My new Reading the Signs Foundation.
I would appreciate any help any of you might offer with this Foundation, which fell through just as we were about to take off on 9/11. It now looks like we have a green light again with the blessing of the Religious Studies Dept. at CU Denver. It’s an innovative and exciting opportunity which I cannot accomplish alone. But then that’s true of everything.
Thomas Ramey Watson, Ph.D.
Reading the Signs Foundation
The prototype of this foundation was a proposed literature and religion program involving my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Denver, and Hope Communities in Denver. Because of various factors, I now have the chance to revive my plan in some new way, probably as a private foundation working with CU Denver and other interested parties anywhere in the world.
Building on a foundation of truth and justice, and the peace that grows from this quest, I propose a partnership between more traditional university students and those in the larger community—the inner city, churches, synagogues, mosques, various races and income levels, and so on.
I have been networking with that goal in mind. I began this project just before 9/11 and had The Univ. of Denver and Hope Communities in Denver interested and working to implement it. Unfortunately, when 9/11 hit, funds were frozen and people hunkered down, afraid to move forward.
Dr. Lynn Parry, M.D., long-time President Elect of the Colorado Medical Society, says that the CU Medical School would be interested in joining us. She knows me and something of my work. The Medical School believes that doctors need better training in the humanities and more experience with diverse populations. Many of us believe that people are in need of a better grounding in the Great Western Tradition. A better understanding of the traditional reading of signs and typology is also in order. According to the Augustinian tradition, it is through learning to read the signs properly that we develop a true sense of self. We then join God’s carmen, his song, his universe, his poem. All my books, both scholarly and creative, speak in various ways to this issue.
There should be grants available–from Pew Foundation, Eli Lilly, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and various federal, state, and local govt. programs, among others.
Carolyn Plumber, a retired high school teacher of English that I taught when she had taken a sabbatical to work on an M.A. at CU-Denver, is interested in helping with this program. She wrote a glowing commendation of my teaching. When I first talked with Hope Communities about my proposed Literature and Religion Program, I talked with Carolyn about doing some one on one tutoring with those who needed/wanted it. She understands the minority population very well because she taught for years at East High School and is married to a recently deceased African American, Adolph Plummer, a former basketball star and high school principal/college administrator. Carolyn is sharp, reads and thinks deeply about issues, and is a fair but demanding teacher—just what I want. She’ll be glad to talk with any/all of you if you desire.
I teach using a Socratic method. I rarely lecture, at least not for long. I will inform students of basic facts they need. I will steer them when they’re going wrong. I assign readings that I expect them to do before each class. Together we explore our understandings and insights.
I like seminars of say, 3 or perhaps 4 hours. They’re easier for most people to attend, though meeting twice a week for 1½ hrs would be fine. Weekends and evenings work well, though daytime hours are OK too. When we use films, I like the idea of people watching the movie together and discussing it afterwards. If students like the idea of everyone taking some food to class and sharing it with each other, that often breaks the ice.
Some of the courses below would be year-long courses. Some could be taught in one semester. Shorter versions could also be offered over a weekend or two. All can be offered for credit or not.
I’m open, and innovative.
Purpose of This Program
In this program we will become more aware of the interrelationships between language and culture, culture and consciousness, and literature and consciousness, so that we might become more awake and possess a stronger sense of ourselves. We will practice a variety of abilities important to college achievement, as well as to life-long learning: reading (print and non-print media), writing, speaking, listening, computer literacy, and learning-to-learn as well as learning-to-live. Genuine, human, exchanges among peoples of various races, creeds, religions, genders, orientations, ages, experiences, and socio-economic levels will be stressed.
Students will become much more tuned in to the great philosophical traditions of the West which are foundational, involving Platonism, Neo-Platonism, typology, and sign theory (semiotics). Traditional sign theory argues the necessity of proper reading of signs which are everywhere, so that we are not merely looking at reflections of reflections but discovering and turning inward and upwards toward essentials, toward truths that traditionally were held to be eternal, thus worthy of our time and attention. Subtly, through our readings, class discussions, tutorials, and various assignments, students shall also become acquainted with Aristotelian methods of gathering evidence for deductive reasoning, which should be combined in good Western fashion with intuitive (Platonic) insights.
Proposed Courses (Still in Progress)
In a letter of reply to an editorial in the 1897 Bookman, American poet Edward Arlington Robinson wrote, “The world is not a ‘prison house’ but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell ‘God’ with the wrong blocks.” Trying to spell God is an old theme, still universal, concerning most of humanity, which has arrived at various spellings, though sometimes none at all. Some would try to give God a rest (another kind of spelling) and take over themselves. Some have even tried to cast a spell on God.
In this course we will examine various aspects of the spelling God theme, using poetry (Herbert and Donne), a play (Pomerance’s The Elephant Man), a novel (Walker’s The Color Purple), movie (Gods and Monsters), and some short stories.
The Mystery at the Core
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that virtues are only potential until we successfully own them. We do so because we have passed the tests necessary to embody those virtues, to bring them into our lives and ourselves, where they help to inform, to create, us as human beings. To recognize those virtues and make them our own, societies have typically recognized the role of priests and shamans, men and women believed to be called and empowered by God, or the gods, to help others on their journey.
In this course we will explore the notions of the shaman and healer, purgation and purgational states, which involve the process of testing and owning our virtues, of becoming more fully ourselves. Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet, The Tempest; the films Resurrection (Director: Daniel Petrie, 1980); Truly, Madly Deeply; The Sixth Sense; What Dreams May Come; Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits and Peter DeVries’ The Blood of the Lamb (novels). Key notions to be examined will be the importance of imagination and vision, and the roles of the individual as well as the community, in this purgational, healing, and testing, process.
The Environment and Social Justice
The first African-American to hold the post [of Head of the Environmental Protection Agency] also said she realized the challenge of reaching urban high-rises in a movement many associate with “sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes.” But she had hope, she said, in training programs and in young people “who are embracing the green economy.” It’s necessary, she said, to make clear to people suffering immediate economic distress the relationship between “traditional civil rights and social justice issues” and environmental justice. From http://www.politicsdaily.com/…/obamas-epa-chief-lisa-jacks…/
If we fail to see the bigger picture, this linking might seem far-fetched, but I am convinced it’s apt. Michelle Obama’s work with the White House garden and making healthy food available in food deserts certainly has made this notion more mainstream. We must learn to be mindful of our impact on other human being, animals and plant life, and the world at large. If we do not learn to respect all of life, we ultimately damage ourselves and our children.
Our culture is moving from the notion of dominating the world to shepherding it. Writers however have long been more perceptive. They’ve shown us that interactions with nature are more complex. Nature, or God in nature, acts upon us as much as we act upon it. If we are not careful to respect natural laws—God’s laws—we pay dearly.
My second dog book (in process) takes place at my home that I bought new in 1998. I dared to buck the system by changing all my lights to compact fluorescents, installing a composter, avoiding pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides as much as possible, buying things with little packaging and additives, recycling, and putting in water-wise landscaping watered only by a drip system. In my yard everything blooms, starting early in the spring and going until we have a heavy frost. Many of these practices I’d developed years before. There was nothing in the Decs or Covenants that forbade it.
Some of leading lights here dared to ask what it was like to be down at my end surrounded by Hispanics. I looked surprised, because I’d never thought about it. I’ve lived among Hispanics my whole life and enjoyed generally good relations. With explorer, pioneer, and homesteader roots, my family never expressed racist sentiments. I was encouraged to learn Spanish and explore other cultures—which became a lifelong pursuit. The movers and shakers of my community were folks who also put out their flags and declared those of us who spoke up against the invasions of Iraq as traitors, for Bush and Cheney could not be wrong. Our country’s infamous notion of Manifest Destiny was rearing up again.
Until our big drought had set in five years after I moved in and landscaped the HOA kept trying to force me to un-xeriscape and put in the rocks and blue grass that they deemed fit—despite the warnings of the Denver Water Board, conservationists, and ecologists. These folks also persecuted my next door Hispanic neighbor who was dying of kidney failure, diabetes, and breast cancer because she failed to keep the weeds in her yard under control. While I too did not like the weeds, I constantly confronted the persecutors over their inhumanity. The last thing a dying woman needs to worry about is keeping her yard looking perfect. Nor did I need to be threatened with fines and lawsuits to force me to conform to unwise ecological and social practices by people who refused to be educated.
For this course, some field trips along with our readings would be appropriate. Through friends in the Denver Water Conservation Department, I earlier located a black lawyer who took inner city youths on nature outings. She expressed an interest helping with this course. I don’t know if she is still around, but I can find out.
Fantasy and Religion
After a period of atheism, C.S. Lewis became a Christian—an Anglican, to be exact—embracing the Great Tradition, still influential in our day. Like that of the early Church Fathers, Lewis’ Christianity was highly Platonic. He believed that language and signs ought to lead us to eternal truths. We will read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces for their literary merit as well as to explore traditional notions of good and evil, heaven and hell, purgation, salvation, free will versus predestination, and love and community.
What if God Was One of Us
So the title song from the prize winning CBS television series Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005) begins. Taking seriously the core belief that God becomes human in incarnational theology, the series writers have God appearing in various human guises to a young woman who promised God that she would do anything if he allowed her brother to survive a car wreck. Paralyzed from the waist down, the young man survives, testing the family in ways they’d never expected.
Appearing as a young girl, an old lady with glasses, a transient, a teenage boy, and so on, God tests Joan by asking her to perform tasks that seem trivial, confusing, and even contradictory. However, they always end up improving the larger situation, for the repercussions of our actions and our lives are manifold.
In this class we will view and discuss the profound theological and psychological implications of this series and the lessons it suggests about the deeper wisdom of reaching out and daring to take risks in order to better the lives of those about us—and ourselves.
In this bittersweet BBC TV series from the early 1990s, Mulberry, the Cockney son of Death and Springtime appears for a household job one day with no references. He sweet talks his way into the home of the dour old Miss Farnaby. Instead of taking her right away to “the other side,” as Mulberry has been assigned, he and she manage to develop a unique kind of love over several months. Despite the consternation of her staff, Miss Farnaby manages to blossom like spring under the tutelage of the mysterious Mulberry. She in fact becomes an embodiment of Springtime, Mulberry’s mother, in the near-death body of an old woman, a human bridge between life and death, just as Mulberry is a spiritual bridge between the two—a key paradox that has characterized life on earth from the beginning.
In this class we will view and discuss the profound theological and psychological implications of this series and the lessons about learning to live, and love, even though death is ever-present. If we fail to grasp this paradox, we fail to live fully. And, we fail to embrace death. Learning to balance both aspects of being is key.
Great Foreign Films
In this two or three quarter course we will view and discuss some of the following films (depending on length of the course): Bergman (Wild Strawberries, Seventh Seal, Face to Face, The Magic Flute), Fellini (8 ½, Amarcord, Nights of Cabiria, La Strada), Wenders (Wings of Desire) Renoir (Grand Illusion) Truffaut (Jules and Jim, Day for Night), Olmi (Tree of the Wooden Clogs), De Sica (The Bicycle Thief), Weir (The Last Wave), Russell (Women in Love), Ivory (Maurice, Room with a View) Carne (Children of Paradise), Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus), Von Sternberg (The Blue Angel), Bunuel (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Viridiana), Kurosawa (Rashoman), Batalov (The Overcoat), Subiela (Man Facing Southeast), Itami (Tampopo), de Broca (King of Hearts), Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux).
Love in the Western World
Using some classic texts we will examine the wide ranging issues of divine and human love. Are they exclusive? Must they oppose each other, as they often appear, or can they be wedded?
Christian concepts of the hero echo and refine those of classical and pagan cultures. Christian culture expects our heroes to be strong and virtuous, but instead of shedding blood, the Christian hero is expected to avoid that as much as possible. After all, Christ has shed his blood for us. We are expected to follow his example in all things. The virtues he exhibits are those of self humbling and denial so that God lifts us up instead. The putting down and lifting up are often ironic.
We will begin with the Iliad and then the Aeneid and move on to some Medieval texts, such as Gawain and the Green Knight, some Renaissance and 17th century texts, such as Spenser’s Red Cross Knight of the Fairie Queene, and Milton’s Paradise Regained, along with Samson Agonistes (with its Hebrew view of heroism), and move to more modern Christian heroes, such as those in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. We will not only read written texts but look at movie versions of some of these works.
There’s a long world tradition of stories about animals who teach humans that pay attention. The lessons they teach depend largely on one’s culture and tradition. For that culture and tradition largely determine our perception. To a lesser degree, our individual upbringing and experience also influence such perceptions.
Most pertinent to the world’s recent financial debacle and continued advancement of the big divide between rich and poor, The Little Red Hen used to be read to children in Western culture as a story espousing the virtues of capitalism. If you did not work, the Little Red Hen ordered that you did not eat. Like a good boss, she ran the barnyard. But those from cultures where cooperation and a strong sense of the entire group’s good have looked at the little Hen in horror. She cares only about her own prosperity with little attention to the good of the whole community. She is blind to the usefulness of the dog that lies around sleeping most of the time, failing to recognize the protection he offers the other animals.
In this course we’ll look at a number of such tales that can be read from various perspectives, and on various levels, depending on the lenses each of us brings to our texts.
My popular memoir, Baltho, The Dog Who Owned a Man, the first in a three books series about my extraordinary experiences with dogs and cats that have come into my life, would be a good text to use in this course. These animals have helped with my counseling, not just as typical therapy animals, but as co-therapists that point out things I may have missed without their intuitive insight. I will develop the course further, just as my gifts and insights have grown and deepened over the years since the death of my hound Baltho and his two subsequent incarnations.
I have been recalling more of the innovative proposals I made when I was at CU-Denver. I thought of another that might well happen now that my former Chair has retired and the head of Religious Studies, Prof. Sharon Coggan is very interested in my work (they like interdisciplinary offerings, often from English Dept. professors). I happened to meet Vanessa Redgrave after watching her performance in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. We had breakfast a few days later, and I asked if she would consider coming to Denver to do a workshop, maybe on Shakespeare’s play. She said she would like that, had never been here. She said she wouldn’t ask for much, since we were an institution of higher learning.
Unfortunately, for a host of reasons Ms. Redgrave’s workshop never materialized. However, I have her home phone number and that of her agent. I’d still like to get her to Denver, and maybe we can now do that.
I have started my own publishing company, Barn Swallow Media, with an editorial board comprised of publishing authors and editors. We will publish good books that might not be commercially successful because we take a strong truth and justice stance, along with an eye to ecological and community soundness. I hope to find business and institutional sponsors who will buy copies to distribute to their customers who share the vision. I’m thinking again of social justice organizations, alternative energy companies, faith based organizations, and so on. From what I’ve learned, we can find grants to help us with this endeavor.
One of the books I’m pondering is a memoir about my learning to be green at an early age:
I started gardening as a child. On my mom’s side we had pioneers, homesteaders, and a well known French Canadian explorer (Jacques LaRamey). My grandfather was born in a sod house near Iliff, on the prairie of northeastern Colorado. My great aunt Kate still lived in a soddy (sod house) near Iliff, CO, when I was a child. We’d visit her. She kept bees in her attic that we had to pass through going down into her earthen dwelling. She was a tiny woman, like my great grandmother Ramey, but both were strong and determined They had to be, just as their men were survivors who made the best of things.
I learned early that water and natural resources were limited and precious, so I became ecologically minded as a toddler. This passion has grown over time. Because of my expertise in these areas, I am in a great position to pass this knowledge on.