The Soul With Its Pants On

I enjoyed this quote by the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the same division of body and soul that I had seen at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good  was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins–hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust–came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and it’s pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body (p. 49).

On Kierkegaard and the Brothers Karamazov

As if my reading load for seminary courses in Philosophy and Ethics weren’t enough already, I decided for some reason that this summer would also be a good time to finally check Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov off my list of classic novels I should have read by now. So I downloaded the audio book and will digest it a few hours at a time as I criss-cross I-40 going to Nashville and Knoxville several times over the summer.

As I listened last night, though, a quote from one of the book’s early chapters reminded me quite a bit of the excerpt from Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments which was assigned in my Philosophy of Religion class this week. The essay we read was entitled “Truth is Subjectivity”, and contains the Danish philosopher’s famous comparison between objective and subjective faith. He believed that true faith was impossible without the existence of some doubt, some “objective uncertainty” in the veracity of certain truth claims. In other words, if something can be proven objectively, faith is not required. But when we contemplate that which is transcendent, objectivity and reason can only take us so far; the “leap of faith” is the only way we can truly know God.

To a point, I agree with Kierkegaard here, but I believe that, once one comes to terms with the possibility of the existence of miracles, faith and reason can arrive at the same conclusions. Are miracles “objectively improbable”? Maybe, but in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” For those who, like Kierkegaard, believe in the existence of the supernatural, the miraculous cannot be “impossible”, so if the evidence points to something completely improbable—say, for instance, the resurrection of Christ—then we can indeed rationally believe it to be objectively true.

Which brings me to the reader’s introduction to Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, who had become a monk in the Russian Orthodox Church. It seems to me that Dostoevsky is wrestling with the same issues here, and I just love the way he does it:

I fancy that Alyosha was more of a realist than anyone. Oh! no doubt, in the monastery he fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

God’s Choice and Man’s Choice

I’ve been reading through The Message of the Old Testament by Mark Dever for my Intro to OT class. The book consists of  transcripts of Dever’s sermons from his preaching series giving an overview of every book in the Bible (the New Testament sermons are in a book called, not surprisingly, The Message of the New Testament). Yesterday I read through the sermon from the book of Deuteronomy, and it has kept coming to my mind all day today.

The thesis for this excellent sermon (which you can listen to here) is that the book of Deuteronomy can be summarized by two short statements: (1) God chooses his people; (2) God’s people must choose him. It’s one of the best explanations of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility that I’ve heard from the pulpit. Here is the excerpt that has stuck with me the most:

If you want to understand the Bible better, let me caution you against two mistakes. First, do not turn down the volume on God’s sovereignty. Don’t say, “Oh, I don’t understand these ideas of predestination, election, or God’s choosing us.” You do not need to understand it to your complete satisfaction. Read it in Scripture and believe.

Second, do not turn down the volume on what we are called to do. Don’t say, “Oh, it’s all about grace. Don’t talk to me about imperatives. That’s legalism.” The imperatives are here in Scripture. God’s people are called to live a certain way, and we get to live a certain way. God, by his Holy Spirit, breaks into our lives and changes us so that we can live in a manner that brings glory and praise to him. What a privilege! God chooses his people, yes, but we must choose God. You cannot get around this when you read through the Bible and this book of Deuteronomy.

Again, I highly encourage you to listen to this sermon, or, better yet, get the book!

A Glamorous Education

I’m currently enjoying Sir Ken Robinson’s book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative quite a bit. Robinson is one of the world’s leading experts on creativity and education. If you missed it when I posted it a few months ago, be sure to watch his excellent video, Do Schools Kill Creativity?

One of the many things I’ve learned so far reading this book is an etymological lesson on a modern word with origins I would not have guessed… a lesson I now happily pass on to you!

During the Middle Ages, when very few Western Europeans possessed any sort of education at all, the first schools that began appearing were known as schola grammatica — Grammar Schools. These schools focused primarily on teaching grammar, particularly Latin grammar. As a result, students of grammar (or, as it was rendered in Ye Olde English, gramarye or glomerye) became revered by the uneducated masses because of their fancy speech… it almost seemed magical! It is for this reason that the word “glamour” came to refer to things which are found to be fascinating or alluring.

(If you have trouble seeing how the word evolved in this way, simply try saying the word “grammar” in your best theatrical British accent with a trilled /r/ sound)

So grammar = glamour. Neat, huh?

*BONUS MATERIAL*

In one chapter, Robinson includes a few IQ tests courtesy of Mensa. I’m usually pretty good at this sort of test, but this one stumped me. If you think you know the answer (no Googling allowed… not that it would help you!), leave it in the comments.

What letter should come next in the sequence?

M Y V S E H M S J R S N U S N E P ?

Madeleine L’Engle on Truth and Fantasy

Several people have told me they enjoyed the post from earlier this week featuring J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis debating myth and lies. In the same vein, here is a lecture given in 1998 by Madeleine L’Engle, in which she speaks about the relationship of truth and fantasy (HT: The Rabbit Room).

This lecture was given as part of the Veritas Forum. To learn more about this great series of discussions on the nature of Truth, check out my review of the book A Place for Truth here. You can also see one of my very favorite lectures from the series — which features Jeremy Begbie on the interface between theology and the arts, and is much shorter than this one — here.

P.S. – If you’ve never read her masterpiece A Wrinkle in Time, drop what you’re doing and head to the nearest library!

Lewis and Tolkien Debate Myths and Lies

I recently stumbled upon this re-enactment (HT: Theater of the Word) of the fateful conversation in 1931 between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis which led to the latter’s conversion to Christianity (P.S. – for those who don’t know, Lewis’ nickname among his friends was “Jack”):

Thank the Lord that in His providence he arranged for these two men to become friends! Our world is so much richer for their work.

Their friendship is fascinating to read about. If you’re interested, here is a great article about it, and here is another which is more specifically about the conversation portrayed in the video. Colin Duriez has written a book about their friendship (Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship), and the relationship also plays heavily in The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft (my review).

A feature-length film (“The Lion Awakes”) is now also in the works, which will hopefully bring this story to a broader audience. Here is the trailer:

Book Review: Saint George and the Dragon

“Saint George and the Dragon” by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman (Illustrator)

Of the many hundreds of children’s books at his disposal, this is one of my son’s most requested. That is just as well, because it’s certainly my favorite book to read to him (besides the Jesus Storybook Bible, of course)!

Based on Edmund Spenser’s classic epic poem The Faerie Queen, this book tells the story of the Red Cross Knight and his battle against a dragon that has been terrorizing the English countryside. While there are no surprises in the plot — boy meets girl, boy travels a long way to take care of girl’s dragon problem, boy slays dragon, boy marries girl and inherits her father’s kingdom — the real fun is in the telling! Oh, and the illustrations, of course.

Hyman’s depictions of people, fairies, dwarves, and landscapes are simply beautiful. Saint George and the Dragon is presented as an illuminated manuscript, with paintings surrounding the text on every page. It’s some of the best fantasy artwork I’ve seen!

Hodges’ adaptation retains enough of Spenser’s writing style to be recognizable, but her prose is easily accessible for modern readers. In reading aloud, I am particularly fond of her generous use of alliteration. This gives the reader lots of opportunities to really “get into the story”… phrases like “fairy folk” and “dreadful dragon” roll off the tongue and help build the drama.

There are several elements that make this much more (but no less) than a book for children. While it is obviously much shorter than Edmund Spenser’s masterpiece, Saint George and the Dragon is about as “epic” as a kids’ book can be. Long sections of narrative are interspersed with short similes reminiscent of Homer, in that they don’t necessarily seem to relate to the surrounding text. Still, they are beautiful, and manage to add a sense of depth to the tale, as if there’s a whole world to be explored in the further adventures of the Red Cross Knight.

One complaint I’ve seen about this book is its length. Many parents seem to think that this is simply too wordy for young children. I couldn’t disagree more!

It’s true that this book is longer than most children’s stories. It typically takes me about 10-12 minutes to read it to my kids, but my little boy — who is not yet 3 — nearly always stays entranced to the very end! A lot probably depends on how the story is read. We tend to have a lot of fun with our story time; inserting dramatic pauses in the reading, pointing out details in the artwork as things are described, using different accents and voices, etc. (Occasionally we do have to interrupt our reading to engage in a quick sword fight, but we always return to finish it!)

I see this book as a tremendous opportunity to teach my children. There is a lot of value in epic poetry and fairy stories, but appreciation of this type of literature must be learned. If investing some extra time now showing my toddlers how to listen to and love a story that takes a while to tell helps prepare them for enjoyment later of things like The Iliad and The Lord of the Rings, then that will be time well spent! I want to cultivate in my kids a love of learning, of reading, and of story-telling… not to mention an attention span longer than what is typical in today’s media-saturated culture. I can’t think of a better time to start than when they are very young, and there are few books better suited to aiding me in this pursuit than Saint George and the Dragon.

I hope you’ll get a copy for your kids (or for yourself!). You can buy it here.