Entries tagged with “humanities”.


“If the Arts were to be consigned to oblivion, it would be sadder than if the sun were taken from the world.”

 – Philipp Melanchthon –


The best Christian thinking has always placed a high value on the Arts, and the study of philosophy, literature, logic, history, languages, and the like. Such studies open our eyes to more fully understand the human condition. They teach us to critically approach the ideologies of our time, to hold counsel with those who have gone before us, to know and appreciate beauty, to understand the evil which has followed humankind throughout its long history, to live ethically, and to do so many other various and wonderful things. In short, the Arts provide us a framework for understanding the creation and our place in it.

No wonder Martin Luther desired “that there be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible,” urging “young people to study poetry and rhetoric.” The reason is clear: “I see that by these studies, as by no other means,” he writes, “people are wonderfully fitted for grasping sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and effectively.” The Arts teach us how to think. And so we see Melanchthon is right to say the Arts’ demise would be sadder than the extinguishing of the sun; as the sun illuminates our world, so too the Arts illuminate our minds. Without them, we sit in darkness.

You can understand, therefore, that I was disgusted when I learned yesterday that the University of Regina (my alma mater) is, in its great wisdom, driving the Faculty of Arts into the ground. In particular, the English department has faced numerous cuts over the past four years, and the word is out that they should prepare for even greater cuts in the future. Professors are retiring and no funds are being alloted to replace them. Whatever “fat” there was in the department was trimmed long ago, and now the department is being forced to consider cutting core classes to fit the budget. Things look bleak.

Catch up on the story at the following links. And then, contact the UofR to let them know you disapprove of further, debilitating cuts to the Arts (especially English). I suggest sending your letter of discontent directly to President Vianne Timmons: The.President@uregina.ca.

“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”The Carillon

“Profs, students at U of R brace for possible cuts”The Leader-Post

“Talk is cheap”The Carillon

Note: Draw attention to the crisis with a Facebook-ready “cover image” of the “Realize: Reading and writing don’t matter” banner by clicking here.

In my previous two articles in this series on Christianity and Literature, I discussed the benefits of literature with a focus on wisdom: namely, the idea that literature offers readers the opportunity to experience ideas, words, and actions which are different than their own. Wisdom comes in weighing this Experience and judging whether it be true or false, good or bad – separating the fruit from the chaff, in Chaucer’s words. We might call this the didactic aspect of literature – it teaches us, whether intentionally or not, about creation, our place in that creation, and our relationship to its Creator.

But of course, good literature is not just about imparting knowledge – if that’s all literature were, the dictionary would be the most thrilling book around. Instead, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, all works of true literature have two sides: logos (something said) and poiema (something made). Narratological musings, the dialogues and life experiences of fictional characters, and the consequences of these experiences might all be considered part of the logos. But the second aspect of literature, poiema, refers to artistic construction and the reader’s artistic reaction to the text. Put simply, the logos is what the author and his characters say; the poiema is how they say it. And just as the logocentric Experience is one of the good things literature gives us, so too is poematic Beauty.

All literature has poiema – that sense of purposeful construction created as the author decides what to cut from one draft to the next, what word is the “right” word for this particular context, what voice is proper for the character of the story. Even texts that we might generally consider “unliterary,” such as sermons or philosophical works, are shown to be literary in their poiematic construction: their use of rhetorical flourishes, analogies, and the like. Dictionaries, as I have suggested earlier, provide a good example of what a totally logocentric text looks like. While “constructed,” they are done so according to a pattern neither creative nor engaging. The same thing (or nearly the same thing) could be written by a thousand different people. Logos without poiema is not literature. Indeed, in Lewis’ words, “It is only by being also a Poiema that a Logos becomes a work of literary art at all.”

Of course, just as there is good logos and bad logos, there is also good poiema and bad poiema. If a text is full of clichés, for example, if it is constructed solely of ideas and experiences according to a pattern repeated a hundred times before, without any originalities or creative interjections by the author, we may rightly consider the work to have low aesthetic value. Not that newness for the sake of newness necessarily leads to aesthetic goodness either. A good piece of literature must blend originality with tradition.

There are of course additional standards by which we might choose to judge good literary construction from bad (Aristotle’s Poetics has been used in just such a way). But let us bypass for now discussions of aesthetic criticism and come to what is the more important matter in this series of articles: namely, if poematic Beauty is a principle good of literature, as I argue, what exactly is good about it? The Experience, as we have seen in previous articles, offers wisdom. What similar good does Beauty offer that Christians should care about it and earnestly seek to encounter good examples of it in literature?

The reader may have noticed my failure thus far to define what I think “Beauty” is. This is, I assure you, intentional. While I make some very meager attempts here to articulate what “Beauty” is like, I do so knowing full well that a comprehensive definition remains forever elusive. There is a depth of mystery to aesthetics which cannot be fully plumbed. Indeed, one must approach a discussion of Beauty in the same way that George Herbert approached the subject of prayer. In a poem on the subject, Herbert gushes forth a number of descriptions which attempt to define prayer. It is “the Church’s banquet,” he writes. It is “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.” In the anger of man, it can become an “engine against the Almighty.” Herbert hazards various other definitions, but finds them equally incapable of defining prayer. By the end of the poem, he realizes that although human words can provide an approximation of what prayer is, they can never truly give a full definition of the thing. In the end, prayer is not something that can be defined; it is instead simply “something understood.”

So too beauty. Aesthetics cannot be broken down into a series of underlying mathematical formulae; it is not a science, Aristotle’s opinions on the subject notwithstanding. But while critical reflection cannot explain fully what beauty is, it can nevertheless help us to begin approaching such a definition. Consider: if two men should be sitting near a fire place, neither experiences the full heat of the flames; they are only near the fire, not in it. But if one should step nearer to the flames than the other, he experiences more directly the heat and light than does his friend. Critical consideration and appreciation of Beauty helps move us closer to the fire.

And as we come nearer that fire, we begin to understand, if only intuitively, what good thing Beauty offers readers. Not that it can be explained in words, but that it can be suggested in image. The heat which rolls over us in waves, the flash as the flame fills our vision depicts, in a way, how Beauty acts on the reader. It is baptism by fire, a death and resurrection as the water of poeimic Beauty mixes with the Experiential word. It is the fire in which rides the still small voice. It is the burning coals which permit sinful lips to speak. It is, in the end, not something explained, but something encountered. Something felt. Something understood.

[This is the fourth 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.]

In his Confessions, one of the first things Augustine gets around to confessing as sinful is his education. That education, with its focus on literature and writing, could well be likened to what we today would call a “liberal arts” or “humanities” degree. Put another way, we might say that one of the first things Augustine gets around to critiquing in his Confessions is the English department.

While accepting the formal aspects of his education (eg, learning to read and write) as in themselves good, Augustine takes great pains to distance himself from the actual texts he studied. Early in Book I, he speaks with disgust of his school-age love of Virgil’s Aeneid. Considering the great pity he felt over the death of Dido in the work, he writes: “For what more miserable than a miserable being who commiserates not himself; weeping the death of Dido for love of Aeneas, but weeping not for his own death for want of love to Thee, O God” (I.21). This topic – feeling pity for the tragedies of fictional characters – is one which Augustine critiques at length in Book II, but the quotation here serves a more general purpose: it demonstrates Augustine’s disgust with those who would take more seriously their literary studies than their relationship with God.

Augustine’s criticism of the humanities finds plenty of resonances among Christians today. With two arts degrees myself, I have spent a fair amount of time studying literature, languages, and philosophy. And I have certainly come up against people who consider those studies not only to be a waste of time, but more seriously a direct affront to Christian faith. They ask, as Augustine would ask, how I, a student of literature, could possibly justify my field of inquiry given the secular nature of the Academy?

Augustine is certainly correct in his criticisms to some extent. We must not, as Christians, love literature (or culture) more than we love God. Thomas Cranmer writes similarly in the Anglican Book of Homilies (1547) when he asks, “What excuse shall we therefore make (at the last day before Christ) that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than His most holy Gospel?” Augustine, Cranmer and I all agree that our faith must come before all else. But where Cranmer and I differ from Augustine is in this: we do not deny that literature, even literature written by non-Christians on non-Christian subjects, can be both beautiful, true, and edifying.

Cranmer writes well when he says, “Other sciences [ie, fields of study] be good, and to be learned no man can deny; but this [ie, our faith] is the chief and passeth all others incomparably.”We need not reject secular studies so long as we keep those studies secondary to our faith. Indeed, our faith gives us a framework from which to work, from which to evaluate literature, history, and culture. It gives us the ability to distinguish what is good from what is bad.

And there is most certainly good in secular culture – though this good arises primarily from the actions of God rather than the actions of humans themselves. For so it is that God, as Martin Luther reminds us, works through the everyday vocations of everyday people. He works in the vocations of teachers and writers, as much as he works through the vocations of government, family, and the Church. Thus, when an author executes his vocation well, through the creation of some particularly excellent piece of poetry or in some particularly acute observation of human nature, we do not praise her or him alone; we praise also the God at work behind human vocation.

John Calvin articulates this theology of vocation particularly well in relation to the work of non-Christian writers. He says:

When we see in pagan authors the amazing light of truth which appears in their works, it must inform us that human nature, although it is fallen from its integrity and much corrupted, still is adorned with many gifts of God. If we recognize the Spirit of God as the unique fountain of truth, we will not despise the truth wherever it appears unless we want to insult God’s Spirit…. We cannot read the books which have been written about all these matters [ie, pagan books on philosophy, medicine, etc.] without being astonished, because we are obliged to recognize the wisdom which is in them.

Calvin continues, explaining that “anything excellent or praiseworthy… comes from God.” Here he echoes two passages of Scripture which help us understand the importance and goodness of studying human culture. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17); and “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). When we confess with Calvin, as we must, that God’s goodness has manifested “excellent and praiseworthy things” throughout human literature over the centuries, we further recognize that we ought to “think about such things.”

Not that we do so indiscriminately. We must, as the Scriptures teach, “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In order to know what is good, we must first test everything.

And so we can agree with Augustine that there is some measure of “vanity” in literature. But we need not conclude that all literature is therefore vanity. We need not rail with Augustine, “Woe is thee, thou torrent of human custom!” Instead, we may seek what good God has breathed into these texts, working through the vocation of their human authors, and praise Him as we are wont: as the Author of every good and perfect gift – even those found in the writings of secular humanity.

[This is the first 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.]

For those of you who haven’t heard, there’s a group on Facebook entitled “I picked a major I like, and one day I’ll probably be living in a box.” At the time of this writing, it has more than 108,000 members. I’m one of them.

In some sense, this Facebook group represents a response to the increasing utilitarianism of the academy, the increasing drive towards getting degrees that lead directly to a specific career: like engineering, medicine, etc. By contrast, we are the minority who insist on getting “useless” degrees in such things as languages, literature, history, and the like.

Of course, I would argue that a liberal arts degree is far from useless (see my post “Whatever Happened to the Liberal Arts?”). And I think many members of the above-mentioned Facebook group would agree. The very title, which predicts each of our future plans as “living in a box”, is itself a playful joke about how we do not care that our degrees do not lead directly to high paying jobs. There are far more important things than money.

That all said, the average person in North America still sees two types of degrees: “useful” (ie, leading to a high-paying job) and “useless” (all others). And so it’s unsurprising that students who take “useless” degrees frequently meet blank stares and confusion when they explain what they are studying. I thought I’d share just a few of the more humorous interchanges members recall having after being asked the question: “What’s your major?”

Student: I’m studying French.
Questioner: So you’ll be French when you graduate?

Student: I’m in Religious Studies.
Questioner: So… you want to be a nun?

Student: I’m taking Archaeology.
Questioner: Like what they did in Jurassic Park?

Student: I’m in English.
Questioner: But… you already speak English. What else could you possibly learn?

Student: I’m in Linguistics.
Questioner: Cool. How many languages do you speak?
Student: Two and a half, but we don’t actually learn languages in the program; we learn about language in general.
Questioner: So what exactly does a linguistics major do?
Student: Mostly just explain to other people what linguistics is…

And one final exchange a little more related to the typical content of my blog.:

Student: I am going into theology!
Parents: Huh?
Student: I am going into theology?
Parents: How many years of college is that?
Student: Umm, it depends on how long I go for…
Parents: [Pause] What are you going to do with that?

What indeed?


[Some of the above have been slightly edited for presentational purposes.]

As my degrees are in in Humanities (English) and the Social Sciences (Linguistics), I frequently find myself wondering what exactly has happened to the Academy. Decades ago, Liberal Arts was recognized as the norm for higher education. But as time has moved on, universities have moved in a decidedly utilitarian direction. Students are ushered into programs that focus on practical education – degrees that have “obvious” worth to a particular field of employment. If we consider the U.S.A., for example, more than 20 percent of all students today take degrees in Business – an increase of almost 10 percent over the past thirty years. By contrast, students of English have dropped from 7.6 percent to 3.9. History majors have likewise declined from 18.5 percent to 10.7 percent.

People today no longer seem to value a Liberal Arts education. Instead, the focus has shifted towards degrees that will directly lead to high paying positions. I could not begin to count the amount of times Engineering students have told me “money” was the primary reason they were taking their degree. Gone, it seems, is any desire to learn how to think critically – one of the greatest benefits of a liberal arts education. Rather than developing leaders capable of engaging and critiquing society, we seem to be content in churning out one-dimensional, one-task-minded workers.

William Chace has written a fascinating new article entitled “The Decline of the English Department” where he examines some of the causes and potential solutions to the decline of liberal arts programs, with particular emphasis on English. In describing the value of his own English undergraduate degree (received in the 1950s), he writes, “What we read forced us to think about the words on the page, their meaning, their ethical and psychological implications, and what we could contrive (in 500-word essays each week) to write about them… Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference – to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.” The degree was, at its core, truly about thinking critically, and applying that critical thought to our understanding of the culture around us.

In my opinion, one of the largest problems hindering Gospel outreach today is a general disdain for thinking about deep philosophical issues. The issue is not that most people are necessarily against Christianity, or even religion in general. Instead, there is a deep-rooted apathy towards all things philosophical and complex. We as Christians should be the most vocal supporters of liberal arts education because it trains people to think (at least theoretically speaking). And when people have that thinking background, our missionary duty as Christians becomes significantly simplified: demonstrate the intellectual integrity of Christianity and trust God to do the rest.