Recently, I taught a unit on dragon stories in literature to my elementary students. To launch the series, I read Revelation 12 aloud in class, which is a marvelous tale of a red dragon who pursues the Queen of Heaven into the desert to devour her child, but is thwarted by creation rising up against him. The students gazed wide-eyed at the masterfully woven images, narrative, and language. When I told them that the fantastical tale was from the Bible, they gasped. One young man stammered, “Wow, I didn’t know the Bible told stories like that!”
In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis cautions us against idolizing our memories of the past: “they are only the scent of a flower we have not found,” he says.
I am sure he chose that image because of a flower’s beauty, but I wonder if he had in mind how fleeting that beauty was designed to be. I wonder if he was intentionally echoing the prophet Isaiah, who said, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field…the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (40:6-8)
To the classical thinker, vice lies at the opposite ends of a corresponding virtue (Aristotle's golden mean). A vice can be the manifestation of a virtue in extreme exaggeration or deprivation. Courage is an example of virtue. Its corresponding vices are impetuousness (the exaggeration), and pusillanimity (the deprivation). In post-Christian Christianity, doubt has unfortunately been elevated into a virtue and any type of certainty has been made a vice, a problem which can be traced back to Descartes.
No one is truly offended by a man who criticizes others. A man who criticizes others can be easily dismissed. Mencken criticized Americans and Americans gobbled it up. No latter day atheist is more beloved of Christians than Christopher Hitchens, who mocked and belittled Christians in winsome fashion. The cynicism of Ambrose Bierce indicted all who breathed, and yet we read Bierce with a knowing smile. When I read a man criticize others, I get to criticize others with him. What is more, I am skilled at dodging the insults generally directed at others.
Woody Allen’s 2011 movie Midnight in Paris has it all: a star-studded cast, fantastic music, beautiful settings and great camerawork. However, its greatest feature is the story itself. The protagonist is aspiring writer Gil Pender, who stumbles into a magic vortex that allows him to travel back to 1920s Paris, a place and time that he considers the high point of Western culture. He befriends all the great artists of the day, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, and others.
Given that clean entertainment is one of the great sacred cows of American Christianity, I should probably begin with a bona fide or two, so I’ll say that, with a few notable exceptions, I would be perfectly content for America to return to the old Hays Code standard for motion pictures: no graphic sex, no graphic violence, no pointed profanity, and no ridicule of the clergy. The merciless demand for realism which has arisen since the abandonment of the Hays Code in 1968 has polluted American art beyond measure. Gone is subtlety, gone is nuance, gone is dignity.
It has been said that greatness in art is marked by the impossibility of imagining alteration. The story that could only have come right that way, the sculpture of which every contour begs contemplation, the music whose melody would fall flat were any one of its notes missing or moved—it is a quality that we recognize in such works as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, or Michelangelo’s Pieta, or the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.
My high school students cannot tolerate ambiguity. This is why they have a hard time with the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
Listen to this famous pronouncement from the poems eponymous hero:
For every one of us, living in this world
Means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
Win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
Win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark. (1384-89)
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.