Tag Archives: literature

Engineering reliable serfs for a stable economy: diminishing the fine arts and humanities in education


Darcy Wells Ward wrote a fantastic post entitled “The Great Humanities Crisis.”

Ward writes, and quotes an unidentified Nussbaum:

…policy makers want to create a generation of workers, not thinkers. “The student’s freedom of mind is dangerous if what is wanted is a group of technically trained, obedient workers to carry out the plans of the elites who are aiming at foreign investment and technology investment.” (Nussbaum, 21)

The most powerful people can use their influence to create systems that engineer more serfs.

However, not all of the most powerful people always want to engineer serfs for themselves. Good intentions might guide efforts to engineer new policies.

Still, sometimes, the most difficult message to communicate is a message that says the present, current good intentions are not going to bring good outcomes.

Fear of poverty and fear of low status spur anxious parents and practical politicians and school districts to emphasize reductive skills that secure good salaries — and emphasize those salaries more than humane sensitivities and understandings born from the civilizing influence of well-taught and well-presented arts and literature.

Ward again:

…it is only a matter of time before the lack of interpersonal skills, as well as personal growth, created by inquiries into history, philosophy, art, music, and language will catch up with us.

Moving a society forward, like becoming an educated person, requires a balance of appreciation for traditions and appreciation for new research and theories.

Confucius once said, “Enliven the ancient and also know what is new, and then you will be a teacher.” And, you will be a citizen. And, you will be fully human.

Note: This balanced perspective won’t be accepted by certain threads of cultural conservatives, by certain threads of progressives, or by Serf Engineers.

Paradoxes for Better Living, 4


Seneca, part of double-herm in Antikensammlung...Come now, do I really give you the impression that I advocate a life of inactivity? I have only buried myself away behind closed doors in order to be able to be of use to more people.” — Seneca, in Letter VIII, translated by Robin Campbell (his translation differs somewhat from the linked translation)

The tragicomic in daily life: internal blindness in Chekhov’s characters


Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov’s short fiction was undergirded by a spirituality and a morality that suggested what one critic called “internal blindness” — a blindness of the heart detected within the privileged characters of Chekhov’s short stories.

“And perhaps nothing is as tragicomic in our daily experience as that highly serious comedy of errors, moral and spiritual in character, constantly falsifying social relations and human intercourse…. Our own reciprocal misunderstandings are due not to material appearances or optical illusions, but to internal blindness.” — Renato Poggioli, “Storytelling in a Double Key,” an essay on Anton Chekhov’s short stories

Footnote on the reliability of the Bible: Let’s say we met 30 minutes ago


Let’s say you and I met 30 minutes ago.

We met in a hotel lobby, and a passing comment about a sports car became a conversation.

I told you, “Hey, I just got a new Jaguar.”

You said, “Wow — that’s cool!”

Then we decided to share a ride somewhere.

We walked up to my car. It’s a Honda Accord.

You said, “Oh, I thought you had your Jaguar with you.”

I said, “No, I just have an Accord.”

You wondered if I’m crazy or a liar or what.

We got in the car, and I started driving.

We passed a convention center, and a sign for an upcoming concert turned the conversation to music.

You said, “I really love jazz.”

I said, “Awesome! I’ve got a massive collection of jazz in the back. We’ll get it out when we pull into a gas station.”

When we pulled into the gas station, I reached into the back and pulled out a small compact-disc holder. I handed it to you. You opened it. Inside, you found five CDs of 1980s pop.

“This doesn’t look like a jazz collection,” you said, a little exasperated.

“Oh, I don’t have a jazz collection with me — I have a few 1980s pop CDs,” I said.

You thought I was crazy or a liar or something.

Now, in the past 30 minutes, twice I’ve told you something, and then I changed my story.

Do you think I’m trustworthy?

Maybe, just maybe, some of the debates about Biblical discrepencies could be described this way:

The “liberal” text critics might say, “Look, in this passage, the Bible clearly says he had a Jaguar, and in this passage, the Bible clearly says he had an Accord. This is a problem.”

The “conservative” text critics might say, “Look, the important thing is that he had a car, just like he said.”

The “liberal” text critics might say, “How can you call this inerrant? He said he had a big jazz collection, and then he said he had a small 1980s pop collection! This is what you mean by inerrancy?”

The “conservative” text critics might reply, “He said he had music in his car, and he did, and that’s the importance of this passage. Ergo, inerrancy preserved!”

Of course, this analogy doesn’t work for every instance of factual discrepency, but it might just apply to some.

Could it be that the “conservatives” have a very broad, liberal view of what makes a text trustworthy?

(And why don’t we talk about this in church? It’s like the elephant in the room.)

Faith, doubt, speculation, and wonder


As the Dallas Cowboys and my Washington Redskins duke it out tonight, I’ve been compiling a list of essays, poems, and books. The purpose behind this list is to give some editorial context to LiturgicalCredo‘s potential contributors.

The list, which I’ll reproduce below, represents a mix of faith, doubt, speculation and wonder — the kinds of thoughts and attitudes represented in LiturgicalCredo.

“On Stories,” an essay by C.S. Lewis, from On Stories: And Other Essays

“Recovering Evangelical: Reflections of an Erstwhile Christ Addict,” an essay by Todd Shy, from Image No. 51

“Giving Up Jerusalem,” an essay by Jeanne Murray Walker, from ImageNo. 40

“The Gift of the Call,” an essay by Christopher Bamford, from Parabola, Fall 2004

“Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” a poem by Richard Wilbur, from New and Collected Poems

The Nobel Prize Lecture on Literature by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“Prayer” and “All Souls’,” poems by Dana Gioia, from The Gods of Winter

The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

“501 Minutes to Christ,” an essay by Poe Ballantine, The Sun Magazine, August 2005

“Thread,” an essay by Stuart Dybek, found in Imaginative Writing by Janet Buroway

“Useless Virtues,” a poem by T.R. Hummer, from Useless Virtues

The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense by John Ralston Saul

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, nonfiction by Walker Percy

Love in the Ruins: Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World, a novel by Walker Percy

Thomas C. Oden’s introductory essay to Parables of Kierkegaard 

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

“A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People,” short stories by Flannery O’Connor, from A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction by Ron Hansen

Another use for a church: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in and around St. Paul’s Church Covent Garden


Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by...

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Tonight Kristi, Pat, and I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that took place in three locations in the churchyard of Saint Paul’s Church Covent Garden and ended inside the church.

This open-air approach had a few advantages.

First, the sets are set and don’t (necessarily) have to be changed.

Only one of the three locations in the churchyard had a scene change. The other two locations kept the same sets throughout the play.

Second, the audience moves with the cast during the performance.

No one has to get completely cramped while waiting for the rescue of the intermission. Fresh air is nice, too!

Third, the actors can easily enter from all sides of the stages or performance spaces.

Even with actors entering from the back or sides of the audience in a traditional theater, the options fixed by the physical structure of the theater. Especially in one of tonight’s churchyard locations, the cast entered the performance space from four points, like the points of a compass.

If you’re in London sometime between now and August 5, check out this performance. The good news is, London is fairly cool right now — not at all like summer in the States!

George Orwell’s letter to Malcolm Muggeridge


Picture of George Orwell which appears in an o...

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“The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.” — George Orwell, in a letter to Malcolm Muggeridge, found in this new article in the New York Review of Books.


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The presence of myth in technologically advanced, scientific cultures


Leszek Kołakowski (1927-2009), Polish philosopher

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Leszek Kolakowski:

“In the scientific sense, ‘true’ means that which has the chance of being employed in effective technological procedures…. Metaphysical questions and beliefs are technologically barren and are therefore neither part of the analytical effort nor an element of science. As an organ of culture they are an extension of the mythical core…. A language which attempts to reach transcendence directly violates, to no purpose, its own technological instrumentality. It reaches transcendence in myths which give a meaning to empirical realities and practical activities via relativization. A mythical organization of the world (that is, the rules of understanding empirical realities as meaningful) is permanently present in culture.” — Leszek Kolakowski, The Presence of Myth 

What ‘joy’ meant to C.S. Lewis


“Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” — C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

Inconsolable longing? That makes me think — Maybe joy is not something that fills you up, but something that allows you to see what can fill you up.

John Wain versus C.S. Lewis on the role of the writer, with reference to worshiping God with imagination


The novelist and critic John Wain, a former student of C.S. Lewis, had a disagreement with his teacher:

“A writer’s task, I maintained, was to lay bare the human heart, and this could not be done if he were continually taking refuge in the spinning of fanciful webs. Lewis retorted with a theory that, since the Creator had seen fit to build a universe and set it in motion, it was the duty of the human artist to create as lavishly as possible in his turn. The romancer, who invents a whole world, is worshiping God more effectively than the mere realist who analyses that which lies around him. Looking back across fourteen years, I can hardly believe that Lewis said anything so manifestly absurd as this, and perhaps I misunderstood him; but that, at any rate, is how my memory reports the incident.”

– John Wain, Sprightly Running (1963), found in Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (1974) by Richard Purtill

Religion and poetry are the only languages which still have something to say


“Religion and poetry are about the only languages … which … still have something to say. Compare ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ with ‘The supreme being that transcends time and space.’ The first goes to pieces if you being to apply the literal meaning to it. How can anything but a sexual animal really be a father? How can it be in the sky? The second falls into no such traps. On the other hand, the first really means something, really represents a concrete experience in the minds of those who use it: the second is mere dexterous playing with counters…”

– C.S. Lewis, in a 1932 letter to his brother

Achieve independence by what you reject, or by what you embrace?


Elif Batuman argues that the university creative writing program “stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it – but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent. It’s exciting and important to reject the great books, but it’s equally exciting and important to be in a conversation with them. One isn’t stating conclusively that Father Knows Best, but who knows whether Father might not have learned a few useful things on the road of life, if only by accident? When ‘great literature’ is replaced by ‘excellent fiction’, that’s the real betrayal of higher education.”

Food for thought: The topic is literature


“As Tolstoy put it, ‘All happy families are alike’: isn’t literature all about wounds, otherness, trauma, alienation and persecution? It is. But it’s equally true that all unhappy families – not just ‘formerly enslaved, immigrant or indigenous’ families – are unhappy after their own fashion. Tolstoy wrote equally compellingly about war and peace. Literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest.”

From Elif Batuman, in this essay.

Paul Holmer: How literature functions


“Literature is not a disguised theory, nor an implied didacticism. Instead, it communicates in such a way that, when successful, it creates new capabilities and capacities, powers and a kind of roominess in the human personality. One becomes susceptible to new competencies, new functions, new pathos and possibilities.” — Paul Holmer, C.S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought

George Santayana: Each mind is poetic


“Only literature can describe experience, for the excellent reason that the terms of experience are moral and literary from the beginning. Mind is incorrigibly poetical: not because it is not attentive to material facts and practical exigencies, but because, being intensely attentive to them, it turns them into pleasures and pains, and into many-colored ideas.” – George Santayana, quoted in Philosophy in Literature (Syracuse University Press, 1949) by Julian Ross

‘Good Book’ author on Colbert Report


(If you don’t see the full screen and “play” button, click the “David Plotz” link below.)

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
David Plotz
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Tod Linafelt on the Bible’s literary merits


In this article published at The Chronicle Review, Tod Linafelt critiques James Wood’s approach to the Bible in the latter’s recent book, How Fiction Works.

Linafelt, an associate professor of biblical literature at Georgetown University, opens the article on this note:

It is hard to deny that in many respects the Bible is the most unliterary work of literature that we have. Saint Augustine, already in the late fourth century AD, confessed that biblical style exhibits “the lowest of language” and had seemed to him, before his conversion, “unworthy of comparison with the dignity of Cicero.” It is easy to see what he means. Biblical narrative especially (things are different with biblical poetry) tends to work with a very limited vocabulary and consistently avoids metaphors and other sorts of figurative language, evincing a drastically stripped-down manner of storytelling that can seem the very antithesis of style.

Then, readers have not traditionally gone to the Bible in search of literary artfulness but rather for its religious value — that is, as a source of theology (What can we learn about God?) or of ethics (What can we learn about morality?). For Augustine, as for so many religious readers after him, the Bible’s theological truths and ethical teachings won out over its literary art or lack thereof.

Linafelt goes on to explain how Wood’s approach to biblical narratives and characters missed a few things, and in the process, he offers some fascinating insights into biblical literature. Read the full article here.

Happy Birthday, John Milton!


It’s the 400th birthday of John Milton, author best known for Paradise Lost, and not as well known for his defense of free speech, Areopagitica. Check out this article to find out how some people are celebrating.