It was funny that he had sent me an email this day of all days, asking if I'd be interested in a game (he'd noticed my set when he stopped by for drinks last week), because I had chess on the mind, too. I had just finally gotten around to enhancing and converting to digital files the video I shot with Brett Boessen of the January 1996 Notre Dame Folk Choir tour of the southeastern United States. In the first section, in this scene below, where I'm standing in line to board the bus at a rest stop in northern Florida where we had stopped and played for a famous hour, you can hear the Director, Steve Warner, mocking me in the background. I'm talking to a few people in line, holding J.P.'s travel chessboard, as I had started playing a game with him before we broke off to play tag with everyone. Unbeknownst to me, Steve was making a joke, having moved one of J.P.'s pieces while we were away, thus putting me in an impossible position. And so you can hear Steve in the background, saying to someone, "Oh, Mike, you're so intellectual: let's see what happens now!" (This makes me feel less embarrassed about our juvenile ragging on him in the next part of the video.) In fact, I remember sitting down on the bus and then looking at the board for the first time since picking it up, and going, "What the hell?! That can't be right!" The irony is that, for all that I was the "academic" grad student, playing chess with J.P. was and is for me always a lesson in humility: he almost always mops up the board with me, though I learn a lot from it. So, having just seen and played with this video, chess was on my mind.
On the ride down to Dan and Amy's, we talked directly about his research, and the current book he was working on regarding the state of contemporary Martin Luther scholarship, and shaking up some off some of its staleness in order to revive interest more broadly in just why Luther matters. Once faced with Amy's appetizers, we instead got to talking about the pluses and minuses of university education being increasingly conducted on a scientific and/or business model, I think out of some meeting Markus had had, which brought to mind some reading I had been doing in Gillian Evans's rather brilliant Academics and the Real World.
Somehow from there we got to talking about sending the kids to the German school here in town, and the language benefits for them, which then lead into a talk on how Markus's two kids were doing, with his son thinking of becoming a renaissance man of a pilot who reads The Odyssey in the original Greek and composes music on the side, and his daughter as she is on the cusp of going to university. Markus rose up in challenge to something I said and got to talking about the relative unimportance of atheism as the principle problem for theological education as much as simply the indifference we have today in a consumer society about any call for a particular way of life: that nothing has any implications for how we should live, whereas in the ancient world it was always understood that philosophy was the critical science because it intrinsically meant a way of life, and was never "just ideas." From here we spent a long time talking about liturgy, moving from liturgical and church problems in Germany to a more general conversation about what were the general benefits of liturgy: educating and inculturating the gospel, contrasts between denominations that did not stress a formal liturgy, or differences between liturgies of the Word and liturgies of the Eucharist, while I developed a point I had become aware of over the years of how I valued the liturgy's forcing me to keep moving through many moods of prayer, not letting me settle or focus on whatever my own psychological/spiritual mood happened to be in a given moment: to ease me from one spirituality or spiritual mode to another, and into the mysticism of the Eucharist.
Then we got to talking about the ongoing difficulty of transmitting the faith in our larger church communities, and how even the parish was too large a group in contemporary times to instill the kind of community it once had, particularly as in the United States there was less and less of the ethnic factor augmenting church efforts. We talked a lot about small groups, and what a force those were for spiritual development, and I certainly felt – from my university years and my dive into Evangelicalism at that time – that that had been a critical part of my formation. And so I wondered out loud about how the Catholic Church might better encourage such groups, even though that raises the complications that can come with a lack of oversight or more educated guidance at times. At this point we were also talking some about Catholics' frequent ignorance of Scripture or even their fear of it. This came up simply because small groups can be such great places for scriptural reading, learning and prayerful incorporation into a spiritual life. It came out at this point that Markus had an entire book for which he had been unable to find a publisher in Germany on humour in the lives of the saints, and how much humour was in their writings, their lives, and the outlook. We all thought he might find a publisher more easily in the States, but that would necessitate translating the entire text into English, which was a possibility he clearly did not relish. Somehow the end of our conversation before dinner, as best as I can recall it, seemed to come to a discussion about the acidity in white wine, which had less to do with where the conversation had been as it had to do with what we were drinking with our hors d'oeuvres.
Dinner was a joy, with teriyaki and Cajun styles of grilled salmon, Amy's risotto, and green beans. Dan opened a bottle of the Masciarelli Montepulciano d'Abruzzo that we will often use as our not-too-expensive red with dinner. Conversation became more family-centered, and we heard about Markus's growing up as the son of a well-known architect in Hamburg, and how that informed his feeling that his daughter might enjoy university away from FrankfurtMain where she wouldn't have to be constantly known as his daughter. We spent a phenomenal amount of time trying to figure out that the English name for a tree he was trying describe was "beech," which included a phone call to Mike's German mother before Mike hit upon the idea of grabbing Dan's massive German-English dictionary and just looking it up. I talked about Nathaniel's baptism, and conversation about books and movies worked its way in to the mix when I asked about whether there were any new additions to his list of 100 Best Books, a personal list he and a friend back home each keep, with any new additions having to be explicitly justified. The sad news was that that friend was now fading from cancer, we found out. Picking up later on the general theme of recommendations, we got to talking restaurants (capitalizing on Markus's status and knowledge as one of Germany's most famed food critics) and what new recommendations for Milwaukee he had to make, all of which I've now forgotten and will have to ask him about. By the end of the night, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about bats again, picking up off from the children's book he had given the Lloyd kids, which he now showed to Amy. And so we found ourselves sharing bat stories, which somehow morphed into sharing owl stories, particularly about the little owl that has been living in his yard for some six years. (And would that writing about, and trying to preserve some sense of all this talk was nearly as fun as the talk itself!)