I don’t make a habit of reading David Brooks anymore, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t run across yesterday’s piece until just now. It begins, “Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family,” a sentence that immediately piqued my curiosity. Years ago, I had a professor with the same peculiar last name. The next sentence, about the death of a woman named Anna after she’d been thrown from a horse, confirmed that Brooks was writing about the same family whose father had once taught my Political Philosophy class.
His name was Ashley. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and I was a typically heady student impassioned by the notion of political contrarianism generally and reactionary liberalism specifically. The school was Wheaton College, a devoutly evangelical institution perpetually toeing the border between extreme-right social ideology and academic mainstream respectability. (It succeeded brilliantly in the former arena and marginally less so in the latter.)
I was conflicted, born into a conservative family cursed (blessed, really) to settle in the Boston suburbs. Despite my considerable social isolation as a child, enough of that famed Northeastern elitist progressivism rubbed off on me to be viscerally repulsed by the ménage à trois of religion, academia, and Republican politics that permeated Wheaton’s classrooms and chapel halls.
Ashley Woodiwiss was a godsend, an embodiment of absurd contradictions. He had seven children, but was nevertheless a high-church Episcopalian in the decidedly low-church bastion of American Midwestern Christendom. He always opened his class with a reading from his pocket-sized Episcopalian prayer book, repeatedly joking that he had no idea how to pray without it. Even this self-deprecation transformed itself, to my impressionable ears, into a subtle mockery of his evangelical peers: their casual descriptions of alleged interactions with God as the laughable contrast to his distinctly Victorian bedside manner with the Almighty.
I loved him for other reasons as well. On the first day of the semester, he inquired as to whether any freshmen were present. Upon hearing nothing, he continued, “Good. Now I can cuss and tell anti-Bush jokes.”
That fall, the Democrats finally retook the House from the GOP, ending their twelve-year reign atop the chamber. This utterly delighted Woodiwiss. Beforehand, while jokingly previewing his upcoming behavior at the polling station, he told us he planned to ask an election official where exactly the “no-electioneering” line ended, step as close to it as possible, yell “Throw the bums out!” and then stride purposefully inside to cast a vote to do just that to the Republicans.
During another class session, he mused, “Jimmy Carter had Habitat for Humanity after he left office, Bill Clinton is a huge policy wonk now, so what’s Bush going to do? Speak to large churches?”
He assigned Shakespeare readings. Once, while attempting to show the class a production of one of the Bard’s plays on VHS (these were the old days, after all), he inadvertently switched the TV to a Manchester United game, whereupon he declared himself “morally torn” and proceeded to watch for several more minutes.
I remember, finally, a game he used to play on Mondays. “I want to hear three stories from this weekend where you remembered you go to Wheaton,” he’d say. A student would call out, “I went to a twenty-first birthday party and no one was drunk.” Someone else might add, “The highlight of my weekend was finding hash browns in the cafeteria on Sunday morning.” “Fantastic!” he’d respond, practically giggling.
It was, indeed, moments like these that endeared him to me most. Reading back through emails I wrote to my family at the time, I’m a little taken aback to find my barely-exaggerated descriptions of him as, alternatively, “St. Ashley Woodiwiss” and a “demigod.” Hovering beneath the surface of my academic man-crush was my giddiness at feeling like an insider: I felt at the time as if I were the only student who truly understood his acerbic wit and, more importantly, was intellectually sophisticated enough to endorse his progressive politics and share his sarcastic dismissal of evangelicalism.
This was probably not perfectly accurate, of course. But reality felt sufficiently similar such that my enjoyment of his class owed at least as much to my fellow students’ imagined bewilderment at his antics as it was to the substance of the jokes themselves.
Years later, I ran into another former student of his, now knee-deep into the (smoldering ruins of the) conservative intellectual sphere. He kindly forwarded me some favorite Woodiwiss quotes he’d once compiled and sent to the professor. Reading them now, I’m almost shocked at their mundaneness:
- “I was sitting there swilling beer and watching football games all day long New Year’s Day.”
- “I don’t see how you can be a Republican and be a Christian.”
- On Exxon: “Hell no, they are terrorists, they are destroyers, they are raping the environment.”
- “Every Protestant church starts off with a split.”
It’s difficult to fully appreciate, over seven years later, what it was about this brand of humor that so captured me as a rapt 19-year-old. There is, moreover, an inescapable irony in the fact that I received this exhaustive list of Woodiwiss’ anecdotes from a very conservative classmate, an implicit rebuke of my longtime “insider” illusion. Indeed, given the benefit of hindsight, the quote that stands out most to me now is this one: “This is the Wheaton version of a liberal,” he said once. “At Chapel Hill I’m a fascist.”
He isn’t wrong. There was little truly radical about Ashley Woodiwiss. Stripped of any context, his ironic musings were red meat to malleable students craving brain food. But despite their appearance in his Political Philosophy class, these quotes were neither political nor philosophical in essence.
In David Brooks’ piece, which discusses the death of one of Ashley’s daughters and a serious injury to another, Woodiwiss speaks of lessons learned. “Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.”
It’s not a direct quote, but I’ll take it. It sounds like something my old Political Philosophy professor might have said. Right before trying to convince everyone that George W. Bush was the worst American president of all time.