Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road
, has provided a sober frame of reference for my recent thinking. Have you read it? A gifted writer’s craft is powerfully at work from the gripping first words to the final poignant scene.
In the pitiless landscape of a world wrecked by human arrogance, desolation and abject need predominate. Perpetually grey skies and bitter cold have overtaken the land; ash-strewn and snow-covered, forest and field have been reduced to barrenness. Small homesteads and little towns, long ago abandoned and pillaged, stand as monuments to a once-thriving civilization now ruined, seemingly beyond any prospect of recovery.
The touching, often inspiring notes of McCarthy’s story arise in this bleak setting as he relates the ambiguous pilgrimage of a solitary man and his little boy. The unnamed pair trudges along a road on the lookout for anyone else who might be in the company of the “good guys,” defined in part as anyone who is “carrying the fire” and who does not eat other people. They face an ever-present existential threat from roving brigands who would brutalize, slaughter, and cannibalize them. Yet McCarthy lays stress not merely upon the vulnerability of their lives, but upon another, far deeper and more interesting frailty. The man and the boy face a relentless existential threat to their identity as human beings. Under extreme conditions, what might one not do? Which moral compromises might one make? To what severities might despair take one? Why not curse God and die, as Job’s sometime friends proposed to him?
One of the much commented upon aspects of The Road
is the muted presence of anything like religious faith. McCarthy withholds easy consolation. The boy and his father occupy a dispiriting world in which memories of beauty and ancient words of prayer sometimes arise, but with precious little power to edify or direct them. Theirs is not only a post-apocalyptic world, but a disenchanted and post-Christian world. A sample of academic article titles written about the novel makes the point: “The Sacred Idiom Short of Its Referents;” “Beyond Redemption;” “A Tabernacle in the Dark;” and “There is no god and we are his prophets,” this last being a line from the novel.
Notice, though, that muted
presence does not mean absence. The withholding of easy
consolation is not the equivalent to disconsolation. Little
power to edify is not the same as no power. Having read The Road
repeatedly, I’m persuaded that McCarthy offers a potent challenge, on the one hand, to those with a Christian faith of facile solutions to life’s tragedies and, on the other hand, to those with a nihilism of equally ingenuous qualities.
Apart from the meaning of The Road
, it is a well-crafted literary work of the first order. Indeed, a large part of the novel’s appeal for me consists in its somber beauty. I’m astonished at how exquisite an imaginative space McCarthy can fashion in such an austere setting. But I’m also impressed with the depth and nuance McCarthy’s novel brings to fundamentally important questions of faith. In these respects, we do well to follow many of his cues, albeit with the freedom and joy to express a living, well-tested faith in the Way of Christ.
In the life of the Honors College, please give attention to the following:
• I’ve beamed with pride in reading annual faculty performance reviews, along with annual reports and planning for the year ahead documents. None of us could have predicted a year like 2020 turned out to be. Yet under challenging pandemic circumstances, we accomplished fine things in and beyond the classroom. For your creativity, dedication, forbearance, good will, and capable work at every turn, you have my admiration and gratitude. As we turn toward staff performance evaluations in coming days, I look forward to similar pride. It’s a privilege to lead and serve alongside and on behalf of you.
• Our former Honors Program colleague, Andy Hogue
, currently serves as associate dean for engaged learning in the College of Arts & Science. Among other things, Andy helps students around the University explore prestigious post-baccalaureate scholarship opportunities. His office recently published a Why Fulbright
video that features five recent HC alumni: Abby Miller, Kyle Desrosiers, Jamie Wheeler, Micheal Munson, and Emma Weatherford. I expect you will enjoy seeing and hearing with pride the words of these former students, so give the video a quick look.
• In a wide-ranging interview with Jeremy Tate, president and CEO of Classic Learning Test (CLT), I recently had opportunity to highlight our work in the Honors College and reflect on the mutually enriching relation of faith and reason. You can hear the interview as an installment in CLT’s Anchored podcast series here
. A number of other—and I dare I say more fascinating—episodes are available within Anchored on the general topic of education and culture.
• The application
process remains open for University Libraries’ Summer Fundamentals of Data Research Fellowship program. Any humanities faculty or others engaged in rhetoric-based research are eligible to apply. The fellowship offers a self-paced orientation to state of the art digital humanities research methods, as well as personalized support for bringing such methods to bear upon current research projects. The fellowship also carries a $1,000 stipend. Further information is available within the application, and Ellen Filgo
, the HC’s library liaison, is a good point of contact as well.
• As part of ongoing work to make a Baylor education affordable and to offer competitive scholarships to high-ability students, endowed scholarship funds are a major priority. I’m happy to announce three new gift commitments to help support this effort. They include the Linda DuValle Family Endowed Scholarship Fund, a Hord Challenge Scholarship
for the benefit of any HC student. The Russ and Debbie Phillips Endowed Scholarship Fund has also been created, benefiting HC students in the Baylor in Washington, DC program. In addition, Michele and I are grateful to have begun an endowed scholarship fund for the benefit of HC study abroad students.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689