"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jan. 22

Jan. 22 is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade I was reminded while perusing some blogs. On Geneveith.com I found this quote from Mother Teresa.
“America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the independent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters.”
I just read a short biography on Thomas Jefferson, so I see the irony particularly strong of a nation that presumably holds to the self-evident truth tha
t all have the inalienable right to LIFE, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Today it would seem that the liberty and happiness of some is more important than the life of others.

Mere Christianity I: The Moral Law

I've been reading with interest, lately, the arguments for the existence of right and wrong. Actually some of what I have read could not technically be called arguments. For instance, I was interested that Plato in his Gorgias assumes without question that right and wrong exist and that doing the good is the most important thing possible. Just because Plato and Socrates said it does not mean it is true; however, it casts serious doubt on the occasional letter-to-the-editor-writer and average skeptic who say everyone can just do what they want and make up their own morality myths. Usually these types are terribly inconsistent by throwing in a clause like: “so long as they don't hurt anybody else,” thus showing that, aaah-ha, there really is some general guideline to be followed. But while I get a good chuckle (really I shouldn't) out of this illogical position, there are also the scary few who actually appear to believe what they say.

C.S.Lewis also addresses this issue of right and wrong or “The Rule of Decent Behavior” in Mere Christianity. The book opens with the chapter heading: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” His general premise is that “the human idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone” (5). And the funny thing is that what Lewis and all the ancient philosophers and your parents and grandparents all the way back to Adam have been saying is much more believable than a sprinkling of university professors in Europe and the United States who claim it is not so. I mean, come on, if I slapped them in the face would they really not consider that unjust? Lewis very cogently makes his conclusion about the human race: “they know the Law of Nature [Moral Law] ;they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in” (8).

Lewis goes on and ruthlessly slays the further objections of some about multiple moralities and so on. A few quotes to sum up should finish this post very well but stay tuned for some more excerpts from Mere Christianity coming up.

We are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table” (7).

If no set of moral ideas were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring civilized morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are better than others” (13).

In the same way, if the Rule of Decent Behavior meant simply 'whatever each nation happens to approve,' there would be no sense in saying that any one nation had ever been more correct in its approval than any other” (14).

We do not merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside information; we are in the know. And because of that, we know that men find themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey” (23).

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. HarperSanFrancisco, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001

Thursday, January 15, 2009

If an Imagination Is so Great...

Having shown the prevalence and usefulness of imagination in the first half of his book The Educated Imagination, Northrop Frye uses the second half to briefly outline the order literature should be approached to best train the imagination. Frye says, interestingly enough, that:
“the Bible forms the lowest stratum in the teaching of literature. It should be taught so early and so thoroughly that it sinks straight to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes along later can settle on it” (110).
I find it somewhat ironic that a secular scholar should say something like this at a time when even many Christians have almost forgotten about the Bible. Literature aside, shouldn't all Christians be taught what the Bible says, “so early and so thoroughly that it sinks straight to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes along later may settle on it”?

Just like Victor Davis Hanson, Frye also advocates early training in Greek and Latin authors before exploring later modern writers. Biblical and classical knowledge is foundational to understanding both the allusions of later authors and basic literary forms, yet Frye states that there is “a deficiency in the earliest stages of literary teaching for both poet and reader” (113). A few hundred years ago authors were taught the Bible and the classics, today, “modern poets don't get the same kind of education, as a rule: they have to educate themselves” (113). In case you think this is a slightly too dismal accusation of our education system, consider the Ancient World Literature course at my community college. The catalogue reads: “a majority of the works will be selected from a non-Western literary tradition.” As if this were not bad enough, the course isn't even offered this semester so I am stuck with World Literature After 1500 (again, the majority of works in this are from a non-Western tradition). (Plus, they canceled the only American Literature course when I tried to register. Does anyone have a conspiracy theory I can subscribe to that will explain this or should I make one up?)

Fry, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1964, (2006?).

Monday, January 12, 2009

What Good Is an Imagination?

The title caught my eye. A slender black volume with the The Educated Imagination inscribed in bold white letters across it. The back cover promised to explain “the value and uses of literature” and why it should still be read in “our scientific age.” Since the study of literature seems to be on the wane and does not appear to offer any practical help to modern man in the 21st century, I wondered how the author would convince me it is still important.

In the first chapter of his book, Northrop Frye classifies language into three categories. (1) The language of description, (2) the language of information, and (3) the language of the imagination. While the first two are practical and deal with the things that are, the language of the imagination projects not what is but what could be; or what ought to be. Obviously, each language uses the same words and in most cases two or more levels are used at the same time. I realize this is boring so to move on quickly, the point is this: we use imagination all the time. An architect uses it to draw up the plans for a house. A politician uses it to picture the changes in society if a certain law is passed. You use it every time you try to make those leftovers in the fridge seem a little more appetizing. Any time we want to tell others what we are envisioning we communicate on the level of the imagination. “Consequently,” says Frye, “we have only the choice between a badly trained imagination and a well trained one, whether we ever read a poem or not” (134-35).

Frye goes on to say: “the fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in” (140). Now since an evolving materialist world-view has no moral wisdom, a vision of what they “want” could be a horrible thing. For a Christian, however, what we want should be what God wants. Though we live in this society we should constantly envision the kingdom of God; the society we “want.” This means both explicit meditation on heaven and visions of “living the kingdom” to our very fullest potential in the future here.

I don't think it is a digression (well, maybe it is but what the heck) to consider some Christian stories that do create “a vision of the society we want to live in.” In regard to Christian artists making use of heaven, what immediately comes to my mind is C.S.Lewis's concluding Narnia story. In it the Narnian heroes reunite in the new Narnia with laughter and joy while climbing “further up and further in.” This is the best narrative I can think of that gives an imaginative glimpse at the joy of heaven. Other poets like Milton and Dante, most famously, have also tried to imagine heaven but, for me at least, their attempts don't stir me like Lewis's in The Last Battle. Of course this theme of Heaven does not need to be the main point of a story nor does it need to be explicit; allegory or one brief mention of joy is often enough to awaken longing. One scene in the Return of the King (if I may borrow from a movie just once) awakens this in me. During a battle Gandalf assures Pippin that this is not the end but only the beginning. Pippin asks what he will see after death and Gandalf replies: “white shores, and beyond that, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” One sentence about a beach and a field at dawn but somehow it does the trick; it “creates a vision of the society we want to live in.”

Apart from implicit and explicit visions of heaven such as these, Christian authors can “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” by example. These visions of a fully Christ honoring society, or individual within a society, can be done any number of ways, from a fantasy hero fighting the bad guys to Joe Average facing life in 21st century California; from a sci-fi planet untouched by sin to a community of believers striving to imitate Christ. Just one example, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon strikingly imagines a town in which citizens begin saying no to the world and instead ask: “what would Jesus do?” The stories are endless but the main idea is: what if? What if in our fallen society we strive to follow the faultless One and eagerly desire to be like him.

The imagination is also useful in defending us from the spirit of the age. Northrop Frye calls this spirit a culture's “mythology.” So America a hundred years ago had a “mythology” about “hard work, thrift and saving for a rainy day.” This has in large measure passed and a new “mythology” of materialism and pleasure has arisen. “Our imaginations,” according to Frye are what “protect us from falling into the illusions society threatens us with” (141). This again, for a Christian, is applicable. Even though not all of these “mythologies” are bad, many of them are and none of them are permanent. While there are other, more direct, defences against the temptation to embrace the world's illusions about what will make us happy—prayer, the study of scripture, etc—the imagination can look beyond what is in this fallen world to what can be when man's relationship to God is restored. Thus a Christian with a purified imagination will more easily see that “the world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17).

Fry, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1964, (2006?).

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Yes, I finally read the latest Tolkien craze: The Children of Hurin. And, yes, it fully met my expectations. I absolutely love that heroic style. If you're a Lord of the Rings fan and have read the Silmarillion you know what I mean; if you're not you need to start at the beginning and read them all (Come to think of it, you should start at the ending with the Lord of the Rings and work back to the beginning via the Hobbit and the Silmarillion). Again, if you have read the Silmarillion you know the story of the Children of Hurin, the only difference between the two versions is that this one runs about 259 pages.

According to Christopher Tolkien, this new book published in 2007 is a compilation of Tolkien's many different drafts of the story into one complete whole with only the barest editorial additions. A word here or a word there. Most authors today probably don't get it that good from their editors.

I also have The Lays of Beleriand which includes the unfinished Lay of the Children of Hurin, but before now I had not been motivated to read past the first few lines of this alliterative poem. Last night, though, I read about 40 pages. It is a lot harder to read and not nearly as enjoyable for me but it's kinda fun in it's way. I have found that it is absolutely necessary to read alliterative poetry out loud. Probably my brother thought me insane as I chanted that,
War was waked in the woods once more
For the foes of faerie, and it fame widely,
And the fear of that fellowship, now fared abroad;
When the horn was heard of the hunting Elves
That shook the shaws and the sheer valleys...
Even in Angband the Orcs trembled
[when] the word wandered down the ways of the forest
That Turin Thalion was returned to war (36).
Just a few thousand more lines to go.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lays of Beleriand: The History of Middle-earth III. A Del Rey Book, Ballantine Books. Yew York, 1994.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A More Reflective Reflection On Gosta Berling's Saga.

The preface to Gosta Berling's Saga, which I did not read until completing the book, hits one of the things I found at fault in the story. Only, the preface writer does not think it a fault that the story teaches,
“that people do not act according to opinions or principles, but are driven by inner irrational forces. Thus, in all our confrontations in life, our actions are always unpredictable” (Preface V).
Yet I wonder if this analysis is not also simplistic. Lagerlof perhaps knows that these are not “irrational forces” when she presents a character like Sintram, the devil incarnate.

Overall I had a bad feeling about this story that went beyond the stereotypically inferior 19th century writing style. But there are so many characters and situations that I am having trouble putting my finger on specifics. Could it be that Gosta makes one irresponsible selfish decision after another? Maybe, but there is goodness also; goodness and innocence in the Countess Elizabeth, flings of nobility and selflessness in Gosta and sometimes a clear path of honesty stretching through the pages. Countess Elizabeth's soliloquy says much of this unpredictable conflict typical of the entire book. She thinks of Gosta as a man,
“able to do all, as mighty in good as in evil, a man of great achievements.... A hero, a hero! Created different, of different clay from other men! The slave of caprice, of the desire of a moment, wild and fearful, but the possessor of a furious strength, fearing nothing” (139).
Now I submit it to you: is that the description of a hero or a villain? Or is it perhaps the description of all humanity, poised by our choices (not “caprice” or “irrational inner forces”) to either rise above our lower nature or sink further into it.

Lagerlof, Selma, Trans. Tucker, Lillie. Gosta Berling's Saga. Penfield Press, Iowa City, 1997.