priorities) simply doesn't allow for that method right now. I'm somewhat envious of those who have the freedom to completely immerse themselves in their studies. Of course, I don't envy their relative poverty, and my own familial obligations preclude me from casting all to the wind and living like a monk. Someday that may be an option. If so, God will lead me there.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

PF Chang's and Levitical Guidelines for Dinnerware

We had a very nice dinner this evening to celebrate my wife's birthday. She asked to go to PF Chang's. As Chinese-American food goes in Boise, this is a better option than many (although we do have our favorites in the valley). One thing that surprised us was the new mini-dessert selection. While I am avoiding sweets for Lent, I gave myself a pass this evening... a small one. One of the things that turns me off about many restaurants is there tendency to wheel out the dessert trough at the end of the meal. You know, slices of pie that outsize any pie tin you've ever seen, sundaes that could easily reach into Monday or Tuesday. And, of course, they often have a price to match. Someone at PF Chang's caught a clue and thought up a mini-dessert—a four-bite version of their popular full-glutton desserts at $2.00. That's a perfect way to end a nice meal without needing the oompa-loompas to roll you out to the blueberry juicing room.

Another thought occurred to me as I was serving up the Wok-seared lamb entree with two spoons. I mentioned that I should have a spoon-thingee and a fork-thingee with which to serve. Gina suggested a couple of sporks. I commented that sporks were unnatural, which got me to thinking about how sporks would fit into the Levitical code. If you've spent any time reading the Torah, you've probably noticed how the line between clean and unclean animals is sometimes a bit unclear. However, some scholars have noted that there appears to be a sense that animals are being set into distinct categories: those that clearly have bovine or ungulate characteristics (split-hoofed and cud-chewing); those that fly but don't eat carrion; those that have both fins and scales. These clean animals don't straddle categories.

Which got me to thinking about the lowly spork, which clearly straddles two categories unnaturally. I am half tempted (while the better half urges restraint) to ask one of my orthodox Jewish colleagues whether a spork would be considered an unclean utensil, given that it does not clearly fit in to the category of scooping utensils or sticking utensils. I'm also reminded of another thought I had several weeks ago when viewing Lord of the Beans, a Veggie Tales take on Tolkein's classical trilogy. The fellowship of the bean encounters along its way the minions of Scaryman, which are Sporks. It seemed particularly fitting analogues for the Orcs, which were a twisted or corrupted descendant of Elves.

I didn't say this would be a particularly edifying post.