Archive for February, 2011

My most recent piece of writing for The Canadian Lutheran appeared online last week. Entitled “Stuttering Kings and Imperfect Pastors,” the article discusses parallels between the themes of communications explored in the Academy Award wining The King’s Speech and the same issues as they manifest themselves in the office of the preacher.

Now, I can hear you wondering, “Who is this guy to talk about preaching? He’s not a pastor!” True enough. I’m not a pastor. That’s not to say, of course, that I have no experience with the skills involved in public speaking. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a fair amount of Christian events during my university years. I’ve also served as a homilist (a lay-reader of sermons prepared by ordained ministers) in my home church. And my thesis work focused specifically on rhetoric and preaching in 16th century England. But I am quite willing to admit that none of these things are quite the same thing as having a calling to be a pastor. When it comes down to it, I suppose my best claim to being able to talk about sermons comes from having sat through so many of them over the past 23 years. At 54 Sundays a year (plus midweek services here and there), the number of sermons tends to add up rather quickly.

For those of you concerned that the article might therefore be merely a layperson’s thoughts on preaching, set your minds at rest. The article is actually an exploration of the thoughts of local Regina pastor Ted Giese. Of course, I add a few thoughts of my own in the text (particularly near the end when I quote Martin Luther and speak about the appropriate response of laypeople to the sermon). But in general, this article comes from the pastoral viewpoint. As such, it gives laypeople a fantastic opportunity to explore what preaching is like from the pastor’s perspective. It also, I hopes, gives clergy an opportunity to reflect anew upon what it is they are called to do at the pulpit each Sunday.

If you’re interested in reading some of my other published writings, you can check out this page here. It lists a number of articles I have written which can be read online for free.

February is Black History Month in Canada and the United States. In honour of the event,  Concordia Publishing House is drawing attention to the legacy of Rosa Young. Born May 4, 1874, Young would be instrumental in the founding of a number of educational institutions for black Americans in Alabama. She’s also known as “the mother of black Lutheranism.”

In her letters, Rosa Young reflects on how she first became involved with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. She had opened her first school to much success. But as the student population continued to grow, it became necessary for her to raise additional financial support. She contacted Booker T. Washington, hoping he might be able to point her in the right direction. His response, in Young’s own words, was as follows:

“In this letter he told me he was unable to help me in the least; but he would advise me to write to the Board of Colored Missions of the Lutheran Church. He said they were doing more for the colored race than any other denomination he knew of. He liked them because of the religious training which they were giving the colored people.”

Rosa Young did contact the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. And the rest, as they say, is history. To hear more about Rosa Young’s legacy, check out the following video from Concordia Publishing House:

Today in 1546, Martin Luther passed from this world to the next. Few knew him so well as his Philipp Melanchthon, his partner in establishing Reformation theology in Germany. Upon Luther’s death, Melanchthon wrote an elegy in Latin remembering the great defender of the faith. What follows is Henrietta Joan Fry’s 1845 translation of that poem.

Elegy on the Death of the Rev. Martin Luther, D.D.,
From the Latin of Philip Melancthon

Since Luther is no more, his cherished name
Shall from our hearts, a deathless tribute claim.
We hailed him minister of Christ, the Lord,
Jesus he preached, with faith, and taught his word.
Luther is dead! and now the church in tears
A mourner clothed in saddest garb appears.
She weeps her loved preceptor now no more,
Honoured and dear, – a father’s name he bore.
Fallen on the field the mighty chieftain lies,
And Israel’s voice proclaims his obsequies.
Then let us bathe in tears the muse’s lay
And publish forth our sorrows to the day:
It thus becomes us well – to weap and mourn
Whilst, orphans in our grief, we dress affection’s urn.


Note: The book from which this is taken, Hymns from the Reformation, by Dr. Martin Luther…, lists the author only as “the author of the ‘Pastor’s Legacy,'” but some brief research reveals her to be Henrietta Joan Fry. A full edition of the book is available online courtesty of Google books here. A handwritten note on the title page of that copy reads “By Henrietta Joan Fry.”  Confirmation comes in another 19th century work also published under the name “author of the Pastor’s Legacy” – a book called The Wells of Scripture. The 1888 Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain… confirms that this work, Wells of Scripture, was written by Henrietta J. Fry (p. 2802). Thus Fry must also have written Hymns from the Reformation.

I had originally intended to post today the next article in my recent series on Christianity and literature. Today’s was supposed to be about the good of beauty in literature (as opposed to the good of experiential wisdom which I discussed in the previous post). But a friend of mine leveled some criticism at my previous article, and so I think it a good idea to deal with it now. There, I suggested that one of the principle purposes of literature is that it provides us the opportunity to “enter into” the thoughts and experiences of authors and their characters (which I shall collectively call “the Experience” henceforth). My friend Karl countered: “Vicarious literary experience for its own sake seems to me rather dangerous; even experience is accountable to the lordship of Christ and the church, which is his body.” (To see the comment in length, visit the post here and scroll to the third comment ).

Let me be clear that I similarly believe “vicarious literary experience for its own sake” to be dangerous. I certainly never intended to suggest that this is what Christians should enter into literature hoping to gain – though I must admit that, rereading my own post on Bunyan, I can certainly see how one could draw that conclusion from my words. I fear that, focused as I was with demonstrating how literature acts on the reader (ie, by drawing them into the Experience), I failed to indicate what I believed to be the proper response of the reader to that Experience.

I hint at that proper response in the first article of this Christianity and Literature series. There, when I suggest that we ought to read literature because God can work good through the vocation of human writers, I include the caveat that we must not “do so indiscriminately,” quoting St. Paul’s advice that we “test everything; hold fast what is good.” It is clear to me now that I should have expanded upon this in the article on Experience. What literature does is draw the reader into the Experience; what the reader must do in the midst of that Experience is Judge it to see whether it be good.

The Experience, as I attempted to demonstrate in my previous post, refers to a text’s “capacity to reveal truth.” In other words, the purpose of the Experience in texts is the bestowal of wisdom – or rather, the reader has the opportunity to access wisdom and knowledge s/he might otherwise not encounter by means of the Experience. But if we say that Experience is an attempt to reveal truth, we must further acknowledge that those truth claims may fail to correspond to reality.

Sometimes literary Experience is crafted in such a way as to be deliberately false. An obvious example occurs in the character of the “unreliable narrator,” to borrow Wayne C. Booth’s words. Consider Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Throughout the tale, Gulliver informs of us his opinions on his adventures. But we as his audience need not (and indeed, should not) agree with all of his conclusions. While not always wholly in error, he certainly diverges from Swift’s own explicit opinions on a number of things. Swift no more wishes us to despise humanity, as Gulliver does at the end of the tale, than than he wants us to eat babies (as Swift’s narrator in “A Modest Proposal” suggests). These characters and narrators are unreliable, and we are not expected to trust them. Indeed, Swift presents us with false Experiences in these instances precisely so that we might disagree with them – and so gain wisdom through the Experience by rejecting the Experience.

While we are occasionally expected to reject an Experience at the author’s own (unstated) request, we must also sometimes reject Experiences against the author’s (unstated) wishes. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials take the reader on a quest to overthrow God. And while Pullman earnestly desires that the reader take the Experience to heart and use it to shape his or her own life, Christians must of course reject such “wisdom”. It is error, and must be recognized as such. And yet, we must admit that even in calling it error, we learn to articulate more clearly what we believe. While we as Christians are not limited to negative theology, we can nevertheless use it when the occasion serves: by saying what truth is not, we can come to understand more clearly what truth is. By rejecting one Experience, we may learn more truly what Life should be.

So then, when Christians enter literary Experience, they must not do so as blind men willing to be led by the blind. They must hold up every word, every thought, every action to critical scrutiny to see whether it be true or not. But regardless of whether they find the Experience in question to be true or or false, there remains the opportunity to gain wisdom through it – be it through accepting the Experience as edifying or rejecting it as destructive. Or, as is more likely the case, recognizing elements of both in the text. Indeed, we would all do well to remember my friend Karl’s word on the subject:

“I personally do not have the luxury of approaching literature from an objective, God-like stance; I read literature because I need it in the thick of things, just as I need other humans, and I will hopefully treat it no better or worse than I would treat others (for it is the voice of others) – with the knowledge that it contains the potential to reveal the image of God, but also the knowledge that sin has corrupted it and that it is not above deserving blunt words of reproach at times.”

[This is the third article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]

In my previous post, I attempted to articulate why Christians can and, indeed, should study literature. Fundamental to my argument was the idea that, whenever something good is accomplished on earth, God has been at work in and through the human agents involved in bringing about that good. Just as we thank God for providing food for us through the vocation of farmers or healing through doctors, so too, I said, we ought to thank God for the good to be found in secular literature.

But what I did not discuss in my previous article was what exactly I thought was good about secular literature. It is an easy thing to see how other vocations bring good into the world: as I said earlier, farmers provide food and doctors heal. But what exactly do authors (especially authors of fiction) do that is comparable? What is the good purpose that God works through them?

One might be tempted to say that literature is self-evidently good: that “to read the classics is better than not to read the classics,” as Italo Cavillo puts it in his essay “Why read the classics?”. But while the goodness of literature might seem obvious to some, like Cavillo and myself, the same cannot be said for many Christians throughout the history of the Church.

A case in point is Augustine, whose objections to literature and philosophy I explored briefly in my previous post. For him, secular culture represents one direction of the compass and Christianity its complete opposite. We see the same kind of binary thinking about Christ and culture two centuries earlier in Tertullian’s writings as well. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he scoffs. And again, “What has the Academy to do with the Church?” For Tertullian, the answer was as clear as it was final: nothing at all. That mindset has been inherited by many Christians today: you can have the truth of Christianity or you can have secular culture, but never the twain shall meet.

That assessment would have satisfied many early English Puritans as well. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that John Bunyan includes a defense of fiction at the beginning of his allegorical classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. After all, using fiction (a literary device drawn from secular culture, critics would allege) could obscure Christian doctrine. Fiction was for unimportant, worldly things, the sort of things, in short, which Christians should not waste their time on; what could it have to do with truth, especially the truths of the Christian faith?

Bunyan was facing this sort of criticism before his book ever went to press. Indeed, he tells us directly that some had advised him not to print the book at all. But Bunyan saw such criticisms of fiction as unfounded, and so he takes pains to explain the good that can be brought about through literature. Addressing the reader, he asks,

May I not write in such a stile as this?
In such a method too, and yet not miss
Mine end, thy good? why may it not be done?
Dark Cloud’s bring waters, when the bright bring none.

Just as dark clouds bring much needed rain to the earth, so too Bunyan argues that “some men, by feigning words as dark as mine, / Make truth to spangle, and its rays to shine.” Fiction, he asserts here, can be used to reveal fact. In fact, this is what Bunyan himself is trying to accomplish in his book: “My dark and cloudy words they do but hold,” he writes, “The Truth, as Cabinets inclose the gold.” For Bunyan, fiction has an innate capacity to serve as a vehicle to carry truth.

Of course, Bunyan is here speaking of a specific type of writing which lends itself particularly well to didacticism (namely, allegory), and he is speaking in particular of his own story, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Likewise, when he speaks of truth being made to “spangle” in other literary works, he is undoubtedly referring to Christian texts alone; Bunyan would be less than pleased, no doubt, should he be construed as suggesting that Christians make their search for truth in such books as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Ovid’s Metamophoses.

That all said,  we can nevertheless extrapolate Bunyan’s thoughts on Christian allegory to the world of fiction as a whole. One principle good that literature accomplishes is the revelation of truth – not always overtly, perhaps, and infrequently in as didactic a manner as Bunyan would like. But literature, even secular literature, has the capacity to reveal truth. Or rather, we might say that good literature invites the reader to ask of themselves Pilate’s famous question: what is truth?

Allow me to illustrate what I mean when I say literature asks us to consider truth. When we read distopian fiction, we are led to ask whether our society is evolving, as we would no doubt like to think, or whether instead our culture, left to itself, is moving in a far more worrisome direction. Likewise, the presence of extraterrestrial beings in science fiction forces us to consider the question of what it means to be human. And tragedies are forever asking us to consider the problem of evil and the vanity of this world.

Of course, these questions are not asked of the reader in such explicit terms. Instead, literature offers us another way to address these ideas: the opportunity to live, in some small way, the lives of other people. Indeed, at its core, all literature offers what Bunyan attempts to offer his readers in The Pilgrim’s Progress: the opportunity to temporarily be someone else in order to know the self better.

Would’st thou be in a Dream, and yet not sleep?
Wouldest thou in a moment laugh and weep?
Wouldest thou lose thyself, and catch no harm,
And find thyself again without a charm?

Put simply, literature offers readers the opportunity to enter a state of wakeful dreaming, to indeed live another life. And when we live those other lives, when we share the thoughts, emotions, and actions of authors, characters, and narrators, we return to our own lives wiser for the experience. We lose ourselves, in Bunyan’s words, only to find ourselves again.

That opportunity for experientially gained wisdom is, indeed, one of the fundamental goods that God works through literature. And were it the only good (which it is not), it would nevertheless be justification enough for Christians to take literature seriously. When we read, we become another person in order to grow through that other person’s experiences. So let us then, whenever we approach a poem or novel or any other literary work, heed Bunyan’s advice to the reader: “O then come hither / And lay my Book, thy Head, and Heart together.” For as we become part of the text, laying our head and heart together with the book, we briefly become something we are not; and we do so in order that, when we lay the book down, we would be be more than we were ere we began to read.

[This is the second article in a series exploring why and how Christians ought to engage in literary studies. You can see all the current essays in the series here.]