Essay / Culture

Going to California with an Aching in my Heart

This month, I’m leading a class of Biola students who will try to understand California. We are undertaking a theological interpretation of California with the goal of knowing how to live wisely as Christians in this territory.

There’s no guaranteed right way to do this, and we only have three weeks together. But this is our plan of attack.

First, we beat a hasty retreat from Biola at the end of a busy academic year. Thirty students re-convene in Berkeley, California, where the state’s history reaches back a bit further than it does in our own Los Angeles County. Three professors from the Torrey Honors Institute show up to lead the class: Fred Sanders, a systematic theologian; Paul Spears, a philosopher of education; and Matt Jenson, another systematic theologian. We move in to a historic house designed for community living, buy groceries, and get used to living together for the month. We are all crammed into one cozy house of learning: freshmen to seniors, faculty and their families with kids ranging from ages six to eleven, a few UC Berkeley students who try to stay out of our way, and the occasional visit from Torrey alumni who live in the area.

Next, we immerse ourselves in the word of God. Specifically, we have chosen the book of James as the text that we will begin the class with, end the class with, and read and discuss every day for eighteen days together. We’ve already gotten our orientation to the book by hearing Darian Lockett lecture on it back at Biola the week before we departed. Now we immerse ourselves in scripture before immersing ourselves in California. “With meekness receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls.”

And how do you go about actually immersing yourself in the study of California? There are other ways to approach it, but we do it in a way that is true to who we are. The Torrey Honors Institute is a great books program, so I’ve selected a handful of the best writing that California has produced. This young state doesn’t have many names to put on the same lists that contain Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and Dante, but London, Steinbeck, Bierce, Muir, Jeffers, and a few other names have drifted to the top of the list. Torrey Honors is also a general education program for undergraduates, so we are bound to be interdisciplinary: literature, philosophy, history, art, and the social sciences will all be in the mix. So we make the most of local opportunities for museum visits, drama performances, and concerts.

The course title is James the Just and California the Golden: Theological Explorations through Fiction, Art, Drama, and Culture. Here is the schedule.

Day 1: Check in to Delta Zeta house. The house we live in, owned by the Presbyterian campus ministry called Westminster House, was built in the 1920s by California architect Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame. From the day we move in, Morgan’s vision of communal life in an ennobling space begins shaping our experience.

Day 2: James. Our assignment is to read this book every day. A whole box of assorted translations is on the common bookshelf in the living room, along with a half-dozen commentaries. For our first class session, we break up into three smaller groups and have a two-hour discussion of the biblical theology of James. We are focusing on the deep wisdom this book contains about living as friends of God in a world and culture that are at enmity with God.

Day 3: Czeslaw Milosz, Visions from San Francisco Bay. Polish writer Milosz lived in Berkeley from about 1958 until his death in 2004. He looks at California from a long way off, from the Old World, and we read him to learn to see the state from that angle. Milosz wants to name the territorial spirits of California, and suspects many of them are demons. A strange Catholic who always wrestled with his own underlying paganism and gnosticism, Milosz’s book is one of our most difficult texts.

Day 4: John Muir, Essays. Early in the morning we head across one of the bay area’s bridges to the Muir Woods, with its giant redwoods in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais. There we hug trees and discuss a couple hundred pages of John Muir’s visionary conservationism from around the turn of the century. Muir was raised on the King James Bible, and constantly uses soaring religious language to describe the natural world. The Muir Woods are one of “God’s First Temples,” in his words, and we begin to ask what religion is to be practiced in such a temple. We return to Berkeley via the Golden Gate Bridge and do some San Francisco sight-seeing.

Day 5: Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poems. We spend a class session on the short, muscular poems of this grim bard of the rugged Carmel coastline. His evocation of the natural world’s lonely majesty is the first thing to strike readers, but we are looking deeper to see his worldview, which he called “inhumanism.” It’s a dark ending for this week’s sub-theme, ecology.

Day 6: Free time. There are many possibilities for good day trips: Monterey Bay down the coast, Alcatraz in the bay, etc.

Day 7: Church together at Christ Church Berkeley, a PCA plant which meets in the temple of the goddess downtown (the Gaia Center). Great is Diana of the Berkeleyans!

Day 8: California Poetry. We range through the first two hundred pages of this great collection edited by Dana Gioia and others. The selections are great, and the brief historical introductions to each poet are a painless way to learn some California history without having flashbacks to eighth grade history.

Day 9: MOMA. San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art has a strong collection of all the modern art that is guaranteed to make you mad: Duchamp’s urinal on a pedestal, giant canvasses painted in one solid color, and minimalist installations that make you say “is this a joke?” The high modernists were all about absolute freedom, so a shrine to them in San Francisco makes sense.

Day 10: California Shakespeare Theater. This company stages Shakespeare with consistently high quality performances, in a beautiful outdoor amphitheater. This year the play is Romeo & Juliet, and our resident Shakespeare scholar Melissa Schubert will join us for a few days to help us get into it. We read the play, discuss it for three hours, go to the performance, and then debrief. That’s a lot of the bard!

Day 11: The Lost Dogs Concert. Actually, just two members of the band: Terry Taylor and Mike Roe, driving in for an acoustic show. Terry has written dozens of songs about California, and the Dogs recently did a pilgrimage down Route 66, so these guys are loaded with Americana.

Day 12: Phil Johnson. Phil Johnson, the godfather of the Torrey Honors Institute, comes to share the morning with us. He isn’t talking about a California author, he IS a Callifornia author, with Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance to his credit. This year he has given us advance copies of five chapters from his next book, addressing the new atheism as only Phil Johnson can.

Day 13: free time

Day 14: Church together at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley.

Day 15: John Steinbeck, East of Eden. The longest book in the curriculum, Steinbeck’s late masterpiece has that attitude of epic sprawl. Steinbeck steals the biblical story of Cain and Abel, nestles it snugly into a California landscape, and then pretty seriously misunderstands the whole point. But if his tweaking of the biblical story doesn’t add much to the interpretation of Genesis, it at least enriches the California mythos.

Day 16: California Poetry. We finish out the big anthology, moving into contemporary poetry, mostly by authors still alive and working. For a great books program, this is stunning. The sheer diversity of voices in an anthology of recent poetry means we will be discussing that topic of multiculturalism that is part of the daily experience of Californians.

Day 17: Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary. Ladies and gentlemen, direct your eyes to the trapeze above the center ring, where our daring class will carry out a three-hour discussion on a dictionary! Bierce’s wicked wit is the universal solvent. He defines a Christian as “One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”

Day 18: Jack London, Martin Eden. London’s novel of a self-made man who achieves great literary success has some crisp observations about bay area culture and a large helping of thinly-veiled autobiography.

Day 19: James. We’ve been reading this book for 19 days straight, having devotions on it, and weaving its wisdom in and out of our other curriculum. Devoting a final class session to it enables us to see how much progress we’ve made in coming to understand its message. We end the class with prayer and get out of there. True summer break begins.

Will this quirky course of study, which leaves out so much and elapses in three weeks, yield a theological interpretation of California? Yes, it will. For those of us who live in the Golden State, a working theology of the reality that is California is a necessity for wise Christian conduct.

I’ll be blogging about it as we go, and perhaps by mid-June we can formulate a synthesis.

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