23 July 2018

My Favorite Readings of Freshman Year

In college, we read a lot of amazing books, from science experiments to tragic plays to Sacred Scripture. In this post I'm going to share, in no particular order, some of my favorite readings from freshman year.

1. The book of Ezekiel
     For freshman theology, we read the entire Bible throughout the year. I enjoyed it as much as I expected to - maybe more - but I loved certain books of the Bible far more than I thought I would. Most of the books of the prophets were great, filled with solemn pronouncements and the various anecdotes so familiar to us. The book of Ezekiel was a whole different experience. Of course, I knew a few of the things that occurred in Ezekiel beforehand, but I had definitely never read it straight through before. It felt a lot more like reading Revelation than the other prophetic books, with all of Ezekiel's strange and disturbing visions. I didn't actually like reading it all that much, but our class discussions on Ezekiel were out of this world. 
     We focused especially on chapter 16, which is a rebuke of Israel for her faithlessness in view of all God has done for her. The imagery of a virgin bride turned harlot, which occurs in countless places throughout the Old Testament, here holds a unique bitterness, a tone reminiscent of a jilted lover. The author details how God brought up Israel to be a beautiful bride and adorned her with finery, but she turned away from Him and sold her beauties in sordid places. The comparison of Israel's sins with those of notorious cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah is harsh to the point of damning: "You have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed." (Ezekiel 16:51, NRSVCE) 
     One of the themes we brought up all year in theology was identity (I actually wrote my first semester final about it), so in Ezekiel 16 we talked about the repercussions Israel's sin has on her identity as the Beloved of God, as belonging to Him. If marriage is a choice to forever be identified with another person, a kind of renouncement of one's identity, then adultery and harlotry are forceful rejections of that identity. Sins of infidelity are a selfish severing of one's identity from that of one's spouse, thus losing a sense of self-identification. Israel has lost who she really is in turning away from God, and only returning to Him will restore her true "personhood". All sin, really, is this kind of rejection of our identity as belonging to God. When we sin, we turn away from who we are and seek to make for ourselves a new, autonomous identity. And since we are nothing without God, it never works. 
     Despite all this railing against Israel's harlotry, Ezekiel 16 ends with an affirmation of God's continuing fidelity and mercy. "I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord," it says, "in order that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the Lord God." (Ezekiel 16:62-63, NRSVCE). Nothing that Israel can do, not even this most abominable of sins, can stop God from loving her as His own, and He is willing to re-establish His covenant with her again and again, as many times as she repents and turns back to Him. There is no vindictiveness in this jilted lover; only deep and unutterable mercy. 
     These are only a few of the things we discussed in our two fabulous classes on Ezekiel. Since I don't have my Bible with all its notes in front of me, I'm sure I've left out a good deal. But here is a taste of why I loved freshman theology so much!

2. Aristotle's Posterior Analytics
     Yes, I was one of the few who thoroughly enjoyed our voyage through formal logic in freshman philosophy. I really like reading Aristotle, actually. His writing is dense, but he explains things in the same way that I think about things, so it is easy going for me. After going through all the valid and invalid syllogisms in the Prior Analytics, here we finally arrived at the real thing: unqualified scientific knowledge, and how to obtain it through demonstration from first principles. I wrote 1500 words on demonstration for my philosophy paper (it happened to be my favorite paper I wrote all year), so I could go on and on, but I will spare you. Suffice to say that I loved going through Aristotle's exposition of demonstration and its necessity for scientific knowledge. All this experience of logic really makes me aware of people's arguments and what makes them valid or invalid. (Shoutout to Mr. Oleson, too, for giving us two non-syllabus classes on formal and informal fallacies!)

3. The Oresteia
     The first set of plays we read in seminar was Aeschylus' Oresteian trilogy, made up of Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. Back in eighth grade, the Oresteia was my first introduction to Greek tragedy, and it has held something special for me since then. The plays are about the homecoming of Agamemnon from the Trojan War, how his wife Clytamnestra murdered him, and how his son Orestes returned from abroad to avenge his father's death by killing his mother. The main theme of this trilogy is a certain family curse which was called down upon Agamemnon's father, Atreides, after he committed an atrocious crime against his friend. As the actual substance of the curse is never explicitly stated, much of our discussion was taken up by looking at the clues and figuring out what the curse was.
     There is a disturbing cycle of guilt contained in the plot of the trilogy: before setting out to war, Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease Artemis, who otherwise would have sent unfavorable winds and not let them sail safely to Troy. Clytamnestra, later, kills Agamemnon on the grounds that he killed her daughter, which seems justifiable, though whether that was her only motive is highly questionable. Then Orestes, who is heralded by the Chorus as a kind of "savior from the outside", returns home and avenges his father by killing his mother. The Furies turn on him in the final play, condemning him as a matricide. The horrific cycle of killing a family member to avenge the somewhat-justified dmurder of another family member thus goes on for far too long before the gods step in and the Furies are sated. This, so my seminar thought, was the curse called down upon Atreides after he forced his friend to unwittingly eat his own children. It is a haunting and truly tragic chain of events, in which no character is either totally wicked or totally justified in his actions. One of my seminar tutors, our president Dr. McLean, brought up at the end of our discussion how this tragic cycle of guilt and need for a "savior from outside" to make things right sounds a lot like the state of mankind in need of a Redeemer. It just goes to show that the greatest minds of the ancient times, even before God's revelation, had some inkling of what was to come--and why it was necessary.

4. Gregor Mendel's experiments on genetics
     Natural Science was definitely the hardest class for me in freshman year. Despite it being the most intense and lively class for my already wild and combative section, I didn't find the subject material very engaging. That is, until we read Mendel. I have always been interested in genetics, and reading Mendel's own account of his experiments on his thousands of pea plants was fascinating. His simple method of observing and opening every single pea pod to record its characteristics yielded some remarkable results: probability ratios of offspring genetics, ratios of hybrids to constants, and proportions of how offspring would actually look compared to its genetic makeup (because of the tendency of the dominant trait to always manifest when present). It was amazing how, when he had enough samples (tens of thousands), the numbers he counted by observation matched up almost perfectly with the numbers he predicted by his probability ratios. Mendel's discoveries are still relevant today, as the quiet little botanist monk is now known as the father of genetics.
     Reading Mendel's report, I was so enthusiastic about his successful experiments that I explained it all to several people, including my suite mate Emily, whose section had the misfortune of skipping the Mendel reading due to schedule constraints. I had never experienced such excitement about natural science, and it was really a treat to participate in our two class discussions on Mendel's work.

5. Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War
     Thucydides was one of the two things we read in seminar that effectively killed almost all freshman enthusiasm. Our three weeks spent on him involved 150-200 page readings of dry historical accounts every week, which turned even finishing the seminar readings into a rare occurrence, let alone liking them. To be honest, I'm not really sure why I did like Thucydides so much. The military aspect of his history (it was about a war, after all) did not make it appealing, and the speeches interspersed between the accounts of battles were interminable and almost worse than the battles. But his style of retelling the events of the war kept it interesting for me, in large part because it was reminiscent for me of learning ancient history in elementary school, when my mom read to us aloud from A Child's History of the World. I understood the military maneuvers and strategies much better than I expected to, and found myself well able to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of the various decisions the generals and rulers made. My favorite part of the history was when the Athenians decided, against Nicias'--and Pericles'-- express advice, to try to conquer Sicily, which failed horribly. (As a side note, I was hardcore on the side of Sparta the whole time.) Another fun aspect of Thucydides was that afterward we read Aristotle's Rhetoric, which gave us new knowledge with which to analyze the numerous speeches in Thucydides, including Pericles' famous funeral oration.

These, among other things, were some of my favorite readings of my freshman year of college. It was an amazing year, as I can't stress enough. What an opportunity God has given me!

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