Saturday, January 01, 2011

My Annual Reading Review

It has been a dismal year for blogging (on my part, I mean) and yet I still found time to read and write. For writing, I have been maintaining a Moleskine journal for personal reflections; I have reverted to pen-and-paper log---"plogging" if you will. I am not a Luddite who has rejected technology and blogging; I am just trying to sort out what this blog ought to be. I keep reading other bloggers who seem to be doing a great job writing interesting and relevant posts.... In the meantime, I will continue to post in the intermittent and non-committal way. Hopefully I will find my blogging-way soon.

One thing that I have done regularly with this blog is to record my reading list from the preceding year. I didn't have any specific goals this year, such as reading (almost exclusively) C.S. Lewis or Francis Schaeffer. So here is the list from 2010.

Epic poetry
The Aeneid by Virgil (trans. by Robert Fagles)
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Inferno by Dante (trans. by Dorothy Sayers), not finished

Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
Christian Lover by Michael Haykin
The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs
Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life by Adam Gopnik
Abraham Lincoln: A Presidential Life by James McPherson
Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson (not finished)

The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye
The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan
Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
7 Habits of a Highly Effective Person by Covey
Art for God's Sake by Philip Ryken
A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton (not finished... yet!)

All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Remarque
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
A Christmas Carol by Dickens (not finished)

Children's Literature
Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Crispin: The Lead Cross by Avi (a wonderfully written novel set in Medieval England)
The Sword in the Tree by Bulla
Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien... I am still reading with the boys (but clearly not often enough!)

I have some ideas for this coming year; besides finishing Chesterton's masterpiece The Everlasting Man, I would like to read a little more C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. I will continue my odyssey through "epic poetry" with Dante's Divine Comedy translated by Dorothy Sayers. I am hoping to get to John Milton's Paradise Lost right after Dante. I could also do for a little more theology reading. As I typed up this list just now, I became painfully aware of the lack of good old theology. It has been a few years since I dabbled in the Puritans. I wouldn't mind reading some J.I. Packer, John Piper or more R.C. Sproul. I would also like to read Augustine and Bunyan again. So many books, so little time! In terms of fiction, I feel that I might now be old enough to read Russian literature... I have a brilliant former student who keeps recommending authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn (Although young in years, he is an old soul). 2011 might be the year... might be.

Carpe MMXI. Tolle Lege.  

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A dinosaur who reads Homer

I think I am teaching myself to be a dinosaur... that is, extinct. I read Virgil and Homer for pleasure, I teach Latin and Classical civilization courses, and I am presently embarking on a whirlwind tour of hell, courtesy of Dante.

C.S. Lewis, in his inaugural speech as Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge university, called himself a "dinosaur". What he meant by that was he considered himself to be a rare breed of man, the classically educated man, the man of letters, a true product of Western civilization as it once was. I am not a dinosaur in that sense, nor will I ever be. I am a product of "New Western civilization" whether I like it or not. I did not grow up with tales of heroes and monsters, but rather with Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Loony Tunes. In the late 1950s, C.S. Lewis already considered the world a totally different place than the world he grew up in. Nevertheless, I persist in my attempts to "repair the ruins" of a long, lost culture and civilization. But I wonder if I am like a Roman studying Cicero or Ovid while barbarians are at the gate. Am I training myself for a civilization that no longer exists or can no longer exist? There are no time machines.

Although my goals as an educator and as a student of literature, history, and philosophy are no longer considered relevant in a world steeped in ignorance, self-centredness, and apathy, my only hope is the fact that I am a Christian. Christianity is the one and only perfectly universal truth in the universe. I am not talking about "cultural or social Christianity" but Christianity itself.  Christianity is trans-temporal, trans-cultural, trans-denominational, trans-everything. Cultural or social Christianity, which can be quite a different thing, has been imported, sometimes imposed (intentionally or unintentionally) on cultures by varying military, colonial, political, and missionary efforts throughout history. When I distinguish "Christianity" as unique, I am referring to when the Gospel of Jesus Christ truly takes hold of someone, powerfully and transformatively. A Christian is someone who has become catholic in the universal sense... a follower of Christ, the God-Man---not just Christian ideas---but the person of Christ. We become part of the everlasting, eternal, and living body of Christ.

So, I may be training myself to be dinosaur-like in terms of literature and philosophy and education. As a teacher, I may become extinct... replaced by a website or a podcast or nothing at all. Although the sun is setting on Western civilization, I will not despair. Christ is my only hope. He should always be my ultimate and only hope. Perhaps the demise of Old Western civilization is, in part, a result of misplaced hope. As beautiful and true and powerful as Homer or Virgil or Dante might be, it can never save a person, much less a civilization. If we did recover the "Lost Tools of Learning" as Dorothy Sayers calls it, we will only produce "clever devils", as Lewis puts it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

An Unchanging God

The next sermon in the Studies in Joshua series.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

L'Abri Ideas library online

The L'Abri Fellowship has recently opened their Ideas Library to the World Wide Web. You can hear classic lectures by Francis Schaeffer and others, or you can download the current lectures from the 21st century L'Abri Fellowship lectures. The Ideas Library is worth checking out; it is topically indexed for efficient searching. Click the link below:

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Pitching your tents: Christians at the movies

When George Lucas resurrected his Star Wars movie franchise, millions of fans were ecstatic. People lined up for days in advance to see the premiere of the Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace (1999). Some people donned Storm Trooper uniforms and Jedi ropes; some fans even pitched tents and lived outside movie theatres for weeks. I must admit that I cut classes at Western the day it premiered and saw the movie along with Chewbacca and Darth Maul look-a-likes. As Christians, what are we to make of all this hype? Well, movies and pitching tents causes me to recall a story in Genesis that may help us consider Christians at the movies.

In Genesis, we read about Lot “pitching his tents toward Sodom” (Gen 13:12); the next time we read about Lot (Ch. 19) he is living in Sodom, a wicked and abominable city. We find him applying skewed “righteousness” in an unrighteous situation (v.8), we discover Lot’s wife has become too attached to a worldly lifestyle (v. 26), his son-in-laws fail to take life seriously (v. 14) and his children lack a moral compass (vv.30-38). Whatever righteousness Lot had before he went to Sodom was dramatically overshadowed by the unrighteous culture he immersed himself and his family in. I use this phrase, “pitching my tents toward Sodom” to remind me to keep some distance between my family and the influence of the immoral culture we live in. As Christians, we are constantly struggling to be “in” the world, but not “of” the world, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to steer clear of “Sodom” these days. Through television, the Internet, movies and magazines, Christians are bombarded with the influences of our society. Perhaps the most potent of these influences is Hollywood.

Movies impact our culture in a way no other medium has before. With drama and realism, movies present a made-for-film world where God’s reality—His decrees, His design, and His plan—often have no bearing. As a result, social values—the cultural blueprint for how we interact with each other and with God—are being created, shaped and solidified through the magic of movie-making. Our children, our churches, the next generation of citizens, the people we are trying to reach with the gospel, are all being influenced by movies. So we can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope it all goes away; Hollywood is not going away. And, well, there is nothing blatantly wrong about Christians enjoying popcorn and a movie. So how are Christians to respond to movies?

Christians need to become “film literate”—we need to be able to recognize, understand and speak to the filmmaker’s message. The challenge is the subtlety of the message. Filmmakers aren’t literally standing behind a pulpit or on a soapbox preaching their values or their version of the world, but they are saying something, and they are saying it with millions of dollars, heaps of glitz and pizazz, and great soundtracks. Not all films present non-Christian worldviews; arguably, some great films are very consistent with the moral laws of God’s created universe. There are, however, many films that directly or indirectly oppose God’s creation. Sometimes the movies desensitize us to sin, making evil tolerable or even palatable. Sometimes films uphold a right belief, but teach wrong applications of that belief. We need to be able to identify what these films are impressing upon us as viewers. This means, when choosing movies to watch for yourself or your family, you need to do more than count how many expletives or explosions there are. It is not the violence, per se, but the values presented that make the largest impact on viewers. Movies labelled as “family”, for example, may not have a single swear word or a single act of violence, but they may teach a lesson that children who disobey their parents are doing the right thing, or that the end justifies the means, or that romance is the key to happiness in life… Be prepared to discuss with your family the values presented in the films, and contrast them to the true values of God’s way.

If you are in doubt about whether a movie is OK to watch, then just don’t bother watching it. If you are viewing a movie and feel your “tents are pitched too close to Sodom,” leave the theatre or turn off the DVD. The Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell of these things.” (Philippians 4:8). Where are you pitching your tents?

Useful aids for movie viewers: Roger’s Video website provides an online parent guide, and Plugged In (Focus on the Family) provides an excellent Christian guide, with reviews and commentary on new released DVDs and movies still at the theatres. Use these resources to make wise decisions and to be aware of the message being conveyed through this powerful medium.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Christian Movie-making… an oxymoron?

The Apostle Paul went to Mars Hill, the philosophical and religious centre of Athens and he spoke to the people gathered there in the manner of the day; he referenced their gods, their poetry, and their way of thinking. The Apostles also spoke in marketplaces and at religious centres—the places where people gathered. If we are going to continue the missionary work of proclaiming the gospel to the culture we live in, we ought to go where they are gathering and speak to them in a manner they understand. Since we live in a visual culture, Christians need to speak to the world in a voice they can see and hear. This means that gifted and talented Christians need to enter the world of movie-making.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), over one billion movie tickets were sold in Canada/US during 2009. MPAA also reports that 67% of the population of Canada/US are movie-goers. Movie theatres are where the people are gathering; movies are the media they are listening to and watching. Given the fact that our culture is being powerfully shaped by false worldviews presented in films, Christians need to provide a counter worldview, a worldview grounded in the truth of God’s created universe.

Since film is a very realistic medium, it lends itself very well to the Christian gospel message. Christianity is no abstract, pie-in-the-sky, philosophical religion. It is a real, gritty, dirt-under-the-finger-nails faith. It impacts the lives of real people living in a real world. Film can clearly and powerfully show how the gospel transforms people’s lives where they are—in a real, gritty, dirt-under-the-finger-nails world. Because of this realism, visual media can be a scary realm for Christians. It pulls us out of our Christian comfort-zone of “stained glass windows” and “polished-wood pews.” But Christianity speaks to the whole world, to its beauty and its ugliness. So Christians need to use the advantage God has given them as film-makers to visually and accurately depict the world as it really is. This includes human suffering, but also human value and meaning; the influence of evil is part of our world, but so are the power of providence and the role of grace. Hollywood rarely portrays the world as it actually is; this is because Hollywood isn’t interested in beauty, goodness or truth—it is interested in box office receipts and the bottom line.

God has blessed many Christians with the gifts, talents and technical skills to make good movies. Lately, some very interesting Christian-themed and Christian-made movies have appeared—albeit briefly—in theatres around the world. Granted, there have also been some embarrassing and poorly made films as well. Like all things done in the name of Christ, it should be done with excellence. This excellence should be seen in both the message and medium; in other words, Christians should not only present a right message, but also preserve and perfect the “art” of film-making, which includes subtlety, beauty, goodness and truth. Some would argue that we should not compete with the world on their turf; but the truth is it’s not their turf. The entire world is under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This world is His turf. If God is calling you to make movies in His name, then go and make a great movie.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Piper on C.S. Lewis

In John Piper's signature style of speaking honestly, humbly and personally, Piper delivers a power message on learning from the heart and mind of C.S. Lewis.

John Piper is open about some of Lewis's theological errors; but, Piper is equally open about the contributions and richness offered by C.S. Lewis and his writings. There has been so much vehement criticism from certain quarters of the evangelical church focused on C.S. Lewis. A couple of years ago, I made a humble defense of Jack, but it must be acknowledged that some of the beliefs he held were simply wrong. Piper addresses this, explaining the right reasons we should come to Lewis, and the wrong reasons we shouldn't. Coming to Lewis for the right reasons is right. He has much to offer Christendom and the world, especially in the 21st century. Click for Piper's lecture: "Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul"

Thanks to my brother from Bradford Academy for drawing this lecture to my attention!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Marshall McLuhan on the Global Village

In the days before Twitter, email, Facebook, MySpace, texting, blogging, Google, the Internet... Marshall McLuhan describes the new world "created by instant electronic information"---a "global village".
"Today, the instantaneous world of electric information media involves all of us, all at once. Ours is a brand new world of all-at-onceness. Time, in a sense, has ceased and space has vanished. Like primitives, we now live in a global village of our own making, a simultaneous happening. The global village is not created by the motor car or even by the airplane. It is created by instant electronic information movement. The global village is at once as wide as the planet and as small as the little town where everybody is maliciously engaged in poking his nose into everybody else’s business. The global village is a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony; you have extreme concern with every else’s business and much involvement in everybody else’s life. It’s a sort of Ann Landers column written larger. And it doesn’t necessarily mean harmony and peace and quiet, but it does mean huge involvement in everybody else’s affairs. And so, the global village is as big as a planet and as small as the village post office.

"We now share too much about each other to be strangers to each other. For example, in the age of the information explosion, all the walls go out between age-groups, between family groups, national groups, between economies. The walls all go out. People suddenly have to adjust themselves to this new proximity, this new interrelationship, and merely to tell them that this has happened isn’t very helpful. What they need to know is, if it is happening, what does it mean to me?"
“McLuhan on McLuhanism,” WNDT Educational Broadcasting Network, 1966

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Opera and "Symbolic Pleasures"

Opera isn’t realistic. Mortally wounded people “die” while singing a ten minute aria and gesturing dramatically over the entire stage. Huge, portly women are considered dainty and fair by many (often equally portly) love-struck suitors. Villains “sneak up” on victims while dramatically belting out songs and making all kinds of racket… noticed by no one except the audience. The “phoney” style of opera has no equal in any other theatrical medium. But, the point is good opera isn’t supposed to be realistic. It is symbolic. The renowned musicologist, Aaron Copland, writes, “One must be willing to allow that symbolic things mirror realities and sometimes provide greater esthetic pleasure than the merely realistic. The opera house is a good place in which to find these symbolic pleasures.” Not all opera is good opera or truly symbolic. As one opera aficionado recently pointed out to me, some opera is merely vehicles for narcissistic soloists seeking self-glorification. What I am interested in is good opera, symbolic opera, opera that offers the audience “symbolic pleasures”.

So good opera, then, is “real” but not realistic---real in that it attempts to mirror the full essence of “reality” by means of symbolism. In truth, no art is ever fully realistic; all art is symbolic on some level. Good opera---as an art form---simply embraces symbolism wholeheartedly. So the key to enjoying good opera is to realize that it attempts to function as “total art” surrounded by symbolism. Opera is “total art” because it capitalizes on all of its resources as an art form; at its disposal, opera has music, vocals, lyrics, costumes, sets, dance, acting, gestures and props to convey meaning. But “total” also in the way that it does not strive for realism nor does it expend much of its resources on believability; rather, nearly all aspects of the performance can be used in expounding meaning.

This recent epiphany came to me a couple of weeks ago when I attended the opera. Not an actual opera, per se, but a digital broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera to a Famous Players movie theatre. The broadcast was from a live performance---happening in real time---of Hamlet by the French composer Thomas.
Watching opera, especially in the 21st century, seems like an odd way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Even with the 21st century technological innovations such as HD broadcasting and surround sound, reclining seats and lightly buttered popcorn, watching opera in a movie theatre seems even more unusual. But, in fact, it was an incredibly enjoyable experience. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t have found myself there if it wasn’t for a former student and friend who invited me. He has been my musical mentor over the past two years as I slowly make a serious foray into the marvellous world of music. What he is helping me discover is that opera is not odd at all; rather, opera is, in many ways, the pinnacle of art.

Effective symbolism requires conventions, and opera is an art form that is thoroughly immersed in conventions. To fully enjoy opera, then, I need to become literate in operatic conventions. In other words, to fully imbibe the pleasures of “total art” and “symbolism,” I will need to learn how to listen, to see and to think---operatically. As I continue to learn from my former-student-now-teacher and friend, I look forward to greater “symbolic pleasures.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why we educate...

"They [universities] are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining a livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers or physicians, but capable and cultivated human beings… Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, but not by teaching him how to make shoes."
– John Stuart Mills discussing the purpose of universities when becoming the rector of St. Andrews University in 1867
(Quote liftted from New Saint Andrews College)