Here are some things Mike Tyson and I have in common. We’re both from Brooklyn. We both have Italian-American men as mentors and role models. We both love Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. We both believe in redemption. Iron Mike looks to Mecca for his understanding of redemption, and I look, as the days of December wind down, to Bethlehem and also, of course, to Calvary.
I haven’t yet read Tyson’s new memoir Undisputed Truth or seen the HBO movie of the same name, but there has been a lot of press surrounding both. Joyce Carol Oates has an excellent review of the book in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published a short article by Tyson in which he discusses what he likes to read. He writes,
I'm currently reading "The Quotable Kierkegaard," edited by Gordon Marino, a collection of awesome quotes from that great Danish philosopher. … I love reading philosophy. Most philosophers are so politically incorrect—challenging the status quo, even challenging God. Nietzsche's my favorite. He's just insane. You have to have an IQ of at least 300 to truly understand him. Apart from philosophy, I'm always reading about history. Someone very wise once said the past is just the present in funny clothes. I read everything about Alexander [the Great]… Everyone thinks Alexander was this giant, but he was really a runt. "I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity," he said. I so related to that, coming from Brownsville, Brooklyn.
What did I have to look forward to—going in and out of prison, maybe getting shot and killed, or just a life of scuffling around like a common thief? Alexander, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, even a cold pimp like Iceberg Slim—they were all mama's boys. That's why Alexander kept pushing forward. He didn't want to have to go home and be dominated by his mother. In general, I'm a sucker for collections of letters. You think you've got deep feelings? Read Napoleon's love letters to Josephine. It'll make you think that love is a form of insanity.
Tyson assures us, “I don't really do any light reading, just deep, deep stuff. I'm not a light kind of guy.”
Paul famously warns that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor. 8:1). Even the deepest reading – the kind of reading that includes Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Alexander and Napoleon – doesn’t bring salvation. We shouldn’t seek redemption in gnosis, but in agape, not in a formula, but in a person.
And yet … I want to read Tyson’s memoir because I earn my bread by teaching students deep books, and I want to see what connections, if any, Tyson draws between his reading and his redemption. Was Tyson’s experience in his jail cell similar to Augustine’s experience in the garden? Did his interest deep reading come before or after his conversion? How has his reading shaped who he’s become?
Neither I nor my students have faced the highs and the lows that Tyson has faced. And it’s unlikely that we will. Yet even in one term I’ve begun to see how their reading has helped them figure out who they are. Just last week, in a final oral exam one student told me she never thought about the relationship between love and truth before reading John’s Gospel. Another told me that she hadn’t thought about how your identity is deeply tied to what you love and why you love it before she read Augustine’s Confessions. (Alas, some students think that Marcus Aurelius’s Mediations is a first-century philosophical exploration of #yolo, and I can’t get others to understand that adding ’s to a noun doesn’t make that noun plural. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.)
I hope that the readings we've done this term have helped them realize that both learning and redemption are gifts not easily accepted. Our celebration of Advent reminds us of the importance of preparation and patience. As someone who’s both constantly unprepared and horribly impatient, it’s a tough and necessary season. It’s all the more necessary for a teacher who can’t know if the seeds he’s tried to sow will land on the road, or on the stony ground or among the thorns or on the good ground (cf. Mark 4:2-9). Inspiration comes from the most unlikely of places. The wind blows where it will (cf. John 3:8).
I emailed Tyson’s WSJ piece to my students a couple of days ago. I’ll have to wait until January to find out what they thought. Soon and very soon. But now it’s back to grading. A blessed rest of Advent and early Merry Christmas to the dotCom community.