CategoryRants

I get a little riled up occasionally, and then I think about why I am angry. I will continue thinking long after I should have let it go. One great way of getting beyond the issue is to write about it.

Sentimental Worship

John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.

It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie UnderwoodElvis Presley and thousands of others.

Why this popularity?

The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes.  The poetry is rich.  The song presents the Gospel of Grace.  Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity.  It’s the complete package.

Almost everyone who has recorded this incredible song has thought that John Newton’s song was sufficient.

Chris Tomlin does not think so.

He added a chorus/refrain to this old favourite.

Why we feel the need to add a new refrain to the good ol’ hymns

I get it.  Times are different.   We like choruses now.  The old hymns don’t have choruses.

Why do we like choruses?  Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very sentimental.  Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large.  More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing.   Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings.  The original “Amazing Grace” was not written to engender these feelings, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with some climaxing high notes that pull our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.

Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don't feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.

It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings.  Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose.  I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.

Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us.  My problem is when thought is completely ignored, as it is in Tomlin’s version.

The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form.  Fine.  Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite.  They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.

Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.

Metaphors are Magic

Metaphors are amazing things.  They are comparisons, but something magical happens in the comparison.   “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:

  • Life is a path with hidden snares.
  • Heaven is home.
  • Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
  • Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
  • God is our shield.

Somehow these metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations.  And they contribute to holistic worship.  Let’s look at one of these metaphors.

He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield.  All kinds of meanings flow from this comparison.  Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives.  But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection.  It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one.  This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.

Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous

The chorus Tomlin added to “Amazing Grace” can only be sung seriously if one ceases to think.  This is because he uses a mixed metaphor in his refrain.

On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a ludicrous comparison.

First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:

“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”

These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have

I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The comparison is nonsensical.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic.  It just leaves us confused.

And Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Tomlin’s Terrible Metaphor

The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns is an assault on the mind–it climaxes on a mixed metaphor. It seems to me that a good worship song would take our hearts and minds and souls and imaginations into the worship of our Gracious God.

Here is the offending chorus from the song called “Amazing Grace (Chains Are Gone).”

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor.   It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood.  But floods don’t reign, kings do.  This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.”  Or soars, or melts, or skates.

The comparison is ridiculous.

Floods flow.  They overwhelm.  They cover and destroy.  They glut, stream, spate and surge.  For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry.  If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.

Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing.  It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.

It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations .

 

I was recently in a crowd of more than a thousand worshippers.  The echoing cords of the final note of the chorus we had just sung were still hanging in the air.   The very talented praise band beautifully transitioned to the next song, and its lyrics appeared on the large screens overhead.

You could feel the energy and delight run through the 1300 worshippers as they enthusiastically sang the opening line.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

The energy and volume of the singing were double that of the previous song.   We were well into

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

when we realized that the song leaders were no longer singing.  At that moment I, too, was overwhelmed with the full-throated worship as we sang praises to our Provider.  It was totally appropriate for the band to pull back and let the praises of the thronging worshippers bless the Lord unlead and unadorned.

But the band had not spontaneously stopped singing to allow this amazing worship naturally flow towards its heavenly audience.

They had stopped singing because, unbeknownst to the people of God, they were singing a different song.

#Worshipleader Don't change up the traditional hymns; after 200 years, we still aren't tired of them.
We were singing King’s Kaleidoscope’s 2012 version of Come Thou Fount.  This is a great version of the classic hymn, but in this context it didn’t go over very well.

The singing collapsed.  The worship ceased.  Attention was wrenched from The Fount of Every Blessing and diverted to the song leaders so we could figure out what we were supposed to do.

The audience was going with the traditional song, but the band was doing something else–a four beats after each line and a syncopated rhythm.  In one place, the words were even different.

On the surface, it seems as if we realized our mistakes quickly, adapted to the new style and continued in this new manner.  But the energy of the singing was half of what it was when we started.  I felt disappointed and a little betrayed.  It was fine; I too carried on.  I tried to turn my focus back to worshipping our God, but something beautiful was lost.  I don’t think it was just the old folks that sensed this.  The crowd was filled with 20-somethings, and they, too, had lost some of their verve.

I want to implore all Worship leaders, while you add new instrumentation and alternate styles to these hymns that you, at least, stick to the same melodies.  I’d be happy if you keep the same rhythms and chords, as well; I love to sing the the bass part.

#Worshipleader It may be preferable to sing no hymns at all than to sing altered versions of them.

I have no problem with King’s Kaleidoscope altering this or any other traditional song.   These new versions can add new life to an old hymn, but altered versions are appropriate for a performance, or for Christian Radio.  Not for purposes of corporate worship. I suppose we could add a caveat: because the old melodies are so familiar, you need to give us some warning if we are going to be singing something considerably different.

My suggestion would be to just stick to the familiar version.  At least for another 30 years, when no one remembers the incredible experience of one’s small voice joined to a throng of others, in four-part harmony, singing poetry, with heart and mind and imagination, essentially unplugged, to the one who gives us breath.

“You Guys”

My wife and I attended a Sunday service in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.  This is an incredible setting.  It is the Queen’s home church and where she will be buried.  This was where Harry and Megan were recently married.  This is the Mother Church of the Order of the Garter.

The Canon was preaching on the subject of anger from Ephesians 4:26-27, “Be angry, and yet do not sin.”

He started his sermon with some levity, giving a list of some the little things that make him angry.  Typical of an urban Englishman, two irritants had to do with the underground:  failing to give up a seat to an older or disabled person and people putting their feet on the seats.

The one where I actually laughed out loud–my chortle echoing from the neo-gothic rafters, was “Being addressed with the collective ‘You Guys’ from a speaker half my age.”

I can totally relate.  That bugs me too.

I was once “you guysed” three times in a minute.

I think the issue is propriety.  “You guys” is idiomatic and colloquial.  It’s meant to be used in contexts of familiarity–among friends when both the speaker and the friends are between 14 and 24.  “You guys” is not an appropriate appellation for your grandparents.

Whatever can we say instead?

Let me offer my revision to the following announcement made by a 20-something to a multi-gendered, multi-generational gathering who naturally says:

Hey you guys.  I just wanted to let you guys know that we are having a potluck next week Thursday.  So you guys get to chose what you wanna bring: a salad or a dessert.  Hope to see you guys there.

Consider saying it this way:

Hello.  I just wanted to let you know that we are having a potluck next week Thursday.  So you get to chose what you wanna bring: a salad or a dessert.  Hope to see you there.

This is a small thing, and I wasn’t going to mention it until I realized that it’s not just me.  That the Dean of St. George’s Chapel is similarly irked, emboldened me to speak out on this irritant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We Can Learn from the Dress Code

As the weather turns warmer, I again hear of some student displeasure with the dress code–this sentiment is as cyclical as the seasons.  Because it is ridiculous that a school should have no dress code at all, I am tempted to tease that we should just adopt school uniforms?  I’d not be serious with this suggestion; I oppose this move because dress codes teach us some very important things.

I will concede that school uniforms have some advantages:

  1. Uniforms instill a sense of professionalism, imitating the business-dress of their possible futures.
  2. They eliminate the hassle of trying to find outfits that meet the dress code and are also in style.
  3. They are cheaper in the long run.
  4. They act as a socioeconomic equalizer.
  5. They eliminate dress codes, that can, given the sexualization of women in our culture, unfairly target girls.

The main reason I am against school uniforms is that, although some learning may improve, a lot of other important things are not learned by the uniformed scholar–things pertaining to Freedom.

Let Freedom Reign

Our culture is obsessed with Freedom.

  • We celebrate it at our sporting events.
  • Our television shows explore themes surrounding freedom, often presenting negative caricatures of traditional authorities, limiters of freedom.
  • Most television talk shows take every possible freedom as an absolute good.
  • The TV news is full of stories about conflicts about freedom, and it is obvious that if you are not on the side of freedom, you are going to lose the argument.
  • In popular movies, one of the defining qualities of the bad guy is often that he/she is a suppressor of freedom.
  • Politicians can win majorities to their positions if they can ground them in Freedom.
  • Remembrance Day used to commemorate the Armistice that brought WWI to a close, but now it seems it is all about the Freedom that was won in that war.
  • Originally established to remember those who died while serving in the U.S. military, the language of Freedom dominates Memorial Day celebrations.
  • The internet, in its very form, perpetuates the values of unrestricted freedom.

It should come as no surprise that some students bristle at the idea of restricting their choice in school attire.  They have been raised in this freedom obsessed culture, bombarded with the idea that Freedom is The Ultimate.  Freedom is the standard by which we judge between good and evil.  Furthermore, starting sometime in adolescence, human beings begin the natural process of moving out from under the authority of parents.  This can lead to the natural assertion of personal freedoms against any form of authority– including that of their school.  Combine this natural adolescent impulse toward freedom with our particular cultural obsession and you ought not to be surprised when the cry “Freedom!” erupts from some junior William Wallace, especially in the spring.

I oppose school uniforms because, in order to learn how to navigate the world dominated by Freedom worship, our children need to be given freedom.  They need to have freedom to make decisions about what they wear so they can come up against the limits of freedom, for freedom can only be good if it is limited.  Without limits, it becomes a terrible and demanding deity.

What’s Wrong With Wearing A Hat?

Some students want to wear a hat to school.  We happen to be in a time where hats are an important accessory in youth culture, but hats break the dress code.  When asked to remove the hat, some ask, “What’s wrong with wearing a hat?”  There is nothing wrong with wearing a hat, but it is, sometimes, improper to wear a hat.  The reason we don’t wear hats indoors in some public places like churches, restaurants, and schools has to do with propriety.  Propriety is the quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.  It has long been the case in our culture that hats are to be worn only outside.

Standards of propriety are relative.  They change according to place or time.  In some cultures, propriety dictates that head coverings must be worn indoors.  Ours just happens to be one in which it is traditionally expected that one removes one’s hat when entering a building.  Students naturally counter this argument saying that times have changed, and I am holding on to an outdated convention–propriety has moved on.  I respond that this convention is certainly no longer part of teen sub-culture, but propriety is not dictated by teen sub-culture, but culture as a whole.  Even here it might be fading, but it is not yet gone.

There is something much more important at play within the dress code’s prohibition on hats.  It is that we are holding ourselves to an external standard.  The specific standard is not as important as the idea that such communal standards exist.  They exist, and they put limits on some personal freedoms, (a heretical move in our cultural context).

The “no-hat rule” is particularly effective in teaching middle and lower high school students the vital lesson that some personal freedoms are subordinate to community standards.  This norm runs contrary to the teen sub-culture.  Propriety cannot be meaningfully taught where there is no tension between student sub-culture and the culture at large.  If we were to restrict only coon-skin caps and platform shoes, the important lessons of propriety would remain unlearned.  Propriety is about submission to something bigger than oneself.  This is difficult for some adolescents who can’t conceive of anything more important than themselves. The cultural worship of Freedom exacerbates this attitude.  Conveniently, those that most need to learn the principles of propriety identify themselves by bucking most violently against the conventions of propriety.

These students point out that some adults, too, wear hats indoors.  Yes, there are some adults who wear a hat outdoors all day and don’t take them off when they come indoors.  This is not the same thing as donning a hat for a day indoors.  Other adults wear hats because they have not outgrown adolescent rebellion and/or believe that personal Freedom is ultimate.  These are not a justification for wearing hats; they are, rather, the very things we are trying to counter.  In the case of adults sporting caps indoors, it is appropriate to be gracious, but this is not a luxury we can extend to our students.  We cannot turn a blind eye, for we bear the responsibility to move our students through adolescence and to challenge the supremacy of personal freedom.

You can tell students things, and they might learn a little.  You can show them something, and they will learn a little better.  Students learn even better when they teach something. And better still if they do something.  But they will learn best of all if they do something with regularity.  In the morning ritual of getting dressed for school, students practice the idea that there are some things that are more important than personal freedom.  They practice submitting to an authority external to the self.  This is becoming a heresy in our culture.

We want students to grow into adults who understand that personal freedom is a good thing, but not The Ultimate Thing.    Without a dress code, students are in danger of graduating with the idea that freedom is God.  The lessons inherent in the dress code, not just the no-hat-rule, if learned well will lead to their flourishing, and that of society as well.  A school with uniforms does not have the opportunity to teach this important lesson.

Most students have no problem with the dress code, and for those who do, the disagreement usually is the result of a typical adolescent emphasis on personal freedom.  By the time most students reach their last year of high school, they have little issue with the school’s limits on clothing freedoms.  Perhaps this is because they have grown up a little, and no longer need to define themselves against authority figures, but it might also be a result of daily practice making decisions that balance personal freedom and social responsibility.

 

Was Paul a Jihadist?

 

I heard it a second time, “The apostle Paul was a jihadist.”  He wasn’t really though, was he?

Before his conversion, Paul, then called Saul, persecuted Christians.  In his own words, he says that he

persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. Galatians 1:13–14

Does this make him a jihadist?  Does the term mean anyone who persecutes Christians?  Or maybe those who do so for religious reasons?

In Arabic, the term means struggle.  It might mean a struggle for a better Muslim society or a war defending the faith against unbelievers.

If we used the term correctly, I suppose we could say that Paul was as much a jihadist after his conversion, as he struggled to spread the Christian faith, as before it, in the defense of the Jewish one.

One of two conditions must be met in order to apply the term jihadist to anyone.  First, the person must be a jihadist.  Paul, a first century Jew can no more be a jihadist that Nero could be a Nazi.  In researching for this post, I discovered that most Muslims don’t use the term jihadist to describe the radical, violent Islamist.  Instead, they use a term similar to the word “deviant.”  If this is the case, it would be inappropriate for Christians to use the term for a first century Jew who was persecuting the Christian faith.  The second condition, you need to be an Arab speaking to Arabs–this way everyone knows what you mean.

If one of these two conditions are not met, then we end up using the term like Western politicians and media: generally and sensationally, to evoke fear and anger, to create unity through demonization.

I get it, we want to make the point that Paul was a really, really bad dude.  But what’s wrong with simply saying he “persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it”?

If we are to be a light to the nations, it is really important for Christians to use language responsibly and to communicate with integrity.

12 Keys to Writing a Great Exam Composition

The view of an exam composition marker

Of course you want the highest mark possible on your exam composition.

I’ve been marking the BC English 12 provincial exam for many years—more than 20, I think.  I just finished marking the composition for this year’s exam and I decided to write about it while my thoughts are still fresh.

The best way to get a 6 out of 6 on your composition on the English 12 exam is to be an excellent writer.  Not everyone is an excellent writer. But there is much an average writer can do to give them a chance to earn the highest score of which they are capable.

Here are what I consider the 10 most important things to keep in mind when writing Part D: The Composition.

1. It’s all about conflict.

Don’t start your narrative with the alarm clock ringing. This is a very short composition, you don’t have time to lollygag–don’t write about life, write about conflict!

2. Don’t be like everyone else!

Markers read a lot of compositions—well over 700 per day. All have been written by English 12 students and are based on the same prompt. This can lead to a lot of “sameness”—same diction, same topics, same perspective, same approach, same structure.   It feels like you are reading the same five essays, hour after hour, day after day.

It stands to reason, then, if you can write an exam composition that is not like all others, yours will stand out. Most of my 10 keys are about how to make your composition stand out, in a good way.

3. Go with your fifth idea.

If the composition prompt is, “Beauty can be found in simple things,” do not write about smiles, snowflakes, kittens, rainbows or babies.  Everyone is writing about these things because they are the first things that pop into their minds. The solution is, don’t write about the first thing that pops into your mind—or the second. Get down your list.  When you get to oatmeal, socks or the word “and”–you have arrived.  I’m excited just thinking about an essay about the word “and.”

When the prompt was, “Surprises can make life more interesting” – over 90% were about surprise birthday parties.  Because of the lack of surprises when they opened the exam book, markers were ready to jump off the buildings by the middle of the first afternoon.

Oh, and don’t think that you are original if you argue that surprises don’t make life more interesting—negation of the prompt is not clever, it’s cliché.  Speaking of clichés . . . 

4. Don’t use clichés.

No matter what the prompt is, markers can always count on frequent encounters with all of the following:

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”
“Life can throw you a curveball . . .”
“Life is a rollercoaster full of ups and downs.”
“Life can hit you like a tonne of bricks.”
“Life is like a box of chocolates . . . .” This one always includes the appropriate textual or parenthetical citation.

By using clichés, you are screaming to your reader that you are an average writer, at best.  And you may be an average writer, there is nothing wrong with that, but there is no sense advertising it.  And who knows, if you are deliberate about not using clichés, you just might infuse a bit of freshness that gives your exam composition a boost.

5. Don’t write about death.

It feels like at least a third of the compositions are about death. As markers, we are forced to vicariously experience the death of every family member in every possible combination from every possible disease. Then there are the accidents, usually car accidents. These often involve drunk driving and the loss of a best friend or lover.  Markers don’t like death essays, not because it makes the process too difficult emotionally.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

I am pretty sure that many English 12 teachers encourage their students to write a composition that is “emotionally engaging.”  This is not bad advice, but when students hear the words “emotionally engaging” they instantly settle on the death of a loved one, because they can think of nothing else that produces stronger emotions than the death of a loved one.

This is probably true, but most high school students lack the skill to sensitively deal with topics like death.  Consequently, these “death essays” become cliché, which is the opposite effect you are trying to achieve.  Save writing about death for when you are a more experienced writer, and you have longer than an hour and a 600-word limit.

6. Don’t preach.

Nobody wants to be preached at.  This is a “stance” issue.  Readers don’t like to be talked down to.  As a marker, I’ve been preached to about recycling and about how I should be Christian, and about why all religions are dumb.  I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to be tolerant.  I’m sick of lectures instructing me how to face the hardships of life and how I should respect the elderly.  I now know what I should think about every issue imaginable.

You can still write about these things but take a different stance—write about when you discovered the importance of recycling.  Or how faith adds meaning to your life.  Write about a difficulty that you experienced and what you learned from it.  See the difference? Rather than tell me what I should do and learn, talk about what you did and what you learned.

7.  Have a strong first paragraph.

Many first paragraphs read like the students are warming up for the real task of writing the essay. They throw down their first thoughts on the subject searching for the point from which they can push off into the first paragraph of their composition. The warm-up or the search for a point of departure should happen someplace else. Write for a few minutes on a piece of scrap paper till you find your direction, then carefully craft the first paragraph to set up what is to come. The reader makes all sorts of judgments from the first lines of your composition; first impressions are powerful—make a good first impression.

I have found that many student compositions benefit from simply drawing a line through the first paragraph.

I’ve read compositions that use “the word” five times in the introduction.  If the prompt tells you to write about beauty or surprises, challenges, maturity, change, dreams or relationships, consider not using that word in the essay at all. Or if you do use “the word,” use it in the last line of the composition.   As with all creative writing, it is better to show than to tell.

8. Be Specific.

Generalities are boring.

This is true for everything you write be it an email, an essay or a narrative. Don’t say, “We went out for my favourite meal,” say, “We went out for chicken wings and Shirley Temples.” Don’t write, “My boyfriend pulled his car into the driveway”; have him pull up “in the family mini-van” or “his red convertible,” or his “1978 windowless van with the words ‘Refer Madness’ airbrushed on the side.”  Specifics make a difference.  If you don’t believe me, ask your father.

9. Don’t write a “5 paragraph essay.”

First of all, by the time you are in grade 12 you should never write a 5 paragraph essay (although there is nothing wrong with an essay of five paragraphs). The body of a 5 paragraph essay consists of 3 examples from your life that show the prompt to be true.

So if the topic is something like “Certain situations lead to maturity,” don’t write an essay in which you briefly and superficially discuss three of the following:

  • entry into kindergarten,
  • the magic of puberty,
  • your parents’ divorce,
  • a torn ACL,
  • getting a driver’s license,
  • your first job,
  • or first kiss,
  • the death of a loved one,
  • or moving to, or within, Canada.

Pick one of these (except the death of a loved one) and meaningfully explore the factors and forces that contributed to your maturation.

You understand, of course, that by adding or dropping a paragraph to the essay I’ve just described does not fix the problem.

10. Punctuation, spelling and capitalization, etc.

There’s no avoiding the fact that the mechanics of writing are important. The good news is that all of the writing on the exam is marked as a first draft, so if you misspell the odd word, or miss a comma or two, your mark will not go down.

So it doesn’t matter if I don’t know the difference between “then” and “than”?  Or “there,” “their” and “they’re”?

Technically no, but no upper-level writer will ever confuse these words.  So by confusing them, you are proclaiming, loudly, that you are not an upper-level writer.

Work hard to understand basic usage and punctuation rules.

As for spelling, two words that, for some reason, come up again and again in the composition essays are obstacle and opportunity. For years I’ve been telling my students to make sure they can spell these two words correctly—because “obsticle” and “oppertunity” scream out that you may not be a competent writer.

11. Be yourself.

You are not a 47-year-old drug addict living in Detroit.

You are not a soldier storming the beaches of Normandy.

You are not a mother deer concerned about your fawn.

Like death, this sort of writing requires a maturity of thought and style that most young writers don’t have.

The thing is, you are the preeminent expert on one subject–YOU.  You know things about this topic that no one else does.  Play to your strengths.  Human beings, even markers, respond to stories–good stories, well told.  I recommend that you walk into your exam with three stories, true stories.  If it’s a true story, you can draw from an actual setting with actual characters doing actual things (and you can embellish a little).  And don’t just tell me what happened, tell me what you thought and felt as well.  But go even further–What did this event mean?  How did it change you?  You may never have thought about it, but think about it now.  This type of essay is generally called a personal narrative.  It involves a true story and some reflection about what the story means.  Consider practicing these three stories beforehand.  Then, when you see the prompt, adapt one of them to fit.  Or write a brand new one if you are so inspired.

So, for these reasons, I strongly recommend you write a personal narrative for your exam composition.

12. “In Conclusion”

Don’t end the last paragraph of your exam composition with the words, “in conclusion.”

In conclusion, I must tell you that I’ve read papers that have ignored half of my 10 keys to writing a great composition and they still earned a 6 out of 6.  They did so because the authors are great writers, but these 10 keys will give you your best chance at earning the highest mark of which you are capable.

I hope you read this post long before you take your exam–years preferably–because all of these things take practice.  Good luck, and I look forward to reading your Composition.

Is there any other advice you give your students?

What else has your teacher suggested for writing the composition?

Truth is a Fad

On a recent trip to downtown Vancouver, my wife and I popped into Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Georgia and Burrard.  I find it hard to resist a cathedral and always try the doors to see if I can get a look inside.  The door was unlocked and a pleasant woman offered to answer our questions.  I asked about the beautiful interior and she was delighted to tell us about the recent renovations.  There was even a photo album.

The original church was filled with local cedar, but in a previous renovation, the original wood had been covered.  The red cedar ceiling had been covered by fiber-board.  It was the same story with the floor.  With this new renovation, the foul fiber-board and hideous carpeting had been removed and the original red and yellow cedar, covered up for decades is once again gracing parishioners and visitors with its beauty.

Why had the natural wood of the ceiling and floor been covered in the previous renovation?  It seems preposterous that anyone could think that fiber-board and carpeting were an improvement on the natural cedar, but they apparently did.

Changing Fashions, Changing Ideas

This got me thinking about change, more specifically, changing tastes.  It’s a truism that fashions change, but they don’t just change; they change radically–what is all the rage in one time, is hideous and vile in another age.  This is true whether we are talking about clothing, church interiors or ideas.

The second truism is that we are completely aware of the first truism.  We are somehow convinced that the way we think at the present moment is, at long last, the end of changing “truth”–with today’s thinking, we have arrived.

Previous generations had it wrong, but we have figured it out.  As dumb as it seems now, there was a time when it was generally thought that wood ought to be covered by synthetic materials, and in fifty years the congregation will likely vote to cover the wood with synthetic polar bear fur.  So goes fashion.  So also go our ideas.

The Fashion of Truth

I look at some of the ideas that are spreading throughout culture, replacing the old ones, and I think they are beautiful changes.  Others are more like ghastly fiberboard and anemic pink carpeting obscuring beautiful red and yellow cedar.   And we take these new ways of thinking as absolute truth.  Consequently, in our conversations and disagreements, we condemn those with whom we disagree as bigots and freaks and ogres.  Given that our most recent truth is just a phase, perhaps we ought to be a little less certain about everything–a little less venomous.

In our conversations and disagreements we must remember that the way we think today, is a fad. Consequently, we ought to be a little less certain about everything--a little less venomous.

Doomed to Relativism?

I believe that there is something under the intellectual fads and whims of our culture that never changes.  Core ideas like courage is better than cowardice and it’s evil to harm a child for one’s own pleasure and the ocean is sublime.

Just because it’s new and in fashion, doesn’t mean it’s objectively true.  I say objectively because, although I’m not entirely sure which ideas are cedar and which are fiber-board, I firmly believe that there is an objective truth.  We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, we will continue to believe that we create our own reality, but I hope at some point we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.  And rip up the pasty carpet to expose the rich wood beneath.

We will continue down our slide of subjectivism for a time, but at some point, we will look back and wonder what the heck we were thinking.

Are students prepared for university?

Education has changed.  I’m teaching differently.  Student’s are learning differently.

How well do the new approaches to learning and teaching prepare students for university?

Back in the Day

When I first started teaching Literature 12 there were provincial exams.  These were content focussed.  One of the purposes of the exam was to ensure students were prepared for the rigors of university.  There was a prescribed reading list of over 40 literary works from the literary canon extending from Beowulf to a poem by Margaret Atwood.  Students were also required to understand over 100 literary terms and devices.  Back in those days, I did a lot of talking and students took copious notes.  Given that the exam scores would be used to rank students against other students, schools against other schools, teachers against other teachers, exam performance mattered a great deal on many levels.  So we worked very hard on exam preparation.  Students created very detailed study sheets on each of the literary works on the prescribed reading list.  These were collated into large packets and students spent hours reviewing this material.  At the end of the process, they knew a lot, and my students generally did very well on the Provincial English Literature exam.

“Nowadays”

I still teach Lit 12, but I do so very differently.  My class looks much more like a graduate seminar than a lecture hall.  Students discuss and unpack the literary works, rather than listen to me tell them what they would notice if they were as smart as I was.  Through this dialogue, students analyze, synthesize, evaluate, propose, inquire, challenge, concede, admire and they connect the ideas they encounter to life and society.  After we talk, we write.  They use their laptops for this task.  Sometimes they journal, other times they write an academic essay or a personal narrative; we mix it up.  My assessment has changed as well.  We no longer end the year with an exam.  We end the year with presentations–students explore a topic of their choice making connections literature, often beyond the material we worked over the course of the semester.

Are students today as knowledgeable as in the days of yore?

Last year, I dusted off an old provincial exam, one of the same exams for which I used to work so hard to prepare my students.  We didn’t review the material in class–students didn’t create review sheets for each other, and they didn’t study for it.  I passed it out one day and they wrote it.  I used to mark the Literature 12 exam, so the marks students got on this test were valid.  I was surprised that their scores were significantly higher than those of students of similar ability from 2 decades ago.  I realize this observation is anecdotal and does not meet the standards of a proper study, but I am convinced of the results.  My students know the literature better now than they did when learning was primarily focussed on content rather than projects and discussions.  With the new approach to learning, students are performing better on exams designed to measure university preparedness.

The beauty is, they don’t just know the content–they have a much broader and deeper understanding of the literature than they used to.   They can talk about it and bring it into dialogue with other artistic expressions and with life and society.  They are better readers and thinkers and moviegoers.  Almost all are reporting great success in university classes.

But not all reports are positive.  One of my students excitedly entered her Literature course at the local university this fall, and dropped it after only a few classes.  It was clear to her that, in this particular university class, the study of her favourite high school subject would involve transferring what she heard in a lecture onto an exam paper at the end of the term.  There is no doubt in my mind that she could have passed this course with an A.  Many of my less gifted students frequently do.

Do modern instructional techniques prepare students for university?

My little experiments shows that if students are expected to know the material well, then they are prepared for university.  If their university courses will expect them to be able to analyze and synthesize information and concepts, they are ready.  If they are expected to evaluate ideas; to challenge assumptions and be able to recognize a strong argument and concede, they are ready.  If they are expected to communicate clearly and effectively, both verbally and in various written forms, they are ready and very well prepared for university.

If students are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information that will be transferred onto an examination paper, then students are ill-prepared for university.
If, on the other hand, they are expected to passively listen to a professor talk for hours, collecting information and transfer this information onto an examination paper at the end of the term, then perhaps my students are ill-prepared for university.

Does anyone really want me to change my approach to teaching literature?

Why Tolkien?

A few pastors from my church are very wise and godly men; they are literate and literary, discerning and spiritually intuitive–then we have those who hosted this past week’s Extra Podcast.

I can forgive their derision of Star Wars fandom and can the ridiculous claim that Episodes I-III are terrible–evidenced by writing like this.  But I cannot tolerate groundless ridicule of Tolkien.

Mocking those who know the difference between a dwarf and an elf is like mocking someone for reading a book without pictures.

This segment of the podcast was a celebration of ignorance.  The host who has read the most Tolkien, couldn’t get past the middle of The Two Towers.  And derides those who are able to read beyond chapter six of the Silmarillion.  He went on to characterize The Fellowship of the Ring as “one of one of the most boring reads you will ever have in your life.”  This is the sort of reaction we usually get from people who think Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2012) was a good movie.  I can only surmise that this host equates reading with the recognition of words on the page.

Did the other host really suggest that Tolkien was a troll?  Motivated only by testing the limits of his future fans’ ability to digest his “drivel”?  In a pathetic attempt at concession, it was acknowledged that some might appreciate Tolkien for his “cultural impact” or his membership in a “Christiany” group called “The Foundlings.”  Allowing that some might appreciate Tolkien’s work because there is “all sorts of biblical imagery,” this host may fail to realize that simple imagery, biblical or otherwise, does little to recommend a literary work, and hardly goes further than lexical comprehension.

Then, the bombastic leader of this triumvirate then asked why so many people who love J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, anathematize J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.

Here’s my answer:  To do so is indefensible.

Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings counter our cultural individualism.

Both the Harry Potter Series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are in the same genre, both ought to be read for the same reasons.

In both stories, the protagonists are collaborative and interdependent.  Harry Potter often contributes to victory over evil, but no more than Hermione, Ron, and any number of secondary characters who step up and do their part.  In the climax of the final book, Harry does very little except willingly lay down his life for his friends.  Neville Longbotton, it might be argued, does as much to defeat evil as the eponymous hero of the Harry Potter series.   In Tolkien’s fictive world, one of the main characteristics of the Good is its movement toward fellowship, and that of Evil, toward fragmentation.  The examples are plentiful.  The fellowship begins with the hobbits, including a Baggins, a Took and a Brandybuck.  Hobbits usually stick with their own; not their own species, but their own family group.  But the mixing has only just begun.  When the Fellowship of the Ring is created it includes, not only three types of hobbits, but a wizard, two men, an elf and a dwarf.  Perhaps podcast hosts don’t know the difference, but the dwarves and elves certainly do–and they don’t like each other at all.  Yet, in the context of The Fellowship, they become fast friends.  Difference is celebrated and the fellowship enjoined.  The mock-fellowship of the Ringwraiths is a fellowship of sameness a loss of individual identity.  Further, the forces of evil fragment.  The Sauron has become a disembodied eye, and the emblem of Saruman is the white hand.  Exposure to the Ring, the embodiment of evil, has separated Smeagol from himself–he has two identities, the other being Gollum. Is not this imaginative encounter with biblical truth at least as effective as a rational understanding?  One of the reasons Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings ought to be read is that it counters our cultural individualism.  I think this is a big deal.  We need to counter the cultural narratives with which they are bombarded that proclaim the autonomous individual as the solution to every antagonist.  In the case of individualism, these stories are countercultural in the same sense and direction that the church is, or ought to be.

Escape FROM Reality

It is important to counter individualism, but even more vital to challenge the materialism that so dominates our culture.  Those under the spell of materialism slander these stories as being an “escape from reality.”  Tolkien was familiar with the argument that escape through fantasy literature is harmful.  His response to this charge is found in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” He accepts the term “escape,” but he says it is not an escape from reality, but an escape to reality.  His argument is that we misunderstand reality, and in so doing, misunderstand the nature of escape.  Materialists will certainly be threatened by fantasy literature, but those who believe in an “enchanted” reality, as do Christians, ought to embrace it.  Those who feel compelled to mock Tolkien and authors like him, ought to take an honest look at their attitude to determine if they are possibly walking too deeply into materialist territory.  If so, one of the best ways to recover enchantment and to escape materialism is to read the very books you mock.

Escape TO Reality

G. K. Chesterton reminds us that there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing.  In a faerie story, we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

Tolkien and Rowling's books present an enchanted world and can help to re-enchant the world we live in.
So, Modern individualism and materialism are countered by Tolkien and Rowling.  Tolkien also challenges modernism’s Myth of Progress.  Out culture believes that we are progressing.  Humanity is getting better and better.  We have the mistaken idea that just as our technology, transportation, communication and medical advances are proof of this progress.  These are indicators of certain kinds of progress, but just watching the evening news tells us that we are not making progress in some very important ways.   In many respects, we are little different than when we lived in caves.  We still lie, cheat, steal and kill.  Tolkien’s world is an ancient world, and the men and women of ages past were better than we are today.  If you read the Silmarillion, you learn of the great ancient race of men and women called the Numenorians, superior to modern men in every way.  But they were proud, and this resulted in their downfall.  This is the pattern of human beings–we can make and do some awesome things, but we never change morally–we always fall.

These are just the beginnings of a thousand reasons why, when asked, “What book would you want with you if you were stuck on a desert island, and you’re not allowed to say The Bible?” I would say, without hesitation, The Lord of the Rings.

We don’t get people to be less individualistic, less materialistic, less confident in progress, by telling them to stop being that way.  In order to affect change, people need to be convinced at a level deeper than reason, deeper than emotion, deeper even than belief (where things like “worldview” live).  We need to live out of a different story, and a transformed imagination.  We have the Bible, we also have experience and tradition, but it is a foolish thing to read these with reason alone.  Lewis would probably say that to look at these imaginatively is at least as important as exploring them rationally.

Let’s talk Glorfindal–apparently deserving of ridicule by one of our would-be, spiritual leaders.  Contrary to representation on the podcast, Glorfindal finds Frodo and his companions and rushes then along to Rivendell, taking breaks only for the exhausted hobbits.  When they are set upon by Black Riders, Glorfindal sets Frodo aback his horse for a mad dash to Rivendell.  When the Ford of Bruinen separates the exhausted Frodo, the Ringwraiths attempt to lure Frodo back to them.  Frodo musters his last bit of strength and says, “You shall have neither the ring nor me.”  Here we have, perhaps, the weakest representative of the forces of good, standing before nine of the top ten representatives of evil in Middle Earth.  And he defies them.  He defies them with confidence even though he has no clue that the river has been enchanted.  For all he knows, they can walk through it as easily as he did, but he defies evil anyway.  It’s not in his own power that Frodo is confident.  The Ringwraiths have never read Romans.  This is an inconsequential event in the story, yet, because of Tolkien’s genius, we can see such profound theology behind almost every act, or under every mushroom.

It seems to me, Tolkien’s work should be regularly referred to in sermons as we educate, not only the mind but also the imagination.  And the Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master’s of Divinity degrees.

The Silmarillion ought to be one of the central resources for all Master's of Divinity degrees.
Lest my readers misunderstand, this blog was written knowing full well that the hosts of the Extra Podcast were probably not serious in their ridicule of Tolkien or his admirers.  However, if there is even the tiniest piece of sincerity in their critique of Tolkien, or in that of their listeners, I submit this rebuttal. And I recommend From Homer To Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy (see link below) for further reading on this subject.

 

I couldn’t lose this one.

A few of my students were quite upset at the tone of the article we took up in class.  The subject was social media and the author wasn’t very positive about some of the effects that continuous access to the internet and social media has on young people.  When I said that the author might be right and suggested they were blind to how social media is programming them–I think I may have used the word “addiction”–they were indignant.

They wrote off the author and their teacher as being part of the older generation that didn’t understand the technology–we are blind to the vast benefits of the internet and social media.

A few days later I read an article that popped up on Facebook called, ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.  In it Paul Lewis tells us that the people responsible for making Google, Twitter and Facebook so addictive are disconnecting themselves and their families from the internet.  They are, apparently, even more concerned about internet addiction than I am.  Another article came across my desk through Twitter: “How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into chaos.”  Here John Naughton argues that tech leaders know a lot about science, technology, engineering and math, but very little about the Humanities–and had they received a whole education–studied some Literature, History and Philosophy–they wouldn’t be surprised that their inventions have not taken us to the bright future they anticipated.  They thought they were providing a beautiful link between producers and consumers for the benefit of all.  Instead, we have ended up with “fake news and the weaponisation of social media.”

On Facebook again, I came across the New York Times video called “How China is changing your internet.”  It warns of an Orwellian future if we allow internet giants to go the way of China’s “Super Apps.”  Since we have been reading Orwell, I thought I’d show this video in class.

After watching it, I concluded:

Perhaps I am too hard on the internet and social media.  Perhaps I have been reading too many articles bashing these sacred cows, and not enough material from the other side.  But if I am, it’s because the algorithms that run the social media platforms have determined that I like to read about how bad the internet is–so they keep giving me more of these types of articles to read.  These constitute and reinforce my views and biases–they begin to shape my thinking.

Or, these articles are right.

Either way, I win.

 

 

 

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