Friday, September 22, 2017

A Christian Poetic

Longinus in his work, On the Sublime, calls for both an elevation of thought and simplicity. In this work, he presents to the reader “an art of the sublime or lofty” (1). The Oxford Color Dictionary defines sublime: “1. Of great beauty or excellence. 2. Extreme or unparalleled.”[1] Longinus states that sublimity “is a certain distinction and excellence in expression” (1). The effect of sublimity on the audience is “transport,” not persuasion. He thinks the reader can resists persuasion, “but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over very hearer” (1). Longinus seems to be saying that the sublime creates in us an aesthetic experience where we meet the author in elevated thought. It is a work of imagination more than a work of reason. This is accomplished by “skill in invention and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard one result not of one thing or two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plentitude” (1). The order and arrangement of the composition is one of the principles of the sublime. Longinus essay on the sublime seems to demonstrate some of the things he is arguing. For example, his epistle is organized around his five principles of elevated language: 1. Power of forming great conceptions; 2. Passion; 3. Formation of figures; 4. Noble diction; 5. Dignified and elevated composition. How might sublimity inform a Christian poetic? This essay discusses how these five principles of the sublime could inform a Christian poetic.
            The most important principle, according to Longinus, is the “elevation of the mind” (6). Our souls must be nurtured on noble thoughts. It must be free of “low and ignoble thoughts” (6). This great soul is a person of moral character who has deep thoughts. This person has intelligence and wisdom from moral teaching and long years of practice. Noble thoughts will be demonstrated in the language used by the writer. Longinus surprisingly refers to Moses, “Similarly, the legislator of the Jews, no ordinary man, having formed and expressed a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead, writes at the very beginning of his laws, ‘God said’--what? ‘Let there be light, and there was light; let there be land, and there was land” (7). The author indicates great souls by mentioning people like Moses, Homer, Plato, and Sophocles. These are people above the ordinary. These are people that had great thoughts and wrote great words. These are authors that people continue to read thousands of years later. Longinus states, “When a thing is heard repeatedly by a man of intelligence, who is well versed in literature, and its effect is not to dispose the soul to high thoughts, and it does not leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey, but falls, if examined carefully through and through, into disesteem, it cannot rank as true sublimity because it does not survive a first hearing. For that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface. In general, consider those examples of sublimity, to be fine and genuine which please all and always” (5). Are their Christian works that meets this high standard? There are many Christian works that demonstrate these characteristics: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and others. Examples of Modern Christian Art would be the writings of Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, and William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Saul Bellows, and Wendell Berry. The author does not have to be Christian nor does the work need to address Christian themes directly to be considered Christian art. A Christian poetic will seek to emulate noble thoughts and lives, and it will transport the reader beyond their own world.
Two good models that demonstrate principles of a Christian poetic are C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It seems to fulfill all five principles of the Sublime. First, it forms conceptions of great power. Tolkien and Lewis creates uniques worlds which transports the reader to another time and place. They are works that call for repeated readings. They illustrate noble actions and noble character. Second, they illustrate “vehement and inspired passion” (5). For example, you have betrayal and the death of Aslan in The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. You have Frodo helped in fulfilling his mission by Golem’s biting off the ring and his finger. These works demonstrate the due formation of figures. For example, in The Silver Chair, Lewis gives us picture of the existence of truth, goodness, and beauty. It alludes to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Longinus states that authors should imitate and emulate “previous great poets and writers” (12). A fourth characteristic of the sublime described by  Longinus is “the choice of proper and striking words [that] attracts and enthralls the hearer” (24). Both Lewis and Tolkien through their language, diction, metaphors lift the reader out of their current context to a different world which ennobles them, delights them, and makes them wiser. The last principle of the sublime is “the arrangement of the words in a certain order” (30). This is seen by all the parts working together to produce a work of great power. The reader thinks about all the different parts of The Lord of the Rings and how they are different, but they all work together to depict a work of excellence. Longinus, On the Sublime, provides the Christian writer with five principles to help them create works of grandeur. In addition, we have Christians like Lewis and Tolkien to lead the way.

[1] The Oxford Color Dictionary edited by Angie Stevenson with Julia Elliott and Richard Jones. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 701.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Knowledge is Not Owned

James V. Schall, "Knowledge is not Owned" in Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught. South Bend, Indiana: ST. Augustine's Press, 2016.

I am giving my third read-through of Fr. Schall's book, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught. Schall is one of my favorite authors. Last week I was reading Horace's The Art of Poetry last week. It is an essay on how to write poetry. Horace was a Roman poet who lived before Christ. In this work, he states that an author should both delight and teach. This has been my experience in reading Schall is that I am both delighted and taught.

Schall wrote an essay that I have read many times. The essay is "What a Student Owes His Teacher." This is a surprising thought to students that they owe anything to their teacher. Schall states that the student owes the teacher the "willingness to do the sometimes hard work of learning." This idea might seem strange to many people since many people think students must be entertained. It is also a shock that to learn the important things requires hard work. A significant point that Schall makes is that this is one thing the teacher cannot give the student. The student must be willing to make the effort to learn. The primary agent is learning is the student, not the teacher. The teacher serves more like a guide. Learning is not something you can pour into the top of the student's head. To learn anything, the student's intelligence must be engaged. This willingness to learn is what Schalls calls docilitas.

Schall, in speaking about the desire to learn, asserts: "As a course progresses through a semester or a year, this willingness to be taught should rouse in the student something more. He should find in his soul a conscious desire to learn, a fascination with the whole enterprise, a sense that something exists out there that he wants to know" (3). This makes me think that the most important thing that we receive from education is the feeling of the incompleteness of our education and the desire to keep on learning. I started college over thirty years ago and my desire for learning has not left me. In reality, it makes me realize all that I do not know. Even a whole lifetime is not enough time to know all that we need to know. Schall asserts, "At the end of a course, a student ought to walk away satisfied that he learned something. But he is still fully aware that much is still there to know, deeper, more profoundly" (3). This reminds me of Plato's allegory of the cave which is an allegory of learning. We must rise from things that exist to the truth of things. We must contemplate the great ideas of beauty, truth, goodness, virtue, happiness, and other great ideas. This task cannot be accomplished in our schooling; it can only begin there.

Another truth is that learning facts are not the most important thing. Do not get me wrong; facts are important. However, we will forget more than we remember. The important thing is to have the desire to learn and keep on learning. We might even say that the student needs a passion for learning. Schall also says that the student "should experience a genuine pleasure" in learning. Schall adds, "this excitement and delight are not things that a teacher can give to a student" (3). A teacher can model this eagerness for learning. In addition, the teacher can introduce the student to the world of learning. The student, however, must have this desire for learning within themselves. They need to pursue the truth with a passion. Plato even said that the student needs an eros for wisdom. Schall is a good guide for the student with an eagerness to learn.


Monday, September 18, 2017

The Utilitarian View of Reading

Leland Ryken lists eight ways to misread great literature. The third way is to “look upon the classics as ‘improving literature’ (10).” One way to consider Ryken’s point is to think of reading as a spiritual exercise to improve one’s character. It is similar to listening to a sermon, praying, or listening to a lecture. Ryken suggests “that we view the classics as a form of entertainment first of all” (10). Cicero in his essay on the value of literature provides different reasons for the value of literature. Some of these reasons are: “provides my mind with refreshment after the din of the courts; . . . soothes my ears to rest when they are wearied by angry disputes” (395); provides material for his many speeches; better than participating in riotous living; and others. The argument in Cicero’s essay and a good bit of this week’s discussion seem very utilitarian to me. A typical definition for utility is “the state of being useful or profitable.” This post will argue that utility is an insufficient goal of reading.
Is Cicero really arguing for the utilitarian view of reading? First, is Cicero really arguing for a utilitarian view of reading. It seems like he does. Many of the reasons he provides for the value of literature are legitimate. Reading both refreshes and relaxes the reader after a hard day of work (395). It does provide material for speaking and writing (395). It does provide models worth emulating (396). Lastly, it does have a “broadening and enlightening effect” (397). Cicero, however, seems to be over-arguing his point which leads me to believe that he is trying to justify the extensive amount of time spent reading books. For example, he states that reading has not prevented him from helping people (395-396). He seems to be justifying when he says “I cannot therefore, I submit, be justly rebuked or censured if the time which others spend in advancing their own personal affairs, taking holidays and attending Games, indulging in pleasures of various kinds . . . the time they spend on protracted parties and gambling and playing ball, proves in my case to have been taken up with returning over and over again to these literary pursuits” (396). This is not evidence of someone with a utilitarian view of reading. Cicero was a person who practiced the liberal arts and he saw reading as a liberal art. It was something that was an end in itself.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To Censor or not to Censor

Plato bans the poets from the ideal state in his Republic because he believes that dramatic poetry will corrupt the morals of the people. He thinks that the poets have “a terrible power to corrupt even the best characters, with very few exceptions” (Plato 203). He provides an example to prove his point. He tells how we enjoy the free exercise of emotions in attending a dramatic performance, but we would restrain from doing this in our personal life. For example, we would admire a man acting “womanish” in a play, but in real life we would react with disgust to a man acting this way. Plato thinks that allowing our emotions a free reign in attending a dramatic performance will make it “difficult to restrain our feelings in our own” life (204).
            In some sense, Aristotle agrees that the poets could have a negative influence on morals. He thinks this applies more to comedy than tragedy and epic poetry. For example he states, comedy “is an imitation of people of a lower sort, though not in respect to every vice; rather, what is ridiculous is part of what is ugly” (Aristotle 25). In addition, he thinks the spectacle “is the component most foreign to the art and least inherent in poetry” (29). It is the least important of the different means “to draw the soul” (29). In contrast, he thinks tragedy and epic poetry can have a positive impact on the soul. He gives the following definition of tragedy: “Tragedy, then is an imitation of an action of serious stature and complete, having magnitude, in language made pleasing in distinct forms in its separate parts, imitating people acting and not using narration, accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing of these states of feeling” (26). This definition provides positive characterization of tragedy. First, it dramatizes a serious action that has magnitude, beauty, and is pleasing because of its skill. Second, by means of pity and fear, it cleanses the feelings of the soul.
            It seems that both Aristotle and Plato admire the skill of Homer. Socrates tells Glaucon: “you may agree with them that Homer is the best of the poets and the first of tragedians” (204). At the least, Plato is saying that Homer is a poet of great skill. Second, he acknowledges the influence Homer has on people, even himself. Socrates asserts, “let us freely admit that if drama and poetry written for pleasure can prove to us that they have a place in a well-run society, we will gladly admit them for we know their fascination only too well ourselves” (204). Plato is saying that he would love to have the poets in the city, but because of the possibility of the corruption of morals, the poets must be banned. He does, however, leave the option of the poets defending poetry in prose “and proving that she doesn’t only give pleasure but brings lasting benefit to human life and human society” (205). This seems similar to the common argument that literature should delight and inform.
            Plato’s argument that the poets must defend themselves in prose is ironical. It reminds me of some of the comments made by Scott Cairns in his interview with Ken Myers. He acknowledges that poetry is both content and form. Cairns said that people look at words in two different ways. One way sees words as transparencies because you look through them to the ideas they present. In other words, you can describe the ideas in prose. Leland Ryken argues against this idea in his article on the classics. These ideas will look like a “collection of lifeless platitudes” (Ryken 8). He states that many of the ideas in Shakespeare's plays could have been written by a mediocre writer. C. S. Lewis thought reducing literature to its ideas “is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us” (Ryken 9). The second perspective is that words are opaque, things in and of themselves. So, according to this second way of looking at words, the poets cannot look through their words to get to the ideas behind the words.

            Both Aristotle and Plato saw certain vices in the poets. They both admired the skill of Homer. Plato even remarked that Homer had a certain power over them. Aristotle, however, saw the usefulness in tragedy and epic poetry. Aristotle even thought that the poets could produce wonder and that this was “the mark that is end at which the art itself aims” (62). One might even say that through pity and fear, poetry humanizes us. Plato seems to emphasize the harm that the poets could cause; while, Aristotle emphasizes how poetry benefits us. It seems Plato, like the modern sensor, says if there is anything bad in the book, get rid of it. In contrast, Aristotle says keep the book if there is any good in it. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Letter to MY Anxious Christian Friends

David P. Gushee, A Letter to my Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times, WJK, 2016, 130 pages, ISBN 978-0-664-262686

The 2016 Presidential election reveled the deep divide or polarization in our country. The presidency of Donald Trump has been a lightening rod. Many Christians feel unsettled in our changing times. Many Christians unsure how they should respond to hot button issues, such as race, police, sex, abortion, immigration and other issues. David P. Gushee is the Professor of Christian Ethics and the Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He has felt the anxiety and observed it in the Christian community. He seeks to help Christians to better understand these issues. Gushee's background is evangelical and his major intended audience seems to be white evangelicals who strongly identify with the Republican party. Gushee does not hope for "any kind of recovery of a religious or moral consensus" (16) Neither does he think that there is "hope for some kind of traditional Christian resurgence or conservative movement to 'take back America.' Our divisions are two deep, our differences too entrenched, and the raw exercise of political power by Christians to coerce adherence to values many people have abandoned would be both bad governance and bad Christian witness" (16).

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends should be a helpful resource to hep Christians explore difficult and complicated issues. Some of the issues explored in this book are homosexuality, guns, immigration, Obamacare, climate change, abortion, and others. The author seems to explore these issues in a calm manner, guiding the reader between the polarization of the right and left. This book includes twenty letters (chapters) to begin a conversation on these issues. The author seems to be a more than capable guide to the reader through these highly relevant political and social issues. The first few chapters discusses the relationship between Christians, America, and democracy. The author believes we should not give ultimate loyalty to any political party. In his letter on the fracturing of America, he states that "large parts of our media have joined the polarization" (34). We have seen this in the reporting of Breitbart, Fox News, NY times, and other news outlets. In his letter on race, he states, "white racism became a deeply woven part of American culture" (54). In his letter on the police, he asserts that it is tough to be a black parent "afraid that your son or daughter won't make it home from a white section of town because they might be killed by a police officer" (62). He argues that the immigration issue seems to never go away. He thinks a good solution is a "type of comprehensive immigration reform that finds a way to welcome most of the eleven million who are here but also finds a way to secure our borders" (80). On his letter on guns, he believes that the "premises of our gun culture need to be challenged. The most dangerous of these is that having three hundred million guns in civilian hands makes us safer" (87). He point out a major source of the disbelief in climate change: "A sense of mission focused exclusively on the eternal salvation of human souls rather than anything much that happens here contributes to a kind of constitutional indifference to human affairs. An overall distrust of modern science, especially natural science, remains a residue of the evolution fights that have never really gone away since Darwin" (99). Other issues discussed are war, executions, education, and healthcare.

David Gushee seeks to explore these issues from a Christian perspective. Every reader will not agree with his conclusions. He seems to handle the different positions taken on these various issues.

Hymn Book for Pilgrims

Hymnbook for Pilgrims

Hugo Meynell states, “Novels, plays and poems convey insights and stimulate reflection, but by an indirect mode of operation, in which the immediate effect of the words is to evoke images, memories and feelings.”[1] This is a good way to describe the reading of literary works. Nonfiction works communicates directly. In contrast, literary works operate indirectly through images and feelings. The book of psalms was the hymnbook of the Jews. It was recited and sung in the temple. Reading the psalms invokes different feelings: joy, sorrow, celebration and anger. For example, Psalm twenty-three is read frequently at funerals. It is probably my favorite psalm. I have ready it many times over the years when I have experienced feeling low. It always encourages me. Psalm twenty-three portrays God as our shepherd. This brings to the memory the image of human shepherds and how they care for their sheep. The reader can picture the sheep lying content in the grass after eating. Another image is the sheep drinking from still waters. The reader knows that the sheep will not drink from moving waters. These are two basic needs that everyone has. The psalmist is saying that we can trust God to take care of our basic needs.
            Another human need is guidance. The psalmist says that the shepherd will guide the sheep by “quiet waters.” In addition, “He leads me on pathways of justice (78).” This has always been a comfort to me that God will lead and guide us. As a shepherd leads his sheep in the path to follow; so will God. The shepherd will also be with the sheep in difficult times. The psalmist asserts, “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow, I fear no harm, for you are with me (79).” This is very comforting to know that God will be with us through difficult times. One of the things that many people fear is death. The psalmist encourages by telling us that we will “dwell in the house of the Lord for many long days (80).” This psalm tells us that God will be with us through all our days. We do not need to fear because God is our Shepherd, and we will not want any good thing. Psalm twenty three like all good literature provides images that gives us insight about God’s care.
            Psalm one is another psalm I have read many times overs the years. One of the biggest questions of life is how am I going to live my life? This psalm provides help in this question. We can learn from both good and bad examples. Literature often provides insight by portraying both good and bad examples to follow. In Psalm one the psalmist describes the path of the righteous and the wicked. The psalmist asserts, “Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel, nor in the way of offenders has stood, nor in the session of the scoffers has sat” (3). This seems to portray a progression from listening to the counsel of the ungodly to scorning the way of the righteous. Instead of listening to the advice of the counsel, we are to meditate day and night on God’s word. This Word will provide direction for our life. As another Psalm says, Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light to my path.” The psalmist portrays the ultimate result: the righteous will be like a “tree planted by streams of water, that bears its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (4). The righteous will prosper all their days. The image of a tree and fruitfulness indicate the attractiveness of this way of life. The wicked, instead, are like “chaff that the wind drives away” (4). A tree is rooted and stable; chaff, however, is unstable and is blown here and there.
            Psalm seventy three is another psalm that has impacted my life. Nonfiction works tells us what is the truth; literature, in contrast, shows us the truth. This psalms helps us experience the experience of someone who questions justice in this world. He explains that his “feet had almost strayed” because he envied the wicked (252). The reason he did is because they prospered and the godly suffered. The wicked were arrogant and spoke against God, but they did not seem to suffer. This is a concern of many people: why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? One can think of Job and the tragedies he experienced. The psalmist even thought, “But in vain I have kept my heart pure” (254). How many young people who live good, moral lives and are not popular and are sometimes derided or scorned? They often question if it is worth the effort to live moral lives. The psalmist states that it was not until he entered the sanctuary did he see the truth. God had put the wicked “on slippery ground, brought them down to destruction” (255). He saw things from God’s perspective and that justice will be served in the end. This psalm teaches us that we can trust God. It teaches us that we serve a just God and the wicked will reap what they sow. This psalm promises that God will guide us with His counsel and lead us to glory. It portrays God as a rock that we can depend on.
            I could have written about many other psalms that have made an impact on my life. We can see that the book of psalms operate in the reader as good literature. It connects with us in all our different feelings: joy, sadness, anger, and others. It provides insight and perspective about living our lives as pilgrims in this world. In addition, it speaks indirectly to us through images, symbolism, and metaphors. Finally, it can be recited or sung. It is the hymn book for Christian [1] [2] pilgrims.

[1]Hugo A. Maynell, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Bernard Lonergan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 97.  

Christians Should Read the Classics

Christians Should Read the Classics
John E. Shaffett

In Ken Myers interview with Craig Gay, both Myers and Gray asserts the importance of language, especially words. Language and words should be even more important for Christians than Non-Christians since the supreme revelation of the Christian faith is communicated through words. Despite this truth, many Christians are non-readers. Why should Christians read the classics? Leland Ryken states that a classic “modifies our very being and makes us feel . . . that we are not the same men and women we were when we began” (On Classics 1). Ryken provides different characteristics of a classic. First, it is a book that endures, that is characterized by permanence. For example, the Book of Psalms has endured for thousands of years, but it still is read with great profit. A second characteristic of a classic is that it “possesses excellence in both content and form” (Ryken 2). It is the best book of its class (genre). Homer’s works are the best Greek epics; Shakespeare’s plays are the best of the Renaissance drama; Dante’s Divine Comedy is the best or one of the best works of poetry for all time. In other words, these type of works demonstrate excellence in both what it communicates and how it communicates. Another characteristic of a classic is that it greatly affects the experience of the reader. C.S. Lewis states that great works of literature enlarges one being.

What are some of the obstacles to Christians reading the classics? Some Christians are opposed to reading great literary works because they believe that fictional works tell lies. They think only non-fiction books tell the truth. An argument can be made that great literary works are more truthful than non-fiction works. Madeleine L’Engle asserted, “the encyclopedia gives us the facts but the arts give us the truth” (Ryken 4). Ryken believes that fiction can “illuminate human experience better than facts ordinarily do” (Ryken 4). A second obstacle is that Christian readers think that “everything in a work of literature is offered for our approval” (Ryken 4). This is a reason many conservative Christians only read Christian fiction. They think they would have to read about things that they have strong feelings against. Literature, however, presents both good and bad examples. It shows what it is like to live in a fallen world; it motivates the reader to confront the great questions of life. Other obstacles to reading classics is that Christians are opposed to reading works authored by non-Christians because it does not tell the truth. On the contrary, even non-Christians can tell the truth because God is the author of all truth. Because of common grace, both believers and nonbelievers, are enabled by God to perceive truth, beauty, and goodness. The last obstacle is that some Christians do not think that old books are relevant today. Universal truths spoken by old books are still relevant today. In addition, old books keep us from being taken captive by modern culture.