Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • What if Jesus had been born Female: A Christmas Fable

    • Posted on Dec 16, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    Dec. 16, 2013
    I first dreamed this up maybe thirty years ago, and the Courier published it many times over the years at Christmas.  The last time they published it, however, it drew sharp criticism, even a couple of threats and I've hesitated to submit it again. I'm sure some readers considered it part of the "War on Christmas" and they objected, vociferously.  

    Still, it's worth pondering:  What if Jesus had been more female?   

    **************************

    Every December Christians repeat the same story, and even non-Christians have to admit it’s a great plot.

     It pits the meek against the mighty, poor against the rich, the outcasts against the insiders.  It’s complete with a joyous ending, not to mention the founding of a world religion.

     It’s so powerful that no one thinks twice about recycling it every year.  The same ought to go for alternative versions, such as the following recycled Christmas fable, which I wrote years ago, freely adapted from the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

    Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for this which is conceived in her is of the holy spirit.

    She will bear a son or daughter and you shall call his or her name Jesus or Jesse, for he or she will save his or her people from their sins.”

     While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to be delivered.  Lo and behold, Mary gave birth to their first-born daughter and wrapped her in swaddling clothes and laid her in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  

    Following the angels’ suggestion, she named her child Jesse.

    Now in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone all about them.  They were sore from riding camels all day but now they were also sore afraid.

    And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Jesse the Queen.

     “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

      When the angels went away from them into heaven the shepherds said to one another, “A little GIRL, our savior?  Can this be true?”

     “A female savior? A lady Lord?  Women can BIRTH saviors, but they cannot BE one.  Everyone knows that!”

    And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph.  They looked with wonder on the babe lying in the manger.  And they made known that which had been told them concerning this child; all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

    But the shepherds were no longer sore afraid.  Now they were just plain  sore. 

     “What happened to the good old days,” they grumbled, “when only BOYS could be saviors?  Has anyone ever heard of a little girl becoming anything but a wife, an old maid, or a witch?”

    The shepherds grew discouraged and went home, thinking the real savior had not yet been born.  “Probably some maverick angels,” one of them said, “Or maybe that frankincense is getting old.”

     Along the way, they met three wise men who had also heard the news.  The shepherds stopped the wise men, saying “Turn back. Save your frankincense and myrrh. Wait until the real savior comes along. This one’s only a baby girl named Jesse.”

    And Mary, mother of Jesse, kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

     “What if little Jesse had been born a boy?” she wondered, after she and Joseph had returned home. Would he have been worshiped as a real savior?”

    Mary prayed nightly that if her daughter Jesse had any special powers she would keep them to herself.  Little boys with special powers, she knew, often became saviors, founders of great religions.  Little girls with special powers were usually burned as witches.

    Baby Jesse grew nto a wonderful woman, a friend to all in need, and wise beyond all men.  Thanks to her mother’s teaching, she never used her miraculous powers, and never married.

    Jesse lived and died in obscurity, beyond of her small circle of friends.  Meanwhile, all around the world, wise men kept waiting for the real savior.

     

    Merry Christmas, everyone. 

        

     

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  • David Crownfield's Last Presentation

    • Posted on Nov 25, 2013 by Scott Cawelti
    Professor Emeritus David Crownfield died last Wednesday, November 20.   He will be missed, and is remembered.   

    In the late 60s I took "Introduction to Philosophy" with David Crownfield, a new and youngish professor at UNI.  He was funny, intense, lively, and knew how to challenge undergraduates.  

    I remember at the end of one class he looked at us rather whimsically and said, 
    "You always have a choice, and it's life and death.   There's the window" (we had open-windowed classrooms) "And there's the door.  You're always free to choose."  

    The window was probably only a  few feet off the ground, but I took his point.  

    Over the years I knew him as a UNI colleague, and shared many a drink with him and bought books from his used bookstore on the Hill.  And I listened to his presentations for 'Supper Club," a group of professors and non-academics (equally) that met once a month to listen to each other's prepared presentation.  

    I just received this today from Judy Harrington, also a member of the Supper Club: 

    (Used with permission) 


    David's final presentation to  Supper Club was on April 15, 2008.  At the time, he was living at the Western Homes' Stanard Center and was having difficulty figuring out how to use the facility's computer. So, David asked if I would let him stop by my home to type and print his talk. I offered to do the secretarial work for him; but he insisted that he'd be OK at the computer. As I settled him into my desk chair with a fresh Word page on the screen, I glanced at David's legal pad which was full of scribbled handwriting. I left David to his work, skeptical that he would be able to translate scribbling to typed text. Yet, he emerged from the den about an hour later, smiling broadly and ready for me to print out his talk. David also asked that I save the talk "just in case" he wanted to send copies to certain folks later. In fact, sometime following that Supper Club meeting, at his request I made a dozen copies for him.

    I recall that evening's meeting well. David managed to read his paper without much faltering. However, during Q and A, we quickly became aware that it was increasingly difficult for him to hold onto the thread of the discussion. His formerly robust, argumentative, firmly articulated perspectives were to be no more.

    UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER
    David Crownfield 
    April 15, 2008  

    I begin my presentation this evening with a quote from Rodney King: “Why can’t 
    we all get along?"  I want to reflect on the problem of understanding each other: why it is so hard when it is often so important, and what can be done about it?

    We need to understand each other to get along. To understand others, what do 
    we need to understand about ourselves? Our understanding of the world and 
    our sense of right and wrong are shaped by our upbringing, our experiences, our learning, and through the perspective of our hopes and our fears, our cravings and our resentments.

    We tend to evaluate others by how well they live up to our standards, while we 
    disregard the possibility of understanding their standards, rooted in their own 
    experience and context.

    We live in communities and are shaped by the influence of neighborhoods, 
    schools, churches, sports, opportunities, successes and failures, models from 
    family and community, and from parental and neighborhood behavior, teachings 
    about behavior, attitudes expressed by others about what is “not us” “not cool”, 
    “sinful”, or whatever.

    We depend on acceptance by our family and community, and we tend to bend 
    our understanding of things in ways that help us to get along with the family 
    and community. We learn from family and community and from parental and 
    neighborhood behavior, from teachings about behavior, attitude expressed by 
    others about what is bad, not us, not cool, sinful, or whatever.

    We continue to adapt as we seek to secure our acceptance in the family and 
    community, to secure our inclusion together with the others.  The very language we use is acquired from the others, based on the patterns of association, of the sounds of talk with the kinds of things that are happening or are desired or feared. By a back and forth interplay we come into communicative connection with the others, but the uniqueness of each one’s experience and understanding is never fully recognized or overcome, even in learning the language. ]

    We develop a sense of what the sounds mean, and the consequences that come with hearing or using them. As there is never a uniform basis for standardizing meaning, there always remains some unrecognized gap in our understanding of the other. 

    The damage that could come from this gap is held down by our common need to get along, to be included in the family, the group, the good people, the true believers, and such. But the gap in understanding is never entirely overcome.

    The very language that we use develops originally at home, in a unique context 
    for each of us. When we get outside the family, we adjust enough to understand 
    each other, but the difference between what we understand and what the other 
    understands is never eliminated. Over time we adapt our sense of meanings 
    to fit with the others, but the gap is never reduced to zero. Dictionaries map 
    statistically calculated definitions in order to help reduce the problem but it never finishes the task. The differences remain ambiguous, an unrecognized gap in the understanding of one another.

    The same kind of problem occurs in the area of values and in the development 
    of community goals, practices, and points of view. Again, conciliation develops 
    by mutual adaptation to the context up to the point where a stable sense of 
    community agreement and inclusion is achieved. [But the agreement always 
    retains the ambiguity of all these adaptations, so the agreements, and the 
    security itself, remain ambiguous.]

    As the process builds enlarging spheres of conciliation and consensus, a sense 
    of membership and security develops, while the ambiguity is unnoticed, and the 
    stakes of solidarity are raised as success increases the value of the (always 
    imperfect) stability. This reduces the margin of tolerance in the community, 
    making conciliation at the same time both more urgent and harder to obtain when a difference occurs.

    These conflicts can develop between neighborhoods, religious groups, schools, 
    business competitions, ethnic differences, sporting enthusiasm, attitudes about 
    the people on the other side of the tracks, or the river, or whatever.

    The gradual escalation of both the need for conciliation and the sense of 
    threat create a high risk of conflict, even violence. Between large, similar, but 
    differently conciliated groups the sense of threat can lead even to war.
    If we understand the problem of understanding, we should understand the crucial importance of mutual conciliation. At the same time, we can see that the more successful the in-group conciliation, the more it increases the sense that any concession, any conciliation other than on our terms, would threaten the security achieved by the existing, challenged perspectives, a threat experienced on both sides of the conflict. 

    Add major killing-power, and there is an urgent need to conciliate the differences and at the same time a felt urgency to suppress the other’s non-conforming ideas and behavior which threaten our identity and security—which means breaking off conciliation. A dominant power may feel secure in breaking off, but a dominated group may cause a lot of havoc through terrorist tactics, which anonymously hit and run in order to strike while bypassing the overall power of the dominating force.

    Louise Richardson, a recognized scholar of the history and dynamics of terrorism (who lectured at UNI a year or two ago), notes that terrorism is typically a reaction to colonial domination and exploitation. She supports this thesis in an examination of colonial terrorism over centuries and virtually all continents. 

    In my terminology, the root of terrorism grows among dominated and exploited 
    peoples where no conciliation of conflicts about standards and values can be 
    achieved, since the colonizing power feels no need to conciliate. Mohandas 
    Gandhi achieved conciliation in India by a different tactic, an extraordinary path 
    of accepting the oppression and sacrificing safety and risking life to expose 
    the false claim that the exploitation was benevolent and also in accord with the 
    British consensus of values and of Britain’s own interests – and compatible with 
    Britain’s self-image.

    We prefer that those hostile to us follow Gandhi’s approach rather than that of 
    the terrorists. But the preference suggests that we believe that without terrorism 
    we wouldn’t have to respond to their grievances, because we think peaceful 
    resistance wouldn’t succeed against us.  We were horrified and outraged by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Our response tended to be an impulse to find them and smash them. They didn’t protest their situation like Gandhi, and we didn’t respond to our situation like Gandhi. The question of conciliation was ruled out on both sides as being impossible to achieve. We simply called the terrorism Evil, which essentially declares that conciliation can not possibly be considered. 

    This is a common use of the word “evil” to indicate an action which we exempt ourselves from understanding or conciliating.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I abhor terrorism, as I do war, and especially war that 
    rains on non-combatants. I believe the holier-than-thou perspective suggested 
    in our reactions has as its effect the declaration that conciliation is unthinkable, 
    grievances have been disqualified from redress, the problems that motivated the 
    reaction are not subject to conciliation, regardless of the problems for which they in an era of environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation, or the fear of it, the exclusion of conciliation could lead to the destruction of the human population.  

    I hold that the survival of human life in this world depends on our learning to 
    prioritize understanding over killing, and over the so-called understanding rooted in the outrage and horror that motivates us to strike back violently. The growth of large communities of conciliated values and understandings has escalated the importance of defending the values and principles that secure that solidarity, and escalated the sense of threat and the response to it, to a level that the long term can not abide, and the extremities already enacted escalate the risk that we will strike back and/or others will strike out. 

    The threat of breaking down of our solidarity and security makes conciliation very hard to attempt even as the same problems and risks escalates its urgency, and technology escalates the scope of damage that can be done. We need to discover how to get beyond this impasse between escalated need for conciliation and escalated resistance to it. If we won’t love our enemies, we need at least to listen seriously to their concerns, and see the co-existence not “with them” but between all of us (them included).

    I end, as I began, with Rodney King’s question: “Why can’t we all get along?” 
    That’s a question about us, not about whom to blame!












































     












































     











































     










     


    UNDERSTANDING THE OTHER

    Presented by David Crownfield at Supper Club, April 15, 2008

    I begin my presentation this evening with a quote from Rodney King: “Why can’t 

    I want to reflect on the problem of understanding each other: why it is so hard 

    when it is often so important, and what can be done about it?

    We need to understand each other to get along. To understand others, what do 

    we need to understand about ourselves? Our understanding of the world and 

    our sense of right and wrong are shaped by our upbringing, our experiences, our learning, and through the perspective of our hopes and our fears, our cravings and our resentments.

    We tend to evaluate others by how well they live up to our standards, while we 

    disregard the possibility of understanding their standards, rooted in their own 

    experience and context.

    We live in communities and are shaped by the influence of neighborhoods, 

    schools, churches, sports, opportunities, successes and failures, models from 

    family and community, and from parental and neighborhood behavior, teachings 

    about behavior, attitudes expressed by others about what is “not us” “not cool”, 

    “sinful”, or whatever.

    We depend on acceptance by our family and community, and we tend to bend 

    our understanding of things in ways that help us to get along with the family 

    and community. We learn from family and community and from parental and 

    neighborhood behavior, from teachings about behavior, attitude expressed by 

    others about what is bad, not us, not cool, sinful, or whatever.

    We continue to adapt as we seek to secure our acceptance in the family and 

    community, to secure our inclusion together with the others.  The very language we use is acquired from the others, based on the patterns of association, of the sounds of talk with the kinds of things that are happening or are desired or feared. By a back and forth interplay we come into communicative connection with the others, but the uniqueness of each one’s experience and understanding is never fully recognized or overcome, even in learning the language. ]

    We develop a sense of what the sounds mean, and the consequences that come with hearing or using them. As there is never a uniform basis for standardizing meaning, there always remains some unrecognized gap in our understanding of the other. 

    The damage that could come from this gap is held down by our common need to get along, to be included in the family, the group, the good people, the true believers, and such. But the gap in understanding is never entirely overcome.

    The very language that we use develops originally at home, in a unique context 

    for each of us. When we get outside the family, we adjust enough to understand 

    each other, but the difference between what we understand and what the other 

    understands is never eliminated. Over time we adapt our sense of meanings 

    to fit with the others, but the gap is never reduced to zero. Dictionaries map 

    statistically calculated definitions in order to help reduce the problem but it never finishes the task. The differences remain ambiguous, an unrecognized gap in the understanding of one another.

    The same kind of problem occurs in the area of values and in the development 

    of community goals, practices, and points of view. Again, conciliation develops 

    by mutual adaptation to the context up to the point where a stable sense of 

    community agreement and inclusion is achieved. [But the agreement always 

    retains the ambiguity of all these adaptations, so the agreements, and the 

    security itself, remain ambiguous.]

    As the process builds enlarging spheres of conciliation and consensus, a sense 

    of membership and security develops, while the ambiguity is unnoticed, and the 

    stakes of solidarity are raised as success increases the value of the (always 

    imperfect) stability. This reduces the margin of tolerance in the community, 

    making conciliation at the same time both more urgent and harder to obtain when a difference occurs.

    These conflicts can develop between neighborhoods, religious groups, schools, 

    business competitions, ethnic differences, sporting enthusiasm, attitudes about 

    the people on the other side of the tracks, or the river, or whatever.

    The gradual escalation of both the need for conciliation and the sense of 

    threat create a high risk of conflict, even violence. Between large, similar, but 

    differently conciliated groups the sense of threat can lead even to war.

    If we understand the problem of understanding, we should understand the crucial importance of mutual conciliation. At the same time, we can see that the more successful the in-group conciliation, the more it increases the sense that any concession, any conciliation other than on our terms, would threaten the security achieved by the existing, challenged perspectives, a threat experienced on both sides of the conflict. 

    Add major killing-power, and there is an urgent need to conciliate the differences and at the same time a felt urgency to suppress the other’s non-conforming ideas and behavior which threaten our identity and security—which means breaking off conciliation. A dominant power may feel secure in breaking off, but a dominated group may cause a lot of havoc through terrorist tactics, which anonymously hit and run in order to strike while bypassing the overall power of the dominating force.

    Louise Richardson, a recognized scholar of the history and dynamics of terrorism (who lectured at UNI a year or two ago), notes that terrorism is typically a reaction to colonial domination and exploitation. She supports this thesis in an examination of colonial terrorism over centuries and virtually all continents. 

    In my terminology, the root of terrorism grows among dominated and exploited 

    peoples where no conciliation of conflicts about standards and values can be 

    achieved, since the colonizing power feels no need to conciliate. Mohandas 

    Gandhi achieved conciliation in India by a different tactic, an extraordinary path 

    of accepting the oppression and sacrificing safety and risking life to expose 

    the false claim that the exploitation was benevolent and also in accord with the 

    British consensus of values and of Britain’s own interests – and compatible with 

    Britain’s self-image.

    We prefer that those hostile to us follow Gandhi’s approach rather than that of 

    the terrorists. But the preference suggests that we believe that without terrorism 

    we wouldn’t have to respond to their grievances, because we think peaceful 

    resistance wouldn’t succeed against us.  We were horrified and outraged by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Our response tended to be an impulse to find them and smash them. They didn’t protest their situation like Gandhi, and we didn’t respond to our situation like Gandhi. The question of conciliation was ruled out on both sides as being impossible to achieve. We simply called the terrorism Evil, which essentially declares that conciliation can not possibly be considered. 

    This is a common use of the word “evil” to indicate an action which we exempt ourselves from understanding or conciliating.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I abhor terrorism, as I do war, and especially war that 

    rains on non-combatants. I believe the holier-than-thou perspective suggested 

    in our reactions has as its effect the declaration that conciliation is unthinkable, 

    grievances have been disqualified from redress, the problems that motivated the 

    reaction are not subject to conciliation, regardless of the problems for which they in an era of environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation, or the fear of it, the exclusion of conciliation could lead to the destruction of the human population.  

    I hold that the survival of human life in this world depends on our learning to 

    prioritize understanding over killing, and over the so-called understanding rooted in the outrage and horror that motivates us to strike back violently. The growth of large communities of conciliated values and understandings has escalated the importance of defending the values and principles that secure that solidarity, and escalated the sense of threat and the response to it, to a level that the long term can not abide, and the extremities already enacted escalate the risk that we will strike back and/or others will strike out. 

    The threat of breaking down of our solidarity and security makes conciliation very hard to attempt even as the same problems and risks escalates its urgency, and technology escalates the scope of damage that can be done. We need to discover how to get beyond this impasse between escalated need for conciliation and escalated resistance to it. If we won’t love our enemies, we need at least to listen seriously to their concerns, and see the co-existence not “with them” but between all of us (them included).

    I end, as I began, with Rodney King’s question: “Why can’t we all get along?” 

    That’s a question about us, not about whom to blame!

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