The History Teacher’s Morning Devotional

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Many pastors and preachers are readers of history.  If the study of theology and the Bible is their vocation, history is often their source for relaxation as well as for extra help.  Stories from history support and add to sermons.  History is, in some ways, an extended commentary of Biblical truths.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I know of nothing next to the reading of the Scriptures themselves that has been of greater value to me in my own personal life and ministry than constant reading of the history of the church.”  Along with church history, biographies are a favorite of ministers.  But secular history, and I wince at that awkward term, is also useful for broadening a pastor’s perspectives, providing rich sources for sermon illustrations, and disciplining the mind.

Not only do many preachers read history, quite a few have written on historical subjects.  There is the field of history as a profession, involving certain academic credentials and labors, but history is not confined to the specialists.  Along with journalists, novelists, and popular authors dipping into the vast river of history, preachers sometimes write histories.

Along with history-reading-and-using preachers, there are also history teachers who borrow heavily from the fields of the Bible and theology.  I am talking about more than a history teacher who is a church member in good standing and who reads his Bible each morning for personal spiritual growth.  Some historians have dug deeply into theological matters for historical research.  This is more than just the realm of church historians.

Christopher Dawson was first and foremost a historian, but his historical works are shaped by his theological concerns.  The Dutchman Groen van Prinsterer was primarily a historian, but his conversion to Christianity radically altered his understanding and writing of history.

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Just as some (hopefully not many) preachers preach badly, so some people do history badly.  Beware of statements like “History shows” or “History proves” or “What we can learn from history is.”  History provides illustrations of everything.  Want to prove or buttress any argument?  Look around in the huge bin of historical examples.  Every cause imaginable has been put forth as to why the Roman Empire fell.  Every American President or political leader can be likened to some famous or infamous Roman.  Almost any era of history can be presented as a golden age or as an example of vice we should be careful not to follow.

In short, history does not prove.  Go to math class for proofs.  This does not mean that history is without lessons or practical applications.

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Today (July 19, 2017), I finished reading the book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel L. Dreisbach.  It is published by Oxford University Press.This is one of the best books I have read this year and is one of the best studies of the Founding Era of U. S. history that I have ever read.  While it is true that we should not be taken in by credentials and academic titles, professional historians are held to higher standards than the rest of us.  There is much to be said for academic reputations and peer reviews.  Yes, mother sometimes knows best what to do for your stomach ache, but you still go to the trained, licensed doctor for serious medical conditions.

Dr. Dreisbach is both a scholarly historian and a Christian.  He has filled in a large gap in the conventional story of the sources of America’s freedom and establishment as a nation.  Certainly, the familiar names, such as John Locke and Montesquieu, are mentioned, but it was the Bible that provides the most quotes and references among the founders in their writings and speeches.  But was this just a ploy used to appeal to a Bible-reading public?  To some degree, yes, but the extensive use of Bible verses, references, and ideas in public and personal discourse indicates that the Bible was believed and adhered to as a spiritual or God-given source for political understanding.

In my Humanities class this coming school year, I will be teaching The American Story.  It is my favorite of the four Humanities courses, largely because I am better versed in American history and literature than the other subject areas.  But even the teacher needs both refresher studies and new realizations.  This book provides both.  I have been exploring the connection between the Bible and American history for years.  I am certain that I have read and studied at least a couple of hundred books on the topic.  (Many books included the topic but were not focused on it.)  If I were to provide a bibliography of ten or so books, this one would make the cut.  Unless I am forgetting some other vital book, this one might very well get first place honors.

If 234 pages of text were not enough to convince or challenge me, Dreisbach has an extensive section of notes with further details.  This book can be used, as the title of this post states, as a devotional read for the history teacher.  But this devotional will not be closed as the teacher then prepares for his or her labors in the classroom.  Whether quoted extensively in lectures or just used indirectly, this book will impact the teaching of history.

I received my copy of this book free for the task of reviewing it.  As such, I am not obligated to speak in favorable, much less glowing, terms about it.  But I am doing such because it is that good.

 

 

 

 

My Classics Wall of Shame–Embarrassing Unreads

I will never forget a horrifying description a well-meaning pastor gave once about heaven at a funeral.  He spoke of the deceased fellow as one who always had lots of questions.  “Now,” he said as a way of consoling all of us, “All of his questions are answered.”  The thought that our minds would cease to wonder, cease to grow, cease to learn did not sound like heaven to me.

Another horrifying thought is the brevity of life, particularly the brevity of reading time.  There are so many new books coming off the presses, so many books I have accumulated over the years, and worst of all, so many classics, so many often-referenced books, so many definitive works that I have bought, shelved, looked at, dipped into once or twice, talked about in vague ways, BUT NEVER READ.

I often confess to my students in our Humanities classes that I should never have received a high school diploma.  I should never have received a college degree.  My masters degree in education doesn’t count because it was to upgrade my payscale and wasn’t much related to education.  Certainly, I should never have been hired to be a teacher.  Somehow, I was able to conceal a paucity of personal reading of the classics from my employers.  Strangely enough, I remember them asking a few questions and glancing at my college transcript, but they did not ask the questions that matter.

“Why is Beowulf the warrior so important to understand?”  “What are the factions today that Madison warned about in Federalist #10?”  “What was Augustine’s philosophy of history from City of God?”  I read quite a bit and that got me through years of bluffing administrators, boards, and even students.  Secretly, I knocked out key books here and there and someone survived.

But there comes a time to be open and truthful.  There are all too many essential books that I have not read.  I am currently compiling a list called “My Hall of Shame.”  It hurts to admit these things, but I am hoping that with these admissions, there will be grace from my friends (who may have never suspected these things) and recovery for myself.

 There must be 500 different editions of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I have yet to find my personal copy in my library or in my children’s rooms.  Could it be that I had not only not read the book, but didn’t even own a copy of it?  That is disgraceful.

I put this book on the top of my Wall of Shame list, confessed the problem on Facebook, and repentantly read the book.  Let’s dismiss it right off the bat.  It is a children’s book.  It has all the stock characters of a boy’s adventure, such as pirates, a parrot, sword play, a fatherless kid who gets swept away in the adventure, a fought-over map showing with an X where a treasure is buried, and more.  Just children’s escape reading.

Unfortunately, my advanced age and many years of adult living failed me.  The book was good, and the story kept calling me back.  I started out reading one chapter a day.  Being near the end of July, I expected to finish the book at the end of August.  Then I bumped up the reading to two chapters a day, and then three, and then I was racing toward the end.  Most of the stock features in the book became stock features due to the book.  It was a wonderful adventure.

The copy that I read was an older edition–about the late 1950s–that looks like the picture below.  It belongs to a retired doctor that is the father of a friend.  I enjoyed reading it while thinking of Dr. Kendall as a young boy in Tennessee reading the book for class.

Now comes the next installment on my Wall of Shame.  Treasure Island, although projected as a month-long read, took less than 2 weeks.  This next book is projected to take a year or more.  I may fail.  I may only get 200 to 500 pages read.  Some books, usually not novels, can be very profitable if just read in large portions, but maybe not from cover to cover.  Books I have read extensively from, but not completely, are not on my Wall of Shame.

But this book had not been read in part.  Oh sure, I had read quotes.  Certainly, I had read other authors’ discussions of it.  Admittedly, I talked about the book, made my students aware of the book and author, and certainly acted like I was personally familiar with it.  I was living a lie.  It is like when a politician says, “I never sent classified email on my personal server.”  We can give the impression repeatedly, say the words often, and convince our hearers that we are what we really are not.

The book is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.  Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.  I could pour scorn on the poor student who referred to it as The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I have rolled my eyes when people parrot some feature of Rome and then connect it with modern America and then conclude that we are certain to fall.

To make matters worse, I have numerous copies of the book.  Note this:  Decline and Fall was a six-volume work.  Many editions combine it into one, two, or three volumes.  Many editions are abridgements.

Two of my favorite historians have talked extensively about the book.  Christopher Dawson, brilliant Catholic historian, not only has written about the book and author, but he was inspired by Gibbon to write history.  Dawson, in fact, was sitting in the very place in Rome where Gibbon got his inspiration.  Dawson set out to write a magisterial history on the same order, but with a Christian worldview. (See this article for this connection.)

Christopher Dawson

One of the many books where Dawson discusses Gibbon.

The other historian is Thomas Cahill and the book is How The Irish Saved Civilization.  We read this outstanding book in my Medieval Humanities classes (which will begin this year on August 29).  Chapter 1 is titled “How the Empire Fell and Why.” Gibbon blamed (or credited) the Christians for precipitating or furthering the fall of Rome.  Gibbon himself was a lapsed Christian.  Raised in a Calvinistic home, he flirted briefly with Roman Catholicism, but basically became a skeptic.  He was, by the way, a historian by hobby and was by profession a politician and a member of Parliament.

Cahill’s book is largely devoted to the work of the Irish, such as Patrick, but we often forget or never knew that Patrick was living during the latter years of the Roman Empire.  As its influence receded from Britain, Patrick and later others faced the daunting task of filling in the cultural, moral, spiritual, and political vacuum.  This book is one of my all time favorites, but it did not shame me–during the past 5 readings into picking up Gibbon.

I have now started…let me repeat started, started, STARTED reading Gibbon’s classic.  Let me confess something else.  I am reading a short, condensed version of the book:  It is only 1250 pages long.  But, I have to start somewhere.  The edition I am reading is the paperback Modern Library edition, pictured below:

I have the Great Books of the Western World edition:

Moreover, I have the beautiful Folio Society edition in three large hardback volumes and a slip case, and there is a hardback abridged version or two in my office at school.  I, however, am reading the bulky paperback version for convenience sake.  It is easier to carry around and use.  It is also easier to hide when people come over.  The more beautiful volumes say, “Literacy Alert.”  The paperback copy says, “I am trying to overcome a glaring deficit in my life.”

Decline-and-Fall-of-the-Roman-Empire-3-Volume-Set-by-Edward-Gibbon-Hardcover

Folio Society 3 volume slipcased edition

If I get far enough into reading the paperback edition, I might count myself worthy of reading from the nicer edition.  Like many classic and older works, Gibbon’s work has been reprinted numerous times in a large number of formats.

Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794

Several closing points:

  1.  Gibbon is a founding father and influence on the writing of history.  History is now a profession, but it was not such when he wrote.  He has influenced many of us who have not read him, but who embrace the Muse Clio (especially after the was converted and baptized by Augustine and Eusebius).
  2. Gibbon is a master stylist.  He is not writing technical history.  He is writing before the days of footnotes and peer reviews.  He was a man of the Enlightenment era with a writing style as verbous and multifluous as the best of writers in his age.  He is not simply writing chronologies or a fact sheet on Roman history.  He writes a story, filled with descriptions and details.
  3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not just about events that led to Romulus Augustulus’ resignation as emperor and putting a “Closed–Out of Business” sign on the office door of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D.  Gibbon’s work extends all the way up to and through the Crusades.  For that reason, the book is quite suited for my upcoming year of teaching about the time period from circa. 100 A.D. to 1500 A.D.
  4. The book is huge in more ways than one.  Of course, scholars debate, dispute, and reject much that he wrote.  But he set the bar and the battle for the meaning of history has been waged now for more than 2 centuries.
    1. Side Note:  The first of the six volumes of The Decline and Fall was published in 1776, which was the same year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations and something or other happened in America.

I hope to update the progress in this book.  Being on page 38 right now has me quite excited about the prospects.

Augustine, Platonism, T. S. Eliot, and More

This morning, I read T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.”  It has been quite a while since I last read it, and it was back in my college days when I took some time to study it in detail.  Unfortunately, that study was not directed by my American literature teacher.  As she noted, teachers of American literature skip Eliot because he emigrated to England and stayed there.  British literature teachers skip him because he is American born.  I think that when he is skipped over, it is because of the obscurity and difficulty of his poetry.

Reading Eliot, one sees how seemingly easy it is to splash words on a page in random order with little meaning and obscure references.  We can then call our word jumbles “poetry.”  The older poetic discipline that called for meter and rhyme is much harder to follow and master.

But interpreting modern poetry as random word placement and specifically assuming that Eliot was just writing in a chaotic, meaningless way is wrong.  There is much more method than madness.  The edition of “The Waste Land” that I was reading was laden with footnotes explaining the literary references.  I ignored the footnotes and just read the poem.  But I plan on going back through it once or twice with careful attention to the allusions and literary references.

One thing is very clear:  Eliot was deeply grounded in the poetic, literary, historical, and philosophical traditions of the West.  He was classically schooled and his poetry were applications of classical learning.  To read Eliot profitably, one must follow the footnote trail, but also go to the sources and ferret out the meanings.

For more on Eliot, one should consult the Norton Critical Edition of his poem.  It is hard to imagine that a single poem would merit a whole book, until the serious study begins.  Along with the background and interpretive aspects of the poem, one has to account for the way Eliot influenced so many other 20th century writers.  Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald were all influenced by Eliot, as were many others.

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All of the discussion above is prelude to this introduction to two books.  I recently read Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism by Albert Camus.  It is published by St. Augustine’s Press, which has a host of incredible books.  I was attracted to the book for several reasons, other than the mere fact that it was a book.  First, Albert Camus was a Nobel Prize winning author who is usually listed alongside Jean Paul Sarte as being an existentialist.  Second, he is among the authors (like Dostoevsky and Faulkner) who cause us to look into the “dismal abyss.”  (I learned that phrase from Gertrude Himmelfarb.)  Third, Camus, although relegated as an unbeliever, had some powerful things to say about Christianity.  Consider the statement below:

“The World expects of Christians that they will raise their voices so loudly and clearly and so formulate their protests that not even the simplist man can have the slightest doubt what they are saying.

Further, the world expects of Christians that they will eschew all fuzzy abstractions and plant themselves squarely in front of the bloody face of history.

We stand in need of folk who have determined to speak directly and unmistakably and come what may, to stand by what they have said.”

Far from being depressing, looking into the Abyss of culture and society is vital for the Christian in order to have a rightly placed hope.

 

Fourth, I recently read Camus’ novel The Plague.  Dr. Roslyn Knudson, one of my teachers from college, told me that she considered it to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.  It is a knock-out punch, and I don’t expect to give it a check mark for being “read” after one reading.

This copy of The Plague, after being orphaned, made an incredible journey from Alabama to Texarkana to find its new home.

All this and more drew me into Camus’ Christian Metaphysics and Neoplatonism.  Whereas The Plague was understandable on a couple of levels but still open for deeper reading, Christian Metaphysics was a fall into the deep end of the pool.  The text itself is relatively short, and thankfully, the book has both an introduction and a epilogue to give some aids to its importance.

Several things are obvious:  The world is a world of ideas as much or more so than matter.  Understanding the world apart from concepts like philosophy and worldviews is impossible.  Grappling with ideas, philosophy, and worldviews is really difficult.  Add this to the mix:  We don’t really understand all of the intellectual recipe that was used in the forming of our own minds and culture.

It it easy for an American Christian to pick up a Bible and think that he is being molded by “Scripture Alone.”  But we are products of the Early Church, the Medieval Era, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Puritan Revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American colonial experience, the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Enlightenment, the American War for Independence, everything else in American history, the public school movment (meaning everyone from Horace Mann to John Dewer), Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, the New Deal, the Cold War, and everything that is classified as Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Post-Post-Modernism.  Add to that the fact that we are influenced by modern technology.  Then before everything mentioned above, we are influenced by Greek and Roman civilizations.  (Disagree?  Do you favor the democratic election of Senators?  Answer either way and you have borrow from Greeks and Romans.)

Neoplatonism, and its roots in Platonism, which of course leads directly to Plato, his teacher Socrates, and his student Aristotle, was, is, and continues to be a major force in thinking.  All actions, by the way, are the result of putting thought into movement.

All this is to reinforce the importance of Camus’ Christian Metaphysics as a part of what Mortimer Adler called the Great Conversation.

Now, enter Augustine.  Camus devoted his final chapter to Augustine.  From that let me jump over to a new book about the great North African theologian/philosopher himself:  The Conversion and Therapy of Desire: Augustine’s Theology of Desire in the Cassiciacum Dialogues by Mark J. Boone.  This book is published by Wipf and Stock, an inexhaustible source of scholarly books.

There are three stages at which a Christian comes to understand Augustine.  (I favor the pronunciation that ends his name with “teen” rather than putting the stress on “gus” and ending his name with “tin.”  Why?  Because it rhymes with Constantine.)

Stage One:  Augustine’s biography.  Whether it is told in a short chapter or complete book, Augustine’s life and conversion are interesting, uplifting, and instructive reading.  Not all theologians, preachers, and philosophers live interesting lives.  From an earthly perspective, not all conversions are fascinating.  Augustine’s life and conversion parallels and even exceeds that of C. S. Lewis.  Both were born into Christian environments, became unbelievers, traveled the world of books and ideas, fell victim to various sins, and then were converted–both mind and soul–in their mature adulthood.  Both then went on to write and teach extensively.

Augustine was both a brainy, nerdy, bookish guy.  Living in a time of no computer geeks, he was a philosophy geek.  But he was also a party animal.  He had an illegitimate son to prove the he lived a life that included more than just weighty tomes rolled up in scrolls.  He had a mother, named Monica, who was, to be honest, a religious fanatic.  (His dad was either not a believer or very nominal and somewhat passive.)  Augustine was a momma’s boy and Monica was a helicopter mom.  But Monica prayed–and nagged–and prayed some more.  Augustine was converted, became a bishop, pastor, church leader, and turned his rhetorical skills (he had been a rhetoric teacher prior to conversion) to the pulpit and pen.

The life of Augustine for children. (I don’t have this book, sad to report.)

Augustine’s life for scholars and serious readers. Peter Brown’s biography has been reprinted and published in several versions.

The second stage of understanding Augustine is reading his works.  The sheer volume of works is itself daunting, and many them are quite lengthy by themselves.  I recommend reading The Confessions.  This work is relatively short, and it is the founding work in the area of religious autobiographies.  The details of Augustine’s pre-conversion life (warning:  it contains a graphic description of stealing pears!) and conversion form much of the book.  It is also an interior dialogue, almost a stream-of-consciousness style of work.  Augustine talks to God, remembers his sins, struggles with all manner of issues, and seeks to escape God.  It is weighty, fruitful, inspiring, confusing, meandering, and very profitable to the soul.  Even if one only makes it about half-way into this book, it will be worth the time and effort.

This is a good edition of Augustine’s Confessions, in spite of the really awful cover art. Note the pear tree in the background.

I also really like Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, which is sometimes titled On Christian Doctrine.  This book is an essential book for teachers, teachers in Christian education, teachers of rhetoric, and teachers in Classical Christian schools.  Everyone not described there could benefit as well.

This is a fine edition of Augustine work on education. Again, it is flawed by a very Medieval-to-Renaissance Roman Catholic view of Augustine’s duds and headwear.

The City of God could be called Mount Augustine.  It is a massive climb.  I use the edition that was edited and abridged by Vernon J. Bourke, which also contains a great forward by Etienne Gilson.  In my classes, I call this edition a pamphlett because it is a mere 600 pages.  Even if the reader can only wade through a hundred pages or so, it is worthwhile to at least taste this book.

Level 3 of Augustine:  Re-enter Dr. Mark Boone and his study of Augustine.  At this point, I am still in the beginning portion of this book.  The third level of Augustine studies involves scholars and students discussing the ideas and impact of Augustine.  Mark Boone, Albert Camus, and a host of others have been discussing Augustine ever since City of God made the Rome Times best-seller list.

One of the blurbs on Boone’s book says “All theologians must read Dr. Boone’s book.”  Lest you and I think that gets us out of a reading assignment, he also says, “He (meaning Mark Boone) makes crystal clear how much we could gain by being taught anew by Augustine, how much each of us–and our communities–need him today.”  (The comments are from Matthew Levering, who is a professor of theology and the author of a study on Augustine.)

Dr. Boone states one of his main ideas early on:  “He (Augustine) is a Christian, but he appreciates the insights of the neo-Platonists.  He finds them insightful and helpful, yet he subordinates them to the revealed truths of the Christian faith, which they are helpful for understanding.”

For me, that sentence is a hook.  Not only do we all need to know how Augustine borrowed from, culled from, gleaned from neo-Platonism, but we need to learn to do the same with every other deformed, warped, humanistic thought system that has marched onto the human stage.

Hopefully, there will be more to come on this fine book.

I like the fact that this often-used depiction of Augustine captures both his scholarly bent and the possibility that he is feeling a bit of heart-burn after lunch. I really wish I could find a depiction of the man that humanized him a bit more.

 

 

Nobel Prize Winning Authors–A Test

Nobel Prizes for literature have been awarded since 1901.  They are given to living authors whose writings as a whole have, in the words of Alfred Nobel himself, “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”  There are, no doubts questions both about some of whom have won and some great authors who did not receive this international recognition.

I firmly believe in what I call “Ancillary Learning.”  By that, I mean learning that provides something additional or supplementary or complementary to the subject at hand.  I also love lists.  I also yearn to read more and more authors.  Most of my literary reading has been American authors.  The British come in second; the ancient Greeks third; the Russians fourth, and other Europeans fifth.  There are whole worlds of literary traditions both within the European realm and the nations and cultures beyond that I have yet to explore.

I recently devoted a bit of time at the beginning of class to Nobel Prize winners in the field of literature.  The goal is to always be moving information through these stages:

never heard of it

to heard of it

to heard of it several times

to actually learned something about it

to learned more about it.

A for some topics and some students, the next step:  Becoming very knowledgeable about it.

For starters, I wanted my students to know about American and British Nobel Prize Winners.  Beyond that, there are some Irish, French, and Russians on the test below.  Also a couple of recent winners are included.

Take the test if you wish.  Don’t look up the answers until after you have tried your best.

NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS

1. Nobel Prizes are named after ________________________________,

2. who invented ______________________________________________.

3. The prizes are given each year and include a financial gift and the opportunity to give a speech in ___________________________, _________________________

Nobel Prizes are given various areas, including the following:

4. ________________________________________________

5. ________________________________________________

6. ________________________________________________

7. ________________________________________________

The following Americans have won Nobel Prizes in literature:

8. ________________________________________________,

the first American and the author of Babbit and Main Street. 1930

9. ________________________________________________,

the daughter of missionaries and the author of The Good Earth. 1938

10. ________________________________________________,

Mississippi author of The Sound and the Fury and Go Down, Moses. 1949

11. ________________________________________________,

the author of A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea. 1954

12. ________________________________________________,

the author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

13. Name one of the following American winners:

The 1936 winner was ________________________________________________, a playwright who wrote Desire Under the Elms and The Hairy Ape.

The 1978 winner was ______________________________________, a Jewish writer who wrote in Yiddish. He is often described as a great story teller.

The 1987 winner was _______________________________, a Russian poet who was expelled from his native country and became the Poet Laureate of the U. S.

The 1976 winner was ________________________________________________, a writer of Canadian and American heritage who wrote Humbolt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King.

14. The first African-American female to win the prize is ________________________________________________, the author of Beloved. 1993

15. In 2013, ________________________________________________, the author of many short stories who is from Canada, won the prize.

16. Russian winners include _____________________________________, who wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward (1970),

17. And ___________________________________, who wrote Doctor Zhivago and who refused the award in 1958.

British winners include:

18. _________________________________, author of The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, and such poems as “If” and “Gunga Din,” was the first Englishman to win the prize. (1907)

19. Born in America, the poet and literary critic ______________________________ moved to the United Kingdom and spent his career there. He won the prize in 1948 and is well remembered for such poems as “The Waste Land,” “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and “Journey of the Magi” (Mr. H’s favorite), and for books such as Christianity and Culture.

19. ______________________________, a philosopher who wrote A History of Western Philosophy and Why I am not a Christian, won the prize in 1950.

20. Best known as the political and military leader of Great Britain during World War II, ________________________________ was also a writer and a historian. He won the prize in 1953.

21. This British author is best remembered for the book Lord of the Flies. He won the Nobel Prize in 1983 and is named ______________________________.

22. Name one of the other 4 winners from the United Kingdom.

Two French writers who held to the philosophy of Existentialism won the prize.

23. ___________________________________, author of Nausea and No Exit, won it, but declined it in 1964.

24. __________________________________, author of The Stranger and The Plague, won it in 1957.

Irish winners included

25. __________________________________, poet whose work includes “The Second Coming” and “Easter 1916,” won in 1923. He was a big influence on C. S. Lewis.

26. The 1925 winner was _________________________________, the playwright best remembered for Pygmalion (renamed “My Fair Lady” in the movie version) and Major Barbara.

27. __________________________________, a playwright who is remembered for Waiting for Godot, won in 1969.

28. __________________________________, a poet whose poetry and translation of Beowulf are popular, won it in 1995.

29. The 2014 winner was _______________________ of _________________________.

Svetlana Alexievich

30.  The 2015 winner was _______________________ of _________________________.

Studying Political Classics

This picture is from the Ashbrook Scholar program which has a great reading list on politics and philosophy. Click on the picture above.

This is proving to be a challenging year for teaching government.  With Hillary swinging between the extremes of barking like a dog or snapping in anger at a questioner, with an aging Socialist drawing massive crowds, with large crowds attending the Republican debates–as participants, not candidates, and with Donald Trump being himself, politics and current events have been crazy.  Switching from the political updates, ranging from terrorism in Brussels to tangoing in Cuba, to serious political philosophy is tough.  It is like watching the classic Shawn Michaels vs. the Undertaker WWE match and then switching over to a stock market report.

But the current political dust will settle.  Fewer people will remember Chris “Krispy Kream” Christie than those who remember former Vice President Thomas R. Marshall.   Most of the current political rants, diatribes, promises, and oratory will become, to borrow from Macbeth’s words, tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This is not to denigrate politics, government, the election cycle, political debates and rallies, or the importance of the Virgin Islands delegation in the event of a brokered convention.  Bismarck, the wily Prussian politician of the past, warned that it was best not to watch sausage and laws being made.  The same might be said for the political process of electing leaders.

Beyond that are the political classics.  There are books that have endured through the ages.  They reflect discussions, debates, ideas, and concepts that generated conversations that have never ceased.  They don’t comment on the issues we face, obviously, but the quips and quotes, the bits of blinding wisdom, concise summaries of human propensities, and the reflections on the human condition speak to our times and all times.

Mark Twain said that a classic is a book that everyone talks about, but nobody reads.  That was before our time when nobody even talked about classics.  But there have always been remnants, hold-outs, individualists, and even odd balls who counter-march against the culture.  In other words, someone always keeps reading the classics.  The flame flickers, but never goes out.

I took one government class in college and CLEPed out of a second one.  Along with a number of history and literature classes, none of these took us into the riches of political classics.  Thankfully, given enough time and true repentance, we can survive our own educational deficiencies.

In my Ancient World Humanities class, we have been battling our way through Plato’s Republic.  It is, I must admit, over the heads of my 9th graders, also my 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.  It’s over my head as well. I have told the students that they are in kindergarten and I am in 1st grade.  Nevertheless, our perseverance has paid off and we will finish Plato this week.  We have struggled with the concept of the Ideal State and rule by Philosopher-Kings, the vision from within the cave and the mission of those outside the cave, and the delineations Plato/Socrates makes on every statement.  My hope is to make it to 2nd or maybe even 3rd grade through this reading.

By the way, we use the Dover Thrift Edition of Plato’s Republic.  I do not recommend it.  The translation was done by Benjamin Jowett, who was an esteemed classicist in his day, but I have found the Hackett Classics edition, translated by C. D. C. Reeve, much better.

        

In government class, we are reading from The Federalist Papers by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.  This reading is following some study of the Constitution.  I first made it all the way through The Federalist Papers some years ago when teaching government.  Usually, our classes focus on reading at least 10 to 20 of the 80 plus essays.  I have found the best edition for this work is The Federalist Papers in Modern Language Indexed for Today’s Political Issues, edited by Mary E. Webster.  Dr. Webster has modernized the punctuation, added sub-headings, and added some notes that ease the reading of these essays.

Some of these essays raise questions that seem obvious.  For example, the first series concerns whether one nation (or one united confederacy) would be superior to having multiple nations.  Since we have grown used to the idea of the original 13 states (grown now to 50 states) being united as one, we forgot that this was a serious contention.  Historical references abound in these essays.  The authors knew history and used history.  The insights into human nature are profound.

The Federalist is not just history.  There are any number of current issues that are discussed or foreseen in these essays.  For example, in recent weeks there has been lots of debate about whether the Senate is obligated to basically rubber-stamp Pres. Obama’s nomination of Garland Webster to the Supreme Court.  Suddenly, Democrats are touting views that are totally opposite views they had when Republicans held the White House.  An appeal to recent history (such as Joe Biden’s flip-flop) is interesting, but the study of Federalist 69 is defining and weighty.  There we are told that “the president had was the power ‘to nominate, and, WITH THE ADVICE AND CONSENT OF THE SENATE, to appoint.’”

We can be assured that there is no limit to the wisdom of these essays.

On my own, I recently read John Stuart Mill’s work On Liberty.  This was the first time I had the book, or lengthy essay.  It is brilliant.  I determined to make no notes and mark no passages with this first reading.  That was difficult.  This is not to endorse everything that Mill said or to buy into his system.  He is a strong proponent of individualism and free thought.  In what was probably a time where there was little independence of ideas, Mill was pushing the envelope.  In our age, I am not sure he would be all that pleased with all who march to their own drummers.

On Liberty is one of the best political works I have read.  Certainly conservatives and libertarians would enjoy and benefit from this book.  I would not mind adding it on to the teaching load, if only we could squeeze it in.

This last political classic may be the least known.  Yet, I think it is the most important.  I read this book near the end of 2015 and am currently reading it again.  It is published by Wordbridge Publishing, which is under the direction of Ruben Alvarado and is the publishing house for some outstanding works on political philosophy.

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (my story of the man from the year 2008) , commonly just referred to as Groen, is one of the greatest Christian political thinkers and activists of all time.  His realm of action was in the Netherlands during the 1800s.  He was a court historian who turned his scholarly labors to dealing with political issues of his time.  He rightly determined that the philosophy stemming from the French Revolution was a poison that would destroy Christian culture and the political order of Christendom.

Groen, along with others, started a political party.  He and his political allies worked to create one of the most vital ingredients for a Christian society, Christian schools.  His labors involved writing and assembling the Christian history of the Netherlands and the contributions of Christian thought and action from the time of the Protestant Reformation.  Specifically, he labored for the freedom and opportunity to start Christian schools.  It turned out to be an 80 year battle for the heart and soul of the Netherlands.

As with many Christian works, the first fruits are short lived, but the labors have long-term effects.  We are still tapping into the resources of Groen’s thought.  His name is overshadowed by that of his colleague and successor Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper’s brilliance and many accomplishments are not to be minimized, but without Groen, there would have been no Kuyper as we know him.

Groen’s main work was titled Lectures on Unbelief and Revolution.  It consisted of talks he gave to a group of interested friends on the impact of the French Revolution and how that movement was at heart unbelief.  That work, which was his earlier work, and Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution were originally in Dutch.  Outside of some Reformed theological circles and Neo-Calvinist philosophical circles, few people look into the writings of Dutch theologians and philosophers.

It is amazing how the little country of the Netherlands produced a whole array of brilliant Christian thinkers during the 1800s and early 1900s.  The names include Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, H. Van Reissen, G. C. Berkouwer, Klaus Schilder, and many more.  We can add the names also of those who crossed the pond from the Netherlands to North America.  Louis Berkof, Gerhard Vos, and Cornelius Van Til are among the esteemed names we give here.

Basically, our current political struggles are a re-fighting of the issues of unbelief.  I don’t want to simplify and over-simplify current politics so as to boil this down to two charts with one being the good guys (belief) and the other being bad guys (unbelief).  We are not talking about current candidates, the two-party system, or the 2016 election cycle.  Unbelief is a deeper problem than Bernie’s Socialism, Hillary’s emails, Donald’s tweets, or Ted’s abrasive personality.

The problem is not located in the candidates, but in the heart and soul of the country.  We expect flawed sinners to bring us “hope and change.”  We expect walls to keep out problems and bombs to make the world safe.

We need to get back to some deeper issues.  Some of the answers–or at least the right questions–can be found in Plato’s Republic, The Federalist Papers, and Mill’s On Liberty.  As we get serious about rebuilding a political and social culture, we have to mine the gold found in those Dutch writers like Groen van Prinsterer and in this fine book Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution.

ACCS Rock Concert

Yesterday, I came home from the yearly conference of the Association for Classical Christian Schools.  I was exhausted.  I had 3 days of depending upon coffee, cokes, and tea to keep going from one great lecture to another.  My mind was both racing with all the information and experiences and shutting down from overload.

There was not actually an ACCS Rock Concert.  But my experience was more like that of a 17 year old girl at a One Direction concert than that of a late middle aged man listening to lectures on educational subjects.  I got to hear and meet several authors I have read and long admired, and I have added a few more authors and many more books to my “to buy” and “to read” lists.

First of all, there were two founding fathers, granite pillars, and stalwart, steadfast warrior-leaders speaking at the conference.  The opening session began with Dr. George Grant speaking on “Dumpster Diving:  Recovering the Discarded Treasures of Our Inheritance.”  What an apt metaphor.  Our modern culture has thrown away treasures in order to make room for junk.  The great works of literature that formed Western Civilization were reduced to short selections in anthologies, then to trivial pursuit questions, and then to nothingness.  As always, Grant inspires.  No matter how much you have read, George Grant has read more.  But he is not just a bookish walking Wikipedia; he applies and delights in reading and learning.

Douglas Wilson is the most important modern figure in the classical Christian school movement.  It is a sign of his modesty that he did not speak in a plenary session (that is, a lecture given to the whole group) until Friday afternoon.  His talk was on the “Poetic Turn.”  Very few people would think that poetry has much value and even fewer would see it as essential to reclaiming and rebuilding civilization.  As part of the choir that Wilson was addressing, I still could say “Wow! and Amen!” to his talk.  I did not get to go to Wilson’s workshop on Beowulf, but I do have his recent translation of that powerful work and plan on listening to his talk when it becomes available on MP3.

Needless to say, I have and have read many books by Grant and Wilson.  It is easy enough for any reader here to Google their names and come up with a bevy of titles.  Doug Wilson has written some of the defining books on classical Christian education.  He was very influential in convincing me and others here in Texarkana to start a Christian school along these lines.  George Grant’s books and friendship have been defining to me over the past 15 years especially.  My blog post of nearly a year ago–found HERE–captures my appreciation and giddiness over Grant’s ministry.

    

Matthew Perman spoke on “Gospel-Driven Time Management in the World of Education.”  Last year, I read Perman’s book What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.”  During the lecture, I found myself resisting the content, just as I had resisted when reading the book.  Sometimes we need to read something or listen to someone simply because we like and delight in what they say.  But we often need to read and listen to someone when we don’t like what they say.  The last sentence defines me in relation to Matt Perman’s book and what was a basic summary of it in his lecture.  I needed the conviction that is still sinking in regarding time management.  I hope to re-read the book soon AND ACTUALLY START IMPLEMENTING what he says.

       

John Mark Reynolds, author of When Athens Met Jerusalem and general editor of The Great Books Reader, spoke on “Athens, Jerusalem, and the Christian School.”  This was an amazing talk regarding the fact that Christians and Humanists had contrasted Athens (the center of Humanistic Reason) and Jerusalem (the center of Theocentric Reason) for centuries; however, in our time, secular and non-Christian thinking has become so debased that it has rejected both Jerusalem and Athens.  As he pointed out, it is Christians who actually read Aristotle and Darwin (and as a matter of fact, we do read both of them at Veritas Academy).  On the bright side, Dr. Reynolds strongly believes that the next decade will be critical for Christians and Christian schools.  Civilization is collapsing all around us.  We should not despair.  Who would want a humanistic decadent culture to thrive?

Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Louisville Southern Baptist Seminary, has been described as the major evangelical intellectual in America.  He spoke twice at the conference.  The first talk was merely very good, while the second one was life changing.  I am glad that Dr. Mohler’s Calvinism and Augustianism prevented him from giving an altar call, but I would have walked the aisle if he had.  He alone was worth the cost of the trip.

(I don’t–yet–have any of Dr. Mohler’s books, but I have read quite a few of his web articles.  He is a genuine scholar with the amazing ability to correctly address and access the culture.)

Dr. Thomas Kidd is one of the brightest young Christian historians of our time.  He is a history professor at Baylor University (where one of our 2015 Veritas graduates will be attending) and is the author of several books. I only got to hear him during a panel discussion on American history where he spoke along side of Wilson and Grant.  I was in another meeting during Kidd’s lecture on George Whitefield.  Thankfully, I made enough money selling my book (Punic Wars and Culture Wars) to buy a copy of Kidd’s new biography of Whitefield.  I also bought his book on the Great Awakening.

    

And more!

On the last session on the last day of the conference, Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth and other books spoke.  This was yet another “worth the entire price of the trip” experiences.  Nancy Pearcey has been called the most important female evangelical intellectual of our time.  She was converted and trained through the work of Francis and Edith Schaeffer at L’Abri.  She has written on science, culture, and apologetics.  Along with Chuck Colson, she co-authored How Now Shall We Live.  I read Total Truth some years ago and was incredibly impressed.  From her extensive bibliography, I began restructuring much of my reading and thinking.  She has noted and footnoted the work of Herman Dooyeweerd, along with other Christian worldview thinkers.  Her session was on apologetics.  I was thrilled that I got to have a brief conversation with her after her talk.

I have saved the discussion of Louis Markos for last.  It was some years ago when I purchased the book From Achilles to Christ by Dr. Markos.  Later, I bought his lectures on C. S. Lewis.  Believe me, “Louis on Lewis” is quite a listening experience.  I have picked up several of his other books along the way, but I had never crossed paths with him until this conference.

I could have skipped Dr. Markos’ sessions on the grounds that I already knew quite a bit about his subjects (Lewis and Tolkien) or because there were plenty of other good sessions to attend.  But I am glad I did not skip him.  Louis Markos is a small framed, wiry, bald-headed, heavy-bearded Greek bundle of energy.  I know the country of Greece is suffering from economic problems right now, but if they all had Markos’ energy, Greece would be the predominate world power.  Markos was incredible.  He was funny, energetic, fast talking, profound, and all those things sometimes in just one story or anecdote.  When I attended his session that gave parallel biographies of Lewis and Tolkien, I carried a cup of Starbucks coffee to overcome a wave of late afternoon fatigue.  Believe me, hot, strong, caffeinated coffee (a redundancy, for sure) and Markos combined were atomic.

I managed to give a copy of my book to Dr. Pearcey and another to Dr. Kidd’s wife, but try as I might, I could not get past the fans of Dr. Markos to give him a copy.  Then as we were about to leave the conference on Saturday, I saw Dr. Markos and his daughter walking–briskly–back up to the hotel.  I grabbed a copy of my book and ran for Markos like I was a tackle on a football team.  Handing him the book, he insisted that I autograph it.  Then he began talking, again with energy and joy.  There were Lewis quotes, Chesterton quotes, stories about this and that.  I think he would have given me 3 college credit hours worth of information if I had stood there long enough.

Three final comments

1.  Most of you will not believe it is humanly possible for a finite being to meet, hear, and experience so many great Christian speakers and scholars.

2.  Besides all these folks, there were other outstanding presenters.  Some I heard; many I did not.  Most are not as well known, but are doing great work across the land.

3.  Being at the ACCS conference has convinced me that I need to start a Classical Christian School in Texarkana.  WAIT, that has already been done.  Veritas Academy is moving forward.

Another Humanities Journey Completed

Another year of teaching Humanities at Veritas Academy is now over.  This year was “Humanities: The Modern World,” and it is both one of my favorite courses and one of the most challenging (just like the other three in the quadrant).

Because of some changes in the course during the first semester and some additional books subbed in during the second semester, some favorite books were left off the reading list.  Overall, however, we had a good year of reading.  On some questions on the last day of class, I asked which book was the favorite, which book should have been given more time for discussion, and which book would each student wish to read again.  I think every book got picked by one student or the other, while many students listed “all of them” as their favorites, the one that needed more discussion time, and the one they would want to read again.

The year began (back in September) with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  On the one hand, this book is not typical of Dickens’ usual plots and stories.  On the other hand, it is a fine novel that contrasts the French Revolution with England during the same time period.  I posted a series of blog articles back in September of 2014 while we were reading this book.

This book is always popular with the students.  The overt Christian message is outstanding.

We never read enough Shakespeare.  This year we did get through 3 tragedies–Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear.  I lament not having time for at least one or two of the comedies and a history or two, such as Henry V.  I found that Shakespeare works best when the plays are read aloud–with students standing, entering, leaving, and delivering the lines.  I also find that some of the movie versions of Shakespeare work well to follow up the readings.

This past year’s coverage of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost was a delight for me as a teacher.  This poem is not easy reading, either for students or the teacher.  But Milton’s verse is rich.  There are usually some discussions of portions of this poem that nearly turn the classroom into a revival meeting.  Milton doesn’t get straight A’s for theology, but he gets A+’s for expanding the mind and imagination in regard to God’s original creation, the sinfulness of Satan’s perverse rebellion, and the pristine beauty of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

It is hard to know exactly where to place Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Ivanhoe in the Humanities program.  Most moderns have slipped it off the reading lists.  It is a romance about the Medieval period, particularly the time of King Richard the Lionheart and his usurper brother, Prince John.  But it was published in 1820.  Scott was showing the relevance, the importance, the necessity of the past.  Scott honored tradition, chivalry, manners, and morals.  He was writing a novel of manners and grace to warn an ever increasingly industrial world to not forsake the old verities (to echo William Faulkner’s term).  The story grates against our age and against almost any age.  So it always is when honor is contrasted with dishonor, morality against licentiousness, law against evil.  I really came to like this novel during our studies this past year.

Another book that is hard to classify is Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.  It is to be read, for C. S. Lewis loved it, and that is sufficient for including it.  We only read one of the existing 6 books of this English classic.  Book I has been published with some good notes and helps by Canon Press.  This portion is titled Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves.  (Canon has also published Book II, which is titled The Elfin Knight.)  This story is also Medieval, but is much more.  In many ways, this is a poem that captures the issues of the Reformation poetically just as Luther and Calvin dealt with issues theologically.  The great quest of the Red Crosse Knight is for holiness.  Like all Christians, he stumbles, errs, gets deceived, acts stupid, and sins grievously.  But, this is a story of God’s grace and of sanctification.

I hope that my students who expressed the wish to read the other books of The Faerie Queene will press on with that desire.

We devoted much of the months of March and April to reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Of course, the month was interrupted by a snowstorm, a cold and rainy spring break, and by a trip to Greece and Italy that took all my juniors and seniors away for a time.  Les Miserables always proves to be a favorite with the students.  We also used the movie version that stars Liam Neeson.  I enjoy hearing the students complain about the movie’s shortcomings.

This year, I received a number of complaints regarding this 600 page novel.  The version we use is not complete.  The book is actually a 1000 or more pages.  Four of my seniors requested the complete version of the book for their graduation gift (with the fifth senior requesting Homer’s Iliad).

We ended the year with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice.  I almost skipped that book in order to read Sense and Sensibility, but I stuck with the group.  I was struck once again with Austen subtle humor and deftness in unveiling this story of misjudgments, economic and social differences, honor and shame, and romance.  I had to labor to tame down some of the excesses of the Austen fans who have almost no restraint, or to use an Austen term, propriety, in showing their enthusiasm for her writings.

Along with a long study of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and the reading of a biography of one of the Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, or Knox), these constituted the main readings of this past year.

So much accomplished.  So little accomplished.