10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Book Review

Anthony Esolen’s book, 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, probably has the best cover of any book published in paperback. Despite the old proverb about judging books by their covers, this modern In Praise of Folly could draw in even a reader who didn’t know that Esolen is a leading scholar on Dante who can quote the majority of Paradise Lost from memory.

In this book, Esolen turns a critical eye on the state of education and childhood in America. He points out that the adulthood awaiting our children really requires a deadened imagination. The best cog in the machine will be the unobtrusive one, rather than the truly unique and irreplaceable one.

Playing devil’s advocate, Esolen spends 10 chapters describing and “lauding” the modern stories we tell our children, the vices we present as virtues, and the portrait of the world that we paint for them. In Chapter 1, “Why Truth is Your Enemy, and the Benefits of the Vague,” he opens fire on the modern educational notion that rote memorization is a dried out husk of learning from when we didn’t know better. He points out that learning facts gives children the building blocks they can play with. In Chapter 2, “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” he turns the criticism from the schools to the parents, and their need to enroll their children in afterschool activities and organized sports.

This continues through 10 chapters, including, “Keep Children away from Machines and Mechanists,” “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Cliches and Fads,” “Cast Aspersions on the Heroic and Patriotic,” and “Level Distinctions between Man and Woman.”

His discussion of the way America has come to treat history is especially poignant. Though we like to think that shedding light on the downfalls of those once called “heroes” is giving a balanced view, teachers and textbooks are more likely to present such individuals as frauds who were once praised for false virtue, rather than complicated people with shortcomings and sad lapses. It’s an excellent point, supported by examples from older books of history, which display a more balanced view of heroes than modern texts give of those heroes when they cut them down to size.

Now, the one failing of Esolen’s work may lay outside of the scope of that which is contained between those wonderfully decorated covers. The problem with his Erasmus and Screwtape style arguments is that, in this world, they happen to be sadly true. As long as we raise children who will be trapped in the 9-to-5 monotony of a normal job where they are disposable, they will be miserable if they have well-developed minds with no tolerance for deplorable wastes of human time and energy. What Esolen doesn’t tell us is how to create a world that children will be well-prepared for by having a healthy development as human beings.

Then again, in The Odyssey, Calypso offers to turn Odysseus into a god with no freedom. Later, one of his servants is turned into a pig with no freedom. Who is better off — the slave who is a pig or the slave who is a god? One is aware of his prison, one is not. Throughout his work, Esolen assures us that mankind is better off striving after god-likeness than settling for farm animal complacency.

And, though his hints don’t become chapters, it’s clear that he hopes that a generation of children raised to understand goodness, truth, and beauty could upset the complacent order of things.

Some Stuff I’ve Learned Since Graduating

I graduated from college about a year and a half ago, so by now I definitely know all about how life works and I’m able to pass on my infinite wisdom to this year’s grads.

I’m kidding, of course. But I have learned some things about life since I graduated, both from intaking wisdom and inspiration from others (such as this awesome piece from RELEVANT magazine or this story on NPR) and just from living life and seeing how things have been a bit different than I expected. Everything I say here is just as much a reminder to myself as it is advice to anyone else. I’m still working on getting it right, too.

This is all purely based on my personal experience and I’m sure will not apply to everyone, but since it’s graduation season I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned since I entered the “real” world.

1. You’ve got to be proactive about going out and getting what you want. No one is going to do it for you.

Want a job? Go out and get it. Want friends? Be friendly.

I know from personal experience: this is easier said than done. I spent six months applying for jobs in the field I studied in school, technical writing, and for which I had previous professional experience. I currently work as a full-time nanny. All that talk you’ve heard about the economy being bad and whatnot? Well, turns out it is very true.

I am also an introvert. When I’m spent from working or socializing a lot, my idea of a good time includes sitting on the couch, talking to no one, and watching reruns of The Walking Dead. So it can be difficult for me to take that first step required to build new relationships.

But that’s the big point I’m making here: you’ve got to practice intentionality. While you may not see results immediately, you’ve just got to be intentional about putting yourself out there. No one is going to hand you internship opportunities or job offers or ready-made friends. I didn’t realize until after I graduated just how much good stuff was pre-packaged for us students by our universities: we were assigned a dorm room with a roommate and neighbors who became our first and (sometimes) most enduring adult friendships. We were constantly invited to lectures, special events, and career fairs that someone else had already put in the time and work to organize. While in school, we were surrounded by opportunity that was, for the most part, simply handed to us.

Don’t worryyou’re still surrounded by opportunity. The difference now is that you have to make the effort to find it and take advantage of it. No one is going to check up on you to make sure you’re progressing appropriately toward your goals; there are no curriculum guides or semester charts that tell you what you’re supposed to do next. The scary and also exciting thing about life is that you have to decide for yourself what you want to do next, and then you have to figure out how to make it happen.

Practicing intentionality applies to all areas of life: do you want to be thin and healthy? Be intentional about what you eat and how you exercise. We all wish that things we desire would just magically happen for us, but in order to truly achieve what we desire, we have to consciously work toward our goals every day.

2. Get out into the world and just start doing stuff.

This is the best way to figure out what you want to do with your life, discover what you’re good at, and learn how you need to improve. You’ve already learned from professors and classmates; now you’ll learn from peers, relatives, employers, and friends about what sorts of options are out there. Expose yourself to lots of things: read books and articles, from fashion magazines to news and political outlets, from food blogs to the New York Times. Pay attention to what excites you, what you want to learn more about, and what projects and jobs other people are doing that you think sound cool. Follow those feelings, because that’s how you figure out what you’re good at and what you want to do.

Find other people who are doing stuff you admire and ask them about it: How did they get there? What do they like about it? What don’t they like about it? What can a recent college grad do to emulate them? This all ties into #1: you’ve just got to put yourself out there. Get in the world’s face, ask lots of questions, and chase after things that interest and excite you. Be curious and proactive.

And by all means, look for jobs in your field, but don’t limit yourself. If an opportunity opens up for something that doesn’t fit what you’re “supposed” to be doing, don’t dismiss it, because you never know what interests it may stir in you or what doors it may open for further opportunities.

You won’t figure everything out right away, or by the time you’re thirty, or maybe ever, but that’s okay, too. You’ll keep experimenting and meeting new people and trying different things, and every experience will teach you more about yourself. Life is one long work in progress, and if you’re open to it, you’ll spend the rest of your life learning, growing, seeing, feeling, and doing.

3. “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”

I had to steal this one from a movie I saw recently, Liberal Arts. Over the course of the film, the protagonista man putzing around in his thirties and working a job he doesn’t likelearns to stop living in the past and embrace his adulthood. The line I’ve used above comes from a conversation the protagonist has with his former professor. He confesses that while he knows he should act like an adult, he just doesn’t feel like an adult. The gruff professor replies, “Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.”

This is a great way of saying that, in life, you’re never really going to get to a place where you feel like you have everything figured out. When I was in elementary and middle school, I greatly admired my high-school-aged siblings and their friends. They just seemed so grown up. They were beautiful and funny and confident and everything I expected to be when I was in high school. Then I got to high school, and I realized that, while I was maybe more confident and better at doing my makeup, I still struggled with insecurity and anxiety about my future.

So, I turned my admiration to college students: oh, how mature they were! Listen to them talk about their term papers! Watch how they drink coffee and decorate their dorm rooms with all the grace and ease of a well-rounded adult!

You can see where I’m going with this. As I progress through each stage of life, I tend to shift my admiration to those in the next stage, which I suspect is a way of reassuring myself that, while right now things seem difficult and uncertain, soon I’ll have it all figured out.

Turns out, life doesn’t really work that way. Sure, we grow and become wiser, more mature, and better equipped to deal with things over time, but there will always be a new decision to make, a new conflict to resolve, and a set of new paths to choose from. Rather than hoping to have all the answers, I think it’s more important to strive to be our best in each stage of life while continually getting better, because for most of us, “better” is the best we can hope for. Wherever you are in life—school, early career, marriage, parenthoodyou’ve just got to own it, do your best in it, and try to learn and grow from it. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun!

4. Life is different post-grad, and that’s okay.

This one sounds pretty obvious, but I’m specifically referring to schedules and habits. In my freshman year, while juggling a demanding honors program along with all of the other challenges that come with transitioning to college life, a professor once told us students that we would never again have as much disposable time as we did during college. I laughed and returned to the five hundred-page book I had to finish by the next morning. But I look back on that now and realize that he was right. Sure, college is busy, but when again in life will you have a schedule that includes two- or three-hour chunks of free time in the middle of the afternoon every Tuesday? And good luck finding a job that gives you four weeks off for Christmas, a week off every spring, and three months off every summer (but if you do find such a job, please let me know so I can apply).

Also, eating whatever you want and staying up until two o’clock in the morning catches up with you quickly. Do yourself a favor and break whatever bad habits you have sooner rather than later, because you really can’t maintain them if you keep any semblance of a “normal” adult lifestyle. I was very surprised at how soon I noticed weight gain, or that I could barely function if I got fewer than six or seven hours of sleep. (The other night I only got four hours of sleep, and I felt exhausted for the rest of the week.)

None of this is bad. Early adulthood is just a new, different stage of life, and that’s okay. Don’t spend it longing to recapture the glory days of college; it will make you bitter and sad, and you’ll miss out on the good things you’ve got in life right now. Again, you’ve just got to own it and continue to invest in the important stuff: work that excites you, friendships, healthy habits, your family, and your relationship with God.

5. Hooray! It’s finally over! But really, this is just the beginning. 

Last weekend I attended my brother’s college graduation, and one of the student speakers shouted in celebration: “Hooray! It’s finally over!”

Yes, graduation is a big milestone that deserves celebration. You’ve accomplished a lot, and you should feel proud and relieved. But like any ending, it’s also a new beginning. As Calvin says to Hobbes in the final panels of everyone’s favorite comic strip: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”

6. Always remember what matters most.

I’ll end with a powerful quote from St. Isaac of Syria. While the journey of discovering who you are and what you’re interested in is a very important one in life, always remember that the foundation of your very being rests in Christ. In the midst of all of the other crazy demands and challenges of life, don’t ignore God. (I’ll be the first to admit that I’m constantly guilty of this one.) Making our souls right with him is the most important thing we humans have to do; may we not waste our life pursuing anything else above the one who gave us life in the first place.

“Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling

Openness is a form of vulnerability. Openness to question, openness to explore, openness to reach bold conclusions and overturn tradition: all the graybeard warnings about change are, to some extent, right. Openness and vulnerability are not necessarily good things, taken by themselves. In the Rialto Unified School District, somebody came up with a debate assignment on whether the Holocaust was real. Like as not, it was just a devil’s advocate argument taken in very, very poor taste. Nevertheless, it proves that even that today’s most ardent beliefs (hate, racism, and genocide are evil) are open to future questioning and skepticism. Though doubt is natural, openness to it is not uniformly virtuous, and can even be wicked. Continue reading Even the Holocaust is Open to Skeptical Manhandling

Rooted in Love–What We Can Learn From the Flowers

Humans have an innate appreciation for nature.  Except for the occasional bee sting or troublesome allergies, nature often enchants all of our senses.  Smelling the crisp scent of evergreens, tasting the salty sea air, feeling the soft grass against our toes, hearing the chirping of the birds, and seeing the beauty of God’s creation around us are a few examples of how we experience and enjoy nature.  It is natural and good that we thank God for giving us these good things.  But to stop with gratitude would be to limit ourselves to self-centered appreciation of God’s creation.  We should step away from our own experience of nature and engage with something much bigger than ourselves.  If we allow ourselves to listen, the flowers remind us of the vanity of our own existence and the reality of our eternal value in Christ.

Christina Rossetti, a 19th century poet, is widely known for her gloomy, yet biblically centered poetry.  Hope and despair are prevalent themes in her writing.  While Rossetti often despairs about earthly griefs, she remains grounded in her eternal hope.  In her poetry, Rossetti constantly uses nature to re-ground herself in her hope. In “Consider the Lilies of the Field (p24,25), she writes:

“Flowers preach to us if we will hear…
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read…”

Anyone can smell the flowers and take pleasure in it.  However, very few actually learn from the flowers.  Learning from the flowers takes humility and a willingness to experience nature in a way much bigger than our own personal enjoyment.  It is easiest to view the flowers in their relation to us.  “Thank you God for allowing us to enjoy these beautiful flowers.”  And that response is perfectly acceptable.  However, the flowers can teach us so much more rather than just reinforcing a me-centered existence.

It is the natural human tendency to think of our existence in terms of ourselves.  Well, duh, you may say, we are the ones existing.  However, in a God-centered universe, we are never the main focus.  We may be the ones doing the actual living, but nothing we do can give value to our lives.  Yet we are never perfect at living a God-centered life.  We forget how fleeting and invaluable we are on our own.

This is not a new problem.  In Psalm 90:12, the Psalmist asks God on behalf of the Israelites, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Israel forgot how short their life was.  Disobedience to God’s commands is the natural result of forgetting your place in eternity.  After experiencing punishment for embarking on a self-centered lifestyle, they come crawling back to God asking him to help them remember.  In a God-centered universe, a self-centered lifestyle does not satisfy.  Especially when you are being directly punished by God!

Isaiah says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The quickly fading flower reminds us that our “blossom” is but a brief moment in eternity.  Hopeless can often be the result of this realization if we view our brief existence simply in terms of our life here on earth.  However, investing in an eternal hope through Jesus Christ allows us to live a hope-filled life while here on earth.  We live full lives here on earth, all the while knowing our ultimate value is not found in this world.  Nature can remind us of how small we are on our own and allow us to re-ground ourselves in truth—that true value can only come through God.

But the flowers’ teaching does not stop there.  They remind us of something much greater than our own insignificance.  They remind us of God’s great love for us in spite of our puny existence.  In Luke, Jesus says “If God so clothes the grass.. how much more will he clothe you(Luke 12:28).”  Nature IS beautiful! Even though a flower only blooms for a short time, it is none the less beautiful! So it is with us.  Even though we are seemingly insignificant, God values us.  Even though our life is but a moment, God concerns himself with the details of our life.

In her poem, “Consider the Lilies of the Field,” Rossetti continues,

“Flowers ….
Tell of his love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.”

The flowers do not just tell us truths about ourselves, but truths about God, too!

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is not just a happy go lucky post.   Life is not just daisies and roses.  Even with a firm understanding of your eternal value and God’s love for you, life sucks sometimes.  Sadness is a natural part of life.  From Rossetti’s poetry, it seems like she was seriously depressed most of the time.  We would be lying to ourselves if we tried to never experience sadness.  Even Jesus wept.  But at the same time, we should never be guided by our emotions.  When experiencing despair, we should always anchor ourselves in our eternal hope.  Rossetti got through her darkest moments because of her eternal hope.  So also should we, in moments of despair, cling to the One that can never be taken away from us, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help reground you in what is truly valuable.

Whether it’s in the simple hustle and bustle of everyday life or one of your darkest moments, grounding yourself in Christ’s deep love for you gives you strength to carry on.  However, being reminded of your true value in Christ is worthless if your actions do not change.   Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help you live your life in a meaningful way.

So next time you are outside, stop and listen to the flowers.  What are they saying to you?

“In this world you will have tribulation.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

*Quotations taken from “Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems.”  Penguin Classics.

 

 

 

If You Listen Carefully, at the End You’ll Be Somebody Else

My grandmother is a storyteller. She has long, curly, red hair and flowers on her jeans. She looks at you like she knows a secret, and she does. If you think you’re too old to sit down and listen to a story from a woman with curly red hair and paint on her shoes, you are taking yourself too seriously. If you believe fairytales are a silly notion that you must abandon in order to become a well-adjusted adult, you are going to make a terrible adult, stunted in imagination and courage.

This is the secret my grandmother knows: there is much more to life than fact. Fairytales can teach us how to be brave in a way that no checklist can. Fictional stories are not a distraction from reality; they are a guide for how to function in our reality. Both the fairytale and our reality are full of pain, fear, and mystery. In The Red Angel, G.K. Chesterton reminds us of the merit of the fairytale, saying, “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy-tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon…it accustoms him by a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors have a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these infinite enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

When was the last time you heard about anyone defeating a dragon?  They still exist as they did in your imagination when you were young, but they look different now. They look like racism, exploitation, poverty, human trafficking, mental illness, sexism. The fact that there is, for example, no guaranteed solace for individuals living with severe schizophrenia or no final solution in sight to abolish child sex slavery proves to me that this world is much more insane than anything I’ve read in a book. And if you think these aren’t the dragons you personally are faced with, you are wrong.  Fairytales teach us that dragons that plague a land are the responsibility of all who inhabit the land. These dragons are to be defeated, not ignored or tolerated. The heroes we read about in stories aren’t just fighting personal dragons; they’re fighting dragons that are terrorizing their kingdom. Our favorite heroes—Bilbo, Frodo, Harry, Hermione, The Pevensies—all come to a point where they have to decide whether to stay in their safe part of the world or to pick up a sword or a wand and respond to the evil they see. Regardless of how these heroes feel, the realization comes that their “safe part of the world” won’t remain safe much longer if they stay. The real heroes know a person can never truly ignore evil. If he or she does, it will only grow.

Fairytales don’t just teach us that we cannot ignore evil, they also show us what slaying a dragon looks like. Slaying dragons is hard. The hero must make a decision that she or he will continue to fight evil each day, even in the mundane or hopeless times. Maybe in our lifetime we will not slay the dragons of poverty or human trafficking, because slaying those dragons might take longer than a lifetime. Maybe defeating evil systems looks like the tiny task of waking up in the morning and deciding to respond to the existence of evil on this earth with something other than despair, bitterness, or complacency. We can wake up in the morning and love the world all over again by partaking in a quiet, consistent faithfulness and hope. Maybe heroism can simply be to love as best we can and hope as best we can, following the Spirit as He makes us aware of the dragons that are in our world and how to respond to them.

Once we find our dragons and begin our fight, fairytales give us a correct view of what victory is. It is difficult to imagine what the final victory for us as Christians will be like. We see small victories all the time: a sick man healed, a broken family restored, a human trafficking victim rehabiliated.  While we wait for the final victory wherein Christ restores all things, it is easy to forget the importance of the small tasks on this earth. As readers, we know Voldemort has to be defeated, and we can see which of Harry’s actions lead to the defeat of Voldemort. For us, it’s more difficult to know the impact of our actions. Living each day in faithfulness to God and with love for our neighbor might not seem like doing anything important at all, but it is this little, daily faithfulness that leads to the true death of the dragon. The historical St. George did not slay a literal dragon: he was martyred in Rome because he refused to renounce Christ. There must have been a thousand opportunities between his conversion and death to choose a different path, but in the face of adversity he continued to choose faithfulness. I wonder if he realized that he was truly slaying the dragon of evil in holding fast to truth until the very end.

This is why fairytales help us in a way that other stories cannot. It is easier to choose love and faithfulness when we see that doing so is a step in the process of defeating dragons. When we can’t see the entire picture of reconciliation and restoration that we as God’s children get to participate in, the fairytale lets us in on someone else’s completed story of reconciliation, and reminds us that our individual lives are part of the story that Christ will complete one day.

At the beginning of Mahabharata, one of the great (initially spoken) Sanskrit epics of ancient India, Vyasa says, “If you listen carefully, at the end you’ll be someone else.” So I encourage you: if you want to be brave, listen. The stories will change you. The heroes will teach you, and you will be empowered with courage and a hope “that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”

 

Living a “Christ-Centered” Life is Nobody’s Job but Your Own

I recently saw an online advertisement for a Christian university. The banner across the top of my webpage featured smiling students and, following the name of the school, the tagline, “A Christ-centered education.”

This advertisement, like those for many other Christian universities, implies that Christ-centeredness is an intrinsic part of their students’ education and, more subtly, that attending a Christian school is the best way to have a “Christ-centered” education.

This got me thinking, because it’s simply not true.

I spent the first three semesters of my undergraduate education at a private, Christian university. I learned and grew a lot over that time, and I still have fond memories of attending the school and maintain friendships forged there. However, I chose to finish my education at a public, state university, so I’m able to compare my experience at both types of institutions.

To be sure, attending a Christian college or university is a fine choice for many students. It may be the right kind of environment some need to cultivate and discern their faith, and I’m sure many alumni of Christian schools can claim the same benefits from their education that I found at a secular school. There are stories from all sides—those of students who attended Christian schools and later strayed from the faith, those of students who attended secular schools and found God, and everything in between—and I’d be very interested to hear some of those stories. This is just what I’ve learned from my experience.

So, back to that advertisement: at best, it is quite misleading. Implying that a “Christ-centered” education is best attained by attending a Christian school is the same as saying that a “Christ-centered” career can best be achieved by working for an expressly Christian organization.

To have a Christ-centered education (or job, or life, or anything), one must be Christ centered.

I appreciate that the goal of many Christian schools is to look at education through the lens of Christianity, but in the end (as I’m sure many of these schools would themselves confirm) that work can only be done by the individual Christian in every aspect of his or her life. The only person who can truly and consistently cultivate my faith is me, by the grace of God. There are many benefits that come from taking Biblical exegesis courses or having academic discussions about the intersection of Christianity and other disciplines, but all of the Bible classes in the world can’t replace a personal discipline to study and learn from Scripture and other Christian writings. No number of mandatory chapel services can replace active membership in a church community.

The church is another important factor in this conversation, because the church is (or ought to be) the linchpin for the Christian’s personal spiritual development.

Christian schools are not administers of the sacraments; churches are.

I doubt that any Christian school would claim to be a replacement for the church. In my experience, most Christian schools seek to augment a student’s spiritual development, serving as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the unique growth and guidance that comes from the church. However, I want to emphasize that it’s important for all Christians to remember that Christ established the church to be the guardian and administer of the faith, and other Christian institutions are secondary.

Also, as someone who attended both a Christian and a secular university, I can attest the fact that one’s spiritual development is not necessarily better or worse in either environment, nor do the beliefs of professors or peers necessarily have a crucial influence on one’s spiritual or academic growth.

I was honestly afraid to switch from the Christian school—an environment I had been in since the fourth grade—to the secular university, fearing that my “worldly” classmates would immediately judge, attack, or condemn my faith. Instead, I found that my professors and fellow students were, on the whole, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligently curious when conversations about religion came up. Also, interacting with people who hold different beliefs than I do (about God, school, morality, life) was very beneficial, as it gave me better insight into how people who are different than me think about the world. I learned both how we are different and how we are not so different. I learned that non-Christians are not necessarily “out to get” me, making me more open to honest conversations about life and faith, rather than afraid of them. I took classes, completed projects, and engaged in discussions with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and more. To be honest, a lot of the time our personal beliefs didn’t come into play.

Learning in an environment that was not centered around religion made me realize that many people simply don’t care about my religion, so I don’t need to be afraid of immediate judgments about me based on what I believe. It also drove home the reality that the responsibility to remain Christ centered in everything I do is entirely my own.

I feel that my personal experience in both the Christian and secular academic environments demonstrates that a school’s professed religion (or lack thereof) does not necessarily impact a student’s spiritual development, and, more importantly, that Christ-centeredness hinges first and foremost upon the individual Christian. You may be mandated to attend chapel, but no one is going to force you to go to church. All Christians are called to participate in the work of their faith and to choose for themselves what the center of their lives will be, no matter where they decide to get an education.

Blessed are the Unsuccessful

Whenever I can, I like to begin my 10th grade English classes like this: “Someday, you are going to die and no one is going to remember you. Whether you graduated from Harvard, became a successful businessperson, or worked as a janitor, the chances of the history books actually remembering you are slim to none. So what’s the point?”

My school prides itself on its accomplishments. The school mission statement encourages students to pursue excellence in all of their activities. As a result, our students have sent satellites into space, travelled to Scotland for theatrical performances, marched in the Rose Bowl Parade, and have won state championships in athletics. Our students are headed for the Ivy Leagues because they have learned the art of pursuing excellence.

Working with such motivated students, however, has reacquainted me with a problem, one that infects every area of our lives. We mistake excellence for education, muddling together appearances with reality.

Excellence is predicated on comparison by performance. Instead of attending to the proper formation of our souls, we are more concerned whether others find us impressive, attractive, or enjoyable. We work so hard at our excellent performances that we’ve become accustomed to a mode of existential exhaustion. Then, like my students, when we’re reminded that someday we’ll die and be forgotten by history, we’re left with a distressing question: “What’s the point?”

In his book Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard addresses a similar problem. In an attempt to distinguish Christian love from worldly love, he drives a wedge between love itself and the performance of love. “For,” he says, “one is not to work in order that love becomes known by its fruits but to work to make love capable of being recognized by its fruits. In this endeavor one must watch himself so that this, the recognition of love, does not become more important to him than the one important thing: that it has fruits and therefore can be known.”

The desire for “recognition” is the desire for the appearance of love at the expense of love itself. In the same way, my students sometimes struggle for a perfect GPA at the expense of their education. As a result, grades don’t accurately reflect a student’s intellectual development; instead, they reflect a student’s ingenuity in manipulating the educational system.

For Kierkegaard, the only safeguard against the desire for recognition is obedience, a direct response to Christ’s command “Thou shall love…”

Obedience, unlike excellence, depends on my willingness to obey. Any other motivation encourages pride, which is itself a symptom of excellence. Pride, like excellence, needs comparison, because “it is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Without the comparison, excellence cannot assert itself as excellent.

Obedience, on the other hand, is a private act of the will independent of popular opinion. Obedience cares nothing for appearances because it’s primary concern is to be in proper relationship to the command. Every obstacle of excellence pales in comparison to the immediacy of obedience. It liberates us from the changing demands of comparison and ushers us into communion with God “in Whose service is perfect freedom” (BCP 1928).

Education, I try to tell my students, is the difficult process of learning to be good, conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God. The point is not that they earn an A in my class and go to a fancy college. The point is to become liberated, happy human beings.

Question from Harry Potter: Is It Real or Just in My Head?

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book hereThere’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

I unashamedly love the Harry Potter series as Christian literature. This is not to say that J. K. Rowling wrote the books as evangelistic tools, but the story that she tells through the whole series gives Christian answers to the big questions about life. In Harry Potter, evil is a selfish progression toward non-existence, death to self and the love of others is the way forward, being bound to life on this earth as though its continuation is the highest good is evil, belief is a choice that continually has to be made, love are trust is better than hatred and suspicion, and love is ultimately stronger than death. I could go on, but John Granger says everything much better and at greater length in How Harry Cast His Spell. In that book, Granger highlights a very important question at the very end of the series, and it is from Granger that I draw most of my beginning thoughts. Continue reading Question from Harry Potter: Is It Real or Just in My Head?

On Highbrow Christianity

Opera, classical music, wine tasting, craft beer, classical languages and literature: all these things exemplify highbrow taste. Highbrow interests require education and development of the ability to appreciate certain things, so arts that only developed agrarian or industrial cultures can produce (opera, classical music, literary culture) are relative marks of superiority. Anybody can brew and guzzle beer, but not just anyone can write and analyze a symphony. Anyone can become a Christian, but not just anyone can explain the differences between infallibility and inerrancy, read the New Testament in Greek, or compare modern cults to historical heresies. Theologians are more hipster than hipsters: they were highbrow before it was highbrow to be highbrow about being highbrow. Continue reading On Highbrow Christianity

The Novelty of the Old

Throughout my schooling career, teachers have instructed me to say something new, to “contribute something unique to scholarly research.” This has always been frustrating because of its obvious impossibility. I cannot say anything truly new when scholars have been writing on the same subjects for millennia. Whatever ideas I possess have been discussed before, and unless I become the premiere expert in one subject, there will always be someone smarter, more knowledgeable, and more adept at writing to address the issue. One of the wisest men who ever lived said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) I agree with him. Ideas circulate through the ages like perpetual spinning tops. Debates that are “new” today were widely debated topics among the Greeks, Romans and Medievals.

So it’s hard—almost impossible—to contribute something truly new to any discussion on a given  subject.

But perhaps that’s not the right goal. The trick, I think, is not to write something new, but to remind others of the relevancy of the old. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, book, movie or magazine, truth remains truth. Virtue will always be good, and sin will always be bad. Our definition of literary “good” should not be originality, but whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)

A good story is worth repeating. Movie theaters are full of remakes because film makers know they can make bank by retelling a story that has already proven its worth—is popular, moving, or exciting. Perhaps we need to rethink our standard of “good” as being new and different. In chapter four of Orthodoxy (currently available for free, with an introduction by friend of Evangelical Outpost, Matthew Lee Anderson), G.K. Chesterton writes:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeatedly unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

Perhaps our desire for novelty and uniqueness is a result of our sin, and not a result of our cleverness or virtue. Yet we do grow bored. If every movie in existence was a remake of Casa Blanca, I would grow bored very quickly. I can only listen to so many repetitions of “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

The challenge, then, is to present old, good, tried and true ideas in ways that are fresh, capture people’s attention, and remind them of what is good, true and beautiful.

Chesterton’s Manalive is a fictional representation of this idea. Innocent woos his wife over and over in different ways to keep her loveliness fresh in his mind, and his desire for her close to his heart. He leaves home for months and traverses the entire earth, with the sole purpose of returning to where he started and having a greater appreciation of his life. He says at one point, “It was not the house that grew dull, but I that grew dull in it. My wife was better than all women, and yet I could not feel it.” Innocent continually rediscovers the wonder of old ideas by reliving them in new ways. He is a man fully alive, because he does not allow himself to grow bored but to rediscover the beauty of old truths again and again. That’s the definition of an insight: to experience a new understanding or appreciation of an old idea.

Aslan brought me renewed excitement of God when I was a child; Middle Earth continually reawakens my mind to the power of friendship and loyalty. Just because super hero tales are retold through books, movies and TV shows does not mean that their lessons of bravery, courage and virtue must become less potent. We can stop looking for new ideas—we won’t find them. Instead, we can learn to appreciate old ideas because they work. Truth is older than the sun, but is still exciting.