Category Archives: Literature

The Really Important Stuff (?) – Christian Imagination, Pt. 2

Crucial groundwork for a healthy Christian imagination has to begin with the recognition that, in Shakespeare’s immortal words, “There are more things in heaven and earth than our little philosophies dream of.” To put it another way, life can’t be stuffed into the nice, neat categories that inward-looking modern Christian “spirituality” so often demands it conform to.

As Evangelical Christians, we so often want nothing more than to spend all our lives in “evangelism” so that souls can be saved. We have little concern for, and often resent, mundanities like washing the dishes and “secular” employment and novel-reading, and often consider those things a distraction from the really important spiritual stuff.

We tend to act as if we think that “holiness” is what is left in the world after all the “weird” things have been removed from it, made no longer worthy of serious thought. – or at least, banished to the pages of poorly-written Christian-thriller novels that make ordinary life in the world God made a sort of thinly-veiled cover for what really matters: angels and demons invisibly fighting while believers pray fervently and sing hymns.

Too often we zealously pursue a vision of life that is, as the old saying goes, “so heavenly minded it’s no earthly good.”

Perhaps this is why for nearly a century we have let slide cultural matters outside our own narrow circles. As a general rule art, literature, poetry, and music are simply too earthy for our hyper-spiritual tastes. Unless they have an “evangelistic” purpose they are mostly “irrelevant” to our daily lives as Christians.

It’s arresting to realize that most of our culturally influential forebears in the Faith would think we’ve sacrificed the actually important things about embodied life for a mess of otherworldly, pious pottage that actually makes us powerless to fight the monsters and dragons of our age.

St. George and Una may at first seem “spiritual” in some exaggerated sense that devalues bodily life, but that’s too hasty a conclusion. Metaphor isn’t not real, nor is “spiritual” (for our type of creature, anyway) a simple antithesis to “bodily.” A healthy Christian imagination will know how to identify and apply the really important things, not merely create artificial boxes that lop of whole gigantic realms of creation in the name of not being “carnally minded.”

For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

Life is A Weird Thing (If You Really Think About It) – Christian Imagination, Pt. 1

Life is an odd thing when you think about it. It is a weird amalgam of spiritual and material things that seem to depend on each other and affect each other profoundly. Whether one is a Christian or not life is a matter of basic faith commitments working themselves out into a world that is sometimes wonderfully, sometimes tiresomely physical.

Life seems a bewildering array of seeming opposites—philosophy and farming, eating and prayer, Bibles and Humanist Manifestos, faith and science, theology and music, logic and emotion. We need a robust imagination to navigate these antinomies, to help us see how in reality they are much more connected than we realize.

But as we ponder the weirdness of life and the necessity of imagination to make it through, let’s not forget that greatest of all ubiquitous phenomena—body odor. Even saints stink to high heaven sometimes.

With that whimsical thought, I begin a short series on the Christian imagination. Hope you’ll come along!

For more on the Christian imagination, see my short books, It’s Not A Small World, After All, and Worlds Within the World: How Tolkien Can Help Christians Write Better Fiction.

Literature Is Not the Enemy of Holiness

The Renaissance writer Petrarch on how piety and literature are not enemies:

Neither exhortations to virtue nor the argument of approaching death should divert us from literature; for in a good mind it excites the love of virtue and dissipates, or at least diminishes, the fear of death. To desert our studies shows want of self-confidence rather than wisdom, for letters do not hinder but aid the properly constituted mind which possesses them; they facilitate our life, they do not retard it. Just as many kinds of food which lie heavy on an enfeebled and nauseated stomach furnish excellent nourishment for one who is well but famishing, so in our studies many things which are deadly to the weak mind may prove most salutary to an acute and healthy intellect, especially if in our own use of food and learning we exercise proper discretion…

…While I know that many have become famous for piety without learning, at the same time I know of no one who has been prevented by literature from following the path of holiness. The apostle Paul was, to be sure, accused of having his head turned by study, but the world has long ago passed its verdict upon this accusation. If I may be allowed to speak for myself, it seems to me that although the path to virtue by the way of ignorance may be plain, it fosters sloth. The goal of all good people is the same, but the ways of reaching it are many and various….Hence ignorance, however devout, is by no means to be put on a plane with the enlightened devoutness of one familiar with literature.[Source: Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, by James Harvey Robinson (citing a letter from Petrarch to Boccacio), pp. 391-394]

Getting to Know Hesiod

It’s often said that Homer and Hesiod were “the Bible” of the ancient Greeks. Between the two of them – mainly Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days – they taught the Greeks about the gods, the world, mankind, ethics, politics, and just about anything else you could name. And they did so with what amounts to a pagan version of “divine inspiration,” seen in their invocation of the Muses, the goddesses of the arts, to tell them what to write. This alone is a fascinating theme that needs development, but my purpose here is limited only to providing a quick survey of one of these works, which, as far as I can tell, does not have its proper pride of place amongst classical educators.

Hesiod’s Works and Days seems at first to be little more than a collection of agriculture-based proverbs, talking about how to live decently with respect to the land and one’s farming neighbors. Sometimes it’s humorous (don’t marry a woman who will embarass you in front of your neighbors), other times somewhat moralistic (don’t pay attention to the gossiping at the blacksmith’s shop, but just keep on walking and do your work).

But it also contains some profound early philosophy. Consider the discussion of the decline of historical ages (lines 108-198). It seems that the gods first made a Golden Age, with people whose hearts were “free from all sorrow” and who had no hard work, pain, or “miserable old age.” After they died, peacefully, the gods made a Silver Age characterized by children who remained children (“complete boobies,” as the translation has it) for a hundred years. When they grew up, they lived only a short time and had many troubles due to their foolishness. Then came an age of Bronze men, and these “were terrible and strong, and the ghastly action of Ares was theirs, and violence.” They had “an indomitable and adamantine spirit,” and “None could come near them.” This age perished at its own hands, through strife and warfare, and then came the Age of Heroes–a.k.a., the age of the Iliad and the Odyssey. After the heroes came an Iron Age, Hesiod’s own age, which he deeply wishes he was not a part of but had died before its onset. This is an age of “goods mixed with evils,” an age in which “Never by daytime will there be an end to hard work and pain, nor in the night to weariness, when the gods will send anxieties to trouble us.” The Iron age will, sadly, end in the departure of Decency and Respect from the world of men, and issue forth in an age of brute, inhuman Force.

So says Hesiod. Ovid has a similar tale in Book I of his Metamorphoses, but his equivalent to the Age of Force ends in a great flood that destroys all mankind except for one, Deucalion, and his wife. The imagery of cultural decline illustrated by a decline in metallic quality must have been familiar imagery in the Ancient world, because it’s also in the Bible, in Daniel’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue representing world empires (Dan. 2). The theme survived into the Middle Ages, too, for one can find men living in the terrible turmoil of the 10th century describing their age as one of iron (ferreum saeculum).

There’s much more to be said about Hesiod’s Works and Days, but hopefully this is enough to whet your appetite to find it for yourself!