In a systematic theology class at an American seminary, a strangely dressed man takes a seat one morning and all the seminarians sneak glances at him. His clothes are strange. When the professor arrives, he asks the stranger to identify himself. The stranger claims he has been sent from the future. The professor appears alarmed at first, but asks the stranger what he wants. The stranger says he has been sent from the future to learn about the beliefs of the past. The professor tells the stranger he may ask the seminary students whatever he would like.
We need our homes. But we have things, and our things need homes, too. Some of our things can stay with us, but we have so many things, all of our things will not fit in our homes. And so we have built little apartment complexes for our things which we call storage units. Many of our things live in nicer little homes than a great many human beings in the world.
From time to time, typically while teaching Dante, a student objects to the entire Divine Comedy and claims, “Good works are symbolic, but they do not accomplish anything tangible. We perform good works to show that we love God. Good works are born out of a love of God, but are not synonymous with a love of God.”
In 1982, Walter Warren Milliken was the third wealthiest man in the world. Oil magnate, news chief, captain of the steel industry, shipping merchant, beef and milk tycoon. Fifty years old, five wives behind him, Milliken was the only Western man worth more than a billion dollars who wore a full beard. He said, “The fullness of the earth is mine,” and ate raw pink abalone every day. For twelve minutes one Christmas Eve, he became possessed by a demon with an unpronounceable name. Strong as a bear in the arms.
Every December, Christians are subjected to a host of dour, skeptical, and cynical claims about Christmas. We are told that, back in the day, Christmas was actually a pagan holiday. We are told that Jesus was actually not born on December 25th. And even after the mountain of evidence against these skeptical claims is sorted out, there is also the accusation that Christmas has become nothing more than a cash grab.
What follows is a quiz I have given on the book Frankenstein.
How do you tell a father his son is headed for an unhappy life?
How could anyone be so stupid?
It is this question we invariably ask while reading horror stories or watching horror films. To the vexation of viewers, characters in horror films are in the habit of naively walking down dark hallways, getting lost in the woods after sundown, and picking up hitchhikers in the middle of nowhere. If the characters in a horror story are not uniformly stupid, their IQs nonetheless dip in clutch situations. We shout advice to them, marvel at their blindness, and when they get skewered, we have a hard time really feeling bad for them.
All classic literature aims at answering the Question, “What does it mean to be human?” Authors who agree on nothing else are nonetheless of one mind when it comes to the need to answer this Question. All great literature is born from some troubling of the mind, for the Question, “What does it mean to be human?” is a vexing, awful question to ask. The Question obviously implies the answer is unknown. We do not know what it means to be human. What is worse, the Question itself implies the Question may be the wrong one to ask.
Thanksgiving dinner is the holiest meal eaten in the American household. While the holiness of Christmas and Good Friday surpass Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner is merely an accident of the Nativity liturgy and neither is Easter dinner conducted by a cleric. On the other hand, the Thanksgiving meal is something of a worship service in and of itself. If Thanksgiving has not already overtaken the Fourth of July as the most sacred day in the American civil religion, the exchange will certainly take place within this generation.
Some of the most important questions asked in class are bad questions. Despite a common prejudice against the expression “bad questions,” I simply must allow it, for I judge many of the most important questions I have ever asked to have been very terrible. Let me give you an example of a bad question I once asked: Isn’t the Father at war with the Son on the cross because it says somewhere that God cannot look at sin, and when Jesus was on the cross doesn’t it say God turned away His face? When I say this was a bad question, I do not mean it did not need an answer.