Saturday, April 25, 2015

Duke still gets an F for handling of Mike Pressler firing


Mike Pressler is in his ninth year as Bryant University’s lacrosse coach and he has shaped the Bulldogs into a plucky, stubborn opponent. They have won the Northeast Conference championship each of the last three seasons and last year dumped mighty Syracuse, 10-9, before falling to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Pressler, 55, clearly knows what he’s doing, and he is also a man who previously paid a steep price for sticking by his players and living by his convictions. In 2006, amid trumped-up claims that three of his players at Duke raped a black female stripper hired for a team party in off-campus housing, school officials bumrushed him into resigning after 16 years as the Blue Devils’ coach.
The forced resignation, CBS reporter Armen Keteyian noted in a “60 Minutes’’ story that aired last Sunday, made Pressler the “sacrificial lamb needed to appease protesters and protect the school’s gold-plated image.’’
Everything about the woman’s story was bogus. The three players, all indicted on rape and kidnapping charges, were exonerated more than a year later. Yet when all the smoke cleared, Pressler was out on the street, out of work, a coaching pariah. He was turned down repeatedly for college coaching vacancies until Bryant officials had the courage to back a guy whose fatal flaw in Durham was telling Duke administrators that he believed his players were innocent, that he refused to abandon them, that they deserved due process of law.
He knew his players were guiltless, said the resolute Pressler, and he felt they deserved his loyalty and that of the university.
“It’s everything,’’ he told Keteyian of his sense of loyalty. “Without that, as a man, you have nothing.’’
Out of work, Pressler took action against Duke for wrongful termination and settled early in 2007 for an undisclosed sum. He then sued the school only a few months later, claiming that Duke broke confidentiality terms outlined in the settlement and further contending a school official slandered him. Some three years later, Duke settled the suit before trial, terms again confidential, and issued Pressler an apology. It took the prospect of court proceedings for Duke to start making things right with its former employee.
By then, thankfully, Pressler was already working his magic in Smithfield, R.I., transitioning the Bulldogs from Division 2 to 1. He was paving his road to redemption the way all coaches prefer, with a whistle dangling from a string attached to one hand and an eye fixed on winning.
Amid Pressler’s redemptive tale told so artfully by “60 Minutes’’ stood Chris Kennedy, virtually a Duke lifer, though he earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown (’71) as well as a master’s there in ’74 before beginning his workaday life at Duke in 1977. Today, Kennedy is the school’s senior deputy director of athletics.
Early this year, Duke dedicated a tower on its athletic fields to Kennedy, an homage to his decades of service in the athletic department. He is a respected, remarkable guy, which came through vividly when he spoke to “60 Minutes.’’ His son, Joe, played for Pressler at Duke and captained the team in 2005, the season before the rape accusation.
Keteyian noted in the story that Kennedy commented on camera for “60 Minutes’’ even though he was advised to remain silent by school officials, warned that talking would not be in his or the school’s best interest.
Kennedy obviously didn’t care about the warning, or simply felt it was time to stop remaining silent, because silence is too often damning, even cruel. His comments made clear that Pressler had been wronged by the school. Further, Kennedy said the ordeal had been arduous on him, too, sharing with Keteyian, “Other than the death of my wife, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through.’’
“It was painful,’’ added Kennedy, “because you had 46 kids [lacrosse teammates] who were really suffering, who knew for a long period of time, that two, three, four . . . some number were going to be indicted based on no evidence whatsoever. Imagine the stress of that on the kids, their parents . . . ’’
No one had to imagine the price Pressler paid. It was all too real. A Bryant spokesperson, contacted early last week by the Globe, said Pressler would not make himself available for an interview in the wake of the “60 Minutes’’ report.
“In some quarters of the [Duke] administration,’’ Kennedy told Keteyian, “there was some belief that [the alleged crime] may have happened, and if that’s the case, they had to respond.’’
The three student-athletes eventually cleared their names and gained their lives back. The accuser was exposed as an utter fraud, the charges dropped. Nitwit district attorney Michael Nifong, who led the public’s rush to judgment with his histrionics and hearsay, was shown to be a rogue prosecutor who ignored the facts, seemingly as a cheap, hurtful ploy to try to get reelected.
And Pressler? Besmerched by all of it and forced to quit by then-Duke athletic director Joe Alleva. Prior to landing the Bryant gig, Pressler told “60 Minutes,’’ one school was so reluctant to have him on campus to talk about a coaching opportunity that it requested the job interview take place at a highway rest area in Lynchburg, Va. Ah, the bravado of academia.
Some nine years after the firing, his words measured and firm, Kennedy said that Duke officials blew it.
“I think that a lot of officials at the university have come to the realization, or came to the realization within a year or so,’’ said Kennedy, “that probably Mike shouldn’t have lost his job.’’
Good on Kennedy. He said what needed to be said, amid a climate and culture in which he was encouraged to keep his mouth closed.
We send our kids to these schools, pay obscenely high tuition rates, for them to learn how to succeed in an increasingly sophisticated and demanding world. Urging students to tell the truth, admit mistakes, correct wrongs, speak truth to injustice, and be decent, compassionate human beings are lessons all schools should be expected to teach.
Too often, as was the case with Duke, they flunk the course themselves.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

A tale of two college presidents

  • By Stephen J. Nelson

    Posted Apr. 24, 2015 at 2:01 AM

    Bryant University President Ronald Machtley (Credit: Bryant University)

    With its recent story about former Duke University lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, “60 Minutes” reopened a scab on Duke's reputation. Pressler was forced out of his job nine years ago this month, after allegations broke about the team’s hiring of strippers at an off-campus party. This contretemps quickly came to be known as the Duke Lacrosse Fiasco.
    Along with his players, Pressler was vilified. He departed Duke under a cloud of criticism and suspicion. His players became prisoners of their own university. The local district attorney pressed charges against three of them, all of whom subsequently left the university feeling shut out of the community without any due process and muzzled rather than permitted to defend themselves. Pressler was targeted along with them, largely because he refused to turn on the players and to join the mob throwing them overboard.
    Pressler’s fate was intertwined with two university presidents. The contrast between these two men, as leaders and individuals, could not be starker.
    Despite his handling of the Lacrosse Fiasco, Richard Brodhead remains Duke president to this day. During the controversy, Brodhead cowered, unable to stand up to protect the basic principles of a university community and to prevent a horrific rush to judgment. The DA manipulated Brodhead to sign onto what instantly turned out to be a manufactured interpretation of events. Without any parallel detective work to get at the facts, Brodhead bought the allegations brought against the players. The concept that these young men were members of the Duke community, and deserving of justice, eluded this president.
    Brodhead had numerous opportunities to stop the train, but, ignoring senior advisors, he stubbornly refused to do so.
    Brodhead has never apologized to anyone for his snap judgments, for failing to get at the truth, and for letting a DA who was looking for publicity in his quest for reelection call the tune.
    Pressler was sidelined from what he loved: coaching lacrosse. He was an enormously accomplished NCAA Division I coach, his Duke teams perennial contenders for the national men’s lacrosse championship. But now he was a pariah in the collegiate athletic culture.
    His alma mater, Washington and Lee, a Division III force, interviewed him, but at a truck stop hundreds of miles from the campus. It would not touch him with an offer. Pressler resorted to long walks in Duke’s forest yelling at the trees. He endured the trial of trying to figure out how to get his reputation back, a reputation unfairly stolen by Brodhead.
    In contrast to Brodhead, Ronald Machtley, the president of Rhode Island's Bryant University, was willing to give Pressler a second chance, hiring him as men’s lacrosse coach. He believed Pressler’s account of what actually happened at Duke. Like Pressler, he was a leader who strongly believed in personal loyalty. Loyalty was a key aspect of Machtley’s leadership compass, and he was convinced it was also something at Pressler’s core.
    Making inquiries in the college lacrosse and coaching world, Machtley became a believer in Pressler’s commitment to coaching and to his players and teams. That was what he wanted at Bryant.
    Pressler has built the Bryant program from mid-ranks of Division II to the top 20 in Division I. He claims not to care “about the Roman numerals.” He simply wants to coach because that is where his heart and his passion are. It is that identity and commitment that Brodhead ripped away without compassion, understanding or any attempt to learn the truth.
    Machtley’s relationship with Pressler has only deepened during his eight-year tenure at Bryant. His judgment of his coach’s character was repeatedly affirmed. Pressler has refused to use lucrative offers to go elsewhere as leverage to make Bryant pay him more.
    In the “60 Minutes” interview, Machtley, in a grand understatement, declared that Pressler was treated shabbily at Duke. Such a public calling-out of one college president by another is very rare. But Machtley was absolutely spot on.
    Of the two presidents, one was up to his job. Because of that, Pressler’s story has had a deservedly decent ending.
    Stephen J. Nelson, an occasional contributor, is an associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University.

Equal but Inferior: Transforming America's Military

Lee Culpepper | Apr 25, 2015

When the Obama administration finally strong arms the Marine Corps in to lowering its standards so that ordinary women can pass the Infantry Officer Course (IOC), maybe America’s enemies will volunteer to fight with one hand tied behind their backs to level the battlefield, too.
Mentally stable Americans have to wonder if liberals dream up such suicidal schemes on their own. Or is this some subversive plot concocted by communist moles and Islamic terrorists merely masquerading as American politicains and military leaders? Normal Americans would think that only our enemies would seek to emasculate and demoralize our military the way this administration is. But to liberals, decimating the military seems to be their idea of patriotism.
The Washington Times reported on April 19 that the Marine Corps is facing increased pressure (i.e. coercion) from the White House to lower combat standards for women. All 29 female lieutenants who have attempted Marine IOC have washed out. Consequently, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, will now demand that the Marine Corps provide a good reason for not lowering the bar.
Can you imagine being the enlisted Marines ordered to follow an officer -- who feels entitled to lower standards and special attention -- into a combat zone? Granted, Obama sets this kind of example, but the Marine Corps holds real leaders to a higher and more honorable standard.
When Second Lieutenant Sage Santangelo failed to complete IOC, she wrote an article for the Washington Post. Santangelo asserts that Marine standards should not be lowered, but then she still blames the Marine Corps for women failing IOC:
Women aren’t encouraged to establish the same mental toughness as men, rather they’re told that they can’t compete. Men, meanwhile, are encouraged to perceive women as weak. I noticed women were rarely chosen by their peers for some of the harder tasks in basic training.
Male lieutenants have been failing IOC since its inception. About 25% of male lieutenants fail to complete IOC, and half of them are eliminated during the initial Combat Endurance Test (CET). If the male officers are blaming their personal inadequacy or failure on anyone but themselves, those complaints are well guarded secrets. They certainly are not Washington Post articles.
Regular Marines who fail IOC do not assert that the Marine Corps needs to do more to prepare them for the course. Once upon a time, lieutenants took the initiative to prepare on their own to accomplish their professional goals, or they selflessly moved on to serve another role in the Marine Corps.
In fact, my wife is a former Marine officer. Not so long ago, she could max the male Marine’s physical fitness test (PFT). This means she could run three miles in less than 18 minutes, do 80 sit-ups in two minutes, and perform 20 pull-ups. Most male Marines never accomplish this. Consequently, her mental and physical toughness earned her a lot of respect as a Marine. She also qualified as an expert rifleman.
Nevertheless, she recognizes that she may not have been physically equipped to meet some of the brutal requirements of IOC. She also finds it repulsive that any Marine would suggest the government needs to design special training for women Marines to prepare them to pass IOC. Male Marines have never required special attention, and pretending to be equal but inferior is not Marine Corps leadership. It’s deadly deception.
If Marine officers cannot meet a standard, they need to possess the judgment, integrity, dependability, and selflessness to recognize their personal limitations. Leadership is not a synonym for personal ambition. Leadership means accomplishing a mission and taking care of those who are expected to trust and to follow you.
Apparently, General Dempsey may have received orders to ignore the famous words of another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General John W. Vessey Jr. During America’s 1983 assault on Grenada, General Vessey exclaimed:
“We have two companies of Marines running rampant all over the northern half of this island, and three Army regiments pinned down in the southwestern corner, doing nothing. What the hell is going on?”
Forcing the Marine Corps to lower its standards so that an average woman can impersonate a Marine infantry officer will likely answer Vessey’s question.
So long as we all feel like we are equal, who cares if reality reveals that we’re not? America’s enemies certainly don’t mind. As a matter of fact, they seem to be the ones orchestrating the narcissistic and lethal ruse.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Obama’s Nixon doctrine: anointing Iran

By Charles Krauthammer
April 23, 2015

In December, President Obama said that he wished to see Iran ultimately become a “very successful regional power.” His wish — a nightmare for the Western-oriented Arab states — is becoming a reality. Consider:
● Gulf of Aden: Iran sends a flotilla of warships and weapons-carrying freighters to reinforce the rebels in Yemen — a noncontiguous, non-Persian, nonthreatening (to Iran) Arabian state — asserting its new status as regional bully and arbiter. The Obama administration sends an aircraft carrier group, apparently to prevent this gross breach of the U.N. weapons embargo on Yemen. Instead, the administration announces that it has no intention of doing anything. Meanwhile, it exerts pressure on Saudi Arabia to halt its air war over Yemen and agree to negotiate a political settlement involving Iran.
● Russia: After a five-year suspension, Russia announces the sale of advanced surface-to-air missiles to Iran, which will render its nuclear facilities nearly invulnerable to attack. Obama’s reaction? Criticism, threats, sanctions? No. A pat on the back for Vladimir Putin: “I’m, frankly, surprised that [the embargo] held this long.”
●Iran: Last week, Obama preemptively caved on the long-standing U.S. condition that there be no immediate sanctions relief in any Iranian nuclear deal. He casually dismissed this red line, declaring that what is really important is whether sanctions can be reimposed if Iran cheats. And it doesn’t stop there. The Wall Street Journal reports that Obama is offering Tehran a $30 billion to $50 billion signing bonus (drawn from frozen Iranian assets) — around 10 percent of Iranian GDP.
● Syria: After insisting for years that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria “step aside,” the U.S. has adopted a hands-off policy toward a regime described by our own secretary of state as an Iranian puppet.
● Iraq: Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, director of Shiite militias that killed hundreds of Americans during the Iraq War and were ultimately defeated by the 2007-2008 U.S. surge, operates freely throughout Iraq flaunting his country’s dominance. In March, he was directing the same Iraqi militias, this time against the Islamic State — with the help of U.S. air cover.
This is the new Middle East. Its strategic reality is clear to everyone: Iran rising, assisted, astonishingly, by the United States.
Obama’s initial Middle East strategy was simply withdrawal. He would enter history as the ultimate peace president, ushering in a new era in which “the tide of war is receding.” The subsequent vacuum having been filled, unfortunately and predictably, by various enemies, adversaries and irredeemables, Obama lighted upon a new idea: We don’t just withdraw, we hand the baton. To Iran.
Obama may not even be aware that he is recapitulating the Nixon doctrine, but with a fatal twist. Nixon’s main focus was to get the Vietnamese to take over that war from us. But the doctrine evolved and was generalized to deputize various smaller powers to police their regions on our behalf. In the Persian Gulf, our principal proxy was Iran.
The only problem with Obama’s version of the Nixon doctrine is that Iran today is not the Westernized, secular, pro-American regional power it was under the shah. It is radical, clerical, rabidly anti-imperialist, deeply anti-Western. The regime’s ultimate — and openly declared — strategic purpose is to drive the American infidel from the region and either subordinate or annihilate America’s Middle Eastern allies.
Which has those allies in an understandable panic. Can an American president really believe that appeasing Iran — territorially, economically, militarily and by conferring nuclear legitimacy — will moderate its behavior and ideology, adherence to which despite all odds is now yielding undreamed of success?
Iran went into the nuclear negotiations heavily sanctioned, isolated internationally, hemorrhaging financially — and this was even before the collapse of oil prices. The premise of these talks was that the mullahs would have six months to give up their nuclear program or they would be additionally squeezed with even more devastating sanctions.
After 17 months of serial American concessions, the Iranian economy is growing again, its forces and proxies are on the march through the Arab Middle East and it is on the verge of having its nuclear defiance rewarded and legitimized.
The Saudis are resisting being broken to Iranian dominance. They haveresumed their war in Yemen. They are resisting being forced into Yemen negotiations with Iran, a country that is, in the words of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., “part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
Obama appears undeterred. He’s determined to make his Iran-first inverted Nixon doctrine a reality. Our friends in the region, who for decades have relied on us to protect them from Iran, look on astonished.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Apocalyptic Dante

Apocalypse (n.), an unveiling; from Greek apokalupsis, from apokaluptein ‘uncover, reveal.’ 
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” — Morpheus, The Matrix
In How Dante Can Save Your Life, and in my talks on it, I focus almost exclusively on the practical, moral aspects of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These are the most immediately graspable and useful elements of the poem. Consequently, I spend very little time in my book on the Paradiso, the third and final book of Dante’s trilogy.
This is not because I think the Paradiso is irrelevant. Far from it; the Paradiso is very, very deep, so deep that I know I will struggle for the rest of my life to fully comprehend it. Dante knows this, and warns the reader in Canto II, at the outset of the journey across the ocean of Being toward full unity with God, thus:
Turn back if you would see your shores again.
Do not set forth upon the deep,
for, losing sight of me, you would be lost.
To experience God as Dante is about to, and as he is about to reveal to his readers, is to be forever changed. Be warned.
Though the lower parts of the journey through the Comedy are chiefly concerned with moral improvement, it would be a gross misreading of the text to construe it as a manual for How To Be Good. If you think that life in Christ is only about believing the right things and behaving in the correct way, you have a very shallow grasp of reality. This is why you can’t really understand the Inferno and thePurgatorio without seeing them through the lens of the Paradiso. (For that matter, the Comedy is Trinitarian: you can’t understand any one book without reference to the other two).
But to enter the text of Paradiso is to plunge into the mystic depths. The best guide I’ve found so far is one that is fairly difficult itself, but one that I also find indispensable: The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy, by Christian Moevs (pron. “mayvs”), a Notre Dame scholar who said incredibly nice things about my Dante book yesterday.
Here are some lengthy quotations from Moevs’ book to give you a better idea of what Dante is up to. Keep in mind that this understanding of metaphysics (that is, the structure of all reality) was universal in Christianity until just after the end of Dante’s life, and that as the contemporary Christian theologian David Bentley Hart has argued in his widely praised book The Experience of God, it is still the dominant metaphysical stance outside the West (and that includes in the Christian East). Here is Moevs:
The point of the Comedy is that understanding is practical. It must not be confused with anything that can be thought or taught, with any “doctrine” or “belief.” Understanding-happiness-salvation, for Dante, is not a set of ideas; it is to have experienced the true nature and foundation of reality, to know it as oneself, and thus to live it. This is the foundation of ethics, and of all political and social reform: such experience alone is capable of changing, rather than just temporarily suppressing, human behavior. The Comedy tells us that there is no path to understanding, happiness, or immortality that does not go through self-sacrifice, through the death to blind self-interest that is an awakening to love, to freedom, to the infinite in and as the finite: to Christ.
He’s saying that in Dante, and in classical Christian metaphysics, the point of the pilgrimage is theosis, or mystical union with God. It is not to be present in heaven with a “Supreme Being” — that is, a being like ourselves, except vastly more powerful. No, it is to be absorbed into Being Itself, but not an impersonal being (e.g., “the Force”), but rather a personal one who has made Himself known as Jesus Christ). As D.B. Hart writes in his book:
If God is the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge, then the journey toward him must also ultimately be a journey toward the deepest source of the Self.
In the Comedy, Dante’s descent into the Inferno is to go into his own heart, to see how very far he is from God. He has made his own heart, his own ego, the deepest source of himself, and this is an illusion caused by his will. After his purification on the mountain of Purgatory does he open himself to the light of God’s grace, and discovers his true self: in a radically transformative relationship with God.
The distinction between the material and the spiritual is a fundamental illusion. Back to Christian Moevs:
The truth is that what has been said of Indian philosophy applies equally to medieval Christian thought: it “believes that reality is ultimately one and ultimately spiritual. If the comedy has a philosophical or theological foundation and ‘message,’ that is it.
To restate: the point of the Comedy is not moral reformation (though that is unquestionably part of the point); the point is to bring people to spiritual regeneration through direct experience of the Divine. More Moevs:
 [T]he claim of history, or of a narrative that typologically discloses the meaning of history or human experience, can only be conversion, awakening, becoming what one is revealed to be, which is to conform one’s life to Christ’s. To use another Wittgensteinian phrase, Scripture seeks to prevent understanding unaccompanied by inner change. The phrase applies perfectly also to the Comedy.
In other words, if you read Holy Scripture and are not changed by it, you have not understood it. Same with the Comedy.
Moevs says that in Christian thought, the world cannot be made sense of if taken in itself. Without God, the world is an endless string of zeroes: nothing. God adds a “1″ to the zeroes, and through this logos makes everything comprehensible, filled with meaning. All the damned in the Inferno have refused the divine 1, and have instead made themselves the “1″ — and have made their lives into nothing, both in the mortal life and for eternity. In other words, if we refuse God, we are already dwelling in the vestibule of Hell.
The Comedy, in the end, poses a question to us: is the world our home, or is eternity? To recognize something of eternity, of the Divine, within us is to say yes to Christ; to say no, that we will not cross over, Moevs writes, “means we live with Francesca and Ulysses in the flux of the ephemeral, that their world is our world, that we have lost the ’1′ in front of the world’s string of zeroes.”
In the conclusion of his great book, Moevs talks about how the classical Christian metaphysics of the Comedy align with the discoveries of quantum physics. Excerpts:
Relativity tells us that all spatiotemporal attributes (dimension, mass, and rate of change) are a function of velocity. The speed of light constitutes the limit of motion, and thus the boundary of space-time it is the constant of conversion between matter and energy or electromagnetic radiation. The substance and limits of the physical universe seem in some sense to consist in the nature of light, broadly conceived, and its mysterious convertibility into spatiotemporal form, and thus into gravity. Bonaventure and other propoenents of the “metaphysics of light” would not be surprised; Dante, whose Comedy describes physical reality as the contingent “re-reflection” of the self-subsistent light that is the Empyrean [that is, heaven -- RD], might wonder at our long recalcitrance.
More Moevs:
What science has not yet probed is the convertibility between light-energy-vacuum (or strings) and consciousness, what Dante calls luce intellettual. This is to be expected: to use Wittgenstein’s image, the visual field does not include the eye itself; what alone is absent from any description of experience is the subject of experience, because nothing can be said about it, it is nothing. One of the most revolutionary developments of modern physics, however, is the realization that every description of reality is simply a picture that is in part determined by the act of observation itself. The observing subject’s point of view as an entity within the world, its frame of reference, and the questions it asks are all factors that determine its picture of the reality it seeks to describe: they are part of that picture The ‘world in itself’ may be approximated and imaged – but never grasped or communicated – by descriptions, concepts, or equations: reality lies beyond, beyond all concept, all description, all thought, all image. That beyond, the architects of quantum physics unanimously concluded, lies in consciousness itself. There is no such things as the world “in itself” autonomous of consciousness.
Our separation from God, from each other, and from Creation is an illusion. That is, we choose to believe the lie that we are separate, and there is and will be consequences for believing that lie. But a lie it is. We are fundamentally one with God, with Being, with Christ. The principle of nonlocality – that information can travel faster than the speed of light; quantum entanglement, or what Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance” – tells us, says Moevs, that
reality is ultimately one, and ultimately dimensionless. Dante might say that he tried to awaken us to this experience of reality in the Comedy: consciousness, luce intellectual, is the omnipresent and indivisible reality in which all finite attribute consists, and it is itself unbound by time, space, or motion, because it is extensionless, a point.
All this is very heady, and you know me, I could write acres of discursive prose noodling on it. But I have been flying from South Bend since 5:30 a.m., through Atlanta, and am now briefly on the ground in Baton Rouge, headed to Houston, via Dallas. Whew! I want to get something new posted here, so please try to be satisfied with my incomplete entry here. And by the way, lest you think that Dante is all maximum heaviosity, and are intimidated into staying away from the Commedia, here’s a quote from a five-star review of How Dante Can Save Your Life by a reader, on
I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. I enjoyed the author’s last book, an uplifting and complex tribute to his late sister. I wanted to read more by Dreher, but I was nervous about a Dante book because the Great Books can be downers – somber, serious trudges through the oatmeal of the old world’s old literature.
I figured I’d never jump into Dante, because it’s intimidating. So I bought Dreher’s new book as a primer, something I could warm up with, to let me read and appreciate Dante without constantly looking in the endnotes to find my bearings.Well, it worked. Dreher’s new book is fresh and airy. It’s not an academic analysis, but the story of how his own mid-life crisis parallels Dante’s. The text is roughly equal parts Dante and Dreher, but the book overall is unquestionably about the Divine Comedy. The Dreher parts are just illustrative – his story could be replaced with mine or yours, but Dreher’s personal story nicely matches various aspects of Dante’s, and there’s a real flow to the writing. You don’t get the feeling he’s straining to make a point.
The red pill of Dante goes down very easily. But you will never be the same once you’ve swallowed it.
By the way, another reader wrote to remind me of this post on September 29, 2011, when I was still living in Philly, but had recently decided to move later in the year back to Louisiana in the wake of my sister’s passing. Excerpt:
Yesterday I was in the supermarket and spotted an interesting button on the check-out lady. It was a woodcut image of some Renaissance figure. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“Dante Alighieri,” she said. And I thought: how often do you go into the store for milk and bread and run into a check-out lady wearing a Dante button? OK, yes, it was Whole Foods, but the kind of buttons you expect to see on its employees exhort you to Coexist With the Gay Married Whales, and so forth. But this was Dante!
I told her that I had never read the Divine Comedy, and that one of my great regrets about my college education was that I had never taken the famous Dante course taught at LSU by a particular professor. “We’re about to move back to Louisiana,” I said. “I’m going to look him up and see if he’s still teaching. I’ve got to get into that course.”
I looked him up online last night, and it turns out that the great man has retired. My deep loss.
I had completely forgotten about that. It was a sign, perhaps, of what was to come. Spooky action at a distance across time? (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.)
So, Houston, are you coming to see Louis Markos and Your Working Boy tonight? All the cool kids are going:
dante-flyer-2015-04-08 copy

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Flannery O'Connor and the Violence of Grace

    By Rachel Watson
    April 17, 2015
    To Flannery O’Connor, grace was a violent thing. Not a solemn walk down a church aisle or a hushed prayer, but a bullet. A bull’s horn. A suicide.
    You won’t find her in Christian book stores, though you may have read one of her stories in college. Her goal in writing fiction was clear: “My audience are the people who think God is dead. . . . To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
    Her characters are grotesque. Her religious voice is unconventional. She’s kind of my hero.

    Shocking Grace

    When I first hand my students an O’Connor story, their typical response is to cringe or ask incredulously: What did I just read?
    I understand this reaction. It’s what good ‘ole Flannery would have wanted. Shock. But she wanted that shock to lead to understanding. So before helping my students unpack the story, I ask them a question: What must come before grace? I ask because the answer is what every Flannery O’Connor story is about: the moment when characters realize they need grace.  
    In A Good Man Is Hard to Find that moment arrives when a notorious convict points his gun at a grandma. Though she’s spent the majority of the story picking at others while basking in her own goodness, she has a moment of clarity. She looks at the criminal and is reminded of her own son. She realizes that the two men aren’t so different. She stops talking. Her fancy hat falls to the ground. And she sees that she isn’t so different from the murderer, either. Her epiphany ends abruptly, with three bullets to the chest:
    “She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
    With this morbid line, O’Connor reminds her audience that grace is a wake-up call. It carries a dramatic message: You are not ok. You never will be. You need something outside of yourself.

    Grace for the Guilty

    When I think about the grandmother’s epiphany, I think about a song by indie artist, Sufjan Stevens. It’s about John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer known for dressing up as a clown and murdering more than 30 teenage boys in the 1970s. The last lines of the song are striking:
    And in my best behavior/I am really just like him.
    Before we can accept grace, we must admit that we are filthy, rotten sinners who need grace. It’s what the Pharisees of Jesus’s day couldn’t understand. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable aimed directly at their stubborn hearts: “He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (v. 9).
    You know the story. Two men enter the temple to worship. The Pharisee stands tall and proud saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” while the other man can hardly lift his face (v. 11). Instead, he stays low to the ground and cries out: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13).
    Until we see ourselves as sinners, we won’t recognize Christ as Savior (Luke 5:31). I remember interviewing a prostitute in Los Angeles years ago. She said that one night she saw a man murdered. Somebody threw him out a window. Everyone knew who did it, but no one told. I asked her why not, and she said that the murdered man had molested a child. “Anyone who would do something like that deserves to die,” she said.
    She’s right. Anyone who would do that deserves to die. Anyone who sins against God in any way deserves death. James 2:10 puts me in the same camp as pedophiles and serial killers: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”
    I have failed. I’m accountable for all of it. I need grace.

    Offensive Grace

    In another O’Connor story, The Lame Shall Enter Firsta confident atheist, Shepherd, realizes that his good deeds have missed the mark. After the loss of his wife, he reaches out to a bitter, delinquent, teenage boy with a club foot. The boy, Rufus, wants nothing to do with him, but Shepherd insists. He takes him into his home, buys him a new boot, and tells him how much potential he has. He spends all his time playing savior to someone who doesn’t want his help. All the while, his son grieves alone. By the time Shepherd realizes his mistake, it’s too late. His son is gone.  
    Throughout this story, grace continually offends. It offends Shepherd’s pride and superior intellect. “That book is something for you to hide behind,” he says when he sees Rufus reading the Bible. “It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.”
    He assures Rufus: “You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent.” But Rufus angrily replies, “You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true.” Grace is what we need, whether we accept it or not. And though Shepherd dismisses the gospel at every turn, he is given insight into the depths of his own failure. He failed to save Rufus. He failed his own son. He is the one in need of a shepherd.
    Grace is offensive because it points to the deficiency in each of us.

    Costly Grace

    Even more offensive than our need for grace is how much it costs. Too often I forget that because God is just, my sins couldn’t just disappear. They had to be punished. And Jesus walked toward that punishment. He walked toward the hill where pain was a promise.
    His death wasn’t merely symbolic. When we read about the countless slaughtered animals in the Old Testament, we must make the connection: Jesus’s body was the ultimate bloody sacrifice. It was real nails ripping through skin and muscle. His emotional agony was so intense that, before his death, he asked God if there were any other way (Matt. 26:39). None of us could die as Jesus died. Sinless. The perfect substitute. His death was gory because that is what our sins deserve.

    God’s Desire

    The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus spent so much time with unworthy people. Jesus told them it was because they were sick and needed a doctor. He saw the Pharisees’ disease as well. He knew that it ran deep but that they were unwilling to cry out for help. Witnessing people reject the medicine of grace grieved Jesus: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34). 
    Flannery O’Connor may have written violent stories about strange characters from the South, but she understood grace. She knew that no man is righteous until he is clothed in Christ. This requires that we see our nakedness and recognize our need. Grace is costly. It is necessary. And God desires that we admit our problem and embrace his solution.
    Rachel Watson is a full-time high school English teacher who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband, Dan. Her goal in the classroom is to show her students how to think, build discernment, and enjoy great literature. Rachel received her BA in writing and Bible at The Master's College in Southern California.