Thursday, August 07, 2008

Raw Material

[For anybody unfamiliar with the basic premise of C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, from which the quote below is taken: Screwtape (the one writing) and Wormwood (the one receiving) are demons. Wormwood is in charge of destroying a new Christian's faith, but, since this is his first assignment and he's therefore inexperienced, his uncle Screwtape writes him letters with advice on how best to bring this about.]

You complain that my last letter does not make it clear whether I regard being in love as a desirable state for a human or not. But really, Wormwood, that is the sort of question one expects them to ask! Leave them to discuss whether "Love," or patriotism, or celibacy, or candles on altars, or teetotalism, or education are "good" or "bad." Can't you see there's no answer? Nothing matters at all except the tendency of a given state of mind, in given circumstances, to move a particular patient at a particular moment nearer to the Enemy [that is, to Christ] or nearer to us. ...Get it quite clear in your own mind that this state of falling in love is not, in itself, necessarily favorable either to us or to the other side. It is simply an occasion which we and the Enemy are both trying to exploit. Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.

I wasn't sure until just before senior year that I was actually going to have a roommate: Erica had applied to a Christian college, the one her boyfriend went to, and was considering a transfer. She had been asking people to pray about it in a very specific way: that if God didn't want her going to Grove City, she'd be flat-out rejected, because otherwise she'd always be looking over one shoulder, wherever she ended up, wondering whether she should have chosen the other school. She didn't like Alfred (if you're a student there and are as surprised by this sentiment as I was, chances are you're in liberal arts, like me, not engineering, like her), and if I understand it correctly, the fact that she didn't feel a specific call to engineering had left her questioning whether she hadn't made a mistake that ought to be fixed.

I've come to sympathize with her on that one, here in Binghamton, which is pretty much Alfred's polar opposite. BU is big (and, accordingly, less personal), research-oriented instead of teaching-oriented, a bit full of itself, and suspicious of anything simple. Many times I never quite understand what I'm taught--and I often disagree, at least in part, when I do. More than once I've considered leaving. I've never woken up, smacked my head, and gone, that's it! I'm supposed to teach English all my life! That's what my entire academic and personal life has built up to! So I wonder whether there's something else I ought to be doing, and how badly I might be screwing up the future I could be having by staying at a school I've never really liked, just to do something about which I've never really been sure. It's a good thing this was the only grad school I was accepted to.

But there's my reminder (and I guess Erica's, too), farther up the page, courtesy of C.S. Lewis. Lacking a clear understanding that composition instruction is definitely not my thing (which I don't have so far--and it was out of a sincere desire to learn more about English and teaching that I went to grad school, and in sincerity that my friends and I prayed that I'd end up wherever I was supposed to), there's no real answer yet as to whether my being here is good or bad. Binghamton will have been the wrong choice if I make an awful, disobedient thing out of it--if I spend my time trying to prove that I'm brighter than everyone else, for example (not that you don't have to do well to get a job in English, but you can do well out of a desire to please God and help build others up with your knowledge, or you can do it for many other reasons--ones to which I'm definitely not immune). Even being in a place like Alfred wouldn't help me if that was all I was going to do with it. But if I am sincerely, every day, trying to figure out how best to love the people I see every class (both the classes I teach and the ones I attend) and how to convey to them what's real and what's true and what's joyful, then of course it will have been the right place.

Even for the disobedient, wrong turns are never permanent--the sinful choice, once repented of, gets redeemed. David lost one son through his adultery and murder. But after David's repentance, God give him another--also Bathsheba's!--that went on to be king, and an excellent king at that. Assuming I had come here out of questionable motives, ones I knew were questionable, it would take only willingness to do what was right. If God's will and Binghamton were totally incompatible, things would happen that would mean I had to leave--maybe similarly to how, post-Big-Fish-Incident, God didn't switch Jonah's assignment to a quiet ministry in Tarshish, but sent him right back up to Nineveh. But if Binghamton was within His will, then even having come there for all the wrong reasons would turn out, like with David, for good.

So here I am, and until further notice, I intend (God forgive the moments I wimp out or forget) to be here without looking back to where I might have gone. God will lead me out of anyplace I really, truly shouldn't be. Everything else is a matter of raw material.

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