“Super Why” is an Abomination that Causes Desolation

Ask any parent, and he or she will tell you that Children’s television falls into roughly three kinds of categories. In the largest, there is a wide swath of mediocre shows, with flashing lights and simple stories, which capture the attention of your children and allow you to clean your kitchen or take a nap. You don’t love letting your kids watch them, but you estimate the value of living in a clean house to exceed the relative inanity of the show.

Barney

No comment.

Then, there is a group of shows which are actually really good television. They tell good stories, or have fun concepts, and they’re so good you find yourself watching those shows with your kids and enjoying them. These are shows (at the moment) like Odd Squad, and Peg+Cat. These shows make you feel better about being a lazy slob and letting your kids rot their brains watching the telly. If you didn’t have anything to do, you’d probably rot your brain alongside them.

Then there’s a set of shows which are so stupid, so canned, so awful, that you suddenly understand why people might go insane. They’ve got flashing lights, and colourful characters, and loud music, and your children (who don’t have a discerning bone in their bodies) love watching them in the same way they’ll eat anything made of sugar, no matter how revolting. They are the nightmare fuel of children’s television.

PBS’s Super Why is such a show. And yet, Super Why is even worse.

Super Why_full cast

Super Why, in its most basic sense, is a storybook show which follows a precise pattern for each episode. A group of super friends encounter a problem in their world. This problem will require them to learn a lesson, and in order to learn their lesson they’ll have to “Look, in a book!” (The comma is there because they pause after saying ‘look’.) The super friends then suit up and dive into a classic fairy tale or storybook—Little Red Riding Hood, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or something else. The show progresses while they read through the storybook, reading the pages, looking for secret letter clues, and eventually solving the problem of the day. One character is a pig who digs up letters. One is a fairy who helps you spell. All well and good (apart from being mind-numbingly banal).

However, the critical dénouement of each episode is when the story reaches its crisis point. At that point, the hero (whose name is Whyatt) arrives with his special power, and “saves” the day. (Saves is in scare quotes for reasons which will be explicated shortly.) In the episode my children watched the other day, the real-world problem is that the main character wants to eat the same thing all the time. To solve this problem they look in a book called King Eddie Spaghetti, about a king, named Eddie, who only (as you might well guess) eats spaghetti. In the storybook page, displayed on screen, it read that Eddie only eats “spaghetti, and spaghetti, and spaghetti!”

King Eddie Spaghetti

Enter the hero, suited and ready to save the day. He announces, as a preamble to his actions, “With the power to read I can change the story!” (He says this each episode at this point.) He then proceeds to tap two of the three words, changing one spaghetti for beets, and another spaghetti for meatballs. The new sentence reads that Eddie ate, “spaghetti, beets, and meatballs!” Problem solved. Now we can return to the real world with our new secret word, Variety, and solve our problem. Yay!

Or not. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on what has just happened. We are looking in books to find solutions to our real world problems. When we encounter a possible solution, we don’t actually read, and interpret the book, we’re going to re-write it. What is more, we’re going to sanction this re-writing process by calling it, “The power to read.”

What?! That’s not reading. That’s not what the word means. That’s not how we deal with texts. That’s not how we deal with the world, or people, or problems. That’s not how we manage data, or interpret information. On no account and in none of the possible worlds is that a proper way to deal with a set of data. In fact, it represents the absolute antithesis of what good reading is, and we’ve got a word for it: eisegesis.

Jefferson Bible sources

Thomas Jefferson famously removed sections from his Bible that he didn’t like.

 

Maybe you don’t know this word. It’s the process of reading what we want into a text, rather than drawing out what a text actually says. It’s the process of projecting our own fancies, desires, and needs onto a body of literature, reforming it into a more convenient package. It’s a bad word. It’s repulsive. You don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Think plague, Ebola, Chicken Pox.

And yet, eisegesis is the kind of reading being taught to children through the monotonous rhetoric of Super Why. Jack and the Beanstalk? Let’s change the words so that the giant is tired and wants a nap, so that we can teach a lesson about using music to relax. Hansel and Gretel? Let’s change the candy house to a house of vegetables so we can teach a lesson about balanced diets. Humpty Dumpty? Let’s “use the power to read” to get him down safely and change it to a story about encouragement. In each case, a perfectly good story is mangled so that it can communicate an inferior message. And this, really, is just salt to the wound, because rather than finding a story and drawing a lesson from that story, however awkwardly, whatever real value these stories have is pressed through the transforming matrix of banal moralization. In addition to not learning how to read, your child is also being fed a diet of thin and watery stupidity.

Super Why_Variety

Your daily indoctrination.

Texts challenge us. Texts expose us to other worlds. Texts give us insight into other mindsets, other human perspectives, other viewpoints. Occasionally those viewpoints are comfortable; occasionally they are not. But in either case, learning to read is the process of learning what it means to wrestle with that discomfort—of taking texts, as best we are able, at face value; of refusing at all points to edit or change them to our liking, to project on them our own desires or fantasies. And in the end, the way we treat texts is a great deal like the way we have to treat people—each with a perspective, a vantage point, a set of understandings that are different from our own. We are no more permitted to project our desires on other people than we are on texts, and yet the people who do so are considered the worst of us. Imagine speaking to someone about lunch plans. “What would you like to eat today?” “I’d like a cheeseburger.” And his response, “Okay, we’ll go for pie, then.” That’s not listening, that’s simple projection. And that’s the kind of person Super Why is training children to be. It’s abominable.

Scofield’s Abominable Study Bible

I love the Bible, but I’ve hated reading it this past year, and the reason for my hatred has been C.I. Scofield.

By my count, I’ve now read through the entire Bible five or six times. I’ve read through the New International Version two or three times—once in High School when my faith came alive, once (I believe, but I’m not certain) in College, and once again in Seminary. When I was ordained I read it again, but this time for variety I read the New Living Translation. Afterwards, I read through the New American Standard, which is the version I personally use for preaching today. Last year, wanting to read still another translation, and always planning to spend time in the most famous of translations, I set myself to read the King James. The experience has been most miserable.

Scofield_Handsome VolumeThe edition I’ve read was a gift from my grandparents back in 1998 (likely a graduation present) and is quite handsome to look at—a hefty, burgundy leather volume with gold edges. It feels nice to open, and sits nicely in the lap, and looks impressive on my shelf, although its bulk rendered it inconvenient for travel so that I quickly found myself reading it only at home during my morning devotions. Devotions are meant to be a time of stillness before the Lord, a daily period of attentiveness to the word where we seek to hear His voice and attune ourselves to His presence throughout the day. They are not, as a rule, a good time for experimental reading, and yet into my efforts to engage the King James text an unsolicited voice kept inserting itself, noisily, bombastically, irritatingly. It was the voice of C.I. Scofield.

ScofieldCyrus Ingerson Scofield was a civil war veteran who came to Christian faith as an adult, later pastoring churches in Dallas and Massachusetts. Affiliated with D.L. Moody, Scofield later began work on his reference Bible, through which he popularized a new system of theological interpretation called “Dispensationalism,” developed by an Anglo-Irish man named John Nelson Darby. When Scofield’s Bible was published in 1909, at a time of great expectation about the end of the world, his interpretive matrix took fundamentalism by storm, quickly becoming one of the best selling Bibles in history. This is the Bible that created “The Thief in the Night,” Hal Lindsay, Christian Zionism, and Left Behind. In other words, it is the Bible which has dominated a very visible portion of the Christian imagination for the last 100 years.

In full knowledge of this, for over a year I pressed through with my reading—once through each book, four times through the Psalms, 1377 pages in total, countless marginal notes and footnotes. I read every word (and whether I’m a fool or a glutton for punishment has yet to be determined), and I read the whole thing partly because my dear deceased grandparents had given me the Bible. Ditching it felt a bit like ditching them.

The first of my problems with the Bible were its invasive edits into the text. Scofield (or possibly 1967 editors) had taken it upon himself to update a selection of language in the King James. But rather than offer marginal notes explaining difficult language, the text has forcibly replaced the “difficult” words with edits, and the reader must look to the margins to find the original. Many of these are completely unnecessary—for example, “nigh” has been replaced with “near,” “suffer” with “permit,” and “rent” with “torn.” These alterations are unnecessary, and have the effect of reducing some of the majesty of the text. After all, I’m not reading the King James because I want it to be a modern book. But every five to ten verses or so there was notation that indicated a word had been changed. This made reading a constant battle between the text and the margins.

Scofield_Text DetailBut Scofield’s Reference Notes are where the real grievances emerge, and I’ll narrow my vast,  overwhelming, and yearlong discontent to three categories of offense. A first offence is that the notes reveal an agenda other than opening the text. Scofield’s notes, by and large, don’t illuminate the text (which is the primary purpose of a Bible with study notes, as far as I’m concerned). There is a spirit of defensiveness in Scofield’s notes—he comes out swinging at a number of imaginary opponents, eager to defend the text against all foes. Notes then exist to engage in a fight to which the reader may or may not have any awareness. Just now, flipping through at random, I opened to Micah 4, where the footnote from verse 1 says the following:

Micah 4:1-3 and Isa. 2:2-4 are practically identical. The Spirit of God gave both prophets the same revelation because of its surpassing importance. It is impossible to prove that either prophet was quoting the other.

Here we can easily imagine Scofield’s perceived nemeses—those who would claim that the Bible is not, somehow, perfectly inspired (because Micah might have borrowed from Isaiah). So the note exists not to illuminate what Micah might be saying in chapter four, but to argue with an imaginary opponent who might claim that because there is a similarity between Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 the Bible is somehow falsified. Scofield’s way through this difficulty is to appeal to the Spirit’s revelation to both men—which certainly might be the case, but also does not have to be the case. And yet anchoring the Bible in Spiritual authority fits within Scofield’s underlying program of rendering the Bible impervious to various “modern” attacks. The agenda for the vast majority of notes is similarly cantankerous and argumentative, and regularly fails to open the text for interpretation. The dominant spirit is one of protection, not illumination.

 

Scofield_Nice on the Shelf

It looks so nice on the shelf. I guess you can’t judge a book by its formatting.

A second offence is that the notes reveal a fundamentally flawed methodology. When Scofield does interpret the text, he interprets it quite badly. As one example, consider his comments on Leviticus 2:1-11, where Moses describes the “recipe” for grain offerings in the tabernacle. Scofield writes:

The meal offering: (1) fine flour speaks of the evenness and balance of the character of Christ, of that perfection in which no quality was in excess, none lacking; (2) fire, of His testing by suffering, even unto death; (3) frankincense, of the fragrance of His life before God (see Ex.30:34, note); (4) absence of leaven, of His character as ‘the truth’ (Jn.14:6, cp. Ex.12:8, marg.); (5) absence of honey—His was not that mere natural sweetness which may exist quite apart from grace; (6) oil mingled, of Christ as born of the Holy Spirit (Mt.1:18-23); (7) oil upon, of Christ as baptized with the Spirit (Jn.1:32; 6:27); (8) the oven, of the unseen sufferings of Christ—His inner agonies (Mt.27:45-46; Heb.2:18); (9) the pan, of His more evident sufferings (e.g. Mt.27:27-31); and (10) salt, of the pungency of the truth of God—that which arrests the action of leaven.

This is an interpretive attitude that operates under the assumption that no text has value if it does not somehow point to Christ. The recipe in the text cannot be, simply, a recipe for a grain offering—it has to be something else. And while there might be a kind of devotional benefit in meditating on what the different elements of the grain offering represent, this interpretation stretches the bounds of reason by forcing the reader to interpret the text artificially. Meaning is in this way critically divorced from context.

An even clearer example is in Psalm 40, where David sings about waiting for the Lord and experiencing His salvation. To this Psalm Scofield offers the following interpretive comment:

The 40th Psalm speaks of Messiah, the Lord’s Servant obedience unto death. The Psalm begins with the joy of Christ in resurrection (vv. 1-2). He has been in the horrible pit of the grave but has been brought up. Verses 3-5 are His resurrection testimony, His “new song.”

Let’s be clear—Psalm 40 might be speaking about Jesus, but it most certainly is speaking about David first. This kind of “interpretation” places the whole meaning of the Psalm on its fulfillment in Christ, but it also by proxy eliminates our own engagement with the song. By being purely about Jesus, it can no longer be about us, and this is one of the effects of Scofield’s readings—when he interprets a text, his meaning eliminates personal application. Knowing what it’s “about” reduces our own responsibility to read the text devotionally. It is a kind of knowledge that replaces obedience.

A third offence is that the notes expose a theology that reads the Scriptures. This is one of my greatest pet-peeves, especially because I have such a great love of the Word. It is the attitude of a reader or interpreter who has forfeited his capacity to read the text for itself in favor of reading it through the lens of his preferred theological construct. In this, theology reads the Scriptures, rather than Scripture governing theology. This has a double effect on the reading of the Bible—on the one hand, when such a reader approaches the Bible, he is often looking, not for a fresh hearing of God’s voice, but for a confirmation of his preexisting theology. On the other hand, when such a reader encounters passages that don’t fit his or her preconceptions, those passages are often ignored or explained away. The lens of the theological construct, in other words, blocks the reader from perceiving God’s word as it is.

In Leviticus 16:6, where the text makes mention of atonement, Scofield offers the following note and comment about the theological principle of atonement:

Atonement. The Biblical use and meaning of the word must be sharply distinguished from its use in theology. In the O.T., atonement is the English word used to translate the Hebrew words which mean cover, coverings, or to cover. Atonement is, therefore, not a translation of the Hebrew but a purely theological concept.

What does it mean to “sharply distinguish” the Biblical use of a word from its theological use? Is that even possible? Doesn’t the theological use derive all of its meaning from the word’s use in Scripture? But here theology reads the text, rather than the text informing theology, and this kind of reading encourages a student to establish his own theological framework and then apply that liberally to the text. We believe what we think, then we read the text accordingly.

And, of course, the single greatest, ongoing, overarching element of this in Scofield’s Reference Bible is the issue of Dispensationalism, which is a massively unhelpful, thoroughly human, unhistorical, and false theological construct into which Scofield’s Scriptures are made to fit no matter what. The chief problem with Dispensationalism, however, remains one of methodology—it is a theology that reads the Scriptures, rather than the Scriptures reading the theology.

Dispensationalism Chart

The chart reads the text, rather than the text critiquing the chart.

I still love the Bible—in fact, it is precisely because I love the Bible that I hate what Scofield has done to it. And, as a matter of fact, I should say, in an attempt to separate the King James from Scofield’s foibles, that there’s nothing particularly wrong with the King James Version. And yet after a year in the text I can’t say that there’s anything particularly commendable about it either. For my part I am unconcerned about archaic language, and I find that alternative wordings very often illuminate texts in fresh ways. The single biggest problem I have with the King James itself is versification and the lack of paragraphs. Paragraphs, not verses, are the primary unit of thought, and when a Bible decontextualizes its own text for the sake of an artificial and arbitrary versification, this inhibits the proper reading of the text. In other words, when I approach a passage visually and expect that each verse is a unit of meaning, I from the start am not attending to the contextual meaning. Yet context is king, and therefore the versification of the King James militates against meaning. This is a fairly serious problem, and we see its continuing influence in modern theology today. In part, it makes a thing like Dispensationalism possible.

As far as readability goes, the Psalms are the litmus test of a translation for me. They have been my constant devotional companion for more than ten years now, and so even as I read straight through the rest of the Bible, I would work my way through the Psalms again and again. The first reading was wretched, the second was unmemorable, but I found that by the third reading through the Psalms I was enjoying them in the King James again. One key was my ability, after the first readings, to willfully ignore Scofield’s notes. Another was my increasing familiarity with their language. But four read-throughs is a steep price to pay for general comprehension, and I see no good reason to recommend the KJV to any new Christian.

Scofield_Top ViewThe past year has been difficult devotionally, and I can say with confidence that the Scofield Reference Bible is by far the worst Bible I have ever experienced. Will I read the King James again? Quite possibly–in fact, I’ve chosen to work my way through the Psalms again, and am reading the Sermon on the Mount as well. But I will purposefully avoid all those abominable notes at the bottom of the page, and thus save myself from further angst, frustration, and despair.

A Call to Elevate Our Discourse

The Problem

If you are at all like me then you lament the ongoing state of Christian creativity, that is, of the specifically Christian imagination as it is expressed in both the public sphere and the Church. Christian cinema, Christian radio, Christian television productions, Christian media personalities, Christian artwork, Christian music—for each discipline appending the label “Christian” has the effect of qualitatively lessening the seriousness and effectiveness of the creative effort. Regrettably, a so-called “Christian” artist is almost universally not a very good artist.

Left Behind

This is an ironic state of affairs, especially since the Christian story truly is the greatest story ever told, tapping into the full range of human emotions and situations, possessing power to reach humans of any background, any socioeconomic status, any stage in life. Strangely, possession of this story has not succeeded (at least in this century) at making of Christians particularly good storytellers. Christians have at their disposal access to the immeasurable depths of the God who created the universe, but settle instead to pander about as intellectual infants. Christians have the capacity to speak with immense cultural resonance, and yet frequently appeal to the merely sentimental. We have the potential to instruct the heart in the depths of the knowledge of God, but instead choose to bludgeon the emotions with saccharine, simplified, and perpetually “safe” content. We have set as our standard the wisdom of doves, and the consequence is that at times our creative efforts are as harmful as serpents.

The Cause

A root cause of this situation is an overarching obsession with utility. In the Christian world, if a thing is not considered directly useful for the gospel, then it is not considered beneficial. To expand on this, if a media form does not fit directly within the narrow confines of a specific area of church life—such as evangelism, encouragement, or instruction—then it is immediately suspect. What use is a painting that doesn’t instruct? If it’s not about a specific Bible story, how can I know it is safe? What use is a song that doesn’t function in worship? What use is a radio station that doesn’t encourage? If a movie has “worldly” content in it, doesn’t that mean it is poisoning my mind and my purity? Our ability to categorize and appreciate creative efforts is thus sharply filtered through a lens which measures the inherent usefulness of the effort. Creativity has been enslaved to utility.

Jesus and the Businessman

This utilitarianism is augmented by a cultivated suspicion of things that are practiced. For some time Christians have concluded (falsely) that something produced by an individual without training is superior to something produced by another individual with training. We elevate the amateur on the grounds that he or she displays a special anointing of the Spirit—in other words, lack of credentials is implicit evidence of the work of God. This was brought into clear focus for me recently when I encountered the following passage in Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching,

As I begin to speak to you about literary style and homiletical construction, I cannot help once more urging upon you the need of hard and manly study; not simply the study of language and style itself, but study in its broader sense, the study of truth, of history, of philosophy; for no man can have a richly stored mind without its influencing the style in which he writes and speaks, making it at once thoroughly his own, and yet giving it variety and saving it from monotony. I suppose the power of an uneducated man like Mr. Moody is doing something to discredit the necessity of study among ministers and to tempt men to rely upon spontaneousness and inspiration. I honor Mr. Moody, and rejoice in much of the work that he is doing, but if his success had really this effect it would be a very serious deduction from its value. When you see such a man, you are to consider both his exceptionalness and his limitations. In some respects he is a very remarkable and unusual man, and therefore not a man out of whom ordinary men can make a rule. ~ Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, 146-147

DL Moody a friend of ECM in the Revivals of 1873 and 1880s026Brooks’s target is preaching, and in his view he has the powerful and popular ministry of D.L. Moody, the uneducated but globally effective evangelist. If we make a model of Moody, appealing to his lack of education to undercut our own requirements, then we are ignoring the uniqueness of Moody. Not all men are Einsteins, but the existence of a single Einstein does not lead us to conclude that any old person can give a lecture on advanced physics. Why then would we assume that untrained individuals are similarly suitable for Christian service? The source of such an attitude, in Christian praxis, is clearly a form of laziness; I will trust in the Spirit, that is, so that I don’t have to do my homework.

Laziness, let us be clear, is a form of utilitarianism. It states that I will only pursue those tasks which I find directly beneficial to what it is that I am doing. It foreshortens our ability to perceive of how the Christian faith might bear impact on a wide range of subjects. To put this another way, the lazy utilitarianism of the Christian mind sets a list of approved subjects for study; then, searching within that list, typically finds only what it looks for. And it is precisely this simplicity that generates simple-minded, emotionally monotonous media as well. Instead, the Christian mind ought to stretch out into the breadths of the world equipped with the depths of Christian understanding. The Christian mind is not a mind of Christian things, but a mind equipped with the mind of Christ prepared to encounter all the things of the world.

A First Repair: Recovering the Breadths of Christianity

How will we go about aspiring to such a mind, breaking the bonds of our utilitarianism? The first way to repair will be to recapture our conviction of the breadths of Christianity. Brooks’s words about preaching therefore bear impact here as well. He challenges ministers (and I extend this to all Christians) to be individuals who read widely and richly, to explore the depths of the knowledge of God as that knowledge is revealed in all the diversity of the world. This is to recover our conviction, in Arthur Holmes’s phrase, that “All truth is God’s truth.” Practically, this means that the particularly Christian attitude is not to assemble the list of preapproved and “safe” subjects for Christian study, but instead to search out how to expand our Christianity into every subject, to attend for those glimmers and glimpses of God’s revealed character as they present themselves to us in each and every matter. Paul, speaking in Second Corinthians to his actions as an apostle, hints at this process in a way that I think is fair to extend here, that “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). We are not specifically in search of only obedient thoughts, but we are striving to bring all thoughts into obedience to Christ.

GreatBooksWesternWorld

If such an attitude is right, then it ought to change the Christian approach to art and creativity, thus elevating our discourse in society. Our focus will not be to be good “Christian” artists, but to be good artists who happen to be Christian. C.S. Lewis speaks to this in a talk he once gave on apologetics: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent” (Undeceptions, “Christian Apologetics,” 67). The supremely evangelistic task, in other words, while it is occasionally served by directly apologetical books (e.g., Mere Christianity), is in fact better served by the faithful presence of Christians doing their own individual work well as Christians. We need not Christian movies, but good movies made by Christians with their Christianity informing their work; not more Christian recording artists, but good music made by Christians with their Christianity bleeding out into their songs. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for expressly pedagogical Christian work. Just the other day I listened to some songs which were scripture, set to music for children. But the purpose of such pedagogy—and the purpose, I might suggest, of our public worship and education as well—is to expand the Christian mind so that it can encompass the world. Our education should not narrow, but broaden the mind, and it must begin by remembering that the Christian story envelops the whole of the world, past, present, and future. Until we regain a conviction of those breadths we will fail to effectively speak our depths into the deep needs of the world.

A Second Repair: Recovering a Conviction of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good

A second treatment for our utilitarianism is to recover our conviction of the true, the beautiful, and the good. If Christian creativity is not to be based on its usefulness, then its basis must be some other thing. We must create, in other words, because we are convinced that a thing is true, or that a thing is beautiful, or that a thing is inherently good, and our creative efforts ought to tether back to these factors. And yet it is possible that a key reason why we have retreated from these three transcendentals to the merely useful is because we have become deeply confused about what they are. Just recently I read an article in the Independent about students who struggle to read all their assigned textbooks. The closing quote was illuminating about the state of the human mind, “Lizzy Kelly, a history student at Sheffield added: ‘Students might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don’t work for us.’” Books, in other words, are not worth reading on their own merits, nor because they might communicate something true, beautiful, or good, but because they ought to “work for us.” Utility thus assassinates the true.

TheRoadThere is further confusion even in identifying the qualities of these characteristics. A year ago I heard a Christian literature professor give a lecture on the image of God in Cormac McCarthy’s startlingly dystopic The Road. She persistently described that book, which remains one of the grittiest, darkest, books I have ever read, as “beautiful.” Now, I was willing to agree with her that the book was both gripping and theologically compelling, but to describe it as beautiful felt like a profound misapplication of terms. The book was decidedly not beautiful. The language might have been beautiful, and the contents might have illuminated something of the truth of human depravity and God’s faithfulness, but the contents themselves were fundamentally ugly, even hideous. She had confused the true and the beautiful, and the consequence was to muddy our Christian understanding of the world, rather than illuminate it.

I want to suggest that if we have failed to properly identify these characteristics, it is because we have left off educating ourselves in their pursuit. I find myself drawn again and again to the following passage in C.S. Lewis’s magnum opus, The Abolition of Man,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 28-29, emphasis added)

The point is that we must train ourselves to see those things which are worth seeing. We become hungry and on the lookout for truth, no matter where it might be found. We train our eyes to see the beautiful and strive to find it in all of life. We cultivate a taste for the good and are eager to experience it in all things. We admit complexity and nuance, that God is communicating to all people at all times, reaching out in love through all the world’s corrupted creativity to show something of His glory. And in this way we reject the simplistic, the saccharine, and the safe–exchanging them directly for the true (which is not simplistic), the beautiful (which is never saccharine), and the good (which is rarely safe).

Christian education—that process by which individuals who profess Christ are guided into deepened maturity in all the fullness of Christ, that process by which we are taught to feel pleasure and disgust at those things which are really pleasant or disgusting—is a weakened and sickly thing. We have retreated when we ought to have advanced, circled our wagons when we ought to have gone walkabout. The world is there, each stone eager to declare the glory of God. The furrows of the world are deep, anticipating the clear water of Christ to irrigate and bring forth fresh fruit. But it is only as Christians reject utility and commit to educating ourselves in the true, the beautiful, and the good that we will succeed in elevating the level of our discourse, and thus bring the full weight of our creative potential into the greater service of the Kingdom of God.

Ten Tips for Planning a Bible Study Lesson (Excerpted from “Reading the Word”)

Cracked clay landscape in the Atacama desert.(Note: The following is excerpted from a recent course I have written, called “Reading the Word.”)

In the book of 1 Kings Jehoshaphat and Ahab sat together and inquired from the council of court prophets whether or not they should go to battle. The council of prophets told the kings that victory was assured, but Jehoshaphat wasn’t convinced, and turning to Ahab he said, “Is there not yet a prophet of the Lord here that we may inquire of him?” (1 Kings 22:7). In every age, and at every time, there is a hunger among God’s people to hear from God Himself. We are eager for His guiding voice and assuring presence, and perhaps our greatest, if unspoken, fear, is the one pronounced by the prophet Amos, Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the Lord.” (Amos 8:11).

This is possibly the most important thing to keep in mind when considering the matter of preparing a Bible study lesson—what the human heart is most eager for is a word from the Lord, illumination that comes from God. We don’t crave human wisdom, or human cleverness, or even human explanations, we are hungry for the word from beyond the world. We want someone to open the Bible for us and illuminate it.

The job, then, of a Bible study leader is to facilitate this communication between God’s word and the individual hearer through listening personally to God’s voice, studying faithfully God’s word, and then seeking effective means of teaching those matters to others. In the simplest terms, then, faithful Bible study can be reduced to three simple questions:

  • 1) What is God saying? What does the text actually say? What does God want us to understand? What’s going on in this particular passage or set of passages?
  • 2) What is God saying to me? How do these words affect me and my faith? What does this passage impact me in my walk with God?
  • 3) What is God saying to my audience? What do I think they need to hear? What are the words of comfort or challenge that God is delivering to these people whom He is leading me to teach at this time?

All the techniques for planning a Bible study lesson work to answer, in some form, these three questions. Now, as far as what the text says to you personally, that is between you and God. What is required there is your own faithful and submissive reading of the text. Without a devotional life in the Bible, you will have little to nothing to say in this category. As far as what the text says to your audience, you must know them as well. My mentor in the faith likes to say that there is no use being able to exegete the text if I cannot exegete the hearts of my hearers as well. So reading your audience is as important, for an effective teacher, as the reading of the text. Not more important, but equally important.

Attentive AudienceAs far as reading the text for what God is saying, the lessons from this book ought to go a long way toward reading effectively, but a few further tips can help any reader achieve a greater understanding of the text. Here, then, are my tips for studying the word:

1) Take notes. Get some scratch paper and keep it handy. Write down key words and themes. Take note of things that strike you as you read through the text in question. Try to draw the connections between passages.

2) Read the passage all at once, then try to break it into pieces. What are the divisions? Are there key ideas that govern individual sections?

3) Read the passage in multiple translations. What do you notice is different in the different translations? Are there different ideas that come through in your different readings?

4) Write up a preliminary summary. What do I think this passage is about? If I had to summarize it for a friend right now, what would I say? Imagine you are explaining it to someone who is a new believer and has no concept of Christian theology.

5) Consult a reference book. Find a commentary or other book that can help you to explore the ideas of the passage. Are there terms from Greek or Hebrew that illuminate this passage more clearly? Are there cultural elements which shape the interpretation of the passage? Consider whether or not your initial thoughts fall in line with the commentator—if they do, great. If they don’t, take stock of the commentator’s argument and evaluate it in light of Scripture. Remember, just because the person wrote a commentary doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right!

6) Consider the main takeaway for the passage. Write it on your notes.

7) Set up an outline for teaching and eliminate unnecessary data. It is very important that you decide what is most important to share in a lesson, and what ought to be left out. Here, you are streamlining your lesson for the sake of your hearers. At this point also you should consider especially what you think God might be saying to you and to them. (Alternatively, you can plan an inductive lesson where the students ask the questions, guiding the direction of the lesson, and your preparation serves as a baseline for student discussion.)

8) If you’re in need of advice, run the lesson past a friend before you share it with your group. Sharing a Bible Study lesson isn’t an examination, and you shouldn’t feel any fear about consulting a friend for input.

9) Remember to pray through the process!

10) When you get to share your lesson, speak with humility, remembering that you sit under the authority of the Scriptures. Make sure you invite questions as well, sharing the authority and process of reading the Scriptures in community.

In the end, if you commit to reading the Scriptures faithfully and humbly, not much can go wrong when you read them in community with other people. God is faithful—more faithful that your best thoughts, more faithful that all our knowledge, and His word is more powerful than all our best efforts. Simply the fact that you are reading the word, and reading it with and for others, will itself bear fruit.

Questions for Reflection

Think of a Bible study that you enjoyed. What was it you enjoyed about the experience?

 

Think of a Bible study you didn’t enjoy. What was it you didn’t enjoy about the experience?

 

Consider the steps listed above. Do these seem attainable to you? Which steps seem to you most difficult and why?

 

The Scriptures say that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1)—how do you think love should govern our reading and teaching of the Scriptures?

 

Becoming More Human Through the Reading of Old Books

old-booksSometimes the best part of reading a book is the thinking it makes you do while you read it—losing your place in the paragraph because your mind is running with the implications of an unobtrusive sentence. This happened to me while reading J.A.W. Bennett’s essay in the volume, Light on C.S. Lewis. There I encountered the following words: “In this sense medieval just as much as classical studies make men more humane.”

Bennett’s sentence launched me out of the paragraph and into a rapid sequence of concurrent ideas, bringing together a number of thoughts that form, I believe, a coherent whole around the necessity of reading well. Let me see if I can tease out the network now.

Bennett, Lewis’s successor to the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, is writing about the way that Lewis as a scholar inhabited the worlds about which he wrote as an academic. Lewis was very much a medieval man living in the modern world. And this fact is the first spark that ignited my thoughts, because Bennett’s assertion illuminates an implicit truth: Classical Studies—the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans—has long been the purview of the Classicist, who is an individual known as much by his living out of the ancient principles of the Greco-Roman world as for his expansive knowledge of its particulars. Classical Studies, in other words, is as much about inhabiting a worldview as it is about a kind of intellectual acumen. To study the Classics has traditionally (and rightly) been as much a matter of growing in your humanity as it is about the acquisition of knowledge. We do not read Homer in Greek in order to parse Attic so much as we read Homer in Greek to parse the human heart. We do not read Sophocles in order to pass an exam, we read Sophocles in order to expose ourselves to the innate tragedy of the human situation. Our growth is in character and knowledge coequally.

PepysLibraryCambridge

Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Bennett’s assertion, then, is that the Medievalist is every bit as much a student of humanity as the traditional Classicist. This arrested my attention precisely because of its implicit truth. Lewis was a student of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, so immersed within them that he became an advocate for their perspectives, employing them as vantage points from which to criticize and destroy the ethical, political, literary, moral, religious, and above all progressivist idols of the modern age. In this it was not that Lewis always advocated for the past against the present, but that he rejected wholesale the implied superiority of so-called ‘modern’ ideas, and he used the Medieval perspective—as well as the Classical—to advance his case.

So, Medieval scholars are like Classical scholars. That’s a simple enough claim to make, but why should I find this remarkable? Simply put, because of what is common between these two disciplines, namely, the inhabiting of an alternative worldview through literature. For both the Classicist and Medievalist, the scholar has so invested in the worldview of the past that it can bring a challenging perspective upon the present. Rereading that last sentence I am aware of an inadequacy within it, because it is not merely the act of investing in the past, but of doing so in a disinterested way. The true Classicist and true Medievalist is a person who reads in the past in order to experience and see the past as it was, not the past as our present sensibilities project upon it, edited and interpreted to modern sensibilities.

The reason why Medieval and Classical eras are both excellent studies for this kind of perspective is due to an important factor: in each era there was an implied, explicated, and even pervasive vision of true humanity. Both ages were deeply, unshakably, teleological. This shows up most clearly in the figures of both the Knight and the Hero. The Hero is the image of the flawed apex of humanity, centre of his own story he advances against the odds but is brought low by his innate flaw or the greed and envy of others. Greek literature labors to portray the great heights to which we as humans feel pulled, then measures this against the tragic depths to which we can fall. In all, the question of human meaning is at play, exposing us to our own need to become the best at being human we can possibly be. Similarly the Knight is an agent of virtue, striving as much against his own sin as against any foe. The image of St. George battling the Dragon captures this nicely—the original George was a martyred saint from the 2nd century, but his story was taken up by medieval imaginations and adapted. For the original George, the dragon is his own martyrdom—for the medieval George, the dragon is a physical foe to be defeated. In both cases, the question is primarily one of virtue. Knights slay dragons and rescue damsels because dragons are evil and damsels are pure. He requires personal virtue and purity of heart in order to accomplish his task.

Sir Galahad was fit, because of his virtue, to recover the Holy Grail.

Sir Galahad was fit, because of his virtue, to recover the Holy Grail.

The contrast between the Medieval and Classical ages and our own cannot be too greatly stressed. Both ages were teleological in nature, and being teleological they focused on virtue and the acquisition of virtue as their great values. The pursuit of virtue is the means by which humans become more human. Lewis as the Medievalist is like the Classicist precisely because both worldviews invite the student to grow in virtue as he masters his material. Mastery necessitates an expanding greatness in one’s humanity. But we, by contrast, inhabit an anti-teleological age, and therefore an anti-virtuous age. You cannot advance a human towards being more human if you have no idea what humanity is supposed to look like. In fact, what we have witnessed in the past century is the gleeful overthrow of any teleological worldview by means of appeals to progressivism. It is assumed, today, that we live at the best age in history. It is assumed that the purpose of human life is to keep on living as long as possible (which, I should note, isn’t actually a purpose). It is assumed that appeals to alternative ways of thinking about the world are backwards, outdated, and inefficient.

The narrative is one that admits only of advance and progression.

The narrative is one that admits only of advance and progression.

Our age, being so deeply disordered as it is, desperately needs the voices of the Medieval and Classical worldviews. (And, incidentally, I suggest to you that it is this disparity between ages which makes Lewis such an appealing voice in our time—he offers ordered thinking in the midst of chaos.) This brings me to the value of reading. It is vital—and by vital I do mean vital, as in pertaining to the essential life of humanity—that individuals read old books and read them well. We cannot speak to Medieval men, nor sit at the feet of Classical geniuses, but we can expose ourselves to their world through the books they’ve left us, and that process of exposure—of being influenced, challenged, and changed by another worldview—is an irreplaceable process for growing into one’s own humanity.

First of all, this kind of reading is vital because it serves to break the tyranny of progressivism. It is alluringly easy to be swept along with the great myth of our age—that we are in the best of times and only increasing (i.e., evolving) in greatness hour by hour. Literature forces us to ask if this is even true. Sure, I have powerful technology at my fingertips—or at least, other skilled workers have technology at their fingertips which lends to the illusion that I actually know how things work. The body of human knowledge has indeed swelled and our access to that knowledge has increased—but do I really know more? Or do I just know different things? Were I jettisoned into another age of time, how would I fare as a citizen there? Do I have the knowhow to survive in ancient Byzantium, or medieval Europe, or a Viking settlement? Is my knowledge really better, or just different? And that first realization is the beginning of much wisdom—I know different things, not necessarily better things. Those things I know may or may not be good; they may or may not serve to make me more human. Here the voice of another worldview illuminates the gaps in our own self-awareness. I can use a computer; is my computer contributing to my virtue? I can operate an automobile; is the automobile facilitating my growth toward classical integrity and heroism? Much of what we take for granted as the great knowledge of the present is in reality a great load of useless baggage and pretence. We think we are wise, but really we are fools—at least when it comes to great matters. We are great but in all the wrong places. Fat with knowledge, we are not fit with virtue. We know more, but we are not more human.

Could I survive? What would "being human" look like in another era?

Could I survive? What would “being human” look like in another era?

A second reason why such reading is vital is because it gives us a vision for virtue. Simply put, without a frame of reference how can an individual grow in virtue? When I have only eaten a diet of potatoes, how am I to judge a matter like cuisine unless I am exposed to other foods? The modern economic virtue of acquisition and the modern social virtue of toleration are single-food diets. Are there other ends for the human creature against which we can evaluate those foods? What about the virtues of self-sacrifice, giving, or magnanimity? What about the virtues of choosing the good, justice, and purity? The reader who exposes himself to the virtues of another time brings back to his own time the virtue of perspective; he now owns a foil against which he can evaluate his own time. With a solid frame of reference, he can make solid judgments.

A great book on the decline and destruction of classical education.

A great book on the decline and destruction of classical education.

But against these goods there is also a grave danger, one that I hinted at earlier when I spoke of reading the past as it was. One of the poisons of our age is the way it progressively, and aggressively, seeks to rewrite the past into its own image. Although “tolerance” is hailed as a great virtue, the progressive age is remarkably intolerant of diverging viewpoints, and engages in a campaign of reediting historic literature into an image that pleases the present. This happens especially with the pet-issues of today—gender identity, sexuality, racism, power politics, etc. Sherlock Holmes and Watson aren’t simply male friends, but secret homosexual lovers. American History isn’t primary about an experiment at a specific idea of civil government, but a narrative of oppression and carnage. Gendered texts must be edited to include both genders (or excise gender altogether) in order to forestall the implicit disruption of our present narrative. In all this, texts are not read as texts, but as opportunities to import whatever ideas might fancy the literary ‘critic’ of the moment. Incapable of imagining a world unlike itself, the modern world re-imagines the ancient world in its own image, spilling its inkwell over the pages of history which it doesn’t like, creating a bizarre Rorschach into which the reader can see, not what an author wrote or a worldview presents, but only what he wants to see.

This, again, is the reason for “disinterested” reading—reading the past as the past, in its own vision, and allowing oneself to be immersed in an alternative world. It is a (sometimes) intentional act of divesting one’s present interests and values with an eye to experiencing the interests and values of the past in and of themselves. This does not necessitate always agreeing with the past, but the reader who would grow wise and virtuous through his reading must protect against reading the present into the past. Simply put, are you reading old books for the virtues and stories implicit in them? Or are you reading with an ongoing narrative of offenses in the back of your mind, accounting more for issues of sexuality, gender, race, and politics, than for virtue, story, or even simply the world-as-it-was? Alternatively, the wise reader must also protect against falling so in love with the past that he rejects the present. The real world remains real, but our adventures in literature equip and shape us for life in that world.

As a matter of interest, it is noteworthy that there is another documented instance of a movement which believed in its own progress, believed itself to be the apex of history, advanced its own virtue against the virtues of the past, and excised or reedited those books which did not fit or challenged the overarching narrative: Nazi Germany.

“Why do you still advertize Coke?” Someone once asked a Coca-Cola executive. His answer, “Because people still take coffee breaks.” Why do we need to read old books? Because people are still immersed in a false, destructive worldview, and progressivism is a mendacious ideology that creates mendacious reading. While promoting tolerance it is intolerant of any world that questions its assumptions. We require as a tonic against such a force the reading of good, old books—books which faithfully present the worldview of the past, a radically different worldview, from which we can draw a greater, larger idea of what it means to be a human person. Homer. Sophocles. Aristotle. Augustine. Dante. Chaucer. Spenser. Milton. Mallory. Scott. Austen. And many others. And yes, Lewis. And yes, Tolkien. Against the incapacity—or rank unwillingness—to be challenged by other worldviews humans must open themselves to the challenge presented by old books and old worldviews. In this sense, our self-education will become the means by which we too become “more humane.”

Some Reasons to Feel Depressed about Christian Publishing

Bob Ross, anyone?

Bob Ross, anyone?

I don’t intentionally read depressing literature. It’s not my thing. But sometimes I accidentally read something that leaves me depressed, like the other day when I came across an essay by Christian author Philip Yancey called “Farewell to the Golden Age.” Reading it left me glum in two different ways.

In the piece, published on Yancey’s blog, he laments the demise of the publishing industry, particularly as a way to make a living. Where once an aspiring author could reasonably consider submitting articles to magazines, writing a few books, and by means of cultivating this exposure generating some income, changes in the publishing world have made this nearly impossible. The “Golden Age” of publishing, where to be an author was a viable (if difficult) career choice, is over.

Yancey’s essay isn’t particularly novel, but as a seasoned author (and seasoned especially in the world of Christian publishing) his words carried some sobering weight. That this is depressing to me ought to be, I hope, self-evident. I am myself an aspiring Christian author, and yet the field from which I aspired to harvest is one that is increasingly unfruitful. What is more, an author like Yancey who has succeeded in that field is advising other authors to look elsewhere.

But the real nugget of depression is not the difficulty of success—the real, deeper reason is the feeling I have that I was born in the wrong era. Talk of the “Golden Age” makes me long for the Golden Age, to wish I had lived in that time and place where books and words meant more to people, to a time when journalism was a valuable commodity and books were precious. Of the many sins of this digital age, I lament the cheapening of literature perhaps most of all.

No comment.

No comment.

This cheapening is having a far more devastating effect than perhaps we have yet fully acknowledged. It is not news that publishing has seen radical changes in the past few years, but those changes are beginning to affect not only publishers, but also authors, and in fact literature itself. To state it simply, as paid authors become a rarity there will be a necessary reduction in the quality of authorship. Hire a cheap contractor and you will get cheap contracting. Film a movie on a B-grade budget and you will get a B-movie. The cost we are willing to pay for a service is commensurate with the value we get out of that service. There are, of course, exceptions—some B-grade budget movies turn out excellent, and some A-grade movies are terrible. But on the whole, you get what you pay for, and the reduction in monetary value of books is going to result in the loss of quality in literature. I lament the loss of the Golden Age because it is a loss that affects literature itself.

And yet, I don’t actually wish that I lived 60, or 90, or 200 years ago. Sometimes (like I’m sure many others do as well) I find myself wishing I lived in a different age, assuming that the problems of that age were somehow simpler and more manageable than those of my own age. This is, of course, a lie. In each age the problems presented were difficult and all-consuming. In each age Christians at the forefront were driven to re-defend the Christian faith in new and novel ways (or, rather, to re-state old truths in modern dialects). I think the reason we sometimes wish we could live in those other ages is precisely the fact that today we have a comprehensive grasp of their problems. If we were to live in those ages, knowing what we know now and thinking as we do at the moment, we’d be able to sail through those troubles with ease. But our easy sailing would be like cheating on the test. It was easy because we knew all the answers.

Quite a fascinating movie, actually.

Quite a fascinating movie, actually.

Not knowing the answers is part of the human experience. The sense of confusion we experience is the same sense of confusion which our progenitors also endured. Their greatness—the very fact that they created a “Golden Age” for us to envy—was in their faithfulness to what was true in the midst of those very difficulties. If we would be great in our own age, then we must strive to be similarly faithful.

For my part, when I consider the issues of this present world, I actually find myself eager to face them: the issues of authority, of relativism, of secularization, and of Christian anthropology have effectively re-set the world mindset. As I see things, we are once again in the midst of idolatrous Rome, striving to carve out a vision of genuine faith that will strengthen the Church and lend energy to mission. Our very crises are profound opportunities to advance the cause of the Gospel, and for this work I am eager.

But, alas, here we come to the second reason why Yancey’s essay left me glum, because in order for the Church to accomplish this revitalization of faith, she will be required to think. And in order to think, the Church will need to read quality literature—books, essays, journalism, and yes, perhaps even blog posts. And yet, I suspect that the greatest enemy to the bolstering of faith is the quick-fix attitude Christians take toward their spirituality. A three minute YouTube video may give you a rush, an inspirational quote may uplift you for a moment, a worship service or sermon may exalt you for an hour, but real, proven, valuable faith must grow through the effective cultivation of the Christian mind and heart. This will require attention, sustained thought, and perseverance. In particular, it will require us to read good books.

This brings me back to, well, me. I am eager to address what I perceive are the problems of this present age, but I am distressed by the difficulty of effectively advancing Christian thinking. How does one get people to think in an age of quick fixes? When the drug of choice is the high of video—and by proxy of the digital image—how do you cultivate a taste for the slower and more satisfying pleasure of reading? For people who have learned to skim for the sentences in bold, how do you teach them to read carefully with a pencil in hand, making notes in the margins? I don’t have the answers. For my part, I suppose the only thing I can do is to attempt to write well. That, and take my own advice: be faithful in the midst of these challenges.