The Curse of the Bronze Amulet

He was one not typically given to dreams. Wakefulness was his way, for to be awake was to be coherent and rational, completely aware of what is, was, and will be. Wakefulness was a gift of God, a means by which a human is able to share in the wisdom and truth given us by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Dreams are foreign, illusory, when a human is weakest, fatigued, and one’s defenses are down, and anything, any foreign power, any outsider, even the Evil One himself, may enter into the hidden fantasies of the mind, exert control, and convince a person upon awaking of chimeras, charades, folly and falsehood. It is even unfortunate that a person must sleep, to let the guard down to the influence of dreams; ancient peoples such as the Greeks thought that humans were more apt to be influenced by the spirit, daemonic world during sleep. The Greek god Hypnos had a hypnotic effect on the sleeper. He was brother to Oneiros, dreams, and Thanatos, death, all three being sons of Night, when humans are most susceptible to the consequences of what has happened over the course of days, weeks, months, and years. Dreams are haunting specters that hover over the dreamer shaping what the coming day will be like: one of confidence or one of fear. Dreams herald the future, as it were, and just as dreams can change time and place, shape and being, at will, in the mind of the sleeper, so too is the conscience, the mind, the sense of self, shaped by the unforgiving presence of images in the night.

No, he was not typically given to dreams. But that was before he came to the islands, to a small group of rocky outposts in a cold sea. Islands are places given to dreams. The constant action of waves lapping the shore, hitting jutting rocks, splashing against cliffs, can lull the dreamer into sweet sleep or riotous nightmares. Writers go to islands to write, painters to paint, poets to rhyme, for they know that ideas and images, both real and fantastic, are birthed in a place of fantasy and myth. Everything mysterious can be found on an island: thick fog that crawls along like a monstrous Leviathan of the deep; ghosts of hapless souls who survived shipwreck—at least for a time; spirits of pirates or their victims guarding buried treasure, or engaged in an eternal search to find it; crashing waves, and the unexpected swell that inundates and sweeps everything in its path out to sea; and the relentless wind that sweeps over the island, allows flocks of birds to lazily float in the sky, soon to swoop, pounce on the innocent victim. Such is a dream to a newcomer, to a person innocent of the ways of the sea, of the hurricane and typhoon, of sharks and whales, cormorants and gulls, crabs and lobsters. And the relentless waves, the pounding of the sea, the daily grind of water on stone, eroding, chipping rock away by bits and pieces, like the wayward mind of the dream-world chipping away at the sturdy rock of reality.

Islanders know these ways, if the newcomer does not. They know the terrors of the night, the deep distant foghorns wrought by human hands or by the Creation itself: the sounds of rushing winds and pounding surf generating a mystical symphony played endlessly over time. They know the rumbling thunder and cataclysmic bolts of lightning one night, followed the next by gentle zephyrs streaming through a cloudless night sky of dazzling pinpoints of light. They know what the landlubber does not, that life can be lived fully, if briefly, on the isles, where danger is always afoot: the danger of the Creation, of the mysterious deep, under the surface of which nothing is seen, nothing can be known. Deep within the eons and eons of rolling waves lapping against time, scattering thither what has been, moving forward to what will be. Humans, being like the surface, seeing only the edge of what is, barely conscious of what lies below, what is hidden inside. It often takes the remarkable and extraordinary to peal open the surface experiences, to plunge within to the cold, dark depths, to find what is true, to find the self.

Such are the beginning words of my first work of fiction, The Curse of the Bronze Amulet.

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Is Science Inherently an Act of Piety?

During the past century science has become so focused on the material and the secular as to deny what was one of the essential characteristics of Western scientists going back three millennia: piety. Ancient Greek scientists perceived religion and science to be part of the same pursuit into the nature of being. Medieval scientists followed the Aristotelian path to discovering what they conceived to be the nature of God. Renaissance and Enlightenment scientists could hardly doubt that the Creation that they studied via mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and geology is Elder Scripture, the word of God older than, and just as authoritative as, the Old and New Testaments. The nineteenth-century geologist Edward Hitchcock’s belief that religion and geology are commensurate, the turn of the century psychologist William James’s belief that religion played a vital role in human psychology, and the early twentieth-century physicist Albert Einstein’s desire to know through science the mind of God, reveal that some nineteenth and twentieth century scientists relied on piety to approach the scientific study of human and natural phenomena.

Science is a pious enterprise and endeavor: the search to know the secrets of the universe and to reach the limits of human understanding occurs within the context of nature, an overwhelming entity that dwarfs us, generating a pious response, demanding reverence and humility, generating as well a sense of continuity and purposeful change, that answers exist to questions, that there is order rather than chaos, that reason and knowledge exist. Piety involves a sense of awe of the universe and a realization that being plays a role, whatever that might be, in its creation and constancy. Pious scientists have had an awareness of the profundity of existence, of life, and the role of something, an act moving upon potential, making and sustaining life.

Scientific and religious thought are complementary not contradictory. Scientists prior to the modern age were convinced that their research into nature shed light on the divine. The most valid response to God the Creator was a pious attempt to understand His Creation. Thinkers showed piety through natural theology; a belief in the continuity of and order in the universe; belief in natural laws; and a belief that human reason can (and will) discover natural laws.

Cultural and social influences during the past four centuries have led to a questioning of the divine role in the creation of the universe, resulting in a reconsideration of God the Creator, the divine role in the creation of the universe that is revealed through divine works, resulting in more of a general anonymous sense of a great mystery in the universe that could or could not be divine.

There was a definite change from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries in the perception of God the Creator. Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm in scientific thought helps to explain this change. The seventeenth century was a time of a providential God in control of all aspects of natural and human history. The eighteenth century moved toward a deistic God the Creator who put in motion a Creation that required very little divine intervention. Skepticism brought about by the critical discoveries of the nineteenth century resulted in the sense of the divine as a vague supernatural force that has some sort of a role in the vastness and complexity of the universe. Thinkers into the twentieth century were increasingly agnostic and atheistic in doubting any kind of supernatural agency at work in the universe.

Piety changes during this time from a clear sense of a personal God, a Christian God, to a more generic sense of a Creator God to a more amorphous mysterious presence; but during the whole there is an awareness and awe of the universe and (perhaps) its maker that is pious if not religious, piety being a sense of wonderment and humility when faced with a natural phenomenon that sometimes seems to defy explanation.

I wonder, is the driving motivation for those who pursue the physical, life, social, behavioral, and mathematical sciences, piety?……
(This is an abridged version of a much longer, 1100 word essay, a reproduction of which can be purchased at this link: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=N5XJG4LGWH7ZG)

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The Liberal Arts: The Continuing Foundation for Learning in Our Society by means of the Trivium and Quadrivium

The Liberal Arts are based in the historical trivium and quadrivium. The Trivium is Latin, literally “a place where three roads meet”. Quadrivium is Latin for where four roads meet.

The Liberal Arts of today derive from the meeting of three to four historical roads: the ideas of human expression and knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans; the Medieval striving to preserve the humanistic ideas of the ancient world; the rebirth of ancient learning that occurs during the Renaissance and Enlightenment; and the rebirth of mathematics and science during the Scientific Revolution of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The liberal arts involve the study of those subjects that open the mind and help bring about a free people.  Liberal is Latin for “suitable for a free person.” Arts is “skill as a result of learning or practice.”

Hence Liberal Arts means the study of subjects to gain an expertise so to acquire the habits and personality of a person who lives a free life, that is, lives in such a way to be free from outside influences, to know precisely what one’s personal beliefs, derived from personal experience, are.

The Ancient Greeks provided the foundation for the Trivium and Quadrivium, as they were defined later in the Middle Ages, because of their focus on philosophy, literature, rhetoric, history, art and architecture, mathematics, the life and physical sciences. The Roman Empire encompassed the learning of the ancient Greeks, and brought such learning forward into the centuries after the birth of Christ. But the Roman Empire went through a political and cultural decline—the liberal arts of the ancient Greeks declined as well. In the resulting period subsequently called the Dark or Middle Ages (Medieval Europe), there were some isolated centers of learning that continued to preserve ancient Graeco-Roman (typically called Classical) learning. These centers of learning were usually connected to Roman Catholic monasteries. It was during this time that the terms Trivium, for logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and Quadrivium, for arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, were coined. European society, culture, and economy went through a resurgence beginning in the 12th century, which led to the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution.

 

The Trivium: the arts of thought and communication

  1. Logic: logic refers to philosophy, to human thought, the fact that humans are thinkers, able to conceptualize ideas, to try to achieve a sense of what exists, or “is,” that is being, which is not subject to time. Example: Humans like all animals feel. When a human feels a sense of warmth toward another being, a sense of attachment, of not wanting to be separated, they conceptualize this feeling as Love. Love is not material or physical; it is simply an idea based on conceptualized feelings.
  2. Grammar: grammar refers to symbols that humans have invented to symbolize the concepts and ideas that they have conceptualized. These symbols can be learned and shared, which form the basis of communication. So, for example, the concept of Love can be designated by four symbols, L, O, V, E, joined together.
  3. Rhetoric: rhetoric are all of the arts of communication that humans use to share their ideas and concepts by means of symbols. Humans can therefore share an idea or concept, such as Love, by means of symbols that are expressed through writing or speaking.

 

Quadrivium: the arts of temporal and spatial reasoning

  1. Arithmetic: because humans live in time and space, they keep track of movement in time and space by counting and measurement. The Counting function is arithmetic, and the Spatial function is geometry. Arithmetic is the way to make sense of the multitude of things (quantities) and movement in our environment over time.
  2. Geometry: Geometry is the way humans make sense of the multitude of things and movement in our environment that take up space. We observe various things at particular moments in time and can make sense of how they relate to us in terms of distance, volume, and dimension.
  3. Music: Music is using arithmetic, counting things and movement in time, as it applies to sounds and harmony. Special notes are created to keep track of these sounds moving through time. Music symbolizes human creativity in different cultures.
  4. Astronomy: Astronomy is measuring space and its vast dimensions over time. We observe various things over time and can make sense of how they relate to us in terms of distance, volume, and dimension. Astronomy symbolizes the hard sciences, examining movement (physics), material substances (chemistry, geology), and organic substances (biology).

The Liberal Arts continue to form the basis for thought, expression, and reasoning in our culture, from the past to the present and into the future.

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The Small Liberal Arts College in Crisis: Is there a Solution?

I teach at a small parochial liberal arts college in Oklahoma. Like other such colleges, parochial and secular, this college, Bacone College, is continually in crisis: financial crisis, enrollment crisis, staffing crisis, management crisis.

There are a host of reasons leading to said crises: the high costs of attending a small private college compared to a public university; the comparative dearth of resources of a small college; the heavy reliance upon enrollment and tuition to keep finances from going in the red; the sacrifice of academics to sports programs; the reliance upon fluctuating members of the board of trustees for leadership; the top-down style of management that small institutions tend toward.

The value of historical study is that it provides a sense of a long-term perspective of the past to the present, which often helps suggest guidance for the future.

Based on my research and writing for Marking the Jesus Road: Bacone College through the Years, as well as my (going on) 18 years as a professor at Bacone College, I believe I have gained some perspective on Bacone’s past, present, and possible future, which provides, perhaps, lessons for other small liberal arts colleges. The 138 years of Bacone College suggests:

Bacone College was founded 138 years ago by missionaries from the American Baptist Home Mission Society to bring Christian education to the Indians of Indian Territory, Oklahoma Territory, and elsewhere. The American Baptists controlled the college until about 60 years ago when they decided to move on from its oversight and sizable financial commitment, to allow Bacone to be governed independently by a Board of Trustees answerable to no outside source of governing authority and commensurate financial assistance. There were predictable leadership, management, and financial consequences. From the beginning in 1880, Almon Bacone, and since then all of his successors, wanted Bacone to be independent of all tribal control, which independence guaranteed a flexibility in decision making but a lack of financial resources. Whatever endowment Bacone once had was spent many years ago. Hence the dependence on enrollment and tuition.

Athletics has, for many years now, especially since 1999, kept the college open, but the problem has been that athletics has come before academics, which is an unworkable situation for a college. It is almost like increasing debt: as the debt and interest rates rise the debtor can scarcely get out of debt without taking on more. As the college grows ever more dependent on athletics it can scarcely rid itself of this non-academic encumbrance and indeed must continue to recruit and take on more. If college resources go toward athletic programs and staff, then academics by comparison suffer.

The mission of the college has been unclear for years. There are many private Christian schools connected to a denomination, and many private American Indian schools connected to a tribe. But how many private colleges that are Christian without a clear denominational presence (in terms of students, faculty, administration, oversight, and financial support) or American Indian without a clear tribal presence (providing leadership and money) can survive in today’s world? Back in the 1950s, Bacone began to move away from its exclusive concern with American Indians. Why? The college was struggling to make a go of it then, as well as now. It makes sense to continue to broaden the college outward to all racial and ethnic groups. Besides, in the past thirty years there are a multitude of tribal colleges that take away the potential pool of applicants for Bacone.

For many years now, stretching back more than half a century, Bacone has had no realistic, workable strategic plan. Such a plan must be based on set, established academic programs that are consistent and comparable in order to attract a pool of students. Bacone has long been uncomfortably caught between professional and academic programs—almost like a split personality. Professional programs (business, health, education, criminal justice) lead to a clear career path and jobs after graduation. Academic programs (Liberal Arts) can lead to a career path and jobs but not as clearly; academic programs can prepare students for graduate school. Bacone has never had academic programs clearly intended to prepare students for graduate school, hence top notch students who want to pursue academics beyond the bachelors degree have little incentive to attend. A college that has a shotgun approach to majors will find it hard pressed to attract serious students—hence the reliance upon athletics. There are many professional schools all over eastern Oklahoma competing with Bacone’s business, health, criminal justice, and education programs, and they cost a lot less; but there are not as many small private liberal arts colleges preparing students for career as well as graduate work.

The key to college success resides in the faculty. Faculty have to feel invested, central to planning and decision making, because they are the ones who ultimately can attract students and bring students forward to degree completion to ensure continuous successful enrollment, year after year. Bacone has since 1880 had a top down administration in which faculty are very little, and rarely, directly involved. The faculty must be equal to the administration in terms of planning and decision-making because the faculty, in their day-to-day interaction with students—and not the administration—are ultimately in charge of academics. This is why successful schools have faculty tenure (or the like), because tenure guarantees to the faculty that they can be invested and central to the college without having to fear for their jobs. Bacone has never had tenure. And, successful schools have active and forthright faculty governance that is engaged equally to the administration; Bacone has never really had this either.

Bacone—and by comparison, I believe, many other small private liberal arts colleges—will never be able to emerge from the quagmire it has been in for many years, until . . .

  1. it can focus its attention on academics rather than athletics (athletics as a consequence of academics is, of course, acceptable), which means to make a decision to focus on degree plans that fill a necessary liberal arts niche and will bring students to study;
  2. it embrace a clear and consistent academic purpose in terms of successful liberal arts programs preparing students for graduate studies as well as careers;
  3. it can develop a clear, realistic mission—based on Bacone’s past, this would be an ecumenical Christian approach as well as a multicultural approach filling the needs of students with particular racial, ethnic, class, and personal needs;
  4. it can embrace faculty as equal partners in recruitment, planning, governance, and delivery of academic programs.

There is an important role for the small liberal arts college in America. Foresight and strategic planning based on an understanding of the past and the needs of the present must replace knee-jerk reactions to immediate crises and unconsidered responses to the exigencies of the moment—such is the key to survival and success.

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The Return to McCarthyism

Almost fifty years ago, an obscure senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, used fear as a means to initiate widespread panic and intimidate the innocent.

Fear can do this to people. Fear makes the rational become irrational, the innocent become guilty, the mainstream become evil. McCarthy used the fear of communism to instigate mass panic throughout America. Seemingly rational people began to accuse others of being communist without any evidence whatsoever. The panic gained momentum. Anyone who disagreed with McCarthy was accused of being a communist. Anyone who spoke out against the fear-inspired panic became guilty for even questioning the relevance of the panic. The McCarthyists, emboldened by a narrative of lies that became a pseudo-truth, went after anyone who displeased them: the reasonable, the level-headed, those who reserved judgment, those who realized that such fear-inspired panic is a constant throughout human history.

A narrative of falsehood gains momentum simply because the most outrageous accusations are difficult to defend by even-handedness. If a person is accused of being a racist, the label inevitably sticks, and is difficult to shed. Any statement to the contrary, any attempt to defend oneself, is considered further proof of inherent racism.

This is why the presidents during the McCarthy years, Truman and Eisenhower, refused to confront McCarthy, because in so doing they would automatically be accused of being communist, and be unable to shed the accusation.

Fear-induced panic convinces all but the most courageous to hide their head in a hole until the panic subsides.

President Trump should have learned this important political lesson: never, never, courageously defend yourself against outrageous accusations, because the accusers will continue to make the accusation, and the accusation will be considered truth itself.

As a history professor and writer, it is disheartening to see so many intelligent people return to the mechanisms of McCarthyism. I thought maybe we had learned our lesson. Obviously not.

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Is the Message Still Relevant?

For 2000 years, since Jesus commanded his disciples to go spread the good news to all nations, Christian messengers, or missionaries, have traveled throughout the world spreading the message of hope and redemption. There are few people on the Earth who have not heard this message. Messengers have translated the Bible into a hundreds of languages—and more translations keep coming. Especially in the past 500 years, Europeans, in the wake of aggressive imperialism, increased their efforts to spread the message to North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Often missionary work has been an apology for conquest, slaughter, and enslavement. In the late 1800s, European competition for world power led to horrifying imperialistic actions in Africa. For example, beginning in the 1880s, King Leopold II of Belgium brutally expanded Belgic power into the Congo in the name of civilization and Christianity.

Indeed, for centuries Christian apologists have claimed that unless a people adopt European customs, values, dress, and language, they cannot be properly converted to Christianity, hence receive salvation.

At the same time, the European heritage has become increasingly materialistic, hedonistic, and narcissistic, such that the expanding noise of modern technology and communications seems to be drowning out the message of Christ.

Is the message still worth listening to?

Yes, if the message is in its purist form.

The purity of the message is found in the Gospel, first and foremost, in the teachings and actions of the Son of Man. Here we read firsthand, albeit through translation, the words of Jesus of Nazareth rather than the many commentators and expostulators who often distort the message for their own purposes.

And so, for people throughout the world who have routinely been dispossessed of property, human rights, liberty, and life, we hear words that bring peace to our anguished souls. For its true that in reading the Gospel,
You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall set you free.

Read about the life of a person who made the message relevant to people living in the 18th century: Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little.

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All Things are Possible

Recent conflict and protests in America, about statues and monuments recalling troubling events in the past, seem to be dividing a country that clearly needs uniting. Those who focus on division rather than unity seem to think that all things are possible—that the sky is the limit for the future, and all they have to do is imagine it, protest for the sake of it, made a lot of noise about it, and it will come about.

Protesters are focusing on the American past, but ironically their view of the past is shortsighted, if not altogether ignorant. The past is not just a few isolated events from the collective memory about which people who otherwise know little about history can gather and make noise.

The philosophy of presentism—living for the moment without a deep appreciation of the past or an anticipation of the future based on the past—is how problems of division, conflict, manipulation of others, acquisition of power, and the creation of totalitarian states, occur. If all a person can do is consider how the present moment, one after another, might make him/her feel good because of a brief moment of feeling significant, powerful, and important, then such a person is ripe for the exploitation of demagogues, who typically promise that such feelings, such power, such a narcissistic trip, will continue—as long as you believe in the opposition to what is steady, orderly, traditional—the establishment.

Protest for the sake of protest is wrongheaded. It upsets order, creates chaos, but fulfills a momentary urge to feel significant.

Look, I have many of the same suspicions of the power elite that protesters have. But I am not marching through the streets carrying placards screaming at the top of my lungs. Why?

Because, for one thing, I have a historical perspective. Emergencies—what appears to be something that has to be done, NOW—are rarely emergencies—they just seem that way in the moment. I truly believe the philosophy recorded in Ecclesiastes, that there is “a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; . . . a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak”—overall, “time and chance happens to them all.”

Yes, time and chance happens to us all. We need to know patience, to accept what has happened, what will happen.

All things are possible. But remember the caveat to this phrase, as found in the Gospel of Matthew? “All things are possible”—with God. The disciples were upset because Jesus had told them that it is more difficult for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. How, then, can anyone be saved? “With God, all things are possible,” Jesus said. The point is, that humans try to do so much, but our individual and collective weakness prevents us from doing what we want: we cannot, in short, make all things that can possibly occur actually occur. And to try to is to court disappointment because our time rarely conforms to God’s time.

Contentment, in short, is based on waiting. A person can act, a person can dream, a person can try their hardest. But in the sum of all things, according to the vast stretch of time of which you and I are just a very small part, the future is unknown, and what is about to happen is unknown: all we can do is wait–for humans can do very little, but with God, all things are possible.

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