Essays by Earl R. Snow

Point of View, The Port Jefferson Record (circa 1978)

Putting real meaning into “community”

Earl R. Snow One midnight recently My Daughter The EMT hastened up to the garage of the Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Company, behind Mather Hospital, just to see the newly delivered ambulance donated by the Lions Club. She also climbed out of a friend’s swimming pool in Miller Place on one of our heat-wave afternoons to go home and “cover” for an on-duty Emergency Medical Technician, who had to go to the doctor. By her comings and goings I have been led to think about all the “invisible” organizations which help to make up our community.

I think of how many man-and-woman-hours of hard, often unrecognized work by the Lions and their wives and friends resulted in a $26,000 ambulance being given to the Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

I think of how many times I have heard my friend Richard Crystal telephoning his fellow Freemasons to attend a funeral of a deceased member, and I remember how moved I was by the respect and solemnity with which they conducted Vandy’s masonic service.

I remember from years back, when some neighborhood kids set fire to the woods behind our house in Belle Terre, how the Port Jefferson Volunteer Fire Department responded — it seemed as if by magic — in only a couple of minutes. And how often I have heard that siren sound in the hours before dawn, and turned over in my bed and gone back to sleep, knowing that “they” were taking care of it.

I remember from when I was twelve or thirteen, my father and Al Atkinson and Fred Schultz and Al Goll and Vandy and others traveling by the carload to American Legion funerals, bringing old World War I rifles and firing a salute over the coffin, and then I would play Taps on my cornet. And every Fourth of July — the only time, really — the Legion and VFW and the K. Of C. and the Moose, the Elks, Rotary, the Lions, the Boy Scouts ands Girl Scouts, the Masons, all the fire departments on the North Shore, the women’s auxiliaries, and so many, many more, all would become visible for an hour on parade, then go quietly back to their unseen work.

Some people say those “the good old days” are gone, if they ever really were as good as memory paints them. But if you poke around a bit in the new impersonal, busy, do-your-own-thing, dog-eat-dog world, you will still find all those service organizations still serving away.

They are not perfect. Some are too exclusive, some too inbred, some hampered in their desire to serve by inner strife and petty jealousies. But we who turn over in the night and go back to sleep owe much to all those who are putting real meaning into the word “community.” One suggestion: when they make their various appeals for financial support, we can at least whip out the checkbook and do the easy part.

Point of View, The Port Jefferson Record (January 27, 1977)

On the illiterate high school graduate

There is a five-million dollar suit being initiated against Copaigue by Attorney Siben of Bay Shore. The case concerns a semi-literate young man who holds a diploma from Copaigue High School. The suit raises several interesting and important questions.

The first is: Whose fault is it that the young man can’t read or write above an elementary-school level? That opens a can of worms, but a few things can be said to help untangle it.

One thing is that if nine out of ten of the young man’s classmates can read and write “normally” for high-school graduates, then there is nothing actionably wrong with the school, the teachers, or their methods.

A second thing that can be said is that it may not be sensible to look for “fault” in this situation. Whose “fault” is it that only a few of the thousands of young people who want to act ever make it to the stage? It is only in the cloud-cuckoo-land of hopes and dreams that all our sons and daughters become college graduates. The facts are quite other. Unless each child is made “verbal” in his first few years, he will never be at ease with reading, writing, and speaking.

Early Imprinting Vital

Animal-behavior experiments by Dr. Konrad Lorenz and an accidental dropping of a baby into a swimming pool suggest strongly that there is a built-in genetic sequence of learnings in living creatures including young Donohue. For us humans, it apparently includes “imprinting” baby for language success while he is just beginning to make babbling noises. If he passes through his “imprinting” days without being “languaged,” then he will have trouble with language for the rest of his life. If this theory is true, and if it is the explanation for the young man’s problem, then he should be suing his parents. The school system got him too late for anything but an attempt at repairs… something like what Anne Sullivan did for Helen Keller.

A third observation is that there is a better-than-even chance that Donohue picked up from his parents, friends or relatives that good old American attitude towards education, “eggheads,” schools, and teachers. It is perfectly illustrated in “de Tokeville’s” ballad which polluted half an editorial page in The Record a few weeks ago — a half-contemptuous, half patronizing condescension towards a profession and a person regarded as perhaps necessary but subtly inferior to “real” work and “real” people. If, in their subconscious, some students and teachers are brought up to regard schooling as an adversary process presided over by well-meaning nitwits, then those students (and those teachers) will be marginal successes at best. “They make me come to your ——— class to take your ——— subject, so go ahead and try to teach me” “You come dragging your ——— butt into my class with that ——— look on your face, and I’ll make you learn or you’ll wish you had.” That is distinctly not a learning atmosphere, at least not for book-learning.

What Does a Diploma Represent?

Much (much) more could be said about whether Donohue’s failure is anyone’s “fault,” but there is still another can of worms to be opened. If this semi-literate boy has a high-school diploma, then what does that diploma represent, and how did he earn it? Don’t forget, there are thousands of him, clutching their diplomas and peering into an uncertain future.

Well, on the lowest level, guaranteed to raise the blood-pressure in many a taxpayer’s veins, a Donohue diploma is an expensive piece of paper certifying that he finished his last three years of school attendance in the Copaigue High School. (Not meant as a wisecrack.)

On a more complex level the diploma is at least (1) A part of the 300-year-old American dream of true citizenship for all, to free the mumbling masses of peasants so necessary to church and state dictatorships. It was no less than universal education, one of the noblest visions ever seen by mankind. (2) A door-opener for most employment. It won’t keep you in the job, but you can’t get the job without it. (3) A reward for being a reasonably decent and cooperative young person. 4) A weak guarantee that the possessor is socially mature enough to take a place in our civilized society. (5) Problematically, some sort of warranty of acceptable literacy. It was for this that the Board of Regents instituted the Minimum Competency Exam requiring an “eighth-grade” education of high-school graduates. (If I sound bitter, it’s because I’ve been living with these paradoxes for 29 years.)

The problem obviously is the distance from 1 to 5, from the dream to the reality. Put it this way: if you must have a job to live like a human being, and if you must have a diploma to get a job, then you must have a diploma to live. Not necessarily an education, but a diploma. And the teachers have had to face that fact. Weeping and wailing about “standards,” they have been slowly forced over several years to award a diploma to practically everyone but social psychopaths. Try to imagine young, 17-year-old Donohue in a fifth-grade class half-full of 11- and 12-year old girls who are beginning to feel, in that immortal phrase, the “first faint stirrings of womanhood.” Do you leave him in there, or get him out? And if you get him out, where do you put him?

No American Dream

In the bad old days, and I certainly make no brief for them, the sociopaths, the “nonverbals,” the physically and mentally handicapped never got near a high school. They were simply lumped together as “uneducable” and dumped. There was no American Dream for them. Yet they could have been educated, most of them, and they can be today, as the extreme case of Helen Keller shows. But not in a classroom of 20 or 30 “verbal” children. It takes something more like the way Anne Sullivan did it for Helen.

So, the bottom line, as always, is money and priorities. We spend billions for “defense,” for booze, cosmetics, second cars, sporting events, you name it. But what community is willing to pay as much as it would cost to rescue all the Eddie Donohues? Have you been reading The Record on a program for the learning disabled? Anne Sullivan was trained, hired, and paid for.

Attorney Siben and his client are only the first of many to come, I suspect. If ever you, patient reader, find yourself on a jury trying such a case, I beg you not to buy any simple-minded assessment of “fault” or “damage.” What the schools should and can do and how they should go about it is at least as difficult a question as world peace or world prosperity.

The writer is a resident of Port Jefferson, a teacher at E.L. Vandermeulen High School and frequent contributor to these pages.

Needless Doubt: Mark 4:2-24, 33-34

by Earl Snow June 10, 1979

This was a sermon my dad did many years ago at the church at which my dad was choir director. The “terrific bridge at the West end of the Island” he mentions is the Brooklyn Bridge, on the New York City end of Long Island.

Something Bill Strong said last month brought me up short. Forty years ago I had a pretty standard conversion experience, such as characterizes the life of many sixteen-year-olds, and for some time I had wings. But I lost them, and maybe twenty years ago I decided to dump the whole God Hypothesis, bag and baggage, and take, like, one world at a time. That is something like taking the top off your head. Then Bill said something about “working out your salvation in fear and trembling,” a verse which I have known since I went to Sunday School, but never really thought about, because the idea of working for salvation ran counter to being saved by Grace, and that as the gift of God. You see, I didn’t notice that it says working out, not for. So perhaps that is what I have been doing. In any case I am still a doubter, holding an agnostic position, but over the years I have put many doubts to rest. It was to tell you about them, so that if you have had them you can do the same, that I accepted this invitation to speak to you.

I entitled this message “needless doubt,” but I could as easily have called, it “unnecessary doubt,” which is a straight synonym, or “baseless doubt,” a some-what metaphorical synonym, or “doubt built on sand,” a straight-out metaphor. For those of you who don’t remember what a metaphor is, it’s a way of describing or explaining something by calling it something else. When we say that someone isn’t playing with a full deck, or isn’t wrapped tightly enough, we are speaking in metaphor, we are describing the person’s mental state by using metaphors from card playing or Parcel Post. We are so used to using and hearing and interpreting metaphors, that we don’t even notice them except when we fail to solve one.

That’s why I could, have called this message “Doubt Built on Sand.” I could have been reasonably sure that such a title would have communicated my meaning, and reminded you of one of the parables in the bargain.

The key word in “communicated my meaning” is “my.” Whenever I speak or write to you in the language we both know, I always communicate some meaning — perhaps more than one. The big problem is: do I communicate my meaning — what I wanted you to understand? For example — there were two hunters out sloshing through the mud and marsh reeds, single file, looking right and left into the sky. Suddenly the man in the rear yelled, “Duck!” “Where?” yelled the other man, just as his companion shot him in the head. That failure of communication was caused by three things working together. The first was plurisignification — one word, “duck,” with two or more meanings. The second was mis-understanding of intent, which in this case was warning, not information. If the man in the rear had yelled, “You’d better duck!” or “It’s time to duck!” it would have let the other fellow know that “duck” here is the verb meaning “bend down.” He wouldn’t have guessed wrong and thought it meant “I see a duck!” Of course, they were hunting ducks, so he was using context. He just didn’t have enough.

Content, intent, and context. Together they communicate the intended meaning. If you miss one or more of them, you get the wrong meaning. Obviously, most of the time we talk about things and actions, and when our sentences are about concrete objects and physical acts, with no complicated metaphors, no subtle sarcasm, we don’t get into much trouble communicating.

“I put the apples in the refrigerator,” “Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.” “Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it and gave it to this disciples.”

Ah, if only we could stop there, all would be so simple and clear! But it continues: “saying ‘Take it; this is my body,’” That sounds as though it could use some context, so we turn from Mark to Luke and find: “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” Matthew says, “Take and eat; this is my body.” As to the meaning of “This is my body,” tens of thousands have died fighting over it. Even if you ignore the physical context — that Jesus was standing there in his body, offering some fragments of bread. which he had just broken — and even if you ignore the apparent intent to institute a memorial ritual: “This do in remembrance of me” — in other words, even if you ignore two-thirds of the determinants of meaning and consider only the bare-faced content of the words, you still have a monumental problem. For “This” refers back to the bread. Thus the sentence reads: “This bread is my body.”

We could spend two weeks on “is” but we don’t have them. Let me suggest that Jesus was not using the literal “is” of identity, as in “This man is my father” or “This book is a dictionary,” Rather, he was using the metaphorical “is” of “This man is my strong right hand” or “This show is a turkey.” Perhaps if the priests hadn’t been so delighted to be able to perform a genuine miracle — transforming bread into flesh — every time they “did this in remembrance of Him,” they would have had no trouble interpreting “This is my body.” After all, everyone seems to have understood “I am the vine; you are the branches.” “I am the gate for the sheep.” “I am the light of the world.” not literal — not literal — not literal!

I can’t emphasize too strongly the necessity in dealing with doubts caused by problems of understanding the scripture, of trying to get all three components of meaning right. First you go from the content — what the words say. If they say what appears to be some kind of nonsense, you can at least suspect that you have metaphorical discourse to interpret, the kind that baffled the disciples in today’s scripture reading. That means that you fasten seat belts, say a prayer, and see what you can find of intent and context to help clear up the problem.

I picked Mark 4 for the scripture lesson today because it contains — aside from the long metaphor about the sower and the seed and the soils — a passage that sends people up the wall. Listen to it again, from verse 10:

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables, so that ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

This is so devastatingly wrong-sounding that poor Professor J. Newton Davies, in the Abingdon Bible Commentary, throws up his hands and says: “…the evangelist was a man of decided opinions, one might even call them prejudices.” He seems to have thought that the purpose of Jesus in teaching by parables was to confuse the minds of the unbelieving masses and to prevent them from understanding the message of the Master. In this he is clearly wrong and has done Jesus a grave dis-service.

I told you the passage drives people up the wall. But Professor Davies may have given up too soon, for he is saying in effect, that Jesus could not have said what Mark reports him as saying, so Mark is wrong. And if Mark is wrong, then so are Luke and Matthew. Here is Matthew 13:10:

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah.”

Ah! A clue to context! We are driven back to Isaiah 6:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
He said, “Go and tell this people:
‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.
This people’s heart has become calloused;
They hardly hear with their ears,
And they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
Hear with their ears,
Understand with their hearts,
And turn and be healed,’”
Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?!”
And He answered, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant.”

This changes everything. Jesus is now seen to have been quoting what God said to Isaiah. Before we can even guess what Jesus meant by the reference, we must attempt to figure out what God meant by His words to Isaiah.

Of course we have a paradox in Isaiah 6. It’s as though you were to send someone a telegram saying “Ignore the contents of this telegram. Stop.” On the one hand God is sending Isaiah to his people with a message, and on the other hand he is apparently instructing him to tell the people, “Hear but do not understand. See but do not perceive. Otherwise you might be healed.”

Suppose, however, that God, who is extremely annoyed with his people in Isaiah 6, is being sarcastic. Then we have a situation which is familiar and understandable. Most of us have used sarcasm on our children, or had it used on us by our parents. It consists in saying the opposite of what you mean, and is another kind of metaphor. You are driving your father downtown, and you hit a hole in the road. He says, “There’s another one down the road a ways. If you try real hard, you can hit that one, too,” Or you say to your dare-devil 17-year-old at the beach, “That’s right! Go ahead! Swim in that surf and drown yourself! Serve you right!” This is a kind of non-literal communication which we know how to interpret. And far down, sadly, we often know that our children are going to go right ahead and do what we are warning them against.

So if we now go back to Matthew, Mark, and Luke we have a deeper contextual frame from Isaiah, and a possible intent on the part of Jesus to use a little sarcasm on his inner circle. He had reason to be slightly annoyed, when even his own disciples were so dense they couldn’t unravel the parable of the sower, And this in a country and among a people where much teaching was done in parables. If your father were trying to get you to straighten up and fly right, and you were being unusually uncomprehending — and no one can be thicker than a child who doesn’t want to get the message — and if he said to you, “That’s right — don’t pay any attention to me. Don’t listen to what I’m trying to tell you. I only want to ruin you anyway.” — would you interpret that literally? And if not, why would you take God literally in Isaiah 6, or Jesus literally in Mark 4:12? Indeed, if you read on in Mark 4 you get some more context. Look at verse 33: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, AS MUCH AS THEY COULD UNDERSTAND.”

What I have tried to say thus far is that much of the doubt caused by reading and quoting the Bible is the result of sloppy, uninformed, uncontexted, un-interpreted reading and quoting. It’s not just that it sometimes causes doubt in the people who do it, although it can certainly do that. It also causes needless doubt in the people to whom it is done. The fact is that most people who claim to read and believe the Bible literally, word for word, haven’t the faintest idea of what they’re saying. They would be insulted at your blasphemy if you said to them, “Since Jesus said ‘I am the gate’ do you suppose he had hinges?” Yet literal gates have literal hinges, if they are of any use. We must undoubtedly object to the dear, simple-minded souls who say, “Oh, I believe every single word of the Bible.” or “Every word in the Bible is literally true.” The only single words in the Bible are probably Amen and Selah. All the rest of them are arranged in sentences, thousands of which are metaphors and all of which are in a context. They have to be interpreted, or they will surely be mis-interpreted. However, suppose you have done your homework, found out the verbal content, the intent, and the verbal, physical, and historical context, found no metaphors, and feel reasonably sure you have straight-forward narrative — just plain information. And it says;

In the fourth watch of the night he came to them walking on the sea,

And a little further on:

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water,” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.

Here we have a source of doubt for many people which does not come from mis-interpretation of the scripture. The sentences are easy enough to interpret, and they can be multiplied.

Matthew 8: Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

These statements cause doubt because they contradict what we know — or think we know — about how the world is ordered and arranged. They involve anti-gravity or at least suspension of gravity, for walking on water, and mental control of matter, for calming winds and water.

Of course, if the world were a vast complex machine operating in undeviating obedience to a set of scientific laws (which it may indeed be), and if we knew and understood all of those laws (which we do not), then we could say confidently, as thousands do say: “(1) The law of gravity cannot be suspended, (2) There is no way that mind can exert force on matter. Therefore, whatever else it contains, the Bible is full of nonsense, and anybody who believes those fairy-tales is a candidate for the funny farm.”

Obviously the subject of doubt in God and the Bible caused by conflict between what He is supposed to have said and done and what we think we know to be “possible” is far too big to be dealt with in ten minutes. Let me suggest, however, that if we take those confidently-spoken sentences one at a time, they are very instructive.

(1) The law of gravity cannot be suspended.

There is no one on earth who knows what gravity is, or what causes it to do what it does, if indeed it is an “it.” Einstein, who did not like the concept of force, as in the “force of gravity,” because “force” cannot be explained, reduced gravity to a geometric explanation. I don’t know what that means. In any case, someone who says that suspending the “law” of gravity is impossible is in exactly the same case as a Hottentot native who knows nothing of electromagnetic waves and says that television is impossible.

(2) There is no way that mind can exert force on matter,

If I tell you that there is no one on earth who knows what matter is, or what force is, or what mind is, then you will see that the sentence is triply vacuous. Compared to the unknowns in that sentence, “God is love” is almost easy. It would be much more accurate for the true scientist to say, “Since I don’t know what mind, matter, and force are, or even if they are, I can’t tell you what they can possibly do. All I can say is that I don’t know how to suspend gravity, or influence material objects with my mind, but that has nothing to do with whether or not it can be done, or whether at some time a man knew how to do it.” That would be as refreshingly candid as it is rare.

The way it is, an irreligious person frequently says, “You people talk about God, Satan, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation, soul. Heaven, resurrection, grace, righteousness, and what not, and neither you nor anyone else knows what those words stand for, or even if they represent anything at all. ” If he is saying that we cannot point to something, the way you can for “cat” or “brick,” of course that is so. But a religious believer ought to reply, “You people talk about matter, energy, electrons, force, gravitons, quarks, charmed particles, waves of probability, and what not, and neither you nor anyone else knows what those words stand for, or even if they represent anything at all.”

He may reply, “Well, we can make predictions; we get results.” So can the religious believer reply, “We can make predictions, too, and we also get results. If our predictions and results are not as consistent and clearcut as yours, it’s because we are dealing with human hearts and souls, and there are more variables than with atoms and molecules.”

You see, the religious believer’s position, when compared with the materialist’s or the positivist’s is not nearly so weak or fantastic as is usually supposed. They too have their unknowns, only they call them quarks instead of souls.

I cannot conclude without saying a word about evolution, which was a body-blow to the church and the Bible in the nineteenth century, one from which both have not yet recovered. Ever since Darrow made a monkey out of Bryan at the Scopes trial, anyone who has reservations about the Darwinian account of the origin of the species and the descent of man has had to speak softly for fear of ending up in the cage with Bryan. Yet the Theory of Evolution has been compared to a string of beads with the string missing, and it has at its core the sufficiency fallacy, as you will see.

The Bible says, in the first chapter of Genesis, and you may take it factually or metaphorically, that the various branches of life were specially created — every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind — the wild animals — the livestock — all the creatures that move along the ground — finally, man.

On the other hand, the theory of evolution teaches that the various branches evolved from a primitive form, which apparently became alive by chance accretion of accidentally combined organic chemicals in a saline medium. All that was needed then, and here comes the sufficiency fallacy, was sufficient time for that first form by accidental mutations to become all the forms that now exist and that have existed in the past. How much time was needed? Hell, nobody knows, but there must have been sufficient time, because it happened. How’s that for an argument?! It is not really too persuasive, because no amount of time is sufficient to cross the Grand Canyon in two jumps. And if you are to survive, you have to reach the other side. To show you what I mean, let’s consider the opossum. Let’s concede that accidental mutations caused the appearance of the reproductive equipment — eggs, sperm, uterus, birth canal, muscles for delivery. Then let us consider the ten newborn baby opossums. They emerge into this chancy world, and if they are to survive, an accidental mechanism must lead their mother to put them in her pouch, which is itself a pretty wild accident. Somewhere in there they must find projections to take in their mouths, and those, by God, had better deliver milk, not salt water, or there will be no more opossums. But, of course, there ARE opossums., So if you can believe that that long chain of mutually dependent mechanisms all developed accidentally, when every single one is necessary to survival, and if one is missing we go back to square one — no opossums — if you can believe that, then you can also believe that the million monkeys at typewriters for a billion years will eventually type out the Encyclopedia Britannica. And if you believe that, then it’s time to go try the two-stage jump over the Grand Canyon, but before you go, I’d like to talk to you about buying a terrific bridge at the West end of the Island.

It comes to this: there are, I think, legitimate doubts, based on strong arguments. The ones I have been talking about, however, are pretty shaky. If they have been bothering you, I believe you are justified in laying them aside and going on either to no doubts, or to the others. Everyone’s prayer in this endeavor is that of the father of the epileptic boy:

And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears,
“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!”

Earl Snow