Here’s to tough English teachers, careful use of the English language and God’s direction and formative influences that He allows into our lives. I am reblogging this piece that reminds me of a turning point in my life, and the tough English teacher who met me at he turn.
I was an angry, rebellious youth, living a recklessly self-destructive teenage life, drinking, smoking pot and taking unnecessary risks. I don’t know why I was that way, but that’s how I was.
I think I was desperately searching for something meaningful, trying to fill the voids, unwilling to settle for mediocre. But the things I was using to fill those voids left a deeper void.
An unrelenting, stubbornly idealistic and sternly enthusiastic English teacher is just what I needed. She challenged me, and it turns out I was ready for the challenge. The two papers I wrote that semester, on Joseph Conrad’s, Lord Jim, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, Crime and Punishment, were just the rigorous tests of critique and simultaneous self-reflection necessary to jump me off the nihilistic track onto the path to truth and meaning that can only be mined with same kind of relentless, stubbornly idealistic and uncompromising confidence in the effort that my teacher demonstrated for us.
The blog, Is God Really Good?, reminds me of these things, and the gratitude I owe to my “very grumpy English teacher”. Only she, was less grumpy than enthusiastic, but none the less effective in her influence on me.
When I was at school, and Queen Victoria sat upon the throne, I had a very grumpy English teacher called Mrs Hume. I felt sorry for Mr. Hume if she was as grumpy at home. Mrs Hume was a well balanced woman. She had a chip on both shoulders. Life had dealt her a poor […]
“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure…. No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”
This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure. If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. He was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.
Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)
We know much of Wilde’s private life, ironically, from a much publicized court case that publicized his private life when Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. Queensberry was also an outspoken atheist. Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde initiated left him bankrupt as the defense proved the truth of Queenberry’s statements.
Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure and wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery and characters in his writing, though his use was, perhaps, sacrilegious. During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.
As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde. My friend is in the ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him incommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace even in the middle of the difficulties they face.
We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain, but sometimes the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain. Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain.
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened…”
This quotation is from CS Lewis in a letter to Arthur Greeves: from The Kilns (on his conversion to Christianity), 18 October 1931. If you have read much of what I write, you would readily notice that I quote and allude to CS Lewis often. He resonated with me in college, and he continues to resonate. He is cited by more diverse groups of people, perhaps, that any person I can think of. He had a unique way of approaching things from fresh points of view, often pulling those fresh ideas from the dusty tomes of ancient literature. His concept of myth and True Myth is one such point.
Some might consider his frequent allusions to ancient, pagan myth heretical, and some might even confuse his love of pagan myth as New Age. I find him to be extremely orthodox in unorthodox ways, and I find his creative approaches to orthodoxy to be refreshing and thought-provoking.
We don’t have to look any further than the ultra-orthodox, Paul the Apostle, to find some common ground with CS Lewis. When Paul was in Athens, some Epicureans and Stoics he debated in the marketplace, brought him to the Areopagus to address a Greek crowd. In that address, Paul referenced an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God” and quoted Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5): “in him we move and live and have our being”. (Acts 17:22-28)
Paul used the quotation from Aratus that was spoken by a pantheistic poet to convey a theistic principle about God. (See Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?) On the one hand, Paul connected with the people “where they were” using language and references they understood to convey something about God. In one sense, this is how CS Lewis relates the ideas of myth and True Myth.
It’s interesting to me, as well, that Paul know enough about pagan poetry to quote Aratus. In Titus 1 (v. 12), Paul quotes a Cretan philosopher, Epimenides. Again, it’s striking that Paul knew enough about pagan philosophy (presumably) that he could quote Epimenides.
What CS Lewis says about myth is that it contains some elements of truth, which shouldn’t be surprising at all, as truth is universal and should, therefore, be something that is universally recognized. The difference between myth and True Myth is that all myth ultimately is just a shadow of the True Myth. All myth conveys truth through storytelling. True Myth isn’t just another story; it is The Story. It isn’t “just” myth, but reality – “it really happened” as CS Lewis says.
One way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible. For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition. Either the Bible is all literally true, or it is all literally false.
This is a false dichotomy. It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical meanings, context, and many other things. It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.
When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.
Harris’s reliance on Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind. If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim. That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point. They don’t believe in miracles so they don’t take evidence of miracles seriously, whatever the evidence is.
This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me. Yet, Harris is a scientist. Erhman is a scholar. While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.
When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools. Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof. There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach. The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes. This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.
“[His] father had taught him to absorb doubt and disbelief into his beliefs.”
This statement from the book, Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter, is spoken of Charles Williams, who was a regular participant in the informal discussion group, the Inklings, formed by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien at the University of Oxford, England. The group met at various times in Lewis’s classroom and a local pub from the late 1930’s to 1949. Charles Williams was an early member of the group and continued as a regular until his death in 1945. Williams grew up “a devout churchman” but was encouraged by his father “to appreciate the force of atheistic rationalism and to admire such men as Voltaire and Tom Paine”.
Lewis, of course, was an atheist when he arrived and began teaching at Oxford. His journey from materialism to agnosticism to Christian theism is chronicled in his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy. Tolkien was already a Christian when Lewis joined him as a professor at Oxford, and Tolkien influenced Lewis in his transition to Christianity. Williams came along later. These men were attracted to each other as much by their love of language, literature and poetry as their faith, though their views on literature and faith often diverged sharply.
These three men, and others who joined them, were powerhouses of thought and creativity. CS Lewis, of course, wrote many books from fiction to philosophy. JRR Tolkien wrote, perhaps, the greatest mythological series of the 20th century in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Charles Williams, though lesser known, was a prolific writer, literary critic, publisher and student of English literature who could recite hundreds of passages from sheer memory.
They influenced each other, despite their very distinct differences, and their collective influence has been felt by generations from their day to ours. They were Christian men, believing very authentically in the Bible as scripture, but they were also fierce academics who held their faith up to the rigors of intellectual exercise.
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