Stephen Burke

Among their faculty members, most colleges will have standouts or even superstars, as Cornell has certainly had over the years.

Carl Sagan was perhaps Cornell’s biggest star, known even to viewers of the Tonight Show. Vladimir Nabokov enjoyed levels of fame for dozens of books (including a collection of his Cornell lectures) and infamy for one, Lolita. Many other Big Red luminaries can be found in Wikipedia and had (or will have) obituaries in the New York Times.

Not a celebrity, but among Cornell’s finest scholars was Calum Carmichael, who taught Bible study in the department of Comparative Literature. 


Carmichael’s teaching wasn’t about religion. It was about writing, and insights into writing made possible by close reading.

His classes were unorthodox. There was no reading list. The Bible was the only text. There was no syllabus. There were no tests, just writing assignments, with no length requirements, on subjects you chose yourself. 

The reading assignments were extremely short, at least in text, not time.

I think of Carmichael this Christmas season. In his day he might have given as an assignment the two Biblical narratives of Christ’s birth. The first, in Matthew, is about 700 words. The second, in Luke, is about half that.

Carmichael explained the catch in the first class. He said he expected you to read assigned texts not once, not twice, not five times or ten or even twenty or thirty times, but fifty. At that point you might have an idea of what the writer was attempting and with what success.

He said class discussion, and our participation in it, would count heavily in grading, and the questions we raised and understanding we showed, or didn’t, would tell him how many times we had read the text. Count on that, he said.

Similarly for our papers, he said. He would know how much time we had spent reading and would grade accordingly. He acknowledged that the course was a “gut,” in the parlance of the time, but not if a good grade mattered to you, in which case it would be time-consuming and tough.

He warned that grade inflation was not to be expected, that his experience was that most students would do average work, for which he’d give an average grade, or C. He said he knew most students considered a C an insult and we should drop the class if we felt that way and were not motivated to be exceptional. (He was “old school,” quite literally: Scottish, and a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge, I forget which; but both old schools, to be sure.)

I liked his challenge. My first paper analyzed the phrase “the leaven of the Pharisees” used by Christ in Matthew 16.

I read the text in multiples of fifty. I remember the day papers were due, entering class with a friend. I forget what his subject was, but I asked if he had read his text a hundred times or so, as I had. 

He asked if I was crazy. I said I wanted to do good work and see it reflected in my grade. He said he wasn’t concerned about the teacher’s admonitions and was sure his paper would get over.

I remember when we got them back. I was happy and satisfied with my grade of A-. My friend was stunned and chagrined by his D+. I can’t recall if he wised up next time.

Thinking of all this, I read the Christmas narratives this week. By the thirteenth time through or so, I was struck by the repeated references to “dreams” in Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth.

Matthew writes that Joseph learns of the nature of Mary’s pregnancy when “an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream” to reveal it. 

After the birth, the Magi visit and bestow gifts, and are prepared to return to Jerusalem where they had met Herod, until “they received a message in a dream not to return to Herod,” who wished to learn the child’s location not to honor but kill him. 

The next sentence says, “After they had left, the angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph” to tell him of Herod’s intent and to flee with the child and his mother to Egypt.

Herod dies, and “the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt” to tell him it is now safe to leave for Israel. Despite misgivings, Joseph sets out, but ultimately changes course: ”Instead, because of a dream, Joseph went to the region of Galilee.” 

In Luke, there are no dreams. Angels “appear” and “return to heaven,” but the word “dream” never appears.

Is Matthew (that is, its authors) superstitious? Do they think their readers are? Are Luke’s authors empiricists who will only relate such visitations as actual?

The questions are literary, not religious. So are the answers, at least the ones I have.

They must go untold here, but they’re probably worth only a B, anyhow. I didn’t read the text even forty times. Apologies, Mr. Carmichael. 

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