Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Gospel and the Mind

Green, Bradley G. The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010.

Bradley G. Green, professor of Christian studies at Union University, shows in his book, The Gospel and the Mind, how the Gospel can help Evangelicals to recover the intellectual life. This book is also shaped by an Augustinian perspective of the life of the mind. In addition, Green demonstrates how the Gospel is soon followed by the Academy.

The Gospel and the Mind includes six chapters. The first chapter discusses the importance of creation and history. Chapter two discusses the telos of learning and chapter three focuses on the cross of Jesus Christ and crucified understanding. Words and language are analysed in chapters four and five. The last chapter is on the moral nature of knowledge.

The two theses of the book are: "The Christian vision of God, man, and the world provides the necessary precondition for the recovery of any meaningful intellectual life." Second, "The Christian vision of God, man, and the world offers a particular, unique understanding of what the intellectual life might look like."

Green presents a realistic view of the world. History and creation "remind us that some things simply are and have their existence apart from our wills and intellect" (31). A realistic view or a belief of reality outside of ourselves depends on an affirmation of creation. An important aspect of this creation is that it was created good. Marion Montgomery "suggests education is concerned with coming in contact with the truth of things" (360). The centrality of history is also important to a program of education because the Christian faith is basically incarnational. Kierkegaard said that "We live forward, but we can only think backward" (43). The Christian faith provides a reason to study the past. Green believes that any Christian and liberal arts education "will be one in which students are immersed in the central texts of the past" (47). In addition, study of the past helps us to take our contemporary "blinders" off.

Green emphasizes the position of faith seeking understanding. He asserts that all "knowledge is ultimately rooted in faith commitments" (83). MacIntyre has shown how the "liberal project of universal rationality and presuppositionless reasoning is fallacious and fantasy" (85). Everyone pursues education from some tradition. Macintyre argue that "moral enquiry without some kind of presupposed prior agreements is barren" (86). Sin effects our knowing. Green asserts, "Our intellectual development as Christians should always be seen as part of our being conformed to the image of Christ" (92). Augustine emphasized that our decisions are shaped by our desires. To follow God rightly our loves must not be disorderly.

Green has shown in The Gospel and the Mind how the Gospel does not have to lead to anti-intellectualism. Everywhere the gospel was planted, the academy was soon to follow. He uses the thought of Augustine to show how to pursue the life of the Mind in a Christ-centered way.

Cicero and Aquinas

This is the author's version of a book review that was submitted/accepted for publication in the following source:

Shaffett, John E. Catholic Library World Vol. 88, No. 2 December 2017. p. 114. A Comparative Analysis of Cicero and Aquinas: Nature and the Natural Law by Charles P. Nemeth. Bloomsbury, 2017. 192 pages.

In A Comparative Analysis of Cicero and Aquinas, Charles P. Nemeth investigates whether Aquinas and Cicero’s writings on natural law are compatible. Both these authors were prolific writers and influential in their own time and after. Is it possible to compare writers whose occupations and historical periods were very different? Nemeth, in this book, investigates these two authors views on “nature and the natural order,” “nature and reason,” and the natural law. Nemeth suggests several agreements between Aquinas and Cicero after his investigation. First, their ideas of nature and the natural order were similar. Nemeth disagrees with the opinion that Cicero was “comfortable with the natural determinism residing in Stoicism” (25). The Stoics saw God and nature as identical; in contrast, Cicero thought of God as “metaphysically transcendent—overseeing a universe He created, not just existing” (25). Both Cicero and Aquinas emphasized the role of reason in knowing and applying the natural law. Nemeth asserts, “For St. Thomas, the natural law is known by all, imprinted on all, and discoverable by all” (66). Cicero thought that reason provided the “proper mechanism for making moral decisions” (51). Both authors believed that there existed a divine component of law that was higher than human law. Though there were basis similarities in Aquinas and Cicero’s writings on natural law, there were also differences. Cicero tends not to apply the natural law to troubling social issues. For example, Aquinas applies the natural law to specific moral issues: abortion, suicide, and homosexuality. Nemeth does a good job in showing both the similarities and differences of Aquinas and Cicero’s writings on natural law. This book is recommended for both universities and seminaries.   
 Reviewed by John E. Shaffett, Director of Library Services, The Baptist College of Florida, Graceville, Florida.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Biblical Hermeneutics

Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views edited by Stanley E. Porter & Beth M. Stovell. IVP Academic, 2012. 224 pages. ISBN: 9780830839636

Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views is a look at five different views of Biblical Hermeneutics: The historical-critical/grammatical view by Craig L. Blomber; the literary/postmodern view by F. Scott Spencer; the philosophical/theological view by Merold Westphal; the redemptive-historical view by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.; and the Canonical view by Robert W. Wall. Because of my interest in the philosophical/theological view of hermeneutics, I will discuss that view.

First, a general overiew of what it is and is not. First, it is not only about interpreting the Bible. It includes interpretation of literary criticism, theology, and law. Second, it is more than interpreting texts. Third, it is not a method for interpreting texts. Gadamer says it is that the "hermeneutical phenomenon is basically not a problem of method at all." Gadamer and philosophical hermeneutics explores what people actually do when they interpret.

The hermeneutical circle is a part of philosophical hermeneutics. The idea is that "when we interpret texts we presuppose and bring with us an idea of the whole that guides our reading of the parts." Another aspect of the hermeneutical circle is that our view of the author shapes our interpretation of the text and vice versa.  Mainly for Gadamer, Heidegger and Ricoeur, the hermenuetical circle is a "matter of presuppositions in general and does not focus on the whole part-relations." Understanding is "relative to the presuppositions of the interpreter." In other words, we do not come to a text with a blank slate. We interpret through our beliefs, culture, and historical situation. Basically, we interpret from a tradition, either consciously or unconsciously. Gadamer attempted to rehabilitate the use of prejudices, basically meaning to pre-judge. The basic idea is that we come to the text with certain ideas that we will revise as we engage the text.

It is falsely thought that philosophical hermeneutics kills the author. This controversy basically concerns "the degree to which the author determines the meaning of the text." Does the author owns the meaning of the text? There is romantic hermeneutics which argues that the interpreter's job is to recover the "author's inner experience." The second view, which is similar, is to reproduce the meaning of the author. Philsophical hermeneutics thinks the interpreter reproduces and produces the meaning of the text. Gadamer asserts, "Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way, for the text belongs to the whole tradition whose content interests the age in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text, as it speaks to the interpreter, does not depend on the contingencies of the author and his original audience. It is certainly not identical with them, for it is always co-determined also by the historical situation of the interpreter. . . . Not just occasionally but always, the meaning of a text goes beyond its author. That is why understanding is not merely a reproductive but always a productive activity as well . . . It is to say that we understand in a different way, if we understand at all." It seems this view does justice to the author, reader, and interpretive act. Westphal notes that E. D. Hirsch Jr. "is so eager to make the author sovereign that in quoting Gadamer he completely leaves out the 'merely' and the 'as well.' He then complains that that for Gadamer the interpreter can ignore the text and attribute to it any meaning that may be desired. I expect more responsible reading from my undergraduates." Jacques Derida says the original meaning acts as a  "guardrail." The text does not just mean anything.  Westphal calls this the double hermenutic. The first hermeneutic asks what the text meant to its original audience. The second hermeneutic asks, "What is God saying to us here and now through these words of scripture?" The first concerns exegesis and the second interpretation. Westphal says what Hirsch fails to see is "that a text is both determinate and indeterminate. It places limits on interpretation, to be sure, but it also remains open to different meanings in different contexts unanticipated by the author." In other words, there are limits to what meanings is placed on a text. A text cannot mean anything.

There are specific strengths to the Philosophical/theological hermeneutics. First, it takes seriously the author and the interpreter. Second, it accepts the historical distance between the text and the interpreter. Third, the theological reading follows the Church Fathers and the medievalists view that scripture should form us and transform us. It is more than requiring information or knowledge of a text. Fourth, it takes seriously the historically situated situation of the reader. It is only through our beliefs, values, and traditions that we can interpret the text. The text does not explain itself. It must be interpreted. I find these strengths true to what I know about the act of reading. A possible weakness might not putting enough attention on the author. A second possible weakness is that it looks like relativism to certain believers. However, it seems to be to be a middle way between relativeness and absoluteness. Only God can see with a God-eyes-view. As long as we are earth we see only partially and dimly. We cannot have absolute certainty. We walk by faith and not by sight. This view seems to take serious the biblical view of human beings. There is a God, but we are not Him. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Author, the Reader, and the Text

The Author, the Reader, and the Text
John E. Shaffett

            Many people assume that reading is a static, not a dynamic process. They assume that the author begins with certain ideas in his head that he puts on paper. The reader, through reading, receives the author’s ideas into his own head. A compatible assumption with this idea is that the text contains only one meaning or interpretation. Another idea is that the author determines the meaning of the text. There are problems with these assumptions. First, Marxist criticism argues that in the writing of literature, writers have “responded to the social and economic conditions of cultural life” (Wilhout, 91). This indicates that both the reader and writer are situated in particular historical conditions which determine the reading and the writing of a text. Second, Lynch shows how the analogical imagination incorporates a four-fold level of biblical exegesis. The implication is that there are multiple meanings in a literary work. Third, Freudian criticism argues that there are particular problems with the romantic imagination. This criticism suggests that reading is a dynamic process.
In regards to Freudian criticism, Jacobs asserts, “But Freud attacks the imagination at the one place it cannot defend: within the mind itself. The imagination does not act with autonomy, but rather is motivated--as all human behavior is motivated--by the need to resolve internal tension and conflict” (Jacobs, 105). Freud’s critique is in response to the romantic view of the imagination espoused by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He viewed “inspiration” as an “energy inherent in the poet’s own mind” (Jacobs, 99). This idea argues against external influence on the imagination. Freud concluded that the “writer of fiction projects his own conflicts into story, objectifies them by casting them into the character and event” (Jacobs, 101). Freud’s conclusion shows the idea that an author in the writing process simply his communicating conscious ideas he has in his head.
Marxist critics have used Freud’s “theories of internal struggle to explain how we bourgeois readers suppress our class allegiances and thereby enable ourselves to pretend  that our canons, our ways of reading, our interpretations possess a ‘natural’ or inherent authority” (Jacobs, 95). This is an important insight. Reading is just a natural process that the reader is not aware of the complexities of the reading act. The text is not a static thing that the reader just sees what is there. The reader, like the author, brings their own internal struggles to the literary work. Just like the author, they are projecting themselves into the work. The reader is bringing her own thoughts to the work which influences how she interprets the work.
Lynch asserts, “For I am convinced that according to its terms [four-fold level of biblical exegesis] it is undoubtedly true that there are four levels of insight, the literal, the moral, allegorical, and analogical, but that, even more importantly, there is also only one, and that the literal, which has been brought to complete illumination by the minds marching through all its possibilities, by marching through a finite, according to the whole thesis of this book” (Lynch, 207). Lynch argues in his book argues that the analogical imagination brings together the one and the many. This is illustrated in a drama when the plot of the drama is “deepened by the insights proceeding from other and deeper levels of action” (Lynch, 207). Jacobs and Lynch provides insights on how reading is a dynamic action.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

When Christianity Goes Wrong

When Christianity Goes Wrong
John E. Shaffett

            Clarence Walhout in his essay, “Marxist Criticism,” suggests that Christian literary criticism can benefit from Marxist criticism. He shows areas that Christianity and Marxism share common ground, and areas where differences exist. Walhout asserts, “There are many areas of common concern to be found among Marxists and Christians, but there are fundamental differences as well at the level of their foundational beliefs about the nature and meaning of history and social life. The conflict between Marxism and Christianity is a conflict between two belief systems. Although they share many common concerns in the practice of literary criticism, specific literary judgments will diverge according to the differences in the basic beliefs that govern their practices” (90). Some Christians believe that since Marxists are atheists and Christians are theists that there is nothing either group shares in common. However, this essay will argue that there are certain things Christians can learn from Marxists that will be beneficial to them. It will look at three different areas where Marxist criticisms can benefit Christian thinking: politics, education, and literary criticism.
Marxists have contributed important insights about ideologies and how they operate in a social system. Terry Eagleton provides a “representative” definition of ideology in his Marxism and Literary Criticism: “Ideology is not in the first place a set of doctrines; it signifies the way men live out their roles in class-society, the values, ideas, and images which tie them to their social function and so prevent them from a true knowledge of society as a whole” (Walhout, 86). This definition brings out the Marxist idea that “reality determines consciousness, instead of the other way around. It is in social practices that you can discover particular ideologies. According to Marxists, “societies throughout history have developed economic systems of production that work to the advantage of some and to the disadvantage of others, and they have built on these systems elaborate forms of social life that serve both to carry out the economic systems and to justify those systems in the eyes of those societies. The superstructural forms of social life serve to legitimate the infrastructure on which they are based” (Walhout, 85). Marxist criticism might help Christians uncover ideologies that are supporting oppression. For example, Christians might evaluate how economic policies affect the poor? Christians might compare Marxist criticism with statements made by the Old Testament prophets. These prophets denounced religious leaders because of the way they oppressed the poor, the widow, and the stranger. Why is that the majority of Black evangelicals voted for Hillary Clinton and why did the majority of white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump? Why do a majority of Americans condemn athletes because they kneel for the national anthem to protest injustices against Black Americans? Why were so many Christians silent about Donald Trump’s abuse of women, calling Mexicans rapists, making fun of disabled reporters, and encouraging violence against opponents? How can Christian conservatives say character matter and be largely silent about the abuses of Donald Trump? It does seem that Marxist criticism can help Christians see how their culture legitimates oppression.
Christian education can become ineffective because of closing out the voices of others. For example, some Christian Colleges only allow Christians to attend their school. Often, both faculty and students come from the same conservative position. One professor said he would not send his child to a Christian college because the restraint of freedom of inquiry and thought and a lack of diversity. Is is really education when there are not multiple views being aired? The Marxist emphasis on dialogue could be helpful to the Christian college. Marxists states how “discourse is the dialectical struggle between authority and freedom” (Walhout, 81). The power of authority is the power of tradition. Tradition is evident in authoritative language used by parents, teachers, religious leaders, and others. This tradition “establishes the order and continuity that historical experience requires” (81). However, historical experience needs change and growth too. Authoritative discourse can be associated with monological speech; in contrast, “internally persuasive discourse is dialogical. In order to grow, we need to maintain a stance of openness to dialogue” (Walhout, 81). This indicates that for education to be dynamic, there must be multiple voices in the conversation. There needs to be freedom of inquiry and thought for true education to take place. It seems that monological education is not true education.
Literary Criticism
Marxist literary criticism can benefit Christian literary criticism in many ways. First, it can provide an example of a dynamic, developing tradition of literary criticism. Walhout notes, “Marxist literary criticism is a developing and dynamic movement. It takes seriously its basis in Marx’s philosophy but it is also vitally engaged in issues that concern contemporary literary theory and criticism generally” (Walhout, 79). Christian literary criticism need to be in the public arena engaging “contemporary literary theory and criticism.” Marxist criticism also provides an alternative to formalist models of literary criticism because of its emphasis on “social and historical criticism.” The ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin continues to be influential and can be helpful in developing a Christian literary criticism. Bakhtin’s major theme is “human discourse and its deep embeddedness in the history of culture” (Walhout, 80). The thought of Bakhtin “can remind us that Christian discourse , like all discourse, is historical and contextual” (81-82). William Lynch seems to emphasize how human discourse is situated in the historical and finite. In writing about tragedy, Lynch asserts, “My own conclusion is that the achievement of tragedy has always occurred when the dramatic text has allowed itself to move through human time to the very last point of human finitude and helplessness” (94). This describes a dynamic process of historical change. On his discussion of comedy, he states, “the imagination, to get anywhere, must course through the actual phases or stages or ‘mysteries’ of the life of man” (Lynch, 127). Lynch is saying that the imagination is embedded in the historical changes of human life. Other points made by Bakhtin that would be helpful for Christian literary criticism is the need for participation in the dialogue of literary criticism; form and content cannot be understood separate from each other; discourse is always involved in an “interplay of languages [that] relativise one another” (Walhout, 82-83). In other words, Christian literary criticism must not cut itself off from the dialogues that are taking place in society. Second, it takes more than content to make a great literary work. Anthony Esolen in his interview provides an example of right and wrong ways to approach literature. It is important that the critic approaches literature with a receptive, humble spirit. He also thinks that having a humorous imagination is important to a literary critic. Last, he states the importance of the critic having certain virtues like humility, charity, and teachability.

            Marxists and Christians share fundamental differences in their core beliefs. In regards to literary criticism, “specific literary judgments will diverge according to the differences in the basic beliefs that govern their practices.” Marxist literary criticism, however, have many strengths that will benefit Christian literary criticism. In addition, Marxist teachings on ideology can help Christians locate particular ideologies they hold which supports oppression. Finally, the emphasis on dialogue and engaging modern literary criticism will benefit both Christian education and Christian literary criticism.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Once Saved, Always Saved

Once Saved, Always Saved
John E. Shaffett

            William Lynch asserts, “Magical or instantaneous methods of getting at God are marked by a hatred and fear of human time and the full human process” (Lynch, 77). To further clarify, he states, “because of this hatred of time they wish to use but a single, special moment of it, one that by some strange, inexplicable ‘trick’ will lead them to full glory” (Lynch, 77). Some evangelicals believe in the idea of once saved, always saved. They believe in an instantaneous new birth when they believe in Christ, and they believe at this moment they are completely saved. In addition, they believe that the only reason that they are not immediately lifted into glory is that they can save others. This belief seems to indicate magical thinking and a hatred of time. In contrast, Ignatius Loyola and his spiritual exercises presents a completely different relationship to time. Lynch states, “An analysis of his method will show in detail that, as a seeker of God, he is completely devoted to the time process and completely to its definite actuality, no matter what it is at each particular moment” (Lynch, 78). Loyola’s Catholic theology teaches that the journey of the soul to God is through time and the particular. The last part of the essay will apply the two views to literary criticism.
            Lynch states that there are “basically two contrary and hostile positions now held by the contemporary imagination regarding time” (Lynch, 50). One position thinks of time as something individuals need to escape from because it does not lead to “insight, beauty, God, peace, nor to anything else” (50). One can see how time is related to the body, the particular, and the finite. To get to the eternal, God, one must leave time or the body. The alternative view thinks of time as “nothing but ourselves, as we move without pause through all the phases and stages of our lives” (Lynch, 51). One view focuses on escaping time to reach the eternal; in contrast, the other view reaches the eternal through the temporal. These two views are related to the once saved, always saved doctrine and Loyola’s spiritual exercises. The once saved, always saved doctrine emphasizes a one time experience where the person is completely saved. There are no stages to go through. It does not seem to accept the gradual process of salvation. For example, physically, humans go through different stages of development: birth, childhood, youth, young adult, middle adult, old age, and death. The once saved, always saved doctrine does not see the believer going through these stages spiritually, but being completely saved in an immediate experience. In contrast, Loyola’s exercises and Catholic theology presents salvation as a life-long process in which believers go through various stages on their journey to God.

The hostile view to time seems to be also hostile to the temporal, the body, and this world. This thinking affects the way this believer practices moral criticism. For example, some evangelicals want to read only “pure literature.” The type of literature that does not have the messiness of sin in it. Instead, it is geared to having the character make a one-time decision of faith. James Vanden Bosch asserts, “There is also the potential irony of the moral or theological critic keenly alert for blasphemy or heresy in literature but willing to view third-rate ‘Christian” literature, hymns, and essays as acceptable. And there is the odd irony of Christian critics who know, intellectually and doctrinally, that ours is a corrupt and corrupting culture , but who don’t like literature to take a prophetic stance against our materialism, our higher consumerism, our debased taste, our vulgarity” (64). Bosch’s description identifies a good portion of the popular Christian literature consumed by evangelicals. A second point is that these same believers believe there must be a moral or message in the literature. They do not understand Flannery O’Connor’s point that the whole work is the message. In contrast, the Jesuit view would affirm the humanness in literature. It would not argue that “pure literature” is great literature.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Christians and the Imagination

There is an art series being produced by an artist at my school. It is called the Glory of God Collection. The collection contains some beautiful paintings. The artist of the collection is an excellent artist. Eventually, the artist plans to add commentary on the paintings to tell viewers what they mean. The idea of adding commentary to the paintings puzzles me. Why does the artist think he needs to interpret the paintings for the people? Recently, I heard a musician explain her lyrics on NPR. The host asked her what was her intended meaning for one of her songs? She was reluctant to tell the host because she thought that different people would interpret her music differently. A third example of our topic is how some Christians want to interpret everything in the Bible literally. This essay will try to engage these experiences by interacting with this week’s readings.
            The first reading came from William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo. The first characteristic of the imagination is its connection to the particular. Lynch asserts, “No matter what form the vision takes, however, or what its final goal--whether that be beauty, or insight, or peace, or tranquility, or God--the heart, substance, and center of the human imagination, as of human life, must lie in the particular and limited image or thing” (Lynch, 11). You must start below to get to the above. This is an example of the descent and the ascent. The path to the truth for the imagination is through images. Lynch tells of some wrong ways to get to the universal through the particular. Two of these ways are barely touching it to “produce the mystical vision” (16). Another is to touch lightly the particular to get to the self; to create particular feelings in the self. Lynch’s own position “pictures the imagination as following a narrow, direct path through the finite” (21). This is a description of the descent of the imagination which “also shoots up into insight” (21). Lynch asks how the literal and transcendent can be brought into harmony. His answer is that the reader should “discover symbols . . . [that] can make the imagination rise indeed, and keep all the tang and density of that actuality into which the imagination descends” (30). A good example of this would be Augustine’s principles of interpretation. He believed that Scripture had both literal and figurative meanings.
            The second reading was “Formalist and Archetypal Criticism” by Leland Ryken. He states that formalist theory “seeks to define the distinctive knowledge that literature and the arts express” (Ryken, 3). Is it scientific, historical, or some other truth? We might call it poetic truth. Formalist critics argue that literature “does not primarily convey ideas or scientific facts but instead embodies the very quality of human experience. Literature does not tell us about reality but recreated by various techniques of concretion” (4). Literature shows us through particular images. This is similar to what Anthony Esolen describes in his interview with Ken Myers. Esolen described how ironies time, power, and love characterizes the Christian faith and the Bible. First, time is not neutral. The particularity of time intersects with divine providence. The author of time can work in all kinds of turns and surprises. Another irony of Scripture is the irony of power. The incarnate Son of God comes as a servant and he suffers crucifixion at the hands of men, but it is through the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension that people are redeemed. The incarnation of the Son of God is a particular example of the intersection of the temporal and the eternal. Lynch notes, “St. Paul seems to attribute the ascension of Christ into heaven causally to His descent into the earth, and generally we ourselves will be stressing the great fact of Christology, that Christ moved down into all the realities of man to get to His father” (23). Christ comes down to redeem creation and rises for their justification. In addition, the incarnation shows both temporal man and eternal God existing in the same being. Third, is the irony of love. The continual witness of Scriptures is that God is love. He comes to earth not as a ruler, but as an innocent baby. God is unlike the Greek gods and Allah because He love his creation and He wants them to love Him in return.

            Each of these readings provides possible ways to engage our three examples. First, is the example of the artist who adds commentary to his paintings. Is this a good thing or is this a bad thing? Ryken states that the “Christian tradition has long held that truth comes to us in the image as well as the concept” (13). We could say that the image is the painting and the commentary is the concept. It seems we have two expressions here. One is the painting and the other is the commentary. It seems best to keep these expressions separate. Second, the musician’s words seem to answer our first example too. She says that people come away with different interpretations from her music. It seems adding commentary to the painting is forcing its view on the viewer. The last example is the experience of Christian believers forcing a literal interpretation on all parts of the Bible. Augustine instructs us not to interpret the literal figuratively and not to interpret the figurative literally. In addition, he seems to argue that the same passage can have both a literal and figurative meaning. It would be good to remember that Ryken stated that the Bible communicates through images and concepts. We must not confuse the two.